Archive for the 'politics' Category

an annotated bibliography of the inside of my head

You know those books that you can’t stop thinking about, won’t shut up about, and wish everyone around you would read? The ones that, if taken in aggregate, would tell people more about you than your resume?” Yeah, I do. Here are some of mine. (I’m going with the obscure ones. If you haven’t already read Dark Emu and The Body Keeps the Score, go, do.)

Nuclear Rites (1996) – Hugh Gusterson embedded himself as an anthropologist at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. He talks about bomb tests as rites of passage for the weapons scientists, and I find myself thinking about this whenever I think about douchebag VCs investing in horrorshows like Uber. A Cold War kid, I saw The Day After on TV and followed the news trickling out of the Chernobyl disaster. I couldn’t conceive of why anyone would build such fucking appalling weapons. This book helped me understand, at least a little.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1998) – I constantly quote Michael Frayn’s “In a good play, everyone is right.” This is a book-length version of the same idea. Her doctors had one framework for understanding Lia Lee’s epilepsy, and her Hmong family had another. However kind and well-intentioned Westerners think we are, when we tacitly assume the superiority of our version of the truth, children die.

Depression: A Public Feeling (2000) – This book introduced me to “political depression”, the idea that anxiety and grief are a wholly reasonable reaction to the destructive and hypercompetitive economies in which we are forced to live. The first chapters are a poetic memoir of one of the author’s depressive episodes, and I find myself reading them over and over. I’ll always be grateful that Ann Cvetkovich gave me a way of thinking about my relationship with my landscape of origin as a settler seeking to right the wrongs of the past.

The Language of Blood (2003) – A wrenching memoir that changed the way I think about transracial adoption and motherhood. If you like it, see also All You Can Ever Know.

Mother Nature (2005) – An anthropologist and primatologist considers the evidence for how best to raise children. A book of radical kindness. If you like it, see also A Primate’s Memoir.

Postwar (2006) I’ve called this the missing manual for Generation X. It provides the context for the political climate in which we were born – the fading of the postwar consensus and peace dividend, setting the stage for the attack on social institutions by Thatcher and Reagan, and the collapse of the social contract that brought us to where we are. You’re not going to like this book, exactly. It’s hard work and heartbreaking. Judt died before seeing his worst fears fulfilled, but if you want more, his student Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is basically the prequel.

This House of Grief (2014) – Another dumb joke of mine is that Mad Max: Fury Road is a keenly observed documentary of my childhood. This book is, however, a keenly observed documentary of the middle-class Australia in which I grew up, its lonely and angry men, its frightened and angry women, and the horrors it inflicts on its children. In some ways it’s the distillation of everything I’ve talked about here: the slaughterhouse of empire, and ways in which it drains our private lives of meaning.

Horses in Company (2017) – Lucy Rees, who wrote some of my favorite pony books when I was a child, has spent the intervening thirty years catching up on new science around equine ethology. Much as alpha wolves and cocaine-addicted rats illustrate the stress of being an experimental subject rather than authentic wild animal behavior, the received wisdom about dominant and submissive horses reflects domestic animals under resource constraint. Rees argues that wild horses, who can eat the grass beneath their feet, live in the real-world version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and that in this state of nature they’re feminist matriarchal gestalt entities. I jest, but only a little. If we could take violence out of the way we interact with animals and children, maybe we could take it out of the way we interact with one another.

the invention of horses

Last night I read and enjoyed Wynne Davies’ The Welsh Cob, described in Amazon reviews as “for cob enthusiasts only”. (I feel seen.) While there have been horses in Wales since pre-Roman times, the purebred cob, an absolute unit, is a surprisingly late invention. The first Welsh stud book was published in 1902, following a busy late 19th century of outcrossing native Welsh ponies with Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Hackneys, Norfolk Roadsters, and Yorkshire Coach Horses.


King Flyer, b1894

At almost exactly the same time, my old friend Lady Anne Blunt was importing Arabian horses to England. The modern Arabian and the Welsh Cob were modeled on the English Thoroughbred, itself a literary fiction. Horses, obviously, exist, but purebred horses exist only in books, beginning with the General Stud Book of 1793. The GSB represents a cartel of Thoroughbred breeders and owners. Only horses registered in the GSB can race on the flat in Britain. A closed stud book raises prices by creating artificial scarcity. (Because of the risk of fraud, Thoroughbreds can only be registered if they are conceived by “live cover”, rather than artificial insemination, a quirk of history that keeps a lot of Thoroughbred stallions very busy.)

The GSB is almost exactly contemporaneous with the United States of America, and both of them pre-date Burke’s Peerage, the stud book for British humans. Nations are also literary fictions. Different rules apply to those whose names are written down in the right books. The white colonists needed a reason to argue that while they deserved liberty from oppression, their slaves did not. They found it in the invention of race. White people, like Thoroughbred horses, counted. They were counted. Black people, like half-bred horses, counted for less. Purebred horses were invented in part as a way to make this appear to be a law of nature: but it isn’t.

on bitterness

When I was pregnant I craved bitter greens, and this craving has never entirely left me. Last night I ate, with great focus, a plate of shaved brussels sprouts. Last week I told a colleague the story of how I broke my leg. I left part of it out; nevertheless, he said: “You sound bitter.” I am.

The evangelical church in which I spent my teens is highly critical of bitterness. So is society at large. I’m beginning to understand the ways in which this serves political ends. Bitterness is the perception of injustice. God knows we are treated unfairly, but God forbid we should be angry about it.

Burnout is cumulative, like concussion. After I was fired, I never wanted to work in the tech industry again. Now that I have returned (as if there were any other industry; as if academia, journalism, publishing, teaching weren’t equally soul-destructive) I can feel the limits of my capacity to endure, just as I feel the limited range of motion in my ankle. There are leaps of faith I could make in the past I won’t be able to make again, and not only because I am ageing. I have lost the faith that made such leaps possible.

In its place I have my bitterness: the astringency of medicinal herbs, that can heal, or poison. Knowledge that exists beyond the imagination of the church and society at large. Witchcraft.

messing about in boats

We enjoyed the Rivercat so much that we’ve taken two more ferries, one around Scotland Island from Church Point and one to the Basin from Palm Beach. Pittwater smells of salt and diesel, the smell of my childhood. There are cormorants and kookaburras, gulls and jellies.

I read this remarkable essay about Australian childrens’ books as well as a thoughtful article about the high country brumbies that I can’t share because it’s paywalled to hell. Like the mustangs in California, Australia’s feral horses wreck delicate ecosystems. Scientists and the traditional owners of country want them gone. But local cattlemen lost grazing land to the Snowy hydro scheme and to the National Parks well within living memory. To them, the brumby cull is the last straw. In the paywalled article, National Party MP Peter Cochran whines: “You don’t have to be black to feel a connection to this land.”

I grew up on stories about brumbies, by Mary Elwyn Patchett and Elyne Mitchell. In them, the wild horse is as much a part of the bush as the possum and the kangaroo. It took me decades to recognize this as a way for white people to lay claim to what wasn’t theirs. When I revisited Patchett hoping to read her books to the kids, I was appalled by her racism. Mitchell’s father was Harry Chauvel of the charge on Beersheba. Both writers are immersed and complicit in the white supremacist, militarized, settler-colonialist narrative that Evelyn Araluen describes in her essay.

Even my beloved Swallows and Amazons, with its naval officer father and its mother who grew up sailing on Sydney Harbour, instructs children in exploration, mapping and conquest. Maybe Westerners can’t have innocent pleasures. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth questioning as simply messing about in boats. Do you want empires? Because that’s how you get empires.

the one with the politics

I’m gonna assume that if you stumbled across my tiny angry queer blog somehow and didn’t run away screaming, we’re not in violent disagreement about Right Versus Wrong or Should Babies Be In Prison or Are Black Or Indigenous Or Trans People Human or any of the other hotly disputed issues of the day. I started calling my members of Congress the day after the 2016 elections. I’ve written fistfuls of postcards. I got so active in my local Indivisible group, they eventually drafted me into leadership. My first order of business was partnering with SwingLeft to canvass in our local GOP-held Congressional district, CA-10.

CA-10 stretches from the foothills of Mt Diablo right across the Central Valley to the Sierra. It’s all of Stanislaus and a big chunk of San Joaquin counties. The big towns are Tracy and Turlock, Manteca and Modesto; the big industries are agriculture and being a bedroom community for Sili Valley. You can get from Tracy to San Jose in just under two hours on the Altamont Corridor Express. My first impressions of Tracy, back in January, were grim. Much of the town was carved out of cow-pastures in the 1990s, that nadir of domestic architecture where success equalled building a beige cube to occupy the maximum municipally permitted volume over its lot. My first day, I canvassed with a clipboard in a depressing mall on the suburban/rural border, complete with flashbacks to my adolescence as a supermarket cashier in same. It was rainy and cold. I talked to two Trump voters, one of them a woman. It was awful.

Things got a lot better when I started taking cronies from SF and knocking on doors. Even the Trump voters were pleasanter, and our fellow Dems are family. Tracy is much nicer in the sunshine, and it’s sunny most of the year. The very significant upside of those cow-pasture subdivisions is that the gardens are glorious. The most memorable was a little bungalow that had ripped out its lawn and replaced it with gorgeous native meadow plants – talk about life goals – but everyone had something amazing: vigorous bougainvillea or California poppies, jade plants spreading into whole jade trees, mature redwoods, tree ferns from my island home, and the wildlife to go with them: cheery, chatty murders of crows, raptors soaring on thermals, hummingbirds buzzing among the fuchsia, SO many butterflies.

I got fond of the drive out, through Crow Canyon with all its mustard plants, over the Altamont pass. (Less of the drive home through the traffic in the Maze.) I recruited enough folks that I had to drive a minivan to hold ’em all! Then I broke my leg. My good friend the esteemed Jack took over the minivan, and reports that almost 200 people showed up on Saturday – we used to get 20-30. I’m gonna miss the big finish in person, but today I signed up for texting all over the country. Man, has the technology ever moved along! It’s a far cry from Hillary HQ. I’m with Red2Blue, a class operation focused on cleaning lists and setting us up for success in future campaigns. We’re using Slack, GDocs and Relay. We survey. We sweep.

Some days, I can almost convince myself there are gonna be future campaigns.

But whether we win or not – and not seems likely; I’m not sure we can retake the Senate even if we retake the House – I’ll keep doing this. I should’ve been doing it all along. It’ll take more than electoral disasters or broken bones or rapidly collapsing democracies to stop me. I’ve been training for the resistance all my life.

funemployment funtensifies

It turns out that if you let me mooch off Mister Jeremy and spend my time however the hell I like for most of a year, it’ll be one quarter community organizing to resist the Trump agenda (weekly visits to local members of Congress plus get out the vote canvassing in our nearest GOP-held district), one quarter supporting under-represented minorities in the tech industry, one quarter writing gay science fiction, and one quarter snoogling horses. I don’t know why I’m surprised. I doubt anyone else is.

It’s possible my surprise Sabbatical is coming to an end, and I don’t know how to feel about that.

Can I even express my gratitude to my mister of eighteen years and one day for his fabulous awesometude and generosity, signs point to no. My advice for a happy marriage is to marry the kindest, smartest, most curious and emotionally intelligent person you have ever met, and then try to deserve them.

what a weird day

Our mayor Ed Lee died very early this morning. He was shopping at the Safeway on Monterey last night when he had a heart attack. The doctors at SF General were unable to save him. He was a complicated, good man.

We rode out at the Horse Park, bright green after the winter rains. “Where’d all the geese come from?” asked Kristen. “Canada,” I said. A coyote swaggered across our path. The sun shone pinkly through its ears. It had a wise and pointed face.

I’d steeled myself for a loss in the Alabama special election. More fool me. The NAACP robo-called Black voters, and Black pastors set up voter registration booths at church events. America is so deeply in their debt, I even can’t speak of it.

white girls, by hilton als

as an unreconstructed seventies lesbian, the commercial world of magazines and praise was corrupt, why would I want any part of that, why care, I don’t care.

dark emu, by bruce pascoe

…‘desert’ is a term Europeans use to describe areas where they can’t grow wheat and sheep.

mira’s last dance, by lois mcmaster bujold

She wants her own house? Pen tried to interpret this. Most women do, Des returned, at some point in their lives. Getting one without going through some man is made nearly impossible on purpose, I suspect.

maps out of hell

If Feather’s Your Blue Eyed Boys got me through the brutal aftermath of Mum’s death in the summer of ’14, sassbandit and were_duck’s Draculoids Will Never Hurt You is shaping up to be the essential text for this spring under Fascism. The irony is that I first read it in June of 2011 without losing myself in it. It took six more years of working for Better Living Industries to get to the point where I know I’ll die if I don’t art-bomb the Man and write punk love songs to all my friends. (Ironic twist: gonna die anyway!)

For the full immersion experience, I’ve spent the last week listening to Danger Days on endless repeat and reading The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. In the back matter, Gerard Way, who turned 40 this week (thank you, good sir, for surviving your descent into Hell), describes “looking inward, to that inner 16-year-old girl.” As a former 16yo girl myself, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate those rare moments when the culture at large stops shitting on 16yo girls even for a nanosecond, let alone acknowledges them as something strong and important and worth protecting.

But Way also identifies the Man as… himself. His drive, his ambition, his ego, his death wish. I don’t know why I am even a little surprised. Every text that speaks to me on that deep level is somehow about complicity.

why i am not a feminist, by jessa crispin

Asking for a system that was built for the express purpose of oppression to “um, please stop oppressing me?” is nonsense work. The only task worth doing is fully dismantling and replacing that system.

The workplace and capitalistic society has become increasingly hostile. Not only to women, but to men, too. By keeping the focus on how women are doing in the marketplace, rather than how human beings exist under this system of competition and precarity, our thinking remains very small.

Here is one way feminism is still a useful idea: Almost all of us have been marginalized in one way or another due to our gender. That marginalization should allow us to see that it’s the whole system that is corrupt. Being marginalized should give women the perspective and power to see the system’s workings and its dark heart.

We have to imagine something before we can build the infrastructure that will allow it to exist.

We must lay claim to the culture, occupy it. We must remember that our world does not have to be this way. We do not have to reward exploitation, we do not have to support the degradation of the planet, of our souls, of our bodies. We can resist. We must stop thinking so small.

the view from flyover country, sarah kendzior (2013)

We live in the tunnel at the end of the light.

Mistaking wealth for virtue is a cruelty of our time. … Poverty is not a character flaw. Poverty is not emblematic of intelligence. Poverty is lost potential, unheard contributions, silenced voices…

Today the attack on the poor is no longer cloaked in ideology – it is ideology itself. This ideology is not shared by most Americans, but by those seeking to transform the Republican Party into, as former GOP operative Mike Lofgren describes it, “an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.”

five images/second fortnight

Marching in the cold rain, my END WHITE SUPREMACY sign sagging, my husband and children festooned with glowstick necklaces, my city jammed with peaceful protestors from Civic Center to the Ferry Building: Market Street one river of loving souls.

The next day, beyond exhausted, crashed out on the couch; shy Alice making her way up onto my chest, quietly as if I might not notice, then crashing out there with me for most of the afternoon. Her fur from which no light escapes. The soft floof that grows out between her toe beans.

Driving up Bernal Hill with Liz to enjoy the raggedy clouds and dramatic light and rainbows. Stopping in silence at Alex Nieto’s memorial, a landslide of flowers.

An emergency drill at NERT to teach us how to self-organize and keep records. Head down counting people in and out of Logistics as incident after incident came in to Planning and Operations; adrenaline and worry and focus and exhilaration. When we got through it, high-fives all round.

At the exquisitely restored Curran Theatre to see Fun Home with my wife and our kids (it’s great; you should go.) The audience filled with lesbians a generation older than us; the ones who cared for men dying of AIDS; my angels, the saints of our city. May I walk in their sacred footsteps.

five images from the first fortnight of 2017

Catching the night bus to Thoughtworks with Liz so that Danny and Jeremy would meet us at BATS, so that even though I bugged out early because overtired, the people who really needed to be there would be there. Seeing Maciej talk about resisting authoritarianism through solidarity and feeling the hairs rise on the back of my neck, because this is the moment he was born for.

Walking through bucketing rain to visit our neighborhood masjid with Jewish Voices for Peace, and drinking scaldingly hot, sweet chai while our hosts prayed to Allah.

Having a lesson on Sam in the covered arena right at Golden Hour of Barnhenge. The sunlight flooded in over the indigo mountains and spring-green pasture and red-gold autumn trees, and the cantering horses’ hooves reached down to kiss the hooves of their elongated shadows. In other lessons, I am pointing him at higher and higher fences and feeling no fear, just joy in his glad grace, the effortless delight of him. The new footing in both arenas, springy and inviting.

Getting rick-rolled by Nancy Pelosi at the rally to support the Affordable Care Act at City Hall. Never gonna give you up! The glare of bright sunshine, the edged bite of the winter wind.

That same evening, taking a yoga class with Julia and Annie Sprinkle.

thankful for

It’s Embarrassing Sincerity Day in California (when isn’t it) so you should know that if you’re reading this I am grateful for you. I am grateful for Barack and Michelle Obama. I’m grateful for California and its badass Reps and Senators and state legislature. I’m grateful for San Francisco, my sanctuary city. Today and every day I am grateful for my queer and trans friends, my immigrant friends, my friends who are people of color, my disabled friends, my friends who teach, and my friends who care for the sick and dying. This is my America and it’s worth fighting for. Here is a pavlova.

ashes and air

The unexpected highlights of Paris this year were Sainte-Chapelle and the Pantheon. At the top of the servant’s stairs into Sainte-Chapelle I stopped for ten seconds, struck entirely dumb. A jillionty tonnes of stone are transformed into a soaring volume of space, filled with the rainbow light of stained glass. I knew the first part of the story from Waugh’s Helena and the True Cross: how Constantine’s mother had travelled to Jerusalem to find the relics of the Passion. I hadn’t known that Emperor Baldwin went broke and sold the Crown of Thorns and assorted True Cross bits to Saint Louis in the 13th century, and that Louis brought them to France. In doing so Louis was trying to combine spiritual and political power, heavenly and earthly crowns, and so the Sainte-Chapelle has the hybrid vigor of a place both sacred and imperial.

So too does the Pantheon, but the other way around. It was originally conceived as a church but consecrated, in the end, as a secular memorial to great men of the Republic. It has become another way for France to assert what it believes itself to be in the durable languages of stone and human remains. We took a tour around the dome and the view of Paris was beyond anything; between the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse we saw a Montgolfier-style tethered balloon levitating its tourists. Down in the crypt we all separately found Marie Curie and were, to our mutual surprise, moved. She was interred there on her own merits, the first woman to be so honoured.

It’s what I meant when I talked about choosing our own ancestors: in my case, Saint Jane Austen, Saint Harvey Milk and Saint Octavia Butler. The future is a nation we build with our hope and the work of our hands. It derives its power from our beloved dead.

o negative

I have rare blood, O neg, the universal donor. After Orlando I went to give blood and was turned away because my heart was racing (it was the day Jo Cox died; I wanted to say “Haven’t you read the news?” but the poor nurse was just looking out for me.) I’ve since had an EKG and everything’s fine with the ol’ ticker except, of course, that it’s broken. It was broken before Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and Dallas; it’s shattered now. God in whom I can’t believe, please help this suffering country.

At the same time, I’ve been flattened by a vicious cold. All I can read is Helen Garner and Joan Didion and Diana Athill and this NYer piece on hospice, and all I can watch is Angels in America. It feels like 2005, when the black water drowned New Orleans, or 2003, when Baghdad burned. Baghdad’s still burning. I cling to these words of Roxane’s:

We have to do better than all this “the world is coming to an end.” The world is not coming to an end. The world is changing.

In whatever small way I can work towards justice and peace, let me work.

friday five, but on a monday

  1. Have I really not blogged in three weeks? Oh well it’s not like anything of local or world-historical importance has happened HAHAHAHA dear god
  2. I can’t really bring myself to say anything about Orlando or the assassination of Jo Cox except that AR-15s and high-capacity magazines should have been banned years ago, and all the lobbyists and politicians who have prevented this are little better than murderers themselves.
  3. While I was trying to have a Saturday afternoon nap, much interrupted by sirens, a fire took out most of a block in the heart of our neighborhood, including our beloved local hardware store. We used to shop there even before we moved to Bernal. Several times a day I look at something that needs fixing around the house and have a muscle-memory of buying its replacement at Cole Hardware. All our neighbors got out in time, which is a great mercy.
  4. I had an almost-perfect day at work on Thursday, then came home only to grow increasingly distressed over Brexit, which broke my Judtist heart. David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum now replaces Bush’s invasion of Iraq as the most appalling error of judgment committed by any English-speaking politician in the course of my adult life. Europe is important. Bureaucracies may seem boring and idiotic but they are inexpressibly less boring and idiotic and catastrophic than the world wars that they occasionally, through the great efforts of many kind people and with considerable good luck, replace.
  5. All of this and a lot of other stories that are not mine to tell have made the last few months very difficult, but there have been fierce joys as well: Hillary and Warren campaigning together; the enduring wonderfulness of Ginsberg and Sotomayor; the memory of my mother pouring out all her tremendous capacity for love in her last days, and the knowledge that her example will be with me for the rest of my life.

adventure time: gattaca

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin Civic Center. This building, you guys.

It’s organic architecture, inspired by the Marin hills on which it stands.

Like Star Trek, The West Wing and Hamilton, it is a love song to participatory democracy and the dream of what humans could be.

It’s hard to believe your eyes.