The Best Working Class Lady Sitcom You Never Heard Of

Decades after I moved away, I remain fascinated with the biggest, most iconic building in my hometown of Dearborn, MI — a glassy, semicircular high rise that once housed the Hyatt Regency. Back in the 1980s, traveling rock stars would stay there when their tours came through Detroit. Not that working class people like me knew much about those lux interiors. If you ask any Dearborn person over 40 what they remember most about the Hyatt, they’ll rave about the futuristic monorail that connected to  nearby Fairlane Mall. But if you ask me my main association with that strange, shimmering edifice, I’ll start singing, “Life’s not the French Riviera! Believe me, life’s not a charity ball!”

Fans know I’m referring to the theme song from 1980s workplace sitcom It’s a Living. But there’s a very good chance you’ve never heard of this series before. It takes place in Above the Top, a restaurant on the highest floor of a swanky Los Angeles skyscraper. The show featured a crew of beautiful, charming waitresses juggling family, school, and their love lives while serving the clientele of a fine dining establishment. I could tell that the real-life Bonaventure Hotel — which was used in the show’s exterior shots — probably had one of those rotating rotunda restaurants, just like the Hyatt. So for me as a kid, the It’s a Living building and my town’s shiny, glass hotel were basically the same thing — the picture of mod ‘80s elegance.

The former Hyatt Regency and the famed monorail! (Detroit Free Press)
This ‘80s font gives me life (ABC Television)

And as far as kid me was concerned, adult women did not get any cooler than the waitresses from It’s a Living. For one thing they got to work in these beautiful matching low-cut gowns and heels (not at all practical for hustling on one’s feet all day, but what does an eight-year-old know about arch support?). They’d zip about their tables, spurning sleazy lounge singer Sonny’s pathetic advances, then dip into the kitchen to assemble salads and gossip. And then at the end of the shift, they’d all hang out in their fully furnished employee lounge, which completely ruined my expectations for what a break room would look like. They’d swap their beautiful waitress uniforms for extremely fashionable ‘80s attire (lots of chunky, oversized sweaters and scarves) as they exchanged zingers about each other’s boyfriends and spouses. Theirs looked like a perfectly wonderful workplace life to me, and that’s how I imagined it must be to wait tables at the fancy restaurant at the top of the Hyatt. I found their work life aspirational. 

Revisiting the series now, I realize that the waitresses’ friendships were the real heart of the series, even more than the cool clothes and cushy lounge. Regardless of the various cast changes throughout the series’ six-season run (and there were several, especially after the show’s network run got canceled and it moved to syndication), each episode began with the waitresses walking arm-in-arm into work as the bonkers amazing theme song kicked off. It’s basically a Broadway show tune, and a really great one. The lyrics are all about how this working class gig may not make you rich, but who cares as long as you’re hot and spry?

Life’s not the French Riviera

Believe me, Life’s not a charity ball.

It isn’t all a great, big bed of roses

It’s not like showbiz

But the main thing I suppose is

We’re not the people you envy

Believe me, we know we’re doing okay

We may be less than wealthy

But better yet, we’re young and healthy

And anyone who’s young and healthy knows
that that’s the way the traffic flows

We’ve no misgivings

It’s a living.

It’s weird to me that a show this fun failed on network TV. It’s a Living was a Witt/Thomas production, the same people who made The Golden Girls. I see a lot of similarities between the two shows’ sassy lady-centric vibe and frequent sex jokes. In 1980, many viewers found It’s a Living’s pilot episode too risque; when audience members freaked out over the waitresses’ frank discussion about premarital sex (young Vicki, played by Wendy Schall, is thinking about giving it up for her new beau), Proctor and Gamble pulled sponsporship. ABC kept pitting the program against megahit shows like Magnum PI, and it was cancelled after the second season. It’s a Living’s 40 original episodes found new life in syndication and the show returned with new episodes in 1985 (exactly when The Golden Girls premiered on NBC), featuring some original cast members and the same premise. 

I remember watching those new episodes every Sunday afternoon on TV 20, an absolute gem in a time slot dominated by boring pro sports. This was probably the first show I really appreciated as an ensemble, because all of the characters were so memorable. There was cranky maitre d Nancy (Marian Mercer, as the boss everyone despised), who paraded about in ridiculous floor-length evening gowns as she scolded the ladies for coming in late or shirking their responsibilities. She was in love with deadpan chef Howard (Richard Stahl), who suffered her flirting with the same withdrawn disdain he aimed at everyone. Sonny (Paul Kreppel) was still there doing his lounge act and harassing the waitresses. And so was platinum blond Cassie (Ann Jillian); both wisecracking and horny, she was a perfect combo of The Golden Girls’ Sophia and Blanche. Flaky aspiring actress Dot (Gail Edwards) returned with the original cast as well as busy law school student Jan (Barrie Youngfellow), whose sarcastic edge made her the Dorothy of the crew. Crystal Bernard joined the cast as Amy (Crystal Bernard), a naive young lady from small town Texas who brought the Rose energy. 

Season 3 cast (Lorimar Telepictures)

Much like The Golden Girls, I find It’s a Living more memorable for its bantering personalities than its plot lines. The one story I remembered quite well was a season 3 episode called “Dinner with Deedee.” In it, Jan is mortified when she has to wait on former grade school classmate Deedee (Jennifer Salt), who was always her number one academic competitor. Having narrowly beaten her rival for “Most Likely to Succeed,” Jan is embarrassed to be waiting on this woman who has since gone on to marry a wealthy, famous TV exec. She begs Cassie to take that table, then spends the rest of that night skirting past her old schoolmate. But then Jan runs into Deedee as she’s going into work the next day and lets her believe she’s become a powerful attorney. They agree to meet at the restaurant for dinner, which means Jan must enlist the help of her colleagues in pulling off this ruse.

Looking back, I think this episode stuck out for me because I didn’t know until then that anyone would look down on a service industry worker. Waiting tables was just a job like any other one, as far as my third-grade mind was concerned. What could be embarrassing about bringing people food, especially when you’re dressed to kill? The idea that any of these funny, beautiful women would feel less important than a lawyer had never occurred to me before. I remembered that Jan eventually came clean to Deedee, but her initial embarrassment was my bigger takeaway. That was my introduction to the hierarchies of traditional working class labor vs. professional managerial class jobs.

I’m pleased to say that when I recently rewatched this episode, the story deals with that tension in a pretty cool way. For instance, when Jan asks Cassie to take her table, she confesses, “I don’t want her to see that I’m doing just this.” Cassie shoots back, “What’s wrong with ‘just this’? It’s what I do.” At the end of the shift when Jan is decompressing from dodging Deedee all night, the other waitresses give her shit for behaving so ridiculously, calling her juvenile, stupid, cowardly, and short. But even though Jan is hiding the part of herself they all share in common, they still help her pretend she’s a high class customer (not a worker) when the titular dinner with Deedee finally occurs. That’s solidarity.

Perhaps that generosity from her peers is part of the reason Jan eventually admits to her former rival what she really does for a living. Or maybe it’s because Deedee turns out to be pretty cool and fun (also a great tipper, as Cassie noted the night before). Either way, the waitresses are so committed to Jan’s charade that they refuse to admit she’s their coworker even when she presses them to tell Deedee the truth. Finally Jan asks Dot, “Will you cover my shift tomorrow night?” To which Dot absentmindedly replies, “Sure, Jan.” It’s a sweet and funny moment, when Dot blows her cover because it’s just second nature to help her friend. Jan tells Deedee that she’s happy with her life, even if it’s not what she’d imagined when she was younger. And to her credit, Deedee doesn’t look down on her one bit. When she returns to dine at Above the Top the next evening, Jan insists on serving her. Cassie asks if this is about proving she has nothing to hide. Jan says, “Nope, I’m going for the tip.” Get it, girl!

I love returning to this show as an adult woman socialist. Season 3 has a bunch of great episodes, like the one where the waitresses join forces to defend Amy from a stalker, or when Cassie dates a cowboy billionaire with big McConnaughey vibes but later dumps him when he starts messing with her work life. There’s so much lady coworker solidarity! When I was a kid, I thought it would be so rad to work at the top of that glassy tower, wearing a pretty uniform, hanging in the lounge with cool coworkers I love. And I still adore those details. But now I also enjoy It’s a Living as a celebration of proletariat ladies who always have each other’s backs. We don’t get enough depictions of that in popular media.

The season 4 cast on their way up to Above the Top. Sheryl Lee Ralph joined the show as Ginger, after Ann Jillian left the program to fight breast cancer (Lorimar Telepictures)

My Car-Free, Carefree Carolinian Adventure

Remember when a bunch of us got vaccinated and our worlds blossomed anew? What a spring that was! I remember the moment in May when my daydreams about visiting art museums became plans. I decided once the National Gallery of Art fully reopened, I’d make a pilgrimage to Washington DC and seek out Marc Chagall (my quarantine obsession) in the Sculpture Garden. I’d take a full day exploring the NGA, and another full day wandering the city and writing.

Mentally I had begun working through the logistics of absconding with the family car for a four-day journey when a wild idea occurred to me — couldn’t I take a train there from Greensboro? A quick visit to the Amtrak website confirmed my desire. Hooray!! I could actually plan a big city getaway with no airplanes and minimal driving, which for me is truly living the dream. In that moment, I was just psyched to avoid city traffic and parking. But when I finally set foot on that Carolinian train bound for Alexandria, VA in late July, I wasn’t prepared for the thrill of riding the rails once more. It made me feel so young again.

I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 32 years old. I mostly used buses, trains, airplanes, and my own two feet before then. I developed a fondness for the forty-minute Wolverine train from Dearborn to Ann Arbor when I was in high school. This was how I could visit my sisters and later my boyfriend without having to beg my parents for rides. Whenever I rode back to Dearborn (near the end of the line for the route coming from Chicago), I’d sit very quietly in the smoking car while the conductor made his rounds, halfheartedly looking for any new passengers. Half the time he’d walk right past me, and once the coast was clear, I’d light a celebratory cigarette. I could use my ticket for the next trip and save myself eight bucks, which was a lot of money to a teenager in 1994.

Here in 2021, I had no intention of bilking our national rail service. I couldn’t even if I’d wanted to, since they don’t let you transfer tickets like that anymore. Also I was near the start of a route that runs from Charlotte all the way to New York’s Penn Station. The conductors checked my ticket several times, which is just one of the ways they run the tightest ship I’ve experienced in the last 18 months. They enforce a mask mandate better than any other institution I’ve encountered since the start of the pandemic, which made my ride an absolute joy from start to finish. 

My favorite part of this Amtrak experience (also a highlight from the trip as a whole) were the conductors’ departure announcements. A different gentleman spoke every time we left. The first one firmly explained the mask policy — no taking it off unless you’re actively eating or drinking — and then added, “If you do not abide by this policy we will happily escort you off the train at our earliest opportunity and the next destination will be your last.” My heart raced when I heard that. These guys are not messing. Definitely unionized, I thought. Each successive announcement reiterated the mask policy, though many would also take the time to address a particular pet peeve. One conductor addressed an incident that had just happened in my car. “Please use headphones when watching videos or listening to music on your devices. If you don’t use headphones then we all hear it, and nobody wants that.” YES, thank you, that was so annoying, I silently cheered. My favorite was the dining car attendant doing last call before his meal break. “And please don’t come into the cafe car until I’m done. Thanks! See you in an hour.” I practically swooned. Telling customers they can’t bug you during your break — what a king! Few things satisfy me more than seeing workers flex their power.

Classic Amtrak posters. Wolverine and Carolinian sadly not pictured.

The other part of the ride I enjoyed most was just the ability to get up and move around freely without turbulence or that weird feeling of hurtling through the sky. The train moves in such a smooth, straight line. It doesn’t take long for me to adjust my sense of balance. Flying, on the other hand, feels so unpleasant — the cramped quarters and dry, recycled air, the pressure in my ears, being trapped 35,000 feet in the air with people behaving in gross, obnoxious ways. Especially now we’re seeing passengers refusing to mask or behaving aggressively toward flight attendants (sometimes to the point of finding themself duct-taped to their seat), I have no interest in flying for a long time.

It was different when I was younger. My father worked for an airline, so I could get dirt cheap standby tickets anywhere they flew. In college I’d take weekend trips to visit my sister in Washington DC and always felt so confident flitting about airports with my carry-on bag, always knowing exactly where I needed to go. When I was going to school in Ann Arbor, I could’ve taken the Amtrak to Chicago but flying was always cheaper. But then one time a snowstorm hit the great lakes while I was visiting a friend for New Year’s weekend, and I got stranded at her aunt’s house in Schaumburg, IL. There was no chance of me getting a flight back to Detroit for days, so I bought one of the last tickets on the Wolverine. The train ride took about three hours longer than it was supposed to. The gaps between the cars were lined with freshly fallen snow. The door at the end of my car wouldn’t stay shut unless you really slammed it, and everyone kept walking through on their way to the cafe car. My car-mates and I got used to shouting, “Shut the door,” in unison at every newbie passerby who didn’t know the score. When the door didn’t shut it made our car twenty degrees colder, so our voices grew surlier as the trip wore on. That was definitely my least favorite Amtrak ride, but it got me home when no other mode of transport could.

I wonder where some of those “shut the door” people are now, and if they remember that strange journey through the blizzard. Unpleasant as it was, that was a very communal moment. We all worked together to keep warm. My pandemic train ride to Metro DC certainly felt more relaxed and pleasant, but I sensed a similar communal spirit. From what I could see, everyone did keep their masks up when they weren’t taking bites or sipping drinks. But more than that, I appreciated the tacit understanding that if anyone acted too foolish the conductors would haul their ass off at the next station, which is never that far away. People tend to behave better when they know those consequences are in play.

This is why I don’t mind taking eight hours to get to a place I could drive in five. And I always prefer riding to driving. I love gazing at passing scenery and letting my mind wander. From a train, you see parts of the world the road never shows you. As I meditated upon eastern North Carolina’s flat, rural expanses, I recalled that brief time in 2007 when I lived in Detroit and occasionally rode the train to work in Ann Arbor. Such a surreal journey. First you glide through these vast urban neighborhoods dotted with abandoned lots that had turned to meadows and eventually you end up in this lush green city that thrives on the University of Michigan’s $12 billion endowment. And in-between are these highly paved and increasingly desolate suburbs, including the neighborhood where I was raised. You just don’t see that steady gradation from poverty to wealth in such stark detail when you’re riding down the interstate.

Between 2007 and now, I’d been on only one Amtrak ride — in winter 2009 the Cascades route took my husband and me from Seattle to Portland, and it was by far the fanciest train I’d been on. We got to watch “The Philadelphia Story” on built-in monitors! In the age of smart devices and streaming media, I wasn’t missing those amenities on the more austere Carolinian train (though I would love to be on one of those long, scenic, western routes with the observation cars). Honestly I was thrilled when I finally noticed the electrical outlet next to my leg about three hours into the journey, so I could stop conserving my phone battery like some sad, modern-day pioneer. Once I knew I could juice up my devices, I decided this was the ultimate way to travel. I’ll take this slower, calmer, ecologically sustainable, and all around more civilized experience over flying any time.

My DC adventure was just as delightful as the ride there. I walked and took the Metro everywhere. I found Chagall’s glittering mosaic hidden in a shady corner of the Sculpture Garden, where I sat on a rock, sipped an ice coffee, and wept for a bit. I wandered Old Town Alexandria, wrote half an essay outside of a cafe, and gazed upon the Potomac. That’s where I was when I read the CDC’s admission that vaccinated people can indeed spread the virus. I sighed and mourned that fleeting month when I thought it was actually safe going to indoor public spaces unmasked. And when I later went to get mussels for dinner, I made sure to sit outside. 

I felt lucky having those four days of car-free alone time. I cannot express how peaceful an eight hour train ride is to a mom who’s spent most of the pandemic at home with a child. My perspective on travel time is so different from than I was younger. I recently found a funny journal entry from that blizzard ride through western Michigan. I guess 21-year-old me was trying to persevere when she wrote, “Wishing that I could be home sooner is like taking acid and wishing I could get to sleep. I’ll get there eventually.” If you’d told me then that in 2021 I would be elated to spend an entire train ride wearing a mask, pulling it down just long enough to sneak bites from a $6 cheese and cracker tray, I probably would’ve thought that sounded nuts. And now I cannot wait to do it again. However long it takes for the world to blossom once more, I know my rock near Marc’s mosaic is just an Amtrak + Metro ride away.

Marc Chagall “Orphée” 1969

Socialist TV Summer: Button Classic Mentality

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

It’s been over three weeks since I last posted here. I know because I give myself hell for failing to meet the every-other-week schedule I’ve established. “You’re screwing up, Tara!” I tell myself. “What’s your excuse? It’s not like your average day is any different than it was six months ago.” Eventually my kinder inner voice chimes in, the one who’d tell a friend they’re being too hard on themself. “You’re probably reeling from the cumulative insanity of the entire pandemic. Also, you do tons of stuff! You probably do ten times more in a day than Elon Musk does in a month. Do you think that douche gives himself a hard time about productivity?”

I don’t know how I maintained that writing schedule for the first year of the pandemic. Now I can’t. I feel lazy. But my idea of lazy is based on very high standards for myself. I’ve no doubt that rich, powerful men reward themselves for way less. Sometimes I envy the thing they’ve got that I don’t have, which I call Button Classic Mentality.

Button Classic Mentality is based on a joke from the “30 Rock” season two episode, “Succession,” in which General Electric/NBC exec Jack Donaghy learns his boss Don Geiss has chosen him as the company’s next CEO. Jack in turn selects TV writer Liz Lemon to replace himself as Head of East Coast Television and Microwave Programming. At first Liz recoils at the thought of being an exec but quickly changes her mind when Jack tells her how much it pays.

The next day Liz attends a work lunch with Jack and his peers. After a few drinks they get down to business — discussing plans for a new type of microwave start button. Jack says they’ve spent four years and $10 million on this project and need to make a decision. When Liz drunkenly comments, “I kind of like the old button,” Jack says, “Button classic — I love it.” In the background you hear the other execs make comments like “It’s hip and homey,” and “That’s fantastic.” One of the suits — a tipsy guy named Jorgenson — raises his glass for a toast and says, “Oh my god, guys, we’re crushing it!” 

I love this scene and frequently recall it when I think about talentless men failing upward. The key for them is to pretend an idea like “Button Classic” is a revolutionary concept instead of an admission of failure. Jack tells Liz, “Your first executive decision and you’ve already saved this company $2 million in future R and D.” Again, Liz hasn’t presented a new idea. If anything, she’s made it clear that the entire project was a colossal waste of money. The only thing she’s saved them is continued failure, but Jack instinctively spins this as a bold new plan. When she meets Don Geiss a couple hours later, he says, “Aren’t you the gal who pioneered the Button Classic campaign?” With one little drunken observation, Liz has now positioned herself as a bright young exec who’s already being celebrated as a victor. And for that tiny contribution, she makes a fortune compared to what she’d been getting paid, toiling night and day on her variety show.

I also love how quickly Liz aligns with her new role, even though she doubts herself at first. When Jack touts Button Classic she whispers to him, “But what if I’m wrong?” He tells her, “There is no wrong. Lemon, you just have to find subordinate you can push the blame onto. That’s why I love Jorgenson here.” Soon she’s getting even more plastered and making lewd jokes with the boys. Later, when Geiss goes into a diabetic coma after she forgets to bring him dessert, she immediately blames Jorgenson for the error. Anyone who ever assumed Liz Lemon was supposed to be a feminist role model should take a closer look at episodes like this. Liz may be a role model, but only for a type of self-serving, elite, white feminism that’s pretty ugly at its core. She knows in her heart that Button Classic is bullshit, but she’s happy to roll with it as long as it rakes in the cash and praise. And she adapts to the Machiavellian power structure in no time. This is why she and Jack get along so well despite their seemingly disparate political beliefs. 

Of course I don’t want to be a bullshitter like the execs in this episode. I don’t want to give myself credit for non-accomplishments or earn ridiculous amounts of money for spinning false victories into some bloated personal mythology. Rather it’s a healthy reminder that I accomplish more in a lazy day than these sort of people do in a whole week. So when I tell myself I “didn’t get anything done today” because I didn’t tinker with an essay, I think about those Button Classic geniuses and remember that, at minimum, I prepared meals for my family, washed a bunch of dishes, walked the dog, meditated, wrote three pages in my journal, and took a long walk, just like I do every day. I don’t get paid for any of that stuff. But if people got paid for what they do instead of how they talk, I’d be the rich guy and Elon Musk would be shopping the sales rack.

Jack teaches Liz the privileges of corporate leadership

It’s Okay That None of Us Are Alright

Georgia O’Keefe “Nature Forms — Gaspé” 1932

I’m riding through central Ohio as I write this, en route from southeast Michigan to my Carolina Piedmont home. It’s the tail end of a three-week family road trip that took us to suburban Dallas, rural Missouri, and the metro Detroit region where my husband and I grew up. I’ve seen more of my people in the past 21 days than in the past 15 months combined. If not for all those long months of quarantine, I don’t think I would’ve ever considered visiting three sets of family in one fell swoop. But in the context of a still-raging pandemic (for which my 9 year old child remains unvaccinated), it made sense. We’re not flying anywhere in the near future and we can’t make three separate road trips. So we made a big circle instead. Shockingly, I’ve felt pretty calm and contented throughout our journey. The key to enjoying this nomadic existence is being okay with the fact that none of us are alright.

I credit daily meditation for bringing me to this peaceful state of mind. Sorry, I know it might be annoying to hear that. One of my socialist friends recently “admitted” to me that he also finds meditation helpful for mental health maintenance; apparently this ancient practice has gotten a bad rap among our comrades due to corporate culture co-opting it for the sake of keeping workers docile (see Amazon warehouses installing meditation booths for unhappy laborers who really need restrooms). If you’re a very online socialist who now associates meditation with the evils capitalism, please know I’ve been unemployed since December. No boss has forced me to visualize a beam of sunlight pouring out of my chest for the sake of productivity. I just started doing it in January so I wouldn’t lose my mind from wintry solitude.

Anyway, the biggest benefit of meditation for me personally is acceptance. I don’t wish for anyone to be different than they are, because what’s the point? I can’t control that. And if their fear, confusion, or frustration following a year of quarantine causes them to behave strangely, I’m way less likely to take it personally than I did in the before times. Lord knows I have my quirks. So when I’m with company and accidentally reminisce on a memory that’s a bit too dark, or inexplicably laugh myself to tears, or have some other outsized emotional reaction, it’s okay. We’re all strange after staying away from each other for so long.

I spent a lot of time during this trip just listening to friends and family and, for the most part, I didn’t mind. I love hearing stories of other people’s lives, even if it’s just a variation on “here’s how my job got really bizarre once the pandemic hit” or “this is what we did to survive the school year from hell.” In a normal year I would’ve wanted to share more about my life, where I live, the organizing work I’ve been doing since I last saw everyone, etc. Guess I didn’t feel like reflecting on any of that. For a few weeks I was able to disconnect from my daily reality and just be present wherever I was on the road and for whomever I was with in that moment. No need to think about last week’s organizing meeting or the school year starting next month. I haven’t been thinking about my life much beyond “where should I get my next meal?”

Oh, I also notice that any concept of what was “normal” before the pandemic is now firmly relegated to the past. This became very apparent to me when I was hanging with my Michigan people. I quarantined with my mom in suburban Detroit for a couple weeks last summer, visited some friends and family in their yards and driveways. The year-ago vibe was more “anxiously awaiting some scant sense of normalcy,” like, “Oh man, isn’t this insane! It’s good to see you. Hope we figure out what the hell is going on soon and get rid of Trump.” Well he’s gone, we all got vaccinated, and we supposedly don’t have to wear masks anymore. But we also don’t know who we can trust or when this pandemic will really be over. And we can no longer deny that certain aspects of our daily lives have likely changed forever. Add to that the fact that many of us have witnessed some sort of devastating extreme weather phenomenon in the past year. We’re different people now. We may feel safer in some ways, but we’ve all been steeped in trauma. And it isn’t as if the immediate future looks stable.

But for the most part I don’t feel sad about this new reality. Five years ago I used to stay awake at night wondering what I’d do to protect my family in an increasingly chaotic world. The future I feared is now. And while I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to be alive at this precise moment in history, I’m adapting. We all are. My little family just traveled across the country with an unvaccinated child and kept her away from indoor public spaces almost the entire time. It was complicated but we made it work. I hope to get to a point where I can look back on this trip and think, “My god, what an insanely stressful time.” But at least for now I have the comfort of knowing I have learned a few things about how to keep my family safe in dangerous times.

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.