A love letter to Colombia, Part IV

eternally nostalgic
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Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

This was a summer of questions. I lived in them. I learned how to design and conduct qualitative research piece-by-piece.Inquiry became my home in Colombia. It was a summer of cómo and por qué?  I struggled with shifting from my previously service-based roles in conflict-affected areas to being here in an academic capacity, with asking questions without being able to immediate use the answers to implement an initiative that responds to needs. I asked myself what the service of academia is, and whether it is immediate enough and close enough to the source of the need for me to feel that it can be a true service. I watched my communities shift and the often-solitary-occasionally-lonely rhythms of academic fieldwork give way to a group of thinkers who would proofread my every word, assess the effectiveness and ethics of my every interview question, and give my Spanish translations their correct subjunctive forms. I will miss spelling my name on the phone. In Colombia, I am Rossan, as Roxanne is too untenable. I will miss the workers at Auros, my neighborhood copy-scan-fax store. They, too, are part of the routines of my research, and I can tell they are perplexed by the formalities of the process. I credit them with having taught me how to say 'stapler' in Spanish and with having helped assemble my every consent form.

And then I was silent. When the questions died down and the music quietened, I found myself sitting alone on the Cartagena city walls. Colombia can be uncomfortable with solitude, and Cartagena is a city that demands affection. It is a country of two and many, one in which you can always squeeze in an extra seat at the table or an extra person in the airport line to say goodbye. This summer has blurred the lines between solitude and loneliness, raised the cost of distance from loved ones, and lowered the barrier to entry into becoming a loved one in the first place. This country is full of loved ones, my loved ones. It is full of love.

I have felt small this summer. It is the kind of smallness I crave, the kind that emanates from being humbled and cannot be corrected by high heels. I have felt lighter too. I have laughed more easily, stumbled more confidently, made mistakes less shyly. When I'm abroad and alone, unshielded by familiarity or company, I say yes more. I dare more, especially after midnight when the words fall out of my mouth without fear of the Spanish subjunctive.

***

I sometimes feel about Colombia like a photographer who only wishes to capture her lover's dreamier side, all the while aware that another side exists, having pushed up her fingers right up against the underbelly. I cannot definitively reconcile my memories of Colombia, those of almonds and rainbows, with the memories Colombians have narrated to me. I know they exist side-by-side, almost unfolding in parallel universes. I understand that the differences in the hues of these narratives partly emerge out of my biased eyes: those of a Colombia-loving foreigner whose multiple layers of privilege circumvent many glass ceilings and shield her from some of the challenges of life and work here. I do not wish my fondness for this land to render me blind to its injustices or to push the many conflicts that continue to unfold away from the capital to the periphery of my own vision.

At the same time, I am hopeful -- not out of ignorance or bias, but by choice. I choose to be hopeful because I have met so many Colombians who are, who believe in Colombia, who have dedicated their life to peace. During one of my interviews, a human rights defender explained to me: "We push and ask questions, even when it feels as though the mountain is not moving. Why do we do it? Because every day when I get out of bed to do this work, when I see more of us committing to it, I can feel the space for impunity shrinking. That is enough, even if I can't see it. I believe it is there. I believe it is shrinking. When you believe, you have no choice but to keep working, to keep pushing."

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By the time you read these words, Roxanne has returned to Boston, which she (also) calls home. Her field notes from Colombia may have wrapped up, but her adventures will continue, in life and on this page.

A love letter to Colombia, Part III

eternally nostalgic
IMG_20130815_171851

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

I worry about Bogotá's rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few -- expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?

And then I meet the people who break the mould. Last Friday, I was the only person with done-up nails and high heels in a room full of anthropologists. I have come to cherish both the irony and the awkwardness of this, surrounded by Colombians in jeans and Converse who were there to patiently walk me through the process of grave exhumations. Some of the most transformative moments of my research were the ones whose profundity extinguished all room for artifice. In many ways, these are the stories that cannot be told. They are not my stories, or this is not the medium for them, or it is not yet the time to tell them. Even in their untellability, I realize that allowing these narratives to cross my path continues to fuel my faith in humanity.

The responsibilities of storytelling were on my mind this summer, in terms of the responsibilities of the storyteller to the people to whom the story belongs and to the reader. I have watched my own role constantly shift, as the different capacities I have occupied in conflict-affected areas compete for attention: conflict manager, gender-based violence specialist, academic, researcher, listener, writer. Storyteller. It is an ever-evolving contract between multiple storytellers, and it requires finding my own place in the universe of intersecting narratives.

***

I will carry the contrasts in my heart, with appreciation for moments that fracture your expectations, for the moments in which appearance deviates from reality. There was the time I was followed by a policeman for five blocks near the Presidential Palace, only to learn that he wanted to find out if this señorita was married and, if not, would she go out with him? Or the time a whole group of policemen in Cali gave up their seats at the tienda for two sleepy gringas looking for coffee before the city had had the chance to wake up. Or the numerous instances I have walked past the sports bar, Locos por el Futbol, only to hear "A Total Eclipse of the Heart" or another 1990's sappy favorite bellowing from the speakers -- with more than one man singing along. Or that other time during my solo meal in Usaquén, when the table of brunching men behind me spent twenty minutes discussing baby showers. There are moments that insert cracks into an image such that you can no longer say "all of these kinds of people are _______" in Colombia. Colombia makes you fill in the blank, and question the 'all.' It requires nuance and texture.

And yet, the often heart-warming contrasts cannot allow me to forget about the shadow economy of fear, in which boundaries are overstepped or invisibilized. Many of my interviewees use 'invisibilize' as an active verb: to render invisible. 'To (forcibly) disappear' has been another active verb that has punctuated the narrative. The hierarchies of privilege that define other aspects of life here also determine fear, risk, and danger -- with human rights defenders often finding themselves at the bottom. I have been conscious of how my own layers of privilege color my experience and provide an extra layer of protection in most instances: I am a foreign, Western-educated woman who is affiliated with a US university and is not fully embedded in the realities of advocacy in Colombia. I am also conscious of how the human rights defenders I have interviewed rarely use the language of fear directly. They speak of 'risks', 'danger', 'threats', but rarely fear itself. I seek to learn from their example as I sift through trauma, both vicarious and my own. In the moments of human connection, of asking the questions and recording the answers, of finding beauty, of experiencing learning or vulnerability or hope, I, too, feel less afraid.

Next: Conclusions from biased eyes

Margery Kempe: Medieval Pilgrim, Autobiographer

historical woman

I read about Margery Kempe, in the aptly titled The Book of Margery Kempe, in my senior year of college, for a class on medieval history. My first impression was: “Man, b**** be trippin’.”

Actually, I shouldn't use that word. It was more like, “This woman is really, really annoying.”

Of course, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate what Margery accomplished a tad more. In her self-penned Book, for example, she recounts that time she took a pilgrimage all the way from Britain to the Holy Land by herself. That was no small feat, especially for a non-noblewoman. Even today, if you did that people would be all like, “You’re a woman and you’re going by yourself?”

Margery was born sometime in the late fourteenth century in Norfolk, England, the daughter of a wool merchant and sometime Member of Parliament. In today’s world, she would have maybe been a suburban yuppie. She married a dude named John, had a bunch of kids, and was all set to have a regular medieval suburban yuppie life with him.

But Margery found a higher calling. Literally. (Okay, not literally. I don’t think.) She began to have visions sometime around the birth of her first child. This prompted her to rearrange her priorities and attempt to live more purely. Eventually she gave herself completely to a religious life, even getting her husband to agree to maintain a celibate marriage with her, which sounds like a rough deal.

Her religious adventures included visiting the Holy Land, where she thoroughly irritated all of her fellow pilgrims with her crying spells and general carryings on (can you imagine how crazy you have to be to piss off a bunch of religious pilgrims with your religious fervor?), making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and possibly visiting fellow devotional woman and more highly regarded mystic Julian of Norwich. Margery’s husband was actually from Norwich, so they probably had a lot to talk about.

A story to illustrate Margery's, er, extreme personality: When she returned from her Holy Land visit---in which she was almost stranded in Rome because she gave all her money to the poor and her fellow pilgrims had just about had it up to here---she continued to make pilgrimages around Europe, though she was constrained by her lack of resources and her gender. She often wore all white and tended to weep uncontrollably out of devotion to Christ. Her behavior was so odd that many locals accused her of being a heretic, and at one point, she was nearly burned at the stake. However, church authorities intervened, and Margery's knowledge of the Bible and non-heretical views bore her out. She just had really, really crazy ways of putting them into practice.

What really cemented Margery’s fame, however, was the fact that she put all of these wacky life experiences into a book (albeit one that she dictated to a male writer, being likely illiterate herself). This was actually remarkable. Very few people of her status (middle-class-ish), much less women, had their thoughts and feelings recorded for posterity in this way. Through her, historians are today able to understand the religious lives of laypeople and non-nobles.

And I have to hand it to Margery. Sure, she might have been annoying, and overdramatic, and slightly hysterical at times, but she also was pretty damn courageous. It takes courage, undoubtedly, to strike out on one's own, follow one's passions, and not be trapped by what others might think. On a minimally related personal note, I am starting my PhD this week. Which sounds pretty serious. As sometimes happens, I’ve been racked with insecurity and uncertainty—am I good enough? Am I smart enough? When I raise my hand to speak, will something clever come out, or will it be super lame and everyone will point and laugh and be like “ohmygod you guys how did she get in.”

But who cares? Make a fool of yourself. Dance like no one’s watching. Fall down and have sparkly visions of Jesus and alienate everyone around you. As long as you’re doing what you love, what the heck does it matter? You might still end up with a book that’s remembered five hundred years later, or at least that gets you on the “History” shelf at Barnes & Noble next to Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jared Diamond.

Margery gets it. She's there too.

A love letter to Colombia, Part II

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I  

I will miss the jasmine tree, whose scent transports me back to Jerusalem and to every home I have loved.

My favorite moments under the jasmine tree unfold around 7.30 PM each night, when the security guards of the K-9 teams allow the bomb-sniffing puppies to run around the park. For ten minutes, if you are lucky, you can catch dogs sniffing each others' butts and wagging their tail as a sign of affection, not violence. There are more such dogs now than during my last time in Colombia, or maybe I am more attuned to their presence. This realization makes me cherish the whimsical butt-sniffing even more. When the security guards notice me smiling, they will sometimes oblige and give their German shepherds a cuddle. I know they are performing for me, but in so doing, they unite my Colombian universes: a single gesture blends a reminder of the conflict with unbridled affection.

The affection is unavoidable here. Desire is one of Colombia's many currencies. This is a country that touches and stares and whispers 'belleza' as you walk down the street. This is a country of princesas, and preciocas, and amorcitas. All these epithets are gendered in ways I cannot bear to ignore and, in the same breath, I cannot be cynical about calling someone mi vida. My life. When my assessment of the culture of affection becomes too rosy for my Colombian friends, they remind me of how fleeting and broken love can be here. They remind me of the men who are perros -- literally, dogs -- and of the men who cheat and of the women who cheat and of the ones who don't call and of the ones who call you princesa for two weeks before they disappear into thin air. They speak of rigid expectations, often crushed, that define the reality of a challenging love, that render longevity in romance difficult. On a rosy day, I will remind them that these quandaries of life and love are not confined to this land.

On a keenly aware day, I, too, feel choked by the rigid conceptions of masculinity and femininity. This is one of the countries in which I most notice the performativity of gender and how narrow the expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman can be. On a flight to Cali, I noticed every single woman had her nails done. On the same flight, a passenger asked me if this is my natural hair color. When I nodded yes, she asked me why I don't like to go to the hair salon to get 'this beautiful hair' straightened. Sometimes, I feel as though I provide Bogotá with its only messy curls. Sit at Juan Valdez long enough and you will observe there is a uniform for women here, one of many: leggings, tucked into boots, topped off with a leather jacket. And straight hair, of course. I am torn between finding these expectations suffocating and appreciative of a type of beauty, between finding them endearing and superficial.

I worry about Bogotá's rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few -- expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?

Next: Wherein, amidst the rigid expectations, I find hope.

Kösem Sultan: Ruler of the Ottoman Empire

historical woman

(Note: Be careful when you Google her name. Nothing bad, but there is a Kosen Sultan who appears to hold the Guinness record for being the world’s tallest man, so not to be confused.)

So the “harem” is one of my favorite not-favorite Orientalist tropes. (“Favorite not-favorite” is one of my favorite phrases.) It’s also a very misunderstood concept, heavily romanticized in Western art and literature and imagined as a sexually debauched space where scantily clad women lounge on divans smoking hookah and pleasuring, well, pretty much any dude who walks in the door. You can see why it’s been popular.

In reality, the harem was an enclosed space for the women of the royal household, etymologically derived from the Arabic haram—forbidden—which allowed elite women to live in seclusion and yet still have access to and even exert control over the seat of power. In the Ottoman Empire, the women of the harem could be very influential, even enjoying a period in the 16th and 17th centuries known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, through regencies and political strategizing, they were practically in charge. It’s worth noting that this partly coincided with the height of the Empire’s power.

Kösem Sultan is one of the most extraordinary of these women. Born on a small Greek island around 1585, she eventually made her way to Constantinople at age fifteen, sold into the harem of the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I, where she became a favorite of his and then became one of his wives.

Ahmed died in 1617, and in 1623 Kösem’s son Murad IV became Sultan and Kösem became Valide Sultan, or Mother of the Sultan. Because Murad was a minor, Kösem was his official regent—the first woman to ever rule the Ottoman Empire and one of only two who ever would. She was regent for nine years.

Now, as I hinted at earlier, the Ottoman Empire in this period was nothing to sneeze at. Its subjects numbered around thirty million, and its reach extended across North Africa, Eastern Europe, and most of what we now know as the Middle East. Like many empires, it could have probably quit while it was ahead circa 1550, but continued to expand and was mostly still doing A-OK until 1683, when the Ottomans whiffed at the disastrous siege of Vienna, undertaken by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha.

So Murad finally came of age, did alright, then died eight years later. Kösem’s other son, Ibrahim I, took the throne, but dude was kind of a mess (random headaches, bouts of physical weakness, mental instability) and Kösem was basically the power behind the throne. Then Ibrahim was deposed and Kösem craftily presented her seven-year-old grandson, Mehmed IV, as the new sultan, and thus became regent for Time No. 2.

This second bout of imperial power was only to last three years, however, before she was challenged by her daughter-in-law Turhan Hatice, mother of Mehmed and another major harem imperial power player. Turhan heard rumors that Kösem was plotting to remove Mehmed from the throne and replace him with another grandson—not one of Turhan’s—and it’s likely that it was Turhan who ordered Kösem’s assassination. Legend has it she was murdered by a eunuch, who strangled her with her own hair. Yikes.

Thus ended the tumultuous, Showtime miniseries-style life of Kösem Sultan. I would actually endorse the making of such a miniseries if I didn’t feel like it would be an Orientalist mess waiting to happen.

Kösem Sultan’s story is entertaining, and her bids for power are impressive, but not so great is the implication that women basically had two options in the Ottoman Empire: to be invisible, or to be a conniving power-hungry b-word. It’s a false dichotomy, but it’s how historical women tend to be remembered. She may very well have been these things, but let’s take into account the falsehoods of historical memory and the persistence of exaggerated feminine tropes, not to mention the potential Orientalization of otherwise straightforward political history (a eunuch? strangled with her own hair? it's almost too perfect), and instead celebrate(?) the awesome ambition of Kösem, the sultan-iest of Ottoman royal women.

"I Don't Want a Bigoted Friend"

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

A college friend of mine has an attitude problem when it comes to race. We met 12 years ago and lost touch a year into our studies when our programs diverged. At that point she had already made 2 racist comments, one which I pointed out was unfair and biased, and she conceded. But when the second comment occurred, I cut my losses and went on my way.

Five years ago she moved to my city and sought out my friendship again. I was happy to hear from her, because she does have a lot of good qualities and has turned out to be a fairly loyal, if somewhat self-centered friend.

She had done some traveling after college and I was hoping her mind had opened and she'd matured with regard to her unconscious views on race. Not totally. There were a few less-overt comments that I let slide, due to my passive nature and just general cowardice (ugh). I never thought that she would remain my friend for this long, or that she'd figure it out eventually by interacting with more folks from different backgrounds (our city is fairly diverse and she's since entered a multicultural graduate program).

Alas, that's not really how privilege works, as we both know, Sibyl! The recent release of the film Fruitvale Station, and its confluence with the Trayvon Martin verdict have produced some ugly & awkward moments with her—which unfortunately I've heard of second-hand. Her comments were to the effect of, people are just saying nice things about this movie because of the trial, subtext being that ... black people are getting away with "it"??  It makes no sense. It's getting to the point where I have to run interference with other friends because I'm (perhaps selfishly) afraid this reflects badly on me. I don't want a bigoted friend, but at this point she has become so important to me that I can't just cut & run either.

I think I know the right thing to do, which is to gently bring it up and act like I just don't understand why an otherwise nice person seems to hold these views, and to sort of cushion it by saying I think she's much smarter than that. But I'm afraid that instead I'll start shaking with rage and go off about white privilege (I'm white too, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize what's right in front of our eyes). Any tips? Thanks so much!

Losing the Race

 

Dear Losing the Race,

In the past month, people all over the country have had some unfortunate surprises, seeing how folks close to them reacted to the Trayvon Martin murder case, and the film Fruitvale Station, which depicted the murder of Oscar Grant III.  It’s been awkward, depressing, and downright enraging to see that people you thought were allies are actually indifferent, ignorant, and/or even full-out racist.  How is it 2013 and so many white people just don’t “get” the effects of institutional racism?  Well, privilege is a sneaky thing, and no one wants to give up power they don’t want to believe they have in the first place.

The message I heard, over and over, from the black folks in my life was, “White people who are conscious, please handle your people. We are tired of explaining racism to them.  It’s time for you to step up.”  So, although I recognize that my efforts are far from complete, I’ve been using every platform afforded to me to discuss race in America, and I thank you for another opportunity to do so.

What I am finding is that since most people avoid talking about race like the plague, they are clunky with it.  Their opinions are not fully formed, untested by debate and expression.  They are a bit like teenagers in Health class on Sex Ed day - there’s all kinds of jokes where there should be depth, and the level of tension in the room is palpable.

I like that you are willing to examine what having a bigoted friend says about you.  What it says about you is you are a human with human friends, that are complicated and imperfect and not totally aware of themselves.  Everyone has their equivalent of your bigoted friend in their lives.  It’s like the embarrassing uncle who you used to love as a child for all the reasons you now hope he doesn’t show up at the family functions—his loudness and silliness was fun for kids, but less funny as an adult.

You probably enjoy the bluntness of your friend, in other contexts.  You like that she tells it how she sees it, doesn’t hold back, and isn’t always perfectly PC.  However, you were hoping she would evolve over time.  Ignorant views in college students are to be expected—I’m so lucky I still have any friends who knew me in my early 20’s, a time of bizarre absolutes all over the political spectrum.  However, in adult life, friendships are really difficult to hold on to, and for all the effort one puts in, you don’t want to feel like you’re giving your time to someone who is on the wrong side of history.  It feels like collusion.

This friend has been placed in your lap so you can do your part in making change, starting right where you are.  Relationships are the only thing that change people.  The person with homophobic beliefs has to reconsider when they find out their beloved piano teacher is gay.  And someone with unconscious racist beliefs won’t change them unless people they care about start to stay, “Listen, this is not cool.”

So what you need to do is practice.  Talk about this issue with people you know agree with you, first.  Practice with people you don’t care as much about, too.  I remember when I first started confronting racism in conversations, and the visceral physical reaction you described happened to me.  I shook, I cried, I had to leave the room and hyperventilate.  But, over time, I was able to get those somatic responses under control and speak more freely.  I actually think it’s fine if you shake and cry—it could be compelling for your friend to see how much this means to you.  However, it would be best for your health if you didn’t go into anaphylactic shock every time you talk about this, so practice and breathe.

I actually don’t think you should pretend not to understand why an otherwise nice person holds these beliefs.  Because you do know.  You should be forward, direct, and use examples.  You can do this compassionately, in a way that helps put your friend’s statements into context, showing her that it’s not her fault that institutional racism exists, but it is her business and duty to recognize it and stop propagating it.

I suggest following up your conversation with some reading material for her to peruse.  An article your friend may connect with is Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which includes a list of day-to-day examples of how white privilege works itself out in real life.  She may not want to believe that all of the examples on the list are true, but there are at least a few that she will be unable to refute.  I do understand that this article is problematic, but it seems that your friend really needs to start slowly, although she should be encouraged quickly to move on to bell hooks.  This could be the beginning of a really important personal growth journey for her.

People do not want to acknowledge their own ignorance and privilege.  In order to get them to do so, you have to provide both positive and negative reasons.  For instance, you’ll be saying, “It makes me really uncomfortable and upset when you say these things.  It is why I didn’t call you for years.”  So, the message is, “your racism hurts your friends and makes them not want to hang out with you.”  But also you can tell her your journey, from unconsciously enjoying white privilege to being aware of it and trying to call it out when you can.  What have you gained from this process?  What personal growth can you offer her by becoming awake to how the world really works?

I think it is great that you don’t just want to cut this friend out of your life—that would be a missed opportunity for you both.  Just being aware of white privilege is not enough.  We have to have the courage to speak out about it when we see it, calling it out and encouraging the people in our lives to do the same.  And, what have you got to lose?  You said yourself you don’t want to have a bigoted friend, so give her the chance to evolve, and see what happens!  I really believe this is the only way things are ever going to change—one-on-one conversations with people we love.  The personal affection makes it matter in a way that a movie and a court case never can.

In Solidarity,

Sibyl

Lady Jane Grey: Nine Day Queen, Fabled Innocent

historical woman

 

I usually focus on historical women who have accomplished a whole lot, against all odds and expectations given their oppressive historical contexts. Today I wanted to spotlight a historical woman who didn’t really do much. She was only queen for nine days, and most of that time was spent inside a dungeon. Then she was killed. Before her seventeenth birthday.

What I think Jane Grey’s story represents is a necessary counterweight to the often triumphal stories of the women that grace our history books—those few exceptional ladies who managed to rule countries, win wars, write books, etc. and are given lots of retrospective pats on the back for it. (And sometimes a more subtle “hey if she could do it, what are y’all complaining about!” as well.) Jane Grey is instead a woman whose time in the spotlight was brief and whose fate was largely out of her own hands. In that, I think she better represents the plight of many women in her time, and lots of other times. But either way, we know very little about her.

What we do know: Jane Grey was an English noblewoman, born around 1537, whose father became the Duke of Suffolk (hereafter referred to as “Suffolk” because of wacky British landed title conventions). As a sixteenth-century teenage girl related to royalty, she was clearly ripe for some strategic marriage alliance-ing. For a time it looked like she’d be marrying her cousin, Edward VI, a son of Henry VIII who would become king. Instead, she was married to the son of the Duke of Northumberland (hereafter referred to as Northumberland—see above).

Remember that this was all in the midst of that Protestant Reformation thing. Note that Edward VI was kind of on Team Protestant. But there were others on Team Catholic. Important background.

Edward VI was king for a short time. Then, on his death bed at the age of fifteen (!!), Edward proclaimed that, rather than his half-sisters and fellow wacky Henry VIII brood members Mary or Elizabeth (IDEA: Muppet Babies-style animated show “Baby Tudors”), he should have his successor be Lady Jane Grey. Northumberland and his fellow pro-Protestant conspirators allegedly brought about Edward’s change of heart. Jane, as it is, was a devout Protestant. Hence, she and her husband Guildford (real name) ascended to the throne on July 10, 1553.

Nine days pass. And they’re kicked out.

The villainess in this little story is Mary, who became queen after Jane. Mary was Team Catholic all the way. When she made her claim to the throne, she had Jane, Guildford, and Jane’s dad Suffolk imprisoned in (where else) the Tower of London. Suffolk was set free shortly thereafter. It might have ended there—even though Jane and Guildford were found guilty of treason, it seems that even Bloody Mary realized that the two didn’t deserve to, you know, die or anything. That would just be messed up.

But then.

A dude named Thomas Wyatt started a rebellion in order to reinstate a Protestant ruler to the throne (his pick: Elizabeth instead of Jane). Wyatt’s Rebellion had many supporters, including Jane’s dad, Suffolk. Mary wasn’t having any of it. She quashed the rebellion, killed Wyatt, and, because Jane’s dad was involved, ordered Jane, Guildford, and Suffolk all beheaded.

There’s a famous painting that hangs in the National Gallery in London (see it, it’s gorgeous) by Paul Delaroche called The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. The incredibly lifelike figures on the wall-sized canvas include the Lieutenant of the Tower of London, who leads the blindfolded Jane to the execution block; two weeping ladies in waiting; and the executioner, leaning on his large axe. It’s an incredibly striking scene—Jane is all in white, practically glowing with innocence, literally being blindly led by a man to her gruesome fate. It made an impression on me to the extent that years later I felt compelled to write about her. Of course, as many scholars have pointed out, such representations of Lady Jane simply perpetuate her role as an abstraction of female helplessness and innocence, even a Protestant martyr. It’s important to remember that she was a real human being, a highly educated noblewoman with her own beliefs and ambitions (though these were likely largely overridden by those of the people around her). Maybe she would have made an excellent queen! Who knows? Her cousin Elizabeth certainly did. But you already know about her.

Male Authors, Female Authors, and Serious Literature

strong female characters

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, and having done so, felt more equipped to ponder a rather inflammatory statement he made last September regarding perceived difference in treatment of women authors’ work in relation to that of their male colleagues.

Jodi Picoult had tweeted the following: “NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings.”

Ostensibly, she was criticizing the fact that while her books covered similar ground as Franzen’s, they were treated very differently by publishers and critics alike. Even the cover designs send out “chick lit” signals, while Franzen’s look more “serious author consider this for an award please.”

It could have been left at that. But Jeffrey Eugenides, himself an acclaimed male author, felt compelled to chime in. In an interview with Salon, he called Picoult’s complaints “belly-aching” and said, "I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention."

Here’s where I’m like, hold up, Eugenides.

While it would be unseemly for Picoult to complain about any lack of commercial success, there is a difference between that and critical success, aka being taken seriously as a writer. I’m not super familiar with her work, so I don’t actually know how good of a writer she is. But—at the very least—she is Ivy League-educated, very prolific, and sells millions of novels, albeit ones that must single-handedly keep a lot of hand models specializing in soft lighting and tender gestures in business.

And therein can lie part of the problem. A book’s marketing goes a long way in determining its reception. If the publisher thinks a book will sell to a middle-aged, light-reading crowd, they’ll commission cover designs and blurbs that appeal to said crowd. While such marketing is often astute, it also precludes the possibility that those books will ever be Taken Seriously.

And as author Maureen Johnson recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “The simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality.”

Eugenides may or may not be right that Picoult herself has nothing to complain about. But his casual shrug-off of any kind of gender gap in the promotion and reception of modern literature seems at best naïve, at worst super male privilege-y.

I like Jeffrey Eugenides a lot. I’ve read all three of his novels, and interestingly all of them devote major page time to female characters in mostly sensitive and nuanced ways. The Virgin Suicides is told from the point of view of a chorus of neighborhood boys who are obsessed with the five sisters of the tragic Lisbon family. While the boys never truly understand the girls’ pain, there is a deep cosmic sympathy that courses through the narrative—even as the girls remain inscrutable, it is always understood that they are flawed breathing human beings.

Middlesex (which I reviewed on my book blog) is an epic chronicle of Cal Stephanides, born Calliope, a hermaphroditic boy who spends the first fourteen years of his life as a girl. Again, while hardly an LGBTQ anthem, the book deftly deals with the fluidity of gender and sexuality, as well as the persistent presence of “Cal” in both a female and male body.

It wasn’t until I read his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, that I could see where Eugenides might go wrong. The narrative is told from three points of view, your classic love triangle between Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. Mitchell, like Cal, has a lot in common with Eugenides himself and is fully fleshed out. Leonard suffers from bipolar disorder, and his passages are often gut-wrenching. But Madeleine? She’s kind of a privileged, boy-crazy twit. It’s not that she’s entirely unsympathetic—but she’s uninteresting, un-fleshed-out, and seems to exist (even with omniscient narration) as the cardboard fantasy of Mitchell’s ill-advised romantic desires.

Further, and here’s where the irony gets delicious: The Marriage Plot’s title and content could have lent themselves to the most chick lit-y of marketing campaigns. Madeleine is an English major obsessed with Austen, and though somewhat subversive Eugenides’ narration does self-consciously follow the old marriage plots within his modern (and postmodern) 1980s setting. Yet the cover for his book, the blurbs, and its placement in the bookstore are all miles away from Jodi Picoult’s stuff. Is this the proof he needs that male and female authors’ work are often given unequal treatments? Could a woman author have written something called The Marriage Plot about a college girl in love and been taken seriously as Literature? It’s debatable, but it's doubtful, and it’s definitely worth asking.

For more on this thought experiment, I highly recommend that you check out Maureen Johnson's May 2013 Huffington Post article, which showcases the results of her Twitter project to “gender-flip” famous novel covers—including The Marriage Plot.

Meet the Local: Accra, Ghana

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we travel to Ghana, where it's typical to have both a Christian name and a local name---so meet Jane, or Nana Ama Nyamekye.  She was born in Kumasi, and now lives in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she works at The Hunger Project, a NGO that focuses on empowering people to end their own hunger.  

Meet the Local, Ghana

What do you like about the place you live?

The people around are quite warm.  They show their communal spirits, and I communicate well with them.

What don’t you like so much?

The roads.  They are untarred, they are dusty.  When it rains, it becomes quite difficult to get anywhere, to even walk, because it’s muddy, and there are a lot of potholes so if someone is driving and someone passes by, you can get quite wet if the driver doesn’t avoid it.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I like local porridge, it’s made from millet and ginger and a little chili pepper.  We call it koose---it’s made from black eyed peas.  You can eat bread with it, but I feel like the bread is too heavy, so I mix it with the porridge.  Sometimes I have hot chocolate with it.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m into small scale banking, so to speak---I’m in micro finance.  I work with a NGO whose goals I really admire.  My job makes me feel fulfilled in that I grew up in an environment where people could be very intelligent but because they lacked the financial ability, they couldn’t reach whatever targets or goals they set for themselves.  My job looks at ensuring that people are economically self sufficient.  It aligns with myself, my personal feeling and hope for the world.  I expect people to be okay, I expect people to be looking out for a world that embraces people, that people will be given opportunities to make ends meet.  I believe that everybody has potential, and that, given the opportunity, they can meet the goals they set for themselves.  This job allows people to be uplifted.

What do you do for fun?

I like to be with kids---they’re adorable.  I like to admire their innocence.  But mostly, I unwind my day with a movie, or sometimes I end my day by listening to gospel preaching.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

The last time I saw my family was in the end of May, a little while ago, but I will see them this weekend.  With my cousins, they are a little older than me, but they are all involved in corporate institutions, so first I try to talk about how we can help women, and women in the workplace.  But sometimes we just talk about family.  Last time we met, they asked me to help plan my auntie’s birthday.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

My dream is to be able to get a PhD, something that will be beneficial to other people. I want to do research, and maybe to lecture as time goes on, so that the experience that I’ve gathered can be combined with the academic world so that I can be efficient and effect change.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I always want to be in Ghana, because the people are warm, and because I have the chance to improve upon the systems.  I want to make it so most people can go to school, and then most people can give back to society, especially in the rural areas.  So yeah, I would want to be in Ghana.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being a change agent.  In my line of work, I work with people who want to take a step forward in their economic adventures.  I get so happy and proud when people tell me how their lives have changed from nothing to economic self-sufficiency.  I have more than a hundred women who had nothing, no savings, but have saved now amounting to more than 500 Ghana cedis (approximately $250 USD).  They’ve been able to send their children to school, some to the tertiary levels.  I get so happy when I realize that people are not always just sitting down folding their arms but they are always trying to work, to change their lives.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I would say I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, even though I haven’t gotten to my limit yet.  There is always room for improvement.  I know that I’m working in a good team, and my team members are all working together to achieve the same goals.  In my home, there is peace---with my husband, everything is okay.  When I go to the field, I meet my women who embrace me with huge smiles because of the changes they’re seeing in their lives.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo, Sydney, and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

Above and Beyond

Sometime before I was born, my mother sold shoes in a department store. And so, as we’d hit up the back-to-school sales every August, she would begin her refrain. “No one knows how to sell shoes these days!”

Up and down the aisles, in and out of stores, she repeated her mantra as my sister and I trailed behind her. Each of us was hard to fit—my sister a 5W, myself a 6N—and she was unrelenting. A power-shopper if there ever was one, she zigzagged us back and forth across town until we finally collapsed in the back seat long after sunset.

The sellers committed various transgressions, most of which involved trying to fit the foot to the shoe, rather than the shoe to the foot. They offered all manner of padding and inserts in their attempts to transform ill-fitting glass slippers into gloves. My mother never fell for any of it.

I can hear her now: “If the shoe doesn’t fit, for God’s sake, DON’T wear it.” (Helpful advice for any number of situations, in addition to shoes.)

Even worse than the inserts, however, was the seller who offered nothing. After carefully examining every shoe in the store, making our selections, and requesting our sizes, we would wait on the bench in hopeful anticipation. Eventually, the harried salesperson would emerge from the back room, offering only a shrug and, “Sorry, we don’t have it in your size.”

On the way out, my mother would give us a lesson not only in selling shoes but in choosing to go above and beyond for your fellow human being. First of all, she said, you must never return from the back room empty-handed or even with a single pair of shoes. Instead, whether the customer’s requested shoe is in stock or not, you should return with multiple suggestions to match her size, her style, and her life. The first shoe rarely fits, so you’ll want to place some options immediately at her disposal. Give her a sense of abundance, but not overwhelm. Pay attention to what she really wants, not just what she says she wants. And if, after all, nothing fits, blame the shoes, never the foot.

Finally, if you already know from the start that you’ve got nothing that will properly suit her needs, don’t waste her time. Give her the name of a store where she can find it, and offer her directions for getting there too.

Although I’ve never sold shoes, I’ve often thought of this advice as a roadmap for working and living and interacting with others. It’s not about working extra long hours or trying to take on more than is humanly possible. It’s about seeking small, everyday opportunities to delight, surprise, and genuinely help the strangers and intimates we encounter.

The 88 Cent Tote Bag

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I am getting married in a few weeks, and my partner and I are trying to find something to give to people as favors, their prize for coming to our wedding. Our budget is approximately one dollar per person, which rules out the fancy vegan chocolates, the tiny succulents in little tin pails, and pretty much most things I’d want to buy or they’d want to own.

I finally came up with the idea of buying cheap blank tote bags and block printing an image on them. I knew how we would present them, rolled up and tied with twine and a little tag that would say “Thank you for coming.” I could picture their future lives, like so many given-away kittens, hanging out in pantries, in the kitchen, at picnics.

I searched the internet, ruthlessly turning down totes that cost $1.86, or $2.35, and finally found some for under a dollar. I started the purchasing process and got to the part where it totalled the shipping costs: $26.45. “Well I bet I can find a coupon for that!” I thought, proud of my thrifty nature, and opened a new tab to search for coupon codes. I found a couple of dead links, and a few wedding boards featuring former brides complaining about the low quality of the tote bags from this particular site. I looked at one woman’s sad photo comparing the actual quality of the bag she received with the image on the website, and I started to freak out.

This tote bag was almost certainly made by someone working in a sweatshop, I realized. Which is obvious, given that it costs 88 cents, but which I’d been avoiding until that moment. If I’m not willing to pay a fair price, who do I expect to make up the difference? The employer? The government?

The cognitive dissonance between my vision of sweet, hand-printed gifts lovingly tied in twine and the reality of the product I was about to buy made me feel dizzy. I want to give people something I made, but who made this tote bag? And how many other tote bags did they make that day, and how were they paid for it, and what was the ventilation like? What is their name and what is their life like and what were they thinking when they made it? One thing is for sure, they were not thinking about me or the guests at my wedding. Suddenly this "personal" gift started to seem extremely impersonal, and probably immoral.

I realize that it is somewhat ridiculous to fixate on the tote bags, when I have no idea where most of the things I purchase, for the wedding or otherwise, were made—or rather, I do have an idea, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in an intergenerational feminist craft collective made up of my friends and loved ones.

Sometimes I buy things that cost $1 because they’re a good deal even though they smell like plastic and sadness, and sometimes I buy locally-sourced, organic things for too much money. Either way I hate myself a little bit.

In my dream world, we would all make most of what we use, either buying or making the materials to do so. If we wanted to buy something, it would be for a fair price, and it would be because that thing was special or beautiful, not because we didn’t feel like taking the time to make it ourselves. Things wouldn’t be cheaper to throw away than to repair. We would value the time and labor it takes to make something.

I realize that I could make my life more like this if I tried. Instead, I live in a city and buy cheap crap quite regularly.  I am often extremely happy to walk down the street eating a 99 cent popsicle with 35 ingredients.

But aren’t weddings about trying to live out our romantic fantasies of how could be? Isn’t that the point of saying the nice words and wearing the special outfits and getting everyone you love together in one place? Some fantasies include riding in a limo and wearing a diamond ring. My fantasy includes not buying 88 cent tote bags. I know that I can figure something out that will be just as cheap but that won't make me freak out. For better or for worse, I'm going to live the tote-less dream.  

Strong LGBT Characters and the Potential of Media

strong female characters

Last week marked a historic turning point for the LGBT community in America, with the Supreme Court’s decisions on DOMA and California’s Prop 8 paving the way for greater equality in marriage, and possibly in general. It wasn’t entirely shocking, as polls have shown a steadily increasing support throughout the country for gay marriage over the last several years: over half of Americans now support it. At the same time, the sheer rapidity of this acceptance is noteworthy. Ten years ago, pro-equality Americans were in the minority, and gay marriage seemed like a distant dream. Now, as long as things continue as they have been going, it’s more a question of when than whether. To me, it seems like partial validation of my (and this column’s) underlying theory that media—particularly positive media portrayals—can go a long way in shaping our society’s understandings of minority groups. This is not to say 1) that the LGBT community has achieved all of its goals or “made it”, or 2) that LGBT representations in TV and movies are not often problematic. But familiarity, kind of, breeds acceptance. As one-dimensional or stereotype-y gay characters often are, their very presence banishes the alternative: the shadowy negative archetype that might otherwise persist in sheltered people’s minds.

When did the sea change begin? First: remember when Ellen Degeneres coming out was a huge deal? She was on the cover of Time magazine. Her sitcom struggled with this new plot twist, and was eventually canceled. Her burgeoning (?) movie career (including a romantic-ish comedy called Mr. Wrong) kind of stopped. Over the course of the 2000s, however, she’s made a major comeback and is now one of the absolute queens of daytime TV.

In the meantime, a whole crop of other “gay” shows has hit small-screen success. “Will & Grace” (which even Joe Biden noted as an influencer of American opinions on LGBT issues), “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and everything on Bravo since, “Glee,” “Modern Family,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The New Normal.” Also, the coming out of mainstream, broad-appeal celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris and Anderson Cooper. LGBT characters and people became, in a way, normative. What would have been shocking to middle American sensibilities in 1990 was required viewing by 2010.

Not to say there aren’t problems with the ways that many of these shows represent gay characters. The gay stereotype of the flamboyant, effeminate white male who loves Broadway, fashion and tiny dogs, and who has the bourgeois upper middle class budget to indulge such hobbies, is, maybe, overrepresented in media—any other “type” of gay character is underrepresented. There should be more gay characters of color. There should be more lesbians (that aren’t there just to generate ratings amongst hetero male viewers), as well as bisexual and transgender characters—you know, the L, B, and T that are usually overshadowed by the G. There should also be LGBT characters with a range of personalities and interests that don’t reinforce our gendered notions of how gay men and women “should” act.

That's the second part of my theory, I guess: first, representation. Then, range.

For now, though, here’s to Kurt, Blaine, and Santana from “Glee,” Cameron and Mitchell from “Modern Family,” Callie and Arizona from “Grey’s Anatomy,” Will and Jack from "Will & Grace," Willow and Tara from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Xena and Gabrielle from "Xena: Warrior Princess," Lafayette, Jesus, and Tara from “True Blood,” and all the others who have, in their own, potentially small way, helped LGBT identities become mainstream.

In fact. Can I double thank Lafayette? Because he’s one of my favorite things on TV.

Who are some of your favorite LGBT characters and TV personalities? Have they changed the way you think about LGBT issues?

There are so many different kinds of us

we are all people copy

By Layla Guest The tiniest Cambodian woman I’ve ever seen rang me up for two magazines and a bottle of water at I Love LA, the news and gift shop in LAX’s terminal 2. She smiled so wide at me, taking her time as she looked at both my debit card and my ID, “Lie-la. No, Kayla. No, Lie-la. Yes, that’s you. Lie-la.”

She hummed as she carefully checked and re-checked my purchase total before punching it into the credit card machine. One nod for each button pressed correctly. A giggle and a double wink when she pressed the wrong button. “Oh oh oh, that’s not the one.” She handed me my items one at a time. “Always be beautiful. Always be strong. Stay smiling and you will be wise. You are very brave. Stay beautiful.”

There’s a great scene in Up in the Air when George Clooney is describing which line to get in at airport security, “never get behind families with children.” I boarded my flight behind a young mother with her two children who had stopped to tie shoelaces, pull up pants and rearrange pony-tail holders. I passed them on the jet way and walked towards our plane.

From behind I heard, “excuse me, um, can I cut you?” I turned around. Nothing. Then I looked down. From a clear face with a half-toothless grin, “um, I just stopped to tie my shoe. I was in front of you. Can I cut you? Well, me and my sister and my mom. Can we cut you?” His mother rolled her eyes and took in a breath that signaled yet another impatient, “LUUUUUKE!” I said, “of course, it’s only fair.” He looked at me like I had just let him skip to the front of the line at Splash Mountain. In disbelief, he marched forward, head high.

We de-planed in Minneapolis/St. Paul to stretch our legs before boarding the exact same plane bound for Boston. Jordan, my partner, and I overheard a woman we had our eye on earlier. A man had been in her husband’s seat in LA when they boarded. The man seemed to have a pretty reasonable thought process behind wanting (needing) the window seat. In the window seat, he could sit slightly sideways, leaning against the plane to keep his frame from spilling over into the seat next to him. The couple, showing no patience, demanded he move out of the window seat to the aisle. I eavesdropped as the embarrassed passenger said, “I asked for a window seat, it’s best if I sit there. I’ll fit better that way. Do you have a window anywhere? I don’t want to be a burden. I asked for a window.”

The flight attendant said no, only in the emergency exit row, which is exactly where Jordan and I were sitting, with a roomy window seat directly to our left. He looked at it and us longingly. Jordan said, “just give him the damn seat.”

On this plane, we had to pay extra for the extra legroom, so it was not a seat that could just be given away, apparently. The gentleman proceeded to stuff himself into the aisle seat next to the impatient couple. “Can you just buckle the belt, sir?” “Yes, I’m not an imbecile.”

After the impatient woman recounted the story to a flight attendant at the gate she complained that people as fat as the man she was sitting next to should not be allowed to fly in a regular seat. “Isn’t there a way you can ask everyone how fat they are when they buy seats? We shouldn’t be subjected to his issues.” The flight attendant said simply, “Ma’am, he’s just a man.”

Yesterday was a big day. The Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8 make me incredibly hopeful. Hopeful that we are moving forward as global citizens---in understanding that, as evidenced in today’s interactions in and around the airport, there are so many different kinds of us. Us, being humans. We are old, young, unconditionally altruistic, innately cruel, deeply profound, struggling to get through our days, always searching for reciprocity. While some will consider yesterday’s rulings as a step back, an inconvenience and wrong, there are spirits that shine bright, like my sagely airport cashier, reminding us to be wise and stay brave.

Lessons from the Emirates...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Every so often, I’m able to be exposed to a part of the world I hadn’t known before, with customs and traditions and environments that are completely foreign to me.  We often seek that out in our personal travels, but my work trips tend to be confined to a set of usual locations.  That’s comforting in its own right, but sometimes, it’s exposure to a completely new place that perks me up and makes me interested in what it is that I do all over again.

I had this feeling just last weekend I traveled to the Emirates for the first time, taking in that intersection of the world as much as I could over the few days that I was there.  I couldn’t help but to see their world with new eyes and I noticed:

  • Modesty is not a bad thing: Regardless of one’s opinion as to why, women’s dress was largely more modest in the Emirates, and in the larger Middle East in general.  Like most people raised outside of that environment, part of me can’t help but be fascinated by women who cover up nearly all of themselves when in public.  But once you notice how much certain women do cover up, you can’t help but also notice how much women who are visiting do not---shirts that go lower, skirts that go higher. There was something about that juxtaposition that made me choose clothing and combinations that were more modest and more covering than I might normally, even though I don’t consider myself a revealing dresser.  And interestingly, it was in that additional coverage that I found a certain bout of comfort and confidence because I knew I was being judged by what I was saying, and not what I was showing.  You don’t have to change who you are when you go abroad, but you should absorb your surrounding environment and adjust accordingly.
  • If it doesn’t look natural, it probably isn’t: Across the city of Abu Dhabi, I saw plenty of things that were beautiful and modern but didn’t necessarily look like they were part of the natural scene.  For example, when approaching the city the road is flanked by sand dunes until skyscraper upon skyscraper rises to the sky . . . or until fountains of water appear in the desert heat.  One of the beautiful things about being human on this earth is building and improving and changing the conditions we might have been born into---we don't have to be confined solely to what "was" but we have the possibility to dream and build what "can be".  But we still need to be mindful of what belongs, and what we give up by adopting that change.
  • Invest your resources: The Emirates were fortunate with the natural resource of oil, but also with the foresight that money made from resources can always run out.  It’s amazing what the country has done by putting resources into building and tourism, and making itself a crossroads for the world.  But more importantly, they’ve also invested into education and transport, as these are the things that stay long after the money is made and pave the way for future possibilities.  When you are lucky enough to profit, make sure you set aside a portion into savings and activities that build your future.
  • Look behind the scenes: Most people who work in the Emirates aren’t actually from there.  And if you take the time to speak to waiters, drivers, hotel clerks, and just about anyone else, you’ll find that they are far from home and their families, and looking to make a living so that their children are entitled to those very basic resources that I mentioned above.  When you’re being treated to a wonderful experience, take a look behind the scenes to see what makes things work.  Chances are, you’ll be surprised at just how many people’s efforts go in to making that experience for you.  Compensate appropriately, it affects their future.

All my love,

Mom

Ida B. Wells: Journalist, Activist, Civil Rights Pioneer

historical woman

Everyone knows that, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and move to the back, and with this refusal became a major figure in the Montgomery bus boycott and the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (Well, everyone should know that anyway.) But Parks was not the first to engage in an act of public transit civil disobedience—nor, I’m sure, will she be the last. For starters, in 1884, Ida B. Wells similarly refused to get up and move to a different train car when ordered to do so by a train conductor on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad. She was by force removed from the train by three men who, I think, really needed to stop and evaluate what they were doing with their lives.

Wells didn’t stop with train sit-ins, but we’ll get to that in a second. First, who was Ida B. Wells? Not to be confused with muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell (roughly contemporaneous), Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, tireless campaigner for African-American and women’s rights, anti-lynching activist, and influential public persona. She was born in 1862 in Mississippi to slave parents, emancipated three years later with Abe Lincoln’s Proclamation. She was educated first at Shaw U., then at Fisk University, both Southern black colleges. When she lost her parents, she took on a job as a teacher in order to support her siblings.

Sometime during her young life, Wells got into politics—not surprising considering the tumultuous, nasty times she grew up in. The War was over and slavery was done, but America’s attempts at Reconstructing™ and creating a just post-war, post-slavery society were, let’s face it, occasionally pathetic. The government, fearful of completely alienating the South, made too many concessions and took just as many steps backward as forward.

One of the most hideous evils to become common in this period, and for a bunch of otherwise perfectly nice people to get complacent and blind eye-y about (see also: segregation, imperialism, most wars) was lynching, specifically, the lynching of black men in the South. In 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched by a mob in Memphis. So she turned to investigative journalism as a means for change.

Wells begin to study similar murders across the South, and then published her findings in a pamphlet called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All its Phases.” She concludes that the “reasons” for lynching black men usually fell along the lines of: they failed to adequately accept their alleged inferiority as raced human beings. This could involve competing economically with white men, being disrespectful to white men, and so much as looking at a white woman. (Wells also found that most sexual encounters between black men and white women were consensual, despite popular myth to the contrary.)

Wells traveled and worked with famed abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass, doing speaking tours of Europe and getting a bunch of British people on her side. But she continued to face an uphill battle at home, where the New York Times called her a “slanderous and nasty minded mulatress.” Oh, the liberal media!

In short, Ida Wells was no shrinking flower. She was one of the earliest women to not change her last name when she married. She wasn’t shy about getting into it with people she disagreed with, including white temperance activist Frances Willard and famed black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois (she said he excluded her from the list of NAACP founders). She fought for what she believed in and wasn’t afraid to face, head-on, one of the ugliest legacies of American slavery. Amidst headlines about affirmative action, George Zimmerman, and (yes) Paula Deen, it’s hard not to hope for similar take-no-s*** voices in our own time.

Let Bravery Be Your Blanket

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My father was abusive to me growing up. Not very frequently was the abuse physical (the verbal variety dominated), but it was enough to instill a fear of him into me that I've never been able to shake. When he got angry, he took it out on me, I assume because I was the only one who would ever speak up when he was being cruel to my mother or sisters.

As a young adult, he used physical violence against me once; that incident alone is etched onto my memory with crystalline precision, and I cringe every time I see a person in the throes of anger. I had thought that now, since I was an adult, he couldn't hurt me anymore, but that experience settled that false assumption. Since that particular episode, I have just zipped my lip around him and kept my opinions to myself.

We do, however, have a decent relationship now---especially given the circumstances---and I have forgiven him, though I never confronted him about it and I’m not sure I ever will.

Now, however, I am going through a period of rather extreme personal change brought about by recovering from addiction. Through all this healing, I've discovered I’m not the person I once was, with the same strictly conservative viewpoints I once shared with my parents. My father especially cares passionately for right-wing politics and strict religious doctrine---it’s a hot button issue for him, and I've gotten frightened just watching him talk about it. So far, I've hidden my new opinions from everyone so as not to make any waves, but I’m getting tired of stifling my thoughts just so they won’t “get back to them” and result in a confrontation. I want to finally be myself without shame or fear.

The thing is, though, I am still afraid. I’m afraid of my father finding out, trying to engage me on this, and me melting down. I’m not necessarily scared he will hit me, but I am afraid of not being able to defend myself against his anger.

Advice?

Confused and Scared but also Fed Up

 

Dear Confused and Scared but also Fed Up,

The experience of having the person who helped bring you into the world, the man who represents your origins in many ways, turn on you in violence is something that shakes you to the core of yourself.  So my first thought is: though you see yourself as scared, you are actually incredibly brave.  Cloak yourself in that bravery like a grown-up security blanket.  It's why superheroes wear capes.

You were so brave to stand up to him as a kid, you are so brave to work on yourself through recovery, you are so brave to move beyond the values he clings to and find your own, and you are so brave to want to want to be yourself fully, in front of him and the whole world.

You are fucking awesome.

I hope he knows that.  I think he does, and fears it.  That's why he attempted to reassert his power over you by being physically abusive to you as an adult, and with the loud tirades about his politics and religion, which I consider spiritual abuse.

People who pontificate about politics and fundamentalist religions in a hostile way that excludes all other viewpoints are really just trying to order their world.  They see the world as an out of control place, and all the structure and rules of that way of life help them to make sense in the chaos, and find their place in it.

The thing is, in that world that makes perfect sense, where there are such heavy rights and wrongs, what you lose is love.  Love is inherently risky, and folks who are stuck in judgmental worldviews can't risk the rigid walls they've put up to hold everything in place, to love someone who might act in ways they can't control.

Whenever I consider standing up to someone, especially someone with this kind of strict worldview who may not be able to hear me at all, I ask myself this question, "Do they have any real power over me?"  If they do, if they are my direct boss or my landlord or the person holding the papers that say whether I graduate or not, then I consider holding my tongue in their presence.  However, if they don't, then I feel that it is not only my right, but my duty to be a change agent in their lives.  We don't have to wag it in their faces, that we don't believe what they do, but simply and firmly being who we are will be enough.

In fact, it is probably going to enrage your father, to see you asserting yourself, expressing views that are different from his.  The whole cycle of abuse is about power and control, so to see you moving off of that wheel and onto your own path is going to rock his whole sense of self and relationship to you.

My question to you is, what have you got to lose?  It's not like you will be giving up too much if he turns on you.  You say you have a "decent" relationship with him, which sounds to me like you are still in the role of peacemaker in your family.  What would happen if you let that down?  Your mom and siblings might say, "Why are you stirring things up with Dad?" but you could answer, "Why aren't you?  Are we all going to wait until he dies to be our true selves?"

Listen, I'm not suggesting you directly confront your father, provoking his rage.  Where I think you should start is with a therapist whom you can practice expressing yourself.  Engage in some drama therapy exercises, in which you picture your dad in an empty chair, and tell him what you really think about what he's done to you and your family, and how you truly feel about the world.  Then move into the chair and embody him, playing out his rebuttal.  Then move back into your chair, and tell him, "You had no right to be violent with me.  You have no power over me anymore.  I'm going to be myself, and no amount of posturing can stop me."

Then, start simply being your bold self, even if that means you publicly express things that your dad disagrees with.  He'll yell, he'll send you crazy forwards, he'll give you the cold shoulder.  You'll scoff to yourself, "I've survived worse", and let your bravery blanket flap in the wind.  He can’t take anything away from you anymore, because you aren’t under his control, and you know who you are now.  And if he cuts you out of his life, that will indeed be very painful, but then again, you'll be free.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Leela and Lois: The Strong Female Character in the Male-Centered Animated Comedy

strong female characters

I watched an episode of “Futurama” recently (this isn’t an uncommon occurrence), and in it the whole staff of the Planet Express is stranded on a barren island that has begun to go through robo-evolution, starting with prehistoric robot sludge and yielding robot dinosaurs and then robot cavemen in a matter of hours. Fry, Leela, Amy, Hermes, the Professor, and robot Bender are reduced to wearing tattered clothing and sleeping in a cave. Leela and Amy, in particular, come out looking a little Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., practically busting out of their rags—yet when they’re kidnapped by a couple robo-cavemen, like modern, empowered women, they take care of it themselves while the (generally weaker) male characters equivocate about going to save them.

This was kind of “Futurama” in a nutshell for me. Leela’s bodacious bod and the extent to which it is occasionally revealed is a small reminder that this is a male-created series with a largely male audience. Yet on the whole, I find Leela to be a really positive, self-sufficient female character, particularly in what can be a male-centric genre. For comparison, let’s look at “Family Guy.”

Seth MacFarlane’s pop reference-laden, kinda fratty animated series has a lot in common with “Futurama.” Their demographic target audience is roughly the same (“Futurama” is a little nerdier). They’ve both been on since the late ‘90s, with a hiatus in the middle (“Family Guy” went off the air between 2001 and 2005; “Futurama”’s was longer, between 2003 and 2010). They’re both, essentially, cartoons for adults.

I find that “Family Guy” has moments of real brilliance, particularly in its early episodes. I love the observational humor on human behavior, and some of the culture references are hilarious. It can be really, really smart. But it can also be really, really stupid—and worse, it casually drifts into racist, misogynist territory pretty regularly---see worst repeat offending character Glenn Quagmire. In that, the show's humor is a clear reflection of the personality of its creator, Seth MacFarlane—see the controversies raised by his Oscar-hosting turn earlier this year for evidence. He lives to provoke, even though his non-provoking material could stand perfectly well on its own-- see his awesome turn hosting “Saturday Night Live” last fall, for evidence of his talent.

The main female character on “Family Guy,” Lois, isn’t a bad representation of womanhood per se. She’s pretty tough, fairly well drawn character-wise, and often the voice of reason. But, besides for the fact that she’s surrounded by often offensive material, she also ultimately falls short compared to “Futurama”’s Leela.

Why is Leela awesome? Well, for starters, she’s a statuesque purple-haired one-eyed mutant in a tanktop and combat boots. She can kick the ass of any other character on the show. She’s the object of affection for the dim-witted protagonist, Fry; she only occasionally returns these affections, you know, when she feels like it. But there’s something really sweet and authentic in their relationship, and in Fry’s devotion to her. It’s not just lust, nor is it perfunctory or idealized. Throughout the series, Fry is really, believably in love with Leela.

In fact, the nature of Fry and Leela’s relationship is a microcosm for the overall tone of the show. While “Futurama” definitely deals in gross-out humor and sophomoric jokes, the core attitude is never mean-spirited and almost never offensive (I only say “almost” because while nothing comes to mind, nothing is never offensive, right?). The characters, no matter how colorful, have a genuineness—their hopes, their actions, their relationships.

Also, there has been more than one “Futurama” episode that’s been an actual, real tearjerker. One of these is an episode in which the foster home-raised Leela discovers that her birth parents are below-ground-dwelling mutants who gave her up for adoption in the hopes of giving her a better life, and with whom she is reunited after years of separation. The episode ends with a montage of young Leela growing up, going through various life situations, and in all of them, unbeknownst to her, her mother and father are watching over her, looking out for her, and occasionally plucking her from imminent danger. It’s pretty much as heartwarming as TV gets.

So not only is Leela kick-ass in the vein of Buffy, Starbuck, and the Bride, she also belongs to a cartoon universe that treats its characters with sweetness and respect—as much as is possible with animated screwup robots, lobster people, mutants, and cryogenically frozen humans. All of this is pretty sorely lacking in its male-centric, purposely-offensive “Family Guy” counterparts (see also: South Park, American Dad, Daniel Tosh’s horrible Brickleberry). In my books—both the feminist one and the general one-- “Futurama” wins every time.

Addendum: A quick Google image search to find a good Leela picture for this post has yielded a further discovery: that no matter how awesome and feminist a character Leela is, the reception of her by the largely male audience can still be as creepy and fetishizing as anything. It was actually really hard to find a non-sexual image. Sigh. I guess it still beats Family Guy rape jokes.

A Sibyl Without a Quandary

Asking For It with Sibyl

The last few weeks, my Sibyl inbox has been empty.  I was tempted to conclude, "My work here is done.  Everyone is fixed."  Then, I encountered a whole bunch of pretty flawed and twitchy humans who could use a good Sibylizing.

Therefore, I'm going to provide you all with a little encouragement to write in your quandary to Asking For It, for Sibyl to answer.

Six Reasons You Should Write In to Sibyl:

1.  You haven't got it all figured out.  I know you---you're not even trying to pretend you have it all together.  So write to me about the things you're grappling with, and I'll help you cut through the fog and see it all more clearly.

2. The act of writing out the quandary and sending it in has helped some of my readers find their own answers, simply by sitting with it in that conscious way.  I've received follow-up emails that say, "thank you for your answer to my question---it confirmed what I was thinking, even while I was still writing it to you!"

3. Interactive columns between strangers are pretty rad.  People who don't know each other, offering wisdom and care for no money exchanged is a powerful thing.  Be a part of this random act of artful kindness.

4. We're a dying breed.  Sugar is on hiatus.  In the last few months, we've lost Dear Abby and Dr. Joyce Brothers.  The advice columnist, once called the "agony aunt" colloquially by Brits, is a classic way for women to show up for one other publicly, with the cloak of anonymity protectively in place.

5. Your friends are tired of hearing about this issue you are obsessing about, and you can’t afford more therapy.

6. Don't you have to see your family this summer?  Yeah.  Write to me about that.  Aren't there weddings you need to attend that you feel weird about?  Write it in.  I don't care how long and rambling your letter about your ex may be.  I can take it.  And your story could really resonate with another person, and help them just by hearing that someone else is experiencing that situation, too.

It's a powerful thing, knowing you're not alone in this world.  Sibyl is listening.

Lessons from Chicago...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Sometimes when I travel for work, I have that sensation of needing to get outside right then and there.  Often when I travel, the routine involves heading from airport to hotel to office, and then back in reverse again, that it seems like I can go days without fresh air.  It happened to me again most recently in Chicago.  Outside of the huge wall to wall windows in the hotel room, I felt that I had to get some sunshine and fresh air, even if it meant working on my project until late into the evening.

I hopped out and started heading down the street, and came across the boat tours that go up and down the river and out onto the lake.  I bought myself a ticket, catching one of the last available ones for the day and had a just an hour to myself to take in the architecture and the breezes of the city and I realized:

  • Water is our most precious resource: Most of what Chicago grew to be as a city is due to the remarkable possibilities of having both a major river and a major lake.  And it’s that same lake that provides the water that comes right out of every person’s faucet, drinkable at that.  So much of our fortunes are tied to water; when a city is blessed with this kind of resource twice, it’s absolutely our job to take care of it.
  • It’s always colder on the lake: No matter how  the weather of day, you can always find a breeze on Lake Michigan.  On hot days, it’s a welcoming cool down; on cold days, it chills to the bone.  If you’ll be going on the lake, dress for it.  You won’t regret the extra sweater.
  • A good city plan both endures and adapts: As a city, Chicago is fascinating.  But what’s most fascinating is how the city’s plan has expanded and contracted while keeping its core intact as times and needs have changed.  Every city should have a plan, and every plan should do the same.
  • Public art is a public treasure: For some, art means expensive paintings that hang in dark corners of homes and museums.  But Chicago does a fantastic job of putting art “out there”.  Right in the middle of downtown. . .right in the middle of a park. . .right next to the lake.  In Chicago, where you can find people is also where you can find some of the best works of art.  They fit so seamlessly into the cityscape that sometimes we don’t necessarily notice that they were likely a huge investment on the part of the city in order to put them there.  Appreciate the efforts that cities make to keep things interesting and beautiful for the public benefit.
  • Surround yourself with smart people: While on the boat, I was thinking of how different life would have been if I had chosen to go to school there versus elsewhere.  I remember when I visited a noted university there to make my final decision, that it was the first time I realized that I was surrounded by extremely smart people everywhere I looked.   I liked that feeling, and I knew I would be smarter because of it.  I ended up choosing another place for my education, because it was a better fit for the future, but ever since then I have never stopped looking for strong qualities in others to surround myself with.  Other people’s strengths shouldn’t be intimidating, they should be something to learn from.

All my love,

Mom