Let’s try something new.

At the end of every year, my brother sends a long email to an ever-widening circle of friends and family recapping his year in music. He lists his favorite albums, tracks, and concerts, sprinkling in discoveries from another time or era that made their way into his musical lexicon in that particular year. It’s been a delight to read for the past seven or so years, and in 2016 he finally inspired me to tackle a similar challenge. I’ll spare the greater internet (ha) what mostly ended up being a 3,000 word treatise on the joint sublimity of the Knowles sisters and try to do something a little different here.

At the beginning of every year, I tell myself, “This will be the year I finally listen to new music/watch the hip new TV shows/see a single movie!” With the exception of a massive cramming session during December 2016 where I listened to approximately 25 new-ish albums, I fail miserably at this task each time. I also tell myself that I’ll finally start writing in that long-neglected blog I’ve let languish in some far off corner of the web, my memory jolted by a form email from WordPress that managed to pummel through my spam filters.

I’m a person who does things in fits and starts, but as my late 20’s lurk around the corner (shudder), I’m going to give my best effort to becoming one of those fabled people who do things consistently, for longer than six months. I had such a good time writing that long 2016 music email that I realized perhaps I could join my goal of becoming a more Cultured Person™ with that of writing anything at all, and so the idea for this series was born. In many ways, it’s a riff off of the Ann Friedman Weekly (to which I encourage all to subscribe) in that I’ll be making some recommendations based on what I’m reading, watching, and listening to in a given week, with some of my commentary interspersed. Maybe there will be other sections too! Who knows. This is all an experiment at making myself engage more consistently with art, others’ as much as my own. I’ll make it up as I go.

Without any further ado, let’s get into it.

Do

Turns out as I was writing this, a bunch of activist-oriented stuff floated to the fore. Go figure! Here’s some stuff you can do if you’re feeling extremely blue that there are only 11 short days until the incoming administration begins to rip our already-in-shambles democracy asunder.

If you have 5 minutes:

  • Check out the Sister District Project and sign up to volunteer. The new organization aims to mobilize activists and voters in blue districts to support their comrades in red districts to build progressive power at the local and state levels.
  • Consider how you might participate in the Anti-Inauguration. Might I suggest heeding The Call from the Movement for Black Lives as a place to start?

If you have 15 minutes:

If you have 30 minutes or more:

  • Get up to speed on effective political advocacy. I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the Indivisible Guide, a clear, straightforward outline for how to engage in defensive activism against a racist, neo-fascist policy agenda.
  • Follow Rewire Media’s legislative tracker, which documents, among other things: proposed legislation restricting reproductive justice; so-called “religious freedom” bills that allow businesses exemptions from complying with nondiscrimination laws; and nefarious “bathroom bills” that enshrine social and economic discrimination against trans and gender-non-conforming individuals.

Read

If you’re looking for a novel:

  • I recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It’s a sweeping chronicle of the interwoven lineages of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one of whom marries an English slave trader and the other who is sold into bondage. This book is stunning in its scope and complexity, and Gyasi’s matter-of-fact prose is at once nuanced, compassionate, and unrelenting.

If non-fiction is more your speed:

  • Check out In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi. On its surface, the book is about the author’s Hungarian Jewish father who undergoes sexual reassignment surgery in her 70’s. But deeper than that, Faludi grapples with what it means to forge an identity at the nexus of gender, religion, and nationalism, and what relationship (if any) our present selves have to the past or the “truth.”

If you’re more of a multiple-browser-tabs-open kinda person:

Listen

If you’re a girl who likes girls (romantically or otherwise): Citrine EP by Hayley Kiyoko.

If you’re into sexy, smooth-talking, and kinda minimalist hip-hop: Ego Death by The Internet.

If you want to honor the late, great Carrie Fisher’s give-no-fucks attitude about mental illness: Out of the Garden by Tancred.

If your entire life is one big ’80s dancehall illusion: “Nothing’s Real” by Shura.

If you want a back-to-basics lesson on how to holler: Your Number” by Ayo Jay.

If you’ve been meaning to brush up on your seductive witchcraft skills: Potions” by SEE.

If you’re glad (like me) that someone finally wrote a song celebrating the A+ combo of little titties and a fat belly: Tomboy” by Princess Nokia.

Watch

If you were wondering what all this Golden Globe fuss is about: Moonlight, which is so gorgeous that it almost renders all other movies meaningless (I kid, kind of). I’ll be honest: I don’t really like movies that much. But occasionally I feel compelled to see something (in theaters!) and it just blows me away, makes me wonder why anyone allows anything that isn’t up to the same caliber to get produced in the first place. Moonlight was one of the few movies in recent memory that’s done that for me. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Bonus read: this interview with André Holland, who plays adult Kevin with an astonishing level of care and tenderness.

If you just finished setting up your monthly recurring donation to Planned Parenthood: BoJack Horseman, season 3, episode 6. (If you don’t have Netflix, I am sorry. Please enjoy this hilarious link to bojackhorseman.com instead.)

If you’re still using “password” for all your passwords: The Basics of Internet Security.

Until next time, y’all.

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Empathy is a muscle

I wrote this post about a year and a half ago, but decided to publish it anyway. Might as well start 2017 by pushing the start button, right?

My family has had a book club since I was 15. Over the past 11 years, we’ve meandered across genres, from novels (The Color Purple, Ceremony, Go Tell It On the Mountain) and novellas (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Black Water) to historical non-fiction (Overthrow, How Music Works) and autobiography (Clapton). The rules started out simple: none of us can have read the book previously; the book must be less than 400 pages; the person who selects the book will rotate; and we must all agree on the selection before diving in. My mother, who got through approximately 50 pages of Watership Down before exclaiming I am NOT reading a fucking book about rabbits!, amended the rules to include non-fiction books only (we have since broken that rule many times).

And so our book club went for its first two years, a golden period when everyone in my immediate family lived in the same city. Our proximity made it easier to stick to, or at least to attempt to stick to, a monthly reading schedule. I memorized the digits of my library card and could recall them like my own birthday.

We read and read together, though we all kept up with our own reading on the side. Left to my own devices, I mostly chose to read books by women. My mother had taken great care when I was a kid to fill my bookshelves with stories about girls and women, both real and imagined. I spent childhood afternoons poring over tales of our heroism, cunning, tenderness, and wit, spanning endlessly through space and time. And yet, when I hit high school, gone were the girls and women I’d grown to love and aspired to be. In their wake, a sea of books, plays, poems, and memoirs by, for, and about men flooded my classrooms. In those budding halls of academia, the message I heard was: It’s time to get serious about real literature, and only men write real literature (oh, and Jane Austen).

At 17, fresh out of high school and weary from the erasure of people like me from the annals of literature, I was finally back in control of my own reading list. And so I decided to throw my family a curve ball.

Shortly after reading Assata, I told my family that I was not going to read any books by men for a whole year, including for the book club. They protested slightly, then shrugged and elected to move on without me. They read Things Fall Apart and Heat while I sulked in my room, thumbing through The Autobiography of Angela Davis but feeling too slighted to give it my full attention.

As combative and unrelenting as I was at 17, I don’t blame my family for charging ahead without me. But it did sting. It seemed like making the investment to find books by women simply wasn’t worth it, which surprised me. Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t be that hard. Furthermore, the men would always be there. Why couldn’t we simply wait?

There’s something uniquely thrilling about reading a book by someone who reminds you of yourself, across all dimensions. As a child, I remember the subtle, sweet sense of affirmation that came from reading about girls as I knew them—daring, provocative, hilarious, self-conscious, angry, compassionate. It helped me to understand that the parts of my personality that often felt at odds with each other and with what others expected of me were, in fact, perfectly normal. The girls and women I got to know on the page each contained myriad versions of themselves, were constantly shifting and stretching into spaces both new and familiar. They were at once my refuge and my inspiration to grow, to fail, and to try again.

Reading whisked me across time and space, forming implicit and imagined friendships with people I might never know firsthand. Like most white kids, I grew up predominantly around other white people. There was a structural limitation, created decades ago through racist housing policies and predatory financial practices that persist to this day, that placed strict but unstated boundaries around who I could interact with; my family’s choice about where to live reinforced, however unconsciously, those boundaries.  My mom attempted to challenge these structures in some ways, predominantly through the types of media she brought into the house. I would flip through books she’d collected and magazines she’d subscribed me to, their pages filled with stories of girls around the world whose lives were at once notably distinct and similarly mundane as mine. I began to see the edges of my tiny corner of the universe in stark relief, and reading gave me a small opportunity to reach beyond them. As a young white girl, I learned that if we all contain multitudes, à la Walt Whitman, then our differences themselves are part of what comprises our shared humanity.

A few years ago, I was at a bar with my ex-girlfriend, my best friend, and her boyfriend talking about Harry Potter. I had read the first two books as a child and gave up on the series, bored to tears by what I thought was too much work for too little payoff in terms of plot development. I suggested that maybe another reason I couldn’t stick with Harry Potter was because my mom had always bought me books about girls, and a book about a boy wizard just couldn’t hold my interest the way a book like Island of the Blue Dolphins could. (I have since read Harry Potter in its entirety and love it. The Chamber of Secrets is still boring, though.)

I also mentioned that I didn’t really like fantasy novels as a child, preferring historical fiction, and had only discovered classics like The Golden Compass as a teenager. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series had the added benefit of being about a deceptive, arrogant, and sensitive adolescent girl who runs away to the arctic to lead an inter-universal war against an oppressive god. What’s not to like?

My friend’s boyfriend quipped back that he didn’t like The Golden Compass, largely because it had a female protagonist. He felt he just couldn’t relate to her, and then gave up trying. On its surface, it sounded like he was mirroring back what I had said about Harry Potter, only in reverse. But not until that moment had anyone challenged him on his admission that he couldn’t empathize with a female book character; I had been hotly chastised for my relative apathy toward Harry Potter since I was a child. As a young girl, my inability to connect with the male protagonist of the world’s most popular book series was a personal flaw, a sign that something was not right with me. As a young boy, my friend’s boyfriend’s inability to connect with the female protagonist of the book series that topped Harry Potter in the U.K. sales charts was simply the status quo, and thus, wholly unremarkable.

Our society takes for granted that marginalized people can and do see themselves in white, male protagonists, too. We often have to by necessity, given how male-and white-dominated school literary curricula are, both in terms of subject and author. We expect girls, women, and people of color to relate to boys, men, and white people because we assume that the latter are always the standard-bearer, that their thoughts, feelings, and experiences are universal. We do not, incidentally, expect boys, men, and white people to relate to girls, women, and people of color whose thoughts, feelings, and experiences are too often seen as ancillary or fringe (particularly for girls and women of color).

There has been some research done on the unique power of narrative to generate empathy, particularly for people who belong to a social “out-group” (back to Harry Potter!) because it can challenge our prevailing notions of what “other” people are like. On a physiological level, reading creates new neural pathways that continue to build even after we’ve put down a book. Our brains are constantly at work processing, analyzing, and making connections between new information and that which we already know. They will stretch to encompass unfamiliar or novel ideas and concepts so that we may understand them better the next time we encounter them. In other words, empathy is a muscle and it becomes stronger the more we use it. But like any muscle, we must regularly find new ways to exercise it lest we plateau or go soft. Ask anyone if you can get and stay fit simply by doing sit-ups forever and they’ll laugh in your face.

If we only ever ask children to read books by and about men, or by and about white people, we are demanding the intellectual equivalent of bicep curls and nothing else, ad infinitum. We are robbing girls and kids of color of the opportunity to have their experiences heard and validated. We are denying all children the opportunity to grow both as thinkers and as human beings who are empathetically attuned to others’ experiences, whether they look the same or not. We are, in essence, rewarding children for becoming lazy.

Focus on strengthening one muscle in isolation and you automatically begin to favor it. Your body will start following the same patterns unconsciously–that’s what muscle memory is. If we only exercise our ability to empathize with men and with white people, we will reinforce the notion that they are the standard-bearers of human experience. We will reflexively view their opinions as more credible and trustworthy, sometimes in spite of our own first-hand experiences.

There is, of course, a structural and material component to all of this, too. Teach children that only books by men and white people are worth reading, and they will become adults who only buy books by men and white people, however unconsciously. That translates to bigger book deals, higher paychecks, better publicity, and more critical acclaim for men and white people, which in turn convinces us that these writers are, naturally, the best of the best. And so we choose, once again, to read their stories.

It should come as no surprise, then, that white people and people of color view racism through dramatically different lenses, or that men and women have vastly different perceptions on issues like sexual assault and abortion. People in positions of relative power are not taught a complex, nuanced version of the world around them, and consequently tend to lack the social-emotional skills to interpret other people’s experiences as inherently valid. This has dramatic implications beyond the classroom; despite comprising only 31% of the population, white men hold 65% of elected offices in this country. If they don’t have the muscle to relate to the remaining 69% of the U.S. population, how could we expect policies that prioritize, let alone take into account, the needs of women and/or people of color?

Reading works by women and/or people of color is not about becoming an “expert” in anyone else’s lived experiences, creative processes, or perspectives on society. Reading also does not replace the immense value I place on interpersonal relationships with people whose lives diverge from (but often, delightfully intersect with) mine, nor the need to dismantle the institutions and structures that maintain racist and sexist oppression. But, it is one way to celebrate the talents and experiences of people far too many of us, by and large, have been taught not to care about.

Whiteness is a Zero-Sum Game

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Teju Cole wrote about the “cold violence” of the Israeli occupation of Palestine at The Guardian last week. I shared a piece on Medium about how the subtle myths we perpetuate through pop culture are worth interrogating, because they can and do have violent consequences for people of color.

When we ask whether we’ve gone “too far” in creating spaces for people of color to explore and articulate nuanced, intricate life experiences, we are reinforcing the idea that only one narrative — that people of color represent a threat to white people — can or should endure. Left unchecked, this belief is the bedrock for the justification of everything from forced deportations to police killings. We cannot do the hard work of reshaping both the limits of our own empathy and the structures of our institutions if we continue to buy into the logic of the zero-sum game.

A Slow Drip of Miseries

22822858Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.

A Little Life is slow to build, which is as much a testament to Hanya Yanagihara’s discipline as a writer as it is to her ability to capture the relentless tedium of depression and trauma. Once the book gets going, though, it is so emotionally engaging it is painstaking to walk away from, even for a few hours.

The book follows four friends, Jude, JB, Willem, and Malcolm, over several decades of friendship, first as college dorm mates, through their early years in New York and into commercial success and middle age. Jude is, somewhat perplexingly, the group’s emotional anchor despite revealing nothing about his past or his inner workings. His friends are left to make inferences about Jude’s life, occasionally prodding him to open up about his experiences with no success and each time getting frustrated in the process. Yanagihara subtly positions the reader in the context of this inner circle—we learn about Jude from arm’s length, in patches, and with a level of detail that engenders more questions than it answers. We come to embrace Jude for many of the same reasons his friends do: for his loyalty, his brilliance, his heartbreaking and earnest belief that the people he loves are so good. Loving Jude, it seems, can only happen in the present tense.

Like Jude’s friends, his adoptive parents, his colleagues, but unlike Jude himself, the reader sees him as much more than the sum of his experiences and traumas. This is true even though we know more about his childhood than anyone in his adult life, except, eventually, Willem. We come to love Jude so fully that we too want to step into his apartment and say that we see him, all of him, and we love him anyway. We want to change his mind. Willem and Harold struggle to understand why Jude can’t or won’t simply accept that their view of him and his worth is the right one; Yanagihara deftly gets us to cling to that same kind of arrogance.

At times, I felt myself getting frustrated with Jude—just like everyone around him, I kept clinging to the hope that he would finally “snap out of it.” In those moments Yanagihara’s true gift is apparent: she forces us to reckon with the slow, eroding nature of chronic depression, at once grotesque and mundane. Jude’s is a constant hum of pain, both physical and psychological, that cannot simply be shaken off no matter how badly he or we may wish it. Yanagihara pulls the loose threads away from the notion that loving people should be enough to “save” them, steadily unraveling the combination of naïveté and willful ignorance that buoys Jude’s relationships as they cautiously churn on.

And yet, Jude’s life is punctuated by so many beautiful moments—when Harold and Julia adopt him, when Willem offers his romantic feelings, when Malcolm and JB erect buildings and fill galleries as creative testaments to their love and appreciation for his friendship. These periods give shape to Jude’s depression; Yanagihara refuses to let us wish it away just as she firmly rejects reducing Jude to little more than a string of depressive episodes. We understand the potency of depression in part through its ability to endure through, but not necessarily eclipse, periods of genuine joy.

Where the book sometimes falls short is in its awkward attempts to add detail that seem merely to show off the author’s worldliness. She tosses in random notes about a particular vintage of wine or the characters’ various global excursions that read as clumsy attempts to remind the reader that we reading about the Manhattan elite, as if we could forget. These detours are cumbersome, but overall, A Little Life excels in its blunt yet nuanced treatment of mental health issues and the many ways human beings struggle, build, and carry on through depression.