Destroying People and Freedom with the Power of the Perpetually Offended

I’ve been a Southerner now for less than 3 years, short enough to still be considered a West Coast Weirdo to the locals, yet long enough for it to be a complete surprise to me that the Confederate Flag, aka the Stars and Bars, is now the representation of Nazi White Supremacy. I have yet to meet a white supremacist or a Nazi here, and there are far more African-Americans here than there were in San Francisco, including first generations thereof.

How does this offend you?

I am truly the cranky old lady here when I point out that in my childhood, the flag represented the South and the rebels of society. It was the age of the Dukes of Hazzard, hokey Burt Reynolds movies, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. As far as I remember, it represented rowdy rednecks, the kind which still do exist here, with their bold battle cry of “Hold my beer!” When I was sophisticated and urbane, they annoyed me; now that there is a great urban Selbstweltanshauung, the n’er-do-well insouciance of the Southern boy is rather endearing. The problem with the Southern boy is that he doesn’t care what those who consider themselves his betters think, and that’s a problem for those who want us all to think (and vote) in the same way.

But after being informed several times that the former Confederacy is now a hotbed of hatred and its symbol the signal of that, I found even Wikipedia has an article detailing the symbolism and use of the flag, together with results of polls on how people see it (and have seen it.) I’m just like WTF, the things we are supposed to be offended about are changing so fast, I can’t keep up. And frankly, I am sick and tired of always being expected to be offended.

It can’t have been so long ago that businesses could still post a sign saying “we have the right to refuse service.” Now those that hold to personal principles must be destroyed. In 2016, some anti-Trump activists goaded each other to create pink “pussy hats” to protest the election. One local business refused to sell pink yarn for that purpose. Never mind that if you wanted pink yarn to make a pussy hat in Franklin, Tennessee, you could readily find all the yarn for it at Hobby Lobby, or Wal-Mart, and if they ran out, you could get it online or in a neighboring town. You still had the right to knit your hat and wear it in public. But the social justice warriors of today could not let an independent yarn business owner exist with the incorrect opinion, and pursued her with figurative pitchforks of derision and false Yelp reviews.

Last year, the circus at our county fair was literally run out of town thanks to the power of the offended. I did not see the act, but according to the reports, the circus clown kissed the woman he pulled out of the audience against her will. There’s a script to that (or at least there used to be). Woman then slaps clown. Clown does a prattfall. Audience laughs. Clown bows to woman. The new script is that woman makes a face, someone gets offended on said woman’s behalf, calls it rape in complaining to the fair organizers, the fair organizers are shocked that something offensive occurred at our family-oriented fair, and the circus has to leave town in the middle of the night.

Likewise, the devout Christian baker in your town may not want to craft your triple penis bestiality cake. If you pay enough, someone will (just post your wish on Etsy, Craigslist, or the Airtasker app). But, hey, there’s more power and joy in making someone bend to your will than there is in having to pay for a complex custom-made cake, now isn’t there?

I love having ideas. I love being silly. I love joking around. But I can’t any more because I can’t even tell what innocently-meant symbol, song, or joke will trigger howls of protest. We were at a Paint Night in Nashville and the artist/teacher played “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People, until someone pointed out it had something to do with school shootings and the artist was mortified and stopped playing it immediately. We’d seen them perform that song at the Ryman earlier that year; now they don’t play it at all. Recreate the Ministry of Funny Walks skit to someone who doesn’t know Monty Python, and soon enough you’ll have someone shrieking in anger that it’s making fun of their cousin with cerebral palsy.

The problem is that there is great reward in being publicly offended, and all downside for expressing yourself. If you find something to be offended about, others will laud you and shame themselves for not having noticed the offence. It’s bonus points if you get the power of destroying someone or their innocent symbol by libeling it as something evil or mean.

I have become quieter and quieter, and I also have less people I feel comfortable being silly with. I want to be able to play freely, and not always fear the angriest person within the area finding something to make them mad. It’s a shitty world, and I wish someone would hold up free speech for the innocent, and not allow so much power to those who can find offense when there is none.

A Summer of East Coast Travel (Part 2)

I left my blogging for several months, and returned to find out I’d given my audience a cliff-hanger. As promised in Part 1 of my East Coast travel journey, I had more to talk about for the rest of the summer.

It’s a spoiler, but the rest of our road trips that summer were visiting Neil in Madison, Wisconsin. Gradually, trip after trip, it evolved from our memories of Peter’s beloved college town (and the site of our marriage) into the modern day place we now think of as Neil’s Madison.

The South comes alive culturally around the Fourth of July, and this year, we were truly part of it. The weekend before, we joined our firehouse captain joining in neighborhood parades with the fire truck and then hosing down the children (and yes, here the children actually want to have the hose turned on them.) One of the neighborhoods also asked us to join their neighborhood party and I judged the best dessert in their competition. I also went to see what an Ice Cream Social is around here, and, well, let me tell you, it is epic. The ice cream was all home made and fresh, and at 50 cents a scoop, I wished I had brought a bucket to buy more and take it home. There was also inexpensive barbecue for sale, followed by an auction with a fast-talking auctioneer who got $700 for a pie before Peter and I decided this auction was not for us. Instead, we went to a meet and greet with a local political candidate who eventually ended up becoming a local state representative.

We also repeated a win from our previous summer, setting the beginning of what might become a personal tradition. We headed to nearby Harlinsdale Farm with our lawn chairs to watch a zany 80s band play before enjoying the fireworks show.

Rubix Groove at Harlinsdale Park, July 4, 2018

By the end of July, we had a weekend free to go see our son again, and this time I booked an Airbnb apartment within walking distance of his, so I could mom out and make some of our favorite meals, such as steak au poivre and chicken picatta for dinner. The arrangement also made it possible for us to watch the new Captain Underpants TV series together.

This time, we were also Madison tourists, rather than Madison nostalgists. We went to see the Mustard Museum, which was amazing. It was much more than we expected. It had lots of mustard jokes, free mustard tastings, a broad selection of mustards, and it was educational, too. Peter had never been a condiment using person at all, but now that he knows of flavors better than regular yellow mustard, it’s a delight. Personally, I got hooked on Boetje’s Stone Grown Mustard (it is good on everything, including vegetables and sometimes I think I could just eat it plain.) I also bought Lowensenf, a sharp mustard I remember fondly from my childhood (which I used liberally and quickly ran out of) and award winning Dijon mustard, since I do use a lot of Dijon.

Neil and I were keen on seeing the noted tourist attraction (and noted in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) The House on the Rock. For some reason, Peter had it confused with Taliesin (a house on a rock that had traumatized him with its boringness in his youth.)

We were all glad we did go to The House of the Rock, even though when we arrived at 2 pm, the hosts warned us that we would only have 3 hours to get through every section and each would be intensively intriguing. As mysterious, eerie, and pagan as Neil Gaiman makes it sound in the book, he still couldn’t do justice to it. It is a work of love, an incredible number of collectible treasures arranged in fantastic ways, and architectural details which make Sarah Winchester’s ideas look relatively sedate. And let’s not forget that it is full of music automatons.

Even the bathrooms have art in them at The House on the Rock. And yup, unlike anything else, it photographs upside down.

When we returned, just before my birthday, we indulged in another repeat: watching fake Journey (aka Resurrection) at the Carnton Plantation. This time we arrived early, and had close seat to the show. I even got fake Steve Perry to sign a Resurrection concert tour tshirt for me.

In August, Peter’s parents were taking their own tour around the US, and came to visit us in Nashville. Knowing that Paul is a train fan and a foodie, I led them to Carter’s, the restaurant in the Union Station Hotel downtown. The history and design of the place was great, as was the food. My mind and taste-buds were blown away by a pimento cheese and bacon jam sandwich with freshly made tater tots on the side.

They had also never heard of the Loveless Cafe, which is an institution and a tourist attraction here. So we made sure to stop in and enjoy their biscuits on a not-too-busy weekday morning. Scout had already started high school the day they arrived.

We took our last trip to Madison on Labor Day Weekend. Neil’s summer intern peers were at schools on a semester system so they had already left, and we crashed with him in his now near-bare apartment.

The Saturday of that weekend, Madison had their food festival on the square where we could taste all sorts of tapas-sized fare (I had an egg on a stick). And, unlike most local festivals, they had beer!

On the way back to the university street, we saw several of the themed Bucky statues that have been around the town. One was German themed, so I had to take a pose with it.

On Sunday, we finally tried out the intriguing golf course we were always driving past between Madison and Middleton. It was where we should have started because it was not just a good mini golf course, but a tour guide to Madison and to Wisconsin, respectively. Initially, we played the outdoor course which showcased Wisconsin attractions, and then went indoor which was all about Madison. The university Peter knew so well was there, but it reminded us Oscar Mayer has its headquarters here too

that the town is exceptionally bicycle friendly, that there is a great basketball stadium, and a planetarium. We could have taken note of the features and gone to explore them ourselves.

However, at the end of his internship, Neil decided he wouldn’t be returning to Madison again. So that was the end of our summer, and our regular trips through Illinois. Our next set of adventures will be elsewhere along the East.

Why Are Doctors from Howard Medical So Good?

I’m not the kind of patient who cares where my doctor went to school, but anecdotally, I’ve met doctors who went to Howard Medical School which were exceptional in their so-called bedside manner.

My first experience with a Howard doctor was in the emergency room at Valley Medical, the county hospital for Santa Clara county. I had a broken arm, and probably because they were helping out the resident doctors, the ones assigned to me told me they were in from other hospitals. One was from Stanford, confident and efficient in resetting my bones. The other told me he was from Howard, which even to my pain-rattled brain was surprising. All the way from Washington, DC to here? I wondered aloud. But, yes, I guess once in a while doctors from Howard will fly across country to give aid to hurt Californians.

What impressed me with this East Coast doctor was that he was actually paying attention to me as a patient. Most doctors are just fine, but eager to quickly identify and fix (or deworsen) what is wrong. Some doctors — and I put this on those from prestigious programs — barely make eye contact and I have the impression that with each cyst they see and every symptom that reveals itself, their medical student self is taking note of at least 10 possible diseases that could be relative to said symptom in said patient in readiness for the pop quiz his teacher is about to pepper him with.

I live in the South now, so I encountered another Howard-educated doctor here as well. And just like the one who’d come to San Jose, this one took care to look at my face and listen carefully before getting to work. If you don’t typically have doctors like this, it is impressive. And I suspect there is something in the Howard Medical School education that teaches them this skill, and that other schools may wish to emulate.

College Admission and the Difficulty of the Homeschooled Applicant

Do you know what it’s like to have your child get rejected for admission at the college he’s dreamed of going to since he was 8, where his heroes and mentors studied, and whose online courses he’s taken, and whose professors he’s worked with — and to have the horrible knowledge that it is all your fault?

Every year, when the subject of the caprice and ridiculousness of current college admission pops up, I go back into this madness. Elite colleges carry the brand of wanting to educate the best and brightest of each current generation, but none specify how they define this (achievement? ambition? wealth?) while also swearing to each and any possible applicant that they, too, may have what it takes.

My son had a particular ambition for mathematics from a young age, and after he finished elementary school, I chose to homeschool him because the system couldn’t educate him at his proven capability, and I had already been teaching him high school geometry in fifth grade myself as a result. Initially, I thought I would only do it through the middle school years, but we were having fun in our own kitchen chemistry lab, learning about classical composers, and exploring art movements at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, while his schooled peers shared horror stories about their classrooms. And as the saying goes, God watches over children and fools — he was a child, and I was a fool — and through a succession of miracles he found himself with a brilliant mentor and a community of academics that took him under wing. I took care of lab tests, teaching him literature and foreign languages (German and Latin), and making him write at least one essay a week. He started publishing articles and research, and we had the freedom to travel and work.

And so, rather than send him to our local high school, I created my own college prep program for him. The California educational curriculum standards towards getting into a UC school were (and in my opinion still are) particularly good, and I used that structure, together with a Classical twist.

But as his de facto college counselor, I had the horrible inkling that nothing I could do or teach him would win him a spot at any college. It didn’t help that other homeschoolers didn’t seem to be taking education seriously, and there was no way for me to differentiate the rigor I was putting my son through from another home school where literature class consisted of doing interpretive dance of a Harry Potter novel. Would any one believe me that we weren’t that?

Creating a coherent high school transcript was an especial nightmare. The California curriculum defined which subjects should be learned, but the time frame of any transcript assumes a child in a room for an hour or so. Depending on the capability and aptitude of the student, some subjects take longer to truly master; others require little more than a competency test. What of the boy who could skim a calculus text book and then take the final test and score perfectly?* Or the girl who loves Flowers for Algernon so much she wants to dig deeper into the ethics of how we treat the mentally disabled in our society? My son’s most rigorous lab course was done while he was in 7th grade, but a transcript had to be limited to four years. And not to mention the notion of giving out “mom grades.” Assigning grades was a ridiculous notion — the subject was going to be mastered, period.

I expected any prospective college to weigh outside grades and tests heavily, and my son delivered these easily. He took math classes at San Jose State as an outside student and received an A in each. He got a perfect score on the SAT as well as making the National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist list. He took AP tests without taking the AP courses, and received 5’s. He scored well in SAT subject tests as well.

I also expected readers to consider his extensive portfolio of work and impressive accomplishments. In the case of his dream school, we had to pay extra for the portfolio to be included, but I (foolishly) assumed that the extra money would mean someone would look at it. I also noted his most outstanding work (such as breaking a math record at the age of 11, and the subjects he presented at math conferences) on his transcript.

Yet, no one has any idea of what really is “good enough” to merit admission at a prestigious university. Is it a high SAT/ACT score? Um, no — students with perfect scores are notably rejected. Is it great grades or taking hard courses? No, valedictorians are rejected as well. One season the rumor may fly around that colleges are looking for “well rounded” students and the girl with great grades who also sings in the opera and plays baseball collects rejection letters. Another season the rumor says colleges are looking for “pointy” students but the nerd who lives, eats, and breathes for writing mobile apps is out of luck, too.

And there’s no good way to tell which institution is more inclined towards a particular type or demographic, for most deliberately don’t differentiate themselves from the others. (No, this is not you, University of Chicago). According to the mountains of recruitment letters that arrived they all have beautiful campuses; cool accessible professors; a diverse and attractive student body; and just the right program for you, “insert name here.” What’s the difference between Carleton and St. Olaf colleges, and why should a Californian kid want to go to a school in Minnesota no one he’s grown up with has ever heard of? I’m not sure the people creating those brochures know either.

Well, there are a class which do receive notice that if they apply, they may expect acceptance: scholar-athletes with recruited for exceptional athletic ability and the notorious. And while I do have respect for scholar athletes (who have to manage both an academic load and athletic practice time), there’s no equivalent recruitment for academic stars — although my son’s mentor said this used to be the case. And as for notoriety getting you an in, it is a damn shame. I fear, but also suspect somewhere some ambitious kid is hoping his or her school also gets shot up so they can publicize their own fear and get into Harvard, too.

Knowing this, I had my son send in applications to his selected colleges. I was averse to sending out dozens, as his peers had done. I thought, this is supposed to be a choice, not a lottery. But the schools won’t tell you whether they want you, nor what it will really cost you to attend, until they decide after you’ve sent them money.

When those rejections appeared, I was devastated. It was me who had given him the not-good-enough education, not having any information about what those institutions wanted proof of. It was me who had cobbled together his eclectic transcript, not having any template of what was wanted (and for the lack of which, used a template for homeschooled transcripts offered by the Vanderbilt admissions office, and suggestions from a book.) As his counselor and his only liberal arts teacher, it was my recommendation that wasn’t compelling enough. But I also wondered if the reader had even looked at his application at all: could those accomplishments and impressive recommendations from famous mathematicians be ignored that easily? I had to comfort myself with the thought that if he had just gone to the local high school instead, he wouldn’t have gotten in either. He was just not going to get in there, and he probably shouldn’t even have dreamed of it.

It is a first world problem, to be sure, to not get in to a prestigious university. In San Jose, where we lived, most families are beyond proud to have their children go and get though any college. And while you can share the pride with a parent or grandparent who has a meritorious child land a spot in the elite universities, it is vexxing to see relatively unqualified candidates get in, too. I was thoroughly pissed off when a former colleague of my husband’s confided that she had had nothing to do with her own successful application to Stanford — a few thousand dollars and a professional created a transcript and produced just the right essays for her. Why hadn’t we just done that, she wondered. And what is it with students taking remedial classes at any university? Or stressing out and taking leaves of absence because of the difficulty of the coursework? Isn’t that clearly a mismatch between the candidate’s ability and the known rigor?

My son ended up going UCLA, where he’s done well. As a homeschooler, the process was direct. We sent them his SAT test, and I filled his dates for each fulfillment of the California curriculum into their form, and someone at least looked close enough to see my note that he had done Algebra II in 7th grade — or chose to admit him for his test scores. He received the equivalent of a high school diploma (the CHSPE) by taking a test. Not to mention, he was excited to go to LA and with him being a California resident, it was a school he could go to without having to take on a loan.

But homeschooling was hard enough without believing private schools accept and understand homeschooled candidates these days. Few specify what they want to see; the majority pat themselves on the back, make happy chirpy noises about homeschoolers without specifics of what constitutes an acceptable candidate, or how many they actually accept each year. Do they want kids who have taken accredited correspondence courses, and if so are there any which are recommended? Do certificates of course completion at, say, Coursera, have any weight? Will they reject the autodidact performing artist because he doesn’t have classroom experience? Without any information on what the colleges want to see, it’s just a waste. This experience is one reason why we moved to a place with rigorous public schools, rather than have me homeschool my daughter. And why I will encourage her to either skip college, or at least not apply to private ones, because the process is just too false and opaque.

  • The brilliant (and American) boy who could learn advanced mathematics so quickly is not my son, but rather a homeschooled peer of his. That boy ended up going abroad to (and graduating from) a European university, where you get in by test and you know why you got in or didn’t. The girl who loves Flowers for Algernon, by the way, is my daughter, whom I introduced the book during a brief time when I was homeschooling her.

A Summer of East Coast Travel Part I (May and June)

I have just spent my second summer in Tennessee, this one travelling up and down and through the East Coast. Last year, I resolved to stay put in order to become acquainted with my new place. This year, almost as soon as our daughter graduated middle school, we took to the road.

Our first stop was to a college reunion. I had never gone to any of my previous college reunions, because there it was out in Massachusetts, and I was perfectly happy being far, far away. Now I don’t have that excuse and when a college classmate ended up in Tennessee as well, I didn’t have an excuse at all. So on the 21st of May, we started a long, dawdling trip up north.

But first, the night before, a house in my neighborhood caught on fire, and Peter and I worked late putting it out (with a lot of help from other firefighters.)

We didn’t head out until the very late morning the next day, and our roundabout tour had us visiting Carl, part of our ComicBase crew for years, near Richmond, Virginia. Carl left California shortly before we did. Now he a Batman-themed bathroom, and we helped him organize his comic boxes. Because that’s what geeks do for one another.

Our next stop was a Paul and Mary’s place in Gettysburg, where I had time to finish writing an article. We also had time to check out nearby Hershey, Pennsylvania. Originally, we just planned to see the arboretum, but then we discovered Hershey World. It was a chocolate-riffic experience. We toured the chocolate factory, watched a really dorky 4D movie with Hershey candy characters, did a chocolate tasting, made our own chocolate bars, and toured Hershey with its Kisses-shaped lampposts and Hershey funded boarding school.

On Friday, we took the long trip to Massachusetts, which had us crossing the legendary Tappenzee River, which I had never seen before. By dinner time, we showed up at my class’ reunion dorm, which had also been my freshman year dorm. I was surprised how small it was, compared to my memory. My fellow classmates quickly made me feel welcome with gifts, games, and drinks. I had only three goals for the Mount Holyoke College reunion, and one of them was walking around Upper Lake, which I’d gone around and around working out stress back in my days. The others were to march in the reunion parade, which has all the alumnae from participating classes dressed in white, marching from the founder’s grave and then through and past each of the classes which fold out along the sides of the path. And last, I wanted to dance with my classmates, and that I did. I feared going back, but it turns out all my fellow alumnae are nerds just like me. After dinner and before dancing, I crashed the reunion for the class of ’73 and joined two of them in their photo booth:

We returned to Gettysburg and celebrated my mother-in-law’s birthday. We had planned to end the trip with a day in Virginia Beach, but the day was predicted to be full of thunderstorms, so we just went back to Franklin.

Three weeks later, in mid June, we went to visit my brother and his wife, Suzie, who live near the Emerald Coast. He had told me the “Panhandle Opry” near him put on a show every two weeks, and that it was worth seeing. We also wanted to have a moment together to memorialize our cousin Betty, who died earlier this year.

He couldn’t go out to the beach with us because he had just had some outpatient surgery, but Peter and I did and we finally went out on jetskis. Little did I know that Russ and Suzie used to be avid jetskiers, and predicated we’d soon be hooked. Previously, Suzie has always treated us to a feast, but this time I brought my chicken piccatta and prepared it for them.

Russ and Suzie were able to make it to the Panhandle Opry, which was as a folksy Americana show as I could ever imagine, complete with a random dog interrupting an act. Almost every member of our family won a prize — I got jetski gloves!

Image may contain: one or more people and people on stage

On our way back that Sunday, on Father’s Day, we stopped in at NASA Huntsville and saw Rocket City.

It was already forming up to be a hot summer, but I didn’t expect it to be hot everywhere.

Neil had gotten an internship at Raven Software near Madison, Wisconsin. Peter and I had married in Madison, and we had tried during the dot-com years to sell our California house and move there. Obviously, that never worked out and we stayed put in San Jose for another 15 years after that. So when we went to see Madison in this new context, we were amazed how much it had changed. And how hot it was. When we arrived on the last weekend in June, temperatures were pushing 100 degrees as we sat on the Memorial Union steps and drank university beer.

Neil was still finishing a project, so we were on our own for some of it. Many of our touchstones were gone. Ella’s Deli is no longer. The general purpose room where we had our reception expanded and became an Italian restaurant. The little public swimming pool in Monona is now a water park. We embraced a family tradition in seeing a Shakespeare play (“The Taming of the Shrew”) outdoors — it was a minimalist performance without costumes, and in the end, the actors had to bring us all into the building and perform the end of the play in the round because thunderstorms made being outside unsafe.

We saw the campus art museum, which is now in two buildings, and had a great selection of Midwestern artists. Kelly discovered the joy of being a cheddar head:

Too soon, we had to leave and go back to our own work. But we had more trips and adventures ahead for July and August.

To be continued in A Summer of East Coast Travel Part II

Social Justice Kills Womens’ Opportunities

I’m a volunteer firefighter in my county, and a woman. Yesterday, I was in training to learn how to decontaminate people and hazmat technicians after they’ve been in a “hot” zone. Part of the process includes getting suited up in a chemical suit which has to be taped up around the firefighter’s respirator mask, the wrists, boot tops, and down the zipper seam along the front of the body. The exercise, no doubt simulating the real situation, was noisy, hurried, and hectic. So the captain who was taping me up had to tell me twice that I needed to smooth down the tape in front of my body myself. At the time, I assumed it was because he had to get to another firefighter quickly. But later I found out he was scared. Not of chemicals that could cause prolonged physical suffering. Not of getting trapped in a fiery inferno and asphyxiating. He was scared of me accusing him unjustly of molestation for running a hand (vertically) over my chest.

I haven’t joined me #metoo chorus, though I, too, could tell stories of men behaving badly and crudely. I much prefer this mythical past I have read about and seen in classic movies where women slap or throw a drink at the cad. But my upbringing, in more enlightened, less sexist times, made me think I’d be up for assault, just as a man doing that to me would be. I have slapped a man once in my life — a then (now ex, of course) boyfriend who told a homeless person on the street with $20 in his lap to buy me. And then I stormed off. It was New York City in the 80s, so the cop who took his complaint might have slapped him, too. That’s it, for my violent inclinations, though — ever since then, when some guy goes douchebro on me, I grumble quietly and, if possible, storm away.

With #metoo mass shaming and promises of more federal oversight, it may feel empowering to come together as women to punish the whole of men for the sins of the few, but this has its consequences. Behind the celebrations, there are gentlemen watching and unhappy at being unfairly grouped in with the cads.

Last year, I was appalled to find out fellow women professionals were skipping work, or at least wearing red, in the US, in commoration of the communist holiday Women’s Day. It wasn’t that long ago, if fact it was just in my mother’s generation, that women were fighting to be respected and asking to be treated equally in the workplace, and to no longer be relegated to staying at home. Did these women not care for their careers? Did they not realize that when they refused to do their work for a day, it still needed to be done — and was likely to be done for them by a man? The stressed manager who had to juggle responsibilities, whether male or female, may certainly take this into account the next time a hiring opportunity comes up — and hire a man who won’t capriciously decide to celebrate communist holidays on a social whim. And for what it’s worth, I went to school in the Soviet Union, and women didn’t take that day off.

It’s tough being a female firefighter, but it has nothing to do with the men I work with. I’m held to the same expectations and have the same training. There’s no double standards when it comes to what I need to do physically — because the fire or the disaster doesn’t decide to be easier based on who shows up. But it takes me a whole lot longer to break down the door than it does for the 6 foot tall, 20-something man who bench presses 300 pounds as his workout warmup. Firefighting inspires me to work out harder, but we all know (even though the men are afraid to say it out loud) that if someone’s going to haul you out of a burning building, it’s not going to be me.

But I can do a lot of other important things — like scrub down hazmat technicians after they’ve mitigated a dangerous chemical spill. But as I noted in my opening, the Church of Perpetually Offended Womankind is making it harder for me to do that. My husband (who was in the team suiting up as technicians) overheard the captain being anxious about even putting the tape on me. But how could he not be, when even an offhand complaint from me would end him, not just in this role, but in any career in the future? To preserve everyone’s safety, we could dictate only women can aid other women — which would have left the team short by one person because I was the only woman. We could dictate only spouses could tape up women, which only lets women participate in firefighting activities if their partner is present. Or we could go all old school and make firefighting all-male again. Or, hey, we could go crazy, and make firefighting all women, and then wonder why it’s so hard to staff stations and fires take even longer to fight. All of these are stupid options, short of what I wish we could go back to doing as a society — and chill out.

I repeat feminist history, but it wasn’t that long ago that women weren’t hired in many firms, on the basis that men and women can’t work together. So if women start having a hard time with male colleagues, for doing things they can do with male colleagues, it supports that point of view. No amount of lawsuits or regulations can make a manager hire someone he or she is afraid to work with, or who will destroy the cohesiveness of a team. Complain too hard, too often, and about things that aren’t really that bad, and instead of building opportunities for women, we  may just see them fade away.

#metoo #feminism #firefighting #womanfirefighter

You’re In The South Now

We’ve now been living in Tennessee for just over a year, and it’s beginning to feel more like home. I may be redundant, but it is still disorienting that we now drive to the family (in Columbus, Ohio and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) which used to fly out to see us, and I’m no longer busting out my Bon Appetit recipes to put together a Thanksgiving dinner. The patterns we’d fallen into in San Jose just don’t fit in Williamson County, Tennessee, so we’ve found ourselves doing extraordinarily different things. Halloween included a hay ride during which we could shoot paintballs at zombies (portrayed by local high school kids.) Our daughter joined the local 4-H archery and livestock clubs, so we may create our own small archery range, and have to had to rebuff suggestions for which livestock we can raise on our scant acre.

Peter and I joined the volunteer fire department because a) they needed people, even people like me and Peter, and b) it offered a lot of valuable training for free, like smoke reading and CPR. A few months later, after I’d climbed 4 stories in a building, wearing thermal clothing, and was huffing from a heavy air canister harnessed to my back, and I was trapped under a fake roof in the dark under threat of suffocation, I pondered what sort of insanity had put me in this position of my own free will. I made it out before I exhausted all my air – but in the next few months I have to repeat that trick. In a maze. That is on fire.

Up at bat in full firefighting gear (including canned air) in November

A lot of strange things here are explained by the locals with the phrase, “You’re in the South now.” How is it the consignment store is selling fur coats, even though they are supposed to be out of fashion, and besides, Nashville rarely sees anything more than a dusting of snow? “Honey, you’re in the South now.”  Why is Maury pronounced “murry”? “Brother, you’re in the South now.” The local newspaper runs a column by a church lady who always at least once writes “call me for more information” – but she never actually includes her phone number. “Oh, you’re in the South now.” Please do note that I have been here long enough to not question the existence of a bi-monthly column that lists all the upcoming ice cream socials, pancake breakfasts, and benefit barbecues for all the United Methodist churches in the county, and congratulations and prayer requests for random people, none of whom I know. Yet.

When I left California, I wrote about the things I would miss and what I wouldn’t. So along those lines, I’ll tell you about some things I miss now, some things I thought I’d miss but don’t, and some of the things I particularly love here.

Things I miss

Sidewalks. Yes, it’s more of an urban development thing rather than locale, but I lived most of my life in places with sidewalks. Sidewalks invite you to walk to the places they lead to, like coffee shops, and grocery stores, and parks. Even parts of urban Nashville don’t have sidewalks, much less bike lanes. You can still walk or bike, of course, and I see people doing so. But it’s done so rarely that when I neighbor saw me walking home from the grocery store, he wondered if my car had broken down.

Wine. Northern California has a wine culture like no other, and I have yet to find anything like it anywhere else. There is a posh winery not far away – which everyone who enjoys wine around here goes to – but is like a Disney California Adventure version of a winery, with wine tasting appointments, golf cart rides from the parking area, and eerily consistent vintages of its wines, which tend towards the sweet, in reflection of local tastes. Tennessee at its heart, is prohibitionist with wine and hard alcohol sales forbidden on Sundays, and in some counties, for the rest of the week, too. Most wines can’t make it out of California to here, and the wines I know that are available here cost as much as twice as much as they did in California. So I often just stand there in the wine aisle at the grocery store, mentally fighting with myself on whether I really want to spend that much on that wine.

Citrus Trees. Right now, I have a lemon tree that spends its winters in my office, and I can’t shake the notion that lemons come from trees, not stores. For more than 20 years, if I needed lemon zest, or lemon juice, or a whole lemon, or an orange in the same way, I just ran over to my neighbor’s house, where she had three prolific lemon trees, or picked one of the oranges hanging over my fence from next door. Lemon zest makes vegetables and poultry better, and I used it liberally. Now (until that lemon tree matures), my only option is dead lemons I have to pay for.

Things I thought I’d miss but don’t

The Beach. I really thought I’d miss the beach, and yes, the Florida beaches here aren’t the same – and might even be considered subpar if you enjoy surfing and concerts. As it turns out, my brother lives near the most spectacular, warm, and glorious beach I’d ever seen, complete with an optional corny beach scene that goes on for miles, and epic events like jetski poker and water slides you have to swim for. The water sports scene in “landlocked” Tennessee isn’t bad, either. I enjoyed working out on a paddleboard on a gentle small lake not far from my house, and unlike in California, the lakes and rivers are warm and tranquil – just don’t fall out of the canoe, lest the water moccasins bite!

Avocados. When I went to school on the East Coast, avocados were still practically unheard of. But they have since taken the East Coast, and especially Williamson County, by storm. Two kinds of avocados are available year-round. The fresh food I had in California isn’t as readily or as cheaply available here, but Tennessee has lots of other great local produce, like wild blueberries, turnip greens, and curious new kinds of relishes. The year-round farmer’s market has organic, free-range local chicken, lamb, pork and goat. So I am far from perishing from lack of fresh, local food here.

Art Museums. We have the Frist, which is more like the San Jose Art Museum than the De Young. But the music scene here more than enough makes up for the lack of Dali and Matisse paintings. Not counting all the musicians I will see and hear for free as I am out and about, this month includes seeing Simple Plan, a punk band with my daughter; Sixwire, an amazing local Americana band who almost always has a surprise legendary guest, like Lee Greenwood, making surprise appearances at their concerts; and Gary Numan. I am so spoiled for music I passed up an opportunity to see Saint Paul and the Broken Bones in favor of a Christmas Tree lighting and the Franklin Art Crawl (which is like pop-up art galleries). Besides, Chicago and DC are within a day’s drive, so a good visual art fix isn’t hard to procure.


Things I really love here.

Kind people. Compared to the people here, the rest of the world is in some sort of rudeness competition. Just as an example, no one honks here – that is, unless a life is in imminent danger, or you just saw a dear friend (aka someone you know) and they are too far away to hear you shout “love you!” Things such as zoning out in front of a green light, cutting off another driver, or your neighbors doin’ some visitin’ in their vehicles do not merit a disturbance, when one may simply exercise one’s patience. I have become so accustomed to this that when Peter and I were driving around Columbus, Ohio after Thanksgiving, I was startled by all the honking, for reasons I could no longer understand.

No crime. Williamson County is not kind to criminals, so we don’t tend to see much crime. Currently, Operation: Not in Our Mall is in effect (yes, that is really the name), with undercover police identifying and following shoplifters to their cars, where they are then arrested, the car is searched, and the shoplifter’s face, identity, and criminal record is beamed via internet to all county residents. The shoplifters are all from out of the county, and often irate that their five-finger discount doesn’t work here. We had a car theft in this county in June or July; the police got on the scene fast enough to find the car still being driven by the car thief. They shot out the tires, and when he jumped out of the car and made a fuss, they shot him too. We haven’t had a car theft since.

Dogs. It surprises me that we still don’t have a dog, since everyone else we know has one. Williamson County loves dogs. Shops and restaurants in downtown Franklin advertise whether they allow dogs within or not – most do, and those who don’t will be sure to have a water bowl and possibly treats for the dogs to enjoy just outside. So it is especially curious that the local winery bans dogs, when California wineries did not.

So, yeah, I’m in the South now. Our friends here are still a bit curious as to how we landed here, rather than someplace a little bit more familiar to our (previous) culture – especially when we get snarky or scream with shock and surprise at a new discovery, like bacon chess pie, or the concept of “leaving room for Jesus.” But we all having fun and some day I’m sure, we too, will have a dog.



Settlin’ in Tennessee and Thereabouts

We’ve been living in Tennessee for almost a year now. Just this summer, I’ve gone ziplining through the woods at Fontanel, saw Foster the People at the legendary Ryman Auditorium, ate a chocolate covered cricket at the county fair, done stand up paddleboarding, and, oh, experienced a total eclipse. There’s more to tell than I have time to describe — so I’ll just cover some of the regional marvels generally.

Visible Air. Being able to see the air is a bad thing to Californians who can still remember when smog hung like a pee-colored cloud in the Los Angeles basin. So we were less than happy when we realized the humidity can get high enough that it looks like a slow moving sheet of rain that dissolves as it touches the ground. We never knew what a dehumidifier was; now we own one.

Here There Be Christians. Within the few blocks that define downtown Franklin, there is a Catholic church, a Presbyterian Church, an Episcopalian Church, and a non-denominational church that advertises on TV. In the three miles I drove back to home from there, I pass at least 4 other churches, and a building supply yard that posts Christian messages. And those are just the churches I know about, because movie theaters function as chapels before noon on Sundays, too. People cite Bible verses as a kind of shorthand like John 3:16 and (at a gym) 1 Corinthians 6:19, and yes, they will ask you if you know Jesus and if you have a church home.

Husky Truss aims to inspire

Fringe Rural. Peter was filling out a form at the Nashville Shakespeare festival, and realized he didn’t know whether we are rural, urban, or suburban. We live only 30 minutes from Nashville, and I can (nominally) walk to a grocery store. That’s suburban. But we also have blueberry patches and school kids who have to arise before dawn to milk the family cows. That’s rural. We live close to a major highway, but if you’re off it, you can find yourself on narrow unlit roads with deer darting in front of you. I saw the term “fringe rural” come up to describe Scout’s school, which is under construction to become 3 stories high, set next a horse farm, and that’s probably as applicable as anything .

Welcome to Hobby Lobby, May We Schedule Your Checkout Experience? Every interaction is a chance to be a-visitin’ for the indigenous Southerners, with the Hobby Lobby clerks being particularly notorious for this. You may think you are just buying a birdhouse kit, but it is only the cover for checking in on the welfare of the neighbor’s dog, finding out which teacher(s) the kids have this year, and opining on what to have for dinner tonight. From one class, I know more about the Pilates instructor at the gym than about some neighbors I lived by for 20 years. In California, “anti-social” meant you were a reclusive, violent psychopath; here people describe themselves as anti-social if they don’t always spend at least 20 minutes talking to you.

Vanderbilt is not Stanford. Nerdy culture vulture that I am, I spent a lot of time at Stanford, which had lectures and movies open to the public, two outstanding art museums, and hiking trails. But Vanderbilt (as well as the other local private colleges, Belmont and Lipscomb) was a cipher. So I signed up for one of their psychology lab studies to get to know the school better. There I was expecting a prison experience or Bobo dolls, but what I got was a lot of physicals, a picture of my brain as seen in magnetic resonance imaging, and a dose of amphetamine so carefully controlled all I noticed was the side effect of having a dry mouth. Indeed, Vanderbilt seriously and sincerely followed safety guidelines for subjects probably created in response to Stanford’s notorious studies. So, in short, it’s kind of boring, unless you really like medical stuff. In any case, this culture vulture now makes do with Toastmaster talks, bumping into music celebrities (oh, hey, how are you, JT?), and the monthly Art Scene crawl.

JT isn’t sure if he wants to try the Deep Fried Brownie Bacon Sundae at Puckett’s

Different Road Trips. In California, we had a bunch of regular road trips we tended to make, such as driving to Las Vegas for a trade show, to Southern California for amusement parks, and excursions to wine country. Now we’re essentially on the other coast, and Las Vegas is far away. Now we get in the car and see relatives we could never drive to see before, such as Peter’s parents in Pennsylvania, and his sister in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve seen my half-brother, Russ, who lives in the Florida peninsula more over the last year than I have over my entire life beforehand. Speaking of which….

The Emerald Coast. Unlike in California, the nearest beaches are seven-plus hours away by car for me now. But as I discovered this summer, while visiting Russ, they are the best, most beautiful beaches I’ve ever experienced, including Southern California, Hawaii, and Australia. The water was warm, with only the gentlest of waves. I could just float, as small fish floated beneath me, and children chased after a manatee that had swum close to shore. Mindblowingly, the beach bums are not the nouveau riche of San Tropez, or the glitterati of Malibu, but good ol’ Southern boys and gals. Russ and his wife took me out to a buffet where I could (and did) eat frog legs, crawdads, and hush puppies. And at my request, they took me to Gator Beach, where people were feeding alligators with meat morsels, and we got to hold an alligator:

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, outdoor
No alligators were harmed in the taking of this picture.

We anticipate a lot more fun and adventures. Peter and I signed up for the county volunteer firefighter force — we’re just undergoing screening now. We didn’t make it to Gatlinburg this summer — that’s where Tennessee’s amusement parks are. And I have yet to see Memphis, except as we drove through on our way here.



Hanging out with Charlie Daniels in the Cheese Aisle

We have unpacked one 16 foot POD and two smaller 7 foot PODS, so our house isn’t completely bare on the inside.

It’s chaotic as we continue to unpack (and wait for new carpet in the bonus room/Pete’s new office), but that’s going to be the case for a while. Meanwhile, I’m getting to know my area and the people in it better, like my new best buddy Charlie Daniels. I ran into him as I was unhappily looking at the overpriced goat cheese at Krogers (a grocery store). A portly older man in denim overalls was checking out the $15/lb. blue cheese, but unlike the typical local, not engaging me in conversation. At first I thought, wow, what’s a rural type like him doing here, and then I thought this “country” person is politely holding off from telling me I should splurge on the Monrachet goat cheese, because he can afford it and I can’t. A week or so later, I saw a video of Charlie Daniels and realized that that old guy with the white beard was him, sans cowboy hat and fiddle.


Furthermore, I have one more thing I won’t have to miss from California. On Sunday, Peter drove to the mall in Green Hills (a southern neighborhood of Nashville, also where the Trader Joe’s is) to look at the Restoration Hardware and Nordstrom’s there. As it turns out, they were also selling See’s Candies! It’s only seasonal for now, but I looked online and found out there is a regular See’s Candies in Columbus, where my sister-in-law lives, and where we are going for Thanksgiving. So I really don’t have to go on without my hazelnut cremes as I feared.


I also certainly won’t miss the DMV. Peter still has to register his car here, but it’s only $68/year. Today we had cable installers come by and one of them asked me if it was really the case that California charges a percentage of the sales price as its annual registration fees. I confirmed it, and they were boggled, noting that it could be a huge amount for a luxury car. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that a luxury car also has an additional surtax in California. People in other states don’t know from taxes — or traffic. (Well, ok, maybe Massachusetts and New York…)


And meanwhile, getting Tennessee driver’s licenses was actually pleasant and interesting. We almost couldn’t find the Tennessee version of the DMV (called driver services) because it looked so much like a nice house. Inside, the process was fast and efficient — with some things California should certainly adopt for cost-saving methods. For one thing, we checked in and selected what we wanted to do (get a driver’s license) on a computer, which gave us a number. A few minutes later we were called up to the information clerk, who checked to make sure we had what we needed — which included a passport for proof of US citizenship. Since Peter and I both needed the HUD-1 (purchase of our house paper) for proof of address, the clerk set it up so we’d be seen back to back at the same window. After another wait, I met another clerk, who had me take the vision test on a device like one at an optometrist office, rather than looking at a board. She also took my picture and when I feared the first one wasn’t good, she let me take another. And then she took my California license and printed me a Tennessee driver’s license, which I’ll keep until I get a laminated one in the mail. It was so much faster and more pleasant than the moving from line to line I remember in California. I do wonder if California will get my old license back, and if so, what they will do with it.


An odd thing I’m getting used to is how early it gets dark here. Since we are on the easternmost edge of the central time zone, right now it gets dark before 5, and since  there aren’t streetlights or other light pollution, it can get really dark. So it always feels later than it actually is. Plus that, we now get up at 5:30 am to see Scout off to school. We may as well be on East Coast time, the way we live now.


I went back to Kroger’s yesterday, and this time, Charlie Daniels wasn’t there, though there were several people with hair that defied gravity in ways neither hair spray nor gel can facilitate, making me think I should recognize them, too. I’ll have to tune into more music paparazzi channels, I guess.

(This was written in November 2016. I have now learned the humidity automatically inflates hair.)


Nearly Executed by Hot Chicken

I have now lived in Tennessee for almost a month, but my mind continues to be blown every day.


I went to a local Toastmasters meeting yesterday. My former group was an Improv Toastmasters group, and a more experienced member warned me that other groups can be much more formal, and will actually fine you if you don’t use the word of the day. I asked the Grammarian if that would be so here, and he answered me with a straight face: “Yeah, and it really adds up.” Then, they started the meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance — do most Toastmasters groups do that, or is it just the Tennessean patriotism that is just not so in California? After some banter, I learned the use of the word of the day is celebrated by tapping pens in approval, and there were no fines. They were open to me introducing some improv games in lieu of Table Topics some time, and I found out Table Topics is being put on the spot (literally) for a minute to answer a random question, like “What is your favorite loud sound?”


One of the toastmasters started his speech with an anecdote about rolling through a stop sign. His evaluator mentioned that he was from St. Louis, where the rolling stop is normal. Wait a minute, I thought it was called the California stop for a reason! So I asked him when St. Louis co-opted our driving habits, and he laughed, and told me that’s so almost everywhere, but life here was just at a different pace, so people actually stop. And that during his first winter here, he couldn’t believe how practically everything shuts down just at the threat of snow, but when you consider how many people live in a genuinely rural way, and can’t get out when it snows, it makes sense.


Peter still needs to get his car registered in Tennessee, and I am holding off on getting a new one, but the time for it may be sooner than I think. Then we’ll have to decide if we want a special license plate. The regular one is fairly pretty, but this state gives you more than 100 options, all benefiting a charity. I can’t imagine being able to get a Pro-Life, Elvis, or saxophone-playing cat license plate in California.


But I haven’t gotten to the most exciting part of our recent journey to a new place yet. When we first visited, our realtor introduced us to Nashville hot chicken at a place called Big Shakes — where, ironically, the shake machine is always broken. We had the second hottest chicken (Death Row-level), and it was delicious, even if slightly painful going through. Yesterday, we went back to Big Shakes, and Peter ordered Executioner Chicken. The clerks made sure several times he was not joking, and that he was aware of what he was about to do, and then had him sign a serious waiver, exempting them from any liability in the case of injury or death. They pointed to pictures of a previous challenge winner writhing on the ground in pain.


As an aside, I would like to note that when it comes to spices and heat in food, the people here are serious, they do not play. I bought the “medium” salsa at the farmer’s market, and it was as hot as the La Victoria “hot.” Nonetheless, having easily survived Death Row-level chicken, and being personally familiar with Smoke Eater’s 911 Challenge (which is equivalent to eating police-grade pepper spray), we had thought Big Shakes’ Executioner challenge would be an easy way to collect $25. Especially, since unlike the 911 Challenge, you don’t have to eat with your fingers, you can drink as much milk as you want, and you don’t have to sit in agony for a while after finishing the chicken. The trick with Big Shakes’ Executioner chicken is that it goes down easily enough, because it is far tastier and less messy than chicken wings drenched in sauce. But then it goes off like a nuclear bomb.

By the time, he neared the end of the first chicken tender, he was on his third pint of whole milk, he’d gone through 3 napkins, and his eyes were turning red. That’s when he wisely opted to stop, much to the relief of everyone there. A fellow patron recommended drinking coffee to get the spices out of his pores; I went to get him a glass of water.

I’d eaten their Southwest Shrimpburger, which is made with ghost peppers and jalapeno, and that was hot enough to make me wish I had gotten some milk myself. Out of curiosity, I took one of the French fries which had come with Peter’s meal and dipped it into the sauce that had dripped off the chicken. At first it was so hot it was practically tasteless, and then (after Scout followed my lead and did the same, even though she’d been smart enough just to order Original chicken for her meal), the sauce went to war and started scorching my entire mouth. Both Scout and I drank two glasses of water to dilute it away, and we’d complain more but opening our mouths to talk would have meant letting in air that would fuel the fire.


I want to note the people at Big Shakes were far more concerned about personal and public safety than those at Smoke Eaters. Peter not only got a fork and knife with which to eat the chicken, but also a set of gloves in case he wanted to eat by hand, since the spice would burn his hands. I wanted to take the leftover pieces home to masochistically nibble at them later, as I have done with the 911 Challenge, but they took them away lest any children get into it, and replaced it with two Death Row chicken pieces. I suppose it is prudent, since the Executioner spices sneak in and then attack, while you know you’re a fool (and have signed the waiver thereto) just looking at the 911 challenge, and with your first bite. If you gobbled Executioner chicken like a speed eater, you might not know what hit you until it was too late.


And then, Peter went to Nashville to see She Wants Revenge play at the Exit/In. I didn’t go because I’m still getting used to how very dark it gets here, especially without street lights — which might help us see the deer crossing the road. (By the way, if we do accidentally hit a deer and kill it, it is explicitly legal to eat it. Though I really don’t want to go “hunting” like that.) He said the opener, Silk and Suede, sounded like The Chamelons UK and was so good he wanted to buy their CD — but there wasn’t one because it was their first time, ever, playing out. The next two bands, including She Wants Revenge, weren’t as good, because they hadn’t been able to do a sound check, due to travel difficulties coming in from LA.


Otherwise, we continued to get sorted. Tomorrow, we should finally get our vacuum cleaner back, and Scout turns 13.