Friday, December 23, 2016

Researching as a Community College Professor

I've got a post up over at the University of Toronto Press blog about researching as a community college professor (it was written in conjunction with an article I published on how narratives of fitness and feminism conflict, which is available here from Project Muse).

Here's an excerpt from the blog:
See, I didn’t “need” to do research. As a full-time faculty member at a community college, my career trajectory is not welded to scholarship the way it would have been had I pursued a career teaching in a four-year institution. There is no “publish or perish” mandate hanging over my head. While scholarship is celebrated among my colleagues, it is not necessarily expected. What is expected instead are acts much more directly related to the day-to-day function of a community college professor: committee memberships, innovative course design, service to the community, and a substantial teaching load. 
Without the direct incentives and expectations to do independent scholarly research, community college professors face additional external hurdles of time constraints and internal hurdles of motivation. It is the latter that I would like to address here.

If you want to read the full post, you can check it out here.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Minimalism, Peace, and Time for Fighting

Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with my blog has probably seen me complaining about housekeeping. It's been a regular feature stretching back over the years here. I've mused about the gender divide in housekeeping and how it impacts negotiations in equally shared parenting. I've wondered about seeing housekeeping as a skill and the gendered ramifications of positioning it as such. I've even written about my attempts to rid myself of this personal struggle through professional means including hiring a professional organizer and seeing a therapist (with whom I then got into a partnership-ending fight about whether or not housekeeping could be a problem).

Now, these problems are not gone, but I have found the first thing in my entire adult life that seems to be making a difference: minimalism.

I got introduced to minimalism as a movement when someone (I can't even remember who) told me to listen to The Minimalists podcast. The Minimalists are the collective name for a pair of men who left corporate jobs at the age of 30 and have built a pretty significant online following discussing principles of minimalism to simplify and better your life. Their work has been shared through the aforementioned podcasts, live tours, books, and a movie.

At its core, minimalism is pretty simple: pare down the excess from your life so that you have room for what matters.

In practice, this often leads to tips about getting rid of things you already own, buying less, living in smaller houses, and even (as the Minimalists did) downsizing things like career and relationships.

I've listened to several of their podcasts, and though I often disagree with some of what they say, a lot of it is insightful and inspiring. I'm particularly drawn to the advice that seems to overlap with finding your purpose and making room for life's passions.



This is where I should pause and tell you something else about myself. In addition to finding housekeeping overwhelming to the point of needing therapy, there are some other personality quirks that I've either acquired or came hard-wired with at birth.

I hate small talk. I hate it, hate it, hate it. I don't want to chit-chat with people about things that neither of us really care about. This description of a small talk-free party that went around earlier this year sounded like heaven to me. Want to tell me about your favorite place to shop? What you're going to eat for brunch tomorrow? I'll smile politely while feeling like small animals are trying to burrow out of my throat because I have no idea what to say when it's my turn. Want to talk to me about whether or not you think God is real? How you perceive corruption in the criminal justice system? If political parties can be united across an urban-rural divide? Exhale. Now we're in comfortable territory.

I also hate tasks that I know, logically, are no big deal. I hate having to stop and get gas. Right now, there is a package slip for a package I have to go pick up from the post office sitting in my dining room, and it feels like a ticking bomb. I bring books to read in the ten minutes I wait in line to pick my daughter up from school. I can't stand downtime. It makes me feel itchy and sick to my stomach.

I've read analyses of these quirks in terms of personality "typing" (an INFJ, if you're the sort who cares about that kind of thing). They say that it maps onto a very goal-driven persona that cares  about broad and deep topics that impact humanity. I've also read about them in terms of mental health disorders (anxiety, if you're the sort who cares about that kind of thing). They say that it maps onto defective brain chemistry that makes me unhealthy. Whatever the case, I've come to understand that these things are a deep-seated part of who I am. Bane or boon, I will always feel like my feet have been set on fire when I have to wait in line for more than three minutes, and I will spend every get-to-know-you chat awkwardly trying to remember the other person's name while internally wishing we were discussing whether or not death is a final state of being.

The more I listened to The Minimalists, the better I could articulate my problem with housekeeping. It's not the actual work that bothers me. I don't mind physical labor or menial tasks. I have done plenty of both in my life, both for pay and not. The reason that housekeeping (and other generally domestic tasks) sends me into a spiral is that it has no finality. I am deeply, deeply goal oriented. Often those goals are lofty and years away, but they are there.

That's not the case with the dishes. The dishes will never be done. They will always come back. The floor will always get dirty again, often moments after I have cleaned it. This was also the source of a lot of the postpartum anxiety I experienced while staying home with my kids during my maternity leave. I loved spending time with them. I did not love the never-ending string of chores with no finish line. The diapers went in the bin, in the laundry, folded, in the bin, in the laundry, folded, in the bin, in the laundry, folded . . . and I felt trapped. As the tasks piled on top of one another, they felt like bricks closing in on me. It was the Cask of Amontillado, but I was my own captor, having imprisoned myself in an endless, self-replicating to-do list.


So back to minimalism. I had, in a fit of desperation, previously used the Marie Kondo advice to purge my home of several useless or outdated items, but I didn't know how to prevent their return. The Minimalists were basing their philosophy in the same basic place Kondo did: keep what brings you joy, ditch what doesn't. 

Joy, though, is a weird motivator for me, and by that I mean it doesn't particularly motivate me in the long-term. Don't get me wrong. I have lots of moments of joy, and I hope to have many, many more, but what gets me up in the morning (and too often keeps me up at night) is not worrying how to be happy; it is worrying how to make a difference--in my discipline, in projecting my values, in my career, in the world. 

I won't get off on too much of a tangent (tangent? me? never!), but this article about happiness vs. meaning takes a look at this pretty well. 

So I kept feeling partially motivated by these discussions and then having them fall hollow. 

I decided to join a few "minimalist" groups on Facebook, and something interesting happened. 

First of all, I want to say that these groups are full of lovely, helpful, kind people. The conversations I see are almost always genuinely rooted in wanting to help one another out for no external motivation other than knowing that we're in a shared condition and have experiences that others could value. What I am about to say about these groups is in no way meant as a criticism of what the people (mostly women, which I'll talk about in a minute) are doing there. The spaces they've created serve a clear purpose, and it's even a purpose that I find helpful for myself and plan to continue visiting. But they didn't provide me the answers I was looking for, and so I am still searching. 

For one, these groups are almost entirely made up of women. I think this might be true of Facebook community pages in general. I've read lots of theories on this: women use Facebook more, women are more likely to seek out collective answers, women are more likely to be home and have access to the computer. Whatever the case, these are female-centric (and more often than not stay-at-home-mom-centric) spaces. I feel that's probably connected to my next observation. 

Secondly, the version of minimalism that gets the most attention in these groups is one that often gets intertwined with (and perhaps conflated with) concepts like tidiness and frugality. Most of the women posting seem primarily motivated to take up "minimalism" as a way to save money or make their homes meet a certain "clean" and "modern" aesthetic standard. 

I want to stress again that I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to save money or create a home that reflects your aesthetic tastes. These are absolutely valid reasons to join a Facebook group of like-minded supporters and gather tips and advice. There are tons of Facebook groups specifically about both of those things, and the "minimalism" layer to it just helps to separate out the specific type of aesthetic and money-saving techniques one might be seeking. 

There is another more insidious trend in these groups, though, and this one I am pointing to with a critical eye: some people seem to think that because their decorating and money saving endeavors are "minimalist" that they are somehow morally superior choices. 

It's a high horse. Get it? Get it?!
Unpacking all of this (and still personally trying to figure out why minimalism kept tugging at me while not quite finding what I was looking for in these groups and explorations) made me think about the connection of morality to minimalist principles. 

The Minimalists have a post on the topic of religion (certainly not the only source of morality, but a source of morality) and minimalism. They muse that several people have written them praising them for walking the correct path of [insert chosen religion]. People have inaccurately identified them to be Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim. They, for what it's worth, say that they each have very different personal religious beliefs but both find minimalism to have "nothing to do with religion; instead, it was a reaction to the discontentment we experienced after being steeped in consumerism for three decades."

So they root their path in a secular adherence to anti-consumerism, and that's fair enough, but their readers aren't just imagining the religious undercurrent to their message. Minimalist principles are well-represented in a variety of religious and spiritual places (as another minimalist blogger briefly explores here). Philosophical approaches like asceticism and stoicism also have minimalist cores. 

To place minimalism in conversation with the particular strain of consumerism bred from American capitalism is fine, but I find it much more interesting to trace it through a host of moments separated by religion, geography, and time. Minimalism seems to be much more universal and deep when examined through the lens of historical interaction with codes of morality and philosophy. 

And the thing is that minimalism is not, for most of those philosophical and religious approaches, an end game. It's a means to an end. One does not rid one's self of worldly possessions for the sake of having empty shelves or being able to win a competition to see who can fill the most trash bags to send to Goodwill. The ridding of the things is a very early step in the process toward creating a life filled with more important calls upon the energy that previously went into coveting, purchasing, and maintaining those things. When that goal overlaps with moral codes, it is often a way to make space for religious reading, committing acts of faith and service, and otherwise giving one's self to the world. 

That is why I continue to be drawn to minimalism. I have used the very practical and pragmatic tips to get my house clean and purge it of unnecessary clutter so that it stays that way, and it's wonderful, but it's not wonderful because I can post pictures of my clean sink and feel accomplished. It's wonderful because now instead of dreading doing the dishes, I can spend that time reading The New Jim Crow and thinking about what I can do to fight a corrupt criminal justice system. The time I spent stuffing clothes into a drawer only to have them explode all over the floor the next time I needed to get dressed can now be spent having meaningful conversations with like-minded friends about the local political races coming up in my city and how we can mobilize to get people to the polls. Instead of spending thirty minutes procrastinating about the task, twenty minutes actually cleaning out my car, and another fifteen minutes pouting about having had to do it, I can now plan a better lesson for my students. 

I would say that it allows me more time to spend dancing with my daughter or reading to my son, but the truth is that I made time for those things already. What was suffering, instead, was my sense of fulfilling my purpose in life, a purpose that I fulfill through my career and my activist work. 

I don't think that makes me any better than the people who turn to minimalism as a way to make their house Pinterest-perfect (and I'll admit that I enjoy looking at their pictures and find them calming and inspiring). Even though I'm trying to align my personal moral code with these actions, I am not claiming a moral high ground in doing so. 

It's simply that, for me, virtually every action I take has to be connected to the longer term goal or I won't do it (or will dread doing it so much that it consumes me). By understanding the task of maintaining the domestic sphere as a means to a more activist and philosophical end, I have finally made it (not easy but) manageable, and I have minimalism (even as it enjoys its pop culture moment) to thank for that.
Images: John Keogh, salimbasar, zoom in tight,

Saturday, November 26, 2016

What Gilmore Girls Teaches Us About Passion and Dreams

I was among those looking forward to Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life with great excitement. But I was also looking forward with tempered expectations. I didn't expect the reboot to be able to capture the magic of the original series, and I don't think I was wrong. (Spoilers for the entire A Year in the Life from here on out). I was disappointed with some of the delivery (what was with that forever-long musical sequence, for instance?), and I was left perplexed by those last four words, but that's not my central focus in this response.

The four, ninety-minute episodes had a lot to love. The characters felt mostly true to their development, and I didn't feel like the actors were phoning it in. There were plenty of moments tucked in with clear appreciation for the fan base (hello, Mr. Kim!). It was, to put it one way, clearly a  project of passion: the actors', the writers', and the fans'. Perhaps that's why approaching an analysis of it as a way to understand passion seems like a natural fit to me.

Tara Seetharam wrote an Atlantic piece about the reboot's potential to show a full-circle Millennial arc. She smartly places the show as a whole in conversation with its pop culture descendants and concludes with a hopeful tone about what A Year in the Life can provide:
But the return of Rory Gilmore—a textured, early-aughts character who mostly preceded the scrutiny of her generation—will be a fascinating contribution to this developing narrative. Her arc will link her generation’s foundation with its emergence into adulthood in an unprecedented way. In doing so, A Year in the Life could help make the case for seeing other Millennial stories through, from their awkward beginnings to their, hopefully, more enlightened ends.
The show definitely handed this "Millennial arc" directly, often in a ham-fisted way. The "Thirtysomething Gang," which is featured in one of the promos for the show and never develops past that caricature, represents Rory's worst fears: that she has "come back" home a "loser" without any prospects for the future. The Thirtysomethings are infinitely mockable, doe-eyed and lost, spending their nights re-enacting movie scenes while clinging to one another for comfort. Sure, they're supposed to be a joke, but it's a joke whose punchline has been repeated again and again in the culture at large: "Kids today! Am I right?"


We don't get any detailed looks at what has placed the members of the Thirtysomething gang in their predicament. Babette tells us they went out in the world, got chewed up by it, and returned. So were they rejected from jobs? Were they unable to make ends meet on their own? Were they crushed by student loan debt? We don't know.

What we do know is that Rory Gilmore's similar crisis is mostly of her own making. She is not facing a shortage of opportunities. She has worked steadily, but unsatisfactorily. We see that she's gotten some great writing opportunities (most notably a well-received New Yorker piece) which she is unable to successfully transform into a more full-time gig. We watch her struggle through attempts at co-writing a book, pitching pieces to GQ, and even taking over the Stars Hollow Gazette as volunteer editor. In each case, she starts out excited by the possibilities and then dejected by the less-than-fantastic reality.

This is not new territory for our youngest Gilmore. She faced a very similar choice in the final season when she turned down a solid reporting job in the hopes of getting the coveted Reston Fellowship, a fellowship she did not get. When she tries to double back and take the job, it has already been filled. Her decision to chase the passion project instead of taking the safer-but-still-rooted-in-her-field choice was a point of contention between Logan and Lorelai. Lorelai insisted that hedging your bets and making some choices out of concern for stability was a smart move. Logan, himself freshly having rejected his father's dynasty for his own idealistic dreams, insists that passion is more important. We could boil it down to "Follow your dreams" vs. "Use your dreams as a guide, but do it while you're awake with both eyes open."

When the original series ended, following her passion (and Logan's advice) instead of playing it safe (as Lorelai wished) seemed to have steered Rory into a good position. She's excited about following Barack Obama's presidential bid and seems to have the world at her feet. The reboot, though, shows us that things weren't exactly as they seemed.

For one, we get a closer look at Logan. His bucking the yoke of his father's dynastic intentions seems to have been much more temporary than the conclusion of the series suggested. In A Year in the Life, he's right back on his father's path, including marrying a French heiress who we never see and who operates as a symbol of Logan's subservience to his destiny. While I think we can (and should) debate what this portrayal means through a feminist lens, I'm more interested in this discussion in what it means about Logan's previous advice to Rory. He told her to follow her dreams no matter what, and he used his own gutsy move as a model, but now we know that at some point he came back in line with his father's demands. Did his business fail? Did his father have to bail him out . . . again? It's a lot easier to say "fuck the system" when you know that you can always fall back on daddy's money and a life full of safety nets when it goes wrong.

Rory, too, has safety nets. The brief scene with Christopher shows him offering her money. The Chilton Headmaster offers her a job "in any discipline" teaching at a prestigious private school. She has friends across the world willing to put her up (often in luxurious surroundings) for free.

Perhaps, then, she's not the best case study for how one should handle the balance of passion and practicality. What, instead, can we learn from those around her?

The theme to Gilmore Girls as a whole is just this: What happens when passion meets reality? When do you bend and what happens if you break? Virtually every character represents this theme in some way or another, and a closer look at how the show wraps up their story arc might give us a clearer idea of what overall message we're to receive.

Like Logan, Jess and Dean exist more as conduits into Rory's story than fleshed out characters of their own. With that in mind, what can we learn from their reappearance?
Dean
When Rory sees Dean in Doose's Market, she lays out very clearly what he represents to her. "The perfect first boyfriend" functioned to teach her "what safe felt like." We see that Dean has gone on to represent that to someone else: a wife now pregnant with her fourth child. His representation of a status quo protectionism is both familiar and comforting, but Rory rejected what he represented, and I get the sense that (even if she's nostalgic for what it might have meant) she's still glad that she did. That kind of safety came with more sacrifices than she was willing to make, sacrifices not just of opportunity but also of identity. 
Jess
Jess, on the other hand, is there to ignite a flame of identity in Rory. He's the one who suggests the Gilmore Girls book project that seems to be Rory's raison d'ĂȘtre at the end of the reboot. His longing look at her through the window after his insistence that his love for her is "long over" suggests that she still represents a kind of "one that got away" for him, but what does he represent to us? He, like Luke, followed a passion that others didn't see as worthy and made it into a comfortable, if modest, existence. His main role, though, is to be what he has always been: Dean's foil. If Dean represents the safe and boring extinguishing of Rory's individuality, Jess represents the steady and bright burning of it. 
The other supporting characters in the show seems to function as some kind of lesson in what following your dreams can entail. Here are the lessons they teach as I see them.
Lane and Zack 
Lane and Zack are also Millennials, and Lane, like Logan, bucked a lifetime of tradition and expectations in order to follow her dreams. We see in the original series that those dreams are immediately tempered by the realities of having to make a living (she's waitressing to pay her bills) and family obligations (she finds herself pregnant with twins immediately following her wedding and gives up the opportunity to go on tour because of the logistical nightmare). We already knew, then, that Lane represented a cautionary tale when it came to following your dreams.  
A Year in the Life gives us an endearing revival of Hep Alien. Domestic life, financial responsibilities, and commitment to rock and roll have braided together to give us Zack with a day job he doesn't seem to like ("I didn't ask for this promotion!") and a literal changing of persona in order to go back to his "real" self as a rock star ("Is he him yet?"). We see them playing at The Secret Bar at night, so presumably they are managing the balance in a way that offers some kind of fulfillment, but it certainly isn't the world tours and life of fame that Lane dreamed of.  
The lesson here: Scraps of your dreams are better than no dreams at all.  
Sookie
Probably owing more to the real-life dreams of Melissa McCarthy than anything else, Sookie's story is . . . odd. She has abandoned her dream of the Dragonfly to live an experimental life of tasting dirt (really!) and growing things. She is presented as having followed her passions to the extreme, and she sacrifices a lot to do it. She loses out on her friendships and is incensed to see that "her" kitchen has been sullied by other chefs in her absence. I guess you could see her arc as a success if you squint, but to me it felt mostly like a sad warning: follow your dreams too closely and you'll end up giving up everything you gain along the way.  
Michele
Michele's story is complicated. He has married, and his husband desperately wants children. Michele admits that he is going to give in to this demand without passion. He says that fatherhood, for him, will always be an act.  
Perhaps that's why it becomes so important to him that his work life fully represent his passions since his home life no longer can. He is set to leave the Dragonfly unless Lorelai finds a way to expand it and give him more responsibility and power. She ultimately ingratiates herself to her mother (something we all know she hates) in order to meet these demands. 
I guess the lesson from him is something like this: You can't compromise everything. If you give in here, you have to stay firm there.  
Luke
Luke, in my eyes, is the biggest success story. He literally did exactly what he wanted with his life. He built a diner, rejected anyone else's attempts to make it more than he wanted it to be, and married a woman he loved to spend his days with.
His lesson: Don't let anyone else tell you what your dream is.  
Paris
Paris is probably the biggest on-paper success. She runs a fertility empire, and she runs it with her signature iron fist, leaving anyone who dare cross her physically shaking.
As we see from the scene in the Chilton bathroom, though, she isn't particularly satisfied with the life she built. Her divorce from Doyle is taking a toll on her, and she even accuses Rory of having an affair with him, a clear sign of insecurity.  
What was Paris' passion? In the original series, we see her equally willing to be a lawyer or a doctor, largely based off of the prestige of the institutions willing to accept her. We find out that she has stitched these opportunities together and handles legal and medical issues in her role as fertility director. At the end of the day, though, Paris' definition of success has always been determined by someone else. She is the foil to Luke, and her ultimate "success" may look a lot better than his, but it rings hollow when struck.  
Her lesson is the same as Luke's but told as cautionary tale rather than role model: Don't let anyone else tell you what your dream is. (And if you do, you may end up with no dream at all.) 

Obvious omissions from my list are Lorelai and Emily. As the other titular "Gilmore Girls," they seem like a good place to close.

Lorelai Lorelai is obviously a case study in success through adversity, and she is clearly struggling with the outcome in A Year in the Life. After a scrappy, individualistic life of doing things her own way, she got exactly what she said she always wanted. There is a very overt, direct discussion of how she refuses to compromise. Her mother mocks her for it, and she points out to Luke that everything from how they live to who controls the closet has been decided by her.  
Her Wild moment (gag me; my least favorite part of the reboot) has her reflecting on this in a very direct way, and when she returns, she marries Luke and agrees to expand the inn, both attempts to put her apparent newfound attitude into action. 
Emily
Emily has always done what everyone expected of her. Her role as Richard's wife was largely about keeping up appearances. Her home, her clothes, her long list of volunteer duties, the food she prepares, the maids she fires, everything about her is a representation of that role. In the reboot, we see it all come apart when Richard is no longer there to anchor it.  
Emily, who famously never kept a maid for longer than an episode and once fired one for walking too loudly, now has one maid's entire family living in her home. In fact, they have largely taken over the place. She gives a "bullshit"-laden rant to the DAR and is effectively removed from her duties before selling her house and retreating to her presumable final act as a lively (and kind of scary) docent at a Whaling Museum.  
It is absurd, but it is also my favorite part of the show. Here is a woman who has worn the weight of other's expectations for her entire life. She has passed that weight along at every chance she's gotten, and now, suddenly, she has decided to rid herself of it all together.  
Marie Kondo's tidying tips are lightly mocked in the show, but Emily ultimately puts her core principles into practice in a way that goes far beyond ditching some clothes and furniture. If it doesn't bring you joy, get rid of it. In this case, the "it" turned out to mean virtually every part of her life. 
So what does it all mean? Every character, major and minor, followed an arc of dream-seeking with varying degrees of success. What are we, the viewers, supposed to take away from it? And what do those final four words have to do with it?

One of Lorelai's dreams was to give Rory a life different from her own, but when Rory reveals that she's pregnant (with either Logan's child as he goes off to marry into his destiny or the child of a nameless one-night-stand dressed as a Wookie), what happens to Lorelai's hopes for her? Rory has come full circle and brought us right back where we started. Sure, she has more resources than her teenage mother did. She has an education, at least the sprouts of a career, and a whole town full of support. She gets to start out with the things that Lorelai had to fight to weave into her single motherhood.

Lorelai's destiny was to become Emily, a persona we now know functioned more as a trap than a success. Becoming pregnant with Rory was the catalyst for removing herself from that trap, and even though it brought about challenges and delays, Lorelai ultimately used her identity as struggling single mother to build the life she wanted. Her main lesson is now how to go back and let other people in, to compromise some of those dreams to allow other people's dreams to overlap with hers. Rory was never confined to such a destiny. Her path was always wide open, so perhaps her own impending single motherhood functions in the opposite way. Will she now have a reason to focus? A reason to stop casting off opportunities as insufficient because she finally has some definition?

I wish there were some neater message to take away from a show that I have always loved, but ultimately A Year in the Life left me with more questions than answers. I don't think that was its intention. There were too many on-the-nose lectures and symbols around, but I don't think they ultimately worked.

If Rory is supposed to stand in as a Millennial lesson (a lesson to my generation) on how to live in this world, I don't feel particularly optimistic. (Considering how the rest of 2016 has gone, perhaps that's fitting--if disappointing--after all.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Spines for Spine: My Book Plans

As my previous post-election posts have suggested, I'm feeling a little dejected (and a lot angry) right now. I've been in numerous Facebook debates about tone policing and the purpose of protest. Even many of the brilliant pieces of commentary and analysis shared across social media have been overwhelming me to the point of distraction.

I made a vow to spend less time there and more time reading books.

That didn't feel quite concrete enough, so I made a plan. Starting three days ago, I have a three-book rotation. One nonfiction book to make me reflect on the past and its relationship to the present, one fiction book to make me reflect on my values and the risks to them, and one philosophical text to make me think about the future.

As I finish any one of the three, I'm going to replace it with another book that fits the same broad category.

Here's what I've got going on right now:

Past to Present (Nonfiction): Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow

I've already read several pieces on this topic, and I recently watched (and highly recommend) the excellent documentary The 13th around similar issues, but this book is quickly becoming a seminal text on the topic of institutionalized racism and the criminal justice system, so I decided it's high time I dig into it.


It helps that an area activist book club chose it as our first read. I'm hoping to be able to have some smart and difficult conversations with insightful people soon, especially as private prison stocks soared once news got around that Trump was the president-elect. I anticipate this is a fight that will require constant attention.

 Values and Risks (Fiction): Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

I should have read this already. I don't know how I made it through so many American literature classes without it ever being a requirement, and I don't know how I have made it through so much feminist exploration since without picking it up on my own, but here we are. I'm reading it now.


It is a chilling time to read this for the first time, indeed. What should feel like an absolutely absurd dystopian view of the future surrounding women's rights and the politicizing of women's bodies instead feels like echoes of reality.

The Future (Philosophy): Calum Chace's The Economic Singularity

There has been a lot of talk about the "forgotten" working class in America, the people who are hoping their manufacturing and labor industry jobs will be returned to them. We have scapegoated (with varying degrees of accuracy) immigrants, globalization, and increased environmental regulations for taking the bread and butter away from "real" Americans, but we are not really talking about the fact that we're solidly on our way toward a technological revolution that may well make all jobs obsolete. The working class will be hit first, but everything from transportation to interpretation, from being a lawyer to being a nurse is on its way toward automation.


There are plenty of things we need to ask ourselves as this science fiction becomes reality, but one of the concerns is economic: what does the American mantra of "work hard=success" (already inaccurate and used as a tool of oppression) mean when there is no hard work left to do? That's what I'm hoping to think about by reading this book.

So those are my reading plans. I'll share any insights I have along the way, but I also welcome suggestions for what to add to each category as I move through these texts. I also welcome conversations from anyone who is also reading these books right now. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Ways You Will Not Silence Me Today

I took a social media hiatus when the election results became apparent. I have a lot of conservative Facebook friends and family members, many of whom very vocally supported Trump, and I was certain that I could not handle their responses. My self-imposed isolation didn't last long, though, because I realized that I desperately needed the solidarity and immediate sense of belonging I could get there. I was right. There was so much love, plans for the future, and repudiation of the message of hate that had just won the highest office in the land. It gave me life.

But, of course, the posts I had feared were there as well. I hid some of them from my feed because I found myself unable to resist the urge to respond, an urge that would have led me into a self-defeating spiral of wasted emotion and energy. Instead, I made posts of my own, posts I felt captured my anger and frustration but also pointed to paths forward. I made the kind of posts that I needed to see. I added them to the discussion within a community of people who desperately needed to know they were not alone and that their voices mattered.

And that is why I will not be quiet. I will not be told to stop speaking out about this. I will not be told to "stop whining."

I will not be silent.

Just in case that wasn't clear enough, I want to list the ways I will not be silenced:

Calls for Unity

They've come in many forms. The "now is the time for our country to come together and heal" posts. The "I just want everyone to find peace" posts. This:


A Trump supporter posted this with a plea for us to all just move forward now. 

I don't hate anyone. This sign accurately reflects my own position. I refuse to allow hate into my heart even for those who quite clearly hold hate for me, but that's not the point right now. 

The point is that you can't use a call for "unity" or "peace" to silence the righteous indignation and passionate dissent against a vote for hatred. 

Donald Trump didn't run on policy. He didn't have a single political policy platform unless you count "build a wall" or "ban Muslims." He ran on hate. He ran on division. He delighted in having people beaten at his rallies and laughed while offering to pay for the attackers legal fees. He bragged about grabbing women by the "pussy" without their consent and then defended it as "locker room talk," which means that it is language he uses comfortably and often. He mocked a Gold Star family, a reporter with a disability, a woman for gaining weight. He displayed himself, publicly and as platform, to be a bigot, liar, bully, and unrepentant hate-monger. 

And if you voted for hate, you no longer have the ethos to call for civility. You have ushered in a discourse of vitriol. I will never stoop to the level of our country's new "leader," but I will not sit quietly so that his supporters can enjoy their newly elected mascot of bigotry in "peace." 

"God's Plan"

I cannot count how many times I have been told to "calm down" because "God is in control" and this is "all a part of his plan." 

Well, I don't live in a monarchy. 
First of all, that's certainly not how any of these people felt when the political landscape didn't look quite so appealing to them, but let's set that aside for a moment. 

Second of all, there are a whole lot of horrendous human atrocities you are glossing over as part of God's master plan with this line of logic: the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, child sex trafficking, slavery, the mass slaughter of Native Americans as we claimed their land in the name of "freedom." You do not get to call upon God as a way of excusing the worst actions humans have committed. That's a cop out and a disgrace to faith. But let's even put that aside. 

If this is "all" a part of "God's plan," then so am I and my anger. So are my friends and their anger. We are part of "all." If God planned for Trump to win, then he also planned for us to protest. If this is all some giant cosmic chess game, then these pieces are also in play. You will not shut me down by pretending that you know the outcome. I don't believe in predestination, but if I am wrong, then I am predestined to do what I am doing. You cannot use God as a weapon of silence. 

Speaking of which . . . 

Pretending the Bible is the Only Source of Historical or Literary Guidance 

"Read your Bible," they say to me when they can no longer address any actual argumentative substance. 

Read your Handmaid's Tale. Read your The Fire Next Time. Read your Aristotle. Read your Slaughterhouse-Five. Read your fucking history books, and pay careful attention to the parts about demagogues. 

You're not going to send me on a scripture scavenger hunt to stop me from pointing out bigotry and hate. 

"Now You Know How We Felt When Obama was Elected"

Or, more likely, the quote reads "Obummer" or "Nobama." 

No. Just no. 

Obama has been a paragon of class and respect for others. He has never, not ever, called upon hatred as a course of action. Also, he actually ran on plans and policies. You may have disagreed with those plans and policies, and I understand that, but he ran on them and was elected on their merit. 

If Tuesday had brought me President-elect Jeb Bush or President-elect Marco Rubio or President-elect Ted Cruz, I would have been disappointed. But I would not have been terrified. 

My objection to Trump is not a political objection. I don't know what his politics are. You don't know what his politics are. He didn't share them, and his constituents didn't bother to make it a requirement that he do so. He ran on hate, and they decided hate was enough. He railed against Obamacare, but offered no substitution. He promised to build a wall, but offered no path to pay for it. He has absolutely no experience as a politician, and the experience he does have is in running businesses into the ground and using tax loopholes to get rich while he does so, all the while stiffing the working class people who staff those businesses and shipping his manufacturing overseas. 

To compare that to Obama's candidacy is not just disingenuous, it's insane. 

Just in case you need a reminder of just how different these two candidates are, watch this: 


My candidate has lost elections. I am a liberal, feminist, Democrat in Missouri. My candidates have lost a lot of elections. I do not take to the streets to protest them. I believe in the democratic process. I accept that there are different viewpoints, and I value that. I am disappointed, not terrified, that Roy Blunt is still my senator. But Trump's win terrifies me. 

And here's why I am scared. I am not scared of Trump. He's, as an individual, a failed businessman with egomania and the communication ability of a possum stuck in a trash can. He doesn't scare me. What scares me is that half the country heard his hatred and felt it needed to be codified and championed, that it needed to be rewarded, that it needed to be the face of America. I am not scared of him; I am scared of what his win means about the people around me and what they think when they see me, see my friends, see my family. 

Maybe you were scared of what Obama's policies would do to the country (though, by virtually every measure, he improved it), but that's not the same thing. We have checks and balances set up to put reins on policy. We have no checks and balances for endorsed, sanctioned hatred. 

"Stop Whining" 

I am fighting for the very core of the principles that I believe make life worth living. I am fighting for the safety, for the lives, of my friends and family. I am fighting for respect, tolerance, and love. 

I am fighting for America. 

If you want to call that whining, I don't care. 

But I won't stop doing it. 

And if you thought that these "libtard" "feminazi" "whiners" were too loud before Tuesday, buckle up. We are half of this nation, and one piece of analysis coming out of this election rings completely true to me: Trump's win does come with a mandate: we've been mandated to fight, donate, organize, vote, run for office, and create the world we need. 

You will not silence me. Not today. Not ever. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

I Am Not Okay

It is 3:30 in the morning, and I am not okay.

I woke up a little less than twenty-four hours ago, dropped my baby son off at daycare, and came back to walk with my husband to vote. I felt a wave of enthusiasm and pride. I even remarked to my husband, as we walked home, how proud I was that my kids were going to grow up just thinking it was completely normal to have both a black president and a woman president. They would grow up in a world where gay rights were always present. Sure, there would be battles, but they would have a base in a world where equality, tolerance, and progression underpinned their understanding of the American project.

I picked my daughter up from kindergarten where she had held a mock election. Nine students had voted for Clinton. "Can you believe four people voted for Donald Trump, Mommy?! He is a bully!" She went to bed chanting (with no prompting from me) that Hillary Clinton was going to be president. What a wonderful image for my little girl to have: a powerful woman who had worked hard in public service her whole life ascending to the top position in the country through experience and compromise. Was she a perfect candidate? No, but there is no such thing.

Though I had gotten nervous in the past few weeks as Clinton's chances became less stable, I turned on the news expecting to see a repudiation of the vile, racist, misogynistic hatred that Trump not only oozed but championed. I thought about every time he kicked someone out of a rally, every time he demeaned women, every time he called for a ban on Muslims, every time he made a racist remark about the "inner cities," every time he incited his base to violence. I thought about how he was literally endorsed by the KKK. I thought about the way he had mocked a reporter with a disability, a Latina beauty queen, a Gold Star family.  I was ready to bask in some schadenfreude. I was ready to watch him see that his coalition, while loud, was also small, too small to hand over the nuclear codes to someone who couldn't be trusted with his own Twitter account because of his instability and poor temper.

You know how the rest of my night went. Perhaps your night went the same. Perhaps you felt the first wave of tension as North Carolina drew ever closer. Perhaps you told yourself, "Well, she doesn't need Florida to win." Perhaps you continued to hope until after midnight. Perhaps you felt the dread rising up around you.

This is not about losing to a Republican. I live in Missouri. I lose to Republicans all the time. My state has gone red when my vote went blue over and over again. This is not even about electing a bad president. We have had bad presidents. America is strong enough to survive an electoral error.

This is about finding out just how much of the country hates everything I love. This is about finding out just how many people around me hate me because I am a woman, hate my family because it is multi-racial, hate my friends because they are gay, hate my friends because they are Muslim.

If you voted for Donald Trump, you are not my friend even if I am yours. This is not in the sense that I will "unfriend" you for thinking differently from me. I hope that I have demonstrated, through countless hours of respectful debate, through refusing to cull my social media feeds of acquaintances even when they spewed vitriol that I am open to conflicting views. I support rhetorical pluralism. I believe we need to hear each other.

But friends have to protect one another. Friends look beyond their own interests alone and ask themselves, "What will this do to those I love?"

If you voted for Donald Trump, did you ask yourself what it would mean for my children? Children of color who have to grow up in this world? Did you ask yourself what it would mean for gay couples who are already constantly vigilant against efforts to deny them the right to exist? Did you ask yourself what it would mean for me, a woman who has been sexually assaulted? Did you ask yourself what it would mean for millions of people who cannot safely walk down the street without fear of harassment? If you did not, then you cannot call yourself my friend. If you did and still came down on the side of hate, then I don't know what you can call yourself.

I have never felt like this before. I have always believed, deep in my heart, that love wins. I have always believed, even in the face of anger and disrespect, that people will find the right path eventually.

For example, many members of my extended family have treated my immediate family horribly. Some of them are probably reading this. I hope that they are. When I was 19, I brought my now-husband/then-boyfriend home for the holidays. When we entered the community building where we held the extended Christmas, the air grew palpably tense. Most of my family would not look at us, let alone speak to us. The ones who did speak to us did so with apprehension. You see, my husband, by being a black man, had somehow offended them. His existence offended them.

Two of my uncles were so offended that they could not contain themselves. They made a big show about physically moving away from us. One of them refused to eat under the same roof as my husband. He marched his entire family out the door rather than do so. They walked out in front of me. I went in the bathroom and sobbed.

Most of the other members of my family said nothing! A few of them tried to comfort me with placating statements like "You have to understand, it's just his way." "He was raised in a different time."

I avoided them all for years. Four years later, I got married, and one of those same uncles tried to talk another family member out of walking me down the aisle. Think about that for a second. It wasn't enough that he sit in his hate on his own; he needed it to be spread around. Thankfully, his efforts failed, and I did have a smattering of love and support from my family on my wedding day. It was only a fraction of the very large collection of aunts, uncles, and cousins that could have been there (that I invited despite the tension), but there were some.

Years later, we had kids. I wanted my children to know their family. They're already down to one grandparent. My father and my husband's mother died before my children were even born. Last year, we lost my father-in-law on the same day I miscarried what would have been our second child. My mother rarely sees us because she is afraid of "the city." (Little does she understand that I'm afraid of "the country" for reasons much more concrete than hers. Her neighbors literally shot guns into the air while screaming the n-word at my husband. I guarantee you that my neighbors have never done that to her.) The lack of family in our lives hurts me. I value family very deeply, and I miss these connections so very, very much.

So when a few members of my extended family offered olive branches by inviting us to big gatherings, I swallowed my anger and pride and went. Everyone was cordial. Some of my family was even genuinely kind and interested in my life. Most of them seemed to feel awkward around us, and that could easily have been as much a factor of not knowing me as an adult as thinking about their own past behavior.

But here's the thing: No one apologized. Not the uncles who walked out at Christmas. Not the family members who stood by silently and said nothing as it happened. In all that time, one cousin privately messaged me to say that she was ashamed of not having spoken out and was sorry. Other than the one family that I was already close to (which included the man who walked me down the aisle), no one even talked about it. They wanted to sweep it under the rug.

And I let them. Privately, my husband and I talked about it a lot. I didn't want to deprive my children of a family to know and love, but I also didn't want to put my husband in the difficult position of having to go make nice with people who had so overtly mistreated him. He went and was gracious because he is an amazing man.

In my heart, I thought that they were ashamed of the way they had acted and didn't know how to express it. I thought that they recognized how wrong they had been and were trying to set it right. I was angry and hurt, but I worked very hard to set it aside for the sake of peace.

I'm supposed to go see them in two weeks. We're having a family gathering of thanksgiving and love. I don't think I can go.

I know that many of them voted for Trump. (And this isn't speculation. A lot of them posted about their decisions. Some even posted about how difficult it was to make the decision because they didn't want to support him but ultimately "had to.") Many of them voted to throw our country back into a time when my marriage would be illegal, when the discrimination against my children and husband was codified into law. They weren't sorry (and I should have known, since they never said they were); they were tolerating me until they could destroy everything I loved. When they saw their chance, they pounced.

Right now, I am reflecting on a lot of interactions I have had in the past. I've always tried to look past the hurt of these kinds of conflicts and understand the individual person within them. I've always tried to meet these slights with compassion. I've always given people the benefit of the doubt that even when they did things that were cruel and bigoted, they were on a path toward figuring things out and that basic human decency would prevail.

Now I feel like I was a fool. How's the Maya Angelou quote go? "When people show you who they are, believe them."

I believe you now. And maybe me letting it all get pushed under the rug helped create this America, this America where hate wins the day. I feel like I did not do enough. I did not fight enough. I did not make it clear enough that these words and actions were not okay. By allowing racism and hatred to exist in this closeted way without my direct objection, did I help allow it to become bold enough to march out and vote yesterday?

I don't know how to go out into the world tomorrow. I don't know how to look people in the eye without wondering: "Do you hate me?" "Do you hate my family?" "Do you hate my friends?"

Because make no mistake, if you voted for Trump, you voted for hate: raw, red, fiery, vitriolic, painful, discriminatory, degrading hate. And I am on the receiving end of it. My family is on the receiving end of it. My students are on the receiving end of it. My friends are on the receiving end of it.

If you voted for Trump, you voted against us and everything we have worked for.

If you voted for Trump, you voted against me.

And now I have to face my daughter in two hours and tell her that the bully won. In three hours, I have to face my students, already plagued by a racist system that has them despondent, and try to tell them that democracy is a process. Every day, I have to face myself and try to believe that I hold value in a country that just told me very loudly that I do not.

And I am not okay.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

I Guess I'm Not Done

Last night, I woke up at 3am to feed the baby and couldn't get back to sleep. I had a blog post idea, so I went to the admin site to draft it, and I found out that I had (through my own fault) lost my domain name. My blog was directing to nothing.

This was a gut check for me. The reason I didn't notice that the domain was expiring was because I hadn't been logging in here often to post. My life is a chaotic mess of projects and parenting, and writing here is always on the list, but it's at the bottom. Then it gets pushed lower. Then it disappears.

My domain name expiring could have been a way out. I've seen plenty of blogs come and go over the years, and this would have been a natural, organic way to find my stopping point. The "expiring" could have been metaphorical as well as technical.

But I didn't want to expire. I felt the loss of this space (even though I've been neglecting it) immediately and intensely. It felt like coming home and finding out my bedroom had been filled with cement when all I really wanted to do was crawl into bed and nap.



I may not be able to write here as often as I would like (come to think of it, I'm also not able to crawl into bed and nap as often as I would like), but I still want the option.

I spent a healthy chunk of time on hold with tech support today to get my domain back. It was time I couldn't really spare, but I did it anyway.

When you find something that fills a void, you fight to keep it.


Image: Jennifer C. 


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Banning Safe Spaces in the Name of Active Debate Misses the Mark

The University of Chicago is making headlines with a letter sent to incoming students. The letter, which can be viewed in its entirety here, highlights the University's "commitment to academic freedom," a commitment that has ostensibly led to three targets: 1) "trigger warnings" on classroom content, 2) canceling speakers with controversial views, and 3) "safe spaces" created on campus. All three of these practices have been deemed a threat to the University's desire for "the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas."

It's that third target that I want to take a closer look at as a rhetoric scholar. What of these "safe spaces"? Do they really threaten the exploration of ideas?

Called upon as a bastion of liberal "social justice warriors" who can't handle rigor and debate, safe spaces are being vilified as sites of intellectual weakness where those who have had their feelings hurt can shut themselves away from the real world and create an alternative where they do not have to be challenged. Presented that way, you can connect the dots to a view where safe spaces act as escape hatches, giving people the option to ignore alternative viewpoints and retreat into an echo chamber where they do not have to face opposition or think about anything that upsets them.


Not every space can be a safe space, to be sure. Classrooms, in particular, are often sites of debate and competing ideas, especially if they are to be effective places for learning. Public forums, the hallways, and most spaces where students have their day-to-day interactions are not "safe spaces" by the very nature of being populated with a variety of people expressing a variety of thoughts (whether they do so with an aim for debate or not).

This is the "real world," opponents of safe spaces proclaim. There are not safe spaces out there, in this imagined reality. You are subject daily to the barrage of all mankind until you retreat into your own private sphere. In the public, in real life, you can't be a special snowflake whose ego is easily bruised or you won't make it, so here, in college, we'll toughen you up so that you may survive.

I like arguing. I have a long, documented history of this hobby (just ask my mom. On a side note, I seem to have passed on this trait to my own daughter who, at four, casually said to me, "Mommy, may we have an argue?" on the way home from preschool. She meant that she wanted me to take an opposing side on some topic. We spent the ride with her defending cats as the best pets and me defending dogs.) I believe that rigorous, sometimes painful debate is an important part of a life lived honestly and fully as well as a cornerstone feature of a democracy. I wrote a dissertation about agonistic rhetoric, and I attempt to practice what I preach by actively seeking out opinions that differ from my own and engaging in debate when the opportunity arises. I've written before about how cooperative approaches to the world are limited and limiting, and we need conflict and competition to thrive.


I still believe every word of that. I still believe that ideas must be tested through opposition. I still believe that retreating into echo chambers is dangerous and that we must be willing to be uncomfortable to learn.

But along the way, I also wrote about how agonism requires an oscillation between belief and doubt and that cooperative enclaves (or "safe spaces") serve an important rhetorical purpose.

Patricia Roberts-Miller, rhetoric scholar and author of one of my favorite books (Deliberate Conflict), has this to say about safe spaces:
"people need a friendly and supportive place to think through ideas—an enclave—but it is actively dangerous if they do not have to think through those ideas with a hostile audience as well."  
She also writes this:
"Conflict at an early stage, while one is still doing the thinking, is assumed to be paralyzing; once one’s position is already determined, then considering a hostile audience can help one think about issues of effectiveness.” 
She also says this:
"Remaining entirely within enclaves is dangerous, as it never allows ideas to be tested, but having no access to enclaves is equally stultifying, in that it does not give people a place where they can explore their own partially articulated ideas."
"Having no access to enclaves is equally stultifying." Think about that. Ideas, especially controversial, complex ones that challenge our own status quo, do not come to us fully formed and prepared for intellectual battle. They come to us in spurts and sputters. They come to us half-formed and whispered. They come to us in the middle of the night or the middle of a fight when we are not prepared for them, when we do not yet know what to do with them.


And that is why safe spaces matter. If we want to take these ideas out into the world, to test them, to put them up against others and see if they have merit, we have to first develop them and be prepared to back them up. And we can't do that without safe spaces to practice and build.

Proponents of safe spaces say that they are juvenile and inconsistent with the real world, but that's not really true. As John Warner notes in this post, the "real world" is full of safe spaces:
"The teachers’ lounge at a high school is a safe space to vent about students. AA meetings are safe spaces for addicts. Fraternities and sororities are safe spaces (for members). Churches are safe spaces. 
Private clubs are safe spaces, often zealously defended from intrusion, as Augusta National Golf Club kept their members safe from the presence of women all the way up until 2012. 
Supporters of Donald Trump explicitly say how they appreciate that his rallies make it safe to say things as they “really are,” which they’re not allowed to do in their everyday lives anymore. 
Safe space. 
Who among us doesn’t appreciate the opportunity to escape to a space that allows us to rest and recuperate from the challenges of life, to be ourselves, to know that we are accepted by those we are with? 
I think of safe spaces as something like the sideline of a football game, a place you get to go and catch your breath surrounded by your teammates before getting back into the fray."
Safe spaces, in other words, don't threaten intellectual rigor, they ensure it. If you do not give people the space to step outside the conflict zone of debate and develop their own ideas before returning, you are not getting their best arguments, which means that your ideas aren't really being tested at all.

And think about where "safe spaces" usually exist on college campuses and who frequents them. They are places where students at the margins of the academy can come together and share their experiences without judgment. LGBT students often fight for safe spaces. Multicultural centers often exist as safe spaces for racial minorities. Women and gender studies classrooms often attempt to be safe spaces for women. In other words, the people who fight for safe spaces are most often those whose ideas are not readily presented in the mainstream, those who need the time and space for development in order to make sure they are giving their own point of view a fair shot in the debate.

As history professor Kevin Gannon writes for Vox, the issue of safe spaces is not really one about freedom, but about power:
"Underlying much of the hand-wringing about the state of the academy is a simple desire to have the gatekeepers remain in place. The perception of the threat is entirely out of alignment with the reality on the ground. For every ginned-up hypothetical scenario of spoiled brats having a sit-in to protest too many white guys in the lit course, there are very real cases where trigger warnings or safe spaces aren’t absurdities, but pedagogical imperatives."
If you remove the opportunity for people with ideas that challenge the norm to retreat and strengthen their argument, you ensure that the norm will remain in place. It's that simple. If you want true "academic rigor," you have to allow those who disagree with you the space to practice and strengthen their argument. It's not a fair fight if you win a boxing match against someone who hasn't eaten in weeks, and it's not a fair fight to win an argument against someone who hasn't had the chance to develop their argument to its fullest potential.

Agonistic rhetoric teaches us that we must move back and forth between cooperation (safe spaces) and antagonism (the fray). We must oscillate between positions where we are believed and positions where we are doubted. But if we remove the opportunity for that oscillation (whether that is because every place is "safe" or because no place is "safe"), we shut down true debate, we shut down the potential for growth, change, and learning.

And if there is a place where growth, change, and learning should be the primary goals, it is on a college campus.

Images: Susan Smith, Shaktiman Sethi, walknboston

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Copy of a Copy of a Copy: Postpartum Anxiety

We'll go to the zoo. It'll be fun. It's not too hot today, and it's the last week of summer vacation. This is a good plan.

It was a good plan. Despite the whirlwind of getting out of the house with both kids in tow on my own, the frenzy of finding a place to park, and the juggling of equipment, it was a good plan.

Things started out well. The baby smiled happily in the underwater tunnel as the sunlight filtered through onto his face. My daughter leapt joyfully from exhibit to exhibit. It was nice.

Then, she started to complain that she was hungry. "Okay," I said. "We'll go get lunch." The baby started crying. He was hungry, too. No problem. I thought to myself. We'll get lunch, and I'll nurse him while we sit in the cafe. It'll be fine. 

Then we got to the cafe, and the lines were long and confusing. A woman kept getting into and out of the line nearest me, screaming at the man she was with. Her day was not going well. I'll just get in a different line. I scooted over. The line moved slowly, and my daughter danced, darted, spun. "Please stand still." She sat on the floor as lines of people moved around us, inches from getting stepped on. "Come here. Stand still."


I could feel it happening. My heart starts to race, and my throat tightens. My hands were shaking ever so slightly as they gripped the handle on the stroller. The baby fusses as I try again to offer the pacifier and buy a few more minutes. I grab my daughter's arm and pull her toward me. "Do you want to go home?" I hiss. She shakes her head no. "Then stand still." It comes out through clenched teeth. The shake in my hands gets worse.

It's our turn. I order her food first and then mine. They don't have what I want. I order something else. They don't have any prepared. It will be a five minute wait. My daughter is ambling over into the other line again. I'm only half listening. "That's fine," I say as I try to corral her back into our designated two feet of space.

"You'll need to step to the side," the clerk tells me.

"Um," I respond. I try to scoot the stroller over to "the side," which is really a one-foot space between the two long lines. I put my arms straight to try to keep my daughter between them. Then they nudge the tray containing two cups full of drinks and her food at me. "We don't give out lids or straws," the clerk smiles. "For the safety of our animals." I'm balancing the tray with one hand and trying to keep my daughter next to me and the stroller with the other. The shake in my hands has traveled up my arms and into my shoulders. I feel like the walls are closing in on me.

"Oh my God!" I say too loudly as my daughter tries to jump up and grab her drink off the barely balanced tray. "You have to stop! I'm going to spill everything! You have to stop!" The woman in line behind me smiles a smile of pity. When my food finally comes a long, long two minutes later, she kindly offers to carry my tray for me. By now the baby is tired of being pacified and his fussing has turned to punctuating shrieks. Each one feels like a dagger to my throat. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," I tell her. I feel like a failure.

The rest of the day went fine. We left the crowded cafe, and I nursed the baby in the children's zoo while my daughter made a new friend and played in the sand box. As we got in the car to go home, she was jabbering about all the animals she saw and the baby was sleeping deeply. It looked like a success, but all I could do was keep replaying those moments in cafe, and I still felt like a failure.

Even as it's happening--the panic, the shaking, the breaths that catch in my throat--there's a part of me that's outside of it all, watching it. There's a part of me screaming, "This isn't a big deal! Get it together!" But I can't hear her. In that moment, I feel like I am in fight or flight, but the threat is me. How do you run from yourself?

With a quick glance or in the right light, I still seem like myself. I still make wry jokes and plan to meet with friends. I still smile. I still love and enjoy both of my children.

But like a copy of a copy of a copy, if you look closer, the picture isn't quite right. I'm not quite me. The edges break down and the lines start to blur.

That's what postpartum anxiety feels like to me. I can feel like everything is okay, like I can go about life without any problems. But I have nothing left in reserves. Nothing. There is no place to draw from for patience or calm or perspective in the face of even the smallest setback. A single bump in the road and I'm sputtering to a grinding, smoking halt.


And I live on bumpy roads. Life takes place on bumpy roads.

I have the cognitive capacity to recognize it for what it is: some misfiring of nerves calibrated wrong by a particularly ugly cocktail of genetics and hormones. But knowing doesn't make it feel any easier. I keep peering out from behind that copy of a copy of a copy and growl in anger at all the things she's getting wrong, but I can't get in front of her. I can't take my rightful place in my own life. Every time she snaps at the rambunctious five-year-old who is just trying to adjust to life as a big sister. Every time she cries because the dishes are overflowing in the sink. Every time she gets a knot in her throat over everyday tasks like driving to the doctor. I know what the right moves are, but I can't make them in time.

I hold out hope that she will fade, this copy, and I'll burst through with strong lines drawn--any day now. When the baby sleeps through the night, when I get back to work, when my daughter is back in school, when I can run a mile again, when I can lift 150 pounds again, when I lose the weight, when it's not so hot. . .

When?

Images: Jose Maria Cuellar, jypseygen

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Starfish and Sequoias: Why Do You Vote?

I've been having a lot of conversations about the election lately. I've fallen into the role of "liberal stand-in" for many of my libertarian-leaning friends with a penchant for debate, and I think I have a fairly broad swath of the electorate in my social media feeds and day-to-day life due to the wide swing of my life's path. A poor, small-town white girl with extremely conservative extended family getting a PhD, marrying outside her race, and living in a major urban center while teaching at a community college makes for a pretty politically eclectic collection of acquaintances. 

One conversation that I've had a few different times lately involves people who are considering voting for third party candidates because they are so unimpressed with their options. My general response has been that you should vote for the person you believe best represents your political viewpoints, but now I'm not so sure I gave the right advice.



This isn't a political post in the sense that it is going to analyze the candidates and make a suggestion for whom you should cast a vote. What I'm interested in thinking through today is the purpose of voting and its place in a larger narrative of social responsibility.

Voting is often called a "civic duty," and some believe it should be more than a right--it should be a requirement. Undoubtedly, marginalized groups in the past have fought and died for the chance to participate, and there are still barriers placed today to keep many Americans from exercising this right (as the current fight for felons' voting rights marches on). Whether voting should be mandatory or not is rooted in a question of what voting is. Is it a chance to put your individual voice into the larger machine and influence the final outcome? Are you (as "one person, one vote" suggests) simply shouting your wishes (no matter how self-serving or impulsive) into the void and then waiting to see what comes out on the other side? Or is it a collective act? Is your responsibility when you vote to make your individual wishes heard, or is it to weigh out the possible outcomes and choose based on the greater good?

That question, to my ears, was at the heart of the differences between the speeches at the RNC and those at the DNC.

Perhaps one of the places that individualism came through most strongly in the RNC was during Ivanka Trump's speech when she shared this anecdote about her father:
And like him, we each had a responsibility to work, not just for ourselves but for the betterment of the world around us. Over the years, on too many occasions to count, I saw my father tear stories out of the newspaper about people whom he had never met, who were facing some injustice or hardship. 
He’d write a note to his assistant, in a signature black felt tip pen, and request that the person be found and invited to Trump Tower to meet with him. He would talk to them and then draw upon his extensive network to find them a job or get them a break. And they would leave his office, as people so often do after having been with Donald Trump, feeling that life could be great again.
It's a feel-good moment, and it paints her father in a much more positive picture than he paints himself. Instead of being a cold, hard businessman who is only out for profit (an image that Trump seems to embrace even as it is used against him), it shows a man of compassion and charity, goodwill and kindness, a man who wants to help the common people around him.

The problem I have with this kind of individualistic rhetoric is that it absolves us of responsibility for the systems in which we are complicit partners. When we focus on the individual's circumstances rather than the system from which that individual's circumstances grew, we are able to ignore the ways that we unfairly benefit from that same system.

I was thinking about this recently when I saw the news story about a homeless teen named Fred who was biking six hours to get to college. His story was a heartbreaking account of a hardworking individual who desperately wanted to better his life but needed a break. People were moved and donated to a GoFundMe account to the tune of $184,000.

It's a truly amazing account of people coming together to help out this young man. From the police officers who found him sleeping in a tent and worked together to put him up in a motel to the strangers all around the country who pitched in a few bucks to make sure he would never have to live in that tent again, it's a reminder of what it means to come together and support each other.

The problem with stories like these (and this is not meant to discount the kindness of those who gave or those who saw Fred and decided to reach out and help) is that they can serve as a distraction from bigger societal issues and their potential collective solutions.

Surely you've heard the old story about the man saving the starfish so that they don't die when the tide recedes. The key point is at the end when he silences naysayers who say he won't make a difference because starfish will just keep washing ashore by responding, "It made a difference to that one."


And that's hard to argue against. Helping one person is important, especially when you are acting as an individual. Often, as individuals, helping one person is all you can ever hope to do. We can't, individually, fix the education loan system to make sure that Fred has funding. We can't fix whatever societal ills led him to be homeless in the first place. We can't handle those things because they are soul-crushingly huge. So instead we put $5 in a  GoFundMe account. We toss that starfish back into the sea.

But there's something a little darker going on beneath the surface of these actions. In the video of the news report, the reporter is careful to note that a bank is overseeing all of Fred's newfound riches to make sure he spends them in the "right" way. There's something paternalistic about being able to pat ourselves on the back for helping out while casually wink-winking one another with the secure knowledge that Fred wouldn't have been able to do it alone. It took our savior status to get him there. In some ways, our actions are as much about making ourselves feel good as they are about helping the individual before us.

But what if the starfish aren't washing onto the shore because of the inevitable pull of the tides? What if the starfish are washing onto the shore because they're attracted to the lights of manmade condos dotting the beach (I know that's not actually the case; this is hypothetical)? If we're actually the cause of the starfish tragedy, is it really so great of us to go and throw individual starfish back into the sea? Wouldn't it be a lot better to find a collective solution like agreeing to turn off our lights during peak starfish time or replacing our bulbs with starfish-friendly glows?

That action, though, would require collaboration, cooperation, and communication. It would be hard! We wouldn't be able to pat ourselves on the back individually as being more caring and compassionate than our neighbors because our neighbors would have to be in on the solution, too. It would have a lot bigger impact, but it would feel a lot smaller to us as individual agents in the drama. After all, what's changing a light bulb versus triumphantly tossing a starfish through the air?

I'm not cynical enough to believe that people only help others because they want to feel good about themselves. I think that people (and I include myself among them; I've donated to those campaigns, I've given spare change, I've helped on a tiny, tiny level that made no collective difference and felt good while I did it) are genuinely motivated to make a difference where they can. When we see no collective solutions, all we're left with is individual options.

Ivanka was tapping into that desperation when she told her father's story. She was painting him to be someone who would find solutions by plucking those who are suffering out of their pain and giving them opportunities for greatness.

Hidden within that message, though, is another caveat. Only those who are deemed deserving get the help. If you don't seem like you're working hard enough through your struggle, if you've given up or are angry and not humble enough about your misfortunes, well, then, too bad.

The Starfish Method never shifts the balance of power, so be wary when those in power advocate it. If it makes you feel better to donate to a down-on-my-luck GoFundMe, by all means, do it. But don't let anyone tell you that's the best we can do or that it erases our responsibility to think about how the systems around us are set up.

The message at the DNC took a different tone.

Consider how Cory Booker opened his speech:
Our founding documents were genius. But not because they were perfect. They were saddled with the imperfections and even the bigotry of the past. Native Americans were referred to as savages, black Americans were referred to as fractions of human beings, and women were not mentioned at all. 
But those facts and other ugly parts of our history don't detract from our nation's greatness. In fact, I believe we are an even greater nation, not because we started perfect, but because every generation has successfully labored to make us a more perfect union. Generations of heroic Americans have made America more inclusive, more expansive, and more just.
Michelle Obama's speech also contained a call to look at our collective future:
And make no mistake about it, this November when we go to the polls, that is what we’re deciding, not Democrat or Republican, not left or right. No, this election and every election is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.
Bernie Sanders, too, made this kind of appeal:
This election is about – and must be about – the needs of the American people and the kind of future we create for our children and grandchildren. 
This election is about ending the 40-year decline of our middle class the reality that 47 million men, women and children live in poverty. It is about understanding that if we do not transform our economy, our younger generation will likely have a lower standard of living then their parents.

By calling upon problems like poverty, global warming, education, and health care, the DNC speakers pointed again and again to the individual starfish and said, "You're not making a difference!" But instead of saying that as a cynical prelude to, "so stop trying!" they offered a different solution, one full of hope and sustainable, meaningful change.

The trade-off, though, is that we don't necessarily get to see it happen, and we don't necessarily get to pat our own backs about it. Instead, the change will be gradual. It is the future generation for whom we act.

"Make America Great Again" is a nonsense slogan. America has never been "great" for everyone living within its borders. Gross violations of civil rights, slavery, an orchestrated genocide against Native Americans, and institutionalized racism, sexism, and discrimination against anyone who didn't fit the status quo of the era have more than dotted our historical trajectory; they've underpinned it.

But we've chipped away at those violations. We've made incremental progress so that today's world is better than yesterday's. Cory Booker called upon that truth to make the logical conclusion: we benefitted from the right choices of those before us. Now it's our turn to do the same for those who will come after us.

As Wendell Berry puts it in "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front":
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
If you plant a sequoia today, you will not live to see it full-grown. You are never planting it for yourself. At its most pessimistic, it is an act of futility. At its most optimistic, it is an act of immortality.


Today, I read this post from Ashely Wool urging everyone to vote for Hillary Clinton because a Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster. In it, she writes this:
Your conscience only belongs to you, but your vote belongs to everyone
Your vote is not a style statement. It’s not how you express your individuality. It’s not something you do to show all your friends how you think the country should work. You don’t vote to prove a point. You don’t vote to paint yourself in a certain light. You don’t vote for the Facebook likes. You don’t vote for you. You vote as a way to help give your entire country the best chance it can realistically have at this point in time.
Later, she adds this:
Let me say something else, too--if Donald Trump became president, it probably wouldn’t negatively impact my life very much. I am a heterosexual, cisgendered, upper-middle-class white woman with a college degree from a great school, gainful employment, no criminal record, and no student loan debt. In the eyes of Donald Trump, I am not the problem. I am not refusing a Trump presidency to further my own interests
I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of my friends and fellow Americans who are gay, transgendered, black, Latino, and Muslim. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of my friends and fellow Americans who can’t afford to go to college, or who are drowning in student loan debt. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of people who are struggling to make ends meet, who do not have flexible or well-paying day jobs, or financially stable parents to fall back upon if they need to. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of hardworking immigrants who need and deserve a streamlined process to citizenship, instead of being ridiculed and denied opportunity at every turn. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of the millions of Americans who lives and livelihoods were saved by the Affordable Care Act.
In many ways, Wool is likening third party voters to the starfish savers. They're voting for a candidate who cannot win the general election (not this year, at least) because it makes them feel better, because it best reflects their individual desire, but not because they have looked to the future.

She's asking them, instead, to plant sequoias.

There are moments in our lives when all we can do is save a starfish, but there are also moments when we can plant sequoias.


When you have a choice, plant sequoias.

Images: Caleb Wagoner, Jenny DaviesSam Felder, Iain Mitchell