It’s Democracy, English!

The line to get into the Senate gallery wrapped three times around the Capitol rotunda.

The line to get into the Senate gallery wrapped three times around the Capitol rotunda.

This is a follow-up to my previous post, “I’m Naive, Not Stupid. There’s a Difference.”

I am still reeling a little from the number of readers who contacted me about that piece, which I wrote the morning after sitting through the Texas House of Representatives hearing on the now-infamous Senate Bill 5. My blog typically generates about 8 page-views a day. That single post has generated about 70,000 page-views since Monday. (By the way, if you haven’t already, please read Dan Solomon’s 3-part series in the Austin Chronicle for the most substantive and informed coverage of the week.)

Now, having watched the history-making Senate filibuster alongside 2,000 protestors inside the Capitol and at least 170,000 around the globe, I feel almost embarrassed about how naive that post, in fact, was.

My shock and anger over GOP representatives’ churlish behavior on the House floor prompted me to write that post. I truly could not believe my eyes. Some have pointed out, rightly, that this is standard for the legislative sausage-making process, the endless train of amendments only part of the grand political theater that would culminate Tuesday night in thousands of demonstrators shaking their fists and screaming “Let her speak!” as Sen. Wendy Davis stood calmly in her back brace and pink sneaks for the thirteenth hour in a row. As such, Republican House members could not be expected to listen or care about the “chubbing,” as it is called when proceedings are artificially prolonged in the House.

Was it just “chubbing”? Although House Democrats were undeniably running down the clock, I still say no. Every single amendment introduced a reasonable exception to an unreasonable bill, and was backed up by evidence of the catastrophic “unintended consequences” of the unamended bill. The only disingenuous aspect of their testimony was the word “unintended,” which everyone knew was a lie.

* * * * *

Regardless, I am here to tell you that if the Texas State House of Representatives is a frat-house, the Texas State Senate is a shark pit. Having watched it from the gallery for eight hours and the auditorium for seven, I can tell you, new depths of my naivete have been plumbed. Every time a point of order was called over some new imaginary violation of the filibuster rules, I was flabbergasted anew. The back brace! The ruling that Roe v. Wade was not “germane” to a bill about abortion! The ruling that discussing the state’s already-rigid restrictions on abortion was not “germane” to a bill introducing further such restrictions!

(And I would like to point out, in case anyone watching missed it, that Sen. Kirk Watson was reprimanded on the “germane” issue for discussing a woman’s right to choose just moments after pro-life Democrat Sen. Eddie Lucio had given the Senate an earful of his own personal beliefs on the matter. In fact, the only legitimately germane questions I heard all night from a Republican came from Sen. Bob Deuell. Note that I didn’t say “evidence-based.” I said “germane.”)

Every time the mics went dead as Lt. Gov. Dewhurst consulted with the parliamentarian and other senators, I thought, “There is no way that objection is going to be sustained. There is just no way the Texas GOP would risk shutting down a high-profile filibuster on a technicality—not when they’re just planning to pull a second special session anyway if the bill is blocked.”

Once again, I was naive enough to believe that the reasoned and impassioned words of Sen. Rodney Ellis, Sen. Kirk Watson, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, and most of all, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, whose absence due to her father’s death the GOP tried to exploit for political gain—I was naive enough to believe that their brandishing of the rule book would shame even Republican senators into voting with the interest of “the body.”

But then again, why would they vote to protect “the body” of the Texas Senate when they wouldn’t vote to protect the bodies of Texas women? Or the body of the fiercely intelligent and candid and brave woman who stood before them in her pink tennis shoes, who forewent food and drink and bathroom breaks to withstand a punishing filibuster during which every word out of her mouth made perfect, crystal-clear sense.

Ladies and gentlemen of the world, Sen. Wendy Davis makes more sense after standing alone on her own two feet talking about abortion for 12 hours than House Rep. Jodie Laubenberg does when she’s propped up at the podium for five minutes answering questions about her own bill. Both women refused to answer questions after a while. The difference is, Sen. Davis wanted to be heard, while Rep. Laubenberg wanted to be silent. Only one of them got their wish.

When the words “sustained” rang out each time, a collective gasp of shock rang through the spectators even before the boos and angry yells. Honestly, even cynical (read: knowledgeable) watchers of the proceedings did not believe those calls would be made, that when Sen. Ellis called out a list of examples of assistance being given to filibustering senators in the past without garnering warnings, that when Sen. Zaffirini read the rules out loud (getting in a delicious dig about the applicability of the word “his”), these direct allusions to the law would make a difference.


But there was one more big surprise waiting for us all at the end of the night. After Sen. Davis had been interrupted so many times that it became clear a full-on battle was being pitched against the filibuster, the atmosphere among orange-shirted protestors in the Capitol were tense. It had by that time become a relief to me that there was no chance I would get back into the gallery, because at least the spectators in the auditorium were free to cheer and boo and chant as loudly as we wanted to, while those in the gallery could only lean forward in their seats, white-knuckled and close-mouthed.

When Sen. Kirk Watson, whom I’m proud to call my senator, began raising parliamentary procedure questions, essentially filibustering in Sen. Davis’s stead for the last hour with the help of the other Dems, the thing started to turn into a bit of a spectator sport. But it wasn’t until that final half hour, when GOP senators turned their attack on Watson, that it really hit the fan. I have no idea what happened in that last half hour. Try as I might to keep up with who was contesting what motion and what was being put to a vote, I simply could not follow the recursive logic of the proceedings, except to note that Sen. Ellis (I think?) kept asking for the transcript to be read to determine what order some things happened in.

I have to say, though, the room around me was on top of it. I know they were, because every time Sen. Duncan (who got called in to replace Lt. Gov. Dewhurst as the President at Sen. Watson’s request) claimed a particular motion had been tabled, the noise around the room was genuine astonishment. Not rage (though that was bubbling under the surface), but astonishment and confusion. “That’s not right!” the spectators in the auditorium yelled pointlessly at the screen, and “Check the transcript! You’re wrong!” The minutes ticked on.

In the last twenty minutes before midnight, as we in orange began to congratulate ourselves, tentatively, for having outlasted them, Sen. Duncan again and again tried to steamroll past the legitimate questions raised about what was quickly becoming a parliamentary nightmare. Sen. Van de Putte called out to be recognized and was ignored during a roll call for a vote on a motion to who-the-hell-knows-what, and a few minutes later, after the vote was counted, she delivered one of the final crushing blows to SB5 by stating in a calm, quiet, voice. “Mr. President, parliamentary inquiry. At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”

This time, when the gallery erupted, it never died down. Sen. Duncan reached for his gavel, picked it up, looked up at the gallery, and then put it down. Women in the gallery and the Capitol, women all over Texas, were sick at this point of not being heard: not being listened to during the public hearing, being ignored in the House hearing, not being permitted to filibuster in the Senate, not being recognized by the President, and, most of all, not being heard when we yell at the top of our lungs that we want the right guaranteed to us by the 1973 Supreme Court decision that, germane or not, gave us the right to a legal abortion. Duncan banged his gavel and said the precise wrong thing at the right time, “If this continues we will have to suspend the vote,” at which point the yellers in the gallery went berserk for a solid 5 minutes. In the auditorium, someone started a call-and-response chant, “Whose House? OUR HOUSE!” And for a minute, it really felt like it was.

And then, a few minutes after midnight came the astounding announcement that the bill had passed.

What followed—the tampering with date-stamps on the Texas lege website to “prove” the vote happened before midnight, the AP reporting the bill passed, since no major national news outlets had covered it were there to contradict it, the violence by some of the DPS officers in the gallery, who put one young activist’s arm in a sling (and having seen the video, I can tell you she wasn’t resisting, in truth she was bawling her eyes out after being awake for nearly three days straight)—I found, once again, that I had been appallingly naive. Again, I am saying, I hope I never lose the ability to be astonished by lawmakers in Texas who ruthlessly abuse their power. Because the more blatant the abuse, the more I want to stand up and never sit down, to talk and never go silent.

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and daughter of Ann Richards, Texas's second female governor

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and daughter of Ann Richards, Texas’s second female governor, rallies the troops Monday night at The Rattle Inn

* * * * *

I think the reason so many people identified with my previous post is that we’re afraid. We’re afraid of being “policitized,” afraid of the time it will take away from our already busy lives, afraid of having to learn that we understand even less about the process than we think we do. We’re afraid of boring our friends and of making new enemies, people we have not wronged but who seek us out to wrong us. We are afraid of being called that most hateful of words, “babykiller”—when our beloved President, on whom we pinned so many hopes, has allowed drones to kill babies and children in countries we’d prefer not to think about.

But most of all, and I’m speaking for myself here, we are afraid to care. We are afraid to get invested because we are going to lose again and again, many losses for every hard-won victory, and it’s going to hurt so much. After the House voted to approve SB5 at 3:30 a.m. Monday morning, I found myself crying and saying, “those bastards” over and over again as the legislators on the floor looked up for the first time and grinned at us up in the gallery. Tuesday I cried tears of joy at midnight, followed by tears of rage, and by the time I learned we had “won,” I could only think about when Gov. Perry would call the inevitable second special session to show us that our voices still don’t matter. No matter how loud we scream for our rights, he will always have the upper hand, and because of the relentless gerrymandering in our state he or someone like him probably always will. It hurts so much when something you love hurts you, and I love Texas, guys, I really, really do.

The only other time I have been involved in organized protests, it was in graduate school. I briefly became active in the Graduate Students United movement at the University of Chicago, where we hoped that we could improve stipend support, working pay, and living conditions for students who often became stuck in their graduate programs for a decade, indentured servants unable to finish because they had to support themselves on extremely low pay. Those meetings were long and often grueling, filled with the quibbling and in-fighting over fine procedure and large ideology that so often divides movements from within. I would drag myself home at 2:00 a.m., sometimes without even getting to vote on the main point of the meeting, because I had to get up and write a paper the next day.

I was, at the time, one of perhaps two humanities students at the meetings and the only one from the English department; the majority were from the social sciences. I remember one guy, a very young Marxist in an olive drab hat, who knew my name but called me “English” instead, which made me feel like I was simultaneously on a barracks and in a Cary Grant movie. Whenever he noticed me sighing in frustration at yet another point of order, or yawning and rubbing my dark-circled eyes, he would lean over, tap my shoulder, and say, with a smile and a clenched fist, “It’s democracy, English!”

It was, and is. The fight in a democracy is not always as exciting as it was Tuesday night. It involves canvassing on foot and registering people to vote and following local government initiatives that most media will never begin to care about. But because of all those groggy, boring meetings, GSU succeeded in doubling the pay of graduate student TAs whose wages had been stagnant for 18 years. And I have no doubt that all the sitting and waiting and standing and yelling and walking and slogging and quibbling and chanting I am prepared to do with my newly politicized peers alongside those who have been there the whole time will eventually turn Texas into the state it was always meant to be.

Pro-choice protestors in the Texas State Capitol rotunda sing “The Eyes of Texas” after the defeat of Senate Bill 5 is announced in early Wednesday morning.

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I’m Naive, Not Stupid. There’s a Difference.

Gathering in the rotunda. Drop in the bucket of orange pro-choice supporters.

Gathering in the rotunda. Drop in the bucket of orange pro-choice supporters.

This morning I woke up after a surreal night with a lot on my mind. One phrase in particular was ringing in my ears: “Don’t be naive, Amy.”

Back when I quit writing for CultureMap Austin over a nasty, misogynist editorial masquerading as a news story by the Dallas staff, the business manager (then–he’s since been fired) called me up on the phone to “discuss” my decision.

What he really wanted was to cajole or shame me into reversing my position–if not publicly, at least in a private phone call. He talked in circles, but having survived grad school, I am not easily confused even by smart people talking in circles, much less idiots. While some of the details of the call have become fuzzy in my mind, one stands out. After he had failed to make his arguments look logical for half an hour, he went ahead and said what bullies always say in situations like this:

“Don’t be naive, Amy. We both know how this works. This is going to be news for about ten minutes, and then it’s going to blow over, and we’ll be fine. Why would we apologize?”

Why, indeed.

* * * * *

Yesterday, I went to the Capitol wearing a faded orange UT shirt to stand in an orange block of women’s rights advocates protesting the omnibus anti-choice legislation being forced through using Rick Perry’s weapon of choice, a special session, which allows Republicans to circumvent ordinary procedural rules.

I have never done anything like that before. I was in Chicago last week when my husband signed up along with 700 other citizens who had assembled, amazingly, in under 24 hours to testify against the bill in a public hearing. He was silenced in the early hours of the morning along with 300 other citizens when proceedings were shut down and testimony was arbitrarily cut off. I followed it all on the internet from O’Hare and promised myself that if it was still going on when I got back, I would surmount my embarrassment about my political ignorance and go there too.

I went to the Capitol because reading about Thursday night’s proceedings  made me wish I had the chance to show the world that Texans care about the rights of women.

In case you don’t know what the legislation would do, find some background here andhere, or just Google SB5. The information’s out there. The most important thing is that it will introduce burdensome restrictions that will shut down abortion providers statewide, leaving only 5 in the entire state of Texas.

Have you seen the state of Texas recently? It’s the size of France. 26 million people live here. About 13 million of them are women.

About 9.75 million of those women live in the “urban triangle” in close-ish (close is a relative term in a state this big) proximity to Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio. Those 9.75 million women would have their pick of 5 abortion providers, assuming they were willing and able to drive up to 6 hours to get one.And, you know, if there’s not a line.

The other 3.25 million women in Texas live in rural areas, in the Rio Grande Valley, in the Panhandle, in the long stretch of rocky desert that is West Texas. Many of these women suffer under conditions of poverty and marginalization that most Americans don’t believe still exist in their country. Pleading for exceptions, a rep from the Valley  testified that many of her constituents don’t have running water or indoor plumbing. These Texans are uninsured, and because of the dismantling of the Texas Women’s Health Program, they have no access to breast cancer screenings, cervical cancer screenings, STD screenings and prevention, and, of course, birth control. We also, as a state, withhold sex education from these women and girls.

(And always remember, when we talk about women getting health care, we are also talking about girls, children as young as 12, who cannot give their consent but somehow get pregnant anyway due to their extreme vulnerability to sexual abuse and assault, especially in impoverished and underserved communities.)

As a representative from a rural district pointed out last night, to ask these women to somehow pick up and drive 400 miles to a San Antonio clinic within the time frame and restrictions already dictated by Texas law (don’t forget that ultrasound, ladies!) is absurd, stunning, and laughable. (Is cryable a word?)

The irony of all this, the disgusting, horrific irony, is that the Republicans pushing this legislation have the unbridled gall to suggest that they are doing it “to protect women.” They are doing it under the auspices of increasing safety standards. They say that currently abortion providers have medical standards no better than “butcher shops.”

Do they understand what an actual “butcher shop” is? Because they will. Back-alley butcher shops will pop up like mushrooms if these bills go through. And we will learn a bloody lesson about what it means to vote “pro-life.” We will learn it on women’s bodies.

* * * * *

Now here’s the part where Amy, naive Amy, gets politicized. Are you ready? Because I went down to the Capitol with butterflies in my stomach, not just because of my ignorance of the political process, but because of my untested views on abortion, views I have never had to examine, explain, or defend at length, to myself or others.

I know that abortion is a moral, religious, ethical, and philosophical issue for many people. You don’t have to be a religious zealot to see that there are serious questions to be posed, especially in later-term pregnancy. As a doctor friend of mine told me, at 20 weeks, a fetus is approaching viability. There is a case to be made for restrictions after 20 weeks (though not, I want to emphasize, a ban). [There are already intense restrictions on these abortions in the state of Texas, and women who must make this difficult decision for medical reasons face enormous stigma. Please see the comments section for some of those women’s stories. -Oed]

I will say it again: There is room for a real, legitimate debate about the specific terms and restrictions surrounding abortion.

So why should you still be out there screaming, “My body, my life, my right to decide,” with the orange-shirted women and men at the Capitol? If you have conflicting feelings, if you take the ethical concerns surrounding abortion at face value, why should you stand up and shake your fist and yell at the top of your lungs for “choice”?

Because the debate will never happen. Because it’s all a big fucking sham.

Don’t be naive, Amy, I can hear you saying. You didn’t know it was a sham? You thought Texas Republicans were actually invested in women’s health when they introduced this bill, in making medical procedures safer for women?

I wasn’t that naive. But I did think that state reps maybe, just maybe, had ethical and moral objections to abortion.

I no longer believe this is the case.

If they did, they would have debated the issue.

If they did, they would have answered questions about their own bill.

If they did, they wouldn’t have been playing Candy Crush on their cell phones, talking loudly to one another, milling around the floor, snoozing in their chairs, and cutting up like a pack of fourth-grade boys in gym class.

They wouldn’t have been showing each other stuff on their laptops and slapping each other on the back during nonpartisan testimony from the Texas Medical Association that as written, the legislation would introduce a new medical threat to all pregnant women because of a chilling effect on doctors—not abortion providers, mind you, we’re talking about ob/gyns—preventing them from making medical decisions to save the life of mother and child.

They wouldn’t have been smiling and bursting into unrelated laughter as a Democratic rep testified about the difficulty he and his wife had of conceiving their first child, speaking movingly of how serious and complicated an issue abortion was for him.

They wouldn’t have been facing the opposite direction or talking loudly on their cell phones when Rep. Dukes told the story of a woman she met who went through a botched, back-alley abortion before Roe V. Wade.

If Republican Pat Fallon, for instance, gave a shit about the life of the fetus, he wouldn’t have spent the entire eight hours of debate sneaking potato chips from a manila envelope, doing bizarre little dances from his chair, and brandishing a yardstick like a play sword to poke his buddies in the butt as they walked by. But Rep. Pat Fallon wasn’t actually fighting for the life of anything but his own political career. And all he had to do to accomplish that goal was to ignore every logical argument,  compassionate plea, and harrowing anecdote delivered that night, just plug his fat little ears and pretend he was back in the frat house. Mission accomplished.

House Republicans visibly not giving a shit. Couldn't catch the yardstick in action, sadly. It was hilarious though.

House Republicans visibly not giving a shit. Couldn’t catch the yardstick in action, sadly. It was hilarious though.

The blue-shirted true believers up in the gallery cared. They (or, more probably, others like them from out of town) elected him to fight for their pro-life agenda, and as far as they are concerned, he is doing his job, more or less. But do not for one second think it’s because he cares about the pro-life agenda. I watched him like a hawk last night, and while he provided plenty of much-needed amusement in the small hours of the morning, I guarantee you ladies and gentlemen, he did not care.

Rep. Farrar (Democrat from Houston) cared. She lost her voice after 19 hours of logical, compassionate, well-spoken argumentation that she knew was futile. Never once did Dems fall into meaningless chatter, not even after the bill’s supposed author (read: figurehead), Rep. Laubenberg, refused to answer further questions about her own bill. (I would think it was a strategic move, given her ridiculous gaffes–including demonstrating she literally has no idea what a rape kit is–but honestly she was probably just tired of pretending to care.) Rep. Dawnna Dukes (from the EAST SIDE baby! And classy as they come!) cared. She made reasonable, detailed, informed arguments, and delivered her last piece of well-crafted rhetoric at 3 in the morning in a crystal-clear voice. There were more. Believe me, I will figure out who is fighting for me, and I will thank them, individually, in emails when this is all over.

The amazing Rep. Sylvester Turner from Houston said it best in his rousing speech at the end of the night. I can’t find the exact quote on the internet, but the gist of it was this: If abortion is such a goddam serious issue, why wasn’t this legislation introduced earlier? Why was it introduced in a special session designed to push past all procedural rules and force the issue in a matter of days, with no chance for reasoned debate on both sides?

“What you vote for in the dark of night, you will be accountable for in the light of day!” he thundered, and the gallery, disobeying the House rules for the first time in 14 hours, burst into shouts and applause. Rep. Turner gestured toward us and demanded to know, if this was such an important issue, why  we had been silenced during the public hearing? Why wouldn’t Republicans defend their bill, or even answer questions about it, or consider any amendments?

The only answer of sorts came from the gallery, in the form of applause, and it was of course immediately suppressed with threats to remove us. The reps on the floor? They did not feel the need to look up from their Blackberries and iPhones, their potato chips and their yardsticks, their private conversations about the game or whatever else was on their minds.

Meanwhile, we who cared enough to sit there silently, powerlessly, for 14 hours were not even allowed to wiggle our fingers in the “silent clap” of solidarity. We who lined the gallery on all four sides, we who cared enough to be up in the middle of the night, were kept to the strictest rules of decorum, while overgrown frat boys threw figurative spitballs at one another on the floor during this serious debate.

It was a fucking sham.

Daylight left, these people hung around. And a whole whole bunch more.

Shhhh, no clapping from up there! This is just a tiny fraction of the folks who stayed into the night.

* * * * *

So by now you must be asking yourself: Is Amy still naive? Unbelievably, the answer is yes.

Despite the amazing cynicism I saw down on the floor last night, I am still naive enough to believe that my visible and vocal support of women’s rights will make a difference. And so are the hundreds of other orange-shirted Texans—more than a thousand all told, both women and the men who support us because they understand that we are all people, goddammit it. We are incredibly naive. We are naive enough to believe that our presence mattered, that it filled the House Dems with spirit and pride and motivation to do the most thankless work imaginable on the House floor: taking an issue seriously that Republicans in our state honestly could give a flying fuck about, so long as they get reelected.

We who are the under-dogs can afford to be naive, because we’ve got nothing but our bodies to lose.

*Read my follow-up account of Tuesday’s filibuster here.

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Meet the Monster

This is a piece I wrote a while back, when I was still counting what migraine I was on. Since I had another one yesterday, I figure it’s time to get it out of my posting queue. It’s about how I see my headache, when I’m tripping on migraine meds, as a sentient being: The Emperor.

Yes, like in the Tarot. Order, control, patriarchy, left-brainedness. I get the Emperor all the time in Tarot readings. One time when I was having this amazing massage in Sedona, Arizona, I imagined that the emperor lived in my right shoulder and arm, which does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of workload. He was very, very cranky, because he never really gets a break. He is the demon of overwork that I internalized somehow over my lifetime. And he is constantly pissed.

That’s enough woo-woo stuff for one post, though. Let’s just say that I get a migraine when I’m working too hard, and that it trips all kinds of stories in my head about why I work too hard, and leave it at that.


The Emperor

The shell of pain is gone, but the headache is still there. I can feel it as I’m writing, even after the Excedrin has lifted the pain away in layers and dissipated it into the atmosphere like a reverse snowfall, blankets of blinding white rising into the air and atomizing.

The headache is still there, waiting.

* * * * *

Excedrin only lifts the headache a few feet away. If you take Sumaptriptan fast enough, right when you feel the first tingling sensations, it sends the headache halfway around the world. But even banished to a distant country, it’s still hard to imagine it going away for good.

One thinks instead of the headache sitting in exile like a deposed king, plotting its return. Or maybe it simply visits another of its victims. Maybe all migraines have a roster of clients all over the world, so that somewhere in Thailand an unlucky young woman is having my headache from a month ago, its tingling and its numbness, its nausea and its eye-pounding pain.

Maybe the reason I got the headache in the first place has nothing to do with rage—maybe that girl in Thailand just took some Sumatriptan, and the migraine decided the vacation was over and winged its way back home to me. Maybe I’m becoming its favorite.

This all feels ridiculous when you’re not actively having a migraine, as I am right now. These are flights of fancy that the migraine itself encourages. Like some malevolent fairy that gains strength from the superstitions of its victims, it wants you to believe in it.

* * * * *

I could tell Leocadio Valentin, the attractive doctor with a romance-novel name who treated me at the walk-in clinic, got migraines too. I could tell by the speedy, unconcerned nod with which he acknowledged my every symptom, no matter how strange: the tingling scalp, the cotton mouth, the smell.

Even good doctors have a way of listening to symptoms with an air of agnosticism, if not downright suspicion—the more carefully you describe your symptoms, the more likely you are to be a hypochondriac with an itchy Google finger. But nothing I said either surprised or confused Leocadio Valentin. “That’s not unusual. A lot of people report cotton mouth. Which side? Oh yes, yes, that too is common for some people.”

The final evidence came when I said in despair, It’s been almost a week. Maybe I have a sinus infection. Maybe I need some antibiotics, just in case. What doctor at a walk-in clinic has ever resisted the urge to prescribe a routine antibiotic? But Leocadio Valentin looked at me, shook his head, and said, “It sounds to me like you’re still fighting the same headache.” Then he wrote me a scrip for Sumatriptan.

* * * *  *

I had been taking Tylenol almost daily for years when I had my first experience with a headache that sent me reeling into the bathroom to vomit. I took Excedrin, went to bed, and was fine the next day.

I now know the headache was only gone for a little while. It was biding its time.

Anger invited it back. I was angry all the time then, because I had finished my PhD in English but wanted to write instead, and it seemed like my life had been a huge waste of time. I was reading The Artist’s Way, that hippie self-help book for the terminally in-between, with a group of close female friends. It brought my emotions close to the skin.

At the Artist’s Way meeting, just after saying something rather emotional about my dissertation, there was an audible click that seemed to come from inside my head. “What was that?” I asked, irrelevantly. And then: “Does anyone else smell river water?”

I knew they couldn’t, because I could only smell it in my right nostril. I had been tubing down the river a couple of days earlier, and my first thought was that some of that fetid, vegetal-smelling water had gotten trapped in my sinus cavity, and then suddenly released, flooding my nostrils with a scent that was at once fleshy and metallic.

An hour later the headache started. It was as if one half of a lead bicycle helmet had been loosely but permanently attached to the right side of my scalp. I lay down, which seemed to make it worse. So I sat up, and it got worse again. It got worse.

* * * * *

I can write in my notebook right now, though I’ll have to stop soon. Last migraine, I was unable to read, write, watch television, or listen to the radio.

Bored, I called a close friend who got her first migraine at the age of 14. My Blackberry hurt my face, so I held it a few inches away.

“Do you ever get weird smells?” I asked.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m smelling the inside of my nose.”

“Yes, that’s it! It’s the inside of my right nostril!” I said. Migraine is a deeply personalized experience. There’s something excruciatingly lonely about not knowing what to call your own symptoms.

“I can’t read or write or watch TV or listen to the radio,” I said in despair. “What do you do?”

“Sleep,” she said.

“The Excedrin is keeping me awake.”

There was a pause. “Sometimes I look at shadows on the wall,” she offered.

That seemed a little Charlotte Perkins Gilmore to me, so I asked for another suggestion.

“Can you look at pictures? Sometimes pictures are okay.”

“I’ll try,” I said, and hung up.

I ventured out of the bedroom. There were a couple of issues of Bust and an artsy Taschen catalog lying around in addition to the usual stacks of New Yorkers—useless, since every block of uninterrupted text made me feel slightly sick. Pictures didn’t hurt, so I flipped furiously through the magazines, ripping irregular trapezoids and pentagons out of the brightly-colored pages. I used the last of a bottle of Elmer’s to press the shapes onto a scrap of white poster board I found in the closet.

I made a collage.

It looks like a tarot reading as created by a schizophrenic. It is dominated on one side (recent past) by a large, cross-sectional image of a man’s face in three-quarter profile, reproduced from a vintage medical textbook. The left side of the man’s face looks as if it has been sawed open, so that you can see the layers of his head from his eye socket down to his jaw, all the tendons and muscles stretched tight across them like rubber bands. Yellow nerves and red veins creep over the eyeball, and the fatty tissue that cushions the eye in its socket resembles a deep, sallow under-eye circle, giving the man a weary, cruel look. The layers of skin peeled back in cross-section look unsettlingly like the earth’s crust, or the rubber insulation on a copper wire, or anything else that conceals some active, intangible force at its core.

Is the man really clenching his jaw, or is that just what all teeth look like under the skin? The question is, why is he so angry? The answer is also: Why is he so angry?

“This is him,” I say when I show it to people. “This is my migraine.”


Also, he vomits books.

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My article about hybridized genres at the LA Review of Books!

My article about hybridized genres at the LA Review of Books!

America, with its relative lack of codified, non-race-based class distinctions, has always been a good place for working out questions of literary status. Novels in particular have been the repository for these struggles since the 1890s, as Mark McGurl tracks in The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James. But literary distinction has been especially important to writers of speculative fiction since — well, since the word “speculative fiction” was used by Judith Merril in the 1960s to gently disentangle the more aspirational science fiction from the robot-and-spaceship kind.

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Those Are Jumpsuits, Dummy

While intoxicated earlier this evening, I sketched this New Yorker cartoon on my husband’s iPad:

"Personally, I think the DIY movement is bad for women."

“Personally, I think the DIY movement is bad for women.”

I feel that in addition to expressing something I sometimes halfway agree with, it really captures the essence of a New Yorker cartoon. It’s oblique, yet corny. It alludes to a topic that’s been trendy for five or six years, while poking gentle fun at the liberal politics you love to feel sheepish about espousing, without actually critiquing them. And of course, it features a classic “one guy tells another guy somethin’, and the other guy is like, HUH??” set-up. My husband’s comment: “Just annoying enough!”

My one concern is that in an actual New Yorker cartoon, they would probably eschew the unlikely label “MAIL ORDER SHIVS” and just draw a postal worker delivering a package with the more realistic label “SHIVS” to a woman who is more clearly in jail. Alas, three figures were simply beyond my skills at the moment, especially since one would have to have stripy shorts and a cross-body bag and a complicated hat. Still, I deserve a million dollars for this.

After I drew this we watched Argo, which is all about how Ben Affleck feels every day. Seriously, watch it again and imagine that Ben Affleck is basically using the movie to express how he feels about being himself, every second. Movies save America, you guys! He tried to tell you but you wouldn’t trust him! And then Canada got all the credit!!

"If I can write/direct/act my way out of this, I will have saved America."

“If I can act/direct my way out of this one, I will have saved America.”

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Teaching Tigers

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is the one book that all high-schoolers universally adore. We give it to them to read at home on their own, while in class we cover the core curriculum via decontextualized slices of Don Quixote and the Odyssey, nuggets of Confucius and Dante.

I was not pleased at having to re-read the book, and found myself equally entertained and irritated by it. But I will admit to being more intrigued by its ideas than I was the first time around. Pi, the main character and predictably unreliable narrator, has two obsessions–zoology and theology. Throughout the novel, the narrator struggles to separate human aspirations from animal behavior, but they remain frustratingly entwined, all but inextricable. Humans are animals, the book says over and over, but are we just animals? Or does the power of storytelling elevate us beyond the reach of our animal bodies? Is storytelling just a complicated lie to cover our savage nature, or are we in fact capable of sublimity?

These questions are very compelling when you’re facing a classroom full of students who are half-human, half-monster.

I don’t mean that pejoratively. It’s what makes them so interesting. Like minotaurs and mermaids, they have certain human traits, but they frequently behave like beasts, easily distracted by sex and the weather and all the familial drama that is constantly fogging up their home lives. (It’s easy as an adult to forget how much the family drama affected you when you were locked up with it every single day, with only a tiny corner to call your own.) They are, in fact, quite like Pi; they are [SPOILER ALERT] at once thoughtful, philosophical young people and sullen, feral beasts. They are one part starving human and one part part seasick tiger.

I try to nudge them toward humanity by giving them the stories that will make them feel human. I give them The Life of Pi and refrain from criticizing it, instead letting them get caught up in its whirlwind, getting caught up in the whirlwind myself, and then experiencing with them the disappointment and betrayal at its abrupt ending. I read aloud the gory parts of the Odyssey and encourage them to picture the action movie in their heads. I try to explain, futilely, it seems, how poems make meaning not just through their words, but through the shape those words take on the page, the sounds they make when you say them aloud. How parallelism, for instance, can give substance and form to ideas that we know to be true but that our brains would otherwise reject–we call them paradoxes.

“How can surrendering be the same as continuing?” I say. “How can mortality be the same as eternity? How can a person hear deafly? Speak mutely? Why would Marianne Moore write a poem entirely about impossible things?”

How can surrendering be the same as continuing, indeed? In the classroom, there is no control; the harder you push, the harder they push back.

The seniors, in some ways, are the worst. They truly are like caged tigers (“So is that a simile or a metaphor?”), stalking back and forth in their cages and glowering at me through the bars. They’ve been to college campuses; they can smell freedom. They are as emotionally ready as they’ll ever be to step into the big world, but they’re still stuck in a narrow one. They can feel its limitations, but they have no way of transcending them intellectually. They don’t know what it’s like outside the cage, how hard it is to survive, how many rewards there are in freedom and how lost you can feel when you’ve lost your taste for them.

They don’t see a person when they look at me; they see a grown-up, and grown-ups aren’t yet people to them. They think they know what people are like from watching TV and movies, but they don’t recognize the one standing in front of them. I am just one of many adults who stand guard at the cage door, keys dangling provocatively from our belts.

In a strange way, it’s kind of a relief to be misrecognized in that way. It lets you hide in plain sight. I am reminded of my interview with Aspergers Are Us, the sketch troupe made up entirely of comedians on the autism spectrum. This is New Michael Ingemi and Noah Britton talking:

NMI: That’s why it’s so awkward to make eye contact. Because when someone’s addressing you, they’re acknowledging you, that you exist—

NB: They’ve reminded you that you’re a human. And when you’re reminded that you’re a human, that’s really painful and unpleasant. And that’s one thing autism interventions try to do, is force us to do that, which hurts. It’s physically painful.

NMI: Because we’re not human, we’re animals.

There’s a kind of safety in not being human, because the rules of human behavior–compassion, empathy, politesse–don’t apply. For an animal, the only thing you have to worry about, beyond survival, is the fluctuation of power, the jostling of alpha, beta, and omega. And, of course, that’s survival too.

This week, I kicked a girl out of my classroom. I really should have done it months ago. She is a chronic eye-roller. I worry that she will strain her ocular nerve. I worry that someone will hit her on the back and she will look like a white-eyed zombie for the rest of her life. I have seen the northern hemisphere of her irises precisely three times. I want to tell her that her eyes are lovely when she uses them to look at people. Instead I let out an explosive breath of air and I say: “I’ve had it. Go see the principal, Katherine.” (That’s not her real name. Did I mention they all have the weirdest names these days?)

After she left—eyes now squinched with tears of rage and humiliation—the other students, no doubt as sick of her theatrics as I was, started snickering. And I, guardian and treasurer of the humanity of our nation’s youth, said: “Don’t laugh, [last name]. You’re next.”

You know who else said those exact words? The gym teacher played by Tom “Biff Tannen” Wilson on “Freaks and Geeks.” Yes, I have officially become Coach Fredricks.*

Yeah, it sucks making kids do something they’d clearly rather not be doing. All you can do is keep telling them stories and wait for them to feel like humans.

The same day that happened, I assigned my class a literary analysis. I wanted to give them a choice between poetry and prose (too may choices, I always give them too many choices), and I quickly picked “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning for the poem, because, duh. For the prose option, I was temporarily stumped. Finally, I decided to use the “double-consciousness” excerpt from Chapter 1 of W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk.

Empathy is a decidedly human preoccupation. To save time, I went ahead and allowed my heart to break before class even began. My school is full of white kids. It’s a private school in a largely segregated town. I do not have a single black student, nor have I seen any on the campus. I knew the DuBois excerpt would taste like medicine to them, that only the most sensitive among them would even feel shivers of discomfort, that others would fail to draw any connections at all between the experience of a black man in 1903 and their experience as white teenagers 110 years later. 

“Why should that matter?” I asked myself, ashamed of my initial indecision, and then thought, “It does matter, that’s why I’m assigning it,” and that decided it. 

In class, I pointed to them one after the other and enjoyed one of the few powers a high school teacher retains–the power to command students to read out loud. As I conducted this depressing symphony of not-caring, the last student in the class began to read the double-consciousness paragraph. “One ever feels his twoness–an American, a Negro, two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” It’s not medicine, it’s straight up grain alcohol.

The kid reading the passage is bright but has been checked out all year. He seems to have given up at some point. I have been prodding him with praise and threats, but it’s not working. He began reading, droning through the difficult first sentence. Then, suddenly, there was a change. He leaned forward. He slowed down his reading. He frowned a little, and his eyes opened a little wider.

I noticed, or remembered, that he’s not white. He has brown skin. He’s not Mexican, he’s South American–adopted–but I’m sure ninety percent of Texans who meet him casually assume he’s Mexican (with all that entails in a border state). I had grown so accustomed to his sullen silence that I didn’t even try to make eye contact with him in class anymore, so when he suddenly spoke, I had to turn my head to look at him.

“It’s about how people see you? And how you’re always thinking about it,” he said. “It’s about how you always have to think about people looking at you, seeing only this one thing about you. You’re different.”

Twice at the University of Chicago, I was reading James Baldwin in an undergraduate class. Both times, when we came to Baldwin, the majority of the students became glazed and restless, while one student perked up, engaged for the first time. Both times, I intuited in a flash that the student, not feeling entirely white, had picked up on high-frequency notes that the other students couldn’t hear, had read the plain, straightforward words as a secret message just for them. Colorblindness is not the absence of racism, and there is a special kind of invisibility that comes from being the only non-white student in a white classroom. James Baldwin and W. E. B. DuBois work on these students like lemon juice on invisible ink. While the rest of the students saw this as “black writing,” they saw it as truth. The text looked straight at them and recognized them as people.

We don’t always know who we’re changing and how. I have said many times that a teacher doesn’t get to see the difference she makes, and that is the hardest part about caring, the thing that wears teachers down over time. We don’t get to see the difference we make. Every lost kid drags a cohort of lost adults behind them. They are animals, and we are animals, and no story you can tell is ever going to change that. So we feel like failures. We can’t tame them. We can only feed them and try to listen to the stories they are telling us about our own humanity. 

*Why is it such a joy to call some kids by their last name? The world may never know.

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Vagina‘s Voice, or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Young Feminism

I’m a grumpy old feminist. (And if almost-35 doesn’t seem old to you, just focus on the “grumpy” part.) I started noticing patriarchal bullshit when I was 15, before I knew what to call it, and that’s 20 years of noticing and stewing and bitching and getting over it and then noticing some more.

If there’s one encouraging thing about the wash-rinse-repeat cycle of feminism, post-feminism, and conservative backlash that we seem to be stuck in these days, it’s that people are still finding names for the soft oppressions of patriarchal culture and disseminating them via this messy tool we call the internet.

But, to borrow from Dazed and Confused, I keep getting older while the feminists stay the same age. Every couple of years a new micro-generation of awesome, talented young women go through the phases that all awesome, talented young people are entitled to, and I have to continually remind myself that all lessons have to be re-taught and re-learned, and many have to be lived firsthand.

I started this blog with a vague sense of discomfort over certain habits and expectations younger women I know grew up with, habits I perceived as confusingly anti-feminist, or potentially so, although I struggled to figure out why. While I don’t have a clear answer about what makes a feminist (nor does anyone, nor should anyone), I still find it incredibly frustrating to watch strong, cool, smart women go through their I’m-Not-A-Feminist phase, or, down the line, their Feminism-Means-Whatever-We-Do-Is-Totally-Fine-And-Unproblematic phase. (Of course we can do whatever we want. But nobody is free of structural inequality and the cultural systems that help prop it up–not black women, not white men, not me, not you. I don’t believe it’s in our DNA, but it’s in our brains, and it’s just as hard to root it out as if it were in our DNA. All you can do is look at it long and hard, and keep looking.)

That’s one reason why Hillary-Anne Crosby made such an impression on me. I first interviewed the founding editor of Vagina : : The Zine when I was researching my article about Austin’s booming print culture a few months ago. I found so many great journals and independent presses to write about that I ultimately didn’t have room to delve into zines (embarrassment of riches!), but I was intrigued by Hillary-Anne’s personality and presence, enough to do a follow-up piece on her for the Austin Chronicle. [Disclosure! After the interview, Crosby asked my sketch troupe, Every Girl’s Annual, to perform at the upcoming release party this Saturday.]

I’m not sure who I was expecting to walk in the door of Cherrywood Coffeehouse to talk up a zine called Vagina–more visible tattoos, perhaps? Definitely not the bouncy, upbeat, up-talking 23-year-old with a pixie cut and a huge smile who walked through the door. Crosby, despite her zine’s in-your-face name, is the opposite of confrontational. Ultimately, my surprise is a little embarrassing in that it reveals a lot about my own preconceptions about the V-Word and about feminism itself–that in its most active and purest form, it’s loud, prickly, and above all, mad.

I’m a grumpy old feminist, but I really liked this perky young feminist a lot. It relieved me to hear her call herself a feminist, and it heartened me that she seems so young and confident, and it didn’t scare me that she seems to have lots to learn. So do I. Ladies and gentlemen, the voice behind the Vagina.


THE OEDITRIX: So tell me a little bit about how Vagina : : The Zine got started.

HILLARY-ANNE CROSBY: I started it the second semester of my last year in undergrad. Basically I was really bored with things in general, the past four years, and then I was going to graduate in a few months, and I had worked my way through school so I didn’t have any journalism internships. That was my major and that was what I wanted to do. I was kind of terrified of how bad that was going to hurt me when I graduated. And so I kind of just made this my own little internship to try and grind my teeth on something, so that I’ll have learned stuff in the past couple of years, and I was a viable future employee. And that’s how I decided to start doing a zine. I’d never even seen a zine. I’d only heard of them, a couple months prior to that, and I hadn’t even seen one. It was just trying to figure it out as you go along.

OED: So how did you decide to make it a showcase for women’s work?

HAC: I was a photojournalism student, and a lot of had these websites and these blogs full of our work and no one  was seeing them. Like, yay, I have a website! And there are a million websites out there. I wanted a place where they could really share their work with a wider audience who was really looking at it rather than browsing it, flipping through Facebook and things like that. And so I just decided to make it all-girls. I had really no reason for it at the time, that was just my decision. And I called it “Vagina” in my head as, like, a nickname that I had given it before I could decide on a name. But I’d been thinking about it for so long that after our first meting came on January 2, I was like, all right, Vagina. We’re going with it. It’ll stand out. At this point I hadn’t really thought about any other names because I’d just nicknamed it for so long.

OED: Would you say it’s a feminist zine?

HAC: My definition of feminism is just respecting and supporting women. I think that’s what feminism comes down to. So I label us a feminist magazine because I think that everything that we’re doing is respecting and supporting women and their different views on things. We have girls that write really openly about their sex lives, or abortions, or their dream of being a stay-at-home mom. I mean it’s kind of across the board. Instead of being like, oh you need to lose ten pounds and also maybe dye your hair blond. Where it’s like, sure, if you wanted to do those things! But this is to support women in general and all their different opinions and what they want to do.

OED: It takes a lot of guts to call yourself a feminist these days. I think having a magazine that calls itself “Vagina” already paints a certain picture of what you guys might be. The name has this very confrontational kind of connotation to it. Your vision is a little bit different than that.

HAC: Yeah. When you bring that word up it’s like a punch, it’s really in your face. I almost never said the word “vagina” before I started this zine, because it was so in your face and it seemed really aggressive. I was brought up with that being an offensive word that you should never use. But the whole point of the word vagina is just, here’s this sex organ that you have. Or maybe you’re male and you wish you had one! I don’t know. But it’s not like this offensive thing. It’s not meant to be. But I feel like in our culture we’ve made it that, and so Vagina’s also kind of about being—feminism isn’t meant to be aggressive and in your face. No one wants to beat you over the head because you’re a man, or because you want to be a stay-at-home mom. We’re really acculturated in a really specific way. I like that about Vagina, that it scares people into the open. That’s why I like having our events at Cheer Up Charlie’s versus a really dedicated literary space. A lot of people come that are just there for the bar that night, and they would come across the zine, and they would be like, Is it porn? And I would be like, no it’s not! It’s just the word “vagina.” I think it’s great that it’s so in your face, that it gets your attention, but we’re trying to normalize it more and more, basically. I say “vagina” all the time now. My tote bag is not with me but it says “vagina” on it in two different places. I have a lot of interest in trying to normalize feminism and maybe stop believing all these stereotypes that we grew up with. I have a few friends that were like, Oh I don’t consider myself a feminist. And so I was like what, do you think a feminist is? And a few months later they would come back and be like, yeah, I’ve been thinking about that, I’m a feminist now, I guess. They’d grown up saying “feminazi.” Just like you grow up thinking vagina is a bad word. I guess we’re all just trying to make that transition.

OED: So the zine started as an experience-building thing. Do you think you’ll keep it going?

HAC: Honestly in that first meeting, I was like, I think I’m going to give this a year, and if it dies, it dies. If it’s not successful, no big deal. But it didn’t die, and I was really happy about that. It’s grown since then, and I kind of don’t ever want to stop now. We love that we’re not a magazine, not a journal, we are very specifically a zine. That [points to a copy of the zine] is computer paper and some staples, you know. And I love that, I love it so much. Maybe in a few years, if we had a big enough following, I would love to make that transition that Bitch and Bust made, from being a zine to being a more, like, grown-up zine that you can call a magazine. I would love that in the next few years to happen. I can’t really imagine it happening right now, but it would be my dream. Those were my inspirations, Bitch and Bust. So I would love that to happen, to really sell on newsstands, maybe on glossy paper. Maybe stop stapling them on my kitchen table! But I love doing it, I love doing a zine.

OED: Are there other feminist magazines coming out of Austin right now that you know of?

HAC: I haven’t seen any. I get a lot of jokes, people who are like, I’m going to think about doing like, “The Gentlemanly Penis.” And I’m like, you should! No one’s doing it. If I can start a zine, having never seen one? Zines are the easiest.

OED: You have a significant online presence too. So why is it even necessary to have a physical publication that’s an object?

HAC: I am really into print journalism in general. I wish I had been a newspaper person. I love that physical object, having something you can sit down and read, versus something you’re going to glance over. You can glance over a website any old time, while you’re on Facebook. I do it too. As opposed to having this physical handmade product that we put time and effort into. And people really buy it! You can read all of this on our website for free, we put the stuff that’s in here online a couple months after it comes out. You can read all of it for free. But I think people like that you can buy the thing that was made by these girls in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes my tears get on here! [pointing to zine]—I don’t think any of them show it. But this one–like, I myself don’t sew, but for a past issue I used a sewing machine, and there were all these problems where like my blood would end up on the design, and I’d be like, here you go friend! It’s really blood, sweat, and tears that go into it. When you make the layout, it comes from scratch every time, we can’t just pop anything into our layout. I think people really like that. I crafted this for you, you can sit down and read it whenever you want, you can throw it in your bag and mess it up versus just browsing it online.

OED: Are you into craft culture more generally?

HAC: Yes. If you had seen  our first two issues, it was literally, like, HEB bags, and inside were the pages, and then it was yarn or glue. Our first issue was a SXSW special issue, and I hand-stitched the letters onto the cover. I remember sitting in my design class stitching one night, and my professor, who was also really into zines, was like, everybody grab one! We’re all going to stitch while we do the lecture! It was cute, there were twelve of us stitching “vagina” into a bunch of brown paper bags. I love craft culture. And we’re getting more and more connected. I’m the only editor here in Austin, it used to be so much easier to have that assembly line, but now it just me and my kitchen table and a stapler.

OED: The making is just you?

HAC: Me and any friends that take pity on me that week.

OED: Anything else about Vagina : : The Zine you’d like people to know? 

HAC: I  really like to drive home how we’re kind of meant to be an alternative to a lot of women’s magazines and everything. Like I’m sorry, and I’m not even trying to be like super-vagina-feminist about this, but I hate Cosmopolitan. I’ll try and read it and I’ll come away really disheartened, and not really sure how I feel about myself. Vagina is meant to be for that woman who’s confident and isn’t wanting to change who she is to fit a certain mold. Who likes who she is. I like how this wide array of girls that write about how they want to be homemakers, and then there are girls who write about masturbation. I love the complete dichotomy and how we’re meant to be for a specific woman who’s confident and funny. That’s how I feel about Bust and Bitch, especially Bust. Bust is this awesome alternative: do you want to learn how to do your hair real pretty? Awesome! Do you want to read about punk music? Here it is! Versus trying to fit you into these specific molds: how to give your boyfriend orgasms—rather than how to give your girlfriend, or yourself orgasms. I’d rather focus on that than on losing 10 pounds and seventeen sex moves you’re not going to remember.

OED: That could be a spoof title: “Seventeen Sex Moves You’re Not Going to Remember.”

HAC: I made this whole double-page spread of all of these spoof headlines. I never have put in the issue how much I loathe Cosmo because I think that would be kind of mean. Personally, when you know me, then you’re like yeah, you would loathe Cosmo. But I feel like it would be too mean if I put it in print.

OED: For someone who runs a magazine with a confrontational name, you’re very polite. 

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Number 23

I recently heard the saying, Hold on tightly, let go lightly, for the first timeIt’s true and it rhymes, which, in the world of aphorisms, is like being both valedictorian and prom queen.

I have never had a problem with holding on. I can grab things and pull them toward me by sheer force of will. It’s the letting go part that’s hard.

My two major accomplishments of 2011 came neatly twinned in December: a wedding and a PhD. My endings and beginnings were all muddled together until I couldn’t tell which was which.

“You’re almost done,” people had been telling me for years, “Don’t give up now.” Also, “Hang in there.” I did. “Hold on.” I did. “Someday this part of your life will be over.” It is.

In 2011 I held on tightly. In 2012 I had to relax my grip and let go.

I’m still working on the lightly part.

* * * * *

In 2012 I re-entered the world. That is in itself no small accomplishment.

At this time last year I had just climbed out of a hole and was still blinking my eyes in the Austin sunshine. I had no idea what was happening in contemporary fiction. I did not read or even know about literary blogs like The Rumpus and The Millions. I had no sense of Austin’s literary scene, a small pond, but one that is positively teeming with flora and fauna. I had just started reading for pleasure again, after a long period of time when just going into a bookstore caused my stomach to flip over in anxiety. I began with The Portrait of a Lady.

Hold on tightly, let go lightly.

In 2012, I let go of academia. It was hard letting go. It felt like letting go of more than just the life I had imagined at 26–teaching in a vibrant, bustling university, reading and discussing theory with my peers, writing sophisticated books on Henry James, or whatever I thought I was going to write on. The sign that I have let go is that I don’t remember how much more it meant to me than just that. I don’t remember why I thought that was the thing I needed. When I picture myself happy in academia, I picture certain moments in grad school: winning awards or grant money, delivering papers that people complimented me on, a handful of incandescent moments when I actually seemed to be helping a student learn something. Or the moment I got into the PhD program, which felt at the time like being proposed to on bended knee by a guy you’ve been in love with forever as fireworks explode overhead and a skywriter spells out your name.

My husband and I just fell in love and decided to get married. There were no bended knees involved.

* * * * *

In 2012 I picked things up and I let them go. I took improv classes, experimented with selling homemade cards and wedding cakes. I applied for jobs in publishing, marketing, and teaching. I proposed a women’s comedy night at a local theater. I started writing two novels and a nonfiction book. None of these things panned out, exactly.

But just because I have let them go doesn’t mean they’re gone.

I may not have a women’s comedy night, but I have a women’s comedy troupe. I don’t have a book of essays on female writers, but I have interviewed six of them (and one very nice dude as well). I don’t decorate wedding cakes for a living, but I did decorate one for a friend, and she loved it beyond all reason. I didn’t expand Dance Dance Party Party’s numbers greatly, but I did spend almost every single Sunday evening in 2012 dancing. I don’t mean to boast, but I have developed a few pretty sweet moves in that time, most of which are not appropriate for weddings.

I published 24 articles in CultureMap this year, and although the professional relationship ended on a sour note, I am still proud of my accomplishments there and grateful to them for giving me a place to learn. I published one cover article on Austin’s literary scene for the Austin Chronicle, and The Rumpus, a cool-kid literary blog out of San Francisco, linked to it. It showed up in my RSS feed.

I was going to write 24 posts on my blog this year.

This is number 23.

Hold on tightly, let go lightly. Happy New Year.

The Blog Hop, or, All About My Mots d’Heures

A couple of weeks ago I was invited by Julie Gillis to participate in a “blog hop,” which is kind of like a chain letter without the threats of supernatural punishment should you fail to do it in a timely fashion. I was supposed to post last Tuesday, but I used Thanksgiving as an excuse to push it back a week, which meant I was supposed to do it yesterday. Then this happened instead. And then I got all hopped up on migraine meds and lost my fine motor skills for eight hours.

I’m supposed to answer questions about my work, which is a little daunting, because I’ve got a zillion half-baked projects right now and I can’t tell which ones I’m supposed to be concentrating on getting totally baked. (Wait, that didn’t come out right.) The YA novel? The non-YA novel? The freelancing? A non-fiction book? (I hope I don’t lose all credibility when I say that my iPhone tarot app keeps showing me the Two of Wands and the Seven of Cups. Yeah, don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, closet tarot addicts.)

But I don’t want my dog to get cancer or whatever happens to people who break the chain, so here I go.

What do you write about and why? 

Apparently I write about violently severing ties with institutions that have supported me in the past, like CultureMap and the University of Chicago. (And yeah, there were people who nurtured and supported me at the U of C. Some of them were the same ones who made life miserable, which is complicated.)

But seriously. Looking over my posts from the year, I write about two things: things I love and things that make me furious. The fact that the latter posts generate far, far more site traffic is something I feel very . . . conflicted about. I am what they call a “passionate” person. (Cue theatrical eye-roll: “Typical Aries.” Followed by sarcastic eye-roll: “Stop talking about horoscopes and tarot. They are, empirically speaking, dumb.” Followed by bored eye-roll: “Why so many parentheticals today, Amy? Get it together.” Get off my case, imaginary people!)

So anyway I am “passionate,” which means I get angry about things, and when I get angry I cannot seem to shut my mouth. And for some reason when you’re angry and sarcastic people are far more likely to listen to you than when you’re blissfully chirping about art and life, which are both things I enjoy. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t actually enjoy feeling angry. It gives me a headache and makes my stomach hurt. So I try to save my anger for the things that matter, like when someone disses The Hunger Games.

I have never claimed to write because I can’t help it, or because I would die if I didn’t. Most of my writing is just for fun, and I feel good when I’m doing it. But honestly, when I write a post like the one from yesterday, it’s because I feel like there’s something fighting to get out of me and if I don’t let it out it will tear me to pieces.

Most often the thing that makes me feel this way is misogyny. I’ve seen it wreck women’s lives on a micro- and macro-level, in the news and in the neighborhood, as it were. But it doesn’t wreck every woman’s life. More often I’ve seen it chip away at their confidence, their pride, and their precious energy. Energy they could be putting into daily tasks and daily joys, loving relationships and flourishing careers. Every woman I know is tired. “Winning” patriarchy means losing yourself wholesale, but fighting it means you lose a little of yourself every day, in the energy you expend trying to pick your battles, fight the good fight, be generous where possible and harsh where necessary, and above all stay open and loving in the midst of it all. Fighting patriarchy means you also lose its compensatory pleasures, or cling to them defiantly only to feel them randomly betray you, like when you walk out of the house feeling confident and beautiful in high heels and five minutes later get a lewd comment about them.

(Side note: In 2001, alone and friendless in Portland, Oregon, I went to a co-worker’s fancy party out of desperation and loneliness. It was some kind of gallery or restaurant opening, held in a fancy modern building packed with people I didn’t know. I wore a skirt that went past my knees, a dressy, form-fitting tank top, and a pair of high heels. I was neither over- nor under-dressed for the occasion. What I was, though, was alone. As I stood in the buffet line, a complete stranger came up behind me, leaned in close to my ear, and whispered that he could tell from looking at me I was a “dirty girl.” That pearl of wisdom dropped, he sauntered back over to the corner and resumed leering at me from a distance with his buddy. I grabbed my fringed shawl and left the party without even hitting the ice sculpture martini chute on the way out. End of side note.)

I get angry about racism and poverty as well, but I write about them less, because I’m a white woman from an upper-middle-class background in a comfortable living situation and those things are not burned onto my skin or into my bones by daily encounters. My persona on this blog has thus become “angry, comfortably well-off white woman.” I feel ambivalent about that. I’d like to be smarter about race, especially, and other issues that matter to me. But even more so I’d like to invite women who have experienced racism like I’ve experienced sexism to guest on my blog. (I’m not outing you here, but You Know Who You Are.)

Where besides the blog do you write?

Ah, that is a good question my friend! I wrote a lot for CultureMap Austin this year, but I want to be completely clear about why I have moved on from that. I said in my last post that I had already started pitching elsewhere before the incident, and that is true; I have a piece in the works for the Austin Chronicle right now, and I am working up pitches for other places. I had a few minor frustrations with CultureMap, but mostly I just felt like it was time for me to try other things. However, until yesterday I was planning to keep writing for them to promote people and events—they do more cultural events coverage than any Austin news source that I know about, and it’s easy to get an article in with them quickly. By saying publicly that I do not want to write for them any more, I did not feel like I was sacrificing anything career-wise, because I was not counting on a long-lasting relationship with them. I did, however, sacrifice relationships that I value, which does not feel nearly as noble as sacrificing my career. But there it is.

So! What besides the blog do I write, that might be a better question for me. Like many writers, I have a couple of novels languishing on my hard drive, because I can’t decide which one to really put my back into. I wish I could discuss them in detail, but I’m too chicken and I don’t want to drain the magic, if there’s any in there. One of them is a vaguely sci-fi-ish YA novel (Hunger Games meets Gossip Girl! That’s going to be my elevator pitch, if I ever find myself in an elevator with a person who you give elevator pitches to). I have a handful of ideas for a grown-up novel, including one that’s been percolating for years but that is too scary and sad for me to have written yet.

And oh yeah! I also have a semi-erotic adventure thriller set in the imperialist world of Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Little Princess meets King Solomon’s Mines. (That’s more than an elevator pitch. It’s the whole outline. Don’t worry, the sequel includes characters from the Secret Garden-verse too.)

Additionally, I’m working on a long, angry, funny essay about women’s writing and the culture of misogyny, but it just keeps shifting and changing and somehow Lacan and Althusser keep showing up, and I am so mad at them I can’t tell whether they belong in the essay or not. Maybe I’ll finish it and pitch it, and then when it doesn’t get picked up I will post it here.

Oh yes, I am also co-authoring (and performing in!) Blood, Sweat, and Cheers, the exciting brainchild of Austin’s own awesomely talented one-woman superlative-generator, Kaci Beeler. It’s an original play about the cut-throat world of competitive cheering, and YES it will involve actual competitive-style cheering by actual competitive cheerleaders, and YES I will play an angry cheer coach, and YES you will very much want to see it in 2013.

Your bio lists a lot of things you do besides writing. Are you a writer, a performer, a singer, a comedian, or just an a random angry person with a degree she doesn’t know how to use?

I’m glad you asked that, self! I am a writer who is re-finding her voice. I’m also a singer with a not-great singing voice who doesn’t really write and perform songs anymore because people only liked the funny ones and the sad ones made her cry when she practiced them. Also I don’t think I’ll ever be able to try hard enough to get better at the guitar. I am a rusty performer who has tried to get back into the game by taking improv classes, but I don’t think I’ll ever get great at improv either, mostly because I am unwilling to put the time in. I am really good at drawing mermaids and unicorns, from years of practice as a child. I write comedy but can’t call myself a comedian because I only started taking comedy seriously as an art form, like, two years ago.

Oh hey, I just realized a thing that I love about comedy! It’s this: When I hear jokes about misogyny, I feel happy, not angry. The funnier the joke and the truer it is, the happier and more recognized I feel. I now have some idea of the prodigious skill that goes into great comedy. But the most important thing it has taught me is that you don’t have to yell about misogyny to critique it. You can also make fun of it, you can taunt and tease and torment it like a bully until it runs away crying like the wuss it is. BUT you have to be really smart and good at comedy, or it’s not funny. So I’m working on that. I performed my first sketch comedy show “She-Mergency!” this summer with talented funny lady Lydia Nelson, and since then the amazing Valerie Ward of P-Graph has joined us to form our sketch troupe, Every Girl’s Annual. Performances forthcoming at This American Live and an upcoming classic sketch cover night.

Which authors do you find inspiring?

Dead? Henry James. Willa Cather. James Baldwin. George Eliot. Marianne Moore. Gwendolyn Brooks. Jane Austen. James Agee. Octavia Butler. James Weldon Johnson.

Living? Sarah Waters. Libba Bray. Emma Donoghue. Jennifer Egan. Doris Lessing. Ursula LeGuin. Alice Munro. Others!

What is your writing process?

I try to write “morning pages” every day. These are the three daily pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness journaling advocated in the cheesy yet wonderful self-help book The Artist’s Way, which I highly recommend. Emotions come out in the morning pages that don’t come out on the screen. When I find that my hand is shaking and I am frowning and writing really fast, it’s usually time to post something that’s going to make my stomach hurt.

The rest of it, the articles and posts that don’t come from the angry place, is all write, write, write, reviserevisereviserevisereviserevise, post, revise again. I would like to figure out how to stretch out that energy and harness it for slower, steadier work, on novels or longer non-fiction, but I am dumb and it is hard.

Boring part over! Here are some fantastic blogs you should check out:

Julie Gillis: Austin-based activist, performer, and sex-positive feminist writes about politics and her own spiritual path.

She Makes Me Laugh: A newly minted comedy blog by improv impresario and puzzle-mistress Valerie Ward. (Be the first kid on your block to put it on your RSS feed!)

Incremental Catastrophe: Smart, interesting, in-depth posts on media, culture, and politics by funny dude Ben Blattberg.

Skoolaid: Melissa Barton is a smart cookie–no, an intelligent layer cake!–who chronicles her fascinating experiences teaching in Chicago public schools.

Aptal Yabanci: Michael Meeuwis blogs quite wittily about being a professor in Ankara, Turkey–where apparently they actually value teaching!

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Thanks for Slut-Shaming a Teen Rape Victim, CultureMap!

In 2012, I published 24 articles in CultureMap, many of which I’m very proud of. A few weeks ago the smart, kind editor who encouraged me to write for them in the first place, who gave me tips on pitching and interviewing and dealt with my clumsy mistakes for almost a year, left CultureMap for greener pastures. I was happy for him but sad for me—I lost the first person who put me in e-print. Meanwhile the company had slashed its already modest compensation, and the editors seemed to be more overworked and less careful than before. So I was already starting to pitch elsewhere. But after all, it was such an easy gig, and as I said, they had done a lot for me.

That’s why I initially told my husband I didn’t want to write anything about this thing. I still don’t. It makes me tired. But the queasy feeling won’t go away, so here I go.

On Halloween, CultureMap Dallas published an article by one of its managing editors. The article implied a young Dallas rape victim might be lying (or rather, suffering from “guilt” over “impulsive teenage decisions”), and expressed sympathy for her alleged rapist, a promising high school baseball star. CultureMap freelance contributor Dan Solomon, as he relates in the XOJane article I read yesterday, posted about his disappointment with CultureMap on his personal blog. He was then approached by his editors and asked to remove the piece, under threat of losing further opportunities to publish there. A freelance contributor being asked to remove his own reflections about the magazine from his personal blog. Solomon, obviously, did not.

Well, I’m a freelancer too. I have a personal blog too. And if freelancers for CultureMap are associated closely enough with the brand to warrant that kind of attention from the editors, then it’s a two-way street. Put another way: CultureMap has demanded passive support from its freelancers in the form of silence on their personal blogs. So I’m posting this in order to feel that I have not granted it.

What I would like to do that I have not seen done yet is take us step-by-step through the article. No apology or statement has been issued, although St. Amant defended her piece in a follow-up entitled “Bandwagon reporting doesn’t do victims of sex crimes any favors.” (Surprisingly given the headline, the article isn’t actually a compendium of quotes from victims of sex crime who agree with St. Amant!)

The point of this exercise is not just to show that the article was sloppily and lazily written–that doesn’t take a close reading to prove. It’s to show how once again, this type of sloppy, lazy writing covers up an opinion that would be too noxious to spell out in a well-reasoned argument.

Maybe it’s the Freudian in me, but I don’t believe in “sloppy writing” any more than I believe in all those supposed “gaffes” from Republican rape apologists earlier this year. I do believe in slipshod thinking that covers up the misogynistic attitudes that buoy up rape culture. These people don’t want to believe they believe the things they believe. When you listen to their language, you start hearing the mental blurs, the murky pits where thinking goes to die, the cesspools of plausible deniability where slut-shaming and victim-blaming grow like an algae bloom.

At first, the article appears to be pointing out a relevant fact: the second-degree felony charge implies the victim (whose age was not released) is under 17. Despite the actual headline, the opening paragraph leads a reader to expect an argument that the rape should not be charged as a crime against a child, but rather a crime against an adult. The lede:

There are few things more complicated than the line between adolescence and adulthood. While the Texas legal system makes a clear-cut distinction from age 16 (a child) to age 17 (an adult), the transformation occurs only on paper.

Leaving aside that wretched first line (oops, I didn’t leave it aside, oh well), it’s an interesting enough angle for me to ease warily into the article. I’m ready to hear an argument about the severity of these charges, perhaps with references to statutory rape law and child molestation cases.

This, however, does not occur. Six sentences lay out the bare facts of the case (two of those sentences are about how this guy’s dad is a CEO of something or other and how the kid is a great baseball player, but whatever). Then we get this:

Many criminal cases hinge on he-said, she-said evidence, but when the parties in question are high school students, the information is under even greater scrutiny than usual.

Uh, okay. If you say it’s under greater scrutiny, it’s under greater scrutiny. Oh hey, have you ever noticed that only in acquaintance rape and sexual harassment suits is what we normally refer to as “evidence” renamed “the he-said, she-said”? Just a side note! Okay, still listening. What next?

Kids are supposed to mess up. They lie. They cheat. They get caught. They grow up. But throw a sex act in the mix, and childish ways are all but left behind.

What the what now? This paragraph says nothing. Its sole function is to be a transitional paragraph between dubious sense and utter nonsense. What are these “childish ways” St. Amant is writing about? I literally have no idea what is happening here or where this argument will go next, which is part of the point. While my mind is still echoing with the words what-the-what-now, here comes the next paragraph, which returns to the point just long enough to make me think, Argument alert! Here it comes!:

However, it still seems bizarre to call a girl his peer while they are kissing but a child if their clothes come off.

Okay! Let’s ignore the general tone this is taking and stick with this statement, which is consistent with the premise presented in the lede. St. Amant goes on to present another “fact” paragraph, the only one in fact where the girl’s story is laid out with any detail at all:

The girl who pressed charges against Romo says she told him “No, I don’t want to do this,” as well as “Stop!” She says Romo told her “It would be okay,” and to “let it happen.” A sexual assault exam revealed trauma consistent with force, the affidavit states. [emphasis added]

And now–immediately following the statement about the results of the sexual assault exam!–the kicker, the final paragraph, where St. Amant pulls the misogynistic rabbit out of the sloppily-written hat:

No matter the facts, there is no good outcome in this case. If Romo forced himself on a girl in the backseat of his Chevy Tahoe as alleged, then he’s a sexual predator. If it’s a case of impulsive teenage decisions, remorse and guilt, then no one suffers more than 18-year-old Ryan Romo.

Actually, Claire St. Amant, there IS a “good outcome”! We call it “justice.” If this girl was raped, as substantiated by her exam, a “good outcome” would be that her rapist would be convicted and sentenced, and that would be a “good outcome” even if her rapist proved to be Romo! That is, if by “good outcome” what you mean is “good outcome” for the victim; I suppose, as is the case with all accused and convicted criminals, it wouldn’t technically be a “good outcome” for Romo. At any rate, as per the second sentence in the paragraph, Romo being “a sexual predator” would not actually be an “outcome” of the criminal proceedings of the trial, but rather an outcome of his having raped a girl under the age of 17.

However, the last sentence really brings home St. Amant’s readiness to call the victim a liar, not by saying she might have falsely accused Romo, but by implying that she might not have been raped at all. Despite the results of the sexual assault exam cited in the previous paragraph, the alternative St. Amant finds to Romo being a sexual predator is not that she was raped by someone else. It’s that this was a “case of impulsive teenage decisions, remorse and guilt.” (I assume she means the girl’s potential “impulsive teenage decision” to have sex with Romo, not Romo’s potential “impulsive teenage decision” to rape her.) The question has been shifted from “Who raped her?” to “Was it rape?”

Acquaintance rape: the only kind of crime where being accused is actually a worse fate than having been a victim. What’s important, as always, is that a “promising” young man’s career got jeopardized by a woman who probably invented her rape charge because, why again? Why, Claire? Because rape charges make you super popular? Because she WANTS to be strapped to a table and probed by the county examiners? Because she WANTS to be gently chided in the local press for her impulsive teenage decisions, in an article that seems to delight in the phrase “Chevy Tahoe,” as if it stood for every teenage slut that has ever climbed into the back of a senior’s car and then sniveled later that he didn’t stop when she said “no”?

Maybe I should invent a rape charge! It would bring me so much welcome notoriety. I crave trolls on this blog. Now all I have to do is seduce some poor schmo into having sex with me, manufacture some bruises and lacerations, smear my mascara, and hobble to the nearest police station so I can sit for several hours on a cold bench under flourescent lights, talk to skeptical police officers, and then spread my legs for the county examiner. DONE!

(Next I plan to get pregnant so I can have an abortion, thereby sticking it to yet another group of beleaguered conservatives. Or alternatively I could become a single mom, thereby flaunting my sluttiness in public for 18 years and contributing to the decay of society as we know it.)

In her follow-up piece, Claire St. Amant attempts to “clarify” her original argument, with about as much success as GOP candidates clarified their “gaffes” earlier this year.

[W]hen men don’t listen, it’s rape. Period. However, we don’t know that’s what happened in that Chevy Tahoe on Saturday [DAMN “Chevy Tahoe” is fun to say! -Oed]. And when the two parties are high school students, the situation is much murkier than, say, a 32-year-old teacher preying on his pupil.

ACTUALLY NO, IT IS NOT MURKIER, CLAIRE! IT’S STILL RAPE. And yeah, if the victim is 16 (and she could be 14 or all we know), by law, she is a child. Sorry if that offends you. A girl who gets raped in the back of a Chevy by someone a year older than her has not been raped any more “murkily” than a girl who gets raped by her math teacher.

And anyway, that’s not the point that your article put across. It is about whether she was raped at all. And unless you want to start writing a “maybe this didn’t happen” article about every crime that happens in your county, I am going to assume you have some underlying motives to account for, even if you’re not entirely clear on them yourself.

Earlier this year CultureMap Austin published my husband’s angry response to the Daniel Tosh rape joke incident. The screed had been circulating on Facebook, and my former editor picked it up and ran it. And because of that my husband got internet famous for a day, as the male comedian in Austin who took a nasty, funny, smart stand against rape culture.

For 48 hours we lived and breathed rape culture. It was a difficult time. In the aftermath, after the fifteen minutes of internet attention had died down, my husband suggested we put our money where our (loud) mouths were and volunteer at SafePlace. Last month we finally started the process, which is fairly long and arduous. After sitting in that room, knowing that we were there partly because an editor at CultureMap took a risk on running a very controversial piece, knowing that part of what propelled us to that moment was the notoriety and conversation that his piece had generated in our lives—after all that—the very same corporate entity has unapologetically endorsed a public slut-shaming of a teen rape victim who reported her rape—Brave! Rare!—showed her bruises, submitted to the rape exam, and was deemed by a third party to bear “trauma consistent with force,” which I daresay even Todd Akin might concede is “legitimate”. . . .

Well, my coherency is gone. A rape joke uttered in a comedy club hundreds of miles away warrants a risky op-ed. An irresponsible, victim-blaming article about a girl in our own back yard gets nothing. No apology.

In her follow-up, Claire St. Amant asserts her solidarity with rape victims. (Apparently if a woman walked down the street naked and gets raped, it’s okay by St. Amant to call it rape! Truly radical.) But even if that’s the case, if you doubt that her article justifies less enlightened people in their view that teenage girls who have sex consensually can’t really have been raped, but are just experiencing morning-after regrets—I dare you to read the comment section on the Dallas Observer blog, where Anna Merlan called out the CultureMap article the day after it was written, giving far more detail into the crime report than St. Amant bothered to give. Read those comments and tell me if they get better, because I had to stop after the first handful of them.

Well, really after the guy who was like, “yeah man, this one girl I used to sleep with said ‘no’ one time, and then she seemed like she changed her mind and we had sex anyway, and also a bunch of other times where she didn’t even say no, and then later she just told her friends about that one time and then everybody thought I was a rapist. Ergo, this didn’t happen.”

THAT is the kind of thinking you are encouraging with your generous speculations on the subject of “but maybe she’s lying!”, Claire St. Amant. That is what you, and CultureMap too, are being called to task for.

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