Tagged with " values"

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.

A World of Hate

I knew Griffin had a bad day by the way he walked in the door after school Monday. Slow shuffle, hangdog expression, sad sad puppy eyes. “Rough day?” I inquired gently. He nodded, took his folder out of his backpack, and handed it over without a world.

I wasn’t surprised by the discipline slip. But I was absolutely flattened by what it said: “Griffin called another student the ‘n-word.'” I felt a wave of horror and nausea that it’s difficult to describe, which can’t be anywhere close to  how it feels to be on the receiving end of that slur.
“Griffin,” I demanded, “what n-word did you call someone?”

Eyes filling, lower lip trembling, he sobbed out, “NOOB!” before dissolving into a mass of tears and remorse in my lap.

I had to restrain my reflexive laughter in that moment, but I held him away from me for a second. “You said noob?! That’s what this is about?” He nodded, and collapsed against me again. I stroked his hair, and told him we’d get this straightened out, that “noob” isn’t really a bad word, though calling anyone any name isn’t a nice or friendly thing to do.

I went on to question him from a half-dozen oblique angles over the next half-hour, trying to figure out if he even knew the actual n-word. The kid isn’t above trying to lie to save his skin, but he’s pretty terrible at it, and the look of blank incomprehension at my suggestions were more telling than anything he might’ve said.

Finally, I asked him quietly, after a long silence, “Griffin, have you ever heard the word ‘nigger’ before?” He frowned and shook his head. After a few quiet moments, he asked in a whisper, “Is that the bad n-word?” I nodded and said, “You cannot ever, ever say that. It’s the most hurtful word there is.”

I got in touch with the school, seeking resolution. The staff and teachers there are outstanding, and they know the DH and I as the first line of enforcement when there’s any kind of behavior issue. We’ve been unfailingly cooperative, and they’ve been unfailingly kind and loving toward our kids. When we went in to talk this over with the principal and the cultural specialist, I expected that they would’ve found what we did.

But they said they’d questioned the kids present at the incident, and several of them said that Griffin did, in fact, use the real n-word, including one of Griff’s buddies, an African-American kid who couldn’t even say the word aloud when asked.

There is nothing about this incident I don’t hate to the core of my being. I hate that I cannot reconcile what I saw in Griffin when I talked with him about the name-calling, and what the school’s investigation found. I hate having to mistrust his narrative. I hate that I don’t think this will be able to be one of those funny stories we laugh about in the decades to come.

I hate that I was forced to speak a word to my child that I would never, ever say for any reason. I hate that someone might have already introduced him to it–maybe through a YouTube video of game play, maybe on the schoolyard.

I hate that I have to talk to a seven-year-old boy about racism in specific terms. I hate that the fact that he has more friends of color than white friends apparently didn’t protect him from this kind of violence. I hate that he may have made one of those friends aware of his own race and the sickness of heart that comes with it.

I hate that my personal and our family’s real lived values about equality and kindness frankly don’t count for anything in this situation. I hate that this happened in the middle of the most intensive racial equity work I’ve ever engaged in, work that’s made me feel like a soft, naked thing in a world of hedgehogs with quills of bias and bigotry and privilege that constantly draw blood on my aware, exposed heart.

I hate that I don’t know how to be a good parent in this situation. I hate that apparently, I haven’t known how to be one for longer than I imagined.

Oct 28, 2013 - Psychology    No Comments

Who on earth are you?

Our amazing minister, the Rev. Victoria Safford, preached a sermon this morning that asked a very existential question: “Who are you?” The funny thing to contemplate is that only at Halloween do we ask one another—even the very youngest in our midst—and accept with gravity and respect whatever answer we receive. In the spirit of revealing my true self in a time of masquerade, I thought I’d answer the question.

I am a woman. I am a daughter and sister, both biological and by marriage. I am a mother. I am still fertile. I am done having children. I am violently ill when I use hormonal birth control.

I am a wife. I am a partner. I am faithful. I am dedicated. I am a believer in true love. I am wildly, impossibly lucky.

I am an educator. I am a teacher of history, and religions, and languages, and rhetoric. I am an academic, conversant in the jargon of the ivory tower. I am a bit lost when I can’t practice my vocation. I am committed to learning everyday. I am a repository of vast stores of mostly useless information.

I am a creator. I am a writer. I am a musician. I am crafty, but not very handy. I am incapable of drawing a horse. I am at home in the kitchen. I am a fan of romance novels, the Muppets, lesbian erotica, rules-light roleplaying games, and morbid humor.

I am a bit of a slob, and a lot of a pack rat. I am convinced I am preserving valuable artifacts for future generations. I am a devotee of the chaos theory of organization. I am fond of folding fresh, hot laundry. I am reluctant to shower every day. I am in need of a housekeeper.

I am in pain every minute of every day. I am willful and heedless of my own limits sometimes. I am frustrated with the unpredictability of my disease. I am bad at self-care. I am disappointed that I cannot do more.

I am blessed with an autistic mind and keen senses. I am the owner of an eidetic memory and perfect relative pitch. I am susceptible to migraines from loud sudden noises. I am self-trained to read others for clues in their words and bodies so I can navigate the world more easily.

I am a survivor.

I am trained as a crisis counselor. I am a world traveler. I am an extrovert. I am dedicated to social justice. I am incapable of more peace work, because I am unable to engage in a fight for which there is no quantifiable chance of victory. I am drawn to anti-racism work. I am enchanted with issue politics and the feeling I get from a good protest. I am unsure whether I’m valuable to any of the people or causes I engage in.

I am insatiably curious about people. I am in love with stories and storytelling. I am a good listener. I am told I’m an entertaining, satisfying audience. I am never going to get tired of learning about others’ lives and views. I am honored to be allowed to share each and every journey.

I am a geek. I am a cat person. I am a Northern girl who needs at least four seasons. I am a Jayhawk and a cheesehead, but I am NOT a Nittany Lion. I am not a very good sports fan. I am a voracious reader. I am a stickler for grammar. I am a polyglot. I am good at improvisation. I am good under pressure. I am not good at getting quality sleep.

I am overweight. I am poor. I am naturally brown-haired. I am weighed down by crushing debt. I am never going to be a homeowner. I am not sure where this week’s meals will come from. I am scared for the future. I am tired of being afraid. I am always looking forward.

I am broken. I am forgiving. I am a child of Nature. I am made of star stuff. I am convinced of the divine nature of this planet. I am a skeptic. I am mystified by and utterly committed to my human brothers and sisters. I am in need of love, and I am devoted to giving away more love than I get.

And I am going to squeeze every drop from this short, precious life.

Meet the Geeklings: Superheroes!

CivilWarBoysThe Pink & Ginger posts have been surprisingly popular, I thought I’d give something else a try. Everyone seems entertained by the quotes I share from Connor and Griffin, my 11- and 7-year-old sons. And it’s true: they’re hilarious and clever and insightful and weird.

So every once in a while, I’ll have a conversation with them on here. Today’s topic is near and dear to the Banks Family’s heart: Superheroes.

ProfBanks: So, who’s your favorite superhero, and why?

Griffin: Superman is bulletproof, and that’s awesome. Even if they shoot at his butt, it bounces off!

Connor: I’m sorta mixed between Deadpool and Green Lantern. Deadpool, because he’s so hilarious and unexpected, and he talks to us, like, “Hey readers!” And Green Lantern, because he can make anything that’s not yellow…

I can’t believe neither of them mentioned this flaw in GL’s powers.

G: He can’t make a rubber duckie!

C: And he’s a good person, and that gives him the privilege of being able to make anything so he can help. Why I said it’s a tie is that his weakness is yellow, so Rubber Duckie Guy could beat him, and that’s pretty weak. We could throw a pencil or a LEGO guy’s head, and he’d be all, “Oh no my only weakness!”

Darling Husband (interrupts): The Golden Age one’s weakness was wood.

C: That’s even weaker! A pencil would totally take him out!

G: He couldn’t ever go to school! But what do you like about those guys?

C: Because they’re kinda like me. Deadpool is funny and unpredictable, and Green Lantern is creative and open-minded.

PB: Awesome, Connor. Griff, I’m kinda surprised that you said Superman, because you’ve always been about the villains more than the heroes, and I thought that’s why you liked Batman best.

G: Well, Batman can beat Green Lantern with his belt!

C: Stop talking about how your heroes can beat my heroes!

PB: Stay on target, kids. Tell me more about Batman.

G: Awesome tools! Fighting crime! Sweet mask!

PB: You know, I can type whole sentences.

G: I feel bad for him, actually. I feel bad for his parents, and I hate the robber who killed them. Can I tell you how he killed them?

PB: Yeah.

G: He used a gun. He shot them in the head.

C: Did you know that Batman actually used to use a gun, back when he started?

G: Wow, Mom’s writing this all down! Yeah, it makes me really sad. Can you make a little 🙁 ?

PB: Sure.

G: I like how he found the Batcave, too. It’s awesome because there’s a gigantic penny! He could use it to buy something really expensive!

PB: That’s not how money works.

G: What if someone painted it as a dollar bill?

PB: …

C: I do want to say that Green Lantern’s movie sucks. I mean, it was kinda cool, but it also sucks at the same time. It didn’t feel right, like with the Christopher Nolan series or with Man of Steel. It was more lighthearted. I liked it anyway, but it’s too bad.

PB: So what kinds of stories do you like best when you read or watch about superheroes?

C: I like the ones where there’s an essential key that you can’t imagine. Like, Captain America versus Iron Man in Civil War, or Superman losing his powers. I like how the writers are so creative and descriptive of how those things would happen. You don’t imagine Spider-Man killing one of the Avengers, but they make you understand all the pressures on them and how it could happen. What about you, Griff? Do you like the ones where the bad guy wins?

G: I like Teen Titans, because Robin’s in it, and he’s one of my favorites. He’s my favorite sidekick.

PB: So, Griff, you like stories for the characters in them most of all.

G: Yeah. Robin’s pretty cool, but not cooler than Batman.

PB: Why’s that?

G: He’s awesome because he’s Batman’s sidekick, and he’s funny. I think he’s probably the same age as my brother.

C: Do you like that because he’s a good kid rolemodel? To grow up and be great and help people? Would you like to be Robin someday?

G: Mm-hm.

PB: You realize Robin’s family dies, right?

G: Yeah, I’m also sad for Robin too.

PB: What does feeling sad for a character do to make the story good or bad?

G: I don’t really like it when people die. It makes me feel really sad, because it’s like they’re my friend.

C: I think it helps the story, because it helps you understand what happens to them. Like with Jason Todd. When he died, you really wanted to keep reading so you’d know what happened to him. Lots of people come back to life in Batman, and you want to know how they do that.

G: I’m also sad because Robin dies. I mean, Damian Wayne.

PB: Is that your favorite Robin?

It’s true: he does have awesome hair. But those are escrima sticks, not nunchuks.

G: Yes, plus also Nightwing. He has nunchuks and cool-looking hair.

PB: What do superheroes teach you about how to act like a good person?

C: It’s hard to explain, but superheroes give me inspiration to do good things, because they show that if you do good things to other people, even if you’re not in the best situation yourself, good things will come back to you. Captain America and Spider-Man are good examples. Spider-Man has had many deaths of people he loves and are close to him, because of bad choices he made.

PB: Was it really Spider-Man’s choices that made those things happen?

C: One of them, Uncle Ben. He started out cocky. And Captain America has had more deaths, but less personal to him. But he still chooses to fight for freedom, instead of Spider-Man who is a vigilante.

PB: Why is Cap better than Spider-Man because of how he fights?

C: Spiderman fights for certain people in his life, but he puts all his care into them. Cap spreads out his care across the world. Except for Nazis. He doesn’t care about them.

PB: Griff, what about you? What things do you see superheroes do that teach you how to behave?

G: It’s a really hard one. I don’t get it, because all the time, they just fight. It’s confusing that they’re good and they fight, because we’re not supposed to fight people. It’d be better if at the beginning of each movie, they said, “Don’t do any of this at home. Or at school.”

C: Or anywhere! Except maybe a boxing match.

G: They also teach you not to rob banks and stuff.

C: It’s kind of weird that Spider-Man’s theme song makes it sound like he’s singing at villains. Also, another thing: Who lives in America since they were born and doesn’t know about superheroes?

PB: Good question. Why do you think America is so into superheroes, especially right now?

C: Because we need leaders or reasons why to keep going, because we’re in a tough situation with the government shutdown and Osama bin Laden. We’re still getting over 9/11! So we need to have someone to watch over us, to protect us.

G: Because they [Americans] might learn from them how to protect themselves and how to be good.

C: Mom, are Americans terrorists to Afghan people, since we attacked them?

PB: That’s a really complicated question, Connor. Some people in other parts of the world do feel like Americans are bullies because of how we use our power to affect their lives. That’s not just military power; it’s also economic and social.

C: That’s not good.

G: No, not good.

PB: How do you think that relates to superheroes and how they’re supposed to represent American values?

C: I think it represents them kinda badly. To us, Superman and Captain America are the good guys and they fight for America and they’re good guys because of that. Recently (but before the New 52) Superman became more international, and maybe it’s because America’s not always right.

PB: Do you think that everyone appreciates the same values and stories about superheroes? What ideals do you think would be different?

C: There’s an episode of Justice League where they put Green Lantern on trial for breaking interspace law. It turns out he’s being framed, but the trial reveals that we have all these loopholes. Our politics are really dumb here—not dumb, but bad and some people who work there are dumb and close-minded. We arrest people with no good evidence.

PB: Is that how you think Americans seem to the rest of the world sometimes?

C: Yeah.

PB: How do you think that current superhero media can address that impression?

Not like this, though. This is bad.

C: Superman’s not just an American icon now—he’s known internationally. He fights for good, and he won’t stand down to an injustice happening. He’s not lazy about not wanting to go to bad areas; he’ll go anywhere something bad is happening.

PB: What about how we show superheroes as more flawed individuals, like Iron Man, not just big archetypes?

C: Man of Steel is a good example of this. Superman’s his own person, with his own clues and mysteries to solve in the world. He has a choice to make. He’s not perfect all the time.

PB: I did not expect to go this deep. Thanks, guys. As always, you rock my world.





Oct 2, 2013 - Psychology, Sex Ed    1 Comment

Right Where I Should Be

Being right where you’re needed is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also the most rewarding thing in the world, the thing that convinces you that all the trials you’ve endured aren’t just character building, but of redeemable use to other human beings. But I feel like I could happily sleep for a month.

Monday evening, a dear friend was raped. I got the text just as a panel on school pushouts was starting. Instead of mourning and raging at a distance, as I’ve done over the years when faraway friends went through their own trauma, I could do what I’d always wanted–even needed–to do: I quietly stood up, made my apologies, and raced to be with her within 15 minutes.

There’s something profoundly startling to hear your own words coming out of someone else’s mouth. Parents experience it all the time when their own favorite gems emerge from the miniature humans. But those dark thoughts of doubt, self-blame, and instinctive mistrust of your own reactions don’t sound right when you hear them out loud in another voice. She was full of “I shouldn’t have” and “I must have” and “If only.” It was hard to look at those ugly ideas in the light of day, and it gave me pleasure to shoot each one down with precision.

Eventually, she reached the conclusion that she wanted to report the assault. Several of the pieces of her story gave me that bone-deep certainty that this was his modus operandi, and that she wasn’t his first victim. She wasn’t content to be a statistic, and she felt safe enough and angry enough to do what she could to make sure she was his last victim. I worry I influenced her to do this because I wasn’t able to.

I went with her to the hospital, and apparently projected so much authority and right-of-place that it took a few hours for the staff to realize I wasn’t an official advocate from the local sexual assault survivors’ service. I held her hand, I made inappropriate jokes, I explained what would happen next. I told her to ride the waves of emotion without resistance or embarrassment, because fighting them would take energy she’d need for other things.

The one thing I didn’t have to do was advocate for her against skeptical or disrespectful people. Every single person we encountered treated her with credulity, sensitivity, and most of all, kindness. The nurse told us that police department, hospital staff, and survivor services had worked together to create an integrated, victim-centered care system. I want more women in our city to know this is the case. There are so many reasons women don’t report, and fear of bad treatment doesn’t have to be one, at least not here.

All throughout this, and since then, I’ve been able to say the things I wish someone could’ve told me. I don’t think my friend knows how meaningful and precious that chance is. And because if they’re worth saying once, they’re worth repeating, I’ll say them again here:

Nothing you did made him hurt you. You’re not wrong for wanting to find someone. There’s no way you could’ve known that when he agreed to the boundaries you carefully articulated, he wasn’t planning to respect them. You weren’t stupid to find him attractive and trustworthy–he was grooming you and putting on his best show.

You’re not wrong when you think things will never be the same. And the only way through this is forward; there’s no reverse gear in this car. Things and places that used to feel safe won’t feel that way for a while, and whatever you need to do to find comfort and refuge is okay. The sooner you get into therapy, the better. There’s never a need to go through this alone.

There’s no timer on recovery. There are no milestones that you need to achieve in a certain order or by certain calendar marks. You may not want to think about dating again for a good long time. You may want to take back control of your body and your pleasure sooner than you think you should want to, but that’s not wrong or “slutty” or even illogical. All you have to do is live through this at your own speed.

You’re not responsible for anyone else’s feelings, and telling people the truth doesn’t require you to shepherd them through their own emotional responses. People say things in shock that they don’t mean, so don’t invest too much in their first reactions. Some people just can’t make themselves emotionally available for this, and they may offer stuff instead. You’re not obligated to invent things for people who want to help that way.

Finally, you’re part of a not-so-secret society now. Our stories are remarkably similar, no matter how different they are. We’ve shared common thoughts, common physical responses. It’s true–this destroys some people. But it empowers many others, and how you choose to put your experience into action is up to you. And if you’re very lucky, someday you’ll be able to take what you’ve learned and make it work for someone you love, and it’ll all seem strangely worth it. Be sure to thank that person for letting you help.

Love > Fear

I’m going to summer camp this year. Not as a parent or a teacher, but as a student at the Leadership Institute run by National People’s Action. This opportunity is dearly bought with the love and financial votes of confidence of many friends, as well as the perseverance of the Darling Husband, who’ll get his share of single parenting back from all those cons he’s attended for work over the years. And I’m determined to use this camp’s resources to level up my skills and be a stronger leader for the causes I feel strongly about. I know it’s going to be a challenging, agitating, soul-searching experience–I’m ready for that.

But today, I was faced with a view of my activism that I’d never, ever envisioned. A beloved friend suggested that I might be on the path toward the kind of activism that harms and terrorizes other people. And I found myself replaying all the marches, rallies, phone calls, planning meetings, training sessions, and conversations I’ve had. I searched them from the outside looking in, scanning for visions of myself as frightening, threatening, angry, or intimidating. And, of course, my vivid visual imagination got straight to work manufacturing reflections of past scenes or shadows of future selves in which I’m furious and self-righteous, intolerant of other viewpoints, but blind to the faults in my own.

But those pictures aren’t real, and the rest of my memories yield images I can’t associate with terror. I speak clearly and fearlessly, yet with respect, to anyone who’ll listen. I work hard, but I goof off too and distract my friends for a few laughs in brief downtimes. I sing, I clap, I chant, I dance. I’ve cried with both joy and grief in the halls of power and in the streets.

I don’t know how these things are scary.

I do have the clarity to see that parts of my activism might provoke a negative response in some people. I may appear to have a rigid sense of what’s right and little tolerance for other positions. My voice can be strident when I try to make it heard over those who try to drown it out. I’m not a small person, and when I raise a fist of power or link arms in solidarity with others, I probably look unmovable. I talk a lot about the actions I’m taking, because they take up a big part of my life. I retweet too much.

It IS radical, what I do. Maybe I should get used to that statement: I am a radical. I believe in radical things, like the worth and dignity of every single person on this planet, and the power of a single person’s action joined with others. I do radical things, like give my time and energy and voice to causes that do not directly benefit me at all, just because they seem worthwhile and I recognize the power that comes with my privilege. I try to offer radical acceptance to every person I meet, by acknowledging that every life is a journey, and we’re not all at the same place on the path at the same time–judging or criticizing another person for being where they are on their path accomplishes nothing.

The internal conflicts I weather as I work through the evolution of my beliefs and the consequences of my actions aren’t visible to most people, so I’m sure I seem like another cardboard cut-out liberal rabble-rouser. I don’t talk with everyone about why some causes get my attention and others don’t. Part of that is embarrassment at the inexplicable, emotional reasons for some of those decisions. I have internal boundaries among the issues and tactics of activism that don’t always come from a sensible place.

But I hope my primary motivations are clear as day: I want everyone to feel the same love and enjoy the same rights I do. I love learning and free will and self-determination, and I believe everyone deserves equal access to them. Because that’s what moves me, I’m categorically opposed to tactics designed to frighten or deprive anyone of something that’s rightfully theirs.

And here’s where I’ll make the only qualification in this whole screed: disproportionate political or financial power is not a right. Those are things you earn, and if you use them to take away the rights and freedoms of others, then you have to be ready for the same people who gave them to demand them back. If you’re the one in power, the idea of losing that position might be frightening. It shouldn’t be, because power over others isn’t a right, but nobody likes to lose control. I can empathize; I’m a control freak too.

But one of the founding principles of democracy and human rights is the power of a group of people to rise up peacefully, speak their piece, and create change in society. Sometimes, the language of this right is misappropriated by people who want to use that power to take away others’ rights (often, that exact same right they’re exercising). But the truly great moments in history largely correlate to times when individuals have stood up for their rights in the face of overwhelming disparity in power and force.

It takes guts and advice and practice and support to do that and not falter. It takes the sight of other people to the left and right of you, whether it’s in a parade or a phone center cubicle or a line of jail cells. That’s who I want to be for others who are fighting for a better world. That’s what I want to be trained to do. And if my faith and conviction in the possibility of change toward greater freedom makes  someone feel afraid of me or bad about themselves, all I can do is say that I love them and where they are in their journey. I’m just trying to be my whole, powerful self and make room for others to do the same.

May 31, 2013 - Political Science    No Comments

The Big Debrief

No more phonebanks, no more trainings. I’m home most nights of the week now. My feet have stopped aching from the Capitol’s marble floors. I’ve mostly caught up on sleep.

This is what victory looks like.

I attended my first training session to fight the hurtful anti-marriage amendment proposed for the Minnesota state constitution a full year before it appeared on the ballot in November 2012. Early the following spring, I attended my first phonebank and began my role in the massive conversation that reworked this state’s understanding of love, marriage, and commitment. I stepped into successively greater volunteer leadership roles as the next nine months played out.

And then we won. Minnesota became the first state to defeat an amendment banning same-sex marriage after 30 previous states had passed them. Jubilation isn’t too strong a word. Strangers in stores asked if they could hug me when they saw the campaign stickers on my coat. “I’m just so proud of my state,” they said, and I agreed.

A lot of people left everything on the field in the effort to send that amendment down to defeat. So when the campaign announced early in the new year that it would ride the momentum to take a shot at winning marriage equality this year, the crowd of people I worked with changed. Many beloved friends stayed to change a No to a Yes, but there was a shift, and I fumbled a bit to find my place in the new order.

Burnout wasn’t an unexpected guest after 15 months on the case, but I was still disappointed in myself to have lost the rhythm of self-renewal. I questioned the assumptions I’d built up in the previous campaign, that I was made for this work and the work itself gave me back more than I put in. But I’d grown enough as a person to know that this was a natural cycle, and that it called for reaching out for support, not withdrawing into myself.

CapitolMessaging2And then, like the birth of every good and wonderful thing, came the Big Push. It required no exaggeration to convey the urgency of every single phone call, every email, every lobby visit. Thousands of us in orange and blue crowded the capitol on the day of the House vote. I worried that I would feel useless as a tiny cog with no sense of the great machine, so instead of simply accepting that, I asked for something specific I could manage. That’s how I became the clearinghouse for the hundreds of paper messages we sent directly to the legislators’ hands as they sat in session. Every time another stack was ready for the pages, I would say “Fly, little bundles of love!” like some manic Witch of the West.

I was surprised by the flood of tears that joy brought as the freedom to marry passed first the House, then the Senate. Sure, I cry with joy or beauty sometimes, but the sobs I tried to contain shook me with an unexpected force. One part was surely a release of tension coiled tightly over more than a year. Another part, though, was the crashing wave of love and possibility that swamped everyone who’d fought or longed for this most basic freedom.

No good campaign skips the big debrief at the end–the veterans are repositories of wisdom on what worked, what didn’t, and how to do it better the next time. So I need to take an inventory of what this movement has done to me.

I can both teach and be taught better than before. I listen more actively and empathetically. I’ve refined and reaffirmed some of my deepest moral and spiritual beliefs. I believe action can work. I can build unlikely coalitions. I found my true calling in issue politics. I can set effective boundaries to preserve my own resources, and I can defend them when challenged by a new, sudden need. I know more about community organizing and legislative politics. I have a base of beloved, lifelong friends. I feel perfectly comfortable in the halls of power. I have made Minnesota my forever home. I learned that our own personal stories can change the world.

And I’m ready to start making some wedding gifts.


Nov 28, 2012 - Social Studies    14 Comments

Pass the Bucket

I cringe as soon as I hear the bell ringing in front of the grocery store. My kids are primed to be generous, and immediately pester me for pocket change to put in the red bucket. I tell them “no” quietly and, to head off the inevitable “why” that follows, say, “They don’t believe they have to help everyone who comes to them in need, and I don’t want to support that.” I fast-walk the boys into the store and give the bellringer a tight smile.

This routine defies every philanthropic fiber in my being. We take things to Goodwill, we buy poppies from veterans, we buy Girl Scout cookies (okay, that one’s got side benefits). We support public radio and television, we give to our church, we buy ridiculous things from school fundraisers. Lupus, leukemia, lymphoma, lumbago–we give to them all. We collect pennies in UNICEF and Guest At Your Table boxes, which fall apart under the weight of the change every time.

But I will not give one copper penny to the Salvation Army.

SA hits many criteria that appeal to folks who want to do good. They work on first-order needs–feed the starving, shelter the homeless, clothe the poor–often in emergency situations. Especially at the holidays, when so many appeals come from charitable organizations, it can be difficult to prioritize causes, and SA makes it easy: give money here, help people in need. They even use a low-pressure ask, simply ringing a bell, rather than shaking a coffee can in people’s faces.

But SA’s help is given conditionally. If you want a meal, a cot, a coat, you must attend Christian worship. These aren’t gentle ecumenical services, either. You will be told you are full of sin, that your current problems have roots in your inadequate acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior, that repentance and sacrifice are needed, and that only the saving power of the Christian God can take away your temporal suffering. There is fire and there is brimstone. There is even heresy, depending on your Christian theology–SA preaches “Lordship Salvation” which requires constant human effort for salvation.

And all that assumes that they’ve let you in the doors in the first place. SA’s track record for turning away gay and lesbian people in need is well documented, even those in committed partnerships. A British chapter even turned away a naked, injured rape victim because they “only serve men” at their location, despite the organization’s stated policy to make counseling and emergency assistance available to crime victims.

If that doesn’t disturb you enough to pass the pail, consider what happens to some donations. SA has used charitable gifts to support anti-gay legislation in America and abroad. Other SA officials have seen fit to throw away brand-new, donated, Harry Potter toys and books, because they didn’t want to be complicit in turning recipients toward Satan. And still others have simply helped themselves to the largesse they collect for others. We don’t even have a clear idea how much money SA takes in, or how it moves around within the organization, because for most of their operating history, they’ve hidden behind the IRS disclosure shield for churches.

I’ll admit that a big part of my personal problem with this organization comes from our differing views on the definition of “salvation” and how you get there. Militant religion has made me queasy since the first time I understood the words of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Never forget that SA stands for Salvation Army, not Salvation Association or Salvation Achievers.

And before their symbol was this: 

it was this: 

I don’t believe anyone needs to be “saved,” and I don’t think scaring and shaming them would do it, even if they did. I believe that good acts are their own reward, and that there should never be a cost for help, especially not one that amounts to emotional extortion in a person’s most powerless moments.

If you really want to do good–and another thing I believe is that everyone really does want to do good–there are so many places that need you. If you feel like freezing your butt off, don’t just stand there ringing a bell–take meals to the homeless and invite them into life-saving shelters on the coldest of nights. If you have a strange attraction to American coinage, collect it for your local food shelf so families can enjoy a special holiday meal. If you want to spread the message of your holy days, help your church or temple with its social justice projects. And if you just don’t know where to start, look right around you. Your neighbors, your friends, your family, you all know someone who’s hurting: a person facing a holiday alone, or hungry, or scared, or without the tools or means to give the children in their lives the wonder and joy so many of us associate with this time of year.

It doesn’t take an army to save people. We can save each other, with our own hands and hearts and wide open eyes.


A Government of the People

I think we can all agree on the winner of last night’s first presidential debate:

Big Bird.

Seriously, more than the President’s apparent NyQuil mishap, or the former governor’s faulty truth software, or the tragic demise of both Jim Lehrer’s moderator cred and the formal debate format, it’s Romney’s comment about getting rid of Big Bird when he would defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that’s blown up my social media feeds today. If Joe Biden doesn’t say “Bin Laden is dead and Big Bird is alive!” at next Thursday’s veep debate, he’s missing a great opportunity.

But that got me thinking. We’re big PBS and NPR fans in the Banks household, and the way I see it, the takeover of the federal government by the combined talents of those two organizations could only improve life for us all.

So here’s my plan for the new, improved CPB American government: Calm, Patient, Brilliant.


I think a Garrison Keillor/Carl Kasell ticket is just the thing to bring dignity, truth, and mildly humorous storytelling to the White House. Martha the Talking Dog could bring a new articulateness to the role of First Dog, and fill in as White House Press Secretary whenever Peter Sagal needed a break.

The Cabinet is where my plan truly shines. The Dowager Countess is an obvious pick for Secretary of State, as is Wordgirl for Education. Bob Vila‘s got Housing and Urban Development covered, and Bill Moyers would make a strong, moral, incorruptible Attorney General. Clifford the Big Red Dog will advance a “speak softly and carry a big stick” policy in his Department of Defense. Ken Burns gets the Department of the Interior, with its oversight of national parks, monuments, and natural resources. Helen Mirren/Jane Tennyson would be a ferocious head of Homeland Security. Click and Clack should do nicely for Transportation, as would the Antiques Roadshow folks for Commerce and the Victory Garden people for Agriculture. Marketplace could manage both Treasury and Labor, and the Frontline reporters have been with the soldiers all the way through the last 10+ years of warfare, so they’d a natural pick for Veterans Affairs. Martin Clunes/Doc Martin is good for Health and Human Services, especially coming from National Health Service as he does. And let’s give the NOVA guys the Department of Energy–at least they don’t think the cast of Dinosaur Train are the only source out there.


My plan is beautiful in its simplicity for Congress. Over the years, I’d wager Masterpiece Mystery has killed off at least 541 people. If we include the perpetrators, that’s enough to field candidates for actual contested races in all those states and districts. For that matter, probably enough to completely staff the home and Washington offices.

Between the corpses and the criminals, we’ll achieve roughly the same levels of trust and productivity as the 112th Congress. And probably a better gender and minority balance.


Sesame Workshop’s got this covered.


And, obviously, Nina Tottenberg continues to provide dramatic readings from the transcripts from this esteemed body.



The Yip-Yip Aliens can only improve the FCC. Sid the Science Kid might be a bit young for the CDC, but at least he won’t treat it like a faith-based department. Bob Ross, bless his soul, would’ve ruled as director of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Cyberchase kids should be outstanding at all the electronic surveillance over in the CIA. Terry Gross is a relentless interrogator who could whip the FBI into shape in a heartbeat. And Congressional Budget Office’s reports might take a little longer with Count von Count at the helm, but the constant thunder will comfort everyone that he’s always hard at work. Neil deGrasse Tyson already should be the head of NASA, so that’s a no-brainer.

And Curious George would definitely be a pro-legalization Drug Czar.

The CPB government will eliminate all personal income taxes, but you’ll have to deal with Fall and Spring pledge drives. The guilt trips will be epic, but between Austin City Lights, The Mark Twain Prize, and This American Life, there’ll be some outstanding programming twice a year to get citizens to chip in their fair share.

I’m sure there are many positions I’ve forgotten, or other excellent candidate for the posts I’ve named, so feel free to suggest your own in comments.

Wouldn’t it be nice to finally have a government for 100 percent of America? And commercial-free, too.


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.