Not Quite Feminist Punk

It’s funny how sometimes, a confluence of events offers up a little epiphany. This is the story of one about feminism & punk rock that I’m still processing.

A week or two ago, I was on a long car ride with my daughters and a pop song came on the radio. Talking about our love of pop, my nearly-16-year-old said that she thought it was unfair that many put pop music down and that she suspected that it’s because pop is designed to appeal to young women. Not a new argument, but fresh to hear it coming from her mouth—as it came from mine decades ago. I got mad all over again at the way that, without vigilance, we let patriarchal culture tell us that our taste, whatever it is, is second best.

Last week, I read Claude M. Steele’s wonderful 2010 book, Whistling Vivaldi, which details, for a general audience, his decades of research on stereotype threat and how to combat it, especially in colleges. Stereotype threat, if you’re not familiar with it, is that phenomenon when your performance will falter just because you know that the stereotype is that people like you (people who share a salient identity category with you) don’t do well on the task at hand. Again and again, Steele and his colleagues have shown that making, say, women aware of their gender before a math test, or whites aware of their race before athletic competition, decreases performance. At the same time, performance goes right back up if you tell test-takers that the test shows no differences along gender lines, or offer some of the growth-mindset affirmations that Carol Dweck (who’s cited many times here) espouses.

One of the things Steele talks about is how, when you’re a minority, you become really adept at reading the context clues of the room—of counting if you’re alone or if there’s only one other member of your group, etc.

So, on Friday, I went to a meeting of a group of English professors from around the city who all work in my field. Some of them I know well, some I’ve only seen or met in passing. They’d been meeting as a group for a while, but I had missed the first two or three gatherings. NJTransit was not my friend and I was late as it was. In short: this meeting had all the ingredients to make me just a touch more nervous than usual about entering an unfamiliar room.

I got in, I counted: yup—I was the second woman. I sat across from her and smiled. We were two. Not quite critical mass, but not horrible. The meeting went well. My colleagues are, in fact, lovely and thoughtful and interesting and not interrupters and, when the convener invited us all to join for lunch, I confirmed that the other woman was going and I went.  

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At lunch, two men about my age started talking about the punk shows they went to back in the early 80’s and I could feel my blood pressure rising. I love music of all kinds. I have been to some really fun shows. I wanted, so badly, to participate in the conversation, but I couldn’t figure out how to put my oar in without their mockery. I sat there, racing through my options from all the shows I saw in Seattle. What would they think if I told them the one about how disappointing Grandmaster Flash was? Or how my friend that I had a crush on made us miss the Thompson Twins, which was the main reason I’d wanted to see The Police at the Tacoma Dome? Or that I used to go to SubPop when it was a record store and get mocked by Bruce Pavitt (who was such a snob) for buying OMD and Culture Club while my friends bought the real punk? Or just how cool it was to be friends with the Bernstein boys and go to their dad’s club to see a local band? Or to see Joe Newton’s posters around town? Or seeing UB40—a show newly tainted by the newest Justice-cum-sexual-assaulter-and-drunkard at a roller rink? Or the Ramones, way after their prime but still amazing, in New Haven? Or how amazing Black Uhuru was at the Paramount? I sat there laughing at their stories—which were good—but frustrated at myself for being so tongue-tied.

I knew my transcendentally happy time seeing the Psychedelic Furs with a girl I’d met at a writer’s conference for high school students was out—but why? I had gone away for a week on a writer’s retreat for high school kids. I’d lived in Port Townsend and made friends with a girl—I don’t remember her name—from a tiny town, a couple hours outside Seattle. She and I both loved the Psychedelic Furs and she got her parents to drive her to the show. We met, sat together and it was great. In those days before cell phones and email, arranging such a meeting was not easy and it felt so cool to be the cool city kid welcoming her cool country friend to this amazing show. As anecdotes go, this seems pretty acceptable & worthy of sharing. Why is it that my story felt less good to share than my colleague’s story about knowing that some punk shows were too dangerous to attend?

To the rescue came my friend, who had cool punk stories, but also listens to himself and he said, “God, we sound so old.” And then, another colleague, younger than us, made a joke about going to see Dickens speak and that turned into a riff that was an actually deeply hilarious mash-up of a story of a punk rock brawl (“they were unscrewing the lightbulbs and breaking them to use as weapons”) and Bloomsbury—“and then, John Maynard Keynes beaned Leonard with the andiron….”

That was a relief.

Then, yesterday, just to make me feel less a fool, a made a joke about the Butthole Surfers in a very high-level meeting at my university and got a high five from a VP for my quickness.

L’esprit de l’éscalier.

My tentative conclusion has to do with analogies. I was glad to read Steele’s generous assessment that analogies do, in fact, help our understanding. In my experience, analogies are critical to our understanding, but they need to be wielded with care. It can be too easy to say “I know just how you feel,” when really, what we can know is “I am better able to imagine how you feel because I felt something similar.” My stress at lunch was real, but extraordinarily low stakes, but I might not have noticed it absent the conversation with my daughter about what music gets to be cool and my reading of Steele. But it was stereotype threat and it did mean that, for ten minutes of a really lovely and pleasant lunch, I was anxiously flipping through the rolodex of my brain, trying to figure out how to join the conversation, desperately wanting to, and, in the end, never figuring out how. Boy, it’s amazing how complicated life is.

In Praise of Cottages, Makeshift, and the Commons

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I like to listen to long books and this summer’s listen was Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia. Stoll is a colleague of mine at Fordham and it was exciting to see his book so favorably reviewed in the Times, so I put it on my list and, in the summer heat when running gets really slow and arduous, I started listening.

Readers of this blog know that I’m a Woolf scholar, not an economic historian. My literary criticism is always historical in its focus, and I have a lifelong interest in history, but I’m an amateur, and again and again, listening to this book, I was reminded of all the assumptions I’ve accepted that, in Stoll’s account, I’m questioning anew. So this isn’t a review so much as an appreciation for what excellent history can teach and do. I learned so much and it gave me a lot to think about. There are indeed downsides to audiobooks—sometimes I long to know how to spell a name, to see one of the several paintings he describes so vividly, such as Winslow Homer’s “Veteran in a New Field.” Even so, there is something powerfully immersive about spending forty minutes at a time, while under some cardiac stress, thinking about all that Alexander Hamilton (or any other of what Dwight Garner rightly notes as the book’s many villains) got wrong about the region.

(One of the things I loved about the book was the truly amazing and rich range of sources upon which Stoll draws: theories of capital from Adam Smith to the present, case studies of makeshift lives from Mali and the Philippines, novels and painting, scholarship by a diverse range of authors—women, people of color, 17th to 21st century writers.)

 Winslow Homer, "The Veteran in a New Field."

Winslow Homer, "The Veteran in a New Field."

Stoll’s alternate account of the history of Appalachia is eye-opening: he goes all the way back to the story of enclosure in England to teach us to think of a makeshift economy as an alternative to capitalism, not as a stage on the way to it. So pervasive, Stoll shows, are our evolutionary metaphors for capital that we don’t really have a way to describe or understand people who live on the land without capitalizing every inch of it. In fact, for homesteaders before the civil war, a viable tract of land for a family was considered to be about 400 acres, only about 10% of which would be cultivated. The rest of the land, forest and meadow, operated as an ecological base and a kind of commons: it provided timber for housing and fences, grazing for animals, and food could be foraged and hunted there. Because that land was not capitalized, whatever it gave benefited the household and if it took—if, for example, free ranging cattle were eaten by a bear—was not a devastating loss. People living this way, where money is not everything but just a part of life, useful when you want, say sugar or calico or a pretty toy, but not necessary for survival, can manage when something terrible happens—a war, a drought, a fire, a crop failure.

I spend my summers in Clayton, New York. It’s on the Canadian border, in Thousand Islands region, near Fort Drum—the site of 45’s recent signing ceremony of the military spending bill named in honor of the (unnamed) Senator John McCain, in the North Country. That is to say, I’m in a touristy pocket of a poor and conservative region: farmland with a military base and a strong presence of Amish people. Three days a week, on the way home from yoga, I stop at the Amish farm stand and buy vegetables. Every day, I check on the progress of the vegetables I’m growing. When we started coming here, twenty years ago, the local businesses were pretty humble and catered to lower middle class tourists. Now, with more affluent visitors, we have a food co-op with organic meat, a brew pub, and several distilleries. Local shops are touting their support of each other—the brew pub serves pizza, but the fancier restaurants carry the brewery’s beer. The cheese shop even occasionally carries the organic cheese of a local competitor.

In this rural context, removed from my usual life commuting between New York and the Jersey suburbs, it is so much easier to see all that urbanites—like Hamilton—get wrong about Appalachia and to see, too, that, while it will take work and commitment and major political and structural changes, a better life for rural people, one based on a village economy, not outside capitalism but not wholly dependent on it either, makes sense.

You can watch Stoll talk about his book on CSPAN. You can listen to Stoll interviewed on WNYC here. You can read Dwight Garner’s NYT review here.

Bruce Lee & the Wing Luke

We spent a too-brief week visiting my folks in Seattle earlier this summer. My mom and I took my daughters down to the International District, to get some phô, shop at Kobo at Higo and Uwajimaya, and visit the Wing Luke Museum.

 The Wing Luke's very cool Seattle-centric Bruce Lee poster.

The Wing Luke's very cool Seattle-centric Bruce Lee poster.

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At the Wing Luke, we were just in time for a tour. The museum is built inside an old flophouse hotel, one used by generations of immigrants to Seattle. You can see the remains of the hotel—and an old Chinese grocery store—but you need to take the tour to go inside. So, we stood inside a grocery store, not all that different from the ones I remember from being little—and no wonder: it closed in the 70’s and they moved it, and all its merchandise to that spot as a memorial. Then, we went up to the hotel to see the tiny rooms. They have been preserved to show the successive generations of immigration—Chinese laborers, then Japanese families, Filipino workers in the Alaska fishing industry who passed through Seattle seasonally, and, finally the living room of a Chinese woman who settled with her husband and became a guide for a new generation of women coming to stay. The museum also has a model room of a Chinese family association, with photographs, a mahjong table and other artefacts from their meetings. We were so enthralled by our tour—and our sweet young guide—that we didn’t have time to visit the Bruce Lee exhibit.

No matter, Matthew Polly’s new biography of Lee was on sale at the Kinokuniya bookshop in Uwajimaya and, my mom, ordinarily an opponent of carrying too many books home, recognized that it would be more meaningful to have the book from Seattle, so she bought it for me.

We got phô one day at the amazingly snazzy new Phô Bac and then, because we hadn’t done enough shopping and food, we came back the next day and had lunch at the Tai Tung, Seattle’s oldest Chinese restaurant (and my grandmother’s favorite). The food, which I don’t think has changed much since 1935, was delicious, and we were delighted to see signed photographs of Bruce Lee on the wall and a big cardboard cutout of him, too. That restaurant is a stop on the Museum’s Bruce Lee walking tour.

 Shrine to Lee at the Tai Tung

Shrine to Lee at the Tai Tung

Growing up in Seattle, Lee was a big deal and I was eager to learn more about the superstar. Polly’s book, which has been well-reviewed, is so lovingly written and so consistently interesting that it sustained me even though my interest in kung fu movies is minimal. It turns out that he did not go to Garfield High School (alas!), although he was celebrated on a mural in the walls during my days there. Born in California, raised in Hong Kong (where he was a child star), Lee went to community college and then the UW. His wife, Linda, was a Garfield Bulldog.

Lee sounds like a fascinating, complicated man: Kind of a punk a lot of the time, with a quick temper and a real mean streak. Wildly ambitious and incredibly disciplined, too: he was determined to be the first Chinese-American superstar—to rival his friend Steve McQueen and his daughter, who carries on his legacy through the Bruce Lee Foundation to this day, perpetuates that goal. But there was also a deeply philosophical side to him. And he seemed to have had an easy way of accepting racial difference. His mother was the descendant of a Dutch-Jewish merchant and his Chinese wife and Lee not only married a white woman, but also was the first to teach martial arts to people who were not Chinese. Before he taught Steve McQueen and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, he was teaching a multi-racial group of Seattle kids in his college classes, forming them into a band of loyal acolytes to his style of fighting which, itself, blended styles across national borders and traditions.

I miss living out West, and those few days back home in Seattle and then Polly’s biography were both beautiful ways of getting reacquainted with what West Coast cosmopolitanism can look like. A welcome reminder in these troubling days.

 A feast at the Tai Tung

A feast at the Tai Tung

A Patriarchal Loyalty

When James Comey’s memoir, A Higher Loyalty, came out, I was actively opposed to thinking about it—far too painful. But then, sometime this spring, I was listening to a podcast (probably TrumpCast) interviewing Comey and I missed my subway stop: That never happens.

He was so interesting, so soothing, so smart and confident, that I couldn’t stop listening. I still blame him for playing a role in Clinton’s defeat in 2016, but he was compelling enough (and had a very pleasant voice) that I decided to listen to his memoir on audiobook.

Comey’s personal story is incredibly moving and hearing him read his well-written memoir in his own voice was worth the time. I had several good runs this spring listening to him talk about leadership, about the stress and strain of being in a 24-7 job, about the assistant who knew to alternate his daily sandwich between turkey and tuna. I loved and still wince at the powerful metaphor he offers for trust as a reservoir. A pool of water that it takes for ever to fill and only a moment to poison, spoil, or drain. Indeed. 

A commentator guessed that he must have been intending to write a book on leadership for some time and I share the sense that this must be right. Each chapter begins with a moving epigraph from Comey-favorite Reinhold Niebuhr and others on the topic. I often wished, mid-run, that I could stop and think through the significance of this or that idea from one of these epigraphs.

Still, while I wasn’t exactly hate-listening, and while I came to like him a lot as a person, and while it became clear to me that, were he part of my life, I would probably like and admire him a lot, what was the problem?

What was the problem?

For me, it all came down to the way that he praised his wife, Patrice. Don’t get me wrong: she sounds like a wonderful person. He writes tenderly and movingly about how she coped when their infant died, how she understood how to break the terrible news to each of their young children—who was too young to see the dead child and who needed to say goodbye. He writes with compassion, too, about how supportive she has been about the several moves that his career has brought upon their family.

But when men praise their wives again and again for support and then, in the same volume single out women (Martha Stewart, Hillary Clinton) as having crossed a line, having gone too far, the ugly, deep-seated force of patriarchy is rearing its head.

(In parenthesis, let me add: I know, Martha Stewart’s insider trading was absolutely illegal and her response to it was wrong, stupid, and inadequate. As for Hillary Clinton’s emails, given what we have learned since 2016 about the terrible email and texting habits of powerful people of her generation and mine regarding electronic communication, I don’t even see her misdeeds as rising to the level of notice, to be honest.)

My point is this: as you look at men in power, look at how they treat women. Look at how they treat the women whom they like, whom they love, whom they purport to respect, whom they admire. And then, look at the women they attempt to bring down. The men of the current administration are acting to restore patriarchal power. This effort succeeds because good men—and I do think James Comey is, on the balance a good man—still see women as primarily supporting figures to men. Until that changes, we will have to keep fighting.

Personal History

One of my pastimes of the long, depressing spring (which was, sadly, not nearly as depressing as this summer is turning out to be) was to read, for the first time, Katharine Graham’s rightfully acclaimed memoir, Personal History. While reading it, Barbara Bush died. At the same time, accolades and admiration continued for The Crown and praise for the House of Windsor continued in the lead-up to the Royal wedding.

I thought about Graham, Bush, and the British Royal Family a lot as a consequence. In this moment of political turmoil, it’s interesting to turn back to these conservative figures who embodied (and continue to embody) the meaning of conservatism: the desire to preserve the culture of the past.

No feminist at first, Graham was slow to come into her own power. She was slow even to realize the damaging and dangerous hold her charismatic but mentally unstable husband had over her. Raised to imagine herself a wife and helpmeet, she continually describes her content at being one. Even when her women friends take her aside and fête her because they worry that her husband puts her down too much, she professes herself astonished at this observation, one she claims to have been new to her. Yet, in her husband’s final illness and then, after he committed suicide, she realized how profoundly committed she was to the success of The Washington Post. The rest, you probably know: Watergate, bravery, friendship with Warren Buffet, the Black and White Ball (she was the honoree), a long and prosperous old age.

When I was young, people talked about these figures, these stately women who slowly rose to authority, with derision. The cool ones were the men on Harleys, the women who ran away. I love rebels, too, but it makes sense to me now that when we talk about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, it’s not as a precursors the sexual revolution, but as spoiled fascists whose abdication was not merely the abdication of a stupid formality but the abdication of adult responsibility. It might indeed be a new kind of awful to be born so privileged that your future was set forward for you—as a monarch, as the publisher of a newspaper, as the bearer of your family’s name and legacy. But I think it makes sense that in this moment, when almost no one bears that kind of burden, we are interested anew in the people, maybe even particularly the women, who accept that mantle with all its limitations and all its possibilities.

On being bad at running

I started running when I was dating my husband. I’m terrible at it. But now, twenty years in, I like it even though I never seem to get any better. Still, I keep running and now I'm even in a running group, which does sound like the kind of thing a runner would do.

Three years ago, a really dear friend died suddenly. She was the nucleus of a group of moms and neighbors, and for a year we scattered in our grief. Two years ago, one of the other moms rallied some of us to join a local running group. We meet at a gym near my house at 5:30 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings (I know! I can hardly believe it myself!) and at 7:00 on Saturdays. It helped us with our grief and I got a bit more fit. Now, I’m the last one still in the group.

And I am the worst.

I mean, well and truly the worst runner in the group.

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And it’s hard to be the worst. Every time I meet the other runners, I have to remember not to compare myself to them. I am the only one with a tummy. And my pace--my goodness!--I won’t confess it here, but let’s say it’s somewhere between “oh, so basically a walk” and “well, at least you’re out there!”

Except that I really like the other runners. And they like me. And it’s fun to come back from a 45 minute run and stand on the sidewalk while the commuters race to the train and stretch and plank in a group like a middle-aged school child. And running makes me happy. And it’s humbling, in a good way, to remember that, like so many other things in life, it’s not that we are aiming to be the best, but that we are just doing them.

I don’t get caught up in competitiveness over mothering or cooking or decorating. I’m ok with where I stand in those areas--I’m only aiming for competence, pleasing myself, doing right by my children. But running is a sport and a competition. You set a distance and you set a pace and you meet it or you don’t. Other people beat and pass you. And it’s hard, when faced with something that’s so measurable, to let go of the hopes and expectations of being any good at all even at the same time as you work to improve.

Two Saturdays ago, I ran six miles. Afterwards, I felt wrecked for the whole day. Last Saturday, I ran the same distance and route and was only pretty tired. That felt like a victory. But this coming Saturday, there’s a 10K race and, judging by my time, I can see from the results that I’ll be the last on the course. (I came in second-to-last last year.) It’s been a hard spring and my ego just doesn’t have the elasticity to be cheered by a bunch of folks who lapped me ages ago. I’m going to run solo. I have mixed feelings about this. My coach, who is a rock star, says “why do you care? You’re a grown up.” And then, when I tell her more, she says, “I get it.”

All of this, I think, I tell myself, is going to help me be a better and more compassionate teacher. Understanding what it means to persist even when you’re wildly behind the pack isn’t my favorite lesson, but it seems like a good one.

(An ancient post--2005!--on this topic.)

Read in 2017

Have been regretting (is that possibly the right word?) not posting this earlier. This is my fourth year of keeping track (you can read 2016 here).

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2017 was not a great reading year. Looking back, I see a lot of books that I didn’t much enjoy, which seems a terrible shame. The number of books is pretty consistent with prior years—right around thirty; am already at eleven for this year, so on pace and hopeful. (Summer is coming.) I did do some very serious re-reading and much of that was great, especially Middlemarch and this was the first year that I kept track of re-reading, which means page one to the end with intent, not a focused skim or a few chapters as I often do for teaching.

Nineteen of the twenty-six new books were by women. Only six of the twenty-six by people of color—I must do better! I keep thinking I am doing better (three of eleven so far). Amazing how we delude ourselves. Only ten of twenty-six were fiction.

I loved Marcy Dermansky’s novel and adored Zami, which is burned on my heart now, but the two books that really stood out for me in 2017 were Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, which I listened to on audiobook. The performer, the Cambodian-American actor Francois Chau, has a beautiful voice and read the Vietnamese words and names, to my ear, flawlessly & beautifully which really made it all the more engrossing. The book is overlong and ungainly in parts, but it’s also a masterpiece: a real work of genius.

Much smaller in scale and also amazing was John Hampson’s 1931 novel, Saturday Night at the Greyhound. My friend the novelist Jon Michaud recommended it to me. I began it and then put it down. I was gripping but cruel. Then I thought, “Wait! This is a novel about mean people. What if I just read it as if it’s about mean people?” Somehow, that unlocked it for me—I think I was imagining it as much sweeter than it is. It’s anything but sweet. Pitiless, cruel, and a masterpiece.  

Here you go: 

1.     Marcy Dermansky, The Red Car (fiction)

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2.     Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (fiction)

3.     Miles Malleson, Yours Unfaithfully (drama)

4.     Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn (fiction)

5.     Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (poetry)

6.     Lauren Elkin, Flaneuse (nonfiction)

7.     Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele, Queer: A Graphic History (graphic nonfiction)

8.     George Packer, The Unwinding (nonfiction, audiobook)

9.     Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (nonfiction)

10.  Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments (experimental nonfiction)

11.  Audre Lorde, Zami (memoir)

12.  Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In (nonfiction, self-help)

13.  Bing Xin, Letters from a Chinese Student at Wellesley: 1923-1926 (memoir; in translation)

14.  Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad (fiction)

15.  Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (fiction, audiobook)

16.  Lee Child, Die Trying (fiction)

17.  Reed Karaim, The Winter in Anna (fiction)

18.  Vera Brittain, The Dark Tide (fiction)

19.  Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt: Life is a Narrative (nonfiction; in translation)

20.  Olive Schreiner, Women and Labour (nonfiction; kindle)

21.  Stevie Smith, The Holiday (fiction)

22.  Claire Dederer, Love and Trouble (memoir)

23.  Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth (diary)

24.  Sarah Ruhl, 100 Essays I don’t have time to write (essays)

25.  Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (nonfiction)

26.  John Hampson, Saturday Night at the Greyhound (fiction)

 

Re-read in 2017

1.     Nella Larsen, Passing (fiction)

2.     Jessie Fauset, Plum Bun (fiction)

3.     Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (fiction)

4.     Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (fiction)

5.     Judy Blume, Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret (fiction)

6.     Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (nonfiction)

7.     George Eliot, Middlemarch (fiction, kindle)

8.     Nella Larsen, Quicksand (fiction)

Kindness Day

 

Have you heard the news? Blogging is back. (We'll see how I do.)

Today is a holiday at my university, so when I got the invitation from the middle school home-school association to come volunteer, I decided to accept it. I could give the school a few hours of my time, support my daughter, and maybe help myself out of this long-lasting winter funk. 

I got to the gym and soon learned that I was the "coach" of a team of kids running around the school on a massive scavenger hunt meant to build skills of kindness.  The first hour, I shadowed a wonderful P.E. teacher, but the second hour I was on my on. My "team" was naughty and full of baloney. One boy kept throwing himself onto the ground, crying out "I've fallen!" One girl ran ahead and herded everyone into the school elevator. Boys were wailing on each other, sitting on each other's heads, and generally being rambunctious kids. I couldn't seem to get their attention to participate nicely. I was just walking along, "Hey, Team! We're supposed to be going to the Fitness Room!" "C'mon, Team!" "All right, Team, let's stop hitting each other--it IS Kindness Day."

At one station, in a classroom, the kids were supposed to write an intention on a small sheet of paper. Sample intentions were "I will pick up trash around the school" or "I will be kind to someone who is bugging me." 

I was still having trouble getting their attention, getting them to focus, so, as we were finishing up, I wasn't surprised that one boy handed me his paper.

I was a little annoyed.

"You're supposed to keep that."

"It's for you," the boy said. I looked at the paper. It said "Thank you!" and then he had signed his name. He slipped off down the hall and proceeded to tackle his buddy. 

 

Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry

Title page, The Life of Poetry (1949; 1968 repr)

I meant to write more, to write up my experience of the women's march, to write about what I'm doing to connect, resist, and defend this outrageously nasty new Republican administration (more than nothing; not enough; maybe enough), but then those who are doing more shamed me into silence. For a moment.

In any case, let's get back into it with a little Muriel Rukeyser. Beautiful, astonishing, bracing words, as valuable now as they must have been in 1949. These, the opening paragraphs of her nonfiction collection of talks and essays, The Life of Poetry. Its incantatory and strange. Read it. Read it again. And again:

In time of crisis, we summon up our strength.

Then, if we are luck, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.

In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all our need, our need for each other and our need for our selves. We call up, with all the strength of summoning we have, our fullness. And then we turn; for it is a turning that we have prepared; and act. The time of the turning may be very long. It may hardly exist.--Muriel Rukeyser

2016 in pictures

There has been a lot of talk about how awful 2016 was. Certainly, we lost some amazing musicians and celebrities. But are we—am I—letting my ongoing grief, anger, and shock at the election color my sense of an entire year of my life? I decided to check in with myself.

For years, we have made calendars. Every month contains a photo or two from the children’s lives that month in the year prior. As I went through 2016’s photos, I saw other pictures, not including my family (though all about them), that reminded me of some of the good in the past year.

In 2016 I got to go to Austin, Texas and Doha, Qatar for the first time. I got to go home to Seattle for a long visit. I got back to L.A. and fell in love with California again. I joined the flower committee and in church and learned a little bit about arranging flowers. My uncle-by-marriage built raised beds for us and we grew abundant and gorgeous vegetables at our place on the St. Lawrence River. I drew a lot and got a lot better at drawing. I cooked and shared food—fancy and plain—with people I love.

As I think about my resolutions for 2017 (more words, less weight, as ever, but how to write that so it sticks—so the words stick and the pounds melt?), I see that I have to add travel to the list. Even just going to a neighboring village has the power to bring me joy. Kayaking is a big summer pleasure, but one of our best summer days of kayaking came when we drove upriver forty minutes and kayaked in a less familiar spot. Why, even a rotten day of jury duty in Newark was brightened by the sight of one of the gorgeous Victorian brickfronts in that tumbledown city.

In any case, following the “no babies, no pets” rule, here are a dozen of my favorite images and memories from the year just past.

Read in 2016

(2016=29; 2015=30; 2014=33)

This is the third year I’ve kept track of my reading for the year and it’s the third year coming in right around 30 books. I think it would be great to read 52 in 2017. Let’s see if that can happen. What do I notice? This was a year of reading white women, for sure. Only 5 men and only 2 people of color in the whole list. That’s not great range, though since this accounting began in part out of the #readonlywomen movement of 2014, the preponderance of women in itself is neither surprising nor entirely bad.

Other observations: eight audiobooks (audiobook listening dwindling sharply between the conventions and that horrifying election and then rose again), only three books on the Kindle. A play. More experimental writing than in past years (11, 16, 23, & 25), so that’s good. And, with Mina Loy’s collection, even a bit of poetry. Also: some genre fiction this year in the form of three thrillers. Lee Child came to Fordham to honor alum Mary Higgins Clark and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I loved them and they certainly are a great way to finish a book quickly when just getting a complete narrative into your head feels like what needs to happen next. 

My least favorite books of the year were the Brittain biography (ponderous and too impatient to get to her pacifist work to see the rest of her life as interesting or worth documenting) and Eileen Myles (I know she’s a darling, but I found this memoirish novel almost unbearably self-indulgent. It’s really really hard for me to read about being drunk and on fellowship, dealing drugs and cheating on girlfriends who cheat on you.) I just felt the weight of all the time she was wasting. I kept reading—at a snail’s pace—because every few pages there would be a sentence that was absolutely dazzling and because I am a stubborn cuss.

My favorite book, by far, was H is for Hawk. Although I think about that handsome lug of a husband from Fates and Furies from time to time with a sigh.

1.     To Bed With Grand Music, Marghanita Laski (fiction)

2.    Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff (fiction, audiobook)

3.    The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, Shani Boianjiu (fiction)

4.    Plum Bun, Jessie Fauset (fiction)

5.     Unspeakable, Meghan Daum (nonfiction)

6.    Negroland, Margo Jefferson (nonfiction)

7.     Give and Take, Adam Grant (nonfiction, audiobook)

8.    Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Hilary Mantel (fiction, Kindle)

9.    Richard III, William Shakespeare (drama, audiobook)

10.  Bossypants, Tina Fey (nonfiction, Kindle)

11.   The Argonuats, Maggie Nelson (nonfiction)

12.  H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald (nonfiction, audiobook)

13.  Excellent Women, Barbara Pym (fiction)

14.  Bloomsbury Pie, Regina Marler (nonfiction)

15.  Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin (nonfiction, audiobook)

16.  Artful, Ali Smith (nonfiction)

17.  The Torso, Helene Thursen (fiction)

18.  Vera Brittain: A Life, Mark Bostridge (nonfiction)

19.  Killing Floor, Lee Child (fiction)

20. The Story of an African Farm, Olive Schreiner (fiction)

21.  A House Full of Daughters, Juliet Nicolson (memoir)

22. The Lost Lunar Baedeker, Mina Loy (poetry)

23. Where are the Children, Mary Higgins Clark (fiction)

24. Chelsea Girls, Eileen Myles (fiction)

25. Pretend You Don’t See Her, Mary Higgins Clark (fiction)

26. Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton (memoir, audiobook)

27. This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust (nonfiction, audiobook)

28. Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit (nonfiction, Kindle)

29. Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance (nonfiction, audiobook)

CONNECT

Most important of all, we need to stay and keep connected. For my research, I’ve been reading Mark Granovetter’s work from the 1970’s on weak ties. He looked at working class Boston neighborhoods where unemployment was high. In one neighborhood, people did much better finding jobs than in another. In one neighborhood, people were successful in fighting the city’s plans to run a highway through the streets. What was the source of these successes? These neighborhoods were full of people who had ties to others outside the neighborhood. Granovetter found what we’re finding now in our social networks: if everyone you know agrees with you, if everyone in your circle shares your ideas, then your ideas don’t spread. But if you belong to a book group whose members differ from the people in your church which has a slightly different composition than your school board, you have the opportunity to spread an idea, to learn how to protest to local government when its acting against your interests, to pass your resume on to a manager who’s hiring folks in your area. Those groups that cross borders are weak ties and, in one of the most powerful and counterintuitive insights, Granovetter shows that only weak ties can be bridges.

In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes about having a beer with a rancher when she was in rural Nevada on an environmental protest and finding lots of common ground. And I am still interested in and attracted to projects like Howard Schultz’s conversation starters or Matthew Dowd’s Listen To Us. Although I’m not loving Arlie Hochschild’s book, her project of going to rural Louisiana and getting to know people there, learning how they understood the role of big oil in their lives, is a good and brave effort to build bridges, not just for Hochschild, but, through her book, for may of us.

Keep those bridges. Build bridges. Instead of announcing “everyone who disagrees with me can go home,” why not remind people to be civil and strive to keep the links, even to those with whom you disagree?

Only connect.

This--defend, resist, connect--is my slogan, my aim and my hope for the coming year. What do you think?

 

 

RESIST

Even as we defend our ideals, we will need to resist the designs and policies of the incoming administration. We must resist any political threats to the environment, to journalism, and to our most vulnerable fellow-citizens.

This year, for the first time, our family set up recurring (small) monthly donations to charities. We have always made annual gifts and occasional one-time gifts, but these sustaining donations save charities some money on fundraising and help stabilize their budgeting. I’ve been a sustaining member of WNYC for years. To that, we decided to support the environment (through 350.org which is smaller, more urgent, and as highly rated as the also excellent Sierra Club), civil rights (through the ACLU) and women’s rights (through Planned Parenthood). Those three issues rose to the top for our family; others will matter more to you, but it does feel good to give and to help.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B6Ysk4PYO_W4cjlCeVJ2anVteEk

Reading continues to be an act of resistance, too. Partly by supporting independent investigative journalism—we have recently subscribed to Slate Plus, the Washington Post and the Economist, all of which have been doing great good work to untangle and uncover questions about the upcoming administration.

More than that, we have to turn to books. The books that amuse and inspirit us as well as those that inform and warn us about the perils ahead. (I’m currently reading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark on my Kindle, listening to George Packer’s The Unwinding, and reading a paper copy of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. As soon as I finish one of these, I’ll let myself read Marcy Dermansky’s new book, The Red Car!) I’m collecting a list of those books at the Syllabus for Hard Times and I invite you, again, to visit there and add your own ideas. Do I have to finally read The Fountainhead? Please don’t make me.

DEFEND

I’m not a political commentator and many people far smarter and more qualified than I have written about why the president-elect’s actions—and omissions—are alarming. We might note, for starters, that, despite losing the popular vote, the president-elect had held victory rallies; he has not reached out to the majority of American voters who did not vote for him. We might note the admiration he has expressed for dictators and oligarchs, most especially Vladimir Putin. We might note, too, the lack of a plan for avoiding conflicts of interest between the Trump brand and the United States government once the president takes office.

http://www.vmps.us/sites/default/files/eleanor_roosevelt_human_rights.jpg

Smaller things keep me awake at night. I worry about the White House. I worry about how Trump’s gaudy taste will endanger the Presidential residence. Nasty, undiplomatic tweets upset me, more than I would have expected. I see, in my grief at what is unfolding as we prepare for the new administration, what a fervent patriot I am. For all of the many imperfections of this country, I really love it and love being an American. So, when the president-elect becomes President and takes the oath of office

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

--I am going to do what I can to see that he is true to that oath and to work to hold him to the value of that oath. One effect of this election is how it teaches us how fervently this country represents something we want to defend.

DEFEND--RESIST--CONNECT

I’m trying this on as my slogan for the coming year. Those of us disappointed with—heartbroken by—the outcome of the election and bracing ourselves for the coming Trumpocalypse have been advising ourselves on what to do, how best to fight, how best to survive. Tim Snyder’s facebook post on 20 things we can learn from the rise of fascism in the 1930’s affected me deeply. I copied the items out and I want to write about them more in the coming weeks. Perhaps—I am torn about this one—I will even make one of those crazy text-heavy art-pieces that show up on Pinterest all the time—to help remind everyone in the family of Snyder’s principles. So, instead of forty words for coffee or “Love you to the Moon and Back!” our family can have Snyder’s principles for fighting fascism as its mantra. I’ll let you know.

I continue to read and think, but the advice we have been giving each other seems to fall into three categories: things we need to do to defend the principles of democracy and the standards of human decency, to resist those actions that harm our environment and our fellow citizens, and to connect to each other, both within and across political alliances.

In the coming days, I’ll explain a little more what I mean about each. 

The Syllabus for Hard Times

My grief at the outcome of the election is profound and it continues. It’s the atmosphere in which I live. It affects my sense of what is possible. It limits my horizons of hope. I can read all the Rebecca Solnit in the world, but the truth is I’m sad.

At the same time, I have work to do and I know that it is never more important to teach than in times when hope feels hard to grasp. So, every day I try to still be the best teacher I can be. And, of course, my students are doing the same and together, even in our sadness and uncertainty, we continue to arrive at great and good and exciting places of discovery and wisdom.

As propaganda surrounds us, how can teachers—college professors, especially (since that’s where my expertise lies)—work to help students distinguish truth from spin? As we prepare for the administration of a President who has courted the support of racists, hate groups, and neo-Nazis, a President who has admitted sexual assault and has openly mocked the disabled, a Gold Star family, Mexicans, and too many other groups to count, what is the right kind of respect—if that’s a word that has any meaning any more—to accord the office of the presidency? How bet to we continue to value the presidency as part of our democracy as we fight the policies—and outright lies—of the incoming President himself?

I am asking myself these questions every day. Following and learning from activists such as Rebecca Solnit, Shaun King and his #Injustice Boycott, Mikki Halpin, and her action now newsletter, and others.

My tiny contribution to this is a massive, open google drive folder which I’m calling the Syllabus for Hard Times. I value reading long hard things, but I find doing so increasingly difficult. I am distracted. I like the quick hit of a game of solitaire, a podcast, a “like” on a cute post. I’m not proud of it and I am striving to go deeper, to learn more so that I can be worthy of the credo Virginia Woolf expressed in the 1930’s: “thinking is my fighting.” If thinking is my fighting, I have to feed my brain enough so that I can think.

I have learned a lot from the various syllabi that have been circulating lately around #Occupy, BlackLivesMatter, NODAPL, and other movements, and, as I’ve been teaching a lot of pedagogy seminars lately, to teachers both new and experienced, I started the drive with a long bibliography of what I've been using to discuss teaching with teachers and then I and others have been adding from there. 

You can find the whole folder here. You can fill out the survey on how—if at all—your teaching will change here. Please take a look, add your own ideas and contributions, and pass it on.

Almighty Mother

Recently, a church elective began with a group of adults brainstorming God-terms. What are the words we use when referring to that being whom we call God? In this group of moderately liberal, Protestant adults who were not in yoga class, the list went about as you’d expect: God, the Almighty, Heavenly Father, Holy Father. Then someone (not me) thinks to suggest Loving Mother and something in me clicked.

For all my feminism, I still imagine God as Michelangelo painted Him and, unfortunately, Jesus often appears in my imagination is a slightly irritating, mansplaining sociologist. It’s getting in the way of my efforts to be a better person.

The exercise was to meditate by doodling around our favorite term for God. Write down your god term in the middle of a little shape and doodle around it for four minutes as a kind of prayer.

I wrote “Almighty Mother” and that felt mildly transgressive in a silly way (like someone in the 70’s might have been impressed by my bravery, like maybe my personal faith should join the 21st century) but then as I drew my shapes and dots and lines, I felt better. What if the Divine had the love and power of an almighty mother? How truly awesome would that be? I could feel protected and defended, inspirited and supported. That might help me do my work in this moment when my work feels harder and more important than ever. I might feel better about myself, my power, and our ability to band together and work to make the world we want to live within.

In the days since this harrowing, terrifying, world-shifting election, I’ve been grieving and worrying and praying to the Almighty Mother, asking for protection and fortitude in the coming struggles. 

Read in 2015

1.    My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (fiction)

2.   Citizen, Claudia Rankine (poetry)

3.   A Woman in Berlin, Anonymous (memoir)

4.   Eat Bacon, Don’t Jog Grant Petersen (self-help)

5.    The Care and Management of Lies, Jacqueline Winspear (fiction)

6.   The Book of Salt, Monique Truong (fiction)

7.   The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka (fiction)

8.   All We Know, Lisa Cohen (nonfiction)

9.   The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion (fiction)

10.                  Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury (nonfiction)

11.Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie (fiction, audiobook)

12.                  Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, Viviane Forrester (nonfiction)

13.                  Holding On Upside Down, Linda Leavell (nonfiction)

14.                  Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Kate Bolick (nonfiction)

15.The Road from Coorain, Jill Ker Conway (nonfiction)

16.                  A London Address: The Artangel Essays, various (nonfiction)

17.                  Uncommon Arrangements, Katie Roiphe (nonfiction)

18.                  Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill (fiction)

19.                  The Summer Book, Tove Jansson (fiction)

20.                 The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer (nonfiction)

21.                  Some of My Lives, Rosamond Bernier (nonfiction)

22.                  I, Claudius, Robert Graves (fiction, audiobook)

23.                 God Save the Child, Toni Morrison (fiction)

24.                 The World is Round, Gertrude Stein (fiction)

25.                  NW, Zadie Smith (fiction)

26.                 A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen (drama)

27.                 Shapeshifters, Aimee Cox (nonfiction)

28.                 Claudius the God, Robert Graves (fiction, audiobook)

 

Abandoned in 2015

1.    Then Again, Diane Keaton (memoir) so boring, so familiar, so shallow, made me like her les

More Alice Munro than Rosamond Bernier

Delightful as the Bernier was, it’s an unrealistic lesson in being a person upon whom nothing is lost. If you’re on your way to see Picasso and Joan Miró invites you over, you would be churlish to doze or miss your sense that something was happening. And sometimes, my New York life does seem to approach the glamour of Bernier’s. But sometimes, reading Bernier, it’s hard not to feel a bit frumpy.

Up here on the St. Lawrence River where I spend my July, I’m not likely to run into a Picasso or a Miró. Instead, I try to pay Henry James levels of attention to the characters of this Northern New York landscape.  We are, after all, just across the River from Ontario and it feels like Munro country up here, with teens zooming around on Gators, overly tanned boaters sitting on barstools, overweight mothers sitting in pink plastic Adirondack chairs in front yards that don’t look onto the water.

Chaumont Barrents from http://nnytrails.freehostia.com/map1.htm

Last weekend, after my husband headed back down to the city for work, my daughters, my mother-in-law and I headed to the Chaumont Barrens, a Nature Conservancy spot. It was glorious and strange, just a 1.75 mile flat loop through a rare alvar grassland—thin soil, prairie plants (some rare, though I don’t know plants well enough to tell this; all rare in upstate New York). Many of the trees had exposed roots. Some of the forested areas were lush with brilliant, thin, chartreuse grass on the floor. We found some fossils.

Being Sunday, the Amish farmstand my mother-in-law sometimes goes to was closed, but near it was another. I could see zinnia and sunflowers as we whizzed past, so I determined to stop on the way home. Not only flowers, but Amish-made soap, jams, baskets, eggs, summer squash, and other treats. There was some pretty blowsy dill in a jar with a sign: “come to the house if you want us to cut you fresh dill.” And another sign saying everything at the stand was grown at the farm or by local Amish craftspeople. We were choosing flowers when the farmer came up, a plump man in jeans, a work shirt, and a worn baseball cap. “There’ll be a lot more coming. We had our first glads this morning, but they were gone right away. There’ll be more. And peppers. Hot peppers.”

“Corn?” asked my mother-in-law.

“Well, I should have corn, but the raccoons thought it was ready before I did,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind if they’d eat a whole ear. But they take a bite of one, then eat one side of another. I don’t hunt and we don’t have a dog. What can I do?" He paused.  "I can’t kill anything.”

I murmured my assent, amazed and so touched, in this land of hunters and signs saying “Quickest way to Heaven: Trespassing on my Property,” to find such a kind soul.

When he said, “I can’t kill anything,” he meant it. Supremely. He said it was important to grow enough for everyone, but that this was the first year he’d ever had trouble with raccoons. He wondered aloud what to do next. I thought about the obese raccoon who used to waddle around my college campus, gorging on pizza he found in the dumpster, but I worried that if I talked about college, I’d make a wedge between us rather than a connection.

We took our sunflowers, our zinnias. He wished us well and we were on our way.

Rosamond Bernier!!

I won’t have the order of this quite right, but I know that I have Rosamond Bernier’s not-to-be-missed memoir on my shelves because Emma Straub, Lauren Cerand, and my father were all raving about it.

But then, in another mood, I hesitated to read a book about a fabulously wealthy woman—it seemed trivial, out of key with my own struggles and with the work I was trying to do.

Of course, moods change, and this summer with no Dalloway deadlines, I thought I might dip into something light. (As you can see, from what’s been appearing here, it’s been fairly light fare all month.)

Born to a wealthy family (her mother was English and died when Bernier was quite young, her father, an American Jew), Bernier grew up in and around the Philadelphia Orchestra. She dropped out of college to marry Lewis Riley, Jr. She lived with him in Mexico City where she became acquainted with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Malcolm Lowry. Her musicianship and acquaintance with composers, conductors, and artists, set her on her amazing life path, from features editor for American Vogue to founding editor of L’OEIL to esteemed lecturer on fine arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bernier writes affectionately of her brief first marriage and with tremendous, joyous wonder of her happy, third marriage to the art critic John Russell. The second husband is only mentioned as the source of complications. It’s a kind of social death for him through very controlled, polite restraint. Curious and sad, but not to be dwelt on when there is so much joy and genius all around her and she is so generous and funny about it.

Bernier is clearly the kind of woman to whom amazing, exciting things happen. The striking cover photo of her in a lovely satin slip, lounging in a four-poster bed came about one night when she couldn’t find any lodging in rural France one night in 1947—nothing, until the man she had come to interview offered her the chance to spend the night in Madame de Sevigné’s bed.

The book is beautifully written and full of amazing anecdotes—stories of what Picasso said to her, what Lenny Bernstein did for her, what she made of Jane and Paul Bowles, how Frida Kahlo probably liked her because she had a pet monkey.

The anecdotes of the famous are great and, when you read it, you’ll have your own favorites, but I keep thinking about a simpler and perhaps even more amzing story: her first husband had a small airplane (it’s nice to be rich) and taught her to fly. She writes that she has a terrible sense of direction, but flying in Acapulco was easy: she would just take off and fly along the coast until she found a beach that she liked the look of and land there for a day of swimming and bathing.

That world is gone, and perhaps that’s to the good. But I suspect the spirit of the young woman who seized that chance to explore is what made her such a trusted confidante of so many of the great artists of the past century.

A delight.