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)

On Being a Humble Gear

The other night I asked my husband Dan, who organizes tenants, why he’s drawn to social justice work. He said, “It makes me angry when things are unfair. And I like to watch snakes squirm.”

Then he posed the same question to me and I said this: I’m morally obligated to help create a better world that I know is possible. We have a big pile of work that needs getting done if we wanna win. If everyone chipped in we’d win right away. But some people cannot do the work and some aren’t ready. I’m ready and able, so I take on extra. 

I excel at operational stuff — planning meetings, recruiting for canvasses and phone banks, managing events — which makes me well-suited for electoral work. I have a knack for troubleshooting because my brain automatically preps contingency plans for the many pitfalls I might encounter. I’m also good at talking to strangers, listening to their problems with empathy and respect, and hiding my true feelings when necessary. This is because I’ve worked in customer service most of my life; anyone who tells you that’s unskilled labor has obviously never worked with me. 

I’m a chunky gear in a massive machine, churning for justice. I help keep the operation running by turning lots of little gears. I am not a charismatic leader. I won’t be leading the march with a megaphone, speaking at a press conference, or running for office. You won’t read about me in the news. I spin and turn those little gears quietly.

I don’t like being called an activist. An activist is a person in the limelight. I’m an organizer, which is a very pragmatic and unsexy thing. I’ll be honest, I don’t trust a lot of people who assume “activist” as an identity. Some people come into the movement looking for social media fame or a paid job. Most of them aren’t half as charming or effective as their narcissism leads them to believe.

The movement needs true charismatic leaders like my man Dan — people who make a spectacle of confronting power — because watching the snakes squirm inspires all of us to do more. But we also need lots and lots of gears of various size, turning in tandem, powering us through that big pile of work. Those are the people I tend to recruit, the quiet, deliberate ones.

Vintage Soviet Fabric from the 1920s

The Dream House

I dined in my sister Mary’s backyard a couple weeks ago, and took a tiny peek at the inside of her home on the way to and from the loo. She gave me a high speed tour of all the niceties she and her wife had acquired during quarantine — the colorful kitchen rug, the round coffee table perfectly situated in the center of their cozy living room, a retro-style microwave in powder blue and chrome. For a moment I relished the novelty of a comforting interior space besides the one where I spend 98% of my time.

I miss the houses where I don’t live. They’ve always been very special to me. As a child I spent long summer days playing with a hand-me-down Fisher Price Little People house, which resided next door to the Hello Kitty house I’d gotten for Christmas when I was 7. For my Barbies I’d use old shoeboxes and stacked books to create abodes where they could get dressed up for their dates with Ken. Every autumn when we’d get the JC Penney catalog in the mail, I’d dog ear the page with the Barbie Dream House and spend many winter afternoons staring at that page and daydreaming about how I’d rearrange all the furniture.

Around the time I got too old for dolls, I discovered a more sophisticated outlet for my obsession. It started one winter Sunday evening, when my family attended evening mass at St Alphonsus church. The stale air inside the building always put me to sleep on those dreary nights. When my snoring became embarrassing, Mom nudged me awake and sent me to the family van to finish my nap. Sitting there on the beige vinyl bench seat, I felt fully awake in the cold night. The street lamps shone through the windows and I noticed a paper bag of Home magazines my grandma Blanche had given to my mom. With nothing better to do, I grabbed an issue and flipped through the glossy pages, full of interior design pics and ads for high end furniture and cigarettes. Eventually I landed on the matte paper section in the back that had floor plans for a wide variety of homes — from humble bungalows to vacation A-frames to sprawling Victorian abodes boasting turrets and wraparound porches. I marveled at all those spacious rooms flowing into one another — the foyer leading to the great room, to the dining room, to the kitchen, to the breakfast nook. They were like maps of wonderful places I’d probably never explore. At that moment I fell into a rabbit hole where I rested quite happily for the next several years.

From ages 10 to 15, I obsessed over floor plans. I subscribed to Home Magazine and purchased every one of their catalogs I could find (those were my favorites because there was no journalism, just the blueprints). I found books full of plans at the library and checked out several at a time. Just as I had once obsessively eyeballed the JC Penney catalog, I’d spend hours perusing these plans and imagining how I’d live in those spaces. Eventually I invested in graphing paper and created my own. I drafted home designs for a set of characters I’d also write plays about. The protagonist was a girl named Anna, who had long, curly hair and her own bedroom in a large Victorian house. She was more confident and popular than me, and had two best friends who thought she was just great. 

One of my designs, circa 1990

Being a kid, I didn’t question my obsession or wonder why I was so happy to daydream about these imaginary spaces. In hindsight, I realize it was escapism — from my own humble bungalow with seven tall children and a couple of extremely stressed out parents, from the tension of Irish Catholic patriarchal dominance, from the chilly basement bathroom with the dank corners I did my best to ignore. By the time I was 12 most of the older kids had moved out and there was certainly more space to be had (I even got my own bedroom). But there was always an air of disappointment about our surroundings. This wasn’t the home my parents had wanted. It was the one they’d settled for when my dad got laid off and we moved from Buffalo to Dearborn.

I have vague memories of the Buffalo house, which we vacated when I was four. Since I remember it from a small person’s vantage point, my impression was that it was huge. It had two full floors plus a 1/2 third floor with dormer ceilings. That was the boys’ bedroom. I remember the built-in drawers in that space, and the time I got to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents on a spare black & white tv they’d somehow acquired. I remember the second floor bedroom I shared with Mary, and staring at the wood grain on the underside of the top bunk bed. I remember standing in front of the living room fireplace and listening to Elton John. As I get older these memories become more dream-like. I know that place was real. I have pictures and stories from five older siblings who recall many details. But now nearly forty years since we left, it sometimes feels like my time there never really happened. It may as well be a dream.

Quarantine has a way of making memories feel more distant. Even the memory of a good friend’s home, right here in the town where we both live, feels completely made up at this point. If the inside of a house exists but only the people who live there see it, does it actually exist for me? I think about how it felt so strange standing in Mary’s cheerful bathroom, with the red walls and checkered tile. Suddenly this place where I do my most mundane business felt like reuniting with an old friend.

Last week my brother Dan shared a found treasure with our family Facebook group. Someone (we don’t know who, it wasn’t any of us) made floor plans of that Buffalo house. Out of nowhere, the old rabbit hole burst open before me. I finally had the deep satisfaction of knowing that the space really was what my preschool memory recalled. There was the corner of the bedroom where Mary hummed Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” and told me, “I like that song.” And there was the hallway where I ran into my sister Eileen one early morning and she said, “Wow, it’s roasty toasty out here.” There were the kitchen stools where we’d get ready to eat our morning cereal and groan when Mom busted out the powdered milk. All those little flashes of recollection are based on something real. And at least for a little while, on a Monday afternoon six months into a pandemic that’s made my current home the site of two full-time jobs plus a third grade classroom, I felt anchored to something outside this one house that is my world.

RIP Red Carpet

My pandemic-addled brain was so excited to remember that the Emmy awards were on Sunday night. I love a dumb awards show, but kinda forgot they existed. What would all that pomp and glamour look like in a virtual format during a pandemic?

Overall, I thought the safely distanced Emmys were an improvement on the traditional format. Host Jimmy Kimmel acknowledged at the start that doing this kind of event in such dire circumstances feels silly and superfluous. But as he noted, when were the Emmys anything but? So the Television Academy turned it into a fundraiser to feed impoverished kids, which helps both the stars and the viewers feel less terrible about this indulgence. I appreciated that. I also appreciated the DJ who spun dance hits in place of the stuffy orchestra that plays people offstage when their speeches go too long. But my favorite part was getting to see the celebs’ living rooms via this surreal Zoom meeting of the stars; now we now know that Christina Applegate has a very nice fireplace and Laura Linney is a Chapo Traphouse fan. Those voyeuristic morsels helped make up for the absence of an awards show staple that cannot be replicated in a socially distanced format — the red carpet.

The red carpet arrival is usually the best part of any awards show (especially the Oscars, which I’ve found increasingly boring over the years). We love to see the stars be their most unimaginably beautiful and glamorous selves. When I imagine that grandeur, I always think of the opening scene from Singin’ in the Rain. 

Set in 1927 at the end of the silent film era, the movie opens with throngs of young fans gathered at Grauman’s Chinese Theater for the premier of The Royal Rascal. A procession of Rolls Royces deliver a bevy of starlets, including the mysterious and elegant Olga Mara in a spider-inspired, black sequined gown and Zelda Zanders (portrayed by a bouncy, young Rita Moreno) in a shimmery flapper dress. But they’re just appetizers for the main course. When Royal Rascal stars Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont arrive at last, the fans go absolutely bananas for these gorgeous figures clad in gleaming white. When we see people so perfectly styled, we naturally wish we could be them. How could life be anything short of fabulous when you’re surrounded by flashing cameras and adoring fans?

But of course this is all artifice. That’s what Singin in the Rain is about, how the dawn of talking pictures revealed that some performers — such as shrill, dopey Lina — could not act. But it also breaks down the illusion that glamorous stars must lead rewarding personal lives. Even there on the Royal Rascal red carpet, we get hints of the ugly truth. Gossip columnist Dora Bailey announces the arrival of each star with her very Hollywood commentary. Like when Zelda arrive with her aged sugar daddy, Dora notes he’s the latest in a long line of boyfriends, then adds, “Maybe this is true love at last.” My favorite is her comment on Olga and her aristocrat husband — “They’ve been married for two months already, but still as happy as newlyweds!” After Lockwood and Lamont arrive, Dora presses Don for juicy details on their rumored romance. He insists that he and Lena are just good friends. They look so great together, you want to believe otherwise. We soon soon learn Don hates Lina, though it helps both of their careers for him to pretend otherwise. Yet for those few, fleeting moments when we seem them looking absolutely stunning, we love to believe their personal lives match that beauty. 

If anything, this year’s Emmys made it clear that the stars are not doing great right now. Sure they’re wealthy, but most of them are stuck at home and out of work; it’s a good time to remember that in a Marxist sense they are also workers beholden to the whims of far wealthier bosses. Their garments seemed to reflect the whole gamut of quarantine moods, ranging from formal wear to business casual. It is a Zoom meeting after all, not everyone is going to try that hard. Apparently the Television Academy sent awards-bearing employees in hazmat suits to every nominees’ location, so no one would know until the last moment whether or not they won. When one of them handed a trophy to Regina King (wearing a truly rad Breonna Taylor “Say Her Name” t-shirt under a hot pink blazer), the disoriented actress said, “This is all so weird.” Actor Ramy Youssef tweeted the words “when you lose the emmy” with video of his hazmat suited friend waving bye-bye through a closed door. Every effort to keep the awards show spirit alive while also being safe just reminded us that we are living in surreal and unsettling times.

Will we ever return to the artifice that made the red carpet so dreamy? I just don’t know. Maybe this is quarantine brain speaking, but I can’t help feeling like the red carpet is dead. I just don’t see the entertainment industry coming back from all this tragedy and economic depression with that same unabashed display of excess. Or perhaps this is just a hiatus. In the meantime, we’ll have to find other distractions from an ever-harsher truth that we are living through a pandemic under rising fascism and looming climate collapse. Good thing we have this huge backlog of TV shows and movies to keep us entertained as we do our daily best to survive. And if you haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain, I suggest starting there.

Problematica: Tami Taylor, Leftist Organizer

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.

In July, I was hired as a field organizer for a local progressive electoral campaign. This includes participating in intensive training on the basics of organizing and how to persuade voters who may not be fully aligned with our anti-capitalist agenda. I love this work, way more than any job I’ve ever been paid to do. But striving hard to get better at it during a limited time period has been a mammoth and deeply humbling challenge.

I’m currently on a three day vacation in the Virginia mountains, trying to think about work as little as possible. Right after my last shift I got sucked into a Friday Night Lights marathon, which made me remember my favorite scene from the series: Dillon high school principal Tami Taylor convinces a misbehaving student’s parents to allow him to keep playing football. Coming fresh off a training on persuasion, I’ve decided Tami is one of my organizing role models.

In season 3 episode 7 “Keeping Up Appearances,” Dillon Panthers fullback Jamarcus Hall gets in trouble for accidentally lighting a science lab on fire. Since this isn’t Jamarcus’s first trip to her office, Principal Tami arranges a meeting with his parents. She explains that Jamarcus must improve his behavior or he could get suspended and miss some games. Turns out Mr. and Mrs. Hall had no idea their son played football. Tami later tells Coach Eric Taylor (who is also her husband) that the Halls have decided to pull Jamarcus from the team. Coach loses his temper, saying he wishes she had let him discuss the fire incident with Jamarcus’s parents. Tami insists that it wouldn’t have made a difference if he did, the result would have been the same. 

Coach and Tami later visit the Halls at home. As they walk up to the front door, Coach says, “Just let me do the talking.” Tami counters that she has an established relationship with the parents, but Coach snaps, “I know what I’m doing.” Tami just shrugs and follows him inside.

Mr. Hall doesn’t waste any time explaining his and his wife’s point of view. “We’re just not football people.” He’s an engineer at the local plant who’s moved his family several times, and says they’re “just passing through” Dillon. As Tami silently watches, Coach launches into his philosophical defense — “Football is about community spirit.” Now Mr. Hall snaps at him, saying, “All this time I thought it was just a dumb game that this whole wacked-out town is obsessed with.” 

Just gonna pause my recap here to say, I love this character. For me he might be the most relatable character in the entire series. I also don’t give a damn about football and would find a town like Dillon extremely alienating. I’ve got nothing against isolated, economically blighted, rural communities with few prospects for young people, because that’s just a small town version of the rust belt suburb where I grew up. But if I were expected to fangirl over my high school’s football team, or spend every Friday night at the game because it is the life blood of my community, I would have been miserable. 

But of course Coach can’t relate to that because he loves the game, so he becomes defensive. “I don’t think I’d be devoting my life to some dumb game.” Seeing where this is going, Tami defies their agreement and jumps in to acknowledge Mr. and Mrs. Hall’s viewpoint. “It took me a long time to understand all this fuss about football… But I’ve seen football do great things for kids.” Tami credits Coach for helping his players develop personal responsibility, which also pays off academically. When Mrs. Hall counters that their son has been lying to them for a year, Tami picks up on their need for discipline and assures them that Coach “will make him regret the day he ever did that.” Having made her case, Tami invites the Halls to attend the next game so they can see their son play. They agree, and Coach silently eats shit as he and Tami walk back to the car. Meanwhile she teases him mercilessly. “I think that went well! You’re opening the door for me? Oh, so sweet.”

I realized when I rewatched this scene that Tami employs a persuasive organizing tactic called Affirm-Answer-Redirect. The Halls want to pull their son from the team because they think football is a stupid distraction from his schoolwork. Instead of getting huffy like Coach and arguing that football is actually good, Tami affirms their opinion (she didn’t get the fuss either), answers the concern (it can actually help Jamarcus be a better student), and redirects the course of action (come see him play and then make a decision). Her strategy works because, as she told her husband, she’d already met the Halls. But more importantly, it works because she listens and responds to their concerns instead of coming in with some grand, prefabricated argument.

I’ve always loved and admired Tami as a mom but it only recently occurred to me that her empathy and listening skills would also make her an incredible organizer. They’re the qualities I recognize in the best ones I know. And wouldn’t you know it, most of them tend to be women and nonbinary folks. Effective organizing doesn’t hinge on star power, charisma, or telling people what to think. It’s about listening when people tell you what they want and need, finding common ground, and then encouraging them to become part of the solution. Of course Coach, being a strong-willed man, thought he would be the one to persuade the Halls. But naturally it was Tami — equipped with the skills of a former guidance counselor — who moved them to change their mind.

I also love that Tami values her own gifts. As she later explains to a nerdy student who is second-guessing the bright future she predicts for him, she says, “I am right 100% of the time. You can ask my husband.” 

Problematica: He Was a Wonderful Father

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.

A few weeks ago my husband and I listened to this “Democracy Now” interview with Mary Trump (Donald’s niece), who recently published a tell-all book about their deeply dysfunctional family. In the book, Mary talks a lot about her grandfather Fred Trump, drawing parallels between his cruel, misogynistic behavior and that of our president. 

Of course Donald Trump doesn’t appreciate his niece’s new book, as expressed in this clip:

“But look, let me just tell you, my father was — I think he was the most solid person I’ve ever met. And he was a very good person. He was a very, very good person. He was strong, but he was good. For her to say the kind of things — a psychopath? That he was a psychopath? Anybody that knew Fred Trump would call him a psychopath? And you know what? If he was, I would tell you. And I would say, “You know, Chris, I was with my father, and it was imposs”— my father was — he was tough. He was tough on me. He was tough on all of the kids. But tough in a — in a solid sense, in a really good sense. For her to say — I think the word she used was ‘psychopath.’ What a disgrace! She ought to be ashamed of herself. That book is a lie.”

As soon as I heard those words, I turned to my husband and slurred in my best drunk Irish Catholic lady voice, “He was a wonderful father.”

If you’ve watched and rewatched 30 Rock as often as we have, perhaps you may know this is a reference to season 1, episode 17 “The Fighting Irish.” In this episode, NBC network exec Jack Donaghy learns from his estranged brother Eddie that their deadbeat father Jim has died. In the spirit of family and forgiveness, Jack lets go of his resentment toward his brother and father, and even arranges a wake with their siblings. The scene in which the Donaghy children gather in Jack’s office to reminisce and guzzle Jameson shots is one of my favorite from the whole series. 

The scene begins with Jack introducing employee Kenneth to his brother Patrick and sisters Patricia, Katherine Catherine, and Margaret. Most of them are drunk and laughing a little too hard as they swap stories about their deceased dad. Katherine Catherine proposes a toast. Jack remarks with slight tension, “We’ve been toasting pop for over an hour now,” but she continues pouring shots anyway.

That’s when Patricia chimes in with this weepy observation — “He was a wonderful father. Always ready with rum balls in his pockets for the the kids.” She’s on the verge of tears, but you sense she’s just moments a from a seething outburst. Sure enough, when Katherine Catherine toasts their dad as “the sorriest bastard there ever was,” Patricia screams at her for talking trash about her “daddy.”

“He was a wonderful father” quickly become a personal meme for my husband and me. Whenever someone is in denial about their parent being garbage, I channel that moment. It’s the overcompensation that kills me. It isn’t enough to simply pretend that patriarchs like Jim Donaghy or Fred Trump didn’t physically or emotionally abandon their kids. These broken adult children have to tell themselves that their bad dads were “wonderful” or “the most solid.” But something about layering that denial with alcohol-fueled rage just gives it an extra punch (one that resonates for me personally, given my Irish Catholic upbringing). The way Patricia shifts from sentimental sobbing to rage — thanks to Siobhan Fallon’s pitch-perfect portrayal — really captures the soppy drunk’s version of this cognitive dissonance. 

I remember an old therapist telling me that his job was tossing grenades at dysfunctional families, blowing up the whole order, so at least his client could get free. When I look at a fictional family like the Donaghys or a real life family like the Trumps, I perfectly understand the motivation behind that grenade toss. What if somewhere along the way we saw a whole generation of children stop pretending their terrible dads were anything but? What if, instead of creating more Patricias and Donalds and Don Jr.s, we broke the cycle of lying to oneself? Just admit your miserable dad really was the sorriest bastard there ever was and maybe you won’t be such a disaster yourself.

Problematica: Pee Wee vs. the Yoga Karens

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.

The Introverted Comrade’s Guide to the Wackiest Election Ever!

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.

The One Big Reason Why Everything is Terrible

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.

This would be my dream job.

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.

Take This Pandemic and Shove It

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.

Believe it or not, we sold a lot of this stuff before the economy went down the drain.

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.