Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Bad Man, and a Very Bad Wizard: Tom Owens Goes To Decatur

Imagine Sacha Baron Cohen made a movie and set it in the DeKalb County Courthouse.

That's what it was like at the hearing to clear the temporary restraining order against George.  It was like a comedy, only one of those terrible, cringy comedies where people publicly embarrass and hurt themselves which I don't actually like.

Let me be clear:  Tom Owens and his crew manifestly deserved it and absolutely did it to themselves. But it was still painful to watch. There were points at which I actually couldn't look at the people talking, because it was that awful. And I don't mean "they are saying mean things about my boo" awful. I mean, "holy crap, I don't like you but you absolutely do not see the abyss you are digging yourself into. Please, for your own sake stop" awful.

Tom Owens represented himself.  I don't know whether this is because the three of them (him, Wayne Witter, and Joe Newton) between them couldn't pay a lawyer, or because no lawyer they approached with this would go for it, or they didn't think they needed one. Any of these are plausible but the latter seems likely.  Because, as I was explaining to someone who was present at the hearing and who asked the very reasonable question, "what were they thinking?"....These are the same people who took out the TPO in the first place. Any attempt to parse their behavior and choices or try to make them fit into some kind of logical sense should refer back to that point.  In related news, the answer to the question, "Who thinks it's a good idea to take out a restraining order against a reporter for asking them questions?" is:  These guys.

Tom Owens in particular is a stupid man. I mean genuinely stupid. I don't generally mock people for their lack of intellectual skills. As someone who was labeled "gifted" as a child, I've always felt that making fun of people for lacking those qualities with which I have been unusually blessed is unseemly, as well as mean-spirited. But, having chosen to represent himself, Mr. Owens not only did not grasp the concept of questioning a witness, he was unable to follow the judge's very clear and simple directions.  He called three witnesses and in each case the judge had to take over questioning for him in order for the hearing to proceed. I actually appreciate the amount of patience and forbearance that Judge Cynthia Becker displayed.  No one reasonable can say that Mr. Owens was not treated fairly, and given every possible opportunity to not screw up. 

The centerpiece of the evidence he brought was a video which purported to show George behaving in a "threatening, out of control" (Mr. Owens' words) manner.  What it actually showed, among other things including George explaining why it's important for a reporter to ask questions, was Joe Newton getting up in George's face and yelling various insults at him, while George responded with admirable restraint, if a bit of snark:  "I know you! You're Joe Newton! Goodness gracious me, you're worse than he is. You are a genuinely terrible human being."  This is the sum and total of the meanest thing George did. Truly, a dangerous man.

Tom Owens' compatriots, Wayne Witter and Joe Newton, as well as Mr. Owens himself, then proceeded to take the stand and testify in ways that contradicted both themselves, each other, and the video.  Which they  had brought, and presumably watched. Evidently none of them had thought to make sure what they said matched their big piece of evidence, or else were actually unable to do so. It was a festival of incompetence.

In the ongoing circus of the last week and a half, I kept hearing that many people have found Tom Owens unpleasant to deal with, and some were genuinely afraid of him.  I confess that I have been concerned about George's safety, since "I was in fear for my life" with no corroborating evidence has been known to be accepted as a murder defense. I wish all of those people had been in the court room yesterday.  It was like the moment when Toto pulls the curtain back to reveal the Wizard of Oz huffing and frantically pulling at levers, or the moment in Hook when Wendy says, "He's just a mean old man without a Mommy."

I think Tom Owens and his friends are malicious.  They have the will to do harm. What they lack is the ability to carry out any plan for harm that is at all complex in a way that doesn't hurt their own cause in the process. This is a kind of blessing...on them, though they may not appreciate it. Certainly on the rest of us.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tom Owens Is A Racist, And It Matters

There, I said it.  Somebody needed to. 

In case you haven't heard, the First Amendment is in trouble in DeKalb County, Georgia. George Chidi, a journalist who writes for Peach Pundit ("Fresh Political Pickins From The Peach State") was writing a profile of a candidate for a DeKalb County Commission special election, and in the process showed up to two public events and called the man.  Tom Owens, the candidate in question, took exception to all this and took out a temporary protective order.  

The Washington Post covered the First Amendment issues fairly authoritatively, while Bill Torpy at the AJC covered the low-to-the-ground craziness of it all.  Nobody, to my knowledge, has talked about the racist undertones...and overtones, and middle-tones...of the situation.  I guess I can see why.  There's so much to discuss, and the utter outrageousness of a politician using the courts to suppress coverage he doesn't like pretty much drowns everything out. A white man using the law to harass and attack a black man is, sadly, not news...though the fact that it can still happen should certainly engender outrage. However, I'm an academic, not a journalist, and my habits tend less towards reportage and more towards analysis...among other things, of the status quo and what's screwed up about it.

Full disclosure:  George is my...well, we're both in our forties, and "boyfriend" is a bit teenagery, but let's just go with that. Things have been interesting at my house lately. In any case, it happens that I have opinions about this situation, and a unique perspective from which to view it.  And since I, too, am a writer, I mean to express them.

Premise:  Racism, sexism, and the like are social evils, not merely personal moral flaws. Therefore, you can be unintentionally racist, if your behavior fits a pattern of racism that exists in our society. (The thing to do once you figure this out is to apologize and move on. Or change your team's name, as the case may be). I don't actually think this one was unintentional, but it's just possible Mr. Owens and his compatriots, on the way to fabricating a pack of lies and abusing the court system in order to piss on the Constitution, were racist by mere accident. My point being, I don't have to know their exact motives to see that their behavior fits a racist pattern, any more than I have to shave an itchy cat to prove she has fleas.

It so happens, though, that Mr. Owens has what one might call a history suggestive of problematic racial ideologies.  He's an anti-immigrant activist, has been in a protracted feud with the mosque he lives next door to, and spit on someone's door because he thought she was helping Muslims. Then there's this:

"It’s like, you know what? I don’t really like the n–ger speech. I don’t like that other speech. … That was the red flag. The n–ger speech, and like n–ger motherfu–er, and the f-g-ass. You know what? I’m busy. You’re busy. Thanks. Good bye.” -- James Burkart, speaking about Tom Owens

Incidentally, George is the son of an African immigrant and an American-born mother...the exact same demographic as the President (and we all know how fair people are to that guy). He tells me he was questioned rather aggressively by Mr. Owens' campaign manager Wayne Witter as to whether or not he was a Muslim.

 In other words, I am not making a great leap of assertion here.

At any rate, in the last few days Mr. Owens and others who are close associates have done their best to muddy the waters and make themselves good as they can. The cant of their arguments is revealing:

"I am not attacking freedom of speech because I didn't know George Chidi was a reporter.  He didn't identify himself, so it's his fault."

So many things wrong with this, including the fact that ordinary, non-professional-journalist citizens have a right to ask questions of candidates for office at a public forum. Even, and perhaps especially if, they are questions those candidates don't want to answer. It's just that reporters have additional protections for obvious reasons.  But there is absolutely no way on God's green Earth that Mr. Owens didn't know George was a reporter before he filed that TPO. Aside from the fact that you can hear him on the video which accompanies the Huffington Post article identifying himself as a reporter, when he is working on a story, it's the second thing out of his mouth:  "I'm George Chidi, and I'm a writer."  Or, "I'm George Chidi, and I'm working on a story." Like that.  It's a reflex. 

"He was loud and upset people."

By "people" Mr. Owens clearly means himself, and by "upset" he means "asked questions I didn't have good answers to."  George is also unfailingly polite to people who are polite to him, and usually even when they aren't.  It is possible he may have been a bit loud by our genteel Southern standards.  That can happen when he gets excited.

Last I inquired this was not actually a crime. And for those of us who have gotten used to the idea that Atlanta is a big city which attracts people from all over the place, and also that there are human beings in the world who are not exactly like ourselves, it's not actually hard to adjust when people follow different rules and don't quite behave precisely the way we would. That's what my Mama taught me was polite.

"He threatened me."

Mr. Owens has a history of claiming this, that, or the other person has threatened to kill him. I confess I can see why he might imagine that people hold him in deep contempt. But in this case, the narrative that he and others (including Bill Simon of have tried to construct casts George in the role of Scary Black Man.  They could hardly have picked on someone less suited...

...but that hardly matters.  Stereotypes don't truck with reality, they just hew to people's prejudices.  And in the minds of people like Tom Owens and his friends, it's not important that George is actually a friendly goofball who narrates the inner thoughts of any dog he meets.  Black and brown men are scary, violent, criminal, and dangerous, and that trumps everything. Truth and common sense...and the Constitution...can go to hell. 

Now, Mr. Owens is no respecter of persons...or position, or race, or gender...when it comes to his (heavily documented) harassing behavior. But the Scary, Threatening Black Man is not just a stereotype or a media's an internalized false belief that research shows is widely held, and given his other behavior, Mr. Owens is unlikely to have an isolated quirk of fair-mindedness about it. I think he did feel threatened by George's questions...not for his safety, as he claims, but for his political aspirations. It was an easy leap from "I feel threatened" to "he is threatening me" and from thence to trying to use the courts in order to quell the threat.

This kind of thinking all too often turns deadly.  In this case, it has only turned into a three-ring stupidity circus and interfered in my life and George's life.  But there's a connection, and an important one:  bigotry means you only see people like yourself as fully human, and therefore you don't reflexively offer those who are not like you the same mental "space," including respect for their basic rights.  It's why women get imposed upon walking down the street.  It's why young men get shot for holding sandwiches and wearing hoodies.

I actually think Mr. Owens is telling the truth about this one thing:  He didn't think of what he was doing as an assault on the First Amendment.  He was, after all, just trying to get a black guy to shut up.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Commonplace Book

I've decided to start using my blog as a commonplace book (some of the time), meaning a place where I record what I'm reading, some relevant quotes, and my comments.

Self-Segregation:  Why It's So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson by Robert P. Jones in The Atlantic.

"Clearly white Americans see the broader significance of Michael Brown’s death through radically different lenses than black Americans. There are myriad reasons for this divergence, from political ideologies—which, for example, place different emphases on law and order versus citizens’ rights—to fears based in racist stereotypes of young black men. But the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people."

"Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 93 percent white. White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent)."

"Widespread social separation is the root of divergent reactions along racial lines to events such as the Watts riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict, and, more recently, the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. For most white Americans, #hoodies and #handsupdontshoot and the images that have accompanied these hashtags on social media may feel alien and off-putting given their communal contexts and social networks.
If perplexed whites want help understanding the present unrest in Ferguson, nearly all will need to travel well beyond their current social circles."

I both find this hard to believe and know that it is 1) important and, 2) true. It explains so much that encounter on a regular basis. Not only do I have "black friends" I have several people who are significant figures in my life.  This makes a difference.

What it feels like to be the last generation to remember life before the Internet by Leo Mirani

"Harris, like your correspondent, grew up in a very different world, one with limited channels of communication, fewer forms of entertainment, and less public scrutiny of quotidian actions or fleeting thoughts. It was neither better nor worse than the world we live in today. Like technology, it just was."

Slightly hyperbolic. We have no idea what new technological revolution is just around the corner.  People were saying the same stuff about telegraphs and later telephones, I'm pretty sure. 

Metaphors for Graduate School: a post-lette  by Outside Higher Ed 

"God help me if we’re in metonymy; that would be bad indeed."  
Snarky commentary on the state of academia

What Lies Beneath Stonehenge? by Ed Caesar, Smithsonian Magazine

"The researchers have found buried evidence of more than 15 previously unknown or poorly understood late Neolithic monuments: henges, barrows, segmented ditches, pits. To Gaffney, these findings suggest a scale of activity around Stonehenge far beyond what was previously suspected."

"Gaffney’s voice lifted. He spoke about Jerusalem Syndrome: the feeling of intense emotion experienced by pilgrims on their first sighting of the Holy City. In the prehistoric world, there was no conception of God as he was understood by the later Abrahamic faiths. But, said Gaffney, as Stonehenge reappeared before us, 'whatever the ancient version of Jerusalem Syndrome is, that’s what you’re feeling now.'”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Eating healthy and cheap

A couple of people I know are having trouble with still having month left at the end of the money.  Like a lot of people out there. Jobs are up this year, but we are still in an economic hole created by the finance industry playing drunk chicken with one another. Collectively, we need to get over the idea that if you're poor or struggling that it's somehow a moral failure, but I digress...Practical solutions.  If you're weak from hunger, it's harder to plot revolution.


I have found the Cook For Good website and basic cookbook to be a good resource, but of course if you're broke you don't have money to spend on a book. However, she has plenty of free recipes on her site an in her newsletter.  My summary here includes some of her ideas, some of my mother's, and some of my own.


  • Buy for maximum nutrition, not calories. Nutrient-dense is a better use of your money.
  • Buy versatile and cheap "pantry" ingredients and make them work in multiple recipes. 
  • Beans are your friend; they are cheap and easily flavored in multiple ways. 
  • Borrow a principle from every traditional culture everywhere and stretch one food to make several meals.  Bake a chicken, make stock from the bones, use the leftover chicken to make soup. Cook a big batch of beans and eat with rice the first night, then put the rest in a soup or bean salad or mash and refry them for burritos...etc.
  • Buy fresh and in season, and use every bit of what you buy.  Peelings and ends should go in stock. Fresh "conventional" fruits and vegetables are better for you than packaged "organic" ones. (Just wash them well to get rid of any pesticide residue and you're good).  Put the organic fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt back and get plain yogurt and fresh fruit; you will eat less sugar that way too.
  • STOCK.  Make stock out of everything. Chicken bones, beef bones, odds and ends and wilted vegetables.Then use the stock to cook beans, rice, vegetables, etc. That way you don't lose any of the nutrition you paid for, AND stuff tastes better.
  • Reuse other things too.  Leftover grains, vegetables, and legumes aren't leftovers, they are ingredients. Put them in stock with some spices and you have a whole new meal.
  • Make your own bread. Even cheap bread is more expensive than home-made, and yours will be more nutritious. Also, every kind of bread in the world can be made into toast, bread pudding, and/or dressing.
  • You can make cheap and nutritious desserts and you should. It will add to your calories and nutrition and keep you from feeling deprived. Home-made rice pudding (made from leftover rice!) is your friend.
  • Sodas on the other hand are too expensive for what they are. Drink tea instead.
  • Learn to forage.  It's blackberry season where I live.  Half the stuff growing in my yard is edible in a salad. Even in an urban area like Atlanta, there is free food growing by the side of the road if you know where to look.
  • Grow food if you can, even an herb in a pot in the window means flavor and nutrition you don't have to buy.
  • Finally:  The biggest detriment to someone struggling to make ends meet is our current cultural attitude that it is some kind of moral failure. That is bullshit, and it's not even part of actual traditional American culture, because our ancestors were smarter than that. Whoever set it up so that smart, motivated, capable people in the richest country in the world can still be poor is at fault, not you. Mentally tell them to kiss your ass and keep moving.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Tarot readings

I've decided to get back into reading Tarot, at least over the summer, because I enjoy it and money is always a good thing to have.  Here's what I just wrote to put on a flyer for a local psychic fair:

I bought my first Tarot deck in Little Five Points at Crystal Blue in 1989, having learned with a deck that a friend gave me. Four years later, I started reading at Underground Atlanta. I have given readings and workshops all over the Southeast and beyond. I teach classes on traditional Tarot, meditation, using archetypes to create your own divination tools, and traditional Southern folk magic (sometimes called hoodoo, root work, or conjure). I do house blessings, cleansing, and problem-solving. With 20 years of experience and a broad range of interests, I incorporate old and new, East and West; I am conscious of world culture while staying rooted in traditional Southern folk ways. I still use the same Tarot deck I bought in 1989, and I find the learning process never ends.

E-mail me at tarotintheatl at gmail dot com to schedule a reading.  You can also follow me on Twitter @AtlantaTarot to find out where I'll be hanging out.

Reading length

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

All writers should go to New Orleans

Screw New York; it's too expensive, getting more so by the minute, and it's cold.  I know that's where all the agents and publishers are; they need to see the error of their ways and move to the French Quarter. Don't they know that writers are poor?  They certainly ought to, considering.

No doubt some smartass will point out that the French Quarter is not exactly low-rent, either.  But as expensive as it is, it is not remotely in the same class as Manhattan, which is reaching the point where even being a multi-millionaire is simply not enough to live there. Besides, there's such a thing as actual value derived from qualities other than the price tag on your real estate, which New Orleans in general has in spades. And there are other neighborhoods that are actually affordable and relatively close by the French Quarter, which is not true of anywhere in New York that I have heard tell of.  The closest reasonable rent to anywhere in Manhattan is Vermont.

Look:  In New Orleans, you need never lack for material.  It is literally just out there walking around, tending bar, waiting tables, and chatting amiably with you on the street corner, big as life. People are interesting here.  They have character.  They have a lot of it. 

And they are very friendly.  As I was walking down the street towards my hotel (reputedly originally owned and run as a boarding house by Marie Laveau), some folks were sitting on their front stoop taking the air.  I said hello (because I too am from the South) and they asked me where I was visiting from and "what brings you to the Quarter?"  I explained about my writing project and they allowed as how "there's lots to write about here, that's for sure."  See?  They know.

Even the street hallooing is of a different character. I was greeted while walking along Burgundy with "Heyyyy pretty in pink!" but it did not perturb me.  It was neither vulgar nor threatening; it was rather delivered in tones as if the speaker felt that it would be nearly ungentlemanly to let a woman walk down the street without applause.  Another complete stranger winked at me.  This rarely happens in Atlanta.  People are very friendly in New Orleans...The street life is riotous and legendary, even when there isn't a festival going on. When there is, it's practically transcendent.

And yet, it is also a place with many little enclosed oases, courtyards that can be barely glimpsed from the street or not at all, where it is possible (I know this from experience) to have a quiet conversation even at the height of Mardi Gras.  Your typically introvert writer can go out, sample the panoply of life's rich pageant, and then scuttle back into his or her hidey hole. I personally am currently sitting in my aforementioned historically awesome hotel room, with the French doors open to the balcony which overlooks the courtyard below, where I can hear the tinkle of a fountain (and the HVAC unit, but whatever). The cool night breezes can come wandering in. There are many, many good restaurants within easy walking distance, and many of them stay open quite late, so if I decided to stay up all night and write I could probably find sustenance or inspiration whenever I needed to.

What I am saying is, it's a civilized place. So civilized it is also well debauched.  As a matter of fact debauchery is something of a primary export, as it were.  Consequently they have good booze, good music...and good coffee, all things that are important to the writerly life.

New Orleans is a good place for a writer.  That's part of why I came.  I wish I could stay longer, in fact.  I guess I'll have to come back.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Writing on a train

You may have heard that Amtrak is giving out writer's residencies.  I thought this was a completely, utterly entrancing idea and obviously meant for me in particular.  I applied.  But then I thought...what if they don't pick me?  I NEED THIS.

So, I decided to do it myself, via Kickstarter.  My plan was...and ride on the Southern Crescent from Atlanta to New Orleans and back, working on a short story.  (And maybe some other things, but mostly short story).  I chose that because I have half a dozen short stories lying around that need finishing.  And a novel, but I am pretty sure I can't finish that in two days.  And I am notionally a fiction writer, after all, even though I habitually commit poetry and other indiscretions.

My project was funded in about eight hours (Yay Internet!) and I received enough to also pay for a hotel room (important, as the train coming back to Atlanta doesn't leave until the next morning).  So then...I will be leaving from Atlanta early tomorrow morning, writing all the way to New Orleans, spending the night in the French Quarter (aka the most awesome and delightful place in North America, possibly the world), then writing all the way back.

I won't have Internet for most of that (probably for the best) but will post frequent updates via Facebook and Twitter.  I may do some v-blogging, at the behest of a friend, but upload times will be slow.

Here's where to find me:
Sara Amis on Facebook
Sara Amis on Google+
My YouTube channel

Many thanks to the people who made this project possible:

Mark in New Orleans :)
Christine Kraemer
Eric Cooper
Lyn Bilodeau
Jonathan Chaffin
Brendan Myers
Andrew Flenniken
Miranda Harrell
Roger Beckett
Joshua Graham
Shawn Crawford
George Felis
Lee Sittler

If you are late to the party but would like to help out (a girl's gotta eat beignets and étouffée, y'all), you can still donate to this project via PayPal:

I am so excited I'm not sure I'm going to be able to sleep tonight...but I better, because tomorrow I have writing to do!  ON THE TRAIN!!!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Writing on Trains Kickstarter

So, I was so entranced by the Amtrak Writer's Residency that I decided to raise money for my own, DIY version. I am fully funded to go to New Orleans but if I can raise a little more I will go to Memphis or another location (and spend more time on the train, and more time writing).

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Remember That The Critic Is An Angel

(This is in response to a writing challenge in Jeff VanderMeer's Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction)

The polka-dotted bat-flounder always wanted to be an opera singer.  She balances on the slim fins of her tail, somehow, amid a tangle of ribbons and roses, her head flung back and mouth open in an ecstasy of sound.  Her bat wings, as spotted as the rest of her, are open in a gesture of expansion, curiously human, as is the smile on her fishy face.  It is all meant to show her total enthusiasm for the project of singing opera, for her ambition.

Of course, a flounder's head is always flung back.  They have no necks. We don't wonder where her voice came from, just as we let her wings pass unquestioned.  She wants to be an opera singer, and that is enough to allow her to sing.  But to sing well...that is another matter.  This is where the critic comes in.

He leans against a stack of books, ink pot at his feet, a book in one hand while the other strokes his lengthy and pedantic beard.  His brow is furrowed in thought.  An owl sits on one shoulder; a parrot on the other. (It wouldn't make sense for him to have a demon and an angel, after all.  He is his own conscience).  What he says depends on which one he listens to, but it is a fact that the parrot talks more.  The owl only asks questions.  The critic, in response to them, says "Hmm," or sometimes, "Undoubtedly!" neither of which are actually answers.

The operatic bat-flounder believes the critic is here to help her, but that isn't his job, not precisely.  Any help he provides is coincidental to his true purpose. He isn't here to make an announcement, either.  He is here to judge.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

New story up!

Mars sunset - NASA
Luna Station Quarterly 017 is live, and contains my story "Wide Open Spaces" :)