There’s nothing quite like a book that points out over 300 pages how clueless you’ve been about your local community of artists. As I read this, I had to wonder what rock I was living under in May/June 2012 to have missed out on the five weeks of discussion, exhibition, art walks, free vegan food, lectures on herbal remedies, etc. I mean, I passed by the Luggage Store on my bike every day headed downtown for work—why was I oblivious?
Erick Lyle gives us several of his own pieces and pulls together essays from writers like Rebecca Solnit, Micah Bazant, Sarah Schulman, etc. to produce 31 distinct entries into this book layered with photos of the art and exhibition and lectures. Marshall Weber spent 72 hours exposed to the streets without eating/drinking unless something was given to him (a burrito and a loaf of bread) and sleeping outside all while reading site-specific poems around the city and dragging a small covered wagon filled with poetry. Sam Green gives us a history of “plop art” that makes me actually change my mind about that sculpture in Justin Herman plaza:

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, at the press conference for the dedication, Vaillancourt shouted, “This fountain is dedicated to all freedom. Free Quebec! Free East Pakistan! Free Vietnam! Free the whole world!” Then he jumped into the water of the fountain and spraypainted the word “Libre” with a stencil directly onto his new sculpture! “I am an emotional man,”Vaillancourt said. Then prodding his middle finger upward in the direction of the speaker’s platform, he added, “And if they don’t like it, fuck them!”

Plop art itself is worthy of a definition: “Plop Art (or Plonk art is a pejorative slang term for the public art (usually large, abstract, modernist or contemporary sculpture) made for government or corporate plazas, spaces in front of office buildings, skyscraper atriums, parks, and other public venues.”

Sarah Schulman gave a talk on the Gentrification of the Mind, noting that in communities like NYC and SF where a section of the population died off from AIDS, those radical and alternative artists were replaced “by people who were far more obedient to the dominant order, economically and aesthetically. And hence we see why the new tenants, and now their children attending NYU, would want to stop in at the 7-Eleven on Saint Mark’s Place for a microwaved hot dog. Its blandness reminds them of themselves, their own obedience, their own mass production, their own sameness, corporate aesthetic and their own corporate desire.”

In Lyle’s Utopia in the Tenderloin essay, I learned about the Kaliflower newsletter of the 1970-1971 timeframe, produced by a communal household in the Western Addition to connect communes in the city and East Bay. This publication was hand-delivered by individuals who then created personal bridges between the communes. Appendix 1 contains a partial listing of all the addresses of communes within the network between 1967-1971.

The book is visually interesting and tackles the complex issues cities (and SF in particular) are facing with the ever-widening gap between haves and have-nots.

Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality

I’m finally getting around to reading this collection of essays, pulled together in the immediate aftermath of Clarence Thomas’s ascension to the Supreme Court, by various intellectuals to give a Person-On-The-Street account of what the hell just happened. I say finally, because I learned about it in Fall 2014 reading Divided Lives, and am still enjoying the bounty of its bibliography.

Toni Morrison writes the introduction and edits the collection, starting with the disgusting quote, “I have never asked to be nominated… Mr. Chairman, I am a victim of the process.” — Clarence Thomas, Friday, October 11, 1991, followed immediately by “It would have been more comfortable to remain silent… I took no initiative to inform anyone… I could not keep silent.” — Anita Hill, Friday, October 11, 1991.

The scope of the essays touches on race, sex, politics, and continues to repeat the terrible “high tech lynching” comment that Thomas made in nearly every essay. One of the authors, Michael Thelwell, confesses that if the stakes hadn’t been so high, he would have taken a perverse pleasure in Thomas’s performance, “After all, here was a black man facing twelve of the most complacent, orotund, self-important–as only a U.S. senator can be–white men under creation. And there he was, bold-faced as you please, telling them in effect, “Yo’ ain’t shit. In yo’ face, Senators! Most potent, grave and reverend Segneurs, Ima tell you only as much as I want you to know. I shall from time to time utter statements that strain human credulity. More than that, I shall look you dead in the eye, grin and lie. And you gonna know I’m lying, and I and the world will know I’m doing it. And I dare you sorry mothers to do diddly-shit about it. I dare y’awl. In your face, you sorry mothers.

Most essays also touch on the absurd comment Bush made that Thomas was the best qualified candidate (bullshit!) and that race in no way factored into his nomination (double bullshit!). Morrison also brings up the disturbing comments by Senator Danforth when listing Thomas’s fundamental points as a person: “1. He is his own person 2. He laughs… I concede that there is something weird about Clarence Thomas. It’s his laugh. It is the loudest laugh I have ever heard. It comes from deep inside, and it shakes his body.” Morrison points out that duh, this isn’t weird at all. “Every black person who heard those words understood. How necessary, how reassuring were both the grin and its being summoned for display. It is the laughter, the chuckle, that invites and precedes any discussion of association with a black person… It is difficult to imagine a sponsor introducing Robert Bork or William Gates with a call to this most clearly understood metonym for racial accommodation.”

Coupled with my recent reading of Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between The World And Me, I got an increasing awareness of how society treats black bodies. Even Thomas was dissected in the press pre-Hill accusations, the NYTimes talking about his weight lifting prowess. Morrison: “Like the unswerving focus on the female body (whether the woman is a judge, an actress, a scholar, or a waitress), the black man’s body is voluptuously dwelled upon in biographies about them, journalism on them, remarks about them.”

Also while reading this, I discovered the mass shooting that was tangentially related to the Anita Hill hearings. George Hennard, Jr. screamed at a TV screen while watching Hill’s first press conference, “You dumb bitch! You bastards opened the door for all the women.” The next day Hennard slaughtered 23 people, mostly women, in the largest mass-shooting in the U.S. that didn’t take place in a school (as of press time, 2016!).

Manning Marable’s essay reveals that Bush’s team were determined to keep the hearings from becoming a “referendum on sexual harassment,” and that Thomas should not be the “victim of two thousand years of male dominance.” WTF!

On Clarence Thomas’s clear lack of qualifications, several essays put forth evidence, but I enjoyed Claudia Brodsky Lacour’s detailed breakdown:

[Clarence Thomas was] a nominee whose record showed no demonstrable qualifications for that office but, instead, many demonstrably disqualifying actions: no body of legal writing, but a collection of inflammatory speeches attacking already instituted legal rights and liberties, the constitutional powers of Congress, and even those of the Court; no courtroom experience, but a brief tenure in a stepping-stone judgeship; indeed, no direct legal experience to speak of and no other form of constructive public work, but stints stewarding federal agencies with the purpose of rendering ineffectual, reducing, or terminating the activity of those same agencies; no evidence of confidence earned and bestowed either by the professional and academic legal community or the public at the ballot box, but a career fueled entirely by patronage; no indication of superior legal knowledge, or any degree of judicial prowess or analytic independence of mind, but a consistent history of political appointments to posts of bureaucratic oversight whose exercise was, at the very least, controversial, and about whose documented negligence, if not thwarting of the law, much could have been said.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Shudderingly accurate depiction of a teenage girl’s diary, so much so that I had to read behind hands that were covering my eyes at times. Loopy and sloppy “in love” sentiments nestled up against bland lists of things she admires. Ridiculously sketchy behavior, sleeping around, doing drugs, living it up in 1970s San Francisco, walking everywhere, especially Polk Street, getting kicked out of all her schools, calling something called the Cosmic Connection which connected 8 random people on the phone at one time. Great drawings, fan mail to Aline Kominsky answered back with a grateful postcard (mostly grateful that she wasn’t yet another sweaty teenage dude sending fan mail). Sleeping with her mom’s boyfriend, going to a Peter Frampton concert in Oakland.

Between the World and Me

As good as everyone says it is. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes this as a letter to his fifteen-year old son, trying to explain how he has grappled with being considered the bottom of the pile, the other, the non-white. Growing up in the streets of Baltimore, Coates finds it hard to shake the constant awareness necessary for survival, but is proud to bring his son up in NYC, exposed to more hope and expectations (don’t be twice as good, but expect twice as much like the Masters of the universe he strolls the Manhattan sidewalks with). Coates finds community in the Mecca of Howard University, and gorges himself on books about everything he’s ever wondered.

The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly I was discovering myself.

He decides that he learns more outside of college than in, so drops out to focus on writing, becomes a journalist. “Now I could call and ask people why a popular store closed, why a show had been canceled, why there were so many churches and so few supermarkets. Journalism gave me another tool of exploration, another way of unveiling the laws that bound my body.”

Coates brings his son, aged 10, to Civil War battlefields where he’s greeted like a “nosy accountant conducting an audit and someone was trying to hide the books.” There’s an ugly run-in on the Upper West Side after a viewing of Howl’s Moving Castle, where a white woman shoves Coates’ son (then aged 4) on the escalator for not moving fast enough. His wife travels to Paris for her 30th birthday and Coates wishes he dreamed that big, finally goes for himself to feel what it’s like to be freed from the heavy overtones of race in America. I’m doing a horrible job recounting this– just read it.

The Writing Life

Exquisite slender book by Annie Dillard on writing which I wish were twice its size so I could swim laps in the prose and enjoy the cozy feeling of her words. This more than makes up for my bewilderment over not liking Holy the Firm, which she continually refers to in this book as “difficult,” thereby rendering me obtuse for not enjoying it. Despite that, I loved this book. She offers vivid, real advice on writing, to go forth and build and tear down and not save the good bits, just to write and write and wring it out and suffer and yes it is not pleasant and yes it is painful and yes it is difficult but it’s the only thing to do, you see. She has long digressions about describing the places she’s worked, whether cinder block cage of a library or a frostbitten cabin on an island, closing the blinds so that her only sight is in her imagination, drawing a picture of what is outside the window and pasting it on the closed shades. She talks about the incredibly slow pace writing takes, how some of the most prolific writers throughout history churned out a page a day, just a page a day, so a book a year if they were lucky. By far one of the best books on writing I’ve read-a must for any writer’s bookshelf.

Some bits I loved:
* “Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous odor.”
* “How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall. I have often ‘written’ with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet.”
* She quotes Anne Truitt (sculptor), “The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.”
* Michelangelo’s note to his apprentice, found after death, “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”

Postscript: I just came across this essay about the experience of having Dillard as a writing teacher. Beautiful.

Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers

A very dated publication that doesn’t hold up well in today’s light, despite my coming across mention of it from several enthusiastic recommendations in Second Wave books. In 1973, Ehrenreich and English self-published this pamphlet raging against the takeover of men in the healing industry, the vilification of midwives, the burning of witches in the middle ages. It’s all over the place, and in the 2010 introduction, the authors admit to having been wrong in retrospect by inflating totals of witches burned, but they claim their sources at the time were limited. Best part of the book were the images that they got to include since it was self pub’d.


On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978

My list of books to read is well over a hundred books, but every time I read something from the Second Wave, I end up with dozens more. I got hipped to this book by way of Alison Bechdel’s slightly disappointing Are You My Mother?, and went down a rabbit hole of trying to find a photo of the 1974 National Book Award acceptance speech Adrienne Rich gave where she shared the honor with Audrey Lorde and Alice Walker (no photo exists that I can find). As I read this book I attempted to chase down the ghosts from the 1970s feminist past by searching for traces of forgotten (or still thriving) institutions Rich mentions, like the Feminist Studio Workshop in LA (now the Women’s Building), the Sagaris Institute (no longer around and hardly any traces except one that netted me an oral history with Dorothy Allison), Maiden Rock Institute in Minnesota (a ghostly trace left in a list of grant files), and the still kicking Feminist Art Institute.
Comprised of several of her essays, introductions, and other prose musings, the one that has stuck most in my head is that of Emily Dickinson (Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson), making me want to go out and buy her complete works. The forward to the work illustrates the constant wiping away of memories of our foremothers, the connections between these historical figures cut and left to dangle solo.

On the continuing theme I’m discovering, where the latest technology is blamed for the destruction of society, from the Foreword:

The television screen has throughout the world replaced, or is fast replacing: oral poetry; old wives’ tales; children’s story-acting games and verbal lore; lullabies; “playing the sevens”; political argument; the reading of books too difficult for the reader, yet somehow read; tales of “when I was your age” told by parents and grandparents to children, linking them to their own past; singing in parts; memorization of poetry; the oral transmitting of skills and remedies; reading aloud; recitation; both community and solitude. People grow up who not only don’t know how to read, a late-acquired skill among the world’s majority; they don’t know how to talk, to tel stories, to sing, to listen and remember, to argue, to pierce an opponent’s argument, to use metaphor and imagery and inspired exaggeration in speech; people are growing up in the slack flicker of a pale light which lacks the concentrated burn of a candle flame or oil wick or the bulb of a gooseneck desk lamp: a pale, wavering, oblong shimmer, emitting incessant noise, which is to real knowledge or discourse what the manic or weepy protestations of a drunk are to responsible speech. Drunks do have a way of holding an audience, though, and so does the shimmery ill-focused oblong screen.

In an early chapter on Anne Bradstreet, she talks about the strain of being a talented woman specifically in the early days of the U.S. “Intellectual intensity among women gave cause for uneasiness: the unnerving performance of Anne Hutchinson had disordered the colony in 1636, and John Winthrop wrote feelingly in 1645 of ‘a godly young woman, and of special parts, who was fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding, and reason, which had been growing upon her divers years, by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and written many books.'”

Rich writes about her own struggle to find time to write in a world where she’d just had her third child: “What frightened me most was the sense of drift, of being pulled along on a current which called itself my destiny, but in which I seemed to be losing touch with whoever I had been…” In order to create, she needed time and space, and “a certain freedom of the mind…-freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away.”

Writing about women in higher education, “The exceptional women who have emerged from this system and who hold distinguished positions in it are just that: the required exceptions used by every system to justify and maintain itself.” Later, “in every discipline where we are considered, women are perceived as the objects rather than the originators of inquiry, thus primarily through male eyes, thus as a special category. That the true business of civilization has been in the hands of men is the lesson absorbed by every student of the traditional sources.” On the women who get ahead in the hierarchy, “Each woman in the university is defined by her relationship to the men in power instead of her relationship to other women up and down the scale. Now, this fragmentation among women is merely a replication of the fragmentation from each other that we undergo in the society outside; in accepting the premise that advancement and security–even the chance to do one’s best work–lie in propitiating and identifying with men who have some power, we have always found ourselves in competition with each other and blinded to our common struggles.”

To read: Jane Anger, Rachel Speight, Elizabeth Carey, Anne Askew, Olympe des Gouges, Flora Tristan, Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres, Elizabeth Gould Davis

Motion Sickness

I’m breaking my cardinal rule of never reading something while in a bad mood, and unfortunately this review will suffer for it. Lynne Tillman’s 1991 book about drifting around Europe in the 1980s, vagabonding with people she meets along the way, has all the earmarks of a great book. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as it deserves, mostly because of the buzzing undercurrent of unease that zapped while I was reading it, entirely unrelated to the book. Her narrator is a single woman, breezily floating from London, to Paris, to Istanbul, to Milan, to Venice, to Barcelona, etc. etc. on her mother’s dime along with her meager savings. None of the people she meets will believe that she’s not independently wealthy because of her flitting hither and thither with nary a care in the world. Strangely, everyone she meets all seem to know each other, this tightknit community of people surfing through Europe, running bookshops or selling antique jewelry on Portobello Road. She shuns typical sightseeing for more lounging around in hotel beds, writing and then ripping up postcards to people.

I did like her characterization of Gregor, the Barcelona recluse who sounds like one of my ilk. “Gregor reads voraciously and keeps a diary that he writes in scrupulously each day at a desk surrounded by small fileboxes in which are stored annotated comments about what he’s read. He’s disciplined, a vegetarian, and his home is nearly bare, except for a vast wall of books which I’ve referred to as his Berlin Wall. Irony, yes? he asks. All of Freud, in German and English, Melanie Klein, Christa Wolf, Hegel, Marx, Handke, books on Hollywood film, Dickens, Stendhal, Flaubert, Resnais, Duras, biographies galore. He tells me he sometimes is transfixed in front of his books, awed and dismayed… Though he doesn’t like to see people–he is, he insists grimly, compulsively counterphobic–he knows many and keeps a stack of notebooks near his telephone, with names and addresses of the interesting people he’s met.”
Her narrator buys the local paper wherever she is, despite not reading whatever language it is in. She sums up the great thing about not getting to know people very well, “There’s a perfection in the incomplete way in which we know each other.” On traveling alone, “Mornings, according to a voluntary routine, I sit in the garden and have a roll, jam and cappuccino while observing couples, primarily, and the occasional single, who, like me, must project an air of isolation, resilience, industriousness or tranquility. The virtues of silence. I’ve been silent for days, except with Tony [the hotel desk clerk]. At breakfast, as at lunch or dinner, I try to hit on the right amount of self-absorption, as if being with myself is close to constant delight.”

Ravens in Winter

I couldn’t wait to get back home to finish this real-life detective story by “sociobiologist” (? who knew that was a thing?) Bernd Heinrich, who seeks to discover why ravens share their finds of large meat carcasses instead of gorging on them by themselves. Someone needs to make this movie… perhaps Dances with Ravens? In the mid-1980s, Heinrich starts studying ravens at his winter cabin in Maine, driving the five hours from his teaching gig at University of Vermont every weekend to make field observations, hauling hundreds of pounds of meat (dead cows, goats, moose, etc.) up the snowed in trail to his cabin, setting up blinds from which to watch, suffering mighty cold temps in his un-chinked cabin. He notes behavior, recruits his students to help tag/weigh/record trapped ravens that are then set loose, builds a huge cage from which to study trapped bird behavior most closely mimicking that of untrapped birds. His conclusions, after many years of study and freezing his ass off swaying at the top of hundred foot trees pre-dawn while he watches flocks of ravens descend on a bait, were that unpaired juvenile ravens most likely recruit other ravens to bait sites as a way of overwhelming resident dominant pairs to gain access to the food and also to boost their status as potential mates. They bring word of food back to a roost, and a flock of ravens will land and start feeding shortly after dawn on the day after the food was discovered by the juvie. Fascinating stuff!

Holy the Firm

Weird– today is officially Annie Dillard day, because I searched for my review of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and found that I finished it a year ago today. Which must be why I was compelled to make a journey this morning during a window between rain spurts to the main library so that I could dig through their Annie Dillard stacks. I came away with this slender volume, along with a collection of 3 of her other works. But honestly, this one fell short for me. I’m a fan of Dillard, and a lover of the Pacific Northwest, but the overindulgence of “God” in this leaves my head hurting. Best thing I got out of it was the recommendation for a book about Rimbaud. Dillard most recently rose to mind due to paging through the latest issue of The Atlantic, wherein William Deresiewicz somewhat tears her apart for her decade-long silence.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

I get it, this classic book was a bestseller that (some say) helped to hasten the Civil War by bringing forward discussions about the terrible practice of slavery. But despite its “classic” label, it’s in terrible need of an editor, and presents a long slog for anyone who feels obligated to pore over every word carefully. Originally released in serial installments, it has a clunky structure that yanks you all over the place, but the worst sin is its bloated inclusion of so much description and talk of the white world of slavery. We’re dazzled with many pages of description of St. Clare’s luscious Louisiana plantation, and long paragraphs of dialog where the white families grapple with their complicity in the crime of slavery. So for a modern critic, too much white perspective and not enough detail of the inner thoughts of the blacks who suffered under their hands.

Summarizing in too slender detail:
Kentucky-based Mr. Shelby has to sell some slaves to get rid of a debt. He gives up his precious Tom, and young Harry (son of Eliza & George–a slave on another plantation). Eliza catches wind of the transaction and flees in the night with Harry after warning Tom, who foolishly/loyally decides to stay and be sold off. Eliza & son have a miracle escape across the ice into Ohio, and are then sheltered by Quakers. Husband George also flees, passes as a white man, and joins them. Skirmish, but they successfully move to Canada. Tom, on the other hand, is on a river headed further south, rescues a young white girl (Eva) who falls in and has her father buy him (St. Clare). Oh lucky Tom, St. Clare is rich and kind, and his life is somewhat idyllic except for the fact that he left his wife & children behind in Kentucky. His wife hires herself out to make pastries and starts saving up for the Shelby family to buy Tom back, but (of course) disasters strikes: Eva dies of some sort of fever, then St. Clare (after he starts proceedings to make Tom a free man) is killed as a bystander in a fight. Tom’s sold to Simon Legree, a drunk evil slaveholder who ends up beating Tom to death. The whiff of temperance fiction is all over this tale, some grim descriptions of Legree’s dependence on the bottle.

The Color Purple

Beautiful classic work by Alice Walker, told entirely through letters directed at God, and then when discovered that Celie’s sister Nettie is writing letters to her, via letters between Celie and Nettie. Celie has a terrible childhood, raped & impregnated twice by her stepfather (although she thinks he’s actually her father until several years later), her children given away and cared for by a missionary couple that Nettie ends up befriending and traveling to Africa with. Celie is married off to Alfred, a man who beats her and belittles her, but then her whole world changes when Shug Avery arrives on the scene. Alfred is in love with Shug, and Celie falls in love with her, too. Shug’s a talented singer/entertainer, and rescues Celie from her crippling life by telling her to stand up to Alfred, and eventually whisking her off to Memphis where Celie begins to manufacture a successful line of pants. Several great female characters in this– including Sofia who sasses the mayor’s wife and ends up beating the mayor up when it’s suggested that she become their maid.

Celie talks about God, trying to chase the vision of the white bearded guy out of her mind, “I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.”

There’s also a great scene where the white girl that Sophia helped raise comes back and demands that Sophia say her child is sweet and smart. Sofia wants nothing of it, realizing this white baby is going to grow up to terrorize her no matter how much she likes it.

Don’t you just love him? she ast Sofia point blank.
Sofia sigh. Put down her iron. Stare at Miss Eleanor Jane and Reynolds Stanley. All the time me and Henrietta over in the corner playing pitty pat. Henrietta act like Miss Eleanor Jane ain’t alive, but both of us hear the way the iron sound when Sofia put it down. The sound have a lot of old and new stuff in it.

No ma’am, say Sofia. I do not love Reynolds Stanley Earl. Now. That’s what you been trying to find out ever since he was born. And now you know.

Me and Henrietta look up. Miss Eleanor Jane just that quick done put Reynolds Stanley on the floor where he crawling round knocking stuff over. Head straight for Sofia’s stack of ironed clothes and pull it down on his head. Sofia take up the clothes, straighten them out, stand by the ironing board with her hand on the iron. Sofia the kind of woman no matter what she have in her hand it look like a weapon…
Too late to cry, Miss Eleanor Jane, say Sofia. All us can do now is laugh. Look at him, she say. And she do laugh. He can’t even walk and already he in my house messing it up. Did I ast him to come? Do I care whether he sweet or not? Will it make any difference in the way he grow up to treat me what I think?

I don’t feel nothing about him at all. I don’t love him, I don’t hate him. I just wish he couldn’t run loose all the time messing up folks stuff.

All the time! All the time! say Miss Eleanor Jane. Sofia, he just a baby. Not even a year old. He only been here five or six times.

I feel like he been here forever, say Sofia.

I just don’t understand, say Miss Eleanor Jane. All the other colored women I know love children. The way you feel is something unnatural.

I love children, say Sofia. But all the colored women that say they love yours is lying. They don’t love Reynolds Stanley any more than I do. But if you so badly raise as to ast ’em, what you expect them to say? Some colored people so scared of whitefolks that they claim to love the cotton gin.

The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods

This book is a great example of why sometimes you should not give into your curiosity about “Whatever happened to…” and just move on to the next shiny object. A random comment got me wondering about Julia Butterfly Hill, and I ended up suffering through this terrible book instead of contenting myself with a quick internet search to see that she’s continuing her activism through public speaking (of course). But no, I prefer to read books rather than search results, and so I killed off a part of my brain by reading shlocky and numbing prose describing Hill’s two year tree-sit in Luna, interspersed with juvenile poems she wrote while up there and (pass the icepick so I can jam it in my eye) spiritual beseeching of the universe (aka God, b/c her pops was a preacher). Better if she had left the writing to someone who’s actually skilled at telling a story, and just focus on what she does best–sitting.

The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior

Well, Sibley illustrated this, but most of Part 1: The World of Birds (the good stuff!), was written by the other editors of this book– Rick Cech, John Dunning, Chris Elphick, Margaret Rubega. I learned a ton of crazy things just in those first hundred pages, which is why I’m doing the write-up now, while I still skim & dance through the remaining 500 pages about the individual species.

* Curlews and other shorebirds that probe for food below the soil– their bills contain tactile sensors to help locate prey. They can feel with their bills!
* To land after flying, birds adjust their wing feathers to create more drag, to slow down, hover, land.
* We’re not sure of the purpose of the rictal bristles near the mouth of certain fly catchers. “Experimental removal” (ouch) doesn’t affect their ability to catch prey, but they could act as an eye protectant.
* Also have tactile sensors in tongue to identify food and know where to position it to crush and swallow (birds don’t have teeth).
* Digestion happens quickly– 30-45 minutes
* Gizzard is lined with rough keratin and sandy grit ingested by the bird; both are used to pulverize the food… acting as teeth
* The gizzard changes based on season! Toughens to handle seeds in winter, softens to handle insects in summer.
* Longer intestines in plant-based diet birds gives the digestive system more time to pull nutrients from veg that’s difficult to extract nutrients from
* Towhee’s gut length increases in winter to accommodate a switch in diet.
* Bird bones are hollow but reinforced with complex strut mechanisms
* Birds see in the UV and near-UV range which humans eyes can’t detect. 1990s studies on kestrels show them using UV light to hunt for mice– mice use urine to mark their trails, urine absorbs UV light, areas of concentrated urine (mouse trails) appear as black lines. Falcons can thus see the trails very distinctly, just sit back and wait for a mouse to appear.
* Syrinx – the vocal organ, is connected to 2 tracheal tubes, so birds can produce two distinct sounds at one time.
* Birds have ability to detect magnetic field of Earth, believed b/c of tiny crystals of magnetite near their olfactory nerves.
* I’ve always wondered why certain groups always flock together– white crowned sparrows hanging with fox sparrows hanging with song sparrows and golden crowned sparrows… these were all at one time the same species, then isolation caused evolutionary distinctions, but if they don’t compete for resources then they can peacefully coexist.
* White crowned sparrow must eat seed every 4-5 seconds to survive winter.
* Migratory activity requires high high energy. Continuous flight for 2-6 days without rest, the human equivalent of running a 4 minute mile for 80 hours straight.
* “Birds have light receptors in the brain that are sensitive to the extremely low light intensities that penetrate into the brain itself. Birds sense the length of day and night with these receptors rather than with their eyes. Stimulation of the brain receptors in the spring initiates a series of hormonal changes that results in production of testosterone in the male and estrogen and other hormones in the female. These physiological changes in turn orchestrate a complex suite of seasonal behaviors that determines the timing of reproductive activities, migration, and molt.”
* Migratory efficiency– most important variable is wind strength and direction. Migrants actively choose to migrate at times with appropriate wind direction and select flight altitude to minimize headwinds and capitalize on tailwinds. Flocks also get aerodynamic advantages with flocks– drafting.
Books to check out:
* Herring gull’s world
* Ravens in winter

Are You My Mother?

I was vaguely disappointed by this piece of the diptych about Bechdel’s parents, her grand reveal of father in the stunning Fun Home and somewhat bland exploration of mother in this one. Saturated with endless scenes on the therapist couch, agonizing over the relationship, peering into Winnicott’s theories and writings (also recently reminded of those in The Argonauts recently), chockablock filled with quotes from Virginia Woolf alongside a great detailed analysis of the removal of the word “feminist” in a dinner party scene from To the Lighthouse, which had previously included the word three times. I suppose it’s a daunting task to explore the bond with your mother while it still exists, whereas her father’s death had been chewed through in analysis. We get the constant drumbeat of the daily phone calls between them, with mom always headed off to do her “puzzle” in the NYTimes, and a consistent theme of wanting to avoid discussing Bechdel’s sexual identification as a lesbian. Some good bits but mostly comes off as completely and disastrously self-centered, with no real plot except to chart the arc of her struggle with the story of writing about her mother.