Tagged with " teaching"
Sep 20, 2013 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

What I Can Do For You

I didn’t set out to be a Woman of Mystery. Really, I didn’t–I’ve always thought the whole thing with secret identities was super-hokey.

But it appears that some folks don’t actually know what all I can do. That probably has a lot to do with having a number of different jobs, some of them concurrently. So I thought that maybe I’d write a post that just stands as a more chatty sort of CV, for future reference. I know I’ll be back in here to fiddle with the things I’ve left out, but this is basically me.


I have 15 years’ teaching experience. Most of that is at the university level, but I substitute taught for middle and high schools for 3 years, where I was a special favorite of the foreign language teachers. I also have experience teaching short-term history and foreign language courses for homeschool collectives where kids to get instruction on subjects a little more technical or diverse than most parents can provide.

I’ve written whole courses, including websites and primary source collections, for Western Civ, Intro to World Religions, Women in Religion, Early and Medieval Christianity, and Rhetoric and Composition. I lecture, I organize group activities, I lead discussion groups, I write and grade exams, and I give one hell of a test prep session. And I am exactly the person you want to bring along on a trip to a museum or an historical site. (I may not be the person you want to go see a movie about medieval times with, though.)

I can train folks on skills commonly used in (but not exclusively by) community organizing. I’m a good consultant on issues of diversity, especially women’s and LGBT issues and neurodiversity, because I can effectively articulate the reasons why things do or don’t work.


I offer professional services in copyediting and proofreading, as well as art direction. I edit for content, consistent style and voice, continuity, and flow. I can also check formatting in academic work using MLA or Chicago style. I’m good at highlighting problematic topics and language that might not be accessible or welcoming to every reader. And I’m like the kid from The Sixth Sense when it comes to proofreading: “I see typos. Everywhere.

I have had paid gigs editing and/or proofreading academic papers, roleplaying games, board game instructions, marketing material, self-help books, and SF/F novels. I’m eager to branch out into editing more genres of fiction (I would rule the world at romance novel editing), and I’m looking forward to my first paid job translating a major work from French to English soon.

I adore doing art direction, especially for RPGs, because I get very clear images in my head from the text, and I’m good at describing them for artists to interpret. I include copious photo references (all digital links these days) for people, places, correct period costumes, weaponry, and other relevant details.


I crochet, knit, cross-stitch, sew, and make jewelry, as well as a number of more or less useful one-off crafts. I brew herbal medicines in my kitchen, including “magic stuff” which may be the most useful substance ever invented. I perform tarot card readings (yes, it seems to work equally well over Skype, email, or Twitter). I blog, and I write short- and long-form fiction–I would dearly love to participate in an anthology. I can design meaningful multi-faith (or no-faith) rituals for any occasion, like weddings, memorials, or baby blessings. I’m good at public speaking, and have performed speeches, sermons, and MC duties. I’m designing my first card game; I’m also writing a roleplaying adventure that teaches social skills to kids on the autism spectrum.

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.

Role of a Lifetime: Reverb Broads Summer #3

Reverb Broads Summer, Prompt #3: Who are your role models? (by Dana at Simply Walking on this Earth)

As I got thinking on this question, I realized that my list of role models was, in fact, very short. This is not to say that I’m not surrounded by a beloved community of inspirational people. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people whom I admire more than words can express, from Nobel laureates, to fellow parents, to brilliant academics, to powerful advocates for a more just and loving world.

But I make the distinction between those whom I admire, and those from whom I’ve consciously modeled some part of myself. I’m not much of a follower, even for people I admire–it must be the mile-wide anti-authoritarian streak in me. I’m a weird, idiosyncratic independent, and while I synthesize lessons from everything I see and learn around me, I almost never seek to fit myself into anyone else’s pattern.

The only case I can think of where this is not the case is in my teaching. I’ve been inordinately blessed by an abundance of phenomenal, life-changing teachers throughout my academic career, and their styles of imparting knowledge and wisdom (not the same thing) were hugely influential in the formation of my own teaching style.

When I moved to Whitewater, just before fifth grade, I’d only had one teacher who had rocked my world: Mrs. Smigelski, the Gifted and Talented coordinator at my suburban Milwaukee elementary school. She introduced me to ideas like brainstorming other uses for completely mundane objects, like a row of cardboard egg carton bumps (what, they’ve got a better name?) or the empty bubbles cough drops fit in. Sure, it sounds hokey, but it was a break from the soul-crushing boredom of constant work on academics I’d mastered before I’d ever darkened the school’s doorway.

The teachers I encountered when I started in Whitewater exploded every idea I’d ever had about how school was supposed to be. Both my fifth and sixth grade teachers were men–a novelty in my world so far. They used games to teach, lots of games, from weeks-long roleplaying games about early American settlement and Western expansion, to intensely strategic board games about Roman chariot races, solving mysteries in Victorian London, and World War I aerial dogfights. With these tools, they got a level of attention and work out of 10- and 11-year-olds that, faced with my own son of that age level, I find frankly astonishing. And, among all the games and lessons, they found little ways to introduce us to culture that most kids don’t discover for decades. We thrilled to some of the most terrifying ghost stories I’ve ever come across. We listened to Bill Cosby records and read funny stories by Patrick McManus. We watched episodes of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, the pitch-perfect Jeremy Brett ones.

From these teachers, I learned that games and humor could teach just as (if not more) effectively than rote memorization. I learned that an anecdote that humanizes a concept or a period of history sticks with students far longer than dry recitations of names and dates. And I learned that good games not only teach about their setting, but they teach about being a good person–learn the rules, take your turn, think creatively, work together, win and lose with grace and empathy.

When I got to high school, I encountered teachers who further shaped my idea of how the mentor/student relationship could be. Much of this was due to the extra work they put in, far above and beyond the school day bounded by bells. Our social studies teacher was also our yearbook editor, locked into the school weekend after weekend on interminable deadlines. Our English teacher was also the drama program director, supervising endless rehearsals and set-construction sessions. Our French teacher helped us organize the annual Mardi Gras dance, and bravely ventured across France with about two dozen high schoolers. Our Band director was also the one who pushed us around the field to learn marching band drill, and coordinated our enthusiastic efforts for pep band during basketball season. And our Choir conductor (also my church choir conductor) baked us treats and prepped us for contests and musicals.

And for all their time and effort, they got shenanigans. We called them by first names and nicknames. We pulled pranks all the time. We signed such luminaries as Han Solo, Mickey Mouse, and Elvis Presley out of study hall into the yearbook office. We talked Madame into letting us play petonque in the classroom, and go Christmas caroling in April to the Spanish class next door. We sang Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song in the football stands while waiting for the marching band halftime show, hoping to earn that quelling look from our usually unflappable band director. We put Cheez Doodles and Dr. Pepper into the yearbook index (Doodles, Cheez and Pepper, Dr., respectively).

The shenanigans weren’t the point, though, and the teachers saw clearly that our hijinks were a sign that we loved them and trusted them to know that we didn’t lavish our twisted affections on just anyone. And I learned that you don’t have to sacrifice authority or respect when you reach out and befriend your students. If kids love you, they’ll do extraordinary things, without the teacher even needing to ask. And if they trust you, you can go places–talk about awkward subjects, teach sensitive lessons, confront harsh realities–that a safer relationship couldn’t support.

So I’ll be my own kind of parent, and friend, and activist, and writer–I’m never going to be quite like anyone else, and I’m good with that. But as a teacher? I want to be just like my role models.

Jun 2, 2012 - AV Club, World Religions    5 Comments

The Reel and the Surreal: Movies About Religion

I’m a documentary whore. I absolutely adore them. Can’t get enough. The more esoteric the subject, the better. I’ve always enjoyed them, even as an admittedly weird kid, but I really fell back in love with them right after my second son, Griffin, was born. He was not what anyone would call “a sleeper,” and I found myself awake in the middle of the night more often than not. Fortunately, there always seemed to be an HBO documentary on demand, and I started actually looking forward to those sleepless nights when I didn’t have to relinquish the TV to children’s programming.

I like to keep my classroom style varied, and video is instrumental in demonstrating concepts with a single clip that it would take me an hour to explain, and even then, the students wouldn’t know what the thing I was describing actually looks like in practice. This is especially true in my religious studies classes. Being able to immerse them in the sights and sounds of holy places, and hear everyday practitioners and learned experts alike reiterate what I’m trying to teach is priceless.

I’ve assembled a list here of films that I find particularly good at demonstrating core concepts of the philosophy and practice of religion. Many, I’ve used in class; some are just personal favorites. They’re organized by topic the same way I organize my Intro to Religious Thought classes. This is just a handful of the amazing, thoughtful, incisive, unsettling, critical films being made about religion. Some of them are available on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video; many are commonly stocked in libraries. All are worth tracking down.

Sacred Time

The Last Wave, dir. Peter Weir (Criterion Studios, 1979) — And, of course, I start with a movie that’s not a documentary at all–I’m just that perverse. This is a weird, dated, surreal Australian film by the same director as Witness, Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, and The Way Back. Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds, Dr. Kildare) stars as a Sydney lawyer who takes on the case of some Aboriginal men accused of killing another one. Chamberlin starts dreaming of a huge flood, and his clients disclose tribal secrets that help him decode the dreams–he’s dreaming of the end of a cycle in Aboriginal time, when they will step into the Dreamtime, leaving the white world to be washed away. It’s a confusing, circular movie, but it’s the most effective demonstration of the Aboriginal concepts of non-linear time that exist nowhere in any society outside of Australia or Africa.

Sacred Space

Ganges, dir. Tom Hugh-Jones (BBC Warner, 2003) — A beautifully filmed look at the centrality of the Ganges River to India as a continent and Hinduism as a faith. They explore the river in its environment and its religious functions, all the way from its disputed origins high in the Himalayas, down to the rich delta at the bottom of the subcontinent.

In the Light of Reverence, dir. Christopher McLeod (Bullfrog Films, 2001) — This film is difficult to find, but so well worth it. The three chapters show the importance of the land to three different Native American groups, and how difficult it is to preserve them with their inherent worth isn’t visible or understandable to Anglo-Americans, who think there has to be a building or monument for a place to be holy. This movie will make you scream and cry, and maybe get involved in the fight to preserve these special places.

Sacred Acts

National Geographic—Inside Mecca, dir. Anisa Mehdi (National Geographic Video, 2003) — I had actually wanted to use the BBC documentary Hajj: Journey of a Lifetime, but it wasn’t available on DVD when I went to teach. Now, wonderfully, the whole thing is free on YouTube. But the National Geographic film is great, too. Only Muslims are allowed in Mecca during Hajj (the annual pilgrimage that’s part of an observant Muslims obligations, at least once in his/her life), so an entirely Muslim crew was assembled for each of these two films. They follow a variety of Muslims from all over the world through the hard physical and spiritual work of the Hajj. It’s fantastic for basic literacy about Islam, and experiencing such a moving journey.

Jesus Camp, dirs. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Loki Films, 2006) Even if you’ve grown up Christian, you may not know that places like the Bible camp in Colorado that’s depicted in this film exist, or what goes on inside them. It’s a harrowing look at the pressure put on kids as young as 5 and 6 to conform to a pretty extreme brand of Christianity. It raises some important questions about how and when to impose your own beliefs on children.

How to Cook Your Life, dir. Doris Dorrie (Lions Gate, 2008) This is a delightful movie about a Zen Buddhist monk and a chef in San Francisco. It perfectly demonstrates the idea that the most mundane, pedestrian things in our lives can become sacred acts with the right mindset. Don’t watch this if you’re hungry.

Sacred People

The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha, dir. David Grubin (PBS Home Video, 2010) — A lovely documentary blending legend and history to tell the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince who achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha.

10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, dir. Rick Ray (Monterey Video, 2007) — This is a very personal film, and though the narrator occasionally gets a little annoying in his self-centeredness, the Dalai Lama is so wise and happy and brilliant and wonderful that everything else fades into insignificance. He talks about the situation of his people’s exile from Tibet, the importance of science, and many of the central ideas of the Buddhist world view. I could listen to him talk forever.

The Devil’s Playground, dir. Lucy Walker (Wellspring, 2003) — This movie follows several Amish teenagers as they launch into a practice known as “Rumspringa,” when they leave the cloistered communities they grew up in and fully experience the “English” world. They swear like crazy, use drugs, go to drunken parties, drive cars, smoke, get jobs, wear jeans. It’s shocking to learn that every Amish person–people we think of as so sheltered and devout–intentionally tests the things of which the Amish life would deprive them. Even more surprising is how many of them choose at the end to leave it all behind and go back to their communities. It’s riveting.

Sacred Words

National Geographic: The Gospel of Judas (National Geographic Video, 2006) — Most people think the Bible has always looked the way it does now, but this film explodes that notion for once and for all. It tells the story of a remarkable document, which purports to be a Gospel written by the disciple Judas, whom the traditional four Gospels of the New Testament says betrayed Jesus to his death. The text is one of the gnostic gospels which interpret the lessons and life of Jesus very differently than the orthodox ones do, and it radically challenges our understanding of the Bible stories everyone hears every Easter. There’s a lot of dramatized action, which always rubs me a bit wrong, but the experts in the video and the story of the text itself more than make up for it.

Sacred Events

From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, dir. William Cran (PBS Home Video, 2004) — This is a very long, four-part documentary, but it throws into high relief precisely what a messy, confusing, unpredictable origin Christianity had. It gives a ton of valuable information about the Mediterranean world Jesus was born into, the political and social climate that led to his death, the wildly varying (and competing) interpretations of Jesus’ message and life, and the weird horse race to become the “official” version of Christianity that the Roman Empire eventually embraced. It also features most of my favorite historians of Christianity, and it’s a good way to get to know them; many of the authors on last week’s book list are in this film. All this flies directly in the face of the tidy, sanitized, fait accompli history Biblical literalists would have you believe, but the truth is always messier and more interesting.

The Mormons: A Frontline/American Experience Special, dir. Helen Whitney (PBS Home Video, 2007) — Especially in this election year, it’s really important to know the origins and evolution of the only American-born brand of Christianity. This documentary talks to both the officials and the faithful of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints today, but also its critics. It grapples with both the problematic aspects of Mormonism–such as its attitudes and actions toward Native Americans and African Americans–and the very troubling exercise of federal power to exterminate the Mormons.  Whether you find it silly or compelling, it’s all American, and the imprint of this country’s ideals on the Mormon faith is indelible.

May 22, 2012 - World Religions    13 Comments

Living the Questions

One of the hats I wear upon my surprisingly pink head is that of a religious studies scholar. Believe me, I’m as shocked as anyone that I ended up that way, but there you have it. It’s mostly the fault of medieval studies–it’s pretty much impossible to become educated about the Middle Ages (not just in Europe, but in many cultures) without learning about the religions and the institutions they create.

But I started my inquiries about religion much earlier than grad school. When I went through an abusive relationship in high school that ended in sexual assault, I knew from my mother’s and grandmother’s examples that that was when faith was supposed to kick in and help guide me through dark times. But it didn’t, and I didn’t have a good reason why it didn’t, except that I hadn’t accepted my Methodist upbringing as deeply as I’d thought. Sure, I was Bible Trivia CHAMPION, and sang in choirs and ensembles from the time I was five, but when it came to unswerving belief in the tenets of Christianity? I just didn’t have it.

A lot of young people go through a crisis of faith like this at some point, and it’s pretty common for them to swing way out to the most diametrically opposed idea of religion that they can imagine, then gradually work their way back in to something pretty close to where they started. A kid raised Lutheran may flirt with Quakerism or (gasp!) atheism in their teens and 20s, but usually drifts back as they establish a career and family, ending up with, say, United Church of Christ.

Griffin says, "The Doctors are going to church." I guess Time Lords and Silurians are Unitarian Universalists too (note the flaming chalice, our religious symbol, in the center).

Did I do that? Oh, no. That would’ve been too easy. In my weird Asperger’s brain, I decided that I must have missed something in Christianity, so I set about re-reading the Bible, and a bunch of the Church fathers and modern theologians. When that didn’t yield an answer, I thought maybe Protestantism was the problem, so I looked into Catholicism. Nope, not there either. Maybe Jesus was the hitch? Judaism was fascinating, and I loved the ancientness of its traditions, but no, no faith there. I expanded my search gradually outward, into Asian religions and secular philosophy, in an ever-widening circle of texts and ideas. I loved so much of what I found–the beauty, the ritual, the breathtaking elegance and complexity of both physical and spiritual architectures–and I saw the pathways light up with common themes and practices. I found my own truth in a completely unexpected place, and years later, shocked myself right down to my boots by discovering an actual church home in Unitarian Universalism.

That bright skyline of connections stayed with me, though, and when I began my grad work in medieval Celtic history, I was drawn to the messy intersections where politics and faith collided, maneuvered, and eventually negotiated a common space in medieval culture. The space between what the Church was officially teaching and what the Irish people appear to have believed practically leapt off the page, and I started to pick at the stitches of Irish syncretism, or the meeting and merging of the island’s pre-Christian faith with the new Mediterranean import. Without the official government structure of Ancient Rome for support, and eventually to be co-opted by the Church, Ireland was a weird, awesome case study. I eventually found another, similar collision, on the other side of the world in medieval Japan, where Buddhism slid into Shinto like so many tectonic plates.

In my teaching, I returned again and again to the common threads among religions, which seemed so much more important and interesting than the differences. Even when I was teaching Early and Medieval Christianity, I found I couldn’t, in good conscience, teach about events like the Crusades without giving my students the basic grounding in Islam that they weren’t receiving anywhere else, even at a major university like Penn State. I made this a feature of my classes, and the students seemed grateful to be getting that information, especially post-9/11. A few students took exception to my treatment of their scriptures as, first and foremost, historical artifacts, rather than the direct word from on high; others might have been jolted by the way I talked about saints and wise men as both mortals and archetypes, instead of the uncritical figureheads populating their stories of faith. But, year after year, kids and adults alike told me how they’d gone to church their whole lives and never heard voices like the ones I brought into the classroom, or understood what sacred texts meant to be saying, and I’m proud and hopeful that the historical perspective prompted their own inquiries.

In a time when so much of our society and politics are influenced by the often-radical views of loud religious minorities, I think it’s worth shining a little light on the ideas and practices that bind us together. I want to share some of the sources and stories I’ve taught over the years, and I’ll probably end up doing it in roughly the format I designed for the last general religion class I taught: around the common themes of sacredness in terms of space, time, people, deeds, texts, and events. Let me make this clear: I’m not looking to change anybody’s mind, or convert anybody from one thing to another, or even challenge anybody’s faith. I have no agenda beyond asking the questions, and hopefully giving others a glimpse of that intricate web that connects us all. I’ll primarily talk about religion, which is the structure of beliefs and practices, as opposed to faith, which is the intellectual and emotional resonance of the truth humans seek. I’m always open to questions or counterpoints, but I want the dialogue to be open and respectful. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to see the value in each others’ values.

Lace ‘Em Up

When I hear about a rally or a march or campaign that stands for something I believe in strongly, I say, “Uh-oh. Time to lace up my Protesting Boots.” This is not an idle statement, nor a clever euphemism.

These are my protesting boots. I bought them at Shelly’s of London. They’re actually Tank Girl boots. There aren’t laces in them at the moment because they were needed for a science experiment, but note the speed-lace loops.

They’re not pretty boots–I didn’t buy them to be pretty. They’re scuffed, and the little metal teeth on the toes are rusty. But they’re padded, and comfy, and heavy, and just right for kicking ass. I love my Protesting Boots.

I’m not really sure where my mile-wide activist streak came from. I come from a family of selfless volunteers and helpers, determined to contribute to any and all communities of which they’re a part. My grandma taught Red Cross first aid and gave swimming lessons to disabled children, when she wasn’t running inner-city Girl Scout troops. My mom was PTO president and ran the Sunday School program at the church I grew up in. Now, she’s a dedicated member of the 501st Legion (TR7084, Florida Garrison, Makaze Squad), and despite two artificial hip joints, she troops at every fundraising march to which they’re invited. (My stepdad and brother are also members.) Most of their commitments come from genuine Christian charity and human compassion, the spirit of which I’m immensely grateful to have had modeled throughout my formative years.

But none of my immediate family is particularly activist, or politically inclined. The first real activism I engaged in was a fight against the school board, to keep them from moving our beloved band director from high school to elementary after he returned from his sabbatical (during which he worked toward his Ph.D. in trombone performance). We got our parents all worked up, and we packed the meeting room the night they were supposed to consider teacher placement. But just before they started in on the topic, they announced that they’d reconsidered, and Don would be returning to the high school the next year. We were relieved and excited, but humming with the unspent fight we’d girded for.

My first real experience protesting was against the First Gulf War. In fact, I ran all the way home from the college protest meeting to tell my parents to turn on CNN because they’d started bombing Baghdad. I was one of a small group of students at my school who got in trouble for refusing to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, if only because we couldn’t see how we were being disrespectful to a flag that they thought was fine to sew onto all the disgusting, sweaty athletic uniforms, or to fly over battlefields where we had no business being.

Later, the school tried to crack down on boys wearing of cutoff t-shirt sleeves as headbands. (It’s a skater thing. It’s probably on Wikipedia, or in the Smithsonian, by now.) Targeted at friends who were routinely threatened, even beaten, by jocks who called them every homophobic slur you can think of, I naturally took exception. A bunch of us invoked Title IX, took it to the administration, and organized as many girls as we could into wearing them too. Such a silly small fight, but as I look back now, I see the pattern developing. My stepdad actually understood this piece of me better than anyone else; he’d flirted with Quakerism, and was at the March on Washington for civil rights to hear Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.

In my adult life, I’ve volunteered for numerous causes, if only because I have more time than treasure to support the campaigns I believe in. I gravitate toward issues of human rights, free speech, justice, and democratic (little d) freedoms. I canvassed so much in 2008, with 2-year-old Griffin in his stroller, that every time I reached for my purple clipboard with all the campaign materials and lists on it, Griff would groan, “NOOOOO OBAMA!”

But the single greatest protest experience of my life was the 2006 March for Women in Washington, D.C. I went with a group of friends from grad school, and it was the very first night I’d spent away from Connor, who was nearly two. I have only the vaguest memory of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Cybill Shepherd, speaking on the National Mall, but what’s indelibly etched into my most 3D, high definition, full-sensory memory is walking down the dotted line in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, holding high a sign that said, “Pro-Choice, Pro-Child.” Because I was, and am, and in that electrifying moment, I was more sure of my own power and identity than I’ve ever been, before or since. I owned that street. I could change policy, I could influence outcomes, I could stand for the silent. I was mighty.

And once you’ve had that drug, once you’ve danced at the victory party, once you’ve cried as election results rolled in, you just can’t get enough of it. Currently, I’m working as a team leader in Saint Paul for Minnesotans United For All Families, the organization fighting the proposed amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriages. It’s going to be a lot of work between now and November, on top of the other political work I’ll no doubt take on, but I can’t imagine writing injustice into the permanent guiding principles of any state or country.

I wrestle with being the parent and the activist. My heart aches for the tiny children I see holding horrid, hateful signs they couldn’t possibly understand at funerals and Planned Parenthood locations. Sure, I gave my 2 1/2 year old a sign that read “Bush Is Scary, Vote For Kerry” at a rally in 2004. And when a MN state legislator slammed Neil Gaiman for “accepting” a 5-figure honorarium from a community library for doing a book talk and signing (“accepting” is in quotes because he turned right back around and donated it to a library support organization, as he often does), I didn’t give my family any choice about whether we’d go to the Read-In for Civility on the capitol steps. But I want them to grow up with their own priorities, their own causes, their own voices.

I want my kids to grow up thinking it’s worth the effort to stand up, be heard, and work for values they believe in. I want them to grow up knowing that it isn’t acceptable for one group to oppress another, or to silence a voice just because it disagrees with someone powerful. I want them to open their hearts, to make themselves vulnerable, by caring about the fate of humanity and the planet. If their values don’t always match mine, I’ll talk to them to find out where they’re coming from and make sure they’ve got all the information to make an educated stand, but I won’t make them back down. They have the same rights I fight to ensure for others.

And some day–maybe soon–I’ll take them shopping for their very own Protesting Boots.


My Grandpa’s Century

We spent most of Saturday in the park. I know, it’s not very glamorous, but you see, we were celebrating an anniversary.

Now, some of my friends no doubt spent this remarkable centenary in the dark of the theater. And at least two I know celebrated it in truly lavish style, dressing like their counterparts a century ago and eating the very foods on which they dined that historic day.

But our anniversary didn’t celebrate a shocking tragedy that cost scores of lives. We were marking the 100th anniversary of my grandpa John’s birth. The fact that he was born on the exact day that the Titanic met with that fateful iceberg only made it easier for me to remember that historic event. I only ever saw one of those things as worth celebrating. [Note: my mom just corrected me about something rather embarrassing. My grandpa’s birthday was actually April 5, not April 15. April 5 is the date the Titanic launched, which was the source of my confusion. The sentiments that follow remain true, but for future reference, I am A Bad Granddaughter.]

The Kresser brothers: Fritz, Rudy, John, and Augie

Let me tell you a bit about John Kresser. He was the first child of his family born in America–his parents and older siblings moved to Wisconsin from southern Germany (technically part of Austro-Hungarian territory) a few years earlier. He was one of ten children who lived to adulthood, five boys and five girls. They were too poor to keep the milk their cow produced, so rickets gave him bowed legs like a cowboy forty years in the saddle. He went to work after he finished fourth grade. When the Depression hit, he went into the Civilian Conservation Corps in upstate Wisconsin.

John met my grandma, Nell (of whom I’ve written before), and they dated briefly before marrying in 1935. During the courtship, he would take her out on Friday nights. He offered to buy her ice cream; she suggested that they should go out for a beer. It wasn’t until after they’d married and she started turning down beer when offered that he thought to ask why she’d always suggested it for their dates. Her answer: she figured that, as a German, he’d much rather have a beer after a hard day’s work. His answer: no way, I’d have much rather had the ice cream! 62 years together wasn’t nearly enough.

He worked at Ladish Company for 40 years, pulling seamless rings of burning steel from beneath the four-story pneumatic hammer that pounded them flat. Even on the hottest day of the year, he had to cover every inch of his skin in at least two layers, to prevent burns. These were the days before OSHA regulations, and he suffered significant nerve deafness from the constant percussion of the hammer. His fingers were gnarled and crippled like jagged bolts of lightning. But those hands were capable of great skill and delicacy. He tied his own fishing jigs and lures, and crafted wooden fittings and furniture.

My grandpa, holding one of his salmon next to my brother Tim

Quite simply, nature was his domain. He fished for coho salmon on Lake Michigan in his 15-foot aluminum canoe, and the ones he brought back often overhung the cooler on both sides, 22 inches of flashing silver wrested from the deep. He hunted deer every fall, and nothing ever went to waste. He grew dozens of beautiful flowers, but his irises and roses were stunning. Vegetables flourished in the backyard all summer long, a lush backdrop to his Wile E. Coyote-like battle with the squirrels that feasted at his birdfeeders.

In every undertaking, he fretted, tweaked, measured, re-measured, jiggered, and planned until the product was meticulous. It drove my grandma, with her Irish practicality and genius for the slap-dash and shortcut, rather mad. But the combination of them was just about perfect, and they played a huge role in raising my siblings and me. Weekends, vacations, long summers–any stretch of days was an excuse to hitch their pop-up canvas trailer to the car and head for parts unknown. We cooked over campfires, read by kerosene lanterns, and slept in sleeping bags with the skies of mountains and deserts, coastlines and great plains above our green canvas tent.

They showed us the wonder to be found close to home, too. They would take us on long, rambling nature walks in the birch forests on the cliffs above Lake Michigan, letting us collect treasures like the armloads of wildflowers I would amass (even though they made us all sneeze), while teaching us the values of preservation and the beauty of a thing in its proper environment. My grandma named the plants and animals for us; my grandpa named the trees and tracks.

My grandpa with (L to R) my cousin Star, my sister Jenn, and me

While he was a man of quiet dignity, faith, and pride, he was happily a fool for his grandkids. He rode sleds, roller coasters, and water slides with us. He ate every dubious baking effort, accepted our art projects like treasures of the western world. We’ve got Super 8 footage somewhere of him playing with my cousin in Rocky Mountain National Park. She’s from Florida, so snow was always a special treat. In the film, she decides she wants to slide some snow down Grandpa’s pants, so she sneaks up behind him and starts trying to cram a snowball past his belt. But Gramps was a skinny guy, pants always tightly cinched, so there’s nowhere to slide the chilly bundle. Not wanting to disappoint her, the film shows him unbuckle his belt, undo the top button of his pants, then hold the back open for her. In goes the snowball, and my cousin claps with glee, as Grandpa does a herky-jerky dance of put-on shock and discomfort. Anything for the kids.

So it was a no-brainer to celebrate his birthday out in nature. We talked of him as we walked to the park, as I named the trees with their buds unfurling. I watched the wind in the branches as I sat beside the playground, and I thought of what he would have made of my two bright boys. What hijinks they would talk him into. What wisdom he would etch in their hearts. 100 years after he came into this world, I still look at it the way he taught me: with reverence and gratitude for all its gifts.


Teach Me to Teach You: Reverb Broads 2011 #21 & 23

Reverb Broads 2011, December 21: If you returned (or went, if you’ve never been) to college to study anything you want, what would you major in, and why? (courtesy of Matt at http://thegeekygay.posterous.com) and December 23: If you could have any job, what would it be? (courtesy of Dana at http://simply-walking.com)

I am a teacher, simply put. Whatever I learn, I want to share with others–family and friends would probably agree that this happens whether they want it to or not. I wasn’t able to finish my doctorate at the university where I took my comprehensive exams, so if I could go back to college, my first priority would be completion of a degree to get me back into a classroom. I’ve been able to teach without the Ph.D., but adjunct teaching positions are both underpaid and insecure, and with so many Ph.D.s on the market right now, the few colleges hiring these days can choose applicants with doctorates, when previously they would have to offer a professorship to lure them in.

While the Ph.D. would be nice, because I really do prefer to teach at the college level, I’m not opposed to the idea of teaching high school, especially French. I substitute-taught for a few years, and I enjoyed those days in the French classroom far more than I expected to. My only reservation is whether my body could hack the physical demands of a schoolteacher’s schedule, but I’ve considered more than a few times the possibilities of getting certified. Honestly, it’s only the financial investment that’s prevented me from doing so.

I’m trained as a historian, and I love ferreting stories out of disparate records, but it’s all so I can tell those stories to others. Since the sources I’m most interested in are from other times and places, I think of languages as lock picks; the more tools I have, the more stories I can unlock. My B.A. is in French, which I’ve been learning since I was 11, and I’m still reasonably fluent despite the fifteen years since my last stay in a Francophone country. I also studied Latin for several years, a necessary exercise for any medievalist. Between those two and a good dictionary, I’ve got 50-75% comprehension of written or spoken Spanish and Italian, though I don’t have the grammar or vocab to form replies. Additionally, I can decipher texts in other languages I’ve studied: German, Anglo-Saxon, Old French (very different from the modern version), Old Irish, and Modern Welsh.

I could go to school from now until the day I die and not learn all the languages I would like to. I can’t be the only person with two wish lists of languages: the ones I want for study (Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic, more Welsh, Old Norse, and Japanese), and the ones I want to learn for fun (Hindi, Arabic, more Italian, maybe Norwegian or Swedish).

Finally, every once in a while, I toss around the wild notion that it might be fun to go to seminary and get myself trained and ordained as at Unitarian Universalist minister. It’s not as disconnected from the rest of this as it may seem. World religions are an area of historical expertise for me, especially the connections among them–people tell the same kinds of stories, the world over, to explain the mysteries of life, which is what religion basically is. And UUs believe that there’s no One Right Path to truth, so all the linguistic and historical study I’ve already done gives me perspective on the variations of the human story, as well as its universality. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between lecturing and preaching, when it comes down to it, and I like to take care of people. Again, financial considerations keep me from really pursuing this, at least for the time being, but who knows? Whatever I end up doing, I’ll be the one behind the podium.