I’ve assumed that I would never step foot on Alcatraz Island. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would like to look at a decaying old prison, a place of abject misery. Whoever was there had created misery (unless they were innocent, as some people probably were) and then lived out their lives in misery. And were any lessons learned from this? There are now more people in U.S. Prisons than ever. So… why is this a tourist attraction? I’m clueless on this one.

Be that as it may, I had heard about the annual Thanksgiving Sunrise Ceremony by Native Americans, but I had always thought, “Who would get up at four in the morning on Thanksgiving to go to this?”

I would, that’s who.

I mean, not the me who used to ask the question, but I in present time. Because as I exist now, if there’s something I’m interest in, I’m going to do it NOW as there may not be a next time. Life’s funny like that: you really can’t take anything for granted.

My Dream of StarsI had no less than a burning desire to attend this ceremony this year. I couldn’t get it off my mind. I tried several times to get K. to go but he would have none of it. He religiously believes that holidays are for sleeping in, and I would not be one to interfere with one’s adherence to one’s faith. I couldn’t really conceive of going alone until a co-worker asked me, half joking and not having ever spoke of this subject, “So, what are you doing for Thanksgiving this year? Going to Alcatraz?” Once I managed to bring my jaw back up I said, “Actually I’ve been thinking about it but K. doesn’t want to go…” “You should go, just go your self,” she answered. Hmm… Well, I thought, if I ever go to the ISS I would have to go without K. as he’s said he won’t go, so maybe I should see this as an warm-up exercise. Yes, I did actually think this. Because after reading My Dream of Stars by Anousheh Ansari, I’ve felt three things: 1) The training is too hard and I would never make it 2) Even if I had the money, I wouldn’t spend it on something so vain 3) Hey, she had an absurd fantasy of the Space Station and she got to go, so maybe somehow I can.

But, outside of fantasyland, as I contemplated buying my ticket to Alcatraz, I also mulled over the idea of Doing Things without K. Being that I’ve been alone most of my adult life, I got damn tired of doing things on my own. When K. and I got together I thought I would never have to do things alone again. That had not turned out to be the case. There are some trips I have taken alone since we’ve been together. I’ve come to realize now that not only trips to visit people may be without K., but also trips for adventure. I think K. would readily admit that I am the more adventurous one. I could turn around and ask him as he’s sitting on the papasan behind me, but I’ll just blithely make my assumptions and keep writing.

The forecast said that Thanksgiving day would be brutally, unnaturally cold do to climate change and some crazy air mass from Canada, but as much as I ABSOLUTELY DETEST THE COLD, I still bought my ticket. I slept badly, dreamed of oversleeping, did not oversleep, got up at 4:30, put on an absurd amount of layered clothing, and drove to San Francisco to catch the ferry.

Me and thousands of people.

sf at 6:50amI got there at 5:40 for my 6:00 boat, but found that I had to stand in a line hundreds of people long. I did not board a boat until 6:50 and landed moments before the sunrise. I was fortunate that one of the people standing in line in front of me was a passing acquaintance from Ladies Rock Camp, and she and her friends were nice enough to include me in their conversation for the duration of the wait. I found out a lot about what life is currently like for twenty-somethings in the Bay Area, which is to say, not much different than it was for me: lousy jobs for lousy pay, and painful insecurities. I felt very glad I wasn’t young. I also felt glad that I knew how to dress for winter as I seemed to be the only person in line who wasn’t cold.

alcatraz 6:50 amThe ferry ride, although short, was wonderful. I always think that San Francisco looks best from a distance, and I believe it looks its very, very best at dawn as seen from the Bay. When we landed, the first thing I noticed was the overwhelming scent of sage. The whole island smelled like sage. I raised up to the Parade Grounds, which is a place on top of the Island where the ceremony was taking place. The closer I got, the stronger the odor. When I got there, I saw why. There was a huge bonfire of sage, and the whole Parade Grands had a haze of smoke. I managed to squeeze into a spot just behind and to the left of speakers so I had a pretty good view. There were many good speakers and singers. There was a great song performed from a Maori man that blew everyone away. Then came the Aztec Dancers.

aztec dancersNow, before they Aztec Dancers came out there was issued several warnings not to take photos as their dance is a sacred prayer. So, I don’t have any photos. But you know how people are. They think they are excluded somehow, so they still take photos even when the stern looking AIM guy is looking right at them and telling them to stop. Man, that AIM guy looked like he was not one to mess with. People are seriously chutzpahdik. Apparently, though, predisposition to chutzpah is completely unrelated to talent, as the photos I found online under “aztec dancers alcatraz” are mediocre at best. One is pictured above here. I chose this one because he shows the insane amount of smoke. Evidently the sage smoke already permeating the entire island is unrelated to the smoke the Dancers need to help them with their dancing. They have their own incense that I, being an ignoramus, have no idea what it is but is smells even more pungent than the sage (I read it was “sweetgrass” somewhere, but don’t know what that is or if it’s true). Which is to say all this smells very good and also very strong.

This was where some real magic happened. I have seen Aztec Dancers before but not so many, with so many drums, during the sunrise, in a haze of smoke. There is an overused word, that if you could strip away its decades of overuse would convey the scene: AWESOME. I was really awestruck at the sight. The headresses are just huge and many have skull motives. One included an actual jaguars’ head. Another had an eagle’s skull and a small crocodile’s head. (pictured below) They were actually a bit frightening even to a grown logical adult like me. The drums were deafening and I was squeezed in between hundreds of people. I felt I could picture what it must of been life to have lived in the ancient Mayan culture. I imagine not a hundred but thousands of people doing these dancers, in unison, and how incredible it must have been. I couldn’t help but feel the spirituality inherent in this dance.

aztec dancer near indians welcome sign on alcatrazI thought afterward about the huge chasm between modern Western culture and ancient Indigenous tribal culture. I’m going to generalize, of course. In the culture I live in, life is incredibly compartmentalized. My friends, my family, my coworkers and other groups are all separate circles that rarely intersect. In any given day, I see more people I don’t know — passing by them on the street, or in their cars — than I do know. I see hundreds and hundreds of people a day that are strangers.

I imagine in a tribal culture, things would be less in tiny boxes. I imagine there would be more overlapping between work, friends, family. Also, everyone would more or less have the same spiritual beliefs. When I saw the ceremony on Alcatraz, that seems to be what would most bond people together as a large group. Life would be much more structured but more fluid and less fragmented.

Being who I am — an American, and a non-conformist at that — it would really be beyond me to be part of any group that was tribal in any way. It was interesting to witness it, and imagine it.

Yet that wasn’t even the most impressive part of the day. The most impressive part was the attitude of the Native Americans. Even though this is their ceremony, for their people, they are completely open and inviting to all. Every single person who addressed the crowd addressed us as “People of all tribes and all nations.” I have never witnessed any sort of ceremony who was so inclusive of people who were not part of the group nor ever would be. It was an amazing demonstration of open-mindedness The French actually call it open spirit (ouvert d’esprit), which I think is a better way to put it.

At the very end, Clyde Bellecourt said to the crowd, “I love each one of you.” And he meant it. I thought, wow, I wonder what that must feel like. It must feel really good.clyde bellecourt alcatraz 2010

Now that the excitement has died down and a million other more important things have happened like the elections and our civil liberties being further eroded at the airport, I can finally say what I think about the SF Giants winning the World Series. To whit: I don’t give a damn.

I saw some bizarre phenomena during the World Series that goes on my list of things Beyond My Comprehension. One is that people who never watch sports and had definitely never even watched the Giants play a game made an effort to go to Market Street, San Francisco to watch the parade. I could see Market Street from my office window, and unless you were a nut/fan who started waiting hours before the closest you would be to the parade was a block away. In other words, you would not see the parade at all but a bunch of folks, mostly from outside San Francisco, yell a lot. Which is kind of like a baseball game without the game.

Another confusion I experienced was that ardent, die-hard A’s fans who were haters of the Giants suddenly embraced them as long-lost siblings. It boggles my mind how a person can swear that they hate the Giants and then suddenly take huge amounts of time out of their life to pay attention to said Giants.

Then there was the friends and families from out of town emailing me to say they were glad that “my team” did so well. Now these people know damn well I don’t watch sports, so how did the Giants become “my team”? Somehow there is this notion that these jocks represent “my city.” How is that?

In order to keep things clear in the future, let me state: the Giants, nor any other major sports team, is not now nor will ever be “my team.” They do not represent “my city” (which is really Oakland anyway). Tell me, how do they represent San Francisco or the larger Bay Area? Let’s look at some facts:

By applying just a wee bit of logic, anyone can see that loyalty to a team is a one-way street. They in no way represent to city they are named for nor do they have any loyalty to it or its inhabitants. In fact, fandom is not even a street: it’s a short and crummy alley, like Mary Alley near 5th and Howard (if you’ve been there, you know what I mean).

So, no, I cannot stir up any enthusiasm for a bunch a guys who think hitting a ball with a stick is very, very important. No, I cannot.

And lastly, when people rioting over the Giants is permitted by police, but people protesting over the unfair sentencing of Mehserle is not, I have a problem with that.

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Also, the Golden-Crowned Sparrows are back for the winter, and… a Swainson’s Thrush visited our yard!

Now just waiting for the Cedar Waxwings to show up.

Last year, I wrote a review about Julia Serrano’s Whipping Girl in which I spoke about my decision to get over my internalized anti-feminine stance and try wearing some skirts more often. Here is my first report on this decision.

At first people were surprised to see me wearing a skirt. A lot of women my age apparently stop wearing them because they think they are uncomfortable, too much trouble, or just don’t look good on an aging body. Since I already like to dress up a bit for work, I’m already dressing more to enhance my appearance than for comfort. Despite my interest in (bargain, artsy) fashion, it was still a visual leap to many to see me in a skirt, and they said so.

Next, and continuing to this day, was the fact that my wearing skirts made people so happy. I don’t know if its because folks like my chicken legs (skinny legs are definitely way more “in” that they were 20 years ago), or if it’s because people think skirts in general look nicer, but I got a TON of compliments and comments. So much so, that I went from wearing skirts once a week to several times a week. I invested in a couple of pairs of shoes with heels surpassing my previous limit of 1″, and some colorful stockings. I enjoy putting together an outfit just like I like laying out a good visual design.

But, there is a downside. Well, there is a mixed-bag side. Okay, so we have three sides, it’s a pyramid of sorts. Anyway, the mixed thing is that men try to talk to me on the street. At my age, I find that surprising. It’s pretty much all older men. Occasionally it is a rich older man and that really makes my skin crawl. The other day some Slick Rich Guy said to me, “I like that brown suit you’re wearing” with a leering expression. I felt like saying, “Yeah, well I’d like to stab you in the neck.” But I didn’t. So mostly it’s a pain but sometime I think, “My god, I’m almost 50 and people still want to flirt with me.” And I feel like I must look pretty damn good.

The other irritant is that some men do have this formula floating in their head of feminine = girly and they want to infantalize me. Of course, this is a HUGE mistake, especially if they dare saying anything indicating this thought to me. H. made the mistake of calling my ensemble “girlish” one day and I almost tore his head off. Well, mostly I just glared at him and said, “Don’t call me girlish.” He tried to defend himself but then realized that it was insulting to me to imply that I am in any way like a little girl, since he would not want to be thought of or referred to as a boy. It was interesting to me that someone who is intelligent and perceptive can still have this sexist thoughts. But then I remember that I myself have internalized sexism. Which I am challenging with my wardrobe change. The experiment continues.

by Nell Irvin Painter

history of white people coverI am on a roll. I have read more great books this past year than in any previous year. Writers are coming up with great stuff, stuff that makes you re-examine your thoughts and ideas, and give you a few new ones. The History of White People is such a book.

Now, I did approach this book with a bit of know-it-all swagger in the vein of “Yeah, I know all notions of race our cultural and have been scientifically proven to have no biological basis, blah blah blah…” And one of the reasons that I think I know this is because I am very frequently perceived as being a different so-called race than the one I so-called am. I am a bit of genetic anomaly and do appear different from the rest of my family in terms of skin tone and hair texture, to the point that some people who meet me aren’t “sure what I am”. Interestingly enough, people often perceive me as whatever race they themselves are.

In any case, my presumption to know this topic well was crushed within the first few pages of reading. Although Painter does corroborate my knowledge by saying, “Today… biologist and geneticists… no longer believe in the physical existence of races”, she then goes on to blow me away with this thought:

“…human beings have multiplied so rapidly… by more than 32,000 times in 300 years. Evolutionary biologists now reckon that the six to seven billion people now living share the same small number of ancestors living two or three thousand years ago. These circumstances make nonsense of anybody’s pretensions to find a pure racial ancestry.”

Ah, that is brilliant. It’s so obvious and true when she says it — there is no way, numerically, that there can be any pure race. Just as I was recovering from that epiphany, she threw another one at me, which is the definition of who is Black. Now, we have all come to realize that Black does not mean skin color, as people identified as Black have all sorts of skin tones. She points that it is simply about genetic ties to African slaves. It makes no difference what you look like or talk like or what culture you have — it’s still all about the one-drop rule (which I previously referred to here).

After discussing these things briefly, Painter gets on with her examination of White people. Originally, in Europe, there was no concept of race. In the origins of Western civilization, a.k.a. Greece and the Rome (okay, she actually starts with the Scythians), there were concepts of geography and inhabitants having corresponding temperaments. People who lived in cold climates were harsher, the Celts were fierce, things like that. But as time went on, philosophers and politicians of the day kept remixing and refining these thoughts to suit their needs. And their needs were always about keeping certain people as the underclass.

One idea, which is hard to even follow, is the continual white-washing (pun intended) of Greek and Roman history. Since the statues of these civilizations were white, it was assumed that the people who created them were lily-white. Even though there was evidence that pigmentation and color was used in the creation of these statues and had since been lost, the evidence was ignored in order to create various convoluted theories of Whiteness. One such theory of “the blond ancient Greek narrative” as Painter calls it is that the people who lived in Greece and Italy are NOT the descendants of the Ancient Ones; for the Ancient Ones must have been blond-haired and blue-eyed for that is what is superior and good. Therefore, Germans are the real descendants of the of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the modern Greeks and Romans — who knows where the hell they came from? And who cares, since they are not White? At least, not before the 20th century.

Not everyone in this country is aware that American slavery is not so literally black and white. Their were White slaves. There were Black slave owners. But even beyond that, who was considered White was changed over time. The Irish were not considered White people for some time. When they were depicted in the press of the day, they were drawn with ape-like features in a state of drunkenness. Both the Irish and “Negroes” were consistently depicted as dim-witted and simian. The majority of Irish immigrants decided that they had to make a strong statement to separate themselves from “Negroes” and move up the social ladder, and they did this by strongly endorsing slavery in The South. Their strategy worked, and they were eventually accepted as “White.”

Then there was also all the pseudo-science of Whiteness. This included an obsession with skull shape and sizes and absurd charts of how White different Europeans were. Of course, the terms for Whiteness have changed throughout time, including terms like “Teutonic” , “Aryan”, and “Caucasian”, the last coming from a long-standing myth that the people (particularly the women) of the Caucuses were the most beautiful in the world. Beauty indicates God’s favor, and the folks developing theories of Whiteness were quite sure that the paler and blonder someone was, the more beautiful they were, and therefore the more superior.

The History of White People has many more examples of the ridiculous/horrible history of race in Europe and the U.S. I tell you it is worth your time to read about all of these in this pain-staking well-researched book. Although we all live under the specter of racism and its terrible consequences, this book clearly shows that racism is not about genetics and only about intimidation and repression.

baby calfThere’s very little evidence that I actually existed on this planet as a child, but I do have a couple of mementos. One is the first book I could read by myself, Baby Farm Animals. The first page I could ever read is pictured here, Baby Calf. Which might explain why I became I vegetarian.

gay iwo jimaH. and I had a discussion the other day around the military. This discussion sprang from a gift I had given him, which was based on a dream he had. At the top of my cubicle there has been a small rainbow flag that I received during Pride month last year. H. dreamed that someone (maybe it was him) was taking the flags and putting them in Iwo Jima statuettes. I thought this image was very amusing, so I managed to procure such an statuettes (thanks to K.) and left it on H.’s desk with the rainbow flag inserted.

H., although clearly seeing the humor, also worried about offending any veterans that were around. So he asked a few colleagues their thoughts and they said that if anyone was offended, too bad for them. But it turns out one of the colleagues had actually been in the first Gulf war. She also didn’t find the item in question offensive, but this led me to ask H. if he had seen the WikeLeaks video, Collateral Murder. When I watched that video, actually at a fundraiser for Bradley Manning, I could barely look at it and was seriously disturbed by the conversation of the soliders. They sounded like complete sociopaths in that they did not view human beings as such, they only saw them as repugnant targets to be gunned down.

H. said that most countries through time have developed a system that creates this mentality. In the US this is referred to as basic training. We realized that the intended purpose of basic training is to find the sociopathic tendencies inside each person and bring that to the forefront of the external behavior. Hence the title of this post.

After people are done with their tour of duty, they have a few choices. I thought of these two:

  1. Compartmentalize and discard this part of their life as not really who they are
  2. Develop mental illness from not being able to synthesize their sociopathic behavior with their innate humaness.

Probably most people fall into category #1, but the ones who fall into #2 are sometimes K’s clients. From what he’s told me, these people are in a lot of mental anguish from having acted in such an inhuman way. He told me one client felt he no longer had a soul. Sometimes there’s a psychic pain that can only be managed and never resolved.

I realize that the original iconic photograph of Iwojima that produced cheap keepsakes is of actual people, and those actual people may have stories. Here’s one that I found very touching: Iwojima mementos bring closure.

I still think the rainbow Iwo Jima statuette is funny. As you can see by the image at the beginning of this post, I’m not the only one who’s thought of this idea. It’ll be alot funnier when DADT is defeated.

Photo from Yikes!