Author Archives: tracerconstant

Two Foxes

Hi, there. I’m JD Fox.

And my husband of nearly twenty years, as of today, is Gary Alton Fox.

I am moved by this in multiple ways, including simply being touched and honored that he has taken my name. But I also can’t help but think of it in terms of queer history and its significance.

Non-queers have both the luxury and burden of a privileged status that already has rules of convention in place for not only what a marriage looks like but what happens to the names. This is not to say they are good norms — they are quite sexist in fact — but just that they exist.

They can be followed or not followed, but they are there nonetheless.

Gary and I got married at a time – 1996, the year of DOMA — when we weren’t recognized legally as such. We even battled with our religious organization over using the term marriage in our wedding ceremony; of using the term wedding.

The kind of battle where people take sides and our side was the minority; only a fraction of people showed up to our wedding, compared to a full house and unilateral support for non-queer unions.

But we got married, considered ourselves married, and winged it, having to create what it meant to us from scratch with little social support and no real point of reference other than our love for one another.

When we legally married in 2013, we kept our names. After all, we’d already been married in our hearts and faith for 17 years. So that year’s Justice of the Peace visit and subsequent paperwork was just a bureaucratic formality, right? Just a way of getting those 1000+ benefits…

Yet it didn’t feel like just a formality. Far from it. The kind of far that I’m not sure a non-queer person can truly appreciate. The kind of far that has little to do with matters of benefit and more to do with matters of heart.

We deliberately chose to be with each other all those years ago and reaffirmed that decision in 2013, winging it as well. We talked about names and hyphenated names without a convention to either go with or go against.

At the time, we each decided to keep our name.

But that was then and this is now, and Gary, by his winged choice, is now a Fox; we are Mr. and Mr. Fox.

Has a nice ring to it, don’t it?

Sick Oh

Friday morning I woke up sick.

Or I should say woke up sicker than usual as it’s been many years, decades, since I’ve been what I would consider truly healthy in any tangible sense of the word; if there had ever been such a mythical time and not just some fanciful memory.

But that particular morning was sickness of a specific sort that encouraged me to call out at work, something I rarely do.

I had gotten up to take Jack out. I started to change out of my robe into something more socially acceptable to wear outside. My fingers touched something unpleasantly wet and, upon examination, dark.

As if to emphasize its origin, I sat on the commode and proceeded to defecate in a splattering fashion that sounded more like urination. Over the next fifteen minutes I tried three times to make it from the bathroom, but ended up instead back in that rather helpless position of waiting for my body to do what it was going to do with or without my consent.

The fourth time I escaped the bathroom, got dressed, and took Jack out, like I originally had planned. Likewise, I thought I would continue with my routine and go to work, being stoic with matters of illness. But a few more attacks disabused me of such a notion along with the realization that the constant physical strain my current job entails would exacerbate such issues; especially since it already does so on a regular basis, just to a lesser degree.

So I called out and ended up spending most of the day and night in bed, dwelling on sickness, pending death – for it is always pending – and my relentless lack of means that makes the former harder to combat and the latter not as unwelcome, not as rage against the dying of the light, as it should be.

Relentless insomuch as my best efforts seem to no avail, with me frequently left an outlier to the world and feeling much like Equality 7-2521.

It is taxing not doing what you were born to do. It makes being born at all taxing.

Sickness bleeds the turnip.

Yet…

The next morning, not feeling great but not feeling as bad, I got up, took Jack out, and drove to Burlington for a board meeting. For I don’t know what to do when efforts are thwarted except put forth more effort.

I’m sick in that way too.

Temperature Cold, Feels like Poor

Vermont gets cold.

Winter lasts a long time. It is March and it snowed last night. I’m glad to be inside. Most days I’m trudging through whatever weather to work. But today I have the day off.

I will go out later in the afternoon to attend a board meeting of the Vermont PWA coalition. But for now, I’m in my robe and typing this while listening to “Resist” by Rush.

And I’m warm enough and so is my family.

Friday night I was scared we wouldn’t be. We ran out of oil. I was hoping what little we had left in the tanks would stretch until warmer weather or until I could find a better-paying job, whichever came first; both seeming equally elusive right now.

But Friday night, the worst possible night for such things, hope sputtered out and the temperature in our house started dropping. I thought of my ill husband. I thought of our 19-year-old cat with his thin skin.

I thought of Edgar Allan Poe’s cat providing warmth to the impoverished writer’s dying wife; they couldn’t afford heat.

We can’t afford heat. We also really can’t afford the additional cost of an “emergency” oil delivery either. But I leaned on my already strained credit to get us oil that night.

Maybe we could have toughened it out till Monday when there would be no extra charge. Maybe our two-year-old long-haired cat would have been kind enough to act as an extra quilt. Maybe odds are our older cat would have survived the weekend anyway without costly intervention.

But I’d rather not rely on playing the odds when it comes to taking care of my family. Yet, that is often what being poor means, with stakes a lot higher than the stocks in one’s portfolio dipping a little.

How delinquent can you be before electricity gets shut off? What are the rules of eviction? Can you use the food pantry more than once a month?

People of means do not ask such questions nor do they lie awake worrying about such things.

Keeping the car insured takes up a lot of grocery money. A fifteen-dollar co-pay for medicine is at least three meals. Muffins closer to the expiration date get marked down 50%.

People with means don’t spend time making such comparisons.

Yet our government – and much of the private sector, actually — is full of people with means making decisions about things far removed from their daily experience and, at the end of their privileged place-at-the-table day, of little consequence to their world.

Just a little food for thought for those of us who have trouble affording any other kind.

Twice-Baked Bread and Half-Baked Thoughts

zwieback

zwieback toast

zwieback
noun zwie·back \ˈswē-ˌbak, ˈswī-, ˈzwē-, ˈzwī-, -ˌbäk\
: a dry, hard bread that is eaten especially by young children

I lost the Third Annual Cabin Fever Spelling Bee held at the Kellogg Hubbard Library.

Lost early on. The kind of early on that is a tad embarrassing, with tad here meaning “a whole lot.”

Judging from many of the subsequent words, if not early on I would have lost later on. The competition was humbling and props to Robbie Harold who won it. Won it again, I should add. It was amazing hearing her and the other spellers spell, often doing so rapidly and with mind-blowing certainty.

My particular losing word — zwieback — was a word I had never heard before and my misspelling of it revealed that ignorance to the audience. But it also revealed some interesting ways my brain works; though not to the audience, of course, who, being outside of me, could only see its dismal output accompanying a somewhat gormless expression.

My thoughts started with crackers.

Word-Pronouncer Sydney Lea included crackers in his definition of the word. He said a lot of other descriptive words, mentioning them being inedible and how he remembered his grandmother always had them around.

He likely mentioned bread, too, but, after briefly and tangentially thinking of my maternal grandparents, candy orange slices and other weird candies that only seemed to be present at their house and always in little glass dishes,  I zeroed in on crackers.

My mind started sifting through different crackers sold at Shaw’s; specifically, the ones loosely collected in my head under the category “crackers with weird names.” Matzo and wasi came most immediately to mind, along with Melba toast, which sound nothing like zwieback, but still…

Although zwieback didn’t sound familiar, perhaps I had at least glanced at them while stocking items in its shelf vicinity. No matter that for Wasi I should have been thinking Wasa; I could picture the three kinds – multi-grain, sourdough, and light rye – on the shelf and tried to see other neighboring crackers.

But instead Wasi encouraged wasabi to hijack my thinking, tossing me over to a different aisle. Wasabi is a real word, but it is a plant and has nothing to do with crackers. Though wasabi peas are stocked in the oriental foods section, where KA-ME offers three kinds of rice crackers, which are called… er, rice crackers.

No help there…

Abandoning this path, I tried to focus on the sound of the word, hoping to make a good guess. But zwī is not a common sound in English and I couldn’t think of what letters plopped together could create it. The closest I came to the sound was zī as in Zygote, which I knew wasn’t right even as I spelled zwieback Z-Y-B-A-C-K.

Ironically, in a too-late-to-be-of-use fashion, as soon as Sydney started spelling it correctly, Z – W –, my mind partially blocked him out and went “Oh, yeah, duh” recalling my rudimentary college German and proceeding to unhelpfully count in German:

Eins
Zwei
Drei
Vier…

Where the German word for two has both the sound and spelling I had needed. Or so I had thought until I started writing this post and research showed the correct word has I before E, following the infamous except before c English Language rule. So even if I had remembered my German, I would have likely gotten it wrong, catching the beginning zw and messing up the subsequent ie by following Zwei.

Though to be fair, a Google search shows quite a few people mistakenly spelling it zweiback. A mistake perhaps compounded by the word, meaning literally twice-baked, coming from the German word for two, zwei.

On the other hand, one source says zwie is a variant of zwei. Another source even claims the word zwieback comes originally from German zweiback. I cannot yet locate an authoritative source on its true etymology.

But in contemporary usage – eg. Nabisco and Amazon.de, it is I before E.

Still, the pronunciation can be either a long I or a long E sound, adding to the trickiness, with the latter sound appearing in rule-breaking words like seize. Then again, maybe it isn’t so rule-breaking after all; soft C and S sound alike, so I before E, except after a (soft) C sound.

Neither ie nor ei follows C when it is hard, which means when C sounds like K not S.

Kome to think of it, why do we even have a C in our language? Kouldn’t we rely on K’s and S’s?

For CH’s, maybe? If so, why not have it simply – and always — be that sound and dispense with needing the H with it? We could even redesign the letter altogether and call it see-aytch in homage to ß.

Maybe we keep it as is just so we can have the I before E except after C rule.

Though that would be weird.

Marking Our Territory

playground, Lakeside Park

playground, Lakeside Park — Erin Dupuis, photographer

MARKING OUR TERRITORY
JD Fox

Is that a gator from the bayou
ready to take a bite?
Or is it a friend tried and true
standing by your side?

Maybe it’s your faithful steed
waiting for you to take the reins.
Maybe it’s just what you need
to cross uncharted terrains.

Brush off the snow and climb aboard.
No one is rejected.
Let your imagination soar
in ways unexpected.

Turn a stick into a sword
and slay the dragons around you.
Paint the grass in checkerboard
and play a game of chess or two.

Turn a vacant lot into a town square
and see potential in a wall.
Gather all the artists there
and beckon them to draw.

Have the poets write their lines
on sidewalks of the neighborhood.
It doesn’t matter if they rhyme
(though of course they could).

Have the musicians play all day
keeping music in the air.
May each contribute in their own way
and be heard everywhere.

Such suggestions might seem unsound
when we get down to brass tacks.
But the world is our playground
and our actions are our tracks.

Courtesy Burlington Writers Workshop and PlanBTV South End, I had a wonderful opportunity to work with photographer Erin Dupuis on a mixed media project. The idea was to capture some aspect of the South End that we found inspiring. She took a photograph and I wrote a poem to go along with it.

We had some logistical setbacks, both scheduling-wise and with subjects declining at the eleventh hour. We had originally envisioned the photograph and poem being of a person in action in the South End, but when that fell through, Erin sent me a batch of photographs she had taken at the start of the project.

All the photographs were stunning and inspiring, despite the lack of people inhabiting them. Or maybe more so because of it.

For one of the pictures she sent me was a stark closeup of an empty swing. My mind started whirring with the twin ideas of how sad it is to see a playground not in use and how a playground is full of potential. What was I Iooking at? An abandoned swing, slated for deterioration from apathy? Or something just currently — and temporarily — dormant until kids came out to play.

I thought it looked more like the former and my poetic train of thought turned bleak, as I thought of budget cuts, empty playgrounds, and childhood cut short. But at the same time, my thoughts went a different route, thinking how what things are and what they can be are both up to us.

As I looked at the picture included in this blog, this more affirming, second thought took over. I imagined joyous kids of unlimited potential climbing onto this creature and it becoming whatever they wanted it to be.  In the same way, our reality — our future — is never fixed; we have the power to change it for the better; to make it what we want.

In the picture, notice the tracks in the snow. Someone was there. What did they do? Where did they go? The tracks are evidence; a record of their passing through. What kind of record are we leaving?

Faith and Fortune

In order to save living beings,
as an expedient means I appear to enter nirvana
but in truth I do not pass into extinction.
I am always here, preaching the Law.
I am always here,
but through my transcendental powers
I make it so that living beings in their befuddlement
do not see me even when close by.
When the multitude sees that I have passed into extinction,
far and wide they offer alms to my relics.
All harbor thoughts of yearning
and in their minds thirst to gaze at me.

I’m not much of a person of faith.

My husband is more inclined towards spiritual beliefs, having converted to Nichiren Buddhism when he was 18 and remaining steadfast in practice these nearly three decades since.

I lean more towards philosophy infused by science (“Yeah, sure, buddy, that’s an elegant theory of mind you got there, but if you don’t have a solid grasp of the biological underpinnings of thought, you’re just blathering.”).

But I have been known to pray on occasion. Especially when there seems to be nothing left but faith. Which is probably an awful lot like cheating – or cramming maybe – but like I said, it’s not in my main wiring.

However, feeling like I’m going to short-circuit from befuddlement is present. I am working hard at trying to turn things around for us, but have been having various setbacks. I thirst for solutions to our current situation.

Not knowing what else to do – befuddled indeed! – I started chanting regularly again: Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. A half-hour in the morning and half-hour in the evening. As I chant, the main focus of my mind is on these two parallel thoughts:

I need a door, some door, any door, to open.

How can I be a better person in my current environment?

I’m not chanting or thinking these things to an outside source. For Buddhism teaches the oneness of self and environment; that outer reality can be affected by our inner reality. Another way of saying this without sounding so New Age is that we all have the power inside us to transform our lives.

The most recent thing that needed transformed was rent.

The last week in January I wrote my landlord saying rent would be late, that I would pay it on the fifth. But it turned out that approaching the fifth found me worse off than expected, thinking triage, thinking I’d pay what I could of February rent, which wouldn’t be much, and writing the landlord again saying I would make payments over the next few weeks the best I could, and hoping that would be okay.

On the fifth, I had the day off. Among other things, I chanted a half hour, wrote an hour on a novel-in-progress (The Tulip Tree), and checked e-mail. I went to the Montpelier Food Pantry (Thank you, Montpelier; much, much appreciated!), read with my Everybody Wins VT! student, and stopped by the library to pick up books for the daycare for which I do library outreach each week, bringing books and reading to the kids.

Afterwards I took care of some household tasks and picked up some needed items from town.

Late in the afternoon I sat down to do what I’d been dreading: checking accounts that hardly had anything in them to check, and see what I could pay of my current onslaught of bills, including rent.

I got this welcome surprise: tax refunds had posted, both federal and state.

Now it wasn’t a huge amount by any means. But it was enough, along with what I had, to pay rent in full for the month. I still have many other bills, but it felt wonderful to know that at least our shelter has been paid up for another month.

So not really a door opening fully. Just ajar, just enough to let some light in, and maybe just for this month. But still…

Coincidence?

Like I said, I’m not a man of faith and tend to be cautious in assigning causality. But I did find the timing interesting.

Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

Journal 101

Those who believe in the Lotus Sutra are as if in winter, but winter always turns to spring. Never, from ancient times on, has anyone heard or seen of winter turning back to autumn.

I sure hope so. Winter in Vermont means below zero temperatures. In Montpelier it is -16 degrees. In the harsh weather of my current circumstances it is considerably chillier.

Can’t do much about the Sun, but towards climate improvement of the latter I keep trying to think of new things I can do; new efforts I can put forth. I also am working on keeping my internal state focused on a future spring. Towards that end I’ve decided to start keeping a journal again.

I haven’t kept a journal regularly in a long time, largely because of the aforementioned – and ongoing — circumstances overwhelming me. Recording of such things seemed like an exercise in self-torture.

This journaling gap is ironic of course. For anyone who journals knows that such situations are when you probably need to journal the most; hardships tend to form the meatiest parts of your life. You are partly writing for yourself – as therapy, as clarification, or as just pure output, artistic or otherwise — but you are also writing for your future self.

A self that is shaped by the words you put on the page even if they are never read again.

For thoughts lead to other thoughts, lines lead to other lines, and days lead to other days as we continue with our life’s revisions.

I crack open the cellophane on a hardbound journal I had in storage. I’ve used various notebooks over the years. Many of them are cheap, spiral bound ones of various dimensions and page counts. The one just opened is a nicer one and is the last one I have on hand.

The journal I kept before this one was journal number 100.

 

 

The 3 F’s

When one comes to the end of one’s good fortune, no strategy whatsoever avails.

Three F’s dominate our life: Free will, Fate, and Fortune.

The importance of this triad, particularly the significance of fortune, occurred to me as I flipped through Pokémon: Discover Nimbasa City! By Simcha Whitehill. I recently had my first “Power Lunch” over at Union Elementary. My reading partner there expressed interest in Pokémon, so I was looking for corresponding material to bring to our next lunchtime meeting.

This particular book is a Pick Your Own Path story. Different publishers call such stories by different names, such as: Choose your Destiny; Choose your Own Adventure; and so on. The general format by whatever name is the same: You read a few pages, then are given a choice between two or more options. Your decision determines what pages are read next; how the story plays out.

Such decision-making seems illustrative of what we generally mean by free will: you freely and willfully make a choice. Sure, there is gray here as to what degree real choices can be made – how much free will can be possessed — by an organism constrained by laws of chemistry, biology and physics, but that’s a whole other discussion. Here it is enough that free will feels like free will.

Yet there is fate here, too. The writer has already conceived the outcomes and no conclusion exists outside of it. We assume there are “right” decisions that will lead to favorable outcomes; however, being omnipotent, the writer could have all story threads converge to the same endpoint regardless of their freewheeling meandering.

But that would be mean, wouldn’t it? So let’s assume here a benevolent writer who allows for some variance in his authored fate; enough of it to give free will some meaning. Let’s even go so far as to assume the plot lines are written such that if one determines the proper course of action, they will be rewarded. Is such a model illustrative of real life?

Fortune, the wild card in such matters, would say no, not at all.

For bad things can certainly happen to “good” people who do “good” acts. Likewise, “bad” people can coast into and through favorable circumstances not by their own efforts but by sheer dumb “luck.”

Even more perversely, if measured by outcomes, sometimes the “wrong” decision is the right one or vice-versa.

Deciding to blow your child support on Powerball tickets instead of food seems like a bad idea. But eventually someone somewhere does end up with the winning numbers…

Stretching your household dollars by buying ground beef instead of caviar seems reasonable. But maybe there’s a soon-to-be-announced meat recall that won’t happen soon enough to do your family any good…

I think if I were to write these kinds of books, I would write at least two outcomes for every point of decision. Then I would package the book with dice.

Make your decision, then roll the bones to determine the next pages as you ponder the fundamental question:

Do I feel lucky?

2015

How do you make the old year new?

You can’t really. That’s what makes New Year’s Day and all the sanguine emphases on fresh starts, resolutions, and clean slates a bunch of malarkey.

Debt, sickness, and other concerns that were serious issues at the end of the old year will likely — barring some Lifetime Movie Miracle — still remain issues in the beginning of the New Year; the unbroken flight of the temporal arrow shooting through our arbitrary divisions with indifference.

I made a pledge when we moved out here to “get involved” and I have pushed myself harder than I ever have before.

2014 did have some good points, the kind of points of which my husband tells me I should be proud: my writing has gotten more exposure; I’ve been involved with numerous non-profits, boards, and committees; and I’m now an assistant editor for a literary journal.

All of the above, though, are non-paying.

My current full-time paying work doesn’t pay enough – not even close – and is physically, emotionally, and psychologically draining. I’ve had worse adherence to my medication regimen than I’ve had in years, I’ve unintentionally lost about 30lbs so far, and my finance-related stress is at an all-time high.

Yeah, sure, money isn’t everything and lack of it shouldn’t diminish the value of other things, the things that truly matter. And it doesn’t. But it certainly overshadows them, eclipsing the joy they bring as I stare into a new year that is simply the old year continued.

So how do you start a New Year when you are still wounded and bleeding from the previous year without a tourniquet in sight?

One-half of that start I reckon is waking up. Not everyone does. Not everyone did.

Another half is staying up. Not everyone does that either.

Although “the thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night,” it is day now. I’m both awake and plan to stay up.

So I regroup, write this post, and try to think of ways I can push myself even harder in 2015.

I check my e-mail and see a creative prompt from Poets and Writers: the first one of the year in their weekly writing exercises series The Time is Now.

It always is, isn’t it?

Until it’s not.

Fostering Useful Labels

Labeling JD Fox (a blog video supplement)

There is a current nonsensical mantra in the queer and questioning community that chants some variation of “Don’t label me.” Like its equally imbecilic sibling “Don’t discriminate,” it has obvious good intentions with its attempt at breaking down assumptions:

Sexuality is fluid, so don’t make assumptions about my orientation; gender and gender expression are fluid, so don’t make binary assumptions about my gender; my identity is my own, so don’t make assumptions that you know me.

All certainly laudable goals; however, the “don’t” command is misinformed about human nature, misguided in its efforts to improve society, and ultimately self-defeating.

The catalyst for this particular post is the character Jude (nicely played by Hayden Byerly) in the TV series The Fosters. There are many wonderfully ambiguous yet queer positive scenes with Jude expressing his individuality (nail polish) and drawing homophobia out with specifics (what if I was gay?). However, I saw a scene the other night where Jude gave his friend Connor the don’t label me speech that is so common nowadays and walk away like he has made some major higher-ground point.

Such rhetoric misses an important fact about labeling — that we cannot help but label – and takes the conversation into an absurd territory: one of trying to not label rather than one of trying to develop the skill of using labels more wisely and realizing when we are not doing so.

Considering our evolution in simplified fashion helps illustrate this.

A one cell-organism “labels” (in quotes because no neurons yet to actually “think” this) its immediate environment as “hospitable” or “hostile”. Based on this label, it either stays put if the former, or, if the latter, tries to move to a different environment to the extent that its rudimentary locomotive ability allows.

Add some cells to give more specific sensory input. Such inputs have value because of the labels they encourage: In a hostile environment, the original “hospitable” label as being “a point away from here” becomes modified to distinguishing “Over there A” from “Over there B” with one or the other being assigned a label of “better”; i.e. more hospitable.

Onward we move up the life scale. Some of our first labels were sweeping, diametrically opposed ones: Edible, not edible. Will try to eat me, won’t try to eat me. Something I want to screw. Something that wants to screw me.

Over time, neural networks became more sophisticated, allowing labels like good worker, dependable, or that boy over there is hot. It also allows us to see how others might label us and act accordingly: if I do x, my boss will label me as a good worker; If I do y my neighbor will label me as dependable; or if I do z, that boy over there will label me as hot.

We are labeling machines by construction with discerning eyes and discriminating tastes. Our ability to simultaneously make fine distinctions and grand generalizations is one-half the trademark of our intelligence, allowing us to thrive.

The other half, which likely came much later, is the ability to continually revise both. Revision is key to everything. For revision is what allows us to recognize our labels for the expedient means they are and not mistake them for some sort of permanent truth.

Mistaking a label for truth is at the heart of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and any other type of labeling gone awry. It is not the labeling itself, but the inability – whether deliberate or otherwise — to revise such labels in a productive way that is problematic.

Connor, being human, will continue to label Jude in multiple ways, well beyond gay or not gay to encompass labels like “doesn’t want to discuss his sexuality” or “is touchy about his sexuality” or “someone who gets mad at me for trying to understand him” (just like Jude, also being human, will likewise label Connor as “homophobic” or “someone with a father who is homophobic” or “someone who is invading my personal space.”)

When conversations end like the one Jude had with Connor, the labeling doesn’t stop; it can’t in fact stop, which is the main point of this post. But the fruitful potential for revision does indeed get truncated.

What if instead, the conversation played out something like this:

Jude: Don’t label me.

Connor: Okay, okay. Sorry. I wasn’t trying to… it’s just… how do you feel about me?

The conversation – and subsequent label revisions – could go a hundred different ways from this new point of departure. The best path for revision is reversing label direction, going from the original generalization to the specific.

For you can’t tell me that Jude’s adversity here to being labeled by Connor means that he does not have internal labels of his own, such as one classifying Connor as a boy he likes in that certain way or doesn’t like in that certain way.

It is no longer the generalized label of “gay” or “not gay” but instead the specific label of “that particular boy” or “not that particular boy.” Out of such specifics new labels get built or old ones revised. That is why exposure to diversity and conversations about diversity and learning about diverse people transform our thinking — our label making — in positive ways.

“Don’t label me” is as useless as it is moronic. Far better, far more useful, is “Be cautious with your labels as you might mistake them for truth and lose your ability to revise them.” But that is not as sound-bitey as the former.

So maybe we should phrase it another, more inviting way:

“Hi, there. I’m JD. Tell me about yourself.”