Oddities I consider in the small hours of the morning

I know many folktales and songs. When I was a kid, my mother would sometimes sing songs from her childhood in North Carolina, and I was young when the folkies of the early Sixties were on the rise. At school we learned anthems, more folksongs and dances from around the world, so there are a number of obscure lyrics rattling around in my head, a number of which are quite disturbing to me.

Since I was quite young, I’ve found Polly Vonn a particularly disturbing song. You can’t tell me that dude didn’t intentionally murder his fiancé. I always figured that it was an arranged marriage and the thought of being tied to some long necked pasty faced woman with a honking voice sent my boy over the edge. Hunting at dusk is suspicious and who eats swans? The meat isn’t desirable, and by all accounts takes more prep than chitterlings to make it palatable. (Thanks to Dr. Kendra Hamilton for this information)
What about it, crime solvers? Innocent mistake or premeditated murder?

Furthermore, let’s consider Charming Billy:

Who is questioning him, and what is up with Charming Billy? That’s a pretty intense interrogation, so Billy either has some incredibly nosey neighbors, a suspicious mum, or he’s been in the pub trying to convince the fellas that he actually has left his basement without a pub stop and has been on a date with a real, live, human girl. So:
Is his intended actually far too young for him?
Is she dodging his creepiness?
Is she actually a Time Lord? (My TL thought was that given the contrasting ages, she might be different ages at each appearance as she slips in and out of their time together.)
Is she a figment of Charming Bill’s imagination?

Inquiring minds want to know. Folklorists, where are you?

So Let It Be Done

Originally written in April, 2020

I have a wonderful student who has suffered from anxiety long before the pandemic and is understandably having a hard time now. They lives with and care for an elderly relative, and one of their parents works in an essential profession, and so is self isolating from the family, which is especially hard on the elder.
Long story short, we talk regularly and they were expressing their fears and said that they “just wished that things would get back to normal.”
My response was:
Hi ——,
I should clarify: I’m cautiously optimistic in general, I just think the physical distancing will last well beyond April. Not happy about it, but we shall see.
Meanwhile, I hope we don’t go back to the same normal because that’s how this happened. I hope we retain our awareness of the ties between deforestation, pollution, and global warming to the spread of disease. I hope we also retain our awareness of the part that all the Arts play on our lives and how necessary they are for our well being and we get back to funding them, in schools and beyond.
I most certainly hope we never lose track of how wonderful it is to be physically present with friends and loved ones and what a gift it is to be embodied, healthy, and in contact with others.
I hope we adhere to a new normal that is more egalitarian and never again devalues clerks and truck drivers, sanitation workers, or anyone in the food system, or takes health workers for granted.
I never want to return to the previous normal again and I hope the world agrees en mass and that we raise the bar on our expectations. I hope we’ll be kinder and more appreciative and that we insist on national healthcare for all, and that the wealthiest are made to pay their fair share. I hope people realize that for the greater good, it’s best to provide healthcare to everyone. Viruses don’t respect boundaries of race, class, age, gender, or location. If they’re able to spread, they will, so the healthier the least of us are, the stronger and healthier the entire nation will be.

💖✊🏽💖

I’m happy to say that my student rallied and realized that they had the right to expect better. They also realized that they had some anthropology training and could be interviewing their family members, getting to know them and allowing them to know him, creating new, adult relationships and bonds. This is something I would encourage everyone to do, if possible.


I’m not recounting this to get pats on the back. I’m telling this story because I truly believe that this should be a period where we put the pieces together and we become active in ensuring that things DON’T return to the previous normal. I’m hoping that we see our strengths and that we push beyond our understandable concerns to create something new rather than fall into the dystopian future that our common oppressors have been promoting for years, a bleak future that seperates us and augments the scarcity models that rewards competition and segmentation.
My hope is that from our separate points of isolation, we act collectively. That we usher in a new paradigm of respect, unity, cooperation, and strength.

Update: And it’s now September and people are restless and numbers that were lowered are on the rise. The US Covid-19 deaths stand at 187,777 as of 9/4/20 (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/).

Chicken Tales

Hearing serious poultry hub bub from the yard- loud clucking & screeching- I painfully made my way to the dining room window to see a large, boxer-like dog running around the coop area. I yelled out the window, which sent him running, but right towards three birds trying to vacate the area.
I’d thrown my worn-outside-in-the-store pants to the basement for washing, so I yelled to “Hubs” to come down and help. Only after waking him did I remember the “yard pants” I keep by the back door, so I hobbled as quickly as possible to dress as “Hubs” came downstairs, yelling like a latter day Mighty Mouse that he was coming to save the day.
In great pain, I stumbled out the door, grabbing a stick to give chase. The birds were all huddled together near the front yard fence, ready to leap to safety, if necessary, except Gray’s Girl, the little brown Easter Egger, who remained near the dog, chest out, head erect, ready to fight. The dog tried to go back towards the coop, but I blocked it, and he scrambled over the side fence to the adjoining yard. I hollered and threatened, not allowing it to return, so it eventually climbed over the neighbor’s back fence , then into the yard behind us, setting off the dog behind the next fence.
Calming the birds, I went inside to get some worms as a treat, but they were too frightened to come out of their huddle until I whistled and put some worms on the ground.


Now here’s what’s interesting to me. I scattered enough worms so that every bird could reach a little pile. They immediately did their usual shoving and ranking, and soon chased Gray’s Girl away, as is often the case. The fact that she alone stood up to the dog to protect them all meant nothing and she walked away towards the coop, ignoring my calls for her to return, a sad, proud little figure with a teenager’s defiant attitude.
Turning away from my flock of ingrates, I brought her a handful of worms to eat in her solitude, our silent hero of the Great Dog Attack of 2020.

Shopping In The Time of The Virus

Just back from a 6 AM necessities shopping run during “elder hours” and it was quite interesting from my casual social social science perspective. The store was packed (got there around 6:20) as expected, but people were clearly trying to maintain 6ft between each other, using their carts to measure space. There were mostly white people, mostly couples, but a number of men running around scowling. I saw two other Black women, and two men, one in a couple. There was one tall, dimpled, twentyish, Black man stocking shelves.


The most striking thing was the anger and determination the white folks displayed. No eye contact, niceties, or even basic politeness. If anyone had even accidentally veered into someone, I think violence would have broken out.
With one exception (the man on his own) the Black people spoke or nodded, and the young employee was sweet as pie when I made eye contact and greeted him. (He seemed genuinely delighted to be acknowledged)
Only that lone male Black elder looked straight ahead and moved quickly. I could head the old Mission Impossible theme in my head as I watched him adroitly avoiding other shoppers in the crowded aisles, murmuring what sounded like his list items as he flew by me in a heavy looking sheep skin coat. (It was a warming, foggy, drizzling morning. This gentleman was prepared for the next Ice Age)

Making my way into an aisle, there was a heavy set white woman with thick, slightly askew grey and white hair, exiting. We made eye contact and both laughed, she shaking her head and both of us nodded, saying “Crazy, right?”and laughing again.

As I made my way throughout the store, no one else spoke to me or anyone else, and eye contact was assiduously avoided. Even the couples moved silently for the most part, many masked, eyes grimly looking straight ahead, and almost everyone had their jaws set tightly. (The expressions were more grim than any of my students during final exams.) There was one tall, attractively mustached man who just stood in place, between the refrigerated juices and flower aisles, looking around with what seemed to be fear and confusion, but still that prevalent look of determination. His head and eyes moved, but his body seemed frozen. I wondered if he’d lost his partner or was determining a strategy, or if he’d suddenly awakened to find himself in the Stop and Shop of The Twilight Zone. It was so hard for me not to ask…


A short time later, as we waited in the long line, taking turns to run back for additional items “just to be safe,” all stock clerks were called to help bag groceries, and the sweet young man came to our line, allowing me to thank him and wish him health and a good weekend. The cashier was a pleasant, “motherly” looking white woman (55-60) who was not only cheerful, but seemed to be having a good time, sharply contrasting the customers who all looked angry, sad, and occasionally shell shocked. I would liked to have chatted with her to discover the source of her joy, but this wasn’t the time to slow down the line and risk the wrath of the ten or more full carts behind us possibly being used like tanks to move us out of the way. I had a prayer-like thought for anyone who might dither or otherwise have a problem checking out this morning, but it wasn’t going to be me.

When the woman behind me loudly complained to her companion about the higher prices on many items, I turned and we made eye contact, so I nodded sympathetically. That seemed to please this tall, slender, very pale, ivory skinned, white haired woman, (a ringer for Eileen Atkins) who nodded enthusiastically in the silent solidarity of her righteous indignation.

Thanking the cashier and stock clerk once again, we soon made our way back to the parking lot where, in stark contrast to the scene inside the store, people were now moving very slowly, unloading groceries from their carts, lethargically walking to return carts. I recognized faces that not ten minutes before had been set in combat mode, yet now seemed listless and lost, as people moved, zombie like, to complete their errand.

For a few minutes more I watched from the car as I sanitized my hands, door handles, and bag, and “Hubs” returned the shopping cart to its aisle. Most people now moved like balloons that had been popped and were deflated, as though all of their energies had been mustered for the task of shopping and none was left afterwards. I’ve can’t remember ever having seen such a rapid contrast in behavior among a group of people.

But then again, this is a different moment in history, comparable to none in my lifetime. I’m curious about how people in other areas of the country are behaving. Long Island is unlike other places I’ve lived, and not a welcoming place in the best of times. It will be interesting to see if people will have come to appreciate these brief social moments by the time I venture out again sometime in April, or if isolation will have turned folks feral and even more hostile. I hope for the former, but will be prepared for the latter. Meanwhile, I will waive to my neighbors and plant my garden and try not to grow fatter as we nosh our way through this pandemic. I will hope that a leader in the spirit of FDR will appear and promote the spirit of community, collectivity, and kindness that is needed if we are ever to thrive again and not merely survive physically. “Divided we fall” is as crucial to our motto as the “United we stand” part. Separation is a dangerous illusion: beware of those promoting it.

Now go out and help your neighbors, thank the sanitation workers, market workers, and all of the people risking themselves to keep us relatively comfortable and safe. Contribute to a food pantry, purchase a gift card from a local restaurant, check on the elderly on your block. And for pity’s sake and to avoid future dental work, please try to relax your jaws.

Thanks to All Y’all!

Ok, quick shoutout to y’all: parents, elders, folks caring for vulnerable ones, teachers, students, and those in isolation away from their loved ones; everybody transitioning to working at home, and those on the front lines: from farms to trucks to docks to cashiers; medical folk; those in or caring for prisoners; and everybody in between.
I’m so touched by your consideration for others, your resilience, good sense, kindness, and humor as you create and sustain community, on and offline.
May you be safely ensconced and remain healthy, and may you know only prosperity, abundance, and love.
You are awesome and amazing!

In Memoriam: Dr. Miriam K. Deitsch

Today we lost our former Chair of Sociology and Anthropology, the creator and Director of the Social Science Research Center, as well as the only course on Social Justice at the college. She was the person who hired me and one of the most inspiring, frustrating, generous, boundary breaking people I’ve known. A mensch, a nudge, a macher, and meshuga. She drove me crazy as a new hire because she had no boundaries when she liked someone, calling at 10 PM on weekends, insinuating herself into areas that we introverts prefer to keep closed. I can tell you that it was more than concerning that she had such little regard for certain proprieties, and we banged heads often. But my determination to be respected and to protect others when I thought she was wrong won not only her respect, but her trust because she knew that I’d never lie to her or go behind her back. Anything I had to say, she heard it first, and because of that, I became a sounding board for new ideas and rants. There was a closeness between us that weathered the ups and downs, so when she called to say she needed me, there was no question that I would do my best to be there for her.
Mimi was incredibly generous to students and took many a stray under her wing. A staunch defender of students and underdogs, she was also a skilled political animal who knew how to work the system to get what she wanted to make the world better, as she understood it. She had a hand in almost every program at the college that connected to human & civil rights, the environment, and mental health initiatives.
Our relationship was complex and sometimes fraught, but I knew that her deepest wish was to see a world where no one went without and where every human had access to the tools and support that allows them to flourish. When she knew that she had hurt someone, she was genuinely contrite and humble in a way that has become too rare in our superficial world. She was not a perfect being, but she was divinely human in her passion, determination, fierceness, and love. Mimi could write the most flowery compliments and drip honey covered words of appreciation and encouragement with the same mouth that would curse like a sailor and cackle with glee if you were shocked by it. I think she enjoyed her own contradictions immensely and amused herself by being herself. She admired and loved her children, adored her grandchildren, and created extended family with every semester and each batch of new students. She was loved by many, from the maintenance staff to the people at the highest levels of SUNY. It was quite fitting that our President went to her hospital room and bestowed the college’s highest honor, the Farmingdale State College Distinguished Service Award. Mimi was first woman and only the seventh person to receive this in the College’s 108-year history. Although she would say that such honors were unimportant, in reality she was quite proud of herself, and deservedly so. On a recent visit, I told her that if SUNY ever completed plans to build a Social Science Hall at the college, it should be named for her, and without hesitation she nodded in agreement. She earned every honor she received and was that rare woman who knew her worth.


On the last day that I saw her, she was small and radiantly beautiful, despite the intermittent pain that came between the morphine drips. Without makeup and her hair pulled up, her exquisite features and lively eyes were clearly exposed. Unable to sustain conversation and losing the desire to eat, it was painfully clear that the end was not too far off, even though anyone who knew her also expected that she would somehow turn around and make a complete recovery. But on that day she was tired and angry and frustrated with these new limits. Taking her hand, I tried to soothe her, acknowledging the frustration I saw in her face and trying my best to reassure and joke with her. It then occurred to me to ask if she would like me to curse for her, and her eyebrows raised, first in surprise, then in pure delight as I let out a string of curses appropriate to the moment. I cursed her current “enemy”, calling her “The demented and evil daughter of a diseased vagina.”
That remarkable pronouncement elicited a look of complete surprise that quickly turned to mirth and laughter that shone from her eyes. Squeezing my hand, she whispered “Bitch, bitch, bitch” and seemed deeply satisfied with herself and the whole exercise. The very gentle work friend with whom I’d ridden for this visit managed to put away her own shock and joined in, asking if Mimi would like her to “say the C word,” much to Dr. D’s delight.
She grew tired after that, but looked satisfied and peaceful, and we soon made our way out of the ICU. It was the last time I saw her, as my own medical issues prevented my next planned visit, but her beloved cousin read my texts to her, so she knew that we were thinking of her and that the students she was concerned for wouldn’t be abandoned.
I’m told that she had a gentle passing and had been relieved of her pain. I believe in reincarnation on most days, so I hope that she gets some well deserved rest before she comes back to finish whipping the world into shape.
You touched many, many people for the better, Mimi, and you gave the college a conscience that it sometimes lacked. You fought the good fight till the very end and we are all the better for having known you.
Dr. Miriam K. Deitsch: Presente!

On Violence: a response to the responses to Richmond, VA., 1/20/20

It isn’t just physical, although Americans often seem only to recognize violence in that form. Poverty and hunger are violent. The forced or coerced suppression of sexual identities is violent, as is the suppression of and lack of reward/recognition of the arts and artists. Words can also be violent.

Racism: seriously violent in all of its forms.

Sexism/misogyny: violence

Ethnic hatred (anti Semitism, anti Muslim, anti Indigenous, anti Latino/Pakistani/Palestinian/name your group, is violence.

Fear of/animosity towards disabled people or those with mental health problems isn’t just messed up, it’s violence.

The perpetuation of racist, homophobic, and sexist stereotypes and tropes via all forms of media, texts, films, and art equals violence.

These forms of violence aren’t passive or unimportant. They have moral, ethical, and social implications and real world, practical effects. They result in redlining, blackballing, disenfranchisement, inequality in pay/opportunities/expectations, and a lack of support. They create and uphold poverty, depression, and other forms of repression and oppression.

They shorten the lifespans and lower the quality of life of those living with these forms of violence, and often result in serious physical harm, both directly and in insidious ways over time.

Violence isn’t just the cudgels, knives, and bombs. It’s the will to harm, via a multiplicity of actions and inactions that are institutionalized in every section of society. It’s also the denial of harm towards others and all of the emotional and psychological damage that denying reality causes to the victims of such social and spiritual violence.

Violence is a pervasive yet often denied part of our cultures and society, and so long as we mislabel non-physical assaults as “peaceful” we will continue to have a society of injustice, hatred, and fear.

Santayana Was Right

Watching Cabaret for the first time in a long while.

The “African safari”scene (“Tomorrow Belongs to Me”) was always disturbing with its juxtapositions between the sweetly singing Brown Shirt Hitler Youth, the menacing threat behind it, and the enthusiasm so easily enlisted among the audience members. It encapsulates the dormant-until-triggered, but ever present white supremacist ideology as potential and inevitable violence.

Particularly chilling in this era of history repeating.

Sandy 2012

When I wrote these, we had NO idea what was about to happen or how many neighbors, colleagues, and students would suffer. Many have yet to fully recover, structurally or emotionally.

Just last week a student mentioned working at Ruvo in Greenlawn and I sent my thanks and regards to their chef. They were quickly functional after the storm, and their daily soup, reheated over a candle warmer and with our little bbq, were the only sources for food and warmth for several days. We couldn’t drive out of the area because of the downed wires until all of us neighbors pooled money to get what was needed and pay a neighbor who worked for a utility company to get a cherry picker to reach the box and turn the power off.

We had each other, a safe structure, and are always reasonably prepared, so fortunate, but it certainly increased my empathy for others then and the victims of the increasingly frequent “super storms” and other disasters tied to climate change.

BLISS

Love begets Love. When I found out that I was pregnant, I saw a constellation of stars. It was as though I had a window into cosmic bliss, experiencing joy like I never knew existed. Whatever my shortcomings as a parent, my son was wanted, loved, and the source of the greatest joy and grace I’d experienced. If I have in any way become a better person, it is because of him.

He was always his own person: a kind, protective, funny, and serious little soul. He is that rare person who can be completely in the moment and who always knew when he was in a good time and always expressed gratitude. Precocious, often wise, occasionally harsh, always supportive, he remains the person who can make me laugh to tears and of whom I am most proud. He has become a man I am happy to know and glad to consider a friend as well as a good son and great family man.

When he walked down the aisle to marry his most beloved, uniting our families, and lovingly accompanied by my own dear father, I thought I would burst with happiness. As I turned to see the generations of both families and felt my Mother’s blessing, I knew that indeed, the Circle was unbroken.

It has been a wonder to watch them grow as individuals and become even closer as a couple over the years. They had suffered quietly for years, using every means possible to sustain a pregnancy, always having their dreams dashed. They carried that sadness with grace until finally being advised to give up.

I didn’t, and I made ceremony at home, entreating my ancestors and hers. Earlier, they had joined me on a fieldwork trip, where the most respected elders chastised me for having only one child, but then took my boy aside and blessed him. Magical thinking? Yes, but I held the hope that the charms or just the way that people eventually relax after letting go of disappointment sometimes results in a “miracle.” Meanwhile, we looked into adoption and other options, knowing that any child that came to us would be OUR child, wanted and loved.

A few months later, I asked my son -a tv producer- to film an event I was chairing at the college where I taught, and he agreed. It was rare at that point for us to be able to get together outside of regular family visits, so I was especially happy to have a few hours with my son and to show him off to my colleagues. After setting up the cameras and staging areas, he suggested we take a break before the activities started and people poured in. Sitting in the dark and quiet auditorium, he put his arm around me and pulled something out of his duffle, saying he wanted me to see something and handing me what looked like a photograph. It was a sonogram of his daughter, my granddaughter, somehow already resembling her Dad at this early stage.

If I thought the heavens opened when he was conceived, I can tell you that the entire universe sang at that moment. I can count on one hand the number of times I have wept from pure, uncontainable joy, and that moment is the most memorable. My serious, often somber child, was lit up like a million Christmas trees, Times Square at night, and the Aurora Borealis in spring. For the next several months (and ever since) I was to see the deep dimples he has when smiling, every single day.

I’m here to tell you that Life presents us with many opportunities and occasions for happiness. When I conceived and again when it was confirmed, I experienced unexpected joy. My life has not been an easy one and joy was not my companion, so its visits were always special, appreciated, and noted. I didn’t know that anything could make me happier than my own child had, but I’m here to tell you that the joy of seeing my child’s happiness made my heart open up a whole new chamber. I went back into the gala in a haze of joy, my face swollen from the happy tears we’d shared and my brain on autopilot for the rest of that wonderful night.

And then she was born, and again, my joy was for their joy: my son and the beautiful soul he’d brought into our lives through love and marriage, the woman who made him aspire to greatness, and laugh, who brought out his silly side, and for whom he felt pride and gratitude. This beautiful couple were finally graced with the child they so wanted and who had- artiste that she is- built up this tremendous anticipation before gracing us with her presence on the stage of Life. Our little star was born and my heart was overwhelmed with love for this person who made my children so happy.

But then somehow, my heart expanded even further as this little blissball grew, and I loved her for herself, this shining, bright eyed wonder whose face danced with aspects of everyone I’d loved in my family, along with features from her gorgeous mother. And as she has grown, new heart chambers have emerged to accommodate my Bliss, as well as heart rooms for all of the new friends and family who’ve come into our lives because of this once tiny seed of love.

So that’s it. I just wanted to say that Love is real. It’s precious and fine and often illusive and illusionary because we humans are basically assholes with legs who tend to miss our own good times or screw them up by trying to capture, control, or otherwise change what is. It’s painful in its absence and wrenching in loss. But sometimes (perhaps as a reward for good deeds but likely for no particular reason at all) we are *blessed* with Love, true and abiding. I think that we are never exactly “deserving” as it’s popularly put, but we are graced with it and made better by it and we should cherish it. Always.

And so for me, each and every year that I live, this date is the Second Day of Bliss and Gratitude and I give thanks for my gifts of Love, from the bottom of my now endlessly expanding heart.