Saturday, June 16, 2007

Just Say Yes

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"Tomorrow is Bloomsday," I said last night to GF.
"What should we do to celebrate it?" she asked.
"You should get up, go out, ogle some girls, buy a kidney, fry it up, give the cat some milk, and bring me breakfast in bed and pornography to read," I said.
"Why do you get to be Molly?" she said.
"Everyone wants to be Molly, " I said, "Or at least, they should."
Of course, it's also fun to be Poldy--he gets to go to the beach, and later, to visit the Ladies of Nighttown. But he also has to deal with a lot of assholes.
Molly gets a lot of having her cake and eating it too.

Bloomsday, as some critics have noted, memorializes the first day James and Nora went out walking.
Apparently he got a handjob, which back then was considered a pretty good first date for a man.

What did Nora get?

Devotion, apparently. And she got to be Molly.

Molly is an antidote. Molly feels things but isn't morbid. She's physical but not narcissistic. She indulges herself but also evaluates her appetites. Molly is alive. She goes forward. She makes lists. She keeps in touch with joy.

Here's to being Molly. Lounge around in bed, make someone bring you breakfast, sing operatic and popular songs, flirt all over town, give generously to the poor, be pretty, have wild sex, turn heads, appreciate yourself, and remember why you love someone.

Everyone gets to be Molly today. Or at least, they should.

Friday, June 15, 2007

father's days

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I never imagined myself shopping for sperm. Who does? It's not that I never imagined having children--no, that's not right--it's not that I ever imagined I'd never have children, so naturally the sperm I needed to have the children that were inevitable would find me, somehow. A dear friend, perhaps, would naturally live close enough to make the whim that is a child convenient and easy to express. Because children are whims. They are desires that become real in a flash. Or they are desires that don't, whereupon they become obsessions. I never wanted to be obsessed with having children. I was always too busy.

Honestly, I thought I would have one after tenure. It seemed so much harder to imagine how to get a child than how to get tenure, I thought I'd better concentrate on the one first and the other would follow. One didn't. Then real life became more of a problem, fortunately solved by the copious availability of student loans, which have, if you haven't noticed, been operating for some time to prop up the economy so we don't have a revolution. They are talking now about making student loans harder to get, which I hope they don't because then everyone who just keeps going back to school, like me, or just stays in school forever, like I did, will hit the job market, bomb out because, as we know, there are no jobs out there, figure out that there are no jobs, and join a terrorist cell. Then the shit will really hit the fan.

But back to sperm. The plain fact is, trying to have a successful career--or in my case, an unsuccessful career--means that those baby years sort of creep on by. Suddenly. you're almost 45, and back in school again, and there's just no way.

Enter GF. She's been thinking about kids for a while, and she's only 38. She feels fairly secure in her job. So why not get pregnant? Why not get a baby now?

Well, I'm still in school, for one. But isn't it better to be up all night for ten weeks straight when you're in school than when you're starting a job? You bet. There's never a good time, a perfect time, for a baby. Wait for the perfect time and it will never come.

So she'll carry the baby for the both of us. Cool. But then there's the matter of sperm. I first should say that it's very odd how many people will throw sperm at you when they hear you are thinking about getting pregnant. Really. It's like suddenly you're the girl (or boy) on their knees in the middle of the . . .well, you get the picture. Sorry about that if you're squeamish, but you really can't afford to be shy about sperm, if you want a baby. You've got to grab a jar, metaphorically speaking. SO yes, lots of people will offer you sperm. That's the good part.

The bad part, of course, is that they can get a little get mad if you don't want it. And it's not like you're rejecting only their sperm if you don't take it. Or even them. Or quashing their dreams of genetic eternity. No-- They will tell you that it is wrong to not let a baby know its father, if it is at all possible for a baby to know its father. They will demand to know how you could deprive a child of this. Then they will try to get you to take their sperm again.

I have a problem with this. See, I'm the father, in a manner of speaking. I don't want baby to have another one.

I don't mean I'm the father, really. What I mean is that I am the other parent. There are two parents, primary parents, and I'm one of them. So when people start screaming about the "father," by which they mean the sperm donor, I have to wonder what they think my role is in this whole thing. Housekeeper #2? Second Income Lady? Why in the world does the child need to know its sperm donor?

This is complicated by the fact that it turns out you CAN know your sperm donor father, if you want, when you're 18, if he said it's ok, and your mom paid extra for the sperm. Lots extra. And the weirdest part, is that we--me and GF-- actually went through a period where we thought this was a good idea. So, like, you're supposed to raise your daughter or son and tell them their whole life that they can meet their FATHER when they turn 18. And they build it up and you build it up and it takes on some kind of mythic significance no matter what you do, because let's face it, in this culture all that really matters to too many people is who your father is.

It seems weird. Like there's a shadowy person lurking around for the whole time you are raising your child, a fantasy person, a mystery and site of impossible desire.

I should know. I never knew my biological father. He and my mother divorced when I was a toddler, and he was permanently out of the picture by time I was five. But I know I loved him, I think a lot, and I know I longed for him, for somebody I belonged to, when my mother married a man who found me and my little sister annoying and inconvenient. I wanted someone whose flesh I shared, who would scoop me up and hug me close, unselfconsciously. The romantic ideal of a father. But lots of people have biological fathers they never feel close to, so this normative ideal is only that. I could talk about these things with a child, I think, and comfort them and make them think about all the different ways people make families.

I also know what it is like to have a family where your siblings don't like to bring up the issue of different fathers because it's painful for them to imagine you all aren't totally related to each other. Because they love you that much, and they need for family to be defined more than one way.

What I find interesting about all this is that when we decided to go with an anonymous bank closer to home, one where the children would never know their donor, having a sense, an intimate sense, of the donor became even more, rather than less, important for us. The short file where he talks about his favorite foods and the instruments he plays, where he draws a picture of a cat, becomes even more important to us, since it will be all we have of him if we choose him. These days we find ourself gravitating to the men who write lots down on these forms, who fill out every question, who seem to yearn to communicate something to the children they might have. The ones who have nothing to say we discard. One, our favorite, wrote in answer to the question about what he would want to communicate to us, the recipients of the sperm, "Teach your child the love of a good book, forgive them when they are precocious, and don't let them watch too much television. I hope that he or she brings great love into your home and a lifetime of joy and happiness." Another guy, also a favorite, wrote something similarly sweet and signed it "Love, Donor 220."

Does choosing an anonymous donor mean we don't want to know him? On the contrary--we find ourselves choosing the ones who we feel like we know best, donors who try to let us know who they were as much as possible within the confines of the form. And what is funny is that the things you think might be important--height, ancestry, hair color, skin tone, eye color--become much less important than personality.

It might be that the best thing that could happen to the category of father is that it expands to include mothers, co-parents, friends who participate in the child's life, sperm donors, and more. This could take away the "significance" of fatherhood in a way that would make it more significant and meaningful for families like mine (and, truth be told, like lots of other people's families).

In San Juan last weekend people dressed as sperm and danced in the streets to protest gay marriage and adoption. Hopefully people here could also dress as sperm for the opposite reason--to celebrate gay marriage, adoption, and families of all kinds.

All of which is to say Happy Father's Day--to all the donors, participants, and recipients, adoptors, and mentors for children born, becoming, and yet to come.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

making a window

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I know that I am a bundle of cheer to read this week, but I just heard a cool story. The spiritual advisor of Michael, the guy who is going to be executed tonight, came by the law office. She a Buddhist, which says nice things about Michael. She knows a lot of the guys on the row.

Some of the inmates get to have cats. Michael has a cat named Joker. There are plans to take Joker away tonight and give him to a family member.

The spiritual advisor smuggles in autumn leaves every year so the prisoners can see them. She sneaks them in her clothes.

One old man put them all over his wall, the leaves from every autumn. She said the last time she saw him, one whole wall of his cell was covered in leaves.

a waiting game

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Today at work, life is a waiting game. Every time the phone rings there is hope that some kind of news will stop tonight's execution. We try to read cases, but most of us are surfing the capital defense web sites, looking to see if any of the executions scheduled this week have been stayed. Yesterday the Virginia governor stayed an execution, saying it is only fair for all appeals to be exhausted if you are going to take someone's life. We will be waiting all day to hear if the Supreme Court grants cert or a stay on Michael's case. The press is already calling every hour or so.

Everyone has mostly gotten kind used to the idea that this is really going to happen. It isn't really mournful or anything. Just the sound of the windy rumble of the air conditioner on the wall, and the high whining ring of the office phone every now and then, and murmured voices in the next room. And counting down the hours till lunch.

While we wait I am reading about a woman on death row in the south accused of hiring someone to kill her husband. There is no proof she did so and her son confessed to the murder. The man who was killed beat them both for years and everyone knew about it. There are holes in the walls all over the house from the son punching them in frustration.

He did not get the death penalty but the mother did. She was in the hospital at the time her husband was killed. She had been eating rat poison for years. The judge took ten minutes to sentence her.

One of the guys who has been working on Michael's case for years is going down to witness his execution tonight. The person being executed only gets to have two witnesses. It seems like the kind of thing people should get to see, but almost nobody ever gets to see an execution.

One of the thiings I always liked to talk about when I'd teach Foucault's Discipline and Punish is his discussion of the delicate balance between the display of state power and the flashpoint of the crowd, and how dangerous public executions can be as sites of resistance. I used to talk about the French revolution and how the people eventually became moved and sickened by the spectacle of so much death. I can't help thinking that a few public executions, or simulcast events, would probably be all we'd need to get rid of the death penalty once and for all.

Lots of people are going to be outside at the prison tonight. Anti-death penalty groups will be there, and lots of police and their families are also going to show up. They say the police are going to be holding blue glow sticks to symbolize the thin blue line between order and anarchy that the police supposedly represent. I haven't heard much about protests on the other side.

South Dakota has just "upgraded" its lethal injection protocol so it can start to execute people. Illinois has maintained a moratorium on executions ever since Governor Ryan suspended the death penalty iin 2003 for being too riddled with error to be considered justice.

If there is an execution tonight we get the day off tomorrow. I am thinking about sitting on the beach for a while. I'll feel the sun on my face, and gaze out at the cool water, and listen to the shrieks of children and birds.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

the awful machinery

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This morning when I came to work I met with the news that one of the people we were trying to keep from being executed in a neighboring state had just lost his final appeal in the circuit court. His execution is scheduled for midnight on Thursday.

I came into the dirty office with scattered paper and piles and piles of cases on tables and boxes stacked everywhere with names on them of the different death row defendants. The mood was somber and distracted. I was supposed to read the trial transcripts of a southern woman on death row for killing her husband, but I was distracted, too.

I found a picture of the death row guy on the internet. In it he looks like the boys I went to high school with, the ones with long hair and skinny shoulders and unbuttoned flannel shirts and hairless, board-flat torsos who drove trucks or muscle cars and smoked outside every morning in the smoking area (when high schools had such places). I was afraid of most of them but they were always nice to me. They had fathers who came home tired and dirty, who drank every night and made their sons quit school at 16 to go to work on the road crews, because that meant another paycheck for the family. Those boys came in for cigarettes every afternoon at the general store where I worked on weekends. When they got older they came in for beer, too. They had thin necks and hard forearms and soft eyes and soft, tired voices.

The death row guy has changed a lot since that picture. The ragged mullet is short now. The sullen, leonine face rearing back from the camera is quietly resigned, peering upwards, mouselike. He wears glasses but still has a thin, adolescent beard. His mouth is still uncertain in its expression. Soft. Now he could be a bank teller, or a junior high teacher, or a fast-food franchise manager.

The night that changed his life seventeen years ago he was so drunk he couldn't stand up. Apparently he was in the middle of a custody battle with his ex-wife over his two-year-old son. There was a vandalism call to the police but the police found only a very drunk young man crawling around on the ground near some parked cars, who told them he wanted to lay under them for a while and sleep. The court documents say he was lightly dressed. It was snowing and the men on duty decided to take him in that night for his own good. One officer patted him down and tossed him in the back of the squad car; another got in and started for the station.

The official version of what happened is that another police car on the highway saw an oncoming car slide off the road, and when they got near it, recognized it as a cop car. The driver was slumped in the front seat with gunshot wounds in the back of his head. The drunk teenager was still in the back seat, handcuffed. A gun with empty chambers was on the floor.

After lingering in the hospital for 11 days, the officer died. He left behind a wife and two children.

At the trial, police demonstrated how the teenager could have gotten a gun out of his pocket and shot the driver, though this would have required some dexterity. During the sentencing phase, the judge allowed the victim's wife and his boss to talk about the horrific impact of this crime on their lives. The teenager was sentenced to death.

Later this "victim impact" evidence was ruled inadmissable and harmful, but the death sentence stood.

The boy thrown into the sqad car that night is now 36 years old, and scheduled to die Friday morning by lethal injection. Today the circuit court denied for the last time the petitions filed by his lawyers to stay the execution. Most people hearing about the case think he deserves to die.

This morning we sat in the back room of a tiny storefront office and listened as the lawyer we work for told the death row guy gently over the phone that there was bad news. It was hard to listen to the soft tones of his voice, to hear him trying to comfort the taciturn person on the other end. Men are so often hard and sarcastic creatures. Lawyers especially. The lawyer we work for is sarcastic. He has to be. Listening to his voice being gentle made the upcoming execution real.

The last time this inmate, whose name is Michael, was sentenced to die, the Supreme Court stayed his death with only four hours to spare. He probably won't be that lucky this time.

He says he doesn't remember what happened that night, though he has confessed to mulling over different scenarios in his mind. I think he remembers, though. How could he not?

So the awful machinery rolls on. There won't be a nice public dismembering, frought with political allegory. He is scheduled to die at 12:01 am. There will be sedatives, and a last meal, and a midnight shackled shuffle down a dismal corridor or two. A procession with no bystanders. There will be no sun or moon or breezes. Other prisoners will be angry and sad. There will be arm and leg straps, and numb families sitting behind one-way glass, and fumbling with needles and fluid bags, and flourescent lights. There will be a death like a dog's death, but without the love, pity, and kindness of a dog's death. And it will be supposed to mean something, but it won't mean anything except that people will go to extraordinary ends to make meaning out of something senseless that happened on a winter's night in some teen-age midwestern kid's dead-end life.

They told us at the office to go home early this afternoon. The lawyer I work for tried to straighten up our table before we left. He half-turned to look at a shelf full of boxes labeled with Michael's last name. "We'll be able to clear these out soon," he said, with a short laugh. "We'll take them all out of here and file them away somewhere." He laughed uncertainly again and his eyes looked vaguely around the room, but it seemed like he wasn't really seeing anything that was there.