Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Thankful to live in Atlanta

"We have no other choice but to … cut the level of health care we provide," said Bill Merry Jr., president of Herndon & Merry Inc., a Nashville ornamental ironworks with 21 employees.

The sixth set of Nashville stories

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"I miss Halloween and trick-or-treaters," my mother-in-law said thoughtfully over the phone, "you, know, every year the neighborhood used to get together and we'd have such a good time."

I made an agreeable sound. Halloween has been dying a slow death in Nashville for over a decade now, as the Conservative Christians have gained more and more power. Indeed, when the husband and I were small in the 1980's, you could see neighborhoods filled with kids on Halloween night. Now, people are much more likely to go to organized events - because half of your neighbors won't celebrate a "satanic holiday". Here around Atlanta, I had been telling my mother-in-law, we still have Halloween neighborhoods. There are still plenty of trick-or-treaters where there are houses, full of running and shouting little kids on sugar highs, and in more grown-up neighborhoods like mine we've got the bars and businesses open late, twenty-somethings spilling out into the street. Halloween is still fun here.

She started to reminisce. "Every year we'd burn a witch. Except that year we accidentally burned a cross."


Turns out in the upscale subdivision my husband grew up in, a couple from some other region had introduced the custom of burning a fake witch in effigy before letting children go trick-or-treating. The idea was that you had a big bonfire, and burned the with, and then it was safe for the kids to go out. I have never heard of this custom and I don't know where it comes from, but I told my mother-in-law it was one of the most horrible things I'd ever heard of. "Good God, and how did you end up accidentally burning a cross?"

Well, one year the folks who normally made the witch to burn were going to be out of town. So neighbors asked mother-in-law to make a witch. She didn't know how, but guessed, starting with two sticks wrapped as a crossbar like a scarecrow. Then she made a witch out of batting and cloth. When they lit the fire, all the fabric burned off right away, leaving the kids to watch...a cross burn. None of the adults knew what to do, as they stood a little aghast at their holiday bonfire.

"And that was the last Halloween we burned a witch." she said.


Back in September, an acquaintance of my sister's was tasered to death by Nashville Metro Police outside a show at the Mercy Lounge. The kid was 22, drunk, and a little bit high. The cops had him outside the bar and were trying to reason with a drunk 22-year-old. He wouldn't listen. They sprayed him with pepper spray, which fucking hurts, if you've never had the experience and he went beserk, running around the parking lot, taking off his shirt, drunkenly trying to stop the pain. When he wouldn't obey their commands to lay down, the police discharged their tasers over 18 times. Onto a drunk, skinny, kid acting like an idiot at a bar. He died.

Atlanta police are underpaid, but seem to be better trained than Nashville police. One day I'll write the story of my sister's experience with the Nashville force in May of 2003. Not enough time has passed yet for me to write that story, but let me tell you; they don't train their police enough in Nashville. The police there make mistakes that could be easily avoided by better training. A twenty-two year old guy is dead, because he got too drunk in a bar and the police didn't know how to handle that simple, everyday occurrence properly. It was an accident that could have been prevented.

My middle sister did not return to Nashville this year for Thanksgiving; she had to work. What she is thankful for most this year is living in Atlanta. The Metro Nashville police force had a little bit to do with that.


I had a good Thanksgiving up in Nashville this year. My mother was there, and so was my youngest sister, and the in-laws. Mom and father-in-law aren't in the best health. Youngest sister has progressed to angry adolescent - and become quite beautiful. It's as if at night her anger and body grow a little bit each day; being a teenager is so, so difficult. In a few years though, I know we'll get to be good friends again.

I let go of a lot of my own teenage anger Thanksgiving weekend. I had a little help. When I was small, my Grandfather made me a cedar chest that I used for my toys. It's one of the things that survived my parent's divorce, but barely; my father, one night in a drunken rage, used a black permanent marker to graffiti all over the inside lid. He no doubt tried to smash the thing too, but failed. He was more successful in smashing the cedar chest my Grandfather had given my mother, which had more detail work that was easier to break.

I had avoided getting the chest of toys from my mom because I didn't know how to deal with dad's graffiti. It had become this physical symbol in my mind of how he was hellbent on destroying everything with his drinking, and every time I thought about the chest I felt like I wanted to vomit. But it was time; my mother is moving on with her life, and that means moving on with her furniture and decorating. She needed my cedar chest to leave her house.

The in-laws know a very good carpenter, an immigrant from Mexico who does some of the most beautiful detail work you've ever seen. He picked up the chest from my mother's house, and sanded down the graffiti. He looked it over; someone had tried to take a hammer to the legs, but found them unable to break. The carpenter admired my Grandfather's craftsmanship, and said this was a perfect example of a chest to give a child - nearly impossible to break but nice enough that they would still want it as an adult.

I sorted through the toys, painfully throwing out those that were now just rags, saving a couple of things, keeping the nicest ones for charity (and, OK, one or two for me). This weekend I'll move the chest into the new baby's room and start storing quilts in there. Maybe. The husband likes the chest so much he's arguing for it to go in our room. I don't know; the graffiti is sanded off, but the chest holds too much weight still.

I can't imagine how my mother feels when she looks at her piece; the divorce has been so expensive that she hasn't got the money to fix it yet. The back is smashed in, the feet broken off, the inside lid also defaced. It can probably be put back together, after some time and expense. I'm thankful for that. If it's one thing I quietly told myself this year in Nashville, it's that I'm thankful for the idea that some things can be fixed; you just have to find the right tools and know-how. Time helps, too.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Personal Choice

Last Sunday my sister and I had planned to go to see a documentary showing at The Earl in East Atlanta. We e-mailed the documentary people an RSVP in advance; we arrived at The Earl on time, and waited in line at the smoky front bar for 15 minutes. Then we were turned away at The Earl's stage entrance, because my sister is under 21.

The justification for turning away people under 21 from the back portion of The Earl is that the bar alllows smoking, and under Atlanta's restrictive laws, smoking is only allowed in restaurants (bars, really), that serve people 21 and up. The idea is that they are protecting young people's lungs and discoraging young people from picking up smoking. This is ridiculous. The unintended side effect of the under-21 ban is to bar adults (because, legally, people over 18 are adults) aged 18-20 from many concerts, cultural events, and restaurants. In short, if you're 18 you're old enough to die in Iraq, but not old enough to see a documentary at The Earl. Many would then say, "Well, that's The Earl's choice. If they disallowed smoking, then everyone could see their shows."

But how would The Earl then remain viable as a business? Some adults enjoy smoking while they drink, and The Earl's main business is selling alcohol. Honestly, I see the smoking ban as a feable attempt at controlling bars in Atlanta - and one more sign that the Southern Baptists in the state have used their influence to write a nonsensical law. After all, the outer restaurant portion of The Earl was just as smoky as any place I've ever been in - and my sister's tender underage lungs did not fall out of her chest and explode while we waited in line.

So we went home and bought DVD's of The City of God (which features corrupt cops), and Angels in America (which does a pretty good job of villianizing Reagan). And I felt like purchasing and watching those two films was at least in some way exercising my personal freedoms, after having them stomped on by the goddamn smoking law. I'm also annoyed that the documentary website said nothing to us about the show being 21 and up.

I've been cranky about my civil liberties lately. Maybe it's because my pregnant state causes people to constantly feel the need to advise me (put your feet up! you need rest! don't lift that! don't eat tuna fish! etc.). I feel entrenched in a battle against those who would limit my personal freedoms, even in giving birth. Did you know that it's illegal to give birth anywhere but a hospital in the State of Georgia? No home births are legal here, and there are no birthing clinics like in other states. My personal research did reveal to me a highly networked underground of feminist women secretly arranging for midwives to attend them outside of hospitals. Were I more adventerous, and my pregnancy less complicated, I would join the secret underground of home births. As it is, I have had to be content in firing my Obstetrician who ignored me and treated me impersonally, and replacing the traditional OB with two midwives at Emory. The OB just wasn't working for me - I would make an appointment, and go to an office too busy to remember who I was, and then they would stick me in an examination room, where I would wait...and wait...and wait...

So I left the OB, went downstaris a few floors in the same medical office building, and met up with two young midwives, nurse-practicioners with a different view. And now I get to go to group examinations with other couples who are due about the same time I am. And we meet the same time, on the same day of the month, once a month. As a group, we get to laugh and talk and express our worries and measure each other's tummies. I feel so much better about my monthly checkups on the baby now, and so much more in control of the process. I feel like my caregivers know who I am, and all about my pregnancy. And even though I know I'll have to give birth in the hospital, at least I won't feel like I'm just part of someone's damn rounds, another faceless person impinging on their time.

Thank god I still have some choice over how my body is cared for and operates. I wonder how long it will be before someone tries to take that away from me, too.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Being Cliche

About twice a year I call my Aunt Karen. Karen was married to my father's brother, my Uncle Mike, who was an alcoholic and killed himself just over a dozen years ago. I call Karen and talk about twice a year to catch up on how my cousins are and generally just to talk about life. Karen's got a very dry, bitter sense of humor that not everyone gets, the kind of humor that annoys my mother but that I understand completely. Now that both my younger sisters are teenagers, I value her conversations immensely. My Uncle's alcoholism and death left her raising three boys alone in a rural factory town on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.

There's a Great Southern Novel in Karen's story somewhere, but I won't write it. Drunk and dead daddies are cliche, every southern poverty tale seems to have them. I think that's why it's so difficult to write or talk about my father's alcoholism, even though it's been a big influence on my life the past couple of years. It is not that I am embarrassed by my father's addiction; it is simply that I am embarrassed to be affected by so common a problem.

I am embarrassed by my family's cliche reactions to alcoholism. We have all too neatly fallen into stereotypes: the oppressed and put-upon working mother, the oldest child who tries to fix everything, the problem teen, the angry little girl. We are everybody's working-class family of Irish descent. Worse, my father was in the music business, the Entertainment Industry, and every biography of an Entertainment Industry figure or family details their struggles with addiction of some kind in the family. We're not even afflicted to levels of horror that are noteworthy. We're just your average family, living in the southeast, that has crumbled against a problem so common that it's not even noteworthy. Every neighborhood in every town has a family like mine. That's part of what makes the pain so damn sharp sometimes; I don't even feel justified in complaining about so common a situation.

Talking to Karen every now and again helps. She understands teenagers, having raised three now, and I rely on her for insights into my own teenage sisters. Karen also understands living with an alcoholic on the edge of your life, a person who can come in at any point in the day and just introduce a problem so big and so unexpected and tiresome that you can barely deal with it. Even though her ex-husband has been gone for over a decade, she has been living with the results of alcoholism in her life every day for years. Like my family, she and her sons have been marked for life by the simple, common, and cliche destructive actions of someone else.

I haven't spoken to my father in over a year now, and I recently made the decision not to include him at all in the new baby's life. Karen understands my decision, and unlike other family members does not reproach me about attempting to excise my father from my life. She understands that my father is on a downward spiral, and that I have simply decided not to watch him as he continues down his path. The truth about alcoholics is far worse than you'd expect; my father may live another decade or two, or even three. He is killing himself in the smallest doses possible, in order to stretch out the pain. He wants witnesses to his grief and agony; he wants us to feel his slow suicide with him. I have simply refused to be in the audience for his last big show. I will not let his grandchildren watch this last performance, the twisted last years of an addict. The sad thing is, alcoholism is so common, I can't help but wonder if someone else will act out the play for my children - or if they'll end up as stock characters in the same story with someone else.