Three Weeks In

orphan masters son

Tea & The Orphan Master’s Son

January 1st rolls around, and everyone dreams of being their best-possible-selves, setting resolutions with abandon–and then of course abandoning them. There’s a lot of disdain for New Year’s Resolutions, mostly because by now, three weeks in, almost everyone has forgotten about who they promised themselves they’d become. But I’ve always loved the idea that you take time each year to assess: Am I living the way I want to be living? Am I who I want to be? What changes do I want to make, to get more out of life?

The check-in process for me this year started in late November, and the single biggest thing I knew was missing from my day-to-day life was reading. Books have always been a huge part of my life; some of my favorite memories as a kid are losing myself in a bookstore and racing to get far enough into a book that my mother would buy it for me because I was so desperate to find out what happened to the characters. But after graduate school, reading fell by the wayside; I’m still trying to figure out why that happened, but it was a noted absence. In years past I’ve had as many as eight or nine resolutions, but this year I only made one:

Read fifty pages a day.

So I printed out a blank calendar for January, and each day I chart my progress, like my own personal summer-reading competition from when we were kids. There’s an argument to be made that keeping track like this can create a fixation on numbers and achievements rather than an embrace of reading for the sake of real pleasure, but this very attainable goal has been really important for me. Forcing myself to spend some time every day doing something this important has reminded me of why I loved reading so much to begin with. Isn’t it funny how we forget to do the things we really love? 

I’ve already finished a handful of books this month, some that were great and some that were interesting but ultimately disappointing. By far the most engaging book I’m reading is in the photo above, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which takes place in North Korea. I don’t ever want to put it down, and when I am forced to (mainly for work and sleeping), I can’t get it out of my head. You know how sometimes, you are reading something so good that it fills you with this raw sense of joy and possibility? And it’s this  incredible high but also deeply uncomfortable feeling? Maybe that doesn’t happen with everyone when they read; maybe for some people music or painting or good movies create that feeling. Or maybe you think I’m spouting nonsense.

 Either way, I feel a little like I’m waking up after a long nap. It’s a good feeling.

We Did Stop

I know this is about 800 years old in internet years, but damn if it isn’t good.

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Favorite Books: A Chronology of My Feminist Education

booksReminding me why A Practical Wedding remains one of my favorite blogs, this entire month is devoted to feminism over there. (Infusing popular wedding narratives with active discussions of feminism? Talk about shifting our discourse.) This week the staff shared a round-up of some of their favorite feminist books. It’s brilliant list! In looking through, I was reminded of some old favorites (Undercover, lady-knight, people!) and discovered some books to add to my to-read list.

I’ve been trying to read a lot more lately, and I thought this was a good opportunity to do my own round up and hope that you share some of your favorites in return. This is not an exhaustive list, or even what I consider the “best” feminist titles. But these are books that had a the most formative influence when I was just a wee, budding feminist through graduate school, so they have a special place in my heart.

Ellaenchanted Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

I still remember the day I found this book. My family used to make regular trips to Barnes & Nobel when I was a child, and I would make a bee-line away into the YA stacks. I had discovered that if I found a book quickly and read enough of it before it was time to leave, I could almost always convince my parents to buy it for me. Ella Enchanted was one of these books, and it set the wheels in motion for something much bigger for me. It’s a re-imagining of Cinderella, in which she puts up with all that housework and drudgery because she’s cursed to always be obedient, so she runs away and has adventures and eventually breaks the curse. I think it should be mandatory reading for all pre-teen girls; personally I was so intoxicated by the idea of flipping these traditional tales so that the woman was active, was the hero and in charge of her own destiny. It opened up so much possibility for me: we didn’t necessarily need to start over to look for female heroes; we could apply a different lens to the stories we’ve always known. To some extent, this idea of applying a lens that shifts women and gender issues into a different focus is still at the heart of my brand of feminism.

House of Mirth by Edith Whartonthe house of mirth

In high school, I went through a classic-novels-about-romance phase, which involved a lot of Jane Austen. I picked up House of Mirth, expecting it to fall into the same vein. Oops. This might be the first book that broke my heart. (My one and only foray into fanfic was a rewrite, giving House of Mirth a happy ending.) I suspect any literary-minded feminist has a book that drove home the particular struggles of being a woman, the role of femininity, and the crushing, absurd weight of societal rules and expectations for women, and it was Lily Bart who brought that message home for me.

why_are_all_the_black_kids_sitting_together_in_the_cafeteria1  Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum

I read this book my freshman year of college, and it was the first time I studied contemporary race issues. I spent a lot of time learning about slavery and Jim Crow laws in high school, and I had a vague sense that racism was still a problem, but I didn’t know anything about it and I definitely didn’t know how to engage with it. This is the book that taught me about institutional racism. We can all claim to be (and want to be) “not racist” but are, in fact, products of a racist society so, in truth we probably each have some ugly ideas floating around in our subconscious. We are each responsible to adjust our behavior and question our assumptions, accordingly. This is not a book about feminism, but it was an essential read in making me a better feminist.

Bodies that Matter by Judith Butlerbodies that matter

This book is like hiking through a really dense jungle, up a mountain, following a seemingly overgrown path all the way up. Reading Judith Butler is hard and exhausting work, and you will likely find yourself profoundly uncomfortable at times (because it is complicated, because her ideas challenge fundamental assumptions you may have, because even when you think you get what she’s trying to say, you still have to wrestle with those ideas so they make sense to you).   And then, after struggling through the dense jungle, you get to the top of the mountain and all the hard work has finally paid off: the view (aka whatever insight you have from reading) is so incredible that it rearranges your entire way of seeing, thinking about, and interacting with the world.

Bonus Book: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

As a young reader, I hated this book with a fiery passion. I would indignantly stomp around, complaining about the flat female characters and the ways they were being used as props in the novel to advance the male characters’ narrative. I think that kind of feminist rage was really import to experience; it felt liberating to hate a book on the grounds that the author wrote lame female characters. It was important to realize that I could demand more from my books.

How about you: What are your favorite feminist books? What titles formed your current social consciousness? What should I read next?

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American Privilege & the Shutdown

I’ve been wanting to say something about the government shutdown, but every time I got to write about it all that comes out is, “KFNL%#)MWQ!KKXTE##$^DMAAK!?!?!?!!!”

Thankfully, some other folks are saying much more articulate things about the situation. Unsurprisingly, outside of the U.S. there is a whole lot of confusion and justified disgust at the idiocy of the whole situation. I found Anthony Zurcher’s comment, from the UK, striking:

For most of the world, a government shutdown is very bad news –- the result of revolution, invasion or disaster. Even in the middle of its ongoing civil war, the Syrian government has continued to pay its bills and workers’ wages. That leaders of one of the most powerful nations on earth willingly provoked a crisis that suspends public services and decreases economic growth is astonishing to many.

Zurcher goes on to comment on the impact this may have on the global economy. In the era of globalization, playing these sorts of games threaten not just US, but the global economy as well. In my last post, I wrote briefly about privilege, and I think that’s an important part of the current political mess. There has been much discussion about how avoiding the immediate effects of the government shutdown is possible from a privilege position. If you don’t rely on food stamps or WIC formula, the government shutdown may feel like any other day. And that’s a convenient position, but there’s a baffling lack of empathy required in order to fail to recognize that’s not a universal position. Fox News (as filtered through The Daily Show) does a good job of demonstrating this attitude (right around 2:30):

(Side note: I love the show deeply, but I could do with at least 60% fewer penis jokes on TDS.)

But the ways that privilege plays into the House Republican stand off are deeper, even,  than the failure to recognize this. Those who support (and also those who do not oppose) this shutdown and impending debt ceiling crisis are able to live in their delusional bubble because they take for granted America’s position as an international superpower, as a global economic powerhouse, as “the greatest and/or most powerful country on earth.” The comparative wealth and power of the US, and the comfort that affords us as Americans, is completely taken for granted and, dangerously, taken for a constant.

It’s like the rich kid in college, who can spend all his rent money on booze and late-night pizza delivery,  because he knows his parents will always bail him out. James Fallows discusses this in a short piece in The Atlantic:

As a matter of substance, constant-shutdown, permanent-emergency governance is so destructive that no other serious country engages in or could tolerate it. The United States can afford it only because we are — still — so rich, with so much margin for waste and error.

And in this way, in addition to highlighting the danger of extremism and gerrymandering, this current manufactured crisis is a profound example of America’s sense of exceptionalism. Our national mythology is one of invincibility; we cannot imagine a world in which we do not dominate. Like that rich college kid drunk and full of pizza, we only see possibility and infinite lives. House Republicans can risk the national and international economy on a bet, because they cannot imagine a world in which we do not win. Not only do they fail to grasp the arrogance of that bet, it is precisely that attitude that weakens America’s national health as well as our global position of strength.

P.S. If you’re looking to stay up-to-date on the saga of our federal government, I’ve been really enjoying The Slate Political Gabfest’s 15 minute daily digest throughout the shutdown.

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Enough Shutdown. Let’s start something.

I want to come back to this blog. I think about it frequently, and it makes me sad that I’ve abandoned it. I think it’s important, on a personal level, to continue to write about feminism and intersectionality, to force myself to think critically about it all. It’s dangerously easy to be passive in life, especially when it comes to social issues like race, class, gender, and all the other shitty things out there. I don’t want to be complacent. Not too long ago I wanted to be a radical, feminist (note the use of the comma) teacher and researcher. I wanted to change the way people think about gender in this world.

I’m not in academia anymore, but I don’t want to give up on trying to change the way people think about gender and privilege and all th-isms that makes this world a difficult, sometimes tragic place. I want to be part of a broader dialogue that matters, that contributes to and feeds the good things.

After the bombing of the Boston Marathon, I was very upset. The feeling of helplessness against this kind of cruelty and violence was really crushing. And I wanted to do something. So I ran a half marathon and raised money for charity. On the eve of my race, George Zimmerman was found not guilty, and the feeling of helplessness washed over me all over again. I’d like to say that I rose to the challenge, found another way to be part of a greater good. But I didn’t. I felt angry and sad and then I went back to work. I moved on. Because I could.

I’m an educated, white lady living a pretty heteronormative, middle-class life in a very wealthy country. I am very often in a position of being able to move on, and that is part of the problem. Sometimes I think privilege is the most understudied and undertaught issue in all of education; it’s so insidious and it runs rampant through most conversations. It’s a privilege that when a teacher receives only a 30 day sentence for the rape and subsequent suicide of a teenager, when the Voting Rights Act is gutted by the Supreme Court, or when the government decides to shut down, I can write an angry facebook post, and then I can continue my day as normal. And I don’t think that’s enough; I’d like to do more. I don’t think it’s enough to be passively good. What if every angry facebook post, was instead something that was tangibly part of the bigger picture? What would that even look like?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. I wish I did. I suppose if they were easy, the world might be in better shape. I’m hoping we can have some dialogue here, to begin to sort some of this out.

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Two Weeks Later

I haven’t known what to write since everything that happened here on Monday, April, 15th. I know the world around me has picked up, and is moving on, as it needs to and as it probably should. And in many ways I’m starting to do that myself, but I’m also resisting that inevitable push forward, because what happened here was profoundly, although not uniquely, terrible. The fact that this was not unique only compounds the tragedy. My fear, I think, is that we’re becoming so used to these events that we jump to move forward and “not be terrorized by terrorism” so quickly that we’re actually normalizing this level of violence. I hated the post-9/11 mantra “Never Forget,” and I’m still uneasy with it, but I think I finally understand what people were trying to say.  What is the right way forward from here?

aaronbouvierdesign

This past Friday, my partner and I walked down to Boylston St after work. This is where the marathon ends and where the bombs went off. I have seen too many pictures of the violence that happened here, and I don’t think I will forget those images. The area was shut down for many days, and once it was reopened we made our pilgrimage. I had been dreading seeing this part of the city, afraid to see this place I love so dearly so broken. That fear felt familiar; when my grandmother first started to get sick, I had a hard time bringing myself to visit her, because it was so hard to see her so sick, so different.  What I learned, though, is that the idea of her illness was always worse than the reality. Even when she was unable to speak, even as she got worse with every visit, those visits were always a gift. Because this woman who taught me about the saints and about love, who loved crossword puzzles and Brigham’s ice cream and Church and the beach and her family—she has been there all along, grinning wildly when I walk in the door.  This visit, to the battered heart of my city, was the same. I was so scared to go, and then it was beautiful, with spring in bloom and a makeshift memorial overflowing love and people everywhere, and I knew we would be alright.

It feels very important to me to do contribute in some way, to do respond to something so terrible with something good. So I’ll be running a half-marathon this summer, and raising money for the One Fund. I’m not a runner; about a month ago I ran 3 miles for the first time ever. It was excruciating and also the best of accomplishments. Three weeks ago running a half-marathon was something I kindasorta thought I should do…eventually. Now I felt the need to do something big, to respond to something so terrible. And I also felt the need to reject fear: fear of further attack I suppose, but more importantly fear my own limitations. There are now fewer people in this world who are physically able to train for and run a half marathon. I’m not one of them. So I’m putting myself way outside my comfort zone, because I feel a little like I owe it to the universe to rise to the challenge.

If you haven’t donated to the One Fund, please consider supporting my fundraising efforts. And at the risk of sounding preachy: consider what false limitations you’re putting on yourself and reject the fear that put those in place. Maybe that’s the way forward from here: to live fearlessly, with love in our hearts.

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This is my home

boston

I live in Boston. I work a few minutes away from the end of the marathon; I have loved ones and family that have run the marathon in many years past. It is a joyous, beautiful event that celebrates perseverance and hard work; it’s a city coming together to lift others up–cheering people on, handing out water, congratulating anyone we see who looks like they might be a runner. It’s a celebration of spring and community and incredible accomplishments. I pray that it is always a celebration of those joyous things.

I’m heartbroken and confused; I’m so very sad. Over and over, I find myself saying, “This is my home.” I don’t even know, yet, what I mean to capture in that statement, but I want to cry and yell and mostly cry every time I say that. This city has been my home for over a decade; I love it all, and I pray. I don’t even quite know what to pray for; it all feels overwhelming. But I pray; I love you, Boston. I love you so very much.

Photo by Shannon Sorensen

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Femen Protest, where Islamaphobia Is Alive & Well

femen_do not need saving

A counter-protest responds to Femen’s Islamophobia

Femen is a feminist group that stages topless protests against a myriad of issues. A young Tunsania woman, Amina Tyler, recently posted two topless photos of herself to the group’s Tunsania page (which she stated), one with the words  “My Body is My Own and Not the Source of Anyone’s Honor” written in Arabic across her chest, and another reading “Fuck Your Morals.” After her family’s discovery of the images, Amina has since been placed in a mental institution. This is obviously a sad situation, and as feminists we are right to by angry and upset about the way Amina has been silenced, and to seek ways to support her. The grossly Islamophobic Femen protests that have since occurred are, however, not okay.

Here’s the key difference: Amina was responding to her own culture, her own lived experience. She can say “Fuck Your Morals,” because she is speaking against a specific oppression that she herself has lived with. Her protest speaks to the truth of her own experience. When Western Women engage without nuance in this issue, they risk ignoring their own privilege and the limitations of what they can see from their position.

There is a long, bloody and tragic history in which Western countries and people have oppressed and exploited Muslim countries and people, and we cannot escape or ignore that history when addressing global issues of gender. There is a world of difference when a Muslim woman living in Tunsania writes “Fuck Your Morals” on her naked chest and when a white, non-Mulsim woman living in the West–with all the privilege that brings with it–does the same. The former is activism, the latter is ignorance. In this image (NSFW), a woman has the crescent of Islam painted on each breast, the star covering her nipple, with the words “Fuck Islamism” painted on her torso. Perhaps she thinks that, by adding “-ism” to the end of the Islam, she’s not disrespecting an entire, complicated and multi-faceted religion and culture, with its millions of individuals, each practicing and engaging with issues of  gender and culture and spirituality and globalization in her or his own way, and perpetuating harmful stereotypes in the process. But that is exactly what she is doing.

Vilifying the practice of veiling and celebrating nakedness as freedom is an over-simplification of an important issue.  In her excellent book on the legal prohibition of veiling in France, Politics of the Veil, Joan Scott writes:

I do not mean to say that the system [of veiling] is not patriarchal; it is, of course. But the French system is patriarchal too; women are objectified in both systems, although in different ways. My point is that sex and sexuality are differently represented, differently managed in these two systems (161).

Women’s bodies are managed differently in various cultures, but as Scott articulates, the constant is that they are managed.  Concern over the various ways in which women’s bodies are sexualized and policed according to their appearance has been is a tenant of Western feminism, but here that is forgotten and instead there is an apparent investment of many Western women in championing one patriarchal system over the other.

When Western women cast veiled women as oppressed and their own nakedness as liberation, they are refusing to acknowledge agency on the part of Muslim, veiled women, which is another means of oppression, and they establish a false dichotomy in which their own choices are somehow free of the constraints of sexism and gender exploitation. They establish themselves as heros, bringing “freedom” to brainwashed/enslaved Muslim women everywhere, which is self-aggrandizing and also reinforcing the passive role Muslim women are perceived to occupy. Either she wears the veil, and is “stupid” (as Femen Facebook commenters have repeatedly said) and a victim of male oppression, or she absorbs the wisdom of the Western woman and follows her guidance. In this paradigm there is no agency granted to the Muslim woman; she is perpetually passive, a tool to reinforce Western notions of superiority, which in turn continue to justify a global climate that supports war and exploitation.

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Britney Griner Considered for NBA Draft, aka My Childhood Dreams May Come True

ImageMark Cuban announced that he will consider women’s college basketball superstar, Britney Griner, for the 2013 NBA draft on the Mavricks. Griner plays for Baylor, where she’s lead them to two-consecutive national championships,broken crazy records, and generally torn up the court. Based on her tweet, she’s game for joining the Mavricks.

As a tall young woman, I played basketball from elementary school through high school. As an young woman with limited athletic skills, I played poorly. (I once tried to rescue a ball from going out of bounds, and wound up smacking it off my own forehead. Yeah.) Regardless, it’s a game I love. I still remember the enthusiasm of young tea & strumpets, when the WNBA was founded. It blew my mind to consider that a woman could play professional sports.

That experience had a profound effect on me. Athletics has not been my life-long passion, but the importance of role models with whom you can identify should not be understated. In 1995, before the WNBA was founded, when I looked at the world of sports, I could always only look on from the outside. It was a world that belonged to men, and the only way I would be allowed on court was at half-time, wearing a sparkly bra and waving pom-poms. But in 1996, like little boys around the country, I had the chance to day dream of playing professional sports. When I looked into the future I saw open doors and possibility. How much damage is done to our young girls when they size up the world and see so many closed doors? Just imagine the astronomical shift for young girls everywhere–athletes or not–to see a woman suited up for an NBA team?

I’m beyond excited at the possibility. I’ll be following along, but in the meantime, I highly recommend this article, on ESPN of all places, about the gender-related BS that Griner has faced, and if drafted to the Mavrick’s will certainly continue to face:

“We disparage female athletes so we don’t have to make room for them,” says Nicole LaVoi, a professor at the University of Minnesota and the associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports. “People can’t just say, ‘Wow, Brittney Griner is a great athlete.’ We need to have a caveat: ‘She plays like a guy, she looks like a guy, she must be a guy.’ These qualifiers marginalize what Brittney has done and serve to keep the current pecking order in place, whereby men’s sports are more valued, more culturally relevant — the norm.”

I have no doubt that the jerks would come out of the woodwork if Griner were to play in the NBA. Rarely does a rookie wow everyone; the learning curve is steep. I’m afraid that in the media and among certain fans the allowance for Griner’s to learn to excel at this level would be short at best, but I’m still excited. I’m excited for the much needed conversations about gender and sports that this will prompt, and most of all I’m excited for all the little girls who’ll learn about a newly opened door.

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Publish, damn it!

I have spent the past few weeks writing half blog posts. I’ve scribbled them on the back of receipts, in tiny notebooks and big notebooks. I’ve made lists of post ideas and articles to link to. I’ve written entire paragraphs in my head in the shower. I even sat on a train and spoke into the voice-to-text tool on my phone. And yet all I’ve shared with you is an (admittedly awesome) Liz Lemon gif.

In note-form I have lots to share with you about: Lean In, Girls, those horrible slut-shaming NYC posters, that horrendous New York Magazine article about “feminist housewives” that managed to offend and misquote everyone (except Rush Limbaugh),  how many freaking times women cops get almost sexually assaulted in Law & Order/NCIS style shows, and Hanna Rosin pretending it’s a new idea to say we don’t need feminism anymore. (Hint: People have been forever.) And don’t even get me started on the new Pope. Yet I refrain from hitting that damn publish button because there’s always more polishing to do.

I have a really bad habit of starting something with enthusiasm, and abandoning it when it gets hard, or boring, when some new project comes along, or there’s a marathon of [redacted for embarrassment] on TV. My bookshelves are littered with books, and I’ve read the first few chapters of a lot of them. I’ve read the last chapter of very few. This very post? I abandoned it to go work on another half-finished essay, that I have since abandoned in frustration.  And whatever, we’re all flawed. This is a roundabout confession that I’m a classic perfectionist, who leaves a lot of things unfinished because they are not [fill in the blank] enough yet.

Like this blog.

The problem is part laziness (Reality tv has a way of sucking you in, people!), but a bigger part of the problem, I think, is an unwillingness to trust that what I have to say is good enough/important enough/strong enough. In truth, there is always more that can be done.  I could write a whole book called Lean In: The Fallout*.But what good are those ideas doing, hidden in a notebook?

All of this is confessional, but I also think it speaks to the various ways I have responded to the social pressure women often face to “play nice” and “make everyone happy/like me.” If I scrutinize my own word choices enough, then I will settle on the perfect combination: I will convince everyone that I am right (and therefore good/valuable) and escape all scrutiny or criticism (which, if I were to receive, means I am bad/less valuable). Which all adds up to: silence.

This is silly, at best, and suffocating at worst. I wrote a while ago about the power of awkwardness, and at the time I was thinking of intentional awkwardness; those moments where you chose to make someone ever so slightly uncomfortable to prove a point. But lately I think that vocally attempting to affect change, in which you risk pissing people off, saying something stupid, or a combination of the two, is a different—equally powerful—kind of awkwardness.  So at the risk of sounding self-helpy, is there something you’re holding back, because you think it needs more polishing? Because you’re afraid of pissing people off? How have you overcome the pressures to be nice and/or perfect?

In the meantime, I’ve got some imperfect blog posts to share.

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