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Entries in Lindsay Muscato (6)



This is cool - the WRITE CLUB podcast, which Lindsay Muscato, Josh Zagoren, and Annie Costakis and I have been putting out for a year just got a nice write up in the AV Club's Podmass

Check it out - give a listen. Subscribe. It's the goodness for your ear holes.

You find out all you need at the WRITE CLUB site - HERE.


Havin' a Dick, Bein' a Dick

So we live across from this college campus. It's not a prestigious institution or anything - it's the kind of place where non-ace students and first-generation immigrants and beleaguered working people go to try and claw their way up the economic ladder. As it is grassy and passably quiet, I frequently walk our dog through there. One of the students I pass with some frequency is a young Muslim woman - she has shy eyes a tentative gait, dresses in a head scarf and ankle-length dresses. Whenever we approach, she grows clearly very apprehensive - smushing up against the fence as we pass, or stepping off the sidewalk into the street to avoid being too near us.

Now - I am not sure whether her cringing away from us is cultural (laws of modesty precluding direct contact with a man unknown to her; some prohibition on contact with dogs about which I'm unaware) or personal (she's petrified of dogs, or cannot abide my bacon smell or whatever). But here's the thing: it doesn't matter. Whatever her reasons for shying away, whatever her motivation for not being cool with our placid dog and myself being near to her - these are none of my business. My obligation - as a passably decent person sharing a public walkway with her is to make every reasonable effort to accommodate her. I keep the dog on a short leash as we make our way toward her; where possible, I will turn a corner or cross the street. I have never spoken to the woman, and do not foresee that I ever will. But if she and I are to peacably coexist on this patch of territory, I can offer this small concession without hardship or inconvenience.

The other night, as part of the Chicago Community Trust's annual "On the Table" initiative, I convened a small group of Live Lit producers and performers to talk craft, the challenges of the work and producing shows on shoestring (read: "nonexistent") budgets, etc. It was on the whole a lively and worthwhile conversation among thoughtful and interesting people. It was a cool meeting about a form of work I've devoted much of my creative energy to for the last five or so years.

The next day, my partner (in WRITE CLUB, and in her venture Pixiehammer Press) sent a kind email pointing out that I'd been interrupting the women there. More than the dudes. She included a link to this piece about what is apparently a widespread dynamic.

Now - my motivations for doing so, in my subjective experience/belief, were rooted in my excitement about the topic, my addiction to inserting a joke wherever I'm able, etc. When she emailed me this gentle observation about my conduct - and that's all it was, it wasn't even a corrective or calling out or anything - my kneejerk response was something like "fuckingfuckingfuckingFUCK - I totally didn't MEAN to be a Tool of Patriarchy or whatever," and to feel peevish and defensive.

But upon reflection, the standard that must apply is the same one I try to adhere to with the young Muslim woman whom I encounter with my dog. Namely, that it doesn't matter what my motivations might be. If the effect of my conduct is oppressive - even a little bit, and only to certain of the more sensitive parties there present - then I'm in the wrong and I need to adjust. Now - can I claim that I'll pass every Bechdel test applied to my future conversations? Nope. Do I reserve the right to make fun of everything you hold dear? Yup. Will a large part of me - maybe the majority, even - continue to eye-roll at all forms of ideological purity and excess of self-seriousness? Absolutely.

However - since I am not the subject of a lifetime of getting manterrupted all the goddamn time, neither am I qualified to assess the relative validity of the phenomenon or its objectionability. I'd have to be a lady for that. And I furthermore want the world my daughter will inhabit as a grownup to be (marginally, at least) better and less fraught with avoidable forms of bullshit. Therefore, when a trusted and valued colleague who is a lady calls to my attention my own transgressions in this arena, my obligation is to pay serious heed, and - as with my dog when we're headed through campus - make reasonable accommodation.

If you're a dude, I doubt you've read this far. But if you have, then this is at you: evolving sucks. It involves sustained effort (which blows), empathy (which does not come naturally to us), and mindfulness (which - honestly - fuck that). But if you recognize the current shittiness of too goddamn much of our world - a world we are forced to share with other people very different from ourselves - then at some point, you have to acknowledge (however begrudgingly, falteringly) your own role in the shittiness. If we as a species are to diminish our prevailing shitiness, we must accept our own contribution to it and mitigate it.

Which means, essentially, quit being such a dick.


A Year Was Had

So here we find ourselves, tearing another page off the calendar.

Too goddamn many people and magazines and websites are compiling Best Of Lists and Stories That Mattered and that type of nonsense - another bid in the ongoing collective campaign to wrestle some sense out of the miasmic chaos that threatens to overtake us every damn day.

For me, it was a big year - I published my first book, which, no lie, is a dream come true. 

I wrangled more high profile gigs for WRITE CLUB - MCA, Poetry Foundation, etc.

I prevailed upon the generosity of people when I had need, and was humbled by the eager onrush of response.

I launched a cool new thing with Muscato - Pixiehammer Press, which has been fulfilling and creatively invigorating.

My son's baseball team, the Warren Park A's, snagged the league championship against all odds.

My boy has also been navigating with relative grace the clusterfuck pressure-cooker of selective enrollment high school applicaitons and testing and whatnot.

I got to see my daughter perform an original piece as part of the culminating show for the writing class she took at StoryStudio Chicago. Which was a dream come true that I'd not realized I'd had.

I continued teaching - at StoryStudio, and started at Second City. It continues to sharpen my eye and writerly voice, so I'm glad I'm doing it.

There have obviously been setbacks, as well. Medical stuff. Financial stuff. Nothing so severe that it warrants special mention, probably.

But if there was any SINGLE thing that I did this year that will stay with me more than any other, it is having marched in a protest with my wife and kids and some friends this fall. It was in the wake of the Michael Brown's shooting, and Eric Garner's video strangulation. It was a cold fall day - not the crazy, face-hurting cold of tonight - and a group of well-meaning people congregated on a corner in Andersonville. We marched down the middle of Clark St, chanting and singing. We added to our number, as passersby joined us. We hung a ragged left on Bryn Mawr, stopped in the intersection of Bryn Mawr and Ashland, stopping four lanes of traffic. The pastors nominally in the lead of this group recited a humanist prayer or two, we sang "We Shall Overcome," and proceeded south on Ashland to Foster, where we stopped to chant, pray, and sing before disbanding.

Will this experience stick with me because I believe this modest and quite orderly protest will lead to substantive change? Nope. Not even close. 

Will this comparatively puny act of civil disobedience remain in my mind because it does anything to resolve my unjust position of racial privilege, or assuage my misplaced guilt about it? Not a chance.

Will it stay with me because it makes me feel - wrongly - that I am a good person, and that others will have taken notice of my sacrificing a Saturday morning in some ennobling fashion? No.

But it WILL stick with me for the following reasons and in the following ways:

  • We brought our kids. The boy is 13, and the girl is 11. So they're just developing a sense that the world is not the just and forthright place we all hope it to be. And though their grasp of current events is slight, they have a highly developed sense of right and wrong. And when they learned of police officers killing citizens without justification, they were rightly baffled and pissed.
  • The preceding year-plus of news about official misconduct, ranging from larcenous public officials to these recent state-sanctioned street executions, was as disspiriting as it was distasteful, and the pull of disengagement and inertia - always potent - grew more seductive by the day.
  • We were doing. Something. On our feet. Out in the world. The hermetic world of the screen and the illusion of action provided by clicking and sharing and posting, with its (obvious and predictable) lack of effect, is a coagulant of the soul.
  • We were not alone. By the time we hit Foster, we were a couple hundred strong. Enough to dismantle a police state? No, obviously not. But heartening in the face of too much isolation, too long a litany of bleak news, and too great a sense of futility. We met a family of friends there, who'd also brought their kids. As we marched, passing motorists honked support.
  • We were accompanied by cops - several of whom visibly disagreed with our impulse to congregate in this fashion and create hassles for them, but all of whom showed restraint. Even the obese one with the Ditka-stache nestled in a lumpy face like blanched sausage, who looked like he was biting his tongue so hard it was bleeding.
  •  I can't sing for shit. I mostly think chanting is hokey. I'm not by nature a joiner. But I was nonetheless glad to be among a crowd containing people of every age and class, color and creed, lifting voices together, hokey though it may have been. 

My native impulse is to hug the wall, to hang back. And make fun of the ill-advised and shoddily executed parade. My default position is folded arms and shaking head, my face in repose is a decades-long eye roll. But beneath this is the conviction that we are failing each other in critical ways, that we are slaves to our fear and appetite and vanity, and that we have a vast capacity to do so, so much better. I believe - and perhaps because we have kids I must - that our ferocious ignorance is not an inevitability, that our catastrophic failures of imagination and compassion are not foregone conclusions, and that our too-frequent lapses in civility and too-fitful decency are not ironclad. I recognize that we are stupid and afraid. But I cannot succumb to the belief that this is irreversible. So, I hope to keep lacing up my boots, and, where necessary, marching against the prevailing flow of traffic.

I hope you'll do the same. 



WRITE CLUB Anthology Due in December!


WRITE CLUB - Belknap, Damned, 5/29/12

Exalted if you do, exalted if you don’t. Am I right?

No. God. Obviously.

To be exalted is to be rarified and exceptional. Subject of acclaim and regard. It is be elevated, to be inside the castle walls.

How many among us can claim to be that, to have that? None.

We are the damned. All of us.

The damned are the relegated and the cast down. The damned are the excluded and the cast aside.

Where once exaltation meant proximity to God, now, in this secular world it is proximity – or more precisely access to – money that renders us exalted; money that confers exaltation.

It is money that fortifies the castle walls; money that makes the punji sticks lining the trenches around the castle; money-gators that patrol the moats.

I cannot have inherited a position of exaltation in this world. I arrived into a family of slender means. And when I grew, I went into the arts, thereby taking an ironclad vow of poverty.

My efforts in the intervening years – acquiring skills I could sell; burnishing my credit; taking a wife; purchasing vehicles and a lawn maintenance tools; acting generally with a measure of prudence and responsibility – these efforts have proved fruitless.

The pit of poverty into which I was born has grown only more steep and shear and unforgiving.

My efforts to commandeer a spare little sliver of The Dream have come to nothing. The house we bought – a modest little thing, far from the castle walls – is a sinkhole. The wealth we aimed to build – not real wealth, not the kind of wealth that would even draw the notice of those in the castle – is reduced to ash. This shell game of the exalted has rooked us, as it always seems to.

I received this letter from within the walls of the castle, which reads in part:

Dear Homeowner,

As you may have read or heard, Residential Capital, LLC (ResCap), recently announced that it and its subsidiaries, including GMAC Mortgage, are restructuring under Chapter 11. Although you may not be familiar with our name, ResCap is the parent company of GMAC Mortgage, which services your mortgage.

…The restructuring of ResCap and GMAC Mortgage does not change your obligations as a mortgage borrower. As such, you must continue to make your scheduled mortgage payments on time and in full to the address listed on your monthly account statement.

This last in bold.

This is a cherished tactic of The Exalted.

Since The Exalted put their anthrax torpedo up the ass of the world economy, the phrase “work hard and play by the rules” has entered the lexicon with a persistence unrivaled by any since the emergence of the phrases “sex tape” and “throw under the bus”. It is the tagline of the damned. The damned are the saps, the suckers who’ve held up the whole house of cards for the past few centuries. We suit up and hit the field and take our bruises and keep playing. By the rules.

Not so The Exalted. If you’re inside the castle and the game’s not going your way, you burn the rulebook and decry it as an enemy of the free market. You burn the rulebook and execute all your opponents. And, as you stand in the acres of the slain, you pin the remaining damned with your orangey eyes and you excoriate the fallen for the idiotic temerity they showed for having stepped onto the field in the first place.

Then you plant a single sapling among the corpses and lead the quaking damned who ring the arena in a chant extolling your virtues as a champion of peace. And, to ensure ongoing compliance, you pluck a baby at random from the crowd and you eat it in full view of the trembling and grubby crowd. When the baby’s mother screams reflexively, you grab her by the ankles and beat her on a rock like river-washed laundry, as you defy the damned to stop chanting your praises.

And when you grow weary in the arena – when your soft-fingered hands ache and you wish to return to the castle – you command the damned to lift you on their bowed shoulders and carry you across the drawbridge. And they better hustle back across because that thing is going back up, and if they slide into the moat to provide an extra meal for the money gators, it is their own failing. Pick up your feet, you lazy fuckers.

The Exalted are the fixers and the deck-stackers; the chiselers and the cheats. They are the house that always wins. The Exalted own the refs and the stadium and they’ll charge you seven dollars for a hot dog. They’ll soak you for parking and skin you on convenience charges. If you make noise, they’ll throw you in the drunk tank. When you launch a website called “” they sell you the domain name, and you lease their bandwidth, and you store your data on their cloud. If you take to the streets, you gotta get your permits from them and the cops on their payroll will corral you along the route they approve. And later that day, their TV coverage of your protest will be snide and dismissive.

“So why bother?” you might be asking. “Their victory is assured. Why would you even squander your limited resources on this futility? Why put your bloody face print on this brick wall? Why punch your knuckles into fucking porridge? What’s wrong with you?”

Simple. It’s not the fallacy of ascribing to the damned a frail nobility that isn’t there. It’s not the misguided romance of throwing in with the doomed. It’s not the false hope of revenge.

It’s an allegiance – perhaps a vestigial one only – to humanity.

Because, as Dr. Cornel West tweeted earlier today:

“There's nothing wrong with being successful, with money or power. The question is -- is it connected to something bigger than you?”