‘Wonder Woman’ Is a Warning That DC Still Doesn’t Know What Makes a Good Superhero Movie

Let’s get one thing straight: without the charisma and skill of a few superpowered women holding it together, Wonder Woman would be another characteristically unwatchable addition to the DC cinematic universe.

As it is, this is certainly the best movie (certainly the most compelling superhero) that DC Comics has managed to truss up and toss onscreen since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

This is thanks in no small part to Gal Gadot, who should be offered a chance to anchor any franchise she wishes for the rest of her natural born life. So beautiful she nearly defies verisimilitude, with an evocative face that complicates her character’s moral decision-making with every twitch, she’s a perfect star for this vehicle.

And she’s not alone. The movie did a few things right – mostly its hiring and casting. As an Amazonian general Robin Wright is a badass; as a plucky British secretary, Lucy Davis a delight. There’s some smartly managed action sequences deftly shot by director Patty Jenkins, a tenderly balanced romantic undertow that manages to remain a subplot, and a posse of oddball sidekicks.

But it’s clear we’re going to have to grade this outing on a curve. Without Gadot and Jenkins, and the ability to make woke audiences cheer before they even entered the theater, this movie would have been another poorly constructed Hindenberg of DC and Zach Snyder’s making. As it is, it may be stronger as a symbolic gesture than it is as a story. As a story, it falls prey to the exact same issues that made every other DC superhero movie (Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, Suicide Squad) a hackneyed mess.

The fatal flaw of every awful DC movie up until this point has been the total absence of convincing character development. Think of character development as simply audience members seeing what the characters want, what their motivations are, and watching as characters fundamentally change because of their own choices. Comic books have always excelled at character development, made it so obvious it was practically kitsch. Think of any superhero origin story: Spider-Man fails to stop the man who kills his uncle and BAM. He’s forever changed, understanding that his power comes with responsibility.

DC movies weren’t always so bad at it. Think of the first Dark Knight film. As Bruce Wayne completes his training, Ra’s al Ghul demands that he execute a thief, and Bruce Wayne refuses and is forced to fight his way out. With that decision, he is changed, and he becomes the hero that enables the rest of the story.

Filmmaker Patrick Willems is really good at explaining why DC movies suck at this:

Wonder Woman gropes at character development. It’s one reason why the movie is the most gratifying of the modern DC cinematic universe. It almost gets there. Diana sees people around her suffering because of war, and believes that she has a duty to save them. But she carries this fully-formed sense of duty with her for the entirety of the movie. We’re not really allowed to see a moment when she makes a decision that allows it to solidify. She gets close to it when defying her mother to rescue the spy (played by Chris Pine) who’s crashed her sorority party. She also gets one symbolic moment in the trenches when she ditches her restrictive cloak and charges an enemy machine gun. But nothing changed for Diana in those moments – she was a character who obviously would have made those decisions when placed in those situations, who was then placed in those situations.

Which is frightfully dull. Or would be, if Gadot and Jenkins didn’t do such a good job of distracting from it with the well-staged fireworks.

Unfortunately, the villians don’t get anywhere near the same consideration as Diana does. There are three of them in the movie, three! And none of them have any clear motivations. Chaos? Destruction? Mayhem? Avoiding defeat? Who knows. Those aren’t real human motivations, and they aren’t complicated, so they aren’t interesting. Even Ares, who has been the focus of Diana’s quest throughout the movie, doesn’t make any sense. The moment his character’s identity is revealed, nobody in the theater gasped, because nothing was set up at the beginning of the movie that would make you understand how or why he plotted for this moment to arrive. And when Diana finally fights Ares, we’re thrust into another of DC’s signature CGI paroxysms, where things blow up and none of it matters, because the audience has no sense of the space, or scale, or stakes. Some things fire up, some things spark, and there’s no logic to the fight that we’re supposed to understand, only sound and bright lights and knowing that our gal will win in the end. How boring!

Luckily, with only a few moments to spare, Wonder Woman redeems herself. Diana finally, mercifully becomes the sole character in a DC movie to make a choice that exhibits growth, one that defines the ending of the movie and her future as a hero. Thank the gods.

If it wasn’t for that final moment, I don’t know if I’d like Wonder Woman as much as I do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m rooting for its success, and the way that it’s already changing the way that Hollywood does business. If this movie gives us more all girl superhero movies, we’ll all have to call it a win, or else. But it’s hard to watch Wonder Woman without being disappointed that the people behind DC movies haven’t learned a thing from their failures and read up on character development. One has to imagine that Gadot, Jenkins and the rest of the DC cast of characters won’t get the same pass the next time around.

What I Learned From 100 Days of Saving the World From Donald Trump

Step back, if you will, to the day after the election, and compare the world as we expected it to be 6 months out to the world as it is.

There are, of course, the politics. Trump was going to deport millions of immigrants, and immediately start building a wall. He was going to launch a trade war with Mexico and China, sabotage the American healthcare system and install malicious morons in every federal agency. Blah, blah, and blah.

Some of those things have happened, some of them haven’t. The incompetencies of the Trump administration have precluded his radical promises. Now these first 100 days look a lot like a normal, if poorly functioning, conservative presidency. Trump’s immigration ban has been blocked by the courts. Neil Gorsuch was confirmed, after an unprecedented and appalling 400 days of Republican trickery to hold the seat open. Trump’s tax-reform plan probably gives every politician’s billionaire buddies wet dreams, but if the Trumpcare debacle showed us anything it’s that Trump isn’t the political closer he pretends to be. We’ve seen typical and surprisingly hawkish approaches to NATO, China, Syria, Iran, etc.

But then there’s the culture, the timbre of the dialogue, the startling and worrisome normalization of racism, anti-Semitism, and islamophobia that seemed to be sweeping the country before the inauguration. Do you remember? Think back. Ten days after the election, The Southern Poverty Law Center published a report documenting almost 900 reports of harassment and intimidation that had taken place across the country (though it noted that “it was not possible to confirm the veracity” of all the incidents, since they were submitted by the public). Mosques were set on fire by arsonists, troubling racist graffiti was popping up across the country, and disturbing fliers were being distributed on college campuses. A watchdog commission tasked with enforcing New York’s civil rights laws reported a massive 60 percent spike in discrimination complaints in 2016.

Unfortunately, there’s no dataset available that can tell us definitively that hate crimes have surged on a national level since the election, because the government’s data and methods of collection are deeply flawed, but for anyone paying attention to the news and worried about Trump’s habit of inciting hate and violence along racial lines, those sorts of headlines filled the days after the election with a nearly all-consuming fear. It felt like hate was on the move in the land of the free.

I expected these things to continue. I expected to be using a toothbrush to clean swastikas off the subway every day. I expected to spend 100 days and even 1,460 acting as some kind of racism avenger, battling the forces of rottenness as they swept across the country underneath Make America Great Again hats.

But let me tell you what’s happened instead.


After the election, I started having the same recurring dream. I was in the subway in New York, where terrible things tend to happen, endlessly riding without a destination. At some point during my dream, I would see someone being harassed.

It would be a woman in a headscarf, or a drag queen that I’ve known in and out of drag, or a man with long, curly sidelocks. They would be viciously attacked, screamed at by some faceless assailant shouting ridiculous and rude and racist things. Sometimes I would say nothing, only watch and listen. In those cases, I woke up full of shame. But most times, I would jump in and save the day. I would be the hero, shut down the aggressor and everyone would applaud. After a few nights I was trying out new scenarios in my unconscious: putting myself between the assailant and the victim as a wall, trying to distract the aggressor and stealing their attention, or taking control and shouting them down. One night, I got an entire subway car full of people to join me in chanting about how hate and fear was not welcome in our city.

I would wake up feeling better, my powerlessness turned into a feeling of euphoria. Maybe there is something that can be done, I thought. Maybe I have a role to play.

It was a silly white savior complex, surfacing in my unconscious every night. In the real world, I knew, the reality would be much different. Maybe me getting involved wouldn’t help. Maybe someone wouldn’t need or want my assistance. Maybe they could handle it themselves. Maybe the person doing the harassing would be a lot bigger than me and a lot more aggressive, and I’d end up getting my ass kicked.

But the dream comforted me. It made me sure that if something were to happen in front of me, I would be, at least, a buffer. That I would act when called upon. It made me start looking for opportunities, in a twisted way. I almost hoped that I would be given the opportunity to meet the moment, and prove that I was made of bigger, better stuff. If it happened in front of me, I told myself each day after waking up from that same dream, I would prove that I could wrestle all the racism in the world into submission with my strong, superior values.

I went to the rallies, and I showed up to volunteer, and I called my representatives. But those things were full of people like me — woke, angry, and scared. I wasn’t sure who we were convincing. There were no Fox News trucks there, no stunned Trump supporters saved by our snarky signs. I kept having the dream and wondering what I would do if some shit went down in front of me.

It was in the midst of this that a friend sent me a Facebook post that seemed like the chance I was looking for to get involved. “I cannot believe I am asking this,” the message began, but would anyone “be willing to accompany a Muslim woman on the train ride to university?”

It was posted by a woman named Kayla Santosuosso, the deputy director of the Arab American Association of New York. Days after the election, she was contacted by a Muslim woman in Harlem who was being harassed on the subway every day on her way downtown to school. The woman was terrified, being intimidated every day by the same man, sure that she would see him again and again. She didn’t wanted to be alone when it happened. She had talked to her friends and family, and contacted the police, but found no one who would travel with her and keep her safe.

Santosuosso already found someone to accompany this woman by the time I saw her Facebook message, but comments had kept coming from people in Boston, and Connecticut, and even L.A., all offering to help out and commute with anyone afraid for their safety in their local communities. A few commenters, members of the Muslim community or the LGBT community or others, had chimed in on the comments asking for escorts of their own.

“Realizing the moment of urgency,” Santosuosso told me later, she put up a link to a Google form, asking for people to signup to volunteer. By the next day, 1,200 people had signed up. In the next few weeks, 8,400 people would enter their information. I was one of them.

Behind the scenes, Santosuosso was encouraged by the outpouring of support, but daunted by her new challenge of scale. She had no way to certify the identities of people who had signed up to accompany others. She had no way of verifying their intentions. She had no way to assure that they had the skills necessary to de-escalate a conflict situation adeptly.

And so she flipped the problem on its head, and the Accompany Project was born. Instead of keeping these people on a list and matching them up one by one, Santosuosso decided to train as many people as possible on how to handle conflict situations as bystanders, when (or if) they surfaced in their everyday lives.


That’s what brought me to a tiny conference room in an office building on Wall Street in early January — an email from Santosuosso. Her Accompany Project was offering a training in “bystander intervention,” a framework for effectively intervening in a conflict situation.

And so I went, braving the blustery cold, and when I arrived at the Asian American Federation and looked around the room, I was struck that all the attendees were like me. The room was packed with 35 or 40 cautiously friendly people in their twenties and thirties. All of them were white.

I probably shouldn’t say it that way — they looked white. Everyone was encouraged not to make assumptions about anyone’s identity or background at this training. It was that kind of safe space. We were constantly reminded to give content warnings to people who might be triggered by violence or sexual assault, and advised to avoid victim blaming. When the organizer pointed out the location of the bathrooms in the hall, she apologized profusely for the binary way that they were gendered.

I asked a few attendees where they were from and they said Sunnyside, Queens and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, not insignificant distances to travel. One woman said she came from Inwood, probably an hour away by subway.

The woman sitting next to me, Liz Certa, a software developer from Philadelphia who moved to New York City to go to Fordham and take computer classes, said she felt compelled to sign up for this training when she saw the email because she wanted to know what to do if she saw “some racist shit” go down in public. “We’ve got to do something,” she said.

I immediately felt comfortable. These were my people. I had never felt so woke.

The training kicked off, led by a diminutive and vivacious young social worker wearing a choker and shiny purple boots named Rachel Levy. She promised us that everyone in attendance would walk out of the room with a few strategies that they could use to distract, deflect or defuse situations where someone was being victimized or intimidated.

“No matter what happens in these situation, I promise it will be awkward, I promise it will be imperfect, and I promise that you’re going to analyze it in the days following and wonder how you could have done it differently,” she said. “But bystander intervention is anything that you do to keep yourself and others safe.”

For the next three hours, we talked about negotiating from a calm and centered place. We stood in a circle and practiced saying a confident and assertive no — much harder than you might think, thanks to everyone’s innate aversion to awkward public exchanges — and how to tweak our body language to appear authoritative. She taught us the four Ds of bystander intervention: Direct, Delegate, Distract and Delay. She walked us through tactics that we could employ when and if we decided to get involved, if we mitigated the risks and thought we could help.

(HuffPo’s got a detailed play by play of these trainings here, if you’re interested.)

All in all, she taught us to be “upstanders.” Bystanders are people who witness, she said, but “upstanders” are people who act. People often don’t intervene because of fear, or embarrassment, or because they benefit from silence. But we had been given strategies! Tools! Ammo. And we were ready to fight.

Just when we thought we were finished, and I was packing up and ready to leave, a tiny Asian woman with big, thick glasses and an air of authority sauntered into the room. She stood out immediately; she was the first person we’d seen all night who looked like she might actually be harassed on a subway.

She introduced herself as Jo-Ann Yoo, the executive director of the Asian American Federation. It was their conference room we’d been using, and she who’d donated it. She came in here to say hello, and she didn’t mince words.

“You can’t imagine the panic that we’re feeling now,” was the first thing out of her mouth. “All the people in the communities that we serve, all 17 groups under the umbrella of my organization, all their identities and backgrounds. We are scared.”

On the day after the election, Yoo was in a cab on the way to work and of course, she said, her driver happened to be Muslim. She asked him how he was doing and he replied that he was so scared. That he was terrified. It was 8:30 in the morning.

“It was my perfect Korean drama moment,” she said, “because I got out of the cab and it was just starting to rain and I was waiting for the ferry and I was crying because I didn’t know what to tell him. Because even as advocates, even as someone who has access to the governor, the mayor, all the congressional delegation, I didn’t have an answer for him. I told him I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think it’s a wait and see kind of thing. Maybe he’ll go insane, maybe he’ll take meds. I don’t know.”

And then immediately, upon leaving the cab and waiting for the ferry, Yoo was herself harassed. By a big construction worker, she said, with a helmet on that had Donald Trump stickers all over it, who physically blocked her way and hurled epithets at her.

“For all of the access and all the privilege that I have in the middle class, being a lawyer, I can call the governor’s office and someone will pick up, I can call the mayor and someone will pick up. For all that I am, he thought he could intimidate me, because he didn’t see everything that I am. I was like, wow, this is my new reality. This is my new life. This is the new reality for my friends and for my colleagues and everybody that I work with and I care about, this is how we’re going to have to live our lives.”

“And to be honest? We don’t know where our allies are. New York is the most diverse place in the world but this shit happens to us every single day and now it’s going to happen to us more and more. We just all want to leave now. Because we don’t get to step out of our skin.”

She paused for a moment after this. She was a fast speaker, but she didn’t know what to say next. It was a moment of deep vulnerability. The room was perfectly still, and silent. Finally, after perhaps a full minute, she continued.

“I’m really grateful for all of you for signing up, I’m grateful for your leadership,” she said. “Your neighbors are counting on you. Even the people who you don’t really realize are your neighbors. You need to look and see who they are. A lot of your neighbors are invisible. But right now we need to count our allies and know who we can rely on.”

She thanked us again, and the organizers closed us up for the night, three hours in, and people packed up their things and started to leave.

But I couldn’t go. I sat there and thought: I am such bullshit. Because really this whole thing was about me. I was having that dream because I didn’t want to be the victim. I knew that I would probably be safe if I kept my mouth shut because I’m white and male and gay, not Asian or Muslim or brown or whatever and I wouldn’t ever need to step out of my skin. But the truth was, I felt unsafe too. It was that simple. I felt just like Jo-Ann. The uncertainty she described was my new reality, too. And not uncertainty about whether I’d be called on to help someone else who was the target of bigotry or discrimination, but uncertainty about whether it would be directed at me. Painting myself as the savior was my way of putting myself in the “benevolent but safe” bucket in my head, not wanting even subconsciously to believe that I could be next. I would get to choose whether or not I was involved. Coming here and painting myself as a racism avenger was a way of planting my feet in a world that felt like it was spinning out of control. And that was a good thing, because that impulse led me to do some good in the world. And that was also bullshit.

I was one of them. These people were my neighbors. And maybe one day one of them would be the hero that I needed, and maybe one day I would get to be that for them in return.

I talked about this with my friend Jessica Newsome, a social worker in Chicago and a wise, life-long friend. She asked me if I remembered the Stanford experiments by Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. They’re the subject of many required college psychology courses and many more movies and documentaries. The experiment investigated the effects of perceived power by using college students as fake prison guards and prisoners. When they immediately turned dark and depraved, they were called off after 6 days because of the objections of one graduate student named Christina Maslach. She was the only one who told Zimbardo to stop the experiment when it went south — and she kept telling him to stop until he did.

Zimbardo later married Maslach and started trying to study why she did the right thing when it was really hard and no one else would. The prison experiments are what he’s famous for, but he actually spent a much larger portion of his life trying to figure out what the difference is between bystanders and upstanders — between people who are invested in not causing waves and people who step up and make themselves a target by speaking out.

“In a lot of ways, the hero narrative is an important way to motivate people,” Jessica told me. “I tell all of my new social workers that they came here to save the world and that’s a worthwhile impulse that says a great thing about who they are and what motivates them, but that same motivation will burn them out in the end and leave them more racist and sexist and classist than before if they’re not careful.”

All of helping other people, Jessica warned me, every time you exit your comfort zone and do this kind of work, involves existing in a place of contradictions and learning to work within and balance those contradictions.

I wasn’t expecting that. I wasn’t expecting the first fight to be with myself.


In the end, the everyday things that I was expecting out of 100 days of Donald Trump haven’t materialized. Certainly, there have been blunt policy implications to this administration’s courtship of outdated fear-mongers —Jeff Sessions was once deemed too racist to be a federal judge, for chrissakes — and I’m still calling my representatives and showing up to the rallies. But in the everyday, the personal, the intimate moments, not much has changed — the subway’s still the same. I never got a chance to use the skills that I learned in that bystander intervention training, not yet. I never saw someone being harassed, never jumped in to save the day waving my hero flag.

But I learned that it’s as simple as this, as simple as Jo-Ann Yoo made it sound: You are always surrounded by your neighbors, even if you don’t realize it. Sometimes you have to look to see who they are. You have to pay attention. A lot of them are invisible. A lot of them don’t need you to worry about them, don’t need your help, thank you very much. But they’re all your neighbors anyway. And your attention to little things, your kindness and your consideration and the way that you make people feel seen and considered, the way you make room for them and welcome them into your day can go a long way towards calming that unsettled feeling, that nightmarish insecurity you feel when you’re surrounded by strangers and MAGA hats and the unknown. And maybe, if you prepare, when shit hits the fan, when you are called on by circumstance to be there for the many different kinds of people around you, you can live up to yourself, and know that you did the right thing, and that can be that.

Your neighbors are counting on you.

I Should Have Called My Dad

The morning after the election, my beautiful boyfriend of a year or so was awake when I opened my eyes. He was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, breathing deep and low. We had both gone to bed at 2 a.m. the night before, after watching the results pour in with increasing panic, our smiles and drinking games turning into angry, anxious outbursts of nothing but sound. We fell asleep without touching, silently, horrified, numb. But when I woke up he was there — awake, not speaking, eyes open, staring.

“I’ve never had this moment in my life before,” he said. “Where I was actually worried about whether or not, at some point in the future, I could get married.”

“Until now.”

I laid there beside him, staring at the ceiling, letting that new reality hang in the air between us. Marriage hadn’t ever occurred to me as an election issue, as something that was still up for debate. When the results were rolling in the night before, I thought about nuclear codes. I thought about women who might be forced to watch their rapist become president. I envisioned our natural discourse growing more vapid, more stupid; I thought about how comical and sad the first State of the Union will inevitably be. I didn’t think much about myself, or my gay and lesbian friends, and how we would shake out.

But my boyfriend did. He’s always thinking about me; he’s one of the good ones. He’s from Massachusetts, the first state in the country to issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples (also the first with comprehensive health care reform, passed nearly a decade ago), and to him and his blue-blooded relatives, these things have always been a foregone conclusion. Elizabeth Warren likes to brag, “Anyone who wants to see the future should take a look around Massachusetts.”

That future seemed dimmer and farther away when I woke up on Wednesday. When I opened my eyes I felt scared and unsafe. Targeted, attacked, terrorized.

Now it was personal.


The Republican party passed a platform earlier this year that contained the most virulent anti-LGBT provisions in decades. It put a stamp of approval on conversion therapy and attacked same-sex parenting. Those Republicans now hold the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. They’ve increased their control over state governorships and held onto state legislatures.

Donald Trump himself has said he’ll sign laws that permit anti-LGBT discrimination as long as there is a religious motivation. He’ll likely appoint 2–3 Supreme Court justices, and his public shortlist for the positions include only insanely anti-gay candidates. His running mate gleefully signed a bill to jail same-sex couples applying for marriage licenses, wanted to divert HIV prevention funding to conversion therapy, and supported a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality.

Just five months ago, Florida saw the largest mass shooting in U.S. history targeted at Latino and LGBT people. The state mourned for the 49 people who died, and voted for a president and a party who openly despises and demeans both communities.

For me and anyone like me, for anyone who looks or lives a little bit differently, shit just got real.


There’s a word in Latin that I used to love back when my dad would wake me up at 5 a.m. and make me sit me down at the kitchen table to study Latin and Greek. My dad was an early riser, and a believer in the classics, and he wanted us to be too. I always hated learning Latin, thought it was ugly to hear and useless to learn. Why would you bother to study a language that no one would ever speak again?

But I loved this word.

It was ineffabilis, which means “unutterable.” It’s formed from “in,” meaning“not,” and “effari,” meaning “to utter.” It describes something that is too sacred, too bewildering, too awesome and foreign to put into words. It’s the feeling you get when you look at someone you love and it fills you up so fast that you feel overwhelmed. It’s that calm you feel when you’re looking at a work of art and it wraps you in silent awe.

On Wednesday I felt the opposite, like that moment after you’ve been punched in the stomach, when you don’t know if you’ll ever really start breathing again.

I don’t think there’s a Latin word for that.


Later in the day on Wednesday, my stomach churning with bile, I went out for a cigarette with a friend at work, a guy who adopted me and welcomed me to my first month at my new magazine job through the ritual of nicotine. It was too early in the day for a cigarette, but that was a cigarette kind of day.

It took us a minute to realize that we could talk about the election, but we had to talk about it, so we did. We swapped stories about the few people we’d seen that day celebrating the election results, agreeing that those people could go and fuck themselves. We talked about how deeply disappointed we were in our home states (Wisconsin and Ohio, respectively).

“I’m scared,” I told him. “And I’m a white dude. Just a gay white dude. The worst thing that can happen to me is I get a raw deal on taxes, maybe I can’t adopt. I can’t even imagine how it feels to be a member of an immigrant family today. Imagine being black and facing down Trump’s new white nationalism. Imagine being a woman, having a uterus that you’d like people to stay out of.”

He shook his head, he inhaled smoke, and we stood there for a minute in silence.

“I feel responsible,” he said.

And there it was, hanging in the air.

Maybe I’m not just tarnished, I thought. Maybe I’m culpable.


If I could go back, I would have called my dad.

I overheard him once, the last time I was home, talking on the phone with one of his employees about politics.

“I know he’s not the smartest bulb out there, but I have to believe that he’ll collect the right people around him to solve problems for him. That’s what businessmen do,” he said, trying to find excuses for the idiot nominated on his ticket.

I didn’t stop him, or ask him about it later. I didn’t point out that Trump had just fired his second campaign manager, that he had never hired people who knew what they were doing and that’s why his campaign was seemingly in a constant meltdown. I didn’t talk about any of the other endless reasons that his candidate was untenable, unprecedented and dangerous. I didn’t try to understand why he was okay with these things, I didn’t question him at all. It would have been the perfect time to bring it up.

My dad’s a gentleman and a businessman, a practical guy. He isn’t racially motivated, he’s a Christian who believes in love and respect. He didn’t despise Obama, even though he disagreed with his policies. I think he grew frustrated with the helplessness he felt in the face of change. He doesn’t know many people who are radically different from himself or the pastoral life that he leads in rural Wisconsin — anybody, that is, except me.

He was not a fan of Trump; I knew he was disgusted by Trump’s treatment of women, turned off by his bombast and vulgarity. But I knew he was probably voting for him anyway. I think he saw Trump as someone, like him, who cares about efficiency and knows business and just doesn’t say the right things all the time. But I don’t know for sure. I didn’t ask. I didn’t say anything.

Maybe I could have changed his mind, maybe not. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

But I wish he knew about what happened this morning. I wish I had told him a long time ago. I wish he knew about the look in my boyfriend’s eyes when he was staring at the ceiling, feeling disrespected, degraded, discarded, demonized. I wish he could see the scary vein of violence in Trump and his followers that I see, wish he knew how infinitely more vulnerable I’ve become since Tuesday to prejudice. I wish I had showed him what his vote would cost.

I think my dad would have recognized that guy, that guy who’s scared about the future. That’s probably why he voted for Trump.

Now You’re in New York

How the fuck did you get here? You’re standing in a line for brunch. A bar in Brooklyn named after a berry that only grows 1,000 miles away.

The people in front of you are talking about how they took a really gorgeous Instagram of the High Line yesterday, and how “it’s too bad everyone just wouldn’t get out of their way.” Nobody’s ever taken a picture of the High Line before and put it on Instagram. Theirs is special. Like art.

You want to kick their stroller into traffic. You’re feeling powerful. You’re, like, a part of the reason that the subways don’t have graffiti in them anymore. People can walk around at night in Bed-Stuy.

Nobody stays up in Brooklyn anymore. Less snorting, more snoring.

A homeless man wanders up and you avoid him. Your friend, who talks to everyone, tells the man he doesn’t have any cash. The man waits for you, but you don’t acknowledge him. He moves along to the people behind you, who are talking about their brand new vegan diet and the Buzzfeed list that they’ll send around with recipes.

You’re sorta listening to them and sorta dreading the moment when you’ll have to disrespect your own potential tomorrow and squeeze yourself into a subway car at 7:30 sharp because people won’t care if you’re there by 10 after. And if they do, what are they gonna do? Fire you? LOL. You live dangerously.

You look around to see if the line has moved but it hasn’t. You look at the people in line. You’re wearing sunglasses specifically so you can look at people.

Everyone standing in line looks like they’re begging to be fucked. Like, really grabbed and taken and fucked. Like they’re desperate to figure out what will keep their dicks from sagging. Like they want a reason to get really angry. Like they wish they knew what fury felt like.

You should be fucking ashamed. You are, kinda.

You wonder if there’s any adventure left in this city and if so where it is. You kinda just want to fall asleep.

The people in front of you are talking about Lena Dunham. How controversial she is. How she’s so New York. They’re carrying her shitty diary. It makes you think of that twat who tried to crowdfund her $500 drunk Uber bill. That was your friend.

Should you just leave? This is taking forever. You would, but you don’t want to hail a cab. You wish someone would just hail you a cab.

Your phone buzzes and you read the text from your parents and you want to tell them fuck off but you don’t want them to stop paying your rent.

“My biggest fear is a falling air conditioner,” you tell your friend. He laughs, tells you that’s normal. Everybody thinks that.

Do you want to fuck your friend? You want to fuck something. Maybe you just want to do it for dramatic effect. That would be messy. That would be fun.

You look at the line again and wonder why you’re in it. You’ve eaten here before and you wanted the same thing again immediately. You never really liked their shitty food but you wanted people to see you here, wanted them to know that you were sitting at the right table, wanted them to want to pull up a chair.

A guy walks past smoking a joint and laughing. As he passes he says something like, “Have some self respect.”

Rage, rage against the dying of your fucking self respect.

The line moves and finally you’ve reached the restaurant.

You made it here.

You made it. 

Blizzarding

He is like a New York snow storm.

You may know it’s coming and

you prepare; strip the shelves,

or try, in the end, to buy

breakfast food because fuck

if you know how to cook;

stock up on booze, and several

different types, in an effort

to be carefree like a tiny

excitable addict.

He is like a New York snow storm.

You wait and wait,

and everyone talks about it

coming, for so long beforehand

you think it will be so boring

when it finally arrives, it can’t

possibly be worth it, but

then you’re drunk and heading

home and you feel it breathe

a sigh on your shoulder, every

thing in the air just descends, and

all of a sudden it’s here, coming

down all around you, convincing

you that you are living it; a blizzard

or, at least, a snow fall. In the worst

and best of places; an understanding

that when you hold your breath here

everything, somehow, lingers.

The Best Music I Came Across in 2015

  1. Louis Futon, “Phony Ppl — End of the Night”
  2. Disclosure ft. Lorde, “Magnets”
  3. Lady Leshurr, “Queen’s Speech Ep. 1, Ep. 2, Ep. 3, Ep. 4, Ep 5
  4. The Japanese House, “Cool Blue”
  5. Paris Jones, “Summer”
  6. Ben Khan, “1000”
  7. Champs, “Vamala”
  8. Chad Valley, “Up and Down”
  9. Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique, “Love Is Free”
  10. Howard, “Money Can’t Buy”
  11. Lady Gaga, “I Want Your Love”
  12. Seinabo Sey, “Words”
  13. Alessia Cara, “Wild Things”
  14. Adele, “When We Were Young”
  15. Purity Ring, “bodyache”
  16. Courtney Barnett, “Pedestrian at Best”
  17. Young Fathers, “Rain or Shine”
  18. ODESZA, “Memories That You Call”
  19. Susanne Sundfør, “Delirious”
  20. CHVRCHES, “Empty Threat”
  21. Oh Wonder, “Technicolor Beat”
  22. Rationale, “The Mire”
  23. SNBRN, “Raindrops (Radio Edit)”
  24. Towkio, “Heaven Only Knows”
  25. On and On, “Drifting (RAC Remix)”
  26. Bicep, “Just”
  27. Banks, “Change (Chainsmokers Remix)”
  28. Matt Simons, “Catch and Release (Deepend Remix)”
  29. Grimes ft. Janelle Monae, “Venus Fly”
  30. Chairlift, “Romeo”
  31. Hayden James, “Something About You”
  32. MNEK, “More Than a Miracle”
  33. Allie X, “Sanctuary”
  34. Mas Ysa, “Margarita”
  35. LIZ, “When I Rule the World”
  36. Christine and the Queens, “Saint Claude”
  37. Lianne La Havas, “What You Don’t Do”
  38. Halsey, “New Americana”
  39. Clairity, “Velcro”
  40. Years & Years, “Eyes Shut”
  41. Cayucas, “Big Winter Jacket”
  42. Leon Bridges, “River”
  43. The Go! Team, “We Do It Together”
  44. Gallant, “Talking In Your Sleep”
  45. Hulio Bashmore ft Sam Dew, “Holding On”
  46. Bonnie McKee, “Bombastic”
  47. Shamir, “Call It Off”
  48. Hudson Mohawke, “Scud Books”
  49. Son Lux, “Change Is Everything”
  50. Chic ft. Nile Rodgers, “I’ll Be There”

10 best EPs or LPs to play start to finish

  1. Seinabo Sey, “Pretend”
  2. Purity Ring, “Begin Again”
  3. The Japanese House, “Clean” or “Pools to Bathe In”
  4. Years & Years, “Real”
  5. MNEK, “Small Talk”
  6. Oh Wonder, “Oh Wonder”
  7. Adele, “25”
  8. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Emotion”
  9. CHRVCHES, “Every Open Eye”
  10. Disclosure, “Caracal”

Here’s a Spotify playlist with this shit and more, I’m not a monster. Some of it’s not on Spotify — just follow the links for those.

How to Lose Your Mind and Build a Treehouse

I said that I was leaving town for a funeral, but I lied.

Nobody close to me died yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that.

But it’s easy to say that somebody died. People get visibly uncomfortable. They clam up and offer condolences, and then pretend that you didn’t mention it at all. They don’t ask any more questions.

I always get this way in the days leading up to November. Every year, things start to fray. Getting out of bed becomes an accomplishment for a little while.

This year was a perfect storm. I’ve been courting burnout for most of 2015. I had to stare into the mirror and tell myself that I believe in what I’m doing, that I can handle any workload without complaint.

But the grief never disappated. It only appeared less frequently and less acutely until everything became a reminder again.

It’s easy to say someone died. It’s much harder to say, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”


I’m sitting in half of a treehouse. It’s the middle of the night. The pine needles above me are blocking out the moon and the stars, and the laptop glow is the only source of light. I’m messaging my best friend Kat and trying to explain why I ran away to Wisconsin.

My youngest brother Grant brought me here today, to the ruins of a fort that I built in the woods long ago. In junior high I found four sturdy trees that formed a rectangle and nailed a few old barnwood slats between them. It didn’t have a roof or a door and I certainly hadn’t exercised any technical skill while putting it together. It was a crummy little fort, a few boards nailed to a few trees. It was nothing special. But I had imagination to spare, and sometimes all I needed was space.

It crumbled over the years. A few of the wooden planks fell off or were blown off in a storm or got kicked off by my brother Jesse and me and our friends while we played paintball in these woods.

Jesse would have smiled if he knew that we came out here today. It’s been almost ten years to the day since I crawled into his hospital bed and sang him to sleep, and I feel it in every moment of every November day.

No matter what a million people will tell you about “how to help someone grieve,” there’s not a whole lot you can really do if you haven’t been there.It’s something you should be grateful to misunderstand.

Funny. I never realized it, but now Kat and I both have dark days next to each other on the calendar. She lost her mother a year ago to a vicious cosmic joke, a rare disease. Now I spend a lot of late nights telling her again and again: I know. I know.

It feels like we’re the only ones who understand this cavernous empty space on the calendar. She will never ask why I’m crying over a date.

I fill her fridge on the right days and respond to thousands of text messages and prove that I’m the one person who will never call her crazy. And she does the same for me. I’m trying to help her the only way I know how, by reliving it alongside her. Even though her grief is fresh and mine is a decade old, we both understand and recognize the pieces of it that we share.

This is the only thing that helps. It’s a collection of connections, a million little unspoken everyday actions. We share them between us and with the people we lost. They help us understand how tiny things can reverberate, how people can change each other in silence.

That’s why I’m here, at home, in the woods, in the trees. I needed to show up. For the family I have left.

 


Dad met us out here in the woods earlier. He drove the big white truck that he drives everywhere, with every imaginable tool stashed away in the boxes in the back. He pulled a trailer full of brand new lumber, and parked it at the edge of the trees.

I hid in the ruined fort, behind a pallet and a few barnwood slats still stuck to the trees, and pelted him with pinecones when he came close. He screamed, gruffly, and sunk into a defensive stance, but his face bloomed and his yell turned to laughter once he realized that I was home. He wrapped me in a bear hug, a little longer than usual — a few seconds spoke volumes.

I was home for a full day before I saw my dad. He’d been living away from home for a while, fighting to keep our future Thanksgivings from finally, legally, breaking in two.

I wanted to tell my dad that I understood. Whether you spend 30 years or three planning a life together, nobody wants to watch it crumble. It was gnawing away at me too.

My dad and I don’t talk about my relationships very often — I’m always waiting for him to ask. My last boyfriend isn’t anything like my mom, and our relationship wasn’t anything like my parents’. But I thought we were headed for 30 years, until a month ago.

He wrote an album about me, full of our story in every note. He isn’t the first guy to write something about me (I’ve racked up an embarrassing yet flattering collection of self-aggrandizing Buzzfeed essays and sweet books about boys kissing boys) but he made us into music and it reverberated in my bones. It felt like something we made together, even though he did all the work and I only named a song or two. While he was working on the album, he sent me early versions of his songs, and I could turn them on and let them sing me to sleep.

I bought a ring, with my fingerprint engraved on the inside. I rehearsed a thousand times in my head giving it to him and telling him: no matter how far away you are, you will always have my hand in yours.

It took me three years, but I finally rearranged the messiness of my heart to leave him an open drawer or two. We had hopped back and forth every few months from Paris to New York in an exhausting international tango, driven by jejune hope, and I was ready.

That crazy bit of hope was everything, and it disappeared around the same time that the album came out. While I was planning my proposal and talking gleefully about moving to Paris, we fell apart. The silence spoke louder than any songs.

I don’t resent him; I only blame myself. In retrospect, it was insane. And I can finally stop curling up with an empty pillow and calling it love.

I brought the ring home with me. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, besides fiddle with it in my pocket. I can’t sell it with my fingerprint on it, and it will never belong to anyone but him.

I had it when Dad and Grant and I started in on the treehouse. I would occasionally reach in my pocket for another screw, and my finger would find it, and I would think about flinging it away, but I wouldn’t.

 


We raised a new foundation with a couple of hefty 2x8s. We screwed the boards into each other, into the trees, into supports.

My dad gave each of us a job: Grant measured and marked the skeleton of the new floor, I attached supports using heavy-duty screws, and my dad measured planks and slotted them into their places. Then, together, we nailed down plywood on top.

I kept wondering why we didn’t knock the old barnwood off the trees. But I followed Grant’s marks, using the electric drill to drive each support into the foundation. It was useful, at least, to be able to climb on the boards as the treehouse above us took shape.

My phone was buzzing incessantly. I kept trying to ignore it. My head screamed at me to at least try and detox from notifications, but a few times I couldn’t help myself. I put down my drill and slipped out my phone. Forty breaking news alerts, 142 emails, and 12 messages from Kat.

It’s okay to put them away for a few days, I told myself, over and over again, like an addict with a mantra. I felt guilty with every unanswered work email, like each one was a hungry child with sad eyes and my phone was Sally Struthers.

I love where I work — it’s exciting, I think we’re creating the future and making a difference. But I work at a startup and I have no idea how to manage my own stress levels. I never figured out what balance looks like, and I ran myself into the ground.

Why is that a hard thing to admit? I have no idea what work-life balance looks like. There. Why did I have to invent a funeral before hitting the eject button? Am I off the leaderboard now? Is this another obnoxious story about why I left New York, only written a few weeks too soon?

I don’t think so. But I’m building a life, or trying to, and everything is still up in the air.

It was really the messages from Kat that I was looking for. I knew these days were tough for her too, and I knew she needed me to be there. Once I responded, I listened to the flight attendant in my head and put the oxygen mask over my own face first. I turned off my phone.

By the time we finished the foundation, the sun was riding low in the sky. Grant and I had to leave — we promised to join my little sisters for a game of ultimate Frisbee. Dad wanted to stay behind and keep working, like always. We shot off on the four-wheeler and left him behind in the trees, quietly building something for us. Just him and his work, building his ideal future, the way he’s always done. That’s his one true love.

I envy him that.

 


At dinner, my mom asked a question:

“You wouldn’t care if we didn’t have that house anymore, would you?”

I changed the subject. A few minutes later I walked to the bathroom, stood over the toilet and retched. When nothing came out I sat down, put my head in my hands, and cried.

The old drafty farmhouse next to the fort in the woods is everything I have ever had, everything that I remember. Without it I have no real home, no anchor, no recollections, no past. It’s what my parents built together, everything we have ever been.

It turns out I did come back for a funeral, of sorts.

 


 

My dad didn’t do much after we left. The sun only gave him an hour more. But now there’s a real floor for a brand new treehouse floating in the branches.

I crawled up onto the plywood, kicking bits of the old boards off the trees when they wouldn’t hold my weight.

I came back tonight to sit in this thing that we built, to look into the pine needles by the glow of my laptop and use the silence to try to be honest. Maybe I’ll leave the ring out here, nailed into a secret spot under the floorboards. Maybe I’ll try to talk to Jesse again. Maybe I’ll text Kat and tell her I love her.

It is possible, I tell myself, to build a new foundation.

I hope this time it will hold.

Things I’ve Learned From My First Week in NYC

Rules for the Subway
Avoid eye contact. If you have a good reason for looking at someone, look at them in a way that communicates that reason unmistakably.

If you carry anything onto the subway, cradle it on your lap as a barrier to everything else in the subway car. If anything happens, you can curl into the fetal position around it so the most important things are safe in the middle.

Attentive instincts are much more useful than any subway map.

Figure it out yourself.

Rules for Work
Get to work early and leave work late. Don’t worry about when you’re supposed to be anywhere, just when you have work that should be done and when you have nothing left to do.

If you want to meet people, introduce yourself. There is no water cooler.

During the week, you work. That is all you do during the week. During the weekend, you play. That is all you do during the weekend.

Figure it out yourself.

Rules for Money
You’re going to spend it, but you’re going to earn it.

Yes, that’s the actual price. Don’t act surprised.

Think about necessities first, friends second, and frivolity last. Groceries don’t cost more here. Restaurant food costs more here than some whole restaurants cost elsewhere.

Figure it out yourself.

Rules for Writing Social Media
You only get one clear brief witty sentence. It helps if you’re a clear brief witty thinker.

Re-write. Fast.

Don’t bother to say things that people have already said, unless you’re giving someone credit for it on purpose.

Figure it out yourself.

Rules for People
People take their cue from you, and reciprocate. Friendly is as friendly does. Scowl and you get scowled at. Smile and you get smiled at.

Look dangerous when you feel that you’re in danger.

You are expected to honestly represent exactly what you want at all times. There’s no time for vague Midwestern passive-aggressive politeness. Expressing exactly what you want quickly and nonverbally is a New Yorker’s way of being polite by not wasting your time.

Figure it out yourself.

Rules for Rules
Make them up as you go along. Everyone else does.

Rules can be like an instruction manual: easy to ignore initially, but a helpful study to get a head start.

Everyone has a different set of rules – cabbies, friends, other ethnicities, roommates – and you should learn and respect them.

Figure it out yourself.

Today I Move to New York City

I’m sitting at the Milwaukee Airport, on a stack of luggage, like the princess and the pea. There’s a suitcase the size of a baby elephant on the bottom, a garment bag in the middle, and my laptop bag on top. Inside of the garment bag, my carefully ironed formal work clothing is probably doing a used-tin-foil impression. There’s no pea involved, but I can tell something’s up.

In case you hadn’t heard, I’m sitting at the Milwaukee Airport on my luggage because I’m moving to New York City. I accepted an offer to work temporarily as a Social Media Assistant for The Daily, the beautiful next-gem iPad newspaper. Living in New York City has been a dream of mine since years before I had ever been to New York City, but I was sure it was exactly like pirated Internet Sex and the City episodes.

I’m sitting on my luggage to punish it. I just had to unpack 5 pounds to avoid a hefty overweight bag charge. If everything overweight was similarly sentenced (by having 5 pounds hacked off and then being sat on), I think we could save a lot as a nation on healthcare.

The challenge for this trip has been simultaneously packing for 2 things that should be mutually exclusive: flying and moving. Somehow, I was supposed to fit my life into a checked bag, a carry-on and a personal item. I burned a lot of bridges with my possessions in the process, but choices had to be made! Most of them went like this:

Packed: The Elements of Style by E.B. White
Not Packed: My AP Stylebook

Packed: My dad’s old Acer laptop
Not Packed: My poor enduring MacBook, declared dead by a technician. Don’t worry, I gave it a proper funeral.

Packed: Slim-fit dress pants, every tie from the 90s or later, and new dress shoes.
Not Packed: Lensless glasses, jewelry, unessential cosmetics, anything frayed or dingy.

Packed: A new haircut that makes me look exactly like my father.
Not Packed: My lazy summertime farm-boy nonchalance.

But I know that all the things I left behind will forgive me in the end, and be waiting in the Midwest for whenever I return, whether it’s in October at the end of my internship or only ever for holidays.

I’m positively buzzing with excitement.

When I Am 80

When I am 80 I will be old – probably reticent and possibly wise.
When I am 80 I will be able to tell the most magnificent story; it will rarely be completely true.
When I am 80 I will still have a full head of hair that always needs to be cut and it will be white.
When I am 80 my hands and face will be lined and weather-beaten, like corduroy overalls.
When I am 80 I might be alone unless a friend or two hasn’t died yet.
When I am 80 there will be some things that I will not be able to do for myself.
When I am 80 I will read a book that I once wrote that no one else read, a book that I can’t get enough of.
When I am 80 I will have an ache for every box without a check mark and a pain for every time someone else got the last word.
When I am 80 I will be surprised by the life I have led.
When I am 80 I will understand time, how to waste it, how to fill it, how to stretch it and how to kill it.
When I am 80 I will have fallen in love with humans too much.
When I am 80 I will miss my real teeth.