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

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fat Shaming in Gilmore Girls: What Progress Have We Made?

I'm watching Gilmore Girls again. It's great background television to have on while I'm folding clothes and sweeping the floor and otherwise caught in a cycle of domestic chore-doing while on maternity leave.

This is probably my fourth time through the series, and while I vaguely remember a few of the references from the time before this viewing, I'm definitely noticing the fat shaming that is peppered through the show with alarming frequency.

I'm certainly not the first re-watcher to recoil at these painful barbs in a series I remember fondly and warmly. Courtney Mina takes the show to task for several fat shaming and more general body shaming moments in this post for Bust. However, looking at the show through this lens might ruffle some feathers because the show has generally been seen as a positive display of body (though certainly not racial) diversity (see point number five in this article and the discussion of Sookie's character here).

Sookie, indeed, is a rare find in television: a plus-sized woman whose character development and primary function is never centered on her size. The show served as a launching pad for Melissa McCarthy's stardom, but many of the roles she would come to play afterwards still used her size as a punchline or at least a plot point. To see a plus-size body attached to a character who just exists is still refreshing fifteen years later.

And while Sookie is definitely the most cited example of this positive treatment of fat bodies on the show, she's not alone. Babette and Miss Patty are both larger women who are never shamed for their body size.

What's more, all three of these women are given full, successful lives. They aren't turned into women who need to be pitied or wallflowers whose body size makes them shrink into the background, trying to hide from the world. Miss Patty, in particular, is a vivid character whose sexual escapades, bold personality, life in show business, and colorful clothing all scream "look at me" without falling into tried and true stereotypes about large bodies.

Often, fat characters in television and film are shown as lonely, desperately seeking love, settling for a unfulfilling relationship, or going through a physical transformation (which includes losing weight) before finally getting to meet "the One." Miss Patty and her multiple marriages throws a monkey wrench into the idea that there is a "One" but also insists that she will not settle or expect less from her love life because of her size.

Babette and Sookie are both in quirky but completely fulfilling marriages that demonstrate their partners to be worthy and loving. Babette's comments about turning the bedroom into a jungle to fulfill some of her and Maury's fantasies also tiptoes into the realm of a fat woman owning and displaying her sexuality proudly. Again, that wasn't just groundbreaking television in 2000; it would still be rare today.

These large, plot- and character-driven moments are what I usually remember about the show. In my mind it is progressive, woman-centric, body positive, and fun. Perhaps that's why the body shaming that keeps creeping up keeps taking me by surprise. There have been some times where I gasped aloud at what my beloved Gilmores were saying. Here are some of the most egregious offenses:

  • Rory and the Ballerina
This particularly interaction has a reddit thread of discussion. In Season 4, Rory has an assignment for the Yale Daily News reviewing a ballet performance. She is pressured to make sure she doesn't hold back on her opinion, and she makes sure to give it all. While she does critique the actual performance, she also has choice words for the ballerina's appearance, including some discussion of the roll of fat around her bra strap. It's petty, cruel, and hard to watch.  
When the ballerina confronts her, I'm inclined to agree with her anger. 
  • Big Undies
Luke and Lorelai go shopping in Season 6 and Lorelai comes back with someone else's bag by mistake. The misplaced bag contains some large pink panties and bunny slippers. When Lorelai holds them up she comments that they might be hiding from their owner because she would "hate to be wrapped around the woman who fits these." 
  • Treadmills as Punishment
A running gag on the show is that Rory and Lorelai loathe physical exertion and love junk food. Luke is constantly nagging Lorelai to eat something healthy, and the girls constantly make jokes about how little they exercise.  
This as a backdrop makes a snide remark from Lorelai's mother, Emily, even more abrasive. When she's getting staff to arrange chairs for a party, she comments "not that far! If people need that much room to move around, they should be on a treadmill not at a party."  
The idea that people are only allowed in public spaces if they look thin coupled with the idea that exercise is only a remedy for fatness and not for health is particularly troubling. 
  • Fat Thighs 
One subplot involves Paris' affair with much-older professor Asher Fleming. Rory never really approves of their fling, and she gets upset when she hears that Paris is probably only one of many of Asher's paramours. In a conversation with Asher, she gets a dig in at him about the other student she saw him checking out at a book signing by saying, "And the redhead has fat thighs!" 
  • Shaming the Runner
Paris and Rory room with a runner named Janet. Paris and Janet don't get along at all, and Paris is particularly cruel to Janet about her exercise routine (a necessary part of Janet's life since she is a college athlete with an athletic scholarship). At one point, Paris is making fun of Janet as she jogs away and then mumbles, "I hate that she's thin!" 

They're small moments in the show. They're not things that I think about once the show has ended, and they're definitely not the things I remember in retrospect, but they are frequent enough and mean enough that I think they're worthy of examination. 

Maybe it's just a sign that we really have made a lot of progress in this area. It stings now because we have a lot of social movements around fat acceptance, body positivity, and otherwise recognizing that body shaming is wrong. Perhaps my response to these barbs is like my response to seeing old cartoons use blackface for gags: a sign that once we know better, we do better. 

In a show that works so hard to dismantle stereotypes and to showcase feminist messages in other ways, these moments feel out of place, but they really weren't out of place for the time. It was common to use nameless fat people as easy jokes. 

I think we're much less accepting of that kind of lazy writing now (just look at the response to one such scene in Jessica Jones). Does that mean that we are actually getting better at seeing beyond fat bodies as jokes and viewing these characters as full, dynamic, and worthy of respect? Or does it merely mean that we have learned to make our fat shaming a little more nuanced and subtle? I'm not sure, but I hope at the very least that the new episodes of Gilmore Girls (which I await anxiously and excitedly) do away with these kinds of cruel, unnecessary comments. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Gamification of Everyday Life, Self Care, and Neoliberal Shortfallings: What Has Pokemon Go Done for You Lately?

I have a confession: I kind of suck at maternity leave. My son is eight weeks old now, and this is officially the longest I have gone since I was 15 years old without working. I still have a little over a month before I am back to teaching, and I'm staring down those days with something like dread mixed with something like willful determination. It's like I am preparing to run a particularly grueling marathon course instead of spending a blissful month snuggling with my children and making precious memories. That means that on top of feeling overwhelmed by the task, I also have to feel guilty about feeling overwhelmed. After all, getting this much time off is a privilege that many parents are denied. And isn't this motherhood gig supposed to be the most important job of all? Does the fact that thinking of another month of all of this togetherness makes my throat tighten and my chest hurt mean I don't love my kids enough?

But it's not really togetherness that's bothering me. In fact, it's quite the opposite, and I think that I'm starting to place that panic into a larger philosophical context.

At some point (fairly early in the process), maternity leave started to feel like a giant self-care project. It's a time to "get your body back" and make home cooked meals, a time to "nest" by decorating the house, and it's a space for building perfect and unshakable familial bonds.

Of course, maternity leave is not a vacation (as the backlash to that awful "me-ternity" article a few months ago made clear). I think that's the part that is the hardest for me. This time "off" is time that is supposed to be spent hard at work on all of these projects of self-fulfillment, and some of these projects of self-fulfillment feel pretty hollow and, to be frank, like bullshit. It's within this personal context that I came to read Laurie Penny's "Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless."


Penny is trying to tease out some tension between neoliberal notions of self care as a numbing salve for the pain of late capitalism and the fact that (even if we are coming together and sticking it to The Man) we do actually need to take care of ourselves. Her essay is worth a read in its entirety, but I'm just pulling out an early foundational piece of it to build on here. Penny situates our culture's current obsession with self care (which she epitomizes through Instagram gurus who post pictures of themselves doing yoga on beaches and drinking kale smoothies) within political power structures: "There is an obvious political dimension to the claim that wellbeing, with the right attitude, can be produced spontaneously." It's a tried and true method to keep the masses complacent and compliant to convince them that their happiness (and thus also their misery) is of their own making.
The isolating ideology of wellness works against this sort of social change in two important ways. First, it persuades all us that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted, the problem isn’t one of economics. There is no structural imbalance, according to this view—there is only individual maladaption, requiring an individual response. The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are. 
Secondly, it prevents us from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice.
Our narratives of self-care (buy this supplemental powder, join this gym, pay for this retreat) are deeply embedded in capitalist pursuits. They're embedded so deeply that even rejecting them often falls into the same system. Take, for example, this post from Nia Shanks that promises to be a "Bullshit Free" way of approaching health and fitness. She promises to do away with the gimmicks and expensive lies of supplements and magic fixes for body modification. If her minimalist approach speaks to you, you can buy her "Train to Be Awesome" guide or enroll in her "Fit Like a Girl Fat Loss Program." You can pay someone to tell you how to stop paying other people to tell you how to be the best version of yourself.

I'm not even necessarily pointing that out to criticize Shanks (or the thousands like her who are using body positivity and self-love as buzzwords to generate profit). I'd even venture to guess that most of those people are sincere about their belief that we need to cast off the yoke of Big Fitness and Big Pharma and Big Diet in order to better pursue health. The fact that they enact that belief by creating books and programs they can package and sell might seem contradictory, but it is a symptom of just how embedded our notions of self-care as individual "projects" really are.

Chris Maisano writes in his article "Chicken Soup for the Neoliberal Soul" that "neoliberalism has radically transformed our sense of self. . . . the assault on working-class organizations and living standards has led many young adults to adopt a profoundly individualistic and therapeutic view of the world and their personal development." His conclusion is that "only through the creation of solidarities that rebuild confidence in our collective capacity to change the world that their grip can be broken." Meanwhile, all of these self-care project gurus are offering us "solitary bowls of chicken soup" for our damaged souls.

Are we so conditioned by our capitalist overlords to see the world through an individualistic lens that we have lost the ability to see all of the other tortured chicken soup-gulping souls around us as potential allies and friends? Are we about to hit the peak of the "bowling alone" phenomenon? (And did this pervasive loneliness cause the rise of Donald Trump?) Will we soon just be tiny disconnected islands staring into our glowing screens while Amazon's robots deliver us groceries so that we never even have to leave our houses?

(I know what you're thinking. Hey! Didn't you say this was going to be about Pokemon in the title? Was this a trap?! Hold on. I'm getting there.)

In an interview with Siva Vaidhyanathan, the merger of technology with this radically individual notion of self care brings up something that I find fascinating: we may be going full circle.

Vaidhyanathan explains that the major tech companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple) are all competing to become the "operating systems of our lives." He goes on to say:
It’s going to be a closed system, not an open system. . . . It’s actually about our bodies. The reason that watches and glasses and cars are important is that they lie on and carry human bodies. What we’re really seeing is the full embeddedness of human bodies and human motion in these data streams and the full connectivity of these data streams to the human body.
He envisions a world in which every decision and action is embedded into this connected system and our choices are outsourced, ultimately determined by the companies that have partnered with these systems and the influence they have. He is concerned:
We’re accepting short-term convenience, a rather trivial reward, and deferring long-term harms. Those harms include a loss of autonomy, a loss of privacy and perhaps even a loss of dignity at some point. ... Right now, what I am concerned about is the notion that we’re all plugging into these data streams and deciding to allow other companies to manage our decisions. We’re letting Facebook manage what we get to see and which friends we get to interact with.

I started this post by discussing the very grave concerns about a culture of too much individualism. The problem with this kind of individualism is that it blinds us to the social systems in which we exist and the responsibility we have to the other people with whom we are connected. This is why saying "Black Lives Matters" infuriates some people. They counter with "All Lives Matter" which sounds collective and inclusionary but is actually a way of saying "My Life Matters, Individually" and, by extension, "Your Life Only Matters Individually as Well." They are threatened by "Black Lives Matter" because it suggests a community of people who are coming together to insist that we examine the way systemic policies and collective actions are impacting them. Admitting that we need to focus on "Black Lives" instead of each individual life is admitting that we really aren't just individuals getting to determine our own success and failure, admitting that maybe our success wasn't entirely earned and that we did indeed benefit from systems of white supremacy or class privilege and on the other side that maybe someone else's struggle isn't just a sign of their individual weakness but a marker of the ways they have been systematically denied access to opportunity.

That's a scary proposition for someone who has become fully invested in the individualistic notion of self care. Blending some expensive supplement powder into our kale smoothies is a lot easier than trying to dismantle a system of institutional inequality.

But by the end of that line of thinking, I had gotten to someone who fears a complete loss of individuality, a world in which we make no decisions for ourselves and one in which giant corporations use out networked connection to turn us into consuming automatons whose choices are no longer our own.

It's not that one of these fears is valid and the other isn't. We exist in a world where too much individualism and too much collectivism are both a threat. I think that we're quickly approaching a very kairotic moment where these two are going to overlap: the absolute individual with the absolute collective. And I think that a clear place to see the struggle that overlap causes (and its potential) is in the gamification of everyday life.

There is a lot of gamification in my everyday tasks. Walking has become gamified through Fitbit and Pokemon Go. Shopping has become gamified through Target's Cartwheel app. I can earn badges for listening to books on Audible.

Each of these instances represents a place where the individual and the collective are crashing into one another. Tracking how many steps I take in a day on a Fitbit is a wholly individual endeavor. Earning badges for the most steps I have ever taken in a day or the distance I have traveled in the time I have been using the device is an individual accomplishment. But using a Fitbit without using the collective features isn't much fun. The way that it encourages people to move more is through collective competition and encouragement.

Pokemon Go has gotten a lot of criticism for further entrenching us into an individualistic mindset. It can be jarring to see a bunch of people wandering around with their faces buried in a screen. It's a good visual metaphor for the biggest fears of individualism: we will be so consumed by our own concerns that we won't even recognize there is a world around us.

But that's not what's actually happening. Pokemon Go has quickly become one of the most popular apps of all time, and with that many people playing simultaneously, we have the chance to see what this crash between individual and collective through technology can really look like.

And what does it look like? Kind of a beautiful mess.

It has been used to promote messages of love and equality by targeting the hateful Westboro Baptist Church, sell more pizzas, give small businesses a chance to up their foot traffic, and register voters.

It has connected random people together on the streets of New York and given autistic children a way to connect more easily.

Animal shelters are using it to get people to help walk dogs, and police are using it to connect to the communities they patrol.

Not all of the stories have been positive, of course. There have been reports of people using the game to plan robberies, and some of the sites marked as Pokestops are not happy with the designation and the crowds it has brought to otherwise solemn places.

But the one thing that all of the stories have in common is that the interaction between individual and collective is highlighted through the games. People are talking to each other face-to-face because of the game when they get out of their houses and bump into one another (perhaps literally, as we forget to look up from our screens). People are putting Pokemon "lures" on places like children's hospitals in acts of goodwill. We're finding local businesses and landmarks we may have never seen before. (I've personally found three murals I didn't know existed in my own neighborhood thanks to the game.)

All of this to say, there is enough of both individualism and communalism to go around. We do not need to be so lulled by the promise of individualism in the face of seemingly insurmountable social ills that we forget other people exist. Nor do we need to become so enmeshed in the collective that we lose individual autonomy and let corporations choose our lifestyles for us. There is another option, and it's not so much a "middle ground" as it is a constant push and pull between the extremes that will overlap just as Pokemon Go has done.

We've been presented with a dichotomy of individualism and collective as if we must constantly be on a trajectory inevitably ending with complete submission to one or the other, but that is overly simplistic and ignores the collisions between those extremes.

It's in these collisions that we have the chance to escape the dystopian outcomes of either. And it makes me feel optimistic that some of the collisions can be pretty fun.

Images: Jeffreyw, charliepatrick

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The First Post-Baby Gym Visit

He's finally old enough to use the drop-in daycare at the Y. I should go to the gym today. 

"Can you please sing more quietly? You're going to wake your brother up."

If I fold these clothes really quick and start a load of dishes before we go, we should be fine. 

"We're going to go to the gym as soon as I finish this. Will you please put your shoes on?" My five-year-old daughter bounds up the stairs, presumably to find and put on her shoes. The baby snoozes next to me as I finish folding the basket of clothes.

I'll need to change his diaper before we go. I'll do that. Then do the dishes. 

I grab the baby and start climbing the stairs to change his diaper. When I get up there, I put him in his bassinet while I try to find a clean diaper cover.

Didn't I just fold like ten of these? Where are they? 

Then I catch a glimpse of my daughter out of the corner of my eye. She has gone in her room, gotten completely undressed, and is now dancing around in nothing but a tutu and a string of Mardi Gras beads. She is definitely not wearing shoes. "Please put your clothes back on and find your shoes. I really want to go to the gym today, and if we don't hurry, we won't have time."

I find a clean diaper cover and carefully pull the now-stirring baby from the bassinet. As I slip on the new diaper, he pees all over the bed and his clothes.

Shit. Shit. Shit. 

I get his clothes off of him and turn to grab new ones. That's when I realize that the only clean clothes left in his drawer are the newborn sizes he grew out of two weeks ago. I put him back in the bassinet, now screaming, and run downstairs to the laundry I just folded to find a clean onesie.

When I come back upstairs and rush to scoop up the screaming baby, I peek into my daughter's room and see that she has put on her shirt but no pants and has dumped every Crayon in the house onto her floor as she searches for the perfect shade of "primrose" (not pink) to color the picture of her imaginary friend. "Please put your clothes on. You can finish your picture when we get back, but I really, really want to go to the gym, and we're going to run out of time." I rhythmically bounce the baby up and down and hum to him until his screams fade to punctuated chirps with a clear message: he's hungry.

I'll just put his clothes on him real quick, feed him, and then we're out the door. I can still make this work. All I need is half an hour to lift weights. I wonder if that's really a good idea. I haven't lifted in so long. What weight should I start at? Should I do my whole body or just legs? Will I be too sore tomorrow if I . . . 

The chirps have turned back into screams as I try to pull the onesie over his head. I pick him back up, navigate onto the bed, position the Boppy, and start to nurse.

Damn it! 

I forgot that I put on the new sports bra that I bought yesterday even though it makes me self conscious to look at the size XXL tag. I hold up the face-sized cups and cannot for the life of me make it match the image I have of my body, the body that could not squeeze into the pre-pregnancy sports bras. There's no way I can nurse in this monstrosity.

Maybe I should just skip the gym today. . . . No! I really want to go. I'll just take this off, feed him, get dressed again, and then we're out the door. 

As I'm nursing, I can't see into my daughter's room, but the sounds of singing and dancing suggest that all might not be going smoothly. "Are you dressed? Did you put your shoes on?" She says she did, but I am skeptical. "Come in here." She comes bounding in with a propelled bear crawl. Shirt. Pants. Shoes on the wrong feet.

"Good work! But your shoes are on the wrong feet. Can you switch them real quick?" She leaps back out as quickly as she appeared.

The baby's done nursing. I burp him and then scramble to get my gym clothes back on. I carry him down the steps and strap him into the car seat, which he hates, so he immediately starts screaming. I call upstairs. "Come on! Let's go! I want to get him in the car so he stops crying." My daughter comes down the stairs. Shoeless.

"Go put your shoes on! What are you doing?" She disappears again.

Shit! The dishes! 

I try rocking the car seat back and forth a few times and them give him a pacifier. He glares at me over the top of it but stops screaming.

I could go to the gym tomorrow. But I have that doctor's appointment, and then she needs to be ready for roller skating class by 5 so I would have to . . . NO! I'm going to the gym! Just skip the dishes. 

I start checking to make sure I have everything I need. Diapers in the diaper bag. Phone. Headphones. Wallet.

You can't skip the dishes. You don't have any clean bowls, and dinner tonight is soup. 

I rush into the kitchen and start tossing the dishes in. The baby starts screaming.

"Shh. Shh. Shh," I rhythmically shush and rock, trying to get him to tolerate just a few more minutes in the car seat. Finally I take him out, finish loading the dishwasher with one hand while I hold him with the other and then realize my daughter never came back downstairs.

"Come on, please! We really need to go!"

"I'm finishing my picture!"

"You can finish it when we get back. I need you to come here now."

I strap the baby back in the car seat and my daughter comes down, shoes on the right feet, pouting about her picture.

"Please, please, just go to the car." I glance at my watch. Thirty-five minutes have passed.

Is this even worth it? You're spending more time getting to the gym than you're going to spend at the gym.

We get to the car. I snap the car seat in, buckle my daughter up, and finally start to drive. The baby starts screaming. My hushing, humming, and one twisted hand rocking attempts are futile.

Ten minutes later, we're at the gym. The baby's asleep, and I carefully lift the car seat out to try to keep it that way. My daughter is picking flowers.

"Please, please stay with me! I want to finish before he wakes up."

"Look! It's a bee. Bees make honey. Do you know how they make honey? Did you know that bees live in hives? Did you know they have a queen? But she doesn't wear a crown. Did you know . . ."

"Baby, I want to hear all about the bees, but right now I need to get into the gym. Please come on."

We're through the door. I check them both in to the childcare room and step out. Free. Fifty-five minutes have passed since I said I was going to the gym. Fifty-five minutes for a thirty minute workout.

Ah! I didn't ever figure out what I was going to do once I got here. I have no idea how much weight to use. I don't remember what weight I started with when I first started lifting, but surely I haven't lost all of it. Ugh. I hope I don't try to lift too much and hurt myself. How bad would that suck? First time back and out with an injury. 

I'm in the weight room now, and I'm feeling remnants of all those insecurities that I thought I had long ago put to bed.

There are no other women in this entire room. Look at that guy. He's bench pressing as much as I weigh! They're going to laugh at me when I go over there and start squatting just the bar. This is silly. Maybe I should come back at a time when it's not so busy. Maybe I should just go walk the track. 

I was thinking these things, but my feet were still moving. Inside, I was on the verge of backing out, but my body had fallen back into its old groove. It was confidently adjusting the squat rack for my short frame.

And then my hands were on the bar. I felt the ridges against my palms and ducked my head under the bar, and I smiled at my reflection squatting the empty bar in the mirror.


A week ago, I had my postpartum check-up with my OB. I had been instructed by my son's pediatrician to tell her I had scored high on the postpartum depression screening they had given me in their office. I had tried to ask questions: What was "high"? Did the screening account for the fact that I had a preexisting anxiety disorder? What warning signs should I be looking for? 

The nurse who had called to tell me about the results seemed a little embarrassed. She was hushed and rushed. I'm really glad that they do these screenings in the pediatrician's office (where new mothers are typically seen earlier and more frequently than their own OB's office), but I also sensed that they were a little uncomfortable with handling results that suggested a problem. "Just be sure to talk it over with your OB."

So I did. As we talked through what symptoms I might be exhibiting, my OB assured me that she didn't think I had postpartum depression. Closer inspection revealed that my symptoms were much more aligned with anxiety than depression, and it turns out that postpartum anxiety is even more common than postpartum depression

As we talked over treatment options, it was clear to me that I couldn't really figure out how much of this was a newfound anxiety rooted in my postpartum hormones and how much it was my same old lifelong anxiety that was particularly unruly because of the stress of parenting an infant, being home all day with my precocious five-year-old, and not really getting much sleep at a time. 

My doctor suggested that I get back to my exercise routine (which has always helped my anxiety before) now that I was physically cleared for it and see if my symptoms improved in two weeks. 

I made a goal to work out (which I'm using as a loose term that can mean anything from a thirty-minute walk, to running as part of the couch-to-5k program, to weightlifting) every day this month, and I've stuck to it so far. I already feel so, so much better. It's not just the exercise itself but also the act of carving out some space that's solely my own in a day that is otherwise dedicated entirely to childrearing. I'm completely convinced that it's making a positive difference. 

However, as my first attempt at going to the gym (rather than walking in place while carrying three-pound hand weights around my living room and dodging my daughter's dance moves while pausing every two minutes to replace a rolling pacifier) showed me just how much this necessary self-care practice is going to require diligence and commitment. I need to make sure that I remember that this time is not a luxury but a necessity. It is necessary for me to be a present, functioning, and caring parent, and I have to find a way to stop relegating it to the "maybe" pile on the day's activities.