Browsing "Social Studies"

Bite Your Tongue

I’ve been on hiatus here at the blog for a while, as summer (and more specifically, con season) made all our best laid plans gang well and truly a-gley. Having been deprived of Gen Con, I set out to give the boys a few firsts, including first time on a horse and first time in a human-propelled watercraft. They both went surprisingly well.

I’ve also been doing lots of work with Minnesotans United for All Families–not particularly more than before, but the campaign has reached critical mass, and every day it seems there’s movement or news.  I had to tell the boys to stop yelling excitedly every time they see an orange “Vote NO” lawn sign, as they started springing up like mushrooms all over Saint Paul, and I began to rapidly lose my hearing. There’s great cause for hope, but it’s going to be close, and we’ll be working flat-out right up to the night of November 6.

(Wo)manning the MN United table at our apartment complex’s National Night Out event. Picture by Griffin.

The heart of my work is having conversations with Minnesota voters, and teaching others to do likewise. It’s so different from other political advocacy I’ve done in the past, as I’ve described previously, and instead of coming home exhausted and drained, it usually takes me an hour or three to come down from the adrenaline high after a phone bank or training. I’ve met fantastic people of every age, faith, place, and life experience, and whatever the outcome of the election, I believe we’re fundamentally changing the way Minnesotans think about each other, about marriage, and about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, for the better.

Time and again, though, in my own conversations and the ones I’m training people to have with their friends, family, and neighbors, this question comes up: “What do you say when someone says marriage has always been that way and starts quoting Scripture?” To which I always reply: “You’ve got to bite your tongue, just like I do.”

I know, you’re saying, “You, Jess? You just bite your tongue when it comes to a question of religion and history?” And yes, I really do, hard as that may be for you to picture. In fact, that’s the major skill set I’ve been working on personally in this campaign, and I’ve made real strides in this department.

But why, you ask? Why don’t I lay The Almighty Bible-quoting, chapter-and-verse, dates-and-names-and-edicts-and-Supreme-Court-cases Smackdown To End All Smackdowns on them? I admit, the urge is strong. Sometimes, it feels like a whole segment of the population is just BEGGING me to teach them the history their schools and churches have failed to teach them. It seems like a personal sign from the universe that my particular combination of research is meaningful and needed, right here, right now.

But I’ve discovered something else that’s meaningful and needed, right here, right now: I’m not going to win a single vote for marriage equality by “changing minds,” which is what I’d be trying to do if I gave in to the impulse to lecture. The only way we’re going to defeat this hurtful amendment is to change hearts, and all the knowledge in the world doesn’t even scratch the surface of that mission.

I just finished reading a fascinating book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I haven’t felt like assigning required reading to everyone I meet in a while, but if I could buy this book for everyone I know–especially those on the campaign with me–I would. Haidt makes the case for a hybrid definition of how the human mind works, somewhere between Plato’s assertion that emotions are the servants of Reason and Hume’s argument that Reason is a slave to our passions. Haidt says a more apt analogy would be an elephant (our emotions) with a rider (our intellect). The rider can make suggestions to the elephant and looks like he’s in charge, but ultimately, if the elephant decides to head a particular direction, all the rider can do is say “I meant to do him to do that.”

Haidt also shares the results of his research into the moral foundations on which the edifices of conservative and liberal thought are built, and his conclusion is that part of the success of the modern conservative movement is based on the fact that conservative ideology appeals to a broader array of moral options than liberalism does. Since liberals often think of conservatives as “narrow-minded,” this sounds counter-intuitive, but really, it’s not. Liberals, Haidt demonstrates, derive their moral judgments almost entirely from whether something cares for or harms other beings, or whether it seems equalizing or discriminatory. Conservatives, on the other hand, respond less strongly to equality and care/harm, but additionally respond to messages of proportionality (more/less work=more/less reward), loyalty (to kin and other identity groups), sanctity (upholding standards of purity or pollution), and authority (respect for institutions), while many liberals actually perceive a threat from high degrees of those sources of morality. I think he’s really on to something, and I agree with what I heard Howard Dean talk about in a speech at Penn State, all the way back in 2004–that progressives won’t be able to accomplish their goals until they learn to articulate the morality of their position from all of these angles, and tap into the emotional heart of their message.

So when I talk to people about the anti-marriage amendment, I’m consciously talking to the elephant, not the rider, because it’s the elephant that will check a box on the ballot November 6. What does that mean, practically? It means I ask voters how they feel about love, marriage, and commitment, not how they think. I ask them if they’re married, if they’ve ever been in love, if they’ve ever been to a wedding, and how those things felt. I ask them whether they know any gay people, and how they feel about them if they do. If they say they don’t, I ask if they’ve ever felt excluded from something they wanted with all their hearts. And I don’t take no for an answer, because that experience is just as universal as love.

What I’m specifically not asking about is what they’ve been taught, what they’ve learned, what they know about the law and history of marriage. I’m not informing them on marriage’s roots in civil, economic, contractual law. I’m not engaging in Dueling Scripture Quotations. I’m not expounding on the long, twisted history of suppression of rights for groups that aren’t rich, white, male, or Christian. I’m not doing any of that, because it’s an absolute waste of my time, and I don’t have a minute to waste between now and the vote. There’s no point in convincing the rider, because there’s no way he can convince that elephant to squeeze into the booth if the elephant’s not into it.

The way we’re going to win is make the elephant want to get into the booth, and the only way to do that is to tie marriage equality to something the elephant already feels strongly about. Everybody wants love; nobody wants to be told they’re not good enough; we feel strongly about commitments to the people in our lives. Occasionally, I’ll come across a person whose church is democracy, whose scripture is the constitution, and for them, talking about rights and fairness is as persuasive as showing them how this amendment harms the people they love. But that feeling isn’t nearly as universal as the desire for love and the dream of celebrating that love in the sight of family, friends, community, and (for many) their god(s).

So I bite my tongue, and the teacher in my head jumps up and down furiously at being stifled. But the blood I taste is worth the stories I hear, the hopes and fears people share, and the wonder of creating a connection where there wasn’t one before. Those are the things that will get the elephant in the booth, and help generations of Minnesotans know that they are welcome, valued, and loved in this beautiful state of ours.

He feels your pain

We were in our local movie theater at 9:30 a.m. this Tuesday, because it turns out that’s the cheapest available time to see a new release movie like The Amazing Spider-Man. I’ve had my reservations about the idea of a franchise reboot so soon on the heels of the last interpretation, but ours is a deeply geeky household, so a new superhero movie was required viewing.

I’d be curious to know how many people in modern American society are unaware of the basic plot of Spider-Man’s origin story: hopeless nerd gets bitten by modified spider, gets spider’s powers, fails to use them for good when he can, consequences lead to tragedy, becomes a vigilante hero as an attempt to atone for his failure. Certainly, it’s a story Connor and Griffin know backward and forward–like their father, they’re walking superhero sourcebooks.

But when tragedy strikes, as expected, in the movie, suddenly I’ve got a sobbing pile of six-year-old on my lap. His bony little shoulders are shuddering, and hot tears soak my collar. I stroke his hair and whisper to him that it’s okay, he’s safe, and I know it’s sad, but it’ll get better, until he slowly uncurls and starts watching again. He doesn’t leave the shelter of my arms until the credits begin to roll.

And this isn’t the first time this has happened recently.

It happened when we went to see Chimpanzee at our favorite bargain theater last weekend. It happened when Claudia and Jamie spent their first lonely night in the Met, as I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s happened at a variety of TV shows and movies at home.

He starts by telling me, “I don’t like this show/story/movie.” He’s tried to leave the room once or twice, or pick up the DS or iPod for a few minutes of gaming, but mostly, he comes to me and cries. I’ve asked him what’s wrong (though I knew the answer), but he’s only ever once given me a straight answer. “This hurts my heart,” he told me.

The characters’ losses are his losses. Their grief is his grief. Their loneliness and pain, his too. When their hearts hurt, so does his. And, not surprisingly, he doesn’t like it.

To be perfectly honest, this is the first time I’ve really had to deal with this in my decade of parenting. I’m not saying that my boys haven’t felt things deeply before–far from it. The difference with this, I think, is that, instead of the rushes and waves of emotion coming from their own experiences, Griffin’s heart hurts entirely out of empathy, and I haven’t really had to guide a kid through that until now.

I’ve written before about the intensity of feeling Connor experiences. The emotions of both boys are written in the air around them, in big vivid splashes, glowering clouds, and joyful sparkles. They both wear their hearts on their sleeves, and invest their emotions in the people and things that they love. They feel injustice acutely, and react with compassion.

But for better or for worse, empathy is tricky for autistics. It comes from the mind–from knowing and understanding the other person’s situation–as much or more than it comes from the heart. Empathy has to be learned, as much as any other social skill. It may even become reflexive.

Art by Jim Hill.

I’m having to go back to my earliest years to connect with Griffin’s hurting heart. I got carried away by torrents of emotion at some of the first movies I ever saw. I was younger than two years old when Disney’s Snow White was back in theaters for the periodic re-releases that preceded the availability of home video technology. As the Evil Queen transformed into the Witch (so the story goes), I turned to my mom and grandma and announced very clearly, “I want to go home.” They shushed me, and I repeated again, more loudly and firmly, “I WANT. To go. HOME. NOW.” They took the hint, and I was considerably older before I saw the rest of that movie. When I saw Pete’s Dragon, I was carried from the theater, screaming and crying, as if Elliott was flying away from me personally, not Pete. And I sobbed my little heart out when Baloo the Bear was struck down by Shere Khan in The Jungle Book.

These stories hurt my heart horribly, and not in the way that pre-teen girls sometimes seek out, enjoying the rush of florid emotion that makes them feel more mature. Over the years, these experiences grew into funny stories my family told about what a queer tiny adult I was, burying the memory so deeply that when life hurt my heart that deeply again, I didn’t have that experience–or more importantly, the recovery that followed the pain–to call up for solace.

So I’m holding Griffin’s hurting heart ever so carefully, each time he hands it to me. I’m not going to tell him that it’s just a story, it’s made up, that he shouldn’t feel sad. Stories are practice for real life. I’m doing him no favors by protecting him from sadness and loss; it’s not good mothering to build a bubble of pure happiness and safety around a child. But if I let him explore that feeling, know that it’s valid, and emerge on the other side from the safety of my arms, maybe he won’t run from or swallow the pain when it inevitably comes later.

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.

Excuse me, I’m having a moment here

You know those people who always say, “There’s a reason for everything that happens?”

Yeah, I usually want to kick them in the crotch, too.

But even as I say that, I have to admit that I’ve seen meaningful patterns in my life, time and time again, for which there’s no rational explanation. Doors closing, windows opening–call it what you will. I’ve just found myself in too many places I shouldn’t have been that turned out to lead me to exactly where I was meant to be.

That’s why, when people ask me if I could “take back” my sexual assault or my fibromyalgia or the hell we’ve been through with Connor, I answer, fast as a snap, “No!” Those things made and keep making me the person I am, and I love where and with whom I am far too much to risk changing even one crappy thing in the past.

For the most part, I perceive these patterns from afar, like an aerial photograph of where I’ve been. But I’m in the midst of an amazing moment right now, when I see them crystallizing right before me. I am precisely where I am supposed to be, where I’ve been headed for decades.

I’m volunteering for Minnesotans United for All Families, the coalition fighting the constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the freedom to marry in Minnesota for generations to come. It’s on the ballot in November, the 31st of these elections when a basic human right for a whole group of people is put up for popular vote.

We aim to be the first to defeat this kind of attack.

I’d already committed to be part of this effort, but when one of the organizers here in Saint Paul came to me to ask if I would step up as a team leader and put in about 6-8 hours a week on the campaign (until it becomes much, much more, when the leaves start falling from the trees). Frankly, I might’ve been smarter to say no, but I’d wanted a way to engage more with the campaign so, like the Overcommitment Princess I am, I said, “Bring it.”

I’ve attended trainings and phone banks, planning meetings and launch parties. I’ve met more new people on the campaign than I may have met in the whole time I’ve lived in Minnesota. They’re running a crazy-smart campaign here, unlike anything that’s been attempted anywhere else, focusing on personal conversations about love and commitment, rather than discrimination and legal protections, with over 1 million voters. And the longer I’m in this thing, the more I know that the skills I’ve acquired all come together for this work.

A lot of the work is very similar to teaching. Informing voters, training volunteers, and coordinating teams has shades of lecturing, discussing central concepts, guiding and supporting folks so they can reach their own conclusions on the subject. I appreciate my experience with non-traditional students and different ethnic constituencies–this coalition is so broad and deep, uniting across so many communities.

I’m finding my crisis counselor training to be very useful too. Having intense conversations about values with strangers, neighbors, and friends, as well as training others to have those conversations, requires active listening, something that doesn’t (but should) get taught in everyday life. It’s hard not to use my Rogerian reflective statements, but I’m allowed to get invested in the stories I’m telling and hearing in a way I couldn’t as a counselor. I’m walking with people through memories, and feelings, and judgments that sometimes unravel or take shape at the same time as the words cross their lips. It’s incredibly powerful.

And I’ve already expounded on my commitment to philanthropy and social justice activism here on the blog. Though I still feel guilty when I try to own my bisexuality because I’ve never suffered for that part of my identity, this isn’t only an LGBTQ issue. All you have to believe in to fight this amendment is love. I’m living my happily ever after, despite very long odds–I want everyone to have the same freedom and joy.

Even my training as a historian gives me perspective that adds to my sense of privilege at being a part of this. In my religious studies work, I’ve looked at the civil terms and religious blessings on personal commitments in a wide variety of cultures and eras, which is powerfully erosive of many arguments in favor of such an amendment. And knowing the history of milestones like the Loving v. Virginia case, which made interracial marriage legal for once and for all in America in 1967, has opened my eyes to the historical importance of halting the tide of these amendments at last.

So I’m having a moment here. Minnesota’s having a moment too, deciding what kind of state it wants to be. But my moment (as egocentric as it sounds to say it) is more empowering than I think anyone at Minnesotans United knows or cares. I doubt my qualifications, my value, my ability to be useful to anyone, all the time. Every time I recommend myself for something, my heart’s in my throat like I’m jumping off a cliff. I even feel weird thinking about getting business cards made up, because honestly, who would ever want or need to remember me enough to keep my stupid square of cardstock?

But on this campaign, I feel useful. I’m doing good work. I can contribute my skills and my passion, and have it matched and encouraged and appreciated. I feel needed–me, with my quirky, particular bag of tricks. I’m so grateful for the experience that I even offered to dye my hair back to a plausibly human color, if they thought that the coding that happens on first contact would be detrimental to my ability to help effectively. Their response? “No way. Rock the pink hair. We need the pink-haired to feel included too.”

That’s love, folks. That’s what we’re fighting for. And what I’m doing will help us win.

May 31, 2012 - Social Studies    15 Comments

Walking the Talk

I’ve been trying to string these observations together for three days now, and failing utterly to find a single narrative thread. But I really feel the need to get these ideas out there. So, instead of a coherent blog post, you get a bunch of random thoughts about the complexities of race relations. My apologies.

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Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed and me, May 2012

I’m thinking a lot about race these days. Part of that is deliberate. I took part in a study group about the racial history of my religion, Unitarian Universalism, at church, in anticipation of a weekend visit by the foremost historian of the African American UU experience, Mark Morrison-Reed. We read his book, Darkening the Doorways, and discussed everything from white privilege, to assumptions about what black visitors to our church would find welcoming, to outreach efforts to walk the talk on multicultural engagement.

The accompanying workshop, and the extended conversation for the group of us, was difficult and painful, but soul work really should be. The first principle of our faith is that we honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but we’ve been unsuccessful more often than successful at truly embracing real diversity in our church homes. We’re so much more comfortable going into communities of color for a day of service–us doing things for them, not with them–then returning to our monochromatic congregations on Sunday with the glow of righteousness.

The main conclusion we came to that day, with Mark’s help, is that communities of color are used to people coming and going. What they’re not used to is people staying. Volunteers paint buildings and plant gardens. They don’t come back to touch-up or weed. It’s the same with political work. Don’t just show up for the march–come back for coffee, stay for dinner. Don’t just make speeches–ask what they want, and listen as long as they want to talk.

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I’m not colorblind. My stepdad says he is, with ridiculous statements like, “I don’t see race” and “There’s no such thing as black and white–we’re all cocoa, vanilla, cream tea, cinnamon.”  It sounds delicious, but it’s hard for me to reconcile this kind of obliviousness with his history as a young white man who stood up for civil rights in the ’60s. He even attended Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. To me, this is blindness, not color blindness, and it diminishes the real struggle people of color have had and continue to have in America. Is this a relic of that generation of liberal speech on race? Did it sound as insensitive in the past as it does now?

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I see race because I see patterns. As a kid, I was curious about things like melanin, epicanthic folds, and naso-labial shapes. But I was far more fascinated by the differences than worried about them. I noticed that people of different ethnicities smelled differently, and I wanted to taste the food I scented on their clothing and in their hair. I collected dolls dressed in the native costumes of different nations. I spent hours in a Chicago-area children’s museum, acting out family life from Fiddler on the Roof in the kid-sized Jewish home, and making tortillas and touching all the weavings in the Mexican home. And my mom tells me that, around the age of 2 and 3, I would babble incessantly in some weird language, then sigh in exasperation when she told me to stop talking nonsense. “*Mo-om*, it’s not nonsense,” she says I said, “I’m speaking French.” To this day, she wishes she’d known someone who spoke French, to find out if I actually was.

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I worked in a record store at the last year of my undergrad work, in Lawrence, Kansas. I loved my job, but I’d watch the kids who browsed a little too long in the Rap/R&B section. The white boys were so stupidly obvious, all I had to do was walk up to them and ask them how I could help to get them to mumble nervously and quickly leave the store, their shoplifting plans foiled. When it was young men of color, I’d watch them, then deliberately turn away, telling myself it wasn’t fair to profile them thus. After they left, I’d do a quick check of the section, and when I found neatly razorbladed magnetic tags or plastic wrappers stuffed into the corners of the racks, I was furious and hurt. I hated that they reinforced the negative stereotypes, justified my profiling, and made me feel racist and ashamed.

 ******

I just read a book by John L. Jackson, Jr. called Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, in which he makes a compelling case that, in the wake of the advances at exterminating de jure (in the law) and de facto (in reality) racism, all the remaining ambivalence gets internalized into what he calls de cardio (in the heart) racism, which isn’t even always conscious, and will be much harder to stamp out. Jackson posits that, if people on both sides of the color line can’t trust people to speak the truth about race, they come to mistrust everything they say about race, leading to deep racial paranoia.

Mind=blown.

The book taught me about the propensity to believe in vast conspiracies, based on this fundamental mistrust, and the books and music who advance these theories in the black community. I felt about a dozen questions and observations snap into place, finally in context, with each chapter. And his theory confirms my suspicions about the direction public attitudes about LGBT folks are headed, as it becomes increasingly less acceptable to openly discriminate. In this way, among so many others, we have to acknowledge that civil rights are civil rights are civil rights.

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Few things make me as frustrated or embarrassed as seeing white people co-opting pieces of other cultures as their own. Purely Euro-American people drumming in sweat lodge retreats at expensive resorts. Suburban soccer moms who say they understand Latinos because they’re sending their kids to a Spanish-immersion private school. Kids putting on the swagger and language of inner city culture, without having to suffer any of the doubt and fear that comes with walking through gated communities while black.

A few years ago, I heard someone ask, “Why is cocaine so addictive and damaging, when South Americans chew coca leaves for years and never suffer ill health?” The answer is simple. Because when you take something out of context–extract, distill, purify–you may amplify the parts you want, but you lose hundreds of organic compounds that balance and mitigate the downsides in ways we don’t even fully understand.

Culture works the same way. When you sample ideas and practices out of context, you may feel enlightened and energized by your new, hip, exclusive experience, but you’re missing the point, and denigrating a culture that’s richer than you even know. Admire Native American spirituality? Learn about rez life. Like to sing African American spirituals? Learn about the black experience of Christianity and liberation theology. Do the work, and learn the context.

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I’m not trying to “put on” blackness, with all these inquiries into race lately. I want to understand a culture that is, in so many ways, hidden in plain sight. I want to understand how people of color experience the same things I experience, each of us through our different lenses. Those lenses are ground by things like dinner table conversations, schoolyard lessons, the looks you get (or feel) walking down the street, and how it feels to stand on thresholds real and metaphoric.

I’ve experienced the world through the lens of white privilege; I know that deep in my bones. I don’t feel guilt, but I do feel regret. I’ve also experienced the world through the lenses of being female, being autistic, being liberal, being curious. I want to hear the voices, and I have a deep desire to reach across that divide, as much as I would be welcomed, to speak to and embrace the common humanity of us all. I’m not satisfied with the boundaries others tell me are “safe.”

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I am happiest when my world is diverse. And I want my boys to grow up thinking that friends come in every shape, gender, color, physical ability, and personality. When they were younger, I took them to the parks where the immigrant families came for day trips, up from Chicago. A lot of the locals in our lily-white resort town told us to avoid them on weekends, but I wanted my sons to smell different cooking, hear different languages, and play with every kind of kid. So many families welcomed my wild, gregarious sons, and seemed delighted with the mingled laughter and fun of their children and mine.

When they ran over to ask if they could play with a new friend, I asked them to point out at least one of the kids’ parents. They would point vaguely, eager to return to the game, and say, “His dad is the one in the green shirt” or “His mom has long hair.” I would follow their little pointing finger, and as often than not, the man in the green shirt was also black, or the woman with long hair was dressed in a sari. But those things didn’t register as different enough to remark upon, and skin color was irrelevant, next to the possibility of a new playmate.

Am I wrong to be proud of that? I don’t want to seem self-congratulatory. But teaching values to kids is such a fraught proposition, and the way they treat others–especially perfect strangers–is one of the real litmus tests for whether your lessons are sinking in. They’re a big part of why I want to expand my circle of friends and contacts to include more people of color. The indifference to difference doesn’t last forever. It’s time for me to put my body and heart where my values are, for them to see.

 

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.

 

May 11, 2012 - Social Studies    No Comments

You might be a geek… : Friday Night Lists

I’m a fool for stand-up comedy, and lots of one-liners and references have made their way into the Banks household lexicon. As with my books, music, and movies, I’ve got prodigal tastes that include things that might surprise even those who know me best.

So let me here admit: I love the Blue Collar Comedy Tour films. Don’t judge me–that’s some funny stuff right there. We laugh at Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck jokes, but if we’re honest, we know that more of them apply to more of us than is comfortable. And as a joke format, it’s just about perfect.

So, for today’s Friday Night Lists post, here’s my spin on Foxworthy’s list. If you don’t recognize them all, fire up that Google machine! I’m sure I’m leaving out a billion things, so if you’ve got one that should be included, be sure to leave it in comments! Hopefully, this conveys my general view that geekdom is universal, and everyone’s a geek about something.

You Might Be A Geek If…

… you know that MUDs, MOOs, and MUSHes aren’t limited to a barnyard.

… you know that 1964 1/2 is a real model year for the Ford Mustang.

… you know that K1P1YO and 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 actually spell something.

… you know the difference between declension and conjugation.

… you know what “frabjous” and “brillig” mean.

… you know Ted Williams’ lifetime batting average.

… you know why 2 pistons and 1 pin are the basis of a copyrighted sound.

… you’ve ever reamed a pearl.

… you know that you’ve probably seen the movie “Blue Harvest.”

… you have a favorite Federalist Paper.

… you’ve ever had to explain the joke on your t-shirt to someone.

… you’ve ever made a costume for a convention, but you take shirts to the dry cleaner for mending.

… you care deeply about the Oxford Comma.

… you have a favorite Doctor.

… you’ve ever paid for shareware.

… you’ve ever written shareware.

… you’ve ever risked serious bodily harm for the perfect photograph.

… you carry a Sharpie so you can correct punctuation on signs.

… you’ve ever bought a new die because “the old one doesn’t work.”

… you’ve ever bought wooden knitting or crochet needles so nobody hears if you drop them in church.

… you can tell the difference between Chinese, Indonesian, and Vietnamese cinnamon by smell.

… you use a thermometer and a timer to make tea.

… your child must cite history and/or literature when introducing themselves by name.

… your body bears a tattoo featuring a mythical beast and/or language.

… you wish they made trading cards for astrophysicists.

… you took the day off work to celebrate the solution of Fermat’s Theorem.

… a museum or library security guard has ever let you “take your time” because they know you so well.

… you’ve ever walked out of a movie because the inaccuracies were ruining the whole experience.

… you’ve ever been kicked out of the room during “Jeopardy!” or “Trivial Pursuit.”

… you have to remind yourself that Malcolm X wasn’t a medieval Scottish king.

… you own your own libretto for any work.

… you know who Weapon X is, and what the X stands for.

… you can name more than four Beatles or Kryptonians.

… your boxen have ever frotzed.

… you can sing Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements.”

… you know there’s a male Pink and a female Pink.

… you’ve ever heard of the Butlerian Jihad.

… you’ve ever traded bottlecaps for a stimpak in Megaton.

… you’ve ever bought a lottery ticket with the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42.

… you’ve bowed your head for a moment of silence in the direction of Reach or Hera.

… you’ve ever played a video game so much, you dreamed about it after you went to sleep.

… you’ve ever complained about a sign’s kerning.

… you’ve ever blamed your kid’s misbehavior on Mercury.

… you can recognize the sounds of a glockenspiel, a celeste, or Franklin’s armonica.

 

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.

Mar 31, 2012 - Social Studies    No Comments

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Part II

Last week, I started a new feature on the blog called Friday Night Lists, with the first of three lists of people I’d love to sit down with, around a dinner table, and talk the night away. Last week, I gave my picks from the pool of living participants. This week, I’d like to introduce you to my guest list drawn from all of history. Like last week, I’ll give a brief blurb about why I’ve picked each person, and I’ll provide a link, in case you’d like to learn more about the ones I’m introducing you to/reminding you of.

As with all my lists, I’ll inevitably forget someone–much footstomping and cursing will follow. So please share your picks, to help remind me in case my sons ever do manage to build a TARDIS out of a refrigerator box.

MY HISTORICAL GUESTS

  • Christine de Pizan: medieval author; philosopher. Her clever allegory City of Women books make the case for a feminist perspective on Christianity, without proposing that women’s only place in the world was as an empty vessel for children or the Holy Spirit.
  • Constance de Markievicz: politician; rebel; founder of the Fianna Eireann. She dressed like a man, sat at the table with the intellectuals who planned the 1916 Easter Rebellion, and trained the generation of boys and girls who would see through the dream of an Irish Free State.
  • Edward R. Murrow: journalist. Through the new medium of radio, Murrow brought the early days of World War II into American homes, fearlessly reporting from London throughout the Blitz, and from many other hazardous locations. As if that weren’t brave enough, he stood up to the McCarthy witch hunts in the name of free speech and accurate reporting.
  • Franklin Delano & Eleanor Roosevelt: four-term president of the United States; First Lady & activist. He engineered the New Deal and the American social safety net, then gave the nation a moral compass to get through World War II. She was a smart, welcoming First Lady, and an inspiring advocate for peace when she founded the United Nations. They weren’t perfect, but my admiration is boundless.
  • Hatshepsut: king of Ancient Egypt. She stands out as a fearless female leader in the midst of millenia of patriarchal influence. She wasn’t satisfied with the qualified, subordinate title of “queen;” she dressed and ruled like the great kings of the Nile.
  • Jim Henson: puppeteer; director; artist. Who could possibly envision everything from Sesame Street to the Skeksis, and a million sights in between? His respect for children, smart and wacky sense of humor, and gift for finding the humanity in every sock and stick was half of what defined my idea of imagination as a child.
  • John Lennon: singer/songwriter; artist; activist. Half of the greatest songwriting team of all time, he lived a second act that spread the word of love and peace, before ending far too soon.
  • Katharine Hepburn: actress; author. She was brainy, cool, elegant, funny, and smart-mouthed. I watched everything of hers I could find as a kid, much of it on the big screen, from “Kitty Foyle” to “The Philadelphia Story” to “The African Queen.” She brought immeasurable class and fearless grit to every aspect of her life. I even wear my long hair in a bun, in hopes that someday, it’ll just stay like that, just like hers.
  • Margaret Sanger: nurse; midwife; sex educator; founder of Planned Parenthood. She knew that a woman’s power over her reproduction was even more important for her ultimate health, wealth, and upward mobility than suffrage. As you wonder how birth control is even a topic for debate in 2012, spare a moment for dear Margaret and the sheer will and courage it took to fight that fight in public 100 years ago.
  • Oscar Wilde: author. He skips from whimsy to horror to cutting satire so fast, it gives a reader or theatergoer whiplash. He was persecuted as a political pawn for whom he loved, and he bore the humiliation and suffering with honesty and dignity, when his opponents had none.
  • Richard Holbrooke: diplomat. It pains me that he’s not on the list of Living Guests. His knowledge of such difficult regions of the world is sorely needed, as is his skillful, sensitive hand at negotiations which ended the Bosnian conflict in peace.
  • Samuel Clemens: author. Witty, insightful, playful, and profound, Mark Twain remains my favorite author of all time, bar none. Every time I read his work, there’s a new revelation.
  • Theodor Seuss Geisel: author/illustrator. Dr. Seuss’ books shaped my childhood as much as did Jim Henson, with their psychedelic, whimsical characters and cleverly wrought language. We hardly noticed the messages of basic human rights, environmentalism, and peace, but they left their mark.
  • Thomas Jefferson: author, inventor, architect, third president of the United States. He had a completely unique view of the world, and it gave us a future we’re still unfolding. I want to compliment him on his beautiful home and garden, then grill him on his notions of “inalienable rights.”
Mar 24, 2012 - Social Studies    6 Comments

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, part 1

I love making lists, but I’m terrible with lists that force me to make Big Decisions. Ten albums I’d take to a desert island? Hah. Ten books I’d take to outer space? Puh-leeze. Ten foods I’d eat for the rest of my life? Are you kidding me? Here’s what happens the minute I finish my list:

*foot stomp* DAMMIT. I forgot one! Let me start over.

But, for whatever reason–perhaps I’ve been away from friends for too long–I’ve been thinking a lot about my ultimate lists of dinner guests. To have even a hope of fitting everyone around the table, I had to divide them into three categories: Living Guests, Historical Guests, and Fictional Guests–I’ll present each in a separate blog post, because otherwise, it’s just too long! They’re in alphabetical order, since I can’t assign them any kind of priority. I’ll give a little blurb about who each one is, and maybe a bit about why I chose them; most of the time, those things are one and the same. And, of course, my Darling Husband is included at every dinner. My children are decidedly not.

Never heard of someone? Know that they come with my highest possible approval, and follow the links I’ve provided. Also know that, as soon as I publish this blog entry, I’ll stamp my foot and think of someone I forgot. Please suggest your own in the comments!

MY LIVING GUESTS

  • Alex Kingston: actress; lovely scenery. She’s my female Freebie.
  • Alexander Skarsgard: actor; lovely scenery. He’s my male Freebie. And if I can have them together, I don’t have to worry about calling one the wrong name. Isn’t that handy.
  • Anthony Bourdain: chef; traveller; writer. His cutting humor and relentless curiosity about one of the most universal features of human life make me want to go where he goes, taste what he tastes, and stay the hell off his bad side.
  • Barack Obama: lawyer; community organizer; senator; first African-American president of the United States.
  • Bret McKenzie & Jemaine Clement: comics/musicians/actors; AKA Flight of the Conchords. They’re Kiwis and they’re hilarious. McKenzie wrote the music for the recent Muppet movie. What’s not to love?
  • Eddie Izzard: comic/actor. His brand of weird, hilarious, super-smart free association humor is so similar to my Darling Husband’s, I just want the pleasure of seeing them riff off one another.
  • Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: current president of Liberia; first female head of an African state; co-winner of 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. She’s an icon of feminism and peace activism–what a hero.
  • Madeline Albright: former Secretary of State; Holocaust survivor. She’s so smart and grounded and kind; I admire her immensely.
  • Mary Robinson: first female president of the Republic of Ireland; United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Much the same as Ms. Albright, only Irish.
  • Melissa Harris-Perry: professor of political science; author; liberal media commentator. She consistently rocks me with new insights, and she never talks down to her audience.
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson: astrophysicist. He’s so smart and good-humored, and he’s got a natural talent for explaining complex scientific concepts to laymen.
  • Neil Gaiman: author. He’s written one of my favorites in three different categories of literature: graphic novels (The Sandman), YA fiction (Coraline), and adult fiction (American Gods). No one else thinks quite like he does.
  • Pema Chodron: Buddhist monk; teacher; author. She translates esoteric Buddhist concepts into easily understandable Western contexts, and she embodies the idea of compassion, both for self and the world.
  • Rachel Maddow: liberal media commentator on politics and current affairs; author. She’s crazy smart, and funny, and geeky. I agree with her on almost everything, but she’s so humble and modest, she’d never admit how much fans like me respect her analysis.
  • Stephen Fry: actor; author. He’s incredibly well-read and whip-smart; he manages to be jolly and sweet and clever and self-effacing, all at once. He seems like a completely delightful person.
  • Temple Grandin: engineer; author; autism advocate. She was one of the first autistics to really explain to the wider world how the world she experiences differs from the one neurotypical people perceive. She’s an amazing role model for everyone, not just autistics.
  • Tenzin Gyatso: current Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism. His laugh is infectious, and so is his open, loving, intellectually curious, and human-hearted attitude toward the world.
  • Terry Jones: historian; member of Monty Python. His academic influence can be so clearly felt in the group’s classic skits and movies, and he’s exported that funny, accessible perspective on history well to non-fiction series. I love and emulate his humble, humorous approach to teaching others about the past.
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