Category Archives: Culture

Why I Will Continue to Not Feature Films in Theaters During COVID

A year-and-a-half ago, 1,000 deaths a day from COVID was reason to distance and shut down most of our daily lives. That same number today just makes us worry about how quickly our economy can get back to normal. Obviously, we have vaccines now that we didn’t have then. That decreases the spread among the vaccinated, but not if we increase the places we can spread COVID by resuming our everyday activities.

We’re weeks off “Spider-Man: No Way Home” grabbing the second-largest opening weekend of all-time with $260 million. I didn’t cover it. In fact, I’ve only covered one film in theaters since COVID broke out, and that was because I could maintain social distancing at a drive-in.

We’re looking at COVID becoming endemic like the flu – just something we deal with despite 800,000 dying as a result of it, and millions more coping with long haul COVID and the devastating chronic health issues it can create.

A year-and-a-half ago, 1,000 deaths a day from COVID was unacceptable. It was reason to close things down, to shut down theaters and many other businesses, to get serious about using our taxes to provide supplementary income to people in order to bridge that shut down. Yet the U.S. has again been surpassing that average of 1,000 deaths a day since August 2021. It has become acceptable, the price of doing business, and if that’s not a demonstration of our norms being severely moved, I don’t know what is.

I love film and there’s absolutely a draw to see new films in theaters. I’m sure it’d help my Patreon to write about something as big as “Spider-Man: No Way Home”. I’m vaccinated and boosted, but is any of that worth even a small risk I could carry COVID and – even if it doesn’t impact me – pass it on to someone who’s elderly or immunosuppressed? I ask myself if a movie is worth even a 0.1% chance of that and I come away thinking it’s not. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe I’m being too careful. To me, there’s a responsibility there, and a responsibility isn’t about whether I like it or not; it isn’t about whether it’s easy or not; it’s about whether I do it or not.

The average movie ticket price in the U.S. is $9.37. That means nearly 28 million people saw “Spider-Man: No Way Home”. If every person who saw that movie had only a 0.1% chance of passing COVID on to someone else in a serious way, that’s 27,000 serious cases from one event in a three-day weekend. My 0.1% chance, or whatever it may be, doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Now add on all the packed stadiums at football and basketball games, packed bars in states that don’t take this seriously, event after event imagining they can positive think their way into escaping a disease they invite right in their doors….

I have family living in a state that has actively and aggressively resisted masking, distancing, and vaccination. They follow all those guidelines, they’ve been vaccinated, but hardly anyone else does. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t tell everyone weekly in what state it’s safe-ish or not safe to watch a movie in theaters, or in which county in which state. If I feature films in theaters, I’m encouraging people to go see those films in theaters, wherever they are. So: I don’t feature films unless they have a home viewing option. Period.

It’s not an easy decision. It’s one that I imagine costs me. Other critics are seeing films in theaters; other content creators are making content out in public. I’m not going to judge them or say they’re doing anything wrong. Many people have jobs that don’t give them a choice.

I look at this country and we’re just not there yet. A thousand deaths a day once saw us recoil in horror and shut things down. If we decided at the start of this that we wouldn’t let the pandemic change who we are, that we wouldn’t let conservatives argue us into sacrificing lives for an economy we’re wealthy enough as a nation to supplement, then a thousand deaths a day should always make us recoil in horror, and should always make us argue that we need to shut things down. Vaccines have changed some of the equation, but not enough to shift that tally of deaths.

If a thousand deaths a day means opening everything back up, that’s to a large extent the result of Republicans and some Democrats like Manchin and Sinema refusing to help people through this time, hauling our norms over, and making that an acceptable figure in a way it wasn’t last year. I can’t do that. Fuck them for trying to make me. I’m not angry at COVID; it’s a disease. I’m angry at those who would rather sacrifice lives than see the richest nation in the world spend our own money on us during a crisis.

I don’t expect a hard boundary when COVID isn’t a thing anymore, but we can look at that daily count and compare our very different reactions from one year to the next. That daily COVID death count was once unacceptable, and treating it as unacceptable was a significant difference in humanity and empathy between those who wanted to shut things down and help people financially bridge the gap vs. those who wanted to sacrifice lives to keep an economy limping along with no assistance for the people and families making those sacrifices.

I can’t help but ask where that difference is now. I don’t have a desire to chase it out of myself, and certainly not for a movie, for a bar, for a football game. What a pathetic and insulting price to put on our humanity.

Maybe I’m being a stick in the mud, but if people are still dying in the thousands, why the hell don’t we act like it anymore? If cases are spiking among young children who haven’t been able to get vaccinated, why isn’t that an emergency around which we rally?

I look around and I know I wasn’t alone in these feelings last year, but that standpoint feels a lot more isolated now than it did when COVID started. It no longer feels like the norm. If we held that norm in 2020 and part of 2021, and that norm was part of our humanity and empathy, what does its absence speak to now?

That’s why I won’t go back to featuring films without home viewing options. That’s why I’ve shifted a bit more toward series. That daily count still needs to go down. I thought that in 2020. I think that now. Whether it’s about what movie I feature, or another choice to maintain social distancing, I won’t have someone else take that thinking away from me, and I won’t give it away. It has to be a decision I would have been willing to make in 2020, and 2021. The only way to know that someone hasn’t moved my norms is to make that decision out of the norms I held when I knew they were unmoved. Otherwise, it’s not about what our reality is, it’s about that anti-vaxxer, Republican, Q-Anon, positive thinking clusterfuck trying to unseat and erode those norms; it’s the movement that let COVID get out of control in the first place and still abets the disease.

The pandemic, an economy unassisted because of conservative unwillingness to spend our money we gave them on us, the pressure, the stress, all of it adds up, and that makes us prone to allowing our norms and realities to be changed in ways we once would have resisted. That’s not easy to identify or reject. It wouldn’t be so effective if it weren’t so tempting. Yet we’ve got a way to make it easy. Those norms don’t often come with numbers. This one does. If a thousand deaths a day was unacceptable in 2020, and unacceptable in 2021, then it still is. Before anything else, my decision-making has to come from that place. Anything else, and the humanity and empathy that decision arose from is missing. Here’s the point: the decisions you make when your humanity and empathy are missing are not ones you get to go back and undo.

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“The Fast and the Furious” Matters

Look, “The Fast and the Furious” is silly, but I saw a trailer for “F9” the other day that cut quickly between most of the leading heroes. There they were: Black, Latine, Asian.

It sent me spiraling back to what I was watching as a kid growing up in the 90s. Who saved the world and stopped the bad guys then? It was Bruce Willis, Kurt Russell, Harrison Ford, Pierce Brosnan, Mel Gibson, Nicholas Cage, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sure, we had Keanu Reeves, but marketing departments knew in that world audiences should envision him as white, that discussion of his Native Hawaiian and Chinese descent might hurt his box office. It really wasn’t mentioned. Even John Travolta got a damn action career. John fucking Travolta.

If not for Will Smith, we wouldn’t have had a mainstream actor of color consistently lead action movies in the 90s. The best we had otherwise was the occasional Wesley Snipes movie, though he was as likely to be the villain as a hero. I grew up just outside Chicago, and WGN loved to run Carl Weathers TV movie actioners, mostly B-grade Schwarzenegger knockoffs. That was about it.

The first character of color I saw lead a dramatic show on a week-to-week basis was Ben Sisko on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”.

You could forget the concept of a Latine actor leading a mainstream movie or drama series. That was unthinkable. We were villains, and often silly ones. At best, we were the comic relief. But most often, we were portrayed as gangsters, the scenery in the background to prove how tough the hero was when he dared to step into our lair. We were bodies to be disposed of by that hero in the zeitgeist of a country that grew up on those narratives to believe that immigrant and refugee children must also be bodies to be disposed of before they too become gangsters.

Imagine being a young Latino, and everything you watch reinforcing that this part of you doesn’t matter, that there are no heroes in your blood, there’s just second-rate villainy and gang violence but not the white kind we celebrate in Mafia movies, and – if you really get lucky and work hard – you might be the comic relief. You know what, you can survive that. It instills a lot of weird shit you have to get over later in life, but it’s survivable.

Now imagine being a young Latino, and everyone around you having that view reinforced, everyone around you thinking you’re just a villain they can test their strength on, they can gang up against, that the best you’ll do is being an obstacle or sidekick in their story. Imagine the bruises that earns. Imagine coming home with a black-and-blue chest or a broken nose or a ringing headache because you’re the Latino kid. Imagine doing everything perfectly and getting straight A’s, at first because you liked it and enjoyed the challenge, but later because if you fought back, that academic standing was the only thing that made them believe you over the white kid.

I saw what happened to the kids of color who didn’t do well in school, how often they were believed, how often they were sent home for daring to punch back as they were hit again and again by three or four others. I went from being a good student because I loved learning, to being a good student because it afforded me protection and it was my ticket to having those with authority believe me. I went from loving learning to viewing it as a shield, and I went from enjoying doing well to viewing it as exhausting, a power exchange I struggled with resenting.

None of it was because that was my path. It was all because I had to react and manage what my peers and many of my teachers and administrators expected to be my path, because it was never about defending myself – I was the tallest kid in school who trained in taekwondo and kickboxing. I didn’t worry about defending myself. I worried whether others would defend me after I had. The greatest protection I had was being a Latino child who exceeded expectations so much that adults with power actually forgot what I was for a second and gave a shit about me. They forgot that I was supposed to be disposable, the bad guy, the foil for their white kids to succeed, the obstacle. That was the bar I had to clear.

I loved school, until it became less about learning and more about proving others wrong, until getting A’s was less about being proud of myself and more about making others forget I was supposed to be a dumb joke or a future threat to be beaten down until he knew his place. If I got A’s, you couldn’t make me that because it took the adults around us permitting it. And let me tell you, that burden on a kid makes it really hard to still do well.

Toward the end of the 90s, we started getting the “Blade” movies, often forgotten in the discussion of franchises that legitimized the comic book superhero movie. Keanu Reeves’s background started to become part of his appeal and less of an ‘issue’ in marketing. Jackie Chan made crossover films that took place in the U.S. Samuel L. Jackson began breaking into the mainstream more and more.

And yet, I still couldn’t imagine a major franchise being led by eight or nine actors of color. I couldn’t imagine an ensemble of actors of color having crowds cheer for them as they fight white villains. I might sit here in my 30s and roll my eyes at another “The Fast and the Furious” movie. But the part of me sitting there at 10 is in a quiet, needful sort of awe that such a thing is possible, that he could be viewed as a hero or just the protagonist in his own story. Imagine the other kids, the white kids, thinking that, treating that possibility as real. Imagine the white adults thinking that, maybe listening to the kids of color who don’t get straight A’s or perform whiteness or successfully hack their fucked up social system of power exchange.

Measured by worldwide box office, “The Fast and the Furious” is the fifth largest movie franchise in history (after the MCU/Spider-Man, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and James Bond). It’s the only one in the top 30 led by people of color. It might be silly action storytelling (just like those other franchises), but it matters. It matters to whoever’s sitting there as a child, thinking about how they view themselves as a person of color. It matters to whoever’s sitting there as a child, thinking about how they view others as people of color.

It matters as to how they’ll define and treat children of color when they’re adults. It matters what they’ll put them through, whether they’ll listen, whether that child has to do extra work and perform and learn to resent what they love just to visit equality, or whether they’ll start from the assumption of equality and just get to love what they love and be a kid.

“The Fast and the Furious” matters because it makes us matter, because it makes us central instead of disposable, heroic instead of a joke, decisive instead of dumb, worth listening to, worth admiring, worth your vision of humanness, leaders that white characters will listen to and work alongside. It promises we can be heroes in the eyes of children who will one day be making decisions about who will be listened to; who will tell their own children who gets to be a hero, a protagonist, a leader, who gets to be legitimate.

As a kid, I wanted to be human as a rule, not because I was the exception to someone’s stereotype. I’ll always carry that with me, and you can learn to live with it and compartmentalize it, but it still stretches veins into every part of who you are.

But look at this. Look at this movie, this franchise, these trailers that feature face after face from actors and characters of color. You can’t imagine how that lifts a burden people carry inside themselves, even if just for an hour or two. You can’t imagine that those veins that run through you can be turned to something else because they never have for so long. Representation makes you feel like maybe others can see you, want to see you, want to listen, like maybe what you have to say is worth something. People accepting and celebrating that representation, wanting to see more of it, wanting to seek out more that’s like it – that’s what confirms those feelings.

“The Fast and the Furious” is hardly complete representation, it’s not perfect representation, it’s certainly not as intersectional as it could be – but it is, by far, the most we’ve had in this medium, the most accepted we’ve been in the landscape of popular film. There’s a version of me, before that burden was carried, before those veins spread inside, before those exchanges and performances were asked, that sees these trailers, this movie, this franchise, and stares in awe that it is even possible. That is a calm place, and it’s one I miss because I don’t even remember it. It must’ve been there at some point. It has to have been.

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They Can’t Take Your Kindness

This time last year was the last time I saw a film in the theater. It was “Emma”. I went to a coffee shop afterward to work on the review and a little bit of novel writing. It quickly became apparent that the pandemic was spreading in our state the next week.

Weekends before “Emma”, I’d seen “The Invisible Man” with Elisabeth Moss, before that “Birds of Prey”. Earlier during the Trump administration, I’d put a lot of time into working with writers and artists who had received threats. You can burn out on that quickly, and I put about two years in. It took me a lot to get back out to theaters regularly after that, and then I got my own serious threat, and then stalked by two other people. That was another two years. The threat was to shoot me and others in the head. It was viable; I knew the person and I knew they owned guns.

Movie theaters have always felt like something of a safe place for me. I realize they aren’t; I adopted recognizing the exits before the movie started same as a lot of other people. It took a long time when I was getting back into feeling comfortable stepping outside – on the rare occasion a man walked in with a backpack or duffel bag, I’d be on edge. I’d observe their behavior; I’d be relieved when they were joined by a woman or friends who laughed with them (simply because acts of violence usually aren’t perpetrated by women or casual social groups).

But they still felt like a safe space the minute the film started; it still felt like this place where everyone could give themselves up to artists and what they had made shoulder to shoulder, an ad hoc community that existed for two hours before dissipating, like a temporary art installation that’s meant to erode without record.

Reviewing films has always felt like more than just talking about that movie. It’s felt like recording what it is to be a witness to that moment of art, to that momentary community existing then and there, some sort of evidence that we were here despite so much overwhelming bullshit.

I don’t miss theaters. I miss what they enabled: being a witness to those pieces of art we can’t create anymore. Not the art on the screen – I can still watch that at home just fine. I miss that temporary human installation that would set everything aside for two or so hours just to participate together in a fantasy, or introspection, or wonder, or laughter, or whatever that film in particular brought to us.

In a weird way, I feel like I pre-gamed for the pandemic due to threats and stalkers. I was finally reclaiming the major things the social anxiety I’d dealt with had taken away when the pandemic hit. I already knew what it was to stay inside and bide my time, to busy myself in the face of a larger horror. It felt like I’d practiced, and as hellish as those two years of anxiety were, I was lucky, privileged, and supported enough to develop the skills to sustain another year or two of a different type of patience during this pandemic.

The most beautiful thing people do, the thing that rails against entropy the most, that gives us meaning when we’re all specks to the universe, is to be able to join together and form communities with their own momentary meaning, to understand our own participation in something artistic. To feel removed from that, unable to create that on a regular basis – it feels dehumanizing. It feels lonely. It’s OK to recognize that. I think it’s necessary and healthy to recognize that. It sucks. It sucks that we have to fight for the common sense to be patient for it to come again, for it to be available to us again. It sucks that we have to practice patience with ourselves and prolong a desire to participate like that again, and balance it directly against a fight with those who want to worsen the pandemic now and stick us in this dehumanizing state indefinitely, who are invested in that chaos and profit from it.

People who won’t wear masks, who oppose vaccines, it’s not just that they’re still gathering. It’s that they’re taking those moments we don’t get to have, that we’re responsible enough not to have, and they’re perverting them. They’re taking that ability to join together and create meaning in a moment, and they’re using it to feed conspiracy theories and cause harm. It’s personal because they put us and our loved ones at risk, because they feed the continuation of a pandemic hurting people. And it’s also personal because they’re taking something that for us is key to being human, feeling human, being affirmed as human, empathizing with others, they’re taking it and they’re making the only version that takes place an inversion of what that creative, communal act is. They’re making it an act of harm. If a communal event takes place right now, it is one that at best dismisses and at worst prioritizes that it will cause harm to others.

Please know that they won’t keep those spaces. They won’t redefine what those communal activities mean. They can only repurpose them that way because there’s a vacuum that responsible communities have intentionally created to keep people safe. That creation, that lack of events, that’s a communal creation, too. It’s a difficult moment to witness and take part in, but everyone setting aside their lives for a year-plus to protect people they love and people they don’t even know…that’s beautiful, too, as difficult and traumatic as it is to see.

Just please be patient with yourselves. Please know that if you feel an aspect of yourself is missing in all this, that’s normal, it’s to be expected. It won’t stay missing, it’s just informed by something that’s key to being human missing. When something that’s key to being human is missing, the most human reaction possible is to recognize that part of you is missing, too. It’s evidence that we haven’t been changed by the circumstance, that our norms haven’t been taken from us, that we still yearn for and feel incomplete without the ability to experience what we create for each other shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers alike. They can’t take your kindness if it’s still what makes you whole.

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My Favorite Moment in Sports — Alex Puccio’s 2018 Bouldering Nationals

I’ve wanted to write about the things that helped me get through four years of Trump ruining this country, but where do I start? How do you take something you watch for entertainment or self-care and measure what it helps you do in activism or simple endurance? Which do I choose first? Half Waif? Chess on Twitch? “One Day at a Time”? Yogscast, despite its litany of problems? Anne Waldman?

Some are pieces of art that made me feel human, even as politicians insisted the Latino blood that runs in my veins makes me somehow less so. Some just kept me laughing on days when that was the only emotion that wasn’t a lurking dread – 20 minutes here or there where the world seemed light again in between collating the death threats writers had received.

Where do sports fit into that? Sports are downright strange. We take so much of the hope we feel about the world, both the surviving and broken pieces of it, and we place it onto athletes we will never know. Why? Some part of how they do things, how they compete, some element of their story helps us identify and openly feel our own.

What about one of the greatest years in American sport that really hasn’t been talked about? What about a moment in a sport not even covered by major networks? That was Alex Puccio’s 2018 run, not just because of her wins in climbing events, but because of her resilience and a narrative that said, “I’m not done yet, and you don’t get to decide when I am”.

I watch a decent amount of ESPN, despite its collapse into a series of talking heads that mainly gossip about what athletes say on Twitter. Occasionally, someone mentions their favorite moment in sports. It’s usually a landmark: a World Series win or a Super Bowl that legitimizes a player. It could be a torch-passing moment from one generation to the next.

Venus Williams vs. Lindsay Davenport, 2005

For a long time, mine was the Venus Williams-Lindsay Davenport 2005 Wimbledon final. Davenport was a ball placement player. She tended to stay back on the baseline. Her precision meant she could force opponents to overcommit, allowing them only one angle to return. Knowing that angle meant she could put herself in position moves ahead. Her game was built around moving her opponent at will, and knowing exactly where to be ahead of time to close with a powerful hit.

By contrast, Williams played across the whole court. She didn’t need to be in the ideal position to hit a winner. She had the athleticism to negate Davenport moving her from one end of the court to the other, paired with fundamentals from any position on the court. Davenport might dictate where the ball went, but Williams didn’t have to sell out in order to return. She could get there and recover quickly. She could also adapt her strategy in a way Davenport couldn’t.

They played two very different styles, and they played them to perfection. Davenport would win the first set 6-4, but Williams was starting to move her across the court with her shot choices. Williams saved Davenport’s match point in the second set to barely win it 7-6 and force a third. That third set went to 16 games, where Williams would finally win 9-7. It was the longest women’s final match in Wimbledon history.

The 2013 Broncos-Patriots Game

The next moment would come in 2013. It was the regular season. The 9-1 Denver Broncos were visiting the 7-3 New England Patriots. The Patriots had to win in order to keep a shot at the first seed and home field advantage in the playoffs, but the Broncos jumped out to a 24-0 lead midway through the second quarter. The Patriots wouldn’t score until the third, but standout play from QB Tom Brady and WR Julian Edelman would see them rally back and win 34-31.

It was an extraordinarily rough point in my life, and that game just reminded me I could be happy about something that wasn’t especially consequential. The Broncos would later beat the Patriots in the playoffs for the opportunity to get trounced by Seattle in the Super Bowl.

I later grew to hate the Patriots when GM, coach, and star QB all ended up fawning over Trump, so this memory’s been soiled, but none of that had come to pass in 2013.

Alex Puccio competes at the 2018 Bouldering Open Nationals

The 2018 Bouldering Open Nationals

My favorite moment of all happened in 2018. I was sick of the NFL for blackballing Colin Kaepernick, for its wildly inconsistent policy on domestic violence and sexual assault, and for many teams giving way to whatever Donald Trump wanted. I was looking for a new sport to watch.

I’ve gone climbing and bouldering, but it’s an expensive pastime. I’ve moved around a bit and I’ve never taken it up very consistently. Watching it is free, though. USA Climbing had been both live-streaming and posting its bouldering competitions on YouTube. They still do, and there’s something appealing about the no-frills, lo-fi approach to a sport that has yet to really hit the mainstream. There’s an informality to it, though the accomplishments of its athletes are no less impressive.

I’d been watching climbing for about a year. That’s when the 2018 Bouldering Open National Championships rolled around. Bouldering is a form of free climbing (i.e. no ropes or harnesses) on problems that are 20 feet high or less. Competitions happen on artificial walls using plastic holds that are bolted on. Each problem is designed according to a grade of difficulty. Climbers have only five minutes to attempt the problem (four minutes in international competitions), with points given for reaching midpoints and the top, and points deducted for each additional attempt needed.

Alex Puccio is a boulderer who’s made entirely of muscle, who can keep that 90-degree bend in her arms all the way through climbs others can’t even finish. She dynos big movements, leaping from hold to hold on the strength of her arms, sometimes even letting her legs hang free under her and passing up toe-holds. She’s elite at technical climbing, but that sheer strength allows her to take shortcuts and swing from hold to hold where others would have to take their time and move slowly.

Sometimes, that works against her. She can try to solve a problem too quickly. Because she can brute force her way through difficult sections, she’ll occasionally approach a hold at a bad angle or end up hanging precariously as she works out the route. That she can even do this where many climbers would fall and have to re-work the problem from the ground is already a big advantage.

Puccio had won Gold at the Bouldering Open Nationals nine of the last 12 years, with two Silvers, and only one year when she didn’t place (I don’t believe she competed in 2009).

In Salt Lake City at the Nationals in February 2018, she was a year-and-a-half off recovering from spinal fusion surgery for a herniated disc. She was two-and-a-half years coming off a torn ACL/MCL and meniscus. She’d still won Gold the year before (the picture up top is from 2017), but she’d looked shaky at points in her recoveries. Those two silvers had come in the last four years. At 28, Puccio was a veteran in an incredibly physically taxing sport. She could be beat, if just barely.

Ashima Shiraishi competes in 2017 USA Bouldering Nationals

Ashima Shiraishi is a nearly opposite sort of climber. She doesn’t do big dynos where she sails through the air. She seems to gradually slide her way up the wall, at times inching up in ways that don’t make complete physical sense. She rarely tries to force a solution and her holds often arise from muscle pliability. She’s known for solving problems in ways that other climbers just don’t see or can’t do.

At 16, Shiraishi was considered a phenom, having won her youth categories in both bouldering and lead climbing for three years running. The year before, in 2017, she’d already placed second to Puccio in the Bouldering Open Nationals while winning the Combined Sport & Speed event later in the year.

Shiraishi was competing with a torn labrum. That’s the cartilage that cushions the ball-and-socket joint in her shoulder. There was something really incredible about watching two such different climbers push each other through some of the toughest recoveries a climber can have, solving complicated routes with completely different styles.

They were hardly alone. Brooke Raboutou is an all-around climber who had finished third the year before. She comes from a family of climbers and boasts an extraordinary technical proficiency. She doesn’t have Puccio’s sheer strength or Shiraishi’s out-of-the-box approach, but she makes the right by-the-book decision every single attempt. Her fundamentals are unquestionable.

This contrasts to Margo Hayes, who wouldn’t even spend the first minute or two attempting the climb. She simply stood on the mat, calmly looking up at the problem, doing it in her head, and miming the hand and foot sequences over and over again until they were muscle memory. Only then would she start climbing, and she’d often only need one attempt.

Claire Buhrfeind also made the finals. In contrast to the 5’2” Puccio and 5’1” Shiraishi, Buhrfeind is 6-feet tall. This can be a major advantage on lead and speed climbing, where height can help minimize gaps between holds. It can help on bouldering at times, but this specialty also requires climbers to contract and wedge themselves between surfaces more than the others. They regularly have to flatten themselves to the wall in a specific amount of space, pushing against slopes rather than pulling against holds. That extra foot means Buhrfeind often has to position her core awkwardly or away from the wall during these compression movements. Where Buhrfeind’s height helps her on some problems, it can work directly against her on others.

Meagan Martin would also make the finals. A great all-around bouldering veteran, she can still compete at high levels. At the same time, she was already transitioning into life after competition, with appearances on “American Ninja Warrior” and becoming the premier American commentator for climbing events.

That’s one of my favorite things about any sport – seeing different people with different strengths, experiences, and strategies all try to solve a problem in varying ways. In bouldering, there are obviously safety and climbing fundamentals everyone follows. After that, there is no right way to solve the problem in front of you; there’s just what works best for that person solving it then and there.

Every one of these climbers had the fundamentals drilled into them for years, and then they started creating their own style on top of that: Puccio relies on strength, burst, willpower; Shiraishi is patient and endlessly creative; Raboutou knows the right book move every time; Hayes will map it out in her head before even touching the wall, Buhrfeind fights with and against her reach and height; and Martin is deeply experienced and unflappable.

It was incredible to see so many completely different ways of approaching a problem in sport, and it sealed climbing as my favorite sport to watch. But who won?

Three problems in, Puccio was up by five points over Shiraishi. This can be made up on a single problem, and there was one left. The fourth one stumped every climber – none topped it. Puccio made the 15-point hold, while Shiraishi made the 10-point hold, solidifying Puccio’s second consecutive Gold.

The Year That Followed

With climbing combining three disciplines as an Olympic sport in 2020 – back when we thought we’d see a 2020 Olympics – Puccio was aiming to excel in all fields. The next month, she’d get her very first placement in Combined Sport & Speed, finishing third behind Buhrfeind and Michaela Kiersch. It was a surprise to see Puccio do so well in fields that hadn’t really been her focus up to that point, and it seemed to announce that she could vie for a spot at the Olympics.

U.S. climbers very rarely compete in the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s World Cup series. There’s no real national support to send climbers around the world the way there is in Japan, Russia, or many European countries. Puccio herself has competed internationally when she can, usually having to crowdfund on top of her full time job and climbing endorsements. Because of this, many U.S. climbers only compete in the annual event that takes place in Vail, Colorado. That means while they couldn’t chase the point lead across all seven events that year, they could still win the single event in Vail.

The Vail World Cup event was where Puccio had ripped apart her knee on a fall in June 2015. She had only won it in 2009, nearly a decade earlier. And yet her 2018 continued with a victory many hoped for, but couldn’t be sure would happen. Puccio muscled her way through problems that seemed impossible for the top competitors in the world, coming out as the only women’s boulderer with 3 tops out of the four finals problems. She won it, finishing directly ahead of the three worldwide points leaders that year in Miho Nonaka, Akiyo Noguchi, and Fanny Gibert.

The victory would prove bittersweet to fans. At the very top levels, climbing can be a sport that hones a specific type of athleticism even as it wears it down. Puccio continues to compete and continues to send new outdoor bouldering problems, but the following year’s Bouldering Open Nationals would see her fail to advance to the finals for the first time in a decade.

She’d also choose in January 2019 not to try out for the USA Climbing Overall National Team. It would be set later that year to represent the U.S. in international events like the Olympics. She posted that she just didn’t love lead and speed climbing enough to sacrifice bouldering and climbing outdoors. It’s an understandable decision given the IOC’s choice to combine all three climbing disciplines instead of making them each a separate competition.

It’s ridiculous to have four separate events with four separate podiums for four different distances of speed skating, yet to think that such wildly different disciplines as bouldering, lead, and speed climbing should all be combined as a single event.

One would have to think that if bouldering was its own event, the most accomplished competition boulderer in U.S. history would have as strong a chance to make it as anyone.

The combined choice means that younger climbers who have had more incentive to train across the three disciplines have made the team instead: Ashima Shiraishi, Brooke Raboutou, Margo Hayes, and Kyra Condie were all named to the team. Of course, with the pandemic, it’s hard to tell if the 2020 Olympics will even happen in 2021.

2018 felt like an announcement that Alex Puccio would keep on winning and improving across disciplines, and might even lead our international team. It was hardly a send-off to a legend either – Puccio is still extremely active in bouldering, with a renewed focus on outdoor. She’s also said that if bouldering becomes its own event in 2024, she’ll compete for an Olympic spot. She’ll be 34 then – still young by any standard outside of one of the toughest professional sports there is. Even so, you have to think she’d stand a very good chance.

Why Does It Mean So Much?

Why did 2018 speak to me, though? I don’t think I can ever completely put into words why. I’d spent much of the two years prior working with writers and activists who had received death threats, helping them research stalkers and aggressors, and de-escalating situations where realistic. Every volunteer I’d worked with on that work burned out inside of two years, including myself – and as much of that work as I’d done, it didn’t prepare me to receive a death threat that I had to take seriously. It wasn’t my first, but it was by far the most legitimate I’d gotten, and it was on the heels of two stalkers who refused to leave me alone and kept contacting me through every medium possible.

I felt boxed in. I felt helpless and isolated. I had walked dozens of others through these emotional dangers before, but I discovered it didn’t really prepare me to manage my own way through it. All those emotional dangers I had trained and coached others through were still waiting there for me.

To see someone whose narrative embodied, “I’m not done yet, and you don’t get to decide when I am”…I needed to see that. To see Puccio coming off spinal fusion and a torn ACL/MCL, competing against Shiraishi with a torn labrum – when the sport requires taxing each and every one of those pieces of yourself to its utmost….

What sport is in its best moments is an art that allows us to write our own metaphor for what we’re struggling with onto someone we admire. It helps us believe we can endure and overcome in a way that isn’t the same as theirs, that doesn’t replace theirs, but that can learn from and be inspired by theirs. When we root for them, we root for something in ourselves, we legitimize that it’s OK for that part of us to struggle and it’s possible for that part of ourselves to endure.

My favorite moment in sports were those 2018 Bouldering Open National finals because they helped me endure, they helped me see people finding different ways to endure. What’s beautiful about the sport is that the winner is rarely the one who solves everything, it’s the one who solves enough of it, who fell and got back up again. Bouldering isn’t a sport about mastery; it’s a sport about saying, “I’m not done yet”. It’s not even about pushing harder – oftentimes, after that first attempt you physically can’t. It’s about admitting an oversight or assumption you made about your own capabilities entering into the problem, and solving it by expanding how you’re seeing it.

We get through for countless reasons. Sometimes it’s the part of us that muscles through it. Sometimes it’s the part of us that’s patient and creative. Sometimes it’s the part of us that knows the book answer. Sometimes it’s the part of us that takes a step back and gives ourselves enough time to work out a new one. Sometimes we have to fight against a strength for it to help us. Sometimes we just don’t know and we have to be calm enough for experience to guide us through.

There was so much to admire, and so much strength to be reminded of in ourselves, so much endurance through parts that weren’t healed, in just those few hours of competition on a live feed with sound problems that only a few thousand watched. And yet it kept me going more than almost anything else. That’s what sports can do, in different rare moments for each of us, that makes it transcend into art. It resolves you. It can help you see yourself. It can be therapeutic. It can provide relief from trauma. It can create magical realism for a moment in our lives. It can ease the pressure. In witnessing resilience, we remember what it feels like even after someone has alienated us from our own. Find the sport, the art, the moment that does that for you.

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Yes, It’s Realistic that Roseanne Voted for Trump

by Gabriel Valdez

In the 2018 re-launch of “Roseanne”, it turns out that white, feminist, Boomer icon Roseanne Conner voted for Trump. Many feel that this is a betrayal of the character. Is it?

No. It’s deeply accurate.

If you think it’s unrealistic and a betrayal of the character that a white feminist Boomer icon like Roseanne Conner would vote for Trump, I don’t think you yet have a realistic idea of what happened in 2016.

Boomers voted for Trump by a 9-point margin.

That means white Boomers voted for Trump by a double-digit margin.

White Boomers who were women voted for Trump by a slightly lesser margin…but they still voted for Trump.

This was especially true of white Boomers without a college education, such as Roseanne.

The show is set in Fulton County, IL, on the western side of the state near Iowa. That county voted for Trump by a margin of 15 points.

Roseanne Conner is at a demographic intersection where she would have been extremely likely to vote for Trump.

Trump won white voters by a greater margin than any in our history outside Reagan ’84.

This includes a lot of people who would have been ostensibly liberal in the 80s and 90s.

During the original run of “Roseanne” from 1988-97, Fulton County was one of the most liberal in the state. In fact, it hasn’t gone Republican since 1984.

You should feel betrayed – but not by the show. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t critique it or its messages. But if you think Roseanne Conner would never have voted for Trump, you’re still not looking at 2016 with a realistic eye for what happened.

There are results where racism overbears other progressive leanings. We need to understand that.

A lot of Roseanne Conners voted for Trump, and if you can’t recognize that, you’re harming your ability to understand why and to work against it.

The feature image of the “Roseanne” cast is from Biography here.

Men Need to Expect More from Men

by Gabriel Valdez

I went to look up more information on the Maryland school shooting, and the shooter’s motives in relation to an ex-girlfriend.

What came back was a host of articles going back the last year of men shooting ex-girlfriends. This search was limited to Maryland.

So I looked up Massachusetts. Mississippi. What about states with less population? Vermont. Wyoming.

Again and again, pages and pages, of men murdering girlfriends and exes. Pages and pages going back through time for each without even reaching incidents prior to 2017.

There is a significant, unaddressed problem with toxic masculinity in this culture. This is hardly the first time I’ve said this and I’m hardly the first person who’s said this. It’s been said for decades, and in different language for centuries across the history of our culture.

It doesn’t change unless men expect better from the men beside us. It doesn’t change unless we talk with men about this, even men we agree with, because it has to be normal for us to talk about it. It can’t just be something we bring up when we think there’s a problem.

It has to be something we bring up because it’s important and core to our culture and core to who we are as men, and who we want the men beside us to be as men, what we want our community and culture as men to value. When it’s a problem, it’s already too damn late, and somebody’s already getting hurt because our silence and complicity and avoidance of the topic has already been interpreted as license.

Higher expectations of other men doesn’t mean a damn fucking thing if we don’t voice those higher expectations, and make doing so a normal part of our lives, a normal part of their lives.

Otherwise our expectations are empty, and we only speak them to remain perceived as safe by women in our lives – and that kind of subtle politicking is so you can interpret the performance of ally-ship as your own license, as your own excuse, as your own fallback.

This is common with every privilege – whiteness, straightness, being enabled. If you don’t go out to other men and do the work of it, and vocalize your expectations of them, you’re simply politicking to the people around you so you can keep safe a harbor for your own privilege.

As men, we need to do so much more. We need to not just feel safe because we have a moral expectation, but we need to risk feeling unsafe because we’re willing to hold others up to the same. People are literally dying because too many of us aren’t willing to step outside the realm of ally-ship that’s most convenient and comfortable. We need to fucking get over that.

The feature image is from the ABC News story on the shooting here.