Auxiliary Brain

February 10, 2009

I am job?

Filed under: Uncategorized — probablyghosts @ 12:12 am


February 5, 2009

Fat Al from Dallas

Filed under: Uncategorized — probablyghosts @ 4:51 am

SBS 399 SaveFirst Reflections 1

Filed under: Uncategorized — probablyghosts @ 4:42 am

            Training day passed over in a slow landslide of information, leaving behind about 3/4 the information I needed to pass the test. The state of alarm brought on by this sudden glut of information didn’t entirely lift until today, when I decided to CHILL OUT. This was brought about by the realization that delays due to technical glitches and knowledge gaps are entirely normal for SaveFirst. Luckily, we have time to get comfortable with the system before tax season hits full swing, and the more experienced volunteers are as helpful as they have any time to be. I look forward to the opportunity, as a class, to offer our feedback to SaveFirst once tax season is over.

            This afternoon, I spent my entire shift at the New Hope site troubleshooting a return whose numbers wouldn’t behave. The client explained that the same problem had occurred the previous year, and explained that she “I didn’t have to file an Alabama return,” but I didn’t want to go ahead without verifying the correct procedure. The client asked several times for a volunteer she’d worked with in 2008; she spent a good deal of time looking over my shoulder and asking what this or that meant. (Caroline and several other volunteers tracked down the problem, which was essentially a software glitch that caused retirement benefits to show up on line 7 of the 1040 (Wages) rather than line 16 (Pensions and retirement.) This caused the Alabama return to register taxes owed on income that is non-taxable.) The client was right: she didn’t have to file an Alabama tax return. (I was so flustered that I neglected to photograph the tow truck taking away the repossessed white limousines from the Credit Union parking lot.)

            Not having the expertise to complete all returns creates embarrassing situations, particularly when dealing with an existing client who has already had some (second-hand) experience with TaxWise. Several clients did not know that I was a volunteer, and expressed surprise that I would be willing to work unpaid. (“What, you think I get paid for typing this slow?”) I’m not holding grouchiness against anyone, but it’s easier to work with someone who cheerful. When someone is a “backseat driver” and questions my ability, it undermines my confidence; although I cannot fault them for their concern, my discomfort affects my performance. Paradoxically, it’s those clients with whom I most enjoy talking whose returns seem to take the least time. This should level out as I become more familiar with TaxWise and its many quirks. I look forward to being able to multitask; but for now clients will have to watch me squint at forms and mouth words to myself.

My first shift, also at New Hope, was conducted with ample assistance, and 2 volunteers per return – but apparently this was only for the first week. It was enough to ease me into it, although I was so nervous filling out my first client’s return that I barely had a chance to talk to her (she was one of the grumpy ones.) Filling out returns is becoming second nature, although I look forward to finally being at ease enough to carry on conversation simultaneously – for now, I am too distracted.

Never mind the minutiae of filing! SaveFirst is important for as an opportunity to observe communities from one end of the scale to the other: both collecting data about Alabamians, and meeting them face to face. Despite what were described to us as rocky beginnings PR-wise, participants were on the whole enthusiastic about the program (although 2 mentioned a concern about identity theft and didn’t want to leave the site until their return file had been saved and closed.) Most had heard about the program through word of mouth, though some were referred by the IRS. Out of 6 returns prepared, 2 or 3 (sorry, bad notes) had filed through SaveFirst in 2008. One had filed through H&R Block and had not received EIC which she qualified for; several others (not previous SaveFirst clients) had also not received EIC.

5 were single female Head of Householders, one Married Filing Jointly.  3 or 4 clients had paid for childcare in order to work. All were black, except for one woman who had two children by a Black ex-husband (I didn’t ask, but she had beautiful mixed-race children – what is the politically correct term these days?) One was a grandmother raising her 1 year old granddaughter.

            At the Bessemer site, I was troubled by the physical punishments and threats which were doled out to children as young as 1 year old  by mothers and relatives. I was troubled – though not enough to intervene, as it wasn’t severe and I was wary of insulting the women. Several mothers were very impatient with their small child’s playful behavior, one chastising her 3 year old boy for minor infractions such as peeking through the curtain at the elderly couple in the next partition. It wasn’t the violence per se that bothered me, but the inconsistent parenting methods which obviously confused the children, and the intolerance of normal infant and child behavior. Another young woman whose return I prepared, 4 years my junior, although I tried to reassure her that it wouldn’t interfere with my work, tried to reason with her one-year-old baby to get her to stop yelling (happy yells), alternating pleading (which didn’t work) with slaps on the hand (also didn’t work, made her cry instead of happy noises.) On the other hand, she responded positively to her baby’s vocalizations when they fell within an acceptable decibel range, and beamed with pride when I complemented the child’s sense of rhythm.

            Tax prep is a stressful environment for children, who are forced to sit in respectful silence, or as near as they can manage, for indefinite periods of time. It’s also stressful for mothers, who are no more happy about having to make their child sit still for so long. I understand that I am not seeing them at their best parenting behavior, but I can’t help but be troubled by the evidence of “toxic stress.” Mothers from my socioeconomic, uh, “class” background, such as the one that raised me (upper middle class, read Piaget in college) are more tolerant of childlike behavior and less likely to use violence in word or deed; on the other hand, they can afford a babysitter, and probably didn’t spend the day on their feet behind a cash register, and for that matter they can afford to hire a tax preparer.

            At some point during my shift at Bessemer, when the only remaining returns were beyond my qualifications, I stepped in to amuse a 3 year old girl whose mother (grandmother?) had been there for over an hour. I noticed her playing with her relative (her aunt, it turned out, nine years old) doing acrobatic things, climbing on eachother. They were watched by two older relatives (aunt, mother/grandmother) who spent most of their time on cellphones, paying little attention other than to tell her occasionally to be quiet. The little one was not at all shy – when I first came into the site she greeted me, “Hi, girl!” I brought the kids out into the hall (deserted hallway, night time, Tech college) and we ran up and down the hall, did some exercises, then went back in and gave the little girl a pen and a highlighter to color with, which she did avidly. I took pictures of her drawing and told her aunt that she was a lucky kid to have a cool older aunt who liked to play with her. What I didn’t go into was that having a playful, engaged, caring relative is crucial for that little girl to stay bright and inquisitive and socially adept despite what could possibly be a stressful home life (judging from the behavior of the woman who was probably her mother.)

            Over the years I have gathered from various readings and observation that Black families are more tightly knit on the whole than white, with greater participation on the part of aunts, cousins, and especially grandmothers, who often take a major role in raising their grandchildren. This participation on the whole favors women over men, the reasons for which register in the unfortunate statistical prospects of Black men. One topic I would like to broach in more conversations is that of extended family relations, particularly childcare by relatives – who are the children spending time with, and how is it affecting them? I would like to learn more about how children raised, from both parents, and from the grandparents – who are always happy to talk about their grandchildren!

            The first few shifts have been bumpy, but I feel that I am getting the hang of the TaxFirst system, and look forward to being able to carry on actual conversations with participants in the program, but of course, that big ol’ grin of “$4000 refund” makes it all worthwhile.



DiRT – Digital Research Tools.

Filed under: Uncategorized — probablyghosts @ 2:30 am

 Check it out.

Tough guy, eh

Filed under: Uncategorized — probablyghosts @ 2:17 am
The famous Borat singlet, seen here on a man who wishes he'd covered his nipples

The famous Borat singlet, seen here on a man who wishes he'd covered his nipples

February 3, 2009

DCS 101

Filed under: Uncategorized — probablyghosts @ 11:27 pm

(REMINDER: link to film)

We watched a student-made documentary on the Rosedale neighborhood, Birmingham’s oldest historically Black neighborhood. The filmmakers, two students, had filmed a series of  interviews with longtime residents and people from Greater Birmingham Ministries who are involved in fighting City Hall to prevent the remaining neighborhood being turned into yet another stripmall (not a direct quote.)

One resident mentioned how his ancestor, Damon Lee, a freedman who bought land in Rosedale…. err uhh… need to rewatch the documentary!

(REMINDER: link to pics of rosedale historic marker)

The lawyer with Greater Birmingham Ministries was one of those sharp young (Black) career women who often get themselves the hell out of Alabama unless they become concerned with social justice. She described the frustrations of the bureaucratic process involved in trying to get revitalization plans approved by City Council, which rejected several proposals for apparently minor reasons (the film was only 10 minutes long and didn’t go into details).

City Council member, one of those over-manicured aging Southern “blondes” often found hovering near money and power with the predatory ennui of a Persian cat.

hmm ok…. We discussed the ethical dilemma involved in historic preservation of disadvantaged communities (do we really want to remind people that their grandparents lived in shotgun shacks, tenements?)

Then there was an embarrassing discussion concerning the decision of museum designers to include a life-size cutout and bio of a white convict laborer, whom I somehow missed completely (too busy shooting pictures of Anna sitting on the giant Vulcan foot.) This was a decision on the part of then-Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid, a Black man, who was concerned with representing Black history in a negative light. I commented that it has been observed that Black America is divided along class lines, and that perhaps his decision reflected the self-image of prosperous “upper-class” Blacks (I may have used the term “nouveau riche” unwisely,) to which Brittney (sp?) the one Black female in our class, countered that slave history was painful for all Blacks…

Is it fair to represent this aspect of history (convict labor) with a White individual, when the convict labor system was overwhlmingly Black? Is it fair to revise representation of history this way? This segued into a discussion on the problematic nature of photography in representing history: how to use a slice to represent the whole?

(something about NEA Mapplethorpe obscenity trial formalist definition of a photographic moment)

err umm

Eventually everything I like will be appropriated by academics

Filed under: Uncategorized — probablyghosts @ 10:31 pm

In my ears

Filed under: Uncategorized — probablyghosts @ 4:27 am

January 30, 2009

DCS 101 – Vulcan Museum Analysis

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — probablyghosts @ 4:48 am

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt.

Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go;

I owe my soul to the company store

(“Sixteen Tons,” Merle Travis)

1. Loewen states that historic sites hold two different stories. One, the manifest narrative (the event or person herald), and the other story is the erection or preservation story. So what is “Vulcan” and what does it represent? What’s the manifest narrative? And what is the erection and preservation story? – What is the impetus behind its creation and the efforts to find its final home? Or as Loewen asks, “Who sponsored it, what were their motives, what were their ideological need and social purpose?”

Manifest means “obvious.” The obvious narrative of the Vulcan statue is inextricable from it’s the story of its erection and preservation. Much of the museum is devoted to this long and often goofy narrative, including videos and photographs of his construction by Moretti’s team of laborers; a hands-on demonstration of the mold-making process; a full scale fiberglass cast of Vulcan’s leg; photographs showing him at the World’s Fair, at the State Fairground with his arm on backward holding a sign, and finally, atop his sandstone pillar. The “Memories of Vulcan” kiosk is curiously self-referential, containing picture postcards, miniature reproductions, pennants, a commemorative flask (Tipple with Vulcan!) and other various souvenirs from the World’s Fair, the State Fair, and later.

Birmingham’s Colossus was originally conceived by James McKnight, manager of the Alabama State Fair, as an answer to city leaders’ call for city and state to be advertised to the 1904 World’s Fair. Sculpted by Giuseppe Moretti in an abandoned church in New Jersey, the plaster molds were shipped by rail to Birmingham, where they were cast in iron. Holding a hammer and a spear-head, tool of his trade and product of it, the statue depicts Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, who “made weapons and armor for the Gods, but was kindly and peaceful himself.” (This was either deliberately symbolic or prescient, as Birmingham experienced booms during both World Wars.) After the Fair, Vulcan was dismantled and shipped back to Birmingham, despite an offer to buy it from the city of St. Louis.

Who was the intended audience for this ferrous  tour de force? Potential investors, engineers and other skilled workers? Certainly not unskilled workers, as they wouldn’t feature greatly among the visitors to the Fair – and besides, Alabama already had more than enough of cheap labor (a principal reason that the steel industry could be so profitable, as with other industries in Alabama.)

Although originally intended for erection at Linn park, decent women of the neighborhood raised their voices in protest at the statue’s exposed rear end, and the plans were scrapped. Vulcan sat in pieces by the tracks for two years as the city fathers dithered; his spear point was lost; eventually, he was moved to the city fairgrounds, where he was painted flesh-tone, was once dressed in a giant pair of Liberty overalls, and held aloft, at different times, an ice cream cone, a Coca Cola bottle, and a sign advertising pickles. In the mid-30’s the civic-minded gentlemen of the Kiwanis club undertook his relocation atop Red Mountain on a sandstone pedestal surrounded by a park, facing downtown, a project largely financed by the WPA. (I assume this means that the Kiwanis club organized the work and the WPA paid for it, but could not find more details.) As a public service, they placed in its hand a beacon, which glowed green but was turned red after fatal automobile accidents.

What were the Kiwanis club’s reasons for sponsoring Vulcan’s erection? According to the “Six Objects,” the Kiwanis club is a civic organization devoted, among other laudable activities, to “building better communities,” which is frequently achieved through promotion of local business. Kiwanis is generally comprised of local businessmen, often small business owners, who would naturally have an interest in promoting Birmingham both as a tourist destination and a desirable place to live.

The statue underwent extensive renovation in 1999, being completely dismantled and reassembled. The “lime or cherry popsicle” was replaced by a replica of the original spearhead, and Vulcan was turned to face East – probably because of complaints from residents of Homewood, the neighborhood on the other side of the mountain from downtown. (The only suggestion of the “Moon over Homewood” debacle is found in the gift shop, which features a plastic dashboard figurine with bobbling head and buttocks; unfortunately, they no longer carry “Buns of Iron” mugs and T-shirts.) The lobby of the museum serves as a visitor center for tourists, providing information about local events, dining, hotels, and attractions, including handy wallet-size folding maps sponsored by local businesses.

  1. What voices are represented in the historical narrative of the Vulcan Museum? What voices are left out? How is the multivocality of the historical narrative represented? To what degree do you think the Vulcan museum fairly represents the story of Birmingham?
  2. What is a “company town?”

The Vulcan Museum begins on the ground outside, where a map set in stone shows the fortuitous availability of minerals in the region. In the lobby looms an assemblage of products of the iron industry: sewing machines, engine blocks, skillets, manhole covers and pieces less identifiable. A photomural follows (composed of a single photograph repeated multiply,) depicting hundreds of workers (miners?)

Visitors next pass through a squeaky-clean recreation of a “company store, stocked with empty cans decorated with replica labels. (Contemporary photographs show the real thing being a good deal grimier and darker.) I don’t recall how much of this is indicated by the literature accompanying the museum’s display, but the term “company town” refers to a settlement owned and operated by an industry. Workers live in dormitories or apartments owned by their employer, who deduct rent from their paycheck. Under what was referred to as the “truck system,” workers are paid in credit vouchers for goods at the company store, often (usually) at inflated prices. The workers, unskilled and unable to find other employment, are unable to accrue savings, ensuring that they and their family remain poor; often, they fall into debt, creating a situation of debt bondage, in which the worker is legally unable to quit. This system ensures that workers and their families remain poor and dependent on the employer for their means of living, which in turn ensures future generations of cheap labor. The truck system was largely outlawed after a series of Union strikes, mostly by coal miners, brought attention to the practice, although it survived well into the 1950’s in rural Alabama farms employing mostly Black workers.

There is a section detailing the construction of Vulcan, couched in a history of Birmingham through the Great Depression and Vulcan’s WPA reinstatement, through the Civil Rights movement. The last section, “Towards a New Birmingham,” ends the exhibit on a positive note of social change; given the number of tourists who visit Birmingham expressly to study and relive Civil Rights history, the museum’s curators wouldn’t dare neglect  it. The museum is humanistic in its recognition of the contributions of numerous struggling workers, although I didn’t notice any mention of conscript labor (one of the first points of Birmingham’s history mentioned in the Civil Rights Museum’s narrative.) Social conditions are mentioned as an afterthought, rather than as an integral element of the labor conditions that helped make Birmingham a “magic city.”

The Vulcan museum makes an attempt to represent the contribution of workers, but due to its small size and brevity of narrative, and perhaps to its design as well, is unable to convey the history of labor that underlies this or any other industrial city’s history. The section on Civil Rights history ends on the positive note found in many high school textbooks, conveying the message that “things used to be bad, but thanks to MLK we’re OK!” The Vulcan Park Foundation’s stated mission is to “preserve Vulcan as a symbol for Birmingham.” They don’t specify what Vulcan symbolized. The statue of Vulcan was created as an advertisement for the city, and remains an advertisement.

January 27, 2009

human statues/ “Tableau Vivant”

Filed under: Uncategorized — probablyghosts @ 8:25 pm


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