always a kylo, never a rey

I don’t ever intend to make New Year’s resolutions. I have a pretty obsessive personality, so sitting down to list out all of the ways in which I judge I should improve myself in January feels like a bad idea.

I don’t need a holiday devoted to contemplating the passage of time PLUS enthusiastic self-improvement. Especially one that generally involves being drunk out in the cold? No, thank you! I will have a panic attack about my mortality and insignificance and the things I wish I could change about myself indoors, if it’s all the same to you.

I try not to make resolutions, but it’s hard to keep them from creeping into my brain anyway.

Psst. You should get into better shape.

Hey. HEY. You should cultivate some more discipline, and use that discipline to form and stick to healthy habits.

*shove* BE A BETTER PERSON, BITCH.

Be better. Always. There is no good enough. Be better. “Good enough” is a trap. It’s all a trap.

All of my potential, unbidden New Year’s resolutions are really just different versions of the same sentiment: Be like Rey.

I love Rey so much. How can you not? She’s strong and feisty, and she sticks to her guns. She doesn’t give up on anything or anyone. She has a full and open heart, but still is a total badass with a lightsaber. Plus, she looks like the exceptionally wonderful Daisy Ridley, so she’s definitely in better shape than I am. She’s disciplined, she’s strong, she’s brave. She’s just better.

Watching Rey in The Last Jedi exhausts me and breaks my heart. Rey’s deep capacity for hope, her desire to connect, her work ethic… Damn. I don’t think I have either the stamina or the courage to be like Rey in the ways I dream of. I don’t have much hope right now. For the world at large or for myself. Having no hope saps my drive and motivation. Having no hope makes me want to hide and disconnect.

Still, when I saw friends on Facebook sharing TIME Magazine’s “Ultimate Star Wars Quiz,” I allowed myself a little… well, hope. I love Star Wars and I love silly internet personality quizzes, so I was really stoked about this. TIME worked on the quiz with social scientists from Cambridge University. This quiz was LEGIT.

I tried to stay realistic and humble. Okay. So, I’m a good friend, right? But I don’t know how brave I would be able to immediately be in the face of a threat as great as the First Order? Maybe Finn would be my best case scenario. That would be pretty neat! I like Finn! I bet I’ll get Finn.

“But hey,” whispers a tiny, squeaky, proud little voice in my heart. “You’re a good person. Maybe sometimes you’re even a great person. What if you get Rey? Wouldn’t that be awesome?”

It sure would, sweet, little voice. It sure would.

As I started answering questions, though, a dark shadow crept over the screen of my phone. With each question and answer, I felt what seemed to be the truest aspects of myself emerging. The ones I don’t like. The ones that I can’t hide from those damned Cambride University social scientists.

My deep insecurity and self-loathing coupled with my stubborn, insistent need to be seen and heard. To be heeded. To be in charge.

I knew who I was going to be. After 27 questions, my destiny was revealed.

Of all the characters in the Star Wars universe who’d been included in the quiz, my personality was closest to that of Kylo Ren.

Well, fuck.

I’m not proud of this, but I can’t say I don’t get it. In the absence of hope, I feel a lot of fear and anger, and we know where those lead. Over the holidays, rage constricted my chest over so many tiny things. My family not accepting that I was right when it came time to picking out our Christmas Day movie made me fucking furious. “Just listen to me!” I wanted to scream. “I’m right!” On Christmas Day itself, I couldn’t look my grandmother in the eyes for too long over an anger that I’ve been nursing for years. I was mad at everyone.

I’m mostly angry at myself for not being better. I’m afraid that I will never, ever get to a place of self-acceptance. I don’t know if that’s a fear I can hold at bay for the rest of my life. I fear never being good enough, and so I am consumed with anger at those who I think have what I want. Sometimes people tell me that I’m a nice person, but I know what a monster I am at my core. I know my capacity for jealousy and hate.

I know that sometimes I daydream about getting into fights. I drift off and fantasize about some asshole stranger giving me a reason to lose my shit completely. I picture myself losing all control, and going full-on monster with no time to consider stopping myself. In my imagination, I feel strong and powerful.

What I’m getting at is that it would take next to nothing to seduce me to the Dark Side right about now.

I do not want to romanticize Kylo Ren. Yes, I think he’s a fascinating, well-written, complicated character with whom Adam Driver is doing incredible work, and I cannot wait to see if/how his story ends in Episode IX. I hope he and Rey do not become romantic partners, even for a second, because he’s an abusive asshole to her. He’s a murderer. Even if Ben Solo is redeemed in the final installment of this trilogy, he shouldn’t get to walk away. The salvaged good in him should still face some very tangible consequences of what he’s done.

Kylo Ren is a monster. And, in my own non-Sith way, I get it.

One of my favorite moments in The Last Jedis when Kylo Ren smashes his helmet. Ren’s helmet is a physical manifestation of the person he thinks he is supposed to be. He’s trying so hard to live up to an expectation that, while obviously encouraged and pushed by Supreme Leader Snoke, Ren himself has created. That helmet is Kylo Ren’s vision board.

And then he is made to feel totally ridiculous about it by his mentor. Ren’s destruction of his helmet, to me, is fueled by shame and humiliation as much as it is by anger.

A few months ago, I was performing in a play that meant a lot to me. I had worked really hard with my scene partner to create a story that felt special and true. I put elements of myself both good and bad into my character. I cared so, so much. I cared that people listen to us. I cared that people saw my work, and saw it for how important it was to me.

One night, during my character’s big and famously controversial speech, the audience laughed at me. It’s not really a funny speech. I was so angry. It felt like none of them had listened to me at all until that moment. All of the fretting and panicking and working that had accompanied rehearsing and performing this play suddenly felt so fucking stupid. This thing that the last month of my life had been all about it didn’t matter, and I was an idiot for pretending that it did. I felt tiny and insignificant for caring so much.

If I’d had a helmet that night, I would have smashed the ever loving fuck out of it as soon as I was backstage.

Trying to be Rey sounds hard, and I’m really tired. I know that it’s foolish to think that being Kylo Ren is easy. In my tiredness, though, I’ve had impulses to cut and run from everything in my life. Logically, I know that escaping and isolating would cause me a lot of suffering, but sometimes suffering sounds, if not easier, simpler than worrying and needing and apologizing. If I’m going to disappoint everyone I love someday anyway, maybe I should just go ahead and get it out of the way.

The scariest monsters are the ones who hold up little mirrors of ourselves. I, not to mention TIME Magazine, see pieces of myself in Kylo Ren. When I get embarrassed and angry at myself for making a mistake, I see Ren at the end of The Force Awakens, pounding on his own wound, furious at himself for weakness but unwilling to go quietly.

There is something that gives me a little hope for myself as well as the once-and-maybe-future Ben Solo. We both want to be like Rey. Ren’s so jealous of Rey, and, speaking as a human well versed in envy, that means that there are aspects of Rey that he covets for himself. Maybe it’s just her power and strength with the Force. Maybe it comes from seeing the affection, respect, and admiration bestowed on Rey by all of the most significant men in his life.

But maybe it’s her ability to not give up on what’s good, even when things look tough. I’m not saying that Rey has things all figured out. Strictly speaking, the Jedi Code could stand to read up on emotional theory and revisit many of its policies. The Jedi Council could have greatly benefited from a screening of Inside Out, am I right?

“Peace and purpose.” These are the feelings with which Rey says she felt Luke’s passing. Maybe that’s really my goal– not necessarily resolution– for myself and for Kylo Ren. Even when I’m riding the emotional upswing of Bipolar II, I don’t ever feel at peace. I can’t shake the feeling that sitting still will lead to my inevitable downfall.

I crave purpose. Maybe true purpose can’t come without the peace first. Kylo Ren and I need to examine our selves and our pasts, and take some baby steps towards accepting who we are and where we come from. If we’re comfortable in our own skin, maybe we can begin to cultivate a sense of purpose that doesn’t have to be seen or heard or heeded by anyone else to feel valid.

Kylo and I shouldn’t strive to be like Rey. We should just strive to be the best Kylo and Dani that we can be. It’s cheesy, yeah, but I kind of think that the world could use a little more cheese right now, literally and figuratively. There are monsters out there. We cannot fight them if we are too busy fighting ourselves.

Guys, we can fucking do this. You can fucking do this.

Happy New Year. May the Force Be With Us.

 

“you got cute in my star wars!!” or, in defense of porgs

Less-than-creative/progressive minds out there might call me the nerdy version of the much maligned “basic bitch.” I like the cute, comfy trappings that accompany geekdom. Like, sure. Of course I’m here for the gripping, epic stories and well-written, complex characters. I’m here for adventure and space and swashbuckling and dinosaurs and saving the world and deep, intense conversations about all aforementioned topics.

BUT ALSO. I’m here for the Cute.

I’m here for Baby Groot. I’m here for Baymax. I’m here for BB-8. And I’m also here for cute merchandise featuring all of my favorite characters. I have Baymax art on my walls, I have the Baby Groot Pop figure, and I have three BB-8’s of various shape, size, and household use JUST IN THIS ROOM.

Hell, in what might be the ultimate BB-8 Basic Bitch Manuever: One year ago at Dragon Con, the wonderful, magical people at the Peachtree Center Caribou Coffee featured a BB-8 themed beverage, and it was actually a frozen Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Basic Bitch worlds collide!!

Based on my deep adoration for all cuddly, squeaky creatures in nerd media, you’ve probably already figured out that I am currently living for Porgs. Porgs, if you don’t know, are the derpy little space puffins native to Ahch-To, where we last left Rey and Luke at the end of The Force Awakens.

I hold no delusions that Porgs weren’t specifically engineered to be the ultimate in adorable-ness. They’re little, they’re fluffy and feathery, and they have big, perfect, sad seal eyes. I’ve been smitten since my first glimpse of these little dudes, and yeah, you can bet your ass that I’m going to own at least one in stuffed animal form before my life is over.

Because I spend a lot of time reading about Star Wars online, I’ve discovered that not all fans share my Porg-enthusiasm, which I’m not willing to take lying down. Porgs are my life now, and I will die defending them.

“Ugh, Porgs are just going to be the new Ewoks or the new Jar-Jar.”

Okay, this common Porg-criticism opens up a lot of rabbit holes. First of all, comparing Ewoks to Jar-Jar Binks is an insult to Ewoks. Those characters do not serve the same purpose in their respective films at all. Sure, okay, maybe you’re “Team Cute Comic Relief characters are only here to sell toys,” and fret not, I’ll get to you. Putting that argument aside for a moment, though, the Ewoks and Jar-Jar (and the Gungan species, in general) aren’t the same.

The Ewoks and the Gungans do serve similar role in the overall narratives of their films, and, to be fair to Gungans, they both ultimately succeed. Ewoks and Gungans are both indigenous species called upon by the human heroes to help take down the baddies, partially thanks to their arguably superior knowledge of their terrain. And in both of these instances, the good guys win! So, you know what, thanks Ewoks and Gungans!

I don’t really jive with the belief that Jar-Jar and the Ewoks were only created to sell toys, and, again, we’ll go there. In a broader, related sense, though, these characters were clearly meant to be a source of comic relief for younger audiences, so it’s natural that older audiences would dismiss them more immediately. I would also argue that, along with comic relief, these kind of goofy, sometimes-cuddly characters exist to diffuse tension in the often high-stakes tales in the Star Wars universe. Star Wars movies are definitely for kids as well as adults, but that doesn’t mean that they shy away from tough themes and topics. Silly, funny aliens can be a source of comfort within these intense, sometimes dark story lines.

And not all attempts at non-humanoid comedy in the Star Wars universe are created equal! The banter-filled relationship between R2-D2 and C-3P0 is a reliable well of laughs as well as immense heart in the original trilogy. R2-D2 is a sassy motherfucker with adorable, hilarious noises to spare. In the new trilogy, BB-8 is an essential element to the plot, as well as a cute, roly poly achievement of computer animation and practical effects. BB-8 has his haters, sure, but overall, I would argue that our favorite droids are generally accepted by the fandom, even though they are pretty cute.

And, yeah, fuck Jar-Jar. He’s an ill-concieved, pretty racist, condescending attempt at kid-friendly humor that missed his mark completely. But I think Ewoks are pretty rad. Daniel O’Brien of Cracked has a more eloquent defense of Ewoks than I could ever put together, and you should check it out. Ewoks don’t ruin the reputation of Jedi for me in the way that Jar-Jar will always be a blight on Phantom Menace.

My point within all of this rambling is: Porgs might fall closer to BB-8 and R2 on the cute-comedy spectrum than to Ewoks and Gungans. We don’t know yet, so everybody calm down.

“Ugh, Porgs are just a blatant cash-grab. THANKS, DISNEY. I HATE MERCHANDISE.”
Okay, stastically, no, you don’t. According to Fortune.com, “Star Wars toys generated sales of $700 million in the United States in 2015.” I didn’t contribute to that chunk of change by myself, folks!

It’s an absolutely valid road to go down; the road of the evils of Star Wars merchandising. You might have hardcore ethical issues with Disney, and that’s fine. But I think it’s a sad, cynical road to go down. Mostly because this isn’t an issue for which we can place the blame solely on the cute critters in a galaxy far, far away. Oh, you think Porgs only exist to sell toys?

Guys, ALL OF THIS EXISTS TO SELL TOYS.

This is undoubtedly a sticky, sticky issue. I don’t want to be Disney’s (basic) bitch, but I know that I am. But, so far, they’ve created new Star Wars media that I truly enjoy. They’ve introduced me to new characters that I love, and it makes me happy to have tangible reminders of those characters in my day-to-day life. I can’t live in Star Wars, which is a fucking bummer. But there’s a little stuffed BB-8 at my desk at work, and it makes me smile when I’m stressed out. I have a Rey shirt that I got at Star Wars Celebration London, and it makes me psyched every time I wear it. I have R2-D2 measuring cups, and that’s just plain fun.

So…. baaaaaah, I guess. You got me.
Those are the two main complaints I’ve encountered in the anti-Porg movement! As a champion of Porgs, I want to wrap this up with why I’m excited about these guys in ways that don’t relate to my deep desire to hug one. Seriously, sometimes I think about Porgs a little too intensely, and it makes me want to flip a table. The Cute Aggression is strong with me.

New, native alien species in the SW universe help to fill out and color the world! Wookiepedia describes Ahch-To as “a planet mostly covered in water, with numerous rocky islands blanketed in green trees.” At least on our own planet, this is a pretty natural ecosystem for sea birds such as penguins and puffins. In fact, director Rian Johnson has said that he was inspired to create the Porgs because of the actual puffins that inhabited Skellig Michael, where the Ahch-To scenes were filmed.

This is one of the things that always ruffles my feathers about the backlash against cute creatures in nerd media. Cute animals exist. Penguins and puffins are real. Penguins and puffins are super adorable. It stands to reason that there would be at least one indigenous species somewhere out in the vastness of the SW universe that was naturally cute in a conventional way.

There probably isn’t time for it in The Last Jedi, but I would love to learn about the adaptations of Porgs that enable them to thrive in their natural environment! Was there a Darwin of Porgs? May I volunteer myself for the mission? I have so many questions! Where are your beaks, little sea birds?

In the narrative of The Last Jedi, I suspect that Porgs will serve a similar function to that of BB-8 in The Force Awakens. Porgs don’t seem like they’ve evolved into a warrior society like the Ewoks, so I’m not expecting them to play a critical role in any battles. I think they’ll probably be funny, fluffy filler meant to flesh out the world of Ahch-To, and to diffuse some of the tension in what is looking like a super high-stakes film.

My thesis statement is that I don’t think Porgs are going to ruin The Last Jedi, however you end up feeling about them.

This is my personal hope for Porgs:

Yeah, there are going to be tons of Porg toys. Based on their design, I think many of those toys will be in stuffed animal form. I’ve already seen them at Target! In my personal experience, stuffed animals are a toy primarily marketed to little girls. Like dolls, stuffed animals are meant to cuddle and to nurture, which is one of the things society subtly and not-subtly tells girls that they’re supposed to do. We don’t usually get action figures or toy weapons pushed in our general direction. As has already been well-documented, Rey was almost entirely excluded from The Force Awakens toys.

So, say a little girl doesn’t know what Star Wars is, but she sees a stuffed Porg at Target. It’s so cute, and it’s so soft, and she’s probably already begun to absorb the message that cute animals are a thing she likes. So, she gets a Porg. She loves that Porg, and wants to know where it comes from. Eventually, she sees Star Wars. She gets to delve deep into a world of film, TV, comics, etc, etc. that exist to tell unrelenting, sometimes-joyous, sometimes-painful stories of good vs. evil, and doing the right thing vs. doing the easy thing.

Stories that so many of us have all come to love so much that some of us are weirdos, sharing our intense feelings online about minor characters in a movie that we haven’t even seen yet!

Best case scenario: Porgs, creatures achieved by a variety of both digital and practical effects, are awesome in the movie due to being well-utilized and unobtrusive in the story line of The Last Jedi.

Worst case scenario: Porgs suck, and somehow bring down the entire SW franchise with them.

Middle case scenario: Porgs are a cute gateway creature for kids to whom the Star Wars door doesn’t always appear to be wide open.

We’ll know for sure in a week and a few hours! May the Force Be with You. Always.

throwback video essay: a first reaction to the force awakens teaser, 2014

Facebook reminded me this morning that it’s been three years to the day since the very first teaser for The Force Awakens offered us our very first glimpses of Rey, Finn, Poe, BB-8, and all of our new far-far-away besties.

What. A. DAY.

So, my reaction to that trailer was… intense? I had the opportunity to flip out about it onstage at the very first Star Wars edition of Atlanta’s awesome live lit show Scene Missing Presents. Travel back with me to December 17 2014, won’t you?

 

the 2017 family holiday movie guide, or what to see on christmas when your dad isn’t into nerd stuff

My family runs a pretty tight holiday tradition ship. On Christmas Eve, we see my Dad’s side of the family, stop at QuikTrip on the way home for giant sodas and hot dogs, open one present each, and go to bed. On Christmas Day, we see what Santa brought, have lunch at Waffle House (my Mom brings a plate of cookies to the staff), visit with my Mom’s side, and then take in a feature film. Usually at a Studio Movie Grill, because my parents are all about having chicken fingers delivered to them while basking in the glory of the silver screen.

My main source of holiday stress comes from the fear of picking the movie we’re all going to end up seeing. My Dad is typically the final word in the decision making process, and my Dad is decidedly not a nerd. At least not about stereotypically nerdy things. My Dad is a nerd for John Wooden and soft serve ice cream at the beach. He’s a specific man with specific tastes. He’s a plain, well done hamburger-kind of guy. My Dad loves me, but he isn’t here for my floofy fantasy epics and space odysseys. He’s only seen one Star Wars film, and it was Attack of the Clones for my 12th birthday. It was all I wanted for my birthday, to see Episode II on opening night. So, really, I guess you can’t blame my Dad for never wanting to dive into more of the franchise.

All to say, The Last Jedi is not going to be an option. Which is fine! It’ll have been out for ten days at that point, so I’ll probably have seen it at least twice. I can deal. But what to see instead?

Sometimes my family takes my vaguely snooty Oscar-bait suggestions into consideration, which is how we saw Django Unchained together a few years back. Everyone was down for Saving Mr. Banks to one degree or another. Anything sports-related is a good bet, so we did Will Smith’s Concussion two years ago, which was a lukewarm film that at least inspired an interesting conversation.

Christmas Day movies with my family haven’t been all bad, is what I’m saying. But when they’re bad, they. are. CATASTROPHIC.

Cut to December 25, 2016.

It’s always a bad sign when my Dad already knows what he wants to see. He’s tough to deter, though I gave it as much of my all as I thought I could without making everyone mad. My options weren’t great. I think I pitched La La Land, which was always going to be a tough sell. Fences would have probably been a serious contender, had it been playing at the Studio Movie Grill, but alas. My Dad had seen trailers for a film that he was certain would be hilarious, despite all the film criticism evidence to the contrary.

This, children, is how my family celebrated peace on Earth and good will toward men by sitting through Bryan Cranston and James Franco in the shitshow that is Why Him?

I care about you, and it is therefore my dearest hope for you that you’ve never seen Why Him? My review can best be summed up by the fact that I turned to my boyfriend at one point during the movie to whisper, “Chekhov’s Moose Urine.” ‘Cause you don’t introduce a giant vat of moose urine in the first act, if it isn’t going to douse your Emmy Award winner in the third act!

I don’t know your Dad. But since I’ve already started studying the December 2017 film release schedule, I thought I would share my top picks and best bets with you, just in case! If your Dad is a nerd, all I ask is that you not look too smug as your whole family takes in your Yuletide showing of The Last Jedi while wearing matching SW PJ’s. I see you. You’re adorable.

So, without further ado: Hope Is The Thing With Lightsabers’ First Annual “Movies to See on Christmas That Will Satisfy Both You and Your Dad Without Featuring Even a Little Moose Urine” Film Guide. Enjoy!

BEST BET

The Post

NEVER ABANDON ME DURING HOLIDAY MOVIE SEASON AGAIN, TOM HANKS. The star-studded line-up of Hanks, Streep, and Spielberg is definitely one that Dads can get behind, even in a drama about newspapers and shady government secrets. Fortunately, you also love Hanks, Streep, and Spielberg! Plus: the ensemble includes Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, and Bradley Whitford. Start petitioning Studio Movie Grill TODAY to make sure they’re planning on showing it.

EH… OKAY BET

Father Figures

Owen Wilson and Ed Helms play brothers on a road trip to find the identity of their biological father. For Dad, we have: “father” is in the title, Christopher Walken, former quarterback Terry Bradshaw talking about someones’ Mom’s “knockers!” What family fun! For you: Even if they’re slumming, J.K. Simmons and Glenn Close do great work. General cause for concern: This is Lawrence Sher’s first film as director. He’s previously worked as a cinematographer on films such as The Hangover, with which Father Figures seems to share a tone. The first Hangover was pretty fun, right? Your Mom sure thought Bradley Cooper was foxy in that all-black ensemble. Your Mom’s a smart lady.

MOST LIKELY TO FEATURE SOME KIND OF ANIMAL URINE BET. GODSPEED.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

I don’t know what to tell you, man. Your Dad likes shenanigans, and your Dad really likes Kevin Hart. The premise of this movie is trying even less hard to connect to the board game source material than 1995’s Jumanji, so that will definitely hold some appeal. Pros: Dwayne Johnson is about the only national treasure we have left. Karen Gillan is bursting with charm, talent, and geek cred. Maybe some of the action set pieces will be cool? You know, the more I’m writing about this, the more I think I’d prefer this to Father Figures, potential for urine be damned. Huh. Well played, Jumani: Welcome to the Jungle.

And that’s what I’ve got for this year’s holiday-releases-that-aren’t-Star Wars suggestions! I hope I’ll see you at the movies! And May the Force Be With Us All.

stranger girls & token things, or the one thing i hated about stranger things 2

Within nine episodes full of tension, grief, a bitching soundtrack, and just so much pure delight, there was one moment of season two of Stranger Things that crawled under my skin in a bad way. It happens in chapter 3, “The Pollywog,” when Eleven makes it all the way up to the doors of the Hawkins Middle School gymnasium. There he is: Mike Wheeler. The boy with whom she’s been trying to make contact for almost an entire year. The boy whose absence in her life is what inspires her to break all of the rules of safety set for her by Hopper.

There he is. Steps away. Mike. Frickin’. Wheeler.

OH BUT WAIT.

THERE’S ANOTHER GIRL.

MIKE WHEELER IS SMILING IN THE PRESENCE OF ANOTHER GIRL.

NOOOOOOOOOOOO.

And so, our beloved Eleven– kickass superhero Eleven, who sure didn’t seem to understand most of the nuances of a romantic relationship last season– psychically knocks Max off of her skateboard, and walks away, forcing us to endure six more episodes before we finally get the relief of Eleven’s reunion with the rest of the Party. Because Mike smiled at another girl.

UGH.

Look, I adored season two of Stranger Things. I’m already going through it for the second time, and I can’t wait to fall in love with Bob Newby all over again, only to have him brutally Jurassic Park-ed. I can’t wait to re-experience the team-up of Dustin and Steve, which is a partnership so wonderful that I’m still not sure any of us deserves it. I can’t wait for my heart to swell and break and melt and pound from Will Byers’ first sighting of the Mind Flayer all the way to the Snow Ball.

But fuck that chapter 3 moment with Eleven, Max, and Mike, and fuck it hard.

This moment does a disservice to both Eleven and to Max. This moment turns Max into an obstacle, not just for Eleven, but for the audience who’s rooting for Eleven. Even this early into the season, Max is set up as the object of desire in a love triangle with Dustin and Lucas. There’s no indication that she has any chemistry with Mike. In fact, he’s mostly been a dick to her. This is the only instance in the season that suggests any sort of friendly connection between Mike and Max, and it only exists to delay Mike’s reunion with Eleven. I know I wanted Mike and Eleven to reunite sooner rather than later, so I found myself irritated at Max as a result. That’s not fair to a character who we’ve barely gotten the opportunity to know.

And come on, Stranger Things. I love you so very desperately, but I don’t buy that Eleven’s the kind of person who gives up like that. Sure, she’s been watching a lot of television in her time in Hopper’s cabin, but when we left her at the end of season one, she was very naïve about romantic love. It rings false to me that Eleven immediately springs to jealousy at the sight of Mike smiling at another girl. Again, she’s been attempting to contact him every day for almost a year, she’s putting herself in danger by going to find him at all, and she’s ELEVEN. She’s tackled decidedly bigger threats than an unidentified redhead on a skateboard! JUST WALK INTO THE GYM, GIRL. THIS IS NOT WORTH THE NOSEBLEED.

This scene reinforces the notion that women are always supposed to be in competition with each other, especially over the attention of dudes, and it’s lame. Having once been a middle schooler, I absolutely don’t want to diminish the power and legitimacy of young love. I’ve definitely hated other girls purely because I thought that a Cute Boy liked them more he liked me. It’s legit that Eleven’s feelings for Mike are strong enough to cause her to knock another girl to the ground. In sixth grade, I threw a cheerleader’s jacket into a bathroom trash can. We all suck from time to time.

Nerd-girl-competition in pop culture is its own specific brand of bullshit. It’s a hard club to get into at all, what with the constant questioning of a Nerd Girl’s credentials and motivations, so there’s usually only one Girl Spot available. Mike is resistant to let Max join The Party, because the absent Eleven already has that slot filled. What’s the point of having another girl around?

For Dustin and Lucas, the point is motivated by their crush on Max. Max isn’t “like other girls,” you dig? She’s cool. She rides a skateboard, and she’s good at video games, prompting my least favorite line of the season: “But girls don’t play video games.”

Will Byers, you are God’s perfect muffin-child, and I would die for you, but do better.

As a “not like the other girls” breed of Girl, my adolescence was accompanied by feeling like the attention of a Nerd Boy was the most important thing for me to attain. Who else would have me, after all? I was the kind of dork who wore costumes to school to celebrate the releases of the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings films. Popular boys weren’t ever going to give me the time of day, so I had to land a Nerd or die alone.

This made me really resentful of other Girls, Nerd and Non-Nerd alike. My friends and I all hated Arwen when we were in middle school. To us, Arwen was “like other girls,” and therefore didn’t deserve the attention of Aragorn. It was a flat out injustice that Aragorn didn’t end up with sword-slinging Eowyn. We had absorbed the message that there’s only room for one awesome Girl character. Yeah, Hermione’s not the only eligible girl at Hogwarts, but look at the other options. Rowling goes out of her way to make Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown terrible. You can’t get more “like other girls” than Parvati and Lavender, and so we don’t want them to end up with the love of our dear magical Nerd Boys.

Being The Girl is usually the dominant factor of why that character is special. So, if you’re not The Girl, what’s special about you? Why should anyone like you? If there’s already a The Girl, what do you bring to the D&D table?

I love Stranger Things so much, and so I really want it to do better on behalf of its young female heroines. Eleven and Max don’t need to be framed as “not like other girls” to be awesome. They fight monsters and abusive stepbrothers, and those factors aren’t enhanced by how cute the boy characters find them.

I’m already ready for you, Stranger Things 3. We’ve got a lot of loose ends to tie up here. Among those, I hope, is a more in-depth integration of MadMax into the Party on her own terms and as her own person, outside of her relationship with Lucas or any other male character. And, if there’s time in the midst of all your monster-fighting badassery, maybe Max and Eleven can be friends? I don’t really see a story-driven reason right now for them not to be. Mike Wheeler’s cute, but he’s not that cute.

intrinsic value & the mortality of theatre

When a show’s about to close and I don’t know what’s next for me, I fear becoming invisible. If I’m not making my presence known, whether it’s through performing or blogging or feeling brave enough to show up at parties, then what’s the point of existing?

My favorite sign at the zoo is in the reptile house, and it says, “Reptiles and amphibians have intrinsic value. They’re valuable because they’re here.”

I love that. That sign so sticks it to any asshole who needs a turtle or a snake or a newt to be able to directly benefit him in order to earn its time on this planet. Turtles don’t owe you anything, dude. If anything, we probably owe them an apology, and we would be so lucky if they decided to accept it.

So, we’re valuable because we’re here. We don’t need to earn our right to exist. Cool?

Meh.

I’m valuable today. I’ve been valuable for the past month. So far this month, I’ve played Lady Macbeth 22 times. Tonight is 23, and that’s it. That’s it.

A show doesn’t know when it’s closing. The pace and the emotions and the sweat and the (fake) blood don’t know that a halt is on the way. At 9:15pm tonight, my body and my heart will still be in full on Shakespearean sprint mode, and only my brain will desperately try to steel itself for the wall of nothing we’re about to hit. This is the finish line that doesn’t know it’s a finish line.

Lady Macbeth is valuable. She’s famous, she’s iconic. I adore her. I’ve thought about her every single day for over a month. I’ve loved her, and despised her, and worried about her, and been terribly frustrated with her, and hated Macbeth on her behalf, and hated everyone on her behalf. I’ll say, “To bed” tonight and blow out my little candle, and tonight she’ll stay in bed.

Cruel Voice says, “This is it for you, you know. You’ve had too many great roles for two years now.”

Nice Voice counters, “Well, but that’s okay! There are still lots of great roles out there, and besides, I want all my friends to get to do shows. Shakespeare lady life is tough.”

Cruel Voice scoffs, “Yeah, okay. Real noble, you lying bitch. Everyone can see through you into your petty, jealous heart. It’s over for you.”

Nice Voice starts to squirm, losing steam.

Man, Cruel Voice did a fucking doozy on me during the Mad Scene on opening night.

Me: “Out, damned spot. Out, I say!”

Cruel Voice: “Really? That’s the line read you’re going with? Okay. Whatever.”

Me: “One. Two. Why, then, ’tis time to do it.”

Cruel Voice: “You’re relying on that weird little hitch laugh tic too much. It’s fucking fake.”

Me: “Hell is murky.”

Cruel Voice: “Oh my God, what is the point of being crazy if you can’t even convincingly play crazy?!”

And so on.

Intrinsic value. We are valuable because we’re here. Right?

For the past month, my life has consisted of fast costume changes, of fake blood in my hair, of getting laughed at by high school students at 10 am, of beautiful poetry, of sitting in the dark backstage with my scene partner during our one real break in the show. This has been my life. There’s a quiet little death in closing a show. And I’m really, really sad about it.

My November goal is to find peace in the invisible. In the ability to experience joy even when there’s no one to watch me. I want to enjoy aspects of my life that aren’t performative. I want to do things that no one will ever see. My sticky, marshmallow heart has been pretty decidedly on display for the past few months, and I think it’s time to wrap it up in a blanket and let it nap it out for a while.

Yesterday I felt a little flash of peace in invisibility. I didn’t feel like waiting for a bus, so I just started walking in the general direction of the theatre, miles away. I took a random turn, and ended up on the Beltline. It was raining, so the path was mostly empty. I felt quiet and confident. I like wandering.

A man was walking in the opposite direction, about to pass me. He was outfitted for the weather in a legit raincoat, and was holding a camera. As we crossed paths, he took three pictures of me. I expected this to really piss me off, but it didn’t. I mean, I didn’t slow down. I didn’t even smile. But I didn’t mind.

He didn’t say anything to me. The photo didn’t feel lascivious in nature. There wasn’t an understood “Hey, baby” attached to it. I imagined his spending the rainy afternoon snapping shots of public art installations and wildflowers. Of interesting trees, maybe.

Having those pictures taken of me made me feel like an interesting tree. Something worth beholding even in silence and stillness. Something valuable even when it’s doing nothing.

I don’t know what you’re doing tomorrow, but I hope you know that it’s enough. With the exception of an apology to all of turtle-kind, you don’t owe anyone anything. You owe yourself kindness and forgiveness, and that’s fucking it. You are more than the world’s perception of you. You are worthy even when you are unseen.

You are valuable because you’re here.

 

david bowie & doorframes, or down in the underground indeed, amirite?

I didn’t know until college that girls can masturbate.

The possibility had never even occurred to me. As a child, I wasn’t especially curious when it came to the situation between my legs. That’s where pee came from, and that was pretty much that, right? Why would I want to interact with it outside of wiping it clean several times a day? And, even if I did, what would that be?

High school didn’t really provide any further genital insight. My Georgia public school sex education was simply: “Don’t,” accompanied by some not-so-subtle notes of, “Your cauliflower junk will make Jesus sad.” To be fair, no adult in my life ever specifically told me not to masturbate, which I realize was pretty fortunate for me. But no adult ever even mentioned that masturbation existed, either. And, like, I don’t know. The idea of discussing masturbation with any adults in my teenage life would have made me want to die, but I also think it’s bullshit that no one even slid an informational pamphlet under my door or anything.

It’s been really surprising to me to discover how many of my female-identifying friends did masturbate back in grade school days. Who told them?! It makes total sense to me why boys figure out how to masturbate. A penis is a thing. We grow up playing with things. And a penis is quite a multi-purpose toy. It bends, it stretches, it even squirts!

My vagina never felt like a toy. As previously mentioned, it was an area near which pee happened, which wasn’t super fun or interesting. But then, on my 10th Christmas Eve, my vagina straight up betrayed me. One moment I was standing in Ms. Harper’s living room, singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with my cousins. The next minute I was “Dani the Red-Pantsed Fifth Grader.” Suddenly, my relationship with my vagina was professional at best, and antagonistic at best.

Fifth grade menstrual cycle side quest: So, I spent a week of the summer after 5th grade at 4-H Camp. On one fateful night, the entire camp was to hike through the woods. When the day of the hike cake, so too did my cursed Time o’ the Month. I didn’t really understand the logistics of periods yet, so I was super unprepared. The thought of asking a strange 4-H adult for assistance mortified me, so I kept my bloody business to myself. Thinking quickly, I shoved a wad of toilet paper into my underwear before the hike, and set off into the woods.

When we returned from the hike, that toilet paper wad was NOWHERE TO BE FOUND. 4-H Camp is where I learned how to make a friendship bracelet, and that life is cruel.

BACK TO OUR MAIN PROGRAMMING.

So, I didn’t know that I could masturbate, which was becoming increasingly frustrated as I became older and a little pervier. I’ve still never watched porn, but I have spent a lot of time with rated-M fanfiction. This sneaky little practice began at high school slumber parties. Picture it. A little horde of teenage nerd girls crowded around one computer, furiously giggling over the idea of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy kissing.

Oh, but then Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy were more than kissing. Oh. Oh, my.

“Ha, ha! Super gross, right?” we’d all crow. The ladies doth protest too much, am I right?

Eventually, I started seeking out sexy fanfiction all alone, outside of the safety of sleepovers. I didn’t understand a lot of the mechanics of what was happening between my favorite characters, but I knew that it made me feel really warm. Like, really warm. Especially down there. Especially when I imagined that it was my shirt that Oliver Wood was removing.

And then I was thinking about fanfiction even when I wasn’t reading it. I was replaying favorite scenes in my head while I spaced out during AP World History. My friends and I were starting to write our own fanfiction, which we wrote in a shared notebook and passed back and forth in the hallways in between classes. These stories, of course, all starred American foreign exchange students to Hogwarts who just happened to look and behave exactly like us. And, you know, have our names.

I was super geeky and horny all the time, and I had no idea what to do about it.

When I started working at the Renaissance Festival, I was suddenly surrounded by nerd friends who were older than I was, and therefore knew about all kinds of geek culture that weren’t part of my high school consciousness. On another fateful night, the gaps in my geek education were too much for one of my new best friends to handle. There were so many important nerd films that I’d never seen, mostly by virtue of the fact that they’d been released before my existence. The next morning at Faire, he handed me a box full of VHS tapes, with very clear instructions that I was to watch all of them, and to pay attention, as a quiz would be coming.

That box was a dork’s treasure chest. Willow, Legend, The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal

And a little 1986 flick called Labyrinth.

I didn’t really get into The Neverending Story or Legend. I liked Willow. I loved The Dark Crystal.

And I was watching Labyrinth pretty much every day.

I had no idea what to do about David Bowie in Labyrinth. As I’ve written about before, I was still pretty firmly in the “Boys Drool” camp even as late as high school, but David Bowie was no boy. David Bowie was no man. David Bowie was a creature. David Bowie was a higher being on a different plane of sexy time and space. David Bowie was tight pants and eyeliner, and I would have done anything he asked me. Like, good for you, Sarah. Way to solve the Labyrinth and save Toby, but also, WHY WOULD YOU EVER WANT TO LEAVE?!

“I ask for so little,” Jareth says. “Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.”

It’s a small marvel that my capris didn’t spontaneously combust.

My lust for each and every Weasley brother was nothing compared to how I felt about Jareth. Things were becoming critical. But, even when confronted with David Bowie’s tights, I still didn’t think for a moment to let my hand wander down to the underground.

Here’s what I finally came up with.

When my house was empty, I’d go down to the basement, which was divided into two big rooms. No door separated the two rooms, but there was still, you know, an entry way. Frames where a door could have theoretically gone. Nice, thick doorframes. My sweaty, little nerd brain all a-tumble with thoughts of David Bowie singing and dancing with puppets, I pressed my crotch into that doorframe with all of my might. I couldn’t have told you why, but, for the first time in my life, I experienced just the tiniest bit of sexy relief. I hadn’t solved the Labyrinth, but I’d taken my first step forward.

It would have been embarrassing, sure, but I still wish that someone had slid that fictional masturbation pamphlet under my door. Even as an adult, I still judge wanting to masturbate, personally, as a little weird. It’s never felt totally normal to me, and I think it’s because I didn’t know for so long that I even could. Masturbation feels like such an indulgent luxury, and I feel most of the time like I should have done something to deserve it. If it had been part of my sexy vocabulary since high school, though, I can’t even imagine the possibilities.

Okay, I can. And most of those possibilites involve having found myself in the Labyrinth. I’ll pretend that I’m Sarah, and that, as a far more age-appropriate adult, I’ve returned to the Labyrinth to face Jareth for the second time. For a sexy time.

And, yes. There’s a fanfiction for that. I’ve checked.

with a LOT of help from my friends

Yesterday afternoon, I saw IT for the second time. When I saw it on opening weekend, my date was my exceptionally awesome boyfriend. Yesterday, I was joined at the Regal Cinema by two exceptionally awesome friends who are boys. Neither of them had seen IT yet, and it was a nearly empty theatre, so we basically had the place to ourselves for gushing about the movie as the credits rolled. It was a really fantastic Wednesday afternoon.

I. Love. IT. I’ve never read the book or seen the miniseries, but this 2017 adaptation has really, really stuck with me. Admittedly, a lot of my pull towards IT is towards Bill Skarsgård’s performance, for which I have a gigantic actor-boner. But I think what excites me the most about IT is the same thing that excites me the most about getting to return to Hawkins in a few weeks for season two of Stranger Things. I’m a 28-year-old human that identitifes as female, but I am deeply, deeply invested in 1980’s nerd boy friendship teams.

Important disclaimer: All of my late 90’s/early 00’s ragtag bunches of geek female friends are the source of most of the best moments of my existence. We stayed up all night to eat Skittles and Cool Ranch Doritos while watching Disney movies, we attempted to learn all of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ “All That Jazz” moves, we passed notebooks filled with increasingly puberty-influenced Harry Potter fanfiction back and forth between classes… We nerd-ed real hard. Upon graduating high school, I went to a womens’ college, and I don’t regret it for a single second.

Part of the reason that I decided to go to a womens’ college was motivated by the fact that, by the time high school ended, I fucking hated boys. With a few marvelous exceptions (looking at you, D), the boys that went to my high school were not my kind of people. And I was not their kind either. They rolled their eyes at me for constantly bringing up womens’ issues in AP US History, even though it definitely ended up being a question on the APUSH exam, so suck it, Brad. To me, they were all a bunch of unimaginative, polo shirt-wearing jerks, and I was thrilled to be rid of them.

A lot of girls at my high school told me that they couldn’t imagine going to a college without boys. Nah, man. I was pumped. Good riddance, dicks!

When I started working at the Renaissance Festival as a 16-year-old, I met a lot of boys– okay, men– that seemed like they were more my speed. Dudes who were as into Lord of the Rings and swords as I was. And that was really exciting. But, and once again with a few marvelous exception (looking at you, L), there was a weird new flavor in my interactions with RenFest guys. Because I was so young, I was passed down the traditional “Dungeon Bait” pin to wear on my costume. As if I needed a symbol besides my braces to denote that I was in high school, so it’s weird if you hit on me, adult males.

No boys at high school thought I was cute, but it sure seemed like a lot of the RenFest guys did. At least a little part of me knew that was weird, maybe even gross, but I also loved the attention. I kind of loved that everyone made a huge deal out of the day that I turned 18-years-old. RenFest was already such a huggy, touchy-feely, cuddly community, and it sounded like the next logical step, once legal, was for me to start making out with everyone? I remember that being a thing. “Who’s going to kiss Dani first?”

Before you’re too squicked out, I decided who I kissed first. And I made a big, goofy thing about it, so it felt like it was all on my terms. But the fact remains that I was pretty sexualized by the first community of male friends that I’d ever had. And I did end up entering into a pretty intense sexual and romantic relationship with one of the good ones.

The end of that relationship tore me up pretty hard. One of those relationships that, even ten years later, occasionally pops back into my guts and floods me with alternating currents of fury and grief and a quiet gratitude that we had the time that we did. You know?

ANYWAY. Boys didn’t like me, and men broke my heart, so fuck dudes, right?

For the rest of college, girls were my friends, girls were the people I loved and trusted, and girls were the people who loved and trusted me. Boys were creatures from Georgia Tech that I sometimes half-heartedly tried to make out with, because it felt like that was a thing I was supposed to be pursuing.

So, and one more time for good measure, with a marvelous exception (still looking at you, L!), I made my way towards adulthood without any male friends.

When I graduated college and entered into the apprenticeship program for the theatre that now employs me, I thought, “Oh, hell yes. This is where I’m going to meet a guy my own age, who has the same interests that I do. Surely one of these four options is going to become my life long romantic partner. My time has come!”

Two of them were gay, and one engaged, so I went all out pursuing the only single, straight one. And, honestly, I was pretty aggressive and weird about it. I didn’t have real conversations with him, because I was constantly trying to not-so-subtly push my romantic agenda. For the first half of the apprenticship, I’d even convinced myself to not like a girl who is now one of my best friends in the world because I thought that she was the object of my forced-crush’s affections. I almost lost out on two of the most important relationships of my adult life, because I didn’t think that I could have a deep relationship with a man that wasn’t romantic in nature.

When I dropped the crush that I thought I had to have on that person, we were actually able to get to know each other. And we like each other a lot! We watch movies and make weird cupcakes and argue about Arthur Miller. My life is absolutely better for our friendship.

This isn’t a novel observation, but I judge that heteronormative society is so preventative of the opportunity for men and women to express non-romantic love to one another. Some of my very best friends– some of the people that have taken care of me when I could barely function, as well as some of the people who I think I’ve been able to take care of myself– are men. As I started to recognize that these friendships were transcending into love for me, I felt terrified to tell these dudes. Like, they’d all think I was hitting on them, and therefore, I’d destroy our friendship.

I once believed that only romantic partners are for intimate, intense emotions, and friends are for fun. Friends are for the easy stuff. But that makes for a pretty lonely world. It’s put me in situations before where I’ve trapped myself and my romantic partner into a horrible situation wherein neither of us could talk to anyone else in our lives about, for example, my depression. My current partner is wonderful, and he listens to me when I need to talk about depression and bipolar stuff. But we have vastly different mental health experience. I have friends, though, who do have more in common with me in that regard.

Being able to confide in my friends about the hardcore stuff has absolutely saved my life. Because sometimes I don’t need a helpful, calming presence to talk me down or offer me advice. Sometimes I need a kindred spirit to hop aboard the crazy train with me, and just ride it the fuck out. Sometimes I need to spiral downwards while looking into eyes that are not concerned and confused, but that totally get it.

I’ve started telling my male friends recently that I love them, and it is such a relief. Because I do love my friends, male and female and non-binary alike. Capital L-Love. Gooey marshmallow love even. And I want to shout it from the rooftops! Recognizing my capacity to feel all kinds of different shades of love for different people makes me feel strong. It makes me feel so much more connected and tethered to the world. I feel like less of a burden than I ever have before, and I know that’s at least partially due to giving myself permission to tell my friends that I love them.

Guys, gals, pals, I love you lots. Let’s eat pizza and play D&D in someone’s parents’ basement, and then ride our bikes back home. Let’s go on weird adventures out in the woods, because I can be brave when I’m with you. Let’s take down all the spooky evils of the world together, because we love each other and our love is the thing that the bad guys can’t ever tear apart.

We could also just go see IT again. I really love that movie.

life in the upside con

I can’t imagine not feeling at least a little strange after Dragon Con ends each year. Hell, I can’t even go immediately cold turkey off of Mountain Dew once the Con is over; I’m drinking one while I write this. Far moreso than at New Year’s Eve, Dragon Con puts into perspective for me where I am and how far I’ve come and how I’ve gotten there since the last time I was eating old, overpriced pizza in a corner of the Marriott, adrift in an ocean of Deadpools.

Like so many of the most important places in my life, I’ve cried all over those host hotels. The person I thought deep in my soul to be the love of my life said “good bye” to me in the Hilton before walking away to board a plane for a year-long adventure in China. I walked alone back to the Peachtree Center food court that night, sobbing and broken and on the hunt for a Brownie Sundae at Dairy Queen.

I’ve been so ashamed of myself at Dragon Con. A few years ago, a one night stand led me to an evening at Benihana sitting beside a famous, super nice puppeteer whose work I really admire. It sucks to feel like a total slut when you’re talking to a Muppet.

I’ve been a little too drunk at Dragon Con. One year, I made the mistake of having a Mai Tai on the last night of Con before heading into the bowels of the Hilton to play some board games. My tipsy paranoia led me to a certainty in my heart that my boyfriend liked everyone else in the room more than he liked me, and I flipped out. My bitchiness sucked all the enjoyment to be had out of a 2am game of Letters to Whitechapel. I was the Jack the Ripper of fun.

Of course, I’ve also been deliriously happy at Dragon Con. I’ve danced my heart out at the Avengers’ Ball and the Suits, Sinatra, and Star Wars parties. I’ve jammed out to all my favorite nerd bands: Emerald Rose, the Brobdingnagian Bards, the Doubleclicks. I’ve eaten so many Moe’s burritos with my best friends that I think my blood is now at least 40% queso. I’ve leaned over the railing on one of the higher floors of the Marriott, and gazed down upon four crazy days outside of time and space.

Since I have so many intense emotions and memories associated with Dragon Con, it’s become my annual litmus test for how my depression and bipolar II are doing. And this year… I think everything was great? Good? Okay? I didn’t have to take a single break to go cry in a stairwell. The strongest negative emotion I experienced all weekend was a vengeful fury directed at some asshole cosplaying as Ghastly who dared to cut the line for the Guardians of the Galaxy panel. I’m still pissed about it.

My very first Dragon Con, just one single, wonderful Saturday back in high school, was my first glimpse through an open door that showed me the possibility of being a kind of adult that I didn’t know existed. Dragon Con preceded the Renaissance Festival, college, and eventually working full-time for a Shakespeare company. Dragon Con planted the idea in my heart that I never had to stop playing pretend. I wasn’t alone in maybe feeling more comfortable in the intangible, the metaphysical, the fantastical than I’ve ever felt in the “real world.”

After my first two Cons, though, my primary associations with Dragon Con became ones of heartache and terrible skin-gnawing envy and demons. The gradually ensuing creep of my mental illness sucked the shiny right out of Con. Con was just another place where I acted like a crazy person. Sometimes the craziest person. The lowest levels of the Hyatt transformed into a place where I was afraid to open my eyes, for fear of the monsters I knew so surely were waiting for me in the corners. Spooks that would leap out of the darkness to remind me, “You’re crazy! You’re a bitch! You’re a slut! You ruin everything!”

Dragon Con turned into my Upside Down. Dragon Con looked enough like the wonderful place I remembered; a place that felt like it could be home if I wished hard enough. If I could stop screwing everything up for just a second. But it was all wrong. The colors were wrong, the tastes were wrong, the sounds were wrong. I couldn’t begin to communicate to my loving nerd friends how they could help me. The Demigorgon was the phantom of that person who walked away in from me in the Hilton.

The person that I walked past this year, just outside of Peachtree Center, made eye contact, and shared a “Have a good Con.” Six years later, and I guess I’m fine? I just kept eating my King of Pop and moving forward, and that seems okay. Do we get over things because we’re actually over things, or do we get over things because we’re tired and ashamed of still feeling bad?

Maybe. I don’t know. I’m so excited for season two of Stranger Things next month, but I’m concerned about sweet, perfect Will Byers. In that incredible trailer, we see Will getting back into his geek grove, hanging out at the arcade with the equally perfect Mike, Lucas, and Dustin. Within minutes, he’s all alone again in the Upside Down-arcade, with the skies flashing ominously red to illuminate the monsters in the not so distance. Mike asks Will if he’s okay. We don’t find out.

I hope Will Byers is okay. We know he’s got good people in his corner, so my hopes are pretty high. I think all of the doors to our Upside Downs are old and creaky, though. They’ve been warped by time and heat, and they never firmly close. They can still swing open in the middle of the night and catch you off guard. Whether your Upside Down is literal or not, it can still get you. Even within “okay,” monsters click around the periphery.

Dragon Con this year was great. I hope that it’s great next year and forevermore. I’m proud of the work I’ve done this year to be at the place I was mentally last weekend. There are still rooms around Con that make me a little nervous when I walk past them, and maybe they always will. There are still people around Con that make me a little sad when I meet their eyes, and almost certainly they always will.

But I have good people in my corner, too. And I know how to reach out to them from within my moments of darkness. So, who knows? Maybe I’ll genuinely get over some of this shit one day. Stranger things have happened.

one girl’s trash is another girl’s treasure, or “hakuna mozzarella”

TW: Self-harm.

In the back half of 2011, I was 21, super depressed, sleeping on a mattress without a bed frame, and waiting tables at the local Taco Mac to support my Shakespeare habit. So, this one time, I ate a mozzarella stick from a trash can.

It must have been a slower shift at T’Mac to allow me time to pull off my deep fried mini-heist. I passed through the kitchen doors, and hung a left to deposit some plates at the dish washing station. And there it was. Alone and abandoned in its cheesy perfection, left to rot like a common French fry.

Now, I had walked past the tragic sight of trash mozzarella sticks plenty of times already in my time as a holding-it-together-by-a-thread peddler of buffalo wings. I don’t know what was different about that day, but I couldn’t stand it anymore. I’ve still never encountered a mozzarella stick that I didn’t love, that I didn’t desperately want, that I wouldn’t at least consider murder over. I was so sad all the time, and I knew that the only thing that could soothe my heart for a fraction of a second was the gooey, glue-like cheese that lurked inside a bread crumb-covered sarcophagus.

My window of consideration was a tight one. I weighed my pros and cons.

“Dani. DANI. It’s in the trash. That’s so gross.”

“Fair. But it’s also at the very top of the trash. It isn’t really touching anything else nasty.”

“Yeah, but you have no idea why someone wouldn’t eat a perfectly good mozzarella stick. I mean, sure, maybe the table was full, but isn’t it more likely that someone sneezed on it or something? Just hold out and get your own for your shift meal, okay?”

“…”

“Dani. Come on.”

My heart pounded. I helplessly wiped my sweaty palms against my hideous, salsa-stained khaki shorts. Someone could walk past at any minute, eternally cementing my status as a gross, chubby weirdo.

Reputation be damned. I couldn’t leave a good mozzarella stick behind. I liberated it from the top of its stinking refuse prison, and shoved it into my mouth.
It was cold.

“Sigh. All right. Gross. Can we go get Table 30’s lemon pepper sprinkles now, please? Jesus Christ.”

When I was a little kid, an order of mozzarella sticks signified something special. My first conscious mozzarella stick memory is of my Dad and I at a Red Lobster when I was 4 years old. We had tickets to an early screening of The Lion King, and only we got to go. Not my mom. Not my baby brother. Just me and Dad. That night I was introduced to both gloriously deep-fried cheese and the best film to come out of the Disney Renaissance, and there was nothing wrong with the world.

My family didn’t order appetizers all the time. Watching joyfully as a server delivered fresh mozzarella sticks to our table meant that something awesome was happening. We were on vacation, I graduated high school, or everyone was just really happy and pleased to be around everyone else. Mozzarella sticks are the “Hakuna Matata” of the chain restaurant appetizer menu. Mozzarella sticks mean that everything is good and that there’s nothing to worry about. Mozzarella sticks mean that somebody loves me.

I couldn’t bring myself to love 21-year-old me. Honestly, I still can’t. I cannot fucking stand that nightmare. I hated myself so much. My Shakespeare apprenticeship had barely begun, and I was already confident that all of my fellow apprentices hated me down to my toes. Even in a space where we were told to be open and truthful about our emotions, a teacher asked me in front of everyone else whether or not I had sought out professional help.

Besides hate, disgust was the only other emotion I could conjure for myself. My hair fell down to my waist, and I didn’t know how to do anything with it, so I just walked around with a dull, greasy curtain following me. I was the heaviest I’ve ever been, and suffering the great injustice of working a part-time job that forced me to tuck in my T-shirt. I was almost certainly wearing the wrong bra size.

My forearms still showed off the tiny scars that I’d earned when I tried to cut myself during my junior year. I didn’t understand how to use a razor to do it, and I’ve always been unnerved by looking too closely at the veins in my wrist. So, I sat on the couch of our college apartment while all my roommates were out, and I sawed into my left forearm with a pair of purple craft scissors.

The asshole in me couldn’t help but note, “Wow. You even suck at self-harm.”

I didn’t know about yoga or therapists who operate on a sliding scale at the time, not that I could have afforded them anyway. Coloring books weren’t really a thing yet. That trash mozzarella stick was the only outlet for self-care that I had. The taste of a mozzarella stick took me back to a place where I felt safe and loved. Where I had a bed frame and dolphin wallpaper. Where I knew who I was, and who I was felt okay. The metaphor of a mozzarella stick was my life raft at a time that I couldn’t articulate any of the painful things going on in my brain.

Stealing that mozzarella stick from the garbage was stealing a moment of love for myself. Yeah, it was really, really gross, and definitely against T’Mac policy. But it’s also now kind of a litmus test for how I’m doing these days when it comes to self-care. I’ve felt a depressive episode coming on since Saturday morning, so right now I have a yuzu & lime-scented candle lit while I listen to The Beatles, which I’d argue is loads healthier than a potentially disease-ridden lump of oil and cheese.

So, here’s my problem-free philosophy: The next time I want a mozzarella stick, I’ll care about myself enough to know that I deserve a fresh one that was sitting only on top of a plate before being inside my mouth.

 

free time stresses me out, or how i learned to stop worrying & ride the movies

I hail from a family of theme park people. If given the opportunity to spend a week in any place on the planet, I feel confident that my clan and I would still end up in Orlando every single time. My dad worked in the amusement park business when my little brother and I were growing up, so most of my fondest memories of childhood smell of chlorine, funnel cakes, and hot, baking asphalt.

Amusement parks are super fun because of roller coasters and silly musical revues held in blissfully air conditioned theatres and an abundance of churros. Amongst the noise and chaos and sugar, though, I also can’t imagine a more relaxing place to spend a free summer day. When I first walk into an amusement park, I am handed a map and a schedule. I know where to go, what I will find there, and exactly when and how I can experience all the fun being offered.

Amusement parks provide a framework of spontaneity, which I find immensely comforting. I am always the keeper of the map and schedule when my family visits a theme park. I obsessively unfold it, double check the show schedule, re-fold it, and cram it into my back pocket in between every ride. After about an hour of being inside the park, I have the layout memorized. I know the rules and the expectations, and clear rules and expectations make things more fun to me. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is safety.

I have a lot of down time right now, and it is killing me. When I’m really busy and overwhelmed, which is a lot of the time, I long for a day off. A day wherein I can do absolutely anything I want. That day comes, and inevitably I panic after about an hour of being awake. The endless choices of free time make me worry that I’ll end up making the wrong choice, and that I’ll have wasted the precious day off.

Sometimes free time makes me feel guilty, because, as I’ve written before, I could always be working on something. I can always be making myself better. But even when I truly allow myself the opportunity to goof off, my anxiety holds everything up. Maybe I’ll never get to goof off again, so my brain goes into overdrive, considering every fun thing we could possibly do: marathon something on Netflix, go try a new yoga class, get on the bus and go to the movies, bake some cookies, call a friend to come hang out, go read a book at a nice coffee shop, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. This assault of options freaks me out, and so I usually end up taking a nap, and then feeling miserable at the end of the day.

I need limitations imposed on my fun options. I need a map and a schedule. I need a plan. I need to sit on the bed of the hotel room, with the Food Network going in the back ground and a can of sweet, sweet vending machine ginger ale by my side, and go over and over my precious map. When my family and I do Orlando all out, it means multiple days at either Disney or Universal. I get my map on day one, and then I have every night back in the hotel room to learn about the park we’re visiting the next day.

“Where should we eat here in the Jurassic Park section?” my family wonders.

“Clearly, at Burger Digs,” I say with the confidence of a park employee.

“What time is the Fantasmic fireworks show?”

“Why, it’s a 9pm. Thanks for asking.”

“Gosh, I’m a little tired. I’d like to sit down and have a snack.”

“Okay, if we head back to Marvel Superhero Island, there’s going to be a bench outside of the arcade attached to the Fantastic Four-themed pizza place. Across the way a little to the right, there’s a stand that sells soda and popcorn and churros. There’s just a fifteen minute wait for The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man right now, which I’d love to ride while you guys chill out, and I can probably get through even faster if I take the single-rider line.”

“Dani, how can we ever repay you?”

“Gosh, I’d love an ice cream treat in the shape of a licensed character’s head, if you please.”

Okay, so only that Burger Digs exchange actually happen, but dammit if those weren’t some fine theme park French fries.

In reality, the rest of my family is generally more content to play amusement park life by ear, which sometimes results in a completely different flavor of anxiety for me. Overall, though, amusement parks make me feel really happy and peaceful. My anxiety melts a little in the Florida sun. At parks like Disney and Universal, I can completely immerse myself in the worlds of my favorite film franchises, I can feel the wind and sunshine whip across my face on a roller coaster, and I can know how to do everything after just a night of intense hotel room studying. Amusement parks are absolutely my anxious-nerd happiest places on Earth.

So, maybe I’ll draw and color my own little map of my neighborhood and all my favorite hometown places to go. I can make myself a proposed schedule of when to watch The Great British Baking Show and when to work on a blog post. I’ll pretend that my kitchen is a little snack cart just outside of an awesome ride, and I’ll list out all the best treats being offered. I’ll impose my own limitations on fun, and see if that helps me enjoy my days off.

And sometimes I’ll spend that down time completely geeking out, and I’ll watch ride along videos on YouTube; pretending that I’m helping out E.T. himself on the E.T. Adventure or escaping hungry dinos on the Jurassic Park River Adventure.

So many of my favorite rides have “adventure” in their titles. Within an amusement park setting, I can experience the best of both of my geek worlds. I can be the anxious, obsessive nerd that I really am, but I still get to be swept up in an epic adventure with my favorite heroes, confident that my feet will safely touch the ground again and that a churro will be just around the corner.

And so, with my face covered in hot cinnamon sugar, I retrieve the crumpled map from my back pocket, and consider all of my next adventure options.

i am not vivien leigh

Yesterday, with a CVS card loaded up with coupons and a heart loaded up with dreams, I bought some new make-up.

I only buy new make-up when I have a show coming up, specifically a show in which I’m playing a role that I’ve decided HAS to be pretty. This Thursday night I’m getting onstage in front of an audience for the first time as Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I know all my lines, I have great scene partners, and I think I’m doing some pretty strong work with that bizarre text about weather and the seasons that goes on forever in Act II, Scene 1.

But I don’t think I look like a Fairy Queen.

So, I spent yesterday morning all up in Google’s business, looking up the best drugstore make-up products of 2017 and even hunting for some specific fairy-inspired YouTube make-up tutorials. I looked up what lipstick shade goes best with a purple dress (AND cape) as that’s the color my Titania is rocking. I left CVS with new eyeliner, mascara, lipstick and liner, and an “illuminating palette,” with which I have no idea what to do.

Here’s what I imagine will happen with this new face paint arsenal:

On dress rehearsal night, I’ll light a nice, relaxing-smelling candle at my station, and blast some good Fairy Queen jams to get myself into the right head space. I’ll steadily and effortlessly transform my pale, splotchy skin into luminous, regal, ethereal perfection with primer, BB cream, powder, my new illuminating palette, blush, eyeliner, a separate primer for my eyelids, eyeshadow, eyebrow pencil, mascara, and lipstick AND lipliner. Somehow this specific combination of products will transform the structure of my face, and I’ll glide on to the stage in my first scene and take everyone’s breath away.

Here’s what’s going to happen:

I’ll forget that I wanted to buy a candle to bring to the dressing room, which will frustrate me, and I still won’t have figured out what Titania’s getting-ready soundtrack should be, so I’ll just put on the Spotify “Acoustic Summer” playlist again which means that I’m going to listen to “Riptide” and “Mykonos” over and over because I’m afraid of change. Even after all the YouTube tutorials that I’ll start and stop and start again, I’ll have very little clue as to how to apply anything to my slippery, be-zitted face. And after all the research and hope and stress and YouTubing, I’ll still look like me. Plus some sparkly eyelids.

The tricky bit about accepting myself and my body and my face for what they are within the realm of Shakespeare is the fact that these roles have all become so deeply iconic. If I just think the name “Hamlet,” I immediately picture Sir Laurence Olivier, which means I immediately associate the Prince of Denmark with the image of a thin, white, straight, cis, blonde man. Textually, Hamlet doesn’t have to be any of those things.

When I teach my teenage Shakes-potatoes about why I think we still do the Bard’s work over 400 years later, I tell them that Shakespeare is awesome because Shakespeare wrote to the experience of being human. He wrote about universally experienced emotions that should transcend our binaries. If we already knew exactly what these plays and these characters should look like, we wouldn’t still be doing them.

SO, RIGHT ON. YEAH. #EFFYOURSHAKESPEAREBEAUTYSTANDARDS

But also… yeah, I don’t think I’m pretty enough to play some of the roles I’ve been lucky enough to play, and that makes me feel bummed out and hypocritical.

Some backstory.

The first thing I saw when I visited London last summer that made me feel like I hadn’t been completely betrayed by the romantic ideals of international travel was the “Shakespeare in Ten Acts” exhibit at the British Library. The British Library might be my favorite place on the planet. There’s nowhere else you can see the Magna Carta, eat a PB&J doughnut in the lobby, and listen to “Ticket to Ride” while looking at its handwritten lyrics ALL ON THE SAME DAY. This isn’t necessary to the story, but I really want to make sure that you go to the British Library if you ever have the chance. You’re great, and you deserve it.

I arrived in London in an already emotionally fragile Shakes-state. The night before my flight I’d closed out a run of The Taming of the Shrew that had been ultimately really fulfilling and satisfying, but also really exhausting and confusing. In London, though, I was going to get to return to my roots as a pure Shakes-geek. I already had my tickets booked for two performances at Shakespeare’s Globe: Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was ready to stand in the sun, sip a Pimm’s Cup, and remember why I love what I do so so so much. To be re-inspired by the language, by the poetry, and by the truths of humanity evident of Shakespeare’s work.

Meanwhile, in the library: The “Shakespeare in Ten Acts” exhibit was delighting my heart. I was learning all about famous productions throughout history. I was seeing amazing, tangible evidence of Shakespeare throughout the ages. There was a First Folio, playbills from when Ira Aldrige became the first black actor to play Othello in 1825, and Vivien Leigh’s Lady Macbeth costume.

Vivien. Leigh’s. Lady. Macbeth. Costume.

There it was, just behind glass. A relatively simple, fitted black gown, with a silver and red belt around the tiny waist. A badass matching cape. Worn in 1955 by the dark haired, 5’3″, ultra-gorgeous Vivien Leigh. Scarlett O’Goddamn-Hara.

It wasn’t even just as Lady M that Leigh made her mark on the “Shakespeare in Ten Acts” exhibit. All of the marketing I’d seen for the event, including the program I clutched that afternoon, featured the image of Leigh as Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, when she played the role in 1937 at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. Eyebrows raised, finger pointed forward at some mortal (or jerk fairy husband) fool enough to cross her, crowned with flowers, I decided that she was everything a Fairy Queen was supposed to look like.

I left the British Library that day thinking less about the genius of Shakespeare’s language, and more about how radiant and therefore perfect Vivien Leigh must have been as Lady M and Titania.

A few weeks after coming home, I was cast as Lady Macbeth, and a few months after that, found out that I’d be playing Titania. And the exquisite specter of Vivien Leigh, along with those of the amazing actresses I watched portray those roles on the Globe stage, haunts me when I look into the dressing room mirror. Walking onstage without a perfect face makes me feel like I’m not able to fully embody these characters I cherish so much, and so I always hope that my next big role is the one where I’ll really nail it. This time, I’ll know exactly which eyeshadow to buy, and that will make me a better at being a Queen, whether of Scotland or of Fairies.

I am keenly aware that this is all complete donkey shit. We’re either holding up a mirror to nature or we’re not. Shakespearean actors just need to look like people to have the right look to perform Shakespeare’s works. Logically, I know that Hamlet doesn’t have to look like Sir Olivier, and that Titania doesn’t have to look like Lady Olivier. But my vanity often wins out over my ego, so here I go again into dress rehearsal with new eyeliner and a melty sense of self-esteem.

After spending four weeks directing teenagers in a Shakespeare play, I’m trying to adopt a new motto: “Never forget to nurture the earnest, awkward, terrified, excited teenage theatre dork that lives inside your soul.” I would never want to behave in a way around my students that made them think that they’re outside appearance was at all a dominant factor in their ability to play certain roles. When they come see me in Midsummer, as they’ve told me they’re going to do, I want them to walk away thinking that their teacher did a good job with her words, her articulation, her comic timing, her connection to her scene partners and to the audience, and so on.

For the next four weeks, I’m the Queen of the Fairies, which means that she looks like me, potentially wrong lip color and all. She will sound like me, and she will move like me, and her face will be my face. And, truthfully, once I’m onstage I won’t have time to be worried about my make-up, because I’ll be too busy calming down my inner teenage theatre dork lest her joyful squeals make me forget all my weird lines about the weather.

So, no, I’m not Vivien Leigh. But she’s not me either. We just played some of the same parts, though, which means that I have something super tangible in common with Scarlett O’Hara. And that’s pretty rad, methinks.

#EffYourShakespeareBeautyStandards

PS: If anyone knows how to use an illuminating palette or has suggestions for a Fairy Queen playlist, hit me up in the comments!