A life more animated …

When I was a kid, I really loved Saturday Morning Cartoons. I’m from the era of Punky Brewster, Snorks, Smurfs, Thundercats, Ninja Turtles, and OG Transformers. My little brother and I would get up and make enormous bowls of cereal and park in front of the TV until just after the non-cartoon shows aimed at tweens (Saved by the Bell, California Dreams, etc).

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Does anyone else remember the Snorks? They were like … underwater Smurfs?

I was pretty into the Nicktoons a bit later (Doug, Rugrats, etc) when I was older, but then I bailed on cartoons until Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Lab. I might have been smoking a fair amount of weed at that time. It’s unsurprisingly hard to remember.

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Did anyone ever figure out why Dexter had such a strong Russian accent, when his family was clearly super midwestern?

And then I just bailed on cartoons. I tried pretty hard to get into anime, but alas, that is not my genre of fandom.

My wife started watching cartoons pretty recently. She read an article about Steven Universe’s themes of consent and subversive feminism and decided that yes, this is a show she would add to her rotation. And, in that osmosis-type of way that happens when you’re married, I started watching it.

I had big dreams. I would watch this show and do a deep analysis. I’d think critically about activism and early access to radical ideals like self-acceptance and equality. But then a weird thing happened.

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I love Steven’s dad’s farmer tan.

I just really, really liked the show. Yeah, it’s radical in a lot of ways and yeah, there are a lot of really great messages that it’s cool for kids to be exposed to. But it’s also just a really fun show to watch. It’s smart without being to cerebral and it sticks with me long after I walk away from an episode. I think about the characters. My friends cosplay as them and we mutually freak out over this awesome thing we have in common.

My TV watching has been a weird thing in my life. I start watching shows because other people talk about how good they are. And then I watch them to keep up and keep watching them out of habit. To have something to do while I’m having breakfast or to spend 30 minutes in the middle of the day not working. I don’t think I like this. It’s not the worst. I’ve certainly had worse habits. But it feels like a thing I do that is both non-productive and pretty superficial.

I’m not judging heavy TV users at all, I’d like to clarify. I believe that the window/mirror theory of book reading applies to all of the media we consume. What I am saying is that I’d like to be more cognizant of what fills my day. So, yeah, I’ll probably still watch trashy reality TV with my wife. It’s low-entertainment, low-benefit, but it’s also something that she really enjoys and a nice way to spend time together at the end of what is routinely the longest day of the week for both of us.

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“Free bears! Three for the price of none!”

But I’ll also not feel guilty about watching cartoons. I think Steven Universe and more recently, We Bare Bears, (which I love with my whole heart and believe will change the world) have some of the best storytelling and most dynamic, well developed characters on television. How nice that they’re animated. How nice that the creators of these rad shows aren’t pandering by offering them fluff. I’m not sure if there’s a word or phrase for the TV equivalent of “reading up” (or challenging student performance and pushing educational boundaries – maybe this isn’t the right phrase?).

What are the smart comic you’re watching?

TL;DR: Steven Universe and We Bare Bears are awesome and you’re hella missing out if you’re not watching cartoons.

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Gritty Addiction Stuff (So, TW, I guess.)

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According to timehop, this is the sixth anniversary of my apartment getting robbed for the second time. I was pretty strung out, waitressing, driving the most busted car possible, and trying to decide on what to do about the relationship and friendships I was unhappy in.

I spent a lot of time blaming other people for my unhappiness. If I felt frustrated that I wasn’t a more professional writer, that my relationship was fulfilling, and that my friendships all hinged on getting high, it had NOTHING to do with me, right? I was a good person. I had been through so much. I deserved for things to be easy, after all.

And then my apartment got robbed twice, I lost my job, moved in with my mom and the car that was barely working stopped doing so. I managed to make enough to support my habit selling prescription painkillers to other junkies and sometime later almost overdosed shooting subutex and suboxone in the spare bedroom of my mom’s trailer. It was the most humbling, disgusting of rock bottoms.

And then I ran out of drugs, and got clean. It sounds pretty simple when I say it like that and it’s not always an option for everyone, but somehow I white knuckled it through the worst of the withdrawls. The first week was painful and disgusting and horrific and the first month after that felt like my skin was on too tight. Everything sucked, everything was annoying, and I couldn’t imagine not ever getting high again.

And then I started writing in earnest like I hadn’t in awhile. I got real honest with myself and the choices I’d made and how they affected the people around me. I accepted that I was probably be most fucked up person in my life and that ignoring the fact or blaming other people probably wasn’t going to make any of that go away. And that even if I wound up in another city or another state, my shitty baggage would follow me everywhere.

I kept writing, tried to hang out with people who weren’t in various stages of active addiction, and started an online degree program. I started to think about what my life COULD be like in an ideal world. I made a list of cities that I either loved to thought I’d love, and I compared aspects of those cities that were important to me. (Crime rate, cost of living, queer, zine, and punk communities, etc.) And then I saved as much money as I could from my tuition refund and my crappy fast food job and I booked a ticket to Philly and found a room for rent on Craigslist.

In retrospect, things could have gone terribly. Philly got a really bad batch of heroin the summer that I moved and the Kensington strangler had people pretty keyed up. Philly was the biggest city I’d ever lived in and navigating SEPTA especially at night with pockets full of cash from ballooning gigs was as terrifying as it was thrilling.

I made hard choices, but they were good for me. I’m here, and I’m happy. I’m more productive than I’ve ever been and I’m part of communities who love and respect me as much as I do them. I’m married to my favorite person in the world and even when our jobs or lives are hard, that feels rock solid and safe.

We don’t have the most stuff or the best stuff, but we have what we need. And even if we lose all of that stuff tomorrow, in a robbery, natural disaster, or whatever, I’ll still feel like six years was a lifetime ago and my choices have made all the difference.

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Don’t Let the Muggles Get You Down.

I was not a child when I read Harry Potter. I did not grow up with those characters, but they gave me back a childhood I didn’t know I missed. I was in an abusive relationship almost a thousand miles away from home. My girlfriend’s mother sent the first book to us for Christmas with a gift basket of spa products and I read most of it in a bubble bath. After I finished the first one, I went immediately to a bookstore and bought all of the remaining books that were out – four by that point. I burned through those books. I read them over and over again, but couldn’t figure out why I loved them so much.

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In retrospect, I can see that there was wholesomeness to the characters that I hadn’t ever related to. None of the characters had drug addled parents or were constantly swatting away passes from drunk neighbors. Hogwarts had very clear definitions of good and evil and the characters were, for the most part, one or the other. I would never fight the tyranny of a wizard obsessed with blood status but I know about political leaders obsessed with the personal lives of queer and trans folks. I didn’t face down thestrals or hippograffs in school, but I can tell you a little something about squaring up to the stuff you’re afraid of. Universal themes like that are parts of what make the Harry Potter fandom so successful. We’re each engaged in a struggle against something. Dementors and death eaters are just different names for them.

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I was a kid, once upon a time. But my childhood was fairly full of big, adult problems like addiction, abuse, and poverty. If there was innocence there, it was not well preserved or especially closely guarded and I didn’t miss it until I realized its absence in later years.

In reading the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling gave pieces of that back to me. I cheered Harry on when he became the youngest seeker in a hundred years and felt proud that I was smart like Hermione. I was rapt every time they met Voldemort and defeated him. Hodsmeade and Hogwarts, Gringotts Bank and the Burrow all filled me with wonder and I longed to visit Godric’s Hollow and the Leaky Cauldron.

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I was much older than the target demographic when I read those books for the first time, but the spirit of magic and wonder they gave me was as real as the paper Rowling’s words were on. They were a time-turner to a childhood I didn’t get to experience. And real talk – Harry’s childhood was pretty shitty as those things go. He had to grapple with being constantly almost murdered by the Dark Lord. But he also went through a lot of normal rites of passage, too. He got crushes on girls, wrangled with bullies, played sports, studied, and grew deep, complex friendships with his classmates. I did some of that stuff, but it always felt pretty polluted by sordid trailer park bullshit.

How do I describe all the feels these books give me? I don’t know if I accurately can. I think that if you’ve loved a book so deeply that is has become real to you, you’ll understand. But I think there’s a special fellowship within the Potter fandom that is built upon the aching tenderness tender we feel for these characters who tap into pieces of ourselves we haven’t visited with in quite some time.

Most of my favorite people have all read and loved the Harry Potter books. Their reasons for doing so are as varied and beautiful as they are. We spend big chunks of time sorting people we know into houses or debating which characters we’d ship. It is often one of the fundamental elements these friendships are formed on, and it means as much as any shared cultural phenomena. The difference here is that while we are different ages, races, genders, and often from different socioeconomic backgrounds, we all came to the Harry Potter fandom empty handed and left with our heads and our hearts full of magic.

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Quick update!

I haven’t been blogging here in a long time, but I see that there’s a weird amount of traffic in the last couple of days. Thanks! I’m not sure how you got here, but thanks for coming!

I’ve been working hella hard on this podcast that I’m doing with my friend Grace. So if you’re in the market for something to listen to, maybe you’ll check us out at Book Jawn Podcast. There are also some reviews and assorted writings over there as well. (There will eventually be more content – we’re putting together our contributor guidelines and stuff now.)

Anyway, enough shameless self-promotion. What are you reading right now?

Why I Read

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Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what my life might look like. I knew I wanted more than the tumultuous relationships, split families, and cycles of abuse and addiction that were my early models of adulthood. I just didn’t know if I deserved more, and it hurt like hell to think about. Mostly, I didn’t think about it. I crawled into books even before I knew how to read. Family lore has it that before I started kindergarten, I memorized books and called out my mom and grandmother for skipping pages.

We couldn’t afford extracurriculars or vacations. Sometimes we couldn’t afford stuff we needed, like clothes. So, I read. My grandma took me to the library every couple of weeks and I was allowed to bring home as many books as I could carry. After the fresh hell of school let out, I’d drop my crap in the smoke-stained trailer where my mom, my brother, and I lived and I’d escape. I’d grab a few books and I’d run into the woods and read until twilight.

Please understand that when I tell you that reading saved my life I am being very literal. When I could not bear to be poor white trash, a sexual abuse victim, or the dirty, stinking daughter of an addict, books gave me a way to be someone else. I could crawl into a Boxcar Children mystery and let their dilemmas take over my life for a while. I could be Ramona Quimby, facing down the tyranny of forces larger than her. I could choose my own adventure set in space or under the sea. Later, I could hear my own desperate voice in the writing of authors who had survived trauma and come out alright on the other side of things. That gave me hope, and the vague idea that things could change for the better. It felt like pulling off a scab to reveal hopeful new skin to fresh air.

I credit books for distracting me from coping mechanisms during my teenage years that landed many of my high school classmates in cemeteries, jails, or other wrong lives. Being a bookish queer with big hopes in a small town gave me the opportunity to move away and learn about the world and my place in it. If I’m being honest, there’s nothing special about me. Lots of people I grew up with were smarter, kinder, braver. There’s nothing that makes me more deserving of the achingly happy life I am so grateful for now. So when I write about home, it feels like a tax I pay to books for my escape.

Dear trans kid.

The thing about being queer is that there usually isn’t an older relative there to guide you through the hard stuff. If you’re Jewish, Black, Mexican, etc, your parents can help you deal with racism, antisemitism, and all of the other stuff that comes with having some sort of marginalized identity.

Some kids get really good parents. Kind folks who work hard to make sure that their children have the resources they need and educate themselves and their communities. I envy those kids, and I hope you’re one of them. But I bet if you’ve gotten this far into my letter, you probably aren’t.

I’m sorry your parents are shitty and abusive and awful. I wish I were your mom. I have so much hope for you. You are like a coiled spring made from confetti, beautiful and full of potential. I’m at an age where most of my friends have homes and children and they’re asking my wife and I if we’re thinking about having kids and yes. Of course we are. There are so many options. Insemination, adoption, in vitro, surrogates – science has made it pretty easy for dykes to have kids if they want.

But I can’t get the idea out of my head that if I could pick a kid, I’d pick you. I’d pick someone who needed me as much as I needed them. If I could walk into your past, see into your heart, and know what shitty, unfair choices you’d have to make I would chose you. I would bodily shield you from the physical harm where possible. I’d proudly speak with your teachers about pronouns and safer spaces. I would meet with the parents of kids who called you names or bullied you. If those parents didn’t listen, and you still felt unsafe, I’d press charges.

And you know what? I’d be fucking lucky to be your mom. It takes such courage to be different in the face of so much adversity. I am so proud of you. And know this: even if we never meet, I support you. Full stop. Your life is your own, and I support whatever you need to do to survive.

And if I can change things, even if it’s just a supportive email, text, or skype, please be in touch (piratesarah at gmail dot com). I love you, and I’m on your team until the bitter end.

Your NotMom,
Sarah

P.S. The Trans Youth Equality Foundation is a great place to get started if you’re looking for helpful resources.

Taking Good Care, Stepping Back

When I moved to Philadelphia in 2010, it was such a total difference from my tiny hometown that I wanted to be involved in everything. Pretty quickly, I started working, exploring SEPTA, volunteering with Wooden Shoe Books and the center for wayward queermos. I was writing zines, and a column on a local queer website while taking online classes. I got involved with event organizing, and I started seriously dating the woman I eventually married. Life was full and good.

Maybe I could manage all of that stuff initially because of my overwhelming enthusiasm, but I always sort of felt like I was rushing from one thing to another – constantly late and often overwhelmed, but still happy.

The year before last, I wrote a book and got serious about dealing with the PTSD I have always known about but tried to ignore. I started taking both writing and mental health very seriously and made them a priority in my life. With the help of some friends, I was also part of organizing Philly Feminist Zine Fest. It was an exciting time, but there was a deeper dimension to my exhaustion. It felt, for the first time, serious and unsustainable. I let go of volunteering at the queer community center and stepped back from volunteering as often with the Wooden Shoe. I went to therapy every week. After a lot of internet research and hand wringing, I started taking an anti-depressant. (It helped tremendously.)

Not quite two weeks before our wedding, my wife’s dad died. A month later, my best friend died. We were both grieving pretty hard. On the way back from my bestie’s funeral, my therapist called and said that her practice was unable to see me since I now had insurance. (To be clear, this is no one’s fault, just bad timing.)

I was going to continue this timeline so that you know – you three people who read this weirdo blog – that my decision to step down from the Wooden Shoe and Philly Zine Fest wasn’t made lightly. But the timeline is actually kind of exhausting.

I’m trying to be more intentional with the way I spend my time. My mental health and general well-being has to be a priority. I feel like kind of a hypocrite – telling other people to take good care of themselves while running myself into the ground and waking up with weird nightmares about things left undone.

I’m stepping down from the Wooden Shoe and away from Philly Zine Fest. There are reasons beyond self-care and exhaustion, but some of them are quite personal. I continue to support the people who are involved with both and I feel like Philadelphia is lucky to have such great community resources. And as always, I feel lucky to be a Philadelphian.

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