Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Because I Need To Write About Ferguson.

I will likely have nothing original to say about Ferguson, but that doesn't matter.  I need to say something.

I'm deeply saddened, by so many things: by the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Williams, by the ensuing protests that left Ferguson on fire last night (burning down, among other things, a bakery owned by a black woman for whom her business represented years of selling her cakes at flea markets), by the police response to the violence (more violence), and by a culture that continues to turn a blind eye to persistent racism, hiding under the banner of colorblindness.

James Forman writes in the Atlantic about Chicago sociologist Alice Goffman's book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries)
One consequence of racism and segregation is that many American whites know little or nothing about the daily lives of African Americans. Black America’s least-understood communities are those poor, hyper-segregated places we once called ghettos. These neighborhoods are not far away, but they might as well be on the moon. The only news most people ever hear about the inner city comes from grim headlines; the only residents they can name are characters on The Wire. Of course, ignorance of a community doesn’t stop outsiders from having opinions about it or passing laws that govern it. But those opinions, based on stereotypes and catchphrases, make it difficult to conduct meaningful public deliberation about social policy. And the laws, all too often, harm people who have enough going against them already.
When we talk about Ferguson, let's not start with the fact that there are some good police, or that #AllLivesMatter, or anything else that's self-evident and self-congratulatory.  Let's not even start with the fact that beyond the outright bigots there are some really thoughtless people out there, like the Rhodes candidate who saw my student (another Rhodes candidate at the time, now a Rhodes winner) reading Americanah and said "hey, is that book any good?  You're like the fourth black girl I've seen reading it."  Let's not try to erase race by supplanting it with class, and say that poverty is at the root of all social ills (yes, they are tangled.  That doesn't mean they're the same).  Let's start with this: we have a problem with racism in this country, which is not going away any time soon.

And that's why the protests are happening.  Because pleas to be peaceful in the name of Michael Brown could not contain how people feel.  Because what happened in Ferguson, not just on that night in August but for the hundred and eight days the followed, is a metonym for something much larger and more insidious.  Because despite calls for "healing," our country doesn't know how to move forward from where we are; there are no guideposts for this.

I can look at the evidence given to the grand jury. I don't know what their deliberations looked like.  They must have thought their verdict was fair, given the evidence they reviewed and the laws that governed their decision.  I can think that shooting an unarmed man 12 times should be a crime in anyone's book.  But I don't know what it's like to live where Michael Brown lived.  I will never experience a world of arrest quotas and high-tech surveillance; I will never have to be a fugitive from my own home.

Maybe one thing we can all do is start naming the racism we see, instead of telling people they're overreacting.  Maybe we can be more mindful about our language.  Maybe we can start to be honest with ourselves about what modern racism looks like.  Maybe we can stop using shorthand (e.g. the picture of Ferguson burning), and use the tools of the anthropologist--thick, rich description--to understand.  Maybe we can fight for more equality by fighting for more opportunity.  Maybe we can learn how other people live, beyond what the media shows us.  Maybe we can be kind to each other.

Maybe this is one role for the humanities.

Nothing will change overnight.  But we owe our children a better legacy than this.
Pin It

Monday, November 24, 2014

#MicroblogMondays: Liminal

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

  1. of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
  2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.

One of the questions on the supplemental application for high school hopefuls trying to gain admission to the hallowed halls of the institution where I work is: "Favorite Word."

I don't know if I had had a favorite word in high school, but I know what it is now.

In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") is the indeterminate phase in the middle of rituals, when the participants in the ritual are no longer exactly as they were before the ritual, but have not yet assumed the role that they will assume after its is complete. Imagine standing in the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and you've pictured a liminal space exactly.

That's exactly where we are now: on the threshold, on the thin line between fall (a balmy afternoon in the 60s) and winter (snow forecast for Wednesday), not really in either, but somewhere on the edge.  One of my students asked me to tea today off campus, and it couldn't have been a more perfect day to escape for a little while.  If it hadn't been for her, I might have missed it.

What's your favorite word?  Are you bracing for transition?  Or have you crossed over?
Pin It

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On Being Interesting, Reprise

Without trying, really, I tend to surround myself with people who I deem more interesting and more intelligent than I am, on the theory that they'll inspire me to be the best version of myself.  This works sometimes.  Other times, not so much.

Late last week, I was invited to judge a 24 hour student film festival (that is, a festival of student films made in 24 hours).  I know next to nothing about how to decide if a film is any good, or about making a movie, or about chugging Red Bull, but I was honored to be asked (even though I knew I wasn't their first choice because they'd forgotten to remove some key sentences in the email invitation they sent, a fact that was later confirmed by my boss, who had been nearer the top of their list), and since the event started at 9 on a Saturday night, I could leave the kids just before bed and head down to campus.  It felt like more than just a token responsibility; the prizes included $500 cash: $100 each to best acting and best screenplay, $200 for best production, and $100 for audience favorite.After checking with my husband, I ignored the little voice saying "why me?" and replied that I'd be delighted to join them. 

I drove to campus, parked in my normal lot and, finding myself earlier than I'd expected (traffic was lighter than I'd thought on a Saturday night) took the long way to the classroom, treating myself to a double pumpkin spice latte on the way.  (I don't think I'd ever had a pumpkin spice latte before.  Does that make me unAmerican, uncultured, or just un-brainwashed?)

When I arrived at the classroom, I was greeted by some familiar faces; they were still setting up, so I took my reserved seat in the judges' row.  I was soon joined by a philosophy professor on the Committee for Film Studies, a master of another residential college and his daughter (a film critic), a video producer/editor at the university Broadcast Center, and the Dean of Admissions (who doesn't make movies, but at least goes to see them once in a while).  I started feeling more than a little unqualified for the task at hand.

The films were great: creative, funny, touching, thoughtful, little windows into our students' brains.  I marveled at the accomplishment, thinking that I never could have made a five-minute film in 24 hours as an undergraduate.  I thoroughly enjoyed the next hour and a half, though I second-guessed my way through my ratings, and starting going back when it was all over.  I was the last judge to hand in my ratings; they had resorted to asking members of the audience to tell jokes to bide time.  As they tallied the responses, the philosophy professor made pleasant conversation, while I sat there feeling like I had nothing to say: I don't go to the movies, I barely get to read a book a month, I don't do research.  I cook, I do laundry, I clean, I commute.  I help my children learn to read and navigate Prezi for a class assignment.

And I wonder, why is it that I go there, to that place of feeling like I'm a boring individual who has wasted the last ten years of her life not learning anything or growing in any way, so quickly?  Why be so quick to compare myself to people who have lived different lives than I have?  Why not walk away from an event like that feeling grateful for the fact that students from across a few college, after only a year in my position, tell me that I'm "esteemed" (and when I tease them about it, defend the use of the adjective by looking it up in the OED)?  Why worry about being second, or third, or ninth fiddle?  Why wonder why, during my two years at home with N., I didn't earn another degree or become a better musician or write a novel?  Why worry about what I'm not doing with the little free time I have?

Perhaps awareness that your thoughts are crazy is the first step, but it's nowhere near half the battle.

Do you surround yourself with people you think are smarter/cooler/more interesting than you are?  Do you secretly worry about not being interesting enough (or some variant on the theme)?
Pin It

Friday, November 21, 2014

Choose Your Own Adventure, and Thai Peanut Curry

This week, the world lost a visionary when it lost R.A. Montgomery last week.

Remember Choose Your Own Adventure books?

I don't know when I first started reading them--they were already below my reading level when I discovered them in the library--but I blew through the series, devouring them over the summer by the stack.  It was the precursor to hypertext for me; I loved the idea that stories could branch out in different directions, and that you could return to the source only to do it all over again in a completely different way.

The genre wasn't exactly new; Wikipedia (forgive the source) tells us that the game book most likely originated with Jorge Luis Borges is 1941, who wrote about the fictional author of a "game book" in 1941, followed by an actual puzzle novel a few years later.  But R.A. Montgomery popularized the idea, and with Choose Your Own Adventure, game books took off.

I found myself in the grocery store today, buying turkey.  Not a whole bird, mind you, but enough for dinner this weekend before we leave for our trip.  And I wondered why.

I think it has to do with choice.

Given the ability to choose, suddenly traditional Thanksgiving--on my terms, with only my immediate family--seemed like fun.

It's also curry season, and I know a family who eats Indian food for Thanksgiving, just because they can.  There are people who choose to eat tofu for Thanksgiving.  Somehow, having the choice makes tradition seem more bearable.

So: here's to R.A. Montgomery, who empowered a generation (and then some) of young people to feel like they could have some say over their destinies.  You will be missed.

Did you ever read the Choose Your Own Adventure series?

Thai Peanut Tofu
Maybe your Thanksgiving includes a turkey, and maybe not.  But it's curry season, and this will warm you just as well as a dinner full of starches.

1 block medium firm tofu, cut into 1/2" cubes
cornstarch to coat tofu
splash of soy sauce
splash of sesame oil
1 T. olive oil
2 bell peppers, slivered
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch knob fresh ginger, minced
15 oz. can light coconut milk
2 T. red curry paste
1/2 c. peanut butter
1 T. sesame oil
a  bag of baby spinach
cooked basmati rice

Place the tofu pieces in a bowl, splash over soy sauce and sesame oil to taste. Refrigerate, occasionally stirring to make sure all pieces are coated.  Toss in cornstarch to coat lightly.

Add the oil to a large wok or frying pan over medium high heat. Add the tofu and saute until the cubes begin to brown and get crispy. When they have almost finished cooking, remove it from the pan and set aside in another bowl.

Working quickly, add a little more oil to your wok and saute the peppers, garlic, and ginger.  Once the peppers have softened, stir in the lite coconut milk, red curry paste, peanut butter, and sesame oil. Whisk all ingredients together until heated through and blended. Set sauce aside.

Wipe the wok clean or in another skillet, heat a tiny bit of olive oil over medium high heat. Saute the spinach for a few minutes until it is slightly wilted.

Heap spinach in each bowl, top with basmati rice and tofu, and drizzle with peanut sauce.
Pin It

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mental Health on Campus

There have been a lot of conversations lately on my campus and others about mental health.  And to be perfectly honest?  I'm concerned.

We've seen some pretty awful things happen on college campuses recently.  The shootings at FSU and in Santa Barbara.  The man who opened fire with a handgun in a building at Seattle Pacific University, killing one and injuring two others. These events, and the stories of students who have harmed themselves instead of harming others, demand both that we rethink the role of the campus in cultivating and supporting mental health and well-being, but that we also take seriously our own limitations in doing so.

Walking the fine line between caring for students and appearing punitive is complicated, though.

On the one hand, we need to take care of students for whom college triggers or exacerbates mental illness.  We know that the instances of depression and anxiety among college students are higher than ever.  According to the American College Health Association's 2013 national survey, over 30 percent of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function" at some time over the past year. Over 50 percent felt "overwhelming anxiety."  Eighty-four percent felt "overwhelmed by all they had to do."  And yet only 10 percent were diagnosed with/treated for depression, and 15 percent diagnosed with/treated for anxiety. A 2011 National Alliance on Mental Illness study of college students diagnosed with mental health conditions found that more than half of the students with mental health conditions who dropped out of school didn't access campus-based support services.  We need to make it acceptable to seek help for mental illness (at all stages) instead of hiding because they fear being seen as weak or stigmatized, and we need to educate our communities better to recognize the warning signs.  I wish that someone had recognized what was happening with Elliot Rodgers, and done something for him before it was too late for him, and for others.  While the police who did the welfare check on Rodgers certainly missed the boat, so did so many others who had contact with him on a regular basis, who might have been able to catch this before tragedy became the inevitable outcome.

On the other hand, we need to be able to talk openly and honestly about the fact that colleges are not equipped to handle students who require intensive care.  Students where I work have been worried about the fact that the college may ask them to leave if they are a threat to themselves and the community, and they worry that we won't allow them to come back.  Though there have been stories about students being bullied into withdrawing, my experience has been of staff and faculty members looking out for students--we do the best we can with extensions and accommodations first if situations haven't reached a crisis level--and realizing that we are limited in our ability to provide support.  We can't exclude students with any disabilities--mental or otherwise--from pursuing their educations.  But if they are not in a position to balance both treatment (which can be a full time job, and then some) and the rigors of college work, we have to help them to be realistic, and to allow themselves the time and space to be well enough to return and be successful.  Mental health problems also have real ripple effects for the community that need to be considered; if a student is suicidal, and a roommate is (rightfully) concerned, how will that roommate focus on her work?  I worked with a student last semester who was in an intensive outpatient program, and (understandably) fell behind in his classes.  As I arranged extension after extension with his professors, I worried about the additional psychological weight of his accumulating academic responsibilities.  At every point, I tried to keep the door open so that he could leave without being judged.  I let him know that what he was trying to do was challenging, and that his first priority needed to be his own well-being.  In the end, he made it through that semester, but at the expense of the fall; it had been too much.

We also need to rethink the way we cultivate wellness.  I work at a place where the pressure to perform is extreme: our community includes of some of the highest-achieving students from around the country and the world and some of the most well-known scholars in their fields.  Even in co-curricular circles, students take themselves very seriously; many of our athletes and artists and dancers might as well be professionals, and students who arrive with an amateur interest in, say, dance, often have their hopes dashed when they are rejected from some of the prestigious dance companies on campus, which aren't even affiliated with the dance department.  The unfortunate culture of effortless perfection is strong here.  As someone who was pushed from an early age to achieve, and who later pushed herself, listening to the voices in my head that told me I'd never be good enough, I know exactly where these students are coming from.  What I didn't have was the additional pressure of feeling that everyone else around me had it all together, because I went to a large state school.  That came later, perhaps in graduate school, and the effects were very real, even though I had four more years of experience on my side.

Worse, many of them report being socialized to think that being this busy and overcommitted is normal, or even desirable; that they're somehow flawed for not being able to handle it; and that attentiveness to wellness and downtime is an undesirable feature in a successful student/professional/adult.  While some of it is chemical, I think that some of it is also environmental.  The competition and pressure starts early, with our own children, who we know are also--as a generation--overscheduled and overcommitted.  How many of us really opt out?

Students don't want to take time off, but they also don't realize that not taking time off could result in poor grades from not being able to catch up, or worse.  Then, they worry that if they do take time off, that the institution will ask them to offer up some evidence that a treating professional thinks they can come back without being a risk to themselves and others.   If you're already experiencing severe depression and anxiety, it's a lot harder to think this sort of thing through rationally.

I don't think we should encourage our young people to be mediocre.  I think that all students deserve to be challenged to achieve their potential; after all, that's how we get leaders and innovators.  But I think that we need to do a better job of teaching them (and modeling) balance, speaking openly about mental illness, reminding them that no one expects perfection, that we need to judge ourselves by what we learn, not by what we earn.  In the end, no one cares whether you got an A or a B or even a C on your English term paper.  They care that you turn out to be a decent human being who makes a contribution to the world, in whatever way you are called to do, to the best of your ability.

Did you ever take time off in college?  What is your experience of mental illness, or of expectations of perfection, on campus?
Pin It

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Keeping the Channel Open

I spend entirely too much time on Facebook, perhaps to the detriment of my own productivity outside of my work day (though my brain seems to turn off at 9:30, so perhaps it's not such a loss after all), but sometimes it pays off: the other day someone posted a link to a short piece on judgement by James Clear about Agnes de Mille and Martha Graham.  And though I've heard the quote before, today I can't get it out of my head.

The story, briefly, goes like this: de Mille spent years of her life choreographing things she thought were wonderful, but received no critical acclaim.  Then, she choreographed Oklahoma!--which she deemed second-rate--and it was a fabulous success.  Confused about her own ability to judge her work, and worried that she couldn't be as good as she wanted to be, she went to see Martha Graham, who told her that:
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open."
In other words, not only are we our own worst critics, but we have no business deciding what's any good.

As someone who studied literature and philosophy, I find myself bristling, because this approach complicates our notions of standards (which humanists fight to establish all the time...why else make decisions about what we teach in an art or literature class?).  But it also doesn't exactly leave the worth of your work in the hands of your consumer, either.

And I get it.  We can't let our self-judgment paralyze us.  Our job is to show up, and create, to the best of our ability.  The work isn't good or bad; it just is.

Clear says we should "fall in love with the process."  So we're not so obsessed any more with the end, but we can luxuriate in the great middle, the producing.  Which is useful food for thought for me this NaBloPoMo.

The last time I did NaBloPoMo, it was summer.  I had lots of vegetables to cook in new ways, I had sunlight to shoot photos, I was going to yoga, I wasn't commuting.  I got lots of comments.  I felt like I was part of a community.  I enjoyed the process.  This time, I get home late, when it's too dark to shoot; I haven't been cooking a lot of original things because I have only the weekends, and even those have been busy; I haven't been going to yoga.  I get home, do the chores, and feel tired.  I sit on the couch and eat, because invariably I haven't eaten enough for dinner.  I want to do NaBloPoMo, and at the same time, I resent my own commitment.  I think about what I have to get done, rather than the doing.  And invariably, I judge.  I tell myself there's no point in blogging.  I have nothing to say.  No one comments anyway.  If I have lurkers, I'd never know it.  All of this is about the end, not about what happens in the middle.

(The other day I sent a poem I'd written to an English professor, and immediately regretted it, telling myself how bad the poem was, and how could I presume to send my crappy poem to someone who knows anything about literature.  Wrote Anne Lamott tonight: "I would be just fine most of the time, if it weren't for my mind."  I hear you, Anne.  I hear you.)

What would happen if we just kept the channel open?  What would it look like?  All of this talk about finding voice ... what if it's been there all along, if we just stopped trying to think so much about it?

Do you "keep the channel open"?   Do you think you'll ever be satisfied with your work?  Do you believe, as Graham does, that dissatisfaction breeds creativity?  Have you fallen in love with your process?  How do you decide what's good, and does it matter?

Pin It

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


When I call home from my car, she demands to talk to me.

"Mama," she chastizes me, "you have to come home."

"Yes, love," I tell her, "I'm on my way.  I'm in my car right now."

"You have to drive fastly," she says.  I hear the admonishment in her voice.  "So you don't get home so late."

"I'll be home as soon as I can," I tell her.  "But I can't drive too fast; I don't want to get into an accident."

"Well, OK," she says, grudgingly.  I can hear her crossed arms.


"Mama," she tells me, from her bed, wrapping her small arms tightly around my neck, "you're trapped."

I've missed you, too, I think.  "OK," I agree.  "But what about work tomorrow?  How will I get to work?"

"I will un-trap you in the morning," she assures me, hugging even more tightly.

I laugh, but in truth, that would be fine with me.


I love both of my children.  My son is a delight.  But I call my daughter my "special girl."  And every time she loves me like this, fiercely, it returns to me: against the odds, she is the one who lived.
Pin It
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...