Songs for the Struggling Artist


Give Me Your Witches, Your Ghouls, Your Severed Limbs Hanging in Trees
October 28, 2021, 11:08 pm
Filed under: art, community, Imagination, Witchery | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The cheerful scarecrow dolls and corn cob clusters don’t thrill me but I will celebrate any nod toward decoration this month. I embrace your paper pumpkin, your hay bale, your autumnal faux leaf display.

But I am delighted by your circle of witches, your zombie doll babies, your floating spectres, your plastic bag ghosts, your homemade headless magician, your skeletons engaged in activities, your dagger wielding clown child on a swing, your smoke machine, your sound effects, your back-lit and up-lit cloaked figures, your spiders, your crows, your ravens, your bats.

Having been starved of art for so long – (I have not yet been to a museum or a theatre since March 2020) – I find myself intensely grateful for the experience of discovering decorations on my neighbors’ houses and apartments. Is it art? Mostly not. But occasionally there’s something that feels like it. The house with the Dead and Breakfast sign felt like such a complete concept in its design. I can imagine the experience continuing should I walk through the gravestone yard and go up the steps, up to the figure who tells you to beware and attempts to send you away. I can then imagine trying to check in to this glorious Dead and Breakfast, where skeletons climb in at the windows.

Art or not, it feels like an exercise of our art muscles as we applaud the good ones and bemoan the missed opportunities of houses that seem built to be perfect settings for Halloween displays.  I am weirdly so intensely grateful to all the people who’ve made an effort. It seems like this is a new development, that this year is unusually rich in Halloween festiveness, but I can’t be sure. I’ve never gone hunting for Halloween houses before.

Ever since my youngest brother was killed last month, I have felt a strong need to get out of the apartment and walk. From day one, we went out walking nearly every night and over the weeks, there has been more and more to see. It feels so much better to get out and walk because we have a mission to see the best Halloween décor, for fun, than to just be out Grief Walking.

So I just wanted to say thank you to my neighbors for giving us cool things to look at. I thank you for your inflatables, your cobweb arches, your flashing eyes, your jack o lantern pile, your comedy skeletons who drink beer, read dirty joke books and fart. I thank you for your inflatable dragons that turn their heads to look at me. (Though I am not 100% sure dragons are on theme for Halloween, they are 100% on theme for me, so extra thanks!) I thank you for your vampires and your transforming portraits. I thank you for your flashing orange and purple lights. I thank you for your skull wreath. I thank you for your severed limb Halloween bush. (Like a Christmas tree but with feet and hands instead of ornaments!) I thank you for your Yoda toting T-Rex skeleton eating a hand. I thank you for your blood smeared windows. I thank you for your tiny mermaid skeletons that I feel sure you dressed yourself in tiny shiny mermaid skin tails and bikini tops. I thank you for cheering us up with darkness.

And if you live in my neighborhood (Astoria, Queens) and you know a cool Halloween House to go see, please let me know. I’m out walking, looking for them.

This house does a little Halloween all year round. Their Labor Day decorations are the only ones in the neighborhood.

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Lessons from Italian Media

Back in 1993, I got my first passport and moved to Italy for my junior year abroad. One of the things I was most excited about was getting to see the culture and art of an entirely different country. The internet was in its infancy then, so going places was really the only way to see what other nations were making. I was hungry for Italian pop, Italian TV, Italian cinema, Italian theatre, whatever I could get my eyes and ears on. I understood, too, that watching and listening to these things would help me improve my language skills. I listened to the radio but the pop music was pretty lousy. I watched TV and the shows all seemed to be tacky variety shows full of show girls. I went to Italian theatre and mostly found translations of works in English. Only the cinema managed to deliver high quality contemporary art.

Meanwhile, I was studying the old stuff, too. I learned incisione (metal engraving), solfeggio and read incredible works from Italy’s past. In 1993, the great works were the old works, the Renaissance works, the great art of the past. I don’t regret a moment of it. I’m built for the classics.

However, I was baffled by how a people who were raised at the feet of such classical greatness could be inclined to make such trashy art. I found it very confusing.

Recently, I learned a lot more about Berlusconi, who was not yet in charge of the country when I moved there, but who WAS in charge of the media. I suspect there were a lot of tits on TV because Berlusconi was a fan of tits on TV. There was a lot of trashy pop on the radio because Berlusconi was pretty trashy and he had tremendous broadcast power. I mean, imagine if Trump were in charge of every single TV station and most of the radio. Now imagine what he’d put on those stations. That’s what Italian media was like in 1993 – 1994.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been watching Italian TV shows lately and they are a world away from what I saw while I was there. They are artful. They are thoughtful and some of them feature really good Italian pop, which I’m delighted to discover has also radically improved in the last few decades.

I watched my first current Italian show by accident. Honestly, if I’d known it was Italian at the start, I’d have been a little wary. However, Netflix has worked out that I love a show about witches so it was selling me pretty hard on Luna Nera, which featured gorgeous production design in the trailer and was very thoroughly witchy. As I watched the opening scene, I realized that the sound was not matching their mouths and so I clicked around to see about turning off dubbing and – ecco – non ci credo – it’s in Italian. And it was great. It’s like a medieval Charmed with a power-hungry, witch-hunting bishop and a witch-hunting club. The design was glorious. The performances were excellent. The premise and the writing were very engaging. They left us on a cliffhanger and there is still no word on a Season 2. It may be cancelled? Or not? Anyway, I would like to see more Italian witches.

And then my friend wrote an article about another Italian show – one I’d put on my list and forgotten about – called Zero. You should, for sure, read her piece about it. It places the show in context and lays out why it’s so innovative. I’m generally a sucker for a show where someone has powers of some kind but the fact that this one is also about the real estate take-over of a poor immigrant community makes it all the more powerful. There were immigrants from Senegal living in Florence when I was there but most Italians and tourists behaved as though they weren’t there, as if they were invisible – except when it rained and you needed an umbrella, as they were often on the street selling them then. It’s telling that this show is about a young Senegalese immigrant who can turn invisible.

I feel like this show makes the best argument for why diversity in the arts matters. It’s not just that we get to see a story about a community we rarely get to hear stories about – but the immigrant influence feeds all strands of the artistic experience. The Italian music in the show seems to have an African influence and it makes for the best Italian pop I’ve ever heard. Also, it’s just really well done. Beautifully shot, engagingly written, surprising and exciting. This show, by the way, also ended in a cliffhanger and is also, as yet, not renewed.

And now that Netflix has my Italian TV number, they sold me immediately on Luna Park, which just came out. It’s a fun period drama that owes a lot to Italy’s Fellini past. I mean, you can’t watch a show about a carnival in Italy and not think of La Strada or even I Clown. I enjoyed so much of this show (aside from the contemporary music moments. Whyyyyyyyyy?!?!) and could feel my language skills seeping back into my brain as I watched my third Italian drama. And then, for the third time, the show ended on a cliffhanger, almost literally. The show only just came out, so it has not been renewed. But it’s good, you know? All three of these shows that Netflix has made happen, are good. They’re not in the least bit trashy. There were some boobs but they were in good taste, in that they weren’t on showgirls and they made sense in context.

So why am I telling you about all this Italian media? Do I just want you to watch these shows so Netflix will make more? Sure. Maybe. But really, I am not here to pat Netflix on the back. (This is definitely not the moment for that.) The cultural skill was clearly already there in the people who made these shows. Italian cinema is evidence of that. Italian artists know how to tell a story – it’s just that the media landscape was controlled by a buffoon and so they got buffoon art, for years. They needed the resources to make better art. Diversity matters, not just in the stories we tell but in the places we get to tell them. When you only have RAI 1, 2, 3 and so on and they’re all the same network, run by the same guy, it is very hard to get any interesting variety going.

I’m thrilled by the way Netflix is opening storytelling doors for Italian TV but I also worry, that as time goes by and Netflix begins to dominate the world’s watching experience, will it also lose the incredible global diversity that it’s currently tapping into? Will it become one of only a handful of places we can watch something? Will they control the narrative? Will they cancel all these shows that they left on a cliffhanger? And will they make any more or is it just these three and then they’re done investing in Italy?

Italian pop was terrible in the 90s in part because it was controlled by the same powers that controlled TV. It created a same-i-ness of sound and quality. Italians in the 90s mostly listened to pop in English. My Italian friends found my affection for Italian rapper, Jovanotti, kind of hilarious. I can still sing/rap along to large swaths of “Penso, Positivo” and “Serenata Rap.” So you know, I enjoyed some Italian pop but we couldn’t call it good, really. Now, here in the US, we have just three record companies and so much of American pop sounds the same. I fear we are headed toward an Italy in the 90s kind of world and I’m here to tell you that was not a good time for music or TV there.

But it is an exciting time for Italian TV and music now – diversity is coming in and making things cool and interesting. Though, there are way too many cliffhangers.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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More Tips on Masks from a Mask Theatre Person

Initially, I was just going to add a little note to my first Tips on Masks from a Mask Theatre Person, a little update, as it were. I thought it was going to be a sentence or two. But I got started and before I knew it, I’d written over a thousand words. So, I guess I had a few things to say on the subject, after all these months of mask wearing.

I wrote my initial Tips for Masks a few months ago when mask wearing was JUST kicking in for us in New York. According to my stats, people are still reading it and so it needs a little update. Wearing a mask every single day for six months is a very different experience than throwing one on for the first time. A lot has changed since I wrote that first post and I’ve got to make some amendments and adjustments, as well.

The first thing that is really very present, and was absolutely not when I wrote the initial piece, is the intensity of the anti-mask movement. When I wrote it, maskholes were the people taking up too much space and bumping into the rest of us. Now the real maskholes are the ones who refuse to put their masks on. I don’t have a lot to say to those folks – just, wear a mask, don’t be a maskhole.

It would seem that most people seem to be adapting pretty well to wearing these things. They don’t seem to be overly entitled and unconstrained by social bounds the way the early adopters were. I will note, though, that I notice there is still a visibility issue with masks. Depending on the mask, you might have discovered that your peripheral vision is impacted. I don’t have the science on this but I do know that we normally see our noses but are not at all conscious of them. Now you’re seeing this mask instead and it is distracting for the space-making parts of our brains. You’re more likely to bump in to stuff or just have a different sense of the space around you.

This happens in theatre mask work as well and if you can imagine it as a benefit, as we can in working in masks in the theatre, maybe it will start to feel a little less limiting.

For example, some of my favorite masks to work with are naïve masks AKA larval AKA Basal. Their eye-holes tend to be very small and the mask covers the entire face, so in order to work in it, you have to adapt to a very limited range of visibility. This, in fact, is where the comedy comes in. My mask teacher, John Wright, will usually introduce these masks by having everyone put their hands in circles over their eyes, like they’re putting on hand binoculars. (Try it! It’s fun!) Then he puts everyone in increasingly challenging situations while only being able to see through those small tunnels of their hands. Trying to get everyone into a line when no one can really see is almost always funny. Just because of the limitations, everyone begins to use more and more of the body. If you want to see down the line, you have to lean all the way out and turn, you cannot just peek out of your periphery. You have no peripheral vision. It is comedy gold.

Our pandemic masks do not make comedy gold but they do create a limitation. I’m still trying to work out the performative benefits of that limitation (aside from protecting ourselves and the people around us from droplets, of course). But I’m sure there is one. And since there are such a lot of us in these things, if we all search for it, maybe we’ll find something interesting. Perhaps we will all become highly expressive in the eyes. Maybe we will increase our acuity in sensing things with the body, rather than the peripheral vision.

But if you find yourself a little clumsier in mask maybe just recognize that that is likely a property of the mask and not that you are losing your grace.

Another thing I will note is that when I wrote that first post, it was pretty much the height of the epidemic in New York. For us, then, there was never a moment outside the apartment where it made sense to remove a mask. In less dense areas, I have discovered, there is a lot more on and off that tends to happen. You go for a walk in a small town and you can go without your mask for blocks and then need to whip it on as a pedestrian approaches. My “put your mask on and keep it on” advice is useless for you in those circumstances. So, in this on-again-off-again world, you’ll want to only touch the elastic. Take it on and off at the ears, not the front. That’s for safety and keeping your mask as free from the bad stuff as possible. But it is also true for aesthetics in mask that you don’t want to be seen touching the face of the mask.

I don’t have a solution for the fogging glasses problem, really. In the theatre, for performers, I usually encourage glasses wearers to switch to contact lens for their performances or go without. That is a lot harder in the real world where we really need to see. I can mostly only parrot what I have seen others say about the glasses problem – a lot of which seems to involve purchasing either fashion tape, bendable mask wires or defogging goop. I keep trying to just place the glasses over the mask but the glasses often slip or the mask does. The fog seems to entirely depend on the mask, the glasses and the weather. I have been experimenting, though, and I’ve discovered that if I put my front teeth over my lower lip like a cartoon rabbit and say things that begin with F, it does a pretty good job of clearing my glasses. I made up a phrase (“finicky feral finches fend for feed” ) that I found works pretty well. But somewhat more satisfying is telling corrupt and immoral politicians to go F themselves. I was originally enjoying telling Fitch FcFonnell to go F*** himself but then I realized how much more effective it was to begin with a classic, old timey Shakespeare curse of “Fie!” (The i has better glasses-clearing qualities than the u.) So while I walk down the streets watching businesses get boarded up due to the Senate’s abysmal Covid relief response, I can just curse away. “Fie, Fitch FcFonnell! Fie, Findsey Faham!” Lately, I’ve added, “Fie, Famey Foamy Ferrett!” Listen, no one needs to know what kind of witchy business you get up to behind your mask. I’ve Fubbled Fubbled Foiled and Fubbled back there quite a bit. My fillet of a fenny snake has in the fauldron foiled and faked.

Anyway, vocal exercises aside, the main tool an actor uses in mask work is actually available to anyone and that is imagination. The main skill involved in performing in mask is imagining that the mask on your face is your face. That the mouth of the mask is your mouth, that the eyes are your eyes.

One way to deal with the alienating effect of having to wear something on your face all the time is to imagine that the thing is not a foreign object – but an expressive part of your own self. You can imagine scenarios for this, if it will help. You could be an alien species with half a fabric face. You could be a warrior that has grown a protective layer of cloth to prevent you from telling secrets. You could be a cloth doll in the midst of a transformation. You can be someone new every day. I’m not going to say this won’t be challenging. It is actually a lot easier to imagine that a silly forehead with a comedy nose is your face than it is to invent a useful fiction for your new cloth mouth – but it will keep you occupied as you negotiate mask world. And it looks like we’re going to be living in mask world quite a bit longer, so, having a project that’ll last a whole year might not be a terrible idea.

I will update this post as new developments occur. I sure as hell hope we can stop wearing these things every day soon. I hate them as much as anyone. But we’ll suck it up and do it because it helps slow the virus down more than just about any other thing we can do. Wear a mask! Save a life! And imagine you’re a weird cloth monster or something.

You cannot imagine how long it took these masks to get into this line and find one another’s hands. It was very funny to watch them get here. They can barely see.
(This is from my company’s Very Serious Theatre. In the naive masks are: Julia Cavagna, Mia Hutchinson-Shaw, Brooke Turner and Ilyssa Baine)

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

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

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Charmed Again
February 21, 2020, 12:05 am
Filed under: TV, Witchery | Tags: , , , , ,

You may remember that I owe a debt of gratitude to the show Charmed. When I last wrote about it, the new Charmed, the reboot, had not yet come out. I had no idea if I would like it or hate it or if it would make me miss the old one too much.

Turns out. I love it. Is it great TV? Nope. Just like the old Charmed, there’s a soapy quality that prevents it from being really great. It’s on the CW and it feels like the network sort of automatically layers everything with a teen soap opera varnish, much like the WB tended to do back in the day. But I love it. I don’t know if I love it in spite of the varnish or because of it but I love it.

Does the show take some totally nonsensical turns between and during the seasons? Yep. (Why do they suddenly live in Seattle instead of the mythical college town they were in? Why did they lose all their powers that they just got only to get new ones? New location? New powers?) I don’t care, though. I really don’t. I find the show incredibly comforting, even as the Charmed Ones face apocalyptic circumstances every week. There’s something about watching those three young women defeat evil over and over again that makes me feel less hopeless about the state of the world. If Macy, Mel and Maggie defeat an evil demon cult, then maybe we can defeat the forces of darkness out here.

Contrast that to my absolute anxiety while watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel where there has been nary an evil demon cult, not even once. The problems that Mrs. Maisel faces are real life ones, the cheery optimist getting a comeuppance type ones, and having had a few of those myself, it does not make me feel comforted to watch Midge get her metaphorical ass beat at a theatre. But the Charmed Ones kicking high stakes demon ass is very relaxing. There are a few jump scares every now and then but I can easily recover and rest easy at night knowing the only real drama in The Charmed Ones’ lives is their relationships and I have very little invested in whether Maggie gets back together with Parker or not. I’m pretty sure I felt similarly about the Leo/Piper relationship on the original Charmed (though I may have had some feelings about the Phoebe/Cole storyline). I care about the demon fighting mostly.

Sidebar – the first season was rather delightfully woke. An MRA guy got punched in the face in the first episode and I was HERE for that. They’ve stepped away from the overt feminism this season (is it because they’re in Seattle now?) and I miss it – but they’re still kicking ass, so, fine. The show is definitely not made for me. I’m the age of the guy who played the father on the show and stories about frat parties and such are of zero interest to me, nor were they of interest when I was their age, frankly.

In my search to figure out what happened between Seasons 1 and 2 that made them seem so different (answer: new showrunners) I discovered that there had been some controversy at the beginning among some of the original Charmed Ones actors. A couple of them were upset about the reboot and fans got a #StopCharmedReboot hashtag going – which could be a little bit racist, given that the new Charmed Ones are Latinx so #Yikes. But I suppose I understand why some of the original Charmed Ones might feel insulted and put out to pasture. Why can’t we have middle aged witches? I mean, seriously, why can’t we? I think they felt as though they were being replaced. But honestly – given that the different versions of Charmed don’t seem to operate in the same universe – they could easily co-exist and heck, I don’t see why we couldn’t have them both.

We can have the middle aged witches, who don’t spend nearly as much time at the P3 club as they used to and whose romantic drama just isn’t that dramatic anymore, and these new young witches as well.

Then maybe one day we could have a little crossover and instead of the witches getting their advice and support from a male authority whitelighter, they could consult with each other.

Or maybe we could have baby Charmed where really young witches are taught by the previous two generations of Charmed Ones. We’ll call it Charmed School. Did I just pitch a show? Checks payable to me, please. It’ll be so relaxing to watch when those child Charmed ones start kicking child demon asses.

Photo of the Charmed Ones by ColliderVideo – ‘Charmed’: Melonie Diaz, Sarah Jeffery and Madeleine Mantock on The CW Reboot via WikiCommons

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What to Do When Weinstein Shows Up at the Bar

When I read about the three people who challenged Harvey Weinstein at a show for young artists, I tried to imagine what I would have done if I’d walked in to an event and found him there. I hope I’d have been as brave as Kelly Bachman, Zoe Stuckless and Amber Rollo but I don’t know.

Would I be the first person to say something to him? Probably not. I’m not particularly confrontational. But I would have, I’m fairly certain, created a hex on the spot and I would have quietly but forcefully cast some kind of spell. I’m not a witch – but I think I’d just become one if I were put in a room with a monster.

What I do know I would have done if I were in the room with the repugnant Weinstein and the heroic three, what I do know is, that I’d have backed them the fuck up. I hope I would have been a first follower – as Derek Sivers put it in his video. Watch it. It’s great. It’s all about how the first person to exhibit anomalous behavior can be seen as a weirdo or pariah when they break the norms. When the first guy starts dancing, it’s weird. It could go nowhere. It probably will. But then someone comes and joins him and that someone basically starts the movement. That first follower teaches others how to follow and invites them in. Before long everyone is dancing.

In order to change rape culture, we don’t all have to be as brave as Bachman, Stuckless and Rollo (though lord knows I wish we could be) but we do all have to get better at backing brave people up. We need to be first followers.

That story would have gone a lot differently if the room had supported those women. If Kelly Bachman, the comedian, had been cheered more robustly instead of booed (she was cheered but only after having been booed!) or if the others came to stand behind and beside those who confronted Weinstein instead of trying to pull them out of the room, we could have had a story about how the people of New York just won’t stand for predators instead of a story about just three brave humans.

It’s clear that, fundamentally, not much has changed in the culture if women challenging a known rapist, harasser and predator are booed and kicked out of a club for doing so. They should have been supported. The room should have rioted as soon as Weinstein walked in. But it didn’t. Social norms took over and (almost) everyone decided that politeness was more important than anything else.

The people who confronted him broke the social norm of politeness and since there was no first follower, the room expressed its disapproval and spit them out.

What was needed in that room (besides Weinstein just simply not being there) was a First Follower. Someone to bring the room along, to maybe get a chant going after Bachman’s set.

Maybe a “Remove the Elephant from the Room” or “Rape whistle! Rape Whistle! Toot toot toot!” And just scream it until Weinstein gets his predatory ass up out of that cushy booth and hightails it out of there.

It’s not a surprise that this particular room was the way it was. In other places, Weinstein might have been booed the minute he walked in the door (as he should be) but there is not a more malleable sycophantic population than a bunch of show people trying to make it in The Business. In this particular room, everyone but the three women decided that they’d rather have Weinstein see their work, maybe even give them a gig, than deal with his problematic presence. I know that many people sitting there were thinking, “Sure, he’s a horrifying monster but maybe he can put me in a movie!” That’s how he was able to get away with so much for so long in the first place.

But some things are most important than politeness and the people who challenged him knew it. Unfortunately, the rest of the room did not and they will probably live with the shame of that for some time. They’re going to wish they’d stood up and joined in. They’re going to wish they’d been a First Follower, rather than part of that shameful crowd.

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

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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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Excuse me, Ma’am

The man in an oxford shirt came up behind me at the narrow passage of the café and did not stop moving as he said, “Excuse me, ma’am” and walked on, scrolling through his phone.

I muttered, “Don’t you ma’am me,” after he passed but what I really wanted to do was set him on fire with my magical fire-shooting ability.

I know the offense was minor and he probably only called me ma’am because there’s no feminine equivalent to sir and even though it sounds like “Outta my way, old lady” to me, he thinks he’s being respectful and at least he didn’t say, “Move, bitch,” and I should be grateful for even an attempt at politeness. But maybe if I combusted enough people for calling me ma’am, we could finally find a respectful word for women instead of limping by with miss and ma’am and madam since forever. Sometimes it takes a little fire.

I want a fire shooting power or a spontaneous combustion ability or to just truly access my dragon self and be able to gobble up those that displease me. I am so weary of conceding and getting out of the way and I don’t want to make a mess but I do want to obliterate my enemies.

The thing is, though, even if I woke up with such a superpower tomorrow, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t use it. If I got a skein, like the women in Naomi Alderman’s extraordinary book, The Power, I don’t think I’d go on a mad electrocuting spree. I think I would probably keep it to myself – but I sure would feel a lot better knowing I could do it.

If I had, in my back pocket, the power to vanquish a world of enemies, I might be a little more apt to speak my mind at a meeting or on the street or in the passageways of small cafes where boys feel they own the throughways. I might not mutter, “Don’t you ma’am me.” I might say it loud. I might let it resonate and hang dangerously over the air, as the power danced around my fingertips. And we could all feel the electricity I was keeping in store, what energy I was using to NOT combust someone.

My anger had abated somewhat after the fetid air of the Kavanaugh hearings cleared a little – or maybe my anger just went underground these last few months. Eventually, it seemed, I did not long to combust every man I saw. But the recent spate of attacks on reproductive justice have begun to once again stir the dragon I have within and I am longing to actually be as dangerous as I feel. Don’t ma’am me. You might not mean anything by it. But I’m not sure what I’ll do. You just better hope my magic hasn’t grown in yet.

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