The Parish and the Pandemic

When my family moved from Buffalo, NY to Dearborn, MI in the early 1980s, I remember we took some time checking out the variety of nearby parishes. We eventually settled upon St. Joseph, a midcentury church that looked a bit like a dentist office from the outside but felt much cozier inside. I fondly recall Christmas Eve masses there – the candle-lit woodsy interior and the altar overflowing with poinsettias. Unfortunately, that spirit of passionate warmth didn’t extend to the congregation; much like our neighborhood, it was full of World War II generation retirees of the “stay off my lawn” variety. They weren’t exactly welcoming to a family with seven children.

So we maintained a couple side parishes we’d frequent as needed. St. Barbara hosted a 6:30 Sunday morning speed mass for the elderly – no sermon, no kneeling, and over in twenty minutes. Sometimes I’d go there with my dad, if he had an urge to get his churchgoing done early. Part of me liked St. Barbara best, and not just for getting us in and out quickly. To me the building seemed like a more proper, old-fashioned, mini cathedral style church, but not in a scary way. The space felt bright. Plus they had a neat little marble pulpit built into a corner beside the altar. I’d daydream about how fun it would be to recite grand monologues from there. 

Sometimes after a lazy Sunday morning we’d trudge to 5:30pm mass at St. Alphonsus, an enormous, dreary brick church with heavy stale air that put me to sleep during a long homily; eventually the blaring organ pipes would shock me to my feet when it was time to rise. As a child fascinated by big old buildings, stained glass, and ornate detail, I felt like I should love St. Alphonsus. But being there that late in the day — especially on a northern winter school night — felt like punishment.

St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, 2007. Michigan Stained Glass Census

Nevertheless, St. Al’s spookiness definitely sparked my curiosity, particularly the flat little cemetery we’d walk through on our way from the parking lot to the side entrance. The big monuments that sat closer to the road intimidated me, especially the life-size crucified Jesus who seemed to stand guard at the corner of Schaefer and Calhoun. But from the path alongside the church, I often noticed several little tombstones. One summer evening when I was eleven, I checked the dates and realized the people buried in those small plots didn’t live very long. And they all seemed to die at the same time. I asked my mom, “Why did so many babies and kids die in 1918 and 1919?”

She thought about it for a moment and said, “I think that was the flu pandemic.”

“The FLU?!” I’d had the flu before. It was super gross. We all got sick, just a bunch of us kids laid out in the living room with our own special barf bowls because we had just one toilet to share. But nobody came close to dying. “How could so many people die from the flu?”

“It was different back then. They weren’t able to manage it like we can now. Even these days, some people die from the flu. Like if they’re very old.”

I felt a chill as I stared at the graves and thought of all these long-dead babies, the only memory of their existence enshrined in this dreadful little cemetery on a strip of land between a scary old church and Schaefer Rd. What a terrible thing to be alive during a pandemic, I thought. I felt glad that things like that didn’t happen anymore.

In the past weeks, I’ve thought about that walk in and out of St. Alphonsus more times than I’ve thought about it in the last twenty years put together.

This week I’ve been perusing my childhood parishes’ websites, falling down pictorial rabbit holes, exploring interiors I never thought I’d see again (perhaps in a time of quarantine, it’s natural to want to revisit these familiar-yet-distant spaces). I glanced through the most recent Sunday bulletin from St. Kateri (née Joesph), which captured the sense of shock so many of us are feeling these days, saying, “Unlike the black and white news reels from the Depression, our experience of the pandemic is seen in color and with a technology that brings all the fear and suffering closer than we would like.” If you’d asked 11-year-old me to envision the pandemic my mother described, I would have thought of a black and white photo. Hell, 41-year-old me would have done the same. It’s weird to think that just three months ago I still lived under the illusion I wouldn’t be alive during that kind of pandemic.

St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, 1929. Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

The Introverted Comrade Shelters at Home

I hate COVID-19, for-profit healthcare, and the president, but I do not always hate sheltering at home. 

I’m gonna share some things I like about this experience, but not to cheer you up. I find cheerfulness obnoxious in these morbid, frightening times. Nevertheless, we all deserve whatever scraps of joy we can pull together during a pandemic. I suspect for some of you feeling good feels guilty. As a comrade who writes about herself, it is my obligation to share uncomfortable personal truths you may find relatable, so you’ll feel less alone. And who wouldn’t like to feel less alone these days. In the spirit of socially distanced solidarity, here are some quarantine things that don’t suck:

  • I’m grateful to be sheltering with the only people I could stand seeing this often — my beloved spouse/best friend and our eight year-old daughter. Before quarantine we hardly saw each other at all; between school, differing work schedules, and organizing obligations, we averaged one or two evenings together per week. Now we have every day, evening, and weekend. Often it feels like too much; I long for my solitary external tasks, like shelving books in the school library or organizing the jams and jellies in the back stock at work. But I was missing my little family so much during those hectic pre-pandemic days. Like the sultry summer sun following a long winter, I’ll need to soak up their company lots before I’m ready for the next season.
  • Every day I go for a walk and marvel at this early spring color show, full of purple, fuchsia, and gold. I’ve been exploring hills in a hidden part of the neighborhood you’d never drive through if you were trying to get somewhere fast. On one block you swear you’re on the edge of a forest. Then you round a corner and suddenly you’re sneaking beneath the eerily quiet expressway. Or sometimes I’ll head the other direction out my door, along a grid-like set of streets lined with sprawling, ancient trees filling in their lacy, yellow-green canopies. That takes me to the big park, with woodsy trails running alongside another creek. There’s plenty of room for dodging other pedestrians, though we always smile and say “hi” as we allow each other wide berths. I walked everywhere all throughout my twenties and often miss that car-free life. But this is different. These days I’m not walking to get anywhere, and I’m not the only one doing it.
A peaceful scene at the creekside trail
  • In my active pre-pandemic life I’d consume familiar media over and over again, seeking comfort in the repetition of an enjoyable TV show, streaming music channel, or podcast. Knowing “this will definitely amuse me, not leave me depressed or freaked out” was how I unwound from the daily stress of work, parenting, and regularly contemplating the horrors of the world. But here in quarantine, I need content that takes my mind to new places. So I watched Tiger King on Netflix, and laughed at the au courant memes about Joe Exotic and that bitch Carole Baskin. I’ve gotten into this old podcast about The Golden Girls, because even though I’m not a huge GG fan, these hosts nerd out in a way that makes me want to be their friend (as opposed to most podcasters, who are generally insufferable). And though it isn’t completely new-to-me material, I’ve also been rereading a bunch of early 1980s Sweet Valley High books my coworker loaned to me; 30+ years later, they are just as unintentionally funny and engaging as they were back then (more about that in a future post). Enjoying new content helps steer my mind away from all the death and suffering for an hour or two at a time. 
  • Since I’m not working on my feet so much, I don’t need to wear athletic shoes all the time. And that means I don’t have to worry about matching my outfit to practical footwear. The upshot is I’m wearing more dresses and looking way cuter in quarantine than I did before! Of course, nobody but my little family sees my fetching frocks. Except when I go for my walks and feel like a real lady about town.
  • Cooking, tidying the house, and running laundry loads may not be as fulfilling as writing or political work, but it still beats retail. The wage work I’d been doing got in the way of homemaking. Now that my retail gig has been officially defined as non-essential, I clearly see that my old unpaid stay-at-home-mom job was more beneficial to my family. I don’t know what I’m gonna do when the unemployment insurance runs out. But in the meantime, It’s nice to know I don’t need wage work to feel whole. As long as I have good food, a safe place to live, comfortable clothing, and the internet, I’m living well. At least I have those things for now.

Problematica: Jennifer Keaton was the Proto-Thunberg

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.

As a child of the ’80s, I remember “Family Ties” being a high quality sitcom. Every Thursday night my family tuned in to watch liberal, hippie boomer parents Steven and Elyse Keaton raise their gaggle of precocious Gen X kids, including young Republican Alex, vapid fashionista Mallory, and wisecracking Jennifer. I related to certain aspects of their family —the kids were around my siblings’ ages and the parents made fun of Reagan. Mainly I think I appreciated that, despite their generational differences, they all seemed to really like each other. Or I’m assuming that’s what appealed to me then, because when I catch reruns on Antenna TV now, I can’t help noticing “Family Ties” is pretty bland and often heavy-handed. From tackling alcoholism to teen pregnancy to youth mortality, “Family Ties” often veered into that unsettling 80s sitcom subgenre we now refer to as “a very special episode”.

You may recall some of the iconic Very Special Episodes of the 1980s, like that “Diff’rent Strokes” with the pedophile bike store owner and the “Punky Brewster” when Cherry gets trapped inside an old refrigerator. A hyper-dramatic tone made these episodes way more disturbing than funny, and their mangled messaging might include certain ideas that may have done more harm than good (like the cop on that “Diff’rent Strokes” episode assuring a young male character he isn’t gay just because he was molested by a man). For the modern viewer, a typical VSE incites shudders, groans, eye-rolls, possibly all of the above.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I recently stumbled upon a season seven episode of “Family Ties” in which Jennifer becomes deeply depressed about ecological issues; 31 years later this story totally holds up! Unlike your typical VSEs of the era, this one speaks to a topic that feels just as relevant now as it was then, and everyone’s reaction to what’s happening feels just as authentic. Sometimes it even made me laugh.

16 year-old high school student Jennifer takes a strong interest in a natural sciences unit called Global Ecology: Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide. She immediately turns full Greta Thunberg, spouting a range of statistics about deforestation, air pollution, ozone depletion, and endangered species. Soon she demands that the family eliminate their use of aerosols and harmful chemicals, avoid using gas heat, and stop accepting styrofoam containers. Steven and Elyse’s reactions to Jennifer’s stringent rules are both hilarious and sweet. As self-obsessed boomers, they savor this opportunity to reminisce about their ‘60s hippie activism; at one point they pause to harmonize on a save-the-wombat version of “Kumbiya”. But they’re also so earnest and happy to encourage their conservationist kid that they immediately fall in line. 

Family Ties S7 E21 “Rain Forests Keep Falling On My Head”

The older Keaton children are less enthused. Alex mocks Jennifer for caring about endangered land in the south pole while Mallory flips out when asked to get rid of her toxic hair conditioner. Meanwhile, Steven and Elyse demonstrate their support by buying all new eco-friendly cleaning products and toiletries. Mallory pretends to be excited about her new lentil-based lip gloss, but the family soon discovers she’s been secretly buying that nasty conditioner again. None of that matters to Jennifer, because she’s grown despondent. She even cancels a tree-planting rally she’d organized! Between deforestation, the depleting ozone, and global warming, there’s too much happening at once for her to feel effective. Steven and Elyse encourage her to talk to them, but she says, “Talking doesn’t solve anything.”

When Jennifer shows up to breakfast the next morning wearing a medical mask (oof, too many feelings about THAT right now), Steven and Elyse beg her to talk to the school counselor, young Mr. Hilgenburg. At this point, I’m rooting hard for Jennifer because she has a right to be freaking out! I assume Hilgenburg is gonna be the one who reasons her out of her despair. Much to my delight, he turns out to be just as useless as the school counselors I knew. He starts the conversation in the barfiest way, asking her, “Do you like boys?” Jennifer gets a dreamy look in her eye and says, “Yeah… especially boys who don’t burn fossil fuels.” That’s our proto-Thunberg, always on message! Hilgenburg says she’s become obsessed – “Your fears are more debilitating than the actual problem.” She stands by the fact that these problems are not just in her head, and responds, “Right now we are threatened by a zillion different life-threatening influences.” Then she goes on to list every toxic aspect of his office space, from desktop computer microwaves to the air conditioner freon. Suddenly mansplainy Mr. Hilgenburg falls into a panic spiral, asking this 16-year-old girl, “What we can do to possibly change anything?!” But Jennifer has no answer.

Fear not, the episode doesn’t end on that downer note. Steven and Elyse later find Jennifer listening to whale songs in her bedroom. They commend her for making Hilgenburg aware and getting them to recommit to environmental causes. Aww, these goofy boomers are so nice! (Which means I forgive them for getting horny over the whale song, eww.) They remind Jennifer she must use her talents and persevere because the movement needs her commitment. And when she doubts she can make a difference, Elyse responds with the most right-on advice of the episode, “You don’t have to do it by yourself.” They encourage her to join an organization and Steven adds, “Someday you may head up Greenpeace.” Again, they’re kind of insufferable but also such good parents to this budding organizer!

In the end, Mallory gets on board with eco-friendly conditioner, and even Alex gets excited about the entrepreneurial potential of selling recyclables. Overall, this was pretty good messaging for a 1989 VSE. It’s funny now to hear Steven offhandedly mention that recycling a Sunday run of the New York Times would save 75,000 trees. That’s one good thing about digital media — large scale paper printing isn’t as big a problem anymore! And for that matter, it feels good to say that the hole in the ozone layer is now officially healing since manufacturers phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

But as we know, 31 years later deforestation and global warming have grown terrifyingly worse, and our window for addressing these problems is quickly shrinking. With that in mind, I see two main areas where this episode goes wrong:

Too much focus on personal choice and individual consumption Okay, here’s the deal with Jennifer’s uptight list of rules – she’s not wrong about the fact that we all need to learn to live without harmful, polluting chemicals. But even if you successfully shame your family members into making more eco-friendly choices, you’re only solving a minuscule portion of widespread, systemic problems. We needed an international treaty to get rid of CFCs; it didn’t happen because a bunch of consumers stopped buying AquaNet. Also, shame is a poor organizing tactic. It works on rare weirdos like Steven and Elyse, but most normal people react like Mallory – they’ll tell you what you want to hear to shut you up, then pump that formaldehyde conditioner when you’re not looking.

Too little focus on the real enemy Too often when we speak about the carelessness and greed that leads to widespread environmental disaster, we fail to identify the real culprit – capitalism. Jennifer gets so close to pinpointing our biggest obstacle to sustainable living when she tells Alex in the first scene, “Money grubbers are destroying the world for profit.” We can shame each other all day about personal choices, but until we take on the corporate interests that amass billions of dollars from fossil fuel trade (just to name one set of culprits), the rampage and burning will continue. 

But again, this tension between personal choice politics and systemic approaches also feels very current. The notion that we everyday individuals are largely to blame for our climate crisis still permeates ecological discourse. Fortunately, with the rise of climate strikes, organizations like Sunrise Movement, and growing demand for a Green New Deal, the discourse has evolved rapidly in the past few years. In my fanfiction sequel to this story, Jennifer is now a 47-year-old ecosocialist organizer, still making Steven and Elyse proud; she even got them to vote for Bernie.

Cities Without Sadness

I recently visited Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. As someone who generally dislikes theme parks, I gotta say they do an incredible job making that place quite pleasant. From the cheerful customer service to the impeccable gardens in front of the castle, there’s not an unhappy moment to be had. Even the experience of lining up for rides was as enjoyable as can be — they give you an overblown wait time to manage your expectations, then keep it moving so you don’t get bored. Honestly, queuing up for Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid was my favorite part of the day! The wending line led us deeper into a cavern that became more mysterious with every turn. The ride itself (a glorious, colorful, musical retelling of the movie with dancing animatronic fish) was certainly more impressive than the line. But I appreciated the spectacle even more because the lead-up built my anticipation instead of aggravating me. Rarely have my emotions been better managed. 

Later as I strolled past the quaint storefronts of Main Street USA, I couldn’t help wondering “How fun would it be to live in a place this cute all the time?” Then it hit me, that’s the dream gentrification sells to yuppies – a Disneyfied urban experience where there’s no graffiti, homelessness, crime, or any of the other sad things that might sully the sweetness of a perfectly maintained Main Street. A Disneyfied neighborhood eliminates urban sadness not by solving poverty but by reserving that delightful experience for those who can afford it. 

Disney is all about creating fabulous experiences — the rides, the storybook architecture, and getting selfies with costumed character is what it’s all about. For true fanatics there’s an endless supply of expensive, character-themed tchotchkes available at a variety of themed gift shops. But after a while all that stuff starts to look the same. The food is fine, but also extremely expensive. Nobody goes to Disney for the just-okay $17 turkey sandwich. You go for the sense of magic and wonder. And I think that’s also what a typical gentrified downtown experience is. Yuppies wanna know there are galleries, spas, yoga studios, boutiques, dog parks, bike trails, and sidewalk cafes just footsteps away (even if they don’t partake of all those things) because they wanna feel like they’re in a vibrant and walkable urban setting. It doesn’t matter that the mediocre sandwiches at the sidewalk cafe costs $17. Atmosphere and proximity trump quality and value. If it looks clean and pretty, that matters more than if it tastes good or works well.

But back to Disney World, how does one get by in a place where necessities like bottled water cost $3.50 a pop? The answer is simple — you show up expecting to spend a lot of money. Throughout my Magic Kingdom day I kept seeing families in matching Mickey Mouse t-shirts that said “Best Day Ever.” I saw one tired-looking dad wearing a shirt that said “Most Expensive Day Ever.” It’s true. The hefty gate charge covers your rides, but those just-okay sandwiches, tchotchkes, and t-shirts add up. Plus you’re always being reminded of ways your experience could be even more magical if you spring for pricy extras, like the fast pass that gets you to the front of the line or that costume that’ll match your toddler with their favorite princess. Of those who can afford to get through the gates, most of us can’t spring for ALL the magic. But you quickly spot the rich people who can afford it, and see less-moneyed children gape at wealthy kids with unmasked envy.

Just as most of us cannot afford the VIP Disney experience, most of us cannot afford to live in our gentrifying downtowns. Maybe we can commute in to wander those whimsical, walkable streets, browse the boutiques, and eat appetizers at the sidewalk cafe. We can daydream about having all that fun within footsteps of our front door. Perhaps at the end of the day we have to get ourselves back to our neighborhoods on the fringes, where rent isn’t exactly affordable, but also isn’t prohibitive. And if you cannot afford to live in those fringes, then you probably aren’t welcome to visit the Disneyfied urban core. Maybe you used to live there, before it was the happiest place in town. But there’s no room for your sadness now. 

It’s Probably Fine that Your Fav Celeb Has Dopey Centrist Politics

After four seasons of watching him play a highly emotional afterlife architect on the sitcom The Good Place, I’m ready to call Ted Danson an acting genius. Week after week he beguiled me with the way he used a sweeping arm or an elegant hand flourish to punctuate his extremely funny delivery. Because I grew up watching Danson on Cheers, I took him for granted as a pop culture fixture but never expected to love him as much as I do now. When I saw that Ted had been arrested at a climate protest in October, my activist heart fluttered. Imagine, a brilliant artist and a comrade — what a mensch!

A few months later, when I saw Danson declare himself a Bloomberg supporter on Instagram, my reaction was the same one I have any time a liberal star posts cringe-inducing political statements, “The celebs are mostly dumb about this stuff and we can’t take it to heart.” Maintaining low expectations for rich, famous people’s politics is how I’m able to continue adoring them as a fan, and I recommend you do the same.

“But we hate Bloomberg!” you may be hollering right now. Oh yes, comrade. I thoroughly detest Mike Bloomberg. And now that he’s running for president I’ve learned a great deal more about this racist, misogynistic pig beyond his stop-and-frisk policy (which should be automatically disqualifying). I firmly believe that anyone supporting Bloomberg oughta know better, but my antipathy toward his supporters depends on which of the three types they are:

  • Are they the kind of low-information voter who assumes Bloomberg can wallop Trump and be a big improvement on the current administration? If so, there’s a chance you can dissuade this supporter by presenting more information (but given the amount of info already out there, we are quickly exiting the grace period for ignorance).
  • Are they getting paid by Bloomberg? He pays “grassroots organizers” $2,500 a month to say nice things about him on social media and in text messages. He pays staffers extremely well. This sort of supporter isn’t passionate in their endorsement. I guess you might call them sell-outs, but if they’re broke and just really need that money, I don’t judge much. If they’re a rich celeb or (worse) an influential political figure, I judge more.
  • Are they backing Bloomberg because they think he can beat Bernie and they don’t want their taxes to go up? This person is a class enemy and we should revel in defeating both them and their terrible candidate.

My guess is that Ted is a mix of all three — too dopey to understand how similar Bloomberg and Trump are, probably received some kind of payment from the campaign, and rich enough that he’d like to avoid paying way more under a Sanders tax plan (Danson’s net worth = $80,000,000). In other words, he is a political lost cause and a class enemy. But his support is probably shallow and I don’t expect him to make any serious public attempts to thwart the Sanders campaign. If he did I’d quickly add him to my official “cancelled” celeb list, alongside once-beloved sex offenders (Louis CK) and bigots (Roseanne). 

In my experience, upper middle class and rich white liberals who support centrist politicians aren’t hateful. They simply have no idea how most normal people suffer under both Republican and Democratic establishments, whether due to medical debt, college debt, low wages, or unaffordable housing. They’re oblivious to the threats immigrant communities face, or how our criminal justice system preys upon Black communities. They probably assume that something will be done about the climate crisis because they haven’t been inconvenienced by it yet. They loathe Trump for being crass, embarrassing, and so obviously corrupt. But they don’t think much about the harm his administration inflicts on more vulnerable communities. Now multiply that obliviousness by the experience of being a Hollywood star since the early 1980s and the cluelessness increases twenty fold. What on earth would Danson know of our problems? 

So I wouldn’t be too sad about your fav celeb backing Biden, Buttigieg, or Bloomberg.  On the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable to love your fav one hundred times harder if they get behind Bernie. “Hmm, isn’t that hypocritical?” you may wonder. Not at all! Bernie is the candidate for those who understand that most people are getting screwed by both the Dem and GOP establishment and that we need major change. So when Cardi B talks about how her cousin is getting crushed by student loan debt, or Dick Van Dyke laments our terrible, for-profit healthcare system, you know you’re dealing with those rare unicorn celebs who’ve maintained some perspective about the realities we commoners face. And considering that Dick Van Dyke has been rich and famous way longer than I’ve been alive, I think that’s pretty goddamn remarkable.

So in short, I still love both my sitcom kings and will continue watching both The Good Place and The Dick Van Dyke Show reruns with untainted joy. But every time I see Rob Petrie stumble over that ottoman, my heart will beat a little faster knowing that at 94 years old, Dick Van Dyke endorsed our first viable democratic socialist presidential candidate. “Oh, Rob!” indeed.

Canvassing for Us

At the start of the year I committed to posting an essay on this website every other week, covering a wide variety of subjects. So far I’ve veered away from current events, but that’s not possible this week because my brain has been gleefully subsumed by the Bernie Sanders canvassing experience. I cannot stop thinking about how to get more people on the streets knocking doors for our first Democratic Socialist president.

I’ve canvassed the last five Saturdays and not gonna lie, walking these hilly Carolina Piedmont neighborhoods in the January/February chill takes a lot out of me. But I also get a huge rush from talking to voters about why we need to elect Bernie. I wish I had more time and energy to give. In quiet moments, my mind strategizes when and where I’ll set up my next canvass. How many people can I train? Who’s ready to step up and host their own? I can’t do it this Saturday because I’ll be facilitating a DSA meeting, But I can train people to use the canvassing app during my breakout session, and I’ll have packets ready for them to hit the streets at their earliest convenience. Once they get a fix, I know they’ll love it, too. I’ve already seen that happen to so many of the people I’ve met these past five weeks.

These people (along with the many thousands of Sanders campaign voluneers across the country) are my greatest inspiration, way more than Bernie. Much as we love our cranky, blue-sweatered, anti-capitalist grandpa, we’re the ones powering this thing. That’s the whole point of #NotMeUs. We want a Green New Deal and Medicare, housing, and free college for all because we know these programs would radically transform our lives and the lives of pretty much everyone we know. We don’t show up on a rainy January morning because Bernie got a good dig at Biden in the last debate, or because our friends sent us a hilarious meme of Bernie wearing Juggalo makeup. We treat ourselves to the jokes and zingers because we work so hard canvassing, calling, and texting voters. And we do that work for each other.

One of the most remarkable canvassers I’ve met is a single mom of four (including a young adult w/special needs) who also helps care for an elderly parent. She drove thirty minutes with her teen son to knock doors in drizzle. A working class person who spends that much time taking care of others AND volunteers for Bernie impresses me way more than any wealthy Mayor Pete donor. 

The most fun I’ve had canvassing was two Saturdays ago when  I set out with two socialist comrade friends; at the end we posed for this pic I tweeted with the hashtag #HotParentsForBernie. Our four daughters (cumulative age = 21) have attended multiple organizing meetings and marches. The baby of the group has ridden her stroller on many canvasses for both Bernie and Medicare for All. Even though we all lead busy, complicated lives, it’s no wonder that parents like us show up for Sanders. We know what’s at stake for the littles, and we’re training them to fight, organize, and seize power together.

#HotParentsForBernie (I’m the tall one on the right)

The Drinking Fast

Something I distinctly remember about Trump’s inauguration was that right after his swearing-in, I went on Facebook and posted, “Sooo… when do we start drinking?” Judging by the many “likes” I received, lots of depressed people boozed it up that day.

It’s been a drunk few years for leftists living under Trump, rising fascism, and rapid climate change. We don’t allow ourselves the comfort of denying how bad things are. I give us credit for refusing to look away from the darkness, and even more credit to those of us who organize to fight back against all the scary things. But for those of us who imbibe — and I know many comrades who do — our perennial rage, fear, and discouragement make us more inclined to drink from stress. Sometimes you just wanna take your mind off the pain and worry for one night. Or two. Possibly most nights out of the week, depending what kind of news cycle you’re in.

I’ve recently decided that the repercussions from drinking this often generally outweigh the enjoyment. Part of my issue is just age, limited energy, and how much my schedule’s changed recently. During the holidays, I switched from part- to full-time at my very pleasant retail job that I don’t discuss online. So I have way less personal time. But I’m still a mom, still writing, still leading my local DSA organizing committee (we’re in the process of forming our own chapter!), and also canvassing for Bernie whenever I can. I cannot imagine trying to balance all of this activity with even the slightest hangover. At age 42, anything over two drinks per night will likely mess up my sleep or leave me feeling fuzzy the next day. Suffice to say, I’ve had many 2+ drink nights since January 2017.

I feel quite vulnerable putting this in writing. I can speak about my anxiety and depression with far fewer reservations. Alcohol is a very touchy subject. I do genuinely enjoy the flavor and warmth, and don’t necessarily want to give up drinking entirely. But my dad was a drunk, and a pretty mean one. I don’t like thinking of myself inheriting his worst qualities. Nevertheless I want to be honest about how much I’ve been drinking over the past few years, because I know I’m not alone. If you drink a lot and don’t feel great about that, please know you’re not the only one grappling with where you ought to draw some lines. Perhaps we could all benefit from speaking more frankly on the subject. 

My spouse and I decided to abstain from alcohol between New Year’s and Valentine’s Day, an old tradition I practiced during my last couple years in Michigan (so as not to become an extra depressed winter drunk). This go-round of temporary temperance feels very different than it did ten years ago. I was another person then — childfree and politically inactive, less burdened in many ways. But I also harbored meager expectations worn down by low wages, high rent, and the scarcity of jobs in my rust belt homeland. In 2010, I wasn’t nearly so afraid of the immediate future as I am now. But neither did I feel as much hope for a better, more just, and equitable society. What I’ve come to realize about drinking is that if I do it too much, I rob my sense of hope to feed that anxiety.

In my experience, drunks are not at their worst when they’re wasted — indeed, that is often when they’re the most fun. The nightmare moods strike when they’re hungover. The difference between 24 year-old me and me at 42 is that it takes relatively little alcohol to bum me out the next day. It’s this aging body, and it’s also the greater demands. No matter what, I have to wake up early every morning and care for my child. I don’t often sleep in. If I ever had a day when I didn’t have stuff to get done, maybe I wouldn’t mind feeling a little tired or weary. I could just lay on the couch all day, binge-watch Netflix, and order take-out. But I don’t often have those days. Not when there’s a DSA chapter to form, or a Bernie to elect, or an essay to post.

Speaking of which, I’m writing this paragraph at my favorite brewery, where I’m sipping a hibiscus soda. It’s been a long day. After helping my husband get our kid off to school, I went to work all day, then to a DSA event, then to the pet store for dog treats, followed by a quick (possibly regrettable) meal at KFC, and finally here. My town doesn’t have many late-night establishments that aren’t bars, so I’ve made my peace with being sober at the watering hole. This is the other reason I know I’m not the only one struggling with where to draw those lines. So much of our adult leisure culture revolves around alcohol. Drinking can feel like the cover charge you pay to enjoy a grown-up social life.

I remember a couple summers ago, we visited Michigan toward the end of Ramadan. One night my husband ran out to a Yemeni cafe in Dearborn and came back to my mom’s place in awe of what he’d seen — Muslims of all ages gathered at midnight, sipping tea and coffee, nibbling pastries, enjoying boisterous conversation. Old women in hijabs pounding the table and laughing. Of course it made sense that the cafe was open late, serving a community that had fasted all the long summer day. I just loved the idea that there was a party happening that didn’t guarantee an exhausted tomorrow. I love to chat and joke and stay up late with friends, and I hope one day (maybe when my child is a little more self-reliant, and I can sleep in) that I can go to that kind of party without feeling the need to pickle my insides. Let’s add that environment to our long list of socialist demands.

I don’t blame anyone for drinking too much in the face of this broken and disintegrating world. But as always, my mind wanders back to “What’s it gonna take to win a better one?” It’s gonna take a lot of work, which requires enormous energy. I can’t tell anyone else how to spend their energy. But this drinking fast has shown me that I have plenty more when I don’t wrap my down time around alcohol. 

Problematica: Experience Has Made Me Rich and Now They’re After 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.

Released 35 years ago this month, Madonna’s “Material Girl” is easily my favorite song from her ‘80s catalog. I’ve always loved its bubblegum poppy swing, that catchy chorus, and especially the music video in which she reenacts Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. 7 year-old me considered this song an instant classic and 42 year-old me will gladly belt it at karaoke, with the proper bourbon lubricant.

I’ve never related to the lyrics at all, cheeky and funny though they are. When I later became a Cole Porter fan, I realized “Material Girl” was very much in the vein of songs like “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” or “Always True to You in My Fashion” – stories told from the perspective of hot, fashionable young women who only put out for men that can afford their taste for finer things. In the “Material Girl” video, Madonna/Marilyn dances with a throng of tuxedoed men who ply her with jewels, as she sings lines like, “Some boys try and some boys lie but I don’t let them play / Only boys who save their pennies make my rainy day.” 

This concept of sleeping with men for cash, gems, and designer gowns has always felt profoundly un-me. Between my prudish Catholic upbringing, my complete disinterest in Fancy Stuff like diamonds, sports cars, or furs, and my deeply romantic nature that shrinks at the notion of transactional sex, I’ve never related to this sort of vamp or what she wants from men. For me, the super hot part of the “Material Girl” music video is the backstage love story that seems to contradict everything Madonna claims to be about. 

At the start of the video, we seen an intense, bearded, Hollywood producer type watching footage of our heroine dancing with her tuxedoed entourage. Transfixed by her sexy star quality, he tells his assistant he wants to meet her ASAP. But when he drops by Madonna’s dressing room with a shiny, wrapped box, he overhears her telling a girlfriend about an admirer giving her a diamond necklace (which she has inexplicably set upon a bowl of popcorn). “He thinks he can impress me by giving me expensive gifts. It’s nice, though. You want it?” Crestfallen, the Beardo tosses his fancy present in the trash.

This is what our heroine thinks of diamonds. I completely relate.

The rest of the video is mostly Madonna playing up her materialistic Marilyn act for the cameras — pulling diamonds out of men’s pockets, fondling a mink stole, bopping a guy in the face with lacy fan just for her own amusement. But then we see a couple other shots of down-to-earth backstage Madonna looking totally bored with the flashy playboys who try to woo her with baubles. Meanwhile Beardo longs for her on the sidelines, and, through his keen powers of observation, ultimately figures out what she really wants — a humble daisy bouquet and a dream ride in an old-timey truck he buys off some random farmer… who’s hanging out by the studio soundstage where they work? 7 year-old me didn’t ask too many questions about these details and 42 year-old me still believes this is, indeed, a pretty hot date. Anyway, Madonna and Beardo end up making out in the truck in the rain, which I consider a delightful ending to this simple love story.

But in the back of my head I always wondered, who is the real Madonna in this scenario? When you think of the song and the video, you probably imagine her draped in diamonds and fur. For years she was often referred to as “the material girl” (at least until the “Madge” years, when she married Guy Ritchie and pretended to be British). Wanton sexuality has always been a big part of her schtick; as late as 2016, she promised to give blow jobs to any Madison Square Garden concert-goers who’d vote for Hillary Clinton. But I could also see how, at least in 1985, this Italian-American chick from Metro Detroit would truly dig this beardo in an old truck who isn’t totally stuffy or pretentious. After all, this was the same woman who popularized cut-off crop tops and cheap jelly bracelets. In the mid-80s, Madonna was our working class fashion icon! 

Then it occurred to me, if you emulate the final verse from “Material Girl,” you really don’t have to choose one Madonna over the other. Consider these lyrics:

“Boys may come and boys may go

And that’s all right you see

Experience has made me rich

And now they’re after me”

The point is if you’re a woman who has her own money, you can sleep with whomever you like and buy your own jewelry. Or daisy bouquet. Or jelly bracelets. Or whatever you want! I’m old enough now to understand capitalism complicates all of our relationships, and that there’s nothing morally incorrect about trading sex for stuff (also that it’s none of my business if other people choose to do so). But wouldn’t it be cool if every one of us had money to cover all our needs and wants without relying on sexual partners to help foot those bills? Wouldn’t it radically change how we mate? You could collect gemstones in a bowl of popcorn AND hook up with Beardo in the old-timey truck. You wouldn’t even have to choose between those two things.

2020 Resolutions

The following are my socialist organizing resolutions for 2020 ~

Keep your commitments to the cause Do the things you said you’d do. Every time you tell a comrade, “I’ll take care of that,” write it down. Update your to-do list as you complete your tasks. At the end of every meeting, review action steps so everyone is clear on who’s doing what. Follow through on your action steps (preferably before someone has to remind you).

When you cannot keep your commitments, communicate All of your organizing must fit around full-time work, raising a child, and writing. You will drop balls. And that’s okay, as long as you tell your comrades what’s up. Don’t just let a thing go and hope no one notices, or assume the task wasn’t really necessary. If you need to go away for a bit, say so. “I am too depressed and overwhelmed to deal with this right now,” is as good a reason as any. Have the courage to clearly express your boundaries.

Check your messages proactively Between texts, Messenger, Group Me, Slack, and Twitter DMs, you cannot keep up with all your messages via notifications. When you work half a retail shift without your phone, then see 30 notifications at lunch, there’s no way you’re gonna absorb all that info in one sitting. So just treat the messaging apps like email – set aside time every day to check them all. You don’t need to respond to everything, but you do need to identify and deal with time-sensitive stuff that cannot wait.

Use the messaging apps sparingly and with intention Remember that all organizers are inundated with messages and not everyone is online all day. When a new project idea comes up in a group thread, ask the comrades to meet and discuss as soon as possible. Meetings are for fleshing out details, apps are for checking in between meetings. When you’re about to send a message, ask yourself, “Is this a group message or a direct message?” Tend toward DM-ing as much as possible. Avoid open-ended asks (“Can someone print flyers for the event?”) in favor of direct asks (“Hey Karl, can you print flyers for the event?”). 

Remember that any amount of organizing is work, not a hobby No matter what role you play or how much time you commit, you are contributing to a widespread, grassroots project to completely change our economy and society. You are not a passive observer but rather a member of the worker-led movement to win a better world. None of us can do this work alone, but we also cannot assume the work will be done for us. Take your contributions seriously, learn constantly, push yourself past what feels comfortable, and teach others what you know. Keep building. Know that the work continues while you step away, but also that your help is always needed.

Notes on Leadership and Getting Shit Done

I’m not a political organizing expert, and I realize what I’m about to say may not apply to long-established groups in larger cities. But something I’ve noticed about organizing leftists in small southern cities is that too many people are allergic to the concept of leadership. So here are my thoughts, based on five years of organizing work:

  • Every project oughta have a leader. Whether you’re organizing a campaign, canvass, rally, or bake sale, someone needs to be in charge of making sure shit gets done. It doesn’t have to be just one person, but in small cities you probably don’t have a ton of active participants. It’s okay to have just one person designated “in charge,” because it’s just one project. This isn’t a dictatorship in which some bold visionary bosses everyone around. It’s just a temporary condition!*
  • We’re all leaders in various capacities. I assume every person who shows up to a meeting can take the lead on something at some point. We’re all capable of tackling smaller tasks and no one is above handling the little things. Indeed, every project is comprised of many little things.
  • The most impactful projects cannot be accomplished without a team. Every teammate (a.k.a. comrade) takes the lead on something big or small. The leader checks in periodically and makes sure everyone’s doing what they said they’d do, which amounts to a lot of dull yet delicate work. So much messaging and meetings. You’ve gotta respect people’s time because we’re all volunteers, living busy lives complicated by late-stage capitalism. But we’ve still gotta get shit done! So leadership often entails nudging comrades to follow through on their commitments. Most everyone needs a reminder at some point.
  • Oftentimes leadership means getting administrative shit done. I’m not passionate about that stuff but somebody’s gotta do it. This is why I’m running to lead my Democratic Socialists of America branch, though I hope it’s a short-lived stint. We’re actually voting right now on whether or not to become our own chapter; should we vote to do that, we’ll elect new officers once our chapter status becomes official. But in the meantime, it’s the season for officer elections and we’re still gonna need leadership during this limbo period. I know I can get us through, because I’ve facilitated meetings, handled mass mailings, and corresponded with other DSA chapters and local community groups. But my best qualification is that I can make time to execute these tasks reliably. I realize some people put themselves in this position to grab power, but all I want is to make sure foundational shit keeps getting done.
  • Something I’ve learned in the past 1.5 years of leading our Medicare for All crew is that if you have some grand organizing idea — like, “Let’s canvass working class neighborhoods and talk to people about universal healthcare,”— then chances are that project will only take shape under your leadership. I showed up to my first few DSA meetings saying, “We should canvass for Medicare for All.” Several people nodded and nothing happened. When I finally came to a meeting and said, “I’m gonna start a Medicare for All working group, who’s in?” stuff started happening immediately.
  • Another thing I’ve noticed after overseeing several projects from start to finish (with all the messaging, meetings, posting, flyering, phone banks, and trips to the store) is that I find it bizarre when someone shows up to a meeting with big ideas they expect others to enact. Ideas are NOTHING without the labor required to see them through. What makes you think someone else has the time and energy to bring your vision to fruition? But then I remember when I used to show up and say, “We should _____,” and nothing happened. Perhaps that initial failure is part of the process. Most of us learn by doing. If you have a smart idea, consider taking the lead on it. Others will follow if they think it’s smart, too. But just understand you’ll probably be doing the bulk of the work at first. 
  • At the same time, don’t martyr yourself. If you’re doing too much of the work, then you don’t really have a team. You just have you, and you alone are not that impactful. You’ll burn out eventually. And then your impact will be zero.

Again, I’m not claiming to be some organizing mastermind. There are other key leadership qualities that matter a lot, like vision, interpersonal skills, or having a well-rounded historical perspective (an area in which I’m lacking). I’m okay with my shortcomings because I trust I’ll learn and grow with time, but ultimately I want my organization to expand beyond my ability to lead it. When that happens, I know I’ll still have a place because there’s always a need for people who get shit done. We’re like gardeners, tending the soil to create an environment in which our projects blossom and thrive.

*My sociologist spouse tells me this assertion means I am a vanguardist, to which I say, “Sure, that sounds accurate!” I have a lot to learn about history and theory — something I discuss later in the essay — so I’ll refrain from using such labels for now. My apologies to any passionate theory nerd whose head is now exploding.