Saturday, December 22, 2012

GHP 1985. 
We didn't have yearbooks, so we bought journals and signed them for each other.  I can't quite describe what it was like being dropped down in a group of teenagers who could quote literature to each other with total sincerity because we all LOVED IT. Or whatever our particular intellectual enthusiasms were.  It was a place where intellectual enthusiasm wasn't "weird"; for the first time in our lives for most of us, it was currency.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


I don't know where to start.  My friend Spencer Cox is dead.  My first reaction to the news was to admonish him, on Facebook, that he wasn't allowed to die, dammit, and if he'd just admit it was one of his jokes I wouldn't be mad.  Because.  It couldn't be true.

***

"What would give light must endure burning." - Viktor Frankl

I met him in 1985, at the Georgia Governor's Honors program.  We were admitted in a particular major, based on nominations and competitive applications and interviews, then we could choose a minor. Six hundred high school students from across the state, and even in that crowd of bright and talented teenagers he stood out, like a shooting star wisecracking across the sky. We were Philosophy minors together.  He was loud, alternately vulgar and erudite (sometimes both at the same time), fast-talking, vivid, good-looking, charismatic, and kind.

"Always be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of someone else." - Judy Garland

He was also gay, and quite vocally so.  This was Georgia, in the mid-Eighties; this was high school.  Many of us had never met someone who was openly gay in person...even those of us who were gay ourselves.  It didn't quite register with me then how brave he was to be that open; I think I just figured things were different in Atlanta.  They were, but not that much.  He was just fearless.

I remember him as a laughing, dark-haired dark-eyed boy, full of energy, one of the elusive Drama majors (they were always in rehearsal).  According to him, I was so weird he decided I was going to be the next Flannery O'Connor.

I'm not Flannery O'Connor yet, and I'm in my forties.  Like Spencer.  Flannery died in her forties.  Like Spencer.  I still have time, maybe.  I don't know. No one is guaranteed tomorrow.  I think creative people fear dying with our art unmade, we scribble and paint and act against the darkness.

"Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliche or a smoothing down that will soften their real look.” - Flannery O'Connor

I am wary of making him out to be a saint (I can hear his voice in my head saying, "Why not? Go ahead and write me a fagiography, honey") but what I mean is that we polish real goodness up until it seems unattainable.  Spencer as an adult was a chain-smoking, debaucherous enfant terrible with a scathing wit so sharp it could sever limbs. He could be maddening and, in the words of many of the descriptions of him written in the last 24 hours, caustic.  He was also a genuinely decent and compassionate human being who accomplished real, valuable and lasting good in the world, not merely for his immediate circle or community (which is the normal lot of even the best people) but for literal millions he didn't know and will never know.  He was valiant.  He looked killing bigotry in the eye, battled it and won.



You and I could be like that, even a little.  We don't have to be perfect, be even-tempered, or have our closets organized before we are allowed to accomplish great and valuable things.  Not everyone has his gifts, but I believe that he accomplished what he did through a combination of cussedness and moral compass.  I believe those are available to all of us, like grace.

"All we can do is go around telling the truth." - Carson McCullers

Many of us who knew him when we were young have said that he changed our lives.  He didn't do it with a self-help book or a weight loss program or a religion.  I don't think he did it on purpose.  He did it by being himself.

I was raised Southern Baptist when that was very different than it is now, at least in some places.  They used to ordain women.  My predominantly white church, in a tiny place in north Georgia that wasn't even a town, was attended by a black man.  We had a copy of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret in our church library.  The Fundamentalists had taken over the Southern Baptist Convention in 1981, the same year I was baptized, but had not yet consolidated their grip over the denomination or run the moderates out. This is context.

The local churches in Valdosta would come and get students from the Governor's Honors Program for services.  I decided to go, possibly so that if my mother asked if I'd been I could say, "Yes."  I had already experienced creeping Fundamentalism, mostly from my friends at school.  People I had known since kindergarten were telling me that Satan was in rock music and role-playing games and starting to go to the Church of God and being loudly Christian in a way that made me want to bring up Matthew 6:5.  None of that prepared me.

The church I went to first of all had posters on the wall of their Sunday School room depicting the racist interpretation of the Curse of Ham, which I had never seen before and it shocked me.  I didn't feel sure enough of my ground to challenge anyone over it; I was conscious of being far from home and dependent on someone else to get back to campus.  I remember wondering if there was a way for me to leave without causing a big stir. 

There wasn't. I went to services, where the preacher proceeded to declare that America was fighting God's enemies and therefore all our wars were justified and therefore anyone who didn't believe that  was against God. 

Being the same person who stood up in my eighth grade class and told off the teacher when he said that women should keep to their place, I seriously considered standing up and saying something.  But it was not my church.  It was most definitely, decidedly, unequivocally not my church, and I was sixteen.  I kept my mouth shut.

When I got back to campus, I was incoherent with outrage.  I saw Spencer and made a beeline for him, because of all the people there I figured he would understand.  I sputtered out some kind of report of what had happened, and expressed regret that I had not said anything.

He laughed, said, "Oh, I love you" and hugged me.

I was bemused.  I wasn't sure what I had done to earn this praise.  Generally speaking, growing up girl in the South means you get told to "be nice" a lot.  Righteous anger in women is not viewed with favor by the world at large.

Spencer thought it was awesome. 

It was just a little thing, but little things can be important. I was frequently ferociously indignant in the way that only an idealistic teenager can be, and most people tended to argue with me or temporize or smooth it over or present the other side of the story as if I didn't know it or generally let me know that it made them uncomfortable.  My parents did not discourage me, but they didn't explicitly encourage me either.  Spencer is one of the first people I can remember listening to me rave about something that was wrong in the world and expressing effusive approval.  I mean, my eighth grade class applauded, but my teacher gave me the first D of my life and got away with it, so that reaction was mixed.

Perhaps more importantly, he did not offer a critique.  He didn't tell me what I should have done, or what he would have done in my place.  He loved my indignation and regret, and didn't second-guess me.

It was a shift in perspective, leading to a shift in thought, leading eventually to a shift in action.  I came to believe that speaking up was not just OK, it was vitally important, and that in fact we have a moral obligation to speak up when things are not right.  While many moments and many ideas have reinforced my convictions along the way, that conversation was one that stands out in my mind, twenty-seven years later.  I'm pretty sure that Spencer was not trying to impart a moral precept.  He was just being himself, true as an arrow.

This is what we mean when we say that knowing Spencer changed us.

"SILENCE = DEATH" -- AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power

They meant it literally, in the case of AIDS; the silence surrounding the disease, the unwillingness of politicians to even mention it except in opprobrium and bigoted rhetoric, the dearth of public outcry; all this meant that people were dying...and would continue to die unless something changed.  That was a stark example of a universal truth.  Much of the time it is more subtle. Silence in the face of abuse, of corruption, of injustice, of hatred, leads to death of the spirit.

Spencer and the other people who were part of ACT UP and TAG might have been fighting for their lives and in some cases losing them.  Many of them died of the disease before the treatments he helped bring about became available.  Spencer now is gone too.

But they were not silent.  They acted up, they spoke out, they fought AIDS.  Their spirits were and remain very much alive.

Speak up.  It is the only way.  Speak truth.  It matters.

"How can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?"--Carson McCullers



Monday, December 3, 2012

Strumming the Sacred Harp

 This article was originally published in Flagpole Magazine, April 8, 2009. Photographs by Andrew Flenniken.

Not everyone loves it; H.L. Mencken reportedly described it as “a cross between a steam calliope and a Ukrainian peasant chorus.” Mencken notwithstanding, it sounds like nothing else you've ever heard. Four groups of singers face the center, raising their voices for no one but the song leader and themselves, harmonies meeting and diverging, wild but measured, eerie and joyful. This is Sacred Harp music.

Sacred Harp is one example of a larger American shape-note tradition which began in the late eighteenth century, drawing from the rural church-singing tradition in England but adding innovations of composition and especially notation. A seven-note scale is represented by four (or sometimes seven) shapes which give the tradition its name. The purpose of the shapes is to make sight-reading easier; the larger purpose is to make music accessible to all. Singing-schools sprang up in New England and beyond, teaching the populace how to make a joyful noise. It may have been this populist and inclusive impulse which really disturbed Mencken, who was a cheerfully obnoxious elitist, but it contributed significantly to the original popularity and later resurgence of the style.
Hugh McGraw, in blue sweater, sings along.
Once popular all over the newly minted United States, the shape-note style eventually fell out of favor everywhere except the rural South. By the mid-twentieth century, the number of people who knew and practiced this uniquely American musical tradition had dwindled down to only a thousand, in a few churches in the deep South. However, a resurgence of interest in the style has occurred in recent decades, helped along by Hugh McGraw, Raymond Hamrick, and a group of others who published a new revision of the classic shape-note hymnal The Sacred Harp in 1991. First published in 1844, the title page reads “The Best Collection of Sacred Songs, Hymns, Odes, and Anthems Ever Offered the Singing Public for General Use.” That claim is supported by the fact that it has been in continual use since its first publication, with only four major revisions.

Now there are regular “singings” all over the United States and well beyond. The South, especially Alabama and Georgia, is still the center of the tradition and if you attend a singing in Ila, Georgia, or Jasper, Alabama, you may encounter people who have driven down from Michigan or New York just to come and sing. For those who are fascinated by the form it is a powerful draw. There are shape-note singers who grew up with it in churches where the hymnals are still in ongoing use, or who heard about it from older relatives, but many more simply ran across it somewhere. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, religious and musical, and may or may not be interested in Christian sacred music or folk music per se. They simply come for the singing.

Musicians and Hollywood have taken notice: Three hymns from The Sacred Harp appear in the movie Cold Mountain (“I'm Going Home,” #282, “Vernon,” #95, and “Idumea,” #47). The soundtrack for Cold Mountain was compiled by T-Bone Burnett, the same man who brought you the “old-timey” sounds of O Brother! Where Art Thou? Georgia filmmakers Erica and Matt Hinton made a documentary about Sacred Harp titled Awake, My Soul. The soundtrack, called Help Me to Sing, features recordings of traditional Sacred Harp singers on one disk, and various musicians performing songs from the book on a second. On disk two you can hear Doc Watson singing his own version of “Idumea,” sometimes called “And Am I Born to Die?”; Rayna Gellert and John Paul Jones harmonize on “Blooming Youth” (#176), while Danielson performs a quirky, weird version of “Sermon on the Mount” (#507). Tracks by Liz Janes, Innocence Mission, The Good Players, Mac Powell, John Wesley Harding, Jim Lauderdale with Jeni & Billy, Cordelia's Dad, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Tenement Halls, Woven Hand, Richard Buckner, Sam Amidon, Rick Moody with Nina Katchadourian, Tim Eriksen, DM Stith, Murray Hammond, and Elvis Perkins in Dearland also appear. Other musicians have drawn on the shape-note tradition for inspiration or performance as well; “The Dying Californian” ( #410) is one of the tracks on the VOCO album Blink, while #47 is the title track on Am I Born to Die? An Appalachian Songbook by Mason Brown and Chipper Thompson.
Judy Mincey leads the singing.
The unique harmonies of the choral style are in quartals of fourths and fifths rather than the triads of thirds you are familiar with, whether you know it or not, from most of the music you hear. It is polyphonic, meaning no one part stands out as the tune, and the chord changes frequently; this is what gives shape-note its stately unexpectedness and feeling of movement across the four parts. That explanation does nothing to convey the effect those harmonies have on the hearer of the music, who often as not soon becomes a singer of it. Judy Mincey, in describing how she got interested in shape-note, said, “I had a dulcimer I wanted to play and got interested in old music that way. Then I heard some people singing shape-note and it just blew me away...When you get up in the middle there and listen to it coming from all around, it just makes the hair on your arms stand up.”

With traditional Sacred Harp, or the other shape-note traditions such as Southern Harmony or Christian Harmony, the point is not performance, but participation. Everyone who attends a singing is not only allowed but encouraged to sing, and nearly everyone who sings eventually gets up and leads a song. Singings are orderly, focused, and cheerful, accompanied by food and a good deal of laughter. Everyone is welcome, and welcome to sing. That is its power; among other things, it is a living folk musical tradition that has yet to be packaged or professionalized, and is easy to access if you are simply willing to put in the effort and time to show up and do it. It has a spiritual core which is inherently democratic and resistant to co-option. Along with the wild beauty of the harmonies, the music is participatory in its very essence. It is meant to be sung, not only listened to, and you are supposed to sing loud.

Athens is close to shape-note central; there is a regular monthly singing at West End Baptist Church, and another in Ila, just down the road. The system is intended to be easy to learn and if you have any choral singing experience you will find it very easy to pick up (though you may have to unlearn some of your trained-in habits). If you need a little more preparation, regular singings at the Emory Presbyterian Church in Decatur include a short explanation of the shape-note system and an opportunity to sing a probably-familiar tune in the shape-note style.“Old Hundred,” also known as “Doxology,” should be well-known to anyone raised in a Christian church in the U.S. There are also frequent “singing schools” and two yearly week-long camps held within driving distance: Camp Fasola in Nauvoo, Alabama (a second session in 2009 will be held in Anniston), and Camp Doremi (seven-shape system) held at Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland, North Carolina. More information about local singings and events can be found at www.atlantasacredharp.org, and national listings, resources, and general information about shape-note can be found at fasola.org.
Come on down. Bring a covered dish. And sing loud.

Singers as well as song leaders mark time with their hands in a characteristic style.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sexism in Occupy: An Analysis

  "This is no simple reform... It really is a revolution. Sex and race, because they are easy and visible differences, have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends."-  Gloria Steinem, from "Address to the Women of America."  Quoted at the end of V for Vendetta.

First, let me emphasize that this is based on my own observations and experiences which are mainly limited to Occupy Atlanta. I do not pretend to encompass the experiences of women in Occupy as a whole, or even in Occupy Atlanta; there's far too much ground to cover, for one thing. My perspective is necessarily different from some other people's; but based on conversations with others, I am definitely not alone in my perceptions.

 I do think that what I have to say is applicable; not only to Atlanta, or to Occupy, but to how sexism and patriarchy function in general. It's sometimes disheartening, but should not be surprising, that the dysfunctions of society are often most visible in situations where people are working hardest to make change. That's partially because we have higher expectations of people who see one part of the problem to see all the other parts (which may not necessarily be the case). It's also because in most of society, those dysfunctions seem "normal."

 Secondly, let me make it clear that sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, and similar "isms" are matters of pattern. They are not (only) personal moral flaws; they are collective social evils. What someone meant by a particular remark or action is less important than the picture that emerges when we look at the pattern as a whole; that they didn't mean it that way, or that women do it too, or that the same thing happens to men sometimes, does not contradict the fact that the particular incident is part of a sexist worldview and power imbalance embedded in our culture at large and internalized by individuals which also manifests whenever we try to get together and do anything. An individual act might or might not be classifiable as sexist (or racist, etc.); the overall pattern IS.

 This incidentally is why the Supreme Court ruling in the Lily Ledbetter case was so wrong-headed and stupid; they ruled that in order to have a case, she would have had to have filed within ninety days of the first, original incident of being paid less than a man for the same work. Aside from the fact that she didn't know until nearly twenty years later that she was being paid significantly less than her male colleagues, in order to prove discrimination in court you have to show that there is a pattern of behavior. That is, by ruling that a filing has to occur within ninety days of the first incident, the Supreme Court effectively made it impossible to prove gender discrimination at all. A singular incident does not make a pattern; out of context, it may not seem sexist at all. But what matters is the context.

That said, I can put the sexism I have either observed or experienced personally into three main categories:

1. Bullying. 
  • Assault.  At least two incidents of apparent attempted rape (crawling into a woman's tent or into bed with her at the Peachtree and Pine headquarters), and another notable incident where a woman was grabbed by another Occupier right in front of someone who completely failed to react or help her fight him off.
  • Attempts at physical intimidation.  This includes someone getting up in my face at General Assemblies and yelling at me and other people, once while I was trying to facilitate.  It also includes circling around the group in order to stand close behind me, using greater physical size to loom over me, or otherwise getting into my personal space.  It also includes overt threats of violence.
  • Name-calling and other forms of verbal abuse and harassment.  Being called out by name repeatedly in GAs (which was supposed to be against the rules) and online; also campaigns of character assassination.  One particular individual is a constant source of rumors and made-up accusations, some of which are quite serious, and which are nearly always aimed at women.  I was told by one person (because I objected to his behavior) that I obviously had a mental problem and that he felt sorry for me.  This is both ableist in the worst sense (using a disability as an insult) AND misogynist (calling women crazy has a long anti-feminist history; several early women's rights activists were locked up in asylums. Also, see a dictionary under "Hysteria, etymology of"). 
  • Interrupting, talking over, or shouting down women trying to speak at the General Assembly or elsewhere.  This was an ongoing issue; some individuals do it nearly constantly.  It was brought up numerous times by several different women, but the group as a whole did not seem to take it seriously and did not address the problem in any consistent way.
  • Objectification.  This includes both inappropriate overtly sexual comments and more subtle "you're so pretty" type "compliments" which functioned either as a distraction from the serious point the woman was making, or an attempt to excuse bad behavior and/or deflect women's reactions to it.  It may be hard for some people to wrap their heads around why I group this with bullying, but consider that in a discussion of someone's constant and egregious harassment of me, I was told "he said he wouldn't mind dating you," offered seriously as "proof" that he actually liked me. (And that I therefore shouldn't be angry at him for harassing me.)
2. Dismissing women's perceptions, experiences, knowledge, and words (aka "gaslighting,"  "mansplaining," etc.)
  • Some of these were related to ageism. Older women are not listened to and given the same credence as older men, with regard to our previous activism/political experience or in general.  Or a woman's word is disputed because it contradicts the popular and largely fabricated narrative about a division between "older liberals" and "young radicals."  One person got very angry when I said I had worked with Food Not Bombs in the past, and not only called me a liar to my face but apparently went around telling everyone else that I must be lying because (apparently) none of the current FNB volunteers had seen me there.  Never mind that the time I was referring to was a decade ago, and the people who were involved then DO remember me.
  • Others had to do with women's reportage/complaints about bullying incidents; those usually took the form of "are you sure that's what he meant?" or "He seems like a nice guy to me" or well-meaning white knighting ("Let me talk to him!").  These can seem harmless at the time because a reasonable person does not wish to rush to judgment. The problem is what I call Schrodinger's Misogynist.  That is, men all too often do not take even dangerously threatening behavior seriously until it happens to them or another man; they take the reasonable-sounding-to-them position of "well, maybe it happened, maybe it didn't; I don't know, I wasn't there" regardless of how many women say the same exact thing.   And since the very nature of misogyny is that it is directed at women, the necessary preponderance of evidence required for a consensus that someone is a problem is never reached.   The incident I mentioned of a man crawling into bed with a woman did not result in him being immediately expelled from Peachtree and Pine; that happened, but much later and because of other behavior on his part, which was not affected by the Schrodinger's Misogynist quantum indeterminability field.
3. Attempts at asserting a power hierarchy, with men above women as a matter of course.
  • Numerous men took it upon themselves to attempt to boss me around and tell me what I ought to be doing, or to belittle what I was doing, had done, or was proposing we do.  Quite often, the same idea suggested by a man would meet approval and zero flak.  Committees where women had visibly strong voices, including Legal, Media, Arts and Literature, and on occasion Accounting, came under frequent attack.
  • Inside the Media Committee when it existed, there was more than one man who tried to exert editorial control over what I wrote or sent out, but who vocally resented it if I attempted to exert any say-so over what they were doing at all.  In more than one instance, they became belligerent because I insisted that they follow the same editorial process that we were all supposed to follow.  No less than three of those men decided to go "over my head" to the General Assembly with an issue that was definitely within the Media Committee's area of responsibility.
  • From both inside and outside the Media Committee, I was often treated like a secretary...the person who was supposed to keep track of everyone's contact information, schedule meetings, and post things to the website, generally by people who were perfectly capable of doing those things themselves but who had more "important" things to do and so relegated the boring, routine tasks to me or other women.  In some cases, people refused to even learn how to post to the website because they "didn't like to" but thought it was perfectly fine to ask someone else to do it.
  • I was also told to make coffee.*  For real. 
I hope it's evident from the examples I gave that this behavior came from a wide variety of people, of all ages, races, and political flavors; in some cases it came from women as well as men.  As my explanations about internalized patterns at the beginning imply, that doesn't mean it wasn't sexist; if it fits the pattern, it is part of the problem.

Here's what I've noticed:  1 and 2 reinforce each other, and support #3.  That is, intimidation serves to put women constantly on the defensive, raise their anxiety levels, and lessen their participation overall. I stuck it out for a long time but some women simply walked the first time someone got up in their face and plenty more left Occupy Atlanta as each woman's individual tolerance was reached.  Fewer and fewer women participate at all.  Gaslighting and other forms of dismissal undermine any attempt by women to fight the bullying or to assert a truly equal voice.   All of this is in service to a shadow hierarchy of men over women; in a supposedly "leaderless" movement, women are far more often attacked for stepping up and taking initiative instead of following men.  Men as a group are not subject to the same degree of hostility.  I have seen some of the same tactics applied to individual men, but less frequently and when it happens it's for much the same reason:  he is perceived to have "too much power" and therefore must be disempowered, belittled, and "put in his place."  The difference is that while the group has little tolerance for one man holding "too much" power for too long, it has no tolerance for women doing so at all.  Recently one woman, having attended the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street in New York, initiated making plans to have a similar anniversary celebration/action for Occupy Atlanta.  Even though she invited everyone's participation and was as inclusive as possible, she was immediately mocked for presuming to think of herself as a "leader."  Clearly, if you are a woman, in some people's eyes any power is too much.

"We are all leaders, or none of us are leaders."  - the Occupy Atlanta General Assembly Pledge, long  since abandoned.

That is a bitter pill to swallow in a movement based on the ideal of empowerment for all, just as being shouted down, or put down, or dismissed by other Occupiers is felt by me and other women as a uniquely painful betrayal.  This is not what we signed up for.  It's exactly what we were trying to get away from, in fact.  If we want to be put down, betrayed, belittled, dismissed, have our safety and well-being be considered a matter of no import, and have our organizational work taken for granted while decisions that affect us are made with minimal input from us, we could go join any existing institution or organization you care to name, including Congress.  Most of them would treat us better than this; not a few of them get more done. This problem isn't unique to Occupy, of course; it's not even an indictment of Occupy, except in the sense that we should expect and get a whole lot better than this.  But this is the way the world is.  All you have to do is look at how Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren (and Sarah Palin for that matter) get portrayed in the media, compared with male political figures.  I personally have experienced all of the misogyny I have discussed here in other contexts, and worse.  It should be news to no one that Occupy is a mirror.  But if it ever hopes to be what it aspires to, it must do more than merely reflect the sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and other manifestations of arbitrary power which infest the society at large.  To attempt to fight injustice while perpetrating it, to build a society around principles of shared power while exerting power over others, is a logical impossibility.  "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."  - Audre Lorde 

Occupy must do better than it has.  I think it can do better, and in Occupy Atlanta changes are already afoot.  A women's caucus has formed, and also a feminist group for men; there was a workshop on addressing sexism in activist movements tonight which was apparently well-received.  What happens next, I don't know. But in much the same way that Occupy is a mirror, if Occupy can dealt with these problems, it's a little more hopeful that the rest of the world can too.


Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,"
published 1792. Not an actual quote.







*I have nothing but appreciation for all of the people who made and served food for us, including a plentiful supply of coffee, who in some cases saved food for me because I couldn't make it during the scheduled "dinner hour."  However, there is a vast difference between doing that work because you volunteered to, and being told to do it by someone who thinks his time is more valuable than yours.  It was a blatant attempt at putting me in my "place" which insulted both me and the work.



Saturday, May 12, 2012

So, You Want to Be a Mother!

Pregnant graffiti

Or maybe it snuck up on you.  How would I know?

Since it's almost Mother's Day and I received some very slight encouragement from my friends, I decided that I would write about another one of my occasional hobbies, parenting.   My son is about to graduate high school, and I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in the fact that I have reared him nearly to legal adulthood without him either going to jail or becoming a Republican.  Since I know that any new or incipient parents with a lick of sense are flailing about in a hysterical panic wondering how they are going to get through this...and if you haven't reached that stage yet, dearie, you will....I will share some of my tips and secrets right here on the Internet for the benefit and edification of all.


Photographic evidence that I know what I am talking about. Note hippietastic skirt, homemade Plains-style choker and general air of blissful, youthful ignorance. Also not-yet-freakishly-ginormous belly.

Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

Oopsie, I'm Pregnant!


Perhaps you planned, waited, prayed, and, er, tried very hard for this day.  Or perhaps you woke up one day feeling a little weird and went on a mildly embarrassing shopping trip to the drug store.  Either way, you should realize that you have no idea what you're getting into and that there are very sound evolutionary reasons for that.  

To begin with, eat whatever the hell you want. 

I mean...sure you should probably avoid alcohol, though the latest latest research suggests that small amounts are not going to do you or your baby any harm, so don't freak right out if you drank a beer the day before you learned you were pregnant.  Follow your doctor's advice, etc. etc.  But the reality is that during the first trimester, pregnant women come in two flavors:  completely, unbelievably, ravenously hungry, and barf-o-rama.  What this means in practical terms is that either you are going to eat whatever is available, including whatever you see in your refrigerator, your pantry, your friend's refrigerator, on the sample tray at the grocery store, on the plates of strangers in restaurants who look like they aren't really that hungry...or you are not going to be able to hold any kind of food down except some exceedingly weirdo combination of very bland nothingness...tofu cubes and soda crackers, or snowflake-shaped ice cubes and Sprite.  Either way, it isn't really going to matter what it says on those lists of healthy foods and recommended preggo diets. You aren't going to follow them.  Plus...

Fun fact #1:  Your sense of smell is about to become your first Mom-related super-power.

Pregnant women are about a bazillion times more able to detect spoilage and toxicity in food than a normal person.  This is because some substances which would merely cause discomfort or illness in an adult will cause serious damage to a developing embryo.  In a very few cases, things that we normally eat with no problems whatsoever go on the OH HELL NO list.  At any rate, your whole system goes on high alert for anything potentially threatening, at least anything potentially threatening that our ancestors a few hundred thousand years ago were likely to encounter.  This reaction kicks in so fast that revulsion for foods they previously enjoyed is often the first tip-off some women have that they are in fact pregnant.  Viva la evolucion!

The urge to stab people who are smoking anywhere near you or wearing too much perfume is just a bonus, really.  Considering how weird people are about pregnant women. if you are far enough along you might even get away with it.  Which leads us to...

People are freaking weird about pregnant women.

They either want to scrunch you up in a big fluffy rainbow of kitties and puppies and bunnies and pastel icing, or they are terrified of you.  Possibly both.  Sometimes they resent you.  They want to touch your belly.  They offer you unsolicited advice, including opinions about how you could have not become pregnant and where you should send your as-yet-unborn child to college, when they haven't even seen his or her SAT scores.  They edge away from you or treat you with exaggerated, slightly demented, patronizing courtesy.

And that's just strangers.  The people closest to you are likely to be either hilariously, ecstatically happy or freaking out.  Usually both.

All of that can be very irritating.  My best advice to you is to realize that people are frail creatures who don't really like reminders that they are physical beings with a start date (and by implication, an end date). It tends to throw them off-kilter.  Also, everyone on the whole entire planet has Mommy issues, and you tweak them by your very presence.  Try to maintain an attitude of serenity about it all, and also realize that if you are just a little bit ruthless you can turn it to your advantage.  Enjoy it while it lasts, because no human is more invisible or disdained than the mother of a toddler.  People like reminders that they too were once imperfect little barbarians with dirt and snot all over them even less.


Fun fact #2:  Stretch marks are forever.

I still have mine, seventeen years later.  Just deal with it.   You can rub some shea butter on your belly and, er, lower abdomen, but it will only delay the inevitable.  You are about to become the hugest giantest walking beach ball that has ever been.  Except for every other pregnant woman who has ever lived.  Just roll with it.  Um, not literally, because that will be very uncomfortable.   Eventually, you are going to be able to use your belly as a convenient horizontal surface:
Woman pregnat with the dog

Your feet are likely to grow half a size as well, permanently, so don't buy any really expensive shoes until after your baby is born.  At which point you will not be able to afford them.

The good news is, your tits will also gain a lot of volume temporarily and at least some of the effect will be permanent.  Your ass will also get bigger, which may be good or bad news, depending. 

Basically, your body is about to go through a transformation and while you will not always be a freak of nature, it will never be quite the same.  This is not a bad thing, though it's definitely a little unnerving at times.

5 april2010 144

You might as well have fun with it.  Also, long before your belly gets this big...along about the fifth month for a first pregnancy...you are going to have a weirdest experience of your life, which is when you realize there's a tiny little being moving around in there.

Congratulations, you are now a host for an alien life form!

Except it's related to you.  (Isn't being a mammal fun?)  And it will not, I am almost 100% sure, pop out of your chest.  It's possible that when you contemplate what it will pop out of, you may wish that it would. 


At some point, that tiny barely perceptible flutter that is so cute and groovy and miracle-of-life will turn into very noticeable rolling around.  And kicking. And thumping. There is nothing quite like losing your breath mid-word because someone has punched your diaphragm.  From the inside. Let us not discuss what happens when the little freeloader kicks your bladder.

You should also know that fetuses have sleeping and waking cycles in the womb.  Which will not, I repeat NOT, coincide with yours.  Guess who keeps who up?  This is of course practice for later, and to toughen you up.  The first three or four months after the child is born is one long sleep-deprivation experiment.

Many mothers give their unborn children nicknames.  My son's pre-birth name was "Wiggles."  He earned it, with a single-minded dedication awe-inspiring in one so young and not even breathing yet.

There is such a thing as a "nesting instinct."

This is the cute, Victorianesque phrase, evocative of little birdies and interior decoration with feathers, that  we use to refer to the fact that at some point along about the beginning of the second trimester (after you quit barfing.  If you do quit barfing) you are going to look around at your house, neighborhood, country and planet and say, in emphatic tones and with a glint of determination in your eye,  "This will not do at all."

What you do next is largely determined by your temperament, inclinations, and what resources fate has put at your disposal.  Some women make booties.  I built a counter and...stuff.  Anne Bonney busted out of prison.*

Just go with it, for as long as the impulse lasts, but try to break your projects down into small, manageable chunks and don't let them get too far-reaching.  That is because at some point, just as suddenly, you are going to decide that you'd rather take a nap every day.  You are also going to reach a point (as I mentioned) where it is hard to reach around or see over your own belly.  

My suggestion for any non-pregnant persons reading this is that your best bet is to just go along with whatever Preggo has in mind.  At the very least, get out of her way.  There is no stopping her, so do not attempt it.  You will get hurt.

Advice for expectant fathers, non-pregnant-girl-partners, and concerned friends: 

I realize most of this is aimed at the pregnant mother.  There is a reason for that, which is that for now, she is the star of this show.  Remember, couvade isn't cute.  Also, rest assured that the narcissism, obsessiveness, hysteria, sudden mood swings, and weird changes will subside some time after the baby is born.  A year or two at most...well, that really depends on how long you leave her alone with a toddler.  If it persists much beyond the child's entrance to middle school you should consider the idea that perhaps that isn't a mood swing, that's her personality, and adjust accordingly.

Possible future topics:   why you don't need to buy a bunch of baby crap, toddlers are the devil, middle-school Machiavellis, and other stuff as it occurs to me.

*This may or may not actually be true.  However, it is a fact that she and fellow pirate Mary Read both "pled their bellies," ie claimed to be pregnant which meant they would get a stay of execution.  Mary Read died of a fever.  Bonney was not executed, and nobody seems to be sure exactly what happened to her.  But she was never hung for piracy. I draw my own conclusions.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The return of walkies!

All of those perky "how to make the best of your blog!" articles say that you should pick a topic and stick to it.  They also say you should post regularly.  People, they say, like consistency.  It might surprise you to know that I read articles like that, and that I love self-help, self-improvement, and how-to articles generally.  I suspect on the other hand that it will surprise no one that I never actually take their advice.  So, having meandered whimsically through politics, sarcasm,  random observations, and glee over my own publications, I have arrived back at one of my other interests, pretending to exercise.

You may recall that no sooner had I decided to embark upon an amusing and edifying blog-tour of all the walking trails in Athens, I moved because I got a new job.  So you could think of this as me jiggling the door handle of fate once again...

Big Trees Forest Preserve

One of the area's many delightful parks, located next to the North Fulton Government Service Center on Roswell Road.  It is within a reasonable walk of my house, so I can add mileage and time to my outdoor exertions...it always feels a bit weird to me to drive somewhere so I can walk, which is why I get my sweetie to drop me off. (Joking. Mostly.)

Best features:  Sun-dappled shade, babbling brooks, leafy glades.  Trails are well-maintained for the most part.

Down sides:  Parts of trails are within hearing of Roswell Road, which tends to spoil the illusion of woodsy solitude maintained elsewhere in the park.

Difficulty:  Easy for the most part, the Back Country trail and some of the connectors have some hilly and more moderate stretches.

Frequency of humans:  Depends on the time of day, but I have never seen it unpleasantly crowded.

Other wildlife:  The usual squirrels, chipmunks, and talkative birds.  Bird houses and feeders placed to encourage their presence.

Maps and mileage:  Map available on the website is accurate but not very printable.  Trails are about 1.5 miles but you can expand and vary this because there's more than one loop.

Access:  Enter from the NFGS parking lot on the right side of the building.  Part of the trail is wheelchair accessible. Pets on a leash, no bicycles.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

New/old publication in the Dead Mule

Somehow I missed it when this came out:  God of the Marching Teddy Bears    A nearly true story.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Gone with the wind

Just watched a biography of Margaret Mitchell. I have a perverse fondness for her despite the fact that I can no longer read GWTW without wincing and the only benefit from the housing crash I can see is that it stunted the proliferation of middle-Georgia mid-range housing developments with names like "Tara Estates."  I'd known that she donated money to Morehouse medical students; I hadn't known she did it in secret for fear that someone would take violent exception to her donating money to African American students. Those were the times, as they say.

My father used to talk about his uncle who was a doctor and his aunts who were "country nurses," (ie midwives and whatever else was needed) and was emphatic that they would treat "anybody, white or black." This sailed over my head as a child. Why wouldn't they? But his uncle and aunts practiced in the 1910s, '20s and '30s when that just wasn't done. And by "not done" I mean "some people would turn black people away from emergency rooms and let them die rather than treat them." It occurs to me now that not only were they unusual, my great-uncle and aunts may have actually put themselves in danger. Though knowing my family I doubt they worried about it too much.

People are funny, contradictory creatures. Margaret Mitchell had some racist attitudes and so did my parents; I'm sure their elder relatives were no different. And yet, they defied other people's racism at some risk to themselves. If there is a lesson there, I think it's this: The world isn't made by saints. They are too thin on the ground. The world is pushed forward by flawed human beings choosing to do the better thing.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Don't Bring Your Hoodie to Town

Geraldo Rivera made an ass of himself on TV today.  This is, alas, not news, which would explain why it was on Fox. He misquoted Johnny Cash.  That wasn't even it, but I had to put that out there.  Sometimes the enormity of a thing is so vast and incomprehensible, you have to pick at something small to try to wrap your head around it.

I mean, yes, Rivera.  On what day is he not a fool? Fox "News," yep.  And yet...just when you think there is no possible way people can be more venal, more callous, more epically and outstandingly vile, they outdo themselves. It was an epiphany of sorts.  Rivera has had a long and storied career as a mystifyingly famous idiot. Today he reached an apotheosis, at least I devoutly hope that's what it was.  That he might have worse in him is too terrifying to contemplate.  It's enough to make a person believe in R'lyeh.

"I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trevon Martin's death as George Zimmerman was...I'll bet you money, if he didn't have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn't have responded in that violent way."

Yes, my friends and fellow citizens of Earth, he thinks that an adult man chasing a seventeen year old boy down the street after having been told by a 911 dispatcher not to do so and shooting said child is only partially that man's fault.   The wisdom of neighborhood watch carrying a gun in the first place, or the bizarre application of  "stand your ground" to include a public street and an unarmed opponent doesn't even enter into it.  The hoodie made him do it.

He went on to say that when people see a dark-skinned kid in a hoodie, they think that child is a menace and that we should all be aware of that.  You can't rehabilitate the hoodie, he says.

Oh, Lord.  You know what I think is a menace?  White guys with guns.

I mean, really.  Look at history.  The Chinese invented gunpowder and made fireworks.  Europeans invented gunpowder and made muskets, pistols, cannon, rifles, mortars, derringers, Thompson machine guns, howitzers, and 75 mm anti-aircraft guns.  For five hundred years and counting, the spectacle of some white people coming over the hill or sailing into the harbor or showing up on the doorstep in suits has made people the world over think, "Aw, shit.  Here they come. Are they armed?"

And nine times out of ten, when you hear on the news that someone has killed someone else in a completely bizarre whacknut vigilante way, with or without lengthy manifesto, it's a white guy.  With a gun and a lethal sense of entitlement.  I'll bet you money, if George Zimmerman hadn't gone out wearing a gun, he wouldn't have been able to react in that violent way.

So I'm urging all of you...don't let your white guys go out wearing guns.  Tell them people will look at them as a menace.  After five hundred years of history, you can't rehabilitate the white guy with gun look.  I'm just trying to save lives here.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Feline Philosophy, Anarchy, and Art

"Of all God's creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat." - Mark Twain

A side-effect of hanging around Occupy is that one winds up having to explain patiently to people that having a penchant for breaking things and wearing clothes you found on the bargain rack at Hot Topic does not make you an anarchist.  Sometimes you have to explain that to people who call themselves anarchists.  I don't look like I know anything about it, apparently.  I am middle-aged, chose to accord punk a decent burial rather than take up necrophilia,  and have a job, more or less, as an educator.   I vote, among my other peculiar habits, and my clothing comes in other colors than black.  That's all right; I reject the notion that political and philosophical ideas require membership in a subculture.  I also reject the idea that it requires a certain set of lifestyle choices, ideological catechisms, or a reading list.  Although I do habitually think about the systemic consequences of my personal decisions and I love a reading list, those are voluntary choices on my part.  (See what I did there?)  In other words....don't tell me what to do.

Let's start with a fundamental attitude.  Deep down in my bones, I believe that all power must justify itself to those it would exert influence over, rather than the other way around.  The power to pass laws or enforce them, to allocate resources or use them up, is always conditional and open to question; no other state of affairs is acceptable, or even possible except through manipulation, coercion and failure of the imagination.  When you put it that way, it sounds strangely like the Declaration of Independence ("....Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed")  and therefore ought to have the stamp of the hoariest true-blue American sentiment about it.  And yet in practice that fundamental world-view tends to bother people.  I have been told more than once in indignant tones that I have no respect for authority; I can only agree cheerfully, which seems to upset people even more.  I do not have respect for authority.  I barely recognize authority as a concept, except in the specific narrow academic sense of an authoritative source (and I'm well aware of how subject to debate that is). My compliance is never to be assumed, and my respect beyond that which I accord to all living beings as a matter of fundamental ethics has to be earned.  I do respect integrity, knowledge and logical sense, and will amiably ask that they be demonstrated before I put my full trust in a person or institution; I will less amiably point out when they have been breached.  This makes me a rebel, apparently, and very upsetting. 

Really, I'm no different from a cat, except that I talk more.  Cats are inherently anti-authoritarian.

So are artists, a species of which I am a member, cultivar writer.   While it's true you will occasionally find an artist espousing some authoritarian philosophy or another, they always mean it for other people.  (Nobody said an artist can't be a hypocrite.  We are like other mortals that way).  I never met a creative person though who took authority seriously as applied to herself.  That is because real art requires freedom and is governed by constraints the artist understands to be arbitrary even when she believes in them passionately, with the same total conviction that a six year old will lend to the rules of a game she and her friends just made up on the spot.  Even reality is bendable in spots.

Don't get the idea that just because I think rules are the product of fallible human minds it means I also think there shouldn't be any.  That kind of person always believes that there's such a thing as ultimate truth in human affairs, and that he or she knows what it is.  What I do think is that, acknowledging that rules are often arbitrary (a word with roots in the concept of rendering judgment), they are also functional in that they provide a container, a vessel for human interactions.  They can be useful, but they must also be subject to criticism and revision on the basis of how functional they really are, and that extends to all levels, the philosophical, the social, and the practical; local, national, and global.  This is also the business of the philosophical or theoretical arms of social justice movements:  feminism, anti-racism, queer activism, disabilities activism, etc.  That is not a coincidence.  As tiresome as that can sometimes be....like a four year old asking constantly "why? why? why do we do things this way?  why don't we do them another way?" it is essential.  All true and valuable change begins with a question.

Question authority.