A Bitch Dreams of Buddha Hillary

After twelve days of bouncing around between and among numbness, outrage, horror, and sorrow, I had a dream last night that took me close to something like hope and happiness for the first time since election night. I share the details with you because I welcome your interpretive assistance and because I figure maybe you could use a glimpse of something like hope and happiness, too.

On the surface, the dream seems mostly to be about missed connections and lost opportunities. My partner and I are at Hillary Clinton’s inauguration. (See what I mean?) In one scene, I am trying to secure space for us to stand and watch the speech. She takes off with other friends. I don’t remember where they were headed, but I wasn’t upset about their leaving. They’ll be back. I have to do some negotiating with folks around me to save enough space, but that works out. I don’t think I dreamed the part where my partner returns and we listen to the speech. There’s a gap in the dream. In the next scene, we’re standing in line in a shop or cafe to get some kind of inauguration cake. It’s very crowded. We finally get up to the counter and the guy says, “Sorry, we’re not giving out anymore cake.” I can see they still have some. “Why not?” I ask. He shakes his head no. “We’re just not.”

So, yeah: Missed connections, lost opportunities, disappointment. The hopeful part actually came before everything I’ve just described, and I love it because it’s the goofy, wonderful, only-in-a-dream part.

In this earlier scene, my partner and I are together. I may be embellishing a bit here, but it seems to me we are on the steps of the Capitol, which is, of course, where presidential inaugurations take place. We are standing very close to the action, which (and this is the goofy, dreamy part) is taking place in a big beautiful pool – something like the Capitol’s reflecting pool only much deeper. The colors of this scene are gorgeous – the whiteness of the Capitol, the blueness of the pool and sky, the crystal clarity of the water as a bright yellow sun shines upon it. We are transfixed by what is happening in the pool, because Hillary Clinton is in it, riding a porpoise. (I swear I’m not embellishing that part.) We watch as she and the porpoise dive down into the water and then pop back up. She’s in a cerulean blue suit and wearing goggles, but when she comes to the surface her hair is still perfectly coiffed and her suit looks dry and ready for primetime. What I love most about the dream is the look on her face as she sits there astride the porpoise. She must have pulled off the goggles, because she gazes out at the crowd with a look of utter, head-to-soul delight. She smiles broadly and lets out a little whoop that recalls the brilliant “Woo, okay!” she uncorked with a shoulder shimmy in the first presidential debate. It is a Buddha’s smile of kindness, composure, and understanding. It is a smile that fully embraced the moment and all who stood with her in it. It is a smile to love, honor, trust, and emulate.

The dream was so vivid to me that I shared it with my partner as soon as I woke up, wanting to cement the details in my mind. A couple of hours later, I shared it with my yoga class because the election has been a preoccupation of ours for months, and we are all working through the heartbreak of Clinton’s Electoral College defeat. As it turned out, my teacher’s theme for this morning’s class was equanimity – as in, how to recover one’s sense of calmness and even-temperedness in the wake of something as unsettling as Clinton’s defeat and #NotMyPresident’s victory. (No, I will not use his name. You are safe from that here.) My dream and Natalie’s theme work beautifully together in a delightful instance of serendipity, for smiling Hillary astride her porpoise is a compelling image of equanimity. The porpoise carries her safely on a watery journey that transforms and prepares her for what lies ahead. At journey’s end, she is serene, happy, calm, and ready to face whatever comes.

Now, you could say I have falsified or done violence to my dream in rearranging the order of the parts I recall so that it ends in happiness rather than the disappointment of all those missed connections in the other scenes. Narratively, that may be true, though I’m not a hundred percent sure about the sequencing of the various scenes. Such details are always fuzzy in Dreamland. In any case, I would argue that my telling of it captures and emphasizes what is for me the emotional truth of the dream, which is all about resilience, equanimity, and the wisdom to be discovered through play (porpoises are playful, right?). I needed to glimpse that truth after nearly two weeks of feeling paralyzed by grief and uncertainty. I needed to be reminded that I have within me great reservoirs of strength and the skills I will need to navigate my own and my country’s future. I needed to bask in the light of that kind smile in order to reconnect with my compassion toward myself and all of the flawed, hurt, vulnerable beings with whom I share space and time.

I am not a religious person, but this dream came from a place so deep within myself that I might as well call it my soul, that place beneath or beyond rational thought that Emily Dickinson described as “Where the Meanings, are.” I will call it my Buddha Hillary dream, and I will think of it whenever I need to calm and refresh myself in the challenging days that lie ahead. I offer it to you, for whatever good it may do you as you travel along on your journey. May you also be accompanied by a helpful porpoise, and may Buddha Hillary smile on you, always.

Namaste, Bitches.

Hillary Rodham Clinton

A Bitch’s Love Letter to Hillary

November 14, 2016

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Post Office Box 5256
New York, NY 10185-5256

Dear Secretary Clinton,

I am a proud Bitch for Hillary – because “Bitches get stuff done,” as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler explained during the 2008 Democratic primary.

I’ll say more about that Bitch for Hillary thing in a moment. First, though, I’d like to say thank you for your service to our country and for your generous and inspiring campaign. You rallied millions of Americans in support of our highest ideals of inclusion, fairness, and engaged, expansive citizenship. You enacted a compassionate, feminist model of leadership and earned the distinction of being the first woman to win the popular vote for the presidency. I realize the victory is incomplete and bittersweet, but it is an achievement that history will not forget.

In your powerful concession speech the other day, you briefly alluded to secret Facebook groups of Clinton supporters, urging members to come out and let their voices be heard. I happen to be the co-founder of one of those groups, Bitches for Hillary, which was launched in March of this year and now has close to 10,000 members (of all genders, races, shapes, and orientations). A friend and I started the cheekily named group not because we felt we had to be closeted in supporting you but because we wanted a space for sharing thoughts, feelings, and strategies with the like-minded. The solidarity members experience within the group has empowered them to act boldly outside it. Please don’t think we were shy or embarrassed about supporting you during the campaign. Believe me, the Bitches are not shrinking violets! We are an army of fighters for justice and possibility who advocated fiercely and publicly for your candidacy. For months, I have read with astonishment and humility reports from all over the country of group members making your case at their kitchen tables, in their work places, over the phone, and on the ground in New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

For me, Bitches for Hillary has functioned similarly to the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s or the sewing circles of the nineteenth century. Members of a marginalized group gather in nominal secrecy (I say nominal because the group has been identified by name in The New York Times and other media outlets) to generate subversive knowledge that fortifies them for engagement with an often hostile external world. Yes, it has been a refuge, but it has also been an incubator that sharpened the skills of young activists and raised the spirits of post-menopausal rabble-rousers like me who have spent decades dreaming of a woman president.

The hearts of ten thousand Bitches were broken early Wednesday morning as it became clear the glass ceiling we had all expected to come crashing down was still, thanks to the Electoral College, intact. I want you to know, however, that, in addition to reports of tears, nightmares, and a lot of stress eating, the group this week has been on fire with determination to continue fighting for the causes of social and economic justice that you have championed throughout your career. Inspired by your extraordinary resilience and perseverance, Bitches for Hillary are preparing to advocate for change in their communities and to protect those who are most vulnerable to the dangerous proposals being floated by the incoming administration. And some are getting advice on how to run for office! The dream is alive, Madam Secretary, and the hard, vital work goes on.

Change comes slowly, sometimes painfully so. I have spent my career in higher education, working to create institutional space for scholarship on women and LGBT people. (I’m an English professor who served as founding director of the University of Maryland’s LGBT Studies program.) That perhaps explains why I have identified so strongly over the years with your deliberate, detail-oriented approach to politics and policy. I hope you won’t mind that I think of you and of myself as badass incrementalists, because I see us as similarly committed to creating progressive institutional change bit by bit, over the long haul. I credit my late mother for teaching me this approach to any dauntingly large task. “How do you eat an elephant?” she used to ask when I was momentarily overwhelmed. “One bite at a time.

I’m so sorry that you and we weren’t able to take the last bite out of the elephant obstructing women’s path to the Oval Office this time around, but we will, thanks in no small part to your tenacious efforts and considerable achievements. Some day soon, a smart, feisty, wonky, wonderful, big-hearted Bitch will come along and take that last bite – and she and we will have you to thank for it.

With gratitude and admiration,

Marilee Lindemann

PS: I’ve enclosed for your amusement a picture of the cake I had made for our election party. The words on the cake resonate somewhat differently in defeat than they would have in victory, but they are still true. Bitches are rising, and you have shown them how to soar.


Nobody’s Wives, Together

Or, Thirty Years of Queer Delight

Facebook already knows how this story ends, so I might as well tell you right up front: Reader, I married her.

blackberry pineapple mojitoIt was an impulse move thirty years in the making, one made possible by the voters of Maryland and finally irresistible because of a ballsy woman named Edith Windsor. We billed it as a celebration of our thirtieth anniversary and, “by the way, a wedding,” which was our way of saying that what mattered most to us was not the change in our legal status but the three decades of shared life and love that had preceded it. It was a small, elegant, impromptu affair, which we planned and executed in three weeks in the middle of an already insanely busy semester. (How busy? The night before the wedding, I took a job candidate out to dinner while relatives and out-of-towners were gathering at the house.) We were able to pull it off because a trusted caterer happened to be available and a dear friend is an interwebz-certified secular officiant. My advice? If you’re going to get married, don’t spend more than three weeks planning and executing it. Ignore the whole marriage industrial complex. I got married in a ten-year-old suit and never got around to buying new shoes for the occasion. The suit looked great and I kicked off my old shoes an hour after the ceremony. The world didn’t end. Also: Serve mojitos. And shrimp with dry ice wafting off the platter. No one will notice your shoes if there are festive cocktails and a dry-ice haze hanging pleasantly in the air.

Fine, Madwoman, I hear you muttering. You’ve told us the how of your wedding. What about the why?

What, you can’t just congratulate me? I’m not sure I owe you an explanation, but, having publicly proclaimed myself a marriage resister, I suppose I can understand why you might expect one. It’s simple, really. I stand by everything I’ve ever said against marriage: It’s not necessarily the best way to organize intimacy, it’s a terrible way to distribute benefits and protections that all citizens should have, and it’s an obscene (and probably unconstitutional) way for states to enforce judgments about who and how people love. At the same time, it is, at the moment, the best way to secure a relationship legally and financially. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose and I have already been together for thirty years. We are not getting any younger. We’ve reached a point in our lives where such security feels both appealing and necessary. As I explained to a friend, I may be ambivalent about marriage, but I’m not ambivalent about my relationship. It’s my future. I want to protect it. Besides, I’ve been working to create change from inside institutions my entire career. I’ll treat marriage the same way I’ve treated academia: I’ll resist and subvert it from within. And I’ll continue to argue against compulsory marriage and for the full range of queer intimacies. I’ve always been a firm believer in the value of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time or, as a more eloquent pal put it on Facebook, of being able to balance the both/and.

The_trouble_with_normal_(book_cover)To the queer purists who would dismiss such talk as a load of self-justifying bourgeois crap, I say, fine. You win the cool contest. I understand the romance of precarity and marginalization in queer culture, the veneration for all things anti-normative. I enjoyed my outlaw status and have mixed feelings about giving up my strongest claim to it. I was and am proud of the sturdy, resilient alternative to legal marriage that WFKG and I lovingly built and sustained. On the other hand, I also experienced the terrible insecurity of that alternative one day in 1994, when my partner nearly bled to death on an operating table in a Catholic hospital. I sat for nine excruciating hours in a surgical waiting room, not knowing what was happening to her and not at all sure that the medical power of attorney she had given me would be respected. A volunteer at the desk had shaken my confidence when I asked her to call the OR to try to find out why the surgery was taking so much longer than expected. “You’re not family?” she said in the course of our exchange. “Well, I don’t know if the doctor will talk to you at all.” Live through a moment like that and then tell me you wouldn’t do everything you possibly could to assure you’d be able to care for the person you love in a medical crisis.

More recently, I ran into an old friend in the grocery store, someone I hadn’t seen in a few years. We chatted in the produce aisle, catching up and kvetching about the winter storm we were both preparing for. She told me she and her partner had sold their sweet bungalow and moved into a condo near the store in which we stood. “That sounds like a great idea,” I said. “I love our house, but there are days when I’m sick of taking care of it.” She smiled and nodded, then paused briefly before saying quietly, “Well, I got this diagnosis a couple of years ago.” “Oh, no!” I said, and to my quizzical look she matter-of-factly replied, “I have Alzheimer’s.” I was astonished by the news and pained for my friend, who is probably in her mid-60s and has lived as healthy and mindful a life as anyone I know. She’s a Buddhist, a vegetarian, a yoga teacher, for heaven’s sake! The encounter forcefully reminded me of things we all know but generally avoid acknowledging: That virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded, that life is a crap shoot, that the bottom can suddenly and inexplicably drop out of everything, re-arranging the world and one’s way of moving through it. That chance encounter had a lot to do with my decision to say to WFKG, “Let’s do this. Anything can happen. We need to put ourselves in the best possible position to manage the worst possible circumstances.” She agreed.

The ceremony was simple and sweet, performed in front of the fireplace in our great room thirty years to the day after we spent our first night together. We reaffirmed vows we made in our 1989 commitment ceremony while the rings we have worn since that day were passed around in a small silk bag and lovingly re-warmed by each guest. As part of my vows, I surprised WFKG by singing to her, John Lennon’s “Grow Old With Me,” which is based on a poem by Robert Browning and is one of the last songs ever written by my beloved’s favorite Beatle. I hadn’t sung in public since my killer performance as Mona Kent in Dames at Sea in high school, but the song’s tender lyric so eloquently expresses what love and commitment feel like in the middle of life that I was willing to risk humiliating myself in front of a group that included a number of professional singers and musicians. By obsessively studying Mary Chapin Carpenter’s beautiful rendition of the song I managed a creditable performance, but I did have to make one key, queer revision to Lennon’s lyric. Where he writes, “Spending our lives together,/Man and wife together,” etc., I sang

Spending our lives together,

Nobody’s wives together

World without end

World without end

In last year’s anniversary post, I wrote that the term “wife” is for me beyond reclamation, rooted in and saturated by gender-based inequalities that persist in custom if not in law. “I don’t need it,” I declared. “I don’t want it. I don’t like the feel of it in my mouth or the sound of it in my ears. It grates. It simpers. It titters and totters, uncertain of itself, as Emily Dickinson brilliantly, devastatingly shows” in her poem “I’m ‘wife’–.” A year later and newly arrived in the state of matrimony, I can state emphatically that my feelings toward the W-word have not changed one iota. I reject it. I will not use it, and I don’t want it used in reference to me or the person to whom I am legally married. (Note to the Associated Press: Partner, please. Even “spouse” feels weird to me, though WFKG and I have been trying it out this week.) I continue to believe that same-sex couples can and will queer the institution of marriage simply by occupying it. We can heighten the queering by refusing traditional roles and terms and by calling out marital privilege for what it is, which is perhaps why I can’t resist making jokes about only marrying WFKG for her money. The sentimentalists may cringe, but the truth is that, while my marriage may be legally meaningful, the change in status means little to me personally. It doesn’t change how I think or feel about myself or my relationship. It has no bearing on my sense of worth, belonging, or responsibility. To pretend otherwise would be to buy into the hierarchy of values that so troubles the speaker in Dickinson’s poem, as she looks back on a “Girl’s life” that is supposed to look “odd” from the comforting “soft Eclipse” of marriage. “Why compare?” asks the speaker, unable to bear or bridge the gap between what she feels and what heteropatriarchy tells her she is supposed to feel. “I’m ‘Wife!’ Stop there!” she frantically concludes.

Rather than stop there, I will use this occasion to say that perhaps it’s time to begin imagining a post-marriage LGBT politics. Many of us never wanted marriage to be the primary goal of LGBT activism and aspiration. We had more radical dreams for our relationships, our movement, and our world. We entered into the marriage struggle reluctantly if we entered it at all only because it became a fight to assure that discrimination against non-heterosexuals didn’t get enshrined not only in state laws but in the Constitution itself. In this extraordinary moment when we seem on the brink of full marriage equality nationwide, we should be thinking about how to mobilize support for, for example, economic justice, queer elder care, and protections for non-marital relationships. Some of us will be saying, “I do,” but all of us need to be asking, “What’s next?” There’s still plenty of work left to do, kids. The party was swell, but it’s time to get back into our comfortable shoes and put our queer shoulders to the wheel.

These gals made their first appearance on top of the cake at our "Practically a Wedding" in 1989. Being committed enviros, we reused them for last weekend's legal marriage ceremony. 3/8/14.

These gals made their first appearance on top of the cake at our “Practically a Wedding” in 1989. Being committed enviros, we reused them for last weekend’s legal marriage ceremony. 3/8/14.

On Boycotts

Channeling blog pal Historiann, The Madwoman prepares to get off the fence and take a stand. With, you know, mixed feelings and lots of qualifiers.

Channeling blog pal Historiann, The Madwoman prepares to get off the fence and take a stand. With, you know, mixed feelings and lots of qualifiers.

I have, until now, avoided writing on the controversy that has raged within my academic professional networks since the American Studies Association voted in December in favor of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. I did so because I didn’t feel informed enough on the issue to stake out a position publicly and, truth be told, because I had no desire to insert myself into a debate that seems inevitably to devolve into name-calling and mutual accusations of bad faith. I may live to regret writing and publishing this post, but after attending both the ASA and Modern Language Association conventions, reading a lot, thinking a lot, and tuning in as carefully as I can to the vibe in the aforementioned networks, I feel ready to weigh in. (NB: The MLA’s Delegate Assembly has not endorsed the boycott. It debated and narrowly passed a resolution “urging the U.S. State Department to express concern over what the measure calls restrictions on scholars’ ability to travel to Israel and the West Bank to work at Palestinian universities.” The resolution still faces review by the MLA’s Executive Council and has to be ratified by the membership.)

As a member of both the ASA and the MLA, I have deep qualms about these moves for reasons that have nothing to do with how I feel about U.S. aid to Israel or Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. I have come to oppose organizational endorsements of the boycott because I think they are producing dangerous divisions within the memberships of the ASA and the MLA and distracting the organizations from their primary missions at a time when those missions urgently require attention and action. The debates and votes are also dominating media coverage and supplying ample fodder for those who dismiss politically engaged humanistic scholarship as propaganda. (They are also provoking lawmakers to propose stripping funding from institutions whose faculty participate in organizations that support boycotting Israel, but one has to imagine that such hysterical overreaching will not be taken seriously.) I note with chagrin that in the past couple of months both The New York Times and The Washington Post have extensively covered, and, in the case of WaPo, editorialized against, the boycott, while neither has said a word about, for example, adjunctification, the erosion of tenure, or the slow starvation of public higher education that has put our institutions and access to them at risk.

The press attention to the boycott has perhaps contributed modestly to breaking down the reluctance to criticize Israel and begin to hold it accountable for its occupation of the West Bank. That is a laudable achievement, but I can’t help worrying about the cost to the ASA and the MLA of having helped to bring it about. These are membership-based organizations that rely on the good will and support of scholars and teachers whose livelihoods are threatened by the new normal of diminishing support and dwindling opportunities. If members come to feel their professional associations are spending their limited political capital on quixotic missions tangentially related to the organizations’ main goals and functions, they may well abandon them, feeling, not without some justification, that the organizations have in a sense abandoned them. Poor attendance at a conference session on contingent and part-time faculty issues is by no means proof that the MLA and its members are not concerned about such issues. One cannot, as they say, prove a negative, and I went to three sessions at the MLA that featured Famous People Speaking on Big, Hot Topics to surprisingly small audiences. (Two out of the three were, like Lee Skallerup Bessette’s session, held in the 5:15-6:30 slot. I blame cocktail hour for the paltry crowds.) Nonetheless, I understand why some presenters might have felt marginal to the concerns of a convention in which “the talk of boycotts and resolutions . . . threaten[ed] to overshadow the rest of the proceedings,” as Jennifer Howard put it in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Judith Butler has commended the ASA for taking a “principled and courageous stand” and “assuming the public responsibility to defend equality, justice and freedom” by supporting the boycott. I have enormous respect for Butler, whose work constantly teaches, thrills, and challenges me. Her characteristically thoughtful comments on the boycott, however, are not sufficient to overcome my doubts about the wisdom of  the ASA (and perhaps, ultimately, the MLA) pursuing this particular course. How much courage, I can’t help but ask, have these organizations or their members — myself included — expended in the fight to improve working conditions for contingent academic laborers? Where is our bravery when it comes to demanding resources adequate to preserving quality, affordable higher education? What risks are we willing to take to protect tenure and the academic freedom it affords? If we are going to put ourselves and our organizations’ credibility on the line, I respectfully submit that it should be for causes such as these.

I am not, by the way, suggesting that the ASA or the MLA have been inattentive to the issues and causes noted above. The MLA in particular in recent years has been tireless in its efforts to document and respond to changes in the academic workforce. (See, for example, this collection of surveys and reports.) My point is simply that our efforts so far have been ineffective and the boycott is a distraction that impedes our ability to communicate and educate on matters vital to the professional futures of everyone who belongs to these organizations.

Further, the contentiousness of the Israel/Palestine issue undermines whatever solidarity there is among the diverse members of ASA and MLA, creating or exacerbating tensions and leading to flame wars and the kinds of gratuitous insults one sees in Cary Nelson’s “Playing Heedless Politics at the MLA.”  Nelson is strongly opposed to academic boycotts and even the MLA’s much milder resolution of concern. I have some sympathy for the substance of his arguments, but his post attacking the Delegate Assembly as “a circus with a surfeit of clowns, incompetently run by people who had mastered neither Robert’s Rules of Order nor the association’s own procedures” is a dispiriting example of how toxic and destructive these debates tend to become. I’m inclined to agree with a commenter on Nelson’s post, Jonathan, who attended the Delegate Assembly (which I did not) and felt that it “resembled every other Israel/Palestine event I’ve ever attended or participated in — ferocious differences leading to caricaturing of opponents’ positions, angry denunciations of motives, and all-around ill will manifesting itself at the earliest opportunity. So be it — the stakes are high, for both sides. But this very fact is why I think the MLA is ill-suited as a venue for this kind of discussion and potential action.” Amen.

Look, I know that civility is overrated and often used as a way to avoid or shut down conflict. I also appreciate that many people believe that a strong collective stance against the occupation is necessary to force Israel to change course and that the violations of Palestinian academic freedom under occupation are sufficient to justify organizations such as the ASA and the MLA getting involved in the struggle. I hear and respect those arguments, but I also cannot shake the concern that these actions are not without cost or consequence to the organizations taking them. Ill will may weaken them internally and engaging in what many will perceive as feel-good political gestures far afield of the organizations’ zones of expertise and responsibility will likely weaken them externally. Many friends and colleagues have clearly decided those risks are worth taking. For now, I cannot concur in that judgment. The world will always need saving. Right now, so does higher education. I would prefer that my academic professional organizations concentrate their energies on the latter rather than the former.

That’s my two — or twenty — cents. Have at ’em, Madpeople, but be nice. I’ve got that lasso in my hand for a reason. Peace out.

Off the Wall: Reflections on the Old Year

Moby Dick (beach glass on glass) by the Madwoman's Father, Welman "Lindy" Lindemann.

Moby-Dick (beach glass on glass) by the Madwoman’s Father, Welman “Lindy” Lindemann.

I was reaching sleepily for the second or third sip of coffee this morning when a loud thud out on the porch interrupted my efforts to fortify myself for the last day of 2013. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose was a sip or three ahead of me, and so she joined me out on the porch to investigate the source of the noise. To my considerable consternation, we discovered that the family masterpiece of recycled art, Moby-Dick, had fallen from the wall on which it had hung, proudly and without incident, for nearly ten years. Careful inspection revealed no damage to the painstakingly assembled pieces of Lake Michigan beach glass that make up the jaunty white whale, but a sawtooth hanger on the back of the frame had given way, causing the fall. Whether the culprit is rusty nails or weakness in the decaying frame I cannot at the moment say. WFKG and I will figure it out, though, fix it up, and get the picture back on the wall where it belongs. That’s a good project for the approaching new year: small, doable, but satisfying.

Things fall. Things fall apart. That they should do so on the last day of a year that has seemed so damaged and damaging is convenient for a lazy writer in search of an easy metaphor but not surprising. Things happen. Shit happens. Timing is meaningful only to those who believe in patterns and portents. There are no coincidences. It all fits together. See? I told you everything is getting terrible.

I don’t believe in patterns and portents, but every picture tells a story. My father, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, was not an artist. He was a department-store accountant, a mild-mannered guy who kept his head down and smoked a lot of cigarettes to get through the days on his tedious job. He played the piano, beautifully and by ear, but his taste was more Broadway than Bach, middlebrow all the way. Moby-Dick was his only foray into visual art. He produced it in the early 1980s, because my mother ordered him to do something with the piles of beach glass he kept bringing in to their home on Lake Michigan. He would walk the beach for hours, head down, Baggie in hand, scanning the ground for the rare bits of lavender and red scattered among the truckloads of green and brown glass that seemed to gather at the water’s edge. He would come home and show off his findings, brimming with the excitement of all the world’s treasure hunters. My mother and I were partial to the striking pieces of cobalt blue that would turn up from time to time. We theorized, as the poet Amy Clampitt did, that such beauty could only have been produced by Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia bottles that somehow ended up on the beach and then got broken and polished by the water into delicate chunks of loveliness that would catch my father’s eye.

The glass piled up and up in the ever larger jars my mother would buy to contain them. I wasn’t there when some of the jars got emptied out and turned into Moby-Dick, but I’m sure it was a winter project, perhaps undertaken on one of the many New Year’s Eves my parents spent at the lake. Did they collaborate in its making? I doubt it. I see my father, hunched over the kitchen table, carefully considering the placement of each piece of green glass comprising the piece’s sparkling foundation, wrestling with where and how to place the boundary between water and sky. My mother comes in from time to time and leans over the table, chatty, trying to be helpful, asking why he’s put that odd pale patch between the green and the brown in the lower right and suggesting that the small tail is out of proportion with the massive body. Also: It’s a lake, Lindy. There are no whales here. He is too absorbed in the work to offer anything but a grumble by way of reply. Get me another cup of coffee, Patsy. This is going to take awhile. The moment when he glues the triangle of red into place as the whale’s delighted eye is, I am confident, one of the happiest of his life. A Midwestern Lily Briscoe, he had had his vision and executed it to the best of his abilities.

I don’t recall how or why I came to possess Moby-Dick by the mid-80s, but he graced a wall in the first home WFKG and I ever shared, a funky little cottage on Barnegat Bay that we took because it comported with our fantasy of where writers and scholars would live and was, somehow, affordable for a couple of non-trust funded grad students. Kitschy as he is, he is one of my most cherished objects, a constant, visible reminder of things I learned from and loved about my dad: whimsy, patience, discernment, a willingness to try something new. He taught me to trust silence and my own instincts. He taught me to love a soft yet genial smile. He taught me that a strategically placed spot of red might be just the thing to bring a composition together. (What did I learn from my mother? Find out here.)

All years are a mix of good and bad, hard and easy, delightful and disheartening. By the numbers, 2013 seems to have been a fairly awful year. For me it has been a year of challenge and uncertainty on the professional front (nothing you need to worry about, I assure you) and sadness and anxiety on some personal fronts, as the chatty woman referred to two paragraphs ago slips further and further into the twilight of dementia. Will 2014 be “better”? Oh, it’s pretty to think so, isn’t it, darling, and we cling to that hope as fiercely as Robert Redford clung to his pathetic little sailboat in that great big storm. I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Meantime, I practice that other skill I learned from my father of keeping my head down and carrying on, without the cigarettes. If there are battles raging in the blogosphere, I am avoiding them, because I don’t have the time, the energy, or the inclination to hurl myself into them right now. That doesn’t mean I don’t care, though it might mean I have begun to have doubts about whether these little first-amendment machines are worth having in our laps after all. Mostly, though, it just means I am tired and expending my limited energies where they are most needed.

Here’s one thing I do know for sure, though, so I’ll offer it up as an out with the old year/in with the new year observation: Kindness might not save the world, but unkindness will surely damage it. If you have a choice, choose kindness, not because it will magically resolve conflicts and turn hell into paradise but because it stands the best chance of not increasing the world’s or your own soul’s supply of misery. Simple, right?

And on that not entirely upbeat note, I bid you a fond farewell for 2013. My minimal hope for 2014 is that nothing will fall off the walls. Happy fricking new year, Madpeople at Your Laptops. I raise my glass to each and all.

champagne & flowers

All the News That’s Fit to ME!

The Madwoman's Breakfast Table, 8/6/13

The Madwoman’s Breakfast Table, 8/6/13. You’ll pry my print edition from my cold dead hands.

Look, I’m not reflexively opposed to the sale of my home-town newspaper, The Washington Post, to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, though I was, like pretty much everyone else on the planet, stunned by the announcement late Monday afternoon and the bargain-basement price — a mere $250 million — of the deal. As a friend quipped on my Facebook wall, “If I had known they were just going to GIVE away one of the greatest institutions of all time, we could have all pooled our pennies and bought it.” Indeed. I have always dreamed of having an attorney general of the United States be so unhinged by my vast power that he’d go all locker-roomy over my lady parts.

Anyway: I will confess to getting choked up when I read stories about the Graham family’s multigenerational commitment to the paper and the city of Washington. David Remnick’s haunting piece in The New Yorker about Donald Graham (chair and chief executive of the Washington Post Company) choosing to break his own heart by selling the paper rather than break the Post by holding onto it rings true to what I’ve learned about the family over the years. The love and loyalty employees felt toward Graham is evident in dozens of tributes and reactions that have been produced in the past 48 hours, including these by Ruth Marcus, Kathleen Parker, and Michelle Singletary. So, for now at least, I’m buying the story that Graham’s decision to sell, made in concert with his niece, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, was anguished, noble, and quite possibly in the best interests of the paper, journalism, and the world. Like others, I’m also encouraged by the tone as well as the substance of the statement Bezos made to Post employees the day the sale was announced. It was modest, reassuring, deferential to the Grahams, cognizant of the fact that journalism is not just a business but a public trust with a unique role to play in a democratic society. Bezos affirms the paper’s old values and its obligations to its readers, even as he acknowledges the need for change and embraces “the opportunity for invention.”

Newspapers have been struggling for decades to hold onto readers and make money in a world transformed by bits and screens. If Bezos has ideas for how to do that more effectively than Don Graham and the Post‘s other ink-stained wretches have been able to do, then more power to him. A deep-pocketed internet mogul known for his patience might be just what is needed to figure out what newspapers ought to be and do in a post-print information ecosystem.

At the same time, I get more than a little queasy reading stories suggesting that we might be on the brink of the Amazonification of the newspaper industry. A paragraph like this one brings a mild burning sensation to the back of my throat:

Technology analysts said that the kind of predictive analytics perfected by Amazon could be used to provide Post subscribers with personalized news feeds based on where they live and what they have read before. People browsing The Post’s Web site or tablet app could be served ads tailored to their past purchases, and then could buy products with a single click, media industry experts said. Reader voices could be integrated into online storytelling, with the community voting on the most valuable comments.

Reader voices could be integrated into online storytelling. I’m sorry, sweetheart, but have you ever clicked into the toxic waste dump that is the comment section on any story WaPo ever runs? Lord, save me from a world that caters to and includes such voices! Seriously, though, folks: Is customer-centric news really what the world needs and a democratic society requires? I know, I know — Suddenly I sound like one of those fist-shaking gloom-and-doomers railing about how the interwebz are leading increasingly to a personalization of the system of communications, potentially locking each of us up in a “Daily Me” in which our opinions are never challenged and enabling us to avoid news altogether if we’d rather bathe our brains in gossip, sports news, and cat videos instead. The concept of the “Daily Me” is elaborated by law prof Cass Sunstein in his book Republic.com. The argument is provocative, but I’ve always been resistant to it, finding it in some ways both techno-phobic and elitist. Sunstein overestimates, in my judgment, the virtues of an old media public sphere in which what he calls “general-interest intermediaries” expose readers to a broad range of thought and opinion. (How broad was that range, really, and who had access to those limited old media spaces?) Further, he underestimates some of the potential benefits of a mediascape that empowers the people formerly known as the audience to participate much more actively. Surely that is good for democracy, right?

Of course it is, but I have to admit I began anxiously imagining a nation of “Daily Me” readers this morning when I saw that story on Bezos’ obsession with the customer’s experience on the front page of the paper he will soon own. Thus, when I got to the Opinion page and saw Carter Eskew’s brief reflection on what kind of owner Bezos might turn out to be, I found myself nodding in agreement:

For now, we have to rely on patrons to save journalism. What kind of patron will Bezos be? Yesterday, he said, reassuringly, that “the values” of the Post don’t need changing but went on to say that readers will be the publication’s “touchstone” as will “understanding what they care about.” This last bit worries me. Bezos built the greatest retailer in history understanding and anticipating what people want and giving it to them. But that’s an incomplete model for the news business. What people want is local, sports, human interest, gossip and rancorous and self-reinforcing debate. All that is great, but it needs to be put in service of what people and our democracy need: hard information, accountability, truth. That is what Bezos bought yesterday, and you can’t put a price on it. Now he must protect it.

Even the most committed techno-utopianist has to admit that it isn’t enough to give people only what they want when it comes to news and information in a democratic society. That tension between What Readers Want and What (We Think) Readers Need is one that has always bedeviled the news business, and it’s been exacerbated hugely in the desperate hyper-competitive battle for eyeballs, clicks, and money that the business has become in recent years, particularly for news entities that are owned by publicly traded companies (like, you know, The Washington Post Co.). Putting the Post back into private hands may save it from the relentless cost-cutting that would have been necessary to placate shareholders, but we have to hope now that Jeff Bezos truly appreciates what he’s bought. If he’s the good guy and the visionary that everybody seems to think he is, then surely he’ll come up with something more creative and socially beneficial than the Amazonification of the news industry.

Right? Tell us what you think, loyal readers. Is this the Best. Thing. Ever? Or proof that we are doomed to know only what we already know because our corporate computer overlords think it’s all we want to know?Let us hear your loud, lovely, and well-informed reader voices!

Love Your Butt, Part Deux — With Pictures!

Pssssst, hey, Mr. Weiner, if you show me your ileocecal valve, I’ll show you mine! What? You won’t? Really? You think THAT’S gross and disgusting? Oh, well, what the heck — Here’s mine anyway!

(Tunnel of) Love Your Butt: The Madwoman's Colonoscopy, 7/22/13

(Tunnel of) Love Your Butt: The Madwoman’s Colonoscopy, 7/22/13

You may recall that I blogged about the Love Your Butt campaign, a project of the Chris4Life Colon Cancer Foundation, in March, when I stumbled upon one of its eye-catching billboards in a DC Metro station. The campaign’s message about the importance of regular screening as a way of preventing colorectal cancer stuck with me. (Note to public-health message crafters: Humor works!) I had my first colonoscopy twelve years ago when I was only 42. The CDC recommends screening after 50, but my father died at 60 of colon cancer, so my siblings and I got to start loving our butts earlier in life. For years, I had put off going back for a second test, in part because I have a constitutional aversion to doctors and doctoring but also because colonoscopies are a lot less fun than you might think they’d be. (Sorry to go off-message, Chris4Life, but it’s true.) I figured that my fondness for fruits and vegetables, my avoidance of tobacco, and my commitment to regular exercise made me a CDC poster girl for colon cancer prevention. I didn’t need no stinkin’ test — and I do mean stinkin’!

Still, the Love Your Butt campaign pushed my, uh, buttons, and then the Woman Formerly Known as Goose turned 60 in May, which got me thinking about my dad’s early death and a promise I had made to him about colon cancer awareness. So, finally, after we got back from our summer travels and had bought a new car and cleaned most of what needed cleaning, I gave myself a good kick in the butt and got back in touch with my gastroenterologist. I signed up for the first available appointment, to give myself less time to think about it or squirm out of it. I also went public with my plan, announcing on Facebook that I needed to schedule a colonoscopy and then letting friends know when my appointment was. The response was both hilarious and illuminating, providing a small but significant example of social media serving both personal and public goods. The advice and encouragement I got from my friends bolstered my resolve and helped me endure the physical discomforts of a 24-hour fast. My hunger game involved fielding quips and suggestions from a far-flung network of pals that included a fellow queer studies prof with a family history of colon cancer whose own colonoscopy had occurred just six days before mine. I hailed her as my role model as I sought to distract myself from my growling stomach. She talked about watching the Food Network as she guzzled the prep solution. We started using the hashtag #queercolonoscopy on our increasingly goofy comments, most of which involved pointing out that vodka, gin, and champagne are, technically, clear liquids, which was all I was supposed to have during my fast. Hunger was making me giddy. My kind, quick-witted friends were entering into the spirit of my day and helping me get through it.

Going public about my colonoscopy was personally beneficial to me in that I felt supported in a good but challenging intention and cared for on a matter about which I felt some anxiety. For all of Facebook’s flaws and limitations, I stick with it because I value the ease with which one can set up or enter into such conversations, which are really circles or networks of care. I am also interested in thinking about such conversations as circles or networks of information and knowledge, in this instance as a modest and in some ways irreverent means of spreading information about a serious health issue. People are uncomfortable talking about colon cancer because the bowel is for some reason one of the less popular body parts and cancer is scary and colonoscopies are not fun, but for heaven’s sake, people, “If everybody aged 50 or older had regular screening tests, as many as 60% of deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented.” Sixty percent! In light of that statistic, even our joke hashtag, #queercolonoscopy, might be seen as a tiny act of hashtag activism, an effort to break silence and raise awareness, to urge queers and non-queers to get up off their butts and tend to the matter of bowel health. Here’s one reason to be grateful for the complete lack of privacy on Facebook and other social networks. I think of the hundreds — actually, thousands — of people who might have stumbled across these conversations by being my friend or the friend of one of my friends. If even one person paused and thought, “Man, I really need to get in for a colonoscopy,” then the exercise was more than personally beneficial and the value wasn’t just in entertainment. Look, I know we’re all just throwing pebbles on the surface of the information pond, but isn’t it nice to think the pebbles are at least making a ripple — and a force-for-good kind of ripple at that?

Oh, and how did my test go? Fine, thanks. The nurse anesthesiologist who sent me happily off to Twilight-land declared me “abnormally healthy” when she saw my stats. Surprisingly, given all my discomfort during the preparation, I was cool as a cucumber as I settled in for the actual test. When the nurse hooked me up to the machine that monitors pulse and blood pressure, an alarm went off. “Did I just die?” I asked. “No,” she said. “You’re apparently just really relaxed.” My resting pulse was 41, which was low enough to trigger the alarm. (Yeah, I’m bragging, but my pulse and BP tend to be slow and low.) The anesthesiologist woke me up for the last part of the colonoscopy, which meant I got to see my innards live and in color. “Oh,” I squealed, “that’s a kernel of corn from dinner the other night!” The doctor removed one measly polyp and diagnosed me with diverticulosis, which basically means I am fifty-four years old and I have a colon. (Translation: Sometimes I fart. Sometimes I take Metamucil.) I’m supposed to get tested again in five years.

Maybe I’ll wait six years, not to procrastinate but because then I’ll be 60, too. I was always a Daddy’s girl. I think he would appreciate that symmetry and its painful irony.

And you? You should get up off your middle-aged butt and get tested, too, if you haven’t already. Tell ’em The Madwoman sent you.

In loving memory of Welman “Lindy” Lindemann, who died twenty-two years ago, on August 1, in Phoenix, eight months after being diagnosed with colon cancer. High in some silent sky / Love sings a silver song.

The Madwoman's Father, Mesa Verde National Park, July, 1991. Photo Credit: The Madwoman.

The Madwoman’s Father, Mesa Verde National Park, July, 1991. Photo Credit: The Madwoman.

On Not Resting

Image picked up here.

It’s a sweltering summer Sunday. I had a different kind of post in mind for today, a breezy back-to-blogging sort of post filled with travel pictures and light reflections on the monumental legal and social changes that have occurred during the extended radio silence that has prevailed in this particular corner of the blogosphere for the past several weeks. That half-finished post may or may not ever make it out of the draft folder. It certainly can’t go up today, not because I feel I have anything especially wise or useful to say in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin but because it would feel wrong to publish on any other subject right now. It would also feel wrong to publish nothing, even if I don’t really know what to say. Fortunately, others are less tongue-tied than I am.

Tenured Radical has compiled a list of things to do and read in the wake of the verdict. Bardiac offers a handy guide for white folks on how to end white violence against people of color. Here’s a helpful snippet:

1. If you see a person of color, don’t shoot them.

2. If you see a person of color, even if you think they shouldn’t be in your neighborhood, don’t shoot them.

3. If you see a person of color, even if you think they shouldn’t walk around with a hoodie, don’t shoot them. (In fact, even if you don’t like the fit of their pants, the color of their shoes, or whatever, don’t shoot them.)

4. If you’re a police officer, and you see a person of color driving a car, don’t pull them over for “driving while Black.” And don’t shoot them.

See? It’s simple! We can do this, people! Don’t. Shoot.

The always awesome Melissa Harris-Perry has an eloquent Du Bois-inflected commentary on how it feels to be a problem (which is different from merely having a problem), a feeling familiar not only to African Americans but to members of any stigmatized or disenfranchised group. Our dear and faraway friend Keguro Macharia meditates on the meaning of the words Stay safe to those who are deemed killable, disposable.

That is what it boils down to, isn’t it? We can fret about the weirdness of Florida’s laws or the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case (as commenters over at the Chronicle are already doing on TR’s post), but in the end Trayvon Martin is dead because George Zimmerman saw him as criminal and killable and ignored orders from police to end his pursuit of the young man in the gray hoodie armed only, as it turned out, with Skittles and iced tea. Martin is being compared to Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy murdered in Mississippi in 1955, supposedly for flirting with a white woman. The comparison is apt, except that Trayvon Martin didn’t offer his killer even a whistle as provocation. Trayvon’s crime was walking slowly in the rain, at night, in a gated community. Gosh, it’s almost enough to make you think we haven’t made much racial progress at all, isn’t it?

Did Emmett Till whistle? Did Trayvon Martin reach for his killer’s gun? We will likely never know, and we don’t need to know in order to mourn their deaths and commit ourselves to making the world safer for boys like them. Don’t shoot is good advice for white folks, and Stay safe is the hope and exhortation we have for everyone we love. Riffing off Judith Butler and Sweet Honey in the Rock, I add simply this: Every. Body. Matters.

Picked up on Facebook. Provenance unknown.

Image picked up on Facebook. Provenance unknown. Listen to Sweet Honey perform “Ella’s Song” here.

With thanks to the Woman Formerly Known as Goose, for pointing me toward “Ella’s Song.” Go listen to it. You’ll be glad you did, believer in freedom that you are. Peace out.

Sixty Things I’ve Learned in My Sixty Years

A Guest Post by the Woman Formerly Known as Goose!

[Her birthday was a couple of weeks ago, but we’re celebrating it this weekend. When I ran across Ian Martin’s “Sixty Thoughts on Turning Sixty” awhile back, I challenged WFKG to come up with a list of her own to show how wise and witty she’s become during her long sojourn on the planet. She obliged and has agreed to share it here as the Madwoman’s first official guest post. Thank you, Goose, and happy fricking birthday! So glad to have spent so much of the sojourn with you. Okay, kids, pay attention: Words of wisdom from a cranky ex-Texan coming at you in 3-2-1-0!] 

  1. Growing older? It really does get better. Or at least it has for me.
  2. Where there is great love, there are always miracles. That’s true. (Thank you, Marilee Lindemann. Oh yeah, and thank you, Willa Cather 😉
  3. Goes to show you never can tell: I have been deliriously happy with the funniest, sweetest, smartest woman in the whole world for over 29 years. There were naysayers who said it wouldn’t last.
  4. Wise is the woman, wise is the man, who refuses naysaying.
  5. Goes to show you never can tell: marriage equality really is sweeping the land. Things can change.
  6. Goes to show you never can tell: state after state, marijuana is being legalized. Things can change.
  7. A mom who stands up for the right of her 5-year-old daughter to wear PF Flyers on Romper Room is doing something much more profound than it appears at the time. Thanks, Mama! [Editor’s Note: See photo below. Goose is on the far right, in the black socks and tennis shoes, the only girl on the “Don’t Bee” side of the room.]
  8. All the problems of the world can be solved after 2 martinis.
  9. You may not be able to remember the solutions the next morning. . . .or they may not seem so wise, but still.
  10. The love of a dog is a good, no, it’s a great, bountiful thing.
  11. “The system is working” is one of the most dangerous mantras that long ago swept the land. Tripping right off the tongue, it brings calm when there has been no resolution. (Thank you, Keguro Macharia.)
  12. Calm without resolution is a volcano, and it is an active one sure to erupt. Always remember that.
  13. True friendship can in fact be, as Blake said, opposition, but it is always real treasure.
  14. Laughing at least once a day is the best medicine.
  15. Humor really can change the world.
  16. If everyone spent a few minutes every day enjoying poetry, the world would be a much more pleasant place.
  17. I still have not figured out why it’s never bothered me to get older. In fact, I used to say I was older than I was—30 when I was 27, 40 when I was 38, stuff like that. I suppose it might have something to do with the fact that if you are alive you are also always getting older (as you have while reading this post) and I like being alive.
  18. So I guess it goes without saying that I don’t mind saying “I’m 60!” In fact, I like saying it. So why do so many people assume that a woman will lie about her age, meaning lie and say she’s younger than she is?
  19. Though I really like my card that says “membership has its privileges,” I don’t understand nor have I ever cottoned to exclusive clubs, formal or informal, though I’ll confess I’ve been a part of one or two. But needing to leave out, exclude, has never made sense to me. . .and seems to indicate insecurity, always, without exception.
  20. That gorgeous spring is accompanied by pollen is just how things are—the beautiful often partners with the annoying. Without pollen, there would be no spring beauty.
  21. I have learned that sometimes people really do lie.
  22. I wonder more and more, or maybe I mean that I more and more have come to think, that most people like living in echo chambers. Real disagreement and exchange of substantially different views are more rare than I was trained to believe.
  23. One has to accept, over and over and over again, that one doesn’t always get one’s way. . .and that’s ok.
  24. One has to accept that disappointment over not getting one’s way does not necessarily get easier with age.
  25. The most important human activities are laughter, loving sex, and enjoying a beloved’s company.
  26. Many people’s love of poetry remains undiscovered self-knowledge, and that is not a good thing.
  27. There is great wisdom in knowing when a circumstance is really good enough.
  28. A smile not only lowers blood pressure—it can make one’s whole day.
  29. Done really is better than perfect. . .most of the time.
  30. Texas really is the only place on earth bluebonnets grow—see this from Nanci Griffith (skip the ad but don’t miss Nanci’s introduction).
  31. When I left “West Texas Heaven” (see Kimmie Rhodes), I probably knew deep down somewhere that I was never going back again. . .but I was not at all conscious of that fact as I stood on a plateau overlooking San Angelo.
  32. At the age of 21, “West Texas Heaven” really was the only one I’d ever known.
  33. To grow up in a land where horned toads ran around in the backyard is a very good thing—not only for the individual child but for mother Earth, who is losing such delightful creatures (who will sleep in your hand if you rub their bellies).
  34. Blessed are they who always remember the importance of having fun.
  35. One can feel like a chump for being kind, but that silly insecurity passes. Kindness is true wealth.
  36. Snobbery is laziness. And boring.
  37. Watching The Empire Strikes Back once a year is a healthy thing to do. ‘tis a great way to spend 124 or 127 min. (depending on which version you watch).
  38. My brother Bobby Earl, my mother, beloved ML, Kimmie Rhodes, Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, BZ Palubinsky, and many more all taught me just how important music is.
  39. A large group of people singing a cappella, not necessarily in harmony with one another, is nonetheless a beautiful thing. There’s power in the human voice.
  40. My father, my sister, and other dear friends who can’t sing in tune taught me that singing together does not have to be in tune to be very pleasing.
  41. An afternoon in a good museum lowers one’s blood pressure.
  42. A walk on a beautiful sunny day lowers one’s blood pressure.
  43. A walk on a cloudy day lowers one’s blood pressure.
  44. 45 minutes on the treadmill listening to Helen Leight lowers one’s blood pressure.
  45. Yoda: “There is no why.” That is often true.
  46. Yoda:  “Do or do not. There is no try.” That is always true.
  47. “I don’t believe it.” Yoda: “That is why you fail.” That truth speaks for itself.
  48. Obi-wan: “Don’t give in to hate. That leads to the dark side.” True. It’s also true about envy, jealousy, any and all despisals—listen to Muriel Rukeyser.
  49. A cocktail in the late afternoon with a dear friend is heaven on earth.
  50. “Give Peace a Chance” is so very important for individuals and groups and organizations alike. Wait a minute, it’s not just very important, it’s crucial.
  51. Life really does happen while you’re making other plans. John Lennon, who famously reminded us of this, should know.
  52. When the poets “stand back and let all be” (see “Jungleland,” Mr. Springsteen) we are in trouble, deep trouble.
  53. Winning is not really anything lasting or important—it really is how you play the game.
  54. My friend Margie is right—“ecological hope is really about love.”
  55. Staying up nearly all night talking to my friend William 36 years ago was a very good thing to do—we have the gift of true friendship and there just can’t be anything better than that.
  56. I am the wealthiest and most fortunate woman on earth—I have more than a handful of true friends who really are family.
  57. Taking stock, as I have done here, should be done more often than once every 60 years.
  58. “Ethically, I am looking for / An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness. / No loopholes except maybe mosquitoes.” The older I get, the more wise I realize are these words of my mentor and dear friend Alicia Ostriker.
  59. One doesn’t have to be Henry James to know that “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” 
  60. The road goes on forever, comrades, and the party need never end.

mn romper room

 (Photo Credit: Smith Family Archive. WFKG on Romper Room, 1958.)

Runners’ Worlds

4:14:10 was my time in the one and only marathon I ever ran. Four hours, 14 minutes, 10 seconds. 26.2 miles. The Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. 1999. I was forty.

For the better part of a year, I had trained for the race with one of my best friends. She lived across the street from me at the time and turned forty a couple of months after I did. Running was her idea, but running a marathon was my idea. It was a dream that had somehow gotten lodged in my head years earlier, probably in the late 70s when George Sheehan was promoting running as the path to enlightenment. (For the record, dude was right. Read all about it.) I doubt that either of us alone would have committed ourselves to the preposterous notion of preparing ourselves to run 26.2 miles. Separately, we were just a couple of middle-aged chicks looking to get back into shape post-motherhood (her) and post-tenure (me). Together, we were Thelma and Louise, carb-loading instead of gun-toting. We mapped out a sensible but strenuous training plan that had us slowly building our endurance through a mix of shorter and longer runs, gradually increasing the distances of the long runs we did on weekends. We did most of our running on a beautiful paved trail just blocks from our houses. We ran occasional races to get a feel for that experience. We stuck with our plan, through rain, snow, searing heat, and the painful dissolution of my friend’s domestic partnership. Our bodies changed. Our friendship deepened, as friendships will do when the parties do things like provide cover for one another when circumstances require urinating al fresco. (Don’t ask. Or go ahead and ask. It’s not as if I’m too modest to tell you.) On race day, we stood on the starting line together with goofy grins on our faces and determination in our sculpted legs. 26.2 miles later a beefy young Marine kneeled down in front of me to remove the timing chip from my shoe. When he stood up, he put a finisher’s medal around my neck. Our eyes met. “I did it, didn’t I?” I said. “Yes, ma’am, you did,” he replied. “You did a great job.”

The Madwoman's finisher's medal and race bib from 1999 Marine Corps Marathon.

The Madwoman’s finisher’s medal and race bib from 1999 Marine Corps Marathon. With notes on time and place scribbled in above the number. Proud? To this day.

4:14:10. If I had run that time Monday in Boston, I wouldn’t have made it to the finish line by the time the bombs went off. Photos and video show the race clock at 4:09:55 when the first explosion rocked Boylston Street. I would have been among the thousands left trying to absorb both the shock of a violent event and the disappointment of not being able to complete a major milestone. A New York Times article provides a poignant glimpse of runners in precisely that situation the morning after the incident:

Marathon officials had set up an ad hoc site adjacent to the crime scene, where runners who had been stopped before the finish line could pick up their medals and bright yellow bags of belongings that they had left at the start. What would ordinarily be a moment to bask in accomplishment was a grim occasion, as runners — many with tears in their eyes — wondered what to make of a medal for a marathon they had been unable to complete.

“It’s heartbreaking to not cross the finish line, you train so hard for this,” said Lauren Field, an auctioneer who now lives in Hampstead, N.H., who was stopped blocks from the finish line. “It’s sad, but I’m safe.”

Caroline Burkhart protested gently as a volunteer handed her a medal. “I didn’t finish,” she said, explaining that she had stopped at mile 25.2. She took off the medal and examined it. “Memories,” she said, with a shudder. “Next year, I’ll wear it.”

Look, I know: People were maimed and killed in Boston on Monday. People are maimed and killed somewhere on the planet every day, and my country is often directly or indirectly responsible for the maiming and the killing. It would be obscene to compare the disappointment of a race cut short to the tragedies of lives cut short and bodies blown apart, but that isn’t what I’m doing here. In the scheme of things, the heartbreak experienced by runners like Lauren Field and Caroline Burkhart might not count for much, but it does count — for them as individuals, for all of us who now have one more scenario of ordinary moments turning into disasters to play out in our heads as we lie awake at night. I want to acknowledge and honor the heartbreak of the runners who were denied the chance to complete their races on Monday. I want to give them space not to be consoled by medals that on some level they know they don’t deserve. You don’t go to Boston to run 25.2 or 26.1 miles. You go to Boston to run 26.2 miles. Training matters, yes, and the journey counts for something, but crossing the finish line is, after all, the point. If you don’t reach it, for whatever reason, the only honest thing you can say, no matter how much it hurts, is, “I didn’t finish.”

Here’s a thought, which I offer for free to the organizers of the Boston Marathon and to all who believe that running is the path to enlightenment, as long as you finish the race:

Next year, open the race to everybody.

No qualifying times. No elite entrants. Make it as big as you can possibly make it — and here’s the really radical part:

Let the 5000 runners who weren’t allowed to finish this year lead the pack.

Yeah, it’ll be slow and messy and perhaps as much a party as a race, but perhaps a celebration is what’s called for. Marathoning is, as a friend remarked on Facebook yesterday, about endurance and striving, but it is also about “pageantry and communal joy.” I propose that next year Boston devote itself fully to communal joy. Acknowledge that a 4-, 5-, or 6-hour race is as noble and beautiful as one that is barely over 2 hours. Tell the world that on this day and in this place we run to declare that nobody wins unless everybody wins — and everybody wins if and only if everybody finishes. Today, we dedicate ourselves to getting everyone across the finish line. Come hell or high water.

Do that, Boston, and with dog as my witness I swear I will commit myself to doing what I thought I would never do: Run a second marathon. C’mon, Boston, make me do it!

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