Monthly Archives: February 2008

The Blues

Remember that scene in Annie Hall where the young Alvy Singer is sitting in a doctor’s office with his mother? The doctor asks him why he’s depressed, why he won’t do his homework and he says “The universe is expanding.”

That’s the way I’ve been feeling lately. Maybe it’s just February—which is itself expanding this year–or maybe it’s the several hours I spent on the living room sofa last Saturday evening watching The Corporation, or maybe it’s the headlines that land on our front steps every morning (yesterday morning it was health care costs headed into the trillions, gas going up to $3.40 a gallon, and what’s being called a “Doomsday” seed vault in Norway), or maybe it’s just that everything seems to be falling apart a lot faster than anyone expected or can respond to.

Usually I feel pretty hopeful about the world. Maybe not about the way the world is going right now, but about the resilience of the human spirit, about our innate capacity to make pleasure and happiness out of whatever materials we find at hand. But this week…I don’t know, I keep thinking about Chang and Eng, the conjoined twins exhibited by P.T. Barnum back in the 1830s. After they retired they moved to North Carolina, married a pair of sisters, bought farms and raised families. But Chang was a heavy drinker; in January of 1874 he contracted pneumonia and on the night of January 17 he died. His brother Eng, healthy up until then, died two and a half hours later. On days like this I feel like Eng, sharing vital organs and a circulatory system with a profligate twin whose habits are going to bring us both down in the end.

So let’s just go with it. Be forewarned: this is the jeremiad edition of my blog, a round up of some of the things that are making me feel bleak and hopeless and scared this week. Enjoy.

Here in the Southeastern U.S. we’re in the middle of a drought; by late last summer the lawns were parched, the fountains in the park downtown were silent, and the farmers at the farmer’s market were closing their tables early because they didn’t have enough to sell. The middle part of the drought map—the part where I live—is marked in dark red indicating “exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies.”

“We didn’t expect climate change, we didn’t pay attention,” Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said in October as that city looked at two to four se-drought-12908.jpgmonths of water left in its reservoirs. On the other side of the country Lake Mead is drying up—mighty Lake Mead, whose waters are essential to Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California. “We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was coming at us,” said Tim Barnett, one of the scientists studying the lake’s future. “Make no mistake, this water problem is not a scientific abstraction, but rather one that will impact each and every one of us that live in the Southwest.” On the other side of the world the glaciers in the Himalayas are melting because of climate change; the UN predicts that by 2030—2030!–they’ll be mostly gone. The glaciers act as a giant reservoir for the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Mekong and many of the other great rivers of India and Southeast Asia. When the glaciers go so does the water that sustains the two billion people who live along those rivers.

It’s everywhere. The U.N. estimates that by 2025 fresh drinking water will be a scarcity for two-thirds of the world’s population. Is there anything in our recent history to suggest that the remaining one third of the world—a lot of which is us–will gladly share? My guess is that not only will we not share, but that we’ll see the scarcity as another opportunity to leverage our own power. In 2000 the people of Bolivia rose up when the government sold water rights in the city of Cochabamba to a subsidiary of Bechtel and water prices increased by 35 percent. After massive protests during which several people were killed, the contract was canceled and the water operation became public again, but the problem isn’t solved: people in the poor sections of Cochabamba still pay ten times as much for their water as households in wealthy neighborhoods.

People are killing each other in Ethiopia over access to water and pastureland; in Kenya Kikuyu and Maasai are fighting over a river diversion project, and throughout northern Africa the desert is creeping southward. The bloodletting in the Darfur region of Sudan was set off by drought and water scarcity caused by climate change. Closer to home Tennessee and Georgia are squaring off over water, and feelings are running high in the upper Midwest as other parts of the country begin drought-driven legal maneuverings to get hold of the Great Lakes water.

It’s like some horrible metaphor: 72 percent of the planet is covered in water, over half of our own bodies is made up of water. Hunger is bad, but thirst is a thousand times worse. The French philosopher of gastronomy Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1825: “The sensation of thirst is so intense, that in all tongues it is synonymous with excessive desire, and irrepressible longing: thus we thirst for gold, wealth, power, science, &c., expressions which never would have become common had men not have been athirst and aware of their vengeance. Appetite is pleasant when it does not reach the point of hunger. Thirst is not so, and as soon as we feel it we are uncomfortable and anxious. When there is no possibility of appeasing it, the state of mind is terrible.”

This isn’t oil we’re talking about. This isn’t the raw materials to make cell phones or Krugerrands or shampoo bottles. This is the essential ingredient of all life on this planet. When we use access to water to coerce or punish or harm other people, when we use access to water to enrich ourselves or to increase our own power without any regard to the effect of our actions, when we foul and disregard and dishonor water, we commit a crime against our own humanness. That’s where we’re headed. And we did it to ourselves.

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Validation Day

A few years ago Jane came to stay for a couple of months–she built herself a loft on the side porch, piled the bed with warm quilts and moved in. It was early February, the unloveliest month around here, when the novelty of winter has long since worn off and spring has not yet begun. Outside is alternately muddy and dusty, and inside becomes the same as people track in whatever weather has pooled beyond the window2.jpgback porch. The sky is low and gray. Or high and cold and streaked with remote, windy clouds. Or warm enough to promise endless shirtsleeves for a day before lashing everyone back into sweaters. When the sun does shine the light is hard and charmless, showing up the dirty streaks on the windows and the worn spots on the stairs. Neither the house nor the household is at its best in February.

So I’m not sure that we were entirely gracious when the eight homemade construction paper Validation Day cards showed up on the mantel. Jane had decorated each one with a different cut-out design and written ourfebruary2.jpg names on the covers. The way it works, she explained, is that over the course of a couple of days we all write something about each other in the cards, but we don’t look at our own until February 14th, a.k.a. Validation Day. Fine then. We did it, taking a secret pleasure in eavesdropping on what our housemates had to say about each other. I know that I learned some things—nice things—about the crisscrossing relationships in the house.

Then came the day. We assembled a little awkwardly in the living room; someone took down the sheaf of cards and passed them out. The silence deepened in the room as we sat and read the heartfelt, affectionate, appreciative things that we seldom remember to say to each other in person. You could almost feel the skepticism and validation-day.jpgself-consciousness dissipate as we began looking up from the folded cards and thanking each other; I felt a tenderness for my housemates a little different from anything that I had felt before. I don’t know what other people did with theirs, but I saved my Validation Day card. And I saved the next one. And the one after that. The autumn after she stayed with us Jane went off to college, but every year a big manila envelope still arrived in the mail basket with a fresh set of Validation Day cards.

Everything has been a little out of sorts around the house the last couple of weeks. Stef and Crystal are moving out—Crystal, who is now teaching music at two different schools, wants the quiet and privacy of her own apartment, and Stef, who has been in the house since its inception as a collective more than five years ago, is moving in with two friends who share her interests in vegan cooking and straight-edge hardcore punk. mantelother2.jpgIt’s going to feel strange to have them gone. Skye will be taking over Crystal’s small room; she and Jodi will have their own rooms at last. In addition we’ll be getting new housemates, which is always exciting but also a little unsettling. And everyone is working hard on projects of their own, in and out a lot, passing in the kitchen or on the stairs, but not connecting for very long. It’s just February and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Jane came to visit for a week in late January before she went overseas for seven months, first to study in South Africa and then to travel and work in Europe. I’ve known Jane now for over five years; we met when I was very new at collective living, and Jane, recently graduated from high school, had just returned from stilt-walking and breathing fire as part of a CrimethInc Circus Tour. It was good, as always, to see Jane again last month, to observe how she continues to grow in depth as well as reach. A lot of people wanted to spend time with Jane; we all got a little piece of her, and then she was off.

Given that she was preparing to go all the way to Africa and be gone for more than half a year I was very surprised when a manila envelope, addressed in Jane’s handwriting, once again arrived in our mail basket. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Of all the qualities that delighted and moved me the most as I traveled deeper into the anarchist world—the quality that in some ways required the most adjustment on my part–was the willingness to be unironically, unashamedly and openly loving. Loving to other people, loving to the world, loving to the mystery of being alive in a way that is alternately ridiculed and commercialized in the larger culture. I read once in a history of punk music: “What it comes down to is this—life matters, so don’t fuck it up.” That’s it: life matters. Your life matters, the lives of the people around you matters, the lives of the people you pass on the street, the lives of the people sleeping or playing solitaire or shaving their legs or kissing their children in the houses you pass on the highway matter. Life itself matters; and once your mental eyes adjust to that premise it’s hard not to see validation for it everywhere.

At least that’s the way I’ve come to see it, thanks to Jane and to all the other passionate, urgent, hopeful, resolute people I live among. So happy Validation Day everyone and everywhere, and many many happy returns.

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Straying Home

flyinghouse1.jpgI make my living writing snappy blurbs and photo captions for glossy magazines, so how hard can it be to come up with a book title?

How about The Visible Woman? That’s the title of a zine I wrote years ago and I still like it. I proposed the title to an agent I was working with at the time, one of several who got in touch with me after I published an article about our house a couple of years ago. She thought what I had written had the potential to be expanded a successful memoir published by a mainstream publisher. “You know,” she said “the biggest book-buying demographic is middle-aged women.” But no, she said, not The Visible Woman.

I pulled together the various things I’d written over the years, things I’d written mostly to try to make sense to myself of the choices and changes I’d made. The agent looked at them and suggested Standards of Living, but that didn’t feel quite right. How about Qualities of Life? I thought. Actually, no. Um, let’s see… Border Crossings. A Change of Address. Jumping the Fence. No. No. No.

The New York Times had titled my article Inviting Anarchy Into My Home. How about that? No, nobody liked that one. Then I remembered something I had read once in a history of punk rock: “Life matters, so don’t fuck it up.” How about that: Life Matters. I walked around for a couple of days sure that I’d found it. No one else could see it.

This went on for well over a year.

One late afternoon last November I asked Mark if he would help me decide among The Visible Woman, Standards of Living and Life Matters. Or maybe The Visible Woman: A Memoir of Life Matters. Or Standards: On Living. I had just come back from a week at a writer’s retreat where I had done yet another revision of the book proposal I’d been working on for a year and a half. I was ready to send the latest version off to New York, but I still needed a title.

“Just those ones?” Mark said.

“It’s the best I can come up with,” I said. I felt a little defensive. “It’s not that easy you know.”

Mark stopped whatever it was he was doing and stood up. “Look,” he said kindly. “You’re going about it all wrong. You have to have a lot of bad ideas before you can have a good one.” He went into his room and came out with a big roll of adding machine paper. He taped one end of the roll to the coffee table and put a pen down beside it. “Let’s say we won’t leave here until we’ve come up with a hundred titles. Bad ones. No, let’s say a hundred and one.” At the top of the paper he wrote 100 TITLES FOR LIZ’S BOOK.

GO!

1. Mark picked up the pen and wrote FREE FURNITURE!
2. I wrote A Dangerous Question
3. It Started With A Question
4. Renovation
5. Home Renovation
6. Home Repair

Crystal and Jodi came in. “What are you guys doing?”

“Coming up with a title for Liz’s book.”

They sat down on the sofa.

7. Less is More, Jodi said.

8. More for Less, Crystal said.

9. The Same Light, Mark wrote.

10. “I’ve always kind of liked Traveler’s Rest,” I said. Mark wrote: Traveler’s Rest.

It went on like that…Grounds for DivorceNew EyesIn Case of Police RaidComing to My Senses….

27. “How about just Home?” I said, and wrote it down.

“But that doesn’t tell anyone what it’s about,” Jodi said.

Mark made a noise that sounded like “Bzzzt.” “No editing,” he said. “Just bad ideas.”

The bad ideas flew.

58. Riot Mom

59. Freedame

60. Notes on the Sink

61. Graffiti and Kitchen Notes

62. Resisting Arrest

63. Resisting A Rest

“How far are we?” Mark asked.

“Only sixty-three,” I said. “Steve across the street suggested Off The Rails And On The Run,” I added.

“Write it down!” Mark said.

Momentum returned. 66: Diet For A New Home. 67: Chicken. 68: Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road? 69: The Other Side

“I’ve got to go,” Crystal said.

88. Picking Sides

89. “Or maybe Choosing Sides,” I said.

90. Picking A Fight

Picking My Nose,” Jodi said, and Mark grabbed the pen.

“Don’t write that down!” I said.

We hit 100 (Hunger) and kept right on going.

146. Happily Ever After

147. Ever After

148. After Ever After

149. After Disaster

…and finally we were done. Mark unstuck the paper, rolled it back up and handed it to me. I took the paper upstairs and sat down on the bed to look at it, and there between Staying Home and Biscuits and Gravy (where did that one come from?)was Straying Home. Straying Home. I liked it. I couldn’t even be sure who had said it, but it expressed better than anything I’d thought of so far the paradox I felt in having traveled so far in my own life without leaving the house.

So Straying Home it is.

But it turns out that Mark was right in more ways than one. I was going about things the wrong way–not just the title of the book, but the whole process of trying to get a book published. The wrong way, at least, for me. I sent off the proposal and didn’t hear anything. Not the first week, not the second week, not the third. Over the year and half or so that the agent and I had been working together the intervals between my submissions and her reactions had grown longer and longer, but this was unprecedented. I gave it a little more time; by early December I admitted to myself that chances were pretty good that I was never going to hear for her. It seemed as though the time had come to admit the truth. I quit. So as the year ended I had a title, a book proposal, some sample chapters, no agent, a good deal of confusion, and a surprising amount of relief.

Then a friend introduced me to the intriguing concept of print-on-demand–a new form of self-publishing that circumvents the whole agent/author/publisher nexus. Somehow that feels right for who I am and what I have to say. After all, my new life owes a lot to the DIY–do-it-yourself–ethic. Why not do this one myself?

So that’s what I’m going to do, but first I’m going to take it even one step further and serialize the book on line, on a separate blog. I recognize that in publishing the book myself I’m sacrificing the help of an editor, so please, if you have an interest in reading what I write, feel free to offer your editorial comments and suggestions. I’ll pay attention, I promise.

Here it is! Straying Home: A Memoir of Changing in Place

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