All politics are local

I am writing this with the uneasy sensation of being hung-over, yet I have not been drinking.

I worked the polls (that’s POLLS not poles) Tuesday from 5 a.m. until I walked in the door to my home after 10 p.m.  I had no real breaks all day, and only had two monster java drinks and two doughnuts, and an orange to eat all day.  I was not in my home precinct, but had been assigned to one near by.  It happened to be an especially entrenched GOP loyalist precinct.  Of the roughly 2400 registered voters in that area, approx. seventy eight percent had voted, and of that, seventy five percent went straight ticket GOP.  Of the eight people working that site (all women), there were only two Democrats.  One was new.  New people in small cliques that have worked together often, and know each other reasonably well, are usually met with suspicion.  Educated Democrats who are new–well, are treated with special contempt.

I am still struggling with what to say about the experience.  It was exhausting- that much I know.  I was ill from a virus (the runny nose, sneezing, achy joints variety, which my kids also had- and I brought my own tissues and hand sanitizer to share) and that didn’t help.  I felt like an intruder, and that was exacerbated by the clique somewhat.  I was put off by the managerial skills of the young woman who was captain, after her phone message ordered me to get down to the county offices to learn the computer system, new this year (I had never spoken to her before), and meet the day before elections to help set up the site.  I had already attended one required “training” day at the county offices, a two hour affair with handouts for which I was to be paid thirty dollars.  I had been sent a letter several weeks prior explaining each worker also rec’d two hundred and forty dollars for election day.  At the training day, one week before the election, we were told it would be one hundred forty dollars.  No explanation about the change.  To back out on the commitment I made months ago would have been wrong I thought, but it stunk that they pulled a bait and switch on the pay.  I was also not pleased at the last minute required meetings as I have two small children and no one was paying for childcare for those meetings.  I called the captain back and politely told her I could not go to each new meeting, that she should choose which she thought was the most important and I would find childcare.  She chose the computer training, and asked if I had ever worked on a computer.  I dryly replied that I had a PhD and had been working with computers since 1982.  She appeared not to have heard me.

I went down, one son in hand, and “learned” the software.  It took me about three minutes.  I cannot imagine anything more simple, and was pleased it was such an easy database system.  It replaced the old paper poll books, and proved to be very useful for input and cross-referencing.  I volunteered to be one of the two to use it first on election day, and ended up being one of two people using the computerized poll books and ID scanners for the first five hours, which turned out to be our rush period.

The six ladies working the site were between fifty-five and seventy-one years old, and had done this many times before.  The captain was a young, recently married woman who by her own description had not traveled, or really gone beyond the limitations of where she grew up.  The older women reminded me of my mother and her friends, the biddy buddies I used to call them, and the area is very much like where I spent my childhood.  These women were unfailingly polite, offering to share the soup, sandwiches and snacks each had brought.  They carefully avoided discussing politics, as is the law at these events, but animatedly discussed their grandchildren and lives.  They also had polite curiosity about me, showing sympathy when I called Husband to ask how the kids were feeling and if he had been getting them to drink enough.  But the underlying current was clear:  I did not belong.  It was also clear that there were agreed upon ways of doing things that I had no power to comment upon.  The most egregious being the talk of prayer before we began, and the required group prayer before opening the doors.  I knew where I was though, sucked it up, and wrote it off as one of those when in Rome, local custom things.  But I am still annoyed about it.  When small talk popped up late in the afternoon, I was asked what my husband did.  I told them.  “Oh, one of those.”  was what the woman sitting next to me actually said.  I was surprised to be on the defensive about him, and said “He works in metals, he’s not a jerk.  More like a big big geek.”  The response went ignored.  I was also told by a couple of the women that they were not “into book learning”.  These well dressed, well spoken ladies were not stupid, and were not some sort of back woods hicks.  They had much more in common with their suburban evangelical counterparts around D.C. than they know.  

I am used to people thinking at first that I am “one of them”.  White, middle aged, soft looking, has kids, I don’t know what all.  Many people around here speak in front of me assuming tacit agreement with their points of view.  People speak of race privilege, but “passing” for a bigot or a fool is not something I relish, and have usually sought to reject with humor and wit.  They knew here I was not one of them from the get go, and I did not have to do anything to make that clear.  

Delegating tasks was not something the captain was very good at, and the women were expected to step in through some sort of telepathy they had as part of a crew.  I grew resentful of being brushed off when I did step in, or with annoyance when I did not jump in, or know what to do.  Breaks were never scheduled, but assumed to happen whenever people felt like it.  And in this crew, it seemed a point of pride to only take very small breaks if any.  I offered to switch jobs with people, which also should have been scheduled, and felt like a third wheel when I did.

Many people were first time voters, coming with parents.  Excited and nervous, they would solemnly hand over their ID’s, confirm their identities, then take their ballots and walk off to vote.  The very old and the very young came in, some parents bringing young children and explaining to them what they were doing; some parents were pushed in wheel chairs by their gray haired off spring.  Turn out across the county had been exceptionally high all day I was told.  At a macro level, it was exciting.  I wondered what the rest of the country was doing, and when people from other precincts stopped in to talk, we were told about long lines.

The last voters entered minutes before seven.   The most disturbing thing of the day occurred when a young African-American woman, dressed like all the college students do in sweats and flip flops (per many who had come in that day), came in and was wrapping up a phone call as she checked in.  The women were guffawing under their breath, and I think she had the good grace to ignore them.  She used the touch screen and left.  When she walked out the door, a series of exclamations about her apparel, and her manner (and cell phone use) and her hair arose.  I said nothing, and was shocked by their responses.   The very last voter soon entered, a youngish man proudly struggling through the doors on his crutches, and we all cheered as he approached the desks.  He was known to several of the ladies, and I was told he had Parkinson’s.  I checked him in, he voted, and left.  The meeting hall rang with the sudden silence.

After the doors closed, the captain tallied the numbers and all was put to rights over a few hours.  One of the women commented she thought it had gone well, and that we were leaving long before many of the other precincts would. 

I am ashamed of how exhausted I was at the end of the day, and of how much I needed to get home and check on the boys, of how defeated I felt at how the local elections had gone, and of how much I let my annoyance affect my attitude at that point.  I am also naturally shy, and saying goodbye was not something I am very good at.  We all left for our cars, and I waved, and was not very vocal.  I had appreciated the experience and their collective generosity, but was also uneasy and angry that I had once again been unable to respond to the subtle bigotry, and felt again the outsider, the object of suspicion and sometimes contempt. IS this my country?  IS this my county?  IS this my city?  IS this as much my home as theirs, or anyone else’s?  Why can’t I be myself, and feel as smug and self satisfied as anyone else?  I know part of the answer.  Because my identity is not rooted in who I exclude, who I fear, or who I think I am different from.  As such I cannot be smug or self-satisfied, but at the very least, should be able to feel comfortable and at home as we all should– especially when coming together to do a civic duty.

I worked the polls for my mother as much as anyone.  She had been gradually becoming more and more the model citizen before she was diagnosed with cancer at fifty-nine years of age, racking up several hospital volunteer pins, and always being current on local election issues and helping out.  I know if she had lived, she would have entered a whole new phase of her life; probably without my father, in the terrific shape she had been cultivating for a few years, and with ever more community involvement (but probably in an entirely different town and state).  She showed me by her example how to be congenial, how to get along, and how to be vivacious and social.  None of which I believe I picked up.  She also showed me how to be involved, not on a grand scale, but on a useful local scale.  So I signed up to work the polls this year as a silent tribute to her, and to know I did it when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. And it was no certain thing that he would be elected.  Not around here.

The Obama sign has been on our lawn since his candidacy was announced after the primary elections.  It was stolen on election day.  There are many more McCain/Palin signs than Obama in my neighborhood, and certainly a greater sense of freedom to put stickers on one’s car if one is a Republican, and fear to not express oneself if you are anything else.  The local newspaper is egregiously biased to the far right, and trash talk radio is extremely popular around here.  It is, as I have been told, smart to know how to blend in- especially when travelling in the county.

When I got home, I shed my clothes, picked up one of my husbands’ old sleep shirts, and crawled into bed with a handful of tissues.  I cried, and told Husband that I was depressed, that I wanted to live in a place where I was not constantly feeling like an outsider, where I felt good about raising my kids, and where I did not feel like I needed to wear a mask outside of my house just to get along.  I said I felt weighed down and trapped by our mortgage, our house, and our student loans; but luckily not by him or the kids.  I told him I knew all these things were wearing him down too.  I said I didn’t know what we could do for a living, if we moved somewhere else and there were no academic jobs.  I said I didn’t know if anything was ever going to change, that life was short, and I didn’t want to end up like my mom.  Mom who knew she had spent a large chunk of her life treading water in a place she didn’t want to be, doing things she didn’t want to do, because she thought it would be best for her kids and because she was afraid she didn’t know what else to do.  She only realized she had options, and could take them, and then was told she had terminal cancer.  The irony was not lost on me, and went unspoken by her.

I was afraid to watch the election results.  I passed out and slept.  I woke up needing desperately to blow my nose, some time before 6 a.m.  I crept around and plugged in my laptop, and checked the results.  I found myself listening to Obama’s acceptance speech, and I cried again.  This time because I was out of energy for anything else.  I could not whoop, I could not smile.  I just felt, for the first time in a long time, a sense of irrational hope.

It will not change where I live, how poor we are, or our obligations to our extended family.  It will not make my region more civil, open minded, educated, or kind.  It might not even have any real effect on the U.S. or the world.  But it might, just might, make living here a little more freeing, even if it is just in my mind.

 Addendum:  Two days later, I am still annoyed.  But a friend I know in town had been at a gathering with people we know and their kids on election night told me, “At one point we were all looking at the TV and then I said Carol is working the polls right now.  No one said anything.  Then several people said I feel better knowing she is there.”  It didn’t make everything better, but she validated my efforts in a way all the new voters, kind patrons, and general feelings of good duty done did not.  This particular friend had been living in one of the counties in Florida in 2004 that had egregious voting shenanigans, and out right voter intimidation occurring that went completely ignored.  While that did not happen this time, here– I am glad to know my participation helped some others who are outsiders feel a little better about where they live. 

The Numbers

Cheeses, antiques, geological formations, star systems, all things that benefit from age, the passage of time.  Yet for we specific biological beings, not so much.  Cellular disruption occurs from the moment we become a unit, a cluster of split cells.  Our DNA flips off and on in response to various environmental factors, and we face the onslaught of oxygen breakdown (oxidation), the very stuff of life, our atmosphere.  Since I have been in my forties, I have realized mortality in new ways.  Not just the death of a parent, not just the usual life experiences that add depth and breadth to understanding have come my way.  I have actually pondered this thing, this run of time.  Not as eloquently or masterfully as many before me, to be sure, those who add comfort through their poetry and song. 

Consider: If from this day forward I am in the second half of my life- if I live to be over 88- then I have 16,060 sets of 24 hour cycles left.  That may sound like quite a bit at first, equaling 385,440 hours.  If one is incapacitated, oppressed, or incarcerated, it may seem inordinately long (Nien Cheng’s book “Life and Death I Shanghai” is a good meditation on time in confinement).  But if you, like many of us, measure your life in days, 16,060 seem too little.  Each year is a paltry 365 days.  Financial advisors would say if we put away $2 for each day, we would have 730; if we put away 5 per day, we would have 1,825 (that’s approx. 150 per month); and over time if invested, we would have a nice little nest egg.  Sadly, many of us can’t do that right now.  With recent economic issues (inflation- fast rising food and energy costs especially- and housing negative values, unemployment, under-employment, etc.) pressing on most citizens in the world, saving money is difficult.  I know we lose sleep and gain acid reflux from the stresses of thinking about what has been lost in retirement accounts and the value of our home, as well as Husband’s stagnating salary (higher education jobs have never kept up with inflation, and we did the numbers long ago and realized that he is expected to put into his job the equal of 5-7% of his salary.  That, once taken from the “take home pay and benefits numbers”– we won’t use or discuss the computed hourly wage– makes him the equal of our UPS deliveryman, and less than our garbage collectors.  Oh yeah, it’s a myth that college professor’s children get to go to college for free.  We won’t be able to send ours). 

If I free myself for a moment from those numbers, I am back to the hours, the days (a fine film that ponders quality of life issues by the way, “The Hours”).  It seems so small, so trivial.  I am spending this time overlapping with many other people, people I do not know, but who share this gross “time”, as well as people I love.  Imagine a large computer screen covered with small dots.  Each dot is someone known by name at this moment, both dead and alive.  Over time, dots are replaced by other names as some people fade from memories, from history.  While they existed, they helped make up the gross movements, the impact of humans on time, place, and matter.  Yet most of us will fade.  Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus) is remembered by name, but his servants and friends are not.  Eventually, even his name will fade from the screen.  We become the bricks and mortar of history, each overlapping the next, unrecognizable as individuals.  I think the focus of religions on individuality, of god/s knowing each person by name is driven by this collective knowledge, this consciousness of mortality as the loss of individuality.  It is a last desperate bid, hope, for self after the living is done. 

Each day I am usually aware of at a macro level, when I am falling asleep.  I am aware of having wasted it to some degree; feeling guilty over not having taught my children enough, of not getting enough done, of not having let go and laughed enough, of not loving the people who love me enough, of not having listened well enough, of not having been a better citizen, of not being more healthy, and of being too self-involved.  I am also grateful to have been able to observe the crazy things we call culture, and public life.  I am grateful to have smelled food cooking, feel the autumn air, and see the leaves in different colors.  I am grateful for the warm, quick hugs of my small boys, and the lingering embraces of my Husband that can make me feel calm and safe (really- it slows my heart rate and lowers my blood pressure.  I find it an amazing effect).  I also know these things are fleeting, and exist only in our shared memories, which will fade someday as well. 

I have a Jewish friend who impressed upon me the importance of remembering, and of witnessing in her faith.  She noted the importance of remembering names, and events, as ways of keeping not only the gross reality of her religion alive, but individuals too.  I told her that made the Old Testament so much more relevant to me, as a document of remembering names.  So much of it is taken up with a boring list of who was, and who was born of whom.  The Mormons have engaged many Jewish persons in this remembering process, as part of their dedicated genealogical studies.  The vast Mormon databases of who was and who was born of whom is open to anyone, and is quite useful I am told. 

I want to fill a jar with 16,060 dried, small black beans.  Each day I want to remove one, a symbol of what is passing, to remind me to step back and love my life a little better.  The clocks on the walls of every room are not enough, the tickers of moments on the top of my computer, my cell phone, my auto dash board that constantly flip numbers.  I want to more tangibly remind myself to witness, to forgive, and to be aware of time as it passes, of my self and others as we pass and fade into the background of history. 

Horton alone heard “We are here!”  but someday our noises will fade, the lights will dim, and all the dots will go black.  Space spins on, most of the larger mysteries not knowable to us, in a framework of time and matter we can’t begin to grasp.  The sliding scale of reality can go into the microcosms of organisms that exist only for seconds, then spiral out into the vastness of time (A film was made about these ideas, Powers of Ten, 1977, by Ray and Charles Eames; look it up on UTube to see it for free). 

I’ll use my tiny beans to remind me, “I am here!” for as long as I can think it.  Descartes was right about one thing; we recognize our own existence as long as we are living it.  Whether or not we can call it reality is another discussion. 

Quality and Quantity will always be debatable in the consideration of this thing called living, and time. 

For the most part, the food is terrible and the portions so small.

In sum, the alternative is much less, significantly less palatable than what I know.  At least for now, for me.  Goodbye David Foster Wallace.  This time will be much less a place worth sharing without you, the 16,060 days I might have left.

 

Addendum:  I have read today that adding Jewish persons to the Mormon genealogical database is prefaced by baptizing those who have died first.  There is an active movement against this practice.  What seemed like such a good cross religious effort now seems like just more religious hocus pocus.  What a shame.

RIP.Off.City.

Remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer?  The always-quaint burg of Sunnydale in the story, with it’s hidden recesses of evil?  Here in this idyllic little burg I inhabit, owning a motorized vehicle is the several thousands of pounds of flesh that keeps on being taken.  I have never had even a marginally good experience buying a car.  I have bought two in my life so far (both new), and despise the process. I do all my homework, bring a male, wear pink, and still get treated like an idiot, and forced to go through some terrible passion play that car dealerships script out that lasts about as long, and is as agonizing.  Suffice it to say, I can’t stand car dealerships, and not just for the agonizing pain that ultimately cumulated in my turning over thousands of my dollars for the privilege.  The first was paid for via a bank loan, the second all in cash- yes, all in cash.  I was not purchasing some dream car, or some adolescent fantasy vehicle.  Both times I purchased durable, practical autos that I intended to drive until they would not go anymore.  The experiences 15 years apart, they were almost exactly the same.  I searched for almost a year, visited many places, and ultimately nothing had changed.  

My Mazda B220, the dark blue stealth machine with the cap, was a true friend for 15 years through my single life.  Two years ago Husband and I purchased a Kia Sedona mini van.  Dark blue again (Husband picked the color, I did not care), it has been a good family workhorse but for the abysmal gas mileage. My mother gave me her 92’ Toyota Corolla before she died, and that’s our back-up car.  In the ‘burg, I have had such problems with our local dealership (who also sells the Kia’s, and while forced to service them, makes it clear they are reluctant to do so), I refuse to go there any more for service. They have also skinned my 71 year old father on his T100 (which he keeps in pristine condition) so many times it makes me want to scream.  Options?  Sure, if I drive over an hour away through the hills only to get the same scripts and role offers. I would LOVE to play the devil sometime, switch it up- and force them to pay egregious amounts of money while being insulted for attempting to make minor repairs.  Yes, attempted.  The number of times they have caused more problems than they have solved have been shocking- well, not really.  I expect them to try to skin me now.

These may well be national matters, this culture of auto dealerships, as well as the in-bred habits of the auto and oil industries, which have stagnated fuel innovation for the last 75 years.  But the local skinning is both a state and regional scam. Let me explain.

In the ‘Burg, the state of VA has made a pretty deal with the combustion engine devils.  All the lower forms of hell are in on it too, from the shade tree mechanic to the slick dealerships.  It is the “inspection sticker” scam.  After moving here, we were told we would have to pay our moving taxes in more ways than one.  The first way was the rookie moving tax on our car.  Sure enough, there was pain in order to get the small “we saw your car and it runs” sticker for our window, thereby avoiding massive fines if we didn’t and got caught (beware the several times a year state cop drag nets set out to do just that- I swear it seems to be around a full moon. Forget drunk driving; the horrors here are not paying to get a worthless inspection sticker).  We were told by three separate repair shops that there were things wrong with our car we knew were not (different problems identified at each hell mouth), and we must have repairs made repaired BY THAT SHOP before they could “let” us have the sticker.  So the first shop slapped a “not approved” sticker on our window as well.  Scarlet letter cum flag, “woo-hoo!  Oh Mr. Policeman! These people refuse to be shafted! So scam them some more!”

I was furious. I called various information chains only to find out that the regulation of this sticker business and approving of the stations that can hand them out is done by- you guessed it, the state police.  Who gets the revenue from the sticker? The state police.  Who is allowed to charge what ever they want, however they choose, and skim that cream off the process without any fear of being prosecuted for malfeasance?  The shops.  Because if you wish to complain, your paperwork must go to the state police.  What crazy motivation could the state police possibly have to follow up anyone’s complaints about a shop scamming for stickers?  As long as the shops keep sticking folks for repairs they do not need, the police get their cut (if they don’t they simply withdraw a shop’s ability to hand stickers out, thereby cutting into a shops revenue base), and the citizens (unless you have a relative who is one of the devils) get stuck every time- the cycle is complete. Classic government fraud in action. 

Once we were in the cycle, it happens EVERY YEAR.  We searched and searched for shops that would only demand a small patronage, such as the changing of wiper blades and tire rotation on some such.  The total bill (the basic sticker cost is $15) usually runs around $50.  People tell me we are getting off cheap.  I let my blades go bad before the due date of the sticker, because I know if I don’t I’ll get charged for them anyway.  Sigh.  Don’t forget the state auto taxes which seem to follow no sound process of charges (which the DMV refuses to explain), or the yearly “car tax” that is so insane in the application (how they determine what to charge changes and varies more than highway maintenance in VA) that I have yet to find anyone who understands the who what where and why of the several hundred dollar charges (the how is simple- pay it or you get fined).

The local scam is the yearly city sticker, and the separate property taxes (can’t buy the one without having paid the other).  It’s a revenue scam that works well for the city.  Local police will pull citizens over to check it, and do at several key times in the year (catching unwary college students is easy pickin’s).  The sticker (prominently placed along side the inspection tattoo, both required to sit right in the center of an auto front windshield; safety first my flabby behind) serves no function but to announce that you paid your pound of flesh to the city, from which said revenues can be used to fatten the wallets of local developers, make cushy the life of the arrogantly corrupt mayor, or other such crucial city functions.  Many municipalities across the country have done away with the city sticker; the ‘Burg has not, and clearly will not any time soon.

My great grand father, who saw the creation of personal automobiles, and the entire arc of the auto through the 20th century, had this to say.  “If it can’t get you from point A to B, then it is worthless.” He did not want bells and whistles, not even a radio (prescient, considering all the studies done recently showing the direct causality between distracted drivers and accidents). Air conditioners were for sissies. If you knew how to work on your own machine, you were a smart person.  I wish I could work on mine.  The vast array of bells, whistles, computers, specialized tools, and general high tech junk makes this impossible, to the auto manufacturers benefit.

I read that Viggo Mortensen drives a 1950 pickup because he knows he can work on it.  The man can afford what ever he wants, and his own garage mechanics to service it (see Jay Leno), but he chooses the truck.  Good onya I say.  My father had a 1950 Ford pickup when I was a child, and I still have happy dreams about that truck.  If I can ever afford one, it will be mine as fast as you can say curmudgeon in the dungeon and I will learn to repair it.  It may only seem like symbolic independence, but my boys will also learn not to be afraid of machines or the industries that produce and control them.  Get thee away, Satan, and all your minions; ok, ok, after I pay all these governmental fees.  Who ever thought the reality of evil would be so mundanely manifested in our everyday lives; and less the hovering red eyes of a terrorist or paranormal being?  Our collective obsession with capitalistic status and the resulting consumption orgy of the past hundred years has been shameful, and only served to dumb us down into ignorant, useless consumers.  In this time of peak oil, it is good to remember amid the sunny streets of tract mansions and gas-guzzlers, that we are the instruments of our own destruction.  

Oh, yeah, and here’s a little bit of irony to serve as a reminder to those who live in this ‘burg– don’t forget much of that government flesh will not be sliced off or will be significantly cheaper if you drive a vehicle with ANTIQUE tags (ever seen a rusted Chevy chevette labeled an antique?  They roam, they roam).

Anyone got a cherry’50 Ford they want to sell cheap?

Where’’s my dime bag of Garam Masala?

Have you ever seen two grown people searching feverishly for a small bag?  Calls of “Look in the pantry!”  “I did!”  “Look behind the backup flour and sugar!” and  “I DID ALREADY!” ring through the hall.  In our family, creating food is our central addiction.  Husband may say books are my dirty little secret, but I have dislodged many, many volumes from my stash since we met (don’t look too closely at the basement storage room, those boxes I can’t part with). 

The food processor, ice cream maker, and KitchenAid mixer are three of my favorite objects.  They do not sit on the counter to display any expertise, but are usually covered with schmutz, cords flung awry.  These are working tools; metal machines with big motors.  This is my version of Tool Time, and when seeing muscle machines I find myself drooling and muttering ‘Gruh, gruh”.  But I am not a cooking wimp, given to throwing any little spice into my coffee grinder.  I use the granite mortar and pestle as well, pounding and grinding, then mixing, cutting, and warming over a small flame (Toasting spices can be very effective, especially before pounding up).  It is not just the consumption of our creations, these infusions into our body chemistry that we enjoy.  Making food is a creative pursuit for us, and as Anthony Bourdain has said, an expression of love.  Love for a process, materials, and ultimately the experience of sharing a meal.  There is a reason “home food” is a term we associate with our mothers, fathers, aunts, and holidays.  It is an expression of simple pleasure, and of love.

We do not have an orderly kitchen, but usually a clean one- a distinction people who like to cook, or have small children understand completely.  The cycle of used dishes and pots is constant, and each new day brings cleanliness, clarity, creativity, then clutter.  The cycle of addiction is truly hard to break.

Part of the reason the West has food and appearance issues is the weird juncture of the love of food and the crappy food we are marketed, and subsequently buy.  The movement to buy food locally, and as organically as much as possible is one I applaud.  I never used to like red meat much, and did a simple comparison test recently.  Steaks of the same cut were purchased at almost even prices; one from the usual feed lot “finished”-cross country shipped- hormone stuffed-mega grocery chain bin, the other of the grass fed, pasture living, little drugs, recently butchered, organic variety courtesy of one of our local farmers market people.  Husband, the defacto grill cook, cooked them rather rare and slapped them on a plate with a slight dusting of salt and pepper.  I usually don’t like rare meat.  A few bites of each and it was clear:  the local, “happy cow” was significantly better.  I don’t like the metallic taste red meat has, and it was missing entirely from the happy cow.  The other steak was metallic tasting, and had a strange other flavor too.  I am told the manipulations animals go through in our modern “production” (from embryo to flesh stripping) cycles creates high levels of stress hormones in the flesh that do not taste good.  I believe it.

As a child we had a steady number of nine cows.  One a year was hauled off to the local butcher (and usually one of the cows had a calf to replace it) and in return we got the standard small white packages with scrawled writing to identify the parts.  The first bull Dad took away, Red, was a bit of a shock.  Try explaining to a six year old where one of her favorite animals went, and expect some surprise.  I did not speak to Dad for several days.  It didn’t help that I abhorred (and still do) liver.  After waiting for what seemed an eternity for a meal one day during one of my growth spurts, Dad sauntered into the living room with a hunk of cooked meat in his hand, greedily taking bites out of it.  “This is that bull you won’t eat.  Mmmmm.  Good steak. . .you want some?” He hands me down the hunk, and I took a big bite.  “Bleah!”  I spit the bite out yelling,” That wasn’t steak- that was liver!”  He and mom laughed about that for years.

We had a garden, and every year it was more of a circus than an orderly enterprise.  One year my previously urban mother planted rows and rows of melons, not realizing how they reproduced.  Most rotted in the field, or were stealthily stacked next to the doors of friends and neighbors.  One year all the corn fell over, and another year the onions all rotted.  By contrast, mom’s baked goods were never in doubt.  The granddaughter of a professional baker, she had picked up many of his ideas and skills.  Her recipes are sparse notes, missing the changes and footnotes she held in her head, like most cooks.  I have yet to have at any restaurant, bakery or home the equal of her cakes, pies, cookies, or especially, her éclairs.  No matter how poor we were, she could manage to whip up an amazing dessert.  It was as if, in the vast rural wasteland into which she found herself, she would create her own small, private oases of momentary bliss and offer them to us.  Her offering of love.  She wasn’t always good at saying it, but she could show it.  The battered red apple cookie jar was never empty, and now it sits proudly on my counter tempting my little boys with what lies hidden inside.  It had been my Grandmother’s, and she had given it to my mother.  Love can come in the most subtle of ways, and remain in memory through the tokens we live with.

Of course the abundance of food we have in the US is a double-edged sword. There are enough articles clogging the newspapers about obesity (but don’t look too closely at how the BMI index was created or how it’s used), and not enough about how to can veg and fruit, and eat locally.  When talking to a fresh young Coop-extension agent recently, he admitted he knew little to nothing about the local food movement in all it’s manifestations, or organic produce and meats.  Still worse, he came from a mega poultry and beef industry family in TX, and had learned nothing from his grand folks about the small doing, of raising food, processing it yourself, and keeping it.  I find his educated, empty mind a travesty, if not a waste of my tax dollars.

We are not foodies who seek out the truly exotic.  I get my highs from small things, like the basil fresh from my garden with my fresh red tomatoes (no cast iron tasteless rocks), or in winter the fresh rosemary that grows near the lavender bushes sprinkled on a locally obtained pork roast; or eating breakfast eggs from “happy” chickens, as our neighbor likes to call his crazy bug eating, free range dinosaurs.  We share our tools, our materials, and the results with our friends.  In kind, we have had the luck to taste real Korean fish stew, exquisite Japanese vegetable dishes, Thai carrot butterflies, a northern Indian curry, and other dishes I am not well versed in cooking, or know how to tweak myself.  This is love: taste, experience, creativity, community, memory.  Who wouldn’t do unusual things for love: satisfy the addiction for sensation; slake thirst and hunger, while having substantive human connections?  Remember that the next time the anonymous dealer who parades his wealth via TV ads entices you with the promise of crisp fries, or easy satiating.  With just a little more effort, you could have so much more.  One more trip to the local international food mart and I’ll replenish my supplies.  I’ll scrounge my change dishes and get that small bag, that magic that will help transform the daily habits of life into bliss.  Who needs big pharma or illicit drugs when we can cook?

 

What does critical discourse have to do with my floor?

We wanted it.  I reminded myself of that this morning.  We wanted it.  The dirty floor that only stays clean every morning for half an hour.  The dusty shelves.  The sweet little face coming to crawl into my lap, while smelling of an open sewer.  Ok, I am really ready for this child to learn to use the potty.  But the whole scene, the whole reality, even if we didn’t know the stressors, and the surprises good and bad- we wanted it.

I don’t think you can ever really know what you are getting into when you have children.  That’s probably why so many of us see it as a clear line between being in the club and not.  It’s not purposefully exclusionary.  People who have not had children simply can’t and don’t “get it” about kids.  The time management, the responsibility, the stress, the guilt, the failures, the groundedness, the day to day subtleties.  We didn’t know the totality either before we had kids and we were well into our late thirties with four advanced degrees between us, and two bachelor degrees.  We were not DINKS (double income no kids, if people still use that acronym), but rather WEMIS (well educated marginal incomes). 

I was reading a series of essays and rebuttals this week regarding stay at home moms.  One of the irritations I had was that I know two very smart, capable men who are stay at home parents.  I also know two couples that use a blended approach- each works ¾ time, much of that at home, and they both handle childcare.  None of us are rich, and everyone I know is a WEMI.  I fully admit my life experience is anecdotal.  I have trouble mapping on many of the points of view I was reading into my communal reality, these “expert” points of view which strive to express profundity and summarize a social phenomenon. 

There is a popular critique that somehow stay at home moms have copped out.  That we should be blamed for holding back other women, for reinforcing stereotypes.  Little mention is made of the fact that on average, women still only make about seventy cents for every mans dollar when we work- regardless of position, or income level.  One essay detailed the difference between stay at home parents today and those of fifty years ago, summarizing by saying a clean floor was her last priority, and she was ok with that.  For many of us, having a parent provide early childhood care is a necessity and a luxury as well.  We can’t afford daycare, and the pre-school programs we so enthusiastically enroll our children into only meet a few days a week for a few hours at a time.  We are also lucky that we are not having our feet held over a fire by government authorities to work or lose our children, and our lives- subsequently having to put our children into dubious situations while we work body and mind numbing jobs for minimum wages that won’t cover diapers.  Even extended families are a luxury now.  Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins- the stuff of legendary loyalty, strife, and support have gone the way of RV’s and the global moving workforce.  The very poor may have relatives near by, but those of us who are WEMI’s may be caring for children as well as aging parents at the same time (we waited so long to have kids the distance in age between our children and our parents is the same for the very poor between four, even five generations).

I am not complaining, it’s just the facts.  The choices we make to “stay at home” are not nearly as clear-cut as many of the writers I have read seem to think.

I also do not think stay at home parents can be categorized so easily into groups anymore.  Just as some women who stay at home are more educated than those of fifty years ago, women do not feel the need (or guilt) to greet their suit wearing man at the door with a martini.  The WEMI’s I know all had jobs before they had kids, and male or female, chose to be a partner in the whole family process.  Stereotypical roles simply do not work, and each family has to figure out what makes sense for them.  Usually, that means a clean floor ends up being a low priority, included in the team-family barrage of Saturday cleaning.

The anxieties we suffer are more about preparing our children as best we can to get along in the world, get good educations, and be happy, balanced individuals who can fly from the nest and manage a checking account, bills, taxes, their bodies, social situations, read at the twelfth grade level, have solid moral character grounding, and problem-solve with strong core mental tool boxes that include three R’s as well as science, the arts, philosophy, and history.  We worry about money, about our own health, and having stable, equitable communities at all levels.  We also worry about mundane things, like getting enough sleep and if our pants make our butts look big (men too).  We have the same problems our parents had, but we have significantly more social flexibility to meet those challenges as partners than at any time before.  As Husband recently replied after a barb from his friend for liking the drink lemon drop during guys night, “Do I look like a man who is insecure in his masculinity?”  His friend thought for a moment then said, “No.  No you don’t.”   I don’t think we need to worry about whether or not we fit into roles, represent our genders well, or are reproducing stereotypes that keep others down.  When it’s important and explicit we do what we can to make the world a more balanced, fair place.  Post-modern sociology has made it clear that the personal is political, and that the implicit, the subtextural, matters in the big scheme of things.  Yet in our daily lives we do the best we can, and are revolutionary for simply doing things differently, trying to meet the challenges of parenting with as much creativity and honesty as we can.

We chose it.  We wanted the knowledge of family.  We wanted the day-to-day demands, the reality of having children in our lives 24/7.  There are bigger sacrifices ahead, challenges, and surprises with this choice.  We expect that.  How we respond is something I can’t forecast right now, but I do know the last thing we need is academic criticism, social constraint, or institutionalized religious guilt for things that don’t matter.  We all need support.  We need to laugh, and have our sense of humor reinforced.  We need others to know we are doing the best we can, and when we don’t, we already know it.  So back off analysts.  No saints or sinners here, just parents trying to get along in life- put your energies into getting fair wages, parental leave, and nationalized early childhood education.  Do something more productive than glamorizing or demonizing those who stay at home. 

For a start, you can come on over and clean my floor.

A new project

It seems fitting to post this on super tuesday.  Do you know your doctor?  Do you know your post-person?  Do you know your plumber?  Are there six degrees of separation between you and anyone interesting who is not a celebrity?  Do you want to begin to do something small, to participate without baggage, to begin to learn and care about the things that may only be superficial right now?  Pass it on. Expect to be rejected most of the time.  And keep doing it. Breakfast.Lunch.Dinner.

Equals across the table

Your family is invited to a meal at  (your name)  home

on the date and time of your choosing.

Please RSVP to:  (email, phone and mailing address)

at your earliest convenience.

____________________________________________________

 

When was the last time you made an honest effort to talk with someone very different from yourself?  How might a casual meal and conversation shared between disparate people bridge distances of position, diversity, opinion, and inform both?  Can a simple meal connect strangers, neighbors in a global community?

Our current world is both a small and complex place, often isolating and intimidating.  With a simple, sincere, transparent, and curiosity-based exchange such as a meal we believe we can begin to cross boundaries and learn about others.  There is no publicity, no material gain to be had, no hidden agenda.  What is intrinsically exchanged during the meal is the reward, harkening back to the most basic social meaning of breaking bread together.

We are opening our home, our lives, and ourselves as part of the experience and expect nothing in return but respect and sincere engagement.  The basis we work from when meeting strangers is to treat them as we would neighbors; people we are tied to as community members, but do not really know.  It is the effort to know and understand someone, and explore our combined worldviews that is the point, the root purpose of the meal.

Food restrictions regarding health are respected, but otherwise guests are offered “home food”; that which can’t be had in restaurants and is by its nature special.  We serve what we usually eat, using mostly local, organic materials.  For example, pot roast and mashed potatoes, roasted carrots, pies and cakes made from scratch, or omelets, toast and coffee might be offered depending on the meal.  Our core family members (4) are your hosts, and no other people but your family will attend. 

It is too easy to assume we know how other people live.  Small snippets of information disconnected from lives cannot capture enough to understand each other.  The biases that result from our assumptions have far-reaching implications.  We know the effects of ignorance in our lives, and want to dispel it.  We know the joys of curiosity, and we want to engage it (and yours) as part of this life-long project.  Please come be a part of this effort.  Sit a while, relax, talk, and have a meal with us.

Why you?

(short description of why we find the persons interesting, and why we think they ought to know us in some cases, such as state senators)

Who we are (your info here):

Both of us come from modest, midwestern backgrounds.  We have been discussing who we would like to have dinner with for years, developing a loose list of people we think are interesting.  Further discussion of this led to the formation of B.L.D., which is a blend of the personal, social action, and art in a life-long pursuit.

We hope that this project might encourage others to go beyond their constraints, their contacts, and reach out into the world in a simple, deeply human way.  We are equals across the table, our preconceptions put aside, and connections to be made.  As part of our efforts, we take a digital photo of all of us together, give you a copy, and keep ours in the B.L.D. book.  These artifacts are not intended to be shared, or profit made from them, and we use the photos as neighbors would: to recall friends and events, and as documentation to track our lives.

The lure of a distant horn

As far back as I can remember I have enjoyed the sound of train horns at night.  On the farm as a child, the tracks ran on the far edge of our field, and the howl of the coyotes would often presage the rich sound of a train horn. Everywhere I have lived, I have heard these horns and found strange comfort in the sound.  As I sit in the calm and cold of my living room, I hear the horn from a train less than a mile away. 

I am told by my father that he took my great-grandfather to a central office in Kansas City where he had been ordered to turn in his gun and his badge from his days as a payroll guard on the trains.   The trains he worked ran the mining and lumber routes winding through southern Missouri, Northern Arkansas, Eastern OK and Kansas.  I was reminded of the old western films, where pay trains got held up, and men hopped off with hands in the air while the bad guys robbed them.  Most of this was a fiction, but guards on trains were not.  Great granddad cried as he slumped in the office chair, laying the items of his former self on the desk.  My father was embarrassed, and wished he could just jump up and grab the gun and badge, pull his grandfather along and leave.  It was one of the few times he says he ever saw the elder man broken.  Great granddad loved trains, and so did his son, my grandfather.  My grandfather had elaborate miniatures set up in his basement, and worked as a rail postal clerk, his dream job.  He died as an accident in the great train yards of Kansas City’s Union Station, during the height train travel and shipping.  I have often thought about all the blood, energy, and money that went into building the railroads of this country, how quickly they fell into disrepair, and how the rails are a viable means to again transport people and goods, in the face of a looming oil crisis. 

I can’t say I am obsessed with trains, but I am with the sound of the horns at night, and with travel.  I have what I like to call “itchy feet” (no relation to fungus).  It is a fascination with travel, the idea of travel, and the ever-pressing need to get out and go places.  I currently reside in a valley that is approx. 30 miles wideby 175 miles long.  It is hemmed in on one side by rows of mountains with 4,000 ft peaks, which take close to 7 hours to get through going west on narrow black top roads.  On the other, a single, long line of “mountains” barricades the valley, with peaks of about 3,000 ft. on average.  From there, the land quickly slides down into marshes, then to the Atlantic Ocean.  I have felt claustrophobic ever since I moved here.  The first year I back-roaded obsessively, coming to know the strange knots of roads that seemed to twist and turn without logic, always circling back into the valley.  I built knowledge of this geographic prison that rarely requires a map. Then, I got bored.  I traveled up into Pennsylvania, and into West Virginia.  It still seems like a very small region to me.

When we came here to find a place to live, we stayed in a KOA.  A nice woman and her family were in the pool with us and we asked if there was a grocery near by. “Oh yes!”  She replied, “The food line is just down the road” and proceeded to describe where the food line was.  I usually do not have trouble understanding people with accents, but I shot Husband a seriously perplexed look.  “Food line?”  I said.  “Yes-  foodline.  FOOD LINE!”  She smiled and said it louder as if I were either deaf or stupid.  Husband finally got it, “Oh! Food Lion!”  Grinning with relief and triumph that he had understood and I had not.  The woman just smiled and nodded (I thought to myself that Food Lion was one of the dumbest names for a grocery I had ever heard.  So too Price Chopper with the axe logo, and several other names, but that’s another essay about the identifying vagaries of regional stores.).  Later she asked where we were from, and said with pride that they always vacationed at the KOA’s around town, and that she had never been out of the COUNTY in her life. Yes, the county- not country. I clarified, believe me.  She was a nice woman, but honestly I can’t imagine never leaving the county.  Not by choice anyway.  Husband says my sense of direction is partly to blame for my itchy feet, as I don’t really fear any aspects of travel.  I take great joy in the packing-as-Tetris game, as well as the planning of a trip in such a way to leave room for random experience.  And yes, I have an excellent sense of direction.  Growing up my father used to backroad often, and say to me, “We are lost.  How do we get home?”.  We were never lost of course, but it was a good way to train a child to have a sense of direction and the skills needed to get around.

About 12 years ago on my first trip through the upper East Coast, I got off the highway at one point and wandered around a medium sized city and found a terrific restaurant in an out of the way place.  I was by myself for the entire trip, which took me up to Montreal, and through many cities.  Husband and I happened to be on a stretch of that same route a few years back, at a mealtime.  Without telling him, I pulled off as I had years ago and found a restaurant I had been to on the original trip.  No mistakes, but drove right to it through multiple back roads and turns.  Even I was surprised.  Dad has the same disease, and has made a competition out of trying to find a road I have not been on, then getting me to drive it with him.  He has yet to find a road I am not familiar with and it irks him to no end.  Worse, a couple of times I had not actually been on the road, but figured out where it was and what it connected to with enough accuracy that he was fooled.  No small feat in the always-curving roads (and changing names) of The Valley. 

Not that I don’t get “lost”, but as Husband assures me, lost is a relative term.  Lost for me is not quite being sure in a 5-mile radius of where I am.  I know the block so to speak, but not the detail within it. Hence, I can get to a point of reference pretty quickly by following my instincts and using my skills.  This happens when I am going someplace new, or after having studied maps. Husband still gets lost in our town.  People ask him for directions and he shrugs, saying, “Ask her”.  Or, he will try to tell someone he has a lousy sense of direction and they do not believe him.  He often has to explain the terror he feels when he gets a couple of miles out of town.  He has absolutely no mental map of where he is.  He tells me The Valley is especially difficult for him, and that he misses the Midwest, where he could count on the grid structure of roads.

We sorely miss the orderly squares of the Midwest, the big sky, the rich soils, and the deep rivers.  The spaces between villages and the loud, powerful thunderstorms that can rage for hours.  I did not indulge in drugs or other vices as a teenager, with the exception of driving.  I lived on my bicycle until I turned 16, and then I backroaded, completing ever more distant trips.  There are very few dirt roads or blacktops in an approximately 150-mile radius of my old hometown that I do not know intimately, having taken great pleasure in random stops for food at diners, noting unusual architecture or geography, and reveling in historical, arcane, and natural sites.

The valley we live in now gets very little snow, and almost no storms.  My husband and I lie on summer evenings and listen wistfully when a small electrical storm passes by, whispering shared memories of great storms we have known.  We also listen to the sound of the train horn as it makes regular passes, and silently hold one another’s hand.

My sons get out their wooden tracks and build routes, putting their tiny engines and cars on the track and pushing them along with “chug a chugs” and an occasional “whoo-woo”.  Trains maintain strong symbolism, a battered romance, and an enduring promise that is evident even to children.  My father took his mother and our family with him on a nostalgic train ride this past fall through West Virginia.  The train was a pastiche of various old trains, some cars from the 1930’s, some the 50’s, and some later.  We had a meal in the dining car (a salvaged early 50’s model), and then adjourned to a cheaply refurbished 1930’s deco car, with wavy seating looking out wide windows.  It was an interesting trip, and the two little boys enjoyed themselves very much. The static scrambled voice on the loud speaker gave historical information as we wound through a valley, and the mostly geriatric riders all smiled indulgently at the boys as they hooted and walked about the train.  I only caught the faintest echoes of what rail travel must have been like, as if some ghost from the past were just out of the corner of my peripheral vision, never quite coming into view.  This was not the train of my imagination, of family stories, or of the horns in the night.  This was more like the wooden track and cars my sons play with.  It offered little insight into what haunts me about the sound of the horn, or helping to cool the itch in my feet.  I know trains are a faulty business now, mostly shipping goods across country, and not without the usual scary bunch of train “hobos”.  Amtrak is a sorry excuse for rail travel, not the least because the heavily federally subsidized system offers tickets to non-citizens at half the cost for citizens.  When I pursued this issue with Amtrak, I was told, “Well if you went to Europe you would get cheap tickets”.  This in no way explains the expensive and non-rational ticket prices.  I had been looking into getting Dad a ticket to visit his sister in Washington State, and was shocked by what I found in the limited routes and outrageously expensive tickets.  He did not believe me at first, recalling when rail travel was like bus travel, and about as expensive.  “That was 50 years ago, Dad”  I said, also telling him it made no sense to me either.  Call or write your congresspersons, your senators, people.  This is a rip off, and the whole system needs to be developed.

I grew up with autos for travel, not the train. The early oil “crisis” of the 70’s created the cars I drove, and I avoided owning a car (and came to know Greyhound very well in college) for a long time, and did not need one when living in the city.  It was not until I turned 27 that I owned my first auto, and had that truck for 15 years before I gave it away.  It was my buddy, my trusted companion who got 35 mpg in town and up to 42 on the highway, and never failed me mechanically.  It was my turtle, with the camper shell and rolled up futon in back.  It was a Mazda B2200, the stealth bomber in which I never got a speeding ticket, and I miss it.

When I turned 30, I made a trip to New Orleans to give my first paper and explore the region.  Many trips else where and a few years later, I was invited by some friends who happened to be from the Nambe pueblo to come and stay for a while.  I took off in my pick-up and drove out.  After a long visit, I decided to continue west, winding through Flagstaff, down to Phoenix.  I entered at night, and when I got up in the morning and looked out the window I was convinced I had died and gone to hell- the landscape looked like something out of my old Catholic school catechism, some woodcut landscape Dante had imagined.  Then I wandered west to L.A., along the whole route visiting friends and relatives.  When I headed east again I camped in my truck, but for Vegas one evening, which was enough to last this woman for a lifetime.  The north rim of the Grand Canyon was a revelation, and the blacktops out of the Kaibab into Colorado are burned into my soul. I camped and followed the “million dollar highway”, then the back roads down into the high plains of Kansas, always behind a string of huge thunderstorms.  I regret not being able to do that again, but keep saying I will soon. Husband is an excellent wing-man and CAN read a map, and I miss the days when we traveled together to the upper Midwest, out to Colorado, down to Georgia, and other points U.S.  Our eldest even remembers hotel rooms, cabins, and tents, saying,“Let’s go somewhere” from time to time, spinning out tales about when we traveled with him.

The train horn sounds again, and I feel the call to get up, to go. But it is late, one of our tiny guys has the flu, and the house needs to be cleaned in order to remove the small blue engines from the floor to avoid the sure pain they will cause if I step on them.  Money is tight, and I console myself with the knowledge of a conference trip in the near future. “Goodbye” I find myself whispering to the train.  Good night moon, bye bye train, some other time.  These feet will have to itch just a little while longer.

 

If it seems too good to be true. . .

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is; or never mistake the opinion of the many for good sense, taste, or judgment.

First, let me say that I love my husband.  Second, he is human.  He does bone-headed things like we all do.  Trying to tape the vacuum cleaner back together once it had been bounced down the stairs (ah parenthood), then acting like it still worked (instead of spewing grit out of every crack and orifice it now had) was pure denial.  So when I in good faith tried to use it in the bedroom, then put the kids down for a nap- surprise!  gritty bed.  The other vacuum is forty years old, and wheezes like an old man with emphasema but Husband won’t get rid of it.  The Hoover upright is 15 years old and works about as well as I do with a mouth full of straws.  The low boy that got bounced, well, is absolute refuse now.  I put my foot down and said, “I’m going to Costco with Dad to get a vacuum.”

So I took my over-seventy year old father for his first trip to Costco.  I had not been since I got our membership this past summer.  All the parents in the play-group looked at me stunned last week when I said I got our membership after four years of not having one, because we were not that impressed the first time.  “Oh I just love Costco,” several people piped up, listing all the things they bought.  Well, I had gotten the damned membership and needed that vacuum, so I decided to go explore and took Dad along. 

Hence, the Visit.  Here is what I learned:

1. When one gets a big wholesale type club membership, one expects to pay less for items.  These “clubs” even market themselves this way.  While walking around with Dad, we noted that almost every durable good we saw was a former model of that item–something that was not produced anymore, or something we knew from experience we could get cheaper elsewhere (on the internet or in another store).  Also noted: DVD’s?  $18.99 for a film I just got for $11.99 on Amazon?  Come on!!  OOOh, an 80 gig Ipod Classic for $249?  Oh my, I can get it on Apple’s web site for that- and engraved for free!

2.  I walked around and did the math in my head (call me a geek, I can take it) for every grocery item I was considering and found that I could get it significantly cheaper elsewhere in town, especially when it was on sale (such as garbage bags).  Bigger is not better, or cheaper.

3.  Variety in selection has no meaning here.  Think Big Lots with only two types of labels.  The Costco label dominates, and the only other brand available (it is never the same across objects) is often some strange name, and in a size that is utterly useless unless you run a large foster home.

4.  As all the “I hate Costco” web sites point out, the other shoppers do tend to be of two types: over-weight poor folks who think they are getting a deal, and thin, upwardly mobile types who are buying for a business or party.  I guess we were the odd “gawkers”, a small minority of people who go in, stay away for years, go back once, then never again.

5.  Costco has little cubicles when one exits, wherein the company is trying to save money by expanding their on-line ordering system.  Let me get this straight:  the selection is still minimal, the prices still laughable, and you want me to buy sight unseen?  I don’t need a membership for that.  I can do better in the same style on the Internet already.

6.  At check out, the clerks are rude.  I am not alone in noticing this, so I mention it.  “We don’t take Visa”,  sneer.  Ok, so I didn’t read the fine print you snot, here’s your cash- and I am never coming back.  Who won’t take Visa now days?  That’s like saying “We take Diners Club but nothing else”.

7.  Bring your own bags, or grab a barely functional used box out of the bin at check out.  Fine.  Save the earth and all that.  But at a store like this, people tend NOT to bring their own bags and watching folks try to load super-sized containers of everything into their carts, THEN into cars- it’s pathetic.

8.  Lines are long.  Long, confusing, and slow.  And there are lines when you go in so some sour faced woman can check your card, lines to pay (where they check your card again- what, did I rip my mask off like some cut rate Batman villain and say “AH HA!  Fooled you!” between the mayo and the weenies?), and lines to exit- where a different sour faced person compares your receipt to your cart.  On our visit, the exit monitor managed to embarrass my cart pushing, white haired old father when, not being able to read her store’s own lingo, she harassed him about the vacuum.  When he pointed it out to her on the short list of items (five), she nodded and waved him past as if we were then free to cross the demilitarized zone into the West.  

9.  Yes, I got a vacuum.  They only had three to pick from.  A very cheap, bag style upright (49), the Infinity (a Dyson knock off) in a model no longer made (179- and I could have gotten it for 120 on line), and an older model Dyson (499).  I got the Infinity.  It works.  It is a pain to clean, and has gotten iffy reviews for less than stellar motor power, finicky performance if one does not clean it every two times (and cleaning it is a b****–this thing has more strange, flimsy, unwieldy parts than a Hugo), bad belts, and possible overheating.  Greeeaaaaaaat.  I am keeping the receipt.

10.  There seems to be no useful logic to the layout of the parking lot, or the store.  AND the geriatric sample people at the end of every other isle creep me out.  Shouldn’t they be watching grand kids, enjoying some sun, playing rummy, those sorts of things– instead of wearing rubber gloves and hair nets, looking bent and tired and trying to remember details about the snacks they are pushing?  I am sure someone, somewhere, thinks it all makes sense.  Maybe they liked playing Candy Land a lot as a kid. . .

In sum, I lost money getting a membership to this “club” because I won’t go back.  But experience is a good teacher.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  No third time.  Oh yea, what did Dad think?  His strongest rejection: the shake of the head, no words and a profound look of disgust on his face. 

What do I think is a better option?  Certainly not the mega-super-WalTarK’s dominating every ‘burg in the country.  No, I’ll take my well stocked, unbelievably well informed, kind and usefully staffed local Ace hardware right up the street and my whacky little residential, family owned grocery store right out of 1955.  When I say little, I don’t mean bodega sized.  It is a grocery store, complete with deli, fresh veg, meat department, frozen foods, the lot.  Until last month it still offered green stamps.  It has a “cheap meat” section where we get good cuts close to the sell-by date (often even the organics), and freeze them.  It has friendly cashiers.  It has amazing fried chicken (small batches, you can watch), and the best deli ham and turkey in town.  Limp vegetables and aging meats are used as much as possible by the deli for the hot meals which vary from day to day, and are sold in small portions at reasonable prices, a boon to the elderly people who frequent the store.  It carries the regular brands, and a few funky ones I can’t find anywhere else but really like (Red Rose tea, and a company that produces canned veg, using label designs circa 1964!).   Staff and customers cut out coupons and tape them to items for folks to use, and a ubiquitous hot dog cart is always just outside, the food donated by the store, run by a shifting set of charities (Boy Scout troop ## one week, the Word of Hope Thrift the next two- you get the idea).   It was built in what is still a residential area, and we can walk to it.  A Giant corp. arm called Martins invaded the other side of town this summer, but I still prefer my little store and Kroger for organics and general shopping.  Even Food Lion has good “cycle” sales (think toilet paper, freezer bags). 

All in all, I like small-ish stores that are easy to navigate, offer good prices, and which don’t require me to spend my monthly gas ration to get to them.  Call me a dinosaur.  If any investors are reading, I’d also like to open up my own old-school grocery, like the one my great-grandmother and I walked to.  It was down the block from her house and it was small, with an ornate wooden screen door, metal signs and ceiling, and a curved glass candy counter.  In addition to this sort of aesthetic, I’d like to be able to carry all local produce, as much as possible being organic.  Only open 7-7, and closed on Sundays.  I can dream can’t I? While I wait, there is always my quirky local store.  At least until the ninety-five year old owner dies. . .maybe old ideas will come back into fashion.  With gas prices and a looming recession, they might come back into necessity.

The unpopularity of kindness

 

I watched my son and his preschool group on the playground this past fall.  I saw a little boy filled with compassion, the only child who worked to not only acknowledge the tiny girl with Downs Syndrome, but to actively invite her into activites, and help her with her shoes.  His teachers commented on this at the teacher-parent meeting, and how the previous year he was known for not hesitating, running to hug any crying child and ask, “are you ok?”  He was 2.  This child, who seemed to wriggle out of the womb with a smile, who hardly ever cried, and can charm even the coldest stranger, this child who never takes a bad photo (he has even had photo development folks ask to copy his photo for their stands), I fear for him.  His greatest gift is that he has a well of instinctive compassion, and a skill for kindness.  He is a typical boy too- he competes with his brother from time to time, and has been known to recklessly throw a shoe at the cat in a moment of high enthusiasm to get her to pay attention to him.  But he feels instantly regretful, running up to her and telling her he is sorry.  I have cried at night when I have seen him earlier in the day rejected by another child, or treated with distanced curiosity by children who are not as open, enthusiastic, or kind.  He struggles with his impulsiveness and lack of focus (distractibility) to a degree that makes me fear he might be dyslexic (like his grandfather, and genetic links for dyslexia are becoming clear in research), or have attention deficit issues.  Yet at the same time he sings precisely in tune, and has lyrics memorized effortlessly.  He is altogether a normal kid, but for his outstanding ability for kindness.

I have given the notion of kindness a lot of thought in the past few weeks.  “Spontaneous/random acts of kindness” has become a hip bumper sticker, a phrase for talk show hosts to throw about; setting up the expectation that a single act gives an individual moral integrity, even authority–but the truth is, it does not.  Real kindness is not popular.  It does not make one popular, it is not profitable, it does not seek attention, nor does it offer clear long-term benefits.  There is no “sell advantage”, no advertising, that addresses real kindness.

It does not take the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, or any text to determine and instruct anyone on kindness, though they have been known to help.  I argue that our current dominant culture pressures us NOT to develop the skills of kindness, from a very young age.  When moral and religious texts are used to popularize hate and war, kindness is gone from the message.  When money, prestige, appearance, and being first- and only first- dominate all forms of media and symbolism, there is no kindness.  Token PSA’s reminding people to drive with caution, to learn to negotiate instead of fight, fall on deaf ears.  Any instinctual, social drive to be kind is quickly eradicated by fear.  Fear of failure, fear of association, fear of rejection.

My in-laws are on a trip through the Southwest right now.  In the snow with night falling, they found themselves in desolate northern New Mexico with a bad tire.  A young Latin man stopped, made sure they were o.k., and helped them fix it.  When Pops offered him money, he shook his head with a smile, thrust his hands into his pockets, and got into his car and drove away.  Enacting kindness is difficult, but accepting it can also be hard.  It can make us feel weak, vulnerable, or needy.  Accepting kindness, especially with grace and sincere thanks, even pleasure, is none of those things.

I read a recent study reporting that even very small babies had a way to intuit who was kind and who was not.  This has clear evolutionary advantages for babies, but might it also be a sign of the deep need for compassionate social interaction- that lasts until we die?  Critics of the technological revolutions of the 20th century claim the worst that has happened is that our humanity has been diminished, that we have become even less communal and more isolated, reduced to cogs in machines, or passively vegetated in front of one.  While this is certainly true to some extent, it has also offered new ways to connect to people.  It is not a balanced picture, and not in a vacuum, separate from the bigger context of what has been happening on a global scale.  We in the US have of late bought into innuring ourselves from criticism or self examination with desperate exclamations of “fight for freedom”, “we are the free world”, and lots of other catch phrases intended to salve the fears of struggling people, reduce complexity to simple ideas, and most importantly, obfuscate any ability to show self-examination or self-knowledge.  We are, as it has been said, entertaining, or “Amusing ourselves to death” (Neil Postman, Penguin, 1986). 

When we crawl out from the barrage of media, objects, and activities we immerse ourselves in, what do we have left?  Do we surface, heads above it all for a moment, and see family members?  Good and true friends?  Do we feel hope, a shifting quality about life that is not immediately tied to anything in particular, but is a force in our lives we can’t live without (Hope dies last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, Studs Terkel, New Press, 2003)? If we see or feel none of this, then it is a desolate horizon we turn from, sinking again into the obfuscating madness. 

How do I value, encourage, and nurture the ability for kindness in my son?  This thing which comes so easily to him now, and is only beginning to cost him emotionally?  How do I help him feel connected when he is inevitably rejected, when he is discouraged, and when he is lonely?  How do I remind him that accepting kindness is often one of the kindest things we can do? Who will be there for him when I am gone?

Perhaps if anyone had asked these fundamental questions early on about the children who perpetrated the Columbine massacre, it would not have happened.  It is just an idea, and the backlash can already be heard.  We don’t want to think about preventative medicines, preventative social efforts, or the what if’s that implicate us all in what we do.  We want to toss change into the pickle jar for the cancer victim at the gas station, make the donation to the United Way, wave a driver in front of us in traffic and let that suffice for kindness, and feel good about it.  We don’t want to think about these actions as less than the very baseline of action we ought to have in order to live real kindness.  We don’t want to risk that fuzzy place in the social order we fight for every day, risk being seen as weird or unacceptable, or weak.  We don’t want to ask why we fear these things, or think of them as risks at all.  Self knowledge is scary, and sticking your neck out is dangerous, right?

Who hugs the old man who waits for his free Monday breakfast outside the Co-op diner, alone and set apart from the cluster of chain smokers huddled at the other end of the walk?  Who runs up and asks the woman waiting at the bus stop if she is ok, and why is she crying?  Who helps the old couple stuck on the highway in the snow to change their tire?  Who asks the little boy playing by himself in the sand what he is doing and what he likes?  Who helps the little girl with the funny eyes struggling to put her shoes on?  And WHY AREN’T WE DISCUSSING THESE QUESTIONS?

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people

Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world

You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will live as one

–John Lennon, 1971

 

What do you do with a desiccated orange?

In my hand I hold a wizened orange.  It got lost behind a bag of cereal and the sugar jar, just under the kitchen window.  Said window, missing trim now for a year from a rehab project for which Husband has not found time to finish.  I could do it, but it was not my project.  Thus a few nights of cold dry air seeping under the window turned this lovely fruit into- what?

If I was Martha Stewart (and I am not) I would probably advise myself to “Go ahead!  dry out a couple more, hot glue them with bay leaves onto a grape vine wreath for a decorative piece on the front door”.  No offense to Martha, I admire her: the divorced mom- spurned even though she did it all like she was supposed to, jailed for fuzzy reasons, no-nonsense boss, funny, getting old with wit and style woman.  But I do not confuse the woman with the hype, the product, and the M.S. magazine reading, Oprah attending types for whom the new mothering magazine Cookie has been designed. These women I generally avoid comparison to.  You know who I am talking about- a largely affluent, white, appearance obsessed base, aged 22-55.  Living in those June Cleaveresque, strained superficialities of homes, no desiccated orange will be found. 

After 55 I think these women just get drunk, break a few dishes and emancipate themselves, shoving the magazines into the trash and going out for a walk.  At least, I hope they do.  Because we have no magazines or films or TV to tell us what they do, only our personal experiences, our own mothers.  Entertainment executives don’t think they merit attention, are off the collective cultural radar except for rare parody or soppy Lifetime snoozers.

This orange?  This once ripe fruit, bursting with sensuous scent, firm flesh and bright appeal?  No, decoration is not for this objet d’art.  I am compelled to take a knife to the hard skin, see if it still retains any smell, and sate my curiosity about what is inside.  Is it black?  Is it soft and rotted?  Or is it stringy and hard, all the moisture drawn away?  My bet is on the latter, given how much it weighs.  I could toss it into the compost heap, that big box of organic matter we started in the back yard.  Where that compost will go next year is in question.  Our lovely black walnut tree, offering such cool shade in the summer, so good at keeping down weeds, is I just found out a poisonous, selfish thing.  Easily one third of our yard is hostile to anything but grass and the off-spring of the Big Walnut.  The only stretch of yard that nurtured my crazy striped tomatoes has become another in-progress home improvement site.  So what of this orange, this possible compost?  I am not sure where it will go now.

I have been told by a young friend whose family runs a large cherry farm in Washington State that we really don’t know fruit in the U.S.  Most of the “good” fruit gets sold to Japan, and most of our fruit is so engineered, so greenly picked, that it has no flavor, no textures, no taste.  Having read Epitaph for a Peach-
four seasons on my family farm (Mas Masumoto, Harper San Francisco / Harper Collins, June 1995), I knew fruit, like many things in the U.S., had become something other than the celebrated production of the fertile, ripened ovary of a flowering plant.  When I was pregnant, the only smell that could curb my nausea was that of a fresh orange.  Oranges revive the spirit, as well as the body.  Oranges glow, and color even the most drab scene- meriting its own crayon, a very own color concept.

My mother used to put an orange every year in our Christmas “socks” (those felt creations no more useful on a foot than the plastic fruit in her table bowl to our stomachs) and we would take the oranges out on Christmas morning, thinking to ourselves “What the heck is this about?” tossing them aside.  Later when she was clearing the torn paper, broken bows, and empty boxes she would sigh as she picked the fruit up and put it back in the kitchen.  Only once did she ever tell me that as a child, she had gotten an orange every Christmas, as had her mother before her.  Oranges used to be rare, a treat every bit as wonderful to a child as candy.  In the Little House on the Prairie books, I recall the iconic scene when Laura gets an orange and is thrilled.  Now days, if I can find an organic, reasonably fresh California orange (I have given up on Florida. The state ag powers are not interested in demanding decent worker conditions, restraining pesticide use, or ever offering anything edible) I am thrilled.  Hence my guilt at discovering this sad shriveled specimen.  My sons like oranges, and I had saved this one for them, putting aside my greed.  It silently slipped away, and was forgotten.

Excess at Christmas is more than just the toys, the noise, the lights and general public pandemonium.  It is as simple as having access to fruit everyday, even if it is not the best fruit, and forgetting it is there.  Once forgotten and now found, what does one do with a desiccated orange?  Alas, poor orange! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath been eaten but a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those pips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? 

This orange, like my mother, is gone.  All that is left is the memory of the orange, the knowledge of what a good orange is.  I place the desiccated wonder on the sill to ponder further, to remind me of what is passing.  Merry Christmas, mom.  The boys will have fresh oranges in their “socks” this and every year, as often as the fruit is available to us, and I will not wait to tell them all the reasons why.  I hope I never live to see the horrors of Soylent Green or Silent Spring, and I hope one of the last scents I smell when I go to meet you is that of a fragrant, fully realized orange.