Spring in the Time of Pandemic

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I dreamed last night that I’d said something snappy/snarky/cutting to someone I was debating about some point or another, and Robin Williams, sitting there, smiled with crinkly eyes. It was a smile of compassion, disappointment, love. He’s a muse, or a familiar, or an animus, or a spirit guide, but for whatever reason, my subconscious has decided to send me a message from him when I don’t know how to feel.

I’m always grateful. My dreams have directed me for as long as I can remember but mostly they help me shut down the thinking and lodge me back into feeling and being. It’s a blessing.

But it was that smile that told me that I won’t be distracted by the tiger show or any of the numerous questionnaires on Facebook, that told me that now is the time for thinking, reading.

I want to hold the world’s grief in my heart, as much of it as I can stand, just to hold it, just to take it every bit of it into every cell and really feel this loss, this chaos, and all the goodness and beauty of it too. There is so much to reckon, and what strikes me is that the reckoning is not about death – that is always with us – or disease – that is always with us too – but in the too numerous tragedies of it – how many could have been spared if we listened to scientists, how many could have been spared if we lived in a world based on humanity and not greed, how many wouldn’t be mourning the loss of a person whose funeral they can’t even attend. It’s not death that’s hard, it’s how badly we manage it, how fucked up a culture is that doesn’t acknowledge grief at all.

I remember my mom thinking my brother Joe would be the one to give the eulogy for my grandma because he was, no doubt, her favorite, but also for the same reason she was: he was always the one to make the joke at just the right time, to distract everyone from what was pressing and serious. He was great at it, and still can be. And she worried, as she would, about me being too much of a mess to manage even a reading. I wasn’t. He was.

Goth kid, you know? Gloomy and emo and deep and way too damn serious all the time. And I write that as a kind of defensive gesture, and to say: if the tiger show or whatever distraction helps you, I am so glad for that. But so much just falls away for me and I wish those things didn’t. I wish I could be distracting, and funny, and sarcastic or cutting.

But mostly I’m just sad. I cry a couple of times a day as I suspect a lot of you do. I’m yearning for wisdom and flipping through Thucydides and Mann and Dos Passos and Woolf and Salinger – anyone whose words have brought me comfort in the past. Writers are the best friends you can have, except if you know them in person.

Just about everyone I know and love is still in the New York area and I feel both relieved not to be there now – because a house and a yard are much better than a one bedroom apartment for quarantine, and we have few enough people here that taking walks is possible and easy, and because Wisconsin feels like fucking Disney compared to what’s happening in New York right now. But I also feel guilty for feeling relieved, I feel guilty for not being there, and mostly, I feel all the grief of 9/11 all over again.

The ER doctors then, waiting for anyone to work on.

Now the ER doctors overwhelmed with people to work on.

I don’t know how my friends with children are managing; I don’t know you explain anything to children much less something like this. An entire generation is going to grow up with weeping parents and friends on facetime instead of in person. And maybe they’ll joke about it, as the millennials did about 9/11: that was the day that changed everything, one said to me sarcastically once, and I think he apologized about a million times when he saw the blood drain from my face.

I don’t know why it’s always New York. I know, too, that it’s not. So many people I know – friends from India and Indonesia and Puerto Rico and Haiti – have watched tragedies unfold where the places, the sounds, the people they love are. New York takes up a lot of the air in the room, and I know folks don’t think it’s fair. You don’t know New York if you think that’s unfair, I’ve often said, it’s the best dream this country ever had. It’s not easy to do at a distance because you don’t know what to do and there’s very little you can do.

An artist named Renee French made an image I named Wish after 9/11 that has sustained me more than once since then: it’s two flowers growing to meet the sun, about as far apart as the Towers were. As if. As if this wish might be true, as if things grow where things have been destroyed, as if you can imagine weeds growing in the cracks of the rubble.

I stand outside in the dark in the middle of the night when things are normal, but lately I’m doing it more, at midnight, at 1, at 2, at 3. It’s my nightwatchman syndrome, the way my PTSD manifests; I got woken by the bad news on that Tuesday and something in my brain never wanted to be woken up by that kind of news again so now I stay awake overnight, sometimes doping myself to sleep with Benadryl or whiskey or Ativan, but now, with no job to go to, with nowhere to go and no schedule, I’m just staying up to keep watch on the world while everyone sleeps. (This is when, of course, the writing has always gotten done too, at least.)

And tonight I watched the bunnies munching grass in my yard, visible only when their white puffy tails turned to me, and I listened to the City Park owl hoot twice; I smoked a cigarette because it’s the wrong week to quit sniffing glue and looked at that big dark beautiful Wisconsin sky and the gorgeous home next to mine and at my own and felt that surreal mental trickery telling me that everything was okay. The robins are back. The tulips are coming. There are very few and only very tiny patches of snow left. And my allergies tell me, too, that spring is a minute away.

Spring in Wisconsin almost always involves a lot of unexpected snow – and it’s only March. We will no doubt get dumped on again, more or less; we will groan and complain, more or less; we will roll or eyes or complain or, depending on who we are, we will squeal with joy one more time but quietly because snow is a miracle. I love the stuff.

But spring is on its way. I will sneeze and cough and itch my way through it, and grumble when people ask me why I don’t like nature more – because it’s out to get me – and take Benadryl to sleep so that I don’t worry that every cough is a sign I am infected with Covid-19. I don’t worry too much about dying anymore but I really, really, really hate suffering.

Despite my love of winter, spring will come, and self isolating will be harder; quarantine will be harder. The eternal human need to hug and fuck and kiss and socialize and wear whatever will be difficult to manage. This northern soul, this winter, is so much easier, when everyone and everything is quiet, when the birds are gone, when the lawn is dead and not in need of mowing.

But spring is coming. And despite everything, those tulips are ready to break through the ground, as are the dandelions and the quince and the magnolia and all of those eager, over achieving first flowers of the place.

And they are a wish: that from death and stillness and calm come beauty and chaos and life.

It’s a blessing, not a curse. Life will go on.


(i wrote this after i saw the news that a nyc hospital is setting up a temporary morgue in its parking lot. so many flashbacks. too many.)

Hey NYC, I hear the feds won’t help again & it’s like the 1970s all over again but with a pandemic

I moved away a while back because – because I couldn’t afford you anymore & because I was too jumpy to take the train & wasn’t rich enough to take cabs

But I love you, & my heart is in you, & I try very much to represent the best of what you are everywhere I go

It’s been sad watching the old places close and those new terrible people move in but I know you’ve got it & you’ll manage change like you manage a million subway rats

So here’s my love to you, you overeducated overly talkative upfront and confrontational people full of love, all of whom are a little bit irish a little bit jewish a little Italian and a little Puerto Rican, yah:

You all have done all the things before and you will do them again

Only in nyc do they ask doctors to come out of retirement and 1000 people show up overnight

Only in nyc do you have hurricanes and tornados and 9/11 and blackouts and people throw peaceful block parties and people dance in the street – to klezmer, salsa, whatever.

Only you guys understand what it’s like to not know anyone who lives on your block but who will do anything & everything for the bodega guy down the block from Bangladesh

Only you guys know what it means to live in too small a small space for too long a time and have nowhere to hoard motherfucking tp

Only you guys know why you look good even if you’re broke or depressed or feeling fabulous

Only in nyc do straight girls fall in love with gay men and become their best men or best ladies or their surrogates or their beards

Only in nyc are the people who die tony award winners and Oscar nominees and nobel prize mentions because holy shit y’all are talented

In nyc, where even bigots know the differences between the too numerous to mention versions of scarves worn on heads for religious/non religious reasons

You live cheek by jowl, asscheek to asscheek on the train, psychological space miles apart but always right there together

And I don’t know what went wrong but here’s what I know: everything you’re doing, everything you are, is what we all should be: tolerant of everyone but assholes.

I see Fauci and Cuomo trying to do the right thing but seriously and probably failing but still trying.

That is what you do best, nyc: try like nobody ever has before. That city is full of impossible things – just look at it.

I don’t know why it’s always you but it always is: over and over again you come back

But burn that shitty gold building in midtown to the ground already, wouldja? Fuck him.

#weseeyou (a note to trans land during quarantine)

I worry about young people a lot these days because I’ve worked with so many talented, awesome students at Lawrence where I work, and I’ve gotten a couple of notes from younger folks who were worried about going home to families who don’t accept them as they are. At LU, we allowed them to stay put, but it got me thinking about all the young people who are quarantined with families who don’t accept or acknowledge their genders.

So we made a video.

We’d love to see other people in transland borrow the #weseeyou hashtag and make their own video or send out their own message to those young folks, or to anyone, really, who needs to see and hear this.

Love to all you beautiful people.

Making This Up As We Go

A short piece I wrote for Facebook seems to have struck a chord so I thought I’d share it for a larger audience:

here’s a quick note just to say: you’ve got this.

i’ve lived through the AIDS crisis and 9/11, blackouts and hurricanes and a kidnapping and none of those things prepared me for this.

so this is just to say, to the younger people who are freaking out: no one is prepared for this. it’s not because you’re young. it’s because there is and was no plan in place.

be thankful, if you’re not, that you’re not carrying around trauma from other events. pay attention to your responses, to your body, to how you’re sleeping. give yourself room to be panicked at one moment and euphoric or calm in another. if you are post traumatic, go back to the beginnings of how you first got yourself through.

i pretty much drop any sense of humor, the hardcore introvert kicks in hard, & i tend to be up all night & sleep all day. i call it my nightwatchman response, and it’s all too familiar.

i am not the one who can lighten the mood by any means but i am here if you don’t want to freak other people out about how gloomy and despondent you are. you will not freak me out with your pessimism or fear. these are my normals.

a new normal will emerge, but these first days are a period of adjustment to change none of us wanted.

we’re all making this up as we go. your core of self reliance, your ability to appreciate beauty, your love of the small things – all of these are muscles and this will strengthen those. lean into the growth, even into the fear. you are more than you know.

Jake Woodford for Appleton Mayor – #woodford4appleton

(I’m writing this as a private citizen. My views do not represent my employer or any other organization I work with or for. Also: being pro Jake does not make me anti Dana. Both are strong progressive candidates and I think we need to focus on getting progressive voters to the polls and not on infighting, please.)

I want Jake Woodford to be Appleton’s next mayor.

I didn’t know him as a student at Lawrence and he never took one of my classes. We are friendly but I wouldn’t say we’re friends, and honestly, I’m a little freaked out by how many people seem to be voting for someone because they know them. The good thing about being me is I pretty much know everyone so that’s not an issue.

When I heard Jake was thinking about running, I encouraged him to do so. I was excited at the prospect – as was my wife – for a couple of reasons. He was an extraordinary LUCC president during a complicated time in Lawrence’s history. He listened to understand where other people were coming from, listened to comprehend how different other people’s experiences of both Appleton and Lawrence were, and he read and researched and talked to just about everyone. The one thing I told him was that you can’t lead well if your ego is in it: this is about service to a community. I warned him that being mayor was going to be dealing with criticism every goddamn day.

But it’s his vision for the city that’s really the thing. I haven’t seen anything comparable from anyone else running. It’s got sections on neighborhoods, community, the economy, health and safety, and city management with multiple paragraphs breaking down those topics. Go read it if you haven’t.

He’s a civics dork, and there is no higher compliment I can pay a person. His vision for the city includes ideas about multi modal transit, cybercrime, environmental protections (both in terms of sustainability and response to environmental catastrophe), water quality, youth engagement, neighborhoods and community building.

But it was the fine print that really thrills me. Here’s the list of stuff he read to make decisions about his vision plan, and I have no doubt he actually read all of it:

Development of this document was supported by research and data from Imagine Fox Cities, the Fox Cities LIFE Study, the City of Appleton Comprehensive Plan, City of Appleton Housing Affordability Report, Downtown Appleton Mobility Plan, APA Policy Guide on Collaborative Neighborhood Planning, A Guide for Government Officials Seeking to Promote Productive Citizen Participation – Asset-Based Community Development Institute, AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, This is Smart Growth – SGN, Valley Transit Draft Transit Development Plan, National League of Cities IYEF Authentic Youth Civic Engagement Report, and dozens of individual conversations and meetings with community leaders and citizens. I am grateful to the many people whose work has indirectly or directly shaped this vision.

I didn’t even know half of this existed, but he does, because this is the kind of stuff he reads for fun. Like I said, civics dork. It may seem boring to you, but to me it’s sexy as hell. I don’t want to have to read that stuff but I do want someone in charge who does and who will.

But the most important thing to me, as someone who is LGBTQ-identified, is that his vision statement was available in Spanish and Hmong and English. This is walking the walk: not just reiterating in a charming way that he plans to be inclusive; this is actually doing it – making sure people who have been marginalized in this very community he will lead know what’s going on.

I would feel safe with him as mayor – not just because I know he’s pro LGBTQ people – but because he does the work, knows and loves this community, knows and understands its problems, and is as concerned as I am about the future. Fact-based, well-researched, and bottom-up leadership is what we need. & That’s Jake Woodford.

Chad Doran is a Conservative.

As many of you know, Appleton’s first National Coming Out Day happened as the result of a disrespectful and inaccurate response to a simple query: why hasn’t Appleton done anything substantial for Pride month and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall?

Appleton City Hall: “there’s a “day’, a “week’, a “month’ for almost anything and everything. How should we pick and choose what we celebrate and what we don’t?

What you support might be something someone else doesn’t and vice versa. We can’t please everyone.”

That is, the communications manager failed, badly, at doing his job. That communications manager is Chad Doran, and he’s now running for mayor of Appleton.

Above and beyond his dismissal of LGBTQ people, however, is that he has used his position as communications manger to his advantage in his campaign. As a friend of mine note, “I had no idea what the guy looked like until he was running for mayor and now there have been pictures of him on What’s Your Question Wednesday.”

He’s also an instructor of Appleton’s Appy Academy – a hands on civics class for Appleton – in which, again, he represents the city and not himself, which has, in turn, misled some of those who have taken the class into believing he is more in alignment with Appleton and Mayor Hanna than he is.

He has a photo of himself with Mayor Tim Hanna on his campaign page when Hanna has not endorsed any candidate.

I am not the only one to see his actions as communications manager and Appy Academy instructor as a soft ethics violation – in spirit if not the letter of the law.

My complaint with Doran goes far beyond that, however. He has repeatedly stated that his personal politics have little to do with how he would govern Appleton.

To my mind, that is the most horseshit response I can imagine. So to be clear:

Chad Doran is a conservative.

I am not sure why he’s pretending to be more centrist than he is but here’s some of the evidence.

  1. His wife has told people they don’t believe in birth control – which is an extreme anti-choice stance. (Look up abortifacient if you don’t believe me.)
  2. When asked by a supporter on his campaign page whether he was for APD working with ICE, he said yes.
  3. When asked if he believed in arming teachers, he also said yes.
  4. He is against Appleton being a sanctuary city.
  5. Finally, Rep. Ron Tusler who is famously conservative, way out there right wing, maxxed out his donation to Doran’s campaign. This detail was reported in the Post Crescent.
  6. Anti vaxxers are bipartisan but they absolutely support Doran under the guise of “medical freedom”.

Again, I have no idea how he can so plainly express what are extreme positions and simultaneously argue that these views won’t influence how he’s going to govern Appleton.

There are three other candidates running who make no bones about their conservative views – Eric Beach, Mark Todd, and Jim Clemons – so I don’t know why Doran is pretending otherwise.

The only reasons I can imagine is that he’s trying to run as some kind of centrist. Maybe he thinks Appleton isn’t smart enough to work out how much his personal views will influence his role as mayor.

Chad Doran is not a centrist.

Chad Doran is a conservative in centrist clothing.

The days of a Tim Hanna and compassionate conservativism are over. I, for one, wish they weren’t, and hope for a day when the right wing is not so inundated with hate.

Instead, we are at a moment in time when federal protections and policies on behalf of our most marginalized are waning. LGBTQ people, immigrants, refugees, women, those with disabilities, Latinx/Hispanic people – are all struggling to live with dignity and we have to rely on our local governments – city and state – to provide what we’ve lost on the federal level.

Chad Doran is a conservative who has unethically taken advantage of his role in Appleton’s city government to woo voters while hiding or dismissing his values. Go ahead and vote for him if you’re a conservative, but if you’re anything else, please don’t.

(This message has been brought to you by Helen Boyd and only by Helen Boyd, as a private person. I speak for no one but myself in expressing these opinions.)

Conversion Therapy Ban Testimony 1.22.2020

We just got conversion therapy banned in Appleton. This is my testimony; others did more of the heavy lifting and this was the final public meeting about it. It was initially promoted by two council members – Katie Van Zeeland and Vered Meltzer – after which it went to the Board of Health twice, then went to Council this past week.

We won, and that’s fantastic. We celebrated.

What’s harder to talk about is that a few days later, after all the hullabaloo ends, the bad taste remains in your mouth: for four hours we were in a room, and for four hours LGBTQ+ people spoke, listened to each other, supported each other. But we also heard the side that wanted to keep conversion therapy – or at least not ban it outright – and while you know, in the moment, that people are saying ignorant and hateful things, dragging out every negative trope of gay life you can imagine – recruitment, disease, moral depravity, etc – you have to stay focused. You think about what you’re going to say. You hug people and thank people who are on your side.

But on Sunday, a few days later, you can still taste all the bile the other side spewed. Most are smart enough these days not to say that they hate gay people outright – they feel sorry for gay people instead, etc. – but the effect is the same: you leave knowing there are people in the world who think LGBTQ+ people are wrong, bad, needing fixing.

It won’t stick, and I know that. I’m writing this mostly to check in on all the other people who were there Wednesday night, who are hearing similar things in their cities and counties, who go online and read about whatever new transgender ban is out there. As you’ll hear in my own testimony, it’s not like you can miss it: these messages are everywhere.

I’m glad to have done my little part in removing this thread from young people’s lives. I am happy I’m able to find something to say to a group of elected officials that they might take to heart. I’m perhaps most pleased that I can channel my rage long enough to say something, anything, at least.

What I’ve learned to do is this: do what you can when you can and then try to do a little more.

To my elders: Listening to the haters here – who use the word “homosexual” as if it causes them physical pain even to say it – made it feel like 1965, or 1975, or even 1985. I can’t imagine what it was like for you when there was no friendly side, when there were no allies, when we were dying of ignorance. Thank you for finding some magical way to believe in yourselves and in the future.

To the kids: so many of us will do whatever we can, whenever we can, to make sure you find that person, that relative or friend or stranger on the internet, who will tell you that you are loved, you are worthy, you are awesome.

To my fellow activists: keep on. Hold tight. Rest and recharge and live to fight another day.

Rachel Crowl, Trailblazing Actress

I was, as you might imagine, super cautious about this piece even happening, but it was done with dignity and respect, and hey, I even get quoted as saying “all right, let’s see where this goes.”

Also important is that Rachel points out why most other trans women would not be willing to do this kind of work, and why she can and does.

Waking Up (Excerpt)

A new piece I’m pleased with for now:

I haven’t thought of that room, that apartment, that period in my life for a long time, but the other day for whatever reason Sinead O’Connor came up and I found myself watching the video for “Mandinka” and was so overwhelmed by how incredibly sad it made me not to be young anymore.

It’s been happening a lot. I don’t think I’m sad about getting older; that’s just what’s what and I’m honestly kind of pleased and surprised to still be alive at 50 having used up too many of the ‘god watches over fools and drunks’ passes allotted me. 

But my 20s were spectacular.