Happy birthday

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Look at this guy! I am. That’s me in the awkward pose in front of him enjoying his handsome charm.

That’s Stacy. He’s my friend. He’s a friend to many. He’s sort of the baritone-voiced, kind-eyed angel of friendship. He’s the walking, talking genius of warmth and connection, in my humble opinion.

Stacy, were your ears burning? You were the topic of conversation over coffee this morning. My daughter said, the thing about him is that so many people can enjoy what’s wonderful about him. As in, he’s open-hearted and open-minded, warm, loving, gregarious and genuinely enjoys creating spaces where people connect. He’s an artist, yes, but that isn’t his only talent.

Meetups, social media and dating apps perform solidly in bringing people together for initial meetings. It takes empathy, authenticity and work to build a lasting community. That’s Stacy’s other great talent. It’s a teachable skill, too. Before I met Stacy, wandering around a Hampton Block Party at the end of the summer of 1991, I had no idea how food, drink, music, introductions, and laughter could transform people individually and as groups.  If joy were currency, Stacy would be a billionaire.

A dear friend who came to Newport News just a little later in life but just as hopeful of finding a home and a community calls him the mayor. Stacy knows everyone. If he doesn’t, he will. I look to him when I need a hug, a dance partner, a quiet beer or a walk. But so many of the people who connect with him come to him for different things. And Stacy gives us what he can.

Are you looking for a better life? Happiness? Peace? A cozy, secure feeling for your soul? Be like Stacy. Make dinner. Invite your friends over. Make art and share it. Hug the worthy souls you meet. Be grateful. Be grateful for your community, for art, for love, for family and friends. I am. Grateful every day for knowing a man like this.

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For whom the tail wags

Cedar, the greatest dog who ever dogged, has completed her work here on Earth and crossed the rainbow bridge to the plane of stardust, bacon and unlimited squeaky tennis balls.

Cedar got a lot done in her short, though actually relatively long, time here.

She was a comedian of the highest caliber. She was a lover not a fighter. Although, occasionally she was a fighter, and was the noble and proud victor in tussles with a very slow-moving car, a nutria in the James River, a baby squirrel, a baited fish hook, two plastic dog bowls, dozens of imaginary bad guys at the door and countless squeak toys.

Cedar gracefully bore the clumsy adoration of young children who grew up to love her, appreciate her and learn responsibility and tenderness from her.

Cedar helped with the dishes and the mopping, and thoughtfully reinforced the softness of every surface in every room she entered with a thick cushion of fur. She was only trying to help.

Cedar was an excellent, and by excellent I mean exceedingly attentive, dinner companion. She was a good listener.

Cedar could keep a secret: I asked her every day who was a good puppy, but she never told.

Cedar had not one but two theme songs, which clearly makes her the hero of the picture.

Cedar was a diligent sentry. No letter or flyer delivered to a home she inhabited has ever gone unbarked at. I’m confident that her sleeping through a stranger sneaking into our apartment was intentional, so that I could have a good story. Cedar was one of the few wonders under the sun better than a good story.

Cedar was an adventurer, intrepidly peeing in 16 states and the District of Columbia. She appreciated beauty, and was especially fond of the soft trails of the Olympic National Forest and the beaches along the Oregon coast. She was an enthusiastic partner for adventures on trails of all kinds, from mountain bike parks to snowshoe tracks.

She was an eclectic eater who frequently supplemented her kibble with jerky, paper towels, empty food containers on the street and snails. Ever the gourmet, she loved crunching on a tasty garden snail on our morning walks.

Cedar was an excellent roommate, always doing her share of chores, seldom making messes and always cleaning up spills. She was an excellent officemate, too, keeping her human’s feet warm during long periods at the desk and enforcing healthy breaks at regular intervals.

Cedar was a good friend to her human family, to her human friends, to her little brother Rambo, and to the many two- and four-legged people she encountered throughout her life. She was widely beloved and loved all, except dachshunds. She apparently knew something disturbing about dachshunds that she was too polite to talk about.

Cedar loved jerky and walkies and playing chase, and pursued those interests until the day she died. Just this past week she covered several miles, killed an entire bag of bacon jerky and played an epic game of chase. She bounced like a bunny rabbit until her very last afternoon.

Who was a good puppy? Cedar.

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Anyone else beginning to wonder if it’s all an act?

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Have you ever dropped in someone watching a soap opera and gotten sucked in? Or maybe a sick day on the couch brought you back to a daytime drama you watched in college, or a reality show you’ve heard of but never seen?

The show itself: It don’t make no damn sense. It’s confusing. But it’s immediately understandable, and kind of reassuring in it’s consistency and predictability.

Updates from the extreme right wing can be like that. A concerned voter with a full life can hum along, vote for relatively sane people in local elections, care in varying degrees about city council and school board issues, and feel just fine crossing the aisle sometimes. (Hey, I’ve voted for John Warner)

It’s not even worth saying that politics is full of the crooked, the narcissistic, the criminal and the weird. Politics is also full of the boring, the schlubby, the hardworking but mediocre. Nobody cares about that. The soaps are what get the clicks, and you can’t tell me that it isn’t a soap opera.

Day to day, year to year, cycle to cycle, a voter can lose track of who specifically is what degree of evil, and who is or is not back from the dead. Do we care about Newt Gingrich this year? Is Glenn Beck pleading for empathy for the #BlackLivesMatter movement? Is Paul Ryan a P90X anti-choice nutjob ala Santorum, or is he the voice of reason who isn’t so sure about Trump? Are John and Marlena together? Will Khloe ever forgive Lamar? The only way to know the details is to watch it every damn day.

But most of us aren’t addicts. We’re dropping in like we’re watching “Days of Our Lives” with our favorite aunt for the first time in a decade. It’s a little confusing, but the gestalt is always the same.

Why do I bring this up? Not for any particular reason, I suppose. It’s just that Ted Cruz just endorsed Donald Trump, which is equal parts unsurprising and surprising, and equal parts breaking news and business-as-usual. You can read the whole spiel on Facebook, because that’s where celebrities promote themselves. But there’s really no point. It’s boilerplate, as predictable as a soap opera wedding. Just like a soap opera, it can only be watched with detachment and a suspension of disbelief. I don’t know what exactly can be done about that.

Apart from the obvious, which is to vote for Hillary Clinton, and pay attention to local elections.

 

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Delicious vicious cycle

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The happy lady with the phoenix tattoo

My brother didn’t understand what rape culture is. My brother is my favorite person I didn’t personally give birth to. We’re pretty close, and I know he loves me and he knows I love him. He’s smart, and kind, and very, very funny, and I am as certain as I am of my own name that he would never hurt another living creature. But once upon a time he said things on the internet that caused other smart, funny, kind people I love to be very concerned. In hopes of helping him, I told him a story about how casual cruelty affects me.

My son, who is 20, smarter than his mama in a lot of ways, and very big and strong as well as very sweet and gentle, felt wounded when his big sister ducked his hugs during a visit last winter. I explained it was not because she suddenly didn’t like him, but because he is now so much bigger and stronger than her that it is no longer cute that he always lifts her up off the ground. I told him that touching people without their permission is never okay, even if it’s hugging your sister at Christmas. This isn’t the first time I’ve explained this to him: I really did make an effort to raise my kids to have proper boundaries. But this was the first time he really understood what I meant – that I wasn’t just talking about stranger danger, and that even a greeting between siblings requires permission and empathy.

My point is, these things are hard, even when they’re easy. We navigate our lives, have fun, drink beers, work, ride bikes, text our sweethearts, pet our dogs and fart around on Facebook and then, blammo, something happens that reminds us that our souls are chemical reactions trapped inside hominid meatsuits and we aren’t actually telepathic or even that good at saying words out loud.

We try. But sometimes, we fail. Maybe someone didn’t have a conversation with an articulate young woman like my daughter that led to him realizing he needed to talk to his son. Now that man’s son, who looks just a little bit like my son, and whose family and friends thought was full of goodness and promise, is in jail for having a gruesome parody of sex with an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. And that son can’t even bring himself to understand that when you get into gruesome-parody-of-sex territory, you’re talking about rape, and rape is something that makes the person you do it to feel pretty goddamn shitty for a pretty goddamn long time. Maybe he thought he was making a cute drunken mistake, and nobody ever told him that consent is crucial. Maybe he heard the message about consent being crucial, but the message was delivered in tandem with the assertion that college campuses are overrun with soft whiners, and freedom is being crippled by political correctness, and they canceled each other out.

It’s easier to understand rape culture when someone who has been speaking your language for three decades explains it to you. It’s easier to understand boundaries apply to everybody when your mom gives you a specific example. And it’s really easy to spot transgressions in the rearview mirror. But it’s hard to be empathetic when you feel attacked and insecure and nobody has explained the rules to you. We don’t learn how our hearts and our bodies work in school; we pick that up along the way. What Brock Turner did to a young woman at Stanford is awful. What the judge who sentenced him to 6 months did is awful. Turner’s father’s attempt to defend him is awful. But maybe it’s worth examining the matrix in which these awful samples were grown; maybe we’ll learn how to prevent more terrible things.

In the fall of 1990, several months before I first heard the term “date rape,” I went away for the weekend with some friends. I was 18. K, a woman I’d gone to high school with, had a boyfriend, J, whose parents had a vacation house in the mountains of Virginia. She invited her friend D, and one of J’s friends, M, too. We played grown-ups: We drove out there on Friday night, finagled some wine, made dinner, chatted, stayed up late and had a great time. We went for a hike the next morning. In the evening, we poured more wine and made more food. I remember, very distinctly, that we watched Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie,” and that J insisted I try a cocktail. That’s it for Saturday.

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This was taken that morning. Awww, wasn’t I cute?

Sunday afternoon, I was dragged from a bed I don’t remember climbing into, and into the van for the ride home. We stopped several times on the way home so that I could vomit on the side of the road. J pulled over so I could get out and buy myself a Gatorade. I threw up all through the next day, too. I was also sore, and realized with a great deal of shame the nature of my soreness meant I had had sex, which I did not remember at all. I felt guilty because I had a boyfriend away at college.

Later, D told me she had been drugged, and that she knew that I had been drugged, too. We learned from J, who K continued dating for at least another year, that he had given us Dolophine, which is a preparation of methadone. We were told that we had consented to this. We had not. I never found out whether M, the man who spent the night in the unremembered bed with me, knew I was drugged. I learned I was pregnant. I had an abortion.

I told my best friend, who was very kind but not alarmed – my narrative, at this point, was that I had gotten drunk and made a mistake.

We agreed that we did not like K’s boyfriend and avoided him. I had an uncomfortable breakup with my boyfriend, who was not a nice person and had accused me of cheating even before our trip to the mountains. I did not give him a reason, but word got back to him. By summer, my lease was up, my roommates were already in their new apartments and I was spending one more night there. I invited a few friends over, and a new boyfriend. Not K, J or D. And not the ex-boyfriend. But he heard about the party, and he showed up, already drunk and angry. I couldn’t face him, so I went into my bedroom with the new boyfriend, locked the door and got into bed. The ex kicked through the door, pulled a post off the four-poster bed I’d inherited from my grandmother and broke it over my leg before my friends finally stopped him.

Two months later, I pulled myself together enough to go away to school. Four years after that, I got a tattoo of a phoenix to cover the mark left by the bedpost.

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I didn’t even think of these events as rape and assault until I was much older.

It’s been 26 years, and I still tell the story. I tell the story to new romantic partners because, whether or not you choose to accept it, there’s a stigma attached to people who have rape and violence in their past, and I want to weed out the ones who say things about “drama” and “issues.” I tell the story because it feels like disclosure is required; I tell the story and I feel like a registered sex offender, like I have to admit to mistakes. I tell the story because people ask happy, optimistic, chatty me what my tattoo means, and I explain and move on, because I can. I am telling the story now, alone into an empty room, because I don’t know how else to explain what it looks like when someone doesn’t understand what her rights are, and doesn’t understand what the rules are. I tell the story so that there’s one more narrative among the millions that illustrates how something that is obviously rape can still be poorly understood, even by the victim and the people who love the victim. I tell the story because I’m a chemical reaction inside a hominid meatsuit, and I empathize with the hurt people and the people who cause hurt and, most of all, with the people who are confused by their own narratives. I tell the story because when a kid does something wrong, he should have a punishment that fits the crime, and he should know that it’s a crime. But that may never happen, because we really are just souls trapped in bodies and safety really is just a story we tell ourselves and we all have to try very hard just to be okay.

Try very hard, okay?

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Some thoughts upon reconsidering “The Princess and the Pea” in middle age

Remember the “Princess and the Pea”? That’s the fairy tale in which a young woman proves she is a real princess by getting a backache from sleeping on a pea hidden under a pile of mattresses. This odd little test was arranged by the mother of the man she wanted to marry. This sounded completely sensible to me when I was 4. And now, at 43, it does again.

  • If you’re clear about who you are and what you need, and you are honest about it, it will be much more obvious, to you and everyone else, when people are screwing with you.
  • If your ideas require a literal pile of ridiculousness to challenge, but you spend the night anyway, you’re going to get hurt.
  • If your beloved lets someone else dictate his standards and boundaries, you are going to have to put up with some bullshit.
  • If you patiently sit through all the weird little tests your baggage-laden potential partner requires and only complain when it’s incredibly unreasonable, be prepared for your reward to be everybody calling you a fancy little princess.

Here’s what I recommend: Next time someone reacts to you saying that you’re sensitive about something by trying to wound you with that very piece of information, walk away. No potential partner is so cute or securely positioned or ready for commitment as to be worth tolerating being hurt on purpose. You won’t have time to think about how much you’re missing if you’re elbow deep in a coding class. And you can probably buy a bike for what you could get for that tiara on Craigslist. If it takes a frigging ladder to get into the bed, don’t sleep there. It ain’t worth it.

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The updated chili recipe, for anyone who cares

A little thematically inconsistent, but here’s a recipe. Couple times, people have asked me for my chili recipe. Not very long ago I noticed that it’s evolved a little since the last time I wrote it down, so I ran through it one more time. It’s essentially the same — chocolate and beer.

  • Black beans
  • Pinto beans
  • A big can of those yummy fire-roasted diced tomatoes
  • A medium yellow onion
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic
  • Somewhere between 1 and 3 chipotles in adobo sauce (if you don’t have these in your pantry or fridge right now, well, I don’t even)
  • 1 jalapeno. Or 2 — fortune favors the bold
  • About a pound of ground beef, and, really, get some of that lean grass-fed beef. Totally worth it.
  • About a tablespoon each of chili powder and cumin
  • About half a teaspoon of dried oregano
  • A square of baker’s chocolate
  • A beer, divided. Divided into some goes in the chili and some goes in your face

Soak 1.5 cups black beans and 1.5 cups pinto beans in 10 cups or so of water overnight. If the beans don’t soften overnight, add a pinch of baking soda.

Rinse the beans. (Or, use 2 cans of black and 2 cans of pinto, save yourself the hassle and move on. But don’t rinse — you’ll want all the liquid)

Dump the can of tomatoes into the beans. Put the heat on medium-low.

Brown the beef in a medium-hot skillet. Drain by scooping up with a slotted spoon and smooshing down with a spatula, and then transfer to the pot of beans and tomato. Pour off all but enough fat to fry the onion in.

On that note, dice the onion and the jalapeno and fry them, along with the garlic — either squished in a press or chopped up fine by hand. Actually, you probably should have done this first. Hmmm. Sorry. Anyhow, at the last moment of frying, when the onions are starting to be translucent and the jalapenos are making you cough, add the spices to the onions and garlic and let them toast a bit before adding it all to the pot of what is now starting to look like chili.

The heat is still on your skillet, right? So dump in about half a beer and add the square of baker’s chocolate. Stand there and look smart while you sip the beer and watch the chocolate melt. You might have to add a little more beer. That’s why you have to stand there and look smart while you watch. But, you probably won’t which is why you’re allowed to sip the beer.

Once that melting process is complete, pour in the chocolatey beer, stir the chili but good, and hang close until it simmers. Once it does, stir it again with some real attention and commitment. Then put the heat down to low and put the lid on and leave it be for a few hours. It will be pretty good in like 4 hours. But it won’t be awesome until it spends a night in the fridge, so the best course of action is to make it on a Saturday so that it’s totally ready for football on Sunday.

NB: Sometimes I add more tomatoes, different beans, or delete the meat. Sometimes I add other dried peppers. The only rules are these: Chocolate and beer yes; cinnamon and sugar no.

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