Adventures in decluttering: Keeping projects simple

As a creative person and someone whose entire nuclear family lies somewhere on the functional end of the clutterer-hoarder scale, I collect projects all too easily. Those of us in this category eventually realize that there are a couple of rules for getting these things done instead of leaving them sitting in our closets, basements, and attics:

1. Do the projects as soon as we acquire them, while we’re still inspired, and/or
2. Make sure the projects are small enough or easy enough to do in a day or two, preferably in a few hours.

My latest example: one of those ever-so-clever ideas that seemed brilliant last year, made me kick myself this year, and has turned out to be just fine, and in fact rather fun. It remains to be seen whether I’ll finish it in the way I’ve envisioned, though. It’s a piece of furniture: a Danish-made, teak-veneer, glass-doored wine cabinet I bought last summer at the thrift shop up the road right after I moved into my new apartment, which has precisely one kitchen cupboard.

Furniture projects can be dangerous because they tend to be large, and often bulky. It’s one thing to acquire some undertaking that can fit into a small crate or box — those can be stashed away and don’t take up much space. Mistakes with furniture often end up being a huge pain — witness the number of TV cabinets and “home entertainment centers” from the ’80s and ’90s now for sale on Craigslist, and the zillions of particle-board desk-and- hutch monstrosities abandoned on curbs everywhere.

I had grand plans for the cabinet. I drink wine only once or twice a year, usually when I visit Argentina. So naturally my friend who helped me lug the thing from the thrift shop, carefully maneuver it awkwardly into and out of her small car’s back seat, and carry it up the back steps into my kitchen, wanted to know what the heck I was going to do with it. I told her I envisioned sawing apart some of the wood supports for the wine bottles, removing them, and inserting shelving to hold my Fiestaware and other colorful dishes. I figured that once I’d settled in, this would be a great project for cold autumn days in my cozy new place.

My kitchen last summer, a few days after moving in. It looks much better now! Photo by Springbyker.

My kitchen last summer, a few days after moving in. It looks much better now that the beach towel and boxes are off the table!
Photo by Springbyker.

Cut from July to April: last weekend I was showing off to my landlady the like-new Ikea (mostly) solid wood buffet with top cabinet I’d just bought at a bargain price on Craigslist. She gushed over it, then looked at the piece of furniture it would replace and said, “But I don’t understand why you have a wine cabinet in your kitchen.”

I chuckled embarrassedly and said, “Welllll, I bought that for 25 bucks at the thrift shop after I moved in, and I was going to saw the shelves and install new ones, and you know how that goes — I’ll do it when hell freezes over!”

I felt like a fool for keeping a piece that for 10 months served only as a table for my collection of vintage chrome flour canisters and spice racks. In my defense, I must say that the cabinet and canisters looked great sitting next to the fridge, and on the rare occasions when I baked, the flour and spices were very handy. And this weekend I’ve redeemed myself: I moved the cabinet across the kitchen next to the laundry room and turned it into a sweater holder. Turns out those little supports for holding wine bottles are an ideal size for slotting bulky sweaters. (Old New England houses like ours have tiny closets and wet basements, so winter clothing storage is a challenge.) And the shiny ’50s Waring blender looks magnificent on top.

It remains to be seen how long it’ll take me to finish the project: I dug into my collection of vintage textiles and found a holey tablecloth I can cut in half to make curtains for the glass doors — I think it’ll look cute and keep the sweaters from fading in the sun. But this brings me to my third rule for keeping projects doable:

3. Never acquire anything that requires getting out the iron and ironing board.

It’s not that I hate ironing — like Tillie Olsen, I find it a meditative activity. But it’s often the extra step that keeps me from finishing something I’ve started. Oh well… at least I dusted and scrubbed the Ikea hutch, and today I’ll put the dishes into it!

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Journal: Attack of the creeping crud, Day 7

I finally feel closer to normal, although I probably could’ve slept another hour, had the Feline Marauder not burst into the bedroom demanding breakfast as soon as she heard me launch into my first coughing fit. Those tight doors shrink up like nipples in a New England winter; in the summer they’ll expand so that I won’t be able to open or close them, but right now my weakling cat can unlatch them with her paws.

I think a trip downtown is on the agenda. I haven’t left the house in more than a week except to go snowshoeing in the Manhan Meadows a few hundred meters from the backyard. It’s a gorgeous day — all but one or two this week have been blue-skyed and beautiful, if frigid. And I feel better, even given the copious amounts of crud still lodged in my respiratory tract. But we needn’t get into that gory detail.

I must admit, though, to a certain inertia. Having settled so well into the couch cushions, a big part of me is reluctant to leave them. I have everything I need here: movies from two pay-per-view services plus about a hundred DVDs, more reading material than you can find in a Hilltowns public library, pillows, comforters, food, cat. What’s pulling me toward the center of town is boredom — if I have to eat that chili one more time, I will have an illness of another sort. I am, to put it crudely, sick of my own stink. A hot shower will cure that, but then I want to take my fresh clean self out to mingle with other human beings. I’ve seen no one but my landlords in eight days. The two of them are among the kindest, most caring people I’ve met in my life, they’ve created the safest, coziest home in which I’ve ever lived, and this is the most relaxing, healing sick time I’ve passed since I was a child in the house with my mother, who was a registered nurse.

But I’m ready to leave the nest and join the other stir-crazy, I’ve-had-it-up-to-here-with-winter New Englanders in the center of town, standing in line waiting for a steaming latte, stamping snow off our boots and giving each other those “yeah, we know how to do this” looks. Raising our eyebrows, waiting for June.

Trees in the backyard after the first snowfall, when it all felt fresh and new. Photo by Springbyker.

Trees in the backyard after the first snowfall, when it all felt fresh and new. Photo by Springbyker.

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I love my countries, but I think we should start seeing other people

This morning as I sipped my coffee and read ProPublica journalist Sebastian Rotella’s comprehensive article (link below) about the latest democratic crisis in a place that’s now my second home, I was struck by his phrase “Argentina, a country for which I have great fondness.” My blog’s regular readers, and travelers who drop in from all over the world to read a post or two, know that I have similar feelings, to say the least.

In the past few years I’ve spent a total of three months — as much vacation time as a very good U.S. clerical job affords — exploring the nation that captured my attention many years ago in my grad school Spanish courses. I’ve wandered the country and its “sister nation,” Uruguay, a bit, made some friends, and bored my US friends silly with my stories. Sleeping and awake, I wear three or four silver-and-semi-precious-stone rings I’ve purchased at Buenos Aires’ weekly street fairs; some of these gems are hand-crafted, and all are constant, treasured reminders of my time there. I’ve spent four years reading about and studying the country’s history, sociology, language dialect, music and other popular culture; I’ve watched more than 200 Argentine films and own about 45 of them on DVD. I passed a summer translating into English a book by an Argentine journalist, and my vacation days last spring traveling to Chicago and Austin to meet the author and academics who might be interested in teaching the book, and I’ll spend this spring writing the book proposal.

This immersion has taught me a great deal, but my optimism about active grassroots social movements and the country’s return to democracy also made me far too loyal, causing me to set aside my natural anarchist skepticism about governments, politicians, leaders, and any organized group that gets too comfortable with power. For a long time I resisted difficult truths about Argentina, annoying friends who’d grown up there and fled, or stayed and dealt with the daily grind in Buenos Aires, Córdoba, tiny towns in the provinces. Finally last August, on my sixth visit in the past five years, reality struck. I’d spent last summer overwhelmed by packing and moving and unpacking my home in the U.S., and I was ready to enjoy my first real vacation in Buenos Aires, instead of an intensive university course or a fact-finding mission. The taxi driver dropped me at the door of my favorite bed and breakfast, where I’d stayed twice before and met many lovely travelers from all over the world; I moved into “my” room and began unpacking, then messaging friends to make plans. I was thrilled to be back in one of my favorite cities and countries.

My casual friends (or close acquaintances) with whom I had dinner the following night, however, had finally given up on the place: they announced that as soon as they could sell their apartment and family business, they were moving to Europe. This shocked me, although they’d complained in previous years about Argentina’s corruption, even spouting conspiracy theories that made me roll my eyes in private — my favorite was that la presidenta, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and her son had had their husband and father, former president Néstor Kirchner, shot in the head with a discreet, small-caliber bullet. (Kirchner suffered from angina and died of heart failure in 2010.) In August the wife of my couple-friends repeated the murder fable; to prevent myself from assuming that “yeah, right” look that would reveal me as maleducada, I quickly asked why Cristina and Maxi would do such a thing.

My friend gave me a grave look. “Poder.”

All conspiracy theories aside, my friends were fed up with the economics of Argentina. Extreme inflation is a recurring problem, and for reasons not even experts can fathom, the economy seems to nosedive every decade or so. My closest Argentine friends are economic exiles, those who were fortunate enough to have the brains and educational opportunities to try their luck in the United States when it was impossible to make a living in their native nation. The country has so many exiles, in recent years the romantic comedy film genre has consisted of stories of young couples breaking up and reuniting as they leave for and return from Spain, Canada, and the U.S.

My husband and wife buddies’ other complaints were so similar to those of my own extended family members back in the States, I could’ve made their speech myself, had I had a little English-to-Spanish translation prep time: “These kids today dress like slobs, have no respect for anyone or anything, cover everything on the streets with ugly, meaningless graffiti, have babies out of wedlock, and live on welfare payments, so they have no incentive to look for jobs. They think everything should be handed to them; they don’t want to work for it.” This is all the federal government’s fault, of course. The only Argentine twist I could discern was “Everything was better when Perón was president.” (Not something you’ll hear from all Argentines, by any means, but one of my friends grew up working-class and Juan Perón’s policies greatly increased her family’s quality of life — with no welfare payments involved.)

My friends’ business wasn’t doing well; they were broke and depressed and seemed to spend the bulk of their time surfing the web. Granted, it was the dead of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so this wasn’t unusual behavior. But I felt a sort of pall when I was around them, as if they were simply holding on by their fingernails until they could get the hell out and begin life anew in Europe. Then one night the other shoe dropped: they received a phone call saying that her brother and other family members had been in an auto accident in her home province, and her mother had been killed. Her husband stayed in Buenos Aires to keep the business running while she took a bus all day to her brother and sister-in-law’s for the funeral, then immediately turned around and returned to the city (one thing Argentina does superbly is comfortable, affordable long-distance bus service).

I will skip the gory details about her meltdown later that week and ensuing awkwardness on my part. I considered a tourist trek to some other province(s) to give them some time alone, but I had the sense they wanted me and their other friends, who were staying in their apartment, to keep them company. (Patagonia is on my bucket list, but only in summer.) I took them out to one of their favorite restaurants on my last night in the country, and we had a nice time.

But I finally started to see Argentina through a resident’s eyes rather than a visitor’s, and they were right: it wasn’t pretty. A pettier example: my friends weren’t exaggerating the graffiti. In previous years I’d seen a lot of political tagging, which young people spray-painted mostly during marches to the Plaza de Mayo, the main square where the Casa Rosada, the equivalent of the U.S. White House, is located. Maintenance workers were sent out in the following days to clean most of the slogans off the buildings, if not the bus shelters and the small, 100-year-old, cast-iron billboards that dot the city center. This year, it looked as if no one had cleaned any spray paint off of anything for months; I’d never seen the tourist and business districts looking so shabby.

Friends from all over have enjoyed teasing me about being a vegetarian in the land of barbecued meat, although I’ve never had a problem finding plenty to eat in Buenos Aires. But last August, for the first time, I could taste the inflation rate: cafés whose food I’d savored in previous southern winters had a staff shortage and longer wait times, and the cooks were stir-frying aging cabbage instead of fresh vegetables and legumes. In a couple of places I was served moldy cheese on my veggie burgers. Rather than self-righteously sending these plates back to the kitchen, I just nibbled around the cheese and felt sad — for my friends, for other small-business owners, for everyone trying to survive and thrive in this country that feels very “Global North” in so many respects, yet isn’t. As a visiting lecturer in college Spanish classes, I had taught the history of the 2001 economic crisis, but it was another thing to see for myself what it meant when inflation increased and your paycheck didn’t, to see prices double at the supermarket and pharmacy. I’ve seen a zillion films about auto accidents en la ruta — it’s horrifyingly common, but it got up close and personal when my friend’s mother died that way.

And then there’s the never-ending corruption. Although I thought the “who killed Néstor” urban myth was idiotic, the more I read and viewed about his widow and her administration, the more I had to admit that their hands were by no means clean. I didn’t feel the need to improve my Spanish by getting into the gory details served up by her critics — until five weeks ago, when Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor investigating the 1994 terrorist bombing that killed 85 people at Buenos Aires’ Jewish community center, the AMIA, was found dead in his apartment with a gunshot wound. Watching President Fernández bungle the situation makes me cringe, and has killed any remaining respect I had for her and her administration. I gave them a pass for years, saying things like, “Well, this is what happens in a country that’s had a functioning democracy for only 31 years.” Now I’m simply discouraged and baffled (although I strongly believe that Nisman did not commit suicide).

It hurts me when this country I’ve come to love goes through growing pains — or perhaps is simply revealed once again to be its same old violent, corrupt, agonizingly screwed-up self. As I write this, I picture my Argentine friends and acquaintances going on the defensive, gathering their anti-U.S. arguments — and they’re absolutely right. The United States of America is no better and no worse; the country of my birth is simply much wealthier, powerful, and better organized than so many of the smaller nations it exploits, beats to a pulp, steals resources from. The nation of my birth was and is built on genocide and slavery. I’ve had deep problems with my country since I was 12 or 13, old enough to begin to understand its history and form moral views. Anyone who follows the news knows all too well how the USA has treated people of color and the poor since the religious fanatics fled Europe and landed on these shores. And when Fernández mentions to the media that other countries have “clandestine prisons and people detained without trial,” she’s correct — the U.S. has no moral high ground on which to stand and point fingers at Argentina or any other nation.

Perhaps the struggles between government and judicial factions, political parties, “intelligence” agencies, police forces, and corporate-owned media are simply less clandestine in Argentina than in the United States, or perhaps it’s easier to understand the corruption and political filth in my country and language of origin, but I’m finally throwing in the towel and admitting that the more I study Argentina, the less I understand. A few years ago, after my second or third trip to that nation, an acquaintance said, “You must really like it there!” She was rather taken aback at my response: “Well, I just decided to have a love/hate relationship with two countries instead of one.”

This is the nature of travel, as opposed to tourism: if we are thinking, caring people who decide to go deep, to truly get to know another culture, it’s inevitable that we see and feel the flaws, the failures, and the pain of that place. It becomes part of us in a way that doesn’t happen when we breeze through on a quick tour and go home, never to return. (I also think this is much more the case for those of us who learn the native language — especially those of us who’ve been in love with that language for decades.)

I just recalled a tiny detail from my arrival six months ago: the song on the radio as my taxi sat stuck in evening rush-hour traffic between the ferry terminal and my B & B was Mercedes Sosa’s best rendition of “Gracias a la vida.” Chilean singer and composer Violeta Parra wrote it about a man and a people she loved, but it was one of Sosa’s emblematic songs of the era of Latin American military dictatorships, and I’ve always associated it with the long, vast tragedy that Argentina sometimes seems to be.

ProPublica journalist Sebastian Rotella explains the Nisman death and background:

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Just live, live, live

One of the conversation snippets I remember best from my graduate creative writing program days came from a classmate I didn’t know well and with whom I didn’t have much in common. It’s stayed in my head all these years because grad school was where I discovered activities I loved almost as much as writing. I went to school in the Rocky Mountain West, and it was a revelation to me, a child of Western New York state, that hiking in the snow could be a pleasant pastime instead of a numbing struggle for survival, and that biking on 100-degree summer days was enjoyable as long as one carried enough water.

My classmate was chatting with one of our professors about his writing output during our summer break, and he looked a bit shame-faced as he said he hadn’t finished as much as he’d hoped because he always struggled with whether to spend his time living life or writing about it. As someone who cannot not write, I understood his dilemma. Yet now that I’m middle-aged, I find the question of living smacking me in the face more and more, and the decision to defer the writing more and more appealing. For years I’ve watched distant relatives and acquaintances die, but death is slithering closer. Less than four months ago, someone I thought of as a dear acquaintance — a person I don’t see often, but was part of the local Left/ progressive community that’s my extended family — died of cancer at age 60. Yesterday I faced the choice of crossing the river to attend the memorial service for a 51-year-old acquaintance from the bicycling/ local and sustainable food/ hiking community or traveling two miles up the road for the memorial service for a 55-year-old closer acquaintance from the political lesbian feminist/ Women Outdoors hiking-bicycling community.

Obviously this isn’t the sort of choice I look forward to making. Given this month’s endless snow and the close timing that created a logistical impossibility, and my fear of emotional overload, I chose the latter service, and was grateful for my decision. At least 100 people attended my friend Klara’s beautiful memorial. What surprised me was not that a few tears slid down the side of my face, but how much I laughed as I listened to a number of people tell stories about her. Klara loved to travel and have adventures, and she’d chosen many of us to accompany her. It didn’t matter whether the journey was a quiet summer evening at Tanglewood listening to a master of classical piano, an August road trip from New England to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, camping on the tundra near Denali in Alaska, exploring beaches in Morocco, or flying to Israel with her Jewish chorus members for an international choral festival — Klara put out the call, found one or more friends to join her, and jumped in with both feet. After her ovarian cancer diagnosis seven or eight years ago, she didn’t stop, and the picture painted at her memorial service was of a woman who never ceased living, even in the face of chemo and a lousy prognosis.

Near my back yard. Photo by Springbyker

Near my back yard. Photo by Springbyker

This morning I went outside to shovel snow for what felt like the zillionth time this winter. I didn’t have to — my landlord/friend will do it, a couple of weeks ago I injured arm muscles chopping ice in our driveway, I was barely awake, I hadn’t yet had my coffee… But I pulled on my boots and all the layers of warm clothing once again and went outside to work — because my new household is a community and I wanted to share the chores, because I wanted to converse with one of my newest friends, because it’s deep winter in New England and I have no idea how many I have left. None of us do, ever. After I finished moving snow around again, I lingered outside and turned my face to the sky and smiled as the wet flakes hit my skin. I walked behind the house, stood and watched the crimson cardinals in the wild grapevine for 10, 15 more minutes even though my legs were growing cold beneath my corduroys. Because I don’t much believe in reincarnation or an afterlife, and I think this is all we have, here, today, on this earth.

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The joys of aging, or porteña on the Great Lakes

Given that I don’t own a vehicle and have a full-time, 9-to-5 job that includes almost no travel — unless you count walking down Main Street to the post office occasionally — I’ve gotten around a decent amount in the past few years. Regarding exploring our part of New England, one friend says to me periodically, “Geez, for a person without a car, you’ve seen a lot more of this area than I have!” Then there’s my long-haul exploring: Six trips to Argentina (and 4 side trips to Uruguay) in the past 5½ years. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the culture and making new friends, but I’m certain I won’t be returning this year, something I have mixed feelings about. At this point, Buenos Aires feels like my home away from home, and I’ll miss it.

But I’ve reached that age at which I have to start caring for my aging relatives. Counting my parents, stepparents, and my ex’s family members, who unofficially adopted me 15 years ago, I have six parents and one 89-year-old grandmother who need varying degrees of help in managing health problems. Even given the living wage and extremely generous (for the USA) vacation, personal time, and family leave time at my job, this year I can’t afford another South American vacation while also helping my mother after the surgery for which she’s scheduled later this month.

I’m still emotionally recuperating from my Christmas-time visits, which included discussing with my father and stepmother their 2-year plan to sell or give away the majority of their belongings, sell their 10-room house, and move in with my stepsiblings in the Midwest; keeping an eye on Grandma for a day while my friend/ex’s stepfather was in the hospital having heart bypass surgery, an 11-hour undertaking; visiting Stepdad in the intensive care unit the following day and remaining patient while Adoptive Mom had a few mini freak-outs in the hospital parking garage; and doing the same with my own mother’s freaking over her severe pain and upcoming operation and rehab (not for her heart, thank the god/desses).

Whenever I’ve bought an airline ticket to Argentina or Uruguay, I’ve held my breath before calling my mother to tell her my vacation plans. She’s concerned about my traveling so far by myself — I can’t count the number of times she’s told me, “Well, you know I worry about your going off to these foreign countries.” For my family members, particularly the more working-class ones, Montevideo might as well be the moon. And although driving or riding in a car is far more dangerous than flying, she always has to mention plane crashes just before I board. Before the last couple of trips, I’ve struggled with guilt — how could I have the time and money to go to the Southern Cone again when I can’t manage to go see my own parents in the state next door?

I came clean with Mom a few weeks ago, telling her what I’d already said to friends and colleagues: I kept visiting because I knew that my days of wandering Buenos Aires were numbered, that very soon I’d have at least one parent who’d need care and I’d be tethered to the northeastern U.S. for years, perhaps decades, to come. I knew it would be my responsibility, as my only sibling lives in North Carolina and has a job with much less liberal vacation benefits. I certainly can’t complain, as I’ve had decades to play and explore. Even in the past 14 months, I’ve attended two fascinating academic conferences, one in Boston and one in Chicago, related to my interest in Latin American memory studies and post-dictatorship culture; spent a week in Austin and Houston, vacationing, visiting a friend and her family, and meeting the author of the book I translated into English; and puttered around Montevideo and Buenos Aires for 2½ weeks at the end of August, having meals with friends, visiting museums I hadn’t seen before, and buying the souvenirs I’d avoided on the previous five trips because I was too lefty or “sophisticated” for such kitsch.

So I’ve had my fun, and now it’s time to be a responsible offspring. The Río de la Plata will be there in its enormous, silty, polluted splendor when I can visit again; in a few weeks I’ll be off to the southern shores of the Great Lakes, ready to do household chores and try to soothe worries, or let them roll off my back. Perhaps I’ll even have a few hours on the train to work on the book introduction, or label those thousands of digital photos of Piriápolis, the Evita Museum, the San Telmo antiques market…

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On the move

Written Aug. 5, 2014

My plans for this year went awry: I was supposed to be writing a proposal and marketing/ publishing plan for the nonfiction book I translated from Spanish to English last summer, but on the first Saturday in May, I found a new apartment. I’ve moved to heaven and my summer’s gone to hell: the place is wonderful, and I’m certain it’ll be an ideal writer’s retreat, but the amount of work and hassle any move entails is maddening.

I’ve moved more times in my life than I care to think about. When I was in my early 30s, a friend a few years older than I summed it up neatly when she said, “Maybe you’ll always be peripatetic.” Leslie had helped me try to move to her small town in New Mexico, recommending me for a temp job at her workplace, giving me rides to the office, and listening sympathetically the morning I burst into tears in her pickup truck when I talked about the previous night’s conversation with my friends back home in Western New York. I was tired of fighting the usual problem with college and resort towns — low wages and high housing prices — and ready to move back to my hometown, which had become part of the Rust Belt while I’d been living in the Rocky Mountain West.

More than 17 years, one defunct relationship, and eight moves later, I still think of Leslie’s comment every time I pack my stuff, even as I hope that this uprooting will be the last for a long time. But I know how this goes: Define “long.” I’m going to hang onto this rental with tooth and claw, though. I moved only nine side streets south on a main route between towns, but I traded the traffic noise for the clucking of backyard chickens – or, as I like to put it, “from 15,000 cars to 15,000 birds.” The first figure is real – the city commissioned a traffic study that determined the average number of vehicles per day. As for the birds, it’s probably closer to 1500, but my new part of the ’hood is next to an Audubon sanctuary and my new landlords like to feed the animals. In my five weeks in my new home I’ve seen blue jays, cardinals, catbirds, crows, flickers, grackles, hummingbirds, robins, sparrows, starlings, wrens, and downy, hairy, and pileated woodpeckers, and have heard many birds I can’t yet identify by song.

My new landlords are healers, and one is a gardener. He’s cultivated a paradise on the edge of paradise: lush beds of flowers and vegetables atop what used to be a gravel driveway, next to city-owned open space protected in perpetuity, up the ridge from land that’s been tilled since the Europeans arrived in this area several hundred years ago. I bike the half-mile home after work, arriving sweaty and stressed out from a day in the office, and instead of rushing inside to flee the sound of SUVs and semis roaring by, I wander past the bolted kale and lounging zucchini with its faded August flowers, sit on the backyard bench, and gaze down the hill at an offshoot of the oxbow lake. All is not peaceful: ruby-throated hummingbirds chase each other through the patch of crimson bee balm, and crows argue over the compost pile. But it’s my little slice of heaven, the closest I can get to living in the country without leaving town. And it’s a great place to collect myself before I head to one of my favorite cities, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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Lynchings in Argentina

The words never again
Clashing against the words
Again and again
—That music.

– Alicia Ostriker, “The Eighth and Thirteenth”

I have no clever title for this post. When I began this blog, I deliberately designed it to address multiple subjects that interested me – gender, feminism, LGBTQ issues, Latin America travel, film, vegetarianism, decluttering, and anything I felt like commenting on. I’ve ended up writing more about my Argentina trips than anything else, and now I find myself wondering, if I address what’s going on there currently, I’ll scare off the curious travelers, the study-abroad students, their parents and friends.

A few days ago I had a chance to visit my Argentine-Uruguayan-USian friend D., who asked, as he often does, “Have you been following the news there?” There doesn’t need to be defined; he and I speak at times in a code that switches abruptly to Spanish, often rioplatense Spanish that says volumes in one phrase.

“Not lately,” I said, and his immediate reply was, “Just as well.” But I knew he was referring to the lynchings – although I don’t have many Facebook friends in Buenos Aires, I have enough that I can’t escape the most important news even when I’m not diligently reading online about their country. The Argentine media have reported at least eight incidents in the last two weeks of mob violence in four different provinces – citizens catching thieves and viciously attacking them. An 18-year-old in Rosario, the third-largest city in the country, was beaten to death by a mob after he was accused of stealing a woman’s purse.

As a born-and-raised U.S. citizen, when I hear “lynching,” the first thing that leaps to mind is not a thought, but an image: a Black man hanging from a tree. When I began reading about the linchamientos in Argentina, I had to look up the word’s definition, because I wasn’t sure what constituted a lynching. It is an extrajudicial killing, and does not have to involve hanging, nor, of course, an African American man fleeing a pack of white men with dogs through woods or Southern swamps. But this is what pops into our minds, we USians, what we’ve seen in films and old photographs. Horrendous images: the mangled face of Emmett Till in his coffin, a 14-year-old Black boy from the North who was tortured and murdered for speaking to a white woman in the South.

The lynchings in Argentina in the past several weeks are different – race is probably not a big factor, although indigenous ancestry and brown skin are often connected with poverty, although there’s still deep denial in Argentina that race is a factor in anything. (That’s a whole other blog post or 10, though.) Class and money are certainly involved, and, as in the United States, history. To say that Argentina is no stranger to extrajudicial killing is a ridiculous understatement, and it doesn’t surprise me that in an adolescent democracy, one that’s existed officially for only 31 years, citizens take the law into their own hands – or feet, in the cases of thieves who’ve been kicked to death.

I’m not an expert on Argentina (is anyone?), so I can’t say that I understand the police situation there. I continue to read about it and talk with friends who live there and/or grew up there whenever I have the opportunity. I’ve heard that the cops are paid as little as teachers, and I’ve noticed that the teachers in Buenos Aires go on strike for higher pay and better conditions at the beginning of nearly every school year these days – at this point I’d be shocked if the school year ever started on time.

Much of my information is anecdotal. Last year when I returned to Buenos Aires after five months’ absence, I noted large new trash containers (like small Dumpsters) on the streets, some with piles of rubbish next to them. I wondered why there were no containers for recyclables and how the cartoneros (see my blog post here) were going to make a living if they couldn’t reach the paper, cardboard, bottles, cans, and other items they collect for recycling. My acquaintance who co-owns a bed and breakfast with his wife told me the cartoneros were pulling these items out of the new bins and leaving the trash on the streets, and when people asked the police why they didn’t order people to return the garbage to the bins, the officers replied, “We can’t – they say we’re violating their rights and refuse to pick it up.”

Another acquaintance from Buenos Aires, who works for the mainstream, center-left daily newspaper, told me this was bunk. As with anything, there’s probably some truth on both sides. La Nación, the mainstream, center-right Buenos Aires daily, has a regular heading or section for many of its news stories: “Inseguridad,” “Insecurity.” Of course this sort of reporting appeals most to those with wealth, who have something to be insecure about, but the poor are also robbed, and the truly impoverished have to live in villas miserias, or shantytowns, and deal with young people who use and/or deal drugs and steal from people and homes – that’s true insecurity. It seems that people at all socioeconomic levels are simply tired of putting up with bold robbery that goes unpunished.

But it’s horrifying that some people have decided to deal with it by beating accused thieves to death on the streets. And the Buenos Aires provincial governor’s response seems equally chilling in a nation with a history of brutal dictatorships: declaring a year-long “state of security emergency” and beefing up police ranks and powers. Human rights groups are worried, and with good reason: unleashing the state security forces against youth is exactly what the military junta did between 1976 and 1983, when between 10,000 and 30,000 people were “disappeared” – kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. It’s impossible to tell what the coming weeks and months will bring, but right now, what comes to my mind is the title of the report on the dictatorship’s human rights violations, written and published in 1984: Nunca más. Never Again.

Posted in Argentina, Latin America, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A morning flight: I get my kicks

When I reached a certain height as a child, my legs extended precisely to the back of the driver’s seat in our family car, much to my father’s distress.  Whenever I moved around behind him, my feet hit the back of his seat.  For people who were oblivious, in families with more children and/or more chaos, this would’ve gone unnoticed.  But both my parents were quite sensitive to movement, vibration, noise, strong odors, and the like, and now that I’m middle-aged and have the same sensitivities, I have a visceral understanding of and a great empathy for my dad.  He probably felt as if he were being kidney-punched every time I saw something exciting through the car window.  (I think my parents moved me to the seat behind my mother until I grew a few more inches.)

Not-so-instant karma on a recent flight:  A young man offered to trade his window seat for an aisle one, and I immediately discovered why:  one of the two young boys behind me was a kicker.  I wouldn’t be happy with that under any circumstances.  But through a combination of bad luck and poor planning that involved re-booked flights, a MegaBus that broke down halfway between two cities, and an idiotically inefficient airport shuttle system, I’d been able to get only three hours of sleep the previous night.  I was trying to catch up on the plane – inevitably a losing battle – when Junior and/or his little brother, Junior Junior, began kicking the back of my seat.

I understand that children do these things, and that parents can’t be watching what two kids are doing every minute.  However, when the passenger in front of you turns around and tells you that your child is doing something annoying – particularly on a 6 a.m. flight when people are trying to rest – it is your responsibility to take steps to correct the problem, immediately, without making the other passenger feel as if she’s the one in the wrong.  Period, end of sentence.  The woman looked at me as if I had 12 eyeballs and peacock feathers growing out of the top of my head, as if she couldn’t believe that her little darlings would ever do anything to disturb anyone else.  And then she did nothing.

The boys kept kicking, and I started losing what little composure I have at that hour on an overbooked flight.  I didn’t want to disturb the two other passengers in my row and I didn’t want to make a beleaguered flight attendant’s morning more unpleasant, so I tried to keep going to the source.  The mother probably grew tired of my standing up, turning around, and glaring at her kids, because she finally moved Junior Junior to another seat, presumably with another family member.  The kicking finally stopped – good, because I’d reached the point at which I was thinking, “If you do that one more time, I’m gonna stab your #@*%ing little leg with my manicure scissors, you little *&^%!”  No wonder they don’t allow box cutters on planes.

Maybe my dad was just having the Universe pay me back after all these years.

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Sister Domestica doesn’t live here any more, Part 1

Given that I was a grad student half the time I lived in Boulder, Colorado a couple of decades ago, it seems odd that I spent nearly as much time there chatting about housework as I did discussing my writing coursework.  On the other hand, my pals and I were dealing with literary characters even when we were goofing off.  Sister Domestica was born in the household of a close gay friend who’d received his master’s in creative writing a few months before I arrived to begin mine.  Both of his roommates were other young gay men; one was a recovering Catholic who admired the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag charity founded in San Francisco.  That Halloween, a mutual friend of ours created the Terminatrix, based on the Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Terminator, and our Catholic pal went to the parties with us dressed as Sister Domestica – I can’t remember if he carried a vacuum cleaner or a broom, but I thought it was screamingly clever camp, and from then on, whenever I felt the urge to alphabetize my books or scrub the shower tiles, I invoked the Sister.

Meanwhile, my heterosexual feminist friends and I joked about another domestic goddess, The Woman Who Does Everything More Beautifully Than You Do, a character in Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia comic strip who was surely based on Martha Stewart.  We kidded one of my classmates who had two elementary-school-aged children and was on her third divorce (this husband was an investment banker, so she had financial resources the rest of us lacked) about being The Woman Who…  We often dropped by her newly remodeled downtown house for a respite from studying in semi-squalid apartments crammed with grad students to loll about on her Oriental rugs, bask in the quiet, and eat a decent meal.  She was a good cook with an amazing kitchen, and when she wasn’t in the mood for DIY, she could afford to buy takeout from the precursor to Whole Foods a couple of blocks up the street.

I was a decent vegetarian chef myself, specializing in homey soups, stews, and baked goods.  I added protein to muffins by hiding tofu in them, hunted down the best organic bargains at four or five supermarkets each month, and turned a cheapo “garden-level” (read “basement”) apartment into a cozy little home.  The world’s greatest housekeeper I was not, but I wasn’t afraid to show up at lesbian and grad student potlucks with my own creations, and once or twice I fed quite tasty breakfast burritos to a couple of carloads of peace and justice demonstrators in the wilds of rural Colorado (yes, unfortunately “supermax” prisons are out there, too).

Eventually I left Boulder, wandered for a while from writers’ residency to artists’ colony, and settled back in my hometown, where I met a nice genderqueer person online.  Fast forward to a city in the Midwest, where ze had found a good job in the academic world and I turned into Sister Domestica on steroids.  I was so bored outta my gourd in this city, I couldn’t find anything more interesting to do, and it was my first live-in relationship that had lasted longer than 18 months, so I was excited about having a partner, a new family of “outlaws” (they’re not in-laws if you’re not married, right?), and a really nice rental house.  And let’s face it:  sometimes nesting just feels good.

I hated that outsiders assumed we were a conventional heterosexual couple, but I learned to get over it – who gives a damn what the washing machine repair guy thinks anyway?  Our old and new friends knew we were bi queers, or queer bi’s.  We had similar standards for cleanliness, if not clutter, and our “1½-story cottage” had a great layout – at one point it had been a house with a studio apartment, so we had plenty of space to handle my sprawling stuff, hir sweaty running clothes, and our thousands of books.  I got into caring for the place, even though it was a rental.

I spent many hours mowing the lawn (for which I received a sincere “My hero!”), pruning the forsythia, creating an enormous black-gold compost pile, and raking the stately maple’s leaves.  My partner and I created a gorgeous little vegetable garden, working compost into the rich soil, planting carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, tomatillos (the organic seed packets said they were peppers, but no matter), and in the middle, one lone native flower from the farmers’ market, an ironweed that grew to an insane height.  The squash, like all zucchini, grew inches overnight, and I picked and grated them to bake delicious bread, sometimes chocolate with Belgian chocolate chips.

After years of living on a grad student income, I loved having a huge kitchen with new appliances, and I baked a lot.  One Christmas I made 42 dozen cookies.  The following year it was only 20 dozen – six different kinds, plus two bread puddings, an apple pear cranberry pie, tart shells (I think I filled them with chocolate pudding, but I can’t recall), a dozen mini muffins, a loaf of gingerbread, and 18 mini loaves of banana, cranberry, and ginger breads.  I bestowed this bounty upon my partner’s and my extended family and my co-workers – I worked with a group of about a dozen editors and a “brand team” of roughly 20 people in a company with more than 300 employees, so plenty of folks were happy to snarf up the baked goodies.

When I look back at that period of my life, I find it hard to believe I put that much effort into domestic pursuits, but it was important to me then, and I had nothing else to do with my time.  My partner was constantly occupied with hir job and book projects.  I’ve been a political animal since very early adolescence, drawn to Left social change movements of various stripes, but I just could not locate that community in that Midwestern city.  I tried for five years, twisting myself into a pretzel trying to fit into a community that felt strange, a Left movement that seemed more fixated on marijuana legalization than anything that mattered to me.  I traveled to cities around the state to work with a handful of other Latin America solidarity activists, meeting a few people with whom I’m still in touch.  Eventually I stopped trying.  I worked at my job, volunteered as an usher at the university arts center for free admission to shows, saw a lot of films, read many books, went hiking and on “field trips” with my partner, kept the house pretty clean, and baked.  And baked, and baked.

Now that I live in Massachusetts, I’m blessed with a surfeit of politically engaged, savvy organizers working on a host of issues in a range of movements.  There’s so much going on here politically, socially, and culturally, I couldn’t do it all if I cloned myself six times.  And I’m now middle-aged, single, and sick to death of all forms of domesticity and obligation.  I’m looking ahead not too many years and seeing elderly, ill parents (one of my stepparents is there already) and it seems obvious that this is the last period of my life when I can shirk responsibility and do my own pleasurable, essential work in addition to the full-time job I have to support myself.  So you can bet yer sweet bippy I’m not spending my free hours dusting, vacuuming, and scrubbing the moldings.  I have books to read and translate, research to do, blog posts to write, trips to take!

These days, my apartment feels like a warehouse for my stuff and a work space for my writing.  I turn my back on stacks of books lurking in every room, spiders weaving webs behind the spice rack, and dust bunnies threatening to become stampeding rhinoceri. It’s the first week of February and containers of Christmas wrapping paper, bows, and greeting cards are still sitting on my dining room table and chairs.  I have far more important and interesting things to do than constantly clean crap out of corners, and unless someone is coming to visit, I could not care less.  Oh, I keep up with the basics, for health and happiness:  the toilet is sanitary; the laundry is done every weekend, if not more often; the cat’s litter gets changed, the trash taken to the garage, the pots scrubbed and plates put into the dishwasher.  But the rest can wait, and it does.  I have a life to live.

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Film comment: The latest Meryl Streep, and yet another token person of color

Last night I went to the movies with a couple of my friends to see the latest film starring Meryl Streep.  I don’t actively follow any actors’ careers, but it’s obvious even to me that she’s one of the few grande dames of US cinema:  she can take any role and script, however mediocre or beautifully crafted, and embody the character so that we forget we’re watching Meryl Streep.

I had no particular expectations for August:  Osage County; I hadn’t seen or read the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play by Tracy Letts, and so didn’t have to fight memories of how a theater director had staged it or my own visions of what it should look like.  I enjoyed the film, if one can “enjoy” a work about a family that put the D in dysfunctional and made any small problems in my own family look like a few ants at a picnic.  The acting overall was excellent, Streep delivered her usual stellar turn, and the play translated to the screen quite well – those shots of the treeless Oklahoma plains stretching to the steaming horizon did illustrate the distances between characters and the parents’ childhood hardships.

But I have one huge problem with the film:  the only non-white role from the play was reduced to just about nothing.  I am so very sick and tired of the token person of color in US movies.

In August’s first scene, Bev, Streep’s character’s husband, is hiring Johnna, a young Cheyenne woman, to cook, clean, and help care for the couple.  They need a nanny, really – he’s an alcoholic and Violet has cancer and is addicted to a laundry list of prescription drugs.  Violet’s racism is part of her nastiness, but I find it nastier that this play and film are simply one more in an endless line of works about white people who get to have complete lives, and their tokens, who get to wait on them.  Johnna is a hero – probably the only one in the story – but she has only two real lines of dialogue – the same line repeated, in fact, not even two distinct lines.  Otherwise she’s a stoic Indian, the servant everyone treats like a non-entity, and the excuse for Violet to carry on about political correctness (the author has disguised it a bit, but that’s what her “Native American” rant really is).

There’s more, but I don’t want to be the spoiler party-pooper of the month.  After all, the film stars Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and other box-office biggies, so lots and lots of white people will want to see it.

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