GOOD AT LIFE

August 30, 2015

Oliver Sacks died today. My older brother turned 40 yesterday. Rain interrupted our severe drought. The wind blew trees over. An important ex-boyfriend surfaced online and said hello from another continent. Friends announced engagements and pregnancies on Facebook. Today I decided for the one-hundredth time that I’m not cut out to be a single parent (and maybe not any kind of parent), that I can live without experiencing motherhood, that it’s too crazy to summon new life into existence. We’re here to love, I reminded myself, and love expands like gas to fill any container. It’s strange to be an extra person, but every once in a while you can help someone from that position.

In the early 1990s, I found The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in my small town public library. Besides being titillated by the subject matter, I liked the soundness of the writing and also its kindness. Even then, in my early teens, I knew I wanted to write. Oliver Sacks showed me that non-fiction can be magical too, and that helped put my life on its spin.

I met Oliver Sacks 11 or 12 years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties. I was battered by a first wave of literary and romantic rejection, and was hiding out as a production assistant at a public radio station. I had just read Uncle Tungsten and still considered Sacks a writing role model. I kept him and Kate Edgar company in the green room before his on-air interview. I was supposed to be tending to his needs, but Kate was already fixing him his tea just the way he liked it. I was standing next to him at a counter when he started rummaging through his draw-string bag, looking for a business card to give me. He took items out one at a time, looked at each one as if he’d never seen it before, and then carefully set it on the counter. A comb. A swimming cap. A little notebook. A pencil. It was completely child-like. I thought “Wow, this guy isn’t that good at life either.”

During that radio interview, Sacks referred to himself as an “isolate.” He said he didn’t form strong attachments to people, and that it was just the way he was. Around the same time I’d started reading Haruki Murakami novels, and I imagined Oliver Sacks as one of Murakami’s characters—a solitary man with a simple life and a few quirks. I imagined Haruki Murakami describing Oliver Sacks with the reportorial kindness that Oliver Sacks used to write about his patients. I imagined myself that way too.

I went on to have more love affairs and minor skirmishes and book ideas in the next decade. I zigged and zagged with the appropriate youthful energy. I stayed in the rock tumbler of false starts for a long, long time, into my deep thirties and on toward forty. I’m still there. I never settled down, and I never got my teeth into any real creative success. I got tired, and I got somewhat practical. When Oliver Sacks’s essay on facing death was published this February, I had been freshly dumped and was heading into my fourth year as an editor at a financial firm. I received his New York Times essay like a religious text. I trusted everything he said about living and dying. When I read his writing, I felt like I was learning how to be a person.

I didn’t know until his obituary today that before he died, Oliver Sacks ended decades of celibacy and had a serious relationship with another writer. I’m so glad he did, but when I read his essay back in February, I still thought of him as an isolate and that was part of the comfort I found there. He spoke of clarity, audacity, plain speech. He spoke of love and work. He spoke of the death of contemporaries, the chipping away of self. He had floated above his life enough to see that everything was connected. He said he was afraid of dying but more than that, he was grateful.

I had these nightmares as a kid that certain and painful death is a few minutes away. I’m with my mother and my sister, and we are trapped. We’ve run, we’ve struggled, we’ve hidden—we’ve tried everything. Now we’re just going to die, and we fully realize it. We know that it will be slow enough so that we will have to watch each other die. We wish we had cyanide capsules but we don’t. There are only a couple of minutes before it begins. Then a couple minutes after that it will be over. We look at each other’s faces and huddle together. Then I feel billowing, exploding love for my mother and sister—I’m surrounded by thick, anesthetizing love. I see it reflecting back at me from them, and it multiplies and swells and echoes between us. We’re still going to die, the fear is still there—but the love is just more important.

I’ve been trying to climb out of a hole all year. It’s hard to keep your mojo sometimes. Meaninglessness gets more biting, and you just want to lie down and let entropy do its thing. I always think of the Virginia Woolf line, “It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.” When I remember that everyday life is the horror, sometimes I can invoke the antidote I found in my nightmare. Love—in whatever form you can muster it.

Oliver Sacks died today. Time to get back to work.

Ody-C #6: When you identify with the sex slave, it hurts to laugh

Ody-C #6: This issue is about He, but he didn't make it onto the cover.
Ody-C #6: This issue is about He, but he didn’t make it onto the cover.

In Ody-C #6, beautiful “He” reads history books about wronged goddesses and queens who are raped, slut-shamed, killed, and so on. It’s unclear what they mean to him. The stories are inter-mixed with He having a bad time as a sex slave who has been first rejected, then cut loose. He is the stand-in for Helen of Troy in the Odyssey. We know He is considered beautiful, but his stance is meek and uncertain. He as awkward as a male stripper at a bachelorette party in a library. We never see his face. His butt cheeks hang out in a shiny gimp suit. There’s also some kind of fancy dongle on his dick. A window in his suit showcases his Adam’s apple, like a nod to the boob window in female superhero costumes. It is sad.

All feathers, no strut
All feathers, no strut

Christian Ward’s art and Matt Fraction’s writing are vigorous, ambitious, intertwined. The colorful, swirling silliness and mythological mash-up of Ody-C is as glorious as ever. There’s a lot to love, but it’s hard to  unsee the ridiculousness of these male creators gender-bending the Odyssey, loading it with women, giving the human species a whole new female-ish sex to exploit (the sebex), and then patting themselves on the back for caring about what it all means. As earnest-seeming as Fraction has been about his intentions with Ody-C and what the story “reveals” about society—he is just a kid in a sandbox playing with toys, and his toys are colorful scraps of rapey mythology.

Ody-C was more fun in the first arc, when women warriors were tearing up shit, behaving badly, and marauding across the universe. It’s less fun to follow a male sex slave in a gimp suit in Ody-C #6. Except it’s actually mawkish and wincingly funny—so was it supposed to be more fun? Is Fraction making a point about sex slavery in general? Are the creators… making light of sex slavery? A thing that women and children all over the world are enduring right now? Maybe we weren’t supposed to laugh at He, but we do because we recognize. The shock of relating more—on a real, everyday level—to a powerless man in a stupid gimp suit than to the woman warrior Odyssia makes it hurt to laugh.

Our first glimpse of He back in Ody-C #1
Our first glimpse of He back in Ody-C #1

It’s hilarious when He is all primped to spend time with Ene, but she’s too busy to think about sex so we just see his little slumped figure standing alone, with his upper thighs bare above his tall boots. It’s ridiculous the way he looks, as a three-quarter-sized man marching along in a strange city in his gimp suit. The way he cocks his head to the side like a dog when the woman at the whorehouse asks him if he’s buying or selling. He has to work as a janitor in the whorehouse because no one is interested in paying to have sex with him, and then we see his little shoulders as he sweeps up—pathetic. Ward keeps pulling the frame away from him dramatically, making him look small and alone.

Lost and alone like Holly Golightly's cat
Lost and alone like Holly Golightly’s cat

If Fraction and Ward think this is what it means to turn women’s prettified servitude on its ear—well, we consider ourselves more than this. We consider ourselves something strong anyway. We think of ourselves as clever survivors. We do not see ourselves as pathetic shells. So if a large point of this book is to say something about gender issues by flipping the genders – WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY? So far it just seems that women are magnificent when they are dominant and have masculine traits. Men are ridiculous and pathetic in a feminized role. We are invited to laugh at He. There’s nothing subversive about him to make up for it.

Forget ancient, theoretical times. Forget fiction and mythology. It’s happening now in Iraq and in Kirkland, Washington. Forget even sex slavery itself. He being left on the shelf and then cut loose resembles nothing so much as the actual lives of housewives. Forget housewives even. It’s just women, expiring and being left on the shelf. Every day. Fading away and becoming invisible. Told it’s happening to us, told to fight it, then shoved to the side.

Once Fraction made a claim to making a societal statement about gender (in his commentary in the back matter of earlier issues), he put himself in a bind. He should have stepped off with that nonsense, because it’s not his place to step back and forth across the line of poking fun and being deadly serious. Or he’s not doing it right. We women can chortle along with Amy Schumer’s skit of Julia Louis Dreyfus’s “last fuckable day.” People who survived ghastly divorces as children can laugh grimly through a dark movie about a family falling apart like The Squid and the Whale while their spouses from happy homes might find the whole thing “too depressing to enjoy.” Stephen Elliott can auto-eviscerate in his novel Happy Baby about being submissive to an abusive woman after being raped by a guard in juvie as a boy, and we can respect this truth of his as a man who has had bad things happen to him. It’s an authentic experience of someone shoved into submissive roles and then seeking them. Elliott’s not trying to play a game with the sexes.

In the notes at the end of Ody-C #6, Fraction seems to be trying belatedly to step back from the more serious, grandiose language he used in the back of earlier issues—now he’s just noodling around guys, no big deal. He ends by saying, “The good news is I have no idea what I’m doing. The bad news is I have no idea what I’m doing.” As if some part of him knows he already over-played his hand. As if he knows he’s painted himself into a corner.

So what do you do if you feel the way I do, but like me are hooked on Ward’s art and don’t want to give up on Ody-C? Just step back yourself. Reduce it to the patterns and lines on the page. The words don’t even need to be read. The letters are just objects. The word boxes are just another design feature in these busy pages. A gimp suit is not a gimp suit. It only reflects light differently than the patterned folds of cloth on the servants who help to make He beautiful for his mistress. We are children and know not of sex. We are Virginia Woolf stream of consciousness. We are sensations. We open the hatches of our eyes and let the shapes and colors fall in.

Gorgeous.
Gorgeous.

Reading Magpie, Magpie

magpie-panel-preview (1)

It’s August and I own a physical copy of Matt Huynh’s Magpie, Magpie now. I sent for it in the mail, and I have it right here. It’s summer, and sunlight is filtering in and reflecting off the black, white, and grey of the pages. The book is paperback. It has only a small amount of heft but it has weight. It’s here in the room with me. I feel its texture under my fingers and I feel the breeze from the electric fan across my bare feet and shoulders.

I was sitting in this same purple chair on New Year’s Eve when I read Magpie, Magpie for the first time. I didn’t have the physical book yet. I only had a link to the webcomic. I had resisted clicking over to it because I love and need physical books. Screens and computers are a barrier to me. I just want to hold something in my hands. I want to read it on the bus. I want to be able to cry on it.

I was alone on New Year’s Eve and enjoying my solitude. The person I thought of as my new boyfriend was on a road trip with his friend, and I thought we would have some kind of text exchange that would stand in for a midnight kiss. I thought 2015 was going to be better than the years before. I thought I would be falling in love, and building something up. I did not think I was really alone that night.

In my expansive mood, I clicked on the link to Magpie, Magpie. It’s not that I was transported into the story, it was more that somewhere someone turned the crank that opened all the apertures, and the rain and the crows blew in.

The background and gutters are black. The panels are white and black, brushy illustrations.

First the panels overlap, rising and falling like music beds under the voice of a radio story.

Then the page scrolls down smoothly, unreeling panels one after another in a neat row.

Then the panels wink on and off like lighted windows in the darkness. Opening and closing.

Windows, mirrors, magpies. Blackness.

Then panels fade in and out from the blackness. They don’t overlap now; they are discrete. It is like driving from one town to the next at night, when it isn’t a smear of towns and you feel the darkness and quietness of woods. And then, after a while, the lights of the next town.

There has been a dust storm. There is confusion and movement.

There is a long wait in the darkness at one point as my heart beats and I keep pressing the down arrow. These waits are proscribed.

Sometimes I roll down into the next panel and it rises up in a fluid motion. But sometimes the panel edges into view. Click the arrow down and a bit of it comes up. Click it again and a bit more comes up. It’s like pulling a rope hand over hand, pulling the weight of something heavy up off the ocean floor—an anchor or a crab pot. Finally that thing emerges from the black water.

Then to go back, to review, you click up and the thing inches down again like a coffin being lowered down into the dark ground.

There is white, very bright white. It’s a dark story but saturated with brightness.

The panels can overlap gently or smash into each other.

The panels accelerate and swirl in a feeling of panic, circling, confusion, speed, breathlessness when the panels overlap each other so swiftly that you can barely make them out.

And then the panels speed into frames and there is just a white bird, flying against the black background, a couple of bold feathery brush strokes, only the suggestion of a bird, but very clearly it is a bird. It is not feathery in a delicate sense. It takes up most of the frame, dominating, alone, flying there. Beat after beat, it flaps and flies.

Over and over, again and again, I scroll through Magpie, Magpie, past midnight and into the New Year. It’s later where my sweetheart is, and I know he has stopped somewhere and isn’t driving through the night. He just never sent word back, and I crossed over into the New Year alone.

Clean Sheets

(Just a little something written years ago under a pen name in Brooklyn)

Mom took us on a little trip, just to get us off the island before summer vacation ended. Dad couldn’t go. He works all the time. He leaves the house before I get up and sometimes doesn’t come home until after I go to bed. When he’s home we have to be quiet, so we don’t bother him, because he’s so tired and over-worked. Once he said it was killing him, and then mom told him not to say that in front of me. He sits in the living room and reads a lot. Sometimes I say, “Dad,” to tell him something and he doesn’t look up, so I say it a couple more times, but then I give up and go do something else. We are nicer to him than we are to Mom. We feel sorry for him all the time. When he gets angry he’s scary, and he might just say one loud thing, like “FUCK.” Then he’ll be quiet for the rest of the day. Mom’s a yeller, but she gets over it fast.

I felt bad that we went on a trip without Dad. He took us to the ferry dock. When the boat pulled away, we stood on-deck and waved at Dad. He waved wide and crazy with both arms. I felt so bad leaving him all alone. He didn’t just walk home like I thought he would. He ran back up the dock to the road and raced the ferry toward town. I couldn’t believe it! I never saw him move that fast before. He ran out to the end of another dock and waved some more. Mom giggled. He jumped up in the air and spread his arms wide like he was excited. I knew he was really sad, though, not happy. He just wanted to show us how much he loved us. I started to cry, partly because I hadn’t known that he loved us that much. Mostly I felt guilty and worried about him being alone.

I cried for a long time in my bunk. Mom said, “It’s okay, honey—he’ll be fine.” Then after awhile she said, “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP CRYING.” And then my brother said, “Yeah—shut up.” Then my mom yelled at him not to tell me to shut up. The rocking boat and the crying made me tired, so I fell asleep.

We had fun on our trip! We stayed in a bed and breakfast that used to be a whorehouse, and we saw things we don’t see at home—like horses and a train. Mom let us have Belgian waffles for breakfast. I sent a postcard to my best friend. We saw some rainbow pencils in a store, so I got some of those for when school starts again.

When we got home Dad was in a quiet mood. I expected him to be really happy to see us—I know I was glad to see him! I still felt guilty, so I tried to make it sound like we only had an okay time. He didn’t look as happy as he did when we were leaving. I figured he was jealous.

We took our bags upstairs and Mom said to Dad, “Wow, you changed the sheets. Why did you do that?” I looked at Dad. He doesn’t normally wash things. He shrugged and smiled a little bit. He didn’t say why he changed the sheets. Mom started talking about something else.

I went in my room and put my backpack on my own bed. I had to lie down for a few minutes because my stomach felt bad all of a sudden, like the time at Christmas when I overdid it on eggnog then threw up on the linoleum. I got my new pencils out and fiddled with them and thought about coloring on the wall a little bit, which I was too old for. I wasn’t sure if fifth grade was going to be okay or not.

Low #7: Don’t Worry About the Backstory, Baby

Low #7 Cover
The cover of Low #7, in which a robot polar bear is ridden and Rick Remender flirts with literary greatness.

I have been a sharp critic of Low, but I keep buying it because Greg Tocchini’s colors skate down all the reward pathways of my brain. Low #8 came out recently and I bought it too—but I haven’t even read it yet because I am still stuck on the beauty of Low #7. It’s a gem of a short story, and a true stand-alone issue: complete, self-contained, and able to justify its own existence. Other stand-alones between arcs shouldn’t even be called “stand-alones.” They should just be called “confusing interludes,” and then everyone would know what to expect.

Low #7 on the other hand, is the clearest and best issue of the series thus far, with fewer characters, less noise, and more digestible sincerity. It might also be the best thing I’ve ever seen from Rick Remender, period—he builds strong story bones and then stays out of his own way in Low #7. Tocchini adds strong action, expression, and color—but he holds himself back from accidentally turbo-powering Remender’s latent cheeseball factor.

Low #7.2

The story shows us one day in the life of two people: A high-ranking government official and her artist girlfriend. We don’t need to get to know anyone else. The story has only two locations: home in the morning, at work during the day, and home in the evening. There’s no narration, no thought boxes, no backstory pressed into dialogue. There are no flashbacks, no fancy cutting or jumping. World-building is kept to a minimum. All we need to know is that these two people love each other, and art is considered dangerous and illegal in this city-state.

It’s a utilitarian world we haven’t seen before—so the interiors are calm in the scenes with the women, and our eyes are held by their faces. Tocchini fills the panels with rusty reds, sea greens and whites, but makes the artist’s hair and garment a bright blue that tilts at a strange angle from the rest of the palette. It feels like a quarter tone of music, caught between notes, just a little jarring. It adds to our sense that she vibrates at a different frequency than both her lover and the rest of the city-state. The sexual tension between the women is palpable, but so is their everyday discontent with their lives and each other. It makes their love believable.

Low #7.1

The themes of artistic freedom and a totalitarian state are classic and played the usual way. In this case the newness is all in Tocchini’s wonderful details and in Remender’s one hundred little decisions to hold back and not hammer on the story’s big ideas. Instead he focuses on the feelings of the two women, keeping everything on a human level and forcing lofty themes through that lens. The story moves organically, moment to moment, glance to glance, taking its time.

In the middle pages, when the government official is terrorizing an underground printing press, the panels get more frenetic and busy with scuffles and bodies. Tocchini keeps these panels earthbound and physical as the scene deteriorates into a brawl. The panels narrow and shrink and then dash off the edge of the page, deepening the effect of a scuffle in dim rooms with low ceilings. He manages to give us the impression of a fight at the same time that he blocks the fight out for us like dance steps.

By the time we get to the story’s climax and last big struggle, everything… is … gut-wrenching. It is gut-wrenching in exactly the way Remender tries and fails to make things gut-wrenching in so much else that he does! Rick Remender, stop and notice what you did and how you did it in Low #7. Here you made us feel, just what you wanted us to feel. And we feel it hard.

Previous writings on Low:

Low #1: I’m Allergic to the People in Low

Happy Family Postscript: I feel bad for being mean about Low, and then I dig myself in deeper

Low #3: Low and Behold! (Now I Like Low)

Low #4: I’m not Mad, I’m Just Disappointed

A Reveal that Is Years in the Making Is like Old Light from a Dead Star

When Batgirl’s villainous impostor turned out to be (apparently) male last year, I wrote a review highlighting the queering of the villain, as did a lot of other comics commentators. The writers took to twitter saying they were sorry and had learned something from their mistake. The plot twist in the summer finale of Pretty Little Liars also queered the villain, and also employed a surprise gender reveal as a plot twist. Rather than apologize, the show’s writers have chosen to weave themselves little protective bowers out of their efforts and intentions. So let’s look at the result of those efforts and intentions and break the issue down.

Vanessa Ray as Cece Drake
Vanessa Ray as Cece Drake

The Problem

The problem is that in one fell swoop, Cece Drake is revealed to be both a transgender woman and the cruel, warped tormentor of the show’s protagonists for the last many seasons. This plays right into the hurtful trope that trans people are dangerous freaks who can’t be trusted. Also, the trans woman character is played by a cis-gender actress (denying both acting work and representation to trans people).

The Contrast

Pretty Little Liars has been pretty ridiculous and over-the-top in its murdery twists and turns, but at the heart of all that action, it’s been surprisingly, sweetly down to earth about the sexuality of LGBT youth. One of the main characters is a lesbian, and there have been bisexual characters, and unlabeled characters who sometimes do gay things, and characters previously thought of as straight who crop up in same-sex relationships without it seeming odd or noteworthy. The show has had a lot of social media influence and has brought us closer to a world where people don’t even have to come out of a closet, because sexual orientation will no longer be a thing that needs to be announced or declared, for anyone. So, this exploration of LGBT teen sexuality has been a sweet island of understated realism in a swirl of junior soap opera plot points. Not so, Cece Drake’s transgender status. Cece’s trans identity is smack in the middle of the high drama, treated as one of the things that probably wouldn’t happen, like leaving your four-year-old in an old-fashioned mental institution or accidentally burying your teenage daughter alive in your backyard.

Mitigating Factors

The writers clearly had some sense that they were playing with fire. Several things were done to assuage the “queering the villain” mis-step.

  • While Ali is covered in heavy paint and powder for the prom, Cece’s own femininity is downplayed—she is wearing minimal make-up, has her hair pulled back plainly, and is wearing an over-sized black hoodie. This isn’t the glitzy hyper-feminized stereotype of someone who was born physically male trying to pass as a woman (which also unhelpfully conflates transvestites with transgendered people).
  • Even though Cece has been the girls’ tormentor, she is often a sympathetic character in this reveal episode. She was severely misunderstood and mistreated at many early points in her childhood. We feel for her childhood self. We see how her father rejected her. We feel her pain at coming across her mother’s dead body, and we believe that she earnestly wanted to be part of her own family, however she could.
  • Cece’s deceit and misdeeds are in good company. Besides learning how terrible her father was/is, we also learn more about the deceptive actions of many other people in this episode: Sara, Bethany, Mona, and Agent Tanner are also cast in a more sinister light, and none of them is trans. And of course, it’s been long-established that the whole town is full of liars and murderers.

The Casting Dilemma

Cece Drake isn’t played by a trans actor, but that wouldn’t have served the need to surprise the audience. Until it is common for trans actors to play roles that include both trans and cis characters, it won’t make sense to cast them in a role of a secretly trans character. This is a Catch 22 that will hopefully come to an end as trans actors get more work of all kinds, and as writers use trans characters more broadly beyond plot twists and shock value.

Conclusion

Pretty Little Liars used a cheap, tired, harmful trope about trans people and no amount of softening or fancy footwork can make that untrue. You can lift the story out of the societal context and examine it from all sides, but at the end of the day, you can’t pretend the context doesn’t matter—the story doesn’t live in a vacuum.

This plot twist and reveal has been years in the making—the show is in its sixth season and has been wending its way toward this point from early on. In a way, this reveal is like light from a star that is only just now reaching us. Here on earth, in the U.S.A., the conversation about transsexuality has grown louder and wider by leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. And the stories we see have a role to play. A turning point in my awareness was seeing Laverne Cox in the first season of Orange is the New Black, and then flaring up in anger at coworkers talking about how Chelsea Manning doesn’t deserve to have access to her hormones in prison. Caitlin Jenner seems to have been a turning point for my coworkers, who finally stopped saying rude things about trans people after Jenner’s ESPY acceptance speech. Some stories are ahead and dragging us along with them. Some stories–like Pretty Little Liars, at the moment–are coming along from behind. We take a step forward in building empathy, and then stumble backwards when we reinforce gross stereotypes. We can and should call out the laggards, but my hope is that we are all still staggering ahead on this together.