Nineties Child Starter Pack

The backpack you take home from school weighs more than you do.

We had so much homework, and I mean so much homework. If there’s one thing that’s relatable to all millennials, no matter what sort of neighborhood or economic class they grew up in, it’s that the pressure to get into a good college started in seventh grade, if not earlier.

You use self-deprecating humor because it’s social suicide to acknowledge how hard you’re working.

Also because we’re all working really hard, and only douchebags talk like they’re writing a college admissions essay. Despite the fact that this style of communication has carried over to the Gen Z kids, a lot of older people still take this sort of communication at face value and interpret it literally, which is both disheartening and unintentionally hilarious.

You can never accept a complement, ever.

See above. We’re collectively getting better about this, thankfully.

You always have to pretend to be on a diet or losing weight for sports.

We bore the full brunt of mass media advertising culture in the 1980s and 1990s, and we didn’t have any tools to resist its messaging. Current conversations about “body shaming” and “body positivity” are a direct result of MTV Spring Break setting the standard of what a human being should look like, which turned out to be super unhealthy for people of all races and genders.

Goku is there for you when you need him, and you have no idea Sailor Moon is Japanese.

We didn’t know what anime was until we learned what anime was, at which point we couldn’t get enough of it. Can you blame us? At the time, the only real alternative was Disney. The Disney Renaissance was great and all, but sometimes you just need to watch girls saving the universe while one dude kamehamehas another dude right in the face.

You get on the internet for Pokémon cheat codes and make a cringe adorable first username.

No I didn’t know that there were no cheat codes for Pokémon, and no I will not tell you my username, but I sure did have a lot of fun as a tiny child on the internet.

No amount of hard work or internet literacy will save you, though.

This is especially ironic because people in their early twenties are now hired over people in my generation because they are “digital natives” with “social media expertise.”

The generations ahead of you just will not retire, so your professional career is fucked.

Friends may come and friends may go, and dreams can burst into brilliant life and then fade away, but student debt is forever.

In conclusion, nineties children are stressed out all the time, but at least we got all the good anime and video games.

We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy

In the spring of 2014, back when people still used Facebook, I came across a post from a male friend who was a grad student at a West Coast school known for its progressive social climate. He had put together a proposal for an event with a female grad student in his department. She sent the proposal to their department chair, who returned it with a brief comment saying that it was unprofessional of her to submit such a shoddy piece of work. My friend and his colleague therefore sat down together and rewrote the proposal. This time he submitted the papaerwork, and the department chair congratulated him and told him that their administrative assistant would be in touch soon to help set up the funding.

When my friend forwarded this response to the female grad student, she pointed out that, lo and behold, he had made a mistake and attached the first draft – the very same one that she had submitted the first time around.

My friend was upset, as he rightly should have been, that such an obvious display of sexism could happen at his Progressive Liberal™ institution. I replied with “I blame the patriarchy” as a comment on his Facebook post and then thanked him via DM for being a good ally and talking about this in a semi-public space.

I didn’t think too much about this exchange until I got a notification that someone had replied to my comment on his post. A white woman around our age, who was a grad student herself, wanted to let me know that she objected to my use of the term “patriarchy.” She threw the Merriam-Webster dictionary at me, saying that, if “patriarchy” is defined as a “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the family,” then we haven’t lived in a patriarchal society for a long time.

I literally saw red when I read that.

Within the space of ten minutes, I had posted more than a dozen responses to her comment, each of which cited and linked to accredited sources of statistics strongly suggesting the male dominance of various political, economic, social, religious, and cultural fields in the United States.

When I came to my senses, I sent a DM to apologize to my friend. He got back to me right away, saying that my responses were important and asking me not to delete anything. I thanked him again and then took a nice long break from the internet.

I was still upset a week later, though, so I copied all of the text from my responses to that comment on Facebook and made a zine that I called “We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy.” Several dozen of my friends (and friends of friends) wrote to ask me for a copy. I also took copies from three print runs to Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago within the span of two months, and I sold out of all the remaining copies almost immediately after I put them on Etsy. I think I probably ended up giving away or selling more than a hundred copies of this zine, which I found surprising, especially given how quickly put together and cheaply made it was.

The world has changed since the spring of 2014, but not as much as you’d expect, and not always in a sane and reasonable way. I’ve considered updating this zine several times, but I always decide against it. The truth is that I dislike being angry. I feel like anger is a tool that no one person can hold for an extended period of time, so it gets passed from one feminist to the next like a baton. I made my angry feminist zine back in spring 2014, and now it’s time for me to step back so that the next group of young people can speak and be heard.

Horror Haiku

In the spring of 2014, I made a half-letter size photocopied zine that collected thirty horror-themed haiku. I had so much fun putting it together that I made a second issue the very next week. I was teaching at Notre Dame that year and driving to Chicago practically every weekend to stay sane, and I spent a lot of time at Quimby’s Bookstore in Wicker Park. I took a handful of zines to Quimby’s to ask if they would take them on consignment, and they agreed. This turned out to be an incredibly transformative experience for me.

I was expected to teach a course on Japanese cinema during the spring semester, so I spent the summer and fall reading recent issues of about half a dozen different Cinema Studies journals from cover to cover. There are a number of excellent independent theaters in Philadelphia (and Tokyo), so I’d watched a lot of movies during grad school. I was excited about movies, and I was excited about Cinema Studies. I was also high off the experience of having finished my dissertation, so I ended up being very productive and writing a handful of essays about horror movies, which I sent to the specific journals whose articles and general editorial voices inspired me.

Everything I wrote was rejected without even going to peer review. Because the editors felt no need to be anonymous, they told me exactly why they rejected my work, and I knew exactly who they were.

Basically, I am gay and I love monsters, and I was looking at horror films from the perspectives of Queer Studies, which was a major focus of my dissertation, and Disability Studies, which was just starting to emerge as a discipline at the time. What one older straight white man after another told me was that, while my essays were well-written and skillfully argued, I lacked the “critical distance” necessary to engage in serious scholarship in Cinema Studies. Also, because I was writing about East Asian cinema, DO NOT GET ME STARTED on the racism I encountered. (I’m especially looking at you, British academics.)

I should have pushed back or tried to reach out to other female and female-identified scholars who wrote about East Asian cinema, but what I ended up doing was crying. I cried kind of a lot, actually. I cried and watched movies and wrote a bunch of horror haiku, which eventually became these two zines.

When Quimby’s agreed to put my zines on the shelves of their store, it gave me the courage I needed to keep writing. It’s not that my work wasn’t worth being read; it’s that I was trying to get it past the wrong gatekeepers. Once I realized that a smug rejection from some narrow-minded older white man didn’t mean that there was something wrong with my writing or scholarship, I started submitting to different venues and, thankfully, getting my work published.

Zines have historically served as a platform for minority voices that have been denied expression in mainstream and more traditional venues, and that’s how they worked for me. Honestly, Quimby’s Bookstore probably saved my academic career. Be gay! Make zines!!

Both of these zines have long since sold out, but you can still find my old horror haiku (here).

My Mother’s Cats

My first zine, which I put together in the spring of 2014, was made with a single sheet of copy paper and a construction paper cover. It had eight pages with simple illustrations of my mother’s cats.

My mother has (and has always had) twenty cats. When I went home for Christmas in 2013, I took pictures of them in an attempt to learn their names. I wasn’t successful, but the photos turned out to be useful references.

This was a fun zine, but I don’t think I’ll make any more of them. I no longer have access to a photocopy machine, and using scissors and a glue stick to create the cover by hand doesn’t seem as exciting and creative to me now as it did five years ago.

I’m thinking of making another zine with actual photographs, though. Caring for twenty cats may seem extreme, but my mother is very good at it. All of her cats are gorgeous, and they’re very photogenic.

Why I Buy Books on Amazon

Amazon is evil, and I’m afraid of them. So why do I still use their stupid website to buy books? Let me give you six reasons.

First, I read a lot of scholarship. Since it’s easy to get distracted while reading an academic book, I find it more productive to read paper copies than digital editions. I highlight text and take notes in the margins, so library books are out of the question. Bookstores don’t keep academic books in stock, and I’m not about to order them for full price (which is often more than $100) from the publishers.

Second, I read a lot of literary fiction in translation. I’m not trying to sound cool, because I don’t think literary fiction in translation is ever going to be cool, but I enjoy reading the sort of books that you can only find if you can search for them by means of an aggregate of hundreds of independent storefronts.

Third, I read a lot of fiction and graphic novels that haven’t been translated, and Amazon ships internationally for cheap. In fact, buying a book shipped via DHL Global Express from Amazon Japan or Amazon France is often cheaper than buying the translation at an American bookstore. True story!

Fourth, I read a lot of garbage, and I mean A LOT of garbage.

Let me give you an example. I love the manga series Black Butler, but I do not want to walk into an actual bookstore and ask an actual human being to special order the latest volume for me. In fact, I don’t even want the latest volume to be physically in my apartment, which is why I buy the Kindle editions. I also read a lot of Kindle singles, some of which are so bizarre that they’re probably intended to be performance art. Like most performance art, there’s a lot of potential for misunderstanding. Can you imagine yourself going into an independent bookstore and asking, “Hi, I was wondering where you keep your chapbooks of short experimental fiction. I’m looking for I Got Pounded in the Butt by a T-Rex, could you tell me if you have it in stock?” I guessing that you don’t need any help imagining the look on the face of the English major at the till, which brings me to my next point…

Fifth, I tend to dislike independent bookstores. Don’t get me started on the snobbishness of book culture, because we will be here all day and all night and I still won’t have said everything I have to say about literary gatekeepers and their bullshit.

(I love independent comic book stores forever and always, but that’s another story for another day.)

Sixth, I don’t dislike big chain stores as much as I dislike independent bookstores, but they’re still awful. Let me tell you a short story to help explain why.

The other day I decided that it’s finally time for me to read Pride and Prejudice, so I went to a Barnes and Noble in the suburbs. The entire store was very cringe, with lots of Harry Potter and ghostwritten politician “autobiographies” everywhere. But fuck me, I’m very cringe myself, so I went straight to the super discount shelves to check out those giant glossy books about “How to Make Your Own Healing Crystals” or whatever. I was carefully studying the covers of all the garbage books no one else wanted, and I was about to pick up one of those “witchcraft in a box” packages when a store employee came up to me. She was a super cheerful teenager with bouncy blonde curls, and she asked if she could help me find anything.

I did not in fact need for her to help me figure out where Jane Austen is in their fiction section, but I couldn’t help imagining the awkward conversation we’d have if I requested that she take me there. She would ask if I’ve read the book, and I would have to tell her I haven’t. The reason I’ve never been able to get more than fifty pages into Pride and Prejudice is because Jane Austen has always struck me as a mean girl, and I don’t like the way she makes fun of Elizabeth Bennet’s mom. I’m not sure how I would explain this to the rosy-cheeked teenager, who might respond by repeating some nonsense about the book that she read on Tumblr – where there happens to be a lot of angry and impassioned Jane Austen discourse, if you can believe it.

While this awful conversation was flashing through my mind, I realized that the girl was probably ordered to approach me by one of her supervisors, who saw me concentrating intently on something no sane person would actually buy and was therefore worried that I was a shoplifter. I then got a ridiculous mental image of myself sneaking out of the store with a giant “Witchcraft for Dummies Starter Kit with Bonus Crystals” box under my shirt, which would honestly be only slightly less embarrassing than taking it up to the cash register to pay a whole $8.99 to another teenager who would have to keep a straight face while asking me if I wanted to sign up for a store card.

What I mean to say is that this girl surprised me, and I ended up replying to her offer of assistance by saying “no.” Not “no, thank you” or “no, I’m good,” or “no, but I’ll find you if I need anything.” I just said “no” and walked away. Even though it was a little rude of her to interrupt me, this dick move instantly turned me into the bad guy, because what sort of douchenozzle treats retail workers like that? I felt like such an asshole, especially when they didn’t have Pride and Prejudice on the self with the rest of the Jane Austen books and I was too embarrassed to ask where it was.

And that’s why I don’t like going into bookstores, thank you for joining me on this journey.

In conclusion, I love books, and it makes me happy to support writers and publishers, but I’m also a weird little gremlin who probably shouldn’t be allowed to go out in public. Amazon enables the full extent of my reading habit without being judgmental, and that’s why they get all my money even though they’re evil.

DC Zinefest 2019

I tabled at the DC Zinefest this past Saturday, and it was a positive experience.

I sold out of almost all of the zines, bookmarks, and stickers I brought, and I was able to use that money to buy zines from the other people tabling at the event. I love zines, and I love the subculture surrounding zines. It’s good to support other writers and artists, and it’s always nice to smile at someone and look them in the eye and tell them how much you value and appreciate their work.

The Zinefest staff were wonderful. I tend to get overwhelmed by the crowd at events like this, so it’s important for me to be able to step back and spend a few minutes in a relatively calm space. I think the people who organize DC Zinefest understand that everyone needs a quiet place, so they set aside a small, screened-off area at the back of the room where people could chill out for a bit without bothering anyone.

My experience with anime conventions has been that the staff are primarily focused on crowd control and therefore operate under the assumption that aggressive confrontation is the best way to minimize trouble. This has led to some awkward situations when I’ve given panels at anime cons, so I appreciate that the DC Zinefest staff took it for granted that everyone who participated was a responsible adult, and I’m grateful that the organizers were willing to provide simple accommodations in good faith.

This was the first time I’ve tabled at an event like this, and here are some things I learned:

– It’s good to have some sort of vertical display for your zines. I’m not a huge fan of the elaborate fortresses constructed by some of the professionals who table at anime and comic conventions, but a low-key vertical display uses space efficiently and helps catch the eyes of people casually walking through the room. I’ve seen a lot of variations of these displays, and I get the feeling that a lot of structures are made by the artists themselves. I only trust myself enough to put together Ikea furniture, so it might be worth looking into where to buy a premade display if I table at an event like this again in the future.

– It’s good to incorporate short written descriptions of each zine into your vertical display. Some people used sticky notes, some people used index cards, and some people crafted display notes by hand. They were all cute and creatively presented, and they were useful to me when I only had a limited amount of time (and money) to look at other people’s tables.

– Along with written descriptions, it’s good to rehearse at least two different elevator pitches for each zine. It’s important to design zine covers that are able to speak for themselves, of course, but it’s also important to engage the people who stop by your table. A few people asked me questions that I didn’t know how to answer, and it would have been helpful if I could have said a sentence or two about the zine as a response, even if my description didn’t directly address what they were asking.

– A lot of people who stopped by my table were a bit awkward. That’s totally understandable, since going up to an artist’s or writer’s table is an awkward situation that takes some experience to get used to. Since I can sometimes be a bit awkward myself, I think it might be good to practice a few simple conversation starters, such as “I like your shirt” or “Do you like video games?” as preparation. It sounds silly to have to practice small talk, but I found that I got better at it with each passing hour. I was downright friendly by the end of the event, which makes me think that practice and experience probably help smooth over some of the awkwardness of this particular social interaction.

– It’s good to table with a friend, or at least to have someone who can drop by for an hour or two and give you a chance to walk around and stretch your legs. The floor layout of DC Zinefest is well organized and has enough room for people of all sizes, but I still think it’s a good idea to apply for a half table (instead of a quarter table) if you have more than one or two zines. If nothing else, a half table comes an extra chair, which means that anyone who comes with you will have a place to sit if they (or you) need it.

The only slightly critical thing I have to say about this experience is that I had a bit of trouble with some attendees – all adult men – who wanted to buy something for $1.00 and insisted on paying with Venmo. If you’ve never used Venmo, it’s a money transfer service that allows smartphones to communicate via QR codes and thereby complete transactions quickly, usually within five to ten seconds. What a few people (about one per hour) did was to make a big deal about having trouble with Venmo. They would make a scene and refuse to let me direct the transaction from my end, and I got the impression that they might have been trying to pressure me into giving them what they wanted for free. I understand that sometimes money transfers can be tricky, and I understand that sometimes QR codes don’t scan, but this happened so many times that I started to suspect something bigger was going on, especially since all of these Venmo “problems” were solved immediately as soon as my male tablemate stood up, spoke to these men at eye level, and told them that they could try transferring the payment to his account instead. The idea that grown-ass men would try to use some sort of stupid “my Venmo doesn’t work” scam to get a $1.00 sticker or bookmark for free at a local zine fest makes no sense to me, but something weird was going on.

Anyway, that’s another reason why it’s good to table with a friend – so that someone can play “bad cop” if an interaction seems as if it’s heading in a difficult direction.

Those minor instances of strangeness aside, I had a fantastic time. The organizers knew what they were doing, the staff was great, my fellow tablers were lovely, and the event was a huge success. I’m truly grateful that I was able to table at the DC Zinefest this year. I met some cool people, I made some good trades, and I came home with a bag full of interesting zines. I’m looking forward to next year!

How I Got Kicked Out of High School for Being Queer

I got kicked out of high school for being queer. True story!

Content warning for institutionalized homophobia. I landed on my feet and turned out okay, but nothing about this story is pleasant or uplifting.

Because I am a smart and special snowflake, I got accepted as a scholarship student to an elite private high school, Woodward Academy. Woodward Academy is located just south of Atlanta, and it’s one of the three big private schools in the area. Unlike the other two, Woodward Academy has historically accepted students who aren’t white, so it’s relatively diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and national origin. In other areas, however, Woodward Academy was extremely conservative, and it had a “zero tolerance” policy for just about everything you can imagine. People got kicked out all the time for what basically amounted to doing normal stupid things that normal stupid kids tend to do.

It should be said, however, that officials could be bribed to look the other way by means of “donations” to the school. To give an example, there was a kid in high school whom everyone referred to as “[Name Redacted] the Date Rapist” because, well, he had a habit of inviting girls on dates after school, trapping them in his car, and raping them. His family was very wealthy, so it was the girls who came forward who were punished, not him. It’s not as if it were just him doing this, either; the environment at Woodward Academy at the time was very Brett Kavanaugh.

Anyway, I got kicked out of Woodward Academy during my junior year, a few months after I turned sixteen.

What happened is that a friend of mine had a stressful home life and smoked pot to help deal with her depression and anxiety. She was also in all Honors and AP classes, so she had to deal with that pressure as well. If you happen to be under the false impression that marijuana turns kids into academic burnouts, I want to assure you that this girl was doing very well academically. My friend was also openly bisexual and something of a leader and mentor in the fledgling LGBTQ+ community at Woodward. Under the pretense of cracking down on illegal drug use, the administration decided to force her to leave school. Again, she was doing very well academically, and it’s telling that it was her who got kicked out and not any of the kids who openly sold prescription stimulants and painkillers in the student center, openly advertised their raves, or openly did cocaine in one of the third-floor bathrooms, which we called “the cocaine bathroom” because it had a weird raised shelf above the sinks that honestly felt like it was installed for no other purpose than to make it easy to do lines of coke.

Because I was friends with this girl – and yes, because I once bought pot from her – I also got kicked out after being randomly summoned to the Dean’s Office in the middle of class in order to be subjected to a weird kangaroo court intended to induce panic and thereby pressure me into outing other students. There were a number of students in my grade whom everyone knew sold drugs; and, even though I never interacted with any of them, they were so notorious that I can still remember their full names. All of these kids came from money, and some of them are doing very well for themselves these days. It’s almost as if it’s not drug use that’s the problem, but the stigmatization of certain types of people associated with drugs in the popular imagination, right? Anyway, the dean only asked me about students who were, to put it in the language of 2019, queer or questioning. I didn’t handle this interview as well as I could have; but, to give myself credit, I quickly figured out what was happening and refused to say anything.

You may be thinking that I probably had other problems, because it’s not feasible that someone would be kicked out of school just for being suspected of being gay. It’s true that I had a difficult first year of high school, which was directly related to my own stressful home life, but I got my act together and, like my friend, was in all Honors and AP classes during my junior year. Despite enduring a ridiculously long commute, working several part-time jobs, and also managing a dysfunctional household more or less single-handedly, I got good grades and even managed to participate in a few extracurriculars and do volunteer work. Also, after my one teenage experiment with marijuana, I was obnoxiously straightedge until college. I had a wide circle of friends and was generally liked, but I didn’t hang out after school or go to parties. Instead, I would sit in the gorgeous school library and study foreign languages. In fact, it’s because I was doing so well academically that I was able to enter a top-ten school as a freshman during what should have been my senior year of high school.

In other words, I’m not the sort of person who would have been kicked out of an elite prep school for not getting good grades. What I was, however, was friendly with a lot of gay kids. We had actually started to come out and identify ourselves as LGBTQ+, which several of my friends’ parents later told me was a major topic of discussion in PTA meetings at the time. Apparently this was a problem.

I didn’t understand that I had “a gay identity” in high school, but I always knew that I was romantically attracted to people of all genders and that my sense of myself didn’t align with “male” or “female.” Romantic attraction and gender presentation wasn’t the entirety of my identity, however, and I wasn’t particularly interested in either of those issues at the time. I loved science and reading and visual art, and I really just wanted to study and do well in my classes. If you can think of a stereotype of the sort of high school student who becomes college professor, I would have been exactly what you’re envisioning. Still, even if I wasn’t aware of it, there was something about me that was “queer,” and it was apparently visible enough to become a problem for school administrators who didn’t want even one person like that in the student body.

So that’s how I got kicked out of high school for being queer.

After that, I was ostracized by my family, who refused to support me emotionally or financially. It was tough, and I had to make some awful decisions that I’m not proud of.

I want to say “it got better,” but it didn’t, not really. In order to survive, I had to pass as cisgender and straight, and I still don’t make a point of disclosing my gender and sexuality if it’s not necessary, especially within a professional context. What this has led to, unfortunately, is LGBTQ+ gatekeeping and the assumption that I’m unqualified to talk about queer identity. I’m still in a weird liminal space between presenting as straight and being openly gay, and feeling unwelcome has become my default. Having a disability doesn’t help, of course.

There’s no moral to this story, but I still think it’s important to share. If nothing else, it’s good to remember that progress is gradual, as is healing and acceptance. I may not be in a place where I can be comfortable with myself yet, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never get there.

I still love books, and now I’m a tenure-track professor in the modern languages department at a large international research university. My friend also turned out okay, and she’s now living with her wife in a beautiful part of the world and operating a legal marijuana dispensary. We’re mutuals on Instagram, and she is living her best life, which is lovely and super wholesome and filled with outdoors adventures.

In any case, I’d like to add that the issues raised in this personal anecdote have implications beyond my own life. Kids shouldn’t be kicked out of school just for being queer, and it’s important to say that the same goes for straight kids, as a lot of straight kids also have to leave high school because of their harmless sexual activity. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I’m such a strong supporter of collaboration between intersectional feminists and LGBTQ+ activism. No one should be denied the right to an education for expressing their gender or a healthy teenage sexuality!