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."


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.


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.