Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Philosophy of Outsourcing and a Review of Blue Apron

There are some realities that I just have to learn to face. As a liberal living in Missouri, for example, I am always going to be sad about the outcomes of state-wide elections. I will never, not ever, be able to wear high heels gracefully and without pain. My hardwood floors will never be "white sock safe" for longer than twenty minutes in my house with a preschooler, two cats, and a dog. And I can only go grocery shopping once a week.

It's this last bitter reality I want to write about today.

I mostly like cooking. I even kind of like finding new recipes, sorting them into categories, and experimenting with creating them. I actively dislike shopping. I loathe putting the groceries away. I strongly dislike making grocery lists and trying not to forget anything. I hate with a passion throwing away food because my meal planning failed and the ingredients went bad before I used them.

My face whenever I open the refrigerator and see moldy cheese. 
On top of that, grocery shopping is an ordeal. My daughter's new school schedule allows no room for flexibility, so I can't shop after work before picking her up. And (deep breath as I accept this fact), I can't take her with me. Not if I want to actually buy the things I need to buy. Not if I want to have any patience or semblance of sanity left when we walk in the house. Not if I don't want to have flashbacks to mid-aisle meltdowns every time I pick up the cereal box. So I grocery shop on Sundays while she and my husband sleep in or go for a walk or whatever. I can grocery shop one day a week without it turning everything into a giant and unwinnable game of Which Basic Necessity Do You Want to Lose.

On top of all of that, we have to eat food to live.

I've attempted to use outsourcing in a variety of ways to balance out these demands on my time and biology.

I want (as I suspect a lot of people want) to be able to eat food in my own house without it taking hours to prepare or days to plan. I want to eat out only because I've made a conscious choice to enjoy the luxury of eating out--not because I looked in the refrigerator and realized that the I forgot to thaw out the pork chops and the bread has molded so we can't even eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

What role can outsourcing play in my food dilemma? Obviously, it can play a very big role. I can pay someone else to make the food, package it, and deliver it to my house. But getting pizza delivered five days a week kind of goes against some of my primary goals about keeping us healthy and happy.

The next step would be going and picking food up at a restaurant, but often this isn't as convenient as it initially seems to be. It takes longer than it ever seems it should, and the choices are still pretty limited in terms of getting fresh food that makes me feel like we're making healthy choices.

I found part of the solution by using a service called Time for Dinner, a local company where you can  spend a few hours going between food stations and prep a freezer full of make-ahead meals. I like this option, but you only make main dishes, so I still had to plan side dishes and snacks and shop for them.

I can competently and rather successfully meal plan through Wednesday. I can shop on Sunday morning and get us through Sunday's lunch and dinner up to dinner on Wednesday. But that's it.

It doesn't matter what else I do, Thursday won't work. You would think I could just buy one more day's worth of food. I could even buy food I cook from frozen like a pizza or some Trader Joe's orange chicken and stir fry rice. You would think this wouldn't be that hard. But Thursday will not work. It's just one of those realities of the universe. And Friday? Let's not talk about Friday.

So I'm accepting my limits. I can only grocery shop once a week, and I can only successfully plan meals for four days. That's it. That's the best I can do.

In the past, we've dealt with this reality by eating out, ordering in, or having a hodge podge of lunchmeat and dry cereal (because of course we don't have milk by Thursday) for dinner. But those are unsatisfactory solutions.

So a few weeks ago I decided to try a food delivery service. After looking into Plated, Hello Fresh, and Blue Apron, I picked Blue Apron. It had the most reasonable rate ($70 for two family-size meals a week) and the easiest site navigation in terms of picking which food I wanted. I could also opt out of foods I didn't want (I don't eat seafood or fish) and swap in a vegetarian meal whenever I wanted.

I'll admit I was skeptical. I mean, I regularly get mail at my house for people who haven't lived here in a decade, could I really trust something I intended to eat to show up on my porch?

I've gotten three deliveries (six meals), and they've all gone perfectly. The food arrives on time, packed in ice and has always been cold and fresh when I opened it up.

The food comes in a futuristic-looking foil pack, and it's clearly labeled so that I have no trouble telling which ingredients go with each recipe.

The recipe cards are easy-to-follow and contain nice little additional info like cooking tips or information about seasonal vegetables, and they could easily be reused if you choose to remake the meals with ingredients you buy yourself. 

I've had no problems with the ingredients, all of which have been fresh and flavorful, and the meals have been just outside the box enough for me to be excited about cooking something new but still within my range of experiences enough that I feel comfortable cooking them and can convince my four-year-old to eat them. 

As an added bonus, my daughter really likes the excitement of getting a "present" filled with food, and she's been interested in helping me cook the meals, learning more about food prep and nutrition in the process. So instead of the forty-five minutes I would have spent regretting all my life decisions by taking her to the grocery store where she would become overwhelmed and melt down, we can spend a little time bonding and cooking some healthy food together. Win-win-win.

Heirloom tomato and squash pasta with a romaine salad. 
A Frozen plate, for authenticity. This one got called "the best food ever." No joke.
This was my favorite. Chicken tacos with tomatillo salsa and Mexican-style corn on the cob. 
My box arrives on Thursdays, and now--finally--Thursdays work. It's more expensive than going to the grocery store, but it's less expensive (and much healthier) than going out to eat. When I first looked into it, I told myself that I would find some other way; I would figure out how to get to the grocery store on Wednesday nights and save us a little money. But the truth is, it's not that much more money, and the money is easier to find than the time right now.

I know there are some people out there (I've seen them with my own eyes) who can make home cooked meals every night of the week with (what appears to me to be) ease. I envy you, but I will never be you, no more than I will be the woman climbing the stairs effortlessly in four-inch heels or the woman who can walk across her living room floor without getting cat hair stuck to her socks. I'm learning to stop chasing versions of my life that aren't realistic, and for me, that means letting someone else pack two of my dinners on ice each week and put them on my front porch. It's working, and I'm thrilled.

Photo: castgen

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Shame, Blame, Restoration and Victimhood Culture

There has been a swirl of tangentially connected and frustratingly amorphous thoughts going through my mind lately, and I'm going to attempt to better connect them here in the hopes that it will spark a conversation to help me sort them out.

The solidification of these connections started when I read Conor Friedersdorf's Atlantic piece "The Rise of Victimhood Culture." In this piece, Friedersdorf examines an email exchange between two Oberlin college students to illustrate what is being read as the rise of a new cultural consciousness. The email exchange centered around a Hispanic female student who was insulted by a white male student's group email about a soccer club. She accused him of being culturally insensitive by using the word "futbol" and attempting to dismiss the importance of a Latino Heritage Month event by inviting people to play soccer instead. He responded with his own indignation and cited his close relationship with a Costa Rican family as evidence against her claims. 

The exchange was the subject of a recent sociology paper by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning who use it as evidence of a new cultural approach to conflict. As opposed to honor or dignity cultures, Campbell and Manning believe that there is a new culture based on victimhood:
Victimhood cultures emerge in settings, like today’s college campuses, “that increasingly lack the intimacy and cultural homogeneity that once characterized towns and suburbs, but in which organized authority and public opinion remain as powerful sanctions,” they argue. “Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood ... the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”
Friedersdorf extends this observation to that of the social norms on the internet, particularly in the "blogosphere":
For example, the emergence of “the blogosphere” in the early aughts––something I participated in to some extent–– was rife with examples of conservative, progressive, and libertarian bloggers calling attention to minor slights against their respective ideological groups by mainstream media outlets. In “Fisking” the MSM, the aggrieved seized on these slights, often exaggerating them in the process; tried to garner the support of third parties (an ombudsman, the public at large); cast themselves as victims of unfair treatment; and demonized adversaries.
They did so in hopes of making the case that the small slight that they’d seized upon was actually evidence of a larger, significant injustice to a whole class of people.
This is interesting to me on a personal level because . . . I've done that. I've taken a minor event and written about it in a public outlet in the hopes that it shines light on a bigger issue: when a man saw me mowing my lawn and used it as an opportunity to creepily ask me why my "man" wasn't doing it instead, when the doctor-in-training at my daughter's 9-month appointment asked me "what's up with that?" because her skin is darker than mine, when I stumbled across KKK memorabilia and slave shackles at an ostensibly family-friendly festival. I am no stranger to the format of using a personal anecdote of "microaggression" to point to larger societal ills.

This got me thinking about the rhetorical effectiveness of such an approach. We know that people respond with more empathy to individual stories than they do to collective data. It's why the Ferguson Report bolsters clear statistical evidence of revenue-generating police tactics with personal stories like the one of a woman charged $151 for a single parking violation who ended up paying $550 and still owes $541 seven years later. It's why the picture of the Aylan Kurdi's tiny drowned body sparked more outrage about the Syrian refugee crisis than well-written but distant accounts of the number of refugees. It's why Humans of New York is such a popular site and is so good at raising awareness and support for individuals through Facebook posts.

In many ways, "Victimhood Culture" seems like the natural merging of the feminist slogan "the personal is political" with the ease of sharing made possible through technological advancements and the rise of social media. If the more rhetorically effective way to gain attention for your cause is to hone in on a representative individual, storytelling is a powerful drive of human nature, and online social networks make sharing as easy as clicking a button, then the rise of so many soap boxes makes perfect sense.

It's not then, our desire to share our story and be seen as a victim of a larger ill that is new--we've always done that, haven't we? When wronged, we rage, and the metaphor of the soapbox I just called upon is a testament to how low-tech this desire really is. We've always shared our personal stories (good and bad), but it's the rise of such a large, diverse, and interconnected audience to witness them that is changing the culture.

Two recent stories in particular illustrate this point.

Ahmed and His Clock
On Monday of this week (just four short days ago) Texas high school freshman Ahmed Mohamed was arrested after bringing a homemade clock to school that was mistaken for a "hoax bomb." The claim is ridiculous, of course, because in order to make a "hoax bomb" one would have to say it was an actual bomb, something Mohamed never did, as he repeatedly told anyone who would listen that it was just a clock that he brought in the hopes of impressing his teachers and help him build a relationship with like-minded tinkerers.

Reading the story broke my heart. This child was handcuffed and led out of school even though the teacher didn't see his clock as enough of a threat to evacuate her classroom. She left the device in her desk and only had him investigated later in the day. Clearly, no one believed this was an actual bomb. Mohamed was traumatized through a dehumanizing (and perhaps unconstitutional) arrest and suspended from school.

The collective public reacted swiftly. By yesterday, the story was making international headlines, and #IStandWithAhmed was trending across social media platforms. Memes were made. The news was spread. People were having none of it.

The Dancing Man
Back in February, a man was body shamed online for daring to dance while fat. The tormentors posted his picture taken without his permission and mocked him, and all anyone looking at the pictures had to go by was the anonymous image.

The collective public once again responded with outrage, and that rage propelled them to band together and find the man, who was later identified as Sean O'Brien.

A Pattern of Response
On the surface, these two stories don't really have much in common. One is a teen subjected to mistreatment at the hands of an authority figure while the other is an adult subjected to bullying from random strangers. Mohamed faced serious legal repercussions (though charges were not filed) and documented punishment in his school record; O'Brien might not have ever known the pictures of him were posted if it hadn't been for the resulting push back. Mohamed and his parents shared their incident publicly to intentionally draw attention to the wrongdoing; O'Brien's mistreatment was avenged on his behalf by internet strangers.

What's interesting to me is that both of these people represent "victims" within "Victimhood Culture" even though only one of them intentionally shared their story in order to present himself as a victim (rightfully, in my opinion). To me, the fact that victims are created even when they're not promoting their own victimhood indicates that the drive for Victimhood Culture does not come (or at least does not come solely) from the person being victimized, but rather comes from the collective public who empathizes with and latches onto their stories. 

The problem with this collective public is that they are prone to irrational acts. Much has been said about the social media mob mentality where people's lives are destroyed when the collective fury snowballs. This kind of public shaming has frequently resulted in lost jobs and death threats, and the individuals in question become instant celebrities who are often held up as a flavor-of-the-week litmus test for particular political stances. 

  I've been in some of those social media shame vortexes. I've been outraged. I've retweeted callouts for racist, sexist, and otherwise abhorrent behavior. But I've tried to do so less because I realized that the motivations weren't always clear. Was I doing this to help the victim? (And was there always a "victim"?) Or was I just jumping on a bandwagon?

Yesterday, when Mohamed's story broke along my social media sites, I shared my outrage. I linked to the story. I shared that I was upset at an educational system that focuses more on making students fit predetermined boxes than finding their skills and helping them grow. I felt justified in helping Ahmed share his story, but I drew the line at leaving comments or reviews on the school's Facebook page, a site that is now filled with shaming. 

And I can't say that I don't think the school deserves it. They've doubled down on their actions and refused to back off the three-day suspension. They're wrong, and the people commenting are pointing out the wrongness. I'm not sure, though, that attacking the school's hallway decorations (almost certainly the work of students) or mocking the credentials of teachers who weren't even involved in the incident does anything to serve the greater cause.

Similarly, many of those outraged about O'Brien took to attacking his bullies. The post that first drew attention to O'Brien's plight was aimed at ridiculing those who took the picture. With little to go on to identify the perpetrators, the mob didn't have anywhere to aim their fury, so they took to building something positive instead.

An online effort to identify O'Brien worked, and shortly after a momentous movement was set into action. Funds were crowdsourced, media outlets got involved, and O'Brien was treated to a giant dance party, introduced to celebrities, and honored through the creation of "I AM DANCING MAN" t-shirts. 

Ahmed's story resulted in a similar outpouring of positive response. Since the story broke, he's been invited to the White House, given scholarships to Space Camp, and granted offers to transfer schools. He's gotten public support from major celebrities and politicians. He's being interviewed on major national news shows and talked about across the world.  

O'Brien and Mohamed illustrate the flipside of internet mob mentality. As much as we want to pile on the "bad" guy, we also want to help out the "good" guy. We want to provide some kind of retribution for the victim, and in a way, the public culpability in "Victimhood Culture" suggests to me a kind of restorative justice. These stories break our hearts and capture our minds, and we feel compelled to do something. More and more, that something seems to involve reaching out to the wronged and trying to make it right.

And it's not only when we see someone who has been wronged by a direct mistreatment at the hands of another. Consider the $1.4 million raised in scholarship money for a group of Brooklyn high schoolers after they were featured in a Humans of New York photo series. Think about the homeless man who was inundated with job offers after a picture of his handwritten resume went viral. There are countless feel-good stories that serve as illustrations as our collective desire to do good. 

But What Does it All Mean?
So why have I been spending so much time thinking about this? What's the problem? People on the internet see someone who has been wronged (either by some specific entity or by being put in an oppressed position overall) and they want to make it right. How could that possibly be a problem?

I don't know. I don't even know that it is. But I know that the intersections of "Victimhood Culture" and the stories of Mohamed and O'Brien have been weighing heavily on my mind.

One thing that I want to figure out is where our collective motivation comes from. Are we truly trying to lift up these wronged individuals or are we trying to assuage some kind of collective guilt? And if we are trying to assuage guilt, does that mean that these individual stories have done the job that Campbell and Manning said they aim to do: demonstrate microaggressions to be representations of a greater, systemic problem?

That's the part I think I have trouble dealing with. Flooding a single homeless man with job offers does nothing to address the social realities that make homelessness an epidemic. Letting Ahmed tour the White House does nothing to address the fact that non-white children across the country are being criminalized in school rooms and piped into a prison industrial complex. Giving O'Brien a dance party does not stop fat shaming from sending thousands of people into spirals of disordered eating and self harm.  

That doesn't mean we shouldn't do these things. We absolutely should try to right wrongs on an individual level. I hope that man finds a job he loves, that Ahmed gets to go to a school that nurtures his talent, and that O'Brien gets to dance as long as he wants. I'm happy that as a society we were able to come together and create a network of support in which those things could happen. I'm happy when my "shares" and comments are part of that network of support. It makes me feel good. 

But I have to wonder, if we really are changing from a culture of dignity or honor to one of victimhood, what are the implications for the individuals identified as victims and for us as their collective protectors and oppressors (sometimes both at the same time)?  What happens to people who never wanted to be held up as these kind of examples but who get sucked into the frenzy? What happens to our sense of collective responsibility for the macro-level problems that aren't being addressed? How much of this is an extension of token exceptionalism that allows us to turn our backs on the harm we're complicit in creating? What happens to dignity and honor as we make these shifts? How can I best operate as someone who tells my stories and values the stories of others?

I don't know any of those answers, but I know that the questions keep coming to my mind.

Photos: lastonein, Robert Couse-Baker

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Challenging Cooperative Games and Gobblet Gobblers

Pre-parenthood, I loved board games. I have a whole closet full of dusty, lonely games as evidence of this forgotten personal history. I have this fantasy that someday my daughter, too, will love board games, and my by then ridiculously-outdated collection will get a renewed life as a cornerstone for raucous family game nights.

Until then, though, I am stuck playing "age appropriate" games (which is really code for "mind numbingly dull" games) and pretending to like them because otherwise my child will grow to associate games with misery and doom and my fantasy will be dead in the water.

I'm kidding. They're not all that bad. (Smile! Is it working?)

I've written before about how playing board games meant for toddlers has given me insight into my career as a college writing teacher, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that my latest game purchase has led me to yet another connection to rhetoric studies.

I was browsing the toy aisle at Target and decided to buy a new game we could all play. As I was looking, I noticed a lot of games with labels pointing out that they are for "Cooperative Play." Cooperative games are those in which players are not pitted against one another but against a common challenge. They have to work together and either everyone wins or everyone loses. Peaceable Kingdom seems to be king of this market (at least at Target), and we have their game Feed the Woozle, a fun, silly, and interactive game that we really enjoy.

Apparently, this is not just a quality rising in popularity for children's game, as adult games like Pandemic have seen mainstream success using cooperative principles. And anyone who has had to ignore 753 million Facebook game invites in a single day knows that a lot of online games encourage cooperation among players (especially when it doubles as a tactic to make someone new play--and potentially pay for--the game).

Perhaps this is just a sign of the times. Millennials have been called a particularly cooperative generation, and the technology that connects people across former barriers certainly adds to that sense of working together. Couple that with the rise of the "sharing economy," and it seems like we've been stewing in a cultural milieu ripe for the promotion of cooperation.

In addition to Feed the Woozle, we've got a few other toddler board games built on cooperation like a  My Little Pony game where you have to build a rainbow together before the time runs out. They're fun, and I like that my intense little girl can focus some of that fierceness onto a shared task rather than competition. Cooperative games have both value and values, teaching skills that kids will need in a world wired for connectivity while simultaneously promoting attitudes of sharing and team building.

As a rhetoric scholar, though, I am suspicious of cooperation. As I wrote about at (probably too much) length in this post, my dissertation topic deals with agonistic rhetoric and the dichotomy between cooperative and antagonistic rhetorical approaches.

Antagonism often comes with a win-at-any-cost mentality that pits opponents against one another. You see it on any news show where two (or more) people are meant to show their opposition to one another's point of view by yelling loudest as the cameras roll. Antagonism is marked by a desire to come out of the debate unchanged and having (ideally) consumed your opponent into thinking your way. It is deeply competitive, as the risks of losing an antagonistic battle can be very high. There's also not much motive to listen to the other person because you're not really trying to understand your opponent; you're just trying to win.

There's not much to be said for antagonism except that it's prevalent.

Cooperative rhetorical approaches often develop as ways to combat an overly antagonistic environment. Cooperative spaces are typically irenic, spaces where conflict is avoided and seen as a threat to the goals of listening and working together. Particularly when set beside an antagonistic alternative, cooperative spaces seem inviting, peaceful, and very attractive.

But cooperation has serious rhetorical risks. Too much time spent practicing cooperation results in echo chambers where people only hear things they already believe. Cooperation can silence minority voices because they're seen as a threat to the stable, peaceful majority. (It also, as it turns out, might not be such a great way to generate ideas and promote hard work, a lesson proponents of open office floor plans learned the hard way).

Proponents of agonistic rhetoric (a rhetoric where conflict is embraced but destruction is not, where both opponents are changed through the act of struggling together to alter the other's point of view through listening and speaking) value cooperation as a space to get your ideas together before you turn to a more competitive sphere. If you're going to test your ideas against a hostile opponent, it makes sense that you'd want to first strengthen them among a nurturing crowd. Cooperation is important, but only when it serves as a starting point for a larger cycle of competition and growth.

It is through testing our ideas against others that we find out which are strong enough to hold up. This is how we formulate new ideas, discard ones that no longer seem worthy, and grow as people.

So what does that mean for cooperative children's games? If games are a training ground for real-life problem solving, what kind of games should we be playing with our kids?

I think cooperative games are important. Feeding the Woozle or building the ponies' rainbow helps show my daughter how to intertwine her skills with other people's. It teaches her that she won't always be center stage of every act and that sometimes she will have to sit back and let someone else make the final, winning move on a project she's helped create. These are important life skills, and I'm glad to see that there are so many games coming out to help her build them.

But I don't want to limit her to cooperative play. She needs the skills of competition and agonism. She needs to interact with an opponent and feel the risk of her own win or loss tied up in her individual actions. These are also skills she'll need, and they're ones I think games can help her build.

The game I finally settled on that day is Gobblet Gobblers (created by Blue Orange), and I am so glad I did.

Gobblet Gobblers is basically tic-tac-toe with two important added features: 1) There are three sizes of players, and smaller ones can get "gobbled" by larger ones and 2) You can move a piece you've already played to a different square on your turn. This turns a simple, easy-to-rig game like tic-tac-toe into a complex game of multiple strategies.    

It gets points not only for being a game that teaches my daughter important life skills, but also for being a game geared for kids as young as five that can keep an adult entertained. The individual games go by quickly, so you're not committed to hours of play every time you open the box (I'm looking at you, Candy Land). Most impressively for me is the way that it teaches strategy and competition that lay the groundwork for more complex games in the future. It also teaches you to be a good loser and a humble winner, and it's fast-paced enough that the sting of losing can be quickly surpassed by the thrill of a win. 
I'm going to keep playing cooperative games with my kid because cooperation is a necessary and crucial skill that I want her to build, but I don't want her to build cooperation without also building the ability to think critically against an opponent. Even with the rise of sharing culture and more cooperation, I know that anything great is built through conflict and struggle; people have to come up against opposition if they are to evolve, and teaching our kids how to face that opposition is as much our job as teaching them to work together. 

My daughter, gobbling me up.
Images: Tambako the Jaguar