Friday, May 22, 2015

New Tricks

It's a litte embarrassing, in some respects, to admit how long I've been taking yoga.  Embarrassing because in all these years, I haven't gotten much better at it.

Sure, I've improved my alignment, developed (and lost and developed and lost) strength and balance. But I hit a plateau a while ago that I haven't bothered to do anything about.

Like anything else, you have to practice in order to get better at what you know, and you have to have someone teach you things you don't.  And when you don't go to class very often, and you don't have a good home practice, there's not much hope for you.

I've been thinking lately about how I miss learning new things.  I put a lot of mental energy into my job and my family, and sometimes I find it hard to think outside of those boxes.  But I know that it's possible: I have plenty of positive role models, even among friends, people who have taken pottery classes and picked up quilting and wrote novels and trained for marathons.  And I'm not an old dog yet.  It's true, I can read more CSS code than I used to.  And I can read more French than I used to.  And I've been practicing my headstands, ever since last summer, though I haven't yet succeeded to get myself upside down in the middle of a room.

I went to a yoga class in town last night.  Not the studio where my favorite teacher practices (which is, sadly, a 20 minute drive and only really do-able on occasional weekends), but someplace local that I can walk to.  Everyone in class seems to know each other, which felt a little weird.  And they talk through the entire class period, which is also a little weird.  But I like the teacher well enough.  She's down to earth, and has a good sense of humor.  And last night she told the class to do flying lizard.

Which apparently everyone knew how to do but me.

Flying lizard starts, predictably, with lizard.  (That's lizard, at the left, courtesy of forteyoga.  Looks easy enough, right?  Only it's not so easy once you've been stuck there for about two minutes.)

Then, you crawl your forward leg up around your shoulder (or put your shoulder under your forward leg), and you bend your other arm to support the other half of your body, which is going to fly as you lean forward just a bit (at right).

The model at right is not leaning forward.  But I was.  Because I don't have that kind of core strength.  Go, model.

At first, I wobbled a lot.  I fell over.  I decided there was no way in hell that my back leg was going to float off the floor.  The woman next to me, who was older and looked--on first sight--like she was less in shape than I am, did it beautifully.  And then assured me that if I did it again, I'd be able to do it, too.

I wasn't going to try it again, but something about her assurance poked me a little bit.  There was still time.  Why not try again?  And then everyone was looking, and up I went.

Then the teacher told us all to practice fallen angel (devaduuta panna asana).   Starting with a side arm balance, you allow your cheek to rest on the ground, stretch one leg to the sky, and fold the other up to your straightened leg.  Not trivial.  But I gave it a shot, and managed not to fall over immediately.  The second time, I got my leg up in the air.

It was a wonderful feeling, doing something new.  I'd forgotten.  And yes, as my husband pointed out, parenting involves learning something new every day, but there's something about this kind of learning that feels different.  Good.  Measurable.

(Now I just have to get myself back on the mat again before another month goes by.)

What have you been meaning to learn?  What have you taught yourself lately?
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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Art in the Queue

At the far end of the post office lobby in the town where I work, featured prominently for the viewing pleasure of people in the queue, there is a mural entitled America Under the Palms (1939).  Painted in neoclassical style, the mural depicts Columbia, popular allegorical figure of the New World during the colonial period, recumbent in her traditional blue gown, holding a liberty pole hung with a liberty cap, leaning in conspiratorially to hear what tidings the eagle, front and center in the mural, brings. Behind her cower two Native Americans, arms raised to shield themselves from noisy heralds that point at them.  To her left are three white men dressed in frock coats, surrounded by symbols of learning: a globe, books, classical busts. Our most well-known university building dominates the background.

The mural is huge, and there's a lot going on. Considered in its entirety, it's fairly racist.  It's a product of its time, of course.  Perhaps it was meant to exhort University students and town residents to greatness in the service of their country.  Or something.  (Though I suspect that students haven't spent much time thinking about the message of the mural in the post office.)  And racist as it is, the depiction of the white male Enlightenment taking over the "natives" in town is fairly accurate, though perhaps not as celebratory as the artist intended.

What catches my eye every time, though, is the verse written below the painting:
"America! With Peace and Freedom blest/Pant for true Fame and scorn inglorious rest./Science invites, urged by the Voice divine,/Exert thyself 'til every Art be thine."
The irony is that whenever I'm looking at the mural, I'm standing in line.  I epitomize inglorious rest.  And I find myself feeling a little annoyed at the whole idea of rest being inglorious anyway, given how my undergraduates treat busy-ness as a status symbol, and how that mindset often ends up sabotaging them.

In fact, when I'm looking at that mural, I often realize that I have been completely immersed in the moment, completely present.  Here I am standing in line, I think.  Sometimes I consider what I'm going to do at work that day, or what's on deck at home.  But most times, I'm really just thinking about standing in line.  And waiting for the line to move, but also just knowing that there's nothing I can do to make the line move any faster, so I might as well just be there.   I'm not playing with my phone, because that would involve holding the phone, and usually, when I'm standing in that line, I'm holding some sort of package that requires two hands.

The post office is going to move to a new location soon.  I'm not sure what they'll do with the mural, but I know that the queue just won't be the same.

Is there art--even annoying art--in your life where you stand still?
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Monday, May 11, 2015

#Microblog Monday: On the Yak, and the Price of Free Speech

On April 17th, a young college student and member of a group called Feminists United was murdered in her apartment after attending a day of silence event raising awareness about bullying of sexual minorities on campus.  This is horrific enough.  But perhaps even worse: Grace Rebecca Mann and her friends had already voiced concern with university administrators during months of harassment on Yik Yak, claiming that a "rape culture" persisted on campus (to date, more than 700 sexist Yik Yak postings targeting feminists and members of Feminists United have been published).  And the university told the students to take it up with Yik Yak.

The students are filing a Title IX complaint.  I hope that they get support, and I hope that some justice will be done, much as I know that there will never be peace for Grace Rebecca Mann's family.  But I wonder what happens in situations where there is no campus authority, no one to appeal to for safety.

The other day Dooce was featured in a New Yorker article on mommyblogging, explaining her decision to stop blogging as partially motivated by the "personal and emotional" toll it was taking.  Writes Rebecca Mead: "The phenomenon of Internet misogyny—often anonymous, usually vitriolic, and sometimes scarily violent—has, of necessity, become a pressing preoccupation for contemporary feminists, just as the issue of unpaid labor was for activists of the early seventies. Women are afflicted disproportionately by online abuse, with trolls apparently lying in wait for those whose online speech is perceived as being too outspoken."  We've seen this again and again, not just with mommybloggers but during GamerGate, with the Henry Gee/Isis the Scientist doxxing situation.  And while the harassment of women online itself is not new, its hyper-locality--and in the case of Yik Yak, real anonymity--makes it even scarier.

What the Grace Rebecca Mann case demonstrates, and what I've seen my own students experience, is that the freedom of expression that anonymity promotes online can lead to a culture that considers personal violence--especially against women, who are (according to the most recent Pew Research data), by a small margin, more likely to be using social media--acceptable.  Yik Yak does have standards, and will cooperate with authorities in the face of a specific actionable threat, but otherwise it relies on self-policing.  Which, unfortunately, seems not to be enough.  Social media seems to offer a proving ground for real-life hate.  And if the community happens not to do something about it, then what?

Over the years I've tended more towards Rousseau than towards Hobbes in the "depravity of human nature" debate, but given the evidence, I can't help but rethink my position.  Why, when we're given the opportunity to be anonymous, do we choose to do harm?

We will not know for some time, if ever, what happened the night that Grace Rebecca Mann was murdered.  But I wonder: will we decide at some point that anonymity and free speech online isn't worth the price we have to pay for it?

What do you think?  Is Yik Yak responsible for not doing something about the harassment of the young women at Mary Washington?  Is the community responsible?  The university?

Do you know people who have been the targets of anonymous abuse online, in social media?


Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Cinco de Mayo, Beyond the Margarita

The blogosphere was awash with Cinco de Mayo recipe posts this year, it seemed, even on BlogHer.  And I was going to ignore it, but it ticked me off more than usual this year.  (Here's where you say, "well, just don't read them."  But I think we can't just step away from this.  Let me explain.)

Cinco de Mayo has become an excuse to drink (one of the featured BlogHer recipe posts actually said "start with alcohol!"); to ignore some pretty terrible treatment of a large immigrant population; and to reduce the complexity of Mexican and Mexican-American culture to stereotypes, even in our schools.  Most people seem not to know why it's even important.

Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of the Battle of Puebla, fought in 1862, in which a woefully underequipped Mexican army successfully repelled the forces of Napoleon III.  Though they eventually lost the war, that battle was important because it marked a rare moment in history: a colonized people's resistance of a colonizing force.  It wasn't even really celebrated much until the Chicano movement reclaimed the holiday in the 1960s, celebrating their own heritage and resistance to the colonizing forces of American culture.

Which is sort of ironic, considering how the holiday itself has been colonized by people trying to make a buck, or people who have no particular connection to the culture.

Our nation has come a long way on the backs of Mexican laborers.  In my town, there are still men (some Mexican, and now also some from Central American countries like Honduras) who hang out at the convenience store, waiting to be picked up by someone who wants cheap help for a day job, so that they can support their families.  There are also, as there were when I lived in LA, lots of immigrant laborers who work on farms in my county, and not always (or even often) for the best wages, or benefits.

I'm grateful that I live in this small diverse corner of the universe.  But I also see a lot of work to be done.  A few nights ago, for example, a SWAT team came to my town to conduct a drug raid.  Three blocks from my house.  Social media went crazy.  And blamed the "Mexican gangs" and "immigrant laborers."

If we reduce Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to moustached drunkards, then it's going to be a lot easier to incarcerate them, underpay them, or treat them as less than human.

I have no objection to celebrating Cinco de Mayo.  My daughter's school held a celebration in the evening, which was the result of a month-long culture and arts unit with the Spanish teacher.  Some of the elementary school students read the history of the holiday, and mentioned that it's celebrated here more than in Mexico.  They sang "De Colores," a song associated with Mexican folklore which has been used as the unofficial anthem of the Farm Worker Movement.  They made sarapes, shawl-like garments worn in Mexico by men, and rebozos, long flat garments worn by women, often folded or wrapped around the head and/or upper body to shade from the sun, provide warmth or to carry babies and large bundles.  (The garment is considered to be part of Mexican identity and nearly all Mexican women own at least one.)  They learned about the Mexican flag, made crafts of pyramids and el ojo de Dios.  Yes, they ate beans and tortillas, because that was the most expedient way to feed a huge crowd of 2-6 year olds and their families.  But that wasn't the focus of the event.

Next year, I hope that there are some more nuanced posts about Cinco de Mayo.  Maybe some that honor the real meaning of the holiday, and the role of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and their culture in our own nation's history, rather than exhorting us to "start with booze."

Did you celebrate Cinco de Mayo yesterday?
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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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