Monday, March 31, 2003

That stitch in my side

That stitch in my side

Everyone knows that stitch in your side you get when you run too fast or long. It happens when your diaphragm - the muscle under your lungs that pushes air in and out - tries to push more oxygen into your system but discovers that your lungs are already full. The muscle is trying to push up, but can't, and so ends up expanding out, pushing against your abdominal cavity. This causes a sharp pain. The diaphragm is just trying to help you move faster and farther than you have before, but your lungs are already full. So you have to slow down because this hurts. You're pushing too hard too fast and there's not enough oxygen you can put into your system to go as fast and far as you'd like. Everybody has their limits. You can wish and wish that you could run up mountains, or reach farther, faster, fast as the wind, but you'd get that stitch in your side if you tried too much.

I suffer from a near constant stitch in my mental side. My ideas push against the sides of my brain, wanting more, now, right now, you can do it, you can do everything. You can do a two-year grad program in 18 months. You can have it all - everything you ever wanted. You just have to run up a few mountains, first.

I drove to Augusta last weekend. When I got down into the Savannah River valley, I was awed. I hadn't been down that way in the Spring in many years - I usually visit in the summer time, and I had forgotten how lush the place can be in March - I had forgotten that I was born in this semi-tropical environment that doesn't exist most other places in the world.

Everything was in bloom. Hot pink azaleas, dogwood trees and every kind of fruit tree was in riot-bloom. I kept seeing the fluffy purple trees 3 stories tall and was awed by them. I couldn't figure out what kind of tree they were, and when I saw one up close at last I almost fell over. It was just wisteria choking those giant old pine trees. Wisteria in Tennessee doesn't get that big, and only lives if it's someone's pet plant. But in the river valley here the wisteria gets so big and so old that the giant ropy vines are good for swinging on if you are small and put out fluffy lavender blooms a foot long. They look like trees from the first Fantasia movie, and they smell the best.

The giant pines that put out pinecones 8 or 9 inches big were busy getting ready for the summer, and had their sticky green-yellow pollen out. I drove into a pollen storm - when I got to my cousin's house, he was trying to clean the pollen off his back porch with only a little success. I made footprints in the pollen snow on the walk, could write my name on cars in the street. At one point, my cousin Christopher was standing out in the sunshine, holding his new son Dylan, and the wind kicked up. They were caught in a green-yellow snow storm for a moment, the light shining on bright and a thousand little motes dancing all around them.

And I realized I had spent most of my twenties out there getting an education, while everyone else in my family was down here by the river, putting down roots and pollinating and having babies. Well, not wasted - I guess given the same sets of choices, there isn't much I would have changed. But my life is so incredibly different from theirs - and not worse or better, just different. I am a near alien now, full of different ideas than theirs, and with a lot less possessions. The next weekend I spend in Augusta will be for the wedding of my 19-year-old cousin who already owns a house, and is preparing to marry the girl he's dated since he was 14. I've never had a relationship last 5 years. As much as I'd like a baby, they'll probably beat me to it, and though I know it's not a race, and I know I'm the first one to have a master's degree, I feel weird about that.

I also visited my cousins who are teenage boys without remorse. Guys who hang around being guys, playing video games at every spare moment and having trashed bedrooms and playing music loud and not caring and watching Star Trek and punching each other in the shoulder and cracking slightly crude jokes. And I love that. It cracks me up. I think it's fabulous in its own way, but I probably appreciate it more than most because I never had brothers.

And I saw Aunts and Uncles who are all about hugging me every chance they get. Which is awesome. To be able to jump out of the car and just get hugged as much as possible in that big way that you almost never get hugged. My Uncle Steve is 6'4" and he laughed and hugged me until he picked me off the ground. And that just doesn't happen often enough.

I pushed for that weekend in Augusta. I pushed until I got there, and it hurtv- going to Augusta always hurts. But I'm not sorry - I'll do it again. I will run and run and run, and when I get that stitch in my side I'll sit down for just a minute, and then I'll start running again. This is all an allegory, of course - busted my knee so bad back in Tennessee that I can't really run anymore, not really…

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Saint Patrick would be proud, anyhow.

Saint Patrick would have been proud, anyhow

Sometimes there comes a point when you've had such a long week that there's nothing to be done about it except to hop in your car, drive up to the mountains, and start drinking.

Last week was like that.

Remember when I bought that little 1987 Toyota hatchback about a month ago? My first car in 9 years? Well, it threw a rod on I-95 weekend before last. I was with my sister Sara at the time, and we just laughed about it, it was so horrible. And from that moment forward, things sort of steadily got worse over the next 5 or 6 days. I had to use up the few hundred dollars I had put aside for an apartment to buy a $600 stationwagon so I could get around. I have to use all of next paycheck to fix the Toyota. My sister Abby was in town all week, but I could only spend one night and one day with her. I got stressed out at work over a lot of stuff. The country started a war I don't agree with, and I couldn't even afford to party on Saint Patrick's day.

So I got to this point where I just said "Fuck it", and drove the $600 car through Friday Atlanta traffic up into Appalachia in the dark, way up to Morristown again. And when I got there, I saw that a Little League park packed on a Friday night. Dust was there with a big hug, a stack of comic books, and some Guinness. And hell, if that wasn't just what I needed.

I met Jill in person for the first time. We had the kind of conversations that you have when you've both been reading each other's work too long to see the person properly full on for the first time. The only way for me to see Jill as Jill and not as her writing voice was to look at her out of the corner of my eye. If I looked directly at her, I saw her words instead of her physical presence. It's hard for me to believe she's as young as she really is. I'm sure I was a shock to her as well. I tend to not be what people expect - and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy that.

Aisling said my name, and I met Dee and Devon's grandmother. Fragments of stories I've read and heard over the past three years shifted, twisted, fell into place. Appalachia was all cool breezes and green mountains and the green gassy smell of roadkill in the ditches too long. It was the vernal equinox, and as usual Dust was taking me places I never thought I'd want to go but didn't mind so much once I got there.

What I'm saying here is, I had a good time.

After two days of Wonder Woman and anti-war plays and the Justice League and hiking and good food, I drove away at just the right time.

When I met Virgil and Ford in a Denny's In Knoxville, I knew the world was all right again. They both looked great. And just like we used to there were eggs and grits and bacon and talk about our hopeless love lives and good design principles and adventure photographs and action figures and gourmet chocolate. When it came time, I didn't want to go, and they didn't want to go, and we all promised to have a big sleep over soon, where we could sit around and drink and play cards again. Poker with Virgil, where I always loose. Uno with Ford, where I always win. Ford kicking my ass in mancala after that. Coffee and chocolate and old rented movies, and I spent my weekend with friends again.

I miss you all, all the time. More of you need to move to Atlanta. You know who you are. Get down here so we can drink and raise our own kind of quiet riots. Hugs and kisses, people I love best, the winter is over, and what matters most in this world is the power of love - even when it hurts -

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Bigger than a T-Rex, baby.

Bigger than a T-Rex, baby.

I've been taking my youngest sister, Abigail, to a lot of children's museums lately. We've been to three this month: the Center for Puppetry Arts, SciTrek, and the Fernbank Museum of Science. I suppose my favorites were the Fernbank, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and SciTrek, in that order. Abby's favorites were that in reverse, I think.

My sister liked all three trips, but was more in love with the IMAX at the Fernbank than the actual exhibits. We made puppets at the Puppet Center, and that was fun, but for her age group SciTrek is the best because so many of the exhibits are interactive. It's a museum dedicated to the Physical Sciences, and Abby loved being shown how to demonstrate the laws of physics. SciTrek tells children to touch and climb on things, which 10-year-olds love, while Fernbank is strictly hands off. She grouched at me after I had to remind her for the 4th time not to put fingerprints on the glass cases and for pete's sake Abby, don't lean on them either, OK?

Fernbank is a museum of the Natural Sciences, and she was put off by the stuffed dead animals used as examples of Georgia wildlife. I couldn't blame her, but tried to explain that biologists can gain a lot more information from an actual specimen than from a model sometimes. A typical conversation from the Fernbank:

"Dinosaurs weren't really that big."

"Yes, they really were."


"Yes, these are really their bones. We could park the car up there in that rib cage."

"You're lying."

"I'm not."

"You so are."

"Read the sign, then."

"When does the IMAX start?"


"Is there anything I can climb on?"


It's her Spring break, and she's staying with our Uncle and Aunt out in the countryside. There are neighbor's horses to visit, other children to play with, and small dogs to torment. I took her to see a musical at the movie theater the other night, and she can pretty much eat ice cream whenever she'd like. Even though I'm pretty busy, I'm trying to make the time to play Battleship and Monopoly and tic-tac-toe with her.

I hope she remembers how nice this time was later in her life. While everything else falls apart - while the center can not hold - some 5th graders are having a pretty decent Spring Break right now. I think it's important to remember that.

I suppose anyone with a blog right now is making their anti-war statements again. I did that here, over a year and a half ago. The things I wrote about Afghanistan go for Iraq as well, so I don't feel the need to re-state my position. I marched in D.C. to protest my country's foreign policies last April, and I plan to do so again at my first opportunity.

I have been in voluntary media black out for a couple of months now. I allow myself the Sunday Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Alternet, an occasional issue of Newsweek, and sometimes a daily paper at lunch. But I've kept the television news off when I'm not at work. When I get home, I want to relax with some cartoons or a Joss Whedon production. If I watch the news I just get stressed out over things, and I feel like I do the best I can at expressing my dissent so far. I go to marches and I let my voice be heard by those around me. I can't afford to quit my job and dedicate my life to activism right now, as much as I would like to.

I will let friends and family tell me about events though, which is why I knew today was supposed to be the day we start dropping the big bombs on Iraq. I'm taking a ten-hour day at work, in the office by myself, preserving photographs and listening to CD's. This is very relaxing, rewarding work that I normally find very soothing. Still, I had to take a moment to type this to my blog, because it's half past noon now and I can't bring myself to turn on the radio or look at any webcasts.

Friday, March 14, 2003

If you don't have something nice to say

If you don't have something nice to say...

My own personal civil war has begun to be fought in earnest once again. This is the war between my tongue and my brain over hard vowel sounds.

I have an accent. My family has told me it's a lovely accent, really, the same as my grandparents and my mom and all of them. It's the accent of the white people on the Southern coast, different entirely from other Southern sounds to the discerning ear. It is not the accent of Delta Burke (North Georgia) or Gomer Pyle (North Carolina) or Al Gore (Middle Tennessee). It is not like any of the Black or Appalachian accents in the South at all either, but a slight variation on all of these things, perhaps indistinguishable to an outsider but all-important to the people I learned it from. Much like in England, in the South your tongue betrays your heritage and your class. My mother would be horrified, if, for example, I ever said "What time it is?", a common enough expression down here. She'd just get really, really angry. "What time is it? Did you grow up in a trailer? I don't think so."

Not that as a child I ever would have forgotten to conjugate the verb to be properly. I've always been very conscious of my grammar, especially after my parents transplanted me from Georgia to Nashville as a small child. Some Tennessee accents have always been harsh on my ear - the nasal push of the mountains and the twang of Nashville combine in the Ohio Valley, Kentucky, and rural Tennessee to make sounds that have never rolled around my inner ear in any comfortable way. Sometimes I'll be sitting in a bar in, say, Murfreesboro, and I'll actually wince as I hear someone ask the waitress to clear their "taayable".

Because you pick up the accents around you, I had to develop defenses as a kid to avoid picking up the Middle Tennessee nasal twang. I unconsciously began to police my vowel sounds, developing a flat, generic American accent more like the sounds I heard coming from newscasters than the backcountry sounds voiced by my teachers. And although people from other states could still hear the South in my sounds, I was often mistaken for a Yankee at new schools. I didn't sound like the other kids quite deliberately. I tried never to say ain't and fixin' too and I knew that because my accent was clean I was more accepted by people who were truly educated. Often people would compliment my mother on how well spoken I was. I started aiming for college at about age 10 this way.

Still, time wore away at my tongue. You can only spend so many years in a place before you pick up its ways, and Nashville worked on me. By the time I was ready to leave for Boston, ain't had creeped into my vocabulary as well as gonna, woulda, shoulda. My g's dropped a lot more leaving Tennessee than when I came in. Well, I knew it was gonna happen, I suppose.

While in Boston things got both better and worse for my accent. It was always a conversation starter - while people in Tennessee would still insist I had no accent to speak of, in New England it was readily apparent that I really did. I tried to police my accent the best I could. For the first time I could hear my own inflections because I was surrounded by people who spoke differently. I fluctuated between being embarrassed about being conspicuous in my speech to being proud of my exotic flavor. I never quite made peace with my ambivalence about how I sound. Too many negative stereotypes exist that are associated with sounding Southern - Cletus on the Simpsons, Gomer Pyle USMC, President Bush. Whenever a playwright for popular culture wants someone to sound stupid, my vowel sounds are attached. Long A's and extra syllables are a stereotypical shorthand for backwardness in everywhere - even in cartoons the dumbest Smurf sounded like he was from Alabama.

The sad thing is, of course, that even Shakespeare did this - he wrote the dumbest characters with a Scottish accent. Then the Scots moved to America, mostly to the South and to Appalachia, where their accent changed, but they still remained the butt of the joke…

Anyway, since I've moved back, my original accent, the one I learned to speak with, has fought its way back to the surface by degrees. My long open I's are back. No matter how much I practice throwing the "I" sound up onto my palate, the long open I comes out the second I'm not paying attention. My tongue refuses to pitch the I up without conscious effort, laying low and lazy on the bottom of my mouth when I's and O's come to pass.

I've always struggled with these two vowel sounds. Even when my accent was at its cleanest, Gosh once thought I said my sister was blind when I meant she was blonde. The word Iron has always given me such difficulty that I've often sacrificed playing my favorite piece in monopoly in favor of the thimble or wheelbarrow. Now that I'm out of Tennessee, "fixin' too" is gone, but a host of other colloquialisms have risen up in its place.

I have finished my education and I'm back in Atlanta where I belong, and now I have a strong temptation to quit fighting my accent. There is a general feeling in me that I should kick back, relax, and let the war against my tongue rest at last, to let the lazy vowels win. The sounds have always reappeared when I'm drunk or tired anyway - might as well let them on out for good, forever. I haven't decided yet weather or not to let this happen. I still think a flat, clean accent helps a person make it in the world. Still - I'm tired, and I never entirely mastered sounding like 60 minutes anyway. As long as I keep my grammar clean it should be OK - I hope -

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Forward March

Forward, March

It's March now in Atlanta, which means all the flowers are blooming again. The daffodils opened up in my uncle's backyard this weekend, yellow and beautiful. All the bulbs are out again, pushing up new green splits for later irises and tigerlillies. There are even a few rare dandelions that have gone to seed, flowers that made it through February and are now little puff balls ready to be blown away on wishes. My two-year-old cousin brings in a violet or clover flower or other little blooming thing she picks out of the grass every time she comes inside. Her forehead creases in all seriousness as she looks at the flowers, a frown of concentration on her face. She can talk now with words instead of signs; her vocabulary has exploded in the six months I've been here. "Flower." She'll say. "I picked it."

I love being here at last for spring. In Nashville my sisters still have to wear sweaters, and farther north Aral assures me that the snow and harsh winds still blow daily. Dust complains about his first winter in the north, about how the snow won't melt but packs itself into a lingering icy crust. Meanwhile where I am, this week has a high of at least 60 projected for each day, and the sun peeks through rainy days - the end of what passes for winter here. We're only a few hundred miles above the semi-tropical steam of the southern swamps here. There are really only two seasons - wet and dry, or mild and hot if you prefer - and that suits me just fine. I don't care if I never see another snow bank in my entire life. I think back to when Ryan took me out to walk across a frozen lake, and I'm glad I got to do that. I'm glad I went and saw a river iced over, and that I walked in snowshoes once. But you know what? I'm more glad that I'll probably never have to that again.

Forward, March. Bring on the sunny skies of April, the swimming pools of May, the boiling heat of the Atlanta summer. Bring me all the changes I know are coming, the changes I've been waiting years for. Bring me an adulthood with a house in my name, as much food as I'd like in the cupboard, and provisions to run my life with.

And March replies: Double time, gladly. Time seemed slow while I was unemployed, where a week seemed like two and every day without a job was just another frustration to get through. Now that I'm working, time passes so quickly I can hardly pause to catch my breath, to keep my affairs in order. My room looks a horrid mess, and I need to sort through my bills and write half a dozen letters and plan for April and May, which approach all to quickly. Even August seems all too close, with its huge gatherings spying on me, asking when I'll start making preparations.

It's time to March. In a straight line, no delays, no looking back, quick like a bunny, or better yet, the wolf behind the bunny. March: Mardi Gras, St. Patrick's in the 'boro, Knoxville and even Augusta. Then April, with Brunswick and West Virginia and finding a new place to live. And May, hey, I'll be ready, I'm sure. A move and a giant party in May. Cross your fingers for me, I'm double quick and overloading.