Sea Sick

To be willing to grow, you must be willing to be, at this stage, at least a tiny bit wrong.

I said wrong, not different.

When something or someone different has to be vouched for as being “okay,” “alright,” “I mean it’s fine if that’s what you choose…,” you are indicating a system which demands that perceived otherness or badness be accompanied by language. “She’s fine.” “I guess that’s okay.” Despite, despite, despite. Lifestyle, relationship, tone, design. Shape, size, etc.

My point is that it is a privilege to move through space unaccompanied by language.

To not alarm anyone by your need for explanations.

To be a disseminator of the language of approval is basically to disguise judgment as tolerance.

Some things don’t need to be said. Or shouldn’t have to be. A more tolerant world would, in fact, be mostly quiet.

I suppose oxygen is okay. I mean breathing is fine. It’s alright if a “deep breath” is what you prefer. But I wouldn’t take one myself.

Who says a single person needs to understand everything?

[           People who feel the need to vouch for otherness.

People who refuse to couch their fatherliness.

People who peruse and who mouth and who cover up the rest of us.

Here, let me explain this to you. I know how badly you want to understand.           ]

There are good things in the world that you’ll never understand:

How the sun works.

What gives water its blue-green precision.

Your birth,

or where and when excitement is distinctly born.

You want to understand because you can’t distinguish love from facts.

You can’t love me without thinking about me. Thinking through me. Right through the middle.

And what’s the point, you say, in thinking, unless you’re gonna do it all the way? Think until you understand comprehensively.

So that when you’re done thinking, you tell yourself you’ve arrived at comprehension. F-a-c-t.

You can’t see the rooms the doors of which you haven’t even opened.

You can’t see the frog in your throat.

There is a frog, and you love him. You want your love mirrored by the cold shape of unmoving, published statement. You want to understand love from the inside, as if it were capable of being emptied out. To dissect the frog, it must be dead. Then you’ll know so much about him. Your thoughts about the frog will be buoyed by

your own objective knife, called apprehension.

I am working on healthy boundaries:

Distinguishing no from yes.

Leaving a room when I must.

Not laughing out of habit.

Not picking up weight that belongs to another.

I watch “love” and “understanding” meander down the street, side by side.

Not interchangeable, but in many ways, yes, parallel.

And when the two diverge, I sometimes maintain my grasp on the former, let my thinking brain go on ahead a few more blocks, however far it wants to go, while we stay behind, me and my heart, no longer wishing to replace presence with scrutiny.

The thinking, at times, interrupts the being. Segments it. Blood-letting, a slicing motion.

It says:

I think it’s okay. I mean, what you’re doing. I suppose I think it’s fine. If I can just see it from the inside first, take a closer look at the stuff naturally kept away from me, I think I’ll feel better releasing it back into the pond.


How To Raise Kids Without Having Any

Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject…All objects, rightly perceived, are already full.”

~Susan Sontag


How are you supposed to be a person before you’ve become yourself?

When you’re 9, 10, 11 years old, handcuffed by the impending sea change of hormones and the inevitability of messing up, it’s hard to overemphasize the value in looking at everything that exists outside your boundaries and then making some hard choices about where to cross over. Do you hear what I’m saying? One becomes oneself by first loitering and failing, by drinking the strange potion of doing bad things and making what will eventually be seen as, in one context or many, mistakes. Bad because not allowed, mistakes because never again. You prank people, you send a neighbor’s trash can barreling down the street, you reveal words to friends told to you by other friends and find yourself, by the end of the week, lonely and speechless and bored. You judge people and turn away from opportunities. You hang out with peers you’re “not supposed to” and drink things you’re “not supposed to.” You do little at school, and then even less; you do bad in life on purpose. If the greatest thing about being 70, as May Sarton once told a stunned crowd, is that you are more of yourself than you’ve ever been before, then the shared truth of that fact is that you are hardly so when you’re young.

So what is the job of a parent? And how do we ensure that the duties are fulfilled when the nuclear unit, already so treacherous a shape, has exploded, leaving kids parentless, and single parents stretched beyond the thin membrane of their already tapering selves, and children vulnerable to the strange spectrum of homeless <—-> home after home after home, the displacement caused by hyper-placement, the unraveling of home from a house to a street, a street to a city, or one couch to another, night after night? Kids bounce, or they run, or they are placed elsewhere; or else they share space with numerous others and find themselves shuttled back and forth between visitations and conflicting schedules, their lives unfolding not in bedrooms and classrooms—the privilege of clearly defined, designated spaces—but filling up whatever empty cracks and corners they can sneak into. Bouncing and rebounding, running and shuttling: all those gerunds are the side-effect of unintentional splitting, whether it be sudden death or the earth opening up around a couple’s previous commitment, how we adults can sometimes change our minds, or leave our minds perfectly still for too long, only to find younger generations swallowed whole by the consequences. Abuse, neglect, or things simply catching up with us, which happens a lot, in my experience of being an adult: one day I’m doing the chasing, the next day I’m being chased. And while I never moved through foster care myself and, with a few minor exceptions, generally knew where I’d be sleeping each night, I was nevertheless a child of divorce, unwellness, and adults who refused agreement and compromise; of the shattering of normality, how we all pretended, according to our ages, that we could function through to the other side of whatever it was that consumed our household for all those years.

It wasn’t until I reached my 30s that I found Nora Ephron: “…infidelity itself is small potatoes compared to the low-level brain damage that results when a whole chunk of your life turns out to have been completely different from what you thought it was.” The brain damage was, is, mine, and the infidelity my father’s, who brought a whole slew of damaged and damaging women—in image, in real life flesh—into our household, exposing me, at the earliest age I can remember, to the abusive notion that my gender could achieve value only through becoming sexually desirable to a certain type of man. Achieving, becoming—in other words, gender troubles. The thing about gerunds is that they take all the action out of the verb, they function by relinquishing their motion for the stillness of a noun; they hold still when you might’ve expected them to go forward a little, and I can’t think of a better way to describe being young and feeling out of control than that.

So what is the job of a parent, a support person, a trusted adult? You can’t help a person become themselves any faster than nature and empowerment allow. But you can help a child understand that they have options, that they can make things exist that did not exist before their making them. That they can be curious, fail broadly, try again. There’s a lot of time for trying again when you’re young. But the best way to encourage the person a child will become is to model the doing, the making, the being; in other words, the personhood. Kids see how we act and what we see, they learn through the act of witnessing. The job of the guardian is to foster spaces wherein youth may witness life’s bigness, fortified by patience and humility and, above all else, a creativity that growls over perfection’s whisper.


The other day, killing time in a doctor’s waiting room, my partner recounted some of his teenaged hijinks to me, spoke of how he and his friends once rearranged all the lawn décor on a series of houses a few streets from their own. The doctor hadn’t called me back yet, so I reciprocated by mentioning the time I once shot a bb gun into a school window; or how I’d stayed the night in a den with a bunch of seniors when my mom thought I was already home, how I had a man call the school and claim to be my father, excusing me from the day. Some of it worked out—by the skin of my teeth, I avoided certain natural consequences—and some of it didn’t (my mom had already called the school 30 minutes before us, looking for me, worried sick). None of this stuff has any bearing on the person I am today, beyond the simple and extraordinary fact that she was once me, and that she survived.

Posturing, denial, repression. Our adult methods for making sense of a chaotic world grow sophisticated as we fall more into ourselves, as we army crawl into the lives we’ve chosen. As you get older, you learn how to do more than just casually tiptoe across the boundaries you encounter and begin to harness the full force of your unique volition, sometimes setting new, expanded boundaries. Survival depends, at least in part, on a relationship with your younger self: that you learn to let the word “forgiveness” sit lightly on your tongue, that you understand how utterance conjures the good ideas which, in turn, become actions. But survival also depends on the experience of being young, being her, and having at least one adult who will listen to your new feelings and less good ideas and transitional states of mind and, rather than dismiss them, will take them no less seriously than what’s found in the heart of every single adult who, alive and mortal, sometimes changes their mind, too. Nobody stops growing, and that’s the shared intimacy of life and death across all generations, two sides of the same fabric—the same seam, the same pattern.

To alienate a young person in their journey toward becoming themselves is a form of abuse. To pretend their struggles are not normal, to react with shock more than curiosity and understanding, to try and replace steadiness with speed or vice versa. It is to close them up into little clamshells, to pretend they aren’t the same creatures who will one day make pearls of themselves, their feelings real in the same real world of your own.

We punish kids for not being better, yet we’re full of shock when, over time, they change. “You never used to like [fill in object here],” goes the classic parental saying, or, “you used to be so __________,” always said with a touch of ridicule. As if we want to take our little loves and freeze them in place at our own shifting will. Dear reader, how many pieces of your own comprehensive heart do you show the world, and when are they static? How often is your thought process conflicted, or full of thin holes, or not anything like what you’d once expected of it?


We can support youth, in professional as much as personal capacities, by showing them what it looks like to be a model of misfit survival. It is nothing short of magic to watch the walls go down when a young person reveals a dark sliver of themselves and you, adult person with power, don’t flinch. You understand, you remember, you empathize. It’s hard to make hard choices in frail circumstances, you think to yourself. Sometimes, survival is the only eligibility requirement when seeking a coping mechanism from a dark place, and you recall this by reflecting on your own once-bad choices and the ways they kept you reaching into tomorrow. Validation is a big, fraught word, but at its base, all it requires is understanding, any version of it, between two people.

What youth need from us: witnessing, contemplation. And I do mean the Sontag kind, where you recognize the worthiness of a young person to the point of momentarily forgetting about yourself; this is the reward of working with youth: an “already full” heart, how the stewardship of children and teens requires paying such complete attention that you can’t help but fill up with a tenderness bigger than yourself. And when the obstacles are larger? More and more consideration. And when young people find themselves inhabitants on the spectrum of homelessness <—-> home after home after home? Place and environment are things every young human has the right to count on, but care and open communication are places, too. Nonjudgmental language is an environment. Who is that person you could turn to all those years ago, when you were young and scared and needed someone to trust, someone whose lineage wasn’t bound up with yours? Think of that someone who kept you afloat. Now imagine under whose lifejacket you might be the ocean beneath.

Neither Tree Nor Person, But Both

Notes from a master gardener in training

Confidence. It is a thing I am working on, starting at the level of sentence. But I’m suspicious of getting there through calcified certainty alone, all those hard consonants that make it so easy to mistake the one with the others. Our culture values certainty, a gut directive that wants us believing in the knowability of unknown things, sometimes at the expense of context and lived experiences that suggest otherwise. If I let my perspective stop short at the edge of my knowing, I can muster up all the feelings of certainty and security that a western adult could ever wish for.

Yet here I am, trying to refuse them and anything else born of the same cultural command for summation, the same culture that birthed me. Perhaps what I’m after belongs to the family of characteristics that Joan Didion wrote about in her 1961 essay, “On Self-Respect:” “Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect.” Confidence, in this sense, is not about knowing you are always right, but about laying down in the bed you’ve made regardless; “whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.” This form of confidence involves the recognition that belief in oneself should be no more or less valuable than trial and error, that growth occurs through the complex interactions between agency and humility. The most productive questions are the ones willing to be paired with numerous answers, arrangements that might shift from time to time, no single context carrying more weight than any other.

This framework—confidence comprised of many options—seems to be the guiding philosophy of the master gardener. In lieu of competition and lecturing, classes are full of conversation and the sharing of knowledge, something that, when done expansively, can still include a man or a woman standing at the front of the room without declaring that the rest of us are without contributions. Any sense of human power over nature is replaced instead with something more like cross-species collaboration. The language of government seems almost entirely replaced with the language of community, starting—yes, I’m going to say it—from the ground up. No self-respecting gardener would do x, y, or z! Do you hear the way all possibility shuts down through such a statement? Do you hear how, with one poor phrase, one judgmental tone, you can conflate your own preferences with someone else’s? The job of the master gardener promises not to be making decisions on behalf of others, not to reinforce the hierarchies of choice. It is instead to take one’s own wisdom—trust in your experiences (the “master” part) and humility before nature (the “gardening” part)—and encourage a similar blossoming in those you meet: whether a friend, a community partner, or a desperate client seeking advice at a plant clinic, the master gardener knows that you, too, can look at a whole slew of options and choose, with confidence, a very good one for yourself.


Self-respect is, nevertheless, a funny thing to pursue, especially when you’re only just beginning its coursework many years after bolting out of the womb, confidence and all its cousins having shown up late to the party that is your social, human life. Throw in any number of extenuating circumstances—difficult childhoods, too-early experiences of death, lack of outdoor play paired with a surplus of “stranger danger”—and before you know it you’re an adult plagued with inwardness and passivity, looking to assert yourself in a culture already too full of aggressive declarations.


[ Passive (You) ⇒ Assertive (Where you’re aiming) ⇒ Aggressive (The world) ]

Figure 1- How do we correct, but not overcorrect?


I look at the world around me and see a dire need for flexibility and question marks, for classrooms no longer dismissing “I don’t know” as not good enough. For vulnerability and fluidity and active listening. There is a dearth of wild movements of the mind and permissiveness of the heart, is what I’m saying. So it’s especially confusing to find myself an adult trying to own herself and her voice and her actions while staring out at the world and wishing for less rampant ownership. Another way to put it: my need for internal substance, for a crash course in assertiveness, runs head first into my sense that the world around me is too rigid and too sure of itself.

How can I want one thing for myself and another thing for the culture surrounding me? How can I be so focused on watering my plants enough that I don’t water them too much? I cannot overemphasize my seriousness: how much is the right amount of water when the wrong amounts are so close to each other that they practically touch? How can I be, all at once, a person with things to say as well as a model of quiet, attentive listening?

The best gardeners, I suspect, are both: informed and full of new questions, willing to learn and willing to give things a try. Not scared of the thin space between “not enough” and “too much” because they’re well acquainted with the wide space called good enough, said in big outward breaths, the joyful everything that grows around and through constricted boundaries. They’re not waiting for permission, nor are they ignorant of the occasional need to pause and reconsider. The best gardeners have room for wilderness and room for craft, places for growing and places for roaming, and a willingness to tend, even to value, the differences between the two, a natural philosophy otherwise known as biodiversity.


Still, the unproductive patterns, the ones that keep us harmfully insecure and foolishly dismissive, are difficult to unlearn, even in the most welcoming of social situations. The minute the 2018 “Pacific Northwest Plant Disease Management Handbook” landed on my table during a master gardener class, a binder so large that it practically made noise, my inner-dialogue grew nervous and judgmental: I don’t know what this is, I don’t know how to use it, I will not be able to answer the questions that will surely be asked of me, not privately, not publicly, not even in small group format with my table of lovely, nonjudgmental peers. I wished in that moment that I already knew what I was there to learn. And this is the echoing disharmony of traditional classroom spaces, that backwards thinking that most of us grew up with and some of us saw further emphasized in higher education: to succeed in a space of learning, you have to already know about the subject at hand; to be most eligible for something, you have to not need it.

Not needing what you need. My arms practically cross themselves in grumpy refusal just typing that sentence out. It’s a concept so ridiculous and so juvenile that even Nature, given a human brain and an English-speaking tongue, could not understand it. Try explaining this fear to a personified tree and he would giggle, experiencing a whole range of sympathy and pity for us self-sabotaging humans. Yes, there are days where I think even trees would make better people.


It’s hard to find balance in an imbalanced world, much like it’s hard to do well in a class on a subject that’s brand new to you; these are not facts meant to counter-argue confidence, but to provide the soil in which it must grow.

Once, a yoga teacher put us all in tree pose, where you balance on one leg, as a room of us students wibble-wobbled our way through thirty difficult seconds. She remarked that we were all balancing perfectly, because balance isn’t about staying stick-straight and still. It’s about wobbling and adjusting each moment so that you get stronger and find more equilibrium.”[1]

For a pest’s natural enemies to survive, they must have a pest population on which to feed.”[2]

See how the very thing you’re trying to escape is sometimes the thing you need? To do poorly because you’re learning. To lean in the very direction that feels like falling. To fight against the pose because the fighting is the pose. To be a tree poorly because that’s how we get to be trees at all: wiggling and failing, knowing the value and limitations of our not-tree-ness and laying down in our garden beds anyway.


[1] October 2018 new moon horoscope for Taurus, Rookie.

[2] Chapter 20—“Integrated Pest Management,” Sustainable Gardening: The Oregon-Washington Master Gardener Handbook.

Common Ground

“If there is a reason,” said Representative Greg Walden at the Wasco County town hall on March 15th, 2019. He was describing the only circumstance in which a child might still be rightfully separated from their family at the southern U.S. border, and it’s the kind of comment, devoid of information but full of stance, that turns even my most respectful impulses into immature outbursts of laughter.

There are reasons for everything: for me to care about climate change above all else, and for the gentleman across the aisle to deem national security a much greater issue. For the mother of six to refuse vaccinations that caused so much harm to her family. For me to refuse God with the same conviction through which some of my neighbors, co-workers, or friends adore him.

The point of a town hall is not, ironically, to find common ground in all this—or rather, it can’t be, not within the current set-up of how we communicate with each other in public spaces. Though Walden struck me as slightly more behaved than he was during his last trip through The Dalles, so many of his words still rang like prepared soundbites, so that listening and nodding along to each community member’s question or comment only belied his own silent crafting and culling of data. Indeed, his batch of digital slides, rather than signaling extreme preparedness, felt instead like restrictions on where the conversation was allowed to go. This created a tone of constituents needing to accommodate the representative versus the other way around, all of us shuffling over his bullet points to try and get our specific, unaddressed concern into his line of sight.

I’m not above the problem. As each citizen took to the microphone, I noticed myself examining their clothes and haircuts, who they smiled at or when they shook their heads with a heavy no, trying to figure out if they were my people or not. It’s precisely this method of judgment that keeps agreement and disagreement in little calcified boxes, separated by the illusion that people could ever naturally and wholly be just one thing or another.

Walden is a figurehead of that illusion. He must learn to listen to the diversity of his constituents the same way I must better witness my peers: as complex and multifaceted individuals, full of the same capacity for passionate, contradictory, and informed sets of reasons as my own brain and heart. We are all capable of misunderstanding; holding a position in office does not imbue such errors with authority, nor magically exempt the congressman from critical thinking and self-doubt in the face of something he doesn’t recognize or can’t explain, whether it be a species or a number or a lifestyle. The only person truly qualified to turn something away is the person who has spent time and energy desiring first to understand it. And it is this fact through which I define “hatred” as a feeling devoid of all intimacy, the easiest and laziest and least informed reaction a human being is capable of. Just look at our president.

I am sad when I leave a town hall like this one, where hatred bubbles up in little pockets of the room and stops most of us from true contemplation. The person at the front of the room has signed up for the job of surveying and advocating for the communities he represents, and his partisan refusal models one of the most insidious myths of American progress: the illusion that it is lost, not strengthened, when you consider the other side.

To embrace difference, to find a common ground that holds space for everyone’s feet, means entering territory not always accounted for by the prepared data. It means admitting when you don’t know, and owning the inevitable blind spots in your research. It means, most fundamentally, admitting humanity, which is always also an admission of mortality and which, in turn, is always also an admission of room for growth—for something other than what you and I already are.

My challenge to Walden is to model active, bipartisan listening: to not grimace at the mention of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to not deflect concerns about carbon emissions by pointing out that we’re emitting carbons “even right now, by the way.”

There is always a reason, and that means there is always a context, usually many, worth considering.

The Uses of Grumpiness

(Note: The following essay also lives in the winter 2019 issue of Culturework.)

Consider the grammar of being human—how the body infiltrates, or punctuates, or rests. Verbs and proper nouns and idealizations spin around the axis of grumpiness, shaping its signature bend, adjective turned identity, twinned self of the quiet body trying to speak up at its own sighing pace. Grumpiness is a kind of preposition, which governs the relationship between two distinct bodies. It locates, it expresses and, in the best of circumstances, it modifies. It is both form and content, shape of how I march down the page as well as my reason for showing up, a pattern for these tempered, ill-fitting days, when it’s hard not to think about negativity and pessimism and anger. The nouns pile up on my tongue, in my sentences.

These days, Audre Lorde’s name is practically a buzzword, bouncing around social media and excerpted strategically in articles and newsletters with “self-care” in the title. There’s Lorde’s poetic cry, demanding self-efficacy, arguing for the necessity of a compassion that gazes inward at its own oppressed self, even or especially in the face of racism and sexism, of blemishes and dry skin.

I have no problem with self-care, at least as a concept, even when it just means skincare—I pursue it myself, and in fact I am inclined to say that citing Lorde within discussions of lifestyle trends, just to be extra cute about it, is a lot like sneaking some romaine between layer after layer of cheese and mayonnaise and ham. It is inclusivity pursued slowly but pursued nonetheless, through the basic tenet of just being more familiar with something else, of being, at the very least, less caught off-guard by its presence. Trend-driven or otherwise, that more people know the name of a black lesbian scholar and poet-librarian is, fundamentally, a good thing.

Still, I am frustrated by appropriation and by the refusal of context, just like everyone else is.

And I am reminded that besides being a warrior for self-care—for literal survival, in her case—Audre Lorde was also a protector of anger.

And so was Andrea Dworkin: “My hatred is precious…I don’t want to waste it on those who are colluding in their own oppression.”

And so is Bhanu Kapil: “Let your fear adore you.”

And again Lorde: “My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.”

I am frustrated, too, by my own limited skills on the page, that I must co-opt anger toward racism and discrimination, must quote from poems that advocate for the voices of marginalized groups, anger dedicated to silenced women of cultures not my own, regarding circumstances I’ve not had to endure, in order to address my own obstacles. Here are the things that, as I write this, I am angry about: stupid trainings, where facilitators do not enact the things they are teaching; co-workers who talk over and interrupt and then ignore me; wages that leave me broke but not poor; rude doctors; rude rejection letters; rude people at the movie theatre who forget or never learned how to share space.

Most days, it is a privilege to be upset about such things. Yet I refuse to believe that anger exists hierarchically; in fact, add to my previous list that I am mad about one-upsmanship, mad in the face of this or that, mad when people think the quickest way to empathy is by responding with their own more or less similar story. The farthest, slowest way to empathy is through more of the same kind of talking. A world more empathetic than this one is comprised of a great deal more listening, nodding along, moving your hands and your shoulders and your head with the rhythm of absorption. Active, comprehensive listening.

In fact, it was only after I’d attended last year’s Womxn’s March, here in the small, very red, trying-so-hard-my-heart-could-crumble city of The Dalles, that I found myself full of ideas for how I could have decorated my sign, one of them being the following:


#1 Shut up

#2 Listen ❤

The heart would’ve been an obligation, but it always is.


Anger, explains Lorde, is not just the valid and healthy feeling we are experiencing but the thing itself to which we are responding. In this sense, anger is both internal and external, dynamic and living. It is born of the body, an expression to be cradled and protected, and it also floats about you, interfering with and directing one’s movement. Address it or don’t, it will shape the air surrounding you regardless.

So much of acknowledging anger, of making space for it, is about highlighting what has remained invisible for too long, about finally putting a face to the invisible names long accumulating in our downturned mouths. Of productively challenging the notion that silence and invisibility are slim beasts of poor constitution, as if certain forms of abundance can swallow you whole and then become something else entirely, something smaller.

Anne Sexton: “Abundance is scooped from abundance yet abundance remains.”

In my reading of it, it is one of Anne’s most generous and hopeful lines, in dialogue with Lorde’s understanding of the direct and crucial relationship between anger and hope, between lived negativity and active growth.

Walking through the sad colorful streets of downtown The Dalles with the only thing I could think of at the time written on my sign—“Patriarchy Shmatriarchy”—I was overwhelmed with the comfort of being inside a temporary community that could safely and willingly hold any individual manifestation of anger, snarky comments, shouting or protesting, from any single body that felt like yelling; how easily certain forms of anger can come to look like celebration, and vice versa, within a designated, cooperative space.

Anger can be a thing worth celebrating; so too can every single instance of a name like Audre or Andrea or Anne falling out of a person’s mouth, sometimes framed by glowing, supple skin.

It is with all of this in mind that I commit finally to the page my status as an advocate for grumpiness and its many uses. There are only so many ways to express disagreement in an engaged, unrefusing manner; it is grumpiness that carves out space for such feelings. When I am grumpy about a thing, I am usually most successful in achieving authenticity. When I am grumpy, I am both gentle and blunt, both close to you and considerate, even protective, of the distinction. God knows I have lost myself in too many moments of caving in, of ultra-accommodation, of confusing love with cathexis (bell hooks), of confusing love with the soft turn of a mouth that says mmhmm and laughs at everything, in perfect horizontal reassurance. God knows I’ve had enough of unwelcome horizontal reassurances.

This is all just language, but it helps to name one’s experience in conveyable ways. For example, “mansplaining” (Rebecca Solnit). For example, the messages on every cardboard and construction paper and taped, glittered, last-minute sign I walked beneath at the Womxn’s March in The Dalles.

For example, that which I call this very precious moment of my disapproval made public, my whole entirely nameless body that says, you don’t have to be loud or distant to be upset. You can be close and intentional and full of care, bone and organ and muscle. With ease, you can pair grumpiness with intimacy.

The lack of speed which informs my grumpiness makes time and space for slower thinking, for long moments of intentional silence. For contemplating the understanding that my grumpiness demands and which, in turn, it may need to afford. To be grumpy is perhaps to be in a hurry about nothing other than the initial moment of grumpiness itself, to rip an aesthetic hole in the fabric of the polite day and refuse the social shapes collecting dust before you.

Sometimes, being grumpy is the best way I know of to be my most authentic self, in a room full of people doing things differently, maybe loudly, sometimes aggressively. Grumpy is for people who don’t want to be aggressive but still want space to be mad, people who, first of all, want space.

It’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to be engaged and okay and not okay and grumpy all at once, all those feelings that, when resisted or ignored or feared, turn the color of apathy.

An ideal morning would perhaps include coffee on the front porch, a book I am exactly in the middle of, long stretches of silence, and a grumpiness that sets its own remembering pace, chirping and squabbling along with the day.


At work recently, I felt so grumpy as I found myself in a room full of educated adults, snack food, and good intentions, most of us sitting in rows near the back while one or two of us stood in the front, natural leaders. Extroverts and people with authority like to ask questions with very specific answers tied to them, and sometimes when you don’t give the answer they’re looking for they proceed to help you get there. Help as in prod.

Dear extroverts, talkers, teachers, if you have the answer you’re looking for already, it’s time for a new question. If you think there’s no space for productive negativity, for healthy anger, for grumpiness in lieu of perpetual grace, then there’s no hope left for you. The irony of words is that they sometimes suggest contradictions that apply mostly to the form itself, that they can practically invent their own falsely stable definitions. In order to name my grumpiness, I will name, too, all its siblings: concern, self-doubt, resistance, imagination, embarrassment. Grumpiness is the most natural, most organic extension of my care, content directing its own form: precious, adoring rage, it’s face turned toward the day.

All of Mine: On Boss Baby and Invisible Love

I was born an adult. Serious, intimacy at arm’s length. Only able to make friends across wide gaps in age. So at five my best friend was 10, my vocabulary and disposition on point with hers. And at 10, 11 and 12 I was already babysitting the younger kids in the neighborhood. My eyes were meek and still behind glass at the time, always fixed on my charges or else the floor. One look at me and you knew this girl contained responsibilities, distant ones, probably born of the machine in her head. This girl was just bursting with safe interior spaces, ready to be put to good use. And even as a kid I was desperate to channel some prior, historical adolescence, struggling to unbury my capacity for play and fun, to uncover a carefree state that might appear as such to an outsider’s passing glance.

Tim, I may look like a baby, but I was born all grown up.”

– Boss Baby

As a biological adult, I’ve gotten better at the digging but also the burying. My body circles its own good feelings but never quite plants there, shadow of an accessory; like a cape made useless, tucked into the waist of my jeans. What’s the use in wearing a cape if you don’t intend to fly? I think of Robert Duncan and his eccentric dress codes, his conspicuous homosexuality, his insistence, as my partner and I discussed one evening, on keeping the children’s books of his youth on the nightstand near where he slept. What does it look like to be an adult, queer or otherwise, whose want is not filtered, restricted, or buried? What if I replace “he” with “she”? Or defend aging as a metaphor?

Though circling issues of privilege and normalization I am also talking about happiness, that fleeting state that even cis-white man-money can’t buy. “Happiness doesn’t grow on trees,” I once misspoke, in a dream. But also, “happiness can’t buy money” (Shark Tank). Mass production aside, happiness isn’t the fruit itself but the tree: deciduous, operating on scales beyond human control. Going dormant for stretches of time and worrying us too-serious adult types into thinking that it might be dead forever.

But children often get it, and sometimes that’s reflected in the art made directly for them. I watched Boss Baby soon after it came out on video and was overjoyed by how it examined the corporate culture of family, in all it’s terrifying and beautifully animated ways. Company success, in the world of the movie, hinges on the production of a “Forever Puppy,” a dog that never dies, that in fact never even ages. The puppy goes on being a puppy for weeks, months, years, lives well beyond, the implication whispers, your own discrete life. Though the appeal is obvious, the film quickly undoes one’s sense of desire by showing a baby turning into a boy turning into an adult, an old man, his gravestone…all while the puppy’s tongue hangs clumsily out of its cute small puppy mouth. The discrepancy is terrifying.

Through such exaggeration, Boss Baby sets up corporate culture in direct opposition to human connection, be it love, parenthood, or singular self-determined joy. In other words, happiness or success? When I was younger, the question manifested as a bedtime ritual: if I were a singer, would I rather be talented and ugly, or beautiful with a mediocre voice? I’d lay in bed night after night obsessing over the idea that to produce a certain kind of art you might need to look strange, that effort needed an invitation to show up plainly on your face, trying and contorted. I don’t need to confess which one I chose night after night as I spent those teenage girl years hiding in toxic analogies—I had ingested one too many television shows and magazine covers and middle school conversations, where value was conflated with romance and women with objects, all that media aimed directly at me. I’d never become a good singer, beautiful or otherwise, but I was practically born a very good audience.

When corporate success and family life are so directly opposed, love, intimacy, memories, photographs, and all the things that help establish social meaning and purpose exist mainly as alternatives to perpetual youth and immortality, a dichotomy summarized and symbolized by a pet that can live forever. As such, family bonds are necessarily born of and climb toward decay, death held in the arms of reproduction and vice versa. Perhaps one can’t be happy all the time in the same way that people are not immortal, and to want anything otherwise would be to exile yourself from your social circumstances, to undo your death as quickly as your birth. “I wasn’t born. I was hired,” says the eponymous baby himself, cleaving space between existence and work, between family values and company protocol. Each time I watch the movie I am reminded that what leads to financial success is not usually the same stuff that leads to intimacy and growth, shared vulnerability, to closeness and community and family and friends, whether chosen or assigned.

It’s that sense of choice that Boss Baby highlights so well, expanding traditional family arrangements. An off-camera explanation of where babies really come from is framed as a gross joke, but rather than stigmatizing the body’s natural processes it contributes to the understanding that families are chosen as often as they are produced by blood, that in so many ways even the people who just show up in your life are kept there only through active, repeated choice. Families are like environments and benefit from biodiversity, from the gathering of different purposes and desires, different motivations and origins, all in the same place.

“You can’t miss what you never had.” In the movie, it is spoken as poorly disguised grief, precursor to a toxic male defense. But you also can’t have what you don’t see. Like so many girls, I learned that part of being a woman is keeping yourself desired and sought after by keeping yourself missed, and this is how presence can be dictated by absence. No wonder I always chose beauty over talent, I was practically inventing my own form of female invisibility; I wanted a flatness and a blankness, pure beauty that didn’t rely on ability. And I wanted, more than anything else, to be missed and thought of and worried about, to hum in the minds of those who couldn’t see me. When your constitution is held between your absence and your appearance, it’s easy to be confused about where you exist, to misunderstand invisibility as really quite appealing.

If happiness were easy, would it remain desirable? If men lived forever, little puppy dogs of strength, would women fall happily into old age? Do men seek women for the same reasons that adults seek puppies and bloodlines and babies: to locate a part of yourself outside yourself, to pretend there’s some piece of you that remains visible even when you go away? Or to present yourself, confidently, in the space of another’s absence.

The gender of happiness, but also: the gender of the pursuit. Of searching and of filling out and of looking, looking, looking. A child’s gaze is often scattered and surreptitious, until adulthood forces it to hover in one spot. When you perform adulthood for long enough you begin to confuse it with instinct, that below-sea-level murmuring that predates even the most imaginative internal monologues, the you that is both hidden and remembered. See how easy it is to make invisibility sound tangible, to forgive gender problems as problems of age?

The corporate machine, with mechanical arms that read and interpret each newborn, doesn’t recognize Boss Baby’s “tickle zones”—a metaphor for basic human need, disguised as armpits, tummies, ticklish feet—and sends him off to management. Don’t we all live some version of this story? Some of us have unrecognizable desires, or bodies that do not act the way others expect them to, or brains that don’t perform well what we’ve learned, or personalities that try too hard, or that don’t try at all. Misrecognition suggests limited abilities and expectations, rendering certain purposes (and in some cases, people) obsolete.

The turn comes when Tim, Boss Baby’s kid brother, discovers that love is not finite, that sharing is not a neighbor of lack. Though we attribute such qualities to monetary wealth, it is love, after all, that remains chaseable and pursuable, that grows without restriction, that sustains and is sustained by equity. Love, which climbs perpetually upward no matter its point of origin, for there is just always room for more.

Boss Baby disentangles the knot made of capitalism and the American family unit: nuclear, built on consumption, wherein things (babies) can be returned and products (love) are finite and tempered by demand. “If there isn’t enough love for the two of us then I wanna give you all of mine,” says Tim. It is the ungendering of love, boys and men giving everything they have, a quantity not counted by numbers, the multifaceted beating heart: full of mass though you can’t weigh it; how it’s right there in front of you, visible and saying hello, how you want it so much.