These days, I loop between incredulous and compassionate – so much suffering, so much innovative kindnesses, “Like a storm in the desert, like a sleepy blue ocean, come let me love you…”  I press the play button in my head, and all day, I’m a John Denver recording.  Blessing or curse, you choose.

The likelihood that life will resume a normal path is akin to a storm in the desert, and oceans are never sleepy, there is always life underwater, always currents, always movement.  

In my dreams, I wander through big hotel lobbies and elevator banks, and long hush-carpeted hallways, all the grimy basement entrances and dreary lobby restaurants looking dowdy between patrons.  I don’t know why my mind wanders there, sometimes I shop at the dress boutiques, but always, they are too lacey and too frilly and too small, no matter how far back I push into the maximum markdown areas.  When I exit, which is always a trial, it’s a multi-story city scape with mirrored surfaces and inscrutable high-rises.  And I can’t hail a cab, or the currency I am carrying is from the wrong country, but I always have a plane to catch and I always wake up wondering if it took off without me.  I suffer from lost-o-phobia I guess.  Not consciously, but I do prefer printing out the map and directions and tracing it out with my fingers – GPS is not all it’s cracked up to be on an island in the middle of the Pacific.  It adds to there being so much to double-check before departing the house.  And this year, businesses and landmarks are dropping out of sight, but still show up on conglomerating websites that never check their data.  Hours of operation are totally unreliable – people want to work, but lockdowns and months of unemployment make it hard to lure customer-facing workers back to non-shuttered locations.  Maybe the empty lobbies and dowdy restaurants are simply a vision of the future, and lost-o-phobia comes out at night to show me that I am afraid all the familiar places will be echo chambers and dust collectors when I do venture out.  And the currency thing – well at last count something like 100+ countries would not allow American citizens to land on their soil.  So there’s that.  That I think I’m going to tour Scotland next year, that I think I will see wildlife in Kenya, but that all depends on plague numbers, and they keep going up, and what if I land in the wrong country and cannot get home?  Maybe I am not crazy, maybe I am just being honest with my subconscious, that pitiless vixen.

Joy at the door

It’s just a Christmas tree, 

just some goofy colorful ornaments

stockings on hooks

Santas on stands

These tall doors don’t accommodate wreaths

Just a couple sparkly outdoor ornaments

Just a little printed message

carved out and painted silver

Just a sparkly J and an O and a Y

to greet the oh-so-occasional visitors

But it is a bit of cheer

kept in bins, out in the garage

and every year, we decide

whether to decorate or hunker down

This year passed, filled with curses and lies

This year past, of all the years

Sprouted hope like mung beans in the fridge

Just in time to turn the tide

and I decorate

to celebrate

with a J and an O and a Y

at the front door.

Emperor has no clothes

Let me tell you about Barack Obama and how the hateful opposition sneeringly lengthened his name to Barack Hussein Obama while simultaneously shortening Jefferson Beauregard Sessions the Third into “Jeff”.  Not one, but two Confederate Army officers honored by his parents, embedded in his name.  Trying so hard to please his boss, the Great Divider, no draconian policies were good enough or mean enough if investigations proceeded however well justified.

This is something not up for grabs, my voice, my vote, my vagina.  Scandal upon scandal, vie for venal victory, and former friends shrug and call us Socialists, a would-be epithet I shall embrace.  If my Libertarian, dyed in the wool capitalism can be called socialism, well doesn’t that just open the flood gates to Upside Down World?  And I really don’t think asserting that “the sun’ll come up tomorrow” can convince the Flat Earth Society that they need to shut the fuck up.  My mail-in ballot was received and I assume counted, but there rises the specter of hanging chads, and maybe the Chads and Chips and Chucks should be hung, by the raised collars of their sporty shirts.

Authoritarian Regime after Regime – how many more?   And Frank Zappa sings in my head that “It can’t happen here, ‘cause I’ve been checkin’ it out…Suzie Creamcheese, this is the voice of your conscience speaking”…

In the deep South, women dress in hoop skirts and sing the praises of their plantation museums, like anything about the Antebellum South is worthy of praise.  Docents guide visitors through the Grand House, clippety clopping down the tree lined drive in dainty carriages they arrive at the lovingly restored mansions and only in some plantations, the ones I visited, are the slave cabins preserved.

In retrospect, breaking up the Divided States, letting the Confederacy spin off (good riddance) into a separate nation, imagining a different outcome, where there is no Electoral College, where winners of the popular vote just fucking win.  A stalemate in an earlier war, agreeing to go our separate ways and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman lived long active lives, where John Brown’s body and those of his murdered sons never did molder in the grave.  Passengers on the Underground Railroad making it to freedom funding the rebellion, burning down the mansions and putting up plaques honoring the laborers.  From a safe distance pointing to the Mason/Dixon line and saying “There’s evil in them thar hills”.

This is what we don’t know – the flowers picked, young girls gone to husbands, young men gone to soldiers, every one – when will they every learn?  Oh, when will they ever learn? It’s just all so repetitive, all so sickening, all so backwards.  Hate is always propaganda and propaganda is always hate, and power corrupts absolutely.  Chin Shr Huang Di ate mercury for immortality.  Mao Ze Dong ate opium balls and let syphilis drive him mad, and the Four Olds were attacked and destroyed by blinded followers.  Stalin brutally murdered his opponents, Rome begat Caligula, Hitler begat the Final Solution and these are DEAD dictators.  Former President Trump cozies up to today’s bloodthirsty power mad megalomaniacs and here’s where Russia fits in – when democracies band together, invasion and annexations become harder to pull off.  Bullies are right now licking their wounds – injuries sustained by the mere hint of disagreement, by the unforgiveable sin of dissent.  They set about to silence voters where voting IS allowed, and to simply jail those of lesser means.  Gaia, they are so brittle, resentful of a beautiful autumn day in early November when we threw a rock at the wall of sycophants surrounding the Emperor with no clothes.  On the inside of the wall, he is striding purposefully in imaginary finery.  Emerging weeks later, he dons a perfectly tailored coat and shuffles down the ramp to a gilt laden obscurity.

A Year filled with curses and lies

I used to ask my mom, in the five years or so before her passing, “Tell me about something beautiful today.” You know, just to break up the litany of malfunctioning body parts. Now that I am in my 60’s I’ve noticed how so many of my conversations veer towards doctors and procedures, prescriptions and pulled muscles, I have to then ask myself – tell the story of something beautiful, something heartwarming, some act of kindness that you witnessed today. It seems especially hard this year, 2020, a time filled with curses and lies. Our differences; in color, in gender, in poverty, in wealth, in education, in ego, in endless combinations of faiths, are rivening the species as the Earth strikes back, rearing up in fury, flinging the four elements – wind, water, fire and rock at us humans.

Civil unrest (and I mean that literally – peaceful, civil protests every night) remind us that all is not well. 2020 brought with it a broken economy, proletariats pitted against the bourgeoisie, it was ever thus, only now more so.

Education through visual storytelling, can be, and is instantaneously disseminated. Live moving images widely available within seconds of violence having been perpetrated, sometimes while it is actually happening “in real time” – think about that – real time. Not fake time. We hear the sounds of pleading, and see the images of a white uniformed man calmly murdering a handcuffed black man; released before editing or tampering can take place. Instantaneous publication is a double-edged sword. No context, and we viewers have to string together outrage after outrage, so we can pile up enough to build a case for killing racism before it kills another innocent American. But we knew, all of us, we knew. American history from the textbooks glorifies war, buries the contributions of women and people of color. Still and to this day we gloss over the horrific crimes, the blood spilled, the moral stains on our national conscience. What do we tell our kids? Tell the truth honey, and I won’t be mad. Lying about what you did is so much worse than breaking a vase. The child can clean up the scattered shards but broken trust bows to no broom. Genocide bad. Detention camps for would be immigrants – bad. De-humanizing other humans – bad. Even after the specific crimes cease, pretending they didn’t happen invites the wound to fester. We know this.

We witnessed a stark transfer of wealth. The rich and powerful are not pretending to share anymore. What a relief that must be for them. Sneering that $600 dollars a week will make the recipients lazy, while ignoring the fact that $600 million dollars a week will make the recipients crazy – for more. The news dwells gleefully on the craven con men, parsing nonsensical pronouncements from on high while the abrupt cessation of businesses worldwide has caused global supply chains to be broken, idling ships and planes and trucks and automobiles. The blind rush to accumulate treasure halted so we look around, see our co-habitators (some call them our germ bubbles) and hear the children these days, listening to them learn in the new worldscape of empty cubicles as we eschew recycled air and highrises. Empty classrooms, shuttered restaurants and department store bankruptcies are just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath what we can see, the frozen misery of the unemployed lurks and waits for the Ship of State to collide. Like flies caught in amber, they cannot escape, and there is a mad captain at the helm.

There is a deluge of hostility by proxy, electronic texts typed by pundits and nobodies who deliver messages of venom and bitter jealousy. Words provided by the vitriol-spewing former reality show stars whose towering destructive anger has his sycophants cowering in fear. Traitors who blithely accept this disgusting behavior, they can go live with the consequences. Perhaps those who run, hurling insults and invective as they flee, perhaps they glimpsed the red-hot edges, not completely hidden, of a roiling anger, lighting torches for a Sherman’s March through a Narcissistic Landscape.

At least the Pandemic has led late night talk show hosts to don more unisex clothing. Now it’s hoodies and polo shirts and sometimes even denim, whereas before it was Suit and Tie, button down long sleeved shirt, socks and shiny shoes. Always the Suit and Tie, Suit and Tie, how about wearing false eyelashes, plucking your hairy eyebrows, donning an off-the-shoulder gown or blouse, just once, just once, break the damn code – wear a puffy shirt, cargo pants, a skirt – anything to show you understand how restricting those dress codes truly are. Underneath that thin veneer of “showing respect by dressing in a suit” you must realize it perpetrates stereotypes, right? There is a trail to the outright persecution of cross-dressing queens and transgender humans. Tell the Boogaloo Boys to take off those Hawaiian shirts and put down those tiki torches – they are making their mamas ashamed. I mean, is your pecker so small that gender roles must be shriveled as well? Put on a nice summer dress, boys, and feel free to browse the cosmetics aisles – make up for everyone! Sequins all around! The Patriarchy is not working out for anyone.

Quarantine Quarry

These new pets that live in our backyard and sometimes in my office – they’re photobombing my Zoom Room, and we all love it.  Offices in stalwart buildings would never allow that.

The Gingers play in a Quarantine Quarry, jumping from rock precipices, allowing themselves to be momentarily captured for snuggles.  Something carried in my arms can boost my mood so easily.  I cancel the television more often these days, I coddle the kittens.  They are mock ferocious, feral adjacent, they frolic at my feet.  Watching them play, I capsize, saying yes again to the danger of future sorrow by opening my soul to them now.

This twisted now, I contort reality whenever briefly trying to understand fact challenged announcers.  I miss my traveling gal pals.  I commemorate our travels together with digital slide shows and riveted by reminiscences of numerous wine tours and tastings, I mostly chardonnay these summer days, and occasionally I cabernet, tasting the years like grapes in an oak barrel.  The photo has us raising our glasses, a moment frozen in time in a crowded little restaurant in Budapest.  The eight of us – I can almost taste that Hungarian stew – dark cherry memories, awash in comradery.  A celebration now captured in the lenses of our ever present camera phones.  My girls are here and there, all over the world, they too are missing our travels together.  We Zoom toast each other from sunny porches to well-lit home offices

What I count down now are the days without flights in a Quarantine Quarry where the newly domesticated kittens chase pebbles and make new memories.

Aunt Mary’s Mask

My Aunt Mary and Dolly Parton had something in common; they never left home without their “war paint” on.  Pond’s cold cream and Oil of Olay – goop on, goop off.   Gluing on false eyelashes and curling the ones she had, applying foundations, powder for the shiny spots, rouge to add color to the cheeks she just painted beige, eyebrows plucked, eyeliner traced across lids, lips painted with a color to match the manicure.  Clairol’s honey blonde dyed hair wrapped like cotton candy, coiffed and sprayed.  Her neck was encircled with metal and stones, ears were pierced and hung with baubles, dangling and glittering like fishing lures.  

I would sit on the bed, she perched on the tufted stool at her vanity, lifting one then the other jar of unguents and potions. The makeup would leave Aunt Mary’s telephone surfaces smeared with the blues and tans of eye shadow and cover up. How would Aunt Mary cope now?  She was always the glamorous one, I expect her masks would be fashionable, another matching accessory.

I am exhausted, just remembering the elaborate war paint ritual.  

I realized recently that she selected from a complexion wheel with several shades of “natural” but only one shade of brown.  “Racism in the makeup aisle!”  Sometime in the 60’s Crayola changed the name of their pinkish tan shade from “flesh” to “peach”, because, like, it ISN’T flesh colored, not everyone’s flesh anyway. 

She also planted the idea in my head that since whale and bull sperm has been used in cosmetics for years, how about using the raw material?  So, if you’re giving a blow job, don’t spit it out, don’t swallow, but smear that jism around to tighten up those sagging corners.  Would that not save thousands of dollars wasted on plastic surgery, not to mention saving the whales?

I think about my face, this face that simply merges and replicates those features worn by my mother and father, it sports the Broeker nose, the Niedbalski chin, the blond wispy hair of Teutonic ancestors and the pasty complexion of the Celts and the Brits.  So pasty, even my hippy mom would wheedle: “Aw honey, you would be so much prettier with just a little mascara… 

I realize it shields me from the ingrained suspicion of dark faces, it shields me everywhere I go.  My whiteness pops out from the cloth edges of face coverings.  

Are we now putting on masks over masks?  Without the best cosmetics showing off our makeover skills, is the playing field levelled in an unintended way?  Will all of it get wiped off on the inside of our masks, where only our lovers can see what’s underneath?  Will we miss Tami Faye’s face melting when she cried?  Is that why Orange 45 won’t wear a mask?  Afraid of the smeared face underneath?  

I hope our men will take to decorating their eyes, to augment their expressions while masked.  I hope they embrace the eyebrow plucking concept or at least trim the wayward finger length hairs above their eyes, free of societal pressure to conform by gender.

Sometimes, outrage leaks out of my face.  My whole body goes into fight-to-the-death mode.  I got this thing against being hit.  I mean, If you hit me, I will take you down.  Did you know I was suspended from school three times (in three different Oakland public schools) for fighting?  Those three kids never hit me again.  This righteous warrior part of me is not a mask, it is full body armor.  I love my inner warrior.  She is the reason I survive.

This face can wear a beautiful mask, or when enraged, can wear a hideous mask, lips twisted, teeth exposed.  I can wash off the tears, I can moisturize their tracks, hide the traces of despair, place artfully the invisible mask of false contentment upon the surface, but the anger remains.  

My mother in this place

My mother in this place rests in the dabs and strokes of her Three Volcano painting. Rescued from oblivion and an evil stepfather who tried to drown the very idea of her. I cleaned it with moistened cotton swabs, gently washing tobacco smoke and dust decades old. My mother in this place drips red and orange paints, the angry lava she had never seen down the slopes of one of these three mysterious volcanoes. And I know she dreamed of this future where the morning sun rises over Mauna Kea, the Snowy Mountain, Mauna Loa, the Long Mountain and Hualalai, the Jagged Mountain – all three dangerously dormant. Tera, my mother, saw this 70 years ago and dreamed it into being.

Tera Niedbalski Benjamin Tripp Treadaway's 3 volcano painting

My mother in this place IS the dragonfly. Fierce and fragile and sometimes airborne by the sheer lightness of the breaths she took between peals of laughter. She was never prideful of her own work, yet always in attendance for her daughter’s honors and accomplishments. She self titled Empress of the Universe. I self title Writer and hope the dragonfly conveys that message. These ten years later, I still say “Hi Mom” to each dragonfly and dream that Tera comes in on gossamer wings in attendance even still for her daughter’s honors and accomplishments.