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© MECC (1994)

When I was growing up, in the greater neighborhood surrounding the cul-de-sac I lived on, there was a house at the top of a hill I often rode up on my bike, bookending the upper avenue. In the front yard, there was an old well.

It took me several passes by to even notice it, under the shade of a large tree, half-hidden by several overgrown bushes. Thinking back on it now, I can’t begin to imagine how it had come to be there — the housing development was younger than me, had grown up around me; when my parents bought our house, there was nothing around us but dirt, my future high school, and a gas station — or who might have dug it out. So high up on a hill like that, could it even reach any sort of aquifer? It must be just for show.

But no; I looked around to make sure no one was watching, poked my head in, threw a sizeable rock down, and could barely hear it hit the bottom. It was real. Empty and purposeless, but real.

I maintained a sort of detached obsession with it for some time, in the sense that I never actively thought of it unless I was riding or walking by, but would often insert an 8-bit avatar of it into the background of a page or two when playing around on one of my favorite computer games in the grade school library during recess: Storybook Weaver.

In hindsight, it would make perfect sense that the a program held such a fierce appeal to me, that I would return to fiddle around with it so regularly. It offered the illusion of crafting any story your imagination could dream up, but in reality was hemmed in by any of the familiar limitations of software programs of the late ’80s and early ’90s. There were limits to the objects and people you could choose from, there was a fixed number of scenic backgrounds in which to place them. You could change some of the colors, or the time of day in which they were set, but ultimately, before long, every page took on a fairly familiar cast. The challenge lay in creating something original from within those parameters.

How often have I wanted to believe I could craft any narrative I wanted from preexisting people, places, conditions? How often have I tried, yet come up against walls so similar to those written into that old code I was once enchanted by?

Do you want to save the current story before closing?  [   ]

I always saved. Even when I’d added little, rarely finished, and had no floppy disc of my own to write to — we wouldn’t have a computer in my home until relatively late, around 1998 — and knew in a rather mortifying way in the back of my mind that anyone else who logged on had the opportunity to go back and read whatever I’d made. I always saved. I saved everything.

I still save everything — in boxes, written into Word and Notepad documents — though what for, I know no better now than I did then.  So much of it only staying with me, so much only saved by me.

Six years is a long time, and yet eventually becomes no time at all. It passes, circumstances change, things are broken that can’t be repaired, are papered over by mere shadows of their former selves. Looking back provides better perspective, though not always for the better. The lone saver of things can be a lonely position to turn back from.

So much thrown down an empty well, up on that hill, never to be reflected back.

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Lend me some fresh air

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During recent drives, I’ve had a couple of albums on rotation in my car’s CD player, and they’ve gotten me thinking about women and anger.

Specifically, I’ve been revisiting Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and Fiona Apple’s Tidal, originally released in 1995 and ’96, respectively. I was nine and ten years old at those moments, though it’s my pre-teen years I most heavily associate those songs with, as they both received decent to heavy radio play at least through the late ’90s.

I remember first being struck by Apple’s explicit youth; she was only 19 when Tidal crashed onto air and television waves. The biggest hit from it, and the video that played on MTV and VH1 pretty regularly, featuring in top 10 countdown after countdown, was of course “Criminal,” which I had learned to not only sing but mimic fairly closely in vocal styling by the time I was 13. Rewatching it, there is no question as to how young Apple really is. I remember being struck most, secondly, how much she looked like me. I was reedy-thin, big-eyed (also blue), with long dirty blonde hair, too tomboyish to look feminine. I had a disarming stare, too; so much so I’d been advised not to look people directly in the eye, which I eventually trained myself out of doing. Fiona did not: she confronted the camera directly throughout the entire video, no matter who she was crawling over, who was hanging off of her stark body; almost the entirety of that now-classic album cover is taken up by those eyes, those big icy blue eyes, looking right at you. I looked like her; I could sound like her. I wasn’t as angry as her — not yet. Until those particular years, I didn’t feel it was really allowed.

It can be argued it was never really allowed for her — for any woman, truly — either. Despite struggling with the aftermath of her rape, an eating disorder, depression, self-harm, PTSD, and so on… she was never given remotely near the leeway we give our beloved, “eccentric” — typically code for “unapologetic asshole” — male artists. The unfairness of this, particularly taking into account all the additional labor expected of women all our lives — the emotional labor, the caretaker roles, the inoffensive and quiet smile assumed to naturally come with all of it — can’t be understated, either. There is so little room allowed for a woman’s anger, no matter how young and talented she may be. I didn’t care, and loved her anyway, and I loved her anger maybe most of all. I mimicked it when I sang it; I aspired to it, almost.

The opening lyrics to Tidal — nothing arriving first to cushion them in any way, just a sparse, dry snare drum beat — are still probably some of my favorites that Apple ever penned — and given her talents as a lyricist, that is no small praise — and they too are directly, purely, deeply angry:

I tell you how I feel, but you don’t care
I say tell me the truth, but you don’t dare
You say love is a hell you cannot bear
And I say “Give me mine back and then go there
For all I care”

(Emphasis mine, but there is no denying that is how she sings it.) It was the most powerful, immediate, introductory “fuck you” I’d ever heard from a woman, let alone one still under 20, like me. I looked like her, I could sound like her; I could be angry like her, too.

The only woman I remember listening to during those formative years who sounded as angry, in as visceral and unapologetic a manner, was Alanis, and Jagged had only come out the year before. It is the quintessential “angry girl” album of the ’90s, but because of that assessment, it still feels underrated to me. Or maybe the proper word is really “underestimated.” You can crack as many (arguably fair) jokes about the misapplication of the entire concept of “Ironic”‘s lyrics, or make as many laughing asides about Joey from Full House as you like, but the indisputable fact remains: there was no other album as commercially successful, nor as familiar to so many mainstream music listeners of a particular decade, that was as angry as Jagged Little Pill.

My favorite Alanis song off Jagged was always “Not the Doctor.” It’s undoubtedly an album crammed full of one great song after another, which is why current teenage girls still buy it on any format in the record shop I work in to this day, but that track in particular was the one I loved most then, and still do now. I only wish that, when I was singing along to it then, I’d had even the barest inkling of what it truly meant, even if such a thing wasn’t possible; I hadn’t (yet) been used, abused, or discarded by men in the way that allows for a deeper identification with that song. But the entire thing is a screed of different metaphorical ways to say “I will not carry your extremely tiresome fucking baggage.” It’s a deeply important song for any young girl to hear for that reason alone, even if we’re not able to fully absorb it, no matter how much I wish I could have. It makes it a bittersweet listen now. Just look at all those isolated “I don’t want”s:

I don’t want to be the filler if the void is solely yours
I don’t want to be a bandage if the wound is not mine
I don’t want to be adored for what I merely represent to you
I don’t want to be your babysitter
I don’t want to be your mother
I don’t want to be the sweeper of the egg shells that you walk upon
I don’t want to be your other half
I don’t want to be the glue that holds your pieces together
I don’t want to be your idol
I don’t want to be lived through
I don’t want to be responsible for your fractured heart
(And its wounded beat)

(There are a few more, but those were the ones most identifiable to me now as things that became far too familiar to me as more than just concepts, later in life.) It’s such an adamant refusal of being the dependable dumping ground so many men casually expect women to always be.

The killer one-two punch between the two of them: Fuck you. I don’t want this. (Do better, be better. God, but the bar for men is so pathetically low.)

It’s been comforting, too, listening to these again, despite the bittersweetness. Those angry girls were everything to me then. I was still small, still shy, but when a pack of boys descended on me one late afternoon when I was 13, I finally recognized I had the freedom to be angry. I broke one of their noses even with his fingers crushing down on my trachea and his knee in my chest. He said he would kill me and I thought, I’ll claw your fucking eyes out while you do it. I screamed so loud at him it felt like my throat would tear — I sounded like a wild animal; the sound carried so far belated help finally came running from the other end of the campus — and it was not because I was afraid: I had never been more consumed by fury in my life. I was so angry there wasn’t any room left for fear. Before those girls and their songs, no one had ever really told me what hardly anyone ever tells little girls:

Own your anger. Unleash it even as they slam you into concrete and make you bleed. It will save your life.

Proxy

Somewhat of a theme with the post preceding this one…

Let’s talk about placeholder women for a minute, shall we?

Let’s talk about substitute women.

Let’s talk about stopgap women.

Let’s talk about the myriad ways men simply use and discard women once we become difficult, complex.

Let’s talk about how hard it is to trust men, how deftly men weave webs of false intimacy, how quickly all that disappears once someone they actually respect enough to make a real effort with comes along.

Let’s talk about how all these are varying degrees of gaslighting women.

Let’s talk about how men drive women crazy with all this, then laugh at us for getting emotional about any of it.

Let’s talk about how sneaky emotional fakery can be.

Deviousness is such a feminized word, but let’s talk about the natural skill men have for it.

Let’s talk about how socializing us to be “good” women means priming us for all of this, not for anything real.

Let’s talk about being the most convenient woman around, then about what becomes of you once you’ve been humanized, and are no longer so convenient.

Let’s talk about the humiliation in discovering what you’ve been treated as this late in life.

Let’s talk about that very particular, yet so common, degradation of a woman.

Let’s talk about how she forgives herself for allowing herself to be used in such a way.

I don’t know how. Do you?

Pastedown

Being reminded how much of me has been papered over or just plain forgotten in the minds of others of late really drove home how much I need to finish writing the massive thing I’ve been trying to write for at least two months now. More than, really; going on three, now.

Maybe two or three people, if any, will ever actually read it, but I’m realizing more than ever now that most of the things I remember — both the ones I chose to, and the ones I wish I didn’t; I seem to remember everything, and can’t help this even when trying to avoid it — are only ever going to be of any real note, importance, significance or otherwise to me, and me alone. Apparently if I don’t create some sort of record for myself, no one else will bother to remember them. Maybe that’s the conundrum of life, but who doesn’t wish, even just secretly, to be important enough to someone to actually stay in their mind?

It’s a nebulous way to feel. I’ve always been easily forgotten, but when it’s among those who supposedly care, that will always sting more.

An American Tail

Boy, did this one dredge up a lot of thoughts in me. A LOT.

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I hadn’t seen this film, in full, since I was a child. I know it always affected me strongly back in the day, even if it wasn’t my favorite of Bluth’s (that honor still probably belongs to Secret of NIMH), but I honestly can’t imagine a more affecting — or upsetting — time to be seeing it again than our current climate. And frankly, as the child of an immigrant (albeit a voluntary one) who got into trouble at school due to discomfort with the entire concept of being forced to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, my own relationship to — and discomfort with — America and patriotism has always been… complicated.

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It’s just… it’s so goddamn hopeful about America, it was painful to take in now. It’s a film about the plight of refugees so earnest and blatantly (and deservedly) sympathetic that I honestly can’t imagine it being made today. In one scene, Fievel is literally caged by the cats, and watching that as American border agents are caging living children was almost too much to bear. I found myself thinking back on Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece MAUS more than once — a parallel it’s tough not to draw (and apparently inspired some litigation at the time of the film’s release), given the presence of evil cats killing mice; in this case, the only difference, really, is that the cats aren’t literal Nazis — the mice are still (Russian) Jews. They arrive at the port immigration authority, and their family names are changed; they’re then confronted by opportunistic vultures lying in wait, taking advantage of the poor and desperate new arrivals wherever they can, to put them to work in America’s longest, most successful grift: cheap labor off the backs of its most hopeful dreamers. The set palette, between Russia and America, it’s worth noting (and I’m sure is no accident) does not change; New York is just as grimy, dangerous, crowded, and threatened by fire and death as the homeland they left.

Don Bluth is a filmmaker I’ve always had a complex relationship with. The films of his I love, I love deeply. (Hell, I even have a soft spot for the duds; Rock-a-Doodle is like a drug-addled fever dream from an Elvis fanatic on acid, but that didn’t keep me from watching it more than once, back in the day. Thumbelina is a mess, but it’s so beautiful to look at, I was charmed by it anyway.) I believe I saw NIMH first, at about age 4 or 5, and it blatantly traumatized me, I know — it gave me recurring, vivid, horrific nightmares — and yet I returned to it again and again.

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Animation is an art form I have always adored and revered, mostly due to my deepest childhood dream of being an animator. I discovered I lacked the discipline as an artist to ever achieve such a thing long ago, but animated films still hold a power over me that no other genre of film does, and I love film. In a way, it could be argued they’re film, as a storytelling medium, in its purest form. There are visuals and scenes in animated films that never fail to move me to tears, and have influenced me in so many unconscious ways. I’m fairly sure I’ve been dyeing my hair red for nearly half my life now mostly because I was more obsessed by Ariel than any other fictional character during my formative years; seeing this film again, I can’t help but wonder whether I ultimately picked out a blue newsboy cap recently because it’s the color Fievel wore.

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Bluth’s films include a darkness that no other animator really dared explore for audiences including such young children. He isn’t the greatest animator of my time, in my book — I would personally give that honor to Miyazaki — but when he succeeded, he produced the stuff of unmistakable brilliance. The widow Brisby holding literal fire in her hands, upon finding her real self and true courage in order to save her children, marked me as a young girl; Littlefoot’s mother’s death — and the entire theme of inescapable death in All Dogs Go to Heaven — articulated the inevitable end of life to me at my most impressionable in a more profound way than any other fictional tales I can recall. Hell, even Anastasia — handicapped though it may be by Bluth’s growing over-reliance on awkward Rotoscoping in his animation — is irresistible to me; I will belt the fuck out of “Journey to the Past” and feel like I could do just about anything while doing it (and part of me always wanted to steal Anya’s newsboy cap-wearing, cropped-reddish hairstyle, too).

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Bluth’s violence is direct in a deeply un-Disney way, and I often wonder how much he pushed himself toward that darkness after walking out of those studios (taking half of Disney’s animation staff with him, arguably the greatest coup he ever achieved). There is visible, stark blood in them, which you will find in almost no other works by his contemporaries. There are knives, daggers, swords, needles glinting in the dark, stabbing into lab rats, bones of cannibalized characters litter the ground; the terrors and pain he animates look real. (The huge robotic mouse they build to scare off the cats onto the ship? Holy shit, I had somehow forgotten how terrifying it is.)

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Bluth’s nightmares are the stuff of genuine nightmares, honest to god hellscapes — when they literally go through actual hell in All Dogs Go to Heaven (apparently a tamer version of the original cut, if you can even imagine what it might have otherwise been; I never dared to), it will fuck a child up. The water that washes Fievel off the boat to America, that floods the old New York streets and sewers is not blue; it’s dark and dirty and appears bottomless; it really does look like something you would drown in.

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This applies to the grief in them as well: Disney films are full of missing (typically presumed dead) mothers; The Land Before Time has you witness the mother’s actual death. And all of this, within animation, is as unique as it is visionary. Bluth did many things, not all of them great, but he certainly never shied away from confronting the children in his audience with true fear, darkness, or sadness.

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“Ah, America. What a place!” Fuck me, but this line made me want to cry (and it repeats later!). The most painterly, loving frames in the entire film appear in its closing, when the camera pans slowly, reverently around the freshly built Statue of Liberty, still resplendent in all her original, pre-oxodized copper glory, shining like a true beacon in the sunrise: “Isn’t she beautiful?” She was. She still is — even as a brave black woman, an immigrant herself from the Congo, scaled her feet just a week ago, in protest of our government literally stealing children from their parents and abandoning them in cages — even as the American dream continues to rot at its very core. This film’s title is no accident; there is no story more American than that of the immigrant and the refugee.

I’m nearly 32 years old, and Don Bluth can still fuck me the hell up. LACMA is running a full series of his works all month long. I’ll watch them all, and they’re all going to fuck me up.

Reminder

Don’t forget,
There is no version of the story
You told yourself that was ever true.

Don’t turn around,
There was never anything to turn back for.
Your anger that day was real,
And had more than enough reason to be.

Remember,
Whichever version of the truth you choose:
Never good enough, never wanted, never needed, never worth the effort…
One or all were and still are true;
There’s no need to turn back to check; you know.
You already know.

Just keep walking.
You have nowhere to go, but you are coming from nowhere, too.
Glancing back over your shoulder won’t make that space any less empty, and all you threw into it any less of a waste.

No one is behind, and no one is waiting;
Alone is alone, and all you’ve ever known,
So just keep walking.
When there is no one expecting you,
After all,
There’s no need to hurry.
Don’t forget.

Equinoxes

It was the end of April, and I was blooming in the riotous peak of spring.

The curls that had framed my frazzled head from pre-puberty through my depressed and searching 20s and the very beginning of my 30s were leaving me, replaced with relaxed, natural waves — the kind I’d always dreamed of having when I was younger, but could never achieve. My skin was slowly healing, evening out in tone. My body no longer felt like such a betrayal, such an ugly stranger.

I had brought a new little familiar into my life; the first time I’d be caring for an animal entirely on my own. I was becoming more myself than I’d ever been.

I was falling in love again, not quite as much in denial about it as the one before, and while simultaneously losing that first ever love — the one who’d both helped me to grow, while also putting me through more than I knew how to take; who’d both said some of the most wonderful things I’d ever heard, and yet so many of by far the worst things — and I needed to finally be honest and open to both. The one I was falling into in its place might very well have been as hopeless as the one preceding it, but it was beyond too late to stop it; I could only accept it.

I was beginning to write my memoirs. I needed to both let go, and embrace whatever my future held. I had to let go. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I needed to create, to move on, to move forward. I needed to finally see myself.