Socialist TV Summer: What “Roseanne” Taught Me About Work

All I wanna do this pandemic summer is organize for socialism, give vaccinated hugs, and watch TV — join me!

It still makes me sad that Roseanne Barr revealed herself as an unhinged bigot, because the original 1980s/90s run of her TV series remains my favorite depiction of rust belt, working-class family life. I will forever remember the living room from “Roseanne” — centered around an old brown, plaid, afghan-covered couch that probably had a few tears in its upholstery — as the first sitcom home I’d ever seen that looked like it came from my neighborhood. And even if the Connors weren’t exactly like my family (she yelled more than my mom, husband Dan less than my dad), they felt familiar. For one thing, the parents were fat, just like a lot of grown ups I knew in my Detroit suburb. Their kids bickered a lot and dressed in clothes that probably came from the Sears sales racks. Everyone is funny and they all use sarcastic humor to cope with the stress of everyday life. But sometimes their wit stings a tender spot and they end up hurting each other by accident. Balancing a sense of humor with a sense of dignity is a constant struggle for the working-class, especially when you’re way smarter than the bosses who pay you peanuts. 

When I consider what it means to be a wiseass working class person in a terrible economy, I immediately think of my all-time favorite “Roseanne” episode, season 2’s “Hair.”  After her infamous walk out at the factory job where she worked for eleven years and subsequent failed stints of employment, Roseanne takes a position scheduling appointments and sweeping hair at a salon. At first she’s determined to quit, telling her sister Jackie this is “the lowest of the low” because it’s no different than the work she does at home. “At least you’ll be getting paid,” Jackie says as she physically drags Roseanne out the kitchen door.

But then it turns out Roseanne enjoys the ladies at Art’s Salon. She gets to crack jokes as they chitchat and no one minds that she makes fun of them. She even scores some wisecracks on a rich old lady customer who happens to own the factory where Roseanne worked for so long. The job itself is easy. It’s so chill that by the end of the day Roseanne tells owner Marcia she could probably do the entire shift’s work in half the time. So Marcia offers her a $2/hour raise plus tips if she starts washing the clients’ hair, and Roseanne agrees.

Roseanne jokes around with her new coworker, Iris.

That night at dinner with the family, oldest child Becky says to Roseanne, “Susan Noonan said that her mother saw you sweeping up people’s hair in the beauty parlor.” Roseanne replies, “Well you tell Susan Noonan that I saw her mom getting her roots bleached and her mustache waxed,” and Becky laughs. Middle child Darlene notices Mom is wearing a nice new perfume, and Roseanne sheepishly admits she treated herself after getting a promotion on her first shift. This is the moment in the episode when my heart does somersaults, literally every time I see it. Roseanne told both Jackie and Dan in earlier scenes that she doesn’t want this demeaning job, but by this point we know she actually likes it. And for a smart working-class person, admitting you’re excited about a gig that seems beneath you can feel so embarrassing. As someone who was once happily employed as the free-sample lady at a grocery store, I know this.

Kindhearted as Dan is, he isn’t sensitive enough to pick up on her change of heart. When he hears the word “promotion,” he jokes, “Promotion to what, shampoo girl?” Roseanne verifies that this is exactly what her new position is and sardonic Darlene blurts, “You’re a dead man.” Dan tries to backpedal, but it only gets worse:

Dan: Hey, it’s a job, right?

Roseanne: It’s a good job.

Dan: That’s what I said, it’s a good job!

Becky: No, you said, “Hey, it’s a job, right?”

Dan: I meant to say it’s a good job. (Nods encouragingly) Good job!

Roseanne: No, it’s not. It’s not a good job, it’s a degrading job. But no one there makes me feel like it is. That’s your job.

What a gutting moment! An awkward silence follows as Roseanne storms off to the bedroom and Dan follows her. And then out of nowhere, Darlene says to her younger brother (who has been completely silent this whole time), “Nice going, DJ!” Whew! Honestly this scene encapsulates every coping mechanism rust belt people use when they don’t know how to talk about their feelings — sarcastic humor, embarrassment, defensiveness, and small emotional explosions, followed by more jokes. 

I love the layer of gender nuance going on here, how the girls are excited for their mom’s new gig (the way Darlene says “tres chic!” about Roseanne’s perfume), and how they give Dan shit for his insensitivity. They sense this is a positive change for their mom even though she’s downplaying it, which is something he does not get at all. But despite his obliviousness, Dan is a sweetheart. When he follows Roseanne into the bedroom, he apologizes and gently explains he didn’t know she actually liked her new gig. She seems confused about it herself but admits that her coworkers are pretty cool. “I like them and they like me, and that just makes sweeping up hair not so bad.” She tells him she’s happy and he asks, “So what’s the secret, babe? Lower standards?” She jokes, “Well I just don’t think my standards can get any lower than you, and I married you,” then pounces on him. Again the power of wisecracks brings the family back from a painful moment.

I’ve always adored those two scenes. The way the family reacts to mom’s first day at an iffy new job felt so authentic and so different from all the other tv families who live in big, spiffy houses and don’t worry about money. But watching it now I realize this story probably had a profound influence on my relationship with work. After toiling at a couple of horribly stressful jobs that paid a decent salary, I decided around age 30 that it was worth a pay cut to not hate going to work every day. And I’ve never looked back. It’s not an easy choice if you worry about how other people perceive you. I’ve had the experience of running into former coworkers at my “lowly” new job. I’ve seen their eyes bulge because they think it’s sad to see me wiping tables or handing out sausage samples instead of working with their judgmental asses at some hellish job I dreaded going to every day. I won’t lie, their misplaced pity stung. The American working-class has been conditioned to eat itself over these small differences in stature, to believe that making a few dollars more or less per hour than your neighbor signifies some vast difference in whether or not you are a successful adult. We should be eating the rich instead. But if we’re going to be working for peanuts, we might as well work with people we don’t hate seeing every day. We can unlearn the ways we’ve been brainwashed, and even come to accept that sweeping up hair isn’t undignified in the least.

Socialist TV Summer: If Eleanor Can Organize, So Can I

All I wanna do this pandemic summer is organize for socialism, give vaccinated hugs, and watch TV — join me!

Mass movements of everyday people can join forces to dismantle capitalism and save the planet, but my knee-jerk social tendency is to isolate. The central premise of The Introverted Comrade is me telling myself I can work with others to make a better world as long as I balance that with my desire to live as a hermit. I’m not a person who’s naturally drawn to groups, yet I know building community is absolutely essential for our species to survive. Despite my tendency to pull away, I make myself work with others to build people power.

And that’s why my political organizing role model is not a dead philosopher or revolutionary, but rather a fictional, self-described “Arizona Dirtbag” who never went out of her way to help anyone until she realized her eternal salvation depended on it. I’m speaking of Eleanor Shellstrop, heroine of NBC’s high-concept sitcom “The Good Place” (which ran from 2016-2020). Portrayed by an extremely funny and charismatic Kristen Bell, Eleanor is a selfish, defensive, impulsive woman who refuses any responsibility to others. When she dies in a grocery store parking lot, she inexplicably ends up in The Good Place, a heavenly realm for only the most extraordinarily ethical humans. Eleanor knows she’s not qualified for this afterlife and fears that once she’s found out she’ll be sent to The Bad Place for eternal torture. So she enlists her assigned soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) — a moral philosophy professor who’s also recently arrived in this paradise — to teach her how to be a better person and earn her place in heaven.

Throughout the series, Eleanor assembles a band of fellow misfits to attend Chidi’s classes and help each other become better humans. At first glance, elegant socialite/philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Buddhist monk Jianyu (Manny Jacinto) seem as if they belong in the Good Place, but the viewer quickly realizes that they and Chidi are all deeply flawed too. Their mutual salvation becomes a group project. Throughout a series of time-bending twists, they must repeatedly confront demons both internal and external and eventually learn it isn’t just their souls that need saving, but truly all of humankind. In the face of overwhelming systemic injustice, these four messed up people must work around their differences and collaborate to save everyone. So while I’m not personally concerned with religion, the afterlife, or saving souls, this high-stakes scenario sounds pretty familiar to me.

Chidi provides this misfit crew the education they need to become better versions of themselves. But Eleanor is always the one who pushes others to take action. She’s the lead organizer, something she does despite her antisocial tendencies. I started watching this show right when I joined the Democratic Socialists of America, and even though she and I are very different (I’m nicer but not nearly as funny), I consistently look at Eleanor as a reminder that you don’t need to be a people person to bring people together. In fact, her cynicism and ability to detect bullshit often come in handy when she’s persuading her peers, as does her tendency to call others (and herself) out in the most brutally honest terms.

I could give several examples of Eleanor’s harshness coming in handy, but for the sake of revealing the least number of spoilers, I’ll focus on an episode from early in the series, “Chapter 4: Jason Mendoza”. The plot picks up from the previous episode’s cliffhanger, in which the usually silent Jianyu confronts Eleanor on a darkened street. When he speaks, his sage monk demeanor gives way to a dopey American accent as he tells her he’s been mistaken for someone else. He knows she isn’t supposed to be there either and needs her help figuring out “what the fork is happening.” (Since there’s no cussing in The Good Place, fork=fuck, shirt=shit, etc.) Eleanor senses his true nature immediately and asks, “How have you managed to stay undiscovered because I have had to dodge and weave and barely escape with my life, and you don’t seem…  like a super genius?”

Turns out Jianyu is actually Jason Mendoza, a dimwitted Floridian who’s just been keeping quiet ever since he came to the Good Place and got mistaken for a silent monk. Eleanor susses all this out through a rapid-fire series of questions (like a good organizer getting to know a complete stranger), leading to this exchange:

Eleanor: What did you do for a living?

Jason: I was an amateur DJ specializing in EDM… an amateur hip-hop backup dancer, an amateur body spray inventor, I did pranks on Vine —“

Eleanor: None of those are jobs. What did you do to make money?

Jason: Oh, I sold fake drugs to college kids.

Eleanor: Okay. Good.

Eleanor meets “Jianyu” after hours

As someone who sold fake drugs to old people, Eleanor can spot a fellow dirtbag. Turns out Jason knows her secret because she blabbed to him about it after getting blackout drunk at The Good Place welcoming party. The two agree to hide other’s real identities — Eleanor won’t tell Chidi that Jason is another misplaced inhabitant and Jason will continue not speaking to his assigned soulmate, Tahani. When the two later hang out in Jason’s “budhole” (a secret hangout that looks like a teen boy’s bedroom —  bean bag chairs, video games, sexy posters of Ariana Grande), Eleanor admits she appreciates having a place to go where she can just be herself. 

Unfortunately, this gives Jason a terrible idea. As Eleanor and Chidi finish a philosophy lesson at her house, they suddenly hear the pulsating bass of some awful electronic dance music. They rush over to Tahani’s mansion, where Jason is decked out in Jacksonville Jaguars gear and dancing to his self-composed beats. Determined to be himself at all costs, he reveals his true identity to Chidi. And when Tahani returns home a few minutes later, he breaks his vow of silence. She’s thrilled to hear her soulmate speaking, but Eleanor and Chidi know she won’t be so happy to learn he’s actually an amateur DJ from Florida. It seems all three are on the verge of eternal banishment to The Bad Place.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Jason’s impulsive desire to be his true self on Earth once led him to firebomb a rival DJ’s speedboat. But of course he doesn’t learn from any of this, and remains determined to drop the Jianyu disguise. Desperate to keep the real Jason under wraps so everyone can stay in The Good Place, Chidi graciously invites him to join his lessons on ethics and moral philosophy. Without a moment’s thought, Jason says, “No, I’m good.” And that’s when harsh organizer Eleanor kicks into high gear:

Eleanor: Dude! Chidi is giving you a lifeline right now and you need to take it because you suck.

Jason: You suck!

Eleanor: I know! That’s what I’m trying to tell you. We both suck. You know who doesn’t suck? Chidi. He is putting himself in danger to help us because he, unlike us, is an amazing person.

Jason: I didn’t get into heaven to go to school.

Eleanor: You didn’t get into heaven at all, shirt-for-brains.

Jason: I just want to be myself.

Eleanor: That’s a very, very bad idea. Do not be yourself. You need to be a better version of yourself, okay? And I do too. And our only hope right now is this kind, selfless, amazing nerd. Think about that.

Chidi: Do you have to call me a nerd so much?

Eleanor: I said a lot of other nice things, okay? Toughen up, nerd.

What I love about this scene is how Eleanor calls out everyone — Jason, herself, even Chidi. Of course Jason doesn’t want to attend boring ethics classes taught by someone way smarter than him. His whole life was about following his dumb, pleasure-seeking dreams without any thought of consequences. Chidi could ask him nicely a million times and get the same refusal. Eleanor understands the only way to persuade Jason is to make him see they’re completely forked if they don’t work together on self-improvement. This searing callout may not be the friendliest approach to organizing, but it ultimately works because she expresses humility in the process.

Again, I don’t see myself talking to others this way; my goal is to build political power, not to tell people they need to improve themselves. Nevertheless, I do try to model Eleanor’s humility and determination. In our past lives, neither she nor I ever saw ourselves voluntarily trying to work with people (especially the ones who get on our nerves). But once you understand human survival depends on all of us doing that work despite some of our individual tendencies to isolate, you find a way to overcome the aversion. Part of it is just admitting this work is hard, owning up to your shortcomings, and being forthright with others when they’ve misstepped. It isn’t always fun. But in my experience, doing it really does make you a better organizer and a better version of yourself.

From an alternate timeline in season 2, Eleanor describes this dynamic crew of wannabe better humans

Socialist TV Summer: Why I Should Be a Starship Captain

All I wanna do this pandemic summer is organize for socialism, give vaccinated hugs, and watch TV — join me!


If I were a cop trying to bring down a political activist group, I would simply encourage my fellow organizers to wallow in decision paralysis over little things. But we don’t need spies to slow us down this way, because we do it to ourselves all the time. I’ve attended countless meetings that meandered far from their intended purpose because everyone got hung up on what color the logo should be, or how we should go about selecting the next meeting time when there is no clear option that works for everyone. In some of these situations, I’ve been known to lose my cool. Like a few months ago, I drafted a phone bank script no one bothered to read until we were about to make calls. Then some of the comrades got deep into wordsmithing. That’s when I broke at least three different socialist feminist meeting norms by hollering across Zoom, “You guys, STOP. You don’t have to read the script word for word. Change it to whatever you like, but we need to get on the phones NOW.” I was not beloved in that moment, but we did begin our calls in due time. Nothing brings out my harsh yankee energy quite like having long debates about little things as the clock ticks away…

Now, it might seem like big, impactful decisions should require way more analysis. Sometimes that’s true, especially if there’s a lot at stake. I find that people struggle most when they face two evenly matched options, but I don’t have a problem with that at all. 50/50 decisions are the easiest — you just make a choice, hope it’s the right one, then try to correct course if it becomes clear later you chose wrong. 

This is why I should be a starship captain. We just need to win fully-automated luxury gay space communism so I can finally achieve my destiny!

The dream (not just a meme)

I often think of this one scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard perfectly demonstrates this kind of decisive leadership. In the season 7 episode “Attached,” he and Dr. Beverly Crusher are kidnapped while making a diplomatic visit to the planet Kesprytt. After they are briefly imprisoned by the Prytt (a hostile nation state that refuses to interact with the Kes majority), a Kes spy helps them escape and provides them with a map to the border. As Crusher and Picard hike through caves and hills, they notice the devices the Prytt implanted on their necks are causing them to hear each other’s thoughts. At one point, Crusher can’t figure out which hill they’re supposed to climb over next. Picard glances at the map and points to his left saying, “This way.” Crusher gets a funny look on her face and then they have this exchange:

Crusher: You don’t really know, do you?

Picard: What?

Crusher: I mean you’re acting like you know exactly which way to go, but you’re only guessing. Do you do this all the time?

Picard: No, but there are times when it is necessary for a captain to give the appearance of confidence.

Crusher goes on to make a mean joke about him in her head, which you can’t really blame her for (especially because — as she states in her own defense — at least she didn’t say it out loud!) But part of me is fully in the Picard Zone where that situation is concerned. Sometimes you’ve gotta fake confidence to get people on board with that 50/50 choice. Indecisive and hyper-analytic people tend to be nervous, so calmly explaining, “It really doesn’t matter which hill we choose, because those angry Prytt dudes with phasers are coming for us, and we gotta go.” Oh, hell no. They’re gonna wanna weigh all the pros and cons of each hill and try to remember every bit of relevant geographical info Data recited before they left the ship. And if they’re in the Democratic Socialists of America, they’ll wanna start a progressive stack to make sure everyone gets to chime in and say, “I just wanna piggyback on what Crusher said about the size of the boulders on that hill over there…” I can honestly see how it’s a lot easier, given the circumstances, to just fake like you know for sure so everyone keeps moving.

Crusher can’t help being a wiseass in her brain. Give her a break, Jean-Luc!

Alas, my dream of wielding this authoritative power will never happen in DSA. First of all, we’ve got all these anarchists who’d never put up with that kind of power structure. Second, I’m a woman, and we’re still here in the 21st century patriarchy, where I’m expected to explain myself and my reasoning because men assume (wrongly) that I’m not as smart as them. I mean, it’s probably for the best that I can’t just tell people what to do. I don’t really want that power. I just don’t wanna spend one-third of a one-hour meeting debating decisions of little consequence. My leadership ability is all about efficiency and prioritization. I just wanna keep things moving.

On the Basis of Science, Politeness, and Vibes

As of today I’m two weeks past my second Moderna shot. The Introverted Comrade is now fully vaccinated!

So what does this mean for my social life? After thirteen months of quarantine fog and trying to suss out other people’s boundaries (not to mention my own), I’ve struggled to imagine what will actually change. But overall I feel positive. Emotionally speaking, I’m like the bold and gleeful Fool from the Rider Waite Tarot, stepping toward the precipice with little idea what awaits me. I haven’t taken this journey before.

I remain cautious nevertheless. As excited as I am to see my people and revisit old haunts, it’s still important for me to go forward with absolute clarity about my personal rules. I’ve abided by so many personal rules this past year — no restaurant dining, no working retail, no sending the kid to school — simply because I could. Even though I’m lower risk, I took great care because that’s the contribution I could make in a capitalist hellscape that’s forced so many vulnerable folks to mix with others out of necessity. I don’t need to be that careful anymore. Some habits will change, but I don’t assume all of my people and I are in full agreement about which ones are changing. And I don’t want to make loved ones feel uneasy. So if you’re thinking of hanging out with me, here’s what I’ve determined for myself on the basis of science, politeness, and vibes:

  • If you’re fully immunized (at least two weeks out from your final shot) 
    • I am now available for hugs!!! But only if you want to, totally cool if you don’t.
    • I think we can hang out indoors together in each others’ homes without masks. I WANT TO SEE ALL OF YOUR CATS. But again, totally understand if you’re not feeling this.
    • We can still hang out outside! Come to my yard — we’ve got a table and chairs, a hammock, a fire pit that looks like a witchy cauldron, and tons of wisteria vines you can trip over (also a loo at the back of the house you can enter and exit directly). Really don’t think masks are necessary, but if you want ‘em I’ll comply.
  • If you’re fully immunized and have kid(s) who haven’t been vaccinated
    • Save for a couple trips to stores and the dentist, my unvaccinated 9-year-old kid only spends indoor time with her immunized parents. If you can say the same for your kids, I think it’s cool for us to all hang out indoors, even unmasked. If your unvaccinated kids are sometimes around other unvaccinated people (including other children), no judgment, but we should probably keep them outside. The variants make me nervous.
    • If you’re more worried about any of this than I am, I will default to whatever choices make you feel more comfortable. 
  • If you’re not fully immunized but want to be
    • Let’s hang out in the yard! Your choice on masks. Also, do you need help getting an appointment? Or a ride to get your second shot?
  • If you have no intention of getting the jab
    • I wish you the best. See you after we reach herd immunity? JK I don’t think we’re gonna hang out again, hard for me to let this one go.
  • Restaurants/Bars/Cafes
    • Outdoor seating is fine. But if it’s tight and crowded I may avoid it if I have the kid with me.
    • I still don’t feel right about these indoor petri dishes, despite the fact I’m very unlikely to contract or spread the virus. Is it because antivaxxers have been dining willy nilly throughout this whole thing and I don’t wanna be around them? Or the fact that seeing people unmasked in indoor spaces still makes me stabby? I dunno. Maybe I’ll get over it. Maybe if it’s got big open windows. I’m already thinking way too much about it, considering I don’t miss restaurants nearly as much as I thought I would.
  • Karaoke
    • Oh spittle-covered karaoke mic, will you ever feel right to me again? Sigh. But wouldn’t it only be an issue if you rubbed the mic on your nose and eyes? I dunno. Still feels weird.
    • There’s always YouTube in my living room and back yard. Not the glory we once experienced in front of complete strangers. But also no need for a spit-covered mic.

So there you have it, my long list of contingency plans for greater in-person socialization in Summer 2020. Whatever you decide for yourself, I wish all of us health, safety, greater intimacy, and respect for each other’s boundaries. Plus more time with our friends’ cats and babies. Oh LORD, I haven’t even talked about the babies yet…

Fête au Village by Marc Chagall (1969)

A Tale of Two Workplaces

Twenty years ago this summer I got hired as a part-time house manager at a theater in Ann Arbor, MI. Occasionally I’d work with an IATSE union stagehand I’ll call Fred. Fred didn’t speak to me for the first couple years I worked there, and I had no idea why. At first it really bugged me, but eventually I just settled on finding it both baffling and funny.

When I later became a full-time employee, I began assisting the facility manager with maintenance projects. One quiet May afternoon he sent me to the backstage green room to clean out the fridge. It was quite nasty, half-full of rotten leftovers from the last tour that rolled through town before all the students left. But I didn’t care, I was getting paid. I turned on the radio and started chucking old party trays into a trash bag. I was scrubbing the inside of the fridge when Fred walked in. I said hi. Surprised to see me, he stared for a moment, mumbled, “Hey,” and quickly reversed course. That was the longest conversation we’d ever had.

Then a shocking thing happened the next time I saw him at work — his stoic face broke into a warm, beaming smile and he said, “Hey Tara, how are you doing today?” I said, “Oh, hey Fred! I’m good, how are you?” From then on, whenever I happened to see him on a show night he went out of his way to be friendly and helpful. My guess is he assumed I was a lazy manager unworthy of his good will, but seeing me complete a menial task changed his mind. 

I think about that dynamic with Fred a lot when I consider the major difference between Michigan workplaces and the ones I’ve encountered here in the South. Up there, being competent at work is more important than being friendly with your coworkers. Down here, getting along with everyone at work is more important than doing your job well. I realize this isn’t true for every person, circumstance, region, or industry. I speak mainly from the perspective of doing customer service, but also base these observations on job stories I’ve heard from other transplants. Workplace dynamics feel very different here, and I think non-southern labor organizers should consider that when they imagine what it’s gonna take to unionize these parts.

Here’s an example of how “getting along” culture works in the South — when I worked at a health food store in Tennessee, there was this assistant store manager I’ll call Dana. Unlike our many lazy managers, Dana was hyper-competent, serious, and didn’t mince words. She was from Chicago. I found her intimidating at first, but quickly figured out her stern demeanor wasn’t mean at all. Once you got to know her, she had a great sense of humor. I also noticed she didn’t shy away from menial tasks and did whatever work needed getting done. She kept busy and expected the rest of us to do the same. 

From what I could gather, most everyone hated her. I’ll never forget when the food service manager came huffing and puffing into the break room saying, “Dana can’t talk to people that way!” Apparently she’d bluntly asked him to send her a report he’d forgotten to do and he was pissed she’d said this in front of the kitchen crew. I couldn’t believe how much this guy was freaking out. But he probably would’ve found her request less mortifying had she couched it with smiles and assurances she wasn’t mad or anything.  People here expect you to take a softer approach because being polite and friendly matters way more than simply getting the work done. 

I’ll be honest, while I often miss northern real talk and people telling me exactly what they think, I prefer southern customer service workplaces. The clientele don’t tend to be as rude as they are in the North. Also it’s harder to get away with outright abusive behavior toward your coworkers. In Michigan, I had multiple mangers yell at me because I made a mistake. That’s never happened to me down here. I also notice that monstrous, Type A control freak behavior is way less common in the South. So yeah, workplaces tend to be more disorganized, and lazy and/or incompetent managers are more common. But honestly, I’ve never been paid enough to care if others aren’t doing their job right. I just focus on doing mine well. And if other people’s crappy work ethic hurt the company, that’s the company’s problem, not mine.

But if we wanna get to a place where workers earn good wages and have more control over their workplaces, we’re gonna have to organize our coworkers. And I’ve got a feeling that this “everybody just get along” culture is gonna be a big obstacle. I see that polite timidity creep up in my organizing work all the time. When people are afraid to call voters or even the dues-paying members of their own organization because they don’t wanna seem pushy or intrusive, my salty Rust Belt self wants to say, “Welp, that’s how the sausage gets made! So suck it up and download Google Voice if you don’t want your number to show up on their phone.” But I know that would just upset people more, so again, I have to take a softer approach. People around here don’t say “suck it up” to each other’s faces.

I just try to imagine what it would be like trying to convince my former retail coworkers that we should get together as a group and confront the boss. I think about trying to convince them that yes, we might have to visit workers at their doorsteps if we can’t reach them by phone. I don’t believe these tactics are inherently rude. But between social atomization and this culture of getting along, it’s gonna take a lot of gentle prodding to help people understand what we must do to win. We’re gonna have to get aggressive, while still finding a way to practice patience and kindness with each other. But isn’t that what worker solidarity is all about? 

Mural by Daniel Manrique, outside the United Electrical Workers building in Chicago

For Lent I Gave Up the Discourse

As an ex-Catholic, I love not giving up stuff for Lent. Usually on Ash Wednesday I relish a delicious sense of “they can’t make me do that anymore.” But this year on Fat Tuesday, I read a compelling Facebook post from a friend who recommended giving up a vice for Lent even if you live an otherwise secular life. And since I enjoy a whimsical approach to sacrifice (see: Thanksgiving resolutions in lieu of waiting until New Year’s), I immediately decided to give up a habit that’s mostly bad for me — commenting on social media discourse.

Detail from “Battle Between Carnival and Lent” by Hieronymus Bosch

Here’s how I define “the discourse” as it applies to me, a person who spends hours every week reading leftist political posts on Facebook and Twitter: it’s more than just commenting on the news of the day, it’s talking about how others comment on the news of the day. As we all know, social media platforms are rife with users spouting opinions on current events. And yes, many of the opinions are foolish. The trouble begins when we start picking apart the foolishness. I don’t tend to get sucked in by extremely dumb analysis. Like if I see someone on social media say “COVID is fake news,” I roll my eyes and keep scrolling. But when I see a more likeminded person say “These science-denying COVIDiots are the reason we have half a million dead,” my structural analysis brain kicks in. I feel compelled to argue that corporate power and poor governance deserve way more blame than everyday dumbasses who fall for lies. But I’ll stop there with my example, so I don’t break my Lenten vow.

The thing about discourse is that it churns constantly. Every day, left Twitter offers a new set of viewpoints to criticize, elevate, or shape into another argument. I’d been trying to avoid this habit for a while because it vacuums up a lot of time. Often I’d find myself researching The Thing everyone is talking about just so I could understand why it made some people angry. By the time I got to figuring out my stance on The Thing, I’d realize an hour had passed. Why waste time doing a deep dive on something I wouldn’t even know about if I hadn’t logged on? So I’d already gotten in the habit of cutting myself off before the research phase. Thus, I didn’t expect much trouble sticking to my Lenten promise.

Then Rush Limbaugh died on Ash Wednesday. What a curveball! I quickly realized I could joke about this development on Twitter without breaking my vow (that’s just me commenting on the news) but I couldn’t tweet my very good reasons why it’s okay to joke about Rush’s death (that’s discourse). Oh how I kept my typing fingers in check that day! I wrote and deleted a couple tweets, almost forgetting what I said I wouldn’t do. This was the same week Ted Cruz absconded to Cancun while his Texan constituents froze. So much temptation to chime in! But like a good ex-Catholic girl I saved my hot takes for Sunday, then enjoyed some belated “likes” on my clever observations.

My favorite Rush Limbaugh tweet

But when the next #hottakeSunday rolled around, I didn’t have anything to say. I think this was because the weather turned nice, more people started getting vaccinated, and I’d regained a sense of hope. I noticed years ago that online discourse takes an especially bitter turn in winter. My experiment in sacrifice proved to me that most discourse commenting is bad mood-related.

My other big complaint about left discourse as habit is that it’s easy to mistake all this nuanced opining as political action. As many comrades frequently note, posting is not the same as organizing. That’s not to say it has zero political value. I remember when Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” came out. The conventional liberal notion that this book was some groundbreaking feminist literature felt so hollow to me. I’m grateful to the socialist feminists on my social media feeds for breaking down exactly why this book (and elite feminism in general) does nothing to empower the average working woman. Witnessing that discourse helped shape my values in a way that led me to eventually become active in socialist organizing.

But what if I’d just continued absorbing the discourse instead of taking concrete action? That’s what I did for a good long time. Before I joined my first organized campaign, I also wasn’t doing anything empower myself or other working class women. I did, however, collect many likes and retweets on my clever discourse analysis.

Ultimately, I think most discourse commenting and internet arguing are ego-based hobbies. We enjoy the attention or the sense of victory that comes from having the most perfectly honed take on whatever it is that everyone’s talking about. We get dopamine hits when other very smart people fav or retweet our clever thoughts. Does the discourse move people to take action? I think in rare cases (like with me and the “Lean In” discourse) it moves people to change their minds or reassess their values. But mostly I think it fosters exclusivity and resentment. When you begin to scoff at the decent people you know who don’t yet grasp your complex viewpoint — maybe it’s a nice, everyday liberal woman who posts cringe-y content about “girlbosses” like Sandberg — you are working against the principals of solidarity. How the hell are we gonna build a mass movement of working class people by harboring such petty ill will toward people with less-than-perfect opinions?

Having moved from discourse posting to actual political organizing, I also know these activities entail opposite energies. Discourse commenting is about breaking down bad ideas; its focus is negative. Organizing is about building relationships, which requires good faith, patience, and creativity; it’s focus is positive. To be an effective organizer, you certainly need to be aware of all the bad ideas and corporate media talking points that get in the way of your work. Like if you’re canvassing for Medicare for All, you need to have a response to “What if people like their health insurance?” To me that’s a pretty infuriating bad faith argument, promoted by corporate-backed politicians who resemble rats. But when I’m standing on a working person’s doorstep, having this discussion, I absolutely cannot respond to them with the sneering comebacks I might use on Twitter. To build a mass movement, I have to assume that this stranger and I are on the same team.

I don’t think excessive discourse commenting necessarily makes someone bad at organizing. Some of the best organizers I know issue many an epic clapback on the socials. Hey, we all gotta blow off steam somehow! But I have noticed in recent months that many of the people with good opinions I follow on Twitter don’t understand how organizing works. For example, they may resent congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for failing to win Medicare for All (look up #ForceTheVote if you want to know more, but I wouldn’t recommend it). I guess in their hazy vision of how change occurs, progressive electeds are supposed to win socialist policy while we sit back and dissect the discourse. And though I continue to appreciate the people with good opinions, especially when those people are funny, I’m starting to wonder how important it is to have the smartest take on things. Persuasion is so much harder than just being right about everything.

In Bloom

The only thing I miss about a Michigan winter was how it ended. The change would come in flashes at first — a random 60° March day, early April’s sudden spate of crocuses, that first night you can sleep with a window cracked open. Inevitably a freezing cold snap or freak snowstorm would disrupt those joys. But usually by my mid-April birthday you’d start to see weeping willows grow fuzzy with neon green buds. Spring euphoria usually arrived that following week. Full bloom abounded with the dawn of Taurus. That’s when it felt like every single person around me had ingested some kind of happy drug. On that first really warm day, when even the shade of a flowering magnolia felt balmy, I’d don a dress or skirt and bare my winter-whitened legs. Ah, that layer-less liberty! It felt like the whole world was in love. No doubt many Michigan babies are conceived when the air is fragrant with late April blossoms.

When I moved south, I quickly noticed warm weather mania doesn’t hit as hard here. Weaker winters beget earlier springs. The season is in full effect by the vernal equinox. Only the bitter coldness that can freeze over a Great Lake will set you up for the intoxicating aroma of thawing earth. I haven’t smelled that odor in years, because it just doesn’t get that cold here.

But pandemic winter brought a different sort of chill to this past season. Many of us stayed inside our houses so often and so long, when it was too cold or rainy to enjoy the outdoors. Now we are in bloom. Warmer temperature not only hastened the burst of daffodils and cherry blossoms, but also the ability to be with each other outdoors again. Do you know we’ve hosted TWO different friends in our backyard this week, and it’s only Wednesday? I continue my daily walking habit as I did throughout the winter, but now I’m dodging other pedestrians right and left. Every single one of us wears a stupid grin. 

For the first time in over a decade, I’m feeling the mass euphoria again. It’s as if we’ve collectively drawn a deep, cleansing breath and everyone’s exhaling at once. The feeling in the air right now reminds me of northern spring and my birthday, though it’s five weeks away. I know even for the South this is all very early. Maybe we’re not done with the cold yet. I remain grateful for this particular phase of climate change. We all so desperately needed this lazy stroll in the sun.

But even if we see a return to wintry temps, that won’t stop the vaccinations. I got so used to thinking this pandemic would go on forever, it didn’t hit me until very recently that I could also get the jab soon. As botched as this nation’s vaccine rollout has been, I expected it to take way longer. At first I just felt so happy for the wave of nurses showing off their bandages on my Facebook feed. They’d been through so much hell, I still tear up at the thought of them finally getting safe. Then came the teacher wave. I don’t think I’ve hit that FB heart reaction emoji as much as I have in the past few weeks. I didn’t foresee how relieved I’d feel for every one of them. When my professor husband got his first shot last week, the reality set in. My time is also drawing near. As an ex-smoker, I qualify with the next vaccine group at the end of this month. And for the first time in a year, I see the whole world in bloom – not just the flowers and trees within walking distance of my house.

I’m still keeping my expectations in check. Masks and distancing will remain the public norm for me (and hopefully the state where I live). I don’t expect a return to normal anytime soon, and I firmly believe the old “normal” cannot be fully achieved. But I do think there’s a strong possibility I’ll be able to hug some of you soon. If you’ve already been vaccinated, I’ve added you to my mental inventory of soon-to-be-huggable people. And when I get my shots, I hope you’ll be ready for these arms. They’re a bit fluffy from a mostly sedentary year, but that just guarantees a softer embrace. 

A tree on Irving Street

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.