The Border Wall



I wrote this in about 2007. It originally appeared in my zine Spandrel #2. It was before the unattended migrant children that came through in the summer of 2014, before the Tea Party halted all useful talk about our immigration system, before the cartels and the murders got really bad. It will also be published in my upcoming e-book, and hopefully updated someday. Some of the stuff in the essay (like the minimum wage) is out of date.

The drive south is cold and windy, because the heat doesn’t work and because a crash dented the passenger side of the VW bus, and as a result there’s gaps in between the windshield and the frame of the car for the wind to whistle in through. I huddle in a slightly sheltered corner, staring at what I can see of the scrubby Arizona landscape in the light of the bus’s headlights. Jason, driving the VW, tells me about the tunnels that run under the highway we’re driving on—drainage ditches that stretch under four lanes of blacktop. There are probably people down there right now, he says, waiting out the night, hiding from the Border Patrol. It’s cold. A bad night for crossing the border.

Between 1810 and 1850, the Underground Railroad in the American Southeast smuggled between 30,000 and 100,000 slaves to freedom in the American North and Canada. Escaped slaves moved alone or in small groups by night, assisted by a select few who knew the route. They didn’t know the way, had often never seen a map, but they journeyed through hundreds of miles of hostile territory, dodging authorities, bounty hunters, and dogs. They risked dying of hunger and exposure, and all for the smallest chance that they might find freedom at the end of the line. As many as two out of three didn’t make it.

Today in the American Southwest, there is a different kind of Underground Railroad. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America pay money to guides to bring them across the border. Migrants who cross the border have a long walk with a choice between the rock—the mountains—or the hard place—the desert—over which to cross. It’s a five day walk from the border to Tucson, and it’s impossible to carry enough supplies with you to get yourself there.

Jason and I pull into a roadside campsite in Nogales, about 100 yards on the Mexican side of the border, next to a customs station where we’re spending the night. I am introduced to Miguel, the gangster who controls this part of the border. Everything that crosses the border in this town illegally—drugs, guns, tropical birds, people—crosses because of him. He knows the gringos, the federales, the Border Patrol. I imagine that very little happens that he doesn’t know about or doesn’t want to happen.

When I meet him, he is a mild-mannered, quiet-looking Mexicano who is shorter than me, wearing jeans and a coat that look like they came from Wal-Mart. I try to reconcile him in my mind with the Al Capone character that’s been described to me, and I can’t.

Migrants pay coyotes roughly $2,000US to cross the border (or about $20,000 Mexican). Minimum wage in the United States is $5.15 an hour. In Mexico, if a person is making about $10US a day they’re doing pretty good. Most people have help crossing the border from friends and family who are already here.

Migrants pay $2,000 to cross the border. How far into the country they come depends on the coyote and on how much the migrant pays. Migrants aren’t always knowledgeable about US geography, or living in the open, and they don’t have maps. There have been incidents of migrants dropped in Tucson and told they were in Phoenix, or within walking distance of Miami. Unconfirmed reports of migrants dropped in the Mexican desert and told they were in Arizona.

They break limbs jumping off freight trains. They die of exposure, dehydration, or hypothermia. They drink bad water in the desert. They come equipped with nothing but what they can carry and their own considerable determination. They get caught by the Border Patrol and deported, and return and get deported again. And still they come.

There’s an underground network to crossing the border, but unlike the conductors on the Underground Railroad, the coyotes are motivated by money, not by their conscience, and not all of them can be trusted.

It’s a bad night to be crossing the border. I shiver in my sleeping bag and I can’t sleep. Maybe it’s the cold, maybe it’s the coffee I drank before we left Tucson, maybe it’s the floodlights that we’re sleeping under, or maybe it’s the fact that I’m under this cold Mexican sky, with federales on one side and Mexican gangsters on the other, and I’m separated from my home by a fifteen-foot high wall of steel and barbed wire and heavily armed men with Black Hawk helicopters, humvees, and guns.

Before dawn, unable to take the cold anymore, I crawl out of my sleeping bag and pull on my jeans and shoes and coat. Someone has built a fire, and as I hop out of the van, Jason comes over and meets me. Four of the people at the fire—a man, a woman, and two small kids—are part of a larger group who have huddled all night in a nearby ravine, waiting for the signal to try the border. The other four men who have arrived are coyotes who brought the woman and her kids up to get warm. These coyotes, Jason assures me, are some of the good ones.

With all this in mind, I approach the fire. The woman—who is my age or even younger—looks at me for a moment, her eyes dark and exhausted. Her kids look maybe three and five, and are wrapped in a sleeping bag that Jason took off his bunk. We exchange no words. The coyotes ignore my presence completely. They are young men, again perhaps my age, and are engaged in a raucous and enormously funny conversation that I don’t understand because I don’t speak Spanish. One of the coyotes goes out of his way to stand between me and the fire, blocking me from the warmth, moving to the left to block me again when I move to the left to move away from him. I think about saying something, about moving forward so he can’t move sideways without stepping in the fire, but ultimately, I say nothing. You don’t belong here, he’s telling me not so subtly, and I can’t in all confidence say I disagree.

The sky in the east has started to lighten when there’s an invisible signal from somewhere and the woman and her kids leave the fire to make their try for the border. The coyotes at the fire don’t go with them. At the critical point, the border itself, the coyotes don’t go with the immigrants. The woman and her kids will meet another coyote on the other side.

The coyotes hang around until full daylight, when a semi-truck piled high with bales of hay driving past our camp fails to clear a power line. The telephone poles are pulled askew, there is a loud crackling noise, a lot of cursing in English (from me and Jason) and Spanish (from the coyotes), and the truck continues on, leaving the power lines dangling just low enough to snag any car that comes down the road. Jason goes to tell the federales (the wing of Mexican law enforcement that is sort of a combination Border Patrol/FBI) and the coyotes take off. Some policemen come, and someone that looks like an electrician, but they wander around and talk and then drive away, leaving the power lines dangling across the road.

In 1961, East Germany began construction on what was not, they insisted at the time, a wall. Tired of the drain on their economy because of East Germans leaving the Soviet Bloc every day to go to work in higher-paying West Germany, and frustrated by the 2.5 million people who had defected in the sixteen years since the end of World War II, the Wall put an effective halt to travel between the democratic and communist halves of Berlin. Any East Berlin citizen who tried to cross the wall was killed by the East German guards, and in the Wall’s twenty-eight year existence, probably fewer than five thousand souls managed to cross it illegally. The Wall was guarded with booby traps, armed guards, watchtowers, anti-tank tetrahedrons, and self-firing guns to keep people on the Communist side. Far from being the idyllic system of government that the Communists claimed, it turned out that they had to forcibly contain their citizens to prevent them from fleeing. When the Wall came down in 1989, symbolically reuniting Berlin, it was seen as a victory for freedom and democracy, and one of the final blows to the Soviet system.

Also in the 1960s, when the Berlin Wall was going up, American soldiers were fighting Communism in the backwater jungles of Indochina. Fighting to keep Korea and Vietnam from falling into the control of guerilla fighters, the Americans strafed the jungle and tore it down to build army bases and camps. After clearing land for airstrips, however, the ground was still too soft for planes to land, so the jungle was paved with corrugated iron sheets that could be picked up and moved to wherever the planes needed to land.

In 1975, when the American presence in Vietnam ended, one of the things that the Americans packed up and took with them was their iron landing strips. Ten years later, after the victory of democracy in the West and the end of the Cold War, the United States decided to build a wall of their own in an effort to stem the economic stress that immigration puts on rich countries when people flee from their poor country. To build it, they brought the sheets of iron they’d used to try and defend democracy in VIetnam and divided the sky with them, then lined it with barbed wire and armed guards. The Border Patrol uses the same unmanned aerial vehicles, motion sensors, infrared detectors, radar, and wireless communication systems that the US Army is using in Iraq. The fence cut towns in half and separated families. Whether they have actually decreased illegal immigration—as the Berlin Wall succeeded in doing—is another question entirely.

There was a time not so long ago, Jason tells me, when the “wall” was just an eight-foot-high chain link fence. People crossed to go to work in the morning, then went back to their homes at night. Illegal immigration was common, but few people stayed in the United States for long periods. People played volleyball games using the fence as a net. Then the wall went up, fourteen feet of steel and barbed wire. It pushed migrants trying to cross the border into rural areas (and increased mortality rates drastically) and forced them to stay in the U.S. for longer periods, since crossing the border is more dangerous and more expensive than it used to be.

The wall is peppered with graffiti and murals trying to give border crossers a taste of what they’re in for. There is one portrait of a migrant worker on his knees, about to be shot by a man looming over him with a gun. The caption says “Arizona.” A dollar sign with wings. La frontera es grande porque estamos en sus rodillas (The border is big because we are on our knees). Deporte la migra (Deport the Border Patrol). Si yankee es un terrorista.

Jason and I leave the roadside camp in early morning to go get breakfast supplies for the deportees who will be arriving soon, driving along a road that runs parallel to the border. On our way into town, we also pass a cemetery, which is a riot of color and flowers and decoration. Ribbons are laced through the fences around the family plots. There are silver pinwheels several feet across spinning over tombstones. Mexicans apparently take good care of their dead, and though this is utterly unlike any American graveyard I’ve seen outside of New Orleans, the colorful graveyard somehow makes me feel less like a foreigner.

Deportees are dropped off just this side of the border, usually thirty or forty at a time, regardless of where in Mexico they’re actually from (and, sometimes, regardless of whether they’re from Mexico at all). They carry everything they own with them and shuffle flatfooted because the Border Patrol takes everyone’s shoelaces (and does what with them?). We give them food, which is far from fancy—tortillas and beans, or Wonder Bread and baloney—but the deportees take it anyway. Jason and another volunteer named Ramón have medical training, and they circulate amongst migrants who have been hard hit by the desert or have gotten hurt along the way. I hand out sandwiches for a little while, and then circulate among the crowd, explaining in my broken Spanish that I have sheets with the addresses of shelters in the area for folks who have nowhere to sleep tonight and small, wallet-sized card with the phone number of the Mexican consulate and an explanation of the rights people have in the United States, be they natives, citizens, immigrants, or deportees. A few take the shelter lists, but everyone wants the consulate cards. Everybody wants to know their rights. I hand them out as fast as I can, trying to explain what they are and practicing my one decent Spanish phrase: “Mi español está muy mal. Lo siento.”

They don’t say much to me. They’re tired, it’s obvious that I don’t speak much Spanish, and I can’t imagine that their experience with the American Border Patrol has left them with much energy or motivation for trying to make new friends with the random American chick who’s greeting them. They rest for awhile, eating and talking and drinking hot coffee, and then they gather their bags to go, raising their hands in farewell. Adios. They walk south into Mexico. Jason tells me that most will cross the border again; he knows one man who has been deported eight times now. If you’re from one of the southern Mexican states, it’s easier to try the border again than it is to try and get home.

One of the volunteers at the camp—a Mexican who was deported and stayed here, at least so far—takes a break between busloads and crouches on his heels some distance away and smokes a cigarette. He sits on top of a small rise, his back to me, staring out at the fence, the Border Patrol, and the scrubby hills of los Estados Unidos. I ask him, later, if he wants to go back to the United States, and a smile flashes across his face. “Sí.”

In this rhythm, the morning passes, waves of deportees and border crossers interspersed with periods when there’s no one at camp but the volunteers. Jason tells us about the history of this camp and what they’re trying to do, and shares stories of border crossers he’s met. We talk about New Orleans and Louisiana and the loss of the coastal wetlands on the Gulf Coast. We tease Ramón about secretly being a woman. We watch the federales chase a man who left his car and whatever illegal item was inside of it and make a run for it—back into Mexico, oddly, not out of it. One of the volunteers shakes his head on hearing that the man fled south. “If he ran into México, he not going to make it,” he says matter-of-factly. “He a goner.”

We spend the morning there, and then it’s time to go, to get in line at la frontera and be interviewed by the Border Patrol. Much to Jason’s surprise (and mine too, given the hippie van we’re in) we are not searched, and thanks to the federales’ willingness to take bribes and let cars cut in line, we get through the border in less than an hour. And then we’re back in the States, which of course looks exactly like Mexico until we’re about five miles over the border and we come upon a Holiday Inn and a Conoco station that’s filled with white people who look like they want to visit Mexico but don’t want to stay overnight there. Something in my head relaxes, because now I’m back on my side of the wall, and even though this side really isn’t any less dangerous than that one, simply by virtue of language and long habit I feel more able to cope with this side. I don’t know if it’s like this for the migrants, if, in spite of their determination and obstinacy and their persistence in getting on our side of the wall, they don’t feel a tiny sigh of relief when they find themselves back on their side of it.

H2O Go



1. Water is the only substance that naturally exists is gas, liquid, and solid form outside of a laboratory setting.

2. The adult human body is about 70% water. This is roughly the same percentage of the planet Earth that is covered in water.

3. 97% of the Earth’s water is oceanic. 2.4% is locked in glaciers and ice caps. Less than 0.6% of water is found in bodies of land (i.e., rivers, lakes, streams)

4. Water is found on meteors. It has also been detected on five of the eight planets in our solar system, as well as one of Saturn’s moons and several of Jupiter’s.

5. Given the right conditions, water can flow uphill. Water molecules adhere to each other via a hydrogen bond (this is why water has such strong surface tension and tends to stick together when it’s, say, running down your windshield in a rainstorm), and because it is a polar molecule. In plants, water is constantly evaporating out of the leaves. The evaporation of one water molecule pulls another to the surface, and so on and so on, so that water from the roots flows uphill via capillary action.

6. Given enough time, water can dissolve anything.

7. Water moderates the Earth’s climate. It can absorb large amounts of heat.

8. Water becomes less dense and expands upon freezing. This is why melting ice does not raise the water level in a glass.

9. Water is a byproduct of a forming star.

10. Ice and snow can sublimate directly into water vapor before melting into liquid first.

11. Blood is, in fact, thicker than water. But if you get dehydrated, your blood gets thicker, which is generally considered a bad thing.

I like water.


“What you need to do is open a retirement account and put money in your 401(k).”

I raised my eyebrows. “Find me a full-time job that offers me even a possibility of that, and I’d be more than happy to.”

This happens, so much, when I’m talking to people over the age of fifty. They just don’t seem to get how much the job market has changed. How much jobs have changed. How much less training employers are willing to provide, how much less they’re willing to pay, how much more expensive health insurance is. I know so many people who work more than forty hours a week on a regular basis and still barely get by. And I admit I feel so unprepared for all of it. To change where I am now, I would’ve had to go to a different college when I was 18. I would’ve had to go to a different college completely. And 15 years ago (when I was 18), I didn’t have the wherewithal to make that choice. And even since I was 18, the world has changed so much.

I’ve never had a job that would allow me to make plans, either. Through college I worked at a series of coffee shops, a habit that carried on after college. I worked in a public library as a shelver, but never for more than 20 hours a week. I majored in what I thought would be a practical major in college (audio engineering), but all I could find after that would pay me was a part-time job on the A/V crew at a hotel setting up projectors for clients, most of whom were fine but a few of whom were rich spoiled brats, paying me $15/hr and no benefits. Frustrated and bored, I went back to school for something impractical but more emotionally rewarding: sociology. But before I could graduate, I fell down an emotional hole and couldn’t claw my way out. I slunk back to Denver, tail between my legs, heart crushed, no job, credit card debt, personal debt, and student loans all weighing me down. I’m back to shelving at a library for $10/hr, 40 hours a week. I’ve been applying for jobs to get something better-paying and more interesting for two years now. The transition from college-era, hourly-wage, dead-end jobs to something with benefits and potential and long-term upward mobility and interest is still a mystery to me. I don’t know how people do it. I don’t know how to make it happen for myself. At some point in the last six months, I feel like I passed some invisible line from “still growing and transitioning into what I want to be” to “well, now I’m stuck here,” and feeling like my resume sucks and nobody will ever hire me for anything other than boring, stupid, unchallenging stuff.

I don’t have a good conclusion here or even really any cogent observations here right now. Just…it kind of sucks out there, guys. Hey, job creators? The market you’ve created sucks.

<i>I originally wrote this piece for a zine I put together in 2006 or so. These days, I actually really want a car, mostly because I’m job searching and in my city, the geographic considerations of how to get from Point A to Point B without a car and without having to take more than two buses is getting aggravating. But I’m going through my old stuff and feel kinda sad that so much stuff is just gathering figurative dust on my hard drive.

Oh, and I have a new bike. (Well, relatively new.) A steel Masi CX. It is much much nicer to ride than my old Mongoose. I rode that Mongoose for more than eight years and never did get a flat.</i>

I used to have a car. I gave it away, to some friends of mine who were moving to a commune in Missouri and had no way to get there. After two years of paying $200 every six months to repair whatever new thing had broken, $400 every six months for insurance, $60 a month for gas and the odd $40 traffic ticket, I was broke. I didn’t have any money left for it. People say all the time that they can’t get afford to get rid of their car; I couldn’t afford to keep mine. My friends seemed shocked by my generosity, but really, I was just worried that I was passing my money trouble along to them.

So now I ride my bike everywhere. My bike is a purple Mongoose that I’ve had since middle school. I talked my parents into giving the bike new tires and a tuneup for my birthday (I’ve received the same bike for my birthday twice now), and now I roll along on the most energy-efficient machine mankind has ever devised. (Incidentally, I don’t know what kind of ridiculous armor-plated tires the bike shop gave me, but three years on I’m still waiting for my first flat.)

One day I was trying to figure out how to save some money so I could continue to live in the style to which I have become accustomed (which generally means eating every day or so), and I realized I’m a full-blown bike kid, checking out what other people ride, casting longing glances at the cute bike messengers that hang out on 17th and California, and generally hatin’ on cars, traffic, pot holes, and going uphill. I think of myself sitting in my old car—which was a Nissan Sentra—and all the space it took up, the thousand-plus pounds it weighed, just to get my relatively small ass to the grocery and back, and I wonder, how did I not feel absurd every time I drove that thing?

I loved my car when I had it, and I still harbor a certain affection that no human should ever hold for a machine. It got me where I needed to go to the best of its ability; and if the clutch pedal broke off once and the car stalled out a few times, at least it did it a block away from my house, and not while I was cruising down the highway. But the damn thing just cost too much money for me to love it like it deserved. Now I have my bike, which is a little heavier than I’d like (nobody’s perfect), but I’m way more fond of it than I was of my car. You want to borrow my car? No problem. Here’s the keys. Don’t crash. You want to borrow my bike? Not a chance. It’s mine. You might hurt it.

I like that I can’t do as much in a day with my bike. Actually, I can probably get about the same amount done, but I’m way less stressed because I don’t have illusions about how much I can get done. I like knowing what my neighborhood looks like. I like being able to smell the air and feel the breeze (by the way, you in cars have no idea how bad smog smells. Ew.) Going fast on a bike is so much more fun than fast in a car. I like having stronger legs, stronger lungs. I get to make fun of dorks in Spandex. I get to go faster than cars stuck in gridlock.

And riding my bike is just fun. Except for those first two weeks every year when my lungs are going to explode and my legs are turning to rubber and I think I just might be sick to my stomach if my heart rate doesn’t go down to something approaching normal, then it’s great. And after I bought long underwear for biking to work in 20-degree weather, it’s even better. Now I’ve memorized every available bike lane, and my brain possesses a fairly accurate topographical map of the city which helps me avoid hills (which are death). And I snicker at the indentured servants of Exxon-Mobil, waiting around to pay $3.50 a gallon so they can sit in gridlock every day.


And all of my 19 followers (I love you all, even the spam bots): Spandrella’s not dead, only sleeping. I’m working on A Project which will hopefully be done in a month or so (and which you will see when it’s done). I didn’t mean for it to derail my blog so completely, but I’m having trouble with creative multi-tasking. So…be patient. And please come back when I return.


All shall be well,
All shall be well,
And all manner of things shall be well.
-Julian of Norwich

photo-1.JPG For a long time, I didn’t tell people that I was from Littleton. I didn’t go to Columbine–I went to Arapahoe–but whenever people learned I was from Littleton, they wanted to know if I went to Columbine, or even assumed I did. And I just didn’t want to deal. Surprisingly enough, repetitive and painful conversations about mass murders are not the sorts of things I want to engage in with strangers.

Just when I started telling people I was from Littleton again, in 2010 or so (it took ten years for people to stop talking about Columbine, and even then, depressingly, that was only because more horrific mass murders eclipsed it). And then James Holmes walked into a movie theater in Aurora, and I stopped again. Not at first–at first I thought to myself, fuck that guy. He doesn’t get ownership of my town. I’ll claim it for mine. And then a woman in a store in New York City ask me, looking all aghast, how I felt about “all these” mass murders that keep happening in Colorado. (If I hadn’t been so shocked and angry, I might’ve asked her how she feels about all these terrorist attacks that keep happening to New York, but I didn’t). And now–a year after Newtown, almost fifteen years after Columbine–guns have returned to Littleton. But it’s different, now. Fifteen years and who knows how many school shootings later. The kids are different, the country is different.

The biggest thing that sticks out for me is the growing refusal to name shooters in the media. Rachel Maddow no longer does it. The Arapahoe County Sheriff won’t do it either. The sense of horror that I remember so clearly after Columbine is shutting down and being replaced by impatience and psychological exhaustion. We still don’t know why these things keep happening, what goes wrong inside these kids’ heads, but our patience for learning why is waning. Once you bring out a gun and start shooting people, we no longer care to sympathize with you and whatever bad thing is going on in your life that’s destroyed your will to live (or to allow others to live). If you do this thing, we will no longer speak your name, or admit that you ever walked the earth. If you read accounts of Columbine, you will often see it said that thirteen people died that day. But it wasn’t thirteen–it was fifteen. Fifteen people did. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are so far beyond cursed that we don’t even count them among the dead anymore. And admitting this is hard, but here goes: I don’t know how I feel about that. On the one hand, that kind of hard, bitter boundary can be a deterrent. Or at least, we hope that it is. But on the other hand, I don’t think anyone is beyond forgiveness, beyond grace, or whatever you want to call it. And I wish we could phrase ourselves in such a way so that even lonely strangers feel loved (in a non-creepy, non-boundary crossing way).

The problem is, when you’re depressed, and you feel yourself edging toward that hard boundary that you know is there, beyond which lies only exile, it doesn’t help to know that people feel that stony about people who do things like what’s inside your head. It doesn’t bring you back from the edge, it pushes you over it. It doesn’t make you feel more loved to know you haven’t done this thing. It makes you feel more alone. More like a monster. Because only monsters do this sort of thing, right? That your brain is even contemplating something like this makes you different than everyone else. Makes you special. Makes you a monster. Just the act of contemplation places you beyond redemption, so you might as well play chicken with the devil.

What I remember from Columbine, my first reaction when I learned about what the boys had done and why they’d done it, my first reaction–before the media started spinning its own stories–was that I knew those boys. I knew how they felt. If they’d been at Arapahoe between 1996-2000, I probably would have been their friend. We probably would have hung out.

There but for the grace of God, right?.

I didn’t know what made me different from them. I didn’t know why it happened at Columbine and not Arapahoe. I still don’t. And most people, when they think “There but for the grace of God,” are referring to not getting shot by a bullet, rather than not being the one who fired it. Now that I’m older, I know that I’m extremely unlikely to ever raise a weapon against another person (which is not to say I won’t ever raise one against myself). But when I was seventeen, I didn’t know that. Here’s what I knew:

We are all of us angels and devils.
All of us sinners and saints.
Equal parts Judas and Jesus, Nazi and Jew.

And maybe if we were better at admitting that, at articulating it, maybe–just maybe–the kids who start losing the battle with their internal monster wouldn’t feel so alone. Wouldn’t feel so damned. Wouldn’t feel so beyond redemption, when they haven’t even done anything yet to exile themselves. In Littleton, after 1999, a popular bumper sticker for a number of years read “We Are All Columbine.” If that’s true, then we are all of Columbine–Isaiah Shoels and Corey DePooter and Rachel Scott and Lance Kirklin and all the rest of them. Including Eric and Dylan. All of them are within all of us.

Because you don’t pull shit like Columbine, like Arapahoe, like Newtown, like Virginia Tech, if you think you can be redeemed. You pull that shit when you think you’re already beyond it. Already damned. When you believe the monster’s already eaten you–it’s after that that you get truly consumed, not before.

We are all in danger of being eaten by monsters, only they’re not the monsters that our parents warned us about. And I think about all this, and about my own dark inside corners, and I feel pity for these kids. These murderous kids. Jesus Christ, they’re just fucking kids.

And then I remember that they’re murderers. And that there’s a reason we don’t speak their names.

And you know what, Karl Pierson? Fuck you. What the fuck is wrong with you, you stupid, entitled little shit? How arrogant and selfish must you be, to think that walking into school with a shotgun because you had some kind of dispute with your debate is an appropriate course of action? I don’t care what he did, I don’t care if he hit you, I don’t care if he molested you, because instead of telling the cops who could have helped you, you shot an unarmed girl and then offed yourself when you realized that actual adults were about to get in on the action. When the actual reality of the shit you’d started came crashing down around your head. Who the fuck taught you problem-solving skills as a child? Who the fuck taught you how to screw up and then learn from it? Who the fuck taught you how to deal with anger, humiliation, and embarrassment?

Fucking nobody did any of those things. Clearly.

You self-righteous, selfish, immature, misguided little twit. You colossally stupid fuckwad.

I wish that you’d told somebody what you were thinking. Just so they could say it back to you, and you could hear how idiotic it sounded once it was outside of your own head. Just how far out of scale your reaction was to whatever the actual dispute entailed. I wish someone could have told you it was small and petty and insignificant and that nobody cared, and that neither would you, in six months, after you graduated and went to college and never saw that fucking teacher again. I wish someone had smacked you across the back of the head and called you an asshole.

Maybe then you’d be alive. And more importantly, maybe Claire Davis would be alive, too.




“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” –Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird

Sometimes, I procrastinate posting something for so long that it becomes relevant again, or my thoughts on the matter actually change or mature. Today’s one of those days, so, huzzah, I suppose?

I sometimes have trouble getting worked up about things I should probably care about (positively or negatively). One that comes most immediately to mind is “inspiration porn” stories of people doing something nice for a kid with disabilities (This story of a boy with autism getting put in his school’s basketball game and scoring many points is a really good example; or any story of a high school senior with Down syndrome being made Homecoming Queen/King). Doing nice things for kids with challenges is just as much (if not more) about making us feel like we’re good people as it is for the benefit of the person. And, if you don’t interact with disabled people in your day-to-day and the only time they cross your path is when they’re bagging your groceries or when one of your friends posts a story like this on your Facebook wall, you may be led to the logical but perfectly erroneous impression that the best thing you can do for a person with special needs is give them one overwhelmingly awesome experience of awesomeness and make their day. I don’t have the patience for people who indulge in that kindhearted but misled attitude. I love the effort, I’m glad you want people with disabilities to have good experiences, and if you want to share them on Facebook that’s fine, but they just don’t generally touch the happy space in my heart.

On the other end, I had a really hard time getting worked up back in mid-August when a family was sent a shockingly horrendous letter about their son, a 13-year-old boy with autism.* Again, this should be right up my alley, right? Defending people with disabilities is right in my wheelhouse. If I was a superhero, I would haunt the places where adults with disabilities hang out and just wait for neurotypical teenagers to show up and start taunting them, and then I would go all Batman on their asses. But the letter really didn’t horrify me, for two contradictory reasons: one is that I think a lot of people are dismissive or hostile or annoyed by people with disabilities, though they’re obviously less caustic about it than whoever wrote this letter. To all the people who were shocked and appalled by the letter, the dark and cynical corner of my heart wonders, where have you been? Where were you in middle school when kids were calling each other retarded? Where were you when Ricky Gervais was pulling “mong faces” on Twitter, and then dismissing the opinions of everyone who was insulted by telling them they were oversensitive? Where were you when Ann Coulter called the President of the United States a retard? Where were you when Margaret Cho said that all the remaining eggs in her ovaries were “retard babies”? (And to all my queer, liberal, feminist, fat-positive friends: Do you understand why I cannot, will not, indulge in your Margaret Cho love?) Do you see how not caring about the language used to describe disabled people leads directly to bullshit like this? But on the other hand, and contradictorily, I also know that the letter writer’s feelings are atypical of the general population. I know that pretty much everyone, once they meet my sister, loves her and wants her in their lives. They want what’s best for her. They want to protect her. They want to keep her around. My sister is extraordinarily well-loved, and that love provides a buffer for me (and for her) when it comes to hostility from misinformed and maladapted strangers who don’t deserve to know her anyway. Haters gonna hate, as they say.

So yeah. Don’t really care about your hate, don’t really care about your feel-good human interest story. I’m tired of it, I’ve heard it before, I want us to have a new discussion. I have bigger worries on my plate than people thinking my sister is a one-dimensional happiness angel, or even people who think she’s a one-dimensional waste of oxygen.

All you people who post the above stories on Facebook, who want to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities: Where were you when voters in my county defeated a ballot measure that would have eliminated the county wait list for services available for adults with disabilities, and improved their quality of life? Where were you while the rate of sexual assault of disabled adults got frighteningly, absurdly high? Where were you when my parents tried to figure out how to financially support my sister when they die, so she doesn’t end up homeless or in a state-run group home or dead? Where were you while Goodwill was paying prison wages or less to their disabled employees thanks to a law that apparently hasn’t been updated since 1939? When disabled adults started living in poverty and homelessness at several times the national average for neurotypical adults?

My sister needs people who love her and care for her, yes. She needs people who respect her and treat her like a person. And she has that. But that’s not all she needs. She doesn’t need people cooing and coddling over her. She needs people who will make sure that her safety and her financial stability are high on the list of priorities. Who know that her quality of life on a day-to-day basis matters. Who won’t let her fall through the cracks. And on that score, somehow, I don’t think I have a hope of getting a million Facebook likes. I don’t have a prayer of convincing anyone in Washington that any raise in the minimum wage should also close the loophole that allows disabled adults to get paid so little. I feel like there’s nobody in the world in between my sister and a life of poverty and danger except for me and my family. And that’s not a confidence-inspiring feeling. That feeling that Samwise Gamgee had, looking down into the pits of Mordor, knowing that all that stood between Sauron and the destruction of Middle Earth was two small hobbits? And moreover, knowing that the responsibility of keeping Frodo safe fell on him, and him alone, in that whole big bad world? Yeah. That’s the feeling.

*The response of the boy’s mother is worthwhile reading, more worthwhile than the original letter, anyway.

1. Boys turn really ugly right when you go to kiss them.
2. Cordelia.
3. You’re sitting on top of the Hellmouth. Go sit on some other mouth.
4. The town’s plumbing situation seems prone to emanating menstrual cycles.
5. Murderous invisible girls.
6. Questionable fashion choices.
7. The school administration seems either unwilling or unable to deal with the abnormally high rate of students and faculty who meet gruesome deaths while on school property.
8. The student population also appears to be eternally replaceable.
9. There’s only one nightclub in the whole town, and they allow minors inside, which means they can’t serve alcohol.
10. Demonic children. Seriously. I’m not sure if they start out deranged, or if the trauma of living in this town destroys their innocent little souls, but something is up with the kids ’round here.
11. Remember how Voldemort disappeared from history for like fifteen years after leaving Hogwarts? I’m pretty sure he went to Sunnydale.

Reasons to move to Sunnydale:
1. Invisible girls are hot.
2. The library has an armory.
3. Hot computer science teacher.
4. The internet is totally fine now.
5. Witty Slayer repartee.
6. People doing high kicks in very short skirts.

0321121711.jpgDear Internet,

Shut the fuck up. No, seriously.

I get that you have an opinion on everything and one of the glorious things about the digital age is that you have the power to share your opinion with everything and everyone, but there are many things that a) are not your business b) your opinion does not matter and c) you are ruining important things for people, all while you run your mouth about something that has no effect on you.

Case in point: Miss America Pagaent. An Indian-American woman won. Were you in the pageant? Do you have any chance at ever being in the pageant? Are you directly related to someone who was in the pageant? No? Shut the fuck up. Nobody cares about your racism or how you feel about the winner or who you think should have won. There’s a reason you’re not a judge in the Miss America Pageant. You know who this whole thing does matter to? The woman who won. Your shitty comment that you make in a moment of pique and then forget about? Has real consequences for her. Has the power to ruin what should be a grand thing for her. Shut the fuck up.

Do you think Quvenzhané Wallis’ name is hard to pronounce? Guess what. It’s not your business, and you’re never going to meet her, so you probably don’t have to learn how to say it. Also, she’s a kid. Leave her alone. Shut the fuck up.

Miley Cyrus isn’t complying with your definition of how women should act? Mind your own business.

Don’t like the hipster with the big glasses and the typewriter? Why do you care? Why do you think that we care that you care? Can’t you go away?

Like many people, I was bullied in elementary and middle school. It was nothing terribly serious; I was never afraid to go to school or anything like that, it was just part of the fabric of my public education. It was a thing that happened. And probably half of what I got teased about was my clothes, which in elementary school were largely hand-me-downs. When I moved to middle school, I begged my parents to buy me some brand-name clothes (No Fear and Mossimo were big at the time), and they did. I thought if I wore what the other kids wore, they’d leave me alone. But no. I got teased in middle school for my transparent and pathetic attempt to try and fit in, mocked for wearing the clothes that everyone else wore to fit in and be invisible.

In high school, I finally got the good sense to be annoyed, even angry, and gave up trying to make people like me, at least through my wardrobe choices. Because what the fuck, middle school classmates. Why do you fucking care what I’m wearing. What business is it of yours. We’re not friends. You’ve made that epically clear since second grade. So why are you even talking to me, about my shirts or anything else? Go away. Shut up and go away. Leave me alone. I’d rather be left alone than to have to interact with you on any level.

Some days I feel that way about the Internet as a whole. Shut up and go away.


bartcrying.jpg I don’t know if you watch The Simpsons, but there’s an episode from either the first or second season where Bart is in danger of failing the 4th grade. He has to pass a history test, or he won’t go on to 5th grade (irony being, of course, that Bart has continued on in the 4th grade for the past 25 years). And for once, he studies as hard as he can–actually falls asleep over his books–but only gets a 59/100. Mrs. Krabappel drops the graded test on his desk, and what is one of the sadder moments in all of Simpsons history, his face crumples, and he puts his head down on his desk and starts to sob.

“But Bart,” says Mrs. Krabappel, “I’d think you would be used to failing by now.”

“You don’t understand,” cries Bart, banging his head on his desk, “I tried this time. I mean, I really tried. This is the best that I can do!” And in that moment, the audience understands. Of course Bart is a troublemaker. Of course he doesn’t try. It’s so much easier to not try–it’s so much easier to handle that kind of failure–than it is to try and not be able to do it. In the first, you may have suspicions, but you can tell yourself that of course you failed, because you didn’t try. In the second, there’s no way to protect yourself. There’s nothing to say besides this is the best that I can do. And it’s not good enough. And you have to look at your real self, not your potential self, not the self you want to be. You have to look at the self that couldn’t get it done.

I know how Bart feels, though I come at it from the other direction. I don’t remember my parents ever telling me to do well in school. I never got rewards for good grades, or even very effusive praise. It was accepted that I would do well. My parents knew I was smart enough. I knew I was smart enough. So we never discussed whether I would do well. And I never really learned how to handle it when things were academically hard, because it never was (and when it was, even when I was a little kid, I knew the difference between trying and failing and not applying myself).

One of the worst things about failing at Columbia was that my ability to fulfill that expectation completely disintegrated in spite of my intelligence, not my lack of it. I was, and am, smart enough to do the academic work at Columbia. I can do the work. But it all fell to pieces anyway. My ability to think critically collapsed. My ability to read something and then recall what I’d read crumbled. My ability to assimilate information from multiple sources floundered. My ability to remember things–even completely simple things like buying food–deflated.

I choked. That’s all there is to it.

The first and most obvious sign was probably the lens essay assignment. I knew the assignment. I know what my teacher wanted. I knew I had a decent idea, the topics I wanted to address, and where I wanted the essay to get up.

And I could.

It wasn’t writer’s block. Writer’s block is when you don’t know what to do, don’t know what to write. Writer’s block is when you’re out of ideas.

What do you call it when you’re full of ideas, but all that comes out on the page is a muddle?

Usually I can at least write something, and if it’s crap, I can clean it up later. This time, I could not.

Writing is the one thing I can do. The one thing I can do, the one thing I’ve always been able to do, and do well, and now I couldn’t. I stared at my computer screen. Spread my rough draft out over a table in the library and just stared at it. I muddled with it all night. I couldn’t get it clear in my head and because of that, I could never get it clear on the page. Never before had I really understood what David McCullough had said: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” When your thinking processes break down entirely, of course you can’t write a paper on historical revisionism and photographs of lynchings.

The paper was due in twelve hours. I couldn’t start over. I couldn’t hand in this thing that wasn’t even a rough draft. And so I stared. And I fumbled. And I cried.

I cried more later, talking to my teacher, trying to explain why my essay sucked so much, and tell him that I knew it sucked, and that I was really sorry, that I wasn’t just turning in something sucky just to finish an assignment and get a grade, but that I really, truly did not know what had happened.

It was the best that I could do. And it was nowhere near good enough.

My teacher did an extraordinary and compassionate thing. He gave me an extension–all the way to the end of the semester. He worked with me on that essay. And I finished it, and even I knew it was good. (You can read the whole thing here–trigger warning for graphic images and disturbing content.) Not the best ever, maybe, but I said what I’d set out to say, and figured out some stuff about myself in the process. And by contrast, the second essay I did for that class, in spite of being longer and more complex, came stupidly easy (and it looks like I never posted that here. I should fix that).

That wasn’t the end of me falling to pieces. And while I had this one teacher who was willing to work with me, nobody else was. To be fair, I wasn’t willing to ask. I mean, what do you say? What previous experience could I draw upon that could have taught me what to do? And what professor at an Ivy League university is prepared to hold hands with an undergrad who’s old enough to handle her shit because she has a sad?

I don’t know what I could have done different. I did my best, and it wasn’t enough. And it wasn’t something I could just push through. I know my dad just wanted me to ride it out and survive it and get it done so it wouldn’t feel like I’d wasted two years, without truly understanding just how bad it had gotten, inside my head.

I don’t really have a conclusion or universal truth to acknowledge. Sometimes you fail, that’s all. Sometimes you fail.


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