Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Questionable Power of Anonymity

Late last week, the editors of Tenure, She Wrote posted an open letter to Nature editor Philip Campbell.  They were protesting the revelation of a female-scientist blogger's identity by one of Nature's senior editors, Henry Gee, who outed her in retaliation for her complaints over the years about his problematic behavior.

On the one hand, this feels very high school.  On the other, this is serious business.  As the TSW editors explain, women in academe have some good reasons for blogging anonymously: they risk retaliation by talking about institutional bias, by speaking out about bullying and sexism that is still pervasive--particularly in some fields--in what most people think are the most liberal institutions on the planet.  I have seen both the bullying and the retaliation; I've seen women destroyed by their unwillingness to stay silent.  To deny that sexism exists, and continues to be a problem, is naive at best; to not say anything is to be complicit in its perpetuation.

But this raises an important issue about the power to make change from an anonymous platform.  Writes one of the commenters,
'Dr. Isis' is a reprehensible coward. A public outing was well-deserved, given that “Dr. Isis” feels it’s fine to harass and bully others behind a cloak of anonymity, yet never had to deal with the acountability [sic] that comes with genuine identity.
Many of the critical comments were in the same vein: that someone who offers (sometimes harsh) criticism should not be allowed to do so without expecting to be the object of that criticism at some point, and that problems with institutions can't be addressed unless people are willing to stand up and be identified.

via flickr user exfordy through Creative Commons license
As someone who started blogging anonymously, for a variety of reasons, and who now writes under her own name, I can understand both sides of the argument.  I have friends in the ALI (Adoption Loss Infertility, for those of you not "in the know") blogging community who write under a pseudonym. Infertility is something that is difficult to talk about openly.  People--even our own family members--judge, pity, offer baseless advice.  They think that problems aren't real, or that they stand on higher moral ground.  They invade the bodies that can already hold us hostage.  These responses are devastating.  I wrote anonymously because it was no one's business but mine.  And yet, just as with so many other things, infertility and loss are things that we need to talk about, not just because we need to find people who can support us, but because more people need to understand the diaspora of experience, as it informs not only the way we care for one another, but also the decisions we make about everything from the rights of women over our own bodies to questions about health policy, insurance coverage, gay marriage, and more.  I also wrote under a pseudonym while I was experiencing sexism and bullying at my former place of employment; I had already understood that no one was going to offer support there, I was afraid of the reprisal for speaking out, and I didn't have anywhere else to go.  In both cases, I found that sharing my experience helped me and others to feel less alone.

But I also think that it's easier to criticize things and people and institutions when we hide behind anonymity or pseudonymity.  It's a lot more risky to stand up for our beliefs in a public space, and sign our names on open letters, to point our own flesh-and-blood fingers at the naked emperors that we know everyone sees.  And there's something about the risk that--to me--gives the critique more power.  We believe so strongly in what we say that we are willing to put our careers, or our reputations, on the line.  Perhaps some of us can take that risk more easily than others, and we act according to what we know we can lose.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether anonymous blogging creates more opportunities for or undercuts our attempts to create change.  Giving more people a platform to speak, leveling the playing field so that everyone who can post something on a free website can have a say, is an important step towards equality.  But how far can it go when the authors are still ghosts in the machine?

What do you think?
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Friday, January 24, 2014

Asking For It: Stew with Chickpeas and Farro

I don't watch American Idol.  I think I've seen it a few times over the years it's been on TV, and while I found it oddly fascinating, in that train wreck sort of way, the setup was sometimes also a little too close to home.  As someone who spent a significant part of her formative years being taunted by people who had no business judging her, and as someone who lived in fear of the disapproval of people who did, I found the entire enterprise an unnecessary exercise in self-torture, on the one hand, and an undignified glamorization of bullying and bullies on the other.

I was, it seemed, in the minority.  People really loved American Idol.  Viewers fell for Simon, hook, line, and sinker, crowning him the King of Snark. Maybe those who auditioned were fully complicit in their humiliation, but most of them, I think, just wanted a chance to sing with someone listening.

There's been a lot of talk this week about the new kinder, gentler Idol.  The judges actually pay attention to the people auditioning, even if they're not very good.  They let the the most disastrous failures down gently.  They offer constructive criticism.  They joke with each other in ways that are friendly, not mean-spirited.  J-Lo, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick Jr. seem to actually like each other; it's like they're part of some collaborative project.

It's an interesting shift, ratings notwithstanding.  People agree that it was definitely time for something new, and that everyone tired of the catfights of last season.  But I wonder if something larger might be happening: now that bullying goes viral in a matter of minutes; now that people's careers, reputations, or entire lives, are destroyed in a series of 140-character tweets; now that everyone is an easy target, we're beginning to agree that maybe tearing people down isn't such a great idea, and more of us than we'd initially realized live in houses of glass.  We've watched people get shredded in the Twitterverse, and know that there but for the grace of the Internet we go, too.  And maybe we're beginning to re-think what social media is for.

I read this thoughtful piece on the NPR blog MonkeySee the other day about publishing and social media, and perhaps the shift we're seeing is the result of a lesson that social media makes more transparent.  Holmes suggests that social media is misread by journalists (and I'd argue, by lots of people):
"I wonder sometimes whether the self-disclosure and informality of Twitter leads journalists to conclude they have different obligations to those who write on Twitter than to those who write elsewhere, because once you step outside of traditional publishing, you're in a sort of free-for-all where whatever anybody says is your own fault, because you opened your mouth"
(Once you've agreed to audition for Idol, you've agreed to be terrorized by Simon Cowell.) Holmes argues that people who publish the personal on Twitter aren't asking for critique; rather, they're talking with people who have opted in to read:
"Twitter (like the Internet in general) is a "pull" medium, not a "push" medium; it is fed by specific and fluid choices, not longstanding trust in curation[.]"
I'm not sure that I agree entirely with her point that social media is unlike an op-ed.  In some ways, social media freed the op-ed: instead of relying on the Times to select them for publication, would-be opinionators were empowered to disseminate their ideas through blogs and microblogging platforms.  But where at one point the medium itself seemed to invite critique, even in the writing of things like memoir, I wonder, are we becoming a kinder, gentler social public?  And what does that awareness do, if anything, to the way we write and read each other's work?

What is it that we're asking for when we write (or sing) in public?

Chickpea and Farro Stew
Every time I put something new on the table, I feel a little like I'm sitting in front of American Idol judges.  My family can be pretty harsh critics.  Luckily, this was pretty well recieved, even by my daughter, who plays the role of Simon Cowell.

1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced (divided)
5 c. baby spinach, rinsed, pat dry
4 c. vegetable broth
2 15 oz. cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. smoked paprika
15oz. fire roasted diced tomatoes
3 1/2 T. olive oil, divided
4 c. water
2 eggs
kosher salt
black pepper
1 c. farro
(fried egg, optional)

Add 1 T. olive oil to a large pot and heat on medium until oil is just shimmering.  Add half of the garlic and sauté a minute or two, until fragrant but not brown. Add the spinach and continue to saute until spinach is just wilted, 2-3 minutes. Set aside in a bowl; you'll add this back in later.

In the same pot, over medium heat, heat 2 T.olive oil over medium heat. When oil is shimmering, add diced onion and remaining garlic and saute 3-4 minutes, until the onion is just translucent. Add ground cumin and smoked paprika and stir until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add chickpeas and diced tomatoes and their juices, and continue to stir until the juices are mostly evaporated, 8-10 minutes.

Add vegetable broth and farro to pot and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, scraping up any browned bits from bottom. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, mashing chickpeas, until stew is thick and farro is no longer chewy, 15-20 minutes. Fold in spinach. Add water if it's too thick.

If your family likes them, serve with a fried egg on top.  I don't much like fried eggs, but I put a token piece on the picture, because the males in my family required it.

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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Filters, Bliss, and Gluten-Free Snickerdoodles

It's always been interesting to me to watch the world awaken again after the Christmas to New Years week.  In my line of work, students tend to be relatively silent, either experiencing the satisfaction of a semester completed, or beginning to work through the stages of denial that surround a less than successful term.  There's a period of just-being that happens at the end of December, which I really enjoy before all hell breaks loose.  Where I am work now, students don't take exams until after the break, but I feel a similar escalation in tension, and the email is definitely beginning to build up again.  Which is why I'm even more glad that I was able to get to yoga class several times during the holiday week, even if I was responding to email more often than I might have liked.

My teacher spent a lot of time talking about the koshas, which are, in Vedantic philosophy, more or less like filters of experience.  The ones we end up focusing on most in class are the annamaya kosha, or the physical body; the pranamayakosha, or the energy-body; and anandamaya kosha, or what I can translate only as the "bliss body." 

When we practice yoga, sometimes we filter the experience through our physical body: we're tight in our left hamstring, or maybe we're a little wobbly in our balance poses.  We feel our weaknesses, or even our strengths.  If we're being attentive to the lived experience of our bodies, sometimes we can tell what we need next.  Do we need to move through vinyasa?  Or rest in child's pose?

If we can rise out of the physical body experience, sometimes we can be attentive to the pranamayakosha.  Where does the energy go? The breath?  Can we visualize its movement up and out of ourselves, connecting to something larger?

And finally, if we can let go of even this, we experience anandamayakosha, which is experience in its rawest form.  We don't get caught up in what hurts, or what's tight.  We don't overprocess it.  We just breathe, and be.

My teacher likens this to discovering vegetables after growing up eating them from a can.  I know exactly what she means; though my father grew a garden, and we ate from it in the summer, canned peas, canned beets, even canned asparagus were part of my childhood.  And the first time I tasted a roasted beet, or shelled my own peas, or bit into a raw asparagus spear, I was shocked to discover how flavorful and delicious it was.  So it goes with the filters of the body and the mind.  If we can experience things in their raw, pure form, without the canning and processing, we're bound to experience them with a depth and dimension that we never imagined.

On the other hand, sometimes things are better processed.  My yoga teacher happens to have a fondness for Del Monte creamed corn, which is about as non-organic as she gets, I imagine; for me, it's whipped cream from a can (true confessions: one of the valuable skills my son learned this week was spraying whipped cream directly onto his tongue).  And it's OK to process; we are human after all, and we were built with bodies that experience the world this way.  To deny that would be to deny our humanity.

But it's important, every once in a while, to get rid of the filters, to just be there.  The new year can be a time for removing obstacles, but also seeing the obstacles that stand in the way of our access to bliss.  Which is not to say that you have to eat plain lettuce, by the way.

What are your filters?  What stands in the way of your experience of bliss?

Gluten-Free Snickerdoodles
Food historians tell us that small cakes or biscuits with snickerdoodle-type ingredients date back to ancient Roman times. Joy of Cooking attributes the cookie to Germany, suggesting that though they added more spices and dried fruit, the name is a corruption of the German word schneckennudeln, a type of cinnamon dusted sweet roll. These are minimally adapted from Elana's Pantry; her snickerdoodles aren't exactly raw, but they do let you experience the heady cinnamon in a way uncluttered by processed white sugar.  If your body is crying uncle like mine has been, these are a good not-too-terrible sweet treat.

2 c. almond flour
1/8 t. kosher salt
1/8 t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
1/4 c. virgin coconut oil (or butter)

2 T. honey
1/3 c. coconut sugar for rolling
2 1/2 t. cinnamon for rolling

Preheat oven to 350, and line baking sheets with parchment.

In a food processor, combine the almond flour, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon.  Pulse in the coconut oil and honey.

In a shallow bowl for rolling the cookies, combined the coconut sugar and cinnamon until well mixed.

Roll the dough into balls by tablespoonfulls and briefly dip the balls in a small bowl of water before rolling them in coconut sugar and cinnamon mixture to coat.  (If the dough is too sticky, refrigerate for half an hour.)

Place the cookies onto the prepared baking sheets and press gently to flatten them just a bit.  Bake for 10-12 minutes or until beginning to turn golden.  Cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet to make sure they're firming up, and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
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