Problematica: Beardos Are Just Alright With Me

Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.

I was recently ogling a photo of young, long-haired and bearded Bob Seger and said to myself, “They sure don’t make enough men like this anymore.” Then I remembered being a toddler in the late 70s/early 80s, when I found these men terrifying. There was this one dad down the street — tall dude with an endless mane that seemed to swallow his face. I wouldn’t go near him ’cause I was sure he was gonna gobble me up. But I clearly got over my fear, as a quick glance at my dating history and my spouse will show. I like lots of hair, on the head or face, ideally both. The question is, when did I get free of my hirsute he-man phobia and make room in my heart to admire these bearded beasts?

The answer hit me immediately — it was the Doobie Brothers episode of What’s Happening!! I loved What’s Happening when I was a little kid because at that age, no one in the world was cooler than teenagers. But I especially adored this precocious group of high school aged Black kids. Main character Raj, with his thick, nerdy glasses and writing aspirations, was a glimpse at my future self. But I also loved his scheming, deadpan little sister Dee, with all her witty wisecracks. Raj’s best friends Rerun (of the rainbow suspenders and killer dance moves) and Dwayne (“hey hey hey”) rounded out the teen boy crew who always seemed to be getting into silly scrapes as Dee mocked them mercilessly. I looked forward to this comedy gold every afternoon on TV 50.

Yet the two-part episode entitled “Doobie or Not Doobie” struck me so weird back then. Here was this famous rock band I’d never heard of playing at the kids’ high school (supposedly their alma mater). I remember trying to process the notion that these three Black kids would be so pumped to see a bunch of scraggly white dudes play 70s rock music. My younger self had a lot to learn about Black influence in popular music genres (including country and rock), and how the creators and audiences for this kind of music were never strictly white. But even if I couldn’t understand a classic rock group appearing on a show about Black teens, I did learn one big lesson — just because a dude has some scary facial hair doesn’t mean he won’t join forces with Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne to defeat a scumbag bootlegger!  

I rewatched “Doobie or Not Doobie” this week and still found it absolutely charming. Has it aged perfectly? Haha, definitely not! Nevertheless, I’m sure it not only helped younger me get over my fear of hairy rockers, it also laid the seeds for future fandom. I’ve loved the Doobies for years, but never so much as I do now.

Watching the opening scene, with Dwayne and Raj grooving to “Long Train Running” at the soda shop, I immediately felt giddy. Such a jam. When they later visit the band’s rehearsal so Raj can interview them for the school paper, Rerun and Dwayne bust out amazing air guitar moves for “Echos of Love.” So much joy. With six live songs between the two episodes, it’s like a mini concert film’ set in a high school auditorium. 

I just wanna live inside this rehearsal scene forever

The Doobies and the kids engage in lots of silly banter. When an unimpressed Dee first meets the group, she says, “The Doobie Brothers?” Then she approaches bassist Tiran Porter (the sole Black bandmate) and asks, “What are you, a half-brother?” Tiran explains, “We’re not really related, we just sort of depend on each other.” Foreshadowing! When Raj asks the band what their biggest problem is, the Doobies all agree on bootlegging. According to Michael McDonald, the record company makes no money from bootleg recordings, which means they make no money, and the listener gets stuck with a crappy product. Oh please, as if bootleggers exploit artists anywhere near the level that record companies do! 

Alas, What’s Happening is not ready for a Marxist analysis of labor, especially when guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is literally wearing a Warner Brothers label on his shirt like a daggum race car driver. Anyway, by this point in the story the audience knows Rerun has already agreed to record the show for bootlegger Al Dunbar, who bribed him with front row tickets. So when the band claims anyone caught redhanded will “go to jail for a looooong time” (geez, guys), Rerun is shook.

A WB branded Skunk rocks hard with his bad ‘stache.

Rerun tells the other boys about his scheme. The three young men inform Dunbar they’re no longer interested in the tickets, but he threatens violence. And before you know it, Rerun is strapping a toaster-size tape recorder to his belly. 

The concert itself is phenomenal, just one hit after another. Vocalist/guitarist Patrick Simmons does a spotless performance of “Black Water” (one of my karaoke favs). He also does jokes between songs, delivering the absolute cringiest line of the episode; reflecting on his high school years, he says, “I learned in PE how to wrestle a girl into the backseat of my car.” Ugh, why’d you have to make this rapey, dude? Still, he has a lovely smile and comes off as a genuinely nice guy despite having the second-worst facial hair in the group (Skunk is the winner).

The kids’ spectator reactions are so funny, especially when the band performs the outro from “I Cheat the Hangman” and drummer John Hartman bangs a gong with a giant flaming torch. This yields some extremely psychedelic images of the kids’ beatific faces superimposed upon the pyrotechnics. No doubt watching this as a young child also laid the seed of interest in other activities I would later enjoy.

Psychedelic Dwayne

Following the “Takin’ It to the Streets” finale, Rerun jumps elatedly, causing the hidden tape recorder to fall to the floor. When the band confronts him, a mortified Michael McDonald asks, “How could you guys do this to us?” Gasp! I adore Michael McDonald. “What a Fool Believes” is one of my favorite songs ever. Can you imagine the devastation of having the best soulful voice + bushy beard combo in popular music call you out that way?!

But once the kids explain Dunbar coerced them, the band hatches a plan. We next see the boys meeting Dunbar at the soda shop, where they stall him. Raj runs through a funny, frantic medley of Doobie songs as Rerun jumps on a chair and starts doing the funky chicken. Just as Dunbar is about to leave, Michael and two of the other bandmates cut him off. Dunbar heads for the kitchen, and then Patrick and a couple other guys stop him. That’s when someone in the live TV studio audience screams “YEAH!” And OMG, I was totally feeling this too!! Finally Skunk and the rest of the crew walk out of the restroom with a cop (ugh), who promptly arrests Dunbar. Because that’s how that works. The kids and the Doobies celebrate their triumph over the evils of concert bootlegging as everyone jams to “It Keeps You Running” on the jukebox. Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne have joined the sacred brotherhood and all is right with their new beardo buddies. Wins all around!

For a long time I thought I was the only person who recalled this pop culture oddity. Times were tough before the internet and video streaming made it possible to watch weird old shows that had long fallen out of syndication. But a few years ago I experienced a lovely moment of shared recollection with a hotel shuttle driver in Durham. He told me how he’d once driven Michael McDonald around when he was in town for a show. 

“He was the nicest dude. I was like, ‘Oh man, I remember when you were on What’s Happening!’” I giggled with delight as he continued, “He said I could have free tickets and backstage passes for the show the next night, but I had to work. Then I saw him in the hotel lobby the next morning and he said, ‘Hey Darryl, you coming to the show tonight?’ When he remembered my name, I knew I had to go.” Darryl smiled big and added, “I called off work that night and got two points on my record. But it was worth it.”

The brotherhood is real! It honestly warms my heart to know my hairy faced idol is a truly kind gent. That’s why, at the end of the day, beardos are just alright with me.

Jesus is just alright with the Doobies because half of them look like white Jesus.

Be Kind to the Normies, Comrades

I remember the precise moment I began believing socialism could take off in this country. It was early 2014 and I was standing in the cozy little office at the back of my house in Chattanooga. My husband Dan and I were entertaining some guests — a local community organizer named Chris and a labor journalist I’ll call Mitch. Earlier in the day Dan had gone out for beers with the guys to commiserate over a failed unionization vote at the nearby Volkswagen plant.  They all wound up back at our place, where I fed everyone a pot of beans and rice. 

I could feel the heavy mood and was curious why Dan and our guests thought the Volkswagen workers rejected the union. I didn’t know much about it. I trusted Dan’s analysis, that the UAW screwed it up by taking a top-down approach to organizing; Chris and Mitch seemed to agree. I didn’t say much. I knew my lane, and labor politics was not it. Though I was raised in a pro-union, suburban Detroit community and had always supported leftist causes, I hadn’t been involved in any kind of political effort in a long time.

But Chris talked me up anyway. He told me about the organizing his community group did. He told me how many of their core members met during the Occupy Movement (a moment that definitely piqued my interest, though I was busy with a newborn baby at the time). Then he told me about the socialist night school events they’d hosted.

My jaw dropped open. “You mean you got a bunch of Chattanooga people to show up and learn about socialism?”

“Yeah,” he said. “And people had no idea what it really meant. They were shocked by how much it made sense to them. So many of them had grown up with anti-Soviet propaganda.” 

I did the mental math and said, “Wait, you had older people there, too? Not just young folks?”

“Oh for sure. We had people of all ages come out of Occupy.” 

I was stunned. Socialism had always made sense to me, even having grown up at the tail end of the Cold War. I just never thought of it as something that could actually happen in this country. I got a bit involved in political activism when I attended the University of Michigan. I’d show up for all the good lefty protests, whether it was in defense of affirmative action, to support the grad students’ contract negotiations, or to rebuke the Clinton administration for bombing the Middle East. But in my experience, self-identified socialists and commies were weirdos who hung out in the plaza peddling newspapers. I tried engaging them when I first arrived but quickly learned they tended to lecture in a way most normal people found off-putting.

But this conversation in the cozy little office was not a lecture. Just a casual chat. Eventually the discussion turned to local politics, which reminded me of an issue I had been following. Our recently elected city council rep Ted Andrews (not his real name) — the first out gay man to ever serve in that capacity — was being targeted for expulsion by a Republican council member. Of course this seemed horrible to me, so I asked Chris what he thought of it.

He paused for a moment before he spoke. I detected a stifled eye roll — not in response to me, but rather a more general frustration. He said, “It’s true, those Republicans trying to kick him out are super homophobic and it’s disgusting. But also, Ted Andrews is no friend of the working class!” And then he broke down Andrews’ connections to local land developers. 

A lot of ideas came into focus in that moment. His argument didn’t surprise or confuse me one bit. It’s like I knew it all along. On one hand it was exciting to have a gay council member. The thing I would later come to understand as “identity politics” wasn’t meaningless, especially in a small southern city. We should see more queer folks and other marginalized groups represented in local government. But simply having a diversity of voices doesn’t guarantee any one of them will speak for the people. As Chris quickly noted, no one on the council was a friend of the working class, though there were several Democrats. This was when I started to figure out that when you get hung up on identity representation and culture wars, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that very few of our elected officials look out for the interests of poor and working class people. I see these exact same dynamics here in North Carolina that I saw back in Tennessee. It’s probably true in your town, too.

I suspect there are lots of folks in our communities who resemble the person I was seven years ago — goodhearted but not-yet-organized working class people who have an innate sense of how our system is rigged, but haven’t delineated between shallow identity politics that uphold the status quo vs. the diverse, multiracial, working class people power we need to win a better world. Still, when Chris broke it down in that moment, I understood.

The reason his explanation stuck is that it was delivered with kindness. I look back at that moment and wonder how that conversation would have gone if he’d been huffy or patronizing, if he’d actually rolled his eyes and sighed at my ignorance. I’ve been treated that way before by people who had a more nuanced and accurate understanding of politics than I did at the time. But much like the hectoring voices in the plaza, I simply wanted to get away from them as quickly as possible.

So if you want to organize for a mass movement, don’t be a condescending dick to normie libs. You probably were one not so long ago. Acknowledge people’s good intentions and always remember that our enemies are not the unenlightened masses, but rather those who wield power selfishly. Memorize these wise words from Prof. Tressie McMillan Cottom — “Maybe some of you emerged fully formed revolutionaries from Marx’s scrotum but for many people it’s a process.” Never forget your process.

Bernie may talk tough to other people in power, but he always speaks respectfully to working class people.

Another Green World

When I was 23 years old, I traveled to Sweden to visit a guy I met during his study abroad year. We spent a few days at his parents’ rural cottage and one afternoon they took me on a motorboat ride to a random island in the Baltic sea. After we docket, I asked, “Have you been here before?” No, they told me. They chose it because no one else appeared to be there, which according to them was the Swedish way of vacationing. Sounded great to me.

Other than the dock, there were no other structures or signs of human life on the island. As the parents arranged a picnic lunch, the boyfriend and I explored the nearby woods where we found a massive patch of moss. I’ve never seen a more beautiful sight than that carpet of dense, spongy, yellow-green. I felt almost guilty walking across it as it crackled beneath my feet. It was like stepping on cotton candy, the sugar crystals collapsing under the weight of my feet. I found a bare dirt spot and stopped to take it all in — the tall pines, the moss carpet, the sea on the horizon — and then my boyfriend snapped this photo of me.

I thought of this picture the other day when I was standing in my backyard with my nine-year-old daughter. We were making the most of her early afternoon break from online learning. It was fine outside, for a winter day. Temperature in the 50s. Overcast but not rainy. Not much to complain about, other than being in the heart of these fallow doldrums, ten months into a pandemic that makes indoor socializing dangerous. But that’s just January 2021 for you.

The most January 2021 thing about that moment was the lack of color. My eyes scanned the dead leaf laden lawn and the ashy sky, looking for any vivid hue. Eventually my eyes fell upon a small spread of moss behind the dogwood that sits in the center of the yard. Part of me wanted to lay on my belly with my nose to the ground, so I would see nothing but that soft, chartreuse rug. I would make it my whole world.

But the ground is mucky and riven by shallow roots, and my body is sore, so I stare at this photo instead. I now realize it strongly resembles the forest from my fantasy of personal success. 

Shortly after the pandemic started, I decided to embark on The Artist’s Way journey, a 12-week program in which author Julia Cameron guides you through a series of activities designed to nurture and grow your creative self. The most consistent theme I noticed while taking the course is that the color green and leafy, growing things are my primary source of inspiration. I feel most alive and able to create when I’m footsteps away from lush growth. 

In one activity, I was asked to envision a day in the life of my successful future self. I’ve never been good at setting personal goals or deciding what success entails. But this notion of what my everyday life would be (presumably after I become a widely published writer) came to me with shocking ease. I imagined myself waking up every morning in my A-frame log cabin home, brewing some coffee, writing in my journal, then taking a long walk in the adjacent woods. A rich soil path would lead me through it. Parts of that forest would be so thick with plant life it would be all I see in any direction. But then there would also be small clearings with pine needle carpets and blankets of moss. The sky high canopy would protect me from sun, drizzle, and wind. I’d be able to take my walk almost every morning, and then after my walk I’d go home and write some more. 

My fantasy routine included some other stuff about meeting with friends and comrades, and buying cheese at the farmers’ market, but that top of the morning writing-and-woods-walk ritual is what really resonated. That vision haunts me. I feel an overwhelming sense of longing for my cabin-side forest, for all its fronds and tall grasses, and the way it smells after a heavy rain. I feel cheated every day I don’t get to take a walk there.

So instead I have that picture from Sweden. I used to visit greenhouses. There was one at the Downtown Home & Garden in Ann Arbor where I would drop by during a grim, wintry walk home from work in the early 2000s. That’s where I met a frizzy-haired middle-aged lady who advised me to take off my shoes. “Heated floors,” she said, pointing to the cement ground. “That’s what makes this place so great.” So on that kindly witch’s advice, I stood there shoeless, absorbing the heat and taking in the bevy of potted plants.

More recently I would frequent the greenhouse at Reynolda, the estate where RJ Reynolds once lived. My last visit was a year ago today. Of course I didn’t know that was going to be the last one for a very long time. In January 2020, COVID-19 was still just an idea to me, a thing that was happening in China. Anyway, here’s a picture of what it looked like that day.

I happened past the Reynolda greenhouse last week (during the course of my weekly woods walk), considered the state of our nation, and thought, “See you in a year!” I miss that building — its humidity, its palms, its small cactus section with the handmade signs that say, “Really, don’t touch!” 

I miss green immersion. Without it I feel like a husk of a woman, just thoroughly uninspired. I don’t know how I keep writing these essays every two weeks. It all feels like such a slog. But at least I understand myself and why I cannot shake this low-key sadness I feel throughout winter. I also know why I become addicted to pesto this time of year. If you give me leafy green stems, I will turn them into pesto — parsley, arugula, beet greens, carrot tops, whatever you got. A little garlic, olive oil, salt, and toasted nuts, maybe some lemon juice and zest. Puree in a blender. It’s like an elixir. I’ll eat it on bread or crackers, toss it with couscous, or spread it on grilled fish. I guess if I can’t be inside the lush green forest, I will put the lush green forest inside of me. That’s how I’m surviving.

With Friends Like These

Back when it became clear Joe Biden was gonna beat Donald Trump in the presidential election, I kept seeing tweets from other Biden voters urging people like me to recall my disappointment in 2016 and show some sportsmanlike compassion toward my Republican friends. All I could say to that was, “My who?”

I don’t have Republican friends. I’ve had Republican acquaintances; I suppose we were friendly in the way of saying things like “hello” and “how are you?” I’m mainly thinking of old coworkers. But I don’t see them much now that I’m unemployed and home all the time. We certainly don’t seek each other out on social media. I’m not interested in what they think about anything happening in this country right now and I doubt they care to read my takes either.

Maybe you consider me intolerant. It’s true, I don’t have much tolerance for people with terrible values. Whether they care more about their personal wealth than the common good, blame immigrants for their problems, think black people deserve to be over-policed, believe poor people get too much free stuff, or prioritize ending abortion over all other social concerns, they seem pretty morally icky to me. And that’s not even accounting for the high potential for COVID denial and other forms of right-wing conspiracy theory. They’re not friendship material. 

Perhaps you’re wondering if I can’t handle someone having opinions that differ from mine. Oh, I can have a lot of fun with a difference of opinion. I love taking hard stances on issues like “Which licorice do you prefer?” (black) or “Who is the best Beatle?” (George). I’ll happily argue about that stuff all day. But if I discover my friend is a misguided red licorice/John fan, I still respect them because their bad opinions don’t make our world a worse place for others to live. 

No doubt some of you centrists who have Republican friends are shaking your heads in dismay because you take pride in having pals who disagree with your political beliefs. I’m curious, does that mean you have Maoist friends? Any anarchist buddies? Are any of your gun enthusiast pals arming up for the communist revolution? I have friends in all those categories. We don’t share identical political beliefs. But they’re still my comrades because as far as I’m concerned, we’re not THAT far from each other on the spectrum. Maybe you get along with Republicans because you’re not that far from them. I don’t think that’s anything to brag about, personally.

But hey, if you really like your reactionary pals, I wish you the best. I’m not here to talk anyone out of those relationships. My political goals — building democratic, multiracial, working-class people power — do not depend on that. But I will say this — if you do feel inclined to dump your Republican friends because you’re sickened that they voted for Trump again, or you can’t believe they’re defending the mob that stormed that Capitol, or maybe they were there themselves, just know that ditching them is a totally legitimate choice and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. If they call you a snowflake or say you’re weak for letting a difference of opinion get in the way of friendship, that’s just their way of coping with their inner ugliness. As with all breakups, the mutual ill will and lack of closure will feel weird for a while. But I predict you’ll feel better without them in your life, if their terrible values bother you that much.

From Roald Dahl’s “The Twits”

Plaudits for the Planless

As terrible as this pandemic has been, props to this situation for rewarding my one personality trait that always felt like a shortcoming before 2020 — my utter lack of vision. I’m not talking about my astigmatisms (though perhaps it’s fitting my eyesight is also abysmal). Rather, I mean my inability to imagine a lofty-yet-achievable long-term goal and a strategy to accomplish it. Some people had big plans for this year, only to now mourn their dashed dreams. I don’t tend to plan beyond “what’s for dinner tomorrow” or “at what point this week should I schedule this meeting,” so I haven’t experienced that much heartache. Before 2020 I always felt like an oversized kid for never having had any big goals in life. But this year, for the first time ever, I feel like a goddamn genius for not getting hung up on how things were supposed to be.

I did set one goal for 2020, which I managed to accomplish by August — I led our local Democratic Socialists of America organizing committee into official chapterhood. My big motivation for accomplishing this goal was knowing we would hold executive committee elections as soon as we became a chapter and I could stop being the leader. Especially after I began a grueling political campaign job in July, I could not wait to be free. I wasn’t a bad leader. I make a fine administrator because I’m detail-oriented, conscientious, and I know how to keep my ego out of the operation. But sometimes when you’re the leader, people think you’re supposed to have big ideas about the direction of the organization. Hahaha! I don’t have big ideas about anything. That’s the business of philosophers and spokespersons. I’m just a very organized workhorse.

Learning that about myself was one of the most comforting things to come out of this trash fire year. It’s okay that I don’t have big visions. I have a couple other characteristics that are just as important — work ethic and good taste in ideas. I don’t need to come up with a plan to win. Rather I look for people and groups with good plans, see if they have a place for me, and then I dig into the work. I know how to get others to show up (the secret is contacting them directly and asking) and that is where I prove to be a useful leader. But all this complex business within DSA — the factions and the caucuses and the bitter feuds — doesn’t mean much to me. That’s not to say it doesn’t matter, just not where I wish to invest my energy.

I guess I’ve come to the understanding that, for me, socialist organizing is a job I do to help win a better world. It isn’t a lifestyle or a friend group. It occupies a specific space in my life, along with my writing and my various hobbies and interests. Like any other job, I will happily clock out at the end of the day and focus on something else I find meaningful. It has boundaries. I will keep doing it, in whatever way seems most helpful, until it is no longer necessary. Given our country’s history and the current state of things, I assume that means I’ll keep going until I die. I don’t foresee any kind of retirement from work or organizing in my future. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Like I said, I’m not very good at that vision thing. But I always maintain hope that I could be wrong.

The Fool card from the Morgan-Greer Tarot

My Only Resolution is to Survive

Perhaps like me you’ve grown fatter in quarantine. I’m here to tell you it’s fine. If you’re gaining weight, you’re alive. That’s what I tell myself as I pat the pot at my midsection. “Thank you, round belly of life!” Not only have I not been killed by COVID, I am clearly not starving from austerity. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as many delicious, home-cooked meals in my whole life put together as I have this year. What the hell else am I gonna do sequestered in this house for months on end, exercise? My husband and I love to dine on decadent meals prepared from our weekly farm-fresh deliveries of organic produce and meat, augmented with lots of heavy cream and Kerrygold butter. We can afford that since we’ve somehow remained employed and haven’t gone out to a restaurant in nine months.

So yes, I think of this paunch as my jolly pandemic baby, who consistently reminds me I’ve been living well in some ways despite the daily horror. But unlike a human baby, it’s not ready to come out. No, this little guy’s probably gonna stick around many more months before this thing is over. Yes, I know, the vaccine is here. But my understanding is that I won’t feel it in my veins for quite some time. I see no point getting my hopes up for a sooner end. It’s like when the airplane parks at the gate, that little bell dings, and everybody jumps to their feet to grab their bags and get going. But no one is budging until they open the door. What’s the point of standing in a throng that won’t move when you could just sit? Also, remember air travel?

Anyway, I did reach a point last week when this potbelly got a little too big. When the once-baggy “Thanksgiving” pants start to feel snug, that’s when I know I need to eat less or move more. I’ve opted for the latter, in the form of a daily one-hour walk plus two rigorous workouts per week. I’m a fan of instilling these healthy habits during the holiday season instead of waiting for January.

I am also a big fan of having at least seven new year’s resolutions, but for 2021 I’m keeping it real simple. My only resolution for the coming year is to survive the pandemic. I’m also open to the possibility that this will be a 2022 resolution as well. For as long as I’ve known that the coronavirus would be an unstoppable force (roughly since the end of February), I’ve been 100% certain this country would handle it the worst and suffer the most. My expectations going forward remain extremely low, which is why I take quarantine quite seriously. I haven’t lounged in a bar or restaurant since early March. No friend has seen the inside of my home since then, either (except the bathroom at the back door). The only time I go out for leisure is to take a walk in the neighborhood or drive to a park and walk there. I did drive with my daughter to Michigan in June to quarantine with my mom. We brought all our own food for the road and only went inside rest stops to use the bathroom. The riskiest part of the trip was when my car got banged up in a hit-and-run and I had to pay a visit to my hometown police station, where no officer was wearing a mask. What a very 2020 experience that was.

I’m not listing all these precautions to give lessons on pandemic safety. If you’re reasonable you’re doing the same things, maybe more. If you’re taking more risks than me, I don’t believe anything I’m saying will sway you toward caution. The fact that our country has allowed 300,000 people to die proves that we are fucked regardless of what our various opinions and habits are. Our leaders had an opportunity to institute a proper shutdown, pay everyone except truly essential workers to stay home, give people all they need to survive isolation, test everyone, and contact trace those who got sick. We did almost none of that. I don’t see our nation’s ruling class proceeding differently next year, even under a Democratic presidential administration. Going into 2021, we are as being left to our own devices as much as ever. And I will be very surprised if we don’t lose hundreds of thousands more lives.

I’m gonna try to not be one of them, and I’m also gonna try to not spread the virus to others. I have some agency. Not everyone does. Some people take huge risks because they must in order to pay their bills. Others take huge risks because they can’t shake their passion for indoor dining and world travel. Many of us fall somewhere in between, but none of that matters because we do not live in a civilized society. So I’ll do the best with the choices I have, limited as they may be in number and scope.

I hope you’ll do the same in 2021. And please don’t give yourself a hard time if you got fatter. I’m glad you’re still here, no matter what shape you are. 

New Year’s Baby 1921 by JC Leyendecker

Walk Out to Winter

December just started, and it fully feels like winter here. After a gloriously mild Thanksgiving weekend, Monday brought chilly rain. A bitter breeze arrived with Tuesday the 1st’s sun. My 9 year-old daughter and I walked the dog that afternoon. Halfway around the block, a sudden gust whipped us, shaking dead leaves from trembling branches. I turned to my kid to say, “It feels just like a slap in the face,” when I saw her grinning from behind the hot pink lining of her parka.

“Feels like winter already,” I said. “How’s it treating you, B?”

“I love it,” she said with the mysterious glee of one who was raised in the south. “This is my favorite time of year.”

I guess the glow of her appreciation helped steel me against the wind. I returned home grateful for the warmth of my household rather than miserable from the elements. Getting out in the light of day was worth it.

Winter is generally my most depressive time of year. I handle it better in North Carolina than I did in the upper midwest, mainly because it’s three months shorter. But I’ve never thoroughly shaken the winter blues. I’d have to globetrot to get away from bare trees and shorter days. Truth is, if I could, I probably would. Grey chill brings out my worst. I don’t know how to cope with any kind of difficulty when my hands and feet are cold. Most days I need a scalding hot shower beating down on my chest just to reacquaint myself with humidity, and how it makes me feel emotionally (cushioned and comforted). Fuzzy slippers, cardigans, and throw blankets are what I use the rest of the time I’m indoors, which is almost always.

But socializing indoors presents danger this winter. The only sensible way to maintain friendships in a pandemic is outside. And I just don’t know how much of that I have in me this season. Especially right now, as the virus surges across the country (we had 1.94 million cases in October, then 4.25 million in November). I have no desire to be in any crowd, indoors or out. I can handle an occasional backyard meetup with a friend or a couple. We even got an outdoor heater to make our space more welcoming. But on blustery days like December 1st, 2020, I just can’t imagine lounging.

I don’t want to become very lonely this winter. But every one of my instincts tells me this is the time of my life to sequester myself as much as possible, and not just six feet physically. I recently finished an electoral campaign job in which I spent 90% of my time on the phone and/or on Zoom. All you do in that line of work is try talking to strangers about a topic that makes them tense. I don’t take it personally when someone screams at me for calling on a Sunday morning, but I also need some time to recuperate from that energy. And when you add all that intensity together, I’m just not ready for much telecommunication these days.  

I look forward to attending trainings and organizing as a rank and file member of the Democratic Socialists of America. I’m glad that will be my primary engagement with Zoom going forward. I don’t see myself using it to hang out with people. The internet ain’t a great place to be friends right now. I keep scanning social media to see what’s up. Most everyone seems drunk, cranky (perhaps hungover), or sad. I don’t begrudge anyone those feelings; I’ve certainly had my share. But I don’t particularly feel like joining them on that journey. Because in some ways I feel very contented right now — to be free of the election from hell and my professional responsibilities to it, to be able to say what I really think, but to also not think quite so much. We socked some money away so I don’t have to worry about finding another job immediately. I can cook, spend time with my kid, give my professor spouse a hand while he wraps up a pandemic semester, maybe play some video games. Before the weather turned cold, I took these long, meandering walks around my neighborhood and listened to the dreamy sounds of Van Dyke Parks as I admired the early-to-mid-20th-century architecture. This hermit time I so desired when I was hosting marathon phone banks in October has finally arrived, just in time for yuletide season.

But of course the cold came as well. In a time of rapid climate change, I suppose I should be grateful for these glimmers of the old normal. Part of me hopes for snow. A sicker part of me wouldn’t completely mind a balmy January to help make the most of quarantine. But whatever happens, I’m determined to keep up those meandering walks. Perhaps I can convince friends to join me. My goal for this season is to somehow become more sociable in the frigid outdoors while keeping my home a cozy sanctuary for positive vibes. But even if I spend a lot of that outdoor time alone, I can savor the the brightness that filters through bare trees and the smatterings of green in ivy and pine. You can find vegetation year-round in the Carolina Piedmont, but you have to go look for it. 

“Boulevard in the Evening” Isaac Levitan, 1883

And Yet I Remain Hopeful

My therapist seemed perturbed that I was not more upset about the Democrats’ dismal showing in North Carolina’s general election. I admitted I was initially pretty disgusted that, even with 75% voter turnout and district maps recently redrawn to their favor, we did not elect a Dem to the Senate or flip the General Assembly. Ultimately all our electoral votes would go to Trump. But as I told her, I’ve long grappled with how deeply racist this country and this state are. And seeing the Dems fail is no surprise to me, given that they push such lackluster candidates. I should know. I knocked hundreds of doors for one of them.

I shared these thoughts with her and she surmised, “Well you’ve described yourself as a pessimist. Maybe part of that is that you don’t have high expectations that lead to disappointment.”

Now it was my turn to feel perturbed. She got that analysis half-right. It’s true, I’m a big proponent of keeping one’s expectations in check (especially where the Democratic Party is concerned). But I’d never describe myself as a pessimist, because that is not who I am. Not by a long shot.

I suppose my harsh truth-telling leads some to believe I have a negative outlook on life. But when I say things like “we are maybe ten years out from irreversible climate apocalypse and most of that damage was done in the past thirty years” or “the Democratic party establishment doesn’t care if you’re dying from lack of health care and low wages because doing anything substantive about it would upset their donors” or “the police exist mainly to protect personal property and the wealthy, and they share many of the same values as white supremacist hate groups,” that’s not me having a downer point of view. That’s just me describing reality. If you wanna meet some true pessimists, come chat with my friends and comrades who believe there’s almost nothing we can do to stop any of this.  

I’m not exactly sure we will stop any of these things, but I’m endlessly hopeful about our opportunities and our fight. I believe we can win a world where everyone is healthy, safe, housed, educated, and fed. But that faith also requires believing many more everyday people like me will wake up and realize no one is coming to save us. We need to save us. We can’t just sit back and hope that the politicians and the business leaders and the “good” police will all come together to lead us out of these very scary realities and into the promised land. They all answer to the super rich. It’s us against the super rich. So I would like everyone who’s waiting on our leaders to do the right thing to please understand you are living under false hope. And that will inevitably lead you to disappointment.

Our real hope is multiracial, working class solidarity. People power! See, I’m a very sunny hippie beneath all my dark soothsaying. This is why I call myself a Morbid Pollyanna. I tried explaining that concept to my shrink but I guess what she absorbed was “pessimist.” Perhaps that’s because I say things like “I see a lot of death on the horizon.” But for real, how does one not see a lot of death on the horizon?! We are in the dog days of a pandemic that’s already claimed almost a quarter million lives in this country alone. Again, I’m not imagining the worst. I’m shining light into darkness.

Fortunately, I see another kind of death that heightens my sense of hope — I see the death of complacency, indifference, and toxic individualism. I see the death of false hope in institutions that do not serve our communities. I see the death of capitalism. I see rebirth. I see communities of everyday people coming together in solidarity to claim collective power. I see many, many individuals assuming that power with a sense of responsibility to one another.

You don’t need to be afraid of the truth. But at some point you’re going to have to decide whether or not you want to be part of making a positive change. I think that choice is what really scares most people.

from The Rust Belt Tarot by David Wilson (Belt Publishing)

On Being a Humble Gear

The other night I asked my husband Dan, who organizes tenants, why he’s drawn to social justice work. He said, “It makes me angry when things are unfair. And I like to watch snakes squirm.”

Then he posed the same question to me and I said this: I’m morally obligated to help create a better world that I know is possible. We have a big pile of work that needs getting done if we wanna win. If everyone chipped in we’d win right away. But some people cannot do the work and some aren’t ready. I’m ready and able, so I take on extra. 

I excel at operational stuff — planning meetings, recruiting for canvasses and phone banks, managing events — which makes me well-suited for electoral work. I have a knack for troubleshooting because my brain automatically preps contingency plans for the many pitfalls I might encounter. I’m also good at talking to strangers, listening to their problems with empathy and respect, and hiding my true feelings when necessary. This is because I’ve worked in customer service most of my life; anyone who tells you that’s unskilled labor has obviously never worked with me. 

I’m a chunky gear in a massive machine, churning for justice. I help keep the operation running by turning lots of little gears. I am not a charismatic leader. I won’t be leading the march with a megaphone, speaking at a press conference, or running for office. You won’t read about me in the news. I spin and turn those little gears quietly.

I don’t like being called an activist. An activist is a person in the limelight. I’m an organizer, which is a very pragmatic and unsexy thing. I’ll be honest, I don’t trust a lot of people who assume “activist” as an identity. Some people come into the movement looking for social media fame or a paid job. Most of them aren’t half as charming or effective as their narcissism leads them to believe.

The movement needs true charismatic leaders like my man Dan — people who make a spectacle of confronting power — because watching the snakes squirm inspires all of us to do more. But we also need lots and lots of gears of various size, turning in tandem, powering us through that big pile of work. Those are the people I tend to recruit, the quiet, deliberate ones.

Vintage Soviet Fabric from the 1920s

The Dream House

I dined in my sister Mary’s backyard a couple weeks ago, and took a tiny peek at the inside of her home on the way to and from the loo. She gave me a high speed tour of all the niceties she and her wife had acquired during quarantine — the colorful kitchen rug, the round coffee table perfectly situated in the center of their cozy living room, a retro-style microwave in powder blue and chrome. For a moment I relished the novelty of a comforting interior space besides the one where I spend 98% of my time.

I miss the houses where I don’t live. They’ve always been very special to me. As a child I spent long summer days playing with a hand-me-down Fisher Price Little People house, which resided next door to the Hello Kitty house I’d gotten for Christmas when I was 7. For my Barbies I’d use old shoeboxes and stacked books to create abodes where they could get dressed up for their dates with Ken. Every autumn when we’d get the JC Penney catalog in the mail, I’d dog ear the page with the Barbie Dream House and spend many winter afternoons staring at that page and daydreaming about how I’d rearrange all the furniture.

Around the time I got too old for dolls, I discovered a more sophisticated outlet for my obsession. It started one winter Sunday evening, when my family attended evening mass at St Alphonsus church. The stale air inside the building always put me to sleep on those dreary nights. When my snoring became embarrassing, Mom nudged me awake and sent me to the family van to finish my nap. Sitting there on the beige vinyl bench seat, I felt fully awake in the cold night. The street lamps shone through the windows and I noticed a paper bag of Home magazines my grandma Blanche had given to my mom. With nothing better to do, I grabbed an issue and flipped through the glossy pages, full of interior design pics and ads for high end furniture and cigarettes. Eventually I landed on the matte paper section in the back that had floor plans for a wide variety of homes — from humble bungalows to vacation A-frames to sprawling Victorian abodes boasting turrets and wraparound porches. I marveled at all those spacious rooms flowing into one another — the foyer leading to the great room, to the dining room, to the kitchen, to the breakfast nook. They were like maps of wonderful places I’d probably never explore. At that moment I fell into a rabbit hole where I rested quite happily for the next several years.

From ages 10 to 15, I obsessed over floor plans. I subscribed to Home Magazine and purchased every one of their catalogs I could find (those were my favorites because there was no journalism, just the blueprints). I found books full of plans at the library and checked out several at a time. Just as I had once obsessively eyeballed the JC Penney catalog, I’d spend hours perusing these plans and imagining how I’d live in those spaces. Eventually I invested in graphing paper and created my own. I drafted home designs for a set of characters I’d also write plays about. The protagonist was a girl named Anna, who had long, curly hair and her own bedroom in a large Victorian house. She was more confident and popular than me, and had two best friends who thought she was just great. 

One of my designs, circa 1990

Being a kid, I didn’t question my obsession or wonder why I was so happy to daydream about these imaginary spaces. In hindsight, I realize it was escapism — from my own humble bungalow with seven tall children and a couple of extremely stressed out parents, from the tension of Irish Catholic patriarchal dominance, from the chilly basement bathroom with the dank corners I did my best to ignore. By the time I was 12 most of the older kids had moved out and there was certainly more space to be had (I even got my own bedroom). But there was always an air of disappointment about our surroundings. This wasn’t the home my parents had wanted. It was the one they’d settled for when my dad got laid off and we moved from Buffalo to Dearborn.

I have vague memories of the Buffalo house, which we vacated when I was four. Since I remember it from a small person’s vantage point, my impression was that it was huge. It had two full floors plus a 1/2 third floor with dormer ceilings. That was the boys’ bedroom. I remember the built-in drawers in that space, and the time I got to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents on a spare black & white tv they’d somehow acquired. I remember the second floor bedroom I shared with Mary, and staring at the wood grain on the underside of the top bunk bed. I remember standing in front of the living room fireplace and listening to Elton John. As I get older these memories become more dream-like. I know that place was real. I have pictures and stories from five older siblings who recall many details. But now nearly forty years since we left, it sometimes feels like my time there never really happened. It may as well be a dream.

Quarantine has a way of making memories feel more distant. Even the memory of a good friend’s home, right here in the town where we both live, feels completely made up at this point. If the inside of a house exists but only the people who live there see it, does it actually exist for me? I think about how it felt so strange standing in Mary’s cheerful bathroom, with the red walls and checkered tile. Suddenly this place where I do my most mundane business felt like reuniting with an old friend.

Last week my brother Dan shared a found treasure with our family Facebook group. Someone (we don’t know who, it wasn’t any of us) made floor plans of that Buffalo house. Out of nowhere, the old rabbit hole burst open before me. I finally had the deep satisfaction of knowing that the space really was what my preschool memory recalled. There was the corner of the bedroom where Mary hummed Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” and told me, “I like that song.” And there was the hallway where I ran into my sister Eileen one early morning and she said, “Wow, it’s roasty toasty out here.” There were the kitchen stools where we’d get ready to eat our morning cereal and groan when Mom busted out the powdered milk. All those little flashes of recollection are based on something real. And at least for a little while, on a Monday afternoon six months into a pandemic that’s made my current home the site of two full-time jobs plus a third grade classroom, I felt anchored to something outside this one house that is my world.