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Monthly Archives: January 2015

Fimbulwinter

So, we’re gonna get a little snow here in New York City tonight.

The runup to any storm here usually just makes me roll my eyes; I grew up in New England, and saw the Blizzard of ’78.  And what I remember of that is missing only one day of school, despite the fact that the drifts of plowed snow were actually taller than my father.  Here, one inch of slush and the transit system grinds to a screeching halt and people panic and try stocking up on water and coffee and toilet paper, and there’s a day of Impending-Zombie panic and then the whole thing blows over in three hours, once I’ve already tried to battle my way home through the panicking hordes.

Feh.

However, I just had a conversation with someone at work who reminded me of New York’s 2010 snow debacle – in which the city failed to declare a snow emergency during a blizzard the day after Christmas, and was basically caught with its pants down after we got 20 inches.  So the city is a lot more likely to declare emergencies now, he said.  The thing was, the reason why we hadn’t declared an emergency prior to that was because we had been too prone to panicking over snow – and people were complaining about that.  So the pendulum is probably going to just swing back and forth.

2010 was quite a thing, though.  I’d just managed to beat the snow – my father had been keeping an eye on the weather while I’d been enjoying the holidays with them, and strongly declared that I take an earlier train.  And so I just managed to make it to Penn Station about twenty minutes before Amtrak closed down service, and made it home in a taxi about a half hour before the roads started getting impassable.  My roommate at the time, though, was at her overnight job tending bar in Soho and had to carpool home in a taxi at 5 am, and the taxi could go down our street – so she had to walk fifteen blocks through the snow in heels and dig her way up our stoop using her bare hands.  I was already awake when she got in, and all she said was, “Merry Christmas.  Good to see you.  I can’t feel my hands.  Good night.” before heading directly to the bathroom for a 45-minute shower and then to bed.

I did at least check on the possibility of going to work that day; I was working in New Jersey at the time, and had to use both the subway and New Jersey Transit.  The MTA closed first; then the bus to Jersey.  So I cheerfully called my boss and left a message saying that unless they were comfortable with me walking through the Lincoln Tunnel, I was gonna stay home for the day.

The funny thing was that it turned out to be sunny for most of the day after the storm, so I was lured outside.  I suited up in good boots and a good jacket and spent an idyllic couple hours wandering around my neighborhood, reveling in being able to walk down the middle of the (still unplowed) streets.  Some enterprising kids with shovels were already on the sidewalks, hitting up everyone they passed – “need your car dug out?”  I came to the aid of a woman who was stuck in the snow by the laundromat, her car wheels spinning – I ran into the supermarket next door and bought some cheap kitty litter, meaning to sprinkle it under her wheels for traction.  But by the time I came out, she was already gone.  A pickup truck pulled into its place, so I offered the kitty litter to them and went on my way.

Tomorrow is going to be the height of the storm, though, and much more suited for staying in.  I have an article to work on anyway so I’ll most likely be doing that.  Friends are reporting in with similar plans on Facebook.   The people with the best plan, though, are my friends Colin and Niki – they own a house in the Catkills which they rent out, and they were already planning to drive up and check things out as there’s reports of the washing machine being on the fritz.  Plus the storm is actually supposed to be less severe to the north.  So as I write this, they are on the way to their mountain cabin.

I told them, before they left, to track down a copy of Van Morrison’s “I Wanna Roo You,” which is literally about being snowed in during a blizzard in the Catskills.  If nothing else, I told them, it suggests a way to pass the time.

Doldrums

Good God I hate January sometimes.

My energy takes a major downswing in January each year – it’s actually been down for the past few years, but it always ebbs way back right about now, as I go into a post-holiday crash.  It’s all down to fatigue – I’ve been in a low-energy state for the past few years as it is, due to some bad life juju (finally on the way out, ThankyoubabyJesus), but have always  managed to perk up a bit for the holidays – and to then crash back right after.

At first it’s just fine.  I revel in not having shopping to do or people to visit or errands to run, I can sleep late and just eat leftover cookies instead of trying to bake them and spend my days inside curled up in my jammies all cozy, taking a deep breath after the mayhem of the weeks prior.

But then that drags on for the whole month. I’ve already read most of the books I’ve wanted to read, TV is boring, my roommates look at me funny because I’m usually at home on my ass, and I start wondering whether I should make a doctors’ appointment to discuss my low energy and my lack of concentration and then I look at the calendar and think oh yeah, right, and then in February that starts to change and I start to feel the energy come back.

I’ve started to realize that the sun has a lot to do with it. The sun is at its lowest ebb now – it’s dark out when I wake up, and dark out when I am heading home from the subway. What little sunlight I see is through a window at work.  Whereas in spring and summer, I’m sometimes up before my alarm, as the dawn light slithers through my blinds, and I’m often walking home from the subway rather than taking the bus, just feeling the sun on my face as I walk.  But now, I’m more likely to keep hitting the snooze alarm each morning, not really able to get going until the sun barely starts coming up.

And the hell of it is, I forget all of this every year. I get to this point and every year I worry about how lazy and logy I am – and every year I finally remember that no, it’s just January, it’ll pass.  Which means this ebb is affecting my brain as well.

I’m seriously starting to think I should look into the possibility of hibernation for a solid month after Christmas.  I’d probably be much better off.

Welcome To The Unicorn Success Club –

….Um.  Hi.

I am getting a lot of sudden traffic here because of The Bloggess, so I just wanted to put a disclaimer here for y’all that I am kind of finding my footing in blogging again after a few years’ hiatus, so it’s….kind of rough in here.

So, yeah, welcome, poke around, and bear with me; right now I am on a weird “I must be all solemn” habit which I’m trying to break; it’s kind of like when you’re in junior high and first getting used to having to write Essays or Themes or whatever and you’re really stodgy and serious because you’re new and/or out of practice, but then eventually you loosen up and get comfortable.  So, I promise if you hang in there I’ll get more comfortable again.

In the meantime, just for you, a special treat: another story from college, to match the story about Surrealist Poker which sent you all here: this one features a lot of the same friends that played Surrealist Poker with me, but it involves a “purity test”.  The Purity Test, for the uninitiated, was a really comprehensive and elaborate game of “never have I ever” – it listed a whole lot of slightly scandalous things – most of them sexual – and you were supposed to give yourself a point based on whether you’d ever done any of them.  Ostensibly it was supposed to measure and rate how “impure” you were, but really it was a way for a bunch of people to get all giggly and titillated and gossipy about each other.

So, basically, it’s perfect for groups of college friends, some of whom have unresolved sexual tension with each other, and is a way for them to all try to flirt.

Anyway.  One night the gang of us was doing a Purity Test in someone’s room; he’d just found a version of the test that was supposed to be The Most Comprehensive One Yet, with many more finely-detailed and nuanced questions than usual.  (If you’ve taken one – you remember how rules-lawyery those things always were?  Whether you had someone feel you up one inch above the boob was different from having them feel you up with a hand on your boob, and that was still totally different from whether you had one layer of clothing on, or two, or none, or if one of those layers was a bra, etc., etc., etc.)

We’d known each other for a few years already, and a couple of us had already hooked up with each other, and the group generally knew about most of those instances, so there was a lot of joking and teasing as we laughed over the questions or teased each other about the answers (“dude, I know you guys must have done that…”)  and we’d already been at this for about 45 minutes when we got to a section which asked about having sex with various persons in different professions – a doctor, a police officer, a lawyer, a political leader, yadda yadda.  One of the questions was about whether we’d had sex with any kind of religious officiant – priest, rabbi, like that.  We all marked our answers.

And then a girl named Kim (not me), who’d recently started studying NeoPaganism, started laughing.  “I just realized something, guys,” she said.  “You know, Paganism says that everyone is kind of their own personal religious leader.  So if you think about it, anyone who’s had sex with me can say ‘yes’ to that.”

There was a tiny pause.

Followed by two of the guys silently picking up their pencils and changing their answers.

Baby Got Brain

So, fair warning: we’re about to talk about my butt.

On the whole, I’ve actually never cared too much about my appearance.  I was pretty nerdy and brainy as a girl – much more interested in books and thinking than fussing with makeup or fashion.  And even less inclined to fuss when I grew up; I was never going to win a beauty pageant, but also I never felt like there was a need to try to.  I was more interested in people liking me for what I had to say and think and what I felt – just like I’m way more interested in other people’s personalities than I am their looks.  I make myself presentable, but after that, it’s your problem if you don’t like what I look like, not mine.

However, there is one body part of which I’ve grown secretly proud, after having heard most of my boyfriends praise it – apparently, I’ve got me a great butt.

It’s happened almost entirely by accident.  I always only the most half-assed (sic) of exercise habits – maybe I’ll go to a gym once a week, and I only started doing that in my late 30’s.  Maybe I kayak once a week, or hike.  That’s about it.  But I do have the New Yorker’s habit of walking nearly everywhere – even on a lazy weekday, I usually walk about five blocks to and from the subway and then another block or so to the bus, bookended by walking down four flights of stairs in the morning and then back up four flights of stairs at night.  And it’s always been that way.  On the weekends, I’ve always been more likely to walk to do all my errands if the weather is nice.

And that’s all added up to a lot of work on the legs, which no doubt has included some work on the glutes.  And that adds up to a very toned butt, apparently.

This isn’t something I necessarily advertise, still.  I mean, if I have a date I’ll dress in tighter pants than usual, in an, er, cheeky attempt to show off a bit.  But I’m far prouder of my brain anyway – and if whatever swain I’m attempting to impress doesn’t show any interest in that as well, then…too bad for him, he can have one last look at that butt while I’m walking away.  My butt’s great, yeah, but that’s just one part of me – my brain is even better.  I’ve always thought that.

However – apparently some researchers at the University of Oxford have just learned something quite interesting about women who have big butts.  Not only does the extra fat seem to protect women from some kinds of chronic diseases, it also is a sign that you have a good supply of Omega 3 fatty acids – which are good for brain activity, which therefore means that people with big butts are actually smarter.

So my two favorite body parts have been cooperating with each other all my life.

Bealtaine Do Aisling A Bhaint Amach

It’s actually kind of weird how much of my appreciation for this country’s racial diversity came from Irish people.

Well, really, it’s mainly from two particular Irish people.  Bono was first – the U2 album Unforgettable Fire came out when I was fourteen, and raised a few eyebrows when its track list contained not just one, but two songs about Martin Luther King, Jr.  What was a lily-white Irish guy doing singing about an American Civil Rights activist?….How’d that happen?

But then if you listen to the words of Pride it makes sense –

They got it.  It wasn’t that King was just working for one race – he was working for all races to have an equal footing.  He was working for all people to have an equal footing – towards the end of his life, King was preparing for action that would have addressed poverty and economic classism that was affecting the impoverished of all races, because that was where a big part of our problems lay then (and still lie today).

Also, it’s not as if Ireland being all of one race has excused it from moments of segregation in its past.  A series of laws in the 1700’s severely restricted Catholic people’s rights – Catholics weren’t allowed to hold public office, own guns, serve in the military, marry Protestants, own a horse, own more than a certain amount of land, or vote.

….Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  The laws’ repeal even follow a familiar-sounding pattern – most of them were gradually dismantled over the course of the 1800’s, and were finally all repealed with the birth of the new Irish Republic in the 1920’s.  But there was still a good deal of discrimination towards Catholics to the North; so much so that in the 1960’s, activists in Ulster noticed the strides Dr. King was making in this country, and were inspired to try similar tactics.  The date most commonly given for the day “The Troubles” began was in October of 1968, when a team of activists tried to march through Derry, demonstrating for the right to vote, and the police tried to force them to stop and a riot broke out.  A second march from Belfast to Derry met with similar results.

The march from Belfast to Derry was inspired by King’s march from Selma to Montgomery.

U2 reminds me that King wasn’t just fighting for one race – he had a vision for all of them.

But that’s more about an appreciation for the history.  I said that I had an appreciation for this country’s diversity, in the present.

And that would be due to another Irish person – my friend Cliona.  We’ve been pen pals since childhood, and have visited a couple times – and her eyes on this country always shake up my own. Cliona is one of those wonderful people you can take and plunk down into any situation, no matter how unusual, and she’ll look around her with interest and think “well, I’ve never been here before, let’s check out what this is like.”  She demanded I take her to see a synagogue her first trip here, as she’d never been inside one in Ireland; she wanted to try every different kind of food, explore every last corner of the city. Even the subways were a source of fascination.

And on her most recent trip, we actually spent an hour and a half hunched over my computer on a research project.  She’s a science teacher, and had a series of posters depicting notable scientists from history in the class – and she was telling me she’d recently been challenged by a student asking why there weren’t any posters of black scientists.  She confessed to me she didn’t know of any.

I thought a moment.  “I wonder – do you know who George Washington Carver is?”

“Who?”

I told her what little I knew – that he was a botanist who was researching ways to expand the uses of the peanut, to help create a cash crop for Southern sharecroppers – and her eyes lit up.  We spent a good hour and a half delving into his story, and Cliona wasn’t just sold on putting his picture up, she actually developed a lesson plan right there, inspired by Carver’s drive to better others by developing more value for a cash crop.  “That would absolutely work as a lesson!” she said.  “Have some students try to think of new uses for an Irish crop the way Carver did for peanuts or cotton!”  There is very likely a classroom of students in the south of Ireland to this day that regularly are told to use Carver as an example.

But even that is not the best story I have.

On her very first trip here, Cliona and I spent most of our days wandering around New York – and most of the time, she was in a wide-eyed state of awe.  Every so often she’d see something that amazed her and just stop and stare at it, a huge grin on her face – the Empire State Building, Times Square, Washington Square Park, the Brooklyn Bridge.  I was so used to my usual sidewalk pace that sometimes I’d get a half a block away before I noticed I’d lost her.

Towards the end of her visit, though, I noticed a couple times that she was stopping and staring not at buildings, but at people.  After the third time I’d found her staring at the crowd around us, I finally asked what it was that was catching her attention.

“All the faces,” she said, grinning at me.  “They’re all different colors. It’s just…Look.  It’s beautiful.”

And she’s right.

….By the way, the title of this post is in Irish Gaelic – it’s a line from MLK, U2’s other song about King; “may your dream be realized.”

And Now For Some Fun –

Wow, I’m all serious sometimes, huh?

That’s something I’ve noticed in here – my writing has gotten very serious and somber, much more so than it used to be.  That could simply be a function of having let things slip for a while – I may just be getting used to you all looking in, and feel like I have to Be Impressive.  It’s kind of like – years ago, on a trip to Chicago, I wandered around Oak Park, a neighborhood which is filled with houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  And most of them were lovely – simple houses with a bit of distinctive shaping here, or a leaded window design there.  But one house stuck out for its excess – patterned stone, carved scrollwork, ornamental stained glass over every window, an ornately-carved door.  According to the map I’d picked up, that particular house was the first one Wright designed by himself, and suddenly the overkill made total sense – Wright was all on his own for the first time, and got panicky and totally shot his wad.

Yeah, people do that.  I feel like people are now looking, and I have to give them something to look at.  I’ll get over it.

And maybe movies will help!  (Yep, that’s a segue.)  On and off, over the years, I’ve tried to see all of the Oscar-nominated movies before the Oscar ceremonies each year.  Some years I do better than others – especially when there were only five of them each year – and some years I just plain can’t, especially now that there can be as many as ten.

This year the list is a somewhat more manageable eight, and I’ve already seen two: Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel.  So that just leaves:

American Sniper
Boyhood
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash

Selma and Imitation Game I was already planning on – I actually once worked with the actor who plays Ralph Abernathy in Selma, and his Facebook feed has been blowing up with mentions of the film (plus it looks great).  Everyone has been raving about Boyhood and Theory of Everything as well.

I have to be honest, though, I’m not too thrilled about American Sniper or Whiplash, although Whiplash was a bit of a surprise – didn’t that just come out and only last five minutes?  It looks good, mind you, but the whole thing of a teacher mercilessly riding an student artist may give me a couple flashbacks to some moments in the conservatory where I studied acting.  Welp, I have a month to have my mind changed about the both of those, though.

I Will Need The Following Supplies…

Four years ago, one of my best friends in the whole world – the woman who was my pen pal in seventh grade – flew over from Ireland for an intervention in the guise of a visit.  It wasn’t until two days before she went home that she confessed that one of the big reasons she came to see me was out of some concern – I’d used to do a lot of adventurous stuff, she said, but in the past couple years she’d seen me gradually do less and less, and treat myself less and less well, and that was really bothering her.  Be better to yourself, she urged me.  Do more.

It was one of the best things anyone’s ever done for me, but I wasn’t still completely in a place where I could.  I tried, a little – but money and energy and chance and fate were still not quite on my side.

…But that was then.  And this year, I think, is finally now.

For the past week, I’ve been reading and re-reading the different route maps for two different commuter railroads in the city.  Maybe I couldn’t afford an Amtrak train trip anywhere, I thought, but what about Metro-North?  Can I get anywhere cool on that, for cheap?  And how about New Jersey Transit?  Or the Long Island Railroad?  And what about that bus that can get me up into the Catskills, where else could I go on that?…And wait, while I’m at it, where can I stay in those cities?…

By the end of the week, I was slapping a big wall map of Eastern New York State over my desk and putting up color-coded pins in different cities based on what transit system would get me there, and whether I could stay overnight in any AirBnB home stay.  And I’ve been repeatedly looking at the same two cabins for rent in the Catskills, and have gone all the way into imagining myself sitting outside of one on a deck, in the spring sunshine, a cup of coffee and a book at my elbow and my feet propped up, looking out over the mountains as a deer picks its way through the yard before me.  And I’m seeing this all with the certainty that I’m definitely going to do this.

And it’s the same certainty I’ve brought to a guidebook I just got – something dealing with unusual experiences to be had in New York City.  Things like kayaking among all the islands of Jamaica Bay, or offering myself up as “rail meat” at a sailing club, or an hour in a sensory deprivation tank or an archery class in Queens or a Holi parade in Flushing that’s over 20 years old or free monthly lectures at the Museum of Natural History, all this….stuff that I’d not really been motivated to look into before and it’s just been quietly going on all this time, and I’ve gone from not knowing it was happening straight to Googling “DIY holi color powder recipe” because are you kidding me I am so there.

Some years ago, about the same time as my friend came over, I read something in passing where someone talked about how they’d agreed something was a good idea, but weren’t yet ready to start making it happen; they described their mental state as “I haven’t yet gone from ‘that’s a good idea’ to ‘I will need the following supplies’.”  I think the fact that I’m gathering supplies already means I’m there.

Caloric Output

I’m not gonna hide it – I like food.  I have always liked food.  I’ve liked making it, tasting it, trying different kinds of it, exploring it, eating it.  Baking cookies was one of the ways that my friend Lisa and I entertained ourselves in the small town and the even smaller backroad where I grew up, and everyone in the whole family has turned into master chefs since I became an adult; Thanksgiving eve at my brother’s place usually looks like a demented form of Iron Chef, with my father and brother getting into a territorial pissing match over The Proper Way To Cook The Turkey while I try to shove them both out of the way and bark “the hell with the turkey I have to mash the potatoes and roast the carrots, dammit” while my mother and sister-in-law sit back, splitting a bottle of wine and watching the show.

And for a good chunk of my life so far, I was able to eat with impunity as I was one of those annoying people who could eat anything and not gain weight.  It did cause some uneasy conversations with my parents, who kept on seeing me turn up to family gatherings looking skinny, and then would try sitting me down and asking me whether I had anorexia; I would simply laugh and point out that we’d just met for dinner.  I had the metabolism of a lab rat on meth, I reminded them; and I was regularly reveling in huge servings of ice cream and cream sauce and pasta and roast chicken and cake and cookies and hamburgers and lamb and meat stews and homemade bread and everything.

That has since changed.

About ten years ago I gradually started gaining weight; my size six pants actually started feeling a little tight.  A couple of friends mentioned that filling out a bit actually looked good on me – I’d always been a bit gaunt.

Except then I managed to bypass size six, then eight, then ten…then twelve…then…

And still I never really worried.  I was eating generally healthy; I wasn’t morbidly obese; I still had energy to get out and do things.  I got some vegetables in, I’d stopped eating entire bags of Cheetos the way I did when I was 25, I was still generally…okay.  My metabolism was still kind of high – not so high as it was in my 20’s, but high enough that my summer switchover from frozen vegetables to fresh was often enough to drop a couple inches off my frame.  I did change some longstanding habits – at one point I was in the habit of eating homemade pasta alfredo about twice a week – and generally keep the eating in a good balance.

But for the past year I’ve been feeling a bit more sluggish than I’d like.  Not to the point where I want to sleep all day, but…just draggy.  This weekend I wanted to get out to a movie matinee – except by the time I’d finally roused myself to get off the nice comfy couch and start getting ready, I’d missed my window.  A lot of the things I try to do around the house on the weekends have to be interspersed with “let me just take a break” sits on the couch as well.

This hasn’t really ever been like me – or at least it’s not who I want to be me.

After slagging off on the movie this weekend, I got a bit scared and checked on treating “fatigue” at the usual round of medical-advice sites.  Most of them suggested that exercise was a good way to treat mild fatigue – just 20 minutes on a treadmill three times a week.  “Strange,” I thought, “that sounds like what they usually advise for exercise for….”

Oh.

I got up and weighed myself – and found that I’d crept up another ten pounds or so.  I did the math and realized that, on a daily basis, I’m carrying around about 20 pounds or so more than I probably should.

Oh.

Well, no wonder I’m tired.  I have just spent the past couple months gorging myself on Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, and have been holing up inside hiding from the cold, and generally turning into something of a lazy slug.  Changing over from alfredo to puttanesca is only part of the puzzle.

I have dug out a gym membership card I got a few years back and am resolving to hit up a gym on my way home from work every night now, just for a twenty-minute walk on the treadmill or something.  Hibernation only makes sense if you’re a bear.

Je Suis….Seulment Une Spectateur

A day ago, a group of three gunmen broke into the office of the French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo and shot four of the cartoonists there; the story suggests that they were angered by a handful of cartoons with less-than-flattering things to say about Islam.  And the rest of the world has been reacting with shock and grief.  Especially on social media, where the hashtag “#JeSuisCharlie” is spreading like wildfire.  About eight of my friends on Facebook posted messages in support of the Charlie Hebdo staff within a single hour – either repeating “Je Suis Charlie” as their statusues, or posting links to live video feeds of the demonstration in Paris.  There have also been a lot of comments about the pen being mightier than the sword, or how true bravery is all about speaking up when fascists are out to kill you, or the like.

And while that is indeed true bravery, that’s also not what happened here.

It’s taken me a day to figure out why I was so reluctant to join in the adulation of the Charlie Hebdo staff.  Was I horrified at their killing?  Absolutely.  Did I think their killers should be prosecuted?  Of course.  Do I think they had the right to print what they did?  Shit yes.

But.  These were not brave freedom fighters trying to daringly speak truth to power.  Don’t forget – in France, as with in most of the West, the Muslim community is a minority underclass, which has had to struggle for its own freedom of expression.  For the past ten years, France has banned students from wearing “conspicuous religious garb” in school – a move that prevents Muslim girls from wearing hijab, and also prevents Sikh and Hindi students from wearing turbans and Jewish students from wearing yarmulkes.  (Crosses are “discreet”, though, so the Christian kids are okay.)  A similar law prevents women from wearing burquas in public places.  And a study conducted three years ago found that French Muslim job seekers are discriminated against; Christian job seekers are almost three times more likely to be hired than Muslim ones.  When you consider the whole of the society they were living in – where they were poking fun at the same people their government was oppressing themselves – the cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo come across more like the guys who sat in the back of your study hall making fart jokes.

But the perception is that the cartoonists for Charlie Hebdo were bravely standing up to oppressive threats of violence.  And they probably did get a couple threats – just like every media platform has done at one time or another, from one crank or another.  I worked as the production assistant for a fishing show for about four years, and even we got a threat from someone – a woman who accused us of working in collusion with Steven Spielberg and Patrick Swayze to send her coded messages over the radio and on the sides of trucks.  To our good fortune, she just wanted us to stop.  But if she had somehow made her way to our office and held us all hostage, our shows about marlin catching would not have been lauded as some great triumph of free expression, and her motivation would have been rightly dismissed as largely stemming from her own madness.  And anyway, we reacted the way most media platforms usually do in such a case – passing the letter around the office so everyone could have a good laugh, and then throwing it in the “chuckles” file, making corkscrewy gestures around our ears as we did so, and then getting on with our day.  And I’m sure that’s exactly what the Charlie Hebdo staff did when they received their earlier threats.

That same kind of madness affected the shooters in Paris two days ago.  Sure, they may have believed they were acting out of a strict adherence to Islam, but – by the same token, David Koresh believed himself to be a prophet, and that belief spurred him to commit horrid acts, but that belief didn’t mean he was a prophet, was he?  No – David Koresh has been largely dismissed as a madman, and his actions the tragic work of a madman who had an unusually high level of charisma.

I’m afraid that the only thing I can see which is leading most of the rest of the world to hold the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists up as brave heroes, and the shooters up as oppressive terrorists, is the fact that the shooters were Muslim and the cartoonists were critical of Islam.  It’s the current narrative of our times – the Muslim world are the bad guys, and everyone fighting them is the good guys.  It isn’t enough for this to have been a horribly tragic incident perpetrated by a team of maniacs – people are compelled to paint the cartoonists as martyrs in a war that they weren’t even losing, and which they probably weren’t even consciously trying to fight to begin with.  And already, in the wake of the shooting, there have been counterattacks against French mosques, and an upswell of Islamophobic comments online, sitting right alongside the “Je Suis Charlie” hashtag.

And I want no part of that.

I’ll say it again – I absolutely do not believe that the cartoonists deserved to be killed for what they printed.  I just don’t think that they should be canonized either.

 

EDITED TO ADD LATER:

….I’ve since learned that in 2011, the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed by an earlier group of attackers.  I will admit, absolutely, that that is rather more of a concrete prior threat than I had previously thought, and it probably took somewhat more courage for them to return to work after that.

And yet I still don’t categorize that particular act of courage as that of the brave freedom fighter speaking truth to power.  It was courage, yes – but more like the courage of the people who returned to the World Trade Center after the first time someone tried to bomb it – in 1993.  That also took courage for people to go back to work – but back then, it wasn’t about “not letting the terrorists win”.  It was simply about “this is where I work, so screw you.”

And that is a courageous narrative all its own, without having to dress it in any anti-fascism clothes.

Up In Smoke

This year started easy by necessity; I spent the whole week after Christmas nursing a cold, which then turned brutal on me on the 2nd and kept me holed up inside for three straight days, snorking my way through four entire boxes of tissues and wishing it were possible to ingest chicken soup intravenously.

But in between coping with the symptoms, the stillness was actually kind of…nice.  My roommate was still visiting family, and I got thoroughly sick of daytime television after a day or so, I ended up noodling in a paper journal – something that was my one resolution going into the year.  And I was even more surprised when my first Journal Entry turned into a two page list of yet more resolutions.

Well, not resolutions really.  More like, a bucket list for the year itself – small adventures and fun things that I’ve been meaning to do but talking myself out of doing.  Camping.  Two-day hiking expeditions.  Skinny dipping.  Having a proper high tea.  Going to at least two movies in a theater.  Visiting a museum I haven’t done before.  Bake every other week so there’s always something sweet in the house.  Roping a couple friends into actually renting a cottage together one summer weekend.  A night at a really stanky dive bar with an old-school juke box.  Finding a way to sleep in a houseboat for a night.  Buying myself flowers once a month.

These are all things I thought about wanting to do in recent years but always managed to talk myself out of for one reason or another.  I even almost talked myself out of doing the one thing I did on New Year’s Eve – visiting the final sounding of the steam whistles at Pratt University.  But the fact that it was their swan song, and that they were only five blocks away, helped.

The whistles have been a weird little neighborhood tradition. Pratt’s Brooklyn Campus  used to be an engineering school, and has a huge steam engine with a boiler; and on the side, the caretaker and chief engineer got into collecting old steam whistles as a hobby, salvaging them from old locomotives and ocean liners, and making a steam carillon out of some at one point – and fifty years ago, on New Year’s Eve, he got the idea to drag them all out onto the campus green, and at midnight, to blast them all off at once.

It quickly became one of the Neighborhood Things – featured on the campus web site, talked about in the restaurants the year I moved in.  Neighbors and students and alumni would start crowding in the quad an hour ahead of time.  The one year I went, it was as part of a champagne-tasting party being held by a neighbohood wine shop.  An old boyfriend lived a block or so from the Pratt campus, and I remember one late December morning at his place, us lying awake and listening to the whalesong noise of them testing the whistles in advance.

But of the eight years I’ve lived here, this was only the second time I even made it to the whistles.  And I hadn’t done much of anything else in the past several years, and that’s been a problem.

I have had my reasons.  That man who I was curled up with, listening to the whistle tests, broke up with me a handful of months later – and that was the beginning of the single longest streaks of bad luck I’ve ever had, during which I lost my job, lost a roommate, lost another job, lost a cat, lost a computer and ten years’ worth of writing, lost another job, broke my foot, lost another roommate – let’s put it this way, when I go through the List Of Suck for people, Hurricane Sandy is often one of the things I forget about.

I dealt with it by going into Stage Manager Crisis Mode – grit your teeth, dive in, and deal with it, but above all else, do not let anyone see your panic.  When people asked how I was coping trying to hobble up four flights of stairs to my apartment on a boot cast, I’d just smile through grit teeth and say that oh, I was managing.  When my parents asked how I was doing for money, I would lie and tell them I was making it work. I did break down a bit when I was nursing my cat through his final illness, and asked my parents for a loan for the vet bills, but still pulled myself together to go to my cousin’s wedding and smile and joke with people and never let on that I’d had to put my beloved cat on an IV drip before heading to the church.  And so I was still on two feet – the broken one since healed – by the time that streak broke sometime last year.

But it cost me.  The more energy I spent trying to cope, the less I had left when I had a free moment – and so the thought of even just standing up, getting my coat, and walking two blocks to the park was overwhelming.  Being ten dollars away from the rent check bouncing made me reluctant to spend two dollars on a newspaper.  So I got way too accustomed to spending my days sitting inside, watching TV, maybe reading, maybe surfing the Internet.  Go to work, come home.  Maybe do a free concert in the park in the summer, if I felt like I had the energy.  I did force myself to do a few things – a couple trips when I had the money, a concert once – but I went right back to asceticism after.

This year was a little different.  I still didn’t go too crazy – my finances are still a bit on the shaky side.  But – I’ve noticed I’m gradually starting to just do more.  I took a couple of long walks in Prospect Park this summer, finding a couple tucked-away corners I hadn’t seen before. I started this blog; I made a few trips to Connecticut to visit someone I was dating briefly.  Once when I was keeping an eye on my friends’ car, I drove myself to a small town upstate simply because I hadn’t ever been there before.  I still had to fight past the sit-on-the-couch-and-don’t-do-anything instinct, but it was easier to fight past now.  And so I fought past it again and went out to Pratt’s campus New Year’s Eve, despite the outside cold and the definite beginnings of my cold.

The crowd was bigger than the last time I went; people were even climbing atop a ten-foot wall for a better view of the carillon as it played off-key versions of Ode to Joy or We Wish You A Merry Christmas or Auld Lang Syne.  Whoever was at the keys would just riff in between songs, picking out notes as he tried to find the next tune.  In the crowd around me, I could also hear occasional discreet pops of champagne bottles.

And then after what felt like only a short while, the carillon fell silent. I thought it was only a change in shift, or someone trying to fetch music.  An older couple in the crowd overheard a younger one discussing the whistles during the lull and turned to chat with them; “we were here 15 years ago, and people were coming from hundreds of miles away just for this!”

“Is it just these whistles here?” the younger couple said, pointing at the carillon.  But then the crowd around me started a countdown – five-four-three-two-one – and then across the quad, the rest of the whistles sounded in a mighty blast, the steam swarming up and engulfing a couple of the trees and arcing over us so thick that it actually rained on me for a second or two.

I slipped through the crowd away from the carillon, closer to the bigger whistles as they played on; the caretakers giving each one of them its solo.  A couple of mournful locomotive whistles first.  Then the deep bass thrum of the steamship whistles; one, I remembered, was from the S.S. Normandie, and its blast was so loud that I could actually feel it buzzing in my chest.  Here and there in the crowd people tried setting off confetti crackers they’d brought, but the confetti blasts were swallowed by the huge white columns of steam unfolding in the night air.  One woman in the crowd ahead of me kept stretching up her arms towards them, as if she could gather them to her like they were a huge pile of cotton balls.

I noticed people wandering in and out of the engine room at some point, and stopped in myself; usually the space is behind a glass wall, and taken over by a crowd of stray cats who’ve been adopted by the Pratt staff.  But this time the glass wall was thrown open, letting curious visitors peer down to the lower level where a row of huge steam turbines sat, looking for all the world like a row of ten-foot red tape dispensers.  The piston on one was working at a fast clip, blindingly fast for such a huge heavy thing.

The crowd inside kept getting in each others’ way and I wandered back out.  The whistles were still going on, and the Normandie gave another rib-shattering blast as I came close.  I’ve been on a bit of a Sting kick lately, and a lyric from his Last Ship kept running through my head – “Oh the roar of the chains and the cracking of timbers, The noise at the end of the world in your ears….”  Whether it’s because it’s a song about steamships like the Normandie, or because it’s a song about endings, it fit.

I rejoined the crowd around the whistles, hoping that the caretakers were letting us at the whistles – and they were, the caretakers keeping us all behind barriers surrounding the cluster, handing the strings which opened the steam valve to members of the crowd back and forth.  Not everyone in the crowd behind me knew that this was happening, and I was able to nudge my way forward towards the front, where I waited until I heard one man holding a string to my left start calling out to the crowd, “okay, who’s next?  Who wants to try?”  I was one of two people who reached for it, and I let the other woman go first.

And as she gave the string a giddy yank which set my chest buzzing again, I thought about how I almost hadn’t come out, thought about the bad habits I’d picked up over the last couple years; slacking off on writing, holing up in the house instead of getting out in the world, keeping my worries to myself instead of reaching out to friends.  They weren’t so much habits, though, as things I just needed to do to see me through some hard years.  But finally, finally, this was a year where the luck had started to turn, and it was time to let those habits go.

The woman handed me the string.  I gave it a yank, and sent those habits and my past year flying up with the steam and away.