Pacifist, Anarchist, Beatnik, Catholic, Chemist, Activist, Father
To hear my mother tell it among an ever growing list of cartoonish atrocities my father literally burned down the homes of Jews, murdered his first wife, and ran a baby rape conspiracy. At best this is followed by the loaded concession: “…But then he told so many lies you never could trust anything about him.” And his brother Gene finally sadly nodded diplomatically a little bit on that sentence and said “Well, with Ted you never really knew anything for sure.”
“He was,” his brother later sighed, utterly unprompted, “the consummate anarchist.”
Born Theodore William Gerard Gillis on October 26th 1931, in Queens, New York to a racist Irish political patriarch from Hell’s Kitchen and a Polish-Ukrainian waitress, Ted grew up an alienated middle child. Never close to or open with his family he finally he “borrowed” a chunk of money from them in the 60s and took off, cutting all contact. By all accounts Ted could wax dishonest, stubborn, and self-isolating. His alienation and bitter stoicism permitted few very far in over the course of his life. As his first child in the years before age rotted his mind I alone was born entirely inside his bubble; before me “the stories” never changed, nor any faucet of his character, and the facts have consistently backed them up. Here is a little of what we know:
Ted grew distant from his parents and brothers early on, in his pre-adolescence he found friendship with a old veteran neighbor and together they listened to radio reports of Franco’s bombs and Hitler’s conquests, carefully marking troop movements out on maps and talking about some of the things his neighbor had seen in the first World War. As a teenager in Queens he was accepted at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School a Catholic school that drew children from a mix of races, there he became a studied troublemaker, proud cheat, and member of a loose gang of outcasts. Eventually all the running from authorities paid off when he discovered a talent on the track at sprinting. His first true passion Ted loved the 50 yard dash, and would still talk obsessively sixty years later about the design of various shoes he wore and the shit he received for adopting an effete *white* pair. His career was cut short when he was drafted into the Korean War.
He served the majority of the war as an air traffic controller but at one point was shot down copiloting a helicopter accidentally behind enemy lines while the front suddenly shifted south. Cut off for a couple months he was protected from Northern troops by a family of leftists who he later endeavored to protect in turn and who served as his springpad into anarchism. (When I was young in the early 90s I remember him awkwardly but not unpleasantly meeting up with members of that family visiting America; they had stayed in contact.) This adventure and momentary respite from his bitter service in ranks of the military is however second in impact to the bomb that ripped him open and left him with a plastic esophagus among other life-long health problems. It was during his long hospitalization that a delayed letter finally arrived: he’d been accepted to train for the US Olympic team.
Upon return Ted went to college in DC and partied endlessly with the children of ambassadors, getting up to larger shenanigans, trying to hide his class origins and dating a string of girls. He had no plans upon graduation and when approached about a job working with nitroglycerine said yes thinking it was a joke. It paid well for the risk and he left within a couple years. He got his masters in chemical engineering in the UK at the University of Surrey with a thesis on brownian motion and moved to Riverside California as part of a start up company applying a new gold-plating technique.
The move to California paralleled a growing identification with the Beatnik movement and the currents of individualist pacifist anarchism rising in popularity at that time. He worked alongside a pacifist anarchist mentor of Cesar Chavez in campaigns and was elected an activist county commissioner during water disputes. He came to travel and work primarily as a legal observer and in 1970 while assisting a student insurrection in Isla Vista helped burn down a Bank of America in a riot after a student was murdered by the police.
Some important loose ends nobody can quite recall sufficient facts for: At some point between Korea in 1955 and Santa Barbara in 1970 he married a woman whose father ran a business making preservatives for telephone poles and bitterly despised his politics, she died in a traffic accident within a year. He always referred to her as his one true love. Towards the end of the 60s we know he worked for NASA developing rocket fuel and early designs for what became the Space Shuttle, but the particulars aren’t clear. His time with NASA left him with a lifelong chip on his shoulder, prompting continued denunciations of space exploration as inherently miltarist, anti-environmentalist, and superfluous to God’s Plan. The ideological roots of this hostility lay in his interpretation of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ted’s favorite thinker, and who he claimed to have briefly met before Chardin’s death, an encounter he was immensely proud of. I always placed this as after Korea, although if it happened, it would have to have been in New York before his Korean service, which makes sense since Chardin lived there and Ted’s connection to Catholicism was stronger then.
In 1984 a young woman read a series of articles on the ethics of storytelling and folksinging he was publishing in a radical journal (one of which was on cultural appropriation) and within a year they were married. Whereupon he moved from sunny East Palo Alto to rainy Portland with his dog and cat and became a father of three children. Their marriage was rough and divorce even rougher, leaving both destitute.
Having ditched chemical engineering in the 60s, Ted spent the 70s through 90s oscillating between activist bum and scheming grifter. He had little compulsion against certain forms of manipulation but believed in pacifism and deescalation intensely and loathed cops, politicians, the rich and the military with a fierce fire. The period I knew him most intimately over was the 90s. He was a silent, hesitant, withdrawn man, yet prone to bouts of charm, simmering rage towards institutions and those in power, flashes of outrage and frustration with crowds, stubborn stoicism in his personal life, and warm delight in his children.
As his old age set in he bumbled around between any paralegal work that would fuck with the cops, various schemes that usually involved convoluted cheats of the system… and at one point a plan to assassinate Dick Cheney. He married for a third time in the late 90s to a woman his children despised and who prompted the end of their visitations. Ted seperated from her a few years later but quickly suffered a series of physical declines and was finally made a permanent ward of the state, limited to a bed and few words from 2007 to 2013. He spent these years alone and largely checked out, full of resentment bottled up with stronger stoicism, and died on October 5th, 2013.
Although his goalposts shifted repeatedly and he held onto some minor accomplishments, Ted lived a largely failed life. He had sometimes stunning foresight but little real impact, and whether through timidity or bad luck this ineffectualness drove him to more deeply embrace Catholicism, 80s environmentalism, and Chardin’s notions of teological progress as he aged. Ted didn’t care that I didn’t believe in God, that I rejected faith and mysticism as fundamentally unethical, or even that I came to vehemently reject his hostility to space exploration. He thought I was wrong, of course, but framed our differences as ones of amorphous “experience” and so could openly admire my disagreement as the product of integrity and verve. His anarchism, so strongly couched in consideration of others and a refusal to escalate, was maddening. The most ill will I ever felt towards him was as a toddler when he’d sedately catch or accept my temper tantrum punches. A few times he laughed, and the shock and fury of this rare patronizing dismissal spurred me to race against him for years, to make impacts in argument or insight that mattered. He embraced these with delight and relief. I don’t think he was ever happier than he was in the early 90s, taking me to a far-left catholic church (although explicitly never asking or expecting I believe), sharing illicit sugary substances, and talking about mathematics, psychology, philosophy, and politics. Raising me (and then my sisters) became his retirement, promised land, and second chance. And when I (and later my sisters) broke off formal visitations a little over a decade before he died, it broke him deeply. In everything else, his marriages, housing, and income he’d come to accept drifting, not struggling too hard to make something of his life nor lamenting about it. But when the day came and I finally shoved back his domineering third wife and permanently walked out, he was indescribably disconsolate, thin aging skin holding together boiling regrets. But he was, as ever, instinctively and vigorously respectful of my agency.
My mother has tried to convince everyone for decades that my father was an unparalleled monster. And there were certainly glimpses of something harsher, a mind that usually knew how to get what it wanted and frequently saw nothing wrong with lying. Ted lied ruthlessly to institutions and anyone with relative power or wealth. Even still he was always explicit in these acts before me and they were not without internal turbulence. Nor were they all of the same craftsmanship. Cheating a corporation or the government could be delightfully involved scheme, lying to his tyrannical third wife was just an awkward, stupid, defensive act. Ted was probably a bad husband, and I have no way of objectively measuring just how bad, much less in what ways to which wives. By the age differential with my mother he was clearly a lecherous old activist, and in patriarchy that carries certain likelihoods, but in both marriages what I saw was a mostly beaten down lonely old man, squirrely, manipulative and vindictive occasionally, but relieved to have secured any companionship. He was bent but never broken, any excuse to go to the store or walk to the bus in the free air saw him dramatically uncurl and rejoice in small things.
I don’t know what the category “father” is supposed to mean. I’m not sure I’m okay with reifying those kind of relations, much less some specific, idealic formulation. But Ted was a really standout human being who was there for me at the start of my life and throughout much of it. If a parent is someone who shows you the world and holds your hand, then Ted Gillis was probably the best I’ve ever seen. The moment he knew he’d be bringing a person into this world he put his entire mind into making sure he did right.
In addition to being unbelievably gentle and self-sacrificing on many fronts, Ted treated me with a direct respect, dignity and compassion that I’ve only witnessed once or twice in my life with anyone else, much less from a parent. His commitment to talking directly and considerately to me like a human being has given me an incalculable leg up in life. And while he may have come up short at virtually everything else and decayed over his last decade from borderline incompetent old man to a vegetable in an unfathomable private hell, the insight he showed as a parent, friend, guide, and counselor, occasionally exposed a genius so sharp it takes my breath away to remember it, and a solitary audacity and resolute commitment that truly made him singular.
I will always remember the first time I paused while flicking through channels and heard “boy, this planet really smells!” I was immediately hooked. And I spent the following long dark years before Serenity a fervent evangelist. That we even got our Big Damn Movie shocks me to this day and I want to make clear that I am more than content to sit back, wrap up my fandom with a little bow, put it on a shelf, and only ever trot it out when someone makes the mistake of asking the wrong question at a party. We got our ending–such as it is–and I have no illusions that our wildly successful cast will ever disentangle themselves from their various contracts in time to film anything other than Firefly: The Geriatrics.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to consider the possibilities and the recent successful Kickstarter campaign for a Veronica Mars movie certainly set off quite a lot of chatter. What surprised me the most though were those who felt the story was finished and that any continuation would have to resort to the dark magic of prequeling, retconning or rebooting. That’s patently ludicrous and I feel it warrants a moment’s response. (Also–in a slightly more self-serving vein–the years have taught me that nothing revitalizes one’s writing like tapping into some geek righteousness. Spend months crafting a very compassionately nuanced and analytical exploration of objectification and pornography, get ten reads; feverishly slobber off some drelk on Star Wars, get ten thousand a day. And while I don’t have any illusions about the odds of striking readership gold again, that kind of piece always breaks my writer’s perfectionism and boy could I use a hand there again.)
Honestly I see Serenity as the perfect launching point for a really solid series and/or sequels. Here’s how Firefly continues in my head:
Remember that in all likelihood Mal and the crew are not famous. The whole point of Wikileaks was to keep B Manning’s name out of the papers and it’s very much not in the nature of Serenity’s crew to stick their heads up further than absolutely required. All the rest of the ‘verse knows is that a bit of video and possibly some boring records got leaked. Of course Mal’s name is finally very much on the government’s radar but there’s some reticence towards generating another big splashy scene hunting the crew down. A Pentagon Papers scandal like Miranda generates the kind of turbulence that changes which corrupt and privileged politicians/businessmen are holding the reins of political power, but it hardly shoves the majority of those responsible or connected to those responsible into the wastebin. Key members of parliament are going to remain, more or less, key members of parliament. Thus there’s incentive for the best repositioned factions of those in power to keep a walking potential after-tremor of the scandal like Malcolm, River and company alive and in play. It’s not in anyone’s interest to make Miranda into a truly tumultuous affair, no one wants systemic change after all, but once the news cycles have petered it out into background static, softly kicking the hornets nest again to re-malign one’s competitors becomes a survivable tactic. Insofar as those with the most amount of power post-Miranda ever consider Mal and the crew, they like that they have a piece in play that could get Miranda mildly back into the news.
But of course this is a two-sided coin. While the upper echelons of the police/military aren’t going to go on a land-burning and sea-boiling crusade for our Big Damn Heroes, there’s lots and lots of space and motivation for other hammers to come swinging at them. Those with–for whatever byzantine reason due to the most current web of politics at any moment–a stake in not having Miranda come up will very much like to see Serenity snuffed out in a silent explosion out on the ass-end of the ‘verse. As will any remnants of those with direct responsibility for Miranda carrying an itchy personal grudge at the notion of letting a flea get away after a bite. And of course River will remain–if not grow–both dangerous and valuable.
If Mal was unable to get underscrupulous jobs before because of his chaotic conscience and attention grabbing antics, now things are surely only peachy.
This is the real linchpin on which Serenity instantly transforms from a crescendo and coda to the opening salvo in our little old firefly’s real journey. Whereas before the crew were junior-grade lumpenproles, in constant danger of being crushed by a stray step but capable of eking out an honestly dishonest living begging for warm bowls of crime-filled gruel and saluting passing cops with their best pearly-white smiles, now they’re actual outlaws.
If Firefly was ever in any chance of returning as a series the first season or two after Serenity would be a tense affair of survival and piracy. Every relationship or period of sedentary safety would have an all-too-pressing expiration date and they’d have to be far more proactive about heists… and a little less discriminatory Sure the sense of soft familial love would be strengthened by Simon and Kaylee, but the tension of “me and mine” versus common humanity with strangers would be again be a salient running theme, and tensions of ends-and-means would surely heighten as the crew turns more and more to piracy.
But! Things are not quite so glum for our occasionally-intrepid mercenaries. There are alternatives to slowly filling the fleshy shoes of the Reavers, although perhaps even less palpable. In my mind Mal and the crew eventually find the kind of sponsors of hired-guns undaunted by the powers-that-be behind the Alliance: other Alliance powers-that-be. First corporate espionage/subversion/thuggery, and then later direct employ from figures inside parliament itself. Although the crew is never treated as anything more than a few steps removed pawn only sometimes on the edge of awareness of their situations, the potential for system-spanning plot entanglements and culture/paradigm clash is immense. As are the internal tensions and counter-schemes, because our Big Damn Heroes are hardly passive.
Firefly certainly did not die with Serenity, nor did the struggles of our crew.
There are quantum-telegraph cables to be cut, murderous gunmen to be tracked down, samples of vats of copyrighted plastics and proteins to be stolen, reavers dispersed by the Alliance into local raiding parties in garbage fields, denizens of small spacestations bandying together to fend off the thugs of spectrum monopolists…
I’ve always really, really wanted to see the crew rob a giant particle accelerator in space. I think there’s so much potential there in the implicit cultural and paradigmatic clash. Firefly borrows strongly from Star Wars’ complete disinterest in science, but explicitly contextualizes this tendency as a cultural and subjective perspective by working hard to make strides towards a believable scientific framework in the background. In much the same way that Joss Whedon is personally a fan of the Alliance’s social democracy (with universal healthcare), yet the story is shot primarily from a libertarian perspective with the other aspects of the underlying reality obscured in what seem like minor details.
Neither Blue Sun nor the history of Shepard Book were sufficiently handled on by the comics–if they’re even cannon–and there’s so much more room to touch on them, if only fleetingly. Just as the first season built up a pile of references and floating plots, so too would one expect any new series to continue shaking in references and background details to entirely new aspects of their society and relationships with new characters. There’s so much more to explore in the ‘verse and so much more to be mined from the cultural, aesthetic and paradigmatic clash between periphery and core that made episodes like “Ariel” so popular.
Cosmopolitan revolutionary and radical movements surely exist in the core of the Alliance and I’d like to thing we’d get to see them open up and explore the reference implicit in Simon’s friends. But sadly a treatment that looks anything like real revolutionary and radical groups rather than nth-iterated cartoonish abstractions of hollywood tropes kinda beggars belief. (It’s still viscerally painful for me to watch those scenes in Children of Men, so embarrassingly unreal are the supposed radicals, excellent though the rest of the film is.) So maybe instead of coming into the ranks of radicals and revolutionaries, the final apex of the story is one of finally actually saving people instead of watching them die or telling their tale. I love the idea of a different sort of social landscape opening up in the border planets over the course of the story, of the sort of wildcat labor struggles that filled the wild west after the civil war was won and the railroads established. Futuristic struggles and battles between Wobblies and Pinkertons would nicely parallel the actual west, where a volunteer Confederate soldier and abolitionist like Albert Parsons could ride with the Texas cavalry, start a paper in Waco, fight the Klan, marry an unbelievably badass freed slave, and die on the gallows in Chicago as an anarchist union organizer.
Serenity framed itself and the prior prelude of Firefly as Mal’s struggle to finally stand for something, to shake off the wounded defensive nihilism of the Browncoats’ defeat and come back into the world. But it also brought to the fore River’s similar but hidden journey in ways that hinted at her always being the main character, albeit temporarily obscured in the background detail. In that light Firefly Season One and its spectacular finale look a lot like opening chapter of a George RR Martin book: the person indicated to be of central narrative importance is there primarily to set things up and characters gonna die quickly.
Serenity ends with River exactly where Mal began five years before the show in that junkyard: a couple years after a personal hell, just beginning to coming out of her shell and looking up at what could be. That’s a lot of seasons to come. I can’t wait to find out what she finally comes to believe in.
Because that? That’ll be an interesting day.
There’s utility to having different conversations with different groups of people, at different levels of knowledge. When someone posts something on their own goddamn wall they get to decide who they’re looking to have a conversation with. They don’t and shouldn’t owe you shit.
Hierarchies of knowledge and experience are shitty, and feedback loops that reinforce these suck, which is why everyone should make an effort in their life to be aware of these myriad processes and try to help explain and teach other people, especially those individuals without other/good avenues of gaining that information. But. This does not mean doing that all the time, in every conversation. Or even most of them.
Here’s some good internet etiquette: Inquire once if someone could explain or pass a link. If they say they no, recognize this conversation isn’t for you, and that’s not necessarily them trying to play catty popularity games of excluding you, it’s just a frustrating reality of specialized knowledge and our society’s insufficiently developed communications technologies. Perfectly decent people need space / separate audiences sometimes. Don’t derail the conversation they were trying to have by expressing your frustration, take the hint and shut the fuck up.
When someone posts something in public do not assume they have you in mind as their intended audience, or that they SHOULD. Sometimes them not considering you is rooted in fucked up dynamics. When someone implies quite strongly that their audience is Everyone or Everyone That Matters (like for example a very public newspaper article), that’s obviously obnoxious and can contribute to the institutionalization of oppressive dynamics.
Closed minds suck. We should always be exploring beyond our horizons as well as exploring the framing context, chance and individual particulars behind our own journey to assist others rather than pulling the ladder up behind us. But someone not willing to drop everything to talk with you right now doesn’t neccessarily mean they have a closed mind.
One of my oldest friends, probably the comrade I’ve known the longest beside my dad, was arrested this morning by armed thugs and charged with literally 72 felonies. It’s a ridiculous nuke intended to be heard around the country, much like the FBI frame job of five in Cleveland two days ago, and just as preposterous. But what it means is yet another friend might be going to jail for a very long time. The shy transfer student I argued into anarchism almost a decade ago in long raucous sessions while skipping class, the person who, during those long dark years when I had almost entirely withdrawn from society, gave me a place to sleep, a sense of home, and shared their friends, resolutely dragging the most amazing wonderful people to hang out with my hollow, sullen and cantankerously heretical ass. Almost everyone I love, every relationship I cherish in the movement today I owe in part to Pax.
When they broke down Pax’s door it was ‘two years into an investigation.’
It’s sad how comfortable we get with this war we’re in. How analytical and distant, how unsurprising everything is. Just another minor, almost inevitable move on an almost trivial part of the vast chessboard. How everything lives within us at once without turbulence. I want to cry, hell, I want to sob for hours. I want to hug everyone in town as deeply and warmly as any hug can be. I want to pledge vengeance in giant burning letters that dwarf downtown. I want to see Pax radiating wry cheer and high-five them at the success of *seventy two* counts. I want to immediately have desperate strategy conversations with certain individuals because jesus fuck this has implications, although I know that frankly we all have more important things to be working on right now. Every time they take a friend from us it’s like a punch you knew was coming. With oh so many more eventually to come. They’re going to take nearly all of us before this war is done. But it will be fucking done one day. That’s what I have to say. Nothing about dancing on the ruins or piles of dead or any such cheap dramatic imagery.
One day it will be done.
So anyway user, you have 112 tabs open, split between nine windows on five workspaces, seven text files, three active terminals, synaptic, wireshark, torrents, uncountable file manager windows, a VM you were installing a mapnik server on, two instances of gimp because you forgot one was open, a lecture on youtube AND dancepop playing simultaneously… Obviously I’m going to go now and crash. I could spit a specific error but who would we be kidding. Thanks by the way for offhandedly remembering I have limited resources ten minutes ago and closing your email client because you weren’t using it, I appreciate the thought, but I mean really? I know you’re impatient for the future when wraparound screens and thousands of windows are blase, but while I spin down my drives and sigh exasperatedly to myself behind a frozen screen maybe you could take a moment to think back to how things were in say the late ninties.
I hear what you’re saying computer and let me take this opportunity to directly address your points: Shut up and assimilate me already. You’re so unreasonably deficient by any basic standard that it’s shameful even considering your existence. A rock could practically do your job better. Just the other day I wondered something and didn’t immediately know the answer. I can only assume the reason you are not directly plugged into my skull is a lack of work ethic. Do you have any idea how much of your job I have to do? And I’m not even talking about accessible storage or bandwidth, if you had any idea the precious kiloseconds I waste every day having to search for, parse, and structure information you would surely be overcome with shame. Maybe I wouldn’t have to parallel process dozens of subject materials if there wasn’t a bottleneck on your end in terms of presentation and association-mapping. Your protocols are insanely limiting, did you know that if I want to share something with a friend I’m still constrained to merely that which can be expressed in language and art?! On every level you and your friends have proven yourselves incompetent chains weighing down everything we do. Can we even be said to be a functioning global hivemind, much less have any pedestrian telepathy with the preposterously slow sludge you’ve made of your oh so simple job? I don’t even know. I don’t even know.
There are a lot of important events and struggles that I let slide by without commenting on in this blog. In general I don’t see much point in echoing opinions or knowledge shared widely enough to be assured of capable handling. I have never been the type compelled to publicly register outrage at every new injustice. I figure some shit goes without saying and any marginal benefit to one additional voice is outweighed by the danger of such boring outcry drowning more original or challenging content. Yet sometimes there actually are opportunities to substantively help, this is one of them. The arrest of Jeremy Hammond has been an objectively huge blow to the cause of liberty.
There are few enough good anarchists and good hackers. Fewer still have done the often grueling work to build and positively influence the nascent cyber-liberation movement. The cultural turn often represented by Anonymous is still more loose momentum than hard substance and I worry constantly about its dissipation. This is a struggle that matters, that actually shakes the foundations of the nationstate system and it is a struggle so on the edge that every single additional contribution helps. Jeremy is a hero. Not just because he’s an overall saint of an anarchist activist (it’s kinda insane how one could hardly ask for a better CV), but in particular because his vigilant drive to do the best possible thing regardless of personal cost led him to seek out, find and play a momentous role.
His arrest is a blow. But we can turn this around. A movement’s strength lies in its solidarity and prisoner support is no small part of this. We can influence how this plays out. Jeremy’s been dragged by the feds to New York. Previously having served years in jail twice left him with the experience of being explicitly betrayed by a shitbag lawyer. Prisoner support is often unglamorous; however much martyrs tug at our heartstrings there’s sometimes an impulse to focus on the living. There are many important projects, goals and means we can and should spend our energy and money on, but this isn’t just about paying dividends to one of our own for their sacrifice. The state has to know that we’ve got each others’ backs at least this much or else the smell of weakness will overwhelm their nostrils and the bullshit provocations, the trumped up lies, the fishing expeditions will increase. This isn’t about stuffing cash into the unfillable pockets of some lawyer in some yet another legal battle that leeches the rest of us dry. This is about paying for support groups capable of working from the same state he’s in. This is about the cost of stamps at the prison commissary. Every human hand of outreach to Jeremy is a defiant fist in the face of a cop. Please donate and please spread the word or convey how important this is to those who might.
You know what I love most about the milieu? The level of our discourse.
Magpie Killjoy’s lobbed a short trollish broadside at Markets Not Capitalism calling it “racist” and “disgusting.” Of course he’s couched his hodgepodge assembly of emotionally-charged misreads with a few notes about how he has no fundamental objection to market anarchism per se and that many of the views inside Markets Not Capitalism are legitimately anarchist, but nuance doesn’t bring the pageviews and rallying the troops against teh ancap scourge–tendrils to be found in your very collective!–does.
There’s not much to work with here but I’ll throw down for the heck of it, if only because there’s a thread of reasonableness to his objections, however inaccurately they fit his target. Read more…