REVIEW::THE EDIBLE WOMAN
Margaret Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman, first published in 1969 when Atwood was 30, was hailed at the time as one of the first feminist-themed novels of modern literture. But Atwood denies the claim, saying that a statement on women’s rights was not her intention. Nevertheless, as a product of its time, social themes rise like cream to the top of this edgy fiction debut.
To read The Edible Woman is to be transported back in time. Fourty-plus years ago “girls” had entered the workforce to stay. They wore binding girdles, deferred to the men in the company, and were expected to resign when they became engaged and left maindenhood behind. Still, they were there, earning their way.
In this story, Marian McAlpine is The Edible Woman. She works in the research division of an ad agency. As a “modern girl,” she is college educated and self-sufficient. What sets Marian apart from “the office virgins” is her steady boyfriend, Peter, and her flat-mate, Ainlsey. Even while Marian is a working professional, women and men in her company are segregated. Figuratively and literally, men occupy the floor above. Marian defers to Peter and his assumed superiority, as social conventions require. When Marian and Peter become engaged, she waits to reveal the good news at her office knowing she will be fired because married women, even those on the cusp of matrimony, “are unreliable.”
Sexism exists in ways that seems antiquated today. When Ainlsey decides that she wants a baby and not necessarily a husband, she creates a strategy to find the perfect donor. She then plots the seduction of her candidate, Len, by letting him think she’s an innocent teenager then getting him so roaring drunk that he doesn’t remember the deed. When Ainsley tells Len the good news, he bellows, “this is what happens when you educate women!” Marian’s friend Clara has just given birth to a third baby in four years and swears that when it’s over, she’s going on the pill. If feminism wasn’t thriving in 1969, it was beginning to build steam.
From the moment Marian accepts Peter’s proposal, her subconscious begins to revolt. She becomes involved with a graduate student she meets in a launderette, making excuses to rendevous furtively while justifying her fickle behavior to herself. As Peter assumes more authority over her life, she develops an eating distorder, thus physically beginning to fade. At first she finds steak, with its blood and texture, intollerable. And then she finds the relationship to the beaks and feathers of chicken and eggs disgusting. When she is reduced to consuming only coffee and toast, bread becomes inedible when she compares its air pockets to small clusters of lungs.
Marion doesn’t quite break it off with Peter as much as display increasingly neurotic behavior, forcing Peter himself to call off the engagement. On the one hand this is disappointing because by the end of a story a reader wants the protagonist to have evolved. But Marian, like the culture in which she existed in 1969, was making the best progress she could.
If you are familiar with Atwood’s later work, this novel is a must-read. Ditto, if you are at all curious about 1960s North American culture.
I love California. Quirky, lovable, yoga-centric California has been very good to me. Still, just six years ago after a bad breakup, I left the state for what I thought was for good. I move to Portland and immediately experienced a “once-a-decade” blizzard that shut the city down and gave me near-pneumonia. Then, two years ago, I got recruited back. Not just to the general California Bay Area population, but to the super-special wine country, home of some of the most valuable vintages on the planet. Yay! It is delicious in about a million ways and I try not to let it go to my head. Sometimes I have to literally pinch myself when, in the rarefied company of people whose names I dare not drop, I find myself lunching, hobbing, and nobbing. It’s pretty sweet.
On August 24. I woke at 3:20 AM to the sound of a monster-truck driving through my bedroom. Not really, but that’s what it sounded like. I actually heard the 6.0 earthquake before I felt it shaking my little home like a rug. My reflexes kicked in and I did what I always do when a trembler hits in the middle of the night: I pulled the covers up to my chin an prayed. This time, I really prayed, because even lying half-asleep and fully terrorized, I knew this was a gobsmacker. And it was. I picked up my phone and typed probably one of the first facebook reports of the shaker. When the dust settled and the sun came up, I drove around my broken town and my heart tore down the middle to see it in tattlers. But you know what? Friends and neighbors rallied. Strangers helped one another. We rebounded with signs around town like “we’re down but not out” and “shaken but not stirred.” Though we’re not fully recovered, it seems like a million miles away. And then today?
Today the Pineapple Express arrived full force and we are finally getting the rain that we have been begging the weather gods for. And to my great surprise, those same friends and neighbors who showed up so bravely for the the earthquake are terrified of the rain. My office has sent all admin staff home. My appointments have all cancelled. Businesses have closed and posted “closed due to weather” signs on their doors. People! I want to say. It’s just water! Thanks to network news and doppler radar, we have up to the minute reports and I keep getting flash flood warnings on my phone. Sweet, sweet California. Where the weather is so generally temperate that people complain of “freezing!!” when the temps drop below 68 degrees. Where a few drops of water from the sky requires fashionable ensembles of expensive overcoats and stylish Wellies. We’re still having a drought and even if this epic storm drops another six inches of water, we will be a long way from drought recovery. And yet? I can’t complain about the rain too much. This is as close to a “snow day” as I’m going to get any time soon. So as a true Californian, I’m heading home to a toddy and a good book. You’re welcome to stop by. Leave your Wellies at the door.
What’s On Tap?
Imagine waterfalls and pristine lakes, or wild rivers and cool mountain springs, relaxing, energizing, soothing, and delightful, right? But what you see is not always what you get, at least as far as bottled water is concerned. I was once asked whether I would choose a life of royalty with all the wealth and servants that the position allows, but no indoor plumbing, over a regular middle-class life in the 21st century with a bathroom. I’d choose indoor plumbing every time. Today in the U.S., by some miracle of engineering and ingenuity, clean water is delivered right to your faucet, cheaply, efficiently, and good enough to drink, bathe, cook, and swim in. Do you know why? Because EPA regulates the water we drink, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Bottled water is regulated by the FDA, and while tap water gets all the clear and contaminant-free bells and whistles that being part of a regulated, statutory program allows, bottle water enjoys no such luxury. So why the bad rap for tap water when it flows to you with a simple twist of the wrist? Some say tap water tastes bad and as a result, they prefer drinking bottled water. Others believe bottled is safer than tap because inadvertently or through shoddy treatment tap water harbors all nature of contaminants. Actually, the opposite is more likely.
Several years ago, the NRDC conducted a four-year study of bottled water, including testing of 1,000 bottles of 103 different brands of water. Interestingly, approximately one-third of the bottles tested violated a state standard for contaminants. Hits of e coli, arsenic, and other contaminants of concern that would result in an enforceable action under EPA regulations for tap water were going unchallenged for bottled water. And with Americans drinking 10 billion gallons a year, there’s bound to be a few e coli hits somewhere. Testing revealed periodic hits of industrial chemicals exceeding FDA standards. One source of bottled water for a brand whose label depicted a lake surrounded by mountains was taken from a well in a parking lot next to a hazardous waste site. Did you know that 1/4 of all bottled water is actually purified tap water? How’s that for mountain streams?
So while the FDA regulates bottled water, it just doesn’t have the resources to enforce its regs. Less than one person works on developing rules while another less than one person works on assuring compliance. The FDA can require testing, yes, but everything else is at the whim of the company such as whether to divulge their sources, how the water is treated, and so on. With less than two people working to secure an entire industry, chances are more than a few contaminants are going to slip through. Here’s the scariest fact: if bottled water isn’t crossing state lines, no one is regulating it. Over 60% of the bottled water sold is intrastate. That’s a lot of room for error. So next time, don’t reach for the bottle. Turn on the tap!
Pam Lazos 9.28.14
If you look up the word “time” in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, you’ll see a list of fourteen definitions for time as a noun, eight as a colloquialism, five as a verb, eleven as an adjective, one as an adverb, and no less than forty-one words that start with the word time (time lapse, time-out, time immemorial, to name a few). Judging by the amount of “time” Webster’s devotes to the word, time appears to be as ubiquitous as air. No wonder we don’t understand it. http://wp.me/P1vbMw-1Z
Fancy me. I’m making progress in my personal green revolution. Not only am I growing lettuce, basil, cilantro, and tomatoes, but I just planted purple carrots. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself Ida Skivenes, but well, you know. I’m doing what I can to green up my world.
I’ve been wanting to compost, but living solo, I just don’t generate enough green waste to reach practical critical mass. Even considering my habit of buying more produce than I can possibly eat in a week and throwing out an obscene amount of food, it’s still not enough to justify investing in a personal 100 gallon composting unit. Like my (brief) foray into brewing my own Kombucha tea, it just isn’t happening.
Still, each time I recycle my coconut water container, my (thrice-used) paper towels, my strawberry container, I feel like a fraud because I’m still tossing my banana peels, my carrot tops, my wilted lettuce into the rubbish and thus, the landfill. I have a friend who has chickens and goats, and so the green waste becomes food for the pets and once processed, instant fertilizer. If only!
Then, just yesterday as I headed out for a morning walk along the river, I found a stash of “green waste” containers on the property. Eureka! Green waste is separated from the rest of the recyclables and out-and-out landfill fodder because our landscapers generate lots of clippings and otherwise compostable detritus. I just logged onto eBay and ordered a kitchen compost container so I can save my kitchen scraps, my coffee grounds, zucchini ends, and past expiration date tomatoes to toss in with the rest of the organic waste. Even though I won’t be the direct beneficiary of all this composting goodness, I’m so excited I can’t stand it. Who knew waste could be so thrilling?
There is a ton of online resources for composting. Five things you can start composting right this hot minute include:
- table scraps (no dairy, no meat)
- grass clippings
Cynthia G. 6.23.14
Here Comes the Sun
For years, people prayed to the sun, thinking it was an actual God and the source of their abundance. Without the sun, earth was a dark and dismal place. Witness the endless winter caused by Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, who withdrew her gifts from the earth because her daughter, Persephone was imprisoned underground with Hades, god of the underworld. Clearly, winter wasn’t all Demeter’s doing. Apollo, the sun god of the Ancient Greeks, the bringer of light to the earth and the one who told Demeter about Hades’ kidnapping of Persephone, had to be involved. Without him, crops didn’t ripen and the earth didn’t warm. While Apollo still took to the skies every winter morning, his solar beneficence waned on those dark days as he streaked across in his gilded, horse-drawn chariot. Sometimes circumstantial evidence is all you have.
The hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt portray early man’s fascination with and dependence on the sun. The Egyptians prayed to Ra, the Sun God, the bringer of light. Over time, the Pharaoh, a physical embodiment of the god Horus, who “sits on high”, and Ra became intertwined, possibly because they both bore a falcon’s head, but more likely because they both had something to do with bringing light and wisdom. Eventually, Ra, Horus, and the sitting Pharaoh all got rolled up together and the Pharaoh became a god or pretty close to one.
Sun worshipping and pagan rituals weren’t cast aside when the Catholics came to town, but subsumed by the Church to assist with the pagan conversion to Christianity, a brilliant plan, really, and one that made subjugation more palatable. One only need look at the Pantheon in Rome to see such brilliance in action. In continuous use since the 7th century, the Pantheon was built by the Romans as a sacred place of pagan worship and later co-opted by the Christians as a church dedicated to St. Mary. By replacing the iconography of ancient gods with that of modern day saints, the Pantheon stands as a testament to how pagan rituals inform modern religion.
The winter solstice, celebrated by the pagans as the day the sun stands still —sol, meaning sun god, and stice, meaning still — was intertwined with the birth of Christ, a day that the world stood still. No one knows on what day Christ was really born, but the first celebration of his birth was December 25, 336. Since every culture had a winter celebration, by melding the two, you have successfully co-opted a pagan ritual. And the summer solstice? For pagans, it was time for the midsummer feast — why not have a party on the longest day of the year — and for Christians, it marked the feast of St. John the Baptist whose whole life was a celebration of the Christ.
With the advent of science and the discovery of the heliocentric nature of our solar system by Nicolaus Copernicus, and the theory’s later championing by Galileo Galilei, perceptions changed. That the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around was considered blasphemous by the Catholic Church, and Gallilei went on trial as a heretic. He recanted to save his life (and who can blame him?), but few believed the confession and modern science forged ahead.
Our perceptions are about to change again. That amazing, vibrant body comprised of hydrogen and helium, and a few other (about 9) elements, which form a hot dense mass capable of sending enough heat down to fire up our entire planet, our very own combustible source of energy and light, stands ready to be harnessed. According to NASA, the sun produces enough energy to supply our little old U.S. of A. with 13 billion years of energy, and that’s in one second! It’s time we used it by developing environmentally beneficial, sustainable technology that’s good for mother earth and for us. The good news is, the technology is here. Click on the link and Happy Summer Solstice!
Pam Lazos 6.20.14
And Then There Were None
A recent text conversation between my husband and I went something like this:
First of all, ignore the typos. I blame the smartphone. It gets a little too involved. Second, there were not enough of those little crying emoticon thingees to portray the appropriate degree of sadness, despair, and outright terror I felt about the bee situation. The honey bees, our fuzzy four-winged friends responsible for pollination of about 70% of the foods we eat are dying by degrees and we, seemingly, are powerless to stop it.
The story with the wild honeybees is this: our landscaper friend, Doug, called one fine fall day and said that there was a huge hive of wild honeybees living in a client’s tree and that the client, who knew that, in general, honey bees were hurting, was worried about them making it through the winter. Doug asked my husband, Scott, who’s been keeping bees for the last 20 years, to come see if there was anything that could be done to move the bees to regular hives before the cold snap. The swarm was massive, totally socked in, and prepped for winter with tons of honey stores. Scott realized that moving the hive this late in the season would seriously impair the bees’ ability to make it to the spring so he covered them with a large sheet of heavy duty plastic that would keep the elements off, but still allowed ingress and egress to their makeshift hive as needed, the best fix under the circumstances. We were apprehensive, yet hopeful, but as you can see from the text, Hope lost this round.
Add this story to all the other mysterious bee stories. They didn’t die, you see, they just disappeared. Bees swarm when the Queen gives the signal that there’s something wrong with their house, generally when they become too big for the space, but they had no hive to hold them so it was an unlikely explanation. Maybe they all flew off for work one day and forgot to fly home. Or maybe they died a noble bee death away from the hive so their brothers and sisters didn’t have to expend excess energy removing the carcasses. Bees are particularly fastidious housekeepers and are constantly sprucing up the place. Dead drone bodies are disposed of by sweeping them out of the hive, but female worker bees get the royal treatment. After death, their buddies fly them out of the hive and drop them from a significant height — such a cool way to go.
The conundrum of the disappearing bees is vexing. I want to stand on my rooftop and bang pots, yelling “Wake Up! Wake Up! Look at what’s happening!!” The problem is that we live in the woods so aside from the few neighbors around us, there’s no one to hear me, but the squirrels and the trees, which is exactly what’s happening in the world at large, I might add. No one is listening. (There’s something in there about the microcosm informing the macrocosm, but I haven’t sifted through the layers enough to express it properly. I’ll get back to you on that.) Months ago, I posted a piece on PSS entitled, Home is Where Your Honey Bee — feel free to go to the @ First Blush archives (iv) for a scintillating recitation of the facts — and you’ll see that’s nothing is changed, except maybe the situation is a little more dire and a little more irreversible.
Bees are still dying at a rate of about 30% per year and getting harder to replace. Last year, our two remaining hives died, although that’s a misnomer: they simply disappeared. Scott has been trying to track down the apiarist at the honey bee farm to whom we paid cash money way back in March to buy three nucs — nucs are five frame starter colonies that contain a queen and established frames of honeycomb and larvae — but between the emails and the phone calls, we’ve barely managed to get a response from him, certainly nothing positive. Now their website says they’re sold out and since spring is almost over, starting them at the tail end of spring seems like setting them up to fail in winter. Plus that means no honey collection come the fall because they’ll be none to spare. Sadly, and for the first time since we’ve been married, it looks like we’ll have no bees this year.
A recent study out of the Université d’ Orléans, France (March 3, 2014), reveals that low doses of neonicotinoids — a group of insecticides first applied to treat the seeds of plants and that control pests by targeting their neurosystems — are harmful to fruit flies. And while you may not care about the pesky fruit fly that’s after your pineapple and cantaloupe, scientists care very much as they use them to study the effects of chemicals and then extrapolate that information out to other insects, a little window into their reactive and behavioral world. Turns out that the fruit flies exposed to high doses of neonicotinoids had this frenzied mating period which rose by about 30% after which they had nothing to show for it, but a significant decrease in offspring. What do these sublethal effects mean for honey bees? Decreased foraging ability, scientists hypothesize, but it’s only a theory because no one has come up with a control mechanism to test that theory.
As if that isn’t enough, from Harvard we have a new study (May 9, 2014) that demonstrates that bees exposed to neonicotinoids in the summer abandoned their hives in the winter, and subsequently, died from exposure which is probably what happened to our little guys since they left without a trace. Wild honeybees, on the other hand, survived the winter. Historically, during winter, between 10 and 15% of bee colony populations died, but according to the Department of Agriculture, between 2007-2011 that number rose 30%. Why? Interestingly, neonicotinoids were first introduced as a method of controlling pests in 2006. Coincidence? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. Yet, it’s not just bees that are being affected. Humans are, too, since the residue is taken up by the plant and ends up in our food, especially high fructose corn syrup that is used in much of our processed foods and many breads, the latter of which beekeepers have been using, recently, to feed their bees. The Harvard study concluded that these sublethal amounts of pesticides were the cause of the subsequent winter collapse. Some researchers panned the study for using too small a study group, and also because it did not account for other factors such as loss of habitat and disease, but the researchers stand by their findings.
Industry has countered that it isn’t the neonicotinoids, but the varroa mite that is killing the bee. Varroa mites are to bees what fleas are to dogs. Bayer Crop Science, who makes the neonicotinoid, clothianiden, intends to spend $2.4 million (a pittance for a company that size) on the bee problem, and to find new chemicals with which to treat (slather) the varroa mite and eradicate the problem. (Oh, goody. More chemicals.) While the treatment of varroa mites has historically “worked,” it’s made honeybees dependent on humans for survival since they are prone to varroa mite infestation, a result, I might add, of a hybridization experiment gone awry. Without the treatment, the numbers of varroa mites increases significantly and the little buggers begin attacking the bee larvae, causing still births and extreme stress on the hives as the bees struggle to keep pace with the removal of dead carcasses. Not the best scenario for our bee friends. Interestingly, the wild honeybees seem to be unaffected by the varroa mite.
While pesticides and insecticides revolutionized farming, decreasing workloads overall, and making the system much more profitable, why kid ourselves? Pesticides are really biocides. They don’t just target one thing and leave everything else alone. They are more pervasive and longer lasting than anyone could have anticipated and they are ending up in our food and our blood stream and who knows? Maybe they are changing us genetically as well. No one has to pick the beetles off the plants by hand anymore (like they do on organic farms) because the pesticide kills the interloper before it becomes a problem so it’s probably worth it, right? Yet as any child at an amusement park who ate the ice cream, and the cotton candy, and the popcorn, and topped it off with a giant slushy knows, too much of a good thing is too much, which, I submit, is where we are with pesticides.
If trace amounts of the pesticides are in plant-based derivatives like corn syrup, isn’t it safe to assume they are in the hive as well, flying in with the bee on the pollen and the nectar, and staying to make itself at home. By the way, nectar is dehydrated by the bees and transformed into honey which is also the honey we eat.
Problematically, EPA’s tracking system for pesticides, its “conditional registration” is from the dark ages. Conditional registration means a product can go to market before it’s been fully vetted as long as there is not “any unreasonable risk to the environment,” but with over 16,000 pesticides registered and no centralized system, information falls through the cracks. It’s confusing, not fully computerized, and the responsibility of about 20 managers nationwide to manage 16,000 pesticide registrations! What happens when someone retires? It’s easier to get a pesticide conditionally approved than it is to thoroughly vet it, and while Bayer is obligated to follow up with information on clothianidin, one of its neonicotinoid darlings, it’s continually late. Tell me, is it better for us as a society to pay a kabillion dollars in medical expenses to treat the myriad number of diseases that will develop 5, 10, 20 years down the road from eating pesticide-laden food or to wait a few more years and find the safest way to bring a product to market? Remember that bees are the topside’s canary in the coal mine. If neonicotinoids are damaging their little bee nervous systems, what do you think it’s doing to yours?
So, is there any good news? Luckily, yes, and its happening in the Upper Midwest. Fives states, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas who are responsible for about 65% of America’s honeybees are starting a new program with the help of the feds. Tucked into the 2008 Farm Bill was a provisions dedicated to pollinators health. This program which encourages farmers to grow clover, alfalfa, and other bee friendly crops is the result of that provision. The result? About 43 million acres of land in the U.S. incorporates pollinator health features with the help of approximately $630 million that’s part of the environmental quality incentive program to help farmers plant hedgerows and cover crops. While the program is not going to change the bee problem overnight, it is raising awareness for the plight of the bees, and couldn’t we all use a little more of that these days?
At the end of the day, we’re not powerless, we are powerful, but we have to do our individual and collective parts. Write your congressman, your local city council (hey, if San Francisco can ban the sale of plastic water bottles on public property, what can your city do?), anyone who will listen, and ask them to focus their resources on this VIP issue. When planting your garden, use bee-friendly vegetation. Plant native flowers, keep flowers blooming all spring and summer by planting a variety that work their way through the seasons, skip hybridized plants that don’t seed because they produce less pollen, and for Godsakes, skip the pesticides. Your grandchildren will thank you, and so will your friends, the bees.
Pam Lazos 6.12.14
Summer has arrived in the valley of the vines. I’ve been expecting it, but the heat still arrives as if unforeseen, as if it is a sudden shift of seasons. Of course there is a contingent that would have us believe that climate change is an evil myth perpetrated by the liberal media. I don’t think they live in California. And if climate change is just a fairy tale, then I don’t know how to explain the strange weather we’re experiencing here on the western edge of North America. First: the drought. California’s Central Valley is starting to resemble Death Valley. Fields lie fallow for want of water. Even up in temperate Mendocino, farmers are getting their water allotments cut. Thirst may be just an abstract idea now, but just wait until July, honey, when the landscape is good and dry and the wildfires kick in. In a state that provides produce up the wazzoo for the rest of the country, this could be a problem down the road. Our Golden state grows almost half of the fruit, nuts, and vegetables Americans eat. . . and it can’t grow bupkis without agua fresca. That’s everything from avocados to zucchini, Zeke. And if you don’t think that meat producers need water, think again. All animals need water – whether we’re at the top of the food chain or the middle or the end. That Quarter Pounder you had for lunch? It took 800 gallons of water to produce (based on the estimated 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of hamburger). As water becomes more scarce, you can expect food costs to rise proportionately.
The weather’s all mixed up. We finally got some welcome rain in April. Mind you, April is still late winter in many parts of the country, but here in NCal, April is just about summer. Still, with water falling from the heavens, we were enjoying our little bit of weather. Fast forward to this week, and meteorologists are predicting triple-digits. Oh, that crazy not-climate change!
Yesterday after work I switched out the office uniform for a sensible walking ensemble, slathered up with sunscreen, grabbed a hat; and with my Smart Phone and Audible download in hand, set off. Lucky for me, the route I take is along the meandering river with lots of trees and overhead canopy to provide cover from the blazing sun. Still, at 6:30 PM in the sunny patches along the river path, the temperature registered a sizzling 95 degrees. All I could think of was getting home and opening the freezer door. Not to get anything out mind you, but just to stand there. I could have wished for ice cream, sorbet, or even frozen custard. But even those seem too heavy when the summer heat begins to bear down. I’m thinking of Popsicles for dinner. I’m thinking of buying a foam noodle and a big floppy hat and floating in the pool like a fishing bobber. Not swimming, not diving, just floating, enjoying the slip of all that cool, cool water against my skin, floating until I turn into a prune.
15 Must-Read Books
In his infinite wisdom, Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu coined the phrase “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and it is a hard one with which to argue. However never being content to leave a great sage alone, I would add: “all the pages of a genius novel begin with a single compelling sentence.” And after having read such a beguiling book, remembering that first sentence is often enough to ignite passion for that novel again and again.
The usual list of literary greats contains the (mostly) names dead white guys, but this is one for the girls. Herewith, a list of 15 brilliant first sentences and the novels from which they arise. By women. You could say it’s an epic recommended reading list. You could say it’s ambitious. You could say it’s a good place to start a 2014 reading challenge.
- “The children’s section of the colored Methodist episcopal church was wiggling and giggling over my well known forgetfulness.” —I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
- “A green and yellow parrot which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!”” – The Awakening, Kate Chopin
- “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters.” — House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
- “Here they are, two North Americans, just over and just under forty, come to spend their lives in Mexico and already lost as they travel cross-country over the central plateau.” — Stones for Ibarra, Harriet Doer
- “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” — Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen
- “Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.” — Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood
- “The Whistle Stop Cafe opened last week, right next to me at the post office, and the owners Idgie Threadgood and Ruth Jamison said business has been good ever since.” — Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flagg
- “There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna, and I had been treated by at least six of them.” — Fear of Flying, Erica Jong
- “I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.” — The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver
- “Here is an account of a few years of the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.” — The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
- “Eighty some years previous, through a town that was to flourish and past a farm that would disappear, the river slid- all that happened began with that flow of water.” — Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Louise Erdrich
- “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” — A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor
- “My name is Ruth.” — Housekeeping, Marilyn Robinson
- “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month.” — The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
- “My mother’s name was Mercy Stone Goodwill.” — The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
Seriously, this is not a complete list by any stretch, but it is a beautiful beginning.
THE WOOD FOR THE TREES
In 1995, while still a wide-eyed environmental attorney, I took a meandering road trip through the magnificence of the Pacific Northwest. One evening at a local bar in Forks, Washington (the filming locale of the Twilight series), I found myself embroiled in a discussion, regarding the vicissitudes of logging with one of the locals, a lumberman who was just as passionate about the need for harvesting timber as I was about the need for the preservation of forests, particularly old growth ones. He repeatedly asked me, as if therein lied the answer to the Gordian knot we were trying to unravel, whether I liked my toilet paper one-ply or two-ply.
“Until you’re ready to have that conversation,” he said, “there’s really nothing to say.”
I remember being incensed that I couldn’t get this guy to see that what he was defending could wipe out years, perhaps decades of potential human existence on this planet. He refused to consider the possibility that trees act as the planet’s lungs and their removal jeopardized our oxygen supply just for a few more rolls of toilet paper. So while I saw his point, I didn’t see the need to wipe out whole forests to make it.
There are few things that speak to you like the towering majesty of an old growth forest. The slant and dapple of the light through the leaves, the song of the birds as they alight and fly, the flash of movement caught in the periphery as nature rearranges Herself, the heady smell of peat moss, representing life and death rolled into one. The bottom of peat moss decays to form peat deposits even as the top continues to grow which is basically how Mama Nature rolls, using the nutrients of the dead and decaying to fuel Her rebirth and regeneration, resulting in, ta-da, Spring, or as a microcosm, every dawning day. Take Persephone, the newly crowned Queen of the Dead, sleeping this whole long, lonely winter underground with her Uncle cum husband (gross), Hades. Hades stole Persephone from the earth topside on a technicality and Demeter, her sweet mama and the Goddess of Agriculture was so disconsolate, she refused to let another thing grow until Persephone was returned to her. Such is a mother’s love — fierce, unpretentious, unwavering — just like our collective Mother is with her children, that is until we disrespect her and she turns on us like the Titan Cronus, known to the Romans as Saturn, who ate each of his sons when they were born so none could fulfill the prophesy to overthrow him. Coincidence? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Some of the oldest living organisms on earth are trees. Giant sequoias, for example, can live as long as 2,500 years while some bristlecone pines can live up to 5,000 years. The numbers vary, but let’s just say for simplicity’s sake that a mature tree, i.e., older than a mid-range teenager, consumes about 48 lbs of CO2/yr. (Some accounts are much higher for you skeptics.) The key to this is mature since a prepubescent tree simply doesn’t carry its weight. It’s simple math. CO2 in, oxygen out, but cut 18 million acres off the face of the earth and the numbers skew, the math gets wonky. Saplings start out perky enough, sucking in a bit of CO2, letting out a bit of oxygen, a tree’s waste product (who said it wasn’t a symbiotic world), but it’s not until the tree reaches 100 or 125 that it really hits its stride, exhaling wads of the life-giving stuff each year, chowing down on carbon dioxide like it was candy. The fact is, older trees outperform younger trees by an incredibly wide margin and the older the tree, the more CO2 it can take in because this is one instance where size does matter. So while it’s all cool and hip to plant a tree every time you cut one down, don’t expect the payoff to be that meaningful for awhile. (Please don’t read this and have your take away message be that we shouldn’t be planting trees. We absolutely should and must be, but keep in mind the delayed rate of return.)
Only about half of the world’s tropical forests are still standing. While trees as a whole give the world a great big oxygen boost, the destruction of the same trees to make way for crops — think slash and burn of swaths — doesn’t just deprive us of that oxygen, but contributes to greenhouse gasses because: a) we’re burning them, and b) they’re releasing the carbon they were holding. All tolled, it’s somewhere in the range of a 12-17% carbon increase. Something else trees do is hold water in their roots and then slowly release it into the atmosphere, contributing to the amount of water vapor in the air much like your houseplants release moisture into your home during the dry winter. Amazingly, in the Amazon Basin, about half of the water in the ecosystem is held within the plant life. Without trees, we have deserts.
The writer, Aldous Huxley said facts don’t cease to exist simply because we ignore them. About 18 million acres of forest are lost each year to logging for firewood, or pulp and paper, for raising beef cattle, and for growing cash rich crops such as soy, palm oil, and coffee, the latter three of which leave behind poor soil conditions since none of their root systems holds the ground well. All of this results in increased erosion, flooding and a decline in local water quality due to runoff. It takes about 2,000 gallons of water to raise a single pound of beef plus acres of cleared forests to make way for pastureland. Beef is neither ecologically nor agriculturally efficient, and too much is bad for your heart, so why are we eating so much? (Notice I didn’t say “it”, but “much.”) Should we continue cutting down old growth forests to make amazingly beautiful furniture, continue to eat large quantities of beef, continue to grow crops such as soy or palm oil (not the good fat, BTW) to use in our unending supply of processed foods, shampoos (sodium laureth sulfate and stearic acid are derived from palm oil), and cleaning products, continue to log forests for paper, and sadly, firewood, or should we check ourselves and stop living in what is probably the most unsustainable manner since the ruling class of ancient Rome, unless you’re a Kardashian or had a hand in constructing just about anything in Dubai. Shall we ignore the facts?
Approximately 70% of the world’s species, plants and animals alike, live in forests. What happens to those species when the forests are all gone. I think it’s more than speculation to say they’ll go the way of the dinosaur and man as a species will be right behind them. Where I live in Central Pennsylvania, the richest unirrigated farmland in the country is being plowed under for brand new, upper-end housing developments. We all need a place to live, yes, but couldn’t it be a revitalized brownfield instead of the rich, fertile farmland that gave my part of the world its acclaim? I wonder about all the critters living in and around the edges of those farm fields, in the small patches of woods, in the little nooks and crannies and burrows. Where will those little guys go when the tractors arrive? It’s not like they can call a realtor and get a trade-in on their starter homes.
As a writer, I don’t just like paper, I adore it. Yet, what if I had to pay the real cost for paper? It takes 3 gallons of water to make a sheet of paper. Then there’s the cost of the land and logs, the cost of the fuel to run the equipment to cut the tree down, the cost of getting the tree to the paper mill, of packaging and distributing the paper, of labor, and other costs I’m not thinking of, and the most hidden cost, the increased CO2 emissions because of the loss of the tree. If I had to pay, say $3 for a piece of paper, would I squander it or use every precious inch? (Hint: pay and conserve.) We have oversimplified many an environmental argument by hiding the true cost of bringing the product to market.
Perhaps if we stopped, took a breath and a pack check, i.e., tally our resources. We live in a time where denial has become de rigueur. It’s not effecting me today, so let tomorrow’s people deal with it. Yet our children are tomorrow’s people and what are we leaving them except a set of problems that have become near impossible to unravel, like the Gordian knot. If we have to whack it off and start fresh — given the intractability of some of these issues — it’s not likely that fresh is going to comport with easy-peasy. Somewhere in the muck of logging and deforestation is a solution, probably a more expensive one, yes, but one where people get to keep a job and the planet. It may not be the same job so flexibility is a bonus. However, without flexibility and thoughtful discussion, as opposed to the high octane verbal sparring you see on talk shows, there can be no consensus, and without consensus, how will the riddle of supplying ourselves with sufficient resources to fuel our modern lifestyle without overtaxing our very generous Mother ever be solved, but badly? Often it’s only in the absence of something that people finally recognize its brilliance. Unfortunately for us, there may be no one left to see the light.
There are healthy ways to harvest the planet’s resources while allowing Her to thrive. In the Pacific Northwest in the early1990s, clear-cutting was slowly being replaced with more sustainable harvesting techniques. That was because residents got a clear picture of what the future looked like with erosion and sedimentation runoff from the naked hillsides, extinction of both plant and animal species, and the degradation of watersheds and reduced water quality, to name a few, so they started speaking up, and more importantly, they voted — with their wallets. You think you are just one person, but you are wrong. You are a global force and what you think and say and intend matters. More than anything, it is the consumer that drives the marketplace and if consumers are clamoring for sustainably harvested forests, then that’s what they shall have. It takes a forest to house a complex community of macro and microorganisms sufficient to support not just life, but growth and it takes a savvy consumer to recognize when they are getting maybe not the cheapest, but the best and brightest deal.
There are sonnets and sonatas that our Mother has not written yet, complex plant life that She has not yet evolved to produce, future medicines found in the leaves of Her favorite plants that She has not yet decided to share. Should we wipe this all out before we see what She has in store for us? As we evolve, She evolves, not one without the other, but both in tandem for we are part of Nature and that is its essence, a lyrical dance where She and We constantly reveal ourselves to ourselves. Why would we ever want to stop the dance of so much possibility?
CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL
All right, you naysayers, suffering from Climate Change Denial, or CCD for short. We’re three-quarters of the way through winter here in Central Pennsylvania, and on maybe the ninth or tenth storm after the recent back-to-back storms blew through, dumping a foot and a few inches of snow, respectively, while today, we dodged the latest symptom of Mother Nature’s “Global Bipolar Disorder” with the scant inch of snow that fell overnight instead of the foot meteorologists were calling for earlier in the week. Maybe Gaia got to her happy place and decided to give the weekly trouncing a break.
This area used to boast a Goldilocks climate, not too hot, not too cold, but just right. It used to be that if we got snow three times a year the kids were ecstatic, but they’re already making up a bunch of days so when school’s called off for weather there are groans instead of squeals (unless it’s a two-hour delay and then it’s a win-win because you get to sleep in and not have to make up the day). The plusses are: cross country skiing (the farm behind me is connected to a series of other farms, a skiers delight); more time with the kids, and the hubby (whose job as a commercial diver is weather dependent); a calmer way of being in the world (because I can’t rush off to some “very important thing” if I can’t get my car down the hill); and a bit more sleep (see #3), to name a few.
Yet while I love the white stuff and prefer the look of a winter wonderland to the pervasive mottled brown that saddens the landscape in the absence of snow, enough is enough — not enough snow, but enough crazy, unpredictable, completely variable weather patterns. Last week the temperature was in the teens. The weekend before it was in the high 50’s. This week, back to the teens, and it was snowing while I wrote this. Meanwhile, the Sierra Nevada’s are at just 17% of their usual annual snow fall, and California’s suffering under the worst long-term drought conditions in recent memory, the kind which may soon rival the dust bowl days of the depression if the earth doesn’t get a drink soon. This week’s rain helped, but one rain event does not an aquifer replenish. Yet here in Pennsylvania, spring is coming and at this rate of precipitation, we may soon need to build an ark.
Unlike Global Bipolar Disorder (which should be a field of study), global warming is a misnomer, a red herring, a ruse employed by charlatans, politicians, and ill-mannered radio hosts alike. How about we use the correct term – climate change – and then start the conversation there? If I may borrow from former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld:
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.
Tortured phraseology? Yes. Valid point? Yes, again. Scariest of all are the unknown unknowns. We know the climate is exhibiting variable characteristics at a rate that we’ve not seen for the last several hundred years (known known), but that has been determined through core samples to have occurred at some time in the evolution of our species, probably just before the last ice age (known unknown), but what the precipitating factors were and when the roof is going to blow off is anybody’s guess (unknown unknown). We have models, yes, but models in and of themselves are not as predictable as the model makers would have you believe. If they were, the meteorologists would always be right. I would say that the reason for model inaccuracies, beyond the usual percentage points of variability, is Mother Earth herself. She knows something’s wrong, and she’s not taking any of this lying down. So while we’re working to bury ourselves under fossil fuel fallout while filling the air and water with the rest of the detritus, old Gaia is shaking us off like rain on a cat’s back. With a typhoon here and a hurricane there, here a wildfire, there a wildfire, everywhere a wildfire… sing along with me. We’re going to hell in a hand basket and it will be a walk in the park compared to the beast Gaia will unleash if she gets her back up, to cram as many cliches into one sentence as possible.
Fact: The first decade of the millennium was the warmest on record, and our ability to determine past weather patterns goes back pretty far, about 800,000 years.
Fact: Increases in rainfall, snowfall, bigger storm events, heat waves, drought conditions, and increased variability are indicative of climate change.
Fact: The earth’s temperature has increased more than 1.4 degrees in the last 100 years.
Fact: The earth does go through warming and cooling phases, but not at this rate.
Fact: The sun has not stepped up its game by any appreciable amount, i.e., increased its solar energy output (an argument made by climate change critics), which means all fingers are pointing to us humans and our overuse of fossil fuels as the prime suspects.
Fact: While we need a certain amount of CO2 so plants and trees can do their photosynthesis thing, too much and we’re choking off our own oxygen flow since the plants can’t keep pace with us. (Perhaps if we clear-cut fewer forests, the ones that make way for raising beef cattle and grew more sustainable products instead, we’d stand a better chance in this department.)
Fact: An increase of 2 degrees F will result in a 5-15% crop reduction; 3-10% increase in rainfall during heavy rainfall events (increasing flooding risk); a 5-10% decrease in stream flow in some river basins; and a 200-400% increase in wildfires.
Fact: While global temperature has increased about 1.4% over the last millennium, we are currently heading toward an unthinkable rise of between 2 and 12 degrees by the year 2100.
Fact: Experiencing extra snowy winters doesn’t mean climate change isn’t real. Rather, the increased water vapor in the atmosphere results in increased precipitation, a Catch 22.
Fact: In the last millennium and a half, global sea level has risen about 9 inches and is expected to rise 1.5 to 3 feet by 2100. The increase in sea level will force coastal dwellers from their homes, maybe permanently, and if that happens, what the heck will it do to Manhattan?
The instability of the climate means rapid changes unlike anything history has demonstrated. Wildfires, heat waves, polar vortexes, flash floods, and droughts are just some of the lovely surprises that climate change has in store for us. It’s all about balance, sustainability, inconsistent consistency, the latter which is what normal weather is like — fickle, but not spiteful. Here in PA, just the extra snow days alone have drained local snow removal coffers. Imagine getting hit with monster, successive storms. Think Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, back-to-back. Who’s going to clean up the mess, rebuild, pay for the damage?
It will take a firm commitment. If we threw more than a few bucks at green infrastructure and got some big thinkers and visionaries working on long-range solutions, maybe we could gain some ground. Instead we’re shrinking funds for alternative technologies – the fusion budget has been cut so the U.S. is no longer the world leader in that regard – even as we continue to provide corporate welfare to Big Oil and Gas. Do the oil companies really need that extra money when they are already turning record profits? I wonder, could I get a tax break if I drilled a hole in my back yard and said I was looking to strike oil?
We can’t win this one, kids. Really. After all the damage, hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis, and 50 degree evenings in July, we’ve still got people saying, correction, screaming that climate change is bad science. The Earth was here before and she’ll be here long after we’re gone. We all know the truth. It’s time for an intervention. We can help Mother Nature deal with her issues, by dealing with ourselves. We are her issues. The government is not going to save us. Neither are the aliens, in case you were holding out hope, or even just wondering. The only ones who can save us are us, but not until most of us get our collective heads out of our b… I mean, the sand. It’s time to do what we do best as a country — solve problems, innovate, lead so others might follow. The payoff, as if saving the planet and ourselves wasn’t enough, is that there’s a heck of a lot of money to be made in green technology, but first we need to cure our CCD.
On a recent sun-drenched California weekend, I completed a whirlwind 12 county tour of the Bay Area from Napa to Monterey, to Mendocino. It was fabulous of course, because it involved touring some of the most spectacular landscape on the Pacific coast. But here’s the thing: it’s mid-winter and each county I visited was bone dry.
It’s the winter of 2014 and in case you missed the news, California is experiencing an epic drought. I can report first-hand, it’s dry in Napa, it’s dry in Monterey. The president was in California’s Central Valley not long ago, touring dust-bowl fields where lettuce used to grow. Not now. Nothing that needs water is growing. This desert state is in the throes of the worst drought since, well, ever.
There’s talk of desalinization. There’s talk of shipping water out of the Sacramento Delta, attached to the upper lip of the San Francisco Bay. This will likely cause more salt water to move from the Bay to the Delta, changing the eco-structure of thousands of miles of waterway. In the midst of finger-pointing and name calling, politicos are moving water around like poker chips.
California is called the Golden State because of the color of its hillsides in the summer. Usually, the winter provides enough rain to turn those hills green. But this winter, those hills are just brown. The wintering trees are brown. The creek beds are dry and brown. Most years, the dusky fields temporarily bloom green, mustard paints florescent yellow against a fresh verdigris and then the daffodils arrive, the paperwhites. But there will be no green fields this year, no creek beds flush with winter storm runoff. Climate change has hijacked our clouds and the rain is going elsewhere: the Midwest, the Eastern seaboard. Our water is absent, and California is thirsty.
As this drought unfolds, I try to think of ways to conserve. Even though agriculture and manufacturing use way more water than the average household, it pains me to see my world growing more desiccated by the day. Quite coincidentally, the gas went out at my house recently. There was problem with the lines, and I was without running hot water for five days. No sweat, I thought. I’ll shower at the gym. But 5:30 AM proved too early to slog to the gym, so I bathed at the kitchen sink using water heated on the stove. I washed my hair, my face; and sponged the rest. It was fun, like camping – but without, you know, dirt and bugs.
As I gazed lovingly at all the pots of water heating on my stove, I had a Little House on the Prairie moment. Look at me! I thought. I’m Laura Engalls! But then I got over myself and thought: this is no fiction. And then I connected the dots between my habits and my environment – at least existentially. When I washed my hair with water heated on the stove, I used about four gallons of water – carefully scooped from the pan (which I was able to adjust to the perfect pitch of heat and cold – by hand mixing the waters) to soap, rinse, repeat. Normally, it would have closer to 30 gallons of zero effort hot water shooting through the shower spigot.
For those five days, I kept a tea kettle of water on low heat. When I needed hot water, I made it myself. I stopped letting water run in the sink, waiting for the hot water to push cold water through the pipes in order to allow hot to arrive for my convenience. So much wasted water.
I’m doing better. I’m becoming a conscious water consumer. I’m not quite at the point where I save gray water to water the outdoor plants, but I do turn off the faucet now when I brush my teeth. Water is after all, symbolic, like pretty much everything else. So here are my questions:
- How closely are you paying attention? Just in case, you know, climate change is real, that it’s here for good.
- How are you adjusting your habits to reflect diminishing resources?
- What are you doing to remain present and aware?
I guess my point is that the world is changing right here, on our watch. We can ignore it or we can start honoring the epic earth changes as they occur. We can choose. We can be different. Finally, and to put a fresh spin on an adage borrowed from our groovy 70s: we are both part of the problem, and part of the solution.
(c) Cynthia Gregory
What follows is not the story I set out to write. In celebration of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to write about how part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on June 26, 2013. I wanted to talk about the struggle for gay rights, and the time it’s taken for an entire class of people to go from being the object of hate and ridicule to the darlings of the ongoing and age-old drama known as the human rights movement. I wanted to give you facts and figures, visuals and statistics, and my take on why, now and finally, it all busted open, hearts and minds and opinions. With the Supreme Court’s ruling in Windsor v. United States, for the first time in recorded history, same-sex couples may enjoy more than 1,100 federal protections offered to those in a heterosexual union, and while roughly two-thirds of the states still have same-sex marriage bans on the books, a small majority of the public believes that gays should be allowed to marry, to walk, holding hands in the dazzling light of day, to be the first notified in the event of an emergency, and to not have to pay inheritance tax on a jointly owned home, to name a few. Ten years ago, those numbers weren’t even a probability, yet today they are a reality.
Instead, this story came out — not the big picture story, but a smaller, more personal one, a blip on the radar of human evolution, and quite possibly a version of the millions of other stories which have congealed to create this fabulous moment in history. So I’m going with it, my little story. I want to tell you about my friend.
Stephen is not just any ordinary friend, but a lifelong friend, the kind you only get once every few lifetimes. My mom has a picture of Stephen and me, sitting on a small hill behind our house, both in diapers, not much more than a year old. We lived a few houses down from each other and went to kindergarten together. We had morning kindergarten and since his mom worked and mine was a stay-at-home mom, we’d go to my house for chicken soup and crackers, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and potato chips. We ate lunch and laughed — a lot. We went to eight years of Catholic school together, walking the mile from our homes to the school, back in the day when kids still walked. We always talked when we walked about very important issues as I recall. We were curious. We wanted to know about all kinds of things. After school, we’d ride bikes, swing on the swings, or run around one of our yards, doing cartwheels and flips. Sometimes we’d play football or badminton or basketball with other neighborhood kids. We made movies with my mom’s hand held video camera that must have weighed twenty pounds. We went to summer camp together, walking through the creepy cemetery to get there. I wouldn’t go if Stephen wasn’t going. I remember calling him one time to come over and kill a really big spider because I was too scared to do it. Whether he knew it or not, he was my protector, the brother I didn’t have. As long as I can remember, he was the life of the party, the funniest guy in the room. He could always brighten a dull day for me. I hated sharing him, but a guy like that, well, everyone wanted a piece of him.
Stephen was the first one of us to get a “partner” — we’ll call her K. It happened in first grade and I remember when they “broke up.” The whole first grade class was involved in the drama, running gangsta style, back and forth across the playground, taunting, haranguing, lashing out, the age-old clash of girls against the boys. The girls blamed Stephen and the boys blamed K. My loyalties lied with Stephen, but how to cross the line on the playground without retribution? So I stayed with the girls even when I wanted to support my friend. Plus, I didn’t get what all the fuss was about.
We went to four years of public high school together and both swam on the swim team. In our sophomore year, something happened that would completely change the trajectory of Stephen’s life: his parents got a divorce. He told me at school, in the middle of a crowded dance floor, perhaps by design so I couldn’t ask too many questions. Even then I asked a zillion questions. The official story was that his parents’ irreconcilable differences involved his father’s overuse of alcohol and his mother not being able to take the distance, the long silences, the total checked-out-ed-ness of their relationship anymore. I didn’t totally buy the story – Stephen’s dad an alcoholic? It felt like something deeper was at work, but it was plausible, and Stephen was clearly in a great deal of pain so I didn’t push. We started to drift apart in high school while we pursued our niches, yet remained friends. High school ended – finally – and we were out in the world, looking for the dreams that were probably looking for us.
Fast forward a half dozen or so years. I’m living in Philadelphia and so is Stephen’s dad while Stephen is living in New York. Stephen comes to visit me and we go see his dad. I don’t remember when Stephen either: a) told me the truth, or b) I figured it out, but Dad wasn’t really an alcoholic, or if he had been, it was a symptom of a larger problem caused by a homophobic, fear-driven society. The big secret was that Stephen’s dad was gay. Maybe he hadn’t known it, but more likely he had, and rather than taking the agonizing step of outing himself and risk being ostracized, he went for a “normal” life, one that would allow him access to “normal” society, but he couldn’t keep up the ruse without dying a bit more every day so finally he chose self-love and self-esteem over whatever the damn neighbors might say. The casualties of his internal war were, besides Stephen, his mother and sister, both beautiful and amazing women who at the time probably didn’t understand why such shit loads of pain and anguish were being foisted upon them, but who handled the transition with poise and grace. His mom remarried; eventually, the pain and anguish pushed off to sea, although that heartache can never be understated. In a different time, the heartache could have been avoided altogether, but it was the 1970’s and just about everyone was still in the closet. The day we went to meet Stephen’s Dad and his lover in their beautiful brownstone home in Philadelphia, I saw what courage bought: acceptance; peace and the assurance that his son would never have to live the same lie. You see, Stephen realized he was gay, but because of his father’s actions, he didn’t need to wait for years, or until he’d already started a family to say it out loud, because his template had changed. In Stephen’s world, because of his father, Stephen’s sexual preference was accepted. That, my friends, is progress.
Who knows how long Stephen knew, but stayed in hiding. To this day, we never really talked about it. I only knew one kid in high school who was openly gay and while he seemed well-liked and even admired for his choices, he didn’t have a partner, and he seemed to spend a ton of time alone. Other than that one kid, I didn’t have any gay friends in high school, but oh, how times have changed. Today, one of my besties is gay and I’m pretty sure we would have dated if he wasn’t. You see, the element of love is always present, color blind, immune to gender, routinely changing shape to fit the situation.
It’s a tough life, being gay, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone because it means a lifetime of inequality, and of hiding from a disapproving society, but it’s changing, thanks to the efforts of people like Harvey Milk, the first publicly elected gay official who sat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the late 1970s, and those who took up the cause after Milk was assassinated. Milk had a couple simple messages: love yourself and the rest of the world will follow; and come out. If people realized that the bank teller, the grocer, the phone repair guy, or their neighbor, people they’d been dealing with for years, were gay, then they’d shelve their prejudices, lay down their arms and just get on with the business of living. It may seem improbable now that people ever had to hide who they really were, especially given the overnight success of the gay rights movement, but as any writer who’s been at it for 20 years and suddenly finds herself with a bestseller knows, those damn overnight successes can take a lifetime. It took almost 40 years since Harvey Milk organized the first gay rights marches in the Castro District in San Francisco, forty years for the federal protections now afforded same-sex unions, forty years for the overnight success. Before that, there were eons of inequity, but we’re not done. There’s more work to do.
Stephen and his partner, John got married last week. Stephen’s a nurse and for the first time, his employer, a local hospital, was offering health and other benefits to married same-sex couples, but in order to qualify, they had to be married by, ironically, Valentine’s Day to be eligible for those benefits. The couple traveled to New Jersey, Stephen’s home state, because Florida, where they are domiciled does not allow same-sex unions. It all happened so fast; there was no time to plan, but the family and friends not in attendance got to watch it all unfold via updates on Facebook. It was surreal, and very moving, getting updates via the internet of my oldest friend marrying his partner of 20 years, a man I’ve never even met in person, a man who Stephen has been in love with since their first days, a man of integrity and compassion, a man who volunteers at Hospice to be an end-of-life friend and guide to those about to transition, a man worthy of Stephen. The Facebook posts practically glowed; hundreds of friends got to virtually witness their nuptials.
Right now, 17 states allow same-sex marriages; 17 states say that people should be free to love who they will. This next generation of kids coming up will be the first to be color and gender blind with no preconceived notions of “normal.” Give it ten more years and we’ll have forgotten that being gay was ever an issue. These are strange and amazing days we live in, ones I think we’ll look back on as a time when consciousness shifted and people’s eyes were opened wide, not to the differences, but to the enormous similarities, and to how what effects one of us really does affect us all.
My loyalties still lie with Stephen, but what has changed is that today, I’m standing on the other side of that playground line. What I most look forward to is the day we’re all on the same side of the line, or better still, the day the line is gone.
Stephen and John, congratulations on sealing the deal. Many blessings and may the rest of your days together be filled with love, light and equality.
Happy Valentine’s Day
(c) Pam Lazos
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