Grasping Thorns

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose." ― A. Brontë

Month: April, 2013

In Memoriam: Grace Hagood Downs


At Grace’s memorial service in Easley, her husband John read a lovely tribute; this part, in particular, struck me: he said, “When I first met Grace many years ago I thought she was tough, serious, and impervious. She seemed very powerful to me. But when I really got to know her I learned she was timid, scared, and self-conscious. She wanted so much for people to like her and she was always afraid they didn’t despite the obvious.”

I was only beginning to understand this about Grace. Whenever I saw a hint of it, I was surprised. Hint #1: Soon after meeting her, she came to my office to make sure she understood the course goals for the 101 class she was teaching, and admitted that she was having trouble wrapping her head around the syllabus. I had been approached, at this point, by probably half the class; but hearing from Grace surprised me. I think I just blinked at her. In my mind, she was such a natural teacher; Grace of all people could teach anything, could make anything work. I remember thinking to myself: doesn’t she know that?*

Hint #2: I came home from work Friday, August 19th, to a Facebook message from Grace. She said, “I don’t want to be ‘that guy’ by pestering you, but do you think we’re going to hear about the AD positions today? I’m ready to be put out of my misery either way.”

Grace had interviewed for an Assistant Director position earlier that week; we were overly optimistic to say we’d let applicants know our decision by Friday and were behind schedule. Of all the people who interviewed, 11 in all, I was surprised to get the “please-put-me-out-of-my-misery” email from Grace. Because of course she was picked for an AD position. Of course she was. Didn’t she know that? She had interviewed brilliantly once before already. The only reason she didn’t get it the first time was that the positions are so competitive; those TAs who have gone through the interview process more than once often have a bit of an edge.

It was Graces’s turn. She was perfect for an AD position focused on technology. The second half of her interview was nothing short of a love fest, in which I reminded Chris and Graham that Grace volunteered to help with First-Year English orientation last year, even though she was teaching undergrad classes. Who comes to FYE orientation when they don’t even have to?


Didn’t she know she was going to be an AD?

Apparently, she didn’t. I made her pinky swear over the computer, and she took it up a notch to “super pinky swear,” so I told her that we petitioned for her hire and were in the process of working out the financial details.

Sorry Bill and Chris. Please don’t fire me.

I trusted Grace completely. And I was right to trust her. She didn’t even tell Mary Fratini. And she was so happy. She changed her Facebook profile photo to a storm trooper singing in the rain; and, lest anyone doubt her current mood, she changed her cover photo to read:



I messaged, “Dream Team 2013!” And the last thing she messaged me was “it’s gonna be AWESOME” — awesome in all caps.

Grace was high on life. She had just married the man of her dreams, she was on the path to motherhood (she had already talked to me about both adoption and pregnancy — she was keeping all options open), and she was going to be a FYE Assistant Director.


One of my first thoughts after hearing she had passed was of a ghost Grace, shaking her fist at the universe and saying, in true Grace-fashion, “Oh for fuck’s sake. You’ve got to be kidding me!”

But then I imagined ghost LB, one of Grace’s good friends who passed away last fall — yeah: it’s been a really tough year — being so very excited to see her. In my imagination, LB says “this is so great!” and Grace responds “No! This sucks!” before settling in for a nice, long catch-up chat.

When I shared this little interchange with Will Garland, he said, “I really love these ghosts.”

I said: “Yeah. Me too.”

Because I’ve always loved the interchanges between Grace and LB. A few of my favorites from Facebook are as follows:

1) Grace to LB: “So, what do you want to be called? Half the people at school know you as Hotspur anyway, if that’s what you prefer.”

LB: “I call myself Hotspur, but I’m wary of using it as a public name because it’ll be ruined the first time someone uses it in anger or disappointment.”

Grace: “When I’m disappointed or angry, I promise to call you ‘hon’ or ‘babe.’ Cool, right?”

LB: “I’ll accept Lieutenant Commander, bitch, bastard, and instructador de muerte.”

Grace: “Is that like instructor of record?”

2) Grace to LB, discussing their new office: “Which desk did you take? Refrigerator desk or filing cabinet desk? I took computer desk because I’m a greedy bitch.”

LB: “I took file cabinet desk b/c I need magnets to keep me amused”

Grace: “Sweet! We’re gonna have an awesome office.”

3) LB: “I brought in a jar of agave so I can eat waffles in my office, but it looks like a jar of pee.”


Grace: “Please label your jar so it is not confused with the actual pee that I store in the office.”

LB: “I just saw your comment. Love.”

Grace: “You’re welcome! I’ll be here all week. Tip your waitress.”

LB’s mother, Lindell, told me that after LB died, she won $25 worth of books from the library book sale within the week. After Grace died, she won another $25 worth of books within the week. So, now I imagine ghost Grace and ghost LB being funny, as they flit around and rig contests for free books.

When I read at LB’s memorial, I closed with a Victor Hugo quote that I thought was perfect. For Grace, I’m going to read a comedy piece, because fun and laughter and a dash of “inappropriate” humor is our Grace. Thanks to Stephanie Boone-Mosher for sending this to me . . . it’s even more perfect, because Stephanie read this in reading group when both Grace and LB were there. She was so proud when she read it, because she made Grace *crack up* and usually it was the other way around.

So, to close:

I’m Sorry I Didn’t Write A Comedy Piece

by Wendy Molyneux

The other day while sounding out the words on a Web site called The Rumpus, I saw this article asking for women to submit more comedy pieces. So I put down my giant chocolate bar, stopped crying, and thought, yes, that is what I will do.

I will write a comedy piece. But just as I sat down in my bay window (filled with pillows that I knitted myself while waiting by the phone for potential husbands to call) and opened my pink Mac laptop, I happened to see a lady walking down the street with a baby of her very own.

So then I started crying again because I don’t have a baby. I cried big rolling tears that fell down onto my “Mrs. Stamos” T-shirt that I purchased off of eBay and photographed myself in for my eHarmony profile. I always say, “Dress for the job you want,” and the job I want is being Mrs. John Stamos! So, once my shirt was soaked, I had to go change it. I walked into my closet, which is gigantic because women love to wear lots of expensive clothes and shoes all the time, and I thought, “I know what will make me feel better! I will feel better if I try on all my clothes and shoes to the tune of an upbeat Motown song such as ‘My Girl.’”

And so I did that. I tried on all my clothes, and I felt better until I tried on one pair of pants that didn’t fit me anymore. And then I totally started to cry again, because I am so fat.  I cried for a little while on the floor while my cats crawled all over me, purring and being symbols of how lonely I am. My cats love to be symbols of my loneliness. Sometimes, I have to be like, “Stop signifying so loudly guys, I’m watching Grey’s Anatomy!”

At this point I still had not written my comedy piece written by a woman. So I went back to the window, opened my pink computer again and looked at pictures of cute baby ducks for awhile until I felt like writing. But then I remembered that I hadn’t made anything for dinner! Every night, I like to make an elaborate dinner. Then, I set it on the table and open all the windows. My fondest hope is that the wafting smells of a home-cooked meal will lure men who are passing by to come inside and eat dinner. And then after they eat dinner, I hope they’ll eat something else. If you know what I mean. Get it? Eat something. I mean dessert. I want them to eat dessert. Because the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Also, they are always leaving the toilet seat up! Am I right?


Anyway, twelve hours later after I had cooked, baked, cried, sewn a blanket for my hope chest, called a telephone psychic, had all my favorite Cathy comic strips laminated, and then stayed up all night trying on all my clothes and shoes again, I finally felt ready to write my comedy piece. I decided to start by asking myself, “What’s funny?” That is a tough one for me because I have no sense of humor. I mean, I assume that I have no sense of humor because all of the funny things that are made especially for women like me, such as Sex and the City27 Dresses, and yogurt commercials don’t even make me laugh. But I guess my humor deficiency is one of those womanly crosses I have to bear, along with P.M.S., making seventy cents on the dollar, and paying for my own rape kit. You know what they say though, you can’t make the willing pay for their own rape kits! I think they say that. Probably somebody said that. God knows I didn’t say it myself! I only say things like: “What are numbers?”

Oh, there I go again on one of my tangents. I guess it’s time for me to get serious about writing this comedy piece. Emoticon. I mean, I probably shouldn’t even try to write a comedy piece since Christopher Hitchens wrote an article in Vanity Fair saying that women just aren’t funny. He’s probably right. And even if he isn’t, I think it’s great that we live in a country where you can say anything you want, like that women aren’t funny or that Christopher Hitchens is a huge douche who runs a successful child pornography business and has an inability to get an erection unless he’s reading Nazi literature.

Well, would you look at that? I’ve totally run out of time, and now instead of writing a comedy piece, I have to go report to my regular day job knitting tampon cozies and being best friends with everybody.

Oh well, I probably would have been terrible at it anyway.


*Note #1: I realize, of course, that meeting with me about the syllabus was, also, quite possibly Grace’s indirect way of telling me: “Oh for fuck’s sake. This syllabus is bullshit.” But, I maintain that Grace Hagood Downs could. teach. anything.
**Note #2: All images are from Grace Hagood Downs’s albums on Facebook, except for LB’s desk, which is one of LB’s photos.


Shame on you, US Senate.

To the US Senators who voted down universal background checks, and to the supporters who urged you to do so:

Yesterday, while the US Senate was voting down the Manchin-Toomey gun amendment, which was already an extraordinary compromise on behalf of gun control advocates (i.e. it would have required background checks on all commercial sales of firearms — like those purchased at gun shows and via the Internet), I was teaching Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “What Will Future Generations Condemn Us For?” in my English 102, Rhetoric and Composition class.

Although Appiah, currently the Lawrence S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton, suggested in 2010 that future generations will condemn us for our prison system, industrial meat production, the institutionalized and isolated elderly, and the environment, my students (two of whom are from Boston and were visibly shaken by the Monday bombings) used his “three signs that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation”  to discuss our seeming inability to quell what can only be described as domestic terrorism.

Although the most recent incidents (the 4/15 Boston bombings in which 3 people were killed, hundreds injured; and the 4/9 knife attack in a Texas college classroom, in which 14 people were injured) did not involve gun violence, my students focused on gun violence in particular, because of the highly publicized string of mass shootings over the past few years . . . Tuscon, Aurora, Oak Creek, Newtown.

(1) Appiah’s first sign that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation: “First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.”

So, have we heard before some version of:  “we-don’t-sell-firearms-to-criminals-and-the-mentally-ill”?

Here’s one example of a plea for universal background checks in 1999, after Columbine, via NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre:

2) Appiah’s second sign that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation: “Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, ‘We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?)'”

I give you Sarah Palin’s celebratory tweet after the Manchin-Toomy amendment failed to pass: “Politicians’ expanded gun control effort fails in the Senate today. Count this a victory for the 2nd Amendment and law-abiding citizens.”

To suggest that thwarting universal background checks is a “win” for tradition, as established in 1791 by the 2nd Amendment, fails to take this into account: click here for a 30 second video totally worth your time. Thank you Upworthy.

3) Appiah’s third sign that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation: “And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible.”

What does strategic ignorance in the gun control debate look like? Here are only a couple of examples, making the rounds on Facebook: a meme that suggests we blame guns when there’s a shooting, even though we blame bombers when there’s a bombing, and drivers when there’s a drunk-driving accident.

When there’s a bombing, we blame the bomber. But, we also do what we can to make it more difficult for people to kill others with bombs — like, we take off our shoes at airports. Thank you, John Oliver.

When there is a drunk driving accident, we blame the drunk driver. But, we also do what we can to make it more difficult for people to drink and drive. As Jon Stewart explains, we “enact stricter blood-alcohol limits, raise the drinking age, ramp up enforcement and penalties, and charge bartenders who serve drunks, and launch huge public awareness campaigns to stigmatize the dangerous behavior in question; and, we do all those things because it might just help bring drunk driving rates down — I don’t know — by two-thirds in a few decades.”

Facebook meme #2 suggests that gun control advocates are delusional to think stricter gun control laws will be obeyed.

Obviously, this meme reveals a misunderstanding of why we make laws in the first place. In “The Gun Lobby’s Dumbest Argument,” Michael Tomasky explains two reasons we continue to make laws, despite the fact that criminals do not always follow said laws (note: this is why they’re called criminals) and despite the fact that said laws won’t prevent all violence. We make laws:

“One, to have a ready statutory means by which to punish the chiselers and sociopaths. And two, to make a statement as a society about what sort of society we are. As it happens, we passed the Clean Water Act of 1972 in part simply to say: whatever sort of society we are, we aren’t one in which we will watch as our rivers catch fire and not try to do anything about it.

We do try to do something about it. Yet even so, and here is my second point, no one thinks laws against pollution will prevent all pollution. Similarly, no one supposes that laws against armed robbery will prevent all armed robbery. No one expects that laws against tax evasion will stop the selfish and the stingy from hiring their selfish and stingy lawyers to identify for them various selfish and stingy new ways around the laws. We do not presume man’s perfectibility. And yet somehow, gun laws are supposed to meet the standard of being able to prevent all future massacres and are criticized as total failures if they don’t? Absurd.”

Strategic ignorance.

In the time it takes to find and post these inane, insidious “arguments”, the anti-gun control side is strategically ignoring pleas from Newtown mothers, like Francine Wheeler. The anti-gun control side is strategically ignoring the stories of those victims of domestic violence who die at the end of a gun, because we live in an America where you can get a restraining order against your partner if he threatens your life, but you can’t violate his 2nd Amendment “right” (even when he threatens your right to . . . um, life) by asking officials take away the gun with which he threatens to (and, in some cases, eventually does) kill you. See Michael Luo’s “In Some States, Gun Rights Trump Orders of Protection”:

And the list goes on . . . and on. 3,516 gun deaths since Newtown.

To those of you who voted “no,” and to the supporters who urged you to do so:

You have failed to pass a law that would have shown the world who we want to be: a society that makes at least a valiant effort to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.

Future generations will condemn you for it. And, I condemn you for it now.

I have two children, dressed as superheroes below:


I hated telling my oldest about Sandy Hook, and then I hated myself for hating it — since, I knew that there were so many Sandy Hook parents who would have given *anything* to be talking to their 6-year-olds at that moment, even about such a horrible thing.

I hate dropping off my 3-year old at school. Irrational though it is, I worry less about my older girl, because she really is a little bit of a superhero in my imagination. As a toddler, she spent nearly a year in an orphanage in Central Asia, skimming her own unpasteurized milk and daring the older kids in her room to take her one sweet treat a day (the Kazakh version of a tootsie role).

She slinks around in Ninja costumes . . .


. . . and, as I recently discovered when cleaning her room, reads vampire books with wooden stake in hand.


Deep down, I know she’s just as vulnerable as any other kid, but for my sanity, I let my great admiration of her strength and resourcefulness ease my fear.

But my boy. I have to drop him off at school and walk away, his refrain of

“But I don’t want to go to school! I want to hold you”


“But can I go to work with you? I want to go to work with you.”

playing in my head.

There has yet to be a day that I haven’t heard it.

I hate it.

I hated the thrill I got when the school installed new doors — solid, metal ones that are supposed to lock automatically — and I hated the dread that followed when I realized that they have yet to get them to lock properly.

To those of you who voted “no” and to the supporters who urged you to do so: unacceptable, in so many ways.

How dare you?

Shame on you all.

Arina, On Boston

Arina on the rocks

Only four short months ago, I recorded the experience of telling my 8-year-old daughter about the Sandy Hook shooting, here. And here I am again, telling her about the Boston bombings.

The discussion was similar to the Newtown one, except for one thing. Normally, Arina is full of ideas. But, today, she shook her head after reading some of the coverage over my shoulder, sighed and said, “I don’t even know, Mom.”

I didn’t tell her that we’re talking about this on the day that, six years ago, 32 people died in the Virginia Tech shooting. I don’t know why. I’m brutally honest with her most of the time, but talking about Virginia Tech after Sandy Hook and after the bombings just makes the world sound so, so dark.

But I did tell her that we’re talking about this on the day that, fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I read it again, with Arina reading it over my shoulder.

I shared with her a couple of my favorite quotes, and she repeated them back to me in Arina-speak:

(1) MLK Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Arina: “So, we’re all in this together?”

Me: “Right. So, when bad things happen — like bombings and school shootings and people not being treated fairly — it’s an injustice that affects us all. So, it’s our job to think about how to make the world kinder, a more inclusive and less violent place.”

(2) MLK Jr: Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

Arina: “So, we need to be annoying? Like flies?”

Me: “Right. But like nonviolent flies. So, no biting.”

Arina nodded. She has heard our firebrand of a pastor tell us to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight, so she seems to understand the idea of being persistent (even annoyingly so) while searching for light or goodness in dark, dark places.

Dr. Ray tells us to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight all of the time, but Arina and I talked about how it’s especially important when things seem so bad.

“So, what are you going to do?” I asked her.

Arina: “Well . . . I’m really glad I saved that polar bear.” [She donated to a “save the polar bears” fundraiser recently and has pinned a photo of her “adopted” polar bear to a board in her room.] I agreed that saving polar bears makes the world a kinder place.

“So what are you going to do?” she asked me.

I sniffed. “Well, I was going to call Senator Graham today,” I explained, “because it’s supposed to be National Call Day for new gun legislation” [in the form of expanded background checks for gun show and Internet purchases]. But President Obama canceled it.”

Then and there: I decided to call anyway, since it seemed to be a nonviolent gadfly thing to do, and I was happy to see the Brady Campaign still urging people to do so — even though, as my friend Natalie pointed out, the wording of their email could possibly be interpreted as exploiting the Boston tragedy.

For me, though: I wanted to make it clear to my daughter and to my representative that an America plagued by acts of violence is one that I want to change. Calling for expanded background checks on gun purchases had nothing to do with the Boston bombings, and everything to do with the Boston bombings.

Nothing: because regulating materials for bombs is a totally different beast than regulating firearms, clearly. I remember talks of regulating ammonium nitrate fertilizer after the Oklahoma City bombing, but as Natalie points out: materials for bombs are, essentially, available for purchase at any local hardware store. No one is suggesting that expanded background checks on firearms would have made a difference in the Boston bombings.

Everything: Grieving and processing the violence in Boston feels too similar, too familiar to other recent moments of terror. There comes a point, I think, when the tragedies snowball to such an extent that every call attempting to stem the tide of gun violence; or rape culture; or bombings; or bullying becomes an indistinguishable refrain of: I do not approve; I do not condone; I kick for change.

Saving polar bears; or acknowledging that gun ownership is a grave responsibility; or running past the finish line in the Boston Marathon to donate blood: all are attempts to make little cracks in a darkness that seems both overwhelming and penetrable at the very same time.