Wednesday, March 14, 2012

When The Wind Blows

Molly’s eyes open slow and sure into the twinkling blue slits she wears by day. The corners of her mouth turn up on her moony face, repositioning some sly old joke behind the crescent. The bedside lamp has been on all night. From flat on her pillow, she can see the first frost of the late season on her breath. Outside, thin, icy clouds sweep across the mountains. She separates the hands clasped at her fleshy breastbone and slaps one over the horsehair mattress, only to find familiar lumps big as bodies — not Griffin’s body itself.

No one’s home to hear but she barks out the coarse chuckle of the jolly girl she is supposed to be. She knows Griffin has been out since dawn:  He likes to visit the yawning girls putting together sausage biscuits at the Duck ‘n Go, or chat with Beau Tillman on his bread route. The truck rocks down the town’s dirt roads and Griffin walks alongside in the grainy light, hands in his pockets, hissing laughter. Maybe Beau is listening through the open window, maybe not.

Molly sits up, grabs the Noxema from the table, smears a thin coat over her freckles. Stubby fingers rake her hair into a tight ponytail. She stands into a pair of Birkenstocks worn shiny black by her round white feet and scuffs her way toward the kitchen. In the short hallway, she stops at a photograph of the father she has not seen since she was three — his sepia face hangs at the same height as a real father’s. On tiptoe, like a ballerina a fraction of her weight, she presses her cheek against his brash smile. His retouched hair looks black instead of red-brown, like hers.

In the kitchen, one of the vinyl chairs squeaks to accept her weight. Griffin has left a stolen newspaper on the table as usual — with a note on top, which is not usual. “Hey girl,” it says. “Thanks. Sister in Atlanta got me a job.” An expanse of blank white suggests he might have wanted to say more, but finally the word “Cool” closes the note, without punctuation, pencil line drifting off to nothing. Molly heaves herself from the chair, goes to the screen door and drops her Mexican poncho over her head. She leaves her Birkenstocks inside and stuffs bare feet into boots that have been on the steps since spring.

Her nose whistles on the walk. Her flannel drawstring pants pillow half in and half out of the boots. Her hands are small and exposed hanging outside the poncho, beside her wide hips. Opposite the back alley, shops are dressed up for the tourists like rows of saloon hall hussies, but away from the fa├žades shop owners smoke or let their guts hang out while they empty trash.

“Hey Molly!” they call.

She turns suddenly into the back of the Mount Mercy Rescue Mission. Reverend Sebastian stirs a big pot of oatmeal with his bottom lip poked out, while she ties on her apron.

At length he says, “Saw Griffin at the bus stop this mornin’.”

“Yep,” Molly replies. Her nose is still whistling. She scans the dozen cots on the other side of the room. Half are taken.

The reverend points his dripping ladle without checking to see if she is watching. “That there’s Tallahassee Joe, come in last night from North Pass Campground.”

Molly locks down the joke she holds between her teeth and gums a little more securely.  

“Hey Joe!” she shouts. “Get over here and get some breakfast.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


For the first few years Doug and I were married, our family traveled. Our crew of six crawled all over the mountains within hours of our home, in the Great Smokies and on others in Virginia and North Carolina. We camped and camped some more, or spent long, full days under the South Carolina sun, swimming along beaches, seining the tide pools, or dropping crab buckets off the piers. Most significantly, on a professor’s salary, we packed up and moved the whole household operation out West for two summers in a row. 

Horseback riding i n Colorado.
WhileDoug taught as an adjunct professor or volunteered for the National Forest Service in Wyoming, the rest of us tooled around New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming. Since our living expenses mostly came with us, the trips were surprisingly affordable, and we had a grand, spiritually and intellectually luxurious time. One of the summers, our 16-year-old twins worked their first jobs as lifeguards at the Saratoga Municipal Swimming Pool, within sight of the magnificent Medicine Bow mountains on WYO 130, while the two younger girls ran wild and free on their bikes through every nook and cranny of that small Wyoming town. On any night, all of us girls might lie down in the back of Doug’s pickup truck under the breathtaking explosion of Western stars, while he slowly drove along endless miles of dirt roads. Daily, we drove or hiked out to where we could see wolves, herds of elk, deer with two or three brand-spanking new babies, eagles, beaver, otters, trout — more wildlife than I could ever list here. Days and days we spent in native ruins, the cave dwellings at Mesa Verde, the Anasazi Great Houses in Chaco Canyon. Horseback riding and hot springs, and wildflowers — how to describe the wildflowers? The world a family of six could reach by minivan or in hiking boots was a wonder, and we basked in it all.

Hiking in Mesa Verde  --  and yeah, that's a bonafide cliff!
Alas, since we’ve moved onto the farm, those kinds of dreamy extended excursions have seemed over  for two years now, at least for Doug and me. Three of the girls we imparted with wanderlust are women now, and they still roam the world, for work and for fun — Mexico, the Honduras, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand and Tasmania, the Caribbean, Canada and Alaska, and always and repeatedly, the Western United States. Doug and I, meanwhile, have been tied to feeding horses, tending chickens, mowing, planting, putting up food. Responsibly leaving the animals has seemed an impossible specter.
One of our views.

Finally this past weekend, the two of us got away for one precious night in Knoxville, Tennessee, about two hours from home. We planned the short trip around a concert, and slept in the executive suite of a fine hotel, feeling strangely “1 percent” as we swiped our room cards in the elevator before it would even take us to our floor. The spring weather was beautiful. We walked the sleepy streets of old Knoxville in the sunshine until concert time on Sunday. We had a terrific time. Yet, afterward, we kept taking each other’s pulse.
Doug on top of the Medicine Bows.

“Did you have a good time?”
“Yes I did. You?”
“Why yes, yes I did.”

The answer was yes — really.

And no.

What was wrong, I wondered? Too much anticipation?

One day after we returned from our two-day trip, my three oldest daughters flew in from a 10-day vacation in Puerto Rico. They were thrilled with what they found here — a picture-book of rain forests and sapphire beaches and reefs. We laughed to hear about how they snorkeled amongst the fishes until their guide startled them with the order, “My friends! Wait right here!” They treaded water on a shallow section of reef looking around for sharks’ fins until their guide informed them of the problem:  “The boat!” he yelped, then dove into a 20-minute swim, to catch the drifting craft that would take them back to land …

They had a terrific time. And yet …
Holly, Tessa and Devon in front of the Medicine Bows.

What exactly was all this my extraordinarily lucky daughters were complaining about, I wondered?  Puerto Rico was awfully touristy, they said, and expensive  for the kinds of travelers who carry all their needs slung over their shoulders. The local people were westernized in a way that transcends “westernization” — bearing the overzealous quality of wannabes. They all had new cars, iPads, most were overweight. They wouldn’t allow my daughters to converse in Spanish with them, as though the local tongue were anathema. “Gluttonous,” one daughter said, and living in such a small place, homogenous — no escaping either Americans, or the relentless march of America on the native people. McDonalds, Burger King, KFC. The daughters, it turned out, had traveled to what they already knew all too well.

Then I realized:  the complaint was the same for Doug and me. We hadn’t gotten away. Our short stay in Knoxville took us right smack dab into the heart of our very own culture, with no nature and no change in the landscape of our everyday lives to distract us from — whoopee! — bars and restaurants and the touristy shopping on Market Square. Our brief taste of the 1 percent was rather flavorless. Little cabins in the middle of nowhere have served us so much better than that 18th floor suite.

On the upside, we are making strides back toward balance, slowly finding the ways we might be able to travel again. I now have a horse-savvy friend who can feed my horses while I am away, and I will do the same for her. Doug, meanwhile, is planning another month-long hike out west for this summer, when I will be the sole animal caretaker, secure in the knowledge that my turn to hit the road will come.

And from now on, we’ll be sure to get away, whether we drive two hours or twenty or take a flight.

Taylor getting photographed (and checked out) after we'd been in the Saratoga, Wyo., Fourth of July parade!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Survivor Shoney's

I propose the all-you-can-eat buffet line is an excellent military training ground, and no place for the doves among us. What can you expect but trouble, when strangers armed with forks square off for the dearest of prizes known in all of evolution? Food. There sits the mother lode — a bottomless treasure chest spilling forth golden macaroni and cheese, winking seductively in the perfect light. Mothers with small children must take them up into protective arms, grandmothers get knocked down for the last piece of apple strudel, and entire trays of fried chicken get carted off by the most aggressive of our species.

I’ve been thinking lately about all the times I’ve witnessed selfish or angry or sensitive behavior around food. It’s not limited to the buffet line. I once had a date take my head off because I playfully took one of his French fries, as though come the dawn all fries would experience the Rapture. A friend seemed to writhe in pain if I looked across the table as she was eating — “Don’t watch me!” (“Okayyy. We’ll talk after lunch … ’’) And I’ve been glared at for casually saying someone’s meal in a restaurant looked good, as though I was going to ask the diner to give it up.

Some fraction of people seem extraordinarily touchy-touchy about food. I’ve begun to wonder about the evolutionary reasons, or the cultural, ancient tribal norms that unconsciously made their way through some family lines. Anyone who’s watched a PBS series on any of the great apes has probably seen murderous squabbles for food. That date of mine with the fries sure looked like an ape, throwing an arm around his plate and sulking over the rest of his dinner. As for tribal “norms,” Colin Turnbull’s The Mountain People will make even hawks cower, at just how depraved about food we humans can be. It is a shocking antithesis of hisThe Forest People, about a peaceful, loving, hunter-gatherer group, which many likely have read in college.

 Some of the jacket quotes:

“A beautiful and terrifying book of a people who have become monstrous almost beyond belief …. As Turnbull’s writing weaves in and out between outrageous acts and his own outrage, he emphasizes again and again how fragile the structure of a society is.” — Margaret Mead

“An important book, for it represents an anthropological field study of a unique people — a people who are dying because they have abandoned their humanity. The parallel with our own society is deadly.” — Ashley Montagu

Indeed. We’ve been known to kill and be killed in the paradigm of the scarcity model. But that’s not all we’ve been known for. As oil dwindles and the impossibility of limitless growth becomes apparent, we will have to cooperate. My family’s dabbling in a homestead makes that abundantly clear. A dairy and lots of other similar endeavors are full-time operations far beyond our humble capabilities. Veterinarians, mechanics, construction workers, and so many others have skills we could never hope to collect up in one family, in their entirety. We can’t save seed for everything we grow, because so many plants hybridize, creating something uncertain and probably inedible in their next generation. Small farmers will have to work together, to put some distance between certain food plants so that they don’t cross …

On and on the examples could go. We’re in for a bumpy ride, and I expect, some heightened “Mountain People”-like behavior — depraved, monstrous — on macro- and micro-levels. But let’s not forget:  in our whole human existence, egalitarianism didn’t completely suck, as a survival strategy. Often, it undoubtedly saved us.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Let Us Be Angels

After months of neglecting this blog, I was inspired to post the photograph you see here, which at first confused me. What was the writer trying to convey?

Then came the memories.

I had my first child when I was 20 years old, old enough to fully adore him, old enough to take excellent care of him, old enough to easily leave behind dating and partying and to give up my own wants in favor of his needs. But not old enough to solve all the problems that would come sliding like a killing avalanche through my front door.

He was born in 1984, during economic times not unlike the ones we are living through now. On the face of it, my husband and I should have been all right:  He had a job, we owned the house he had purchased with his first wife, we came from relatively affluent families. But then he lost the job. We couldn’t sell the house because of the upside-down mortgage, and because of our failures in paying even the minimum balance on our credit cards, they accrued stunning interest increases and fees. The balances grew hand-over-fist. The bank threatened foreclosure over and over again.

Creditors then could use the most terrifying bullying tactics — I remember wondering where do they get these horrible people, to do this job, maximum security prisons? As a very young, stay-at-home mother, I became a classic victim to those creditors. Shaking every time the phone rang, hiding behind closed curtains, urging my baby to be quiet until whoever was at the door left. A next-door neighbor virtually busted through my front door one day, walked directly to my kitchen cupboard, and turned to me holding up the single can of beets she found there. “Judy, you have to eat,” she said, and I began to do so — at her house. I remember one day my husband told me there was enough money in the checking account to go grocery shopping, but when my items had been rung up with a long line of shoppers behind me, the store refused my check. Not knowing what else to do, I scooped my baby from the cart and ran to my car, tears stinging my eyes.

We made desperate moves, literal and figurative, eventually landing on a dangerous government jobsite on an Indian Reservation. From there, things growing ever more desperate, I fled across the country to get to my parents in Tennessee. The repo man followed me 1,500 miles and put my car on a trailer to take back to Texas, while I watched from my parents’ door, my baby on my hip. I wondered how I would get a job now.

Within one week, I would refuse to take my sick, uninsured son to the hospital until it was about 12 hours too late, so terrified of the bill that it clouded my judgment. I will never, ever forgive myself for this. I had my first child when I was 20 years old, and I buried my first child when I was 22 years old.

Godspeed to the mother who wrote on the piece of cardboard in the photograph. May you and your baby find angels walking past you.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"We Ain't Got Time to Bleed"

Just in case anyone missed the 43 times I found places to post this on my social networking sites, here's one more time:

I'm thinking My Man Jesse's photograph and letter will be my next Occupy Wall Street sign.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How Bad is It, When a Mass Movement Won't Even Take You?

This blog should be a "wrap" on this subject, and contrary to what the headline suggests, it's pretty positive. (I had to use the headline because it's funny.) I am happy report: I'm getting over it! Mostly. I am beginning to realize the joke was on me, and — believe it or not — it’s so rich that even I may LMAO about it.

Why didn’t the Occupy Wall Street organizers just say they “never trust anyone over 30” in the first place?

Now, don’t get me wrong, it was the height of rudeness to suggest this movement is open to “the 99 percent” when it’s not, yet. Somebody should teach those whippersnappers better manners than to start publicly announced meetings an hour late. Maybe those wacky kids could run meetings that respect that their elders only have half their lives left. If you say you’re going to march, then march; don’t set up a mike and ask people to sit around with their signs for two hours. An apology would be nice, if people travel a long way and use up a lot of gas but then are turned away … 

(If you’re not at least chuckling a little at my expense about here, I need to work on my comedy skills.)

A brilliant friend of mine commented on an earlier post: "I wonder if they used flow charts in Tiananmen Square." (Pity the poor fellow who found his name in the rectangle at the end, under the title "Stands In Front Of Tank.")

But in a way, you have really got to admire these American youngins' chutzpah. As of this writing, I no longer think their “bad behavior” spells the end of the movement, because their only job is to start it. It may well develop a life of its own, independently of all this nonsense. And the flow charts will be blowin’ in the wind then, and I’ll be there.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Human Prairie Fire

In a fit of fury and frustration yesterday, I posted a link to the flyer that Johnson City’s Occupy Wall Street group handed out, its guiding principles for building consensus within the movement. Its “guiding principles,” in my not-so-humble professional opinion, on how to destroy itself. Complete with flow chart. Any professional with organizational and real-world experience can look at that plan and think, OH SHIT. Anyone within the corporate realm, opposed to the Occupy Wall Street movement, is cackling evilly, to know of it. (And not because of what Corporate America understands of the corporate world we repudiate, but because of what applied marketing research has taught them about human nature. Quite successfully, in case you haven’t noticed.) I have wondered if Wall Street actually planted that flyer in the hands of a young OWS organizer punch drunk on 15 straight days of sidewalk sleep.

Some academic has probably spent an entire half-lifetime researching the “consensus plan” our local OWS group is using, working away inside a bubble, racking up the numbers that show “this is the best way to get consensus,” out the ass. How sweet. Here’s the problem:  that’s all the plan does. Build “consensus,” while A) the group shrinks down to a handful of the most passionate diehard souls holding mirrors up to each other and nodding their affirmations fiercely, and B) the goal (if anyone ever had one) turns to dust in our hands. I can imagine no better formula for frittering away a moment.

And the message of this potentially defining moment? Messages in a defining moment are not made by consensus, shows of “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” Those messages are human prairie fire, raw emotion on the upturned faces of thousands, saying ”Go ahead. Shoot.” If a government is stupid enough to obliterate the first swell, hundreds-of-thousands rush in behind it.

But before we get started, let us see, do we have “consensus” on Raw Emotion #3.4A, Item 6, Line 23b?

Damn it, and this movement has more potential than any I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. (Because I was born in 1964, a flesh-and-bone byproduct of a particular kind of peace and love, who mostly missed the last great movement as a result of being in infancy.) This now grown-up marketing professional recognizes that just about everyone in this country is waking up to the fact they’ve been screwed by Wall Street for their entire lifetimes. Tea-baggers, even, although they’re suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. This movement has a perfect name, “Occupy Wall Street,” a perfect target, and a perfect slogan, “We are the 99.” (I wish I’d had such great ideas 15 years ago, when I was capitalizing on naming campaigns, targeting markets, and coming up with slogans.)

I came home yesterday after a second try at a local Occupy Wall Street event, and threw my signs in the trash. I was livid after getting up early, driving an hour to get there, and waiting the two hours the group was behind schedule. I didn’t speak up about these counter-culture babies’ confidence-killing faux pas when I had opportunities, both this weekend and last, because of what I know of human nature. I was a lone representative from outside the choir of activists; I had no dreads and no beads. I would have been wasting my breath, to say Stop! when these people were enjoying their open mikes so much.

But my wiser husband retrieved our signs from the trash, and propped them against the wall of his shed. The Most Cynical Man On Earth likes what he sees of the New York occupation, and — what? — doesn’t think it’s time to give up on it yet.

Twenty-four hours later, I am sitting back on my heels and wondering, “How can those of us who have something to add get in, and effectively share a little wisdom with these kids?” Or, considering that no small proportion were my age or older, “kids at heart.” (I know, I know — begin by not calling them “kids.”)

The rest of us must find a way, somehow.

Because we, too, are among the 99 percent. (The flyer.) (Previous blog on Knoxville OWS.)