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Mar 6, 2013 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Why Be An Activist?

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Because only people who want to show up, show up. No bad attitudes.

Because by coming together on a specific issue, the group has already self-selected by common interest, so you’re likely to like the people you volunteer with.

Because when people are already there to help other people, they make the best kind of friend.

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Because you never know whom you’ll meet when you announce your allegiance.

Because you’ll never feel as appreciated as when you share your unique talents for a common cause.

Because if you can, you’ll be standing up for yourself and someone who can’t.

Because you get to tell your own story, and who doesn’t love to talk about themselves?

Because it restores your faith in beauty, truth, and love.

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Because smiling while you protest makes the opposition nervous.

Because your experience and your presence are unique, meaningful, and needed.

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Because the halls of power belong to you.

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Because revolutions have laughter and dancing and good snacks (or at least they should, if they’re good ones).

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Because when you’re in a crowd, marching and chanting with one voice, you are unbelievably powerful.

Pride at Capitol

Because there aren’t many activities in life where everyone wins equally, no matter how much they put in.

Because you don’t have to be good to do good.

Because there’s a good chance your parent, grandparent, or ancestor wasn’t allowed to speak out like you can.

Because, while the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, it ain’t there yet.

Because we all do better when we all do better.

Witchin’ in the Kitchen

I wrote this essay almost 15 years ago, deeper in the dark of winter than I am right now. But at a friend’s request, and because every word of it still rings as true today as it did when I wrote it. The only thing that’s changed in all this time is that I’m a better, more inspired cook than I was when I was just starting out. I’ve delved into ethnic cuisines, and I’ve learned to trust my senses and my reading skill when combining ingredients. That’s another kind of magic: the confidence that comes with age and practice. But that’s a different blog post.

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The time for ritual is at hand. I stand in the place of my power, tools of the magic I will work laid out before me– silver, wood, and steel. Fire and water are at my command, earth and air held back by my will. In this time, I will draw on the forces of creation, shaping elements. Here, I am an alchemist, a hand of the goddess herself.

For I am a kitchen witch.

I embrace this title proudly, despite lingering associations with the silly wizened dolls on brooms available at most craft fairs. As a name, it covers it all–my faith, my pleasure, the locus of my greatest power. No hallowed circle, no standing stones could imbue me with more strength or more possibilities. One friend firmly maintains that, when it comes to the Craft, if I can’t do it with Morton’s salt and a wooden spoon, it can’t be done.

While I am not so bold as to commit to such a statement myself, the power of the kitchen, and what it summons and creates, is not to be denied. Though I began down the path of Wicca in solitude, I learned the magic of cooking as all good magics are best learned : at the elbow of a wise and laughing grandmother. The rules were simple. Wash your hands. Clean as you go. Read the whole recipe before you start. Measure with care. And, most importantly, share the joy as often as possible–that’s why there are always enough beaters and spatulas and bowls for everyone. If you abide by that last rule, no spills or scorches can spell failure. Just vacuum up the oatmeal, wash the egg out of your hair, and laugh about the fun you had.

I know, it doesn’t sound much like the holy tenets of any faith, or even much of a New Age philosophy. But the results simply could not be missed. Even as a child, I recognized the phenomenal power of what we created in that tidy sanctuary of counters and appliances. We’re talking full sensory miracles here, folks. The smell hits you when you walk in the door, enveloping you in a warm blanket of knowledge that, here, you will not go hungry. Someone cares enough to spend time and energy to refresh and nourish you. That simple understanding, at the most primal level, cuts loose the weight of the world, letting your spirit rise. The sight of flushed skin and flour smudges brings light and laughter, and sneaky little dips into aromatic steam and unfinished delights allow you to keep a greedy secret that heightens anticipation. All these things seal the feeling of community as you finally join in the simple pleasure of sharing tastes, sensations, and satisfaction, even if only with one other person. No wonder “communion” takes place with food in so many religions.

But I have to be honest about something, and it’ll probably blow the lid right off any sort of “kitchen witch mystique” I may have managed to build. I am no gourmet. I’ve never taken a cooking class. Those brownies which my friends and co-workers steadfastly maintain are the best they’ve ever tasted? Betty Crocker, Fudge Supreme, $2.49 with coupon. That chili whose aroma wafts out like tickling fingers when I open the door on a cold winter night, drawing my husband in all the quicker? Packet of spices, canned beans and tomatoes. Simmer on low for 20 minutes. That’s it. And I’ve never made a secret of it.

The rave reviews continue, with every potluck dish and party treat. Is it because I always stir clockwise, letting goodwill flow into the smooth batters and sauces? Most likely not. And I’d feel terribly silly if I sprinkled water and invocations over my electric oven to ward off burnt bottoms or mushy middles. My power as a kitchen witch, so far as I can tell, comes solely the enjoyment I take in doing something simple that will produce happiness in others. As I skim my finger down the well-worn page of my favourite cookbook, I’m already thinking of the smiles and hums of pleasure that my “magic potion” will summon into existence. As I clean shortbread dough from my utensils and fingernails, I can already hear the surprised exclamations of delight ringing in the doorway as visitors first hit that gorgeous wall of aroma. And hours later, after the cupboards are closed and the counters are clean, I can still smell the lingering scent of crushed herbs and sweet essences on my fingers, and I fold them beneath my nose and breathe prayers of thanksgiving for the chance to bring joy to those I’ve fed.

So I may not always remember all the poetic invocations when I call the Watchtowers in a Circle, but I remember the favourite food for every loved one in my life, and most of the recipes. And so I might be dreadful at keeping a proper herbal grimoire stocked–my spice racks are the envy of all who survey. I consider myself well on the road to the Lord and Lady’s wisdom, because I know the seat and value of a generous, abundant power within myself, one of the greatest signposts on everyone’s spiritual journey. And when I get there, I’ll be sure to have a dish to pass.

Jan 23, 2013 - Physical Ed, Uncategorized    5 Comments

Freedom of Choice

My mom could have legally aborted me.

Not that she did, obviously. She didn’t even want to. I was her first child, conceived in wedlock at a perfectly reasonable childbearing age.

But I just turned 38 in December, which means that about a year and three months before I was conceived, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Roe v. Wade and declared that American women had a Constitutionally protected right to seek an abortion for whatever reason they saw fit. And when my mom discovered she was pregnant in the spring of 1974, she had more options than she had only fifteen months earlier.

The historian in me watches the observance of Roe v. Wade‘s 40th anniversary with a mixture of gratitude, dismay, and bemusement. I’m grateful to have lived my whole life in an America where the highest court of the land could write such a powerful statement of trust in women’s wisdom about their own reproductive rights. I’m dismayed that, in the intervening time, people who don’t trust women with such power have been so successful in circumventing this fundamental, adjudicated right.

And I’m utterly bemused by the multiple levels of collective amnesia surrounding the real history of abortion, fraught as it is. The surveys released this week that showed how few women under 30 actually know that Roe v. Wade was about abortion have conjured a great deal of justified facepalming. But I’d like to see a little acknowledgement that abortion is as old as civilization, and that for most of that time, women had control over those decisions. It wasn’t considered a conflict with one’s religious beliefs; every medieval woman knew how to make tea from rue, tansy, bayberry, or pennyroyal to “bring on late menses.” Only with the  pathologizing of reproduction, with male doctors in charge, did abortion become a battleground and women the most unreliable judges of their own best interests.

I’ve said for a long time that I’m unequivocally pro-choice. I turned out for the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington D.C.. I march at Planned Parenthood on Good Friday, as a visible contradiction to the crowds of abortion opponents who clog the sidewalks to shame and condemn the workers inside, despite the lifesaving work (overwhelmingly above and beyond abortion) they do for our communities’ most vulnerable women.

But I’ve always said that, while I’ll gladly fight for every other woman’s choice, I couldn’t choose that for myself. I’m a living, breathing paradox: an anti-abortion, pro-child,  pro-choice American woman. And I am far from alone in this slippery category. In fact, I have a feeling that we’re the silent majority.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have chosen when and how many times I became pregnant, and that I was able to carry those pregnancies to term. That said, my pregnancies were absolute hell. I was nauseated and vomiting 20 hours a day for 5 1/2 months with the first one, 24 hours a day for 7 1/2 months with the second, which contributed to the most excruciating, interminable flares of fibromyalgia in my entire life with the disorder. And as much as I love and prize my amazing, energetic, hilarious, brilliant, gorgeous sons, they both have special needs that make parenting an exhausting challenge on the best of days. As my husband and I age, the chances of another child bearing those same conditions only rise.

So I need to be perfectly honest: if I became pregnant again, I don’t know that abortion would seem as impossible as it once did. My health would suffer immeasurably, leaving me unable to work, so our family’s finances would strain to the breaking point. The upheaval would have a massive impact on the equilibrium and routine that help our sons function, with unimaginable consequences. It’s said that all a child needs from its family is love, but diapers and an active mom help too.

And before someone suggests that I’m too educated and self-aware to face an unplanned pregnancy, let’s be honest: education doesn’t magically repel sperm anymore than a lack of consent. While our kids are a phenomenally effective form of birth control, like any other form, they are not 100 percent foolproof. By age 45, over half of American women will experience at least one accidental pregnancy. And 61 percent of women seeking abortions are already mothers; more than three-quarters of them cite the impact of another child on their precarious balance of responsibilities. (All statistics are from a 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute.)

I don’t have a story to tell about how abortion has impacted my life. I don’t have an important point to make on this anniversary of a landmark declaration of rights that are in some ways more difficult and dangerous to exercise today than 40 years ago. I don’t even have a deeper analysis of the shift in my feelings on my own holistic, reproductive health.

What I do have, though, thanks to Roe v. Wade, is a choice.

Secondhand Smoke Signals

  • “My cousin lives in Turkey, and he says he heard that only foreign fighters are carrying on the conflict in Syria.”
  • “One worker told a story of another man who said he heard someone on his assembly line talking about the sores and bone spurs on his feet that never healed because every day was an 18-hour workday.”
  • “As a doctor, I’ve talked to parents whose autistic children were so precariously balanced that something as small as the cancellation of a play date threw them into a violent rage that ended with the child menacing the parent with a knife. We need the resources to help these children get the hospital care they need.”

Now, I did a stint in journalism school when I first went to college, and I’ve seen more than my fair share of Law & Order marathons, so I won’t make assumptions that everyone sees the problem that those three quotes have in common. All three are fairly egregious exaggerations of unsubstantiated hearsay, which just won’t fly in a respectable publication or a court of law. It’s easy to imagine how they would be received. As journalism, the writer who submitted them would be laughed out of the newsroom by everyone from the copy editor to the cub reporter working the obituary beat. As testimony, the judge might file the objection herself before the opposing council could even get out of his seat.

Or worse: you could end up like Mike Daisey. He’s a performer who got a lot of attention for a one-man show called “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” especially after Jobs’ death. Daisey’s work and the publicity it garnered brought the labor conditions at Apple’s subcontractor factory in Shengzhen, China to light for many people, driving the debate about the real cost of iPads when workers were committing suicide because it was preferable to another day on the Foxconn assembly line. The producers at WBEZ’s radio show This American Life were so impressed by Daisey’s show–the harrowing eyewitness accounts from his own trip to Foxconn, the tragic testimony he collected from abused workers, and the shocking indifference he exposed in Apple’s administrators and consumers–that they adapted the show for an entire hour-long episode.

Except Mike Daisey was lying. Conditions were horrible at Foxconn’s factories, and workers were suffering and dying for our shiny appliances. But he hadn’t seen the things he had said he’d seen; some of the testimony he recounted hearing firsthand was really second- or thirdhand. Ira Glass and the TAL staff (as were countless other journalists and media figures who’d given Daisey a platform and endorsement) were so embarrassed and furious at being duped into telling their audience things that weren’t true that they tracked down Daisey’s interpreter in China and got the real scoop on his visit. They then had Daisey back on the show for Ira to interview in what can only be described as one of the most excruciating half-hours of media ever produced. I highly recommend listening to both the original show and the retraction episode, but be warned: it’s brutal.

The level of outrage and disillusionment that accompanies the exposure of a reporter who doesn’t do due diligence is high, and it should be. We depend on people to get into the places, talk to the people, witness the events that we just can’t as regular, everyday people. Secondhand or thirdhand isn’t good enough, because we know that each degree of separation from the source costs us an unacceptable toll of perspective and authenticity.

But we accept it every day in stories about autistics and the mentally ill.

When’s the last time you read a story about autism that quoted an autistic child or adult? I’ve seen plenty of stories in which experts and parents tell you what their child’s behavior means, but I’ve never seen a feature that reads, “When I’m flapping my hands, it’s a way for me to stimulate my senses so my mind is free to focus on other difficult tasks, like putting words to my ideas so you can understand them.” Most autistics are capable of speaking for themselves, and new technologies allow more non-verbal people to communicate clearly and effectively. In fact, I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my copy of the new anthology, Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, and I loved the diversity of autistic voices included in the documentary Loving Lampposts.

The most recent example of this lazy, ignorant, shameful abridgment in the media is a cover story for the USA Today by Liz Szabo. In over 3,000 words, not counting captions for the color pictures and infographics, the article quotes not a single person with a mental illness or disorder. It’s not like there was no one to talk to. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 57.7 million American adults experience at least one episode of mental illness a year. And current estimates suggest that 1.5 million people on the autism spectrum live in the US. That’s more than the population of the New Orleans metro area, more than the populations of Alaska and Wyoming combined. More than the number of active duty troops in the US Military as of December 31, 2011.

Foxconn employs 1.3 million workers. We were dismayed and angry that a man who had no direct personal experience of their lives claimed to speak for the voiceless. We called for and received a public immolation of his reputation. But one in four American adults has experience with a mental illness or disorder, and we’re okay with “experts” and surrogates dominating the debate?

Our country has a lot of work to do on issues surrounding mental health. Destigmatization, holistic treatment, restorative therapy for mentally ill criminals, and long-term strategies for integration and care all need our attention desperately. But right now, how about we start by insisting that the affected voices be in the room? Put the subjects on the list of people to talk to for a story, or a study, or a hearing, or a forum. I used to think this was obvious–at least, until this hearing on contraception:

But we wouldn’t take a commission on racism seriously if it only had white people. And we wouldn’t stand for an article about what it’s like to have breast cancer without a single survivor quoted. We value those voices rightly, because their experience is irreplaceable.

We have to hold the media–and ourselves as consumers–to the same standard when it comes to mental illness and disorders like autism. Sometimes, secondhand just isn’t good enough.

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UPDATE: Within 12 hours of posting this, I had a message in my Facebook inbox from…wait for it…Mike Daisey. I was frankly stunned that my little blog had ended up on his radar, and suspected mechanisms like Google Alerts and Reputation.com, until my boss told me that Mike had been Our Man On The Inside at Amazon for Atlas Games (the company I work for) for quite some time, and had even written content for our Unknown Armies roleplaying game line.

The message was very polite, and included a link to his blog for updates on what he’s been doing since to make reparations and keep his conscience clear. By all means, read it if you’d like to follow up the story–I’m all about getting my sources right. And I hope my original post adequately conveys my intention to mark Daisey’s work as instrumental in opening the public discussion about the labor conditions behind our favorite devices.

Daisey also mentioned a major article in WIRED Magazine about Foxconn that fails to cite a single worker, but hasn’t been held up to the same scrutiny as his work. All of which goes to show that the media still isn’t serious about talking to the subjects and victims of oppression, only about them.

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.
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(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.

 

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