Making Up with Punk Rock

This summer, as I spend most of my time working furiously on my novel, I will be reposting some of my favorite pieces.

About this piece, when I told her a version of this story, Alice Bag, said, “You really broke up with punk rock didn’t you.” I realized then that I ought to write it down. This piece was originally published  July 16, 2016 on my PM Press blog

In 1998, I broke up with punk rock. It was not a good boyfriend. It liked fucking me, but it wouldn’t introduce me to its mom, worried she’d notice that I wasn’t just punk rock, but that I was something else too, something/someone it didn’t quite understand. I feared I had aged out too. Standing around at 924 Gilman hurt my feet, the cold, hard cement floor. All the young people, seeming to get younger, as I got older didn’t bother me. I quite like young people. I gave birth to one, and I teach at a community college.

I broke up with punk rock, but it appears I’m back, having never really left at all. Still, I feel I have some explaining to do.

For me, punk rock was always about participation. I starting listening to punk at thirteen, was in a band, Bitch Fight, by the age of fifteen, and in 1987, by the age of seventeen, I had moved to San Francisco with Bitch Fight, and we began playing shows with bands like MDC, Operation Ivy, Frightwig, and Crimpshrine. When Bitch Fight broke up a year and a half later, I did a stint in Kamala and the Karnivores, and started Spitboy. After Spitboy broke up in 1997, Karin (guitar), Dominique (bass guitar), and I stayed together, and formed Instant Girl, a band we knew that would be short lived because Dominique was headed to Yale to study architecture. No longer hungry to continue participating in this way, I figured I should finish school too, and I got myself accepted, and a large scholarship, to Mills College. I wanted to study creative writing and English. My feet hurt from standing around on cement in my job of fifteen years as a preschool, and Gilman, and my back from hauling around drums all those years. My band days were over, and I was fine with that. I had said a lot through the band, made a contribution, traveled the world. I wanted to study. I wanted to write. I got married too – I felt like traitor, but I was happy.

Punk rock has a way of making you feel like a traitor when you decide to grow up a little, go to college, get married. At least it did back then, but after years of dating men in the scene who liked to pretend they didn’t have families, didn’t come from somewhere, let alone introduce me to their parents, I married a Mexican. I had finally been true to myself.

Photo by Ilona Sturm

For about ten years, when I was in my thirties, nursing my son, going to graduate school, I hardly ever mentioned to anyone that I had been in a band that traveled the US, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.  A band that put out records, did radio interviews, and for fanzines, a band that got fan mail. I didn’t want to be another boring adult talking about her glory days. Everyone wants to be rock star. Everyone wants to write a book too, but as a wise professor once said, you can’t, especially the later, standing around at parties talking about it. The cool thing about punk rock is that you actually start a band by standing around talking about it. That’s how bands start. Someone says let’s start a band, you think of some cool names, you decide who’s going to play what, you learn to play your instrument if you don’t know how already, and you write your first song. It’s what attracts people to punk rock in the first place – you don’t need to go to Mills College or Yale to do it.

While some people get into punk rock because they just want to fuck shit up, many of us call punk home because of its access to radical politics and people who hold them, people who question authority, people who question their own thoughts, people who read books, and attend demonstrations, and now discuss white privilege, people who don’t believe we should give up our basic privacy rights to protect ourselves from actual, or  so-called terrorism, people who aren’t afraid to call themselves feminists. And it’s         for all these things that I’m back, lending my voice, participating, now, in the best way I know how. 

First and Last Confession

 

My brother in law told me that I had to go to confession. I imagined a wooden closet the size of a phone booth with a screen over the window, but I was directed to the priest’s office instead. He was sitting behind his desk and gestured for me to sit down in the empty chair. I wanted to reach up and touch my wedding pienado, the large looping bun on the top of my head, held in place with half a can of hairspray and about one hundred bobby pins, but I knew better.

            “Shit, shit, shit,” was all I could think.

What if I didn’t understand him? What if he spoke that kind of rapid fire Spanish that my college Spanish couldn’t keep up with? I had told my husband, the man that I had already been married to, by the state, for two years that I also wanted a traditional Mexican wedding.  Naively, I hadn’t quite realized that all this church stuff is what he thought I meant, when what I really meant was Mexico, his family, some birria, and Mariachis.

“How long has it been since your last confession,” the priest asked in Spanish, a phrase that I half understood and half expected.

“Um, nunca, nunca, he confesado,” I stammered not wanting to lie straight away.

“Nunca?”

I shook my head.

I was baptized as a baby, but that was it. Once my mother left my father, she left, Los Angeles, and in some ways, Mexican culture, and definitely religion, behind. I was only allowed (deemed eligible, by men, of course) to marry my husband in the Catholic Church because I had done six months of adult catechism in a progressive Catholic church in the Bay Area. Six months of Tuesday nights talking about Jesus. I wouldn’t have minded six months of talking about La Virgen de Guadalupe, but six months of talking about Catholics, and the Bible, and Jesus just made it clear why I steered clear of religion in the first place: the holy trinity of male deities, too much patriarchy, and way too much misogyny. Still I’m Mexican, a Xicana, and I was marrying a Mexican national, I figured it wouldn’t kill me to learn more about the church, the rituals, and more about the interconnectedness between Mexican culture and its predominate religion.

Fortunately, my brother-in-law, Mario, who planned the wedding, had filled the priest in on my unique situation and I had been sent to Mexico with a letter from the local diocese that assured the Mexican priest I was eligible for the sacrament of marriage once he performed my first communion and confirmation. Fast forward sacraments, each would follow the other in quick succession, the first communion; hold this candle, sip this wine, and the confirmation; please, padre, I prayed silently, please don’t drip oil on my white dress, all performed before my immediate family just before the start of the wedding ceremony itself. It was a lot of waiting before I got my mariachis, but none of it would happen until I had my first and last confession.

The priest’s office was heavy and dark. The priest furrowed his brow, unsure of what to do or say, for I’m certain he’d never been in this situation before. I sat, my hands folded in my lap on my wedding gown, watching him decide what to do, nervous that he’d expect me to recite some prayer in Spanish that I had never even said in English.

“Entonces, dime ha sido una hija obediente?”

Had I been an obedient daughter? To whom? My wife beater father who I never knew? My mind raced for a suitable answer and the right words to express them with in a language that I struggled to speak smoothly, and I decided I didn’t need to count my father.

“Si, Padre,” I said, though no one had used the word obedient to describe me since I was in the first grade. I wanted to crack with laughter, but I knew this wasn’t the time.

“Has sido una hermana buena con tus hermanos?”

“Si, Padre,” I said, even though I had told my blonde sister she was adopted, and beat up my brother when we fought until he grew taller than me.

“Muy bien,” he said, and he blessed me, presided over my first communion, confirmed me, and married me to my husband in his family’s church, which brought great joy and comfort to his family who hadn’t seen him in ten years because he wasn’t a citizen, didn’t have legal residency, and couldn’t travel back and forth. So I knelt, and I stood, and I stood, and I knelt, and squeezed my husband’s hand, and sweated in my heavy gown, and mouthed, “watermelon, watermelon, watermelon,” while everyone else recited prayers memorized from childhood. And I stared up at the towering Jesus on the cross, unable to escape his sad eyes and the irony of it all, until we busted from the church and into the arms of family, a showering of rice, and the celebratory sounds of Mariachi horns all around us.

*Previously published in Joaquin Magazine

I Swear Rachel Dolezal’s In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White Word, Is Not Satire, But This Is

In the summer of 2015 we learned of Rachel Dolezal, the wannabe black woman who headed up the Spokane Washington NAACP. In an event almost too shocking to believe, yet, somehow totally believable in America, the news of Dolezal’s deception created widespread use of a word, sure to make it in the dictionary, faster than whites seeking representation for claims they were victims of race-based, discriminatory hiring practices.

The word dolezal, Czech and Slovak in origin, meaning lazy — as of late, especially in light of her new book In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White Word, has come to mean quite the opposite. By popular usage the word dolezal is used to describe someone who works rather hard, going to extensive lengths to pose as someone they are not.

Practical examples include claiming to be descended from a royal line, to be Native American, or having a Native American grandmother or great grandmother, probably Cherokee, or claiming to be Mexican for the purposes of writing a best-selling memoir about growing up in LA, and not common until quite recently, claiming to be African American.

To dolezal, or to dozal for short, describes the act of expending a great deal of energy, time, and even money to coopt and perform another ethnic identity while concealing one’s own. This phenomenon seems to afflict those vulnerable to insecurities about their actual ethnicities, or those who believe that white American culture lacks a specific cultural identity, one with full rights and privileges so omnipresent as to be invisible.

In the recent past, one can find numerous examples of people of color, passing or attempting to pass as white to avoid racial discrimination, or to gain access to the aforementioned rights and privileges, but we can all agree that this behavior, while unfortunate, is excusable, while choosing to be white when its convenient, and to dolezal for a prestigious position that one could have earned as an ally is not.

dolezal

verb

The act of going to extensive lengths to pose as another ethnic identity while concealing one’s own

dolezal

adjective

He married a woman from India, but he’s no dolezal.

zalling (informal)

Verb

She married a guy from Mexico, and she is zalling like she’s Mexican.

Synonyms: wannabe, poser, fake, opportunist

Antonyms: sincere, true, truthful, ally

 

Ministry of Truth II: Do I Have To Keep Telling You To Read 1984?

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In George Orwell’s 1984, Orwell’s governmental agencies are given ironic names, names that might have you think that they responsible for one thing, when in fact they do the opposite of what you would expect given the name – the very definition of irony. For example, the Ministry of Plenty is responsible for wartime rationing, which is to say, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly rationing because Oceania (the super state that is the setting of the novel) is in a state of perpetual war.

Before I go any further, let me state the obvious. If you haven’t, yet, read 1984, now would be the time, if you can find a copy given its recent surge in popularity. I can’t tell you everything about the novel, but I will tell you this: dystopian novels like 1984 are satires, satirical works that employ heavy irony to make a point. Most dystopian novels are also cautionary tales – texts that attempt to warn us about abuses of power in hopes that we’ll do something about it before it’s too late. They are novels that look at history, to what has happened, to show us what is possible, and they look forward to a future, that the author fears, is possibly looming.

Not my president’s top advisor, Kellyanne Conway is a one-woman-Ministry-of-Truth. She who coined the term ‘alternative facts,’ in an attempt to justify the presidential press secretary’s explaining away the very real fact that way more people turned out to witness Obama’s first inauguration than Trump’s. Of his assertion, Spicer later said, “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”

While it’s not stated explicitly, it was presumably Oceania’s Ministry of Truth that created concept of Doublethink. Through 1984 protagonist, Winston Smith, doublethink is described this way:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling                            carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out,                      knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic                                    against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that                                          democracy was impossible and that the Party  was the guardian of democracy, to                          forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again                        at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again … (Orwell 35)*

Might our current administration want the American people to do just what Winston describes here, “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic,” and that Conway and Spicer are “conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies.” Could the entire Trump administration be emboldened by the fact that most Americans cannot discern real news from fake news? It sure seems that way to me. And I’m not talking about the so-called legions of ‘un-educated’ folks who voted for Trump. In “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds,” a NPR article by Camila Domonoske, a Stanford study of nearly 8000 students in twelve different US states reveals that students in middle school, high school, and college (even Stanford students) had trouble discerning a fake website from a real one, fringe sources, or the difference between a sponsored and non-sponsored site. Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer are betting on the very real possibility that most Americans adults are as easily duped.

* Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classic. New York. 1950. Print.

The President Elect’s Ministry of Truth

1984-2

I can understand the urge to boycott things as a form of resistance, but I forced myself to listen to and watch  — not my president’s—first press conference since the election because as exhausting as it is and as it will get, I need to get angry and stay angry. We all do. “Let fury have the hour, anger can be power/D’you know that you can use it?”

All that said, I’m not the first person to point out how Orwellian things have gotten in American politics, but having read 1984 with my students just about every year for the past 13 years, and having the ability to recite several parts of it by memory, I feel it’s my duty not to simply make the comparison, but also to point out that Orwell’s chief concern in writing 1984 was to warn readers about authoritarian rulers and the tactics they use to manipulate, confuse, trick, and control. As a disciple of Orwell’s, I realize, all this comes a bit late bit. I should have started writing this sooner, but as a disciple of Orwell’s I also know that one must continue to resist – to keep a record, to remember, to stay focused, vigilant.

1984

If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, IT NEVER                     HAPPENED—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?  (Orwell                        43-44)

‘I didn’t say shut down immigration.’ Donald Trump

http://thefederalist.com/2016/03/24/10-things-trump-said-but-says-he-didnt/

1984

The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith,               knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago.                   But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case                   must  soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed— if             all  records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who               controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present                   controls the past.’ (Orwell 44)

The day after the Brussels terrorist attack (3/22/16), Trump said in an interview with CBS “This Morning,” “I didn’t say shut it down. I said you have to be very careful. We have to be very, very strong and vigilant at the borders.”

On December 7, 2015, Trump issued a press release that begins, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” He read and reaffirmed his statement at a rally that day.

http://thefederalist.com/2016/03/24/10-things-trump-said-but-says-he-didnt/

Video begins at attack of the press, dictatorial behaviors displayed by the pres elect in the recent past.

1984

Winston sank his arms to his sides and slowly refilled his lungs with air. His mind slid                     away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be                             conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold                           simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and             believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying                   claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian             of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into                     memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again:               and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate                       subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become                         unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word             ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink. (Orwell 44-45)

Jan. 28, 2016: Asking for Megyn Kelly’s removal from a debate

Trump’s war with Kelly led to him boycotting the Fox News/Google debate in Iowa. An hour before the other candidates took the stage, Trump insisted on CNN his absence was due to a mocking Fox News press release and he “never once asked that (Kelly) be removed.”

We found several instances of Trump and his campaign telling reporters and tweeting about skipping the debate because of Kelly. He went so far as to say Kelly “should not be allowed” to moderate, that she “should recuse herself,” and she “shouldn’t be in the debate.”

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/jul/06/17-things-donald-trump-said-and-then-denied-saying/

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Something To Prove

karnivoresEveryone laughs a little when they find out that Kamala and Karnivores started practicing in August for a show that will happen on January 1, that we have a shared spread sheet filled with practice dates, that we don’t dare drink at before we play or during. We’re not afraid to suck; we just don’t want to, and we are women, so we have something to prove.

Women always have something to prove.

It might be why we went on to work for colleges and the city of Berkeley. It might be why we studied philosophy, became a multi-million-dollar fundraiser, a college professor, and a mathematician.

We are the kind of women who run the world, or who should, the kind of women who do things right. We don’t fake it, or half-ass things, phone it in, or drink beer at band practice. And we do run the world, or worlds within worlds, worlds that depend on one another for the other to exist, worlds that some might not even notice because our running them is so stealth, so efficient, like a plate spinning on a plate, and a saucer on top of that, a balancing act that you can only grasp the deftness of when something almost comes crashing down on your head but doesn’t because one of our Kali arms righted it just in time.

And the sound, oh, the sound, it may even be better this time, the songs tighter, the harmonies better, the anger, and loss, and joy in the songs felt so many times over by now.

My son a talented musician and a teen boy working every angle to feel separate from his mom, scoffed when I told him how hard it was for me to learn our old songs all over again. He talked about his jazz ensemble teacher, a man who plays saxophone and played in the studio and toured with the Grateful Dead.

I hate the Grateful Dead.

“Mr. E could learn all those songs in a day or two.”

“Mr. E is man.” I hit the edge of the pot I was stirring at the stove with the wooden spoon to get the potatoes back inside.

My son looked me in the eye, his cockiness fading to confusion, the soft glow of the light fixture shined behind his head from the dining room, casting a shadow.

“A man who probably never stopped playing his instrument or doing his art when he had kids. A man who didn’t get pregnant or carry a child for nine months, and a man whose wife probably stayed home with his kids when he gigged at night.”

One of my hands was most certainly on my hip and the other gesturing in the air with the spoon.

“Yeah, your probably right,” my son said, and he backed out of my kitchen.

One of the most disturbing questions I’ve ever heard asked of female artists is how has becoming a mother changed your art. Have you ever heard a man asked such a question? Sure some men give up artistic pursuits for jobs that support their families, but it’s always assumed that when artists become mothers that they soften, start writing children’s books, make a kids album. In the cases of some women the answer would be, I stopped doing my art because the pressure to leave the self behind in order to be selfless and to morph into the perfect mother was too great.

I was only nineteen when I started playing in this band that has reformed for a few months to play this anniversary show, almost thirty years ago, a band that I play guitar in when I am really a drummer, a band that I played in when I only made $4.25 an hour, when I had no children, and no responsibilities but paying rent, buying cheese and tortillas to make quesadillas, and guitar strings. In my most panicked moments about signing on to play guitar again, when I can’t play and F or an F# chord, and my mind starts to race ahead, demanding I recall the next chord, so I can make the change in time, or when I despair about how many songs I must memorize, I wonder why I said I’d do this in the first place, why I agreed to subject myself to the humiliation of possibly sucking on stage, but I know the answer. It’s not simple, but it’s true, and it’s not because music makes us feel young again because it doesn’t when you need a music stand to hold the tab charts for your punk songs — it’s the camaraderie, the female company, moms, a non-mom, making art together, resisting expectations, and because women always have something to prove. 

 

Dear Bean: On Being A Second Wave Woman in Punk

Dear Bean,    mg-bean-claudia2

You recently asked me which women in punk that I looked up to when I was first starting out playing drums in punk bands, and I have a confession to make. Aside from the women who were my friends, the women who I was playing music with, the answer is none. In some ways, because there were so few women playing punk rock music, we felt like we were the only ones. We named our band Bitch Fight because we were women and because we were young and we fought a lot over petty things, but we didn’t always want to be referred to as a girl band, and while we were excited to be feature in MRR in 1989, we were a bit disappointed to be in the Women’s Issue. We had a range of mixed feelings about what we were doing because of the messages being sent to us from the scene, messages that made it clear that women in music were just a novelty, and we wanted to be more than that. At the same time, we like many other women in the scene, bought into the idea that punk and punk ethos was defined by men. We didn’t exactly want to be one of the boys, but we also didn’t want a label that we knew was used to downplay our importance in the scene, or to only play girl band night at Gilman.

I developed a love for music and a desire to become a musician at a very early age, learning to play the flute in third grade. I loved Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, and later the Go Go’s. In my early teens, I, for obvious reasons, became fascinated by Poly Styrene of the X-Ray Spex and Annabella Lewin of Bow Wow Wow. It was a downer, though, to discover a band like X-Ray Spex after they were already broken up. In fact, it seemed like all the first wave punk bands with women in them were all broken up. For this reason, my punk idols became men: Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Jello Biafra, DH Peligro, Dave Dictor, save one woman, Lynn Perko of the Dicks, a voluptuous blonde, who beat her drums and sweated so ferociously, I was hardly ever able to tear my eyes away from her each time I saw The Dicks play. I also looked up to bands like The Clash, Dead Kennedys, MDC, and the Dicks because of their overt political lyrics.

I never, however, in those early years, looked up to Alice Bag. It pains me to say this. I loved the idea of the Zeros, the Xicano punk band from Chula Vista. When I  learned of them, I wished I had never left LA and had been old enough to see them play, but Alice scared me. I first learned of her, like so many of us did, when I first saw Decline of Western Civilization, a movie in which so many others in bands featured in the filmed were interviewed when Alice was not. All those interviewed came off as dangerously self-destructive, and there was Alice, dominating the stage with her ages-old, indigenous power, her short hair a fuck you to Mexican and Mexican-American parents everywhere. Combined with the deranged depiction of punk and Alice’s intensity, I became afraid of punk, and women in punk, because I wasn’t sure I could match such power, was up for it, or could handle the responsibility, the responsibility that came with defying dominant culture, female gender roles, Mexican-American culture, American standards of beauty, and a multitude of social mores all at the same time.

If I just tried to blend in, I thought, it all might be less exhausting, of course, as you may know from reading my book, I was wrong.

There were several bands with women in them, or all female bands, that Bitch Fight and Spitboy played with that I’d like to mention, bands that were not riot grrl bands: Gag Order featured Wendy-O-Matik on vocals; Paxton Quiggly had Bronwyn on vocals too. Blatz featured Anna Joy, and the Gr’ups featured, Danielle Sea, Deb Dupas, and Kamala Parks. The all-female bands include Fright Wig, Tiger Trap, a jangly melodic band, whose drummer I also had a big crush on, Tribe 8, 7 Year Bitch, a metal-tinged outfit from Seattle, and the Trash Women, who featured Bitch Fight’s guitarist, Elka Zolot, and Kamala and the Karnivores, a band that I was actually in for a short amount of time, even getting lucky enough to play on the 7”. I mention the Karnivores because they are a band that was truly ahead of their time (even Mr. Ask Kent thinks so), and because in the spirit of supporting women, they asked me to join them on guitar after Bitch Fight broke up, which had left me depressed and broken. They picked me up, and helped me learn to own my place as a woman in punk, playing mixed gender bills and playing women’s nights, and via their camaraderie and the tongue-in-cheek title of our Lookout Records 7” “Girl Band.”

I am happy to say, being so subsumed in punk, playing in bands, starting at an early age, and meeting and making friends with so many women in the scene, I stopped having idols, and began having allies. And now you, you’re my ally too.

All my love, respect, and admiration,

Michelle