Sunday, December 23, 2018

To the Moon and Back: A Revolution

Anjulie and Everett

My husband and I were at a small gathering the other night, when the conversation turned in the direction that conversation turns, somewhere through a second bottle of wine, to God.

Our host had already mentioned once or twice (as atheists do, with or without wine) that she was an atheist, a signal to me that the question of where I stood on this matter was forthcoming.

I have pondered my answer to this question ever since my Catholic childhood friends informed me about how easy it was to do or not do something that would intentionally or unintentionally land me in hell.  As a young child, I took that new intel to heart, and immediately sprouted a guilty conscience and a need to confess my sins to my father every night.

In my case, I confessed everything I had done or contemplated or suspected might be naughty to my own father, at bedtime.  My father, an imposing and intimidating figure, but having a good heart, made an ideal confessor.  (By contrast, my mom was a pushover.)

Incidentally, part of our good-night, tuck-in, save-my-soul ritual was that every night before closing the door to my room, my father would say,

"Sleep tight! Don't let the bedbugs bite."

Consistent with the weird and grotesque tales by Grimm and Aesops, (I would never forget the fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson in which a young bird, unable to keep pace with the peloton, is skewered through the heart from behind), my father's nightly litany gave me one more thing to worry about: the threat of bedbugs.

Come to think, sometimes he said, instead, "Sleep as snug as a bug in a rug."

No wonder Millennials have more self-respect than previous generations: They were not indoctrinated with morality tales that concluded: If you're not fast enough, when the time comes, you will be murdered in mid-air by someone close to you, you will drop out of the sky, splat, onto the ground, and none of us will stop to mourn you; we'll all just keep flying south.

Instead of comparing their children to bugs, the Baby Boomers adopted a new bedtime litany, a benediction.

Do I have to say it?  You know what it is:

"I love you to the moon and back."

I remember the first time I read, "To the Moon and Back."  It had just been published.  I read the whole thing standing up in a bookstore.  It was really, really hard for me to not burst into heaving sobs, right out there in public.

Of course now, people are used to it.  Most people can tell their kids, without crying, "I love you to the moon and back."

But, for those of us like me, raised with bedbugs and pestilence, this new party line was a hard one to articulate.

I tried to read TO THE MOON AND BACK to my son, but I could never get through it without crying, and that was a burden to my son, so I just didn't read it.  

I told myself it was saccharine, instead of what it was, which was revolutionary.

What happens to a developing mind fed on such unalloyed outpourings of affection and deep regard?  Untempered by the acidity of bedbugs?  Unqualified by the threat of perfidy and extermination for the  failure to keep up with the flock?

They're going to grow up thinking they're entitled to meaningful work and personal fulfillment.  They won't put up with sexual harassment in the work place.

These kids are going to be a pain in the ass.

But what were we talking about?


So, I was waiting for my turn to answer the question: Did I believe in God?

So far, we had two waffling Agnostics and one strident atheist.

I had been waiting patiently my turn.

And wouldn't you know it?  The conversation veered off into a completely different subject. Gah!

I really wanted to tell them that after thinking on this question for most of my life, I had come to the conclusion that God was how we explained human consciousness to ourselves.  He was how we understood the enormous gulf between the smartest primate and what we, as human beings, are capable of imagining.

We can create multi-layered art that, labored over and imbued with genius, seems the very essence of God--evidence of  consciousness that, one hopes, may yet expand in the aggregate and improve upon itself; as in, for example, the shift in bedtime rituals from one generation to the next.

Is it not enlightenment when we progress from sending a child to bed with mixed messages, (I love you. Don't let the bedbugs bite.) to a new gospel that takes the qualifiers and threat out of saying good-night?

By this simple act, I think we are closer in human consciousness to what God is: Ourselves.

And hell would be a projection all the effluence and failures of that same human consciousness: The failure to love.  The failure to be mindful and caring.  The regret that comes from acts of unkindness.  The knowledge of our own moral corruption.  The wringing of hands, the gnashing of teeth...all around us.

Does that make me an atheist?

But I can't be an atheist, you see, because I believe in the spirit of life.  But that is another question entirely, and did not come up in conversation.  

Saturday, December 15, 2018

2018 Holiday Letter

Dear Family and Friends,

Thanks to social media, you know what we’ve been up to in 2018.  However, in as much as FB and Instagram convey only glimpses and soundbites, indulge me now as I attempt to squeeze out every last drop of meaning from the year in this brief summary.  

Like the weather in the throes of climate change, 2018 brought us extreme juxtapositions of joy and sorrow. 

In July, we traveled to Massachusetts and spent several glorious days with family on Cape Cod.  We try to make that trip every year, but, in 2017, I had to look after Belle, my horse, then recovering from a serious injury (unrelated, probably, to the insanely rare disease from which she died on July 25, 2017).  

In August, we were delighted to have Baptiste and Claudine Corno with us from France. It is difficult for our little family to break free of routine, and nearly impossible for me to counter all of that inertia. But, with the added motivation of our friends, we managed to travel as far south as Chicago (2.5 hours), and as far north as Bayfield (a whopping 4 hours), for two or three days at a time. In honor of our cultured visitors and their basic humanity, I even cleaned and detailed the minivan until it almost sparkled and didn’t smell.   

Unfortunately, by the end of August, Gretchen, our Basset-Lab, 11 years old, had been struggling with back issues on and off for over a year.  Basset Hounds typically die by age 9 or 10, because someone thought that stout dogs with short legs and long backs were cute, and that seemed to justify that the dog would, while still young, suffer chronic pain and die in middle age. 

If you take anything away from this letter, let it be Happy Holidays, come visit us, we send you our love, and please do not support breeding practices that compromise a dog’s long-term health. We did not buy Gretchen from a boutique breeder; we rescued her from a shelter, for which she repaid us by attending to my emotional needs for the rest of her natural life. 

Not even a Fentanyl patch could alleviate her pain.  The only thing left to do is what we did, at 12:30 a.m., at urgent care, hours after the three of us (Phil, Josh and me) had had a delicious and delightful meal with Baptiste and Claudine over at the Wonder Bar, in Madison. 

I’ve circled back to the overarching theme: the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow.

Did I mention that we learned in late July that Hank had cancer?  He died one week after Gretchen, which sucked, but, on the other hand, I can assure you that Hank had THE BEST DEATH EVER.  Maybe not ever, but it was really great, you know, as far as dying goes.  

Hank got yummy treats for days in advance.  On the appointed day, Jill was there--Hank’s mom for the first four or five years of his life. We lavished Hank with attention. After an hour or so, a vet came to the house whose sole job is to orchestrate these types of really optimal dying experiences for dogs and their families.  

Hank was lying down in his usual spot, in the living room, on a thick folded blanket. The first drug took away his pain—all of it. The second drug made him sleepy. Very gradually, he fell asleep. The third drug was the closer. Over 15 minutes, Hank went from cheerful but in pain (and having difficulty breathing), to no pain whatsoever and very cheerful indeed, to content, sleepy, asleep.... 

This is how I would like to die, so please take note. I would like to go to sleep on the couch instead of on a folded blanket.

After many years of daily fantasizing about how much simpler, easier, and altogether cleaner my life would be with only one dog, or maybe no dogs…and having convinced myself that I could get along perfectly well with only five cats and three horses…it hadn’t been quite 24 hours since Hank had passed when we drove home from the shelter with the new puppy on my lap. 

No doubt, you’ve seen Zarya, in person or in pictures. She is the joy that followed so closely on the heels of our sadness at the loss of Hank and Gretchen.  

Turns out, grief and joy can live quite nicely side by side.  Grief is comforted by the presence of joy, and joy respects that grief is love’s shadow.

Come to think, that is kind of the essence of Christmas and Chanukah, and of the Winter Solstice, isn't it?  We rejoice at the birth of a baby whose future suffering grieves us. We celebrate the miracle of enduring light in days of paucity and darkness. And the longest night of the year yields, finally, to the certainty of brighter days ahead.  

So, on that note, and on behalf of Phil, Josh, and myself, we send you love and joy in timely abundance for 2019.  

Hank, Standard Poodle

Gretchen with Whosie

Zarya (aka, Z) mixed nuts
Zarya and Betsy, 11. Betsy is healthy and spry.

Francesca was reunited with her birth-mother and family in Paraguay! 
Josh is a freshman in high school!

Mom turned 75!

We still don't have goats.
The horses are fine, except that Tanner ripped his side open on the stall latch last Sunday night and the vet was here until 11 p.m. sewing him up.  It looked awful, but he is expected to make a full recovery. We have removed all of the stall door latches in the barn. 
Betsy, looking shellshocked after losing her pack mates 
Super-Duper Cooper
Zarya and I having a talk
At 6 mos, Z is bigger than Betsy.

Zarya and Whosie.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Two Sets of Eyes Are Better Than One

I'd been feeling kind of badly about my last post, which cast an unflattering light on the characters I met at the dog park.

Look at that: Calling people "characters," as if they were not human, or real(!).

And my intention had been to write them that way, in story after story in which I would always be some hybrid creature: author/character, bemused narrator. ("Narradoodle.")

Clearly, Zarya, my pup, wasn't the only one in need of socialization.  These are skills--relating to strangers, chatting up acquaintances, making friends--that require practice, like playing an instrument. When I stop practicing, I get rusty; I sound out of tune; my tempo is off.

I had forgotten how to partake of people, how to participate.  I forgot whether I'd ever known how to mix in, socially.

Slowly, I'm getting better at it.  Though still tempted to refer to people as characters, I no longer see them in the same flat way.

So, instead of becoming friends with my son's friends' parents, like everyone said I would, I am becoming friends with my dog's friends' parents.  It may sound weird, but, if I like your dog, chances are good that I will like you, too.

I walk along, chatting with people who own dogs that are compatible with mine.  Our dogs tend to be young, energetic, playful and nonaggressive. As owners, we are not necessarily young and playful, but we bring energy, curiosity, and humor to conversation. We enjoy some of the same dog toys.  Most of us have a Chuck-it, for example, though our dogs rarely return the ball.

We start out talking about dogs.  How old is your dog?  Is she an Aussie? Is she a Goldendoodle?  (I have seen Labradoodles, Goldendoodles, Newfydoodles, and Berniedoodles.)

I have seen Norwegian Elkhounds, German Pointers, Australian Shepherds, Irish Foxhounds, one Basset-Shar-Pei, one Golden-Chow, Great Danes, Newfoundlands, one Spinone Italiano, and one pregnant Tibetan Mastiff.  I've also seen a Beagle-Pit, a Bijou-Frise-Papillon, and a couple of Airedales.

My dog Zarya (Z, for short), and I light up at the sight of her favorite dog friends and their owners. We light up at at the sight of their cars.

Most of my intel now comes from The New York Times or the dog park.

I am so habituated to the park community that I no longer dread encounters with the people who are out of their minds.

One such gentleman has two dogs--a Lab mixed with Shepherd and a Lab mixed with Pit and Beagle.  They are not especially curious or friendly. They keep to themselves.  They don't expect a pat or a treat from anyone.  They seem to understand that they, along with their owner, walk on an outside track--usually alone.

Surprisingly, this gentleman, strange as he is (the way he remembers where we first met--in the hardware store--and what we talked about: a place on Schneider Road; and where we've encountered each other  since then, like Papa Murphy's, and what we talked about there); despite all that mental hoarding, which can seem creepy, he also watches current movies and can offer a thoughtful review.

After our first few conversations about movies, his dogs began to acknowledge me as an acquaintance.  The expression in their eyes softened.  They are good, loyal dogs.

Anyway, it's nice to see people of all sorts, to talk about dogs, and to gradually wander off into other subjects. We're all fenced in together, here, hoping to get along.

Some days at the park are so harmonious and cheerful, it makes me feel happy and warm.  We watch the dogs wrestle and run.  Their antics make us laugh.  We talk about when, where, and how we got our dogs.

Suki's owners took two years to grieve for their Labrador Retriever before adopting Suki from the local animal shelter.

My family adopted 10-week-old Zarya from the same shelter, pretty darn quickly after losing two dogs in two weeks.  It was just too quiet in the house. Even the new puppy was not loud enough, though we seem to have made the adjustment.

Life stories seep into conversation; trust and friendship take root.

I lost my keys at the park the other day, just as it was getting dark.  A young man with a beard and  a son and a dog were leaving at the same time as we were.  When I realized that I didn't have my keys, I turned back toward the park entrance.

The man asked if I had forgotten something.  I told him I seemed to have dropped my keys somewhere in the park.

He returned through the gate with me, saying, "Two sets of eyes are better than one."

Friends of mine happened by, former neighbors with their dog. They helped comb the fields for three blue plastic balls on braided bungee cord attached to the key fob.

I told the young dad and his son that they should go home, since my friends were there, and my husband and son were on their way.

"The more eyes the better," he said.

It was getting more cold and dark by the minute, almost too dark to ssee anything in the grass, when the young bearded guy held them up high and called out, "I found them!"

I could not have been more grateful.  I couldn't express to him what it meant to me: that he was returning not only my car keys, but also some faith I had lost in humanity.

It doesn't always go well at the park.  Sometimes, there will be a bad combination of dogs, and things can go terribly wrong.

Sometimes, people bring dogs who are mild-mannered at home, but real shits at the park, and they just can't believe or understand why their dog gets so mean in public spaces.  They don't understand their dog's behavior, they can't predict it, and they can't control their dogs.  But they come anyway, hoping for the best. They unleash their dog, and express surprise and dismay when it attacks someone else's dog and injures it, or worse.  

Sometimes, like on the afternoon I lost my keys, there aren't very many other dogs at the park, and it is a lonely and rather boring walk for Zarya and me.  But when a stranger, who also happens to be walking his dog, turns out to be the kind of person who won't stop looking for my keys until he or someone else has found them...?  Well, that just makes me feel hopeful and happy, like some sentimental character out of a Frank Capra movie.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A Walk in the Park, or What Should Have Been

Zarya and Betsy
In my thirties, I had two dogs: Sam and Bart. Bart, pictured below, weighed 105 pounds. He stood 32 inches at the hip.

A veteran I used to walk with liked to say I could stroll through Kabul with these two dogs.

After Sam and Bart passed away, I acquired three new dogs.  The fact that I had a pack of dogs meant that I continued to avoid faint-hearted pedestrians, bicyclists, joggers, and single-dog owners.  I walked exclusively with other people who owned packs of dogs--Irish Wolfhounds, Gordon Setters, Cairn Terriers. We got along famously well.

But two of my three dogs passed away in August.

Within 24 hours of the second dog's passing (this is not meant to be a eulogy), we adopted Zarya, a ten-week-old puppy, from the Dane County Shelter.  I wouldn't say that we rescued her, I would say that she rescued us: we were in rough shape after losing two dogs in two weeks.

Zarya looks something like Bart:



 And while it's nice to know that I could safely walk my dog through the streets of Kabul, it was rare that I ever found myself in Afghanistan.  More commonly, I found myself in south-central Wisconsin.

 Zarya's paws are outsized (though not quite as huge as Bart's were).

Bart--huge paws!

Zarya--note paw size

A dog like Zarya, with her coyote eyes and five-finger paws, needs to be socialized often and early. That way, not only will I be able to walk safely in Kabul, but dogs and people in south-central Wisconsin will be able to walk safely around me.  ( :

Almost every day now, I go out and hobnob with dog people.

The best word to describe the dog park is Portlandia.  Basically, everyone seems to be improvising to comic effect for my particular entertainment.  I'm sure that's what's going on. I'm sure these people are perfectly normal people as soon as they step out of the park. I think they're mostly out-of-work actors, secretly honing their craft.  If they understood how closely I have been observing their performance, how much I appreciate the farce and genius of their act--how inspired I am to attempt to capture the essence of the absurdity--they would all be deeply touched.

But just in case, I'm changing the names of the actors and the dogs and the parks. And all physical attributes of the people and dogs.  Whatever I write, picture the opposite.  That will save me a lot of trouble.

Story # 1.  "Daphne Enjoys Her Privacy"

Of course, people talk to dogs with long strings of words tied together with spit in the American monotone that pets understand perfectly.

Actually, that's not true. I think dogs miss quite a lot of what we're saying.  It seriously irritates me when people speak to their Corgis as though they were five-year-old children taking viola.

That said, I catch myself doing it with every dog I've ever had--my 4-month old puppy, Zarya, being no exception, so I can't be critical of other people on this point.

However, there was this lady at the dog park, about sixty years old, white hair pulled up in a sock hat, dressed very practically in early-morning dog-park style, as though she might belong to a coven.

Her dog is a seven-month-old Great Dane, Daphne, out-sized but elegant, her every step all grace and grandeur.  It looked like she was compressing a lifetime of motion into a Great Dane's short life.  So, in a sense, I thought, maybe it didn't matter, existentially, if she had only eight years to live.

My four-month-old pup, who was big, but not that big, threw herself into playing with Daphne.

Zarya tackling Daphne

There is no way Zarya was going to win, but either she did not know this or she did not care, or winning was not the point.

Eventually, Daphne traipsed off into the tall grass in order to take a dump.

Daphne's owner (we had exchanged names of our dogs, but not ourselves--common practice in parks because, after all, we name our dogs, not ourselves, and the dogs pretty much are our avatars) followed Daphne's trail back into the tall grass and returned with a big plastic bag full of pasty, Dijon-colored shit.

I saw it out of the corner of my eye, and I did not want to see anymore.

But Daphne's owner fell in step beside me, so I couldn't help but notice the foul smell and appearance of yellow-brown shit overflowing onto her gray knit gloves, the more so as she attempted  to close the bag without enough room at the top.

Daphne's owner realized that this grotesque situation required some explanation.

"Daphne likes her privacy," she explained.  "Usually, when I walk her on the leash, when she starts to squat, I get the bag ready behind her, and she poops right into it.  So, when she knows we're going to the park in the morning, she holds it in...That's why there's so much of it."

It was early in the morning when I was hearing this.  I had only had one cup of coffee. My affect was still pretty flat. But, if you had been there like the ever-present camera on "The Office,"  I would have shot you a look, like, WTF(?!?).

The mustard-yellow shit smeared on her gloves, the three-quarts of crap in a transparent bag that had once been used to keep sliced bread fresh...I thought: This lady is nuts!

I mean, she just said that Daphne liked her privacy, and yet she makes a practice of disrupting Daphne's most private moments.  Daphne would one day die of constipation rather than poop into her owner's outstretched arms.

But that was how life was going to be for Daphne with this lady: a short life of outsized acts of humiliating shit and revenge shit.

I managed to quietly drift away toward some other people who were speaking in long sentences to their dogs--dogs who, playing at being dogs, were not listening to their owners very well.

As I leashed up Zarya and (eleven-year-old) Betsy to go home, I looked back into the park and saw the lady and Daphne off in the distance, by themselves.  Seven months old, and with all of that energy, Daphne was leaping up onto and pawing the white-haired woman over and over again.  And  in the distance I could hear the white-haired lady with shit on her hands solemnly begging her Great Dane to stop.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Evil at the Root

Sundown Towns:A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, by James W. Loewen, is a really tough read.

I find myself thinking about "Young Goodman Brown," a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Young Goodman Brown believes his community good and pious until one night he wanders off into the woods and sees everyone he knows carrying on in flagrant sin and debauchery.

The next morning, everything has returned to normal, but Brown cannot unsee what he has seen, nor forget what he now knows to be true.


My story as an American white person is one of privilege.

Growing up, and for the rest of my life too, my family has lived wherever we wanted. When my family wanted to send me to a better public school, we took an apartment in a more affluent town. We had no difficulty finding someone to rent to us. We moved in and made ourselves at home. No one made us feel like we didn't belong.

I do not worry about what would happen if I am pulled over by the police.  I've been pulled over a few times over several decades of driving.  Half the time, they let me go with just a warning.

Recently, (it has happened twice), I walked into a Barnes & Noble and set off the door alarms.
"It's me!" I said, when the staff looked around to see who had set them off. "It's something in my purse."
Unalarmed by my confession, the staff scrambled to silence the doors.
"It has happened before," I told them, beginning to feel inconvenienced.
No one asked to see inside my bag.

I go to McDonalds and use the Women's Room. Sometimes, I buy food. Sometimes, I don't.  It doesn't strike me as a moral dilemma.

My privileges are too numerous to list.


After the Civil War, African-Americans dispersed throughout the country from the South, ready to make a fresh start. At first, they were welcomed.

Inspired by the moral victory of the Civil War and the spirit of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, most white people from Union states brimmed with anti-racist conviction.

By1890, however, for various reasons--some historical, others reptilian--white people began a steady retreat from that moral high ground whereupon all men are created equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The treatment of Chinese immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s foreshadowed the treatment of African-Americans.  Chinese laborers, terrorized by ordinary white people assuming the actions of murderers and arsonists, fled from towns all over the American West and took refuge in the big cities, in what we quaintly refer to as chinatowns.

Following the American-Spanish War (1898), President McKinley proclaimed Filipinos and Guamanians to be unfit to govern themselves, brushing aside American ideals of equality among men, government by the people for the people, (blah, blah, blah).

The U.S. installed military bases in the Phillipines and on Guam, and proceeded to bomb the crap out of Guam for many decades (target practice).

Between 1890 and 1940, what Loewen refers to as "the Nadir of racism" in the United States, good pious folk began driving African-American people out of their homes with acts of domestic terrorism similar to what was done to Chinese immigrants in the West.

To make 15, 35, 50 or even more families flee their homes overnight takes more than one or two burning crosses on a lawn.

African-American families left town in the middle of the night, taking only what they could carry, often from homes engulfed in flames.  Along the way, they passed the sight of their neighbors' distorted bodies hanging from trees, the victims of public lynchings at the hands of a fulminating mob.

From California to Minnesota to New Hampshire (where the motto is "Live Free or Die"), African-Americans were driven out of. or prevented from residing in, sundown communities all over the country (except in the South).

Signs posted at town or city borders threatened the lives of African-American in the rudest terms, should they be found on the premises after sunset.

No one would hire them.  No one would rent to them.  No one would finance a mortgage.

The number of racially exclusive "sundown" villages, towns, cities, and counties throughout the Northeast, Midwest, and Western states is shocking.

For example, Loewen cites compelling evidence (based on census figures, records, and interviews) that as many as 75% of the incorporated towns in Illinois exercised a policy of exclusiveness that extended into the early 1970s, and sometimes much later--into the 80s, 90s, or even as late as the early 2000's.

(Loewen points out that even in the worst of times, one or two African-American people or families  who had close ties to powerful white families were often protected, their continued presence tolerated in otherwise racially exclusive communities.)

White people growing up in all-white towns may never see or know a person of color until they go to a city.  They may grow up believing that the fact that there are no African-American families (or perhaps just one family) in the town where they grew up is just coincidence--just the way it is and always has been. (No misdeeds or racist acts should be ascribed to it.)

But that is simply not true.  The total or near-total absence of people of color in rural and suburban areas throughout the northern and western states is no accident.  It was (and, in some places, is still) the direct result of racist attitudes, policies, and actions by white people.

In some places, those actions were sudden, violent, and terrifying. In other places, they took the form of a warning and explicit or implied threat. More discretely, white landlords would refuse to rent to African-Americans, white bankers would not approve home mortgages, white employers would not hire African-Americans, etc.,.

The result of these actions was that African-Americans were excluded from communities throughout  the country, and their options were narrowly drawn.

Like the Chinese-Americans who found relative safety in insular "chinatown" streets of the inner cities,  African-Americans found relative safety among other African-Americans in the insular and underserved neighborhoods of cities like Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, and Detroit--to name a few.

So, if you're white, try re-imagining your own history from the point of view of an African-American.

Imagine the Civil War ending, and your family travels north to make a fresh start, naturally gravitating toward the small rural towns that seem familiar, based on your life experience of living and working on farms and in small rural towns in the South.

For a while, you feel welcome.  Other African-Americans arrive, and now there are 25, and soon 50 other African-American families.  You have a job, and a home. A nice life.

And then your friend and a white woman like each other, romantically.  You advise your friend, this might be dangerous, but he doesn't listen.  He really likes the girl.  When the girl's father sees the couple embracing, he accuses your friend of rape.

Suddenly, the mood and tone of white folks fundamentally changes.  One night, a mob of about a hundred people under cloak of darkness or white sheets viciously beat, violate, and lynch your friend.  They leave him mutilated and hanging from a tree.

And then they come looking for you.

They set fire to your house, and to the houses of every other African-American family in town. Shots ring out. You hear screaming.  All you can think about is getting your family as far away as possible, as fast as you can.


Now, if you're white, imagine it's 1938, you're African-American, and you want to drive from Los Angeles to Detroit to visit your brother's family, whom you haven't seen in three years.  You make sure to pack:

The Negro Motorist Green Book

In the segregated US of the mid-twentieth century, African-American travelers could have a hard time finding towns where they were legally allowed to stay at night and hotels, restaurants, and service stations willing to serve them. In 1936, Victor Hugo Green published the first annual volume of The Negro Motorist Green-Book, later renamed The Negro Travelers' Green Book. 
[Description of this title from the book's product page Amazon]


Imagine you're a young African-American man in 2018, and you walk into a Barnes & Noble in Madison, Wisconsin, and set off the door alarms.  
The all-white staff looks at you with expressions of mounting concern.  
You smile, and say, "I think it's something in my backpack." 
Someone at Customer Service dials the police.
"This has happened to me before," you explain, but this fails to diffuse the tension.  
You wonder what it is in your backpack that set off the alarm. You swing your backpack around to the front and open it.
That's when the police show up.  


I was at a rally in Madison not long ago, protesting Trump's immigration policy. One of the speakers, an African-American student at UW,  advised the mostly white crowd to take responsibility for educating other white people about racism.

I thought that what he was asking seemed like an oversimplification. White people are not that easy to educate.

Since Trump was elected, white people were having a great deal of difficulty talking to each other about politics.  In the days and weeks following the unexpected election results, family relationships between Dems and Republicans had become strained beyond their tensile strength.

Thanksgiving, for many, was a miserable business.  I know people who skipped the holidays entirely in 2016 because the thought of sitting at the same table with anyone who was glad about Trump being elected was beyond endurance.

Fortunately, I didn't have any Republicans in my immediate family, and even my Republican uncle on the West Coast was quick to let me know that he had not voted for Trump (thank God).

But even so, the thought of actively engaging white Republicans in an elucidating conversation about racism?  I just didn't have the stomach or the patience for it.  I'd rather pour hot wax in my ears.

But that was before.  Before I went to Appleton (see previous post).  Before I knew anything about sundown towns and the ugly history of how lily-white towns got to be so lily white.  And how it wasn't because African-Americans never had any interest in living anywhere except the inner cities.

And that, my friends, is something I feel I have a responsibility to tell.  This is what we, as white people, need to understand: the active and deliberate evil that lies at the root of white privilege.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

"Sundown Towns"

We were driving north toward Bayfield, Wisconsin, where we had never been before, though some of us had lived in south-central Wisconsin for (could it be?) twelve years.  

We had passed the exit for Oshkosh, at the edge of Lake Winnebago—names familiar to me from Oshkosh overalls and the Winnebago RV.  

Do they make Oshkosh B’gosh overalls in Oshkosh?  Yes they do!, since 1895.  

Did they make Winnebagos in Winnebago?  Sadly, no. They made Winnebagos in Forest City, Iowa. 

As we approached Appleton, our minds drew a blank.  

I Googled Appleton.

Appleton was named after Samuel Appleton, who never once stepped foot in Wisconsin.  

The very first hydro-electric station in the United States powered Appleton’s prolific paper mills. 

In 1886, Appleton operated the first commercially successful electric streetcar company. 

The first telephone in Wisconsin was in Appleton.

The first incandescent lights in any city outside of the East Coast?  Appleton. 

From approximately 1930 to 1970, Appleton was a sundown town. Black people were not allowed to be in Appleton after sundown. 

You heard that right.

I paused and read the sentence a second and then a third time, slowly absorbing this information.

I Googled “sundown town.” 

Sundown towns (or sunset towns or gray towns) are all-white municipalities or neighborhoods in the United States that practice a form of segregation by enforcing a policy (explicit or implicit) of racial exclusion.  

In some places, a sign was posted at the town line that warned "colored people" to leave by sundown. 

Elsewhere, the policy was not so obvious; it was left to Midwestern discretion, a character perfectly suited to behind-the-scenes politics, to use back channels to implement a tacit policy of racial exclusion--quietly, so as not to draw attention from disapproving outsiders (and even some pious local finger-waggers, who best be kept in the dark about this one). 

I read aloud to our driver, who was French, about sundown towns from Wikipedia, where a footnote referenced Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, by James Loewen, as well as James Loewen's website.

We fell into an aghast reflective silence.  The mind boggled.  

"Lots of French fur traders up here," I reminded the driver. Because, honestly, it was shameful enough to have Trump in the White House; now I had to own this, too?  Not by myself.

"I was just thinking that," he said, kindly sharing the burden of my white American shame.

On the website by James Loewen, I found a list of known or suspected sundown towns in Wisconsin. 

"Is...?" the driver stopped in his words.

"Yes," I said.  My town was on the list, as unconfirmed.  Which meant that Loewen could reasonably infer from the census that it had been a sundown town.  Not a single black family had lived there up until the 1970s.  

Bayfield was on the list. 

And Ashfield, where the five of us would stay for the next three nights.  

Ashfield was a strange town.  Between tourism and industry, it chose industry, took on some kind of lakeside biohazard, and ruined its appeal for future tourists.  (This I also did not realize when I booked us there.)

With streets lined primarily by empty storefronts and consignment shops, we were cheerfully surprised to discover something unexpected: On every block, around every corner, there were murals.

They were colorful and vibrant and well cared for; a nostalgic look back through a sentimental lens at Ashland's halcyon years: the Thirties and Forties, by the look of the cars, and also the Fifties or early Sixties, by the look of the women's clothes and bathing suits (in one homage to sirens who were old ladies now).

Bus tours of Ashland's murals were on offer, but we didn't take the tour. We dashed along from block to block, peeping around corners and clicking our cellphone-cameras as the setting sun bathed the east-facing murals in golden light, leaving the west-facing murals entirely in shadow.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Post-Op: Life After Essure

It was a little past six in the morning when my husband and I drove to Platteville for my surgery/salpingectomy on June 6.  (If you are interested in the medical and procedural details of a salpingectomy, please read my previous blog post.)  I had been bumped up to second surgery of the day from third, and was required to be there at 7:30 for pre-op.  We straight-lined it on 18/51 the whole way, bypassing opportunities for pastoral side trips. Even so, I saw two old barns from the highway between Mineral Point and Platteville that I desperately wanted to photograph.  One had an old metal roof that had taken on a lovely brown patina, sheets of metal loose like a spread of cards, barn slouching and sinking back into the earth, unsalvageable, organic, like a bittersweet memory of a bygone era.

The staff was faultlessly polite and kind.  The woman in charge of my care while I waited to go into surgery asked me to provide a urine sample so they could test whether or not I was pregnant.

I had recently become fiercely self-advocating.  I declined to pee into a cup for the purpose of proving that I wasn't pregnant.  I knew for sure that I wasn't.

We went back and forth on this a couple of times. I was not persuaded by her argument that I should comply because it was part of their formal procedure.

She would discuss my refusal with the doctor.

"That's okay," I said, not willing to back down, but not intending to be confrontational.  I was sorry if my refusal was going to make her look or feel less effective.

When the doctor came by, she did not mention the urine sample.

I was the oldest Essure-removal patient she had had--of many dozens of women.  I had the coils in  the longest--six years, the last five of which had been marked by the onset of fatigue and neuralgia, and a tentative diagnosis of Lupus that held out the promise of struggling to maintain a life that was necessarily physically active.

I live on a 5-acre farm. I have three horses.  (Full disclosure: One of them is a mini-horse.) I have three dogs, five cats.  I have a 14-year-old son.

For the past year, I struggled with fatigue that now cut most days in half.  After 12pm, I labored to finish what I wanted to accomplish before exhaustion and fever set in, driving me to bed to rest or nap for hours.  I had finally arrived at a point where I knew that I was kidding myself if I assigned any serious task to the second half of the day.  Everything had to be finished by 1 p.m., or it simply wouldn't get done.

In year six of housing Essure coils, I began to give thought to my limitations.  How long would it be before I no longer had the energy to work with horses?  Beyond their daily care (mucking stalls, sweeping the barn, hoisting water buckets and tubs of manure, pushing a wheelbarrow, stacking up 400 bales of hay), if I planned to actually ride my Palomino, for example, I had to work with him consistently or, like an unweeded garden, he went to seed. I don't have the kind of horse that I can saddle up once in a blue moon and expect good results.  Few people who have horses have that kind of horse.

I thought, maybe it would be better for Tanner if I gave him to someone who would work with him and ride regularly.

I comforted myself with the thought that Charlotte would take Fire if I couldn't care for him.  I didn't have to worry about that.  I wasn't sure who would take Cooper, the mini, who had been rescued and didn't have the best manners.  I could pay my friend to train him to where his behavior did not undercut the charms of his appearance.  Then we could find him a nice home.

My dogs were old and would not outlive my usefulness, so I didn't have to worry about them.

I would be left with cats.  Cats were easy.  With cats, I could face an uncertain future with a mischievous disease that could suddenly infect my kidneys or pericardium...Pleurisy, vasculitis, stroke...Increased risk for heart attack, blood cancers....

The doctor did not scold me about the urine test.  As before, she was smiling brightly, energetic, brimming with optimism that this would mark a turning point in my health.

"Six years," she said, for the third or fourth time since we met.  "That's a long time."

She was sorry I had been sick for so long.  On the other hand, there were many women who loved their Essure implants.

Really?  I wondered how long they had had their Essure implants.  Sometimes it took a while for side effects to kick in.  For most women like me who experienced Lupus-like symptoms, the  the coils had a cumulative effect.  It got worse over time.

Would they still love their Essure coils after five years? Or ten?

At 52, I was her oldest patient. Would those women still love their Essure implants at 52?

The anesthesiologist settled into a computer station beside me.  He typed into a keyboard and asked questions.

"Is your hair naturally red?"

"Yes," I said. "With a lot of gray mixed in."

"Red hair doesn't go gray," he said.  "It goes from red to blonde to white."

"Oh," I said.  Yes, technically, my gray hair was white.

"Redheads experience more pain and nausea than everyone else."

Really? Everyone?   I was prone to motion sickness.  It is a great sacrifice for me to sit in the back of a sedan, unless I am wearing pressure-point bracelets on my wrists, which I never travel without.

Was my pain more acute than everyone else's?  Pain had become so much a part of the fabric of my life--from extreme cramps to hammering migraines.

Recently, I learned that one good way to deal with pain was to focus in on it--to engage with it, rather than shrink away, like a dream in which I'm running but can't move forward.

It was one of my son's YouTubers who gave me the idea.  He ate a raw ghost pepper--you know, the way YouTubers are prone to do--so he was in agony.  As he explained in the course of his suffering, he focused intently on the pain and then, suddenly, it went away.  He was fine.  So, I tried that.  It didn't always work, but it usually did.

The anesthesiologist made me feel special, as a redhead.  I  have read the stuff my friends send me on FB about redheads being 2% of the population, having more acidic skin, absorbing extra Vitamin-D, and how people around the world generally fear and loathe us...But I don't really subscribe to any of that.

But in fact, we actually do feel super nauseous.

So, I get premium anesthesia:  Total IV, no gas.

Going into surgery: It's just like going to a party.  For the first five minutes, you're the center of attention.  Everyone's gathered around you, solicitous of your needs.  You manage to make one or two witty comments, everyone laughs, ha ha ha, and then you pass out and wake up at 2:30 in the afternoon, having totally blacked out, back in your hotel, ready to order room service.  

My husband told me the doctor said the operation went well.  They took out both coils.  Neither had broken, nothing was perforated.  The coil on the right side protruded further into the uterus than the left, so they cut out a bigger part of that corner of the uterus, and removed the coil with all of its surrounding tissue, which is exactly what they're supposed to do.

Maybe I imagined it, but it seemed like I felt better--specifically, cleaner in my head--as soon I woke up.  But, I realize, this could have been purely psychosomatic.

When I weighed myself the next morning, I had gained seven pounds in 24 hours.  This was surprising, given that I didn't eat anything the previous day until I woke up at 2:30 pm, when I had a small bowl of chicken noodle soup and two pieces of seemingly innocuous toast.  For dinner, I  had had a couple slices of pizza.  Okay: Maybe three.  But still: Seven pounds?

I was reminded of leaving the hospital after my son was born, and weighing more than I weighed before my son was born.  It took two weeks to filter all that saline out of my body.

For the rest of the day after my salpingectomy (let's call it a gecko spaghetti) my stomach was bloated and I looked and felt six or seven months pregnant.

It was weird, to say the least, feeling pregnant again at that juncture in my life.  But there's no better way to describe the feeling of a distended belly and the squidgy, loose structure of abdominal contents.  My viscera, which had been pushed up out of the way for surgery, were settling back into their basket like a sleepy half-charmed snake.  I walked gingerly, so not to rattle, and pressed my hands against my belly to hold it all together.

I wondered if that jangling looseness was a sign of impending prolapse.  Were things detaching?  Would they fall out?  Were they floating around and bumping into each other in  those seven pounds of foreign broth?

I wished I had been awake to ask the doctor questions after surgery.

By the second day, I felt five months pregnant.  I was still tired, but I could attribute that to having had surgery, according to my discharge papers.  

By the third day, I was back to my normal weight.  My belly was almost normal.  I still had moments of feeling loose inside, but they were fewer and farther between.

I wasn't supposed to lift anything heavy, but I did.  Tubs of manure.  I tried to avoid it, but manure keeps happening and has to go to the shit-pile promptly, or it will attract flies.

I lifted bales of hay and plastic blocks of shavings.

I did not lift a fifty-pound bag of barn lyme.

Every time I felt a twinge, I worried that I had done too much and ripped my uterus.

My feet were bothering me in the days before the surgery.   Things that I had used to think of as part of a life-long condition, that I felt confident I could tolerate indefinitely, were not so easily shrugged off.  They were the pricks and poison of a foreign invader. Every brushstroke of neuralgia that kept me awake, every flash of pain sheering across my foot,  every lost hour without energy to do anything, became pretty damn intolerable.

Because I wasn't supposed to be this way.  This was not my destiny.  This was the product of a mistake, of shoddy product testing, of aggressive marketing.  This was the fault of a giant greedy corporation named Bayer, which just bought up Monsanto, by the way, that notorious purveyor of carcinogenic weed killer and insecticide that's doing God-knows-what to our bodies and environment. (I say this as one who lives adjacent to fields of corn.)

That ramshackle barn with the rusted metal roof, the one I wanted to photograph?  That was me. That's how I felt: sinking into the soil under a weather-beaten patina, deteriorating and decrepit.

But, this past Thursday, the fatigue, like a rain cloud, lifted and departed.

On Friday, I was aware that I still felt good.  The fatigue was gone,  at least for now.  I might reasonably expect to do something with the second half of my day.

So, my son and I went to SummerFest in town on Friday night.  (I never go out on Friday nights. I am always exhausted at the end of the week.)  We left the house at eight and returned around nine-thirty or ten.  At no point did I feel like a martyr.  My mood never flagged.  I didn't have to make an effort to be cheery or patient.  I did not have to lie down as soon as I got home.

Compared to how I had been feeling for more than a year, normal felt amazing.

I see my rheumatologist in a week.  I'll be interested to find out how my labs compare now to what they have been: borderline anemic.

Who knows?  Maybe I'll find out that I have Sjogren's but not Lupus. Or maybe I don't even have Sjogren's.  Or maybe nothing has changed, it's all in my head, and history will show that the whole Essure-Sisters movement was a case of mass hysteria...but I doubt it.

I had my post-op meet with the doctor last week.  She assured me that fallopian tubes play no role in structurally supporting the uterus. There are lateral  muscles that do that, which are intact.  I have no reason to worry about prolapse.  The uterus was cauterized, it will not rip open.  Communication of hormones between ovaries and uterus has not been cut or diverted; the fallopian tubes never were a string between two cups.  They were only a path for an egg to travel from ovary to uterus.  The hormones commute through the blood.

So, that's it: it's done.  I feel solid and strong.  Who knows what the future will reveal?

Life goes on.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Continued Story of One Woman's Essure Ordeal

I made an appointment with an OBGYN in Platteville, Wisconsin--one hour and ten minutes' drive from where I live.  I gave myself plenty of time to get there, which was fortunate, because somewhere on Hwy 51, my map app directed me to take a certain exit, which I questioned, but took anyway because I was going 70mph.

I don't know why my phone suddenly decided to change course, adding another 15 minutes for a more scenic route.

Siri did not pipe up one exit prior and say, "Hey, Jess!  We have time; would you like to take a more scenic route to get to Platteville? I know how much you enjoy dairy barns and driving through obscure country towns."

I do enjoy seeing old barns, but I would have liked to have been consulted about this change in plans. The whole time I was cruising around the countryside, I kept wondering if this could possibly be the quickest way to Platteville, or had I been redirected to something worse.

Eventually, I realized I was on Rte A, a long sinewy road that meanders through every town between Hubbardston and Mineral Point.  I could have stayed on highway 51 and passed Mineral Point fifteen minutes earlier, instead of emerging from an endless country road into downtown Mineral Point, and having to drive all the way through downtown Mineral Point going 25mph, before finally being regurgitated onto Hwy 51, headed to Platteville.

I wasn't worried about getting to Platteville on time, and yes, it was a lovely drive.  But it wasn't the route that I had originally chosen.  I felt like my phone had taken that decision away from me.

I suppose, I didn't have to take that exit off of Hwy 51, but then again, I'd never been to Platteville before, so I can be forgiven for putting my trust in a satellite far above the earth.

Honestly, sometimes, I want to try to live without my cellphone and computer, because it feels like I can't have a thought without it being marketed back to me in one form or another.

I joked about going to Antarctica in an email to a friend, and since then I have been deluged with spam about touring Antarctica.

It's very Big Brother.

The other day, I was thinking about carpeting.  Just thinking about it, not saying anything, not doing anything.  And, creepy as hell, within 24 hours, I'm receiving spam about area rugs like the ones I had envisioned in the supposed privacy of my head.

And yet, here I am, tapping away at the keyboard, putting it all right out there online.

But at least this is information that I am choosing to make public.

I have decided to share this story for the benefit of other women, (as well as my own benefit, because for me, writing is therapeutic), and that's the difference.

I never asked for information about touring Antarctica, and I never said or wrote a peep about area rugs or preferring the longer, scenic route to Platteville.

I digress.

I had a very frank and open discussion with the OBGYN about my concerns regarding the Essure device as the likely cause of my autoimmune disease (which presents a wide range of symptoms, ranging from shooting pain across the bridges of my feet, to mid-day fevers and fatigue, headaches at night that feel like concussion in slow motion every time I roll onto my other side, Vitamin D deficiency, anemia, insomnia, brain-fog, joint pain, etc.,.)

The doctor had an energy different from mine.  It would have been clear to anyone, no matter what she and I had been wearing, that she was the fixer and I was the broken.

We agreed that I would probably feel relief from all of those symptoms after the Essure coils were removed.  But neither of us could guarantee, or be guaranteed of, that result; so, we formed a kind of forward-looking and hopeful bond in which I was the eager patient and she was the doctor who was probably going to fix most of what was wrong in my body and much of what was wrong in my life.

In the course of this discussion, she suggested that I consider ablation as a procedure to deal with my irregular and heavy periods.

Ablation, the removal of the uterine lining, is a far less radical procedure than, say, removal of the uterus.  I had read about ablation as an alternative to total hysterectomy; and I was a fan of ablation as an alternative to hysterectomy.

I agreed to have two procedures: The removal of the Essure coils, and electric ablation.

To remove the Essure coils, they will tilt the gurney or operating table so that my head will be lower than my feet.  The idea is that gravity (probably with the aid of massage and the introduction of gas to my abdomen) will attract my guts away from the reproductive assembly.

(I'll be unconscious, by the way, thank God.)

Right, so, they add all this gas to distend my belly and create a space in which to work (you know: like an artist's studio).

They will thread a camera through my bellybutton--presumably, not some boxy old Polaroid, and cut two five-centimeter-wide incisions, or ports (so nautical), a few inches to the left and right of my camera portal.

They will see with the camera and feel with (I don't know with what, their fingers?) exactly where the coils are located--whether they are where they should be, in the fallopian tubes, or whether they've migrated or perforated or motivated somewhere else, hopefully nearby.

Assuming that everything checks out, and my ovaries are in decent shape, they'll remove just the fallopian tubes, which should house the coils (one in each), and then they'll cut away the corners of the uterus into which the coils typically poke out from the openings of the fallopian tubes.

The trick is not to tug or pull on the coils--and certainly not to break them.

There are tiny filaments attached (hopefully, still attached) to the coils that were intended to create an inflammatory response in the fallopian tube--to encourage a scarring response around the coils, which is supposed to anchor them there in place.

But, as I think I mentioned in my earlier post, these filaments are what I believe to be responsible for the inflammatory response throughout my body--the whole Lupus series of events.

If they pull or tug on the coils, those filaments could easily become dislodged and drift through my body forever on the lazy river of my circulatory system.

So, best case scenario, I lose the fallopian tubes but keep the ovaries and most of my uterus and all of the rest of the stuff I was born with.  (You'll have to tune in later to find out what really happens.)

And then, Part II, Ablation.  The cervix is dilated to eight centimeters.  I was prescribed a vaginal suppository to use the night before to soften up the cervix in preparation.  They would insert a thin metal rod-like thing which, once inside my uterus (which they've somehow pre-measured), opens up like a paper umbrella in a colorful drink to the width of my womb.

And then they zap the uterus with a precisely portioned measure of electricity, effectively toasting the lining of my uterus.  The whole procedure, from insertion to maitai, takes 90 seconds.

As I drove directly  home (Hwy 151 East the whole way, no exits), I juggled a lot of feelings.  They were able to schedule the surgery for the exact day that I wanted, and I was happy about that.  I liked the surgeon and felt that she heard me and validated all of my concerns and the reality of my experience.

Several times, she had said that she was sorry that I had lived with so much illness for so long (six years).

I wasn't sure whether she was apologizing on behalf of the entire medical community, or simply conveying sympathy for my regrettable circumstances--which might have been fixed earlier, if I had come to her years before--say, in 2015, when the Essure law suits and newspaper articles first began to take root.

I was late in making the connection between my health trouble and the Essure coils.

I was late to the whole discussion about the side effects of Essure and the rush to get it to market.

I was one among hundreds of women whom this doctor had rescued from the coils over the past several years.

She wanted to assure me that everything would be okay, but, for medical and ethical reasons, she could only give me hope.  (It's possible that I just have Lupus.)

And I was eager to express my gratitude to her for her sense of urgency, and for seeing me so quickly and scheduling my procedure so soon.

"It will be awfully nice if this is the reason for all of my auto-immune disease," I said. "I had really expected it to shorten my life."

On the drive home, I felt eager to have the procedure, and full of hope for the very real possibility of having a completely different narrative to my life story: It would be longer, stronger, with much less pain and more energy. It would be a life in which I would be healthy for years to come. My mother would not have to worry about outliving me.  I would be able to guide my son through life until he is mature and wise.

Me: Not broken.  Here.

But there was another thought in my head: spoken by a small, wobbly voice.  And she was saying: No.  No ablation.  No ablation. I don't want ablation.  No ablation.

How badly did I want my periods to go away?  How much did I care about that?  At the time it had  seemed like such a casual decision: electrocute my uterus.

Had I been thinking about ablation before I walked into the doctor's office?  Maybe.  I wasn't sure. I knew what it was.  I knew why women had it.  Had I wanted one?  Had I given a thought to ablation one way or the other?  And why did I say yes, if I hadn't?

The ablation procedure: It felt like another turn off to a different route.  You'll like Route A.  It's longer, but bucolic.  You'll like the views.  You have the time.  

Why not have ablation?

That night, as I slowly drifted off to sleep, that still small voice in my head became emphatic:  NO ablation.  NO ABLATION.  NO Ablation!!!  A girl, throwing a tantrum, becoming hysterical.

Okay, okay, okay!  No ablation.

Did you hear me?  Stop shouting.  I said, we would not have ablation.  I promise.

But she was beside herself.  I could feel how hurt she was.

I'll call first thing in the morning and tell them, no ablation.

The last thought in my head, before sleep: No ablation.  No ablation.  No ablation.

The next morning, as I sat at my desk, prepared to clock into my work, I put down the pen and picked up the phone.

I left a message on the doctor's voicemail, to make it official and final.  I would have the Essure coils removed.  I did not want the ablation.  I would not the ablation procedure.  If she had any questions or concerns about that, she could call me.  And I would tell her.  No ablation.