The Essential Ellen Willis

I really needed this. I hadn’t been reading much theory-feminism-stuff since school ended, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed it. Ellen Willis reminds me of the second wave professors I had, who I didn’t always agree with, but respected their experience and knowledge. This book is a collection of essays spanning Willis’s career.

Willis started as a rock writer, which is so cool. I loved her piece on Dylan. It’s bold, especially now, when so much of what’s written about him accepted his brilliance without question. Willis thinks he’s a good songwriter, but a terrible poet, which is refreshing, and something I’m inclined to agree with. This piece is from right after John Wesley Harding came out. Willis’s argument is throughout his career Dylan wore all these different masks, he played all of these different figures, and whenever he changed people would get upset. She sees John Wesley Harding as Dylan not donning a specific persona, but admitting that he’s a person who plays songs and wears masks, which of course upset people too. It’s a very compelling theory, and I appreciated it as a way to understand the early/best part of his career. When she writes about music Willis almost always connects it back to her own experience, how the music has impacted her life, which I really appreciate.

That’s how I like my music writing, and Willis is at her best when writing about her own experience. Her essays about discovering feminism are very powerful. I wish I read this in school instead of the drier recollections of consciousness raising that had been assigned. Willis’s account brings the early days of second wave feminism alive, making them seem vital and new, brushing away the dust of common sense they’re usually seen under.

Her own experience is central in the article “Next Year in Jerusalem,” which was written in response to her brother’s decision to become involved with Orthodox Judaism. She follows in his footsteps, taking a visit to Israel, to experience a different sort of life while she examines her thoughts on religion and faith. Willis’s thoughts on perfectionism, drug use, feminism, family, and a thousand other make up a beautiful essay.

I appreciate her more academic writing, even if it doesn’t have the same sort of power. She writes about radical feminism, which is a category I’ve been thinking about lately. Nowadays when I see people talking about “radical feminism” they using it to talk about trans exclusionary radical feminism, which is obviously shitty stuff. But the distinction was originally between radical feminism and liberal feminism — that’s the divide I learned about when studying the development of second wave feminism. Radical feminism was used to describe a lot of different ideas, a lot of which are still revolutionary.

In my education questioning of the family structure was almost always presented as a very queer idea, which erases the way that early radical feminism called for the abolition of the family. In “The Family: Love It or Leave It” Willis uses the term “family chauvinism,” which is the perfect phrase to describe something I’ve been thinking about lately. Willis’s radical feminist critique of the family is something that still feels revolutionary.

Willis also illuminates feminist history, dissecting the feminist sex wars of the 80s in a clear, reasonable manner, that would have been helpful when I was learning about this era in school. She was in the middle of it, but still has a good grasp on the big picture. It helps that I mostly agree with her — she’s sex positive, and accepting of pornography.

The book gets weaker later on, as she takes on the Clinton administration and the war on terror. She seems less clear, and less passionate, or maybe I just don’t care as much about this stuff. One of the later highlights was a pair of articles about the war of drugs. I don’t know if I agreed with all of her analysis, but she brought up some things to think about in my continuing investigation of intoxication culture.

I’ll admit, I didn’t read the last section, which was three chapters of an unpublished book about why the left needs Freud. I don’t need Freud. If I’m not required to read about him for school I’m skipping it. One of the best parts about being graduated is that I don’t have to read anything about psychoanalysis if I don’t want to.

Ellen Willis was a feminist writer who managed to make a life doing something she wanted to do. She’s the kind of role model I need right now. At different points throughout her career Willis writes about the struggle to balance her politics, her desire for a comfortable life, and the burden of living in a capitalist patriarchy. Her writing spurned my thinking into new directions, and inspired me to write more, and made the world seem like a less terrible place. I really needed this book.

Wet Hot American Summer

This movie is not what it looks like at all. It’s not a dumb teen sex comedy, or at least it’s also so much more. It’s weirder. Considerably weirder. Also everyone ever is in it! That is only a slight exaggeration! There’s been a lot written about Wet Hot American Summer recently because Netflix just made a prequel series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. The show is good too, sometimes even great, while completely unnecessary. Right now I don’t have anything interesting or new to say, just go watch it before the summer is over. I don’t think it would be as fun to watch in the fall.
(Except I guess, um wow, the gay romance plot is so good? So sweet and well done, especially considering how this movie is fifteen years old. That feels really progressive and unexpected, I loved it.)

Rage Is Back by Adam Mansbach

five second summary: there’s a kid, Dondi, who’s dad was a legendary graffiti artist who disappeared when the kid was two years old. Now Dondi’s eighteen, at loose ends, and his dad is back. Stuff happens.

The main thing to say about Rage is Back as a book is that it has such a distinct voice. Dondi comes across so clearly, you really get to know him. He’s a good storyteller, kind of a bullshiter, sometimes a liar, and that works. That’s what makes it kinda great.

I dont’ want to spill the beans. I went in not knowing what to expect, and liked it that way. There’s a bit of magic, and a lot of revolutionary fever. A whole lot of drugs, but done in a way that wasn’t a turn off. The awkward family politics were so on point. The sense of dread and confusion and excitement in Dondi’s narrative was note perfect. Liking this book means liking listening to this kid ramble. You don’t have to trust the narrator, shouldn’t probably, but you have to hear him out. It’s kind of a mess, but I liked it.

I could try to break it down more, look at where it’s coming from, and the culture it’s offering. But I think that would make me like it less, so I’m going to skip that for now.

snakeskin

Deerhunter are one of my favorite bands, and I’m very into their new single, “Snakeskin.” It’s a fun song. It slinks around a little bit. One of the funnest things about Deerhunter is seeing how they reinvent themselves with each new album. Is this their glam phase? With Bradford’s very blonde hair and all the face paint in the video, maybe. The video itself is cool — creepy, dreamy, and featuring a really cute dog. This is a really comfortable mood for a Deerhunter song. It feels sort of homey in a fun way. Their next album is out in October.

my middle school clique

Last night I had a dream where I was playing cards at ValleyFair with my old middle school clique. It was a great dream. I miss these people so much — or at least I miss the idea of them.

There were eight of us. Two trios of girls who had known each other for a long time, and two sweet awkward boys. My now-and-forever best friend was part of this clique, but other than her these are mostly people I don’t talk to anymore, and that’s heartbreaking. For awhile they were the best thing ever. For awhile they were the only good thing.

It won’t surprise you to hear that I was a painfully awkward middle schooler. I was almost completely miserable for three straight years. So much of who I am was formed as a response to being miserable in middle school, the punk rock, don’t talk to me, prickliness was started there, a defense mechanism to keep myself safe and mostly sane. But these were the people I let in. Sometimes we were mean to each other, sometimes we fought, but I liked these people better than most the rest of our grade.

We had all these weird rituals that I can only half remember. We all had nicknames based off the Fruits Basket manga. (I kind of wonder if this current wave of nostalgia was kicked off because they’re publishing more Fruits Basket. I still have most of the original series on a shelf in the basement. I don’t read a lot of manga, but I honestly might give the new series a try because the original holds such a special place in my heart.) We liked pop punk bands, but not enough to try to dress like them. We thought Napoleon Dynamite was really cool. We mostly didn’t date. During recess we’d chatter and run around. We were almost in the same homeroom in eighth grade, and it was awesome.

We hardly ever hung out away from school all together. Five of us went to my high school, and we stayed friends through all of that. The other three drifted off. I think other people kept in touch better than I did, but I’m not actually sure. I wanted to stay friends with these people, but it didn’t really happen.

I’m facebook friends with everyone except for one girl, and my facebookless bff. I have a vague idea of what they’re up to, and they can keep tabs on me, even though so much of my life doesn’t make it onto facebook. That isn’t the same thing as actually knowing each other.

I’m such a different person now than when I finished eighth grade. It’s been eight years. That’s honestly terrifying.

I’m going to see my best friend tomorrow, and I’m going to suggest we have a reunion. I want to see how my old friends have turned out. (I watched High Fidelity for the first time in middle school, it may have been formative.) I want to know what kind of adults they are. I want to know if we still relate, if we still get along. I want to go to ValleyFair, like we used to for a field trip every year on the last day of school, but the idea of planning that sounds really ambitious. We can just get together and play cards. It seems like we did that a lot. Our game was presidents, or sometimes spoons. It was fun. It was good. I miss it.

I can’t go back in time, and I wouldn’t want to, but I want to find out if we can be a part of each other’s futures.

cosmopolis

What a terrible movie. I want to watch it again. The beginning was just… Like, I don’t even know how to put this into words. It was so flat, so quiet, so so very bad. Laughably bad. But then it kept going, and it got weirder. I wouldn’t say it ever got good, but more stuff happened, and it was weirdly compelling. Or well, parts of it were weirdly compelling. I watched this movie by myself in the middle of the day, and I had a hard time making myself pay attention when it was easy to fuck around with my phone. I don’t know how it would have been different in a theater — maybe I would have been bored, or maybe being forced to pay attention would have roped me in, and I would have gotten swept away.

I read the book when the movie came out, because the reviews made it sound interesting — they didn’t say it was good, they weren’t misleading, because it sure is interesting. I’ve forgotten most of the book, especially the ending, and I have to admit, that the ending of the movie didn’t really click into focus for me. But like I said, I was distracted. The general idea stuck though — a corporate tool riding around in his limo all day, traveling through the world in his white limo while stuff happens around him.

I remember thinking it was a really weird movie for Robert Pattinson to be in, because it’s a really weird movie, and he’s the Twilight vampire guy. It’s a little bit sad that’s still all he is. He was good though? I think? It’s hard to say if the acting is good or not when they’re giving lines like this. The language is all so forced, so stylized, and I liked it, but also, it’s terrible.

I need to watch it again, possibly repeatedly, and I probably have to reread the book, and write a long academic paper about what a terrible movie it is. I mean, I probably won’t do any of that, but I could. That’s the kind of movie it is — super fascinating but bad.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I loved this book and want to recommend it to every single person I know. It’s that sort of incredible and universal.

Achilles and Patroclus are a classic (classical) love story, and for a long time it has been pushed to the edges of the story. It’s important not to project modern ideas about homesexuality and gay identity into an ancient setting, but this is a part of an often hidden history of same sex desire. When I studied the Trojan war in school the story of Achilles and Patroclus was always couched in the language of friendship and comradeship. There wasn’t romance or passion. The Song of Achilles fixes that.

But really, who cares about the political ramifications. Just read it because it’s great. It is beautifully romantic, and terribly sad.

I started reading it and basically didn’t stop until it was over. When I was done I wanted to start over and read it again right away. I told everyone I talked to that they should read it.

It’s told from Patroclus’s point of view, which works very well. He’s on the edge of all of Achilles stories, the companion of a great hero. He has enough remove and perspective, and very little power in how things unfold, except for his influence over Achilles, which is considerable. Part of the joy is watching them grow up, maturing from children to young men with heavy burdens, the weight of destiny. I’m familiar with the legend, I know how their story ends, but I still wasn’t prepared for how much it hurt. That’s a mark of good storytelling — that inevitable tragedy still feels like a punch to the gut. A stunning book. Go read it.