le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Friday, November 11, 2016

how to help: an idea

Here is my idea for an app. If I had clue one how to actually make it, it would be done by now.

Call it, for now, Safe With Me. It’s like a cross of Uber, Grindr, that meme about asking for “Angela” in a bar, and that guy who walks with people.

How it works: If you are feeling unsafe, anxious to walk to your bus, being harassed in a crowd you can’t leave, need to go into a bathroom in North Carolina, being bothered by creepy guys and so on, pull up the app. Put out a call for help – it will maybe have options to signal what your particular instance calls for (ie, I’m a transwoman who wants an escort to the ladies’ room, I’m a Muslim guy waiting for the bus). The app will show you the nearest Safe Neighbors (or whatever they’ll be called). The people who have signed up to be Neighbors/escorts/helpers get pinged, check your position, and respond. Ideally, two will show up (to thwart terrible people using it as a way to target vulnerable people). Once you make contact, you deactivate your call for help, and the Neighbors/helpers walk you to your destination, wait with you until your bus comes, tell those guys to stop harassing you, etc. Users must post a photo, to assist in identifying each other, and will have some kind of small insignia/logo/something that they can show as a Safe Person. 

It’s like an electronic version of the safety pin, a way for people who need help to get it, and for people who want to help to provide it. Anyone registered/signed up can ask for help or provide it.
Possibly an adjunct feature would be “emotional help” needed. If you’ve experienced abuse, harassment, received a threatening note, otherwise feel shaken and would like some support, you can connect with a nearby emotional helper. Maybe it’s just a hug, five minutes to listen to their story, a few comforting words, a walk to the coffee shop. Maybe it’s sitting for coffee with the person. Who knows? Not quite sure how this piece would work, but it may be useful. But the primary thing is to connect people in scary situations with people nearby ready to help. 

I've been thinking about something like this for months, actually, after someone online somewhere posted about the feelings of fear after leaving a Pride celebration in a not-too-supportive city - the fear of walking from the bus or subway alone, an obvious queer person, and feeling like a target. And I felt furious, because - this is where allies can DO SOMETHING. Not just write thinkpieces about being white or straight or whatever, but actually get OUT THERE and put our bodies and ourselves out there on the line, in a small way, to protect the ones we are allegedly allied to.

I want to use my white privilege to help keep people safe. I want to help keep people safe because that is the right thing to do. It is the neighborly thing to do. It isn't fair that I can, if I want, simply duck my head and ignore it all. I have been increasingly feeling the wrongness of doing that, and now, in the wake of what feels like a horrible nightmare election, I REFUSE to just put my head down. 

Someone make this app. Someone do SOMETHING. I will be doing whatever I can, whenever I can, for anyone who needs me.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood at the Heinz History Center

Part of the set of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is now permanently housed at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. There was a special event for its opening: a talk by Eliot Daley, then visiting the new display after regular museum hours. The History Center looks like a very amazing place, and I really ought to check it out. The new Mister Rogers exhibit is quite well done - well-staged and wonderfully lighted, and if the waxwork(?) Mr Rogers figure isn't quite lifelike, well.....it's easy to turn away from it to look at the case of props, or King Friday's castle.

Photos from the event below!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

white privilege has got to go

An article reposting a blog by a local (Pittsburgh) teacher, about engaging with his students about Michael Brown, Ferguson, the grand jury's spectacular failure.  Teacher is white, class is largely "minority."
"One boy asked me, “Why does this keep happening, Mr. Singer?”
It was the question of which I had been most afraid. As a teacher, it’s always uncomfortable to admit the limits of your knowledge. But I tried to be completely honest with him.
“I really don’t know,” I said. “But let’s not forget that question. It’s a really good one.”"
THIS makes me really, really angry. It's nice that this teacher acknowledged michael brown, and ferguson, even if he did write a self-congratulatory post about it. But if you don't even try to answer the question of WHY this keeps happening, you haven't done anything except emote. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and has its place. But emotion alone doesn't get shit done. It doesn't change anything. The answer to WHY - which is, in a nutshell, centuries of institutionalized racism! - is not comfortable, because it makes every white person complicit. And dodging the answer to "Why" is itself a kind of complicitness. At the very least, it's white privilege of a kind I discussed here.

Because we are. We benefit, every single day, from the oppressions of non-white people in this country. We have since before America was independent. We benefit from the historic oppression - slave labor contributed enormously to the economic development of the US, for starters. We benefit from years of Black people being denied the right to vote (because who gets elected? white people, who make laws and appoint people that serve white people's interests, because they are either outright racist, or are blind to the needs of Black/nonwhite people). All the weird-ass housing laws that kept Black people from owning homes in certain neighborhoods. All the jobs Black people weren't allowed to hold. All the underfunded, subpar schools Black children attended, segregated. It all adds up over time.

Like I said a week ago, I'm really sick of the term "white privilege." I think it obscures what's really happening - because things like being able to walk through a store unaccosted by security guards, like buying a toy gun without being shot and killed, like seeing people who look, talk, and act like you on tv and in books - those things aren't really privileges. They are HOW EVERYONE SHOULD LIVE.
Privilege means you have more than the norm. you are +1. Privilege is that guy with the gold-plated toilet seat or whatever it was.
Privilege is having the manager greet you at the door, escort you through the store, jump you to the head of the line.

One of the reasons stupid white people get all sniffy about "white privilege" (like this jackass from Princeton) is because they don't see themselves as HAVING privileges. And many of them don't, to be honest. They have what all people should have, which is the ability to move through and in the world and be viewed as a fully human, fully normal, member of society. They don't have excessive riches, or important connections, or country club memberships, or summer homes on Martha's Vineyard, or whatever else marks the wealthy elite. A lot of white people have had to work hard, very hard, to get where and what they have. But the thing they - we - don't see or feel is that even in a life full of hardship, we are still benefiting from the color of our skins. And we are benefiting at the expense of very real, very human, non-white people. We always have been.

Thinking of enjoying basic human rights as a form of privilege is a kind of red herring, I think. Rights, by definition, aren't privileges. And yes, when they are distributed or applied to only one segment, then that segment becomes "privileged" over others - but I still don't think privilege is the right word.

White privilege makes it - of course it does - all about us, white people, again. It's about what we have. It's about our stories.

What we need is a term that shows what effect our stories have on non-white people. We need a term that makes us not privileged, but culpable.  We need terms that reveal the effects and stories of Black people without victimizing them all over again - so not calling them victims, or the oppressed, or disadvantaged (though those terms apply).

I don't know what the word is. Or phrase. It isn't that we as white people are committing crimes - though some of us are, murdering police of this country I am looking right at you - against Black people. It isn't even that we need to be made to feel guilty (though we should feel some kind of guilt). We need to be made to see and feel that we are doing and benefiting from something very, very wrong, that was set in place before any of us were born, that we've grown up in, that we are a part of whether we think we are or not.

The only word I can think of that describes the effect white privilege has on non-white people is outrage. I know "outrage" has other connotations, specifically rape, that is problematic. But "outraged" seems accurate, more or less, based on the blogs and posts and tweets and articles I've been reading. Weary, and outraged.

I want a term that shows how our privilege comes at the expense of other people. I want a term that doesn't make it seem like we have something special, just by having basic human rights; I want a term that shows how those basic human rights are denied, again and again and again, to Black people. But I want that term to carry culpability. I want a term the makes really, really clear that the white world isn't the only world, and that it has been constructed, continues to be carried out, in ways that intentionally and otherwise hurt non-white people.

I don't know how to articulate this properly, except to say I don't want the kind of privilege that means black kids can be shot dead for almost literally no reason at all. That I don't want to think of being able to walk across campus unharassed as a privilege - because it's a right. Civil rights movement, you know? But we need a word or phrase that makes explicit not what we're getting, as white people, but what we are denying to nonwhite people. What our society has been denying to nonwhite people.

Because what we've been doing, all these years, is NOT LISTENING. We have not been listening to the stories of Black people and Latino people and Asian people and Native people. We think we have been, but we've been doing that thing where you listen with half your attention, and cherry-pick words and ideas. And we're picking all the wrong words and ideas. We think we know what's up, and we don't. We really, really don't. In my last post, I mentioned a few examples of things I have learned, in the last 18 months or so, from some Black acquaintances and friends. Every new revelation was like a ton of bricks for me - I didn't know! and But that's insane/terrible! and - this is the big one!!! - I've never thought about that before.

We need a word that takes our attention off our own enjoyment of basic rights, and focuses it on the things we've never thought about before. And the way - or a way - we do that is by getting out of our own, earnest, do-gooding way and let Black people speak for themselves. To themselves, and to us. Tell their stories, loudly, often, everywhere. If we're so dense as to need it spelled out, they can include an Aesop-like "and the moral of this story is" at the end of their anecdote about showing IDs, being stopped for driving while black, being followed around stores, being called names, being insulted, being the only one in the room who isn't white, and on and on.

There are lots of stories. So many stories. We know some names right now - Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice - but for each of those boys (and they are boys, 'young men' is stretching it, a distinction I'm sure they would hate if they were alive to hear me make it) --- for each of those boys, there are dozens and hundreds and thousands of people, men, women, old, young, dead for centuries now, or only born since the millennium, who have story after story after story to tell. White people are not the heroes of any of those stories.

But there are so many stories, and we've been allowed, we have allowed ourselves, to ignore them for far too long. We've been allowed to, have allowed ourselves, to make a mess, then close the door on the room the mess is in - because out of sight, out of mind.

We need to mind. We need to be made to mind. I don't know what that will take, but I think it will have to be very loud and very big and very disruptive. It's the only way, I think, that white privilege will start to disappear as a thing of the present, and become a thing of the past, before we started listening -really listening - to other people's stories. Before we learned how we were hurting people, even when we didn't mean to, even when we didn't know we were doing it.

Because we're hurting people. We're hurting a lot of people, and we're killing some of them. And that should not be anyone's privilege.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

it all depends on the skin you're living in

There's been a lot of chatter and anger and confusion and efforts at soothing in the children's lit world lately, after Daniel Handler's racist jokes at the National Book Awards, when he was introducing Jacqueline Woodson, who won for her Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir, I think, though I have yet to read it (I am very, very far behind and out of the loop with children's & YA books this year). I haven't watched the video or read the complete text of Handler's remarks, because I don't need or want to know specifically what he said, because I can guess, from the dozens or hundreds or thousands of instances of casual racism I've heard over the years.

Over on child_lit, this has been a hot topic of discussion, and I originally meant to stay quiet, to keep out of it, but then I kept seeing people - on list and elsewhere - use the word "mistake" to describe Handler's remarks, and I had to say something, and the something is pasted here.
I've been thinking about this a lot because:
1) I really, really like Lemony Snicket, and when Daniel Handler spoke in Pittsburgh last year, he was phenomenally brilliant and insightful.
2) I think a lot about race, and about all the things white people don't know. The last year and a half, I've learned so many stupid, terrible, hurtful, complicated things - many of them taking the form of what I suppose would be called micro-aggressions - about specifically Black experiences in the US that I am shocked at my ignorance and at the SO. MANY????! ghastly ways white privilege (white power, white advantage - privilege almost sounds too benign) makes itself felt against people who are not white.
3) I'm fascinated by the ways we - and by we I mean white people who study/read/love children's lit - are trying so hard to reconcile those stupid-ass racist jokes with a writer and public figure who, in so many other ways, is fantastically awesome.
4) I keep seeing Handler's remarks referred to as "mistakes." No, a mistake is saying Jacqueline Woodward, instead of Woodson, or something similar. It wasn't a mistake, but I also don't think it was intentional -- I think it was a failure of consciousness that seems to me hugely common and hugely worth thinking about.

To ME what seems most important - or at least most interesting - is that actually the kinds of dumb casually racist jokes Handler made are made ALL THE TIME, and very often by people who are really quite decent, people who probably feel that they are anti-racist, or liberal/progressive, or whatever you want to call it. But white power/advantage/privilege *as a mode of thought* is so, so deeply entrenched in so many small awful ways that, for most white people, it really does not stick out the way more obvious racist *actions* or statements do.

This isn't to let Handler off the hook, but to say: we have A LOT to do. A LOT. It's not enough to be a white ally who knows that "driving while black" is racist, or that just because we have a mixed-race president, racism isn't over, etc.
We need - and by "we" I mean white people who are, or want to be, allies - to sit down and shut up and let the people who feel the effects of white privilege explain to us *exactly* what they're feeling. Like:
Don't share all your good ideas in a meeting, because as the only Black person in the group, you need to have a trick or two up your sleeve in reserve, because you have to do twice as much to be considered just as good as the white people.
Or: Black faculty wearing or displaying prominently their faculty ID, so they don't get stopped by cops and asked what they're doing walking around an Ivy League campus at night.
Or: You have to wear your hair in just the right way, that requires a lot of styling and work, because wearing it natural is "threatening" -- and you might not get hired, or you might not get promoted, if you look "too black."
Or: it's not really a great discovery when a Black person discovers one of their ancestors was a Famous White Man because, hey look, the Famous White Man owned slaves and almost certainly ended up in the family tree via rape.

Maybe other white people think about this stuff all the time, but I kind of doubt it. But Black people live this, experience this, all the time, and we as white people are (mostly unconsciously) MAKING them experience this. That needs to change.

Which, I guess, is an incredibly verbose way of saying #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

But we also need to do more than crank out some Benetton-ad-style books. I think we need to be shown all the things that white privilege has caused, has created, all the things we, as white people, would never think of (wearing my school ID visibly? NEVER ever ever crossed my mind to do such a thing. Never crossed my mind that there could ever be a reason why I'd need to do such a thing, why *anyone* would need to). The diverse books - and films, and tv shows, need to do more than just teach us all that Really, We're All Just People Living in This Crazy World, or Black People: They're Just Like Us! or some gross heartwarming cliche.

Daniel Handler isn't exactly the problem; the problem is the culture and ways of thinking that Daniel Handler is both a product and producer of. And that means that WE are the problem.

I'm tired of calling it white privilege. It's not a privilege, to me, to know that my friend has been stopped for driving while Black. it's not a privilege to be able to walk down the middle of a street at noon unaccosted, when a Black kid who does the same thing ends up with six bullets in his body, dead in a pool of blood on the road for no reason at all. It isn't a privilege to never have to ask myself "Did I get this job/bonus/gift/promotion/award just because I'm white?" While every day, non-white people are accused of "taking" jobs away from white people who were "more qualified" (because of their white skin, presumably), while non-white people have to worry in both directions: Did I get this because I'm black/brown/Asian/Indigenous? as well as: Did I not get this because I'm black/brown/Asian/Indigenous?

One trick therapists use is removing the word "not" from patients' vocabulary. Because when you say "not," your brain - evidently - just erases the 'not' and focuses on the thing. So: I will not eat cake, in your brain, just becomes: I will eat cake. Or simply CAKE!!!!!!!!!! It's the "don't think about a purple hippopotamus" trick.
And I think white privilege, as a phrase AND as a thing we live everyday, has been functioning as a "not."

Calling it white privilege focuses on what we get. It doesn't focus on what non-white people lose, have taken, have stolen; it doesn't focus on the fact that white privilege is actually actively hurting and killing people, and that it is allowed to do so. 

I don't want that kind of privilege. And I don't think that calling the ability to murder black children with impunity a "privilege" comes anywhere close to doing the work that needs to be done, the work of white Americans shutting the hell up, and listening, and feeling, and realizing that we've been benefiting from an almost-invisible (to us) rotten, nasty, system; and that, far more importantly than the benefits we barely see - FAR more important - we are hurting people. Hurting, and killing, real, actual, human beings.

That's not privilege. That's abuse. And it doesn't matter if you are a white person who has never shot a black teenager, if you are a white person who grew up in poverty, a white person who never uses racist phrases or makes racist jokes, a white person who has A Black Friend - you, that is WE, are still causing harm.

post title is a line from "Blink Your Eyes" by Sekou Sundiata. He performs it in this video; watch and listen.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

manic pixie dream boys

Since I started really applying myself to reading YA, in spring/summer 2010, one of the tropes I find myself laughing/shaking my head at a lot is the New Boy whose hair falls into his (green) eyes, who is well-liked, popular even, but still enigmatic, who has Wisdom and Knowledge, probably from Sad Experience, who recognizes the flawed/broken heroine protagonist as flawed/broken, and still cares about her, and helps her recover from whatever her particular trauma is.
This boy often has a name like Jake or Mason or Charlie or Connor. He is, as are the heroines, pretty much always white. He often has some kind of vaguely artistic or intellectual pursuit - perhaps he is always reading Russian literature, or taking photographs with an old manual SLR, or strumming a guitar. He is not a butch jock, but can often play impromptu games of basketball or baseball or soccer well, or maybe he goes for long solitary runs. His hair falls into his eyes. Possibly he has a dimple. Frequently, he loans a jacket or hoodie to the heroine, who then spends time smelling it and feeling comforted by it. Usually, he and the Heroine are at odds with each other, maybe put together by a science project or the school newspaper or an art assignment; they bristle at each other, they become reluctant friends, then of course realize they are In Love.

He's a stereotype, a trope, and I think he is the male equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl - in other words, a function to change the course of the protagonist's life.
Recently, the man who coined the term MPDG, Nathan Rabin, apologized for it and wished to pull it from pop culture. I appreciated his reasons, but since I have never heard nor thought of MPDG in a positive way - it is always antifeminist, it always reduces the female to precisely a dream of the hetero male protagonist/viewer/gaze - I don't feel a need to pull it from circulation. I think it's a useful way of describing a specific trope that occurs very frequently.
I don't know what the male equivalent of this should be called - he isn't manic, he's usually quite calm and collected; he isn't a pixie (but what is the 'masculine' equivalent of pixie?); he IS a dream; and of course, he's a boy, not a girl.
He's not identical to the MPDG, either, because he plays a more serious role: he saves the heroine from self-sabotage. He doesn't bring sunshine and silliness into her life, he brings a life preserver and a solid rock to anchor it to. He is, ultimately, more important than the MPDG, because without him, the heroine would, perhaps, become suicidal, would die, would never identify the rapist/murderer who traumatized her, would never admit to, and seek professional help for, the psychological problems or mental illness from which she suffers. In other words, he saves her life - he rescues her, and he pushes her along to recovery, always standing by her side.
In a lot of ways, he's actually quite like Prince Charming or any other knightly figure who swoops in to save the damsel in distress. He's just figured in a way that doesn't make him look quite so domineering. But he has the power/agency - without him, her story would not continue. Without the Dream Girl, the hero of the story will go on - perhaps boringly, perhaps with an unpleasant wife and children, but not suffering psychological torment or PTSD.

I would like a term to identify this guy, so we can get him the hell out of there.
I like a cute, intellectual boy with hair that falls into his green eyes as much as the next hetero girl, but he's a FICTION. Very few boys OR girls are as wise and sensitive as he is while they're in high school, or as willing to stick it out over the long haul while the girl is hospitalized with an eating disorder or whatever. But this is not the worst of the problem with him -

The real problem is that still, even in books with smart, clever, interesting female protagonists, they need a Man to Save The Day. Why can't a heroine come to terms with her grief over accidentally killing her sister through a relationship with a good friend, or a mentor, or a cousin, or an aunt? Why don't any of her friends, or any of the women in her life, recognize her depression/trauma/helplessness? Why does it take the arrival of a mysterious, hot new boy for anyone to realize our Heroine is in trouble, unhappy, ill?

Why do our female protagonists still need a man, even a teenage boy, to give them a sense of value, worth, purpose, place in life?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Hardly a new issue, but the abundance of quotes zooming around the internet that are not attributed, incorrectly attributed, inaccurately sourced or documented is immense, and infuriating. I hadn't seen this one before, though, and now I'm really annoyed.
Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! In every place I've seen this where a source is mentioned, it is attributed to Lewis Carroll.

Those lines seem to be in Tim Burton's rather dreadful 2010 adaptation of Alice, spoke by the Mad Hatter and Alice, respectively.

This particular image pairs the fake Carroll quote with one of John Tenniel's original illustrations for the 1865 publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I also saw the quote with Tenniel's illustration of Alice talking with the Cheshire Cat, while he is perched in a tree. THAT illustration comes at the end of Chapter 6 "Pig & Pepper," and is when Alice and Cheshire Cat have their discussion about madness.
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't be here."

Getting the attribution correct matters. Carroll didn't write the "Have I gone mad" quote. It's from a bad movie made four years ago. I knew it was wrong the moment I saw it, because I have read and/or taught *Alice* 300 million times (not an exaggeration). I know every line in that book absurdly well. And "bonkers"? come ON.
It's quite easy to check the text, as well, if you don't trust me: the text is free on Project Gutenberg, and you can do a find/search for the words from the quote.

If you love the Tim Burton quote, fine! Just don't say it's from Lewis Carroll. If you want to quote the original Carroll text on the subject of madness, Alice's conversation with the Cat is perfect.

Give credit where it's due. Care about accuracy. Words matter, and so do the people who write or say them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle + No Future

I'm jumping happily onto the Grasshopper Jungle bandwagon; I read it over the weekend and loved it, of course. I love Austin and Robby as characters; I love Austin's histories; I love Eden Five Needs You 4; I love that this is a book that stars a bisexual teenager (bisexuals get short shrift everywhere); I love that sperm and balls are major plot points/motifs. I love that, very late in the book, there is a wonderful small clever joke referring to a whaling accident. I love that the book manages to be funny, anxious, deeply loving, dissatisfied, and completely horny all the time. I love that everything makes Austin horny. I am dying to teach this book already, though I anticipate students disliking the - what should I call it? omniscient isn't the right word - multidimensional? view and knowledge of history that Austin has, which is one of the things I loved most about the book. Austin is writing from a kind of 360 degree view of history - the only way I can describe how it felt to me as a reader is the way that certain video games and google street view and things allow you to rotate your view in every direction. Austin sees the past, the present, the future - they are both diachronic and synchronic. Everything is always happening, everything has always already happened, everything will always have happened. It's great and a bit dizzying. Andrew Smith has knocked everyone's socks (and Eden jumpsuits) right off with this novel, and all the praise he and the book have gotten are totally deserved.

The thing I mainly want to say is that Grasshopper Jungle and Lee Edelman's No Future belong together. Late last night this occurred to me - the "no futureness" of the book, the dying Iowa town, all those lost balls and discarded sperm, the "unstoppable" everything, the fact that it is a record, as Austin tells us immediately, of the end of the world. There is a smidgen of reproductive futurity in the book, but not in a way that really makes the reader believe in that future. Grasshopper Jungle, with its gay hero Robby, and its bisexual narrator Austin, and the lurking megalomaniac Dr McKeon are all figures of non-futurity. What I find wonderful and curious is that Smith somehow makes this non-futurity seem, if not exciting or positive, then far from bleak. This is not an unhopeful book, though it is not a hopeful one, either. It is an exercise in synchronicity, in apophenia, in lines converging, crossing.
But it is not for one moment a book where Our Hero takes the Romantic Interest by the hand, and steps out into the sunshine and into the bright new future. There is something Else in Grasshopper Jungle.  I don't know what it is, exactly, other than queer, though queer doesn't seem totally accurate. It's been several years since I read Edelman carefully, and I don't have time to revisit him now, but I think if you put No Future and Grasshopper Jungle alone in a room together, some kind of exciting and intriguing critical reaction will take place.