Sunday, January 21, 2024

The state of American fiction.

I had a day off from work yesterday (not always a given during session), so I saw a movie, and you get a blog post about it.

By, Fair use,
(Sorry about the gnarly cutline. I don't want anybody coming after me for copyright infringement.)

American Fiction has already won numerous awards, and supposedly there's Oscar talk for Jeffrey Wright, who plays Thelonious "Monk" Ellison. Monk is a literature professor at a West Coast college who is forced to take a leave of absence after a student complains about him writing the N word on the board (it's in the title of a Flannery O'Connor short story). That incident is the tip of the iceberg; Monk is tightly wound due to his agent's inability to sell his latest novel (a retelling of Aeschylus). Despite his literary cred, his novels keep getting categorized as "African-American Studies" because he's Black. And his attendance at a literary festival in his hometown of Boston only makes it worse when he sees that the biggest draw is a novel by a Black woman -- a graduate of Oberlin -- whose novel relies heavily on stereotypical Black narrative elements and street slang.

Monk's visit to his family home is one of the film's revelations. He comes from an upper-middle-class -- maybe even upper-class -- background. His sister is a lawyer; his brother is a plastic surgeon. The family home is a lovely old house in a lovely old-money neighborhood. The family owns a beach house. His mother employs a woman who's clearly been with the family since the kids were small. Everything is so far from the streets that it's no wonder that Monk is frustrated about the state of publishing for Black writers. But then his mother's health begins to degenerate. There's talk of having to sell the beach house to cover her care. And Monk decides to give the White publishing establishment what it wants: a novel full of Black stereotypes that he calls My Pafology. He writes it as a joke, and he insists that his agent send it out.

Of course, it's snapped up immediately for a huge advance. Monk needs the money, but he doesn't want it -- not on those terms. So he tells the publisher that he wants to change the title to Fuck. He figures that will kill the deal. But of course it doesn't. And Monk -- the upper-middle-class college professor -- is forced to do marketing for the book using a persona that his agent came up with on the spur of the moment: a Black criminal who did time for a felony and is now on the lam.

The movie is being marketed as a comedy, and there are definitely funny moments. But there's a lot more to American Fiction than that. There's family drama, and there's Monk's character development. There are sweet moments, too. 

And there's the critique of the publishing industry that drew me to the movie in the first place. The film's thesis is that publishers pigeonhole serious writers of color as "African-American Studies" while glorifying the "raw", "visceral" and "real" street life of poor Black people that Monk has made up. Undoubtedly there are people living that life. But Monk insists that there's more to being Black in America than that, and he maintains it's a failing of White folks that we ignore it in favor of sensational stories about drunks on crack in the 'hood who shoot each other as a way of life.

As an aside, I enjoyed actually seeing Wright, who I knew only from his voice role as The Watcher in Marvel's What If... shorts on Disney+. There's also a very funny appearance by Michael Cyril Creighton, who's also in the cast of Only Murders in the Building. And Leslie Uggams plays Monk's mother.

I wouldn't call American Fiction a perfect film, but it's very good, and it has some important things to say about the state of publishing, not just for Black authors but in general. I hope it's not consigned to the same fate as Monk's serious novels: critically acclaimed but lost in the shuffle. I enjoyed it. Go see it.


It wasn't lost on me that I'm a White woman who saw the movie as part of an audience of White people. Maybe we'll learn something from it?


These moments of bloggy movie reviewing have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Election 2024: Sliding into the deep end.


S Silver | Deposit Photos
And so it begins. The Iowa caucuses are happening tomorrow night, kicking off the 2024 presidential election (for Republicans, at least; Iowa Democrats will hold a primary in March, and the first primary election for both parties is next week in New Hampshire). 

The outcome of this primary season is likely preordained. Joe Biden is expected to win the Democratic nomination, and Donald Trump is way ahead of all of his challengers for the Republican nomination.

The media are treating it like any other election, talking about winners and losers, poll numbers and prognostications. But we're in a much different situation now than we have been in any past election, because the presumptive GOP nominee is under indictment on 91 criminal charges -- 91! -- not to mention being a defendant in several civil trials. He'll be splitting time between various federal and state courthouses and the campaign trail this year. And yet, somehow, he's still in the lead.

Over at the Washington Post last week, columnist Jennifer Rubin questioned whether the media aren't to blame. (It's a gift article -- feel free to click through and read the column.) She says pundits spent a lot of time after the 2016 election trying to figure out how they could have been so wrong about Trump's popularity. So reporters went to diners across the Rust Belt and talked to Trump's supporters -- and concluded that the problem was too many jobs going overseas.

But later analyses discovered that wasn't it at all. The real reason voters supported Trump had more to do with racism than anything else. The media totally missed the real story, Rubin says: that a minority of culture warriors with authoritarian dreams had taken over the Republican Party.

Rubin is dissembling here. As a former Republican and a Never Trumper, she's not going to admit that the Christofascists have been allied with the Libertarian elements of the GOP for several decades -- since Ronald Reagan, if not before -- and Trump's rise was pretty much the inevitable result.

But she's right about one thing: the media now ought to be covering today's GOP not as a legitimate political party, but like a cult -- the cult of Trump. "More of the media should be covering this phenomenon as it would any right-wing authoritarian movement in a foreign country," she writes. 

I agree with her. But it may be too late. It's going to be impossible to reach most of the devotees of Trump's personality cult. They've been hand-fed lies by Fox News and right-wing social media for far too long. They're not going to quit Trump -- they're in too deep. And like lemmings, they're going to follow him right over the edge into the abyss. Again.

Let's hope enough rational voters turn out in November to keep the cultists from dragging this country into the abyss after them. 


Speaking of politics: Yesterday marked the first day of my annual marathon, also known as the regular session of the New Mexico legislature. The session doesn't actually start until Tuesday, but there's a lot of prep work to be done on bills and such before the legislators hit the floor (so to speak). So our department started working in shifts yesterday. We'll be working every day, including weekends and holidays, and without breaks, until the final day of the session, which this year is Thursday, February 15th. 

Our state legislature meets for 60 days in odd-numbered years and 30 days in even-numbered years. That it's a 30-day session this year should make it easier, but it doesn't. It just means that everything that usually happens in 60 days has to get done in half the time.

And this year for the first time, I'm doing a session as a full-time employee. There's a bit of a different flavor to that. So I might not be keeping to my usual weekly blogging schedule for the next few weeks. If I've got a good topic, I'll write a post. Otherwise I may sit the week out. We'll see how it goes.


These moments of unabashedly political blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Social Security surprises. Not the good kind.

stokkete | Deposit Photos

Consider this a cautionary tale.

As y'all know, I retired in mid 2020, several years before reaching my full retirement age. I crunched the numbers and figured I could make it work with Social Security and various investments, plus a part-time job. And it did work -- until I bought a condo and the condo association slapped the owners with a massive, multi-year special assessment. So I went back to work full-time in May of last year. 

Until you reach the year of your full retirement age, Social Security will let you earn a certain amount each year and still keep getting your benefits -- but if you earn more than their max, they'll dock your benefit by $1 for every $2 over the max you earn. The earnings limit in 2023 was $21,240. I knew I was going to make more than that last year, so in May, I sent Social Security a letter letting them know that I was going to make way more than their earnings limit for the year. 

In early November, I got a letter from Social Security that said -- I'm paraphrasing here -- "Oh hai, you are going to make way more than you should have this year, so we are going to stop paying you benefits for four months, starting now."

The face that guy is making up top is an approximation of my reaction. I mean, I went back to work because I needed the money. I'd made plans several months out based on what I thought would be my monthly income -- which was now being cut by about a third. 

It's not so much that they cut back my benefit. I knew they were going to -- that's why I sent them the letter. But what I want y'all to understand is how they do it: There's no monthly payment plan. They just stop paying you 'til they get back what they "overpaid" you. And they give you very little warning.

So how can you avoid this whack upside the head? You have three options:

  1. You can wait 'til you reach your full retirement age before you start taking Social Security.
  2. If you retire early, you should keep a close eye on your annual earnings to make sure you don't go over the max earnings for the year (it's $22,320 for 2024).
  3. You can tell Social Security to stop sending you money for a while. 
There are a couple of ways to accomplish that third option. If you haven't reached full retirement age yet, you can do what's called a withdrawal of benefits. You can only do it within the first twelve months of retiring, and you can only do it once. And there's another catch: You have to pay them back everything they've already paid you. So let's say you retired for six months, then went back to work. You'd have to give Social Security back every penny they'd paid you -- money you had presumably been living off of, so you wouldn't have it to give back. And if the new job doesn't work out, tough bananas -- Social Security won't pay you anything again until you reach full retirement age.

The other way is called suspension of benefits. Basically, you tell Social Security you'd like to stop getting a check from them until you ask them to start paying you again (or until you turn 70). Under this option, you don't have to pay back anything they've already paid you. But the catch is that you have to have reached full retirement age to exercise this option. 

Both of these options reset the year that you started taking benefits, which will mean a bigger monthly payment for you when they do resume. But lawdy, they don't make it easy for you to change your mind.

Anyway, in my situation, option 3 was not an option; I had yet to reach my full retirement age, and it had been more than a year since I first retired. 

I've been using a term that I haven't explained: full retirement age. What is it? Well, it depends on when you were born. For decades, everybody's full retirement age was 65. Then Congress started dinking around with it, raising it to supposedly stave off a shortfall in the Social Security system (I have Opinions, but that would be another post). For me, full retirement age is 66 and a half. (Here's how to figure out yours. The chart is at the top of page 3.)

As for this withholding-part-of-your-benefits business: The rules change when you get to the year in which you will reach full retirement age. Then the amount you can earn that year raises by a lot -- for 2024, it's $59,520 -- and as long as you don't make that much before the month you reach full retirement age, you're golden. Even if you do make that much money that year, the penalty is less harsh; Social Security retains only $1 for every $3 (instead of every $2) you make over the limit.

Also, Social Security swears that once I hit full retirement age, they'll give me back the money they've withheld from me. It's not like they'll send me a fat check all at once, though; instead, they'll use some arcane formula to bump up my monthly benefit. In other words, they'll give it back in convenient monthly installments -- an option they didn't give me when they began withholding my benefits. Hmph.

The good news for me is that this is the last time I'll have to deal with this. I'll reach full retirement age in 2024, and no way I'll make $59,520 in the months before I get there. So soon all this folderol will be behind me. I just need to make it to March, when my benefit payments will resume.

But the moral of the story for you guys is this: If you're going to start taking Social Security before your full retirement age, pay attention to your earnings if you go back to work. 

One more thing: If you have your Medicare premium taken out of your Social Security check, but Social Security starts withholding your benefits, Medicare won't drop you or suspend you. Social Security will simply take the missed premiums out of your check once they start paying you again. Isn't that a nice change from the way private insurance companies operate?

These moments of hair-pulling blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!