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New on Utne Reader: August 2019 #1

new-on-utne-august-19

The Intersection of Bicycling and Social Justice, from Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, & Resistance by Adonia Lugo PhD

Salmon or Swimming Lakes: The Politics of Dam Removal, from Same River Twice by Peter Brewitt

Burning Man is Pointless, from The Scene that Became Cities: What Burning Man Can Teach Us About Building Better Communities by Caveat Magister

The Ballad of Laura Nelson by Yolanda Wisher, Poet Laureate of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice, edited by Ron Riekki and Andrea Scarpino

Reconsidering the Dearth of American Wool, from Raw Material: Working Wool in the West by Stephany Wilkes

Militia Tensions Still Linger After Malheur Takeover, from Sagebrush Collaboration: How Harney County Defeated the Takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by Peter Walker

New on Utne Reader: June 2019 #1

reading-june-19

Drone Fetishism and Shadow Warfare, from No Go World: How Fear is Redrawing Our Maps and Infecting Our Politics by Ruben Andersson 

Arrival Stories of Deported Americans, from Deported Americans: Life After Deportation to Mexico by Beth C. Caldwell

Bridging Colonialism and Climate Change, from The Memory We Could Be: Overcoming Fear to Create Our Ecological Future by Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik

Five Lessons for Understanding Spiritually Fluid People, from When One Religion Isn't Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People by Duane R. Bidwell

Full Awareness of Breathing, from Pause Breathe Smile: Awakening Mindfulness When Mediation is Not Enough by Gary Gach

The Union of Science and Spirituality, from Elegant Simplicity: The Art of Living Well by Satish Kumar

 

Quitter #7: May

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the fifth in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part four, see Quitter #7: September.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

My first name is rumored to have a basis in a tool known as the oscilloscope, a small bench-top machine that measures the wave shape of electrical signals. The lines appearing on the screen of the oscilloscope are referred to as the “traces”, usually just one but up to several lines on a basic X,Y divided axis. When I was a kid my brother and I would mess around with our father’s oscilloscope, try to get the lines to make crazy shapes or pretend we were in a space capsule and the lines were voice transmissions from beyond some moon. We did not understand what the oscilloscope’s purpose was other than to make a bunch of squiggles on the screen when you fiddled with the knobs. And that was enough for us at the time.

We always found the oscilloscope in the middle of the workbench in my father’s shop, a small room in the corner of the enclosed breezeway dividing the house from the garage. The shop was heated, so we spent a lot of our Wintertime in there watching my father take things apart, fix something or put some piece of what-not back together. Sometimes we would help melt the solder from a variety of electronic boards and separate the capacitors and resistors into little drawers. If I close my eyes long enough and think about it, I could probably remember what the color codes on the resistors meant. We had to memorize it since we had to put the resistors in the correct drawer and couldn’t ask him every time we had to file each little piece away.

The shop was always full of disassembled VCRs, ancient game systems, black and white televisions, telephones, cable boxes, kitchen appliances. If you could plug it into a wall socket, it could be found in the shop — and usually in several different pieces. Later into our teenage and young adult years, the shop was where we would go to smoke cigarettes, drink Dad’s beer and make copies of rented movies. To all of the piles of assorted electronics, those new uses added quite a few half-full ashtrays, stacks of unlabeled video tapes and cardboard cases full of empty beer cans. The whole shop was a constant mess, a study in theoretical physics, evolution and decomposition, all in real time, all occurring only because of our existence there and our horrible habits, all ignored because of little green strings tracing across a screen.

String theory is the idea that electrons and other particles within an atom are not dots revolving around a nucleus but rather oscillating lines. In the field of theoretical physics, there are five major string theories, each one attempting to form an elusive Theory of Everything, a single mathematical formula to describe the physical interactions of the entire universe. But only this particular universe, since string theory also opens up the possibility of the mulitverse, layer upon layer of variant universes all with their own laws of physics.

The gap between Einstein’s general relativity and modern physicists’ quantum mechanics cannot be bridged without an entirely new theoretical construction. Researchers and theorists get close, discover that they need to construct another theoretical dimension or smaller particle that has a possibility of actually being observed in a real life experiment. They then test the new theory and move from there. What we can write about in a few pages of text require decades of experiments, new hypotheses, emerging talent from the university systems. Basically the five different string theories end up as untestable within any of our own sense of the word “test”.

Is it at all possible to violate the second law of thermodynamics, the one that says that disorder can never decrease but only come to an uneasy and most likely temporary equilibrium? Disorder can never be reversed (says the law); work is always undone. Any momentum towards disorder is natural, adequate in purpose, sometimes easy to see, like a laundry hamper filling with dirty socks. You may clean the socks once the bag is full but you must always introduce work and calories and heat in order to do so. Yet the socks end up back in the hamper, a bit more worn than they were previously, just as the feet they were on are a bit more worn as well. There are no solutions to avoid the eventual disorder of the socks. Simply letting them be, letting them sit completely still on the top shelf of a closet, even keeping them sealed up in the packaging they came in, does nothing but add infinitesimally small amounts of time to the universes’ plan to make those bound threads and space-age polymers into random scatters of particles.

Our own natural equilibrium most likely occurs as billions of free range molecules in the air, water and soil, not as the pliable warm flesh we are accustomed to. It is the whole mythology of “dust to dust” backed up by centuries of true observation as well as various thought experiments. My name, the shop in the breezeway, the oscilloscope — all temporary formations of matter and minutia studied with head scratching and dreams, the calculations drawn on chalk boards here and there, populating the archeology of our dim understanding of time and its infinite patience. Are we ourselves neither strings nor particles, rather just random assemblies of physical actions, chemical reactions and hypotheses about which cupboard holds the plates in a stranger’s house?


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Quitter #7: September

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the fourth in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part three, see Quitter #7: July.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

 

I remember it was sometime in the Fall; all day long the cool air dried my throat on its way in, the same air emerging warm and humid, personal clouds of breath falling up and away into the surrounding atmosphere. At the time I was in Western New York. That particular atmosphere was most likely gray and barely concealing the threat of snow or sleet. It was too early for snow, if I recall correctly, even for this small town sandwiched between Lakes Ontario and Erie and its lake effects.

Fallen leaves blew into the street, crashing and skittering into each other like poorly made airplanes. Against that threatening gray sky the variant colors of leaves haloed the random limbs of the nearly empty trees, the branches narrowing to the twigs at the extremities, each little wooden finger moving crisply with the air movements above. From minute to minute these trees are safely bolted to the ground by a thickened trunk and miles of root hairs and fungal partnerships, their leaves safe to depart without harming its own life.

Beginnings and ends are buried in this particular color contrast; browns and reds fidgeting against the dirty white background above us, those few hopeful, final leaves holding on to that last stage of senescence just long enough to end up right on the top of the pile, the last to land, the last to decay. With the passing hours and minutes, the leaf layer forms on the lawns and the curbs and the shrubbery of the immediate world, not only a beginning but an end point in a constant cycle.

So what am I remembering exactly? The time I am thinking of is just like any other from that point in my life — awake to the boredom of youth, brush against the boredom of family during breakfast. Get on a school bus full of variable stressors and hassles, depart and navigate the hallways and school lunch table seating. Become obsessed with vaguely defined friendships, sexual frustration and the confused and bullying tastes of peer pressure. The cycle is repeated in reverse, the bus empties me at home, the television comes on and the disaster of teenage life hides itself in the couch cushions or the sheets of an unmade bed.

When I was a teen, there were moments in which I laid in bed for an entire day, stomach down, face toward the wall. I was immobile, pushed into the mattress by a compression of something outside of my control, something I did not understand. Breath came short and shallow, the room dark enough to give shadows very little running room into the corners. The sheets on the bed warmed rapidly and cooled slowly, crumpled in the middle and taut at the corners, stagnant under my weight and despite my darting thoughts. I felt like a leaf caught in the bushes.

When you are young, you can’t assign a name to it, this thing, this “depression”. You think it is just a part of life, something that comes along with breathing and aging and carrying a heavy mammal brain. Left untreated the first bout of depression will usually lead to another several years down the road. From there the half-life continues to decrease until a handful of minutes is all that stands between the dawn and the dusk of a depressive episode. For me, I am old enough now that there are no longer horizons on which to seek shelter. It just comes on, a quickly spreading net of thoughts and inaction. There is no refuge, no chance to turn it back. It just comes.

My depression shows up and opens all my doors and windows to the elements — rain, wind, sun, volcanoes, earthquakes. I am forced to greet all of it, begrudgingly welcome all the things I have no interest in revisiting — Oh hey, remember when I punched that parking meter because I got rejected by some girl at a party? Remember when that kid threw my sneakers on the roof of the school?

There isn’t anything particularly emotional about what I feel, just a low energy custody of despair and sullenness, a cold thin soup of presence. My sighs become autonomic; I chew my teeth and vibrate my fingers imperceptibly. I lose words, become silent as a conservation of energy, stare at things as if they hold me upright in doing so.

I become a ghost unsure of my manner of haunting. Depression can be like a frost; unpredictable, furious, disappointing. There is hope that neither will come at a bad time, a time where something is needed that cannot be disrupted, a time containing plans for the future and a singular requirement for growth. A flower, like a healthy mind, brings a promise of fruit.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5

Quitter #7: July

Raining

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the third in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part two, see Quitter #7: November.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

 

My father taught me how to swim by lobbing me into the middle of a pool. He would throw me; I would splash in, quickly return to the surface and begin to flail around.

Between spitting and gasping I would reach for the side of the pool, basically learning to swim by lunging in the direction of the closest solid object. When I reached an edge, my father would lift me out of the water by the arms, my smooth torso brushing against the hair of his shirtless chest.

I would get a whiff of his breath — a punch of pilsner, a pinch of bourbon — just before he threw me back in. Splash in, return to the surface, and seek stability; life lessons roiling and foaming in 22,000 gallons of chlorine and algaecide.

This process continued, on and on as other children played in the water and their mothers lay on the deck on their bellies, their bikini tops untied, canned beers sweating beside their browning shoulders. No matter which side of the pool I would reach, my father would be there to pluck me from the water and toss me back out to the middle.

Sometimes he would pause to jump in the pool himself, get his cut-off jean shorts soaked and later ask the sun to dry them as he went back to educating his child.

Of course nothing bad was going to happen to me. I was bounded by giggling adults and larger children, all well aware of the lesson I was receiving. This is the way my father learned. (I was told that my paternal grandfather learned by falling into an open well.) This method was apparently the only proper way for a boy my age to “understand” the nature of swimming and its physics, a way for me to conquer the water for myself and take it as dominion. I can imagine my grandfather speaking of dominion as he repeatedly tossed my father into a pond from the edges of a boat dock. Dominion then may have been in a different context, a context of control over the minds and actions of your child, rather than that of a global lesson about viscosity and drag.

I imagine that the fear my father had once clenched in his stomach had grown old and rusty if not nostalgic, a flowered, withered and decomposed bit of experience with no current equivalent in his life. His father was dead. He no longer sought out the weaknesses in their relationship or thought that his swimming education was anything more than playful fun. It was most likely an abusive lesson just as mine was, if only temporary instead of some other long-term sorts of abuses. I guess it would be much as the childhood pain of slamming your hand in a car door tends to fully dissipate by the age of twenty.

A few years after my lessons, it was time for my brother to learn. By this time I was able to participate in the instruction, but the most I could do was laugh at how foolish he looked, how his small, bright hands slapped the water all around him, the splashes jostling various inflated pool toys around on tiny bubbly waves. Gone were my own thoughts on how much pain I felt from gulping water, how embarrassed I felt for crying and screaming, how much revenge I craved as my cold-blooded brain switched on. My brother was helpless just like I was, his face contorted into a weird crying smirk.

When we were kids, all my friends and I knew when my brother had to take a shit. He got that same skewered smirk on his face, crossing his legs at his feet, arms limp at his sides as if he were sleeping upright. He would stand in that position until the waves of peristalsis ceased for a bit and he could comfortably throw the baseball or go hiking or whatever it was we were doing at the time. My brother always denied the reasons for the time-outs and glossy eyes.

But we could all take one look and know that gravity was working on his colon, the waste in his system burrowing to freedom.

When he was nineteen, my brother jumped from the roof of a four story building, breaking most of the breakable parts of his body. His bones shattered into multiple pieces, nerve endings and memories erased forever. He had shit himself, but he was salvageable. He found out that you cannot learn how to fly the same way you learn how to swim.

A person is not like a twig or an egg shell. We mostly have the ability to mend and accept that mending in a permanent way. Sometimes the need for mending is mental and hidden from the people who fix these things. In those cases we jump. In those cases we need to jump, to hide ourselves in the quickly approaching pavement, become a part of its blackness, its impervious memory.


 Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5

Quitter #7: November

Deer 

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the second in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part one, see Quitter #7.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

November

I grew up knowing that come November there would be a deer hanging somewhere in the front yard, probably by the antlers or the neck and probably from the branch of a tree. Or maybe hanging out of the bed of the pickup truck. Or from a rafter in the dirt floor garage.

I knew that the stories of how that “big buck” came to be dead would be floating around the house until they could be recited, with all the groan inducing embellishments, by people in the house who could say nothing in return. This was my step-father’s personal mythology, another way to blanket us with his control. I could probably dig deep enough to remember one or two of those stories, but who gives a shit really?

My maternal grandfather also told stories, the ones that I have not forgotten on purpose, the ones about how the deer tricked him or showed him up or maybe never even existed. The stories always began with my grandfather sitting on a stump, watching his breath leave his face and disperse. There would be a cracking sound, a stick snapping close by. He would stop breathing, close his eyes, crank all possible processing power to his ears. He would triangulate, check his heartbeat and turn his head only to see nothing but the cold of a Fall morning staring back at him. He would smile at us, the story clearly ending there. He could provide lessons without lecturing, saying “you will be fooled, but don’t take it personally”.

He never gave in to my step-father’s superficial glory of shooting something in the face; when a deer was in the freezer before December my grandfather seemed satisfied with the knowledge that, with the deer’s help, he and his family would have food for the winter. He didn’t amuse in the winners and losers of what most sane people would see as a wholly lopsided conflict heavily subsidized by civilization and its tools – a heavily armed human against an unprepared, unwilling and unaware opponent.

My grandfather’s task was brutal regardless, but maybe less so as there were no mounted heads on the walls of his home like there were in our home. The need for those stuffed and preserved reminders is something that I couldn’t explain back then, but know now is an indication of small mindedness, a dedication to the outward projection of dominance when you know that you are inescapably weak inside. You are a collector with no sense of how to interact with the dead or the living, both phases of life simply reminders of inadequacy, weak interpersonal skills and low self-esteem. If you have a deer head or a stuffed fish on your wall, go look at it and ask yourself what reminder it serves that could not otherwise be captured by a photograph or poem. Is it there to show your friends and family what a fucking hero you are?

When I was twenty, I volunteered twice to travel with a New York DEC deer ager on their rounds. For fourteen hours we visited deer processing places as well as any house that had a deer hanging in the front yard. My job was to write while the ager examined teeth and called out the ages of each dead deer.

I think it was during this time that I became permanently desensitized to the sights and smells of dead non-human animals. At each processor were dozens of barrels and drums and tarps full of various parts; piles of legs next to buckets of guts and tails; lines of deer carcasses waiting to be disassembled by hacksaws, band saws and reciprocating saws, mostly frozen in rigor mortis or by the depth of cold in the evening air. Steam escaped from some of the recent arrivals, a sign that they were less than an hour dead.

There can be nothing more brutal or common or necessary than taking a life in order to eat and sustain a body. Non-human animals do it without question, without any perceptible remorse or hesitation. What makes our actions so much different?

We pull carrots from the soil, ending their run with gravity, ending their gathering of sugar and all the processes that made them a living thing. They may not scream or run or struggle much, but a carrot is a living thing nonetheless and we must kill it in order to eat it.

Eating a carrot is nothing like eating an animal, which is why many choose not to eat the latter at all. I respect that choice; it was a choice that I had once made as well. As with eating it, killing a carrot is nothing like killing an animal. Animals articulate their disappointment in our choice to kill them in blood gurgles, screams and the twitches of ending nerve impulses. We destroy them in order that we can live; we destroy them for other reasons as well, reasons that have no bearing on survival. If you do not believe that then you deny that your meal had any previous life beyond its packaging. I apologize, but I can’t let you do that.


Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Quitter #7

Quitter #7

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the first in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part two, see Quitter #7: November.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

I wish I could say that it was surreal the first time I butchered an animal.

It was not; it was rote, mechanical, genetic, practical. A rabbit wedged in the crotch of a tree branch, my five fingers prehensile around a knife, pulling the innards out slowly, rather unsure yet determined. I made no prehistoric grunts, just internal nods at the recognition of biology, that we beings are surely all built the same way, one long branching tube from mouth to asshole providing the physical and chemical mechanics of life; the chicken the same as the ox only smaller, the ape the same as the roach but larger.

It was early Winter. I was panting from running and following the screaming beagles as they chased on the dispersing scent of the rabbit. The dogs howled as they ran on and on, continuously circling away from me then toward me, a sloppy swing of quick cuts and almost undetectable stops, their cold galloping feet tracing lines in the snow throughout the low forest. I fired once at the rabbit as it crossed to my side, bird-shot screeching from the gun barrel and through some brambles. The ear ringing mark of a single shotgun shell echoed among the striped maples and red oaks, long cleared of leaves. I ejected the shell from the gun and took in the sweet metallic whisper of it. I was ten years old, sniffling from the cold air cracking my mouth and nostrils, looking quietly at a lump of brownish gray fur that no longer moved. My step-father stood over me pointing and pushing instructions on me.

The fur of the rabbit came off quickly, small fibers of connective tissue making a wet noise not unlike the crinkling cellophane of a return envelope. I cut small rings around each foot, first through the fur and then through the joints joining the bones, snapping each paw off and letting them dangle like grapes on a vine. The final cut severed the head from the body. All but the meat was left in a pile on the ground, the heat of the guts melting a small riddle of ridges in the snow allowing the heap to sink at different speeds to the frozen earth below. The guts and tiny head – with its dark, half closed eyes – looked like a mask resting on pink and brown snakes, unmoving as the curtain dropped on a macabre play performed for the crows.

I didn’t say any prayers at the butchering. I didn’t offer any thanks to the rabbit. I didn’t think I needed to, really. It was just a rabbit, simply a rabbit, only a rabbit, as I was told by my step-father that it was just and simply and only a rabbit. I would come to realize, far in the future and away from this gray forest, that he was always incapable of sympathy or thinking beyond his own skull.

He was a crowing man, given to expanding himself into where he never was, claiming credit for things he barely understood. He was also a cruel man, a barbarian in a yawning sense of the word, ready to raise his voice and hands against anyone smaller or weaker than himself. This is the same man who kicked my brother in the stomach for forgetting to flush the toilet; the same man who threw me up the set of concrete steps outside our home for raking the leaves incorrectly; the same man who left bruises the size of oranges just below my mother’s elbows from where he would grab her and force her to listen to every. last. word.

At dinner, my mother would ruin the rabbit. She would bake it in cheap, overly sweet tomato sauce. There was always too much onion. The result was an acidic, chewy meat served without additions no potatoes, no bread and certainly no rice. There would be periodic murmured exclamations around the table as someone would bite into a pellet from the killing shell.

The only talking came from the tinny speaker of the thirteen inch television perched on the kitchen counter. The television was always on at dinner, providing context and detail of a world outside the door of our double wide. It was on that television that I followed the Reagan presidency, learned of school closings due to snow and heard that Stevie Ray Vaughan had died in a helicopter accident.

The silence around the table was built by my step-father. If he wasn’t talking then there is no way you were. And that was the end of it. There was never any discussion about what was learned in school or how work went or what we might do over the weekend. There was nothing to indicate an existence as a family beyond all of us sitting around a table wishing we never brought this rabbit home.


 

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5








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