Journal of the plague year, Day 79: Changing clothes

This weekend, traditionally the start of the warm season in the northern U.S., I’m engaging in an annual ritual I used to enjoy:  putting away the winter clothes and getting out the summer ones.  But this time around, it feels like another chore I loathe – scrubbing floors, polishing windows, cleaning the cat’s litterbox.

Yesterday I whined about it to a friend – how boring it was, how it felt as if I’d just boxed up the damned winter clothes and put them into the basement, how sick I was of doing the same effing thing over and over and…  He responded with a platitude about the cyclical nature of life, to which I replied with some version of, “Yeah, I know…” and shut my mouth.  I could not figure out why the task was driving me crazy, when normally I put on some music, sing along, dance a bit, and get it done as quickly as I can.

I knew that my reluctance, my sour mood, had something to do with the pandemic we’re all trying to survive.  It was only this morning, day 2 of the Moving the Clothes Project, that I understood:  the pleasure’s in my head, reliving the past and imagining the future, not in the chore itself.  In a normal year, I say goodbye to my fall and winter shirts and corduroys with cheerful memories of Christmas and New Year’s Eve visits, snowshoe walks with my women’s outdoor recreation club, a compliment from a co-worker about that blouse with the snowflake pattern…

But my winter travel plans were upended and my paid work’s been sporadic (see March 17 blog post).  Not even 3 weeks after I’d returned to work after helping to settle my injured mother into a nursing rehab facility, the owners and managers of the mixed-use building in which my office is located closed because of the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines to prevent coronavirus spread.  As most of the building houses retail and food businesses, this was necessary.  I’ve been grateful to keep my part-time job and be able to work at home on a good laptop in a spacious apartment with a huge backyard.

Back to clothing:  Even more than cheery memories of wearing comfy cotton sweaters with loved ones all winter, the anticipation of summer fun turns the tedious annual switch-out into a mini-festival for one.  Those silk pants – I’d forgotten how great they are; I can wear ’em to work with a plain white T-shirt.  If my office reopens, that is…  My swimsuits – spur-of-the-moment trips to the river on hot afternoons!  That blouse with a silly pattern of pink flamingos – I’ll wear that when it turns chilly after a performance at Jacob’s Pillow!  I can’t wait – free dance performances on the outdoor stage!  I wonder who’ll go in our car pool?  We can do that hike at Sanderson Brook –

Oh, hell.  No Jacob’s Pillow this year.  Closed because of COVID.  I don’t know if the state parks are open.  No Boston Symphony playing at Tanglewood.  The retreat center on the hill nearby has had to lay off nearly their entire staff and cancel their summer season; my acquaintance who’d just started a job at the Pillow posted on social media weeks ago about staring at the ceiling, so I know he’s laid off too.  I’m not even sure whether any of my outdoor-group friends, nearly all of whom are in their 60s and 70s, would even want to share a vehicle with carless me to go to the food co-op.  And I’m sure as hell not interested in getting onto a bus or train with strangers.  After 11 weeks at home, leaving only for quick trips to supermarkets and to grab a few curbside-pickup food orders, I’m probably not an asymptomatic carrier of the new coronavirus; the only thing wrong with me is mild pollen allergies and occasional insomnia.  But who wants to take a risk when we don’t have to?

I’m well aware that I’ve been privileged (and white) enough to have such choices – to have enough savings and free time to be able to get into a car and go to the Berkshires for a day or an evening, to get onto a bus, train, and/ or plane for a vacation or a trip to my parents’ homes for an emergency.  But I’m concerned about the small businesses and larger arts organizations I support when I travel down the street or to another state or continent. Plenty of them are run by, and in turn support, women, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and people of color.  The Boston Symphony is not going to collapse if I don’t sit on the lawn at Tanglewood once or twice a season, but I worry about the others – it’s not easy to keep a small business afloat under the best of circumstances, never mind during a raging global pandemic.

As a travel writer, I’ll have to settle for recounting my trips in the past year, mini-excursions close to home.  Nothing too daring, but I did expand my bicycling horizons, with a couple of mishaps and an expanded feeling of adventure.  More posts to come…

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Journal of the plague year: Day 3, more or less

I wake up every morning with my hands gnarled

as if I’ve been grasping in my dreams

The past year of my life has been so difficult, it would be a wonder if I weren’t depressed. This time around, my executive functioning has failed, over and over.  I’m not sure if I’ve always been like this but was too crazy to notice, or the breakdown is a result of menopause, coupled with too much time staring at screens.  The hormones were a 4-decade roller coaster, but they had an effect akin to being bipolar:  sometimes I could do all the things, even if I had to stay up all night; at other times of the month, I had to swallow fistsful of ibuprofen just to get into the shower and out to work.

From the middle of June to early July, I was slammed with:

  • Accompanying his family and my mother to the nursing home to watch my 90-year-old stepfather die of kidney failure
  • Rushing my 8-year-old cat to the vet for the same disease, then having the staff euthanize her the following day
  • Being laid off from the job I’d had for 13 years

I guess they call them “bullet points” for a reason:  I felt as if I were in the Universe’s crosshairs.  A few relatively peaceful months followed.  I applied for unemployment and didn’t kill myself looking for a job.  I had one interview, but later an acquaintance told me I had “dodged a bullet” in not landing the position.  I took a temp gig in the theater industry that was frantic and exhausting, but included a free 2-week stay in a mini-mansion on the bluffs in the best queer beach town in New England.  When I returned home, I decided to adopt a formerly feral half-grown kitten – it was a challenge to convince him that humans were not the enemy, but he grew into a sweet-natured, delightful house pet.

Two months later, back to middle-age insanity.  My December holiday plans to visit my dad and stepmother were cancelled when she had to have emergency surgery the day after Thanksgiving, then contracted some nasty virus that left her unable to keep food down, landing her back in the hospital and then in a nursing rehab facility.  She’s finally on her feet, literally, in mid-March.  My father’s had some kind of stomach flu off and on for a month or more.

And in late January, my mother hit the deck:  she fell in her garage while sorting recycling, shattering her shoulder into too many pieces.  Depending on your faith, Mom was lucky, or angels were watching over her.  The latter is what her Catholic, second-generation Italian American neighbor told me, after she happened to be standing outside with a couple of other neighbors, trying to fix her garage door opener that had suddenly stopped working, and she heard my mom’s cries for help.  They called 911, beginning my mother’s odyssey from emergency room to home to a zillion medical appointments, from shoulder replacement surgery to hospital joint repair wing to the intensive care unit and back to the wing, from rehab to assisted living.

… where she is stuck now, with beginning dementia, quarantined with dozens of other people her age and older, waiting out a global virus pandemic.  And I sit on my couch with my laptop and wonder what the point is – of any of this, of life, of death.  Yes, I am taking my antidepressants, daily, like clockwork.  I have invitations from plenty of friends and acquaintances to talk on the phone at length, to go hiking while keeping appropriate social distance, to make a food store run when needed.  But all that my family and I have been through in the past nine months is slapping me in the face now that I have the time and mental space to contemplate it.  I’ve kept it all at bay by goofing off online – hours lost scrolling through Facebook posts, watching streaming movies, reading political analyses, dipping into Democrats’ debates till I could take no more BS. But now, here it is, staring at me:  my life.  The possibility of losing loved ones to some stinking virus.

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Middle-age memoir (after reading Jeanette Winterson)

I have been awful to others.

I finally understand why.

Here, let me tell you about it.

(I’m sorry.)

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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.

IMG_0080

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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