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Held In The Hand

You hear a lot in the wake of a big election about who has the mandate. This year, with all the time I’ve spent with gay friends on the marriage campaign, my first reaction to the word was, “With who? Gimme the dish!” But I got all excited for nothing—they just mean the same old tired definition. It seems to generally go along with a sweeping victory, but what exactly qualifies as “sweeping” (and even what qualifies as “victory,” sometimes) covers a range of outcomes you could drive a truck through. 
But the historian in me got to wondering: Where did this concept of an authorization or endorsement of one side’s agenda come from?
The term mandate comes directly out of Latin, which is unsurprising, since most ideas of political power were defined—in one way or another—by those experts in bureaucracy, the Romans. But the etymology suggests something more of a public trust: mandate means “to give into the hand” (manus = hand; dare = to give). Romans used the past participle, mandatum, to mean something given into a person’s care. 
By the 15th century, mandatum turns into mandat, which meant a legal or judicial order in early modern France. The wars of religion were already revving up, but there had been two sources for such orders for almost 1000 years: secular courts, run by a local magistrate, noble (often the same), or even the king; and canon courts, run by the Catholic Church. While secular courts dealt with problems of property, feudal allegiances, or the usurpation of the state’s prerogative to use violence, the canon courts claimed crimes with a moral or sinful dimension (e.g., marital disputes), as well as any crime committed by members of the clergy, which included not just priests and monks, but any member of the Catholic bureaucracy, including university students.
So there’s already both a political/legal sense of the word that existed alongside a very spiritual idea of trust and care. And the Romans weren’t the only ones to invest the word mandate with those dual meanings. Ancient China, starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), ascribed its rulers with the mandate of heaven. To the Western eye, the mandate of heaven looks like a version of the divine right of rulers. But in China, the endorsement of the divine depended on continued moral leadership (both leadership with morals and demonstrating exemplary morals), and if the leader was not sufficiently generous, just, conservative (in the small “c” sense of conserving tradition and resources for future generations), and observant of religious obligations, then Heaven would revoke its mandate. This could serve as justification—even an endorsement—for popular uprising and the overthrow of the regime. (1)
If that sounds similar to something American rebels against England could get behind, you’re not wrong. And, in fact, 1796 is the first time mandate is used in the modern political sense of approval of policies as communicated by the outcome of a vote. (2) Naturally, the only American politician whom everyone agrees had a mandate was George Washington. But while the Constitution provided a framework for elections, it’s clear that the Framers had no intention to ascribe endorsement of policy change to the outcome of those elections.
But that sure hasn’t kept our presidents from claiming that mandate. Andrew Jackson, who was elected after the Twelfth Amendment (1804) correlated the popular vote with the actions of the Electoral College, asserted that the President “was an immediate and direct representative of the people” in order to legitimize the changes he had in mind for the Bank of the United States. Woodrow Wilson is credited with giving voice to the idea that the President is the only nationally elected representative, saying “There is but one national voice in the country, and that is the voice of the President.”
Richard Nixon made the first direct use of the word mandate when he announced in 1973 that “Last November, the American people were given the clearest choice of the century. Your votes were a mandate, which I accepted, to complete the initiatives we began in my first term and to fulfill the promises I made for my second term.” But both Kennedy and Nixon in his first term were elected with only a plurality of the national vote (less than a 50% plus one vote majority), and Jimmy Carter received a bare 50.1% of the vote in 1976. Reagan won in 1980 with less than 51% of the national vote, yet the Vice-President-Elect claimed that Reagan’s victory was “not simply a mandate for change but a mandate for peace and freedom; a mandate for prosperity; a mandate for opportunity for all Americans regardless of race, sex, or creed; a mandate for leadership that is strong and compassionate….” (3)
Not that we’ve ever agreed with our opponents’ claims, or the extent of that mandate for proposing new policy. As presidential elections have become increasingly about the personal qualities of proposed leaders, and less about specifically communicated policy intentions, I think it’s worth looking back at where the idea of a mandate comes from. With the country so divided along ideological and party lines, it’s unlikely that we’ll see popular vote margins large enough to satisfy everyone that the winner has a clear endorsement from the people. Even Barack Obama, the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win back-to-back majorities of the popular vote and the Electoral College, obviously isn’t seen as holding a mandate from a significant portion of Americans.
But, more than ever, it’s important for our leaders to proceed knowing, as the Romans and Chinese knew, that they hold their power in their hands—they hold the people in their hands. And it is a fragile thing, so easily crushed by inattention and the flexes of muscle demanded by other parts of the job. Though Bush’s presidency represented it in absolutely no way at all, I appreciate the idea of “compassionate conservatism.” The people and their trust must be treated with compassion, not ruthless budgetary efficiency or wasteful military squandering, or neither of them can be conserved for the good of the country’s future. 
Held in their hands, our leaders could easily squeeze out the civic feeling and confidence in good governing, exhausting those tender values before the next generation can refill those reservoirs with youthful optimism. The real mandate that every legislator must embrace is the one to earn our trust and preserve our faith in the institutions to which they want us to appoint them.
***
(1) For more on the Chinese idea of The Mandate of Heaven, watch this helpful video.
(2) Etymological details of the word mandate come from here.
(3) History of the Presidential mandate from Wikipedia entries for individual presidents, and this excellent article by Robert Dahl in Political Science Quarterly, found here.

Not Even A Little Bit: Friday Night Lists

Summer is a season of excess for most people, even if only in terms of temperature. It’s time for vacations, conventions, outdoor events in the long twilight, big Tiki drinks by the pool.

First, I’ve worked in academia for so long that I think of summer as the lean time of year, with summer teaching gigs hard to come by and no funding until fall. Even though I’m not teaching now, it’s hard to overcome the programming of over a decade that says we can’t afford anything but the barest of basics.

Second, I am from generations of profoundly pale people. I was born in the Great White North, and my ancestors were more likely to see the midnight sun over the North Sea than to lie out on tropical sands. I don’t even tan–I burn to red, then peel right back to white, with new constellations of freckles to mark each erroneous exposure. And I get horribly heat sick from weather like we’ve had for over a week now, with heat indices over 100 degrees. Living in Minnesota means we’ve got a little wall AC unit and ceiling fans in the bedrooms, but with all western and southern windows, it just never gets that cool.

So all those “beach reading” lists and travel sections in newspapers and magazines are mostly wasted on me. But I’ve still amassed a number of summer pleasures that make the season enjoyable despite nature’s best efforts. Here are the things I love about summer, without even a shred of guilt:

  1. FRESH HERBS FROM THE GARDEN–Everyone says homegrown tomatoes are the gateway drug to gardening, but I think walking outside to grab handfuls of fresh parsley, basil, rosemary, and mint for any and every dish is the height of luxury. I could live on fresh pesto, and we’ve had summers where we went poor buying enough pine nuts to keep pace with the abundance of glorious, spicy-licorice-smelling basil. I’ve long since switched to walnuts, which keep the oil balance right and don’t cost the earth.
  2. MOVIE MATINEES–Whether it’s a popcorn-chompin’, eardrum-poppin’, vertigo-inducin’ summer blockbuster or an art-house revival of a cinema classic, it’s a blessed relief to escape the relentless sun in a dark theater during the heat of the day. And it’s often so cold that I have to bring a sweater, and the chill clings to my skin for long minutes after I’m back out in the heat.
  3. OUTDOOR ART FAIRS–I absolutely adore a leisurely stroll around an art fair, peering in each tent to see the variety of colors, textures, and media each artist brings to share. It’s hard not to buy many of the beautiful objects, but they got a whole lot cheaper when I started making my own jewelry and refusing to buy anything I could make just as well myself.
  4. LOUD MUSIC–Make no mistake: I love loud music all year round, but there’s something particularly satisfying about rolling down the windows, feeling the wind in your hair, and singing along with something that makes your pedal foot a little heavier than the speed limit recommends. My favorites for this purpose: “Dashboard” by Modest Mouse, “What’s Left of the Flag” by Flogging Molly, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” by The Ramones, “Keep the Customer Satisfied” by Simon and Garfunkel, and “I Shot the Sheriff” by either Bob Marley or Eric Clapton.
  5. HAMMOCKS–The problem with napping in the summer is that, unless you’ve got really good central AC, it’s a warm, uncomfortable business. Even with a strong fan blowing on you, it can only cool the part of you that’s not flush with the heat-holding mattress. But hammocks…hammocks are pure genius. The air blows over AND under you, and it can rock and hold even the biggest of us like we’re back in our mothers’ arms. Give me a stack of trashy romance novels, a gallon of lemonade, and a hammock, and I’ll see you in September.
  6. SANDALS AND TOENAIL POLISH–I love sundresses and skirts and other summery clothes, but cute shoes always look good, even if the diet’s not going so well. I’m not a heels person, since they put me over six feet tall, but I love strappy Greek sandals, brightly colored florals, and the chunky comfort of Birkenstocks. Slap on a coat of shocking pink or siren red toenail polish, and at least you know your feet look cool and stylish.
  7. THUNDERSTORMS–I’ve had a fraught relationship with storms my whole life. Nobody figured out until I was in seventh grade that loud, sudden noises (the kind that make you feel that percussive force on your eardrum) were my migraine trigger. This information suddenly made sense of my terror of fireworks, gunshots, even balloons popping, and the days of misery that followed the Fourth of July, Memorial Day parades, and kids’ birthday parties. As long as I’m safely inside, though, I love to watch the fearsome spectacle of lightning and thunder, lashing rain and wailing winds. Not to mention the drop in temperatures thunderstorms usually bring.
  8. DR. BRONNER’S PEPPERMINT CASTILE SOAP–I’ve got my good friend Christie to thank for introducing me to this “air conditioning in a bottle.” There’s a ton of real peppermint oil in this concentrated liquid soap, and paired with a nice cool shower, it leaves you feeling frosty and fresh (at least until you step back out into the sweaty, humid heat). Important note: Be careful about spreading it around body parts where the sharp, tingly feel of, say, Vicks VapoRub wouldn’t be welcome. Hoo-ah indeed.
  9. FARMERS’ MARKETS–Not everyone has room for a garden or the money to take part in a CSA (Community Sustained Agriculture) program, but farmers’ markets are becoming more numerous, more affordable, and more diverse in their offerings all the time. From exotic greens, to pesticide-free berries, to heirloom varieties of garlic and tomatoes, to locally sourced honey, there are seasonal treats galore almost every day of the week in larger cities. You can find your local farmers’ markets with helpful websites like LocalHarvest.org.
  10. BONFIRES–There’s something deeply visceral about the smell of wood smoke in night air, the whispery crackle of flames consuming dry timber, the seductive dance of blue and ivory and buttery yellow and sunset red. Maybe it calls to our collective memory of the security fire offers–security against the dark and the cold and the hunger and the threats. Every song sounds better, every kiss seems sweeter, every story is scarier around a fire. I need to make more friends with firepits.

This is what democracy looks like

Normally, I’d be writing a Friday Night Lists posts today, but something so extraordinary happened yesterday that I feel compelled to write about that instead. It’s a series of events that has restored a tiny bit of my faith in responsive government, and will have an effect on literally tens of thousands of people who will never know I had a role in it.

A few months ago, I saw an email from TakeAction Minnesota calling for folks to tell their stories about the importance of MinnesotaCare, the low-cost state health insurance option that covers people with incomes between 75 to 250% of Federal Poverty Level, depending on family status. I wrote in with my own story about the failure of care for my fibromyalgia and subsequent suicidal depression that occurred when we first moved to Minnesota two years ago, and how well MinnesotaCare has kept me healthy since it kicked in that fall.

I got a call from one of the healthcare staffers at TakeAction this spring. In the time that had passed, we’d dealt with Connor’s own crisis, and MinnesotaCare was (and is) critical in the solutions that saved his life. They asked if I’d be willing to testify to these things as the government worked to figure out what to do with MinnesotaCare, once (hopefully) the Affordable Care Act kicks in in 2014. Some officials wanted to ensure that eligible communities would move into a Basic Health Plan that’s basically the same, while more conservative influences have been pushing hard to force participants to buy their own private plans on the Insurance Exchanges that will be set up under ACA. Of course, I said yes.

This Thursday, I attended a meeting of the Access government workgroup grappling with these issues. It’s a panel of officials from relevant government bureaus, the Minnesota Legislature, and agencies like Legal Aid and major labor and insurance groups. Here’s what I told them:

“My name is Jessica Banks. My husband, my two young sons, and I are currently enrolled in Minnesota Care. I have experienced life with and without this important program. I am here to tell you today that, without access to Minnesota Care, my health and my life spiraled out of control. I am also here to tell you that our Minnesota Care coverage saved my son’s life.

When we moved to Minnesota from Wisconsin two years ago, we needed to transition our coverage from Badger Care to Minnesota Care. We qualify for state coverage because we make $34,000 a year for a family of four, putting us below the 200% Federal Poverty Level. Neither of our jobs provides health care coverage, and we are unable to afford a private plan. Unfortunately, our transition required a four-month waiting period during which I became very ill.

I have lived with fibromyalgia for the past 13 years. With medication, I can keep it fairly stable. When we moved, I had enough medicine to get me through a few weeks. I had made an appointment with a doctor when I arrived. I planned on paying out of pocket for the visit. That doctor was unwilling to continue my established care and, without insurance, I couldn’t afford to make additional doctors’ visits. Buying the medication without insurance would have cost over $1000 a month. I tried to find low cost alternatives, but I wasn’t successful.

I tapered myself off my meds, trying to make them last as long as I could. It wasn’t enough; I ended up going off all the meds completely. My pain levels spiked. I was couch and bed bound. It was so bad that I couldn’t take care of my kids. As my pain levels rose, a deep depression set in. I ended up in the ER with severe depression and pain. In the hospital, the doctors regulated my drugs and found generic alternatives that I could afford. I received help for the depression, and I began to return to my normal life. Then, our Minnesota Care coverage kicked in and I was able to fully recover.

In February, my nine-year-old son Connor, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, went through a suicidal crisis. Autistics like him find rapid, unpredictable change overwhelming. His baseline of everyday highs and lows crashed and became erratic. Minor problems seemed insurmountable, and we had difficulty protecting him from his wild swings of emotion at home and at school. He hurt himself on several occasions, and he couldn’t see any way out of his sensory and emotional torture.

Our Minnesota Care plan completely covered his evaluation and a partial hospitalization program that quickly and effectively reversed his attempts to kill himself, and changed all of our lives for the better. Because of Minnesota Care, we were able to help him heal, and to recover as a family. He finished the school year back with his friends and teachers at Chelsea Heights. On this Tuesday, we celebrated his 10th birthday, a milestone I honestly doubted we would achieve at times this spring.

I am incredibly grateful for Minnesota Care. I shudder at the thought of what the outcome would have been if we didn’t have access to Connor’s treatment. I am here to ask you to ensure that Minnesota Care families continue to have access to affordable health coverage through an option very similar to Minnesota Care, called the Basic Health Plan. A comprehensive benefit package, including full mental health benefits and affordable prescriptions, is also important to my family’s continued wellbeing.

Without Minnesota Care, my health insurance premiums would increase by over 50 to 70 percent if we had to buy coverage on the Exchange, instead of having Minnesota Care. Without Minnesota Care, Minnesota families like mine, who are already vulnerable, would be exposed to unbearable stresses and burdens. My son and my family were saved by Minnesota Care–please don’t take it away.”

I’d practiced my comments several times, so I thought I had it cold, but when I described Connor’s difficulties, I got choked up. I recovered without messing up my mascara, but I could hear sniffles both in the audience and on the panel. When I told them about celebrating Connor’s birthday, I flipped up the picture frame I’d brought with me to the table and showed them this picture. The sniffles turned into tears.

I had to leave for work shortly after I testified, but the ladies from TakeAction who’d helped me figure out the specifics of my comments and supported me with their presence there that day were very complimentary. A few people thanked me for my courage, which surprised me. What I’d done hadn’t taken any particular courage on my part–I don’t have a filter, so I’ll tell anybody anything. (Exhibit A: This whole damn blog.)

That evening, I got an email from TakeAction, containing a forwarded message from the chairwoman of the committee for me and another woman who testified. She wrote this:

“And then when people spoke, they were eloquent and compelling.  They did a fabulous job.  Unfortunately, I was not able to thank any of them personally or tell them how great they did.  They left before the meeting finished.  As a result they may not have realized how important they were to today’s outcome.  In agreeing today that the benefit package for the138-200% population should be at least equal to the current MNCare benefit package (and agreeing that we should continue to explore what other benefits should be added [Model Mental Health Benefits were added today]), several task force members referenced things that were said by the people who spoke today.  Their statements were also critically important in the task force deciding to recommend that people should pay no premium up to 150% FPG and reduced premiums for people between 150 and 200%

If you have the opportunity, please convey my thanks to everyone who came today and my deep appreciation to those who shared their stories.  Please assure them that they influenced the outcome.”

Another panel member emailed me directly to thank me for my testimony, and said that recently it seemed that the panel had been moving backward, away from a solution that would help MinnesotaCare folks, but that our stories contributed directly to these big leaps forward.

Frankly, I’m shocked, and that’s a bit sad, because what happened on Thursday is a perfect demonstration of how democracy is supposed to work. That it’s surprising is a good indicator of how rarely it does. The other panel member wrote, “When the kind of real-life story you brought into the room is missing from the discussion, the discussion often ends up harming consumers and workers.” You’d think that these stories would overcrowd the boardrooms and meeting halls–heavens know everyone’s got them–and make decision-makers emotionally fatigued and jaded. And if these stories can be so powerful, you’d think there’d be a line out the door at every meeting, of people deploying their own experiences to influence government and corporations. But I was thanked for being courageous and powerful, when I felt anything but as I spoke of my life and my loved ones. Telling stories is what my family does, and this didn’t feel any different.

But let me tell you all–your personal stories have immense power. They sway voters, shape policy, spur movement, support progress. That’s the core strength the Minnesota campaign against the anti-marriage amendment has going for it–the entire strategy is based on telling our stories of love and commitment to convince people that marriage matters to everyone.

So tell them. Practice them on me, on your family and friends, on anyone who will listen. Then wait for the discussions where your values lie, where the hinges of your life join with your investments, your neighborhoods, your government, your world. Screw your courage to the sticking point, if that’s what it takes, and raise your hand. Say yes. Fill the silence with your stories.

Then watch the world change around you.

The 3 Rs: Recommended Religion Reading

This list was so much harder than you’d think. I’ve read literally hundreds of books about religion and history over the past 15-20 years, so narrowing it down to a few essentials left me feeling like I was trying to find the most refreshing thimbleful of water in the river. The one “book” I wasn’t able to find in a linkable form to include is the current US Military Chaplain’s Handbook, but that’s a fascinating read. It appears to be primarily available in CD-ROM form, which makes sense, since it’s really a large collection of field manuals, devotionals, and other resources.

In the meantime, though, here are the best books I could think of for folks who may or may not have had an Intro to World Religions class in college at some point, but are otherwise not too informed about religion, even their own. Please, suggest your own books down in comments! I’ll have a list of movies that demonstrate important religious concepts or new perspectives that break our stereotypes for you next week.

RECOMMENDED READINGS FOR THE RELIGIOUSLY CURIOUS

  1. Prothero, Stephen, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know–And Doesn’t. (HarperOne, 2008) This book makes a powerful case that understanding the major world religions–including the reality of Christianity–is absolutely critical for social progress, international security, and continued democracy. Prothero has a new book, God Is Not One, that I haven’t read yet, but profiles in more depth eight of the world’s major faiths.
  2. Livingston, James, Anatomy of the Sacred, Sixth Edition. (Prentice Hall, 2008) This is the textbook I used for my most recent course on religious theory. It fits pretty well with my approach of looking at different facets of religious behavior and belief, and filling in variations on those themes from a wide variety of historical and contemporary religions. Because it’s a college textbook, it costs a stupid amount of money; on the other hand, used copies abound.
  3. Eastman, Roger, The Ways of Religion: An Introduction to the Major Traditions. (OUP, 1999) I don’t use other people’s anthologies of primary sources, for the most part–I pull together a much more diverse selection of my own devising than any I’ve ever found in print, both for religion and history classes. But if I had to pick one for a religious studies class, I’d go with this one every time. It’s by far the most diverse, and the excerpts are nice and long (relatively speaking, to the rest of the field). If you haven’t ever heard the voices of faiths other than yours, I cannot possibly stress how important it is for everyone to read the actual sources themselves.
  4. Meredith, Hickman, Rogers, and Kirkby, The Usborne Encyclopedia of World Religions: Internet-Linked. (Usborne, 2010) This is a “kids'” book, but like everything Usborne does, it’s a hell of a lot more informative than anything you’ll encounter in the vast majority of mainstream media. It’s also lavishly illustrated, something that’s really important as you try to wrap your head around new and foreign faiths, and it’s Internet-linked to all sorts of extra articles, pictures, and videos. This may actually be the very best place to start if you’ve never taken a course on world religion. NB: The link is to the book listing on the UK Usborne Publishing page, but Usborne books are available here in the States too, both through home distributors (think Tupperware, but with awesome books instead of burping plastic) and, increasingly, in retail outlets.
  5. Matlins, Stuart, and Arthur Magida, How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, Fifth Edition. (Skylight Paths, 2010) This may be one of the coolest books around. Religion by religion, sect by sect, it gives you the basic etiquette to guarantee you don’t embarrass yourself at religious ceremonies of any stripe. Practically speaking, it’s awesome if you’ve got a diverse group of friends who do things like get married, give birth, or die, but it’s also a fascinating read cover-to-cover, and should be considered for the bookshelf of any graduate or world traveller.
  6. Swami Tapasyananda (trans.), Srimad Bhagavad Gita. (Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2003) You may have picked up a free copy of the Gita from a table on your college campus, but this is the edition of the essential (if not only) Hindu holy book recommended by a very smart and learned Krishnavite friend. It’s part scripture, part epic poem, part philosophical treatise, but it sums up with passion and poetry some of the most compelling concepts of Hinduism.
  7. Kornfield, Jack, A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Religious Life. (Bantam, 1993) This is a wonderfully simple introduction to Western Buddhism, especially the core concepts of mindfulness, compassion toward all living things, our attachments to the material world, and the practice of meditation. Western Buddhism certainly isn’t the same as all the Asian variants, but this explains those central ideas in a way that sets the reader up well to make more far-reaching inquiries.
  8. Robinson, George, Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals. (Atria, 2001) I have it on very good authority (from an honest-to-goodness Jewish school teacher!) that this is one of the most popular texts for people new to the Jewish faith; it’s even used as a textbook in conversion classes. I need to pick up a copy myself, come to think of it.
  9. Beard, North, and Price (eds.), Religions of Rome (2 vol.). (Cambridge University Press, 1998) This is a very scholarly two-volume set–the first volume is synthesis and analysis of the religious landscape of the Roman Empire at its height, and the second is full of annotated primary sources (inscriptions, imperial proclamations, legends, and rituals). It’s geared toward the expert reader, but if you want to get a clear view of exactly how much like every other Mediterranean mystery cult Christianity was, and how fundamentally weird that was in the history of human religious practice, there’s no better starting place.
  10. Wansbrough, Henry (ed.), The New Jerusalem Bible (Doubleday, 1999) My Latin and Roman History teacher calls this the “Scholar’s Bible.” The translation is directly from the original Hebrew and Greek by some of the best biblical experts in the world. It’s not the easiest version to read, but it’s probably the closest to the original text as we’re going to get.
  11. Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus. (HarperOne, 1999) I can’t recommend against any of Crossan’s work, but this one’s particularly good at highlighting the historical truth that Christianity was not founded by Jesus, but about Jesus, by lots of other people. Crossan is one of the leading experts on the historical Jesus, and this book does an excellent job of demonstrating the real horse race Christianity was in for its survival, and how unlikely in many ways it was to have been the faith that came out on top.
  12. Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels. (Vintage, 1989) The discovery of the Nag Hammadi gospels in the 1940s revolutionized our understanding of Christianity in the decades following the life of Jesus. Most Christians get a very tidy, unified history of the development of the faith’s core principles–even the compilation of the Bible–when the truth is very far from that. We knew other gospels existed, but until the Nag Hammadi texts, we only knew them based on what more orthodox critics said about them. This book tells us about the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, among others, and illuminates the radically different interpretations of Jesus’ life and message among his own followers.
  13. Pagels, Elaine, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. (Vintage, 1996) Pagels is another historian whom it’s hard to go wrong with, much like Crossan, when it comes to the history of early Christianity. I also recommend this particular book, though, because it highlights the point at which Christianity was no longer the outcast under attack, but the dominant power that could attack others, even other kinds of Christians whose beliefs weren’t officially endorsed. It also helps us understand the anti-Semitic foundations of Christianity that reverberate into the present day.
  14. Aslan, Reza, No God But God (Updated Edition): The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. (Random House, 2011) The absolute best book on Islam I’ve ever read. You get it all–history, culture, faith, practice, conflict, poetry, mysticism, expansion, controversy. Aslan’s analysis is unflinching. I wish more universities would make this their freshman read as students come into the collegiate world.
  15. Armstrong, Karen, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Ballantine, 1994) Armstrong is one of the world’s most respected experts on world religion, and she makes it incredibly accessible for regular readers. She’s written dozens of books, on many different faiths, but I wish more people read this one so they could see the full extent to which the Abrahamic religions are interdependent and similar. Armstrong is also doing great work with her non-profit foundation Charter for Compassion, which promotes understanding and dialogue among people of all faiths.
  16. Comte-Sponville, Andre, and Nancy Huston, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. (Penguin, 2008) This slim volume is surprisingly full of simple, elegant wisdom. Don’t let the title mislead you, though–this book isn’t out to convert anyone away from believing in gods or religion. Instead, it blends science, philosophy, humanism, and history to prove that there’s immense mystery and majesty in what and where humans are, even before we try to understand the unknowable.

 

Before the Ballot: Friday Night Lists

Every presidential election year, I assign myself a whole pile of relevant non-fiction books as my Election Year Reading List. Some of them are topical; some are great political, sociological, or economic minds; and some are just strong liberal voices that clarify the values that motivate me to pick up my clipboard and get to work. I thought I’d share this year’s reading list, and a few important pieces that are still relevant from the ’08 list.

I’m putting this list in the order I’ve read them so far; those I’ve read will be marked with asterisks. Totally at random, the order of #2-5 has worked out very serendipitously, so if you decide to read these, let me recommend that order. I’ve already made quite a dent in this year’s list, so I could use a few more suggestions to fill it out through November, especially in specific issues of foreign affairs. I’m also always willing to read different points of view, so long as they’re rational, fact-based, and not overly polemical. You can leave your recommendations in comments, or friend me on Goodreads so we can see each other’s lists.

2012 ELECTION YEAR READING LIST

*1. Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government–and How We Take It Back by David SirotaSirota, a progressive radio fixture,  offers a good basic primer of how money affects every branch of the government, from local to federal, and suggests some common-sense, achievable solutions to reverse that trend.

*2.  Tear Down This Myth: How The Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future by Will Bunch. This book by Bunch, the Philadelphia Daily News senior (and former political) writer and Huffington Post columnist, sets out to remind its readers of the realities of Ronald Reagan’s background, politics, and actions as president, untangling him from the distortions the man and his record have been subjected to in recent canonization efforts. The book’s definitely critical of Reagan, but the history review is good, and serves to point out just how far left of today’s conservatives Reagan really was.

*3.  Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi. The Rolling Stone columnist delves deep into the mechanisms and psychopathic personalities that led directly to the 2008 economic meltdown. Taibbi’s wacky, profane style keeps the economic explanations from being dry, and he’s got a real knack for capturing characters that make you want to tear your hair out.

*4.  Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow. Headliner on the MSNBC primetime line-up, Maddow‘s first book puts her ferocious intelligence on display as she traces the transition of the US military from the all-volunteer force of WWII, through the Vietman Era, into the privatized professional military with its overused, sequestered backbone of soldiers of today. She ends with a few good actions to begin reversing this trend toward permanent war.

*5.  With Liberty and Justice For Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful by Glenn Greenwald. The tightest-written and most persuasive book I’ve read in a long time, Greenwald, a widely respected Salon.com contributor, lays bare the subversion of our justice system to protect the social, political, and economic elites from the reach of the law.

6.  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. I think the racial disparities within our justice system, and the private for-profit incarceration industry, comprise one of the most important issues in American society today. I saw Michelle Alexander, a professor of law at Ohio State and a Huffington Post contributor, speak on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, and I’m braced for a hard, harrowing, eye-opening read.

7.  End This Depression Now! by Paul Krugman. A New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Krugman is the hero and standard-bearer for modern Keynesians. I trust his analysis without reservation, and I’m very interested to see his prescriptions for the short- and long-term changes that our economy needs.

8.  Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unexpected Resurgence of the American Right by Thomas Frank. I loved Frank‘s earlier book (see later, in the best of ’08 list), and I’ve heard him speak on the current one on NPR a few times. He’s got a way with case studies and relating them to broader trends, and the examples of “broke” billionaires and the trappings of that culture I’ve heard him talk about just blew my mind. I expect this book to be funnyhorrorsad.

9.  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I first encountered Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, on The Colbert Report, and I’m wildly intrigued by his work on identifying the psychological underpinnings that make political and religious zealots so similar.

10.  Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective by Paul Rieckhoff. I respect the hell out of Rieckhoff, a retired Army specialist and one of the founders of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I’ve read a lot of about the wars and today’s military by civilians, but I always want to get a balanced view, and I’m looking forward to his smart insights.

11.  Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it by Robert Reich. Reich, Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor and a current professor of economics at UC Berkeley, dazzles me with his talent for condensing complex facts into easily understandable patterns. He’s a good Keynesian too, like Krugman, but add in his expertise on labor history and government experience, and you’ve got an expert I’ll always stop to watch/hear/read.

12.  The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by Jeffrey D. Sachs. I heard Sachs, a professor of health policy and management and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, speak on MPR, and I spent most of the hour with goosebumps from his smart, impassioned argument for the restoration of the real American values that made us great in the 20th century. After all the previous books help me get a grip on the scope and details of many problems we currently face, I’ll be ready for his strong restatement of our core values.

13.  Back To Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy by Bill Clinton. Similar to Sachs’ book, but obviously from a very different perspective, Clinton‘s most recent book should offer lots of good suggestions for how to get the country back on track. His work at the Clinton Foundation is on the cutting edge of new global solutions, so I’ll be creating my Debate Watchword Bingo score cards from the key issues he highlights.

THE BEST OF MY 2008 ELECTION YEAR READING LIST

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill. This exhaustive work by Scahill, a journalist who reports on US foreign policy for media outlets like The Nation and Democracy Now!, ripped the lid off the world of private contractors in the Iraq War with his exhaustive, shocking expose. It’s impossible to understand our current foreign policy without understanding the role of privatization post-9/11, and this book is as relevant now as it ever was.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein. This book made a huge splash for a very good reason–Klein exposed the practices and policies that make people and nations very rich by whipping up fake disasters that turn into real ones. I’m so glad to have read this before terms like “shortselling” and “credit default swaps” came on the market. It also gave me an entirely new perspective on the tumultuous history of South America.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank. If you’ve ever wondered why Red States are SO RED, despite policies by their elected politicians that seem determined to destroy the very middle-class, salt-of-the-earth workers who elect them year after year, this is your book. Frank demonstrates with grace and humor the ways in which conservatives have tapped into good heartland values and twisted them into bogeymen and puppet strings that work way too well for anyone’s comfort.

The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria. Don’t let the title put your back up. Zakaria–columnist,editor-in-chief of Newsweek International, and host of the only dedicated foreign affairs TV news shows today–provides a great, crunchy exploration of the ways in which countries like India and China have moved into modern positions of global power, following very different paths than the one America took. His analysis of global trends is really second to none.

Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War by Andrew Bacevich. Written by a retired Army career officer, now professor of international relations at Boston University and Huffington Post columnist, this book would be great to read alongside Rachel Maddow’s newer contribution. Bacevich also explores the ways in which the war industry pushes us to engage in conflicts around the world that are actually against our national self-interest.

 

Priceless: the Nordstrom follow-up

This post is a follow-up to the one I wrote on Sunday, 29 April 2012, after a nightmarish customer service experience at the Mall of America Nordstrom store. If you haven’t read that account, what follows will make much more sense if you do so first.

I held off writing a follow-up until I felt like I’d reached as much of a resolution as I was going to. I reached that point two weeks later. And I really wanted to come back to you and say that my in-store experience was a fluke, that Nordstrom’s reputation for good customer service really was the norm.

I can’t do that.

In the minor Twitterstorm that blew up following my initial blog post, a member of Nordstrom’s social media customer service team contacted me and invited me to Direct Message with her about my experience. She had also seen the customer service complaint that a good friend submitted directly to the Nordstrom website, with a link to my post. I summed up the unnecessary pain, humiliation, and frustration to which I’d been subjected; she replied with very sincere apologies on behalf of the company she represents, for which I was grateful. She said that she hoped we could work together to find a resolution that would repair my impression of the company, to which I replied, among other things, that I would “be content with a good fitting with someone nice.” I asked if there were people at Nordstrom Rack who could also do that job. She said she would contact the MOA Rack location and inquire on my behalf. She also indicated that she would be forwarding my story up the chain of command, as an object lesson in customer service.

When she got back to me, a few days later, she said that, while the Rack doesn’t usually do bra fittings outside of special events for that particular purpose, there were trained sales associates who could do that for me. I expressed concern that, if they didn’t do fittings regularly, perhaps they wouldn’t do it as well as someone at the full-line store. Time and again, I was steered back to an option that took me to the Rack–“I’m sure you’d feel more comfortable there,” “I can imagine you’d rather not go back to the full-line store,” etc. It’s hard not to see those efforts as being related to my initial price point of $30-40, though I’d reiterated several times that, if I received good service and found a sturdy, lasting product that cost a little more, I’d be willing to spend beyond my range. Those statements were consistently ignored, and I feel the class warfare side of this whole fiasco more keenly than ever. I’m only welcome in the Rack; I shouldn’t even bother crossing the boundaries of the upscale store.

(When I finally received an email apology from the general manager of the MOA Nordstrom, on Thursday, it wasn’t in response to the promised escalation, but rather my friend’s online complaint. She, too, offered a “private fitting”–to which I could only say, “What, do you usually do them in the food court?”–but reiterated the statement that I “might prefer not to come back” to their store, and get the fitting at the Rack.)

Moreover, the offer of a fitting was consistently phrased as “you can call anytime and speak to this person, to set up a fitting.” The onus of getting what I was asking for was placed entirely on me. Now, I understand the practical issue of me being the one with the schedule that needs to be worked around–I get that. But there’s no good reason at all why I shouldn’t have had a phone call from someone–anyone–to apologize “in person” and ask me when I would be available for an appointment. This seems petty, when I write it out, but there isn’t a moment of my day that isn’t busy, and I’m not likely to take a moment to make a phone call for something selfish when other people need things done.

The longer I went without resolution, and after discussions with my therapist and friends, the more I felt that it wasn’t too much for me to ask to leave the store with what I’d come in for–an affordable, comfortable bra. I replied to the offer of a private fitting with the uncommonly assertive (at least, for me) suggestion that a fitting was basic customer service that they (ostensibly) offer to anyone who walks in off the street, free of charge, and that that wasn’t sufficient restitution for the damage done. I said I wanted an affordable, comfortable bra, and whether they accomplished that with a discount coupon or gift card was up to them.

Anyone who knows me knows that making this demand is A Big Deal for me. I’ll insist on cosmic justice, plus a moon to hang their coat on, for anyone else, but I just don’t ask for things for myself. I won’t even send food back to a restaurant kitchen unless it’s thoroughly inedible. This comes directly from lack of self-esteem–I’ve got no illusions about the flimsiness of my justification. It took me a full 12 hours to hit the Send button on that email. In some ways, I feel like that accomplishment was the real outcome of the harassment I suffered. (Deep gratitude to Cam, Jess, M, Panda, Josh, Elizabeth, and John for their editing and affirmations.)

That demand was, however, apparently in vain. Here’s the response I got from the Nordstrom rep:

At Nordstrom we feel that you can’t put a price on good customer service… Since you indicated in one of your messages to our social media team that you’d “be content with a fitting appointment arranged with someone nice” to bring resolution to this situation, we are happy to arrange this. Please let us know a day and time that would be convenient for you and if you’d like for your fitting to take place at our full-line store or at the Rack. We will work closely with you to ensure that you are fitted properly and to assist you in finding a quality product in a price point that you are comfortable with.

Following that reply, I received a request for my phone number so the manager of the MOA location could call and apologize in person. I hoped that she might have more leeway to accomplish what the social media rep couldn’t, but her tune remained the same. said offered me her apologies–though they struck me more as “we’re sorry we missed a chance to earn a customer,” rather than, “we’re sorry you were treated so inhumanely”–and an appointment with the stylist who fitted her for her bras. She also offered to have to have her meet me at the Rack. When I said that I didn’t think it was out of line to ask that, if the bra we found that fit me best turned out to be beyond my price range, that they step in to make it affordable, she responded with the “no price on good customer service line,” making it apparent that it’s company policy.  She said, “I mean, people could come in and be offended all the time! If we handed out gift cards left and right, we’d go out of business!”  To which I replied, “But I didn’t come in to be offended, and my experience really happened.”

I almost caved–I’ll be totally honest. I wanted to please and relieve her at least as much as she wanted to do so for me. But I drew up my last bit of gumption in the end and told her that, while I appreciated her time, her apology, and her offer, I wasn’t going to give a single dollar to a company that values their bottom line more than their customers. She sounded very put out, and the cheer drained from her voice. When someone ends a call with “Well, I’m sorry that’s how you feel,” you know you managed to stick to your guns.

So it comes down to this: Nordstrom’s quality of customer service is priceless to them. On the positive side, it means that they (are supposed to) care more about customer satisfaction than the sale. That’s good, and should be the service goal of every for-profit organization. On the flip side, it means that bad customer experiences aren’t worth anything tangible to them. They don’t assign a price to satisfaction, so when they fail, they still win, because mistakes cost them nothing, plus they reap the benefits of an object lesson. Nordstrom is not willing to negotiate with terrorists. And they see everyone who walks through their door as both potential sale, and potential bomber. It’s more than a little weird to think that they see customers as people “trying to get something out of them.” They do–you’re a freaking STORE.

Here’s my final reply:

Nordstrom, I will never darken your door or put a dime in your cash registers. Every time I hear someone suggest Nordstrom as a destination, I will tell them how I was treated.

I am not rich or powerful. But I have friends. My friends are having weddings and babies. My friends are your target demographic. My friends are fiercely loyal, and believe in the worth and dignity of every person, which apparently doesn’t fit with your company’s values. And they talk to people, too.

For 15 minutes of your time and a half-price bra, you could’ve had a whole lot of goodwill. Instead, you get 15 minutes of a whole bunch of people’s time, and a PR disaster. Be sure you tally that on your bottom line.

 

Everybody needs a sherpa

I’ve always been comfortable around guys; for many periods of my life, I’ve been more comfortable with guys than other women. Part of this was about common interests. From preschool to high school, if I wanted to hang out with other people who loved Star Wars and sci-fi/fantasy and punk rock and hobby games, that pretty much left me with male companions. For instance, I was the only female among 23 males in the high school Strategy & Tactics Gaming Club. It wasn’t until I got to college that I met other women who liked the same things I did, but even still, I felt more at home around men. They were less maintenance, less complicated, and to a girl with Asperger’s (though I didn’t know it then), the big surface emotions of my male friends were far easier to navigate, and less fraught with booby-trapped layers of meaning, than my interactions with the majority of the females I knew.

It’s not that hard to get into those male social groups. You prove you can give as good as you can get on crass humor and double (or, in the case of high school guys, single) entendres. You show that you can avoid overt emotional displays that make them uncomfortable, but also that you can be a silently commiserating soundingboard on those occasions (read: breakups) that demanded support and solidarity.

I was so successful at this that I sat, one female in a car with six other males, through a one-hour conversation about all the mysteries of the fairer sex. Only ten minutes from home–after a pee break on the side of the country road, in which I clearly did not participate, for heaven’s sake–did someone pipe up, in a tone of dawning discovery, “Hey! Jess is a girl! We can ask Jess!” I didn’t know whether to be insulted that this feature of my identity had been so thoroughly forgotten, or flattered that I’d assimilated into their group so seamlessly. The sudden and emphatic arrival of the Boob Fairy around my junior year of high school was the only thing that disturbed my status, but even that came to be regarded as a sort of personal quirk, as if I’d shaved my head without warning–a change, to be sure, but superficial and easily ignored once the novelty had passed. So I’ve got a very thick skin when it comes to matters of sexism and creepiness. Part of that also came as defense in the wake of my sexual assault and abusive relationship–if every expression of sexism has the capacity to personally wound, how would any person ever recover from overt damage?

Obviously, though, because I’m an attentive, intelligent, enlightened woman, I perceive sexism in my environment, as it’s expressed both individually and institutionally. There’s been a great deal of discussion about this lately, especially in the context of the Internet. Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown collected comments from fellow female bloggers, made by men, attacking them specifically and often violently as women when they didn’t agree with their arguments; in many cases, the initial argument had absolutely nothing to do with gender. A Twitterstorm blew up around similar attacks on women who play multi-user video games. The basic pattern is this, for those of you who haven’t followed these discussions: Woman says X. Man disagrees with X. Man does not say, “I disagree with X because of Y.” Man instead says, “You’re a stupid whore for thinking X. I hope someone rapes you to death.” Woman decides to shut up instead of writing about Z. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see sexism in this.

A secondary pattern has emerged when lots of my fellow smart, sensitive friends of both genders discuss the ways in which the enviroment for women is not the same as men. People of earlier generations thought they were being enlightened and anti-racist by saying, “I don’t see race” or “There are no black or white people; we’re all our own individual shades of human.” This is no longer acceptable, because duh, of course we see race, and racism is real, and pretending it’s not relevant doesn’t fix anything. Similarly, some men, when confronted with something which screams SEXISM to women, say well-meaning but unhelpful things like “No, no, it’s not sexism, it’s this other thing,” or (even more maddeningly) “You say those behaviors make you feel scared/threatened/objectified? No, you actually feel this other thing.” As if my lady parts somehow impaired my feelings.

Here’s the thing: If someone feels a particular way in response to something, that’s how they feel. That feeling is valid, and they really are feeling it, even if it’s completely incomprehensible to you how they could feel that way. You can try to explain how you see that something differently, but it is Highly Inadvisable to tell someone that they are feeling it wrong, especially if you are not a member of the class that is particularly singled out or threatened by that thing. So if a person of color says something feels racist to them, or a woman says something feels sexist to them, the correct answer is, “I’m sad to hear that you’re so upset by that” or “I can tell it really bothers you.” In fact, this is just a general Rule of Thumb in life–people feel how they feel, and nobody knows better than they do what those feelings are.

Nobody would argue that some of these situations are clearly sexist.  I’ve had entire conversations in which I felt like I, too, should be looking at my breasts. But the saddest thing about this whole sexism debate is that, often within geek/nerd culture, there’s a fundamental disconnect between a man’s intention and a woman’s reception. Things that men do to express their admiration for women frequently make those women feel creeped out, the exact opposite reaction the men are trying to elicit. I’ve known guys who lavished extravagant compliments, frequently couched in quasi-faux-RenFaire-style language and great flourishing gestures, on women who are painfully embarrassed at being singled out for such attention. Those women seek to put as much distance between themselves and that attention as possible, and contrary to the man’s intention, they feel objectified–they feel that all that flowery language and dramatic attention would be directed at any woman, by virtue of being a woman. The objectified gaze is not the same thing as the public gaze. Sure, this sounds very Women’s Studies 101, but it’s true nonetheless. There’s a world of difference between being looked at and admired for a striking, elaborate costume or a particularly smart/funny/insightful comment, and being stared at like a piece of meat.

But sexism is so much more than this, and it’s so complicated, even women argue about this stuff. And frankly, a lot of it is gut reaction. Anyone would feel threatened if someone says, “I hope someone stabs you to death.” You get a cold ball in the pit of your stomach and a hot rush up the back of the neck. You feel queasy, your vision blurs, the space around you seems to shift unexpectedly. You need to run. This is primal stuff–flashes of neurochemicals deep in your amygdala and hippocampus–pure lizard brain, fight-freeze-or-flee response. It’s your danger sense. It can save your life.

But it doesn’t only get triggered by death threats. Those same chemicals kick in when someone’s creeping on you, and you can’t always explain it. I’ve never been explicitly threatened with sexual violence at a gaming convention, but I’ve been creeped on. The time that sticks out most vividly had no sexual overtones at all. The guy started with the extravagant attention that I described earlier, despite the presence of my husband at the table and a two month old baby in my arms. He made persistent decisions that forced our characters into proximity, and he “roleplayed” that with physical proximity that violated all acceptable boundaries among strangers. This man was so close and so loud and so intrusive, he actually startled my son awake; the baby wouldn’t stop crying until I left the room entirely. I shook badly, and worked to swallow my nausea as my husband and friends tried to comfort me. My reaction was as violent as the one that followed a too-close brush with stranger rape years earlier.

I can’t explain this, but if someone tried to convince me I shouldn’t have felt threatened or completely creeped out because I wasn’t in actual danger, or that the root of that interaction wasn’t sexist, I may slap that person. My feelings were very real, and therefore very valid. I have an unexpectedly strong sensory memory of that event even now, almost ten years later. And, really, do you want to train women to turn off that response? Do you want women to stop listening to those early, physically rooted danger senses that tell them something is not quite right? It happens, you know–women are taught to mistrust those feelings. It’s called gaslighting, from the unforgettable Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer movie Gaslight. When women stop listening to their danger sense–that creeped-out feeling–it makes it easier to manipulate and abuse them.

So please, don’t tell anyone who says they’re feeling singled out, discriminated against, or creeped out that they’re not entitled to feel that way. Racism and sexism are real, and they have undeniable histories (and current realities) of violence. If someone tells you that what you’re doing is creepy, just stop. If you don’t understand why that behavior registers as creepy, ask others. If they say, “If you can’t tell, I can’t help you,” keep asking until someone explains it in a way you can understand.

This stuff is as complicated as human nature, and everyone needs a guide, women just as much as men. If you want to understand, surround yourself with sherpas–folks who have seen the terrain before, know where the pitfalls and footholds are, and can explain the culture you’re exploring. Don’t have someone you feel you can ask? Ask me. Gods know, I wish I’d had the knowledge I have now, back when my high school friends asked me for the secrets of the feminine mind. They could’ve really used a good sherpa.

Dec 3, 2011 - Psychology, Uncategorized    1 Comment

Straight On ‘Til Morning: Reverb Broads 2011 #3

Art by Roy Best

Reverb Broads 2011, December 3:

How did you become more of a grown-up this year? Or did you pull a Peter Pan and stubbornly remain childlike? (courtesy of Bethany at http://bethanyactually.com/)

I did two pretty adult things this year, though no one who knows me would ever respond in a lightning round with the word “grown-up.” The first may not seem like much to all you gorgeous fellow wage slaves out there, but I’ve actually held down a real, non-academic job for the last 12 months.

I’ve been doing that since I was 15, you scoff? No big deal, you say?

Perhaps it is no big deal. Perhaps you think I’m a spoiled ivory tower wimp who’s never done an honest day’s work in her life. I think you’d be less likely to say that if you’d ever graded 75 blue book essay exams in 36 hours, or written a 2.5 hour multimedia-enhanced lecture in an afternoon, while bouncing a baby basket with your foot.

Academia, with a side of substitute teaching in two school districts, has been all I could manage in the years of fibromyalgia plus non-school-age children minus child care subsidies. I’m not complaining — teaching has allowed me to be there more for my boys (all three of them) than I ever dreamed I’d be able to. And, simply put, teaching is my vocation, in the old, spiritual-calling sense of the word.

But I really, deeply, truly adore the job I have at Atlas Games these days, and both my responsibilities and my hours have expanded since I started last November. I started out just handling customer service requests from the website, and managing the packing and shipping of orders to our distributors. I still have these duties, and I enjoy them, but I’ve been entrusted with the first pass of edits on our RPGs, and I’ve done art direction for the last two books, both of which really make the most of that part of my skill set.

All this is made both possible by my fabulous bosses, John and Michelle Nephew. I respect the hell out of both of them for their many talents, but more than that, they’re good people and good friends. They let me keep flexible hours, so I can be Connor and Griffin’s Mom (my other job title) and do fun things like chaperoning field trips, and so I can take it easier on the days when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weakweakweak. I’m bemused to find myself in the same industry as my Darling Husband, but I couldn’t be happier in a non-teaching job than I am right now.

The second grown-up thing I’ve done this year is starting to take care of myself. I’m still not any good at putting myself first, but all the fabulous coaching from the excellent folks at Fairview Pain Management Center has taught me many reasons and many ways to look after myself better than I have in the past. So now, when I recognize that I’m on sensory overload, I don’t hesitate to just step out for a few minutes. I take mini-breaks, even if only for five mindful breaths, throughout the day, which helps me better evaluate the messages my body is sending. I’ve adjusted the way I do my jobs as worker, wife, and mother to incorporate body mechanics that keep me able to work longer and smarter. And at the end of this year, I’m managing my pain with 25-50% less medication, the least I’ve been on in almost nine years.

So that’s how I’ve matured this year. Everything else? Peter Pan all the way, baby.

Nov 29, 2011 - Uncategorized    10 Comments

Gamerography, vol. 2: Trapped In Amber

On my nineteenth birthday, I made my first character on AmberMUSH. My then-boyfriend had been playing for a little while, maybe a month, and since he was suddenly spending all his spare time in the campus computer labs, and I wanted to spend time with him, I figured I might as well be doing something interesting while I was in the computer lab too.

I had no idea the changes this character, and the game I was entering, would have on my life.

AmberMUSH was based on the Chronicles of Amber series by fantasy author Roger Zelazny. They revolved around the travels of Prince Corwin (and later, his son Merlin) and the political machinations of his siblings as they fought to control the throne of Amber, a realm that represented the purest expression of Order in the universe. Between Amber and its opposite, Chaos, lay infinite reflections called shadows. Only those who carried the blood of Amber or Chaos could navigate or manipulate reality among those shadows. It’s the perfect setting for a roleplaying game because virtually anything is possible, and interpersonal relationships are the heart of the action.

Now for the ancient history. MU*s (MUDs, MOOs, MUSHes, etc.) were text-based platforms for real-time interaction among multiple participants, all logged in to a common database. No pictures, no avatars — all words, and nothing but. Players coded elaborate chains of connected “rooms,” in which only the inhabitants at any given moment could see. If you wanted something better than a raw Telnet connection, you needed a UNIX account so you could compile TinyFugue (other MUD clients would come along, but to the best of my knowledge, TF was the first of its kind). As a humanities student at my university, I had to ask my Computer Science major friends for coaching on how to ask for that UNIX account without admitting it was for gaming.

My character’s name was Selwyn, and she started as a shameless imitation of Tarma from Mercedes Lackey’s Oathbound books. She was six feet tall, with a long white-blond braid that swung down past her waist, and she carried a long sword. She had a pet lion named Rex that went everywhere with her; I actually went to the trouble of coding Rex as a puppet, reading carefully from the TinyMUD manual.

If I’d coded a flashing neon sign reading “NEWBIE” to float in the air over her head, I couldn’t have made it much clearer that I didn’t know what I was doing.

But I could type about 70 words per minute, and I knew how to spell and punctuate, and that seemed to buy me some grace from the other, more experienced players. I hung out in the Worlds’ End Bar — a saloon that served as a common destination for characters of all types to meet — and waited for Things To Happen.

And among all the things that happened, the most important was when I was got tapped to join TooMUSH, the out-of-character, invitation-only hangout. Imagine the ultimate cool kids’ table, where people commented and snarked on events from the other side of the mirrored glass. I was hanging out with the founders and wizards of AmberMUSH — wizards served as chief coders, editors, and arbitrators for the game — and the best roleplayers on that site, or any other. Too was also the intellectual laboratory for characters and plots of every size and shape, and soon I acquired another character, an odd little girl named Rebekah Aspnes.

But the really good play always involved features, or characters from the books, so that became my next ambition. I settled on a character who’d gone long unplayed, a minor human from the oft-maligned second series by the name of Julia Barnes. Julia was a computer science student at Berkeley who became Merlin’s girlfriend and a sorceress; the application I wrote played on the connection between programming computers and spellcasting. Apparently, the wizards liked it, and I became Julia’s player.

As such, I also controlled a not-insignificant plot device which could confer the ability to walk across shadows to non-Amberites. It’s funny how completely voluntary and utterly frivolous things can become serious responsibilities to young people, and I took control of that feature and her Broken Pattern very seriously, making myself available for regular (and large) chunks of time. But the role came with compensations that more than made up for the “responsibilities.” And the best compensation of all were the hours of scenes with the incredibly gifted writers who had become my friends. Some became internationally bestselling authors. Some went on to write and publish award-winning roleplaying games of their own. And one came to America and married me.

All told, I probably logged somewhere around ten thousand hours on AmberMUSH between 1993 and 1999. So what did I get, to show for it? I got my typing speed up to 100 wpm. I got a (VERY) little coding experience. I got to help write scenes that made me laugh out loud, and sometimes cry, even in the middle of a sterile university computer lab. I got some of the best friends I’ve ever had, folks who’ve stood by me through thick and thin for almost twenty years now. I got to meet the love of my life, and I got to watch other friends find theirs.

I tell people that getting together with my Amber friends is as close to a high school reunion as I ever care to get. I think that feeling is intensified by the fact that we don’t just have memories of shared life experiences — we have common memories of many lives’ experiences. We lived whole existences in the endlessly scrolling lines of text, walking through the pages of the collective novel for which we were all authors. We brought so many characters to life, gave them families and friends and habits and foibles, and sometimes we brought them to death, too. The very best roleplaying games help us live life more fully, more clearly, no matter how fantastic their premises seem. They magnify the themes, amplify the emotions, focus the images that define humanity. They let us practice the important choices, play out the potential consequences, rehearse the reactions before we come to the real crossroads from which there are no retcons.

The more we played this game, the better — the more human —  we became.

Nov 10, 2011 - Uncategorized    9 Comments

We Are…More than Penn State

I am a Penn State graduate; I received my Master’s in History in 1999, and I was awarded honors for that degree. I sought to complete my Ph.D. in the same program, but was one of the people marginalized and ultimately edged out because we did not fit the administration’s vision and mission for the History Department they were interested in building.

I worked with Penn State faculty of staggering intelligence, experience, and expertise. My advisor and Ph.D. committee members helped me acquire my own firm foundation in the history of ancient and medieval Europe and Japan. I collaborated with experts from a variety of disciplines on a curriculum-development program supported by an NEH grant, and I helped organize, and even presented at, the university’s international medieval conference. I’m not going to name-drop, but I’m immensely proud of the people of international and enduring stature with whom I studied.

I taught History, Religious Studies, and English at Penn State, as a Teaching Assistant, Lecturer, and Adjunct Faculty member, for 10 years. I wrote my own courses, from curriculum to annotated primary source compilations, and I earned what I was told were “impossibly high” student evaluation scores every semester. My students were, for the most part, bright and motivated and civic-minded.

All of this is to say that, when I talk about Penn State, I know of which I speak.

The people who say that Penn State football is the local religion are not wrong. In fact, it’s a more apt comparison than they probably realize. The institution is storied and expansive, inextricably associated with the reputation of the school and anyone who has passed through it. Its financial impact is difficult to quantify: there’s no question the program has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, but there’s also no question that the school allocates resources to athletics that can and should be spent on the university’s actual mission of education. As such, Penn State students pay what amount to private school prices for a state school education (mostly conducted by grad students, a topic for another day), because it comes with a winning team.

And while the edifice of Penn State football bears striking resemblance to the Catholic Church, its history and reputation has been largely constructed around a single person, much like today’s evangelical megachurches. Joe Paterno’s record may be the substance of Penn State’s athletic reputation, but his personality is the soul. Penn State doesn’t just claim a winning football program — it claims a moral one, a program that forms young men into admirable athletes and upstanding people.

So the most appropriate comparison to draw for the impact of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case is to the Catholic Church sex abuse case. He contributed to the rise and reputation of the institution, while using the access and authority it conferred to exploit children who reasonably believed that their rights were nothing next to the man who was assaulting them. He used a charitable foundation to situate himself among his targets, and to shield himself from suspicion for being seen in their vicinity. He probably believed that these kids should be grateful for the attention and advantages he was giving them, and that the sex acts he forced them into were a fair exchange for that.

And, of course, he was utterly, criminally, repellently wrong.

But when the superiors who derived their reputations from that same institution were faced with proof that someone had exploited and subverted its authority for personal, immoral gains, their first thought was to protect the institution, not the victims. They surely thought they were being careful at first, wanting to “gather all the facts before acting.” Except that to act would destroy something that so many people depended on for income, security, and self-esteem. So a wish to proceed slowly and carefully slid into defensiveness, then resistance, then cover-up.

And even now, it’s easier for those who still get their sense of worth — after all, the cheer that goes up all over State College is “We Are…Penn State!” — from the institution to question the sincerity and timing of the victims, rather than deal with the hard fact that someone used the faith and pride a community had invested in them to do something unspeakable.

The kids who marched in the streets last night — it wasn’t a riot; the lampposts in Beaver Canyon get torn down for everything from St. Patrick’s Day to a busy night during Arts Fest — might have said they were doing it in support of their beloved JoePa, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about the value of what they’re at Penn State for. Most of them are going to graduate twenty to fifty thousand dollars in debt, much more than they would pay to go to one of the many Commonwealth Campuses across Pennsylvania. Part of what they’re paying for is the experience in State College, and for almost 50 years, that experience depends on having a team to be proud of, and a school that others admire.

It’s their reputation, too, that’s been destroyed, without consent or knowledge. Firing Joe Paterno was the only legitimate action that Penn State could take, but to kids and alumni, that’s an admission of guilt that’s on par with having to admit that the Pope is no longer infallible. And if that can happen, then maybe Penn State can’t offer them the security they thought they were getting.

If boys can be raped in the football complex, can anyone be safe anywhere on campus?

If JoePa would protect his reputation before that of the players whose futures ride on it, can any student count on the faculty and administration to prepare them for the harsh world that awaits them?

If a charity can be used to target and groom victims among the children it’s supposed to be helping, then has the world’s largest student-run philanthropy organization been doing good or harm (and what the hell have they been on their feet for 72 hours for, anyway)?

And if Penn State’s reputation crumbles with its football program, then what is that name on their diploma and résumé going to be worth?

 

 

 

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