The Utility of Tragedy

This one’s gonna ramble a bit and talk about depressing stuff some, so consider yourself warned.

So Saturday night was my 29th birthday, and I was in a show, and afterwards I went out with a couple of friends and drank beer and — impassioned and tipsy — tried to get them to explain to me what the utility of tragedy is in the current world.

This question sprang up out of the intersection of a few different trains of thought. It’s October 2017, and a year ago I was hugely confident that by November 30th I would have finished first drafts of two plays and have a female president. Turned out I was extremely wrong about both of these things!

We’re well into the first year of USA’s 45th presidency. Ten months of nearly constant crisis mode and psychological battering. Ten months where I slowly realized that I’m living in a bizarre but very real informational war zone under an incompetent but very dangerous head of state installed by a foreign power. About ten months where I’ve had regular episodes of existential despair over the possibility of nuclear war. (And all this, of course, doesn’t even take into account my last few years of deepening my understanding of racial injustice in America, of refugee stories, and of gun violence, which provided a nice foundation of “boy howdy the world’s a shitshow” for this year’s panoply of awfulness.)

The other day I was binge-watching pop culture video essays, and found myself intrigued by The Nerdwriter mentioning that “passable movies” are ones that are “a far cry from great or noteworthy or something you’d like to see more than once.” That got me thinking about what stories I’ve come back to multiple times in 2017. I’ve seen plenty of movies and plays and read plenty of books this year, and enjoyed and liked plenty of them.

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Just a sample. It was a pretty good year for movies, all things considered.

But there weren’t many I went back to more than once, despite frequently exclaiming as I left the theater “I would totally go see that again!” Movie tickets are expensive and I am lazy. That doesn’t mean they weren’t amazing movies — Moonlight and Hidden Figures are unquestionably very well made movies that I only saw once, and while I know people are divided on Atomic Blonde and Wonder Woman I thought they were both extremely well constructed. It just means I haven’t seen them twice. (But I did actually see Get Out twice in theaters.)

While I was thinking about that, I also watched the Nerdwriter’s take on Black Mirror.

I’ve only seen a couple episodes of Black Mirror, one of which was the notably uplifting (and yet slightly ambiguous??) “San Junipero,” and a big part of why is what Nerdwriter articulates in this video:

What Charlie Brooker, the intensely smart creator of Black Mirrorhas given us are tragedies that are often senseless — in other words, tragedies that withhold catharsis. The result, I think, is that we end up feeling much closer to these stories. The cathartic appreciation that’s meant to transform our pity and our fear never comes, and we’re just left with the pity, and the fear.

I remember once asking my mother if she wanted to come see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and she told me, essentially, “I’ve spent my whole life seeing people be awful to each other. I don’t need to pay money to go see two hours of it.” There’s a lot of dark/serious/tragic media that I feel similarly about, especially right now, in 2017, in this time and place. Just waking up in the morning and looking at Facebook or Twitter or the New York Times headlines in my inbox feels like adding a piece of glass to my shoes. Why would I feel the need to spend money and time consuming a story that reminds me how terrible people are and how insignificant our actions are in the great, tragic roll of the wheel of fortune?

And yet.

The stories that I probably spent the most time with this year, the ones I discovered for the first time and came back to over and over, were tragedies. Specifically, Hadestown

And Rogue One.

Animated gif of Cassian, Jyn, Bodhi, Baze, and Chirrut.

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Ajax and Cassandra, Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1806

I also spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year with the myth of Cassandra, working on my own storytelling and wrestling with the fact that Cassandra’s story is one of bad thing after bad thing happening for no good reason to a woman that culminates in her murder, and that I hate writing stories with downer endings. (I’m bad at writing endings in general, but that’s a slightly different personal writing problem.)

None of these stories ends well. Hadestown is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and ends, as it must, with Orpheus turning around and Eurydice being lost to him. Rogue One ends with every single one of the characters we’ve become invested in sacrificing themselves and dying. Cassandra is killed by Clytemnestra, alone and far from home. Sure, you could take any of these stories and follow the “how to listen to Into the Woods/Hamilton without crying” approach: just close the book or stop the movie or soundtrack halfway through, when everything is still hunky-dory. Where stories end, after all, is subjective — it all depends on how long you follow them.

But no. I like the endings of these stories, too. I don’t check out early. Partly, I think, because they’re cathartic, in the old-fashioned Aristotelean sense of the word. Belting along to a sad song or feeling my heart pound during a good action sequence feels good physically as well as emotionally. Each story is, to quote the Nerdwriter quoting Northrop Frye, “intelligible because its catastrophe is plausibly related to its situation.”

But I’ve also been coming back to a line from Hadestown, a sentiment that I echoed myself when trying to understand Cassandra and that runs through the end of Rogue One — and through many of my favorite horror movies. “It’s a love song / About someone who tries.”

Tragic heroes are traditionally heroes because they do everything in their power to do the right thing, the thing that will let them survive, the thing that defies fate — and they fail anyway. Hamlet tries to avenge his father and save Denmark — and fails. Oedipus tries to save his city and his family from destruction — and fails. The stories elicit pity, in that we feel the pain of the hero when they lose, and we fear for them as we watch them struggle, because we recognize what their great losses would mean to us if we experienced them.

I guess I find more pleasure in tragic stories where the heroes are overcome in spite of their best efforts, than I do in tragic stories where the heroes are overcome because they never had a chance. And it’s absolutely because I need to believe that trying, that striving for something, matters, even if the something is not achieved. I need to believe that because we beat health care repeal a few times, but the fight isn’t going away. And because the world’s getting hotter and the storms are getting worse and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and swathes of California are wrecked. And because I walk past a lot of homeless people in Seattle, and my friends are crowdfunding their medical care and their rent, and the world is just really hard to live in.

So I gotta believe trying makes a difference. That it bends the arc of the universe a little, or it saves that one seastar, or whatever.

Or maybe I just don’t like downer endings.

Recommended reading/watching/listening:

 

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Protest sign reading WE WILL NOT BREAK.

Phones suck. Friends rock. And civic engagement is sustainable.

This started as a Facebook post and got to the point where I could no longer countenance posting it as a status, so hello WordPress my old friend!

So we got together with some friends last night to drink, celebrate each incoming update from the ACLU, and call our reps, and it was GREAT. (I’m starting to think I should put “helps organize community events basically as an excuse to drink with friends and make them listen to her opinions on stuff” on my business cards.) Here’s some things I learned:

1. The Washington legislature has a system in place that allows you to comment on EVERY SINGLE BILL and have your comments sent to your state senator and representatives. Here’s the how-to. H/T to Jeff Petersen for mentioning this one! So remember that anti-protesting bill I mentioned last week, SB 5009? Or that anti-trans bathroom bill, HB 1011? Here’s a way to register your disapproval of those without ever having to pick up a phone.

hb1000-comment-on-this-bill

Here’s another really good one to express your support for.

To the best I can tell, the Alaska state legislature (Alaska being my home state and the place many of my readers are coming from) does not have a similar system to allow comment. However! The AK legislature’s site does list what bills are currently before the Senate and House, and where they are in the legislative process — prefiled vs. in committee, etc — and appears to have tools that will let you track specific pieces of legislation. (Plus they’ve got subject tags so you can find other legislation related to issues that are important to you! Like Anchorage Democrat Rep. Claman’s pro-contraceptive coverage bill, or the House Joint Resolution to repeal Alaska’s same-sex marriage ban.)

Seriously, one of the conclusions I’m coming to is that at most levels of government, they desperately want you to be involved and informed. The systems aren’t necessarily intuitive, but the information is usually out there if you (or people you know — hello, I’m a dramaturg!) are willing to dig it up.

2. Writing scripts takes a lot of energy, but once you’ve got the basic format down it starts to get easier. I crib a lot from The 65 (previously the We’re His Problem Now spreadsheet), but I’m learning quickly that the more specificity you can get, especially as you get down to a more local level, the better. Also, this should not have come as a surprise, but if you are holding a script written for a Democratic representative and have to try and adapt it for a Republican representative while you’re on the phone, you’re gonna have a bad time. Or at least I am.

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What would be enough?

Just Enough, Patrik Nygren on Flickr

I searched for “enough” on Flickr and got this, which is nicely abstract for an abstract concept.

I worry a lot about not doing enough. I don’t floss enough. I don’t meditate enough. I don’t wear sunscreen often enough. I don’t work out enough. I don’t get politically involved enough. I don’t drink enough water. I don’t eat enough protein. I don’t give enough money. I don’t call enough. I don’t volunteer enough. I don’t write enough. I don’t cry enough. I don’t care enough.

(Enough is such a weird word. Why is English??)

This probably all ties back to my old friends, perfectionism and anxiety, and I have to work hard to remind myself that “enough” is a relative term. When my brain tells me something like “You don’t write enough,” what it’s actually saying is “You don’t write as much as [that person]” (usually Stephen King, because if you’re gonna hold yourself to unattainable standards, don’t just aim high, aim highest!). It’s not “You don’t work out enough,” it’s “you don’t work out as much as a professional athlete.” And those comparisons are, of course, silly.

Enough has to be a personal word for personal goals. It isn’t an objective standard. (Unless it’s flossing, in which case, you are right, self, you don’t floss enough.) This goes double for the immaterial and unquantifiable. How much writing is enough? How much political involvement?

And the other thing, of course, is that holding myself to the standard of enough means I don’t appreciate the any. Anything is better than nothing. Maybe I don’t drink two liters of water a day or whatever it is you’re supposed to drink to clear your skin, fix your anxiety, and flatten your stomach — but if I drink three glasses of water, that is better than no glasses of water. Maybe I was late to the social activism party, and there is this huge pile of toxic bullshit to deal with now, and I’m not dedicating every second of my waking days to trying to get rid of it — but if I take a couple of shovelfuls out of that pile, it is a couple shovelfuls smaller. Maybe I didn’t wear sunscreen for basically the entire six weeks we were walking El Camino de Santiago and the damage to my skin has already been done — but if I put some on today, that’s a little less more damage.

It is, to be hokey, the personal-goal version of that story about throwing seastars back into the sea. Can I save every seastar? Can I ever be enough of something? Maybe not. Probably not. But hey, I can make a difference to that one. And the journey of a thousand miles, and all that jazz.

This being said, it’s okay to push myself to do a little more than just anything. There is a balancing point, somewhere, between holding myself to the impossible standard of enough and letting myself off the hook entirely. That’s the trick I’m still working on — a little at a time.

 

A letter to the electors

Want to write your own letter to the electors? Visit asktheelectors.org.


Dear Electors,

My name is Anthea Carns from Anchorage, AK.

I am writing to ask that, on December 19th, you will not cast your vote for Donald Trump as President of the United States.

As electors, you’ve dedicated years of your time to the political process in our country, and you understand — better than most, I’m sure — the details of how our system works. You understand the great moral responsibility entrusted to our elected officials, and the care, caution, compassion, and thoughtfulness that governing requires.

I know that there is a strong feeling this election cycle that we should carry on as normal. Asking electors to change their pledged votes is pretty far outside our norms. But this has not been a normal election:

-In July 2016 Donald Trump called for hackers, Russian or otherwise, to infiltrate American institutions, as reported by multiple outlets including CNN and the Washington Post. At the time, even Gov. Mike Pence acknowledged that if the FBI determined that Russia had been attempting to influence our election, there would have to be “serious consequences.” Now the US intelligence community has agreed that Russia was behind hacking attempts on both parties — yet Mr. Trump continues to call this unprecedented subversion of our democracy “ridiculous” and refuses to take intelligence briefings on the subject.

-Since the results of the Nov. 8 general election, Mr. Trump has been staffing his cabinet with individuals who have no policy experience, but were major donors to his campaign. In many cases these individuals have actually stated that they wish to do away with the agency they are being appointed to lead.

-Despite long-standing tradition that presidents-elect divest themselves of their business interests while in office and place their assets in blind trusts to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest, Mr. Trump has merely handed his assets over to his children. He shows no intention of separating himself from his many businesses and has even stated that he will continue to be involved in enterprises like his reality TV show. Several Constitutional scholars have concluded that Mr. Trump’s dealings with entities like the Bank of China — a tenant in one of his buildings — put him in violation of the Emoluments Clause in Article I of the Constitution.

All these breaches of political norms, these casual dismissals of the foundations of democracy, have been seen before in other countries, and have always rightfully been causes for alarm. In this case, they speak to Mr. Trump’s profound lack of qualifications for the presidency. Even at the birth of our nation, our founders saw the potential for a candidate like Mr. Trump to reach the highest office in the land. In Federalist Paper No. 68, Alexander Hamilton wrote:

“Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one querter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? … The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”

This is why the electoral college was established. This is why I am writing to you. You are the people “most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station” of President of the United States, and the people “most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”

I hope that you will carefully consider the moral and ethical consequences of this 2016 election. I hope that you will demand a complete briefing on any foreign interference that may have played a role in the campaign and the general election. And I hope that you will cast your Republican votes for a candidate who has the qualifications that you understand are necessary for such a high office.

Thank you for your time and consideration, I appreciate and respect the role you serve in our electoral process.

Sincerely,
Anthea Carns


Want to write your own letter to the electors? Visit asktheelectors.org.

Female protester holding a sign reading DO NOT FEAR THE DARKNESS.

I live in America.

Normally when I lie in bed at night trying to go to bed I am thinking about:

  1. An embarrassing moment from seventh grade
  2. A different embarrassing moment from seventh grade
  3. What time I have to be at work tomorrow
  4. A story

Sometimes it’s the play or NaNovel or whatever I’m working on at the time; just as often it’s some silly, self-indulgent daydream. It keeps me from thinking about that other embarrassing moment  from seventh grade and it helps me get to sleep.

Since Tuesday, when I lie in bed at night I write blog posts in my head.

I am paralyzed with how much I want to write. I feel like a shaken bottle of soda, tight as a drum and likely to explode. I feel like a thundercloud.

I want to explain why I am angry at third-party voters, in a way that is compassionate and clear; at the same time, I want to explain why I am angry at third-party voters in a way that does not make nice. On Tuesday night I had several hours of panic attacks and I have not gone a day since then without starting to cry at least once. I am not in a mood to be compassionate and empathetic to others when I can’t barely keep myself together, but I also believe that speaking in languages of anger and blame changes few minds.

I want to call people to action, or perhaps scream them to action like I’m the opening victim in Jaws.

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Pictured: Disabled people, immigrants, Latin@s, Muslims, LGBTQ people, Black people, people of color, women, Jewish people, and people reliant on the ACA, among others, feeling slightly unnerved by the prospect of a Trump administration.

I want to write about why I’m wearing a safety pin, and why I’m staying off Facebook, and the bizarre, slightly unrooted sense of nihilistic freedom I sometimes feel scrolling through Twitter. Like, I should get those tattoos I’ve been thinking about for literal years! I should get a damn sleeve! I should go buy a keyboard! Why the hell not! Why put anything off anymore! Be your goddamn self, because if nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do, and what I want to do is wear black jeans with a brown sweater and scream Green Day and Something Corporate and Indigo Girls lyrics out the car window! Whatever! Radical honesty is where it’s at, man!

 

I want to write about climate change, except even thinking about it scares me so much I can’t put words in a sentence.

I want to write a lot of poetry. I don’t think most of it will be very good poetry, I just don’t think carefully crafted argumentative essays are gonna get at my soda-pop feelings very well.

I want to yell about the electoral college and voter suppression and how none of this is actually a new problem because anti-immigrant sentiment has been strong in the USA since the Bush era and anti-Muslim sentiment has been strong in the USA since the Bush era and misogyny, misogyny, misogyny. I also want to yell about how it was not unreasonable for me to think that the country that elected Barack Obama twice could reject a man who courted white nationalists to win the presidency, was endorsed by the KKK, and just appointed an anti-Semitic alt-right zealot as his chief strategist. I don’t think it was unreasonable for me to think well of my fellow Americans. Given that Hillary Clinton appears to be winning the popular vote, as absentee ballots are counted, I don’t even think it was precisely overly optimistic.

I want to transcribe the tense, crawling feeling between my shoulderblades and the splintered mahogany weight behind my breastbone, but I don’t think the language to do so has been created yet.

I want to tell you that I love you, even in those cases where I’m mad right now.

Unless you voted for Trump. In which case I just want to know why you looked at me — a queer woman with several pre-existing health conditions — and my Latino friends, my lesbian friends, my gay friends, my trans friends, my immigrant friends, my Jewish friends, my Muslim friends, my Black friends, my disabled friends, my Native friends, every one of my friends on the fringes — and you decided we were making America less great.

Justin Kirk as Prior Walter saying I want more life.

As angry and hurt  and scared as I am, I want to end on a Kushner note. He gets me. Source.

 

To boldly go (a monologue)

Wow, I wrote this almost a year ago and never published it? Well. Better late than never. It seems to remain relevant.

A theatrical friend mentioned the quote below to me recently, and I ended up writing the following. It’s a little rough, as monologues go — it probably makes a better blog post. But I’m releasing it into the wild anyway; I’ve included a CCA license at the bottom that allows sharing and remixing.


The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is–it’s to imagine what is possible.
–bell hooks

JEAN: (Enters, wearing Spock ears. Addresses the crowd.) You ask people who the greatest artist of the English language is and people are like: Shakespeare. Or Dickens, or maybe Victor Hugo, ignoring the fact that he’s, you know, French . . . And they’ve all got their good points, but they’re all wrong. I’ll tell you who the greatest artist of the English language is. Okay?

It’s Gene Roddenberry.

And people think I’m joking, because come on, right. “Captain Kirk” Roddenberry? “Live long and prosper” Roddenberry? Y’know, “Khaaaaaaaan”? That guy?

Yeah. Star Trek: The Original Series is the most important dramatic work of art of the 20th century.

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Things I Try Not To Yell At Other Drivers

Look. I am aware of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I am aware that like 90% of people consider themselves “above average” drivers. Therefore, I do not consider myself an above average driver, except in my ability to parallel park a step-van. When it comes to driving said step-van around Seattle’s narrow residential streets, its clogged and often badly engineered freeways, and its due-to-collapse-any-day-now viaduct, I’m sure I’m just average.

This being said, I am an experienced driver, having been driving this step-van for over three years and having done a couple-three cross-country road trips, and so I feel I have some authority from which to offer the following friendly tips:

  • Turn on your headlights. Especially if it’s raining. Turn on your headlights.
  • You know that triangle-shaped part of the road on exit/entrance ramps? The gore area? Hey guess what CROSSING THOSE LINES IS ILLEGAL. Not just in WA state, either! Crossing them so you can get past the line of cars trying to get onto 520 at the 405 junction is also a JERK MOVE. QUIT IT.
  • oh my god, use yah blinkah, are you kidding me
  • especially if you’re going to insist on illegally changing lanes across the gore area
  • And turn on your headlights!
  • It takes a lot longer for a truck to slow down and stop than it does for your car. Leave us some space.
  • Turn on your schnauzercliffing headlights. I don’t care if it’s 80F and there’s not a cloud in the sky! You will be SO MUCH MORE VISIBLE and I will be considerably less likely to try to merge into the side of your car like the least competent Voltron pilot in the universe.
  • Every time you leave enough space for a truck to change lanes in front of you, and flash your brights to let the driver know that it’s safe for them to move over, a jackalope gets its antlers. I understand that may not sound like an incentive, but it really is a nice thing to do, so if the heartfelt gratitude of an anonymous trucker won’t do it for you maybe the cryptids will.

Look. Cars are amazing. Driving is one of my favorite things to do, but it’s also dangerous: we are all harnessing a series of controlled explosions to propel us at inhuman speeds down the road to where we’re going. That’s metal as HECK, but it also means it behooves us to help each other out. Generosity and care for the human beings around you is super cool.

Be above average. Drive safe!