For Lent I Gave Up the Discourse

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

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

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

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

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

My favorite Rush Limbaugh tweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Bloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tree on Irving Street

Problematica: Beardos Are Just Alright With Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just wanna live inside this rehearsal scene forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychedelic Dwayne

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Kind to the Normies, Comrades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Green World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Friends Like These

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Roald Dahl’s “The Twits”

Plaudits for the Planless

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

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

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

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

The Fool card from the Morgan-Greer Tarot

My Only Resolution is to Survive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s Baby 1921 by JC Leyendecker

Walk Out to Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boulevard in the Evening” Isaac Levitan, 1883

And Yet I Remain Hopeful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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