Friday, February 12, 2010
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Every Thursday, I post a very large photograph of some corner of space captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and available online from the picture album at HubbleSite, followed by poetry after the jump.
THE WOODS AT NIGHT
by May Swenson
The binocular owl,
fastened to a limb
like a lantern
all night long,
sees where all
the other birds sleep:
towhee under leaves,
in a twighouse,
to a knothole lip,
redwing in the reeds,
swallow in the willow,
flicker in the oak -
but cannot see poor
under the hill
in deadbrush nest,
who's awake, too -
with stricken eye
flayed by the moon
her brindled breast
repeats, repeats, repeats its plea
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
We all have worst nightmares about our bodies -- what we think maybe we couldn't bear happening to us, maybe wouldn't want to survive. These fears are cliches in melodramatic screenplays, the dancer or athlete who loses their legs, the painter who goes blind. We're assumed to understand, on a gut empathetic level, how tragic physical loss is and see those who face it as inspiring.
But if it isn't quite so photogenic or melodramatic, we look away. Or if we can "blame the victirm", well there ya go: Gary Busey was asking for it in a way Christopher Reeve was not, right?
And because we know we're supposed to be ashamed if we're closer to the Gary Busey end, we're supposed to be contrite and hungry if we're poor, and we're supposed to get better. If we're losing ground, we know we should go silent.
I'm fighting all those internal voices as best I can. Every day.
Having had lifelong asthma and undiagnosed but limiting orthopedic issues, I've not had the dread a lot of folks carry about losing physical function. It's no fun but it's not particularly soul-inhibiting to not be able to do all forms of mobility. The nightmare I nursed was losing brain function, memory, communication ability -- all of which occurred in 2000 with the anoxia during my knee replacement surgery. It took me almost a decade to get over that actualized fear enough to face another major sirgery, which happened in October (no choice about it) with only the typical postoperative mental effects.
I'm still certain I'd rather check out than live without my fully functional mind -- I/we get to define ourselves, and for me, my brain as is remains the deal-breaker. I have some safeguards in place to keep me from a Schiavo existence, but of course there are no guarantees.
With my physical decline, however, I developed another subterranean fear, that of falling down and finding myself unable to get up by myself. I became aware of this fear the Thanksgiving after my knee replacement, when I went to eat with an extended clan of Texas yellow dog Democrats and wiccans. I sat in a rocker that was a few inches lower than my leg muscles could actually render me upright from. When it was time for me to go, I had to be shouldered to my feet by two pot-bellied hippies who smelled of weed and cranberry relish. I became very careful about where I stepped and sat down after that.
I guess I should be proud I went a decade, then, without a mishap.
Last Thursday I had a physical exam scheduled by disability services. It's impossible for me to get anywhere without serious help. Not long after I got home from the hospital, a gay man named Sheldon wrote me an e-mail offering help. He's a radical pagan cat-lovin' late boomer who lives west of Austin with Win who writes the Konagod blog I enjoy so much. Sheldon has turned out to be a real buddy, someone I enjoy intensely. And he's literally saved my life.
Sheldon got me to my doctor visit in January, which was a serious ordeal. I keep rediscovering how weak I am now. He's a natural at noticing pace, bearing witness, keeping company, and not doing more or less than I ask of him. Other crips will instantly know what I mean. I can relax around him even as I am in extremis.
So I asked him to get me to the disability exam, which I anticipated would be an even harder challenge. He said yes. That morning I got cleaned up and began making my way to my wheelchair in the living room, because I had clean clothes and shoes next to the chair and I planned to dress sitting in it. I was using my folding walker to get through a narrow spot and turned it sideways, then leaned on it sideways. Mistake.
The walker collapsed on itself, going down underneath me and managing to entangle one of my calves in the process. There was enough room for me to land on the floor, but that was it -- no space to roll over, I was wedged between immovable surfaces. I was on my stomach, naked, and getting to my knees was out of the question.
Help, I've fallen and I can't get up.
I wasn't hurting more than usual -- I was extremely lucky that I hadn't blown a joint on the way down. I was even more lucky that Sheldon was on his way to my house. I kept trying to shift, to find some way out of my imprisonment, until I was exhausted from the effort. If Sheldon had not been about to arrive...well, you can guess what kind of trouble I'd be in.
My cat Dinah came at a gallop. One thing that's always been true about Dinah before that day is she has an abhorrence of touching bare human flesh, avoids it with revulsion. She meowed interrogatively at me and I said "Kitty girl, I've done it this time. I'm in trouble here."
She walked down my bare back and stood on my big white ass -- Mount Jochild, as one friend has referred to it -- while she began yowling at the top of her lungs. I kept trying to reassure her but she wasn't listening to me. In retrospect, I'm certain she was calling for help. She didn't shut up or lower her volume until Sheldon knocked at the door, and even then our first shouted exchanges through the door were over her continued hollering.
I'd had a few minutes to consider my options. Sheldon didn't have keys to my door, but more significantly, I have a keyless deadbolt that was engaged, meaning no one could get in even with keys. I yelled this to Sheldon and told him he'd have to call 911.
Which he did, and they told him to get my apartment management to bring what keys they had. After a few more minutes of nude floor contemplation, I saw a flashing red light and paramedics banged on the door. Dinah vanished at that point, her work done. I yelled to both Sheldon and the paramedics that I was naked and I didn't want to be exposed through the door to whoever was gathering outside, just the rescue folks. They said they understood.
A maintenance guy from the complex who is always tracking people's comings and goings is who brought my spare keys. As predicted, the door wouldn't open. Paramedics began banging on windows, and finally got a lock on the living room window to give. A guy squeezed in and turned the deadbolt. I repeated my request that my nudity be shielded as the first paramedic came in. He and Sheldon both told the maintenance guy to stay out of view. Instead, he pushed through a view spot so he got a long look at me.
I saw him and I pointed at him, screaming "Don't you dare look at me, you creep!" He went away after that. I don't know his name but I've seen him on my patio looking in my windows twice in the past. Something I'll now have to deal with. Problem is, I think he's married to one of the apartment managers and my tenancy here is somewhat tenuous because of disability issues.
I was so mad for a day afterward I wanted to do violence to him, feelings I simply don't have very often.
The paramedics came in, intelligently assessed the situation and my limits, and started the process of getting me upright. The first attempt tore at my left rotator cuff, which took a couple of days to heal. On a second dead lift, they got me into my wheelchair. I heaped thanks on them, their burly sweet majest. I declined a trip to the hospital, saying "I'm actually due to go for a disability appointment right now." One of them grinned "Well, ma'am, you surely deserve it."
I dressed myself, shaking violently, and somehow Sheldon got me to his car. He had checked in with my disability exam office, and they had my appontment down for an hour later than the forms they had mailed me, so we had a miraculous pad of breathing room. I ate the Big Mac Sheldon had brought me -- few things have ever tasted so good, and I don't even like Big Macs especially -- but my shaking progressed on into rigors.
I made the exam, which was arduous and strange. My BP was very elevated and my pulse very low. The doctor was distant, insisted I wear a mask because of flu risk, and didn't give me much information. A couple of the physical maneuvers he asked me to perform were unexpectedly difficult, revealing loss of muscle tone or nerve function on my left side that I hadn't known about. He said he wanted me to get x-rays and left the room.
When Sheldon came in to wheel me out, he looked at me closely and suggested I wait on the x-rays, I looked done in. I agreed and said I need to use the bathroom. Turns out, their wheelchair accessible bathroom was blocked by equipment. Sheldon calmly moved things around, muscled me through, and I got onto the pot before having violent diarrhea a couple of times. Afterward, I was too weak and shaky to pull up my pants all the way, and Sheldon came in to do that for me.
I didn't think I could make it from the car to my bed, but I did. Sheldon set me up with groceries and supplies, and offered to come back to help clean my place. He's here as I write this, hauling trash. He brought me take-out Chinese (which I haven't had in over a year) and one of his home-made banana walnut muffins. He and Dinah have met, and she's not hiding from him in terror, a first for her.
I'm getting a prepaid cell this week I can wear around my neck when I use my walker at home. Sheldon now has keys to my house, and I'm still pursuing food stamps and home assistance as well as Medicaid and disability. I am a few inches up from the very bottom of the pit I found myself in. And now I've weathered another nightmare.
I want things to get much, much better than this. I have a month's worth of income left, not even part-time work any more, and my endurance is so threadbare, finishing this post has taken days. But I am not alone. I remember Sheldon's long grey hair drifting over my shoulders as he wheeled me into the fresh air, I have General Tso's chicken waiting on me, and I can still write. Plenty on this crisp day, what would have been my mother's 83rd birthday.
[Cross-posted at Group News Blog.]
Monday, February 8, 2010
Thanks to a tip from DCap, I just read Mike Lupica's column reacting to Sarah Palin's speech at the National Tea Party Convention this weekend: Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin has delusions of grandeur if she thinks she can be President.
It's a smart, unheated rendering of why she is (and should be treated as) a joke that for me is remarkable because Lupica does not once resort to sexism to take a swipe at her. A feat far too many progessive men can't seem to pull off.
It's all the stronger for avoiding references to gender-based issues (how many kids she has or how they've turned out, how she dresses, or the writer's unsoliticed sexual fantasies) which would never be trotted out to illistrate the unsuitability of a male candidate for leadership. Lupica does remind us that her base tends to support her for sexist reasons but doesn't play the game of "so therefore I can take a crack at objectifying her as a woman myself".
I see no reason why we can't all keep it this clean and substantive. I mean, they give us plenty to work with.
[Cross-posted at Group News Blog
Samuel Mordecai Turner, circa 1885, Montague County, Texas -- my mother's mother's father
I stayed up til 2:00 despite being very tired, but slept 8 hours. I didn't get done yesterday what I wanted, I got sucked into the genealogy hole, chasing a new approach to getting around an old family brick wall: The Turner/Smith lines.
My cousin Sally (mama's sister's daughter, four months older than me) has also done some genealogy and likewise finds this bunch interesting. She's a convert to Judaism and her theory is that the Turners emigrated from England to near Memphis in part because they were Jews. Family naming tradition and a few photographs make this idea plausible. A single frail record states our great-great-great- grandfather Joseph Turner was from England, and a couple of scanty census records plunk him in Fayette County, Tennessee in 1830 and 1840, where he had a son (Joseph Turner II) before apparently dying just as the 1850 census would have given us some real data on him.
Joseph Turner II married in 1841 to one of the more emotionally powerful women in my lineage, Matilda Clementine Smith. They had two sons before Joseph died, again before that magic 1850 revelation point. Matilda went on to remarry twice, have two more sons, migrate to new land in Arkansas, and establish herself as a solid property owner and community leader. She outlived three husbands and all but one of her sons, extremely rare for a woman in that place and time. She also never owned slaves in constructing her middle class security, again rare for the place and time.
Her sole surviving son, Thomas Joseph "Tom" Turner, married a doormat he bred into an early grave, came back from the CSA with a mean glint in his eye, and had trouble finding one of his many children willing to take him in during old age. He died penniless, but his son Samuel Mordecai Turner (my great-grandfather) was beloved in the community, married a brilliant and outgoing woman, and is part of the "good line" on mama's side.
For a couple of generations, all we knew was Tom Turner's name and his claim that his father had been born in England. Turner is a surname as common as Jones in the South, and it took me a very long time to find him as a fatherless child on the 1850 census, living with widowed young mother Matilda, her father Jabez Smith, and no doubt the next of Matilda's husbands already stopping by for dinner. Adding the surname of Smith to the mix didn't help one iota.
Fayette County, Tennessee is one county over from Memphis and borders Mississippi. It's Delta land, flat, saturated with extreme racial oppression, white class stratification, and not much civic wealth to go around. Records available from a distance were extremely scarce, and remain so even now with the internet because they weren't created in the first place except to document ownership of property.
So, in 1985, I included Fayette County on my family history research tour. It stands out in my memory for how shut down its white inhabitants were (generally, the more a rural place had once relied on slavery, the more hostile its white people were now, I discovered on that trip). I spent one day digging around before fleeing back to Memphis to sleep.
I went to the courthouse first, to find a marriage record for Joseph Turner and Matilda Smith. I was lucky that the courthouse had never been burned -- about half of all Southern courthouses were deliberately torched by Union troops during the civil war as part of community disruption and terrorism. The marriage records didn't begin until 1840, which is common for the South away from the Eastern seaboard: Southern genealogy holds piecemeal records for whites, much less for blacks and natives. But 1840 might be early enough to find Joseph and Matilda, I hoped. The register had never been indexed, so I began looking through the dusty, oversized pages one by one, standing at a corner counter, glared at by the Mary-Kay-aspiring white women who worked as clerks there.
No luck. I went on until 1860, tediously copying all the Smith and Turner marriages into my notebook, but with no hope they'd connect to my line. As I was closing the ledger, I noticed a couple of loose partial pages at the back which had fallen out of the binding. I pulled them out to look at them -- I am thorough -- and there it was: Mr. Joseph Turner to Miss Matilda C. Smith, October 21, 1841 The paper was crumbling but I made a gentle copy, told the clerk about the possible loss of precious data if the pages weren't cared for, and went outside into bright sunshine for an exultant break.
I decided to walk a block away, to an old grocery store within view, for a snack. What happened next is an incident I wrote about almost verbatim in Ginny Bates, an episode of revelatory racism that I failed to address to anything like my satisfaction. [Excerpted at the end of this post.]
When I eventually returned to the courthouse, my connection to my ancestors had been altered. I found no further solid records on my people that day -- they had been tenant farmers, owned nothing, their deaths were not registered, and in a decade everyone migrated westward into stolen Indian lands whose soil was not yet played out. What I got from Fayette County was the marriage scrap and a hint of black/white relations as they must have been when Joseph and Matilda lived there -- all in all, what I most needed to be given.
Thus yesterday, when I found a hint on how I might follow the Smiths despite inadequate records, I was off and running. I did manage to accumulate a fair amount on Matilda's cousins, but in the end this foundation was not a springboard further back. That's what usually happens in this kind of research, you leave nothing undone in retrieval and collating but the bigger mystery remains. So I still don't know where the Smiths came from, beyond "North Carolina", or why the Turners came from England to the Delta in 1830.
I think I have Sam Turner's eyes, though, and his love of community. I have Matilda Smith's perseverance, and if either of them are guiding my curiosity, maybe further glimmers will come my way. Today, however, I'll focus on the 21st century.
Excerpt from Ginny Bates referred to above. Background: Myra is the main character loosely based on me, a working-class white lesbian. Her partner is Ginny Bates, a middle-class white Jew. Her best friend is Allie, a working-class black lesbian raised in the South. Myra and Allie have gone back to Mississippi to research Allie's ancestry with Myra's genealogical expertise. The location and events in this episode, however, are drawn entirely from my own experience in Fayette County, Tennessee, one county north of Mississippi.
Myra showed Allie the ropes, how things were organized: It was the same for every county in the South, seemed like. Allie wanted to begin with marriage records, which thankfully here had a bride as well as a groom index. But there were separate indexes for whites and "colored" prior to 1960. Allie's lips tightened again. Myra decided to take on the deeds, which tended to be tedious and full of bad handwriting to decipher.
It was peaceful in the basement. Full of lovely old paper and massive bound books, with light from an airwell at the side: Myra began to have fantasies of a study this sequestered and quiet. But, she noticed after using her inhaler a second time, it was also dusty and likely had a high degree of ambient mold.
"Al? I need to go up into the air, get something to drink, I think" she said.
"Is there a break room in the courthouse, you think?"
"Well, on the square near where we parked, by the corner, was a little grocery store -- looked like something from the fifties. I'll walk down there, you want to go with?"
"No. But bring me back some orange juice, and something to snack on" said Allie, her eyes glued to the index on the table in front of her.
Myra told the clerk on her way out "I'm going for a Co-Cola, back in a bit", noticing how she had pronounced the word. There was a cluster of cars near the tax assessor's office, and one in front of a discount store. Otherwise, the square was empty.
The grocery store had high stamped tin ceilings obscured in shadow. All of the dairy cases were behind thick glass doors. She got Allie's juice, then found a case containing chilled soft drinks in real glass bottles, including RC Cola in a bottle shape she hadn't seen in over a decade. She grabbed two.
The candy aisle, disappointingly, did not hold vintage favorites she had hoped for -- no little wax bottles full of colored liquid, or Blo-Pops. She got a bag of Tom's peanuts for herself, roasted cashews for Allie, and headed for the front.
There were only two registers, one empty and one with a teased-hair white woman at the register. Another customer was ahead of her, a frail-looking black man in faded slacks and neatly-pressed tan shirt, buttoned up to the collar and at the cuffs. His hair was a snowy frizz, and when looking at his skin, she instantly remembered the line from Zora Neale Hurston that Allie quoted often: "High yaller, yaller, high brown, vaseline brown, seal brown, low brown, dark brown". Myra would guess him to be seal brown.
He had just done his shopping for at least a week, maybe two weeks. It was the 30th: Just got his Social Security check, she bet. With trembling, knot-knuckled hands he was carefully lifting items from a wire cart to the counter -- no conveyor belts here. A 10-pound bag of white rice, big can of Crisco, smaller can of blackstrap molasses, bag of chicken necks and backs, 5-lb bag of Gold Medal, bottle of light Karo (If he's got a pecan tree, that's a pie, thought Myra), baking soda, can of Maxwell house, quart of sweet milk, two cans of evaporated milk, pound of bacon, box of Spic'n'Span...No veggies or eggs, which means he's got a little bit of land, thought Myra.
She had been standing respectfully back and had apparently not been noticed by the woman at the register. When the old man asked for a can of snuff, however, the woman changed position enough to see Myra.
"Here, now" she called out sharply. "You come on up here, I'll check you out first."
Myra began to protest as the woman shoved aside the old man's last few items, saying "Oh, no, I'm not in a hurry and he's almost done -- "
But the old man shrunk even smaller into his already shrunken frame and stepped back from the counter, pressed into the corner. He didn't look up. Myra froze in horror.
"Give me what you've got there" commanded the woman, her voice not at all friendly. Myra's eyes were on the old man, willing him to make contact with her, as she numbly complied, dropping her bottles onto the counter. The woman voided her register with the push of a button and began punching in Myra's prices.
"I'm sorry" Myra said to the old man. He didn't acknowledge her at all.
"He can wait" said the woman shortly. She took Myra's money, counted out change, and bagged her items in impatient silence. Myra said "thank you" to her and then to the old man, but only the woman responded, saying "You're very welcome" before picking back up the Crisco and starting his checkout again.
Out on the sidewalk, Myra fought the impulse to vomit. She tried to find a way to believe that what had just occurred wasn't what she thought it was. She pulled out one of her RC's, only to discover she needed a churchkey to open the top. Well, she wasn't going back into that store, that's for sure. Maybe the car glovebox would have something to open her bottle.
No luck with the glovebox, but she had a dim memory from her teenage beer-drinking years that led her to find a leverage spot inside the open car door, popping off the cap on the second try. She drank down to the shoulder of the bottle, poured the peanuts into the neck, and sat down inside the car, closing the door as a kind of shield against the square itself. She glanced back at the store: The old man wasn't visible yet.
When he emerged, she could idle up and offer to give him a ride home. But she suspected that would send him into complete panic. She wasn't sure what the rules were, so how to intelligently break them was beyond her. She couldn't believe this was 2004, that his instant subservience could be still happening. If he was in his 70s, then he had been born maybe around 1930 -- well, if he lived through the Depression here, with his parents, that told her a lot.
She took slow sips, crunching a peanut or two with each drag, savoring the mix of syrup and salt. She didn't know how to back in and face Allie. She had a strong urge to see Chris walk up: She could tell Chris about what had just happened, and if Chris chewed her out, got mad at her, it would help ease her guilt.
But that urge made her feel even more guilty. Leaning on one woman of color to deal with her guilt about another woman of color. Nope, she had to deal with this on her own. Well, and with Ginny, when she got that chance.
She finished her drink and put the empty bottle in the back floorboard, along with her second RC. She hid Allie's snack inside her pack and returned to the courthouse.
Copyright 2010 Maggie Jochild.
Miss you, Ginny. Glad you came along.