why I wish my thesis were entitled “don’t be dicks”.

Yesterday I abstained from the Superbowl so I could catch up on homework, like a responsible citizen.  While everyone else I knew (with a few exceptions) was having an intensely emotional reaction to some sort of sportsing mishap, I was reading an Educational Psychology textbook and still vacillating about what I wanted to do my thesis proposal on.

I’ve felt emotionally pummeled in more way than one, this past week.  It’s been a week of attempted suicides, public figures having sex-change operations and being eviscerated by the press for it, three year old children shooting their parents with a loaded gun they found in a handbag, global warming studies being more or less ignored, and oh so much more.   It’s been a week of listening to my author friends express their concerns about the changing publishing landscape, reading my classmate’s heart-rending journal entries about the fears their preschool children have about being black in a white justice system, and trying not to get dragged down in unending debates about the widening education gap.  Oh, then there’s the continuing struggle of women to be respected in the workplace and “reverse misogyny” and all of that other stuff, which I seriously don’t even want to contemplate being a thing that people actually discuss.

As I sat on my couch trying to decide what, given the breadth to write about anything at all I could research, I wanted to say, I found myself coming up completely empty.

I wish I could write a thesis about why people just have to stop being so incredibly shitty to each other, but a thesis proposal called “please stop being dicks, ‘kay?” just doesn’t seem all that professional.

I found myself, at one point in time, actually being asked to defend the fact that I didn’t care more about football.  No, really, someone asked me why I posted a meme that I thought was funny, in which a grumpy cat said that it wished both teams would lose, and they wanted to know why I was being a jerk about football since football is a beautiful expression of group passions.  It’s like a coming of age ritual, it’s like a pseudo-religious expression of community and togetherness.  Which I do understand, mind you.  I get how football is a way for people to bond, it builds a sense of community and it also becomes a way to express frustrations and hopes and even aggression that otherwise society would diminish.  Football isn’t just a meaningless sport.  Just as the gladiators of Ancient Rome and the Warriors of the Aztec engaged in ritualistic aggression to assuage the frustrations of the populace, we’ve got our muscular men in tight pants throwing pigskin around so we have a way to assuage our own angst- and it works.  Look at the painted faces in the crowd and you can see how it, like a good old fashioned tent revival, gives us somewhere to pin our hopes and leave our anger.

But what interests me is the fact that we can be SO passionate about a game, while there is all this other meaningful stuff that we brush aside.  How many children have been killed by guns since Sandy Hook elementary?  How many transexuals have been beaten or shamed in the past year?  How many suicides have their been?  How many children have had their educations trampled into the dirt by persistent inequality?

But god save us, we care about football.

If we took an ounce of that passion, an ounce of that funding, imagine what a difference we could make.

But oh, a friend points out that football makes us feel good and talking about teen suicide rates or child death rates does not.

True that.

If only educating our children were a game, then maybe people would stop rolling their eyes when we talk about the literacy gap.  If only.

But in the meantime, I drafted a thesis proposal about how systemic poverty affects the education system.  My kids came home from watching the game and my son asked me if we can still root for the Seahawks since they are losers now, and we have a good talk about how no one can win every game and what makes someone a great sportsman over time is how they play every game, even the ones they lose; people aren’t only defined by winning.

And we talked about how we all have times when we feel like we “lose” in our own lives and we need to keep rooting for ourselves, anyway.

And I laid in bed late at night, thinking about all of the fights I’ll probably pick up in my own career, knowing that I’ll probably lose them.

And I wished I’d drafted a thesis proposal entitled, “don’t be dicks.”

Another time.

Buried Leads, Free Speech, and No Je Suis Charlie for me (please)

Let me start out by saying that as beautiful as it can be, when we see real moments of solidarity in society, we should always question who it is that we are aligning ourselves to.  In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, there was a spontaneous outpouring of “Je Suis Charlie.”  People who had never heard of the magazine before were horrified that anyone would ever be killed just for expressing an opinion, which I have to say I agree with.  No one should ever be killed just because someone else disagrees with them.

But people also shouldn’t be killed for things like wanting an education or simply living somewhere where someone else wants to be.  A girl bomber has killed 19 people in Nigeria recently, sparking suspicions that the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram last year may be being abused and turned extremist.  This, on top of a spat of recent killings led by Boko Haram in a land grab that gives them control of a much larger territory (the images are horrifying).  Boko Haram has already been described by the Nigerian government as intractable and too in control of the land they already had.  As they continue to make land grabs, kill villagers, and steal young girls (a practice that they haven’t given up, even after the #bringbackourgirls tag trended on Twitter) the situation becomes more and more corrupt and resistant to change.

Locals reported that the Boko Haram militants were unscrupulously killing everyone they could find just to incite horror, shooting a pregnant woman who was already in labor.  Can you even imagine being that woman, dying knowing that your child was already dead inside you, just hours after preparing yourself to hold that child for the first time?

The news of the Nigerian massacre, which could be as little as 200 or as many as 3000 dead in just a few days, coming on the heels of Je Suis Charlie raises many important questions.  The first would be why, as these innocent people were killed just for living in the wrong place, was the 24 hour news cycle more concerned with talking about whether or not Obama had betrayed the American public’s trust by not going to the 3.7 million man march for free speech in France?

The question of whether Obama SHOULD have gone to the march raises several important questions.  The first is if the symbolic defense of free speech really should have such a pull for us, as a nation.  We do love free speech here, even more than France, which famously has several restrictions on what people can publish.  Charlie Hebdo has quite famously had to defend themselves in court when their comics had been challenged as hate speech, even being told by the French government that they were overstepping their bounds and should print less offensive of images.  Charlie Hebdo’s defense has been that no one would possibly take them seriously as a news magazine and they are strictly comedic- but in France, even that defense can be problematic.

So, if Obama were to go to France, I would hope it would be to talk about the complicated issue of what Free Speech is as an ideal and should be, and to question if France should loosen it’s restrictions or if, perhaps, the USA should consider some restrictions of it’s own.

The truth is that the marches in support of Charlie Hebdo are less about the reality of free speech (as the magazine repeatedly faced being shut down by the French government and no one marched then) but about the symbolism of people wanting to be free to condemn Islam without being murdered.  Now, to be fair, no one should ever be murdered just for having an offensive opinion.

But I, also, would never want to say Je Suis Charlie knowing that they created comics which are deeply offensive to my moderate Muslim friends here in the States, also knowing that they tend to be homophobic and generally have been characterized as lowbrow and crass.  There is a website to help non-French speakers to better understand the cartoons, but click at your own risk.  Political cartooning can be both a great form of satire and visual argument, but also has a spotted history of racism and abusiveness.  Not all political cartoons are created equal, and there is a great opportunity for honest debate being lost by the wholehearted outpouring of defense of Charlie Hebdo.  While no one deserves to die for what they publish, the truth is that there is a level of integrity and ethics that all journalists, even cartoonists, should employ.  Cartoonists today still often employ images that evoke racist sentiments, for example, to attack our President Obama.  The rallying cries of “free speech” and “it’s just a cartoon” cannot always be used to gloss over how irresponsible it is to knowingly publish works with the full intent to offend and incite hatred.

But suddenly I find myself back at the girl bomber in Nigeria, and the pregnant woman left for dead in the streets with her unborn child just pushes away from it’s first breath when it died.

Because we need to ask ourselves what our anger, what our push for solidarity, really represents.  We can’t say that we side with Charlie Hebdo because we are against terrorism, or our horror would be just as strongly for the fact that the Nigerian people are losing the ability to turn to their government for help, and Nigeria may very soon fall entirely into the hands of the terrorist Boko Haram.  We cannot say that our horror at the murder of those cartoonists is solely about people’s right to live without fear, or we’d be a little more concerned that Nigerian schoolgirls cannot leave their homes to get an education without accepting the fact that they may be kidnapped and radicalized into suicide bombers.  So what is it?

My fear is that the identifying with Charlie Hebdo is, at least in part, a sublimated desire to also condemn Islam.

But perhaps I judge too harshly.

All I can say is this:  Yes, cartoonists being killed just for having expressing an opinion, however offensive, is wrong.

But we, as human beings, should be just as quick to stand up for girl’s rights to pursue an education, and people’s rights to live their daily lives without being slaughtered in the streets.  If we truly wish to combat terrorism we need to ask ourselves how exactly that can be done.

Speech isn’t going to end terrorism.

But supporting the Nigerian people so that they are strong enough to fight, protect their daughters, and bear their children: well, that might.

The Immigration Crisis, Right to Life, and Birthdays.

Really, there are times in my life when I know better than to go on Facebook.  Lately I’ve been having to bite my lip and quickly scroll past angry screeds about the recent immigration crisis, followed by the usual pictures of aborted fetuses and cheery Right-to-Life posts that say things like “everyone deserves to have a birthday!  Vote for life!”

And I find my patience quickly dwindling down to nothing.  Let me tell you a story:  5 years ago now, I was the site supervisor for a homeless shelter.  One of our families had a child who had a birthday while they were still our guests.  Her parents, feeling horrible about the fact that she couldn’t really have friends over for a sleepover like other young girls, went all out.  They used their electronic benefits to buy cake and cookies and balloons and presents, and they treated her like a princess.  I was telling someone about this, thinking it was a touching story of finding hope in the midst of hopelessness, and that person responded:

“If they had money, why didn’t they use it to get out of there?”

Well, there are a few responses to that.  One is that the amount of money spent on that party, which couldn’t have amounted to much more than what I have in a coin jar on my dresser on any given day, wouldn’t have been enough to pay for an apartment.  The other, more important response, is:  doesn’t every child have a right to have some pleasant memories in their life?  Do you really want to give a child the memory of no party, no desert, no presents, simply because their parent was poor?  Do you want a child to have the memory of crying themselves to sleep in a homeless shelter?  Is that really what we want?

Every child deserves to celebrate a birthday, huh?

So this immigration crisis, or refugee crisis, or what have you.  These 50,000 young children here in America, parentless, because their countries are awash in crime and poverty and chaos- do they deserve birthdays?  Or are they, like the child of the homeless couple, doomed to be judge as worthy of experiencing pain because it is a just punishment for the wrongs of their forefathers?

Truly, I do not understand the overwhelming attitude of intolerance and rage that is being expressed by people who are otherwise caring individuals.  I do get the sentiment that every child deserves a birthday.  People imagine a sort of dream life that aborted babies are missing out on- a life that involves loving parents, birthday parties, being wanted and needed and celebrated.  To have that potential extinguished is certainly a painful conceit.  So I do understand, I do.  I find it hard to comprehend how such tender-hearted people cannot concieve of the fact that such potential was surely lost from the time the proverbial pee stick turned blue, as this child was neither wanted nor celebrated from the start, and simply being born is no guarantee of that sad fact changing.

Take the refugee children, for example.  Are they celebrated?  Wanted?  Needed?  Their parents loved them enough to face the fact that they may never again see them, but to at least risk the possibility of a secure future elsewhere, far away from their now empty arms.  But what future is that?

Given the fact that they are being deported back to homes which may now be empty as a result of the drug wars, it’s not a future of birthdays.

Now, back to the homeless girl’s birthday:  I’m sure that no one really wanted her to cry herself to sleep.  What anyone whom I asked said was that her parents should be more responsible.  “I want her to have the kind of parents who get her out of that life!”  Ah, yes, of course.  If only we could take the generations of poverty, distress, maltreatment, lack of education and societal disregard that landed her there in the first place, she’d have a proper birthday!  The sentiment, once picked apart, is that her birthday shouldn’t come at taxpayer expense.  Someone *else* needs to be responsible, am I right?

There’s a fundamental injustice, though.  We can’t have it both ways.  We can’t say, “every child deserves a life of being wanted and celebrated” and then say, “but if the people in their life are not providing that it’s not MY fault.”

If we truly believe that there is a baseline, a basic life of pleasure and comforts that every child should have, don’t we have a responsibility to secure that?  Even if it hurts our pocketbooks?

When I hear people saying that it is the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico that are to blame for the plight of children and THOSE people should be responsible for securing the children’s futures, I burn.

I burn.

I am consumed.

If there is a moral imperative of which WE are conscious which OTHERS ignore, guess whose responsibility it is to secure it?  Ours.  That is like watching an old lady walk into traffic blind, then pointing at the other onlookers and saying, “YOU should have known to give her your hand.”

NO.  NO.  NO.

If you believe every child deserves to be loved, every child deserves a future, every child deserves a birthday cake- don’t point your fingers elsewhere and say that it can’t be our responsibility to open our borders and our homes.  It has to be.

It just has to be.

If you want every child to have a birthday, you’d better start learning Spanish well enough to sing “Las Mañanitas” and get to baking cakes.

Review: Elements of Mind by Walter Hunt

I picked this book up after seeing a Facebook conversation about it in which it was described as a Victorian romp with classic horror elements. An allusion was made to Stephen King, and by happenstance there was a picture of a statue I’d done an essay on for a Far Eastern Art class. I was deeply intrigued.

To be honest, the first few pages made me a little meh. How many books do the “we’ll hint at the ending on the first page and then drag you through the whole story anyway” thing? Plus, at first I found the heightened language of narrator’s voice to be a bit much. Oh, but oh was I wrong to judge so harshly so quickly. By the fourth page I was intrigued by where the story could possibly go, and by the tenth page I already knew I was in love.

First, there’s the method of storytelling. Fans of the horror genre know that multiple narrative voices, the use of letters, or fractured timelines are as old as the hills. Frankenstein is one shining example, Dracula is another. While Hunt pays homage to the old greats by using this method, which is as immediately comfortable as a pair of well-worn work boots, he does it in a way that is very unrestrained and clever. Instead of staying to a single form, such as letters, he uses letters as well as flashback narration and novelization in the protagonist’s current timeline. While other authors find themselves tripping over a confused central voice while balancing perspectives (Oh, Veronica Roth, we still need to talk) Hunt never misses a beat: the multiple voices in his story serve to dangle some information in front of the reader while obscuring other, helping to keep the pace consistent and the story full of layers of intrigue. I have the deepest respect for the work that Hunt must have done as a student of the genre before embarking on his journey as a writer.

The second is the setting. Stylized Victorian settings tend to make me itch, as they are endlessly problematic. I’ve seen, for instance, the kind of misogyny that female readers are all too uncomfortable with in the world of fantasy excused as “an artifact of the time” when written into Victorian style literature. It gets old, fast. How many one-dimmensional women can be thrown into horror stories just to give a pleasantly heaving bosom for the male protagonist to rescue and then unlace? But there is none of that nonsense here! I found Hunt’s treatment of his female characters (of which there are a pleasant variety) to be quite refreshing. The deference and respect paid to them by the male protagonist, Davey, made me smile. The best thing is the casual way in which he dismissed the less lady-friendly attitudes of side characters with Davey’s responses. In one instance, one character states that their expedition is no place for a woman, “particularly an Englishwoman.”

Davey responds, “I wish you luck in telling her so. If you have served Her Majesty here in India, you clearly have some measure of bravery; it will take all that and more to suggest to Mrs. Shackleford that she not go.”

Ah. Like a breath of fresh air.

Another thing that typically makes it hard for me to read genre fiction is how often writers rely on tropes. Now, I love a great trope. And as a writer, I understand how writing re-imaginings of the things you’ve loved in books past can be the fiction author’s equivalent of macaroni and cheese. You know, comfort food. So I get that everyone loves a good noble rogue and mysterious stranger and call to heroism. Sure! It’s older than written language itself! But a skilled writer will find a way to take the reader’s expectation, well formed from their familiarity with the trope, and shape it into something new and surprising. Hunt does this multiple times in quite clever ways. I won’t spoil the story by giving specifics, but I’ll just say that this book now includes my FAVORITE use of the Mysterious Stranger- when the big reveal happened, I squealed with surprise and happiness.

Then, there is the setting. Victorian India is a bit fetishized and has been since, well, a Victorian India first existed in Victorian days. But this book doesn’t read at all like fetish fantasy. For one, Hunt is obviously well schooled in actual history. The artifacts he discusses, the little illuminations of setting, and the dynamic of inter-relationships between characters all show a great deal of education and thoughtfulness. Reading this novel doesn’t result in the sort of magic realism that comes from suspending disbelief and accepting this version of reality as the one in the author’s head. Hunt’s India isn’t an acceptable alternative to the real place. Hunt’s India isn’t magically real: it is real, plain and simple. The taste of reality in the book makes the fantasy all that more delightful, as one imagines that this tale would be wholly believable to readers of the time, and is colored in all the colors of a world that once wholeheartedly accepted mesmerism and possession as a part of science as of yet unexplained.

I was absolutely delighted by this book and plan to pass several copies along to some of my favorite readers. Hunt has great command not just of storytelling as a craft, but a cunning balance of education and inventiveness to boot. I’m hoping that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are more convincing worlds and breathtaking tales to come. Highly recommended.

Impossible Standards

Floating around in my brain. There are several threads pulling together. One is a very clever link that’s been going around showing real men posing in underwear as compared to models. Sort of a “yeah, men get the short end of this stick sometimes, too,” deal. And while it’s interesting to see those sorts of things, there is so much that can, and should, be said about the difference between the glorification of the masculine and feminine in the media.

Because while men’s bodies are airbrushed, stylized, and overdone: it’s still never quite the same as the pervasive and damaging way that women are treated by advertisements.

For one? Men are glorified as strong. While the extent of that strength as posed by the models may not be achievable by all men, the pursuit of that strength is arguably not as physically damaging as the pursuit of ultra-thinness is for women. Another is that the overall masculine ideal that is portrayed is not as conflicting as it is for women. Men should be strong, that’s the ultimate message. Whereas women are told to be strong and also weak, to be virgins and also whores, to need men while being independent, and a host of conflicting messages that lead to guilt no matter what ideal a woman pursues. We need to be clean and dirty! Skinny AND curvy, etc! WE NEED TO BE EVERYTHING WHILE ALSO VACUOUS AND WAITING TO BE FILLED WITH YOUR MALE STRENGTH. WOOO!

It’s impossible.

A male friend made a remark about how growing up reading comics he was all too familiar with impossible ideals. And while the hyper-strength of superheros is certainly an impossible ideal, comic books really don’t try to convince the reader that they are somehow failing if they aren’t bit by a radioactive spider, right? The ideal is there, but the permission to not meet it is also there.

There aren’t many bra manufacturers out there giving women permission to not need the newest push-up bra.

Of course one has to admit that men are more and more getting the complicated messages- be all-absorbed in your work and success but also a caring father. Have six pack abs but drink that beer. You know, the impossible to meet dualities of our society.

But ultimately it’s still not quite the same, because looking at history men have always been allowed strength. They’ve always been given license to lead. They’ve always been granted more autonomy. Their strength comes from the self, the self that they are encouraged to have. Ordered to have.

Whereas women? Our “self” has been expected to be our spouse, our family, our role in society. Our sense of self is something we have to buy into by accepting what is laid before us. So it’s harder to shake those media images, because deep in our internal programming is the belief that we have to buy in to be safe, because cultivating a sense of self outside of that is intrinsically dangerous.

Even so, when I look at the perfectly sculpted ideals, both masculine and feminine, what I see is not an answer but a death. To become that, we give up what we are now, we cut away at ourselves to fit into a mold that has been designed with no real knowledge of who we are.

Maybe I have a stronger reaction because I never watch TV, never read magazines, never look too closely at billboards and don’t live in a big city. When I see those perfect abs or perky boobs spread out to sell me something I have this horribly visceral reaction.

They have no humanity. Don’t buy in.

blargh

I have something like six different blogs and rarely post to any of them.  It’s been years since I’ve regularly blogged anywhere but here, and I only blog here intermittently.  But, every once in a while, I feel like writing.

This morning I’ve been thinking a lot about grief.  Also a lot about just struggling.

I have a lot of fears.  Some of them rational, some of them irrational.   I worry, for instance, that I’m annoying.  Every time I need or want something I feel like I shouldn’t talk about it because I’ll annoy someone.  I also avoid hanging out with my friends because I don’t want any of them to get burnt out on me.  When I’m lonely I think, “I shouldn’t call anyone because I don’t want to seem needy.”  When I’m not lonely, I don’t call, because I figure everyone in the world has better things to do than hang out with me.

And then there is the piercing fear that one moment I’ll be happy and laughing with someone, and the next moment they’ll hate me, and I won’t know why.

This is a million times worse with anyone I actually care about.

And grief.  Most of the time I feel fine, but often it’s the moments of happiness that are the worst because I step right off of the edge of an emotional cliff I didn’t realize was there.  There are moments where I’ll say, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been in known memory!” and then five minutes later I’m crying in my bathroom.

All of that to say that where once my isolation was an artifact of all of the bad things in my life, these days it’s mostly a self-imposed protective measure.  Only it doesn’t serve to protect me, it just makes everything worse.

I had this kidney infection.  I was so, so sick.  I had all of these IVs and all of these nurses fussing over me and it was so surreal, because I kept thinking, “this morning I was walking around like nothing was wrong.”

And it wasn’t until I was told how sick I was and had the medicine to make me better that I realized my definition of “fine” was sort of insane.

I suppose the same thing is true about my emotions.

Only I can’t go to the ER and say, “hey, something is wrong, I know something is wrong” and have someone stick a needle in my arm to make it go away.

And now I need to go to work and take care of other people, while in the back of my mind a little voice screams that I’m the one that needs help.

Life.

It’s funny.

Let’s REALLY talk about institutionalized abuses.

So yesterday I wrote a blog post which I worked very hard on.  I tried to compassionately ask that men please just listen to the women sharing their stories right now, and then I told my OWN story in order to illustrate a culture of misogyny that I had experienced.  I only had one sentence in the entire blog post which made a generalization about the male experience, and it was “and men are trained that it is okay to blame us, because their privilege is more important than our rights.”

Did I say that all men abuse women?

NO.

Did I say that all men are evil?

NO.

Did I even say that all men are complicit?

NO.

What did I say?  I said that society, as a whole, has a different attitude towards men than women.  Men are given license, by society, to blame women for the way in which women are treated by men.  I was very deliberate in not having gone any further than that and stopping my claims there.  Partly, because a blog post should only ever be so long; but, mostly because I understood that no matter what an individual writer says, when you’re writing about an issue which is broadly in the media people tend to react to the issue itself instead of your words.

I immediately received a personal backlash.

The thrust of the arguments which I had with several men, both privately and publicly, is that it is wrong for women to make generalizations about men.  Making those generalizations weakens women’s argument, puts men on the defensive, makes dialogue impossible, and so forth.

I was forced, then, to make a choice:  To either continue to restate my actual argument which necessitated a generalization, or to capitulate.

Why does the argument necessitate a generalization?

Let me take you to a moment in Guadalajara Mexico,when I was cornered by a police-man on a motorcycle.  My gut clenches and I am looking for any avenue of escape, but there is none.  Why am I looking for an avenue of escape?  Because the woman I am staying with, a native of the city, says that police men are known to rape white girls when they are on Spring Break.

She made a generalization, didn’t she?  But she made one because the generalization was necessary.  Sure, she could say, “some policemen have”, but that is still general.  Or she could say “there are a hundred known cases of”, but that is actually too clinical to be effective.  The problem that she is addressing, that she is trying to communicate to me, is one that is endemic in the way the policemen of that city operate.  To address an endemic injustice, one MUST use language that encapsulates the system.  The system of police, in that case, which is based summed up in the statement “policemen are known to rape.”

Or, let’s look at the civil rights movement.  In his infamous “I have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, said, “Instead of honoring this obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.”  This is literally the first of many generalizations that the good Dr. made in his speech.

Okay, men, go dig him up from his grave and explain that making generalizations weakens a person’s argument.

Sometimes, when you are talking about systemic injustices that are institutionalized in the very way in which society operates, generalizations are all you have left.  When a black person talks about their experiences, generally, with white society, do we accuse them of being prejudiced against white people?

See, the #YesAllWomen movement has been characterized as being sexist in the way that generalizations against race are racist.  There’s a difference, though, between being racist and addressing systemic injustices that are based on race.  When someone says “all black people are lazy”, they are being a racist.  When a black person says, “white people are better rewarded by the academic system”, they are simply pointing out an injustice which society ignores, an injustice which is documented and undeniable.

When women say, “men are given permission to silence women who speak up about abuse by slut-shaming them or making them responsible for their own mistreatment”, women are simply pointing out a systemic injustice in society which, guess what!  Is documented and undeniable.  Sociologists have been puzzling over issues such as these for decades, and it is undeniable- empirically, scientifically undeniable-that there is a double standard in society.

So I will ask again that men listen to women address these injustices with open ears, open eyes, an open heart, and a closed mouth.