Welcome to Ponyville

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Unashamed, pretty pretty ponies.

I attended my first My Little Pony convention this weekend.  It’d been about a decade since I’d been to a less-academic, cartoon-based fan convention, and I felt rather wary as to what to expect.  Various blogs and documentaries report conflicting messages about brony culture, and being on the outskirts of the fandom (i.e., not as obsessive as some), I wondered if my n00b would be showing.  Would I get harassed as a female cosplayer?  Are furries as creepy as some people make them out to be?  Would I be shunned for discussing feminism at my panel?  Hours after returning home from a very pony weekend, I find myself reluctant to remove my pegasus hoodie, suffering those distressing “post-con blues.” ‘Cause, damn, I had a good time!

Let’s go back to see when this all started…. [Insert wavy lines here.]  While healing from a rather difficult illness in Spring 2013, I decided watching cartoons was the most my cloudy mind and bedridden body could handle.  I settled on the latest My Little Pony reboot, Friendship is Magic, after hearing good things about the show.  Two episodes in, I was hooked.  Those bright, adorable ponies and their girl-powered adventures and wholesome lessons made me forget my pains and focus on positive things we should all strive for: love, community, mutual aid, and adventure.  No wonder so many adults were falling in love with these peppy equines.

That year, I devoured the rest of the television series, but didn’t find many fellow fans in my friend circles with whom to geek out. My partner, my coworkers, and my friends and family were a bit weirded out by my new interest, which I proclaimed, then defended to each. I was vaguely aware of brony fandom through a documentary I happened across on Netflix called Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Male Fans of My Little Pony.  The most I contributed to this fanbase was writing a review of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for a political geek blog I help maintain. It wasn’t until the following year, when I had the fortune of meeting a pony fan who would become my best friend, that I was able to start seriously geeking out, our newbie-level interests building on each other.

That being said, I’m nowhere close to competing with many of the bronies out there as far as knowledge of the My Little Pony universe and the elements of its fandom, which extends to art, comic books, card games, music, cosplay, fanfiction, video parodies, and beyond.  But I soon found myself drawing my own fan art, creating an OC (original character, a pony of my own creation), and having in-depth conversations about fictional pony culture and pony identities.  And, yes, a plushie Pinkie Pie made its way to my workbench at the bike shop.

Earlier this year, on a whim, I decided to look up brony conventions, and lo and behold! the neighboring city of Milwaukee was hosting Ponyville Ciderfest in November!  An easy bus ride away!  My curiosity and enthusiasm took over, and I registered.  I even offered to host a panel and facilitate a game.  I had second thoughts, mind you.  And third thoughts, and fourth thoughts.  I discussed attendance with my brony friend J, who also wavered between excitement and skepticism.  Honestly, we were both unsure what to expect from fellow fans, and some of the pseudo-sexualized pony mascots, well, they freaked us the fuck out.

It wasn’t until we started working on our costumes that our excitement outweighed our anxiety.  Wearing costumes at conventions is not required (unless you’re attending a immersive event like Madison’s Teslacon), but many people dress up as their favorite characters for enjoyment and theatrical, role-playing aspects.  (This is called cosplay in nerd terms; think Renaissance Festival, but for your fiction of choice.)  I used to perform in cosplay at anime conventions a decade ago, and have since enjoyed costuming at more historical-based events.  It’s been ages since I cosplayed a specific character, and so putting together a punk version of the timid, animal-loving pony Fluttershy was a real delight!  For J, this would be his first convention cosplay, and it was heartwarming to see his enthusiasm grow as his unicorn costume came together.  There’s just something about putting on another skin for a night or a weekend, exploring your identity through that character, and creating something others appreciate….  But I digress.


J carving a unicorn horn from crafting foam.


My favorite detail of my “Flutterpunk” costume.

In the weeks leading up to Ponyville Ciderfest, I frantically worked on the two events I had volunteered for: a panel exploring feminism in My Little Pony, and a customized tabletop role-playing game I would facilitate.  After a frightening visit to the mall for costume pieces, a crafting night or two, and some fretting over game print-outs, we were on the bus to Milwaukee!

My events were scheduled for Friday afternoon and evening, which didn’t leave us much time to explore the convention and get a “feel” for what brony culture was all about.  After checking into the hotel where the con was hosted, J and I donned our costumes and dived right in.  Breezing through a minor fiasco with registration (our panel badges were nowhere to be seen), we explored the vendor/artist room and fell in love with half of the exhibitors there.  SO MANY CUTE THINGS. And talented artists!   There were plush dolls, embroidered patches, charms, clothing, accessories, posters, terrariums, and more. Only a small portion of the fanart was mildly disquieting to us (the pseudo-sexualization thing again).  The convention was family-friendly, and more lascivious art was not allowed.  Good move, Ciderfest. Good move.

Dodging between six-year-olds on the pony-music dance floor and tables full of bronies playing the My Little Pony collectible card game, J and I made our way to the panel we were hosting.  I roped J in last-minute, and he ended up being a fantastic boon to the conversation and facilitation of the panel.  Usually a “panel” consists of three or more people well-versed on the topic at hand, discussing questions from a facilitator and/or audience.  However most panels I attended, including mine, had one person behind the panel table, as the convention did not offer help in finding others to join panels.  (I have no idea how other cons do this, save for the long-running WisCon which is so accommodating in so many ways, I probably shouldn’t compare it to others, especially first-year cons like Ciderfest!)  Many of these one-person panels transformed into group discussions with audience member participation.

For “Equestria as Feminist Utopia: What Can We Learn,” I came prepared for a group discussion on feminism, utopias, and other -isms in the realm of ponies.  I was pleasantly surprised to find many of the 20-some audience members excited to talk about these issues within our favorite fictional world.  Occasionally, the conversation was nearly derailed by obscure fact references (“Well actually, in the So-and-So episode, this pony does THIS, refuting your claim that all ponies something-something.” #notallponies).  This is where J was my savior, roping conversation back in and offering a feminist perspective from a male, the gender expression of choice among audience members.  (I can’t say if the unicorn horn helped; perhaps J was using magic.)  Many perspectives were candidly shared, then discussed by those with differing or similar perspectives.  No one raised their voice, called anyone “wrong,” or acted aggressively in any way.  Honestly, activist organizations could learn a lot from this group of bronies.

In our hour-long panel, we touched on tough topics including the term “feminism,” race, class, gender, and power depicted in the series, and how My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has helped us relate to the “real world” in terms of change for the better.  It was pretty rad, albeit a little nerve-wracking for a Fluttershy to facilitate in previously unknown territory.  I was happy to get compliments from audience members and to make “friends” early in the convention.

Next up: facilitating my tabletop role-playing game!  I’m a huge fan of the 3-hour, self-facilitated game of Fiasco by Bully Pulpit Games.  The game’s creators encourage fans to craft their own “playsets,” or worlds in which to play.  I’d been itching to try my hand at building a playset, and itching to role-play ponies with other fans of the series.  Honestly, that was a big pull for me to attend Ponyville Ciderfest: tabletop gaming.


Gaming at the convention!

All went well for My Little Pony Fiasco despite my only registered player not showing up!  We were joined by two pick-up players, known only to me as their Fiasco character names Lightblade and Dubstep Moneybags.  Hilarity, destruction, and mayhem ensued, as the game is designed.  Highlights of our shared story were boysenberry lava flows, cultist-bakers, and magical cookbooks.  Need I say more?

With my responsibilities behind me, I enjoyed the second day of the con by attending panels, buying gifts for friends and family, gaming, and drinking cider.  Leading up to the convention, I grew more and more curious about furry culture, as brony and furry culture often overlap.  For those not in-the-know, furries are fans who enjoy anthropomorphized animal characters.  Think Donald Duck, Disney’s Robin Hood, or the Muppets.  Furries, like bronies, often create original characters or identities, and will wear tails, ears, and even full fur-covered suits similar to those you see sports mascots wear.  Furries end up being the butt of people’s jokes more often than not, and the media likes to grab hold of and exaggerate the sexually deviant, fetishized parts of furry culture.  I’ve found myself making these hateful jokes and conflating furry fandom with sexuality, and I’m currently working on understanding, respecting, and celebrating furries as creative, caring individuals.  This internal work is what led me to a panel Saturday morning called “Are Bronies Furries?”, hoping to learn more about both cultures.  As with my panel, the audience participated very candidly and liberally, and I listened to interesting perspectives on how furries are treated by both mainstream society and other fandoms.  I also discovered that a lot of people consider bronies furries, and so if I’m going to be a pony fan, I better teach myself more about these intersectionalities.

Another panel I enjoyed wasn’t a panel at all; it had been cancelled!  But due to poor communication, 20 bronies found themselves in a room waiting for an academic to show up to discuss his research on brony fandom and gender.  After 15 minutes, we decided to push our chairs into a circle and facilitate our own discussion based on anecdotes, observations, and personal experiences involving gender within brony culture.  It was absolutely fantastic, and, again, I was massively impressed by bronies’ abilities to self-facilitate with respect and open minds.  Can I bring y’all to my housing cooperative, please?

Unfortunately, J and I had to book it outta there to join in another tabletop role-playing game, My Little Paranoia: Friendship is Mandatory.  I had been anticipating this game since I read the description a month before.  The game-master (GM) had developed a custom game of Paranoia in which players are ponies living in a dystopian society reminiscent of 1984, but ridiculous rather than depressing.  I had studied my character sheet and flipped through a .PDF of the rulebook online.  I was ready!  ….And so were 13 other people.  Yes, I played a tabletop role-playing game with 14 players and one GM.  It was a lot of fun at first, with each character having space to do their thing, fun props on the table, a boisterous and theatrical GM, and plenty of great ideas floating around.  But as the story developed, mayhem at the table reflected mayhem within the game.  There were a lot of side-comments, derailments, and pointless banter that half of the players really enjoyed, and half of the players were… well, it was difficult to read.  I got pretty exhausted keeping up with it all and bowed out early.  I would love to revisit the game and the GM’s pony modifications with a smaller group of people.

Another point of enjoyment at the convention was the video gaming room.  I hadn’t played dancing games since college, and so I was thrilled to see an arcade version of In the Groove with custom pony songs. (I still have a techno-remix of the Cutie Mark Crusaders song stuck in my head….)  There, too, was a fantastic player-versus-player fighting game featuring the Mane 6 ponies; think Mortal Kombat but with special moves involving confetti canons and aggressive bunny rabbits.

Saturday night was filled with cider-sipping and listening to pony-music at the PON3 Dance, which I had hoped would be a rave with electronic base-dropping wub-wub-wubs, but instead involved a lot of poppy pony vocals.  I tried dancing, but alas, my body mostly wanted to sleep.


Pony dance party!

Sunday morning, J and I half-assed the con, as we had a bus to catch midday.  A morning’s panel on older bronies had discussed post-convention depression, and we both scoffed at the idea of us suffering such a fate.  Yet as we walked to our respective homes after returning to Madison, it hit us.  Hard.  Conventions can provide safe, welcoming, and warm space for all of us outsiders, weirdos, and freaks to come and celebrate our shared obsessions the rest of the world just doesn’t “get.”  Ponyville Ciderfest, despite some rough edges of it being a first-year con, did a fantastic job of providing a space in which bronies could grow and thrive, if only for three glorious, pony-filled days.

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Flutterpunk giving “The Stare” to all you naysayers out there.




As an afterthought and conclusion written a day later, I want to reiterate the enjoyment I had this past weekend.  It was by no means perfect, as no fandom ever is. There are things I don’t understand (namely, psuedo-sexual anthropomorphism and macho-competitiveness around pony trivia).  Overall, I’m really glad I’ve gotten to experience brony culture firsthand and meet extreme fans.  Many bronies (including myself) seem to be a little (or more than a little) socially awkward: nervous ticks, different ways of relating to strangers, and peculiar methods of expressing themselves.  I saw adult men carrying around pony dolls proudly, furries thrilled to share their newest digs with a welcoming audience, and countless people forming and fostering what could be extremely important relationships and communities within their individual lives.  The atmosphere was full of acceptance and warm welcomes, a culture embracing each fan no matter their levels of commitment, their anxieties, their eccentricities, or their identities.  In retrospect, that was what hurt the most when leaving that space.  Bronies take to heart the six Elements of Harmony described by their favorite show:  loyalty, honesty, generosity, laughter, kindness, and yes, magic. I wish the real world could do these things better. Bronies, overall, have given me sparks of hope for a more accepting, more magical world.


I Made a Fatbike



With flu season swiftly approaching, I find myself suffering from a different kind of fever: FATBIKE FEVER.  For those of you unaware, fatbikes are a new trend in the cycling world, catching the attention of mountain bikers, winter commutersadventure cyclists, and outdoorsmen.  Fatbikes, such as those offered by Surly and Salsa, are regular bikes with massive tires ranging from 3 to 5 inches wide.  They’re like the Hummers of bikes, rolling over almost any terrain: sand, snow, tree roots, gravel, cinderblocks, and probably even small children.  I’ve had the privilege of poking fun of my good friend for commuting on his hog of a bike, Ugbeast, before I started realizing how much more fun he was having with his fatbike.  Wanting to ride off the pavement and into the woods, I pulled the trigger-shifter.  I got me a fatbike.

Being a bicycle mechanic with access to plenty of tools and resources, I decided to build the bike frame-up.  After a fair amount of research, including test rides and extensive discussion with fatbike nerds at Revolution Cycles, I decided on the Surly Pugsley.  I knew that I wanted the versatility of having “traditional” 135mm hub spacing, allowing me to build wheels using more common hub sizes instead of extra-wide fatbike-specific ones.  The Pugsley allows for this with its offset frame, which basically bends all wonky in one direction to allow room for a ginormous tire. Furthermore, I was attracted to Surly’s offset fork, allowing me two rear wheels to run on my bike at the same time, ostensibly having two bikes in one.  (In other words, I can easily switch between a geared bike and, in my case, a single speed without having to rebuild or re-dish my wheels. This can come in handy if my freehub body freezes up when I’m in the middle of nowhere; my backup wheel is on the front of my bike!)  Finally, I’ve had great experiences with Surly products and wanted to support a solid company that builds solid steel frames.  With friends and fatbike fellows urging on the Pugsley, it seemed like the best choice for my price range.

Without further ado, let’s get into the build!  I enjoy documenting various projects of mine, and so here’s a foray into bike-building for the curious:

Step 1: Frame Saver that sucker!  If you’re building a steel bike, it’s always a good idea to apply a protective coating of rust inhibitor inside of the frame before adding components.  Surly recommends this with all of their bikes, as it prolongs the life of your investment.  Frame Saver is an excellent product for such things, and there are several similar products out there.  Over the course of 48 hours, I applied two coats by spraying it in all of the frame and fork’s openings, plugging up the holes, and rotating the frame with the liquid inside to spread it evenly.  When it dries, it reminds me of a thick layer of ear wax.  Yup, gross.

WP_20141008_002As my frame was being Frame-Saved, I built up my two wheels.  It’s been a couple of years since I built a wheel from scratch, so I needed to reacquaint myself with the process via Sheldon Brown’s fantastic tutorial.  Having never built fatbike wheels, I had to do some learnin’ on that as well, finding useful resources via Surly’s website.  Using Quality Bicycle Product‘s Surly corrections chart for offset wheel building, as well as their spoke calculator, I determined the spoke lengths needed for both wheels.  Here’s what the spoke-cutting device looks like:


I used DT Champion spokes, which are double-butted.  Double-butted means that spoke gauge is thicker at the ends and thinner in the middle, allowing more strength at stress points, more elasticity in the middle to disperse to neighboring spokes, and a little bit of weight saved.  I used a 3-cross lacing pattern, which is generally considered the strongest with the least amount of stress.  My REAR rear wheel was built with a 9-speed Shimano XT hub, my FRONT rear wheel a Surly single-speed New Hub.


Surly’s Pugsley frame comes with a special adapter to use when dishing the wheel (i.e., centering the rim within the frame).  You can see the red cylindrical adapter pictured above (not my water bottle).  The adapter is attached to the non-drive side of the hub when the wheel’s in the truing stand or being measured with a dishing tool.  Note the red adapter in the picture below, as well.


Another peculiar thing about fatbike rims (in my case, the 65mm-wide Surly Marge Lites) is that they have 64 spoke holes drilled into them.  Most hubs have 32 holes.  Half of the spoke holes on these rims are not used!  When building rear wheels for an offset frame, you use only one of two lines of spoke holes, as the rim is pretty off-center compared to the hub.  You can visualize this here as you can’t quite see it in the picture above.  If you were building a symmetrical rim for a front wheel (which I did not), you would alternate between the two lines of spoke holes.  Next time you’re near a fatbike, check out the wheels.  Mind-blowing!  (At least it was for me when I learned about offset stuff….)

The Surly Marge Lite rims that I built up were pretty beefy, and the welds were a bit sloppy.  I am used to building up more precision rims, but the internet told me not to fear; fatbike wheels need not be precise.  I brought the wheels up to tension while dishing and truing them, although the perfectionist in me was a bit peeved at the condition of my radial truing with respect to sloppy welds.  As far as tension goes, without a tensionometer at hand, I did ’em by “feel,” which I double-checked with an expert wheel-builder the following day.  I was in good shape.

Then came the Moment of Truth: testing the wheel in the offset fork, making sure the rim was centered.  *holding breath*  …  It worked!  I did it!  My first fatbike wheelset build!


Now for the rest of the build!  I set aside an entire day for the project, feverishly building, forcing myself to take food breaks amid the mania.  (It’s more difficult than you think when you’re in the zone.)  After cleaning spilled Frame-Saver-ear-wax off the frame, my first step was fork installation.  I don’t get to do these too often, and they use neat specialty tools, so it was a lovely start to the day.

Installing a fork means installing a headset with it.  The headset contains the bearings by which the steering works.  First, I had to install onto my fork the crown race, a smooth, curved ring upon which the bearings sit.  This is my favorite to install, as it involves a lot of banging to force the little ring on.  Here’s a pic of the tool with its various attachments for various crown race sizes:


Next, you install similarly curved ring bits to the frame.  These are called headset cups.  A clamping tool called a headset press is used to force these suckers in nice and level.  The teens I used to work with called this tool “The Helicopter”:


Loosely assembling all components, I measured where I wanted to trim the fork’s steerer tube so that I didn’t have to use inches of extra spacers with my headset installation.  In other words, the fork’s “handle” was way too long for my small frame, and I wanted to make it shorter.  Some people hold off on cutting until after they’ve ridden the bike several times.  I had a good idea of where I wanted things based on my current commuter mountain bike, so I decided to cut the tube down first, with a few inches of wiggle room.  I used a special clamp, a vice, a hack saw, and a lot of cutting oil:


After filing down the freshly cut steerer tube, I installed the fork, the stem (where the handlebars attach), and the rest of the headset components, tightening it all down just right.  And, in the stem’s case, to spec using a torque wrench set to 5nm.


I moved next to the bottom bracket area.  The bottom bracket contains another set of bearings, this time allowing the pedal arms (crankset) to swing around.  I installed a cartridge-style square-taper bottom bracket I purchased from Rev.  The Pugsley frame takes a longer-than-normal 110mm bottom bracket.  To the bottom bracket, I attached a set of used Bontrager mountain cranks that fit the 104 BCD (Bolt Circle Diameter) chainring I purchased.

Let me tell you about that chainring!  Another interesting thing I learned when selecting my componentry is that, for mountainbikers who want a single chainring up front (instead of multiple gears), several companies manufacture special chainrings designed to hold onto chains over rough riding and abrupt rear gear-changing.  These “narrow wide” chainrings alternate between narrow and wide teeth throughout the ring, which grasp stronger via small differences in inner- and outer-plate linkages on the chain.  Some of these rings alternate a slight tilt in and out, as well, like stereotypical British dental profiles.  I decided on a RaceFace narrow wide chainring, not because of its “aerospace grade strength,” but because it came in orange.  A girl’s gotta have some vanity.

WP_20141011_006I needed to see the chainline once the rest of the drivetrain (cassette, derailleur, and chain) was installed before settling on where exactly the chainring ended up.  I ended up swapped the chainring to the inside of the crankarm, not the outside as pictured above.  After adding the handlebars, though, my Pugsley started to look like a bike!


On to wheel installation!  Before adding the wheels, however, I needed to install the disc brake rotors.  These brakes operate via pads clamping down to a disc, unlike most street bikes which slow via pads grabbing hold of the rim itself.  Rotor bolts need to be tightened down in a star pattern (instead of, say, counterclockwise) to set the rotor firmly in the center of the wheel.  I learned this the hard way.


I did this for both of my wheels, installed the cassette (rear gear cluster) onto my 9-speed rear hub, and stuck them round bits on the triangular bits!  Those are 3.8″ Surly Knard tires, by the way.

WP_20141011_010 (2)Next was brake setup.  I installed both Avid BB7 disc brake calipers onto the frame and fork, which have special attachments for disc brakes.  I ended up needing to tweak these a fair amount after some test rides.  The rear brake required extra washers to space the disc brake calipers where they needed to be.  Not pictured are the brake levers I installed on the handlebars, and the cable and housing betwixt the two.

WP_20141011_012The last components I installed were the chain, rear derailleur, and trigger shifter.  I purchased more basic 9-speed Shimano parts for these, as I realize that rear derailleurs may very well get banged around on trails and snow.  I didn’t think of taking a photo of the under-appreciated chain tool, as I use it daily.  Thank you, chain tool, and sorry I don’t acknowledge you more often.


Let me take a moment to talk about the Surly fatbike rims and accompanying rim strips, as the photo above features such things quite prominently.  To make the massive rims lighter, Surly’s punched large holes out of the center of the rim, between those two lines of spoke holes I mentioned earlier.  This also serves a Coolness Factor, as then you can install brightly colored rim strips that pop out like little Emergency Buttons when the tire is inflated.

I accessorized my bike with more orange, go figure!  Orange grips, orange brake housing, and even some lovely orange bottle cages!  Here’s a peek at my “dashboard,” where all the action happens:


And finally, a bike!  A FATBIKE!  My fatbike, named Dreadnoughtus!  Yes, after the recently discovered ginormous dinosaur.

bike_stuff08Now I get to ride her all over town, through woods, along streams, and down deer paths.  I’m learning to bike all over again, as singletrack is very different from asphalt.  I’m excited to get involved with the Madison’s fatbike community and get out in any weather, on any terrain!  I’ve already explored gravel on railroad tracks, banked curves on wooded trails, and sandy construction sites.  Next, the world!




I Made a Basket


Geekery can take on many forms.  I participate in tabletop role-playing games, draw science-fiction and fantasy fanart, and analyze the utopian worlds of cartoon ponies, as some examples.  I’ve come to realize that my itinerant obsessions with arts, crafts, and do-it-yourself projects probably fit into the general “nerd” category as well, especially when much of my creation is inspired by geek-related things.  The weird looks I get when I explain to people that, yes, I scrapbook, remind me that some arts & crafts are just a few neurons’ links away from pocket protectors, thick glasses, and pants worn high on the hips.

Today’s arts & crafts geek-out: HAND-MADE BASKETS!

Last summer I became enthralled by the prospect of making baskets.  Don’t ask me how or why; I need not explain these things.  I borrowed basket-making books from the library, scrolled through instructions and tips online, and chatted with a basket-maker at the local Renaissance Faire.  Alas, winter hit before I could get through everything that came first on my project list, and the thought of weaving wet reeds with chapped hands in my frigid apartment [ahem] chilled me to the bone.

What surprised me when I finally picked up the project after a long hibernation was how fast and easy it was.  I wove an intermediate-level basket in about 5 hours, with perhaps 2 hours of prep time and another 2 of staining and hardware installation.  Like many arts & crafts, I found the experience calming, satisfying, and fun.

How does one make a basket, you ask?  Well, you’ve come to the right place!

I began by purchasing instructions and materials online from Baskets of Joy.  I knew I wanted to make a picnic basket as a [very-belated] wedding gift, which is why my first basket was intermediate level.  Turns out the risk paid off!  (Whew!)  The bulk materials were shipped to me in a dubiously damaged box barely containing some loose contents, but I was otherwise pleased with the quality of supplies received.


Once I had cut bulk reeds to the lengths designated by the pattern, it was time to soak ’em in a tub of water.  I gathered a sharp pair of scissors, a marking pencil, a tape measure, clothespins, and flat-head screwdriver.  I used an illustrated how-to book to make sense of the intermediate-level instructions. The first steps were to weave the bottom of the basket on each side of the handle using two sizes of flat reed, like so:

WP_20140702_002Once the bottom of the basket was complete, I repositioned the reeds, aiming for specific dimensions.  Thin, round reed was used to bind the bottom of the basket.  This helps build a foundation from which to build upwards with fresh flat reed:

WP_20140702_003I periodically wet the pre-soaked reed with more water using a sponge, especially before bending up the reeds that would make the foundation of the sides of the basket.  Water-soaked reeds bend and flex, whereas dried reeds crack and break:

WP_20140702_005After a few rows, I bent, tucked, and trimmed some of the thinner reeds that had made up the bottom of the basket, as the instructions dictated:

WP_20140702_006Eventually, I wove my way to the top, finishing the edge by cutting the tops of every other spoke and tucking the others down into the interior of the basket.  A flat-head screwdriver makes a handy pushing/wedging tool in weaving:

WP_20140702_007To finish the rim of the basket, I carefully placed thick oval reed on the interior and exterior of the basket, round sides facing away from the rim.  These were held in place with clothespins, with a thick piece of seagrass tucked between the two layers to finish the very top of the rim:

WP_20140703_002Using a thin reed, I snaked around the rim reeds and the reeds at the top of the basket.  Here’s where the screwdriver really came in handy.  I pulled the reed very tight and wet it periodically:

WP_20140703_003After criss-crossing around the handle and tucking in the extra bits, voila!, my first basket was nearly complete:

WP_20140703_005The follow-up involved trimming all the flyaway bits of reed from the basket, staining and sealing it using Danish oil from the hardware store, and trimming it a second time.  Then came the hardware:

WP_20140710_001A bit of drilling and a smattering of phillips-head screwdriver action, as per instructions:

WP_20140710_002And here it is!  The final product:

WP_20140710_004Now all that’s left is bulk-reed-monster vomit clean-up in the office….WP_20140703_001



A Bunny Obituary


I said goodbye today, to a furry friend of many years.  Ms. Stanley “Stannis Bunratheon” Bunny has been with me since I moved to Madison in 2006.  She is survived by her previous adopted parent Sara D., papa Kurt, Grandbunparents Mary Ann and Steve, and step-dad Jon.

A lot can happen in a bunny’s life in 16 years, and I am happy to have been around for half of it.  She was a stalwart character in the many places I’ve lived with her.  Always feisty, always disapproving, always excited for popcorn, greens, and yogurt drops.  In the years since her bunny friend Alfalfa passed, she’s slowed down, chilled out, and started relying on me for cleaning, comfort, and safety.  In return, she would lick the tears from my eyes when I was sad, or show concern by thumping when I was *ahem* violently ill.  Stanley was a fan of digging holes in the dirt and relaxing under broad-leafed chard in the garden.  She loved her dark, enclosed hiding-place under my desk, the most difficult to extract her from when it came time to put her back in her cage.

It was difficult towards the end, having to provide hospice care for the old lady, the Energizer Bunny who was so stubborn as to defy death time and time again.  She refused to be still, practically dragging her arthritic legs just so she could keep exploring, to reach those tasty dandelion leaves a few inches away.  I learned a lot from her undying spirit.

I will miss coming home and singing to her, her snuffling snoring sneezing sounds, the feel of her infinitely-shedding fur between my fingers as I groomed her.  She was a good bunny.

Stanley and Alfalfa, on one of our first nights together (2006).

Stanley and Alfalfa, on one of our first nights together (2006).

Uncle Joshua reading to the bunnies shortly after moving into the Anthill (2010).

Uncle Joshua reading to the bunnies shortly after moving into the Anthill (2010).

Stanley's 16th birthday, celebrated at Topskurtistan (2013).

Stanley’s 16th birthday, celebrated at Topskurtistan (2013).

Anarchists Among Us: An Interview with Camy from Wisconsin Books to Prisoners


Last year, I began the process of gathering interviews with anarchists in my town with the ultimate goal of highlighting successful projects and passionate ideas generated by Madison’s friendly neighborhood anti-authoritarians.  I want to dispel the images of anti-this and anti-that anarchists hellbent on militant conflict, and celebrate the things local anarchists are for, some of the things we’re doing now to improve our communities.  I was originally going to share these interviews and articles via paper-and-ink zines, however a lack of enthusiasm and the ease with which I can publish electronically to a larger audience has led me to post said interviews periodically on this here blog.  Below, you’ll find the first of such interviews, starring camy of the Wisconsin Books to Prisoners Project.  If you’re interested in being interviewed (please?), get in touch!


SarahTops: I’m interviewing camy about Wisconsin Books to Prisoners (WBTP). It’s August 7th, 2013.

camy: It’s a sunny day, a little humid. So you were asking about when it started?

S: Yeah, a little bit about the history….

c: It was in 2006 that I got wind that there were folks in Madison (including LB) who were thinking of starting a books to prisoners group. At that time, I was co-sponsoring a weekly documentary film and discussion group at a prison south of Madison and knew prisoners there who were real readers, but frustrated by the limitations of the prison library. The books in the library were antiquated, and prisoners who worked during the day often couldn’t access the library during their “free” time. So, I got on board with the project because I knew there were prisoners out there who loved to read and who would appreciate receiving books on topics of interest to them.

S: Was Books to Prisoners already operating?

c: No. About 10 people came to the first couple of meetings, and the project very quickly got on its feet. I can’t remember what our first source of funding was, but the first home for the library was in the basement of one of the volunteers. Dennis Bergman, who ultimately took complete responsibility for the LGBT Books to Prisoners Project, the only project still in existence that specifically serves LGBT prisoners nationwide, joined us at that time.

Wisconsin Books to Prisoners started out sending books to prisoners nationwide. It was a tactical mistake since we were overwhelmed with requests within a very short period of time; it went from a few requests a week to well over a hundred a month within two years, and this was all via word of mouth within the prison system. We simply couldn’t raise the funds to sustain a project with that kind of demand. So we narrowed our project down to serving just prisoners in Wisconsin. Dennis continued to send books to LGBT prisoners nationwide and ran the project at his expense out of his own home.

Two years after the inception of the project, in 2008, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) banned us. Their reasons were completely spurious and were even in contradiction with the rights prisoners had to receive reading material as defined in the DOC’s administrative codes.

It took us a year and a half of negotiation with the assistance of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) to overturn the ban, but only in part. The DOC stipulated that we could send books, but only new ones, a requirement that stymied our work since we don’t have the funds to buy new books, but rely on book donations, which of course are mostly used books. The DOC’s justification for this atypical policy – other states do not ban used books to prisoners – was that books could serve as a vehicle for contraband. At one of the last meetings with the DOC, a rep presented us with this speculative scenario: What if a friend of a prisoner on the outside soaked the pages of a book in methyl-amphetamine, donated the book to us, got his pal in prison to request that particular title, and we overlook the fact the book has been tampered with and send the book to the prisoner? Then, so says the DOC rep, WBTP would have served as a vehicle for contraband. It was ludicrous, a fiction invented to justify a punitive policy, and we pursued the DOC for justification by submitting, with the help of the ACLU, an open records request to see if any contraband had ever entered a Wisconsin prison through commercial book vendors. The result was not surprising: the DOC would not turn over the records, nor acknowledge that contraband had ever entered a prison concealed in a book.

S: So, backtracking a little bit, was the Books to Prisoners project inspired by other such projects in other cities, or was this something new?

c: I wasn’t familiar with books to prisoners projects, but I think other people had been aware of books to prisoners projects in other states.

S: I know there was one in Pittsburgh I found out about in 2005 or 2006.

c: Yeah, Book ‘Em, which is a very well supported project. There’s also a Books to Prisoners project in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois; they have a beautiful space that is home to a number of projects doing social justice work. A comparable space in Madison would collectively house the Infoshop, WORT, a performance space, a library for Books to Prisoners… all in a charming old brick post office! There’s maybe as many as 10 different books to prisoners projects in the U.S.

c: If the mission of the project were reformist, that is, to improve prison libraries, I wouldn’t be involved since improving a bad system is antithetical to anarchist ideals; the whole point is to do away with the bad system, to end it, abolish it.

S: I was hoping to get into talking about anarchist principles and how they operate within Wisconsin Books to Prisoners, getting into more of the politics of it. How do anarchist principles play out in Wisconsin Books to Prisoners?

We’re very conscientiously a books to prisoners project. We hope to support the self-determination of prisoners and to provide prisoners literature of interest to them. There’s also consensus among the current volunteers that prisons do not solve the socio-economic problems that drive people to commit “crime”. All of us are outraged by the racial profiling in sentencing, and the fact that there are people languishing in prison for petty offenses while thieves on Wall Street escape accountability.

S: My next question is about the collective that runs Books to Prisoners, … there’s a chipmunk!

“Why is this chipmunk here?”

c: Hi, chipmunk! This is the point where you look for a little picture of a chipmunk to put in next to the little remark on the sidebar. “Why is the chipmunk here?”

S: That’s the quote I’ll pull out of this interview! So, I’m sure not everyone who is involved in the Books to Prisoners organizing collective identifies as anarchist. Are anarchist principles talked about, or has it organically come about? Was it explicitly an anarchist organization to begin with?

c: No, I don’t recall that there was any conversation about anarchist principles at the outset, although I know that of the 10 people or so at the first few meetings, 3 or 4, including myself, would have self-identified as anarchists and/or prison abolitionists. Personal politics didn’t come up. Everyone recognized that it was a valuable project even if only serving to let prisoners know that there were people on the outside who hadn’t forgotten them. The practical needs of making the project work, finding a home, fundraising, and so on, took precedence.

Within the first year, when there was disagreement about whether or not we should respond to a request for Mein Kampf, we were forced to talk about whether we were going to be liberal and undiscriminating, i.e., operate more or less like a public library, or if we were a political group with ideological commitments that would give us certain rights or obligations, as in this case, to refused to abet hatred. This was the first moment I recall where our political orientation became overt.

S: I find it fascinating to hear about the “revolutionary versus reform” aspects of Books to Prisoners projects. I had no idea that that’s something Wisconsin Books to Prisoners struggled with in the past.

c: It is an issue that all books to prisoners groups grapple with. WBTP volunteers who went to the gathering for books to prisoners groups at the Critical Resistance Conference in Oakland in 2008 were upset to discover that a couple of groups had shifted from being projects that sent books to prisoners to projects focused on improving prison libraries. In our minds, working with the state’s DOC was equivalent to conspiring to aid the enemy. What was worse was they didn’t understand the ideological difference between the two activities. The Maoists present, who as a whole aggressively proselytize their ideology to prisoners, were totally disgusted.

S: I’ve heard of other groups, like bicycle co-ops, holding similar large gatherings. It’s interesting to see where your local involvement lies on the spectrum of all these different, similar projects throughout North America. Is Madison’s organization more radical, or less? We seem to live in a little bubble here in Madison.

c: Just a footnote to myself: I always ask new volunteers how they found out about us, but I rarely ask, “Why this project and not another volunteer project?” I really should be paying more attention to that. Sometimes volunteers have been engaged in similar projects in other places they’ve lived, but it still begs the question of why prisoners and not other issues.

S: That’s something that could open up volunteers’ minds too, because I often haven’t thought deeply about why I’m interested in the projects that I am. It would help define where people are coming from.

c: For me, it’s really clear: I love to read and appreciate the stories and information delivered in printed form. I want all people in our society to have equal access to information.

S: Have you lived in the Madison area your whole life, or when did you move here?

c: I moved here about 20 years ago.

S: I’m sure over that time, you’ve seen changes. How do you see the anarchist “scene” in Madison, and how has it changed over time? What makes it similar or different to how anarchism has lived out in other places?

c: There was a period of time when I was a member of the Infoshop and more actively supportive of Family Farm Defenders. At that time, I had more of a sense of what was going on, but I’m removed from that now. I’ve had to attend to caring for members of my family with health issues.

S: I should say there isn’t really a strong “scene.”

c: Oh, I don’t know.

S: It’s hard because these labels are under the radar, so there’s certain radical projects and the radical people involved, but they’re not all anarchist. Madison hosts plenty of socialists, Marxist, social libertarians, and those defying labels. Individuals seem to go through changes where they’re more closely in touch versus stepped-away.

c: I can’t even recall when I became acquainted with anarchist ideas, the whole culture, or basic philosophy. I can’t remember exactly when or how that happened. I know I stumbled on some things from CrimethInc. that I thought were really interesting and really creatively put together. I distinctly remember going to my first meeting at the Infoshop when they were at University Square. Despite the small attendance, the meeting was run formally with people who had things to say being “stacked” in a waiting line, an etiquette I wasn’t familiar with and made the meeting feel oddly stiff and bureaucratic. Fortunately, I eventually met other anarchists of the “Emma-Goldman-I-wanna-dance” variety. Spare me humorless activists.

S: I had similar feelings attending my first meetings at FreeWheel, when it was still a volunteer-run collective. We had a strict agenda for a meeting of three!

[Insert monthly tornado siren tests here, where we talk about gardening ’til we can record well again.]

c: I’m not aware of what the scene is anymore, because I’m distant from it. I used to be far more involved; my family would have said overextended. I started doing the documentary film discussion group at the prison because. after a decade of making several round trips to Madison every week for events. and carting my children about who were unschooled, I was burned out. The prison was only 15 minutes away from my house, and from the beginning, the conversations I had with prisoners were fascinating. I learned a lot from the men at the prison, and I’m very grateful to have had that experience. It was humbling.

My intro to anarchism might have come via the Socialist Potluck in Madison. The Potluck, which always included a program and discussion after the meal, had some sort of cachet, most likely because the founders of the event had fought in the Spanish Civil War (in sympathy with the communists, not the anarchists). Friends of mine that were activists in Chicago had talked about it as this inspiring institution, like “Wouldn’t it be great if Chicago had a regular event like that?” So I had to check it out. I was curious to see what the demographics of the group would be and fully expected the room to be filled with 20-somethings. To my surprise, it was nearly all grey beards, old communists, union-organizers, and Marxists. That evening after the potluck, an actor did an excerpt from Howard Zinn’s play Marx in Soho. My son Ben, who was 13 years old, came with me – he’d read Zinn’s How To Stay Neutral on a Moving Train – and was really taken with the performance and the comments that people made afterward. After that, for many years, we rarely missed the monthly potluck. The programs about current as well as historical events, included speakers like Utah Philips, Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, Al Gedicks, and report-backs from protests in Seattle, Quebec, and so on. The Potluck was the centerpiece of Ben’s Social Studies and American History curriculum. Mine too. One of the standouts of the regular cadre of people who came was Lea Zeldin, who was probably in her 70’s at that time. She never failed to clarify that she was “a Proudhonian anarchist.” It’s likely that Lea and Utah were the primary links to my interest in anarchism. I also recall an essay Howard Zinn wrote on anarchism that made a big impression on me. It was included in the Zinn Reader, and had been originally published as the introduction to Herbert Read’s Anarchy and Order.

I’m very interested in hearing your story, Sarah, flipping it around. I should interview YOU!

S: Oh dear! Okay, we’ll set that up sometime.

c: Seriously, how did you make it from A to Z?

S: I was completely apolitical through high school and early college, and then started to become politicized through bike riding and getting involved with the bike collective in Pittsburgh. That got me hearing about locally, collectively run, and as I later found out, anarchist-run organizations in Pittsburgh. It woke me up politically, and I was really scrambling on “What the heck do I believe in?” I was raised by economically conservative, socially liberal parents. In retrospect, I see them as libertarian types. First, I was a card-carrying Republican for voting purposes when I turned 18, because that’s what my dad was. I don’t think I voted Republican. Then I went through this questioning phase; “Am I Libertarian?” because one of my friends who was more politically well-read was like, “You’re totally Libertarian; you’re not Republican.” So I started reading up on that, but I thought, “I don’t think so….” I was really into the pop punk scene through high school, but it was very much the aesthetics and not the politics.

Then in late college, I was touring grad schools. When I was visiting Harvard, I stayed with a grad student who, based on how I dressed, handed me a CrimethInc. book, and said, “Here, take this on the plane.”

c: You, too!

S: I know! Damn CrimethInc.! Now I read CrimethInc., and I’m like, “Oh God!”

c: I know, I know! But you know, it’s probably all written by one person to give you the illusion that it’s a huge anonymous collective. I don’t know!

S: I think it’s five people or something. But that started getting me into anarchism, and when I moved here to Madison, I felt I had a clean slate, and I heard about the Madison Infoshop.

c: Did you get your PhD? What was your major?

S: No, I dropped out. My undergrad was Biology, and I was going to grad school for Genetics. I felt like it wasn’t really meeting my needs. I was on this quest, shaped by the anarchists that I started hanging out with at the end of my college years. It evolved from there. I’m still not well-read in anarchist philosophy and history; it’s kind of like this gut feeling instead….

c: The basic principles are pretty darned accessible.

S: It feels like all my weird idiosyncrasies that didn’t allow me to fit into any other category. I’ve also liked a little conflict in my life, so I think choosing this identity automatically sets you up to have to explain it to people. You’re always up against these stereotypes.

c: Yeah. People who break rules, whether it’s going against the main political agenda, unschooling your kids, dumpster-diving…anti-authoritarian activity in general is just plain interesting to me. People who train-hop… I admire the DIY spirit and the courage people have to go against the grain. I romanticize that spirit.

S: That’s what CrimethInc. does really well, romanticize the culture. Now I cringe a little reading CrimethInc., because I think it’s over-simplifying certain things. But the cultural backbone is important.

Well, I have to get to work. Any last thoughts?

c: No!

S: Well, thank you.


Masculinity and Survival

A handful of years ago, perhaps 2010, I wrote the following essay for a genderqueer zine that never came to fruition. Since then, it’s been included in a Madison-based music and feminism zine series called Crucial Twat. I thought I’d share it here, too, ’cause why not? I tend to cringe a few times when I re-read it, primarily with use of the terms “female-bodied” and “male-bodied,” which are rather un-PC in 2014, and probably were in specific circles in 2010 when I wrote it. It’s difficult to keep up with the terms, and I hope readers understand my good intentions in stimulating gender discussion. Language irritates me in its limitations and the ease with which it can hurt more sensitive members of our communities. In any case, here’s my story:

Masculinity and Survival

A few years ago, one of my housemates told me of a conversation that he and a close friend shared about masculinity among their peers. In this conversation, the two of them agreed that I was the most masculine person in our five-person house, which is made up of a mix of genders and sexes. When I heard this, I was at first amused and proud, being the genderqueer, female-bodied lady I am, and interested in what qualities they thought I possessed to give me this handsome title. Further contemplation invoked images of the negative and oppressive behaviors associated with masculinity, and, being the “most masculine” in the house suddenly brought forth anxiety and insecurity. Thinking of the gender-presentation hierarchies polluting some queer cultures, I panicked even more; I don’t want to be the abusive, insensitive asshole receiving praise and attention for my masculinity because I’m somehow “succeeding” in the sport of gender-fucking.

I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around the masculine/feminine binary. I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who are somewhat gender non-conforming. Mom was the “tough love” type, reading science texts, and usually the first to discipline my brother and me. Dad was more reserved, cooking our meals, bathing us when we were little, and serving as a teacher in a lot of practical skills and life lessons. Both also performed cis-gendered roles, with Mom doing the laundry and Dad chopping the wood. My parents were my two most prominent role models as I grew up, and the blurred boundaries between masculine and feminine as performed (or not) by them are what has helped shaped my own gender fluidity.

Thinking more deeply of my own struggles with gender growing up, I realized I built some pretty strong defenses during my coming of age to shield myself from anything that could potentially hurt me. That’s where my masculinity came into play – masculinity as a survival tactic against the insecurity that plagues most young women (and young people in general) in this society. I didn’t want to be subjected to what I perceived to be the consequences of femininity: weakness, oppression, and victimization. I wanted to be like TV heroines Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose strength protected them from becoming victims, and whose power grabbed others’ attention and admiration. I also wanted to be like and liked by my dad, who possessed a lot of knowledge and skills that I admired, hoping that would help me become a strong and independent woman.

Despite my brother having a penis and me having a vagina, I’m the one that spent the most time doing things outdoors with Dad. (My brother, like my mom, was more of the indoor type. Funny how these binaries carry through generations.) I was always out hiking, hunting, and trapping with Dad. In most of my early photos, I’m helping Dad garden, do demolition work, process deer meat, and other manly feats for a four-year-old. Throughout childhood, I recall Dad praising me for my masculine and tomboyish traits, and often ignoring or criticizing me if I took interest in anything particularly girly. I was commended for my interest in science and the natural world, for my intelligence and strength. I got attention, from my dad especially, not for being pretty or nurturing, but for being tough and opinionated. When I decided to stop shaving my legs and armpits, Dad applauded me for casting aside frivolous female fancies. When all of my best friends were guys, Dad considered it a success, as it would be easier for me to find a [traditional] life partner if I was able to relate well with males. In my first romantic relationships, I was the more dominant partner and usually the heartbreaker; I never felt like I didn’t have my share of control in a relationship. My dad indirectly taught me that my masculinity was something to be proud of, and that it would ensure my survival, both physically and emotionally.

Of course, my peers, teen magazines, and television also taught me that I needed to be careful, to not appear too masculine or else suffer the consequences of being (gasp!) “different.” So as I practiced all of these masculine personality traits, I never tried to conceal my feminine qualities. I always looked and dressed like a girl, and besides sometimes wishing I had a penis so that I could pee standing up, I never wanted to be anything but a girl. I wore makeup, went to Lilith Fair and prom, and choreographed Spice Girls songs with my neighbor (who happened to be a boy, I should add). Not until more recently have I become a more introspective being, noticing that my masculinity, which can be perceived as a wall I’ve built up to protect my ego and hide away my insecurity, has its disadvantages.

Whereas my insecurities in childhood included fear of feminine weakness and foolishness, much of my current insecurities stem from my masculine traits – dominance, insensitivity, impatience, and critical nature. I go back and forth between feeling strong and weak, insecure and confident, lady-like and manly, thriving and failing. Most of my personal struggles involve navigating these dualities, and the limitations of language keep me disoriented. I’m learning to let go of language and just be myself, irrespective of labels. This is pretty difficult for someone raised in a culture that needs a name for everything in order to separate and segregate, to rate and rank. Yet, without these words, how would we be able to communicate thoughts on gender and identity, or find others similarly engrossed in identity struggle?

I’ve had some gender discussions with my dad in the past few years, and he still seems to value masculinity above all else, whether it’s projected by what he perceives to be a female body or a male body. He has criticized my male partners for not being macho enough, and encourages me to find a partner who is as “strong” as I am. He was surprisingly accepting of my trans housemate and their use of neutral pronouns, although I doubt he’d feel the same if they were a male-bodied person displaying feminine traits and not vice versa. I see a lot of my dad’s masculine-favoring personality traits in myself, and I’m trying to figure out what that means to me and those I interact with.

Being raised in a patriarchal, sexist society that values masculinity over femininity, many individuals must adopt a masculine front in order to survive, to stand up against the macho bullies, to come out a “winner” in competitive situations. The dominant culture isn’t set up to support a balanced gender scheme, or systems of cooperation and reciprocity, even though, in reality, I believe that it’s the people who can articulate both masculinity and femininity fluidly who are most well-equipped to survive this society as it destroys itself. My dad, who believes in individualism and capitalism, encouraged me to build up a masculine front in order to protect myself in conflict, take care of loved ones, and thus ensure a secure and happy future. He used masculinity to set me up as a “winner” in a patriarchal world.

In my youth, I was surviving feminine insecurity and disempowerment by becoming more masculine. Now, I feel like I’m trying to survive my masculinity so that it doesn’t completely overtake my being, as I don’t want to become some dickhead/bitch stereotype, nor do I wish to be a part of this society’s obsession with competition. I feel grateful for my close friends who endure my machismo and overconfidence, and part of me wonders if they would be as patient with me if I didn’t have a vagina. In any case, I strive to be well-balanced, accountable, and nurturing in my own particular way, without compromising who I am somewhere down deep.