a word of recommendation: cringy old tunes

Every now and then, when I’m cruising through Spotify, I spot a song that takes me back. It’ll be totally unexpected; I may not have ever remembered liking this or that song independent of Spotify’s prompting. It will likely make me cringe, especially because throughout my life I have been convinced of the superiority of my own music taste. Yet the impetus to make a childhood music playlist grew with each nostalgic encounter. Finally, the urge proved too much to sit with. So, this month, I made it.

It is by no means a complete (play)list. In fact, the more music I’ve added, the more the inevitably-missing songs frustrate me. Nonetheless, I currently have 503 songs saved on a playlist named “sarah cavar childhood hits” (no caps, we’re keeping it casual). The rules regarding which songs I could add to this list are relatively simple. One, the songs in question had to have been listened to at or before age thirteen. I designate my graduation from eighth grade and beginning of high school as the arbitrary upper limit of my childhood for these purposes. Two, the songs could not simply be from a childhood artist that I liked, but rather, they must be individual songs I can remember listening to.

I have this playlist on shuffle right now and I’m going to write about whichever five songs that pop up as I’m writing this post. I leave behind “Layers” by Asobi Seksu, which provided background to my introduction. Incidentally, this group was the one that introduced me to “shoegaze” as a genre. It is also a group that scandalized my young ears when I learned its name meant “play sex” in Japanese.  Their music is as dreamy as one might hope play sex to be.

1. Onto the childhood song-shuffle. I’m now listening now to “Hero / Heroine” by Boys Like Girls. This is one of those whiny sad boy songs I rarely let myself listen to both back then and today. I didn’t yet understand the mass appeal of whiny sad boy songs, all I knew was that the particular tone of this song made me unbearably melancholic. I listened to this song on the way to my grandmother’s house lived. I stared out the window sadly, as one does in these situations. I finished the song as I am currently doing. I found myself caught up in whatever deeply emotional memories, even nostalgia, I may have had a decade ago. My stomach had dropped into sadness and wouldn’t rise. Sad boy songs suck. It should be noted that, as I finish working on this blog post almost twelve hours after beginning it, this song is still stuck in my head and continues to make the backs of my eyes feel like I’m about to cry. Well done, Boys Like Girls!

2. The song ended and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel began. I still remember most of the lyrics/historical events from this song –– I had them all memorized years ago, back before I knew what half of them meant. When Joel sings about “children of thalidomide,” I’m reminded of a particular event in fourth grade I’m still unsure of how to look at from a disability studies perspective. Ah yes, “children of thalidomide.” He just sang that as I wrote the other sentence. Anyway, I was in art class in fourth grade and (as was popular in 2009?) watching several boys in the class tuck most of their arms into their short-sleeved shirts and wave their hands around, pretending as though their arms didn’t exist. Our then-teacher scolded them harshly for making fun of children of thalidomide by stuffing their arms into their shirtsleeves. I was proud to have context for what she said. Most of my peers were confused. Had I known the infamous term “special snowflake” back then, I surely would have called her one. Present me cringes at the memory. My problematic self took home a set of her scented markers that year.

3. A middle school song is on now. “Everest” by Ra Ra Riot. I discovered Ra Ra Riot while sitting on a pink beanbag with my iPod touch, hungrily scouring iTunes for good music on which I could spend a new gift card. I was smugly satisfied that I had discovered such indie bands such as Arcade Fire, of whom I was convinced no one else had ever heard. I was devastated when “The Suburbs” received critical acclaim, convinced that my beloved “indie band” had lost all its rarity and thus all its value. Ra Ra Riot was a recommended band beneath the option to purchase an Arcade Fire album on iTunes. It had received significantly less notice; fewer reviews. Well done, Sarah! I thought to myself. One of your indie bands may have been discovered, but there will always be another for you to dig up and hoard for yourself!

4. I’m listening to “Chocolate Chips” by Zoe Boekbinder now. I discovered the Boekbinder sisters via their act Vermillion Lies. I downloaded several of their albums from Bandcamp. I was very confused as to why people liked these quirky woman singer-songwriters who half sang/half spoke along with some strange instruments which likely weren’t instruments at all. This confusion grew as I discovered both CocoRosie and Regina Spektor, both of whom I shunted into this (admittedly too-broad) category. When I was trying to add music by the Boekbinder sisters to this playlist, I was struck by 1) how little of their work had made its way from Bandcamp to Spotify and 2) how deeply I now adored their music. I’ve been listening to the Boekbinders as often, now, as I listen to their half-siblings: Tune-Yards, Superorganism, etc. If anything, to me, this quirky girl music is antithetical to the sad boy music I bemoaned in item (1). It constantly makes you wonder, “Is this music? Is she just banging pots and pans together and speak-singing along with the sound? Either way, why do I like it so much?” I just do.

5. Lastly, the song “Noise” by Tokio Hotel comes on. I had a next-door neighbor I’ll call V. V introduced me to all kinds of things; among them were Invader Zim, Tokio Hotel, and the idea of “bandom” in general. She had a cardboard cut-out of Robert Pattinson in the corner of her room. Robert stood watch as we listened to the Hot Topic hits she had downloaded on LimeWire (RIP) and I forced myself to like them. Tokio Hotel’s music often strayed into sad boy territory, but this was one of the few songs that didn’t make me feel like I was melting on the inside. “Noise” was my go-to favorite Tokio Hotel song, the one I’d bring up when making conversation with V’s friends as I stared longingly at their scene apparel and prayed for the wherewithal to someday enter my mall’s Hot Topic all by myself.

Music has an uncanny way of possessing us; at least, possessing our memories. From this Spotify adventure I find myself learning, if nothing else, that the songs from my childhood I consider to be “cringey” weren’t so in and of themselves, but rather became that way through the memories and experiences I associate with them. Each time I turn on my playlist (and a “private” listening session) I’m struck by the way the public presence of these songs, charged with memory, force me to relive what I might prefer to keep hidden.

As I conclude this piece, “Kingdom Come” by The Civil Wars comes on. It’s a good song, from the first movie in The Hunger Games series. I (age thirteen) went to the premiere with my friends. I wore a black pinstriped fedora with a white ribbon, and my prescription glasses were thick-rimmed and tortoiseshell (“geek chic”?). Although I have destroyed all photographic evidence of that time, the song remains and forces me to encounter its redeeming qualities; perhaps even the redeeming qualities of my cringey, young self (though I’m still not sure there are any). 

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revelations, revolutions, resolutions

Note: I borrowed the title for this blog post from the song, “No Light, No Light,” from Florence + The Machine’s album, Ceremonials. I use this in hot anticipation of her coming album, High as Hope. Get excited: I definitely am! Starting to listen to her music was one of the few good decisions I made while in seventh grade.

Less than one week remains of my time in Amsterdam, and about a month remains until 2018 is halfway over. With this in mind,I’ve been considering the relationship I have to [my] New Year’s Resolutions*, and, on a larger scale, my relationship with the future goals I have set for myself.

This blog post was most specifically inspired by a delightful conversation I had a couple days ago with my friend Claire, my beloved disabled comrade, student, activist, and frequent Snapchat-correspondent. She briefly visited Amsterdam from her own study abroad location, Scotland. As our conversation led to a discussion of summer plans and internship excitement, I informed her of a goal of mine that’s become more serious in the last several weeks, especially as I’ve found more time and energy to devote to writing creatively. I hadn’t before told others about this, and have scarcely told myself yet!

I would like to have a book –– a chapbook, a short novel, a little something that is probably “experimental” in form –– at least in the publishing process by the time I graduate from Mount Holyoke. A lofty goal. Goals are meaningless if they’re easy to accomplish.

I am also holding space for the possibility that my current ideas around theming and content may change completely between now and the book’s hypothetical publication; that’s simply how writing works. I’m not going to speak more on this right now (I say as I touch the nazar necklace I got in Morocco, purchased from a vendor who also sold me a beautiful postcard featuring goats in a tree). Worries about tempting fate by publicly discussing this goal aside, many who know me know I want to release my voice into the world. Although that desire will (hopefully, fingers crossed) help me toward publishing a book someday, it also fuels a separate academic struggle I’ve long experienced, and have recently begun trying to overcome.

In the fall of 2017, I found myself putting my foot in my mouth even more than usual, especially during classes. I was speaking aloud the half-formed thoughts I should have internally processed first. I also found myself having immediate emotional reactions to topics of class discussion (fine), which I would then verbalize (only occasionally fine). These were poor substitutes for legitimate, constructive instances of class participation. These “contributions” benefitted no one but myself, and even I was tiring of hearing my own voice. Between these ill-timed outbursts and the standard, academic contributions I make during class, some of which are not entirely necessary to class discussion. I have lived under the false impression that speaking more often was inherently better than not speaking, and that speaking was the only valid contribution I could make within a classroom. What’s more, I felt no need to moderate what I said and how, when, and why I said it; I presumed that if I spoke as I pleased, others could and would do the same, uninhibited by other factors. This is patently false, and to believe that every person enters a classroom –– or any discussion, for that matter –– with identical abilities, amounts of social capital, and language with which to discuss a certain topic is nonsense.

My persistent internalization of the “equal, unmoderated classroom” in which I could speak uninhibited is the result of a wider cultural problem. It is influenced by the foolishmarketplace of ideas” rhetoric that some of the libertarian right-wing are so fond of spouting. Unfortunately, it is easy to internalize such notions in a social-academic climate that implicitly and explicitly glorifies free-market capitalism. I was assigning my spoken thoughts the same arbitrary value that the capitalist assigns to paper money: paper is paper, whether it “says” one or one-thousand dollars. The exchange value of paper money is wildly different from its use value: I can buy a lot with a thousand dollars, but the 1,000-dollar bill can’t really do anything by itself. Similarly, those who view academia as a mere marketplace might support the exchanging of any idea, regardless of how malformed and misinformed might be. It might be assigned a higher value because it was spoken (in my case) by a white, American, English-speaking person who is generally successful in academic settings. However, this has no bearing on how useful my (or anyone else’s) class contribution actually is.

Does this help people? I now try to ask myself before I speak up. Is my statement fueled by compassion, or do I merely want to be correct? Do I want to clarify some point for myself and others, or just hear myself speak? If the latter is true, why don’t I just write down my thought instead of uselessly sharing it? Are people listening to me because I’ve amassed a degree of social capital that forces them to, or because what I say is genuinely useful in this setting?

Are people listening to me because I’ve amassed a degree of social capital that forces them to, or because what I say is genuinely useful in this setting?

Writing more often has already helped me tremendously in learning when and how not to speak. However, I still find myself thinking actively about the aforementioned questions; silence is not second-nature to me. Last semester, in a Feminist Disability Studies class, our professor told us something that remains with me to this day: participation is not limited to speaking in class, and indeed, sometimes participation is precisely the act of letting someone else speak, especially someone who does not do so often. This idea has informed the way I have behaved in my courses while here in Amsterdam, too. I don’t have to speak.** I can listen, and if I have something to say, I can write it down. Sometimes, a point I wanted to make several minutes prior ends up being addressed; sometimes a question I hope to ask ends up answered before I have the chance to ask it. In many ways, knowing that I can –– and often should –– listen and not speak has been freeing, although it’s an immense challenge as well.

[S]ometimes participation is precisely the act of letting someone else speak, especially someone who does not do so often.

Twinning this “real life” challenge is a recently-discovered writing goal, one that’s made itself especially apparent to me in the last several weeks. Now that I’ve published some work on outside platforms, I have found myself feeling an internal pressure to make everything I write somehow publishable. It feels like that capitalistic impulse to commodify every aspect of myself has infiltrated my relationship to words: I am unsatisfied leaving a poem in my notebook, even though I know writing for its own sake is a valuable pursuit. Along with pursuing the aforementioned goal of publishing a chapbook (or something) within the next several years, I have also committed myself to writing something everyday, something which will likely remain unpublished and unpublishable. I’ll never return to the way I wrote a decade ago, “untainted” by paying markets and calls for submissions. It’d be ludicrous to pretend as though those things didn’t exist, especially given that I am still engaging with them as a writer. But there is no way for me to understand the importance of silent listening without being able to “talk” to a blank document as much as I want; there’s no way for me to remain disciplined in my commitment to a chapbook theme unless I can release errant creative energies elsewhere.

My goals require a degree of dual consciousness in order to pursue at the same time: writing and marketing something for publication, while also consciously returning to the reason that writing is something I love and not merely something that I do. I must simultaneously cultivate my ability to listen to others and hear my own silence, but also prove to some outside source that my voice is worthy of being released to the public. In placing these goals together, I hope to somewhat detach my personal growth from my growth as a “professional.” Although the concept of “work-life balance” is a false one, it is unrealistic for me to frame each verse or sentence I write as publishable work or each word I say as worthy of flinging into an creative-academic arena. The differences between “flingable” and “unflingable” thoughts are clear.

If I were to unify all of my goals into one, perhaps it would be: my goal is to weaponize my voice without wholly commodifying it. I need to work to survive, but I also need something to live for. To an extent, the notion of turning my voice into something that can be sold is part of my present and future. But my ideas also exist absent some market, and it is possible –– even liberatory! –– to sit and be contained, to allow someone else the so-called glory of being the one to broach an idea or write an important story. To return briefly to my extended metaphor about capitalism: any perceived scarcity in stories to be written, ideas to be shared and explored, and contributions to be made…these scarcities are artificial.

At the risk of sounding clichéd*** there is absolutely no limit to the ideas that can be imagined and shared. Thus, sharing them is not and should not be a competition. I am working to divorce my goal to “publish a something” (“publish a book” is still a scary phrase to say!) from the imperative to write something that is worth a dollar amount. I will publish a something that I am proud to share, because it’s something that hasn’t been said before in quite the way I’m saying it, because I want to contribute to the canon occupied by [redacted creators who will for now remain nameless so I don’t give too much away], and because I want to reveal a possibility to readers that I can’t fully explore in the realm of academia. It will be good to be compensated; to be validated by the “Industry”. But it is my hope that learning to listen at the same time as I learn to speak my ideas into a…um…book will allow me both personal and professional growth.

 


* is that a proper noun? Who knows.

** I still talk a lot. Sometimes I say useful things, and some things may have been better unsaid. It’s a work in progress.

*** I think I’ve used that phrase enough on this blog that the phrase itself has become clichéd. Whoa!

A panoramic view of NEMO's rooftop. To the left of the image, people stand in the distance, looking out at the clear blue sky, and harbor/city buildings below us. Moving toward the right, red flowers, then pink, then orange and yellow sit in rows, and people sitting in the distance and enjoying the weather become visible.

to summer-ize

Note: It looks like I’ve properly alt-texted the header image, but let me know if the caption/alt-text description isn’t working for you. In that case, I’ll fix it as soon as possible.

Lately, I have been doing “summer things,” although it’s not exactly summer. I’ve been turning on my music or podcasts and sincerely enjoying my walks to nearby cafés, meeting with friends to talk and work together. Several days ago, a friend and I sat and people-(and dog-) watched in a park I had never before visited. Notably, that day, I was also the object of others’ people-watching: I was asked in Dutch* if I was a “boy or a girl” by a bench-sitting, middle-aged man, whose eyes took me in with a squinting suspicion. (I made no reply, instead staring for a moment in bewilderment at the multilingual cissexism I had just experienced and then continuing on my way). Yesterday, a day even better than that one because it was just a little cooler and breezier, I went with two friends to a children’s science museum in Amsterdam called the NEMO. I valiantly resisted the urge to buy a book (overpriced compared to what it would sell for at a bookstore) and a t-shirt (unnecessary and touristy) from the gift shop. Obligatory shoutout to Natalie and Nora for helping me resist my consumerist temptations and being proud of me for doing so.

We spent time on the museum’s rooftop (in the header image), which was covered in flowers which were organized by color and breed and sat in thick rows between stone indentations filled with running water. It was a busy day on the terrace, but (surprisingly) not a particularly loud one. Somehow I think all of the snaps of cameras and conversations and splashing and laughter of children in their bathing suits dispersed themselves into the breeze instead of occupying too much soundspace on the roof. Today I feel summer again: although the forecast predicted rain this afternoon, the weather is clear.

I’ve long associated summer weather with “home,” an association strongly influenced by what will be fifteen years of annual “summer vacations” from school. This feeling of “home” is accompanied by a particular collection of memories, including one of coming home from my last day of school to see the fan in the living room window, sitting in front of it, and being offered a plastic-tubed Italian Ice from the freezer. Arriving back to velvet’s apartment to open, breezy windows and a fresh, juicy pear or pair** of clementines feels an appropriate progression of that childhood memory.

At the moment, I feel homesick in the way that both longs for home and does not at all hate “here.”

At the moment, I feel homesick in the way that both longs for home and does not at all hate “here.” In fact, I like here –– the weather has been and continues to be beautiful; my free schedule allows me to read, write, and work on my research independently while also sleeping in and partaking in activities on my own terms. It’s great! But I find myself feeling similarly to the way I feel around this time when I’m at Mount Holyoke. I find myself calling my mother just to hear her voice, whereas in previous months, weeks would pass between our calls. I find myself dreaming about things I never thought I’d miss, like conversations with acquaintances I would rarely otherwise engage with.

I even miss the dewy walk to work I made on so many mornings last summer, past the series of uniformly ugly houses with plastic kids’ toys strewn around the front yard and above-ground pools in the back that neighbor my own. Past the largish patch of dirt and brown, dying grass on the corner, walled by wooden posts and plastic tape and marked by a sign as “private property, do not enter.” Across the street between the liquor store and the Taco Bell-KFC hybrid. I miss the very mainstays of my small-town, even “hick”-adjacent lifestyle that I am also so glad to have escaped. I miss the very people and things that I am also glad to have had distance from. I don’t think I’ve ever felt homesickness in such a positive, hopeful way before. The hopeful weather must be helping. To make yet another cheesy reference to my childhood, this is the weather I associate with running out and greeting at recess and promptly throwing off my coat, swinging for the first time of the year in only my t-shirt. This particular memory involves me wearing a specific polo shirt, with large color-blocks of alternating green and teal, with a small embroidered butterfly on the breast.

Some in my program, I think, feel discouraged and decidedly unfree because of the demands of their independent research or internship. I feel lucky and grateful that I don’t feel that way anymore, although the specter of a lengthy assignment due so soon overwhelmed me at first. This doubled as I acknowledged that this would be (and already is) the longest academic paper I’ve ever written (and also probably has the longest bibliography of anything I’ve ever written). Because of this, my first week of independent research time felt a bit like school in the depths of winter (particularly November; the completion of finals isn’t quite yet in sight and yet you’re feeling the weight of a semester’s exhaustion on your shoulders and you are simultaneously overworked and over-anticipating the inevitable assignment of more work) I spent time anxious and hunched over my laptop with tired, sore eyes and ears so very sick of hearing the same four recorded interviews I’m using in the project.

This is the style in which I approach work: I grind out hours early into a project as if the year is starting and there’s, I don’t know, just been a snowstorm and I’m shoveling myself out of the driveway at 6:00am***. I go in with my proverbial shovel (or laptop, in this case) and work relentlessly. My engagement in the work becomes a positive feedback loop –– I become addicted to the feeling of success, the delight and crack of energy I feel at having laid out an important point, the distinct pleasure of finding an author or journal so perfect for my bibliography, so I continue to engage and that feeling grows exponentially. I liken those to the months of frigid temperatures and numb extremities I experienced in February and some of March. I was so busy and excited and exhausted at once and all of this was reinforced by the unrelenting cold. Cold temperatures themselves have a sense of inherent activity to them: they make it so I need to be vigilant, moving, and conscious in order to survive. The warming temperatures of spring allow for a sort of passivity that winter does not. Although the weather as I began my research was not as cold as it was in February, it was significantly worse than it is now. And as it has warmed, I’ve found myself less and less “busy;” more concerned with the minutiae of my research than overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content I’m expected to turn in less than three weeks from now.

I feel just a bit like I’m on vacation at this point. It’s somewhat inconvenient to feel this way at the same time that others feel least able to to vacation-y things. But at the same time, my ability to enjoy my (not-exactly) “vacation” in a more solitary way is authentic to the experiences I’ve had almost every summer prior to this. In the morning I make coffee; maybe stay in my pajamas, maybe venture to the café. Read. Write. Work on my research and answer emails. Return. Eat at a leisurely pace. Visit with friends, sometimes; run errands; take a walk. Continue to revise and write my research paper. Come back in the cool evening and, after a hot shower, engage in some combination of fiction writing and personal reading. Read the news, hoping I can stomach whatever’s going on today. This was the way my days looked last summer, peppered with work shifts and outings. Producing this creative rhythm is as fun as actually engaging in it, making early-summer days some of the most…dare I say…lekker. When I get sick of this particular rhythm, I’ll be on a plane home. When I’m sick of my home-rhythm, I’ll have the fall semester to look forward to.

There are parts of knowing I’m leaving soon that are more bitter than sweet. I feel some frustration at myself for only recently exploring some beautiful study spots close to the apartment. I can’t help but laugh as I realize that it’s now, as I look toward leaving Amsterdam, that I can finally navigate the spaces within walking distance of the apartment and those within walking distance of SIT without Google Maps. The first time I walked from the apartment to the building where we took Dutch (different from the general SIT office building) using landmarks and common sense rather than my phone was one of our last days of Dutch class. Yesterday, when I had to take the tram to Central Station in order to get to the NEMO museum, it occurred to me that this was one of the first times –– if not the first time –– that I had used the tram without feeling intense anxiety. I think that the me that wrote about unfamiliarity several months ago would have taken the present shift as an indication that I was beginning to truly feel at home here, or something equally warm and fuzzy. I’m generally comfortable here and like the city. I’m glad to be here and even more glad to be familiar enough to enjoy it. But feeling the beginnings of summer here has led me to an observation: I can be familiar with a place, I can enjoy it, I can even make myself comfortable there, but it doesn’t need to be my home.

I’m generally comfortable here and like the city. I’m glad to be here and even more glad to be familiar enough to enjoy it. But feeling the beginnings of summer here has led me to an observation: I can be familiar with a place, I can enjoy it, I can even make myself comfortable there, but it doesn’t need to be my home.

I think I wrote previously on how I (ironically) tend to fall into the trap of thinking in binaries. I’ve learned recently that one binary I put faith in was that between Home (a comforting space I knew fairly well) and Not-Home (an uncomfortable space I do not know well). I was approaching Amsterdam like the guy on the bench who openly asked me my gender.

Are you Home or Not-Home, Amsterdam? Am I allowed to feel familiar, comfortable, and homesick at the same time? Amsterdam looks back at me with the silent bewilderment and disappointed humor with which I looked at that man. So, in this between-spring-and-summer weather, in this not-quite vacation period that feels quite like it, in this space of simultaneous homesickness and pleasure; of familiarity and distance…I sit. Troubling binaries, as per usual.


*I was pretty proud of myself to have understood this, given how bad I am at Dutch in general.

**The latest story I’ve been working on involves subtle wordplay, not the har-har punny kind I use to annoy/endear myself to others, but the kind that makes good quality poetry and prose fun to read, like a puzzle of words it’s satisfying to snap in place. It’s not like I’m good at this, but I do enjoy having fun with language without immaturely nudging-and-winking every time.

***To further expose myself as a weak, sensitive noodle of a(n aspiring) writer-academic, I’ll admit this: I’ve never actually shoveled a driveway.

hey, you!

I’ll be flying home exactly one month from today. At the moment, of course, I’m glad to be here and not there –– after all, it’s been in the 60ºs F in Amsterdam these past few days, whereas I hear it’s down in the 40ºs F back home. Spring is here; I’ve traded classes for independent research; I can sleep in and make my own schedule. I’ve explored several cafés, and as I sit in one now, podcast on, laptop out and iced coffee next to me, I feel a little like I’m in Thirsty Mind. If I squint. And if I ignore that, unlike an American café, the one I’m currently sitting in would be happy to serve me a completely legal glass of wine.

Most of this month will be devoted to my independent research project, with a significant portion of the remaining time going into my own reading and writing (and hopefully catching up on rapidly-building store of unaddressed social media notifications). Either way, I am looking forward to –– and already enjoying! –– my present situation of increased anonymity. All of a sudden, I’m not (always) the foolish American tourist, staring bug-eyed at my surroundings: this area, at least, has become a familiar neighborhood. I’m not a member of an obnoxious, English-speaking mass of college students following behind an apologetic pair of guides. I’m not the top-left corner of every assignment I type and submit, I’m not a hand raised in class, I’m not the object of someone’s address if I don’t want to be. It’s a great relief not to be trapped in the same rooms in the same office space on the same street, five days a week. Frankly, it’s liberating not to be spoken to so much.

I’m not sure how to cleanly segue from those opening paragraphs to my central topic, so I’ll just lead in with an anecdote. In one of our group’s last Dutch classes, the professor mistakenly called me “Charlie.” I looked at him for a moment after he said that, and in that moment he smacked his face and said, “Sarah!” The whole room laughed, including me. It was actually a pretty mundane experience: I forget or mix up peoples’ names all the time, and am especially understanding when others do it because I’m awful at remembering names. But the experience of having been accidentally called a name significantly more androgynous than my own was significant in that it was guilt-inducingly titillating. The laughter quieted and I asked a couple of times to the group at large, to no concrete response: “Charlie? Do I look like a Charlie? Do I look like someone whose name is Charlie? Does it suit me?”

After class, my friend asked me if I was “okay” and I was surprised at the question. Given that I hadn’t been misgendered (not in that instance, anyway) or deadnamed (I’m Sarah and always have been) I was confused as to why I wouldn’t have been okay. I’m not going to try to parrot the whole conversation we had (one that I hope continues, Mia, if you’re reading this!) but I did tell them this: “I mean, maybe if he would have called me a…a ‘girl name,’ (you know) I might have been hurt, but, you know…”

You know? I know. I know that, instead of speaking directly about gender and womanhood and once-girlhood and Sarahness*, I make so many euphemisms that I barely understand myself. Truthfully, whenever I am identified, I’m placed in the shadow of my name (and also with the girlhood I used to live). Sarah isn’t one of those “girly things” I can escape with hormones or surgery or a shaved head or boys’ clothes. I remember frustratedly covering up my name tag at my place of work last summer, not because my name itself caused me pain but rather because I did not want to be marked as a woman when I would otherwise have been seen as ambiguous.

And then there are the pressures and expectations placed upon me precisely because I move through trans and gender-nonconforming spaces. This has increased in the past year, since I began an on-and-off relationship with varying dosages of testosterone and since I began seriously pursuing a bilateral mastectomy with ultimate success. When I am insistently asked for my preferred name, I feel a sense of violation that it’s hard to articulate in words. It is as if I am being told that I could be trans, if only it weren’t for that pesky, girly name. What do they expect, “Sam”? It seems the most convenient. When I was in fourth grade, I distinctly remember having a conversation with my then-friend about what our names would be “if we were boys.” Her name was easily masculinizable. Mine was not. We both found that irritating.

Irritating, too, is having to think fast in the minutes before top surgery. I get up to pee one last time. A nurse asks, “Sarah? Have you thought about your new name yet?” I say, heart pounding, “Not yet.” I mean: I have been waiting so fucking long to get these things sawed off of my chest and you had better not see through this boldfaced lie and deny it to me now.

Unlike the breasts, my name is still attached to me, and I quite like it there. What I don’t like is, as I previously mentioned, the marking that comes with it. It is a reality that, under patriarchy, women are marked; men are the genderless “blank slate.” This is why we have both “astronauts” and “woman astronauts.” However, this marking is why I stubbornly cling to “Sarah” and don’t intend to quit. Charlie is a name that I think suits me (better than “Sam” does, anyway) and maybe I’ll even try it out at a Starbucks or two, plunging my chin deep into my high-buttoned flannel, widening my stance. Pulling the dude-ish affect. But to me, my name is a reverent acknowledgement of the womxn** who are both my personal and my political priority. It’s a token of my appreciation to my parents, who have named and nicknamed and loved me with “(Sar)ah”. When I say the name, the word, Sarah, I feel like the sun finding its place in the center of some landscape painting. I have never felt so attached to my name than I have since I “came out” as “openly” trans, whatever that means.

I’ll admit that I went through a brief identity crisis in the days following the Charlie incident –– do I want strangers to call me Charlie? Do I want to change my name altogether? Names are unique identifiers, as important to the people doing the addressing as those being addressed. Others’ investment in my supposed womanhood when I’m “Sarah” and in the supposed necessity of some name change when I’m “Trans Person” illustrate just how much more important my name is to everyone other than myself. If, at this moment, I were to relinquish my autonomy and take up “Sam” or “Charlie,” I would be violating my own personal desires and convictions. I might be (mis)interpellated as a Sarah-woman or as a non-Sarah-non-woman, but these are and will remain false ascriptions that are a result of an oppressive system of gender. My choices are not simply “be a girl with a girl name” or “be a trans with a trans name.”  After all, that’s a binary. We all know binaries are rigid and oppressive. C’mon, we’ve been over this!

Unfortunately, I’m not going to spew those preceding paragraphs at every person who makes some name-related false assumption about me. Plus, there is so much more I have yet to unpack regarding my name, gender, and personal identity that couldn’t possibly fit into one or many blog post(s). Luckily, this month, I can be a researcher. I might be anonymizing my subjects, but I am also becoming a bit more anonymous: suddenly, I’m a person behind a laptop, and not always a name on a roster or a person introducing themself to a stranger. I’m still here and I’m still Sarah, but this will hopefully be a month of increased alone-time, my last Amsterdam-hurrah, when I can be trans Sarah without contestation.


*Instead of that phrase, I initially wanted to write “this sort of thing” and then I came to my senses.

**Non-men? People of an oppressed class under patriarchy? The nebulously-gendered contingent of people who get nervous going out at night? There’s no good term to refer to the group of people I’m trying to refer to, but those who do fall into that category tend to know they (we) belong to it.

*** Interpellation / Misinterpellation are Louis Althusser’s terms. Here’s a good (and dense) reading about them.

dangerous discourses and trans visibility

Content Note: this post contains references to misogynistic, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and especially transmisogynistic violence of all kinds, including murder, rape, and physical abuse on these bases. There is also discussion of sex and genitalia in this article, and the mention of misogynistic language. Proceed with caution.

I’m going to talk about discursive violence and material violence. I dread these sorts of discussions, namely because I’m trans, and sensitive, and tired. I dread Trans Day of Visibility (henceforth TDoV). Last week I saw the beginning of the inevitable parade of think pieces on dead trans people, especially dead trans women of color*. Tomorrow there will be vigils. Vigils, as long as they are accompanied by action and genuine long-term remembrance and commitment to liberatory action (especially on the behalf of the well-meaning cisgender people who decide to attend), are good. Performative grief and candle-holding and a polished, solemn expression of “solidarity” that is accompanied by silence in the face of everyday transphobia, especially transmisogyny? Meaningless. Worse than meaningless; it gives the illusion of solidarity while providing nothing of substance. It makes you an empty husk of an “ally”.

I’m in a mood. I’ve been in a mood for the last eight days or so. Not only have I been battling several voices within me –– one of which wants to let me “off the hook” and assure me that I am not obligated to talk about TDoV by mere virtue of being an out trans person who writes things. But the other voices have won out, and have only been amplified since I learned of the Mount Holyoke News article “Queer Sex Event Strikes a Heteronormative Tone.” Perhaps I’m beating a dead horse; unfortunately, the existence of this article is still fairly new to me, since I’m not physically present on Mount Holyoke’s campus (specifically the MHN newsroom). Either way, I’m going to talk about the article, and about discursive violence, and about real violence. Hopefully you can “remember” the connections between those things tomorrow, in between your performative social media posts and your candlelight vigil appointments. Let’s begin.

The author, Maddy Ritter, is correct in saying that most of the “queer” sex happening at Mount Holyoke is happening between people with vulvas. There is no acknowledgement, however, of the cultures of transmisogyny that lead to so few trans women and transfeminine people coming to historically women’s colleges in the first place. Given students’ (myself included) collective negative reaction to seeing (those who appear to be) men on campus, some of this should be obvious. If we consider the imagined sacredness and purity of the womens’ college (interestingly, “historically” is often dropped here) campus, free of “scary males,” we can come again to the conclusion that this is not a safe social space to be a trans woman. What of the “pre-op” or “pre-everything” trans woman? Given the regular erasure of AFAB trans students at Mount Holyoke (sure, our “cute” little “self-identities” and pronouns can be on our orientation stickers, but c’mon! We’re all basically women, right? Right?) I can only imagine the reaction to a trans woman who did not adhere to certain idea(l)s of femininity. Not to mention, the non-out trans woman would likely not even be able to apply to Mount Holyoke or other HWCs by mere virtue of her closetedness.

Unfortunately, Ritter’s subsequent associations between “vulva-havers-who-like-other-vulvas” and “queer women” are also incorrect in their myopia. There are plenty of people at Mount Holyoke who are not part of that demographic, but I’ll use myself as an example: I’m neither “queer” nor am I a “woman”. I’m a nonbinary butch lesbian. Although I find myself exclusively attracted to womxn**, I’m not about to locate the source of my attraction to them in a body part. To do this would be objectificatory. Women are more than the sum of their (body) parts, including (and especially) the ones most commonly associated with sex.

Furthermore, Ritter asserts that she will “never need to use that skill [of putting on a condom]” that was taught at the workshop, by virtue of her gay womanhood. Her implication that condom education is somehow as heteronormative as your average high school health class is not only transmisogynistic but also far too vague, as she does not distinguish between types of condoms in her critique. A condom for a penis is not the only type of condom to exist, and it is essential that more people with vulvas speak openly about internal condom usage. She also correlates condom lessons with what she terms “the same old penis-in-vagina sex,” and with the aforementioned health classes. This ignores not only that practitioners of “the same old PIV sex” entitled to information as to safe sexual practices in queer sex workshops, but also, that human beings of all genders have anuses that can be sexually useful, and that it’s likely that if a penis is entering one’s anus, that penis should wear a condom. This is a doubly poignant point within the larger “queer community,” still reeling from a HIV/AIDS crisis that fueled increased attention to the importance of protected sex. This is the same crisis that disproportionately struck and strikes not only men who have sex with men, but also trans women. Especially those of color.

If this sexual health workshop lacked lessons on the usage of dental dams and the like, that is an important critique to be noted. What could be useful, constructive criticism (both on the possible inaccuracy of the terminology used for internal/external genitalia and the possible lack of diversity in condom education) appear to be smokescreens for transmisogyny, namely through im/explicit statements of womanhood’s location in the vulva, and sex between “queer women” as inherently located in interaction between vulvas.

So, what does this have to do with violence, specifically? Material violence against trans women continues to exist not simply because humans are violent and trans women “happen” to be the targets of violence. It is because a long cultural, historical precedent of biological essentialism and the militant policing of womens’ bodies have made them a target. Much as with other standards of beauty women are expected to fulfill –– thinness, strictly-controlled sexual un/availability; pale, smooth skin enhanced by the requisite makeup regimen; “respectable and professional” clothing that still does not threaten the authority of the man –– the possession of a (hairless, “normal-looking”) vulva becomes another means by which some women can be deemed conditionally acceptable, and others can be punished. Many readers may have had the experience of being a “disobedient woman” and thus becoming a “whore” or a “[fat/ugly] bitch” or a “slut”. Sometimes, these labels come with immediate consequences, including social ostracism and physical / sexual violence. So too with women who are of marginalized sexualities, as we are all aware. There is an inherent ugliness (especially for gender-nonconforming women, especially those who are lesbians) or fakeness (toward those do not appear “queer enough”) or sexual availability (toward bisexual women in particular) projected upon those of marginalized sexualities which directly inform the degrees and types of violence these women face.

Trans women, of course, experience this, too. In a magnified way. It is not exclusive to the cis women who inevitably take center stage in discussions of lesbophobic and biphobic violence against women. In fact, many of these the “feminists” who claim to oppose violence against women paint trans women not as vulnerable to violence, but as pathologically predatory toward cisgender women. This is a stereotype that not only draws divisions between women (who could be acting in solidarity against the threat of rape and other forms of violence, most often by men) but also pushes trans women squarely into the “perpetrator” role of the perp/victim binary, and thus erases their disproportionate victimhood. In a world ruled by binaries, the assertion of the inherent “queerness” of sex between vulvas is a silent assertion of the inherent “straightness” of PIV sex.

The assertion that trans women may not be included within this category of “queer women” is a silent affirmation of the sexgender binary. The exclusion of trans women from the category of “[queer, if applicable] women” allows the continuation of a dangerous ignorance even/especially among so-called feminists, of the threats trans women (as WOMEN) face on a daily basis. It allows some supporters of anti-rape and anti-violence campaigns to ignore the social markedness of trans womens’ bodies and the subsequent higher rate of abuse directed at them, especially gender non-conforming trans women of color. In the case of a health course, it allows queer people to ignore the presence of trans women in our sexual and social communities and place less importance on both their sexual health and their experience of sexual pleasure.

As I hope I’ve indicated, violence against trans women occurs on a number of levels: there is the discursive violence of erasure, cisnormativity, and biological essentialism that appears at first to be nonviolent because it appears not in a punch or kick, but on the page of a newspaper. Then there are the murders and other acts that emerge and continue in that ideological atmosphere of erasure, cisnormativity, and biological essentialism. All expressions of ideology have consequences, and no article, no political or social position, no articulation of one’s own identity exists in a vacuum. I’d encourage all of us to remember this truth on TDoV, while we also remember (descriptions of graphic violence at the link):

Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien.
Viccky Gutierrez.
Tonya Harvey.
Celine Walker.
Phylicia Mitchell.
Zakaria Fry.
Amia Tyrae Berryman.

And the others who remain unknown, unnamed, unclaimed. Rest in power.

Words, articles, and “mere” statements by individuals may not feel as though they have an ideological ripple effect, but they do. Remember today, tomorrow, forever that any contribution to transmisogynistic discourses reifies social forces that get real human beings isolated, abused, and sometimes murdered. Truly seeing trans women requires an understanding of these forces and a commitment to dismantling them.


* Who benefit less than white / transmasculine people from mainstream trans activism, are more frequently exposed to graphic violence against people like themselves in the media, and also tend to contribute more intellectual, physical, and emotional labor to the cause than their counterparts.

**For lack of a better encompassing term.

the word “march” has many meanings

I was surprised to see Uncle Sam at the Amsterdam “March for Our Lives” solidarity gathering. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been –– the dry, dying grass of our crumbling imperialist hellscape is always greener from Europe, right? For expats, I can only assume this to be even truer –– I suppose, after years away from “home,” it can become easy to confuse a longing for Target’s welcoming bullseye with the desire to to get emotional about the Declaration of Independence. Or something. Or, perhaps, I’m still giving them too much credit.

So, the March –– which, for the record, was not actually a march but a gathering in a park adjacent to the U.S. Consulate building –– took place on Saturday the 24th of March, as others around the world did the same. I was, and am, glad I went: it was heartening to see the proportion of people under eighteen who were there rivaling overall adult turnout. Most of the speakers were teenagers; all are praiseworthy for their courage and eloquence, particularly a blonde fourteen-year-old who I could only describe (at the risk of sounding glib) as “spunky.” Needless to say, she sported a denim vest, assorted pin-back buttons adorning the front, over her “March for Our Lives” t-shirt.

Cool teenagers aside, one of the organizers –– a trim white woman in her fifties who had the look of someone who hand-knitted pussy hats and worshipped at the altar of Elizabeth Warren* –– helped my brief experience at the gathering to be disappointing from the start. She went up to the mic at around 2:00, the scheduled start time. She thanked the police for “protecting the people” and “making sure everyone had a safe protest experience.” She then encouraged American expat attendees to sign up to vote, at which time they could also pose for pictures with the aforementioned Uncle Sam character.

An adult speaker whose speech closely followed this woman’s used “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as its centerpiece. Most ironically, in addition to the Declaration of Independence, she took the Constitution as American gospel. The Constitution is, has been, and will continue to be demonstrably complicit in the U.S.’s colonialist, white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchial (yadda, yadda, you all know the rest) order. Although it appears to be a misconception that the Second Amendment was ratified solely to permit the existence of slave patrols, it was still an amendment that applied only to adult, property-owning, white men. It was still phrased in a way that did not permit individual black people to own firearms. It is still conveniently abandoned by “frightened” police officers when they decide to open fire on innocent black bodies; it was still only able to be restricted when the Black Panthers assembled their armed militia.

We were, after being pumped full of bizarrely patriotic rhetoric, reminded that we needed to leave the area by 3:00. There was another gathering authorized to happen at that time. I wondered if the schedule of legal, safe, non-combative protests for the day was up in someone’s office break room, right between the dirty Keurig and the recycling bin, perhaps attached to the communal refrigerator.

“Now for some chants! What’s a protest without chants?” The adults in charge of this thing seemed far too giggly given that we were protesting the U.S. government’s complicity in the murder of schoolchildren. She led us in some chants. I felt almost embarrassed –– perhaps we were doing this because of the high proportion of under-eighteens present, but I felt like I was acting out a puppet show of how to “peacefully protest” instead of actually, uh, protesting. This feeling was only amplified when we concluded our gathering, and were beckoned to a nearby hill to take a group picture that was sure to be, as the trim white woman in her fifties said, “Instagram-worthy.” I yearned for Jean Baudrillard’s counsel on all of this mess, but instead, I went for coffee with Isabel (which was delightful in it’s own right!).

This gathering, protest, whatever it was (or, laments Baudrillard, inevitably appears to be but in fact is not) evoked a number of conflicting emotions in me. My overwhelming takeaway from my hour standing in mild, 50ºF weather, cornily chanting and taking an occasional picture, was that this gathering was not necessarily empty of purpose but rather had the wrong purpose. This, I feel, can be dangerous given the number of kids that were there. Before I explain that further, I want to note that the primary happy emotion I felt throughout the rally was hope for ~the next generation~**. The sheer number of young people (particularly kids under twelve) present was heartening. Knowing that they knew what an AR-15 was when they were years from fifteen themselves made my heart seize. Seeing their energy and willingness to take time out of their day to demonstrate made it relax, just a little.

That being said, I do think that there is a danger in normalizing these (in)actions as what a protest is, and even more of a danger in framing this as what a protest should be. It would have been far more honest to call this a solidarity gathering or even a vigil, both of which are real and essential parts of grieving lives lost to politicized violence. If a protest is authorized by the authorities, who and what, exactly, are you protesting? If your protest wraps up in a timely manner so that the next scheduled event can take place, if your protest inconveniences no one, what is its purpose outside of making individuals feel more socially progressive? There was an atmosphere of faith in the American political system, despite the system (and its white male beneficiaries) being responsible for the very horrors they protested. Meanwhile, vote! Vote! Surely salvation from the present systems of power and violence lies in the system installed by powerful! My only hope is that those kids who continue to participate in this sort of thing realize the true scope of possibilities under the umbrella of “protest,” not just the G-rated kind.

I’m not going to rant anarchist-ly (that’s an adverb I’m saying is real now, because the real-fake-word-binary is socially constructed) anymore (in this post). I have several other interesting stories from the past week that I’m interested in sharing, but I’m going to keep the contents of this particular post focused on the March. All my love to the people of Florida, of Maryland, and to all those affected by gun violence who remain invisible.


*This was meant to be more observational than mocking. She fits neatly into a very specific breed of 40-60-year-old trim white women who have probably canvassed for the Democratic Party at least four times. They all have that voice, too, you know? Kind of Midwestern, a little like they’re chewing on something. In spite of myself, I find it rather comforting, in much the same way I’m sure they find their recent decision to only purchase organic fruit.

**Is nineteen old enough to start talking about the next generation? Do I get to consider “gen Z” kids as youngsters? No clue. But the spunky fourteen-year-old (b. 2004) who spoke at the gathering referred to 9/11 as a historical event in the same breath as the Vietnam War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although I (b. 1998) don’t actually remember 9/11, I still “feel old.”

whose city is it, anyway?

It smells like incense and tastes like salted black licorice. For the first time in several days, I’m comfortably warm in my homestay apartment (that isn’t a critique of my homestay parent, it is instead an acknowledgement of the coldness of Dutch homes and my own sensitivity to “extreme” temperatures) and the cat, Sexy, is cleaning itself by the fire. Last week I found myself lost in a faraway place that turned out to be a mere fifteen-minute walk from the apartment. I felt so hopeless for having had to be led home like a child, velvet walking their bike in stride with me me as I don’t ride one here, me falling over myself to apologize properly for the inconvenience. I’m not one to believe that progress happens in straight lines, but I have to say, I’m quite happy with the strides I’ve made in terms of navigation.

On Monday and Tuesday, velvet walked me about halfway to the SIT offices, in which my classes meet. At a park around which tram tracks run and through which people walk beside their untethered dogs at all hours of the day, we separated; velvet to work and me to school. After those two days, in which I managed to find my way from the park to SIT without issue, I began to make the entire walk on my own. I don’t need the basic map that velvet drew for me in red pen. I tuck my phone into my pocket during my walks to and from SIT. With a podcast on I walk on autopilot, feeling remarkably similar to the way I do white at Mount Holyoke and making my weekend treks from 1837 hall to Thirsty Mind. There was a rhythm to this week. There was comfort in the near-thoughtless way I walked to and from class. There was even a security in the way I felt my emotions, rarely feeling the overwhelming sadnesses that sat with me on my first week here.

Today I ventured away from my homestay once more. I brought my phone, on low-power mode, at 90% battery –– even though I knew I would be using data for several energy-sucking apps. A challenge to myself that I knew I may well regret. That ending to this brief paragraph gives the wrong idea as to the direction of this story, so let me say, I did not end up stranded with a dead phone.

I think that if I hadn’t attempted to transfer trams today and had instead taken trams directly to and from my desired location, I would sit here and write that I had indeed “mastered” the tram system entirely and, by extension, surmounted a number of my personal travel fears. I did transfer trams, though; in fact, I made it from the apartment to the address at which there is (allegedly) an anarchist bookstore without a mistake. Judging by the political content of the stickers adhered to a window of the building I had arrived at, I couldn’t have been at the wrong address. But the doors were locked, the windows dark and the building held no sign of life. Frustrated, I did what any good anticapitalist does when they’re feeling down, and went to the store.

Later, with my tote of miscellaneous items from the grocery store and the pharmacy, I trudged back and forth across a busy intersection, trying to determine which of the four closely-sitting tram stops was the one I was to wait at. It was first when I saw the little blue dot moving farther from “home” on Google Maps and then when a frustrated tram driver told me, “you’re going the wrong way. You also came in through the wrong door, so don’t do that again.” that I knew that my sense of direction hadn’t changed that much over the course of the week.

In the end I made it back to the apartment with 16% phone battery to spare, after taking one tram from the far stop at which I got off of the previous one, getting off that tram at a walkable distance from SIT, using Google Maps to get from that stop to SIT, and finally, relieved, conserving the last of my precious battery by turing the app off  and remembering how to walk to the apartment.  As I write this, still smelling incense and tasting a final piece of licorice, I find myself relatively comfortable. Not at home, per se, but certainly “at house.”

I was terrified of three-and-a-half months of discomfort and loneliness here in Amsterdam; I have found that my remaining 90 days here look more promising than I would have imagined. Absent outside forces encouraging me to take advantage of my access to convenient continental travel, I don’t think the thought of leaving this country would have crossed my mind at all.

From my current position it is, and has felt, so tempting to plan trips elsewhere in Europe. We are invited and even encouraged to visit other EU countries while in Amsterdam: quick, relatively cheap flights and easy entrance and exit between countries is something that I, as an American national, lack access to outside of this experience. At the moment that this thought dominates my mind, one might find me making impulse-plans, quarter-plans, and half-plans with friends and classmates. One day, I might say that I am accompanying others to Paris or Brussels. Another I suggest flying to visit Greece. I am not used to making plans that lack initiative, so another thought rapidly gains dominance inside me: I can’t, shouldn’t, and don’t want to do any of those things. I struggle and exhaust after an afternoon tram-adventure. I am still surprised everyday that this homestay is, in fact, a comfortable space for me. I was terrified of three-and-a-half months of discomfort and loneliness here in Amsterdam; I have found that my remaining 90 days here look more promising than I would have imagined. Absent outside forces encouraging me to take advantage of my access to convenient continental travel, I don’t think the thought of leaving this country would have crossed my mind at all.

My tram experience today was one that someone else might have had on their first week, or even first day, in Amsterdam. I am not that person. I am someone who enjoys traveling in a gentle way: in periods, with consistency, flanked by routine, planned in advance. Three weeks from now, my cohort will be off to Morocco for a two-week excursion that has been planned in advance, and even for that I am anxious. It will be a new place to get lost and found in, as much of Amsterdam will be even once I have been here several weeks. I can’t help but feel guilty for making and canceling recent “plans” in rapid succession. I am positive that potential weekends away from here would have elements of fun, even for me. But for now, as my classmates are off to the nearby cities I dream about visiting (and someday will, indeed, visit) I am becoming content with testing, expanding, and sometimes staying inside my Dutch comfort zone.