Gossip and Wisdom

As you know, we’re now shipping people off to countries that torture their prisoners in order to extract information from them without having to dirty our own hands.

Keeping that in mind, let’s talk about family holidays, and the gendered division of work. We all know the stereotype: women in the kitchen cleaning up and men in the living room watching TV. This is annoying, that men lounge and women clean, but in the kitchen, you learn some shit. One of the things you learn is about marrying the man who left his wife for you. As one of my aunts put it: if he’ll do it with you, he’ll do it to you.

America, you are implicated in the behavior of our government. Maybe you don’t care, because you don’t give a shit what we’re doing to people who aren’t Americans. Fair enough. But the wisdom of my aunt holds true in this case. If you can’t bring yourself to give a shit about what we do to non-Americans, bring yourself to give a shit about what this means for what might happen to us.


There was strawberry sauce on the cheesecake. I asked myself, “Is it worth the itch?” I said, “Yes.” Little did I know, the right question was, “Do you want to puff up like a giant marshmallow and inexplicably wake up from a weird-ass pain in your finger that alerts you to your puffy marshmallow status?”

Bob Edwards

Bob Edwards wonders why people aren’t more outraged. This is a good question. I have an answer: Conspiracy Theorists.

For years, conspiracy theorists have sat on my TV presenting me with seemingly plausible “explanations” for shit that really has no good explanation other than individual idiocy.

Who killed the Kennedys? Dr. King? Who keeps alien craft out at a top secret facility in New Mexico? Who faked the moon landing?

For forty years, we’ve been telling ourselves a story about how our government doesn’t play by its own rules. And sitting out there at the very edge of that are, I think, these assassinations and fairy tales. We don’t all believe that the government would go that far, but it’s all out there in the distance like a beacon, showing us the contours of how bad it might be.

And anything that happens–torturing prisoners, keeping people detained without constitutional rights, lying about weapons of mass destruction, paying reporters, etc.–just fills in an area that conspiracy theorists have already outlined for us.

Why was the X-Files so popular? Enemy of the State? 24? Alias?

Because we already believe that there are parts of the government so secret and so powerful that they operate beyond the law and we can’t stop them.

There is no outrage because we were already living in a country where this kind of behavior seemed possible. We all thought the day had already come–long before this–in which our country was secretly unrecognizable to us.


Can a thing be both cool and depressing? If so, then Amazon.com’s warehouse is truly that. On the one hand, it’s enormous, like a forest of books and cds and DVDs all waiting quietly on three endless floors. Eighty-seven miles of shelves and pickers pushing carts back and forth and up and down.

You order a book and immediately this massive system sets to work to fill your order. Books and the other items come from all over the warehouse, converging first in bins, then on conveyer belts, then on shelves, then cardboard trays. Then everything is wrapped in plastic, put in a box, stuffed with bubblewrap, labeled and taped, and sent.

Above the hot machinery in shipping–each piece of equipment making its own rhythmic noise–snakes a white tube of cool air undulating under the power of fans, lined with holes to direct the air to the hot workers below.

My favorite part, and my least favorite, was at the end, watching this lone woman sorting all of the boxes onto four conveyor belts–one below her and three behind her.

There, in those boxes, are the words that we write and carefully edit and agonizingly design. There, in those boxes, are the books that we cherish. We wait with glee for that package, opening those books to random pages to take a peek at what awaits us once we start to read. Words, paper, ideas, all boxed up and tossed over her shoulder in a rhythm instantly recognizable–I-hate-my-fucking-job.

It’s the kind of place you walk through and suspect that everyone there wishes his or her life had gone differently.

Things to do while I’m gone

I’m going to be in Kentucky for a few days, and so probably won’t be posting. In general, I’d just let you all flounder along waiting for new material–as happened when I went to Mississippi–but I wanted to brag and tell you that I’m going to English Major Heaven while I’m in Kentucky, because it’s no fun to tour the Amazon.com warehouse unless other folks envy me.

So, while I’m gone, you might want to check out some of the places I waste my time (please glance to your right).

Slate, Salon, and the NYTimes–If the liberal media doesn’t tell me what to think, I stop functioning.

Village Voice and the Nashville Scene–Both are owned by the same parent company. Only one regularly causes me to pray for temporary blindness.

Tomato Nation–Everyone who reads Sars wishes they were as cool as her. Me included. Check out her advice column, The Vine.

1115.org and Low Culture–Just in case the liberal media elite hasn’t done its work, I rely on these two sites.

Talking Points–I love Josh, but I’m so tired of reading about Social Security. Josh, they’re going to screw us out of the money one way or another. At least if they put it into the stock market, we can all watch it go away, as opposed to putting it in our pension accounts and not knowing that we’re losing it to unscrupulous jack-asses until we see our CEOs getting carted into court.

Andrew Sullivan–He’s smart and he’s regularly denouncing Bush and other Republicans for being anti-gay marriage (and anti-gay in general), but he’s kind of insufferable and wrong on a lot of other stuff.

This is not Over–A group blog devoted to keeping people informed about the stupid things our country is doing. The nice thing is that they’re funny, so you can go, read about stuff that will make you angry, and also revel in the fact that other folks think things are ludicrous too.

Mouse Words–I love Amanda. She’s so wise and witty about feminist matters. I keep saying that the one thing feminism has going for it is that women who are feminists are happier than those who aren’t. Letting go of that stuff when you can and laughing about it and, as important, being openly angry, makes you a better person. She’s good proof of that.

Soap on a Rope–I don’t know who this guy is, but he’s as funny as fuck.

Greg Jerrett–The drawings of him are very cute, he’s a provoking writer, and he still lives in Iowa, so that’s something.

Ben Godar–He does not still live in Iowa, but he used to write for Suck and he advocates beating other people’s kids.

Steve Pick–Steve’s writing is fully-packed, so take your time. Like Hersey’s with Almonds, the main stuff is great, but it’s the crunchy stuff that’ll hook you.

Redneck Feminist–Come on. Do I have to say anything?

A Top Five

Here are the top five awesome things that have happened in the past 12 hours, in no particular order.

1. I got up to go to the bathroom and take the dog for a walk and realized that it was only midnight and the music I heard was not my alarm but a neighbor’s radio. Six more hours of sleep!

2. I realized that many of the financial difficulties in my life can be traced back to the fact that the Butcher is, apparently, a 13-year-old girl. How one can run up a $100 cell phone bill when one’s friends are always with one, unless one is a 13-year-old girl, I just don’t know.

3. When I said, we’re $120 short for the month, girlie, the Butcher opened his wallet and handed me $120. Where did it come from? I don’t know. If he’s selling drugs or running an illegal poker game or got himself a good policy racket, I don’t give a shit. If they repossess his car and throw my parents–who were stupid enough to co-sign on the car with him in the poor house–I don’t give a shit. If thugs come to the house to break his kneecaps, again, go ahead boys; just watch out for the small cat.

4. The dog and I played with a stick for a good five blocks. The dog, for better or worse, has only one game she plays: Please pretend you want whatever gross thing I have in my mouth and I will keep it away from you. Playing that with a stick is a lot better than playing it with calcified poop, so score another one for me. Plus, she did her cute little floppy run that cracks me up every time I see it.

5. Someone has gotten us a subscription to Reader’s Digest. How great is this! Now I will know what conservative old people who think they’re progressive are up to, and I will be able to increase my word power.

The Candy Machine

The point of having a candy machine is to facilitate the exchange of money for goods. If I have a dollar and your machine has a slot for dollars to go in, is it too much to ask that the machine actually accept dollars?

Today, I tried all of my dollars and all of my intern’s dollars. None of them worked.

If I didn’t hate the jerk who squealed about the black-market snacks next-door before, I do now.

I’m going to go to a happy place. . . where they serve warm chocolate chip cookies as I read. . .

Speaking of chocolate chip cookies, here’s a tip. If your recipe calls for all shortening–yes, even butter-flavored shortening–or all margarine, modify it so that you use half shortening and half margarine. It improves the taste tremendously.

Here’s another good tip (though it may only apply to people in my family): if you’re just going to eat the cookie dough, leave out the the baking soda and it won’t make you feel so gross the next day.

I can hear some of you squealing about the raw eggs right now. Fine, if you’re going to let the prospect of a little food poisoning put you off one of the best treats in the world, that’s your business. People die while jogging, too, but I don’t see any government entities saying that you shouldn’t jog.

But, if it really bothers you, just use pasteurized eggs.

Stonehenge–the Cheesy Show

So, I’ve now watched this “Stonehenge” show on the National Geographic Channel like five million times, because, at the same time it interests me (the “new” bit of information is that Stonehenge is not only a solar calendar but a lunar calendar as well), it makes me insane.

The premise is that man was happy and carefree back in the days when he was a hunter who hunted by the light of the moon, which he worshipped. But due to climactic variations and getting cut off from mainland Europe, he had to start farming and setting his internal calendar to the movements of the sun. And, apparently, farming is hard work, where as hunting is fun, and so man was pissed off and hated his life.

Stonehenge was erected by the priests of the culture to show men that the movements of the sun in the sky, though slower, followed the same basic patterns as the moon in the sky, therefore proving to the men that the moon/god had not left them, but was manifest in the sun as well, therefore they should not be unhappy.

Watching the computer model showing how the moon rises and sets framed by Stonehenge and then how the sun rises and sets the same way was pretty cool. And I bought that maybe it would have been important to the people of the Stonehenge-ian culture to celebrate the times when both the sun and the moon were framed in specific ways by the stones.

But I am still completely unable to get past some of their basic assumptions about people at that time. Does farming suck more than hunting? I mean, hunting with spears and crude bows, not guns, of course. I’d wager far fewer people were killed while planting seeds than were killed when the bear fought back.

And, yes, farming is hard work, but everyone in your family can help. Even small children can pull weeds and harvest vegetables. So, the workload is spread out over more people. Plus, you can plan how much food you’ll have. You can store it. And you have fallow times when there’s not much to be done–in terms of the fields.

Plus, the show assumes that the culture was patriarchal–that the priests were men, that Stonehenge was made in response to male anxiety about his shifting role in society–and we just don’t know that.

It reminds me of what Hill, who talks about trying to understand “race” in Spanish America during the Bourbon era, says. So often, we look back on that time period utterly unaware of how 19th century notions of race–that still haunt us–shape our ideas of how “race” must have always worked. So, we look back and see that people were divided into races (familiar) and that one’s race was determined by the race of one’s parents (familiar) and that people in the Spanish government toyed around with a solution to not having enough “African” slaves by proposing to take all the non-Spanish babies born one year and redistributing them among non-Spanish mothers so that they’d end up with the right numbers of people in each of the non-Spanish populations.

This makes no sense to us, unless you grant that they seemed to understand that you were the race of your “mother”–meaning the woman who was raising you, and not necessarily the woman who gave birth to you–which means that race, to them, must have had a less-fixed definition than it does to us.

So, what bothers me about the Stonehenge show is that there’s this tendency to look around at how things are right now and extrapolate back from that about how things were thousands of years ago. On the one hand, I’m all for giving our ancestors credit for being a lot like us. But, on the other hand, I don’t think that we can ever forget that we are products of a specific time and that, as much as people might be alike, we’re also very different.

And, when it comes to trying to guess about how folks lived four, five, and six thousand years ago, we’d do well to keep in mind that the things we make up to explain things say more about what we need to believe than what the ancestors might have believed.

The Problem with Cars

Okay, so I am a big fat liar of the pants on fire variety, and not tiny cat pants o’flame, but my own trousers.

I have the greatest mechanic in Nashville. He fixes my car and keeps it running and changes my oil and watches out for things like keeping my tires rotated and, whenever something goes wrong with my car, I call up the Man from GM and tell him what’s going on and he always says, “Oh, that’s the bershabkicarls valve [or some other thing I don’t know]. No problem. It’ll run you about $100 to get it fixed.” And I go to my mechanic and he says the same thing.

I love him, as a mechanic.

I do not want to date him.

This morning, he called to tell me that my oil change was done (the other awesome thing, I can just drop my car off there, walk to work, and pick it up after work) and to ask me to dinner and a movie.

So, I did just what I did when I was buying this car, and I felt like I had to defend myself from unscrupulous dealers who know more about cars than I do: I told him that my boyfriend would not approve–my “boyfriend,” the Man from GM.

God, I hope his girlfriend never reads this, because I am about to confess that I trot the Man from GM out as my boyfriend or fiancee on a regular basis when it comes to my car.

When I was shopping for this car, I stood in a GM dealership looking at a Chevy Malibu pretending to have the Man from GM on the cell phone because I thought they were lying to me.

When the guys at Jiffy Lube tried to sell me extra special windshield wiper blades and I didn’t think they were going to give me my car back unless I spent $50 on something I can get at Walmart for less than $10, I started dialing the Man from GM’s number to put him on the phone with them.

All the time, I’m whipping out his office number and using it to ward off evil. If I had his business card, I’d have it laminated and wear it like a talisman around my neck whenever I had to deal with car folk.

I don’t want my mechanic repeatedly asking me out. That’s the whole reason I cheated on him and went to Jiffy Lube last time–this has been a long-standing problem. But I also don’t want to lose a good mechanic. So, I lie and say I have a boyfriend, and not just a boyfriend, but a boyfriend who knows cars as well as he does, so don’t even try to start charging me for shit I don’t need.

But I don’t like it.

I especially don’t like that I feel like I have to have a man with some authority at my fingertips in order to get my car serviced. I mean, I guess if it’s a choice between unscrupulous jackasses and a good mechanic who kisses me on the cheek every time he sees me, I’m going with the “lie to the good mechanic to keep him at bay” thing.

But it still feels wrong.

What I need, I guess, is to find out where in Atlanta Big Boi takes his car. Because, I’d drive four hours to get my car serviced at that station; I’m that sure I wouldn’t have this problem there. Plus, if Big Boi happened to be there at the same time, maybe shooting a follow-up to “I Like the Way You Move,” we could talk about dogs.

Ha, no, really, what I need to do is learn how to change my own oil.

Most People Don’t Want Change; They Want Exchange

What’s going on between Susan Estrich and Michael Kinsley is one of those situations I immediately feel uncomfortable with and compelled to watch. Seeing a friendship go down in flames, playing out on a national scale is compelling.

And I can’t say, maybe Kinsley is the biggest jerk imaginable and maybe Estrich has valid points, but there’s something about her tone that really bothers me. Worse yet, I can’t decide if it bothers me for legitimate reasons or if it’s some internalized patriarchal bullshit on my part: I feel like I must leap to Kinsley’s defense, at least a little. Am I uncomfortable because Estrich is just doing what men have done for as long as they’ve been in power, i.e. is it seeing her act outside of what I perceive to be appropriate behavior for a woman? Or am I uncomfortable because I see her doing what Angelou warns against, seeking not to destroy hierarchies, but to instill herself on top?

Maybe both.

The ways in which it bothers me:

1. She hauls out a long list of names of women who agree with her. What? We now need armies of people to prove our importance?

2. She threatens him, saying that it’d be better for Kinsley to run her letter and make changes to the editorial page than to not run her letter. Well, making changes to the Op-Ed page is not contingent on him running her letter. Isn’t it enough that he sees a need to make changes and has taken steps to make those changes? Or must she take credit for it?

3. She says she wanted to help quietly, but found that she was ignored. Well, please, who is she to get to help quietly in the first place? Did Kinsley ask for her guidance or is she just the self-appointed advisor to Kinsley? That isn’t clear.

4. She is not the co-editor of the Op-Ed page. Why does she get to act as if one of her students not being published is a crime against woman-kind? Is that the only way we can get published, to know someone powerful? Gods, I hope not.

5. She acts shocked when Kinsley says “Susan – We don’t run letters from 50 people, and we don’t succumb to blackmail.” And she says in response, “I am not engaged in blackmail, and I find that Suggestion to be highly offensive and insulting, and I am certain the many prominent women who have signed the letter would also agree.” Can one refute charges of blackmail while making another veiled threat?

Maybe Estrich has a different definition of blackmail than the rest of us, but a pretty general one is: do what I’m demanding of you, or I’ll take this action that will be unpleasant to you. Saying that you’re going to take your letter to Drudge if Kinsley doesn’t publish it, and that it’d be better for him if that didn’t happen is a threat. On top of that, saying that you’re going to turn every woman who signed the letter against him if he doesn’t apologize for saying that you blackmailed him is another threat.

Christ Jesus.

6. She turns his disabling illness against him in the most abhorrent way. She almost admits that she’s being going around town “worrying” about his health–but then at the last minute she doesn’t have the guts to own her actions, but blames other “people” for gossiping. “People,” she says, “are beginning to think that your illness may have affected your brain, your judgment, and your ability to do this job.”

Yes, you read that right. She hits him right where it hurts, suggesting that his mind is going. I don’t know how many of you have watched a brilliant person’s body deteriorate while his mind stays sharp, but trust me, as much as a person might hate being stuck in a body that doesn’t work, the fear that they’ll lose their minds, too, is pretty great. For her to play on that, for her to even bring it up–not in a real, sincere, worried way, but as another kind of threat, that people are already talking–is obscene.

7. She appears to not understand modern technology, like, the phone. She says, “The fact that you were not in Los Angeles all week hardly helps matters, nor does the fact that you don’t return phone calls.” If he wasn’t in town to receive his messages, how can he be faulted for not returning her calls?

The incident that prompted this back-and-forth seems to have been a combination of the Times’s general lack of women on the Op-Ed page and, then, specifically, the publication of some right-wing nut, who’s against feminism.

Estrich’s response to this is to form “a group of powerful women in this town — ‘The Club’ is the name I have in mind — to throw our collective weight around when it is needed — to make sure there is a woman on the list when Disney starts interviewing CEOs, or to put pressure on News Corp to add a woman to their board (believe it or not, there isn’t a single woman on the News Corp. board, and given that I work for Fox News, somebody else needs to take the lead on this one; again I’ve even gone to Mike Milken on this one, lord knows if working through the system worked, I wouldn’t be writing this e-mail).”

Yes, she’s feigning surprise that Fox News’s parent company doesn’t have a woman on its board. And, yes, she’s proposing that, in order to counter the old boys’ network, she’s going to head up an old girls’ network.

This is just great.

Listen, if some evil genius wants to head up “feminism,” more power to her, but I think a genius, evil or not, knows blackmail when she’s doing it. And the only way I’m uniting with other feminists behind some leader is if she is indeed an evil genius. Otherwise, I’ll make my own decisions, thanks.

But more than that, what she’s proposing is asinine because she doesn’t have the power to do the very thing she wants to claim the power to do. How is she going to organize some old girls’ network that will make sure anyone does anything when she can’t even successfully pressure a friend of hers to put her friends on the Op-Ed pages of the LATimes? Why will Disney or Fox News fear her ability to turn her network of people against them?

What’s she going to do when they don’t give a shit? Talk bad about them behind their backs? Start up websites against them?

Shit, I have a blog, a hatred of the patriarch, and a network of friends. Nobody’s quaking in their boots because of me.

I’m not saying that a lack of women in powerful positions in the media is not a serious problem. Clearly, it is. But if we think that the solution to that problem is to act like Men, Jr. and throw our weight around (when we don’t have any) and threaten people (when we can’t back up those threats) and get a bunch of names together (when it’s not clear we can actually count on those people) and try to blacklist someone by smearing his name all over town (when no one in power gives a shit what we think), we are deep fucking trouble.

We don’t need to reproduce the institutions that have hurt us in our own image; we should be out destroying the institutions. Fuck being in the LATimes or on Fox News. Get your powerful friends together and do your own thing.

The Recalcitrant Brother

It occurs to me that I talk about The Butcher all the time and rarely about my recalcitrant brother. My recalcitrant brother is usually sullen or asleep. But sometimes he’ll catch you in rare moments, usually in the middle of the night at the kitchen table or at 5:30 in the morning as you’re taking the dog out, and then he’s a riot.

He’s closer to the Butcher than he is to me. Sharing a bedroom and favorite vices will do that, I guess. But we’ve been through some shit together, the recalcitrant brother and me. There was the Thanksgiving we had with the Ku Klux Klan where the biggest scariest rural Georgian I’d ever seen sat across the table from us and made not-so-quiet comments about how easy it would be to kill a Yankee and hide his body across the state line where no one could find him.

And he saved my life, once, I believe. Armed only with a baseball bat and a sense of righteous indignation, he took care of a scary problem for me.

Though our bond seems to be forged through life-threatening situations, we also have good times together. The Thanksgiving after the Klan incident, he came to my house. We started drinking when we put the turkey in and kept at it. Most of the afternoon, we had a huge leaf fight in the front yard, that ended with the two of us lying side by side in a pile of leaves out by the street, trying to catch our breath between giggles.

He missed dinner because he locked himself in the bathroom and passed out in the tub. I’d have gladly left him there, but it was the only bathroom in the house.

After my grandma’s funeral, we all went back to her suite at the nursing home to empty it out. And there, in a frame, by her chair was a picture from that day, of the recalcitrant brother and I sprawled out side by side in that pile of leaves.

What kind of music do you like?

The Libertine and I were standing out on a porch last night watching it rain and saying good-bye to folks as they stumbled to their cars and then down the streets towards their homes. He told me that he also had an aunt B. and asked me what kind of music I liked.

Maybe because I was drunk, it seemed like a trick question, one that doesn’t have an answer or doesn’t have a satisfactory answer. You answer just for the sake of answering, so that the person asking has some snap insight into your personality.

As the song says, I like American music; I like all kinds of music.

I like rap and rock and country and fife and drum music and rockabilly and disco and gospel. I don’t like every song, obviously, but I like all kinds of music.

I especially love musicians with a sense of musical history, with a sense of what’s come before them, and not just in their own genre, but in all music. That’s why I dig both Jay-Z and Gillian Welch, and the thieving bastards like Led Zeppelin.

I’m a sucker for interesting percussion and I’m not that interested in genre purity. If R.L. Burnside wants to fill his blues songs with record scratches, as long as he keeps on singing about women sliding their dresses up above their knees, I’ll keep listening.

I still love the Doors and I think every country artist that walks through the Country Music Hall of fame should get scolded by Loretta Lynn as they walk in and kicked by Tanya Tucker as they leave.

I will never forget where I was the first time I heard Guns & Roses (8th grade chorus, when the teacher left and one of the sopranos slipped Appetite for Destruction into the tape deck. Whoo, that was something. I didn’t know what, but I knew my parents wouldn’t like it.) and I won’t forget that, by the time the bloated messes of Use Your Illusion came out, I was already thrilled that Kurt Cobain wore dresses and upset all the jackasses in my high school and bored by Axl & Co.

My parents would always put The Redheaded Stranger on in the trailer at night and, as such, the whole album still seems like a summer lullaby to my brothers and me.

And I love Elvis. I especially love Elvis’s Sun Records songs. Every time I hear him in that moment, when it’s just him singing the songs he thinks are cool–from Crudup to Monroe–I think what we lost when we lost Elvis is not just a great performer, but a great fan.

David Cantwell says something brilliant about Elvis’s version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in Heartaches by the Number: “This ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ doesn’t invest itself in the words, as Monroe’s did; it ignores them. It revels in taking a song Elvis had loved all his life and reinventing it with a rocking sound even he didn’t quite understand.”

I don’t like the Velvet Underground. It’s not that I think they suck; no, clearly, they are an amazing band. But there’s something about how they sound, like there’s too much distance between everybody on the record and, then, too much distance between all them and you that I cannot bear. It makes me so viscerally lonely.

I love music, though, because it’s an ordinary art. It’s constantly present in our lives, constantly marking occasions and reinforcing memory. Everyone has an opinion about it and everyone feels a great stake in it.

We grew up in a house constantly full of music. My dad does the most awesome version of “House of the Rising Sun” on guitar and this honky-tonk version of “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” on the piano that never fails to leave his parishioners uncomfortable with their desire to clap along. My recalcitrant brother plays the guitar and he’s really good in a way that constantly takes me aback.

Now that we’re older, it’s funny to me that there’s always singing at all of our houses, too.

We might be a bunch of miserable fucks, but you’d never know it to meet us.

Charlie Birger

I finally finished the book I’d been reading, a biography of Charlie Birger. It was great, except that, unlike in the movies, just when it gets really good–the Sheltons crossed, Birger double-crossed, Newman gambling with his life–Birger is caught and hung. The climax comes too soon and too abruptly and then everyone who isn’t executed goes to jail.

Ah, but what can you do? Life doesn’t always have the same aesthetic sense good fiction does. And this book, for being “true” is pretty fantastic. You know it’s going to be interesting when the author chooses to summarize the Klan wars so that we can skip ahead to the good stuff. Birger is a Russian Jewish immigrant who settles in Southern Illinois–Little Egypt–and proceeds to make a name for himself as a gangster. He corrupts various officials, befriends and then wars with the Shelton boys, who launch the only aerial bombing ever to take place on the U.S. mainland (knock on wood) against his barbecue stand. His downfall comes indirectly from his killing of police officer Lory Price and his wife.

The indirect result of all of this is that, once the Birger and Shelton gangs were destroyed, it opened up all of the illegal activities in downstate Illinois for the Mob out of Chicago. For those of you aware of the ties between the riverboat casinos and organized crime now, it’s interesting to see that the seeds were planted back in the teens and twenties.

But what’s really interesting, at least for me, is that Birger and the Sheltons ran roughshod, not just over Little Egypt, but from Bloomington south. There were bootleggers galor, brothels, shootings–all this stuff that old Republican farmers love to claim is a corrupting force coming out of the City (and by the City, I mean, of course, Chicago. Bad things happen in St. Louis, but Illinois is protected from them by the magical power of the river. East St. Louis is just a terrible mirage, a curse the evil citizens of St. Louis placed on our pristine state to make it seem as if we have poverty and crime and problems just like everyone else. Don’t even bother to go there, you’ll find it recedes into the distance the closer you get, like a vision in the desert). But here it is, all along, in among the cornfields and the small towns.

One thing I love about living in the South is that you cannot escape history. The whole culture is set up to have a long memory. That seems to me to be in almost direct opposition to the Midwest, where we rose out of the corn and beans related to one another, but devoid of history any farther back than our great-grandparents.

I think the reason Birger fascinates DeNeal is that he was something of a modern day Robin Hood. As much of a murderous criminal as he was, he charmed the ladies and made the men want to be his buddy. But the reason Birger fascinates me is that, though he was a legend in his own time, he’s now forgotten. Deliberately forgotten, I’d assume.

One wonders what kind of a line the Ohio River makes. On the one hand, if you look at the last names of people living in near it Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee, you’d see that it’s not much of a barrier at all. Families crossed back and forth, settling on either side.

On the other hand, it seems to mark a change in philosophy. On one side, you have the folks who will pay any price to remember. And on the other side, you have the folks who want to forget at any cost.

Hmm. Must everything turn into some existential musing with me? I guess so. Still, if you’re looking for something to read and a way to support university press publishing (could there be a more noble goal?), I’d recommend A Knight of Another Sort.

My Day with Annie Sprinkle

Yesterday, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Professor to convert me from my life of hermitry, I spent most of the day with Annie Sprinkle. First, we had a long, leisurely lunch and then, that evening, she gave a talk to a packed house at the artsy-fartsy theater.

There are two things that I’m still mulling over from the experience. One is just how positive she is, not just about sex, as you’d expect, but about everything. At lunch, there were maybe seven of us and she was just as interested in us as we were in her. And she was very respectful of everyone in the room and where they were in their lives. I expected her to be kind of brassy, but she was open and calm and good. Not that those are opposite traits to brassy, but I was expecting someone who was like, “This is who I am and if you don’t like it you can kiss my ass,” but she was like, “This is who I am and I’m curious about you, whether or not you’re comfortable with me.”

The other is how holy she is. Watching video of her sacred prostitute ritual was incredible. More incredible was watching her on stage lighting a little candle and indicating that even on film, the ritual reverberated into the audience.

I’ve spent my fair share of time in churches. In face, if retirement were just based on the years one lived in a parsonage, I’d have been able to retire from the Methodist church shortly after college. So, I know a great deal about how that kind of sacredness feels.

This was very different. Still that same feeling of something holy and good and that intangible presence like something very old has filled up the room. But different, too.

It’s hard to talk about things like this, because even though they make perfect sense to me and are important to me, I know it’s that intensely personal for everyone else–their understanding of the supernatural–and that people go to war over it, personally and nationally. And, though I’m woo-woo, I don’t want you guys to think that that’s all I am.

But still, indulge me for a minute and imagine growing up in a household where all that is sacred is gendered male. Everyone in charge of accessing the sacred is male. And imagine being certain–having experiences that reaffirm it regularly–that there really is something there, that the atheists are wrong and there really is some thing greater than you, who rules the world, and that this thing is male–father, son, and holy ghost.

Even if you, as a girl, feel holy, nothing in your culture reinforces that. The one pure woman the world spit out has already done her part by giving birth and dying, so all that is left for you is to try very hard to not be too dirty, too tainted by your gender. You can support sacred endeavors, but you can’t be sacred as you are, because you are corrupted by virtue of your body.

You might, like some folks, women in my family, for instance, just ignore the stuff in church, in the Bible, and in the doctrine that devalues you. Or you might find that you can’t ignore things, can’t not take the Bible at face-value, and, hence, can’t be well-adjusted and happy and continue to be Christian.

I’ve met a lot of people–men and women–who have seemed to me to be holy in a way that is outside the Christian paradigm. And I’ve spent some time trying to convince myself that I could appease my parents and satisfy my own desire for ritual by becoming a Unitarian. (That didn’t work out because I don’t believe people are inherently good; and I think all religions have something to teach us, but once you get past the level of curious seeker, the differences between them make honoring them all resemble too closely honoring none of them.) But this was the first time that I ever saw a woman know she was sacred, and know that what she was doing brought close to her something that resembled her, but greater.

It was tremendous.

Also, I realized that I’ve been a jack-ass in my advocating for the legalization of prostitution. My mental image of a prostitute is some drug-addled street walker who hates what she does but has no other choice. So, I’ve been arguing from a very paternalistic view point: we should legalize prostitution so that someone can keep an eye on them, make sure that they’re healthy and not being exploited and not being picked off by serial killers.

But we should legalize prostitution because a woman’s body is her own, as is a man’s, and what they choose to do with it, as long as it’s with consenting adults and not hurting anyone, is not the business of the law.

Tennessee–We put the TeeHee in State Politics

Last night, I stayed up late to watch the channel 4 news, which is the worst news in Nashville, which is what makes it the most fun. They always lead with the most ridiculous item. Fifty people could have been killed by a sniper in North Nashville, and they’d lead with a story about a man with a pet bear that danced on Lower Broad.

So, last night, even though our state is in a fiscal crisis worse than the time when they had to shut the state down for a couple of weeks (this lead to a very funny thing: they kept emergency funding for the state police, but classified gas for state employees as something that could be done without, so we ended up only having state police coverage for a couple of days during the last crisis, because they had no gas for their cars) and close all our state parks.

This crisis is due to the fact that our state is full of very poor people who depend on TennCare for their healthcare and it’s the most expensive item in the state budget. The governor is trying to either totally dismantle TennCare or at least reform it. Reforming it will mean that about 200,000 people will be booted from the roles. Most of these people will not qualify for any federal assistance and so they will be without health insurance at all. So, as you can imagine, this shit is tied up in the courts.

But what does Channel 4 lead with last night? A good ten minutes on the drunken exploits of Kid Rock. I know we’re supposed to be shocked at his behavior, but I say, “More power to you, Bob. If you need another apartment in my part of town to hide from the cops in, my door is always open. Well, the back door is always open, because it doesn’t lock. The dog will stand at the top of the stairs and growl menacingly, but it should be okay.” If anything, I was shocked that John Rich was with him at the strip club, because I’d been under the impression that John Rich didn’t care for those things.

After that, though, Channel 4 had the most hilarious five minutes that caused me to almost call the station and ask if it was intentional. In fact, this morning, before work, some folks here in the building were wondering whether someone at Channel 4 has a highly tuned sense of irony or if this is a harbinger of the stupidity to come.

The second story of the evening was about how we are about to ban gay marriage in Tennessee–even though gay people can’t get married in Tennessee. [I guess it will be a double ban, which, like a double dare, makes it harder to get around. “Fred, will you marry me?” “Why, Bubba, I thought you’d never ask. Sure.” “Hey, you guys are banned from getting married.” “Aw, shucks. Never mind.” “And not just banned, double banned.” “Well, hell, I guess I’ve got to move out. But who will get the coon hounds?”]

The third story is about how we’re going to try to ban gays from adopting children or serving as foster parents.

The fourth story was about a straight woman who poisoned her seven year old son.

The fifth story was about a guy “ain’t paid child support or nothin’ ’cause I was in drug rehab, but I been there for my kids” who was trying to get custody of his very young twin daughters after the state discovered that his ex-girlfriend was keeping them locked in a closet all day. Her three other children were also removed from her custody.

I didn’t stay up to see if there was going to be an update on the gym teacher who had sex with her junior high student.

Maybe it’s not just gay Tennesseans that need to be prevented from being near children. I’m calling up my idiot senator who, though a doctor, thinks you can get AIDS from sweat, and asking him to sponsor an amendment to the Constitution banning all Tennesseans from adopting or fostering children, because, wow, talk about dangerous to have around children, that’s us.


When my TV boyfriend Dan Abrams was talking about the female interrogators at Guantanamo rubbing themselves on the prisoners or pretending to wipe menstrual blood on them, he argued that it wasn’t any different from the many ways that law enforcement officers lie to and manipulate people they are questioning. He was more concerned that the strategy didn’t seem particularly effective, not that it was employed.

It bothered me when he said it, but it’s taken me a long time to articulate what exactly the problem is. Some of his guests were bothered that the interrogators deliberately chose interrogation strategies that would offend strict Muslims.

I think this is part of the problem, certainly. It kind of falls into the “Golden Rule” realm. If we don’t want our soldiers captured, tortured, and confronted with things that mock their religions, we shouldn’t do it to others.

But on the other hand, tough shit if some religions don’t allow men to interact with women that aren’t related to them. We aren’t a theocracy and we aren’t bound by any religious doctrine. We do what we need to do and if you don’t like it, don’t get on our bad side.

On the third hand, of course, is the nagging suspicion that some of these folks haven’t done anything to get on our bad sides other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as with the British guys recently released.

But this morning, I realized what’s really been bothering me about this, aside from the general nausea about our government keeping people beyond the reach of the Constitution*. I think the whole thing says something deeply unsettling about how we see women and women’s roles in our society.

There’s an old joke that goes like this: A man comes up to a woman and says would you sleep with me for five million dollars? The woman says, five million? Really? The man says, yeah, I’m a successful business man and I’ve got plenty of cash. The woman thinks about it for a while and says, okay. The man says, will you sleep with me for fifty dollars. The woman says, Hell, no, what kind of woman do you think I am? And the man says, I think we’ve already established what kind of woman you are. Now we’re just negotiating.

I think the thing that bothers me most is that the Big Three monotheistic religions have deep, embedded problems with women and we, as a culture steeped in Christianity, have those same big problems with women. So, we know what buttons to push because they’re our buttons.

It’s not like one of the interrogators was like “You’re afraid of human hair. How strange. Look at all the hair I have.” and we all sat there with Dan Abrams dumbfounded at the foreignness of being afraid of human hair. These interrogators were like “you’re afraid of evidence of women’s sexuality?” and then, they didn’t choose to exploit that fear in ways that these Muslim prisoners would have been moved by–they could have accomplished that with just touching the prisoners or sitting near them or talking to them–they exploited that fear in the ways that move us, Americans–the short skirts, the fondling of breasts, the menstrual blood (real or simulated).

Plus, obviously, it wasn’t just about offending Muslim sensibilities or male interrogators could have also given lap dances to the prisoners or simulated smearing them with ejaculate, since none of the Big Three are all that keen on homosexual activity.

But that would have crossed a line we as Americans hate to see crossed. Manly men–like CIA agents–are heterosexual and can never be asked to trade on their sexuality in ways that might compromise the perception of their heterosexuality.

We’re the ones with the madonna/whore complex–and with it the sneaking suspicion that any and all women are secretly dirty and bad–and we’re the ones yet again struggling with the woman question. Do women have bodily autonomy or does the government have the right to tell us what we can and cannot do with our bodies? Is having a baby the most important task a woman has, a just punishment for sexual activity, or a loving choice? Is getting prescriptions filled a matter of course or at the discretion of someone other than you and your doctor? Can you expect to learn how your own body works in a sex ed class or is it best to keep that information from you? Are you sexually available to everyone who expresses an interest in you unless you insist on being sexually available to no one or do you have the right to decide the circumstances of your sex life?

And, do you have the right to work without having to perform sexual favors to keep your job? Because, really, regardless of whether it was the idea of the interrogators or someone higher up, it’s inappropriate for women paid by the federal government to be giving lap dances, even to unwilling recipients.

We are more and have a human right to be treated as more by our employers than our sexuality. It bugs me that the attitude at Guantanamo–the attitude of everyone there, male and female, prisoner and interrogator–seems to have been that women are defined by their sex.

I mean, we’re supposed to be fighting a war against people whose world-view is supposed to be utterly incompatible to ours. Well, duh, they don’t just “hate our freedom” in some general sense, they hate our freedom in specific ways. And what is it that they hate?

Well, surprise, surprise, it’s the same thing our religious fundamentalists hate, our “decadence,” which tends to mean the freedoms our women have.

American female interrogators pushing their boobs into prisoners’ faces confirms both the worst fears of the Muslim world, and also the worst fears/deepest fantasies of the American world. It confirms the suspicion that every woman has her price and reinforces the belief that, while it is illegal for a woman to trade on her own sexuality for profit, it’s completely appropriate for the government to dictate and regulate a woman’s sexual behavior.

And that’s what bugs me about this, that it says something particularly unpleasant about who gets to tell me what to do with myself.

*Today Dan said that he thought it was okay to keep people beyond the reach of the Constitution because the framers could have never envisioned people so hell-bent on destroying us and that we ought to be okay with it because one of the weaknesses of our justice system is the rights it gives the defendants. Poor Dan has clearly lost his mind on this. Either we have a Constitution that we use to guide us in all circumstances or we don’t. And if the Constitution doesn’t apply to everyone, we should all be very afraid.

The Bulldog Breeds

I was thinking I ought to say something about bulldogs in general and something about my sloppy mingling of descriptors for Mrs. Wigglebottom–AmStaff vs. pitbull. And, I know that I’m wading into an argument that’s probably already ugly, but what good is the Internet if not for spouting off about stuff like you’re an expert?

Here’s the short version. When people see me at the park and ask what kind of dog Mrs. Wigglebottom is, I say that she’s an American Staffordshire Terrier. If, instead, they ask me if she’s a pitbull, I say yes. I think people are afraid of pitbulls, for good reasons, and it’s patronizing and dishonest to pretend like my dog is not one of the dogs of which they are afraid. I can take the opportunity to at least show them that Mrs. Wigglebottom is a good dog, but, if they’re not up for that, that’s their business. I respect that.

But this gets us into the messy business of just what exactly a pitbull is. From watching the various animal police shows on Animal Planet, I get the idea that most folks have a “I know one when I see one” attitude about them. The truth is more complicated than that.

Without getting into too much history, there are a lot of dog breeds that trace their origins back to the fighting pits, from the Boston Terrier, through the various bull dog breeds and the boxer, into the mastiffs. But not all of these dogs have bad reputations and not all of these breeds are still fought (I hope).

Much of the confusion about what is a pitbull and what isn’t comes down to this: the word “pitbull” is used to describe a specific breed of dog, a type of dog, and a dog that has a certain, inhumane, job.

The specific breed of dog is the American Pit Bull Terrier, which is not recognized by the AKC (though it was at one point), but is recognized by other kennel clubs. The American Pit Bull Terrier is very closely related to the American Staffordshire Terrier, but there are differences. I’m no expert, but to my eye, the American Pit Bull Terrier often has a lankier appearance and the look of the dog varies a lot more than the look of the AmStaff in terms of acceptable weights and sizes.

The type of dog is any bull dog that lacks the affable charm of the English Bulldog, including the ones recognized by the AKC–the AmStaff, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the Bull Terrier, and sometimes the Bull Mastiff–and ones that aren’t, like the American Bulldog and the American Pit Bull Terrier. All of these dogs come under the umbrella term “pitbull,” though they vary greatly in size and appearance. That’s why both the dog in the Target commercials and the Our Gang shorts are called pitbulls, even though they don’t look a thing alike.

Then there’s the dog that has the terrible job.

[Let me just take a moment to say that, if you fight dogs, you suck. It doesn’t prove your worth as a man. Well, yes it does, just not in the way you intend. It proves that you are a monster and a coward and, if there is any justice, the dogs whose deaths you are responsible for will get some sort of revenge in the afterlife. Maybe they’ll stand around and watch you morons repeatedly fight each other to the death. Taking the best qualities of something–undying loyalty to you, tenaciousness, strength, and bravery–and perverting them so that it can kill and die for your amusement is unconscionable.]

I’ve seen a few of these dogs and, to me, they look very different than Mrs. Wigglebottom (though this site suggests I’m imagining the differences). In fact, I’ve had a number of people familiar with fighting dogs who insist that Mrs. Wigglebottom must be part boxer because she’s much too big to be a pitbull. In general, my experience is that fighting dogs are smaller than she is. Their faces more resemble the Staffordshire Terrier than her. They often don’t have ears at all. Also, if you look at them face on, their necks seem situated lower on their chests than Mrs. Wigglebottom, and their chests aren’t as deep. This gives them the appearance of having longer legs in proportion to their bodies.

But fighting dogs aren’t a breed of dog the way the AKC thinks of it. If someone wanted a fighting dog that was a little bigger, he’d find an AmStaff and breed it into his dogs for size. If he found a really vicious Lab (if there is such a dog), he’s use that as breeding stock. The dog fighter isn’t as interested in “breed standards” as he is in dogs that can win. He’s actually a lot like those folks on Animal Planet, in that, he knows a fighting dog when he sees it.

All this contributes to situations like the one in Detroit, where animal control euthanizes all pitbull-type dogs, because so many of them are fighting dogs or from fighting dog lines. A pitbull-type dog that is not bred for fighting is no more vicious than any other terrier (which, honestly, as a group, have a reputation for being yippy, snippy, hyper dogs); they’re just terriers that are a whole lot bigger than your average Westie. But, unless you’re dealing with a reputable breeder who’s got a stake in preserving the breed standard of recognized breeds, you can’t know if you’re getting a dog that was bred to fight.

I have really mixed feelings about euthanizing dogs just because they might be dangerous. My first thought is that it seems grossly unfair to punish a dog because of the morons who owned it. But my second thought is along the lines of the one I had when I decided to take in Mrs. Wigglebottom. Who’s going to adopt a grown pitbull, even a nice one? In all likelihood, someone who needs a bait dog. So, if the choice is between a full stomach, some kind words, and a painless death and the kind of death that awaits it otherwise, I’ve got to go with the first.

What are the alternatives when there are so few people who rescue pitbulls as it is, and even fewer of those who take in fighting dogs? I couldn’t do it. No matter how much I liked the dog, I’d never be able to trust it. I couldn’t have it around kids. I wouldn’t want it around the cats. I’d be afraid of it misinterpreting the actions of other people.

Mrs. Wigglebottom has a hard time interpreting other dogs (and some of them have problems with her–ie. the British Bulldog who caught Mrs. Wigglebottom with her man), which makes me nervous enough as it is. It’s only ever led to one fight, which ended when the Butcher stupidly threw himself between the two dogs, but it scared the shit out of me. The other dog was so pissed off and growling and barking and really giving it her all, and Mrs. Wigglebottom wasn’t even upset.

I don’t know if you can understand how freaky this is, but here she was in a fight that ended up with her at the vet getting her ear and scalp glued back together, and she was having a grand old time. She wasn’t even mad yet. I could live a long and happy life never seeing that again.

Still, I love Mrs. Wigglebottom and I wouldn’t trade her for anything. It’s not been a perfect match. All talk of Miniature Bull Terriers aside, I’m more a hound girl. But she’s friendly and sweet and looks like a tiny hippopotamus, which is so cute it about kills me, and I feel safe at any park in town.

Plus, I’ve met a ton of people through her, from the 16 year olds in my neighborhood who know her by name, but not me to the women at the park who squeal with delight as they pinch her cheeks “I didn’t know they made Boston Terriers in that size!”

So, to get back to the original point of the post, in general, I just think of Mrs. Wigglebottom as my big doofus dog. It’s only when I’m feeling depressed about money that I think about how she’s perceived and how we’re perceived and about how lowdown and trashy being broke makes me.

The Westminster

As I was waiting for Medium to come on, I was watching the terrier group judging at the Westminster Dog Show. The commentary at dog shows annoys me and I won’t lampoon it too much, because I certainly can’t do any better a job than the folks in Best in Breed did, but I will say that, when the Parson Russell terriers was being judged and the “foolish” commentator (it’s like “good cop, bad cop,” one commentator pretends to be an idiot and the other pretends to be delightfully willing to answer his questions) was going on about how he’d once seen a Parson Russell try to climb a tree in Central Park, I actually said out loud to my TV (which has never given me any indication that it can hear me), “Ha, you think that’s something, I once was holding a leash attached to an AmStaff who was standing a good 8 feet off the ground in the crotch of a tree she’d just leapt into. That’s a sight.”

The best part of the Westminster this year is that you can watch the breed judging on your computer. This morning, I’ve snuck in early to work to watch the AmStaff judging. I’ve never seen so many AmStaffs in one place! It just tickles me. I hate the ear cropping, though. Mrs. Wigglebottom’s ears are so expressive. I can’t think of anything that so easily catches me off-guard and delights me as much as seeing her run to the door when I get home from work, looking out to see if she needs to bark, and then perking up her ears and tilting her head and wagging her tail when she sees that it’s me.

I tuned in too late last night to see the AmStaff that made it to the Terrier Group, but I did see the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Yuck, Mrs. Wigglebottom has some ugly cousins. I think it’s the forehead I don’t like, it juts out a little too much, but isn’t quite as ridiculous as the Bull Terrier’s, which I find endearing. In fact, I’ll admit, as I was walking Mrs. Wigglebottom this morning, I was thinking how cool it’d be to get a Miniature Bull Terrier after she’s gone. I would name him Tiny.

(incidentally, I wonder how many of you daydream in the morning about who you will marry after your spouse is dead. Is it just a fantasy limited to pet owners or is everyone hoping to do better next time with the folks who share their furniture?)

Southern Diet Frustrates Health Officials

Can there be any doubt how tickled I was to read “Southern Diet Frustrates Health Officials” on Yahoo! this afternoon?

The article is all about how health officials are having a very difficult time convincing Southerners to give up “bad” foods. How hard?

“Even at the Atlanta headquarters of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leader of the nation’s anti-obesity campaign, the cafeteria serves up such artery-clogging regional favorites as biscuits and gravy.”

And, I have to say, if someone wants to eat a “Luther Burger” (a bacon-cheeseburger served on a Krispy Kreme doughnut bun), more power to them. I’m not going to eat it, because I think I just had a heart attack reading about it, but I’d love to see someone do it.

(Yes, I know that the Corporate Shill doesn’t want to have her insurance premiums rise because of all of us fat-asses down here, but lucky for her, few of us have insurance and few of us get the medical treatment we need, so if we rot out our guts and die, it barely affects her. We’re using her tax dollars to promote abstinant heteronormativity and creationism, not to provide healthcare to ourselves.)

The problem is, though, exactly what they say it is: a lot of Southern food is delicious. Believe me, there’s not a green vegetable alive that can’t be spruced up with a pork product (though it does make one wonder how there can possibly be any Southern vegetarians, when all vegetables are pork transporting mechanisms). And lots of yummy things are fried: potatoes, chicken, steak, etc.

But as unhealthy as our meals are, I think there’s a little alarmist tone to this article that undermines the message. After all, not all of us are eating deep-fried hot dogs wrapped in beef patties covered in chili, cheese, onions, fried eggs, and french fries. I wouldn’t even know where to go to get one of those.

Still, you have to feel for anyone who is actually trying to eat healthy, since what’s healthy and what’s not seems hard to decipher.

Eat more fruit and vegetables. Fruit juice isn’t any better for you than soda.

Don’t fry your foods–think of all that fat! Use healthier food preparation methods, like grilling. . . err, okay, not grilling.

Don’t eat eggs. No, wait, eat eggs.

Must we return to a diet of gruel and whatever fresh vegetables we can scavange?

Perhaps this is the safest bet. No one ever died of eating too much boiled wheat (though some have died from trying to steal vegetables from Mr. McGregor’s garden). But before we all convert to a healthy lifestyle, let’s take a look at one of the Southern pleasures we’d be giving up.

I give you the chocolate trifle:

1 chocolate cake mix
1 bottle of Jack Daniel’s
1 tub of whipped cream
1 bottle of chocolate syrup or fudge (mmm, fudge would be very good)
1 bag of chocolate candies

You make the chocolate cake, then you poke holes in it and soak it with the Jack Daniel’s (not the whole bottle, obviously, but you know, give the cake a good drink). Put the cake in the fridge and let it sit for an hour or so to absorb the whiskey. Then, in a big glass trifle bowl (or any glass bowl) start layering crumbled chocolate cake, whipped cream, fudge, and candy over and over until the bowl is full.

Firm it up in the fridge a little and then serve.

Yum, yum.

Dear Gwen Stefani

If you truly believe that thinner and blonder equal hotter, you should, perhaps, not get on stage or on screen with this Eve person, because she shows you up, all the time. I hope you were as shocked as I was to see how your legs now look like vine wrapped poles and how fine Eve is in comparision to you.


Aunt B.

The Luck Discussion, pt. 1

Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld

Fated one is called, Becoming another–
they carved on wooden slips–Must-be the third;
they set down laws, they chose lives,
for the sons of men the fates of men.
–Voluspa, Larrington’s translation

Overall, I really like Larrington’s translation of The Poetic Edda. I think she strikes a nice balance between rendering things literally and rendering them in an easy to read fashion. I’m always struck by her struggle to translate the names of the Norns, though.

Granted, she does a little better than the folks who equate them with the Greek Fates and translate their names as Past, Present, and Future, and incredibly better than the folks who plagiarize off of each other on the internet (fate, necessity, and being), but she loses the sense of how closely the names of the Norns are related to each other.

Urd and Verdandi share a common root with Wyrd, the old Germanic notion of fate. The word means something like “become” or “happen” as you can see from Larrington’s rendering. She wants to get at the notion of a type of fate and stay true to the literal translation of the names.

If you look up ‘happen’ in the OED, you’ll find that the root of the word ‘hap’ is Germanic and that it has to do with luck–luck and fate being inextricably linked, if not the minor and the major arcana of the tarot of the universe.

So, I prefer to translate Urd and Verdandi as Happened and Happening, keeping in mind that there’s an undertone of ‘Lucked’ and ‘Luckening’ in that choice.

Her choice of rendering Skuld as “Must-be” is inexplicable to me. Yes, the whole theme of the Voluspa seems to be that the fates of the gods are inescapable. And, yes, the whole point of Balder’s Dream seems to be that the fates of the gods are inescapable. So, yes, I’ll concede that rendering this future fate as “MUST-be” seems reasonable.

Until, of course, we consider the Old Man. If one’s future fate is set, why does Odin call forth the seer in the first place? Why does he travel to Hel to ask about Balder’s dream? Why does he send another son to the home of Hel to see about bringing Balder back if fate cannot be changed?

I appreciate the folks who translate Skuld’s name as “debt” or “obligation” and I don’t think they’re wrong about that. I think those ideas lurk around there. But I prefer to translate her name into its closest English equivalent: Should.

Another way to ask this is this: what forces determine the kind of life a person will have? What happened, what is happening, and what should happen.

The Luck Discussion, pt. 2

What forces determine the kind of life a person will have?

When my parents were here at Christmas, my dad told me this: My grandpa’s grandmother was deaf and unable to speak. Her father asked my grandpa’s grandfather to marry her because “some man had taken advantage of her” and she was pregnant. My grandpa’s grandfather, also deaf, though able to speak, so I reckon he was not born deaf, but lost his hearing, figured that he’d not have a wife otherwise, and so he agreed.

My grandpa could be cruel to his kids. It’s something I’ve never been able to reconcile myself to, not his treatment of my dad and my uncles, but my grandma, who I think of still as a kick-ass woman, staying with him. I know those were different times, but it’s still hard for me to understand.

Once, after my grandpa was dead, I asked my grandma about his parents. The first thing she said was that my grandpa’s mom had a temper, a terrible temper. And so, I guessed the same thing you’re guessing now, that this is how things came to be how they were when my dad was growing up.

But this new knowledge, that her mom had been pregnant with another man’s child when she married her father, sat me bolt upright.

Imagine how scary that would be to have a baby you can’t hear crying. Or imagine marrying a man because your father made you. What of this other man? Did he rape her? Did she love him? Was she lonely and curious and lacking the religious indoctrination most folks got in that time? I’m hoping for lonely and curious. Imagining being raped because you can’t say who did it, carrying that man’s child, and being forced to marry someone you don’t love is too hard, or not hard enough, I guess. Do you hate that baby or love it? Do you hate your husband or love him? What of the children that came later?

I love it when my youngest nephew comes to visit. He’s a little firecracker. But he’s so fast and he’s always up to no-good, chasing the cats, over-feeding the dog, sneaking out the door because he wants to go look at the trains. It’s hard to keep up with him. But he’s noisy, so you just have to keep an ear open and you can pretty much stop any trouble before it starts. Still, it’s scary. What if something happened to him?

You can see where I’m going with this. I don’t condone beating anyone, but if it’s imperative that your kids behave because you cannot hear them, because you cannot tell when they’re crying out for help, and not just you, but no other adult in the house can hear, and you’re in this fucked up situation through circumstances you had no control over… I can see how it happened. That’s all I’m saying.

I don’t know. It could be that her dad beat her and his dad him on back to the beginning of time. But when I heard this story, I just felt like “aha, so this is how it starts.”

Everyone tells me I look just like my mom. Actually, I look very much like her mom. I have blue eyes like my dad’s brother and am left-handed like he was. I’m the fourth generation of women in my family to go to college and I’m afraid of heights, just like my dad. All of these things, physical and physiological traits, are easy enough to accept as inherited.

Whole therapeutic industries are built on helping folks overcome the things that happened to them. And the premise of many a sociology article and true crime biography is that, if someone commits some atrocious act, something must have happened to him to make him that way.

And we all know the guy who can’t catch a break, whose wife is cheating on him with the boss who’s firing him. But more than that, we talk about runs of bad luck. We seem to have some sense that we can get in a rut, that once things start to go wrong, they have a tendency to continue to go wrong. We also know the girl born lucky, for whom all things seem to come a little easier.

Whether you accept a sociological or mystical explanation for it, is it so hard to believe that one’s luck might also be inherited, shaped by your family and friends and those that came before you?

The Luck Discussion, pt. 3

Magic and Superstitions

So, concede to me for a few minutes that world views are codified into religions and philosophies and then linger on as superstitions before they are lost to history. And concede that this is how one’s family might be thoroughly Christian and still hanging horseshoes over doors or naming children after long-dismissed gods.

Now, see again, how we end up in that familiar, peculiarly American, spot, where the superstitions of the Christian Europeans mix with the religions of the Africans and draw in the medicinal knowledge of the indigenous people, to get our particular vernacular beliefs. If we see each folk practice as both drawing on its own traditions and adapting the useful beliefs of others, it ought not to surprise us to see The Long-Lost Friend or The Black Pullet in the homes of African American root workers.

If you prefer a purely rational way of looking at the world, it’s easy enough to see how curses work. Say you were my lover and I was tired of you, but fighting and throwing you out of my house seemed to do no good. Back you came, with your sorry ways, charming your way into my bed, even though I knew it was bad for me.

Easy enough to go down to Schwab’s and pick up some Hot-foot Powder. Easy enough to circle it around your bed or around your house or across your front walk, where you’re bound to step on it.

And, of course, easy enough for you to see it. And since you know me, you can guess what it is. Then, rationally speaking, it’s just a matter of time before your own mind starts to working, making connections between every little bit of ill-wind and what I’ve done to you.

But screw rationality. What’s really going on here? Even if the label on the prepackaged shit might guarantee that the powder will work, anyone who does anything for you will never make that guarantee. Instead, you might have to come back again and again to find something that works for you. True enough, if your client is paying you, this is a great money-making strategy. But let’s choose to believe that most folks who are doing this believe in what they’re doing.

So, again, what’s really going on here?

Things are always happening to us, forces are always working upon us. Luck is fate is what’s happening. In and of itself, it’s neither good nor bad, it just is. Think of it this way: say some young yahoo is going around with a bb gun shooting out street lights and the windows of people’s homes. Say you have a couple of young yahoos for sons, but, as far as you know, they don’t own a bb gun. Your tail light is reaching the end of its life.

Why does it burn out when you are in the Walmart parking lot and not closer to home? Why does the cop chose to pull you over and not the person five minutes in front of you who has some other minor problem? Why did your yahoo son leave his bbs in your glove compartment, so that they could spill out all over the floor when you reached for your registration?

What if you thought there was something you could do, a gesture you could make, a trinket you could carry that might move luck in your direction? The tail light burns out just as you’re pulling in your driveway. The cop only wants to tell you its out and lets you go back into Walmart for a bulb; he never asks for your registration. Your yahoo sons don’t fill your glove compartment with ammunition in the first place. Even if it only might work, even if you think it’s just superstitious nonsense, aren’t you tempted?

So, say my luck is always having a bed full of charming sorry lovers who do me wrong. Maybe it’s a result of generations of my people making commitments to people that aren’t the best choice for them. Maybe I associate commitment with being trapped in some small Midwestern farming hamlet, and so I look for people to whom I will never commit. Maybe there are many understandable psychological, rational reasons for why things are how they are. Family history, personal history, the weight of them pushes my luck in a certain direction.

But no ones fate is set. The future is only what should happen, based on what has happened and what is happening. Should. Not must, but should. (See how we carry this with us into our “rational” beliefs? Are you repeating damaging patterns? Go to a therapist or a psychiatrist or a priest and get some guidance. Let them help you get beyond this.) And there might be something I can do to change my luck. Depending on how deep the rut I’m stuck in is, I might have to do more than one thing, I might have to do something enormous and dangerous. But I can change my luck.

But another facet of this is even more interesting to me-the horseshoes, the hex signs, the St. Christopher’s medals. It suggests you can cultivate or attract good luck, that you can get in the habit of having good luck.

The Luck Discussion, pt. 4

People and Gods

Once, I was talking this over with The Butcher, who is just about as Christian as someone who doesn’t give a shit about the divinity of Jesus can be (he doesn’t think that Jesus’ divinity or lack-thereof adds or detracts from the importance of what Jesus said). And we were speculating about the relationship between the pre-Christian Germanic gods and people. With the major monotheistic religions, it’s easy enough to understand why God cares for and intervenes in the lives of humans. There’s no one else like him–he’s alone in the universe as far as deities go–and he created human beings. He cares for them because he has such a great stake in them, having made them.

But in the creation story the Old Norse people left us, the gods find Ash and Embla “capable of little, lacking in fate.” Odin gives them breath, Haener gives them spirit, and Loder gives them “vital spark.” There are two things interesting here. One, the gods didn’t create people; they found them. And two, what they contribute to humanity is making them capable of something. Two stanzas later, the Norns come out from under the world tree and give humans their fate, their luck.

So, why do the gods intervene in the lives of humans? What stake do they have in humanity?

I was telling the Butcher how Lindow has this idea that the gods don’t experience time the same way that humans do. This is why, when Loki shows up to dinner in the Lokasenna, and he tells Frigg that he “brought it about that you will never again see Baldr ride to the halls” it’s impossible to tell if he’s revealing a plan he has or confessing to a crime he’s committed. The Butcher said, both. That for the gods, in some way we don’t understand, everything is always happening.

No wonder Odin cannot change Balder’s fate. Happened, happening, and should happen are jumbled by the gods’ timelessness.

But we aren’t timeless. We’re born and then die (the gods die, too, but, again, because of how fate is jumbled for them, they have an entirely different relationship to death, I’d argue). What happened is knowable. What is happening is perceptible. And what should happen is predictable and, importantly, avoidable. Unlike the gods, we can affect our fate. And maybe not just our fate, but fate, luck, in general.

Now our importance to the gods becomes clear. We can do something they cannot. We can change fate, alter luck. Perhaps we can even change their fates, and alter their luck.