Friday, July 27, 2007
Last Friday I renewed my lease for a year. I went to the management office, then returned to work, where I received a phone call as described here. Well, they made the offer, and the salary is substantially more than I even hoped for and would be enough to maintain my current quality of life in large eastern city. In fact, if you compare my salary in September of last year with what I would be making in September of this year, you will see that I have doubled my income. Who does that? Amazing!
Except, there is that lease. So, now I'm waiting to hear from the management company about getting out of the lease. Otherwise, they will make me pay rent until the lease is up or I find someone to sublet. I'll probably have to do the latter.
I also dread telling my boss, the Big Pisser, because he has abandonment issues. (What is with these old, white-dude, academics and their fear of being left behind on something?) He has such abandonment issues that he now refuses to give credit to my predecessor on the three volumes that my predecessor worked for the past several years. Instead, he's giving me credit for the work that the other guy did, just for revenge.
This really bothers me. I'm pissed for the other guy, because he did all of this very detailed work for which he will not be getting even an acknowledgement. It also scares me because I'm being given credit for work that I did not do, opening me up for charges of fraud or plagiarism. Even if that is not the legal case, I feel as if it is the ethical case. The Big Pisser will also not give the other guy any recommendation despite the other guy having worked here for twenty years. Heck this Big Pisser still openly and viciously criticizes a job candidate for turning down the opportunity to work here. So, merely leaving is a burned bridge, and I hate burned bridges.
But that's not really what is on my mind. I'm writing about that -- a good thing that I am polluting with negative contingencies -- to avoid writing about what has me infuriated and has almost spoiled my joy at the job offer. That, of course, is related to this Local History Book that has become the bane of my existence.
As I wrote in the footnote to my last post, the press had sent my manuscript to this Nemesis without my consent and after I suggested another, more neutral reader. Understand, this is an author mill that has aspirations for being a scholarly press. Yet, they have not built in a referee or vetting process into their operation, nor do they actually edit anything, nor have they read my manuscript. Indeed, I did a Google search on the "editor" assigned to my book, and her background seems to be in interior design.
My book was offered up to this Nemesis by the editor as a means of schmoozing him to get him to support the book, which he is never going to do as I have seen him in action on this matter with other authors who have tried to write about the town. The editor offered up my book to him, and when I objected to him specifically because of my prior contact with him, and gave her another person to contact if they must do this, the editor agreed to use the other person.
Then, she called me this week to tell me that they had sent it to him and she had no memory of our exchange on the matter of him, told me that they would not publish the book without "his blessing," and then proceeded to tell me some of his objections, such as the "genocide" issue of my last post. They want him to "fact-check" the book, and will pay him for it. I agreed on the stipulation that I could reject any of his changes.
Today, I received an e-mail from her. Her message contained the text of his e-mail wherein he drew the connection between me living there for "one or two years" and his lifetime of work on the subject, wrote that "this was not the book that I would have written." Then, he requested a sum of $1600 "for his life time of knowledge" to read my manuscript. Guess who they want to pay half?
Now, I really don't mind input on my work. Suggestions for improvement are welcome. I do mind how this publisher keeps changing the rules. When I first asked about outside readers, they told me that they trust the expertise of their authors. Now they have brought him in, mainly for commercial purposes (and yes, I totally get that, but still), and have employed him as a "reader." They told me that he would not determine if the book was published or not, yet now they say that they will not publish it without his approval. The idea of employing him was theirs, yet they want me to pay for him.
So, I responded. "I myself, in good conscience, cannot agree to this. I consented, against my own judgment and at your instigation, to allow him to do what other publishers consider "referee" or "vet." Other publishers engage these outside readers, who remain anonymous, and include the readers' fees in their budgets, all in order to ensure an ethical process and produce a scholarly volume free from personal prejudices or charges of bribery. If I pay any amount to have him read this work, I feel as if I am engaging in vanity publication, thereby compromising the integrity of my work." Too bitchy? It's all true. Eventually, I hope to write a sane and rational post on the comparison between real, academic publishers, and these kinds of operations that feed off of the vanity of the poor schmucks like myself who need some outside validation of self, like a book.
I haven't heard back. I sense that this may be the end of the contract and that the Nemesis will be publishing a survey history of the town through this publisher within the next year or two. That somehow strikes me as off, but I can't say how.
In my fury, however, I had a revelation. I keep saying that this book has more psychological importance for me than anything else. Lord knows that may be the only importance that it has! Whatever the case, I have kept up this magical thinking that, once it is done, I will have had something positive to show for my hideous time at that place and I can move on.
Yet, every time I have to deal with this publisher, I have to relive the shame of having gotten myself involved with this joke of an outfit, and I go right back to the miserable situation that led me to make that choice. I experience the anger and the frustration and the hatred for what I experienced every time they make me cut the manuscript, every time their e-mails drop a fresh hell into my inbox, every time they lose something or forget something or bungle something else. The manuscript ties me to that place and ties me to that period of time. This is not healthy for me.
I need to release it.
Over a year ago, when the big, redheaded Amazon threatened to kick my ass over her boyfriend, I realized that I had to leave the place because it was a tiny little pond full of big fish, flopping all over and devouring one another. "This is so silly and petty," I thought. "Don't they know that this doesn't matter? That this place is nothing in the grand scheme of things? That this is a backwater and there are other places in the world?" My brain, my career, and my life suffocated in that tiny, closed environment. How could it not?
Now that I live elsewhere, a small fish in a bigger pond, and moving into even bigger ponds, I realize that every time I allow this book deal to pull me back into that anger and fury, allow it to be important, allow those people -- that Nemesis -- to tie me emotionally and destructively to that place, I legitimize that tiny, narrow-minded way of thinking. I become part of it and perpetuate it. I don't want to grant them any more power over me in any way. The book had become the magic talisman that would accomplish the break, but the book has only strengthened the tie.
So now, maybe the book won't happen -- and I will be upset, because it was my work. Better than the book, however, will be to just leave it all behind me and live the life I want. I have the means, and it doesn't have shit to do with the book.
I left there because I was better than them, and better than that place.
I still am.
*Apologies to GayProf for stealing his theme! (I'm totally crushing on GayProf. ** Go read his blog, Center of Gravitas!)
**Don't be jealous of GayProf, I crush on all of the blogs that I read! That's why I read them.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
As I wrote in that post, in 1637, the English colonists and some of their Native American allies conducted an explicitly offensive (as in "not defensive") war against a particular Indian nation that dominated this part of southeastern New England. In the course of that war, the colonists burned an Indian village to the ground , including all of its inhabitants, men, women, children, elderly, and livestock. They shot anyone who escaped the blaze. Then, they pursued the retreating members of other villages, killed them, captured them, sold them into slavery, or turned them over to the allied nations, forbidding this now conquered tribe from having its own political organization and from using its own name. In sum, the colonists declared the tribe non-existent. Although population estimates can vary by the thousands, and the numbers are often ruled by the political motivation of the party doing the estimating, this tribe probably began the war with 3,000-4,000 people and ended with 2,000-2,500.
In my book, I wrote, " [The colonists] had intended to eradicate the [Indians] in ways that later centuries would term 'genocide'..." This felt a little weasely to me, but I did not have the space to go into the varying historiographical issues or definitions of "genocide," or the appropriateness of using the term genocide in relation to the seventeenth century or in relation to the English who had historically fought most wars against non-white people as wars of eradication. So, I slipped around all of that by indicating that "genocide" was an ahistorical term used by later generations and suggesting, by using the quotation marks, that the use of the term was, at times, in dispute.
I myself do believe that the war was genocidal, which was why I included the sentence in the first place. I think that I also naively assumed that this was not really an issue to dispute in general. Doesn't everyone think that the conquest of the Native American people was genocidal?
Apparently not. Or at least not when that genocide took place on the same soil where valiant founding fathers build a quaint New England town.
My local Nemesis in this project was given my manuscript to read (against my express wishes, I might add, and not as part of my contract, but I digress into bitterness). He thought the structure and theory in general were fine. He quibbled about dates and sequences of events, and is now "fact-checking" for the press (fortunately on their dime). His big, substantial complaint, however, was that single use of the term "genocide" in regard to the colonial expedition against the Native American tribe. "How can you call it 'genocide' when over 75% of the people survived?" he asked.
Here's how: A 25% decrease in a population in the space of a year is, in and of itself, pretty dramatic. Genocide, however, is not limited to the percentage of deaths of a group of people. According to the UN Convention on Genocide (1948), acts of genocide include: "(a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
Members of this Indian tribe were killed, indeed, hunted by the colonists. They were harmed both bodily and mentally. They were sold into slavery and as subjects to other nations with the intent of breaking their tribal cohesion. Their children were transferred to other tribes. The deaths were overwhelmingly male, which would interfere with the ability of tribal member to reproduce as a tribe. The tribe itself, if not every individual, was de jure and de facto eradicated.
The Nemesis's reaction to my use of the term, however, had very little to do with the definition of genocide or even history. At least, his reaction had little to do with the history of that particular offensive war. This "how can you call it 'genocide'" reaction is very much tied to the current events of this town, where this nemesis has spent for his entire life.
You see, the Nemesis lives near the casino run by the survivors of this nation, who reconstituted themselves as a tribe in the 1970s and received federal recognition in the 1980s. (There is, in fact, a fascinating book on their rise or, as the title says, "revenge," that covers some of the wide-ranging ramifications of this recognition and the tribe's ability to run casinos.) The nemesis is part of the white community that has been hurt by the growth and development of the Indian reservation. He is also of a generation in the community who, at best, see this tribe as nouveau riche without any real, genealogical claim to a local heritage. He has been on the council of the town that surrounds the reservation and has had to deal with this essentiallly foreign and expanding entity within the town's borders. He works at Big Museum, which sees the casinos as their main competition for tourist dollars.
The Nemesis was also on the committee that wanted to keep the controversial statue in place and was part of the research group that decided that "we will never know what really happened" during the massacre of the Indian people on the town's site (despite having three eye-witness accounts). In other words, he has no love for this group of Indian people in the present day, and attempts to interpret the events of that war so long ago as just and good because they opened the land for Anglo settlement. In many ways, his use of the past to justify current (i.e. his own) attitude resembles very much organizations like the Sons of the Confederacy, who argue against "political correctness" and "revisionist history,"* describe slavery as benign, the Civil War as a self-defensive, and use a wide array of nearly anecdotal or isolated evidence to prove their point.**
Believe it or not, I do respect this particular person's research abilities. He is one of the few local historians of the town whose work I can trust to be accurate in terms of factual data such as "this event happened on this day" or "this business was called this at this time and was owned by this person." I'm a bit more apprehensive about his interpretations, especially as they drift away from one or two particular subjects, because, outside of those subjects, he doesn't seem aware of broader historical issues that place the local area into a state, regional, or national context.
I also think that he has used his research skills so much in the service of "heritage" or "boosterism" that he may have lost sight of the more complex picture of the region's history. I understand the reasons that he might do this, since he is usually called upon to schmooze for various historical societies, and heritage boosterism attracts donations to struggling organizations that do valuable and legitimate work in the service of the historical profession. Indeed, his schmoozing abilities are part of the reason that he is reading my manuscript before publication, against my wishes and my contract, and for pay (his research abilities are the only reason that I'm not making a stink about it -- well, not much of a stink). I also understand that he loves his home; and like many people who have lived there for decades, if not all of their lives, doesn't like the changes that have come to it in the past twenty years. I don't blame them. Some of those changes are insidious.
Yet, I see all of this fundraising and schmoozing and "heritage" as part of a larger process that perpetuates shallow, celebratory history, and both minimizes the town's role in a broader narrative and makes it much less interesting to anyone who is not living in the town or directly descended from a town founder. In emphasizing this shallow version of history for collective community self-esteem, these "boosters" undercut the mission of those very historical organizations that they want to preserve. Or at least they undercut an inclusive and complete version of their missions.
The whole cycle of donation and celebration perpetuates itself. To keep those institutions going at all, their keepers -- who may have very honorable goals -- have to ask for money from people who want heroes and heroic events, and in turn, the keepers cannot say anything in their institution that might alienate those people with the money. In seeing their own version of history portrayed, the donators give more money. So, only a narrow slice of history is preserved and only a narrow interpretation allowed, with only a little room for deviation. Hence, the Indians cannot be mentioned. If they are mentioned, then they weren't slaughtered. If they were slaughtered, then the slaughter wasn't an "act of genocide," they had it coming, and it was o.k. because other tribes helped.
Maybe because I come from the south, and hold a great deal of disgust for my old home, even as I defend and miss some of it (more on that later, because the issue is very personal and complicated and not a little bit fucked-up), and maybe because I detested the subject of my first book while also finding it fascinating, I have learned that you must remove your own identity from the thing that you study in order to see it clearly. A student of history must engage intelligence and analytical abilities, and cannot be blind to the uncomfortable parts, if that student wants to fully understand any period of time (including the present). This is the psychological challenge of studying any subject dear to a historian's self. This is also the psychological challenge to a community trying to preserve its history.
If we as a people cannot admit that many of the crimes of the past were committed by regular people like ourselves, by our own ancestors in many cases, and if we do not accept that, while we are not responsible for those particular acts, we have reaped the benefit of their conclusions, then we cannot understand how similar crimes continue to be committed by similar people, including ourselves in many cases, and those are acts for which we are directly responsible.
So, perhaps the core of my frustration*** with The Nemesis's objection to "genocide" stems from this: how can people ever admit that momentous crimes are being committed today if we can't even name the crimes that happened four centuries ago?
* Two terms singnalling that the person has more political agenda than historical understanding.
** See Civil War Memory, run by Kevin Levin, for much more insightful and analytical discussions of such issues.
*** In the interest of honesty, I should confess that my frustration also stems from the fact that the publishers are bending over backwards to kiss his ass in the interest of gaining his blessing ("We won't publish this without his blessing," they said -- which was not ever part of the deal, although I understand the business sense of this). Indeed they are so interested in kissing his ass that they want me to change my interpretations to match his. Again, I digress into bitterness.
8 MORE Things about Meme!, Part 4: The Interview in the Ladies' Restroom:
My last job interview took place in the Ladies' Restroom. Some of you may recall that, about two and a half months ago I was scheduled for an interview in another state on the same day that HR scheduled an interview for a candidate for a position here. Since I was on the search committee for the position here, and since I would also be working with the person hired in this position, my presence was rather required at this interview. Panic ensued, followed by a blog post, which elicited some great advice from commenters to reschedule my interview in the other state.
The committee at the out-of-state school obligingly agreed to reschedule my interview. Since they found the task of coordinating five people's schedules troublesome to say the least, the committee chair proposed a phone interview at the same time as the in-person interview would have taken place, which worked on my end because our candidate would be meeting with our dean. Everyone was happy, or at least satisfied.
The appointed day arrived. Our candidate arrived. We did all of the interview things, went to lunch, then took her over to the administration building where, in the hour before her meeting with, HR would host a "cookies and punch" reception to allow her to meet with whomever on the staff showed up.
That's when my phone rang. "Oh crap!" I thought, recognizing the number. "They are an hour early!" At which point, I realized that I had entirely forgotten about the time zone difference.
"Hello? Oh, hi, yes, I can speak. How are you?" I said, oh so calmly and professionally. I thought, "Shitshitshitshitshit! Where can I go! Shit! Not this conference room, the boss will hear me. Not outside, too loud and hot. Not across the sidewalk, too loud and obvious." Then, salvation appeared: The ladies' room.
Mercifully, I was spared the complete indignity of sitting on the edge of a toilet by the presence of a chair. I was not spared what seemed like an endless stream of people suffering from OCD, who needed to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently. "Are you doing surgery!" I wanted to yell. "A little bacteria won't kill you!"
Actually, the number was closer to two, and only one person had to actually pee and flush; and I wasn't upset. I was mostly trying not to laugh. Otherwise, I think that the interview went fairly well, if for no other reason than that I wasn't desperate for the job and could take note of the questions that they asked so that I would know what sort of questions might be asked on other interviews. Then, I returned to the reception, which had been attended by my boss, a committee member, and the interview candidate (who, incidentally, we ended up hiring and is a pretty cool person).
About a week later, I got a call from the committee chair. "Bad news," he said.
"Ah! Rejection," I thought. "And damn fast, too. Good for them!"
"HR is not happy about us giving a phone interview, so we need you to fly in," he said. "It will be all of the same questions and people, but HR insists we do this."
Well, naturally, it would seem a bit odd if they rejected me and I only got a phone interview. I might sue! Or if they hired me, and someone else complained that I didn't have to undergo the scrutiny of a face-to-face interview, they might sue. Of course, the possibility also existed that, if they hired me after two interviews that included the same questions with the same people (well, minus one on the second round), a rejected candidate might complain because I had, in essence, had a rehearsal.
"I completely understand," I said, and we made plans for me to fly out in mid-June. The trip went well, if very quickly (I'm not sure that I was in town for a full 24 hours, and I did get the Stupidest Injury Ever during this jaunt). They would make their decision in "a week to ten days." After the interview was over, the thought occurred to me that they had already made their choice, it wasn't me, but they had to maintain the appearance of fairness. Still, no bitterness here because I am not desperate for another job, they fully compensated me for the trip, they were all very nice, and they gave me some interviewing practice for the next opportunity.
A week to ten days passed. I had other things going on, two online classes to teach, a research trip to take, a workload at my day job that picked up. Time passed. People would ask about the job, and I fully expected a "thank you but no" letter in the mail or e-mail any day. AFter another week or two, I decided that they weren't the sort of place who did that, especially given that we are in the middle of the summer.
Then, last week, I received a call.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
In any case, here is Part 2 of How I Met Your Grandmother; in which Clio thinks she is Proust:
I learned about this early part of their life together from their letters -- mostly my grandfather's -- from that time. My granny had saved all of his letters in a big trunk in her attic. She died in 1976, but we didn't learn about them until my aunt began cleaning out the house after my grampy died in 2000. Those letters let me see a bit of what they were like when they were younger than I was.
My grampy would sometimes do the 1939 equivalent of "drunk dial." He would drink, then write a letter about what a "lonely bastard" he was, and how he didn't think anyone could be as much of a "lonely bastard" as he was at that very moment. He would joke with her a lot, or ask her how Boudreaux or Slim or Bubba were doing, and tell her what towns he had played in, suggesting that there were many interested women in those towns.
Then, his band made a big tour down south with a stop near Baton Rouge. "Why don't you come and join us?" he wrote. He asked a few times, and she seemed to intimate that she would, but had a few logistical problems being as she lived at home with her Catholic parents and four siblings, all of whom were up in each other's business on an hourly basis.
Suddenly, she changed. We know exactly what she wrote to him because he replied on the very same letter. Unfortunately, the letter is at my aunt's house at the moment, so I will have to paraphrase. She was not that sort of girl, she said. He must not respect her if he thought she would go away with him all alone, just like that. He should please not write to her again if his letters were going to be filled with such filth. He replied that, if she thought that about him after all their years of friendship, then she could go to hell. Yes, he told her that: "go to hell."
Now, what the family surmises is that her parents intercepted one of the letters indicating the plan to meet out of town, and insisted that she bluntly refuse and reestablish her honor because the next letters, only a week or two later, indicated a reconciliation. These were all addressed to her work, with instructions only to write to her there. They met as planned after which followed a number of giddy letters.
A couple of years later they married and went to Mobile on their honeymoon. They loved beaches, and gathered a bottle of sand on that trip with the promise that they would make sure that half of the sand went into the coffin of one and half into the other. They made their children promise to carry this out. Less than half went into my grandfather's because my father could not bear to let it all go. It was too much like the end for him. My aunt protested, saying that the sand was part of my grandparents' marriage that had nothing to do with anyone else; but my father persuaded her to keep some out to put in each of their coffins. I suppose I will have to make sure that plan is carried out.
After my grandparents married, my grampy was drafted in World War II and served in the Pacific. He told me a few stories, which I'll save. Suffice to say that he was the radio man, and to his dying day he hated the Japanese in a way that my other grandfather did not hate the Germans. He hated war, too. When he returned, he went to work for Esso, which became Exxon, where he stayed for his entire career. For a while, he went back to playing in bands in the late forties and early fifties. Then, he stopped. He and my granny stopped going dancing, too.
My dad recently told me that he had always been told that he had been conceived in one of those "I'll have something to remember you by if you die" moments. Instead, he wasn't at all expected. When my granny found out that she was pregnant, she was terrified that she would end up a widow with a baby. My dad also recently told me that my granny said that my grampy returned from the war harder. He was still the same in general, but distant. My dad remembered him as distant, too, but he thought that was just what dads were like. My granny remembered another time.
Sunday, July 08, 2007
As a volunteer, I went to “lobby day” at the state capitol to work against the “parental notification” bill. That was one of the single most demoralizing events of my life. We went to speak with the state representatives in their offices. Most of the aides were fairly friendly and sympathetic, but their bosses were wily. Even the most sympathetic would give reasons why they couldn’t support our position. “It’s already on the books anyway,” one told us, and cited some addendum to some law. Most just listened and gave us the party line.
When we watched the committee hearing, I began to realize that the committee itself had already decided their position, even before the committee was formed. Indeed, that was the very reason for existence of the committee in the first place. Debate was non-existent because no one was present to present an opposing position. Where, I wondered, was the opposition? Did they not care enough about the issue to even sit on the committee? Well, no, they didn’t, as I had learned all day long. I rode home on the bus, sitting next to a Holocaust survivor, wondering if democracy even existed. That’s when someone told me, “you never want to know how you sausage or your laws are made.”
Another time, as a volunteer, I attended a pro-choice march at one of the most conservative college campuses in the state. The very nascent and brave NOW chapter on the campus had organized the march, and Patricia Ireland, who was president of national NOW, came to speak. We were called “murderers” and “baby killers.” We were also prayed over and told “Your mother was pro-life.” I refrained from telling the person holding that poster that my mother was, in fact, very pro-choice, and she chose to have my youngest brother after Roe had passed.
Later in the day, three high school kids came biking by, waving wire hangers. “Hey, dudes,” I called to them. “Do you know what that means?” “Uh, I dunno,” one said. “Like ‘No More Wire Hangers!’ like beating kids.” When I explained the meaning of the hangers, they looked a little queasy, dropped the hanger, and rode off.
Not all of my experiences with Planned Parenthood were negative. I helped put siding on a house for Habitat for Humanity (received a signed Christmas card of thanks from Jimmy Carter). I met so many committed women of all ages, not the least of which was that Holocaust survivor, who faced harassment on a daily basis just to go to work. I met people who’s minds were changed by a single incident in which “that wouldn’t happen to me” did. I saw little old ladies stop their cars outside of the clinic to give the “protesters” outside a piece of their mind.
One of the great experiences happened at the Lilith Fair. Several political organizations, including environmental and reproductive rights organizations, were allowed to have booths just inside at the gate. Well, we arrived that morning to discover that the “controversial” organizations were no longer allowed spaces. “Controversial” was the codeword for “pro-choice.”
“Can I help you?” she asked. “Do you have backstage passes?” My comrade launched into a spiel about how we were with Planned Parenthood, and we had been invited to have a table at the gate, but now we had been uninvited, and is there someone with the tour that we could speak with, when, behind her, a bus door opened and a woman with curly hair stepped out. “Shit,” I thought, “that looks like Joan Osborne…only smaller.”
Well, my comrade had noticed the resemblance, as well. In mid-sentence, she dropped the security guard and approached, yes, Joan Osborne. Joan Osborne listened intently – and she really was quite petite, and very pretty – her brow furrowing deeper as the story progressed. Then, the security guard whisked us off.
I could give a million reasons why I stopped volunteering, not the least of which would be the dissertation taking precedent and moving, repeatedly; but the biggest reason was that I could not take the protesters outside of the clinic. They wore me down.
The way that the clinic property was arranged, the main building occupied about half of a downtown block and the he parking lots were across the street in front of the clinic and beside the clinic. Patients could be dropped off at the door, but most patients did not realize this. So, all clients were forced to cross two sidewalks and a street lined with protesters who would scream “don’t kill your baby,” in English and Spanish, hold up grisly pictures, shout out incorrect reproductive information, and in general accost and come short of assaulting them. Escorts were there to help the clients across the street and keep them distracted from the protestors.
Escorts also listened to this abuse all morning, bearing much insult themselves until the clinic services closed and the protestors went home. The ignorance and arrogance of these protestors, all of whom were men, infuriated me. I would go home and be depressed for the rest of the day, then the weekend, then the week. So, I let the dissertation, and teaching, and anything else keep me from this volunteering, and eventually lost the habit for it.
Part 1: The Perils of Aerobics; in which I wear leg warmers and am robbed.
1) I taught aerobics in the ‘80s, back when the storefront studios were the rage and the movie Perfect came out. My interest in aerobics stemmed from my tendency toward eating disorders, not uncommon in teenaged girls at any time in the past thirty years, and from my frustrated desire to be a dancer.
I had always wanted to be a ballet dancer, admiring not only the beauty, but also the flexibility and strength of dancers. I would tie my hair ribbons around my ankles and pirouette around the house, hoping to demonstrate my dedication to the art to my parents thereby persuading them to sign me up for lessons. Alas, my father had a dreadfully scarring childhood experience involving dance lessons.
I have never been able to extract the details from him, although I have surmised that no one died or was mortally wounded. Apparently, a cousin ran a dance studio, and my aunt and the other girls in the family took lessons there. For a time, they were all fixated on making their way to Broadway, and perhaps got a bit cliqueish and bitchy about it, as teenaged girls will do. This distressed my father to no end, who then set himself against anyone in his family ever going near a dance studio. Ever.
The closest I could ever come to dance lessons was to try out for the dance team in high school. My parents considered the dance team an acceptable alternative to the band, which I despised. For some reason, perhaps having gone to one of those colleges where football is the raison d’etre for the university, they would permit any extra curricular activity that involved the football season. Otherwise, they insisted, we would all end up stoners and dropouts.
Ironically, my brothers ended up being both, despite one being in the band and the other being one of the trainers for the football team. In fact, in my senior year, half of the football team was busted for possession, and the year after I graduated, one of the girls on the dance team was seriously injured in a DUI accident. My parents grew up in a different world.
In any case, there was quite a bit of cliqueishness and bitchiness in the dance team, and what we did was hardly what one would call “dancing.” Nonetheless, it satisfied my need for creative movement, which I replaced with aerobics when I graduated. I worked my way through college as an instructor until the studio closed down at the end of the decade. Although I neither dance nor do aerobics these days, I maintain my flexibility as much as I can. I can still do splits!
Oh, and yes, I wore legwarmers. In fact, I wore legwarmers long after they had gone out of fashion and all of mine were frayed. A couple of years ago, they were coming back in style for about a week, and I was so excited. Then, I realized that I would just look like I was STILL wearing legwarmers rather than just being fashionably hip and trendy. As a friend of mine said, if you wore a trendy item the first time it was popular, you probably shouldn’t be wearing when it becomes trendy again. By that time, the revival had passed.
2) I was once held up at gunpoint in my own house. Well, technically, it was my parents’ house, but I lived there at the time; and, technically, it was in the backyard.
At the time, I was in college, so I was at home at odd hours of the day. On the particular day in question, my classes were in the evening, so I woke up, went to work out, and came home to an empty house around 10:00 am or so. As I headed for the refrigerator, belting out the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” or some such song, I noticed that the answering machine was missing. The first thought that went through my head was, “Ha! We’ve been robbed!” The second was, “Brother the Younger has taken the answering machine to school, the goof.” Brother the Younger often did inexplicable things like that, for intricate reasons. Still, I backed up into the living room to make sure that the VCR and TV were still in place. They were, so I went back to “You’re my blue sky!” in the kitchen.
When I heard a thump. The thump came from the back of the house. “Pooch?” I cried. Our ancient basset had taken to spending most of his time curled up in my brother’s bed, so I thought that he had fallen. I started to run to the back of the house, when that “robbed” thought entered my head. Pooch was too frail to make that big of a thump.
I started to run for the front door; but realized that I would have to pass in front of the hall door that led to the back of the house. The robber would see me and grab me and no one would hear. So, I turned and ran out the back door and headed for the gate. I have no idea why, but I glanced over my shoulder.
A kid, maybe fourteen years old, dressed in seemingly brand new clothes was headed toward the fence in the opposite direction. He glanced over his shoulder at the same time that I did. I swear to you, my first instinct was to say, “Can I help you?” In fact, I had turned fully around, taken a step toward him, and opened my mouth to speak, when I saw the gun.
“Scream,” a voice in my head said. “Who’s going to hear you,” another voice in my head said. “There were workmen down the street,” the first voice said. “Besides, if you don’t scream, they will say that you were asking for it. Just FUCKING SCREAM!” So, I did.
The voice in my head said, “Now, turn.” It said, “Go toward the gate.” It said, “I wonder how badly this will hurt when the bullet hits?” and “I wonder how long it will be before I can work out again?” and “How much weight will I gain during that time?” and “It’s a good thing that you have on complicated workout clothes, maybe he will get too frustrated to rape you.” That voice was calm. I was shrieking.
I was so focused on screaming, on turning, on walking toward the gate, on wondering about the bullet, that I wasn’t aware until much later that the kid did not realize that he himself had the gun until I began to scream. He saw me. I screamed. He looked alarmed. He saw my gaze had focused on the thing that he held limply in his hand, then he straightened it up and pointed it directly at me.
He came up behind me. Then, he passed me. I turned sideways to let him by. He held out his hand, palm forward, at my chest level. He did not touch. “Shhh, shhh,” he said. I backed up against the wall. “Shh,” he repeated, and kept moving by me, again, without touching me. He opened the gate, then ran.
My legs collapsed under me. “Go inside and call 911,” the voice said. “No, wait, you will destroy evidence.” I saw the neighbor’s gate and backyard through the slats of our fence. "Go over there," the voice said. "Get a grip first. Then, act." I stumbled across their driveway to their fence, and was opening it when the neighbor herself came out of her garage. She had thought all of the screaming was a fight between me and my brother (not an unreasonable assumption, I might add). “Burglar, gun,” I stammered. She grabbed me, drug me into her house, and called 911.
Because this was a middle class, white neighborhood that paid the police extra to patrol, two cop cars were in her front lawn within two minutes. That is no exaggeration. One car pulled up onto her lawn, literally two minutes after she called. The other ended up crossways in her driveway, two seconds later. Like on t.v. I was still trying to describe what had happened to the 911 operator.
The rest of the morning and early afternoon was taken up with the police gathering evidence, me telling the story over and over, and my parents trying not to have breakdowns of their own. From what we could tell, the kid probably came in through the back door, which was unlocked. He took the answering machine, which was about ten years old, some old, defunct cameras, and was rifling through my parents’ dresser when I surprised him. He dropped the bag of loot and jumped out of the back window, leaving a full thumbprint. He had no record, or at least his prints did not.
The one thing that he did not drop was my dad’s old service revolver. That was what he held on me. It was unloaded and probably would have harmed the kid more than me if he had fired it, since the thing hadn’t seen any action since the mid-1960s. I still can’t decide if that made the story humiliating or hilarious. A bit of both, I guess. In any case, you don’t go asking, “hey, is that my dad’s unloaded, unused gun there” when it’s being held on you.
I never experienced any PTSD from the incident. No euphoric, “I’m alive!” No dive through, “Holy shit! I could have been shot!” into, “What is the meaning of life?” Maybe that was because the gun turned out to be unloaded and harmless. Even my memories, now at this late date, don’t terrify me, nor do I really remember the terror that I must have felt at the time. My father still hopes the kid “got a raging case of AIDS from the next needle that he used.” But, the kid didn’t seem like that sort, not that I would know what “that sort” would look like. He seemed like he was ditching school and decided to do some crazy shit on a dare, much like many of the stupid stunts my brothers pulled on occasion. In fact, he might very well have been a friend of my brothers. As we age, I learn that my brothers lived a very different life from mine. No, this kid seemed like he might have had more to fear if his momma found out than if the police caught him.
I wonder what happened to him.
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that
among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure
these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers
from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish
it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles
and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to
effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. -- Declaration of Independence.
This passage seems particularly relevent, "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
At the same time, as I am a out to travel through the "Heartland" (which somehow seems to have no heart), I know that I am in the minority. So, these words depress the hell out of me.
*For the record, I am aware of the hypocrisy of the writers of this document.