Scenes from Winter (Tough Times Never Last)

It’s the part of winter that feels like it’s ALWAYS been winter,
She said.

reminding me of when someone else told me,

“I’m in the part of pregnancy that feels like I’ve always been pregnant.”

Endurance
and grinding toil
and holding out
and waiting
waiting waiting.

Even when we reach the destination it can seem too little too late.

Or too much.

It’s been hard, hard, hard for me. Since December.

I could attribute it to legitimate national causes, but actually it’s interpersonal.

A lot of things happened this winter. A lot of things have BEEN happening, of course. But since December a lot of other things happened. Things with close friends — friends who didn’t die and so I cannot freely tell the stories. Not directly anyway.

I will say that one was a brush with death. A major one. A narrow escape. On the tail end of a tragedy we very narrowly escaped another one.

This was actually the THIRD major medical crisis since April, the third time someone I am extremely close to could have died, or almost died. (Or did die, as with Travis.)

Three brushes with death in nine months is rather a lot for a person not living in an active war-zone.

There were other things, too.

These things didn’t happen to me, but came blasting through me. And a month later I washed up on shore, caught up with my external self, and was filled with wonder and sorrow and, for the first time, felt the sharp pang of despair.

I’ve found myself doing things I’d never, ever done before even in my darkest times — finding myself unable to get out of bed, succumbing to numerous strange bodily ailments, feeling no hunger whatsoever, and unable to draw anything, which for me is very, very strange indeed.

I find that I am so disconnected that I scarcely know what I think about the whole thing when I am at my best, and when I am at my worst I am merely blinded by anger, or sometimes sorrow, often fear, and am petrified with dread. (About what has already happened, what MIGHT have happened, and what MIGHT HAPPEN in the coming days.)

These feelings sync up so nicely with the political situation that I often don’t explain it, I just meet others’ bleak outlook with my own and we can carry on nicely.

Or at least, nicely enough.

Lately though ‘nicely enough’ hasn’t been enough. Because there are times when it becomes downright…heavy.

In despair, I talk to Anthony. Because what is a gentle soul supposed to do in times like this?

I am feeling left behind — like if I don’t muster up and do Something About This now I will be irrelevant — because living in such politically significant times yet NOT doing overtly political work is almost like treason. Like you don’t deserve to live where you already are. Like your existence is out of place.

The pace of life is increasing, and I am unwilling or unable to keep up at that speed. “Trying” leaves me exhausted and disconnected, more than I already am.

Anthony reminded me that to preserve the sense of calm in a state of chaos is no cowardly act. Could be considered revolutionary. To be “left behind” in this case might mean one remains unique, interesting, striking, worth hearing. To be different is still useful. Like a breath of fresh air.

At the very least, it means the things that truly interest me are not crowded. Chummy and comfortable is the line outside the Aladdin theatre in the light rain a few weeks ago, presenting my phone eTicket for the first time and for the first time entering this building. To see Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform for the first time with my own eyes.

The founder of the group, Joseph Shabalala, had a series of recurring dreams over a period of six months in 1964, featuring a choir singing in perfect harmony. It was a beautiful sound — very close to the traditional isicathamiya harmonies that he was already performing with his choir at the time — but it was somehow softer, filled with more love, more beauty. He restructured the choir, bringing in some relatives of his (family voices after all blend in ways that friends’ voices cannot.) He strove to teach his choir the harmonies he’d heard in his dream.

I first learned about them on Sesame Street. I have always loved their sound, have always found it soothing, and the recordings of theirs have been a great harbor of solace for me during all these days of turmoil.

We love them and clap so much.

Because they are so different.

Because they are so themselves.

The motions they do during their songs which seems so…right somehow. There is a great general showmanship to their motions onstage, which is a blend of vaudeville and something deeper. To say “childlike” is patronizing and colonial — and anyway it doesn’t capture it. It’s…deeper. Richer. It’s a cultural inheritance where movement and song were never sundered from one another, where people’s spirits were never subjugated to the extent that they internalized “what will people think of me?” as we have in the West.

At intermission everyone seems to be talking more with their hands.

There is a kind of warm-spirit awakened by this music. The family in my row shares handfulls of carmel corn with me.

There was something very moving about hearing dream-gentle sounds from a place that has seen apartheid.

It made me hope that perhaps there is still room for gentle wanderers after all.

This is the song I have had stuck in my head for the past few days, and I find it very soothing.

Tough times

never last

(but) strong

people do

Explorations down the aural canal

THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT THE EAR CANAL IN THE PAST 26 HOURS OR SO

You are apparently not supposed to clean them with Q-tips, not even a little bit, despite the fact that Q-tips look and feel expressly designed for that purpose. (What…are they for then? Can anybody tell me?) My mother did not teach me to clean my ears in any fashion, but neither did she teach me not to, so alas, I do from time to time. What can I say? I have gunky ears, and once had the magical if alarming experience of getting them sort of…douched via turkey baster by a medical professional, and the great wads of sediment that came out of my ears were unlike anything I had ever seen. And I heard clearly for what felt like the first time in my life.

– Speaking of douching: Ears, like vaginas, are self-cleaning organs. No cleaning necessary. Wow! Who knew? And color me surprised and ashamed a little, for not trusting my own body and the nonsense it produces. These things happen for a reason.

What is one to do about the gunk, then, if one has that ears-filled-with-cotton feeling? Place a warm washcloth against your head, over your ear, to allow it to sort of “melt” and “drain” the proper amount. (Which is different for everybody, and depends on how good your system is at fighting disease.)

You can drip in a solution of equal parts hydrogen peroxide and water, but it should be applied via dropper (not Q-tip!) and the solution should be warmed to body temperature, as cold fluid dripped without preamble into the ear canal can cause pain and dizziness. (I had my doubts, but then I thought about Neti Pots, and the various false starts I’ve had with water not QUITE the right temperature, and realized it makes perfect sense. Your tubes. They are not acclimated to climate change.)

You can also just chew your food. According to an article cited by wikipedia: “Cleaning of the ear canal occurs as a result of the “conveyor belt” process of epithelial migration, aided by jaw movement. ” So, just go about your business.

Your eardrums recover if you puncture them, in about a week or two, which I guess makes perfect sense, but to confirm this on WebMD was interesting. I’ve held one of those a since-childhood misconceptions that seem absurd when you examine them with your adult mind but that sticks with you because of the purity of feeling (be that joy or terror) (usually terror) in the original question that led to the formation of the hypothesis. One of these misconceptions was that if you touched the electric cables that go into the ground from a telephone pole, you’ll get a nasty electric shock and probably will die. (This is…almost certainly not true, since the object that inspired this theory was on a playground we would visit on a weekly basis, and the wires were between a distant swing set and a popular slide, and it seems unlikely that EVEN IN TEXAS IN THE 80s a person would build a large playground for children around something so casually lethal. But still to this day I have no idea if its true or not. Touching something to answer the question, “will I die if I touch this?” is not something even my four year old self would have dreamed of doing, and I’m certainly not going to start now. I can live with the uncertainty.)

Another one of these theories? You Only Get One Pair Of Eardrums, And If You Puncture Them, That’s It. Gone Forever. Deafness.

While the body can fail us in many ways, a fit body has a delightful way of healing superficial abrasions, and so it’s neat to learn that “perforation of eardrums” — as it is officially called —  is fairly trivial so long as you don’t, I guess, try for a morsel of inner ear at the same time.

That there are several kinds of “ear infection”. They are impossible to accurately diagnose without a visit to the doctor. I haven’t done that yet, because the folk treatment of warm garlic oil and the washcloth thing helped enough — far better than even ibuprofen. I remain keenly aware of my ear canal, but I can chew food again and can look over my shoulder without needing to fight the urge to meltdown like a toddler with the same affliction.

Q-tips (or cotton swabs to use the non-branded name, though not nearly as vivid to the North American mind,) were originally called “Baby Gays”. They were invented provisionally in 1920 by a woman named Ziuta Gerstenzang, who wrapped cotton wool around the end of a toothpick for what purpose? CLEANING THE BABY’S EARS.

Leo Z. Gerstenzang, her husband, is the man who witnessed this miracle and who took the idea, manufactured an object, and produced it for mass consumption, so his name credited for “inventing” them, but really, isn’t he just the production guy? Who was dealing with the baby’s nooks and crannies, who was fretting over filth lurking deep in the baby’s dark crevices, who saw the toothpick and had the flash of inspiration to use it in a way that would confound doctors many decades later? That would be Ziuta Gerstenzang, and not her husband, thank you very much.

(Note: even the “official” version of this origin story is apocryphal, but L.Z. Gerstenzang IS credited with inventing Baby Gays, that much we know. There are numerous anecdotes, and all of the ones I read were along the lines of “he got the idea from his wife”. PRETTY SURE THAT MEANS THE WIFE IS THE INVENTOR, but thanks for the Assertion of Patriarchy, o authors of history.)

Improper use of Q-tips is one of the chief causes of impacted earwax, which leads to one of the various ear infections, and is suspected to be the reason children get so many.  Nervous parents, like the good Ms. Gerstenzang, wanting the best for their off-spring and in so doing causing them more harm.

– Again according to Wikipedia, anthropologists have used earwax to track human migratory patterns! Apparently east Asians and native Americans tend to have “dry type”, which is grey and flaky, and very different from what Africans and Europeans often have, which is the brownish wet stuff. Wet-wax peoples also tend to have more sweat production and body oder, yay us. May or may not have to do with the grey-wax folks historically living in very cold places, where sweat is fairly moot. And I suspect frozen earwax would be intolerable.

NOW YOU KNOW

#ShellNo

Yesterday morning I put on my big sun hat and went up to St. John’s to watch the Greenpeace protest. It was with an equal blend of civic duty and curiosity. I brought a big jug of ice water and finished my morning coffee there as I marveled at the people’s pluck. All of this was going down — fittingly — in front of the Water Pollution Control Laboratory.

From where I sat on the bank it was impossible to really see the climbers, though variation in their set up was apparent. Some clearly had platforms, much to my relief (the scant coverage I had glanced at led one to believe they were just free-floating up there, dangling bodily in space).

Luke Strandquist, a Greenpeace activist interviewed by our local CBS affiliate (from his cell phone, whilst dangling from the bridge,) indicated everyone involved was an experienced climber. Some of them had hammocks, some had platforms and some were just on chairs.

I’m not entirely sure how their resupply-ing was accomplished — I know they themselves had supplies in their gear, but there was also talk on Twitter of their being resupplied in some mysterious capacity. Which is a good thing, because while you can compact calories to a certain extent, water is very heavy, and goes very quickly on a hot day like that.

From afar of course, they just looked like beautiful flags, flapping silently in the wind. Hues nicely contrasting with the pale green of the bridge, yet catching the light to offset the dark underside of the bridge, forest park, and the petroleum industry. Honestly during this quiet morning it felt not like a protest but like a Jean-Claude and Cristo installation, all silky fabric reacting to the wind. Mimicking the hypnotic movement of the water.

I was particularly interested in the network of safety cables (and, of course, the big boat-deterring cable). All support cables were attached to the underside of the bridge, so removal from the upper deck was impossible. (You couldn’t just “cut them down”, as many counter-protesters frothily demanded). I watched the climbers raise this cable many times to accommodate tugboats and barges, lowering it again once the boats passed under.  All watercraft gave a toot of their horn — either in solidarity or merely indicating they wished to pass by.  Of course by and large the dangling protesters were far too high up to interfere with most water traffic — there was only one boat they wanted to stop, and it was too tall to pass below.

I was there morning to late afternoon — arriving after the boat had been turned around the first time, and leaving just before the police really started to exert force to make way for the boat’s eventual departure. The bridge was still open, and traffic was relatively light on highway 30 opposite, and every so often a car or truck would blare its horn as it passed overhead. The people on shore would cheer and clap. The kayakers would whoop in salute.

Kayak numbers varied wildly while I was there. Visitor numbers varied wildly as well. It was a relatively quiet time down at the bridge. Every so often a chant would start from somewhere, and it would ring out weakly over the water, and then die out.

If anything it really brought home the drudgery that can be holding out. Waiting for the inevitable.

I was only there for five hours, and of course got to leave once I felt uncomfortable — when my water ran out and my shade disappeared. The protesters held out for just about forty hours, in direct sunlight, during the hottest day Portland has seen this year.

That's in the shade, mind you. That’s in the shade, mind you.

It is, of course, futile to attempt to stop something so vast as a federally sanctioned multinational oil conglomerate with thirteen brave mountaineers, but I don’t think that was the point of this protest. Delaying the ship was, of course, intensely gratifying — and it was incredible to see the sort of ferocity that people express themselves out here. But the larger point was to get attention for the cause, and to once again call upon that most effective symbolism for environmental destruction — the human wall.

It was with a feeling of inevitability that, just in time for the prime time news block (so cynical!) Portland Police closed the St. John’s bridge to all traffic and successfully removed two protestors — lowering them like spiders into the waiting arms of the coastguard flotilla.

These two had dangled above the deepest part of the channel, and their removal cleared a tiny space for Fennica to squeeze under. It was at this point that the kayakers redoubled their efforts, launching into the river faster than the coastguard motorboats could arrest them. I know at least three personally who were in boats, out there in the fray, and countless others watching live from shore, or from the floating fishing docks out in the water.

The rest of Portland watched from home — both via live footage from our local television stations and via Twitter, in my case following both the #shellno hashtag and the unofficial PDX police scanner.

Fennica was escorted out to the Columbia river with what looked like 11 coast guard boats. One for each of the remaining Greenpeace activists.

Later, on Facebook, I saw something posted by Travis Wittwer, a scoutmaster with the 55th Cascadia Scout Group . It was getting passed around on Twitter, and is something I relate to very strongly:

Took my sons to St. Johns bridge to witness the #shellno protest. I wanted my sons to see of what people are capable. 

On way there, I briefed them on the situation and the sides. They had emotional opinions, but are neither educated enough in this area, nor mature from years of experience to make a decision that is sustainable. I suggested that they go and witness and watch. They did not need to come to an opinion on the protest. 

I wanted them to see the people. Think about how much planning and personal conviction is needed. And to be in awe of people. 

While there, we would find a spot and sit and just watch and listen. Sometimes nothing seem to happen, and that is good–I want my sons to experience the pause and length of what the activists are doing. To hear it relayed or to see a photo is not the same as to be there, watching the banners wave in the wind, wondering what is going through the minds of the men and women hanging from the bridge, in the water, or lending support. 

I wanted my sons to see a polite and peaceful protest that displays passion for an idea, a belief. This is something different than blasting a hole in the ship.

Truthiness

Listening to the This American Life RETRACTION show, because that’s what I do when I’m painting fairly jolly narrative pictures. It’s all about balance.

Thinking a lot about fact and fiction (not fact vs. fiction — an important distinction I think).

It’s something I meant to look into more carefully at the time that I first heard this story, but I haven’t yet. It’s something my brain lazily plays with every day as I move through the world and do my work.

One of the biggest advantages of illustration, I think, is that you can explore all the things that a person cannot photograph (or photograph beautifully). This includes concrete things (like internal organs or microbes interacting with enzymes) and non-concrete things (like feelings and impulses and what a song might taste like.)

I am very drawn to reportage — it’s what happens when you grow up blogging, I think — and most of what I’ve been doing this week is pulling together my emails and notes from my trip to LA so I can tell you all about them. I don’t know that I’m going to give you the complete day-by-day rundown, but I saw some great things, and the reason I saw those things is a great story on its own, so I am trying to frame the story around that. Because when I present what I saw to strangers, that’s what it becomes: a story.

As I do this I am also making some quickies to go with the story. Many of those things are simply drawing the things that wouldn’t photographs well. Concrete things. The patio I enjoyed so much at my AirBnB. The big aquarium at Union Station.

Within that, of course, there are many tweaks in the “reality” fabric, which is why they’ll work better as illustrations, for my purposes. Angles that are impossible in real life without special equipment, that can bring in important elements like the spanish style red tile roof.

The other reason I am compelled to share my trip is how neatly it seemed to fall into place. There are things that happened on my trip which worked out so well that it seem seemed, frankly, paranormal. These things did happen, though at times they will seem like I am doctoring them up for spice.

One thing in particular — a circle of transit hell I was plunged into for several hours one late late night — will not have unblinking absolute accuracy because I was a little drunk and when you’re exhausted in a strange city it’s really hard to keep North and South straight. The trains were allegedly arriving on incorrect tracks, heading in wrong directions, and I wasn’t fact checking the trains for the first hour that I waited. But the gist is real. It’s a story that I will tell, here, because as a story it will work out just fine. However, if I were to draft a terse letter to LA Transit — which I am still considering — I’d want my facts clearer before I began pointing fingers.

He said / she said is not really something the illustrator usually needs to struggle with, it would seem. Who really cares if it was the red or the purple line I was waiting for?

But integrity and truthfulness and trustworthiness suddenly matter a great deal when an INCIDENT occurs. A man is beaten by police, and eye witness manages to catch it on videotape. Who do we believe more? The uniformed officers who all back up one another’s story that the INCIDENT did not occur? Or the anonymous guy who might look borderline — and who does not manage win the hearts and minds of the white jury — but who nevertheless was able to capture video footage of the INCIDENT occurring.

Which story is true?

That story was told to us, a smallish audience on May 2nd — the second official day of Manifest:Justice — in a dreamy remix-y monologue brilliantly by Roger Guenveur Smith, who for three years has been performing a one man show about Rodney King.

(This is an excerpt from a different performance of the same show, just to give you a taste. More about this piece here.)

He tells the story in a different way every time — it has footholds, but is essentially improv — and so there was never a bracket around his performance that claimed to be true, or false. The actual beat-by-beat story of what really happened has maybe never seen the light of day, because of who got to tell it in the end. It was like looking through murky water, a negative-space drawing of an INCIDENT, rather than a photograph or even a clear line drawing.

In this performance the performer never said: this happened, then this, then this.

But the story unfolded, crafted carefully, speaking as an outsider ABOUT Rodney King but never AS Rodney King. The feelings we were left with were raw, intense, sad, as though we had just lived a story rather than seen it second hand. There was no distance between us and what might have happened. It was powerful, and a woman who lived in the neighborhood — that is to say, who very probably lived this story — stood up and said to him: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Whereas, Mike Daisey puts together a show, writing as one might write an essay, and performs it as though it were fact. Tight line drawings and focused (albeit carefully cropped) photographs. And we also feel something, but because it is in first person, because he says I saw this, then this, then this — we feel betrayed when we find out it was crafted carefully to twist our emotions a certain way.

Documentary does this — particularly political documentaries that have an agenda.

Radiolab faced this with a story I still cannot listen to because of how upset the interviewee became, and how upset it all made me. In that case, all I could think was: who cares what is true. It does not give you the right to be so cold to this woman, and to her family, and to the generations of people who have lived under the shadow of this. Your “reporting” has turned you into monsters. Human decency in this case urges you to back down. (More about the fallout from this here and here.)

I recently read “How It Went Down” by Kekla Magoon, a good one for this troubled time, and does a nice job of presenting the problem with truths and witnesses and the clash of culture that seems to rise up when we start to try and get the story straight. What time I caught my Uber to the bookstore is not that important. Whether the boy was holding a candy bar or a gun might not be that important, since it doesn’t change the fact that the boy is dead. Particularly if you know that boy and that boy looks like your own boy at home, or the boys you see playing outside your home. But to the people who don’t look like that boy, what he was carrying seems to matter a great deal, because it changes how we feel about him, and whether or not we deem his life was worth justice. (And THAT ugly truth is one that is very hard to look at indeed.)

Whether we convict the man who shot him is something I think is very important. And the people who decide that are handed not a straight yarn, but rather a big box of tangled strings that represents each witness’s version of the story. It seems truth becomes very, very important in this case. But whose truth? Which one?

All these things rattle in my brain when I pull together stories.

I have no answers to these things, but they bubble up and I think about them a lot as I work out what to mention, when to mention, what to paint and what to skip.

I will leave you with one last thing. It was something I first heard on another This American Life episode, Studs Terkel pointing out something very nuanced about oral histories. I will copy from the transcript here but I also encourage you to listen to the segment, as it is well put together and the moment I am referencing here is not long into the piece.

“…Are they telling the truth, these oral historians? The question is as academic as the day Pontius Pilate asked it, his philosophy not quite washing out his guilt.

It’s the question Pa Joad asked of Preacher Casy, when the ragged man, in a tranchant camp poured out his California agony in the novel Grapes of Wrath. Pa said, “Suppose he’s telling the truth, that fellow?” The preacher answered, “He’s telling the truth, all right. The truth for him. He wasn’t making nothing up.” “How about us?” Tom Joad demanded. “Is that the truth for us?” “I don’t know,” said Casy. I suspect the preacher spoke for those whose voices you hear, in their rememberings are their truths. The precise fact, or the precise date, is of small consequence. It’s simply an attempt to get the story of a holocaust, known as the Great Depression, from an improvised battalion of survivors.”