Soothsayer.

Beware the Ides of March! – Soothsayer 44BC (allegedly)

It has been a few months since I’ve written a real, long-form entry about my life. While I love the ease and pithy hilarity of lists, I do sort of miss paragraphs. I had wanted to write a review of my past year, to take a step back and analyze recent events, but all my efforts dissolved into madness. At first, I found I had no words, and then I found I had too many, and then everything felt meaningless, yet also, somehow, meaningful. In the end, to avoid any conflict between the apparent nothing and the actual everything that happened in 2015, I decided to skip the hindsight in 2016 and focus on moving forward instead.

On January 23rd, I had my fortune told via a late night tarot card reading at an event hosted by my museum. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t pay much attention in 10th-grade English, but I watch a lot of TV, and I was a little cautious of strange figures in togas, crying Beware! I’m no Roman emperor, but I was still afraid the cards would tell me my career was hopeless, my life was the pits, and every decision I had ever made in my entire life was wrong.

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As she shuffled the cards, Zostra* (*not her real name) put me at ease and told me not to panic if I saw any typically negative cards. She explained that she would interpret the cards as they fell, and that I was free to independently apply that interpretation to my life as I saw fit. I nodded. So the cards were not going to spell out the names of my last five hook-ups for all the world to see. I could live with that.

When she was finished shuffling the cards herself, Zostra handed the deck over to me. “Do whatever you want to the cards,” she instructed, gently. There was no judgment in her voice, but my brain was running laps anyway. What does one do to a deck? Am I supposed to perform some interesting and complicated ritual? Should I knock it off the table like a capricious feline? What if I tossed all the cards in the air, licked each one, and then sat back down as though nothing strange had transpired? What about nothing? Is there an option to do nothing?

In the end, I balked. Like the slice of white bread covered in mayonnaise that I am, I reached hesitantly towards the cards and simply cut the deck.

“Alright,” Zostra said, unconcerned as she continued her work. She arranged the cards in what is called a Celtic Cross and began her interpretation. What follows is an abridged and incredibly amateur account of Zostra’s reading:

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The Page of Pentacles was at the heart of the spread, representing me as a person. The Page is a young card, but a competent card. It is the patron of emerging professionals everywhere and could signify someone chasing a dream job or pursuing a goal. Despite its youth, the Page can be passionate and dedicated because the Page understands exactly how much its job or project benefits the community.

I took this as verification that I work a lot, but that I love what I do. I put everything I have into my research and my teaching, and I show up ready to do a good job, because I believe in my work. I have seen how history can encourage growth and inspire people to get involved with their communities. I know museums can produce understanding across cultures and generations. I love that, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

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There were actually an overwhelming amount of Pentacles in my cards. This is not a bad thing, as Pentacles are generally associated with wealth and career stability. These ten were laid across the Page, and she said this basically means I have a lot of money and success coming my way.

I’ll believe it when I see it, but maybe it means that nagging feeling that I’ll never amount to anything more than a part-time drone is just noise. I can (and will) meet my potential eventually.

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The King of Wands was in my past. Being a young woman, speaking to a young woman, Zostra told me this could be an ex-boyfriend. I did not take the time to explain that I have no ex-boyfriends. The King of Wands is a creative type, good at what they do, but often at the expense of others. They pursue their art single-mindedly at times, without stopping to consider how they are treating their friends. They can be flaky, immature, and have trouble maintaining relationships. “Don’t worry,” she assured me. “The placement here says you’re over it.”

When Zostra started waxing poetic about former relationships and broken hearts, I almost scoffed. I am notoriously single and have been my entire life. I was about to give up all hope in the credibility of tarot cards and consign the art to a dramatic TV trope when I realized: she was right. Technically, I have no ex-boyfriends, but that hasn’t kept me from having my heart broken. There was an artist-type who dominated my energy and brain space for longer than necessary. For many years, I made him a top priority, yet I’ve thought about him so little in the past year that I could barely recall his memory when confronted with it face to face. Although it was shocking to see him appear in a tarot reading, the placement of the card was fairly affirming. Goodbye, King of Wands. Hello, empowered single lady.

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The Ten of Swords is a pretty morbid card once you realize that the swords are sticking out of a human man turned into a pincushion. This was one of those cards that Zostra warned me about, and she tied it to the King of Wands and my love life in general. She noted that it was probably signalling some level of disappointment in my prospects, likely due to the modern dating malaise afflicting so many of our generation. But she was also quick to point out that, after you freak out about the pincushiony swords, there’s a sun rising over the mountains, which is a pretty nice thought.

This card was a no-brainer. Whether in my career or my social life, I am no stranger to disappointment. But you know what they say: “Optimism is a muscle–if you don’t use it, you lose it.” So, as an exercise in positivity, I’m going to say this card is validating my strength through adversity. The sun is rising, after all. (But the man is still dead?)

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The Ten of Swords wasn’t the only horrifying card in my spread. The first thing I saw in this card were the five Pentacles in the window, and I became excited again. Yes, I thought, tell me more about how I am good at my job. Well, then I noticed the snow…and then I noticed the poor people in the snow. How fitting that this should represent my fears. Zostra explained that this card doesn’t always signify poverty in a literal sense, which was a relief, because I don’t consider money a key motivation in life. It mainly signifies a dearth of something you, personally, consider valuable.

This card really hit home in many ways, especially where it was situated in the spread as a fear. There are a lot of things I am lacking in my new home: a core group of friends, family, connection to the natural world, and any sense of heritage. As far-away friends start more serious careers or relationships, I’ve started losing contact with them, as well. There are a lot of times, now, when I don’t know who I can talk to, and it can be hard to push forward without the safety  of familiarity. If I leave myself alone to think too hard, I worry that this state of solitude will become permanent, which is a pretty terrifying thought, especially when you look at the next card…

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It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it? The Hermit card was a little ambiguous where it was situated, so Zostra drew a few more cards for clarification. What resulted was this:

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Apparently, the Two of Swords pointing between The Hermit and the Ace of Cups indicated that I am often faced with a decision between whether I want to stay in and focus on me and my own goals, or if I want to venture outside the walls of my introspection and hang out with friends.

This was eerily accurate to my current situation. I am fiercely dedicated to my work and to bettering myself, often to the point of isolation. But I am also committed to the idea of becoming a more social and less prickly person around my peers. Sadly, I can’t seem to find a balance. I can’t perform research on the side while teaching preschoolers and being a security guard and reading for fun so that I can hold more interesting conversations and participating in protests and relearning German and teaching myself how to play the viola again and winning dance competitions and writing stories and making presents for all my friends’ birthdays and going to parties and joining bowling leagues &c. &c. & c. I can’t be everything I want to be all at once, and so I’m feel I’m becoming nothing. It’s Sylvia Plath’s fig metaphor right there in my tarot cards, and it’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time.

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But what about my future? The future is what I’m supposedly focusing on, so it is where I will bring this (no doubt) riveting recap of my tarot reading to a close. There is another King in my future,but this time he’s a Pentacle. (Did I mention I had, maybe, five dozen Pentacles in this spread?) Anyway, Zostra said this probably means I’m going to meet a new man. This time, I won’t be wasting my energy on a creative but incompatible human. I’m going to find someone in my field, who is mature and put together. We will share interests. The feelings will be mutual. He may even be a bit older than me. It might not be what I expect, but it’s going to work a heck of a lot better than the King of Wands.

Suuuuuuuuure…..

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Zostra drew this card to clarify one I can’t quite remember, but the Ace of Pentacles stuck in my brain because it was near the end, and she said it had to do with a decision I was trying to make…also known as the next step in my career. She said that I may have been sitting on it for a while, but that this was a good sign. The Ace of Pentacles was telling me to go for it. Whatever I was thinking of doing, it was a step in the right direction and would bring me the success I was hoping for.

There’s really only one thing this could be about. For too many years, I’ve been waffling back and forth on the issue of grad school, flaking out on taking the GRE, and making excuses, despite knowing for quite some time that it is probably where I belong. If nothing else, I know I don’t belong where I am now. Last year, I came close to having a plan, but I bailed, because that’s what I do best. I thought dramatic, providential signs only happened in movies, but I think this is good enough proof that the time is ripe to follow through. 

To conclude, I will say it was a surprisingly moving and validating experience to have Zostra read my tarot cards. Having only seen tarot decks on supernatural TV shows, I think I underestimated the cards’ ability to productively turn my thoughts inward and assess aspects of my life I wouldn’t have ordinarily. The organization of the spread guided my introspection in really helpful ways and allowed me come to more concrete conclusions than usual. I feel like I can see my path a little more clearly now, and I’d say that is a pretty powerful experience for a confused 25-year-old in a quickly changing world.

(Also, I’m pretty obsessed with the word “pentacle” now.)

Good night!

The 5 Stages of Losing Your Heat

I. Denial

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Imagine you wake with a start in the middle of the night. It takes you a few bleary seconds to realize you are in your bed and not competing in a dance competition against penguins in the middle of your office. The noise continues and instantly your stomach begins to churn. You realize the noise is your heater. Your heater is literally screaming like some demonic banshee harbinger of the winter blast soon to come. There’s only one thing to do: switch it off and pretend like it never happened.

I rolled over as soon as the noise stopped and blinked frightfully in the dark. My heater can’t be broken, I thought. It’s probably just tired. I’ll give it a rest and turn it on again in a few hours. Everything will be fine, I repeated, over and over, as I slowly drifted back to sleep. Everything will be fine…

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!rrrhmmmpprrrrmmmmmmmmmmmmm….

There, I congratulated myself when I woke up again and cautiously switched the furnace back on. See? It’s fine. Everything is fine.

I didn’t have time to think much, anyway, because I had missed my alarm and was running late for work. For good measure, I switched the heat off again before heading out the door. Just in case, I told myself, but everything is fine. Everything is fine…

II. Panic

NOTHING IS FINE.

Despite having turned off the heater on my way out, the fan blower was still whirring away at warp speed. How long has it been doing this? I wondered in a panic. How long until it loses control and explodes, throwing me unconscious into the snow with a particularly thorny case of amnesia? My stomach ache was back.

With shaking hands, I pulled my phone from my pocket and sent off an insane, rapid-fire series of texts to my landlord that looked a little like this:

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Sorry, Jeff.

What if this was karma? I asked myself. Nothing had been going right since I had Rick’rolled my friends on Snapchat the evening before. But it was so clever! And I looked so cute! And my lip singing was on point! Was this revenge for my vanity and poor sense of humor? Had I inadvertently cursed myself for eternity all for a bad joke?

I took a deep breath and tried to convince myself that I could survive anything, which was a terrible mistake, because, as the subsequent exhale hung visible on the air, I knew it would only get worse.

Oh, my God, I thought. I’m really going to die.

III. Depression

I waited for Landlord Jeff* (*not his real name) for a half an hour before I gave in to the inevitable. David Bowie had died and so had my heater and soon so would I. I sat cross-legged in front of my broken furnace and began to sob.

At my job, I hear a lot of crying children. They don’t worry about who can hear them or how trivial their problems are. They wanted to see the dinosaurs and the dinosaurs were closed. Mom is taking too long to buy tickets to the Planetarium show. Dad is more interested in the old cars than their Elsa doll. They wanted to be carried, but not like that, and if Sister is going to carry them like that, well, then Sister might as well just put them back on the floor, but she better not put them down there

The point is, I see a lot of kids crying, and I’d been wondering what (if anything) could get me to cry so indiscreetly again. I no longer wonder. A broken heater on the coldest day of the year will just about do the trick.

I walked to the kitchen window and stared out mournfully at the snowy street below as tears streamed down my cheeks. When my face got cold, I collapsed on my bed and cried into a pillow. I even sobbed on the toilet, for good measure, before making another melancholic lap of my apartment.

As I was snuffling on my bed, the phone rang, and I sat up, slowly. This was it. Time to be an adult.

IV. Independence

It was Landlord Jeff calling to check in on me. He would call someone once he looked up the number. He had a guy. In the meantime, hit this breaker to cut electricity to the fan. Everything was going to be fine.

“Everything is going to be fine,” I repeated to no one, despite believing the exact opposite.

I went through my phone contacts and sent a message to everyone in a 10 mile radius of my apartment asking if they had a space heater I could borrow. No acquaintance was too small. While I waited for the responses to stream in, I hit the furnace breaker. I also turned on the oven and began to boil water. Instantly, I felt warmer.

“I’m so independent,” I validated myself, and, although I still felt shaky, I was beginning to believe it.

I made a warm dinner and drank some tea.

I borrowed some space heaters and declined some couch offers* from the most generous friends a girl could ask for. (*I’d had a bad day at work and was feeling unpleasant. Crashing on someone else’s couch generally requires one to be pleasant.)

I showered, drank some more tea, put on my long underwear, and began to plan for sleep.

Everything was going to be fine…

V. Silver Linings

Once you have accepted the fact that you will be chained to one small corner of your apartment for as long as this ordeal lasts, that the space heater takes precedence to your computer cord and if the breaker trips one more time, you will just have to let the PC die… Once you accept that, then you begin to spin silver linings for the situation.

For example, I could be disappointed that the luxuriously high ceilings of my apartment make space heaters extremely ineffective. Instead, I gathered all the chairs and furniture I could easily move into my bedroom and built a blanket fort around my bed. The heaters situated just outside the walls (safety first!) blew hot air inside, making my bed exceptionally cozy. I actually was too hot inside my fort, can you believe it?

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I could let the stress of working non-stop on top of all this trouble eat away at me. Instead, I’m rejoicing! For the next five days, I get to spend 8-14 hours in a warm building. A grueling work schedule never sounded better!

I could complain that I have to sleep in at least three layers and a scarf and a hat. Instead, I’m so thankful I finally have a reason to wear my wool sweater from Ireland. (It is always ever too windy or too warm for it. What’s up with that, Ohio?)

Plus, look at all the friends I realized I have! Don’t we all secretly wish (at some point or another in our darker moments) to test which people will come through for us in an emergency like the flu or a broken arm (or a misbehaving furnace)? Every single person I texted last night responded with concern, rescue offers, and encouraging words. Which only proves the mantra that I often scribble in my journal: You are never as alone as you feel…

So, there you have it, folks. If your heater ever dies on the coldest day of the year, just remember that after you try to pretend it isn’t happening, after you embarrassingly text your landlord, after you sob everywhere but the kitchen sink, you can build a blanket fort and everything will be fine.

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Christmas Gifts from a Broke Millennial

 

1) A cameo in a stress dream. It might go a bit like this: You were driving a mini van, and I was riding my brother’s old bike from elementary school. You picked me up in the middle of a cemetery and took me to the museum, which was a prison. My supervisor was the warden. He played the guitar and made us sit cross legged by the dinosaur skeleton and share our feelings. And then the roof collapsed in a dramatic waterfall. You had a boat and rescued me.

2) A Facebook message, just to say “hey,” but also a reminder that, three years ago, the last time we chatted, I asked you to bring me a bagel at work, and you forgot.

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3) An emotional declaration of my undying love for you and our memories together. An A.S.P.C.A. commercial may have just interrupted my video streaming experience, and it’s possible I will be crying, so I will text it to you. There will be heart emojis and probably pictures of dogs.

4) A few dozen cookies that I didn’t bake (but somehow acquired) that I can’t finish alone.

5) A disturbing historic holiday card, featuring two all-too-cherubic children sneaking around in the dark and a suggestive caption, which will arrive four days late (at the earliest).

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6) A parody of a Taylor Swift song I know you would appreciate, altered to be about the job application process, saved as a Word document on my hard drive, but sent as a Google Doc just in case my computer crashes tomorrow. (This is the most important thing I’ve written in years.)

7) Ten validating similes about you as a person. Example: You are like a majestic desert stallion, galloping into a fiery Southwest sunset. Or, perhaps: Your eyes sparkle like the scales of a diamond-encrusted fish swimming at the surface of the sea on a sunny afternoon. Believe it. I do.

8) A shout out on Instagram with a picture of us from college (#tbt), when our cheeks were still dewy with youth and our eyes full of hope.

9) A bottle of cheap wine we can pour into mugs or empty jam jars while we sit on my floor after I get off work and listen to girl punk albums on YouTube.

10) A promise made at 2am that I will come visit soon.

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Bernie in the CLE

On Monday, November 16, I went to a Bernie Sanders rally in Cleveland. Now, I’m not a line person. I can’t think of any time I ever felt strongly enough about something to wait hours and hours for the satisfaction of having it. Growing up, I never purchased a Harry Potter book near its release date, and I never went to a midnight showing. I never camped outside the art museum in college for the chance at hanging a Picasso in my dorm room. Even bathrooms…I would sooner use the men’s room or squat behind a tree than wait for a dozen or more women to do their business.

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Nope.

It’s not as though I don’t like Harry Potter or fine art or all that. My default setting just happens to be ‘misanthrope,’ and I don’t wait well with others. So, when I found myself joining 6,000+ people outside the Wolstein Center to see Bernie Sanders, I was pretty sure I was out of my mind. It was a chilly Monday evening, and I had just finished a long shift at the museum. I was hungry and tired. I felt frumpy in my work uniform in a crowd of well-groomed, stylish millennials. More than once, I wondered what on earth I was doing there, but there was no turning back. Not really. My friend had dropped me off on his way home, and my only escape was on the RTA.

It honestly wasn’t that bad once I committed to it. I ended up running into a museum volunteer in the line, and I finally registered to vote at my new address. I only ended up waiting about twenty minutes before the doors opened, and another thirty for it all to kick off after I found my seat. Besides, I was pretty excited. It’s not every day you get to hear a presidential candidate speak four miles from your apartment…

I will apologize in advance, because I’m not going to speak much to Senator Sanders’ politics in this post. You can read articles written by much smarter people if you’re curious. Obviously, I agree with most of his platform, but I haven’t had time to really figure out how I feel. What follows, instead, is my account of what transpired as I attended my first political rally. My memory of events is based off a series of text messages sent to myself, so, obviously, it is very credible…

At 6pm, the doors to the arena opened wide, and I followed the herd inside. I briefly considered spending my bus fare (the only money I had) on a snack, but, seeing more dismal lines forming at the concessions counter, decided to find a seat instead. As I pushed back the dark green curtains and looked around, I quickly realized I was on the wrong side. The giant floodlights centered on the podium were blinding, and I didn’t feel like squinting at the Senator’s back for two hours.

Frantically, I pushed my way to the opposite side of the venue and took the first seat I could find with a decent view. Almost immediately, two men sat on either side of me and began manspreading into my bubble. Ignoring their weirdly encroaching thighs, I busied myself with eavesdropping.

(“Ohmygosh!” a young woman behind me exclaimed, pointing over my shoulder to the seats across the arena. “We could be on TV if we sit there!”

“Nah,” her companion responded, noncommittally.)

With half an hour still to go, I felt like a majestic eagle on a cliff as I watched everything fall into place. Eager young bodies packed into the standing section like sardines, despite the abundant space on the floor behind them, each hoping to get as close to the podium as possible. Campaign volunteers passed out official shirts and signs in the rows seated behind where Bernie Sanders would speak in order to present a more united front when the event was broadcast on television. I briefly wondered if the apparent sartorial unity at every political rally was staged.

At 6:30pm, a group of labor activists led an unsuccessful attempt to warm up the crowd with a slow clap.

(“What are we going to do?” the woman behind me asked. “Clap for thirty minutes?”)

At approximately 6:35pm, the labor activists abandoned the clapping and tried The Wave.

At 6:50pm, I wondered whether the music was so loud to compensate for the awkward sections of empty seats. I certainly wasn’t expecting so much unfilled space, but I would later learn that the crowd for Bernie Sanders on Monday was comparable to the crowd for Barack Obama in 2010. Apparently, watching a rally on the tunnel-vision of television is much different from watching it “wide-screen” and in person.

Senator Nina Turner took the stage at 7pm to introduce her cohort and potential candidate. She was inspiring. Her voice was clear and strong as she proclaimed her support for Bernie Sanders. “Enough is enough is enough!” she repeated as she gave a brief summary of what we all knew Senator Sanders would bring up in his speech. She closed to the sound of applause as she spoke of her grandmother, who used to say: “You only need three bones to get you through life: a wishbone (for hope), a jaw bone (to speak out for justice), and a backbone (for courage when all else fails).”

(“Turner turns up!!!!!!!!” I texted myself as I stood and cheered for her eloquence and power.)

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My reaction to Senator Sanders’ speech was overwhelmingly positive. His choice to raise funds from small donations rather than large corporations is commendable. His devotion to the working class, to families, to social justice is like a dream. At 7:36pm, he said, “It’s not about electing a president. It’s about starting a political revolution,” and my eyes filled with tears. He was straightforward and direct as he spoke. There was no hemming and hawing about the brother of an uncle of his father who had once worked on the Transcontinental Railroad. He didn’t provide an extensive biography of his wife and kids. The issues were the stars, and he refused to waste time with gimmicks and fluff.

He also refused to waste time waiting for folks to cheer. Unlike an orchestra concert, where you know not to clap between movements, it was difficult to tell when applause was appropriate. It seemed like nearly every point was punctuated with loud approval. “WE LOVE YOU, BERNIE,” was a shrill and constant echo across the venue. Corporations elicited hearty ‘boo’s and dismantling the prison industrial complex met with vigorous ‘whooo’s. Yet, no amount of shouting could phase Senator Sanders. Despite the repetitive chanting of his name (to which the woman behind me always joined five seconds too late), he rarely paused to acknowledge it. No one cared. They shouted anyway.

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“If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big to exist!”

Despite feeling so deeply the truths Bernie Sanders illuminated on the podium, I did feel just a little torn. At the same time that Sanders seemed so familiar with our nation as a whole, there were moments when I questioned his familiarity with individual states like my own. Despite a neat shout out to Marcy Kaptur in the middle of his speech, things got a little weird when, at 7:54pm, he tried to make a joke about The University of Ohio.

(There is no University of Ohio.)

More importantly, I felt decidedly unknown as an Ohioan when he spoke of racism and police brutality. Don’t get me wrong. He knew the names and the stories many victims of institutional violence. “Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown…” I held my breath and waited. Please, I thought. Please don’t forget him. A few other names, and then he said it: Tamir Rice. I sighed with relief, but I still felt uneasy. Perhaps it was because he was speaking in Cleveland, where I live, and where the life of that 12-year-old boy was needlessly taken by police one year ago (almost to date). I appreciate with all my heart that Bernie Sanders is listening to Black Lives Matter organizers and that he is updating his platform as he considers their concerns. I am thankful that he has made these issues a part of his campaign. But, at the moment, what I took away was that Tamir Rice’s name was mentioned last, when, in our city, it should have been first.

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On a less serious note, I put a sticker on a stuffed animal.

Around 8:30pm, despite Senator Sanders’ captivating speech, I found myself distracted by an adorable baby, such that I even texted myself a reminder for my records. Her mother was walking her around the empty space in the standing section. The security guards were bending to make faces, even the media put their cameras aside to wave to her. I could hear her giggles from where I was sitting far above the fray. Every time the crowd would cheer, she would clap her hands and shout along, but she had no idea when to stop. I started to laugh and realized that nearly the entire arena was laughing with me. We were all distracted.

(“Sorry, Mr. Sanders. You just can’t win against a happy baby.”) 

The baby went away with her mother right before Bernie Sanders began his inspirational conclusion, and I was a rapt spectator once more. As he professed his confidence and pride in the United States, he refused to put limits on our capabilities as a nation. “Don’t tell me we have to have high rates of childhood poverty,” he rallied. “Don’t tell me we have to smother our young people in debt.” The more he spoke, the more inspired I became. I let go of many of my misgivings, and I even forgot how much I hate his hashtag. I forgot how worried I was that my coworkers would make fun of me for going, or that I might somehow alienate my more conservative friends. I walked out into the night, chased down my bus, and, for the first time in a long time, I was proud and confident in the United States, too.

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Downton Angry

While I often find myself blogging about my feelings, I rarely blog at the height of them. Tonight will be decidedly different; for I have just finished, Downton Abbey, a series that has wasted nearly three days of my life.

(Warning: This post will contain minor spoilers concerning season 6!)

Let’s be honest. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Enamored with the first season, I was so bored throughout the second that I discontinued my devotion to the show and eventually ceased watching all together. I simply couldn’t bring myself to care about a bunch of insufferable rich people exclaiming “Goodness!” and “Heavens!” every few minutes. With such meteoric success, the writers quit producing new content and every episode fell neatly into form. I could not abide.

So, there I was: watching things I enjoyed and enjoying things I watched. Four whole years went by without so much of a thought of Downton. Then, a few months ago, I was sitting on my parents’ bed, and my mother was braiding my hair. I love being pampered when I visit home, so I will do anything to prolong the treatment. Lulled into a happy daze, I gave her the remote. Unaware the extent to which this choice would derail my life, I let her pick the program. “Downton?” she asked. Downton it was.

Without going into too much detail, I was reminded instantly of how much the sneaky Thomas Barrow had fascinated me in the first season (and it’s not just how he fills out that livery, neither). My interest was piqued even further when my mother informed me at the end of the episode that his character had really been put through the ringer. Suddenly, I needed to see how his story had developed. I grabbed my laptop and set up camp in the guest bedroom. Hours later, the sun was rising and I had not slept a wink.

Over the next three days, I successfully caught up on four seasons of Downton Abbey.  My internal monologue gained a British accent, and a dramatic orchestral soundtrack pursued me at every turn. I also happen to work in a historic mansion from the early 20th century. For weeks, I would walk, starry-eyed, into the butler’s pantry and sigh. I still lurk quietly in the servants’ quarters from time to time and let loose my wildest fantasies.

(I was not kidding)

(I was not kidding about living my fantasies)

The problem with being so thoroughly hooked, however, was the nature of the addiction. It was not the revolving prison door for Mr. & Mrs. Bates that had me on the edge of my seat. Nor was it the ever-lengthening list of Lady Mary’s beaux. It wasn’t the Crawley’s slow castration of Tom Branson’s soul or even Daisy’s growing passion for socialism that left me craving more. It was Thomas Barrow. Tricky, mean-spirited, wholly unlikable Mr. Barrow.

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This blog post started as a simple explanation of why I needed a win for Thomas in the series finale tonight. The fact of the matter is, I didn’t finish in time. The sun was shining, and it was 70 degrees in the middle of November. You don’t miss a day like that for a blog post. Below you will find a slightly modified version to suit the fact that the episode has aired, that I have watched it, and that I am entirely displeased…

Why I Needed A Win For Thomas Barrow

One. Thomas Barrow’s character has been an absolute gem throughout the entire series. His development was so subtle, so meticulous and calculated. Unlike most characters in the show, he took effort to unpack. The way he lit his cigarettes, the places he chose to stand, who he provoked, who he defended, when and how he reached out–dozens of tiny clues, closely guarded, took six seasons to form a complete picture. True, viewers shared knowledge of his homosexuality almost immediately, but that fact was not used to force us into sympathy. Despite his being gay, we were not obligated to love him. He was allowed to be mean and nasty. He was allowed to have flaws instead of rainbows. He was human, not a caricature. And while the rest of the cast bustled around in their happy, servile purgatory, his motivation and ambition helped push the narrative beyond the estate. Even as his story stagnated and his outlook turned inward, his character remained compelling and dynamic. That is good writing, and a good beginning deserves a good ending.

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Two. For whatever reason, I feel the strongest affinity for characters that reflect the ugliness of being, especially when it happens to coincide with the ugliness of being me. I am privileged in many ways, but I have struggled with depression in the past, and it has not been pretty. I can joke about it now. I can make quips about whether Julian Fellowes is writing the storyline of a gay underbutler in the 1920s or a 20-year-old part-time employee in 2015. I can joke, but the fact remains that I have been Thomas Barrow.

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My depression has, at times, caused me to act out in ways I don’t recognize. I have been mean and spiteful. I lost the ability to connect with my peers in meaningful ways, and many of my clunky attempts since have ended in failure. I have managed to make friends, but it is rare that I trust my relationships to hold. I often have difficulty discerning between love and pity, and so I reject most compassion. I used to lose my voice inside myself, and it was all I could do to sit and watch quietly as others celebrated and laughed. I forgot all my hopes and dreams and the amazing talents I once had. The place I had lived for nearly six years had smothered my potential, yet I remained devoted to it. My entire identity was there, the good and the bad, and I convinced myself that I couldn’t possibly find anywhere else to belong. I was restless, but I was stuck. I was broken, but I was proud. For every time Mr. Barrow was caught, crying alone in the dark or the rain, I was secreting myself away in bathrooms and closets and lonely corners doing just the same.

I’m happily moving away from that stage of my life. I’m older now, and (somehow) wiser. But it hasn’t been easy, and it’s certainly not over. I needed a win for Thomas Barrow tonight, because I needed a win for me, if only to remind myself that when the going gets tough, people like us pull through.

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Three. I was desperate for a sign that Fellowes was not simply phoning it in with a superficial load of misery porn. The latest (and final) season of Downton Abbey had not been kind to my Mr. Barrow, both in screen time and treatment. There was regression where there had once been growth, harsh treatment and neglect without rhyme or reason. Lacking exploration, his brief cameos in each episode seemed jarring and out of place. Yet I held out hope because, surely, it was leading towards something big. All the spoilers dropped by the cast and crew hinted at a tragic heroism that would emerge in Mr. Barrow this season. As each episode passed, I eagerly waited for his suffering to come to an emotional head, for understanding, for redemption, for tenderness and love. The actor who played Thomas, Rob James-Collier, once mentioned to reporters that he had received fan mail from gay youth, confessing how connected they felt to Mr. Barrow’s story, how they shared his hopes and fears. He spoke of responsibility to bring Thomas to life in a way that would honor and inspire the gay community, to do his best to reject stereotypes and cliched portrayals. I was sure the writers felt the same way. I was so sure…

When I was in high school, I loved the How It Should Have Ended series on YouTube. Each video was so funny and clever. In some cases, they built on stories that had ended beautifully. In others, they healed the betrayal of a rushed or botched conclusion. As I finished the extended final episode of Downton Abbey (holding out hope until the very last second), I found myself shaking with anger. Until that moment, I had never needed a HISHE video more.

(Warning: This is where the spoilers get real!)

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What I needed was something to help me forget that a series with such international success had completely glossed over a troubled man’s suicide attempt. I needed something to change the fact that a piece of fruit from an adorable child was considered enough to heal years of emotional turmoil, that the only people who got to discuss Thomas Barrow’s depression were people who barely knew him or who had horribly mistreated him, that his storyline was used as nothing more than a minor plot device.

Sadly, there is no HISHE video for Downton Abbey, and I haven’t the talent to make one. Thankfully, I have a vivid imagination that thrives under bitter disappointment. Thomas Barrow may not have gotten the ending he deserved, but if I close my eyes and peer between the scenes, I can write it all away. What follows is mostly for my own benefit and peace of mind, but if you, too, were left bewildered by the season finale of Downton Abbey, please feel free to share in my creative analgesic…

How Downton Abbey Should Have Ended (for Mr. Barrow)

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Miss Baxter is trying not to cry as Andy breaks down the bathroom door, but her heart is racing and her stomach is churning. He is blocking the entrance, but she can just see over his shoulder, and it’s exactly as she feared. The writers had been alluding to this all season, and (as awful as it sounds) she realizes it would have been a bit cheap if Mr. Barrow were only brushing is teeth.

As Andy rushes downstairs to get help, she kneels by the side of the tub and administers what care she can manage alone. She drains the water and gently dries his hair with a soft towel, quietly humming a song they had sung as children. Even if the writers have forgotten their shared past, she hasn’t. The humming is as much to calm her nerves as it is to comfort him. He may be unconscious, but she can feel his heart beating through his shirt. She could cry with relief, but she doesn’t. Maybe he was right to say she was strong. Suddenly, she knows what she will do about the disconcerting letter she received from the jail.

When Thomas wakes up, he shouts, and it startles Andy, who has fallen asleep in the chair by his bed. Andy tries to reason with him, but the older man is distraught and ashamed and pushes him away. Andy, although wary, respects his boundaries and agrees to wait outside the door until Thomas can collect his thoughts. When he is invited back inside, the under-butler has softened and asks him to stay the night. There is no question: Andy will not leave him alone.

Meanwhile, Miss Baxter has been given leave to find Thomas’s family. Despite his father’s original discomfort with his sexuality, she finds him surprisingly forgiving in his old age. He misses his only son and needs someone to run the family’s shop in London. Mrs. Hughes has news to share as well. She has convinced Mr. Carson to hold Thomas’s job, should he chose to take a brief rest away from Downton. Upon her return, Miss Baxter relays this information to Thomas and he reluctantly agrees that leaving the Abbey (at least for now) will be good for him. She hugs him, and, although he is shocked by her affection, he hugs her back.

The episode ends with Thomas leaving Downton. Both upstairs and downstairs have a chance to comment that it will be strange with him gone. He is allowed to see the children one last time, and they all give him trinkets to remember them by. He promises to write and hopes Andy will practice writing back.

Time passes, and Mr. Barrow finds himself entirely at home in London. Lady Edith (now Marchioness of Hexham) even visits him in the shop, on Marigold’s request, and they bond over how cathartic leaving the Abbey has been. Only…seeing her reminds him that he misses his old friends. When she hands him an invitation to join them for Christmas, he accepts and packs a bag, thinking he will return to his old job if all goes well…and it does. Andy is reading full stories in the primers he’s borrowed from the school. Miss Baxter has not forgotten him, either. Mrs. Hughes gently wraps an arm around his shoulders and guides him into the servants’ hall. She leaves him alone to think, and he sighs contentedly.

It comes out later that Mr. Carson is considering retirement. Lord Grantham extends a warm handshake and a job offer. Come and be our butler? Thomas thinks of the children, of Andy and Miss Baxter. He opens his mouth to accept, but ends up refusing. Floored, the Earl asks him why. He explains that all his life he has wanted to fit in, that, after his family rejected him, he imagined Downton was the closest he would ever get. But leaving helped him to see that the world outside offered so many opportunities for happiness and peace. He is honored to have served the Crawley family, but he finally has control of his own destiny. The writers add some more drivel about changing times, but it doesn’t matter because nothing matters now. Thomas Barrow is happy. His story is resolved, and I can finally, finally stop watching.

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A Travelogue (after the fact)

“Chicago’s a great place, but I ain’t going to say nothin about it, only jest this, that when you feel like tellin a feller to go to the devil — tell him to go to Chicago — it’ll anser every purpose, and is perhaps, a leetle more expensive.”

– Mark Twain

Day 1:

I woke up before the crack of dawn for the first time since my bookkeeping job in college, finished off the last of the food in my refrigerator, made a split second decision to save the dishes for later, and headed out the door. As I walked towards the bus stop with my bags, I imagined I was a nurse at one of the hospitals in Cleveland. Nurses and doctors are always carrying extra bags with their scrubs or street clothes inside. As I walked into Starbucks to buy a last-minute muffin, I hoped that’s what other people thought of me.

“Looks like nobody wants to go to work today,” the bus driver joked with me as stop after stop went by with no new passengers.

“Hump day, am I right?” I responded, happy for the camaraderie so early in the morning.

I collected my tickets at the Greyhound station and settled in for the long wait. My anxiety had made me unnecessarily airport-early. For two hours, I quietly observed the motley crew of people slowly milling about the terminal or contorting their bodies into odd shapes to conform to the rigid metal benches. To my left, an old black woman made silly faces at an Amish baby. Across the terminal, a south-Asian couple supported each other as they slept with a bright red blanket wrapped around their shoulders. I remember thinking, This is America, and I am me.

From behind me, I heard a man clear his throat. I turned and said good morning. He told me he was a veteran of the Gulf War and asked if I could please buy him some breakfast. I agreed because I had no reason not to. It was surprisingly expensive, and, despite knowing that the transaction would not compromise my financial stability, irritation flared on the peripheries of my consciousness. Why had he ordered so much? Why did I let him take advantage of me? As I handed him the small, paper bag, I took a breath and checked my anger at the door. I told him to enjoy his day, and I genuinely meant it.

The bus ride was uneventful. The sun came out, and orange and yellow trees passed by as we cruised along the freeway. My heart beat faster the closer we came to Indiana. I hadn’t really left Ohio for three years. What if there was a reason? What if I was cursed? I sent up a silent hope that nothing bad would happen to our bus and that we would arrive in Illinois safely. We passed the Welcome to Indiana sign and ten minutes later the air conditioning broke.

The sun was high in the sky and beating mercilessly down on us weary travelers. I knew it, I thought as sweat soaked into my layers of shirts. “We could wait for a new bus,” our driver suggested, “or we could keep driving. It’s up to you.” We kept going, and we made it to Chicago, our nostrils spared any greater discomfort by our collective deodorant usage.

Upon my arrival, a kind and helpful CTA employee assisted me in buying a Ventra card and finding the right train. I checked into my hostel and made plans to meet some dear friends for dinner. As I sat on the roof, looking east towards the city, I remember thinking, This is America, and I am me.

A view from the roof deck at the IHSP Hostel in Chicago. If you find yourself needing a place to stay in Chicago, I highly recommend this. Very helpful, welcoming staff. Quiet, comfortable rooms. Clean bathrooms and kitchen. Plus, free make-your-own pancake breakfasts and coffee.

A view from the roof deck at the IHSP Hostel in Chicago. If you find yourself needing a place to stay in Chicago, I highly recommend this. Very helpful, welcoming staff. Quiet, comfortable rooms. Clean bathrooms and kitchen. Plus, free make-your-own pancake breakfasts and coffee.

Day 2:

I woke up very early. Something I learned as I was texting my friends during the bus ride is that Chicago is a different time zone from Ohio. As soon as the clock on my phone switched from 3:30 to 2:30, after the initial gasp of surprise, I kicked myself for being so dumb. When I was a child, I used to tell people things like: “I love Nature. It’s on at 9/8 Central!” or “Figure skating at the Olympics begins at 8/7 Central!” That’s what that means, I remember thinking on the bus, despite having known what that meant for years now.

Lingering stories from Day 1 aside, I woke up very early because of the time difference. As I waited for my pancakes to cook, I scrolled and typed on my phone, manically trying to plan an amazing day for myself. One of my greatest anxieties traveling alone is that I won’t experience a city to its fullest. It’s all I can do to keep myself from drowning in the crushing inertia of that feeling. Steeling my mind, I committed myself to a destination. Knowing I would get free admission with my work I.D., I decided to go to the Field Museum when it opened at 9am so I could see everything before the afternoon rush. (Being a museum employee has its benefits–namely, knowing when other museums will be less crowded.)

The museum was amazing. I waited in no lines and was greeted, upon entry, by a towering T-Rex named Sue and a couple of elephants. Looking to my left, I saw a sign for a special exhibit that had been at my beloved museum, too. Reacquainting myself with its myriad delights would have cost $11, so I settled for a picture of the banner and an ironic chuckle (seeing as I had been paid to guard those same artifacts only a few months ago) before embarking on my free adventure.

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What made visiting a high-caliber museum like the Field Museum so exhilarating was the opportunity to compare and contrast it to my own local institutions. Their taxidermy is more dynamic. Our gem hall is more magical. I wish we were more explicit about evolution. We have the original of that fossil. I made mental notes as I walked through the exhibits. Despite different subject matter, I also found many techniques I’d like to see implemented in the history museum where I work. There were drawers that you could open, and each had a different artifact inside (under glass) which was used to discuss the who, what, when, where, and why of preservation. What an easy way to make the untouchable touchable without cheap plastic remakes or gimmicky technology!

After leaving the museum, I caught a lovely lunch with a friend from college before continuing with my shameless tourism.

The next stop, naturally, was Cloud Gate. Though I dreaded the crowds, the sun was shining and it was a Thursday afternoon, so I decided to go for it. Following a quick detour at a Panera Bread to discreetly charge my phone without ordering anything (sorry!), I hurried to Millennium Park. I would later learn that Cloud Gate, affectionately called “The Bean,” was inspired by a falling drop of mercury before it hit the ground, which is a beautiful, poetic thought. At the time, however, I was more concerned with fitting the entire skyline in a selfie with my face. In fact, I took a hilarious amount of self portraits from about 500 different angles because I looked super cute that day. Not a single person judged me. We were all in it together.

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Brag central: I did look cute.

An accurate depiction of the difficulty of taking a selfie at Cloud Gate.

An accurate depiction of the difficulty of taking a selfie at Cloud Gate.

I will say this about selfies: They are wonderful. They represent the beauty we all see and feel within ourselves. They are strong, independent, and brave. Snap by snap, selfies emancipate us from our own self-critique and share our loveliness with the world. I will say this about selfie-sticks: They can be the absolute worst. I am an obstinately independent young woman, and I hate most people, but I have met some of the most charming humans while taking a natural-arm selfie. Whether they see me struggling to find the right angle and offer to take the picture for me (which usually results in a subpar photo, but–hey–it’s the thought!), or they praise my genius with a self-timer and a stack of books, I always have enjoyable conversations with other tourists. They understand. We are all in it together. Selfie-sticks eliminate the need for this sort of camaraderie. Our bubbles within ourselves are sufficient and the world falls away. I think we sacrifice a slice of our humanity each and every time we allow this to happen.  As I watched couples and families isolate themselves from their fellow humans with their extra appendages, I imagined what Cloud Gate would be like if everyone partook. The silence was deafening. No one had a face, and the world was grey.

“Thank God for the human race,” you never thought you’d hear me say, but everyone I met in Chicago was  pretty darn nice, and I’m glad I paused to say hello.

I frequently find myself traveling alone, and that lands me in some pretty awkward situations. There’s rarely a wait at a restaurant or a bar, but the easy seat is always accompanied by some glances. Imagine drinking a solitary beer on the top of the world, surrounded by couples celebrating anniversaries, best friends reuniting in the city after years apart, and families celebrating birthdays. The atmosphere is like a theater, and every conversation is a tiny, dramatic universe. A woman reveals to her friend that she can’t get pregnant, a girl flirts with a boy she’s just met on the train, a mother sings a quiet song as she bounces her baby on her knee, a man texts his lover that he’s ready to make this work. I will always be an avid eavesdropper, but there’s something about traveling alone that brings me close to breaking that fourth wall. No longer a quiet observer, I often find myself reaching out and entering the conversation, if only briefly.

“Which way is north?” a woman asked her friend next to me at the Signature Room in the Hancock Tower. I decided to come to this bar on the 95th floor, knowing I’d get to drink a beer and watch the sunset over the city without having to pay $20+ or waiting in a dozen lines. These women were talking very loud, but I tried not to judge them. Women should never feel bad about their voices.

“Hold on,” her friend responded. “I have an app on my phone.”

“That way is north,” I found myself blurting before I even realized I was talking. “After the Fall Equinox, the sun starts setting just south of west, so you can tell that this is west,” I pointed, “and that is south, etc…”

They blinked at me for a few seconds, and then the one with the app said: “But my phone says north is this way” and pointed west.

I returned to my drink. I did not speak again, but, when I went to the bathroom, I realized that the view from the toilets was just as cool as sitting at the bar. Plus, you could take pictures of yourself without awkwardly leaning over another party’s dinner. I was joined in this endeavor by a few awesome, crazy women who were just as down for taking selfies out the bathroom window as I was. They understood. We were all in it together.

Looking south-west

Looking south-west

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Day 3:

Day 3 began with another early start. I made my pancakes, checked out of the hostel and made my way to Jane Addams’ Hull House museum on UIC campus. On my way, I ran into a man dressed in an orange robe.

“Peace,” he said as he approached me, and I smiled.

He started handing me things, and I took them, thinking, Sure, I guess I could use some peace. My life is kind of crazy right now. This could be exactly what I need to find some closure and start a new path.

Then, he handed me a notebook and gestured that I should write my name and a sentence about what I wanted. I couldn’t think of anything both profound and pithy, so I took his suggestion and wrote “peace.” As he moved the pen to the next blank box, I realized what was going on. Those above me had written numerical amounts…after a dollar sign. My stomach sank.

“Peace,” the man repeated as he handed me a bracelet. I took it and nervously rummaged through my backpack for my wallet. The person above had given $20. I wasn’t going to pay $20 for a weird card and a bracelet I’d probably lose in ten seconds.

“This is all I have,” I lied, handing the man a five dollar bill.

“Ten?” he asked, and I shook my head. I handed back the bracelet, but he took the fiver and gestured for me to keep the beads. He bowed and smiled. I reciprocated, but my insides were churning, and every gear in my brain was turning at warp speed. Had I just jipped some sort of monk out of money for his practice? Would my penurious nature damn my eternal soul? Did these beads mark me as some sort of easy target for more strange deals? Ironically, no peace was found that morning…

After I located Hull House, I quickly forgot about the man in the orange robe because– nerd alert–Jane Addams was pretty cool. Once considered the “most dangerous woman in America” by the FBI, Addams was an extreme pacifist, a feminist, socialist, and social justice worker in Chicago who started an intentional, cooperative community for women and immigrant families on Halstead Avenue.

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The museum is very small but full of information. I wish I had been there for the special tour on gender and sexuality, but it is only offered on specific days, and Friday was–alas!–not one of those days. Instead, I was my own guide through a plethora of interesting facts about the lives of Addams and her fellow progressives, the development of the neighborhood surrounding Hull House, the labor movement and socialism in the U.S., and more! What impressed me the most was how much information the museum managed to convey while still keeping the exhibits clean and crisp. The house did not feel crowded, but my brain was tingling with excitement at every turn. If you are in Chicago, I highly recommend supporting this museum with your presence and a small donation.

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After Hull House, I found myself nearly starving to death trying to get downtown for lunch. I had yet to taste Chicago style pizza, and, decided to carpe de pizza at this, the mid-point of my adventure. I went to Giordano’s, which was recommended to me by a friend who used to live in Chicago. The pizza was almost $30. Upon seeing it, I regretted nothing, knowing that it could likely feed me for the rest of my life.

This piece alone weighed about as much as a newborn baby, I swear.

This piece alone weighed about as much as a newborn baby, I swear.

As I was waiting on my pizza to arrive (expect to wait ~45 minutes for the pie), I overheard the man dining alone at the high-top in front of me tell our waitress that he was from Ohio. I felt the words bubbling up in my throat. “I’M FROM OHIO, TOO!” I could have said. “DOESN’T MATTER WHAT PART BECAUSE I GREW UP HERE SO I CAN SAY ANYTHING ABOUT ANYWHERE. WANT TO SHARE A TABLE???” Hunger stopped me from acting on these impulses and I watched a silent football game on the TV above my head instead. It was college football, but I thought it was the NFL for almost thirty minutes.

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Day 4:

(Side bar: this is still Day 3, but the evening of Day 3 and the majority of Day 4 are pretty similar in character and content, so it made narrative sense to break there…)

After surviving the pizza adventure, I navigated my way to Hyde Park to meet up with an old roommate and dear friend who had seen me at my best and my worst but had not seen me in at least a year. I was worried that I would be a bother or that we would find ourselves with nothing to say, but I forgot all that the moment I saw her. She and her partner and her adorable dog were so perfect. After settling in, we drove to Ravenswood for dinner with the two other friends we had lived with after college. It was an Oberlin family reunion I desperately needed. I love all my new Cleveland friends, but there’s something so easy being with people you’ve known for a while…it’s like, you’ve already built that shared context for living, and, although you’ve since had different experience, you’ll always be able to pick up where you left off.

My little Oberlin family portrait <3

My little Oberlin family portrait <3

We got Indian food and then headed back to Hyde Park for the night. The next day, we walked dogs on the beach and strolled around the University of Chicago campus. Later, I met up with another Oberlin friend I used to live with in a co-op while she and her fiancee brewed beer in their kitchen.

I headed back to the city for the evening, to stay in a hostel near Wrigley Field. The hostel was alright, but not my scene. It was younger and louder than I cared for, and there were more snorers in my room than I have ever encountered in a hostel. The beds were comfortable and the showers had good pressure. A free breakfast was also a plus. Hostels in Chicago really like pancakes, apparently.

Since it was my last night in Chicago, I decided to go out for a drink. I wasn’t out to flirt with guys or make new friends. I really only wanted to curl up in a quiet corner with one of the books I had purchased in Hyde Park and a drink beer before the show I was seeing later. I found the perfect place in the Red Lion Pub near Lincoln Park. It was love at first sight when I found it listed on a “Top Bars in Chicago to Host Your Book Club” article online. The atmosphere was dark and calm. The music was chill and low, and the walls were lined with books.

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I ordered my beer–an imperial pint of Old Speckled Hen–and cracked open my new book, Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoior. Dressed in all black with dark eye make up, bright red lips, and a messy braid that disappeared into my scarf, all alone in a bar on a Saturday night, I felt empowered. I was living the independent woman’s dream. It was difficult to read for all the happiness and pride welling up inside my chest. I thought, I am a woman, and I am me.

After the bar, I hopped on a bus and headed further north for a performance of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind at the Neo-Futurist Theater. This is a play that is actually thirty plays, acted all in the space of an hour in a random order called out by the audience. The show is different each week because the plays, written by the cast, rotate each week. Some scenes are bizarre, some touching, some laugh-out-loud funny, while others brought me to tears. I highly recommend making this a priority if you’re in Chicago. Plus, the Saturday show is at 11:30pm. No museums are open then!

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The whole experience is something of a mystery until you’re actually there and going through the motions. This is what it felt like: We all lined up outside this one, nondescript building. The windows of this building were covered with what appeared to be advertisements, but were just medical diagnoses, typed in yellow letters on a blue background. I assumed my spot under “Low Testosterone,” while others fell in line under “ADHD” and “Fibromyalgia.” Then, someone handed me a trinket that would be my ticket. They unlocked the doors, and we followed each other like sheep up the stairs.

After walking through a hallway with weird pictures of all the presidents, I tried to take a picture in the photo booth. When I sat down, nothing happened. The machine wouldn’t take my dollar. The people walking past the photo booth had already seen me enter and fiddle with the red curtains. My pride wouldn’t let me leave without taking a picture, but the machine wouldn’t take my money. For a few minutes, I sat there, stewing in embarrassment, sure that I had fallen for some avant-garde, performance art prank. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure the machine was just broken. It wasn’t that kind of art.

Some confused people mount the stairs, not entirely sure where they are going, but doing their best not to let it show

Some confused people mount the stairs, not entirely sure where they are going, but doing their best not to let it show.

They give you name tags with a silly, made-up name on them. The irony of my name was hard to miss...

They give you name tags with a silly, made-up name on them. The irony of my name was hard to miss…

Like I said earlier, the performance itself was amazing. This is not the kind of art that tries to trap you in its modernism and make you feel like a mug. It’s the sort of art that includes you in its quirkiness, that invites you to join in the creativity as, collectively, you pull back and examine different layers of humanity. It was the perfect end to my little adventure, and, as I walked out into the night, I felt inspired. I wanted to write. I wanted to live.

Day 5:

Goodbye, Chicago. I woke up early and used the last bit of money on my Ventra card to jaunt over to Lincoln Park and admire the skyline one last time.

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The bus ride home was long and tiresome. When I finally made it home, I nearly cried for joy. My apartment smelled like garbage from those dishes I neglected to do and the trash I forgot to take out. I had also forgotten to toss the flowers that had been rotting in their water for days before my departure, so that only added to the toxic atmosphere in the rooms. But the smell was beside the point. What mattered was that I was home. What mattered was that I was happy.

The end.

When I was young, I was a socialist

When I was young, I was a socialist. It’s not something I admit often, because it’s not something I remember often. For whatever reason, when I think of myself as a teenager, I conjure up a naive, uninformed, vapid, and wholly insignificant character. I can recall having a silly crush on one particular teacher, giggling at the butt scene in Romeo & Juliet, running to the cafeteria for pasta Fridays, and goofing off in orchestra. For whatever reason, the past seven years have obscured what I really was: passionate, ambitious, optimistic, and ready to change the world.

I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. My first major historical research project was on the American labor movement, and I practically worshiped Kurt Vonnegut. I argued with my friends to the point of tears over the Equal Rights Amendment, universal health care, and gay marriage. I was fascinated by the populist movement, and my voice would waver with emotion as I quoted William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold and Huey Long’s Share the Wealth. If only I had kept a diary back then. Truly, it would have been epic.

But I’m not writing this post to talk about how cool I was in high school. I’m writing this post because we, as Americans, are so easily distracted by barbecues and any excuse to day-drink outside that we lose sight of our Very Important History. In a decade where corporations have been elevated to personhood, where we will celebrate businessmen like Donald Trump before we institute an actual living wage for workers, we need a real Labor Day more than ever. That’s why I’m writing this post: not to rain on your parade, but to give a brief history of the good-bad-and-ugly of why this day exists.

Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

– William Jennings Bryan, Cross of Gold, 1896 (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5354/)

It began in 1894, in the midst of both a railroad boom and an economic panic. The Pullman Palace Car Company cut its wages for factory workers, but failed to lower rents and prices in company towns. (You know, those charming little fiefdoms set up by wealthy businessmen so they could be like feudal lords and wring every last dollar out of their serf-like employees.) Unable to cope, thousands of workers organized a strike and left their jobs. In response, hundreds of thousands of railroad workers stepped up in solidarity and refused to handle Pullman cars. The strikes eventually turned violent and caught the attention of President Grover Cleveland, who sided with management and filed an injunction against the union leaders. U.S. Marshalls were enlisted in an attempt to force employees back to work, and the ensuing struggle resulted in dozens of casualties and arrests. Hoping to assuage tensions, President Cleveland instituted a national holiday in September to “celebrate workers.” We call it Labor Day.

cartoon pullman sm

While there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

– Eugene V. Debs, 1918

However, this new holiday was more an effort to save face than celebrate the American worker. The government desperately wanted to move away from the decades when the U.S. labor movement was one of the most militant in the world. In 1886, less than 10 years before the Pullman Strike, hundreds of thousands of workers marching in Chicago in support of an 8-hour work day were fired upon by police. This event, known as the Haymarket Massacre, would be commemorated worldwide on May 1st. Thus, when we think of May Day as a product of the U.S.S.R. and European socialism, we are sorely mistaken. May Day and the international celebration of the working class are as American as it gets.

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What has become of the remainder of those things placed on the table by the Lord for the use of us all? They are in the hands of the Morgans, the Rockefellers, the Mellons…, and the Vanderbilts — 600 families at the most either possessing or controlling the entire 90 percent of all that is in America. They cannot eat the food, they cannot wear the clothes, so they destroy it. They have it rotted; they plow it up; they pour it into the rivers; they bring destruction through the acts of mankind to let humanity suffer; to let humanity go naked; to let humanity go homeless, so that nothing may occur that will do harm to their vanity and to their greed.

– Huey P. Long, Share the Wealth, 1935 (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/hueyplongshare.htm)

Holidays can be fun, but they are also a time for reverence and solemnity. In our country, we consistently direct our scorn downwards, to the so-called “Welfare Queens,” without noticing (or perhaps ignoring) the fact that 1% of the population, with its heavy hand on our necks, is robbing us of our future. The economic climate of our nation is remarkably similar to the great panics and depressions of the past. Technology is fast making manpower obsolete; the smallest portion of the population controls the greatest portion of the wealth; and the idea of an empowered working class is wrongly cast as un-American and un-Christian. What’s more, our movements today, like the movements of the past, are inherently intersectional. Civil rights, voting rights, labor rights–what we say it means to be an American–they are all connected. If we fail to recognize and learn from these similarities, we not only fail as a nation, we fail as human beings. So, before you go barbecue and mark the end of a summer well spent, spend a bit of time thinking about our country’s workers and raise a glass to the people who have (truly) made America great.

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(aka, not this guy)

Love,
Teenaged Jen

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

– Jesus H. Christ, Sermon on the Mount