¡Viva la Revolución!

TW: suicide, depression, white fragility, slut shaming, domestic abuse… it’s not a light read.

I do not expect to ever top my 4th of July of 2018.

I didn’t even realize until the following night when I returned to the States, (the fact that it happened innocently, unintentionally, made it all the more persuasive) but I spent that American Independence Day at Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution) in Havana, Cuba.

Ellen stands in a doorway to a Juliet balcony on an upper level of the Museo de la Revolución. She's wearing a white summer dress with blue details and tan sandals. Her hair is pinned up, and she has on dangly earrings. Her multiple tattoos are visible and she stands with her arms on the railing behind her; she's not smiling but she looks happy.
July 4, 2018 – Museo de la Revolución

I was visiting with three other women, two of whom (Rachel and Molly) I’d known for over a decade and a third, Lauren, whom those two met in a Facebook ‘women who travel’ group. I had reached out to Rachel [names have been changed] towards the end of May. She lived in Seattle, I in San Diego, and we’d met eons ago when my little brother was in the Army and stationed in Tacoma. They met on mySpace, to give you an idea of how long ago that was. Over the years we’d traveled to the other’s city and stayed together countless times. She was one of the few people with whom I thought I would enjoy traveling internationally, and we’d discussed going to the UK or something like that.

When I reached out to her in May, I didn’t care where we went.

I was barely keeping my head above water during the deepest, darkest depression I’d ever experienced (and I’d experienced it, to varying degrees, since well before puberty). I was getting to the point where I was scared, and needed help, but also didn’t want to scare those around me. So I casually asked Rachel if she could swing a trip… soon.

“Molly and I are going to Cuba in July. Want to join us?”

As obvious a ‘YES!’ as that was, it was still a dilemma. Consider yourself extremely fortunate if you don’t know firsthand how difficult it is to do anything while depressed — especially anything fun or new.

It was while giving a haircut weeks later, still sputtering weak excuses about humidity and uncertainty about drinking water, that I heard the words of encouragement I needed, from a client who traveled near-constantly for work to the likes of India and China. “Just go,” he said. And I did.

The taxi ride from the airport to our casa particular in Havana Vieja was worth the entire trip.

I could not have curated a better change of scenery, which was what I specifically felt I needed. I was 36 years old, had lived all those years in San Diego county, the past 9 in the same ~200 square foot studio apartment, the past 7 working at the same salon… I felt desperately, hopelessly (not quite!) stuck.

And so it is that I came to find myself at Museo de la Revolución on July 4, 2018. I saw my country and its history not from the perspective of an American, as told by Americans, but from that of Cuba. All the atrocities of which I’d heard those big, bad, communist countries accused… “we” did that. “We,” America, was the big baddie. In a US-sanctioned program (Operación Pedro Pan/ Operation Peter Pan), over 14.000 Cuban children were taken [their parents supposedly “agreed” but if that’s true did so under duress and with false information] from Cuba and sent to the US to be adopted or matched with American relatives under the guise of “saving them” (1960-62). In 1971 the CIA intentionally introduced swine flu to the island, which resulted in the forced killing of half a million Cuban pigs. There’s way too much more, but that’ll set the mood.

Radical acceptance is what has, in large part, allowed me to deal with my own depression, and it’s what’s helping me deal with my country’s past and especially present in the midst of both a revolution and a pandemic. It’s a concept popularized in the West by Marsha Linehan, who herself was diagnosed with and has struggled with mental illness, via dialectical behavioral therapy . To quote her, “Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t try to change things, because you only have to radically accept the moment you’re in, and the past. But you can try to change the next moment.”

I used to loathe, with a seething passion, the phrase “it is what it is.” Not only did I find it obnoxiously, obviously redundant (my canned response is still a sarcastic “isn’t it, though”) but it pissed me off… because I didn’t want to accept what was. I fought, without realizing it, against so much that was beyond my control, thereby depleting my energy into that which I could affect.

I am not celebrating this 4th of July in the manner intended. I am celebrating it through the lens of radical acceptance.

I see nothing to “celebrate” while the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain are still gainfully employed. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of racial injustice and inequality.

I do, however, see a reason to write this, and to keep fighting.

For a country who loves its fierce individualism, we sure do undervalue our power when it comes to affecting real change. I have been seeing two — quite admittedly ridiculously dialectical and exaggerated-for-effect — tropes play out in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic. Exhibit A: I’m an American! I have rights! You can’t make me wear a mask! I demand a haircut! I haven’t personally died, so obviously this whole thing is a hoax and I should be free to lob my bean bag towards any corn hole I want. Exhibit B: Can the police stop blatantly murdering Black Americans, at least on camera? And if there’s anyone still listening who hasn’t succumbed to exhaustion, Black trans women (you know, like she who started the whole Pride thing) especially could use our support?? Also the most Native of Americans who are those most likely to die from COVID19???

sigh.

Yesterday I reached out to Lauren (she was the third I didn’t meet until 6am as we gathered to board a plane in North Carolina bound for Cuba). I’d been holding a grudge. For two years. That day in the Museo, Lauren informed me, in what I believe were her first words to me that day, that my “dress [was] completely see through.” She added, to considerable effect: “Maybe that’s why you’re so popular.”

I was popular in Cuba. Rachel commented once while we were walking through Havana Vieja, where we stayed, “Now I know what it’s like to travel with a celebrity” because apparently people were turning and staring (I say ‘apparently’ because in 20 years of being almost 6′ tall, conventionally attractive [I’m still not at all comfortable typing or even thinking that], and increasingly illustrated I have adopted extremely thick blinders to cope with the inherent attention).

And my dress was see through. Not enough to warrant that slut-shame-y comment, but enough that, if you looked closely (I know because I did that morning, debated, and decided if someone cared enough to be upset that I was wearing light-blue-polka-dot-chonies under my white dress in 1000% humidity, they could suck it) yes, it was. I could’ve laughed it off, said “yeah, and what of it, ya big jerk?” and gone about my life. As it is, I unfollowed Lauren not long after our trip and took it as a personal attack on my first gasp of air after my long, deep depression dive — a veritable “fuck you, stay down, and don’t come back up, ya whore.”

When I told Lauren how sorry I was for being so consumed by my own depression to consider what she was going through — in the interest of privacy I will not divulge, save to say her battle was physical as well as emotional [and please do not commend me for any sort of moral aptitude without bearing well in mind the two years, leading up to the just the other day, which I spent filled with resentment] — one of the wonderful things she told me was, “I was jealous of your confidence.”

Oh, the bloody-sweet irony. What she saw as an abundance of self-assuredness was me, to me, trying my darnedest to find a buoy while barely treading water. I guess you never really can truly know what’s happening below the surface: of an individual, or a country.

For me to declare “I LOVE AMERICA.” would be akin to me saying “I loved my family growing up.” There’s the kind of “love” where you cover your bruises and demur any questions with slightly defensive explanations. And there’s the kind of love where you’ve had enough, way more than enough, and you say –as loudly and disruptively as needed — “HEY! I LOVE YOU! AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, I LOVE ME! AND WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS CRAP!”

And that’s how I feel about my country on this, its “Independence Day.”


“I can build my own motorcycle.”

I suppose this is a departure from the original intent of the website… but at this point it’s a departure to post at all (last one was November 2018… oops) and it’s my damn page so there. I hope you’re keeping your chin up during the pandemic and you and yours are safe and sane. Hang in there, baby kitties. I love you. – george ellen 

Artwork by Yolanda Bustos ig @lollypop.hickey

San Diego, California. March, 2015. I’m at the DIY garage where I’ll soon move my ’76 CB550 for their monthly after-hours hangout. I’m there with my best friend “Michelle.” I’ve very recently broken up with my boyfriend of a little over a year, and it’s bad (it’ll get worse). I’m the skinniest I’ve ever been (I can’t eat, and I’ll get even skinnier when it comes time for the restraining order), and though I hate the cause I’m feeling the result, and I’m on a (temporary) high after finally ending the relationship. I’m single and ready to mingle… at least ready to talk shop and drink a couple beers.

Me & the Honda (then named ‘Geil’) in April when we moved into the shop

There aren’t a lot of people at this hangout, and Michelle and I are the only women. A guy around my age starts talking to the two of us and is hitting on me, hard. He’s exactly my type, down to his boozy overconfidence. Before long he demands my number. I explain I’m days out of a shitty relationship and I’m not ready (I’ve never subscribed to the notion that the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else). He doesn’t accept this. “I’ll take you out to dinner, anywhere you want, and then I’ll help you build your motorcycle.”

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Old vs. new fork oil

My ex was going to help me build my motorcycle. That had been the plan, anyway. I’d brought it to his house in bins, the engine belted into the passenger seat, and in the 6+ months it was there he helped me change the fork oil, mount tires, and buy a bunch of cheap parts I ultimately had to re-buy. I quickly learned that wrenching with him was a disaster that often ended with him throwing a fit (and tools) when he got frustrated. He refused to return the moto after the breakup, and only allowed my brother to collect it after my dad (who was the registered owner) called him. As I told my ex at the time — don’t fuck with my motorcycle. Holding my Honda hostage was the final nail in a coffin that was already six feet under.

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The rolling frame I moved into the shop

So I looked this dude square in the eye and told him: “I can build my own motorcycle, thanks.” And to my vague astonishment I realized I actually believed myself. I hadn’t the foggiest idea HOW I was going to build this motorcycle, but the last thing I wanted was another man involved. He finally conceded to giving me his number instead of taking mine, and I excused myself to the restroom, where I had a sudden, clanging awareness. I knew this guy.

“Did you ever shoot a couch?” I asked when I returned. I knew the answer immediately by the way his eyes narrowed and his features hardened. “Oh, you’re friends with Xxxxxx,” he sneered. I didn’t recognize him at first. He’d gained some weight and wasn’t as coiffed as he’d been when I’d heard the story years earlier. Back then he had a penchant for mod suits and shiny oxfords when I saw him every so often at shows or on the campus of the downtown community college. I wasn’t friends with his ex-girlfriend, but someone getting wasted and shooting their partner’s couch was the sort of gossip that made its quick way around a town as incestuous as San Diego.

His tone flat and cold, he told me that incident was an isolated one due to too much cocaine, which he no longer used (well, aside from last New Year’s Eve). Just to get confirmation (he was pretty cute), I asked the owners of the motorcycle shop what they thought of him. I was told he consistently got sloppy drunk at their events and then rode his motorcycle home, and that he had a dog who apparently so abhorred living with him it broke through a glass window to escape. What was this bizarre occurrence — it was like I was actually SEEING the red flags that were smacking me in the face. When I dropped off Michelle and told her I planned to throw away his number, she took it “in case I changed my mind.” I probably would have, in the past.

I’m glad I didn’t.

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Norman Hits the Road

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Chino, California. The rooster crows his fool head off in the backyard as I nurse my mug of coffee. My cousin Ben graciously set the maker to start at 6am the night before, which makes being awake at such an early hour more bearable.

The Van is leaving my aunt’s garage for the first time in over 6 years to come home with me to San Diego.

This morning has been in the works for a number of months now, maybe six. While I’d been daydreaming about taking on The Van as my next project for a few years, I’d only more recently summoned the courage to talk about it with my family. The Van originally belonged to my Uncle Bill, my mom’s brother-in-law. He and The Van and an assortment of other passengers crisscrossed the country multiple times over the decades on adventures long and short. A school teacher, my uncle would take a month-long camping trip each summer during break with a variation of my three cousins and their friends. (My year-round school schedule was always at odds with his traditional, so I never joined.)

Uncle Bill passed away the end of the summer of 2008 during a solo canoeing trip on Mono Lake. The usually calm waters are sometimes suddenly and severely overtaken by high winds. Winds that day were clocked as high as 80 miles an hour. Making his way back to The Van, parked at the shore of Navy Beach, to return home for the start of the school year, his canoe capsized, and he drowned.

The Van was driven a few times after his death. My cousins, brother, and I took it to Joshua Tree National Park for my 30th birthday. But soon it sat, for longer and longer stretches, until it became a neglected fixture of my aunt’s garage.

It was summer last year when I observed the only time I genuinely felt excited was when I fantasized about taking on The Van as my next project. I’d only recently completed my first — a 1976 Honda CB550F motorcycle that had belonged to my dad and subsequently sat unloved in a backyard for 20-odd years. I’d never done so much as an oil change for my car or used a socket wrench. Having no idea what I was getting myself into I naively thought I’d “fix it up” and by the time I realized what all I’d gotten myself into (a complete rebuild) I was too invested and stubborn to quit. Three-and-a-half years later I was riding around town… and seemed to have something like post-project depression. The bug had bitten me. I wanted more.

A picture emerged in my mind: the moto (dubbed “Arnold” after we crashed in August and I used the insurance money to make upgrades — lemonade from lemons, and I prefer mine mixed with iced tea) towed in the back of The Van, a 1979 Volkswagen Type 2. Long weekends in the mountains or desert, season depending. I’d spend the day riding the moto, and return at its end to The Van, simply modified to safely and comfortably provide shelter for the night. I’d kick up my feet and put a record on the player (I’m happiest when fancying myself a character in a Wes Anderson movie, so record player is the logical source of sound), crack open a beverage and breathe in all that was good in the world.

I could never have gathered the gumption to ask to take on The Van without the confidence earned from the moto build, but even so it was sickeningly scary. My uncle is somewhat of a legend, not only among my family but in the broader community. He taught high school special ed math, and a regular incentive for his students was a trip in The Van to Joshua Tree; there are countless people with fond memories of my uncle and The Van. He was a prominent figure in his local Methodist church, and a mentor to former students long after they graduated. He is, to me, proof that life doesn’t owe you a damn thing or make any sense whatsoever in the way it shakes out. He was the kindest, most compassionate person I’ve ever known, and I am forever heartbroken at his absence.

I asked my aunt first, as I accompanied her to pick up Mexican food for the rest of the family. In the memory I’m awkward and halting, my nervousness tangling my words before they can leave my mouth. To my eternal relief she was receptive and calm, and nodded along with my plan. She liked it, but was very clear that it wasn’t her permission I needed so much as my cousins’.

I talked to them over the next few weeks, my confidence rising with each enthusiastic response. The youngest, Vanessa, had two qualifiers: don’t change the seats and don’t change the paint. I was vaguely offended at the second (change that paint job?!?? Are you kidding!!??!) but I was glad to have any expectations out in the open.

Everyone was on board. Not only were they on board, they seemed genuinely excited. My aunt and mom’s brother, Chip, was a life long car enthusiast who spent much of his time post-retirement at racetracks as a volunteer. I looked to him as the seasoned mechanic in my corner. He was glad to help. Thanksgiving morning we met at my aunt’s to give The Van an inspection. The battery was of course dead, but with a jump started right up. The excitement and emotion of hearing her running for the first time in years was exhilarating and sweetly sad. My aunt hooted, my cousins cheered and clapped. I declared we should start a mechanical project each Thanksgiving.

I expected AAA to tow us home, but I overestimated the package availed us. They would only cover 100 miles, and the distance between my aunt and mom’s homes was 123. At $10/mile over the initial 100, that made for a much more expensive trip than I’d counted on. (I live in a very tiny studio in central San Diego, with no space to store or work on… anything. My mom very generously donated a portion of her garage in Chula Vista for the moto, and is doing so once more for The Van.) But Vanessa had a friend, Thomas, with access to a trailer through his work and a penchant for moving vehicles.

And so here we are. Chino. Coffee. Early (so early).

I follow behind in my silver sedan, feeling like a protective barrier against the speeding Southern California drivers who whiz up behind us, going 55 – 60 mph. I’ve never driven so slowly on the freeway for so long. Around 10 am we arrive at my mom’s. She has a spot in the garage waiting — she’s relegating one of her vehicles to life outside. The guys push while I steer, and The Van is in my mom’s garage. Damn, it’s weird.

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I had promised Vanessa I’d take them all out to eat, but by this time I feel like I’m about to crack open from the emotion and expectation of it all. I meekly make excuses about it being 10:30 on a Sunday and how crowded it’ll be anywhere, and palm her money for food. I do the same with gas money for Thomas (who also gave The Van a bath! What a guy).

My mom and I sit for a while with coffee and gradually the lump in my throat subsides. I opt for the mildest yet most satisfying first task I can think of: scraping old tape from the inside of the back window. The remnants had stuck out to me the entire drive here. I climbed in, armed with a razor blade. I thought of all the times with the moto that I’d spent days doing menial tasks because I was too overwhelmed to do anything else. Once I was done with that I thought I’d just see how the seats were secured to the floor; I knew they bolted in and out and was curious how easily the bolts would release. Not a one gave an ounce of resistance. My mom came out to see midway through and when I told her how easily things were going she declared it “meant to be.” “Oh no,” I argued, shaking my head. “I’m not going there, because when things are more difficult down the road I don’t want to have to admit the opposite.”

 

It’s my first big step towards my dream of kickin’ up my feet after a day of moto-ing and putting on a record. The most precious part of the whole thing is the support of my family. I know it’s difficult for them, as it is for me, to be reminded that my uncle isn’t here, but I hope it’s worth it. And I can all but hear my Uncle Bill saying: “cool!”