Songs for the Struggling Artist


I’ve Got My Plans for July 4th Next Year Already

What with the kids in cages, gerrymandering given a pass by the Supreme Court and civil liberties under constant attack, I found it a little difficult to work up any enthusiasm for the Fourth of July. I would have been fine to grab a pizza and watch TV, maybe try and squeeze in a little activism – but, sort of by chance, we ended up at Gantry Park in Long Island City, Queens, which is not far from where I live. It’s a waterfront park developed in the last few years and so a lot of people had gathered there to see the fireworks. We walked past people from all over the world. We saw families of a multitude of religions and races. People streamed into the park and while I don’t love crowds, I was actually grateful to be among so many people of so many varieties on a day like the Fourth.

I’ve never been a big fan of the Fourth of July. It’s loud and crowded and tends to feature a lot more naked nationalism than I tend to have the stomach for. The preponderance of American flags makes me nervous. I often think of a story a Muslim friend told about her father going right out to put up American flags in front of their house after 9-11. He knew their family would be a target and hoped that expressing a kind of symbolic patriotism might protect them from hate crimes. I have often thought of American flags and red, white and blue décor as either an expression of nationalism or a defense against nationalism.

But in walking through the park, I saw people from everywhere dressed in flag fashion. A boy with an American flag t-shirt was shepherded by his mother in a hijab. A little girl in a red, white and blue dress chanted her readiness for the fireworks to begin – while many children who look like her are locked up at the border. Six women in black summer burkas stood on the sidewalk with a baby in the stroller. The baby’s stroller was decorated with red, white and blue. (I was so delighted to see them that I did not even mind that they were taking up the whole sidewalk – which for us New Yorkers is a rare feeling.) There were surely many recent immigrants in the crowd, perhaps celebrating their first American Independence Day. The patriotism in the air was palpable and in a completely different way than I normally think of patriotism. I suddenly felt I could learn to be a patriot from the newest arrivals to our shores – our borders.

At one of the fancy restaurants near the water, a group of white men were singing, loudly and in the courtyard. They sang “God Bless the USA” in a way that did not make me feel as though they were expressing pride so much as they were projecting aggression. There was something about these men in their privileged private restaurant fenced off from the rest of the humanity in the park that expressed exactly the kind of patriotism that has historically put me off patriotism.

But outnumbering them by the thousands were families who hopefully dressed their children in red, white and blue. They gathered by the water in a mélange of music and languages to see some fireworks on America’s birthday.

In the end, the fireworks were only in Brooklyn this year, much to everyone’s surprise, so we sort of saw them off in the distance behind the power plant. But even without the fireworks, it was kind of the best Fourth of July ever and I might just have to make it a tradition.

I want you to know that on Pixabay, where i get my images, all the pictures of people with American flags were either little blonde children or blonde young women. There was one old white man in an American flag hat. There were no people of color with the flag. I think this is a problem. Anyway, the photographer of this photo sounds like they might not be a white guy, so I’m trying to boost them instead.

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I’m Not Busy

“I know you’re busy,” someone will say as we look at our calendars to pick a time to meet. Sometimes I just nod, and sometimes, I say, “I’m actually not.”

Most people are a little baffled by this response. How could I not be busy? And how could I confess it? There are a lot of reasons for my retreat from busy-ness but confessing it feels more and more radical and more important all the time.

Listening to Daniel Markovitz’s lecture on The Meritocracy moved me from what I thought was a private rebellion to thinking of it as a public act of resistance. In the lecture, he discusses the transfer of wealth and power from the aristocracy to the meritocracy wherein those good things are distributed to those who work hard for them. He points out that the elite have been working increasingly mad hours and place inherent value in being busy. The answer we’re all meant to give when someone asks us how we are is “busy.”

The theory is that the growing gap between the wealthiest and the rest of us finds justification in the hour of labor a, say, hedge fund manager, puts in. He deserves his private plane because he works so many hours.

Fetishizing busy-ness like this means equating our value with how much STUFF we do. Our virtue is in how much we run around or how many hours we put in at the office. When someone asks us how we are and we say “busy” – we are declaring our virtue (and probably also our exhaustion.) It does not matter what we are busy with. We could be busy taking health care from children and we’re still seen as virtuous for keeping busy.

So. I’m opting out. I have already declared myself a non-productive member of society, it is not such a large step to cease to be busy. Idleness is, in fact, fantastic for art making. A quiet mind has space to invent. That is what I’m here for – so making space for a non-busy life feels imperative for my purposes.

Markovitz also talks about how the gutting of a lot of industries has led to a kind of enforced idleness for the working and middle classes that serves to strip them of their virtue. If to be busy is to be good – then to be unemployed is the worst. This creates a circle of screwed up justification. The working class isn’t able to work (because of systemic changes, usually caused by those at the top) so they’re not virtuous which means their suffering is fine because they’re not busy, you see?

I just finished reading Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All and it makes the case that a lot of the difficulties we’re in culturally, economically, politically – are related to the justification mechanisms of those at the top. For example, a CEO of an oil company feels just fine about his company’s destruction of the environment because he donates to public parks. As he’s blocking the development of sustainable energies so he’ll make more money, he’s sitting, with a great deal of self-satisfaction, on the board to plant flowers in public spaces. He’s busy, you see? He’s not just making money. He’s busy! He’s a good person!

At the moment, I am, in fact, not busy – but I may continue to lean into it when I am busy again. It’s a terrible game and I will not play.

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Posse. Team. Community.

Here’s what I’m looking for: A Squad. A Posse. A Team. Specifically: a squad, posse or team that is ready to mobilize for protests and marches and events.

Here’s why: I do not enjoy protests and marches. I’m a highly sensitive introvert with an aversion to crowds and shouting. But I know they make a difference and I often feel as though I OUGHT to go. Unfortunately, sometimes I just can’t muster the will. The main obstacle is that while there are many many things I am very happy to do by myself – protesting is not one of them.

So going to a protest often becomes the act of trying to find a date for something I don’t even really want to do myself. (“Hey friend – you feel like going to go do something I am definitely not going to enjoy but feel like I should go to and which I’m hoping you’ll say no to so I have a good excuse not to go?”) There are just too many opportunities to forget the whole thing altogether. It’s too easy to NOT go.

What this brings to the forefront for me is how little community I have in my life. I have a lot of wonderful individual friends – but I don’t have a community anymore and it’s become clear that I need one. Or several. Because here’s the thing – if I had, say, a What’s App group of protest buddies, I could just find out where they were meeting at the reproductive rights rally on Tuesday and turn up. Maybe go get a drink after, even.

If I had a squad, I could start the conversation or just show up. Sometimes the community would call me to action and sometime I could call the community to action. I now really understand why so much of the civil rights movement began in churches – because that is a ready made community. You can speak to a room full of people all at once that way. You don’t have to call up each individual church member and ask them to come to the march. You just ask them all at once. And then those people can car pool to the event and the next and the next and if a strike gets called, everyone’s ready to walk. It is very handy for organizing people.

So where’s an irreligious person to go to try and get some community going? Where do I go to find a squad? I tried the feminist book club in my neighborhood but when I mentioned I was looking for protest buddies, I got a lot of blank stares and one person said, “I have to work.” Uh, the protest I was talking about was five days ago. You’re already off the hook.

The thing is – I know I am not the only one who is reticent to go to a protest on my own but who would be easy to include with a suggestion from a community. Humans are social animals – even the most introverted among us still can be brought into a circle by the desire of the group. I need a group to want me to show up – because it is just too easy not to.

I mean – “I have to work.” You know?

What time do I have to work? Oh, you know – um, when’s the protest? Oh. Yeah. Then. Then’s when I have to work.

The times are such that we are likely to need to hit the streets more than ever. Reproductive rights are under fire like never before and we have to get out there to save women’s lives. We all need squads. Maybe you don’t need a squad right this second. Maybe you, like me, live in a state that’s not in too much immediate danger of attacking women’s personhood but I think we have to start building our squads now so we can hit the streets at the drop of a text. Not because they’re coming for us right now but because they’re coming for everyone. We all need a protest posse, I think, even if we don’t think we’re going to go.

And since my feminist book club was a bust, I figure I’m just going to have to start my own squad. So if you’re in NYC and you want to be in my squad, let me know. I’ll drop you a text.  We’ll all hit the protest, maybe get a drink after and call it community.

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You can find the podcast version of this post on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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These Ads Aren’t Helping

The first one I saw just made me roll my eyes and say, “Of course,” in classic Gen X style. The ad features an illustration of a white haired woman with a bag of Whole Foods-like groceries next to a red haired woman carrying a plant with a small figure between them. I thought it was a baby the first time I saw the ad but it turns out it’s a little dog. (In a spacesuit?)

The tagline is “Whether you’re a boomer or a millennial, we’ve got a seat for you.”

Implied tagline?

And Gen X – You Can Go Fuck Yourself.

I mean. Classic Gen X erasure. I was going to Tweet it but someone already beat me to it. This is the most dominant Gen X media experience now – just noting when we get left out. It seems to have become our primary pop culture meme. Anyway – all I know about the company that made this ad is that they have no Gen Xers on staff.

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Then I noticed their OTHER ad on the subway. It features two white men in suits – one with a blue tie and one with a red. They are cheersing one another with coffee and the tagline reads: Whatever your politics, we’ve got a seat for you.

I’ll give you a second to think about this ad and to guess why it made me angrier than the Gen X erasure of the first one. Just take a second. It took me a second to really take it in.

I’ll give you a hint. It is ALSO about who is missing. I mean – look – I know that when I say “politician” you probably picture a white man in a suit. These two douchebags in the back of their Via car cheersing their coffees are exactly who most people picture – consciously or unconsciously when they picture the political landscape. To some people (including the people who made this ad) the whole political situation is just a jovial game – a friendly competition between white men who wear different color ties. Meanwhile, the rest of us are fighting for our lives and the lives of those more vulnerable than ourselves. And the absolute fiercest fighters right now are women.

The press fawns over the men in their ties while the women, laying out substantive policies and ideas are given significantly less coverage.

So these two illustrated douchebags who can agree on one thing – coffee and ride sharing – are not cute. They’re re-enforcing again – as has it been for so long – that politics is for the boys. And white boys specifically. And you know, right now is a really terrible moment to do that. It’s not great at any time but right now, Via? While we watch the white men in ties take the lead in polls over all the qualified, interesting, exciting women candidates? You wanna show me how it’s possible for two privileged white men to get chummy in your car service? Just – you know – why don’t you take the implied message you sent to Gen X in your other ad and go fuck yourself.

This company, by choosing to reinforce the historical, patriarchal norm, while they are claiming to be for everyone, is making the most conservative backwards choice they could make and also reveals that, in addition to not having any Gen Xers on staff, they probably don’t have any people of color or women in decision making positions either.

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This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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The Default Character and Why Elizabeth Acevedo Made Me Cry

Elizabeth Acevedo’s presentation at the Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators made tears fall down my face in a way that I usually try to avoid in public. Acevedo is an extraordinary performer, writer, speaker and it’s no surprise that she took hold of the room full of writers and illustrators and moved us. But why was I crying?

At first, I thought, “Well, I’m old enough and she’s young enough that she could have been one of my students when I was doing workshops and residencies all over New York.” And while I probably didn’t teach her specifically, I certainly taught a lot of kids who could have grown up to be poets or performers. I thought maybe I was having a teacher’s kvell moment, feeling proud of my former students by watching her work. But I think it was something more.

One of the stories she shared was about her graduate training in poetry that led to her writing an ode to rats. (I’d tell you the story in more detail but SCBWI’s blogging policy forbids me from disclosing the contents of a presentation. Though if you watched the beginning of this video, which is freely available on the internet, you’d be pretty much up to speed.) At the heart of the story is a kind of mental gentrification of an artist in the midst of learning a craft. It’s a story about the way that a person in power, coddled in privilege (white, male, economically secure, always part of the dominant paradigm) can thoughtlessly dismiss a culture, a humanity, can fail to see what treasures are right in front of them.

I thought, perhaps, after hearing this story, particularly the part where all of Acevedo’s Spanish words are circled in red, that I was crying for the loss of all the books I haven’t read, all the stories I haven’t heard from the people whose art was cut off at the knees by this kind of colonialist mind set, the kind that can’t look up words he doesn’t know, the kind that can’t see an experience outside of his own. There are so many books we won’t get to read, so many poems we won’t hear, so many films and plays we missed. I mean, I’m crying for that loss again right now as I write this. It is our culture’s great loss. There is no question.

But this felt more personal. It felt like she was talking to me – like it was my story she was telling in addition to her own. I’m not Dominican. Not Latina. Not a woman of color. I cannot claim to have had my work edited to fit a whiter paradigm. My work is probably right in the white zone, probably with its own unconscious colonialist impulses. I have seen the cultural knee-capping happen to students in my orbit but that particular injustice has not been one I’ve had to face. So what is it? Why does this feel so personal? I’d love to believe I was just moved by a cultural loss but I don’t think my tears are that selfless.

I suspect the feeling is familiar even if the facts are different. I suspect I felt all the ways I have been dismissed, edited or questioned for being too feminine, too disorderly or too much trouble. I suddenly found myself looking for a word that expressed a kind of colonization of gender. I want to be able to note the action while it’s happening. I want to be able to say to someone something like “Stop patriarching me!” (but better) or to find the equivalent of calling someone a colonizer. It’s not the same, I know. I know it’s not the same. But there are many ways that women’s bodies have been claimed by others instead of the people to whom they belong.

Of course we have words for the many ways that that claiming happens – many of which have only recently become common parlance. We can acknowledge that someone has committed domestic abuse or sexual assault or sexual harassment or reproductive tyranny or gaslighting or rape or objectification, etc, etc – even something as tiny as mansplaining – but so many of these things stem from a basic entitlement to women’s bodies and space. I need a word for the whole basket. I need a word bigger than sexism. I need a word for when someone is editing the femininity (or feminism) out of my work. I want to be able to shout something better than “You’re being sexist!” That phrase is too passive. It’s something the person is being, not doing. I want something like, “You’re doing sexism!” – both so I can identify it myself and to make it clear to other people. I need a word that can help highlight the subtle ways this happens. Sexism, like colonization, is ACTIVE. It’s not just in the water. It’s something people do to each other all day long and repeat and repeat, generation after generation. Colonizers try to make people assimilate to the dominant culture. Sexism-ers (sorry, still need a word and until I find one, I’m going to keep making them up) make people assimilate into the biased binary.

I have no idea what I would have been able to create if I hadn’t already spent a lifetime in the Patriarching Machine. I hope I’ve been able to resist most of the assimilation to the sexist structures – but I know there is a colonizer and patriarchist in my own mind, who does at least as much damage to me as any sexist colonizer outside me. I’d like to believe that if someone told me my idea wasn’t good enough that I would have gone ahead and written it anyway, the way Acevedo did, but I don’t know if I would have. Or did.

At this same conference, I learned about the Default Character – this is the “Neutral” character, the one that you don’t need to specify anything about. Unless we’re told otherwise, we assume the character is male, white, upper middle class, able bodied and Christian. Any character outside this norm, tends to need to be specified.

In order to be welcomed into the mainstream, we try to make ourselves closer to the default, to the neutral. We might edit out our femaleness and/or our cultural identity. (When Boots Riley won a Spirit Award for my favorite 2018 film, he pointed out how class struggle has been pretty much invisible in film due – in part – to self-editing.)

It’s a gentrification of the mind, of art. Where has my own artistic sensibility been edited and proclaimed not noble enough for the taste-makers, educators and gatekeepers? What poems haven’t I written because I was told my experiences were not sufficient? What plays or books or songs did I set aside because they weren’t nice enough for a “nice” girl like me? Acevedo heard criticism of her rat idea and she did not fold, she did not nod and say, “Oh, okay, how about an antelope?”

She went ahead and wrote that ode to rats. And she performs it on stages and in videos and there are likely people who have heard her rat ode that have heard no other odes in their lives and so she sets a new standard, a new possibility. We can praise what had once been held in contempt. We can change the definition of nobility. We can all be noble humans and there will be no more default characters.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of March, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here: ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

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The Cafe Wall of Fame

On the wall at Café La Habana in Mexico City is a plaque that proclaims the previous presence of Octavio Paz, Ché Guevara, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and more. The rumor is that the Cuban Revolution was planned there. It is an inspiring place. The conversations of these public intellectuals soaked into the very walls.

Also, not a single woman is listed in its storied history.

It was founded in 1952. That means Frida Kahlo could have gone there in the last two years of her life. Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington could have gone there. I know they didn’t live nearby but still, they could have. Laura Esquivel was two years old when the place was founded but I imagine she’s been there at some point in her life.

I mean – did no women come and plan there? Or they just haven’t done it yet? What if we planned the feminist revolution there? The Cuban one worked out reasonably well for the guys who started it.

I have a lot of questions about this particular place because it feels like a kind of magic to write in so potent a place. But I wonder if that magic has only ever applied to men. Did women not go there? Were they somehow unwelcome to the public intellectual’s realm? Or was it unsafe for women? Or were they there and then forgotten about? Or did they just have their coffee, conversations and revolutions at home?

As a woman who has spent time in coffee shops in many countries, I can confirm that public spaces like cafes are more male space than female. In some places I’ve been, I’ve been the only woman. On holidays I am almost always the only woman in the last open café.

It does feel as though despite our many advancements, public space like coffee shops still belongs to men. Soraya Chemaly gave one of my favorite TED talks on the subject of public spaces. The gist of it is, almost all public space is male space, in that it was designed by and for men. I can’t stop thinking about this. I’m fascinated by the architectural projects that are JUST beginning to address it. There is a movement coming, I think. But without the history, it’s very difficult. Show me the café that brags of all the women who frequented the place. (Seriously please show me – I’ll go there.) Show me the city that was planned with women in mind. (Vienna comes closest in that they made adjustments based on a survey of women’s needs back in the 90s.) All space is men’s space that others find our way through. All cafes are for men, for men’s ideas, men’s revolutions. The women’s revolution is in the house, I guess? Which maybe explains why we haven’t really had a revolution.

If women have no public space in which to gather, if we aren’t seen in public together (except for once a year at our march) then we have no public power. We try and claim space when we march. We chant. Whose streets? Our streets.
Now maybe it’s time for:
Whose café? Our café.

I’m not here to call out Café La Habana. Honestly, I can’t think of a single café in the USA that honors literary greats or revolutionaries of any gender on its walls. Café la Habana is way ahead of us in honoring writers, artists and intellectuals and I respect and admire them for it. I’m a fan.

One day in the future, I hope to make it back to that cafe, where I’ll drink another delicious lechera and on their updated plaque I hope to see many women’s names. Or maybe one of you will start a café with women in mind and we’ll all turn up to hang out and plan our revolution and someone will hang a plaque up decades later. I’d like to be on that wall with the rest of you.

Photo by Donna Shaunesey

 

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of February for the second album, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here: ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

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We Might Be Okay

I’ve been feeling pretty apocalyptically doomed to a terrible dystopian future. But I recently got some doses of hope in some very funny places and I thought it might give you a bit of hope, too.

Ever since my imaginative journey into dragons and witches, I have been looking for a way I can inspire fear in real life. I have been looking for ways to make men back off and/or stay away from me. I thought I should learn to growl. I have been experimenting, trying different techniques, sounds and means of production. Finally, I googled. And the videos that came up for how to growl are almost all made by preteen girls. Tween girls are teaching us how to growl. They have all the hallmarks of usual preteen behavior but they also know how to growl and they are willing to teach us.

If this generation of girls grows up growling, I am actually pretty psyched about the future. Now – there are no guarantees that they will use these skills to fight the patriarchy but their enthusiasm and willingness to share something that is so primal, so far away from the mandate to be demure or sexy, is a challenge to the patriarchy just in and of itself.

I am hopeful for a future of fierce girls who know how to growl and so grateful that they are willing to teach the rest of us.

So girls growling gives me hope. The other bit of hope involved a flight across the country.

The plane was pretty Trumpy, I have to say. It was headed to a Trumpy state and a lot of the people on board seemed to be Trumpy people. At the front of the plane, in first class or business class or whatever the heck they call it at this airline, were some very Trumpy white people. I mean, it was exclusively white people up there – but some of them were obviously Trumpy. A guy with a fancy watch and a suntan that he probably paid a lot for was reading a hardback copy of Tucker Carlson’s book. He appeared to be reading it un-ironically, next to his wife – whose suntan he probably also paid for.

At the back of the plane, in Basic Economy, were most the people of color on the plane. Surrounding me were a Chinese family and an Indian family. This particular airline charges a fee to let you pick your own seat and those who don’t pay are seated toward the back. I know this because I was one of those who didn’t pay the extra fee. Because of economics and the economics of white supremacy it is no surprise that this economic situation led to an old school segregated transportation experience that led to white people in the front and people of color in the back.

That’s not the thing that gives me hope. Obviously. That’s just a horrifying sidebar. What gave me hope was that, on this very Trumpy plane, they brought down little screens and played a movie and the movie that they played was a sweet father daughter story. There was one movie for everyone on the plane. And in that film, there were several scenes in which the young woman kisses her girlfriend. Two young women of color are kissing each other an every screen on this Trumpy plane and no one shouted, no one threw anything at the screen. The movie played and then it was over and it was no big deal. On this very Trumpy plane, no one was the least bit concerned about the lesbians on screen. The retrograde fascists in our government may be bending over backwards to take away the rights of LGBTQ folks and I’m doing what I can to make sure they do not succeed – but even if they do – the cultural battle for the minds of Americans on this front has already been won.

A major airline played this movie without the slightest concern about the letters they might receive. If you’d told me twenty years ago that I’d be able to watch this movie on a plane, I’d have never believed it. Twenty years ago, the only place I could have such a story would have been in the arthouse movie theatre. And now it’s on a plane. So progress has been made. American hearts and minds have been opened sufficiently to enjoy a charming love story between two young women of color.

And then there was the actual love story of a queer couple of color I know. On the day I took this Trumpy plane, I learned that my friend had died – cancer claimed her body  – but not the couple’s love story. All around the country, through the wonders of social media, tributes rained down – not just to my dear lost friend – but to this extraordinary pair of people. Even death could not part them and from around the world, witnesses paid tribute. And that outpouring of spirit, as well as the years of their relationship, (I mean, #RelationshipGoals) give me hope for where we’re going – even as bad news pours in.

There are beautiful partnerships of people of all genders forming and getting stronger every day. We are (hopefully) making space for everyone to be included in love stories and coming of age stories and tragedies and comedies. And if, in some ways, we are going backward, as in this airline’s economic policy that reinforces structural racism, there are young women who can teach us to growl like wolves. We can learn to fight such things with the power and the strength of wolves, taught to us by girls.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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