Thursday, December 8, 2016

Cultural Popcorn

I received my first Christmas card of the season today, from my high school World Cultures teacher.  World Cultures was one component of a course called “Humanities.”  It included, aside from World Cultures, Speech and English class as well.

Looking back at that course from my life now, I’m almost tempted to laugh.  A sad, somewhat disbelieving, somewhat awed chuckle with a hint of mirth.  She taught us so much, tried to teach us so much more.  She was herself quite cultured in the world and endeavored to share all her experiences with her students.  We were not cultured, our blue-collar town on the edge of a decaying manufacturing giant, a city with ethnic lines left from immigration patterns a hundred years ago, a place where we could tell the difference between those with German, Polish or Swedish heritage, but not between the first-generation Chinese, Vietnamese or Laotian immigrants.  A classroom full of students the majority of whom, I can say from my last high school reunion, were not destined for four-year college or moving out of the state.

It was the 1996-97 school year; she tried to teach us about the Rwandan genocide.  The facts were learned, but nothing really sank in until last year when I saw Unexplored Interior at Mosaic Theater here in D.C.  Her teaching had put a seed in my head, but not like a bean seed to sprout and grow gradually, like a popcorn seed that exploded with meaning and awe as I started to understand just what she had taken on in even trying to get us to understand something so inconceivable to our young minds even while the world was still seeking to understand how and why and what.

She brought in couscous for us try on a world food day.  I’d never heard of it before; I don’t think any of us in class had ever had it before.  I liked it but went home and ate my potatoes and veggies; for the next dozen-some years couscous remained an exotic dish to come across in the fancy instant-food section of the grocery store where very salty little just-add-water cups of soup and grain appeared.  Now, there are 6 tubs of couscous in my pantry, owing to my inability to properly manage my Amazon Subscribe and Save subscriptions, or my ability to accidentally order massive quantities of things I don’t need---however you want to view it.

She organized and chaperoned a group trip to Paris---she was also the French teacher---giving us opportunities to see places like Versailles and Monet’s garden up close.  Again, places I wouldn’t even begin to understand until much later, until some other experience of life connected dots she’d drawn on my brain.

There are probably many more seeds sitting in my head, waiting to pop, many more dots on my brain waiting for life to draw the connecting lines.

I thought of her last week, standing in Switzerland, looking at artistic Christmas cards written in French, wondering if she could have imagined this 20 years ago, imagined that I’d be standing there, in Geneva, yards from my ridiculously fancy hotel, in a suit, on official travel, staring at tiny paper birds adorning a script “Meilleurs Voeux.”  She always saw so much more in us than we could possibly see in ourselves.  She challenged us to dream beyond our classroom walls, our snowy streets, our giant lake.

She taught us about far-off places I thought I’d never see and tried to get us to see the same in the differences, the us in every them.

I am so very thankful for that, and thankful that my Christmas season has begun with a beautiful card from her and a thoughtful note that continues to emphasize the us in every them.  

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Beach

I went to the beach this morning.  I went to the beach in bare feet.  Crossed the street from my hotel to the beach.  Stepped onto the hard pavement.  Took jarring steps down to the corner, across the warm asphalt.  Stepped onto the rough curb.  Walked through the prickly parking lot with its tiny stones that poke your heels.  And stepped into the warm sand of the beach.

I wriggled my toes, grains sneaking into the crevices.  Warm grains from the top of the beach, hot from basking in the rising sun.  Cold grains from below, hiding in the damp darkness of the beach’s underlayer.  Temperatures and textures mingling around my digits, coaxing me into feeling again.

I stepped.  I walked.  Each pace a new sensation of rough and smooth, grains of sand, grains of warm, grains of cold.  Advancing towards the water.  I picked my way through the seaweed line at the edge of the last tide’s waves.  Rushing through little swarms of tiny flitting bugs.  Aiming to avoid mushy green splurting between my toes.  Across the washed-up branches.  And onto the cold, wet, smooth spance of sand.  The sand that sinks under your heels and leans you backwards as if saying, “stay, sit, do not go, be one with us, be another grain, a piece of the wide expanse, a tiny morsel of the world.”

And down, down the sight slant towards the water.  I stood there.  Quietly.  My long dress bunched into my hands just above my knees.  The sun warming my calves, my shoulders and my face.  I stood.  I watched.

The waves cresting, peaking, rolling over themselves into tubes, tunnels, caresses.  Silky smooth panels crashing into frothy, bubbly white.  Running onto the beach.  Rushing forwards, up the slant, onto the dark cool sand.

I stood.  I listened.  Roars as the waves built, rushing up, cresting into screams, dying down into licks, falling back as whispers.  Birds overhead, birds in the distance.  Birds peeping quick, high-pitched little cheeps.  Birds honking, loud, long snaps.  Swooping, diving, floating.  Riding the swells far out on the sea, far from the beach, beyond the sand to which I clung tight.

I stood.  The waves rose and fell.  Cresting with anger, receding in resignation.

I stood.  Wave edges lapping in front of me.  Coming.  Going.  Coming.  Going.  This one near.  This one far.

I stood.  Large waves roaring down the beach.  Splashing against the sand.  Edging closer.  Coming.  Coming towards me.  Rushing around my legs, froth nipping at my knees, swirling past me and back out to sea, sand scurrying out from under my feet.

I stood in the ocean.  Rough, beautiful, powerful, peaceful cold ocean.

And without moving, I stood again on the beach.

Friday, September 30, 2016

A Reprieve in Geneve

I spent most of last week in Geneva.  I’d gone to visit WIPO.  This is a pretty big deal, visiting WIPO.  As a Midwestern city girl, WIPO is much like Harvard or New York, one of the places on tv that doesn’t really exist in real life.  But it does, and like Harvard and New York, now I’ve seen it.

My three favorite things about Geneva were the roads, the silence, and the shutters.  The cheese definitely deserves an honorable mention.  And I mean the cheese at the grocery store, the big blocks of hefty, strong Swiss-made cheeses, and maybe a few of the soft French cheeses.  I could easily get by on meals of bread and a bit of cheese.  The cheese was priced about the same as American brands of cheese back in DC, so it was still a bit of a splurge.  (In DC, these are usually from Pennsylvania and Vermont and occasionally from Wisconsin.)  But of course, these types of cheeses would be imported back home and thus far more expensive.  My big find for the cheese was a tube of mustard that went splendidly with the Emmantaler and with fresh rolls and baquettes.  I wasn’t completely sure it was mustard, but “moustarde” and “Dijon” both sounded like mustard-y words to me, so I took my chances.  Boy was that a good gamble; it was so delicious!  Cleared the sinuses and woke you up really good too, perfect for a bright breakfast.

The skyline in Geneva is an odd mix of glassy new, blocky mid-century and quintessentially Swiss.  The different styles nearly all had some type of exterior window covering.  Some had awnings that could be dropped down, others had horizontal blinds that rolled down.  A few had metal doors similar to the ones on mass storage units in the U.S.  But my favorite were the shutters.  Real shutters that opened and closed instead of being silly ornaments stuck to the sides of windows for which they are clearly far too small.  I loved to walk down the streets and look at all the variety of shutter positions, latched open against the building, shut tight, flung open and hanging ajar high above the bustling roads.  Someday, I would like a home with shutters.

The streets were narrow and made of all sorts of different materials, sometimes pavement, sometimes brick, sometimes cobblestone.  I struggled to tell street from sidewalk from bike lane from tram line.  At first, this made me very nervous as I had no idea if I was supposed to be where I was in any given spot.  But then I realized, everyone was okay pretty much everywhere.  People were sharing the space, paying attention, deferring to others as needed.  Everyone seemed to acknowledge that others needed to use the same space.  It was so much nicer than the I-have-a-right-to-be-exactly-where-I-am-wherever-that-is-all-the-time mentality from back home.  Much less ground was needed to accommodate the movement of massive numbers of people.  And with narrower streets, it felt less like one was traversing a big city or long distances; it was easier to walk a mile surrounded by buildings and activity than across stretches of pavement and parking lots.

And with sharing the space and moving all those people came an immeasurably pleasant silence.  Oh, there was talking and laughter and engine rumbles and tram dings and the noise of a city, but there was no incessant automated yelling like one must endure on a daily basis back home.  No “STEP AWAY FROM THE DOORS!  THE DOORS ARE CLOSING!”  No “THE FARE FOR THIS BUS IS ONE DOLLAR AND SEVENTY-FIVE CENTS!”  No “THE WALK SIGN IS ON TO CROSS!  THE WALK SIGN IS ON TO CROSS!”  Even at the grocery store automated check-outs, no “UNEXPECTED ITEM IN BAGGING AREA!  UNEXPECTED ITEM IN BAGGING AREA!”  No glaring signs screaming at you to don’t do this or not do that, to stay away, to go this way and to not go that.  No we-must-put-warning-labels-on-everything-or-someone-will-sue-us-signs.  It was so nice.  So refreshing.  So amazing to be in a place where people were left to get by on their common sense; and you know what, they did ok.  Don’t want to get hit by a tram?  Move when the tram is coming.  People open the tram, bus and train doors themselves by pushing a button.  If the door is closing, push the button and it will open again.  And the people are so polite.  Not in the Southern or Midwestern smiling and speaking nicely polite.  In a very matter-of-fact way that said “I acknowledge your existence and your need to get where you’re going, too.”  And that was that.  It was so very pleasant.  I want to live in a world like that all the time.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

These are a Few of My Favorite Seats

Southwest heartMy favorite seats on the airplane are the front row.  As part of the insiders club (see prior post) of people who fly Southwest so much they know how to work the system, I’ve developed a strategy that gets me one of those seats about 90% of the time I fly.  Sharing that strategy puts it a bit at risk as it may increase intelligent competition for my desired seats, but I’ll do it anyway.  After all, there’s plenty of flights I’m not on, and it could help people on those, too.

The short version is: pack light and be nimble.  When you get on the plane, you have to act quickly and get out of the aisle.

As I said, I like the front row.  In order of preference, 1A, 1F, 1C, 1D, 1B, 1E---window on the left, window on the right, aisle on the left, aisle on the right, middles.  These seats are desired because they have tons of legroom, but they have downsides that temper this.  A lot of people don’t realize the  downsides until they try to take the seat.  If someone is attempting to go for one of my favs, I wait patiently until they are situated.  There’s a decent chance they will give up and move.

After a few flights, you start to see what prevents people from being able to sit in the front row. 

1) They don’t want to forgo a tray table.  I don’t mind this and I consider that I will not have a table when choosing what I want to do on the plane (knit, read, write, etc.). 

2) Their rollerbag does not fit in the smaller front bins.  I don’t carry-on a rollerbag.

3) They have too much luggage.  They may not have a rollerbag, but they have one small item and one larger item.  Both have to go up in the front row, but they often can’t find space for the larger bag.  If I do not check my luggage, I carry two small bags---my purse and a bag the size of my purse---that can both easily be tucked into small spaces left in the overhead bin.

4) They haven’t figured out what they want to use on the plane and aren’t ready to store both their bags, so they give up and go for a seat with under-the-seat-in-front-of-you accessible-during-flight storage space.  I choose what I want to do on the flight before boarding and keep that one item in my hands when boarding.

5) The aisle or window is more important to them than the row.  I’d rather have the middle in the front row than a window or aisle elsewhere.  Because middle seats are generally less desirable but are fairly high up on my list of preferences, I can often get a front row seat even if I’m boarding at the end of the A’s.

I make some decisions before getting to the airport, primarily whether I will check a bag or not.  This depends mostly on the speed of baggage claim at my destination and whether I will be leaving the secure area on a layover.  (I love layovers in Kansas City; hi, Alfred!)  I know that baggage claims at OAK and DCA take ages but that it’s relatively quick at MKE and MCI.  If I’m flying into MKE or MCI, I may check a bag so I only have my purse to carry on.  If my trip will involve flights into OAK or DCA, I try to avoid checking luggage. 

I also have backup seats in mind in case the front row is full.  I consider the likelihood of needing to go to these at two points, when I get my boarding position the night before and when everyone lines up for boarding.  Having to go to backups depends partly on my boarding number but also on where the plane has come from (likelihood of large number of through passengers), number of preboarders and their ailments---preboarders are likely to take the front row, especially if they have leg injuries or canes.---, the number of Business Select passengers (boarding spot 18 can actually be boarding spot 3 if there are no Business Select), and the amount of rollerbags in front of me, which as discussed above generally disqualifies people from the front row.  I know that a flight out of MKE is very unlikely to have many Business Select passengers unless it’s going to LAS; every flight to Vegas seems to have lots of Business Select people, as if they’re saying “hey, I’m already throwing away a ton of money on this trip, let’s go big all the way!”

Considering all these things, I pack for the goal of the front row based on my calculated likelihood of getting it.  If I’m in the B group on a flight with a layover or stop in Vegas, I’m going to pack for not getting the front row and probably just pass it up even if it is available.  But B group and flights going through Vegas are rather rare for me, so I’m in pretty good shape for getting a nice front row seat where I can stretch my legs.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Democracy of Southwest Air

southwest seats (3)

When Mr. Trizzle dragged me on my first Southwest flight, I hated it. I didn’t understand the system, it made me feel like a cow being led to slaughter, I panicked about what seat I would get. I hated it. Over the past nearly-decade, I’ve come to love Southwest. (Now I have all those feelings, including the cow bit, on other airlines.) I’ve also realized something about Southwest. Southwest is the quintessential representation of how a democratic society actually works in practice.

Theoretically, every passenger on a Southwest flight is equal. Every chair is the same, every section of the plane receives the same service. Everyone has an equal opportunity to obtain the spot that is best for them. No seats are assigned; everyone is free to take any seat once they board. You board in the order of check-in. Check-in opens to everyone at the same time. Anyone can have any seat. Theoretically.

Whether you can get your ideal seat depends on a number of factors, the two most important being how many other people are vying for that same seat (competition) and your spot in line (your starting point in the community).

Spots in line, starting positions in the society, are determined by check-in. Everyone can check-in for the flight beginning 24 hours before departure. The sooner you check-in, the closer to the front of the line you are. Everyone has an equal shot. Except they don’t.

Within that theoretical equal playing field of checkin, there are a number of factors that give people advantages. At the most basic level, those with the free time and the best support networks have the best shot at a good starting position. checking in right at the 24-hour mark. These are the folks who can make themselves free in a location with internet access on a computer or phone exactly 24 hours before their flight or who can call on a friend or relative to be so. Those who do not have easy internet access or who do not have the flexibility in their schedules or people available to help them out are at a disadvantage. I.e. there are certain basics the society takes as a given and those who do not have those basics start off a bit behind.

Then there are groups with actual advantages, those who get better starting positions because they have something beyond the norm. Some of these advantages are obvious, some less so. First, there are those with money, those who can buy their way to the top, whose money gets them special privileges and access to places ahead of others. These are the Business Select customers who pay a premium up to 3x the regular fare for the first 15 spots in line. They also get a bonus of special treatment in the form of a free alcoholic beverage.

There’s also the slightly lower-class-trying-to-be-rich folks who don’t fork out the full amount for a Business Select ticket but can pay a small premium for the airline to check them in before people can start checking themselves in. These are the folks who purchase Early Bird Checkin.

These moneyed privileges are well-known. The privileges and how the privileges are obtained are obvious. Theoretically, anyone can join these groups. Everyone is offered a Business Select ticket; everyone is offered Early Bird Checkin. Just as anyone can buy a ticket to that fundraising dinner or purchase that season ticket next to the big-wig they want to meet. What matters is not that the privilege is offered, what matters is that the conditions on which is offered make it accessible only to some.

But there are additional ways to obtain advantages, privileged groups that are less apparent. These are the insiders.

First are the folks who have earned special treatment, the equivalent of folks with connections. These are those who have achieved A-List status (this is where I am now and holy cow is it fabulous!). In some ways, this is purchased because it requires earning a lot of points, which means buying a lot of plane tickets, but it is not an extra cost beyond the plane tickets. A-List members are checked-in automatically without purchasing either the very pricey Business Select or the premium Early Bird Checkin. In fact, they are checked in before the Early Birds, getting the best non-Business Select spots possible. (And I imagine this connection gets even greater when you obtain A+ status and certainly when you earn the companion pass that allows someone to fly free with you on every trip.) These people are so connected to the system, by virtue of their flying with Southwest so often, that the system works for them.

Second are the folks who know the system so well they know how to work within it so that it works for them without outright privileges being given. These are the folks who move through the relevant parts of society so frequently, who fly Southwest so often, they have learned the tricks to getting their ideal outcome. They know their routes. They know the planes; they know what’s likely to benefit them. I have been in this group for a long time, but I will save my strategy for a later post.

Lastly, there are the protected classes. Those who might otherwise be run-down by the masses if the system did not offer them special protections. On Southwest, these are the Preboarders: the elderly, handicap and young children travelling alone who board the plane before everyone else. At first glance, they may seem privileged, but being a protected class comes at a cost. There are seats in which they are not allowed to sit, there are places within the system they cannot go, and they must wait for assistance from the system before they can do anything, before they can board or deplane.

Southwest’s egalitarian boarding system puts everyone on equal footing, except for those that have the money, connections or insider information to give themselves a better chance of getting what they want. In this case, it’s just a seat on an airplane. In society, it’s quite a bit more.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Fighting Racism

The other week, I wound up in two separate altercations with angry black women.  The problem is, I saw them as angry black women.

They were being stubborn, and as I saw it, incredibly illogical.*  There are three things that get me super upset, illogicalness, inefficiency and being called a liar.  These two were pushing the first two buttons.  They yelled and swore at me.  Somehow, I managed to stay polite and not do either of those things back (which for anyone who knows me is a big deal and a long-fought-for small achievement).  But even though I was somewhat proud of myself for staying relatively calm, there was this nagging extra anger. 

When I was upset, agitated, riled up, my mind immediately went to racial stereotypes.   The fact that I did that made me even more upset.  At them.   At the women for perpetuating the stereotype.  I was like, here they are, making things worse for… fill in any of the black females in my life.  I was mad at them for being black and angry when I needed to be angry at myself for attributing anything about the situation to their blackness, for thinking of them as angry black women instead of just upset people.

When I was in the middle of trying to deal with these ladies on the street, I started analyzing their behavior, “maybe they are being extra stubborn because I’m white and doing what I ‘want’ would be submitting to the man.”  But maybe they weren’t.  Whether they were or not is on them, not me.  Their projection of race into the confrontation would be on them, but my projection of race into the confrontation is on me.  And I put it there, and then blamed them for my putting it there.

I feel like I start to understand people who join white supremacist groups.  It’s not that their beliefs are correct, far from it.  It’s that it is easier to hate.  It is easier to hate and be around people who justify that hate instead of challenging it.  It is easier to hate than to forgive yourself for being unable to love.

All of us need to battle racism everyday.  The majority of us---and we are still the majority in this country despite whatever Trump may claim---the majority of us have to battle it in ourselves first.

*One was refusing to take the right-away she legally had; the other was trying to take a right-away she logistically did not have.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Bees

People run and laugh and play.  Me, I watch the bees. 

They lounge in chairs, drowsy with the mid-day sun or enveloped in books.  Me, I watch the bees. 

They swing paddles, bob whiffle balls high over the nets.  They soak in the cool energy of the icy, still pool.  Me, I watch the bees.

Tiny yellow flowers dot the expansive dip in the lawn.  A long inverse ridge running just below the sloping rise of the main hill.  Barely noticeable save for something for the mover to run over, to cut down, to sever flower head from flower stem.  Yellow petals from blades of grass. Does anyone notice the flowers?  See how they’re only in the dip?

Is there something special about this low point?  Does the rain gathering here provide extra water?  Do the sloped sides add needed shade?  Or is it just that the lawnmower isn’t equipped to handle subtle changes in terrain and the blades rotate above the flowers but do not catch them, none but the tallest, the proudest cut down, the smallest left to flourish?  Do we see what we do not look for?

The bees scuttle from flower to flower, spending no more than a second on each blossom.  A schmorgasboard of delight, bright, beautiful dinner. Do mid-day flowers need a name?

Chubby bodies, all five tiny petals disappear below as the bees drink up the inside nectar.  How many?  Two?  Four?  Seven?  There’s another, and another---or is that the same one?  They move so quickly, flitting from plate to plate, it’s hard to tell.

The people grow louder, the day taking off, the pool tranquility replaced with splashing, the din of conversation echoing until it dissipates in the pure blue sky.  The bees, the bees go on eating.  And me, I watch the bees.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

I Guess I Need a Book Club

WIN_20160831_21_46_10_ProIf I am ever going to have any hope of reading another book again, I must write about this one.  The characters have moved into my head.  Brought their knapsacks and their dishes.  Heck, brought their own futons and set up house in that crowded, cobwebed maze that calls itself my brain.  They throw house parties.  Invite their friends, strangers, other characters.  I won’t be surprised to find Lizzie Bennet throwing a glassful of water in Furo Wariboko’s face.  They have infested my being and will not let me be.  So I must write about this book.

Blackass---I can hear my mother’s “ahem,” with its pushed-out air emphasizing the m.  It’s the opposite of what I imagine that African term “sucked his teeth” to be.  I could try to call it Blackvampire, but that hardly works.  It is in fact Furo Wariboko’s bum that is black.  His other ass-ness however, the part that could be described as vapmire-ness, is all white.  Oyibo white.

Furo Wariboko is the main character in this Kafka allusion.  I guess it’s not really an allusion as the author, A. Ignoni Barrett, acknowledges Gregor before we meet Furo, acknowledges his tribute to Metamorphosis.

Like many American high school students, I endured Metamorphosis.  Endured is the right word.  I did not endure Blackass; I devoured it.  And then it devoured me.

Furo Wariboko awakes to find himself transformed---expressed far more eloquently than that---into a white man.  An oyibo man in Lagos, Nigeria, in not-so-well-off, Nigerian’s Lagos, Nigeria.  And his adventures begin.

In an inverting of my Americanah experience, I struggled to picture Furo as a white man.  His physical appearance was described frequently as he discovered and rediscovered and was reminded of himself.  Yet I kept picturing a Nigerian man.  Until Furo’s insides began to match his outside.  As Furo accepted his whiteness, as he adapted to, embraced and abused the privileges suddenly in his possession, the Furo Wariboko in my head more and more matched the description in the book.  As Furo’s soul became oybio, so did the vision of him.

One of the reviews on the back of the book says “it will scorch your fingers and singe your eyelashes.”  The reviewer is not lying.  There is so much more I want to say about this book, but I cannot without leaving hoards of spoilers armed with pitchforks.  I need more people to read this book so I can talk about it!  Be one of those people? Pretty please, with sugar on top, and a black ass?


P.S. The use of Twitter in this book is amazingly delightful.  I tried to follow one of the character’s handles from my phone and was surprised to receive their last tweet, a tweet saying goodbye to the author.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Always Assume the Worst

katrina handcuffed to herselfThere’s a tweet string from the other week that irked me quite a bit.  It’s a rant, a rant about copyright.  Whatever.  There are tons of rants about copyright online.  But this one, this one needles me because it is so myopic.  It seems unable to grasp the big picture.  This is not missing the forest for the trees.  This is missing the forest for the twig.  “Fear-driven copyright policy making is driven by a single-minded concern for abuse, and gives primacy to preventing it before it manifests.” the tweeter argues.

“You fool!” I yell, not to the post’s author (who is a very decent and generally rather intelligent chap), to society-at-large, to everyone.  This is our entire society, through-and-through.  This is what our lives have become.  Everything is based on fear and the assumption that anyone and everyone of us is up to no good at any given moment. 

This bubbling, oozing poison, this swamp of despair into which we have sunk our societal pillars on which we try to build, and which somehow surprises us when it comes popping up in bursting, boiling bubbles, splattering us with its muck.  It is the way we approach everything, guns, driving, shopping, terrorism, transit riding, being black, life.

At the airport:  Prove to us you aren’t even thinking about trying to bring down this plane.  Give us your bags; give us your bodies.  Prove to us you are not plotting evil.  We assume you are.  If you are not, you’ll have on qualms about proving it.  And we will make the laws assuming you will try to get around them.  You may try to bring on a dangerous chemical, so we will ban all liquids, etc., etc.

On the LA subway:  Prove to us you didn’t jump the stall gates; give us your ticket.  We assume you didn’t pay.  If you did, you’ll have no qualms about proving it.

At a ‘random’ check-point at 2am, stopping all cars: Prove to us you weren’t drinking.  Give us your breath, your blood, your time.  We assume you’re drunk.  If you are not, you’ll have no qualms about proving it.

At the store (or the library!):  Prove to us you aren’t trying to steal anything.  Let us see inside your bag; let us search your purse, your person.  We assume you’re stealing.  If you are not, you will have no qualms about proving it.

At sporting events, prove to us you aren’t trying to sneak anything in.  Let us see inside your bag; let us search your purse, your person.  We assume you’re trying to smuggle in a drink, a snack, a weapon.  If you are not, you will have no qualms about proving it.  And we will make more rules assuming you are trying to get around them.  You may try to hide something in secret pocket, so we will allow only certain clear bags into the park, etc., etc.

On the corner: Prove you live here.  Prove you aren’t scouting the place.  Prove we should let you walk here.  Prove you aren’t trafficking illegal goods.  Give us your answers, your time, your attention.  Let us search your car, your person.  We assume you don’t belong; we assume you must be doing something nefarious.  If we’re wrong, you will have no qualms about proving it.  And we will make laws to prevent you from being here.  You may be plotting something with your friends, so we will make gangs illegal and declare that three or more people congregated in the same area is a gang; we will declare the steps of your publicly-owned apartment complex a No Loitering Zone; etc., etc.

And we build and build, making every potential step in the process illegal in-and-of-itself.  You might drink from the previously opened wine bottle in your back seat while driving, so it is illegal to have it in your back seat.  You might attack someone with your pepper-spray, so it is illegal to bring it into the building.  Minors might graffiti buildings, so it is illegal to sell them spray paint.  Etc. Etc. Etc.  Never mind there may be legitimate reasons for any of these things.  Everything is predicated on fear, assumption of the worst, and assumption that every law and rule must be made for those who will try to get around them.

Constantly, every day, prove, prove, prove.  Prove you are not doing wrong, prove you are not a bad person.  Obey us and prove!  Because not obeying is also illegal.  Everyone is a suspect, everyone is bad until they prove otherwise.

It takes its toll, these constant accusations, incessantly being fed the idea that you can presume good of no one.  Incessantly being fed the idea that no one can presume good of you.

How about we worry about when people actually do something harmful, instead of worrying about steps that could be taking steps that could be towards doing something harmful? In all areas of life.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Birth and Death

A message with an apology and “I didn’t know how else to reach you,” is never one with good news.  Especially not when it comes from someone so far in your past you honestly probably wouldn’t have remembered them if someone had asked you to name everyone that was part of your life that particular year.  You might have remembered them with respect to their role in your life---oh yes, and there was the new volunteer who replaced me at my site---but not by name.

Yet, when that name popped up on my Google Chat, I knew exactly who it was.  I knew the name lingering inside the chat window’s large block of text even more: Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce.

One of my bamaamas, my Zambian moms.  Bamaamas are like kids I think; you’re not supposed to have a favorite.  Maybe there’s an exception for the one that bore you; that one can be your favorite.  But the ones that are your other bamaamas, the ones that help raise you (even when you’re already grown), and feed you and teach you how to cook and wash and speak Tonga, and live.  The ones you wish you’d asked to teach you how to pee standing up.---I understand the concept; I was just never gutsy enough to try it.---Those bamaamas, I don’t think you’re supposed to have favorites.  But I did.  I had two, and Ba Joyce was one of them.

“I was in Zambia…”

Zed!  Oh, Zed! Just the day before I had been describing Zambia to someone, “Zambia itself will crawl in your heart and never leave. It will burrow like a panya in the grass of your roof, with a scratching that forbids you forget it’s there no matter how infrequently you actually see it.”  At the sight of “I was in Zambia,”  every bit of burrowed Zambia burst forth. 

And then it exploded.

“Ba Joyce recently passed away during childbirth.”

Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce bore her second son the week I moved into the village.  Her passing through my life bookended by childbirth.  One of those many things we take for granted here.  One of those common, everyday, planned things that used to truly be a miracle.

Ba Joyce.

“Ba Joyce recently passed away during childbirth.” 

“The family is still clearly mourning her loss.”

Ba Joyce. 

Ba Joyce.

The family.

The family without Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce.

My eyes welled up as my body filled with ambivalence.  Not the American ambivalence of not caring; the British ambivalence of feeling two conflicting emotions at once that I learned from Kryten.  A strange taffy pull that brought even more tears.  Devastation that Ba Joyce was dead.  Elation that others were not. 

Ba Timmy was out in the village, visiting us.  We were nearing close-of-service (COS in Peace Corps parlance), pack-up-your-bags-and-say-goodbye time.  “When are you coming back to visit?”  Ba Lenix had asked.  “Oh, probably in about five years,” Ba Timmy had answered.  Ba Lenix let out a sort of snorty chuckle, a chortle if you will, “We will all be dead.”

I feared he was right.  At 36, he was already past what was then the Zambian average life expectancy.  At that time, the HIV rate in the country was hovering at about 20%.  Simply statistically speaking, a family with one husband and four wives was not an optimistic proposition.  It had only been a few months since I had sat in the shade shelling beans with my favorite bamaamas asking about why one of their others wives had gone to the mission hospital some 20+ km away, since deep and serious eyes had looked at me as a voice tried to laugh a laugh that caught in a throat, since I had heard  “tuyakufwa.”

There was something else, too.  I knew my situation was not like Ba Timmy’s.  Funding a trip to a quasi-remote African village would not be in my near future.  Not in five years, probably not in ten.  When my mother and grandmother came out to visit the year before, it truly had been a once-in-a-lifetime trip.  Even if I were to move back to Africa, I doubt Mommy would visit again.  But then, going to see your twenty-four-year old daughter in a small community she’s made home is very different from visiting your nearly middle-aged child in a block of flats in some bustling metropolis.

I used to write to them, my family, my Zam-fam.  I used to write letters and Christmas cards and little notes to say hello.  I’d send along pre-paid postage vouchers from USPS so they could write back.  “Ndamueya!”  I’d write, “ndamueya maningi!”  I was not lying; I think about them everyday. 

To get mail to the village, I would send it to the post box in Monze, the nearest town, for the government school in Chona, about 10km from our village of Cheelo.  There was a wonderful family who lived in Chona.  The parents taught at the school and the older sons ran the family transport business, carrying things and people and goats to and from Monze.  They would collect the mail and send it over to Cheelo with a passenger who might be going that way.  Perhaps another Cheelo resident or someone passing through on their way to somewhere like Namateba.  But the mail started coming back, unopened, months later, having gone across the Atlantic, through Lusaka, to Livingstone, to Monze and back.  The school had closed its P.O. box. 

Occasionally, I’d meet a Zambian or someone who was traveling to Zambia.  “Can you take a letter for me?”  And I’d hope the magic informal mail system of people who know people going that way would work.  I don’t know if my letters ever made it.

We lost touch.

“Ba Joyce recently passed away.”

Years.  But still, ndabaeya maningi, everyday.  Sometimes, I see them in my dreams.  I see them running towards me as I run towards them, coming up the path past the cattle stall and Ba Lenix’s special cisyu field.  I see them around the fire as we munch on roasted mapopwe.  I hear them yelling “Ba Nchimunya, Ba Nchimunya!” and laughing while my face aches from the stretched smile I simply cannot contract back into fitting on my face. 

Even when I am not asleep, I talk to them.  Imaginary conversations in the shower and on bike rides and in the car and walking down the street.  “Ndaunka ku mbeleka kwa ciinga.”  I’m sure my Tonga is worse than ever, but my thoughts are always in it.  There is no one here to know if I am accidently yelling “prostitutes!” into the air or asking if someone’s menstruated.  I imagine introducing them to Mr. Trizzle, standing sort of scared and unsure on the packed dirt, afraid of what allergens might jump out and bite him.  “Ah-ah, where is Ba Mr. Mindala?”  I try to punt the question.  “ezyi Ba Trizzle, bali benzuma.  Ndabayanda.  Bali kabotu maningi.”  “Ba Nchimunya, muntu isiya?”  Ba Fare would laugh, not really asking a question.  And they would make him feel so welcome and stuff him full of nsima.  The good nsima made from mbusu ground in the village, not that tasteless store-bought mealie meal from town.  And Bay Joyce would hang back a little bit, a huge smile on her face, “Banina Daddy Bunny.  Mwabola?” before coming in for a hug.  “Inzya, ndabola”  I have come.  Finally.  At last. 

But I have not.

And there is no Ba Joyce to smile and greet the mother of stuffed rabbit.

No Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce.

“Ba Joyce recently passed away.”

Ba Joyce.

No Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce, Nchimunya and Mazoka

Mazoka, bamaama benu babolide.  Ino, mwakalona lyoonse, antomwe.  Amudokamane.  Pesi, mebo,ndaousa.  Ndamueya, bonse.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Say Hello to Chester

Vehicles are supposed to be female.  There’s a rule somewhere, probably in some old seafaring guide, a Viking legend or buried deep in a dusty pile of books in an etymologists’ study.  But this time, this time that just didn’t work.  I took one look at those wide-set eyes and pointy grin and knew immediately, his name was Chester.

I found Chester online, through some sort of search that lead me to Woodbridge Auto Auction.  A 1994 Cadillac Seville with barely 90,000 miles.  That pointed grin smiled from the ad.  “Black,” read the advert, though I could clearly see this Cadillac was not black.  Burgundy?  Brown?  Rustic bear?  Not black.  More like latte inside, ‘spresso out.
chester (3)
He was going up for auction on Saturday.  I would be in Orlando.  The auction house offered an option: pay for a hold to keep it off the auction; if you like it, the payment goes towards the cost of the car, if you don’t, refund. 
Getting a hold on Chester turned out to be much easier than getting to Woodbridge.  An airplane (from Orlando), Metro, a bus, and a strange walk along the highway with a Hungarian in search of cowboy boots later, I was peering under Chester’s hood.

I brought him home on a Wednesday.  He spent the next two weeks in and out of the mechanic’s.  One does not buy a 22-year old car from an auction house and expect it to be in working order.  No, one buys a 22-year old car from an auction house at a nice as-is price and gets a list of repair needs with the title.
Chester went to the mechanic who had managed Betty’s transition to hospice.  Woody’s an excellent mechanic, and most of all, understands attachment to a car.  He and his team replaced two broken engine brackets, sealed a hole in the exhaust pipe, located a tiny leak in the oil pan and generally tidied him up into tip-top shape.

I took him home and parked him behind Betty.  “This is your new brother.  I know it’s strange to be replaced by a sibling, but it’s what we have to do now.  Tell him all about the area, where we usually go, and what it’s like to ride with me, ok?”  I patted her hood and tried to ignore the pinch in my chest.
Betty and Chester (2)
For the next several weeks, I moved Betty and Chester around the neighborhood.  Every Tuesday and every Wednesday, for Wednesday and Thursday street sweeping.  Sometimes they rested together, one in front of the other.  Sometimes they were on different blocks. 

Slowly, I moved things from Betty to Chester.  First the crate of fluids---oil, brake fluid, windshield washer fluid, engine coolant, bungee cords, rags, the large sheet for hauling things on the roof.  Then odds and ends---maps, the car seat I’d recently gotten from a friend at church so I can drive other people’s children (and scare dates as a side-effect, apparently).  Putting Betty’s mixtape in Chester just seemed wrong.  He has a cd player, so I put in one of my favorite cds, U.S.D.A.’s Cold Summer.  He ate it.  Just ate it.  Wouldn’t play it.  Wouldn’t give it back.  Just gulp, gone.  I tried everything to get that cd out.  Paperclips, pens, every button on the stereo.  Eventually, I gave up and put in a mixtape I’d made before Betty’s that turned out to be too depressing.

Emotional music, songs like Low Man’s Lyric, November Rain and Landslide are great for moody nights when the darkness of your apartment matches the darkness of your soul.  They are not great for driving around traffic-clogged cities.  Chester needed a mixtape of his own.

I went out to him, “Chester, I made you your own mixtape.  I’m going to take this random one out so you can hear yours.”  I hit eject.  Chester was so happy to have his own mixtape, he spit out the depressing tape and my U.S.D.A. cd!  I smiled and knew we were going to get along just fine.

Chester is doing well so far.  Someone took a gouge out of his front bumper, about two feet over from where John at the local hardware store drilled the front license plate on (no charge; such a sweetheart!).   I may color it in with marker.  This past weekend, he took a piece of road debris to the face and will now need to have a doctor’s visit, but it looks like that shouldn’t be too costly.

Chester’s very spacious inside, so much so that if I put the seat all the way back, I can’t reach the pedals!  (So that’s what it feels like to be Munchkinhead.)  His trunk is a bit smaller than Betty’s, but it does well enough.  His hood is longer; he’s packing a V8.  And my goodness does he purr on the highway.  Slowly, I am learning him.  Learning how he handles, learning his size, learning his quirks.   We’ve managed to parallel park on the left-side of a narrow one-way street, now it’s just a matter of making it second nature.

I still miss Betty---she was laid to rest in July---but I am very glad to have found Chester.  We have many adventures ahead of us. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Born on a Tuesday; Read on a Wednesday, and a Thursday, and a Friday…

After months of waiting for it to be available in the U.S., I have finally gotten my hands on Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday, and I do not want to let go.  I like the way it feels, the texture of the cover.  Often, I sit and rub my hand along it, over the smooth almost flesh-like page. Gripping the back and front together around the spine, feeling all the sides at once. 

Sometimes, I need to close the book and grasp the supple tome just to remind myself that I am real and I am here, in a chair in my apartment, at an airport, on a plane, in a hotel, wherever I might be reading.  That I am here, and me, and born on a Sunday, not on a Tuesday.

It is not glossy.  It is not like the dust jacket on a hardcover or the plastic-y coating on a mass-market paperback.  It is soft, though firm.  It is as though the paper was coated like the wax print wrappers Nigerian women wear.  Like even in its international printing and distribution Nigeria seeps through, out of the book, and into you.

I like the way Elnathan John does like Adichie and puts phrases in English right after they appear in another language.  I like even more that he only does it sometimes, leaving us to get the meaning from the context and emotion of the situation instead of doing it in definitions of words we know carrying their own heavy connotations and histories in our lives.

There is much in the book that is difficult, but anything that makes us face our own empty humanness is difficult.  So are things that tie tongues in knots.  There’s a lot of Hausa and Arabic, and I cannot tell one from the other, written out in Latin script.  There are phrases I recognize from working with colleagues on the Arabic Creative Commons licenses---insha Allah---and phrases I know from Ziriums’s songs and Malcom X’s biography---salamu alaiku; alaiku wasalam.  But there are many others unfamiliar that I cannot even stutter out in my head.  How does one pronounce a g, h & f all together in a row?  It’s like playing scrabble with Cat.  No wonder Dantala thinks English sounds “soft and easy like one does not need to open one’s mouth a lot or use a lot of air or energy.”  Imagine if he ever heard Italian!

The reviews on the back of the book compare Elnathan to Achebe.  But Born on a Tuesday feels far more accessible to an outsider than Achebe.  Perhaps I just know Nigeria better than I did.  I hope, though, that it is more accessible, that it is read widely, and that those of us whose story this is not see how easily it could become a story that is ours.  And that they---we---make it so that it never is.  Insha Allah.

“I am not sure if it is the hope of money that lures them or the fact that the [ ] movement is something new.  Everyone likes something new.  Eventually people get tired and some other new things takes over.  It isn’t grounded.  Something that has no roots and springs up with leaves and branches everything is bound to crash from the weight.  They can’t see this now.”

Born on a Tuesday, pg. 89

Born on a Tuesday, Elnathan John; Black Cat 2015

Friday, August 19, 2016

Are Those Ruffles Under Your Skirt?

ruffles on bloomers peaking out from under jungle dress
"I call dibs on the bloomers in Mommy's sewing room!" I yelled to my sisters over Twitter.  I'd found them lying around, probably on a pile on the large cutting table that had been pushed to the wall to make room for Munchkinhead and me to share an air mattress on the floor.  It was the ruffles that first got my eye.  Ruffled eyelet against more ruffles in a sort of softened army green.  I love ruffles, almost as much as I love sparkles.

"What's this?"  I picked them up and unfolded them.  "Bloomers!"  Mommy quickly informed me that Munchkinhead had already told her she couldn't get rid of them and very well might have plans for them.  Like an eager toddler yelling "MINE!", I pulled them on, over the skirt of the black suit I was still wearing from playing grown-up at work earlier in the day.  But that was hours ago and 1,000 miles away, literally.  Now, I was home, in Mommy's house, where no one ever grows up,  delighting in the ruffled bloomers with the elastic that easily went over my skirt and rested snuggly against my waist.  "They fit!  They fit!"  I jumped up-and-down.  That means they won't fit Munchkinhead.  I call dibs!"  I tweeted Munchkinhead and Alfred to let them know.  Alfred more as a courtesy, in case aliens had invaded her brain and made her suddenly interested in ruffled bloomers.

Bloomers up close showing bullfighting pattern
Toro toro toro!
Munchkinhead was glad of my excitement.  She had been disappointed that the bloomers did not fit her.  Like many things in Mommy's sewing room, no one had any idea where they'd come from.  Munchkinhead had forbidden Mommy from getting rid of them not because of some grand plan in mind, but because she did not want to see something so wonderful as bull-fighter-covered ruffled bloomers tossed away.   Yes, upon examining them more closely, later in the evening while playing board games with family and The Great Ecclestone, I discovered the pattern on these darling things was little bull fighters waving soft army green cloth in front of angry stamping dark green bulls.  How deliciously what-the-vampire.

I wore those bloomers most of the weekend, sometimes as shorts with a t-shirt---because Mommy's house is the only place one can look that ridiculous---sometimes under my dresses like proper bloomers go.  Then I could tumble in the grass and hang from the swingset to my heart's delight.  And Mommy didn't need to worry about saying, "get down from there, you have a dress on."  I love bloomers.
Bloomers hanging on the clothesline
Bloomers or the clothesline

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Under the Bridge

There’s a man under the bridge.  The railroad bridge at M and 2nd Streets in Northeast.  A calm man.  A stoic man who sits silently facing the road, saying nothing, unflinching, a refuge in himself, in the chaos of biking, walking, driving commuters.  Except when he’s sleeping--curled up under matted truck furniture pads or discarded carpet padding and a heavy green tarp.  In the summer, the top of his balding head pokes out, tufts of scruffy black hair visible against the deep green and matted grey of his bed.  And  except when he’s standing in the middle of the sidewalk passionately yelling from his Bible, screaming verses at the top of his lungs, still drowned out by the din of rushing cars echoing within the concrete walls and the clamor of trains above knocking the metal frame of the bridge into itself.  It’s been a year since I’ve seen him reading.  Perhaps it is the times of day I pass.

I try to make eye contact with people sitting on the street.  To silently say “I see you.  You are not invisible.  You exist.”  I rarely have food and even less often have cash.  But I have my humanity, and I try to offer that.

He never glances to meet my eye; I look away so as not to be mistaken for staring.  Some people do not want to be seen.  Some people wish for invisibility; it is the super power they’d choose.

Or maybe he’s just not “on.”  This is his home.  I do not know where he goes during the day.  I know he leaves.  Perhaps he works elsewhere, doing something others would regard as a job or asking for sympathy and help in another place.  I have many friends who prefer to live away from where they work.

I’ve come to think of that spot as his spot--that wide expanse of shaded uneven sidewalk where I must bike-slalom around support poles and city planters, the cement covered in pigeon droppings and ash from the man’s cigarettes, leaving a perfect outline of where he sleeps, that bridge—as his place, as his home.

But lately, others have moved in.  They do not sleep swaddled in plastic tarps.  They have set up tents.  Little pop tents like the kind my cousin’s friend uses camping.  First there was one.  Then two.  Then three.  Sometimes two again. 

I wonder how he feels, the stoic man under the bridge whose presence calms me.  Does he think of that space as his the way I do?  Is his space to him smaller?  The tents are on the street-side of the sidewalk and he is next to the stone wall that seeps water for days after a rain.  The world of DC people pass between the man and the tent row, a mini street on a sidewalk.  Are the people in the tents his friends?  Does he simply tolerate them?  Do they talk to each other when they’re all awake and the men in their suits and the women in their short skirts and slippers-masquerading-as-shoes have all bustled off to downtown and Capitol Hill?  And how long will they stay, the people in tents?

This is the question that follows me most.  Because when those tent people go, I doubt it will be on their own accord.  Tents are for the rich to hide in the woods and pretend they know how to be self-sufficient.  They are not for building a home on public land.  The city will tolerate it for awhile the way it tolerated the mini tent-city on the footpath extension of the bike path for several months.  Tolerated it until the Pope came.  Then it had to be disbanded.  Can’t let the Pope know there are poor people.  Who will come and unwittingly by their coming make the new tent row disperse?  Our next President for inauguration in January? And when the tent people are shooed away, will the man be forced to go, too?  Will the stoic man remain?

Thursday, June 30, 2016


The most wonderful thing happened this morning; I missed the bus.

As I rode up to the bike dock next to Union Station where other BikeShare riders circled like vultures for a bike to be returned, the bus passed me.  I walked up the hill to the bus stop to await the next shiny red Circulator.  Lines were churning in my head.  Thoughts.  Ideas.  I strode over to the long wall opposite the bus stop, took the small notebook from my purse, set in on the wall’s ledge and began to write.  I wrote!

I wrote until the bus came.  I let much of the long line of people board, getting as much out as I could before joining the fray to hope for a seat.  I sat.  I continued to write, letters bumpy but legible enough.  The bus reached it’s second stop.  I thanked the driver and disembarked.  But I was not done writing, so I did not stop.

I sat at a table in front of work, the grey metal tables that fill with people in the hot noon sun but sit empty in the morning shade.  I sat and I wrote.  I wrote until I was done writing.

Then I went inside that massive stone building, walked under the bronze relief of falling books, tumbling words, to a metal room where I would sit and write some more, but not for me.  This morning, I had written for me.  And my world was at peace.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Where Have All the Letters Gone?

It’s no surprise to anyone who still follows this space that I don’t write here much anymore.  The less obvious part is that I don’t write much of anywhere anymore.  No garter skirts, no lions, no stories, no essays, no articles.  I write tweets.  Just tweets.

It makes me sad.  I do not like this, this not writing.  It is not intentional.  I want to write.  There are millions of things floating in my head.  About a bus, and a frog, and  copyright, and copyright, and copyright.  About privacy and how in America that so-called “right to privacy” that people clamor over is really a right to be fake, to completely control what others have available to perceive about you in attempt to control the perception itself.  About my new church.  About my new car.  About my life.  That’s not new.

But I do not write.  I force myself to write in my journal at night, to at least catalog my day.  It is not elegant.  It is barely legible.  It is not for public consumption.  (Which has not stopped the DOJ from demanding photocopied pages from it, but I digress into another thing about which I have not written).   But I do not write.

I draft in my head as I bounce along on a crowded bus—I am not dexterous enough to write in moving vehicles.  I draft in my head as I maneuver a bicycle around crowded streets—I cannot write while steering a bicycle.  I draft in my head as I stand under the warm shower spray—water and paper do not mix, water and computers mix even less.  I draft in my head as I drive down the highway—see moving vehicles and bicycle.  I draft in my head as I loll off to sleep, snuggled under my covers, too aware that if I turn on the light to start writing, I’ll be up for hours and I need sleep for the next day; I hope I’ll remember in the morning.  I hope I’ll remember when I get home.  I hope I’ll remember.  But I rarely do.

I remember the ideas, the topics, the opening lines.  But I rarely remember the words, the phrases, the way things fit together.  And I never remember the passion, the excitement.  It is the drive that has gone.

So I do not write.

I come home from work exhausted.  Less exhausted from work than exhausted from the act of getting home from work.   Three miles; it takes me 30 to 90 minutes to make the trip depending on mode of transport, and no matter what, it ends with walking up a steep hill.  Sometimes it is physically exhausting; sometimes it is mentally exhausting.  Often, it is both.  I am tired.  I change into something that isn’t plastered to my skin.  I make dinner. One hour.  I eat dinner. Two hours.  I get ready for bed.  It is time for bed.  And I draft in my head.  But I do not write.

Tonight, I have written.  I have not made dinner, yet.  Tonight, I will go to bed late.  Tomorrow will be hard.  But I wrote.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Bye Bye Betty?

Goodbyes are so difficult.  I am not ready to say goodbye, but it looks like it may be time.  Betty is at the car hospital.  I had to call the AAA emergency line on Saturday.  We were heading home in the early evening when she suffered a loss of gas to the engine.  (See map; click for points of interest.)
Map picture
She wasn’t out of gas--I gave her 8 gallons that afternoon—but the gas was not getting where it needed to be.  There was no power to the engine; there was no power steering; there were no breaks.  We coasted until she came to rest on the front lawn of a large house in Davidsonville, Maryland.

An hour or so and 23 miles later, a very nice tow truck driver was unloading Betty from the flatbed ambulance to the corner of a tiny mechanic’s lot in Southeast DC.  (Conveniently, and coincidentally, down the block from my work.)  I said goodnight to Betty and climbed back into the tow truck cab for a ride home.  I haven’t seen her since, and it’s not looking good.  The mechanic is having difficulty locating the part she needs—a flex coupler.

Betty and I have been through a lot together.  8 years I’ve had her.  8 years and 5 months.  That’s longer than any other vehicle I’ve had.  That’s even longer than any home I've had.  (Thanks, Mom and Dad, for kicking me out for college.)  When I bought Betty for $2200 on New Year’s Eve in 2007, Daddy told me she wouldn’t last a year.  My amazing mechanic in Cali said I’d probably get at least another year when I moved in 2013.  In that light, making it to 2016 isn’t too bad.  But still, I don’t want Betty to go.

Betty has carried me through my life in four states.  Together, we did the move to three of them.  We’ve been across the entire country, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and many parts in between more than once;  Highway 40, I-80, Route 66, and of course the gorgeous drive down Route 1 with Munchkinhead.
snow Betty
Betty and me in Wisconsin winter-before-last.  She looked good in snow (it hid all the missing paint).

There was that time in Iowa, when Orgfish’s neighbors called the cops about this unsightly car parked in their neighborhood and the police left a giant florescent pink “WARNING” on Betty’s windshield.  (I sent it to Orgfish as her birthday postcard some years later.)  The adventures with Daddy moving from Cali to Wisconsin when we spent an unplanned day exploring Ephraim, Utah while the hose connecting Betty’s coolant overflow tank to the engine was replaced.  And that infamous time we got pulled over for DWB, also in Utah.  I guess we should have stayed out of Utah.
me and daddy at ephraim city hall with blogproof daddy
Daddy and me being the statue outside Ephraim City Hall while Betty was being repaired.

She’s had some tough times, my Betty.  There was that incident where I sort of backed the side of her into a pole trying to get out of a parking spot in Cali.  And that time a week later when I did it again in a different garage.  That first incident was the one that resulted in my having to go in-and-out the window for awhile until a body shop could get her unlocked.
After that, I couldn't lock Betty anymore.  She was ransacked at least once in every town in which we lived, but it was never that bad.  In El Cerrito and D.C., they just made a mess.  But in Cudahy, they took my tape adapter.  I had to fork out another $5 for a new one from Amazon. 
Betty after being ransacked in Cali.

But that was back before I made Betty her very own mixtape.  We've been listening to it a lot less these past few months.  One, I was getting a little tired of it, but more importantly, Betty hasn't been feeling well a lot of the time and it's important for me to listen to her as we putter around town.  She gets especially cantankerous on damp or rainy days and left turns.  I check her fluids at least weekly and keep a storehouse in the trunk of every liquid you could need to put in the car, plus spare clothes and an astronaut blanket in case we get stranded, and bungee cords and sheets for unexpected hauling adventures.  She can really carry stuff!
Taking home my new queen-size bed.  The frame was in the car.  Sometimes going in-and-out the window is a good thing!

Betty hasn't really had a radio in a few months.  The antenna was knocked off by a carwash back in Cali years ago.  The mechanic disconnected the auto-expander and quasi-fixed the antenna to the car.  A few months ago, I walked past Betty on the street and noticed it was gone completely.
Betty with antenna quasi-fixed back in 2014 (after we lost her front trim on who-knows-what).

Betty sans antenna in snowy DC this winter.

DC is rough on Betty.  Besides the antenna loss, the swampy humidity caused the fabric on the ceiling to start detaching.  I pinned it back in place with a decorative pattern of thumbtacks.  Sometimes, they fall off, too.  Backseat passengers, beware.  Parking outside with no shelter these past two years hasn't been great.  The mohawk on her roof that had developed slowly over the years has quickly gone, leaving just a small patch of white amid a mess of unpainted grey and rust.  Whenever AAA asks what color the vehicle is, I say, "well, where there's still paint, she's white."  AAA came out a lot the past year.  In addition to the tow, there were several dead batteries. We eventually figured out the culprit was the glove compartment light, which wouldn't shut off correctly ever since Munchkinhead broke off the latch on a very cold WI night coming home from the theater.  I braided some yarn, looped it through the inside hook and the hole in the door where the latch used to be and tied the door shut, but it wasn't enough pressure for the light switch.  A mechanic took out the bulb and Betty stopped dying.  Somebody took out a taillight with who-knows-what.  (I replaced it.)  Oh wait, that was me.  I backed into a tree trying to do a Y-turn; dented my bumper sticker.

And then there was that time a few weeks ago when Betty got shot.  Just her tire, luckily.  The police tape is still in her backseat, next to the blanket I put in her for when homeless people use her as a warm place to sleep.  (Tho I would prefer if they'd put the seat back upright when they're done.)  The tire shop had to bust off one of her hubcaps in order to rotate the tires when I got her new one.  That put her down to two hubcaps.  We'd lost one in Cali when the mechanic had to bust it off.  She wears the two she has left on her back tires.  The recently removed one rides in the trunk.  I always have to call AAA when I have a flat tire, not because I can't fix a flat, but because I can't jack up the car.  There's no frame left for the portable jack to lift; it just goes right through the car.  AAA has to come out with their big fancy jack and lift her from the frame underneath.

Betty's got character; there's so much that's still so wonderful about her. She floats down the highway--when her engine's getting gas anyway.  I can parallel park her like you wouldn't believe, even on the left-hand side of the street.  Her heater is amazing--the air-conditioning hasn't worked since at least '08, but I hate air-conditioning anyway.  She's very polite--no horn.  Her interior is spacious and comfy.--At least I think so; Daddy thinks her front seat is broken, claims it's lopsided.  He may be right, but since I weigh about 100 lbs less than him, I can't really tell.  The thing I notice more is that one hole in the floor by my left foot that my stiletto will slip into if I'm not careful.  It matches the hole in the seatback from the previous owner's dog.  But I digress. 
Betty is so spacious, Munchkinhead turns into a t-rex when she tries to drive her.

And most importantly, she gives me an amazing freedom.  Not just the standard freedom of a car that allows me to go places far or near whenever I want, but the additional freedom of going places I otherwise couldn't or wouldn't.  I never worry about where I park Betty, if she'll get scratched--who'd notice? or that she'll be stolen--that'd be a very weak joy ride.  I get the prime spots in the grocery store lot, right next to the cart return.  Her heft makes her a great option for snow-covered streets (ok, my Wisconsin training helps a little with that, too.)  And I'm safer in neighborhoods where I otherwise would stick out like a blazing red target.  The combination of Betty and my white privilege allow me to go anywhere.  Betty helps me blend in where it's rough, and being a white girl gets me a pass when Betty raises suspicions in the fancy places.  In a city like D.C. where neighborhoods can change from one to the other in half-a-block, and where it's so easy to get lost, this is especially important.

Betty and I have travelled a long way together and we're both a little worse for the wear.
Betty and I both looking shiny, if not new, back in the summer of '08.

Betty turning 170K just over a year ago.
I'm just not ready to give up.  Not yet.  Not quite.  Not without a lot of tears.  So here's hope that somehow, a 1993 LeSabre flex coupler shows up in D.C., and that the mechanic can then figure out why gas stops going to the engine sometimes.  The flex coupler isn't for that; it's so the steering column doesn't detach from the wheels.  That's why she's been hating those left turns.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Revisiting the tear-stained sun

“Her books are very emotionally difficult to read.”  It’s a phrase I say nearly every time I’m recommending one of Chimamanda Adichie’s books, most often for Half of a Yellow Sun or Americannah.  I know it to be true.  I spend a great deal of the time with my head buried in her books also with tears streaming down my face, an angry growl churning in my stomach, my face glowing beet red.  I always assumed it was the subject matter.  Her works contain a lot of violence, sexual abuse, domestic abuse; I mean, it’s war, and difficult relationships, and oppression and such.  It’s not supposed to be easy.  But that’s not the reason.

The subject matter isn’t what makes Adichie emotionally difficult to read.  What makes Adichie emotionally difficult to read is her writing.  She cruelly uses our humanity against us, her readers, plays with and preys upon our propensity to hope.  She presents something to us, makes it familiar, comfortable, happy even-- A calabash providing solid comfort to a terror-stricken young woman on a dilapidated train overcrowded with fleeing refugees; a bouncy baby girl that arrives into our view only a few pages after the characters who have become endeared to us decide together that they want to have a child; the expectant young relative whose joy and excitement is brought to us through seemingly excessive side-jaunts to her far-off village.  But the calabash holds a young girl’s head; the baby is only one of theirs; and the pregnant women are raped and sliced open before they are killed.

Adichie uses our innate hope for the good and beautiful, presenting a world to us that we do not even know is veiled, until we love what we think is there; and she pulls off the veil, daring us simultaneously to love the hideous reality and to hate the beauty we’ve already internalized.

And I simultaneously hate and love, her.  As I turn another page with tears streaming down my face, wishing the book were over, wishing it would never end.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Second Life Tights

H&M.  The label rather gives their history away, these worn-out black knit tights lying in the gigantic pile of mending on what used to be a place to sit.  Some people build mountains out of molehills; I build them out of clothes that need to be fixed.  Much like my mother does with items that need to be ironed.

I like H&M, too, but not as much as Munchkinhead.  Or, at least, I don’t shop there quite as much as she does.  And a pair of knit tights from there is most certainly in my possession as the result of a wonderful Christmas present from her.  I wonder what the label said.  Probably something about “to: long legs, from: short legs” or some such silliness.

The tights have been through a lot.  A present when I lived in Cali, in the Yay, where one needs to wear woolly knit tights nearly year-round.  Then put to good use again in Wisconsin’s bitter cold winter, likely serving as a layer of warmth buried beneath slips, long thick skirts, fuzzy socks and sturdy boots.  It’s no wonder the tights no longer provide any coverage for toes or that it is easier to see through the heels than through Betty’s rear window.

I’d given them to Munchkinhead to darn.  She’s quite good at darning.  “These cannot be darned,” she informed me.  It seems they were already damned; one cannot darn nothingness.  So she sent them back, via Mommy, to sit on Mount Sewme until I decided what to do with them.

Munchkinhead helped.  With the decision, that is, indirectly, sending a smattering of additional torn-up legwear after cleaning out the large filing cabinet in her living room.  Within the new stash, old hold-up stockings with their own holes and runs and perfectly intact whatever-you-call-the-garter-replacing-sticky-bands-at-the-top.  A seam ripper, a scissors, and a sewing machine later, I have new black woolly knit hold-up stockings.

If I have to shorten them again in the future, Munchkinhead will have new hold-ups.






new stocking