Mock & Roll

This post is dedicated to my siblings


One thing I learned during my year off from TV: you don’t miss much.

I mean, yeah, on Saturdays you miss SNL’s satirical, if not sarcastic, parodic—but often benign—portrayals of “both sides.” I’ve watched that show for years, so I was like,“Oh no! If I don’t watch SNL, how will I know what my take on the news should be?”

Ah, yes, the dreaded independent thinking. Deliberately not channelling popular culture—or unintentional ignorance of its top media—can lead to not “getting” the “joke” around the “water cooler.” That can be pretty embarrassing, and lead to a shunning from the in-crowd & its invites to the cool kids’ parties. I know because when I was in high school, my parents imposed a strict rule: no TV during the week. But that’s only partly why so many of my favorite high school memories involve sitting around the table on Friday nights with family, no school the next day, telling stories & jokes or playing ‘The Writing Game’ (our variation of ‘Exquisite Corpse’) till we collapsed into sublime, out-of-body, blissful laughter. This kind of laughter surely enriches families & builds lasting community. My grandmother knew this. She kept stacks of Reader’s Digest at her house and I read every single “Laughter is the Best Medicine.” Her laugh was the best.

In a paper titled The Inner Eye Theory of Laughter: Mindreader Signals Cooperator Value, published in Evolutionary Psychology in 2003, Wonil Edward Jung writes:

For laughter to be triggered, the subject must understand the causes of the laugh-inducing state of the world. The laugh-inducing state often includes a combination of temporally proximate actions including speech and facial expressions, often by multiple agents. The subject must understand each of the actions. That is, the laugher must be able to attribute to the agents, mental states (desires and beliefs), consistent with the agents’ other known characteristics that could have caused the agents to take the observed actions.

As such, it’s possible for laughter to be co-opted by power seekers. Indeed, laughter elicited through mocking and caricatures has been used for centuries to coerce societal conformity. Our president’s not the first world leader to use ridicule as a tool to build a support base, or to be subject to political satire.

A 2018 article in the pop psych magazine Psychology Today explores ridicule, saying it “unites us in elevated status,” and “divides us from a united them in demoted status.” The author, Jeremy Sherman, calls it “we glee,” or “the glee of being we.” He goes on to say: “Mocking the more powerful increases equality. Mocking the less powerful reduces equality. Making an exception of yourself increases inequality.”

In the pre-president Trump year of 2006, Polimeni and Reiss wrote in The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor:

Several humor thinkers have emphasized how humor is often utilized to demonstrate superiority or elevate social status. Weisfeld (1993) provides several examples such as the Greenland Inuit who “traditionally resolved disputes by engaging in public contests of ridiculing each other” (p. 154). Thomas Hobbes (1651/1981) in Leviathan was the first to clearly articulate this idea, characterizing laughter as an extension of “sudden glory.” Critics point out that most jokes do little to boost feelings of superiority.

I’ll get back to jokes, but first, I also want to say something about storms & debates, and freedom.

I went through a phase when I would’ve watched all of June’s Democratic Debates, then listened to the “media partners” analyze soundbites between car commercials—pardon, ELECTRIC car commercials. (The Democratic National Committee likely hopes to avoid any semblance of climate hypocrisy, but they just can’t seem to stay away from cars, can they?)

I didn’t watch. Instead, with thunderstorms reported, I was outside, wandering & taking phone photos of the storm sky. The storm produced the loudest clap of thunder I’ve heard in years. Growing up in the Congo we learned to count seconds before it thundered after lightning strikes, to know how many miles away it was. This storm’s lightning was CLOSE. I cowered back inside the grocery store I’d just bought items at, before backpacking them home during a lull.

Very dark blue sky with a white & purple building in the foreground
Purple rain

Like in my childhood, I don’t use a car for transportation. But not owning a car in a country that’s managed to conflate car-dependence with independence isn’t easy. It’s been hard enough unearthing & expelling harmful cultural indoctrination from my beliefs while supporting my body’s needs in a place built for cars. On top of that, society remains a gravity I push up against. Some people say things like, “Jeez, I take the bus sometimes, too, but who doesn’t have a car to fall back on?” “Oh, is your car in the shop?” “Here’s directions, hon—sorry what? By bicycle? I don’t know, I’ve only ever driven.” “Why would she put herself through that?” (Because yes, I have a license, & yes, I could drive if I chose.)

It’s been almost ten years now since I sold my totaled-in-a-hit-&-run car back to insurance. Back then, my conscious reasons for not replacing my car were less about plastic in this river I sat beside as a kid, and more about the price of gas & downtown parking tickets. Times have changed, and so have I. Before walking away car-less that day in 2010, I clicked the glove compartment closed one last time. Along with the oil change records I left a whole wad of American culture I’m glad I never 100% bought in to after returning to the states. And I felt so… free.

It’s strange, how people from your own country, who speak the same language as you, can seem the most foreign. “Nairobi,” some junior high school boys would call to me the year I returned, “hey Nairobi, what’s it like in Africa?” They laughed at their joke. Good one, boys. P.S., I didn’t even live in Kenya, it was DRC. One boy called me Ethiopia, too, which—well, I’ll just say his jokesmithing boggles the mind on many levels.

It wasn’t the girls being that overt. Most girls were more communicative: “The reason my friends & I don’t like you, Naomi, is because you’re too nice.” What none of them knew was, I hadn’t yet learned the phrase “fuck you” or when might be an appropriate time to say it. I’m not sure there even is a Kituba translation for that, though in Belgian grade school you could call someone a chameau. Since I’d grown up in those other countries, I didn’t know anything about what suburban American kids did or said or thought. I couldn’t discuss their TV programs, didn’t know their slang, or how to dress according to fad. (How luxurious.) Once I tried to fit in by using a slang phrase I’d heard some of the kids saying, that I assumed was “cool” & might make me “popular.” I said it to a boy who’d only been kind to me, who I liked as a friend, & whose dad was my track coach. His crumpled face in response told me I’d made a big language mistake. I’d had no idea what I was even saying.

I remember the day my family waited for the plane on which we’d leave DRC. I’d anticipated the journey “home.” Maybe that 2010 February day years later, walking away from the Carstar garage, dusting off my hands, I’d finally arrived. Home is an inner confidence within a place, not a place. Which, in America, is apparently something you’re supposed to buy.

I began relying fully on my bike, plus whatever city public transit existed, & now in the suburbs, run-commuting. Just like when I was a kid.

One little difference. In America, cities, counties, states—the whole country—have worked to make it very, very difficult to choose not to own or use a car. Is that… er, freedom? You can choose not to own a house and you’re more or less still in the realm of normal. But not owning a car makes you an oddball. Even in cities! Maybe even among some urbanists, or at least suburbanists.

I don’t admit this much publicly, but it can be freaking hard to be a woman living car-free in the US, especially one whose transportation is primarily a bicycle. Beyond having to “share” roads with seemingly millions of cars, it’s most unbalancing right at first, before she learns to stop giving as many f*cks about the annoying but unimportant things (helmet hair; wrinkled office clothes; pants always tight in the thigh; no more impulse purchasing of furniture; arriving places sweaty or breathless; heels).

One day, a former boss said to me in a one on one, “So uh, why do you ride a bike to work, is that a political thing?” I instantly felt uncomfortable, but it didn’t occur to me that I was about to be discriminated against. (The Society for Human Resource Management has said: “the question of whether an individual owns a car is irrelevant and could result in claims of discrimination.”)

But some weeks later, it continued: “What if I need you to meet at the other location within an hour? The rest of the team has a car.” Uh huh, I knew they did because they often talked about about being held up in hours-long freeway jams, that I’d only be adding to were I to also drive. What does a manager who calls meetings in the other location on very short notice expect? My suggestion: maybe don’t do that. I’d of course learned the phrase “F-you” & when to use it by then. But I didn’t say it. Too nice, just like junior high Bramorta* said.

*Not her real name. And, at 12, I doubt she knew what she was saying any more than I did.

I’ve never run for office, but for many women, I bet that’s freaking hard too. I know it is, since many women who’ve run have said so. But even if they hadn’t said it, I’d guess it to be true because of how scary it is sometimes just to speak up at all. To teach. To serve. To write. To risk saying our unique truth, or call attention to our non-conventionality.

But maybe riding a bike imparts voice, as much as it benefits from the exercising of voice. The bicycle: a vehicle of constitution evolution. The first time you hear yourself yell in defense of your own body, there’s a mental shift that happens. It’s a physical shift, first. You now know what Voice feels like. You know you’re capable of Voicing.

For people who weren’t taught how to identify and express their emotional needs well, & I include myself in that, a newly discovered Voice will need tuning, to make it productive & less like a cornered wild animal. Which is to say, it may still take courage to testify to our cities about our needs. Needs that aren’t shared by the dominant culture are both harder to express and to get hearings for. That can be frustrating. Like—just one example—when we don’t own a car, but believe it should be easier for everyone not to.

And it’s not been easier to ask lately, in what I’ll dub ‘the B decade.’ Not B for Bicycle (oh I wish) but B for Brett and Brock. I guess the ‘Br’ decade also works.

Clip from Twitter - promoted 'Take the Survey' tweet from Joe Biden campaign
I bet he does! Here’s a blog post for you, Joe.

Many women have walked a long journey to discover their courage, or regain it. Maybe she lost it at a party that was supposed to be fun; or maybe it was taken from her, at some Christian college leadership retreat. Maybe she silenced it herself after being disbelieved or ignored one too many times. Some women grew up never exercising their courage, & had to work hard later to give muscle to it. Some have accepted they’ll always have to dig deep, that speaking out won’t ever come easy to them, but they commit to it anyway.

Courage is not the absence of fear, as the saying goes.

It’d be great to encourage young women who fear climate change to be brave, to tell leaders their ideas for solutions, and help them ask for their policy needs.

How, though? Maybe we have to put on our own courage first; make sure we are breathing. Maybe too, it’s about who we champion, or more so, who we include.

At a moment when the world sits wide-eyed in recognition of the fact that, statistically speaking, 0% of American men elected to lead have done so on climate (our ice caps are accordingly melted & our mussels cooked) more women are running for office & bravely offering urgent plans, including as candidates for president. Marianne Williamson is one. And how does the nation respond? Well, many people, particularly dems, have decided to ignore or even publicly denigrate Williamson, apparently without reading her issues statements. One man “joked” she was anti-bike lane. My supposition for what he’s trying to do is to take his oppressors down by associating her with them based on gender and appearance. But Williamson’s the only candidate for president I know of to actually say the word “bike” in her material. She’s the only one I know of to advocate for using federal transportation dollars to build “bikeable communities,” and rebuild public mass transit & national rail. That should be the mainstream plan! She bravely spoke the word “bikeable” in her platform—in her Climate Crisis section no less—at a moment when most politicians inexplicably refuse to acknowledge that micro modes are transportation. They won’t even say the word ‘bicycle.’ So, ha ha, funny “joke” & all, but dangerously misleading if people don’t bother to read her statements. Even Jay Inslee thinks he can do it with electric cars alone; no mention of micro modes that I’ve read. Sure: developing policy is complex & abstract & all that, but how hard is it to include the word ‘bicycle’? Eh?

Anyway; what was I talking about? Oh yeah: how to encourage young women to say their climate ideas out loud.

Many ideas are going to seem unconventional, because we’ve never done this before. Just an observation: Williamson models courageous unconventionality at a moment when transportation reform as climate action talk needs to be louder & more nuanced in presidential campaign conversations. My hope for debates between many candidates is that good ideas come forward, that our ultimate candidate keeps. Lambasting candidates before even we’re through the summer of 2019, especially candidates including bikes as part of their transportation & climate justice vision, seems very premature.

Maybe some of the besmirchment—& some of the jokes are pretty funny—is partly out of people’s fervor to support whichever candidate they think can win. And I get it. Many fear loss to Trump more than climate change. They’re afraid, deeply afraid. But what if it’s that very soundbite-based joke culture that produced our current state? That’s why I’m adding my voice to the clamor for a full climate debate. Because too many people won’t read before they lead. Of course, I’d rather it be a climate discussion, in an advertisement-free setting. So, not TV. (I’ve become my parents.) Top network producers are probably trained to know how they’re going to spin a soundbite before the candidate’s done talking. In June, with moderators & viewers all cued up, it was ratings time: “3, 2, 1, let’s Mock & Roll!”

Slow down, jeez. I don’t even know everyone’s name yet.

I also get that Williamson’s as untraditional & unexpected a presidential candidate as America’s ever had—which is saying a lot. Back in January when I heard she was running, I thought, “Really? Marianne Williamson, from Oprah’s Change Your Life TV back in the 90s?” Immediately curious, I went straight to read her website. She may be hard for men to identify with. She’s dared voice thoughts in the past that sound all “wrong” for the current moment. Yes, people should get their shots. Leaders aren’t leaders if they can’t listen to strong reasons for changing an opinion; listening & admitting someone else is right, if so, is a leadership trait we should celebrate.

But it’s not like Williamson’s been in Congress for years, voting to send the nation to wars over oil, or getting paid off to allow fossil fuel lobbyists to profit unheeded, fast-tracking the climate crisis in the first place. Why is there more “we glee” about her than them?

If only picking a president hadn’t become so ridiculously important. It’s not enough to rely on TV debates (see November 2016). Some still will, because reading a candidate’s platform in depth is a lot harder than watching TV.

But actually, running for president is harder.

And so, as it turns out, I have mixed feelings about this one particular meme. It mocks, yes, but I bet because of it far more people have heard Marianne’s hair-raising, “Mr. President, if you’re listening,” speech than whatever Biden said. And Twin Peaks music is kind of cool, right? What if watching that meme is like getting the measles shot? Stings for a moment, then it’s inside you, forever.

I’m not saying vote for Williamson, or for any woman or anyone in particular. I just want to hear what every candidate says on climate and transportation. I am saying: acknowledge and respect all the women running so we can find out what they say about climate.

Not convinced that’s important? It is, if only because young people, whose brave voices we need, are watching. They’re observing how the candidates willing to truthfully say, “we’re in a climate crisis”—so many of whom happen to be women—are treated. Mention bikes, and Vogue doesn’t even include you in their photo. Girls may be asking themselves, if only subconsciously: “Would I want a meme of my public testimony set to Twin Peaks music? Maybe I’ll just keep quiet about climate change and using bicycles to help fix it.”

It’s a shame, because their generation’s emerging into politics in what’s got to be a terrifying time for them, from high-school mass shooting drills to a world stuffed with plastic and patriarchal hijinks against democracy, like Oregon senators taking a paid vacation to flee climate duties at work. Incidentally, I watched this movie in the aftermath of all that, & it felt kind of cathartic:


Anyone paying attention notices—at least subconsciously—how women candidates are spoken of. But young people, entering their 20s or still in elementary school, may notice in a formative way. They see how women’s unique thoughts & personalities are received or ignored by influencers they admire. Whether the women are respected. Mocked. Heard. Unseen. Liked. Or made an undeserving object at the butt of mainstream culture’s joke.

The latter, by the way, may not qualify as a #MeToo experience, but it seems subtly related. It’s like those “jokes” about hurting cyclists that some people blithely make. Before I’d ever biked for transportation, I may not have consciously noticed those, much less known how it feels on the receiving end of them. I hear them now, though. You make those “jokes” now, I don’t forget, you know? And that’s what it can be like as a young woman, noticing how other women are treated by their community. Sometimes she’ll watch quietly, take it in, saying nothing. Other times it seems “safer” to join the laughing pack & do what “they” do & like who “they” like & act like it doesn’t hurt. But maybe as she develops emotional strength, her sense of humor evolves. Back to that Wonil Edward Jung quote, the laugher’s mental state and understanding of the world has changed. Some things become less funny.

There are those young women who seem naturally fearless—like Greta, and AOC, and Megan. I think they’re heroes in part because it’s more common for girls to wait at the sidelines, wondering how it’ll be to speak out, afraid of what it’ll feel like & be like when they do. If they do. Maybe they’ll decide not to.

But theirs are voices we do need to hear. That I, for one, want to hear.

Fleeting debates on TV can seem like everything.

But thunderstorms are still rare where I live. So I made sure to be out in it. Ever stood outside under a thundering sky? That’s what your Voice feels like.