“The troll has it both ways. He is magnificently indifferent to social norms, which he transgresses for the lulz, yet often at the same time a vengeful punisher: both the Joker and Batman. The troll acts ‘as a self-appointed cultural critic’ in a tradition of clowns and jesters, according to Benjamin Radford, while simultaneously ‘plausibly maintaining that it’s all in good fun and shouldn’t be taken (too) seriously’. According to John Lindow’s ‘unnatural history’ of trolls, the original trolls of Scandinavian folklore punished improper behaviour and upheld social norms. If you take the behavioural code of lulz seriously and erase any commitment to social norms, what you are left with is the logic of punishment in its distilled form: if even the grieving are punishable, who isn’t? ‘None of us,’ goes the refrain, ‘is as cruel as all of us.’ It is around this principle that the most infamous trolling community forged its identity: ‘We are Anonymous, and we do not forgive.’ And what goes unforgiven is weakness.”
★★ The clouds were high and flattened, silvery-white on the morning. The black shape of an airplane acquired contour as it moved slowly from west to east. Children stayed on the playground equipment after the first summons to school had sounded. Furrows had formed in the clouds, now a solid mass, as the five-year-old waited to go to the urgent care center with his bandaged forehead. Two or three hours later, in the cold light of the hospital waiting room, he kept asking whether the day was over. By the time he was discharged, with tape over stitches, the sky was a darkening brown gray. In the dark after dinner, people coming into the building lobby or waiting by the service elevators were suddenly glazed with rain. The lights of the wreath outside shone on sheeted water.
You were sitting next to me, all of us packed tight and untalking on this E train, but I only noticed you when the handle of my umbrella got caught in your bag. It was that sort of day, a day of encumbrances, barometric headaches, chafings. A day that smelled like petrol puddles up there, and wet dog down here where bits of ourselves kept getting caught in bits of each other: big damp backpacks in faces, unsheathed umbrellas dripping down trouser legs, wet ponytails flipping against cheeks. You and I apologized to each other in unison, gave the quick smile in unison.
You had long, very red hair, and you were wearing a very purple top. This chromatic discord was striking. A bold choice, this bold color — and it was clear you were anything but: awkwardness emanated from your shoulders, elbows, knees. I had a feeling, in other words, that the color clash thing was an accident rather than a choice.
Shyly, while I pretended not to look, you began pulling from your bag something plastic-wrapped, something that made that delicious, secretive sound. My friend had just been telling me about the YouTube world of ASMR. I had rabbitholed, briefly, in this realm of women posting high-sound quality videos of themselves whispering, crinkling, rustling, and gently tapping things. Rabbitholed even longer, in the world of comments below, where people divulge their delightful tingles, sudden sleepiness, massive boners, or sudden urge “to touch everything in the most fragile manner.”
When I heard the soft rustle of the thing in your bag I have none of these urges. Instead, I realized this is how dogs must feel when they see a squirrel: for half a second, I’m nothing but a limbic system barking the monosyllable, snacks? Honestly, what could be more interesting than a stranger’s subway treat, slowly drawn from a bag? I couldn’t take my eyes away. When I saw it I wanted to shout or shake you. Your snack was an endive. One, chilly sad pale spear of an endive, withdrawn slowly from its baggie, like some miserable bit of evidence. Worse, you didn’t even chomp it. Instead, over the course of three or four stops, you plucked off one stiff petal at a time, and nibbled furtively. You were touching it, I realize, in the most fragile manner.
By the time you got off, hastily packing away your half-eaten vegetable, I no longer wanted to shake you. I think, instead, that I wanted to hug your awkward bones and give you a donut, something fat and glazed and luscious that you could eat in three big bites.
“Times figureheads like [Bill] Keller and [Liz] Spayd are apt to roll over at the first right-wing charge of rampant liberal bias because they themselves are ill-equipped to face down right-leaning challenges to their journalistic legitimacy. This is not so much because they are ensconced in their elite bubbles of liberal opinion and are terrified at the prospect of sustained contact with anyone professing to be an emissary from the Real America of NASCAR, megachurches, and Trump Worship. No, the real problem here is that these people are journalists second, and corporate managers first. And the thing that truly terrifies corporate managers in the brave new digital era of our news environment is anything resembling the defiance of consumer prerogative. Put another way: as shops like the Times continue to hemorrhage readers and ad revenues at an historic clip, their managers will rally by instinct to the ritual protection of the injured sensibilities of any and every reader demographic.
At the memorial service for Savannah’s breakout transgender star
Befitting the Grand Empress of Savannah, the Lady Chablis memorial service lasted from before dusk until well past midnight. Family and friends and fans filed into the historic Lucas Theatre in downtown Savannah on November 5th to honor the transgender performer and breakout star of the book and movie, The Midnight in the Garden of the Good and Evil. She died of pneumonia in September, at the age of fifty-nine. In the lobby, a red urn containing her ashes was flanked by four of her sequined gowns. Inside the theatre, photos and videos of her looped on the widescreen, and more than a dozen speakers told stories of a diva, a generous friend, an electric entertainer. Afterwards, Club One, the gay nightspot that was her artistic home, hosted two tribute cabarets. “From the grave, she is making me put on this last big show,” said her longtime friend Cale Hall, a co-owner of the club. “That’s fitting for her.”
Before there was “Transparent” or Laverne Cox or “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” there was the Lady Chablis. She was a black transgender performer for decades before it was accepted as it is now, which is still not nearly enough. Famed drag queen Lady Bunny, who had flown in from New York, recalled the first time she saw Chablis. It was at a gay club in Chattanooga in 1977. “I had never done drag before,” she said, her signature big blonde hair coiffed in a black mourning veil. But when she saw Chablis and another entertainer, she said, “I knew that whatever they were, that’s what I wanted to be.”
“Chablis was at the forefront,” John Berendt, author of Midnight, told the attendees. He recounted the day thirty years prior when he met Chablis in Savannah, after she invited herself into his car for a ride home. He wrote her into his runaway bestseller, which made her a star well beyond the club circuit. “She was one of the first transgender performers to win acceptance by a general audience,” he said. Afterwards, everyone had a Chablis story. People devoured the book, or they watched her steal scenes from John Cusack, or they saw her on “Oprah.” Tourists and suburbanites and bachelorette parties poured into tiny clubs to see her.
I knew Chablis because she was my childhood neighbor. My father was her landlord for nearly twenty years. He and Chablis lived in a row of aging, one-story brick houses on a block in West Columbia, South Carolina. My dad moved there after my parents’ divorce, back into the house he grew up in, where I would spend weekends and summers. Our family had long rented out the house on the corner as an income property. Throughout the 1980s, the lease had been passed down through word of mouth among a circle of lesbian couples (whom the neighbors called “roommates”) and who were mostly artists and performers at a local comedy club. Through them, the rental eventually found its way to Chablis, who lived there longer than anyone else.
My father looked like an unlikely ally: a ruddy-faced welder and pipefitter who rarely dressed in anything but blue coveralls, whereas Chablis, even in casual clothing, exuded elegance. My first clear memory of her — I was likely ten or eleven — came when I tagged along as my father fixed the plumbing under her sink. Racks of clothes filled the kitchen, stuffed with ball gowns and cat suits, full of sparkle, leopard, and faux fur. She was likely getting ready for a show, and packing up what she needed. This was right around the time the book came out, and though we knew she was a performer, we had no idea she was becoming famous. We wouldn’t know until sometime later, when Dad caught a glimpse of her on the “Today” show.
Chablis had a wicked sense of humor. She took great joy in her ability to rib my father, and most anyone, with bawdy jokes. In recent years her constant companion was a fluffy white dog — a maltipoo — who was hyper and ill-behaved and adorable. She named him Cracker. It tickled her to no end to let him run loose in her yard, and call out after him — “Cracker! Cracker!” — repeating at a loud decibel for her mostly white, grey-haired neighbors to hear. “She could defuse racial or trans tensions just by being herself, just with her humor,” Lady Bunny said at the memorial.
Her monthly cabaret shows at Club One, where she had been performing since 1988, were full of camp and glamour and wigs. But at home, I most often saw her in no make-up, with pixie-cut hair, and her corset-sized figure draped in a t-shirt. There, she was simply Brenda Dale Knox, as her friends would say, and not the stage presence of the Doll, the Empress, the Lady Chablis. When she found out I wanted to be a writer, she said I should write a book about her and call it, A Black Boy in the South Who Likes to Wear Dresses. I told her that title might be a little long. She ended up writing her own memoir, suggestively called, Hiding My Candy. But for all her gender-bending talk, she lived as a woman — a point too often missed during her media heyday.
Chablis hated labels. She defied gender essentialism, even as many reporters tried to make it an issue, labeling her derisively, and sometimes for comic effect, in headlines and copy as a “he/she.” Now it seems almost standard for the media to talk about gender non-conformity, but back then the public’s insistence on boundaries only made Chablis more apt to break them. She came to loathe the label of drag queen. “The word ‘drag’ offends me,” she once said in a newspaper interview, adding, “I live as a female.” She ultimately preferred one label, and that was her legal name: The Lady Chablis.
Movie stardom did not protect Chablis from a certain kind of peril. Then as now, renewed attention to the trans community brought with it greater awareness and understanding, but also the threat of the wrong kind of attention. “I couldn’t go to Big Lots or anywhere,” she once told a Savannah reporter. “That person behind me might be a fan but it could also be some redneck following me. Not everyone is into the Lady Chablis.” After years of living in Georgia, she moved to South Carolina, and commuted back for gigs, partly because her new city offered the anonymity that Savannah did not. “I picked West Columbia because it’s the last place anybody would expect to find me,” she quipped to our local newspaper after the book hit the bestseller list. She often talked about the movie outing her: After, strangers knew her as a “transvestite,” not as a woman they passed on the street. It made her a target.
Her health deteriorated. There are few paid sick days for club performers, and there is a notorious lack of steady work for trans people. Money came and went. For years, she paid her rent in wads of cash from her tips, until my dad drove her to the bank to open a checking account.
It would be wrong to overstate my relationship with Chablis. At its root, she and my father had a business relationship, which I inherited. She was my neighbor, and I knew her when I was a child. And when I was no longer a child, I still reverted to a shy state of awe around her. Like many others, I was lucky to have known even glimpses of her. My father died in 2012; there were medical bills and debts to pay, and his home was in foreclosure. I had to sell the little house on the corner. Chablis didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want her to go. For a long time, my father had wanted her to buy the place, but she couldn’t, and so by the end of the following year, she moved out. When I drive past now, there are tricycles and a trampoline outside. Someday, I think I will stop and knock and tell them about the people who used to live on their block, in their houses. I will tell them about The Lady Chablis.
I took for granted that there would be more time, and that I could always find her at one of her shows. I imagined a road trip to Savannah, a reunion after midnight, at the club. There would be time to tell her again how sorry I was she couldn’t stay in the corner house, how I regret how it all ended. That is, in part, how I found myself in the basement of Club One on a Saturday at the reception, where guests ordered drinks and served themselves jambalaya from the bar. Nearby sat Chablis’s sister Cynthia Ponder, the spitting image of her. At the memorial, Ponder said she believed God had a plan for her sister, that she was to give to the world something, even through the struggles. I asked her what it was like growing up in Quincy, a rural community in the Florida panhandle. “We were from a very small southern town,” she said, “but you can’t hold someone like her back from being their true self. I’ll put it like that.”
Chablis was stubbornly, exuberantly herself. There’s a magnetism about that kind of confidence, about seeing someone with such an unabashed sense of self, no matter who is watching. And watch they did. The movie and the book are still everywhere in Savannah, in hotel brochures and on the tongues of tour guides. Tourism skyrocketed for the city, and locals have John Berendt to thank. But they also owe gratitude to the cast of gay and transgender characters at the book’s center, a point that conveniently does not make its way into many official tourism talking points.
“She put Savannah on the map,” Destiny Myklz (pronounced “Michaels”) told the crowd at the Lady Chablis tribute show. Myklz emceed the Club One cabaret, which included lip synch performances from the club’s regular line-up, many of whom worked for years alongside Chablis. There was a country number to a Sugarland song, and a dance number to a Beyoncé medley. There were mile-high wigs and contour make-up. There were sequins and gowns and teensy underwear and knee-high boots. The show, as Chablis might have said of her own, “was not a Disney production.” At the end of the set, Myklz thanked the audience for helping them honor the Lady. She lifted her arm in the air and pointed her hand to the sky, saying, “This one’s for you, Doll.”
According to Reuters today, Russia is building a 1.9 billion ruble ($30 million) state-of-the-art center for the niche sport of Rock’n’Roll dancing just outside of Moscow. The center will be built with government money, which seems odd until you learn that president Vladimir Putin’s secret daughter happens to be very good at the sport.
“Secret daughter?” you might be saying. Reportedly, Putin’s youngest daughter Ekaterina has “not been seen in public since she was a child when her father first came to power 16 years ago.” But there is a Russian Rock’n’Roll dancer named Ekaterina Tikhonova who competed in the world championships back in October. When Russian news outlets asked the president if she might be his daughter going by a new last name, he declined to comment at the time, but there are non-Putin sources on record who say it’s definitely her. With me? ““““Secret””” daughter.
So anyway, Russia is spending $30 million on this new dance center, which seems like a big investment when you consider the supplies the sport requires. According to the World Rock’n’Roll Confederation, it’s a competitive type of partner-based dancing that has roots in Boogie Woogie and Lindy Hop. According to YouTube, it’s like the prom scene from Grease but longer. Here is Ekaterina dancing on a basketball court six months ago:
When a basketball court is not available, any place with a dance floor, sound system, and seating seems to meet their needs. Here are some dancers tearing it up in Western Poland during the 2014 world championships:
Ekaterina also reportedly holds “a senior position” at Moscow State University, and helps direct “a $1.7 billion plan to expand its campus.” Not to be paranoid, but is this? Starting? To sound? Like any father-daughter political duos??? In the news????? ? ? ?? Today?
Anyway, if you were waiting for a good time to take up Rock’n’Roll dancing, it appears the answer is now.
Some examples we may see in the Times in the near future
Bias incidents on both sides have been reported. A student walking near campus was threatened with being lit on fire because she wore a hijab. Other students were accused of being racist for supporting Mr. Trump, according to a campuswide message from Mark Schlissel, the university’s president.
1. People described 2016 as being a time of great upheaval. One woman, a refugee from a long, bloody civil war, reported arriving on dry land after days in a crowded raft at sea. “When I had the first sip of water I’d had in three days, I felt like I was walking into the gates of heaven,” she said. Another woman, halfway across the globe, sat in her kitchen, shaking her head slowly, thinking back on her own year as she picked at a tin of Trader Joe’s Jingle Jangle. “We added on to the house, and suddenly, boom — my bedroom is twice as far away from the laundry room as it used to be.” She shrugged. “But what do we do? We adapt.” She smiled philosophically. “We have no choice.”
2. Low-income drivers report safety concerns with old, damaged vehicles that often put them in fear for their lives. “Sometimes my steering freezes up. The whole back end is pretty much tied on with old string,” one man said. “But I have to get to work, and I can barely afford maintaining this car — so buying a new one? Forget it.” Still, wealthy drivers are not immune from concerns the safety of their automobiles. One described — with visible anxiety — a poorly adjusted rear view mirror in his brand-new Chevy Malibu. “Everyone says, “Bob, just reach up and adjust it.” He shook his head. “But for some reason, I haven’t done it yet.”
3. Girls reported feeling that the school didn’t feel like a supportive place to them. “My math teacher told me I would never understand algebra because I was a girl,” said one ninth grader, “And my gym teacher said I had to take tap dancing instead of weight lifting, because ‘my legs might get too big.’” But boys didn’t feel that the school supported them either. A tenth boy recalled being ordered to turn off his phone when class started. “I don’t get it,” he said defiantly. “I mean, it’s my phone.”
4. East side residents say the varnish factory has to close. “When the factory is operating, my kids can’t go outside. It smells too awful, and sometimes their noses bleed,” said an East side resident, who also fears that the cancer she and four out of five of her closest neighbors have is a result of years of exposure in both the air and ground water. But a West side resident insisted that closing down the factory is not the answer. “The CEO lives right next door to me, when he’s not at work, he likes to putter around in the yard. Sometimes, if I’m puttering around in my yard, he says hello to me, and sometimes, if I don’t know he’s there, he makes me jump right out of my skin. ” She shook her head. “It really annoys me that people on the East side won’t look at the bigger picture.”
5. Environmentalists say that continued use of fossil fuels will continue to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, threatening the health, safety and indeed the very existence of all life on earth. They are particularly concerned about offshore drilling. “The more we leave in the ground, the better,” said one prominent climate scientist. “Also, accidents are common on offshore rigs, and these accidents cause further harm to already vulnerable marine ecosystems.” But there are others who insist offshore drilling can be beneficial to certain species. “The other day I must have seen ten seagulls hanging out on a rig, just chilling out,” said a random guy. “What if these environmentalists got their way and that rig was suddenly gone? Where would those seagulls go?” The climate scientist hypothesized that ten seagulls would be likely to have little trouble finding another place to go. But the random guy shook his head. “You say that,” he said. “But with all due respect, can you prove it?” The climate scientist shrugged. The random guy nodded. “I rest my case,” he said.
I don’t know anything about Pavo Pavo and the sense I get is they are one of those groups that have a hard time staying on the right side of the line that separates “interesting weird” from “weird just to be weird,” but this video came my way the other day and I am somewhat entranced by its tune. I would say you are advised to pass on the visual aspects here and just let it play out in another tab while you’re attending to other things, but the song, well, the song is something special. Enjoy.
★★★ The gray was heavy but unmenacing; the chill was real but painless. The Batman hat with the ears had been dug out of storage at the five-year-old’s request, but wearing it he began to fret that the other children hadn’t been wearing superhero gear. By morning’s end a very pale blue had begun showing itself uncertainly on the horizon. The northwest cleared by afternoon, but the light that came through was already aged to goldenness and slipping away.
There are two full workweeks until Christmas. Which kind of person are you, the kind who says, “That’s great, I hate Christmas and everything about it, keep it as far away from me as possible, I will put up with as many holiday parties as I have to just so long as it’s not fucking Christmas,” or the kind who is all, “Oh my God, two weeks is forever, how am I going to get through every agonizing minute of work and crowds and socializing and forced joy until it’s the actual holiday, please just make it fucking Christmas already”? Whoever you are, I advise you to ease into this week, because if early indications are anything to go by it will be just as painful as all weeks are now and probably more so. Here’s something vague and gentle to get you started. Enjoy.