The Enlightenment of the Cargo Pants

Now Leasing sign for an apartment complex

Early on in my real estate days, shortly after I went full time with it, I noticed that I was getting a lot of clients who were interested in buying investment property.  This was still near enough to the bottom of the housing market, when it wasn’t clear that the stock market was set on an implausible upward trajectory, so people with cash and an intent to let it grow for a while were looking at property as an option.  And they’d ask all kinds of questions I didn’t have more than very theoretical, abstract answers for, because owning property as something other than a place to live wasn’t something I had any experience with.  But I wanted to be a good fit for basically any client, especially one who actually had money, so I decided to become somebody who could answer those questions with real experience.  I could have taken a class on property management or investment principles or something like that, but I’m cheap and broadly skeptical of people who want you to pay them money in order to teach you how to make money, so I did something else; I got myself a temporary part time job in the office of a property management company.

My official job there was “leasing agent” but I was filling in for a leasing agent who’d quit once all the commission for the year was booked, so I was basically an administrative assistant for the summer.  (I’m not kidding about the bailing post-commission.  They had so few vacant units that they just paid me hourly rather than on commission because there was no opportunity to make a decent wage otherwise.  I’m not sure why they didn’t foresee somebody quitting on them with that arrangement…)  That was fine by me.  It was twelve hours a week to get paid to see how to do leases, tenant approvals, applications, manage parking and maintenance needs, do vacancy projections, marketing, the whole shebang.  I knew how to show and pitch property, so not getting to practice that part of it didn’t bother me at all.

The head of the company was the guy who owned nearly all the property being managed—he’d founded the company entirely so he could get management support he could control—and this guy was, to put it mildly, a really bad boss.  You know the kind of guy who has one or two very loyal people on his staff and otherwise chews through everyone because he’s never found an opportunity to be belittling, controlling, and confrontational he didn’t like?  He was that guy.  His accountant was the one loyal one.  His property manager, my direct boss, was not.   

Scattered marbles, mostly blues and greens

In his defense, she was a bit scatterbrained.  In her defense, it’s hard to be confident and organized when you’re constantly afraid of your boss blowing up at you over something minor.  She couldn’t prioritize a to do list to save her life, but it’s impossible to know what the prioritize when anything might trigger a shouting match.  It was not fun to watch, and not just because after a week I was certain I could organize the entire office into one part time job through the power of spreadsheets, but everybody was terrified of computers.  Because sometimes they break.

I worked about twelve hours a week on any given week, started at the beginning of July, and was expected to stay until some point in September.  Two weeks in, I had some regrets: I’d seen just about everything I was going to see, summer as a full time real estate agent was busier than I’d expected it to be, and the work environment wasn’t exactly a fun one.  Still, it was a temporary job with an end date, so I figured I could suck it up and stick it out so I didn’t leave them in a lurch where they had to find a third person to fill the job in a single season.   

Then comes the day, a few weeks in, when my direct boss, the property manager, mentions that the owner has complained to her about how I dress.  It’s not professional enough, he says.  I make the company look bad.  Could I dress better?

“Are you kidding?” I ask.  No, she is not kidding.  “Do you know what he’s paying me?” Yes, she knows.  “Do you know that I’m leaving here to go to Mt. Horeb and show a farm to clients?” No, she did not know that.  “Well, I’m not dressing better than this to show a farm, and I’m not changing clothes for a job that’s missing a digit for my usual hourly rate, so he can deal with how I dress, or he can fire me.”   

Wrinkled purple cargo pants

How I was dressing, by the way, was usually a nice blouse over cargo slacks and flats, hair pulled up, no makeup.  Casual, but the dressy-nice kind of casual.  Practical for traipsing across rural Wisconsin.  There were days I was there in a business blazer, too.  Those were different clients.  I’m pretty sure what burned up the owner was that he knew I could dress better than I frequently did, and he wanted me to do that for him.

A couple weeks later she mentions, again, that he is really quite upset with how I’m dressing, and also how the previous intervention on the subject produced no discernible change.  To which my response was along the lines of,  “I’m sorry, was I unclear? I dress for the job that actually pays me and about which I actually care. You have no leverage here.”

She looked very unhappy.  But also, her quota for confrontation was already spent.  She let it drop.  Then, the next day, when the owner jumped down her throat about a disassembled dishwasher in a vacant unit that she hadn’t bullied the handyman into reassembling, she grabbed her purse and, sobbing, stormed out.  Never to be heard from again.   

I was, at that moment, sitting behind her desk in pants that weren’t even “cargo slacks” but just straight up tatty men’s cargo pants, because I wasn’t seeing any clients that day and, no really, did not care about how I looked at that job.  I’d sat down behind the desk when I saw the owner coming so he would just see the blouse, because I figured ignoring his wishes was one thing, but flaunting that when he was already in a foul mood was just needlessly piling onto the poor property manager, and now I was rather disinclined to get up from the desk because I had a long a illustrious track record of never having rage-quit, and I wanted to preserve it.   

The owner tracked the sobbing property manager as she made her way around the exterior of the building to her car.  Then got in.  Then pulled away.  Then he turns to me.  “Want more hours?”

“No,” I say before I’ve consciously parsed the question.   

He looked startled.  “But you’re only working, what, ten hours?”

“I’m working sixty hours, only ten of them are here, and honestly, I’d rather have them back.  The only reason I’m still here is it didn’t seem fair to accept a temporary job and then quit part way.”

He looked…considerably more than startled.  Then he recovered.  “Well, thank you for that. At least you have some sense of professionalism.”   

Smoke bomb with lit fuse

When I say “tatty” to describe the pants I was wearing, what I mean is, “wrinkled, frayed at the cuff, and the flap on one of the pockets was torn halfway off.”  But I was, in fact, the most professional person in the room.  It was very gratifying to have that noticed.

This has always stuck with me, in large part because of his surprise at the idea that I wouldn’t eagerly lap up the chance to spend more time in that office for the pittance he was paying.

But the thing that has stuck with me about that job, far beyond anything I picked up about 24-hour apartment turns or the nuances of Craigslist marketing, was how much that job didn’t actually suck, for me personally, compared to many similar work situations I’d had.  The owner of that place was legitimately awful, but he barely ranks in the leagues of bad bosses I’ve had.  (For the record, I’ve had some really great bosses, too.  I’ve worked a lot of jobs.  There are many data points on my spectrum.)  The reason isn’t so much that he wasn’t as awful as the really bad ones, but that he was incredibly easy to ignore.  I didn’t need the job. I had nothing to lose.  When he tried to assert his authority, I could shrug him off, and the fact that I did confused him so much that he’d wander away rather than escalate things.

It leaves me wondering: what if I’d had the same attitude at the previous bad jobs, at times in my life where I did need the work and would have gladly taken any number of extra hours under any circumstances just to boost my paycheck a tiny bit more?  Would I have gotten away with it?  I’ll never know.  And if I’m ever in that situation again?  I probably wouldn’t show up in cargo slacks in the first place, if that were the case.   

On Traumatizing a Toddler

The culprit’s cover

Most people have books from childhood they think every child should have, and many of us, in adulthood, proceed to inflict them on the children in our lives.  For me, I have three such books, the book of nursery rhymes, verse, and fairy tale collections published by Brimax in the 70’s and which have been out of print for ages.  I still have my copies from childhood, and when the opportunity came for me to exercise my rights as an insufferable adult and foist them on my oldest nibbling, I dug up copies off the used book market rather than part with my own.  After all, I want my nibblings to have access to the same gorgeous, corrupting influences that have stayed with me since childhood, but not if it inconveniences me.

I didn’t fork them over all at once since I’m engaged in a years long campaign to be the coolest aunt ever, which means delivering presents at times when they’ll be appreciated and remembered.  The final, crowning jewel of the trifecta was delivered last Christmas.  My sister is a great ally in my cool-aunt-campaign, so the last time I visited, she teamed up with me to suggest that maybe that night’s bed time story ought to be one from that really great book he got at Christmas and immediately forgot about.

Let’s pause a moment to get to know the nibbling in question.  His mind is wired lawful-good in a way I find utterly, gobsmackingly unfathomable. If you strike a bargain with this kid, he expects the terms of the bargain to be fulfilled with a conviction that only comes from somebody who has never had a deal broken.  He’s rigorous about please and thank you, not because he understands courtesy, but because he’s internalized them as a ritual that powers the functioning of the universe.  (To be fair, that’s not actually far off from what courtesy is.)  He does his assigned tasks thoroughly and completely because after, he gets screen time, and if he applies enough please and thank you, he might lubricate the machinery of the universe enough to get extra screen time.  He believes his aunt turns into a dragon and eats little boys if you wake her up in the morning because she told him that was true and he has no notion that an adult might lie to him.  (In my defense, it’s not a lie. It’s just a non-literal truth.)  He knows he doesn’t have all the rules and formulae for the universe worked out, but he’s confident they’re all known and rigorously effective.   

Meanwhile, at his age, when I asked, “What does cynical mean?” I was answered with, “Your attitude.”  One of my first report cards called me out for, perhaps, being too sarcastic.  My nibbling and I are not even a tiny bit the same kind of person.

I noticed the difference.  I stared in shock as it was clearly and blatantly demonstrated time and time again.  Then, when bedtime arrived, I applied absolutely nothing from these observations.

“Let’s read Snow White and Rose Red,” I said.  “It was my favorite when I was a kid.”

“Mine too!” my sister says.

There we go. What paladin-in-training toddler is going to refuse a pitch like that?  (Me. I would have refused on principle the moment I figured out I was being set up.)  So we settle down in bed and open up the book and I put on my best cool-Aunt-reading performance and…well.

If you’re not familiar, Snow White and Rose Red is the story of two sisters who live in the woods with their mom.  There’s no jealousy or backstabbing here.  They’re just hanging out in the woods, having happy independent lives, chilling with their two rose trees outside the door.  (One’s white, one’s red. It’s idyllic.)  One winter evening a bear knocks on the door, and though the girls freak out for a minute, mom is basically, “He knocked. He’s not going to knock if he’s a problem. Yo Bear, come on in and don’t mess up the carpet.”  So they hang out all winter and have a grand old time romping in front of the fire and that’s definitely not a euphemism for anything because mom was right there the whole time.  Winter ends, summer comes, and the bear takes his leave to go protect his treasure now that it’s not covered in ice anymore. (Moral of the story right here: You could have nice things, but summer.)

So far, so good.  Sort of.  The nibbling was freaked out by the idea that a bear would randomly burst into your door after somebody knocked, but settled down when it turned out to be okay.  The thematic consistency of, “The bear was courteous, therefore we knew he was good,” was lost on him, but he’s four. We can hold off on discussions of the mechanized underpinnings of fairy tale morality and ritualized underpinnings of contractual hospitality until he’s more mature.  Like, say, when he’s six.

The story continues.  While out and about in the woods, gathering berries and whatnot like idyllic sisters with favorite rose trees do, they encounter a dwarf with his beard stuck in a log.  After other attempts at extrication fail, they snip off the end of his beard and set him free.  At which point the dwarf completely freaks out and starts yelling at them for mangling his beard.   

Paladin-nibbling was not having it.  “Why is he mean?” he asks, clearly distressed and horrified at this reaction.   

You can’t say, “Because he’s a dwarf.” It’s a lazy explanation that attributes a voluntary choice to an intrinsic quality of the individual.  Also, it reinforces problematic understandings of fairy tale tropes. There was a brief second where my nibbling, and his mother, almost got a detailed explanation of the shared motif-space across collected fairy tales and how they often reflect the biases of the recorders more than the cultural sentiments distributed across the oral corpus.  However, I do have some marginal ability to read my audience.  Instead I opted for, “Because he’s a bad dwarf.”  (Come back next week for ‘Enlightened parenting 101’.)

This did not satisfy, but we continued the story. When it all happened again, this time with a fishing line and impending threat of death-by-fish for the dwarf, the nibbling is plainly alarmed.  Then, the third time, right as the dwarf really leans into his rant about stupid girls vandalizing his facial hair, a bear appears and kills him.   

Thank you, bear!

Now, come on.  How many times have you stood in front of a childish temper tantrum over how you saved somebody’s bacon and they don’t like how, just wishing a bear would appear and put an end to the nonsense?  Hundreds of times? I bet it’s hundreds.  This story is amazing.

The bear is, of course, THE bear, and he is, of course, actually a prince under a spell that has now been broken.  He’s all, “Hey, so, elder sister, wanna go back to my kingdom and continue the fun times we had all winter, except in the lap of luxury where there are no rude dwarves?  I’ve got a top notch brother, so you and your sister can still share everything.”

She’s all, “Sure, so long as we can bring mom and those rose trees,” and if they haven’t yet died then they’re living there still.   

It had been years since I’d read the story, and I’d never really thought about how delightfully on-the-nose it is that my sister and I both latched onto the story about really functional sisters who have a thing for bears and rose trees.  (Okay, maybe only one of us is actually into bears…) In that moment, though, I’m full of awareness of how very great this story is, and what fantastic, enlightening experience we’re enabling for the next generation by sharing it.

How did the youth member of the audience feel?  “I didn’t like that story.”

Even the next day, the kid was still distressed by the dwarf’s behavior.  The fact that the situation was resolved by killing somebody is super not helping.  Everything that is good and wonderful about this story exists entirely because it’s in contrast with or in response to elements of the universe this kid has no concept of.  He can’t take joy in the correction of injustice because he’s fresh to the idea of injustice in the first place.   

This is a fascinating window into a world view I have absolutely no personal experience with. This kid is in daycare, so I really, really don’t understand how his internal reality is robust in the face of daily life. Hey, good job raising a tiny idealist, baby sis.

The next night we tried a different story.  One his mom suggested, because she thinks he’d like it more. He’s really into animals, you see.

This is a trans-coming-out story, right?

Pro tip for folks angling to be the world’s coolest aunt: Don’t read your paladin-in-training nibblings The Ugly Duckling.

Bikes on a Train

Photo by Sawyer Bengtson on Unsplash

Moving back to Chicago is the best thing I ever did for myself, and I say that as somebody who has not been stingy with self-indulgence.  I love this city so thoroughly I can’t find words to explain it.  That doesn’t stop me from trying.  “Look at that,” I’ll say when something catches my eye.  “It’s beautiful.”  I’m stopped, struck by fog crawling off the lake to embrace the skyline, by the sunset silhouetting the street as you gaze west to the horizon, or a mural tucked under an overpass, memorializing a person, a moment, an idea. Something specifically precious to that neighborhood.  Something sprawling and universal and touching us all.  It’s been sixteen months since I moved back, and there’s still a film over everything, a longing, a visceral need to be closer to all of it, that makes it hard to believe this is real.  I’m here.  I wake up and fall asleep to the rumble of the train outside my window, squeaking its way down the track over the alley between my building and the next, and it’s a warm blanket whispering, “You’re home.”


You are not allowed to take your bike on a CTA train during rush hour. You can’t even have it on the platform.  Once, years ago, when I had to commute to the west side for a job, I’d figured out that I could save enough money for it to be meaningful if, instead of paying for a transfer from the bus to the train, then back to the bus, I biked the bus stretches.  The only hitch with the plan was that the last train I could catch and still make it on time was scheduled to arrive two minutes after the end of rush hour. That was just enough time to haul my bike up the stairs to the platform, but only if the train never came early.  The train is as likely to be two minutes early as ten minutes late.  I was gong to save five dollars a week in transfer fees with this scheme, sixty dollars over the course of the job. Sixty dollars was more than my monthly grocery budget at the time.  So I explained my situation to the guy watching the turnstiles.  He nodded solemnly and took my concerns very seriously and then told me yeah, whatever, there’s never many people on the train or that platform by that time of day anyway, go ahead and go up early.  So I did, without incident, for about two weeks.

Then one morning there was a woman on the platform already when I got up there.  She was middle aged, full-figured, well put together.  Her hat was neat, and she had a blazer jacket over a floral print dress, and shoes I’d have to remove toes to wear.  She was not thrilled about the frumpy white girl on the platform with her bike.  She marched right over to me and told me straight up, “You are not supposed to be here.”

“I know I’m up here early,” I said.  Then I explained about how the train wasn’t supposed to come until after it would be okay, and I’d talked to the CTA guy and…

“I am sick and tired of people like you thinking you can do whatever you want and taking advantage. Some of us have to use this train and we don’t need you disrespecting us or it.”   

I didn’t say anything to that.  I couldn’t find a way to get across that yes, I can afford to stand there with a bike and looking sloppy, but I’m the kind of broke where I did the math on transfer fees and $60 mattered.   

That night I did more math.  I’d been biking the first and last legs of the commute for two weeks and it was pretty easy.  It would take me about fifteen extra minutes each way to bike it all instead of taking the train. That would still get me back in time to make it to my other job.  Not paying for even the train fare saved much more than $60.   

I think about that lady all the time.  She was right; I didn’t need to bend the rules. I wasn’t even doing what was in the best interests of my budget.  Instead, I’d worked the problem half way, and stopped at the solution that called for minor cheating.  I hope telling me off made her day.  Her week.


I don’t believe in unconditional love.  I just don’t.  Never have.  I believe in indefinite love.  I believe in deluded love.  I believe people get attached enough to the idea of loving a thing that they’ll go to spectacularly absurd lengths to preserve that state.  But unconditional? Really?  No.  There’s always some bedrock that love is anchored in, and love only endures as long as the bedrock. That can look and feel unconditional, but it isn’t.   

Unconditional love is a performance, not a reality.  It’s a devotion to the idea of love, not an attachment to the alleged object of affection.  Love without condition just slides off its object without ever really seeing it.

Except, I’ve been wondering for the last year or so, what is the bedrock for my love of Chicago? What’s the thing that must not change? There’s an anxiety around this question.  I need to know, because one thing that I’ve realized quite starkly since moving back is that I was utterly, spectacularly miserable while I was gone.  I knew it when I first left. I remember how constantly and relentlessly I was aware of that misery.  Then it faded.  Or I thought it did.  I thought moving back was a nice fantasy to dream about, something to consider doing someday, later, the way other people retire to sail around the world or to a hobby farm in the country.  (That is, in their dreams, and therefore, never.)  I got a little dedicated to the idea of someday, but not now.  It got to the point where somebody flat out asked me, “Why not?” and I realized I didn’t have an answer beyond, “Because that’s a fantasy.”  But now I know: I was miserable, and I was afraid, and this question is why.  If I don’t know where the line the city must not cross is, then I won’t know how to steer it away, or brace myself when the bedrock begins to erode.  As long as I don’t know the answer to this question, there’s a chance that someday I’ll wake up to the sound of the train and just hear noise.


Last Friday I had a full day with a scattershot of places to be.  It was the first nice day after a week of rain and I was desperate to stretch my legs.  The first appointment would require a train, then a bus.  After that, either another bus or a lot of walking.  Then more walking.  Then a bus to a train, or a bus to a bus, or a bus to a train to a different train.  The night before I stared at the map, checked the weather report, then went, “Screw it. First appointment is at noon. That’s plenty of time.”  I took my bike on the train.   

There were, of course, no empty cars when the train pulled up, but I did manage to dash onto one with the section at the end where there aren’t any seats and you can take up a lot of space without blocking anybody who isn’t switching cars.   

“That’s a nice bike,” a lady sitting nearby says.  “I would know, too.  My man runs a bike shop over there on Greenwood.  He’s got that one in there.”

“Yeah, I like it a lot,” I said.  “It isn’t fast, but it’s steady and I can bike forever on it.”

“Well, that’s what matters most.  You don’t have to be hurrying everywhere,” the guy sitting next to her says.   

“Exactly!” I say.  I mean, it’s not a fast bike, but I still beat the bus half the time anyway.   

We get to talking.  He wants to get an e-bike.  I tell him that after Seattle, an e-bike in Chicago would feel like cheating.  They didn’t know Seattle was hilly.  They couldn’t believe Seattle was more expensive than Chicago.  (It is. Oh my god, is it ever.  And for no good reason.)  We talked about working from home and making offices out of closets.  His daughter has gotten into drinking sweet tea, and she’s running late every morning now because she’s busy stirring the pitcher to dissolve the sugar and get it cool.  I suggested sweetening with agave nectar, because it’ll dissolve at room temperature, so she could brew it ahead of time and still sweeten to order.  “It doesn’t get all solid like honey?” he asks.  Nope.

“And it’s better for you,” the lady pipes in.   

His daughter’s hefty.  He thinks she’s fine now, but he worries that if she keeps getting big, the other kids will pick on her.  “Kids these days is cruel, with the bullying.  I hate thinking about how bad it is.”  The conversation lingers on the subject.  I don’t say much.  This is a man worried about the happiness of his daughter, stuck between believing she’s beautiful and wanting her to believe it too, and fear that others won’t see the same and will punish her for it.  What I think isn’t relevant.   

“I don’t like talking about things like this. It always makes me sad,” the lady says.  But the conversation doesn’t budge.  The guy is stuck on it.  He’s trying to move on, but this is clearly something eating at him.

“How’d you meet your man with the bike shop?” I ask.


My affection for Chicago isn’t unique, with respect to my affections in general.  I get cranky if I’m not taking time to read something engrossing relatively regularly.  I got attached enough to my houseplants that after they all died in the move from Seattle, I wound up in a consult with a lady in a plant shop that looked an awful lot like a grief counseling session.  I wore a hoodie my sister gave me to the point it was in utter tatters.  I didn’t stop wearing it until she gave me a nearly identical one to replace it.  The original still hangs like an ornament in my bedroom.  I care about people, sure.  They’re great.  But ideas? Objects?  Rituals or things I can grasp and tie stories and meaning to?  The word that’s needed here is “sentimental.”  I’m prone to pathological sentimentality.   

Though, admittedly, Chicago is very large, and very abstract, and very impossible to put on a shelf or hang from a bedpost.  There are still parts of the city I’ve never been to.  More things I haven’t seen than I have.  I’ve been in love with this place over half my life, but I’m painfully aware that I’ve only scratched the surface of knowing it.  My affection here is founded as much on my idea of the place, my individual, idiosyncratic sliver of experience here, as it is on what it really, truly, genuinely is.  I am every parent who loves the idea of their child more than the young person growing up in front of them.  Every newlywed as enraptured with the fairy tale of happily ever after as the actual commitment they’ve made.   

I never lived near enough to the train to hear it, when I lived here before. It doesn’t make sense to have that sound wrapped up in nostalgia, for it to provide comfort to me now that I’m back.  Everything about my persistent, dedicated devotion is overblown and irrational.  I know this.  I’m aware of it in the same breath where I stop at a street corner, point at something, and go, “Isn’t that beautiful?”


They’ve been together fifteen years.  He was selling her Avon and she kept going back.  Then he opened the bike shop and she helped.  They have two kids together and she glows when she talks about him.  “I haven’t ever married him, though,” she says.

“Nothing wrong with that,” I say with a shrug.  “Marriage is overrated.”

“No!” the guy protests.  “There’s nothing more beautiful than a loving commitment.”

“Sure, that’s nice.”  I don’t think that’s nice, but I’m talking to a married man.  No reason to be rude.  “But when somebody comes home to me, I want it to be because they chose it right then in that moment, not because they have to.”

“That is a beautiful way of looking at it,” the lady says.  “I’m going to take that for myself.  They’re with me because they want to be.”

“Are you married?” the guy asks.

I do a double take.

“Does she sound like a married woman?  Aren’t you hearing her?  She doesn’t like marriage.”

I feel bad for the guy.  I hijacked his moment of worrying about his daughter into a conversation that’s disparaging his choices and values.  “It’s not that, exactly.  I’ve just seen a lot of friends who are with people who aren’t worthy of them. I think they would have left if they weren’t married, and that’d be better.”


It’s been sixteen months since I came back and I still have no idea what my condition is.  Where the bounds on my affection are.  I have no idea how to ward off the day when I’ll hear somebody talk about wanting to leave Chicago and nod along, instead of quietly liking them less.  I want to fortify against that erosion, to battle whatever apathy or exhaustion or jaded numbness might come between me and the giddy awe I feel every time I look around and go, “Yes, it’s true. I’m home.”  I haven’t found it yet, but I’m going to keep looking.  I’ll walk and bike and ride every block until I know the city like a family quilt.  I’ll clutch it tight, wrapping it around my shoulders as I listen to the train rumble by, knowing my love is real because it’s conditional, but defended.  Eternal.

Beautiful.

Sara Foy

My Grannie was born in a house next to a graveyard.  The graveyard wasn’t there yet, but it wasn’t long in coming.  The land the graveyard is on was their orchard.  But the town needed a bigger cemetery, so her daddy sold the land and in exchange had a job as its keeper.

She’s Grannie because I’m her oldest grandchild and I said so when I was five and learning to spell.  ‘Y’ is a letter you can’t trust, but you can trust Grannie.


According to her, there were three things Grannie wanted to accomplish in life: build her own house, visit England, and have babies.  Babies are an obsession of hers.  She worked on the church nursery so long that a significant number of the people you run into in town, when they find out who my grandmother is, go, “Oh, Sara Foy!  She changed my diaper.”

As long as I’ve been alive, she’s been a white haired old lady.  The kind of stereotypical grandmother who thinks astonishingly ugly sweaters are just what you want to wear, who clips on flimsy sunglasses over the large, clear plastic frame of her eyeglasses when she drives, who will not let her purse out of her sight because that’s where her lipstick lives and a woman should always look her best.  It’s easy, if you don’t pay attention, to think “traditional fifties housewife, cliché in all the ways except playing bridge.”

I must have been seven or eight when, one Sunday at the dinner table, she scolded me to take my elbows off the table.  “Grandaddy has his elbows on the table,” I protested.

“That’s okay for him.  He’s a man,” Grannie said.

“Then I’m a man, too.”

Years later, when I’d ask my sister about a strange interaction I had with a cousin, my sister would answer, “Oh, that cousin just didn’t get the memo.”

“What memo?” I asked.

“That you’re a man.”

I hadn’t noticed.  But she was right.  I’m pretty sure “Take your elbows off the table,” was the last time Grannie chided me to be more ladylike.


In 1998, when Gone With the Wind was briefly rereleased in theaters, Grannie took my sister and me to see it at the artsy theater in Richmond.  We’d seen it already, on two VHS tapes we watched on successive nights in her living room, but this was an occasion.  We’d been to that theater before, too, but never with her.  Never with somebody who remembered when they still had the organ the play the music along with the movie.

She had a copy of the book, too.  I borrowed it from her the summer before I started college.  It was old, the binding cracked, the pages yellow and disintegrating.  The dust jacket was more dust than jacket.

When I was in Richmond at the beginning of November, Grannie was looking everywhere for her copy of Gone with the Wind.  She couldn’t find it.  “It’s probably disintegrated,” I said.


Grannie loved working in the yard, going to historical society lectures, listening to opera.  She organized the local seniors social group until she was in her eighties.  She was the oldest person in the group when she retired from doing it.  They disbanded rather than find somebody to replace her.  Until three years ago, she sang in the church choir.  She couldn’t read music.  She did it by ear.  She loved to sing lullabies, because she loved babies, and music.

“I think I’d like to see my great-grandchildren,” she told me once.  “So hang around and see them,” I said.  Another time, “I want to live until I see you girls settled.”

Then, when my sister got engaged, I told her, “You know, Grannie’s waiting to see her great-grandkids.  If she waits for me to give them to her, she’s going to be immortal.  If you settle down and do the marriage and kids thing, you’re basically killing her.”

“That was incredibly mean, even for you,” my sister said.


Grannie was thirty-nine years old when she had her first child, my uncle.  In 1959. She’d just about given up on having children.  The medicine she was on for the rheumatoid arthritis she had in all her joints interfered with fertility.

“I had a terrible time getting pregnant.  But once I did, everything was easy.  I loved being pregnant.  And I loved being a mother.  Being a mother is the best thing.”

“If you say so, Grannie.”  She never once, not a single time, asked me when I was going to get married or have children.  She never referred to male friends I introduced her to as my boyfriend.  She never demanded anything from me beyond, “When are you going to write a best seller?  You should get on that.”


Three years ago, just before Thanksgiving, Grannie fell on the walk in front of her house.  She broke her arm and hip, had to have surgery to repair them, and lived in a skilled nursing facility for rehab until the following February.  My sister had just given birth to her first child.  I’d already planned a long trip to Richmond to help her cook and clean and wrangle her infant.  Instead, I spent hours a day with Grannie.

For about a year after, when I’d call on Sundays and we’d talk about that time, what Grannie would remember and comment on was visits from my sister and her precious child.  Who was just the most adorable thing.  My sister is such a good mother.  Don’t I think she’s a good mother?

It stung. But Grannie loves babies.  She was in pain and on drugs most of the time I was there.  She’s still fairly sharp, but her memory isn’t what it used to be.  Mostly I’m glad she remembers good things from then.  The rest of me is glad that, “She’s seen the next generation, and now she’s fallen,” wasn’t a portent.

I don’t know what changed, whether somebody mentioned something or the memories reshuffled in her head or what, but one Sunday she goes, “You spent an awful lot of time with me when I was in there.”

“I did.  I was there and I could.”

“That was so nice.”  And then, because she’s still sharp, but her mind does wander, “Do you remember when I took you to see Gone with the Wind?”


When we were kids, Grannie took my sister and me to Lurray Caverns.  And Monticello.  She drove us down Skyline drive and told stories about visiting the mountains when she was younger.  We learned to navigate by road atlas and highway markers.  She’d take us to Jamestown and Williamsburg.  To the Science museum in Richmond, and to Maymont.  We’ve watched the park at Henricus change from just a park to a reenactment site with a working model village on it, because she’s been taking us there since we were small.  She’ll tell stories about having picnics with the people who lived in the house there, where all that’s left is the ruined foundation.

Out to lunch with Grannie and my sister and her child.  The child is two, has made an unholy mess, his face covered in his lunch.  “Neil,” Grannie says, “You should kiss your mother.”

I glance at my nephew.  At my grandmother.  At my nephew.  “Grannie, you’re a terrorist.”

She shrugs.  “You have to spread your wings.”


I mentioned to a cousin a while back that I was planning to, someday, move back to Chicago.  That cousin mentioned this to Grannie.

“Where’re you?” Grannie asked right away, when I called her the following Sunday.

“In my living room?”

“Where are you living?  Haven’t you moved?”

I silently cursed myself for opening my big mouth when I shouldn’t have.  “No Grannie.  I’m in Seattle.”

“But you are moving.”

“Someday.  It’ll be a while.”  We did this every week for months.


My last trip to Richmond, after the great search for Gone with the Wind came up empty, my sister and I made the rounds of used book stores.  I picked up copies of The Illiad and The Odyssey to give Grannie as Christmas presents, because she mentioned that she wanted to reread them, she hadn’t read them since she was a teenager, but she couldn’t because she didn’t have copies.  We looked for copies of Gone with the Wind, too, but didn’t find any suitable ones.

“Would you like your Christmas present early?” I asked her on my last day of the trip.

“Oh, yes!”  I gave her the books.  I hadn’t bothered to wrap them.  She lit up, excited to have them.  “Have you read these?  I don’t remember anything about them.”

“I have,” I assured her.  “All you need to remember is that one is about how you should never get between Achilles and his boyfriend, or his girlfriend, and the other is about how you shouldn’t keep a plate warm for Odysseus.”

“Was he late for supper?”

“Very.”


Grannie is where I get my interest in history from.  Her interests are fairly narrow: all things Virginia, and all things England, with dabbling in Scotland and the rest of American history, too.  She will tell you, repeatedly, about how they had the first Thanksgiving in Jamestown two years before there was anybody at Plymouth.  Her stance on Civil War monuments was, “If they want to take them down, just take off the people and leave the horses.  I like the horses and they didn’t hurt anybody.”

She wasn’t a housewife. She loved being a mother, it’s the best thing in the world, but she worked.  She spent years working for a lady doctor.  The doctor’s husband had died, leaving her with a little boy to raise on her own.  Grannie thought that was tragic, but it’s one more baby in her life.  The boy is all grown up, older than my parents, living in Oregon.  Grannie is what he has for family.  He surprised her by flying out for her 95th birthday party.  She was flabbergasted and charmed for months after.

At Christmas, she made gingerbread and iced sugar cookies.  The Joy of Cooking recipe for applesauce cake was her standard cake to have on hand or take to potlucks or send home with you.  She stopped cooking after she fell, when my uncle moved in with her to take care of her so she could live at home.  But she still loved ice cream and lemon chess pie.  If you asked what she wanted for dinner, she’d lean toward you and confide, “Oysters.”  Then grin, because she knew you weren’t going to do it.

Last time I cooked her dinner, I made a stir fry with oyster sauce.  One smart ass deserves to be answered by another.


“You know, Sara’s doing very well,” my other grandmother said.  “I really think she might live to be a hundred.”

“She has stomach cancer. I’m crossing my fingers that since my sister’s pregnant, she’ll hang on to see the new baby.”  That’ll get her to late March, just past her next birthday.  She’ll be ninety-seven.


“I was telling one of my friends that you want to move back to Chicago,” Grannie was telling me.  “And she said, ‘Oh, but that’s a terrible place! Why would she do that?’ And I just told her I figure you can take care of yourself.”

“You should have told her she didn’t know what she was talking about,” I said.

She shrugged that off.  “Have you seen my copy of Gone with the Wind?”


My sister found a good copy a week after I left.  She was bragging to me about how the wrapping paper she keeps is actual brown paper, and her ribbons this year are thin and ropey, so all of the presents under her tree are going to be brown paper packages tied up with strings.

“She won’t stop asking about Gone with the Wind,” my sister said.

“She’s got books on her mind lately.  She keeps telling me how excited she is to reread The Illiad and the Odyssey,” I replied.  By the end of the phone conversation, Gone with the Wind was wrapped.


Last Thursday, about an hour after I first woke up, I got a text from my uncle.  “Call me.  Mom isn’t doing well.  I’ve had no sleep.”

He hadn’t called my sister yet.  He didn’t want to bother her at work.  I called her for him.  “What you’re saying is, I need to take the babe and go see her tonight?”

“It might be nothing but, yeah, I think so.  And this might be silly, but take over the rest of her Christmas presents, too.”


Sunday a week ago, when I talked to Grannie, she was sharp and animated.  She was hungry.  She’d been to church that morning, even though she’d had some stomach troubles the day before.  Generally when she has stomach troubles on a Saturday, she doesn’t go to church the next day.  And generally she protests that everybody is forcing her to eat too much, she doesn’t want to get fat.  (Grandaddy’s mother got fat, and he never liked that, so she doesn’t want to.) This sounds really promising to me.

“They talked about your Granddaddy at church a few weeks ago.  About how he’d do anything they asked of him, and what a good man he was.  I was really glad I got to hear it.”  This is the fourth or fifth week she’s told me about that service.  “What have you been doing?”

“I got a job. I’m moving to Chicago.  I’ll be there in January.”

“Oh, good.  I know you’ve been wanting that.”

“I have.”


There’s this problem with just taking your white-haired old lady grandmother at face value.  Even when she loves babies.  It’s that you make the wrong assumption about what she means when she says “settled.”


My Grannie died in a house next to the woods.  Out back a bridge crosses a small creek, on a path that leads up to an abandoned garden patch with a shed that used to be a pony stable.  In front is a red maple that just finished dropping its leaves, and the tallest magnolia tree you’re likely to see anywhere.

She never unwrapped her new copy of Gone with the Wind.

WorldCon 2017, aka The Best, Most Tedious Disaster Story Ever

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When last I posted, I announced  the schedule for my WorldCon programming and promised stories.  What gentle, naive times those were.

I was already en route to Helsinki when I made that post.  I was, in fact, hanging out in Manhattan after an overnight flight from Seattle, waiting to meet somebody for brunch, and generally looking forward to passing a long layover before catching another overnight flight to Helsinki.  The day was, in fact, lovely.  Unrelatedly,  I did not catch that overnight flight.

After getting bounced back and forth between Finnair and American Airlines on the phone trying to fix flight problems, then the same at the airport, then Finnair vanishing and turning into Qatar airlines while I was in line to talk to their people, I finally got the chance to rebook my flight.  Which prompted the following conversation with my roommate:

Me: I’ve had a bad feeling about this trip for ages. I’m thinking this is an omen.

Uni: It’ll be fine.

Me: I’m serious. How sad would you be if I just came home? I’m thinking of cutting my losses now while I can.

Uni: You’ve spent the last two months learning Finnish.

Me: That was fun on its own.

Uni: You can’t come home. I’ve got dibs on your favorite mug for the next two weeks.

You can’t argue with that.  I pushed on to Helsinki.

Instead of getting a direct flight to Helsinki through Finnair, I wind up on a British Airways flight to Heathrow, then a Finnair flight to Helsinki, which put me in Helsinki just in time to have missed all of my WorldCon programming.  Without my luggage.  This last bit didn’t surprise me. When I tried to check in for the BA flight, their gate agent nearly had a meltdown, began railing against American, then hustled me to a back room where I got a special private check in desk and very gentle security procedure. As somebody with a mild allergy to security theater in general and TSA bullshit in particular, I was pretty pleased by this.

But I made it to Helsinki. The people I was sharing lodging with very kindly left my set of keys at the registration desk so that whenever I got my luggage or was inclined to see where I was sleeping for the duration of the con, I could pick them up and do that. I got registered, and met up with many Strange Horizons folks, most of whom I hadn’t met before, and we ate delightful Nepalese food and chatted.  Then I unabashedly followed them to the barcon bar and we showed up before anybody else did which, I believe, means we founded the party.  Mind, I was wearing the same clothes I got onto the plane in Seattle wearing, and had only washed in various airport bathrooms, but I was definitely one of the cool kids.  Trust me.

When that broke up and it was time to head home, several of the people I’d been hanging out with very kindly and English-ly refused to go on to their hotel before making sure I could find where I was staying, despite my insistence that this was unnecessary.  The joke was on them, though, because I managed to have a fail-tastic adventure anyway.  You see, I knew the address of where I was staying, and I had the keys for getting in.  What I didn’t have was the apartment number.  In a building with eight floors.

“No sweat,” says I, as I examine the doors.  “I spent the last two months learning Finnish, and I am in Finland.  This means I’m prepared for everything.  For example, I know the note on that door says ‘No housekeeping.’  I will deduce my way into the correct unit.”

My plan was, actually, quite brilliant.  There were 4-5 doors on each floor, and seven floors with doors.  I had a key, and all of these doors required a key to be opened.  So all I had to do was put my key in each door, turn it, and when it worked, Boom! Destination located.  The next day I’d file the paperwork to change my name to Anaea H. Lay, and tell everybody for the rest of time that the H is for Holmes, because I’m humble.

I was not staying on the first floor. Cool.  Six floors to go.

I was not staying in the first unit of the second floor.  Or the second.  The third, however…the third opened.

Onto the foyer of a studio. (Weren’t we in a 1-bedroom?)

A studio with a bed taking up most of the space beyond the foyer. (There’s definitely supposed to be a sofa.  I’m sleeping on it.)

A bed with a very confused looking white and black pit bull stretched out on it.

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Not actual dog. Actual level of dog-alertness. though.

On second thought, repeated counts of attempted breaking and entering is probably not the best way to get a good night’s sleep in a foreign country.  But hey, Helsinki is generous with their public wifi, so I high-tailed it back to internet land and used slightly less deranged methods of figuring out where to go.

(The next morning I called T-mobile via my web browser to ask if they could maybe fix the thing where my phone wasn’t behaving like it should.  “We’re stumped.  I’ll boot this up to the next tier of support and call you back with the answer,” they said.  “You can’t call me back, my phone isn’t working as a phone.”  This confused them.  They wanted to know how I was calling them, in that case. VIA A WEB BROWSER BECAUSE THIS IS THE 21st CENTURY WHY IS THIS HARD JUST SEND ME AN EMAIL WHEN YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO.  But hey, when I finally made it back to the US, I had three very helpful voicemails from T-Mobile telling me how to fix my phone…)

Friday I actually got a full day at the convention.  More exciting, I wasn’t wearing the exact same clothes I left Seattle in; one of the people I was staying with kindly loaned me a pile of clothes to wear.  So I was wearing her running shirt.  Reader, I have never before in my life worn running clothes.  I sincerely hope to never wear them again.

I had make-up lunch with somebody I was supposed to have had lunch with on Thursday and we had a good chat.  At one point a complete stranger sitting next to us interrupted to say, “I’m sorry, but ‘don’t break the spreadsheet’ is a good motto for life.'” It was that kind of conversation.

I went to a panel to watch Amal Al-Mohtar be adorable and squee about Steven Universe, and got exactly what I expected from it.  I went to another panel about interactive fiction and continued the process of slowly realizing I have no idea what I’m doing there and have, possibly, made questionable life choices.  I stalked the web status page for my luggage in the hopes that it would arrive in time for me to change before the Hugo ceremony.

You see, I packed a dress.  And heels.  And basic grooming items for looking like a professional adult who wins things on the off chance that, you know, I won a thing.  During the second panel, I get the notice that my bag is in Helsinki.  There was hope!

Cue me, somewhat sheepishly, walking up to the support counter and asking if anybody there knows a way for me to get my hands on a phone that can make a local call.  My phone is refusing to be a phone, you see, and I would very much like to call the Helsinki airport.  Because I would very much like to wear anything other than jeans and a borrowed running shirt to the Hugos.  (I am convinced, at this point, that if Strange Horizons does win, I will never, ever win a Hugo again, and for all time I’ll be the person who accepted a Hugo in borrowed running clothes.  I cannot think of a story I’d want to be associated with less.)

A guy at the desk took pity on me, whipped out his phone, and called the airport on my behalf.  It’s all Finnish, all the way down, but he was able to give them a phone number I could receive texts from, because it gets automatically forwarded to my email address.  And fortunately, I catch it when he reads my chicken-scratch zero as an eight.  “You speak Finnish?” a lady nearby asks, clearly surprised.

“Not really, but I did spend the last two months studying it.  I am super prepared for everything!”

The Helsinki airport has no idea where my bag is.  It might be in Helsinki?  They aren’t sure.  They’ll call me with an update.

I was, at this point, feeling a bit of strain, so I went for my default coping mechanism, and started hunting down tea.  There was a lovely cafe in the convention center, full of lovely pastries, and I’m told the coffee was lovely, too.  I hate coffee, but they had a chai latte on their menu and I am down for that, so I order one.  And walk away.  And take a sip.

And then I’m back at the counter going, “I’m very sorry, but I ordered a chai latte.”

“Yes,” the girl at the counter says.

“This is coffee.”

“Yes,” she repeats.  “That’s what you ordered.”

“There’s coffee in your chai latte?”

“Yes.”

You know I’m dedicated to keeping displays of grief private, because I did not at that moment collapse onto the floor sobbing.  “I’m sorry, I’m afraid we’re having a cultural difference.  Is there something on your menu I can order that doesn’t have coffee in it?”

This became the second in a long string of conspicuous kindnesses punctuating the trip, because not only did she direct me to a safe way to order coffee-free tea, she refunded me the €1.20 difference between the prices in the drinks.  I’d expected her to charge me for the additional drink since she had, in fact, given me exactly what I ordered.

I went to the Hugos reception in jeans and a borrowed running shirt.  And the ceremony itself.  Strange Horizons didn’t win.  (Never have I been so happy to be in second place.)  Then the losers party, which also marked the first time I did anything in Helsinki proper the entire trip.  The steampunk gin bar is not messing around about its steampunk, or its gin, in case you were wondering.

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Saturday, I gave up on the concepts of luggage, worldly possessions, or hope.  It was very freeing.

If you ever get the chance to hear Ken Liu talk about translation, take it.  He’s as good at deadpan and wry when lecturing as he is in his prose.  I also stalked more panels on interactive fiction, and continued to nurse my suspicion that maybe before taking on major projects that look like fun, I should first have any idea what I’m doing.  There were several games of Werewolf, and a fantastically brutal thunderstorm during dinner, and I back-pedaled on giving up on my luggage enough to abscond with somebody’s phone and spend some time talking to the airport about whether maybe I would ever see my bag again.  (It was definitely, absolutely, certainly not in Helsinki, and never had been.  They weren’t sure where it was, though.)

This was also about the time Nazis were marching practically next door to where my baby sister lives, so, you know, there was some muttering about how maybe when I was thinking this trip was cursed and I should cut my losses and go home that was absolutely the right idea.

Sunday was more meeting people for meals.  I had learned to order hot chocolate, because it never comes with coffee.  I had shared my traumatic chai latte experience with absolutely everybody, including strangers on street corners. I’ve had confirmation from a buddy who lives in Helsinki that of course chai lattes have coffee in them.  If I ever return to Helsinki, they will greet me as the girl perpetually wearing the same shirt who would not shut up about accidentally ordering coffee and then ask whether maybe I wouldn’t like to visit Sweden.  But, I had hope, because the Strange Horizons tea party was Sunday, and I was going to get myself some tea at the tea party.  I spent the entire morning inviting people to the party and positively gloating about my inevitable tea.  (I’d packed tea in my luggage.  With a brewing thermos.  This was not supposed to be a problem.)

The tea party was great.  It was packed.  We embarrassed Niall, which I shouldn’t be so pleased by because he’s English and therefore an easy mark, but I am.  People told me they liked how I read their stories and that was really great since I sorta assume everybody just cringes in a corner and quietly hates how I say their name, and deliver their favorite line.

Of course, they ran out of tea before I got any.  What sort of curse would I have if I’d been able to get tea at a tea party?

But, but, but, something magical happened.  I got an email.  From Finnair.  MY LUGGAGE WAS IN HELSINKI.  This was particularly great since the next day I would cease to be in Helsinki, and I sorta wanted to have my luggage with me.

I hopped on a train to the airport, fetched my luggage, hugged it a lot, hopped on a train back to where I was staying, hugged my luggage some more, and changed my clothes.  Then made some tea.  With my tea.  Which I had packed to ensure I wouldn’t be the tea-obsessed American traumatized by a coffee culture.  Then I hugged my luggage more, just for good measure.

Also, I put every pin I’d intended to decorate my con badge with on the collar of my shirt and shamelessly wore them to a bar, dinner, then a bar, while hanging out with people in Helsinki.  My favorite moment was probably when I passed people I’d met two days before and was greeted with, “You’re wearing different clothes.  You got your luggage!”

This ends the part of the trip I’d characterize as “frustratingly inconvenient.”  Let’s move on to the “Estonia is magic” portion.

Estonia is magic, y’all.  First off, everybody in the entire world was taking a ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn on Monday, and I was the only one who didn’t miss the ferry.  Yes, whether you remember it or not, on August 14 of 2017 you tried to take a ferry to cross the Baltic Seat from Helsinki to Tallinn, and you failed.  On the one hand, I felt very keenly for the travel woes of everybody else, and the people who were trying to coordinate plans around them.  On the other hand, vindication is sweet and even though this had nothing to do with the frustrating inconvenience of the trip so far, I felt vindicated.

Also, Tallinn is charming.  Everybody says this.  They are speaking truth.  I have no pictures with which to prove this but believe me; if I weren’t clinging to my pants in a defiant refusal to be separated from my luggage ever again, they’d have been charmed off.

I was staying in the apartment behind the kitchen of a yoga studio that had the Icelandic and Spanish consulates as landmarks for finding the building.  (See, charming!) This was just far enough outside of Old Town for me to walk along and go, “Yeah, this is pretty nice, classic compact European city with a nice…holy medieval times, Batman!”

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Not my photo, but a very accurate one

There’s nothing quite like being an American from a family with pretensions about having ties to old things, then running into actual old things as if they’re nothing special.  It should have stopped working on my be now, but I think living on the west coast, land of everything was new this morning, has made me soft.

Met up with people to hang out over drinks and snacks in a pub.  Not just any pub, but a pub in the basement of a medieval building with walls thicker than me in the morning.  (Actually, in Tallinn, that probably is just any pub.)  I had a fantastic salad, enjoyed samplings of the peppered lard on toast, and tried not to take it personally that while wifi in my apartment at home needs constant coddling, I was getting fantastic signal and connectivity while in the basement of a building that was old when my distant forebears arrived on the continent of my birth.  I was not bitter.

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How can you be bitter after eating this?

One of my dinner companions, as we were preparing to pay and depart for dinner, moaned about how the magical pay-by-waving-your-phone-at-a-thing limit was too low to cover most bills so they were stuck using antiquated chip reader technology.  “You mean the chips that weren’t even ubiquitous in the US until a year or so ago and that most places still can’t handle?” I asked.  Yeah, that’s what she meant.

I had my luggage.  I was charmed.  The waiter had fetching shoulders and nice hair.  So I still wasn’t bitter.

Then we started planning the part of the next day that would involve riding the driverless bus.

Reader, I have complaints about the graceless collapse of empire, and how it directly applies to my quality of life.

The next day featured the accidental discovery of a bakery with amazing hot chocolate, eagerly following the coattails of a masterful social engineer by the name of Ellen Kushner, who enthusiastic-harmless-curiosity-seeker’d her way into two different hotel rooms that weren’t hers just to check out their views, marzipan gawking, market browsing, dumplings to die for, and tea.  A lot of tea.  Estonians, by the way, are as horrified by the Finnish approach to chai lattes as I am.

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This is marzipan, from one of the two places claiming to be a marzipan museum. The other place was a lie.

There’s definitely a lot of Tallinn that is there entirely to cater to tourists, and I definitely didn’t spend enough time there to scratch very deeply beyond that, but I’m up for fixing that any time.  Have I overused the word “charming” yet?

Wednesday brought the ferry back to Helsinki and, consequently, the most actually gawking at Helsinki I did the whole trip.  Mostly I wandered around and looked at things.  The Botanical Gardens are quite nice for walking around.  So’s most of the central city, actually.

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Never tell me why these three naked men are standing around an anvil.

By this point I’d chilled all the way out and started actually taking pictures of stuff.  There were many nice things to take pictures of.

IMG_20170816_190218I also may have made the ill-advised decision to walk from the central city, where I had dinner and did my wandering, through this place that looked like a nice park, on my way back to where I was staying.  I had to be out around 4am in order to catch a stupid-early flight, so rather than get wrapped up in something that might keep me out, I planned to meander bed-ward and catch a bus or trolley or cab or anything practical when I got tired.

I didn’t check to make sure there were buses, trolleys, or cars along the route first.

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For the record: this wasn’t even the dumbest walk I’ve taken this summer

I did get back, and crash into bed, and get up very, very early.  I made it to the airport with no trouble and plenty of time to spare.  My flight was on time, I finished my souvenir shopping, got on my plane and…

…embarked on the spectacularly disastrous part of the trip.

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This picture is just here to be misleadingly cheerful.

My first layover was in Paris.  Not the good kind of layover where I could leave the airport and actually see Paris, but hey, so long as I get a croissant between flights, it’ll be worth it, right?

Spoiler: I did not get a croissant in Paris. Not even at the airport.

What happened instead is that I beelined across the airport to get to my gate, assuming that I could fetch a croissant once I knew I was in the right place and all was well.  This was good, because they were extremely prompt about boarding; already well underway by the time I arrived, even though I arrived 45 minutes before takeoff.  (Cut-off: 30 minutes.)  I scan my boarding pass and…get told I’m not allowed to board.

I’m unsurprised.  I missed my flight on the way out, and even though they assured me this wouldn’t cause any trouble on my return, I didn’t believe them.  Here was my vindication.  Or so I thought at first.

Actually, it’s not that at all.  It’s worse.  The gate agent is refusing to board anybody from my flight out of Helsinki, even though there were several of us.  She didn’t like how the connection was done.  No, she won’t help me rebook, this is Finnair’s fault.  “But I booked the itinerary through American.  That’s you,” I say.  See, I’d just gone down this road a whole lot not ten days before when trying to fix my departing flight.  Finnair can’t do squat for me.  American is refusing to board me, American is the source of the booking, American is who I need help from.

American sends me back through customs to Finnair.  To the completely wrong place.  So I go back.  They send me somewhere else.  Also wrong, but this time it came with a bonus trip through security.  (I love airport security, remember?)  I finally find a Finnair employee and explained to her what’s happened.  Her eyes get big and she goes, “But I can’t help you.  American has to…wait, how did you get here?”

That’s a good question, since the boarding pass I hold is for a flight that has, at this point, long since left, and in a completely different terminal.  “I’m very charming when I want to be, and security thought I was harmless.  Please don’t make me go through that again.”  (Fun Fact: Charles de Gaulle airport has, as a normal presence, uniformed soldiers with machine guns.  Ask me how I know.)

The very nice Finnair employee proceeds to get on the phone to somebody and freak out in a long string of French from which all I understood was, “Ping-ponging passengers,” because the only French I know is useful for eating, and getting laid.  (I mean, if you’re only going to speak a little French…)  She then apologized profusely, but I was going to have to leave the secured portion of the airport to talk to somebody else.  No really, she’s very sorry, but she literally cannot help me at all, I am in utterly the wrong place.  The place she’s sending me isn’t the right place either, because I was in the right place when I was talking to American, but they’ll help me anyway.

Finnair’s umbrella company then, on behalf of me and two other people American had done this to, called American to fight with them and get us rebooked.  It took a long time.  I wasn’t shouty-angry like the first guy who was so furious that he was going to arrive in New York three hours later than he meant to that he missed the first flight they rebooked him on by yelling at them over how unacceptable the situation was, and didn’t have a wife and three kids stuck on the other side of security waiting for me to return with their passports, I volunteered to be the back of the line.  I could see the writing on the wall already and wasn’t inclined to fight my fate.

Finnair’s umbrella company, while calling American on my behalf to make them rebook my flight, bought me lunch in Paris.  I got a sandwich on a baguette and chocolate mousse.  I looked, but I couldn’t find a croissant.

Tangent: back in February, as a reward to myself for something I was smug about, I did something I almost never do and bought myself an item of clothing I didn’t desperately need.  Specifically, this item of clothing.  I packed it, thinking it would make a good shirt to wear for the very long flight home.  My sister begged me to change my mind.  I considered her perspective.  Then Charlottesville happened.

In addition to having uniformed soldiers carrying machine guns, Charles de Gaulle airport is full of people who will compliment you when your shirt says:

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I love this shirt entirely beyond reason.

I did not expect an anglophone American wearing jeans and a t-shirt to get consistent sartorial compliments while in Paris, but there you go.  We live in interesting times.  Also, the attention made up for the lack of croissants.

Eventually I got booked onto an Air France flight.  Getting back through security and whatnot when my bag was MIA and my itinerary was a shambles was a unique and interesting challenge, but one I navigated just fast enough to keep from missing my flight.  Let me say this about Air France: fucktons nicer than American.  More room, better layout, better amenities, better food, and a movie collection that clearly came from a culture of film snobs.  They weren’t super big on saying things in English, but I’d entered the zone of travel purgatory, so I didn’t want to know what was going on anyway; it would have just depressed me.  It was a thoroughly pleasant flight experience, and I don’t think I’ve said that about a flight this century.

Of course, my bag didn’t actually make it onto the flight, and I missed my connection at JFK as a result.  But customs was too busy being confused about why I didn’t have my bag to care about my shirt, so hey, I got away with that.

“Why did you miss your connection?” the American agent asked me when I finally got to the desk.

So I told him the story, complete with, “but since American weren’t the ones who did the rebooking, the people who did couldn’t give me a boarding pass for this flight, and by the time I got here, I was five minutes late for the self-check in, and now I’ve waited in line for a human so long the flight is gone.”

There are no more flights tonight.  He books me on a flight 5am tomorrow, layover in Charlotte, that’ll get me back to Seattle.  Great, whatever, I don’t believe in home as a concept anymore and if I get stranded in Charlotte, I can rent a car and drive up to see family for the weekend.  This becomes my official plan when I see the actual itinerary.  “This is a 30 minute layover,” I say.

“It is?” he asks.  Then he looks into it.  “The gates are right next to each other.  You’ll walk off one plane and directly onto the next.”

“Have you seen the luck I’ve had?  There’s no way I’m going to succeed with a 30 minute layover.”

“There are more flights to Seattle from Charlotte than here anyway.  It’s a better place to be stranded.”

Actually, New York is a significantly better place to be stranded, but whatever, I already have my stranded-in-Charlotte plans worked out in my head.  I crash into a hotel to get a few hours of sleep before coming right back, and leave it at that.

(He gave me vouchers for food that were good at the hotel and the airport.  So I tried to order food at the hotel, even though I was much, much too tired to be hungry.  There was literally nothing on the menu inexpensive enough to be covered by the food voucher.  The lady who took my order took pity on me, rang me up for half a salad, then gave me the whole thing.  Saint.)

“I’m not even surprised,” I say when, at 3:30am the next morning, the self-check in thing can’t find my itinerary and won’t let me get my boarding pass for my flight.  Instead, I go wait in the long-ass line to speak to a human representative of American.

“Oh, your flight out of here was delayed and you were going to miss your connection,” the agent says when I get to her.  “They’ve already rebooked you.  You’ll be leaving from La Guardia and connecting through Dallas.”

“No.”

She hesitates, then goes on.  “This is actually a better itinerary because…”

“No.”

“It’s okay.  We’ll get you a cab.  You have plenty of time.”

“You can put me on a direct flight.  You can put me on a flight that connects anywhere on the east coast between here and Charlotte, or either of the Chicago airports.  I will not accept any other itinerary, and I am not leaving here to go anywhere other than back to the hotel I just checked out of, unless it’s by plane.”  The poor agent looked to be at a sincere loss.  “There’s a direct flight out of here at 5pm, and another at 9:30.  Either of those will do.”

“But they’re so late,” she says.  “You could have this other flight…”

“No, that other flight will get me stranded in Dallas.  I dislike Dallas.  I’d rather be here.  Worst case scenario, if I’m still here on Monday, I have a meeting that I can show up in person to instead of taking by phone.”

“I’ll get you set up.”

While she does that, I called the hotel and un-checked out.  It was very nice of them to let me do that.  (There were a lot of people who were very nice to me, in case I’m not highlighting that enough.) (I was still wearing the Nazi punching shirt.  I suspect this helped.)

As she wraps up, I start to suspect that maybe, in my deranged, sleep-deprived state, I’ve been a little too harsh.  “I’m sorry if I’m cross.  I’m just very tired, and very angry with your employer.  I know it’s not you, and I appreciate how helpful you’ve been,” I say.

“Mama, I saw your itinerary history.  If I were you, I’d be sobbing or screaming.  You’re fine.”  Take that, people who think getting icy under stress isn’t healthy.

I returned to the airport with plenty of time to spare, so I visited baggage claim.  No, of course my bag isn’t somewhere sensible like JFK.  It’s totally still in Paris.  I mean, they were going to send it to the right continent, but then I changed my itinerary to connect through Dallas…

“Stop there.  I didn’t make that change,” I said.  “They didn’t even tell me about that change until I was already here trying to complete the itinerary before that one.”

Doesn’t matter.  The last flight from Paris for the day has already left.  They aren’t going to schedule my bag for another itinerary until I’ve arrived at my final destination.

I don’t think she understood why I asked whether it mattered which part of Hell I was in, or could they deliver the bag regardless.

Of course, my 5pm flight was already delayed to 7:40.

Let’s skip several hours involving a gate change, a mechanical problem, and a weather delay, and get to the point, now after 9pm (you better believe I was wondering about the state of the 9:30pm flight) when I scan my boarding pass to finally! board! the final! flight! and instead of getting a beep and a “Thank you, Miss Lay,” the console flashes bright red with a “DO NOT BOARD.”

“I’m sorry about that.  You’ll need to talk to the gate agent.”

“That’s okay. I no longer believe in a universe outside JFK.  Though I dimly recall that I did once hold such a belief.”

There’s confusion.  Minor mayhem.  (We’re technically still having a weather delay, but trying to sneak out during a break in the lightning.)  The gate agent cannot figure out why the system won’t let me board.  “I’ve probably had my itinerary changed too much and tripped some sort of anti-terrorist algorithm,” I say, while wearing my nazi-punching shirt.

“What sort of changes?” the agent asks.  Then she looks up my itinerary history.

And looks at me.

And at my history.

“Are you cursed?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Go take your seat.  There’s not anybody in it.  I’ll figure this out once you’re in the air.”

She did not have to tell me twice.

Hilariously, there was a guy in my seat.  Did I mind?  He wanted to sit next to his wife and their toddler.

No guy, I do not mind fleeing from the prospect of six hours in an overheated tube with your toddler.

It was Wednesday in Seattle when I boarded a flight in Helsinki under the naive delusion that I’d completed a trip which, while off to a bumpy start, ultimately smoothed out and turned quite pleasant.

It was Saturday when I finally got there.

What have we learned from this adventure?  A few things:

  1. Dark premonitions should be heeded.
  2. Estonia is magic.
  3. Advertising your predilection for Nazi punching causes people to be nice to you.

These are valuable lessons for everyone, and I hope my experience will allow you to benefit from sharing in my hard earned knowledge.

Tits up

The scene: It’s early March of this year and I’m sitting in a doctor’s office for the third time in three weeks and we’re talking about surgery.  Specifically, we’re talking about her performing surgery on me.

Doctor3: The good news is that this surgery has the highest patient satisfaction rate of just about any procedure.  The bad news is that it has one of the hardest recovery periods.

Me: I know.  I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve done this.

Doctor3: It takes about two months before you can return to your normal activity levels.  And many find the recovery very painful.

Me: I’m not really afraid of pain.  I’m in pain all the time.  That’s why I’m here.

***

The scene: I’m twenty years old and standing at the registration desk of a pediatric hospital.  I’ve got an overloaded backpack hanging off my right shoulder, ratty cargo pants hanging off my hips, and I’m looking a bit fuddled because I don’t exactly wander off to children’s hospitals in the middle of the day as a normal thing.

Receptionist: Where’s the patient?

Me: Right here.  It’s me.  I’m the patient.

Receptionist: (Clearly skeptical) Oh.  Are you sure?

Me: Pretty sure, yeah.  I don’t think I had a kid and forgot about it.

***

The scene: I’m thirteen and meeting physical therapist in their professional capacity for the first time.  Other recent firsts?  That chronic nagging pain I’ve had in my left shoulder since I was seven turning into my entire left side locking up so badly I can’t turn my head or torso.  Also, adults believing me about there being something wrong with my left shoulder.  That’s new, and also exciting.

Physical therapist: Your problem is probably that you carry your backpack on one shoulder.

Me: No, that is not the problem.

PT: I know you kids want to look cool, but it’s terrible for your back.

Me: I started carrying my backpack entirely on my right shoulder in fifth grade because my left shoulder was getting so bad I wanted to take the strain off.  How I carry my bag is a response, it did not cause this problem.

The physical therapist gave me a lot of exercises.  I did them faithfully for about two weeks.  I also had muscle spasms for the first time.  Every day for two weeks.  I decided the PT didn’t know what she was talking about and stopped doing the exercises.  The muscle spasms went away.  My left side still locked up on occasion, but not often.

***

The scene: Me at 20, having successfully checked in for an appointment at a children’s hospital and convinced not one but two receptionists that yes, I am the patient and yes, I do know what kind of facility this is and yes, I am aware that they generally don’t see people over 18, but this is who the orthopedic referred me to when I pointed out that her diagnosis didn’t account for any of my actual symptoms so yes I would, in fact, like a second opinion.  The specialist I’ve been sent to is a very nice older man with a salt n’ pepper beard and a teddy bear hanging off his stethoscope.  He’s been chatting with me about my symptom history while he twists my hands and wrists and fingers.

Dr. Teddy: I bet you can put your hands flat on the floor without bending your knees.

Me: Well, yeah.  I do martial arts and I am, in fact, baseline physically fit.

Dr. Teddy: That’s not baseline.  Not at your age.  You are abnormally flexible.  I’m going to describe some things.  Tell me if this sounds like you.

Then he proceeds to tell me the story of my life.

Turns out my ligaments don’t do their job very well, so my joints are constantly sliding out of place, and the surrounding muscles take a beating as a result.  Usually it hits people in their knees and hips first, but shoulders aren’t unheard of, especially not since kids started carrying such heavy backpacks.  But, my ligaments will naturally tighten as I get older, so I’ll age out of it.  Eventually.  Probably.

My hips started to go the next year.

I can’t do martial arts anymore.

***

The scene: I’m coming home from sixth grade.  That’s after I adopted single-shoulder carry but before I visited the PT.  It was hot.  My shoulder was in the “sentient-knot” stage, so I dressed accordingly.  I walk into the house and mom has just taken her first look at me for the day.

Mom: You will not ever leave the house like that again.  Do you understand me?

***

The scene: I’m getting my third ever massage.  I’ve got nifty health insurance that’ll pay 50% once a month as a perk, and I basically can’t stand up straight or walk anymore, so massages are great.  Also, they’re undoing a lot of the perma-locking most of my muscles have settled into.

Massage Therapist: What was that?

Me: My rib just slid back into place.

MT: Did that hurt?

Me: Yeah, but it feels better than having it out of place.  Thanks.

MT: Does your bra do that to you?

***

The scene: Last Monday.  Pre-op appointment with the doctor.

Doctor3: Nothing that raises your heart rate.  Nothing that will raise your blood pressure.  Don’t drive.  Don’t sign contracts.  Don’t…

Me: I’m a real estate broker.

Doctor3: Don’t give people advice about contracts.  You can resume a desk job after two weeks.  Maybe one if you’re doing it from home but don’t count on it.  Don’t lift anything that weighs more than ten pounds.  Don’t submerge in water.

Me: I’m getting to be a fanatical swimmer.  It’s about the only thing I’ve found that helps with the pain without also damaging something.

Doctor3: Don’t submerge in water.

Me: (Aside) I’m going to die.

***

The scene: I’m 25 and following a friend who has gotten a little fanatical about a new shop she’s found.  We go in, and the place is depressing.  Like, clinical depressing.  It’s that way on purpose.  Among other things, they do specialized bras for mastectomy patients.

Shopkeeper: You’re wearing a 36DD from Victoria’s Secret, aren’t you?

Me: Yes?  That’s my size.

Friend: (Who is significantly more endowed than me, sniggering) They told me that, too.

Turns out 32J is a size.  Mine, specifically.  And they start at $60/each.

But hey, now my ribs only slide out of place some of the time.

***

The scene: In a senior in high school, getting fitted for a costume.  I’m playing Louisa May Alcott which is hilarious because Little Women was the very first book I ever put down with no intention of picking it back up.

Costumer: Good god, your tits are huge.

Me: Yes.  I know.  Everybody has been telling me that since sixth grade.  (Especially my mother.)

Costumer: Yeah, but they’re bigger than I realized.  You carry them well.  Do you like them?

Me: I guess?  I don’t know.  They’re fine.  If they get any bigger though, yeah, I’m cutting them off.

***

The scene: Very early March, a week before meeting with Doctor3.  It’s the same meeting, but at a different hospital with a different doctor.  This is the first time I’m talking to a surgeon about this and I’m not sure it’s a good idea, or that my insurance will pay for it, or that doing a thing that will inevitably mean being couch-bound for at least a month, and maybe two, in the middle of the summer is a good idea for somebody who makes her money selling houses.

Doctor2: What is your goal for this surgery?

Me: I would like to not be in pain all the time.  But I’m concerned about losing sensation in my nipples, and generally suspect my expectations might not be reasonable.

Doctor2: And it would be nice to be able to wear button down shirts.

Me: Uh…yes?  What?  Were you listening when I mentioned that the ribs under my bra strap slide out of place and my shoulders frighten massage therapists?

***

The scene: The week before Sasquan.  I’m the only one from Strange Horizons who’s going to be there and we’re up for a Hugo, so if we win, I’ll be on stage.  Which means I should wear something nice.  I’m trying on a dress I haven’t worn since high school.

Me: Hrm.

Roommate: What?  Does it not fit?

Me: No, it fits.  Except it’s mashing my boobs.

Roommate: You’re probably wearing a different style of bra from what you wore then.

Me: I am.  But this is more mashed than that.

It would be hard to find a clearer practical demonstration for “yes, your boobs have gotten bigger than when you were Louisa May Alcott.”

***

The scene: I’m rambling at my poor, put-upon roommate after meeting with the first surgeon.  They’re nodding supportively and periodically grunting to indicate attention.

Me: And then he was all, “But if I get you on the table and decide that won’t look good, we’ll do something else,” and I’m a little bit, “Er, no way do I want to be unconscious while you’re making those decisions.”  Also, this is probably incredibly shallow of me, but the look of him was disconcerting.  His hair was too perfect, he was tanned suspiciously well, and I’m pretty sure he’s had his coworkers doing work on his face.  Are surgeons like drug dealers, where you should avoid the ones who use their own product?  I dunno.  I shouldn’t even bother.  I don’t have time to do this anyway.

Roommate: Are you ever going to have time?

***

Weird facts about me and my boobs:

  1. Contrary to the story I tend to tell, I did not in fact go from 0-massive overnight.  I had about eighteen months at “small enough that nobody but me has really noticed” and then sprouted to massive in about six months.
  2. My parents started telling the family not to talk about my boobs because I was self-conscious about them.  I wasn’t self-conscious.  I was just confused about why anybody was talking about my boobs, let alone all the time, and why it was suddenly gross for me to leave the house without wearing a garment nobody could see and which was extraordinarily uncomfortable.  My problems with puberty weren’t so much the changes in my body, but the changes to how everybody else thought I should exist in my body.  Also, everything started to hurt more.
  3. I get hits to my website from people searching anaea, boobs, without having blogged about my tits.  This is monumentally strange since the most common anaea other than me is a kind of butterfly and invertebrates don’t have tits.
  4. I’m weird for getting a breast reduction in my thirties; too old for the women who got too big during puberty and too young for the women who got too big after having children, or have put it off until they were done breast feeding, or had to get over baggage around appearances.  Which I guess makes sense since I’ve met a metric ton of women in their forties who’ve said, “Best thing I’ve ever done.  Wish I did it ten years ago.”  Hi.  I’m ten years ago.
  5. I would cut both tits clean off, myself, then joke about Shylock, if it meant my shoulders stopped knotting up so badly that I routinely traumatize massage therapists who haven’t had a patient like me before.
  6. Almost every fucking thing on the internet about breast reduction surgery is obsessed with talking about how much better you’ll look and the scarring isn’t so bad, really.  WHO CARES?  (Everybody, apparently.)

***

The scene: Back to the pre-op appointment last week.  This doctor is a pretty big contrast to Doctor2.  She doesn’t tan, or wear makeup, or bother to smooth her hair to prevent flyaways.  (Me either!) She started the interview by asking for a pain rating and a symptom history, and other than calibrating how much of  a reduction I want (as small as you can go without significantly increasing the risk of nipple damage) hasn’t talked about the aesthetics at all.

Doctor3: Doom, gloom, disaster, misery, and three days after the surgery we’d like you to start taking frequent short walks.

Me: (perking up) Wait, stop.  That’s the first good thing you’ve said this entire appointment.  I must be misunderstanding something.  Please define “short walk.”  Is that, “Three blocks to the library?”

Doctor3: Around your living room.

Me: No really, I’m going to die.

***

Which makes this the world’s longest out of office note.  Surgery is tomorrow.  I’m told I’ll be out of commission forever.  I don’t believe them.  But I am ignoring everything that isn’t critical day job stuff, a book, or DVDs of The Americans, until after Memorial Day.

On the Baker’s Anniversary of Bree Newsome

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Thirteen months ago today, Bree Newsome scaled a thirty foot pole and removed the “confederate flag.”  A few days later I came across this image, created by timelordj4y.  This image disturbed me.  A lot.

I was born in Virginia.  My whole family is either from there, or has lived there so long they’ve effectively gone native.  The whole family.  On one side they were from North Carolina before they were from Virginia, and in the family history, that feels like an immigration event.  “Virginia” was my cultural and ethnic heritage so thoroughly that school assignments to make a doll dressed in the traditional costume of my country of origin were always…tricky.  We know when more or less which great great great grand whoever came over from where, but there are no ties there.  We functionally sprang up from the ground in a tiny place outside Richmond and any roots older or deeper than that don’t matter, are invisible to us.

Being Virginian means a lot, at least in my family.  For me.  It means being raised to look at Thanksgiving and mutter how they’d done this in Jamestown before a pack of ornery Calvinists decided European protestants weren’t protestant enough for them.  It means understanding that every important thing that happened in this country until the 1870’s was either instigated by a Virginian, successful because of a Virginian, or enabled by the mere presence of Virginia.  It means summers spent visiting battlefields and old mansions and getting quizzed on important historical dates at the dinner table.  History matters. It’s as thick as the air in summer.

About the time I was ten, one of my aunts dug an unexploded shell from the Civil War battle out of her tomato patch.  It’s on display in the family museum with the other artifacts we’ve dug out of that yard.  This isn’t weird.

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But it also means strangers blithely going, “Oh, so not really the South,” when I answer their follow up question about where in the South I’m from.  Then getting uncomfortable when I stare blankly and say, “Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy.  Most of the compromises in the constitution around slavery were instigated by a bunch of rich white Virginians.  Summers are hot, and the tea is mostly simple syrup. What standards are you using?”

It means people saying, “You don’t sound like you’re from Virginia,” as if it’s a compliment, then turning around and using y’all because it makes them sound folksy and quaint.

It’s that time somebody asked me if my family kept Klan hoods in their closets instead of skeletons, then acted like I was out of line when I answered with, “Sure, let’s talk about vigilante enforcement of racial disparities.  Is it okay to include sundown towns, states founded on dreams of white utopia, and how the most segregated cities in the country happen to be in the north?  Or is it only okay to talk about racism if we’re going to pretend it’s all lynchings and Jim Crow?”

It’s getting told, before leaving for college, that if you bring a black boy home it’ll kill your grandfather, and wondering whether that’s because he’s Virginian, or because he’s old.

It’s forever being part of the national scapegoat on race issues and on the one hand going, “Uhm, excuse me, but seriously?” and on the other sighing and going, “Yeah.  Yeah, I know.”

It’s seeing bumper stickers that say “The South Will Rise Again,” and for single, hopeful moment, believing it.  Then in the next moment, realizing that what rising would mean to you (education, a wide scale decline in generations of poverty, urban growth, innovation)  is not the same thing it means to somebody who’d display that bumper sticker.

It means that after you’ve spent an afternoon digging through research on the transcontinental railroad, your roommate comes home to a rant about how, if they’d chosen the proposed southern route it would have been faster and cheaper to build, and might well have saved the south.  But the war happened so they didn’t, and that fucking war ruined everything again.

Being Southern is and isn’t very much about that war. A war that my family understands as a thing we had to do, that was complicated and fraught and unnecessary and a part of our heritage.  We were taught to be proud of people on both sides for the good things they did, and critical of both sides for their hypocrisies, sins, and mistakes.  And, this is where we maybe diverge most noticeably from the typical Southern narrative (or maybe we don’t): the North didn’t win so much as the South lost, and the North didn’t beat us so much as we self destructed through stupidity and short-sightedness.  The institution of slavery as practiced in the Americas, particularly in North America, was a departure from other forms of slavery and those departures made it crueler, more divisive, and untenable from a merely pragmatic level: you cannot indefinitely enslave a majority population that has no hope of enfranchisement for itself or its future generations.  There’s no security in that setup, which renders it inherently unstable.

Slavery was idiotic and black people are people and Jim Crow was terrible but there are no black people in Grannie’s church and if I date a black man, I should probably keep it a secret.  None of that is whispered.  It’s not secret or subtle or taboo the way it is in the north.  These truths are self-evident and there is no conflict there.

I’ve been trying to write this, and abandoning it, for thirteen months.  It’s a young white woman from the South spewing a lot of words about how awkward it is to be a young white woman from the South right now.  I’m not getting shot.  I’m not even getting called names.  I can spend thirteen months thinking about a picture that bothered me and trying to find a way to explain why when all that really needs to be said is, “That lady is a badass.  Black lives matter.”

And it’s true.  Bree Newsome is a badass.  Black lives matter.  But that’s a platitude followed by a hashtag and that’s not remotely an adequate encapsulation of my thoughts.

Ieshia Evans
Ieshia Evans, also apparently a badass

That picture is distressing because it exists.  Because it’s powerful.  Because it’s a black woman pulling down a flag that shouldn’t have been flying in the first place; the bulk of its symbolic power dates to the Civil Rights movement, not the Civil War.  My dad is older than the modern trend of flying that flag, and it saw more use in 1961-1963 than it did during the war.  It went up, though.  That’s history.  Southerners don’t argue with history.  They can’t.  It’s in the air.  It’s in their blood.  It’s the conversation at the dinner table.

But an argument with history isn’t required.  Fighting is.  Respecting a fight well fought is.  The flag went up, and once it did, there was nothing we could do to change the fact that it went up.  But it didn’t have to stay.  And it didn’t have to take a black woman reacting to a legacy of dead black men and a country that won’t acknowledge a rot running through the whole of itself to bring it down.

It should have been a white woman.  Or a white man.  Somebody from the South.  Somebody with roots there so deep that they might be able to gesture toward some boat that came over back when Virginia’s border officially stretched to the Pacific stepping up one day to say, “What do y’all think, but maybe we just leave that one off today, hm?”  No fanfare.  No iconic imagery.  Just a moment where instead of repeating history, we acknowledge its power by declining to.

That’s not what happened.  More, I honestly can’t conceive of how it could happen.  Too many people have dug in their heels too far.  My idea of a risen South is not their idea.

That picture is disturbing because it’s the first time I saw a depiction of the “Confederate flag” that inspired hope.  Hope is scary.  It’s dangerous.  It shields you from pragmatic reality and insulates you against learning the lessons you need to learn.  I don’t like it.  I especially don’t like it when running across a new spark of hope reveals that I’ve been holding onto a hope for something else.  Hope that maybe for once the South will pull itself together, put its foot down, and do something that isn’t just beautiful, but bright and just.  That Southern honesty about a national disease means we can be the leaders in the cure.

But here’s the thing I’ve realized in thirteen months of thinking about that image: My premise is wrong.  Bree Newsome is from Charlotte.  The Black Lives Matter movement got its start in Mark Twain’s home state. Martin Luther King Jr. was from Atlanta and did the vast majority of his work in the South.  The South is trying to fix itself.  It’s just not wearing the faces I expect.  I’d find a picture from outside the South with only white faces odd.  In the South, it feels obvious.  That’s a lie.  The South isn’t white. It never has been.  But I’m a white woman from the South whose entire exposure to black culture and black communities came after she left.  I never went back and filled in the gaps.

That picture disturbs me because…it’s exactly what I needed to see, but I hadn’t known that.  One image, and I learned a lot about what where I was blind.

Bree Newsome is a badassblack_lives_matter_sojo_net