Monthly Archives: November 2005

Expecting racism and not finding it

(On the occasion of Blog Against Racism Day, I thought I would post this story first published in another venue.)

I worked in a nursery in Washington DC from 1984-1987. The outdoor plant business tends to slacken to zero in the winter months in the northeastern US, and so in order to keep cash flow at healthy levels, most large nurseries will maintain seasonal stock to take advantage of holidays: valentine crap in February, pumpkins in October, like that.

Which meant that by the time December 2 or 3 came around, all of us nursery employees were mightily sick of Christmas ornaments that needed to be priced and hung on Christmas trees,  Christmas trees that needed to be cut and carried to cars, tapes of tinkly Christmas carols cycling at 35-minute intervals ten hours a day seven days a week, poinsettia sap on our hands and people being increasingly rude to the help as the month got older, this being Washington during the Entitlement Era, waiting on Reagan Appointees.

So when the actual 25th came around in 1985, my coworker Aubrey and I decided we were going to get as far away from Christmas as was possible. No television, tapes on the car stereo so that we didn’t have to risk hearing carols on the radio, heading through the Virginia suburbs into the hills of West Virginia where no one had the money to do more than hang a wreath, and especially never on their Mercedes’ radiator grilles. It was snowing, and got cold, and after a few hours we decided we wanted some coffee in that era before Starbucks, and we saw a cafe in the woods along the road — the Green Lantern Inn — that had lights on and people inside. And no decorations.

Aubrey, who was African-American, was a little hesitant. “Are we sure we want to go in there? It looks a little, you know, ‘de nyooow de dyoow…’” — imitating the twang of a banjo to indicate the vague “Deliverance” look of the place. But I really wanted coffee, and I twisted his arm. We walked up to the front door of the cafe.

Which was locked. And just as our cold-addled brains were realizing that, a big burly West Virginian with a bloody apron opened the door, looking a bit concerned and skeptical.

“Oh,” I said. “You’re closed, huh? Looked like you were open.” “Yeah,” said bloody apron. “We’re closed; we’re just serving Christmas dinner to the folks that live here. But, um, you guys look cold. Come on in. We’ve got some coffee for you.”

We drank coffee with the folks for about twenty minutes. Got up, left a five on the counter — figured about a 150 percent tip was appropriate — and bloody apron didn’t unlock the door for us to leave until we’d agreed not only to take back the five bucks, and a thermos full of a fresh pot of coffee, but a couple of turkey sandwiches he’d been back in the kitchen wrapping for us.

Tomorrow is Blog Against Racism Day

And I’m still not entirely sure what I’m going to write about. There are just so many potential topics.

But my old friend from Buffalo days, Elissa Feit, has found a great solution to that problem: she’s been spending the last week writing about racism for Blog Against Racism Day. (She lives in Australia now, and thus there may be some way in which the International Date Line affects her blogging early.)

This post especially grabbed my attention, in which Elissa briefly connects slavery and Peak Oil. It’s a economical read in the senses of topic and brevity both.

One of the best things about this project, incidentally, is that in the overwhelming response to the idea I’ve been made aware of some wonderful blogs. At one of them, This Is Not My Country, the stunning DeviousDiva has also gotten an early start on BAR Day, with observations from her perspective as a person of mixed ethnic ancestry living in Greece.

It’s not too late to get in on the project, of course: you have a whole day to think of something to say, even if you limit yourself to a pointer to some of the other writing people are doing. (Traffic’s important too!) And just between you and me, if you accidentally wait until Friday to write something, I don’t think anyone will complain.

Olduvai George

Tuesday is my friend Carl Dennis Buell’s 59th birthday. So how come he’s giving us a present?

Carl has been illustrating and illuminating the natural world for some decades: I think I first saw his work twenty years ago. He has an astonishing eye for detail, and I’ve been privileged to be able to put some of his artwork on CRN in the past, including an image I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. Carl has illustrated a few more reputable, if piratical blogs as well.

And now, Carl has his own blog to illustrate. And all I can say is, it’s about damn time.

However, he must still be working a few bugs out, because I don’t see any paintings of Tito the Wonder Dog Mighty Hunter posted yet. [Sorry, Hank!] Despite this clear oversight, go on over and wish Carl a happy birthday.

Gratitude

Thanks to everyone who has gotten in touch with wholly unnecessary, but very much appreciated good wishes.

I am rethinking what I’m doing here at Creek Running North, but there’s a lot of distance between “business as usual” and ending the blog.

For a time at least, this blog will be a lower priority in my life. I may decide to get rid of some of its functionality. I’m not sure. Things like Site Meter and Technorati are a potential sink of time and obsession, but they also provide ways for readers to find my work… and I am not so independent an artist that I don’t want new readers.

Not that y’all aren’t perfectly good readers yourselves, of course.

Posts will be less frequent. Posts written in anger will probably cease to exist. Thus, there will likely be less politics here. It’s an obsession for me, but I’m not saying anything that 30,000 other people in the parrotsphere aren’t already saying. It’s obvious I will not be able to write about natural history, or culture, or my life story without writing about politics. But the simply political, the mindless partisanship and circular firing squads and reflexive vented spleen have sufficient venues.

I spent a little time over the past couple days looking at some of the first posts from the first few weeks of this blog. Look at June 2003, for instance. There is a clarity to those posts that I find compelling. Compelling, and largely absent from my recent thrashing.

I want to get back to that. And I want to shrink this blog down to its rightful size in my life, and get the off-line work done that will last beyond my ISP’s next system crash.

So fewer posts, and better-written, and of course I will have something on Thursday for Blog Against Racism Day, and some follow-up posts and pointers to other folks’ BARD offerings. (I did make a commitment to you guys, after all.) And I expect The Irascible Gardener to be ready real soon now. Honestly.

And thanks again.

Doubt

I am dissatisfied with this weblog.

I do not like what this weblog has become. I do not like the role it has begun to play in my life.

I do not like working with intent I consider unconducive to good writing.

I find myself playing to the audience, a hyperconsciousness of the effect of a few certain words on a few certain people. I find myself reading my referral stats more hours per week than I read books. I find myself writing for inbound links rather than to express myself. I find myself tossing ill-considered writing out into the world, not even cleansed of typographical errors much less of errors in judgment.

I find myself writing here because it is easy. I find myself writing here instead of working on my book, instead of selling my work. Instead of finishing something important, I post three easy paragraphs and call it “writing.”

I need to rethink this.

Thanks

Zeke has limited patience for small children these days. Ten years ago he was all about the kids, joyously letting them poke and prod and punch him (which they called “petting.”) Pushing fifteen, he’ll have none of it. But he’s far too good to think of disciplining the errant children he meets, and so the only real differences between Zeke beset by children at five and Zeke beset by children at fifteen are the look on his face as they mob him, and the elapsed time before he tries to get away.

Sophie will be two in January, and she loves dogs. We thus had one of those irresistable force and immovable object conundra enacted live for our amusement last night.

Liam is going through changes of his own. At three, he already has a profound sensitivity and inner life. He tired of even his favorite uncle’s company after half an hour or so of playing “airplane” on the rolling office chair. He fed the rabbit and the guinea pig, walked over to the beleaguered dog and kissed his forehead. This is a measure of Zeke’s demeanor, as Liam is quite afraid of dogs. For much of the rest of the evening, Liam was self-contained, playing with Becky’s toys and wandering around our house exploring.

Sophie’s hand was glued to Zeke’s back for most of the evening. This was a dilemma for Zeke. He was unsure how to slough off his hitchhiker. He walked to the bedroom, then from the bedroom to the office, then from the office to the kitchen and back into the living room. Nothing worked. Sophie followed as though she was grasping an assistance dog harness. Even the old “walk under the dining room table” gambit failed to dislodge her, despite a minor bump to her forehead. Mere pain would not dissuade Sophie from the important task of loving the dog.

I could have said something to her, asked her nicely to leave the doggie alone, and she would have, as she is in the main an obedient child. But I didn’t. I found Zeke’s obvious, eye-rolling annoyance more amusing than a compassionate dog person should. Sophie wasn’t pulling hair, or poking eyes: she merely kept the dog company he didn’t really want. Eventually, Zeke went out into the rainy backyard and found blessed solitude.

It was later. The rest of us were in the traditional Thanksgiving post-prandial torpor, but Sophie was peckish. Out came the raisins. She ate one box-full. The second box was for sharing. She made the rounds, trying to treat each adult in the house to at least a couple raisins, which she carefully put in our mouths. As favorite uncle, I was lucky enough to get the two that had fallen on the carpet with the dog hair. This was not a problem. It was, after all, my dog.

Zeke came back in, ate a few bites of turkey, and the forced march through the rooms began anew.

And then it was late, and Liam and Sophie drove their sleepy parents back home, and my mom and Jim left, and my brother-in-law and I did a bit of desultory cleaning as Becky lay unconscious in her big chair. While Sophie had been seated at the table, I’d brought Zeke’s food dishes to our bedroom laden with stuffing and organ meats so that he could eat in peace. I went to bring his dishes into the kitchen for wash.

Zeke had licked the plate clean. On that empty plate, carefully positioned in the exact center, was a raisin.

Judeo-Christian Holidays

A couple weeks ago, the school district in Florida charged with educating four of the Creek Running North nieces was faced with complaints from Tampa-area Muslims that the district calendar gave them short shrift. The district closed schools on Good Friday and Yom Kippur, and so the Muslims, quite reasonably, asked for Eid to be added to the calendar.

The school district opted for what I thought was an elegant solution. Rather than grant specific holidays off, they’d define a free-floating elective religious day which families could opt to use at any time. Thus Christians could take off Good Friday, Jews Yom Kippur, and Muslims Eid. Most likely, after the first families of other faiths asked, the policy would be extended so that Hindus could celebrate Diwali; Zoroastrians… um, Zorro’s birthday; and Satanists, of course, could continue to commemorate the founding of Halliburton. It seemed like a marvelous idea.

And of course the fundamentalist Christians would have none of it. Hillsborough County’s County Commission, which is jam-packed with fundies, accused the board of discriminating against Christians by, presumably, not forcing people of other faiths to observe Christian holidays by force of law. The usual vultures weighed in. After attracting a few thousand phone calls from the wingnut right, the school board backed down.

And for the last couple weeks, I’ve been wondering about a trope the fundies used to indicate the alleged interfaith nature of their pro-Christmas jihad. More than one of the fundamentalist Christians referred to the heritage they claimed to defend as “Judeo-Christian holidays.”

Let’s leave alone the oddly ahistorical notion that Islam is not a Judeo-Christian religion. What the hell is a Judeo-Christian holiday? Passeaster? Tisha B’uffy?

It seemed an unlikely concept, until I remembered that I had in fact heard Judeo-Christian holiday music, and it sounds a little something like this.

Giving thanks

Becky has been in Los Angeles for the last week, helping her mom clean house before a remodel. She’s been dredging up old memories and odd objects, letters she wrote her brother from college, games they played as children, the old leather suitcase with which her father first arrived from China.

I have been dredging up a few odd objects myself.

Becky and I spent our first Thanksgiving together on the road, driving a small rental car up and over the Sierra Nevada into Mono County. It was also our first visit to the desert. We passed aspens and Jeffrey pines, tufa towers and lava flows, and it was long enough ago — 16 years — that I no longer remember what we talked about on the way over Sonora Pass, or if we talked at all. I do remember the rental car’s brakes smoking as we descended the pass’s east slope — stupid automatic transmission.

It was cold as we appproached the Walker River along 395.

Thanksgiving night found us in a closed campground on Grant Lake. I fiddled with my new backpacking stove, got the freeze-dried turkey tetrazzini cooked precisely according to the directions on the package, and it took neither of us more than a quick taste to judge it inedible. Ah, well. The morning promised sunlight and omelets down the road. We crawled hungry into my little pup tent and warmed each other, then slept.

The next day we coaxed the rental car down a rutted, washed-out dirt road in the Greenwater Valley, just outside Death Valley National Monument. We found a wide, unvegetated spot amid the creosote and pitched the tent again. There had been a stop in a grocery store in Lone Pine, and that night we didn’t go to bed hungry. I awoke at two to brilliant stars. I did not know Becky then as well as I do now: we had only been sleeping together for a few months, and not every night at that. I nudged her. “You should see the stars.”

“Don’t wake me up.”
“No, seriously. Look at the stars. There are so many of them.
“I mean it. Don’t wake me up.”
“Just a quick look.”

Becky, once woken, cannot fall back asleep. For the next four hours she told me so. About once every five minutes. And then came the sun, and a trip up to Dante’s View to see Death Valley splayed out before us and a mile below. Then came breakfast, and Badwater, and Baker. We ate homemade turkey soup for dinner in Mojave in a restaurant called Reno’s, long since closed and lamented and remembered fondly along with Villa Hermosa in Berkeley and Pring’s in San Leandro. But I digress.

For years, despite a dozen sumptuous dinners since, I’ve privately thought of Thanksgiving 1989 as the best I ever had. Sleeping hungry with Becky is better than sleeping sated without her. Last night I was in a mood to reminisce, and Becky called. “I’ve been thinking about our first Thanksgiving,” I said.

“Oh, my god,” she replied. “That was horrible. I told myself over and over again that night ‘bring cheese and crackers the next time you camp with Chris.’ After that, there was nowhere for our Thanksgivings together to go but up.”

She thought for a moment.

“But climbing in the tent with you was nice, as I remember.”

I’m adopting a compromise view. 1989 was the best Thanksgiving ever, and they’ve been getting better ever since.

Vine Deloria, Jr., 1933-2005

v_deloria.jpg “Western civilization, unfortunately, does not link knowledge and morality but rather, it connects knowledge and power and makes them equivalent.”  — Vine Deloria, Jr.

One of the first writers who truly inspired me is gone, a week ago. From the obituary in Indian Country Today:

“Deloria, the world-renown Dakota author and scholar from the Standing Rock Reservation, made a huge contribution to the Native peoples of North America and the world. His intellectual output, at once free-ranging with creativity and yet tight with academic rigor, pinned down the legal and historical bases desperately needed by the national Indian discourse. He provided a great piece of the intellectual locomotion upon which a moving platform of American Indian/Native studies research, publishing, production and teaching has been constituted.
     
“His writing is legendary, launched by the 1969 classic Custer Died For Your Sins, which plugged directly into the common imagination of the American Indian Movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. Along with We Talk, You Listen and Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties, these early Deloria works informed, during those crucial years, the widest cross-section of activists, students and older community leaders and traditional authorities.

“For a movement that had disparate and very independent bases in Indian country, where political persuasions ran the full spectrum of left to right and front to back, Deloria’s deliberate, well-reasoned tone, backed by acerbic wit and genuine self-effacement, hit the formative chord.”