As If You Needed Reminding

I guess it’s the smell of Sarah Palin in the air these days … it just brings back memories.  Precious watercolor memories, of why this left/right, progressive/liberal/conservative thing MATTERS.

Really, the name says it all:

But it’s not updated as frequently as

Politics is how we put our morals and our beliefs into action in the world.  Or something like that, right?  We run the world according to what we believe to be right just as much as what we know to be true. Or we try, playing by one set of rules or another, in competition with others.  And that’s politics.  So what you’ve got to know, before you can take a political stance: What is my moral imperative?

Mine is simple: I am outraged by the abuse of the powerless. That’s it, in a nutshell; why child abuse, animal abuse, sexual abuse are the crimes which truly horrify me.  Why the rape of the Earth, the oppression of the poor, racism, sexism, homophobia, the whole structure of capitalism are the issues I will never tire of taking on.  There is a common theme in all: the weak are abused by the strong. That is the thing I find unbearable. It’s not the mere existence of suffering, it’s not injustice, per se.  Oh, those things suck, but you know, they come with the package of being alive at all: you gots no choice, there.

And that, I think, makes me a lefty.  Call it what you will – I kind of like “progressive,” maybe “radical,” maybe even “idealistic” (because, yes! I actually believe in human potential!).  You could use “liberal,” if you like, though it strikes me as too corporate for my tastes.  But I prefer the old-fashioned heft of “lefty.”  It gets to the simple moral center of the core value that makes me who I am.  Add to that my personal twist — I prefer reality-based EVERYTHING; I believe facts exist, independent of opinion and faith, and that facts matter. Pretty unpopular at the moment, sure, but there it is.

Knowing that about myself, I have to ask: What does the right believe?  What’s their moral center, their moral engine, that everything else springs from? And when I ask, I think not of abstractions, but of people I know and love and who confound me by their voting patterns.  I don’t think about this flippantly, in other words, or theoretically.

What I keep coming up with is something like this: The right’s moral obsession is: Me first. Something like that.  Don’t take my money in taxes: I never asked to be part of your stinking society.  Don’t ask me to share.  Don’t ask me not to pollute.  Don’t tell me what I can or can’t drive, or do, or say.  If other people are getting hurt, don’t tell me: it might make me feel bad.  In fact, I will do what I can NOT to feel bad: I will choose not to think about animals/children/racial minorities/sexual minorities/other nationalitites/anyone else as actually having feelings. “Me first” is so much easier when I’m the only thinking, feeling, REAL person in the universe.

But you know where that leads you … you want to fuck … oh, let’s be coy. Let’s just say, someone or something that does not want to be fucked by you. But, hey, you’re the only real person in the equation.  Me First … and there we go: another entry on (You know, that list has been around a long time, and there have been many, many attempts to come up with a “” equivalent.  But there just isn’t anything to fill such a website with.)

And you know where else that leads you: if anyone transgresses against you: KILL THEM.  In a war or on death row; by malnutrition or environmental disaster. If they offend, if they annoy.  If they get in the way of Me First.

And what boggles my mind, really, is that so many of the working class have embraced this thinking.  They pay and pay and pay for those with true power to keep it: they pay with their bodies, with cancers and infertility and ADD and migraines and asthmas from living in a world filled with the chemicals, preservatives, electrical fields, hormones, antibiotics, wastes and poisons of the TRULY powerful, those whose “Me First” actually pays off.  They pay with addictions to the garbage drugs, from meth to oxycontin to Adderall, that give them an illusion that they are, somehow, First. They pay by working like drudges in an endless cycle with ever-diminishing returns.  Because “Me First” satisfies them, somehow; they aren’t first, but they like hearing that they are.  Or maybe, kicking some ass now and then – metaphorically or otherwise – feels “Me First” enough.  Or maybe, because of their own endless suffering, they just can’t be bothered to hear about anyone else’s.

Or maybe they’re just plain bastards.

Which bring me back, I guess, to Sarah Palin.  The pure id, the utter personification of the “They’re just plain bastards” version of the Me-First doctrine.  Her heartlessness, her coldness, her manipulativeness, her flat-out meanness goes head-to-head with her incompetence.  Forgive me, gentle readers, forgive me, God or Gods: I pray for Palin 2012.  I said more than a year ago, “Palin is the guarantee that McCain will lose,” and Palin 2012 is the guarantee that the self-destruction of the Republican party will be complete.

(And if you’re wondering: My conference this weekend (ORTESOL) went rather well.  First presentation, OK, but started a bit late and my Powerpoint was missing a few images; nothing fatal, but not the best ever.  Second presentation — well, I am my own harshest critic, and I was quite happy.  Yeah, actually very happy.  SO that’s that for a while.  One or both of these presentations might turn into something bigger, as in actual papers.  And the struggle continues …)


Some Old Business …

I know I’m way behind on everything, and I swear I’m about to get together a Bay Area Roadtrip post, but there’s something weighing on my conscience …


Sotomayor isn’t especially news any more – thank god! She’s CONFIRMED! – but I just wanted to take a moment to remember what kind of garbage came out of the Right’s unconscious when they were faced  with her for the first time.

Mike Huckabee launched an early attack on her, you’ll remember.  But he couldn’t quite get her name right.  His website tore into a certain … “Maria” Sotomayor.  Well, sheesh, he had a 50% chance of being right about that, didn’t he?  Maria, Juanita, whatevs!  Marisol on a long-shot, maybe?  Anyway, what business did she have of NOT being a Maria?

And, speaking of assumptions: the website Politico also was quick off the blocks to call her a “Latina single mother.”  Those hot tamales, you know.  Can’t keep their legs shut.  Another great guess.  Except for that pesky not-having-any-kids bit.

Then there was the name-calling.  She wasn’t very smart, y’know.  Jeffrey Rosenberg started that ball rolling – I hesitate to give this link, because Jeffrey Rosen gets far too much attention, but there you have it.  He started it and it became the chorus from the Right.   Yeah, not too bright!  Nothin’ like Dubya!  ‘Cause only dummies get full scholarships to Princeton straight out of high school, and only real dullards graduate summa cum laude and go on to Yale Law School on full scholarships.  And, of course, she was a bully.  She was uppity.  Interrupted.  Wouldn’t shut up and let the men finish.  I mean, she would ask questions in her own court!  Who the hell did she think she was?  Did she think she was the freakin’ judge or something?  Except for that pesky actually-she-IS-the-judge bit, another great line of attack.

Once the confirmation was underway, it got better.  Let’s see:

  • Limbaugh promised to send her a vacuum cleaner.  After all, isn’t that the only way God wants to see Latinas in the Supreme Court – cleaning it, after hours?
  • Creepy Repub senator Tom Coburn assumed the Ricky Ricardo accent to admonish her, “You got a lot of ‘splainin to do!”  Not after three beers in a bar mind you – On camera.  In session.  During the confirmation hearings.  Uhh …
  • And then there was uber-creep Jeff Sessions, who expressed amazement that Sotomayor had disagreed with another judge: after all, he pointed out, they were BOTH Puerto Ricans!  Of the Puerto Rican race, you know, which compels them to think identically in all matters judicial! And again – this was ON the record, IN session, ON camera. The mind boggles.

(BTW, here’s a 2002 article about Session’s history – some highlights: the Klan is OK, except that some of them smoke pot; a black U.S. Attorney was “boy” and told “You better watch how you speak to white folks;” he didn’t’ bother to investigate burnings of black churches in Alabama when he was Alabama’s Attorney General. And he has a job today.  Does the GOP make ANY sense?)

So, quick recap.

Sotomayor is really named Maria and has bastard children, as do all Latinas, and “cleaning lady” is her most appropriate job.  Like all chicas from the barrio she’s *slow* but God she’s got a mouth on her, for which she must be mocked in a parodical Spanish accent, and before we’re done, she’d better explain how she could have possibly disagreed with another Puerto Rican.  Ever.

Yeah, she got the job.  And I AM rejoicing over that.  (And I DO think that a Latina, if indeed wise, WILL make better decisions in some situations than white men – that’s simple bloody common sense, and jheesus, YOU KNOW IT TOO.) But I am disturbed over the crap this confimation process revealed.

Like Sotomayor, when I was in college, I had a senior professor make an object lesson out of me as an affirmative action recipient in a public setting.  My bastard was Clem Heusch.  Yes, Mr. Heusch, you’ve had a great career in particle physics, and your spine had its own urban legend (“If you put a Geiger counter by Clem’s back it goes off! Old lab accident!”).  But to me, you’ll simply forever be The Racist Bastard who pointed me out during a mandatory, departement-wide “Career Planning” meeting: “You don’t have much hope of a lab job unless – (points to me) – you know, you’re Native American or something, or (points to me) you’re a woman.”  I think that was the day I decided: Screw physics, once and for all.  OK, I’m one of three women in this room of sixty, I’m one of three who aren’t white.  And yes, if not for affirmative action, I’d never have gotten in.  But affirmative action only ever gave me a single chance at what economics and the realities of school districting had decided, before my birth, to deny me.  To me, the greater injustice is blindingly clear: the system which allocates resources so that certain children are methodically shunted away from any chance at education.  Because I wanted an education, I made the most of it, I sucked the marrow from its bones and it transformed my life.  Fundamentally and permanently.  And that education was a right that would, if not for affirmative action, have been denied me, plain and simple.

The difference was, Sotomayor, by the time of Yale Law School, was no longer an affirmative action baby.  If I may quote Wikipedia: “In her third year, she filed a formal complaint against the established Washington, D.C., law firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge for suggesting during a recruiting dinner that she was only at Yale via affirmative action. Sotomayor refused to be interviewed by the firm further and filed her complaint with a faculty–student tribunal, which ruled in her favor. Her action triggered a campus-wide debate, and news of the firm’s subsequent December 1978 apology made the Washington Post.

I like that. I tip my hat to that.  I just wish that “News of the Republican Party’s apology for its racist displays during Sotomayor’s confiration process made the New York Times” would be a future Wikipedia entry.

I have my doubts.


It’s taken me years, decades, to realize what a vortex of evil we lived in as children. When I run over the names of neighbors, a list of crimes pops up like a running commentary. Nando, my older brother’s friend, the seven-year-old arsonist; the two of them set fire to the Torrez’s house, leaving them with a blackened façade for the next fifteen years. Two doors down, Johnny, the kid with the mother sartorially stuck in the 70’s, tortured cats; he had a steady supply, because the Mendozas’ seemed to always have a litter coming on, kittens playing under the lawn chair where Mr. Mendoza sat drinking beer all day, every day. Mr. Mendoza, who was raping his daughter (but only Elizabeth, who was always mean to me, and not Mary, who was always nice). Johnny’s mother, with her polyester pantsuits, helmet hair and Chevy Nova, would eventually pay two men to stage a break-in and murder her husband. Unfortunately for her, after she endured that afternoon tied to a chair next to her bleeding, groaning, hated husband, he lived to see her go to prison. That was years after the murder I remember most: the man not behind us (that is, not the man who killed rabbits in his back yard), but one over. I remembered him most because he drove a tire truck, a huge thing filled with used, grey tires, and because his daughter was a year below me at school. Did he kill both children when he killed his wife? I never really knew; I never saw the kids again, but I’ve never forgotten that night, the night he set his own tire truck on fire, the smell of burning rubber and the flames in the night, the sirens and then more sirens, different ones, and the gossip trickling from house into house at once: used a gun, her blood was all over the back wall, I saw it. Who said that? Was it the next-door-neighbors, the ones whose drug-addled schizophrenic son was the only one in the neighborhood who would take on my dad, taunting him and threatening him? Or the neighbors next to them, the ones whose oldest son tried to rape my sister? And that boy: what was his name, why can’t I remember it? I remember the story: him following my sister, jumping her, pinning her, somewhere on that sidewalk by the freeway, the fall before the teachers warned us, don’t walk home that way, don’t ever go there after dark. Someone … bad … is back there. That rapist was never caught, unlike the guy at the opposite end of the street, the white guy, the one with the cheerful smile and new video games and the thing for little boys. That one ended up serving a sentence.

The length of that sentence, his name, his address: I could look them all up now, I realize. I could probably locate year’s worth of police reports online with just a bit of effort. But I have not the faintest desire to do so. I don’t care about the history, the dead past, because that neighborhood remains all too alive, all too inescapable, the backdrop of my mind, despite all I do to erase it.

Like Mrs. deWinter dreaming of Manderley, I dream of my cursed neighborhood. And like Manderley, in my dreams, my neighborhood is beautiful. The trees are full of sap and green leaves, leaves that crunch as I climb the mulberry tree higher and higher, or they’re piled in yellow drifts over the spiny brown urchins of the stickerballs we fling at each other. The smell of jacaranda and catalpa lingers in warm evening air in my dreams. The sun sets in flame and violet, a brilliant wire of amber light outlines palm trees; the flat umbrellas of geranium leaves cool in the deepening dark. There are never any stars, though police helicopters often sweep by; we’ll chase them, my brothers and I, we’ll run from one side of the backyard to the next, guessing where the guy is running to and always hoping, dreading, that it’s our yard he’ll jump into next.

The grass is damp and has that deep lingering green that grass has in the setting sun, in the dusk, then in the dark. If we see a moon, we’ll play the game we alternately call “Murderer in the Woods” or “Werewolf.” We need a moon for this game; we need all three of us; we need the swingset. Given these three things, we can play deep into the night.

Two of us swing in the glider. It’s a comfortable size; we two can sit side by side and swing at a good clip. The air slides warm over our faces, through our hair. We face the house and make conversation. We’re a couple, driving through the woods at night, or a pair of campers, on our way home, or brother and sister, driving down the mountain. The job of driver rotates evenly; none of the three roles is preferred over the others. Driver and passenger talk as we think adults should – of the party we’ve left, or of the depth of the woods, or the charm of the moon. The swing squeaks; leaves whisper; the tension leaves our bodies. We really are just driving along, happy suburban people with orderly lives, enjoying the handling of our station wagon.

Then terror strikes.

The murderer (or the werewolf) leaps from behind the curve of the road (or the clump of firs, or the boulder, for the stucco corner of the house can be all those things and more) and attacks.

The monster savages the car. It grapples at the door, it climbs the slide and towers over its victims. It slavers and gibbers; its claws reach in … and the driver and passenger panic, scream, step on it. They slap frantically at the monster’s clutch. They cling to each other in terror that’s somehow genuine. The car speeds wildly along the mountainous road; the tires screech and slip, glass breaks.

Does the monster, hook-armed murderer or beast, ever get in the car? I can’t remember. I don’t know that it ever needed to. It had accomplished its goal; it had tasted the power of terror. The screams subsided. The drive begins again, with a new driver, a new passenger, a new monster lurking behind the trees. The adults drive, and admire the moon, and talk as adults should, about what a fun camping trip it has been, or how well Grandma was looking, and how long until they are home again. The night is warm and the moon hangs low. Soft wind ruffles our hair. In the house, in our real house, a real monster is waiting, a monster with neither hook nor fangs, one that hides in plain sight and can’t be fought off, can’t be screamed off. But right now we are driving. The tension is leaving our bodies. The night is beautiful, the woods are safe and deep. We drive and we talk. Any attack that comes, we know we can weather. We’re together. And for this moment, hanging perfectly, fleetingly, we are perfectly safe.

Nyia Page

But with humility I have to say: this isn’t Nyia’s story: it’s mine.

The Achilles heel, the chink in the armor. The soft underbelly, the hot button, the fatal flaw. What else do we have in our armament of language, what other analogies for that point in our psyche, invisible until touched? Placid, competent, we’re sailing smooth and smug, temperate and level, and then that tender spot is brushed, and whoosh … we are engulfed in flames.

I was always a child moved to tears by other’s tragedies, other’s pains. A dog dead on the street, a stranger’s funeral, a mother slapping a child an aisle over in the K-mart: I’d cry in sincere pain over these once-removed pains, as much as over my own. Probably, in retrospect, that’s why I started to meditate. Buddhism teaches our interconnectedness, but my hyperactive nerve endings, always too alert to the world’s pains, knew that part all too well; it was the question of how to soothe that pain I sought. The more I looked around, the more I learned, the more I hurt. There were dead kittens in the gutter, wire around their throats, on my street; there were weal-raising beatings in my house, and the neighbor’s, and across the street, and, when I raised my eyes beyond my street, as far as I could tell, in every house on every street as far as the eye could see. And then, there had been genocides, there were waves of starvation; there had been torturers in wartimes and there were wars going on, now, secret and open, from Peru to Nicaragua and on and on, there was Anne Frank and there were stalkers and serial killers and factory farms, there were cattle standing in line now, there were despots and johns gesturing now, and in each tidy news story were jostling thousands upon thousands of dead kittens, bruised and lifeless infants, children wounded and weeping or staring dead-eyed, there were slit and bleeding mothers grieving it all, rape after rape and blow after blow, children left alone again and again, again, the boot crushing the face again, again, again. I felt burned by it all; scalded anew, repeatedly, yet also numbed, drained. Sisyphus and Prometheus and me.

Buddha’s message, we are not our bodies: it was a balm; it was a lifeline. We will take birth again: the relief, the hope. Love is what is real: sanity, buoyancy. Just be aware: I could feel again, feel both the staggering blow of the world’s injustice and the delicate brush of the violet’s petal, the moth’s wing. Let others praise the love of Jesus for giving them their lives; for me, the drawn rictus of the face, the mutilated hands, the blank horror of the cross guarantees that there is no respite for me there. The serenity of Buddha, though, accepts me, is accepted.

And with that help, I walk a tightrope. I balance it well, most days; I feel that I’m doing right, day by day, in my job and my relationships. I even think I’m filling, in my paltry way, a grain of sand here and there on the right side, I try to stay aware of the evanescent delicacies of the world — the paper-thin skin of the newborn, the flutter of the finch in the eaves, the sweet exhale of my child — even as I try not to block, but not to drown in, the deluge of the world’s agonies.

But then I lose it.

Two lines in a New York Times story; a life, no stronger and no longer than a candle’s flame, than a moth’s wing blinking in a porch light.
I can’t tell you this story. Her story isn’t mine to tell, and anyway, I don’t think that I can. It’s not her “story” that haunts me, anyway; it’s her; I can’t stop thinking of this baby. I can’t stop wishing that I could catch her, hold her, cradle her tiny and infinitely precious life, kiss her toes and tickle her knees and breathe the sweetness of the back of her baby’s neck. Warm her and rescue her and hide her away.

I of course can do none of those things.
The real tragedy is that her mother, her mother can’t, either.

When feel that, actually feel that, a millisecond’s worth, I wish for a flickering moment I could quit this world that I love.

My question:
What do we do with this pain?

Rapunzel, Rapunzel …

Heh, I did an iphone post this morning from the PCC shuttle as the snow swirled around me, people — yes, it’s freakishly snowing again — talking about how my photography output has tripled or something because of the iphone.  And added a number of iphone shots of friends to prove it.  And the post got lost in the ether.  Such is life.

I do have *some* of the iphone pics on this computer, though, so here goes.


Julie was here oh, weeks ago, and we spent a lovely day together – partly here, at the MK Guth exhibition, ” Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping.” I hope to be back this week to see it again.  It’s  “an interactive sculpture composed of more than a quarter mile of synthetic golden hair” and was last seen at the Whitney … some awesome custom-made jackets were on display as well.

guth-apexThis shot’s from the PAM website.

It was all very fitting as Echo’s been very into hearing my telling of the Rapunzel story quite a lot recently.  Anyway, very surreal, lovely and moving experience … though surely in a significantly smaller space than the pic above indicates.

Butterfly, Fly Away

To counteract the theme of the last few posts … let’s go from the ridiculous to the sublime.

One of the major reasons I like to sew – and I think this is true for most crafty types – is that I just flat-out love textiles. I love the textures, the colors. I love the vast variety, from polished cottons, cool and crisp, to thick spongy wools, soft yet scratchy, with the scent memory of the lamb that gave them. Just look at a name and free-associate:




They’re so specific, I can’t think of adjectives that could better your own memories; they are themselves adjectives. Sensual, tactile, visual; fabrics are delightful, to me. And nostalgic. Like a scent brings a memory to the fore in sharp focus, a textile can bring to life a memory or a mood – or a relationship, a person, a loved one.

Here are two textiles, both lovely to see and lovely to touch. Both given to me by dear friends, and both treasured. And both with a butterfly theme.

This silk tablecloth was a gift from my dear friend J.

Of course, there’s a story here. And of course, like most textile stories, it revolves around women, women’s lives and women’s homes.

J. is from the mythical city of New York, born and raised there in the mythical days before Giuliani. As is her husband, P., and by extension, her mother-in-law. They belong to a group that I, West-Coast born and raised, Mexican-American, from a different generation, don’t really know, don’t really understand from experience: Brooklyn Jews, committed to social justice; activists, unionists. People from a neighborhood and a time and a place, from a culture, that’s to me more myth, more history, than real experience. But it is the lived experience of this family, and specifically, this woman; the mother-in-law of my friend.

After her death, boxes and boxes of her belongings, including beautiful linens, were shipped to J.’s family. Really, I knew this woman only through the black-and-white photos (people in dark clothes, standing on stoops) on J.’s walls, but I heard some stories at this time as I helped J. open a box or two and riffle through it. “Pick something out,” J said. “No, no way,” I answered. These things were hers, memorabilia, it seemed to me, of not just a person, but somehow of much more.

But she insisted: it was okay, it was what what she wanted. And if you know J., you know she never says a thing she doesn’t mean.

I treasure this tablecloth. It should be ironed, clearly, but I don’t want to risk it. It is a fragile thing; the bronze print sits on the silk like a jewel would on a butterfly’s wing. I take it out, I enjoy it, I spread it out for a day, for a few hours, and look at it, touch it, remember, and put it away.

And I put it away next to this, another story.

A velvet quilt, hand-pieced, hand-quilted; a gift from my beloved friend Rachel Brezinski.

Rachel is another woman who’s part of a culture, a time and a place, that belongs to American myth as much as reality. She “went back to the land:” left Europe for Northern California to practice self-sufficiency. She canned, baked, preserved and pickled. She butchered, cured, irrigated and weeded. She fed her family, and clothed them, and schooled them.

And, seeing the environmental devastation – the poisons, the clearcutting – there in Trinity County, she started an environmental group at a time when it was a truly radical thing to do. I understand the group is still active.

Echo was … what, two moths old? when this arrived in the mail with a letter. Rachel had wrapped her babies – or at least, one of them – in this quilt (even if he can’t remember it). I laid Echo in it, yes, but not much more. I mean, look at the hand-quilting: every stitch, every one, picked out through three layers. The piecework; irregular angles, circles, all in velvet. Imagine the touch of this velvet. Imagine, too, the possibility of baby barf.

Here you have them: two treasures. I keep them together, bring them out together, stroke and snuggle them and then refold them. As beautiful as they are alone, it’s the stories, the lives and memories that make them most precious.

I’ve heard the complain that handiwork, sewing and knitting, are somehow anti-feminist; that to craft is retrograde, to cook is rechaining yourself to the patriarchy. Here’s my rebuttal: these two pieces, among others. Feminism has everything to do with women’s lives, their everyday reality. It’s about re-investing those lives with value, not erasing or ignoring them; remembering them, treasuring them, speaking about them. Feminism is inherent in handicrafts. And both, of course, are dear to me.