June 18, 2022

Visible mending practice

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 7:37 pm by chavisory

Near the beginning of the pandemic, I had one decent pair of jeans that was on its last legs, having had fraying holes in the inner thighs patched twice. I bought two more, with the intent that one pair, I’d wear then (I had a personal policy of always putting on jeans or a skirt for the day, not just living in my pajamas), and one that I’d keep for returning to work and civilization.

And the pandemic outlasted them both.

And I’ve been working, but something about not being able to do theater right now, probably, has made me crave the ability to feel good at making something again. Even though as a stage manager, I’m not an actor and I’m not precisely a member of the creative or design teams, when a show opens, I get to say “Look, I helped make that!” and I’ve been missing it. I don’t have a lot of space at home for doing very involved arts and crafts, but one thing I can do while I’m watching TV or movies at my desk is sew. And so when my latest new pair of “good” jeans started fraying (and me getting pissed off at constantly replacing jeans that don’t last), I started trying out some visible mending.

The basic idea is that by not trying to hide or disguise clothing repairs, you add artistic character to clothes in addition to extending their life.

These jeans still have a lot of work worth doing on them, but here’s one of my favorite patches so far:

A dark blue patch with a floral pattern attached to a pair of jeans with pink stitching. Yes, that’s Old Navy mask fabric.

Patch on a blown-out elbow of my favorite flannel shirt:

Burgundy-colored patch with a pattern of pink and white blossoms on a pink and burgundy plaid shirt. Yup, also a former Old Navy mask.

Some not-so-visible mending on an older t-shirt I love but whose front had worn full of tiny holes. I stitched squares of light cotton on the reverse side to reinforce particularly damaged areas, and also since the original t-shirt fabric is so delicate, to prevent new stitching from just ripping out:

A moss green t-shirt with an elaborate embroidered front has a whole bunch of tiny green embroidered stars hidden in the original pattern to close small holes.

Detail of crossed heart on sleeve where there used to be a hole:

A heart stitched in cream-colored thread on sleeve of green t-shirt, with a green star stitched over a small hole in the center.

I have to say, it’s definitely made it conspicuous that after 12 or so years of zombie apocalypse, no one in the Walking Dead is wearing significantly repaired jeans…

June 9, 2022

Not Everything We Value Needs to Be “Compulsory”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:39 pm by chavisory

Hi everyone! I’m happy to have a column in OnStage Blog again this week, addressing the issue of mandatory arts education.

You can read it here.

April 17, 2022

A small visual poem (not by me)

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 2:07 pm by chavisory

From my evening walk in the park last night.

March 22, 2022

“When Something Finally Clicks”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 8:09 pm by chavisory

Hi all! This week I reviewed Mickey Rowe’s debut book, Fearlessly Different: An Autistic Actor’s Journey to Broadway’s Biggest Stage for the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism! You can read it here.

March 4, 2022

What feeling represented feels like

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:09 pm by chavisory

I actually wrote this a few years ago, and for a long time I thought it was the bones of something else, before realizing it actually was what it was. I’m posting it between the occasions of this year’s coming release of season 4 of Stranger Things, and the recent death of author Gary Paulsen (1939-2021).

*

One day in 2017 I spend a rainy day off watching Stranger Things, and immediately afterwards start obsessively reading reviews and commentary. And I know by now I shouldn’t feel the wind knocked out of me when I read someone say things like “Sometimes she seems like a real person…at others she’s little more than a plot device,” or even “the ultimate in lazy sexist tropification,” but I still do. It happens every time. If I really, really love and identify with a character, and go looking for what other people have said about her.

Like I feel like I should just be used to the fact, by now, that every time I strongly and viscerally identify with a female character, she will be declared nothing like a real girl, and I can’t help but suspect that has some relationship to the frequency with which, growing up, I was told in effect that I had to be mistaken about what I was experiencing, because that’s not how things really are for people. That real people don’t work like that.

But Eleven disguised, in that ill-fitting dress and blond wig, looks the way I felt every time, when I was her age, that someone made me dress up kind of like their idea of a real girl.

I hated the way I looked like a boy in an uncomfortable girl suit with a tight collar, told to keep my hair out of my face.

She looks the way that felt.

And how everyone blames her for not being able to explain what she knows.

And only really value her for what she can do.

The way no one really thinks about what anything costs her.

The way they expect her to know things she couldn’t possibly, and the way she just says “no” to demands she knows she can’t meet.

*

At some point a popular blog publishes an honor roll of books containing examples of good representation of disabled people. It doesn’t make me want to read any of them.

The protagonists all sound like solutions to math problems, and I just don’t care.

*

Eleven has a back story that no one would believe even if she could tell it.

Treadway Blake can’t say “I’m sorry” in words, only in anonymously mailed sheet music and elaborate secret murder plots.

Amy Pond and Olivia Dunham both know what it feels like to exist in two different whole sets of memories.  I feel myself being re-embodied back into the world I belong to as Peter and Olivia do the same—Peter keeps defiantly being a person in a version of the universe he was erased from, Olivia learning how to live with memories of a whole life she wasn’t supposed to have had.

*

There were two books I had to read in 5th grade for the lunchtime book club. One was called On My Honor, and it was by far the more critically acclaimed, and one was There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, and that was the one I loved.

The main character was a boy who was nothing like me in a lot of ways, who was actually more like some of the real-life classmates I found incredibly grating. But he felt like he couldn’t get anything right, and he talked to his stuffed animals.

My mother asked which one I liked more and I told her, and she said “No, really?”  I don’t remember what I said when she tried to make me explain why. Probably “I don’t know.” I had too much alexithymia and not enough abstract language to say something like Bradley behaves in ways other people find immature and aggravating because he feels unheard and alienated by the social expectations of his peers.

“I just did.”

The American Girl dolls and books had become a huge hit around the same time that I had developed an obsession with 19th-century pioneer life. But whenever I got bought any American Girl things, they were Samantha’s.

Kirsten felt shabby and insufficient and alone in her new world, where she struggled to make herself understood or valued in an unfamiliar language.

Samantha was elegant, articulate, polished, at home in her own skin, and seemed to have the world handed to her again and again in a way I found baffling. People listened to her. Adults believed her. She looked more like me, with her dark bangs, but I couldn’t figure out why, otherwise, I was supposed to like her more, why I was supposed to be more like her.

When I first read The Lacuna, I didn’t even like the writing that much right away, but—and I couldn’t put my finger on why at first—Harrison Shepherd felt more like a real person to me than like a character. I actually thought, “I don’t like the writing that much but I like this kid.” I still feel guilty analyzing details of his characterization as if he’s a literary creation; it feels like betraying his privacy. He feels like a person.

And yes, he’s a multiply marginalized person, and yes, that’s significant, but that’s not why.

It’s the way he compares the tactile experiences of mixing plaster and making pastry dough.

“Mrs. Brown,” he says later, “I have an odd impairment.”

*

I’ve been thinking lately about how a lot of the social justice movement often treats people like collections of identities, and not actually like…people. I think those can look like the same thing, but they’re not.

*

I see these lists go around about how to write an autistic character or how to write a disabled character, and I’ve contributed to some, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about them, or where they miss the mark, even when I mostly agree with them.

Almost without exception, they start with “Say their diagnosis.” But we still live in a time when that isn’t the life that a whole lot of us have lived. A lot of our actual lives are going to fail those checklists and I don’t understand why I’m supposed to feel more represented by characters written as if experiences that broadly resemble mine are off-limits, or should be.

I read this list of books being honored for their representation of disabled characters and I can barely make it through some of the synopses.

But near the beginning of Zodiac, I watch Jake Gyllenhaal’s character walk into a conference room of fellow journalists who all act like they can’t hear him speak, and this character wasn’t created to make me feel represented (indeed, he is actually based on a real person), but I have never, ever, ever seen this experience—one of the earliest memories I have, one of the core constants of my whole life—represented on screen from the point of view of the person being targeted by it.

If there is a common thread to my experience of fiction, it’s probably that I fail to identify with the characters I’m supposed to, and do with the ones I’m not.

And sometimes these listicles about how to write an autistic character that I’m supposed to identify with just make my heart sink, because my life doesn’t add up right in this checklist, either.

In a way, it feels like yet another way in which disabled people are held to standards that non-disabled people aren’t in order to be considered good or real.

*

Part of why I think, even with so much guidance that now exists about how to write an autistic character, that I still usually find coded- or accidentally-autistic characters better-written than explicitly-identified ones, is that, when you can’t lean on clinical language or community-approved terminology lists to do your work for you, at all, you have to actually just write the experience. You have to show and not tell. You have to really be in your character’s head, and I’m afraid that a lot of the guidance I see on writing good representation, rather than helping in that regard, is actually just leading writers to believe that they can’t, that they shouldn’t, deeply and viscerally identify with their characters in certain ways if they don’t share a facet of their identity. And, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that prohibition serves either artistry or empathy.

“Write about us, but don’t write our stories.”

Well, I don’t want to read about a character if I’m not reading some facet of their story. What is the point?

*

If I’m thankful in one way for growing up not knowing the word for what I was, it’s that I never really had occasion to ask “What does this have to do with me?” when faced with the stories of people purportedly not like me in fiction or history. Any story might give me some vital clue about how to identify or understand my own experience. I had no basis on which to be picky about who was or wasn’t similar enough to me in some arbitrary way to warrant my attention, especially since a lot of characters with lives that looked like mine didn’t actually make any sense to me. I grew up surrounded by people who looked like me. But nobody was like me.

Attractive and graceful upper-middle class white girls with tight-knit friend groups and lives that added up and adults who were a dependable source of support just didn’t say anything for me. Those weren’t reliable signals.

So there was no real barrier to perceiving something important to me in the stories of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, or a boy stranded alone in the woods in a plane crash, or an Inuit girl who leaves a home where she’s not welcome to live with a pack of wolves, or the kind and humble daughter of an African king.

I don’t identify with characters because they look like me. I do when they feel like me.

When Jodie Whittaker becomes the 13th Doctor, I read the status of an immensely well-intentioned male friend, who says “Listen guys, for 54 years, we’ve always been able to see ourselves in the Doctor. And now it’s the other half of the population’s turn.”

And don’t get me wrong, I loved the casting choice. I love Jodie Whitaker’s work. I was happy, and I thought it was exciting, and right.

But the other thing is that I’ve never not been able to see myself in the Doctor just because he was a man. (Except, really, he’s a two-hearted humanoid alien masquerading as our preconception of a “man,” but, details.) I’m confused by and then I resent the implication that I never got to see myself in the Doctor when I did.

I agree that it’s ridiculous the way so many men insisted they wouldn’t be able to empathize with a female Doctor. Why is it not absurd to assume that people like me could never have empathized or identified ourselves with a male one?

I love the casting of a woman partly because I think male Whovians should get a chance to have that experience.

But I wasn’t not having it all along.

January 5, 2022

Drop

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:44 am by chavisory

[Image description: A single drop of water hangs from a twig of a bare, reddish brown tree branch, against a gray-blue sky.]

From a walk in the park a couple of days ago, a fitting image I thought for the start of a new year when many things still feel impending.

December 28, 2021

No such thing as “out of time”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:57 pm by chavisory

One of the most personally important, life-changing, and freeing things I’ve been learning to internalize lately, as a writer or when I’m making art just for myself, is that you can just do things over again.

And maybe that sounds really obvious, but I think a lot of common experiences with schooling actually make this a difficult thing to learn. Homework is always due the next day, projects and papers within a pretty limited time frame; you have to get things right the first time or you will not finish at all, or you just have so much work spread between different classes that you never really have time to rework something to your satisfaction, even if it’s something you enjoy and care about, rather than just to get it done on time.

It’s like specifically being taught that you’re not supposed to need to practice. You’re not supposed to need more than a night’s processing time for any given skill or concept. Even as we’re told that the whole point of homework is for practice, we’re not really supposed to need more than one try at it.

And working in production, while the time pressure is part of what makes it exciting…this thing that people are buying tickets for? It doesn’t actually exist yet! It will in three weeks, though, we promise! …it also means that large amounts of money are at stake if initial design or technical decisions turn out not to work the way they need to and have to be revised.

But over the course of the pandemic, even though I did have some significant obligations, I also had more time than I think I ever have in my adult life when there was nothing really I had to do by a certain time, when there was no work I owed to anyone else for days and days on end. And only then did it start to truly hit me that things I’m doing essentially for myself, ostensibly because I enjoy them?

I can re-do them as many times as I want. I can take the time to make them as good as I can make them, and not just finished enough to satisfy a deadline or for the minimum grade I need to earn.

Not happy with how a poem came out? I can rewrite it. I can rewrite it as many times as it takes. And I don’t just mean edit or revise it. I mean start over from the beginning and write it again. It’s not due tomorrow. It’s not due ever. It’s not immutably screwed up forever because I approached it wrong the first time and now that’s just the way it is.

I did a visible mend on a pair of jeans recently and didn’t like how it turned out. So I took it out and did a different one.

I was reinforcing some fraying seams on my hoodie this week and didn’t like the job I did. I did a better job on the second arm. The next time I sit down to watch a movie, I’ll rip the stitching out of the first arm and do it again.

There are no rules. There are no time limits. The time you spent on the first try wasn’t wasted. That’s what it actually takes to get familiar with what you want and what you’re capable of.

December 15, 2021

Dana Scully and the trauma of unanswerable questions

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 12:32 pm by chavisory

[This post contains major spoilers for season 5 and beyond of The X-Files!]

The inspiration for this post was, of all things, a silly X-Files quiz I was taking at work that inspired a Twitter discussion of a badly written question.

The question in question was “How many children has Dana Scully had?”*

And, well, the tricky thing is that there are a few different possible ways to determine the answer to this question.

Are we counting only the child that she gave birth to by choice? Then the answer is one: William.

Are we counting the children who we actually met as characters in the course of the run of the show? Then the answer is two: William and Emily.

Are we presuming that by now she has had the child we find out she’s pregnant with in the series finale? Then the answer is three. Her known, living children? We’re back to either one or two (William and the as-yet-unnamed baby), depending on the time frame we’re looking at.

But if we really want to count the number of children who might exist or have existed, who might be genetically hers?

We don’t know, and neither does she.

And I don’t think that the quiz writer meant to provoke any such debate or serious consideration of this subject. I don’t think the intent was to write a question requiring this level of interpretation. Honestly it seemed like the whole thing was written by someone who was barely familiar with the show but went through a guidebook or something for material. Because anyone intimately familiar with the story would know that that’s a virtually unanswerable question without specifying some additional conditions or boundaries. You can make some assumptions about what the test is looking for and make an educated guess based on those assumptions. (I went with “how many did we meet as characters within the broadcast run of the show,” and got counted right.)

But I think it’s actually significant to some of the central tragedy of the show and its depiction of ongoing trauma—one of those things being told around the edges without ever actually being articulated or drawing our attention directly to it—that we don’t really know. That there are some incredibly basic questions about her own life that Dana Scully cannot answer.

Like where she was for three months of her life. And how many children she has.

“The answers are there,” she says in the pilot episode. “You just have to know where to look.”

But she doesn’t. In regard to a couple of issues of central to her life, she doesn’t really know where to look (or might not want to), and there may not be an answer. (We learn in “Emily” that the Syndicate might not have been keeping astonishingly good track of the children it created in the course of the hybridization experiments. Mulder and Frohike manage to trace a handful of birth records, but it seems like a lot of these children were just kind of abandoned to the social services system.) Even after all this time, there aren’t any straightforward answers, not just to some of the biggest questions in her life—but to some of even the barest facts.

And the thing is that that exacts a toll on you. It takes a toll on your ability to function in the world, to not be able to fill out things like forms or surveys or screening questionnaires. It takes a toll on your ability to form normal relationships when you can’t answer basic or casual questions in straightforward ways. To in effect always be lying by omission, either to yourself or someone else.

Even if the underlying story isn’t inherently traumatic, which Scully’s is. Even if the answers do exist and you do know what they are, they just don’t translate into checkboxes, forms, applications, or casual conversation. When they are none of the available answers to the multiple choice questions. When normal, innocent inquiries force you to lie, evade, or say “Where do I even begin.” When this is a constant fact of your life.

Scully has to lie in some way, shape or form, to virtually every possible question about her children. The two she didn’t get to raise for differently terrible reasons. The unknown names or even number of who knows how many others.

It’s interesting to me that we see at least a couple of instances in which Mulder has to give an evasive answer to a question that should be easy but isn’t.

“Do you have a significant other?”
“Um, not in the widely understood definition of that term.”

“Do you have kids, Agent Mulder?”
“Uh, well, I have son, who’s… he’s grown, though.”

But I don’t think we ever really see Scully have to navigate such a conversation, although she must. (We do see a couple in which she just doesn’t answer an accusation that she doesn’t know what it means to be a mother, or to be abducted.)

It’s in and of itself a form of trauma we see perpetuated on both Mulder and Scully into the revival, that after everything they’ve been through, who can they even talk to about it? (Besides each other, and that seems to carry its own share of problems.)

And I know we love to pillory the writers for leaving Scully with so few female friends or close colleagues by the end of the show that we didn’t even know a single one of the women at her baby shower. But really? I have no doubt that this plays a role in the seemingly inexorable departure of pretty much every female acquaintance from Scully’s life, even aside from the ones we see die. The writers didn’t miss the mark all that badly at the end of the day. It is hard to maintain intimacy or equal footing in relationships with people who you have little ability to share everyday details of your life with because they just have no possible frame of reference.

It sucks. When the facts of your life don’t fit into the way the world works for anyone else. When even trying to explain is exhausting and only makes you a constant object of ridicule or fascination or just incomprehension.

I’ve been talking a little bit recently about illegibility in the lives of autistic people—how so often even well-meaning researchers and professionals don’t succeed at asking questions in a way that lets us give true or useful answers, because so few people really know what our lives look like. I can’t even tell you how many surveys or web forms I’ve just had to stop and give up on because of a question to which I had no possible true answer but also couldn’t skip or go around. About the need to allow for multiple answers and complicated answers and answers that don’t fall into any category you might have anticipated needing to identify, especially in the realms of gender and sexuality, relationships, living arrangement, and employment. I’ve had four meetings with my ACA navigator this year alone, largely for help in constructing the elaborate web of half-truths that will let me exchange data about my life for affordable health insurance, because the state of New York doesn’t know how to ask questions about those things that would let me just tell them the truth.

To say nothing of the things that I mostly just don’t tell people.

And it takes such a toll, to never be able to say true things about your life. Not just in terms of, say, getting healthcare providers or tax professionals or social services or educational institutions to understand what you need, but in your ability to feel known, feel counted, feel like what’s happened to you does count.

That you can be accounted for.

*Interestingly, when I went back to the quiz to make sure I’d remembered the wording right, the question had been changed to a more answerable version: “How many children does Dana Scully know she’s had?” Which is still tragic in its implications, but more possible to come up with a straight answer to. So it’s possible that more people than a handful of fans on Twitter said something…

December 11, 2021

Beacon Broadside’s Top Ten!

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 1:32 pm by chavisory

Hi all! I’m working on getting a couple of real posts up pretty soon, but in the meantime, I was recently thrilled to be notified that my column, “Dear Parents: ‘Autistic’ Isn’t a Bad Word” was one of Beacon Press’s top ten blog posts in the Beacon Broadside this year!

If you missed it the first time around, you can find a link to the original post as well as to the Beacon Broadside’s other nine top posts for the year here!

November 10, 2021

The vampire isn’t an angel just because it’s scary.

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 1:08 am by chavisory

This is adapted from a recent Facebook post, since I decided not to antagonize this person on Twitter, which I judged would be a poor use of both of our days.

[Tweet by a person whose name and image I’ve pixelated reads “I think what a lot of folx don’t quite understand is social justice isn’t meant to make you feel comfortable. It’s quite the opposite really. It’s meant to make you confront the injustices in this world which is inherently an uncomfortable process. /1”]

But I think it’s worth talking about why this tweet actually encapsulates, really concisely and eloquently, part of why I have always found the social justice movement as we presently know it so profoundly alienating.

(The other part involves its incredibly close resemblance to the dynamics of evangelical Christianity, but that’ll have to remain another soapbox for another day right now.)

When I first started getting into activism, I believed, perhaps naively, that the point was to see justice done. And sometimes that does involve changing a lot of people’s core beliefs and opinions.

And that takes time. It takes different approaches for different people and different situations. People mainly change their essential worldviews over long periods of time, for personal and complicated reasons, not because the right person yelled at them, berated them or made fun of them.

And sometimes it means getting shit done regardless of what other people think about it.

Sometimes it is inevitably going to be uncomfortable. Sometimes you’re going to learn things you wish couldn’t be true or that you didn’t want to know. Learning and growing can be painful. Confronting your own cognitive dissonance or the failures of your worldview can be uncomfortable. Pain and discomfort can be necessary to growth. People seriously interested in confronting their prejudices should be ready for that. You’re not always going to be reassured that you are good and right or that what you’re trying to do is the best possible thing.

That’s life.

But I believe the inversion—not just that confronting injustice is likely to be uncomfortable, but this thinly-veiled (and sometimes not-at-all-veiled) “the point is making people uncomfortable,” “the point is to make you do things that are going to make you uncomfortable” rhetoric that has become such an article of faith in social justice advocacy—is too much of an open door to deciding that whatever you need to do to make the right people uncomfortable is justified, to the point of open mistreatment and upsetting people for the sake of it.

You’re making someone else uncomfortable, so that must mean you’re doing the right thing, right? That’s just what it takes, right?

That must mean they needed to be made uncomfortable, right?

I mean, that’s the logical extension of the directive that “if you’re defensive, that means you’re wrong, so just own up to it and apologize.” So if you’ve made someone defensive, it’s because you were right to. That’s just what confronting injustice means, right?

It’s a mistake I’ve seen in a lot of social justice rhetoric over the years now—that if you’re making someone uncomfortable that means you’re doing it right. Regardless of what, if any, other effect on the issue at hand you’re actually having.

And as someone who, for various reasons, lots of people over the course of my life have decided that I needed to be made uncomfortable and that it was their moral imperative to do it…I can tell you that that is not ever going to go the way you hope it will.

While I think it probably wasn’t the intentional primary thesis of the show, events at one point in the recent Netflix series Midnight Mass vividly illustrate the horrible potentialities of the inversion.

[Major spoilers for Midnight Mass from here on out!]

[Not kidding! If you have not watched Midnight Mass but you do intend to do so, do not read!]

When Father Paul reveals the vampire to his parishioners at the midnight Easter Mass, he first attempts to reassure them in their understandable alarm by reminding them that angels have almost always had to announce their presence by saying “Be not afraid.” Because the normal reaction of a human to the sight of an angel is terror.

“And remember, brothers and sisters! Have faith, that in the Bible, every time they mention an angel, when an angel appears to we humans, we are afraid!”

And it’s true—the Bible describes angels as terrifying and bizarre, and the messages they bring to humanity as usually disruptive and uncomfortable.

What that doesn’t mean is that anything terrifying is an angel.

Vampires are scary. Angels are scary.

But the vampire isn’t an angel because it’s scary, and being scary, in and of itself, isn’t proof of something being an angel.

Sometimes things that are ultimately good are terrifying. Sometimes good news is scary. But not everything terrifying is actually good. And not everything “uncomfortable” is actually justified, or even true. Sometimes the reason you’re uncomfortable or defensive is because you are being treated badly. Sometimes the reason you’re being told to ignore your instincts or your values is because it is in the interests of abusers for you to do so. Sometimes your cognitive dissonance is because what you’re being told is right and necessary is wrong and messed up.

Sometimes the thing you’re being told is an angel looks like a vampire because it is one.

And sometimes the rat poison you’re being served as a sacrament is actually just rat poison.

The bridges you burn may light your way. Or they might strand you on a burning island full of vampires.

I think once we’ve decided that making people comfortable or uncomfortable is the point of our activism, once we’ve decided how other people are supposed to feel and that our moral prerogative is to make them, we’ve already lost our way.

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