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Across the continent, unlike Lewis & Clark

Missing the Point

6526121_gOne of the more atrocious things the Walla Walla City Council did, after the brouhaha with the toy store’s mural faded away, was to pump in classical music at Heritage Square, a little strip of grass between storefronts on the downtown Main Street shopping district. At one point there was a playground structure, some limestone boulders to climb on, and a shelter like you would fine in a regional park; now only the shelter remains. As the city’s heroin epidemic grew, so did the numbers of drug dependent people in Heritage Square, hanging out on the toddler slides, or perched up against the wall of a building grotesquely painted to look like a Wild West-era trading post. We were perhaps not ready for the “two Wallas” to intersect right in the heart of the tourism office’s territory. Legal alcohol consumption as part of local wine industry, everyone can get behind. Illicit heroin use, on the other hand, is not to occur in the open. To drive away injection users, the city began streaming classical music to Heritage Square, as if the melodies of Mozart and Brahms were naturally antagonistic, like slipping on high frequency bracelets to keep mosquitos at bay. In its essence, the move was problematic.

Next came a fight between a group of citizens who wanted to set up a half-circle of tiny homes for homeless people to use, and the city and county governments who thought this plan would interfere with the work they’d been doing to create a comprehensive response to homelessness here. There have been many town hall-style meetings, angry online debates, motions and amendments to motions, and it so far has amounted to neither the construction of tiny homes nor the effective roll out of broad policy (although I keep hearing the latter is just about to happen). When I moved to town with Susanne in August 2008, mental health was handled somewhere between a few charity organizations, the county-run service for people in poverty, and the willingness of Main Street business owners to find their common interest—one gentleman really enjoyed taking cardboard to the Whitman College recycling center, so he would collect it all morning along the downtown strip before walking with his wagon to the campus.

Those verbal agreements and informal relationships have faded, giving way to evidence-based analysis and polarizing approaches to a worsening issue. We are too rural for many large grants or cooperative agreements to take interest in us, yet we are not rural enough to qualify for many federal programs. Whatever our political leanings, it is becoming clear that we only have ourselves to sort through the vulnerabilities of our local economy.

I keep wondering when we will focus on community connectedness and move past antagonizing people who oppose our ideas.

 

Sounds I Miss

end of an ocean wave, lots of foamI took one of those online hearing tests last night, the kind that test the upper Hz frequencies that only the young people can hear. I dropped out after 12,000Hz and tried not to be depressed by my 44-year-old inner ears. Middle age is here in my life, even if it doesn’t come in the form of a Gregorian Chant. (Although maybe it should.) In all fairness, it’s not really much of a loss, that 12,005Hz and higher range. I don’t need to hear squeaky buzzing, right? (Maybe, if Emile and Lucas decide to use them as ring tones on their someday cell phones.)

But there are some sounds I haven’t heard in a while due to lack of proximity, circumstance, or attrition. Here are a few of them:

Ocean foam—I didn’t make it to either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean this summer, so I haven’t been listening to waves. But more than the sound of furious crashing surf, I love the sound at the very end of the wave, when the bubbles aerated into the ocean water explode and leave the liquid, making a quiet hiss before the tide is drawn back into the sea. It’s a sound that requires one be right on the shoreline, that one be quiet, too, because any sound smothers the foam hiss. I can hear a glimpse of it if I put my ear next to a stream of seltzer water running over ice; there’s that same bubbling up and collapse. It’s like a sigh from water, and when I can listen to it and see the horizon of the ocean in front of me, I feel at peace.

Quiet cat footfalls—I love hearing Emile trotting down the stairs or along the hallway on the main floor of our house. It’s often closely followed by a question, a calling of “Mommy” or “Daddy,” or a declaration like, “My belly is hungry.” These sounds are terrific and often amusing. But I also adore less assertive steps, like my sweet first cat Willie used to produce when I’d come home from school. It was a thump as he jumped off the couch in the family room and a dot-dot-dot-dot as he’d bounce over to me, and by the end of his jaunt he would have assumed an air of nonchalance, as if we both didn’t already know that he was totally excited to get a pet and a scratch behind the ears. Read More…

Quick Stop to DC, or How I Learned to Anticipate Gentrification

trans character writing panel imageI just jumped into DC this weekend after an absence of a few years, taking a quick flight from Detroit while we’re still on vacation to attend an LGBTQ book festival on U Street. It’s been truly fantastic to see old friends and have the kinds of sincere conversations that are hard to find with people one meets in one’s forties instead of in one’s more vulnerable youth. I suppose we erect sturdy fortresses in the interim, but I’m not sure why or if that’s helpful for us.

The OutWrite festival was successful, and here it is only in its fourth year. It would have been nice to know before I left Walla Walla that I’d be responsible for bringing my own books to sell, because then I’d have had more than my reader’s copy with me. (Crossing fingers the Internet pulls through for me and people shop online to get them.) I was grateful to see so many familiar faces, people I’ve known from when I lived in the District and did earlier activism there, and get to meet some new folks who are doing interesting work in LGBT literature. Read More…

The Hornet Hunter

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes with me in the spring or summer knows that I am no fan of insects. Maybe bees and dragonflies get a pass, and ladybugs. (But not those ladybug knockoffs.) But beetles, spiders, roaches, silverfish, millepedes, ants, I don’t want them on me or even near me, as impossible as I know that is. We’re very outnumbered by the insect world, and I super don’t enjoy thinking about that reality.

But there is a special level of ugh I hold for stinging insects like wasps and hornets and yellowjackets. I can deal with the fact that honey bees and bumble bees sting because heck, they need some kind of defense for themselves and they only use them as a last resort before dying. But those OTHER stinging insects are like extremist NRA members wearing their Glocks on their hips for a trip to Walmart, ready to shoot anyone around them and then keep on shopping like it’s no biggie. So when I see not one, but two hornets’ nests under construction on my newly acquired car port (otherwise known as the place where I park the family car four times a day), I have to take action. Especially when said construction includes laying the foundation for the next generation of venomous bugs.

A neighbor suggested I go to the hardware store at the eastern edge of Walla Walla, which turned out to be a ranch and home supply store. Here I could get a feed bag for my horse, any kind of Carhart gear my heart desired, or fake eggs to dupe the hens in my coop to lay more eggs. Or a can of thick poison guaranteed to kill on contact. I explained that I had a bee sting allergy thing and that I wanted to make sure the hornets would never get near me once I bamboozled them with my noxious elixir. The small man, his Vietnam Veteran ball cap pulled low over his forehead, squinted at me. Read More…

The “Passive-Aggressive” Note Thing & Just How Problematic It Is

TRIGGER WARNING for conversations and content about rape culture and sexual violence and intimidation.

In the midst of the Thanksgiving gratitude Facebook posts, reminders that the holiday is an aggrandizement of genocide against Native Americans, and pictures of turkeys, a little story about airline travelers made the viralways on social media. It detailed the hostilities between a producer of The Bachelor and a private citizen in seat 7A as their flight, delayed, sat on the tarmac.

Elan Gale, the Hollywood producer, opened with a tweet that seemed humorous at first:

screen capture of Elan Gale tweet

It’s sarcastic and not particularly sensitive, but it goes to the frustrations and anxieties that many of us have when traveling in an airline system that hasn’t been passenger-focused in a long time. But thinking about it more carefully, there are only some people who can afford to travel by air. Some others of us either take the bus or the train, drive a shorter distance that doesn’t break our budget, or stay home. So already this is a conversation between relatively entitled people.  Read More…

If a Tweet Falls in the Forest, Does It Make a Sound?

waterfall in a forestThere’s a woman in the coffee shop, standing around waiting for her $4.50 espresso drink, and I’m guessing she’s impatient because she’s pacing in a wide 8 figure. She needs a cello accompaniment, something moody to go with her dark gray fleece jacket cinched tight at the waist, and her Ralph Lauren glasses (worth approximately 100 pricey espresso drinks). I’m betting she’s a little guilty that she’s such a Type A personality, because every so often she flashes me a smile and then it’s gone as she checks her gold watch again. I like her but I find myself mildly worried for her. I want to invent a whole back story for her but I can’t decide where to begin. I think it’s a funny story but nothing is coming to me.

Two years ago, three and four years ago I loved writing humor, loved making people laugh, especially if adversity was the target. It’s been such a long-used coping mechanism of mine that I figured it was part of my personality. Coping skills what they are, I see retroactively that it was in response to a 25-year long string of stressful episodes, and not me. I hate giving up pieces of myself when I think they’re real, because blah, change sucks and is hard and all of that. But it’s also the only lasting path to improvement that I’ve found.  Read More…

Misunderstanding Pro-Choice

Last year I went to the 31st Annual Walla Walla Wine Auction to benefit the regional Planned Parenthood, and was amazed at how much fun it was. Every year they have a theme (last year’s was the speakeasy), and the Marcus Whitman Hotel is transformed for the occasion. Grafting a live auction with wine is a brilliant stroke, because as one’s inhibitions plummet with all of the tastings (there are more than 30 wineries pouring their product there), the number of bids one puts in on the silent and live auction items rockets. When we came to the 6-bottles of Leonetti cabernet sauvignon in 2012, I kept my paddle in the air, thinking I was bidding someone else up, and instead won the wine. This year I knew better, darn it. Also Susanne looked at the ready to grab my arm and get our purse strings out of any melee. I admit I was also excited because this year’s theme was all about a steampunk version of the wild west, and I was curious to see if people would dress up beyond finding a pair of driving goggles and sticking them on a cowboy hat.

WWofW LogoOnce again we weren’t disappointed with the decorations—the line in was drawn by a hitching post, flanked by a building that read “Jail,” and then we walked under a gate to the trading post, where the wines were in mid-pour. I waved at two of the people I knew working for wineries in the first room, then took a look at the wines assembled for the “cork pulls.” Thirty bucks got donors a grab at the bucket of corks, which corresponded to the bottles on the display. It was a less fancy display than last year, but I saw some great wines on the table. Susanne has great luck with these, and in a flash, she had won a magnum from Dunham Cellars. I pulled a rose. I hate rose. But it will make someone happy at a future gathering, I guess.

We wandered around and found our favorite wineries, me sipping the tastes with our friend Leah, Susanne sniffing at the glasses and snagging a few things from a long table of charcuterie. Then we looked at the silent auction items, promising ourselves that we’d limit our household to two items. We made a bid on two magnums from Rotie (a northern and a southern blend), and another magnum from Waters—Forgotten Hills. I sampled popcorn made with nitro-infused flavors, watched a chef carve meat off of a whole pig, shook hands with folks I knew, and sashayed up to a wall of ice that held tiny bites of seafood. I love you, seafood wall. I’ll see you again, someday. Read More…

Fair Thee Well: A Trip to Walla Walla’s Frontier Days

Every Labor Day weekend, Walla Walla hosts “Frontier Days,” a combination of agricultural fair and a sanctioned rodeo. While the fairgrounds are mostly empty most of the year, in late August they begin filling up with hundreds of horse trailers, pickups filled with crafts and food, and truck after truck of carnival ride equipment. White fences are cleaned, exhibit halls swept out and dusted, food stalls prepped with supplies, and power cords dragged every which way to light up the evening hours with seasonal entertainment. Living here since the late summer of 2008, Susanne and I have never gone to Frontier Days, usually because that’s also when the national political science association’s conference is held, far from Walla Walla. But this year I stayed behind with Emile, and bought some passes for us to the see fair and the rodeo.

Walla Walla Frontier Days 2013 US flag and horsesNow then, before people balk at the idea of the city boy and his offspring venturing into such a rural experience, I am no noob to the rodeo. I went to Girl Scout horse camp in South Jersey twice, sleeping in two-week stints in an overgrown tent, and I’ve gone to at least a dozen rodeos in the Northeast—though truth be told, my favorite is the Atlantic Gay Rodeo, in which, among other events, cowboys and cowgirls chase goats around the arena to get pink underwear on their butts. Read More…

Walla Walla, Come to Jesus

Ever since we moved to Walla Walla, Washington, we’ve heard at least once a week that this is just a great community to live in. At first, I was new to town and curious, so I would ask whoever had made the declaration to elaborate. Why specifically Walla Walla? How was it such a utopia? What made it special? In one of the first conversations I had on this subject, the conversation went something like this:

VISITING PROFESSOR: It’s such a great place to raise kids. [NOTE: I did not have any children at the time.]

ME: Oh? Why?

VP: Well, it’s very safe here.

ME: Is it? By that you mean, what?

VP: I mean there’s low crime here.

ME: [THINKING] Hmm. Well, in many neighborhoods in DC, crime was pretty low too.

VP: Well, in Walla Walla you know your neighbors.

ME: I knew my neighbors in DC.

VP: We have a farmer’s market.

ME: I lived in Eastern Market in DC, one of the oldest, continuously running open-air markets on the East Coast. But okay, farmer’s markets are great.

peaches at the DC marketNow then, the market in DC offered fresh local chicken, a gourmet cheese counter, eggs, all manner of fresh sausages, fresh seafood and fish (which we never bought, given Susanne’s allergies), cakes, pies, cookies, loads of produce, and the requisite crafty junk I’m never interested in buying, like handmade jewelry and such. In Walla Walla there is also a ton of produce during the season, a woman who sells lamb, and two farmers who sell pork. You can also get fresh milled flour out here and that wasn’t available in DC, but for the most part there was a lot more diversity in the city than here. But going back to the conversation, I do tend to like my neighbors in Walla Walla more than my neighbors in DC. Some of my city neighbors were kind of snarky. Not that I know anything about that.

But here’s my point, John Inman’s amazing chicken roasters aside—the mantra that Walla Walla is near-perfect belies its deficiencies and makes it harder to improve the material reality of the people living here. Read More…

Throat Afire

It never fails that when I need to be somewhere or do something especially important, I catch a virus. There was that time, after being unemployed for two years, that I was supposed to go to Census-taker training, but got Susanne’s stomach bug instead. I’ve given presentations with 100-degree fevers, and taken the SAT while the chicken pox was still scabbed all over my body. So nobody in my household was surprised when I finally caught Emile’s cold from last week, two days before flying out to LA for the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging Writer’s Workshop.

At first it was just a tickle in my throat—maybe Wednesday afternoon or so. By Thursday night, in which I had go to my first board meeting as a new director for a former prisoner rehabilitation nonprofit, I was exhausted. It wasn’t as bad as that 2003 bout with mononucleosis (which kept me from driving to my sister’s house for Christmas that year, because timing is everything), but I felt weak and feverish. My throat emanated pain and itchiness. The back of my sinus cavity cranked up its production of disgustingness. I clammed my way through the meeting and then made conversation with some impromptu house guests who were spending the night with us. Please, I begged the anonymous virus, get out of here in the next 24 hours. I’ve got a big trip, okay? Read More…

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