Tag Archives: social justice

Peace, Love, Cat Videos

I’m working on my book about cat rescue, and one of the recurring themes is “Why do people rescue cats?” (Or dogs, but the undercurrent is, why do people “bother” to help animals at all?)15134332_1371938282817232_41046199_n-copy

And I guess there’s a cynical answer, and a real answer – I’m just not sure which is which.

On the one hand, Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” For those who reject Eastern wisdom, from the Bible it sounds like “What you do for the least of these my brethren you do for me” except some people will tell you Jesus was only talking about humans. You can also quote Martin Luther King, Jr: “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” In other words, do it because the powerless need defending, and because in defending the powerless we become blessed/empowered/alive/real.

That’s one answer. The other is, when everything around you is sliding out of control, if you only have something small in front of you that you can do to alleviate suffering, you should do it. Whatever it is. I can call DC and register my concerns, but I can’t single-handedly stop anything. Most of any “social justice activism” lifestyle comes down to adding our voices to a larger pot, not being a soloist hero.

When a cat is in front of you, and it’s sick or pregnant or cold, you can pick it up and take it to the vet. (Yeah yeah, nobody has any money; there’s more than one way to pay for a cat.) And it won’t suffer needlessly.

The world is going crazy. Kids have cancer. People hate each other. So I’m rescuing cats while Rome burns. Yeah. Okay. I’ll take it. It’s what’s in front of me, and I know how to do it. It makes a difference to the cat and the cat’s new family; if that’s all the good that comes of this action, fair enough.

That said, petting a cat lowers your blood pressure (assuming you are not allergic, of course) so it’s not all about giving. Watching cats play is better than watching TV. Especially these days.

I’m not an ostrich with my head in the sand; nor am I numb. I’m making those phone calls and keeping up with relevant news. But the biggest small changes I can effect these days are fur-bearing. I’m downy with that.

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized

The Monday Book: THE POOR HAD NO LAWYERS by Andy Wightman

poorEvery year when I run my small group tour of Scotland I try to find a book for the times it’s my turn to guard the luggage on the bus while the group are visiting an attraction or having lunch. Of course, having a continuing interest in Scottish politics, I often seek out books about such matters.

This year my choice was ‘The Poor had no Lawyers’ by Andy Wightman.

 

This fascinating and very well researched book traces the scandalous story of what can only be described as blatant theft, all the way from the Reformation to the present day. It tells the story of land-owning Lords sitting in the non-elected upper chamber of the UK parliament deliberately sabotaging any attempt to modernize the law; of plucky crofters and islanders taking them on and winning; of the recently re-constituted Scottish parliament finally having the time and inclination to make changes that the House of Lords can’t block.

 

What I should also make clear is that the book mainly deals with the ownership of very large areas by a very few people with often highly dubious legal claims.

 

In case this sounds terribly serious and parochial, there’s a great deal of humor and not just from Wightman. Some of the official reports produced down the years by serious minded researchers are hilarious in places! There is also much comparison with land ownership in other parts of the world – particularly de-colonized countries in Africa and Asia.

 

What really sticks out is that the separate legal professions in England and Scotland are both tied tightly into the ruling (and land-owning) establishment and, rather than offering a means to redress the obvious injustices, tend to ‘circle the wagons’ and protect their own interests.

 

I found this book completely absorbing, eye-opening and revelatory. For anyone with even a passing interest in Scottish social history or politics this is a ‘must read’!

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: GRAY MOUNTAIN by John Grisham

tumbsNormally I only do Monday Books on those I’ve liked. This one is a bit half-hearted, but Grisham’s latest is set in our region and tackles the much-ignored topic of mountaintop removal, so almost everyone around here feels an obligation to read it. We need opinions for the church potlucks.

Obligation is a pretty good word. I don’t like dissing authors, or books – unless they’re real creeps, and Grisham isn’t. He just….. kinda didn’t do anything exciting in this book. And, inevitably, even though he spent time in SE Kentucky with some people dedicated to stopping MT removal AND bringing social justice to the Coalfields, he got some important stuff wrong.

It isn’t a big deal that the mileage and directions are way off in his book. It’s fiction. It isn’t a big deal that sometimes he slides into stereotypes even though you can tell he’s trying not to – kinda like a kid learning to ride a bike will guaranteed hit the pothole she’s watching with her whole being, intent on avoiding it. You always hit what you concentrate on avoiding, because you’re concentrating on it rather than the story you have to tell. We don’t mind; it was nice of him to try.

But I knew we were in trouble when Grisham started the serious action of his book with an old “legend” that circulates about SW VA/SE KY/NE TN mountain roads.

The book itself opens with the heroine getting laid off from her high powered-yet-hated legal job. She has a chance to keep her health insurance if she goes to work for a nonprofit, and she winds up taking the “bottom of the barrel” with the only remaining option: in the Coalfields of Appalachia. It must be hard for an author to try not to stereotype while writing about a NYC character coping with moving out of Manhattan. He tried, bless his heart. It made the book a bit flat because at the points where people would’ve been asking some serious questions, the heroine gets all open-minded. Still, his mechanism for driving her to VA is a good one: keep your health insurance if you leave the land of the midnight latte for the exile of rural America. Nice try, Johnny, but your logistics are showing.

Maybe that’s the biggest problem throughout the book. HOW he was trying to tell the story showed as much as the story.

Anyway, she drives into a town thinly disguised as being not-Grundy, VA, and a guy pulls her over in an unmarked police car and threatens her with all kinds of things if she doesn’t come back to the station with him. Including handcuffing and a gun. Turns out he’s the local learning impaired dude who pretends he’s a cop and only pulls over people with Yankee license plates.

We are not amused. You can look up the stories on Snopes, but there really was a rape and murder under this scenario; the guys weren’t handicapped; they were felons. It is not funny to display color local characters in this manner, let alone a town complicit with such dangerous actions. {“Yeah, he’s weird, but he’s ours.”} I began to hate the book at this moment, and probably couldn’t give it a fair read from there forward.

From then on the words skimmed past my eyes very much like an Arthur Hailey novel: all explanation and no storytelling; the facts of mountaintop removal thinly disguised as a fish-out-of-water story; lots of sensational details added about the main characters, a la the unnecessary drama of a Hollywood plot built around a love story. The whole thing just read like… well, like reading the script of your average mid-week 8 pm tv drama. I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters, because I didn’t believe they were real.

Which is annoying, because–let’s give him credit–Grisham is the FIRST big deal author to tackle MT removal, and I don’t care how much I didn’t like the book, I love him as an author for doing that. GOOD FOR YOU MR. G!

But can I add, very sadly, that I wish he’d done a better job of telling a story rather than so obviously trying to talk people into hating the bad guys? The complexities suffered, and so did the communities. But thanks.

mtr

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Filed under bad writing, between books, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: RANDOM FAMILY by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

This is not a happy family book, so you may want to wait until Spring to read it. I ordered it after following its appearance on my friend Nichole’s TEN BOOKS THAT INFLUENCED ME list. We shared a love for eight of the ten, one was A Prayer for Owen Meany (and Nichole is the reason our staff cat has that name; it’s the only Owen that will ever grace our shelves) and one was Random Family. I love ethnographic studies, so I ordered it.

Densely packed, this is the summation of 11 years of work with people floating through – or perhaps drowning in – the justice system. I’m not sure the term “social justice” appears often, but the whole book is an indictment of the idea that poverty is the fault of the poor. And it’s a really ringing indictment. Roaches falling by the dozens into carefully chosen food, men coming up fire escapes into the windows of “free” housing provided a woman with four daughters, the inner workings of a prison hierarchy for education and a future–it’s going to set you back a bit.

Jack liked the book because, as a prison visitor, he’s seen much of what the men go through trying to form outside attachments and secure stability. LeBlanc didn’t use the words “search for security, love, maybe some significance” very often, either, but the whole book is one mad shuffle between family members looking for those things, mostly in that order.

Coco and Jessica, the main female characters, are clearly drawn as real, lovely, flawed, and stuck. One of the questions in the book group guide at the end of this book reminds readers that LeBlanc was in the community for eleven years, part and parcel to all that is described, yet she doesn’t appear as a character.

That’s one of the book’s quirks; LeBlanc has made nothing up, it’s all from interviews and observation. Yet she is invisible, and the book is not so much narrated by an invisible person as scatter pelleted by some unseen weapon. Sentence after sentence, some of them barely hooked together, scene after scene, description after description, and although the whole thing circles a spiral of recurring events, it doesn’t sound the same. LeBlanc writes like a machine gun.

Not everyone will like this book. It’s less narrative arc or journalism than ethnographic description. It doesn’t ask “why,” just tells “how.” I’d like to say it’s haunting, but in all honesty, as someone so far removed from what LeBlanc describes, the word might be daunting. How can anyone make economic inequality going this far wrong, better?

LeBlanc did an interview ten years after the book’s 2003 publication; you can find it here.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

Hands up, Hands Down: a message from Chile to the USA?

Santiago Countdown 1 095The cultural center in Santiago, Chile is the type of place one dreams of having nearby: a government-funded center where kids learn to dance, juggle, play the cello, just because they want to. If they walk in, they get to learn something.

When we visited, I couldn’t stop taking photos as the Tours4Tips guides talked us through the various forms of dance and street art we were seeing. Finally I understood how all those stop-light entertainers acquired their skills. (When cars wait at a red light, kids don’t rush out offering to clean your windscreen; they pedal out on unicycles, carry devil sticks, do yo-yo tricks. It’s fun to drive in Chile.)Santiago Countdown 1 093

But then our guides Carrie and Flores led us down to the main auditorium. The building was in active use when Pinochet’s coup descended and things in Chile changed rapidly–including the ability to express oneself. When it first opened, the bronze door handles on the Cultural Center displayed fists pumping toward the sky, an artistic expression of victory. Pinochet had them flipped over, so that they looked like the fists of someone being handcuffed.

Artists joined the poor students and labor workers vanishing; perhaps the most famous was the songwriting guitarist Victor Jara (in Argentina); the police broke his fingers before they shot him.

“These handles were a hint,” Carrie said, tracing an upward fist with one finger. Her body blocked the other handle. “Don’t forget what can happen if you sing too loudly.”

When Pinochet was voted out peacefully in the late ‘80s, many things were quickly set to rights in Chile, but in one of those “healing is in the details” moments, debate over the center’s door handles raged. Should they be turned back up; left down as a reminder that artists sometimes paid in blood; one up, one down, remembering the past while looking to the future?

“Whadya think they did?” Carrie smiled at her group of Scots, Australians, and Germans, plus me and one other American. Then she stepped aside so we could see both handles; two fists reached for the sky.

Santiago Countdown 1 096A soft murmur rose from the group, but the other American locked eyes with me and I saw we were thinking about the same thing: police handcuffs, don’t shoot, equal justice for all … maybe someday America would be two fists up in victory again?

God bless the families suffering loss in this ongoing violence, and grant us strength to create peace born of justice. We have better music in us than this.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, YA fiction

The Monday Book: THE MAN WHO QUIT MONEY by Mark Sundeen

Jack handed me this book, said it had wafted into the bookstore, and that I would like it.

He was right. Daniel Suelo, the title character, grew up in a Christian household where, as he put it in an interview, he was at university before he realized “You could be a Christian and a Democrat at the same time.”

How this guy wound up living, not just off the grid, but out of the system, is a wonderful timeline in and of itself, but I admit freely I loved the book because he set up milemarkers at some of my favorite intellectual curiosity points.

Switching from pre-med to anthropology, he worked on a book about the sacred feminine, started thinking about social justice mixed with theology, joined the Peace Corps and watched what “missionary” meant when money turned into salvation, and pretty much decided “Nah.”

Sundeen is a sensitive writer, his telling of the story digging deep into roots but leaving blooms untouched. He handles very spiritual discussion with what can only be called pragmatic respect.

But his analysis isn’t limited to the big ideas. He also explains, in head-swimming detail, how to conduct a successful dumpster dive, one of the many ways in which Suelo eats. And eats well.

He sleeps in a cave, uses wifi at the library, will not beg or use social services, but does trade labor for stuff. Suelo volunteers at a women’s shelter. Sundeen takes care to paint a picture of a man who is not surviving, but thriving. And having fun thinking it through.

The discussions, the ideas, and the practical hints for people who may not want to get off the road entirely, but would like to travel more lightly, made this a lovely read for me. (Not that the book is a how-to; it’s a “what he did,” and Suelo takes pains to explain to Sundeen, and by proxy those reading about him, that there is no way to “sort of” live this lifestyle. If you use a little bit of money or trade or social services, you wind up using all of it.

And for all that the concepts are huge and thought-provoking, Sundeen’s writing style makes the words slide past your eyes so fast, you’re surprised later at how much you remember, how much time you’ve spent thinking about them. When Jack handed me the book, I was busy and started reading just to see if I’d like the writing. Sixty pages later, I glanced up, still standing up by the dining room table. Jack had just left me there when he couldn’t gain my attention.

This is Suelo’s Facebook page if you want to visit: https://www.facebook.com/themanwhoquitmoney.

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Filed under book reviews, home improvements, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing

WHAT HAZEL DID

HazelThe response to Wednesday’s blog on Hazel, the 20-year-old cat who bounced from the shelter to us, was overwhelming. Wednesday evening, I took my laptop into Hazel’s resting room to read her some of the emails and comments, but she was afraid of the laptop so I left. When I visited her a bit later, some of her food was missing.

I put out more food, and contacted Beth, our vet, and our friends David and Susan Hamrick, cat rescuers from way back. Both had suggested on Tuesday that Hazel be given Laxitome, in case her condition was trauma rather than tumor.

This involved dosing Hazel’s paw with the caramel-like stuff. I did. She gave me an incredulous look and limped stickily away. But when she reappeared that night, her feet were clean, so I knew she’d licked it off. No poop–then, or later on Wednesday, when I went back in sans laptop and told Hazel about all the well-wishes and prayers going up for her. She glared at me. I sat with her until her guard was down, blobbed her foot again, and left, feeling that I might be torturing rather than helping the old girl.

Next morning, her food bowl was empty. I put out more, again mixed with the Laxitome and sweet potato baby puree per Susan’s instructions, while Hazel glared from behind a pile of books. Jack, catching sight of her face, laughed.

“If she’s got that much piss and vinegar, she can’t be so close to death’s door any more,” he said.

“It’s not piss we’re looking for,” I riposted, but yes, we were both feeling the wee bit hopeful.

Because we had debated what every responsible pet owner does at these moments: what quality of life could Hazel, so clearly confused and sad and missing her family, reasonably get from our house? She doesn’t know us, and the bookstore is a bustling, barking-dogs, running-kids, Pony Express Outpost #6 kind of place. There are no quiet rooms with soft beds and familiar voices. Just us, well-meaning love at its most bungled and inept. Was it time to put her down, on the purple rug she’d claimed as hers, with a house call from our very compassionate vet (who’d already visited the bookshop to examine Hazel so she wouldn’t have to travel)?

No, said Susan, the cat whisperer. If she’s not in real pain, give the Laxitome a few days, and if Hazel is still alive Monday, David and I will come get her to live with us.

Normally I wouldn’t rehome a 20-year-old cat twice, but Susan’s house is a cat sanctuary. A haven. A refuge. Susan knows more about cats than just about anyone on the planet. Plus she sent a picture of Hazel’s new room.hazel's room

Bit of all right, in’it? There’s a window ledge with a low chair to help her reach it, so she can sit and look out at the garden.

We figured Hazel might have some QOL (quality of life) left if we could just get her to poop. Too much new, too little security, she was simply doing what cats do: protesting. And dying from it.

So her paws got gooped and her food got doctored (but she wouldn’t eat it) and well wishes got sent (and sweet-hearted Joe Lewis, my friend Elissa-the-photographer’s partner brought her a catnip fish and sat rubbing her chin until she purred) and on Thursday morning all her food was gone. I put out more. She ate it. By afternoon she was as cranky as… well, a constipated old lady. Brows furrowed, eyes squinted, you could just see she was working up to something big.

And Friday morning, I heard a meow from her room that turned the heads of all our dogs and cats. I raced down the stairs… and found a poop twice the length of Hazel’s body sitting on the pad next to the litter box.

The cat shat on the mat.

Hazel stood nearby, looking relieved. Heck, she practically looked postpartum. And when I turned to her, all praise and tears, she trotted away with a gait that said, “Put food in that bowl and get out. I know your tricks.”

I complied. And then I got on Facebook and shouted the good news. The only thing that stopped me photographing the evidence was my phone battery being dead.

Hazel will be taken by station wagon, in a mesh cat tent, with food and water dishes, a soft pillow, and a litter box, back to the Hamrick home, aka the Shady Rest Hospice for Distressed Gentlecats, where her quality of life in the weeks, months, or years remaining to her will be nothing short of splendiferous. We don’t know how long she has left, but we know she’ll be loved and looked after for all of it.

Yes, we’re all crazy. We should care half so much about social justice, about what happened with George Zimmerman and the Indian school poisonings, as we do about this “stupid cat.” Okay, sure.

But Hazel is doing much better. One starfish flung back into the ocean. It makes a difference.

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