Tagged with " values"

This is what democracy looks like

Normally, I’d be writing a Friday Night Lists posts today, but something so extraordinary happened yesterday that I feel compelled to write about that instead. It’s a series of events that has restored a tiny bit of my faith in responsive government, and will have an effect on literally tens of thousands of people who will never know I had a role in it.

A few months ago, I saw an email from TakeAction Minnesota calling for folks to tell their stories about the importance of MinnesotaCare, the low-cost state health insurance option that covers people with incomes between 75 to 250% of Federal Poverty Level, depending on family status. I wrote in with my own story about the failure of care for my fibromyalgia and subsequent suicidal depression that occurred when we first moved to Minnesota two years ago, and how well MinnesotaCare has kept me healthy since it kicked in that fall.

I got a call from one of the healthcare staffers at TakeAction this spring. In the time that had passed, we’d dealt with Connor’s own crisis, and MinnesotaCare was (and is) critical in the solutions that saved his life. They asked if I’d be willing to testify to these things as the government worked to figure out what to do with MinnesotaCare, once (hopefully) the Affordable Care Act kicks in in 2014. Some officials wanted to ensure that eligible communities would move into a Basic Health Plan that’s basically the same, while more conservative influences have been pushing hard to force participants to buy their own private plans on the Insurance Exchanges that will be set up under ACA. Of course, I said yes.

This Thursday, I attended a meeting of the Access government workgroup grappling with these issues. It’s a panel of officials from relevant government bureaus, the Minnesota Legislature, and agencies like Legal Aid and major labor and insurance groups. Here’s what I told them:

“My name is Jessica Banks. My husband, my two young sons, and I are currently enrolled in Minnesota Care. I have experienced life with and without this important program. I am here to tell you today that, without access to Minnesota Care, my health and my life spiraled out of control. I am also here to tell you that our Minnesota Care coverage saved my son’s life.

When we moved to Minnesota from Wisconsin two years ago, we needed to transition our coverage from Badger Care to Minnesota Care. We qualify for state coverage because we make $34,000 a year for a family of four, putting us below the 200% Federal Poverty Level. Neither of our jobs provides health care coverage, and we are unable to afford a private plan. Unfortunately, our transition required a four-month waiting period during which I became very ill.

I have lived with fibromyalgia for the past 13 years. With medication, I can keep it fairly stable. When we moved, I had enough medicine to get me through a few weeks. I had made an appointment with a doctor when I arrived. I planned on paying out of pocket for the visit. That doctor was unwilling to continue my established care and, without insurance, I couldn’t afford to make additional doctors’ visits. Buying the medication without insurance would have cost over $1000 a month. I tried to find low cost alternatives, but I wasn’t successful.

I tapered myself off my meds, trying to make them last as long as I could. It wasn’t enough; I ended up going off all the meds completely. My pain levels spiked. I was couch and bed bound. It was so bad that I couldn’t take care of my kids. As my pain levels rose, a deep depression set in. I ended up in the ER with severe depression and pain. In the hospital, the doctors regulated my drugs and found generic alternatives that I could afford. I received help for the depression, and I began to return to my normal life. Then, our Minnesota Care coverage kicked in and I was able to fully recover.

In February, my nine-year-old son Connor, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, went through a suicidal crisis. Autistics like him find rapid, unpredictable change overwhelming. His baseline of everyday highs and lows crashed and became erratic. Minor problems seemed insurmountable, and we had difficulty protecting him from his wild swings of emotion at home and at school. He hurt himself on several occasions, and he couldn’t see any way out of his sensory and emotional torture.

Our Minnesota Care plan completely covered his evaluation and a partial hospitalization program that quickly and effectively reversed his attempts to kill himself, and changed all of our lives for the better. Because of Minnesota Care, we were able to help him heal, and to recover as a family. He finished the school year back with his friends and teachers at Chelsea Heights. On this Tuesday, we celebrated his 10th birthday, a milestone I honestly doubted we would achieve at times this spring.

I am incredibly grateful for Minnesota Care. I shudder at the thought of what the outcome would have been if we didn’t have access to Connor’s treatment. I am here to ask you to ensure that Minnesota Care families continue to have access to affordable health coverage through an option very similar to Minnesota Care, called the Basic Health Plan. A comprehensive benefit package, including full mental health benefits and affordable prescriptions, is also important to my family’s continued wellbeing.

Without Minnesota Care, my health insurance premiums would increase by over 50 to 70 percent if we had to buy coverage on the Exchange, instead of having Minnesota Care. Without Minnesota Care, Minnesota families like mine, who are already vulnerable, would be exposed to unbearable stresses and burdens. My son and my family were saved by Minnesota Care–please don’t take it away.”

I’d practiced my comments several times, so I thought I had it cold, but when I described Connor’s difficulties, I got choked up. I recovered without messing up my mascara, but I could hear sniffles both in the audience and on the panel. When I told them about celebrating Connor’s birthday, I flipped up the picture frame I’d brought with me to the table and showed them this picture. The sniffles turned into tears.

I had to leave for work shortly after I testified, but the ladies from TakeAction who’d helped me figure out the specifics of my comments and supported me with their presence there that day were very complimentary. A few people thanked me for my courage, which surprised me. What I’d done hadn’t taken any particular courage on my part–I don’t have a filter, so I’ll tell anybody anything. (Exhibit A: This whole damn blog.)

That evening, I got an email from TakeAction, containing a forwarded message from the chairwoman of the committee for me and another woman who testified. She wrote this:

“And then when people spoke, they were eloquent and compelling.  They did a fabulous job.  Unfortunately, I was not able to thank any of them personally or tell them how great they did.  They left before the meeting finished.  As a result they may not have realized how important they were to today’s outcome.  In agreeing today that the benefit package for the138-200% population should be at least equal to the current MNCare benefit package (and agreeing that we should continue to explore what other benefits should be added [Model Mental Health Benefits were added today]), several task force members referenced things that were said by the people who spoke today.  Their statements were also critically important in the task force deciding to recommend that people should pay no premium up to 150% FPG and reduced premiums for people between 150 and 200%

If you have the opportunity, please convey my thanks to everyone who came today and my deep appreciation to those who shared their stories.  Please assure them that they influenced the outcome.”

Another panel member emailed me directly to thank me for my testimony, and said that recently it seemed that the panel had been moving backward, away from a solution that would help MinnesotaCare folks, but that our stories contributed directly to these big leaps forward.

Frankly, I’m shocked, and that’s a bit sad, because what happened on Thursday is a perfect demonstration of how democracy is supposed to work. That it’s surprising is a good indicator of how rarely it does. The other panel member wrote, “When the kind of real-life story you brought into the room is missing from the discussion, the discussion often ends up harming consumers and workers.” You’d think that these stories would overcrowd the boardrooms and meeting halls–heavens know everyone’s got them–and make decision-makers emotionally fatigued and jaded. And if these stories can be so powerful, you’d think there’d be a line out the door at every meeting, of people deploying their own experiences to influence government and corporations. But I was thanked for being courageous and powerful, when I felt anything but as I spoke of my life and my loved ones. Telling stories is what my family does, and this didn’t feel any different.

But let me tell you all–your personal stories have immense power. They sway voters, shape policy, spur movement, support progress. That’s the core strength the Minnesota campaign against the anti-marriage amendment has going for it–the entire strategy is based on telling our stories of love and commitment to convince people that marriage matters to everyone.

So tell them. Practice them on me, on your family and friends, on anyone who will listen. Then wait for the discussions where your values lie, where the hinges of your life join with your investments, your neighborhoods, your government, your world. Screw your courage to the sticking point, if that’s what it takes, and raise your hand. Say yes. Fill the silence with your stories.

Then watch the world change around you.

May 31, 2012 - Social Studies    15 Comments

Walking the Talk

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


Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed and me, May 2012

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Pride and Prejudice

My nine-year-old son Connor finishes the partial hospitalization program that saved his life this spring on Friday. He’ll return to school, and his beloved friends and teachers and staff, for the last eleven days of the year. It’ll be a lovely reunion–he’s determined to surprise them on Tuesday–and he’ll get to show off the amazing new self-control and trigger management he’s developed, in a manageable, boundaried time period.

As part of his evaluation and treatment in the program, Connor was tested on a wide battery of skills and scales. Most irritating of these tests was a tear-your-hair-out boring attention test that required TWELVE FULL MINUTES of participation to determine a baseline. We laughed at the irony of his twice quitting an attention test because it bored him, but as soon as he tried it with someone to tell him to keep going, the test revealed no attention span issues.

Connor's first-place winning science fair project this year, about predicting compressive strength of materials based on their atomic structure.

Equally unsurprising to us were the results of his IQ test. He scored 136. Now, officially, there’s no “cutoff” for “genius level” anymore in the updated IQ scoring, but 136 puts him into the 99th Percentile for kids his age. In other words, only one percent of nine-year-olds score higher than that. His vocabulary and reading level is that of a 12th grader. According to a new study, that’s two grades higher than the average of the U.S. Congress.

This kid is staggeringly intelligent. Which comes as news to absolutely no one who’s ever met him. I feel far less proud than affirmed. These scores only quantify the bar that we’ve always felt we have to rise to as his parents. The doctor who evaluated him repeatedly emphasized how unusual Connor’s mind really is–the words “exceptional,” “exceed,” and “excellent” appear frequently throughout the write-up, and he urges several times that Connor receive gifted and talented services.

What did shock us in this evaluation was the statement that immediately followed the quantitative elements: “Connor indicates that he enjoys role-play games, which I would strongly advise against, given how these activities can result in him being more obsessed with fantasy than reality. Connor should be devoting his time and effort to normal activities socially, recreationally, and athletically that would be pursued by a nine-year-old.” Further down, he returns to this point: “Repeatedly, I witness children like Connor becoming consumed with fantasy and role-playing games, derailing their social and emotional development and ignoring ‘normal’ endeavors. The result is a pattern of unusual or atypical interests that ultimately are not shared by their peers, causing them to be viewed as unusual, odd, or atypical and, therefore, contributing to social rejection and emotional alienation.”

My first reaction was, “Holy crap, he thinks geeks are pathetic.”

I saw the Darling Husband’s hackles rise as he read, though he channeled it into humor, since the therapist who gave us the papers wasn’t the one who did the evaluation. Instead, he suggested that they give the doctor a call and tell him what Connor’s dad does for a living.

We shared a laugh at the time, with Connor in the room and unaware of what the papers said, but we were shocked and bothered by the obvious bias in the evaluation, and how utterly dissonant it was with both of our life experiences. How could anyone think such a wonderful hobby was destructive and alienating?

For both of us, fantasy literature and roleplaying games were the ultimate sandbox, an environment finally big enough for the universes our minds could imagine. Sci-fi and fantasy, both in prose and comic books, gave us colorful and expansive vocabularies that challenged us, in the days of stultifying spelling tests and reading assignments that left us cold. Games gave us math problems we wanted to do. They gave us new friends at home and around the world, hours of solo and group entertainment, and eventually, roleplaying games gave us each other. They are our hobby, and our work, and now our legacy to our children.

We understood the doctor’s concern that, if Connor was only into media far beyond his peers’ comprehension, he’d have no common interests with them. But what’s “normal” for a nine-year-old? Chess? No, no chance of obsession there (ahem, paging Bobby Fischer). Baseball? Just what he needs to stay away from unsociable statistics (or not). Guns? That can’t possibly turn out badly. In fact, I’d like someone to tell me what subjects are, in fact, more normal for a nine-year-old American boy in 2012 than heroes, monsters, superheroes, Star Wars, LEGO, and XBox games?

Sure, we’ve known our share of people who couldn’t function well socially in contexts that excluded their primary enthusiasm. Every joke refers to a D&D stat, or a video game plot, or a Monty Python sketch. Every anecdote ties back to a Star Trek episode. And yes, autistic kids get fixated and study the everlasting hell out of what they like. Some days, it’s all they can talk about, and that can be off-putting to other kids who don’t have the sheer bloodyminded endurance they do. But that’s not the vast majority of today’s geeks and gamers, and it’s certainly not Connor.

Connor got a make-your-own sonic screwdriver kit for Christmas. He may have been pleased.

Cam and I will take some credit for keeping his interests wide. Every time he finishes a book, movie, or TV series he’s thoroughly enjoyed, we’ve got three new things racked and ready to suggest. So you liked Star Wars, did you, kid? Here, meet this guy called Indiana Jones. Muppets tickled your fancy? Fantastic–watch this Wallace and Gromit short. Harry Potter and Doctor Who are pretty awesome, aren’t they? Let me tell you about my friends Sherlock Holmes and Lewis Carroll. And the same lack of inhibition that sometimes leads Connor to say tactless or oblivious things allows his passion and enthusiasm for his favorite things to bubble over giddily, and it’s absolutely irresistible. He’s a trendsetter among his peers. They don’t tell him he’s weird for liking what he likes–they want to know what’s got him so excited.

I know the kids around him won’t always be as forgiving of his differences. But the age when that happens was exactly when Cam and I found roleplaying games, and we weren’t alone. Neither will he be. In fact, he’s likely to be in demand as a creative, versatile gamemaster with deft control of rules and narrative, and a bag full of hacks and tricks. Heavens know, he’s learning at the feet of The Master.

We want to let this doctor know that we respect his experience and knowledge, but in this area, he’s got it flat wrong. Games knit society closer together. Connor’s entire existence, and his loving home, come from the power of those stitches. His whole life, since before he was even born, he’s been on the receiving end of love and support from the friends we’ve made through games. He’s already discovered the delight and the challenge in them, and he’s learning social skills in a safe, welcoming environment, in the community of gamers.

How on earth could he grow up healthier without all that?

Lace ‘Em Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Priceless: the Nordstrom follow-up

This post is a follow-up to the one I wrote on Sunday, 29 April 2012, after a nightmarish customer service experience at the Mall of America Nordstrom store. If you haven’t read that account, what follows will make much more sense if you do so first.

I held off writing a follow-up until I felt like I’d reached as much of a resolution as I was going to. I reached that point two weeks later. And I really wanted to come back to you and say that my in-store experience was a fluke, that Nordstrom’s reputation for good customer service really was the norm.

I can’t do that.

In the minor Twitterstorm that blew up following my initial blog post, a member of Nordstrom’s social media customer service team contacted me and invited me to Direct Message with her about my experience. She had also seen the customer service complaint that a good friend submitted directly to the Nordstrom website, with a link to my post. I summed up the unnecessary pain, humiliation, and frustration to which I’d been subjected; she replied with very sincere apologies on behalf of the company she represents, for which I was grateful. She said that she hoped we could work together to find a resolution that would repair my impression of the company, to which I replied, among other things, that I would “be content with a good fitting with someone nice.” I asked if there were people at Nordstrom Rack who could also do that job. She said she would contact the MOA Rack location and inquire on my behalf. She also indicated that she would be forwarding my story up the chain of command, as an object lesson in customer service.

When she got back to me, a few days later, she said that, while the Rack doesn’t usually do bra fittings outside of special events for that particular purpose, there were trained sales associates who could do that for me. I expressed concern that, if they didn’t do fittings regularly, perhaps they wouldn’t do it as well as someone at the full-line store. Time and again, I was steered back to an option that took me to the Rack–“I’m sure you’d feel more comfortable there,” “I can imagine you’d rather not go back to the full-line store,” etc. It’s hard not to see those efforts as being related to my initial price point of $30-40, though I’d reiterated several times that, if I received good service and found a sturdy, lasting product that cost a little more, I’d be willing to spend beyond my range. Those statements were consistently ignored, and I feel the class warfare side of this whole fiasco more keenly than ever. I’m only welcome in the Rack; I shouldn’t even bother crossing the boundaries of the upscale store.

(When I finally received an email apology from the general manager of the MOA Nordstrom, on Thursday, it wasn’t in response to the promised escalation, but rather my friend’s online complaint. She, too, offered a “private fitting”–to which I could only say, “What, do you usually do them in the food court?”–but reiterated the statement that I “might prefer not to come back” to their store, and get the fitting at the Rack.)

Moreover, the offer of a fitting was consistently phrased as “you can call anytime and speak to this person, to set up a fitting.” The onus of getting what I was asking for was placed entirely on me. Now, I understand the practical issue of me being the one with the schedule that needs to be worked around–I get that. But there’s no good reason at all why I shouldn’t have had a phone call from someone–anyone–to apologize “in person” and ask me when I would be available for an appointment. This seems petty, when I write it out, but there isn’t a moment of my day that isn’t busy, and I’m not likely to take a moment to make a phone call for something selfish when other people need things done.

The longer I went without resolution, and after discussions with my therapist and friends, the more I felt that it wasn’t too much for me to ask to leave the store with what I’d come in for–an affordable, comfortable bra. I replied to the offer of a private fitting with the uncommonly assertive (at least, for me) suggestion that a fitting was basic customer service that they (ostensibly) offer to anyone who walks in off the street, free of charge, and that that wasn’t sufficient restitution for the damage done. I said I wanted an affordable, comfortable bra, and whether they accomplished that with a discount coupon or gift card was up to them.

Anyone who knows me knows that making this demand is A Big Deal for me. I’ll insist on cosmic justice, plus a moon to hang their coat on, for anyone else, but I just don’t ask for things for myself. I won’t even send food back to a restaurant kitchen unless it’s thoroughly inedible. This comes directly from lack of self-esteem–I’ve got no illusions about the flimsiness of my justification. It took me a full 12 hours to hit the Send button on that email. In some ways, I feel like that accomplishment was the real outcome of the harassment I suffered. (Deep gratitude to Cam, Jess, M, Panda, Josh, Elizabeth, and John for their editing and affirmations.)

That demand was, however, apparently in vain. Here’s the response I got from the Nordstrom rep:

At Nordstrom we feel that you can’t put a price on good customer service… Since you indicated in one of your messages to our social media team that you’d “be content with a fitting appointment arranged with someone nice” to bring resolution to this situation, we are happy to arrange this. Please let us know a day and time that would be convenient for you and if you’d like for your fitting to take place at our full-line store or at the Rack. We will work closely with you to ensure that you are fitted properly and to assist you in finding a quality product in a price point that you are comfortable with.

Following that reply, I received a request for my phone number so the manager of the MOA location could call and apologize in person. I hoped that she might have more leeway to accomplish what the social media rep couldn’t, but her tune remained the same. said offered me her apologies–though they struck me more as “we’re sorry we missed a chance to earn a customer,” rather than, “we’re sorry you were treated so inhumanely”–and an appointment with the stylist who fitted her for her bras. She also offered to have to have her meet me at the Rack. When I said that I didn’t think it was out of line to ask that, if the bra we found that fit me best turned out to be beyond my price range, that they step in to make it affordable, she responded with the “no price on good customer service line,” making it apparent that it’s company policy.  She said, “I mean, people could come in and be offended all the time! If we handed out gift cards left and right, we’d go out of business!”  To which I replied, “But I didn’t come in to be offended, and my experience really happened.”

I almost caved–I’ll be totally honest. I wanted to please and relieve her at least as much as she wanted to do so for me. But I drew up my last bit of gumption in the end and told her that, while I appreciated her time, her apology, and her offer, I wasn’t going to give a single dollar to a company that values their bottom line more than their customers. She sounded very put out, and the cheer drained from her voice. When someone ends a call with “Well, I’m sorry that’s how you feel,” you know you managed to stick to your guns.

So it comes down to this: Nordstrom’s quality of customer service is priceless to them. On the positive side, it means that they (are supposed to) care more about customer satisfaction than the sale. That’s good, and should be the service goal of every for-profit organization. On the flip side, it means that bad customer experiences aren’t worth anything tangible to them. They don’t assign a price to satisfaction, so when they fail, they still win, because mistakes cost them nothing, plus they reap the benefits of an object lesson. Nordstrom is not willing to negotiate with terrorists. And they see everyone who walks through their door as both potential sale, and potential bomber. It’s more than a little weird to think that they see customers as people “trying to get something out of them.” They do–you’re a freaking STORE.

Here’s my final reply:

Nordstrom, I will never darken your door or put a dime in your cash registers. Every time I hear someone suggest Nordstrom as a destination, I will tell them how I was treated.

I am not rich or powerful. But I have friends. My friends are having weddings and babies. My friends are your target demographic. My friends are fiercely loyal, and believe in the worth and dignity of every person, which apparently doesn’t fit with your company’s values. And they talk to people, too.

For 15 minutes of your time and a half-price bra, you could’ve had a whole lot of goodwill. Instead, you get 15 minutes of a whole bunch of people’s time, and a PR disaster. Be sure you tally that on your bottom line.


May 2, 2012 - Psychology    11 Comments

First Contact

I feel like I’m living my life as an autistic in reverse. I was aware of Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger’s Syndrome generally, but quite frankly, I never applied myself to really learning anything substantial about them. I had trained as a crisis counselor while I was doing my undergrad at the University of Kansas; Headquarters is the oldest, continuously operating phone and walk-in crisis center in the nation. In the ’90s, their training didn’t include anything specific about how to talk to autistics, but their Rogerian approach and general attitude of acceptance provided me with a good footing for dealing with all sorts of neurodiverse folks.

Then,  my eldest son was diagnosed in 2008. That diagnosis was a blessing, to be perfectly honest. Until the school showed us how all the strange, inexplicable things about him actually formed a pattern that belonged to Asperger’s, the leading theory for what was wrong with Connor was crap parenting. When presented with a new situation, my primary coping method is to build a fortress of books on the subject, then read my way out, like you would escape a marshmallow dungeon if you were handcuffed by eating a hole to crawl through. (Hey, don’t mock–it works for me.)

The more I read, the more I recognized of myself. It came as a complete shock, how well the Asperger’s pattern explained pieces of my life that I’d never been able to make fit. The spotlight of memory swiveled back to all the times I’d been called “intellectually advanced but socially backward” in my childhood. My fixations on weird trivia, the First Ladies, native costumes around the world, Sherlock Holmes (so much like an autistic, himself), foreign languages, and others. How much like learning those languages was like learning to “read” people. All my weird sensory issues with fabrics and foods. My strong visual memory and how I see everything play out in my head as I read. My sensitivity to sounds, both good (perfect relative pitch) and bad (loud sudden noises are my only migraine trigger). A million little things, none forgotten, but suddenly in focus.

And while my primary preoccupation has been on using my own understanding of the autistic experience to help unlock doors for my son, the corrective lens of identity and memory also sharpens things that stayed in the background so long, I’d almost lost sight of them.

Like Clarence Treutel.

When I was nine, my mom remarried and we moved to Whitewater, WI, where my new stepdad was a professor of music education at the state university. It’s a gorgeous little town full of Victorian homes and stately elms. The university, with about 10,000 students, somehow manages to be insulated from everyday life, both for those on-campus and those off. Its presence made itself known in funny, mostly advantageous little ways. We had a disproportionate amount of cultural resources–world-class concerts, technology, a great public library. The people of color were most often Indian, African, or Asian, as opposed to Latino or African-American (this has changed a lot in the years since I moved away, thanks to a large influx of Hispanic workers for the big farms all around town).

Clarence was probably in his 50s when I met him, a perpetually smiling man with Mad Men-styled glasses and a salt-and-pepper buzzcut. He had an old bicycle that he rode sometimes, but mostly just walked along the sidewalks around town. He’d known my dad for a long time; my dad was very kind to him, and it didn’t occur for our family to treat him otherwise. He offered to walk my brother, sister, and me to and from our new school, a little less than a mile each way.

As we walked and talked, we got on well with him. His sense of humor and world outlook was that of a sixth-grade boy, generally, except for when it came to his interests. On town history, radio shows, old movies and TV, and professional wrestling, he could hold court. He was the only person I’d ever met who remembered as many facts, as clearly, as I did, and we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. I didn’t know what autism was, then, and he wouldn’t have known either, even if his mom and he hadn’t been Christian Scientists, which kept them from ever getting a diagnosis. But he was my first contact with a mind like mine.

Only when the school year got fully underway did I start getting questions about why I was spending time with Clarence. “He’s so weird,” my classmates would say. “Did he ask you to sign his bike seat? Don’t do it. My brother did, and he, like, talked to him for years! Like they were friends.” I noticed how the older kids would abuse him as we went past the junior high; they danced around him, chanting stupid taunts, accusing him of unspeakable things, occasionally daring to take a swipe at his body or bike. He would scowl and wave them off, trying to come back with clever retorts, sometimes. But mostly, he just held his chin firm, sadness in his grey eyes. I learned how to chase that look away by asking him about his favorite things.

Just like I do now for my son, when the world makes him so unbearably sad.

His mother died around the time I graduated from high school, leaving him alone; his father and brother had died quite some time earlier. My parents became his Powers of Attorney, and they continued to treat him with care, patience, and affection until they moved away in 1995. Another family took over his care. I heard that Clarence died in 2002, but it turns out he’s still around–a good friend back home corrected my misinformation, much to my happiness.

Don’t bother looking for him on the Internet. I did. He’s not there. There’s a 2002 Walworth County tax record for the property where he lived. That’s all. No pictures, no mention anywhere. Like he doesn’t exist. Like he hasn’t walked so many generations of kids to school, their self-elected protector. Like he hasn’t learned to stop across the street, so the parents can’t complain that he was a pedophile, and the bullies can’t be heard so loudly. I wish I had a picture, so you could see his kindness. But that absence tells an important story, too.

I’m so afraid, when I think of all the autistic kids who are aging out of the schools and social services, adults as alone as Clarence, always outside looking in. How many of them will find families and friends to give them help and love? How many of them don’t know how to ask for it? How many of us will see them and judge the surface, never taking the time to find out what chases away the sadness in their eyes?

Apr 29, 2012 - Physical Ed    13 Comments

For shame

I’m of two minds about shopping. I love seeing pretty, cool, interesting new things. Some of them, I even enjoy trying on or, if the stars are right, buying them. I also love seeing what Nightmares of Fashion Past are currently visiting themselves upon kids too young to have suffered them the first time.

On the other hand, we’re a lower-middle class, half-Aspergian family. We have young sons with voices that can shatter glass and the combined attention span of a brain-damaged goldfish. Big-box stores and malls not only stress the hell out of me, they often hurt me physically–cement floors are the bane of my existence.

And then there’s the fact that I’m fat. Clothes shopping is an exercise in frustration and self-loathing. Women’s sizes are frequently not available in stores, and when they are, those stores seem to think that plus-sized women are both color- and pattern-blind, and happy to spend another $10-15 for the same design in one size larger than the range they’ve decided is “normal.” My particular body shape further complicates things by being both tall and hourglass-shaped. Consequently, I’m forced to buy shirts a size bigger than I actually need them if I want them to button, and I’ve never once owned a pair of jeans that fit well at waist, hip, and length.

My boys at the Mall of America LEGO store last summer. The mech and helicopter behind them? Made of LEGO.

In any case, the underwire on my next-to-last bra broke suddenly this week, leaving me with one, count ’em, one bra to wear. This is not an Acceptable Situation. Since we’d already promised Connor he could pick out a new LEGO set as a reward for a week of good, steady progress in his program, and they didn’t have the Marvel Super Heroes LEGO at the local stores, we committed to making the pilgrimage to the Mall of America’s LEGO store. It’s pretty epic, and with a budget firmly established in advance, it’s a bunch of fun for all of us. I figured I’d make my own quick trip to Nordstrom, which is widely regarded as the best place to get fitted properly for a bra, and actually find one in irregular sizes like mine.

While the thought of a new bra or two appeals greatly, for practicality and pleasure, the thought of submitting to the handling and scrutiny of my gigantic bosom and scarred, lumpy midsection by a stranger with a measuring device appeals not at all. But I’d worked my heart and mind up to a place where I could tolerate the humiliation and inevitable revulsion I would face in that dressing room. I’d taken some Xanax to dull the psychic trauma of being in a place with so much ambient noise and stress. And I’d settled the boys comfortably, post-LEGO acquisition, so I wouldn’t have to take them into the highbrow hush of Nordstrom.

I went up to the the Lingerie section and spent a few minutes admiring both the lovely underthings and the signs that said “Sizes up to 44H.” A saleslady approached me and asked if she could help. I asked the general price range of their bras. She responded, “They go up to $200.” I nodded, more nonchalant than I felt, and asked again, “But the average price? Around $30 or 40?”

She laughed at me, a sniffy sound of disbelief. “Ah ha ha, um, no. They average around $60.” I thanked her for the information, and left with as much speed and dignity as I could muster.

Let me say that again: The Nordstrom saleswoman laughed at me.

I’d gone in there, ready to face shaming for my size and shape. I wasn’t ready to be shamed for my income before I’d even taken off a stitch of clothing. It was more than I could bear, and there were tears welling in the rim of my glasses before I even got back to the table where my boys were sitting. I didn’t trust myself to say out loud what had happened, so I typed it quickly on my phone so my Darling Husband would know: “Ever walk into a place and immediately feel like you’re not welcome, that you’re not good enough to be there and everyone knows it? She laughed at me when I asked if there were any bras in the $30 range.”

My sons saw the tears rolling silently down my face, and not knowing why, they still rose to press tiny, tight hugs around me. My Darling Husband, whom anyone who knows him is not quick to anger, got that tight set to his jaw, and walked silently into the store. When he came back, he told me he’d found the saleswoman and asked for her manager.  The woman’s response to the confrontation was that she certainly hadn’t intended it that way; he informed her that, when the effect was so horrendous, her intentions weren’t worth a damn. We both worked in retail for a long time, coming up, so he knew precisely the right words to invoke. He told them both that, in humiliating his wife, they had both failed utterly at customer service and managed to permanently lose at least two customers.

But I was wrecked, and the only passive-aggressive revenge I could manage at the time was to tweet my grief and horror. And as I told the friends on Twitter and Facebook who immediately rallied to me and suggested both solutions and unspeakable tortures upon the saleswoman, if I could find a bra as supportive as all those wonderful people, I’d be set for life. It wasn’t until today that I realized I have a teeny tiny platform of my own.

So let me say this. The difference between the haves and the have-nots has rarely been greater in this country. This divide isn’t just social or economic–it’s also geographic. There are places where people who don’t have much money are not only not welcomed, but where they will be humiliated for even daring to darken the doorstep. Don’t even breathe on the merchandise–your poorness might be catching, and we wouldn’t want that. I’ve already learned that, the fewer pieces of merchandise in a store, the less likely it is someone like me could afford anything in there. And if there are no price tags, don’t even bother asking–it’s out of your range.

The people who staff these places make snap judgments on the fitness of a patron in a split second, on purely superficial impressions, the very least reliable kind. That scene from Pretty Woman? It doesn’t only happen on Rodeo Drive. Apparently it happens in a Minnesota department store, too.

Want to know the saddest thing? Nordstrom has a discount sister store, Nordstrom Rack. I’ve bought clothes with retail prices in the hundreds of dollars for $20 or less at Nordstrom Rack. There is even, in fact, a Nordstrom Rack in the Mall of America (something I didn’t know yesterday). If that saleswoman was serious about the customer service reputation and/or the bottom line of Nordstrom, Inc., she could have easily directed me to that location for bras in my price range, and I would’ve left a happy customer likely to spend my hard-earned money on their merchandise. I might even have tweeted how pleased I was by the service I’d received.

But she didn’t. So I left her workplace feeling like dirt for daring to step outside Walmart with my grubby, contagious, working-class, overweight self.

So here’s what I have to say. Even if you’ve got the money to spend at Nordstrom–maybe even especially if you do–don’t. Unless you like that atmosphere that judges people, that says there’s a different America for those who don’t look right or make their money the right way. Give your money to the places that wait to see that your money’s as green as anyone else’s, or better yet, the ones that see a person first, instead of a class.

My Grandpa’s Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



I attended my first caucus in February; I’d only ever voted in primary states before, so I was keenly interested to see what this approach to local politics had to offer.

What did I get from it? I got elected precinct chair. I also got acute pancreatitis. (Okay, caucusing didn’t give me that–a gallbladder full of gravel did–but I was permanently scarred. No, really.)

As a result of the political events of that night, I also had a delegate’s seat at the Democratic, Farm, and Labor (DFL) party’s State Senate District Nominating Convention on Saturday. What I didn’t have on Saturday, though, was a babysitter, so with the Darling Husband guest-of-honoring it up at a convention in New York, I had convention credentials, two sons, and only one option: these poor kids were about to get a Saturday morning, non-musical lesson in civics.

I’d have just stayed home, but between the caucus and the convention, the new redistricting lines were announced. The new State Senate district boundaries put two long-time Democratic politicians up against one another, and I suddenly found myself being courted like I haven’t been since the DH slipped those emeralds on my finger in Aberdeen. Mailings, phone calls, invitations, even a house visit! I knew my vote would really count, win or lose, so ditching wasn’t an option.

Connor (L) and Griffin (R) at our little bastion of non-political entertainment at the MN DFL SD66 nominating convention. Note the balloons on the rows of seats behind them.

We went loaded for bear–computer, DVDs, iPhone, books, toys, and a host of questionably healthy snacks–and I’m going to tell you up front that the boys were outrageously, unexpectedly, refreshingly well-behaved. Really, I couldn’t expect better from any kids their age in similarly boring circumstances. About halfway through, Connor decided he was happier over by me on the convention floor. I explained what was going on, answered some of his questions, and he listened for a while. Eventually, we started playing Squares, which was far more consuming than the parliamentary maneuvers. Sadly, I did about as well as my favored candidate that day.

The different wards and precincts were arranged in rows of chairs, with balloons on the ends, marked with the appropriate numbers (we were in Ward 4 Precinct 13, so our balloon read W4P13). As with everything that requires people to sort themselves into appropriate groups, things immediately got confusing when delegates were required to take their seats. They counted off each precinct, and though the row in front of us was marked W5P3, it became apparent that no delegates from that precinct were in attendance. Connor happened to be seated in the chair to which that balloon was tied, and the woman running the convention indicated that the balloon should be taken down, to avoid any further confusion about that precinct.

I’ll let Connor take the story from here:

I asked if I could have the balloon. She said yes, but I shouldn’t take it out of the room, so it didn’t cause a fire hazard. [Mom: Balloons are fire hazards? Connor: No, it’s not; it just sets off the fire alarm. Mom: Oh. Huh.] The lady next to Mom had a Swiss army knife on her keychain, and she helped me cut it loose. 

Exhibit A: The Balloon, tied up in quarantine.

I took it over to show Griffin, when two sergeants-at-arms came over and stopped me. A nice woman said, “Don’t go out of the room with it.” I said, “I’m not going to take it out of the room.” Then she said, “Okay, but still, I don’t want you walking around with it.” Then the other sergeant-at-arms said, “Either give it to us, or pop it.” So I said, “But the people said I’m allowed to have it.” The nice lady asked, “Who were they?” I said, “They’re the people on the stage. My mom said it was okay.” Then the man said, “Are you arguing with me? Give us the balloon.” So I gave it to them. I felt very sad, like I didn’t have any power at all. And the worst part is, they didn’t do anything with the balloon! They just tied it up to a pole! 

Exhibit B: The Sergeant-at-Arms (not the nice lady, the other one)

I came over to tell Mom and the other people in her precinct. They all said that that wasn’t fair. I said this convention was ageist, and they said I should go to the microphone and ask if the DFL platform was anti-fun. I think they were joking. But Mom gave me her phone and told me to take pictures, like a reporter, and that we would tell the story on her blog. That made me feel better, because I was, like, “Now everyone will know about this! Everyone will remember this day as BALLOONGATE!”

I’m pretty sure we need a Schoolhouse Rock episode to explain this travesty of justice.

Mar 24, 2012 - Social Studies    6 Comments

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, part 1

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

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

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

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


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