Today I’m 28

This week I  read a piece of astounding writing by Alice Isak on her blog coffee and a blank page:

The metamorphosis that turns worm into winged color involves destruction.

Inside its chrysalis — that shell of skin that emerges, hard and crackling, from beneath its final molting — the worm dissolves, undoes, unbecomes. It perishes into a glue of undifferentiated cells; it gestates for a second time. When old matter made newly-winged rips at last through the dry husk of its once-self with sharp intent, we clutch our hearts at its beauty.

Researchers believe a butterfly retains some memories from its life as a caterpillar. It can, in part, look back.

I pray the caterpillar cannot look forward. I am not sure the dream of one day flying can adequately prepare its soul for the dissolution first required.

Alice wrote this piece in 2012, about surviving a suicide attempt, and linked to it again this week, in celebration of being alive 3 years after that date.

Her honesty has prompted me to talk about something I rarely talk about.

Today I turn 28. Which means I’m ahead by 4 years – my first life ended at 24, and now I’ve reached 28.

28 years living with wings.

28 years living with having known a violent, utter, dissolution.

Having been once dissolved, one does not go on with a happy life flitting about. Having been once dissolved, I’ve never since been able to take for granted that another dissolution couldn’t happen.

Because this is the thing about having reached the point where your heart and gut and brain agree with the circumstances of your life that there is no point to going on—that first agreement opens a door that never again closes completely.

I hate saying this. Or more truthfully I hate knowing this. I had no intention of dying the day I swallowed the contents of the pill bottle in my right hand rather than the single pill in my left hand. I did not want to die. I just had no more answers for how to go on living. Life had pushed me past every skill, every desire, every trick, every single last reserve of resistance, every shred of belief that I could make my life be anything more than pain.

Having experienced knowing such a defeat of will, I lost that morning the ability to believe that defeat can’t happen to me. Since 1987, I’ve lived through every crisis without certainty that I could survive it.

Which means chances are good I’ve lied to most people in my life when they’ve expressed concern about me during difficult times. Don’t worry, I say, I’m a survivor.

If I were honest with myself, much less with others, I’d say Yes, worry, because I’m a survivor of having once known there was no way forward. I now live not in your world but in The Country of Those That Have Been Dissolved.

But I don’t say that because I do also believe I am a survivor. I have, in fact, survived so much. I will probably go on figuring things out and getting on with my life.

But only probably. Not certainly. There have been times this last year when it was not certain I’d reach 28. Probable, but not certain.

To live without the certainty of certainty, to have once been pushed into knowing there was no way forward is a knowing you cannot unknow.

But so neither can you unknow that trapped in a chrysalis and dissolved you still found a way out.

Today I am 28.  Yes, I have wings, and yes, I remember what it cost to have them and yes I love them and yes I can never again be certain that another dissolution can’t happen and yes I can only even promise probably, not certainly.

Today I am 28 and yes, an uncertain yes will always be a triumph over a certain no.

Know Your History of U.S. School Shootings! a quiz

How well do YOU know the history of shootings and murders in U.S. schools? Here’s a quiz. All you need to do is choose the right year. Ready?
answers are at the bottom

Accidental Shootings

1. During a school play rehearsal, a revolver was accidentally loaded by a boy who tried to shoot a bird with it the day before. When the girl was to use the firearm as written in the script, she picked it up, then laid it down saying she was afraid of the old thing. The Teacher, Miss Reedy then grabbed the gun and said there was no need for alarm and pointed it at the girl, Pearl Reedy, 18 years old, and squeezed the trigger. The bullet lodged near her heart fatally wounding her.

2. As some children were playing and throwing snowballs in the front yard of the Ponca Creek school, three young men drove up who engaged the children in a snowball fight. When they were leaving, one of the men pointed his 45 caliber and accidentally shot and injured three of the school children. Harbaugh, the young shooter, surrendered himself.

3. At the Kable’s Military Academy a 15-year-old student, A. H. Hathaway of Dennison, Texas, was accidentally shot dead by his 17-year-old classmate James Whitworth of Sulphur Springs, Texas while they were playing with an old pistol.

4. During a school performance of “the Grand Central”, John Moake, portraying the villain, was shot in the forehead and dangerously wounded by the hero, Roy Slater. The cartridge was thought to have been blank.

Teacher/Student Problems

5. Ernest Lee Grissom, a 15-year-old student at Drew Junior High School, shot and seriously wounded a teacher and a 13-year-old student after he had been reprimanded for causing a disturbance.

6. A boy who refused to be whipped by his teacher left the school. The next day he returned with his brother and a friend for revenge. Not finding the teacher at the school, they continued to his house, where a gun battle took place and three died. Only the boy survived.

7. Neal Summers, 45, a teacher, was shot and killed just outside Whitman Middle School in North Seattle by Darrell Cloud, 24, a former student who had been sexually abused by Summers since the age of 13.

8. Edward Foster, a 17-year-old student at Inman High school, was shot and fatally wounded by his teacher Reuben Pitts after he had jerked a rod from Pitts’ hands to resist punishment. According to the teacher, Foster struck the pistol Pitts had drawn to defend himself, thus causing its discharge. Pitts was later acquitted of murder.

9. Mr. McGinnis was shot and killed by his daughter’s teacher after McGinnis threatened the teacher for expelling his daughter from school. When McGinnis’s son learned of this, he went to the school and killed the teacher.

10. Mrs. Carmila Rindoni went to the school and her son’s teacher, shot Miss Rosalind I. Reynolds, two times for spanking her son the day before. Mrs. Rindoni was arrested, and Miss Reynolds was expected to recover.

11. Woodrow Porter, 38, who was a janitor at Paul Dunbar Elementary School, was shot to death by the 56-year-old grandmother of an 8-year-old that was allegedly spanked by Porter earlier.

“Domestic” Violence

12. Fifth-grade teacher Margaret Brooks, 57, was shot to death in front of her students by her estranged husband James A. Brooks.

13. May Thomas was lured out of the schoolhouse by Harry Garvey who was devoted to her, but she had refused his further attentions. He then pulled a revolver out and shot her dead, then killed himself.

14. Miss Anna Dwight was shot to death in front of her students by Chauncey Barnes, a rejected boyfriend, at the Stone Lake Schoolhouse. After shooting Dwight, Barnes shot himself twice in the head.

15. Teacher Irma Caler was shot and killed in her classroom at Rentschler school by 19-year-old Robert Warner, apparently because she had rejected his advances.

16. As George E. Landers was teaching at the Willow Slough school house, Mrs. Julia A. Finn drove up and called out to him. When he came out to talk, Julia asked him to marry her, and he refused. Julia then took out a gun and fired three shots at him, but missed. She was then tried for attempted murder.

17. Sarah E. Allen, a third grade teacher at the Jefferson school, was shot to death in front of her class by her estranged husband Oswald C. Allen, who then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.

18. Sylvester E. Adams shot and killed teacher Edith Smith after she rejected his advances. Adams then shot and killed himself. The incident took place in a schoolhouse after the students had been dismissed for the day.

19. Stalker Michael Pimental walked into the cafeteria at The Evergreen State College, approached a table where several students sat, pulled out a .45 Colt automatic, and murdered Elisa Tissot.

People Doing Violent Things

20. Charles Whitman, aged 25, climbed atop the observation deck at the University of Texas-Austin, and killed 17 people and wounded 31 during a 96-minute shooting rampage. The shooting would remain the deadliest shooting on a U.S. college campus until the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.

21. Luke Woodham, 16, murdered his mother at home before killing his ex-girlfriend and another student and wounding seven others at Pearl High School. The perpetrator attempted to flee police and continue his killing spree at a nearby middle school, but he was stopped and detained by the Vice Principal.

22. ” Los Angeles Herald article “Boys and Pistols”
Yesterday at noon a boy sixteen years of age shot himself, or was shot by his brother. It matters not who fired the fatal shot. No criminal act was intended or committed, and the boy is dead. He was a member of the High School of this city and was, we are told, something over the average good boy of Los Angeles. This boy lost his life through the too common habit among boys of carrying deadly weapons. We do not know that this habit can be broken up. We do not know that school teachers have the right, or would exercise it if they had, of searching the pockets of their pupils, but it seems almost a necessity that some such rule be enforced. The hills west of town are not safe for pedestrians after school hours.”

23. After some of his dormmates urinated on his mattress, Bob Bechtel, a 20-year-old student at Swarthmore College, returned to his dorm with a shotgun and used it to shoot and kill fellow student Holmes Strozier.

24. Regents scholar Anthony Barbaro, 17, armed with a rifle and shotgun, kills three adults and wounds 11 others at his high school, which was closed for the Christmas holiday. Barbaro was reportedly a loner who kept a diary describing several “battle plans” for his attack on the school.

25. After being taunted for his beliefs, a 15-year-old self-proclaimed Nazi, killed one student and wounded a second with a Luger pistol at Everett High School.

quiz answers

quiz answers edited

An Autobiography of My Life as Mass Shootings at Schools

An Autobiography of My Life as Mass Shootings at Schools

October 1, 2015, Roseburg, Oregon: 26-year-old student Christopher Harper-Mercer opened fire in a hall on the Umpqua Community College campus, killing eight students and one teacher, and injuring nine others. When police arrived he killed himself.

At the time of this shooting I am 52. I live in Dublin, Pennsylvania but will be moving back to Philadelphia sometime soon. I can’t honestly say the news of this shooting is triggering shock or grief or horror. Just exhaustion, after a lifetime of such shootings.

A lifetime I find myself needing to document because “a lifetime of such shootings” is a reality. Is my reality, forcing me to acknowledge how deeply the history of school shootings has shaped my life. How these shootings are the story of my country and I am its citizen and how the contours of even my most intimate self have grown around these acts of violence as a tree planted beside a barbed wire fence envelopes the barbs and keeps on growing.

So I am today writing this autobiography of the school shootings I remember in my lifetime. I was born in 1963, meaning I was old enough to be aware of the outer world and remember things from it starting in the mid 1970’s. Today I am searching my memory for all these acts of violence I can recall, starting with those I know only as remembered snatches of evening news or conversations at school or between my parents, and working my way forward. I know there are many many stories that happened but will not be on my list. For this is my autobiography. Everyone reading this will have their own, and it will be unique. Some events will overlap but with different resonances or utterly different meanings. Some lists might seem to be from completely different times and places though they, too, are from citizens of my country.

But this is my autobiography told in mass shootings at schools, and it starts in 1979.

January 29, 1979, San Diego, California, 16 year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire on Grover Cleveland Elementary School from the window of her home across the street, killing two adults and wounding nine others, eight of whom were children.

I was 15, in my local high school of 110 students. I remember the details about someone shooting out a window and of many kids being shot. After this, I started having nightmares about being in my high school as a group of heavily armed men came in, of running frantically, trying to hide in lockers, heading for the third floor to save my beloved English teacher, sick dread as the tiny little school building offered nowhere to hide.

May 16, 1986, Cokeville, Wyoming: In a ransom scheme, David and Doris Young took 150 students and teachers hostage. Their demand for $300 million came to an abrupt end when Doris accidentally set off a bomb, killing herself and injuring 78 students and teachers. David wounded John Miller, a teacher who was trying to flee, then killed himself.

I was 23, in grad school in California. In my memory this story of was all tangled up with the bus full of children who were kidnapped in California ten years earlier; the combination of guns, bombs, and rooms full of terrified children became this canyon in my brain, carved deeper by flood of violence since.

May 20, 1988, Winnetka, Illinois: Laurie Dann, 30, shot and killed one elementary school student and wounded five others, then took a family hostage and shot a man before killing herself.

I was 25 and living in Minnesota after growing up in Illinois and going to college in Wisconsin. Because this story was in my homeland I noticed it, but, honestly, I now remember almost none of the details. That the shooter was a woman did stick in my mind, as I was deeply involved in radical feminism and this story defied the norm of men doing this combination of intimate and public violence.

January 17, 1989, Stockton, California: Patrick Edward Purdy, 24, fatally shot five children and wounded 32 others at the Cleveland School. Purdy then killed himself.

Still 25, still living in Minnesota where I was finishing an MS in Women’s Studies. In my memory this was another Room Full of Terrified Students, and tangled up with many other shootings in California through the years. I still sometimes had the dream of being in my high school with gunman in all directions, but less often, now eight years away from that building and that town.

December 6, 1989, Montreal, Canada: Twenty-five-year-old Marc Lépine, armed with a Mini-14 rifle and a hunting knife, shot 28 people, killing 14 women, before committing suicide. He began his attack by entering a classroom at the university, where he separated the male and female students. After claiming that he was “fighting feminism” and calling the women “a bunch of feminists,” he shot all nine women in the room, killing six. He then moved through corridors, the cafeteria, and another classroom, specifically targeting women to shoot. Overall, he killed fourteen women and injured ten other women and four men in just under 20 minutes before turning the gun on himself.

I was 26. I taught Women’s Studies in a small university and small city where I and my friends were THE known Feminists. We were demolished by the grief, and living in terror. Just walking in to teach the next month or more would send us into near panic. The women killed were our age, and our identification with them was instant and chilling. Even now teaching in a classroom with only one door spikes panic, panic I can finally almost completely shove back down under the pressing weight of rational reasons why I’ll be ok. That day of murder keeps living along with me. I mark the anniversary in some way every year, I recite the women’s names, I try to imagine them growing older as I grow older. I refuse to let their absence from the world go unnoticed; even writing this brings tears welling up.

And of course the nightmare started up again. I don’t know now how long its frequent recurrence haunted my brain. I do know that dream and the murders in Montreal became intertwined, I do know that my mind would not believe that they were separate.

December 14, 1992, Great Barrington, Massachusetts: Wayne Lo, 18, shot and killed one student and one professor, and wounded three students and a security guard at Simon’s Rock College.

I was 29, living in Philadelphia, but this memory is wrapped up in my involvement with The Women’s Peace Camp in Romulus, New York. A close friend there had gone to Simon’s Rock only a couple years before, and I watched her grief as this tiny community of kids who had been outsiders and loners in their high schools but had created family at this college were now slammed with disbelief and grief and loss. Another rush of clusters of terrified students through my canyon, although smaller than the others, more removed from me. I don’t remember the nightmare coming back.

October 1, 1997, Pearl Mississippi: Luke Woodham, 16, murdered his mother at home before killing his ex-girlfriend and another student and wounding seven others at Pearl High School. The perpetrator attempted to flee police and continue his killing spree at a nearby middle school, but he was stopped and detained by the Vice Principal

34 now, still living in Philadelphia, working with Feminist newspapers. I remember this story more clearly because of my feminist community, and because email had been invented so we could instantly share and discuss news. Another man who had shot a girlfriend for leaving him, taking out others in the process. Another clearly troubled teen with unlimited access to guns. The sheer ordinariness of a man murdering a woman partner somehow didn’t add this one to the canyon, only to the ever-growing mental list of “domestic” violence victims. My mind also collapsed this incident with the one below, coming only months apart and both being defined by Christian groups that claimed a “war against Christianity:”

December 1, 1997, West Paducah, Kentucky: Three students were killed and five wounded by Michael Carneal, 14, as they participated in a prayer circle.

For my community, what both of these shootings had in common was that the men targeted women. In West Paducah all three students killed were women, and four of the five injured were women. In the Feminist media world we all kept running counts of our dead, because they mattered to us and because the mainstream media refused to acknowledge gender played a role.

March 24, 1998, Jonesboro, Arkansas: Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, killed four students and one teacher and wounded ten others as Westside Middle School emptied during a fire alarm intentionally set off by Golden.

About this killing I remember my outrage at what the press wasn’t saying. Three shootings in six months, only girls or women killed, but gender was never part of the discussion. At Jonesboro the boys used scoped hunting rifles to intentionally target first girls who had broken up with them and then the friends of those girls. Only after that did they start firing indiscriminately. I wrote a long impassioned email that was forwarded across my community, I got pieces about it into the Feminist press, but none of that budged the wider world in any way whatsoever. This time my high school nightmare didn’t return, but even now I have flashes of a waking nightmare, one of rifles in the woods and an 11 year old girl’s head exploding. That image is another canyon in my mind, alongside the rooms full of terrified children, just as likely to flood and deepen each year. And sometimes there is a flood so enormous it roars through both channels at once. My shorthand for this: Montreal.

May 21, 1998, Springfield, Oregon:
After killing his parents at home,
Kip Kinkel, 15, drove to Thurston High School
where he shot and killed two students
and wounded 23 others.
He was sentenced to 111 years of prison.

I have no memory of this.
How can I have no memory of this?
It had to have been all over the news.
No memory

April 20, 1999, Littleton, Colorado: Columbine High School, where Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, killed twelve students and one teacher, and wounded 21 others before committing suicide.

If you were old enough to have social memory by 1999 you had to know we were all coming to this point. I was 36. I lived in Philadelphia, I had just started a job I loved working for Children’s Literacy Initiative as assistant to the director. I was getting dressed to go to work when I saw this on the morning news on April 21st. I called my boss – I’m not even sure why except I had to talk to someone. We both said all the predictable things. What I didn’t say was either of the sensations that overwhelmed me – the ever-near-the-surface terror of my high school dream, and a strong pulse of understanding how bullied outsiders could do be moved to violence: They showed those arrogant fucking cheerleaders and jocks. In my high school each senior (all 32 of us) got to choose a quotation to print under our photo in the year book. My choice was not allowed—the Pink Floyd line from The Wall “If I had my way I’d have all of you shot.” I wasn’t angry enough to have considered actually shooting anyone, but was angry enough to feel the resonance of the truth of it enough to say it out loud.

I don’t remember now how long it was before the initial terror of that day faded. I dreamed my own old-version of the assault nearly every night. I followed all the news obsessively—now there was the web and I could read newspapers all over the world. No big web-based media though, so no endless array of blogs and self-published opinion pieces. But access was making stories grow longer. It was easy to go back in time (only a few years at this point) to find the roots of a thing, in this case the Oklahoma City bombing one year earlier*, and easier to hold on to a thing to link it to what would come. The web was the end of the lie of “isolated incidents,” because each of us could sit at home and search for names and dates and descriptions from an exploding variety of viewpoints.

(* actually it was four years earlier – I remembered it as being only a year before)

In my memory, Columbine is all caught up in 9/11 too, via Michael Moore and backlashes against gun control and the 1999 presidential election. The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and Columbine and endless air strikes against Iraq and Bush and 9/11 are one continuous story about men and violence and Whiteness and bullying and consequences. Columbine, that should be my own ultimate example of The School Shooting, somehow exists simultaneously inside of the school shootings narrative and yet also outside of it, in a larger, international narrative, in the same way the gunmen in trench coats worn to hide guns and bullets exists inside Columbine and outside of it, entrenched in our culture of cowboys, gangsters, spies, crazed loner killers and crazed loner killers of killers.

March 21, 2005: Red Lake Reservation, Minnesota: Jeffrey Weise, a 16-year-old student, killed his grandfather and grandfather’s companion then drove his grandfather’s police vehicle to his Red Lake Senior High School. He shot and killed five students, one teacher, one security guard, and then committed suicide. Seven other people were wounded in the shooting.

42, still in Philly, still with strong ties to Minnesota and a few friendships with Native women there. This shooting I remember because it was on the Reservation, because Indian Country is small and everyone I knew with ties to it was in shock. So many Native young men go down under addiction, poverty, police violence, but never like this. I don’t remember my dream coming back then, but by then I was fighting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was deeply involved in Jewish groups organizing for Palestinian civil rights. Maybe my dreams were already full up with grief and fear.

September 27, 2006, Bailey, Colorado: Duane Roger Morrison walked into Platte Canyon High School and took six girls hostage and sexually assaulted them. As police entered the classroom he killed one hostage and then shot himself.

October 2, 2006, Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania: Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old milk truck driver, shot to death five Amish girls and wounded five others before killing himself in an Amish school.


April 26, 2007, Blacksburg, Virginia: Seung-Hui Cho, aged 23, shot and killed 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech, and wounded another 17 students and faculty members in two separate attacks on the same day, all before Cho committed suicide. It was the deadliest attack by a lone gunman in US history.

How many times can one continue to be shocked? This time I stepped sideways, took up another angle. The media kept referring to this as the “biggest massacre in U.S. history,” but I knew that wasn’t true because I’d had a Native Studies class and I knew about Wounded Knee – where 300 Lakota people, mainly women and children, were killed within hours using the Hotchkiss canons, the newest killing technology. The letter I wrote to my network of friends and activists talked about the technology of killing, the fascination with numbers of clips and rounds and how fast bullets could leave the gun.

Only in going to find that letter, part of which was posted on someone’s blog, do I remember what I had blocked remembering –that this, too, was Montreal¸ for the shooter first murdered his ex-girlfriend, after which the campus hadn’t been notified and locked down because that murder was “only domestic violence.” I ended my letter like this:

So as I hear and read the news, a ticker tape of other shootings runs across my internal screen, with a soundtrack chant of “Wounded Knee, Wounded Knee.” So I have to write this, and share it. Because the truth matters. Because the silence around the history of racist and sexist violence in the U.S. matters. Because, if violence is domestic, I need to be wild to survive and challenge it, and I want all of you to be wild, too.

February 14, 2008, DeKalb, Illinois: Steven Kazmierczak, 27, shot multiple people in a classroom of Northern Illinois University with a 12 gauge Remington Sportsman 48 shotgun, killing five and injuring 21. He then committed suicide.

DeKalb I’ll always remember, because an old friend taught there, and as the story developed I realized that, as Chair of the Sociology Department, the murders happened in her classrooms. I tried calling for hours, finally got her partner on the phone, who said she hadn’t been at school but was there now and might not be home until tomorrow or the day after. We finally talked, briefly; all I remember is the shock and exhaustion in her voice.

And as the number of times reporting from NIU kept bringing up Virginia Tech grew steadily, I remember thinking, DeKalb has been Sonny Bono’d.

And now I remember that at the time this latest round of shooting in a classroom didn’t set off my high school nightmare. I can’t be sure, as memory is never sure and dreams are slippery, but I think I never had that nightmare again after the Columbine terror receded. I remember the dream, still, but I haven’t had the dream. When reality tops nightmare does nightmare give up and go out to pasture?

December 14. 2012, Newtown Connecticut. Sandy Hook. 20 first-grade children aged six and seven were killed, along with six adults, including four teachers, the principal, and the school psychologist.

I was 49. I was in a job with people I thought I didn’t like, and this day and its aftermath proved it. I feel like there is no part of this I don’t remember. In part because it was so horrifying. In part because the script was so predictable and everyone said their part right on cue, including vowing, “Change!” when there would be no change. Internet culture did allow some new scenes to be added to the script, including a whole community of people dedicated to proving this never happened, that it was some kind of Obama-staged plot to take away their guns. A community of people who still send death and rape threats to family members of the murdered children.

Because there are always way the horrific can get even more horrific.

May 23, 2014, Isla Vista, California. 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a stabbing and shooting rampage just outside the main campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rodger stabbed to death three men in his apartment. Leaving the scene in his car, he drove to a sorority house, where he shot four people outside, killing two female students. He drove to a nearby deli and shot to death a male student. He then sped through Isla Vista, shooting at bystanders and striking four people with his car. After crashing his car he committed suicide.

51 now, my life split between two households, one in Philadelphia and one in Center Valley, PA. I wasn’t watching tv as this story unfolded, and don’t actually remember a lot of the exact details. What I do remember is the fight that erupted around how the cops and parents and friends and media ignored or tried to downplay the role his hatred for women played in his violence, including his targeting of a specific sorority. Public conversations erupted about men’s rights groups and trolls and friend-zoning and how women are stalked and terrorized online. These conversations have kept on happening around certain cultural icons – Gamergate, Anita Sarkeesian, #NOTALLMEN, #YESALLWOMEN, PUA.

And now something I find challenging to write – I see how my memories are strongest of events that fit into my political narrative about gender and violence against women. I know why all of these events play against a soundtrack of the Judy Small chorus, “Why does “gunman” sound so familiar, while “gunwoman” doesn’t quite ring true? What is it about men that makes them do the things they do?” And I see in my list that the first two shootings I remember were by women. And see how my experiences in the late 1980s trying to help a lesbian being battered (included threatened with a shotgun) by her partner and then trying to get the lesbian community to acknowledge lesbian battering taught me searing lessons about how women can be much better at intimate violence than men ever could. And that nonetheless I hate how the media has adopted “shooter” rather than “gunman” because the former disguises gender, pretending this isn’t part of male-pattern violence. I remember events that fit my narrative and not ones that don’t, which only makes me human. The challenge for me is to figure out how to honor people who remember totally other events, or the same events in totally different ways, in order to fit their own narratives. Because yes, I do think my narrative is more true than narratives that ignore gender or narratives that assert “guns don’t kill people.” But now, at 52, I know I am much less interested in being the one who is right, much more open to nuance and gray areas and complicated answers. I’m trying hard to learn what it means to live with a Niels Bohr insight I discovered through the writings of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan: the opposite of a great truth is another great truth.

Which brings me to this week, October, 2015, and the shooting at a college in Oregon whose name I’ve already backgrounded. Being honest with myself, I probably won’t remember this particular shooting in ten or twenty years. Or maybe I will, because of its ties to the assertion of U.S. right-wing Christians that there is a “war” against them and this shooting is more evidence of that. Because those particular Christians are part of the war against Patriarchy that fits into my own life story.

This shooting isn’t triggering my high school nightmare, nor shock nor grief. But there is horror of a new kind, the horror of acknowledging how deeply these school shootings have shaped my life. How I would not be the same me without them. How they are the story of my country and I am its citizen and how the contours of even my most intimate self have grown around these acts of violence, as a tree planted beside a barbed wire fence envelopes the barbs and keeps on growing.

Dykes in Tuxes: part 1, the Tony Awards


Like most of us, ever since the Diane Sawyer Interview and Vanity Fair Cover I’ve been thinking a lot about gender, about appropriation of clothes and image, about what constitutes “sexy” and for whom.

Although it is more fair to say I think about that stuff all the time. Those questions, about sex and gender and power, are at the heart of how I understand feminism as an analysis of power in my society. Not Feminism as an identity (are you or aren’t you) or Feminism as a set of answers. Feminism as a series of hard, honest-as-possible questions. Uncomfortable questions – cause if you’re entirely comfortable with your answers, you haven’t asked the right question yet. The closer an issue is to our core, to our understanding of our place in the world, the more important it is that we ask the uncomfortable questions.

And I have a lot of uncomfortable questions to ask about gender as it is playing out in the current social debates.

But first, another pop-culture event of the moment, the Tony Awards, for which I hauled my tiny little tv and Roku downstairs and then had to pay $6 to CBS for “Full Access” because I don’t have cable. This year, for the first time, this show and its entire artistic and power structure had actual relevance to my life. For the first time, Dykes, not just the occasional gay women or bit lesbian roles, but Dykes were onstage and in the award program. I had considered not watching, because I’m going to see the show next week and didn’t want to watch only one production number isolated and in advance. But then the Fun Home team insisted on “Ring of Keys” as their song in the show, and Sunday at 9 pm became a Dyke Cultural Moment, which are damn near otherwise extinct.

Of course I was sobbing even before the first note was sung. As in sobbing-gasping- for-breath. Scaring my dog sobbing. Sobbing that comes from a place in my heart that was empty and hollow and just waiting for words and images to fill it.

Which is what Alison Bechdel has been doing for us, for dykes, since all of us were young and high on the energy created when hundreds of thousands of women were coming out all across the country within just a few years. I was in Madison Wisconsin then, a perfect place to be for who I was and who I wanted to grow to be, and when I first walked into one of the Dyke Dance parties I could only stand there in awe and a little fear and, and,

And, honestly, searching for words I didn’t have yet. Which is why that moment in “Ring of Keys” when Young Alison sings “I feel” and then stumbles, having no words, broke me open.

That moment, and then the word swagger. Do you know how deeply swagger is a Dyke word?

I am the dyke in the matter, the other
I am the wall with the womanly swagger
I am the dragon, the dangerous dagger
I am the bulldyke, the bulldagger.
Judy Grahn

Swagger – it’s sexual, it’s cocky, it’s Male, it’s pirate-ly. One swaggers only when one owns not only one’s body but also the entire space around the body. It is the direct opposite of femininity and mincing along in high heels.* Swagger is the lesbian appropriation of the male power to claim the body, claim the space, be open and proud and loud. Swagger is utterly direct evidence that Lesbians were creating this show.

Before sobbing all during the song and again after it members of Dyke Nation were carefully scanning every audience shot, especially as Fun Home started racking up awards. Where was Alison? She was there, we all knew, but why weren’t they showing her?? Someone texted a link to Urvashi Vaid’s twitter feed in which Alison was shown on the red carpet. With a backpack on. Oh goddess yes!

And then Fun Home had won Best Musical and the whole cast and crew were onstage and still WHERE THE HELL WAS ALISON? Then someone pushed her forward and there she was, her handsome butch self, in a tux, young-Alison’s very fantasy of being a GQ cover image.

And there I was crying again, such violent gratitude for even this one little Butch Dyke moment in the world of violent silencing. For, as performer Sara Felder pointed out, even as Fun Home was winning there was still a wall of silence:

Yet another Tony Awards reflection:
What does it mean to name and be named?
Considering the large wins for Fun Home and Curious Incident, i don’t think I heard the words: ‘queer, dyke, gay, homosexual, butch’ (nor from Curious Incident – autism spectrum.) Even the description of Fun Home from the Grey family, managed to describe it without saying the words. (Yes, I know he came out as gay recently, so there was an implication there.) I missed the first hour so I assume I missed this? or…? It’s interesting to me because it is such a huge step towards lesbian/butch visibility… yet… was it there and I missed it? Surprising, right? (Sara Felder, Facebook post, June 8th, 2015)

And of course Sara didn’t miss it. There wasn’t an it. So ok, maybe it isn’t the job of an awards show to fully acknowledge all the social-change implications of a musical or play. But in an evening when Alan Cumming was making ENDLESS JOKES ABOUT HIS BISEXUAL DESIRES, the gaping difference between gay and lesbian realities was, well, gaping.

And don’t get me started on the absence of dykes and butches. We don’t exist. There was a time when the phrases “butch dyke” or “bull dyke” or “bull dagger” were thrown around publicly as the ultimate cultural put-downs, THE way to scare women by flinging up images of the MONSTERS they’d become if they turned gay. Before that time, in closeted underground Dyke Time, butch dyke was a real thing, a known way for a human female to be, but then that knowledge was erased. And, to my own shame years later, the eraser was driven in large part by the lesbian feminist culture I embraced when I came out. We wore jeans and flannel shirts and men’s shoes and decried all that was feminine but derided older Butches for being “too male.”**

Yep, my own tribe tried to erase swagger. For a while, at least, but swagger couldn’t be fully kept down. Swaggering is too much fun, and once one feels the freedom of swaggering it is impossible to forget. Swaggering has meant many different things over the years in between, associated with “lost bar dyke” culture, “scary publicly sexual dyke” culture, and “jock dyke” culture. These days there is an active effort to reclaim Butch in face of the FTM activism, as evidenced in the Butch Voices movement.

For To Swagger is to be Butch. To be public. To insist on taking up space, on being seen, even if not named, as in the Tony Awards.

A quick quiz – name 2 items of clothing that represent Butchly Swagger.
1. Tux, and not the cut-to-fit-model-female-body-breasts-hanging-out tux but a real tux
2. The wallet or keys or both hanging on the chain from the belt loop. Which, of course, requires having clothing that has belt loops.

Sunday night we had both, of course, along with silence. The words “butch” and “dyke” don’t belong in the verses of “Ring of Keys,” because the strength of the song is how Young Alison doesn’t the vocabulary for what she nonetheless inherently knows. Of course, we Dykes watching knew the Butch being seen, both from the comic strip and from the actual panel in Fun Home:

Bechdel i-vi,1-234F

We saw her there on stage, that big ole’ butch, knew she had swaggered in and would swagger out again. Did anyone else SEE her? I have no way of knowing, although I always suspect not. I am so grateful to the writers for using swagger repeatedly in the chorus, for letting it carry the cultural significance of referring to the swaggering bull dyke more strongly than anything else that’s ever existed on a mainstream stage. (Or even most gay or lesbian stages – playwright Carolyn Gage has written about this extensively. For an overview of her work, watch her narrated slide show “The Butch Visibility Project,” which is embedded below.)

I do know the world saw Alison herself on stage, even if they weren’t sure what they were seeing, and even if Fun Home was rushed off the stage so a song from Jersey Boys could come on. And I do know that, in the middle of a sea of hyper-determined-gender outfits Alison was in a tux.

Of course.

Cause can you in any way imagine her (or Mo) in one of those dresses?


coming up in part 2:


*Although, to be fair, I have seen jocks forced into heels for family functions swagger in those heels, in which case the femininity becomes an uncomfortable costume and the pointy shoes take on a weapon-like quality.

**I think a lot about why this happened. These days I’m pinning it on class. Those old dykes were pretending to be men, the argument went, whereas we are appropriating male power and freedom. The difference being we had gone to college and read books about it.

Shez and Translating are Back!

In my ongoing struggle to pull myself out of this damnable pit of festering depression, I’m returning to studying Hebrew and to finishing Shez’s manuscript. Today I am sending it off to Alice James for their translation open reading period. Yes I am, although I have only ten hours left to get everything together and turned in.

As I do that, here’s a recent piece on Shez from an Israeli website: Poem of Shabbat

And here is a very very rough translation of the article:


Shez is a poet and a writer in a well established and important and central figure in the development of community [name of her poetry workshop series]. It is also offering of workshops, and people who know her workshop know they  are not only a place of writing and creativity but also a place of deep mental processes.

Shez is a poet with a special sound, sometimes blunt, sharp and honest to the extreme, which  shows with honesty her hard life story. Her poetry, as well as a weekly column of her  published poems, has strong presence of violence and pain on one side and also tenderness and intimacy and closeness. This tension between the two poles of the soul, of our existence, makes her singing shaking and strong. Her poetry is willing to devote itself to the truth, the truth which is also extreme and distorted, it is willing to devote itself to comfort and compassion. The honest poetry evokes not only solidarity, it also gives the reader the feeling that there can not be pretense or coloring of the world too bright colors, integrity like that allows her poetry to penetrate deep our psychological structure.

The Art of Craft: a series of craft classes for writers, readers, and teachers

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The Art of Craft: a series of craft classes for writers, readers, and teachers
Big Blue Marble Bookstore
Thursdays, 7-9 pm
April 16th – May 21st

Considering an MFA? Wondering how to take your poetry to the next level? Try on MFA-style learning with this series of craft talks and focused workshops. Each week we’ll focus on a different element of poetic craft, first in the work of great contemporary poets and then in our own writing.

The cost for the entire series of 6 classes and workshops is $300. In honor of National Poetry Month, if you and a friend sign up together you’ll each save 1/3 – $400 total price for both of you!

If you are a teacher, or avid poetry reader, you can attend only the 6 one-hour craft talks for $150. Special discounts for Bring-A-Friend and for Philadelphia public school teachers. Please email.

To register or find out more, go to: Register for the Art of Craft


April 16th Thinking Like a Poet

We begin by exploring HOW a poem works, considering formal strategies, language, diction, time and space, music and clatter, movement and grounding

April 23rd A Density of Sound

How does the poem sing? What is the chatter, the clatter, the smooth move, the structure, the improv? How do poets use sound to structure the poem and to convey its emotion, context, meaning, and urgency?

April 30th Spines and Joints

What is the central axis of your poem? Where does it bend, rotate, flex? How and when do other voices/views come into the poem?

May 7th Measuring Meter

The inherent meters of English live in everything we write. We’ll study how meter controls the pace and meaning of poems, and how to use meter as a tool for revising.

May 14th Walking the Line

Never again worry about where to put in line breaks—because lines don’t break. Lines end, when their work in the poem is complete. Break the myth of the break, and free your lines to be the great engines of your writing.

May 21st Case Study: The Persona Poem

Persona poems, or poems that speak in a first person voice that is clearly not the voice of the poet, have been adapted to many interesting uses in the past decades. We’ll look at some of the most original and most startling voices, while considering structural issues such as how poets enter and leave the persona poem.