Thursday, December 27, 2012

Wrapping Up 2012!

I can't complain about 2012. It's been a wonderful year for me. I've had the chance to grow and learn and watch my daughter, who turned two this year, do the same. I got my dream job (how you going to top that, 2013?) I laughed a lot, made great friends, and generally enjoyed my life.

I also hit some pretty big milestones on this blog, including getting 20,000 page views in a single month, which is something I would not have believed could happen when I first started writing. I know that I've gotten a lot of new readers since the beginning of the year (Hi and thank you!), so I wanted to give a little year-end wrap-up of some of my favorite posts and share a few pictures from the year.


I love music, and it's probably the entertainment media that I consume the most. That led to several posts about it:


This year my little baby grew into a verbal, independent toddler, and my parenting skills definitely had to grow right along with her. I had some posts that reflected on those changes:

Fitness/Body Image

I went through some pretty radical self-care adjustments, finally finding a space where I could separate fitness from an unhealthy body image and enjoying being healthy for health's sake. I wrote several posts as I went through that journey:


I also wrote a few things that didn't really fit in anywhere else but that I wanted to share again.

I hope that you had a wonderful 2012 and that your 2013 is full of love and joy. (And to my blogging friends, if you do a end-of-year link wrap-up, feel free to share the link in the comments. I'd love to catch up on anything I missed from you!) 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Django Unchained: Can Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee Both Be Right?

I went to see Django Unchained last night, and I had a lot of thoughts. For the most part, I agree with the critical reception that's appearing overwhelmingly positive (as of right now, it has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes).

I have been a Tarantino fan since before I even knew how to analyze what I liked about a movie. I was watching Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs as a teenager. I've loved everything from Kill Bill to Deathproof, and--even though violence isn't usually a major selling point for me--I've been drawn into the quick-talking, quick-thinking alter-worlds that he crafts.

Django delivered on those fronts, and presented a superbly acted cast of characters that left me completely absorbed in the plot for the full length of the nearly-three-hour film. There were times I had to look away from the screen because of the pain and anguish it presented me, and there were times when I laughed and times when I cried. I watched it with the full involvement of my mind and emotions, and I think it was a wonderful film.

I'm not sure if it should have been made.

As I'm sure came as no surprise to Tarantino (in fact, he was probably banking (quite literally) on it), this film has stirred up some pretty serious controversy. Here is a white man writing and directing a revenge drama with a re-invisoned and sometimes humorous portrayal of American slavery. That's not going to be without its problems. (As an aside, I was also practically begging for a strong female performance that never materialized. Kerry Washington did a wonderful job acting, but her character was the strongest woman amongst a sea of weak, almost invisible women).

For his part, Tarantino walks a tough walk. He had this to say in an interview with Henry Louis Gates:
No, I don't want it to be easy to digest. I want it to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.
There's no doubt that he succeeds in making it a difficult pill to swallow, but--as someone who has watched many of Tarantino's films several times--I have to say that I see restraint in many of the right places. Tarantino recognizes the delicate nature of his subject matter, and I think he respects it. Of course, his treatment of it is not going to sit right with everyone, but I don't think that accusations that he's poking fun at slavery or treating it too lightly are justified.

In fact, later in that same interview, Henry Louis Gates says this:
I'm a scholar of slavery, and one of the things I notice in my classes [that I teach] is that we've become inured to the suffering and pain of slavery, that we've distanced ourselves enough from it, that people can't experience the terror, the horrible pain, the anxiety, the stress, et cetera, that came with the slave experience. I thought that in Django you really began to reinsert contemporary viewers into that pain, particularly through the scene when the dogs tear Candie's slave D'Artagnan apart. And by the way, I don't know if you know, but that actually happened.
Later, Tarantino admits that part of his goal is to make people uncomfortable because the sins of slavery are so deep:
I think America is one of the only countries that has not been forced, sometimes by the rest of the world, to look their own past sins completely in the face. And it's only by looking them in the face that you can possibly work past them.
I agree with all of that, and I actually think that Tarantino does a lot to accomplish his goals. The film does not treat slavery lightly, and it does put those sins under the magnifying glass in a way that will make audiences uncomfortable.

But then we have Spike Lee.

In the article linked above, Lee explains that he won't be seeing Django because it is "disrespectful to [his] ancestors." He has previously criticized Tarantino's use of the n-word, particularly in Jackie Brown, even as he recognizes that he's used the film very often in his own work.

And scenes from a movie where he's using the word very often in his own work kept coming to my mind as I watched Django.

That scene from Spike Lee's own Bamboozled (one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen) shows what happens when an audience becomes complacent and then complicit in atrocity. In this movie, a television writer pitches a modern-day minstrel show in the hopes of getting fired and showing how horrible media's expectations for depictions of black people in entertainment really are, but instead his show becomes immensely popular as the mainstream audience begs for more. 

The commentary is clearly about the audience's role in entertainment and how it operates on a social level. 

Filmmakers have to create material that can be misinterpreted or misused. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to create anything that could be powerful. If they don't create work that could be used to further social ills, they couldn't create work that can be used to defeat them. Powerful work is rarely without complexity that can be mistreated. As I wrote on a similar subject a while back, I don't want creators to stop creating work just because of what its audience might do with it. I stand by that--mostly.

Still, I watched this film in the theater in suburban Missouri. The crowd was mostly white (as am I). 

I listened with horror as some of the audience laughed at all the wrong places. They laughed at uses of the n-word that were decidedly not funny (and I don't think were meant to be funny). I thought to myself that maybe some of it was nervous laughter, laughter aimed to release some of the tension of watching some racially-charged scenes in our "post-racial" society that is anything but. 

But then some of the audience (particularly a group of young white women) laughed at a scene that was clearly meant to depict the human atrocity, dehumanization, and lack of dignity of slavery. They laughed at a scene of a man hung upside down naked and tortured. They laughed and it made me feel sicker than any scene from the film could ever have made me feel. 

Two other articles that tackle this question of audience are Rebecca Carroll's  and Abby West's

Carroll had a similar experience where a white audience member laughed at a scene that probably shouldn't be funny. She said this:
My fellow Django viewer responded in precisely the way Tarantino wants his audiences to respond to the black characters in his films, and that is by viewing black culture in the same way that he interprets and perceives it to be: exotic, violently entertaining, alluring, and almost entirely objectified.    
I'm not sure that's fair to Tarantino, and I don't think the film attempted to make slavery "violently entertaining" (though there was both violence and entertainment), and I am sure that there was nothing "alluring" about the depiction of slavery (though Carroll's comments are about Tarantino's treatment of "black culture" in general).

In West's article, she notes that a lot of teenagers will see this film but that they aren't necessarily going to understand the historical context in which it is set:
They don’t always get the big difference between fiction and nonfiction. They suspect that all historical movies are about as accurate as a documentary. They are far from stupid and are often more pop-culture savvy than their parents. But they are also impressionable and still soaking up information that will shape their lives. So for every film that muddles an important issue (and here I’m focusing on slavery but it can apply to a number of other topics), are we obliged to make sure our kids have a pop-culture counterpoint? Do we need to make sure we get in a Lincoln for every Django? For every Inglorious Basterds do we make sure there’s a Schindler’s List viewing?
In my opinion, Django Unchained is an excellent movie that works very hard to treat its subject matter with the respect it deserves. I can't say the same for the people who will be watching it, and I don't know what that means. 

Can Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino both be right?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ooh Sparkly! The Rhetoric of Jewelry Ads

I've been driving past a billboard that's been irking me lately. Here it is:

I know it's a little blurry (sorry), but it says "Girl's night out just got cancelled" and it's attached to the ring like a gift tag and signed "Simon G" (the name of the jewelry company). 

It's that time of year when men everywhere are being told that the only thing their girlfriends/wives/mothers/sisters/women walking near them on the street want is jewelry, jewelry, and more jewelry. 

A lot of women really like jewelry, as do a lot of men, but the rhetoric surrounding these ads--especially during the holidays--gets to be pretty extreme. 

And half the time they don't even make sense to me. 

What is this ad trying to say? Is the "gift" of a cancelled girl's night out for the man who is purchasing this (after all, the gift giver is the jewelry shop)? Does that mean that his motivation for buying this ring is to keep his woman "in line" and make sure she isn't going out to have fun without him?

Or is the "gift" of a cancelled girl's night out for the woman who receives this ring? In that case, does that mean that she doesn't actually want a girl's night out, but she has to keep up the facade to make her lover jealous enough to purchase expensive things for her and now--finally--with this sparkly piece of jewelry on her finger, she can sit at home like she's always wanted?

I don't understand the message, but I'm pretty sure it's problematic either way. 

In order to figure out where this billboard fits in the world of jewelry ads, I went and took a look at a bunch of them. I found they tend to fall into a few categories that help me make sense of this billboard. 


One of the most common themes is that jewelry equals love. 

 In this rhetorical positioning, the jewelry company is just giving you the tools to express the love you already feel. It doesn't necessarily create love, but it does make sure to let you know that your love might go unnoticed if you don't shell out the big bucks and make it official with something sparkly. Perhaps the most obvious use of that rhetorical statement is the example below which says "She already knows you love her. Now everyone else will too." The jewelry companies know that their product is used as a symbol of love, so they're playing that up so that they can remain the most common symbol.


The "Jewelry=LOVE" theme is probably the most traditional, and it really works pretty well. But companies cannot just rest on their laurels. They have to constantly be growing their target market. That's why the rise of powerful women who could purchase their own jewelry brought a new type of marketing. The most obvious was the "right hand ring" campaign. 

Here, women are encouraged to purchase their own diamonds in an act of empowerment, but the ads play directly into the already socially entrenched dichotomy of women as nurturers v. women as powerhouses. "Your left hand rocks the cradles. Your right hand rules the world." "Your left hand wants to be held. Your right hand wants to be held high." Perhaps I should give the advertising campaign some credit for recognizing that both of these ambitions can be captured inside of one body, but then I remember that their only reason for recognizing that is so they can profit off of turning an insecurity into a statement of independence, so I feel less charitable. 

The Bottom Line

It's very telling that most jewelry ads are aimed at women even though there is no shortage of jewelry designed for men. The jewelry market's profit depends largely on two things: women thinking that jewelry is important and men thinking that women think jewelry is important. 

So I think what happened in the billboard I saw is that the advertisers tried to combine the themes of love and power. They knew that women going out to a "girl's night" is a symbol of female empowerment (though why it can't just be a symbol of drinking some good margaritas and laughing is beyond me) and that a ring is a symbol of love. They took the dichotomy of the "right-hand" ring campaign a little too far and are now trying to play the two against one another. If your woman goes and buys herself a ring to feel empowered, well, buy her another one so that she remembers who is in charge. If that makes her go out and buy her own ring to counter the one that you bought her, well, then I guess you'll just have to buy another one. Guess who gets rich. 

Jewelry stores are now trying to deal with the fallout from their own competing narratives. When jewelry meant love and men were the default purchasers, the ads all fell in line with that narrative. Once jewelers recognized that women can make money and purchases, too, they switched the narrative to try to capitalize on that market, and now they're having to fight their own story in order to remind men that they still need to be buying the sparkles as well. 

To be fair, I guess "Rocks: if you want them, buy them. If s/he wants them, buy them for him/her" isn't really very catchy. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

I Am A Mighty Elephant

I made a big mistake.

I crafted my syllabus from scratch this semester, and it was also my first time teaching full-time, as opposed to coordinating a program full-time and teaching a class a semester. The workload is definitely different.

I forgot to make portfolios due a week before finals. Since I forgot this, I made portfolios due on final exam day. Since I made portfolios due on final exam day, I have spent the past 72 hours grading over 200 papers. This is, in a word, exhausting.

Among those papers, though, were students' final reflections on the class. All of my classes are developmental English classes, and many of my students come in with negative writing experiences in their history and skepticism in their eyes.

While I'm reading one of the very last portfolios this morning, eyeing the clock as it ticks away to the deadline for grades to be due, I come across this line about the student's experience with our class:

"[I]t felt like an elephant slapped me in the face with his trunk. The pain has settled and now the learning has begun."
Elephant Trunk

I probably wouldn't have described my own pedagogical practice as one that inflicts pain, but for many of these students, writing can be painful. I loved this student's description, and I loved the progress that I saw in so many of them. 

I am tired, but I am a mighty elephant. And I am now on vacation (which means I get to finally pick back up on that PhD exam reading.) 

Photo: Greg George

Saturday, December 15, 2012

You Cannot Make Me Own a Gun: What Gun Culture Looks Like

Last year, my mom was having a dispute with her neighbors over their Rottweiler. The dog was vicious and had attacked at least three people. It had lunged at my then-three-year-old nephew and had become an increasing safety issue. For a while, I refused to visit my mom's house because the dog jumped over the neighbor's fence and lunged at me when I was getting out of the car, and I had an infant at the time.

My mom had called the police several times, but she lives in an unincorporated part of the country, so there are no statutes about securing your dog. The dog would have to have caused actual damage in order for the county to be willing to do anything about it. When it killed one of my mom's cats, she was able to prosecute, but the neighbors did not lose their dog; they were just told to keep it restrained.

In the meantime, my mom put up a fence she couldn't afford to try to keep her family safe. One night, I was visiting her and noticed that the dog had either gotten loose from or been left off the chain that was supposed to secure it. I was on the other side of my mom's fence, but I was still nervous. When I went to leave that night, the dog was pacing the gate, waiting for me to open it. I went back in the house, hoping it would leave. As I opened the door, I saw its eyes shining from beneath a bush as it waited for me to get closer to the gate. As I approached, it crept forward, nearing the gate as I reached to open it.

And I decided I wasn't going to play.

These same neighbors shot a gun in the air and screamed racial epithets at me and my family as we left my mom's house only a few months before. These were not reasonable people, and these were not people I could deal with individually.

I called the police. I told them I was trapped in my yard by a dog that they already had multiple calls on. They came out, but it takes the police at least forty minutes to get to my mom's house, and--in the meantime--the neighbors called the dog back into their own yard. When the police arrived, the dog lunged at the fence and bit at them. I (from my side of my mom's fence) warned them that the dog could jump over. They put their hands on their guns.

But the neighbors came out and restrained the dog, apologized to the police officers, and said they would put it back on the chain.

Then the police turned to me and told me that they understood my concern, but they couldn't do anything. They told me that I should just shoot the dog the next time I felt threatened.

That's how they said it, "Just shoot it." Like it was an easy thing for me to do. They didn't ask me if I had a gun; they just assumed that I did.

Sig Sauer P226

Ever since I wrote that post suggesting that it's time to examine gun culture in America, I have been in an argument with someone over guns. Everyone that I have argued with lives in this same town where I grew up, where my mom still lives. Those police officers' reaction to my problem exemplifies why I am in these arguments: my hometown has a pervasive gun culture, one that does not take into account the complexities of the society around them. 

Here's the thing: I would be a horrible police officer. I do not like guns. I don't have very good spatial reasoning and so, even with training, I doubt I would be very good at shooting them. I think that anyone who plans to use a gun should be trained to do so, and I don't mean a weekend course in safe handling; I mean complex, hands-on training. I don't have the time or inclination to go through that training. I do not want a gun near my child, so I do not want one in my home. 

That does not mean that I don't think other people should be allowed to own them, be trained to shoot them, and keep them in their homes. I am able to understand that other people view guns differently than I do, but they seem unable to understand that works both ways. 

I do not want to have to shoot my mom's neighbor's dog. 

I live in a society for a reason, and part of being in a society is that we give up certain freedoms to attain certain benefits. I cannot steal my neighbor's food, but in return, I get to have a legal system that tells my neighbors they can't steal my food either. Now neither of us have to get killed trying to steal each other's food. 

This is on my mind because I have seen many, many posts on social media (especially from people who live in my hometown) lamenting how preventable all of those Connecticut children's deaths would have been if the teachers had just been armed. 

Images like this one have been common:

Setting aside all of the logical fallacies in that post (this is cherry picking one country out of hundreds and the results would not work this way if we compared school shooting in, say, Australia or Canada; Israel actually has strict gun laws for private citizens; there is some dispute over whether that picture is even a teacher), let's just look at the argument that arming teachers is a worthwhile decision.  

Tim Wise does an excellent job of dismantling this weak argument here, and you should go read it. But let's--for the sake of argument--set that aside, too. Let's say that making our teachers carry guns could help prevent tragedy. 

Should we do it?

I am a teacher. I love my job, and the evidence suggests I'm pretty good at it. It fits me and my personality. I am a thinker and a writer who loves helping other people discover their own abilities. 

I am not a killer. I am not a shooter. I am not a gun enthusiast. 

So am I now ineligible to be a teacher? Did you just cut me out of the teacher pool because I am not willing to carry a gun to work? If not, then how does this arming teachers business work? Do we force teachers to carry guns even if they aren't comfortable with it? (That sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn't it?) Do we only hire teachers who are already trained with guns? (We already have a shortage of good teachers, and this seems like a great way to make the pool impossibly small.) Do we force teachers to undergo gun training? (Who's going to pay for that, and we still have the problem of training people who don't want to shoot guns.) 

Why should we just stop at teachers? A terrible shooting happened in a mall just days ago. Should all of the clerks working in the stores be required to carry guns? The Colorado shooting happened in a theater. Should the people working there--often teenagers--have been required to be carrying as well? Where would it stop? Bus drivers, mailmen, lawyers, nurses, doctors: should they all have to carry a weapon because they are in public places where violence might occur? 

This argument insults me. It insults me because it completely ignores the perspective of people like me, people who do not want and probably have no business carrying a gun. Just because you want a gun and would love nothing more than for someone to break into your house so that you could use it (I'm not exaggerating. I've had people tell me that they just "dare" someone to step into their house or threaten their family, as if getting to shoot someone would just be the cherry on top of their cupcake of a day) does not mean that I want to, and I certainly should not be required to do so. 

That police officer's assumption that I was (a) carrying a gun and (b) willing to use it to shoot the dog is indicative of a much larger problem. Because the police could pass the burden of a crazed dog off on me, there is no onus on legislation to create laws protecting from that kind of attack. Because the assumption runs so deep that everyone is loaded and willing to shoot in that area, they don't even look at other safety measures--safety measures that work very well in other countries and even other places in the U.S. 

That is the problem of gun culture--it blinds us to alternative solutions. 

If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. 

If all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target. 

Photo: WickedVT

Friday, December 14, 2012

Gun Play: Our Children and Gun Culture

I had the beginning of this post in my drafts for the past week, and it's been sitting there while I dealt with the stress of finals and the flurry of grading and prepping for holiday parties.

I didn't even hear about the Connecticut school shooting this morning until late in the afternoon because I had been so focused on trying to get papers graded that I hadn't seen the news. When I heard about it, all that flurry and hustling came to a dead stop around me, and I sobbed. I read a lot of terrible news, but nothing hits your gut like reports that 20 elementary school children were gunned down. That's . . . that's just too much to deal with, and I cannot imagine the grief, pain, and fear that all of those impacted are feeling.

There is one tiny piece of this tragedy that I can pull out and deal with though. When Jersey City mayor Jerramiah Healy (a gun control proponent) said that now is not the time to talk about gun control, he was right. The time has already passed us.

The more guns, the more homicide, and the U.S. has a lot of guns. We have 88.8 guns per 100 citizens, the highest of any country on which there are statistics. We overwhelmingly have the worst record for mass shootings. Eleven of the 50 worst mass shootings happened in the United States. By comparison, Finland is in second place, where two have occurred.

There is something wrong with the way our country deals with guns. I know that saying this angers people, and I know that a lot of people take gun ownership very seriously, but if the love of owning a gun makes you incapable of even recognizing that our country has a cultural problem that needs to be discussed, then you're part of the problem, too.

Gun Con

I'm not saying that it's simple. 

I grew up with guns in my house. There are pictures of my father proudly holding up the first rabbit he hunted at the age of 7. I received a BB gun for Christmas when I was around the same age, and I used to proudly take it out into the woods with my dad where I would promptly scare away all of the game. I grew up in a hunting town, and many of my family members are hunters. I respect them and this part of their lives. They are almost without exception respectful of the life around them, even as they hunt it.

I also had toy guns as a child, and I was watching Pulp Fiction when I was 12. I most certainly am not trying to claim that toy guns are the culprit behind these mass shootings. 

But I am definitely sure that toy guns are a part of the culture, and the culture is a problem. 

Just like I think Bratz dolls are a tool of our patriarchal rape culture, I think toy guns are a tool of our gun culture. Do I think either of these toys "cause" the heinous crimes committed as parts of those systems? No. Do I think that the existence of these toys excuses or somehow removes the culpability of the individual criminals who commit these acts? Of course not. But do I think that examining the choices we make surrounding these toys could make a difference to the culture as a whole? Most definitely. 

The Toy Gun Debate

But it's still not simple. There have been two very interesting posts demonstrating that recently: blue milk discusses how she tried to keep toy guns out of her house and failed and this post from Offbeat Families examines how to handle kids and gun safety (ranging from toy guns to asking about where guns are kept during play dates).

I don't really know how to handle this either. My nephew has toy guns at my mom's house, and I've tried to put them out of view when my daughter's there. When some of my friend's kids were "shooting" my daughter with a toy gun, it made my stomach knot up and I asked them to stop. I felt like I stepped on my friend's toes, and I honestly wasn't trying to be judgmental of her parenting choice to let them play with toy guns, but my reaction to seeing my daughter around one is almost visceral: I hate it. 

I do think that kids can be around guns responsibly (as the seven-year-old version of my father could probably attest), and I don't think that violent play is necessarily a bad thing (as many studies have shown that it can be psychologically productive and even more than that have shown that it's practically inevitable). However, I don't think that violent play has to mean gun play, and I don't think that just because a toy gun is "make believe" that it doesn't have a real impact. 

But what does that mean in practice? My daughter is two years old, so right now it's (relatively) easy for it to mean no guns ever. But what happens when she's older and is at other people's houses? What about water guns? What about NERF guns (or whatever the equivalent is these days)? What about video games with guns? What if I manage to keep her completely away from guns and then the kids at daycare build some out of Legos or start shooting with their fingers? For me, these are complicated questions that have to be navigated on a case-by-case basis, and I plan to navigate them as I go. 

What isn't a complicated question--at least not to me--is how our children need to view guns. 

Challenging Gun Culture

We have to stop loving our guns so much. I'm not even arguing that we have to outlaw them, but we have to stop seeing them as magic talismans that represent patriotism and freedom. They are tools of violence. Sometimes they can be tools of productive violence (i.e. hunting, defense), but they are always tools of violence, and we need to see them that way. Gun culture is not simply figuring out why horrible murderers commit horrible murders. There will always be aberrant, unhealthy people who commit atrocities. But we can't use the fact that people always have and likely always will do terrible things to keep us from even discussing our obsession with guns. As these letters to the NYT demonstrate, the advocacy of gun rights so completely dominates our conversation that we often don't even have the conversation.

While a child can learn that lesson and have access to toy guns, I think that it makes it difficult. Just as I think that it's difficult to teach a little girl to have a strong self-image if all of her dolls have unnatural proportions, I think that the way we treat toy guns seeps into the way we view guns as a whole. 

So here's the thing, though, do we just not talk about guns at all?

I would love for my daughter to just not have to know what a gun is. But that's not practical or safe. She is likely to be around guns. We live in an urban area, and I'm sure that there are guns in some of the homes around us. It will (unfortunately) not be unrealistic for her to hear some gunfire in the street at some point. As I've already mentioned, several of my family members have guns and let their kids play with toy guns. Then, there are days like today when she will see the news and hear about a horrible tragedy. Guns are a part of our lives. 

I am still navigating how to handle guns as a parent, and I am sure that my view will evolve and that I'll make some mistakes. What I know, though, is that America's love of guns is not healthy, and it's a sickness I want to inoculate my child against. I just need to find the best way to do that. 

How do you handle guns with your children? What's your stance on play guns? Do you let them watch the news when shootings are discussed? What's the hardest part about gun culture and parenting?

Photo: yuichirock

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Hazards of Being a Cashier

There's a post over at xoJane by a woman who used to be a cashier for Whole Foods and she's telling her "tales from the trenches."

In that article, she recounts some of the (terribly rude) ways that customers have mistreated her, and then she says this:
And I'm comfortable saying generally that Whole Foods customers are THE WORST.
Maybe the pervasive sense of entitlement is a product of their own economic insecurity. Maybe the pronounced class distinctions between the customers and employees make it easier to dehumanize the workers. Maybe shopping at Whole Foods makes customers feel so good about themselves that they forget it takes more than reusable bags to not be a terrible person.
I'm not here to dispute her experiences or get into some sort of contest over who has had the worse customer service experiences, but I am here to say that I don't think it's just pronounced class distinctions that give customers the false entitlement to treat store employees like the underclass.

I have this theory.

People are just so damn inconvenienced by having to be marginally polite to other human beings. It's truly a burden to have to spend their day interacting with people in a way that's considered socially acceptable, but there is one place where those rules can be broken down, and that place is the beautiful world of retail.

Thriftway Interior Upgrade | Interior Market Decor Design | Grocery Check Stand Markers | Thriftway Checkout Area | Admiral Thriftway
Finally, an end to the madness.
I am sure that this is true of all retail. Waiters and waitresses are notoriously mistreated, but they also have the retaliation tool of doing something disgusting to your food. People who work in malls and clothing stores also take a lot of abuse, but people don't usually have to go to those places and some people thoroughly enjoy the time they spend shopping for these luxury items. But grocery shopping is a necessity that happens often, and people hate it. I mean, truth be told, I hate it, too. It's not fun. It's crowded. The lights are too bright. It costs too much. You have to put all that food up when you get home. If you don't have a plan, you're scrambling around lost. If you do have a plan, then you had to spend time making a plan. Grocery shopping kind of sucks.

So here, in the midst of this miserable experience, people feel the power to release their barely-adhered-to social norms and treat another human being like filth.

Don't get me wrong. It's not every customer. In fact, it's not even most customers. Most people are normal and fine and just want to pay their money and go away. Some people are not normal, but they're chatty and happy and trying to make friends in the grocery line. That can be weird, but it's not mean.

And I also understand that cashiers can be mean, too.

But I worked as a cashier/service desk associate/customer service manager for two and a half years during my undergraduate days. The interactions I had with people during that time were insane. They were crazier than the interactions I had with basically any other job I had before or since. (Those jobs include serving beer at a golf course, working with behaviorally-challenged kids, and serving fast food). Here is a small sampling:
  • "You sure are chipper, ain't ya?" That's what a man said to me, glaring cruelly, as I bagged up his groceries, smiled, and told him to "Have a nice day." It was not a compliment. He practically spit it at me, as if my refusal to be miserable was a personal affront to his shopping experience. 
  • The Fish Pick-Up: Ladies, let me tell you the secret to "hooking" a man. See, I was an incredibly friendly (some would say "chipper") cashier. This is because being mean to people drags me down, and working an eight-hour shift as a cashier is enough of a drag already, so I had to balance it out. I was working the late-night shift when a man and woman came through with a bag of fish. The man is the one who sat the fish on the belt, so I guess he was sort of the one I was giving my "Did you find everything all right?" spiel to, but really it was mindless chatter they could both enjoy. As I handed him his fish, I told him that there was a 72-hour guarantee and if they died they could bring them back with a receipt. Then I told them to have a nice night. His wife leaned over the register at me, gave me her best "bitch, I'm gonna kill you" look and snarled "He's married, so you know!" Apparently "Hey, if your fish die, keep the receipt" is the hot new pick up line. I was seriously worried that she was going to be waiting for me in the parking lot. And I'm not trying to be judgmental, but this was definitely not a man I was going to be trying to snag, married or otherwise. 
Goldfish #115
  • I'm Going to Arkansas! As I was working the service desk one day, a man came up with a bag of raw chicken pieces. He slapped it down on the counter and said, "Give me my money. I'm filling up the gas tank and going to Arkansas." I asked for a receipt and he said, "Just put it on one of 'em little cards. It's going straight in the gas tank anyway." I calmly explained that without a receipt he could only exchange it for food (because of EBT rules). He started to argue with me, but then he gave up and wandered off toward the grocery section, leaving me with an increasingly-mushy bag of chicken. I felt like something was off and thought about calling a supervisor, but I figured he'd just go grab some food and life would go on. A few minutes later he appears doing what can only be described as a swagger carrying a case of beer. I sigh. "Sir, beer's not food. You can only exchange food without a receipt for other food products." The man--I kid you not--hoists himself up on the service desk counter with one arm and swings at me with the other. Another (male) cashier was behind the counter picking up returns and got in between us, telling the man he needed to calm down. I grabbed the phone to call a manager, and the guy saw me, grabbed his chicken, and ran off. I hope he made it to Arkansas. 
  • Then what are you doing here? A guy came through my line and I gave him the usual "How are you today?" Instead of the expected but oh-too-rare "fine," I got a (no exaggeration) three minute list of maladies ranging from a torn ligament in his knee to a cataract to work stress. He ended his monologue with a smug "but you didn't hear a word of that because you didn't really care how I was when you asked." I was feeling snarky, so I repeated his entire list of complaints back to him, in order, and his jaw literally dropped. Puzzled by this turn of events, he took his receipt and said, "If you're that smart, you shouldn't be working here" and walked off. Creep. 
These are truly just a sample. The stories go on and on and on and on. On a daily basis, people took the "How are you doing today?" question as an excuse to unload about everything from their deadbeat husbands to their dead-end jobs. During the holidays especially, people would complain about how they were buying things for ungrateful family members who didn't deserve it. On more than one occasion, people got mad at me when their total was more than they expected and once someone even asked me to cover the difference. A man trying to buy a full sheet cake with a EBT card in a woman's name with no ID tried to get me fired when I wouldn't make the sale. A man cussed me out because I told him a copy of his driver's license taped to the back of a Movietime card did not count as a valid ID. Three frat boys made me cry when they bought plastic cups, a bottle of vodka, and a bag of live goldfish and made me ring them up. 

Again, this was not every customer. Many customers were wonderful people, but this was enough customers that it was not an exception to the rule; it was the rule. There is substantial subset of the population that uses retail workers as their own personal emotional release. All the meanness they can't use throughout the day for fear of the consequences gets saved up for someone who has very little recourse. Every time a cashier is rude to me (and it happens), I remember all those days and cut him/her some slack. It's tough to be on the receiving end of that kind of vitriol, and I don't think it's limited to upscale chains full of snobs. 

Have you worked retail? Did it bring the reign of humanity's worst behavior? 

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious: It's All Good Edition

I know that I've neglected you. I have drafts--in various stages--of five different blog posts, but they're just going to have to remain drafts for a few more days at least.

I have been in college for ten years. For many of those years, I've been on both sides of the desk. I know that the end of every single semester is insane, and now I just accept that reality. That doesn't make it any less stressful in the moment, but I have adopted a very Zen-like "this too shall pass" focus. Everything always feels like it is collapsing in May and December, but then there is June and January.

Of course, the fall semester is even worse than the spring because you do a double backflip out of the stress of the semester into a triple flip of the stress (I mean joy!) of the holidays. Plus, instead of a nice, long summer break to look forward to, you have just a few short weeks of break. And it's dark outside at 5 o'clock. Bah humbug!

This semester, I've (foolishly and completely of my own naive volition) added the stress of finally taking my dog to training and having a realtor come out to put my house on the market, all during the week that I have 60 portfolios to grade. On top of all of that, my daughter is--with the help of daycare--barreling through potty training at a breakneck pace, which is great, but which also has me taking her up the stairs 20 times a night because--even though I know she doesn't really have to go that often--how can you tell a potty training kid "no"? Kind of counter intuitive, right? (Speaking of potty training, one of my unfinished blog posts is about the marketing of big kid underwear. Crazy!)

All that to say that I've decided there is enough stress this week, so I am only sharing the links from "The Good": the things that made me smile. Don't worry, there will be plenty of "Bad" and "Curious" for later, but this week, it's all good.

The Good

Slate has a post about a term paper assignment from when Kurt Vonnegut was teaching. How awesome would it be to take his class?
Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.
Geena Davis has teamed up with Google to put some high-tech magic into analyzing media for women's representations.

The math proves it: final exams are killing all the grandmas.

A video that asks us what we'd do if money didn't matter (I would totally, no lie, do what I'm doing. I love my job.)

These pictures of couples getting married in Seattle now that marriage equality has won. 

What have you been reading/writing? Have any "Good" to add to my hectic week?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Kids, Music, and Kids' Music

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large--I contain multitudes."
--Walt Whitman

Forever ago, I wrote about how I don't really like kids songs and hoped to find music from my own collection that would appease my child. Also forever ago, I wrote about how I wasn't going to sweat if it my kid happened to drop an f-bomb now and then.

Last week, I bought a sing-along CD to play in the car.  When I climb into the car--alone--and am greeted with the peppy screeching of a "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" round because I forgot to switch the CDs, well, let's just say that 7am is way too early for that, but there we are.

Also last week, I said "shit" in front of my daughter and she went "Ooummm. You shouldn't say that" in that sing-songy I'm-going-to-tell-on-you voice. (Tell who? God? Her daycare teachers? Me? I don't know.)

Things are complicated.

I wasn't completely wrong about the music. My daughter has cultivated a thorough appreciation for a lot of music that I enjoy. There was an entire month where she would insist on listening to Otis Redding's "Shake" over and over again every time we got in the car. She loves New Orleans blues and plenty of the Beatles' songs. She was singing along with Adele the other day; never has a two-year-old sounded so angst-filled.

But the thing about kids' music that I didn't understand is that it has some sort of magical properties that worm their way into kids' brains and inject large doses of mood-altering chemicals (that's my own theory--research pending; don't quote me). Kids' songs have simple melodies that are easy to replicate. That's why--before she could even talk--my daughter would sing "be-ba-be be-ba-be be-ba-be-ba-be-ba-beeeeee" to the tune of "This Old Man" over and over and over and over again.

Now that's she's become more verbal, her love for age-appropriate songs extends to the easy-to-remember lyrics as well:

So, I bought the silly CD of kids' songs and now she insists that we "listen music" every time we are in the car. Sigh. 

Then I did something else. See, we're a music family. It's on all the time. It's on in the background when we're sitting around reading. It's on when we're cleaning the house on the weekends. It's on when I'm grading papers. 

I usually just plug my iPod in on shuffle and let it go, but then I couldn't do that anymore. 

I have had my iPod for almost ten years. There is a lot of music on there that I don't even think is appropriate anymore, and there's certainly a lot of music that I don't think is appropriate for my child to be singing, especially to someone outside of our home. 

That's the thing with the swear words. I still believe what I said--that there are no "bad" words and that language is a tool that we use to express ourselves. Still, I also understand that I am not my daughter's only audience, and I doubt her teachers (now or in the future) are going to be quite so lax about it, so I need to handle that reality.

That means I can't put the iPod on shuffle anymore. I was just carefully selecting particular albums to play, but that was boring. I finally broke down and made a kid-friendly playlist that includes plenty of music that will neither drive me insane nor ensure that my daughter grows up to be a sociopath. 

I cut several songs from the list for their sexual suggestiveness and--sometimes--their overt misogyny. I know that I probably shouldn't be listening to potentially misogynistic lyrics myself (my brain, after all, is impressionable, too), but I also appreciate that our aesthetic choices are made up of more than just our  social justice centers, as I think Marianne dissected very well in her xoJane piece on why she still listens to (the sexually predatory-filled lyrics of) "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

Among the songs that didn't make the cut were "Splash Waterfalls" by Ludacris (for reasons I hope are obvious), "Down in Mexico" by the Coasters (which describes an exotic dancer in some detail), and even Everclear's "White Men in Black Suits" (which contains the line "All you want is just a slow fuck in the afternoon"). 

I've cut out some music that I really enjoy, and now--at least for the time being--I can only listen to it on headphones in libraries while I write blog posts. 

These are choices I make happily to ensure that my child is getting exposed to media that is good for her or--at least--not bad for her. 

To help make sure that I was promoting her growth and creativity through music, I bought another horrid kids' song CD. I pop it in, and what comes out? This filth:

"I wish I was a little bar of soap/I'd slippy and I'd slidey over everybody's hidey"
"I wish I was a little mosquito/I'd bitty and I'd bitey under everybody's nightie"
"I wish I was a little bottle of pop/for I'd go down with a slurp"

Shit, she might as well listen to this:

At least that has a good beat. 

It looks like there's no winning this game. 

How do you handle music for your kids? Have you had to cut some of your favorite songs from rotation? Do you just let them listen to it? Have you found any kids' songs that make you blush?!

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links for the Week)

These are the things I read this week that made me smile (The Good), cringe (The Bad), and think (The Curious). Feel free to add anything you've read/written in the comments.

The Good

Hobo Mama has a great post on motivating kids to take long walks. It made me gleefully remember my own childhood spent in the woods like a feral child (I mean that in the best way possible). It also made me look forward to all the things yet to come in my parenting of a little girl who--to my complete amazement--turned two this weekend. 

Kelly from How I Learned to Wear a Dress had a great post over at Welcome Baby Care about how she chose to space out her children. She also has a lovely post about silence and speaking up that includes the line "Sometimes I don’t even know what I think until I say it out loud." What could be truer than that?

I know Thanksgiving is over, but this xoJane post on "8 Reasons I'm Thankful for My Body" is still relevant. 

There's been a lot of conversation surrounding Andrew Sullivan's new book Far From the Tree, which looks at people who parent children very different from themselves, including children with developmental disabilities. In response, Christina Nehring wrote this thoughtful piece, with a few passages that really spoke to me in particular:
Am I “cheerily generalizing” as Solomon says of other Down syndrome parents, “from a few accomplishments” of my child? Perhaps I am. But one thing I’ve learned these last four years that possibly Solomon has not: All of our accomplishments are few. All of our accomplishments are minor: my scribblings, his book, the best lines of the best living poets. We embroider away at our tiny tatters of insight as though the world hung on them, when it is chiefly we ourselves who hang on them. Often a dog or cat with none of our advanced skills can offer more comfort to our neighbor than we can. (Think: Would you rather live with Shakespeare or a cute puppy?) Each of us has the ability to give only a little bit of joy to those around us. I would wager Eurydice gives as much as any person alive.
The Grey Album remastered? Yes, please. 

Lindy West talks about being a fat gym goer and dealing with the fact that all of the people around her are motivated by the sole objective of not becoming her. It is honest and frank. 


The Bad

India-Jewel writes about her experiences in changing her name (and nothing else) on her resume to get more call-backs. On some others, she refused to fill in her race. The results reiterate just how far we have to come in terms of equality. 

An 11-year-old was gang raped by 20 men (some nearly 30 years old) and yet she's being called a seductress who was asking for it in some media reports. 

The Curious

Food Babe's post on eating organic away from home is inspiring and made me think about what changes I can make to our diet when we're traveling. 

Musing Mama writes about how her family's Elf on the Shelf had to be recalled to the North Pole to best complete his duties. I think people should get their holiday kicks however works for them, but the entire Elf on the Shelf concept fills me with dread. This post made me feel like less of a Scrooge for thinking that. 

Deb's post on how teaching her daughter positive body image has made her re-think her own perspective on beauty is lovely. 

If you don't click anything else I link to today, click on this link from The Chronicle--an interactive graph of articles published by women through various disciplines. It is fascinating. Did you know that fewer than 10% of the articles published in philosophy are written by women? 

This Racilicious post about paying a premium to avoid racist cab service is interesting . . . and sad. 

Jessica Valenti reminds us that being "liked" isn't always all it's cracked up to be

Clarissa's students provide a wide variety of responses to a hypothetical question about which parent should get custody. Be sure to check out the comments, too. 

Amy West's post about why she can't watch The Walking Dead is super interesting. I won't be cutting it (or a lot of the other disturbing media I consume) out of my life, but I do get her point. 

That's what I've been reading (sorry it's so long; I skipped a week). How about you?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Experiments in Teaching Grammar: Failure and Success

I've been teaching writing--in some form or another--for about eight years. Every time that I think I've pretty much figured out my students' general range of reactions to different discussions, they throw me for a loop. It's one of my favorite things about teaching: it never gets boring.

As I wrote about recently, dealing with grammar is difficult for me as a developmental writing instructor. Most of my students have a negative association with grammar rules that have been used to mark them as "unprepared."

You probably don't think of comma splices and verb tenses as emotional topics, but for many of my students, they are.

To deal with this, I started by putting all the grammar baggage on the table, and we had some good discussions. Eventually, though, we were left with the work of actually learning grammar rules.

Cue the excitement.
I devised a plan. 

Plan 1: Grammar Quiz Show Success

The first thing I decided to do was create a Jeopardy-like quiz game. (There are a lot of PowerPoint templates available online). I had designed games like this for drills in the past, but I always ran into the same problems: 1) it's really hard to tell who buzzes in first and 2) quieter students tend to fade into the background. 

I took to the internet to help solve my buzzer problem and stumbled across this message board. On it, a commenter named KateL suggested using white boards for teams to write their answers. I really liked this idea because it allowed all of the teams to score points on each question, it would prevent the problem of me not being able to hear buzzers, and it gave quieter participants a chance to be more active in the game. 

The team that held up the white board first got control of the board, so there was an incentive to answer quickly, but even teams that took longer to get to the answer could score points. This also helped control the noise level in the room because the teams didn't want the others stealing their answers. I also offered the winning team bonus points toward their overall class score to give it a little weight.

I bought some white boards, designed my game, and went into the classroom. It went great! The students were actively engaged with every question. I could hear them in their small groups discussing independent clauses and comma splices. The teams were fairly evenly matched, even though two front runners came out pretty clearly. Still, the vibe in the room was competitive but fun. The students enjoyed themselves, and I really felt like they were learning the material. 

Plan 1.2: Grammar Quiz Show Failure

Excited (maybe even a little smug) about my grammar success, I went into my other classroom the next week with the same plan . . . and it failed miserably. 

The students immediately fell into bickering over who was "cheating." At one point, I thought that two people in different teams were going to get into an actual fight. The winning score was over a thousand points in the negative. A few of the teams basically stopped participating, and I could hear hurt feelings all over the room. At a couple of points, the students bemoaned that they "felt stupid," which is about the last thing I want to hear as a developmental teacher. 

The Champ
We simply cannot come to blows over commas. 

What Happened?

I went home and spent some time reflecting on what went wrong. The class where the game failed is a lower-level class, though both of the classes are developmental. The main difference that I could discern between the two teams was their confidence. The second group of students seemed fairly set in their belief that they were not good at grammar and would not be good at grammar. Finally, I noticed that a lot of the students were afraid to say anything because they didn't want to look "stupid" in front of the rest of their classmates. 

This is when I realized just how emotional grammar is for many of my students. Even though we'd spent days talking about how there is no "proper" grammar and that we all adapt how we talk and write depending on our audiences, my students still steadfastly believed that they were being judged for the way they used grammar, even in a classroom full of other students who felt the same way. 

There were two things I needed to do if I wanted to get past this: boost confidence and build community. 

Plan 2: The Pop Quiz

Completely unannounced, I brought a pop quiz to the next class. They had all been given grammar guides over multiple categories (run-ons/comma splices, fragments, subject-verb agreement, and conjunctions) that they used during the Jeopardy game. I told them to take their guides out and ask me questions over any parts that were still confusing. We talked over a few questions. I asked if there was any more confusion. No one said anything. 

Then I told them that I was going to hand out a quiz, and once I handed it out, I wasn't going to answer any more questions. I could see the panic set in immediately. 

So I went on. The quiz would be counted as an in-class writing score (10 points), and they would all get that score as long as the quiz was complete. However, there were five sections on the quiz (one for each category and a combo). For each section where they answered every question right, they could get two bonus points, an opportunity to double their score. They visibly relaxed a little, but I still saw no signs of confidence. 

I began handing out the quiz and announced this final stipulation. I wouldn't answer questions, but they could ask each other. They could work in small groups, one large group, or some combination of the two. I didn't care. 

Finally, I told them that if more than half of the class got all the answers right in any one section, the whole class would get two more bonus points. They had the potential to get 30 points on this 10 point assignment. 

The Results

The attitude in the room completely changed. There was still a sense of competition, but they saw each other as allies. They were suddenly encouraging others to share their opinions and reassuring one another that mistakes were okay but that they needed to hear everyone's ideas. I heard people who normally don't talk at all sharing their thoughts, and--even when they weren't 100% right--I heard them using the logic and reason that will eventually get them to the right answers. 

I did this in two classes. In one of the classes, the students were so committed to getting the answers right that I had to make them stop when class ended. They spent a solid forty-five minutes talking solely about grammar. I didn't hear a single person get off topic, and I didn't see a single person playing on a cellphone. 

I just graded the papers. No one got every question right, but there were several sections where most people only missed one answer, and there was at least one section in each class that earned them group bonus points. 

The overall results were overwhelmingly better than the diagnostic test I gave them at the beginning of our grammar section. Before, they were making blind guesses. Now, I could see how they thought through their answers, even when they didn't get them right. 

Taking the pressure off of the "quiz" by turning it into a bonus point opportunity let them relax. Turning their classmates into allies gave them a sense of community. Creating a point system that increased in value depending on how many of them got it right turned them into cheerleaders. Instead of spending time worrying about how their classmates would perceive their own knowledge of grammar, they were focused on encouraging others so that they could get the most out of their resources. Once they started to see that other people thought like them, they gained confidence. 

It's not perfect. There are still mistakes, and, when I try this again next semester, it will invariably have to change in some way, but I really saw a breakthrough in the way these students approached not only grammar rules, but their understanding of themselves as learners. 

It was a good day. 

Teacher friends, what strategies have you used to overcome a difficult learning atmosphere? What lessons have worked beautifully in one class and then fallen flat in another? How do you adapt to your students' needs?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In Sickness and in Health, but Not in Monster Attacks

I have to preface this by explaining that I grew up in the country. I am not afraid of creepy-crawlies. I had--as pets--rats, mice, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and a giant centipede. I helped my dad clean squirrels and rabbits that he'd hunted. I caught snakes and frogs for fun. I remember being in fourth grade when a praying mantis fell on a classmate's desk and caused the entire room to go into a panic. As someone was about to smash the confused little bug, I scooped it up (bare handed) and tossed it out the window. I do not get creeped out by critters easily. 

This little guy (or gal, we didn't have much time to get acquainted) greeted me this morning as I was making my breakfast and heading out the door. It's a house centipede, and if my blurry iPhone pic doesn't do enough to spark fear in your heart, take a look at these images that Flickr users have been kind enough to contribute to our nightmares. 

House Centipede closeup
I mean, come on! Why does anything need that many legs? Isn't that the creepiest thing you've ever seen?!

I'm telling you all of this because it reminded me of a moment my marriage was put to the test. 

See, before our city decided to join the 20th century and get recycling containers in alleyways, we kept plastic bins on our back porch for our recyclables and then drove them across town to dutifully dump them in the appropriate spot. We'd then leave our empty bins in the back seat of the car so we could start the whole process again. 

Apparently, one of these little friends decided to hitch a ride on a recycling bin and revealed itself on the windshield directly in front of my eyes. 

At that vantage point, it was about 12-inches long (not really) and had about 30 legs (really). My completely uncontrollable reaction was to let out a scream, a terrified, high-pitched, the-world-is-about-to-end scream. 

Luckily, I wasn't driving. Unluckily, my husband was. When I let out that scream, his reaction was to pull to the side of the road, unbuckle his seat belt, and without even putting the car in park, jump from the vehicle. 

He had one leg out of the open door as our car was rolling down the shoulder of a (deserted, thank God) road. 

"What are you doing?!" I yelled at him. 

"I don't know," he said. "But whatever made you scream like that, I don't want any part of." 

We're really a pretty good team. He was an amazing partner through childbirth and we "died" hand-in-hand during the zombie run, but I know when the true terror comes, his reaction will be to leap from the vehicle while I'm left to fight for my life. At least my screams might save him. I suppose if I manage to jump out, too, he'll probably come check on me, once he's sure the monsters are gone.