Chicago Missive No. 2

Dear Fellow Commuters,


It’s rush hour. It’s been a long day, and we’re all tired. What did you do all day: consulting, executive assisting, banking, lawyering, telemarketing? That’s nice. I spent the day chasing young children around. If it was a good day, they also learned something. Well, this seat I’m in sure is comfy. It’s such a shame that you don’t have a seat, too. You know what you should’ve done? You should’ve gotten on the train at 63rd and the Dan Ryan, like I did. Oh, you’ve never been that far south before? You’re worried that if you go that far south you’ll get shot? I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you. There are so few white people in Englewood, especially white people wearing business casual, that everyone would just stare at you in confusion until the CPD rolled up and asked you if you were lost or trying to buy drugs.


Wow, this seat feels nice. It was so easy to get, too. When I got on the red line, right smack dab in the middle of the hood, there were so many seats open. Every time you get on the train at Grand at 6pm, it’s already jam-packed, and you end up clutching the overhead bar and trying not to stumble over some dude’s loafer-clad feet. That never happens to me.


Oh, are your feet sore? Is your back aching? Sorry, I’m just savoring this. This is the only time that the racial and socioeconomic segregation of Chicago communities works in my favor. If only you had gotten on the train in the hood, you too could be enjoying a seat right now. Oh well, sucks to be you, attractive, well-educated white person in your twenties or thirties with a middle- to high-income job. At least, for 90-minutes of daily commuting it sucks to be you.


Here we are at Fullerton. It’s time for me to get off. You can have my seat now. My black ass kept it nice and warm for you. Enjoy the rest of your night. Hopefully, by the time I’m finishing up seeing my therapist and heading back to 63rd you’ll be finishing up dinner or an evening workout or this evening’s episode of The Daily Show. Good luck putting your kids to bed, doing some data entry left over from work today, and/or discussing with your partner whether you should buy holiday plane tickets this month or next month. Take care, and if you’re ever feeling adventurous, come visit us on the South Side. You can get some pretty nice leggings and t-shirts for super cheap at the beauty supply store and stock up on raw shea butter. I know you don’t think that you need shea butter, but, trust me, your knees and elbows will thank me. Also, parking is way easier down here. Oh wait, I guess you don’t have a car. That’s why you’re standing on a train at 6:30pm. Well, see ya later.






Chicago Missive No. 1

Dear Sir,


You and I were thrust into a terrifying free fall of awkwardness from which there was no escape. Really, it was neither of our faults, and though we must forever live with the consequences of the mortifying moments we shared, we have to find a way to forgive each other, forgive ourselves and move on.


I must admit, for me it is rather difficult to inhabit a bedroom whose window affords me a very minimal amount of natural light. As a result, I keep my window blinds up all the time in the hope of drawing in what little sunshine I can. As you know, both of our windows are facing the cramped crack of space between our two buildings. Even more confounding is the fact that this space is completely closed off. Really, we are looking out upon little more than a struggling patch of grass, sprinkled with trash and brick shards, encircled by towers of brick. For me it is rather depressing, but I’m sure that it is of less consequence to you since the room you are peering out of is not a bedroom, but a bathroom.


When I arrived home a few Friday evenings ago, I was in rather high spirits and was looking forward to a quiet evening of reading. As I eagerly retired to my chamber, I began removing my shirt and bra before my feet had even fully crossed over the threshold. Feeling completely assured in my solitary state, I gave not even a sideways glance towards my window as I changed into my nightclothes and turned my mind towards what snacks would be appropriate for the evening.


As I turned towards the spot where terrible, terrible chance would bring our gazes together, I could only think of my relief and comfort. At the moment that our eyes met, everything else in the world fell away, and we were imprisoned together in a horrifying staring contest.


I had, of course, previously noted, that my bedroom window was pointed towards your bathroom window. I had heard strains of notes from the radio floating out of your window. I had even seen the silhouettes of people moving about behind the frosted glass. Never before had any kind of contact been breached, though. How unfortunate that the first contact should be so abrupt and catch us both in states of indisposition.


I fear that I had grown too complacent. So often I observed your window fully closed with the frosted glass preventing each of us from viewing the intimate moments of the other, I made the frightfully false assumption that this would always be the case. Oh, how very wrong I was. Understandably, apartments become stuffy in the summertime. Understandably, people crack windows, even the frosted windows in their bathrooms. Oh, if only we had known the chaos that would be wrought by this seemingly insignificant crack.


It seems, sir, that fate conspired against us. We were drawn into the moment when our lines of sight collided as unassuming insects are drawn into the webs of spiders. As we remained frozen, concurrently disbelieving that another had intruded upon a space that is supposed to be both confidential and secure, and desperately groping for a means of escape, it occurred to me that I was in a bit better of a position than you. My poor fellow, both the angle from which I looked upon you and the posture that I noticed you in leave me convinced that I interrupted you in the process of evacuating your bowels. What has taken place cannot be undone, so I can only offer up my deepest and sincerest apologies for the violation of your privacy at a moment which, for a grown individual, should never be interrupted by the company of another. I assure you, I never would have knowingly perpetrated such a violation.


We can only be thankful that, after the passing of several seconds, I recovered enough to remove myself from your vision and pull down my blinds. You looked like you were in no position to rise from your seat. Also, if your stony and afflicted countenance can be any indication, you were in quite a state of shock yourself.


Please, please, please believe me when I say that I hope this never, ever, ever, ever, ever happens again. I can only pray that the old adage is true; such cruel and humiliating lightning surely cannot strike us twice. On my end, I have taken steps to prevent further incident by affixing a layer of plastic sheeting to the upper pane of my window glass, rendering it impossible to see through.


It goes without saying that you will need time to heal from this most grievous calamity. If you have any fear in your heart for my wellbeing, I am glad to inform you that I once again feel secure disrobing in my room. The measures I have taken make me feel easy in my mind that I will not be providing any more accidental strip teases.


Sir, it is my heartfelt wish that you go forth in grace and peace. The tides of life sometimes bring hardships to our shores, but we must find a way to move forward. Though we remain strangers, I cannot help but feel a kinship with you. Truly, we have overcome together. Do not let yourself be too dismayed by this sad and awkward occurrence. Live on, as I do. Live on, and please do try to move your bowels without fear.

With the Utmost Sincerity,

Wednesday Quansah    


Sorry friends, there’s not really a blog post this weekend.

My mom, my brother and I traveled together to our family reunion in the suburbs of St. Louis.

I’m there – here – right now, not belonging.

Belonging. What the fuck does that even mean?

Are you supposed to feel a sense of belonging with your family? Being with my family seems to starkly point out how much I don’t belong.

Do I sound like a whiny, emo teenager yet?

I’ve felt belonging before in my life. It’s a powerful high. It’s a powerful motivator. It can keep cynicism at bay and make you believe in higher meaning. It can give you peace and fulfillment amid the tedium and drain of life.

How do people build belonging? How do we erode it?

I looked into the face of my mother this week, and I understood that even though she loves me deeply she really does not know me. One must be known to belong.

Now that I’m an adult, very few people get to know me. I won’t let them, even the ones I love. The people in this hotel with me, many of whom love me, certainly don’t know me. I don’t know them, even the ones I love.

Belonging is elusive and hard to manufacture. It just seems to strike like an affirming bolt of lightning.

I miss belonging. My life feels empty without it.

How to Comport Oneself in the Event of Rejection

I always feel bad when I reject guys. I worry that I’m hurting their feelings or committing some sort of Cardinal sin that only applies to women. Men give attention to women, women respond with affection and sex and sandwiches and stuff; that’s the way of the world.


I was taught this growing up. No one explicitly said, “Hey, every time a man asks for your number you must offer him your hand in marriage and bear his children,” but it was implied. The conservative evangelical tradition that I was raised in taught women to look at themselves like pieces of fruit on a tree, hanging and ripening while men strolled by, trying to choose the purest and sweetest specimens. The most eligible, most holy dudes were, like, climbing to the top of the tree trying to get the best apples and pears. I was definitely low-hanging fruit.


As a lady/piece-of-fruit, you really don’t do much. You just sit there and wait to see who picks you. Unlike an actual apple, you don’t have to let whoever picks you up just chomp right in. You can tell them, “Hey, I’m not really into you,” or, “Hey, you’re not holy enough.” But, the people around you question why the match didn’t work out. You’re a man and a woman, and you’re both members of the same church and/or youth group? Why aren’t you binding yourselves together in matrimony and procreating!? In conservative Christian circles (or I guess the conservative circles of any religion) this problem is particularly pronounced, because your dating pool is restricted to the Christians in your immediate vicinity, and you don’t count as a Christian if you just go to church with your grandma on Christmas and Easter.


So, my role in the world was to wait until I received attention and then decide whether I would reciprocate or not. That was hard, because I had no control over who would give me attention. While I hung on my tree, I spied men who were handsome, men who were funny, men who were talented, and men who were desirable, but none of them spied me. They were gravitating towards women who were: pretty, fashionable, well-adjusted, and confident. I was, and still am; unattractive, plain, morose, desperate.


The best suitors passed by me like I wasn’t even there. Misfits attract misfits, and I attracted men who were interested in a quick fuck, dudes whose level of physical attractiveness matched my own, and guys who were just as mentally unstable as me. The problem is that I’m holding out for a dude who is more attractive and more sane than I am. I know, I’m a dreamer who will probably be alone forever.


Aggravating my craziness and unattractiveness is the fact that I also don’t try very hard at meeting potential romantic/sexual partners. I try hard at: getting good grades in school, nurturing and educating children, reading books, writing essays, getting to therapy on time, not overdrawing my bank account, showering regularly. I don’t try hard at: cooking, responding to voicemails in a timely manner, answering emails in a timely manner, applying to grad school, practicing piano, learning guitar, actually attending exercise classes that I have enrolled in and paid for. I want to slam dunk all of these things, but because I suck, I run out of energy halfway through the list.


So, I have to put the most urgent things at the front of the list and pray that I accomplish enough stuff before my brain and body shut down for the day, and I collapse into bed and numbly plumb YouTube for some easy to process comfort and entertainment as I nibble on sea salt pita chips. I’m constantly berating myself to be more awesome and achieve all the things all the time, but, for now, I remain a suboptimal loser.


I try not to complain about my lack of a love life, because I’d be a jerk if I just expected satisfying relationships to fall into my lap with little to no effort. Even sane, beautiful, white people with full-time jobs and great salaries find it difficult to navigate the dating pool, or so I hear. So I just keep my mouth shut, my desires buried, and my head down. I find some soft-core porn and erotic reading, toss it into the yawning hole inside me, and keep right on rollin’.


Problems arise when this pitiful routine is interrupted by some dude trying to bark up my tree. The mantra of the ugly awkward girl has been drilled into my head: beggars can’t be choosers. So my first instinct is always to reciprocate in kind. I don’t want to turn away my potential future soulmate.


Maybe that guy calling me “shawty” in Aldi is really kind and loyal underneath his douchey exterior. Maybe I would have a ton of fun if I would stop resisting and just go on a date with that guy who only pauses talking about himself to complain about something. Maybe if I do it enough times, kissing that guy with the cracked and stained teeth won’t make my stomach squirm.


Beggars can’t be choosers, and any man who expresses interest in me is bound to be more rough than diamond.


In the past, my self-esteem was so abysmally low that I actually would respond favorably to anyone who displayed even the tiniest amount of interest no matter how unsuitable they seemed.


While I was waiting tables in high school, a dude just asked for my number. I eagerly gave it to him, and began wondering if he could be my Prince Charming. Yeah, this complete stranger approached you at your diner job, after 10pm and asked for your number with absolutely no precursor, but yeah, you’re totally on the path to a happily ever after, you dumb bitch.


Then when this eligible young bachelor called me, I spent an awkward five minutes on the phone with this dude, hoping that he actually wanted to know about my personality, believing that the inner light of my kindness and purity and shone out to him at 11pm in a Steak ‘n Shake right off the highway. You poor dumb bitch.


I once gave my number to some rando who approached me in a Barnes & Noble. He rewarded my hopefulness with some shirtless selfies taken in the mirror of a restroom that I think was public. Thirst traps they were not.

I even went on a date where the guy showed up in sweatpants-the 90s gym class kind. I actually voluntarily accompanied this man to his apartment, was genuinely surprised when I realized that all he wanted was to make out on his futon, and was a little shocked and hurt when he never called me again. You pathetic brain dead bitch. This guy was arguably the most attractive and the biggest asshole I’ve ever graced with the pleasure of my company. I should have seen it coming. The only hot guys who will ask out ugly girls are remorseless bastards who have been rejected by attractive females due to their utter soullessness.


Finally, after this parade of utter failures, I realized that I had to have some level of standards. I stopped giving out my phone number to every random guy who asked. I started rebuffing attention that I didn’t want. I felt like I was breaking some sort of rule. I felt like I was doing the wrong thing. Who was I to reject people, especially when I had absolutely nothing going on in the romance department? Didn’t that make me mean? Wasn’t I hurting people’s feelings?


The building I live in now has a basement apartment. I live on the first floor and have observed a few tenants come and go. We’re close to a university, so it’s usually med students who need a short lease during a particular rotation. The last guy who lived there was, unlike me, attractive, but, like me, brown. A handsome, brown doctor, who’s right down the stairs? Yes, please!


We exchanged initial greetings in the hallway, and it seemed to go well. He had smiled. I had smiled. We had both laughed. I figured I had nothing to lose, so after a couple of days I left a note on his door with my number, inviting him to call or text if he ever wanted to hang out. I got absolutely nothing, radio silence. He rejected me. I only saw him one more time before he moved out, and it was awkward and short. In my mind, he was avoiding me, because he was worried I was obsessed with him.


A few months ago, I called a Lyft to take me to a babysitting job. My driver was funny and attractive. We had a pleasant conversation during the ride, and in the ride feedback (which I usually don’t even fill out) I left him my number. Again, radio silence. He didn’t even text to tell me that he’s spoken for already. I just threw my desires and hopes out into space, and they were sucked into a black hole. I got rejected.


I’ve been rejected in other situations, too: on dance floors at college frat parties, twice at a grocery store where I used to work. Each time it sucked. Each time it hurt. Each time it told me that I’m undesirable. And, each time I survived. It’s going to happen again, and I will survive again. I will move on, and read some more erotica until I rebuild my self-confidence enough to try again.


I expect myself to know that just because I feel and express attraction towards another person, they are not at all obligated to reciprocate my feelings. It is their absolute right to reject me for any reason, and move on with their lives without providing any explanation. So, if I expect myself to obey these rules, why don’t I expect the men who invade my space to obey them? That makes no kind of sense at all.


This past Spring I wasn’t working, and I signed myself up for a midday aqua aerobics class. It goes without saying that the instructor and I were the only people in that pool under the age of fifty. I imagine that my appearance in the class was an odd and puzzling breath of fresh air for a man who spends a significant amount of time interacting with obese and elderly bodies in swimwear. I, in comparison, am merely overweight, and my pube-like goatee hairs become much less noticeable when my massive tits are peeking out at you from a bikini top.


One day after class, the instructor approached me, and started chatting me up in a way that suggested he wouldn’t mind seeing me without the bikini top. For some reason, though, I just wasn’t feeling it. He wasn’t unattractive, but he wasn’t attractive. He was maybe a bit boring, but it’s hard to judge someone’s personality when the most you hear them say is, “Do another rep!”


That old, familiar voice said, “Give him a chance. What have you got to lose? Maybe he’s secretly hilarious!” I just didn’t want to, though, and I’m done convincing myself to do shit that I hate, unless I’m being paid, and sometimes even if I’m being paid. I abruptly ended the conversation and walked off, and that was the end of it. I rejected him. He didn’t try to talk to me after class again, and I was glad. I don’t owe him anything, and he’ll get over it.


I was taught that I’m not worth very much, and that I need to accept whatever is tossed my way, because good things aren’t meant for me. Maybe really good things aren’t for me. I don’t have much to show for myself right now. But, even though I’m a loser, I don’t have to be a loser in a shitty relationship with someone I’m not attracted to. I’m doing bad all by myself, and I have the right to keep it that way.


You are allowed to say no to things, to reject. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Even if you’re low on the totem pole, you don’t have to take a raw deal. No matter who you are, you’re allowed to set standards, and you’re allowed to want. You’re allowed to say, “This is not what I want, and I would rather go without than accept it.” Even though I’m still ugly, still poor, and still bad at emotions, I’ve discovered this power that I’ve had all along, and, among all of the meh that is life, it feels pretty good.      

Earliest Memory

What’s my earliest memory? It’s a toss up. The two earliest ones are from when I was three-years-old. My mom got sick when I was a toddler. Good news: she survived. The auto-immune illness that she has, a thyroid disorder called Grave’s Disease, can be devastating, but I guess it’s not really deadly. I don’t have a lot of clear memories of this time, but now that i have an adult mind that can fully comprehend the consequences of illness and the suffering that it causes, my heart goes out to my mom all those years ago. In a matter of years, her health got so bad that she could no longer work, had to go on disability and endure radiation treatments and surgeries. All of this while trying to raise a young child and navigate a marriage with my emotionally-abusive father.


I’m lucky; my mom is alive and well, and I can just call her and speak the contents of my heart to her. I’ve never thought much about it, but it’s odd how little I know about my mom’s illness. She doesn’t talk about it much. Now that I reflect, maybe that’s because I never showed a great willingness to listen or asked many questions. When I was a kid, my mom was the center of my universe. She radiated love and care. My entire sustenance and wellbeing came from her. The bonds of love between us were thick and unbreakable. Well, unbreakable until they broke. Let’s say they were severed by the knife of my father’s betrayal. That’s another story, though. When I was a teenager, there were times when I genuinely thought that my mom and I hated each other and would never love each other ever again. The thought made me crumple and sob. I didn’t know how to fix it. All the trust and understanding between us had drained away, and we didn’t know how to get it back. Even though my feelings toward my mother shifted from one pole to the other, one thing remained the same from my childhood to my adolescence. I didn’t know how to deal with seeing her in pain, in struggle, in vulnerability. I’m still not great at it, but I’m trying to get better.


I remember hearing a classmate mention in conversation that her mom had been crying. She said it offhandedly, as if seeing her mom cry was a regular occurrence. I was shocked. In all of my 26 years I have seen each of my parents cry once. I didn’t really even see my dad cry. Apparently he was extremely moved by the worship singing portion of a church service, and one tear slipped dramatically down his cheek. My dad fucking loves a Protestant Christian church service.


I saw my mom cry after my dad left us. I guess he fucking loved Christianity more than he loved us. My mom just broke down and sobbed one day. It was just me and her at home. I forget where my younger sibling was. My mom began to dry up and curl in on herself after my dad left. She was brittle and everything in the world was crashing into her. She sat down on the couch one afternoon and just let the tears and groans pour forth. I remember how she seemed to be psychically reaching for me, wanting to commiserate and mourn together. I remember sitting stock still and stiff on the couch, unwilling to bridge the physical distance between us. My mom has always accused me of stoicism, just like my dad. I don’t feel like a very good stoic, though. I bottle my emotions until they burst forth in eruptions that are awkward, inappropriate and violent. When my dad left I shed not a single tear. In fact, I didn’t really show anything beyond indifference. My dad didn’t invest much in my life, didn’t bring much to the proverbial table. He was rarely actually physically present, and he was almost always emotionally disengaged. Really, my dad did me a favor by being as absent as possible throughout my childhood so that when he actually disappeared it phased me no more than a light pinch on the arm.


Maybe this is why I was so unable to engage with my sobbing mother. I wasn’t quite clear on what she was mourning. My dad’s departure seemed less like a loss and more like the natural progression of the series of events of our lives. I was too confused to offer comfort. It was like watching a child cry because you gave them the cup of juice that they asked for.


That was one aspect of my inability to sympathize, but I think the even larger issue is that I couldn’t handle seeing my mom not in complete control of the situation, or at least acting like she was. When, as a child, I would get too bossy or controlling my mom would snap at me in exasperation, “Let me run something!” The message was clear. In our relationship infallibility and agency lay with my mother, the parent. The power dynamic scales between us weren’t just tipped in her favor, they were fully and forever weighted to her side. This had the desired effect of making me a very obedient child. The flip side, though, is that whenever it began to show that my mom wasn’t completely invulnerable I didn’t know how to deal, neither of us did. So it happened that my mother sat on our couch sobbing, wishing that her daughter would show some emotion and/or provide her with some comfort, and I perched on the edge of the opposite end of the couch, completely dry-eyed, experiencing towering heights of discomfort.


I remember hearing an acquaintance among my peers talk about comforting their mother as she cried. When I heard this I was horrified. Comforting your mother meant acknowledging that she was experiencing weakness and pain. In my world mothers were not supposed to experience or express those things. The best way to deal with a breach of the status quo was to stiffly ignore them until they passed. Beyond my emotional ineptitude, though, I also felt a guilt I didn’t know I was supposed to feel. My acquaintance was a child who returned to their parent the comfort and reassurance that they received. Was that one of my duties as a daughter? As I grew older was this a role that I was supposed to grow into? Was there something missing from my relationship with my mom?


I am three-years-old and my mom is handing me a toy phone. She says that we have to practice. Her thyroid is going haywire, and she’s chronically ill. My dad works overnights at a Motorola factory, and he sleeps all day. We don’t see much of him. If something happens it’s just me and my mom. I have to know what to do. She hands me the toy phone, and lies down on the floor, pretending to have collapsed. I practice dialing 911, practice what I’ll say to the imaginary operator. I’m scared of this game, and I don’t want to play it, don’t want to even pretend that something bad can happen to my mom, that it’s possible for her to be struck down, but my mom insists. Luckily, nothing ever happened. We were lucky. My mom’s health improved and stabilized. She is alive and well. We still get to reach out and touch each other.


That was the first time, when I was three-years-old and holding a play phone. That was the first time I was confronted with the fact that, despite her facade, my mother is not invulnerable. That fact felt intolerable to me, as it does to all children, and instead of processing the feeling, I buried the evidence. Some children have to process and tolerate the intolerable when their mothers leave or are taken from them. I have been spared this misfortune. Though I haven’t lost my mother, I still struggle with tolerance of her humanity. I examine it through a haze of fear, stoicism and denial. After all these years I’ve almost grown up enough to take on that role, the one that develops when children get old enough to reciprocate care. For some people that happens pretty early. I’m sure there are some three-year-olds out there wiping their mothers’ tears away. For me, though, it took a long while. I’m grateful that I still have time with my mom to keep growing.  


Perfection No. 1

I had a breakthrough with my therapist.

I know, I know, stick with me through the cliche.

Our conversation started out simply enough. As so often happens in therapy, I thought we would chat for a moment just about how my day had been, getting comfortable. However, as anyone who’s been in therapy for quite some time knows, the most innocuous small talk can be a portal into the tangled underbelly of your soul.

I mentioned to my therapist that I wanted to do something creative today. Doodling, journaling and messing around on my keyboard all make me feel so good, but I confessed that often when I have free time I find myself staring at YouTube for two hours and then bemoaning the fact that I didn’t have time to write. I know, I’m an idiot. My therapist, who is a much less harsh judge of my actions, asked me to speculate on why this was the case. I immediately replied that whenever I sit down to write/draw/sing/whatever I feel this horrible pressure to be perfect at it. I want to write a novel in a month and have it be a New York Times Bestseller. I want to paint on a canvas and have some popular podcast host ask me about my artistic process. I want to record a video of me covering “Keep Breathing” and have it go viral on YouTube. As I type this, and as I admitted these things on my therapist’s couch, I feel shame and embarrassment emanating out of my pores. I’m 26, and a constant critique of my generation, of “millennials”, is that our culture of fast-food, trending memes, and same-day delivery has made us into instant gratification junkies. I don’t want this to be true of me, but it is a bit true. To give myself a bit of credit, though, the issue does go deeper than that.

When I was a kid, one of the mantras that my mom repeated to me over and over again was that I should always strive for perfection, because even if I tried my hardest I would always fall short of that impossible goal. My childhood was spent constantly asking myself if I had really done my best or if I could get just a bit closer to perfection. I applied myself to obtaining quantifiable markers of perfection, like A’s on report cards, applause at piano recitals, and school assembly certificates. In the five years since I’ve graduated from college, I’ve floundered in the real world, in grown-up jobs. I think part of the reason for that is that there are less opportunities for me to be evaluated and praised, to be given a concrete assignment to tackle. Yeah, so I’ve got some neuroses. Thanks, mom.

I looked at my therapist, and to my own horror, I said, “I don’t know why I do things if it’s not for a reward and recognition.” I need attention. In fact, I need more than attention. I need to know that I’m the best. Inside me is a 7-year-old version of myself, and she got the fastest time on the multiplication timed test in her whole class, and she is basking in the light of knowing she is the best and within her there’s a need for constant outside validation. If she isn’t the best, she’s not quite sure who she is anymore.

So when I sit down to do something creative, that 7-year-old pops up and says, “Why are you doing this?” I reply, “I just enjoy this. It feels meaningful and good for my soul. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment.” She says, “Well, how can you tell that you’ve accomplished something?” I reply, “I’m not really sure anymore.” She says, “When you were me, you knew that you accomplished something when you got an A. Will this get you an A?” I reply, “There are no more A’s in life. I’m all grown up. I’m not in school anymore.” She says, “What is there? What are you supposed to get?” I reply, “There’s riches, there’s fame, there’s beauty, there’s sex and romance, there’s power and influence, there’s love and adoration” She says, “Will you get those things? Will what you’re doing get you those things?” I reply, “Probably not. The essay I’m writing may not be very good. I don’t have a lot of natural musical talent, I just enjoy it. I’m not really trying to paint anything. I’m just trying to make the colors in that blob look cool. No one will ever see this coloring page. No one will ever hear that little song I just made up and then promptly forgot. No one may ever read this blog post.” She says, “Well, why are you doing these things?” I reply, “I don’t know.”  She says, “How will you ever get those other things? Those A’s for grown-ups?” I reply, “I don’t know.”

By this time we’re both pretty sad. We’re both wondering how I turned out to be such a loser when I showed so much promise on those multiplication timed tests. So she fades back into me to contemplate my long past glory days, and I seek comfort from one of my closest friends, YouTube. There are no A’s in watching television. You just sit back, relax, and let laughter and warmth rush over you. It’s wonderful.

After a couple of hours of wonder, though, the guilt sets in. One begins to contemplate just what kind of a mark a steady stream of Buzzfeed employees sampling various spicy foods has left on your soul. Perhaps therein lies my answer. There is something I gain from my writing, my music, my art, even if it is never shared with another person. I get a sense of personal satisfaction that is valuable only to me and experienced only by me.

My inner 7-year-old pipes back up to ask why we spent so much time getting perfect grades in school subjects that are no longer relevant or useful in our present life if personal satisfaction is so meaningful. I admit that I actually have no good answer and spend quite a lot of time contemplating this myself. She asks if personal satisfaction will get me interviewed on a late night talk show or help me fit into a size 8. I tell her to pipe down and go watch Sailor Moon. The poor kid has absolutely no clue how to validate herself. She runs on recognition the way a car runs on gasoline. Without it she breaks down, and that’s no way to live. Oh well, hopefully she’ll learn one day.   

“It Follows” and Representation

Image result for it follows

I loved It Follows so much! It was such an inventive concept for a horror movie. Everywhere that there’s criticism, people are complaining that there’s little to no originality in film these days, at least not in Hollywood. I’m also feeling a fair amount of remake-fatigue, and It Follows was so refreshing and frightening! There were some genuinely breathtaking, non-cliche scares in this movie. I watched it on Netflix after putting some kids that I was babysitting to bed, and after the credits rolled I was creeped out walking around the dark house by myself.

So the film is original and frightening. It’s also well-acted. It does follow the well-trod formula of featuring a gang of virile teenagers go up against an unstoppable supernatural killing machine, but unlike a lot of lesser movies, the actors aren’t playing annoying and exaggerated stock characters. Their fear and their reactions to the situations they find themselves in follow naturally from the narrative. One thing that happens when a horror movie (or any movie) is well-plotted and well-acted is that you mentally take the place of the protagonists and try to calculate your own courses of action and your own chances of survival in the situation. I was doing this for the entirety of It Follows, and I kept coming back to, “Oh shit, I would be fucked! I would have died right there. I would just give up and let it kill me at this point. I’m too tired.” At least for me, that’s part of the fun of a horror movie. Just like fantasy and sci-fi, the genre lets you live out a (terrifying) adventure from the safety of a couch cushion.

I’m super late to this party, as I am to most parties, literal and figurative. It Follows premiered at Cannes in May 2014. It was a breakout hit for writer/director David Robert Mitchell and was picked up by Radius-TWC, receiving a successful limited release followed by a wide release in March 2015. That was over two years ago. I just watched it on Netflix this past weekend, in May of 2017. Yeah, I’m a derp. I grew up waiting 3-6 months after a movie release to see it at the dollar theatre. Old habits die hard.

As I sat in a living room that didn’t belong to me, enjoying this wonderful film, I only had one little hangup. It was all white people. Okay, before someone goes correcting me, there were a few black people. There’s a neighbor lady in the beginning. There’s a teacher somewhere in the middle of the movie. When the kids start driving to a “rough part of town” the transition is marked by a bunch of abandoned houses and a bunch of black guys standing on the side of the road. (Ouch.) Towards the end of the movie, a bunch of different families are shown in hospital rooms, and one of them is a black family. So, that’s it. The rest of the movie is pure lily-white suburbia. What made this so painful was the fact that I loved this movie so much. I want to write a movie like this one. I want to direct a movie like this one. I want to be in a movie like this one. Representation is important, because it gives people role models and inspiration. What It Follows modeled for me is that I can be an extra and maybe have like three speaking lines if I’m lucky.

I want to make it clear that I’m not dragging or blaming the director/screenwriter, the producers or the casting director. I’m not proposing some sort of film casting affirmative action. The director is free to make the movie that reflects his artistic vision. It’s just hard when you love a piece of art, but you’re cognizant of the fact that the creator’s artistic vision isn’t very diverse.

I loved this film. I don’t think people should boycott it. I don’t think people should call out David Robert Mitchell. It Follows was filmed in and around Detroit, Michigan, and the feel of the city plays a large role in the story, as I mentioned earlier huge tonal shifts in the story are signaled by whether the characters are in upper middle-class suburbs, more blue collar suburbs or run-down sketchy neighborhoods. David Robert Mitchell’s IMDb page tells me that he was born in Clawson, a city in Michigan that is part of the Detroit metropolitan area. Interestingly enough, there is a point in the movie where the main characters discuss the accepted boundary line of 8-Mile Road (I assume, the very same one that Eminem made famous), between areas considered safe and unsafe, and how their parents forbade them from crossing it when they were younger. So the director makes an intentional choice to point out some of the politics of the area, but not to go any deeper than the brief mention. Honestly, that’s completely his choice. The movie is not about disparity and segregation in the Detroit area. It’s a very well-done movie about a scary-ass demon monster thing chasing down some teenagers who are actually pretty encouragingly normal-looking (not irritatingly perfect Aphrodites and Adonises).

Probably the only reason that the moment stuck out to me is that I’m a black woman who was dismayed by not seeing someone who looks like me in a story that I loved so much. There’s a fatigue that builds up in people of color from constantly watching and entering white spaces. Even as I sit writing this essay/review, I’m in a packed Wicker Park coffee shop where I’m one of only two or three people of color. I want to be clear, it’s not a dislike of resentment of white people. It’s just a fear that you don’t belong, because it’s so hard to always be the only one. White people can’t understand how hard it is to be the only one. Well, maybe not unless you’re Eminem.

So, it’s complicated to know how to fix this problem, because it doesn’t seem to be anyone did on purpose. They say art imitates life, and if David Robert Mitchell had a blue collar upbringing in an overwhelmingly white Detroit suburb, that’s definitely true in this case. I guess I should correct myself, someone did do this on purpose. Generations of racist white people put in place social structures that were designed to keep people of color separate from privileged white enclaves, to keep people of color subjugated and relegated to certain places in society. Those systems are still doing their job. When I leave Wicker Park and get back on the Green Line to go home to Woodlawn that will be more than apparent. Who’s perpetuating this, and why does it hurt so much?

It hurts because they told me it was over. When I was in elementary school, the only spot of color in a swath of white, we were taught that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had marched and Rosa Parks had sat and Civil Rights had passed and we were all one big happy country and equality was real. They taught me to believe that the problem was fixed, that it was of the past. I should’ve heeded my mom and my other black relatives who told me to beware, who warned me that the fight was still very real. The fight is still very real. That’s why it hurts to see that the arbiters of culture still see the world in such a white way. The presence of people of color has to be an exception. The privileged spaces that are all or mostly white still exist. The burden of suffering and injustice in the world is still unfairly yoked on the backs of poor people of color.

Yeah, I got all of that from a horror movie that I liked. It may seem kind of ridiculous to you (if you’re a white person, or maybe not. Yay, woke white people!), but as a black woman, I don’t have the luxury of not seeing the prevalence of whiteness. It’s a constant reminder that I exist outside the larger, accepted, “correct” culture. That I exist even outside of the fantasy, sci-fi and horror worlds that I escape to when I need a break from the challenges of life. We’re still working to dismantle white spaces and make them everyone spaces. We’re still working to dismantle white privilege and make the world a pleasant place to live for everyone. We’re not done. The pain is still happening. The pain is still happening and It Follows is a really good movie, but everybody already knew that two years before I did. That’s all.