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.

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


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?




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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 

My Mandela Memory

In 1985 or 1986, I took an amazing class called “The Politics of Race Domination in South Africa” taught by Wellington Nyangoni, a visiting professor from Brandeis. This was a tough class: the reading was challenging, graduate-level political science and Prof. Nyangoni had the old-school African intellectual style: brilliant, charismatic uncompromising, demanding, with no patience for sloppy thinking or fuzzy hoping. He didn’t care if you hung out at the shanty town for divestment (I did not—I was too busy studying); he wanted you to read and think and understand the systems of oppression, political and capital, that kept whites in power.

I remember a lot about that class, which was my first introduction to the ways in which corporate America was complicit in the very worst of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

I remember Professor Nyangoni pausing to tell a rare personal anecdote about his boyhood in what was then Rhodesia. He went to hear the President give a speech and, unable to see, climbed a tree. “Look at those monkeys!” said the President, pointing at him and his friends. As racism goes, this is small potatoes, but for me—for the twelve of us in that seminar—Professor Nyangoni was a giant, a professor, commanding and worthy of our utmost respect. Hearing that story from his lips affected me deeply.

But, with the passing of Nelson Mandela, I also remember the only thing he said to us that was probably wrong.

We were a dozen hopeful privileged young women sitting in a classroom at Wellesley. We listened to The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela” and believed in divestment. But Professor Nyangoni warned us that Mandela would never become president. That man, he said, is a warrior, a guerrilla fighter, and a rebel. He is great at that, but he has been in prison for over twenty years. The skills needed for a president, when apartheid falls, just don’t match up with the skills of such a man. That made sense to me. It seemed like adult wisdom. I didn’t want to believe it, but it seemed right.

So, when Nelson Mandela did become President, I thought back to that class and my professor’s very wise prediction.


This was indeed a great man.

May he rest in peace.


As a college teacher in these depressing times for college teachers, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cost of education and its value. Why, for example, does an adjunct teaching a single course at my university earn only $3,800 when my salary, for teaching five courses per year (and doing research and sitting on committees and advising dissertations and planning new classes) is much more than five times $3,800. Indeed, an adjunct teaching six classes at this rate would earn $22,800/year. How is that close to a salary?

Still, this inequity is nothing compared to larger inequities. Recently my husband pointed out to me an article on David Tepper, the hedge fund billionaire. He’s just given $67 million to Carnegie Mellon. I am in favor of such donations, of course: higher education depends on donations from philanthropists and large donations like this one are a testament to the power of college.

Tepper lives in Short Hills, New Jersey, just down the road from me. Last year he earned $2.2 billion dollars. That’s a lot more than I earn: about 25,000 times my annual salary, in fact. That's right. Not 10 times; not 100 times. This man, who lives a few stops down the commuter rail from me earns twenty-five thousand times my annual salary. No wonder he can be so generous.

I’m not a good capitalist. I made a choice, many years ago to pursue a Ph.D. rather than go into consulting or law and it’s a choice that I’m happy with, mostly. I always was fine with the notion that many many people with my education and intelligence and privilege would make much more than I, but 25,000 more? That kind of inequity at the top end makes me terrified for the poor, and for those far less fortunate than I.

I was thinking about this the other weekend as I stood with other members of my church, putting slices of ham, cheese, lettuce, and tomato into rolls, wrapping the sandwiches, adding fruit and cookies, and getting these hundreds of sandwiches ready for delivery to the homeless who congregate at Newark Penn Station, just down the road from my house—and his.

Unlike the hedge fund capitalists down the road in Short Hills and unlike the homeless, I have a little weekly money and, every week in November and December, I try to hold back some of the $60 my husband and I each budget for coffees and lunches. My goal is to get to $100 so that my daughters and I can “adopt” a family and give them the Christmas presents they otherwise couldn’t afford. These are the kind of calculations that keep me grounded and worried. These are the kind of calculations that the very wealthy may no longer be able to fathom.

Essex County, New Jersey has tremendous economic inequity, but it took a little arithmetic and a few sandwiches to make me see it intensely again.

So for all that we might want to give thanks to the philanthropist who gives a substantial amount—but a small portion of his annual salary—to a university, I am thinking about a revolution. Things are out of whack. This year, I’m giving thanks and preparing to get onto the barricades.

The End of the World as We Know It

This government shutdown has me trembling with a kind of muted rage. Some day, not long from now, we will look back on this moment and shake our heads in disbelief: the polar ice caps are melting and a few recalcitrant lawmakers, determined to prove their fealty to a smaller government, one that does not provide affordable health care, shut down the whole government altogether. For this, then, we are recalling our scientists from Antarctica for the season?

None of this do I understand.

I lie awake at night trying to find reasons to hope for the future for my students, my precious daughters, but, happy as I am in my life, the future looks bleak to me.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was choosing what kind of good to do in the world, I chose teaching and writing. I rejected the possibility of consulting work—jobs where recent college grads were earning more than I earn now—reasoning that the right thing to do was to try to do good in the world from the beginning, not to get rich and then atone through philanthropy. I chose to teach, to write, and to work on feminist issues.

Now, that feels like a mistake.

The government shutdown itself is nothing next to the destruction that is coming as we continue to ravage our environment. What, in the end, will all my years of work on Mrs. Dalloway matter if every year another flood, hurricane, drought, or worse disrupts our lives, destroys our livelihoods, and kills our neighbors?

But what can I do? In a class I observed today, a young teacher was leading her first-year students through Thomas Friedman’s diagnosis of the current college students as a quiet generation, lacking in courage. I’m older, but I lack courage, too. I feel so strongly that I must change my life, but my ties to my life are too strong. I will not just go and become a Greenpeace activist, risking my life and my freedom for the health of the planet.

I wrote “cannot” first, but, of course, I could, although I predict that I won’t. Nothing but my own love of comfort is stopping me from leaving my life behind.

So, what can I do? What can we do? I have been listening to Claire Balding’s Ramblings, thanks to a Slate rec. It’s a BBC Radio 4 podcast in which Balding joins an avid walker on a favorite walk. She and the walker talk about the landscape, the route, and the walker’s life. It’s a beautiful tribute to all the many, many Britons who, in very quiet ways, love the land. I think about these lives of quiet dignity, these stewards of the land who help preserve it, it seems to me, just by communicating their love. Is that a contribution?

When we set out in July to spend a month driving (a glorious, magical month), were we, in spite of being in an automobile, also helping teach our children to love nature? Does that help? Can it be enough?

Listening to a Canadian radio station, I heard that Godspeed You, Black Emperor had refused to accept an award because, well, how can you celebrate when the icecaps are melting?

Something’s wrong with that, too, I know. My students, mostly musicians this fall, and I talked it through the other day and, after class I realized how much more I admired DJ Spooky: he’s not being churlish, he’s making music about Antarctica and then going to Reykjavik to perform and sign books at Arctic Circle.

I can see that “doing what I can” is no longer enough. What is? What will be?


Climate Change and the Sleeping Point

Remember that old saw about investing? An investor confesses to a millionaire that his investments are keeping him awake at night and he’s told to “sell down to the sleeping point.” Well, lately—for the past nine months or so—climate change has me awake at night. I am not sure why and it’s a frustrating problem. After all, I have no expertise at all that can help prevent the next superstorm or reduce carbon emissions.

Still, every time someone says, “Boy, it’s such a hot summer!” or “Wow, I have never seen the river so low,” I feel a tightness in my gut that doesn’t go away. I am worried and I am not sure what to do. I know that my lying awake for hours doesn’t actually reduce my consumption of fossil fuel nor does it move us closer to being prepared for the next disaster.

Sandy and its aftermath have only made that anxiety worse. For my own mental health, then, I signed up for updates at Bill McKibben’s 350.org and was momentarily cheered by the sense, there, that there is some hope for our poor, bruised and ailing planet.

But last night’s cri de coeur had me writing to my legislators. I’m worried that New Jersey in particular is not thinking about rebuilding in the best way. Doing this, I hope, might help me feel like I’ve done my bit this month and I can get back to the sleeping point.

It’s not the greatest document I’ve ever penned, but here it is. And, since this is the 21st century, I made it into a petition at change.org. Here it is:

As the state continues to move toward recovery from Superstorm Sandy, I am writing to urge you to include action on climate change in plans for rebuilding.

Like many New Jersey residents, I am grieving for all the state lost. But we cannot rebuild without rethinking.

I am alarmed to hear that the state government has waived permitting requirements, “allowing for the immediate reconstruction of the same public infrastructure that failed during Sandy” (WNYC.org) and “The state’s Department of Environmental Protection has waived permitting requirements for the next six months for public infrastructure damaged during the storm” (WNYC.org).

I understand the desire to get back to normal: I was impatient when my train line from South Orange to New York was inaccessible. However, when every passing storm brings down overhead wires and a major storm takes train lines out for weeks, it is clear that we need to take serious preventive action to secure our transportation and infrastructure against next year’s storm.

Waiving an already imperfect permitting process is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. Instead, we should be rewarding districts and municipalities for planning against future storms by thinking about how to prevent such damage next time.

Moreover, we need to encourage individuals and corporations to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel so that we stand a chance of slowing, if not reversing, the alarming rate of global warming.

Former New Jersey Governors Florio and Kean have called for a kind of “Marshall Plan” for rebuilding New Jersey, a plan that would look to global leaders in engineering, design, and architecture, consulting with them on how best to restore our coastline, protect our power, and strengthen our transportation networks. Two great New Jersey universities, Rutgers and Princeton, already have climate change institutes that can serve as resources for all who need to rebuild and plan.

If we don’t take careful action, both to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to rebuild in ways that protect us from the next storm (burying power lines, trimming trees, strengthening incentives for those who reduce carbon emissions, securing and expanding our transportation and power infrastructure), we will not only be grieving again next year, but we will be billions more in the hole from foolish, hasty projects.

Please provide incentives for smart rebuilding and prevention. We cannot afford to be stupid about this.

Maybe you want to sign this and pass it on?