Hustle: a eulogy for well-reasoned madness

The hustle is a hard game. No one hustles if they can help it. You hustle when you need to get ahead, or need to catch a break and you don’t have any other way of getting it. The hustle means every relationship can be a means to an end. I hustle my close friends. I hustle old bosses, and friendly acquaintances. I hustle at parties and in bars.


how much loyalty do you owe a short-term employer?


It is difficult to think about labor precarity – the way in which the new “unshackled” working class has been liberated from regular hours, job security, benefits, and solidarity, in the name of flexibility – when I don’t pay rent, buy my own food, or retain sole responsibility for paying back my student loans. I have a job, and the potential for advancement with the organization that has employed me. I have access to healthcare through my mother’s employer, and eventually through my own. For the moment, whatever money I make goes towards my savings or coffee and pastries.  

And yet, I return to the idea. I watch my friends find paying work. Some of them have regular hours and the expectation of career advancement with their given employer or in their field. They already take on new responsibilities, they become more involved. Other friends drift through the employment landscape applying whatever skills they have to whatever work finds them, regardless of fulfillment, enjoyment, or faith in the work they are doing.

what’s your side hustle? etsy? journalism?

But some of the unease comes from watching the junkies at the bus depot hustle people for money, time, or acknowledgement. Because it’s not just the junkies anymore. Everybody hustles these days. I find headlines in my inbox about how a “side hustle” is both healthy and integral to the modern worker’s lifestyle. From all sides, incoming workers, especially in semi-creative industries, but also far too many others, are expected to perform hope labor; unpaid labor done with the expectation that it will attract paid labor.
For example: this blog, promotional photography done for friends and acquaintances, or the physical and mental labor done for a retail start up.

Locally – in the flesh – I get paid in trade. Usually food, drink, or artwork; but never a monetary equivalency, never contractual, rather a semi-valuable expression of gratitude. In the wider world my work, such as the words you read right now, is done for nothing. If time is money, then my time is literally without worth. A penny for your thoughts? Instead, tell me what you’re thinking and, if I like it, maybe I’ll give you something next time.

With some disappointment, I’ve discovered I know how to hustle. I know how to tell people what they should do for themselves, that benefits me. I can look you in the eye and tell you that not only do I know how to do what you need, but I can do it better, and more besides.

I’ve started to hustle my friends, not secretly, not covertly, but hustle all the same.

hustle-- chatThe hustle is carrying business cards, even when you don’t have a business. It’s constantly thinking over which organizations you are connected to, which business owners or capital holders you know, and which movers and shakers you have access to.

I’ve never enjoyed sports or board games. Both require a competitive edge, a desire to get one over on the other guy, that has never really appealed to me. Even if I know how to hustle, I don’t think I’m going to be making myself into a shark tank capitalist any time soon. My knee-jerk reaction to people who need to get a foot in the door, or an edge, or at the very least, a seat at the table (I don’t know that I can help anyone get skin in the game, yet), is to see if my hustle can get them there. A co-worker is looking for an internship? I might know some local business owners who would be interested in the extra help, but let’s see if the local women’s networking group – “networking,” in other words, organized hustle – might have some better opportunities. I know some people, I can get us an invitation.

The hustle is a hard game. No one hustles if they can help it. You hustle when you need to get ahead, or need to catch a break and you don’t have any other way of getting it. The hustle means every relationship can be a means to an end. I hustle my close friends. I hustle old bosses, and friendly acquaintances. I hustle at parties and in bars.

The hustle is the long arm of free market capitalism. Our present capitalism believes in “human capital,” or the ability of the worker to exploit themselves, and has made the demand that workers be ready, at any moment, to start the hustle. The magic of the “side hustle” (perhaps meant to be “side” to your job, if you have steady employment, but maybe it’s the “side” to your main hustle, the hustle that feeds and houses you for the moment, without guarantee) is that it gets you used to hustling.

Hustling isn’t new. People have always had to hustle, some more than others. Artists, anyone in sales, journalists, writers, freelancers of all types, academics – just to name a few – have always had to hustle for attention, for patronage, for customers, for publication, for funding, for airtime and column space. We like to believe that the fastest growing sectors are in technology, an employment avenue with job security and benefits, liberated from the hustle, but in fact, the sectors adding the most jobs are almost entirely in service industries. (See the numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.) We are getting more food service workers, more home aides, more nurses, more retail associates, and more customer service reps, far many more than we are getting new code monkeys.

The service industry is institutionalized hustle. Your barista, sales person, home aide, or babysitter are paid to care. They remember your name, your order, your birthday because feeling special will keep you coming back. You pay them, not for the product (the coffee, the clothing, the medicine) or even their expertise, but for the service experience they provide. You pay them to smile, to ask how you are, to remember your milk preference, and offer gift wrapping. With home aides and nannies, you pay them to take time and care away from their own loved ones and tend to yours in your stead.

Through all this capitalism doesn’t just shape our social and political circumstances, but reaches all the way inside us and plays around with the way we think.

Mid-March of 2015 found me in retreat from the shared social reality; I listened exclusively to mid-2000s pop-punk, and wrote over 3,000 words on the topic of Fall Out Boy as a social phenomenon, as well as their potential role in promoting the acceptability of Lesbian Gay & Bisexual (of LGBT) politics. I stopped going to class, and eventually stopped leaving my room.

After the semester ended, I started seeing three separate doctors whose job is to make sure my brain is functioning “normally” or “better” or some other inescapably normative adjective, and was ultimately prescribed three different types of drugs to regulate various aspects of my neuro-psychological well-being. Migraines [brain lesions, disordered speech, sensory overload, nausea, headaches, … ], depression [anhedonia, disordered sleep patterns, listlessness, irritability, emotional outbursts, … ], anxiety [panic attacks, social dysfunction, antisocial behavior, performance issues, … ], ADHD [executive function disorder, irritability, mood swings, … ].

By November, I could do things that would have been unthinkable in April. Now, I can talk to strangers. I can sell you objects I am sure were made under criminally dangerous and unregulated working conditions in the Global South. I can talk about the uncertainty of the future of my generation; a planet facing global war, a climate changing faster than we can adapt to it, the increased likelihood that the middle class will wink out of existence, and a political system that threatens to grind to a complete halt. I can even meet people from online dating websites.

As a result I stand for 8 hours a day, I make small talk with strangers, I make new friends, and I will sell anything I think you might be willing to invest in, be it $70 champagne-related wall ornament or the joys of Lovecraftian and other Weird fiction.

I am medicated so that I can get out of bed in the morning. More than that, however, I am medicated to perform better in a capitalist society. My mood is artificially enhanced (I don’t stick on the grim predictions that swim through my head) and I am more shallow – not as desperate to peer into everyone’s soul, more able to move beyond “acceptable losses” – than I am naturally. I can still feel echoes of my old anxieties (what if people don’t like me? what if they think I sound crazy? what if they keep participating in the exploitation of the third world? what if they don’t start caring about politics? what if I never find the right words to explain how this all fits together?), but I can swallow them down and bluff or lie or bluster my way through.

It comes down to this: I can smile more easily, I can be thinner and more energetic, I can laugh at your jokes even if they aren’t funny, or compliment your hair. Most of all, when I hustle you, I can make it look like honesty.

Watching this transformation has left me with a very important question: at what point does what we do become who we are? Two decades of outsized empathy, unendurable anxiety, nightmares, and self-consciousness can’t be overwritten. And yet, from inside my own head, I see someone new; a cardboard cutout of a person I don’t trust, who has my name and meets my eyes in the mirror with a smile.

The cardboard cut-out has taught me a very valuable lesson: my inner self isn’t good enough. In fact, the only way to be my best self, is through a medical regimen that alters my perceptions and reactions to help them conform to a construct we call reality. After all, one of the most common complaints addressed to individuals who are promoting the linguistic and social adjustments labeled (derogatorily) “politically correct” is that they need to face up to “reality” or “the real world”. The word “reality” in this context, and in the context of social and economic performance, could be replaced with the term “status quo”. I might see clearly, anxious as I am about labor precarity, social dysfunction introduced when friends become means to an economic end, human capital, and mounting college debt. I might be right when I entertain nightmares of a violent and barren future. But “paranoia” and “anxiety disorder” are much easier problems to fix.

Maybe my kind are just as easily found in bus stops telling you how they found Jesus and asking for spare change, as they are pitching in board rooms and on sales floors. Maybe we all just need anti-anxiety meds and amphetamines, to make sure that we can be relaxed and happy. After all, capital is only concerned with end results – did you surpass the year-to-date sales? – seekers after truth, or at least those seeking respite from the roar of sadness and fear in their heads, get picked up by LEOs for vagrancy and illegal narcotics use, and, if I stop leaving my bed, I’ll probably find myself with them at the psychiatric facility.

But as long as I sleep deeply, after a long day of hustling to pay for my drugs that make life bearable, I won’t have time for nightmares.

(Many many thanks to Sam, Joey, and Eric for proofing this piece, letting me rant, and killing my over abundance of semicolons.)


Book Review: The Grimscribe’s Puppets, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. ED. Miskatonic River Press, 2013

“I don’t really want to see a ghost, but if someone said, ‘Do you want to go to a haunted house and see a ghost?’ I would say, ‘Yes’.”  — Kelly Link. Oct. 6, 2015. Brown University

A review of The Grimscribe’s Puppets by Justin Steele on said, “Thomas Ligotti, one of the finest horror authors, can be a tough pill to swallow. […] His work is definitely not for everyone though, casual horror readers would most likely be turned off by this particular brand of philosophical horror, yet everyone should read Ligotti at least once.” Though I have never read Ligotti, I can easily (and eagerly) imagine his desolate cityscapes, and agonized protagonists who lurch through them, revolted by the existential truths they have uncovered. Their miserable voices call to me saying, “We are all connected. None of us is alone.”

Book photo from MIskatonic River Press

Pulver’s collection here is (according to Wikipedia) award-winning and rightfully so. The stories in it bring a range of voices, both narratively and creatively, together in a dizzying rush through the darkened, greedy corners of our universe. I started the book in the middle, with Jon Padgett’s 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism, and from there explored outwards from the center of the book, devouring the stories and letting the thread, whatever Ligottian impulse Pulver had called forth from them for this collection, which bound them together, thread its way through me and draw me in, another puppet for the Grimscribe, or whatever else is hiding out past the blue veneer of the sky.

Of extra special note are Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace, Kaaron Warren’s The Human Moth, Robin Spiggs The Xenambulist, and Gemma Files’s Obliette (which I didn’t save for last, and highly recommend you take the editor’s implicit recommendation and let it be the last morsel of this collection you savor to end the experience). The Human Moth left me feeling like Ms. Link, now that I know stories like it exist, though I might prefer to have eschewed that knowledge, I must seek them out.


An unexpected triumph: Jupiter Ascending, the most feminist sci-fi film of the year

Jupiter Ascending got wrecked on the critical shores. The most recent film from the Watchowski siblings (who brought you The Matrix), is a critique of capitalism, disguised as a space opera romance. I can see some of you shaking your heads, thinking, “She’s both drastically overselling this film” and “Come on, sure, the Matrix had some philosophical undercurrents, but this is a film about Channing Tatum helping Mila Kunis become a space princess.”

Give me a moment to sell this movie to you again.

Your average hard sci-fi fan will find a lot to complain about with Jupiter Ascending. But we need to take a moment and remember that most hard sci-fi fans will complain about Star Wars, too. And everyone is about to fall over in excitement for the JJ Abrams Star Wars sequel set, so I’m not sure “It’s not hard SF” is enough to pronounce this film DOA.
Let me be entirely clear: Jupiter Ascending is a space romance. It’s primary function is to serve up two beautiful people who fall in spectacular love with one another, while elevating Mila Kunis’ Jupiter from a life as a toilet scrubbing illegal immigrant. But in the process it does a number of surprisingly lovely things.
For example, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The monotony of free-falling action sequences, explosions, space battles, and beautiful CGI alien worlds is broken up with moments of foot-in-mouth humor, and a bureaucratic scene unlike anything we’ve seen since Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Buried underneath the verbal faux pas of Kunis’ and Tatum’s courtship is the plot that drives the film forward, throwing the characters together in life-or-death situations to help them fall in love. It is a plot that relies on rather well-developed world building that draws the more indulgent viewer into the politics of a genetically-driven economy.
In fact, the hand-wavey science of genetics undergirds the entire world Jupiter (and the viewers) are thrown into. (I remind you again, that the Force is basically magic. And that a decent number of people sat through the scientifically unteneble Limitless and Lucy. So demanding a strict adherence to “real science” seems somewhat excessive.) With sufficiently advanced technology, the film argues, we will no longer be slave to our natural genetic code (with various characters having been genetically engineered before birth as soldiers, Tatum among them), and not even to time itself, but at a cost.
Ultimately, the film seems to say, it is not the science that produces real evil, but the economic structure with its commitment to profit, and product, that will play out the real evil. There are literal human costs to this system, which uses raw genetic material to produce longevity. Kunis’ Jupiter has been drawn into a battle between the siblings of a corporate empire by virtue of her particular genetic code.

But what of the romantic genre itself? In the quest for better female representation in popular media, Romance as often been called upon to come to the rescue. After all, girls like love and having their social station elevated to grant them access to more finely made clothes, right?
I posted a number of months ago about the Bechdel Test, and asked you to think back on how many films had female characters interacting with each other (an order so tall that even with all the weight of Disney behind it, Marvel has only managed to pull it off on the small screen). Jupiter Ascending succeeds without any huge fanfare. The primary exposition for the film takes place when Tuppence Middleton shuffles Kunis into a vague understanding of her new station. In the words of my father, “What? Exposition between two women? But that’s ridiculous, everyone knows women don’t know anything!” Jupiter also has a relationship with her mother and her aunt, one of the women she keeps house for, and the lady captain of a space police ship.
Walking the tightrope of hyperbole, I would be willing to suggest that this is the most feminist science fiction film you’ll see this year. Certainly by this time this year.

I promised you social commentary on the nature of capitalism and I feel I should deliver. The film is split into a few factions: you have the Egiss who are a regulatory body, they are referred to at least once in the film as “space cops” and they serve as the instrumental power of the state, essentially to try and curb the greed of the ruling semi-aristocratic class who will lie, and murder without compunction to achieve their ends of growing their profit margins. Then you have the “Entitled,” who are a sort of landed gentry. They own planets, which they harvest to create a product that essentially renders people immortal. Bureaucracy makes its appearance as a hinderance, but also a neutral entity that can be used or abused pretty much entirely due to one’s familiarity with the process.
After that, violence is a commodity that can be bought, much as in our world. Bounty hunters abound, and can be made instruments for the Entitled in their battle to get their hands on the best source.

It is not a complex film. If you follow the surface plot, it’s a rag-to-riches, harlequin romance, complete with a handsome and loyal soldier for the romantic lead. If you fall to the second level, it’s a simple parable cursing the rich and their greedy, thoughtless practices, with a coming of age plot about reassessing your place in the world and making the best of your new station.
It also has lovely computer generated sets, that create a lush backdrop for the slightly humorous costume choices (space society is big on corsets). While it is not a film set to win any awards, it should neither be thrust in the category of “completely unremarkable” nor should it be cast out as “foolish” or worse “confusing” (that last one has left me perplexed, as there did not really appear to be anything that actually needed explaining, any “science” working as a large scale plot device devoid of anything resembling math or biology).

If spectacle, a dash of romance, and having a good laugh when space capitalists fail to produce offspring competent in hand-to-hand combat are things you enjoy give Jupiter Ascending a shot. It is, in the honor of a particular science fiction tradition, a damn good time..

Lessons in Solidarity

In 1984, members of the gay and lesbian community in England banded together to support the miners’ strike happening in the country in response to Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. Despite the cultural differences and the often contentious relationship between the two groups, a commitment to solidarity and support brought these people together.

PRIDE (2014) photo from The Guardian

In the summer of 1985, after the strike ended, after nearly a year of fighting, and not with the outcome the strikers had hoped for, the miners lead the Gay Pride march in a show of solidarity with the community that had worked with them.

This is the story of the movie Pride which came out this year, where it one the Queer Palm award to Cannes.

Over the long weekend, here at UMass Amherst, three incidents of hate speech were written on the doors of students of color. This has not only shaken the community, for obvious reasons, but also brought with it an outpouring of emotion relating to the way the campus community treats students of color, the retention rate among students of color and the consistent failure of the community to address concerns regarding race on campus.

More often than not I have heard the words, “I am not surprised.” And that’s it. There is no further examination of that statement, there is no outrage, there is no anger or fear or sadness. There is a tacit acceptance of the fact that racism is alive and well on our campus.

Ben Schnetzer, as Mark Ashton, says in Pride, “I don’t understand how people can be for one thing and not another. How can you be for labor rights and not women’s right?” [badly paraphrased]. And as I look at this campus, I ask myself the same thing. How can we hope to make progress, together, if we won’t stand together? 

Schnetzer’s character is met halfway by one of the miners, Dai Donovan, played by Paddy Considine who refers to a banner his town has, of two hands clasped, where he explains that the way he sees it, the banner shows, “If you support me, I’ll support you.” And indeed, the National Union of Mineworkers voted to enshrine gay rights in the Labour Party’s platform, as well as leading the parade in ’85.

This is what we need; the solidarity, the community, and the will to fight the darkness of hatred and racism wherever it is hiding. Our black students should not be facing this alone, our hispanic students should not be facing this alone, students of color should not be facing this alone. We should take our cue from stories like that of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. But we should also remember the miners, and our organized labor groups, all forms of organized peoples should be working to end this kind of behavior on our campus and in our community.

We are fighting for all of us.

Starting with the Bechdel Test

Let’s start a conversation with the Bechdel Test. Now I might be beating a dead horse here, but I’ve recently realized that knowledge of the Bechdel Test is not as widespread as I thought it was. I’ll drop it into conversation and people will suddenly look confused and I’ll have to backtrack and explain what it is.

The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test, alternately called the Bechdel/Wallace Test, the Bechdel Rule, Bechdel’s Law, or the Mo Movie Measure, is a simple set of rules that creates a rudimentary set of standards for female representation in movies (personally, I apply it to television as well). It made it’s appearance in 1985 in Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For.

Dykes to Watch Out For, 1985.

It has three rules:

1. A movie must have 2 female characters

2. They must have a conversation.

3. About something other than a man.

In theory this shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve. I would like to invite you now to take a moment and think back on the last five movies you saw and see if they pass the Bechdel Test. Continue reading “Starting with the Bechdel Test”