A Night at the Gallery

About two weeks ago, I went to a place called the Gallery. In case you haven’t heard of it, the Gallery is the most well-known gentleman’s club of Southern Illinois. In other words, it’s a strip club. Since I’d never been to one before, and since I have a lot of thoughts about what it was like, I thought I’d write about the experience here on my blog.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I would even write this entry. I have friends and loved ones who read this blog who either won’t approve of my behavior or will consider it Too Much Information. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one or two people are very condemning and judgmental and don’t even read the full entry. But for a long time now, I’ve considered myself a public person. Between my radio show, my writing, and my past involvement in community groups, I’ve grown used to being in the public eye and expressing some of my innermost thoughts and feelings publicly. At times, I’ve held back from saying or doing things in the interest of avoiding conflicts or steering clear of topics that some people find offensive. But I’m tired of playing that role, and I’m definitely not going to play it here on my personal blog.

And so, I’ve written a detailed account of my experiences at the Gallery. In the interest of protecting the identities of people whose lives aren’t as public as mine, I’ve replaced any names with made-up initials. People who I’ve mentioned can feel free to reveal themselves if they so choose — but I’ll only be talking about my own experiences unless they choose to mention theirs.

The story starts a few days prior to my visit to the Gallery. My female friend, M., sent me a brief and somewhat mysterious late-night message about stilettos and poles. When we talked online the next day, she told me that she had just spent a night on stage at the Gallery and would be working there on weekends. Our mutual friend, S., had introduced her to the Gallery and would also be performing.

My response was very simple and supportive. She sounded excited about performing on stage and earning extra money. I was glad to see her trying something new and exciting, and glad that I would get to see one of my very beautiful and charming and attractive friends doing some erotic dancing. So, she told me when she’d be performing, and I told her I’d be there.

I didn’t mention anything about this online — at least not in public messages. I did, however, tell a few friends about it.

My male friend, T., had been to the Gallery a few times before and agreed to be my ride. I also invited two of my female friends, and made an open invitation to a small group of friends who I see on a regular basis. One of my female friends was potentially interested but unable to attend that weekend. The other one, R., replied to my invitation by expressing a degree of concern about the situation.

I was mildly surprised by her response. R. is pretty comfortable about sexuality and very supportive of consenting adults doing whatever brings them happiness and pleasure. But R. is also a very empathic and compassionate person who likes to look out for people, especially her friends and their loved ones. In this case, R. was worried that M. would have a bad experience in such a potentially banal and burnout-prone environment.

I assured R. that I shared these concerns, but told her that as long as M. was having a good experience at the Gallery, I would go out there and support her. I also wrote M. a somewhat lengthy message saying how much I respect and care for her, and that if she didn’t want me at the Gallery, or if she got burned out with the job, I would be there to support her in that too. M. assured me that everything was good between us, and that she would be happy to see me there.

And so, that weekend I went with my friend T. to the Gallery.

As we were walking up to the front door, T. and I were joking that it would be funny if someone recognized me and called out my name as soon as I entered the club. My friends have joked about how often I get that response whenever I’m out in the community – and I stick out even more than usual at a place like the Gallery. Sure enough, as soon as we stepped onto the club floor, someone at the bar recognized me and called out my name. As it turns out, it was the partner of one of the dancers, who had never actually met me before but presumably recognized me from my online profile and their partner’s descriptions.

So even at the Gallery, there were people who knew me, or at least knew of me. I guess when you live in a relatively small town for 12 years and are one of the few tall men with long hair, a long beard, and a penchant for public ecological musings, it’s hard to remain anonymous. In addition to M. and S., a third dancer turned out to be an acquaintance of mine. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, but she spotted me at a distance and talked to me off and on throughout the night. I also recognized a few of M. and S.’s friends as mutual acquaintances, though we didn’t get a chance to talk.

Once T. and I got our drinks and found a table to sit at, I really started to take in my surroundings.

The Gallery has two stages – a larger main stage and a smaller side stage. At almost any given point in the night, there was a dancer on each stage. Each dancer performed for two songs, and then another pair of dancers took to the stages. In the meantime, dancers who weren’t on stage mingled with any friends in the audience, or gave private dances, or headed back to the restroom or dressing room.

On the surface, it was all very exciting. Nothing I’d seen on TV and in movies could prepare me for the excitement of being in the presence of mostly naked women doing provocative erotic dances on a stage just a few feet away from me. When you read about it or see it on TV, it all just seems like a fantasy. But when you’re there in the club, it’s undeniably real. Real women are up there dancing and performing for the audience’s pleasure, and all it takes is a few dollars to get even closer to the action. Even in a place like the Gallery, which has the more subdued atmosphere of a “gentleman’s club” rather than a rude and rowdy “titty bar,” there’s still an intense sexual charge in the air.

For me, the best part of the night was definitely watching M. dance. She was still very new to the club, so she wasn’t doing any of the fancy pole tricks that one or two of the other dancers pulled off. But she was definitely very smooth and sexy in her dancing and performing, whether she was on the pole, or strutting across the stage, or crawling on all fours in her playful sexy kitty mode.

And then, there was the private dance. When I bought a private dance from her, she lead me over to a more secluded corner of the club set off from the main floor by several short walls that created half a dozen cubicles. Each cubicle had a posh leather chair and offered about as much privacy as you can manage without placing the dancers’ safety at risk through closed doors or curtained rooms. Once I’d given her my money, she started dancing for me.

Clients aren’t allowed to touch the dancers, but dancers are allowed to touch the client. And so, this turned out to be more of a full body dance than a lap dance. Without delving too far into the realm of erotica, suffice it to say that I enjoyed the dance thoroughly. And I’m pretty sure she did too. Of course, since she was in the role of performer, it’s hard to be sure. But since we’ve talked at length about life’s mysteries and hadn’t really explored that side of each other yet, I’m sure she at least appreciated the attention and positive reception.

My friend T. can testify that after my private dance, I was a bit dazed and giddy. I joked that this might be just the motivation I need to find more income so that I can afford to come back here. For better or worse, though, this would prove to be the high point of the night.

Over the course of the night, I got to watch M. and S. dance up on stage a few times each. Once or twice, I even approached the stage with a tip so that I could get some special attention from them. But as the night wore on, a couple of things started happening that wore down my appreciation of the experience.

First of all, the dual nature of my experience of this place really started to set in. On the surface, it was all excitement and glamor and a pulsing spring of sexual energy. But even early on, I began to feel something hollow about the experience. It wasn’t as bad with my friend M. because we had our closest interactions early on in the night, and I knew that at least a large part of her reason for being there was because she actually wanted to give exotic dancing a try. I knew that she appreciated my presence, and our interactions felt real and meaningful. But the place in general had a very hollow feel to it – a shiny outer shell of sexuality-as-performance with an underlying emptiness where some spark of deeper meaning ought to have been.

Let me be clear about something here. My views on sexuality are radically different from what is considered mainstream in our society. I believe that sex is sacred, and that our sexuality can be one of our primary ways of connecting with the Divine, however we may understand or experience it. I also believe that social or public forms of sexuality – sexually-themed clubs, erotic dancing, even orgiastic parties or rituals – can in theory be a tremendously beautiful and powerful way of sharing our sexuality and divinity with each other.

The problem, though, lies in the gap between theory and practice. The Gallery, like any other gentleman’s club, isn’t quite a place where people come together to explore and share their sexuality in a mutually supportive and appreciative context. To an extent, that happens for some individuals, given the sexual nature of the place. But in the end, it’s primarily a business where women perform for the pleasure of a mostly male audience in exchange for money.

The unidirectional, non-reciprocal nature of the experience felt strange and alienating. It was strange, too, to have several feelings and experiences simultaneously: the excitement of being surrounded by these women and their performances; the delight of experiencing a taste of my friend’s sexuality; the alienation at having my time in the presence of these women being defined by money rather than affection or attraction; the political and philosophical analysis of the situation; and the knowledge that most of the men (and women) in the audience were probably just enjoying the outer shell of excitement without giving any thought to the rest of it.

If I’d had more than one drink that night, I might have just gone with it too, and not had much thought about the complexities of it all until later. But since I was sober, I had a very nuanced and complex and mixed experience of the place. It was still exciting, but with an undercurrent of restlessness and alienation.

As my experience of the place was shifting from mostly excited to mostly reflective, I noticed that M.’s mood seemed to be taking a turn for the worse. Given the context, I wasn’t able to talk to her about it at the time, which added to the overall alienation of the experience. Eventually, when T. and I were both ready to go, I just said goodbye to her, gave her a hug, and wished her good luck with the rest of the night.

With all of that said, I hardly know where to sum up this entry. Maybe there’s no grand conclusion; maybe life is complex, and we can’t always make any clear sense of it. I feel like I want to say at least a few words in conclusion though.

First of all, I’m glad I went to the Gallery. I was there to experience this part of my friend’s life, and I was there to push past my own boundaries and have a new and exciting experience. I definitely did both.

Second, I won’t deny that it was an exciting experience. Even though the context had its flaws, there’s simply something amazing about watching a group of beautiful, attractive, alluring, mostly-naked women get up on stage and do some erotic and provocative dancing. It would be absurd to deny the sheer pleasure of such an experience.

Third, I won’t deny that it was also alienating. Once the excitement wore off, the experience left me feeling hollow and restless. I like the thought of being able to go to a club and have a sensual and erotic experience — but I’d like it to be more mutual, and more focused on celebrating the ecstatic dimensions of human experience rather than being defined by a financial transaction.

This hard-to-quantify feeling of alienation made me realize that the genuineness of the affection and attention that I receive really is important to me. It also made me realize that one of the things I miss most as a single person is not the opportunity to receive affection, but the opportunity to show it. I’m a very affectionate person, with a lot of love in my heart, and a strong desire to show that love through various forms of affection. I think more than anything, I want to hold someone in my arms, and look them in the eye, and tell them that I love them, and know that they fully feel and accept and appreciate this love. And on an emotional and spiritual level, going to a strip club is about the exact opposite of that experience.

Finally, my trip to the Gallery left me with plenty of food for thought about gender, sexuality, politics, economics, and beyond. I think that strip clubs and gentleman’s clubs, at least in the current social context, serve on the whole to contribute to a sexual culture of objectification and alienation. Individual customers and dancers can have experiences which are unique, and meaningful, and personal, and maybe even thoroughly satisfying to them on a personal or social or political or spiritual level. But the context as a whole is sorely flawed, and serves to perpetuate a lot of problematic issues related to gender and sexuality and beyond. I want to love the open and rebellious sexual nature of such places, but I also want to fix the power dynamics and other flaws before I give it my full endorsement.

So, it was a complex experience. On the whole, I enjoyed myself; on the whole, I’m glad I went; at the same time, I really wish that there were contexts in our community and society in which people could share their sensuality and sexuality in an open and social way without so much baggage and potential for dysfunction and negative power dynamics. As it is, most people seem to either see sexuality as sinful/objectifying, or go off and lead a sex-positive life in private without really challenging any of the negative aspects of the broader society’s attitudes and practices toward sexuality.

That’s what I’ve got for the time being. As always, your responses are greatly appreciated, so long as they remain respectful. If you have anything more suited for a private rather than public discussion, feel free to contact me in private, online or offline, and I’ll see what I can do.

I look forward to hearing other people’s feedback on my experiences, or even other people sharing their own experiences. In the meantime, I’m off in pursuit of other adventures.

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Intentional Communities and Fair Housing Laws

I’ve come across a conflict of legal rights and responsibilities that I’m not entirely sure how to resolve. This doesn’t have much of a direct effect on me at the moment, but it will in the foreseeable future. Therefore, I’m curious to hear your thoughts and feelings on the matter.

As you may know, I have a strong and ongoing interest in intentional communities. Intentional communities are groups of people who share some important aspect of their lives in common, such as their faith, their ethics, their politics, their diet, their ecological perspective, and so on. Because of this common bond, they choose to share their lives in some organized and ongoing manner — a community center, cooperative housing, community agriculture, and so on.

On the one hand, intentional communities are a form of free association. If consenting adults choose to share important aspects of their private, social, and economic lives with people who they share some bond of belief or identity with, why should society interfere?

On the other hand, intentional communities may be seen by some as a form of discrimination, especially when they involve sharing of major economic resources such as housing and land. If you and your friends own property, and you’re looking for someone to live in your housing or work on your land, is it fair of you to say that they must be of a certain identity or belief group in order to accept this opportunity?

This may sound to some like an abstract debate about ethics, politics, and economics. However, it’s a real issue that has come up for the Fellowship for Intentional Communities.

As someone interested in intentional communities, I have an account with the FIC and receive occasional emails from them. Recently, I received an email which explained that someone (the government?) had pointed out the above tension to the FIC, and that they had decided to eliminate any “discriminatory” listings from their online and print Communities Directory.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this decision.

On the one hand, I’m very upset that the federal government may be interfering with our right to free association. Why should the government be allowed to say that groups of like-minded individuals can’t choose to live together, and to seek out others who share their beliefs?

On the other hand, what if people have a hard time finding a place to live in their area because of their religion, their ethnicity, their sexuality, their gender, and so on? To my knowledge, most areas aren’t so full of intentional communities that they would crowd out anyone looking for independent housing. But historically speaking, minorities of all types — racial/ethnic, economic, gender, sexuality, etc — have often had a hard time finding housing because people who own the property will either overtly or covertly discriminate against them.

So, I’m not sure just yet how to respond to this conflict of interest. Should we as a society accept it when consenting adults make agreements and arrangements to live and work together with people of their own faith, belief, orientation, identity, etc? Or should we declare such arrangements to be forms of discrimination and take actions to discourage and/or disband their existence?

We need to consider this issue very carefully before taking action. It seems to me that there is some unknown delicate balancing point in the middle, with a slippery slope into the darkness on either side.

If we go too far in the direction of restricting “discriminatory” arrangements, then group living situations such as monasteries, convents, and women-only housing may become illegal. If we go too far in the direction of allowing such arrangements, then there may be towns or cities where all of the housing has been bought up by intentional communities which only allow people of one color and/or creed, while everyone else has to scramble for low-quality housing or some scenic spot beneath a highway underpass.

Both of these are extremes, of course. But they illustrate the sorts of scenarios that people on either side of this debate have in their head when they argue for or against regulating intentional communities in the same manner that other housing is regulated.

One thing I’m very sure about is that I’m not comfortable with the federal government being the ones to resolve this conflict. I don’t believe in letting a centralized authority run our society, and I certainly don’t trust the United States federal government any farther than I can throw it. Yes, they are a mixed bag, and they have at times exerted their power toward good ends. But at a certain point, once your organization has willfully organized the deaths of millions of people at home and abroad, it’s time to scrap the whole thing and start over.

So, what do you think? In order to ensure that all comments show up in the same place, I encourage people to comment on my website ( http://treesong.org/ ) rather than on Facebook, MySpace, etc. If you’d rather comment in one of those places, that’s fine — just know that other people may miss out on your comments, and vice versa.

Posted in Uncategorized

After the Storm

[Part 1: The Imbalance Grows Stronger]

I’m writing this entry on a Thursday morning on the train to Chicago. In a few more hours, six days will have passed since the inland hurricane hit Southern Illinois. As the recovering disaster area recedes into the distance, the events of the past six days seem almost like a dream to me. But they weren’t a dream. And so, the story continues.

By mid-afternoon on the day of the storm, I found myself at the Interfaith Center. Charlie Howe had beat me there since he was travelling by truck, so when I arrived, he was already using his chainsaw on a large tree that had fallen across the path to the back door of the center.

It became clear pretty quickly that at least the initial sawing through the main trunk would be a one-person job. I realized that the walking and working had left me quite thirsty, so I went to get some water for the two of us and came back to watch the work as it progressed.

Once Charlie’s chainsaw got stuck in the tree trunk, the work ground to a halt. We tried hopping on the far end of the trunk in the hopes of snapping the remaining bit of wood at the cut point, but the wood wouldn’t snap. Even after a few other people joined us, we still didn’t have enough weight to snap it, so Charlie went about the work of extracting the chainsaw blade from the wood with a hand saw.

Within a matter of minutes, about a dozen people, mostly students, had gathered by the back door to eat and talk and get the latest news about the storm. I talked to people and helped with the sawing a little bit, but there was little I could do other than talk to people and fetch batteries for a hand saw and occasionally hop on the tree trunk in question. Once a path had been cleared from the parking lot to the back door, I decided to head home.

By this point, our house was starting to become a refugee center of sorts. I use that term half-jokingly since our region’s disaster thankfully involved a relatively small amount of injuries or outright destruction of homes. But it did involve damage to some homes and vehicles, and it became clear very quickly that the power would probably be out for days rather than hours. So, I sent a text message to a few friends inviting them to use our power, and Aur invited a few people over too.

How did we have power while most of Southern Illinois was powerless? Two words: photovoltaic modules. In other words, solar panels, and the inverter and battery storage required to store that energy and use it for our electric needs.

Our house itself doesn’t have a solar system installed. However, in preparation for the Shawnee Energy Fest, Aur had constructed a mobile solar energy trailer. This trailer consisted of a few solar panels on the roof, an inverter to convert the power from DC to AC, a monitor to track how much energy was being captured and stored, a set of batteries to store the energy, a pair of outlets on either side of the exterior of the trailer to use the energy, and an electric golf cart that fit inside the trailer and could be used at the fest for various transportation needs.

This mobile solar energy trailer was designed as a practical means of demonstrating the power of solar energy to the public. Now, it would do just that, but not in quite the same setting that Aur had originally imagined.

Throughout the power outage, one of the first and most popular uses of the solar system was cell phone charging. Cell phones are always handy tools, but especially so when you’re trying to get in touch with loved ones, find out the latest news, track down scarce resources, and coordinate plans in a disaster area. For the first hour or two of the disaster, I had trouble texting and calling certain people, due no doubt to network traffic or a brief power outage at a cell tower. But soon, I was texting people left and right to find out how they were and see how we could help each other.

Shortly after I got home, my friend Ben met me at my house. He left his phone to charge, and I took my charged phone with me. Together, we headed back out into the streets.

It’s hard to describe exactly what it felt like on that first day, and throughout the entire crisis.

On the one hand, people were remaining calm for the most part, and there was little short-term danger to be seen anywhere. Even with the slow and heavy traffic, it was much quieter and calmer than I would have expected a disaster area to be. Most of the buildings in town were either completely undamaged or had suffered superficial damage to their exteriors, and most of the people I encountered were in no immediate danger of food or water shortages or other threats to health and safety. For a lot of us, myself included, it seemed more like an exciting start to an unusual weekend rather than any cause for alarm or anxiety.

On the other hand, there was a tangible electricity in the air, and a post-apocalyptic atmosphere in the streets. Just about everyone was fine, but just about everyone also knew that water and gas and electricity and even cash (versus credit) would rapidly become precious commodities. Just about every block had either a building that had been smashed by falling trees, or a lane or two blocked by debris, or power lines that had been knocked down or still dangled precariously over the road. Many of the side streets, and some of the main streets, were full of lush green branches and scatterings of leaves. In some cases whole trees lay across the roads like willful roadblocks, complicating travel for all of the extra people who were in town to attend graduation ceremonies.

Ben and I did another walking tour of the neighborhood around my house. We looked around for any more volunteer roadwork that needed to be done, but even two people wouldn’t be enough to remove the remaining blocks without any tools. So, we soon made our way to the Strip to see what we could see of the damage and talk to anyone we knew.

Along the way, Ben told me about his experiences getting out of his own home on the outskirts of town. His adventure on the way to Carbondale had been a little more eventful than mine. One of his windows and a shed had been smashed by debris, and a tree had kept him pinned inside his house briefly until he trimmed away some of the branches and made his way outside. His main vehicle had only suffered superficial damage, so he started heading into town and “looking for trouble” just as I had.

Since he lived a little outside of town, there was plenty of work to be done. He can surely tell his own story better than I can, but it sounds like it involved several hours of volunteer road clearing on the way into town. Spillway Road was apparently littered with countless fallen trees, and there was talk of people stuck in houseboats out on the lake, so he spent the first few hours of the disaster working with neighbors to clear the roads. Once he made his way to town, he stopped by my place to charge his phone and hear the latest news from my part of the world.

By the time he’d told me this story, we had bought and eaten some quesadillas from the Mexican fast fast food place on the Strip, which was still selling food even though it didn’t have electricity. Soon, we were at our destination for the moment — a local bar at the north end of the strip called PK’s.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, PK’s has been a staple of the Carbondale bar and music scene for the past few decades. With their dim lighting, hangover breakfasts, and small stage for live music, they’ve been a haven for professional drinkers since before I ever came to town. Usually, I’m reluctant to go to PK’s because I’m not a professional drinker and don’t have much desire to be around them while they practice their trade. But we had heard that PK’s was open, and given the circumstances, I wanted to at least have a look.

To my surprise, PK’s had quickly become by far the classiest joint on the entire Strip. The power was out, and the entire length of the bar was illuminated with several dozen evenly spaced candles. The door had been propped open to let in what daylight remained, and people were milling about having friendly conversations about the storm and resulting loss of power.

Ben and I spent a little while at PK’s talking to people and finding out the latest news. It was at this point that I heard confirmation that there was indeed a 9 pm curfew in Carbondale and presumably other parts of Southern Illinois without power. Since it was around 8 pm when we heard this, we soon wrapped up our conversations at PK’s and made our way to my house.

As we took Ben’s dog for a walk in my neighborhood, we very quickly discovered that a curfew was in fact being enforced. It may not have even been 9 yet, but an officer pulled over and politely asked us if we lived nearby and if we knew about the curfew. Any thoughts of nighttime exploration of city and campus quickly evaporated. With the lights out and a curfew in place, we ended up going to bed fairly early.

In the morning, Ben went to work to check for power and deal with the refrigeration and freezer issues inevitable in his fast food workplace. He had intended to join me later in the morning for a Red Cross volunteer drive we’d heard about, but work kept him busy for much longer than he’d hoped. Instead, my roommate Juan and I ended up driving out to Southern Illinios Airport to find out what we could about the volunteer drive.

When we got there, it turned out that the Red Cross organizers were still just getting organized themselves. Once they found out that we weren’t any of the trained volunteers they were waiting for, they took down our phone numbers and told us that they’d call us once they were further along in the process. They never did end up calling, so I hope they found enough volunteers.

At this point, Juan and I were low on gas, so we drove to Du Quoin in search of a functional gas station.

From what we could tell, none of the gas stations in Carbondale or neighboring towns of Murphysboro, Carterville, or Marion were working at that point. The two places we heard about where gas was available were Du Quoin and Anna. Both of these towns are about the same distance from Carbondale, but Duquoin was slightly closer to our current location, and we’d heard from Ben that Anna’s gas stations were running out of gas. Besides, rumor has it that the socially conservative town of Anna is not the friendliest place for a Mexican and a long-haired Pagan tree-hugger to visit even on the best of days.

So, we headed to Du Quoin.

As we headed north out of town, we saw the first dramatic presence of utility crews that we had seen since the storm — a line of two dozen or more Ameren and CN and other trucks huddled along the railroad tracks working on the power lines and associated debris. As much as I may prefer living off-grid, I knew that a lot of people in the region were depending on that power coming back up, so the sight of all of those workers was very encouraging.

The gas lines in Du Quoin, however, were a little less encouraging. The first two stations we passed had lines coming out of the parking lot and into the street, so we pressed onward. Soon, Juan found a gas station that wasn’t on the main road and thus didn’t have much of a line yet. In the fifteen or so minutes that it took us to fill up, though, a long line started forming behind us, so we had just barely made it in time to beat the rush.

Upon our return to Carbondale, we met up with Aur again. He had wanted to offer power to WDBX, the community radio station where we (and many other local DJs) have our radio show. Unfortunately, though, the station required 220v power and we only had 110v. So, Aur suggested that I should call the Neighborhood Co-op Grocery and see if they needed our solar power.

As it turned out, the Co-op had just acquired a gas generator and didn’t have a pressing need for our solar energy. The person I talked to, however, mentioned to me that they had just gotten rid of some of the large amount of frozen foods and cheeses that had thawed to the point of no longer being sellable. So, Aur and Juan and I decided to go and salvage thousands of dollars of food that would otherwise go to waste.

Juan and I hopped into Juan’s car — the same one that had been briefly trapped under a tree the afternoon of the storm. Aur hopped into his truck, and together we headed off to the Co-op.

When we got there, there was more food to be had than our mere mortal minds could comprehend. The Co-op had been without power from Friday afternoon until sometime Saturday, and all of their frozen and refrigerated inventory had started warming to the point of being unsellable before they could find anything to do to keep it cold. They were prepared for brief power outages, but not ones that lasted days rather than hours. So, the refrigerated and frozen inventory had to go.

We apparently missed out on a bunch of refrigerated foods that we would have had no means to keep cool anyway. But when we got there, we discovered large amounts of frozen foods and cheeses at the back of the store. For health code and liability reasons, the Co-op isn’t allowed to give away such foods since there is some risk that contamination has occured or will occur due to thawing. But that doesn’t stop concerned citizens from salvaging the food once it has been left for disposal in or around the dumpster at the back of the store!

And so, the salvaging began.

The food was all still cold to the touch, so we knew that if we got it into proper storage soon, it would still be useable. Juan and I started loading up his back seat and trunk with a seemingly endless amount of gourmet cheeses and frozen dinners and vegetables and fake meats and even some real meat in the form of bacon and chicken nuggets and salmon patties. One or two other people we knew came by, and we let them take as much as they liked since we had no special claim to the food and were happy to share. They only took a little to fill a few coolers they had and left the rest to us. Juan turned on the air conditioner of his car to help keep the food cool, and then he drove around to the front of the shopping center that the Co-op is a part of.

At this point, we needed some hardware. We had power, but we didn’t have any way to preserve all of this food. So Aur bought a deep-freezer from the neighboring True Value. They apparently thought he was crazy at first for buying appliances in the middle of a power outage, but once he explained the situation to them, they were happy to sell him the deep-freezer and load it onto his truck. We also went to Juan’s family to borrow (or buy?) an empty deep-freezer that they weren’t currently using.

By the time we made it home, the bed of Aur’s truck was filled with a full deep-freezer, an empty deep-freezer, and a pile of frozen foods. Juan’s car had a trunk full of frozen foods, a front passenger seat full of cheeses, and back seats full of cheeses and a few spare tires.

What an odd sight it must have been! I rode with Aur, and we got a few curious looks as we drove through town with two deep-freezers in the bed of the truck, one of them overflowing with food. Soon, though, we made it home and started shuffling around the food and freezers to their newfound homes.

With that story told, I will draw this entry to a close. Shortly after I arrived home from the food run, I headed out to Carterville with a friend, so it seems like a good place to end this chapter of the story. But it will take me one or two more entries to finish the story, so I’m sure I’ll have more to write soon.

As I write this, it’s almost noon and my train is departing the Champaign-Urbana stop. As I walked the streets of Carbondale after dark last night, most of the city seemed to have electricity restored, but there were still some sections with power lines down, and much of the city was still filled with logs and trunks and branches that lined or occasionally still blocked the city streets. I don’t know the full status of Carterville, Murphysboro, Herrin, Marion, or any outlying areas, but last I heard they were all still partially or entirely out of power.

And so, as I ride north to Chicago to visit my family, my thoughts and prayers are with my friends and neighbors who are still without power or full access to their city streets. And my thoughts and prayers are also with the land itself, which has been irrevocably changed by the loss of untold thousands of old trees and the disturbance of what little ecological balance existed in the region. The people and the land will recover, of course; I have no doubt of that. But since this storm did so much to stir up the details of our lives, I wish them all the best in staying in touch with their loved ones and seeking out a new equilibrium in the wake of the storm.

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The Imbalance Grows Stronger

There’s no way to capture in words what Southern Illinios has been like during and after the massive storm that just battered the region. I don’t want to overplay the significance of it since I realize that it could have been much worse, and other places have experienced much worse. But since it’s been an exciting couple of days, I thought the least I could do was tell the story of my own experiences.

For me, I suppose the story starts last Wednesday night. I was inexplicably restless and hyperactive that night and stayed up until almost dawn on Thursday — which happens to me from time to time, so I didn’t think much of it at the time. After talking to friends, though, I think it may have been due to a sense of realizing that something big was coming.
Ironically enough, what I occupied my time with on that night was climate-related, if only in a geeky way. I found my copy of the Ultima Collection and decided to play Ultima 7 Part II: Serpent Isle. The major plotline of this game involves a world out of balance and a land ravaged by powerful magical storms which threaten to tear apart the fabric of reality unless balance is restored.
So, after playing this for a few hours, I went to be a little before dawn and tried to get a good “night’s” sleep.
The first signs of stormy weather came late Thursday night, perhaps technically early Friday morning. I was at a friend’s house, and the sound of sudden hail hitting the building and ground outside reminded me of the sound of a popcorn popper. We saw the sky light up green with a lightning flash, then many more “ordinary” yellow-ish and grey-ish flashes as the region was pelted with hail. My friend went a few feet outside to pick up some hail to show us, and we all poked our heads out a little bit just to see it fall.
After another night’s sleep, it was time for my radio show. I hadn’t read the forecast for the day, but I’ve heard that there was nothing in the early morning to indicate the strength of the coming storm. I’m pretty sure that the severe weather alert sounded at WDBX shortly after my show (before I left the building), but even then it wasn’t clear that this would be more than just the usual heavy thunderstorm.
During the first half of the storm, I actually went outside and walked and sang and danced a bit in the falling rain. The occasional thunder was loud and powerful enough to fill me with a sense of awe, and I could feel the energy of the storm all around me. In the heat of the moment, I called on the wind and rain and thunder to humble us with their power and intensity and ferocious beauty.
In retrospect, that may not have been the best idea.
As I made my way home, the weather grew very calm. I noticed how stark of a contrast this was from the previous moments of intense wind and thunder, but for a moment it didn’t occur to me that this was the “calm before the storm” — or at least the calm before the REAL storm. As soon as it started picking back up though, I could tell that we were in for trouble.
The winds started picking up, and I was at home with two of my roommates and a third person who had come to look at the plumbing. As the first tree limb was torn loose in our backyard, we actually went outside to marvel at the intensity of the storm and talk about the fact that the branch fell just short of someone’s truck.
But unlike in any other storm I’ve experienced, the winds just kept picking up. More debris started falling from the trees, and the winds rose to a violent crescendo. My two roommates Aur and Juan decided that they wanted to move Juan’s car and go somewhere else to ride out the storm. I told them that they were crazy, but the storm had all of us excited, and there was no dissuading them.
Just as they were starting to back out of the driveway, we had one of the most intense wind gusts of the entire storm. I was standing in my living room looking out through the front door, and I glanced out the side window just in time to see the largest tree in our yard — a massive tree far older than I am — ripped free of the ground and pushed to the ground in the direction of my friends and their car.
For a moment, I was simply stunned. There was nothing I could do, even if I’d had the time to get out the door and get to the car. Instead, I watched as the crown of the tree landed right on top of their vehicle, obscuring most of it behind leaves and branches.
Once I was sure that the tree had stopped falling and nothing else was going to domino down onto my head, I hurried outside to see if they were okay. For a moment, I wondered if anyone was trapped in that car, and if I’d have to be dragging them out to safety. Luckily, the tree had been partially deflected by hitting my friend Aur’s van, and Juan’s car had actually received very little damage. It looked pretty serious having the fallen treetop obscure most of the car, but in reality the car and its occupants were fine. Juan got out of the driver’s side before I even reached the car, and Aur emerged from a tangle of leaves and branches on the passenger side a moment later.
After that, there was no denying the seriousness of this storm!
The entire storm — or at least the intense portion after the calm of the storm — must have lasted only twenty or twenty-five minutes. And yet, the results were like nothing I had experienced firsthand.
As the storm died down, it wasn’t long at all before the rain stopped, the winds were quiet, and the sun started to emerge. Dozens of neighbors emerged from neighboring buildings and eventually from surrounding areas as people wandered around on foot and in vehicles to look at the damage and do whatever else they had to do for the day. The tree that fell on Juan’s car had landed perpendicular to the road and extended well onto the other side of the street to form a massive green roadblock. This was one of the most dramatic scenes in the immediate area, so a few dozen people stopped to look at it, many of them (myself included) pulling out cell phones to take pictures.
For a few moments, we were just a bit dazed, marvelling aloud at the power of the storm. We realized that Juan’s car would be stuck for at least a little while, so Aur and Juan headed out by truck, and I stayed at home. Surprisingly, the house itself incurred very little damage, even with several trees and treetops being tossed around like dominoes.
Once it was clear that my house and my friends were okay, I soon became restless. I was alone now, and I didn’t have any tools or a vehicle. But I decided to roam the neighborhood by foot — “looking for trouble” as I later put it. That is, after all, what my experiences as an activist and my fondness for role-playing adventurous characters had taught me to do.
At first, I was honestly of very little help to anyone, but the span of the storm’s impact started becoming clearer to me.
The biggest damage on my block was a small house that had been crushed almost entirely by a tree. There were a few people milling about, so I asked them if they lived in the house in question. It turned out that they knew the people there, but nobody was home at the time, which was a relief to hear. Then, I moved on to one of the most visually stunning bits of damage I’ve yet to see here in Carbondale.
Over on Wall Street, an apartment building had some or all of its metal roof sheered entirely clear of the building. The entire roof had been flung into the neighboring power lines, tangling all around them and pulling a few of the poles to lean precariously into the street. The end result was a large segment of sheet metal suspended in the middle of the road by a tangle of power lines and poles, surrounded by bits of debris and fallen power lines.
I can only imagine what it must have been like to watch that happen!
By the time I got there, the Carbondale Police had a few officers on the scene — a couple to direct traffic, and one to stand by the sidewalk in a certain spot and direct people not to walk over power lines and debris that had fallen on the sidewalk. That may sound a bit silly — people have common sense, right? But you’d be surprised… they had to advise several people not to take shortcuts under the power lines dangling overhead or across the power lines on the ground. I even got in on the act at that point and pointed out to a couple of people that standing under those lines was a bad idea. They seemed to be holding steady in their newly mangled configuration… but why tempt fate?
I wandered in and around my own neighborhood, but there wasn’t much to help with. In most places, the small debris had either not been a problem or had already been cleared, and I had no power to clear the large debris. So, I mostly just wandered and asked the occasional person if they needed help clearing out anything.
Then, I finally started being mildly productive. With the help of a passer-by, I cleared a bit of debris off of Wall Street — mostly a moot point since a big chunk of Wall was impassable, but that portion was seeing occasional use and I figured it was worth it even if it improved the rapidly-forming traffic only by a fraction.
As I made my way west along East College, I started to see entire segments of road in that neighborhood blocked by trees. You could still get around, mostly, as long as you weren’t in one of the cut off segments. But it did create chaos, especially since they were routing traffic two ways down the normally one-way street.
This is the point at which I first began to feel mildly productive. I came across a pile of fallen branches on the side of the street right around the corner of East College and Marion. On any other day, this pile would have been no big deal since there was still plenty of room for a single vehicle to get around it. But since there was a growing amount of two-way traffic, it had become one of several choke points on the road.
It only took a minute or two to move the light branches and other windsept debris out of the street. As soon as I did, trafic was indeed able to take up two lanes at that spot. I felt encouraged by this small act — and since it seemed like there was little more I could do in my own neighborhood, I decided to move westward.
The intersection by the underpass is a strange place even on a good day. University Ave, Illinois Ave, and Mill St all intersect in a complex mish-mash that seems a bit out of place even when the trafic lights are working. To my surprise, all of the traffic lights were out, and there was no one there to direct traffic.
For a moment, I was tempted to try to direct traffic myself. But I quickly realized that this was one of those whimsical ideas I get sometimes rather than anything practical. Most people were just treating the entire mess as a giant stop sign — and while the complexity of it all lead to some confusion about whose turn it was to go when, it seemed like people were avoiding accidents by exercising appropriate levels of caution. So, I paused a moment to marvel at the site of it and just kept walking.
Soon, I found myself at the one big patch of debris where I feel like I really made a difference. Just a foot or two south of the intersection of West College and University, there was a substantial pile of broken tree limbs. This pile was covering an entire lane of traffic as well as the parking spot next to the curb. There were a couple of long and heavy lengths of wood which I simply couldn’t move alone, but there were also a lot of smaller branches and loose clumps of leaves.
As soon as I saw this pile, I knew that I had to work on it. University is one of the major streets in town, and this sort of bottleneck was the sort of thing that could slow down traffic for a big chunk of the city. So, I started pulling away the smaller branches. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to move the larger branches, but I focused on what I could do, and hoped that other people would notice and come to my aid.
And come to my aid they did! At first, there were two people who walked up together and wordlessly joined in the work. By this point, I had cleared away the small amount of debris that was actually leaning into the passable lane and cleared a bit out of the blocked lane. But together, we were able to clear about a third of the blocked lane — and more toward the north end of it, which helped people turning from College onto University.
At this point, though, we started to reach an impass. We had moved some of the biggest lengths of trunk, but couldn’t get them out of the way entirely. One of the other volunteers invited a group of young men who were passing by to help us, but they apparently had better things to do as they casually strolled off to destinations unknown. And so, it seemed like the work to finish clearing the roadblock was going to be either slow and gruelling or simply not possible.
And then, I looked up and saw Charlie Howe walking our way with chainsaw in hand, ready to get to work.
I think I actually laughed out loud at the sight of him and his unexpected aid. I said that he was just the man we’d been looking for, and he set to work sawing the fallen trunks into smaller chunks that we could haul to the curb. After moving a few of these chunks out of the way, I focused more on the small debris — both because it suited my relatively poor upper body strength, and because it made the lane visibly clearer so that drivers would know they could drive over it.
With Charlie’s help, we made quick work of the blockade and finished clearing the lane — a task that probably would have been impossible without him, or without a few more strong bodies to lift that heavy length of trunk. Traffic on that part of University expanded to fill both lanes, and we decided to move on.
Charlie told me that he was on his way to the Interfaith Center to help clear away some fallen trees over there. He didn’t have room for me in his truck, though, so I told him I’d meet him over there.
And for now, I’ll leave off with that. I did have a few more adventures later in the day, but I’ll leave the telling of that for later. In the meantime, it’s early in the morning after the storm, and I don’t want to waste too much time or electricity writing this entry. So, I’ll leave it at that for now, and I’ll be sure to share more soon.
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My name is Treesong. I'm a father, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois. I write novels, short stories, and poetry, mostly about the climate.

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