The most common name-change question

This post was inspired by recent questions from Katie Mills and Stinky. The topic was women not changing their names when they get married, and Katie said, "I'm curious, what do you say to the the multiple hyphen after multiple generations argument? Like your daughter will be Biffle-Piepmeier-Smith and her daughter will be Biffle-Piepmeier-Smith-Johnson?" Similarly, Stinky asked, "What do you recommend the children's last name be if the parents have different last names? If it were the cultural norm to hyphenate childrens' names, then before too many generations, we'd end up with a horrible mess of huge last names."

This, as you might suspect from the title of this post, is the most common question I get when I make an argument against women changing their names when they get married, or when I share that Walter and I decided that either both of us would change our names or neither of us would. (And you all know that Biffle-Piepmeier is just an unimaginably bad last name, which is why we haven't yet hyphenated.) I dealt with this a tiny bit on January 3, but I wanted to give it a little more attention here.

Before I give my answer to the question, let me lapse into a Biffle-esque backstory and explain why this name change thing matters to me at all. Women changing their names when they get married is a direct hold-over from the days when a woman's legal identity became her husband's when she got married. When she was born, she was her father's property, and she remained his property until she got married, at which point she became the same legal person as her husband. This concept was known in the U.S. as feme covert --it meant that the husband and wife had one identity, and that identity was the husband's. She couldn't own property, she had no right to their children, she had no right to determine what happened to her body, and she essentially had no citizenship. That started changing with the Married Women's Property Act of 1848, but many parts of the feme covert ideology lingered well into the 1960s and '70s. In fact, many feminist theorists argue--pretty convincingly, if you ask me--that our legal system still acts as though the woman is her husband's property even today. Witness the incredibly low prosecution rates for domestic violence, and the fact that marital rape is not against the law in states like Tennessee and South Carolina. Married women reading this, beware: in these states, once you get married, you've given permission to have sex anytime he wants. Forced sex doesn't count as rape unless he uses a weapon or causes serious bodily injury.

So. The name change is a hold-over from all that. When a woman in 1840 got married, she was literally Mrs. John Smith. Her identity was gone. That wasn't baggage that Walter or I wanted to bring into this partnership. Plus, I'm attached to my name. It's who I am. As Lucy Stone said in the 1850s, "My name is my identity and must not be lost." Why should I be expected to abandon that because I'm female? Why doesn't anyone ask guys who are getting married, "Well, are you going to take her name? Do you think she'll be upset if you don't?"

So, what do non-single-name families do if they have kids? My answer is, we--as a culture--haven't figured that out yet. We may have to wallow around in some confusion for a while, trying different things. Some people may hyphenate. Some may choose a new last name altogether (Bifflemeier, for instance). Maybe some men will take their wives' last names. At any rate, I don't think easiness is a compelling enough argument for keeping any tradition--we need to examine the tradition and decide if it's worth keeping. (Plus, as Walter points out, what's easy about going to the DMV and insurance companies and your employer and saying, "No, my name is this now"?)

Walter and I have decided that if we have kids we'll alternate last names--I have a couple of friends who've done that. But the first kid will definitely have to be a Piepmeier, because otherwise everyone will think we've copped out and opted for the kids to have his last name. Everything's a political statement to me, I know. But everything is a political statement to me.

Other common name change questions and my answers:

Q: Why don't you support a woman's right to change her name if she wants to?
A: She certainly has this right, and I'm not arguing that it should be taken away. But for something to be a real choice, there has to be more than one option that's acceptable. Currently, a surprisingly high percentage of women in heterosexual marriages change their names--I don't know the percentage, but anytime I see it, it surprises me because it's so high. Let's say 90%. If 90% of women are choosing this, then that says to me that there are cultural pressures affecting women's ability to make a free choice. Not to mention the fact that probably 0.1% of men who get married change their names, so there's a severe double standard here, and those always trouble me.

Q: But it's so romantic to take your husband's name! What about that?
A: Oppressive cultures always romanticize the tools of their oppression. The slave South was loaded with tools for making slavery seem charming. Colonial powers create and perpetuate images of the colonized people that make the colonization seem natural, healthy, desirable. I'm not suggesting that a woman changing her name is on par with slavery, of course, but I'm saying that just because something feels good doesn't mean that it's defensible. Cultures train us to feel certain things because those feelings perpetuate power hierarchies within the culture. Naomi Wolf refers to these as a culture's "necessary fictions."

Q: Well, if I keep my name when I get married, I'm just carrying on my father's name, which is just as patriarchal.
A: Yeah, it's true, but we've got to start somewhere.


"nice," part 2

so one of my central ideas from yesterday's post--although the good stuff i want to say always seems to get lost in the blabbing--concerned being a good consumer. being a good consumer is one of the ways i'm slowly moving to the woods.

oh, and deandre, listen: just keep moving along for a few more years and then maybe we can all start that organic farm together.

so, i like to appropriate words for my own purposes. for example, one of my favorite bastardizations of our language is my use of the word "mannerism." mannerism was a style of painting that followed what most of us would recognize as renaissance. actually, most folks would probably identify mannerist painting as still being a renaissance painting, i.e. fleshy religious people, floating around, draped in red robes with a couple of cherubs nearby. the distinction between these two styles of painting, though, is a fun one. and, for me, an important one.

the best way to explain it is to say that the goal for renaissance painting was an accurate and "proper" depiction of nature. (that's part of that platonic ideal i mentioned yesterday.) mannerist painting, on the other hand, was a kind of changing of the gaurd in which all the formal, technical issues of representation had been solved. perspective had been mastered; underpainting techniques, the use of light and dark, proper composition, even paint itself had all been figured out. it was at this point where some painter said (maybe for the first time) "shit, man. everything's been done before. what am i gonna do to be different?" he said this in italian, of course.

what he chose to do, then, technically speaking, was to actually imitate art--not nature. not speaking technically, what he decided to do was (and this is where my language appropriation comes in) to become a grotesque approximation of himself. in other words, he gave over to style for style's sake.

there is ample evidence of my version of mannerism all over the place. frank gehry has entered his manneristic phase. matter of fact, gehry became a mannerist by his second building. (i guess that's the price of being wildly original--and wildy shallow. george jones, for instance, got a good twenty years of mannerism in before he wore it out).

alright. so there's mannerism. one word that i destory. here's another couple:

tactics and strategies. i don't know where this pair of words comes from. i had thought it was the invention of the dutch or french situationists until recently. it may, however, be a term that was created by economists. no matter, though, it would be fitting and par-for-the-course for the situationsts to co-opt something like that from economists. so, anyway, i have co-opted them for myself. The way i use them--and the way that most people use them i think (i was just covering my own butt in case i'm way off base)--is that a tactic is something that takes little nibbles out of a big machine. a strategy is a thing that brings the whole machine down.

okay. so here's where i tie all this together. oh...and forget mannerism. that was just a tangent. what i really want to talk about is tactics and strategies and how to be a good consumer. see, i've tried to make my slow move to the woods by becoming a smarter consumer. one of the ways i do this is by tactics: i try not to shop at big box stores. i try to buy very few products that are manufactured in china, $2 a dozen t-shirts are out, sweatshop shoes, car travel, pre-processed foods are all avoided. (i do have a weakness for barbeque chips, though.)

okay. so far, so good. most of us do those things. now, where my strategies come in--oh, and i mean all this stuff on a personal level. this strategy isn't one trying to get YOU to change, or meant as advice. it's just things that i think i've done that i'm proud of and want to put them out there in case some wanderer actually comes along and reads this blog...anyway, my strategies for myself, i think, started with things that had to do with my body.


hey! ya know what? that's enough. i know i write too much. i'm just gonna stop here and continue tommorrow, you know?

so. coming tommorrow: Clothes!

have a nice day, y'all.


wandering ruminations on "nice" re: our new rug and other things

in wendell berry's essay called "why i am not going to buy a computer" he made a list of "rules" he has for purchasing new tools. here is that list:

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

now, of course, this list really is about tools. it is not about a rug--which in a way could be considered a tool--but for my purposes here i don't want to bring that part up. if i compare our new rug purchase to berry list, what's the score?

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.

it was not.

2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.

na. being bigger was part of it's function.

3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.

it does.

4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.

it does (hand made).

5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.

wool and hand made, again.

6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.

it is.

7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.

it is. (although it had to shipped across the ocean, which makes it a miserable failure).

8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.

it did.

9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

i don't know enough about the production of most of these rugs to know whether their production and sales help or hurt a community. it is better, possibly, than a machine made rug from china. (there's a host of things to think about here, e.g. whether respectful child labor is better than pollution-producing behemoth machines.)


now, really what this boils down to for me is did we really need that rug? and how far does need go? is it okay to simply buy something really nice for yourself mostly because it is beautiful? is this rug my version of a humvee?

all of these questions have their root....and just for the record i can spell the word "their,"
i just seem to have some muscle memory problem that always spells "thier"...anyway, all of these questions have their root in my schooling for furniture. it's a confusing swirl of information that i can't write out coherently without a lot of effort (not what this blog is about).

see, i wanted to start making wooden furniture because i respected the quality of hand work and i respected wood as a material (one of our few truly renewable resources among other reasons). it didn't take long before i noticed that most of what furniture is about has nothing to do with function. it is almost exclusively about style.

there was a television commercial i saw recently that had people sitting on the floor, walking in a door and dropping their keys on the floor (rather than the table you knew should have been there) etc. the punch line was "what would our lives be like without furniture?" well, hang your stupid keys on a hook, you know? we should sit on the floor. and on and on.

okay. to stay on point here, what develops next is the question of what constitutes function, right? so i was asked a good question along the way: performing beauty can be a function, can't it? the answer is absolutely. i like being surrounded by my version of beautiful objects. but then, are we back to consumptiveness? i condemn the person for owning a humvee, but pat myself on the back for owning a rug, or a pavoni espresso machine, or a rancillio coffee grinder.
i guess, for me, it all boils down to the conspicuous part of the consumption. what objects do i desire that make me appear beautiful to other people? (what would i still want to use/own if i lived on a desert island?) and, concerning things that i consider beautiful (and would take to the desert island), what cultural constructions have formed that perception of beauty? it's a slippery slope, man.


back in the day, the craftsman movement tried to compete with machines. stickley furniture is one of the results of this attempt. i think it is relatively timeless. but then, is there a "timeless?" in other words, is there a platonic ideal? is there something that can rise above style? no. there isn't. So, then, are we to always be victims of the cult of the new?

i think it all boils down to a self-discipline. that's as far as i've gotten in this philosophical conundrum. i have to become an active member of my own life, trying to recognize all these conflicting folds of want and need. my mantra, most of the time, is do with less.

i've almost driven myself crazy at times by trying to achieve too much, too fast. there were a number of years there when i thought the only way out of this thing was "to move to the woods." in other words, the mantra was to be do with nothing. these days i've just accepted to slowly move to the woods. after all, a lot of the guilt i suffer for owning/using the things i do is...what do you call those people that beat themselves? stand in the creek and whip thier own backs?...anyway, i beat myself to pay for the consumptiveness of others.

i've heard that every man woman and child on earth, if placed shoulder to shoulder, could fit within the state of texas. now, let's be generous and say that it's really the entire western portion of the united states. that's still a lot of room left over. the point is, i figure there's more than enough room and enough stuff to go around, we just shouldn't most of us be so wasteful most of the time.

to close and in a nod to the self discipline comment above, i'll quote some more wendell. he's a loveable, humorous, brilliant and kind-hearted curmudgeon, that wendell berry:

My final and perhaps mv best reason for not owning a computer is that I do not wish to fool myself. I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil. I do not see why I should not be as scientific about this as the next fellow: when somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante's, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of a computer, then I will speak of computers with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not buy one.

have a good day.


just postin' a picture

hi. i got jealous of everybody else having a cute picture of themselves, so i put one of me on here. do you think i'll be able to link to this as a url so that it'll show it on my profile?

in other news: when i go back to massachusetts i'm taking the train! sleeper car and everything!

Alison and Walter in the news

Here are a couple of recent newspaper articles that quoted me--one in the Houston Free Press on roller derby and one in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on women changing or not changing their names when they get married.

Also, somewhat randomly, Walter and I were interviewed by Money Magazine, of all things, about being in a commuter marriage--thanks to Sara Walker for the link!


Biffle-isms through the years (and a story about a rug)

In honor of Walter's parents, who were visiting us this weekend, I'd like to present some classic Jim Biffle-isms.

"I wouldn't walk around the house six times for that." --after tasting some salmon at Sam's Club

"I have a third sense."
--referring to his almost-eerie psychic abilities (this one is my personal favorite.)

"I can do that faster than I can bite my eye."

"I can't phantom how you can do that."

"Everybody has a right to their own opinion, but they're wrong."

And the most impressive Biffle-ism of all time...

"I wouldn't give her the sweat off of my eyebrows if she was dying of thirst."

here are some photos of the visit--fort sumter, daddy's idea of the perfect medium well steak and our new rug.

hi. it's walter writing now. mama and daddy came to town this weekend for the dual purpose of giving us their first visit to our new digs in charleston and to help us buy a rug. the rug was thier christmas present to us this year.

we played our cards right, too. here's the story: originally, alison and i had decided to get one of those sisel or seagrass rugs that are omnipresent at pottery barns and ikea and stuff right now. back at christmas we didn't know exactly what we wanted, it was gonna have to be shipped to us, we didn't know what we were gonna give m & d for their gift, etc., so we made up a better game plan, namely: give mama and daddy a gift certificate to hominy grill (our standard visitor/charleston experience restaurant)and have them visit us in january. then we'd all go buy the rug together.

here's how we played our cards right: my father, if given the correct opportunity, is notoriously generous. i cannot tell you the number of times in my childhood that a man has walked up to daddy, handed him a hundred dollars, and said "i'll get the rest to you as soon as i can." (i've usually found out later that daddy has loaned them perhaps even thousands of dollars at no interest and allowed them to pay him back on their own schedule.)

anyway...although i know that part of that loaning thing is his generosity, another part is the fact that daddy cannot pass up a good deal, or pass up something that he really loves--especially when it's for someone he loves. well, i had gone shopping for rugs and had started to become a little disenchanted with the seagrass option. they aren't really a good item. shorter life span, machine-made, non-colorful, and--most damning--in fashion right now.

(another post will have to deal with the guilt i feel about spending money on nice/stylish things. but for now, i'll leave off by just saying that if you're gonna buy something nice, buy as nice as you can possibly afford. make sure that the thing that you buy was made as ethically as possible and that it will last as long as possible--hopefully a life time.)

so we went to a locally-owned home decor store in charleston and started looking. first off, daddy did not approve of the seagrass. too cheap. so then we started looking at the more persian kind of carpets. then we started comparing the "tufted" to the "hand-knotted," and discussing the lifespan. and then...from out of the crowd of rugs--emerged THE RUG. daddy and i had spotted the exact same rug and had decided that it HAD to be the one. a hand woven carpet, traditionally turkish, with a flat weave called summack or soumak, depending on where you look. all wool, great colors, right size--and best of all at the right price (if, of course, they had decided to give us twice the budget with their christmas gift). well, no matter. daddy decided we had to have it.

to cut this tale short, i'll just say that our eventual agreement was that m & d would pay for the entire thing and we could, or course, pay them back when we were able. (oh...and although the salesperson seemed curiously unswayed by daddy's horse-trading charm, we did finally get the rug pad thrown in for free.)

coming soon: as to give equal time to christmas gifts, a post that brags on my new commercial grade coffee mill alison's equally generous parents got me for christmas, and ethical ruminations on owning "nice" things...



"Marlboro," from a comment concerning home inspections on Kevin and Katie's blog last Friday:

"I wrote 'inpection' TWICE. I ruined the internet."

more about tools

long ago, in a blog concerning tools, i wrote "if you're having to work too hard, you're doing it wrong." since i'm currently doing a little work on the house right now, i figured i'd write a little more about tools and doin' stuff...and stuff.

most of the time on here i'm just writing a bunch of crap. i don't know how "true" it is or anything, i just write it. well, the same goes for that "you're doing it wrong" statement. i had my doubts when i wrote it--some things are just difficult, you know? some things require one to grunt and be uncomfortable. like working under the sink. that's a pain. holding things above your head is too. but the deal is, i think that i've come to the conclusion--under the sink and above your head notwithstanding--i wholeheartedly agree with what i wrote.

one of the reasons i like writing and thinking about tools and thier use concerns the passage of information that goes along with them. a person just can't read a book and learn how to do a thing, or use a tool well. the information has to be passed first person. there's so many subtleties in physical labor. how true is this about non-physical labor? (that's a real question)
like, i learned rudimentary html skills by reading a book. do good code people need to see the other person do it? is the verbal passing of certain tricks important to them? (and who's to say that coding html isn't a "physical" thing, anyway, right?)

anyway, i love that--most of the time--two people have to be present, in the moment, in order to learn a good physical craft practice. there's also been a life lesson in there for me in particular because i'm not a particularly good student. i'm like "yeah, just gimme the damn screwdriver..."

if you're working too hard, you didn't take the time to watch the other person do it right.

so anyway, i've just made a sandwich. well, not a real sandwich, more of just a 'wich. open-face, as some like to call it. it's made from the leftover pot roast and vegtables from last night's dinner. first off, i'd like to say that left overs are proof-positive of this aphorism i've come up with. i mean, i just reached in the fridge and made a delicious 'wich in 60 seconds.

always make more food than you need for one meal.

here's the reason i bring this sandwich up, though:

the proper tool for spreading mayonnaise is A SPOON. how in the world can you get all the mayo you need with just a knife? and the leftover mayo on the spoon is just the right amount for licking. not enough on a knife. plus, spoons clean off easier in your mouth--use a knife and it doesn't come as clean as the spoon. then ya gotta wash the knife and all that stuff. with a spoon, you put it in your mouth--the spoon being ergonomically pleasing to the mouth--and clean it off. it usually comes clean in one pass. that way you can stick it back in the drawer--after you wipe it off with your shirt--and no one's the wiser. right?

alright. so what do we have so far?

--if you're working too hard, you're doing it wrong.
--always cook more food than you need for one meal.
--the proper tool for spreading mayonnaise is a spoon.

and now, mon friers, i must go to a meeting with people that show me how to be happy one day at a time.

have a good day.


ways of seeing (marathon blog entry--even for me)

i once asked a kid what way the stations went when he changed the channels with a remote control. (he was about 4 years old.) the adults didn't understand the question, but the four year old knew automatically knew what i was talking about. "they lay over top of each other" was his answer. for me, they sit one over the other, like steps on a ladder. mostly this has to do with the fact that my teevee remote has up/down buttons. i'm sure if i got a new remote with right/left buttons my perception of this would change.

what i'm getting at is there are models of seeing. architects for instance might use an arterial model to design a house: big hallway with rooms branching off. gille deleuze, the french theorist, has suggested a postmodern way of seeing that uses the rhizome as a model. here's a definition from the internet for rhizome:

A modified plant stem which grows horizontally, under the surface of the soil. New growth then emerges from different points of the rhizome. Irises and some lawn grasses are rhizome plants.

the idea is, that rhizomes grow everywhichaway. they grow out of themselves, back into themselves, springing up new growth at any turn. so a house designed like a rhizome--somewhat like our old victorian on lischey--might not even have a hallway. if one takes this example to an extreme--the way that deleuze seems to want it--it might suggest that as you walk through a house, entering the room furthest from the kitchen, walking toward a door that actually heads away from the kitchen, you might walk through that door and find yourself...yep, in the kitchen. (if i was really on the ball i'd know the quantum physics name for this concept--you know, where you exit one side of a sphere just to enter at the opposite side...)

anyway. i'm seriously messing up here--mostly because i'm approaching this writing from the model of a rhizome... the point is that i see things according to shapes. i think most people do--they just might not be as aware of it as others. another simple way to address this--and one that gets me closer to what i actually want to talk about here is this: a christian might see salvation as "up." a buddhist might see their salvation equivalent as a bunch of twists with one big tendril sticking off somewhere.

okay. so check this out: one time back in drawing class, lo these many years ago, a girl said to me "wow, you really draw good. i wish i could do that." she asked me how i got good at art. she asked me if i had other talents. she asked me how come i seemed happy all the time.

i was sold. she was cute, smart, and she talked about my favorite subject. (me, of course). then, one day, she said "i'm happy all the time, too. i have jesus in my life." i said congradulations. she asked me if i had jesus in my life....etc. etc. i started to recognize the m.o.: she was "recruiting." she had probably gone to a workshop on how to get new members, converts, whatever for her church. i resented the hell out of this. i felt taken advantage of. it was as if i'd met a new friend at a bar, had shared some intimate thoughts, only to be asked--after a few hours--if i had good life insurance.

alright. i get on jags about "ways of seeing." currently, i'm on a jag--a big rhizomatic type jag--about how everybody is recruting everybody for their side and how this needs to stop. we're all using "activist" methods. alison is an activist, i'm an activist, the girl in my drawing class was an activist. the people/persons with all the "you're going to hell" comments on our blog here are more than likely activists.

(the reason i make this assumption is because alison and i enabled the "comment moderator" feature on blogspot. the comments are fowarded to a blogspot waystation, until we edit them. the latest "going to hell" post came just minutes after we set that up. the person sent one (for example) at 9:00 a.m. then, they sent the exact same post again at 9:01--more than likely because their first post didn't show up and they were confused. they were cutting and pasting the message. like a form letter. the sherlock holmes in me leads me to think that this is an activist project by a church somewhere to counteract what they see as liberal blogging.)

i respect this. i'm not crazy about it, but i respect it. i'm doing much the same thing with the bannedfromwalmart web site. alison does this in her women's studies classroom. everybody is recruiting...

okay. so let me get down to the brass tax (tacks?) here: my latest jag concerns this idealogical standoff, this (linear? rhizomatic?) impasse we've currently reached in our culture. something's got to give, folks.

i've spent three years--three years!--trying to figure out how to make art in this climate. I'd like to say here that i've officially become weary. maybe i've reached a point where i see all activist work as something of a rhizome itself. it isn't going to sort itself out. and then people talk about left and right, right and wrong, but i'm not certain that's going anywhere either. after all, a straight line can't go anywhere but further in opposite directions.


as i write this, a parade is passing the front of our house--something that starts in one place and ends at another. it's in honor of martin luther king day. are there any white people out there? no. charleston has some serious racial problems going on.


okay. a few month ago i found a pretty good word. that word is mandorla.

here's the definition of mandorla:

An ancient symbol, and the Italian word for "almond," Mandorla refers to the union of opposites. Two overlapping circles--representing the interdependence of different worlds or energies--form the Mandorla, a shape revered by multiple cultures. To step into the Mandorla is to move beyond "either-or" thinking - even beyond ideas of common ground or compromise - and stand in the tension of opposites long enough for something new to emerge. In the realm of the Mandorla, the whole truly yields something greater than the sum of its parts, opening doors of possibility, discovery, and creativity.

now, don't discount this word because of the new-agey references to "energies" or the nod to "multiple cultures." the real real thing in here for me is the idea that thinking goes "beyond ideas of common ground or compromise." that's pretty challenging.

using yet more visual language, what i see currently out in culture is a circular continuum: some folks i see as inhabiting a far far left or right point on a long curving line. they've moved into a territory that i consider the ideological equivilent of the opposite end of their own end of the line. in other words, i have conversations with leftish people that are as full of self-referential mumbo jumbo and are no less dogmatic than the rhetoric of the far far right/christian end of the line that i grew up with.

to put it yet another way, on one side of me i've got somebody saying that i'm going to hell because i support a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. on the other side, i have...well, i have alison saying that i'm "going to hell" for actually questioning this belief.
(that's unfair of me to use alison as an example there, but she knows--and you guys know--my penchant for hyperbole.) either way, though, i end up in hell.

as an artist, i've been trying to make work that reaches middle america. these are the people i care about. and by "middle america" (yet more visual terms) i don't just mean people in the "heartland" caught between new england and california. and i don't mean the people that inhabit one end of this line i've referred to. by "middle america" i mean a group of people that i've made a real effort to continue identifying with in my head. you see, i was raised to dislike*fags*. i told *nigger jokes* as a kid. i was raised to love jesus. i spent little or no time thinking about the actual nuts and bolts of being gay or black, or oppressed, about being incredibly wealthy or poverty stricken. i was normal--just like everybody else. that to me is middle america. let me tell you how far this actually goes:

until i was maybe eleven or twelve i thought that americans were "god's chosen people." in other words, i thought--even though i couldn't quite figure out how they'd gotten here--that the "israelites" we're the original americans and that the united states was the promised land. the reason for this, i now know, is because the "israelites" just kind of disappeared after the old testament. in the new testament, those people were described as "the jews" and pharisees and whatnot. those were the folks that killed jesus. bad jews! i didn't connect the two.

so, i don't tell jokes about black people anymore. i know that the old and new testament is one continuous story. i don't hate homosexuals. i continue to know almost next to nothing about judaism. i have, however, been willing to catalog these teachings in my head--and good thing, because, for better or worse, they appear to be there to stay, you know? (i still occasionally fear a white-bearded, mean-ass god on a throne ready to strike me down at a moment's notice). anyway, as a person who comes from there, i'm in the position to know just how hard it is to get away from that kind of thought.

here's an example about all this stuff at once, i.e. artwork, different ends of lines, my raisin', elitism, acitivism....

last night, alison and i went to see Brokeback Mountain. first of all, i'd like to say that it is one stunning movie. it had it all: soundtrack, cinematography, acting, script, screenplay, etc.etc. (i'm no movie reviewer). most importantly, though, i want to talk about the experience itself:

we went to an arthouse theater to see it. that automatically means that we saw it with "like-minded" people. my parents, for instance weren't there. as a matter of fact, i called my folks after the movie just to check in and they asked what i'd been doing...

m & d: what have you and alison been doing tonight?

a & w: went to a movie.

m & d: what'd ya see?

a & w (hesitatingly): brokeback mountain.

m: oh lord. that's that gay movie...
d: well, it's your dollar...

anyway, we sat in a theater filled with folks that didn't need to see the film as much as my parents. (or should i not say that, as it implies art is actually of an instructional/activist nature?) rows of women wanting to see heath ledger kiss another man, rows of mostly gay men wanting to see heath ledger kiss another man (i guess. if i were gay i'd have the hots for him).

if i really stop and consider this film--as i am doing right now--i recognize that i am wrecked. even before the movie started, i marveled at being surrounded by that many gay men in the actual theater. the place was full and they would touch each other as they passed by in the rows. can i do that? does that scare me?

the rows were amazingly segregated. women occupying most of one row, men the next. alison and i were one of the few mixed couples in the place. is that a good thing? why is it this way? does that mean more than i think?

the movie itself: without giving anything away for those who haven't seen it (although one of the outcomes is, sadly, totally predictable) i have to say that i was a little bit of everything in that movie. i was raised to be capable of violence like that. i am now a person who is capable of understanding the dilemmas faced by the protagonists.


i've gone on too long. i cannot write gracefully or succinctly about what i'm saying here. i can't tie all the threads of this long post together without some serious editing and a spell checker. what i want to get at is age old, though:

our promised land needs some understanding and empathy right now. and i don't mean just for two men who love each other and don't have a language or society that will allow them to express it. i mean for people that grew up like me, in a place that dangerously teeters between real love and violent fear.

there doesn't seem to be any way for me to know how many people there are like me out there. mostly that's because my kind of talk doesn't seem to be particularly welcomed by anyone right now. i am trying to live between real people that i actually know--one real person thinks that a gay scoutmaster is gonna bugger his child, another hates the boyscouts for their homophobic stance. i wonder sometimes if the people on both ends of this spectrum feel the way they do because they too are concerned with this middle place of understanding. that letting the other side in might encourage them to backslide into an old--or new--way of thinking?

shit. i give up. i would love to say more, but i just can't. i don't have the courage or the intellectual capacity to keep going right now--besides i'm tired of typing and i know you're tired of reading. hopefully, i'll be able to continue with all this in a more coherent fashion at a later date. until that time, i hope that we manage to go along and not hurt each other.

From Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, December 10, 1964

"When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born."


From "I See the Promised Land"

"We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that...we are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God's children."



Squinty-eye caught on film

As I mentioned in a previous post, Adam and Eliza are in Charleston this weekend, and I knew our avid blog readers would want to see what we've been up to...

Note the cool new futon cover.

Guest posting from Eliza:
Futon cover procurement happened at Urban Outfitters. The other option was kind of loud, something that could have gotten kind of tiring, if you looked at it too long, which is pretty much what you do with futon covers. We walked about five miles today, all over Charleston on a beautiful and blustery day, all bluey but then dark and windy for a couple of minutes. We've just returned from dinner at the Hominy Grill, which was excellent, and now Adam and Walter are playing guitar and bickering over whether Adam let Walter take his guitar to play at the V back in the day. Last night we heard Walter play at a brewpub and he and the band obligingly played Rocky Top for enthusiastic requesters. Half bear, the other half cat. Big blog news was that there is a new level of moderating, so no more surly-pants commentating.

I think this is it for my guest blog. Damn that is some squintyness happening in the photo.


Jack's Cosmic Dogs

At some point I'd like to post a list of our favorite places to go in Charleston--something we can refer to when guests come to town. I'm not going to do that now, but I am going to offer one little glimpse at a fun place we've just discovered: Jack's Cosmic Dog. Retro hot-doggy fun, with blue cheese slaw and sweet potato mustard on the dogs, root beer on tap, and a Galaga machine. And, as if you needed another reason to love this place, Jack himself is pro-choice--he donates food to Planned Parenthood fundraisers. That's how I found out about him.

Adam and Eliza are in town this weekend, and we may end up taking them for a cosmic dog.


humorous side note

alison has just read my entry and said "lord, biffle, there isn't gonna be any shitstorm of controversy--that thing's so long no one's gonna read it."

just beggin' for a shitstorm of controversy

recently it's become obvious to me that this public forum is indeed just that--a public forum. although i think alison and i have used this blog largely as a means to communicate with our friends and with each other while i was away at school, and as a place to think out loud, it has come to our attention--through the recent anonymous posts--that strangers actually read this thing. I don't know why, but they do.

with this in mind, and now that the visting posters have kinda slacked off, i'd like to respond to one particular person's comments. While most of the anonymouses were merely inflammatory and forgettable, this person's post actually made me angry. that, for me, is a surefire indicator that they are close to the mark, and i appreciate being made to think. On "yet more butt stories" the anonymous commentator had this to say:

"Liberal associates with liberal and is always prejudiced against conservative. The views expressed here are liberal, intolerant, and lack any sort of thought that has not been approved by a hippie elder. You like free speech as long as it ain't uncomfortable, protest Wal-Mart because you can afford to not shop there, and think your noble thoughts while hudreds of people sweat day and night to put a few grams of sugar or no-calorie substitute in your grande' cup of java. Get off your high horse and do something to make the world a better place. Then, maybe average Joe and Jane will think you ain't noblese or sig. noblese."

I'd now like to address what this person had to say, but with one caveat: (as my hero wendell berry so aptly stated one time) it is impossible to provide an adequate public defense of one's private life.

our writer says: "liberal associates with liberal and is always prejudiced against conservative."

it's mostly true. I think most capital "L" liberals are a bunch of smarmy, self-congradulatory, elistist snobs. I find, to paraphrase another one of our anonymous posters, that being like that isn't a way to enter into helpful dialog. I often find myself thinking holier-than-thou thoughts, buttressing my own goodness by pointing out the flaws of others, and i work everyday to stop doing this.

that said, i do not identify as a capital "L" liberal. i am, however, liberal. I believe a person can live however they want to. i do not, for instance, believe that there are "limits to freedom." i do believe that the freedoms we enjoy find their root in personal accountability, responsibility and a respect for other people's way of life.

next: "the views expressed here are liberal, intolerant and lack any sort of thought not approved by a hippie elder."

first, kudos for a well-constructed and witty sentence. This is the one that got my goat the most--particularly the hippie elder part. but i have to ask: are all three of these things meant as criticism? i like my definition of my own liberal-ness, so that's flattering. I really don't see the intolerant part except for the admission of often being holier-than-thou--but like i said, i'm working on it. "Hippie elder." this one hurt, and i know why. i have an ego. i'd like to think that i'm all cutting edge and stuff. i'd like to think that i'm wildly brilliant and individualistic, but i'm not. i'm just a mouthpiece for a lot of smarter people--most of them hippie elders. my two all time favorite hippie elders are Jesus and Wendell Berry. some other wildly influential ones are the artist Joseph Beuys; Bill Wilson, the founder of aa (and technically not a hippie); Hector Black, a farmer in cookeville, tn; Paulo Freire, educator; bell hooks, radical black feminist; and Pete Seeger, the folk singer.

"you like free speech as long as it ain't uncomfortable..."

well, this is simply untrue. if the writer is willing to point out some places where i'm guilty of taking the comfortable route i'd be willing to take a look, but mostly i just plain have to disagree.
i will go to almost any length (short of violence--which i see as technically more than "speech") to protect ANYONE'S right to speak. (i do believe, on a rather conservative note, that this right ought to be carefully tempered with personal accountability, responsibility, and respect for other people's way of life.)

"...protest wal mart because you can afford not to shop there..."

ah, yes. it is true that i can afford not to shop at wal mart. i would like to point out, though, that that's only because of the generosity of family members. i myself have always been pretty poor and i'm grateful for this. It has taught me to empathize with people that don't have much. (this is not really the place to point this out, but i wanna: at 37 years old, the most money i've ever made in one year, before taxes, was 16 thousand dollars. every other year was easily half of that. i just want to say that in case the writer--who clearly has never met me--thinks that i live in a wealthy part of town, drive a new suv, or speak french).

i assume the writer got this opinion because of my wal mart website. i didn't bother to theorize that work on the site, but maybe i should have. Allow me the chance to do that here: i find wal mart to be an irresponsible company with irresponsible business practices. my website specifically states "the purpose of this web site is to invite you to get yourself banned from wal mart." it's about imposing--on yourself--certain restrictions and responsibilities. if you can't afford to do that, then by all means don't do it. however, do try to make some life changes that limit your need for a place like that. i actually don't think that wal mart makes whatever billions of dollars a year it does based solely on people's needs. i think it makes a lot of that money off of people's wants. cut your wants, limit your needs, then you too might not be relagated to financing an evil corporation. i'm currently collecting links for that site to provide names and addresses of small businesses that provide ethically produced products at affordable prices. if you have any that you particularly like, please send them on to me.

"...and think your noble thoughts while hudreds of people sweat day and night to put a few grams of sugar or no-calorie substitute in your grande' cup of java. Get off your high horse and do something to make the world a better place. Then, maybe average Joe and Jane will think you ain't noblese or sig. noblese. "

i do try to think nobly, i sweat for a living, am trying to wean myself off sugar, allergic and abhor no-calorie substitute, and don't buy coffee from a place that calls big "grande'." my horse has increasingly become a bicycle or my feet, and i'm doing my dead-level best to make the world a better place (and have a long long way to go). Finally, i recognize many average janes and joes as friends of mine--and it strikes me that you, sir, are no average jane or joe--perhaps you should take a look at why what we say here inflames you so much...

but in closing and most honestly, i really do appreciate the comment. i think i often fall into a trap of considering myself hot-to-trot. i have lived a life mostly of privilege and abuse it often. i live too luxuriously and am quick to point out the faults of others. i will continue to consider your comments, and hopefully will have the courage to act on what flaws i find. thanks for keeping me straight.


Alas, no bikes

For the last several days I've held off on posting anything, because I'd decided that the next thing I posted would be a picture of me on my brand new bicycle. For those of you who don't know, our house was broken into while we were in Tennessee over the holidays. Nick (the guy who rents a room from us) came home and found a window broken and a lot of drawers opened and rifled through. Fortunately, the only things that were stolen were

  1. Walter's box of loose change
  2. Nick's Girls Gone Wild DVDs (no comment)
  3. Our bikes
I did have a moment of grief about my bike--you all know I loved that bike--but soon enough I realized that a new bike could be my Christmas present from my parents. I could get an upgrade! A bike that doesn't need to be taken to the shop every few weeks because the pedals break off, the seat slips, or the ball bearings dry out!

Walter and I have been shopping for just the right bike. But then last night, Nick called us--he saw two kids riding our bikes near our house. They hadn't spray-painted them or anything. There they were, on one bike with flaming dice, the other one with flowers and pink tires. Walter and I hopped in the car and drove around downtown looking for the bikes, but we didn't find them.

So now here's our dilemma. Do we go ahead and give our old bikes up for lost and get new ones, or hope that we might find them? If we do find the kids riding our bikes, how do we handle that situation? ("Excuse me, but I believe that's my bike. Hey, come back here!") Should we just assume that these kids need the bikes more than we do and let them have them?

School starts tomorrow, and it looks like I may be walking rather than riding for a little while.


the golden age of guitars

the acoustic guitar is an amazing thing. it's fun to play, doesn't require electricity, and has such a fun history. here's just two tiny tid bits to get you started. (warning: don't trust any of the information in this post) john dowland was a lute player. he was on tour back in the 1500's or thereabouts. he was also a consumate partier and ladies man. "lutes" were the thing for another 300 years after john had played his last request. in about 1830 c.f. martin, a german luthier, came to the united states and started producing some pretty cool instruments that would end up defining what would be the modern day acoustic guitar. there are 1930's and 40's martin guitars that regularly sell for 50, 60, even 70 thousand dollars.

now, if you were to walk into almost any sizable guitar shop and ask for a modern day acoustic guitar, you'd get a bucket of questions thrown at you about what type you might want: dreadnought, classical, resonator, orchestra, parlor, backpacker? 6 string, 12 string, 8 string? cedar or spruce top--and what kind of spruce? 12 or 14 frets? rosewood back and sides, mahogany, maple? ad infinitum.

the reason i mention this is 'cause i got it on the brain right now. see, i've come to this point in my life and my playing where i decided that i wanted a really baddass instrument. currently i own a tacoma guitar. relatively inexpensive, and made right here in the united states, although it is semi mass-produced. i can't say a lot of good things about most of thier instruments, but the one i own sounds rather incredible. problem is, it's come time to find me one that sounds incredible incredible.

oh. and just so you'll know, the only kind of guitar that i'm really shopping for--culled from that list above--would be a dreadnought, 6 string, spruce-topped, 14 fretted instrument, most likely with rosewood back and sides. the deal here is, though, that i didn't really know to even say that until a few weeks ago. i'm exposing my ignorance, but i had really just hoped to avoid the whole gear head thing and just start playing a guitar one day that i immediately fell in love with. turns out that making the decision based on love just ain't gonna work out.

too many quality guitars these days sound too good. It becomes preferential, and the differences become harder and harder to identify. this is especially true if you wait weeks between playing a pair of them--let alone take into consideration that each and every one of them is going to sound different from the one before. if you played one hundred dreadnough6stringsprucetopped14frettedrosewoodbackedandsidedmartin guitars--all produced within the last year--you'd get 100 different sounds. and not only that, but one particular one might have been exposed to too much moisture the day before, or perhaps not been played in a while (instruments like to be played--maybe one of the reasons my tacoma sounds like it does). now, throw in the number of legitimate luthiers working right now in the u.s. and canada and you've got a mess on your hands. there's huss and dalton, proulx, santa cruz guitar company, gallagher, collings...

my current favorite is one particular guitar owned by a friend of mine named harry--horizontal harry, to be exact, and so named because he was a motorcycle racer that evidently wrecked in every race he ever entered. it's a proulx--made by mario proulx in canada--and harry ain't comin off of it. i've begged and pleaded. i told him, finally, that i'd come and help work on his house with him. no deal.

proulx's claim to fame is that he uses carbon fiber bracing. at least i think it's carbon fiber. anyway, it's something wierd. i like this guitar because it's an underdog. First, it's kinda ugly. next, it sorta sneaks up on you. it doesn't really want to respond when you first start playing it. but then, after it warms up...ahhh, such smooth highs, such clear and resonant lows. and it's loud, too.

my last problem is even more troubling: most likely i'll never be able to afford any of the guitars of this calibre. the best and cheapest i've played thus far was a santa cruz, up at cotton music in nashville, for 1,900 dollars. and yet even more troublesome: why do i need one? just the other night i looked at myself in the living room mirror as i was kinda peripatetting around--like john dowland-- playing a song. it appears that i've become that middle-aged guy with a closet full of musical instruments and nothing to do with them but badly sing a john denver tune occasionally. what am i gonna do with another guitar? besides john dowland never made it to middle age.

and then, of course, there's the banjos....


yet more butt stories...

i've always watched people very closely. mostly because i needed thier approval. it started with my sister. as a child one of my major complaints to my parents about my sister was that "julie looked at me!" yep, that's all it took to make me sensitive. i can laugh at this now. i coudn't for a long time.

these days (and actually for quite a while now) i'm a little healthier, and it's freed up those powers of observation for some other things. not important things, mind you--just other things. like this:

yesterday our cable modem decided to go awol on us. being that alison and i are incurable internet users meant that we had to get it fixed right away. (it amazes me to think about how much time alison and i spend on the internet, and amazes me even more to know that a whole lot of americans are doing the same thing. it's a wonder any of us get anything done.) so the cable guy came out and fixed it pretty fast. he turned on the television to see if everything was working....

hmmmm...i realize now that i gave that introduction to this story as a way to explain what alison and i were doing watching any television in the first place.

anyway, we left the television on, and finished raking leaves in the yard. we came in to eat lunch--television still doing its thing--and sat down in front of it to eat. a show called "judge hackett" was on. it was a people's court kind of show. as they introduced the people who were going to air thier private lives in front of america (kinda like blogs!) i watched as one of the women, who needed to be reimbursed by her "former best friend" for not paying for furniture, approached the podium. the first camera shot framed her as, folder in hand, she took the long walk around the audience to the podium. a second camera angle caught the last seconds of her travels as she stepped onto the podium itself. in the background for this second shot was the audience. i noticed, that as she stepped up, every woman in the audience--in concert--let thier eyes travel down to her butt. they were checkin' out her butt, which was probably pretty large--because i had made the observation, while watching her approach, that she had rather large hips. my goodness, the levels of ourselves we aren't aware of!

second story:

one time, i was sitting cross-legged on a folding table on the bottom floor of the university center at tennessee tech. i still had hair then. it was the summer, i was taking summer classes, and the school was filled more with kids from high school band camps and cheerleading camps than it was college students. i sat there people watching, while across the hallway from me, the president of the university and another venerable professor talked to each other. like the woman on judge hackett, they too had folders under thier arms. while i sat, and they talked, high and junior high school kids of all ilk were walking past us. the majority of them, however, were--i'd say--9th grade cheerleaders. tiny looking, not-quite-women-women.

i looked over at the grey-haired academic and the administrator across the hall to find that, while they continued to talk to each other, they both were taking long and careful looks at the rear ends of these passing girls. they weren't bothering to hide thier glances because i'm quite sure they weren't even aware of what they were doing. it was amazing though. while the girls approached, the men mostly just looked at thier faces, but as they passed by, the kibitzers would slightly cock thier heads--even as they spoke of departmental budget woes--and let their eyes desultorily travel down for a rear end view.

now i would say that i was taking part in this also, but i wasn't. the reason is simple--and worthy of a whole 'nother post: as i said, i still had hair. i must have been 21 or somewhere thereabouts. at 21, my demographic swath of available women was relatively small. perhaps 18 to 25? as i've gotten older i've found that swath getting larger and larger. pleasantly in one direction--i'm proud to say that i find women in their sixties still very attractive--and unpleasantly in another--i find almost no age minimum about which i'm willing to make a sexual judgement. i don't like this. it's snuck up on me. my powers of observation often fail me when it most important--when it comes to awareness about myself.

men seem to be predators. i am no exception. i don't know what else to say about this right now, so i'll just let it float there. comments welcome.

finally, i'd like to make mention of a something important to me: america is very fond of dividing people into categories right now. it's a method of understanding a rapidly more relativistic world. east coast liberal, red-stater, pro-lifer, pro-choicer, gay, straight. i understand folks having to make these dichotomies, but i try not to share in it. for me, and for the people that i most closely associate with, these categories are not important. the reason is this: whether "conservative" or "liberal," these associates share a common bond: the simple wish that all people, everywhere, will be able to achieve thier full humanity.

it's not an easy job. it requires a lot of critical thought. a lot of willingness to look at things we might not even be aware needs lookin' at--and most all of it needs to start at that painful and most unknown place--ourselves. godspeed.


Scattered thoughts inspired by butt shorts

I tend to be more interested in our culture itself than in individual people's decisions. For instance, it's not so much my concern whether or not individuals wear butt shorts; I'm more interested in why these shorts are so omnipresent in our culture and what these kinds of clothing tell us about ourselves (about, for instance, our view of little girls).

Of course, individual decisions do play a part in the culture. I make individual decisions all the time that I hope will help nudge along cultural change: I didn't change my name to "Biffle" when Walter and I got married. I did, however, get married, which lots of activists refuse to do since marriage is a heterosexist institution. So even though I try to make politically responsible decisions, my politics don't always line up with my personal life.

My point is that it's not my job to police other people's decisions, to say, "Don't wear butt shorts! Don't change your name!"--even though I would sometimes like to. It is my job to ask what factors in our culture are still encouraging 90% of women to change their names when they get married, and why marriage is still a heterosexist institution. The trick is to challenge the larger culture without attacking individuals whose decisions may not align with the changes I hope to see.

I love what Emi Koyama says (in Catching a Wave--go buy your copy right now!): "It is not contradictory to fight against the institutional enforcement of rigid gender roles while simultaneously advocating for individuals' rights to choose how they live in order to feel safe and comfortable....None of us should be expected to reject every oppressive factor in our lives at the same time; it would burn us out and drive us crazy."