rereading janis

On this day in 1970, Janis Joplin was found dead in Room 105 at the Landmark Motor Hotel. The room remains virtually untouched except for the messages patrons leave for her in the closet. They range from the simple and direct (“RIP Janis”) to the somewhat gauche (“Try just a little bit harder”). And then, of course, there are the longer ones — the love letters.

Those are the ones she’d like the best, I think. Janis loved to read. We don’t talk about this. We don’t think of her as a lyricist, even though she wrote many of the songs she sang with Big Brother and the Holding Company and after the band’s breakup. She’s not a literary kind of musical artist.

But maybe she could have been.

Until I read Alice Echols’s “Sweet Scars of Paradise,” I had no idea Janis was someone like me. The book is as much a history of sexual politics in the 60s as it is a biography, and the parts I found most interesting were those that exposed the worst treatment Janis received at the hands of classmates and even — or especially — men in her music scene. One guy kicked her under a table. Shortly after her death, an obscure music writer disparaged her for having acne.

She wasn’t just an icon (although she was very much that). She was shy and sensitive, and had no illusions about her debt to black musical artists like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin.

She was a voracious and sophisticated reader with a soft spot for the Fitzgeralds. Especially Zelda. It’s impossible not to think of Amy Winehouse rhapsodizing about the Ronettes when she talks about how great Zelda is:

I always did have a very heavy attachment for the whole Fitzgerald thing, that all out, Full Tilt, Hell Bent Way of Living (sic), and she and F. Scott Fitzgerald were the epitome of that whole trip, right? When I was young I read all of his books; I’ve reread them all: autobiographies, The Crack-Up, all the little scribblings … and she was always a mythic person in his life, you also have the feeling that he destroyed her. You always get the feeling that she was willing to go with him through anything and that he ruined her. But in the book you find out that she was just as ambitious as he was, and that they sort of destroyed each other. He wrote her a letter one time in which he says, “People say we destroy each other, but I never felt we destroyed each other, I felt we destroyed ourselves.”

Yeah, I’ve noticed a lot of things you are into are in that 20’s and 30’s type of thing.

I’m an anachronism, that’s what it is.

The thing about writing about hard things

So we’ve all read Ira Glass on good taste and shitty work. That’s done. We’re all on the same page. We all understand that we have to wince our way through for a while (well, most of us, anyway — the normals).

But when you’re writing about heavy shit, that gets much, much harder.

This is what I’ve learned to tell myself: even if I fail, the hyperlinks will deliver people to the right Eric K. Ward essay. It’s not a wasted effort. I won’t make things worse. Yes, the stakes are high, but that’s why we need everyone — LITERALLY EVERYONE — making a contribution.

This Passover

This Passover, I am choosing my values over my fear.

I just learned about this movement of Jews holding a place for Palestine at the Passover table. It's such a small gesture, but the reminder is needed: As we read the Haggadah, let's not forget that we're not truly free until everybody is.

I also recently read April Rosenblum's pamphlet on discussing/interrogating/expunging anti-semitism on the Left. It's good reading for anyone who wants to be effective in the very fraught work of fighting for themselves and others.

faves of fall

Okay, I want to make a book post. (Blame the Brooklyn Book Festival. Jenny Zhang signed my copy of Sour Heart and I am still high.)

These are my favorite recent reads. They seem to have nothing in common, but really, they're all about abusers. (Maybe I'm subconsciously trying to figure out what to do about our whole political situation? Funny how these things come up.)

Anyway, here are three mini-reviews of three books that I should have read much sooner.

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
When you find a mooring in history, it can save you. It can show you that the things you've felt have been felt throughout history, that your pain is not unique. You belong to a fraternity of misery. (That might make some people feel shitty. I find it bolstering.) Art surfaces those stories so we can find the anchor in them. That's what Edinburgh does, through Korean folklore, medieval Scottish history and Italian opera. And if the incredible span of history and geography it covers isn't enough for you, it also happens to be beautifully written.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
I'm getting to that age where I know why people do some of the unsavory things they do, and I try to have a generous outlook. Here Comes the Sun accomplishes the feat of showing the tragedy beneath the tragedy — the fallout of imperialism, the generational poverty, systemic racism and misogyny that can tear a family apart at the seams, despite their best efforts to stop it. It does it all so well, the reader feels the inevitability of Margot's ruin even as they hope against it.

Personal Days by Ed Park
So fucking delicious. The Jilliad? Grime? Come on. I fell so hard for this ensemble of characters. I saw myself in every one of them. I saw you in them, too. I saw every disgruntled office worker in America. Reading it made me a more empathetic person. I recognized my own fears and doubts and claustrophobic flailing. Anyone who's worked in an office will identify with the uncanny quality of the stories in this book. If you've ever felt like your life was just one big arbitrarily humiliating conspiracy, you'll love the ending. (Maybe "love" is not the word. You'll feel a kinship.)

re: fascist dweebery

"Just after the Civil War, some former Confederate officers, fearing the vote given to African Americans by the Radical Reconstructionists in 1867, set up a militia to restore an overturned social order. The Klan constituted an alternate civic authority, parallel to the legal state, which, in its founders' eyes, no longer defended their community's legitimate interests. In its adoption of a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as its techniques of intimidation and its conviction that violence was justified in the cause of the group's destiny, the first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe. It is arguable, at least, that fascism (understood functionally) was born in the late 1860s in the American South." —Robert O. Paxton, The Five Stages of Fascism

Try this simple trick

Here's a simple trick for banning propagandists from college campuses:

Explain cyberstalking to baby boomers.

University chancellors don’t know what it is. They’re 60-year-old men who think they’re the ACLU. Times have changed. They don’t understand ambient abuse, and they’ve bought into the myth of the millennial snowflake.

Just as millennials need to know their history, Simon & Schuster editors need to know how tweets work.

I’ve fallen into the trap of “I can’t with you!” too quickly, forgetting the most important lesson of the 21st century: adults don’t know what the internet is.

And they're forgetting the other most important lesson of the 21st century: that behind every mob, there’s a yelly guy barfing lies.

A starter packet:
Two cases of Twitter abuse highlight the obscure nature of suspensions
Trans student harassed by Milo Yiannopoulos speaks out
Leslie Jones’ Twitter abuse is a deliberate campaign of hate
Why women aren’t welcome on the internet
Psychology Today: The fastest growing crime

On why I sometimes turn off my phone to focus my full attention on eating a parfait

If you’re not from Queens, you cannot understand the health risks posed by acute exposure to Trump’s voice. That shallow, sordid grunting, an irritant as noxious as it is familiar, deserves its own NYSDOH advisory. It’s like standing on the BQE on a hot day, taking deep yoga breaths. It’s like eating the mutant baby seal you found at the bottom of Newtown Creek. It’s like going to Howard Beach. It’s a health hazard that we expose ourselves to, day after day, to fulfill our civic obligations, knowing it will probably poison us but seeing no other way.

This visceral sense of disgust has a lot to do with the place he came from. The place I came from. It's so easy to be proud of being from Queens, until you remember what it was actually like—full of fatuous authority figures and hypocrites and toxic chemicals and dirty money. It was always there, but we felt it didn't represent us. We never let it. We never voted for it. But it was there, stinking like the gentlest breeze over Flushing Bay.

Boo. Also, call.

The headlines keep rolling in. Today, we found out he's offering Attorney General to a guy who was deemed too racist for a federal judgeship. The position would give this guy, Sen. Jeff Sessions, power over how we define and protect civil rights.

His proposals include defunding sanctuary cities, slowing legal immigration and challenging the 14th amendment's guarantee of birthright citizenship.

He's called the ACLU and NAACP "un-American" for "[forcing] civil rights down the throats of people."

The Attorney General is the chief lawyer and law enforcement officer of the US government. This guy's past does not bode well for any of us, least of all the country's most vulnerable.

Sessions will likely be confirmed by the Republican-majority Senate, but we still need to call. And fax. And write. Tell your senator where you stand. Even or especially when you think they won't stand with you. If they choose to flout the will of the people, then we'll know what kind of politician they really are.

We owe much to immigrants for saving our country from the cesspit of deluded mediocrity Sessions wants it to become—in other words, a nation of Trumps. His policies are a threat to documented and undocumented immigrants alike. From Politico:

"Using his new gavel on the Senate immigration panel, Sessions said he plans to hold oversight hearings on H-1B visas that benefit high-skilled immigrants — one of the tech industry’s top priorities in Washington. Sessions has been in touch with tech employees who say they’ve been laid off in favor of foreign workers. And his office recently conducted a staff briefing for Senate aides, outlining what they say are abuses to the H-1B system."

Take this together with Steve Bannon's comments on international students and Trump's malleability, and you can see how this will pan out. The president-elect, who has no experience in public office to speak of, has surrounded himself with ideologues and private interests—and he's indebted to all of them.

The stakes are too high to miss a single opportunity. We need to pressure everyone.

Go ahead and boo. Also, march. Also, call.

Stay focused.

Don't let anyone tell you what kind of dissent is "appropriate."

The only way to fight injustice is to name it.

*

“One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.” —Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism