All posts by Laura Grey

Everyone Deserves Respect, Dignity & Autonomy—Sex Workers Included

A usually well-respected defense lawyer, Susan Necheles, today engaged in a so-called “sluts and nuts” defense of her client, Donald Trump, in his current hush-money trial. She painted Stormy Daniels as wacky and not credible by querying Ms. Daniels about her spiritual practices on the stand. Even worse, she branded Ms. Daniels as insincere when she said she had felt scared and anxious on the night she and Trump had sex. She implied that Daniels’ expression of fear over thinking she was in a situation in which her safety and career could be compromised if she didn’t agree to sex with Trump was unbelievable.

And that’s disgusting.

Trump is accused of paying Ms. Daniels $130,000 to keep silent about a sexual encounter they had nearly two decades ago. While such payoffs are not necessarily illegal, paying off someone to hide information that could materially affect public opinion during a presidential campaign is. So is lying about that to the federal government.

Ms. Daniels made clear that she never intended to have sex with Trump. She thought had been invited for dinner and a talk—two entertainment professionals having a discussion that might lead to a business deal. Perhaps he’d offer her a stint on Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice TV show. She even teased him when she showed up and he was in silky pajamas, and told him to go get dressed—which he did before they talked for two hours.

Ms. Daniels asked if he was always so rude as to show up for dinner in pajamas, and not even have any food to feed her? She teased him, shaming him into getting dressed in something other than a satin robe. When he constantly interrupted her answers to his many questions, she asked him if he was always so self-absorbed. She thought she’d set a tone that showed she was in control of herself, and capable of setting boundaries and setting him straight when he treated her without respect and dignity. It seemed to be going well.

Trump and Ms. Daniels talked about work and families. The then-60-year-old man said three times that his then-27-year-old guest reminded him of his daughter Ivanka—both were beautiful, smart, and not given the respect they deserved.

But after two hours of talk, when she excused herself to use the bathroom, she walked out to find Trump in his underwear on a bed, looking at her, obviously ready and waiting to have sex with her. Her stomach dropped. She worried what the bodyguard would do if she said no. Would the bodyguard let her leave? Would Trump? What would happen to her career? She’d not wanted to go dinner with Trump in the first place, but only did so because her manager had said it could be a good career move to talk with him, and “What could go wrong?”

Lawyer Necheles acted incredulous that the famous Stormy Daniels wouldn’t be willing to have sex with just anybody at any time. How could she of all people be anxious when a large, powerful, famous man with a big bodyguard just outside the door made it clear that he expected her to give in to him? Necheles acted as if it were unbelievable that Ms. Daniels, then a married woman who had worked as an exotic dancer and a porn movie star, should have any compunction over, preferences about, or fear for her safety when faced with an potential sex partner whom she hadn’t chosen or approved. A man famous for having sex with lots of young women. A man who had determined that Ms. Daniels was regularly tested for STDs, but who had no such proof of his own to offer about his health.

Necheles acted as if every sex worker is just a careless and worthless person with no right to respect, dignity, or physical autonomy. No need to be concerned for her health and safety. No reason to say no to a married man over twice her age who expected her to do whatever he wanted—and who didn’t even wear a condom during their encounter.

No one should EVER feel pressured into a sexual situation with anyone. Not even a (supposed) billionaire with fame, power, and a reputation as a litigious bully (which he had even back then).

Ms. Daniels says she was not raped, and not forced to have sex. But the power imbalance between her and Trump was huge. Their age imbalance was enormous. The amount of respect Trump got as the star of a popular TV show vs. the respect Stormy got as a woman who had sex on camera for money was vastly different. Ms. Daniels says she went along with his wishes, but that she felt numb, that she dissociated, that she asked herself how’d she’d gotten herself in that situation. She was shaking so much afterward that she had trouble putting her boots back on to leave. Because she’s a human being who felt shame for being in a situation that scared her, and humiliation for thinking that she mattered to Trump as more than a sex toy.

If a person isn’t interested in having sex, says no, asks to stop at any time, or was willing in the past but is no longer, it legally makes no difference whether that person is one’s wife or a X-rated movie star. Pressuring anyone sexually is wrong, regardless of career, personal experience, number of partners, or current relationship. The idea that someone who has sex as part of her job should be totally without preferences about partners, fear about unwanted encounters, or concern or say over who uses her body, is repugnant. And using such a defense in court is outrageous.

Recognizing the Humanity in Our Enemies

Aw, look at the cheerful, playful, lighthearted colleagues laughing together! They’re just taking a few minutes off from their jobs—they oversaw prisoners at Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp, in 1944. Yes, the happy folk in the uniforms are literal Nazis, members of the Schutzstaffel (aka the SS) taking a break from classifying, torturing, perhaps even killing the sick and terrified people whose lives they oversaw. Because even fascists and their apologists can be happy and have fun sometimes.

These smiling staff members were human, so they were naturally multifaceted, and even had some good qualities. Hey, even Hitler loved his dogs. The noted aviator and aeronautical designer Charles Lindbergh was brave and inspiring—but also a fascist sympathizer and appeaser. Coco Chanel was a groundbreaking fashion designer and style maker—who knowingly romanced, lived with, and spied for a powerful German diplomat during World War II. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an activist and the namesake of his civil rights champion father, started his career as a respected environmentalist. But now he takes money from (and spews anti-scientific anti-vax rhetoric supported by) far-right American millionaires who also bankroll Trump. Former game show host Donald Trump himself makes many people laugh, shout, and feel excited about America—and regularly praises and says he wants to emulate dictators who imprison, torture, and murder their own people.

But it’s important to remember that people who do such things are still human. If we fully demonize and refuse to engage with those whose goal is to oppress and kill us, and show no respect to those who love them, we can’t get through to the millions of independent voters who are on the fence. If you demonize and dehumanize them, you fail to show them how people of good will can see and honor the humanity in those who disagree. You risk making yourself look like an ugly, irrational opponent. And you make compromise with dignity harder.

If you paint your opposition as less than human, you give strength and a rallying point to your enemies. Nobel Prize-winning diplomats like Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu made this clear, many times. Their ability to help long-term foes find common ground and face each other as human beings deserving of respect allowed them to broker peace and reconciliation deals that had long been inconceivable beforehand.

That doesn’t mean we should ever let down our guard, trust would-be oppressors or their apologists to have our best interests at heart, or fail to fight their dangerous, dehumanizing rhetoric and efforts to gain power. We must use every tool against their actions that the law allows.

And we can’t refuse to fight or take sides against our internal enemies just because their opposing candidates aren’t perfect. Lofty ideals sound lovely, but when a would-be dictator is at the door pointing an AK-47 at you and telling you how he looks forward to dismantling your democracy with his fascist friends, you don’t wait for Superman and Wonder Woman to show up. You push back, you support the candidates who are least objectionable, and you fight like hell to keep the fascists out of power.

Pragmatism is called for in such circumstances. Being “pure” and refusing to vote for a less inspiring (or even mediocre) candidate is no virtue when the alternative is a vote for a candidate who is an active danger to democracy. Nor does refusing to vote keep you clean in such a political environment. Refusing to vote is still a choice, and that choice has consequences, up to and including allowing the election of a dangerous person by an active minority of people. Don’t let fatigue, boredom with the news, or a temptation to be passive let you give away your ability to keep fascists out of power.

It’s such a delicate balance, remembering the humanity of the opposition and understanding their appeal while not underestimating their strength, letting down our guard, or failing to stand strong against lies and fascists. But we MUST do these things. Because eternal vigilance really IS the price of liberty. 

The Wham of Sam: My Sammy Davis Jr. Ephiphany

In honor of Sammy Davis Jr.’s 98th birthday today, I’m sharing this piece I originally wrote about him back in 2006. Thanks again, Sammy.

A few months ago, I was doing a difficult job that lasted six weeks instead of the two I thought I’d signed on for. I was commuting about 10 hours a week (and I hate driving), and the job required intense focus on thousands of important details. I learned a lot, the people were kind and helpful, and the work they did was important, but I felt out of place, frustrated, and blue.

I tried reminding myself of all the things going right with the job: I was employed, working with good folks at an institution that improves people’s lives, making enough so that I didn’t have to work two jobs, and setting a good example for my daughter by showing that sometimes we do things we don’t enjoy in order to pay our dues, fulfill our obligations, be helpful, and earn a living.

Of course, while my brain understood all this, my heart felt cranky and sad. I was frustrated that the talents I feel are the most valuable and worthy ones I have to offer weren’t being used to the extent I’d like to use them. And then I had my Sammy Davis Jr. epiphany.

To try to make the hours in stop-and-go traffic feel less gruesome, I realized I needed to find fresh and uplifting tunes. I love NPR (which recently featured an interview with Sammy’s daughter, Tracey, who discussed her new memoir of her father), but sometimes focusing on the latest events in Fallujah while stuck on a bridge for 30 minutes just feels too nasty and I need music. I rummaged through my CDs and found one I’d bought a few months back but hadn’t listened to much yet. It was a CD of songs performed by a man I must now admit I used to think of as one of the poster children of Vegas kitsch: Sammy Davis Jr. But the best part is the name of the album: “The Wham of Sam.

I must digress at this point. Are you already asking yourself, why would Laura buy Sammy CDs in the first place? Well, because I heard one of his songs in a store somewhere and was reminded what a fine voice and a great sense of expression, style, and warmth he had at his best moments. The many TV appearances he made during the 1960s and 1970s were so filled with Vegas schlock and corny stylization that he was almost a self-parody by the time I started listening to music in earnest. He was doing campy, obvious, cool cat riffs during his showy performances with Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and on The Tonight Show, and I couldn’t be bothered. I knew I’d loved his portrayal of Sportin’ Life in the film Porgy and Bess when I’d seen it on TV as a tiny kid, but I don’t think it’s been on TV since about 1970 so my memory is now faint, and I loved his performance as the Cheshire Cat singing “What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” in a strange 1966 animated parody variation of Alice in Wonderland.

His turn as groovy evangelist Big Daddy in Sweet Charity is a classic sixties moment that featured Sammy’s charismatic rendition of the song “The Rhythm of Life,” but somehow I forgot about that. The big hits he had when I was a kid, like “The Candy Man,” felt too cutesy and pat to me, and I dismissed him, with his goofy hipster patois and giant diamond rings, his membership in the Rat Pack, and his public support of Nixon was too bizarre. (I still shudder when I remember the much-publicized photo of Sammy’s adoring, awkward, full-body hug of Nixon.)

But when I heard him singing over the speakers at some chain store I thought, damn, no wonder this man was so popular. Listen to the feeling he puts into that line! What clear, clean enunciation! What sophisticated, tasty phrasing! So I swallowed my pride and hung out at a CD store listening station for a half hour, listening to selections from a number of his albums. I bought two, one of ballads and one of swingier songs. What a good move that was. But then I got distracted and hardly listened to them.

Anyway, back to my commute-hour epiphany. I popped “The Wham of Sam” into my CD player, and right there, boom, I was hooked with the first song, the star of the album, “Lot of Livin’ to Do.” The horns grabbed me immediately, and the energy, which starts out high, somehow continues to build with every measure of the song. The band arrangement by Marty Paich is fabulous, swingy in the style of Sinatra’s terrific “Ring-A-Ding-Ding” album (one of my favorite albums of all time, by anyone—it was arranged by the legendary Nelson Riddle).

“Lot of Livin’ to Do” is big and brassy and has something new going on at every turn, but the band never outshines Sammy, whose phrasing is exact and elegant. His syncopation is so sure and it builds right up to the payoff moments. He knows when to pull back a little and when to let it rip. The intonation and enunciation are beautiful, but beyond his technical chops, he works the lyrics just right. He’s thinking about what he’s saying, he means what he’s singing, and I believe every word. He was sizzling and I was thrilled, sitting in a traffic jam on a bridge near Seattle at 8:30 a.m., bouncing up and down in my seat.

I must have listened to that song six times in a row on the way into work. The words crept into my brain and Boom! I had a revelation. The words aren’t Shakespeare; they’re standard upbeat lyrics, and the song was originally written for the musical Bye Bye, Birdie, which is fun but not Sondheim. But somehow, sung with that bravado and joy and excitement and underscored by that hot band, the lyrics spoke to me:

“… [T]here’s wine all ready for tasting / And there’s Cadillacs all shiny and new / Gotta move ’cause time is a-wastin’ / There’s such a lot of livin’ to do. / There’s music to play, places to go and people to see / Everything for you and me / Life’s a ball if only you know it / And it’s all waiting for you / You’re alive, so come on and show it / There’s such a lot of living to do.”

I heard it, and I believed it. I figured, hey, this slight man had a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit, a glass eye, grew up without his mom, had to deal with relentless racism from day one, and performed in hotels that he was barred from sleeping in because of the color of his skin (until he became a big name and helped break the color barrier in show business). And man, did he love life. He ate it up and went over the top, drinking and smoking and skirt-chasing, and hanging out with some unsavory folks, yes—but he also took a song like “Lush Life” and sang it like he’d lived it. He sang every song as if he lived it. And he meant every word.

He brought fun and swing and life into everything he sang. Sometimes the hipster kitsch of it was too much for me, and sometimes the low-brow, I’m-gonna-please-everybody style of his later years felt like he’d dumbed-down his act, especially considering what sophistication he was capable of. His desire to please everybody and be up, up, up all the time cheapened his rep in the eyes of many of us, but the joy he brought to life, the beauty he found in it and made for others.

That devotion to wringing every drop from it reminded me how lucky I was and how many wonderful things are around for me to enjoy. I thought it seemed a sin to waste another day in disappointment that I’m not doing more exciting work, and I vowed I’d make good things happen, find them, make sure they’re a part of every day of mine, and every one of my daughter’s days, too. I figured if Sammy, who had so much trash to contend with, could take his talent and shoot it off like fireworks, why can’t I take whatever gifts I have and make something fine and exciting of them, too? I may not be the dynamo Sammy was, but I don’t have his struggles either. And one doesn’t have to be a superstar to find something splendid in each day, or to make fine things happen.

So from that day forward I’ve reaffirmed my dedication to finding and doing good work, to making beauty, to learning something good and doing something kind each day, to being grateful for the opportunities to enjoy life more and to worry less about my dwindling savings (and how long it takes to find good jobs), and to writing regularly and with purpose. In a roundabout way, I have Sammy to thank for inspiring me to start this site. The wham of Sam, indeed.

Johnny Cash: The Man in Black

Johnny Cash’s music can be gentle and touching, bold and danceable, fun, silly, even raucous. Sometimes Johnny’s songs are a little hokey, but other times they’re deeply moving. The richness of young Johnny’s voice is a joy to listen to in big hits like “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire.” The quavering of old Johnny’s voice in his exquisite cover of Trent Reznor’s song “Hurt” is heartbreakingly beautiful. But beyond the sheer delight of hearing the man sing in his trademark rich bass voice is the pleasure of learning how Johnny fought and conquered his demons, gave comfort to the afflicted, and stood up and spoke out for oppressed people, over and over again.

Johnny was a badass, a true OG. But it wasn’t just empty posturing. Here are three examples of ways in which Johnny used his huge popularity and influence to speak out for and lift up others through song.

The Man in Black

Johnny wore nothing but black clothes onstage, and in his song “Man in Black,” he sang about what it meant to him:

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who is long paid for his crime
But is there because he’s a victim of the times

I wear the black for those who’ve never read
Or listened to the words that Jesus said
About the road to happiness through love and charity
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back
Up front there ought to be a man in black

I wear it for the sick and lonely old
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men

And I wear it for the thousands who have died
Believin’ that the Lord was on their side
I wear it for another hundred-thousand who have died
Believin’ that we all were on their side.

He went inside Folsom Prison to bring joy to imprisoned men, and sang to them about the pain of being incarcerated. Johnny was never imprisoned himself, but he was arrested seven times on charges such as intoxication, drug use, and actions taken while under the influence. He knew what it was like to fight addiction, mess up in public, and humble himself in order to get himself straight.

Folsom Prison Blues

In the song “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny sang about life behind bars, and the pain of it:

I hear the train a-comin’, it’s rolling ‘round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a-rollin’ on down to San Antone

When I was just a baby my mama told me, “Son,
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.”
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry.

The Ballad of Ira Hayes

In 1964, Johnny recorded Bitter Tears, an indigenous rights concept album. On it he sang of the oppression and suffering that Native Americans had experienced at the hands of primarily European immigrants to North America over the course of centuries. On it he sang the “Ballad of Ira Hayes” about a Pima Indian soldier who went off to World War II and was immortalized in the photo of the raising of the U.S. flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Hayes came home to a nation that reviled him for being Native American instead of honoring him for his service to a nation that had treated his people brutally. Eventually, his difficult life back home in the U.S. led Ira to alcoholism, which in turn led to his early death at the age of 32. Here are excerpts from the ballad, written by Peter La Farge:

Gather ’round me people
There’s a story I would tell
‘Bout a brave young Indian
You should remember well
From the land of the Pima Indian
A proud and noble band
Who farmed the Phoenix Valley
In Arizona land

Down the ditches a thousand years
The waters grew Ira’s peoples’ crops
‘Til the white man stole their water rights
And the sparkling water stopped
Now, Ira’s folks were hungry
And their land grew crops of weeds
When war came, Ira volunteered
And forgot the white man’s greed

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinking Indian
Or the marine that went to war

There they battled up Iwo Jima hill
Two hundred and fifty men
But only twenty-seven lived
To walk back down again
And when the fight was over
And Old Glory raised
Among the men who held it high
Was the Indian, Ira Hayes

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinking Indian
Or the marine that went to war

The song became a popular anti-war, pro-Indian protest song while the Vietnam War was raging, despite the fact that many radio stations refused to play it. Although Johnny, who joined the Air Force during the Korean War, and his wife June Carter Cash played for the troops in Vietnam and respected their service deeply, he had antipathy toward the Vietnam War. He sometimes expressed this, to the consternation of his more conservative fans. They found Cash’s progressive politics and support of civil rights and equality for all distasteful. Some turned away from Johnny as a result, but he refused to court bigots. He believed that following his conscience was more important than making more money.

The Powerful Symbolism of Scotland’s Tartans

In 1746, Scottish Jacobites were determined to see Scotland freed from England’s domination. They fought the English forces at the Battle of Culloden in hopes that when they prevailed, they would place their leader, Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”), on the British throne. However, the battle was a bloodbath, and the Jacobite cause was thoroughly defeated. To prevent further uprisings by supporters of the Stuarts, Britain outlawed Scotland’s clan system and the wearing of the clans’ beloved tartans.

The wearing of clan tartans had been a source of great pride and an essential marker of cultural and ideological identity for the clans of the Scottish Highlands. Britain’s ban on tartans undermined a resurgence of clan efforts to gain Scotland’s independence. The ban on tartans continued for 26 years after Culloden. The English imposed severe penalties on anyone found wearing such identifying garb.

In 1782, the ban was lifted. Indeed, during the 19th century, Queen Victoria and her family took to decorating their beloved Scottish Castle, Balmoral, with tartans, and even wore tartans themselves when in Scotland.

By the way, for Scots and other Brits, the words “tartan” and “plaid” aren’t synonyms. In Scotland, a plaid is not a pattern—it’s a long piece of tartan cloth worn over the shoulder as part of traditional Scottish dress.

Mud-luscious and Puddle-wonderful: The Poetry of E.E. Cummings

Here’s the thing about works of art that we all grow up with, have to analyze as kids, and dismiss because they seem dated or obvious, hackneyed or over-explained: Sometimes they’re actually wonderful after all.

For example, the poems of E. E. Cummings. During my junior high and high school years in the 1970s, he was one of the more frequently taught poets, largely because his acrobatics with punctuation and wordplay are fun and accessible even to people who claim to hate poetry. I know there are critics and readers who think him naive or over-exposed; they find him too accessible or well-known to seek him out afresh to find pleasure or insight.

What a shame.

I occasionally reread his poems in the expectation that, at last, I’ll find them somehow embarrassingly old-fashioned and obvious. But they never feel that way to me. They still have those great lines that punch me or move me when I don’t expect it, the casual colloquialisms, the thoughts that beg to be combined into one word to emphasize their speed or oneness. All of those devices can be found in “Buffalo Bill’s,” for example.

One of the most anthologized of his poems is the light but surprisingly touching poem “in Just-,” which evokes the way children explode out into the world and splash and stomp and whirl through it in springtime. I still love its cadences, the way friends bettyandisbel and eddyandbill are so constantly with each other that they merge into single entities, the bittersweet everpresence of that little lame balloon man as he whistles far and wee.

The bitterness of the young Cummings, disillusioned by his experiences during World War I and unable to leave what he learned behind upon his return home, pops up regularly in his work. When we think of the “lost generation,” the disillusioned postwar youth of the 1920s who populate the work of writers like Fitzgerald, we think of novels full of ennui, anger, and feelings of betrayal. We think of heavy works like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. But Cummings made his own jabs, often in wisecracking, cynical asides, such as in “my sweet old etcetera.”

In “next to of course god america i,” his sarcasm and disgust for jingoism and militarism get considerably darker and more obvious. By the time one reads “Humanity i love you,” Cummings’ anger and disillusionment with not only his country but with humanity are made completely plain. But so are his ambivalence and sense of humor (dark though it is). This isn’t the Cummings we were taught to consider so harmlessly affable and nonchalant, too easy, too fun or fey.

My favorite Cummings poem remains the one many consider the obvious choice, “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” which so many high school textbooks have reprinted for decades with the same dull set of talking points and questions. Yet it’s surprising how many different interpretations I’ve seen for this supposedly obvious poem. In my reading of it, I always find it terribly moving, in its sweet and small way.

The poem contrasts the vastness of time with the anonymity of the little characters who populate it, including dear little anyone and noone. Seasons pass as the poem lengthens, children forget the essentials as they grow older, and while “anyone” and “noone” mean nothing to the world at large, they are everything to each other. The inevitability of death and anonymity are softened by the fact that, while busy folk bury the dead side by side, “little by little and was by was,” and forget them (if they ever knew them in the first place), anyone and noone loved each other and were each other’s everything, and in their little lives, that’s all anyone and noone required.

This poem feels anything but gimmicky to me. Like Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech in As You Like It, “anyone lived in a pretty how town” boils the stages and essence of life down quickly, with bittersweetness, humor, a touch of cynicism, but also a touching empathy for the littleness and vulnerability at the heart of every human being. That’s why children still learn these works today—because they’re beautiful, because they’re funny, because they’re a little dark and surprising, and because they’re true.

For my last two years of college, I had to commute an hour each way. I found I could make good use of those hours on the road if I borrowed spoken word records from the library, taped them, and then listened to the tapes in the car. (In the early 1980s, one rarely found prerecorded books on tape, but all sorts of wonderful things could be found on record at public libraries.) I was introduced to some fine plays this way (Ibsen’s The Master Builder and An Enemy of the People, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, lots of Shakespeare) and I listened to a great deal of poetry.

One of my favorite records was of Cummings reading his poems in public during the late 1950s. Often I find listening to poets reading their own work painful—they adopt a false tone and awkward phrasing, with self-conscious over-emphasis or an odd near-monotone. Or they use a bouncing lilt at the end of each phrase, in a sort of questioning manner, like a Valley Girl? putting a question mark? at the end? of each small phrase? I remember finding the liveliness of Cummings’s readings surprising, and a great relief from the artificial, stentorian tones of so many other readers and writers of poetry.

By the way, the long-standing stories that Cummings signed his own name e. e. cummings and hated capital letters are myths. Cummings signed his name with the usual capitals and often used capitalization in his poetry, just not always in the obvious or expected ways. He did like to be inventive and a bit subversive in his use of language, but not to the extent that he felt it necessary to take on the affectation of using non-standard punctuation for his own name. I think this oft-repeated error serves to underline the common (and I believe erroneous) belief that he was a gimmicky writer of sing-song verse. To my mind, he was an original thinker with a light touch and a sense of humor who influenced a lot of (often bad) poets by snubbing long-established convention in ways that grab attention.

Nowadays nearly every school child is asked to mess with English a little after reading a bit of Cummings in hopes that this mild subversion of all we’re taught will shake loose some creativity and instant love of poetry: Drop your capitals, Betty! Start a verse in the middle of the line, Isbel! Scrunch those words together into one long line, EddyandBill! We’ve all seen and done it so many times it feels quaint. But it wasn’t in the 1920s when Cummings did it, and it still feels fresh to me, nearly a century later.

[Revised from the version published by in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog. Originally published on this website in 2014.]

Icelandic Warmth in a Heart-Shaped Box

Here’s some exquisite angst for you—a gorgeous cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” by Icelandic folksinger Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson. Ásgeir has toured the U.S. singing in English and Icelandic, and he now uses Ásgeir as a mononym. He also plays guitar in the Icelandic band The Lovely Lion.

Ásgeir’s spare piano arrangement, his high and softly plaintive voice, the careful but effective use of echo and percussion, and the mounting layers of synthesized sound create something unique and lovely. This introverted, ethereal version has a very different energy than Nirvana’s original, but I find it every bit as captivating. In fact, it’s even more enthralling than the original for me; instead of pressing itself into my space insistently, it wraps its tendrils around me and pulls me slowly but inexorably into its dark heart.

[Originally published in December 2014]

I’m a Creep

I was talking with my daughter the other day about something I enjoyed that was a little creepy, and we laughed about that creepiness. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t really DO creepy—I detest horror and zombies and vampires and gore. I loathe scaring people. I hate practical jokes and nasty surprises and causing people fear.

But then it dawned on me that I love The Twilight Zone, which I think of more as a source of slightly chilling campiness than creepiness. When I received a box set of every Twilight Zone episode as a Christmas gift a few years ago, I actually burst into tears, I found it such a touching and generous gesture.

I thought a little further about what constitutes creepiness and I realized that I love cemeteries, which I see as beautiful memorials to lost love. I seek them out in my travels and I have hundreds of photographs of headstones. Indeed, on the walls of my home hang several small casts of particularly lovely elements from New England’s grave markers.

Hmm.

I followed this train of thought a bit further down the track, and I had to admit to myself that I get a kick out of hiding weird disembodied hands and arms from antique baby dolls in my houseplants. I see them not as frightening but as absurd and laughable when they’re stuck randomly in nonsensical places. I also love them because I collect hand-related art—it reminds me of creativity and connecting with people and holding out one’s hand to others. To me, those creepy little hands are actually a mental shorthand for being willing to lead people toward something funnier, less expected, better. I don’t assemble them into horrific tableaux; I use them to accessorize my home and inspire me to stay close to those I love, to beauty, to my muses. My creepy baby hands also keep me from taking myself too seriously. They remind me to stay goofy, which I think is vital to staying human.

Then came the epiphany: Creepy people never think of themselves as creepy.

Uh-oh.

It turns out that I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. But I’ll bet I’m the perkiest little creep you know.

Why Puberty Blockers Are Essential Healthcare Tools

Let’s talk about puberty blockers, an essential element of safe and successful gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Social media, politicians, and news outlets have shared a great deal of misleading information about what these drugs do, how they work, and whether they’re dangerous or reversible. This has even led some U.S. cities and regions to enact legislation against their use. Tragically, some localities have even established punitive measures against trans children and the parents who allow them this life-improving and sometimes even life-sustaining care. So let’s take a look at what they really are, how they really work, and why they’re such important mental and physical health tools for many trans kids. 

Puberty-blocking drugs don’t stop puberty for all time; they just stop it for right now. Their results are reversible. If kids stop using them, puberty resumes. There is no evidence that puberty blockers affect future fertility, though taking estrogen or testosterone with them may impact the ability to have children later.

Puberty blockers were approved by the FDA in 1993. According to Cedars Sinai Medical Centers, they’re considered very safe by the medical community. They may possibly affect height (they may delay growth-plate closure, which can lead to taller adult height), and may slightly lower bone density for some. But so far, research shows the effects to be minimal. Doctors and hospitals are required to provide detailed information about risks and downsides to children and their families before providing them with these medications. People with severe gender dysphoria (i.e., who feel their genders to be different that the one assigned to them at birth) usually feel that living in a body that feels more like them is worth being a little taller, or worth taking bone-strengthening minerals and drugs to avoid osteoporosis later in life.

When children feel strongly that their genders don’t match the ones assigned to them at birth, going through puberty can feel crushing and tragic—a permanent sign to the world to treat them as someone they know they’re not. According to the Mayo Clinic, puberty blocking drugs keep kids from going through major changes (some irreversible) like the development of breasts, body hair, and male genitalia; deepening of the voice; and menstruation.

To get rid of those signs, many people go through painful, expensive, and difficult surgery later. But there are certain things that happen to the body at puberty that may not be reversible even with surgery. Those who undergo surgery later often experience complications, pain, great expense, and all the risks that come with surgery and anesthesia. Yet they still don’t have physical outcomes as successful as they might have if given puberty blockers at the first signs of puberty.

Many trans children who go through puberty and see their bodies undergoing distressing, permanent changes suffer severe depression and other negative mental health challenges, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some engage in self-harm such as cutting, substance abuse, or suicide. If given access to puberty blockers, they can delay or stop many of those changes, buying them time until they’re adults and can decide legally how they want to present and identify themselves. Puberty blockers have been shown to significantly reduce depression and suicidality in trans children.

Puberty blockers have led to improved mental health, better social interactions with other kids, and sometimes avoidance of future gender-confirmation surgeries.

The physician information portal HCPLive (which is part of the MJH Life Sciences publishing company) writes, “Investigators said that previous data showed gender-affirming hormones (GAH), puberty blockers (PBs), and gender-affirming surgeries have been found to be independently associated with reduced depression, anxiety and additional adverse mental health outcomes. Puberty blockers administered during puberty can actually reduce suicide risk in this population. A decreased lifetime incidence of suicidal ideation was also found among adults who received access to puberty blockers during adolescence.”

In short, puberty blockers improve and even save lives. They don’t poison children, or take away their choices later. These drugs give children the freedom to delay major health and life choices until adulthood. They align physical and psychological health, and let children feel more like themselves. Providing them to children whose lives could be immeasurably improved—even saved—by them makes them an essential element of pediatric healthcare.

Wayne Shorter’s Luscious, Lyrical Sound

Wayne Shorter played on a number of Joni Mitchell’s best songs, including three tunes on her 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast

Jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, who has died at age 89, played with many legends over his long career. An 11-time Grammy Award winner, Shorter played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, and Steely Dan, among many others, and he co-founded the jazz instrumental group Weather Report. Although Shorter’s style is distinctive, he was versatile enough to integrate his sound seamlessly with straight-ahead jazz, fusion, progressive, and alternative jazz stylists, as well as with folk and pop soloists and groups.

Some of my favorite Wayne Shorter performances were with Joni Mitchell. Shorter joined Mitchell on ten of her albums, primarily during her middle and later period, after she replaced much of her early, reedy folk sound with a warm, intricate jazz style. As Mitchell’s voice moved into a lower, darker range, Shorter’s sax lines, soaring and sinuous, flew above her voice, tying it together with all the instrumental voices that swirled around her.

A fine example of their collaborative style is the song “Moon at the Window” from Mitchell’s 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast. Another is the moody, marvelous song “Yvette in English,” cowritten by Joni Mitchell and David Crosby for Mitchell’s Grammy Award-winning 1994 album Turbulent Indigo. I can’t imagine this song without Shorter’s trills, floating overhead like Yvette’s cigarette smoke.

The Washington Post obituary for Wayne Shorter describes him as “regarded throughout his career as a nurturer more than a leader.” While his distinctive playing certainly influenced untold jazz musicians over the past seven decades, he may well be best known for how beautifully he integrated his sound and style with others. His collaborations were made so much more beautiful, powerful, and lasting because of Shorter’s willingness to be part of a song’s tapestry, instead of needing to have all eyes and ears on him alone. Jazz and pop music are so much the richer for it.