I closed all the doors and windows in the house at 9 o’clock this morning. It was 81 degrees Fahrenheit inside, and 84 degrees outside.

After dinner, around 7 P.M., I opened the windows and doors again. I had just finished cooking dinner – green beans sauteed in bacon fat, garlic, and brown sugar, over boiled rice. It was 87 degrees inside, and 96 degrees outside.

I did not turn the air-conditioning on. I still haven’t turned it on. If we can make it to August without air-conditioning, we’ll have something to brag about for the rest of the summer. If we can make it through the whole summer, we’ll have something to brag about forever.

We drank ice water. We had strategically-positioned fans throughout the house. We kept the curtains drawn. We ate fruit popsicles. We dressed appropriately for the heat, and we sweated a little bit, but the breeze from the fans dried the sweat, and our bodies did their jobs, healthily. The kids’ first day of school was today, and that coincided with Waffle Cone Wednesdays at TCBY, so we each had a celebratory frozen yogurt. It was a good afternoon and evening. No one lost their temper. We stayed cool enough.

And so it has become a game. We don’t want to spend the money on electricity if we can help it because that money can be used for other things like rent or food or for a simple pleasure like a $1.50 waffle cone. We shouldn’t have to make decisions like this, but we oh well, we do have to. While we’re laughing at the absurdity of the situation so that we don’t become petrified by despair, we make it into a game. How far can we take it?

An unintended consequence of this particular poverty game is that I am becoming more comfortable with the summer. I moved to North Carolina in August of 2003 from temperate and lovely Oakland, California. I had lived my entire life up until then in the coastal plain of California, where the ocean calms the air and keeps temperatures always within the range of comfortable. My first summer in North Carolina knocked me to my knees. I had moved to the most bizarre place imaginable, where cicadas fell out of trees onto my head, the air was so heavy I couldn’t breath, and sinister vines twisted over everything they could reach. I hated it. October finally came, and I could live again.

Autumn in North Carolina is easy to love, winter is precious with its occasional dustings of snow, and spring here is nothing but enchanting. Summer in North Carolina is a monstrous THING.

I’m dead square into my ninth summer here, and I have to say, every summer becomes less and less a drag. I might even say that summer even started to become almost…wonderful…three years ago. That was the summer I went to weddings and house parties, and I DJ’d before bands played, and I would dress up in my Lucky Green Dress, wearing brooches or fishnet stockings, and I would go out into the night feeling covered in summer. Everyone’s face was slick with sweat at 1 in the morning, we were sticky, exhausted or drunk and maybe dehydrated, but people were dancing and talking and having fun.

So yes, summer, you are beguiling me, but you still haven’t completely won we over. Summer in North Carolina is filled with bugs, with mosquitoes that bite and make me itch and scar me, stinging things that fly, and beetles and cockroaches that creep and dart and crawl and spring from everywhere. And all these THINGS are out there in the dark, and I can’t see them.

But now, this ninth summer, I think that the bugs and the darkness are losing a little bit of their tyranny over me. When it’s late out, and still not quite cool enough in my room to go to bed, I like to sit outside in the night air. It’s cooler, by only a little but just enough to matter. It’s dark outside, and I can hear the things twitching and buzzing around me, but it feels so good out there. I’m starting, by just this much (holding finger to thumb very closely), to not care about those things out there in the dark. And I’d never want to sit out there in the night air if I weren’t playing a silly game about air-conditioning to keep me sane.

Summer is a beast, but it bewitches you. It has become the scent of crepe myrtle stuck to your lungs, fireflies blinking, people sweating and staying up late, popsicles melting, porch parties, tomato sandwiches, driving on the country roads with the windows all the way down, music, always music, and wearing almost nothing, and waking up to a bright morning sky. We can handle summer, and if (when) we do need to turn the air-conditioning on, we’ll turn it on. The temperature’s supposed to break 100 each day the next few days, so I’m guessing it’ll be turned on soon.

A Few Of Our Favorite Things
A Coloring Book
June 2011

My daughters and I drew a coloring book together one night last June. They are available for sale; the price including postage is:

U.S.A. $2.00
Canada & Mexico $2.50
Everywhere Else $3.00

If you would like to purchase a copy, please Paypal the amount to my account rsdchen@gmail.com

I believe the English-speaking Internet world has reached the point where it is nearly impossible to register a new blog name.

In the last month I have tried on more than one occasion to start a new blog to be used for a specific purpose. I spent an hour one night typing different combinations of words into a webform at blogspot.com, denied every time. “Sorry, this blog address is not available.”

A few days later and another blogging platform: “This URL is already taken.”

This name is already in use. This name is already in use. This name is already in use.

After weeks of musing, I came up with what I believed to be a clever, unusual play on words that would be descriptive of the project.

This name is already in use. This URL is already taken. Sorry, this blog address is not available.

There are a million people out there coming up with the same clever, unusual plays on words that I am.

The Only Spanish I Know

July 13, 2011

This is one of my earliest memories.

I woke up in a completely different place. Everything was different from home, and I was scared. The color of the light was different, the dust in the air, the sick dehydrated feeling, the confusion, the sounds in the street so close. My hair was still blonde, so I must have been 5 or 6 years old.

I woke up in Mexico.

My neighbors had taken me with them to visit their grandmother I think, and I must have fallen asleep, and they left me with her while they stepped out. The poor woman, trying to console a panicked little white girl! It must have been OK, because I remember feeling better and having something cold to drink, and that is all I remember.

My hometown, Imperial Beach, California, “The Most Southwesterly City In the Continental United States,” is where the one-season John From Cincinnati was taped. It is also roughly four miles from the border with Mexico. I spent the entirety of my first eighteen years living in a Border culture. The Border, “La Frontera,” was a physical object. I saw the actual fence separating Mexico from the United States so many times it became normal. I have seen clusters of hopeful emigrants climbing that fence, and I also saw them running down the beach because skinheads were throwing rocks at them. I have heard them outside my bedroom window desperately avoiding the Border Patrol helicopter’s searchlight beneath my neighbor’s pomegranate and quince trees. I have been best buddies with kids whose dads worked for the Border Patrol.

The land that runs west of the Border Crossing in San Ysidro is some of the strangest land I have seen. On the United States side, there used to be open space and farmland. There is still a great big estuary, where the Tijuana River empties marshily into the Pacific Ocean. The farmland has been disappearing for years, and now in parts the same middle-class subdivisions you can see in Anywhere, U.S.A. are within spitting distance of the Fence.

On the other, Mexican, side of The Fence is a road. This is the road that leads to Playas de Tijuana from Tijuana. Tijuana is a massive city. Playas is the beach town. There is a bullring right on the border in Playas, on a cliff overlooking the ocean. I saw the bullring, away, in the distance, every single day of my childhood, but I have never been there.

But I have been on the road. On one of the best nights of my life I was a passenger in a car on that road as my dear friend Tanya drove us home from the danceclubs we frequented to sleep at her parents’ house so we wouldn’t have to cross the border back to the U.S.A. That can be a real drag at 3 in the morning. I was very, very 18 years old, and I was very, very drunk, and it felt like we were in Berlin or somewhere exciting, speeding through the night.

As one drives west to the ocean from Tijuana proper, one can see The Fence to the right, and shambles upon shambles of slums and falling-down buildings all to the left.

That was La Frontera.

Despite living so close to Mexico and being surrounded by Spanish speakers, the amount of Spanish that I know today is absurdly limited. The only Spanish I know can be grouped as follows:

1. Food Spanish. I can order Mexican food in Spanish. If I have to. I think it very likely that I ate Mexican food at least once a day as a child. Nevertheless, it took me YEARS to figure out what “aguacate” meant.

2. Schoolyard Spanish. These are the words that I say under my breath to other drivers when they cut me off or run red lights. They are variations on “chinga tu madre” and “pinche cabron.” I do not know how to spell these words, I am only guessing. I don’t even know what they mean, but I think they are all variations on “asshole” and “fuck yr mother.” Another phrase I heard a lot as a youth but don’t myself say sounds like “Ai, weigh” but it is always said with such a particular cadence that makes me think about standing in line inside my high school cafeteria with my free lunch card, watching the dudes in front of me jostling each other and being stupid teenaged boys. Sometimes even now, here in North Carolina, I see grown men jostling each other and saying that. Does it mean something like, “Hey, fag?”

3. Little Baby Spanish. These are my favorite words. First is “chonclas” (I think it’s spelled) which means flip-flops or sandals. And then “chones” which means underwear. I think. And then there are the words that are most dear to me, the little terms of endearment. I remember being given “uno besito” (a little kiss) and then another one! as a little girl before bed, and being tickled, maybe by my Aunt Lucy or Aunt Teresa, who were not really my aunts but should have been. A few of my closest friends still call me “mija” on occasion even though we are all grown and some of us are married or have children or jobs, and when they call me that my heart leaps.

4. The Spanish Words Men Use To Talk About Women. These are not my favorite words. I learned them defensively.

I should know more Spanish.

Been Down So Long

July 11, 2011

(In which I loosely construct paragraphs that are thinly related to each other but that all together have something to do with a feeling I wish to express this evening.)

Poverty comes in many forms. Some are more dire than others. Years ago I was a daily reader and contributor to an online message board for parents that leaned toward the radical, politically speaking. It was a fascinating experience, to be a part of that, and some of the strongest convictions I have were nurtured there.

One of the most profound things I read on that message board was a quietly held belief that it is not constructive to battle over what group of people is most discriminated against. I have read, in other places, political commentaries on the lack of cohesiveness in the American Left that claim different groups within the Left have a tendency to value their own interests to the detriment of others. This tendency, it is claimed, leads to fragmentation with people working against each other rather than with each other.

Anti-consumer groups can work with environmentalist groups, who can work with women’s rights groups, who can work with immigrants’ rights groups, who can work with anti-death-penalty groups, who can work with ….well, yes, and so on. I believe this to be true.

But back to poverty. I understand that when I say “I’m poor,” it is not the same as being poor in Afghanistan or poor and Black. The fact that other groups or individuals are MORE poor in ways I cannot fathom doesn’t take away from the fact that I am poor and that my poverty is not fair or right or good. Nobody, in this world of plenty, should have to be poor. And yet most of the world’s people are.

I’ve fronted pretty well, and I’ve passed as a Middle-Class American for years at a time. It took me a lot of living to realize I wasn’t middle-class and never have been. I suspect a lot of poor people don’t realize they aren’t middle-class. I suspect there isn’t much of a middle-class left in the U.S.A., and that is a shameful thing.

In the grand scheme of things, I have some things going for me: I’m White, heterosexual, from California. I was smart enough to do well in school, and my parents cared for me deeply and did not harm me. I have an imagination and a lot of dreams. Some of those things matter even though they shouldn’t, in this culture of mine. I’ve visited many kinds of poverty – I’ve been welfare poor, solid job but deeply in debt poor, grad student poor, recently divorced poor. I’ve managed through it, but it gets old after a while.

I’ve been falling down particularly hard the past three years, and just when I think I’ve made the right step to start standing up again, things get even harder, money gets tighter, the future gets scarier.

I have now reached the lowest point in my ability to Keep It Together thus far. Money’s not just tight, it doesn’t exist. The scary future isn’t two or three or seven months away, it was last month. I didn’t think it would go this deep, I’d fall this far. Of course I still have dreams. I’ll be fulfilled and secure, someday. I’m still alive. But right now, all I can do is laugh. I used to work in a used bookstore when I was in college, and one of the titles of the paperback books that often came in and out of the store has stuck with me, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. It’s by Richard FariƱa, who died two days after the book was published. I tried to read the book once, but the masculine 1960s counter-cultural vibe I perceived was boring and obvious to 19 year old me. I don’t know what the book is about, but the title is really superb, don’t you think?

Well I’ve reached that Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me point. I really don’t know how I’m going to make it, but I have to, so I shall. And I’m going to laugh with every step, up or down. Because now it’s just absurd.