In defense of a city, not a sports team

My username for WordPress isn’t kaleshot  — it’s DCsaxa. This is a play on my alma mater’s slogan, “Hoya Saxa,” which when translated means “What Rocks.” So, you can do the wordmath: DCsaxa is my ode to DC. DC rocks.

It took me a long time to come to this conclusion. When I arrived in DC in 2007, I knew virtually nothing about the city. I immediately fell in love with Georgetown, a neighborhood filled with bookstores, cafes, achingly beautiful homes, running trails, a world-class waterfront park, and so much more. But the rest of the city seemed, in 2007, to lack a definitive character. DC is obviously a city of transients — I saw it plainly when, in the first few seasons of the new Nationals baseball team, friends only wanted to go a game when the Nats were playing their real baseball team, the one from an actual place with actual fans. Everybody knows that thousands of people drop into DC for a few years to putter around on Capitol Hill before heading back to their home state. We joke that the first question you get asked at a bar is either, “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?” — something that I’m sure, if I waltzed into a bar in Cleveland, Madison, Austin, or maybe even a big city like Chicago, wouldn’t be an immediately obvious inquiry.

Meridian Hill Park, one of my favorite spots in the DC I know and love.

Meridian Hill Park, one of my favorite spots in the DC I know and love.

But after hanging out here for close to six years, I stand by “DC saxa” — because this city is really great. Beyond the National Mall, there’s Meridian Hill Park. There’s the constantly-evolving strip of restaurants on 14th Street that’s got me emptying my wallet every weekend, there’s Embassy Row west of Dupont Circle that challenges my flag knowledge, there are the tiny commercial districts in Mt. Pleasant and Petworth, there’s Rock Creek Park and the National Botanical Gardens and a bevy of rooftops with really amazing views of our monuments, which, let’s face it, we never get tired of looking at.

So I think that’s why I’m so upset about the apparent hometown apathy over the re-naming crisis surrounding the Redskins football team. The facts are very clear: The name “Redskins” is racist. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t raised to understand that; the people to whom the name refers, Native Americans, find it hurtful and racist, and therefore it is.

Should a White American decide which words ought to offend Black Americans, deciding that maybe one is alright, while another is inappropriate? Should a non-Asian American decide which slurs are offensive to Asian Americans, and which ones aren’t? Absolutely not! If a word offends, if it’s been used historically as a pejorative, if it’s indicative of years of repression, and in the case of Native Americans, genocide — then in what world should it represent one of the largest football franchises in the country? And worse, in what world should the team’s own fans want that name to remain?

It’s hard enough living in a city that I must constantly defend to outsiders.

No, the historic surplus that the city of Washington currently enjoys isn’t a result of federal largesse. Actually, it’s more like speed cameras, parking tickets, and income taxes. No, we don’t ALL work for the federal government, we aren’t ALL lackeys of some ineffective Congressperson or another, we don’t ALWAYS argue about tax policy and we aren’t ALL entitled, smug 20-somethings marching into Northern Virginia and DC to push out all of the long-time residents and brazenly ignore the culture that actually pre-dated our own privileged existence in the Nation’s capital.

And on top of all of that — no, we aren’t ALL racists, but what are we telling the rest of our country when 79% of the franchise’s fans are polled and say they think the name should stay the same? Do Redskins fans want their team to be known for the awe-inspiring prowess of RGIII or for a name that offends an already-repressed group of people? Do we want to become the mockery of the Nation when our team makes it to the Superbowl and this is all anybody can focus on? Do we want to have to defend THIS on top of every other wrongful insult that’s hurled our way?

Isn't the team about this guy, and all the other guys that constantly sell out FedEx Field?

Isn’t the team about this guy, and all the other guys that constantly sell out FedEx Field?

My last point is this: Sometimes you aren’t raised to understand that one word or another is bad. When I was in high school, I heard a slur that I didn’t realize was one, and thought for a good while that it was just a funny word. To this day, I have to consciously remind myself that the word IS a slur, even if it doesn’t sound a red alarm, knee-jerk-reaction in my brain the way more obvious slurs, like the n-word, do. Just like learning to walk again, where one must physically, consciously will your muscles to move rather than have them shift along in a completely subconscious manner, we as a city must consciously will ourselves to understand that “Redskins” is racist, if it won’t just come naturally.

The attitude of Washingtonians and Northern Virginians who can so breezily dismiss the origins of the word after it’s been plopped in front of them in the most obvious, articulate, clear-cut manner possible, saddens me. This is a great place, a city and region that’s too often dismissed, ridiculed, and shot down for reasons I constantly fight against in conversations with locals and non-locals alike.

Don’t let our football team prove any of the haters right.

And, as always, DC saxa.

Scenes of summertime

So I went camping and white-water rafting this weekend, and here’s the only proof I’ve got that it even happened:

campfire

Check out that campfire! Xavier and I eschewed lame lighter fluid and Duraflame logs and instead went for the old-school stack of firewood, tiny lighter, and the cardboard from a PBR 12-pack to get this baby going. It’s mostly Xavier’s accomplishment, as I generally just provided firewood-teepee-building support with the occasional breath to fan the flames.

Sandwiched in between two evenings of camping (note to self: bring flashlight next time) was a full day of rafting, which was really terrific. In recent years, I’ve spent more time on the Potomac River near Harper’s Ferry than I’d prefer, fearlessly battling Class I and II rapids with friends who had never been in whitewater before. So it was refreshing to get back on a Class III-IV river, and with the water level about 5′ higher than is average for June, we were treated to some delightfully huge waves to our faces.

It’s spectacular to get out in the woods and in the outdoors in general in these golden days before DC becomes swamped in heat, the mosquitos raging and the thought of walking outside inciting dread, not excitement. We’re still about a month or so away from the doldrums of summer, when you get your fifth burn and you’re finally ready to call it quits with the sun and tell the damn thing to hide out for a few months while your skin stops peeling.

I love this time of year. I love the sudden spring thunderstorms — even if I don’t love the over-the-top coverage the DC area tends to give any weather abnormality — and I love seeking out rooftops, be they bars or apartments, for post-work drinks. I love feeling totally justified in spending $100 on a few new sundresses because I swear to myself that I’m really going to stop just wearing running shorts and tank tops this summer, and instead I’ll don wedges and flared skirts and colorful chunky jewelry, all of which sounds great until the thermometer hits 100* and you’d really rather just be naked.

I love sleeping outside and being able to see the stars in places like Ace campgrounds, where Xavier and I stayed this past weekend. I love the long days that stretch mildly on, and I love the outdoor movies and concerts that proliferate in this region (going to see The Goonies this week!).

Just last weekend, Xavier and I went down to Charleston, SC with my mother, and spent our Sunday evening reclining in lawn chairs, listening to the Red Stick Ramblers belt out Cajun-inspired bluegrass at the completely majestic Middleton Place plantation. The sun had already sunk in the sky, and there was a perfect moment when I was leaning back in my chair, sipping on a beer, and saw a couple in front of us, swing dancing to the music in perfect rhythm with each other. They were lit up in silhouette against the bright stage behind them, just two black shapes spinning around and around to the six-count beat of a fiddle-and-bow tune, and in the distance the plantation house stood watch. The scene was so quintessentially summer. And I loved it.

Scenes of South Carolina

Scenes of South Carolina

Cheers to you, summertime. You haven’t even officially begun yet, and I love you already. Let’s have fun for a month or so, until I’m sick and tired of you and aching for the fall. Until then, I’m off to find a mint julep and an excuse to wear a pretty new dress.

Books on books on books

bookclubI don’t normally share too much about every book I read, because most of them probably wouldn’t interest anybody but myself (seriously, Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder was really cool!). But! Yesterday, I finished The End Of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, and I just have to mention how terrific I thought it was.

There are obvious similarities between the author’s story and my own: In the book, he recounts the last two years of his mother’s life, in which she battled with and lost to pancreatic cancer. Many of the scenes describing the disruptive effects of chemotherapy were bitingly familiar, and his mother’s attitude toward it all — refusing to say she was in pain, but merely “uncomfortable,” — reminded me a great deal of the same attitude my father displayed when he was undergoing his own struggles with cancer.

But the other half of the story was a book about books. Will and his mother Mary Anne while away the two years in and out of doctor’s visits participating in their own secret two-person book club, and in doing so, the author re-lives the stories of countless novels that he and his mother debated, discussed, questioned, and enjoyed. Some of them I’d read, like The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I’ve waxed poetic about here before, but the vast majority of them were totally unfamiliar to me. Will’s book truly is a love affair with family, but also with books themselves.

So I finished The End Of Your Life Book Club in just 3 days, culminating in a marathon reading session in which I stuffed my face with a cupcake and no-bake cookies from Buzz Bakery and then shuffled over to the Arlington Central Library (god I love that place) to keep myself far away from more tempting sweets, and went at it (reading, that is, not stuffing my face) from about 4:45 yesterday afternoon until 6:30 at night.

Schwalbe accomplishes a number of things with TEOYLBC that have lingered with me over the last 24 hours, which is the best thing a book can do. First, his vivid descriptions of his mother’s extensive work with global refugees made me feel like I need to go somewhere outside of the US and start saving babies PRONTO or something if I want to make my life worth anything at all. Second, he reminded me that there’s SO MUCH MORE to read out there, and I’ll never possibly be able to make a dent in all of the knowledge I could potentially soak up in my lifetime. And finally, his words have inspired me to write, and in the last 72 hours of my Will Schwalbe immersion, I’ve developed an idea that I want very much to flesh out into written word, on paper or screen, and make something happen.

In conclusion, folks, I’m feeling inspired. Maybe I can’t save babies or do arts and crafts with lepers in a refugee camp just right this second, but I can keep devouring books and start thinking again about maybe writing one of my own. It’s on my 101 Things in 1,001 Days list after all. And it’s not like, um, I’m starting an intensive graduate program anytime soon or anything, so I should have plenty of time on my hands.

In the immortal words of the Black Eyed Peas, let’s get it started.

Getting my grains on

Oh. Shit.

After being berated by the brilliant mind behind the recipe blog Thug Kitchen to get my fucking act together and eat some good-ass food, I looked in my nearly-bare, haven’t-gone-shopping-in-2-weeks cupboards and realized I had every ingredient I needed to whip up his most recent dish: Quinoa Oatmeal. Considering the fact that at this point in my grocery shopping cycle, I’m usually reduced to having PB&Js with a side of green beans and a bowl of cereal for dinner, I was really impressed that I could make something maybe a little bit coherent. Screw the fact that this guy thinks Quinoa Oatmeal is only a breakfast dish. When you’re a 20-something person living on your own, every meal can be dinner. I’m looking at you, Eggos.

Anyways. I hate quinoa – like, I have tried to eat the damn food in fifty different ways to no avail – so I figured, why not try to hide it in a big pile of mushy oatmeal and some brown sugar? Seemed legit.

Courtesy of thugkitchen.com

Courtesy of thugkitchen.com

I had just enough time to throw the dish together and stuff it in my face before I had to run out the door, but stuff my face I did, and it actually turned out NOT SO BAD. The oatmeal, which I quite enjoy, nearly masked the taste of the quinoa, and since I threw in an ass-load of brown sugar and some nuts and dried fruits, I mostly felt like I was just eating a normal old bowl of oatmeal. Which I pretty much was, because let’s be honest, most of the recipes on Thug Kitchen cater to lazy bums like me and involve maybe, like, five ingredients. But I ate quinoa! And maybe next time, I’ll even eat a little bit more! TAKE THAT, SUPERFOOD.

My dish + fruit smoothie, standing proud next to Thug Kitchen.

My dish + fruit smoothie, standing proud next to Thug Kitchen.

A close-up of the goopey deliciousness.

A close-up of the goopey deliciousness.

So anyways. If you haven’t already, get your ass over to Thug Kitchen and feel bad about yourself for a hot second for not swapping out a tortilla wrap for lettuce leaves. If you can’t go full-on hippy vegan like this dude, at least throw some quinoa in a pot, boil some damn water, and eat some grains every once in awhile.

From Paris, with love

I don’t consider myself a Francophile by any stretch of the imagination, but lately, I’ve had Paris on the brain.

It may have started with the release of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third film following Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke’s spontaneous love affair that began in Before Sunrise and continued 10 years later in Before Sunset. I’m a big fan of Linklater’s work (Waking Life still intrigues me, years after my first viewing), and the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight films are as much a quiet, simple portrait of the evolution of love between two people as it is a quiet, simple portrait of Paris, the city they fall in love in.

Delpy and Hawke in "Before Sunset," being all kinds of romantic.

Delpy and Hawke in “Before Sunset,” being all kinds of romantic.

That, and there’s the fact that the last two books I’ve read have revolved around French culture. First, on parenting: Bringing Up Bebe takes a pseudo-journalistic approach to the observations of an American ex-patriot mother attempting to raise her rambunctious toddler in France’s nationalized childcare system. The world of French child-rearing includes day cares that offer up three-course meals at lunch to tiny humans who can barely lift a fork on their own, and French mothers who raise their noses in snide disbelief at moms who can’t get their kids to sleep through the night at 8 weeks.

Considering the fact that my plans to pro-create are still many years off, I’m not sure why I felt drawn to reading this book, which I first heard about over at Cup of Jo, except that knowledge is power, and the more I read about raising babies, the less of a rush I’m in to do it. But the aspects of French culture that the author draws upon as anecdotal evidence of the differences between American and French babies were fascinating to me. I loved the French tradition of baking together on Sundays, and getting small children involved to begin teaching them a healthy respect and love of good food at an early age. I thought it fascinating that French schools begin taking children on week-long trips with their teachers as early as five years old, because they trust that children can be separate from their parents for that length of time before they’ve even mastered simple math. And I appreciated the author’s emphasis on walking around the city with her daughter, letting Paris be her playground, in much the same way I’m sure New York moms and other urban families feel about how they’re bringing their children up.

Courtesy of theeverydayadventurer.com.

Courtesy of theeverydayadventurer.com.

Bringing Up Bebe brought me to a book on French eating habits, which the author referenced, called French Women Don’t Get Fat. Aside from the awkward title and the author’s nearly-insufferable snobbery, the book is jam-packed with awesome French cuisine recipes I’m eager to try. The tone of the book is much more negative toward Americans than was Bringing Up Bebe, probably because the author is a French-woman-living-in-America, rather than an American-woman-living-in-Paris, and thereby confirming some of the images I have in my mind of a tall, skinny woman in all black judging me when I mis-pronounce “croissant” at a swanky Parisian bistro.

baguette-tradition-paris

Nevertheless. What is it about Paris that persists in emanating some kind of romance, some sort of joi de vivre that’s most easily captured in an old Polaroid or the scratchy sounds of a record player? I blame filmmakers like Linklater, in part. But this recent small immersion into European, and specifically French, culture, has left me with a lingering sense of wanderlust that I can’t determine how to kick. I have some wonderful trips planned this summer, the furthest of which is at least on the Other Coast, but I’m not sure when my next foray to another country will be. It may be that the best thing to do right now is plot out a grand French meal I can cook for friends and practice my chocolate-ganache-making skills. Add in some red wine, which the French seem to wholeheartedly support, and I’m halfway there.

Notes on Letters

I wish I wrote more letters.

The art of letter-writing is endangered these days, and when you sift through archives of letters written 25, 50, 100 years ago, it seems as though language is elevated, thoughts are better articulated, and emotions are more strongly revealed. When I was 16 years old, a friend and I walked into an abandoned one-room shack in the middle of a field (yes, these things can happen when you live out in the country), and found a stash of curse-word-laced love notes written from one high school girl to her boyfriend, with whom she clearly had a child. My friend kept the love notes, and I bet they’re still tied up with a string in her closet somewhere. For years, my mother wrote letters to a soldier abroad whom she’d never met in real life. She still remembers his name, and wonders where he might be.

writing-a-letter

I find myself, every month or so, heading over to Letters of Note, an amazing compilation of letters from all walks of life that are at times hilarious, heartbreaking, stocked with wisdom, and mystifying. “To My Old Master,” an 1865 note from an emancipated slave responding to his old owner’s request to come back and work on his farm, is a work of beauty. I can only imagine the pleasure felt by the former slave when he politely requested that to even consider the offer, he would first require compensation of back wages + interest for both his and his wife’s years of servitude, plus a guarantee of a good education for his children. Even Tarantino can’t re-create that catharsis.

There’s a letter from poet Ted Hughes to his son Nick reminding him to embrace his childish self and live with passion, a letter from John Steinbeck assuring his college-aged son that being in love is a particularly beautiful thing, a letter from the creators of South Park describing in all-too-explicit detail to the MPAA what offensive jokes they took out and left in for the South Park movie, and my personal favorite, a letter from a screenwriter to MGM studios, asking for a job by way of describing all of the types of words he likes.

“I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty.”

But maybe my favorite corner of the Internet that’s filled with letters is the one that’s filled with my own. Years ago, I stumbled across FutureMe, a site that lets you write letters to yourself and then schedule delivery for any date in the future. I’ve received probably about 10 letters from myself since I was 15 years old, some sent just three weeks after I wrote them, others sent three years. More recently, I composed a letter in October 2010, two months before I graduated college, and sent it exactly one year into the future, to October 2011. The letter ended as such:

“Congrats on graduating, Alison. I hope you stick it out with that GPA– don’t fuck it up in this last semester. Stay friends with [X], [Y], [Z], and your housemates this year. Don’t let everyone go from college the way you did from high school. Try to keep ties alive, even if you don’t believe they care as much about you as you do them. You’re going to want to have friends to invite to your wedding, after all.

But most of all, I hope you’re kicking ass right now. I hope you’re financially stable, doing something you love, and happily in a relationship or alone, whichever suits you best. See you in a year!”

Try it. See how long you can stand to wait until you read the letter again, and send one off into the Internetsphere to float around for awhile and come back to you with your own reflections. You don’t even have to pay for postage.

On tornados and memories

Unless you’ve been hiding out in the corner of a windowless room without any Internet connection or friends, you’ve probably heard about the terrifying E4 tornado that struck Moore, OK, this week, pummeling two schools, a hospital, and countless homes such that a birds-eye-view of the place looks like one of my Sim Cities after I released an alien attack.

I always feel a pang of familiarity, however remote, toward those terrible photographs flashing across the news. When I was 8, a tornado ripped through my neighborhood in a giant, swirling green rainy wreck of a storm. The tornado was medium-strength, completely destroying about two dozen homes and damaging 500 more, and luckily producing no casualties — but to this day, I can still recall the stories that later emerged when we all came walking out of our homes, front doors swung wide open, staring at our neighbors in dazed confusion as we surveyed the damage. There was the lady in a nearby neighborhood who hid in the cupboard underneath her stairs as her house crumbled around her. There was my friend Libby who lived up the street, whose home had its second story and attic ripped off in the wind, flooding her entire first floor and taking every personal possession her family ever had. There was Kate, who told me about the entire back porch she saw fly past her living room window in what had to have been one of the more surreal things she’ll ever see in her life.

A street in my neighborhood after the storm.

A street in my neighborhood after the storm.

For years — seriously, years – after the tornado, I was deathly terrified of wind and storms. My ritual whenever one descended on our home was to hide in my bedroom, sheets and comforter actually pulled over my head, with all of the lights on and the radio blasting to drown out the claps of thunder and the whistle of the wind. I would hum or sing loudly and just hover in a ball in my makeshift tent. My bed at the time was in the center of my room; when, several years later, I re-arranged and moved it next to my window, I considered the decision a true feat of courage on my part.

But what I find most interesting about that tornado, and that night, is the sheer amount of detail that’s stuck nestled in my brain, seemingly for good. That evening, my elementary school was hosting a Roller Skate Night in town, and Dad and I were supposed to pick up my friend who lived up the street. Had we followed through with that plan, we would have been on the road in the exact path of the tornado right when it touched ground — but, with the weather as terrible as it was, my parents canned the plan and kept me at home for the night.

There was the game of Stratego that my sister and I were playing in the basement, as the windows started to vibrate and we noticed our playing pieces were falling over without our touch. There was the moment that she and I raced up the stairs to seek comfort from our parents just as they were racing down them to push us underneath a table in our ground-level basement, as far from the window as possible. There was my father, rushing over to put back in the windows when they blew into the room, as the drop ceiling panels started clattering to the floor, and me screaming at him to stay underneath the table, with all of the command that an 8-year-old can muster. There was the noise — the roaring, rushing wind that you had to shout to be heard over. There was the walk through the house afterwards, where every window had blown in, furniture was ruined, and the thick arm of a tree had fallen into my sister’s bedroom, smashing her windows and rendering the place unlivable for a number of weeks. I can still remember my mother telling me that she knew something was wrong when her ears started popping. I can still see her eyes, wide and worried, as she stopped Claire and I mid-way up the stairs and told us to turn back around and march right back down to the basement.

May 8, 2008 Tornado - 27

May 8, 2008 Tornado - 7

How have so many banal details — Roller Skate Night, that game of Stratego, Dad’s foolhardy decision to run over to the windows — stayed cozied away in my brain? Without even really realizing it, my mind just stored away all of the minutiae associated with what turned out to be a watershed event in my young life. I can still draw up the image in my mind and feel the same sense of panic I felt in those seconds when it became plainly obvious that the tornado was making its way right past our house, and we were at the mercy of its path.

Nobody in Moore, or Joplin, or anywhere that’s victim to a storm like that, will ever forget the banal details of every second leading up to the moment the tornado touched, or in the moments after. My heart goes out to Moore, and the families who are searching for children in the rubble of an elementary school. I can only feel a fraction of their pain, and I hope they all can find tiny moments down the road that are still worth holding on to.