What we talk about when we talk about abortion

The other night I finally had the chance to catch Obvious Child, the new film starring Jenny Slate. It's been a while since I've seen a movie in the theater but I wanted to make sure I saw this one on the big screen--not for aesthetic reasons but for political ones. I want my money to register as part of its box office take.

Obvious Child is the story of Donna, a young, struggling stand-up comedian who after getting dumped by her boyfriend has a bit of a meltdown that results in a drunken hot mess of a stand-up set followed by a drunken hot mess of a hook-up with a guy who happens to be at the club that night (but, perhaps thankfully, didn't catch her shitstorm set).

What happens next is both routine (routine, that is,  if you're a 20 or 30something female) and surprising. A few weeks later she finds out she's pregnant. Donna is shocked, horrified even, but even as she leans on her best friend for support, she's also remarkably calm about what will happen next: She'll get an abortion.

And that's when hook-up guy re-enters the picture. I'll stop my plot synopsis here. What takes place during the next 100 or so minutes of the film unfolds like some of my favorite films of late--specifically Young Adult and Frances Ha--with enough messy mistakes to make me feel as though the screenwriters had taken a page from my own life.

Which brings me back to the topic at hand: Abortion.

At its heart, Obvious Child is a modern romantic comedy, a coming of age story ripe with bodily fluid/bodily function jokes and the realization that growing up is really goddamned difficult.

But of course the reason this film, which stars two relatively not-very-famous actors, has received widespread attention because of this particular plot line. And even though it's not this film's end-all, be-all reason for being (really, it isn't), I'm glad it comprises such a prominent part of the storyline because it does so in a way that doesn't sensationalize or stigmatize it.

Rather, it just is.

Here, this act is simply part of a young woman's life--her experience--and watching the film, it's very clear that it's an act that will neither define her nor drastically change her. That's not to say that she's not extremely affected by it--she is--but it's hardly going to ruin her.

It's about time a movie like this existed. Hell, it's about time the topic was broached at all. In the 70s and early 80s the entertainment industry wasn't so afraid to tackle it (see: Maude, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, et al.)

In recent years, however, abortion's become such an openly divisive topic, politically speaking, that it seems to have all but vanished from the modern pop culture canon. Even in a movie like Knocked Up, it was reduced to the comically dreadful concept of  "smashmortion".

Are we really such cowards?

Yes, apparently we are. NBC refused to air an ad for Obvious Child; the network's head Bob Greenblatt explained during a Television Critics Association Panel held this past Sunday that his network did not have an "ironclad policy" on the use of the word "abortion". Still, according to the Hollywood Reporter, he admitted that the decision came about out of a fear of controversy.

"The sales group chose the path of least resistance," Greenblatt told the group. "They chose the ad that did not have [the word abortion] in it."

In TV and film--where depictions of murder, rape, mayhem and other forms of violence and assault are rampant--the subject of abortion has become more taboo than it was three decades ago. It's more taboo than it was four decades ago.

In June, Feministing published a smart piece on the subject: "How pop culture reinforces abortion stigma--and can help end it." (The piece is part of a joint reporting project on reproductive rights in pop culture that includes work from Feministing, Bitch Media and Making Contact).

The writer, who uses the release of Obvious Child as a jumping off point ("Obvious Child" ... has been variously called “honest,” “realistic,” “unapologetic,” and “positive.” My own preferred adjective is “normal”), points out the disconnect between pop culture's depiction of abortion and reality:

The ways that pop culture has reinforced abortion stigma extend beyond just the visibility—or lack thereof—of the choice. A recent census by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco—the first comprehensive, quantitative look at abortion storylines in TV and film—tallied over 300 plot lines in which a character considered an abortion between 1916 and 2013, including 87 on primetime network television. Given how common the procedure is in real life—not to mention how frequently totally uncommon things happen in Hollywood—that’s a small number, but it’s not nothing.

Which brings us back to Maude and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

In 1972, the TV character Maude (portrayed by Bea Arthur), finds herself pregnant at age 47. Abortion wasn't legal on in the U.S. as a whole in 1972 but it was legal in New York (in 1973 Roe v. Wade struck down all remaining state laws banning abortion) and eventually Maude decided with her partner to terminate the pregnancy.

Ten years later the film Fast Times at Ridgement High depicted a 15-year-old character, Stacy, (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who decides to get an abortion after having sex with an older man.

Both of these are examples of pop culture representations that do not shame, stigmatize or even make a victim of the women who makes the decision. Sure, Stacy doesn't want to tell her parents--which in and of itself suggests a personal stigmatization. Or not. It also suggests being 15 and trying to find your way in the world even as you clash with your parents (who alternately can be your closest allies and worst enemies).

Abortion is something that make for such a range of emotions--I know, because I've had one. And it's something I didn't want to talk about or admit for a long, long time. Not so much because I was ashamed. And not necessarily because I worried about the shame or stigma it might invite (although, certainly knowing how devisive of a topic it is, that was part of it). No, largely it was because that range of emotions is so complex. It's intense. It's extremely personal. You don't necessarily want to invite people to prod and probe at your body and your decisions and personal reasonings.

In recent years however as certain states have worked very, very hard to strip women of their basic reproductive rights, I've realized how important it is for me to step outside of my personal comfort zone of information and speak up.

Women get abortions--it's a fundamental necessity. In 2009, the Center for Disease Control reported 784,507 abortions (the last year for which numbers are available). In contrast, I've seen many conflicting numbers on closures, but one number shows that between 2010-2013, it's been reported that 52 abortion clinics shut down across the United States, largely in Southern states.

Clearly, now is the time to talk about abortion. It is time to talk about it in candid terms that are inclusive of women in all states and across all ethnicities and economic groups (Obvious Child addresses the latter--Donna initially doesn't have the $500 to pay for the procedure).

Clearly now is the time to continue talking about reproductive rights, and loudly. After all, the Supreme Court recently ruled that "closely held" companies such as Hobby Lobby have the right to decline coverage for birth control rights if it conflicts with the company's collective (and, I guess, closely held) religious beliefs.

Obvious Child isn't a perfect film (I wish it had been longer and thus developed a few of the storylines more concretely) but it's perfect for these times and this conversation: It's a pro-choice, feminist film that includes abortion as part of its storyline in a smart, clear-eyed, non-hysterical manner.

Pop culture could use more such representation.

Seconds from flight...

Really, I don't even know where to begin with this one because, typical me, emotions are running high. But in the best way possible.

It's hard to believe but it's been nearly nine months since the last time Arts & Leisure last played. Or maybe it's been more than nine months--who knows, it's been long enough to incubate a human child so, essentially, it's been a lifetime.

The last show was at this art gallery on Del Paso Boulevard. Or maybe it was that Knockoffs show at Old Ironsides. Honestly, I can't remember because it's been that long. And, also, because so much has happened and changed in the time since.

Before that last show the band was on something of a roll. They'd just released an awesome album (sure I'm biased, but I'm not the only one who thought so). They made a fun video and they even got a song on a TV show.

Of course, the biggest adventure up to that point had been the band's mini tour of the U.K. and Belgium, for which I got to tag along as the merch girl--maybe my favorite job ever in the history of jobs. No joke. 

So many shows, so many pubs, so many castles, so many good times, so many new friends. So much potential for new adventures.

Not too long after our return from Europe and those last two Sacramento shows however, the band's drummer Tim White was in a really serious accident.

I'm not going to go into all the details here. It's not my story to tell and, besides, so many of you know it anyway.

What I will say, however, is that it shook all of us to the core. The absolute, goddamned core.

Suddenly the music and adventures didn't matter quite so much. Nothing does when you realize you could have lost someone you care deeply about (and I'm writing about this solely from my perspective; I would not dare to presume how it made anyone else feel--although it's fairly safe to say that, for some people, this was all worse in a way that I hope to never ever experience first-hand). 

Albums, tours, reviews, TV shows. None of that really matters when you're forced to confront your own mortality and very sense of self with the cold, hard facts of life and its cruel indifferences to those things that you hold so very, very dear. 

For a while after the accident I didn't want to go out much. Rather, I just wanted to stay holed up in my safe bubble with my closest friends. Everything else felt too tricky and I felt too much of an emotional mess to deal with much of anything. Worry, exhaustion and a million other feelings all at once can do that to you.

But here we are nine months(ish) later and Arts & Leisure is getting ready to play its first show in what rightly feels like forever.

I'm so excited for this that I can barely stand it. Sure I just said all that stuff about how facing mortality makes you feel like nothing else matters but c'mon, let's get real: It's going to feel really good to stand there and watch the band play again. A tiny shifting of the cosmos as the universe balances itself just ever so slightly in favor of the "before" in this 'before and after' story.

Which is all just a really long and convoluted way of me telling you that the show is this Thursday, May 22 at Witch Room (1815 19th Street). The Mechanical Bride, the Zebras, Imaginary Pants (featuring Rose Melberg!) and Monnone Alone also play. The doors open at 7 p.m. with a deejay set via Scott Miller (from the English Singles) and Roger Carpio and the live music starts promptly at 8 p.m. The whole thing is 18-and-over and costs $6 at the door.

I plan to enjoy the hell out of this show. I plan to drink beer and celebrate and sing along. There may be a hangover involved (but no driving under the influence of course, because: obviously).

Hope to see at least a few of you there. because if this post is ultimately about anything, it's about how much I love the friends who make up my life.


*Top, really good photo, by Juju Faith.

**Other, really blurry photo by me (slightly drunk probably) at Patine in Antwerp, Belgium.

Anxiety, three ways

The Halloween show was last night--a million bands stretching into the night, hundreds of people crammed into what once seemed like a generous space until the room was filled with a palpable, heated force field of body odor and sweat.

So yeah, it was a lot of fun. There was beer and there were friends and there was awesome music. My favorites were TLC (not just for obvious reasons of bias--the ladies killed it on this one), Queen, Beach Boys, B-52s, Gram Parsons and Stereolab.

I'm probably leaving out a few other favorites but lots of beer was consumed and even though most of it was Pabst and Miller High Life, that still has noticeable impact on the memory portion of the brain cells.

Fun, but also an excuse for my anxiety to come out to play. Because: Lots and lots of people + social setting = ugh.

It's weird, really. For my job--both of them--I am forced to be a social, un-weirdo. I must be outgoing, I must initiate conversations, I must act normal. And I think that, for the most part, I do. I feel comfortable, mostly, doing interviews with complete strangers. I feel comfortable, mostly, speaking in front of a class. Although maybe the more important point here is by "mostly" I mean that there is always the moment before the interview starts or before I start the class that I feel nervous, scared, dreading everything. And then I take a deep breath and push forward.

When it comes to personal social situations, however, it is not necessarily that easy.

Rather, I'm pretty damn good at talking myself out of going out because I. Just. Cannot. Deal.

I hate that about myself. I hate that i get nervous and tongue-tied and that I worry about what other people think of me and how I look--and well, you get it. Put me in certain social situations and I suddenly turn into an awkward 8th grader with zero confidence. An awkward 8th grader who'd rather just stay home and read or watch Parks and Rec while drinking a whiskey on the rocks.

But I can't do that. At least not all the time. I'm not quite ready to descend fully into crazy cat lady mode. I want to give it all the old college try so I push myself out there. Besides, sometimes anxiety just feels so damn self-indulgent, narcissistic and futile. (Stop swearing at me Internet, I know anxiety isn't those things. I'm just saying that sometimes it makes me feel stupid. And silly. Hey vicious circle, how ya been?)

Recently at a party I found myself slipping into a black hole of self-doubt

The night was in full swing and I'd been doing OK but suddenly I found myself standing alone and with that came feelings of self-doubt and shitty thoughts: No one likes me. I'm stupid. This is horrible. How did I even end up here?

As the feelings crept around me like a suffocating ether, I made my way to the bathroom and sat down on the edge of the tub.

Somehow--the anti-depressants maybe?--I decided I had three choices:

  • Get the fuck outta dodge and go home already
  • Drink another drink and, thus, drink myself into having more fun
  • Allow myself to wallow, briefly, and then carry the fuck on already

I chose the third option. 

You can sit here for two minutes, I told myself. And you can feel all the feelings and then you have to get up and go back out there and talk to someone.

And so I did. I sat there and felt stupid feelings and thought stupid, irrational thoughts. And then I stood up and looked in the mirror and took a couple of deep breaths and then rejoined the party.

I did not get another drink--well not right away anyway--but rather I walked up to a small group of people and the people in the group seemed genuinely glad to see me and I felt my heart swell just a bit and, also, a sense of relief wash over me. (And for the record, there have been points in my life for which the above remedies--all of them--are completely ineffective. And so, yes, I have prescription for Xanax but I haven't taken one of those pills in about two years. So I count myself lucky there for the time being. But sometimes it's the only real, if temporary, fix. Right now I'm at a point in which I'm exploring other paths to not freaking out).

God help me it's not always that easy of course. Sometimes option one is the premier option of choice. Sometimes it's option two--I am a very social drinker. Give me a few drinks and I'm the friendliest, most chill person in the room. Which, of course, is likely not true but that's what my drunken brain likes to tell me.

But back to last night at the Halloween show. The same darkness, the same options. It didn't help that some of my serious anxiety triggers were especially sharp. You know what sucks? Trying to have a conversation with someone and having that person act as if you are the nerdiest three-headed monster idiot from outerspace. I'm pretty sure I wasn't imagining that. OK, maybe a little? Who knows. Whatever.

I wish I could tell you I whole-heartedly chose option three again. Instead, I worked on a mash-up of all three choices. Hiding in plain sight in the back room, grabbing another watery Pabst and trying, in earnest, to think my way through the thoughts.

It's a process, I guess.  A life-long one. I've always felt more than a little bit like Allison Reynolds before the makeover and Judd Nelson. And here's a mind-blowing truth: All the makeovers in the world wouldn't make Ally Sheedy's character suddenly feel "normal." Just wait until they finally make the sequel--you'll see. Again, it's  process. One that is lifelong.

Anyway, consider this a PSA of sorts. Next time you see me out in a crowded room looking like a deer caught in headlights, sulking alone or throwing back another drink, just know what's likely going through my head--but don't feed my inner trolls, OK please? Be kind, rewind. Or something like that.