Cassie Da Costa:
Thanks In Advance
Neil discusses the micro-acting exercise of saying “my husband.” Writer Cassie da Costa finds deep truths in customer service language.
LISTEN TO ENTIRE EPISODE
NEIL: I’m so happy to have with me on SHE’S A TALKER, Cassie. Hi Cassie.
CASSIE: Hi Neil. Thanks for having me.
NEIL: Oh, it’s my pleasure. It’s my pleasure. When you’re meeting someone for the first time, how might you succinctly describe to them what it is you do?
CASSIE: I would say I’m a writer and an editor, and I write both criticism and sometimes reportage. I sometimes do more investigative stories.
NEIL: I believe both of your parents are around. Correct?
CASSIE: Yes. They are.
NEIL: So how would, if they were talking to their friends, how might they describe what it is you do?
CASSIE: They would say that I’m a writer, and that I write for The Daily Beast, and that I used to work at The New Yorker. Yeah, that I’m a writer and an editor, I guess they would say. My dad’s always been saying I’m going to write a book, and I’m like, oh dear. It’s been a struggle to get beyond 5,000 words. So, I don’t know that.
NEIL: Right. What’s the book he would have you write, do you think?
CASSIE: I think he’s thinking about a novel or something narrative, because it goes along with my personality as a child growing up and making up stories and being very much in my own head and in my own world. But it’s funny because I didn’t go into fiction writing. I thought maybe in college that I would be a poet, and then I kind of … I’m very scatterbrained, so I just didn’t do it. I ended up just doing other things, not for any thought through reason.
NEIL: But I feel like you’re already, if I may, writing poetry, For me, Mildly Yours, I understand that at least partly as poetic. I don’t know, I guess-
CASSIE: Yeah, it is. It definitely is. And I don’t think that poetry has ever left the work that I do. I got in trouble a lot because the pieces that I wrote were too lyrical, and I’ve done things-
NEIL: In trouble with who?
CASSIE: Well, not in trouble in trouble, but just, editors would be like, what is this? Or, even professors in college, I would write a term paper and they’d be like, what the hell are you talking about?
NEIL: I love the idea of getting in trouble for poetry.
CASSIE: Yeah. That’s my orientation towards poetry, that it is a kind of trouble.
CASSIE: In a good way.
NEIL: I would love to move on to some cards. Shall we?
CASSIE: Ooh, yes.
NEIL: Okay. First card, in the song, Proud To Be An American, the lyric, “Where at least I know I’m free,” the “at least.”
NEIL: To me, that contains so much of the depressed side effects of individualism or an acknowledgement of our unhappiness by saying, “At least I know I’m free.”
CASSIE: Yeah. It really gets to the core of everything that’s happening now around like mask wearing and all of that kind of mess, where it’s like, there’s genocide, yet I’m free. And also, it makes you wonder who the speaker of that sentence is, or you can certainly imagine who it is. Yeah. At least I…
NEIL: Exactly. At least I… That should be like an instead of “E Pluribus Unum” it should be, “At Least I”. Oh my God. But I also wonder what is the, there’s something on the other side of at least. It’s like, so “dah, dah, dah, dah…but at least.”
NEIL: There’s a “but” there.
CASSIE: Yeah. I think they’re getting at something very real there, which is like they need to say, well, at least I’m free comes from a very dark place.
NEIL: Right. Exactly. Yeah.
CASSIE: And it means that what you’ve done is you’ve already presumed the kind of defeat-
CASSIE: And you have to overcome it. Yeah.
NEIL: Exactly. Oh my God. That’s so true.
CASSIE: Weirdly baked into exceptionalism is a victim narrative, which is kind of funny in a dark way. But yeah.
NEIL: That’s so true. That is so true.
CASSIE: I’m having a lot of thoughts about this. I really feel this about that whole freedom of speech letter that was in Harper’s.
NEIL: The Harper’s thing. Oh my God. Can you describe for those who don’t know it like just in, very quickly what that Harper’s letter is, although I’d like to think that the SHE’S A TALKER audience is well acquainted with this kerfuffle. This highbrow kerfuffle.
CASSIE: I’m sure deep in this highbrow kerfuffle. A writer, I believe for New York Times Magazine named Thomas Chatterton Williams, he wrote an open letter about cancel culture let’s say, what he believes to be cancel culture. And a bunch of writers signed it who are amongst a certain set of people, controversial or not liked very much. They would disagree with this obviously. And it really represents, I think this idea that there are dwindling institutions and they represent something to people who have very different ideologies. And some of those people feel like we should all get to be in these institutions as long as the head honchos approve of us and other people who say, “No, I would like to remake these institutions to be tolerant and to be rigorous.”
CASSIE: And so that’s the argument, but it’s been framed very differently by the former group as a question of free speech.
CASSIE: It’s such a silly thing, but it does come from a place of self-victimization, but it’s really strange to me where I’m like, wow, these people really feel like they’ve lost something in all of their like, I don’t know, jobs at major publications where they’re writing all of their ideas. They really feel maligned, that is very American.
NEIL: As you’re talking, it reminds me of one time I was filming something and there were a group of us and it was, I think it was raining and we held a cab. This is when one did that, and got in the cab. But it turns out there had been someone who was waiting for the cab that we didn’t see and who was like, understandably made a fuss when we started getting into the cab. So I was like, “Oh, sorry, take the cab.” And they said, no, they weren’t going to take it. And then when we drove away, he gave us the finger. So it’s like, that is it. It’s like you could… I mean, it’s not the same maybe. I don’t know. We could deeply deconstruct it.
CASSIE: I see the resonances there where it’s like, yeah, someone has already decided that unless it happens in their way or the way that they already imagined, then there’s no path forward.
NEIL: Right. Yeah.
CASSIE: And I think when the response to people saying, we live in a world that’s undressed in these ways, in which opportunities are hoarded, in which there’s a culture of this and it’s toxic. And people’s response is, “Well, this isn’t who I am, and that’s not the truth.” And it just, it forecloses any meaningful engagement. I don’t know. I get that it’s frustrating to be criticized by people who you don’t really know or who have followings that you don’t understand. But anyway, I have nothing else insightful to say about this.
NEIL: Next card, more than happy, a term with genuine spiritual potential embedded within the customer service language of late capitalism. More than happy, I’d be more than happy to help you.
NEIL: I remember early in therapy, a million years ago, I mentioned something about being happy and my therapist is like, “That’s not what it’s about.” But I deeply on a deep spiritual level, whatever that means, think this whole happiness thing is such a ruse because so many of the, it feels important things to accomplish as a participant in the world don’t have to do with happiness, yet it’s lodged itself within that, I do love the language of late capitalism in the service industry.
CASSIE: Yeah. I agree. There is actually some beauty in that statement, but it’s probably not in its intended meaning. The way that certainly late capitalism positions this language is very telling. And I think that sometimes what happens as a result is that we want to reject all of it outright because that’s the context in which we know it, which is fair. But I do feel like there’s some power in interpreting it differently and saying, actually, this is how I think about it.
NEIL: That’s wonderful. Talk about a kind of odd form of reclamation. You’re reclaiming something that was never yours. It’s not like reclaiming queer.
CASSIE: Right. No one called me happy, but…
NEIL: So true of me. I bet people have called you happy.
CASSIE: I don’t know if that’s the first thing that comes out of people’s mouth.
CASSIE: She’s happy.
CASSIE: It reminds me of when people are like, thank you in advance.
NEIL: That’s so hostile. That’s so hostile.
CASSIE: But it’s a very hostile statement, but it also in a way speaks to something true, which is that we in polite society have to conduct ourselves in such a way as if we are already grateful for the promise of goodness to come.
NEIL: We’ve really changed the way I think about thanks in advance.
CASSIE: Oh yes.
NEIL: I guess the question is then, okay, thanks in advance, but what happens if the person you’re thanking in advance doesn’t do the thing or whatever that you’re thanking them in advance for. Does the thanks still hold?
CASSIE: Yeah. I think that’s where I think sometimes we talk about, ooh, the ultimate zen, like your ability to be, oh, this word is so loaded, but be grateful even when you do not get the outcome you hoped for. I actually think that maybe the best version of gratefulness is how do I hold space for myself to be okay even when things don’t turn out how I wanted them to turn out? To not to be okay right then, but to eventually be okay.
NEIL: Right. Yeah. It’s dispositional or it’s a chosen relationship to something. Is that right?
CASSIE: Yeah. A chosen relationship and not everyone has to make that choice. I think that’s the argument, right? That maybe we’re forcing everyone to try to have that disposition and not everyone’s going to have it and that’s okay.
NEIL: Yeah, exactly. Oh, my God. All right. Next card. I don’t like when someone pantomimes putting a gun to their head and pulling the trigger. I notice it’s usually done by someone experiencing or describing something as annoying, that it’s actually a privilege to experience. I have a relative who will be unnamed, who often will do that about a kind of domestic issue that they’re dealing with, that actually they’re secretly happy to be dealing with.
CASSIE: I feel like it may be, I could be wrong, I’m making this up. But it could have originated as a slapstick gesture that was very purposefully an exaggeration. And that’s why it was funny, because obviously you wouldn’t shoot yourself in the head for this reason.
CASSIE: Maybe you would, but the common thinking would be that you wouldn’t, and now maybe the affect has changed.
NEIL: Yes. Yes. It used to be ironic, I guess would it be? It used to be the mismatch between the thing and the gesture was what made it funny. And now, what makes it not funny is the mismatch between the thing and the gesture.
CASSIE: Yeah. Yes. It’s gotten too on the nose, which I think is so true for a lot of gestures, lot of affect has become … Even the affect of I don’t have to wear a mask and people in the grocery store yelling. I think in a way it comes from that, because it’s kind of like, well, you better kill me first.
NEIL: Right. Exactly.
CASSIE: You know, before I … But the thing that they’re so angry about, it doesn’t really matter? And they’re kind of deriving glee out of all of this.
NEIL: Absolutely. It is a way to have, that whole mass thing, is such a way to have outsized impact.
CASSIE: It’s a built narrative. It’s an imagined narrative. And I think, yeah, like the shooting yourself in the head pantomime has weirdly gotten subsumed into people’s own little stories, rather than like a way of entertaining other people.
NEIL: Yeah. It speaks of a type of feeling of being put upon, maybe. Is that part of it?
CASSIE: Yeah. Right, right. Or, if someone’s nagging you and you pantomime shooting yourself in the head, or whatever.
NEIL: It still has a little bit of the trace of that original irony, you know what I mean? But it really, it’s flipped, or the balance has flipped, so that we really should be identifying with you for how frustrated you are because you have to whatever, be on a conference call about whatever, that you’re lucky to have a job about or something.
CASSIE: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t know, I think that’s been a big conversation across different issues that have come up in the last few years on the internet and elsewhere. Which is to say who gets to complain and to what degree? And obviously there’s no straight answer, but I think there has been more criticism about whose grievances get projected the loudest, or historically have been. And how they’ve been positioned and taken seriously, whereas other people’s haven’t. A lot of the things I write about are ultimately about that, and how for some reason, the people who have maybe had dominance in those areas, somehow all of a sudden feel like, oh, I’m the victim in this, and my grievances are not being heard, and I’m oppressed. And it’s really alarming. It’s just like, what?
CASSIE: Why do you think this.
NEIL: Right. Right, and actually it does, I would think, provide a conduit through which you could feel empathy. You could actually, I think, step back from that feeling and think like, okay, I am genuinely feeling not heard. That’s my subjective experience. Okay. That’s unassailable. Then, maybe you might want to look at why this feels like you’re not being heard. But then you could indeed then think like, well, what does not feeling heard feel like? Who has been heard? It seems like that could be a gateway drug to a type of useful transformation, I think.
CASSIE: You would hope. And I think for some people it is. But, unfortunately, for many people it really isn’t. I think it’s also because whether it’s the way that we grew up and we were taught about feelings, a lot of people, you learn that when you feel bad, then it’s good to blame someone.
NEIL: Yes. Yeah.
CASSIE: It’s not good to reflect and look around. And maybe in a way, look to your own behavior in the past. Yeah, there’s just not a great template for most people, for how to deal with those feelings.
NEIL: This doesn’t apply here around in the political context about who’s heard, who’s not heard, but then there is the kind of existential scenario of there’s no one to blame. And that’s a tough one for me. I have a card that I’ve talked about in the past which is, whenever I stub my toe, I look for someone to blame. I guess, because if there’s no one to blame, then it’s like, I don’t know. That’s a much scarier world to live in, which is actually the world.
CASSIE: Yeah. Yeah, and I think I have probably the stubbed toe problem all the time. I’m embarrassed, or I’m hurt, and I’m just like, this is somebody’s fault.
NEIL: Exactly. Exactly. Next card. Thinking about all the bad theater that’s going to be made about Corona.
CASSIE: I’m glad I’m not a theater reviewer, but I’m sure there’ll be many a TV show and movie made.
NEIL: But maybe not as egregious as how it will manifest itself in theater.
CASSIE: Yeah. Theater does have a way of taking things a certain place that they never needed to be taken.
CASSIE: Yeah. Well, the opportunism that will erupt if it hasn’t already. I think to be optimistic or to be kind of silver lining about it, I think there has been some good reflection that’s taken artistic form. And people, who are led by their curiosity rather than their need to make things, who’ve made things. And that those have been good. But yeah, there’s certainly going to be people who are like, all right, I got to make something out of nothing in the time of COVID. Here’s my show.
CASSIE: And I wish those people the best. I really do.
NEIL: Yes. Thanks. And thanks in advance. I say COVID, but also there are the uprisings around racial justice, which I don’t know in a certain way, maybe are not as available to the people. But I am not thinking about the bad art or theater that could arise from that.
NEIL: I somehow don’t imagine it.
CASSIE: Yeah. I see what you’re saying actually, which is to say that the people who I think would have the courage to make theater about this, for the most part, at least that I’m aware of, even if I didn’t love it, would probably actually do something that wasn’t egregious. But, maybe I’m naive.
NEIL: Yeah. Yeah.
CASSIE: That did happen with Black Lives Matter. I felt like there were films that were made that I just thought were just completely ridiculous, that were made in the years following.
NEIL: Is there an example? I can’t think of, and maybe this is just me not going to movies a lot, but I can’t think of any movies that addressed or obliquely engaged with Black Lives Matter.
CASSIE: I wrote a piece about Queen & Slim earlier this year, it was very disparaging of the film.
NEIL: Oh, uh-huh (affirmative). I didn’t read it.
CASSIE: And some people were very mad at me for going in on the film in that way, even though I think quite a few people agreed that it wasn’t good. My feeling was that the film … I’m not going to make any claims about the intentions. From what I’ve read in the interviews, and I think it came probably from a very earnest place, I don’t really know what’s in these people’s hearts and minds. But the effect of the film to me felt like a kind of a stylization of Black Lives Matter that was ultimately shallow, that was hollow. And, that there’s a major risk run there when there’s an economy being made of these issues.
It’s hard if you’re like, okay, if people are only going to hire Black filmmakers and writers to write about these issues, and it’s much harder to get hired to write about anything else, even if that’s where your work is, then, okay, how do you criticize this kind of work when it misses the mark? And for me, I was just like, well, I’m just going to criticize it like anything else. Because I’m Black, I guess this work is made for me, but to other people. So, I’m going to be honest about how I feel about it.
But yeah, It’s funny because I do think there’s some very careful treading that’s done around certain films, and it’s not merely because of the subject. It’s also because of who might be making it and how they’re positioned in the industry. Do some of these critics writing want to have careers in the arts outside of criticism? And if they’re too mean about this thing, will that compromise their ability to get certain opportunities? I think all of that stuff is at play. Maybe that’s why it seems like, oh, I haven’t seen anything or heard of anything like this. It’s because people either won’t write about it, or they’ll just write something very lukewarm that doesn’t really say anything one way or another.
NEIL: Right. Yeah. Props to you for, I was going to say, for that courageousness. Although I feel like that’s another word like grateful. Courageous and generous.
CASSIE: Well, I laugh because I don’t think it’s courageous. I think people who know me would say that the reason I don’t have fear is because I don’t value what I would get out of not saying anything. So to me, there’s not really a dilemma. I wasn’t like, ooh, should I publish this? Will people even mad at me? I was like, okay, well. I’m not ambitious in that way. I’m sure there are other ways in which I’m ambitious, but it’s not in that particular way.
NEIL: I love it. What is a bad X you’d take over a good Y?
NEIL: It’s pretty easy I’m going to say. But that’s okay.
CASSIE: I’m trying to think deep.
CASSIE: But, I guess my point is that I would take a bad song from a nostalgic tradition, over a good song from something that I feel like, yeah, is kind of ubiquitous in a way. I love-
NEIL: And contemporary.
CASSIE: And contemporary. I love bad stuff that comes from what feels to me like a very, I don’t know, something that’s kind of disappeared because everything is so crafted now. Everything is so branded. So even when stuff is good, I’m kind of like, okay. I do have to, and I do listen to new music all the time because of the work I do, but I don’t listen to it with the same frequency and allegiance that I listen to stuff maybe made from 2005 and before that.
NEIL: Okay. I love that highly specific demarcation point.
CASSIE: I don’t know. I might have to amend it in the post.
NEIL: Okay. The question is, what are you looking forward to when all this is over, but I’m not really sure what the all this is anymore.
CASSIE: Well, on a very simple level, I can’t wait to see my family. My parents, I really miss, and my sisters. And I look forward to, hopefully, I guess more instances in our society of people being proactive to take care of each other, rather than waiting until when things go wrong. But I don’t know if that’s actually something that will happen.
CASSIE: It’s a hope.
NEIL: Why would it happen? Why would it happen?
CASSIE: Well, because I think that the vulnerability of this time, for not everyone, but for a lot of people has meant that they’ve had to become more engaged. Whether it’s with their own family members and friends or wider communities, that they’ve had to be more attentive and more aware of things going on around them that maybe don’t necessarily directly affect them. But I also think that people really struggle to do this and fail to do this in many ways. So I hope that there’s learning there, and change that happens as a result. But also it’s very possible that that really won’t happen. So, we’ll see.
NEIL: On that note, Cassie, thank you so much for being on SHE’S A TALKER.
CASSIE: Thank you, Neil. This was a real pleasure, and a very welcome break from my day.