Tagged with " values"
Nov 23, 2015 - Social Studies    No Comments

Scouting at the Shutdown

While the Boy Scouts Movement has creepy, eugenicist, imperialist, moderately fascist origins, the Girl Scouts have no such conflict attached. The values of community, commonality, friendship, and service pervade the Girl Scouts’ ethos, along with a focus on developing practical skills to make girls feel strong and self-sufficient. Even that most dangerous of developments—the Girl Scout cookie—fosters an entrepreneurial spirit in its purveyors.

I grew up steeped in Girl Scout values, even if I dropped out when I was only a Junior Scout. I never made it to one of the international Girl Scout/Girl Guide lodges in foreign countries that I dreamt of as a kid already obsessed with other cultures and travel. But my grandma and my mom were both long-time Girl Scout troop leaders, and even if I didn’t get a badge sewn on my sash for them, so many of the skills they taught me came from that curriculum of skills and values.

I learned to sew, cook, camp, and navigate in nature from both of my mother’s parents. Whether it was a trip to the North Woods of Wisconsin or a weeklong wagon train adventure in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, a lot of my memories of them involve forests, campfires, and practical problemsolving. Whenever I see birch trees, or smell pinewood smoke, or rub apart the silky seeds of a milkweed plant to give them a boost in spreading, I feel their steady presence around me.

I became involved with the occupation of the Minneapolis Police Department 4th Precinct following the police killing of Jamar Clark. Of course you did, you may be saying—where else would I be in these years of racial justice work? I was there, marshaling, the first night, when the crowd marched between the 4th Precinct and the Minneapolis Urban League to call out and disrupt the mayor and police chief who were offering the same unsatisfactory rhetoric of moderation that Dr. King skewered in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I was there, chant-leading for 3.5 hours without a bullhorn in the pouring rain, and later holding down the west gate as witnesses and allies pressed large tarps to the chainlink fence to protect themselves from the pepper spray the cops deployed.

Red circle with a flower in the center, circled by words "Ladies' Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society."But I was there, too, on the peaceful days. On a rainy Tuesday afternoon when we sat under the covered entryway and formed a sewing and knitting circle that reminded me of the old “Ladies’ Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society” buttons (though, times and trolls demand that I say that the only people acting in a terroristic way at the 4th Precinct have been the cops themselves). On a chilly Friday night when we gathered, a thousand strong, for a candlelight vigil demanding justice and transparency. On the next Sunday night, while people of color from the Northside met elsewhere to plan next steps, with my boys along so they could say they saw this all someday.

People gathered around a crackling fire in a metal fire pit in the middle of the street in front of the Minneapolis Police 4th Precinct

AP photo/Jim Mone

The encampment has reminded me of my grandparents and my Girl Scout origins so powerfully, it’s given me sensory flashbacks at times. I’ve told stories around pinewood fires that smoke and spit. I’ve sung songs in wide circles of shared strength and faith. I’ve hugged strangers, and taught skills (some I wish I didn’t have to, like how to safely wash eyes stung by tear gas), and eaten food cooked with love for a crowd. Every picture of a red, crackling fire and nylon tent takes me back to my childhood.

Other things have added new associations to my memories of camping and community. When the music starts up, people dance, old and young. When it’s time to link arms and chant, we don’t choose the neighbors on either side—we just form an unbreakable, committed chain of bodies and voices. When we need supplies of one kind or another, we post Google Docs, tweets, Facebook posts, and group texts. When comfort and consolation are called for, people drive up in cars with heaters and warm seats and sometimes even kittens to cuddle.

This encampment obviously isn’t infinitely sustainable—winter is coming, as Ned Stark would say. But that doesn’t mean it was pointless or ineffective. It has radically changed the narrative of what the North Minneapolis community can do, among people who don’t already know: serve one another, sustain a peace among rivals, clean and feed and provide for people of every age and background. These things take work and discipline civic-mindedness and good faith, things that the narrative of white supremacy says are beyond the ability of communities of color. They can defend themselves in the face of gross brutality, as we saw repeatedly throughout the week. They can build intersectional relationships, with groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and labor unions, that will pay dividends in the future as we work toward the combined goals of racial justice, economic justice, and environmental justice.

I’d like to think that the founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low, would’ve approved of the 4th Precinct Shutdown. I’d like to imagine that current and former Girl Scouts lace the crowds that have gathered to defend the prolonged protest. I’d like to know that the communal sharing has spread skills and gifts in a way that will serve the Northside residents and others for years to come. And I’d like to believe that, in the seasons to come, the smell of woodsmoke and the feel of yarn and the sight of tents and the greetings of new and old friends will remind everyone of what the uncommon, beloved community we built together at the 4th Precinct.

Mar 2, 2015 - Social Studies    1 Comment

Road to Selma: Why I’m Going

Wednesday morning, I leave for Selma, Alabama.

I’ve had this dream for longer than I could remember. I saw grey pictures of its arching bridge in LIFE magazines at my grandparents’ house, magazines that were already old before I was born. The people in their prim, archaic clothes were darker grey than the bridge, darker than the pavement on which they fell when beaten and gassed by racist police.pettus

I didn’t understand why walking would get them beaten. They looked tired and strong and wise and full of grief. And the white people—the people who looked like my family and my neighbors and my teachers—looked enraged. I didn’t understand at all.

Selma135 years later, I’m not sure I understand any better. I still fail to understand why white people treated them with disdain and cruelty and brutal indifference. I fail to understand why white people still treat black people that way.

I mean, I know. In my head, I know all the reasons: the history, the psychology, the structural imbalance, the crackpot pseudo-science. And I know it comes down to power. I’ve read, I’ve listened, I’ve studied, I’ve debated, I’ve considered. I’ve even done something close to praying, praying for insight like a lens I never owned.

If I understand anything, it’s why the marchers braved that bridge. I’ve been moved to take up the middle of the street with other people, insisting on being seen, shouting truths that had to be said. I’ve locked arms with people as different from me as possible, yet the same, and refused to be moved until we felt heard.

But I’ve never been as invisible, as endangered, as unvalued as the people in those black-and-white pictures. That’s my privilege.

So why am I compelled to walk in their steps on this fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday? The atmosphere there couldn’t possibly be more different—it’ll be a re-creation of that march in geography only. The road won’t be grooved with the weight of their footsteps, like pilgrimage stairs furrowed by centuries of the faithful. City and state leaders will be there in support. Police will block cars, not bodies. No one will be injured. No one will risk their lives to be there.

But the names of men and women killed by racism are fresh in our mouths today. Explosions and gunshots and dying words ring in our ears right now. Social and economic pressures choke communities of color into slower submission, and still white people refuse to see the oppression that parades in front of us at this very moment.

So, like a white woman named Viola Liuzzo, I ride south to answer the call. Like Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. James Reeb, I go with those of my faith who place justice for the living on the same altar as reverence for the dead. But I’m not a Freedom Rider or any other brave person doing dangerous work. I’m not trying to expiate white liberal guilt. It’s not about me.

I just want to look out from that bridge, through the crowd of strong shoulders, and see the water and trees that stood there 50 years ago. I want to be a witness to the powerful flow of history, and its maddening intransigence. I want to take pictures in full, living color of black and white people marching together to remember, to resolve, to recommit to the necessary work of being fully, fairly human to one another. And I want my grandchildren to see those pictures, and know that I was there.

10 Things My 30s Taught Me

On December 28, I turned 40. This came as no surprise, even to one as math-impaired as me.

It’s virtually impossible to throw a birthday party on my birthday, since everyone is exhausted from Christmas and saving up energy for a big New Year’s Eve blowout (if they’re even in town). There’s even an Old English word for it: symbel-werig. It means “feast-weary,” and that’s what everyone is on my birthday.

The worst it ever got was my 18th birthday. My parents had dinner theater tickets, and my brother was at his friend’s house (after his birthday, the day before mine. No, really.). My sister and I were home alone. She made a Pyrex bowl of raspberry Jell-O and stuck a taper candle in it. We watched Schindler’s List. Whoop-de-doo.

For the big one this year, though, I decided that nothing said “me at 40” like riding rollercoasters. Thanks to Nickelodeon Universe, the indoor theme park in the middle of the Mall of America, it’s actually possible to do this in a Minnesota winter. Also, yay for half-price unlimited ride wristbands from 5-10pm. There was the entertaining possibility that I’d get a mall security escort because I’d been a marshal at the #BlackLivesMatterMOA protest two weeks earlier. I planned to lure him onto rides, in case I felt like chanting anti-oppression slogans on the loop-de-loops. Alas, no joy.

Rolling over the odometer also made me think about what can happen in just one decade of living. I don’t feel older, or even different, just more like the person 30-year-old me hoped to be eventually. Still, I learned a lot of lessons in the last 10 years, so here’s the top 10 lessons I learned in my 30s.

1) Having a second child is nothing like having the first. I had my first son when I was 28, and my second one when I was 32. Instead of throwing up 20 hours a day for 5.5 months, I threw up 24 hours a day for 7.5 months in my second pregnancy. My labor couldn’t have been more different, too. And you needn’t look any further than this blog for how different the boys are from one another. Motherhood: what a weird, wonderful ride.

2) The key to my kid is the key to myself. When I was a kid, my parents and teachers told me I was “socially backward” because I was intellectually advanced. Slamming doors and balloons popping gave me migraines. I preferred the company of adults. And I recognized a lot of these traits in my older son; we joked that he inherited those traits. In fact, what we both were was autistic. Learning that unlocked memories and mysteries that plagued me my whole life, and understanding those helped me translate the world for my kid. We’re all so much better for knowing ourselves.

3) Intersectionality is everything. I’ve felt this way forever, but didn’t know there was a word for it until I read a Flavia Dzodan blog post that introduced me to the term, coined by UCLA prof Kimberlé Crenshaw. I also didn’t realize it was such a controversial idea until I started advocating it. How is this difficult for people to understand? We are all so many different people, and all of our selves are bound together when it comes to liberation. How can you be a feminist who excludes trans women? How can you be anti-racism and simultaneously suppress the contributions of women? How can you demand an end to oppression but hold planning meetings that are inaccessible to disabled people? In Flavia’s words, “My activism will be intersectional or it will be shit.”

4) Don’t move without a safety net. I learned this one the hard way. In Minnesota, you have to be a resident before you can apply for state health insurance. We had paperwork ready to go the day we moved, but we encountered a four-month wait. We’d saved money for an appointment to get me set up with bridge coverage for my fibro and depression. What I didn’t do was research doctors—the one I went to refused to continue the treatment plan I’d had for over a decade. The decompensation that happened without my prescriptions resulted in a summer lost to pain and despair, ultimately landing me in the hospital. Lesson learned? You cannot overplan for your medical care when moving–your life literally depends on it.

5) Family is what you make it. I grew up so close to my family that I refused to even consider moving to New Zealand to be with my Darling Husband, because I couldn’t imagine going so long between visits with my parents and siblings. But after I called out my family about 4 years ago for treating my autistic son like crap and undermining our parenting, everything changed. My brother and sister still won’t talk to me for hurting my mom, even though she and I are fine now. Thankfully, we’ve built a family of friends, old and young, near and far, who more than make up for the love lost. All that’s left to mourn is the continuity.

6) Sharing knowledge is more than the letters after your name. My grad school department kicked me out in 2005 because my area of study didn’t match their idea of subjects that build a “world-class history program.” Despite that, I have 15 years of teaching experience, and knowledge that I use everyday—with my kids, with other kids, with other adults, and in my organizing. Teaching is my vocation, plainly put. Even if the flood of post-recession Ph.D.s makes it unlikely I’ll get a college job again, I’m always looking for ways to share what I know in engaging ways.

7) Caucusing is hazardous to your health. Until we moved to Minnesota, I’d always lived in states with primary elections, so I was extremely excited to attend my first caucus on February 2, 2012. It was weird and idiosyncratic and strangely wonderful; I was too hyped about democracy to sleep until midnight. At about 1:00 AM, I woke with abdominal pain. By 5:00 AM, it was worse than labor, and Darling Husband took me to the ER. I had acute pancreatitis, caused by a gallstone. I spent a week in the hospital, and they surgically removed a bag of rocks from my gut. I now view caucuses as highly suspicious and potentially life-threatening.

8) I am committed with my whole heart and soul to equity. This isn’t about rights, or even history. It’s about empathy. If anyone’s potential is oppressed for who they are, then my potential is also less. I see the beautiful humanity in everyone, and want for them the joys I’ve found and the opportunity to be all of themselves. And yes, I’m willing to block traffic, invade public spaces, and commit civil disobedience to make this happen. I consider it a sacred duty.

9) Together, we win. I’ve never been very competitive, and I always plan for failure so that, as Lloyd Dobbler wisely advised, “…everything’s kind of a pleasant surprise.” But with the campaign for marriage equality, and against Voter ID, and for a new anti-bullying bill and a higher minimum wage, guess what I discovered? I like to win. I like it almost as much as the conversations and organizing it takes to come out victorious. These efforts and the folks I’ve met in them evaporated any cynicism I had about the potential of people power. I highly recommend it to everyone.

10) It’s never too late. I didn’t intend to really go balls-out for the last year of my 30s, but I accidentally did. I learned and performed burlesque dance, even in this imperfect body. I got two big tattoos, the first I’ve ever had. I went to a national convention for community organizers. I shut down highways, corporate offices, and the largest mall in America. I made my kid’s middle school change their negative, reactive response to common autistic behaviors, and re-centered them on positive reinforcement that nourishes all children’s education. All this with my physical and mental limitations. It’s never too late to do important things, and if you forget that, just ask me for a reminder.

Nov 25, 2014 - Domestic Engineering    1 Comment

Each mother’s sons and daughters

I talk, write, and think a lot about structural racism in America and the wider world. I know that I’m still just an apprentice in this work, and a privileged one at that. Take as many grains of salt with that as you feel appropriate.

But I am the mother of two sons. We’re white, so that’s an undeserved and unearned shield that lets me sleep more easily than the mothers of black and brown sons. But I want my kids to grow up awake and aware of racism in their world, in age-appropriate ways, the same as I want them to grow up knowing that LGBT people deserve love and respect.

Why expose them to the brutal, hurtful truth about race when they’re as young as eight years old? Because their first friends included black and brown children, and already there were systems labeling and tracking them toward vastly different outcomes. By middle school, my son’s friends are encountering suspicion, discrimination, and exclusion from opportunities. And by high school, they’re nine times more likely to be arrested on school grounds than my white sons.

So here’s how I’ve talked about race with my kids. I hope other white mothers can find helpful thoughts here, too.

  • I’ve taught my boys to vocally oppose bullying whenever they encounter it, because we believe that every person is worthy of respect and dignity.
  • We try to teach them that we don’t call people by adjectives. No one is stupid or bad, but we all do stupid and bad things sometimes.
  • If you have to refer to someone in a crowd, point them out with neutral identifiers, like height, clothing color or pattern, etc.
  • If I hear my kid using language that would be hurtful, I pull them aside immediately and ask where they learned that word/phrase. I explain why that might be hurtful to someone, and ask them not to use it anymore.
  • Sometimes, that leads to bigger discussions about why anyone would hate someone for the color of their skin, or who their parents are, or who they love. Be clear and honest. I’ve said it’s because some people think there’s only so much goodness in the world, and they’re afraid of losing their share to people who are different from them. I’ve said it’s because, while some of us find new and different things and people exciting and interesting, some people find them scary and hard to understand. But everyone can learn to be welcoming, because that’s how we all start as kids.
  • Be honest about white privilege, too, starting when they ask questions about racism (this may come during or after the general existential crisis many 2nd graders experience). I’ve used metaphors like running a hurdles race, except that on both sides of the white runners’ hurdles, there are old, wooden steps built long ago by people we don’t know. Would you use them if they were right there? Would you use them if you saw that your black and brown friends not only don’t have stairs, but might even have big holes dug on both sides of the hurdle instead? How would you help your friends: stop running, move the stairs away, invite them into your lane?
  • Let your kids see you doing things in your community with black and brown folks, especially against racist structures. This may mean going way outside your comfort zone, but it’s never not brought me richer, deeper ties to the place I live. Start by attending a rally or march; they ARE safe places for kids. Other invitations and opportunities will certainly follow.
  • Make this learning journey intersectional. Talk about freedom and privilege, and the ways those things have been denied to women, Native Americans, immigrants, disabled people, LGBT people, the poor, the homeless, people of other religious and political beliefs, and many other “Othered” groups. They’re not all the same struggle, but they have a lot of common lessons about humanity to teach us.
  • Encourage your children to read diverse books, play diverse games, watch diverse movies, and listen to diverse music (I know, I hate the way I’m using the word “diverse” here too, but it comes from the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks). Watch, play, read, and listen with them, always. Talk about how those things make you feel, and ask your kids how it makes them feel. Look for opportunities to encounter these things in person: in museums, art galleries, concerts, and libraries.


I hope someone finds something helpful here. I’m always on social media to talk, too. Don’t let the pain of these setbacks in our movement toward equity and justice keep you from engaging your children. Let it fuel you and yours to do better, now and in the future.

Update: The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers have posted a page with extensive links to materials for teachers on how to address Ferguson and racism in the classroom. Many of these resources are also filled with info that adults need to know, too. Read and learn together.

Oct 17, 2014 - Social Studies    2 Comments

Wade in the Water

Last Sunday, I attended a training for white folks who do racial equity work. The organizers called it “Solidarity Training,” and that’s as good as anything, but what it really meant was this: “How not to be a racist asshole as you try to improve things for people of color.”

You’d think that would be easy—every person in that room was there because they have the very best of intentions. We were all pretty far along our own personal journey from ignorance that white is even a race, toward leveraging our privilege to help dismantle systemic racism. Many of us had been doing that work for years, some even for decades.

But the hardest thing for people who are in the group in power is to realize that intention is not enough. Just because you *meant* it to be flattering when you tell a woman she’s sexy as she walks by doesn’t make it so to the women who experience unwanted street harassment every day. Just because you *meant* it to be a compliment when you tell a young black man that his speech was “so articulate and inspiring” doesn’t mean that won’t feel condescending to men who meet with surprise every day when they show that they’re educated. Intention does NOT get the job done.

But it can be surprisingly difficult to tell the difference between fighting the system and benefitting from the system. One of the trainers, the inspired and inspiring Ricardo Levins Morales, used an analogy out of the physics world to explain how we can be oblivious of something so pervasive. When you jump out of a plane at 30,000 feet, he says, you feel like you’re falling at first. But after a bit, the feeling changes to be something closer to floating, because you’re falling at the speed of gravity.

So it is with racism. White people are born onto a nice, big, comfy raft that floats atop the stream of racist oppression. Because we’re on the raft, we don’t feel the constant pressure of the water that wears down the hearts and souls of our brown and black siblings. We don’t feel the struggle. And even if we climb off that raft and join hands and weather the stream together for a bit, somehow—maybe it’s with a job referral from a friend, or a previewed house listing before it’s really “on the market”—we find ourselves back onboard, despite our best intentions.

The raft ride has been particularly bumpy at various points in history—now, since Ferguson, is one of them. It happens because some people in the water try to climb on the raft. At the same time, some of the raft’s riders are trying to dismantle the raft itself, or jump into the water in solidarity. And the people who never even knew they were on a raft of history and privilege get nervous and frightened at having why they thought was a solid, level surface become so unstable.

Naturally, this made me think of GamerGate.

See, sexism is another river, and patriarchy is another raft. Movements like GamerGate and the MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) exist in a moment where the rather splendid vehicle created by cisgendered, heterosexual, white patriarchy is under attack from all sides. Its riders didn’t notice that the river around them was rising, or that the ship’s own crew was changing. The new crew wants to park that vessel for good, and move everyone to a bigger ship with room for all the groups who’ve had to struggle upstream for centuries. That must feel terrifying to people who thought they were on solid ground, riding as they were at the combined speeds of so much privilege.

The fact is, though, that the river’s already flooded its banks. There are too many oppressed people, and allies who prefer to be in the water, to float along in ignorance anymore. Women have been in games for a long time, and all the yelling and threats in the world can’t make that river flow upstream.

Toward the end of the training, Ricardo announced that he would be distributing cards. I could see the little deck in his hand, but I had no idea what he meant to do with them. A surprising, somewhat unnatural ripple of excitement spread through the crowd, though; I wondered if they knew more about the cards than I did. When I got mine, it had a piece of art on one side, with a slogan from the disability rights movement: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” On the other side were some check-in questions to help us stay grounded when we feel compelled to act in a racially charged situation: “Why do I feel an urge to act/not act?” and “Who will benefit from my action/inaction?”

The ripple quieted down as people examined their cards, and I wondered if the people who’d been a-flutter with excitement were disappointed by the card they got. I wondered if the one they’d wanted would’ve just said, “I’m one of the good ones.” That’s what white people doing racial equity work really want, after all—a card that credentials them as not racist, as a proven ally. The problem is, it doesn’t work like that at all. “Ally” isn’t a title you earn; it’s a status you have to prove over and over again, mainly by just continuing to show up for what matters to communities of color. And nobody’s going to give you a cookie for doing the right thing, just like nobody’s going to give you a free pass when you mess up (and you WILL mess up, over and over).

I know a lot of guys in the world of games who probably wish they had that a “One of the Good Ones” card too. If I had them to give out, I can think of dozens of people who deserve them for living and working and playing by the guiding principles of inclusion and equity.

But that’s not how it works. Nobody gets a free pass; nobody gets a laminated card that’s good forever after. We climb off the raft, and we join hands with the people in the water and weather the current for as long as we can. At the same time, we accidentally get back on, and sometimes even block others from climbing aboard with us.

Maybe the card we really need is the one that says, “Time to get in the water again.”

Aug 27, 2014 - Game Theory    2 Comments

Any Way She Wants

Social media is afire after the latest Anita Sarkeesian video resulted in renewed rape/death threats against her. Sarkeesian makes the seemingly uncontroversial statement that women’s bodies are abused and killed for little or no reason in video games. As a result, some men are so enraged that they’re driven to hurl sexist, violent abuse at the very idea of women who come within fifty feet of a game.

The problem with that is that I am a woman gamer. So are many of my women friends. Many of them run games for their friends, and a growing number are designing their very own games. I am wildly proud to be included in all this. Many of those friends have written wisely about the unfettered misogyny and racism that plagues the electronic and tabletop game industries at the same moment when we see more women and people of color entering the hobby than ever before.

So I don’t have much to add to their insightful commentary. But I do want to say this to my fellow women in games:

Play whatever games you want.

Yes, of course that means the button-mashing robot invasion game, or the minmaxed mecha pilot, or the Napoleonic cavalry officer trying to win Waterloo. War games and LARPs and Minecraft and Burning Wheel–all of it belongs to you as much as anyone else in the world, and don’t let a soul tell you otherwise.

But you can also play the magical space princess romance game. You can play a game where the only measurable objective is to get the boy (or the girl). You can play a game that’s all about middle school gossip. You can play a game with no boys allowed.

You can play games with fluid, barely there rules, and super-crunchy tables of staggering detail.

You can play games of scientific discovery, and life in the military, and the pursuit of katana mastery, and young love.

You can play games of death-defying feats and fearless daring, where you do everything you can’t ever imagine doing in the real world.

You can play games with sex: grand, towering, chandelier-swinging heights of passion that include superhuman flexibility and magical potions of endurance.

You can play games where you get to hunt down and beat the shit out of your rapist.

You can play games that capture a perfect, impossible childhood with nothing scary at all.

Because games contain everything we are–right now, fragile, flawed, unfinished–and everything we could possibly be–brave, magnificent, powerful, unstoppable. So nothing is beyond the scope of games. If you use a game to tell your story, there’s a very good chance that it’s a story others want to play too.

Because these games exist in the dimensions of ourselves and our world, the dark things do creep in: racism, sexism, ableism, bullying, abuse. Some of that is unintentional, but we’re coming to grips with the reality that others don’t always see these things as a problem. Some even see it as a solution, a boundary fence to protect an imagined definition of games that’s confined only to their tiny vision.

Games are bigger than these people. Protecting our games from criticism smothers them until all the fire goes out. Improving games improves us all, and the world we play them in.

And nobody gets to say your game is less worthy because of what you want to play. You are participating in one of the oldest common human experiences in the world. Play it all, women. Play all the games, then make your own.

Aug 20, 2014 - Social Studies    1 Comment

Why We Fight

Gen Con is always hard work and outstanding fun. When I first started going over 20 years ago, my days were filled with back-to-back games. But over time, long hours with friends from all over the country overtook games. These days, work for Atlas Games and speaking engagements mean no games at all, and lots of friends mean bigger parties and shorter visits. All the same, I’ve got to say: it’s still a week with some of my favorite people, all in one place, and the love is bigger than our host city.

The mental dissonance was strong, though, for many of us. While we reunited with old friends and played new games, many of us were distracted and upset by news from Ferguson, Missouri. Conversations frequently went something like: “Hey, it’s great to see you! How have you been? Man, it’s messed up, what’s happening in Ferguson.” We felt outraged and helpless, and often uncomfortable at having to keep doing what we were at Gen Con to do.

There are other things I’ll probably write about as I process this year’s experience, but two things really stand out as unusual and fantastic (and they’re actually the same kind of thing). Two friends got engaged to smart, beautiful, graceful women in public proposals at Gen Con this year. One was a cool scene in the convention center’s hallway performing area; the other, a large, orchestrated affair at the ENnie Awards ceremony. Both women accepted enthusiastically, and in both cases, the onlooking crowd went wild. Here, don’t take my word for it: watch and (if you’re like me) cry-clap.

But almost immediately on Twitter, people began accusing the couple who got engaged at the ENnies of insensitivity, because they were happy while horrific events were happening in Ferguson. How dare they choose that moment to celebrate? How could they be so selfish as to think of their future, when the future of Mike Brown had been cut so terribly, unfairly short?

Here’s the answer, though: You celebrate when you can precisely because life is uncertain and short.

People in war zones know this. Love and babies and anniversaries all happen in places of oppression and violence. People go home from protests and watch dumb movies. People have sex in between airstrikes. Life keeps going on.

The people fighting for justice and racial equity in Ferguson probably know this better than those of us who haven’t had to fight systemic racism every day of their lives. We got the phrase “jumping the broom” because, even during slavery when families were torn apart everyday, African-Americans still fell in love and got married, defying the laws that said those marriages were illegal. To this day, some black couples choose to honor this tradition and jump a broom to seal their wedding vows.

Terrible, terrible things are happening in Ferguson, and Gaza, and Ukraine, and Syria, and Iraq, and other places too. If it would be even remotely helpful for me to go there and support the protesters fighting for immediate and lasting justice in their community, I’d be on the next Greyhound bus. I’ll keep turning out for those goals in my own community—no justice, no peace.

But everyday things are happening in those places, too, because the thing they’re fighting for is the right to live an ordinary life, unencumbered by oppression and strife. A lot of people are fighting that battle in other ways, every single day.

What the people who criticized my friends may not have known is that we almost lost one of them to suicide this year. As soon as I finished hugging and crying on him after the proposal, my first question was, “What’s today’s number?” He answered, “192,” and I replied, “Well, that’s your magic number now, isn’t it.” 192 is how many days it had been since he’d almost died. How many days he’d survived and kept fighting depression, in the hope of living himself into all the things that make life worthwhile.

His marriage proposal wasn’t in ignorance of the tragedy and brutality happening in Ferguson. It was in direct defiance of the despair and violence that almost cost him his own life. There’s not a thing wrong with celebrating the kind of progress that looks in every way like resurrection and restoration. We fight for hope, in many ways, everyday—on the streets of occupied American cities, and in the dark corners of our own minds. No, they’re not the same, but the goal is: to find love and meaning in peace.

Mar 20, 2014 - World Religions    No Comments

Quid Pro Quo

I went to college with Fred Phelps.

I went to the University of Kansas for school, and he went there with his congregation to protest the Big Gay Agenda. He held signs promising us a swift trip to Hell in front of the liberal arts building where my first out gay friend and I boywatched together on the broad, sunny plaza known as Wescoe “Beach”. He protested outside the Kansas Union where I got gouged on textbooks—believe me, I wished to protest those days too.

And to my everlasting mystery, he picketed and shouted outside every single one of my college choir concerts. Monteverdi’s Vespers. Tallis’ soaring, complex 40-part motet. Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Franz Biebl’s achingly beautiful “Ave Maria”, sung at every Christmas concert. The greatest music ever composed—most of it commissioned and performed for the greater glory of God—earned his scorn without fail. Not that he ever heard a note of it.

Obviously, this defies logic, as did his entire mission in life. Logic has little to do with fear and hate. To Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, all that mattered was the existence of LGBT people living happy, honest lives on and around the KU campus. Do liberal arts and the fine arts department have a particularly higher number of them? Who knows.

In any case, a kind tradition developed among the upper- and underclassmen at KU. The first time freshmen encountered the WBC was usually on Jayhawk Boulevard. The placards they held proudly weren’t the only statements they made; they said hateful, hurtful things to anyone who walked by. Many freshmen felt compelled to stop and try to reason with them, to ask them to reconsider their beliefs—especially if they had children with them (which they usually did). Reason turned to frustration as the students met their implacable, mile-high wall of bigotry and conviction.

Just as fury began to ignite, some upperclassman would approach and put a gentle arm around the freshman’s shoulders. “Come with me,” they’d say quietly as they guided them away. Out of earshot, the older student would say something compassionate and honest about futility and self-care, irrationality and good intentions. With a pat on the shoulder, they’d go their separate ways: one gratified at having done a good deed, the other sadder but wiser for the experience.

In a year or two, they’d be the older students, guiding another generation of freshmen away from Phelps.

I don’t hate Fred Phelps—he hated enough for a million people’s million lifetimes. I don’t believe he’s in Hell, because I don’t believe in Hell. But if God is Love in the Christian Gospel, he spent his whole life away from God, which is the very definition of Hell in many religions. And he died in a world that more lovingly and openly welcomes the whole selves of LGBT people than it did when he began his work, so he must have known that his mission was an abject failure. He was even abjured by his own flock on his deathbed, after watching many of his own children and grandchildren defect from his church (and even Christianity, in a few cases) over the years. When you pursue scorched earth policies, all you have left at the end is a whole lot of scorched earth.

I know the immeasurable psychological and spiritual harm his hate has caused people over the years, but I don’t rejoice in his death. I don’t want to dance on his grave. I think he would take it as a sign of his righteousness if hundreds of people picketed his funeral with profanity and disrespect. The silence of business-as-usual in Topeka that day would be the most effective punishment of all.

But he wished my friends and me dead at every one of my choir concerts. And I find I have the urge to sing towering works of glory and beauty where he lies dead.

Dec 31, 2013 - Psychology    1 Comment

My New Year’s Revolutions

Most of the time, autocorrect takes us further from the truth, to hilarious effect. But every once in a while, it reveals a deeper wisdom. Today, that message shows up as autocorrect turns everyone’s New Year’s resolutions into New Year’s revolutions.

That substitution may make some people uncomfortable. A resolution is a low-bar challenge. It’s self-enforced, so if (or when) you stray from your resolve, the only person let down is you.

On the other hand, revolution is naturally unsettling because it throws out the status quo, and it frequently happens on someone else’s timetable.  Revolutions have ripples that go beyond your sight—if you start a revolution, expect it to have unintended consequences. And above all, revolutions strike at the heart of the systems that oppress us.

These statements may not seem like much to you, but each one of these things is something that defies a message or expectation I’ve received in the last year, many of them fostering doubt, shame, and worthlessness deep in my heart.

So, in these hours before 2014 begins, here are my New Year’s Revolutions:

  • I will say something out loud, to another person, about my beauty everyday.
  • I will work out more to recapture my stamina, not to lose weight.
  • I will listen without talking so I can learn from people whose lives and voices are not like my own.
  • I will answer questions fearlessly about myself and my story, so others know they are not alone.
  • I will begin to give my eldest son a comprehensive, emotionally-grounded sex education so he knows that that part of himself is not a source of mystery or shame as he grows into it.
  • I will work on yelling less.
  • I will not apologize for prioritizing self-care above overcommitment.
  • I will actively work to rewrite my unrealistic standards for self-worth.
  • I will not denigrate or be afraid to lift up my skills and accomplishments.
  • I will build stronger, more responsive connections in the groups where I work and play.
  • I will keep showing up for issues and communities outside my own.
  • I will create works of information, imagination, and enjoyment, even if they’re only for me.
  • I will make my voice and presence a powerful force in the halls of government and the streets of our community.
  • I will not accept or internalize shame for the way my family and I live, and what we value.

Dear Santa, You Suck

I was 5 when I figured out the Easter Bunny wasn’t real. It wasn’t that I failed the suspension of disbelief–it was that I noticed the Easter Bunny had the same handwriting as my aunt that year. In my usual, filterless way, I started to announce my observation, but my mom clapped a hand over my mouth and dragged me toward the bathroom like she was making off with the Lindbergh Baby.

To her everlasting credit, she didn’t lie to me. I asked if EB was real; she said no. I remember scrunching up my face, heaving a sigh, and saying, “Santa too?” She nodded silently, then issued the death threat to end all death threats if I wrecked the “magic” for my sibs and cousin. I got it, and we left the bathroom as co-conspirators. In the years that followed, ones of poverty and divorce, I knew that magic didn’t put presents under our tree. I knew that my brother’s Cabbage Patch Kid and my sister’s Barbie Dream House didn’t come from a workshop–they came from year-long savings and a tiring wait in line at the toy store. And I liked the thought of my mom sitting down to eat some milk and cookies after we’d all gone to bed on Christmas Eve. I knew she’d earned it.

When the Darling Husband and I set out to have children of our own, we thrashed out a lot of our game plan far in advance. One of those things was Santa, and the conclusion we reached was that we would never actively lie to our kids about the fat man’s existence. But we’ve done a whole lot of evasion and omission over the years. When they ask if Santa is real, we ask them, “What do you think?” When they ask how Santa knows where to find us when we travel, we ask them, “What tools would you use to find someone?”

This year, though, I’ve really had it. There are so many things about the Santa tradition that piss me off. Let’s leave alone for the purposes of this discussion the whole creepy, stalker, NSA-level spying, remorseless housebreaking aspect. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” should be giving kids nightmares, and making parents peruse home alarm systems instead of Brookstone catalogs.

My first objection is that Santa compliance is mandatory for American kids. Nobody knows how to leverage peer pressure like grade-schoolers, and woe betide the kid who has to explain why Santa doesn’t visit their house. Maybe it’s because their family celebrates Hanukkah or Diwali instead. But maybe it’s because they don’t have money for presents. Kids are quick to point out that how much you get from Santa is an indication of your worth and goodness. No presents means you are lacking as a person, and kids internalize that message along with the holiday mythology.

My second problem with Santa comes from his whole Modus Operandi. To get presents from Santa, you fill a letter with all the things you’re wishing for, stick it in a mailbox, and wait for your wishes to arrive. We don’t write Santa letters in our house, but the grandparents are quite the sticklers about wish lists. This process always begins with the paralysis of choice: they’ve been told all year long not to ask for things we can’t buy, but now they’re supposed to summon up all the things they’ve wished for in the last 12 months? We’ve tried to mitigate some of the stress by constructing categories, explaining that they should have things that are cheap, medium-priced, and crazy-go-nuts over-the-top. I’ve wished for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for the last 20 Christmases; my brother politely requests the Eiffel Tower every year. Recently, we’ve moved to a “Wear/Read/Play” model, which seems to function even better.

My third complaint is that Santa requires no gratitude. Since everything the man in the suit brings is magically constructed (apparently for free) in his workshop, and you get what you deserve, why be thankful? If Santa gets all the credit, kids don’t have any reason to think about what it costs for their loved ones to make those presents appear. Why is money so tight in November and January? Why does Mom look absolutely thrashed by December 26? As much as kids understand that a poor showing from Santa means that they’ve been bad, parents understand that if they don’t give enough presents, they’re failing a part of the parental contract laid out by society.

So that’s it, fat man–I’m cutting you off. This is the last year you get all the joy and none of the blame. I’m not falling for the line that taking away Santa will “deprive my children of a sense of wonder.” You know what they can feel wonder for? Real things, like nature, the cosmos, the infinitely woven tapestry of story and life that surrounds them. Instead of watching the NORAD website for Santa’s supposed location, we’ll bundle up and look at the cold, clear night sky.

When my kids get the things they want for Yule, they’ll know it’s because their parents worked hard, and that every gift cost real money that someone had to earn. They’ll learn the joy of giving by seeing and understanding why we’re happy that they’re happy with their gifts. The holiday magic will come from family stories and traditions, from the candles and songs on the darkest night of the year, and from the Time Lord with a Christmas special that we can feel good about our kids believing in.