Sunday, December 28, 2014

Writing: The Year 2014 in Review

The Winter 2015 issue of IthacaLit is now online, including two of my poems. Meanwhile, here's the brief but complete list of my publications for the year 2014:


  • "Bluestem" (Thirty-Two Spring 2014)
  • "Agnostic Psalm" (Whirlwind Review Spring 2014)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

NESNA and the Skateboard Coalition

The Skateboard Coalition recently received a request from the parks representative of the Northfield East Side Neighborhood Association (NESNA). NESNA wanted the Coalition to support their request to the City of Northfield for a sound study on the proposed skatepark in Old Memorial Park. A recent Northfield News story quotes my email to the chair of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB) in response to NESNA’s request:

We neither support nor oppose a sound study. We simply decline to partner with NESNA in calling for one. Given NESNA’s history of unrelenting opposition to the skate park, it is far from certain that they would be a good faith partner in this effort. They have shown no willingness to support the skate board park in any way, so it’s understandable that the coalition would be hesitant to support them in calling for a sound study.

In a response to the NESNA parks representative, I suggested that the Coalition might have been more inclined to support NESNA’s request for a sound study if NESNA had been more supportive of the Coalition’s efforts to build a skatepark. I suggested that NESNA might have conducted a neighborhood fund drive for the skatepark, which would have demonstrated the genuineness of his claim that NESNA sought to work together with the Coalition. The NESNA representative responded: “It seems odd that you are asking us to support your efforts while declining to support ours.”

This exchange raises at least two questions: has NESNA been supportive of the Coalition’s efforts, and has the Skateboard Coalition been responsive to the concerns of neighbors?

In three years’ of emails from the parks representative to the NESNA email list, I found many calls to attend meetings of the PRAB or the City Council to express concern over the skatepark, but I found none calling for expressions of support. There were none that presented the case for a skatepark or discussed how the community might benefit from a skatepark. The NESNA website, in fact, cites a 2008 poll conducted by the neighborhood association: “Of all the possible amenities in the park (swing sets, trails, community gardens, etc.), ‘skate park’ received the lowest support: one vote.” A 2012 email to the NESNA list stated: “Recent written input by NESNA members showed overwhelming opposition to siting a skatepark within Old Memorial.”

Although NESNA officially claims “overwhelming opposition” to the skatepark in the neighborhood, a neighborhood fundraiser in April raised nearly $2,000 for the Skateboard Coalition in a single evening, and numerous neighbors of Old Memorial Park have approached me to express their support. It is clear to me that there is a diversity of neighborhood opinion about the skatepark that has not been accurately represented by NESNA.

Has the Skateboard Coalition been responsive to the concerns of neighbors? Let me review the evidence by looking at three of the concerns typically raised by NESNA: site, size, and noise.

Site. NESNA opposed siting the skatepark in Old Memorial Park, and in 2008 presented a formal petition to the PRAB and City Council expressing that opposition. To his credit, the NESNA parks representative recognizes why skateboarders find Old Memorial an attractive location for a skatepark. In an email from September 2012, he writes (about Old Memorial and Riverside Parks): “It’s probably accurate to say that these parks are desirable to skateboarders for the same reasons they are desirable to the neighborhoods: they are nice, green places to be, and they feel more integrated in[to] the City than Babcock Park.”

This is true: skateboarders, like all of us, are social beings. They like to feel that they are a valued part of the community. They want to have positive interactions with neighbors, and to have people watching them, and watching over them, as they skate. They do want the skatepark to be integrated into the City, not marginalized as it would be at Babcock Park.

Throughout this long process, which began in 2006, the youth in the Skateboard Coalition have also been models of polite and responsible civic engagement. This was acknowledged in April 2013, when the Skateboard Coalition was chosen to receive the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative's "Making a Difference" Award, "for exceptional efforts to positively impact the lives of Northfield youth." To me, this speaks highly of the Coalition's value to the community as a whole, and of the positive presence they will be in the Old Memorial Park neighborhood.

In 2012, the City Council approved Riverside Park as the site of the skatepark, with Old Memorial as an alternative if soil conditions in Riverside were unfavorable for construction of a concrete skatepark. When soil borings indicated that the skatepark could not be constructed in the preferred site in Riverside, Old Memorial became the final site of the skatepark.

But where  in Old Memorial? The Skateboard Coalition began looking at a site near the south east corner of the pool building. But NESNA, concerned that this was too close to residences on Prairie Street, “recommended placing the park (if it ended up at Memorial) between the solar panel installations, where there is enough space for an 8000 sq. ft. park.” Although this precise location between the solar panels is not being considered, it is now likely that the site of the skatepark will be immediately to the west of the pool, further from residences. The Coalition supports this site if its somewhat less favorable soil conditions can be remediated without too much additional cost.

The possible location of the skatepark in Old Memorial Park in 2013 planning documents. The yellow rectangle represents a 10,000 sq. ft. skatepark.

The possible location of the skatepark in Old Memorial Park in 2014 planning documents. Note that the yellow arrow on site to the west of the pool indicates the possibility of further adjustment to the site. The skatepark pictured is 4,000 sq. ft.

So, in the matter of siting, the Skateboard Coalition has been sensitive to the concerns of neighbors, and supports a site within Old Memorial Park that will address those concerns and is similar to NESNA’s own recommendation.

Size. The Skateboard Coalition initially envisioned a 10,000 sq. ft. skatepark. In a September 2012 email, the NESNA parks representative wrote: “We feel that neither Riverside Park nor Memorial Park is large enough to accommodate a 10,000 square foot skate park. However, in a pinch each location might be large enough to accommodate a skatepark of some 4,000 square feet.”

The Skateboard Coalition is now supporting the construction of a 4,000 sq. ft. skatepark in Old Memorial Park. Although the master plan for the skatepark includes a Phase II that would increase the size of the park to 10,000 sq. ft., Phase II would more than double the cost of the park, and isn't attainable in the foreseeable future. Currently, Phase I is the only skatepark under consideration.

So, in the matter of size, the Skateboard Coalition has been sensitive to the concerns of neighbors, and has scaled back the skatepark to a size that NESNA said would be acceptable.

Noise. Much of the concern about skatepark noise arises from the temporary skatepark in Riverside Park in 2012, which provoked numerous complaints about noise from neighbors living in the Village on the Cannon.

The temporary skatepark consisted of metal equipment on an asphalt surface. On its website, NESNA states: “An asphalt surface with steel modular equipment would be, by all accounts, the loudest possible combination.”  In response to the problem of noise generated by metal equipment, NESNA recommends concrete construction: “The skate park industry and many park boards recommend high-density, smooth, seamless concrete. This is much quieter than pitted surfaces, such as standard concrete, or worse: asphalt.”

The Skateboard Coalition has always acknowledged the noise generated by metal equipment, and has always intended to construct a permanent skatepark with concrete to reduce the sound to acceptable levels. The current design is for a concrete skatepark.

So, in the matter of noise, the Skateboard Coalition has been sensitive to the concerns of neighbors, and is raising funds for a skatepark constructed of sound-reducing concrete, as NESNA recommended.

The Skateboard Coalition has consistently shown consideration for NESNA’s concerns about the skatepark. The Coalition has followed NESNA’s recommendations on the size and siting of the skatepark within Old Memorial Park, and enthusiastically supports their preference for high-quality, sound-reducing concrete construction.

To me, NESNA’s request for a sound study seems like an attempt to move the goal posts after previous concerns have been addressed, and to create yet another obstacle when the skatepark is finally ready to move into the design and construction phase. NESNA might have corrected that impression with a genuine show of support for the skatepark, as in the past the Coalition has shown a genuine willingness to address the concerns of neighbors.

It is, however, a positive development that, in his latest email to the NESNA list, the parks representative mentions that "many more contributions [toward construction of the skatepark] will be needed, and the Coalition is planning to move into higher gear on the fundraising front once planning is done." He adds: "We will let you know about fundraising if and when we are informed about it." I would only note that I did, in fact, send the parks representative detailed information on how to make a donation to the Coalition, but he declined to include it in his email. Instead, he implied that he had not been informed of any fundraising activities.

Finally, he encourages recipients of his email who support the park to let NESNA know their opinions: "If we don’t hear from you, we can’t represent you." 

This, at least, is encouraging. I'm looking forward to seeing if in the future NESNA will be more representative of the diversity of opinion in the neighborhood, voicing not only concern, but also support. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Accident; or, Michel, Frida, Jen, and Kelli: A Disjointed Attempt at a Review Essay

In the late winter of 2013, skiing in the Arboretum on a morning of fresh snow and dull pewter clouds, I fell at the bottom of small hill where the trail makes a sharp turn to the right. I slid off the path and into the woods, and when I came to a stop I was impaled on a pointed stick. Miraculously, no arteries or organs were punctured and little blood was lost. The stick punctured my scrotum on the right side and slid through the fatty layer between muscle and flesh. It ripped out a piece of my blue jeans the size of a playing card and jammed it twelve inches deep under my ribs on the left side. After he had extracted it with his longest instrument through the puncture wound in my scrotum, the flabbergasted surgeon snapped a photograph of the bloody square of denim with his cellphone. That night, through a fog of dilaudid, I was aware of the nurses coming in and out to change the dressings on my sutured wound and marvel at the fact that I was still alive.
I recovered slowly at home, on a regular rotation of painkillers, stretched out in bed for most of two weeks. To pass the time, I read Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live; or A Life of Montaigne.
Montaigne was a man who understood pain. The writing of the essays seems to some extent to have been a response to pain and loss—to the death of his friend La Bo├ętie, to the death of his father, to the riding accident in which he nearly lost his own life. He tells the story of the accident in an essay in the second book: he was out riding in the woods about a league from his house when a man on a larger and more powerful horse, coming along the path behind him, bore down on him at full speed, threw him from his horse, and knocked him unconscious. His attendants tried unsuccessfully to revive him and, thinking he was dead, carried him back to his house. Gradually he began to regain consciousness, and to cough up prodigious amounts of blood, but for a long time he was “much closer to death than to life.”
“It seemed to me,” he writes, “that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.”
The experience, he said, reconciled him somewhat to the idea of death. He found that borderland between life and death “very pleasant and peaceful,” and it was only later, as his condition began to improve, that he was conscious of any pain.
“I was letting myself slip away so gently, so gradually and easily,” he writes, “that I hardly ever did anything with less of a feeling of effort.” 
Unlike Montaigne, I never lost consciousness. I don’t remember much pain, but I remember the initial feeling of panic as I looked down at the bloody hole in my blue jeans, and as I tried unsuccessfully to move from the spot where I had fallen. I lay in the snow for three quarters of an hour waiting for an ambulance, shivering, looking up at the pewter-colored clouds. One of the women who had found me sat down in the snow and held my head in her lap. I can’t remember her face. When the rescue crew arrived, was lifted onto a sled, strapped to the back of an ATV, and hauled out to the highway where the ambulance was waiting. Inside the ambulance, the medics cut me out of my clothes, gave me a tetanus shot, started an IV. I never lost consciousness, but as the two female medics examined the ragged puncture wound in my scrotum, I lost self-consciousness. In the emergency room, doctors and nurses crowded around me. Never had my private parts been the object of so much scrutiny.
 “I expose myself entire,” Montaigne writes. “My portrait is a cadaver on which the veins, the muscles, and the tendons appear at a glance, each part in its place.”
Montaigne writes his body onto the page, he makes himself physically present, he exposes himself kidneys, bowels and all. His self-portrait as cadaver made me think of Frida Kahlo, another self-vivisectionist who made art out of accident.
On September 17, 1925, eighteen-year old Kahlo was riding on a bus that collided with an electric streetcar. The bus broke apart, and the streetcar ran over several of the passengers who were thrown from the wreckage.  Kahlo’s spinal column, collarbone, pelvis, and several ribs were broken. Her right foot was crushed. A metal handrail from the bus pierced her abdomen. She claimed that the iron rod had entered her body through her left hip and exited through her vagina.  She would never fully recover from the accident. Scar tissue on her uterus from the puncture wound made it impossible for her to bring a pregnancy to term, and for the rest of her life she suffered from chronic pain.
In Kahlo’s self-portrait The Broken Column, her body is split open down the middle, revealing a shattered Ionic column in place of her spine. Her flesh is pierced with nails. In the words of art critic Matilda Bathurst, “Kahlo’s paintings are notoriously introspective, contracted into tiny, torturous anatomies of selfhood in a range of media that act as different implements of dissection.” In another painting, the double self-portrait The Two Fridas, she sits holding hands with herself, her heart cut open and exposed on her chest, a surgical instrument in one of her hands.
Kahlo began her career as an artist in her hospital bed, confined to a full body cast. She was set up with an easel and a mirror.  Pain and brokenness focused her attention intensely on herself.
I visited the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Walker Art Center in December 2007. The dense tropical foliage and ripe fruit that fill her canvases created a hothouse atmosphere in the middle of the Minnesota winter, Kahlo’s stare from every wall as unrelenting as heat. Her pain was inescapable.
Another visitor at the Kahlo exhibit at the Walker was a young writer named Jen Westmoreland Bouchard, who gravitated immediately to a painting titled Henry Ford Hospital, in which Kahlo lies on a hospital bed after a miscarriage, the sheets bloodied, the bed surrounded by emblems of the experience. For Westmoreland Bouchard, the impact of the painting was profound and cathartic.
“My heart pounded, my eyes welled up,” she wrote of the experience. “I began to grieve for lost opportunities, deceased family and friends, failed projects, unspoken words. I had never miscarried, so why should this painting feel so real to me, so fitting?”
As she reflected on the experience, Westmoreland Bouchard found that her encounter with Kahlo’s art had refocused her attention on herself.
“I had become caught up in the daily rituals associated with attending to my marriage, my home, and my career,” she wrote. “I had begun to exist on a certain emotional ‘level’ that had allowed me to complete quotidian tasks without much introspection. Unbeknownst to me, I needed to experience Frida’s intensely personal portrait in order to live more fully in my own life.”
The first section of Kelli Russell Agodon’s new collection of poetry, Hourglass Museum  (White Pine Press 2014), opens with an evocation of Frida Kahlo. The poem, titled “The Broken Column,” begins

Tell me how you suffer—

The poet finds herself in the museum gift shop, surrounded by plastic skulls and temporary Frida Kahlo tattoos, Kahlo’s suffering repackaged as kitsch, and announces that she’s “had enough of the disposable.” What can she take away from the museum, from the encounter with Frida Kahlo’s art, other than some mass-produced Kahlo tchotchke? Like Westmoreland Bouchard, Agodon turns from the heightened experience of Kahlo’s art to an examination of ordinary life:

Look at our lives.

We’re lost in a web
of logins, in photos
of a friend’s family vacation.

I never remember all my passwords.

Parts of the poet’s own life are inaccessible to her—she can’t remember the passwords—and she finds herself lost in attention and obligation to others: to friends, to husband, to children.
How can a woman, who finds herself caught in a web of so many obligations, find the time and energy to express herself? In “Woman Under Glass,” a poem in the final section of Hourglass Museum, Agodon observes:

                        Normal mothers make breakfast
and aren’t trying to write poems that question
the consequences of art and creativity.

The pressure to be a “normal mother” to her children pulls against her need to write poetry. That tension becomes the subject of her poetry.  Another poem, “Writing Studio D: Retrospective in Spring,” finds the poet preparing to drive home from a writing retreat to attend an Easter egg hunt with her daughter. She reflects on the expectations and double standards that attend her life as a mother:

This is where a friend says, It’s so nice
            your husband can watch your daughter,

as if he’s not related to her, as if he’s not
            responsible for her care...

While her husband “gets points just for showing up,” she as a mother is expected to shoulder the primary responsibility for raising her children. Before she can make art, she has to make time. As a result, Agodon’s poems have the feel of being assembled from fragments, from scraps of inspiration saved from ordinary life and reassembled into art.
In another poem inspired by Kahlo, “Frida Kahlo Tattoo.” the poet walks through a museum wearing a temporary Frida Kahlo tattoo, knowing that the experience of having Kahlo next to her skin will eventually rub off.  In everyday life, “apathy becomes less rare.”  We return to the “emotional level” that Westmoreland Bouchard talks about. But Frida Kahlo provides a model of a woman’s life devoted to art. A life that becomes art.
Unlike a real tattoo, which pricks the skin with permanent color, Agodon's temporary Kahlo tattoo was painless. How is it possible to experience such intensity, and make it a permanent source of inspiration, as the pain of her accident was for Kahlo? Can we live creative a creative life intentionally, or only by accident?
In her essay “Necessary Luxuries: On Writing, Napping, and Letting Go,” Agodon writes about the importance of withdrawing for a time from ordinary life to participate in writing retreats with other women, where the focus is on living a full and creative life without the pressure of those other obligations. She writes:

Here, on a cliff in a cabin with two other women, I let go of my fears. I let go of any belief that I should be doing something else with my life. Poems move me in and out of hours, a day is spent under pages of a manuscript. I live simply and fulfilled without all the other minutiae of my regular life swirling around me. My friends and I discuss what matters to us. We ask questions about how we can live better and how we can take this “retreat lifestyle” home with us when we return.
Agodon’s essay makes me think of of Jen Westmoreland Bouchard coming out of the Frida Kahlo exhibit, feeling a revitalizing burst of creative energy that lifted the burden of “quotidian tasks” from her shoulders. The question Agodon asks is how we store that creative energy, how we bring it home from the museum or the writing retreat and continue to draw from it in our ordinary lives. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Deviant Hair

During the year my family spent in England, I often found myself the object of stares as I walked down the street. People pointed and laughed, and called out a derogatory name with a much more infamous anagram. I was called “ginger.” I had been teased as a child for my red hair, but never as an adult had I experienced such treatment, such derision, from complete strangers.

The strangest incident took place in the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral, when I was approached by two youths in black leather who offered me twenty pounds to drop my trousers and show them my “ginger pubes.”

None of my experiences of “gingerism” turned violent, but incidents of violence against gingers in England are not uncommon. For example, in June 2007, as I was preparing to return home from England, there was news of the Chapman family in Newcastle-on-Tyne, who had been forced to move because of attacks on the family’s three red-haired children. Their house had been repeatedly vandalized with anti-ginger graffiti. Windows had been smashed. The oldest child, an eleven-year old boy, had been attacked by a gang, punched, kicked, and thrown over a hedge.

The attack on eleven-year old Kevin Chapman was not an isolated incident. In Birmingham, a red-haired man was attacked in a pizza shop and suffered a broken jaw. In Hampshire, another red-haired man was attacked. In Yorkshire, a red-haired man was stabbed.

Do such attacks qualify as hate crimes? Opinions differ, even among redheads themselves. Nelson Jones, writing in New Statesman, argues that “such attacks would meet most natural definitions of hate crimes.” He continues:

Redheads are a minority, indeed a very visible minority, who are in no way responsible for the fact that some other people display an irrational aversion to their (our) hair colour.  Like members other groups, such as ethnic or religious minorities, gingers make a convenient target for the innate human desire to single out and ridicule people who are “different.”  In this particular case, the prejudice is both widespread and, apparently, deep seated.

Another redhead, Ally Fogg, writes in The Guardian that the prejudice against gingers, while real, doesn’t rise to the level of the systematic discrimination and abuse experienced by other minority groups, particularly racial and sexual minorities. Or, as redheaded Daniel Davies put it in The Guardian: “There is no sense in which the white man is keeping the even whiter man down.”

I thought about the strange phenomenon of “gingerism,” and more broadly about hair as a stigma and marker of difference, as I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah.

At the beginning of the novel, as she prepares to return to Nigeria after fifteen years in the United States, Ifemelu takes the train from Princeton to Trenton to have her hair braided at an African hair braiding salon. In the first 450 pages of the novel, the narrative moves back and forth between America, England, and Nigeria, and between Ifemelu’s past and present, but it continues to circle back to the hair salon in Trenton and Ifemelu’s conversation with Aisha, the Senegalese braider.

Hair becomes central to Ifemelu’s experience of race in America. Soon after her arrival in America, Ifemelu is told that for a successful job interview she needs to relax her hair.  She eventually becomes a successful independent blogger, but her first experience of an online community is when she goes online to find natural hair care advice and support. Much later, when she’s become more attuned to the politics of race in America, she imagines how powerful it would be if Michelle Obama were to start appearing with natural hair.  

Hair is a marker of race, but unlike skin color, hair is not immutable. It can be relaxed and straightened. Its color can be changed. It can be forced a little closer to the cultural norm.

In a 1987 study of the “sociology of hair,” sociologist Anthony Synnott remarks on the evolution of African-American hairstyles in the 1950s and 1960s, as the straightened hair style known as the “conk” was abandoned for more natural hair as a symbol of resistance to white cultural norms. Synnott concludes that hair is a social phenomenon that facilitates the expression of  social distinctions, including the ideological distinction between what he calls “centre” (the cultural norm) and “deviant.” 

For African-Americans in the 1960s, natural hair, which had been stigmatized as “deviant,” became a source of pride and identity. When members of an oppressed or marginalized group embrace a characteristic that was a source of stigmatization, and make it a positive source of personal and group identity, a sociologist might refer to them as “tertiary deviants.” "Deviant" here is a non-judgmental term used in sociology ("labeling theory") to describe deviance from a cultural norm.

As an African-American child growing up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, Angela Davis resented her natural hair. “I pleaded with my mother to let me get it straightened, like my friends,” she wrote in her autobiography. Like most children, she felt a powerful urge to conform, to minimize difference, to be like her friends. But as an adult in the late 1960s, her natural hair became a symbol of pride and resistance. “My natural hair style, in those days still a rarity,” she wrote, “identified me as a sympathizer with the Black Power Movement.”

In a 1997 study of redheads, sociologists from Ithaca College and Syracuse University concluded that red hair was also stigmatized as a kind of deviance. As children, redheads are more likely to become the targets of bullying, which often results in increased self-consciousness and lower self-esteem, and in a general feeling of being different from their peers. But as redheads become adults, the researchers found, they “typically transform a negative experience into a positive one by learning to appreciate their hair color and how it has shaped their sense of self.”  In other words, they conclude, redheads become “tertiary deviants.”

Works Consulted

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah: A Novel. New York: Anchor Books, 2014.

Davies, Daniel. Seeing red. The Guardian. 6 November 2006.

Davis, Angela Y. An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1974.

Fogg, Ally. Gingerism is real, but not all prejudices are equal to one another. The Guardian. 15 January 2013.

Hargro, Brina, “Hair Matters: African American Women and the Natural Hair Aesthetic.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2011.

Heckert, Druann M. and Amy Best. “Ugly Duckling to Swan: Labeling Theory and the Stigmatization of Red Hair.” Symbolic Interaction 20 (1997), 365-384.

Jones, Nelson. Should ginger-bashing be considered a hate crime? New Statesman. 10 January 2013.

Synnott, Anthony. “Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair.” British Journal of Sociology 38 (1987), 381-413.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Skateboard Coalition Video

Why should Northfielders support a skatepark? In this new video from the Skateboard Coalition, local skaters and other youth, adult community members, local business owners, and the Northfield Chief of Police all give their compelling answers to that question. Please take ten minutes to watch the video, share it, and encourage others to show their support and make a financial contribution.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Review: "Changers"

T. Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper. Changers. Book One: Drew. Akashic Books 2014.

One of my favorite experiences as a Latin major in college was reading the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s epic poem about changes. In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/corpora... With the first words of the poem, Ovid announces his intention to tell stories of “outward appearances changed into new bodies.” Outward appearances (formas) are changed, but essentials remain unchanged: Niobe remains a grieving mother even when she’s changed into a rock formation; Arachne as a spider still spins and weaves; Narcissus as a flower still bends his head to see his reflection in the water.

Some of Ovid’s most intriguing stories are about a change of gender. Tiresias lives as both a man and as a woman, and gains significant insight from the experience of crossing between genders. Hemaphroditus bathes in the pool of the nymph Salmacis and their bodies are merged—hermaphroditic, both male and female. And then there is the story of Iphis and Ianthe.  To escape being exposed and left to die (a common fate of female infants in antiquity), Iphis is raised by her mother as a boy, and finds herself betrothed to Ianthe, the beautiful girl next door. On the eve of the wedding, Iphis’s mother prays to the goddess Isis to resolve this dilemma. Isis answers the mother's prayer by changing Iphis into a young man.

Ovid is fascinated with the ambiguities and fluidity of both identities and gender. He says of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus after their bodies are merged: neutrumque et utrumque videntur, “they seem neither and both.” And before her metamorphosis, Iphis sees herself as a monstrum—a monster—which in Latin also implies something hybrid and in between, something neither and both.

I immediately thought of these Ovidian stories as I started reading the first book in the new YA series Changers, by the husband-wife team of T. Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper. Changers offers Ovid with a modern twist. It suggests that perhaps the experience of being “neither and both,” of becoming the Other, of being in between, of shuffling through different identities makes us not more monstrous, but more human.

Ethan’s family has recently moved from New York City to Tennessee, where he begins his story on the night before his first day of high school. He knows that big changes are ahead: a new school, new friends, new challenges, and new possibilities. But he goes to bed not realizing just how big those changes are going to be. Because when he wakes up in the morning, on the first day of high school, he’s no longer Ethan. He’s a girl.

Her name is Drew, and she soon discovers that she’s one of “an ancient race of humans” known as Changers who live each year of high school as a different person. After graduation, each Changer has to choose a stable identity, a Mono, from the four identities he or she has inhabited over the previous four years.

It’s not clear how an ancient race of humans could organize its existence around high school, an institution that, at least in the United States, dates back to the early nineteenth century. But no matter—it’s a contrivance that works remarkably well, allowing the authors to explore the real and meaningful issues of identity and gender. In the course of her freshman year, Drew has her first period, joins the cheerleading squad, and finds herself attracted to both a boy and a girl. She discovers that being a hot cheerleader doesn’t guarantee popularity, let alone happiness. She experiences objectification, the threat of sexual violence, and complicated feelings she’s never had to deal with before. In other words, she’s introduced to “all new levels of suck.” But as she learns what it’s like to be a girl, and as someone else’s experience becomes her own, she develops a powerful empathy that makes her truly special. Gradually she stops thinking of herself as “a freaking mutant”—a monstrum, neutrumque et utrumque—and starts thinking of herself as herself.

In one particularly lovely moment, Drew reflects on her Nana’s arthritic hands, which Ethan used to find fascinating for their cool horror movie special effect deformity. “Now I think about her hands differently,” she says. “I wonder if they cause her much pain, how she buttons a blouse, what happens when she needs to pick up something tiny, like a toothpick.” Is this because girls see things differently, or because we can all see things differently if we make the effort to place ourselves imaginatively into the lives of others?

One of the things that hooked me into Changers was the obvious debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the night before the first day of high school, Ethan goes to bed wearing a Slayer t-shirt—as in, the thrash metal band Slayer. When he gets up the next morning, he walks past the mirror in his room and sees this hot blonde girl wearing a Slayer t-shirt. Suddenly, everything shifts. He discovers he’s been “chosen.” He has a Watcher—that is, a Touchstone, a Changer who has gone through her four changes and has chosen her Mono. Drew’s Touchstone, Tracy, has a lot in common with the early Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. Tracy is a representative of the Council, an underground group of New Age authoritarians who regulate the lives of the Changers and protect them from the Abiders, the fascist thugs who insist that everyone should have the one stable identity they were born with. Like vampires, Abiders form “nests” where abducted Changers are tortured. 

This is a lot of derivative infrastructure to build a story upon, and I have to admit that I found the Changers Council just as irritating and irrelevant as the Watchers Council. But in some ways that’s the point. The Changers Council wants to protect the Changers, but in doing so it enforces a kind of conformity that hampers its own stated mission of changing the world. Changers have to “pass.” The Council instructs them to lie about their true nature even to their closest friends.  The closeted suits on the Council seem to have reduced whatever their changes have taught them about empathy into the mantra “In the many, we are one”—a fine motto, but one that becomes meaningless if it isn’t lived out in the open and with real conviction. How can they change the world if they’re afraid to come out and demand their own acceptance?

There’s a lot going on here, but it rarely distracts from the main attraction, which is Drew herself and her gradual process of becoming comfortable in her own skin—whatever skin that might happen to be. Drew feels like a real person. She tells her own story with candor, humor, and compassion. She’s someone I would have wanted as a friend. She’s someone I would have wanted to be. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Spring Wildflowers at Big Woods State Park

Blooming on Sunday, May 11, 2014
Wood anemone
Rue Anemone
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria). Past peak.
Hepatica. Past peak.
Trout Lily (Erythronium)
Marsh Marigold (Ranunculus)
Bellwort (Uvularia)
Spring Beauty (Claytonia)
Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Toothwort (Dentaria)
Wild Ginger

Blue cohosh

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Walking News: Creativity and Connectivity

The New York Times reports on a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University that links walking with a boost in creativity. 

Mike Simons, a photojournalist for the Tulsa World, is slowly making his way on foot down the 16-mile length of Peoria Avenue, which runs "from one end of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the other, traversing the city’s richest and poorest neighborhoods along the way, the most rural to the densest." He's walking a mile at a time, each side of the street, chronicling the life of the community he passes through. 

Some of what he finds can also be found in Northfield: sidewalks that abruptly end, and residents from a poor neighborhood forced to walk along a narrow highway bridge with no sidewalk. 

Residents of the poorer neighborhoods of North Tulsa often have to walk because they don't have reliable access to other modes of transportation, but the city currently has a poor pedestrian infrastructure. Fortunately, in the case of the highway bridge without sidewalks, the state DOT has stepped in with a $1.7 million plan to install sidewalks on both sides of the bridge. (See the story from the Tulsa World here.) Meanwhile, here in Northfield, we continue to bicker over the TIGER Trail, which is intended to address just such a situation. 

Sometimes we have to get out of our cars and hit the sidewalks to be able to see the injustice built into the structure of our cities. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

My Visit to the Shooting Range

The Morristown Gun Club is a ten-minute drive along Highway 60 west of Faribault, Minnesota, in the southwestern corner of Rice County. The scenic highway passes Cannon Lake just west of Faribault, and continues on across numerous wetlands past Sakatah Lake and into LeSueur County. The Sakatah-Singing Hills State Trail, a 41-mile paved bicycle trail along the former route of the Chicago Great Western Railroad, runs parallel to the highway until Madison Lake, 20 miles to the west.

Herons fly languidly over the highway as I drive out to Morristown on a Sunday afternoon in early May. With numerous wetlands and lakes, large and small, this must be a paradise for waterfowl—and for waterfowl hunters. 

At the edge of Morristown (population 984), a bright yellow billboard (“5,000 GUNS”) points the way to the gun club, another two miles or so across the rolling fields. At the end of a gravel road, a large cannon marks the entrance to Ahlman’s gun shop and the gun club. A yellow sign on the base of the cannon quotes selectively from the Second Amendment, leaving out the clause about a “well-regulated militia.”

At its May 12 meeting, the Northfield School Board will vote on a proposal from the Activities Committee to adopt clay target shooting as a varsity sport. The sport will be open to middle school and high school students, and to both boys and girls, and will meet and compete on Sunday afternoons at the Morristown Gun Club.

When the proposal was first presented to the Board on April 28, there was naturally serious concern about the school district sanctioning an activity that involves firearms. This concern was intensified by the school shooting at Newtown in 2012, and brought even closer to home last week when authorities in Waseca, Minnesota, discovered a seventeen-year old high school student stockpiling firearms and explosives in a plot to massacre his classmates. Waseca is only about 15 miles south of the Morristown Gun Club, and the threat of gun violence was very much on my mind as I drove past the massive cannon at the entrance to the club.

As Danny Franklin pointed out in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, 20 states have passed less restrictive gun laws. Most recently, the governor of Georgia passed a law that allows guns to be carried virtually everywhere in the state, including schools, churches, bars, and airports. Clearly the constitutional right expressed on the base of the gun club’s cannon—that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”—is regarded by many people as an absolute right that admits of no exceptions, even to prevent unimaginable tragedies such as Sandy Hook. Meanwhile, in the sixteen months since Sandy Hook, there have been over seventy shootings at schools and colleges in the United States. Waseca had the potential to be the deadliest.

As I stopped the car, silencing the radio in the middle of a Mozart symphony, I could hear the sound of shotguns being fired. I got out of the car and walked toward the sound. At the shooting range, I was greeted by a coach who fitted me out with earplugs and eye protection and took me to watch the team in action.

There are stations for three squads on the range, with five shooters on each squad. The shooters take turns loading and firing, so that on each squad only one gun is loaded at a time. At all other times, the guns are unloaded, and carried with the muzzles up. In the photograph below you can see how the squad is arranged, and in the brief video you can see—and hear—a squad in action, as each shooter in turn calls out “pull,” the clay pigeon is released, and the shooter fires.

The teams in the clay target league are co-educational, and several girls participate on Northfield’s team (which is currently a community education and recreation program, not a varsity sport). It was interesting to watch a large, broad-shouldered football player shooting next to a slim, pony-tailed girl in a Science Olympiad letter jacket. The girl happened to be having a rough day, but there is nothing inherent in the sport that gives boys a competitive edge over girls. Boys and girls compete by exactly the same rules. There are currently 16 participants in the sport statewide who have hit 50 consecutive clay pigeons in competition. Two of those athletes are girls, which only reflects the fact that fewer girls choose to participate in the sport. All of the team members I spoke to valued the fact that clay target shooting demands discipline and concentration rather than size, strength, agility and speed.

I have to admit that I arrived at the gun club feeling a little nervous about being around so many teenagers with firearms, but what I found on the target range immediately put me at ease. I found a carefully controlled and well-supervised environment in which safety was the highest priority. I found competent and attentive coaches who wanted to bring out the best in each member of the team. I found young people who were learning safety, discipline, and responsibility, and enjoying themselves in the process.

As one eighth-grade girl on the team told me: “Trapshooting is not a violent sport and doesn’t encourage violence in any form. Quite the opposite: it teaches safety and responsibility.”

Of course, my visit to the target range didn’t ease my deep-seated concerns about gun violence. Guns are inherently dangerous, and amplify the dangerous and unpredictable tendencies of human beings. I still left thinking about the seventeen-year old in Waseca whose plot to commit murder surprised so many of his classmates who considered him a friend.

But if guns are going to be in the hands of young people for legitimate sporting purposes, participating on the clay target team is the kind of experience I would want them to have. I would want them to be part of a supportive community that emphasizes safety, responsibility, and personal growth.


New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .