Americans will measure with anything

I spend a lot of time writing, and teaching, and teaching writing, and most days it feels like a combination of screaming into the void and falling down a flight of stairs, both of which are great metaphors because almost everyone can imagine them even if they haven’t had that experience. Connection is the key to writing. Metaphor invites connection.

It’s hard to see yourself in a centimeter. Hard to guess how many liters fit in a cupped hand. Am I writing now, or am I forging, word by word, the yardsticks for describing the world?

The heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Clench one, then the other, and see what you can hold onto.

The heart pumps blood: A bit less than would fit in two of those big party bottles of soda you get from the pizza place. Your blood is enough for one small party, or a medium-length tabletop gaming session. Your blood is half the volume of an average adult cat, floof included. In the USA, where we will measure literally anything by anything else, the average woman is only 6.5 average cats tall.

In the USA, where we will measure anything by anything else, I can deadlift nearly five German Shepherds (definitely five if they’re smallish, closer to four if they’re big, so about two Bidens worth of dogs), which will probably come in useful if there’s an apocalypse.

In the USA, where we will measure anything by anything else, police have killed at least 13 2/3 school buses worth of people this year alone. Coronavirus has killed 251 school buses worth. 671 school buses worth have committed suicide, which probably has something to do with half of people making less than it costs to buy a single bottle of Acqua di Cristallo Tributo a Modigliani. Relatedly, 975 school buses worth have died of an opioid related drug overdose. We have as many supervised injection sites in the USA as we have Dusky Seaside Sparrows, or Kingman’s Prickly Pears, or Tacoma Pocket Gophers.

We will measure anything, by anything else. But maybe it’s time to stop measuring, and start counting.

Let’s do the Time Warp again

So there’s these two tomatoes, and they’re walking down the street but one tomato keeps falling behind. The other tomato is getting more and more pissed off until finally it turns around and just squashes the slow tomato. “Catch up!” it yells.

Get it?

Catch up? Ketchup?

They say you should lead with a joke when you’re about to say something unpalatable. They also say what I’m about to tell you is unpalatable. Catch up.

For the past three months I’ve been reading social media posts that could–and should–have been written in 2016. “This is about the Supreme Court!” Really? Because a 6-3 majority is gonna change in the next four years? That was 2016. “This is about [insert group here] rights!” No but seriously those rights have been rolled back decades already. Where were you in 2016? Why weren’t you in the streets as that was happening in the years between then and now?

I don’t know how to put this nicely. Catch up. It’s 2020 and 300,000 people will have died by year-end and you’re still wondering if it’s ok to wear blackface on Halloween, or why protesters break windows. Catch up. It’s been four years since you strapped on your pink hat and safety pin and swore to Do Something. Have you done it? Or was your Something waiting for the blue wave that didn’t materialize in 2018 and didn’t materialize in 2020 because it’s not there. There aren’t any grownups coming. We’re the grownups now.

Catch up. It’s 2020 and people are still shocked that Trump controls around 50% of the vote. It’s the same 50% that he controlled in 2016 – so how are you shocked? It’s literally the same people, and you have been watching them in the media for four years.

Catch up: racism isn’t dying out, or the province of old white men. Look at the average age of the Proud Boys and neonazis in rallies. Look at the MAGA hat kid, look at Charlottesville, and get through your head that this isn’t going anywhere, it’s raising another generation, and you are outnumbered.

Catch up: do you even know what the graffiti in your neighborhood means?

Catch up: did you just say ‘where are the cops why don’t they stop this’ while watching something bad happen to a POC? To a protester? To anyone? In 2020 after more than 160 days of continuous protests about police violence?

Catch up: do you understand that oppressive systems can function without active malice?

Catch up: do you understand that “have to” is conditional? That they don’t “have to” leave or “have to” stop just because there’s a rule? That “can’t” and “aren’t supposed to” are different? That the power of rules is contingent on agreement to be bound and, in the extreme, upon the presence of an enforcement power? Do you understand that the enforcement power is not on your side, just because it has protected you in the past?

Catch up. Or we’re all gonna get squashed.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

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No, not Christmas. Look, I barely celebrate a winter holiday, although I do love sparkly lights and food. So in a sense you could say I celebrate all winter holidays. But when I say the most wonderful time of the year, I mean it literally: standard time.

And it’s not even the “fall back” mnemonic, although that extra hour of sleep is great. You know what it is? It’s getting back on the time system that was literally developed with human circadian rhythms in mind. Sure, people vary between night owls and early birds. Yes, “morning people” are a thing (and I’m most assuredly not one of them). But everyone finds it easier to wake up when it’s light, and go to sleep when it’s dark, by however slim a margin.

Daylight Saving Time fucks with all that. Sorry, did you need to be awake in the morning? It’s not light till 7. Do you have to go to bed so you can, again, get up in the morning? It’s light until 11.

I can hear you saying “but what about after I get home from work I want it to be light when I get home” and yet, it is still not light when you get home from work an hour “earlier” and–I don’t know if you’ve noticed this–it’s a little cold to mow your lawn or barbecue. (And if it’s not, you’re close enough to the equator that it’s light when you get home from work, so your opinion is still, like, just your opinion, mannnn.)

And don’t get me started on how it’s “necessary because of the industrial revolution.” If you wanna let a bunch of robber barons dictate how you live your life, I guess that’s up to you, but I prefer a time system that makes sense on a more biological level. Time is arbitrary anyway, so why would you pick the thing that makes it harder on you? Because a billionaire told you to? Have you listened to yourself?

Look: You don’t miss DST. You miss summer. And that sucks for you, and I’m sorry and I hope you have a daylight bulb in at least one lamp in your house. But that’s not a reason to make summer even worse, or to mess with winter (which is obviously the Best Season but that’s also just an opinion, a thing we can disagree on that is not the basic rights of human beings). There would be exactly the same amount of daylight in summer if DST fucked off forever, and there will be exactly the same minimal amount of light in delicious dark winter whether you fuck with your clock or not. So give it a rest and let ME–and everyone else who can’t sleep when it’s light out–rest.

Standard Time, all the time.

A short list of instruments I don’t play

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I stopped playing piano before most people started lessons, so it hardly counts. My fingers span ten keys: an octave and two. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told I’m wasting my hands.

The first instrument I definitely didn’t play was flute. I spent years pretending I was a flautist. In fifth grade band there was a choosing day, as solemn as any overseen by a Sorting Hat. I walked into the room with my hands carefully cupped around my air flute. When I left, I was a euphonium player; turns out you have to pay to play the flute.

In high school, I didn’t play guitar. I asked my dad to teach me once or twice, carefully, too prickly-teen to say I just want to spend time with you or I miss fishing. He told me I could practice on the guitar he didn’t care about and handed me a book of Beatles tunes and sent my to my room alone. I came home from college a few years later, guitar in hand, and he was showing my sister how to make chords, play notes, do innovative things. I sat in the corner of the room until they told me I couldn’t play with them because I only knew one strum pattern and it was boring.

My career not playing bassoon is almost too brief to mention: I wanted to play Grieg and the symphony director pulled out Holst. Holst loves a euphonium. So did I.

I didn’t sing all through high school and college. There was a bit of a barbershop quartet for the kids who waited for the Late Bus; since I got a ride from my mother I was there at the same time they were. They all got into a capella and jazz choir; I accompanied their tryouts.

There’s a red Fender Jazz Bass upstairs, leaning against a little cube amp. It’s old enough that I could have picked out the bass line to Zombie, if I played bass. I’m finicky about the balance on my stereos. I want more bass, always. Sometimes my fingers try to make shapes on the steering wheel, span frets that aren’t there.

“She loves baritone,” my sister said, while my niece wasn’t looking. “Can we borrow yours?”

I mean. It’s not like I play.

How to make apple butter

First, you’ll want a community. This recipe makes a lot of apple butter. If you don’t have a community, there are a few easy steps for building one:

1) Kick out the people who make it unsafe for others, whether they’re white supremacists, homophobic, transphobic, whatever. There’s a word for people who make safe spaces for Nazis. It’s Nazi.

2) model how to ask for and receive help with grace, publicly.

3) Demonstrate boundaries and how to set them.

Now that you have a community, you’ll need some apples. But it’s ok. Someone in your community will have them. Or have access to them. Someone’s kid will have a fundraiser that involves selling flats of apples. Or you’ll go down to survival camp in the mountains and there will be an accidental orchard and you’ll have a bad case of “my nuts!” syndrome* and end up with a surprise bushel of apples. Something.

For every ~6 lbs/3 kg of apples (I know that’s not equivalent, it’s an ish measurement) you’ll want a cup of white and a cup of brown sugar. A cup is around 200g. This is rough. OK? Borrow some sugar if you don’t have enough. If you don’t have anyone you can borrow sugar from, go back to the build community step of this recipe. You’ll want it soon.

You’ll want a big spoon each of cinnamon and vanilla, per this six pounds of apples. A tablespoon if you’re measuring carefully, whatever’s a big spoon in your cupboard if not. A half teaspoon (or a scant palm) of nutmeg. Half THAT much of cloves and salt, each. Per six pounds.

If you have a bushel, all bets are off. But add less than you think, this is gonna cook down.

Cook the apples. I don’t have a better instruction for you than that. Get the peels off and the cores out and COOK them. For a long time. Until they turn brown. Until they caramelize. If you have a slow cooker, this is in the neighborhood of 10-20 hours. Yes, I know that’s a big range. Just cook them until all coherence is gone. Watch the news. Or don’t; it’s painful. Watch a movie that gives you hope. Every time there’s a good one-liner, stir your apples.

By this point, the sugar in the apples should have caramelized. Your apple butter will be nice and dark brown. And your house will smell amazing.

This makes so much apple butter. Remember that community? They’re gonna help you get rid of your apple butter. Can it. Or jar it and refrigerate it. How much community do you have? Try to have enough to get rid of most of this apple butter. If you don’t have enough community, make more.

*My Nuts syndrome is activated when you realize that a food you are gathering is free, and you must therefore gather at least as much as you can carry, regardless of whether you know how or where to store and use it all. Like a squirrel. With nuts.

There is no racism in Ba Sing Se

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I’ve had the last episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender sitting in my unwatched queue for literally years, because I couldn’t bear for it to be over (I did the same thing with Glen Cook’s Dark Company series in law school). But one episode sticks with me, as it does for most people: City of Walls and Secrets.

I won’t go too deep into the wherefores of the episode, but to understand what’s going on you need to know that before the episode begins, Our Heroes have prevented a mechanism of the great war from destroying the city of Ba Sing Se. But when they enter the city, they are told “there is no war in Ba Sing Se.” There’s a class of people that profits directly from ensuring that the folk of Ba Sing Se never know about the war going on just outside their walls, and anyone who finds out the truth and tries to tell them is reindoctrinated.

I’ve been trying to find a way to talk about Breonna Taylor for 202 days, and I think the best way to do it is not to talk about her at all, but to talk about how systemic racism functions in the absence of “racists.”

White people in the USA – no, I’ll say in America, which I usually don’t when I mean the USA – are taught that racists are people who openly believe that people of other races are inferior and should be harmed. But you don’t need anyone like that to perpetuate systemic racism.

KRS ยง 507.020(1)(a) states that in order to commit murder, you must: (a) With intent to cause the death of another person, [cause] the death of such person or of a third person.

Shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, Louisville police officers executing a search warrant used a battering ram to enter the apartment of Ms. Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician. The search warrant was granted by a judge. The search warrant named Ms. Taylor’s ex-boyfriend.

After police broke in, Kenneth Walker, who legally owned a gun for self-protection, fired. Officers fired back, killing Ms. Taylor.

On September 23, one officer was charged with wanton endangerment – of people in adjacent apartments. The officers who shot Ms. Taylor were not charged.

Break it down: There are no racists in Ba Sing Se.

Police and the judge thought it was likely that Breonna Taylor was involved in drug use because “blacks are 49% of persons arrested for drug selling and 36% of persons arrested for drug possession.” In fact, “in every year from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested nationwide on drug charges at rates relative to population that were 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.”

It was “reasonable” for officers to return fire in defense of their lives. After all, they were entering an apartment where a Black person lived, and in many jurisdictions Black men account for over half the arrests for violent crime. So obviously whoever was in that apartment was more likely to be dangerous than not.

And it was rational for the prosecutor to select only the charges that were likely to result in an indictment and possible conviction. Why waste everyone’s time with charges that the facts didn’t support?

There were no racists in Ba Sing Se Louisville.

Break it up: The system provides racism in the absence of after-school special racism by any individual actor.

The statistics about arrest don’t reflect incidence of criminal activity. They reflect the overpolicing of Black and brown communities. Black men are far more likely than white men to be arrested for crimes they commit at the same rates – especially drug crimes. But that’s not racist, is it?

So the police entering Breonna Taylor’s apartment had been inappropriately primed to consider Black people dangerous. In fact, Kentucky law explicitly permits exactly the steps Kenneth Walker took to defend the apartment and its occupants. But that’s not racist, is it?

And surely there were no racists involved in writing laws that might be enforced unevenly. The law, after all, is neutral. Isn’t it? Despite the fact that we know that racial inequality in traffic stops drops to near-zero after dark? And that despite the fact that white drivers are more likely to be carrying contraband, Black drivers are searched twice as frequently? But all these stops are legal.

Because there are no racists in Ba Sing Se.

Drawing Down the Year

Implausibly, we’ve found ourselves in autumn.

A friend calls the long month between now and the beginning of the year Mayprillary, or maybe it was Junetember. But however it happened, the season of wildfires came, somehow, amid the flurry of hurricanes, early snow, and drought. And it’s not over, not by a long shot, but.

It’s Mabon, the Mid-Autumn festival is in a week (and I need to make mooncakes), I’ve L’Shana Tova’d the appropriate members of my family and community (and delivered challah, a recipe new to me and tasty although I’ll adjust it with more eggs next time). On my little tree, the figs are ripe and heavy and multitudinous for the first year since I brought it home as an impulse buy, a Charlie Brown stick of a tree that has borne precisely one fig a year since, until yesterday, when I picked two pounds of honey-sticky fruits and brought them in to the kitchen, thinking about how many were left on the tree and wondering if I had enough canning jars.

And the rains have begun.

I’ve spent so many years trying to explain why that phrase holds no bitterness for me, only relief.

This year, more people understand. More people from the lush valley I relocated to – really the moss here is obscene – are watching the rain, noting the way it defines and edges the wildfires that evacuated one in ten people in the state, hoping it’s fierce enough to soak the forests and stop the spread, but not so enthusiastic as to liquidate unstable soils, add mudslides to the scorched hillsides.

This year, I’m watching the season turn in Animal Crossing instead of being on the trail like I meant to. My gear waits in the closet; the Pacific Crest waits like a spiderweb strung from mountain to mountain. Resupply is too tricky this year; closures too frequent, the country too unstable to stop watching it for a day, let alone a week, two weeks, longer. I push A, repeatedly; shove trees; pick up the pixelated acorns and pinecones and don’t think about waterproofing my boots.

And the rains have begun.

They’ll soak into the clay soil, relaxing it until the green shoots of second-spring emerge through the mat of dry grass I last mowed in May. They’ll share the labor of watering the garden beds, making sure the rescued pepper plants flourish and the lettuce stays firm and crisp. And they’ll soften the exposed snarl of blackberry cane waiting to be trimmed back to a manageable shape before the systolic thump of spring growth pushes it skyward again and over the neighbor’s fence.

I turn my face up to the rain, and for a moment stop counting days, weeks, months. For a moment, there is only autumn, all around me, and the smell of earth waiting to grow again.

Pantone PMS 166

There’s a junco in the butterfly bush, and I have a sudden, irrational, urge to apologize to it.

I came out to water my garden, although the garden is strange this year. The crookneck squash gets to be a handspan long, then matures and drops. The eggplant hasn’t set fruit yet despite a long and glorious flowering season. And the volunteer broccoli settled for eclipsing the peppers – two per plant – and is largely ornamental at this point.

I cover the sun with my thumb. It’s easy to locate and easy to cover, a hot-pink blot in the smoky sky. For a while this morning we had winds up the Gorge bringing high-desert air on which I imagined I could smell the tang of sage, buckbrush, volcanic earth. The sky was briefly and incongruously blue. Now it’s not.

The junco stares at me. I know it’s a junco because of the shape of its beak; there’s not much else to distinguish it in the late-evening darkness of three o’clock. Time is strange not only because of the smoke darkening the sky, but because I was up all night monitoring fire lines, trying to figure out if my parents or friends are behind them. I slept in fits and starts, texting my dad you’re ok for now and it’s moved south.

I don’t remember when I learned the shape of a junco’s beak. Probably around the time I learned the few words of Spanish I retain. These are things you are supposed to know on the West Coast: three types of trees; enough Spanish to order food or apologize; the shape of a junco’s beak.

The butterfly bush is an invasive species, and I feel vaguely guilty for having planted it, even though it wasn’t designated invasive when I did. It has no urge to spread, sitting tidily between the volunteer quince and the Oregon grape. Hummingbirds fight in the quince: Anna’s, and Ruby-Throated. I saw a red-shouldered hawk the other day. It’s not native to the area either.

The junco stares at me: it doesn’t speak human. If it speaks human it speaks Cowlitz, Clackamas, Calapuya, a handful of other languages that I don’t. I didn’t even learn Spanish; I speak French, Russian, Polish, languages from colder places, formed in mouths wrapped around food that isn’t salmon, pine nut, salmonberry and huckleberry.

The junco takes off, but there’s nowhere else it can go. The sun is entirely gone. I go inside and adjust the air filter.

Saucy

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Three things are true about my neighbor Bill: He’s partially deaf, he’s house-proud, and he loves my dachshund, whose name is also Bill.

If it weren’t for the third thing, I might not know as much about the first two. We’ve been fence-neighbors for decades, but until I inherited the dachshund we hadn’t had occasion to pass more than a couple words. But I did inherit the dachshund, and he did bark literally all night for two solid weeks, so when Bill came up and put his gaunt, tanned hands on the chain-link fence that separates our yards I knew what he wanted to talk to me about.

The thing was, though, the dachshund chose that moment to lunge at the front fence, barking hysterically, and I yelled BILL, KNOCK IT OFF, YOU WEIGH TEN POUNDS, NOBODY CARES.

When I looked back at the other Bill, he was cackling, his yellowing hair shaking with the force of it.

“So that’s his name, huh?”

“Yeah.” I grinned sheepishly.

“He barks. A lot.”

“Yeah.” I tried to figure out what the correct facial expression was. “He was my granddad’s. Granddad just died, and he’s trying to figure out a new house. I’m so sorry. We’re working on it. I don’t know what to do.”

Bill (human Bill) rearranged his own features. “Well. Poor lil guy. He’s got a great name.”

I picked the dachshund up and carried him to the fence, they hugged it out, and from then on Bill never complained about Bill. He did, however, come over to the fence to talk every time I was in the yard. He met my other dogs, even if his versions of their names were somewhat affected by his hearing or expectations (he thinks the Weimaraner is Chloe. It’s a cute name, but it’s not her name).

Which is how, last week, I ended up with two pints of cherry tomatoes in a WinCo sack. I’m allergic to tomatoes. Actually, so is Bill: he has to take steroids every time he touches his plants. Between us, there’s no reason for anyone to have two pints of tomatoes, let alone two pints every couple weeks, but he’s seen me working in my garden and I think he might be taking pity on me: the lettuce bolted, the cabbage has no idea what it’s doing, the banana peppers have two (just two) fruits, and the biquinhos aren’t supposed to be big but he doesn’t know that.

Bill (not the dog) broke his back and ribs a few years ago. There was an ambulance. Twice, because the first time he was drunk enough not to feel it and he sent them away, only to fall in the middle of the night and puncture a lung. Bill (the dog) and I comforted his girlfriend as she smoked in the yard for weeks afterward. “I’ve never had a yard, and he loves this house so much, how do I do this,” she wailed.

Bill’s yard used to look like the cover of Better Mobile Homes and Gardens: flat, with a border of nondescript but well-cared-for flowers, and a few hummingbird feeders. He still has the hummingbird feeders, but he can’t mow so well these days, and the guy who used to take care of his front strip (and mine, since it bothered Bill) doesn’t come around anymore with the quarantine on, so the yard has dandelions and there’s nightshade creeping over our shared fence. We pull that from both sides, he and I, like neighbors do.

The last thing he has left to tend is his tomato plants, which apparently live inside by the giant window I accidentally saw his girlfriend doing a striptease through once. At least, I’ve never seen them in the yard. All the energy and care he used to lavish on keeping the area around his house flat, green, and at a #2 mow, he spends on those tomatoes.

So when your neighbor comes to the fence and says “you sure liked that last batch of tomatoes, do you want some more” what do you say? Do you tell him you slipped them to your best friend under cover of darkness, like so much Tomato Claus?

You say yes. And you make tomato sauce. For someone else.

Coincidence

“This is the last time you’ll see me,” he said, and I protested because that’s what you’re supposed to do, even though we both knew better.

Granddad swept me up in a hug, the way you can’t hug someone now, and I could feel the hollowness inside him that was eating him alive. His ribs were a taiko when I patted his back; his heart echoed against my cheek. He had been a giant when I was young, and he never seemed to get shorter, long legs outstretched in a series of recliners, always with a dachshund stretched along his thighs. He was the only man I’ve ever seen sit like that, consistently, knees pressed together.

Seventy-some years before, on August 14th, he’d had orders for the Pacific. Had paused, balanced on a boarding plank, one foot on sovereign soil and the other nowhere, waiting for the news. Never boarded. For his whole life, a boy in a man’s clothes was still suspended in time, on a plank over the hungry ocean, his pockets full of French perfume for the woman he’d married, his head full of other thoughts.

“Remember me like this, I want you to remember me like this,” he said, where my mother couldn’t hear him. So I didn’t go, when we had the option to see him diminished, when we could look at the hollowness without the man who had been stretched thin around it. When the mind that had cupped the Southwest in paint-stained, loving hands was gone.

And I do remember him like that, but I also remember him as the first person to use a racial slur in front of me, and it was one that describes people I also consider family. It’s complicated, until it’s not.

Coincidence flows through my veins and links me to racists, to people who take without a second thought, to people who do not and can not believe that separate people exist with separate thoughts and feelings and ideas beyond what they can imagine. But there’s other coincidence in life: the accident of meeting someone online, of re-meeting a friend you would never have counted on for support and finding them where you need them, of the family members brought in by marriage and kept longer than the legal ties bind them. “She’s your only sister” is an absolutely true statement; but there’s only one of any person, and not all coincidences are serendipitous. “They’re your only [name]” is just as true, and just as coincidental. Coincidence is not value.

Remember me like this: coincidence is its own kind of truth.

Remember me like this: not all truth is meaningful.

Remember me like this: I knew what I valued.