Just came back from the Starbucks and wrote an op-ed for St. Patrick's Day saying that cultural appropriation is good. This will be a collage-y journal entry. Reread the first three chapters of Donleavy's Fairy Tale of New York. I was moved such that I had to re-compose myself. Some tears were shed at the Starbucks. A fellow good writer. He knows what he's doing. Beautiful, human, painterly prose--he paints with a very human brush. I listened to Tina Brooks' Minor Move--Brooks being one of my favorite jazz musicians--and Ike Quebec's Blue and Sentimental. This is an op-ed I wrote a few Sundays ago which I could not sell on the Jussie Smollett business, which is the business of many now, in the most bigoted age of our country's history--and not bigoted in the way these people want you to believe it is. Create racism, so you can leverage money and a career for yourself, or sell someone your snake oil cure for a problem you create and seek to perpetuate. (Speaking of which: I once saw an ad for a company that stuffed your dead pet for you, so it would always be by your side, and the company was called PerPETuate.)
The accidental utility of Jussie Smollett
We have become a country where an ability to make our stories believable has become so lost an art that it’s a wonder it ever existed, and perhaps culture’s mortal death blow if it never does again.
I make my living inducing people into worlds. I’m hyper-cognizant of the need to make those worlds as real as a reader’s next breath. And from the moment I encountered Jussie Smollett’s claim that racist dragoons set upon him in Chicago, I was appalled by not only how awful a writer he was—for he was composing—but how lazy he was and knew most of the rest of us to be. I lost a sister to heroin in the streets of Chicago. But more than that, I know how people—who are nonfictional characters—talk. And I know that not one of them, ever, has hopped out of an alley declaring that this is MAGA country.
If that was in a short story that was a legit effort to be an actual good story, and you were an editor of any competence, you’d knock that line out, knowing it would produce titters in any rational reader.
But what serves people—unwell, racist, evil, selfish, self-loathing people—like Smollett well is their entitlement that, hey, I don’t even need to try to come up with something non-half-baked, people are lemmings and I’m a big old, lemming catcher.
That’s some large-bottomed hubris right there. Ironically, from someone—a gay person of color—who might as well be the latest carbon copy rep of a strata of society that tells people who normally could care less what color you are, that they are part of a contaminated sociological nuclear waste field to the degree that they can’t even register how ingrained they’ve become in the ways of their waste. And they need educating.
If you have a story to tell me, I’m going to vet it. For congruity, for possible reasons in telling it, for the plausibility of its details. You can be my mother, my best friend—and sure, you have faith in the bank with me going in—and I’m vetting it.
But if I don’t know you? You wonder when the mental health people are going to start creating names for conditions that stem from the internet age. We seek attention and validation and self-worth from the real-life equivalent of a Facebook like, an empty denomination—placebo currency—if there ever was one.
Pretend you’re a young person. You’re at school. You feel down on yourself. You have no self-esteem. You hook up with two people one weekend, three the next, four the week after. The validation hunt. And what happens to you? You become so depressed.
That’s what social media and the pull towards being in the news cycle does—we’re like bugs flying into the zapper on a July night. The standards of narrative-making are devolving as we devolve, which means anyone can throw anything out there, no matter how slipshod—and better still if you’re a POC, gay, or a liberal white woman—and issue a tattoo of stamped feet and expect to believed, lest the digital mob be turned out on those who dare to outwardly require convincing.
In a way, Jussie Smolett provides a service. The more these people are caught, the more likely it is that the much-vaunted pendulum—which is like some mythical Norse beast—will swing back in the other direction, one that is largely nameless, but which I think we can all call sanity, and actual, true equity.
One of the most depressing things right now is that even the people who are up to no-good are absolutely awful at being up to no-good. This isn’t master villainy. And I’m going to blame the victim, because the victim is tacit in all of this—that victim is whatever part of you that allows you to cogitate, process, and grow.
And it is that part of us that is the problem. More than Jussie Smollett. He’s residue. He’s the slime left behind when the monster drags itself away to its next monster bash. Feed your brain, not the monster.
This is a letter I wrote this AM on behalf of Emma's dog. The co-op board wants to get rid of the dog, not believing it's for any kind of medical purpose. There is a building policy against dogs, though someone did get clearance for a pit bull that recently died. Those people were adults, married, in their thirties. Functioning, with jobs. If you know me, you know that I am someone who, sorry to say, will have to fight not to laugh in your face and brand you weak and dismiss you from any further communication between us with an effacing wave of my hand if you tell me you have an emotional support squirrel for airplane trips, but this strikes me as different. The building board tried to put things to a vote, after they had already ruled--which doesn't make a ton of sense, but maybe they were trying to be flexible--and I didn't even open this email, because I don't open most emails that come to me, unless they are for work, and with the blackballing that takes me longer these days by far than in times past, because I avoid my inbox a lot, given where things are at. I eventually get to it. But if it's something building-related, well, you know how people are--they make a big deal about small things, and my life is centered on finding solutions for massive things that a thousand great minds working in tandem couldn't solve, which I must solve, so into the trash this went, which didn't help the dog cause. The board actually sued the family.
My name is Colin Fleming and I’m in Unit #5. I was writing this to remedy my part, such as it were, in abetting a situation I had ignored in the past. Some months ago—or I’m not even really sure on the timeline—an email came into my inbox about voting on a dog. I am hit with hundreds of emails a day for work, and I tend to ignore things that aren’t going to be germane to that. I saw this headline, and I simply figured someone with some kind of need in the building was getting a dog, and that was fine with me, so long as the dog was not loud—or really even audible—and I assumed there’d be no problems.
I’m a writer. I have lots of different employers, from Rolling Stone to The Washington Post to Harper’s—and I write books. This means I don’t have an office to report to, or a building I very often need to be in. I do a lot of work at my desk here, and at the Starbucks down the street. Which is why the audibility factor with a dog matters more to me. I can’t have noise—and there already is plenty of noise in the building, especially on weekend nights—to do what I do.
Until recently, I did not know the family taking in this dog. I knew of Vinny from seeing him around over the years, including when he pitched in with cleaning up the hallways, and I knew Susan mostly because she always had a kind word for me when I was going through a dreadful divorce that caused me to have a stroke. Not that she knew any of this. Lately, I have come to know Emma, the girl with the need for the dog. Emma wants to be a writer. Her mother informed me of this, saying how smart she was, and, naturally, I thought, well, every mother who ever existed thinks their kid is smart, and I paid this no mind.
But then I encountered Emma in the hall, and we began speaking. She would send me her writing, and when she saw me in the Starbucks working, she would join me for a bit after I was finished, and we would discuss, at her prompting, everything from Jim Morrison’s poetry, to Joy Division, to feminism, to horror films of the 1930s. I was like this as a kid. Not a lot of kids are. Emma is, perhaps, the most mentally gifted person I have met, in terms of the ability she entered this world with. She writes better than most people in my business.
But she is also a child whose life is clearly vitiated by her struggles. I understand that the board does not want to create precedence where everyone who exploits a loophole might get themselves a dog for shits and giggles. I’ve been with Emma, and been helpless to help her, while she melted down, while she had a panic attack, out of nowhere. I’ve listened to her speak about night terrors. I am not her parent, of course, and I was concerned that she was becoming too reliant on my counsel, because we come from such similar places. I knew of the night terrors because I experienced them myself after I held my father’s hand and watched him vomit blood and die in front of me. What Emma described to me wasn’t something she invented.
This is a gifted child, but a child with real issues, in real pain, who battles anxiety and depression, who struggles to find peers on her mental plane. Anyone who spends a little time with her would know that. I have gone on a walk with her with the dog, I have seen the calming influence of this animal. I am not someone who tends to believe in these things. I am old school in the sense that I think one helps one’s self, finds some kind of way. But maybe if one does not get past a certain point of hurdles in one’s life that future person doesn’t get the opportunity to self-assist.
Obviously the world does not end if this dog is forfeited, but this is a young woman with a need. I do not believe these people are trying to slip anything past you. They may have couched the reasons for acquiring this animal a certain way, but I think we can all empathize with not wanting to share certain things with people we don’t know tremendously well. Emma has spoken to me about how she wanted to be a boy, and when you’re talking major life changes like that in a mid-teen, I would imagine as a parent that your focus is on that issue, and it’s hard to bring in outsiders conversationally who live in your building. It wasn’t some kind of covert operation, or some after-the-fact jiggery-pokery.
I felt bad for not “voting,” so I wanted to say a few words. I have never heard the dog, personally, and I am the next floor down. I do recall there being a pit bull in the building, which, breed-wise, would seem a much tougher sell, and that working out fine for all involved, and not opening the dog-based floodgates. I am sure the family can provide you with the requisite medical paperwork, if it is this clear to a lay person’s eye that this is a kid who needs some help. She’s also a very loving, loveable, large-hearted kid trying to find her own identity in a world where less people mount that battle. The dog gives her a better chance.
I returned home to find this outside my door, along with a Ziploc bag of treats. I've never had Polish cookies. Those specks you see are candy cane flecks. I destroy a lot of peppermints. Shards of (year-round) Christmas.