broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

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My First Hawk’s Ridge Weekend Festival

My First Hawk’s Ridge Weekend

H. Bradford

10/15/17

Although I have lived in this area of Minnesota/Wisconsin for most of my life,  I have never actually gone to Hawk’s Ridge in Duluth until this fall.  For those who don’t know, Hawk’s Ridge is a bird observatory and nature area that is one of the best places in Minnesota (and North America in general!) to watch migrating birds of prey.  Each year, over 90,000 pass over the ridge during the fall migration.  This is pretty amazing!  And yet, I never bothered to pay a visit to the observatory.   This year, I was finally drawn there my interest in birding and had hiked several times in August and September.  However, the thing that I was really looking forward to was their Hawk’s Ridge Weekend Festival event, a three day event of birding field trips, hikes, presentations, and bird watching.  The event happens each year, but I had never attended as my interest in birds is fairly new.  Hawk’s Ridge is a great place to watch hawks and other birds migrate, because the sun warms the basalt rocks that form the ridge creating thermals that the birds can use to ascend into an easier glide (i.e. flap less or expend less energy in moving).   The ridge also serves as a natural highway that the birds can follow along Lake Superior, rather than crossing the cold, expansive lake as they head south.  Well, I signed up for a weekend pass on their website as well as a membership.  This is how the event went:

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The view of Lake Superior and fall colors from Hawk’s Ridge

 


The event started on a Friday, but I did not attend the first day of hikes and presentations since I was tired and stressed from work/activism and the weather was gray and windy.  Saturday also turned out to be a gray day, but I went on a guided hike.  The bird activity was not too intense, but we did see many Sharp Shinned Hawks.  Now, I am really terrible at identifying birds of prey.   That was the appeal of attending the festival: to learn how to identify hawks.  With that said, the birds fly pretty high.  Somehow I imagined that the hawk migration was going to be something more like a scene from The Birds.  I imagined that there would be dozens of birds flying all around me at close range.  After all, if there are thousands of birds migrating, it must be like a swarm!  Not really.  While there were various falcons and Sharp shinned hawks that came closer to us, it really wasn’t how I imagined it.  Most of the birds are watched from a distance.  This meant that even with binoculars, I couldn’t always see them very clearly.  Yet, everyone else seemed able to easily identify the hawks.  This is pretty amazing, but at that distance, other cues are used to identify the birds.  Attending the event taught me to pay attention to details like flight pattern and shape.  Sharp Shinned Hawks, which I saw a lot of that weekend, are long with short heads- making a t-shape silhouette as they pass through the sky.   Their flight pattern is flap, flap, glide.  I heard a naturalist repeat this dozens of time, until it was drilled in my head to think “flap, flap, glide” as the birds moved across the sky.   In another area of the observatory, some naturalists were banding hawks.  A Sharp Shinned Hawk was brought to the crowd for closer inspection.  I was surprised by how small it was, since it seemed larger from a distance or in the sky.  I also learned to start thinking of hawks in terms of genus.  Sharp Shinned Hawks are Accipiters, or forest dwelling hawks that can easily navigate around trees.  Cooper’s Hawks are another Accipiter, which is slightly larger and said to look more like a crucifix in flight.  We saw at least one of them, but I was not be able to identify it at close range or in flight in the sky.  Goshawks are a larger Accipiter, but none were observed while I was there.  They migrate later in the season and I have seen a few on my visits now that it is October.  Despite the slow activity at Hawk’s Ridge, I went away feeling satisfied that I am slowly building my knowledge about birds.

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Clint, a naturalist with Hawk’s Ridge, holding a Sharp shinned hawk.


On Sunday, the sky cleared, making for a gorgeous sunny day.  In the morning I did the Color Run, then I zipped over to Hawk’s Ridge for more presentations and birding.  The warm, clear weather created a massive migration.  I quickly learned a new word as birders kept saying, “Check out that kettle of Broad Winged Hawks.”  That was the theme of the day, as 20,000 Broad Winged Hawks passed over Hawk’s Ridge on Sunday.  The Broad Winged Hawks were very high in the sky, flocking together or “kettling.”  They were so high up, I could not see them with my naked eye.  With binoculars, they looked like black specks or Amazing Sea Monkeys.   My binoculars are not very powerful, but it was pretty amazing to have dozens and dozens of birds come into view as they peppered the sky.  Again, they were high enough in the sky that it would be impossible for me to learn to identify them through markings.  As the name suggests, they have broad wings.  They also have short-ish tails.  Sunday was the biggest migration day that Hawk’s Ridge has had (at least that is what I overheard).  When it comes to identifying Broad Winged Hawks, I would have much more trouble.  I learned that they are in the genus, Buteo.  They have a thicker profile in the sky and a much shorter tail.  However, from a distance, I found that their shape looked pretty similar to Red tailed hawks and other buteos, or raptors built for soaring.   I did learn that Broad winged hawks are often seen migrating together, if that offers a clue.

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Some of the birds that were seen that day.


There were other birds viewed that day as well.  One highlight was a flock of Sandhill cranes which honked loudly overhead.  Some Osprey passed over on Saturday, undeterred by the overcast sky.   They look like the letter M in the sky.   There were also turkey vultures and bald eagles.   Peregrine falcons, American kestrels, and Merlins also passed by.  They flew low enough that we could catch a closer glimpse of them.  Still, I would be hard pressed to identify them at a distance or as they are speeding by.   Their profile looks pretty similar to me.   As they season progresses, the species of migrating birds changes.  Since visiting that weekend, I have returned several other times, including twice yesterday!  I really, really, want to see a golden eagle, a goshawk, and a rough legged hawk (since I have not seen any these birds before).  All of these are late season migratory birds, so they may appear more often later in October.  (The first two golden eagles of the season passed over the ridge yesterday…15 minutes after I left for the day!!).    Despite missing out on the golden eagles yesterday, I did see an American pipit, which is a new bird for my bird list.  I doubt I would have noticed it without birders around, since it looks like a drab, brown bird (easily overlooked).

DSCF7649Not the best photo, but here are the migrating sandhill cranes.

DSCF7832American pipit

The more I try birding, the more overwhelmed I am by the amount of detail that a person must learn.  Thus far I have mostly tried to become familiar with birds by memorizing their appearance- though this relies on a close up view of a stationary bird.  Of course, a person does get better at recognizing birds by sight and there are field markings which aid with a quick identification.  I have seen a lot of white outer tail feathers lately.  I don’t need to see the whole bird to identify the flocks of Dark eyed juncos as they dart for the ditch.   Or, when I see a waging, white tipped tail, I think…Eastern Kingbird.   I have since tried to learn some bird songs or calls, but this is daunting as it is like learning another language.   Attending Hawk Ridge Weekend taught me to pay attention to flight pattern and body shape from a distance.  This adds yet another layer to the detail that a person must learn to become proficient at identifying birds.   I am not a natural when it comes to this.  It is a concerted effort to pay attention to the birds around me.  Though, the hope is that someday I can look at some distant bird and know exactly what it is.   This has brought me back several times this season- quietly watching the birds- and trying to learn from the other birders.   The benefit of building my birding skills is that it reshapes my relationship to nature.  Nature is often the background- the repeating, bland landscape of green.  (Sort of like a video game wherein all the trees and rocks look like they are the same- or some variation on a limited template).   By paying attention to the details, nature announces itself- its variety, its sounds, its hidden life forms- that we have taken the time to study and name.   There is something really amazing and overwhelming (soooo much information!) about becoming acquainted with the planet.

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Some Things I’ve done to Travel

Some Things I’ve Done to Travel

H. Bradford

9/13/17

One of the things that I really love to do is travel.  However, I don’t have tons of money.  So, over the years I’ve done a few creative things- and some ordinary things- to afford travel.  Of course, the internet abounds with advice about how people can quit their job and travel…or how anyone can travel if they are simply determined enough.   This is absolutely untrue.  I can’t quit my job.  My bills will not magically evaporate.  I am extremely fortunate that I currently have a job that has allowed me to travel- far more than most Americans are able to.  I am also fortunate that I don’t have children, pets, or anything or anyone to take care of other than myself.  This gives me far more freedom to leave- and to save.  I have a lot of privilege in terms of health, nationality, race, ability, etc. that also allow me to travel.  So, even though I am a working class person- I have traveled much more than most Americans and most other members of my class.  These are a few of the things I have done to travel.  Perhaps some of them might be helpful to some people.  A few make for unusual stories.  And certainly, I don’t want to spread a narrative that with hard working and dedication dreams can come true.  They often don’t on account of systems of inequality.  Thankfully, I have been able to obtain a few of my dreams.  Here is how…

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(One of my favorite pictures- outside of Chernobyl Reactor 4)


1. Donate Eggs:

I discussed this in an earlier blog post, but back in 2008 I donated eggs to pay off some bills and to help save up money for a trip to Cuba.  At the time, it was illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba because of the trade embargo.  However, there were a few exceptions to this rule.  It was possible to travel to Cuba for research (as well as journalism and cultural exchanges).  So, I traveled to Cuba with Global Exchange on a research delegation.  It was designed to be a research delegation centered around education.  To qualify, delegates had to be working full time in an education field or a graduate student.  Back then, I worked as a tutor for Americorps in a program that served homeless youth in my community.  It was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable jobs I have had.  The trip was rather spendy (especially considering that my Americorps stipend was pretty meager), so donating eggs helped with some of the cost (though I mostly spent that money on bills).  Interestingly, I was in the midst of donating while I was visiting Cuba.   Yep…so I was giving myself daily injections of Gonal-F while touring schools and universities.   The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Center for Sex Education, where I learned about how Cuba approaches sex ed.  Shortly after returning to the U.S., I made me third and final egg donation.  I definitely wanted to donate eggs more than I did, but medical complications got in the way of that.  It was disappointing, but a good lesson that you should not put all of your eggs in one basket.

https://brokenwallsandnarratives.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/my-adventures-as-an-egg-donor/

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2. Medical Study:

I didn’t actually do this to save up for a trip, but to cover my living expenses upon my return.  So…back in 2010 I spent a semester in South Korea, followed by half the summer in Beijing and a visit to North Korea.  The North Korea trip was rather expensive.  At the time, there were fewer companies that traveled to North Korea.  I went with Koryo tours for a ten day trip during the Mass Games (if I remember rightly).  And, while I earned a small stipend while in South Korea, it was hard to survive six months in Asia without regular work.  I literally had spent all of my money upon my arrival back to the U.S.   Worse, a new semester was about to start and I needed money for books.  For some quick cash, I volunteered for a two week medical study.  Although it is closed now, there was a medical research facility in Fargo- which is about a four and a half hour drive from Duluth.  Their website advertised several studies, but I tried for one that was about two weeks long because it paid a few thousand dollars.  So…I went to Fargo, was screened for the study, and was accepted.  The study itself involved trying out some sort of respiratory spray.  Twice a day, each of the patients was administered medication through an inhaler.  Honestly, it was a horrible time.  We sat in a room full of hospital beds.  We were not allowed to leave the beds (to go outside, exercise, etc.) and experienced several blood draws daily.  It was torturous to stay in bed waiting for time to pass.  Our only entertainment was an endless parade of terrible movies.  I remember a LOT of romantic comedies.  I wrote and drew, but was terribly restless.  The days seemed to draw on forever as I watched the sunshine turn to night from a hospital bed.  I also hated how regimented life was.  We had to eat our meals without waste or extras.  Of course, this was all to control the conditions of the experiment.  And, I should also be happy that my inhaler never actually gave me any of the medication.  Others complained of a bitter taste, but my inhaler didn’t have a taste.  I lucked out and was probably a control subject.  I made it through the ordeal, but it was one of the most boring things I’ve endured.  On the bright side, I met a medical student studying in Cuba during the experiment.  She joined the experiment for extra cash for visiting her family, since even though her education was paid for- she did not have money for travel expenses. Image result for black guinea pig

(Random guinea pig image from Pinterest)


3. Work Illegally:

While staying with my friend Rose in Beijing, I worked.  Because I was there on a tourist visa, this was technically illegal.  I didn’t work that much.  I just did some English tutoring for extra spending money.  Rose connected me with the opportunities to do a little tutoring.  She also connected me with an opportunity to earn $200 by pretending to work for a school in Xian.  What happened next is a long story, but it involved a very long train ride, fear that I was being trafficked, and NOT actually ending up in Xian.  If you want to know the long story….well, here it is (copied from an earlier blog post).  If not, read on to the next heading.


“While in Beijing, I did some English tutoring for spending money. This is illegal, as it is illegal to work on a travel visa, but it was done in private homes and at a café. Another way that some people make money is through “white face” jobs. Basically, you can get paid to be white (isn’t that the epitome of racial privilege?). These jobs are temporary positions given to white people, wherein they pretend to work for a school or company to bolster the image of the organization as more international and therefore prestigious. Rose called me about such an opportunity. All I had to do was pretend to be an English teacher. In exchange, I would be taken on a 2 day trip to Xian and paid $200. Sounds good! An opportunity to leave Beijing and see Xian, where the Terra Cotta warriors are….and get paid. So, I arrived at the train station to meet “Chuck” the head of a language school. Chuck bought my train ticket, but didn’t tell me much about the trip or what is expected of me. I asked Chuck if there will be time to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. He became quiet and thoughtful, then stated that we are going THROUGH Xian but our destination is actually Yan’an. We needed to take the train to Xian to get to Yan’an. This revelation marked the beginning of my Kaftkaesque journey.


I got on the sleeper train, which if I recall took about twelve hours to get to Xian. The additional trip to Yan’an was another five hours or so. So, after seventeen or eighteen hours on a train, I was pretty exhausted. I still had no idea what was expected of me. My only instructions were that I was supposed to pretend to be a teacher for his school. The arrival in Yan’an was hazy. We took the train there and visited a temple. However, I was informed that Yan’an was not our final, final destination. Rather, it was a smaller city about an hour away. We travelled there by car, but were now joined by an entourage of unfamiliar people whose position or relationship to Chuck were unknown to me. Chuck sped along at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour, even passing a police car that was travelling too slow for his taste. As undemocratic as China is, there does not seem to be as much policing of everyday things such as driving or littering as there is in the U.S. or this policing is less consistent. As such, not only was speeding by a police car to pass it seemingly acceptable, so is driving on the sidewalk from time to time. We arrived at our final, final destination and checked into the hotel. Chuck informed me that there would be a dinner at six.


Before dinner, I asked Chuck what I should say to his company. He told me not to worry, as none of them spoke English. So, once again, I knew nothing about my position as a fake teacher. No idea about the school or what grades I taught, how long that I worked there, or anything. Oh well. Weary from the long journey, I attended dinner. Of course, I was seated by a diplomat, who spoke English. And, while everyone else watched my reaction to the food, eagerly hoping that I enjoyed it, he asked me questions about my job. The surreal dinner, wherein I felt that I was the dinner entertainment….there to please everyone with assurances that the food is good and eat more as I am given it….stared at the entire time…continued. Only, each time I tried to answer the questions posed in English by the diplomat, Chuck answered for me in Mandarin. They conversed about my position….in front of me….in Chinese. This left me entirely in the dark about the lie that Chuck was concocting about me. It made me anxious. All of it made me anxious. The dinner went on forever. The food was actually pretty good, which seemingly pleased everyone that I ate it. On a side note, I hate feeling the pressure to eat and even more, I hate it when people watch me eat. But, I suppose we all do this when we have guests….eagerly hoping they will like what has been introduced to them.


We all returned to the hotel and I was informed that I must be up at 6 am the next morning. I talked to Chuck at the door of my room about this. He tried twice to push himself into my hotel room, but I blocked him with my shoulder and door. I really didn’t want to be alone in my room with Chuck. The next morning involved an award ceremony to celebrate the anniversary of a school. This is why so many politicians, school administrators, and important people were there. This cleared up a little what exactly we were doing there. At the same time, the two day trip had already been three days. Oh well. I assumed that we would return after the ceremony the next day.


The following day there was a ceremony, complete with children singing and dancing. There were speeches and a band. It was all a pretty big to-do for the anniversary of a school. When it was over, I asked Chuck when we will return to Beijing. He told me that it might be a day or two. He doesn’t know. A day or two?! After my very long train ride, enduring a couple of meals, complete isolation from everyone that I know- in fact, no one in the world even knows where I am, a ceremony, and now an uncertain return….things fell apart. The whole thing had been pretty uncomfortable to begin with. Never have I felt so powerless and isolated. I began to think that maybe I would not be returned to Beijing. Chuck went on to inform me that I must attend another meal with him.


I snapped. I informed Chuck that I would not eat until I return to Beijing. He said that if I don’t eat it will embarrass him. I told him that I want to go back to Beijing and can’t eat until I return. This was my only tool. A hunger strike. Chuck begged me to eat. I reluctantly agreed to at least attend the lunch. I attended the lunch, but only nibbled. The Chinese guests offered me some apple juice that was made locally. It tasted warm and fermented. More misery. However, at the end of this meal, Chuck magically produced some train tickets and announced that we would be returning to Beijing that afternoon.


17 long hours later. I enjoyed the crinkled yellow brown landscape of the Loess Plateau and the snaking Yellow River. The landscape became less like a curtain of sandy mounds and flattened. There were farms and nuclear reactors. Yan’an was the end of the Long March. I feel as though I had been on a long march of uncertain roles, awkward meals, fear, and isolation. We arrived back in Beijing. Chuck asked me if I wanted to grab breakfast with him. I said no. I took my $200 and left.”

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(Image of Terracotta warriors from the Chicago Tribune.  I never did get to see them…)

4. Work- Really Hard:

This heading is not as interesting as the others, but there were times that I just worked really, really hard.  One of those times was…once again…when I was saving for the Cuba trip.  Despite the money from egg donating, I still ended up working WITHOUT A DAY OFF from March until June.  This was hellish.  But, it was back when I was doing a year of Americorps service.  The monthly stipend was about $800 a month after taxes.  Still, going to Cuba was important to me.  Everyone who I knew who had visited Cuba tended to gush about it- with the exception of Adam.  He hates being warm.  Travel to Cuba seems to be a leftist rite of passage.   Activists often want to travel there to see for themselves what this tiny, embargoed, island nation has done in terms of healthcare and education- against all odds.  So, I worked very hard that spring.  I did my Americorps services on Monday through Friday, then worked double shifts at a hotel over the weekends.  It was exhausting.  And, there is something quite demoralizing about looking at a calendar and seeing an endless stretch of work without a day off.  But, I survived it- and definitely earned that trip.

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(Random image stolen from a google search.)

5. Join a Mission Trip

This is pretty embarrassing at this point in my life, but back when I was 19 I was still religious.  My friend Libby invited me to join her church on a mission trip.  I joined the trip more for the travel experience than any calling to save souls.  Yep, so I went on a bus trip to Mexico with her church.  Although I was religious at the time, I really didn’t fit in.  I didn’t dress conservatively enough and had to be told to cover up more.  I also wasn’t socialized into her church, so I suppose there were theological and behavioral norms that I didn’t conform to.  But, we did help with some minor construction on a church and I was able to see a really awesome cave in a mountain while everyone else went to a water park.  The cave was called Grutas de Garcia and was fascinating in that I took a cable car up the mountain, then entered a cave which at one time was under a prehistoric sea.  Various marine fossils could be seen on the walls of the cave.  The mountains were pretty and it was an interesting social experience.   Still, in retrospect it was a weird thing to do, especially since it hardly seems that Mexico is in need of spiritual or religious help from U.S. missionaries.   But, it was a two week trip to Mexico for under $500.  It was also one of the last memorable religious activities that I was involved with (as I stopped going to church or attending religious events in the subsequent years).  Finally, it was a happy memory with my friend Libby- who was my best friend since the first grade.  Maybe I wasn’t the best at being religious, but it was certainly worth it to share an experience with her.

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(Image from Tours in Monterrey)

6. Tax Refund

I usually spend my tax refund on travel.  To ensure that I actually get a tax refund, I claim zero on my taxes so that more money is taken out of my paychecks each month.  I have read that this is not good financial advice, as if a person simply saved more, they would earn interest on the savings.  However, since I am not always that great at saving- having more taken out of my paycheck in taxes has resulted in much larger tax refunds at the end of the year.  I think that this scheme will dwindle once I start substitute teaching and now that I can’t claim a credit for being a graduate student.  But, in previous years, I usually received $1000- $3000 back in taxes.  I used that money towards going to Eastern Europe and the Balkans for a month back in 2014 and the Baltic Countries/Ukraine/Belarus in 2015.

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7. Second Savings Account

One of my strategies in the past has been to have two savings accounts.  The second savings account was located at an out of the way bank (in an area I don’t often visit in Duluth) and did not have an ATM card.  By making my money harder to access, I did not dip into the savings.  It also kept the money separate from my regular savings- so the money was earmarked specifically for travel.  I have since closed the second account, but I found this to be a very useful savings strategy and one that I want to employ in the future (probably a non-travel savings account).



8. Regular Saving and Working…

This is mainly what I do now to travel.  It doesn’t make for a good story.  Save and work.  Blah.  To that end, I picked up some extra shifts at work this month.  I try to pick up extra shifts when I can.  The other day, I worked a sixteen hour shift followed by a twelve hour shift the next day.  I might try substitute teaching in my free time as well.  (Though typically I only work 40 hours a week).  On the saving front, I will admit that I am terrible at saving.  I have too many hobbies and eat out way too much.  But, I’ve been using Mint since March and find that it helps me track my spending and set saving goals.   Each month I try to squirrel away money.  But, it seems that once I save up enough- I spend it all on travel.  So, perhaps I could add “living irresponsibly” to my list of things I do to travel, as I am definitely NOT saving up for retirement or a rainy day.   My goal is to eventually become good enough at saving that I can put money away for BOTH travel and responsible adulthood.


There are probably many other ways that I could travel.  I could work overseas, such as teaching English in South Korea.   I could try to find work that somehow involves travel.  But, for the most part, I am content right now to save, work, and dream of future trips.  Provided that my current job continues to allow me to take vacations each year, I continue to travel as long as I am able to.  It challenges me socially, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.  While it is a selfish endeavor, it allows me to re-dedicate to activism and my work.   That is why I like it and why it has been worth the effort.

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I also love this photo-in Kazakhstan, since I look badass- masking the fact that I am a dorky, fearful, and unfit.

Missed Connections: The Social Challenge of Travel

 

Missed Connections: The Social Challenge of Travel

H. Bradford

9/9/17

I remember back when I was a flag twirler for marching band (at Cambridge-Isanti High School), sitting alone on the school bus as it carted me to march in a parade.  I always sat alone.  I always sat alone for soccer.  I sat alone for track as well.  I have many memories of sitting alone on school buses as I traveled to track meets, games, speech meets, or whatever else.  I also have memories of “pairing up” for projects in college and high school, or just “pairing up” for whatever else.  I was always the last person to find a pair.  I even took a community education ballroom dance class where I danced alone with an invisible partner- simply because I had no pair.  I am like a mismatched sock.  Thankfully, I tend to enjoy my own company.  My best days are often the days that I spent alone- hiking, camping, watching birds, writing, etc.  At the same time, there is something painful and mysterious about my inability to “pair up” or how it seems that there is a natural force field around me that deters others from sitting with me.  Normally, this doesn’t matter as I do have a core of good friends.  This is something I lacked in other eras of my life.  It only becomes a problem when I leave them.  As such, I find that this is one of the most challenging aspects of travel.

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My last two major trips were overland trips.  One visited southern Africa.  The other visited Central Asia.  These trips both involved meeting a group of strangers, camping with them, and spending long hours on a truck with them.   In fact, most of my travel experiences involve meeting strangers and confronting the painful truth of my life: I am a misfit and I lack social skills.  The social dance of travel follows some patterns.  Firstly, everyone expresses excitement to meet one another.  There tends to be bonding early on over a meal and drinking.  Conversation is light, centered mostly upon small talk and travel.  This pattern repeats itself, generating stories that create situational bonds.  For instance, a generic story might be something such as “the time we ate X, then drank X, got so drunk, and stayed up all night doing X.”  The story might be made more interesting by such mishaps as getting lost, getting harassed, a misunderstanding, getting sick, or positive things such as making a local friend, discovering a cool place, or some other adventure.  The sum of these experiences tends to be friendships, vows or plans to see one another again, and teary eyed departures home.  95% of the time I have been an outsider to this experience.  I have watched it unfold, like a flower opening, with the predictability of spring time.  And, I have watched, usually from a solitary seat on a bus, truck, or train, as the friendships others have built end in tears.  I am left to feel my own sadness- but generally that of the perennial outsider.   I wonder what is wrong with me?  Why can’t I connect?  And worse, I feel the existential pain of not mattering- of existing in no one’s memory.  Of simply vanishing without consequence and failing to invoke warmth and connection.

 


 

Why can’t I connect?  I think it is complicated.  I am slow to open up to people.  By the time I begin to feel comfortable opening up- most people have already made their connections within the group.  I am terrible at small talk.  I tend to get bored with small talk.  I would much rather start off talking about something political or sociological.  Unfortunately, most social situations require political neutrality.  I do a lot of activism.  My political identity takes up at least half of my time.  I am aware that the things that are the most important to me tend to be alienating to others.  I am a feminist.  I am a Trotskyist.  I am an atheist.  I am a sociologist (well, in the sense I have an M.A. in sociology and can’t NOT analyze or critique social norms.  Sociology does not have an off switch).   I am an unmarried adult with no children- who lives in a shared house with adult housemates- which also serves as a makeshift food shelf.    I have a belief system and lifestyle that is shared by very few people.  Because polite conversation tends to avoid controversy, debate, or politics, I feel that I can’t share 75% of who I am with others- at least not upon first meeting them.   In this way, social situations can feel like a straight jacket.  There are other peculiarities about myself.  One, I don’t drink alcohol and never have.  I have never in my years of travel met another traveler who is also a teetotaler.  Drinking is an important part of the bonding process.  It loosens people up and makes conversation easier.  Another area of bonding is television shows.  However, I usually limit my TV or Netflix watching to less than an hour a month.  I find little joy in binge watching shows (except once a year I do watch the previous season of the Walking Dead).  I don’t really like watching shows and don’t know or care to know what is popular.  I am a vegetarian.  I am also bisexual.  I tend to keep my sexuality to myself as I am often paired with female travelers as tentmates or roommates.  I once had a bad experience wherein a fellow traveler once mistakenly believed that I was trying to see her naked.  This wasn’t true.  But to avoid that, I tend not to advertise it.  I think that a barrier to making connections is the fact that I feel that there is a lot about myself that I can’t talk about AND even if I could- I am pretty unusual.

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This sock probably doesn’t have a match since it wants to talk about communism when people really just want to talk about tv shows and places they’ve been.

If I can’t talk about politics or ideology, who am I?  Who am I outside of my activist identity? Well, there is my work self.  I work at a domestic violence shelter, so, that can be interesting to talk about.  However, intimate partner violence isn’t a “fun” topic of conversation and not a topic most people want to delve into right away upon first meeting.   I do have quite a few hobbies.  I enjoy reading, writing, learning about nature, bird watching, outdoors, learning in general, gardening, drawing, and have dabbled in activities such as ballet lessons, soccer, writing poems, other dance or fitness classes, violin, etc.  Despite the hobbies, I often feel that I am a little boring.  I mean, my latest “dabbling” was creating watercolor images of birds.  I think I have the tastes and interests of a fussy, tea drinking, great grandmother.  All things considered, I don’t expect that others would actually want to be my friend.  So, I tend to be reserved and observant, making little effort to exude the warmth and welcome needed to attract friends.  This all becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  1.) I feel that I am too different to make friends.  2.) Based upon this belief, I don’t make an effort at it.   Following this internal logic, I tend to make the most of my situations by keeping to myself or trying to find the joy in my own companionship.


The social aspect of travel is frustrating because it seems to serve as a microcosm of my relationship to society at large.  I don’t fit in.  This is often masked by the fact that I have a few close friends who are also…misfits.  I also feel that maybe there IS something wrong with me.  This sense of something wrong with me sometimes causes me to disengage with people for fear of rejection.  Oh dear!  Why does this have to be so complicated?  It would be easier if my friends enjoyed international travel.  I could then travel with a buddy and would not have to worry about how I connect with others.  However, travel is spendy.  Even if it wasn’t, no one I know is all that keen on traveling.  For the foreseeable future, I will be either traveling alone or meeting up with a group of strangers as I travel.  But, I don’t really mind.   And, perhaps there is hope that I can grow and become better at socializing/connecting.  This summer, I feel that I fared much better at my attempt to befriend others.  In fact, I actually left the trip a bit teary eyed.  That was the first time that has ever happened on a trip.  I don’t even know what to think.  Usually, I am the outsider watching emotions as they happen for other people.  I can’t say that I am overly fond of feeling sad upon departure.  But, I think sadness is better than distance or emotional vacancy.


A part of me will always have times when I feel like a lonely child.  I will always have moments where I am reminded of the times that I sat alone on a bus or hid during lunch hour because I had no one to sit with (at Cambridge-Isanti).  Usually, I am too busy with work, activism, and my friends to feel lonely.  I actually seek out alone time because my life is too full.  I do enjoy my own company.  A benefit of my lonely past is that I am not at all shy or self conscious about eating at a restaurant alone, camping alone, hiking alone, or going to a movie alone.   It is only when I am away from my friends for an extended period of time and thrust into a situation where I am with strangers that I am confronted with my insecurities and the demons of my social struggles.  It is in these situations that I struggle with the haunting pain of being a misfit who is socially deficient.   The bright side is that it is a learning experience.  Maybe I will never learn the lessons that I need to learn, but it does challenge me by pulling me away from my confidence and comfort.  I suppose that is one of the purposes of travel- to leave one’s comfort zone.  Well, I will say that I do- but in ways that are painful, unseen, and unspoken.  (Though I have just spoken of it now!)


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(Generic image of a lonely person on a bus stolen from the internets)

 

 

 

 

Another Mini Camping Trip

Another Mini Camping Trip

H. Bradford

8/22/17

I can’t believe that summer is nearly coming to an end!  (Well, technically it ends September 21st, but…it feels like it ends once September starts).  I feel that there is so much that I didn’t do this summer.  It never lasts long enough.  I suppose that is why I felt that I needed to take another mini camping trip.  It won’t be long before it is too cold (though I suppose I could someday try winter camping…).   In any event, I once again checked online to see what programs were being offered by state parks.  I saw that Temperance River State Park was offering a plant identification hike.  So…I decided that I would head there for a little camping and lesson on plants.

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Temperance River is about an hour and a half northeast of Duluth.  I set out early Friday morning to make certain I arrived there on time for the ten A.M. plant identification hike.  It was a pretty drive.  The road was not yet crowded with vehicles and the accompanying scenery of Lake Superior made me feel happy to be alive.  I have been many places but there really is something special about Lake Superior, especially the north shore with its dramatic cliffs and craggy shores.

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The plant identification hike was pretty cool.  Those sorts of programs don’t tend to attract huge crowds, so it was a naturalist, a family, and myself.  I knew many of the plants already, but I did not know that Jewel Weed can be used topically to treat stinging nettle.  I also saw Wild Beebalm, which I had never noticed growing around here before.  I also learned that Victorians used to back Tansy into cakes.  The smell is pretty…strong and not very enticing…so I am not certain why it was added to cakes.  But, it is mildly toxic, which ended tansy’s career as a cake flavoring.  Hmm.  The hike lasted about an hour and a half.   When it was done, I decided to purchase two guidebooks from the park office and set off on another hike.   I purchased a guide on fungi (as I have been more interested in fungi recently as a result of the Feminist Frolic earlier this month) and another on berries (as many berries are appearing now).

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I set off for Carlton Peak, which is the second highest point in Minnesota.  Because it is the second highest point, I figured it might actually be a bit of a challenge.  It really wasn’t, which I guess goes to show that Minnesota really isn’t a dramatically tall state.  But, it was still a fun time.  I stopped along the way, taking note of interesting fungi and doing my best to sort of identify them.  There were also many warblers hidden in the woods, chipmunks scurrying about, and the early touches of yellow on some of the leaves.  The hike took me to the top of the peak, where there was a nice view of Lake Superior and the surrounding forests.  Like usual, most of the hikers were couples, families, and friends.  I didn’t meet anyone else on a solo adventure that day.   After taking some photos of the top, I went to nearby Tofte Peak for another view.

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Oh, I also ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  This is a challenge when I go on these mini trips.  I never know what to pack.  I need to bring things that are easy to make and which don’t spoil without refrigeration.  I have yet to come up with a satisfying menu of camping foods- so I tend to eat snacks.  In this case, I brought peanut butter, jelly, and bread.  Only…my bread was kind of old.  It tasted gross and stale.  I ate the sandwich anyway, but my stomach felt uneasy for the rest of the day.  I also lost my taste for PBJ sandwiches after that one bad one…even after buying some better bread.  Despite an upset stomach, I went on several other hikes that day.  I wandered around Lake Superior and went on a hike along Temperance River.  In all, I was up and moving around from 10 am to almost 8pm (though it wasn’t strenuous non-stop movement as I sat down, did identification work, took photos, etc.).

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At 8pm,  I made a fire and rested for a while.  I made myself a grilled cheese and avocado sandwich, but my taste for food was non-existent due to my nasty PBJ earlier.  I mostly stared at the fire and journaled in the dim light.  Also, I came to the realization that my tent…which I had not used since my rainy camp adventure in July…smelled really, really musty.   I aired it out through the day, but it still smelled.  I think it will be better next time, but it could really use some airfreshener.  My stomach was not a happy camper  and the smell of the tent was not going to do my digestive system any favors.  I ended up sleeping in my car to avoid the smell.  Yep.  But, not before wandering to Lake Superior in the darkness and sitting on some rocks.  I observed the stars and enjoyed the darkness.  There is something wonderful about the blackness of night.  It is mysterious and frightening in a fun way.   I listened to the water on the rocks and the sound of leaves.  All of the other campers were already sleeping, so it was nice to stay up and out there alone.


I had big ambitions for the following day.  I planned on doing more hiking and visiting some other state parks on the way back to Duluth.  But, after hiking so long the day before, I wasn’t that energetic.  I did a little geocaching around the park and stopped for some photos at nearby rivers and the abandoned town of Taconite Harbor.  However, I wanted something more substantial than what I had packed to eat.  My stomach felt normal but wasn’t hungry for what I had packed.  So, I made my way back towards Duluth in search of food.  I stopped in Silver Bay and did a little more geocaching, but began to feel drawn home by some activist obligations.  Originally, I had set off with the intention of staying out late at Gooseberry Falls State Park so that I could catch a presentation on ravens.  However, this would mean missing out on a prisoner solidarity protest and a benefit dinner for a UMD student from Syria.  My roommate Adam texted me asking where the signs I had made were.  I didn’t actually make any signs for the protest.

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Visions of eating Mexican food and attending these political events drew me home earlier that I had intended.   I didn’t catch the presentation on ravens, but I did have a fun time eating Mexican food and going for a walk with Adam.  I was also glad to attend the political events later in the evening.   I am not much of a camper, but I enjoyed the hiking and genuinely felt glad to live in this part of the world.  There is a lot of beauty to partake in here.  Each time I camp, I learn something new.  This time I learned to really, really think about what I want to eat and not to pack expired bread- even if it isn’t moldy yet.  I also learned that I should be more careful with my tent and not assume that it was “dry enough” when I packed it up.  This can lead to a musty misadventure.   In all, it is fair to say that I am not the most adventurous person…but I enjoy my little mini adventures.  It removes me, even for a short time, from people, work, activism and the demands of everyday life.  It is an important part of my self-care and I always learn something new.

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100 Political Events in 2017: A Reflection

100 Political Events in 2017: A Reflection

H. Bradford

8/16/17

Yesterday, I attended my 100th political event of the year.   The 100th event was a solidarity vigil for Charlottesville at the Clayton, Jackson, Mcghie Memorial in Duluth.  The event was attended by several hundred people.  So many people flooded the plaza that there were people in the the street.  It was large enough that the police blocked off the street to passing traffic during the event against white supremacy (but framed generally as hate).  We are just three years shy of the 100 year anniversary of the the lynching of three innocent African American men in Duluth.  Yet, 100 years later so little has changed.  Activists 100 years ago might be terrified to peek into the future and see that we are still fighting imperialist wars, hate groups like the KKK not only still exist but is actually gaining popularity,  union membership is less than it was in 1920 and almost a third of what it was at its peak in 1970s, we are killing our planet, and basically…every oppressed group is …still oppressed.   It would be pretty demoralizing to look ahead in time.  In this long view into the future…this century long parade of violence, misery, drudgery…Trump would probably not stand out as the worst of the worst but just the latest terrible thing in the procession of suffering.  Yet, I would hope that this activist of the past would see some hope.  There are moments when humanity unites and fights against the tide of suffering.  There are slow gains from the struggles of mass movements to rage against everything that destroys and diminishes us.

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(I did not take this photo, it was posted to the Charlottesville Solidarity Vigil and I believe it was taken by Jordan Bissell)


Today was my 100th political event.  Activism is not a numbers game, but I do like numbers.  I know how many books I have read this year, new species of birds I have seen, the number of blogs that I have written, the number of countries I have visited, the calories I have consumed in the last 25 days, spending on food for the last several months, and many other things.  So, tracking my activism is just one thing of many things that I like to keep tabs of.   Numbers do not tell the whole story, but they do provide a piece of a puzzle.  What can be said about 100 political events?  Well, yesterday was day 227 of the year.  That means that 44% of the days this year have been spent at political events such as meetings, protests, or educational political presentations/films.  If I subtract the time I was out of the country on vacation- not at all engaged in politics- the number increases to 50%.  That means half of my days are spent at a political event.  This does not count times I spend writing political blog posts, preparing for political events by making event pages, putting up fliers, or creating fliers, having political conversations, or other political activities.  Of these 100 events, approximately 46% were feminist, 13% were against racism, 10% were socialist specific, 8% were LGBTQ, 7% were non-labor specific economic justice events, 6% labor related, 5% were environmental,   4% were anti-war or anti-imperialism, 3% were criminology related, and 2% were miscellaneous.  These numbers are imperfect, as some events were related to more than one category.  The previous year, I attended 80 events for the WHOLE YEAR.  So, it is safe to say that the election of Trump has resulted in an upsurge of political activity and opportunities to participate in social movements.  I think it is also fair to say that this year has seen the emergence of far more feminist activism.  While I tend to prioritize feminist events, there are far more events than I am able to attend.  Locally, the most consistent and robust area of activism this year tends to be feminism…though there are plenty of opportunities in other kinds of activism as well and my numbers do not reflect the actual number of events against racism or for the environment, for instance.  The numbers tell a bit more about myself than the political situation…but the general increase in activities certainly is indicative of an increase in opportunity.   People are fighting back on many fronts.

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What else can be said about the 100?  I can say that I am a little tired!  I feel accomplished.  It helps keep me motivated.  It also feels like hiking up a mountain and reading the elevation signs or the KM to the top.  When I went on my vacation and entirely disengaged from activism and politics, it was hard to come back.  I can see the appeal for the people who can’t be bothered to become engaged in social change.  I can feel the hopelessness that nothing will become better so we may as live for whatever pleasures we can eke out of this existence.  It isn’t always fun to go to meetings.  It feels like a second job sometimes.  It can feel like responsibility, stress, pressure, annoyance, etc.  I feel a lot of conflicted feelings, really.  I feel that it is mostly thankless and misunderstood.   At the same time, I do feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of need.  I feel enough passion to continue.  I feel very angry.   It is anger that motivates me the most.  I feel so angry that the world is so shitty for so many people.  I feel angry that there are violent, horrific people who want women to live in the social equivalent of a whelping box as they breed the next generation of soldiers and workers.  I feel angry that the ignorance of America’s atrocities over history and today.  The stupid fear mongering over North Korea.  I feel angry that white people feel victimized by a system built upon slavery, genocide, racism, and imperialism.  I feel angry that there are so many people with the means to do more, but they don’t because it isn’t respectable to protest or in their immediate interest to make some waves.  I wish I had more time for other things, yet I actually usually do get a lot out of activism.  At the same time, I often wonder how normal people live.  What do they do with their time?   Then, there are some super activists who have probably been to 200 things this year!  I am sure that comrades, Adam and Lucas, have probably been to more events than I have.  Adam might have been to 150.  They don’t write it down like I do.  It isn’t a contest, of course.  Activism feels a bit like a Sisyphean task.  Most of the time, the results are not immediately obvious.  OR, in the worst case, the stone of social change actually rolls down the mountain.

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Activism isn’t always fun.  Sometimes it is cold…and boring…or disappointing.  Though this event actually was engaging and left me feeling hopeful.


All activists must have some sense of optimism that things can change.  Even without optimism, things always change.  More than optimism, activists have to believe in a sense of efficacy.  That not only does change happen, but humans can and often influence this change.   I have to assume that the imagined activist from 100 years ago would be disappointed if not terrified, but I would also hope that the activists today could give them hope.   I suppose that it where I see myself in history.   I hope that whatever future 100 years from now is better.   Wouldn’t it be nice if there weren’t prisons, hunger, homelessness, or wars?  What if everyone had enough?  What if the planet wasn’t dying?  How do we get from POINT A (this shit hole world) to POINT B (a better one)?   I believe it is by trying to build movements that will change the world.  I am a very minuscule part of that.   But it will be made by millions of minuscule parts.  So, I am telling you that I have been to 100 things so that maybe someone…out there…. will think that it is time to attend one thing.  The past, present, and future might appreciate it.  And, you can take it from me… one thing is not so much to do.

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Just keeping the flame of hope alive…

Depression and the Lost Dark Years

Depression and the Lost Dark Years

H. Bradford

8/14/17

When I was about 20 years old, I stopped existing.  By some dark magic, I pulled off an astonishing vanishing act.  I disappeared behind a cloud for six to eight years.  While in this cloud, time stopped.  Yet, the world kept moving without me.  When the cloud cleared, I could finally see clearly my life all around me.  It spread out forever like a bombed city.   I was tasked with rebuilding it.  This is my story of depression and moving out of it.

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I don’t like to admit that I have struggled with mental health.  In fact, it seems like an odd thing to say.  I don’t like to see it as a part of me.  Instead, I like to see it as some external force that happened to inhabit me for a long while.  It began in about the the 4th grade.  That is when I began experience panic attacks.  Though, at the time, I didn’t know what they were.  They were just some terrifying curse that fell upon me randomly- like a demonic possession, which would tighten might chest and put me into a state of fear.  I found it hard to breathe and swallow.  They often happened at night, around 3 am.  Sometimes they happened at lunch or on the school bus.   I would sleep with a glass of water (and I still sleep with a beverage) to help me swallow if I woke up in a panic.  Panic attacks were inconvenient, especially when they happened at a sleep over or with groups of people.   My father would call them “spells.”  Heather is having one of her “spells.”  I suppose it gave it a supernatural quality.   I had these “spells” for years.  I didn’t know their name.  They were just some strange quirk about me that I never talked to anyone about.  I was ashamed of them and could not imagine that other people in the world experienced the same thing.  Thus, I had been dealing with anxiety to some degree since childhood. Image result for witch and cauldron vintage

(Oh no, this witch is conjuring up a “spell”  ….a.k.a causing children to have panic attacks. The cat seems particularly into this endeavor. )


I mostly coexisted with my “spells” as they were an irregular visitor in my life.  But, once I graduated high school, I was visited by a much darker and stronger force.  It began with a deepened sense of social anxiety, (but I have a hard time differentiating when anxiety ends and depression begins).  Basically, I came to believe that I was a failure and the world was judging me.  Because of this, I became so fearful that I could not leave the house to get the mail or put gas in my car.  I feared that someone would see me….Heather…that failure…that terrible failure.  I didn’t want to be seen in public.  I struggled to stay in college.  While I was in college, I maintained perfect grades but I couldn’t face being in school.  I dropped out several times.  While I felt anxiety over seeing people and being judged as a failure, I also experienced depression.  I didn’t have any friends.  I didn’t feel that I had the capacity to make friends.  I basically worked the night shift and otherwise hid from the world.   I lived at home with family members.  The only bright spot was that I did try to travel from time to time.  It was the only thing that made me feel that I was doing something with my life and that perhaps I was not a failure after all.


I was in an out of college for several years.  I did attempt to go to counseling a few times, as it was provided for free through St. Scholastica.  This helped a little.  At least it provided me a name for what I was going through: anxiety and depression.  Really, it opened up the door to the idea that what I had experienced was not some strange, magical force unique to my own bizarre, miserable existence.  It was a treatable medical condition.  It was suggested that I try medications, but I only took a few doses before giving up on that.  I am stubborn and like to be in control.  So, the idea of medication never sat well with me.  Still, I think that going to counseling helped me to think differently.  I was given weekly goals.  Even though I am not sure that I did that well at the goals, it created some momentum in my life.  But, as a general rule, between the age of 20 and 26, I wavered between complete, wickedly immobilizing depression and barely climbing out of depression.  During the time I was caught in wickedly immobilizing depression, I really didn’t live.  I didn’t pay my bills.  I didn’t think of the future.  I avoided my phone.  I didn’t feel suicidal, but I hoped that death would magically come to me and save me from living.  And, since I had social anxiety and felt that the world doomed me a failure, the depression didn’t help…as it made me a failure!  I hadn’t finished college.  The bills were piling up.  I was doing very little with my life. Image result for st. scholastica college

(Ah, my citadel of misery.  Yet, I miss those dark towers)


I am not sure exactly what happened to change things.  Depression naturally receded, much like the glaciers at the end of the ice age.  This happened sometime around the age of 26 or 27.  Something just…changed.  It went away.  It wasn’t anything I did or the result of any treatment.  The only problem was that my life was a mess.  For one, I hadn’t paid my bills for over a year.  I simply didn’t care enough about living to bother.  For another, I owed over $10,000 to St. Scholastica (the only reason that I owed this much money to the college was because I had too much social anxiety to visit the financial aid office and take out a student loan…and the time period to take out a loan had elapsed).  This put my transcript on hold and prevented me from finishing my education.  My life was in shambles.  So, even though my mood had improved, I had a big mess to clean up.  That mess took a lot of hard work and several long years.

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(The ice age might have ended, but I was left with the carcasses of some mammoth messes to clean up.)


Once depression had passed, I had a lot more energy for living.  This was useful, as I needed this energy to work.  I completed two service years as an Americorps member, as the program paid over $4000 in an education award at the time.  This helped me pay off the bill with St. Scholastica.  In turn, this helped me to finally finish off my bachelor’s degree there.  During this time period, I filed for bankruptcy, which discharged all of my other debt (aside from student loans).   Because Americorps paid a stipend of less than $900 a month after taxes at the time, I also worked the night shift at a hotel.  At other times, I worked as many as four jobs.  I was a bit of a workaholic at the time, with periods where I worked 80 hours a week.  However, I was trying to eke a modicum of pleasure from my bleak life.  I probably didn’t need to work as much as I did, but I wanted to save money for travel and for hobbies.  And, between all of the jobs I really didn’t make that much money.   Another boon for my financial situation was when I donated eggs, which helped to pay off my car and the rest of the St. Scholastica bill.  It took me about three to four years to re-assemble my life.  All the while, I felt that I was looking over my shoulder, waiting for depression to return.  After all, it had visited me so often in my early to mid twenties.  I feared that it would return and sabotage everything.  Certainly, there were some very dark and terrible moments in my workaholic years.  But….depression did not return.


It has been over a decade since I emerged from depression.  Depression and anxiety have not returned in the same way.  While they dominated my 20s, they have not and they will not return.  I have a lot of mixed feelings about the situation.  For one, while I used to fear that depression would return, I no longer fear that.  I have far more tools now, emotionally, mentally, and intellectually than I did in my early 20s.  While I continue to experience melancholy and sadness more than the average person, I feel that I have some control over this and can change negative thought patterns before they spiral out of control.  I also have a sense of what depression looks like in my self.  If I stop caring about life, stop paying bills, find myself unable to keep up with obligations, isolate myself, give up hobbies, or generally feel less motivated- I become concerned and seek to remedy the situation.   While I was living in Mankato, I felt those familiar feelings, so I sought counseling right away.  I only went to one session, but it was enough to get me back on track in life and throw my thought patterns into a healthier framework.   As for anxiety, I very rarely have panic attacks.  I have anxiety from time to time, but I recognize it for what it is and know it will pass.  I think medication would really help with anxiety, since it is not a fun experience.  However, I know I can generally power through it.  I fully believe that there will be a time in my life that I do not have anxiety.  I don’t think I have had a panic attack in almost a year.  As I grow and experience more life, I feel that I become better at living and better at thinking.  I am optimistic that I am fully capable of living in a healthy mental state.


I realize that my framing of mental illness is not really very helpful for most people.  For one, I shunned medication.  I don’t think this is the answer for others.  I don’t even think it is the answer for myself.  I suffered longer than I needed to.  Seeing how depression ate up years of my life, I am not against taking medication.  Time is the most precious thing we have.  It is finite.  Our time on this earth is woefully short.  Anything that shortens and diminishes our short lives should be fought furiously.  That is why I am a socialist.  I want people to have the resources they need to live full lives.   If I became as depressed again, I would not be as stubborn in the future.  Also, I don’t really frame depression as something that will always be a part of me or something that is built into my genes.  While it most likely was built into my genetics, I don’t care for that sort of determinism.  I think that it very well could have been the outcome of my life conditions.  That any human being in the same conditions may have also become depressed.  Really, I was lost!  I didn’t have friends!  I struggled to figure out meaning in this world and find my place!  I struggled with poverty and isolation.   This world itself is pretty depressing.  It is astonishing that more people aren’t depressed.   So, in a way, I don’t really OWN being depressed.  Worse, I sometimes feel resentful, uncomfortable, and impatient with others who experience mental health issues.   I should see myself and my struggles in them, but instead, I want to avoid it.   It makes me feel disgusted with myself for being weak and for failing.  Yes, I have internalized some narratives of mental health as a weakness.  Intellectually, I know better, but emotionally, I have negative reactions that I keep on the inside.  I want people to think I am strong, capable, and in control.  I certainly don’t feel happy about the ordeal.   It is embarrassing.  It shows that I am very flawed.  And, even if I wasn’t defective, the disease stole several years of my life.  Those are years that I won’t get back.  My life is less full because of the years that depression took from me.  It makes me angry.  It makes me sad.  When I see young college students having fun and enjoying their youth, I feel that I missed out.  I didn’t have friends, bonfires, camping trips, parties, road trips, spring break…etc.  I had soul crushing isolation.


Because of these feelings of loss, I am compelled to live very well.  I can’t change the past.  My 20s sucked.  That’s how it goes.  But, I made it through it.  I don’t have perfect narratives about the whole ordeal, but I have a lot of determination not to go through that again.  My 30s have been better.  While I struggled to finish one degree in my 20s, I finished three in my 30s!  I travel.  I am engaged in many hobbies.  I am active as an activist.  I keep a very tight schedule.  I have wonderful friends.  I read.  I learn.  I share.  I am living the life I wish I had been living in my 20s.  I live each day very fully.  I am hungry for living.   I often feel stressed because I wonder how I will fit so much into a single day.  I want to paint! Play violin!  Run!  Hike! Read! Write.  Write blog posts.  Write stories!  Write papers!  Write poems!  I want to enjoy the sunshine and trees!  I want to ride my bicycle.  I want to study languages!  I want to plant my garden!  Try a new hobby!  I want to be a better feminist, socialist, environmentalist, etc…  Ah…I want everything!    I have to forgive myself for my terrible 20s as it built a foundation for my 30s.  I am pretty sure I won’t be blindsided by depression later in life, as I went through it, know it, and am more capable of handling it.  I did travel in my 20s and I don’t regret my years of Americorps service.  I had some good friendships in my 20s as well.  So, while my 20s were not as fun and free as I would have liked, I have my whole life to make up for lost time.  To the best of my ability, that is what I will do.  Is it healthy?  If my 20s is the story of my long bleak winter the rest of my life feels a little like the rite of spring, a ceremonial frenzy to dance myself to death.  But that is another story.  The story of my fundamental existential crisis.  Perhaps depression really was just the first act.

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(an image from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring)

My Adventures as an Egg Donor

My Adventures as an Egg Donor

H. Bradford

8/1/17

I remember when I was a student teacher, I taught a lesson on the social construction of gender.  A seventeen year old smarty pants wanted to argue that gender was not socially constructed.  After all, a woman can’t get another woman pregnant!  With a smile, I told him that I had, in fact, impregnated three women.  He was taken aback by this and retreated from the argument (which to him was really was more about biology than the social construction of gender).   The story of egg donation came up again tonight at Socialism and a Slice, a monthly meeting of local activists.  The topic was again the social construction of gender, but also the promise that reproductive technologies can usurp some aspects of biological determinism in reproduction.  Of course, reproductive technologies exist in a social context and I am not for the blind worship of science and technology.  Yet, at the same time, I like to think that someday technology can be used to grant genders/biological arrangements access to parenthood.


In 2007 and 2008 I was really struggling.  I had a large bill with St. Scholastica, was making less than minimum wage as an Americorps volunteer, worked two to four jobs, and was just beginning to pull myself out of the black hole that is depression.  My long experience with depression is another story.  But, to make that long story short, I spent a good portion of my 20s as a non-existent person.  I hid from the world, didn’t pay my bills, and waited patiently for death.  Needless to say, I had a lot of financial things to deal with once the clouds began to clear.  One solution to this problem was working myself in a demoralizing frenzy of drudgery to climb out of the hole.  Another solution, in addition to that one, was to donate eggs.  I began to look into this option.  The closest place to donate eggs was a hospital in Minneapolis.  But, it paid around $3000 if successful.  I filled out a long application.  I believe it was over 25 pages long.  The application was accepted and I was invited to the hospital to continue the process- which would include a mental health examination, health exam, and interview.


I believed that at any part of the process, I would be weeded out.   But, I am generally a pretty healthy person.  I have never smoked, drank alcohol, had a surgery, had a major illness, been hospitalized, tried an illegal drug, etc.  On paper, I seemed like a good candidate, as I have many hobbies, was a healthy weight at the time (they had weight restrictions), intelligent, driven, etc.  I even passed the mental health evaluation.  So, despite some struggles with anxiety and depression in my early 20s (which I can talk about later), they were not red flags.  I passed each barrier, which was great as I invested my meager resources at the time in traveling to Minneapolis for evaluations.  Finally, they took my photo and told me that I would be put on the roster of possible egg donors.  With a few weeks, I was told that I had been chosen to donate.   It should be noted that it was an anonymous donation, so I would never know the recipient of the eggs nor would that person know me.  I was simply donor number 306.

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The donation process was involved.  It first involved a visit to the hospital to go onto birth control pills so that my menstrual cycle would align with the recipient.  I was told to begin them on a certain date.  After which time, I would begin a series of injections.  I was given a large amount of hormones, as the goal was to make my body produce a dozen or more mature eggs.  I injected myself with Gonal-F once or twice a day, depending upon the stage in the process.  Towards the end, it was more and in all, I spent about three weeks taking hormones.   In addition to the Gonal-F injections, I also took injections of a medication that suppressed ovulation, simulating menopause (Lupron).   Beyond this strict schedule of injections, the process also involved early morning drives to Minneapolis, as my blood was tested for its estrogen level and I was given ultrasounds to check on the progress in my ovaries.  It was an intense time, as I would rush to the cities then drive back for work.  At the same time, towards the end, my ovaries felt like bags of marbles.  I felt heavy.  I am sure it was imagined, but I felt droopy and weighed down.  The first time that I donated was in November and I remember making a large Thanksgiving meal for my family.  I remember them attributing this to my mega dose of estrogen.  As if they believed that somehow I was magically domesticated by the hormones.  I was deeply offended.  Despite being pumped full of estrogen and in a fake state of menopause, I was not weepy, crabby, plagued by hot flashes, or somehow more feminine.  Really, I just like cooking things from time to time…hormones or no hormones.   I felt entirely like my self, just weighed down and worn out from the driving.  In any event, after daily trips to the cities for a week…the time finally came to donate.  I was given a dagger sized syringe and a date.  I was told to impale myself on my butt then show up the following morning for the extraction.  No eating.  No drinking.  The final injection was some sort of magic potion that would mature the follicles and release the eggs (HCG).

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I made several dishes for Thanksgiving this past year.  Not one of them was the outcome of my hormone level.


The extraction itself was uneventful.  I was put to sleep, a needled was inserted into my vagina, and eggs were somehow sucked out from my ovaries (I believe?).  The extraction process took less than an hour, but I was moved to another room to rest for an additional hour.  In all, around 15 or 16 eggs were removed.  Though, I believe that my second time donating, it may have been as many as 23.  These eggs would go on to be fertilized.  The most promising would then be implanted in the recipient.  The failures and duds would be destroyed with the option of freezing some eggs for later use.  Thus, I am responsible not only for three pregnancies (since I donated three times and each time resulted in a pregnancy), I am responsible for some abortions (depending upon how one defines such a thing).  Because of the large number, I was told that I was a good donor.  I also did not experience much pain or any complications after the first donation.  Again, I handled it pretty well!  I was given a check for my efforts as well as parting gifts from my recipient.  The first time, the gift included a card and some gift cards.  In all, it was pretty cool.  I used the money earned from three donations to pay off my car loan, put money towards my St. Scholastica bill, and a little money towards a trip to Cuba.


As I said, I donated three times.  The first two times were uneventful and largely successful.  But, I was kept on a pretty tight schedule.  Not long after I had donated the first time, I was asked to donate again.  And, once I had donated the second time, I was asked to donate a third time.  This is a pretty intense process.  It was a lot of driving.  It was a lot of early mornings in addition to working over 60 hours a week.  It was a lot of hormones.   It was a lot of sedation.  Plus, I was saving up for an expensive trip to Cuba.  In order to afford the trip to Cuba, I worked from March to June without a day off.  I have never worked that long of a stretch in my life.  I hope to never do that again.   Even with money from the donation process (which I mostly put to bills) I still had to save several thousand dollars for the Cuba trip.  And, my third donation actually happened shortly after this trip, so I was taking hormone injections while on vacation.  My third donation did not go as well.


When I awoke from sedation, I began having odd body spasms.  My arms and legs shook.  I felt nauseous.  The nurse and doctor asked if I had taken any drugs, but I had not done anything unusual.  Eventually this uncontrolled trembling stopped, though for the next week, whenever I was resting, I would spasm a little.  Because of this reaction, I was told that I could no longer donate.  I have no idea why this happened, but I felt angry at myself.  I felt angry at my body for betraying me.  Had I been a trooper…the kind of person who could soldier on through exhaustion and hormones…without complaint or complication, I could have donated my way out of debt.  I felt so upset with myself.   So, so, so upset!  But, three times was an accomplishment.  Perhaps it was hard on me.  Perhaps I was overly tired.  Maybe I was anxious.  Maybe I hadn’t been taking care of myself.  Why did the third time go awry?  I will never know.  But, that was the end of my short lived career as an egg donor.


Having gone through that experience, I have mixed feelings.  On one hand, I feel great.  It helped me pay off some debt and go on a trip to Cuba.  I also feel like I cheated evolution, gender, and biology.   In terms of evolution, success is passing on your genes.  I am not sure if the three recipients had successful pregnancies, but supposing that they did, this means that I may have three offspring in the world.  I may have more because of the high incidence of twins from IVF and the possibility that some eggs may have been frozen.  I cheated biology, since as a person who was born female, reproduction requires a lot of effort.  Raising a child requires a huge amount of resources and labor.  Thus, I feel that I am the equivalent of a brood parasite, such as a catbird.  I laid my eggs in some other bird’s nest and got to fly away, without effort or consequence.  Egg donation is a bit of biological trickery on my part.  Finally, I have suffered some gender dysphoria in the past.  It is not something I am particularly open about nor is it immediately obvious because of my feminine gender presentation.  In this regard, I feel that I transcended some of the limits of my gender and biology.  I was able to express both my gender and biology in a non-conventional way.   I’ve impregnated multiple women who I don’t even know.   I kind of felt like a stud.


On the other hand, there is a darker side to all of this.  Egg donation was hard on my body.  After the third donation, I actually developed wrinkles around my eyes.  The skin on my face became like crepe paper…very fragile and wrinkled.  It was an odd reaction that went away over the months following the donation (thus I know it was correlated with egg donation rather than with natural aging).   I also woke up convulsing on a hospital bed.  Then, I felt that I was blamed for this reaction (as I was barred from donating again and accused of taking drugs).   The reason why I donated was because I was in debt.  I was overworking myself.  My debt was related to my depression and the high cost of education.  In the context of capitalism, those who donate will always mostly be lower income women.   The cost of IVF is extremely expensive.  Thus, the recipients will always be women with access to money.  Of course, both women in the situation are oppressed.  Why do women feel that they must spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive technologies?  Why not adopt?  Why is going through the process of pregnancy so important?  I don’t blame the women for their choices nor do I look down upon these choices.  However, choice exists in social context and our society does tell women that motherhood and pregnancy give value and meaning to life.  Women who choose not to have children are seen as deviant, selfish, or of lesser character.  To make matters more complex, there are plenty of women with infertility issues who can’t afford IVF or adoption (which itself costs tens of thousands of dollars).  For instance, now that I am older and my fertility is waning, I know that would never be able to afford to have children through adoption or IVF.  It is plainly too expensive.  Additionally, why was I considered a “good donor?”  Partially because of supply and demand.  The demand is for young, educated, talented WHITE women, as most recipients are professional white women.  So, while I support reproductive technologies, in the context of capitalism and patriarchy, there is inherent exploitation involved.  I was so miserably poor I really didn’t care if there were medical complications.  I wanted a better life.  I became upset when my own body became a barrier to a better life.


Despite the negatives, I mostly draw a positive balance sheet from the experience.  I needed to pay off a bill with St. Scholastica so that I could further my education.  I have…furthered my education a bit too much…but it certainly opened a door for me.  I feel proud of my unique gender experience.  I feel smug about my place in evolutionary history.  I traveled to Cuba, which was a wonderful and educational experience.   I paid of my car early, improving my credit score and freeing up more spending money.   In all, I have little to complain about.  As for the exploitative nature of the situation, that could be mitigated by free higher education, living wages, universal medical care, etc.  It was certainly odd that I used money from the donation process to travel to Cuba, where education and health care are free, despite a much smaller GDP to work with and embargo.   As for the recipients, I am thankful that I was selected and hope that they have a happy family.  I hope that their children turned out to be smart, talented, well-behaved, thoughtful, independent, creative, angelic little creatures.  I hope that donor 306 was a blessing in their life and a mystery to puzzle, rather than an accursed brood parasite.

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Anna Akhmatova Was Here

Anna Akhmatova was Here

H. Bradford

7/27/17

(Anna Akhmatova was a celebrated Russian poet who was censored during Soviet times.  She was an aristocrat who did not flee the country after the Russian revolution.  While I am from a political tradition on the other side of history, I like her poetry and reflected upon her a little while visiting Tashkent, where she lived during WWII.  Some of the poem’s images come from Bishkek though…)

Anna Akhmatova was here.

She wrote of tractors while beating down tears the for friends and lovers

ploughed under the earth.

Sentimentality is subversive,

so it is best to forget the things that colored the gray cities.

By the time the snow falls, memories will become monuments

to hide in the overgrown wilds of city parks

or to tuck behind the shuttered museum.

These statues must be stored safely out of sight and out of mind,

lest they become unorthodox idols to a high class poetess or the feminine divine.

Anna Akhmotova was here.

Tashkent was a stop in a long migration of mourning

and a hermitage for the heart that would not leave.

As for me, I am just a traveler and only ghosts stay behind.

So, city is empty of tourists and souls in transit.

I am also a little emptier.

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Gray July Days

Gray July Days

H. Bradford

7/27/17

These gray July days,

They feel more like October or November,

when even the birds have somewhere better to be.

These days are thick with quiet, sorrowed anticipation of the cold

and creeping anxiety for stomach flu and Christmas.

Why today must the clouds hang so heavy and gray?

If it as if they are made of tungsten or tin,

and leaden with snow and rain.

Here, winter is always coming.

Midsummer wind and wet is winter’s promise and portent.

 

 

An Attachment to Dark Spaces

An Attachment to Dark Spaces

H. Bradford

7/27/17

(A poem that is generically about how feelings, attachment, and rejection can feel a lot like the universe itself.  The poem can be applied to many situations where I have wanted to assert my existence through emotion.)

 

I won’t make you my surrogate for the universe,

a stand in for its vast, indifferent cold.

You aren’t a stunt double for its absence of God

or the black tide of time that gives and takes,

but mostly takes.

You feel like a universe that stretches outward into yawning space,

becoming so distant it tears itself apart.

But, you won’t be my force of falling apart.

I can do that just fine on my own.

Surely, I adored you…

if only as a metaphor for everything I hate about myself and living

as a gray speck locked in the cruelty of cognizance in time and space.

I wanted you,

if only as a passing addiction to my place in the abyss.

And I wished so much that my existence mattered to you or to the cosmos you came to represent.

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