tbh i’m so over black history month.

these 28 days in february – or 31 days in october elsewhere around the world like the netherlands and the united kingdom – that make up black history month always make me roll my eyes to the back of my head. maybe it’s because, growing up, i never felt connected to my blackness or my blackness never welcomed me, an alternative to the stereotype that society expects of my culture, of my people. (i continue to struggle with the identity crisis common of the “oreo,” a teetering between being too black for the white kids and too white for the black kids, a perpetual othering of my existence.) it’s probably always had something to do with the same handful of “heroes” we’re taught in school: the harriets and the malcoms and the martins and the rosas. but neither of these rationalizations, while close, really capture my disdain for the month.

i find the whole thing boring, less a celebration and more an obligation by, for, and to black people. you’re expected to show up, sit down, and listen to the same historical events ad nauseam. so-and-so did such-and-such in 19-whatever. refuse to be fed or even dare to question the same lukewarm bullshit all month long and you’re labeled anti-black, a “sheltered negro” who would rather appease whiteness than appreciate blackness. my problem with black history month, though, isn’t in its intentionality but instead in its impossibility of telling the complicated history of a centuries-long-oppressed people. i mean, distilling the 400-plus years of commodification and dehumanization of a group deemed just three-fifths a person even before conception to 28 or 31 days and tying a yellow bow on a black fist as if that’s the best gift black people could have asked for is laughable at best and maintains racism at worst.

with its roots first planted in 1926 by black historian carter g. woodson, the often-cited “father of black history” and founder of the association for the study of african american life and history, black history month wouldn’t become the paltry one-month-long holiday it is now until 40ish years later. it took a body of black people from kent state university to propose in 1969 that the holiday, called negro history week and relegated to just the second week of february for the 43 years of its existence, extend through the entirety of the calendar year’s shortest month. black history month was thus celebrated from january 2 to february 28, 1970 and the rest is history. but there’s a loophole here: anything created by black people around the impenetrable gates of segregation reinforces racism simply because it couldn’t freely and without prejudice exist inside those gates. think of black bars, black churches, black clubs, black theatres, all borne in historically disenfranchised ghettoes where money was tight but crime was plenty, places that continue to feel the weight of oppression economically and environmentally. these places were othered, and still are – just look at the disaster in flint, michigan. worse, whatever black people created in these places – art, fashion, music, all of culture – has been appropriated by white society, a not-so-subtle reminder that nothing belongs to us. not our history, not our creations, not our humanity. 

that’s not to say black history month isn’t necessary for the preservation of blackness. without the holiday, my people would’ve easily been “exterminated,” as woodson argued in 1926 when demanding educators teach black history. despite the disconcerting repetition, we wouldn’t have learned about emit till if not for black history month. we wouldn’t have had to grapple with blatant systemic inequality and the resulting aftermath, the 1964 and current-era civil rights movements, if not for black history month. though it persists, we wouldn’t have seen the legal abolishment of segregation if not for black history month. the highs and lows, the successes and failures, all erased if black history month (and, by extension, negro history week) had not been established. oppression’s purpose is to keep those under it ignorant, and black history month is a direct counter to that. so it’s vital for the continued education of black people, both to black people and to other people. as woodson hoped in 1926 when advocating for negro history week, “let truth destroy the dividing prejudice of nationality and teach universal love without distinction of race, merit, or rank.”

but if we’re to teach “universal love without distinction of race,” then it’s time to integrate black history month, spreading it like rich butter across the banality of american bread. the idea that one race is celebrated for one month is antiquated and insulting. what stings more, though, is the casual way we move on after it all. it feels as if the world sighs once black history month ends because as soon as february wraps, the idea of black history – more specifically, the brief moments of adoration and raised fists and solidarity – is left in the ether, forgotten, only mentioned when black people are brutalized, criminalized, dehumanized, demonized, tokenized, murdered. to “teach universal love” is to teach it year long, month to month, day to day. black history month shouldn’t be just a single month. that concept, celebrating this oppressed group for just this time because they’re the oppressed group we’re supposed to celebrate, is oppression. it’s exactly how oppression is maintained: by compartmentalizing.

discrimination only ends when we see each other for what we are, not ignore our immutable facts – like those liberal elites (or white people) who “don’t see color” – or separate them into blocks of time that are only talked about in those moments. there needs to be an assimilation of races, not a compartmentalization. black history – and asian history and latinx history and trans history – should be part of the year-long educational system, just the same as white history is the main curriculum.

tbh the brands “standing in solidarity” is purely performative bullshit.

probably before but definitely exacerbated by george floyds murder back in may 2020, the brands have been making drastic changes to their identities. corporations around the world, from aunt jemima to trader joe’s to the national football league, are contending with their complicit and implicit racism, either by changing their name, their logo, or both. this is great news to me; many of these brands have had rather questionable names and mascots for years, so updating the look while altering the mission statement to better align with the current global moment is a good call.

but the brands shouldn’t be commended just because they’re now doing the bare minimum. sure, a fair number – including apple and square enix – have contributed to various relief funds, donating thousands of dollars to organizations fighting racial inequality and injustice. this is also great news to me; many of these organizations will be able to use that money to bolster their efforts and grow their reach. however, the brands, despite their “generosity,” are only making moves because they fear backlash. they have to put on some kind of performance, even if it’s fake and temporary.

since the black lives matter movement exploded in july 2013 following trayvon martin’s murder a year earlier, the brands have continuously hung people of color out to dry. these individuals – think former 49ers quarterback colin kaepernick or this taco bell dude or trans model munroe bergdorf (whose situation is a different kind of marginalization) and others – who spoke out against the systemic oppression and nationalized racism marginalized communities continue to face are seen as “trouble,” an adjective often applied to outspoken people who don’t comply with the status quo. in an effort to save face, the brands decided that “standing in solidarity” with the black community was the best way to not only raise awareness of entrenched injustices within the system but, more importantly, to reposition themselves in the good graces of the buying public. this exemplifies how the brands value profits more.

beyond this, though, the brands are fully aware their board of directors, their executive staff, and their high-level positions are held by white men. according to a fortune report from june 2020, only 1 percent (or just five people) of the us’ fortune 500 ceo’s are black. and yet, for the past two months, the brands made copious claims to “do better” in the gender and racial diversity department. there’s been no real, substantive change there; whatever actions taken have been yet another marginalization in the form of “gender and racial diversity” positions, which are often filled by people of color. this could be seen as a boon for the brands, especially if these people can bring in black money. but that’s the problem: creating positions specific for people of color is perpetuating the discrimination we want eradicated.

and besides, it’s all performative anyway. it’s performative when the brands hire a trans model, fire her for calling the brand out on their discriminatory bullshit, then rehire and place her on the diversity and inclusion advisory board. it’s performative when the brands promise to do better but refuse to engage with their myriad abuse and assault allegations before a pre-recorded livestream (a political move in and of itself). it’s performative when the brands, across social media, post black squares yet ignore the frequency of black death. it’s performative when the brands continue to treat black employees as fodder, expendable chess pieces that can be easily replaced.

it’s great the brands want to get involved with issues of oppression and racism that are so ingrained in american culture. we need people fighting this fight; black death will never matter until we recognize that black death is death, and that death is awful. but just because the brands have “dedicated” themselves to doing better now doesn’t mean they will in the future. and if the past two months are anything to go by, with the brands largely remaining silent following george floyd’s death and their measly donations, i doubt they’ll make the necessary changes to become more inclusive.

tbh you can’t be pro-choice and anti-mask.

with the sharp rise in coronavirus cases sending the us’ reported infections above the three million threshold, and with reports saying about 33,000 deaths could‘ve been prevented if 95 percent of people wore a mask, you’d think covering your face was a no-brainer. it‘s rudimentary algebra: coronavirus plus mask equals little to no spread. the science proves mask-wearing is an effective deterrent against the coronavirus; no one should be arguing that anymore. but because everything is political, masks have become an unnecessary partisan issue fought on party lines. and because masks have become political, people are using abortion rhetoric to “assert” their civil liberties.

it’s ironic that now, during a surging pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen before, which has also resulted in more deaths than many of the most well-remembered wars in history (like iraq and vietnam), we’re talking about civil liberties. it’s even more ironic that now, amidst another civil rights movement sparked by another unjust killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of four armed police officers, we’re talking about our rights to choice and life. but there’s an interesting question underlining this conversation: where are these positions when abortion comes up?

the debate starts on the topic of mask-wearing. people say that by issuing a state- or nation-wide mandate on masks, effectively requiring they must be glued to your face whenever you’re in public, the government is infringing on their right to choose. nevermind the growing cases reported across the us; these anti-maskers want to weigh the science against the experience and make an “education decision” based on their knowledge and public information. sure, that’s definitely an argument. and if they walk away from their “thorough research” deciding they would rather risk the coronavirus hanging around a little longer, well, it’s their body and so i guess it’s their choice.

but that slogan – “my body, my choice” – has deep connections to, if not was directly birthed from, the pro-choice movement on abortion. no one should get in the way of a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body. doing so is an infringement of her civil liberties, which is a position these anti-maskers should agree with. if they can decide to forgo a mask because it’s “my body, my choice,” then a woman should be able to make the oftentimes harrowing decision to abort her child because it’s “my body, my choice.” at least, that’s the argument in principle. 

in practice, it’s hypocritical. anti-maskers don’t mind co-opting abortion rhetoric if – and only if – it fits their narrative. it’s why there are “my body, my choice” signs littered across coronavirus protests and trump rallies in recent weeks.

but it’s impossible to be both pro-choice and anti-mask. taking the pro-choice position – whether it’s on abortion or masks or whatever – means agreeing with the individual’s right to do what they want with their body regardless of the outcome. choosing to not wear a mask, in a move that makes anti-maskers think they’re pro-choice, actually paints them as anti-pro-life; they’re cool with risking the lives of thousands of conscious, fully-developed people because the government is somehow infringing on their civil liberties by trying to save as many lives as possible. this truth, that willingness to kill because wearing a mask makes anti-maskers feel “uncomfortable” or look “weak,” is worse than the act of abortion, where a woman could experience any number of complications due to a pregnancy gone wrong.

yet anti-maskers can’t see that. they can’t see the inherent contradiction with appropriating abortion rhetoric to support their political agenda. confronting the reality of the contradiction, that being pro-choice on masks makes them anti-pro-life on other issues, does not compute. and so, if it’s “my body, my choice” and anti-maskers don’t want to wear a mask for whatever dumbass reasons they can come up with, that’s fine. anti-maskers just need to also recognize (and accept) that “my body, my choice” doesn’t have a single, fixed application; that by co-opting abortion rhetoric to fight their fight, they are inadvertently standing in the pro-choice pool in the abortion fight.

tbh everything is culture and everything is political.

there’s a subset of people who want culture and politics to remain divorced. you can find them all over the internet: typing death threats in the comments, posing on youtube as “commentators,” probably doomscrolling 8chan, our dumbass president. they believe that because culture is now viewed through a political lens, our entertainment has been weaponized as a mode of indoctrination. showing two female characters kiss in something like dreamworks’ she-ra on netflix is not a wholesome representation of acceptance and unconditional love like it should be, but a manipulation tactic used by the “radical left” to trick kids into believing lesbians are good. is teaching us to accept ourselves and our sexuality really that bad?

the argument is contradictory on purpose. saying the illustration of the multifaceted scope of human experience is “manipulating the kids” is, in and of itself, political. calling for the removal of politics from our culture – and, by extension, our entertainment – is an attempt at silencing, at diverting attention from the voices that wish to show life at its most raw and most vulnerable in order to maintain the status quo. it’s easy to see how everything relates to power; power controls a lot in this world. and, as it really should come as no surprise, everything also relates to politics.

our entertainment – and their creators – have statements to make. if you analyze the work diligently and thoroughly enough, the shape of the politics baked into it becomes clear. studio ghibli’s pom poko, for example, is a charming and fun story about fat raccoon’s protecting their homeland from manmade environmental devastation. no one can look at pom poko and ignore what studio ghibli was getting at: by wiping out our environment, we’re wiping out wildlife that will have shocking adverse effects on our ecosystem. it serves as a warning, a cautionary tale of wanton deforestation, and people clearly haven’t watched or deeply considered its point.

but viewing pom poko or any piece of entertainment – from film and tv to videogames and beyond – through this lens is labeled “overthinking” and “a reach.” critical dissection of motifs and themes is derided as projection, a concerted attempt to inject our own biases into the meaning of art. what people really mean when they say you’re “overthinking” or “reaching” is that the politics you see, which are the very same politics baked into art, are nonexistent, which is a flagrant admission that the politics in question are either inconsequential or irrelevant to them.

and so glossing over the often blatant and sometimes subtle politics of entertainment allows people to skirt the responsibility for their own biased thinking. because they don’t see politics, they’re not real. and because the politics aren’t real, they don’t have to confront their biases. this “out of sight, out of mind” mentality grants people a kind of immunity, a shield that protects them from facing the truth of the world that might force them to change their behaviors. people don’t like to change much, if at all.

this is the contradictory nature of it. it’s the “i don’t see skin color” argument all over again. there’s no chance in hell skin color is irrelevant in a face-to-face meeting – otherwise, george floyd wouldn’t have died and we wouldn’t be in the midst of another civil rights movement. and while i firmly believe we should judge each other based on what we do and not who we are, who we are reinforces what we do. the exact same can be said of both culture and politics. for pretending like politics doesn’t inform our culture is to be both dismissive and ignorant of the reality in front of us.

tbh the idea of “belonging” is bullshit.

there’s a really great episode of rick and morty i think about often. the episode, “rixty minutes,” sees morty trying to console his distraught sister summer, who just learned she was an unwanted child, in the only way he knows how: hitting her with some existentialism. “nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die,” morty tells her, standing not too far away from his own grave. it’s an extremely confrontational yet tender moment between siblings. it’s also one that would make plenty of existential philosophers extremely happy, considering this unpopular mentality isn’t “mainstream” commodity or whatever.

but while morty’s little monologue, delivered about halfway through the episode, may ring hopeless, it actually carries a refreashing, alternative message. it’s true we don’t belong anywhere, and the idea itself diminishes our individuality while expecting we hand our essence over to a society that’s apathetic to our sense of self.

for the uninitiated, existentialism is a branch of philosophy that studies preconceived ideas about existence and humanity. it asks huge, paralyzing questions about meaning and purpose, with the intention of expanding consciousness and possibility. though rife with motivational potential, existentialism can be pretty debilitating, especially for those incapable of dealing with asking the world – or, rather, the universe – questions it doesn’t care to and never will answer. this emptiness can lead to nihilism, the belief that nothing matters and life is meaningless and everything is fucked, so we might as well resign to monotony since the cycle won’t ever change anyway.

nihilism may be the natural conclusion to morty’s speech and it’s probably the one summer landed on, what with the “come watch tv” bit wrapping things up kinda nicely. but buried a little deeper, morty’s point is quite salient: nobody belongs anywhere because everybody exists just as they are. belonging is thus irrelevant.

life, like people, is just the result of random energies interacting. there’s little rhyme or reason to most things, so there’s no need to give away our essence simply because we want to belong.

belonging denotes ownership. belonging denotes outward, external approval. belonging denotes the idea that something or someone has control over us, dictating where we go or what we do or how we dress. to seek to belong relinquishes our autonomy, our individual power to make choices and believe that those choices have a tangible influence on our lives, because it gives someone else the power to decide for us. we’ve been taught since birth to give in to this sense of (or for) belonging because it helps us “find our people.” but by succumbing to the desire to belong, we become slaves to an identity unsuited for us: that of lemming or sheep. (nevermind that many industries, particularly the videogame industry, already see us as animals to be exploited for profit. but i digress.)

what morty is saying, that “nobody exists on purpose [and] nobody belongs anywhere [and] everybody’s gonna die,” is don’t run. not just literally, as that’s the knot that ties the conversation up while summer furiously packs her backpack to run away from the horrible parents who didn’t want and wasn’t prepared for her existence, but also metaphorically. for if summer ran away because she didn’t “belong with” her parents – when really, in this situation, she would be “belonging to” them instead – she would ultimately be giving them the power to decide where she belongs in the first place. that she was born, whether by accident or by choice, means she belongs because she now exists just as she is. just as we all do.

tbh not a damn thing will ever fucking change.

so here we are, yet again. another unarmed black man dead at the hands of not one but three strapped, white police officers. one of them, derek chauvin, the officer responsible for george floyd’s death, has been arrested and charged with murder. it’s an appropriate charge, especially since chauvin sat on floyd’s neck for damn-near 10 minutes, three of which floyd was unresponsive for. but it’s not enough, and not just because the crime floyd allegedly committed – forgery of money – didn’t even come close to matching the punishment he received. and so there should be a palpable sense of deja vu for anyone even remotely paying attention to the many cities burning down right now.

that’s because we’ve been here before. we saw this same shit – unarmed black dead by armed white – in 2012 with trayvon martin, in 2014 with tamir rice, in 2016 with jamarion robinson, in 2018 with stephon clark (in my own fucking city, no less). hell, this shit just happened this past february and march and may with the unjust deaths of ahmaud arbery and breonna taylor and david mcatee. what’s worse is floyd’s exact execution – death by strangulation – occurred six years ago, in 2014, when eric garner pleaded he couldn’t breathe as some officer choked him to death because garner was apparently selling cigarettes without tax stamps. oh no, black people making a quick buck off an institution systemically set up to oppress and suppress them. better call in the national guard to repress resistance.

but there’s the problem: we’ve seen this all before, we’ve done this all before. we’ve marched peacefully in the streets for black rights (and human rights in general). we’ve done nonviolent sit-ins at corporations unwilling to serve us because we’re supposedly three-fifths of a person to some (especially to those who zealously follow the constitution). we’ve protested across the country, with myriads of signs saying something along the lines of “stop fucking shooting me,” to no avail. because regardless of what we do, how we do it, when we do it, where we do it, we’re still seen as the enemy. we’re the voldemort, the thanos, the killmonger – the villain in america’s story.

and it’s tiring. it’s tiring to be seen as a threat when there’s nothing threatening about us. i can’t tell you how many times, while strolling alone in a supermarket, in my double-cuffed jeans and tucked-in t-shirt and glasses and slip-on vans, white parents have clutched their white child’s arm as if i’m going to lure them with candy and abduct them or something, a stereotype more often associated with sociopathic (older) white men incapable of understanding how or why or when love works. i mean, i was pulled over by police for speeding  – five miles over the speed limit, mind you – not that long ago. the officer, who thankfully let me live that day probably only because i was with my white wife, insisted i must’ve been on the phone (that was in my pocket) because my head was resting on my left arm. we’re not even given a chance to explain ourselves before someone assumes the absolute worst about us. 

it happens on a daily basis, to every black person alive and dead, because the human tendency is to judge someone within seven seconds of coming into contact with them. the cards have been stacked against us from day one of america’s discovery and our entertainment, from our films to our videogames and everything in between, only reinforces that notion. that black people are other and that other is wrong, so therefore black people are wrong.

this is why what’s happening, the riots and the protests and the incessant calls for justice, is happening. and this is why, the all-too-painful but no-less-expected black deaths, won’t change. until we are seen as equal, until we stop looking skin deep and penetrate to see each other as a person, everything will stay the same. 

tbh criticism is a tool, not a weapon.

for some reason, the word “criticism” carries a ghastly connotation. someone offering their thoughts on this film or that videogame is often seen as demeaning or shaming those that consume entertainment – mindlessly or otherwise. to me, these gluttons see art as food to be ravaged, swallowed whole without chewing, like patrick star vacuuming hella cookies in that one episode of spongebob squarepants. thus, the critic, to the glutton, is squidward, an oppresive pessmist incapable of enjoying anything in our pop-culture-obsessed world oversaturated with enough distractions to numb the soul. you probably wouldn’t want to have a beer with that guy. i don’t.

anyway, maybe there is a subset of critics who, with all of their “power” and “prestige,” wield criticism like an axe, swinging it with the sole purpose of chopping everyone down to their level of misery. it’s these people i avoid, as they aren’t critics who honor the medium’s craft. they’re just boring-ass curmudgeons using criticism as a veil to hide their intentions: to belittle everyone that enjoys anything, probably because they themselves never could (and never will) enjoy anything.

criticism is not bullying someone into disliking or hating something. in its literal definition from merriam-webster (because, yeah, i am that much of a nerd), criticism means “the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature.” the only goal of criticism – and, by extension, the critic – is to explain and inform using anecdotes, context, and history. there’s a reason why critics like pauline kael and roger ebert and judith crist and the like are so revered. yeah, these writers totally shat on films where appropriate. just look at ebert’s review of rob reiner’s north, a 1994 elijah wood-led dramedy ebert hated so much he used the word “hated” 10 times. i haven’t seen north and ebert’s review makes me thankful i missed that atrocity – though his scathing critique has me intrigued since i’m a masochist or something.

but thanks to the internet, a new type of critic has popped up, one that forgoes context in favor of cherrypicking evidence to prove their emotionally charged points of “evaluation.” emotion is a vital part of criticism, sure, but so too is context. and ignoring the thing’s contextual elements is a disservice to the reader. it’s here where criticism seems to operate like a sharp weapon, with “critics” dicing entertainment up until it’s just a pile of indistinguishable mush. this form of criticism, to which i’ll call selectivism, explains nothing and informs no one. all these selectivists do is take art, pick it apart like vultures scavenging for food, and shit on it into perpetuity. 

an actual critic, like a kael or an ebert or a crist or whoever, uses their experience and knowledge to break down allegory and metaphor, to extrapolate context and theme, to dive into history and other art all to arrive at a truth that, ultimately, seeks to explain and inform. a critic’s job isn’t to tell you that your favorite film or videogame or whatever is trash and that you’re a trash person for enjoying it. (“trash” is subjective anyway, just as is criticism.) a critic’s job – or, at least to me, a critic’s intention – should be to report how and, most importantly, why the art does or doesn’t work. anyone who subscribes to the former, basically enjoyment shaming, is not a critic, for a critic truly, genuinely loves the medium they’re critiquing.

tbh cancel culture contributes to our increased mental ailments.

i read an interesting post by coolbeans on cancel culture. while the writer ultimately believes the concept doesn’t need cancellation, she states that those incensed by something seeking to use their “cancel” magic should consider how to be productive in their approach. i agree with coolbeans’ overall argument, but imma take it a step further and say that cancel culture is contributing to our increased depression and loneliness.

it’s no secret that millennials and zoomers – or gen z, but that phrasing’s wack – are growing lonelier and more depressed than any generation before. as someone kinda nestled between the two in both age and mentality, i can confirm that i feel more depressed and more lonely than i ever have in my entire life – and i’m not that old. still, research suggests that 17 percent of those born between 1981 and 1996 are depressed as shit, while 14 percent admit to suffering from anxiety. those numbers don’t sound huge, but in relation to previous generations who never talked about anything because i guess you’re just supposed to “pick yourself up by the bootstraps,” these numbers are significant in their own right.

but what do these numbers have to do with cancel culture, and how is it adding to millennial problems? you’re probably familiar with the image of walking on eggshells, but make that metaphor lethal: walking on landmines. that’s what cancel culture is. everything you do, everything you say, everything you are is liable for cancelation. and when you mess up for any number of possibly-offensive things, you’ll find mobs targeting you like terminators, stopping at nothing until your whole everything is destroyed. this only exacerbates stress, leaving millennials and zoomers and people in general to walk around with the strongest protective armor possible, preparing for the inevitable moment when cancel culture comes to cancel them.

but while cancel culture is supposed to be “hold you accountable culture,” the hyper-pc players take anything and everything inoffensive and find offense. there’s nothing wrong with ensuring that people with power – dumbass government officials, famous celebrities and “heroes,” whatever – are held to higher moralistic standards. we should make sure that humanity grows for the better, so that all human rights are viewed as equal human rights. but using cancel culture as a means to justify your disdain for someone and as an excuse to ruin their entire livelihoods because “my feelings are hurt” is childish, pedantic, and unproductive. it serves no one to demolish careers and it certainly does nothing to watch people get ripped from the houses they built just to be stoned to death for things they said in a past that can never be altered. 

this is what contributes to our increased depression and loneliness: the unwillingness to see humans as deeply-flawed creatures with the immense capacity for both understanding and change. there are some people who for sure need to be all-the-way canceled: chris brown, harvey weinstein, james franco, logan paul, tomi lahren – the list goes on. but more often than not, those that get targeted are people who unknowingly or unthinkingly made a lapse in judgment while in the moment, and what’s done or said is frequently taken out of context to slander and smear, not to guide and steer. cancel culture is policing, saying what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s offensive. instead, the energy needs to be used to help instruct and teach those who are misguided. only then will cancel culture be effective.

p.s. sibling abuse and sibling rivalry are not interchangeable.

personal story” is lethartgic’s long-form essay series exploring mental health, self-acceptance, pop culture, and everything in between.

because my siblings and i are only half-related, and they’re about 15 years older than myself, i always felt alone and distant and small. i didn’t technically grow up as an only child, but i was the only child in my grandma’s immediate care. so i can’t relate to director-writer jonah hill’s coming-of-age story (“bildungsroman” in literary criticism) mid90s on that level. there’s an obvious tension between sunny suljic’s angsty stevie and lucas hedges’ skittish ian, the maybe-five-years-older brother who can’t empathize with the changes happening to his 13-year-old little brother.

but there’s a commonality stevie and i share: sibling abuse. like ian, my brother physically, verbally, and mentally assaulted me when i was stevie’s age, and it’s all resulted in emotional distress i’m working through in therapy.

though there’s no excuse for abuse, truth be told, i’m beginning to understand what he was trying – and failing – to communicate.

. . . . .

mid90s’ first striking scene is a brawl between the brothers, with ian dominating and pummeling stevie for what feels like forever. following the scuffle, ian heads out, barking at stevie to “stay the fuck out” of his room and leave his shit alone. of course stevie pays ian no mind. it’s exactly what i did whenever my brother left his room. no matter how much i hated him, for punching me, for ridiculing me, for calling me a “chump” and a “pussy,” for beating on me again and again, i secretly admired him. i wanted to be everything he was because it seemed he hated everything i was.

this isn’t mid90s’ only time catching ian and stevie in a masculinity struggle. after forcing stevie to steal money from their mom, and watching stevie sell him out when questioned who the thief was by their mom, ian, in the dark of night, storms stevie’s room to give him a good beating. because stevie’s a bratty, little fuck-up of a kid. often in the dark of night, after my grandma had gone to sleep and the cats have stopped howling and the streetlights burned bright, my brother stormed my room to give me a good beating. he’d punch me, repeatedly, calling me “a fuck-up” and “a little brat.” he’d do it in front of my friends, and despite the agonizing pain, the salty tears, the quivering yelps, no one heard or saw me.

. . . . .

so what does stevie do with all this pain? he resents his brother, who’s too weak to confront his feelings of resentment toward his mom, who’s treating stevie vastly different than how ian was treated growing up. and he resents his mom, who can’t seem to hear or see the abuse ian is inflicting upon stevie’s developing body and psyche. he does what any teenager wishes when homelife sucks and schoollife sucks – disappear. he takes his skateboard – in case you didn’t know, sunny suljic is actually a sick skater – and gets out, rushing into the courtyards and onto the streets with a feverish freedom. he may feel chains constricting his movement at home or at school, but there are no chains on a skateboard. there’s just a foundation, a set of wheels, and a desire to go, wherever that desire may take you.

unlike stevie, who bought a board off his brother, my brother introduced me to skateboarding. it’s because of my brother that i started skate cliques in both middle and high school. it’s because of my brother that i obsessively poured over thousands of hours of skate footage and thousands of pages of skate magazines. it’s because of my brother that i dreamt of sponsorships, though my now-declining vision has crushed those fantasies. and it’s because of my brother that i now involuntarily resent skating, the skate community, and, most depressingly, myself. skateboarding wasn’t just an activity to escape my external problems; it allowed me to escape my internal problems, too.

. . . . .

through all this triggering, mid90s contextualized something: my brother’s intentions. there’s a scene where, after chasing and pummeling stevie in the kitchen, ian wails hysterically against the refrigerator. he’s so distraught by his behavior toward his little brother he can’t contain the torment thrashing within.

my brother frequently retreated to the garage to cry himself into a puddle. it turns out my brother was a “chump” and a “pussy” in his youth, too, and i’ve come to understand he was trying to toughen me up, to strengthen my backbone, to give me the confidence to face life’s adversities. my brother’s coping mechanism whenever life went wrong, when he broke his leg that cost him a basketball scholarship and his volcom sponsorship, when our mom skipped out on important school events because she was too high on whatever drug, when he faced racism in his lake tahoe hometown because he and my sister were the only people of color, was alcohol. for years he’s felt weak, a victim to life’s unfairness, and he didn’t want me to crumble under the same weight.

and now here i am, not much older than he was when he tried to “toughen” his little brother. while i can’t, and won’t, excuse his rotten behavior, i can choose to empathize and forgive. like the final moments of mid90s, ian and stevie sharing bottles of orange juice in the emergency room, i finally see my brother for the flawed individual he is and the good intentions he had.

p.s. keratoconus is a “special” kind of shitty disease.

personal story” is lethartgic’s long-form essay series exploring mental health, self-acceptance, pop culture, and everything in between.

i don’t blame you for not knowing about keratoconus. it’s a pretty rare eye disease, affecting every 1 in 2000 people, making it much more uncommon than astigmatism or cataract. think of healthy eyes as a basketball, relatively circular, the cornea theoretically operating as the ball’s outer layer. now, imagine keratoconus eyes as a football, coned and pointy like arnold shortman’s head from nickelodeon’s hey arnold. the cornea detaches from the rest of the eye, resulting in distorted vision akin to looking through water-covered glass or vaseline-smeared glasses. keratoconus is a degenerative, progressive, non-hereditary eye disease that could lead to total blindness. it could happen in 10 minutes. it could happen in 10 years. i shouldn’t forget to mention that it’s incurable and unpredictable, too.

i’m one of those 2000 people affected by keratoconus, and as ryan o’connell makes abundantly clear in his revelatory netflix series special, the eye disease is what makes me special.

truth be told, it feels more like paralysis.

for more than a decade, i’ve relied on rigid gas-permeable contact lenses. these stiff, translucent blue pieces of plastic maybe half an inch in diameter are the only way i can see anything. i’m legally blind without them. but despite the severity of my vision and the necessity of corrective lenses, no insurance fully (or even partially) covers the cost of contacts. the pair i currently have, the pair i’ve had for a decade, the pair that now, at best, puts my vision at 60/80 runs about $500 for both lenses – outta pocket. as age has it, my vision has gotten worse, which means i need a new prescription. except rgp lenses no longer correct me to 20/20. ophthalmologists have suggested the alternative scleral lenses, but these demand some $2500 for both lenses – again, outta pocket. the american healthcare system sure is hella discouraging and hella expensive for a hell of a lot of nothing.

. . . . .

based on a 2015 memoir of the same name, ryan o’connell’s special is a hella short but hella sweet web series about a dude who’s “in the closet about being gay and in the closet about being disabled.” ryan hayes, a twentysomething gay boy born with cerebral palsy interning at progressive site eggwoke, uses his disability to catapult his writing career, exploiting readers by lying about the origins of his “weird limp.” ryan knows this white lie makes him uncomfortable, acknowledging in episode four that he’s “a loser masquerading as a non-loser.” and yet, there’s no courage in him to expose his bullshit. maybe because of the fear of judgement. maybe because of the fear of repercussion. maybe because of the fear of reality, because things always seem and sound better in your head than in real life. at least they do for me, anyway.

but though his single article, “getting hit by a car was fucking awesome,” gets hundreds of thousands of views and hundreds of thousands of likes and hundreds of thousands of comments, ryan finds himself on a skype call with his mom on the season one finale, googling “internalized ableism,” a phrase thrown at him by eggwoke’s editor-in-chief (?) in the episode prior. according to the definition on ryan’s surfacebook, internalized ableism is “when disabled people metabolize the stigmas of our society towards disabled people and start seeing themselves as less than others.” i hadn’t heard the phrase outloud till the show, which premiered in april 2019. and shockingly, i finally banged into the fucking mirror and now see that i’ve internalized ableism.

. . . . .

my glasses are fake. my goggles are fake. my sunglasses are fake. there exists no prescription in any of those frames, only clear plastic to give the allusion of real glasses. while others actually need glasses for corrective purposes, mine are purely cosmetic – and largely for protection. my contacts fall outta my eyes at random. if i blink too much or move my head too fast or engage in too much physical activity, there’s a high possibility i could lose my tiny ass contacts, which will render me blind for a week or more while i wait for another pair to be built. for more than a decade, i’ve hated this reality, especially since i went to sleep seeing perfectly fine one day and woke up severely blind the next day. i don’t cry anymore, as any water causes my contacts to come rushing out. i don’t practice martial arts anymore, as any rigorous movement sends my contacts flying across the room. i stay inside on windy days and avoid beaches as much as possible and walk past every roller coaster line at amusement parks. all by choice, sure, but the choice comes from a place of fear and resentment.

i fear living a disabled life and i resent those who are able because i was able in a previous life. i don’t despise those who are disabled, but i deplore myself for becoming one of them through no fault of my own. research suggests that excessive eye-rubbing can cause eye trauma, and my grandma always told me to stop rubbing my eyes when i was a kid, but there’s no direct line that proves the correlation is equal to the causation. and so i’ve been left with two unanswered questions: how, and, more importantly, why? keratoconus is a degenerative, progressive, non-hereditary eye disease that could lead to total blindness. and my genes were special enough to make me one of those 2000 people affected by the pretty rare eye disease.

. . . . .

these feelings of fear and resentment stem from internalized ableism. eggwoke’s editor-in-chief tells ryan to write about how he hates that he’s disabled and getting set up with someone who is disabled forced him to look in the mirror. he denies, but the lingering shot on his face, and the contorted expression he makes, seemingly taken aback by his prejudice, proves otherwise. and it all comes full circle when he’s found googling internalized ableism. societal pressures force us into labels and identities. these, while helpful in terms of survivability and creating a sense of belonging, are the checkboxes that separate us. the able always have some sort of disability, even if that disability is the failure to understand what it means to live as disabled, and everyone who’s disabled is totally able in one way or another.

on episode eight of rick and morty’s first season, morty tells his sister summer that “nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, [and] everybody’s gonna die.” ryan shares a not-as-dark-but-just-as-similar sentiment on special’s seventh episode when, while sitting in the car with his mom, he says he doesn’t make sense to anyone anywhere. but who says you or i have to? fuck making sense to anyone and fuck making sense anywhere. nothing happens on purpose. there can be a lot of preparation and, perhaps, premeditation to influence an outcome, but nothing just is simply because it is destined to. it’s up to us to inject meaning and “purpose” into ourselves. that’s what makes us special: our ability to define ourselves.

. . . . .

on special’s climatic season finale, ryan tells his mom that “no one actually cared” when he told the truth about the origins of his “weird limp.” ryan’s life can actually start because there are “no more closets.” special doesn’t have a happy ending, but the revelation and, as a result, the liberation ryan experiences is no less magical. when you accept reality for what it is, accept you for what you are (and not who you are, which is something always dictated explicitly by you), then you free yourself of the chains and reductive mentalities forced onto you by society. you don’t exist on purpose, but you can exist with purpose. you don’t have the disability on purpose, but the disability can give you purpose – if you allow it.

i don’t have keratoconus on purpose, but i will allow it to give me purpose. writing as a profession is ironic in my predicament, as there’s no guarantee i’ll keep my already-declining vision. but that’s ok. my glasses are fake, sure, but that’s ok, too. the eye disease is my reality, but it’s not the limits of my ability.