Archive for the 'ranty' Category

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After a pretty good run of books, including two history/biographies each of Imperial Rome, the First Fleet, the Donner Party and Hollywood in the seventies (spoiler: it’s settler colonialism all the way down), I have come to an annoying halt. You know when you pick up this book and that and you KNOW they’re good and if you were in another mood you would devour them, but today, eh? That.

Mostly, I think, it’s that I want to read more books exactly like Emma Southon’s Agrippina and A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Imagine I, Claudius rewritten by Tamsyn Muir: hilarious, serious, queer and profane.

I want this kind of telling of my own history, but the closest I found were the biographies of Esther Johnston, my umpty-great grandmother the Jewish convict and First Lady of New South Wales (Esther), and of her contemporary – NOT friend – Elizabeth Macarthur (A Room Made of Leaves). Weirdly, both books end halfway through the story, with Esther’s triumphant closure being social acknowledgment by Elizabeth, while Elizabeth’s is feeling a sense of connection to her Paramatta farm despite knowing perfectly well that she had wrested the land from it’s traditional custodians.

I mean, those narrative choices make sense when you consider that Esther died an alcoholic widow and Elizabeth’s entire life was mythologized to justify the attempted genocide of the indigenous people. The true stories are kind of a bummer and don’t fit traditional (imperialist) Chosen One story structures. But this is where Emma Southon is so fucking good. Agrippina’s story is also embedded in histories of violent dispossession and oppression, but Southon embraces the ambiguity and complicity and tragedy. Plus there are jokes and swears.

The Donner Party books – The Indifferent Stars Above and The Best Land Under Heaven – came closer to scratching that itch if only because there is no way to frame that story as anything like a triumph. The worst you can do (and this has been done plenty) is to cast it as a weird aberration, a sort of Californian Dyatlov Pass incident, whereas in fact it’s the logical consequence of white Western expansionism, manifest destiny literally eating its young.

And that’s how you get the US state of California, superimposed (by force) on the Bear Flag Republic and the Mexican Californios and Spanish Alta California and before and throughout all of that a landscape of indigenous cultures and languages maybe as ancient and diverse as those in Papua New Guinea. I went on to read The Mighty Franks and Hollywood’s Eve, both of which have to reckon with the titanic legacy of Joan Didion, the ur-pioneer. And look, back in the 90s I venerated Didion like any other young white woman would-be new journalist, but when you read Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting and are reminded of her callous line on El Salvador, “Terror is the given of the place,” that veneration turns a little sour. Given by whom, exactly?

Hollywood’s Eve makes a decent case for Eve Babitz – sensualist, humanist – as a counterpoint to Didion’s ironic analyst, but it’s weird and deeply Californian that each in the wake of profound personal tragedy has taken a hard right turn. I can’t think of a neat way to end this post. History, and especially history with white women in it, is just like this: frustrating, messy and inconclusive.

the white possessive, by aileen moreton-robinson

It takes a great deal of work to maintain Canada, the United States, Hawai’i, New Zealand, and Australia as white possessions.

a fatal thing happened on the way to the forum, by emma southon

It was an outrageous moment in Roman history and not one person complained because everyone suddenly knew the consequences of complaining. Everyone knew that there was no power balance between the Senate and the people of Rome. Democracy was a charade. There was just the Senate and they would kill to keep it that way. And there would be no consequences when they did.

the events of yesterday

Sumana is wondering what we’ll end up calling it. I’ve seen it called the Capitol breach, the insurrection, the putsch (with a nod to Hitler), and my favorite so far: Trump’s riot. It’ll probably resolve into something non-committal like January 6th. Right now, though, I can still hope for a name that makes it clear who was at fault: the crime boss in the Oval Office and his murderous fascist thugs.

My coven and I watched the march from the White House with gradually increasing concern. We have day jobs so had to fit this in around meetings, but also, out-of-control pandemic, so we were already glued to our screens. Being a conscious citizen of a failing democracy is a whole nother full time gig.

A friend who’s an experienced protestor on the side of justice pointed out just how unprepared these weekend warriors were to meet any real show of force from the authorities. But of course the authorities did nothing. There were off-duty cops and military among the rioters, apparently flashing their badges and ID to reassure the Capitol police. My anger at this, at shots fired in the chambers of my government, at the sight of some unspeakable shitheel with his feet up on my Congresswoman’s desk, is enormous. It’s exhausting, to be in such a state of cold rage.

The one friend from my old fundamentalist church who lives in America and votes Republican posted to Facebook that this has made her want to retire to central America. I have spent five years trying not to snap at her but after repressing a dozen much more inflammatory comments, I wrote: “You voted for this.” She deleted my comment, and later, her original post.

This is the situation in which we find ourselves. Healing and reconciliation can’t even begin until those who brought this horror upon us can acknowledge the great evil they have done.

May this turn out to be the death-spasm of white supremacy, of unearned privilege fighting the emergence of a better and fairer world. May we name it accurately and know it for exactly what it is.

my favorite murder

My garden has been a gift all quarantine. My whole life I’ve hardly enjoyed anything as much as I enjoyed Bic, Emma and Precious, the City Grazing goats who took down the worst of the weeds. After Marco and his team pulled out the raised beds I didn’t want and built a retaining wall and stairs, I started planting, and I haven’t stopped. There’s still one big raised bed at the back for a kitchen garden. So far I have nasturtiums, white sage, rosemary and wood strawberries, plus a young Eureka lemon to complement the neighbor’s Meyer lemon that leans over our fence. The rosemary, lemon and a potted jasmine are the only non-natives I bought.

Everything else is hyperlocal, from Bay Natives, Mission Blue or Yerba Buena nurseries, Annie’s Annuals or Larner Seeds. Ceanothus, ribes, coffeeberry, coast live oak – the keystone species. Bay laurel – much more delicious than dried bay leaves, we put it in all our soups and stews. An arroyo willow. Native grapes, Dutchman’s pipevine for the swallowtails, silver lupine for the Mission Blue butterflies, narrow-leaved milkweed for the monarchs. Hummingbird sage, blue eyed grass, variegated yarrow, coast buckwheat. A bog with sword fern and chain fern and douglas iris. A pond with seep monkeyflower and rushes, which is doing extremely well and which I hope will attract frogs. Yerba buena trailing down the retaining wall. Two elegant Dr Hurd manzanitas that, goddess willing, will grow into sinuous, sculptural rainbow beauties.

It doesn’t look like much yet. I am in constant battle with the Bermuda oxalis, wild radish and those bastard arum lilies. Everything else is barely knee high. But every chance I get I loll out here in a comfy blue lounge chair, listening to contentious crow parliaments in the neighbor’s lillipilli, watching hummingbird aerobatics, loving the sweet descending melody of gold-crowned sparrows. There are fat red-tailed hawks who coast from the hill to the canyon, often with an escort of angry crows. I leave almond offerings on the deck railings for the members of this murder, whom I dearly love. I planted a bog. I am a real bog witch now.

initiated, by amanda yates garcia

…there is no escape and nowhere to run. There is no outside capitalism anymore. Capitalism has contacted all of our tribes.

know my name, by chanel miller

You cannot write out of someone else’s dark place; you can only write out of your own.

catch and kill, by ronan farrow

“Is this the way the world works?” she wondered. “That men get away with this?”

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.

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.

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.

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.

difficult women, by roxane gay

I wasn’t much popular, either. I was too smart and that made people uncomfortable—most folks where we’ve lived our whole lives don’t trust too much intelligence in a woman. There is also the problem of my eyes—they don’t hide anything. If I don’t care for a person, my eyes make it plain. I don’t care for most. Folks are generally comfortable with the small lies they tell each other. They don’t know what to do with someone like me, who mostly doesn’t bother with small lies.

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.

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.