Late August, New England

For the first time in almost three weeks, I can breathe. Although the sky is still the same bleached dead-bone ivory, the temperature has finally slid from the nineties to the low seventies. I’ve opened up the apartment, which has resembled an air-conditioned mausoleum all summer. Faint breezes enter through the wrenched-open windows, and the cat and I can see beyond the drapes and shades: the magnolia, in lush leaf, alive with hectoring blue jays and squirrels leaping into the rhododendron and scrabbling to my upstairs neighbors’ porch to sneak a few seeds from their bird feeders.

I hate to complain about my “First World problems.” Those of us (whose parents could afford “higher” education for us, so that we now work for a good salary) in the so-called developed world live with the irony, and the guilt, that our nations and their shitty systems created and exacerbated global climate change. But/ and we can still afford the mitigation that enables us to survive and continue working (often at jobs where we do nothing truly useful): better food, clean water, air conditioning, family swimming pools or access to institutions that have them, cars, airline flights, vacations wherever we like.

And the poor, in the United States and all over the world? Some are able to steal a few seeds here and there; many are caught and sent to prison for it. They swelter, suffer, and die in the extreme heat (hurricanes, floods, wildfires…). Until the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan became president of the U.S. (and Margaret Thatcher the prime minister of the United Kingdom), my country’s government at least paid lip service to eradicating poverty, and for a time poured money into programs to help educate, feed, and house its citizens. But then the neoliberals moved in, and now the neo-Nazis have been unleashed.

I began my musings by saying I can finally breathe, but I’ve realized that’s a lie: it’s obvious that I’ve been holding my breath since election night 2016, and I don’t expect full respiration again for any of us on this planet. I feel bad about being so bleak, but extinction depresses me.

 

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Why I went to Christa’s funeral

Yesterday I attended the funeral of someone I didn’t know.  Before you accuse me of auditioning for some new production of Harold and Maude:  The Musical, I’ll attempt to explain.

A combination of factors in the past 20 years – being in a relationship for seven years with a gender-nonconforming person, exploring my own non-cis gender identity, meeting plenty of folks under the broad lesbian/queer/bisexual/trans/gay/intersex umbrella, and living for more than a decade in a state and city where it’s fairly safe to be open as someone who fits into one or more of those categories – has led to my having a friendship with one trans woman and acquaintance-hood with a couple dozen trans people and their partners.

Horrifically, the all-too-frequent murder of trans women hit home for us the first week in January:  the creator of the Miss Trans New England Pageant, Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, was killed by her husband in their home in North Adams, Massachusetts.  I met Christa only once, fleetingly, on Pride Day a few years ago when she and a couple of other trans women needed to use the bathroom in the building where I work.  Some floors of the building have retail shops and eateries, and thus it’s a bit of a town square.  I’d stopped into my office for something; I walked by the bathrooms and let them in with my key.  (Ironically, these are among the few non-gender-marked restrooms in the downtown area, but because of vandalism and someone dying of an overdose, management has made them available to employees only.)

Having barely met Christa, I felt strange about going to her memorial service – but as soon as I’d finished reading a long, comprehensive (and unfortunately, repetitive and disorganized) article in the local newspaper about her life and death, I knew I’d attend.  I immediately recognized that her funeral was a political event.  By this I don’t mean that I planned to show up with picket signs, ready to chant slogans with her loved ones.

From what I’ve gathered, Christa was not a “political” person in the sense I use that term – someone who’s involved in grassroots and/ or electoral organizing.  But plenty of us, by virtue of existing as who we are and insisting that we have the right to be that person in a public way, are political.  At this point, especially in this country but also in many, many others, being an out trans person is political, whether we like it or not.  Trans folks can’t even go to the freakin’ bathroom in peace in the United States, without Right wingnuts turning it into a problem – it’s insane, and it’s political.

As some of the speakers at Christa’s January 27 service said, not everyone finds beauty pageants appealing; over the decades, they’ve been a point of contention for those of us feminists who question emphasizing women’s physical appearance rather than our brains and strength.  But Christa clearly fought a long, hard battle to be the woman she was, and her pageants and pride marches helped many other trans people, including people of color, to not only come out of their closets, but also to publicly, proudly celebrate who they were with dignity.  She obtained great venues and media coverage for her events; she educated many cis-gender (non-trans) folks, creating allies; she gave trans people strength and a voice.

I wanted to honor that work, and also support an embattled community, especially given the Destroyer-in-Chief in the White House.  T-rump and his Repugnican puppeteers would be only too glad to, at the very least, shove every trans and queer person back into the closet.  I’m not even going to imagine what some would like to do to us.  Horribly, I don’t need to imagine – it happened to Christa, brutally killed by the last man she married.

I needed to be at that memorial service to say to my friends, I’m sorry you lost y/our sister; I’m sorry you and we have to go through this all the fucking time.  To say that I too am so incredibly tired and sad and afraid when I hear and read about yet another trans woman – another woman – who’s been murdered by her male partner.  That I too have lived through bullying simply for being who I am, that I’ve felt the crushing grief of losing someone unexpectedly, a loved one who was far too young to die.  I can’t take away the sorrow and pain, but I can share it with you.

Sending love to all of those who loved Christa.  May there be no more murders.

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On life and death in a shithole country: Rest in power, Ron Linville

Note:  As the current president-select has brought us to new lows in public vulgarity, I’ve chosen to follow much of the corporate media in using a word in my headline that I ordinarily utter only in my own home (but haven’t much since I was young and dumb).

I’m grappling simultaneously with a couple of enormous challenges.  In the United States of America, we’re all doing that these days, regardless of which presidential candidate we voted for – or were prevented from voting by new Jim Crow laws or immigration status, or chose not to vote because of our political beliefs or a hopeless feeling that our vote would make no discernable difference.  Sadly, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of the ill-informed white people who voted for that Velveeta-colored, cheese-brained idiot will suffer mightily when the Repugnicans who pull his strings dismantle the entire social security system that keeps them alive and well.

Besides the personal-political struggle to keep fighting this national criminal insanity, I’m grieving the death of an old friend and ex-lover.  He died of depression, the slow and therefore excruciating way – I’m convinced that a successful suicide attempt, although more painful for the victim’s family and friends, is a hell of a lot easier way to end your life than through passive neglect of your health.

I have much, much more to say about Ron and the connections between his personal tragedy and our national and international one, but I’m trying to simply get something down on paper or laptop, to start to speak.  I don’t want such a caring human, such a good man, to be forgotten.

A week ago when I learned that Ron had died, I called a friend in our hometown and ranted.  Goddess only knows what I said in my brand-new grief, but she listened carefully, patiently as I talked about his health problems.

At one point she responded, “And of course he had no medical team helping him!”  I knew that this was as much a political comment on the horrific state of our national health “system” as on Ron’s personal needs.  Later in the day, when I recalled my friend’s comment, I went on another rant, to myself:  “ ‘Medical team’?!  Where does she think we are, Cuba?!”

Because we live in a shithole country, where damn few of those in power give a shit if poor people, those with chronic illness, and people of color die.  It was always obvious to those groups, and now we sheltered, middle-class white folks can see it more clearly each day, in every tweet from the Shithole-in-Chief and every comment and legislative move and federal appointment by his shithole puppeteers.

More to come, because I will not go gently into that good night.  Ron did, and that is a tragedy.

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Dear young(er) trans people

I feel as if I owe you all an apology.  Maybe I don’t; perhaps it’s all just a big misunderstanding based on looking.  I have been looking at you, and I’ll never say I’m sorry for that.  But I know I gaze too long, and the wrong way; I’m one of those middle-aged white people who ends up staring even though she – they, I – don’t mean to.

Some trans folks used to call it clocking, or reading; one might call it gawking, although I always avert my eyes just before it gets to that point.  It’s subtle, but oh so obvious to those of us who’re good at reading gazes, those who grew up different.  I learned that way of reading when I was far too young, and by the time I was an older teenager, I courted those stares, invited them, egged them on, dared the gawkers to say something critical to my queer punk rock friends and me when we were out in public blatantly being who we were.

I still get those looks sometimes, usually from cisgender women when I least expect it – at the little theater that shows independent films in one of our area college towns, when I’m locking up my bike outside our not-quite-suburban mall.  It always catches me by surprise, because I’m minding my own business, and this area always feels so ordinary, so safe.  We live in a small college town in a progressive part of a so-called blue state in a region that’s known for its independence and community, its liberal views and values.

I hate being stared at as if the observer finds something wrong with me, and I’m sorry if I’ve ever given you that impression.  I’m sure we’re all tired of that cliché about people disliking in others what they hate about themselves, but there’s truth in every saying before it turns trite from overuse.  Anyone who’s paid attention in the United States in the past decade or three has seen the ridiculous number of right-wing male politicians and preachers who’ve made a career of publicly attacking those of us who aren’t cisgender heterosexuals, while simultaneously patronizing rent boys or playing with penises in tea rooms.

I’m loathe to confess to any commonalities with these ugly politicos, but I have to admit that I stare because I’m fascinated by gender-nonconforming folks who are more public about it than I.  Another cliché:  Some of my best friends are trans.  Not literally true, but my staring belies my non-neophyte knowledge.  The first time I understood that I wasn’t gender conforming, I was eight or nine years old.  I had my first trans friends in high school, decades ago; I met my first transsexual woman acquaintance in a (mostly) lesbian social group in 1995, which was around the time I heard and saw my first out trans woman public speaker, activist and attorney Phyllis Frye, give a talk at my university.  The idea of trans people was so new to the mainstream U.S. then, she made a point of walking around the room and touching each member of the small audience – shaking our hands, patting our shoulders.  I felt entirely self-conscious about trying not to appear self-conscious to her.

More than 20 years later, I’ve done my homework – for a while I was reading so many memoirs by trans people, I became the go-to person in my workplaces for Trans 101 questions (not that any cis co-workers ever asked, but that’s another blog post).  I have a gender nonconforming ex (they and I were in a relationship for seven years and lived together for five), many trans acquaintances, and one trans friend.  When I visit the city where she lives now, we get together for Salvadoran Mexican food and talk about our exes, our jobs, our passions – in short, she’s my friend, not my trans friend.

But my own gender identity and how I negotiate it (or perform it, to use a perhaps outdated, perhaps too academic, term) in the world – that’s a whole different ball of string.  In middle age, I’m still tangling in my head with gender, still in the process of figuring out how I can be who I am without those around me making assumptions based on external appearance:  how I look, where I live, with whom I spend time, and what I’m wearing on any given day.  What feels comfortable to me – no makeup, short hair and nails, loose natural-fiber clothing in primary colors – adds up to what my friends and I used to call WISS, Women in Sensible Shoes, and spells “Noho lesbo” where we live.

But that’s not who I am, and it’s safe to say that others make as many assumptions about me as they do about you, all based only on what we can perceive with our senses.  I was bullied as a child for being gender nonconforming, I’ve identified as bisexual since I was in high school, and as an adult my gender and affectional/ sexual attractions have been quite fluid.  I’ve been through periods of identifying as a lesbian and as a gay man, and finally settled a few years ago on the label girlfag as the closest description of who I am.  I fear that some of you have thought I was making fun of you when I’ve said that my gender is “garden gnome,” but those little guys, with their bellies, caps, and beards, have come the closest visually to embodying the way I feel inside.

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Gnome man is an island…  (Photo by Springbyker.)

(And I’m not an “old-school” lesbian pissed off because the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was killed by crazy transsexuals.  The situation was a hell of a lot more complicated than that, and those who’ve studied and written about the feminist music movement, notably women’s history professor Bonnie J. Morris, agree that a number of factors, including increased civil rights for LGBTQ people and the aging of the music festivals’ organizers and fans, have helped bring that fascinating era to a close.)

This may sound like bullshit, but I’m staring at you because you’re beautiful to me.  As someone who grew into adulthood watching the public doors of sexual and gender identity, fluidity, and play stretch from Elton John and David Bowie to Boy George, Annie Lennox, and a host of British synthesizer band members wearing eye makeup – and then slam shut abruptly with the rise of the right-wing Republicans in England and the U.S. – I see hope in you and an entire younger generation that supports you.  You remind me of my friends and me when we were young, dancing at grungy gay bars and getting into sexy, gender-bending costume every weekend for the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  But you have much more room to be who you are than we did, many fewer reasons to hide, and a new generation of parents who’re learning how to celebrate who you truly are instead of trying to crush the life out of you.

So please forgive my long looks, as they’re partly looks of longing.  I’m admiring your style – your makeup and nails, your tattoos, your crew cut or ponytail, your butch shirt or your cute dress.  I’m loving your courage.  I’m cheering you on.  And right now I’m sitting in my living room with my laptop, my throat tight, thinking of all that we suffer and survive, all of our resilience and fabulousness in this deteriorating nation of ours that values us less and less each day.

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Why would we want a stupid president?

Since the disaster that is the United States’ 2016 presidential election, I’ve become certain that the revulsion on the Left toward The President Who Shall Not Be Named is based nearly as much on disgust at his utter stupidity as in horror over his politics, policies, and actions and those of his cronies and handlers.  Of course, they’re all of a piece – ignorance and complete disregard for human life and the planet’s well-being go hand in hand.  But I think it’s particularly difficult for those of us with education at the four-year college level or beyond, or the equivalent in reading and other self-education, to stomach having an idiot in the White House.

I’ve heard the sentiment that the holder of the highest (s)elected office in the land should be “relatable” (to use current, cringe-inducing parlance) from members of my own family whose post-high-school education includes trade school or adult-ed courses, but nothing in the liberal arts.  My mother and stepfather, who were raised in working-class families in Western New York, voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and were clearly supporters.  She and my dad (her first husband) had done their best to avoid their parents’ racism, raising us in the liberal manner of the day, and I’ve no doubt she thought it great progress that U.S. voters finally put a Black man into the White House, twice.

But my mom told me at some point during Obama’s presidency that she found him a bit off-putting – “I don’t know, it’s almost as if he’s too smart for us or something.”  I was taken aback, but then later recalled the phone conversation when I was working on my master’s degree in creative writing years ago, when she told me, “J. and I don’t even understand what you’re saying in your letters sometimes.”  She meant the structure, not the content – I used correct grammar, which confused her.

My mother’s reaction to Barack Obama raises the question of whether we should be able to “relate to” the president of our nation because he is like us.  I’m sure this is a debate that began with George Washington, but it took its current form in the television era – arguably beginning during the 1960 presidential debates, when Richard Nixon’s sweaty, shifty, tense demeanor didn’t stand a chance against John F. Kennedy’s handsome, youthful poise.  My own question:  why in the world would we want a president who’s as ignorant – or as stupid – as we are?  I’m sure that at this point, six weeks after the coronation of Emperor Agent Orange, clever people have created thousands of online memes like the social media comments I’ve seen recently:  “T-rump’s experience in business qualifies him to be president!  Gosh, I’ve studied literature – I think I’ll go perform some brain surgery now!”

Our city’s newspaper, which serves a small but mostly highly educated slice of New England, recently sent a reporter out to the local diners to find and interview supporters of Velveeta Mussolini about their opinions on his first month in office.  Those who spoke on the record uttered the usual ignorant platitudes.  “I think that Mr. Trump has done well because he is so different,” one said. “He is a different animal from the political animals that have come in and having just a background in politics, politics, politics.  He’s been a businessman.”

It’s true that having a state governorship and a Rhodes Scholarship (Bill Clinton) or a seat in the U.S. Senate and term as president of the Harvard Law Review (Barack Obama) on one’s résumé doesn’t necessarily qualify one for the presidency of the United States.  But surely having been secretary of state, a senator, and a president’s spouse (Hillary Clinton) makes one more qualified than, oh, just about anyone who’s ever run for the office.  (For the record, I was and am more of a supporter of Bernie Sanders than anyone else who ran.)

I certainly agree that having a wider variety of occupations represented among our representatives wouldn’t hurt, whether we’re talking about the local school board or the U.S. Congress.  But Humpty Trumpty a successful business owner?  His failures in this realm are legion, as are his declared bankruptcies and the small-business owners he’s stiffed.  And let’s not forget the people in Scotland who’ve had their land and water supply stolen so Hair Furor can suck up hundreds of millions of gallons of water to irrigate his golf courses, and the ex-wife (wives?) he’s raped.

I could go on all day, but other journalists and writers have covered this territory effectively.  I’ll cut to a small realization I had this week about arts events which is related to what I want in the president of the United States.  When I first moved to my current city, I was thrilled that the local colleges and arts organizations brought so many offerings to the area.  On any given night between September and April, I had to choose between attending a talk, a concert, a play, a reading, a gallery exhibit opening, or several of each.  Now, more than a decade later, I feel less like trekking across town or across the river to another town to see and hear a performer who may appeal more to post-adolescents than to someone my age.  A few days ago I got it:  I want to devote my limited time and energy to artists who are much better than I am, to those who are doing something that I can never do, who are being someone and something I can never be.

That is what I want in the president of my country, and I’m appalled that millions of other voters either don’t care that this guy is a moron, or are too ignorant to understand that he is.  If this makes me a “social justice warrior,” as the Right seems to be calling us now, fine.  Tragically, with billionaire Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, it’s highly unlikely that the public schools of this nation will be teaching critical thinking skills anytime soon – in fact, it’s far more likely that global climate change will flatten every school in out-of-season tornados.

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Overrated bravery: what looks courageous may not be at all

Since I was 27 and left home on my first solo backpacking trek across the United States, friends and acquaintances have been telling me I’m “brave.”  The volume of such comments increased enormously seven years ago, when I first decided to get on an airplane and visit Argentina by myself for 10 days.  I suppose it does take a bit of backbone for a lone woman to travel 5,500 miles, to a country where she knows no one and doesn’t have the greatest facility with the language even after decades of spotty Spanish study.

But this isn’t the big deal it used to be – international travel for women is so common now, I’m surprised to find entire websites dedicated to the topic.  Of course women traveling alone are subject to harassment and even rape, and we women and LGBTQ folks share information to keep ourselves secure and sane on the road.  My first solo journey to South America was lonely, although I never felt unsafe anywhere, and now when I visit Buenos Aires I feel like a regular at my favorite bed and breakfast and have travel buddies to hang out with, visiting the Sunday craft fairs and the traditional tango milongas.

The most recent compliments on my travel courage came from my wonderful upstairs neighbor friends and landlords, a married heterosexual couple.  They could not wrap their heads around why I was going to Easton Mountain, a Radical Faerie retreat for gay men, on Labor Day weekend.  Well, I was invited – along with any other person who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer – and it looked like a fun opportunity for growth and something I needed to do for myself.  (I’ll save the details for another blog post.)

Bravery is in the eye of the beholder.  I was raised in a pretty traditional white, North American nuclear family, with a mother who suffered from anxiety and depression and a father who had his own affective disorders, but did what was necessary to make a living that would support a wife and two kids.  Until I was in high school, my mom worked at home, raising my younger brother and me and keeping our house nearly spotless.  My dad’s career offered occasional travel in the United States, and our family took annual summer vacations to nearby cities and rural areas, never going farther from our home in the northeast than Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Ontario (in those days, U.S. citizens didn’t need a passport to travel to Canada, and crossing the border in Niagara Falls was a snap for white heteros with children).  My mother was afraid to go anywhere by herself, and seemed to feel protected in our lower-middle-class suburban milieu.  When my father left her after 25 years of courting and marriage, one of Mom’s brave acts was flying on a regional airline to visit my great-aunt on Long Island for a long weekend.

Granted, flying anywhere was less common three decades ago than it is now.  But after watching my mother tripped up and trapped by anxiety, seeing my father off to work each morning in his suit and tie, surrounded by nuclear families like ours in poorly made tract houses in a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs, all I wanted was to escape.  My greatest dread in life was ending up like her.  In fact, it’s entirely possible that that fear fuels my travels as much as restlessness, curiosity, or a need for adventure does.  Although I must admit that visiting Buenos Aires six times in five years is my own version of the cul-de-sac.  We all have our safe harbors.

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A danger in tree hugging

Yesterday I hugged a tree and it bit back.

It was one of the tens of thousands of dead and dying hemlocks in our region, but I didn’t look up to see what species it was before I flung my arms around its trunk.  My tree embracing is always spontaneous, which usually isn’t a problem, but this particular specimen had some tiny, nasty spines on its bark.  One lodged itself in my index finger and irritated the skin all afternoon, reminding me of something I’ve been meaning to ask local government officials:  what are you going to do about all these dying hemlocks?

The hemlocks have been besieged by the woolly adelgid, a tiny insect similar to an aphid that literally sucks the life out of the trees and can kill a healthy hemlock in three years. As it has high shade tolerance and likes moist woodlands, creek sides, and canyons, the Eastern hemlock is the dominant tree along many popular trails in this area.  I love such spots, too, but I’ve begun to wonder whether my hiking buddies are in as much denial about the hemlock carnage as all of us seem to be about global climate change – thinking that if we keep our gaze down at the forest floor instead of looking up at the larger picture, we may be able to pretend for another year or two that the situation isn’t dire.

But even that tactic is failing now.  Yesterday as I paid attention to the ground so I wouldn’t trip on rocky stretches, I noticed that in spots the path was slick with brown, fallen hemlock needles.  The rotting ones cushioned our steps comfortingly, yet simultaneously made me mourn all those gorgeous lost trees.  I wondered what will happen when the dozens of fallen hemlocks turn into hundreds – with almost no other standing trees to stop them, will they slide from the steep ridge into the river, floating downstream and eventually into Long Island Sound?  With no roots to anchor the soil, will entire hillsides wash into our local brooks and rivers?  How long will it take successor species to establish themselves?

Perhaps in stabbing me, that dying tree was urging me to sound the alarm.  Yet another wake-up call from a wild world we’re losing so rapidly, I don’t know whether to spend all my free time in it, admiring and celebrating, or hide indoors to grieve.

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Woolly adelgid information: http://www3.amherst.edu/~ccsp01/HemlockAdelgid.html

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On being interested in too many things

When I was in high school, a friend of mine (I’ll call him Todd, because that was, and presumably still is, his name) would call me at least once a week and say, “What’s up? I’m bored.”

Even at that age, I could barely fathom that condition. In our classes, sure; on the school buses we had to ride from our dreary suburbs carved out of the cornfields to our ugly, sprawling, rural high school; at some event or other our parents or teachers forced us to attend. But in our free time, after homework was done? How could I be bored when I had so much to read? My mother had been taking my younger brother and me to the public libraries in our town and the one next door since we’d moved to that ’burb when I was nine and he was six, and I never failed to emerge with a stack of books so tall I could barely carry it. Contemporary young adult novels, word play and puzzles, biographies of rock musicians – I loved it all, and I kept so many books on the coffee table, I drove my mom crazy when she tried to clean house: “Can’t you keep those in your room, and leave one down here on the table?”

“But I’m reading all of them!”

Who had time to be bored? When I grew tired of reading, I had my stereo and handful of records. I’d discovered the Beatles in junior high and was hooked on their hooks and harmonies and innovations, on John Lennon’s bad-boy growl and Paul McCartney’s Liverpool dance hall croon. And in the evenings some or all of our nuclear family gathered around our only TV, a good-sized color set at the narrow end of the 9-by-12 family room, and watched the endless string of Norman Lear situation comedies or M*A*S*H, Mom not-so-secretly drooling over Alan Alda’s Hawkeye character, Dad identifying with him. And we could enjoy the outdoors – by the time I hit high school, I no longer played with other kids, climbing the huge maple trees between the disused farm pastures behind our house, but occasionally I still sat in a lawn chair beneath the giant birch to read my latest copy of Rolling Stone.

Because I couldn’t fathom his feeling, Todd’s and my conversations soon became ritualized: “Hi! What’re you doing? I’m bored.”

“How can you be bored? Go read a book!”

“I hate reading,” Todd inevitably replied. At the time I considered this laziness, even a moral failing; fairly recently I realized he probably had dyslexia or another learning disability. In the era before social networking, we lost touch, then hung out a few times when I was home from grad school working on a master’s in creative writing and he’d finished an associate’s degree in accounting at the local community college and was transitioning from waiter in an intimate, white-tablecloth restaurant to a bookkeeper day job.

We’ve lost touch again, probably permanently, but I think of Todd every time I contemplate how inundated I feel. I’m now middle-aged, and the only times I’m bored are when I drive and when I’ve elected to attend a poetry or prose reading in a small auditorium and discovered that the writer’s work isn’t my cup o’ tea and it’s impossible to leave the venue without looking like a mannerless ass. Outside the workplace, I very seldom have to deal with tedium, because so much interests me. Not only has this not changed since I was a child, it’s gotten worse (or better?). I thought I had a lot to read when I was a young teenager – I couldn’t have imagined what would be available decades later. The offerings have grown exponentially: the personal computer and the internet were invented; I attended college and 2½ years of graduate school in liberal arts; and as an adult, I returned to the Spanish studies I began in high school.

What’s available online, from captions on clickbait cat pictures to newspapers from all over the world to academic journals, feels nearly unlimited. And now that I can read decently in Spanish, I feel even more inundated. Despite my high school and college instructors’ best attempts to kill it, my interest in literature, history, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, architecture, spirituality, and especially Latin American studies has grown enormously over the decades, and it only recently dawned on me that I’ll never have enough years to read all I want to. My undergraduate studies in journalism were perhaps what turned me into a generalist – I have a layperson’s understanding of many subjects. At this point, it’s a chicken-and-egg question: Did studying journalism get me interested in a variety of topics, or did being interested in many things as a child make me want to learn newswriting so I could share information with others?

In any case, I try to see my myriad interests as a blessing instead of a curse; these days, friends who feel similarly and I have conversations like this:

“Well, better overwhelmed than bored, I guess.”

“Yeah, I’d hate to be one of those people who does nothing but lie on the couch watching TV!”

And then we return to our day jobs, our 4,477 personal email messages (yes, that’s a real figure, from only three email folders of mine), our several writing/ translation/ publishing projects, our lists of hundreds of ideas for other projects, our homes, partners, spouses, kids, pets… however cluttered and stuffed and messy our days, we keep moving. Years ago when one of my friends was married and she and her husband had a young daughter and were working full-time, she used to write in her emails, “Our lives are very full.” I always thought that was the best way to say it.

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Global climate change and the Dried-Up Waterfalls of the Berkshires Tour

On Labor Day weekend, a friend who lives up the road and I set off on a Berkshires adventure, fortified with old media – Joseph Bushee Jr.’s Waterfalls of Western Massachusetts guide, and an atlas of the same territory – and newer technology – 2 cell phones and a GPS. We were wandering with a purpose, to find a short- to medium-length hike leading to or past a decent-sized waterfall – but one neither had visited before, and outside our usual stomping grounds.

Normally this isn’t difficult in this part of the universe, but neither of us has the most spectacular sense of direction, and Bushee’s instructions weren’t always easy to follow, particularly in towns that tend to have several meandering country roads with similar or even identical names. A good chunk of our conversation for a couple of hours went along these lines: “This says Mill River Road, but the sign says River Road – well, it’s off Main Road, heading south, so this must be it…”

But getting lost and having to double back wasn’t the most distressing aspect of our meandering. After missing one of the book’s roadside cascades three times, we realized we were fine observers, but there was almost nothing to see: the waterfalls had all but ceased flowing after yet another drought-slammed season. Creeks had turned to a handful of puddles among the stones, pond levels had dropped, waterlilies were stuck in the muck.

I found it disheartening, but recalled all that I’d read this summer about the enormous wildfires raging in Washington, California, and parts of Mexico, and I felt guilty for fretting about a few dried-up brooks. Still, it’s all connected to what our species is doing to the planet, and that is truly, unbearably depressing. So, like typical humans, we hopped back into our car and drove to the closest city of any size to eat dinner and forget what we’d just been unable to see.

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Who makes your paper bags? Who knows?

About five years ago I became captivated by the names on the bottoms of brown paper bags and subsequently wrote a post in which I imagined the difficult lives of those who assembled them. (See: https://springbyker.wordpress.com/2011/03/04/who-makes-your-paper-bags/) To my surprise, it became my most popular post, and after a couple of years I began receiving posted comments from current and former employees of Duro Manufacturing, mostly at the Elizabeth, N.J. plant that supplied bags to merchants in the Northeast, where I live.

My imaginings about the manufacturing process and work conditions were inaccurate, as an employee with the screen name Bagguette commented a year ago: “The machines normally put out about 500 bags a minute, so that ‘gluing’ is from a nozzles [sic] steadily applying paste to the paper as it runs through the machine. […] The most work a bagmaker does is stack the pallets with the bags after they come out, and constantly make sure the machine is putting everything (ink, paste) in the right place.”

Bagguette and another reader, Whitfield, wrote that the bags are made by high-speed machines monitored by human operators, something that would’ve been obvious to me had I thought more about it – clearly there was no Santa’s Workshop with elves sitting at little benches, folding and applying glue to paper bags. Several Duro employees at one time or another agreed that the employees were hard-working and dedicated; as one, Alex, put it, “it takes a lot more effort and more people then you think to make your paper bag colection [sic]”.

Whitfield and Bagguette disagreed a bit on working conditions; Whitfield called them “unsafe and stressful,” while Bagguette harangued me:

“Oh please with the downtrodden worker bit. […] This isn’t a bad job for working class manufacturing. I make about the same or more than people who go into other jobs in factories or hospitals that require a lot more training and less of a chance of hiring, and especially more than restaurant servers and bartenders I’ve known who laughed at the description of being a paper bag maker. Meanwhile I watch people in shipbuilding and steel mills and chemical factories get laid off while I haven’t missed a paycheck in nine years. I can also go a whole workday without having a conversation with another person, and considering other jobs I’ve had before this and that I’m qualified for […], that is a very big advantage. It’s a no-nonsense job not trying to stick people on Facebook pages or have potluck Christmas parties or any of that stuff that just makes work really aggravating. I clock out and don’t have to think about work until I go back and clock in.

“Next time do some research. […] I’d much rather have my ‘dead-end’ machine operator job fighting a machine than your average middle management job where people get a fancy title, a ton of ridiculous responsibilities like supervising idiots or cleaning the coffeemaker, and still only make in the $20-30,000 range while I make well more than that for much less of a hassle.”

I felt a little embarrassed when I read her comments – she and I probably earned a comparable wage, and I thought once again about how much “nonsense” I’ve put up with in various white-collar jobs over the years (and yes, I do have to clean the coffeemaker in my current job. “Supervising idiots” still feels mean, though.)

However, Bagguette and her New Jersey co-workers may be under new management. According to Whitfield, “The plant manager was brought in from the closed Virginia plant to dismantle the Elizabeth [N.J.] plant. […] If you check Duro history, you’ll find upper management changes constantly and Elizabeth suffers.” According to the bag codes Whitfield wrote about, the factory is still open, but the brown bags reflect the latest change. The simple Duro logo has been updated with a stylized S shape surrounding the brand name; several logos tout the bag’s green credentials, from a tiny frog inside a Rainforest Alliance Certified badge to the chasing-arrows symbol; and the manufacturer is now identified as NOVOLEX/ Duro Bag. All that’s remained the same is the manufacturing code, and the machine operator’s name has vanished.

According to an online industry newsletter of the Association of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators, a multinational corporation is Bagguette’s new boss. As usual with international mergers and acquisitions, it’s hard for a layperson to even keep track of the management chain. Apparently NOVOLEX merged with Packaging Dynamics, which had purchased Duro in 2014 – no, wait; some entity called Wind Point Partners bought NOVOLEX, and the whole thing is worth nearly $2 billion.

“Packaging Dynamics, which is owned by funds managed by Kohlberg & Co., manufactures a broad portfolio of flexible, paper-based food packaging products including specialty bags, specialty sheets and wraps, interfolded tissue, pan liners, and freezer/ butcher paper products, as well as specialty laminated foil products.”

So the company that owns the company that owns Duro – I think – is owned by “funds managed by” another company. With a chain like that, good luck finding anyone who gives a damn about an individual worker in the industrial heart of New Jersey. So, Bagguette, even if I wasn’t quite accurate about your take-home pay, I still stand by the first sentence of my original blog post: “Sometimes I’m reminded of the anonymity of jobs on the bottom of the wage and respect scale.” Now we don’t even get to read your name to remind us that a human being helped create that bag that holds our bread.

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