The MaddAddam Trilogy, or how I survived my depression.

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I’m reticent to publicly delve into Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy because I want to resist coming out of hiding. I’m in a period of drastic change. Change catalyzed by an admission of failure.

Things aren’t going well, they haven’t been going well, so I withdrew, submerged into the bioengineered world of Atwood’s speculative fiction. I lived in the aftermath of a meteoric airborne plague that just about completely destroys all of humanity. The setting is mythic. Kudzu everywhere, bursting through concrete, squeezing, choking, collapsing buildings. Seriously dwindling resources, as most of civilization has already been looted, destroyed, or contaminated. Gene-spliced animals seem to have overrun their more docile kin: deadly liobams (lions crossed with lambs), bunnies that glow an unnerving ethereal green, pigs capable of symbolic thought and gesture.

What I liked best about the MaddAddam trilogy is the slow reveal. How the entire narrative beats in exposition. There’s tension in the past, but when you know that everything, all life, the world, everything, is about to COMPLETELY change, the action is tempered. The setting is the star of the show, and in no way does that suck.

The plague, or the Waterless Flood (as it will be referred to as later), was created by a genius twenty-something to rid the earth of the stupid humans. He injected the virus into a pill, a kind of vitamin, that promised bliss and sexual healing. Everyone turned to goop, except for a handful of protagonists, some of them bioengineers, a lot of them strict spiritual vegans, in the sociopolitical sense. They were outlaws. I wanted to be among them. Growing mushrooms in some basement, raising gardens on rooftops, chasing away pigoons and wearing bedsheets to block the sun’s magnified radiation. Foraging, defending, building from scratch, all seemed easier than finding work in a recession, and eventually, even doing the dishes. I knew this feeling. I knew it well. I was depressed.

About a month or so ago I stopped taking Nortriptyline, suddenly. I know, one is supposed to taper, but I was impatient and wanted to feel something, even if it was brain shivers. It wasn’t nearly as bad as when I quit Effexor, which I did taper, breaking open pills and counting out beads even, but still, it wasn’t great. My migraines increased, as did my Vicodin intake. My neurologist left the state and her replacement wants me off all medication, except for another migraine preventative, Nortriptyline’s cousin, Protriptyline, and the occasional sumatriptan. I’ve been on Vicodin for nearly seven years. I’ve killed my body’s natural dopamine receptors and my endorphins run dry. I no longer know how to fight pain. Radio Lab recently had an episode about a guy who couldn’t eat for years. His taste buds died. His tongue was flat and pink and completely bald. I can’t help picturing that image.

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Oryx and Crake begins with Jimmy, who is not doing so well. He has changed his name to Snowman, thinks he’s the last human on earth, is only alive because he is responsible for the Crakers, beautiful humanoid creatures invented in a lab, by Crake, Jimmy’s best friend: the boy genius responsible for the plague. The story follows the cynical Jimmy through his mooning and his failings. I identify with Jimmy because I’m in a period of self-hatred. I feel just as ridiculous and out-shined, but Jimmy suffers from unrequited love, at first with a picture, then with the equally unattainable girl in the flesh, Oryx. He thinks he’s an emotional cripple, and he is, in a way, but nothing a healthy relationship couldn’t fix. But one wonders if Oryx experiences any emotions at all, or if her emotional receptors run as dry as my dopamine. She has seen hell, and it’s partially because of this sheltered Jimmy loves her.

Jimmy only knows compound life, as opposed to pleebland life. Think of 1984’s party life versus prole living, except this isn’t a dystopia based around a political ideology. Though Atwood’s CorpSeCorps does retain the iron fist, that closing in feeling, MaddAddam’s world centers around mass extinction. To compensate, scientists within the compounds are perfecting synthetic living from growing insurance organs inside pigs (pigoons), to chickens without hearts or brainstems (doesn’t KFC already do this?), to sheep-like creatures with full heads of human hair, etc. As I said, the trilogy, for the most part, is entirely exposition, which is great, but to Jimmy, nothing is happening. He watches a lot of porn on the internet, and executions, and he plays complex computer games, has little human interaction.

Jimmy and me both were suffering from ennui. I had writer’s block. I hated my sheltered past. I felt boring. I don’t see my friends as much as I’d like to. So many of them are doing great, interesting things, and I felt they were passing me by. I felt isolated as a mom. I was getting used to only talking to Aria or about Aria: she’s trying to write now! She’s leaping off the trunk onto the bed! She said camel! Moms who only talk about their kids are boring. When I go out into the world, I feel invisible. I look tired. I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize myself. When I write, the process takes too long. Pages used to flow out of me, now it was taking me hours to write a couple of paragraphs. I lost the flow. I even started questioning my sacred space, my parenting skills: was I giving her too much TV? Why isn’t she eating anything? Am I imprinting depression onto her? In short, I’m a piece of shit who cannot produce her own dopamine.

Atwood is famous for The Handmaid’s Tale, which is another dystopia: a misogynistic, religious horror story. The Tea Party’s wet dream. That world, too, was vivid and penetrating, but now it seems sparse to me, its yarn was ideological, terrifying, and rage-inducing. In The Handmaid’s Tale, you drown. Inside the MaddAddam trilogy, you swim. You don’t feel like fighting or fleeing, you just wait for the inevitable, then survive it. The angry period is over. Climate change has destroyed the planet. Everything’s dead. First the plants and animals, then the people. Sounds good.

I had this overwhelming sensation that the world is fucked, that with climate change it’s too late, that violent tragedy is around the corner, that the jobless recovery has widened the class gap so far, I can only see us slipping further into poverty. We can’t afford nice things for Aria. Groceries are too expensive, but I am clinging to those fresh vegetables for dear life. I’m still struggling with my weight. Just the other day the cats peed on one of the only jackets that fits me. I couldn’t handle it. I was angry all the time. And sad. How do I stop hating myself?

“To stay human is to break a limitation.” Oryx and Crake.

In The Year of the Flood we switch protagonists. We move onto Toby, Jimmy’s opposite: hardened, wise, understated, quiet, dignified, level-headed, and stoic. You can tell she was written with admiration. We also follow Ren, a child when she lived Toby on the Edencliff rooftop as a fellow gardener, but now, in her late-twenties, she is locked inside Scales and Tales, an upscale brothel, while Toby has bunkered down inside the AnooYoo spa. Much like Oryx and Crake, much of this novel flashes back to life before the Waterless Flood, life before Crake destroyed it. Still laying down the setting, spinning and spinning, we start to see past the compounds, past HelthWyzer, OrganInc, and RejoovenEsence. The Year of the Flood says, “Okay. Now what?” I needed to hear that. At some point Ren and Toby meet up. In this narrative I am Ren, just as I am Jimmy (it is no coincidence that they once were lovers, that Ren still pines for him, even though he pines for Oryx). I am clueless. I need medical attention. I need help navigating the weather and defeating the bad guys. I’m a self-obsessed, selfish, stupid puddle. Toby, help me grow up.

Goocha gets up in the morning and is full of the dickens. She feeds herself pretend food (fake potatoes and carrots are soooooo much better than real potatoes and carrots) and hops maniacally. Still not much of a cuddler, but a new favorite game is to run back and forth between Ryan and me, hugging us and yelling, “I LA BEE TOO!” or, for those who don’t speak Goocha, “I love you too.” She fills me with everything. She is everything. I think, Do it for her! Stop being so depressed. Change. Change everything. If I could afford to make those superficial changes I would. I’d love to pierce my nose again, dye my hair, get another tattoo. But real change has to come from within. I need to stop hating myself. Duh. When I cry, she cocks her head, baffled, and stares with wide eyes. She used to point her finger and sternly scold me in gibberish. She’s tougher than me. Now she’s starting to understand, she’s starting to really see me as separate from her. Not only do I have my own desires and will, that she knows and already has little patience with, but now I’m someone who owns things, someone who feels things outside of her. I can’t teach her these habits. I know she’ll experience sadness, and probably even self-loathing, but I want to teach her to cope better than I am. I still look to art, but I’m not creating. This is all I’ve written in two months. I need to learn time management. Those few precious hours I have to myself need to incorporate art, exercise, and self-care. I need to learn how to do that. I don’t want her to ever think, My mom is pathetic. This is how I feel. Pathetic. I wanted coddling, nursing, help. Honey, fix me, hug me, love me. But I don’t need an enabler. Obviously. Vicodin is an enabler. I don’t Toby, not that Toby would be an enabler, she would have little patience for me. I need to be Toby. I need to be Zeb. I need to get shit done.

But first I’m going to crawl inside this hole and sleep…

 “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Rousseau.

 Let’s get back to nature. Civilization sucks…

MaddAddam was long awaited but I’m so glad I didn’t have to. Finally everyone, all the survivors are together. They’re rebuilding, satisfying that perpetual narrative itch I have for the raw-survival-in-nature trope. (This is what drew me to Lost, but lets not now or ever discuss Lost.) By this point I’ve realized what I was doing: that this depression wasn’t going to go anywhere until I finished MaddAddam, until I left this world and came back to my own. To my delight, Atwood stayed with Toby and gave us everything we wanted to know about Zeb, the sexy rebel gardener with a dark past and a knack for surviving. He’s crass, large, and highly intelligent, a kind of hacker-extraordinaire alpha Macgyver. Like Toby, I fell in love with him.

Back in reality, surviving equals thriving, not simply breathing. I wasn’t surviving. So I avoided blogging. But that isn’t the whole truth. I began this blog with the confessional in mind. It’s the Catholic in me, the exhibitionist in me, the way I look up to Kate Zambreno and Dodie Bellamy and Roxane Gay among others. I wanted this blog to be my personal narrative woven into, creating, revealing my perspective, my lens, my raison d’être, the when, why, what, how I deconstruct. Then I caught wind (or rather read her loud complaints) that my mother-in-law was reading my blog. Of course I anticipated people I know reading my blog, but given my mood, and that my mother-in-law deeply despises me, I felt exposed, critiqued, laughed at. One needs to appear strong in front of adversaries. To be hated so much gnaws at you, and while I’ve gotten used to it, mostly, sometimes I’m still bothered. My insecurity increased. My inkwell ran dry.

I no longer wanted to be seen.

I want to be seen again.

On the Edencliff rooftop, they don’t call it depression, they call it a fallow state.

Fallow: 1. plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production. 2. Figurative: inactive : long fallow periods when nothing seems to happen. 3. (of a sow) not pregnant.

Solutions are found, among the gardeners, with hallucinogenics. They take some mushrooms and perform an Advanced Meditation. I can’t take mushrooms anymore because of the migraines, but I can try and meditate and think and write about what to do next. I’m unsown, inactive, and not pregnant (literally, thankfully, but I mean that my language is no longer pregnant). Poetry eludes me. My ideas seem meek and paltry. Pathetic. That word, rolling about the page. It feels good to be back, but I’m not fully here yet. I have dips. I wane still. But it’s getting better. Maybe that was a kind of postpartum, maybe it was from a sudden drop in serotonin, maybe I’m terrified of getting off of Vicodin, or of any real change in general. I crave it though, and fortunately, it’s happening, whether I’m ready or not, whether I like it or not.

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My Denial of Death

happy_birthday_by_babsdraws-d61xnoeEvery year, around my birthday, I freak out. Often, it’s about my failings, anxiety about my crushing ambition, but mostly, it’s about my inevitable death. My Thanatophobia is why I bury myself in books. Bound and bracketed texts comfort me.

Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death writes, “The real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way.”

The world is simply too terrible to admit. Look at Syria. Look today. It’s not fair. It’s unworldly to me, unfathomable. When Ryan writes about Syria, when he talks about it, none of our friends respond. People push Syria into a deep pocket, away from their to-do lists and their lunches and bowel movements. I’m no different. I look at the computer then look at Aria, empathy overwhelms, then I cry. For some reason when I cry Aria runs over, finger pointed, and speaks Aria in a stern manner. “Stop crying,” I think she says and I am once again thrust into here, safety, the couch, chopping fake vegetables. Kids really do perpetually shove you back into your everydayness. Anytime you have an authentic moment, revealing your being-towards-death, there they are, coloring the walls, demanding your immediate attention less you have permanent blue streaked walls, which I do now. I should really look up how to remove crayons. You’d think they’d all be washable. I mean, duh.

Writing is words that stay.

She’s leaving her mark. I get it. I applaud it. I do the same.

Writing makes me feel immortal. Not simply because my texts will remain after I’m gone. The universe is expanding, for one, all will be lost, including Shakespeare. Also, my work could disappear from fire, technical mishaps, lack of interest. No, writing, for me, creates importance, gives me the illusion of control, gives me the illusion of immortality through the chain of readers reading, readers reading to write, which is the point of it all: to write texts that make other people want to write texts.

So I insert myself as author, as character.

Through my work I am my own mother. My work – myself – is my child.

Like my home, my work is an extension of myself.

Unlike my daughter.

Who is Aria to me?

She is a person who is not me.

We procreate to live forever. We procreate because we will die.

But the show must go on.

Like thoughts,

Ceaselessly,

Cruelly.

Madame Bovary dies, and still, the book goes on.

I can’t fucking believe the universe is expanding. Life was much simpler when the sky was Heaven, not space. As a result, space frightens me. Ryan doesn’t understand that.

When I think about his death, I think about madness. The kind of grief that consumes totally. Filled to the proverbial brim with blackness, nothingness. I don’t know which is more terrifying, my death or his. The thought of Aria’s death is too hideous to contemplate. Horrors cross my mind every now again, of course they do. I fantasize about someone kidnapping her at the grocery store. I then imagine I’m Leela and beat the living shit out of those people, saving my child, killing the bad guy, turning my husband on immeasurably.

I can’t believe that everyone I know and love will die.

Maybe it’s because I grew up Catholic, and that my parents are incessant optimists, but I feel as though immortality is somehow around the corner. That three generations from now we will have found the scientific secret of youth and eternal life. That this dread, this fear, the anxiety and the terror will all be over.

But I will have missed out.

I’ve never been swept away by a crowd – merged into mob mentality.

I was always uncomfortable at pep rallies then political rallies or protests, or – especially – in church. When the priest says, “Let us lift up our hearts to the Lord,” and everyone responds, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” I was always creeped out. Religion is a palliative. Freud saw it as a weakness, an inability to cope with the torments of obliteration, a passivity that defeats our creative urges for more life.

Becker quotes Otto Rank:

[Surrender to God] represents the furthest reach of the self, the highest idealization man can achieve. It represents the fulfillment of the Agape love – expansion, the achievement of the truly creative type. Only in this way…only my surrendering to the bigness of nature on the highest, least- fetishized level, can man conquer death.

I take this as a personal challenge.

One can only achieve peace if one gives oneself over to the great public dream of eternal life?

I scoff.

There are no atheists in fox holes. I think Christopher Hitchens has disproved that.

Art is not designed to quiet the soul, to be a pacifier – it is designed to enlighten, ennoble, to strengthen, fight, and prepare. To feel God inside your veins through the act of creation is an addictive high that cannot (as gravity dictates) last.

That does not mean to give up and give in to a god because he is a better artist than you.

And giving in by way of taking Pascal’s Wager will not eradicate the doubt deep in your belly. That specter of impending nothingness will never fully dissipate.

Art is the only way I know of coping with that.

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Art is the only place I know of where a woman is accepted. Where she can be herself.

“Write from your body,” Cixous says. Write with your body, write in white ink, mother’s milk. Your work, your collected body of work, are your babies, is your body.

Through writing I can pretend I’m not shackled to my carcass; this loathed, bloated, exhausted carcass.

Then, everydayness. Becker: “I am nothing and should be everything.” I nurse my ego.

I read of other’s deaths. Sometimes I’m moved, greatly. Often I’m not. People morph into statistics, casualties of war, of cancer, of old age. I compare my age to the deceased. I subtract my age from one hundred for comfort. Turning 30 was hard. I wanted to be so much more than I am by now.

Still, so much holds me back.

Again, Becker:

The depressed person avoids the possibility of independence and more life precisely because these are what threaten him with destruction and death. He holds on to the people who have enslaved him in a network of crushing obligations, belittling interactions, precisely because these people are his shelter, his strength, his protection against the world…

The depressed person is a coward who will not stand alone on his own center, who cannot draw from himself the necessary strength to face up to life.

When I’m depressed I feel like a coward. A failure. I feel tiny and insignificant.

For me, God is not the answer. Giving yourself over to a divine, demanding, infallible, Mercurial Dad sounds horrible. Self-effacing. Yet so many see Heaven as personalized. But what shape do we take in Heaven? Do we suddenly possess all the knowledge? Do old people stay old? Babies stay babies? Physically? Mentally? What if someone sees you in their heaven but you certainly don’t see them in yours? If I died and Ryan remarried would I be stuck with her too? Or worse, would I still have to put up with his mother?

Or would we all automatically forgive each other and only care about worshiping?

If then my ego disintegrates then what’s the purpose of having a soul?

When I stopped believing in God it was though I was diagnosed with a terminal illness. What I lost, what I’m struggling with, is my once-perceived immortality.

It’s the unbearable lightness of being.

Without eternal return life seems so thin.

If I were to repeat everything would that make my actions more significant? I would be imprisoned by my own life. A spectator.

Or I’m wiped clean and build everything anew in exactly the same way.

Free will would be an illusion. Which maybe it is.

Though I’m a postmodern child, at heart I am an existentialist. Sartre feels like home. My ego is an illusion. The unified self is an illusion. We are all empty sacks of blood and bone.

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This was part of my room’s decorations as a kid – though my mom colored in the girl’s hair brown with a marker so it was a more accurate representation of me.

This is why I have given myself over to literature. I believe it’s important and significant. It matters. Stories matter. They shape people. They give people hope and help them carve out dreams and personalities. Representation matters.

Literature enables me to feel as though I’m a part of something bigger.

And this brings me peace. Calms the anxiety.

Sometimes.

Often.

Incidentally, Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, did not. I couldn’t get behind his Christian message of hope. For Nietzsche, art is not just a form of human activity but is rather the highest expression of the human spirit. For me, it’s the purpose of my life. Be an artist. Treat your life as a work of art. Make good art. YOLO.

Allow me to end with Neil Gaiman. “And when things get tough, this is what you should do: make good art.”

I wrote about my Thanatophobia here too, where you’ll find a hauntingly beautiful mash-up video of an Alan Watts recording and the video for “Sometimes the Stars” by The Audreys. Every little bit helps.

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Never Smile at a Crocodile

ImageSwamplandia! You broke my heart. I wanted to like you. Nay, I wanted to love you, but I didn’t, I couldn’t. Karen Russell’s overuse of simile was distracting, but the overall metaphor of the project fell flat. Swamplandia! is a manic pixie dream girl text: quirky, bursting and colorful, cute, but lacking depth and seemed, to me, to lack purpose as well. Faux insight, while pretty on the page, is like drunk sex. Awesome but dull. Empty and dry yet overflowing with misplaced, confused, and jumbled emotions.

There will be spoilers here, but not really, and the book was so meh you might as well.

I reblogged my post on Geek Love because Swamplandia! walks in the shadows of Geek Love, looks up to Geek Love, much in the same way that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind owes a great deal to Annie Hall. But whereas those are two stellar movies, Swamplandia! doesn’t come close to the complexity and humanity of Geek Love. Dunn’s characters, especially Olympia, desire; they move, they break, they sweat. They grow, they change. Russell’s characters begin broken, and this journey narrative, instead of uniting the characters and solving their existential crises, takes us on a brief tour of each of their sitting-and-spinning anguish, which all culminates in a kind of nihilistic hope. We watch them flounder and burn, but no one rises from the ashes. We dwell in the muck, in the swamp of their grief, watch their failed attempts at moving forward, only to then end up in a rundown bowling alley hotel. Ava, Ossie, Kiwi, and the Chief are bowling pins, knocked down by the fierce bowling ball of their mother’s death, waiting for a machine (some deus ex machina) to be put back up. This whole narrative struck me as passive.

In the end, the family’s back together, yes, but not really. And this seems to be the take home message. Everyone’s not okay, everyone’s flailing, everyone’s sad and dejected, but at least they’ve got each other. Sitcom material in a unique and arguably rich setting. But I wanted more. MOAR!

Give me liberty! Give me redemption! Give me struggle, inside and out! Give me Geek Love!

The title comes from their home, a circus of sorts, a tourist attraction where the mother swims with the alligators and wrestles their jaws shut. The father, the Chief, christens all their possessions as artifacts. Nothing Ava owns, it would seem, truly belongs to her. Except her grief. When the mother dies, everyone goes crazy. Kiwi, the oldest brother, in an act of supreme rebellion, flees the island and goes to work for a rival park, The World of Darkness. Ossie fucks dead people, fleeing the realm of the living, preferring the company of ghosts to her family. The Chief leaves his daughters to also go to the mainland. His disappearance is the most mysterious, but ends up being the most mundane. Also, and it should be noted, while he left to make money to support his sinking ship, he left his two teenage daughters, one sixteen, one thirteen. Ava, our protagonist, is 13. When Ossie leaves Swamplandia! to marry her ghost boyfriend in the Underworld, Ava, with the help of a creepy–but not alluringly so–man who in 100+ degree heat wears a heavy coat of black bird feathers, not unlike what Jon Snow and the other Crows (members of the Night’s Watch) wear in Game of Thrones.

Okay. Premise, not bad.

But this book is more interesting in blurb. Nothing happens. We oscillate from Ava’s point of view to Kiwi’s, so we oscillate from The World of Darkness, a campy model of Hell and Hades, to possibly the true Underworld, whose entrance is located somewhere deep in the swamp. The Bird Man speaks: “The whole swamp is haunted, kid…I’m sure  you folks have sensed it yourselves, wrestling the alligators, living way out. And there are thousands of openings in the limestone and the eastern mangrove tunnels. What the old gator hunters and plumers called the Black Woods…Way out there, that’s where you’ll find those shell islands. Most people go from one side to the other and they never get to the underworld. If you’re a first-timers–if you’re alive–and if you want to make the return trip, well, kid, you need a guide.”

Russell recalls Dante’s Inferno:

Therefore, for your sake, I think it wise

you follow me: I will be your guide…

In some cultures, crocodiles are the guardians of the Underworld. (All alligators are crocodiles, but not all crocodiles are alligators, fyi.) They represent the bridge between earth and water, the known and the unknown. They resemble dinosaurs, a link to our amphibious roots. And they grin like monsters. All those teeth! Vagina dentata, you say, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Think of the tick tick tick crocodile following Captain Hook around, like a harbinger of death. Think of the vagina as a womb and a tomb. The Underworld itself is also a liminal space. As we cannot conceive of nothingness, humans invent a place–Hell, Dis, Hades–where our transparent souls go, a point of no return, different from life on earth, but not so different as to be inconceivable. Whether it’s fire and brimstone and eternal torture, to harps and bouncing on fluffy clouds, to basically a river of ashen fishy souls swimming and moaning. This is not death. It’s fictitious death. And it’s scary as fuck.

Russell is writing a coming of age story about a young alligator wrestler and her kooky family, who I didn’t find all that kooky. They want their mother. They want to be loved. They want to perform, to be relevant and interesting. They want to be themselves. They’re simple folk (oh, that phrase makes me vomit in my mouth a little). Not to beat the drum again, but Dunn’s characters are not simple. The situations Dunn’s characters find themselves in don’t induce a feeling of lethargy and meaninglessness.

Like in real life, Russell’s Underworld is a bust.

So, is Russell’s point that Swamplandia! is hell on earth? Or is the corporate Aruba of The World of Darkness actually hell on earth? Is hell going at it alone, without your family? Is hell being a part from the ones you love? Is hell trusting someone only to find out they suck, and they’re a rapist, and you were a foolish kid thinking you could save someone through a simple act of bravery? Forge ahead! Says the beginning of the novel. Forge! But then, why? What was the point of all that forging? To conclude life is meaningless and that’s there’s no real point in forging because it’s all luck and chance and we’re all going to die anyway?

Boo! Boo hiss! I say.

Where’s the razzle dazzle? Where are all the crocodiles?

Early on Ava discovers a red alligator (or Seth*, as her family calls them) and thinks this carmine creature will save their park, will bring the tourists back and bring everything back to normal. She nurses it, carries it everywhere, then randomly uses it as a weapon, throwing it, and running. WTF? The red seth represents hope. Hope that she will locate her sister. Hope that the park will be restored. Hope that she may even see her mother in the Underworld, because hey, if there is a ghostly realm, and an Underworld, of course, her mother would be there. Of course, her mother would sense her presence, or know that she was searching for her, and appear to her, give her some Dumbledore wisdom and love. But instead, the Bird Man rapes her (it’s gray rape, but it’s still fucking rape), her innocence is lost, and there is no Underworld. Abandon all hope, ye who enter hereShe does. Hope is now a weapon. Fuck you, Bird Man. Fuck the park. Fuck it all. Throw your metaphors in the air! We’re back to forging. This time, we’re doing it alone. Ava, time to grow up. Shit just got real. Get ready for some grand finale do or die alligator wrestling.

I loved a crocodile once. Back in the days of Myspace (which was infinitely more aesthetically pleasing than Facebook), this was my About Me for a while.

He hurt the ones he loved, this skilled lothario. I knew he was dangerous. I didn’t care. I had a death drive. I wanted danger. I wanted to be consumed, raw. I wanted to ride him around and see where we went. In the end he wasn’t that dangerous. He was as boring as Swamplandia! The symbols and signs went nowhere.

Let me add, as an addendum, one of Russell’s similes. “Trumball was the engine for their twosome, the talker, and his talk kept picking up speed, as if his big voice were on a downhill slope.” I say her similes were distracting, one because they were constant, but this is her style. Fine. But often, like here, there’s something off, something wrong. Engines don’t pick up speed downhill. The car picks up speed. The engine relaxes. I wanted Russell to do this, to relax and let the narrative pick up its own speed, but she is an engine. I saw her behind every sentence, at every turn, shaping the narrative, controlling it. As a result, the whole thing felt labored. Like Ava in the end, fighting the swamp, looking for home, looking for the finish line. Skill kept her alive but it was luck that brought her family together. Deus ex machina. Everyone survived but no one thrived.

It was sad that no one won the Pulitzer in 2012. The finalists were The Pale King, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and Swamplandia!. While it sucks that no one won, I was shocked to find Russell up against David Foster Wallace’s genius. Like Swamplandia! and Geek Love, there is just no comparison to be made there. At least not yet. Russell’s young and that’s impressive in and of itself. I’m not saying I’ll never read anything of hers again, but there is much room for improvement. She meandered in the small details then flubbed the big picture. Other people loved it though, so there’s that.

*A reference to the evil Egyptian god Seth who murdered his brother Osiris and wounded Osiris’s son Horus? Seth is represented as having the head of an animal with a long pointed snout.

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When She Woke, cafeteria Christian feminist candy

WhenSheSpoke_AFWhere to begin with Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, a misogynistic dystopia, where criminals have their skin dyed according to their crime?

Not when Hannah wakes up blood red in a Chrome Ward prison for having an abortion. Not when she escapes the clutches of a menacing but lax theocratic government safe house. We’ll get there. Let’s start here, at the height of the narrative’s silliness, the proverbial pelvic thrust:

Her head in the nook of his shoulder, her arm draped across his chest, their legs intertwined. Adam and Eve, before the fall. Minus the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

First, in no way do Hannah and Aiden symbolically represent the “first couple” or “the dawn of mankind.” But more stupidly, this creationist bomb was dropped right at the end of an already rushed and progressively vacuous book about radical Christian right politics taken to their penultimate conclusions. I say penultimate because the book is soft–oh so soft–critiquing religion while cradling it.

Jordan separates good Christians from bad Christians, the latter being the ones who interpret the Bible more literally. The Puritanical prudes who are rabidly anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-sing-and-dance. Then there’s the happy-go-lucky, you’re okay I’m okay, to each their own, God is love variety. To quote Simone, the lesbian terrorist running an underground railroad resistance to chroming, “I do not believe in this God of theirs, this pissed-off, macho God of the Bible. How can such a being exist? It is impossible.”

And that’s that. Though, what ho? What exactly does she believe? What message is Jordan sending?

If God is the Creator, if God englobes every single thing in the universe, then God is everything, and everything is God. God is the earth and the sky, and the tree planted in the earth under the sky, and the bird in the tree, and the worm in the beak of the bird, and the dirt in the stomach of the worm. God is He and She, straight and gay, black and white and red–yes, even that…and green and blue and all the rest. And so, to despise me for loving women or you for being a Red who made love with a woman, would be to despise not only His own creations but also to hate Himself. My God is not so stupid as that.

This book is billed as a modern mash-up of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (which I haven’t read in forever), and while the premise–Jordan’s initial chroming idea–may lead one to believe this, the text, however, is utterly jejune. Every time Hannah is about to get seriously critical, or hurt, raped, or killed, someone is there to save her.

Hannah Elizabeth Payne. In acronymic terms, HELP.

(We won’t even touch her blaringly obvious choice of sir name.)

Help me, Hannah says. Lord, help me. Aiden, help me. Daddy, help me. Simone, help me. Kayla, help me. Straight Path Center, help me. 

Help me. I’m in pain.

Take it away boys…

Then she’s all, Fuck this shit. Fuck the church. Fuck shame. Fuck the rules. I don’t need anyone’s help.

Halfway through, I was hopeful.

Not so long ago, she too would have turned to God for help as a matter of course, would have believed without question that He was interested enough in her one small life to intervene in it. She probed the place within herself where He used to reside and found an empty, ragged socket. Her faith–not just in His love, but in His existence–was gone.

Huzzah! All right, fast-paced, “Unputdownable,” (says the cringe worthy blurb) rushed revolutionary text, let’s blow some religious lady’s minds! Because, duh, this is written by a woman, with a female protagonist discussing women’s issues, this book is not for men. And nor is it for me. It’s for those who have yet to question their faith, question their religious doctrine, question the men laying down the rules for the right way to live, doling out the punishments, racking themselves with guilt and shame and disgust and fear.

Great, I initially thought. I love these narratives. But this book is poppy, it’s not going to tread on any type of Christian values. Atwood delivers a mean uppercut, a patriarchal gutting. She and Simone de Beauvoir (who Simone is named after…) interpret the Christian doctrine correctly. The texts, the Biblical and catechist texts do not like sex and they do not like women. Your body is not your own, not if you’re a woman. Your womb belongs to the people and the people belong to God.

Both Jordan’s and Atwood’s narratives begin after an epidemic has rendered a good deal of the female population sterile. In When She Woke, abortion is outlawed; it is murder; the punishment is red skin, ostracism, insecurity, and shame. Chromes have no rights to privacy and their safety is greatly jeopardized as well. But that’s it. While Hannah grew up in a strict religious household, a fellow chrome she meets at the Straight Path Center did not. This friend, Kayla, lived outside of the zeitgeist. Which means living outside of the zeitgeist is possible. Which means that this really isn’t a theocracy. There’s leeway. Abortion is still illegal, but slutting it up isn’t. It’s just more frowned upon. Sounds like a pretty lenient dystopian society. One that can be combated. One with hope. Which is how it ends. Hopefully.

So yes, soft. Painfully soft. Jordan’s political message seems to be, Watch it, America. If you’re not careful things will get a little worse and then we’ll have to fight super harder to get things back to the good old days of freedom bleh blah blue.

The Handmaid’s Tale is COMPLETELY different. There is no outside of the zeitgeist. Gilead is a theocratic state, with punishments much more brutal and severe than red skin and reflection. People die. People die horrifically. Fertile women become the property of influential men, and every week are raped by them while their infertile wives hold the girls’ arms and cover their faces. The girls are so afraid, so used to this state of affairs, that they really want to get pregnant. They want to save their own skin. I doubt any of them would give much of a fuck if the punishment were that it were dyed as opposed to the outback toxic cleanup death camps they face. Margaret Atwood’s not kidding. She’s distrustful of religion–oppositional to it, disdainful of it–not optimistic about it.

Here, let her explain.

*For audio, you have to change the quality from 360p to 240p.

Atwood: If your government says, Not only am I your government, but I represent the true religion. If you disagree with it, you’re not just of another faction, you’re evil.

Bill Moyers: But you don’t imagine that could happen here?

Atwood: Wanna bet? Wanna lay some bets as to that?

Margaret Atwood is not fucking around.

Hillary Jordan is. Sure, she’s pro-choice. She is the good kind of Christian. But I think the entire religion is suspect. Jordan’s critiques don’t go nearly far enough. What she wants is not Christianity, it’s utopia, where all religions are one and we hold hands and sing yet keep the basic framework of something so archaic and misogynistic for tradition and comfort.

When She Woke is candy but that nasty candy that’s hard and has been sitting unwrapped and clumped together inside your grandmother’s good bowl for years. Jordan’s only really speaking to fanatics; they’re the only ones who would find these kinds of cafeteria Christian ideas challenging.

I find them annoying.

Just as I find nosy, proselytizing neighbors annoying. Just last night I was walking Aria around the neighborhood when a woman stopped me to hand me this insane Baptist “business card” about hate being murder and repent your sins and don’t deny Jesus. “Where do you go to church?” she asked me. “I don’t,” I said. She then looked at Aria. Yes, we’re keeping her in the dark. And to use Jordan’s language, thank God.

I am emphatically team Atwood. But you don’t imagine that could happen here? Now? My encounter last night I think emphasizes how right she is. I’d say I could be a handmaid, or I could be dyed red. But I know, just as know I would’ve been burned a witch a couple of centuries ago, or stoned to death if I lived eastward, I wouldn’t make it past the first societal purge. Because if I did, I’d die fighting them.

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The Anti-Film Tarot Art Project

Last night I participated in The Tarot Nook’s Anti-Film Tarot Art Project with the mistress of ceremonies, Kelsey Lynore.This was not your average tarot reading. No mysticism. No bullshit. Kelsey begins every session by placing a ban on any and all discussions of truth. Truth, as she says, has nothing to do with tarot.* Meaning, this was not necessarily a prediction of the future so much as a deconstruction of the present. With a background in Comparative Literature, she approaches tarot using theory and analysis to unlock perception and elucidate possibilities that need churning, to be unearthed. It was everything that therapy should be. And it was all live on her Google+ and Youtube channels.

Though in the beginning I was nervous, fumbling my introduction as a writer and a “muddler,” which roughly translates to “a mother of a toddler” or “one who muddles introductions”. An apt Freudian slip, I’d say, an open expression of anxiety concerning the permanence of video, the conversation recorded, staying still, my appearance as I speak and gesticulate.

But Kelsey is calming, alluring. With a tranquilizing presence, you want to confide.

It was as though I’ve known her a very long time, when in reality, I’ve only known her since this blog’s inception. She’s then only known me through my writing. And yet despite my usual inclination toward neurosis, I was excited in the eyes of the unblinking lens.

I wished it were endless. I wished I were beside her somewhere on the bare earth, talking, absorbing, challenged, sated.

Afterwards I wanted a cigarette. Today I stole one of my mother’s and enveloped myself in an imaginary night, laying myself on the internet, for better or worse.

This project fascinates me. Watching her give other readings satisfies the voyeur, and not cheaply so. She calls this project “deeply humane” and it is. Her subjects are painfully human. They’re honest. They struggle. Their problems flick across their faces with every insight. Flashes they keep hidden. Now sewn onto their skin and forever caught, archived, are able to be studied. And for this I am immensely grateful. I want to relive these insights, peer further, deeper, go into them, transform and coddle them.

While the subjects know they’re being taped, the other is still ever-present but recedes into the relaxed and familiar landscapes of video communication. It’s not the same as speaking into the big black void of a lens. I was home. I was myself. Eventually forgetting the world outside of Kelsey and my pulsing life questions. I felt clear and charged, revealing possibly more than I should have on the internet, which is exactly what should have happened.

In other words, I couldn’t recommend this, her more.

*Just as truth has nothing to do with theory, with literature, or with life. To quote Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?”

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Geek Love: subverting the carnivalesque and the grotesque

In light of my forthcoming post on Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, I’d like to reblog an older post I had written about Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.

Geek Love: subverting the carnivalesque and the grotesque

I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.

Arturo Binewski.

Geek Love is so brilliant, so wonderful, that I almost urge you, if you have not read it, not to read on. This is your official Spoiler Alert.

“This thing of darkness I Acknowledge mine.” Prospero, The Tempest 5.1.275-6, the epigraph to Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.

Everyone has secret desires, lusts, revulsions, curiosities. Everyone has demons and dragons. No one is as isolated as they think, nor are they as connected as they want. No one can escape their bodies.

Everybody poops. Everybody dies.

To each their own.

Grotesque realism is all about this kind of materialist introspection, it’s about degradation, “the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of the earth and body in their indissoluble unity.” (Bakhtin) Powerful images of the humans–often larger or deformed in some way, though not necessarily so–eating, drinking, fucking, menstruating, micturating, and defecating.

“The material bodily principle in grotesque realism is offered in its all-popular festive and utopian aspect. The comic, social, and bodily elements are given here as an indivisible whole. And this whole is gay and gracious.” Bakhtin.

Mikhail Bakhtin developed his theory in his study of Rabelais. Bakhtin thinks that in order to understand Rabelais, one must reconstruct their aesthetic and ideological perceptions by entering and elevating the bawdy, chaotic world of folk humor, in other words, toilet humor. This subversion and liberation has its roots in the carnival, where social hierarchies are overturned, where the fool is wise, and a king is no better than a beggar. Opposites comingle, everyone is included.

The carnivalesque is a joyous event. Festive and utopian.

“Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all people. While the carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time, life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal sprit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part.” Bakhtin.

Ideally, it is vividly felt as an escape from the usual official way of life.

But what if the carnival is your official way of life?

The Binewski’s live behind the glitz, behind the flashing lights. They work hard to be festive, to create gaiety and illusions of hope. To them, the sacred occasion of carnivalesque, the light poetic humor that serves as a beacon from the unbearable weight of drab everyday existence, is itself profane and barren, just like everything else.

The happiness that Oly has in it is the happiness she has in her family, in her love.

“A carnival in daylight is an unfinished beast, anyway. Rain makes it a ghost. The wheezing music from the empty, motionless rides in a soggy, rained-out afternoon midway always hit my chest with a sweet ache. The colored dance of lights in the seeping air flashed the puddles in the sawdust with an oily glamour.” Olympia Binewski.

You can hear the nostalgic ache in her voice contrasted with the decay in her language.

Geek Love opens with Aloysuis Binewski and Lilian Hinchcliff Binewski reminiscing about the times before the children, the day that she decided to geek for him, meaning, she would fling herself into the pit and bite the heads off of chickens. After they were married, to alight the Fabulon circus that Al had inherited, they hatched a plan to breed a family of bona fide freaks. Lil ingests illegal and prescription pills, amphetamines, insecticides, and radioisotopes. She first gives birth to Arturo the Aqua Boy, who has flippers for limbs, then Electra and Iphigenia, the conjoined twins, followed by Olympia, the hunchback albino dwarf, and then Fortunato, a telekinetic, whose appearance is depressingly normal. There were others, who didn’t make it for various, and obvious reasons, who are now floating in jars on display for a moderate price. “Born from normal parents!”

Polishing her late siblings is only one of Oly’s jobs at the Fabulon. She is the useless child, the unmarketable child, but she is also our narrator. The novel oscillates from her childhood on the road, a life lived entirely for Arty, to now, a life lived entirely for her mother and daughter. Though they each know her, as they both live in the same apartment complex as her, neither has any idea of their relation to her.

The novel predominantly takes place at the Fabulon when Oly was a child. This is her story, the Binewski’s story, archived, for her daughter, Miranda.

“In grotesque realism, therefore, the bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in a private, egotistic form, severed from the other spheres of life, but as something universal, representing all people.” Bakhtin.

The children’s deformities are not universal, they are unique. The children are proud of their appearance and proud of their family. They are not mere representations to illustrate some satirical truth about Western culture, they each have individual personalities, egos, and desires. They are characters, they have dreams, fears; they love.

The Binewski’s are a traditional nuclear family, with Papa Aloysuis manning the helm, but as soon as Al’s mind shows its first crack the line of power begins to transfer over to his Machiavellian firstborn.

“The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed. This is why all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable.” Bakhtin.

As opposed to Arty’s body taking on these qualities, his ego is grandiose, exaggerated, and immeasurable. Stalinist yet Capitalistic. Smothering, exiling anyone who stands in his way, Arty’s act soon bourgeons into a self-help act, a personified greeting card. He becomes a sort of soothsayer with an inflated sense of superiority. An evangelist. A charlatan.

“Arty said, ‘We have this advantage, that the norms expect us to be wise. Even a rat’s-ass dwarf got credit for terrible canniness disguised in his foolery. Freaks are like owls, mythed into blinking, bloodless objectivity. The norms figure our contact with their brand of life is shaky. They see us as cut off from temptation and pettiness. Even our hate is grand by their feeble lights. And the more deformed we are, the higher our supposed sanctity.’ ” Olympia Binewski.

He then takes this idea and turns it into a religion. Arturism.

“What Arty wanted the crowds to hear was that they were all hormone-driven insects and probably deserved to be miserable but that he, the Aqua Boy, could really feel for them because he was in much better shape. That’s what it sounded like to me, but the customers must have been hearing something different because they gobbled it up and seemed to enjoy feeling sorry for themselves. You might figure a mood like that would be bad for the carnival business but it worked the opposite way. The crowd streaming out from Arty’s act would plunge deeper into the midway than all the rest, as though cantankerously determined to treat themselves to the joys of junk food and simp twisters to make up for the misery that had just been revealed to them.” Olympia Binewski.

When this kind of megalomania is taken to its logical conclusion, Arturism has thousands of people paying thousands of dollars, leaving their families, everything behind, to follow the carnival, and amputate their limbs one by one. The Admitted wait on the more advanced, and all meditate on the slogan: Peace, Isolation, Purity. They give Arty monikers like His Armlessness.

While Arturism functions like a religion, there is no mention of god or gods (except maybe His Limblessness), and there is no claim to any afterlife. The cult represents itself as offering earthly sanctuary from the aggravations of life. “Arturo knows All Pain, All Shame, and the Remedy!”

Generally, according to Bakhtin, when the grotesque exaggeration is bodily, the leading themes are fertility, growth, and a teeming abundance, but, as we see, the Fabulon’s motto is about deletion, about disappearing, minimizing the physical self, and what that self can do, in order to feel whole, pure, and at ease.

Ironically, when the ultimate goal of Aturism is reached, a lobotomized head sitting atop a torso, one is completely dependent on the help of others, on the more recently Admitted. Given Arty’s complete success manipulating, it’s easy to forget how dependent he is on Oly how much he needs her to be his hands, to be his extra eyes and ears. She does everything for him. After he finds out she’s pregnant, it’s a startling moment, to watch him feebly attempt to attack her with a plunger as the handle keeps slipping from his flipper.

“I stared through my safe green lenses at Arty, gibbering with frustration in his chair because he couldn’t keep a grip on the stick with his flipper even though his belly rolled in crevices of muscle, though he could lift a hundred and fifty pounds with his neck, he still couldn’t hold the stick to hurt me when he needed to.” Olympia Binewski.

Though Oly doesn’t buy into Arturism, she truly loves Arty, to a point beyond masochism, venturing into more sinister realms, and on the one hand, it’s easy to deduce that she craves a normal life with Arty and baby, and each of them would bust at the seams with incestuous happiness, but that life is an impossibility, for if Arty were normal, if Arty returned her love, he wouldn’t be Arty, he wouldn’t be the one she loves.

“Life for me was not like the songs the redheads played. It wasn’t the electric clutch I had seen ten million times in the midway–the toreador girls pumping flags until those bulging-crotched tractor drivers were strung as tight as banjo wire, glinting in the sun. It wasn’t for me, the stammering hilarity of Papa and Lil, or even the helpless, dribbling lust of the Bag Man rocked by the sight of the twins. I have certainly mourned for myself. I have wallowed in grief for the lonesome, deliberate seep of my love into the air like the smell of uneaten popcorn greening to rubbery staleness. In the end I would always pull up with a sense of glory, that loving is the strong side. It’s feeble to be an object. What’s the point of being loved in return, I’d ask myself. To warm my spine in the dark? To change the face in my mirror every morning? It was none of Arty’s business that I loved him. It was my secret ace, like a bluebird tattooed under pubic hair or a ruby tucked up my ass.

Understand, daughter, that the only reason for your existing was as a tribute to your uncle-father. You were meant to love him. I planned to teach you how to serve him and adore him. You would be his monument and his fortress against mortality.

Forgive me. As soon as you arrived I realized that you were worth more than that.” Olympia Binewski.

Her language is so desperate, so wracked with pain that it’s hard not to be moved by this passage, by her immense yearning to love again. With Arty dead, and her mother and Miranda unaware of her identity, she loves in secret, incognito. She follows both of them, protects them from afar. Miranda doesn’t need as much immediate help as Lil, but she is in danger of becoming a full-fledged norm.

Miranda works at a strip club, but a kind of strip club for very particular fetishes, each of the girls there has a little something extraordinary. Miranda has a tail, which drive a great deal of men wild. At work one night she is approached by Miss Lick, who has the eccentric hobby of locating down and out pretty girls and disfiguring them so that they become more than some man’s wife, or, obversely, locating freaks and paying them to become normal. She has offered Miranda a small fortune to remove her tail. This, of course, outrages Oly, and instead of spilling everything to Miranda, explaining why her tail is so important, she decides to befriend and spy on Miss Lick.

“Miss Lick’s purpose is to liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers. These exploitable women are, in Miss Lick’s view, the pretty ones. She feels great pity for them… If all these pretty women could shed the traits that made men want them (their prettiness) then they would no longer depend on their own exploitability but would use their talents and intelligence to become powerful. Miss Lick has great faith in the truth of this theory. She herself is an example of what can be accomplished by one unencumbered by natural beauty. So am I.” Olympia Binewski.

I have heard and I have read that this contemporary story isn’t as interesting as life at the Fabulon, but I do care to differ. It’s an integral part of the thematic whole. Geek Love champions the unique and freaky, the unconventional and the nonconformist, the ugly and deformed. It’s not that all our souls are deformed and our bodies long to reflect our inner ugly, nor is it that our bodies weigh us down, and that in order to be free we must reduce ourselves to drained, dependent nubs, utter impuissance. This is a message of girl power. One that questions what it exactly means to be normal. To have a normal family life. To experience love normally.

And while “normal” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, it’s an indefinable word, it’s a word that relies on an ever-changing society. Basically, it’s a word that only means “majority.”

“ ‘You are so lucky,’ [Miss Lick] said that night. ‘What fools might consider a handicap is actually an enormous gift. What you’ve accomplished with your voice might never have been possible if you’d been normal.’ ” Olympia Binewski.

This certainly isn’t what Bakhtin had in mind for the carnivalesque. This isn’t a jolly Momento mori reminding us that we are our bodies and we will decay, this isn’t another womb/tomb tale. Through Oly’s strange appearance and her unorthodox upbringing, we learn about her existential languor. In the end, I don’t think Oly is a sad character, or a misunderstood character. She is honest, strong, fiercely loyal, and extremely lovable.

In short, I loved every second of this book.

(And there’s so, so much more I didn’t say.)

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The tyranny of pink.

barbie-store-shanghai-china-neon-pink-architectureMy husband:

The tyranny of pink.

Pink is a kind of pre-pubescent white, white that blushes. And, as with every real princess in history, tyranny is the power that lurks behind every principle of feudal purity.

We should resist it as surely as we should resist every other kind of tyranny, and we shouldn’t waste time pretending that it’s all benign. After all, the effects are real and as nefarious as with any other kind of consensus.

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