Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Normal Reunion - Custom comment codes for MySpace, Hi5, Friendster and more

I had on a peach rayon dress under the black robe and I was about to address the class of 1987. It was my idea for the three valedictorians to talk about the past, present, and future. Rob, whose best friend had died several years before of a rare disease, covered the past. He and I emailed years later about his lymphoma and my CFIDS (we both got sick in our twenties) but first my friend Kim was talking about the present. There were over 400 kids in cap and gown and at least a thousand people in the bleachers and I was terrified to stand in front of them and talk about the future. I had such severe stage fright, in fact, that I had been liberally using over-the-counter sleeping pills in the months before. My hair was big and lacquered that night.

My sister once talked about how she never saw adulthood as some great thing. We both felt a sense of dread about it. I was uneasy that night, as if I knew the cliff in front of me – knew it like a Wile E. Coyote who has scouted ahead to discover the angry anvil's possibilities.

I hadn't spent much time outside of Illinois, but was tired of the etherizing hum of crickets and cicadas and the flatness that was an unending taunt. The soil was rich in McLean County, and there was a palpable sense in Normal, Illinois that roots were still possible. Most of my high school memories involved driving, usually in grid patterns as if we were the worker insects, knitting something larger and never getting to enjoy its warmth.

People have been emailing me about my 20-year high school reunion but I can't go. As swiftly as I ran away from home to a radical hippie school in Ohio, fooled around with boys and girls, rode my Trek touring bike to peach stands, spent a month on a commune weaving hammocks, skinny dipped in a murky pond, and burned my eyes on poetry by geniuses, I got sick. Axioms aside, I couldn't go home again: I became too debilitated to make the trip back to Illinois.

Shannon wrote me last week. She was a brainy, pretty blond girl who seemed unstoppable. She spent a magical, life-changing year in Japan back then and told me everyone wanted to touch her hair. Now she travels to Africa for her work. As the only other out queer person from my class that I know of, she was conflicted when she read her yearbook inscriptions: "I came away with this odd sense of wondering, who the heck was I anyway? I only vaguely recognize myself in the words that others wrote to me."

My classmates must have known I was a psychological expatriate, because they wrote lines like: "Let me know what kind of wild, consciousness-expanding experiences you run into. Just don't go off and disappear into some Indian cult." And: "With our luck you'll be the first lady Pres. Good Lord what a country we'd have then." And: "You are deep, sensitive, warm, and alive. I will miss you. What an impact."

Reconnecting with Shannon was amazing. I didn't know any queer femmes in high school and didn't know I was one. My life has often felt like a magician's box, my body cut into three identities. I have my early, earthy embodiment, my college coming-out queer self, and the self who got sick at age 23 and rapidly became disabled. "It's important for us to have congruency," said my college friend on the phone yesterday. But she lives in the neighborhood where she grew up – a hip, culturally-enlivened place. It's different for those of us who are puzzled by split selves.

For me, these feelings are compounded by literal exile. Not only am I too ill to travel, but Illinois is too poisoned by chemicals to be a life-sustaining atmosphere for someone with severe chemical sensitivities. Last year in Massachusetts, the state decided to spray aerial pesticides over 120 miles away from my house, and the drift apparently caused my blood to turn black with a condition known as methemoglobinemia, a chemically-induced state where the blood can barely transport oxygen to the tissues. People with MCS can get a lot sicker – even die – from pesticide exposures. Dr. William Rea, who founded the Environmental Health Center of Dallas, told me that black blood from distant pesticides was something he had witnessed numerous times in people with MCS. The chemical industry – just like the cigarette corporations in past decades – maintains its own "research" institutions, legal teams, and PR spinners to make sure such stories of chemical canaries don't leak out. The chemically sensitive are, with Geiger bodies, too much of a scary harbinger of the future.

The future: I had no idea what it would be when I prattled on with my chemical-laden perm about the next phase in our lives. Now I am the future: symbolic, catastrophic, and drifted far from home. - Custom comment codes for MySpace, Hi5, Friendster and more

In Illinois, it is impossible to get any distance from agricultural chemicals. Most members of my high school had a familial connection to farming or belonged to the Future Farmers of America. Willie Nelson's Farm Aid played its first concert just an hour from my hometown in 1985. In my high school years, the breadbasket was bought out by Agribusiness. Farm Aid has raised 30 million dollars to date to promote a family-farm based system of agriculture. But such homegrown efforts are up against monstrous forces.

It's hard to describe what a spiritual waste this is for those of us who grew up in Illinois. To most people, the landscape seems unremarkable, but it's the very spaciousness, the vacuity, that gives it a monastic holiness. As Thomas Simpson writes: "'Vacant' land, 'pragmatic' land, 'unmitigated' land, but land with a steep melancholy to it; these are truths of Illinois landscape, but not the kind you'll hear from a tourist office. Our writers describe how landscape shapes our character in ways we never notice. 'Rural Mid- westerners live marooned in a space whose emptiness starts to become both physical and spiritual,' argues David Foster Wallace in an essay about growing up in rural Champaign."

Indeed, as I addressed the Class of 1987 about the future, I felt my physical vulnerability as a visceral shiver. "In a land where you can see from horizon to horizon," Simpson continues, "where an apple core tossed on the ground can shortly sprout an apple tree and then an orchard, where we can justifiably describe certain January skies as 'literally leaden,' here in Tornado Alley we residents of Illinois may be inclined to a peculiar awareness of ourselves in relation to timeless and uncontrollable forces." In art class my senior year, one of the most beefy football players in school had sat next to me and painted nothing but fragile-looking watercolor barns. Even the most solid of us knew how easily we could topple.

I don't know why I got sick at age 23, but certainly the forecast for my chemical body burden was damning.

Ten years after I graduated from high school, Sandra Steingraber published her eco-expose, Living Downstream. Steingraber was diagnosed with cancer in her early 20's while she was a student at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL – Normal's twin city. She later gathered extensive data on pesticides in Illinois, and the statistics are mind-boggling. Eighty-nine percent of the land mass is agriculture, and ninety-nine percent of that agriculture uses pesticides. Only one out of ten steps in Illinois lands on uncontaminated ground. "A lot goes on in the 11 percent of Illinois that is not farmland," writes Steingraber. "Approximately fifteen hundred hazardous waste sites are in need of remediation – a list that does not include several thousand pits, ponds, and lagoons containing liquid industrial waste. And each year Illinois injects some 250 million gallons of industrial waste – which, until recently, included pesticides – through five deep wells that penetrate into bedrock caverns."

Organic Style Magazine later compiled data to rank the toxicity of 125 American cities. The two most toxic cities on the list – worse than New York or Los Angeles – were Chicago and St. Louis. If you draw a line between those two cities on a map, spanning a five-hour drive, you'll find my hometown smack in the middle. For me to move to Illinois, even if I could, would be like a kid with a peanut allergy moving into the Jif peanut butter factory.

Still, I can't convey the haunting, preternatural beauty of the sprawling fields. When I think about the environmental destruction of the Midwest I feel a deep regionalism, and anger at the corporate colonization of what used to be a vibrant landscape of tallgrass prairie. I have lived in states that pride themselves on environmental policy, and I have heard residents make derisive comments about the environmentally "backward" parts of the country – typically, in their eyes, the Midwest and the South. They rarely examine the economic forces behind environmental degradation or see their eco-purity as a facet of economic privilege.

Another person from high school I reconnected with was Teague, who experienced his own minor exile from our home state due to illness. His family moved him to Arizona before the end of high school because of his asthma, and the move in his case led to substantial health gains. Like me, Teague couldn't wipe the prairie out of his mind, and featured it in his aptly-titled first novel, The Pull of the Earth, which the Denver Post described glowingly as "a deceptively rich tale of contrast and continuity" set in Illinois. My forthcoming book of poetry, Pathogenesis, likewise features the Illinois landscape, often depicted in prairie plants largely decimated by agricultural intrusion. "I am sure the panic grass has a language of gestures," one poem begins. "I am sure the wild horses of forced surrenders/have run and bled in the knives of green."

If I could, I would travel back to Central Illinois because I believe there is timelessness there, maybe a local antidote. David Foster Wallace compares dusk in Illinois to a fugue state, where the landscape becomes "hypnotic, a mental state at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt." This hypnagogic experience is surely more than a kindled limbic system poisoned by Atrazine, but something as profound as I remember. I didn't know 20 years after giving a valedictory address about the future that I would be living with a futuristic illness, but I don't regret that Illinois soaked into my skin, or that I wandered in a near-psychogenic fugue of bodily degeneration before landing in the woods of Western Massachusetts. The Prairie is known for its ecology of rapid change. When Illinois was covered in tallgrass prairie, the landscape would alight in fierce, roaming fires called "The Red Buffalo" by local tribes. This was an essential part of the prairie ecosystem: the prairie had to burn to the roots to re-grow and thrive.

So here I am, Class of 1987, burning down to the roots to regrow. I hope to see you all in 2027.

My 20-year high school class reunion takes place on October 20, 2007 - Custom comment codes for MySpace, Hi5, Friendster and more

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Erotica Revealed Review of Origami Striptease
"This book reads like poetry and left me stunned with writer's envy."
(This review is kind of a plot spoiler but interesting! Be warned)

Queer life News: "Are You Queer Enough?"
"On April 12, 2007, eight Lambda Literary Award finalists were scheduled to read at the San Francisco Public Library. Only seven shared their work. Finalist Peggy Munson, in the Lesbian Debut Fiction category, was excluded from this event – without warning, without just reason, without apology.Why would one author be prevented from reading her work at this queer event? Bottom line: the organizers of the event policed her sexuality."

Rainbow Network Review of Origami Striptease
"To say the language is rich and luscious is an understatement. The author creates a fantastical landscape for her characters, with a carnivalesque sense of magic realism that is full to bursting with imagination."

Saturday, May 05, 2007

"Munson deftly experiments with gender, linguistics, and style."
-- Heather Cassell, Bay Area Reporter

It has been a big media week in the aftermath of the the Lambda Lit. Awards censorship scandal around my book. Oh, the drama!

~ o ~

Heather Cassell of the Bay Area Reporter covered the story in this week's issue. Read about it here:

"Members of the LGBT literary community were in a fluster after they learned that disabled queer author Peggy Munson was omitted from a Lambda Literary Foundation finalist reading program. . . "

~ o ~

Then, the fabulous Rachel Kramer Bussel interviewed me for the fabulous site, Feministing! Read the interview here.

Feministing! Logo

"Munson explains via email just what 'iambic meter' is, the connection between identity and language, why she's been 'buoyed' by the queer writing community in the wake of having a video of her reading from her novel censored from a Lambda Literary Award finalist reading (Origami is up for Best Lesbian Debut Fiction), and pushing the edges of the queer literary canon 'to its breaking point. . . .'"

~ o ~

Finally, Heather Cassell of the Bay Area Reporter reviewed Origami Striptease. Click here to read full article.

"Erotic writer Peggy Munson takes readers into a queer femme's surreal world of disability, illness, lust and love fucking boys with 'detachable penises' in her novel Origami Striptease, a Lambda Literary Foundation finalist for lesbian debut fiction. The violently poetic novel explores the complexities of desire, disability, gender, lust and love from a disabled queer femme's narrative. The narrator's voice is strong through the waves of illness that embody the lyrics of her iambic prose. Munson forces the reader into the narrator's world, stifled in the limitations of her body, illness, and desire for boys: butches, trannyboys, and daddies who force her to succumb to erotic passions. The passions flow in sordid detail."

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Lambda Throws an S-Bomb!

Just as my fellow Sagittarius Jim Morrison was finally excused for waving his schlong in public years ago, I have gone the inevitable way of fire signs (Britney Spears, Bill Clinton) and been called out for indecent exposure. Well, kind of.

So last night, I was scheduled to read via DVD with a group of other finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards (the big queer lit. awards). Since I'm too disabled to travel to readings, I put together a series of video readings from my novel, Origami Striptease, and have given readings by DVD. Last night's event was at the San Francisco Public Library

My publisher, Greg, was the first to report on the scandal. "You were censored by Lambda Literary Foundation!" his header said. Greg and his partner/co-publisher Ian had been at the reading, proud literary parents, eagerly waiting my video. A string of writers – including a transman with a female partner and the straight spouse from an anthology – presented work, but mine was conspicuously absent. No mention was made of the video, even though my name had been included in the press and the DVD player was sitting out. The reading ended abruptly with no explanation. Greg sniffed around for an answer and became tangled in a meandering series of excuses from the library organizer and Lambda representative that finally culminated in a bizarre rationale. My reading was apparently censored because it had been deemed "straight."

The Lambda Literary Foundation threw me the S-bomb! It's pretty weird from a canonical perspective. Was Gertrude Stein straight when she wrote, "As a wife has a cow, a love story"? Were the great female lyricists of the Blues straight when they crooned about bulldaggers in the Harlem Renaissance? Was Dorothy Allison straight for putting straight characters in Bastard Out of Carolina?

What troubles me is not just the gender-phobia in the conclusion that my work – which is so genderfucked – is "straight," but the ableism of silencing someone too disabled to represent her own work. When asked about making a unilateral decision to censor my work, the Lambda representative simply said, "Peggy wasn't there," and also briefly argued that my work was too sexual. Greg pointed out that two readers had straight affiliations and that another read a piece with intense sexual content. He also pointed out that the organizers had ample time to call him (or me) after the DVD arrived to address their concerns.

Since it appears the straight and sexy arguments were partly diversionary, I want to talk a moment about my lack of there-ness. I have to delve into the organizer's tautological reasoning for a second. S/he (Take that! Pronoun-obscuring!) decided to make my video invisible because I wasn't "there": I wasn't "there" because s/he made a decision to make my video invisible. For me, this really underscores the perpetuity of invisible realities. Those pushed to the margins are pushed further to the margins by nudges of exclusion, and absence makes the heart grow more distorted. To quote the homophobe-turned-Elton-John-fan Eminem, "I am whatever you say I am. If I wasn't, why would you say I am?" It really is a tree-falls-in-the-forest koan, isn't it? It's not that hard to call an absent person whatever you want.

If I had been able to present my work live, I can't imagine someone stopping me in mid-sentence, or asking to see the material beforehand to make sure it was appropriate (after all, they had selected my book as a finalist). One weird cultural assumption about the disabled is that they/we are okay with having privacy stripped away and decisions made without input. In institutionalized settings, for example, this may take the form of people assuming that disabled residents should not have a private space in which to have sex. All of the other Lambda finalists had the right to privacy and creative control. I didn't, because I wasn't "there."

The decision to exclude my work is characteristic of what goes on -- on a macro level -- in systemic oppression of the disabled. People speak for us, make misinformed assumptions about our intentions, shut us out, strip us of our agency, and make excuses for lack of inclusion. The same "he wasn't there" logic was used on a paraplegic man, for example, who refused to drag himself up the steps of an inaccessible courthouse with no elevators where he was supposed to appear in traffic court, and was arrested for "failing to appear in court." It's hard to explain the cumulative effects of such events, except to say that they quilt together into a systemic whole. Stealing someone's agency by making a decision without consulting her is a powerful, demeaning gesture. Not offering another means of accommodation, such as phone access, is an expression of privilege (of those who are "there"). It's a typical way people with disabilities -- due to being invisible and absent -- are rendered more invisible and absent.

It may not seem like a big deal, and in some ways it isn't – not this one thing. This moment is simply a useful springboard to talk about the repetitiveness of such events (and the Lambda Literary Foundation, for the record, sent me an apology). Oppression is a summation of phrases and gestures over a lifetime. Random exclusionary gestures mirror a collective consciousness of systemic oppression and violence, and this is what all marginalized people feel so palpably. This is what I'm talking about. And it is, of course, an ideology any queer organization should be actively fighting against in all of its forms.

Systemic oppression applies to transpeople and genderqueer folk as well, of course, and it's disheartening that my book was assumed to be "straight" because of pronoun scrambling. It's so powerful in Boys Don't Cry when the murderers, feeling duped, want to "know" for sure what's in Brandon Teena's pants. Isn't it interesting how often the question is about what's "there," what isn't "there," and what assumptions are made around that? These are not small questions: they are questions that nullify people, or get people killed.

So knee-jerk reactions to gender pronouns are no small event when transpeople are heckled, battered, abused, and murdered for daring to ride the subway or go into a bathroom. I interact with so many people with socially-queer bodies: some are straight people with disabilities whose bodies are treated as queer. Some are butches who have put off pap smears for ten years. Some, transitioning or not, prefer to use "he" after being called "she" or vice-versa. Some are queer femmes who like to suck strap-on dicks. Some want to fuck pronouns altogether.

One thing I love about my publisher, Suspect Thoughts, is that their author questionnaire asks authors to talk about all the myriad aspects of their queerness. In the world of publishing, it is rare to be embraced for all of ones literary and personal idiosyncrasies. In the larger sphere of literature, I don't think it's a good idea to let any rigid notions about identity go unnoticed, because it's a threat to so many writers doing innovative (even revolutionary) work.

Ironically, the DVD reading that was censored was from a section of the book called "What Made Jack Run" that contains short pieces examining "Boys" and "Girls" and is intended to explore the inherent violence in restricting and naming gender in strict binary terms. It's partly a deconstruction of gender insignia and stereotyping told through a surreal, dreamy, magical realist universe where dolls are ripped, apart, girls jumping from cakes are smeared in their frosting, and a genderqueer boy (whose gender identity is not specifically named in the book) dissolves into paper. One of the censored sections begins: "My hands on Jack were like a potter's hands on clay. My hands were firing bricks then lining wells so I could drink before I parched. I grabbed him by the balls that could detach. I grabbed him by the neck that I could shepherd with my crook." Wait a second: balls that could detach? Is that queer or straight?

Call me a utopian-child-raised-on-Free-To-Be-You-And-Me, but I really believe it's time to build ramps of all kinds and embrace difference. This is a pretty gay thing to say, right? Or is it just so gay it's straight?

And what's this about being too sexual?

Sure, the physical landscape over here is as muddy as the dirt road leading to my house. Before I read the e-mail from Greg, I listened to a message from my straight girl friend about her ex-boyfriend's dick. I checked to make sure my erotica story about a lesbian Amish teenager had gotten into the mail in time for an anthology submission. I read a raunchy e-mail from a straight guy friend who likes to try and one-up me with dirty haiku. And I talked to my doctor on the phone about a new cardiac drug after making a nutritional shake out of goats' milk. Then I found out someone from the queer literary organization that named my book a finalist in the Lesbian Debut Fiction category called me the S-word.

My friends think this is hilarious. "You are so gay. Maybe too gay for them," wrote one. "Come here & suck my boner, you hetero whore," joked another. I may write a dirty haiku about it later. Right now, I'm going to re-read Audre Lorde, who wrote her seminal essay,"The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action" after her cancer diagnosis. Lorde knew intimately how the fight against physical reductionism intertwines with a fight against censorship. "For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it," she wrote. "For others, it is to share and spread those words that are meaningful to us. But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive."

If those words aren't queer, I don't know what is. If those words don't transcend queerness, I don't know what does.

I have gotten huge support from the literary world and from amazing people around this incident, and my publishers have too. I'm hoping more than anything that the dialogue around issues of inclusion and censorship will continue. Lambda has apologized, and they are taking actions around inclusion – not just for my DVD but also in general. This is just the beginning of a dialogue and process of change that I hope will continue, with concrete action and work toward greater inclusion.

Lambda plans to show my DVD in other readings now, which you can find out about here. Also, there are links to some of the specific venues where the readings are being held: if you have specific accommodation needs that are not being considered, please write to the event organizers or directly to Lambda and let them know.

If you want to voice your thoughts to Lambda about any of these issues, please do by e-mailing:

My publishers have been working overtime to make sure none of this has gone unnoticed, and they have been so killer supportive of me and my work that I don't even know what to say. Please read Greg Wharton's account of the San Francisco debacle on the Suspect Thoughts blog here.

And also check out these blogs:

Susan Stinson's blog:
"Peggy Munson and Origami Striptease: readings and censorship"

Max Wolf Valerio's blog:
"Lambda Reading - California salutes us and also -- a femme is censored"

Charlie Anders/Other Magazine Blog:
"Erasure: Not Just A Crappy ABBA Cover Band"

Rachel Kramer Bussel's Blog:
Tonight's Lambda Literary Award finalist reading and Peggy Munson's Origami Striptease

And for more blog discussion on the subject, click here!.

I had to do it: the gag order photo.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Who Is That Bubble Girl?

I have to live a life immaculately free of chemicals: a bubble life. And by chemicals, I mean, the crap that has infiltrated almost every known product since WWII: the fragrance in other people's shampoo, the Tide and Bounce embedded in clothes, the formaldehyde in cabinet wood, the adhesive holding the imaginary world in place. I'm talking about modernity, and post-modernity, and air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors; cigarette smoke and wood smoke. In the Tarot deck of access, I'm talking about: The World.

That's why I live a life of virtual exile, down a dirt road far, far away.

After contracting chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome/myalgic encephalopathy (CFIDS/ME) at age 23 – a gripping, crushing, suffocating illness that seized me by the ankles and dragged me under – I thought it could not get any worse.

In the year before, I had been riding my bike between cornfields in Ohio, miles uncoiling behind me. I had prodrome symptoms: a chronic deep cough that wouldn't go away, a sore throat and difficulty swallowing. But suddenly, I was seized by odd bouts of vertigo. Just as suddenly, I came down with a surreal, flu-like illness. I thought I would die within weeks. "Flu-like" didn't begin to characterize the strange illness that had overtaken my life. With a horror movie multiplex replacing my internal organs, I could barely walk or think or function.

I was about to embark on a cross-country move to San Francisco, and state-by-state grew more direly ill. By the time I arrived in the Bay Area, I could barely walk up a flight of stairs. I went to a feminist health center and was chastised about how long it had been since my last pap smear. I didn't have a language for the fact that, in every cell of my body, I was crushed beyond recognition. There wasn't, and still isn't, a way to talk about the debilitating symptoms from neurologic to cardiac dysfunction that stole my life.

Over time, I lost everything: my ability to think clearly, sit upright for more than a short period, work, go to social events, continue my education, travel. I became almost entirely bedridden. Most of my last fifteen years have been characterized by this reality. I learn about social commerce from reality TV.

Despite the inundation of all of those crap TV commercial breaks, nothing prepared me for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a disease afflicting 15-33 percent of Americans to greater and lesser degrees (in my case: greater). MCS gave the postmodern notion of "otherness" Biblical proportions.

The environment is an abstraction to most people: global warming, lawn chemicals, Al Gore. To me, the environment is people, and the products they put on their skin. "Dude! Imagine if you could die from deodorant!" said this stoner that my friend hired to help me move to the woods. Yeah, dude, imagine.

If people use products other than natural, fragrance free shampoo, soap, deodorant, detergent, makeup, and lotion from a health food store, they prohibit me from going to the places they go. They literally bar my entry to doctors' offices, stores, parties, public transportation, workplaces, courtrooms, universities and social clubs. If the products are particularly noxious, like Off bug spray or fabric softener sheets, they prohibit me from going to outdoor spaces. I live on five acres: they get the world.

This isn't some kind of puritanical restraint on my part: an exposure to someone's toxic crap can literally cause excruciating physical symptoms for weeks or months, injure me further or even kill me.

This is our pedestrian war, the one most people may not realize we're fighting, because of what Rachel Carson calls "the harmless aspect of the familiar." The petroleum wars in the Middle East are not just about transportation: 80-90 percent of the ingredients in synthetic fragrance (which is in nearly every body care and cleaning product) are derived from petroleum. Scented candles may give someone "serenity," but they have nothing to do with peace.

The synthetic ingredients in soap, shampoo, deodorant, detergent, and cleaning products are in fact a direct result of wartime chemical industry activity. In the early 1900s, America lagged fifty years behind Germany in chemical production, and most American chemical engineering professors had been trained in German Universities. Once WWII successfully obliterated foreign competition, and particularly Hitler's enormous chemical complex, IG Farben, the American chemical industry achieved rapid world domination, with petroleum and petroleum byproducts as its cornerstone. War chemicals seeped into all aspects of daily life: oh, the delights of DDT! Oh, a burly man on your lonely Mom's cleaning spray! Oh, the empowerment of Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty," the one based on toxic synthetic ingredients! What a pretty-smelling world.

And what about the insidious weapons of mass destruction? Sarin and other nerve gases are concentrated pesticides, just like the ones people put on their dogs or lick off of strawberries. The chemical industry has made everyone complicit, and created an impenetrable denial about the toxicity of modern products. Occasionally, someone will freak out about one ingredient, such as phthalates in cosmetics. But one ingredient is not harming those of us with MCS or causing new diseases: it's the whole fucking cake.

I bought the innocuous product myth until I no longer had a choice. When I arrived in San Francisco in 1992, I saw a job posting from a woman with MCS and her requirements for an employee were so severe – no products containing scents or essential oils, a clothing change at her house – that my friends and I just laughed. Imagine being so Karmically stupid!

When I later posted a job listing – with much the same wording as that woman in San Francisco – someone having a manic episode wrote me: "You sound fascist. Pernicious soul. Ever hating Jew. I am God. I am beautiful. Write back!" and "Maybe MCS is what you deserved. Just remember, when you [are] fucked over by life: Karma happens. Not everyone loves Burt's Bees, you know. Good luck in the woods, dying off, you old hippie."

This person has a psych disability (perhaps caused by neurotoxic chemicals too?), but s/he did hit upon some collective unconscious fear and loathing. This kind of bile is just as easily (and powerfully) expressed in daily gestures, and I'd rather have harsh words than destructive chemical insult. Sticks and stones cannot hurt me, but I live my life on the edge of becoming the next Cindy Duerhing – an MCS activist who died after an extremely isolated fight against the disease at age 36. Or Dan Allen, a football coach from Boston who died of MCS complications in 2004. His infectious team spirit could not rally the world to change for him in time to save his life. Can mine?

Learn how and why to be fragrance free.


Watch the amazing MCS film Exposed on Free Speech TV. "EXPOSED is a cinematic portrayal of Katherine, a 35 year old dancer who suffers from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a chronic condition caused by exposure to synthetic chemicals in consumer products, pesticides, building materials, exhaust, tobacco smoke, perfume, cleaning agents, food additives and others. While skeptics, particularly in the traditional medical field and the chemical industry, still question its legitimacy, for Katherine it is a debilitating everyday reality, forcing her to live outside of the norms of her society. By Heidrun Holzfeind."
Learn about MCS and chemical issues on Antidote Radio

Watch this brief clip of a mouse exposed to new, synthetic carpeting, experiencing the physical effects of neurotoxicity (Anderson Labs).

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

When Pigs Glow

It's the sadist in me: I often make houseguests read me my favorite children's book, Oink, which tells an entire story about a mama pig and her piglets with one repeated word: oink. But last night I was reading the news and screamed: What the fucking oink? Chinese researchers just bred the first transgenic pigs with glowing green organs and Disco-rific body parts. They created radioactive-looking swine by injecting phosphorescent green protein into pig embryos. These are the first human-tampered pigs to glow from the inside out .. hearts and all.



The same day, it was announced that researchers had isolated stem cells from human amniotic fluid, once again making the religiosity of stem cell bans a senseless tirade of uninformed extremists who likely serve to profit from the temporary barring of this technology from US citizens. Effective therapeutic stem cells can now be derived from bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, human blood, and now the fluid from the womb. So why can't patients get cells derived from their own bodies?

It's a little-known fact perhaps that, from a legal standpoint, we don't own our bodies. Certainly, we have eliminated some of the overt exploitations and chattel mentalities around human flesh. But the patient .. she who waits .. may not even own her own cells, her own blood. Legal battles have raged over such things. And patients have strategized the best way to crawl through the doggie door of medicine and beg for their bodies back.

Why is this? At the core, it's about the bigotry that never speaks its name: ableism. This bigotry has little to do with religion, although it is conveyed with great religiosity (and has been justified by many religions over the centuries, including Christian Science and the New Age). It poisons the right and left and center and every corner of politics.

I think of Christopher Reeve, man in an iconic Superman suit, man felled by a spinal cord injury, rich man at the mercy of personal care attendants (who sometimes endangered his life), inhumanly capable man unable to go beyond the slightest -- yet most triumphant .. twitch of recovery due to a cruel and archaic mentality about the disabled body's indentured servitude to a Calvinist culture that feels vastly uncomfortable about physical debility.

A disabled man in our culture is always seen as a (fey) man in tights. Not a Superman but a lesser man (I love how guys from the Krip-Hop troupe 4 Wheel City say on their MySpace page: "ladies . . . don't let the chairs fool ya, ya heard!"). A disabled woman is viewed as hysterical (still) and asexual (please!). A disabled person of any gender is prey to the most primal Darwinian impulses, the most inhumane cruelty, impassable steps and ramp-less temptations. Disabled people are battered and abused at astronomical rates, but the biggest cruelties are mundane, pedestrian in the truest sense. On second thought, even pedestrian cruelties are reserved for those who walk. To those in chairs, those hobbling along, those with a crutch or cane or immobilized, even the playful thruway of daily hazing is usually inaccessible. Cruelty of the modern world to those with disabilities is more reminiscent of a Jim Crow psychology: the disabled are subjected to relentless deprivation and invisible signs saying Keep Out. The fight of the disabled is a fight to get through the door. It's an enigmatic fight, a fight against a crevasse. So often, the disabled spend their days explaining the trauma of deprivation.

But it's so basic.

What is shut out is never witnessed. What is never witnessed is disbelieved. Isn't the pain of absence .. the very rationale for solitary confinement .. intuitively the cruelest punishment? We all know by instinct what it means to be rejected by a herd. To be the lame elk, the bird afraid to reveal its weakness until it falls from the perch. It's so easy to shut out the disabled from cultural dialogue: just don't put in a ramp. Just forget the Sign Language Interpreter. Just wear scented products that cause people to go into anaphylaxis and risk their lives.

I wonder about the essential anxiety behind giving people medical/visceral authority. Are the not-yet-afflicted .. those in the eternal white gloves of eternal flight .. afraid the disabled will rise up and become Bionically reactive against the indignities they have suffered? Perhaps people think it's cuter (read: non-threatening to a dominant paradigm) to see a pig with a glowing nose than a righteously indignant former gang member asking for wheelchair access. Or stem cells. If we are freed to own our own bodies, to alter them toward our freedom, what kind of power might we seize? Frankly, I can't wait to see a whole shiny army of disabled folks once treated worse than social swine rise up and take their righteous place.

I ponder the juxtaposition of Superman's cartoon reality where glowing kryptonite could fell a superpower, and the mere mortal .. Christopher Reeve -- spending his last years fighting for the triumph of moving a finger. I couldn't believe the way he died: felled by a bedsore. It was a perfect metaphor for the reductionism of this cruel regime that denied him healing. Then his lovely wife who illuminated and articulated the stem cell struggle succumbed to an improbable cancer. Since their deaths, we have hardly progressed in disability rights or stem cell access in America.

I read this amazing interview with Todd Haynes, the filmmaker who did the seminal movie about multiple chemical sensitivities, Safe. The film was widely misinterpreted when it came out in 1995. Many in denial about the toxic world and its resulting disabilities thought it was a parable for AIDS. Haynes actually lobbies a subtle critique against the Louise Hay-ist New Agers who damned the sick for being sick. As Susan Sontag asserted, disability and illness are not metaphors: they are roulette realities and that's all. As Haynes stated in this interview in Filmmaker Magazine, his character represented the most vulnerable part of life, and in this she was inherently terrifying: a horror movie. There's no use complicating the issue. Fragility can engender great fear, but without it there is no glow to existence, no real light.

And that's what this stem cell thing is all about. Fragility. Fear of it.
There's nothing safe about any of it. We can't wait until people are hermetically sealed off from their fears. We have to give people all the tools they need to equalize their chance of survival and access. Is this too much to ask? Those born under the Year of the Pig are supposed to be chivalrous, gallant, possessing strength and fortitude. It's the Year of the Pig. Give me a gluttony of hope.