Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Artistry is Privilege: With Apologies for Late Blog Posts

I feel like I'm in confession. Forgive me for my sins. It's been two months since my last blog post.

I could give all kinds of excuses for my failure to post this summer with any consistency, but the truth is that I've been busy, and I no longer think that needs an apology or an excuse. In fact, one thing the past two months of hustle and guilt have taught me is that art and privilege go hand in hand.

Our culture is filled with images of artists spending hours covered in spots of paint, feverishly creating their magnum opus in wood-floored studio, or writers sipping lattes in leisure as they edit their debut novels. There's a certain romanticism of the artistic life, and some people really do live it. 

The rest of us have day jobs and kids.

Most of us have passions for writing or some other artistic vision, but very little time to pursue them. The majority of out time is spent making the money that keeps us and our dependents alive. For some of us, our work, even if we love it, saps most of the time and mental energy that we could use to hone our craft and breathe life into the works we want to give the world.

And the publishing industry knows this. On my own bookshelf here in my tiny writing nook, I have titles like The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray and The 8-Minute Writing Habit by Monica Leonelle. Leonelle's cover actually has a picture of a woman with several arms, holding a grocery bag, a baby, a backpack, a clock, and a computer. It's a fine book, and a helpful one, but my point is - they know, y'all! They know that an entire market of stifled writers exists, dreaming up stories on their eight to ten hour shifts only to come home too physically exhausted and mentally drained to actually write them. 

On the other hand, there are rich writers out there, trust-fund kids (not that this is inherently a bad thing) who really do have the time and money for a devoted writers life, including all the contemplative morning lattes and idyllic retreats at lakeside spas. I wouldn't know what that feels like, but I imagine that it's pretty satisfying, having the time to not only write the stories that beat against the chest, but to actually reflect on them, to consider one's role in the culture and industry. I do wonder if it ever occurs to them that the barista who carefully concocts the perfect caffeinated beverage for them might have her own stories or poems to write, might jealously crave the leisure time they enjoy.

On that subject, Virginia Woolf got it right. Developing a writing practice takes time, space, and money, and those either gifted or cursed with the passion, but not the opportunity, drive themselves crazy with desperation. Alice Walker, in her essay "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens," pointed to the elaborate and beautiful quilts and gardens created by women who poured their artistic instincts into their everyday work, in order to escape the looming madness of stifled inspiration.

Whenever I feel the most productive years of my life slipping away, or the tension of my art and my vocation pulling at each other, I remember Toni Morrison, whose work I love and try to emulate. I picture her writing The Bluest Eye at 39, then a single mother with two boys. I don't have boys in the house any more, just two, sometimes three, girls who want to play games with me, wrestle, sit in my lap, and tell me their own stories. I have about fifteen square feet in this entire condo unit dedicated to my writing, and sometimes, they don't seem to want to be anywhere else. My writing routines have evolved to include a smaller laptop that fits in my special chair right next to a sleepy toddler and a pair of noise-canceling headphones that block out the sound of endless Cocomelon songs and little ones singing them as loud as they can.

As I write that, it occurs to me that all that - the chair, the laptop, the headphones - is my own privilege as well. My writing nook may be small, but I have one, and I don't have to buy a burger to keep from getting booted out of the local McDonald's and off the free WIFI. I know, I know. More than that, as a teacher, I get summers off, and for the last few years, for the first time in my professional life, I have had the privilege of actually being able to enjoy them. I no longer have to work a summer job to make ends meet, and I don't have administrative duties keeping me chained to the campus eight-to-four anymore either. It really feels like I'm a writer now, for just two hot months out of the year. I have a whole routine works out.

8:00 - Drop the girls off at summer camp and head to the gym.

9:00 - Leave the gym and shower and eat at home.

10:00 - One hour of reading to fill my brain with good words.

11:00 - One hour of editing older work.

12:00 - Write a minimum of 1500 words in my current WIP, and don't stop, get up, or eat until I hit my numbers.

If time remains, and it often does, I treat myself to a movie or video game session before I have to pick up the girls at four. I'm so productive in those two short months, I've made it my goal to spend the year thinking of new novel ideas and outlining them just so I can start the summer with a clear goal in mind. Honestly, it's the one thing that sustains me through those last two hectic months of the school year. It's the reason my grades are in on time and my end of year checklist is checked and double-checked. Most days, I aim for the minimum 1500 words, but I can easily hit 2000 if the wind is blowing in the right direction. I even have the receipts to prove it.


But just look what happens to my productivity once school starts again, and I have to abandon my privileged writing routine for the grind that, currently, pays the bills.


I promise, it's not a lack of willpower or time management. I get so sick of seeing the stupid Instagram motivational posts that say, "Everyone has the same 24 hours in the day." I'm here to tell you, time is money, and money is time, and with enough wealth, anyone can stretch their days like their living room has a black hole in it. Forget about the daily work duties - if I could pay a chef to cook and grocery shop for me, I could carve out at least ten more hours in each week to write. I know that I'm privileged to have even two months out of the year to live like a bona fide writer, but the rest of the year, I'm risking madness like Shakespeare's sister in Woolf's essay. 

So, I haven't posted for a while, because I prioritized completing this most recent novel when I actually have the uninterrupted free time to devote to it. Thing is, I still didn't finish it. I got so close, just two more major scenes to write, but time and career caught up with me. At this point, the plan is to write 200 words a day, whether I'm tired or not, whether they're good or not, until I finish the first draft. I hope Ray and Leonelle would be proud of me. Later I can worry about making time to revise and edit. And I'm going to do my best to rant about the writing life and about mixed and blended families here on the blog. But pray for me, because some nights I'm failing to hit even that goal, and embarrassed by the difference between now and the numbers I could hit just a month ago. And for any struggling writers stealing time from work and family or falling asleep with unwritten stories crowding your minds, I'll pray for you and all of us, because the madness creeps up on us when we're not looking.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Book Review: Deep in Providence by Riss M. Neilson

Deep in Providence is a masterful debut novel from Riss M. Neilson, following the lives of three girls, Miliana, Inez, and Natalie, as they grieve over the loss of the fourth member of their tight quartet, Jasmine. Each one of them had a very different relationship with Jas, and misses her intensely, but in her own unique way. The reader never gets to see Jasmine in action, unless you count some of the supernatural or magical elements of the story, but we do get an exhaustive account of her character through the memories of the girls. It's as if each one knew a different side of Jasmine, and their memories may not sync up together, but they do provide an account of a complex person, and give clear reasons why this trio, which used to be a quartet, grieves her the way that they do. In fact, at points in the novel, through memories and flashbacks, we see accounts of Jasmine that almost contradict each other, as if each girl is remembering a different person. It might sound as if it makes the novel confusing, but I promise, it's a beautiful rendering of the way we remember our loved ones. This is what it means to be human, having complex, even contradictory facets to our personalities. Our parents know us as a very different person than our friends do, and our siblings, and our teachers, team members, and anyone else who has even a slightly different relationship with is. Even in a tight circle of friends, like the one depicted in the novel, there are bound to be nuances in the way we co-exist and little touches to our bonds that are different from the others in the same group. Not only that, but the way we remember a person after they are gone can often be very flawed. We choose to hold on to some memories and banish others, and end up with our own personal interpretation of the deceased, which may or may not align with someone else's interpretation, or even the actual truth of the person's life. Deep in Providence captures these complexities brilliantly, giving us a nuanced characterization of a girl we never actually meet.

Something else that kept me engaged with the novel from the beginning is the powerful theme of grief throughout. Each of the girls is grieving Jasmine in her own way, but also grieving other people in their lives as well - Miliana her Papa, Inez her father, and Natalie her mother. Even if the loved one is not dead, like in Inez' and Natalie's case, they are so distant or out or reach as to trigger the same loss and sadness. Sometimes, having a loved one who has changed so much or who is so physically distant can trigger the same feelings of grief that actual death does, grief for the person we knew, now lost to sickness, addiction, incarceration, or deportation. Deep in Providence deals with all of these issues through the theme of grief in a very touching way. The three main characters go through the stages of grief in very clear ways. They pass quickly through denial and then anger, camp out in bargaining for much of the novel, then deep depression and finally healing acceptance. At each stage, the girls' distinct personalities shine through, and while they grieve differently, any reader will be able to find an anchor for their own experiences of grief and loss.

In addition to the powerful theme of grief, I loved the focus on magic and the internal conflict it provokes in each of the girls. I came across this novel through the pre-order hype on Instagram, and immediately gravitated to the magical aspects of the story. After reading it, I loved how Neilson not only depicted the girls' pursuit of magic as a means of bargaining their way through grief, but also the conflict between their religious faith and the magical actions they have to take in preparation to essentially bring their beloved friend back from the dead. As people of faith, especially Christians, since that's my experience, it can be so difficult to trust in a God who allows such inexplicable suffering and loss in our lives. Each of the girls comes from a different cultural background, and each with some sense of magic in their families, but also a strong sense of Christian faith. At many points in the novel, this faith comes into direct conflict with their desire to subvert the grief process or reverse what God has wrought in their lives, and this struggle really brought back memories of the ways that I've dealt with grief, and still do. We may not all turn to magic, but we often find other ways to fight fate or try to rebel against nature or God when things don't go our way. In the novel, the girls face an ethical dilemma in bringing back Jasmine. They justify doing increasingly harmful things to others, or at least risking harm to innocent people in the hopes of mastering the art of magic enough to reach Jasmine's spirit. As someone who knows that dilemma, who has felt the kind of anger and depression that makes you so single-minded in your suffering that you forget that other people have their own lives and loves and losses, this connected me to the characters in a powerful way.

Overall, I loved the novel and can't wait to see what else Neilson publishes. The writing is beautiful - haunting and touching at the same time, and the story does a a great job of presenting very common human experiences through the lens of magic. By the end, I felt both connected to the girls and afraid for them as they pursued a path that could only lead to more heartbreak for them all, and devastating fallout for the people around them. 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

CRT, Amoebas, and Venn Diagrams

CRT is the new boogeyman, in the sense that it's become a shapeless, formless specter that haunts our schools and churches. For those who are vehemently against it, it seems to include almost everything about race or racism, like some amoeba floating around absorbing everything in the water, or like the blob from the old horror movie, assimilating everything in its path. Being the skeptical person I am, every time I see a list of authors that I'm warned against because they are CRT (or do CRT, or believe CRT, or practice CRT. Honestly, even the language used to describe it is exhaustingly vague), I look them up to see if that's the case. Sometimes, they are authors who speak against racism or promote anti-racism, but who never claim to embrace CRT, sometimes even openly disclaiming it, like Ibram X. Kendi.

And yet, fellow Christians are constantly warning me that every book on anti-racism is CRT, and that CRT is the devil, to quote Mama Boucher. Usually, these accusations come from people who haven't read the books they warn against, and haven't read any CRT scholars of note. Instead, they lambast the (decidedly vague) notion of CRT at face value. It makes me wonder what we would think about the Christian faith itself, if we only ever listened to its detractors.

The most recent warning I've heard is against Ijeoma Olua's So You Want to Talk About Race? As far as I know, Olua doesn't claim CRT scholarship, but she writes primarily about anti-racism. I got an email with warnings from Christian ministries and Neil Shenvi concerning the book. One specific issue they take with the book is that she says a thing is about race if a person of color says it is. This feeds into the claim that CRT is all about feelings, that it places a higher priority on the subjective experience that on objective truth or statistics. I'm no CRT scholar myself, but in reading some of these anti-racist works, I can definitely say that these authors rely pretty heavily on studies and statistics, while still giving credence to the lived experiences of minorities in our culture. In fact, from what I can tell, a major function of true CRT is to explain the racial differences in legal and economic outcomes, based on the data collected by experts. 

Still, the contention is that CRT, and Olua's book by association, wants to elevate the lived experiences of people of color, particularly when it pertains to racism. But what Olua and others are getting at is that Black folks might just live in a different world than white folks, where the rules are written in stone, but somehow not applied in the same way. If that's true, then denying their lived experiences is like a lactose tolerant person telling a lactose intolerant person that their reactions to ice cream are imagined or made up or unimportant. What is really a very nuanced discussion of race gets reduced to the most controversial, cherry-picked statement in the book. And it's not even the most controversial statement in the book; just wait until the penultimate chapter.

To put it another way, consider how Christians often talk about the solution to racism. Those who are willing to accept that it exists, but often limit that existence to individual feelings of animosity towards other races, will often say that we should "just preach the Gospel," pray for changed hearts and minds. One quote from Olua's book reminded me of this approach to racism.

"When we look at racism simply as any racial prejudice we are entered into a battle to win over the hearts and minds of everyone we encounter, fighting only the symptoms of the cancerous system, not the cancer itself. This is not only an impossible task, it's a pretty useless one."

This struck me as extremely poignant and sad, considering that I hear Christians saying all the time that the response to racism should be preaching the gospel until hearts change. How exhausting must this be, to be tasked with the never-ending mission of reaching every heart who discriminates against me? And what if the heart belongs to my professor, a banker, a police officer, or anyone with the power to change my life for the worse? What if my livelihood, my legal status, or my safety depend on eliminating racism? How can I be expected to wait until every heart changes, and what if some hearts just never respond to the gospel? This is the basic premise of Dr. Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait.

There are other parts of the book that are tougher to read, and some points that are harder to agree with, but overall, there's a lot to learn, and it definitely isn't the devil. So, why do books like this get lumped all together in this supposedly evil category of CRT?

It's like looking at a Venn diagram of Christianity and capitalism, or socialism, or social justice, or Americana. If we're honest, there's bound to be some overlap, but never a complete alignment. All of creation is fallen and all of man’s systems are corrupt. Arguing that capitalism is better than socialism is like arguing that lying is better than murder. You might have a case, but don’t go printing the t-shirts with logos for your liars club just yet. 

Still, in that overlap, we can find lots of space for agreement, plenty of room to work with people who don't believe exactly the same things we do, but who share some of the same values and goals. By our own Scriptures, Christians should crave opportunities to seek justice, as much or more than anti-racist activists do. Christians should want their neighbors to have the best health care and education opportunities as much or more than any so-called leftist. In so many ways, we should be looking for bridges and making allies to work towards our common goals.

Instead, what we often do is look at these Venn diagrams of Christianity and other systems of thought, with their varying slivers of overlap, and, instead of focusing on the shared values, we first decide whether the opposing system of thought is convenient to us, or something that we're predisposed to accept. If it is, then we try to pull every other tenet of the other circle into the Christian one, whether they fit or not. We force things like rugged individualism or market dynamics into the Christian circle and cherry-pick verses to support it, often twisting them from their original meanings. Conversely, if the system of thought is one we disagree with, then we try to shove every overlapping value into the other circle, whether it's social justice or universal health care, and pretend as if they were never a part of the Christian faith. Ultimately, we alter and deform the faith to suit whatever philosophy we want to support or deny.

At some point, we have to start reading the books for ourselves, starting with our own Bible, instead of just letting others tell us what they mean. We have to decide that we're Christians first, with the primary mandate to love God and love others, and be willing to work with a variety of people to accomplish those two important goals.

Monday, April 11, 2022

"Eleina"

This is another chapter from the YA novel that I gave up on. It was over a decade ago, and I was trying to write something that I thought would be more marketable, but not really my passion. Turns out, it was really difficult to write and really easy to quit. Still, I liked some of the characters, especially Norman, from my last post, and Eleina, the girl he's crushing on at school.In this chapter, I tried to give her perspective on the whole Norman issue, and why she seems not to notice him. Hope you enjoy it.

"Eleina"

by Jeffray Harrison

He said that? He never told me he liked me. Sure, I knew he liked me, and I knew his name was Norman, too. I just pretended like I didn’t know. Wow, that sounds harsh. Okay, Norman is a very nice guy and all, and he’s even kind of cute when he wants to be, and he does a lot of things well. The problem with nice guys like him is that they change. They get their feelings worked up over a pretty girl so fast, and they don’t even know her. Before you even know they like you, they already think you’re going out with them or you’re their girlfriend or something. They take every little thing the wrong way, and then they get their feelings hurt when you don’t feel the same.

Guys like Jordan are the opposite. They don’t know you either, and they don’t want to know you. They just want to have you, in every way. It’s not enough for them to be able to touch you or tell everybody else that you belong to them – they want to own you. They want you to obey them, and so they tell you to do ridiculous things just to see how much you will take. Then when you reach your limit, no matter where that is, they try to push you just past it, to prove to themselves that they own you. That’s why Jordan’s not my boyfriend either.

I learned all this from my mom, where else. People say I’m pretty, but they all forget about me when they see my mom - boys and girls. But she taught me that pretty isn’t everything you think it is. My dad wanted my mom because she’s pretty, but then when she got pregnant with me, he left her for some other pretty girl. He’d already gotten her to go past her limit. Then when I was growing up, these men would come around and try to get at her, always making promises, but never even knowing who she is. They know what she looks like, and they find out just enough to try to get their way, but they don’t know her. My mom is more than just pretty, you know? She’s way smarter than me, even if I don’t tell her so. She runs her own business and helps everybody. But nobody helps her, least of all these men. They just want to see her limits. They want to spend the night, or take her away for the weekend, or start telling me what to do. Then when she says “no,” they call her names, tell her she’s worthless, even tell her she’s not that pretty, like anyone believes that.

The last one that she believed in asked her to marry him, and she said “yes.” That was six years ago and now we don’t even know where he is. He promised her he would take care of her, that he was going to make it so she didn’t have to work, like she was asking anybody for that. He promised to be faithful, but then once he got her where he wanted her, he left. He promised me things, too.

I remember the day Steve left for good. I was nine years old, ten in another month. I remember exactly when, because we had already started planning my tenth birthday and everything. It was supposed to be this big party, double digits and everything, right? Well, they hadn’t been fighting or anything, at least not where I could see, but it was obviously different. My mom had come home from the salon early to start writing invitations and planning the food for the party with me. We were sitting on the floor in the living room looking at some menus and putting together a guest list. She kept looking at the clock and looking at the door.

I knew it was something with Steve. I knew he should have been home by then. Then after we ordered some pizza for dinner, got it delivered, ate, and cleaned up, he comes walking in the door. 

I’ll never forget the look on his face, not because of the moment so much, but because I’ve seen it on so many men. I saw it on at least three or four of my mom’s boyfriends before that. I saw it on the one married man my mom ever dated, even though she said she never would. I saw it on my father’s face whenever he would come get me for the weekend, which was almost never.

I saw it on my first boyfriend’s face right after I slept with him.

The look on his face was like someone delivering the worst news, that they had done something so horrible that they knew would ruin your life. It’s really two looks – the look of being sorry mixed with the look of wanting to get away, run away, be somewhere else.

“Hey kiddo,” he said in that fakey smiley way, “Can you go into your room so I can talk to your mom for a sec?”

I don’t remember what I said, but it must have been bad because my mom grabbed me and covered my mouth. I remember fighting her off and throwing all of the invitations at Steve.

“Why don’t you just say it?” I yelled, “Why don’t you just do what you want to do, what men always do?”

“Eleina,” my mom put her arms around me and held me close, covering my mouth again with her hand, “settle down, mija.”

“No, I don’t want to,” I broke away from her and pushed Steve back to the door. “I know what you’re doing. So just go.”

Steve grabbed my arms to stop me from pushing him, but I got one free and punched him in the chest. 

“Stop, Eleina,” Steve coughed and grabbed my arms again, turning me around and holding my back to his chest with my arms crossed in front of me. “Let’s talk about it first.”

I felt so angry and so stupid. I kept trying to kick him or get away from him, but I couldn’t. I tried so hard not to cry, but I couldn’t help it. Finally, I just stopped fighting and cried. Steve let me go and I sat down on the floor.

“Just go,” my mom said, “I know what you’re going to say, and I don’t care.” She walked over to the door and opened it, standing there just like she did when she opened up the salon for her clients in the morning. “I’ll get your things ready and you can pick them up tomorrow. Just go now before you make Eleina more upset.”

He looked at her for a second, and then he looked down at me, and then he started out the door.

“And don’t come to my birthday party either,” I yelled at him as he left. He turned around once, looked like he was going to say something, and then looked down and walked out. I don’t know why I said it. It seems stupid now, but I wanted to find some way to hurt him. The worst thing is when he really didn’t come to the party. That was in October. Then he didn’t come for Christmas, or for Mom’s birthday, or for my next birthday. I think I only saw him two or three times after that, mostly when they were settling the divorce. That’s when I knew that all of those things he said to me, all of the special things he did with me, taking me places and buying me things and everything, it was all just one more way to get at my mom, to get her to go past her limits, just to see if he could.

I cried all that whole night, and then most of the next day, too. But my mom never did. She just slept in my bed with me that night and held me and sang to me, but she never cried. Even now I remember not just the look on his face, but what he must have seen – me crying on the floor and my mom holding the door for him just like she would for anybody else coming through her salon. That’s what my mom taught me, that when a guy leaves, just pretend like you don’t care, like you expected it all along.

Sometimes I look at pictures of my mom when she was a teenager. She had the same long black hair like mine, even though mine doesn’t go all the way to my waist like hers, thank God. She had the same brown eyes. And just like me, she, kind of, you know developed early. I’ve been looking at those pictures ever since I can remember, almost like watching my mom grow up with me. I used to look forward to being like her. Not that I don’t want to be like her now, but, well, when I look at the pictures of her with Dad, or with Steve, or with other guys that don’t come around anymore, I wonder if I’m going to grow into that to, just like the rest of it. Maybe one day I’ll just be the pretty woman with no husband.

In fact, the only difference between me and my mom is our skin. She’s got that light-skinned Puerto-Rican thing, and I’m mixed. Even then, I wish I was more like her, without everyone always telling me what I’m supposed to be, wondering why I don’t do this or eat that or listen to whatever music. I tried to get into the modeling thing last year, through one of those agencies that sets up a booth in the mall. I stuck with it for almost five months, but I got tired of being called “exotic.” It made me feel so uncomfortable – I could never tell if they were calling me beautiful, or different, or slutty, so I just walked away from it.

When I was younger, I used to see the way men would look at my mom, or even say things to her, and I used to pray that I would look like her when I grew up, so that men would notice me, too. But then when I was about eleven or twelve, they started noticing, and they started saying the same things, only by then I knew what they meant.

I remember the first time my mom let me go to the mall with my friends without her. It was a month after my twelfth birthday, and a few of us girls met at my house and then took the bus together to the mall. I felt so good about being on my own. I got dressed up the way my mother did when she went shopping, “looking fierce,” she would say. At first it was the bus driver looking at me funny, but I thought maybe it was just because there were so many kids getting on at one time. But then it was the men working in the stores, and the old guys in the food court, and the security guard who kept watching me and trying to get my attention. Then it was the tall man with the Miami Heat jersey on. He must have been at least thirty. He walked right over to the group of us, ignored everyone else, and kind of shoved himself in front of me while we were walking to get me away from the group.

“What’s going on, Lil’ Mama?” he said. “What you shopping for?”

I tried to be nice. “I’m with my friends,” I said.

“I could be your friend.”

The worst thing is that my friends didn’t do anything. They thought it was so cool, an older guy talking to me. But I knew better. I’ve seen the look in his eyes from plenty of guys who came up to talk to my mom, and mostly I thought it was cool, too. But when it’s you they’re talking to, and your body they can’t take their eyes off of, it’s not cool. I pretended to be sick and left my friends there.

That’s what I like about Jordan. I mean, he looks at me the same way, and he’s always trying to touch me somehow. No matter what I let him do, he always wants to do more. But at least I know him. There’s no secrets with him – no surprises. And when I’m with him, none of the other guys look at me that way. None of the other guys come talk to me, or try to touch me – not when he’s there. But I’m not going to sleep with him just because he wants to, or just because he protects me, or just because he says he’ll drop me if I don’t, because other girls will. I did that once already.

Sometimes I think it might be different with someone like Norman. I mean, he seems like the kind of guy who would really take care of a girl he liked, and not always try to get something from her. My mom says he’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t know what to do if he got it, which is really gross, but true. I see him looking at me sometimes, checking me out, but he always seems embarrassed about it. Other guys just keep looking, like some kind of hungry animal you see on those Discovery Channel shows. When he does get around to talking to me, it’s always about stuff that I like, instead of going right for what he wants, if he wants anything, that is. So, he seems like he’s the kind of guy you could trust, but then Steve seemed like that, too. I think I’d rather be with a guy like Jordan, where you know what you have and you protect yourself, than to be with a guy like Norman, let him go to work on you and get you believing him, just to get hurt. A guy like Jordan can’t hurt you, not even if he cheats on you or calls you names, or even worse, because you expect him to do those things. You see them coming. It’s when it comes from a guy like Norman or Steve, and it always does, and you get hurt, because you let yourself think he’s different, and that makes you different, and then he changes and you change too, back to the same old nothing you were.

I told you I knew he liked me, and it’s not like I don’t take him seriously. I even talked to my mom about him, and I never talk to her about boys; she gets so weird and her face looks all worried. She said I should take a chance with him, that he could be different. But she still had that worried look on her face, like she was telling me to play the lottery, I might win, or to try out for basketball, I might make it. It wouldn’t be like with Jordan. I know him. I know what he’s going to do before he does it, even before he knows he’s going to do it. Norman’s not like that. I never know what’s going on in his head. First I think he doesn’t like me, because acts like he’s ignoring me, and then he suddenly starts paying attention. For a while he would never speak to me for more than three words, and mess those up most of the time, and then he pulls something like he did in cooking class, trying to partner up with me for cupcakes. Anyway, I don’t need a boy that I have to figure out all the time. Better to stick with what you know, like my mom says.


Monday, March 28, 2022

“Cayenne Cupcakes”

Thanks for continuing to read by blog and my stories, internet stranger. This next story is from several years ago, and it was part of an unfinished novel involving a kind of ensemble cast of characters. At the time, I was trying to write a YA novel, which really isn't my style, as well as experimenting with tone and voice. So this was a chapter focused on one character, Norman, who is one of those young men who is really cool in his own right, but very few people know it because he's very reticent and slow to make friends. I do like it, but I'm not completely sure it works, and I can name at least five journal editors who agree with me on that note. Still, hope you like it. If this one gets a reaction, I'll post some of the other chapters as well.

"Cayenne Cupcakes"
By Jeff Harrison

        I mean, I know I can’t cook, all right, but those cupcakes could have ruined my life. The only reason I took cooking class sixth period anyway is because my mom made me, something about learning to fend for myself and after all my father cooks for a living for goodness’ sake. That, plus the fact that Eleina was in the class. 
So maybe I was distracted a little when Ms. Deneuve showed us how to mix the batter, but I’ve never had a crush on a girl like this before. Eleina, not Ms. Deneuve. So maybe I forgot to write down one or two of the ingredients. Still, I know cayenne pepper wasn’t one of them. 
        And who puts the shaker of cayenne pepper back in the cupboard without screwing the lid on anyway? I had a hard enough time with this assignment knowing I’m missing something. On top of that I don’t even like dark chocolate at all. I like milk chocolate, if anything, and barely even that. Just never been one for sweets. Anyway, I didn’t have to worry about that with these particular dark chocolate cupcakes, because while I was mixing the wet and dry ingredients together, I reached for the nutmeg, because I’m pretty sure that’s what Ms. Deneuve said, and instead I knocked over the cayenne pepper. Right into the cupcake batter. With the top unscrewed.
        So basically I was looking at dark chocolate cupcake batter with nearly a full five ounces of cayenne pepper in it, slowly sinking into the black goo, getter wetter and darker as it went down. If I had been a lesser man, I would have cried.
        The thing is, sometimes I feel like I fail at everything I try. Most of the time, really. My dad would say that’s not true, that the truth is I don’t really try, or that all I do is try. He would say that I bail out whenever things get a little hard or confusing. I guess he’s right, although I would never tell him.
        Take the whole thing with Eleina, for instance. Dad would say, “Just walk up to her, son, look her in the eye, smile, and start talking.” He’d tell me she’s a girl, no one to be afraid of. “But don’t let the conversation go on too long, and don’t let it end without asking for her number.”
        It’s not that easy for all of us. Dad’s always been the kind of guy who could do that. He laughs at danger. He smirks at adversity. He chuckles at peril. But Eleina is not the kind of girl you just walk up to. She must have a dozen or more guys trying to get at her like that every day. A girl like that, you’ve got to get on her radar first. Hence the cooking class. Problem is, by the time we were up to making the cupcakes, my plan wasn’t working so well. She still thought my name was Nelson. It’s Norman. This was our fourth class together. Not our fourth session of class. Our fourth class: Freshman English, Biology, World History, and Introduction to Culinary Arts.
        So, when the cayenne pepper fell into the batter, I was really ready to drop out of the race. I mean, all I need is more failure and embarrassment in front of her. And starting over was out of the question. It was already after eleven o’clock. I was planning to put them in the oven for twenty minutes and let them cool overnight so I could get some sleep. 
        I took the bowl of ruined batter back to my dad’s office, where he sat checking his email. I figured maybe he knew a way to get the pepper out of the batter and still be able to save some. As soon as I came in, he turned around and saw the bowl, saw the pile of spice on top of the batter, and sniffed the air with his eyebrows pushed together.
        “Is that …?”
        “Cayenne pepper.”
        “But weren’t you making …?”
        “Dark chocolate cupcakes.”
        Dad looked at the bowl for a second. Then he laughed right in my face. A loud, throaty laugh, too.
        “Thanks, Pop.”
        “Sorry,” he said, and straightened up a bit. Then he started laughing again.
        “Listen, can I get this stuff out of the batter or not?”
        Dad’s laughter slowed down. “You’re not getting that out, kid. No way.” He looked on as the last of the pepper turned from red to black as it sank in the batter. “You gotta start over.”
        “I don’t have time to start over, Dad.” I put the bowl on the desk next to him and leaned back hard against the wall. “Forget it. I’m dropping the class.”
        Dad just shook his head in that disappointed-father way. “Son, that’s not the way to be.”
        “Well, what am I supposed to do with this mess?” I really didn’t mean to raise my voice, but once it came out that way, I had to stick with it, so I added a stupid flail of the hands for emphasis.
        Dad settled back in his chair, put his hands on the armrests, looked at the bowl for a second, and then looked me dead in the eye.
        “Bake it.”
        I practically jumped off the wall. “What?” I pointed at the batter as if he hadn’t seen it. “You seriously want me to take chocolate cayenne pepper cupcakes to class tomorrow? I won’t have to drop the class – Ms. Deneuve will kick me out!”
        “Son, cooking is a lot like life …”
        “Yeah, cooking is always a lot like life …”
        Dad stared me down with his eyes narrowed and his head cocked to one side.
        “Sorry.”
        “You’re not always going to have the things you need to make what you want. Master chefs don’t wish they had the ingredients to make a good meal. They make great food with the ingredients they have.” He leaned forward, and his eyes opened a bit. “Take what you have, and make it work.” He turned back to his computer and began scrolling through his inbox.
        I looked at the back of his head while I picked up the bowl. I hate it when he’s right. I mean, I could either throw it away, or bake it and then throw it away. The only difference would be the twenty minutes it took to make and the chance that it might not be that bad.
        “I’ll try it,” I said as I walked out.
        “Hey, Norman.”
        I turned back in the doorway. Dad was still looking at the computer screen, typing away. 
        “Put more chocolate in it.”
        After I turned on the oven, mixed the ridiculous cupcake batter, and prepared the pans, I looked at my leftover chocolate, a little over a cup. I figured I could mix it in the batter, but unless I melted it first, it would stay in chunks. The same time I was thinking that, a voice in the back of my head said, “Is that really a bad thing?” The voice sounded remarkably like my dad’s.
        So, I shrugged my shoulders, dumped the chocolate into the batter, and stirred the chunks in. Then came the longest twenty minutes of my young life. I was already tired, and more than a little stressed, and I just knew the cupcakes would be horrible anyway.
        When I took them out and started spreading them out on the cooling rack, I said to myself, “At least they don’t look bad.”
        Twenty-four cupcakes, four more than I needed, sat there on the counter, ready to decide my fate. I had to try one, even if they weren’t cool yet, just to see if I should toss them out and go to bed.
        From the first bite, it tasted weird. But not bad weird. They didn’t taste like chocolate, that’s for sure. But then they didn’t taste like cayenne pepper either, which surprised me. They were certainly spicy, but not pepper-spicy, more like apple cider-spicy, or pumpkin pie-spicy, but with a slight kick in the aftertaste.         I kind of liked them.
        Confused, I took one to my dad.
        “Can you try this?”
        “Is it bad?”
        “I don’t know.”
        Dad looked at me, holding the cupcake. I’m sure he thought I was playing a prank on him.
        “Okay,” he said, and slowly reached out and took the cupcake, keeping his eye on me the whole time he was unwrapping it and biting into it.
        Then he looked at the cupcake, turned it over in his hand, and took another bite.
        “These are the ones you just made?”
        “Yeah.”
        “Wow. I thought they’d be terrible!”
        I stared at him. “Then what was all that about life and doing the best with what you have?” I snapped.
        “No, that’s all true,” he said as he took another bite, “but I still thought the cupcakes would taste like crap.”
        “Thanks, Pop.”
        “But they’re good.” He finished off the last bite. “Do you remember how you made them?”
        “Yeah,” I really didn’t want to smile, because I was still a little mad, but they did taste good. “Do you think you could put the frosting on them for me, when they cool off?”
        “You know, I wouldn’t even bother. Might mess them up.”
        “Yeah.” That actually made sense. “Thanks, Pop.”
        Still, I was nervous about bringing them in the next day, especially when my cupcakes were the only ones on the table with no icing. For a second, I felt like I should have done it before I left the house, but I tried not to show it.
        The thing is, out of fifteen sets of chocolate cupcakes, mine were the only ones that were different. And everyone said they were the best, even Ms. Deneuve.
        “You changed the recipe?”
        “I’m not really one for sweets.”
        She gave me an “A+” for them, which, by the way, saved my grade for the quarter.
        The best part is that Eleina asked me about them towards the end of class. “You have to tell me what you put into them, Nelson.”
        “It’s Norman, actually, and the secret ingredient is – cayenne pepper.”
        Eleina’s whole face opened up and twisted into a look of absolute shock, but somehow still pretty. “No way! How did you think of that?”
        “It was an accident.” I told her how it happened, minus the stuff with my dad, and she laughed out loud, her eyes glistening as they teared up a little.
        “Oh my gosh, that’s so funny.”
        “Yeah.” I heard my dad’s voice in my head, pushing me forward. “Listen, Eleina, can I have your number, maybe call you sometime?”
        All of the laughter and brightness washed out of her face, leaving only pity behind. “Um,” she bit her lip, “sorry, I have a boyfriend.”
        “Right,” I said, scrambling to get my thoughts together. “Of course, I knew that.”
        I didn’t know that.
        “I was just thinking I could call you next time we have an assignment like this for cooking, you know? Get some advice from someone who knows what she’s doing.”
        Her eyes opened up and she nodded. “Oh, yeah.” She kept nodding but the pity was still there in her face. “Yeah, I’d rather not.”
        She gathered up her books and things like the kitchen was on fire and headed for the door. I think I waved or something.
        She stopped and turned to me before she closed the door behind her. “The cupcakes were really good, Norman. I can’t wait to see what you make next.” And then she was gone.
        And I couldn’t help feeling extremely … satisfied. I mean, this was certainly not the way I pictured it going, getting rejected. And harshly too. But then again, I got rejected by Eleina Jackson. A lot of guys can’t even say that. And even though she turned me down cold, at least I accomplished something. After all, she knows my name now.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Heroes Like Me

Watching Pixar's new movie Turning Red with my wife and nine-year-old daughter was uncomfortable. When that one scene, you know it if you saw it, in the bathroom, happened, I had to ask my daughter if she understood what they were talking about. She said she did, and I didn't inquire any further. Now, that shouldn't come across as a criticism of the movie. If anything, as a veteran girl dad, I'm glad that the movie makes these puberty issues normal and even humorous. That scene takes some of the pressure off me. In addition, it gave me an inroad into the film, a connection to the characters and themes.

Apparently, not everyone felt the same.

In a review on CinemaBlend, which has since been pulled after much backlash, the managing director called the decision to focus on a Chinese-Canadian family and culture "limiting," stating that he had a hard time connecting to the film. He also said that the film was "exhausting," although I'm not sure if he was referring to the Asian influence in the film or some other aspect, like plot or running time, since the review is no longer available.

I mean, the movie is about female puberty, about the power of friendship, about redefining yourself apart from your parents, and about accepting the weird things that make you special, but I guess if, despite all that, you also need the main character to share your ethnicity, then all of those things might not matter.

It reminds me of the backlash against Halle Bailey playing a Black Ariel, or the changing of traditionally white superheroes like Captain America, Hulk, or Spider-Man to characters of other ethnicities. The complaints from mostly white fans amount to a couple of things. It's always that the characters will be less relatable because of the change, or that Black artists or other artists of color should create new characters instead of appropriating white ones and just changing their race, or sometimes gender. It's an argument that reveals a really nasty underlying thought process, the very one that minorities are often fighting against.

In the first case, if you believe that the only "relatable" heroes are white, then you must believe that white is the norm, the default, and that both white and non-white fans should be able to see themselves in those white characters. Even when minorities are clamoring for more representation and expressing their excitement at seeing themselves and their culture reflected back to them in positive ways, there's a sort of willing ignorance in claiming that these characters are unrelatable. Just consider, if the writer of the review finds it "exhausting" to try to find connection with a Chinese character, how tired must fans of other ethnicities feel when for decades most, if not all, of the options for heroes of all sorts were white? And how rewarding and exciting must it be to finally see heroes that look like themselves? Minority consumers of these genres have always had to look past the race of the characters and find emotional, spiritual, and moral points of commonality to relate to. It's not asking too much for white viewers to do the same from time to time. This is especially true for all of those who "don't see color" anyway.

Second, if changing Captain America's ethnicity makes the character unrelatable to you, then it's entirely possible that the most important aspect of the character was always his whiteness, not his patriotism, courage, virtue, or strength. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney Plus dealt with this issue very well, by asking the two most important questions about Captain America as both a character and a concept. On the one hand, how would the country and the fan base receive a Black Captain America? And on the other hand, why would a Black man want to be Captain America? It forced Cap fans to consider what that title really means, beyond the ethnicity of Steve Rogers.

Furthermore, there's a sort of logical breakdown in saying these two statements - first that changing the ethnicity of already popular characters is somehow wrong, and, second, that non-white characters are "limiting" and unrelatable. On the one hand, it says that artists of color should only create new characters if they want more representation. But on the other hand, it also says that if artists of color do create those new characters, the majority of fans will reject them for being "unrelatable" and studios won't back them. At the end of the day, this argument really means that some people just refuse to accept any non-white characters in any context.

In fact, complaining about a black Batman or Ariel reveals something far more insidious than just an ignorance of the fact that for so many years the only heroes were white. Telling the artists, "why can't you just create your own characters instead of stealing ours," points out two problems:

1) You are asserting that they were YOUR heroes all along. They were white heroes for white people, not intended to have the same inspiring effect on people of color. 

2) You might have the same attitude towards all other progress, whether it's artistic, educational, or economic. Regardless of the fact that white folks have had a centuries-long head start and every advantage, the attitude is, go start your own thing, in competition with ours, and don't expect any help from us. I love Spider-Man, probably a little too much, but blasting an artist of color for reimagining Spider-Man and insisting that he or she create something new that would then compete with Spider-Man for attention and market share is like asking a minority entrepreneur to open a quaint little coffee shop across the street from a Starbucks.

Furthermore, one of the functions of story is to create empathy in the reader. We find ourselves in the fiction, measure ourselves against both the heroes and villains, recognize the virtues that we aspire to and the flaws that we wish to purge from ourselves. Given that, insisting that you can't relate to a character of another ethnicity means that you probably lack empathy, and that you find it difficult to relate to a real, live human of another ethnicity as well.

So, instead of demanding that every character look like you, especially if there are hundreds of characters who already do, try making the extra effort to gain insight into the characters who don't, and then take that experience out into the world and apply it to the variety of people around you. After all, that's what heroes are supposed to do for us, make us better people.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Free Kanye

Divorce is hard. 

It doesn't matter how long you've been married, how hard it's been, how much abuse you've endured, if you think you can end a marriage without some sense of shame, guilt, failure, or all of the above, you're kidding yourself.

This is why God hates divorce. In chapter 2 of Malachi, the prophet compares divorce to a kind of violence. If the marriage bond creates one flesh out of two people, then what does divorce do but tear that flesh apart, create open wounds and brokenness? More than that, God intends out marriages to reflect to the world Christ's love for the church, and He does not abandon his bride. There is no separation between the savior and those He saves. 

And yet, divorce sometimes happens, and often, not always, it is necessary for one of both of the partners in the marriage. While divorce is certainly violence to the spirit and the heart, there are other, greater types of violence that make it the lesser of two evils.

The good news is that God loves the divorcee as much as He hates the divorce. He offers healing and growth, a return to love and goodness after the heartbreak of divorce.

That said, can we talk about Kanye?

There is a way to navigate the end of a marriage that brings about peace and stability, and this ain't it. And I don't really want to pick on Kanye, at all, but his public behavior, the salty social media messages, the public flaunting of relationships while verbally attacking his ex's relationships, are extremely destructive, and not only to his ex and their children together, but to himself, and, sort of, to all of us.

Seeing these antics in the news has really reminded me of my own experience soon after divorcing my first wife. There was so much hurt and anger to deal with, and so much opportunity for the wrong outlets of those emotions. One thing that saved me, if you can call it that, is a divorce group that I joined in the midst of that emotional time. I knew I needed help, but wasn't sure where to get it. Shame had closed down a lot of avenues for healing that I should have pursued, and having the kids living with me made others more difficult. But I found one group at a church far enough from home to be inconspicuous, held on the one night I could always count on the kids being at their mother's place.

The program was organized, insightful, practical, and loving, but the curriculum and the facilitators weren't what ultimately got my attention. What really helped me devote myself to healing and growth was the small group breakouts. I remember sitting in those talk sessions, hearing these men talk about their situations with so much vitriol and bitterness. It was frightening, not because I was afraid of what they might do, but because I could see that I had the seeds of that bitterness inside myself. I was angry, and even a little more time and self-indulgence might turn that into hatred. I was hurt, and just a little more time pursuing the wrong types of comfort could turn me into an addict of one type or another. It was like sending that troubled kid who can't stop stealing to Rikers Island to get a look at the future of that life. I was scared straight.

That doesn't mean I healed overnight. I was still angry and hurt for some time, but I dedicated myself to using the resources available to me, in church, therapy, and friendship, to expedite that healing, for myself and my kids.

That's why these public antics from Kanye are so disheartening, especially from someone who has recently professed faith in Christ, and was being lauded as some kind of spiritual leader. My prayer for him is that he sees something - in himself or in others - that snaps him out of this behavior, before it becomes the defining characteristic of his personality. I pray that he uses all of his money and influence to get the healing resources he needs for himself and his children.

I also pray that while his bad behavior persists, that it serves as a warning to others, those who for whatever reason have to walk this road that God hates, to avoid anger and bitterness as if their lives depended on it.

That means stop running your ex down in public. Stop running him or her down in private as well. The quicker you get to the point where you can forgive those sins of the past and accept those faults in your ex, the sooner you can be healed. The sooner you can accept your own role in the demise of the marriage, the sooner you can be healed.

That means stop creating animosity towards whoever your ex is dating. Protect your children, at all times obviously, but be sure that your suspicions are really based on their safety, and not your own sense of hurt and betrayal. Make sure that you aren't just becoming the stalker, feeding your anger and keeping your hurt alive with every social media post you see, launching investigations to uncover information that you already know and that will only cause you pain to see. Consider how hypocritical it looks for you to be dating someone and constantly obsessed with the fact that your ex is dating "so soon." Respectfully, consider the fact that neither one of you should probably be dating or otherwise drawing anybody else into your mess of a life until you have your heads on straight again.

That means take all that energy and resources that you spend on finding new reasons to hate your ex, and put it all into focused, reliable methods of healing. Talk to your pastors. If they don't understand, can't help, or shun you, then join a new church and talk to those pastors. Join a reputable group. Find a therapist and do whatever he or she tells to to get closer to healing. Your heart and mind are broken, so let a professional guide you until they are fixed. Take all the love you have left, all the positivity and optimism, and shower it on yourself and your kids, because you all need it.

Set yourself free.