Saturday, July 03, 2010
The tyranny of the horizontal

I was able to accomplish a smooth turn at the wall in the pool a couple of days ago. This is the first time I've actually completed it. I usually get a tiny sliver of panic/uncertainty that I can turn and swim away without being overwhelmed. It is an unrealistic, emotional response of fear that distracts me/impedes me. So I come up at the wall and take extra breaths before heading back. It is exciting to conquer this tiny panic. Swimming offers small triumphs -- for me. When I feel changes in my physical responses -- more graceful movements, better posture, deeper breathing, more strength, more stamina - (stamina is a thing easy to observe and gratifying to document) - I credit swimming.
When I thrust a pair of hard, foam dumbbells into the water between my legs in fifth position and jump up and kick my legs to right and left diagonally I always laugh heartily. It's an exhilarating feeling. I ponder how many complex, exhilarating, deeply pleasurable movements we don't perform on land because of social convention, physics and THE TYRANNY OF UPRIGHT STANCE. Are we not in our finest moments when we are horizontal: sleeping, swimming, making sex, dead? Straight is possible -- perhaps more possible- in the horizontal. I often feel that when I straighten in the water -- trying to accomplish my best technique my body engages all of my sometimes very lazy abs and back muscles and I can tell that I am as straight as I will ever be. I push my fingers toward an aqua horizon - my forehead is at the water's lips as I try to do the stroke right. I'm reaching and I put all that I am reaching for just ahead of my fingertips so that I will keep forward. For the first time yesterday, I realized the confidence to make the turn without fear -- without breaking for a "calming" breath -- and begin to go for the other wall. Sometimes I wiggle my fingers beneath the water. It is an expression of glee and of confidence that I don't have to be technically perfect to swim -- swimming is to be enjoyed -- it is a personal practice. I learned this from the many people I encounter at the pool. Some go up and down the lanes doing things that my swimming teacher told me not to do. Yet they are moving contentedly and most any movement you make that doesn't drown you or befoul the water is good exertion/good therapy.

Posted at 07:01 pm by Tourmaline
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Monday, May 31, 2010
Hail, Full Of Grace

Ten years of swimming. This is the pile of clorine-i-fied swimsuits from a decade of water aerobics and swimming self-education that I've collected. Each suit's like a trophy. I can imagine that my industry in the water wore out the fabric so. But they're all threadbare at the seat from the great meeting of gluteus maximus and chemically-treated water.

A fellow aqua-nut told me that I looked graceful when I do the leg sets that we do in class -- that are like exercises at the bar. We work our legs getting a remarkable resistance underwater and a soothing articulation at the same time. This is the big plus for the mature. Aqua aerobics works you hard without pounding you. Water lifts you in spots that take a beating on land -- in upright movement. It challenges you to move the extremities against more resistance than is met on land -- in upright stance and motion. And blissfully no one sees beneath the water. Even silly movements can feel exciting. And extending a leg can feel like Swan Lake when the water buoys it and pushes it and finally you understand what some of those movement teachers were talking about. Shamelessly I lose myself in the pirouette we do with our legs lifted. We are Margot Fonteyn or somebody for those few seconds -- and the water does this -- facilitates this.

Posted at 06:24 am by Tourmaline
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Friday, May 21, 2010
Good Neighbor Exercise

Good Neighbor Exercise

I live in a house that has a small porch at sidewalk level. It is never used for "porch-sitting. It is too small -- too immediate to the thoroughfare. And at the back we have a deck for sitting and watching the New York skyline. In front I keep a small yard that I like to think of as "woodland glen." There are two small trees (both have been given cute names) and pachysandra and hostas and they blend into a nice, green green palate. I have to sweep and rake pretty regularly. I've come to realize that I take this opportunity to speak to neighbors -- mostly greeting and smiling. I've come to enjoy raking and sweeping. There is something gainful, busy, useful, responsible, caring and considerate about sweeping the sidewalk. I always respect businesses that sweep their part of the thoroughfare. Municipal services only go so far. I recollect that when we lived in Harlem -- at the corner of 151st and Amsterdam -- in a busy, gritty neighborhood. It seemed almost impossible to keep ahead of what people threw away without a care. Butterfly McQueen, the legendary actress-comedienne who played Prissy in the film, Gone With The Wind, did her part. We remember seeing her sweeping the sidewalk directly in front of the elementary school, P.S. Something Something, that was on Amsterdam Avenue between 143rd and 144th. It was a simple commitment to clean up the entrance so that the children would not begin the day entering a trash-strewn building. Some people laughed and said she was nuts.
My mother was committed to keeping the front of her house and the sidewalk adjoining it trash free. This is never, ever an easy job. She was sensitive to what was said about African Americans -- as citizens and homeowners. Me, too. So, even if I didn't enjoy sweeping, I'd do it.
I remember the morning my mother pretended to sweep the porch so that she could watch the happenings a few porches down the street. The woman's second baby came faster than her first had and she was caught at home and the EMS people came and had to deliver the baby in the house. The woman's better friends were racing back and forth trying to help and my mother was gathering intelligence. By the time we were in that working-middle neighborhood of northwest D.C. some rural ways were good and gone. Nobody really did a lot of porch-sitting. And after air conditioning, folks gave it up altogether. So it became that sidewalk sweeping was how people hailed and recognized each other.
Anyway, it is good exercise. It is gentle, but can be gorilla cardio if you want to get ambitious. In the fall, the leaf imperative usually gives you chance to see how tall folks' kids got and what super hero/character is the big noise with the elementary school backpackers. I get a bit nostalgic recollecting Butterfly McQueen and my mother and father and all of the careful, circumspect aspirants to middle-class who brought their brooms out to the public thoroughfare.
I've joined neighborhood clean-ups where I now live. But I'm more enthusiastic about regular, sidewalk maintenance and the opportunities for petting other peoples' dogs and admiring the children, bemoaning the lack of parking and giving voice to yourself. I'm really trying to encourage more audible "good mornings" and "good evenings" among my diverse, but often suspicious neighbors. Yes, yes, sweeping and dogs are a good way to meet the other people on your block. And you exercise your body and your spirit of community civility.

Posted at 10:01 am by Tourmaline
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

There is no individual that I can name who better exemplifies the courageous entrepreneurship of African American women of the late 19th and early 20th Century than does Madame C.J. Walker. Making a way from no way, Mrs. Walker revolutionized African American women's hair care products helping to groom a rising professional class of individuals emerging from the last generation of slavery in the United States and providing educational and independent business opportunities for African American women and men. My own aunt, Mrs. Doris A. Clarke studied at Madame C.J. Walker's school and built her own beauty shop and schools in the District of Columbia and in Baltimore, MD. Mrs. Walker's example was a model for women like my aunt and many others who built neighborhood businesses that met community needs and provided economic stability in their cities and towns.
I heartily agree that Madame C.J. Walker should be honored by our country, the global community and through H.J. Res. 81. I support this measure.
(this text was emailed to my congressman, Rep. Steve Rothman)


Posted at 04:11 pm by Tourmaline
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Saturday, March 13, 2010
a talk at Dumbarton House in Georgetown

Astride the difficult pony of historical fiction

a talk given on Saturday, March 6, 2010 - having been intended as a Black History Month event, but rescheduled twice due to snow storms.

Many thanks to the The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America for inviting me to give a talk in commemoration of Black History month and Women’s History Month at Dumbarton House. Thank you, Dames, also for honoring our city's and our country's national heritage through the preservation of manuscripts, artifacts, material objects and this building, as well as, providing a forum for discussion of American history.

I'm a native Washingtonian with roots in Georgetown. Both of my parents lived in the neighborhood when it was home to a vibrant African American community. I’m the author of two novels set here in Georgetown. The first RIVER, CROSS MY HEART - is set in the early 20th century. My most recent novel STAND THE STORM -- is set in mid-19th century Georgetown.

When I am asked why I have placed my novels in Washington, D.C.( and specifically Georgetown) I answer that the District of Columbia is an exciting place to consider the lives of African Americans. Exceptional African Americans and ordinary individuals have made this city their home. This group includes the distinguished women, Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Mary Macleod Bethune, as well as, Carter G. Woodson and Kelly Miller. Many have seen this town as “the city on the hill” -- the place to get to -- for freedom and for opportunity.
Many descendants of people enslaved by our most notable, slave-owning presidents - Washington, Jefferson and Madison -- settled in the District of Columbia. And because of the impact of Abraham Lincoln’s compensated emancipation program in the District of Columbia that resulted in the creation of the so-called “first freed” there was a small geographical advantage for this region. In fact, it is just such that created opportunities for the self-starters I wanted for my novel, STAND THE STORM.

There is a dedication at the African Burial Ground Memorial in New York City that articulates my purpose in writing STAND THE STORM -- and for that matter for RIVER, CROSS MY HEART:


In the introduction to his classic work ASPECTS OF ANTIQUITY, M.I. Finley speaks of history as a dialogue between the living and dead, between the current generation and those generations past whose voices have come down to us in the documents and artifacts they have left: “It seems to be inherent in human existence to turn and return to the past (much as powerful voices may urge us to give it up). The more precisely we listen and the more we become aware of its pastimes, even of its near-inaccessibility, the more meaningful the dialogue becomes. In the end it can only be a dialogue in the present about the present.
For the student of history, Finley provides both a challenge and a caution. The challenge is to craft a more precise interpretation of the past from the raw materials of history -- the facts and artifacts that have washed down through time to lodge in the present. The caution is that what the past has left us by way of documents or artifacts may not be what is most important to a sound recounting of history. This residue of time may simply be what is most durable or what has been preserved through sheer happenstance. In history, then, part of the story is inevitably missing, though even some of what seems irretrievably lost may be recovered through imaginative interpretation based on the smallest patina of fact. That this is so makes history an art not a science. By the same token, it is the job of the historian to be ever mindful that more voices have gone mute than have survived to speak to us.” -- from introduction, “Not For Filthy Lucre’s Sake: Richard Salter and the Antiproprietary Movement in East New Jersey 1665-1707” by Daniel Weeks.

I don’t claim to be an historian -- I’m a novelist. Undertaking/writing historical fiction, puts me astride a difficult pony. It is a headstrong muse  - one that wants to go one way then change and go down another path. How to guide it? How to keep on track? Which path to follow -- history? or fiction? That is one of my big questions. Well, I will stay with fiction.

I recently attended the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ. The lecturer was Dr Annette Gordon-Reed whose excellent book, THE HEMMINGSES OF MONTICELLO: AN AMERICAN FAMILY won the Pulitzer Prize. Dr. Gordon-Reed made the point that she was motivated to write her history more by a desire to know, hear, acknowledge and verify the account of the descendants of Sally Hemmings than to toss mud on the reputation of Thomas Jefferson.

"Highlighting the variable experiences of the earliest blacks in Virginia is much less useful than keying in on the one constant in the lives of whites from Jamestown to Appomatox: they were never  to be designated as chattel who passed their condition down to their children, and their children's children, in perpetuity. "

My disdain for the slaveholder is unequivocal, but I’m not motivated today to demonize them. Rather I’d like to focus on what may be known and what may be imagined about the lives of the enslaved persons who worked in the homes of the wealthy -- people who lived and worked in Georgetown.

One thing I recall most poignantly from the remarks of Dr. Gordon-Reed is the figure of 135 -- 135 people were sold after the death of Thomas Jefferson.

“Centuries later historians would ridicule as a numbers game attempts to count the millions forced to suffer the trauma of the transatlantic passage. Yet for those who witnessed the murderous raids by Arabs, Europeans, or hostile black Africans upon their communities, for those who were discarded on their march to the African coast, for those who were banned to the hold of the ships, for those whose bodies were cast overboard, for those who made it to the unknown on the other side of the ocean, every single one mattered. For every single woman, every single man represented the difference between life and death, between the "I am" and chattel, between history and the void, between the voice and silence. For every single one defined the whole.”

-- from Black Imagination and the Middle Passage by Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates, Carl Pedersenen

A hip-hop term that I like is "represent". I like to see an historical landscape, consider all the possibilities of inclusion, look at what is presented to me, then I re-present the story with excluded people included  -- I say "you over here and you over there and you over there and . . . " I also "represent" because I feel I stand up for my characters to redress their exclusion.   

Why write historical fiction rather than a history of people or a biography -- one individual's story?  Simply -- I don't want to have to be fair -- even -handed. I like to compel the reader to see things my way. I enjoy having an attitude and expressing it. Also I like to imagine individual accounts of historical events. I suppose the most important task I see to perform is to add specificity so as to get beyond stereotypical images. 

The period of most of the focus of Dumbarton House's interpretation is the Federal period - roughly 1790-1830   -  Of course, STAND THE STORM is set in the Georgetown of the mid 19th C - roughly 20 -30 years later than this period. 

My appreciation for the architecture, landscape, the furnishings and the art of Dumbarton House is tempered by the feeling that many of the people who made this display of wealth possible are unknown. We know facts about the family of Joseph Nourse and, of course, about Charles Carroll primarily because it was their wish to be remembered and lauded that motivates this building and display. 

selected readings from the slave code of the District of Columbia -

for information about Dumbarton House:

"If my people forget about slavery . . ."

Posted at 07:36 am by Tourmaline
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Friday, March 12, 2010
swept away

upright stance is the rule on land, but . . . in aqua is a different story. ironically swimming has made me taller -- my doctor has measured me! No mystery -- my posture is better.

swimming is very like sex in that self awareness is altered by the physical activity -- the sense/feeling of well-being is so strong -- so compelling -- so complete that insecurities about the body are unimportant. Who cares what it looks like if it feels this good? And once the moves are learned there is no fear that the body won’t remember them -- one seeks then plunges and if you get from A to B and have not drowned, then you have swum successfully. Technique is important for the professional -- the olympic athlete or the sex worker -- but the amateur can get good results with lesser skills.

and a day with a swim in it -- is a day that is intrinsically valuable

Posted at 07:05 pm by Tourmaline
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Thursday, February 25, 2010
The Xena Feeling

I love it. The Xena feeling of powerfulness and invincibility. Okay -- I can't wear the costume. I probably can't kick the shit out of a room full of desperate men. But when it snows -- when it's cold -- I rush to the swimming pool. I feel strong. I feel flexible. When the roof of the pool is filling up with snowfall it creates an different light. And returning to the outside after an hour in the water is a unique thrill -- my warm and elastic muscles are proof against any chill. Chill feels good and thirst is earned and hunger is well earned. Appetite after swimming is deep and resolute. The walk to the car is lovely because I always move with fluidity after a swim.

Posted at 05:09 pm by Tourmaline
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Tuesday, February 23, 2010
The Dawn of the New Decade

On The Eve of My Birthday

On the eve of my birthday I had a wonderfully, deep swim experience. I have been shirking -- just doing my aqua aerobics class and that only two days a week. Snow days, holidays and employee furloughs have interrupted my schedule at the pool. Today the water was a beautiful temp . The outside sunny day was cold, the locker room was a lot like a sauna because the very strange heating system makes the room roaring hot when the temps outside are cold. Then there is the freezy walk from the showers to the pool, but once I get this close to the water I am so excited that I don't notice the cold. Outside of the water, the pool room is comfortable -- warm enough for comfort in a swim suit. The water is variable -- the variable. Sometimes it is bracingly cold and the first plunge is an ice cold kick . moving in cold water gives you a great sense of accomplishment when your body begins to adjust to the temp and you are warm in cold water. My first lessons at Asphalt Green were in very chill water. My teacher always began with me plunging straight in. I still like to feel I can take the shock of it. I once took several quick plunges into the frigid water of Puget Sound -- it was still early August, but those waters were cold.

My aquanut buddies sang "Happy Birthday."

I'm beginning my second decade as a swimmer. I shared the dressing room/locker room with another mature woman. She spoke of only having learned to swim in the last year -- recommended for physical therapy. She said the same thing I often say: Swimming has changed my life. I've been reflecting on the changes. There was a time when I thought that I may be able to swim enough to become a much slimmer self -- a truly slender figure knifing through the aqua. This has not happened. I am more fit -- I am slimmer than ten years ago, but no slip of a girl for sure. I am though-- much stronger -- have far more stamina -- am much more flexible. I have a better chest. I have a much better back and lower back. My legs are more useful. I take the stairs in a bound. I can walk on the narrow curb that borders the park where I walk my dog. I AM AN INCH TALLER. My posture has improved so that I have measured taller -- straighter. I think my skin is better because of better blood circulation and aprŹs swim pampering/lotioning.

Posted at 06:07 pm by Tourmaline
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Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Back To Bliss in Aqua

"Blue, blue, I've got a tale to tell and I'm blue. Something come over me . . . "

-- Bessie Smith

Trouble on Tuesday -

I went to the pool without the proper nutrition. I won't say what I ate. I was great for my initial plunge. That first lap to the deep after entering the water is my favorite moment. There is less of the brain ticking off concerns and it is mostly about letting the muscles do what they've become accustomed to.
I faded quickly during Aqua Aerobics. I got cramps in my legs and had to pull up and fall out of the sets. Thanks to my aquanut buddies for commiserating.
Swimming was blissful, but I could not move my aqua dumbbells. I've been shirking the pool for the last month and some muscles have already started slacking.

Funniest thing I've heard since the start of 2010:

"Where's my panties? Where's my bra? Lord, I've got to go to the foot doctor, too. Oh well, I don't think he'll notice." - heard in the locker room at the pool after A-A class. It's bound to happen. You underdress your swim suit and forget to bring your undies. There you go wrestling your jeans on over nothing and there you are wiggling and jiggling home. This body was, for the time you were in the water, flexible and capable and powerful and not the subject of anyone's judgement but your own.

Deep Water Wednesday -

I did better about the fuel and I didn't suffer much leg trouble. We did our workout with flotation belts in the deep end. Baby, deep water is good. It is like having an hour-long whole-body massage. We laughed a lot and laughing is a particularly refreshing exercise when you're up to your shoulders in water with twelve feet beneath you -- held by the belt. Your legs can do things -- opening and closing -- stretched to their limits -- in ways you couldn't begin to do on land before the eyes of others. We put foam noodles beneath our feet and push down and bob about in the water. All efforts to stay upright put a tax on your abs. It feels good.

Posted at 06:07 pm by Tourmaline
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Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Deep Noodles

I didn't swim today though I went to the pool. Aqua aerobics classes are suspended due to administrative sloth and disinterest and equipment problems. I did a couple of laps. Then, because of the crowds, I mounted a noodle ( a noodle is a long sausage shaped foam flotation device) at the deep end and I moved through the water, riding my noodle, articulating my arms, legs, abs. In fact, I was proud that I used only one noodle and didn't use a flotation belt and I moved and worked out in the deep. My abs were on their own and they worked out well.

I kind of like having a pool membership card

Posted at 07:56 pm by Tourmaline
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Onward only! I can't turn back and I won't turn around.

Celebrating eleven years of swimming!

stroking onward and upward
swimming for the wall 2010

ďCenturies later historians would ridicule as a numbers game attempts to count the millions forced to suffer the trauma of the transatlantic passage. Yet for those who witnessed the murderous raids by Arabs, Europeans, or hostile black Africans upon their communities, for those who were discarded on their march to the African coast, for those who were banned to the hold of the ships, for those whose bodies were cast overboard, for those who made it to the unknown on the other side of the ocean, every single one mattered. For every single woman, every single man represented the difference between life and death, between the "I am" and chattel, between history and the void, between the voice and silence. For every single one defined the whole.Ē

from Black Imagination and the Middle Passage by Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates, Carl Pedersen

ďAs you were speaking this morning of little children, I was looking around and thinking it was most beautiful. But I have had children and yet never owned one, no one ever owned one; and of such there's millions -- who goes to teach them? You have teachers for your children but who will teach the poor slave children?
I want to know what has become of the love I ought to have for my children? I did have love for them, but what has become of it? I cannot tell you. I have had two husbands but I never possessed one of my own. I have had five children and never could take one of them up and say, 'My child' or 'My children,' unless it was when no one could see me.
I believe in Jesus, and I was forty years a slave but I did not know how dear to me was my posterity. I was so beclouded and crushed. But how good and wise is God, for if the slaves knowed what their true condition was, it would be more than the mind could bear. While the race is sold of all their rights -- what is there on God's footstool to bring them up? Has not God given to all his creatures the same rights? How could I travel and live and speak? When I had not got something to bear me up, when I've been robbed of all my affections for husband and children.
My mother said when we were sold, we must ask God to make our masters good, and I asked who He was. She told me, He sit up in the sky. When I was sold, I had a severe, hard master, and I was tied up in the barn and whipped. Oh! Till the blood run down the floor and I asked God, why don't you come and relieve me -- if I was you and you'se tied up so, I'd do it for you.Ē

Sojourner Truth, 1856

This text of her address was recorded by the acting secretary of the Friends of Human Progress Association of Michigan, Thomas Chandler, and published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle

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