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.
The last job I loved quitting was cashiering at a health food grocery chain. I’d worked on-and-off with this company for eight years (both in Tennessee and North Carolina) and found it a pretty okay place to make a crappy wage. That is until I started working a checkout lane. Cashiers do the dullest, most repetitive work, and worse yet catch all the complaints. At a health food store, the insufferable yoga Karen quotient is off the charts. They’re just some of the worst customers you’ll ever meet. And since I was a head cashier, I often wound up being the “manager” with whom they needed to speak.
On my second-to-last shift I worked until close and had to open the next morning. And since I had to drive thirty minutes to get to this dumb job, I decided to spend that night at my sister’s house just a few blocks from the store. She and I had a couple drinks that evening, which put me in a jolly mood. Though I still had one shift to go, I was fully feeling that “no longer give a fuck” glee. She asked me all about the yoga Karens, because we share a deep affinity for hating terrible customers.
I impersonated this one woman’s deeply serious and self-important tone. “She was like, ‘I was here a few days ago and got the vegan collards from the hot bar… and there was a piece of meat in it! I have been a vegetarian for eighteen years. It’s very dangerous for me to eat meat. Because it’s been EIGHTEEN YEARS. I just wanted y’all to know.’”
My sister and I groaned simultaneously. I laughed and said, “I know she’s probably full of shit and that didn’t even happen. She could’ve said something then and got her money back. She hangs out in the cafe with her bratty children all day so she had plenty of opportunities. She didn’t want a refund, she just wanted me to know she’s important.”
My sister asked, “What do you say to someone like that?”
I chuckled and said, “You know that part in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure when he accuses Francis of stealing his bike and they fight in the pool? And Francis’s dad breaks up the fight and Pee Wee’s like ‘I’m soooo sorry’ in this phony caring way right before he gives them the trick gum? I just channel that. I’m fake apologetic like Pee Wee in that moment and that gets rid of them.”
That’s when my sister fell out laughing. She knew exactly what I meant because she’s loved Pee Wee’s Big Adventure ever since it was released in 1985. But if you don’t know or recall what I’m talking about, here’s the context: Pee Wee’s amazing red bike gets stolen right after spoiled rich kid Francis Buxton tries to buy it off him. Of course Pee Wee immediately suspects his nemesis, so he sneaks into the Buxton mansion and busts into Francis’s private indoor pool. The two boys scuffle until Francis’s dad intervenes. Of course, Mr. Buxton refuses to believe his “angelic” son could be a thief and demands that Pee Wee retract his accusation.
Then Pee Wee says in an extremely gentle, contrite tone, “I guess I was wrong. We don’t have to involve the authorities in this matter, do we Mr. Buxton? It was a simple mistake and I’m really sorry.” This appeases Buxton who then demands an apology to his son. Pee Wee then pleasantly offers them some trick gum and departs merrily, moments before black drool comes pouring out of their mouths.
I would love to have played such a prank on that yoga Karen — maybe stick a chunk of faux-chicken in her vegan collards — but that could’ve resulted in me getting fired. Throughout my many years of customer service, I’ve learned that simpering contrition really is the best way to deal with these creeps. Just as Pee Wee knows Francis is lying (he totally stole the bike), I know when I’m dealing with a wealthy, self-centered fibber who’s flexing their power over me. So I just channel Pee Wee’s fake apology to get rid of them as fast as possible. And then I daydream of the workers’ revolution. Trick gum and struggle sessions for all the yoga Karens.
I remember a simpler time, when I assumed the 2020 presidential election would be the worst part of this year. But as one comrade said, that prediction could still come true.
Getting into this national election cycle, I was bracing myself for voter disenfranchisement, Republican party corruption, and the Democrats doing everything in their power to stop Bernie Sanders from winning the nomination. What I did not expect was a pandemic speeding up this timeline while also making everything ultra weird. This is simply the weirdest presidential election I can remember.
I began 2020 giving everything I could to the Bernie Sanders campaign, all the while knowing our 1% ruling class and the Democratic party establishment would fully align against him. But I didn’t expect to lose my hope so soon. I officially gave up the dream of President Bernie on St. Patrick’ Day, when I saw a bunch of retired Floridians line up in stuffy polling places at the start of a pandemic to vote for Joe Biden. The Dems could have pushed to postpone those primaries, but they would rather sacrifice their aging centrist base to the virus than risk any chance of a democratic socialist winning the nomination.
I guess I was past mourning by the time Bernie officially suspended his campaign on April 13th, because I wasn’t even upset about it. Four days prior he’d fought for and successfully passed a $600/week increase in unemployment insurance, and suddenly I was making roughly 50% more than the wage I’d been earning before I got furloughed from my retail job. This was an enormous windfall for me and millions of other low-wage workers, and I still can’t believe he got it passed. My conspiracy theory is that he made a lot of backroom deals to get that win, including suspending his campaign and shifting full support to Joe Biden.
Joe. Fucking. Biden. I’m still so pissed it came to this, but can’t pretend it’s at all surprising. He wasn’t the candidate I hated most (a tie between vapid, opportunistic rat Buttigieg and scumbag billionaire Bloomberg). But somehow I suspect those outcomes wouldn’t have made me as bitter as this one has. Joe Biden has a racist, anti-choice record, he’s demonstrated sex pest behavior on camera, and he’s been credibly accused of rape. He actively opposes Medicare for All. And, not for nothing, he’s showing signs of early stage dementia. When he entered the race, I knew there was an excellent chance he could wind up being the nominee, because conventional wisdom tells the average voter he’s the safest bet to beat Trump. The fact is, most people don’t know about Joe’s record, the accusations, or his stance on M4A*. But they do know him as Obama’s vice president, and might recall him as the wacky uncle character from eight years of articles published by The Onion.
My other conspiracy theory is that the Wacky Uncle Joe character was an intentional PR campaign orchestrated by the Dems to cover up the fact that Joe is actually an enormous dick. Right after the 2008 VP debate, I was joking with my old hippie therapist about Sarah Palin’s ridiculous performance, and he said, “What really shocked me was that Biden was so restrained. I expected him to call her a dumb broad or something.”
I laughed and said, “What?”
“Oh yeah, that guy’s an asshole, really sexist.”
“Yeah… wasn’t he terrible to Anita Hill?” I wasn’t following politics much at this point, but that much I did remember.
“Yup. Do you know how hard it is for a guy like him to not tell Sarah Palin she’s a stupid bimbo? My guess is an advisor pulled a gun on him backstage and said they’d kill him if he did anything like that. That’s how this stuff gets done.”
I just laughed that off as my therapist being extra. But looking back, he had a point about why it’s important to contain Joe. From what we’ve seen this election cycle, Biden cannot keep himself from shoving his finger in someone’s face, or jabbing them in the chest, all, “Hey you bud, listen here man!” Except now there’s this additional awkward thing where he just goes off the rails because he forgot what everyone was talking about. The man is clearly losing his faculties. Remember how everyone was so worried that would happen to Bernie?
When someone would ask me what we’d do if Bernie lost his marbles after getting elected, I’d say something like, “That’s cool! Braindead Bernie can be a puppet for the administration. If we beat Trump and get that advantage with winning Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, it’s worth it.” I know that may sound horribly morbid and cynical, that I was ready to Weekend-at-Bernie’s Bernie. But I think my sinister plan actually speaks to the importance of the causes he champions. I am very fond of Bernie, but my intense support was never about him. It really was about winning basic rights and protections for us.
And now look what’s happening — in the most hilarious twist of the 2020 presidential election so far, the Dems are pulling a Weekend at Bernie’s on Biden! That weird nasty dude is almost nowhere to be found, because everyone knows that letting him out in the open is just a really bad idea. His appearances tend to be stilted and odd, as if he’s literally being propped up as a contender. He’s a puppet for just one cause, which is beating Trump. That’s his only job. The weirdest part of this whole thing for me is my reaction to it. At this point, I think it’s a great idea to keep that guy under wraps as much as possible. I sure as hell don’t wanna see him. That would just be a reminder that I’m actually gonna vote for this sex criminal.
So yeah, I’m gonna vote for Biden. For all the lefter-than-thou folks out there who are like, “But he’s just as bad as Trump!” No, he’s not. But he is absolutely terrible. I don’t expect him to reverse any one of Trump’s policies without enormous pressure from the left. But at least there is that small opportunity to push back. If we keep going with Trump (who will do everything he can to steal the election), we’re going to see a rapid, exponential increase in austerity and genocide.
And for all you centrist Sam the Eagles out there who are incensed at the notion that left-wingers might abstain or vote third party, y’all need to go soak your heads. Vote shaming doesn’t work. Trust me, I’ve been on the other side of it many times. I voted for Gloria La Riva in 2016 because I lived in Tennessee and it didn’t matter. If you think that it did matter, then I guess you don’t know about that anti-democratic sham called the Electoral College, wherein we expect voters in a handful of key states to decide the election for us. I live in one of those states now, so I’ll vote for Molester Uncle Joe this time. But I will not attempt to shame anyone else into doing it. I’m tired of this expectation that we’re supposed to set aside our disgust and misgivings to support these weak, centrist, anti-working class creeps that the Dems love to foist upon us. I’m tired of being told that our deeply warped excuse for a democracy doesn’t function properly because everyday, struggling people don’t show up in big enough numbers for candidates they dislike. Neoliberalism always tells us its that our societal problems are the fault of many misbehaving individuals, not gargantuan institutions run by greedy psychopaths.
So there you have it, that’s my big endorsement for Wacky Uncle Not Trump. If we had fair elections and/or weren’t living under quarantine conditions, I think he could beat Trump just by not being Trump. But sadly, some of us are going to have to fight hard to get this shadow of a once-lively scumbag elected to office. That’s what I want to happen, with the hope that his puppeteers are less fascist than the current set of ghouls running the show. Either way, we’ll keep on fighting.
*If they even know what Medicare for All is — my two years in M4A canvassing taught me that most people do not.
If you enjoy shaming people who don’t wear masks in public during a pandemic, that’s cool. Highly desperate times demand consequences for such risky, inconsiderate behavior. But I also need you to understand that if shame’s the only tool at our disposal, we’ll still see COVID-19 spread at an evermore devastating rate. Capitalism has again tricked us into overestimating the power of individuals. And individual solutions won’t fix this systemic disaster.
To me, the whole purpose of a democratically elected government is to assign leaders who will make decisions based on what’s best for most people. But we don’t have that here in the United States. Instead we have a government that responds to the needs of corporations and billionaires. You might say, “Well screw the idiots who elected Trump,” but this isn’t just a Trump problem. Hell, this isn’t even just a Republican problem. Both of our political parties are beholden to the 1%. The system is rigged. But instead of blaming the greedy bastards who benefit from that system, we blame voters. Tricked again.
In this country, the onus is on YOU to figure out how to act right under a pandemic. Stay home. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. If you can’t socially distance (because maybe you live with a lot of people or you work in tight quarters) that’s your fault for being poor. You didn’t try hard enough in life. You think the government should keep paying you $15/hr to stay home and not work? Oh we couldn’t have that, so we reopened to force workers off unemployment. Most people in this country didn’t want to reopen. But we did anyway, and we mainly blamed that decision on gun-toting reactionary yokels and Karens whining about haircuts. Look, I despise the yokels and the Karens as much as anyone, but they aren’t the main reason we ignited the second wave. Our capitalist ruling class simply wouldn’t concern itself with managing the healthcare and financial needs of everyday people living under a pandemic, because that isn’t profitable. And we certainly can’t allow plebs to expect more money or healthcare. That sets a dangerous precedent! Better to let millions suffer.
So that’s this country’s game plan for handling the virus. Everyday people can either act right or just do as they please. You might get sick even if you acted right, because none of us can or should live in complete isolation indefinitely. The virus doesn’t care about your personal morals, and neither does the ruling class.
We will never slow the spread of COVID-19 until our government institutes a widespread system of testing and contact tracing — a laughable dream based on the federal response so far. Can you imagine having a government that immediately invests in figuring out who’s sick, isolating them, caring for them, while also looking out for every person they encountered before they got sick?
Here’s the thing — I can imagine that scenario and I’m determined to help make it a reality. That’s why I’m a socialist. To the mask-shamers I say, let’s work together to target our real enemies. Collective action is the only way to win a government and economy that responds to everyday people’s needs. I see your passion for telling others how to act right. It’s time to funnel that zeal into socialism. Alone you might convince a handful of people to wear their masks. But together we can demand systems that push back on the virus and our ruling class. Our survival depends on us working as a massive team rather than as individual actors just trying to get by.
In my favorite pre-pandemic work days, I kept myself busy managing the aesthetics of an old-fashioned department store. I’d hum along to my favorite songs on the repetitive bluegrass soundtrack as I organized wooden signs that said things like “An Old Bear and His Honey Live Here” or “Wish I Was Born with Skinny Genes!” When a song came on that I hated, I’d groan loudly to my coworkers. Then we’d chat about our favorite TV shows as we filled 1/2 pound bags of Tootsie Rolls, wrapping dark red bows around the tops. After rearranging the cookbooks and refilling the Burt’s Bees lip glosses, I might grab a bag of popcorn from behind the register pit and hide in a corner to munch, away from the customers’ sight. Eventually an elderly person might approach me, wondering how long this store had been here (over 4 years) and what it was before (an early 20th century hardware store, these are the original floors). And then they’d tell me it was just like the downtown stores from their childhood. Then a little kid might run by squealing, because they’d just caught sight of the south wing, lined with candy barrels and shelves packed with toys. Those were idyllic times.
And then in quieter moments, when there were barely any customers around and I’d finished all my chores, I’d pop a Mallow Cup in my mouth, stare down the long central aisle leading through the fashion department to the front doors, and think, “Sure is pleasant here. Wonder what it’s gonna be like when the economy crashes and this all falls to shit?”
Having grown up in the rust belt, I’m sensitive to the signs of an impending downturn. Like the cold chill of a Michigan winter, I sense it deep inside my bones. I couldn’t ignore the fact that there were some January days when I’d see barely any shoppers come in. Or how about our inability to retain young workers because none of them could afford to live on our wages? It all felt like a house of cards.
But the pandemic… my god, I could not have possibly anticipated how swiftly it would all dissolve in a pandemic. I switched to full-time during holiday season to get on my own health insurance plan, which went into effect March 1st. By March 5th I was asking my boss if company leaders were talking about potential fallout from the coronavirus. “Nah, not really.” Over the next two weeks, as I watched the virus spread rapidly in cities like Seattle, New York, New Orleans, and my native Detroit, I became progressively more disgusted by the prospect of going to work. Many of my male workers scoffed at the notion that this virus might be A Big Deal; meanwhile the women in the fashion department started wiping everything down with Clorox.
Those last couple shifts before we closed felt torturous. I couldn’t help noticing that this folksy atmosphere we’d cultivated was encouraging dangerous social behavior. Business slowed, but dopey deniers were coming in swarms, so excited to be out and about to spite the libs. They loved to linger, sometimes for hours. One morning our department decided to skip making popcorn. An elderly customer noticed this and tapped on the window of the popper, demanding an explanation. “Well, we decided because of the pandemic that it seemed unsanitary,” I explained, He stared me down with raw disdain. “Don’t believe the hype, young lady.” He said this to me, a 40+ year old mom with graying hair. I wanted to grab a “Crazy Cat Lady” decorative pillow and scream into it.
Management announced our closure on March 19th. For most of the following two months, I collected weekly unemployment checks that greatly exceeded my previous income. Being forced to not work wound up being one of the biggest financial boons of my life. My employers assured me that I could stay on my health insurance, and I would have a job once we reopened. But as the weeks passed, I knew that we’d be returning to work with a virus in full effect. We’d be reopening, not because anyone needs to shop for jigsaw puzzles, orange marmalade, or scented candles. We would reopen with the hope of possibly saving the company. We would return to work in an indoor space, with unmasked customers, for worse pay than we made when our only job was to stay home. And we would do it with the slight hope that maybe we’d be the ones who didn’t get laid off or see our store close permanently. I’ve been through this cycle before. Surviving a capitalist recession forces workers to compete.
I probably should’ve just stayed home and continued collecting unemployment. I could’ve said, “I’m not comfortable going back quite yet,” and stayed on that health insurance plan until someone forced me to either return or quit. But I had to know how if was gonna be. I couldn’t handle the suspense of wondering “What will my job look like post-quarantine but pre-vaccine?”
I lasted three shifts.
Everything I’d enjoyed about my job — despite the low wages, corny tchotchkes, and the constant soundtrack of adult contemporary banjo music — was gone. Here we were, a skeleton crew managing fewer customers than I’d ever seen before. I had almost no one to talk to, but didn’t feel particularly chatty anyway. Straightening shelves and building displays felt pointless. There would be no more popcorn. And now that the candy barrels looked more like petri dishes, I didn’t want any Mallow Cups, either. These are not appropriate times to invite people to slow down, chill out on a rocking chair, play a game of checkers, and enjoy the great indoors. And while business remained slow, I couldn’t help but resent every one of the unmasked customers who walked through our doors, silently wondering, “Are you ignorant or are you hateful?”
So I quit.
I’m in a fortunate position that I can choose to stop working here at the beginning of a depression. I can get back on my husband’s extremely expensive health insurance, and I guess we’ll just keep staying home and not spending money. We’re okay for now, but not forever. In the short term, I’m gonna take advantage of this opportunity to quarantine with my mom in Michigan for a bit. And then I will look for work, possibly on the electoral side of things. Or I might try to become a contact tracer. If I’m going to put my health at risk, it will be for work that has some social benefit. Until this pandemic is really over, I’m probably done with non-essential, customer-facing service jobs. This is the work I’ve spent most of my adult life doing. I was good at it, and sometimes really enjoyed it. But it’s time to move on.
In those pre-pandemic days, I felt the downturn in my bones. But I never expected that doing this work would put anyone’s health at risk.
One night in early 2019, I noticed some of my Michigan mom friends were posting jokes on Facebook about “turning down to 65.” In the midst of a polar vortex, when temperatures had dipped to -9°, a fire broke out at a natural gas compressor station in suburban Detroit. State officials sent an emergency text to everyone in the lower peninsula, asking residents to turn their thermostats down to 65° to conserve energy and prevent blackouts while the station recovered.
When it gets that cold outside, the indoors never feel warm. I shuddered recalling all the times I’d worn a thick hat and scarf in my house because I just couldn’t get rid of the chill in my bones. Lowering the thermostat even a few degrees sounded pretty awful. But imagine having no gas or electricity during a polar vortex. The general consensus among my mom friends was that no one wanted to turn down the heat, but of course they had to. As one friend posted, “Anyone who isn’t turning down to 65 can’t be trusted in a zombie apocalypse.”
But here’s what happened — the directive worked. Enough people chose to sacrifice personal comfort for the greater good. Together they prevented a deadly outage.
I’ve been thinking about that act of solidarity a lot lately. Just a week ago, before this mass uprising against police murder began, I was musing on the beauty of continued social distancing. Our political leaders may have chosen to reopen our states during a pandemic, encouraging economic growth at the expense of public health. Many people filled restaurants, salons, and stores, eager to “get back to normal” despite the dangers of close social contact. But a great many of us who understand how the virus spreads continued staying home as much as possible. We made that choice not only to keep ourselves healthy, but to keep others healthy too. If you know how a mask works, you understand that it is to protect others and not yourself. When we isolate ourselves despite our great longing to be more social, and when we wear uncomfortable masks even when it isn’t required, we are doing that thing we talked about during the Bernie Sanders campaign — fighting for someone we don’t know. My heart fluttered to think that everyone who continued to mask up and maintain social distance was engaged in a massive act of solidarity.
In the past week we’ve seen thousands of fed up people break social distancing to protest police violence. Cops murdering black people, followed by street protest, is certainly nothing new. But now we’re seeing that action take place during a pandemic, at the start of what looks to be a great depression. At first I thought the liberal consensus would be, “The killing must stop, but so must this dangerous protest.” Instead, I’ve been shocked to see widespread moral clarity and support – not to mention all the protest, every night, in cities across the country. The social distancing solidarity didn’t end when the uprising began. I believe it’s morphed into something much bigger and more profound. We see transit workers and public schools refusing to work with police. We see hospital workers and protesters cheering each other in the streets. I’ve seen people in my personal circles, who were never particularly outspoken about politics, encouraging their friends to donate to bail funds. The moms who were posting jokes about 65° are all vocally siding with protesters.
Don’t get me wrong, we have a long way to go. We aren’t organized enough. We aren’t ready to seize power and abolish the police state. We need more of our good-hearted liberals to understand that murder and oppression aren’t signs that the system is failing, but rather that it is working as intended. We need them to stop cheering cops who kneel with protesters (which I suspect is a coordinated PR tactic meant to overshadow tear gas and rubber bullet attacks). But when I see a survey that says 54% of Americans believe burning that Minneapolis precinct was justified, I’m hopeful that we’ve entered a thrilling new phase in building multiracial, working class solidarity.
I love the people and I believe that most of us can be trusted in a zombie apocalypse.
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.
Shortly before the pandemic hit, a Gen X coworker loaned me her Sweet Valley High books. Binging this guilty pleasure from youth has been the highlight of my quarantine!
Launched in 1983, Sweet Valley High centers on the adventures of teen twin sisters Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. This pair of perfectly gorgeous California girls reside and attend high school in the idyllic community of Sweet Valley. Liz and Jess are blessed with “all-American good looks,” which means they’re identical blond, blue-eyed, size six, slender babes with peaches-and-cream complexions. But get this, you guys, their personalities are totally opposite!! Studious nice girl Liz writes for the school newspaper and treats everyone with kindness and respect while flirty cheerleader Jess is the the resident messy bitch who lives for drama. We’re supposed to see the twins as everyday girls. They’re not as wealthy as Jess’s snooty friend, Lila Fowler. Nor do they suffer the family dysfunction that once led Liz’s friend Enid down the path of substance abuse. No, they’re just your average Aryan supermodels who drive their mom’s old convertible and live in a split-level house with an in-ground pool.
Even at ten years-old, I knew these bitches were unreal. Liz and Jess were fake teenagers from a too-perfect family who didn’t have any of the troubles families like mine faced (money problems, for example). Granted, I was a jaded kid — the sixth of seven very sarcastic children — I understood the concept of hate reads at a young age. To me, Sweet Valley High was dumb, trashy fare, like soap operas for teens. It was fun staring through this peephole at moneyed hot people and their tawdry melodrama. But no part of me wanted to know or befriend the Wakefield twins in real life. I could relate to Liz’s writing hobby and her sense of fairness, but she was too corny to be cool. And while Jess’s bad girl behavior created most of the intrigue, there are moments in the early books when her behavior borders on psychopathic. For example in book #1 (spoilers), “Double Love,” Jess makes a play for hunky basketball player Todd Wilkins because she can see he’s interested in Liz; when he rejects her, she falsely accuses him of sexual assault. (They oughta have called that one “Double Cock Block”.) In the next book, “Secrets,” Jess learns about Enid’s past struggles with addiction and tells the whole school, because she’s jealous that she’s getting so much attention from Liz. In pretty much every one of the first ten books, Jessica does some psychotically bitchy thing that everyone forgives in the end because she’s hot and charming. Tween me NEVER accepted that outcome, perhaps because I’d yet to learn that pretty blond girls from “nice” families often do get away with murder.
Ah, but if only ten year old me had read book #10, “Wrong Kind of Girl,” I’d have seen Jessica receive the most absurdly overwrought comeuppance! I don’t know how I missed this one as I seem to have read all the other early installments. Rereading Sweet Valley High in quarantine has been somewhat surreal; bits of subplots and scenes would come back to me so I almost felt as if I’d traveled back to 1987 and the dank basement bedroom I shared with my sister. But I remember nothing about “Wrong Kind of Girl,” which has a ridiculous ending I could not have forgotten.
The wrong girl in question is beautiful Annie Whitman, who wants more than anything to join the Sweet Valley High cheerleading squad. She’s got the moves and spirit, but she also has a reputation — known for dating a different boy every night, the other kids refer to her as “Easy Annie.” Co-captain Jessica adamantly refuses to have her squad associated with Annie’s loose loins and plots to keep her off the team. Unbeknownst to Jess, Liz is tutoring Annie to help get her grades up so she can qualify. As Liz gets to know Annie, she learns that her troubled pal has no idea that everyone thinks she’s a slut.
We get a bit of subtle perspective on why Annie is this way. We meet Mrs. Whitman, her boozy fashion model mom (who cringingly refers to her daughter as “kitten”) and mom’s sleazy boyfriend Johnny. We learn Annie’s dad was never really around. Then Annie talks about doing some modeling when she was thirteen… there isn’t much explicit sex in Sweet Valley High which means that there isn’t explicit sexual molestation, but between Johnny and the modeling career, you just kinda know. All that coupled with paternal abandonment tells us what Annie’s deal is; one might now refer to it as “daddy issues.”
I have to admit that as an adult reader who’s on the other side of teen turmoil and hormones, there are are moments when Sweet Valley High strikes me as surprisingly sensitive. This book was first published in 1984 and I expected the slut-shaming to be much worse. Annie may be misguided, but she isn’t broken and she never apologizes for who she is. She even tells Liz in her very earnest way that getting into professional modeling so early made it hard for her to befriend girls her age. “I’ve got lots of boyfriends… but a lot of boys are shallow, you know? Sometimes after you break up, they don’t even respect you.” She then explains that improving her grades and making the cheerleading squad is her pathway to popularity and respect.
And here’s the other thing that’s less problematic than I expected — nobody other than Jess cares that Annie’s a slut and they DO love her amazing cheerleading moves. She wows everyone at tryouts and bewitches the not-so-hot but very sweet squad manager Ricky. When Annie guesses that Ricky has a crush on her, she asks Liz questions like, “How do you have a friendship — a relationship — like you have with Todd?” and, “How do you get a shy boy to talk to you?” Honestly, I found this a wholesome trajectory. Again, Annie isn’t bad for dating all these different boys; on the contrary, she seems to have a lot of fun! But she doesn’t have any real friends (just fuck buddies), so she’s lonely. I love that she goes for this nice nerd boy who might actually be good company to her.
But then Jessica starts spinning her web and the story goes completely haywire. Fearing her talented nemesis might win a spot on the squad, Jess starts whipping votes for the competition (honestly, the way she steamrolls Helen Bradley at the ice cream parlor — telling her the team’s reputation rests on her vote — kinda makes me wish progressive politicians had more Jessicas on their side). But when her chosen favorite Sandra Bacon literally falls on her ass during the final round, Helen chooses Annie instead. Furious, Jessica threatens to quit the squad, so they choose Sandra over Annie.
Annie is shocked when she later learns she didn’t make the cut. Knowing she aced the audition, she begs Ricky for an explanation. He clumsily explains, “Jessica brought up the stories that some guys tell about you.” Horrified, Annie runs away, not to be seen or heard from for days until — and here’s where the story gets really dark — Ricky finds her in her apartment, unconscious with an empty pill bottle at her side.
Ricky calls Liz from the hospital and she immediately tells Jessica what’s happened. And this is where the story gets REALLY good. Turning those pages, I could feel my ten year-old self rising up from within. Finally, at long last, I was gonna see that bitch Jessica get what she deserves!!
What happens next is both ridiculous and amazing. The twins drive to the hospital and Jess is wrecked. The guilt is SO strong. First comes the quiet muttering — “Oh please let it not be serious.” Then comes the full-on bawling in the waiting room — “I did this! You know I did. I’m the one who put Annie in there.” DELICIOUS. After Mrs. Whitman makes a dramatic entrance, screaming, “Where’s my baby?” a nurse leads her to Annie’s room. The young girl seems on the verge of consciousness, but never quite comes to. Dr. Hammond comes in and explains, “When people try to take their own lives, they often don’t want to be brought back. When you catch them in time, as in this case, they have another chance. But they have to want that chance, you see.” Clearly this guy went to the daytime soap school of medicine. His final analysis is that Annie has no will to live.
Jessica retreats to the hospital lawn, where she cries and beats her chest. Liz soon catches up, telling her she’s not such a terrible person (though she is). When Liz mentions trying to reignite Annie’s will to live, Jess marches back in the hospital and confesses all of her treachery to Dr. Hammond. He listens to all of this (inexplicably) and then asks her, “Are you willing to have Annie on the cheerleading squad?” I REPEAT, THE DOCTOR ASKS A TEENAGE GIRL IF SHE’S WILLING TO ALLOW HIS COMATOSE PATIENT ON THE CHEERLEADING SQUAD. Jessica agrees wholeheartedly.
And then, for the next several hours, Jessica talks to Annie about how there was a big mistake with the points tabulation and Annie needs to be the eighth member of the squad. She literally spends an entire night telling an unconscious girl that they’re gonna cheerlead together. When Annie finally resurfaces, Jessica’s saying, “And then there’s the Pendleton game! The Pendleton Tigers have a really terrific cheerleading squad, but we’re going to leave them in the dust. Just you watch!” And that’s how Jessica saves Annie’s life — by begging her to be a cheerleader and bagging on the other team. Reader, I laughed myself to tears. This whole premise is so over-the-top, I’d like to think that no present-day Young Adult fiction writer would have the nerve to pen it. And yet, it completely satisfied every desire I ever had to see Jessica Wakefield put in her place. It’s so bad it’s beautiful.
Alas, I’ve run out of books from my friend’s collection. I’m now catching up on some of the later Sweet Valley High books via Kindle Unlimited. I just cannot imagine sheltering at home without these silly stories. If social distancing lasts as long as I expect, I’m afraid I’ll be recording podcast episodes in which I recap my favorites. Tune in to hear me laugh myself to tears.
I feel no satisfaction for correctly predicting my country would be the worst at containing the coronavirus and absorbing its economic shock. When I began to see in early March that the virus was definitely coming to prey upon our chronically ill and elderly, my mind immediately considered the tens of millions of uninsured and underinsured people in the United States. I thought of all the people I’ve met in the past few years who’ve avoided seeking health care because it’s too damned expensive. My stomach turned at the thought of all those undiagnosed and untreated comorbidities that make people more susceptible to death by COVID-19. I considered how our federal government, malnourished by decades of neoliberal policy, had no safety net in place for this disaster. Safety nets are for unlucky people, and we can’t be bothered with taking care of them. In this society if you’re born into poverty, or you get seriously sick, or get laid off from your job, that’s your problem. We expect people in these situations to somehow pull together an income that covers food, childcare, health care, and housing expenses. Now, with a staggering 30 million unemployed, our unlucky population has grown tremendously. As far as oligarchs like Trump are concerned, that just means the losers have become more expensive.
In my young adulthood I wanted so badly to become an expatriate, to abandon my cruel and hateful imperialist homeland and move to a part of the world that took better care of its people. As the child of an airline worker, I had access to cheap tickets. So I knew how to get away but not how to reestablish myself. How does one start a new life in a place where you don’t know anyone? I wished I could be braver, like other expat Americans who’d managed to build a life abroad. (I didn’t understand then that trust funds often play a role in that life of daring adventure.) At the beginning of 2000, I dated a Swedish study abroad student and visited him in Stockholm after he moved back. When I returned home from that trip I told him I wanted to save up money and move across the world to be with him, but then he broke up with me. Alas, that was the closest I got to living under a social democracy.
Not long after that, I gave up on my expat dream and accepted that I was stuck with the USA for the foreseeable future. 9/11 happened. I knew the US would soon be ramping up for war with Iraq. It made no sense, except from a hawk profiteer’s point of view. So of course it would happen, just as sure as it would be a disaster. I felt no satisfaction in being right about that, either. But I longed for a reckoning. I hoped, at the very least, that idiot president W would lose his reelection bid. I thought the Abu Ghraib torture scandal would solidify that. But we all know what happened that general election night in 2004. I pretty much stopped paying attention to politics for the next ten years. That was how I could stand to live in the United States.
In 2014 I stopped giving up once I saw large numbers of young people filling streets to demand justice for black people who’d been murdered by cops. Spurred by their commitment to action, I got involved in reproductive rights work. But I still never thought much about electoral politics before Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run. Then I saw him win states on a platform that highlighted the kind of Nordic social programs I craved in my young adulthood. In 2017, when I saw people of all ages pushing hard for single-payer healthcare, I decided to join a rapidly growing socialist organization demanding Medicare for All. For the first time in my life, I saw an opportunity to actually make the United States better instead of just daydreaming about living somewhere else.
But I’m afraid this pandemic has viciously reignited my primal desire to escape. What a horrible country this is! Ultimately there is no getting away from the US horror show. Imperialism plus global capitalism means our policies taint the entire world. I feel a moral obligation to make us less awful. Now that we’ve tried and failed to put a decent social democrat in the White House, I’m pretty sure that building working class power through solidarity is our best strategy to weaken the oligarchs’ stranglehold on our government and economy. I would like someday to feel very satisfied in that prediction, instead of just being correct about imminent horror.
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.
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.
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.
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 aucourant 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.
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.
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.