Monthly Archives: October 2010

An answer to a question I sometimes get

Sometimes when I’m in the passenger seat (and maybe a little when I’m not) I’ll hold my Flip camera up to the window. I’m fascinated by the motion of the landscape going by. Here’s my first attempt to edit a bunch of video into something. From two recent trips to southwest Wisconsin.

(Country driving isn’t the only time I hit the record button to collect random scenery. I posted something from PrideFest earlier this year.)


Filed under Going Driftless, Images, nature

The trouble with imagination

Stanley Young, a statistician with the National Institute of Statistical Sciences, commenting on research findings that connected the incidence of eating cereal for breakfast with the likelihood of giving birth to a boy:

“The human imagination seems capable of developing a rationale from most findings, however unanticipated.”

I am thinking sub-prime mortgages … political polling … quarterly reports … dieting fads … talk radio … racial profiling … weapons of mass destruction … trickle-down economics … pyramid schemes … the Office of Management and Budget …


Leave a comment

Filed under Musings

We’re all in the trade together

I just returned from watching this film. It was a screening organized by my employer, Public Allies. The filmmaker, Katrina Browne, is half of the pair who founded the organization almost 20 years ago. Staff, friends and guests brought in pizza and sweets, and settled into chairs more suitable to a half-hour meeting than a 90-minute film.

But it was hardly the chairs that created the discomfort.

“Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” is about some descendants of the DeWolfs, who made an incredible fortune in the slave trade. Katrina is one of those descendants. The film’s basic premise — a group of people go on a journey to understand a shared, shameful family history — could be intriguing enough, but what I walked away with was a profound sense of never-ending complicity.

The movie has many streams that split, merge, cross and mix with each other. The stream that I’m reflecting on now was crystallized, for me, by a scene in Cuba, when the group –retracing the triangle of rum/slaves/sugar their ancestors so cleverly exploited — visited a plantation once owned by a DeWolf. There, they came across a large contraption that extracted juice from sugar cane by pushing a wheel that turned gears. We see the DeWolf descendants attempting to use it, with the suggestion that slave labor once made the gears turn. The contraption’s origins were stamped on its side “Buffalo, N.Y.,” dated (if I recall correctly) early 1800s.

It was one of many ways the movie smashed my facile assumptions about who’s responsible, and about who can relax by feeling not responsible. I shouldn’t need to hear it again, but apparently I do: No one has clean hands.

Your forebears came to the U.S. after the Civil War, you say? Check the long list of nations that built slaves fortresses in Ghana to get in on the action, they might very well hail from one of them. They farmed in the Midwest, you say? If the Midwest wasn’t growing wheat and selling it to the south, the south could not have afforded to plant so much land with lucrative cotton — picked by slaves — hence giving them resources to buy the wheat. You come from poor folks, you say? Yes, but if your granddad was educated on the G.I. bill, he could not have been black, and that’s probably why by the time you came along he had climbed into the middle class.

The logic trots on along those lines. And as I listened to the discussion, I started thinking about Native Americans …. child labor … the Jewish Holocaust … Japanese-American displacement camps … . How many of us can claim that nothing about our lives has benefitted from some aspect of exploitation, and very likely still is? If you truly can say you are not part of that group, you are probably among the exploited.

Katrina didn’t stop when the film is over. She and many of the people on the trip have pursued various ways of raising consciousness, seeking repatriation, advocating for change. That’s the whole point, after all. Stop the cycle. Acknowledge, admit, act. I liked what she said about letting the guilt and defensiveness give way to anger and grief, because the latter creates a starting point while the former gets you nowhere. I liked so much of what she said. Only part of it is being processed right here. I’ll continue to think.

But in what way will I act?

:: Katrina Browne has started a nonprofit that is dedicated to exploring the legacies of the slave trade. It’s called the Tracing Center:
:: One of the family members on the trip has written a book about the experience, “Inheriting the Trade”:
:: You can find out more about the film — including information about organizing classes or workshops around it:
:: Find out about Katrina Browne’s connection to Public Allies here:


Filed under Musings

And now for something cheerier

Every office has someone who likes to decorate. At Christmas, it might be garland artfully looped under a shelf. Spring brings daffodils and pastels. Leading up to Valentine’s Day, red hearts are de rigueur. I consider myself lucky enough to be working with a group of quite tasteful and restrained people. To be honest, there isn’t much in the way of festoonment in my workplace, and that’s generally fine by me. The one occasional exception is R. She had some quite lovely lilacs set out this spring, and hydrangea in the summer. One day  recently I noticed a small array of colorful gourds had been set on the ledge that frames her cube. No skeletons and witch hats. What a relief.

So imagine my disappointment when I arrived one morning to see that someone had stabbed one of those petite gourds with a pair of scissors, and pasted a photocopied image of “The Scream” on said gourd.

I found this disturbing.

Now, I don’t think anyone meant anything by it. R. seemed wryly amused. Early Halloween hijjinks. We’re all adults. Some people I respect actually like the Chucky films.

Nonetheless, I decided one evening after everyone had left to make a quiet point about cutlery in the workplace. I removed the scissors and pasted the Mona Lisa’s face over “The Scream.”

R. and I had a little laugh about it and that was that, until this morning. I noticed that the Mona Lisa and the Scream face were both still adhered to two of her gourds and she said (wryly), yes. I have decided it is an installation.

Oh? I replied.

Yes, and it’s titled “Great Faces in Art Stuck to Gourds.”

I laughed so hard that I decided to make this video.

Leave a comment

Filed under Images

The box came back empty this time

Jools became a roommate of mine in 1991. She was a stray off the street, had delivered a litter of kittens in my friend’s front-hall closet, and was pretty much unflappable except when I tried to give her some affection. I had never lived with a cat before. I appreciated the fact that she didn’t jump on my kitchen counters. On mentioning that I had just acquired a cat, an acquaintance remarked, “You’ll have a lot of years together.” What? I said. How long do cats usually live, anyway? “Oh gosh, 12, 15 years, something like that.” I was stunned. I was thinking four or five.

We had a long road ahead of us.

Jools moved with me from Lewiston to Green Bay to Shorewood to Milwaukee. That first move, from New York state to Wisconsin, involved a plane ride and the first time we really cuddled, because she was drugged up.

My inexperience with cats must have been hard on her. I kept on expecting her to greet me at the door when I came home, tail wagging. At times should would go so far as to greet me, but I caught on pretty fast that this meant she was hungry. We went through a phase of learning to accept each other for what we were. I think that lasted about six years.

She was an indoors cat. Once in a while I could tell she was pining for her old street life. She would sneak outside, and it was always really tough to (a) find her and (b) capture her. I became acquainted with most of the shrubbery on Woodburn Street, and I think the neighbors became acquainted with the sight of me on my hands and knees in their front yards. I would typically have to lunge at her and grab her by the nape of the neck. It seemed like such a violent way to rescue a loved one.

Macintosh Photo Booth moment.

Twice, Jools was gone for long stretches. One of those times, a November, she was missing for almost a month. After the first week I dropped snapshots of her into mailboxes around the neighborhood (shrubbery sites) with my phone number on the back of each. After the second week, I visited the Animal Rescue Center (no luck). After the third week, I gave her remaining cans of high-quality cat food to a colleague, figuring it shouldn’t go to waste. I started feeling sentimental. But … you know, it was kind of nice not to have cat hair and cat puke to clean up. I had begun to accept that she was gone. Well, we had had a lovely nine years together.

The sofa phase.

Then one chilly night I pulled into my alley on the way back from Spin class, and saw a cat dart across the path of my car. She was blurry, but I was pretty sure she was Jools. Could this be?! I stopped my car, flung open the door, and ran in her direction with the engine still running. Here I was again, my butt in the air, talking to a neighbor’s landscaping. “Jools,” I said plaintively, “is that you?” She was highly annoyed, crouched low against the house foundation, and looking me in the eye. She was doing her don’t-mess-with-me sound and I was doing my come-here-sweetie sound. This was our shrubbery drill. Except this time, the drill was dramatically shorter. Something snapped in her and she suddenly stopped her complaining. I could practically see the thought bubble float above her head: Oh. Her. Soft blankets. Warm fluffy bed. Regular meals. And for the first time ever I did not have to lunge at her. She walked toward me. I could gently pick her up and cuddle her. She didn’t squirm. And I muttered to myself, “Oh, shit.”

She was a tough cookie. She was thinner but actually looked wonderful, given the circumstances. Within moments after arriving back home, she was on the bed shedding and I was looking for something to feed her.

The radiator phase.

About five years later I bought a condo on the east side of Milwaukee with low, wide window sills, and I was excited. Jools will love these! But within a year I noticed she wasn’t jumping up there anymore. And then I had to admit, hm, I guess she’s getting old. I started thinking I should break my vet moratorium (I had stopped that habit when one vet told me I should floss her teeth, which I found appalling). That winter, I noticed Jools wasn’t on the couch or bed anymore. She was spending an inordinate amount of time in the spare bathroom. Ah, the radiator. She would stare at it as if it were a TV. They became the closest of friends. I moved her Purr Pads there.

When I decided it was time, I put her into one of those cardboard boxes you use to pack up office files — very handy what with the sturdy construction and carrying slots — and brought her to the vet. I asked a friend to join me. I fretted. What would I find out? Would my cat need some kind of expensive treatment? Would the vet tell me I had neglected her and should have flossed her teeth?

There was an exam and they drew blood, and I had to come back a second time. I packed Jools up again in the box. I fretted more. Turns out the vet said she was borderline this, borderline that but generally in wonderful condition for a cat of her age. I needed to give her some pills every day and come back in about three months for a check.

Then began the Geriatric Phase. The checkups generally went well. My vet and I agreed not to go the pricey-test route (such as chest X-rays and, yes, CAT scans), but to treat the symptoms and monitor her. She was now deaf and out of teeth. Her rear legs didn’t work so well. She started having problems with her litter habits.

I had some health scares with her. Once she was actually googly-eyed — a stroke?! — and I was quite sure the box would come back empty. But it didn’t. It never did. Jools had an amazing ability to bounce back, come back in the box, glare at me for food, and settle in beside the radiator again. I began bragging about my amazing 20-year-old cat.

Yesterday, she was having a really bad morning. I packed her up in the box, ready for another round. Turns out, it was her time. She could have stayed in the hospital for two to three days, and then I would have needed to give her daily injections. The poor thing looked miserable. Her fur was still soft and her face still kittenish, but I knew. My friend was with me again and we cried together. I rubbed her head, which she seemed to like. They were very nice about it at the Animal Emergency Center, and gave me a clay impression of her paw.

I put the empty box in my back seat, and my friend took me out for margaritas.

I keep thinking I hear Jools around the house. Isn’t that weird?

Jools' favorite thing to do.


Filed under Musings