The Little Year That Killed

Another music icon from my teens – George Michael – passed away today (in London, aged only 53) and brought the by now predictable chorus of “Fuck you, 2016” from most corners of my social media. Which, inexplicably, sent up its own backlash pointing out how it’s not the year’s fault.

Well, yes, we know that. A year is a trip around the sun, measurably, with the calendar being sort of weird and arbitrary. 2016 isn’t a sentient being hellbent on mayhem, destruction, and the kind of soul sucking grief that turn you into a husk of your former self. *ahem*

Which is a pity, really, because regardless of intent, that’s exactly what 2016 has done to me and an inordinate number of my friends and acquaintances, and we’d all really like to hold someone – anyone – accountable. Assigning some order to this chaos goes a surprisingly long way toward making it feel like we had some measure of control over this careening, runaway train that was 2016.

No, it’s not the year’s fault. Neither is a celebrity death inherently more valuable than anyone else’s. But to deny that cultural icons create space in our consciousness – and therefore leave a space when they leave – is to discount most of human history. Art shifts and reinvents; both itself and its audiences. Not every celebrity is an artist (the same may be said in reverse), but there is not a 70s or 80s child that I know whose heart didn’t break just a little when America’s Mom, Carol Brady, passed away. Of course I mean Florence Henderson, who had a long and productive career playing many different roles, but there is an entire generation for whom she was the mom they came home to after school. That, my darlings, is an intersection of arts/entertainment and culture, and like it or not, its affecting.

Glenn Frey’s music is one of the few things my mother and I agree on. Gene Wilder turned up in all the films that made me realize what a weirdo I am. Leonard Cohen was one of the greatest poets of life’s essential truths. Morely Safer and Gwen Ifil were part of the old guard of authentic journalism and their influence will be missed. Prince was the soundtrack for and Muhammed Ali was a personal hero to a vast swath of America. What the loss of these people means to their friends and family is private, but the loss of their place in the cultural pantheon is significant, and in many cases symbolic. When David Bowie passed early this year, I was already lost in my own downward spiral of grief. A marriage that had just entered the explosion phase of the slow motion crash and burn that has characterized my life since August of 2015. Losing such a huge cultural icon and influence shocked me into reflection, and forced me to confront grief.

And then there is the political circus that was 2016, and that sadly, marks the start of what promises to be a 4 year shit show of incompetence at best, and WWIII at worst. That’s if climate change doesn’t get us first. The policies and promises that just under half the voting population managed to get into office promise to make my own life a Sisyphean struggle for the next 3 years, and for many of my friends and family as well. This isn’t hyperbole, this is just a simple fact over which I have almost no control.

Taken together, the national cultural tragedies added insult to the injury that was my personal life in 2016. I have wrested what control can be wrought, and am now at least in the engineer’s seat in the aforementioned runaway train, but it can still go off the rails at any moment. I could blame the train, or the tracks, but 2016 will pass from this earth and never be seen again. It can take the brunt of our anger and blame. 2017 will bring its own challenges and celebrity deaths, but it will not be the same as 2016 and for me, that’s enough.

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Tattoos and Me

At one point in my rich teenaged fantasy life, I was convinced I wanted a tattoo of a leopard draped across my shoulders. I think this was influenced by a steady diet of Guns-n-Roses videos on MTV and a desire to shock mainstream culture with my internalized misogyny, oh-so-white sexuality. It’s embarrassing what the sheltered think of as shocking.

My first tattoo was less shocking. It’s a palm-sized sprig of Pennsylvania mountain laurel on the back of my left shoulder. When I was 18, a California girl facing the end of a year lived in the completely alien city of Philadelphia and the end of my first live-in relationship, I wanted to mark myself with a visual reminder of everything I experienced in this strange city of brotherly love that was often scarily hostile. The Liberty Bell, with its doomed crack and over-simplified symbolism would have been the obvious choice, but I went with the mountain laurel. Literally a last minute decision, made when I asked the artist what the state flower of Pennsylvania was and he looked it up in the set of shop encyclopedias because that’s how old I am – my first tattoo predates the internet. (Although you probably guessed my age by my reference to music videos on MTV.)

I sat wrong-way forward on an old chair, arms crossed along the top edge of the back and my chin digging into my forearms. My Flashdance-style shirt draped half-way down my back, I asked the artist, a thin, bearded, long-haired man I assumed to be OLD, how long he’d been tattooing. He glanced at my ID and replied, “Oh, about as long as you’ve been alive.” It’s funny to think he was probably as old as I am now. Then he turned on a buzzing like a hundred bees rehearsing an opera, placed a reassuring hand on my quivering back, and began to scar my flesh with ink. I fell down a rabbit hole of introspection and art and found myself in love.

I don’t want to credit Generation X with bringing tattoos into the mainstream (mostly because this is the internet, and as soon as I do, someone will present a thesis on why it’s not true), but some numbers claim the difference between tattooed Baby Boomers and Gen Xers is twice as much. When I was discussing my plans for the elaborate (and painful and thankfully never realized) shoulder-leopard, tattoos were still seen as counter culture, but counter culture itself was seen as a positive influence. Sailors and convicts had given way to rock stars and 70s icons and that was A-okay with us. Between Gen X and Millennials, the numbers increase yet again.

Which is not to say that tattoos are universally accepted. I happen to live in a conservative part of the country (both socially and politically), and have actually been tut-tutted by older people for my arms, which are approximately 60% covered in tattoos. It’s enough to get me second glances. Within tighter spheres of social influence, tattoos can mark me as a rebel (military wives in my age bracket), a liberal (the church crowd), an esoteric, artistic type (upper-middle-class intellectuals), or an instant member (music festivals and the Renaissance Faire). People adjust their attitudes when they notice I have large tattoos. It’s a very human thing to do. Even when they are adjusting for negative prejudice, I strangely feel closer to them – engaged in a social interaction that might have gone ignored were it not for the pictures on my skin.

What my tattoos don’t seem to do is give insight into my personality, which is ironic because I have custom, elaborate pieces that the artist and I collaborated on extensively. I chose meaningful symbols, specific colors and placement to reflect a culmination of experiences – a sort of I Am Here map for my life thus far. The selection of a tattoo artist merits its own post, but suffice it to say that trust in artistic vision is probably at the top of the list. Once the design is set, sitting in the chair and submitting to the pricking of dozens of microscopic needles piercing the skin becomes an exercise in mindfulness. Or at least it did for me. The pain I experienced was less about enduring suffering and more about perseverance during metamorphosis. The picture was already under my skin, coded in my cells – I just had to wait for it to appear. At the end of a four hour session, that waiting can get tedious, but still worth it.

I have plans for more tattoos. Ideas taking shape under the surface, waiting for their time. I have to arrive at the place before I can map it.