5/14/10

New home!

I've been quiet here these past few months, but only because I've been busy giving myself an online facelift. Happy to announce the new home for Rage is Good:



The site is still undergoing some tweaks, but it's close enough to finished to finally share. Old Rage is Good posts will remain archived here on Blogger for the time being, as I pull the "best of" over to the new site. But all new posts will happen at rageisgood.com -- so come on over, and check back often! (Or, easier yet, subscribe to the Rage Is Good feed.)

Thanks for reading!

2/17/10

hands in the dirt

 
I've been thinking about our garden lately. Last fall, on our final day before the end of the season, I planted eight rows of garlic and shallot bulbs. Now, with two or more feet of snow packed against the dirt, the day we'll pull them up feels pretty far away.

Last weekend Joe went down to the basement to get some potatoes left over from last fall. We thought we'd stored them in a dark and dry enough spot, but when he pulled the paper bag from its hiding place, we found all but a handful had sprouted. Useless. It wasn't just that, but a combination of things, including lack of time and the fact the garden is a 20-minute drive from our house, that inspired Joe to raise the question of not gardening this year. It was his idea in the first place, but I'm the one who's fallen in love with the process. Joe loves the results, and the theory behind learning to grow your own food, but he sees it mostly as an enjoyable chore.

Last winter I might've agreed -- we'd had the garden for less than a season, and it was hard work on a very short learning curve. But last weekend, it wasn't up for discussion. I can't wait to have the house overflowing with vegetables in their bulging reds and shiny greens and the way the kitchen smells like fresh, wet dirt after bringing in the first big bag of tomatoes or lettuce or corn. I'm starting to know what I'm doing. 

Last spring, this was our garden plan:

 
This year I want to do things differently. I want to grow fewer things and space them more appropriately; I want to learn a new way of preserving what we grow. I want to learn more about composting, which we do, but certainly not as well as we could. 

The past two years, we were lucky to get seeds in the ground to grow, and we moved blindly from sprout to table, no safety net of prior experience to guide our way. I never thought I'd get excited over seed catalogs. 

Now here we are, moving an inch or two away from being true beginners, toward a slightly more certain center. And when I look outside my window and see a frozen lake and a dull gray sky, nothing makes me happier to imagine than green fields at mid-day and hot sun on your neck and an ache in your muscles that says you've done something good and real.

2/11/10

happy 2010

It's been a while. Longer, in fact, than what honestly might qualify as "a while." In blog-time, it's been eons.

But I've been busy. There was juggling two jobs, quitting them both, and starting a new one. There were several bouts of out-of-town company, nursing a sick dog, and helping a once-out-of-town friend get settled here in Madison. There were Thanksgiving travels and baby showers and recommitting to our old routine of regularly going to the Y. There was the month of December -- including Christmas and New Year's -- spent in South Africa.

Then there was readjusting to the return home. I landed at Chicago O'Hare wearing shorts and a t-shirt; the ground was carpeted with two feet of snow. As I got back into the swing of things -- buying a much-needed winter coat; sifting through mountains of email; reacquainting myself with the electric coffee maker -- the daily rituals of home and work suddenly seemed rote and dull, in comparison to the shining, bursting wave of experience that defined my brief time abroad.

Before I left for my trip, I set up a blog, with the intention of linking it here and using it as the repository for travel-inspired musing. I didn't post once. Part of the time, it was because electricity outages or downed Internet connections or being in a rondavel in the middle of nowhere kept me from going online. But mostly, it was because I felt absolutely no need to share my experiences with anyone outside of the people who were, in real life, sharing those experiences with me.

I know myself well enough to know when I've skirted close to accidentally believing, "I blog, therefore I am." After all, I am a writer. It's practically part of my cellular makeup to believe something is only as valuable as how well it's documented. There were moments in South Africa when I was disappointed I couldn't capture in real time all I was seeing and doing, so friends and family could travel vicariously alongside me. But a deeper, larger part of that disappointment came from the worry that without writing about them in a way that was publicly and immediately consumable, those experiences -- my experiences -- would somehow become more fleeting and less significant, something that could be put away, set aside, forgotten.

So really, it was about me, and my own fears.

And with that realization, the pressure evaporated. I traded my traveling companion's sleek MacBook for the solid, hard-bound journal a good friend gave me the day before I left. I was my only audience, the keeper of stories for the sake of memory, with no obligation to enlighten or entertain. A month without the ephemeral highs of Facebook-induced uber-sharing, and I remembered what it meant to experience for experience's sake the real things in real life that bring joy, challenge and provocation.

"Writing this down is enough," I wrote, from the deck of a stifling hot chalet in Botswana, overlooking the Limpopo River. "I don't miss Facebook or email or my iPhone. Actually, I want to chuck my phone in the river, or at least trade it in for a land line. I don't need the world to move so fast. I would rather experience and appreciate the small slice of the world in front of me -- the parts I can see and touch and breathe in -- than attempt (and fail) to focus on a thousand things at once. 24-hour news and Twitter feeds and Sudoku apps don't make life better or easier or more content. They just make life more cluttered."

When I got home, I wasn't sure I wanted to blog again. I contemplated getting rid of my Flickr account, ditching the iPhone, and not replacing the recently departed laptop, to which I'd developed an increasingly unhealthy attachment. Imagine life without Facebook or that damned new Google Buzz. Imagine all the extra time we'd have to think or talk or hell, just be.

8/26/09

The Zen of Weeding

Joe and I took down part of our garden tonight -- we dug up the potatoes, pulled the rest of the carrots, yanked out two zucchini plants destined for the towering compost pile. We plucked baskets of heirloom tomatoes and okra and tomatillos popping at the seams of their paper-thin cases. I'm not sure how or when the end of August arrived, but here it is, and here we are on autumn's threshold, days shorter and nights cooler and smelling of fireplaces.

I spent a good 30 minutes tonight weeding the spinach patch. We've been gone the past few days, and the weeds had reached that do-or-die stage where they threatened to choke the baby plants. The best thing about gardens at the start of fall is squeezing out that last round of food, so I crawled between the rows and pulled the weeds by hand, feeling each root system resist, then the release as it finally popped free.

Joe tries telling me the hoe would be faster and more efficient, but I prefer weeding the tool-free way: In the doing so, I acquainted myself with each plant, thrusting itself up through cracked earth in a way that must, from the plant's perspective, feel shockingly brave and remarkable. The last time I paid this spinach any mind, they were seeds, with the look and feel of Grape-Nuts, or all-natural cat litter. And now here they were, very obviously spinach, spreading their waxy leaves in welcome to the wide, blue sky.

I know my vegetables. I know each of them. I know which okra plants need trimming; which tomato plants likes extra water; which leek stems, for some reason, attract more weeds than others. You spend hours of every week alone in a garden with nothing but plants for company, on your hands and knees so you can inspect each leaf and flower, aware of their existence from the moment they were seeds falling through your fingers, and you will know what it's like to commune with vegetables.

Our garden isn't huge, but it isn't tiny, either -- 800 square feet, a double plot at a community garden some 6 miles north of our neighborhood. We drive (or, for Joe, bike) up a few nights each week, and at least once every weekend. It's not as often as I'd like; this summer, even busier than last year, I've felt the urge to buy a house simply for the yard, for the ability to step out of my back door in bare feet and be there, in the thick of green things growing.

This is what I love about the garden -- the chance to feel what it means to be. To exist in a way that doesn't happen in shopping malls, at the grocery store, in your cubicle, in your car while you are driving 45 miles an hour in a 30 mph zone just to get where you are going a few minutes faster. Being in the garden makes me forget about cell phones. Being there helps me appreciate the world around me in a way that is active and immediate and steeped in an almost cellular attachment to other living things. Being there awakens my own awareness of that necessary connection wrapping itself from person to person like invisible Christmas tree lights, shining bright with hope that better things can happen if we all just dig in a little--and I mean all of us, even people we don't think we like very much or understand, even people who think urban farming is a waste of time, even Republicans.

I think of gardening the way some friends describe running. You reach a place where the world falls away, and all that's left are you and the tangy smell of ripening and the hard sting of dirt packed tight under your fingernails. The highs and lows of your day melt into an evened being, and your breathing does, too, as if your emotional self has been pounded down in a mortar and pestle and all that's left is the essence of you--the essence of what you care about and how you wish to live in the world and all that you find beautiful. All of that exists in every tug of weed, every leaf examined. All of that exists, and multiplies and grows, every time we tend to the well-being of something greater than ourselves.

Joe came with me to the garden tonight. As I tended the spinach, he aimed the watering hose at the opposite end of our long tract. This is our routine: I weed, he waters. We each bury ourselves in our own brains, our own motions, and we rarely talk in the garden, except to say things like, "Look! We have lettuce!" or, "Can you bring me the trowel, please?"

I thought tonight about all the things I think about here, in this small slice of silence where time stills until the sky darkens, and how grateful I am for this regular pause. I happened to look up at that moment, and there was Joe, watering the nearby okra. I recognized the look on his face, the one that says, I am here, but I am elsewhere, too.

And so I broke the silence.

"What do you think about while you're watering?" I asked him.

He looked down at me, still on my knees in the dirt. And he smiled.

"Music," he said. "I think about music."

photo credit: Carrie Kilman

5/28/09

Awe

I am kind of in awe right now.

I just got home from watching a domestic violence survivor share her very personal story with a television news crew. I can't begin to describe her bravery, her grit, her indefatigable poise. She was a rock star.

She did this, exposing her life and her pain and her hopes for the future, as a result of a humble request from me. She had nothing to gain but the knowledge that maybe, possibly, there would be another victim watching. And maybe, possibly, what she had to say might help that person feel not quite so alone and powerless.

But she had some things to lose. Like her sense of control over her own story and who knows about it. And now, if she chooses, late at night on a weekday after her kids are asleep, she might watch the news story that blurs her face and only shows her hands and the back of her head, in which she discloses very personal and painful and private details about her past. And as she watches this, she may feel alone and also sad, possibly reliving some of the memories of what happened to her children.

Yet she did this because she hoped it would help. She did this because she hoped it would catch people's attention and get them to listen. And she did this because I asked.

I hope nothing goes wrong. I hope she is happy with the final result, that she feels it represents her truth, and that she feels it can help change lives. I hope she feels proud of what she accomplished. I hope she doesn't regret it.

I believe each of us is a survivor of something. Something traumatic, on some large or small scale. There comes a time for many of us when we realize we have begun to think of that trauma not only in terms of its impact on our lives, but also as a tool, something we can use to help others. Reaching that point is a powerful moment. When we realize, "I am more than the very bad thing that happened to me."

I write, in part, for a living. The importance of collecting and honoring other people's stories is central to the lens through which I see the world. I have been a part of other people's moments like the one described above. But I don't remember ever being as humbled in witnessing someone's story as I was tonight. Her courage filled the room. It spilled into the parking lot. And I left there feeling lucky.

5/21/09

Anger

I have been thinking about her this week.

It was the first headline I read Monday morning, over the day's first cup of coffee. A local man shot and killed his ex-wife. She was found in her apartment, in a suburb south of Madison, with two fatal gunshots to her head.

They were married 23 years. They had two teenage children. Their divorce was newly final.

She did everything she was supposed to do. In the face of physical assaults and death threats, she managed to keep her job. She managed to save money and move out and settle herself in a new apartment. She managed to get a restraining order. She managed to file for divorce.

This is all hard, brave work, when the force you are managing against is a man who wants to kill you.

She did everything she was supposed to do.

On Saturday, May 16, he showed up at her door carrying a gun. This is the moment that catches me, the moment that happened next. Did he push his way in? Did she try to talk him down from his rage, thinking it was like all the other times and he would stop right before he crossed that line? When did she realize that he wouldn't? When did she think, "I will not see my daughters again"? Was it fear or terror she felt at the end, in the final seconds before he pulled the trigger? Or was it something closer to a desperate relief, that finally it was over, and he wouldn't be able to hurt her anymore?

This story is more than the headlines, more than the manhunt, more than the ex-husband's body found two later in a nearby park, death by self-inflicted gunshot. The story is more than the newspaper accounts of their turbulent, violence-ridden marriage. It's more than the measly $500 bail the ex-husband received after he tried to strangle his wife and attacked his daughter with a fireplace poker the day after Christmas.

The heart of the story is the moment that matters -- the moment Francie Weber realized she was going to die, at the hands of someone who claimed to love her and then exerted every effort to inflict harm. The look in her eyes. The thoughts in her head. The panic. This is the moment her terror becomes real.

I read the newspaper account to Joe that night. "That makes me so mad," he said. He stood up from the couch where he had been sitting. He paced the room. "How could any human being do that to someone else?" he asked. "Doesn't it make you angry?"

I paused and sighed and looked away.

Because anger isn't the word for it. To be perfectly honest, I told him, it makes me feel a little defeated. It's a reminder that sometimes it will never be enough. Restraining orders and divorces and new apartments and fresh starts sometimes don't help if an abuser is hell-bent on killing you. Prison helps. But most domestic violence cases are never reported to the police. And often, prison only happens once something horrible has occurred, something like murder.

What does make me angry is that despite this crime, and despite the fact that the most recent murder in that same suburb was yet another domestic violence homicide, and despite the fact that the news these days from all parts of the country (like here and here and here ) seems to be fraught with headlines of husbands killing their families, we as a society still don't seem to think of domestic violence as a real problem.

Yes, we pay it lip service. But we still appease ourselves with the false reassurance that domestic violence doesn't happen to "people like us."

What makes me angry is that more people don't consider this a public health emergency. How can we fight for economic justice -- of any kind, for anyone -- or lobby for health care reform, or demand an end to torture, yet ignore the fact that one out of every three women in this country is terrified of the person in their own home?

These issues are related. Economic justice for women fleeing abusers is critical -- not having financial resources of her own can be one of the main obstacles preventing victims from leaving their abusers. Health care is critical -- consider how many costly emergency room visits are the result of intimate partner violence.

And if the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib captures our attention and inspires nationwide calls for investigations and policy reversal, then the torture of women and children (and to call systematic physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse "torture" is not an exaggeration) in every community in our country should rally a similar and related cacophony of outrage.

And yet it doesn't.

It isn't seen as political. It isn't seen as important. It isn't something that happens "to people like me."

Until it does. And now another woman is dead, and two kids are parentless, and the community is left to ask, once again, "why would someone do such a thing", and then we forget until it happens again.

Because it will keep happening until we demand that it stops.

5/20/09

One More Note

There is a woman who wanders our neighborhood. I don't know her name. But we see her often. She stops to give us gardening tips when we're potting our tomato plants on the front porch. She pauses to say "hello there!" and "cold night, isn't it?"

She is sort of like a fairy godmother. She pulls the heavy trash bins up from the curb after garbage pick-up, tucking them in their out-of-sight spaces between our house and the one next door. She carries a broom wherever she goes, sweeping leaves and fallen flower petals from the sidewalks. She does this up and down the streets. Everybody knows her.

She never wears shoes. Never. Not in the summer, when the asphalt burns. Not in the winter, in four feet of snow. She wears her long, gray hair tucked inside two bandannas tied around her head. She is missing her front teeth.

I don't know where she lives. I don't know how she gets by. I do know she gets her meals from a nearby soup kitchen. I've seen her walking back from there in the evening, with a Tupperware container in her hands. She looks up at me, on my porch, sipping my Shiraz. "Peas tonight!" she smiles and says.

The soup kitchen is around the corner, on a side street. I see the people lined up there in the late afternoons, waiting for the doors to open. The line, lately, has been growing longer.

I thought of the woman who sweeps our sidewalks when I read a news report the other day about the startling increase in homelessness in our community. Across Dane County, the number of people experiencing homelessness jumped 17% last year. Homeless shelters were forced to turn away 3,600 people in 2008 -- a 22% increase in the number of people denied shelter for lack of space and resources.

This is not a unique story. It's happening everywhere, from Baton Rouge to New York City.

But it is one example. One more important example. One more note in a sour chorus of "What am I going to do?" that can be heard in every corner of every community in every state in our country.

Sometimes economic hardship can strengthen a community. Sometimes it can inspire us to look beyond our own immediate needs and act in impressively selfless ways -- or realize the extent to which our needs are wrapped up with the needs of others. Suddenly the walls that separate "us" from "them" seem paper-thin, rubbed down to nothing in places. There is little difference between a college-educated CEO and a truck driver, when both are unemployed with bills piling in the basket by the door.

But hardship doesn't always do that. It can make us act in irrationally protective ways, cause us to fence off our property and stock up on guns. It can make us look upon our neighbors with suspicion. It can harden us, so we can more comfortably hold our purses to our chest and say, "This is mine. Fend for yourself. You are not my problem."

I don't want to be that kind of person. But I look around, or read the newspaper, or eavesdrop on conversations at the bus stop, or look into the faces of other shoppers at the grocery store, and I wonder, What will be enough? There isn't enough.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle announced budget cuts and employee furloughs to address a rising budget deficit (similar to the deficits plaguing 46 other states). Our County budget is stretched beyond thin. Nonprofits that provide emergency services for domestic violence survivors, abused children, and families on the brink of homelessness are worried their budgets will continue to shrink. Charitable giving across almost every sector has plummeted.

There isn't enough.

I keep reading the papers and watching the bulletin boards at the college campus near my office, looking for signs of revolution. Isn't it in times like these that revolutions get their start? I keep waiting for a sign that we, our community and our nation, are tired of allowing our neighbors to suffer. How long is too long, when we're talking about a soup kitchen line? At what point does the comfortably employed person say, "A homeless family is my problem"?

1/2/09

New Year

The other day, I told someone who knows me well that my New Year's resolution was to learn to be more serene.

She looked at me and laughed. She practically guffawed. "Good luck with that," she said, after she composed herself.

I am not a still person. I am a chronic list-maker, advance-planner, seasoned worrier, and hapless time-manager who tries, regularly, to pack more into an hour or day than can reasonably fit.

My grandparents are consummate planners. They don't simply make a plan and hope it works. They make a Plan B. And C. And D. And so on. Road construction? No problem. Cell phone batteries died? Got it covered. Chance of bear attack while driving to the McDonald's? Don't worry--there's a back-up plan for everything.

But here's the deal. Consummate planners tend to be consummate worriers.

And so it's in my genes.

"You never relax, do you?" JK asked the other day.

Not easily, but I'm determined to learn. And I have a new project to help me. Proximity, a collaboration with two other writers, Towles Kintz and Maggie Messitt, launched yesterday.

Each week, we choose a different location--like an emergency room, a tavern or a bus stop--that exists in our three corners of the globe (Madison, WI; Atlanta, GA; rural South Africa), then we write around that theme. It's an opportunity to slow down, practice being settled in our surroundings. Over time, we hope it will illustrate not only how varied the world can be, but also how small and connected.

Our first installment explores the notion of home. I hope you'll have time to visit us there, and lend your voice to the conversation.

11/3/08

Missing autumn

October was a nutty month. For all but five days, JK and I were either hosting out-of-town company, or one or both of us were out of town ourselves. Add to that two weeks of being pathetically, disgustingly sick, a dog with a sprained ankle, a cat that tried her best to run away, a crippling addiction to online presidential news, and a garden in need of putting up for the winter.

Somewhere in the middle of all of that, I blinked. And I missed fall.

During the past couple of weeks, the situation outside has transitioned decidedly, from cool and crisp with crunchy leaves under foot, to downright cold. Scarf weather. Last weekend I broke out the mittens. A week ago, the forecast called for snow, and Mother Nature delivered. I glanced out the window in the middle of a writing workshop and gasped, surprised by the thick clumps of snow lazily drifting through the tree branches.

This didn't bode well. I need fall. With the cool mornings and the first hint of that fireplace smell and the newness of long sleeves, I've come to associate a kind of birth, a delicate beginning, cemented back in the days when September meant the start of a new school year. Fall means renewal, clean slates, looking forward. The prospect of missing out on this--of moving from the lazy, hot summer to the hibernation of winter without time to dwell in the in-between--left me feeling a bit upside down and out of sorts. Like showing up for class for the first time, just to realize the semester's over.

Until today.

"What's the temperature outside?" JK asked this morning. It's his typical refrain, starting around the end of September and lasting through May. Yesterday was rainy, gray; the week before, cold and dismal.

I logged onto the Weather Channel. Once again, and in the most literal sense, I blinked.

"Seventy-two!" I shouted back, a little too eagerly.

Sunny, breezy, 72 at the peak of mid-day. Outside, the wind blew through the trees, still adorned with bright yellow leaves. "This won't last long," JK cautioned. I didn't care. For one day, in what the calendar suddenly called November (when did that happen??), early fall was upon us.

The dog and I walked around the neighborhood. We took the scenic route. We drove to the store with the windows down. We meandered.

In our daily lives, we all need space to meander. Every now and then, we should afford ourselves a left turn when the map says turn right, just to see where it'll take us. We need to follow our instincts and our hunches, not just our to-do lists. We need time to wonder.

These are the things I've been missing lately. But today gave me sweet reprieve. And as the day fades into evening, shedding minutes by the, well, minute, I have reason not to mourn my evanescent second chance. Because tomorrow's high is 73.

Dusting off

Look at all this dust.

One of the nifty features of Blogspot (and other blog hosts) is that you can write part of a post, then save it to finish later. Once, in the distant past, this feature came in handy. I started a post in the morning, finished it in the afternoon, then proofed it one last time in the evening before publishing.

But, over the past two months, things have turned ugly, and what once was my efficient friend has morphed into my blogging downfall.

I start. I type. I peter. Then I hit the "save" button, never to return. And so Rage Is Good sits forlorn, covered in virtual cobwebs.

Part exhaustion, part distraction, part ennui--these have been my enemies all autumn. I am too busy with things that don't seem to matter; an hour doesn't go by without me obsessively checking Politico, DailyKos and the New York Times; I suddenly lack the head space for coherent, sustained thought--it's as if my thought processes have begun to mimic the rapid click-and-scan of web surfing. The minute my brain alights on an insight or idea, it's off and running to the next. I start writing something, silly or profound or somewhere in between, and by the third paragraph I'm bored, fighting off the urge to open a new tab and see what's hoppin' over on Slate.

A friend of mine, whose writing inspires me with its insight and wisdom, recently published a post on her blog about the need to mentally de-clutter. I know I am not the only person who succumbs to occasional bouts of restlessness, nor am I alone in spending the bulk of my waking hours pouring over the latest poll numbers and the endless (and endlessly repetitive) commentary they inspire. But my friend's story--unrelated to political obsessions, yet familiar all the same--eased my worry that this state of distraction might be permanent.

Thank goodness the election is almost over. Thank goodness the season is changing. Thank goodness for other people who so willingly lay bare their own tribulations.
Link

9/6/08

I lied.


I allowed myself one, tiny peek at email tonight and there found a message from a Republican relative describing all the ways she loves Sarah Palin. And so crumbled my resolve to shirk all political news and views for the weekend.

As Palin, in her speech Wednesday, gave no mention of women's rights, the one line I found personally most offensive was the strange zinger about Obama being a community organizer. Looking online tonight, I was ecstatic to see the growing backlash against what had started to become a theme on right-wing radio. Like this short essay by Jim Wallis. And even this story in the mainstream press.

But my favorite was the selection of T-shirts like this one that hit Internet shelves almost immediately after Palin uttered those unfortunate words. If I still lived in the south, I would actually wear one.

(A note to email readers: You may or may not be able to see the links embedded in this post. If not, go to www.rageisgood.blogspot.com and it'll make more sense.) :-)

9/5/08

Cold

Just to say. I'm sitting by the window, before sunrise, wrapped in the heaviest wool sweater I own (smartly saved from winter-clothes storage). Outside it smells like fireplace. The dog and cat have started sleeping with their bodies smacked up against us, so as to siphon off our body heat.

Over the next 10 days, we'll be lucky when our high cracks 70. Where my brother lives, several states south of us, the temperature right now, in the early morning, is 81. They'll see 104 degrees before the day is done.

Yesterday it rained on my way to work, and the roads were sloshy with water that hadn't yet seeped into the ground. For the first time in four months, another kind of precipitation came to mind. Driving in snow still terrifies the Texan in me.

I keep telling myself we have a while yet before we'll need to worry about that. Last year, autumn barely managed to slip through the small crack between the end of our hotter-than-usual summer and the Thanksgiving snowstorm that marked the start of our sudden, severe winter. We tried to go apple-picking exactly once (they didn't let you actually pick from the trees, though), but it happened to be tank-top weather that day. Otherwise, my favorite season snuffed itself out without much fanfare.

I can easily let go of the hot summer days. But this year I'm determined to relish this in-between, orange-tree'd, wool-sock weather. This year, we have good cause--sort of an autumn alarm clock, in the form of our vegetable garden. You can't accidentally miss the fall with a dozen pumpkins bulging on the vines, or rows of a last-minute, fall crop of greens anxious to be eaten, or earth to ready for its winter hibernation.

9/4/08

Head-shaking

We just finished watching the creepy, Republican chest-thumping for a second night in a row, which involved a lot of cringing and disbelief and feels like it should qualify us for some kind of award.

We watched as the people jumped to their feet and clapped like maniacs and broke out into pseudo-impromptu (and disturbing) chants of "USA! USA!" and "Drill, baby, drill!" Yet again, I realized I really, really didn't get these people. When McCain mischaracterized Obama's health care plan (if only it were so liberal!) and supposed opposition to off-shore drilling (if only he were so smart), I shouted at the screen, despite JK reminding me that no one there could hear me. But I clapped hard for the protesters.

I don't know whether to take heart in the fact that conservatives shake their heads with the same degree of disbelief when they encounter large groups of Democrats. I only wish the Democratic ticket were as radically left as McCain's new pal Palin is radically right. Republicans already characterize Democrats as a bunch of hippie leftists, so why not actually BE hippie leftists? If they're going to label what Democrats want as single-payer health care, why not actually support single-payer health care?

That's the biggest sting for me--the Democratic leaders who the GOP accuse of being so far to the left are, in reality, in the dead center of the page.

Thank goodness JK's parents are coming to town tomorrow. I'm giving myself a three-day reprieve from Googling "Sarah Palin" or "RNC arrests" every 10 minutes. Also, I'm so glad we don't live in Alabama right now. I think I might implode.

Last night (or, Why Are Those People So ANGRY?)

JK and I gathered around our computer monitor last night to watch the streaming video of the Republican convention. Three things that struck me:

1. The way the crowd failed to clap for Abel Maldonado, a California state senator, son of a migrant worker, and one of the very few Latinos who've spoken at the convention so far. At the end of his six-minute talk, Maldonado raised a fist in the air and shouted into the microphone, "Que viva the immigrant story! Que viva immigrants like my father! Que viva John McCain!"

These obviously were meant to be applause lines, and in between each one, Maldonado paused for audience response. But the crowd sat there silently and looked to be squirming uncomfortably in their chairs. It wasn't until Maldonado, with his fist frozen in the air, finally ended with, "God Bless America," that the audience started clapping.

If you're going to the trouble of trotting out a handful of People Who Are Not White to prove that you aren't The Party Of Scared, Racist White People, at least go through the motions of pretending like you give a damn when they take the stage. Either the crowd was unhappy with so much praise for immigrants (this is the party that wanted to make it illegal for undocumented immigrants to bring their kids to the emergency room), or their English-Only brains were befuddled by all that Spanish talk.

Either way, they came off looking like the kind of people who like "diversity" as long as it doesn't move in next door or try to date their daughter.

2. The strange lampooning of community organizing. I was really glad to see the people at Daily Kos started talking about this almost before Sarah Palin left the stage. At least three speakers, including Palin, ridiculed community organizing and made it sound about as challenging as playing with a declawed kitten, apparently in an effort to paint Obama as the radical black man who worked with (gasp and shudder!) poor black people.

I've worked with community organizers in Texas, D.C., and Maine. It's not all games and street fairs. It's long hours and low pay and requires a deep commitment to actually making the world a slightly better, more equitable place. Unfortunately for Republicans, it often means talking with poor people about social issues and registering people of color to vote--two things the Republican Party probably would like to outlaw.

3. The bloodthirsty anger. When Rudy Giuliani whipped the crowd into a frenzy, chanting, "Drill, baby, drill!", I thought to myself, "These people could be convinced to kill their own mothers." There was so much anger in that room. Strange, desperate anger. Their guy's been in the White House for eight years. In that time, the country's been jerked even farther to the right. What do they have to be so angry about?

I wonder whether it's part of their strategy to appear so publicly nasty, or if it's just part of who they are.

8/27/08

Ugh

I'm watching the Democratic convention right now (thanks to msnbc's streaming video). When Melissa Etheridge came onstage, I thought, "great! some hippie-rock to temporarily save us from another speech!"

But then she started singing "Born in the USA."

Seriously??

Is this a way to appeal to two bases at the same time, the more conservative folk who think Obama's just a little too "foreign" and the more progressive folk who worry he's too centrist, by using a lesbian folk-rocker to sing a middle-America anthem?

It rubbed me the wrong way. And all the delegates, holding hands and swaying back and forth while singing along, just looked ridiculous.

8/21/08

After dark

April 2008

The dog hadn't been on a walk in days. The forecast predicted rain later in the week, and he looked really pathetic, the way dogs do when they're particularly adept at human mind control.

So I grabbed his leash and pulled a fleece over my T-shirt. The sun had set and the moon shone like a big, white fingerprint against the dark blue sky. I could hear the waves crashing against the lake shore two blocks away.

C'mon, I said to the dog. We trotted down the front steps to the sidewalk below and headed, like always, toward the water. But I paused at the corner. Left or right? After dark, which would feel safer?

Two weeks earlier, a 21-year-old college student was stabbed to death in her downtown apartment in the middle of the day. A couple of months before that and a few blocks away, a 31-year-old man was stabbed to death inside his home on his lunch hour.

Yet, in the wake of these mid-day crimes, both of which were still unsolved, I felt most on edge when the sun went down.

We decided to turn left, cutting past the park, heading deep into the neighborhood toward the towering old homes that overlooked the water. The streets were narrower there. Our part of the neighborhood, one block off the main road and on a major bus route, has more foot traffic and cars, and there's no telling who you'll see or where they'll be going. But here, the only people on the sidewalk were people like me, neighborhood folk walking their dogs.

Every morning, JK walks by the murdered woman's apartment on his way from the bus stop to his office. Hers was one of two apartments in a big, old house.

Horrendous, gut-wrenching crimes that challenge the goodness of humanity happen every day. I am insulated from this, and for that I feel a mixture of guilt and gratitude and a desire to spread the privilege of living an existence relatively free from harm. News of genocide and domestic violence and police brutality give me intellectual and emotional pause. But they don't literally stop me in my tracks, not like two unsolved, seemingly random, rather brutal murders a mile or so away.

And so I walked down the sidewalk, by now a good six or seven blocks from my house, alert to every sound. A couple of houses ahead of me, a woman stepped outside into her small yard, with one dog in her arms and another running at her feet. Go on now, she told them, plopping the one dog in the grass. Then she looked up in my direction, quickly bent to scoop up both dogs, and hurried back inside.

I'm not that scary, I thought. Then I realized I was wearing a cap over a pony tail. Maybe she thinks I'm a man. As I passed her house, I saw her through the window in the door, an anxious face framed and backlit and peering toward the street. A few houses later, I glanced over my shoulder. The woman and her dogs had come back outside.

We all assumed the murderers--or murderer, if the two killings were related--were men. This reminded me of a conversation I'd had, just a few days before the young woman was killed. We were at a going-away dinner for a friend who was moving across the country. She had just returned from a six-week trip across Costa Rica and Mexico. Another friend at the table had traveled across India and Guatemala. They were swapping travel stories.

Specifically, they were swapping stories of traveling alone, in foreign countries, as women. And in the talking, what emerged was the fact that their biggest measure of feeling "safe" was how free they had felt from sexual harm. They weren't worried about pick-pockets or getting their traveler's check stolen or accidentally stepping into the cross hairs of other people's crimes. They were worried, most of all, about the predatory behaviors of men, directed at them because they were women.

We have to worry about this in our own country.

But it's just one more reminder that when we, collectively, consider issues of safety and harm and violence and the perpetration of Very Bad Things, we're mostly talking about the actions of men. And yet we still let them run the world. We assume they are the better, more natural leaders, the gender best equipped to make wise, respectable decisions. While, at the same time, half the population has good reason to live in fear of them. And I don't get that.

I was thinking about all of this as the dog and I made our way down to the water line. The waves crashed against the rocks, and the water was an endless, ominous blue. A couple of months ago the lake was still frozen, and from this very spot, the dog and JK and I could run out over the ice, all the way to the center and back. Kids built snowpeople in the middle of the lake. The snowpeople became a totem, proof to me that the ice would hold and we wouldn't fall through.

Tonight, the waves erupted, angry and foaming. I could smell the fish and the water and the sand, and even amidst those comforting smells, the angry water felt like an omen.

Finally, we turned around and started for home. A figure appeared on the sidewalk about a block ahead of us. As we grew closer, I could tell he didn't have a leash in his hand or a dog at his feet. But he was holding something long and shiny that glinted in the street light. It was probably a garden hose or a hub cap. But I tugged on the dog's leash and made a hard right, taking a detour, walking as fast as I could until we reached the end of our own block, where we finally slowed down.

According to the newspaper reports and the people we know who live and work downtown and have attended the emergency neighborhood meetings, both murders for a long time seemed to have few leads. Even though the person who killed the young woman broke into her locked apartment before stabbing her, the police are encouraging people to be vigilant about locking their doors.

We only locked our door when we remembered, which wasn't often. I guess it's a Southern thing, I told a friend here. I don't want this to change our routine, JK said, sounding a little defensive when I mentioned we should keep the doors locked at all times. I get that. I don't believe in unnecessary fear, even if I sometimes succumb to it.

But still, every night for the past two weeks, I made sure to lock the door. And I stood at the window, gazing out into the darkness with a guarded look on my face, wondering who was out there.

6/28/08

Food

All the signs point in the same direction. "Dark times," my brother called it. "The end of civilization as we know it," JK said.

The rising gas prices, the salmonella-flavored tomatoes, the roller coaster of a stock market, the global rice shortage, the global banana shortage, the torrential floods, the crazy-eyed look of desperation on the faces of people who'd rather numb themselves on Survivor re-runs so they can pretend they don't hear that whistling sound as the wind rustles the fraying edges of the tattered fabric that has become our country.

And now this.

I spent an hour at the grocery store this afternoon. Let's leave aside the fact that today was maybe the third or fourth day since last September that one could actually call "hot," what with the strange weather we've been having here, with record amounts of snow, rain and cold. And let's leave aside the fact that the vast majority of my fellow shoppers dejectedly shuffled behind carts filled more than usual with foodstuffs like canned meat and cellophane-wrapped hydrogenated sugar (i.e. cheap stuff that isn't rice or bananas or tomatoes).

Let me dwell on this. Today was the third grocery trip in a row when I couldn't find a basic staple on my list because the store was out of stock. I mean truly basic things, like fruits and vegetables. The time has come when Americans (gasp, shock) can go to our grocery stores and actually not find waiting neatly packaged on clearly labeled, evenly spaced shelves all the food a person could want, because, well, it seems we're on the cusp of joining the majority of the world which happens to be dealing with a food shortage, and has been in fits and starts for quite a long time (i.e. always).

I'm not complaining, necessarily (although I really really wanted that squash today). The U.S. food system sucks, for us as eaters and workers, for people in other countries, for small- and mid-scale farmers, and for the planet. So we go to the store for peaches and the store is out of peaches because the trucks couldn't come in last night because fuel is too expensive and the truckers are on strike, and by the way, so are the farmers in some other country whose name you can't pronounce correctly, so how about an apple instead? Oh wait. We're out of those, too.

So we come face to face with our privilege, which is fine by me. Even if it means I suddenly need to start learning 101 ways to cook chard and nettles, because we have a lot of those growing around here and a girl can probably stay pretty full as long as she uses enough olive oil.

We were at a dinner party the other day. Another guest, it turned out, routinely dines at restaurants that serve caviar. She didn't understand all the silly protest over foie gras. She lives near one of the Great Lakes yet didn't quite get the "big fuss" about water conservation. She appeared to believe that if a resource of any kind was in her sight, it was hers for the using. Which means she was American.

Which is, I realize, what really made me a little angry at the grocery store today. It wasn't the fact that they suddenly didn't have squash. It was that, instead of rushing to the streets or at least to the farmers' market, almost everyone I saw was elbowing each other out of the way to cram as much cheap, high-calorie "food" into their carts as they could. These weren't caviar people. But they had options beyond, "if it's in front of me, I'm taking it, consequences (to myself, to my children, to the economy, to the planet, to people who are even poorer than me) be damned."

6/23/08

"Pro-life is anti-woman"



In honor of George Carlin, r.i.p. My favorite part: "How come when it's us, it's an abortion, and when it's a chicken, it's an omelet? Are we so much better than chickens all of a sudden? ... When's the last chicken you heard about who came home and beat the shit out of his hen? Doesn't happen, because chickens are decent people."

(p.s. Lovely people who get this via email, you may need to scoot over to the Rage is Good blog to see the embedded video.)

5/5/08

Bookish

We have, in our home, no fewer than 437 books, not including cookbooks, song books and poetry chapbooks, which would inch us pretty close to 500.

We have books crammed two-deep into bookshelves, lined neatly in cupboards, and stacked haphazardly on the surfaces of furniture in every room in our apartment.

Last weekend, Spring inspired us to join the collective airing and cleaning out of things, so as to breathe more easily with the windows open. Green buds suddenly and defiantly erupted into leaves all over our Midwestern town. We’d grown so accustomed to winter that we barely recognized the sound of songbirds.

JK and I looked around and determined to de-clutter. Away went the heaping basket of winter blankets, the drawerfuls of wool sweaters, and the synthetic-down coats suitable for hiking the tundra. We dusted and swept and sorted, until the sun turned afternoon-orange. We opened the windows and sipped iced tea through straws.

But something wasn't right.

An excess of 400 books isn't an excess at all for two people who'd rather read than sleep--plus, we're too broke for cable. But we live in an apartment slightly larger than a milk carton, and the books were taking over. They had settled down and started families. Book suburbs had sprung up in the bathroom, on the shelf below the toilet paper.

"I'll go through the books and figure out which ones to give away," JK offered.

"What are you talking about?" I said with dismay. "We can't give away books."

Giving away books with the intention of never seeing them again sounds as right and normal to me as deciding one day to give the dog to the neighbors. Since graduating from college, I have moved exactly 10 times, and each time the only thing I've insisted on carting with me were the increasing number of boxes labeled "Important -- BOOKS".

I’ve read most of them. Some I keep because I want to read them again (The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood; all seven volumes of Harry Potter). Some I keep because someday I’ll read them for the first time (like Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, or Don DeLillo’s Underworld). Many of them (the biography of Virginia Woolf; Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety; Quilting by Lucille Clifton) I keep because having them nearby feels as important as oxygen.

I love them, but I don't hoard them -- I've pushed books into the hands of friends more times than I can count. "Here," I'll say. "You must take this. You'll love it."

But always the assumption is that eventually the books will find their way back. This doesn't happen when you push your books into the hands of the guy taking donations at the thrift store.

JK nodded sympathetically. He loves books almost as much as I do. He has been known to excitedly call me into the room, just to recite a sentence or two from whatever he's reading. "Isn't that beautiful," he'll say.

So we compromised: He would go through his own books, leaving mine off-limits.

But then I guess I got a little carried away with myself. This afternoon, after bagging the last of the clothes destined for the thrift store, I glanced towards the wall of books in the living room. I had an empty paper grocery bag in my hand. "What the hell," I said to the dog. "It wouldn't hurt to try."

What criteria do you use when deciding which pieces of yourself to discard? I like book people. Book people think of their books as repositories for pieces of their souls, or mirrors that shine truths, or vacationlands filled with solace and adventure. I like book people because they see books as the closest thing to living beings that inanimate objects can become.

And so I scoured the shelves rather fruitlessly. I might want to read this someday... If I ever decide to write a book about criminals, this book would come in handy... But what if I want to go to Alaska and need to read this first?

A few times, I mustered the nerve to think, Well, maybe I don’t need this one. From the couch, the dog watched me with soulful, reproving eyes.

Seven bookshelves and countless pained sighs later, I had marked six books for the give-away pile (one short-fiction anthology; one novel I never could finish; one nonfiction book about race relations that, 11 years later, felt pretty dated; two memoirs that never moved past just the facts to the emotional messiness of real life; and one coffee table book of shamefully cute kid-with-pet photographs).

Then, because I couldn't help myself and also mostly because of the guilt, I looked through the six books again, willing myself to change my mind.

Books add contour to the landscape of a life. They make a home feel warm and inviting, all the people in their pages waving hello, waiting to talk to you. Books diminish reasons to feel bored or lonely. Books rescue and fulfill. When I finish a good book, I sometimes need to mourn—finishing a particularly good book can feel like losing a particularly close friend.

But I didn't love these six books. So I stuffed them inside the give-away bags and ferried them to my car. The thrift store around the corner—from which I purchased at least one of these six cast-aways—happens to be well-known for its vast book selection. It's like the neighborhood Barnes and Noble, except without the espresso bar.

And so I realized the silver lining here was even bigger than the cloud: Someone, most likely, would find these books and be delighted.

"A ha!" they would say. "I must take this home. I will love it."

4/18/08

Talk to me

I must have an invisible sign taped to my forehead, or some code encrypted in my voice, that says, "Hey! If you want to talk about abortion, come talk to me!"

Some back story. A couple of weeks ago, I developed a weird, very painful sensation in my neck, near where I'd had a surgery several years ago. Being mildly obsessed with my own medical history, and also prone to worry, I called my old doctor many states away, who had presided over that surgery. I left a message. No one called back.

Until today. The phone rang. It was the doctor's nurse, returning my call. The pain disappeared a few days after it started, but I explained the situation anyway and asked a few questions. She said she'd consult with the doctor and call me back. Then, as we were saying goodbye, she said, "Where do you live now, by the way?"

"Madison, Wisconsin," I said.

She grew up in nearby Chicago. "I remember Wisconsin being a very free-thinking state," she said. I tried to ramble something about how yes, it's free-thinking, anything-goes, not Alabama, very refreshing, yadda yadda yadda.

But she kept talking.

"This was back in the 1970s," she said. "You know, there was a time before abortion was legal across the country. It was left up to each state, and some states had laws that outlawed abortion, and other states had laws making it legal."

"Mmhmm, I know," I said.

"But Wisconsin didn't have a law either way. And this was really important to a lot of the women I went to school with. We were college students then, and we talked to our mothers, and none of them had had access to laws that allowed them to control how many kids they had. And if you looked at how many children they thought they wanted before they started a family, and compared that to the actual number, you'd see a big difference."

I asked her whether the lack of a law in Wisconsin had made abortion either more or less available.

"What it did," she said, "was it made it less shameful. And it made the women who needed it feel less like it was the disgraceful thing to do. The state said, 'We're not going to make a statement about this.' So it wasn't political. It was just a fact. If a doctor wanted to provide abortions, they could; and if they didn't, they didn't."

I don't know anything about the history of abortion law in Wisconsin, but I thought this woman's take on things was really interesting. It really was unlike any other conversation I've had with a health care provider. Most fascinating of all was how close to the surface this was for her. I mention I live in Wisconsin, and she launches into a five-minute monologue on how Wisconsin's approach to reproductive laws affected her 30 years ago. She could have simply made a joke about cheese.

So I told her a little about the clinic in Alabama; and the women who called there all the time, asking whether abortion was actually legal; and the men who smoked cigarettes in the parking lot while their daughters went inside, who nodded at the volunteer escorts and told us things like, "I think this is wrong, but my kid's situation is different. She's not a welfare queen or a whore," expecting us to understand their point.

"I know," she said, "I know." I could almost hear her shaking her head. Then she said she'd call me back.

4/17/08

Freaky!

For people who read this online and not via email, can somebody tell me how long those weird "Alabama" and "Feminism on Trial" webrings have been on here? I just discovered them tonight. Maybe JK thought he'd play a bad joke, but I doubt it. I have no idea where they came from.

I deleted the code, problem solved. But seriously. If you ever see any creepy we-hate-women links here at Rage Is Good, lemme know. I doubt we've been infiltrated by the far-right (they have way bigger things to worry about), but I would be kinda sad if Rage got hijacked.

As my old friend Dr. J says, thank you for letting me share. And good night!

4/16/08

Ladies' Night

You know that feeling when you've encountered something that very well may be a Very Good Idea? Sort of hopeful and excited and buzzy? Yeah. That's me right now. Tentatively jazzed even, which doesn't happen easily.

I just got back from a brainstorming meeting of people interested in starting a women's theater in Madison. About 25 of us crowded into the meeting space at a local coffee shop. Most of the people in the room (not me) had fairly extensive theater backgrounds. Many had years of organizing and activism experience. All were artists in some way. One was a judge. And almost all of us, save three or four men, were women.

There were black women, lesbian women, straight women, butch women, old women, white women, young women, Wisconsin-born women and transplants. It was one of the more diverse groups I've been in since landing in Madison. And it felt SO GOOD to be in their midst, with so many different voices and experiences and backgrounds coalescing around one very cool idea.

This was the first meeting. The mood in the room was electric. Some of the women came from more traditional theater backgrounds and simply wanted a space to showcase their work. But most of the people there, it seemed to me, came to the meeting because they saw something that felt transformative. The organizer -- a woman I met through a writing group last fall -- shared with us the statistic that less than 20% of all plays staged in the U.S. by either professional or community theaters are directed or written by women.

I was in a couple of stage productions in high school and really got interested in technical theater for a while, but I was never serious about it. Then, in 2004, I saw a staging of The Laramie Project. I was in documentary journalism school at the time, and the play -- based on interviews with real people in Laramie, Wyoming, in the wake of Matthew Shepard's murder -- opened my eyes to the power and beauty of extrapolating the notion of "documentary" to the stage. It wasn't a new idea, but I hadn't seen anything like it before. And I thought, I could do this. But then I didn't. And now I can.

The thing I miss most about Alabama is the feeling of connection in those small groups of people working to change the system. The feminists and the LGBTQ community and the racial reconciliation workshops happening in living rooms. The urgency in those circles is something I hadn't found in Madison.

I had looked here for something like the reproductive justice work I did in Alabama -- the clinic defense and Christian Coalition protests. But so much of that work has been done in this town. The pro-choice leafleting at the farmer's market doesn't really cut it. But tonight I realized that by living for a few years in a place like Alabama, where activism happens so close to the quick and in the dirty trenches, I had forgotten that things like art and theater can be revolutionary. Some might say the only true art is revolutionary.

And so maybe I have found a circle where I can help push a transformative agenda and have fun at the same time. And maybe I'll get to learn how to work the light board. That would be cool, too.