Sunday, April 12, 2015

On Owning Your Words


The word, directed at me, was laced with vitriol.  I was eight years old, and I didn't know what it meant; I only suspected that it was something hurtful.

I was used to hurtful words, but when I asked my mother about this one, she told me only that it was not polite to repeat words like that.  So I didn't.

I grew up as a little brown girl with a Hispanic last name in an under-resourced school district, because that's where my mother taught, even though that wasn't where we lived.  I was never hung out with the Puerto Rican or Colombian kids, because I wasn't brown enough.  Nor did I fit in with the white kids; I was a teacher's daughter, I liked my books, I wore all the wrong clothes.

I only learned what it was like to be afraid of being different when I was in the sixth grade, though, when some of what we thought were my mother's high school students (they moved her to teach high school so she wouldn't teach me Spanish) came to our house in the middle of the night.  They threw eggs at my window, and yelled "Spic!" as loud as they could before laughing and driving away.  We never knew who it was, because it had been too dark to see them across the street from behind the tree, even though my mother had a pretty good guess.  I worried that they would hurt us, burn down our house or who knows what.  What was most worrisome was the anonymity of the episode: people could say these things to us, or hurt us, or destroy our property, and we'd never know who they were, even though they knew who I was, and where I lived.

My parents, not immune to judgments of their own, created their own poorly informed categories for people.  My father, whom I knew was a bigot despite (or maybe because) of his own marginalization, opined that Black people were lazy.  My mother had her thoughts on Indian people and body odor.     I became less brown as I got older, but I didn't forget. It took me a while to disentangle the stereotypes from the truth, and a lot of getting to know individual human beings.  It's a project I'm still working on.

Incomplete though my collection may be, armed with the stories I've learned over thirty years, I find that the reports about police brutality continue to take my breath away.  These are human beings; these could be my neighbors.  And the worst part is that I know this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Just the stories that have surfaced.  Just the stories that are being told, and not even by the people who own them.  There is so much more -- both more brutality that never hits the media, and more insidious and deep cultural racism that prevents us from ever talking to one another.

This past week, I have watched students turn to social media to victimize each other through racist (or complete insensitivity to racism) remarks.  Though the whole point of social media is the opportunities it creates for us to connect, I find that sometimes I feel like I'm following monologues.  The smaller the text box, the less we understand each other.  Like the videos gone viral, the brutality is being recorded for posterity.  But in this case, a lot of the brutality is anonymous.

I don't pretend to know what it's like to be the target of police brutality, or  the victim of a system that has been completely rigged against me.  But I do know what anonymous hateful words feel like.  They make you worried to go to sleep at night, even in a house where your parents sleep just across the hall.

There are two things I would say to my students (and to all of us, really, all the way up to the President), if anyone were listening.

First, let other people own their stories.  Let them tell those stories and listen to them without judging them.  Because those stories are their lived experiences.  And if you walk in this world, you help to shape those stories, whether you intend to or not.  I don't give a f#*$ what else you learn in college, as long as you learn that.

Second, own your words.  I have attached myself to a blogging community that has its share of anonymous bloggers, for good reasons.  Some of those people would not be able to tell their stories if they had to sign their names.  To me, that's a crime; but perhaps it is more important for the stories to be told (see the First thing).  That said: if you're going to stand up and offer critique, don't hide behind some invisibility cloak that you find on the Internet.  If you wouldn't say what you have to say to someone in person, then you probably have no right to say it.  It's time to start remembering that there are human beings on the other side of our computer screens and our phones, just as there were human beings on the other side of the smoking guns.
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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

From One Writer to Another

After we'd left all of our bags and coats in a locked room, they led us into a windowless classroom inside the library where a large screen featured the catalogue search page.  I was there with a group of students for a session on archival research; I thought that perhaps we'd see a presentation about how to find things.

Instead, they brought out an original Nuremberg Chronicle.  Invited us to touch the cloth pages, see where the bookworms had eaten through, touch the brass bosses that kept the book off the table and away from damp surfaces.  Without gloves on.

I'd been to university archives before, to look through old papers (for the history section of my dissertation), but never had I touched something this old with my bare hands.  It was astonishing to imagine the history, not just of the work itself, but of the people who had worked on this particular book (which took three years to make), who had held this copy of the book, who had read the book that I now touched.  People for whom the beginning of world history was Creation story, and for whom the end was the Apocalypse.  Something about the act of touch dissolved the boundaries between today and yesterday and hundreds of years ago, as if they'd been false all along.

There were other things.  A letter from Isaac Newton to Samuel Pepys (this in a thin plastic sleeve).  Navajo playing cards from the 19th century.  First full drafts of novels, with corrections and marginalia.

Marveling at correspondences between authors like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garciz Marquez, I felt a sense of loss, too: what rich exchanges will be irretrievable, now that those conversations are digitized?  Yes, we can save those things (because as we all know, the internet's memory is long, indeed), but who will?

I used to write long letters to friends, sending them by post.  Now, I dash off email, connecting and disconnecting.  I think about the email I've written to my author-friends, knowing that though I can't speak for them, sometimes the things we say to each other are the beginning and endings and interstices of what I write.  The conversations tell a more complete story about writing.  How will the archives trace those conversations, if at all?

What about the multiple drafts of novels, or other documents, whose revisions can now no longer be detected?  How do we tell those writing stories?

Do you still write anything longhand?  What's the oldest document you've touched?
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Monday, March 30, 2015

#Microblog Mondays: The Things I (Now) Hate

We were coloring (not drawing) with markers.

Despite the stockpile of crayons in all 96 colors (and more, given the slight variations in color depending on brand), and the fact that the markers were half-dried-up anyway, requiring smaller-than-usual strokes and frequent breaks, like tired workers, that's what she wanted.

I hate markers.  I can't even tell you why, exactly.  I can speculate that I find them wasteful, or frustrating because they're either too inky or not inky enough; I can admit that I often find myself trying to clean the marker lines that were the continuation of lines made on the page, which found themselves unexpectedly (though too predictably) on the table or the counter.

But I also know that I loved markers when I was a kid, too.  Was it because they were contraband?  Because my parents hated them, so I had to love them?  Because they were bright?  Because the color came so easily and could be distributed so evenly with such little effort?  Because I marveled at the power of the ink to bleed right through the page?  Because of the smell?  (Yes, definitely the smell.  Especially the Mister Sketch markers scented markers from elementary school art class, which came in 12 different fragrances.)

We're often told that we'll learn to like things as we grow older, as our tastes become more refined.  But at what point we decide, as adults, to hate some of the things we loved as children?  I don't think it has to do with having children (because I know childless adults who feel the same way I do), but I also can't pinpoint another moment when things changed.

What things do you now hate that you used to love as a child?

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Out of Time

Driving over the hill, I had to shade my eyes from the sun; the light was all wrong.

It was mid-day, and I'd taken the morning off to stay with my daughter, who had been running a fever of 106 (no, that is not a typo) during the previous two days.  I hadn't known that it was possible to run a fever that high and still be alive, but apparently my daughter, death-defier that she has been since her conception, thought nothing of the challenge.

My husband had come home to swap sick nurse duties with me so I could go in for a while.

Halfway to work, I ran into a detour that hadn't been advertised the day before. It looked like it had just been imagined that day, signs posted on cones placed haphazardly in the street.

Heads, I thought.  Heads.  Heads.

Have you ever found yourself somewhere, in what you know, instinctively, is the wrong time?  Not the wrong place, but the wrong hour of the day?  And not because anything terrible will happen, but just because you've created some unexpected wrinkle in the space-time continuum, and now feel a bit like you're looking at a 2-D world with 3-D glasses on?

I went the long way to work, thinking that this was the way I used to go, before I realized that there was a shorter, less-trafficked way.  Thinking about all of the ways I could turn, but didn't.

I'd been worried.  Do other parents worry that their children might die when they run a fever of 106?  I do. Is that morbid?  A little, maybe.

Sometimes she questions me, testing, "what if I died?"

I swallow the scream that I'd prefer to make, and tell her calmly, "oh, no. Let's not talk about that.  That would make me so very, very sad.  I don't even want to imagine it."

But I do imagine it.  More often than I care to admit, when she is sick, when I don't see her for a long time, when I've let her ride in someone else's car for a school field trip: what if I never see her again?  What if this gift was--is--temporary?  What if her life is a tease?

We'd been to the doctor, who told us that everything else looked fine, that it was probably a virus, that I should take her home and try to keep her comfortable.  That we should call right away if she started vomiting or coughing excessively or if her fever went up to 107 (which is apparently the threshold for worry).  So I took her home, let her lie on the couch with her Elsa blanket, tried to coax her to drink juice and water and eat ice cubes, dumped her into lukewarm bathwater despite her protests and screams and tears.

Tomorrow I'd be on the way to work, and the light would be the way it's supposed to be, the sun not quite up yet, casting long shadows over the hills.  The detour would have been removed, holes in the road now patched, stretches of it smoother than before, improved from assault of winter.  N. would be on her way to school, too, having shaken the last of the fever, with no remaining symptoms after I left on that strange half-day.

Still, it would take me longer to shake that feeling of strangeness, that being out of time.  Sometimes I wonder if we need those disorienting moments just to remind us that we're alive, after all.
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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bystander Intervention, and the Comeback

(reposted in an expanded version from Facebook)

I don't usually stop at Starbucks in the morning.  I make my own coffee, and even when I buy coffee, I prefer to get it from an independent shop.  But 1) I had to go to the post office, which is near Starbucks; 2) I had a question about a package of coffee I'd bought; 3) it was St. Patrick's Day, and I thought maybe they'd have something interesting to drink.  I'd already finished caffeine round one, and my tumbler was empty.

After deciding that nothing new was particularly appealing, I ordered a boring skim latte, made pleasantries with the cashier, paid, and went to wait at the end of the counter.  Up strode a female customer who was clearly not happy.

Barista, getting to the counter as fast as he can (he walks slowly because of a health issue): "can I help you?"

Female customer, standing with hand on hip and making a pissed off face, waving her coffee: "yeah, this tastes like water." Throws cup across the counter.

Barista, remaining calm and cheerful: "sure, let me remake that for you. What did you have?"

Customer, sneering: "Caramel Machiatto."

Me, after the barista walks away, deciding I can't watch this silently, in as kind a voice as I can muster: "You know, you could try to be a little nicer. It's not the easiest job."

Customer, now sneering at me: "You could mind your own business."

Me, agreeing: "You're right, I could. But I didn't."

Customer shouting after me, as I'm walking out the store: "I'm going to be late for work because of this ... and by the way, get a sense of fashion."


I am walking down the street towards the office, holding my coffee, wondering if I care about the customer's desperate attempt at a barb.  I love the sweater I'm wearing.  It's my most comfortable sweater.  I bought it at Urban Outfitters, ridiculously on sale, and was proud of myself for shopping, for myself, on a whim, at a store where I don't usually shop.  My pants are a hair too tight because it's winter, but you can't see that because the sweater is like a tent.  My shirt, deep forest green, is my only homage to St. Patrick's Day, not counting the shamrock socks, which you can't see because they're hidden by the old black boots, heels worn past the sole, right down to the plastic.  The heels could be colored in Sharpie, but I don't bother.

In a moment of revelation, I decide that I don't care.  And it is incredibly liberating to realize that the stupid comeback doesn't bother me.  And that while I can have sympathy for that woman, who was clearly not a happy person that morning (or maybe even at all), we can't let people walk all over other people.  For any reason.

Later, one of my students runs into me near the dining hall.  "I just have to tell you," she says, grinning, "you are a rock star.

"Huh?" I say.

"I was there this morning.  At Starbucks."

"Ohhhhh," I say, laughing. "You were there?"

She recounts the story for the people waiting in the lobby, and turns to me.  "And I thought, 'I want to be more like that.'"

I couldn't ask for a higher compliment.

But I am not a perfect person, and I also know that there are times when I should have spoken up, and didn't.


That was going to be the end of my story, but just this afternoon, I learned that in the early morning hours of March 18 (today, for those of you counting), a young black man, a junior at the University of Virginia, an Honor Committee student, a leader on campus with no criminal record, was beaten by police, requiring ten stitches to his head, when he tried to enter a bar. 

I don't care if he was presenting false ID.  There's no reason for what happened to him.

I am not going to equate standing up for a barista at Starbucks with refusing to be a bystander to racism, with questioning white privilege and doing something to level the playing field.  It is easier to say something when the stakes are lower, when all you have to worry about is someone critiquing your fashion sense.

But I want us to ask ourselves: how can we be bystanders, when injustice (both larger issues of racism and the smaller microaggressions that belie racist, classist, sexist attitudes) is not in our back yards, but on our front doorsteps?  And in the places we call home?
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Saturday, March 14, 2015


Last night, as the kids ate dumplings and sushi and sate (ordered in) at the kitchen counter, because my husband was away at the NJ Regional Science Fair, I told them that today was going to be Pi Day.  We would have pie for breakfast, and pie for dinner, and maybe even pie for lunch.  Because: pie.  Do you really need an excuse?

via flickr user Alex Cockroach under Creative Commons license
We have a whiteboard in our kitchen, mostly where we hang the calendar (now that refrigerators are no longer magnetic) and where I write down the menu for the week, but also where we scribble math problems and words and diagrams when we're trying to explain something.  My son and husband in particular love this, and will leave their problems up on the board until the dry erase marker becomes part of the whiteboard, and I have to scrub the thing with alcohol.  (Type A, remember?)  But I confess, it does come in pretty handy.

I asked my son if he knew what pi was.  He said yes, it was a number.  I agreed that was partially right, but that it was even more magical than that.  I drew a circle, and he correctly identified both the circumference and the diameter (things I don't know if I knew when I was in third grade); I explained the pi was the ratio of the circle's circumference to its diameter ... that no matter how big or how small the circle was, you'd always get the same number, and that it goes on forever without an identifiable repeating pattern in the decimal: irrational and transcendental.  Pi helps us to describe every process, every cycle that repeats.  Pi explains waves.  Pi is the universe sticking its tongue out at us, refusing to be calculated in some way that we can pin down, but also bringing us ever closer to its understanding.

"Isn't that cool?" I said, waving my marker.

"Whoa, cool," agreed I. and N.

I wouldn't consider myself a math geek.  But pi reminds me that math is pretty amazing, that part of its beauty lies in its enigmatic nature.  I hope that I can instill some of that wonder in my kids, even if I've used it as an excuse to eat pi, or pie, for breakfast.

What's your favorite pie?  Are you a math geek?
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Monday, March 9, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Read to Me

(technically posted on Tuesday, I guess.)

This weekend, during a long drive (you'll just have to wait to find out where I went!), I listened to what I think may have been my first audiobook.

I belong to a book discussion group that reads one book a month together, and I've always read the book, scanned the physical pages, even brought it with me to meetings for reference.  I think I may have read a book on the Kindle just once; I just prefer the feel and smell of paper, being able to flip back and forth, scanning the pages for a word or a passage.  Other people in the group, people who are frequent flyers and commuters, listen to audiobooks regularly.  I just didn't think it was for me.

But the person in charge of our choice for this month picked Faulker's As I Lay Dying, and though I bought the paper copy too (somehow, I seemed not to have a copy any more, though I'm sure I read it in high school), thinking about my drive, on a whim, I downloaded the book from Audible.

I don't know if it would work as well with all books, but something about this one--between the cast of characters and frequent switch of narrators, and the poetic language that the characters use--it was absolutely the right choice.  I don't remember enjoying--or understanding--Faulkner nearly as much on the printer page as I have as it has been read to me.  Suddenly the poetry of the language became more evident than before, the pauses and ellipses more pregnant and meaningful.

On the way home from work I caught a story on NPR about audiobooks: about authors who now write for the ear, rather than the eye.   We like the intimacy of a private performance, the publishers say.  But it's something deeper, too.  After all, stories began in oral tradition.  Why wouldn't we be pulled back to our origins by the very technology that divides us from the past?

I used to read to my son every night, until he decided that he could read faster on his own than I could read to him.  Now, I read to my daughter, and sometimes, my son still wanders in, though the books are far beneath him, to listen to the story, to laugh at the voices, to cuddle with us.  He leaves reluctantly to brush his teeth, hangs around the doorway, still listening.  When I turn the light out, my daughter asks me to tell her another, to fabricate something out of the darkness.  Sometimes, I ask her to tell me one, too.  There's just something about the sound of a good story.

Do you listen to audiobooks?  Do you still read aloud?


Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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