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.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Right Winger's Guide to Helping A Popular Movement Destroy Itself

I wasted another four hours trying to participate in another Occupy Wall Street event, this time in Johnson City.

Want to have a good laugh, or a good cry? Click on the link below, a pdf of the flyer and "consensus building" plan the group followed. And don't miss that flow chart on the back!

When I got home, I threw our signs in the trash.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Who's Behind The Trigger?

Photo by Jim Kuhn, "Crime Scene, Do Not Cross" tape at The United States Supreme Court during the January 27, 2007, march on Washington D.C.

“And it all comes true.
Yes it all comes true.
Like a wheel inside a wheel, it turns on you.
And you ask, what have I done?
What can I do?
What you believe about yourself,
it all comes true.”
— John Mellencamp and George Michael Green

Last night, Doug and I were having a “48 Hours” fest, watching several of the reality crime shows back-to-back. We do this three or four times a year — I have no idea why. Maybe, for me, because it reminds me of the days I was a crime reporter — anyone who’s done that work can tell you, it’s the same all over. Big city, small town, detectives and criminals operate about exactly the same. It feels like going back to an old territory I know, and I can almost feel that small reporter’s notebook in my hand, as I watch. Anyway, Doug and I both lamented that the proportion of poor, black men who find themselves on this show seems too high, and then we nodded sadly. That’s probably pretty consistent with real life. Doug considered that white people’s murders might be less likely to be solved in 48 hours. The burden of proof changes when you’ve got money for an attorney.

And then out of my mouth it came: “What you believe about yourself, it all comes true.”  

“I’m never entirely sure what you mean, when you say that,” Doug said.

On the episode we were watching, the age-old crime reveal:  a double murder had begun as a “simple” armed robbery. Really, it was no lie, I think it rarely is — when the robbers jumped out of their hiding place, nobody was supposed to be shot. But pow pow pow pow — their guns went off and in an instant, their plans morphed into something else entirely.

“What those men believe about themselves,” I said. “That’s what pulled the triggers. They had one vision in their heads, of how the robbery would go down. Nobody was supposed to get killed, anyway — they saw themselves as armed robbers, not murderers. But unconsciously, they’d written a different story for themselves. Like a wheel inside a wheel …”

I did not get the impression my explanation was all that helpful. If we'd continued, Doug probably would have asked if I was trying to make a statement about “personal responsibility.” Was I saying they had a responsibility, to think of themselves differently? To get a handle on their unconscious selves? That they had some control over the circumstances of poverty and black skin? To which I would have said, Oh noooo. What people believe about themselves has everything to do with what the rest of the world believes about them. I am a huge proponent of personal responsibility, but people have to have better tools than guns, poverty, poor educations and bad expectations, to take it.

But you know, we were watching television, it’s not really time for chit-chat. On we went, to the next episode. Drug deal gone bad. Poor, black man is taken into custody. Detectives are questioning him, getting a little family history, which they hope to use to soften him up, get him to talk. “What about your father?” they asked.

“My father already done been killed.”

Like father, like son, kill and be killed. The story never ends. Maybe until we all create a new belief system about who we are.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Promises, Promises

Well, I did it again — made a promise about a future blog topic that I am now loath to fulfill. The tattoo was a brief thrill that has now assumed its rightful place on the Interest Meter, somewhere above bitching about the weather but below this year’s amazing fall color and reading my horses’ body language. (Noble steeds? I have a pair of four-legged clowns.) Now, it’s just a thing; I notice it from time to time but mostly it’s like a fabulous new nail color. Much as I might like it, I don’t pause to admire it while I’m picking the horses’ hooves. Life goes on in Brumley Gap.

But I said what I meant, and I meant what I said, I guess. I feel an obligation to finish what I started. I’ll try to say something for a broader audience, or at least throw in something completely unexpected, for gratuitous-sex-and-violence value.

Anyway …

Tips for Would-Be Tattooees

1) Wait a few decades.

I can date the first time I told a friend I was seriously considering a tattoo to sometime between 1993 and 1996, the years I worked with her. You always hear that tattoos are not just for sailors anymore, but just that few years ago, they were. It was a shocking thing for a college director of public relations to admit. My friend’s eyes grew wide, but when I told her I was thinking of something to memorialize the son that I had lost, she said, “Oh don’t worry about it. No matter what anyone thinks about the tattoo, they’ll forget it instantly when you tell them that.”

For well over a decade, I never got a tattoo, until about the exact moment a new idea replaced that old one. In my 30s I was wise enough to know that I didn’t want it to be my son’s name — I didn’t want to explain who “Andrew” was to every stranger who innocently asked. In my late 40s, I realized that I didn’t want a symbol of him either. In my case, the tattoo was all about me. I just wanted it. It was far, far too frivolous and self-centered an endeavor for a memorial. I would have felt silly and a little guilty every time that I saw it. On some level, I think I always knew that.

One last aside on this tip:  After reading the barest minimum on the long-term effects of tattoo inks, my personal opinion is that a woman, especially, should consider whether she should be beyond child-bearing age. I elected not to get vegetable inks no matter what, and not to think about the metal-based alternatives. That is a luxury of being my age — the ink in my skin that I will carry around with me for the rest of my life can only affect me.

2) Respect that your body will be taking a big immune-response “hit.”

In a previous blog on this subject, I posted an awful photograph of myself the evening after I got the tattoo, still looking exhausted and puffy-eyed after a hard two-hour nap. Doug said I looked stoned. I wasn’t real sure why I put it up, except for a vague sense that I wanted people (my daughters) to know, should they decide to get a tattoo: they should be very healthy and take excellent care of themselves, especially in the days before. It didn’t hurt until briefly, at the end of about two hours of needles, but I knew by the way that I crashed afterward that I was actively in the process of doing some serious healing. The artist that I had chosen said he could tell by looking at my skin and the way that it was responding that I eat very, very well (I do), and he asked me if I worked out. (I don’t, except for working horses and being outside a lot.) He himself is top-notch; among the things that impressed me when I chose him was that he takes photographs immediately after doing a job, so people can see that a brand new tattoo doesn’t have to look like bad road rash. I followed the after-care instructions, continued to rest and eat really well, and the thing was perfectly healed up in 5 to 7 days. Never itched, never hurt. Never got a wicked-bad antiobiotic-resistant staph infection.

And that will be enough of that. I’ve got horses to ride. But before I go …

Two old ladies are talking to each other. One whispers secretively, “I went to see my doctor because every time I sneeze, I have an orgasm!”

“Oh you poor dear! says the other. “What are you taking for it?”

“Why, ragweed.”

Sunday, October 16, 2011


After spending a whole day excitedly making our signs and preparing to camp out with Knoxville Occupy Wall Street Saturday night, Doug and I walked amongst the group’s various organizational committee meetings in Krutch Park for about an hour, and decided to abort. Wordlessly, we read each other’s minds and nodded agreement: this isn’t working out. We were sorry, looking wistfully over our shoulders, as though we’d climbed a mountain to find God and instead found the note, “Sorry for the inconvenience.”*

It wasn’t an altogether wasted day. Before adding the Occupy Wall Street event to our agenda, we had already planned to visit some of Doug’s family at a couple of points along the two hour trip. This fall in East Tennessee (just across the Virginia state line from where we live) is spectacular beyond all reason. I felt the irony of zipping along in my new car in the crisp autumn light, and eating a most awesome lunch at Red Lobster, his father’s treat, before lighting out for Knoxville. (I love crab so much it hurts.) But spending time with Doug’s mother, who has advanced Alzheimer’s, was particularly sad and difficult. (The emotional “color” of the day.) As I told friends once we were back home late yesterday evening, “We were wrung out and in no mood for shenanigans” by the time we got to Krutch Park.

“Shenanigans” is probably not exactly the right word. We saw mostly young “hippies” (for lack of a better term), a few homeless people, a lot of passion, and a lot of immaturity. In trying to “organize,” the organization is falling apart. (See the Occupy Wall Street - Knoxville Facebook page, for details.) Three or four committees had taken up various spots in the small park, in circles comprised of about 20 rainbow-colored, pierced, dyed and dreadlocked kids seemingly getting their first chances to say something. More power to ’em; they’ve got some angst to get out of their systems before, hopefully, they move on to efforts more enduring and effective than this one was.

The real solidarity-killer was the “Constitutional Amendment” committee. As is almost always the case, a very few voices muted all others with their power and passion. One, jacked up on adrenaline, insisted that the Knoxville group’s codified demands include that the United States of America accept the authority of the World Court. Aw jeez, really?

There is nothing inherently wrong with anything I’ve described, except this: We are the 99. We are the 99 percent, getting fucked every which way but loose by the 1 percent. Contrary to the rapist’s cognitive-dissonance credo, we are not “enjoying” it. When a protest or occupation or rebellion includes 99 percent of the population, the reasons people are involved, or the issues that motivate them personally, are infinite. For example, one young, single mother I talked to was A) visibly struggling to make ends meet, B) obviously doing a bang-up job of raising a much-loved daughter, aged 6, presently; and C) really, really worried about public education. It has been stripped of funding to within an inch of its life in favor of military and other “government” profiteers, while commercialized interests seep in like water, to “take up the slack.” This woman had never had the luxury of higher education, and so the thought that, because of her so-called unlucky birth circumstances, her daughter would never even get a shot at college seemed grossly unfair. This young mother can’t afford to buy toilet paper for the school to supplement her daughter’s “public education,” and damn it, she should not have to.

And what about Doug and me, the people who drove a sweet brand-spanking new car to the event and ate at Red Lobster along the way? We are fortunate to a point that I regularly want to fall on my knees in gratitude. I have everything I ever, ever dreamed of in my life, including my first new car and the most spectacular set of stars that shine brighter-than-bright over my rural property in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I stood in the moonlight last night, with my two horses cuddling up against me on each side, 10 acres at their disposal, and I thought, OH GOD. Above all else, I attribute our great fortune to two facts — we were born white, to parents who willingly and generously helped pay to educate us, just as far as we wanted to go; and we carefully and humbly chose what it is that we want, over time. What we want is not “everything.”

We are also on a knife’s edge of losing everything, with one family emergency or serious illness. For years and years and years, we have paid top-dollar for family medical insurance, and paid into Medicare and Medicaid, and paid ridiculously rising medical deductibles besides. In our old age, despite the government medical programs that have collected from us over a lifetime of work, the health care industry will collect our assets in the form of a “spend down.” And after we’re dead, the medical industry will take the rest. Forget about inheritance taxes — nobody is leaving anything to anyone. Don’t be ninnies, Tea Baggers: it’s all getting shunted straight up, to the 1 percent. I'd be okay with it being taken, if it were for the greater good, which would include my children!

Meanwhile, our own college-educated children, the cost of whose educations would make your eyes pop out, are not having any luck finding work except for unpaid or low-pay “internships,” which they are taking, with energy and devotion, so that their resumes are not blank beyond graduation. And all indications are that we parents will be paying for their medical insurance until they are 26 or beyond, plus for their cars, car insurance, and all manner of emergencies that they can’t afford. See, Wall Street knows we’re better bets for paying for these things than our grown children are, by and large; despite all those kids’ great minds and willingness, they’re still fledgling adults, poor in their entry-level positions, struggling to make sound financial decisions, or with paying their debts. They have to learn. Better their parents do it.

And retirement? Now, who’s going to profit if anyone can actually retire? Who's going to pay for all those "less trustworthy" grown kids?

We, for all our good fortune, are the 99 percent.

When a protest or occupation or rebellion includes 99 percent of the population, the reasons people are involved, or the issues that motivate them personally, are infinite. But the cause is exactly the same: the 1 percent. There should only be one goal. Bringing it down.

* Douglas Adams, from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "trilogy"

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Dying Sun

Maybe predictably, my fourth daughter, the last of my babies, was a Mama’s Girl from birth. She had a fevered lust to run with the pack of her older sisters and so walked and talked at what I had thought, up to then, was an impossible age:  7½ months, on both counts. But still she never danced and pranced her way far from my reach, my little bundle of starshine who loved to bask ceaselessly in the light she put in my eyes.

I knew she was the last one. Don't misunderstand, all of my girls enthralled me equally — you can’t have more than one and not know that each is born constitutionally different from you, all their sibs, and everyone else in the world at large. You can’t not marvel at the way they are delivered to this life with a unique set of baseline traits that, really, have very little to do with you. You try to both respect their individuality and guide them to color just a little bit inside the lines. But on the occasion of closing the door on my childbearing years, I relaxed decidedly and let the last one be, to see what would happen if she was mostly left to her own devices, to test out her inborn gregariousness to the max.

Out of respect for her privacy, I will only say here that, just as I might have imagined, she has found a stage. The very biggest one available to her at this relatively young age — she has found it, taken it for her own, pressed a boot to its neck to the sound of rousing applause. In this way, I cannot imagine she is related to me in any way. I am clapping madly, too, but looking furtively from her, down to the belly that once housed her prenatal self, back to her, back to my belly ...  I am so her mother! I was there the day she was born!

Like most any parent, my dearest wish is that she love her life, passionately, always. I can’t help but hold my breath a little too, though, as she steps into a particular worldview I do not understand, with a unique set of baseline traits I do not understand. Beware Narcissus’ pool, I want to whisper. Today's trade in human capital changes at lightning speed in the matrix of our jet-fueled mass communications; the parameters of what can be bought and sold, from our bodies to the quarks expressing themselves deep within our minds, are so very hard to define now. (Daughter: know that virtual stages must be taken with extreme care.) That age-old mother-mantra — oh please don’t get hurt — sounds with every beat of my heart. Some other less definable body part echoes, don't hurt others.

I also am coming to accept a major change from our auspicious mother-daughter beginning. I, once the designated center of her universe, am a dying sun in my growing daughter’s eyes. No really — I've already been through the normal teenage rebellions with three other daughters, the temporary rejections of all that I stand for, the vitriolic I hate yous! that landed sure and straight as Artemis's arrows. Whomever a small child might imagine her mother to be always becomes someone more human, as that child matures. This is different. The script that my youngest is writing on the stage of her mind, about me, is gelling into something more permanent, I think. I am beginning to realize she probably won't outgrow it. I, being quite simply who I am, can't rise to the occasion of the life this brilliant young artist wants for herself. I will always fall short.

To be clear, her version of me is her truth, her reality. It would be quite wrong of me, to diminish that in any way. I am just taking some comfort in the memories of our perfect early years together, and the thought that there's only one way to go, from perfection in a baby's eyes. She will always, always be my little Star.

Wine Mothers

This is a post I wrote in May 2011 and pulled from a previous, now-shuttered blog, to go along with new writing I will post momentarily. For anyone who may not have seen it before, it may illustrate a progression of thoughts. Sorry about the funky spacing. I have no idea when it comes to some of Blogger's quirks.

* * *

Real mothers do not live on sitcoms and, moreover, we don't want to. My generation has fought being boxed in by governments, stereotypes, glass ceilings, the Martha Stewart phenomenon, and every manner of marketing trick designed to define who we are while simultaneously emptying our pockets in order for us to successfully be that person. Why on earth would we want to step out of June Cleaver's prison and into Clair Huxtable's or Jill Taylor's?

"Jill Taylor"
Wikimedia Commons.
I have been intensely aware of my children's television-expectations of motherhood ever since we let cable into our lives, when my oldest daughters were about 13. Immediately I had to begin explaining.

No no no, girls, that's not a middle-class family, that is a rich family coming into our living room and acting like a middle-class family.

OK, Dears:  I know she's 13 on the show, but she's 20 in real life and she looks like a total slut. Etc. etc. etc.

My personal favorite is when we, as parents, don't turn out to be the dopes in real life that all parents on The Disney Channel are. The universal formula for preteen television: The kids' schemes go badly awry. By pure force of luck they are not harmed, maimed, or killed. Their parents (teachers, principals, adult authority figures) almost find out, but because they are dopes, easily distracted with pretty, shiny things, the youngins get away with their misdeeds. Lesson learned, without the unwanted side effect of punishment or guilt associated with getting caught.

I am thinking about this again in terms of "legacy," as my daughters enter their adulthoods, and their opinions of who I am and my performance as a mother solidify. That is not to say my job is completely finished  --  my youngest is in high school and still at home. A year or two ago, she asked me, "Why can't you be a Wine Mother?"

Ah, the Wine Mother. For those who may not know, a Wine Mother is super cool. She spends her entire evenings still sharply dressed from her day working in upper level management. Sexy silk blouse and pearls. She directs the family from the kitchen island, with her glass of white wine nearby. She is extremely popular with her children's friends, because she is so funny after about the second glass. She still manages to get up for her 5 a.m. aerobics class, though, and she could still drive her brand-spanking new SUV to the movies at any second, if her children want to go.

Well. I do love white wine. And I think I'm hilarious after the second glass.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Put me down, put me down!

From a young age, I’ve been completely magnetized by others’ cultural experience, human ways of being that are very different from my own. Up to a certain point, my mother would have grabbed me up by the collar to save me from my curious self, me wriggling and stroking the air like a rabbit being held by its neck fur.

With a little teenage autonomy and a car, I started exploring in earnest. I look back on a night I sat amongst the members of a major South El Paso street gang — in a dark, abandoned adobe house, guns, knives, bottles and bongs getting passed around with equal enthusiasm — and wonder, what the hell was I thinking? Like a white-blond, goody-two-shoes, 17-year-old East Side girl in an Izod shirt and saddle oxfords is going to pass for a fly on the wall? “Don’t mind me, ese, I’ll just squat here in this especially dark corner and be silent as a gargoyle. Proceed, proceed, pass those automatic weapons right along.” Girls like I was wind up the subjects of various CSI television series — and not in the good way. My mother tended never to believe the "anthropologist in training" explanation if I got myself caught, true as it was — nor would the court system, I suspect, if I'd found myself in it. Police busts, like revolutions and mob mentalities, usually sweep everyone up, even if one person in the group doesn't "look" like she belongs.

Luckily, I found safer ways to get inside strangers’ homes and study their lives at will, take notes even — first as a reporter for a newspaper, and later, in the actual, bona fide study of anthropology. (Looking at real estate works, too:  just don’t correct your agent’s misconceptions about the house you really want, and he or she will have to unlock lots and lots of doors for you.)

And of course, there’s travel. I've not gotten spectacular amounts of it, mind you; my life's been mostly otherwise engaged up until now. But one of my very fondest memories from my marriage is of sitting with Doug on a street curb in Juarez, Mexico, under a blazing hot summer sun, bathed in the language, color, stench and beauty of a big, robust city in an entirely different world. We were drinking fruity sodas from glass bottles, way too sweet for American tastes; Doug was asking for translations of the various billboards around us, with their oh-so-familiar American logos but colloquial slogans that made us laugh out loud. Behind us, the hand-blown-glass factory workers plied their dangerous trade in lava on a 114-degree day. People unlike us in every way swept by like water, diesel fumes and honking horns filled the air, whatever rules of the road existed failed to make any sense to us. I felt a familiar electrical sparking in my brain. I looked over at him, and he smiled, a discovery burgeoning and catching fire within him. I knew he got it — why I call travel to another country “the intellectual orgasm” — and I was overcome with the confirmation of that moment, that ours would be a long and happy pairing.

I write this as I consider some of the shocked responses I’ve gotten on my new tattoo. It seems strange to me. My own 80-something parents won’t be shocked. Not thrilled, but not shocked. Doing something like this is just like me. Ordering lunch with purple hair, in a Pennsylvania city where every last house is painted the exact same shade of white, makes me belly-laugh, and feel alive. Same with hiking to the furthest Anasazi outpost in Chaco Canyon, alone. Trying to blend in in South America, even if I am 5’11 and a female traveling alone. (People threw their arms around me with grief-stricken looks on their faces when they found out my husband was not with me, as though I'd been widowed and cast out onto the streets.)

I got this tattoo, 100 percent, for the experience. For the chance to think through such a scarily permanent change, and execute, even though I was scared. To see what all the fuss is about. To see if I could pull it off, with some degree of grace for a woman of my age. Typically for me, because I am older and smarter, I hope, I did my homework fiendishly. I wasn’t really seeking danger — I was seeking experience.

That I got, in a nice little chunk that didn’t require 20 hours on a plane and thousands of dollars. It was a perfect, crisp fall morning, punching the gas pedal through the Jefferson National Forest, speeding toward something that both frightened and excited me, and that I’ve been thinking about for almost 20 years. And wow — it turned out A-OK. Today, my dubious best friend said it was the most beautiful tattoo she’d ever seen. (Note: we have very similar tastes.) After an initial 12 hours of a little freaked-out buyer’s remorse, I am happy with it, too. Really happy.

But hoo boy, I’ve still got more to say. Like everything else in life, it's been a most interesting filter through which to consider the universe, internal and external. At least, to me, and isn't that the whole point with something as self-centered and personal as a tattoo? 

Next up:  why I feel a person should be in at least her fourth decade before getting a tattoo, maybe toward the end of it, and why I didn’t memorialize my son. And then to some other topic — promise.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

It Feels Like The First Time

On this, the first day of the tenth month of the year 2011, in my 47th year, I got my first tattoo. Or more accurately, my first 2/3 of a tattoo — I’ve got to go back in about a month to get some touchup on the part done up to now, and have the remaining 1/3 inked in.

This will almost certainly be my last tattoo, too, though I couldn’t say for sure on that. This morning, after weeks of fiddling with the design and fretting over composition, I let go of all those worries on the hour-and-a-half drive, and focused instead for the first time on how much it would hurt. It seemed about time to think about that. I’d seen one photo online that was firmly in my mind, of a big burly guy screaming out as the needle hit his back. Another local tat shop (that I chose not to go to) distributes bumper stickers to clients that we see on the roads here all the time. Hell yeah it hurts, the stickers say, above the shop’s name. I suppose “bad ass” is supposed to be part of a tattoo wearer’s bragging rights.

Much to my surprise, it didn’t hurt at all. Almost not at all. I sat in the chair with my chosen artist working behind me, screwed up my mouth and wondered what I was missing? I kept asking how far along we were in the process, since for the first two hours I was convinced he must still be sketching. Not really into it yet, or something. I was always pleased to hear we were pretty far along. In the last short while, it did smart a little, as layering a third color in asked a bit much of nerves that were raw from the previous two. Even then, I only jumped a hair, once.

Am I happy with it?

I am neither happy nor unhappy. I’ll be asking for specific corrections when I return in a month, super-minimal things like, “increase the size of this shading by 1/8 of an inch, and round this out more by a degree or two.” Yes, it’s nutty — I chose this artist for his own attention to detail. I should have known I’d want to grab up the needles and start doing my own drawing. Luckily, the real expert between the two of us was working on my back, so that even I realized I could not take over, and so that he did not need to call in the law. “Yes, I need an officer here right away please — I’ve got a crazy lady on my hands who thinks she can do her own tattoo.”

The fact remains, we still need to finish this one. I am being harsh, because damn it, the fact that I would be was just oh-so-predictable.

Stay tuned. I've already got tips for anyone who's even more of a newbie than I am.

I won't show a photograph until it's finished. So here's me instead after the fact, in a tube top with my sweater off the shoulder where my brand-spanking new tattoo is, ponytail on the opposite side to keep my hair off of it. And, looking really wrung out after this day. No pain, but apparently a lot of psychological stress. I guess.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Two to Tango

Not too long ago, I had a hairstylist I loved very much, and he loved me. Man, he gave good hair-washings  --  I gladly paid him every nickel he asked for his pricey cuts and color, plus a big fat tip for the time he spent with me at the sink. This was despite the fact that whatever I said I did not want, was what I got. If I said, "No red in the color, Jack; red is no good with my skin tone," then it was settled. Red it would be, a metallic, candy-apple red, something akin to what you might expect to see on a Corvette. (Jack was crazy-good with shine.) Oh well, I would think to myself, I guess Doug and I won't need to wear blaze orange in the mountains this hunting season.

This tango could not go on without two of us obviously, my hairdresser and me. I was a willing partner in the game of Let's Dress Judy Up. Over the years I've begun to understand a little better why a group of friends long before this began calling me Barbie no matter how much I protested, no matter how much I cussed and spit and told them to knock it off.

Wash my hair? OK, call me whatever you want.

I am thinking of this now as time hurtles me toward the tattoo appointment I've had for two weeks. I have thought about it plenty over the years, and then really really thought about it over the last 14 days. I have worked and reworked the design. I have done my utmost to find the right professional and artist. I also know very well what it's like to stand in front of the mirror and wonder if I even speak English  --  I who always thought of herself as pretty good in the language department.

Why do we find most alluring precisely what terrifies us? Would I go to all this trouble and expense, drive the hour and a half, plus endure the pain, if it weren't permanent?

No, I would not.

* By the way, the appointment is still something like 42 hours away, and I still reserve the right to back out.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Chickens have little itty-bitty brains

Chickens are a barrel of monkeys. Really. Here, Bangkok II stands on a low wall near the newly washed car, trying to figure out if his reflection is a threat.

The only chicken story from Brumley Gap I like better? The time Doug informed me solemnly that he ran over one of our chickens. "Aw," I said. "Which one?"

"The dumb one," he answered.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

McMansion of Cards

I used to suffer the delusion that I could do it all. At the very least, I could do it “all” for some defined period of time, if the results would be worth the effort. In case you don’t know it already, that’s a philosophy that, one way or another, spells trouble.

When I think about this, a time-lapse memory collage comes to mind, of a house that my now ex-husband and I built, acting as our own contractors. We hoped for a best-case scenario of nine months, but understood that a year or 18 months were more realistic.

That's haughty enough. But you have to add all this to the story, to understand it:

1) I was primary breadwinner at that time, always solely the one to carry the family health insurance, and the mother of three elementary-age children.

2) As a certain sadistic supervisor in my life began to understand the extent to which I needed my employment to complete our building project, my job went from “high-stress” to “possessed by Satan.” A slave to my dream and that damned “can-do” attitude, I often:  went to work at 4 a.m.; came home in time to dress and feed children before school; worked until about 4 or 5 p.m.; and returned to the office at about 9 p.m., after the children were in bed, until midnight or 1 a.m. or later. In hindsight, I am stunned by how little sleep I got. Weekends, I tried to work on the house that we were building.

3) About a year into the project, I got pregnant with my fourth daughter. Yes I know how that happens; I also now know how a body can get all wackadoo with stress, and surprise a person mightily. Wisely, I gave up my support-contractor duties when one day, as I was running the table saw, I looked down to see my 9-months-pregnant belly sweep awfully close to the running blade. Soon after that, I would have a baby on my hip almost constantly for a few years, trying to protect her from the dangers of an unfinished house.

I got tired. My recollection of exact dates is fuzzy now, but my ability to “do it all” ended somewhere around the 3-year mark. We were, by then, a family of six, living in an unfinished house that was open to the Four Winds and all the pestilence and critters they could carry into it. Plagues — great. One more thing to fight.

I also remember, with no small amount of guilt, how I got a man fired at Lowe’s during this time. I had picked up my three daughters from after-school care, after my own day at work, pregnant enough to make strangers wince on my behalf. It was dinnertime, but I still had to get the whole crew to our rental house and start cooking. The children were getting whiny and impatient, but I had to get several gallons of polyurethane right quick, or our entire project would grind to a halt,again. Trouble was, I couldn’t find “matte finish” on the shelf anywhere. I pounded the call-button that was supposed to bring help for what seemed like half an hour.

I’ve been treated like complete shit by male employees at home improvement centers so many times, I can’t really defend getting one fired over another. This particular guy finally showed up, stopped dead in his tracks, and rolled his eyes. He proceeded to baby-talk me about the differences between “gloss,” “semi-gloss” and “matte” finishes, no matter how many times I protested  --  “I understand that. I just need to know where the matte is.”

Finally, disgusted by my interruptions, he said, “Look, lady, your husband really ought to be here doing this.”

My daughters were watching.

“Get me a manager,” I said.

“What kind of manager?”

“A big manager. A general manager.”

* * *

Ultimately, my marriage flopped dead across the finish line, a marathoner in cardiac arrest with just enough sheer force of will to get to a certain point and not one single step further. (Don’t cry — this was one of several excellent developments in the whole nightmarish scenario. Another would be the big, fat equity checks that allowed us to divide our household in two, and set up our children comfortably for the next phases of their lives.) Whether a person would say we failed spectacularly, or succeeded, depends on your viewpoint. Interestingly, the very same goes for whether the fellow in Lowes should have been fired. I recall his face to this day, and realize I knew nothing about his viewpoint; the words “uneducated” or “unworldly” come to my mind when I think of it now. 

I wonder if I can find the same tenderness, for that younger woman who once thought she could do it all.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Drink Your Milk. Or Don't.

When I was 18 years old, I was in a television commercial for a dairy company in El Paso, Texas  --  specifically, touting their cottage cheese. I was horribly unsuited to the task. The poor owners of the ad agency who brought me on board were in need of a good stiff drink at the end of the day  --  “dairy” my foot. Whether they were going to be able to splice together 60 seconds of footage from the hours of effort was seriously in question. I must have said my lines a hundred times, but a self-protection mechanism has allowed me to black out on what, exactly, they were.

Yet, the commercial ran for years, long after the workout clothes I wore for it were out of style, long after I’d forgotten all about it. Forgotten, that is, until, all of a sudden from time to time, some group in one of El Paso’s mega-malls would start yelling, “Look! Look! It’s the Cottage Cheese Queen!” (Why always “Cottage Cheese Queen?” Evidence of my astonishingly bad acting skills, I guess, as I never wore a crown.)

Years later, after I’d worked for a number of years as a print journalist and during the time I was pursuing a degree in anthropology, my husband-to-be asked me if I’d ever considered going into television journalism. I looked at him like he’d grown a second head.

It’s funny because it’s so wrong.

Strangely enough, I’ve become a lifelong advocate for dairy  --  really really really  --  or more accurately, a one-woman proponent of individuals eating correctly for the particular set of genes they have. Food Anthropology was a sub-category of the discipline that particularly captured my interest. (See Gary Nabhan’s Why Some Like It Hot, about the interplay between biology and culture in what we eat.) In my case, the half-Norwegian organism that is me runs best on dairy, lots and lots of dairy. I actually don’t feel all that great, if circumstance forces me to go without for several days. The Cuban half of my genes, though, don’t seem to have expressed themselves, digestively speaking. I tend to be allergic to tropical fruits, for example.

It can be complicated to figure out, given that we human beings are a genetically mixed-up lot, but it’s possible, a worthy endeavor in the matrix of working toward better health. A good place to begin might be by asking, “What makes me feel good, what makes me sick or nauseous?” and then looking for geographical connections in those foods. Lactose intolerance is a pretty good indicator you didn't get certain genes from ancestral herding people, in so far as dairy is concerned. 

I got to thinking about all this today because I made a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. For my entire adulthood, I have never made a grilled cheese sandwich without thinking about the time my Great Aunt Nell came to visit when I was about 8 years old. She was like royalty, and my little brother and I were beside ourselves with excitement.

On the first full day, Aunt Nell wanted a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch, and  --  imagine the honor  --  my parents said I, the brand-spanking new cook of very simple things, could make it.

It would be the best grilled cheese sandwich in the whole wide world!

I put a quarter inch of butter on the bread. I put another quarter inch on the other side of the bread. I repeated on the second piece of bread, both sides. I sliced the cheese at least a half-inch thick. The stack went into the pan of melted butter:  butter, bread, butter, cheese, butter, bread, butter on top.

I finished the confection. I leaned really close into Aunt Nell as she took the first bite.

“So??? How is it?”

She made a face. “It’s kind of  --  buttery.”

“I know! Yummy, right?”

Friday, June 24, 2011

Long Shadows

“Mary Lee!”


Don’t you ‘what’ me. I’ll make you the right size for your britches missy.”

Ladonna and Mary Lee were having a shootout in the valley at Drowning Ford Road. Mary Lee had allowed her scrawny self, all bony joints and new budding breasts, to be drawn to the top of the narrow stairwell, but she refused to lean in where her mother could see her. Too much black eyeliner ringed her pale eyes, stamping them into her clean, freckled face like blocked words— For Export, and, Fragile: Handle With Care. Most mothers did not like this. Certainly not hers.

Behind her, Kendra was cool as spring water, poured onto the floor and across the short hallway with her bare feet on the wall. She had actually walked out of her house with all her eyeliner on, a quarter-inch all the way around.

“What ma’am?” Mary Lee said.

“My foot itches,” Ladonna said.

Silence fell in the stairwell for a second, until Mary Lee fired two, one-syllable bullets into the space: “God Mom!”

“I’m serious Mary Lee. My foot itches. Right in that spot that means— ”

“We’re fine Mom. Me and Kendra’s not going to get ourselves killed playin’ around in my bedroom.”

“We been warned.”

“We know Mom.”

Ladonna scooted her wide hips around on the foot that did not itch, rubbing the bottom of the one that did on her supporting ankle. Her brown hair was a mushroom cap that barely covered her ears. Holding the banister with one hand, she surveyed the kitchen, the den and her bedroom all at once. The old bungalow smelled like mildew, and the sock-worn pine floors shone in scuffs where there were no tufts of hair and dust. Where had she been when the summer rain quit battering their metal roof, quick as it had begun? What had she been doing when the noise eased and she remembered again, the two girls shuffling around upstairs?

“Iswearahmightie,” she said under her breath, trying to choose between half-done jobs.

Fresh-washed sunlight was heating up two black bags of trash she had dropped by the screen door when the downpour started. They’d start to stink soon, and until she moved them she wouldn’t be able to pull open the freezer drawer. Or step over them to get out the door. The bags needed to go in the trunk, if not all the way to the county dump. But the Hoover also waited near the green tweed couch, occupied by three long-haired cats that made their disdain clear. Still too wet, they conveyed in unison and in no uncertain terms, for them to be chased outside by the noise.

The infernal dusting then, or clear some junk out from the coffee table in front of the TV? One day off to get things done between nightshifts made it hard to think.

While she tried, the balance in a paper lunch bag on the counter shifted. Like a logged tree, the bag swooned in slow motion at first, then keeled, bouncing oranges in every direction. Ladonna jumped and stifled a yelp; she raised a hand to her chest and pressed hard, willing her heart to stop pounding. The bag of surplus from Jenny, her boss, had been sitting on the counter since she came home from work at four that morning — why would it fall now?

A warning.

She thought of the lashing their rusted metal roof had just taken.

“Mary Lee!”


Oh, Ladonna was tired. “Any rain come in?”


“It’s bad luck when the rain comes from the north—”

“No rain came in, Ma.”

She looked toward the upstairs bedroom again and longed to be there, for the comfort of laying eyes on her daughter. Cat hair furred both sides of the narrow stair treads and God only knew what the attic bedroom looked like. Ladonna’s knees might carry her weight up the stairs, if she pulled hard enough on the rail, but they would not lock her upright to get her safely back down. She frowned to think of the plastic shower an uncle had stuffed into a corner up there, at some point when the family was expanding. For years it had been a closet full of junk until Ladonna and Mary Lee moved back home. She sent bottles of bathroom cleaner up all the time, but never saw them come down again, empty or full.

“Mary Lee?”

Go do something Mom. Everything is all right up here. I’m not even alone. Jeez.”

Ladonna fought the inertia of her heft and took the ten steps to the kitchen. She would clear the trash bags from the screen door and then return to deal with the spill of fruit. Maybe that had been the sign of the cascading oranges — that the kitchen should be done first. She bent over the trash bags, never overfilled for the sake of her knees, when her daughter and the neighbor girl streaked past her blind spot, through the impossibly narrow space between Ladonna’s rump and the wall. Escaped at the pass.

The screen door slammed before Ladonna was upright. She watched the girls’ backsides skitter away. “Girls—” she called.

“We’ll be within hollering distance Mom!”

Kendra was turning a series of fast cartwheels, exposing the flash of bellybutton ring that drew all attention right to the center of her slim, young waist. The grass still sparkled from the rain, in sunlight that was making its first moves to sink behind the knobs. Ladonna wrung her fluttering hands. She wished for the extended family that had once lived in every little house that dotted the small Drowning Ford Road valley, with its one narrow gravel road that dead-ended at the river. Her Great Uncles Jerry and Justus in the two-story clapboard that Ladonna’s great-grandparents had built. Posted like a sentry at the valley’s entrance, it was vacant now, weathered gray without a trace of paint. Falling down. She wished for her grandmother in the white farmhouse in the copse of trees to the northwest, turned just so, so Granny could see every house in the valley, the comings and goings of every car. The house itself still seemed to hold Granny’s gaze. She wished for the childless widow Aunt Smitty, who lived in the only red brick split-level, with the real poured driveway and her porch lined with concrete planters full of petunias. Aunt Smitty, who wore her hair curled around her shoulders, even though it was white as snow, to the day she died. She wished for Uncle Bob and Aunt Joan and their passel of kids, who put in the two matching log cabins by the river, one for themselves and one to rent to passing fishermen. Their grandchildren and their babies had stayed in the spare, not so long ago. Two unrelated families lived in them now. Kendra’s had been the latest newcomers to bear no relation, by blood or by marriage.

And Ladonna wished for her own mother, of course, the “Mary” in “Mary Lee,” the first to live in this house, and the most recent to be laid to rest in the valley. She could see the family cemetery, too. She held her breath for a long moment, so that she wouldn’t inhale the spirits she might have called by thinking of them.

The girls ran behind the shed, where they could be free of a mother’s prying eyes. The knobs to the west cast long shadows, stretching out to divide the entire valley into light and dark. The shed itself cast a shadow that seemed more to scale for her great-grandparents’ two-story clapboard, tall and rail-thin as the old bachelor brothers who died there. Behind the shed, the girls’ shadows stretched out to reveal their secrets. Play fighting, tickling, one pressing the other against the shed wall. Kissing?

Ladonna whirled at the feel of a jab in her back, the collective finger of so many ghosts of the people who had gone before her. She loved them so. Their hands had raised her up, and then welcomed her and a 3-year-old Mary Lee back here when her life outside the valley crumbled. They had all been exactly right, she “lit out like her cart was afire and then hightailed it right back home.” The ghosts were afraid now, of what was happening outside. Pushing panic buttons with all their might. Go go go, they said. Stop this sinful play now!

But something came over Ladonna. Exhaustion, and something more, though she hardly had the words to explain. The long shadows of her own secret childhood reached her at that moment, covering her in a dark quiet. She felt a calm she had not known since burying her mother.

Had her childish ways been so terrible?

She understood finally. She was the mother in the valley now.

“Not this time,” she said aloud to the ghosts. She backed into the kitchen from the porch, softly closing the screen door so that it would not slam. She turned to vacuum the couch, and wait for the sun to set on a peaceful valley at Drowning Ford Road.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Sweetest Days

Thanks for your patience, everyone, while I’ve been giving this blog such short shrift. It’s the time of year. These drifty summer days are among the sweetest I have ever known. The garden is only just beginning to deliver her abundance onto my kitchen counter. Doug has all the tending and weeding under control, and so we are in a lull before the really big harvests enslave me (happily) with the canning. We are finding ourselves in our lawn chairs in the cool evenings for every sunset, and I am not writing much. Tacking words up from time to time with not much thought, and yet people just keep checking back. I will try to do a little better — or see you here again in the fall!

One major contributor in this summertime embarrassment of riches is my yearling filly, Salsa. I never dreamed she would turn out to be such a pet, or that a horse could be quite so lovey-dovey, frankly. So playful. I still maintain that my first horse and I had one of the great loves in the history of animal husbandry. I got him when I was 13, and am pretty sure we were together in a dream the night he died 20 years later, me all grown up with children to raise, living 1,500 miles away. He laid his head in my lap, and we sat together in silence, nothing more, for what seemed like the entirety of the night. I awoke and knew he was gone. But Salsa is an all-new dimension in my experience of horses  — she may well think I am her mother. She plays ball and hide-and-seek with me, curious and intent as a puppy. She nuzzles my hand if she's not getting enough attention, and then she swings around and leans in to change up the spot that is getting scratched. (Yeah, sometimes she's crabby as the hormonal “pre-teen” that she is, too. Having raised four daughters, I know that look.)

Oh it’s good to get a little older, I think, and know what you want. To have the wisdom finally to dial it all up in the right balance — to know “what to leave in, what to leave out,” as Bob Seger sang it. To have the space in your mind and heart for what you really want for yourself, after so many years of raising children, the career grind, and, for many of us, the upheaval of getting ourselves out of the wrong relationships and into the right ones.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately — the richness of maturity. It doesn’t really have anything to do with wealth, or the lack of it, within reason. Everyone has a budget, limitations, problems, and we always will. Hopefully we are wiser dealing with the negatives, too.

“Age has its rewards.” How often I have heard that in my lifetime. How often I have thought, unbeknownst to the speaker, You lie.

But I am beginning to believe it may be true.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's Not About the Trees


"Terrible beauty."
This is a Wikimedia Commons image. Attribution: Mpbaugh.

Want to drive me stark raving, screaming-and-running-through-the-streets-naked insane?
Here’s how. Come into my yard in the dead of night, dig a hole, plant a Bradford Pear tree for me to find in the morning. Since that tree will be hauled to the dump the very next day, repeat until I am dragged away in a straightjacket or handcuffed in the back of a squad car because I caused some kind of bodily harm to your prankster self.
This puts me at odds with scores of people in the southern United States, where the tree is ubiquitous in lawns, golf courses, strip mall landscaping and anywhere else a person can dig a hole and insert the botanical equivalent of the words ooo, shiny.
For those who might not know, a Bradford is a non-bearing pear tree that, through careful selective breeding, boasts profuse spring flowers, a super-uniform size, and an unnaturally perfect, delicate vase shape. (In other words, it was specifically designed to line streets and driveways in the South.) Trouble is, its perfect vase-shape is not found in nature for a reason. The tree cannot withstand even moderate wind from just the right direction; those soft-wood ballerina arms that curve up into the arch over the trunk snap if you sneeze too close. Knowing this in its tree heart, it often just commits suicide at the first sign of a thunderstorm on the horizon, exploding into splinters right down its trunk line without need of a lightning strike.
For more than 20 years, circumstance forced me to live in a small Tennessee city I absolutely hated, in no small part because the citizenry couldn’t gather itself up into any kind of pleasant, livable community. The lines between the Haves and the Have-nots were clearly drawn, and never crossed. And people planted Bradford Pears like there was no tomorrow.
I had to drive alongside a wannabe luxury subdivision to get anywhere for all of those years. It was fairly new when I first moved there, so the Homeowners Association-supported Bradford pears that lined the entrance were quite picturesque — at first. Then they grew big enough to catch the wind, all nakedly alone and unprotected by any other, stronger trees on their grassy median. To this day, every spring thunderstorm season, they fall. In the early years, they collapsed in pairs; then as they continued growing, by the handful, and now by the dozens. Every summer, Homeowners Association workers swarm over the median to replace them.
Obviously it can't be repeated often enough, so let's use the quote of unknown origin again: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. 
The median in front of this subdivision is now a symbolic, mismatched, living tribute to human failure, the scale of which I shudder to think about.