Friday, June 14, 2019

Interview with author Andrea Cladis, about her recent memoir Tatsimou, Hold On!





What makes this story unique is how you weave in family history and show how the past still affects the present. What are some of the main takeaways you want to convey through your story?

I did my best to weave in family history and heritage as a fulcrum of this story. Some of the main takeaways I want the reader to leave with include the following: resilience in faith, grit, grace upon yourself and others, healing, family ties, renewal, respect, honor, and gratitude. I would emphasize the faith aspect and personal belief in self. So often we can be our own worst enemies in hardship, but we don’t have to be.

Your ability to bring the past alive with graphic detail, kept me turning the pages. Would you please share with us your research process and how you were able to recall those details so vividly?

According to The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a writer must include the carnal details of the experience to draw the reader in and make them feel close to the experience. In order to be an authentic storyteller, you have to be genuine and unafraid to tell the raw truth. The first time I drafted components of this memoir, I did not include any carnal details. I avoided the parts that I felt would be hard to read or see or digest for the reader. In a sense, there was a story without the body of feeling that it needed. In order to elevate the story as a whole I took Karr’s advice and tried to get closer to my own story. In order to do this I read through all of my diaries and notes taken during that period of my life, I physically went back to the places that I talked about in the story and that held significance so I could pick up on details of setting that I had forgotten, I conducted interviews with therapists who knew me, and I also forced myself to pour through photos from that period of my life. My memory of that time is also rather vivid as the mental state I was in gave me a keen sense of awareness regarding the world around me. Also, when illness strikes and we struggle, it is rather difficult to ever numb ourselves from that pain completely. Experiencing pain is what makes us human; we are not invincible to it. Sharing our stories is what bonds us together; through survival there is hope and renewal.

As with any memoir, there are sensitivities related to family issues. How were you able to reconcile these issues and forge ahead with your story?

I recognized that no matter what, my family played a huge role in my story and in my recovery. They were not a factor I could leave out as they were an instrumental piece of the dialogue, action, and my resentment. I do not necessarily know if all of the issues I had with them were reconciled, but we all share a strong relationship now so I would say that healing for everyone did occur – hence my mention of the strength and resilience that family bonds can have in our lives.

How has your family reacted to the publication of your memoir?

My family has always been supportive of my writing, but they were hesitant to support the publication of my memoir as they knew they were all central characters in my work. They were thankful for my healing and my ability to speak openly about it. None of my family members have read my book other than maybe a few chapters here and there. I was nervous about writing about my family and what I was going to expose, but the advice I was given with memoir writing was “write it first, worry about them later.” It sounded harsh at the time, but I did my best to humanize my family members so that even though I had my feelings and opinions about them during my experiences and health challenges, readers would sympathize with them and their lens of the story.

At what point did you decide to compile your stories into a memoir?

During my time in graduate school working towards an MFA, I spent a lot of time writing poetry, short stories and nonfiction prose. I had one story that I started writing in college called “Mirror Wars.” That was actually the original title of Tatsimou, Hold On! I think I wanted to write the full story, but did not have the impetus to do it on my own prior to grad school. One of my professors noticed that a lot of my poetry was also trying to tell a story he felt like I had yet to tell. There was also similar imagery and themes prevalent in my work that indicated a deeper story was present. One of my professors recommended that I try to compile my stories into a fictional recounting of events. The original idea was to make this story of personal struggle and family dysfunction into a comedy. I agreed thinking that creating a fictionalized depiction of my high school years would be comedic. It was, but it suited a play better than a novel. Yet, the more I wrote and the more drafts I shared with peers and professors, the common consensus that soon evolved was that I had more to say and the true story that kept rising to the surface needed to be told. And with that, I dove studying how to write a nonfiction memoir and I started writing different sections of my memoir and drafting ideas and scenes that I could eventually weave together to recreate the whole tapestry of my personal story. In so doing, my other writing was finally liberated and its breadth and diversity of style and topic choice grew immensely. It was perhaps one of the best decisions I could have made for my growth and development as a writer. We all have a story we NEED to tell! Don’t shy away from it.

What is your writing process like?

Overall? It is messy. And that is coming from an OCD person. All creative processes are somewhat messy and you have to let them be because the organic part of creation is what makes room for the good stuff to come out! I generally start with a list of questions I want to answer through my writing. I then fill a page with words, phrases, and ideas that come to mind when I think about the topic or story I want to write about. After that, I pick a few that I think are most significant and I write separately about each.
After that, I dive into characters. Who are they? What is their internal and external motivation? What is that they want most? What flaws and quirks do they have? What conflicts do they face? Who do they have relationships with, etc. Next – setting. Where and when is this happening? Is the setting just a background or does it play a driving role in the story? What is the problem and is there a solution? What obstacles will the characters face along the way? Generally I create a big poster with lots of these ideas on them or I sketch things out before I even start writing. The last thing I do is make an outline to work from. I usually don’t really use it, but it gives me the structure I need to at least get started.
Lastly, I develop an inciting incident to start the story. In the case of my memoir, I dove right into a scene near the rock bottom time of my depression and anorexia. That scene served as a Launchpad for future scenes and also a way in to start telling the backstory. Throwing a reader right into the action is the best way to catch attention and keep them there. Think about dramatic movies?! They use a similar tactic by employing an effective inciting incident. The murder almost always happens at the beginning.
Past that, it is all a matter of making time to write and dedicate time and space to churning out scenes and pages. Writing is a slow process that requires attention, commitment, and a willingness for endless revision!!

You have an impressive list of publishing credits. When did you first know that writing was your passion? And how did you break in?

Thank you! I have been working at that for a while and hope it continues to grow! Writing has been my passion since second grade. I had an influential teacher who allowed us to write poetry and create books during second grade and I immediately fell in love. Ever since that time I wanted to pursue writing both personally and professionally. In regard to breaking in, it took a lot of patience, rejection and the acceptance that rejection is a huge part of this industry. I also kept writing and revising. The more practice, the better. The more submissions, the better. Being part of a writing group or writing community is also helpful. Getting feedback and critique enables you to question your own work and look at it more critically. I have also tried to be fearless in pursuit of this dream of mine. Every rejection is an opportunity to look ahead, try again, create something new, and of course, re-submit.

I’m also curious about the role any of your other creative activities played in writing your memoir?

I first wrote about anorexia through my poetry. It was the first outlet I used to expose the dark truths that rested within me. I found my way into this entire memoir through a poem with the refrain “wishful whispers.” Poetry can be an excellent gateway to prose work as it allows one to condense ideas and experiences, while critically analyzing the imagery and emotions of a given moment or event.

Do you have any favorite memoir writing tips you could share?

Be patient. Telling a personal story can be difficult to do tastefully. So I think taking your time with the telling is a good idea. You can’t rush through a memory or you will miss important pieces. You also have to assess how far away your lens is and decide what perspective you want to write your memoir through. I wrote as though I was presently in the events again, but carried the lens of time and a perspective of healing. This gave a layer of depth to my story. Readers want to see growth and discover, along with you, the way out of pain or the way to triumph.
Another tip I would share is organization. Memoirs can be written in a linear fashion, as a series of flashbacks or as a mosaic of scenes and memories. I spent a great deal of time trying to sort this out. I did not actually write any of my chapters in the order that they appear. Once I located the most important scenes to write for this story, I jig-sawed them over and over again until I figured out the best fit! Once I did that I then had to do some serious revision to make things flow together in a seamless way.

Now that you’ve written a memoir, what do you think the elements of a good memoir are?

From the feedback I have been given on this book, I believe the most important elements of a good memoir are the following:
1.) Relatability – does the author connect to his/her audience regardless of whether audience has shared a similar experience?
2.) Truth – tell the truth! There is no sense in embellishing a story. Use details as enhancements, but don’t change what happened. You can change names and places, but remain true to events.
3.) Detail – the more carnal, the better! Readers want to see and feel the events through details and imagery.
4.) Unexpected Elements & Character Growth – Think of a memoir as you would a novel. If you write it with the intent to surprise or shock your reader and reveal how characters grow and change, it will captivate and entertain.
5.) Education – If you are going to talk about something, teach about something! Maybe your memoir is about baseball or maybe it is about food or perhaps it is about a family tradition. Don’t assume your reader knows everything about events, customs, traditions, illnesses, addictions, etc. as you do. Be willing to weave in information that teaches your reader about what you are writing about. Give them an opportunity to honestly learn about what you are writing about. This gives a greater purpose to the reader and meaning to your story. If your reader has to engage in too much outside research, they will often lose interest in your story.

Do you think that memoirs must focus on harrowing experiences to be effective?

Not at all. Readers like happy stories, too! Remember this! I also don’t think a memoir has to be about a traumatic event. Anything that is exciting or changes you as a person, which makes the narrator a dynamic figure, is worth writing. Sure, harrowing experiences draw a reader in to wonder with you and sympathize, but a memoir just needs to have a heartbeat to be effective. If the author believes the story is worth telling, that will come across in how they write it and the reader will be drawn into that passion and energy.

How do you decide something is worth writing about?

At my base, I am a poet. And as a poet, nothing is too small or too insignificant to write about. Poetry is supposed to act as a celebration of being in the world. The poet gives life to that which does not have it and the poet also honors that which already breathes. I think if you truly value life and this world God put us in, everything has value and is worth exploring.

How have you handled the marketing of your work and could you share what is working for you and how you found your target audience?

Marketing is a challenge in a heavily saturated book market. Finding a target audience is tricky because you will have people read, buy, or like your book that you least expect. So don’t limit your audience or scope just because you wrote to a narrower audience. I write in several different genres so my audience is spread out among ages, genders, and reading preferences. I don’t know if I have found the secret yet, but I am doing my best! Social Media has been effective for me, but word of mouth has been better. Hosting events for people to come meet you or being a part of open mic nights, etc. grants the exposure that you need. Books don’t sell themselves, they get promoted so the more you can do to promote your book in various places, the better it will catch on for readers. I also preview my books at the gyms I work at or share with clients I think might be interested. If you have a good product and enough people read it, it will get into the right hands. Oh, and libraries and independent bookstores too! Go ask them about the policies for procuring books. Often they like to feature local authors and you can apply to have them put your book on their shelves or for bookstores, sell it with a consignment agreement.

What is one memoir you think everyone needs to read?

I would highly recommend the memoir, Colors of the Mountain, by Da Chen. It was an emotionally stirring and educational read by one of my mentors in graduate school. A smooth, informational read, worth every minute.

What advice do you have for any aspiring writers?

Keep writing! Writing is a skill that takes time. The majority of my writing has not been published, but it is still valuable and was time well spent in practice! And keep reading – especially craft books. Read about what works and what doesn’t. Follow the examples of other writers and keep experimenting with your own voice. You are YOU and no one else can take away your perspective and voice in the world, so use it! The Art of Description by Mark Doty is an excellent read for any writer diving into fiction, poetry, or nonfiction.

End of Interview


https://drive.google.com/uc?export=view&id=1wVszHn4Igf0v-7YxfZ0tzgPQo22yIjdG


Andrea Cladis Hodge holds an MFA in Writing from Fairfield University and is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Elmhurst College with degrees in English Writing, Interdisciplinary Communications, French, and Secondary Education. A former journalist and High School English teacher, she currently works as a college professor, freelance manuscript editor, ghost writer, and fitness professional. She has been published by SAGE Academic, The Greek Star, various literary journals, and several online publications including Americans for Liberty, Medium, and patch.com. She is the author of the memoir, Tatsimou, Hold On (Adelaide Books, 2018), the Christian nonfiction book, Finding the Finish Line: Navigating the Race of Life through Faith & Fitness (CrossLink Publishing, 2017), and the poetry collection, Forgotten Coffee (Adelaide Books, 2019). Her next book, Fearless Stride (Baker Books), will debut in October of 2019, so stay tuned! In addition to writing, Andrea loves to inspire others through high energy dance and fitness classes. And when she's not writing or dancing, you will find her cooking, reading, competing in Triathlons and marathons, playing tennis, spending time with her family, and serving at her church. Known for her local opinion columns, Andrea's writing has been described as “emotive, yet brazen, seasoned with thinly veiled cynicism, and a pinch of sarcasm.” Andrea is an Advisory Board Member for Cambridge Scholars Publishing and maintains a personal site about faith, fitness, and writing which can be explored at www.andreacladis.com. Her life verse is Proverbs 19:20.

Author of Finding the Finish Line (CrossLink Publishing, 2017)
Author of Tatsimou, Hold On (Adelaide Books, 2018)
Author of Forgotten Coffee (Adelaide Books, 2019)
Author of Fearless Stride (Alive Publications - Forthcoming 2019)

Review: Tatsimou, Hold On!: A Memoir

Tatsimou, Hold On!: A Memoir Tatsimou, Hold On!: A Memoir by Andrea Cladis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are certain memoirs that are difficult to critically evaluate because they compel us to unearth some of our own difficulties, and so any discussion becomes necessarily a personal one. And while I don’t want to fall into the trap of using Cladis’s book to write about myself, I do suspect that every woman who reads the book, will recognize a little of themselves in it. For men who read the book, it will more than likely be a sort of travelogue, a descriptive, yet earnest, vade mecum.
Eating disorders are generally as much of a biochemical addiction as a psychological one. Rooted in familial dysfunctions, generational malaise and our national obsessions with feminine thinness. Which is really what makes Tatsimou, Hold On! such a gripping memoir, one that delivers a primal scream of a narrative sure to resonate even with those who possess a healthy disposition towards food and weight.
Cladis is far from shy in the story she tells and the full depravity of her disordered thinking is revealed here in full detail. Her account of how paralyzed those around her were as she began to deteriorate right in front of their eyes is also, I think, both accurate and well done. She even explains how food-related behaviors and routines come together to form the depressing and obsessional life of an anorexic. If you wish to have an insightful look into this world, this is it. And while I haven't experienced this same type of hell in the same way, I do understand some of what she describes, and it's not easy by any stretch of the imagination.
Cladis’s attempts at exploring the complexities of her illness do not spare her parents either, but neither are they demonized. “I can’t recall the day when I began resenting my parents,” She writes, “But there’s a good chance it was when they forced me to go to therapy sessions...” But through it all she did make an uncommonly even-handed effort in attempting to understand what role her parents did play in some of her own anxieties, and as her story unfolds she eventually acknowledges that there was in fact a genuine quality of love between them.
I am like a moth to the flame when it comes to taking an in-depth exploration into someone’s psyche. The more complex, the better. I love to learn how people think, the experiences that shape them, and how they maneuver through life’s obstacles and especially the obstacles within their own minds. I love to cut through the bullshit and the formalities and get right to the heart of a person. Tell me who you really are!
I savor the take-me-or-leave me relationship that develops between writer and reader, and how the writer’s innocence and vulnerabilities are the magnets that pull the reader in to the story, rather than the flowery words or intricate plot lines. I also like the trust that develops as the writer bares his or her soul to the reader, and how the reader is almost always able to find pieces of themselves in the writer. I love how reading a memoir reveals that when we peel back our layers of protection, which most of us spend our entire lives building up, we can see that we are not all that different from one another. We are all just trying to make sense of this thing called life. Some of us are just better at pretending that they actually know what they are doing than others.
Cladis ended up being her own worst enemy, as the voice inside her head pushed her to become thin and beautiful. To become perfect. In fact she talks a lot about perfection in the book. Which, when assessed clearly, is really an ideal that is based on the compulsive belief that if you proceed carefully enough, you won’t have to die. The truth is, however, that you will die anyway. And it is to Cladis’s credit, and to the readers profit, that she eventually manages to kill this golem that had laid waste to her teenage years. But as Roxane Gay writes in her memoir, Hunger, “In too many ways, the past is still with me. The past is written on my body. I carry it every single day. The past sometimes feels like it might kill me. It is a heavy burden.”
Which leads me to another, more definitive, reason as to why I am drawn to memoirs. As a writer, deep thinker, and a person of passion, I have my own story to tell. I have told some of my story in a few personal pieces that I’ve posted to this blog, and truth be told, the excavation process and exposing certain parts of myself that had not been exposed to many was both cathartic and excruciatingly terrifying. Birthing your story is not easy. It can be challenging enough just to have lived through it, but conveying it to others in a way for them to understand and empathize with requires attention not only to the craft of writing, but to your whole being.
I overheard a preacher say once that hope is a revolutionary patience; but I’d like to also add that, so is being a writer. And it is an old chestnut that great writing should give us empathy for others. But Cladis has given me something far rarer: empathy for myself. Tatsimou, Hold On!, is an unsparing, terrifying, razor-edged self-portrait that cuts right into the heart of one of the most paradoxical of psychological disorders. It’s stunning and unbelievable. A tortured-yet-compelling account of a life spent bingeing and starving. Not just for food, but for discipline, meaning, love, and even for life itself.

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Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every so often a book comes along emphasizing issues that have been highlighted in other books long before it. Poverty is a perfect example of this. It’s one of those issues we seem to keep forgetting about. Mostly because in America we have this long running myth that if you deserve it, you will have it. We’re afraid to look at our downtrodden because it undercuts that myth. Which is a fear of the poor that, regretfully, is uniquely American.
A number of years back, books about what it was like to be poor were all the rage, following the success of Barbara Ehrenreich's, Nickel and Dimed. Which was an excellent book, albeit one that, like its imitators, was written from the vantage point of the minivan driving journalist, taking on a minimum wage job and then writing about her experiences after returning safely home to an upper middle class community. But her book missed a great deal. Most importantly what it feels like to live, the entirety of your life, in a culture that detests you.
In America to be poor is to be despised. By your former friends, your family, and most of the time, even yourself. Which makes the craving for personal dignity the force that drives much of the caustic commentary, in this gripping memoir, which started it’s life as a response to an online forum question, and who’s main argument is that the structure of the bottom end of the US labour market is unfair, demeaning and exploitative. The author buttresses these conclusions with her own unhappy experiences, anecdotes about others, and an analysis of how the lowest segment of the market actually works. In low-wage jobs, bosses don’t ask subordinates what they think. Humiliation is the rule. “Poor people” are dehumanized by “rich people” wielding contempt and hypocritical moral judgments across a stark divide.
But what’s most remarkable and upsetting about this book, to me, is that, given the story Tirado tells, of the injustice and indignities, that she, and millions of other Americans living the same story have to endure, aren’t angrier. Going to work forces us to give up power over our own lives, we sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of others and to have someone look down their nose at us for that, is the gravest insult I can imagine.
But, realistically, few working class people have the luxury of indignation. Enervated by swing shifts, cash shortfalls and too little sleep, they are badgered by the American creed that anyone who works hard can prosper, and many internalize the belief that those who don’t prosper are themselves to blame. “I wouldn’t even mind the degradations of my work life so much if the privileged and powerful were honest about it,” Tirado writes. “Instead, we’re told to work harder and be grateful we have jobs, food and a roof over our heads. . . . We are. But in exchange for all that work we’re doing, and all our miserable work conditions, we’re not allowed to demand anything in return. No sense of accomplishment, or respect from above or job security. We are expected not to feel entitled to these things.”
The one thing this book does to great effect, or I should say doesn’t do, is provide its readers with a chronological structure. Which is good, otherwise it would have made it far too easy for critics to intervene and cast judgement—that’s where you went wrong, or there—and miss the books larger point, that in a system of winners and losers, “poverty is a potential outcome for all of us.”
Tirado’s refusal to flatter her reader, is also what gives the book it’s undeniable authority. This isn’t a sob story, although it could very well make you weep with frustration; it’s a confrontation with the way that poor people are seen and judged day after day, by good liberals as well as evil conservatives, by the 99% as well as the 0.01%. And just as we dismiss those who deny the evidence of global climate change, so should we mock those who insist that if people only tried harder they wouldn’t be poor. It’s a lie, and Hand to Mouth shows us, in painstaking human detail, how it is a lie and why it is a lie.
I have been poor more often than I have been not poor. And I was told, all throughout my childhood, by guidance counselors, the media, and many adults, that if I no longer wanted to be poor, I had to work hard and go to college. I was told that that was the only way to not be poor. But that was a lie. And what I was promised has yet to materialize. But the most frustrating thing about it is that now those same people, those same authority figures, whom I trusted, and believed, and who sold me, as they sell so many, on the promises of the American Dream. Now blame me for, not only my failures, but for theirs as well.
Casting millennials as petulant adults trapped in adolescence has allowed previous generations to dismiss our concerns. Millennial bashing is, after all, as Mattias Lehman has written, simply a new form of “class warfare.”
Millennials have had to come of age in one of the worst economic climates since the Great Depression. We have grown up watching the selfishness of our parents in action. And we watched how the recklessness of the housing boom and bust wreaked havoc on our society and forced us to reach adulthood in a world in which opportunity is nonexistent. But we do not benefit from the selfishness of our parents. And hopefully we will not emulate it either.
Most of us are now entering into mid-adulthood, and most of us are still lagging far behind from where our parents were when they were our age. We have far less savings, far less equity, far less stability, and far, far more student debt. The “greatest generation” had the Depression and the GI Bill; boomers had the golden age of capitalism; Gen-X had deregulation and trickle-down economics. And millennials? We’ve got venture capital, but we’ve also got the 2008 financial crisis, the decline of the middle class and the rise of the 1%, and the steady decay of unions and stable, full-time employment. A new study has even confirmed that millennials are the poorest generation to date. Millennials really do have it harder than previous generations. But somehow, the narrative of spoiled, petted young people still prevails.
Yet the more work we do, the more efficient we’ve proven ourselves to be, the worse our jobs become: lower pay, worse benefits, less job security. Our efficiency hasn’t bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn’t made us more valuable. If anything, our commitment to work, no matter how exploitative, has simply encouraged and facilitated our exploitation. We put up with companies treating us poorly because we don’t see another option. We don’t quit. Instead we internalize that we’re not striving hard enough.
I never once imagined myself having to struggle this much in my thirties and perhaps it’s my fault, but perhaps, someone else is making it harder than it needs to be.
I’m never not thinking about money. I’m constantly running our budget through my head, trying to reassure myself that the numbers will work out this month. I dread going to the store or having to buy gas because each purchase moves us closer back down to that zero balance. The question always running through my mind is, what’s going to happen when the month comes that we can’t make it all work? The anxiety over our finances never quite goes away.
We’re trying to get back on our feet. We account for every dollar we make, and we don’t make any purchases without carefully considering our finances. It is just impossible to get ahead when every month seems to bring us a new setback, a visit to urgent care, a growing child who needs new shoes. Every step we take forward is followed by two steps backward and it’s exhausting. There’s no catching up when you’re behind; you just struggle to maintain. We’ve also learned to never try too hard to be middle class, as it only serves to make our situation worse. All of this obviously has a psychological and emotional impact. I’ve even flirted with addiction several times, but I’ve never let myself go there completely because I think it’d be too much of a relief and I’d never be able to come back.
I feel frustrated by all of this, but mostly embarrassed. It feels like I’m always climbing up the same hill, always trying to at least make it to neutral. But I don’t have the stamina of Sisyphus to keep going for much longer. And one day I’ll stop and put a bullet in my head. Anger is really the driving motivation that keeps me going. Honestly, if it wasn’t for anger, that bullet would have found it’s way into my cerebral cortex a long time ago. A running thread through all of the topics covered in the book is actually about the logic of anger as a means of survival: Speaking of mental health services, for example, Tirado concludes, "Professionals seem to only want to talk about my anger. They talk about my fatalism, my caustic outlook. They see these things as problems to be fixed. Personally, I think that anger is the only rational response to my world sometimes." It’s certainly the most productive.
Moreover, the problem isn’t just one of being undervalued either. As Tirado explains, “it’s, also, that it feels as though people go out of their way to make sure you know how useless you are.”
In the poor persons world, medical practitioners are condescending and unreasonably preachy, caseworkers are cruelly imperious, and government systems are Kafkaesque. Which is not even to mention the foaming resentment that spews from the mouths of those lucky enough to live a more middle class existence. “Why do they waste money on cigarettes and booze? Why do they eat junk food? Why do they have kids they can’t afford?” But a better question is, why do we keep hammering poor people with such supercilious judgments, for their habits, their pleasures, their health, their parenting, in a word, their very lives? Because double standards, directed at the poor, are used, first and foremost, to force poor people out of the public sphere and delegitimize their own testimony about their lives and needs.
Most people are uncomfortable with the idea that maybe there’s merit to be found in the lower classes. The stigma and prejudice that’s attached to poverty creates the assumption that poor people can’t be smart, so anyone who is smart can’t be poor. It’s a perfect circle that ensures that no poor person who talks about their experience is seen as credible. Unless, like J.D. Vance in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, the working class people in question are careful to position themselves as exceptionally meritorious and decry the immorality and poor work ethic of their peers. Poor people who cosign prejudice against poor people are lauded. Everyone else is dismissed. It’s just easier to dismiss poor people than to listen to them.
Our political system is also utterly, and embarrassingly, unresponsive to the needs of poor and low-income people; they cannot be counted on for campaign contributions, after all, they don’t hire lobbyists, and are less likely to vote, not because they are apathetic, but because the U.S. makes voting complicated and time-consuming, and they don’t think it matters anyway. Which it doesn’t. If our system depends on the right person, or persons, being in power, it’s by definition a bad system.
Much of the criticism, however, surrounding this book, and much of which has been aimed directly at Tirado herself, mainly concerns what the proper poor person should look like. If you’re going to ask for help in America, critics invariably insist, you’d better be really, truly, abjectly, miserably poor, and you’d better perform that poverty for the benefit of the more fortunate. But a far more legitimate criticism of Tirado, would be the same one that I often levy against religion. Neither of them have any real incentive to want to see poverty eliminated completely, simply because they both make money from it. Which isn’t so much a criticism as it is a question concerning both parties underlying motivations. Nonetheless, Tirado’s book vehemently accosts it’s readers with the ugly and painful realities of poverty and challenges us not to look away from it. As Noah Berlatsky once said, “If we didn’t hate the poor, the poor wouldn’t exist.”
But, today I’m afraid, the humanitarian conviction that we all have a collective national responsibility to the poorest among us, can no longer offer us a scythe sharp enough to fell the stalks of capitalist ideology. And because of this I maintain that we are now entering a terminal phase of human existence, that, unfortunately for us, doesn’t look very likely that we will survive it. In order to survive it, we would need drastic changes to take place. But, in order for real change to occur people would have to at least be willing to give up their greed, and they’ll never pay that price for freedom.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

We Don’t Call them Tenants for Nothing

I’ve heard it said before that, “Landlords often get a bad rap,” and whenever I do, I’ll often stop people right there and add, “They often don’t get a bad enough rap.”
No pets, no posters, no parties, no repairs. Don’t wear down the carpet. Just sit on the couch and cough up the cash. That’s their mantra. All so they can keep expanding and squatting over our lives like feudal incubi. So money-driven, that they view people’s need to sleep indoors as a chance to turn a tidy profit.
I wonder what is even meant by a “good” landlord anyway, one worthy of recognition. Someone who charges below insane market rates, purely by choice? Who pays for top-quality repairs, when they could get a friend to do a botched job on the cheap? Who offers long-term secure tenancies, despite the fact there is no legal minimum? Who refrains from revenge evictions? Someone who displays basic human decency, in an unregulated sector that encourages its opposite? Who acts, in other words, not like a landlord at all?
“But at least they are better than letting agents.” Sure. But that’s a bit like nominating Stalin for a humanitarian award for massacring fewer people than Genghis Khan. The fact is, they’re all rogue. Like anyone who thrived off of the housing crisis, landlords are social parasites. Leeching away what little wealth people have with little regard either for future generations or the welfare of their current tenants.
Landlords are actually one of the main causes of homelessness, by a long shot. When for-profit investors enter the housing market as buyers it artificially inflates demand for houses and causes prices to go up. The ability to borrow money to purchase homes also causes an artificial increase in demand that drives up prices. Combine speculation with credit and you end up with skyrocketing prices that only the rich can afford to buy into and then the poor end up getting stuck in a vicious cycle of renting and precarious evictions.
This type of housing insecurity creates a special kind of exhausting poverty, one that threatens the very security of one’s family. It even breeds depression. In addition to their homes, the evicted lose their possessions, their neighborhoods, their official address for interacting with the state and businesses, in effect, their very sense of self and liberty.
The regency of landlords also does more to intertwine poverty and criminality than any other vague “cultural” explanation. They can reject prospective tenants based on a combination of poverty, including a record of previous evictions, and criminality, based on previous felonies. Excluding people who have both, means that buildings where poor people go are buildings where people engaged in criminal activity go. This is because prices don’t determine who ends up where, landlords do.
No matter what else the poor have in common, nearly all of them have a landlord. Rather than some facile notion that people end up where they best belong, we see that people’s respective power dictates where they end up, and in poor neighborhoods, landlords have the power.
But I believe housing is a human right and should be protected as such. And the ultimate denial of this autonomy is personified in the figure of the landlord, a contemptible concept, which can be traced back to the medieval feudal system of manorialism, in which a landed estate was owned by a Lord of the Manor.
In the days of ye olde English estate, a landed lord could literally do anything he desired to his tenants because he owned them. The very word “tenant” itself, comes from the French word “tenir”, meaning “to hold” or “to keep.” Indeed, a thousand years ago the lord even had the right of jus primae noctis, which was the right to bed virgins on their wedding night. And today landlords still, have just as much discretion over people’s lives. “If etymology demonstrates the DNA of culture, then the words “landlord” and “tenant” are,” as Dave Crow writes, “embedded in our psyches.” No wonder that we dutifully pay our rent for our overpriced hovels. No wonder that our legislature balks at protecting tenants. No wonder that the landlord says, “This is my property and I can do anything I want.” The next time you write your rent check remember this: You’re still paying the lord to live on his land.
There are alternatives to this medieval system of land tenure however, and they are only limited by our imagination. One of the more straightforward options would be to transform private residential properties into housing cooperatives, grouped by neighborhood, building, or community. Instead of rent, funds for maintenance costs could be pooled together through the cooperatives and paid out as needed and any surplus could then be re-distributed as dividends to residents in order to incentivize efficient repairs and/or to re-invest in improvements, i.e., community gardens, pools, shared libraries, cooperative wifi-zones, etc.
But in this current system we are stepping on top of each other instead of lifting each other up. It’s time we unlearned the things we learned from wounded people and evolve past the idea that it’s perfectly acceptable to buy and own someone’s residence, you know, that place where someone lives out their daily life trying to pursue their own happiness, while they’re actually pursuing someone else's, because every dollar you give to your landlord doesn't benefit your future, only theirs. You just wasted one day at work to live to the next. That’s slavery.
Whether your landlord is a genial profiteer or an actual psychopath is the luck of the draw. And the problem is that anyone can be one, if you’ve made enough money or inherited property, and those are two of the worst qualifications imaginable. And if you’re one of these people, you can shove your property portfolio up your ass. Because, housing, as investment opportunity, of any sort, is unequivocally a cancer on the face of modern morality.
I’ll end this relatively acerbic denunciation, with a rather radical idea: buy a home if you can, live in it, and then do something else with your time. Something that isn’t about exploiting the less privileged. If you’re a landlord, here’s some advice usually reserved for the homeless, get a proper fucking job.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Body of Shirley Ann Sexton

She was no longer a person.
She was death. Staring back at me from a hospital bed.
The death of my Aunt was my first experience with death and dying, it was also one of my first experiences with cancer, which, as it turns out, ended up playing a recurring role in a number of deaths in my family.
I can’t recall my age at the time of her death or really anything else about my Aunt, but I will never forget walking into that room and seeing her reduced to flesh stretched across white bone, completely hairless, and yet so happy to see me.
She was living back with her parent’s at the end and hospice had her setup in the living room. She was married to my Uncle, my Dad’s brother, and I guess her father had wanted her to be home at the end, I’m not sure. Perhaps my Uncle was either incapable or even unwilling to care for her. My Uncle, I had always assumed, had by that time moved on anyway, their lives diverging. Hers toward oblivion and his towards a life without her.
I can never forgive people who choose to move on. Even if it’s at the bequest of the dying. I have always found the notion that one should simply move on with their lives after they have suffered through the loss of a loved one silly, but it also appears as if it is inevitable. Time unfortunately does heal all wounds. So it becomes a constant battle to maintain the memory of the value of what you lost. Which is why mourning is active. Grief comes later and if your lucky, never at all. Grief is ultimately all we are left with.
I am told that she used to babysit me every chance she could. I am told that she loved me very much. I am told that she had wanted children of her own but those plans had been halted by a capricious evolutionary process. A process that cares little for the wants and wishes of its hosts.
But I will always remember her smile as we entered her room that final time, the last time I would see her alive.
Actually that same smile would later go on to shatter my understanding of the natural world all together and she passed not much longer after that visit.
At her funeral I remember listening to the ridiculous things people say about the recently deceased.
“She looks good.”
“She’s not in pain anymore.”
Or my personal favorite,
“She’s in a better place now.”
At the time I didn’t understand what place that even meant and even now that I do I still can’t think of it as a better place. And I doubt anyone else really does either, otherwise funerals would be a celebratory event instead of a somber one.
During her viewing she seemed unreal to me. The whole experience seemed unreal. How could someone who was once alive now be dead? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I refused to believe that what was presented to me in this casket had ever been alive. She looked to me as if she were a doll. A plaster cast of someone I once knew. They even had her dressed in a wig on account of the chemo, in a fruitless attempt to present her here as she was in life, even though now no life existed within her.
Embalming, if you think about it, is really a cruel joke in my opinion. I don’t know which is worse, to have your loved one bloated and decomposing or to have them looking as if they could just be shaken out of a deep sleep. At least if they were rotting you could believe that they were dead. The embalmers job is to enhance the ‘memory picture’, which is a psychologically dubious concept to begin with, supposedly compromising the bereaved’s last glimpse of the deceased. But in reality it’s just a callous trick. 
So there she laid. A corpse. Displayed in a funeral parlor for all to see. Anyone off the street could have walked in, and people, family and friends, were mingling and conversing with one another as of it wasn’t there. People so determined to avoid any inappropriate response, whether it be tears, anger, or even helpless laughter that they would talk about anything to avoid the reality of this room, the reality that would soon be a burden, something akin to trash that would need to be disposed of before it started to stink.
And yet, her appearance, before the funeral, while in the process of dying, is now the face that I will forever attach to any abstract idea I have of death. Her face is now what I picture when I imagine death on a pale horse riding toward Armageddon. The memory of her body while alive, poised on the eve of a great journey, has made a lifelong impression.
Her death has actually come to mean more to me than any other, not because I was particularly close to her, I was very young at the time, but because it showed me that death is always present, embedded in every moment. Her death taught me about man’s fruitless attempt to find meaning in a world where no meaning exists.
But why was she smiling, I have always wondered. How could she possibly be smiling knowing that nothing may very well lay ahead of her? It’s a courage or stupidity that I will one day come to know.
My god, why was she smiling?
I still wonder.