June 19, 2006

Domo Arigato, Mistress Ho-Boto!

It almost feels like my 20s and 30s never happened! With all these fashions and styles coming back from the 70s, here I am at 42 and not at all surprised that suddenly roller derby leagues are springing up everywhere, even in my current town of Albuquerque. Anyone who was slightly conscious during the 70s has to remember roller derby. Featuring hot chicks in hotpants or miniskirts on roller skates traveling around a circular track beating the hell out of one another in a pro-wrestling kind of way, the roller derby packed drama and action that engaged the attentions of many a horny pubescent male. I happened to be in junior high and high school when roller derby was on the air, and I would watch mostly to get the thrill of female flesh flying around and perhaps, oh just perhaps, a peek up the skirt. After all, this was marketing to men in the age of sexual freedom, and women did not have the athletic opportunities to which we are accustomed today, particularly in sports involving physical contact through hitting. So, seeing a mock athletic contest (and I say mock in only the loosest terms, because those roller derby pioneers had to be athletes to time their blocks, take falls and choreograph their moves like they did) at that time was something new and interesting, even if it wasn't going to attract ratings like the Super Bowl or the World Series.

Of course, that all went away as we became more aware of the exploitation of women as objects. Women moved into the mainstream of sports, and today we are much more open and accepting of women as athletes, and powerful ones at that. We enjoy seeing them perform and succeed in sports that, in the 70s and before, were exclusive to or dominated by men, like basketball, soccer and other sports.

But women competing in physical contact sports has always remained in the dark corners of society, although now it is becoming more common. New pioneers are beginning to appear. There are now full-contact women's football teams, Holly Holm is a world champion boxer here in Albuquerque with the chance to potentially make millions of dollars as boxing's next star, and women are even getting into the professional wrestling circuit (though I think they are still considered oddities). I think society sees something that is both disturbing and exciting when women smack each other around in the name of competition. It goes against most of our traditional expectations of women; that they are caregivers and nourishers. Despite our enjoyment of movie and television portrayals of ass-kicking female icons like Buffy and Dark Angel, the women of the X-men and so on, we have trouble reconciling these two visions of the feminine. Either women are ass-kickers, and somewhat scary but exciting, or providers and nourishers and therefore easier to relate to. So how do we reconcile these two sides of the feminine?

Enter our friend, the irrepressible Tiffany. She talked Megan and I out to Midnight Rodeo, one of those country juke joints with the circular dance track around the bar in the middle, to see a Duke City Derby bout between the Ho-Bots and the Doomsdames. Little did I know that Tiffany was leading me to a socio-cultural lesson (and neither did Tiffany, I believe). I went expecting a comic and over-the-top show much like roller derby in the 70s, and in many ways I wasn't disappointed. The skating sirens of the league dressed in wild costumes. The Ho-Bots, as their name implied, wore metallic short skirts or shorts with fishnet stockings, often torn in places, and went by names such as R2-Beat-U, Vixenator, and Molotov Cocktease. The Doomsdames sported a post-apocalyptic style, also tight and somewhat revealing, and tended to have shorter styled hair and names such as Mortal Wombat, Apocalicious and Cynderblock. Penalties were enforced by Hot Wheelz, of the local burlesque troupe Burlesque Noir, dressed in a leather thigh-high dress, and consisted of the offender locked stocks during a match and mock-whipped. The two worst offenders were instructed to spin a wheel, and to participate in the contest the arrow settled upon -- in this case musical chairs in which a stool was set on the ground. Music was played, and when the music stopped a free-for-all ensued between the two contestants both trying to grab the stool until one of them won by straddling the now upended piece of furniture.

The winner of that mini-contest, and my new heroine, was the disturbingly named vixen, Dahmernatrix. (Side note: When I lived in Milwaukee, in the mid-late 80s, it turned out that I lived just 4 or 5 blocks from Jeffrey Dahmer, so the name has some close-to-home meanings for me)

Both Tiffany and I picked Dahmernatrix as our favorite skater independently of each other. Captain of the Ho-Bots, Dahmernatrix had to watch her team lose that day despite her efforts. Serving as the jammer, or the team member whose job it is to pass skaters from the other team and earn points while avoiding getting blocked or knocked down, she consistently sailed around, between and among the pack, scooting out front and doing some blocking of her own. Unfortunately, some of her other team members weren't up to the task that day. "Newbies," she explained to us later after the match. "We'll practice with them this next month and get them used to falling, getting knocked around and giving it back."

When Dahmernatrix agreed to come over after the bout and meet us, Tiffany became extremely excited. Tiffany said it was her best day since Pika Brittlebrush named her in her blog as one of the girls she (Pika) would do. Dahmernatrix was very accommodating and warm, and Tiffany was simply gushing with superlatives about her. Dahmernatrix was nice enough to talk to us about roller derby, her team's loss, injuries, and roller derby leagues in general. She posed for pictures with both me and Tiffany, though I sadly learned today that my picture with her was lost. Megan asked Dahmernatrix if it is true that her day job is spent working at a homeless shelter, and her affirmative answer really pushed her high in my estimation. Okay, yes, I developed a slight crush on Dahmernatrix.

I found myself not only entertained by these women flying around a track at breakneck speed and getting into 3-4 lady pileups, but also impressed at how seriously they took this sport. Though it has its promotional and comic trappings, the participants are dead serious and deathly competitive. Roller derby to them is serious business, as it is to many of their fans who pack Midnight Rodeo once a month during their season.

Thus, the two visions of the feminine, the caregiving and provider versus the ass-kicking competitor, is reconciled in women like Dahmernatrix, roller derby queen and symbol of the 21st century woman, strong and competitive. Yes she can kick ass -- taking the scrapes and falls and inadvertant elbows. And she can give it all back, with her fortitude revealing itself as she throws herself around the track and knocks into her opponents, around and around until her legs can barely support her. The delight in her face before, during and after a battle indicates how much she loves the physicality of her chosen sport. And her costuming, somewhat trashy and sexy at the same time, further proves that real-life ass-kicking women can do it all with panache and humor.

But Dahmernatrix measures up to all those other expectations we typically and often unfairly hold to women. She serves as an example to the newer members of the team without denigrating them for their lack of experience. She takes the time to talk to complete strangers who obviously know nothing about roller derby. But the biggest indication is that her day job is helping homeless men and women at a shelter. Here is a woman who for fun is willing to risk bruises, scrapes, and breaks in physical combat with other women, but who spends most of her meaningful time helping others.

It is interesting that I never learned Dahmernatrix's real name, and probably won't, because while the derby girls consider their roller derby personas their alter-egos, their real lives are a mystery to the rest of us and may be very different than what they portray in their derby characters. We get to know both Clark Kent AND Superman in the comics and movies -- but here I only get to know Dahmernatrix, or Molotov Cocktease, and whatever those characters choose to reveal to me in performance and maybe snippets of conversation after the bout.

As fans of sports, and casual observers, we as society are always happy and a bit surprised when male star athletes do not behave like spoiled millionaires -- when football, basketball and baseball stars do not act like jerks and do something valuable, like acts of charity and selflessness, that we don't expect of them. We think differently about women; we expect them to be selfless and charitable more often. In this modern world, we now are pleasantly surprised when they go against these types and bring out their inner warriors. We are a little taken aback and more than a little curious when we see them enjoy hitting and being hit in competition. It's refreshing, and fun, takes women out of the stereotypes we have put on them and reveals them as more complete beings. Keep enlightening us, Derby Girls! Push the envelope, Dahmernatrix! I've now become your fan. Domo Arigato, Mistress Ho-Boto!

June 16, 2006

One Plant to Rule Them All

Last year I let my garden go to seed. It wasn't by design, it was sheer laziness. I wasn't good about pinching off the basil flowers, and I let the cilantro go. Finally, sometime around October or November, I pulled out the dry tomato plants, the dead cilantro stalks and the dried basil plants.

Again, sloth kept me from starting the garden until about mid-May, a little late. I had this grand scheme to clear an area in the vacant lot next door and start a garden, and sometime in March I actually called the owner to see if he would give me permission to do it. He did, but then I found out about two weeks later that there was a plan in the works to sell the lot, so I figured I had better not start my garden lest I lose it.

In May, Megan persuaded me to get off my butt one weekend and go down to a garden store that she had profiled in the New Mexico Business Weekly. The article covered Trees that Please, which not only sold plants but also this magic dirt formula of bacteria, fungi and humus that rejuvenates soil. We went down and Megan sort of went nuts on plants. She likes tomatoes, so we ended up with 12 tomato plants of different varieties. We also came home with 8 yellow pepper plants, 2 basil plants, a thyme plant and a rosemary plant.

You must understand...we don't have a lot of space for a garden. We have probably a 4 foot square box, really, that was suitable to put plants in, and we had way more plants than would fit into it. The rest of the yard at the house we rent, both front and back, is xeriscaped save for a plot of grass in the back yard. So, I dutifully set out making space. Along the cinderblock fence at the side of the house, where the box is, I cut out about 15 feet of the plastic underneath the soil, to a width of about a foot, and folded it back to expose the ground underneath. I then turned the soil and raked it. Megan had bought some of the magic dirt formula, and I added this to the soil and watered it. The next day, I began planting. The tomatoes went along the fence, the peppers, basil and thyme in the box. I found a place for the rosemary farther down the fence, and made room for the two extra pepper plants along there. I then started daily watering in the early morning.

Once I get into gardening, I get into it. My father was an inveterate gardener who had a huge plot of vegetables each year. He grew corn, potatoes, lettuce, squash, beans, peas, carrots, asparagus, all kinds of things. Gardening was one of the few skills I picked up from my dad, because I would help him in spurts from start to finish -- hoeing and spading, weeding, harvesting -- at least enough that I knew the process. And as I get older, I find that gardening, which used to be such a chore for me when I was a young kid, is actually extremely rewarding to me mentally and spiritually. I truly believe that my father, who was an alcoholic and a pretty unhappy man overall, had some of his best moments in his garden, and even now across the years, it is one of the last ways I have to connect to the better memories of him.

I began, halfway joking, to call my garden "My Precious." In my best Gollum voice, I would tell Megan at about 7:30 a.m., "I'm going out to check on....MY PRRRRRRRECIOUSSSSSSSSSSSS!" Soon, we began using that term all the time about the garden. My sister Pauline called one day, and Megan said she'd get me, that I was out with my precious. Pauline was very confused.

The plants began to take off, and currently Precious consists of a number of healthy tomato plants, and all but one of the pepper plants are doing well -- one even has a nicely growing pepper on it! The two basil plants we purchased are going to town, and the rosemary and thyme are holding their own.

There was one thing I didn't expect. Just last week I went out early one morning to water, the weeds began to catch my eye. I gotta do something about that, I thought. I kneeled down and began to pull out some weeds growing around the basil when all of a sudden, a familiar scent from the first plant I pulled out came to my nostrils. I looked again. Suddenly, I noticed all of these little basil plants coming up all over the place in the box! Then I looked a little, and a few of the plants I assumed were weeds were actually cilantro sprouts!

These were the remnants of my last year's garden, and since then, more have sprung up in the most unlikely locations, spread around by the wind and most likely my shovel. Over amongst the tomatoes along the fence, I've found cilantro and basil sprouting there, mixed in among the weed sprouts. Since that area was xeriscaped until I cut the plastic and folded it back, I can only assume that the seed got there by a combination of nature and my efforts to turn the soil.

I had saved some cilantro seed from last year, and last week I planted it in the box in an unused area along the edge. This week, my row of cilantro is coming up too -- to join its relatives that are spread all over the rest of the garden. But so far the basil is the star, and if it continues to grow at the rate it is, we'll be having a lot of "Precious" pesto this year!

June 13, 2006

Doing the Chicken Dance on Central Avenue

This weekend contained probably the most live music that Megan and I have had in a while. I wasn't quite sure how we were going to make it through the weekend, given all the events that we had planned, but I trusted to fate and alcohol that we would make it through.

The weekend started with a trip up to Los Alamos after work to see Terri Hendrix. She is a singer-songwriter from Texas, and Megan and I used to travel up to the Cibolo Creek Country Club, a down-to-earth honest-to-god Texas dance hall and watch her play while drinking Shiner Bock as the trains shook the place on their way by. As an added attraction, Terri had her longtime side-man Lloyd Maines with her, who is a legend on the Texas music scene but is probably best known nationally for fathering Dixie Chicks vocalist Natalie Maines. The weather in Los Alamos was cool but clear as we drove up, and we were amazed to find that not many people had gathered for the event. It turned out that there was a nasty rainstorm that came through about an hour before, and that kept a lot of people away. I'd estimate that the crowd was about 100 later on. We had front row seats in our K-Mart chairs on the street, and had a great time listening to Terri's new and old music. We bought a couple of CDs, talked with Terri, and made the 1½ drive back to Albuquerque happy.

Saturday was Gay Pride day, and we went down to Central Avenue for the Pride parade, joining up with Megan's colleague Tiffany and her friends at Graze. The weather was hot, but the paraders beat the heat by dressing down considerably. Megan concentrated on blowing bubbles supplied by Tiffany toward the paraders which was a big hit -- a couple of drag queens squealed "We love bubbles!!!!" at her. I blew a whistle and got a hug from the PFLAG folks. All in all, it was a fine morning. We followed up that evening by going to the budget flicks to see V for Vendetta, which seemed to fit the theme of the day because Megan proclaimed "V" the gayest superhero ever. Though full of Wachowski brothers moralizing (who really talks like V?) Natalie Portman was beautiful and the movie was fun.

Sunday we got up very early and I ran, and Megan walked, the Komen Run/Walk for Breast Cancer Awareness. My time was not that great, but it was a good cause. Afterward, we came home and Megan made a couple of her famous quiches which we took to Tiffany's monthly brunch. We socialized with a bunch of the glitterati of ABQ's young set, including the director of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, famed for calling Republicans a bunch of "punk-ass bitches." Megan's quiche was again a hit, and we left Kristen's house (where Tiffany's brunch was held) with tummies full of food and Mimosas.

We made our way down to the Launchpad on Central at about 6:30 p.m. Due to a misunderstanding about what an "all ages show" actually means, we had to run Megan home to get her I.D., and then come back. It didn't matter. Our goal was to see Brave Combo, another band we had gotten to know in Texas. They have a national following, and while they tend to concentrate on playing "nuclear polka" they can do practically anything in any style -- just witness their hard rocking version of the Hokey Pokey. The highlight of the night was a walk out to Central Avenue where we did their version of the Chicken Dance for the cruisers passing back and forth along the street. When I mean "their version of the Chicken Dance" I mean the Chicken Dance so fast you can't possibly keep up with them. I haven't danced so much since I sat down on a fire ant mound when we lived in San Antonio, and this time it was much more fun! You can hear some of their music here: http://brave.com/bo/sounds/

All in all, it was a great weekend, and we were dead tired by Sunday evening.

June 06, 2006

Angry Bitter Man

I am a little angry this week. First, I want someone to tell me why we continue punishing people after their crime has been paid for? Let me explain the basis for the question. Megan and I mentor a young woman who made some bad choices in life and ended up with a felony drug conviction. After serving her sentence in prison, partaking of prison programs to become clean and to better herself, she was released into the community. A team of three of us, Megan, myself and another young woman, met with our "mentee" once a week for six months, and then once a month for another six months. She would tell us about her successes and her concerns, and we would try to help any way we could. Mostly, we could just offer her a sympathetic ear.

What a prisoner faces when they come out of prison, regardless of whether they want to reform or not, is a lifetime of discrimination and neglect. Prisoners are turned out of the prison with little more than what they came in with. They must try to find a place to live that will meet the criteria set out by their parole or probation officer. They must make periodic meetings with their parole or probation officer, regardless of their transportation situation. They must try to find a job to earn their keep. If the former prisoner is serious about trying to stay clean, sober, and out of jail, they often go to regular meetings and try to further their education.

Yet these people suffer a lot of discrimination, and as far as our federal and state governments are concerned, that's just fine. Employers can refuse to hire them. Landlords can refuse to rent to them. Often their only recourse is to run right back into the hands of those people that will prey on them. Many times, after trying to maintain themselves to conform to society, they find that the cards are stacked against them, and go back to crime. Of course, this simply perpetuates the notion that they were not to be trusted in the first place. Yet we (as in society) never gave them a chance.

This has been on my mind since I learned that our mentee, who has kept herself on the straight and narrow since getting out of prison, was let go from her job in a nursing home after a federal review of the employment records of the place. Let me give you some background. Our mentee, since coming out of prison, has maintained a rigorous schedule of NA/AA meetings. She got a job at the university food service, and was an excellent employee, but did not want to stay in food service because she wanted more pay and more satisfying position. She got an apartment in startedin an apartment complex for returning prisoners, and participated in their activities and met their weekly requirements for meetings. Later, she found a boyfriend and moved in with him, and they are in the process of buying a house together. During this whole time, her whole focus has been to turn her life around. She has a sister who is still caught up in the throes of drug and alcohol abuse, and she has minimized her contact with her sister in order to not be tempted by being around. For all intents and purposes, she has been fully embarked on the road to true reform and recovery.

Recently, she landed the job that she wanted -- a nursing home assistant. The people who hired her were fully aware of her past, but she came with high recommendations from everyone and the supervisor was excited to hire her. Of course, working in a nursing home entails some risks for a former drug/alcohol addict -- there is access to drugs in a nursing home. However, as she had shown no sign of wanting ever to return to her former way of life, the nursing home took a gamble and hired her.

However, a federal review of the nursing home led to a review of her application after she was hired. My wife and I and a number of other people wrote letters on her behalf to the agency that was conducting the review. None of this mattered, and she lost her job.

My question is this. How long can we continue to marginalize people who have paid their debt to society, but continue to pay long past their sentences have been served? So many of our historical and religious traditions tell stories like "The Prodigal Son" where someone who has made previous bad choices has been able to redeem him or herself. It takes the person who has made the choices to make a new choice that changes his or her old behavior. It also takes the forgiveness and compassion of those who he or she may have wronged. However, it seems we forget these old tales. Our society basically tells people coming back from prison that they are worthless scum, dumps huge obstacles in their way when they try to reform, and then shakes its head in satisfaction and says "I told you so," when they fall.

I'm not arguing that there aren't people who are unredeemable. Certainly, some people will never overcome their problems -- and a few people are simply too dangerous to society to let free. But how many would change if they were just given a chance? If they were allowed to continue a job, or get an apartment? How many simply fail because our lack of pity and understanding drive them back into the vicious circle of destructive behaviors? We often say if they prove themselves we'll trust them, but then we do everything we can to ensure that they can't succeed.

I hope that our mentee has the mental, spiritual and physical fortitude to continue her amazing progress despite the obstacles. Right now, she is working in a call center which she absolutely hates, but she must to survive. Her punishment continues.

Second, someone please explain this to me. My wife had a minor surgical procedure earlier this year. She got a bill from the hospital -- it seems that our insurance refused to pay part of it because the anesthesiologists that were brought in were not in the network. You have got to be kidding. On the bed, as they are pumping drugs into her to knock her out, my wife is supposed to ask "Hey, are you in network? Because if you aren't, you can't be my anesthesiologist!" WTF? How many of you would think of that?

What nobody has explained to me is just how a nationalized health system would be so terribly terribly bad. As far as I can tell, it can't be any worse than what we have now. Every medical visit for 20 minutes becomes at least a week of straightening out insurance screw-ups. If you like trading your precious time and sitting on the phone with your insurance company instead of spending that time more productively, all the power to you. But the problem is, not only does the insurance company screw up, they then blame it on you, and make it extremely difficult to fix. I'd trade my choice of doctors that only see me for 20 minutes (actually 15 if I'm lucky) for not having to deal with insurance problems.

Third, Megan got dinged on her credit report. Why? Because Entergy in New Orleans sent us a bill about a year after we moved from there, saying that it was overdue. Evidently we were supposed to get it sooner and it never arrived, therefore this bill was the first notice we ever got. We talked to Entergy, made payments on the bill, and forgot about it.

Every year or so, Megan pulls her credit report, and discovered that she had been downgraded. Evidently, despite the fact that we worked in good faith with Entergy once the error was realized, they reported it to the credit reporting companies as a "charge off." Which means, essentially, that they told the credit reporting agencies that we never paid the bill. Megan talked with Entergy and with Equifax, one of the credit agencies, and the error was corrected. But Experian, the other credit agency, refused to correct the error. When Megan tried to call them, she could never get a live person to talk to. When she filled out the forms on line for an investigation, Experian simply sent her a form saying that they had reviewed the complaint and they weren't changing it. Now, Entergy has to tell Experian that they made a mistake, and they seem to be dragging their heels on it.

Who are these faceless corporations that hold our credit ratings in their hands? They are sure quick to respond to a company's report of something wrong with a customer, but they refuse to correct mistakes on behalf of a customer even when documentation is presented. How does one ever get their credit ratings adjusted?

You've got to wonder if a backlash will ever happen...

June 02, 2006

A Sore Butt on Memorial Day Weekend

Cactus flowers in bloom on McKittrick RidgeAs far as I know, Texas, despite its huge size, has very few national parks. When we lived in San Antonio, we managed to drive the 8 hours to Big Bend National Park, which because of its remote location and its wide variety from low desert to almost alpine conditions, rapidly became one of our favorite parks.

However, looming on the northern horizon were the Guadalupe Mountains, Texas' other national park. We were always curious but never able to to make arrangements to get there. However, fortune presented us with the opportunity this Memorial Day. Megan had to attend a conference of cross-border business in Chihuahua, Mexico the day before Memorial Day. On Thursday night, she drove down to Santa Teresa, just north of El Paso, and grabbed a bus with other conference attendees to Chihuahua while I batched it at home. On Friday, I took an evening plane to El Paso and met Megan in a slightly worn motel called the Cliff Inn. We got some awesome, and I do mean awesome, Tex-Mex food at a joint called La Questa while being serenaded by a guy on guitar, drum machine and foot pedals. Evidently they didn't get too many Anglos in the place, because you could almost hear the needle scratching off the record machine when we walked in. But the food was great, and I suspect the musician switched over to some music to satisfy us -- we heard La Bamba and a Mexican version of a U.S. country and western hit.

Mike looking over McKittrick CanyonThe next morning -- Saturday -- we got some breakfast at another local Mexican place. We ordered chilaquiles, a favorite of ours from our Texas days, but Megan was disappointed because she thought they were supposed to have eggs and they didn't. Besides that, the spices were burning her nose hairs off. After breakfast, we shopped for camping food, and then we were off to the Guadalupes.

The Guadalupe Mountains, unlike a lot of the other features in West Texas and New Mexico, are not volcanic in origin. They are the remnants of a 270 million year old reef from when the area was under a vast sea. They run in a crescent through West Texas and southern New Mexico, and Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas at over 8000 feet. We could see them on the horizon for about 50 miles or more, and driving close to them you can see just how massive they are. Geologically they are very impressive.

The first two campgrounds were full, meaning that we had to drive 60 miles around, passing by the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, to come back into Texas to the third and last campground. Fortunately, they took us in despite the fact that the tent camping was full also...they let us pitch the tent in the RV section.

On Sunday, we made the big hike from Dog Canyon up to a trail junction, and then decided to continue onward on the McKittrick Ridge trail until we got tired. The trail wound along the top of the ridge above the spectacular McKittrick Canyon. Unfortunately, we could not hike long enough to get farther along the canyon, but what we saw was pretty awe inspiring. The wind was very strong at the top of the ridge, and the sun was also strong. I got sunburned where I was less than vigilant about my suntan lotion.

All in all, we hiked about 8 hours through some rugged and beautiful country. The trails on top were relatively smooth, but going up and down were very rocky. By the time we got back to the tent, Megan was complaining about her thighs and my butt muscles were very sore (probably because I was the designated pack animal and carrying the backpack with the lunch and water).

Megan in wind on McKittrick RidgeWe drove out Monday, taking back roads through the interior of New Mexico. We stopped for lunch in Cloudcroft, a cutesy, touristy, ski lodgy type of town filled with stores that cater to the rich and famous that visit there during ski season. We drove along the east edge of White Sands National Monument, with a promise to visit there soon, and along the north edge of the missile range where the first atomic bomb was tested. We got home after about 8 hours of driving, sore and tired, but ultimately refreshed.