Wednesday, November 21, 2007

My best friend, hero and the future president of the United States of America.

My man, John Edwards, is on the cover of the Times today. I don't care that its not quite a rah-rah endorsement, or that its focus is on his past instead of his current politics. I'm just happy to see him getting a little press.

I think that when our mainstream media turned its back on Howard Dean, it cost him any chance he had to win even the Democratic nomination. I worry, sometimes, that they'll do the same to John Edwards. Not because, like Jeff Cohen at AlterNet posits, I think they're attacking him, but because I think they're ignoring him. Excuse my liberal-conspiracy-theories (or don't excuse them, buy into them, like I do) but I wonder if this isn't driven by the way the Republicans coughKarlRovecough have taken to directing media attention to Hillary by attacking her. I mean, it wouldn't be that much of a stretch for Republican politicos -- Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign once said this:
"Whomever we attacked was going to be emboldened in Democratic primary voters' minds. So We started attacking John Kerry a lot in the end of January because we were very worried about John Edwards" - 8/09/07
Why are the Republicans so worried about John Edwards? The same reasons that I love him, of course. In 2004, a gentleman named Thomas Frank wrote a book called What's the Matter with Kansas? which attempts to figure out why the conservatives have gained such a stronghold on the middle of the country. Frank's thesis is pretty simple, as the Democratic party moved its rhetoric from populist values to explosive wedge issues, they lost the support of the disenfranchised, often cultural conservative (religious) middle of the country. I think Frank is spot on here. If you can't afford health care, you're not looking for a party that promises better gun control, you're looking for one that will tell you they're going to help you take your kids to the doctor. And if no one like that comes along, someone who at the very least shares your religion looks better than a group of liberal elitists doing a song and dance about whether or not gay people can get married.

Listen, I want to be able to get married as much as the next queer girl and I want my right to an abortion to be protected by government, but I also want to know that the rich are going to pay taxes to support the poor, that our migrant workers are safe from being deported, that health care is a right and that everyone in my country can feed themselves and their children.
I don't want liberalism, I want populism.

John Edwards is a populist. He's as left as the Democratic party gets these days. And I think he believes what he says. He's not afraid to talk about things like health care and Iraq and the collapse of big labor in America. He doesn't pretend to be middle of the road hoping to get votes, he believes that his ideas are worthwhile, that being a radical will carry him to the finish line.

I don't know if I think he can do it, to be honest. I don't know if its enough to get us out of this quagmire. But its enough to make me feel something. I'm not ashamed to support him. He doesn't do anything that makes me cringe when I defend him to the radicals in my life.

I'm counting down to the Iowa Caucus with my fingers crossed. I watch the polls like they're sports statistics. And here's the thing -- the Red Sox SWEPT the World Series, folks. Maybe that mojo is a sign of the winds of change.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Oh, the hypocrisy

Officially, I hate Coca-Cola. When I'm acting according to my conscience, I don't touch the stuff. And when I end up with a bottle of it in my hand (Diet style, I used to be an addict) I at least nod to the injustice by referring to it as "murder juice" or "made with the blood of Colombian children"

But this commercial? You can't deny it rocks. Instead of drinking Coke, though, I'm going to insist that it makes me think critically about video games (which is a post for another day).

A few of my favorite things (pt. 1)

My favorite thing about history, I probably say to at least one class at least once a month, is that its really about stories.

I remember my ah-ha moment as a historian, sitting at our old kitchen table in Wellesley, working on a paper for my Alexander the Great class. I was a senior in high school and the paper was geared to nudge us towards ah-ha moments. We had worked from one central text for the past month, reading about Alexander the Great’s life as presented from one vantage point. Then, to change it up, our teacher gave us a chapter from two different texts. We compared, contrasted. Asked ourselves, why is this historian telling the story differently? Did they use different sources? Why? The assignment, as I remember it, was to write a paper arguing for one version over the other. Explain why we thought one history was more accurate. And while writing that paper, swinging my legs at my parent’s kitchen table, all my sources spread out around me, it clicked.

History is not about memorizing, reciting, swallowing facts. It’s a process, a science. Historians are actors, putting together pieces of great, impossible puzzles. “What is truth?” I ask my classes, after reading “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien (from The Things They Carried). “Does truth exist? Can we ever know it? How do we pin it down?” Then I tell them its their job to discover it. That being a historian, doing history is like being Indiana Jones (except hopefully with a lot less of the imperialist overtones).

Bill Bigelow is one of my favorite authors for curriculum to this end. I think I own every book he’s published – even the out-of-print ones. I’ve used Rethinking Columbus with 6th graders and 12th graders and am certain that it would be worthwhile for younger and older students, both.

The book is emblematic of Bigelow’s work and of the Rethinking Schools publications in general. It has easy-to-read background information for teachers and for older students, its chock full of primary sources that are usable across disciplines and the lesson-plan outlines come with commentary from teachers who have used them in their classrooms. Everything is there if you just want to teach straight out of the book, but there’s enough wiggle room to add your own stuff.

A lot of it is role-plays and hands-on. Doing while thinking, which rocks my socks. Its also one of the only resource that occasionally makes me wish I had more kids in my classroom (we cap at 15 to a class in my little Independent School) because the activities are so fun, I know it’s a case of the-more-the-merrier.

Mom Music

My mother, like me, can’t sing. I mean, we really can’t sing. My little sister, bless her, can.

My mother likes to say that she had always dreamt of having children because, she figured, she could sing to them. They wouldn’t know any better. They would love her voice because it was their mothers. “On key” wouldn’t matter to these hypothetical children. Unfortunately for my mom, her actual children and her imagined differed. While she and I had two and half good years of off-key rock out parties, tuneless lullabies and not-quite-right sing-alongs, this changed with the birth of my little sister. My mother says that it only took Rachel two years to get up the gumption to cover her mouth during a serenade, “Mama. Don’t sing.”

Not that it really stopped her, though I guess it must’ve crushed her fantasy. My mom sang all through my childhood. She used to sing to me when she put me to sleep, laying next to me in my handed-down double bed. My dad sang, too. Not traditional lullabies, though. My favorite was the Little Red Caboose song (though I’ll admit that Sweet Honey in the Rock does it better). But she also sang Raffi classics and James Taylor’s greatest hits.

Those almost-lullabies, lovely as they were, aren’t the music I associate most closely with my mother. My parents, as a set, love music. They were New Wave-ers in New York before my birth, all through my childhood there were shelves and shelves of sacred alphabetized records (eventually replaced with sacred alphabetized CDs), cases of cassettes with handwritten labels. Mostly, they agree on music, but there is some that lives solely in the sphere of my mother.

Nick LoweHall and OatesPaul SimonBonnie RaitJames Taylor and Lyle Lovett. Blues-y, good hooks, a little twang. My mother used to clean our house with “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” turned up to fall volume. I remember painting at my kitchen easel while she made dinner to “Private Eyes”. We used to hold imaginary microphones and sing (off-key) to each other. I have a very clear memory of the two of us waiting for my dad to finish and errand and singing an a cappella version of “Fire and Rain”.

Eventually, as I grew up, my sister and I developed our own musical taste. My ever-accommodating parents let us pick the music in the car and we stopped paying attention to what they were listening to. But still, my mother’s music is as familiar to me as my mother. I know all of the lyrics intuitively, the way I know how to get to my elementary school or, really, how to read. I don’t remember learning these things – they’re just a part of me.

A few years back, I splurged to buy myself several CDs that reminded me of my mother. Made myself a little “Mom music” playlist in the iTunes so that I can listen to it when I clean my house, or just when I went to sing-off-key un-selfconsciously.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

On My Kids (stream of conciousness)

So it's been almost a week, which is too long to leave a blog sitting in the wide wide interweb. I know better. But its school. Its distracting. Teaching, sometimes, owns me in the best possible way. Here's a bit I scribbled down about my kids a few days ago.

They are all named Sophie and Alex or Katie and Ben. They are earnest in everything they feel. Their world moves fast, but every moment seems as large as a lifetime. They are invincible, immortal, infallible.

They are silly and loud, sullen and quiet. I love them unconditionally in a way that sometimes feels impossible.

They hate the reading. The love the reading. Will I please, just this once, give them a break? Will I please, just this once, push them harder?

They are in love. They are overwhelmed. They are anxious and scared. They want me to tell them how special they are, how everything is going to turn out okay.

They drink too much. They drive too fast. They are sometimes the most compassionate people I have ever met.

They drive me insane. They invade my dreams. I hear them when I am falling asleep. They are entitled to me; to my advice and my counsel, to my time.

They make art that makes my heart catch in my throat. They write beautiful poetry. Sometimes they turn in projects that I talk about for weeks. They don't always believe me when I tell them so.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A brief history of my life as a woman who leaves her house

In the middle of what should be cleaning my room, I thought it was time I responded to an old friend’s query about catcalling.

Allie identifies herself as a woman who takes care of her body and spends a little time on her hair. I’m not sure I would even go that far to describe myself. I don’t mean to make myself sound like a total schlub, but I’m a little chubby (on my good days, I find it adorable, but this isn’t a post about body image, or not really) and sometimes, honestly, I just push my greasy locks into a pony-tail and go outside that way.

If I know one thing about cat-calling, its that it doesn’t matter what you look like. Its not about me. Sometimes, its not even about my body. Sometimes, I think, its just about power. Make a girl squirm on the street. Gain the upper hand in passing.

Granted, there are several categories of catcalling. There’s the genuine-sounding compliments, there’s the racialized remarks, there’s overt sexual come-ons. That list is probably in order (least to most) of how much I’m bothered. And it isn’t all in-compassing by any means, either.

I’ve been catcalled all over the world. For a while I sort of jokingly logged the things men said to me while I backpacked in Europe. The best were always in Amsterdam. Early on in my wanderings, a dark-skinned young man called across the street to me, “Ca va ma cherie?!” which is, roughly translated, French for, “What’s up BABY?!”. I couldn’t do anything but laugh. Later, two other men called to me in heavily accented English from the patio of a bar, “Come in and have a drink with us!” I shook my head and kept walking. They yelled after me, “We can just talk! We are university students!”

(The request reminded me of the joke-catcalls some of my friends in New York used to holler at us, “Hey baby, you look like you have read interesting books!” and the like.)

But further South in Europe, I always found it less pleasant. In France, men often reached out to touch me while they told me how beautiful was, how much they wanted me to have dinner with them and the like. It always made me squirm. Made me feel unsafe and a little dirty. It didn’t feel harmless or even amusing.

In San Francisco, it was similar. Everywhere I walked, it seemed, men wanted to comment on my body. In English, Spanish and Spanglish. “I live in this body!” I remember wanting to scream. When I would come home feeling unsafe and violated, the men that I lived with told me I was overreacting. This is just a cultural difference, they insisted, Latino women don’t complain. It made me even more angry. As though insisting people recognize my body as more than an object was some uptight white-girl notion I had.

After I moved to Manhattan, I thought about starting a photo essay. I imagined I would take pictures of myself every day and write the various catcalls I received below. I thought such an essay would show that it didn’t have to do with how a woman looks or what she’s wearing. To prove that men on the street made the same comments to me in my hoodies and dirty jeans and they did in my mini skirts and boots.

In Harlem, where I lived for the first 6 months, the catcalls were all about my white skin, “What’s up, Snowflake?” became my favorite greeting. Almost always making me smile in spite of myself. Sometimes, I greeted men’s entreaties with a stoney face and a straight forward walk. “Manhattan blinders” I call that technique, similar to the way I learned to respond to homeless men asking for money or crazy people on the subway. If I was feeling bold, though, the best way to respond was always politely. Sometimes with a slight affected Southern accent (happens to me when I’m pretending to be polite. That’s a post for another day). “Hey cupcake, how you doin’?” might be replied to with a quick, “I’m fine, how are you?” As though the initial question had been genuine.

All that New York attention made me feel unsafe, usually. I think that was the goal. To remind me that even though my white privilege let me live alone in a one bedroom while my neighbors struggled to get by, I was still a woman. And it was still a man’s world.

Sometimes, though, guiltily, I enjoyed the attention. I remember once walking down the street in a mini skirt and a pair of boots, thinking about how much I hated my chubby legs. Just as the thought had crossed my mind, a man called out to me, “Ay Mami! Nice fuckin’ legs!” It was exactly what I needed at that particular moment in time. I feel like enjoying street harassment makes me less of a feminist. Or at least like I’m not feeling the “right” thing. I try to give myself a break, though. Recognize that its years of being a girl in America that makes me tie my self-worth to the way I look in men’s eyes. That sometimes I don’t even know I’m feeling it. I try to tell myself that I’m allowed to set my own boundaries. To decide what feels good and what doesn’t. That I should apologize for those feelings less.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Almost like being a rockstar yourself

Once, in Amsterdam, I met Jenny Lewis. Its probably my closest brush with fame. And for geeky me, it could not have been better.

I started listening to Rilo Kiley in high school. Discovered them the way I discovered a lot of music then, one download leads to another kind of a thing. It was the days of Napster and I had a motley collection of music from “Take Offs and Landings” and “Intial Friend”. Eventually I loved them so much, I bought “Take Offs and Landings” from the Barsuk Record site (and a Barsuk hoodie, actually, which would later win me points with Death Cab fans).

I love Jenny’s voice and the bittersweet, sometimes cynical lyrics. In college, I started putting “The Frug” on every dance mix I made. But they were still mostly touring on the West Coast and the one time they came to New York, I missed them. Still, I’ve never seen them live. (And to be honest, I’m not sure I really want to. This new album doesn’t rock my world the same way the older ones did. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, I was in Amsterdam during part of my Junior year Bohemian-Quest-For-Self through Europe. I was in Amsterdam more than once during that particular foray and I seem to remember this being later in my trip. I was walking through the bustling Leidseplein towards my Vondelpark hostel when a tall woman approached me.

“Excuse me? Do you speak English?”

I smiled and said, “Yeah, I do.” In my American accent. And we both laughed.

She needed to know how to get to the Van Gogh museum. Since I was waking that way anyway, I offered to take her. We talked about our mutual love of Van Gogh, the tragedy of his life, Theo’s letters and Love in the Time of Cholera. She asked me what I was doing in Europe. I told her and she complimented my bravery. I asked her and she told me about her band, the show they had played the night before.

The way she was talking, you’d think it was a garage band. Some little project going nowhere. A cheap way to see Europe, opening for bands that really mattered. So I didn’t even ask. It didn’t cross my mind, you know? But before I left her, a few blocks from the Van Gogh, I said, “Hey what’s the name of your band?” Because she was so nice I thought I ought to check out her music.

“Its called,um, Rilo? Kiley?” Seriously. Like a teenage girl, with every word a question. Like maybe I would think it was stupid.

“Oh my god.” I must have gone white, “You’re Jenny Lewis. Oh my god.”

“Oh you know my band!” All sincere and adorable.

“I, um. I brought only twelve CDs to Europe with me. And two of them are yours. I love your band.”

It’s probably better I didn’t ask her who she was earlier. I don’t think I could have carried on a coherent conversation with a woman whose music had moved me so easily through break-ups and new loves. I don’t think I would’ve have talked about Theo Van Gogh so much or worried about my hair so little. So it was better this way and I got a pretty good story out of it, too.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The return of old friends

Armistead Maupin never ceases to remind me of the comfortable, almost forgettable pleasure of unconditional love. Of the way it feels to choose to love someone completely; the constant bliss of having made the right choice.

I remember first reading the “Tales of the City” series, though “reading” is probably the wrong verb there. I devoured them. I crawled inside of them. I breathed them in. I inhabited them. I swallowed them whole. I couldn’t sleep for nights because I couldn’t stop reading. It was a feeling I’d had for much of my childhood, sure -- hiding with a flashlight under the covers long after “bedtime” had been announced – but I remember Maupin as the first to make me feel that way as a teenager.

I identified so strongly with Midwestern Mary Ann. Wanted to follow in her footsteps, run away to San Francisco, learn to let my hair down, too. I wanted to feel like Mona, though, Maupin’s brazen lesbian character. She and Mary Ann were close, but very different women. While Mary Ann was fighting to free herself, Mona seemed to have been born that way. I don’t want this to be about my sexuality, but I find it hard to believe that it isn’t. I read Tales of the City (and all of its sequels) while I was still closeted, my sexuality still a secret even to me. Is it a surprise that I was so easily seduced by a world where sex was always on the table?

Reading “Micheal Tolliver Lives” was like visiting old friends. I finished it too quickly, the whole experience was less than four hours long. I caught myself missing sentences as I read greedily. I think it is only Maupin that makes me read like that. So excited to finish, I can barely stay in the game. I know he says the book wasn’t a sequal and I hear him on that. It didn’t pick up where we left off. The style was different. Everyone was so much older, so moved on, that the text stands alone. But still, it was Mouse and Brian and Anna. Living in a city that has changed as much as they have.

I’ve been to the “real” Barbary Lane. I took a whole, roll of photographs walking up and down rickety stairs that were different in actuality than they ever looked in my mind. I don’t love the “real” San Francisco as much as I love Maupin’s version of it. But I love my friends, my “logical family” as much as Mouse loves his. That truth is hard to pin down and I’m glad Maupin has done it.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

If all else fails, turn it off and the on again

I have always maintained that our children won't know what to make of it when we attempt to fix fancy future technology by blowing on it.

The Educational Value of YouTube

Sometimes, when I get going on an angry anti-capitalist rant, or when I'm trying to explain systemic hierarchy to someone for the first time, I end up a Marxist. A reluctant, apologetic Marxist. Cause I'm not really a Marxist, you know. I'm not really an anything-ist when it comes down to it.

Anyway. As a not-really-Marxist, I appreciate this video. I mean come on, costumes, unicorns, economic theory? Who says YouTube can't be educational?!

Friday, November 2, 2007

I love Astrid Lindgren (pt. 1)

I love Astrid Lindgren. With the deep, all-consuming love I have for my very favorite authors. I love Astrid Lindgren the same way I love Madeleine L’Engel; because each time I open a book by one of those women, I am transported back to the first time I accessed the secret world inside.

I love Astrid Lindgren and its not all about Pippi. In fact, its very little about Pippi, though I love her, too. For me, Astrid Lindgren is about Ronia. I understand the appeal of Pippi Longstocking, her silly clothes and fun adventures. Her irreverent, almost accidental feminism. But Ronia is another beast entirely.

Ronia the Robber's Daughter is probably my favorite heroine. She is dearer to me than any “Paperbag Princess” or reimagined fairy tale. Lindgren makes no apologies for the femininity of Matt the Robber’s only child. She is as wild as Sendak’s Max as she runs through the magical forest surrounding her house. No one tries to stop her because she is a girl, nor is that fact even emphasized in the text. Her gender is secondary to her other qualities – her ferocious courage, her stubborn will, her deep love for her parents, the robbers and her only playmate, the son of her father’s arch-enemy.

The world that Lindgren creates for us is perfect. It is similar enough to the world that we know that it is easy to leap into the imaginary. The harpies and grey dwarves that lurk in the forest are believable foes. The wild horses that Matt and Ronia tame are perfectly perched on the edge of fantasy.

I love Ronia because she is not afraid of knowing what she wants or of doing what needs to be done. She is guided by love and compassion, but never sacrifices herself. I imagine her beautiful and wild-haired (I often contemplate getting her image tattooed to my shoulder). And she could kick Cinderella’s butt.