Between January and March

It’s been decades since my teenage years spent talking with friends of opposite (and I mean opposite) political persuasions in a 1980s basement until the wee hours of the night, just before the Trivial Pursuit showdown. I would give anything to recreate those talks with my geographically-dispersed friends now, simply because the glimpses we get of each other on social media fail to capture the in-person goofiness that always accompanied our disagreements. That was true whether we were talking about Reagan, or about the lyrics to any songs by Howard Jones.

It’s also been years since I have been assigned to do a group project in school. You know, the kind where you have these 5 stereotypical people in your group:

Person A: the doer, the task-oriented one, the one who knows everything about the assignment and can quote it verbatim in her sleep.

Person B: the “everyone let’s just get along” person who may or may not know all of the assignment parameters.

Person C: the one who seems to never be able to get her part of the project done because she’s just got too much stuff going on in her life that’s hard, and everyone in the group oscillates between sympathizing with her and feeling just a little bit suspicious.

Person D: the one who may or may not have had an adult beverage before the group work began in order to make things a little more fun, and who has surprisingly great penmanship.

Person E: the one who loves everything about the project except the one part where you have to write a poem. Poetry, in her estimation, is a deal breaker. To the point where she may risk getting a bad grade by opting out, or perhaps asking for an alternate assignment with fellow poetry-haters. [note to my poet friends: I’m sorry for this analogy. I think poetry is wonderful.]

In my schooling and career and co-curricular life, I’ve been each of these persons, sometimes simultaneously. I’ve also been charged with leading groups and figuring out how best to have persons A, B, C, D, and E get the work done while also not throwing sharp objects at each other.

I’m curious to apply this notion of the school group project to some current goings-on.

Okay, let’s say you recently marched. You were with a group of, say, three million people around the world. You had a goal of showing how social change is coming, how current leadership needs to be challenged, and how the impetus of change stems not from a few weirdos in a basement playing Trivial Pursuit, but from a large collective with shared aims.

But, alas, in the midst of post-march pink pics, voices are sprinkled in that say things like “I felt excluded,” “I would have done this except for a massive deal-breaker issue,” or, “I was throwing up and thought I should probably keep my germs to myself. It is cold and flu season, after all.” And so the question that’s lingering is, what’s the next step in the project exactly, who’s willing to do it, and what kind of deliberating are Persons A, B, C, D, and E doing about all of this?

Sociologists talk about groups a lot, especially when it comes to social movements. And sometimes we even talk about groups that are in our high schools…you know, groups like Trivial Pursuit clubs (okay, that probably was not a thing, but it totally should have been). When we do this, not only are we concerned with size (my inauguration audience was bigger than  yours and that makes me more popular), we are also concerned with the main function of the group. In fact, we give these functions names. A group is dedicated to expressive tasks when their main reason for being together is to show emotional connectivity and support. Like a family, or like your book club that’s really more about relationship counseling over wine than it is about reading and discussing books. Contrast this with a group that is defined as a group because of instrumental tasks — things that need to get done, sometimes that come from outside the group. Like a work project group, or like a book club where the members actually talk entirely about the books and don’t really spend time getting to know each other over wine. To keep going with the high school thread, expressive relationships include those who are close friends or dating partners (most of whom we get to choose), and instrumental relationships are the stupid group projects that your teachers assigned. Lab partners who would be mortified if someone asked them to hug each other. Classmates who have no social connection other than the fact that one of their dads drives them both to school.

Let’s say for a minute that steps toward inequality for groups that are disadvantaged in our society by lots of measures require instrumental tasks performed by groups. Groups working on concrete tasks that don’t necessarily get to choose each other. And let’s also say that some of the groups find expressive connections to help their tasks get done better, faster, and with more zeal. Tasks with love. Let’s get stuff done, and let’s do it by supporting each other’s emotional well-being.

So, what happens to our project group with regard to instrumental and expressive functions in a scenario that includes political issues and action like marching for a cause? Here is one possibility:

Person A: I marched because that’s what I am expected to do and I have memorized the entire lexicon of the movement in order to make change happen. I am inspired by the energy of everyone to work towards change. I will be a leader and get this stuff done. Instrumental wins!

Person B: I marched and it was a wonderful moment of shared vision, good vibes, and friendship. I am affirmed emotionally. I don’t know exactly what all of the details of the platform are, and I’m not sure we’re getting stuff done, but it sure felt great to meet all of these cool people. Expressive wins!

But wait. It gets complicated. And not just because there does not exist any real person who falls squarely into A or B. It gets complicated, as in…

Person C: I marched, but only for a block, because it hurt my feet and plus I had to go to work.

Person D: I marched because it was like a party and also I made a super cool sign with my awesome penmanship that I think may have been captured by a drone camera and sent to the New York Times.

Person E: I marched but with a bit of nausea because I just can’t support every item on the agenda for the group. I’m not sure I can continue with the project because parts of the project conflict with what I think is right. 

And then, what if people don’t do the project, maybe even at the risk of getting a bad grade (from whom? from the teacher? from other group members?)? As in…

…I didn’t march. I think women’s lives are fine, especially if you compare our lives to our mothers’ lives. I didn’t march. I had to work. I didn’t march. I’m pro-life and felt excluded. I didn’t march. I’m not in a privileged group and felt excluded. I didn’t march. I feel guilty, but it’s easier for me to show my views in more private ways. I didn’t march. I look terrible in pink and I’ve only knitted one scarf in my life that made it to only about 4 inches long before I gave up and plus my head gets way too hot in a stocking cap.

I didn’t march. I didn’t even know anything about it. I never got the assignment because I don’t go to your school.

And then, there is the person who refuses to do the assignment on the basis that the assignment is overwhelmingly flawed: I didn’t march. I understand the assignment completely. I disagree with the whole thing.

For that person, the work has to do with deciding whether there may be some merit in the project. She decides there is not.

And what is the work that everyone else has to do?

The doer has to work on being okay with recognizing that not everyone is going at her pace or has her image of success crystallized in their minds.

The “everyone just has to get along” person has to work on realizing that there are some issues that make getting along simply impossible. To get along means eradicating decades of culture wars. But the project still needs to get done enough. It’s figuring out what “enough” is that takes some work, which is particularly hard for people who want everyone to get along. Weighing instrumental tasks and expressive ones.

The person who refuses to participate because they simply couldn’t has to work on relying on the rest of the group to get her the markers, art paper, or assignment description so she can do her part, or she has to work on being okay with the rest of the group carrying her. The rest of the group has to work on being okay with some extra carrying.

The perhaps-inebriated-but-good-at-penmanship person has to work on deciding whether it may be time to notch up some skills beyond penmanship for a greater good. Everyone else in the group has to work on realizing that sometimes just having good penmanship is a tremendous contribution to a larger group project. An instrumental task within an instrumental task.

The person who hates poetry and thus refuses to participate because their deal-breaker issue of the poetry mandate is big enough to thwart their participation has, perhaps, the most work to do. She has to work on figuring out whether there are any instrumental tasks that are okay to do. She has to work on figuring out whether she needs expressive support in order to maintain affinity to the group’s instrumental tasks, either from the group or from others who think like her. Or whether it’s just not possible. The rest of the group has to work on deciding whether they’re willing to do some work listening to those who hate poetry in order to get to “enough.”

People have never always agreed about what work there is to do. People have never always gotten along. What is happening now is a figuring. A figuring about what the task is, what the relationships are, and what parts of each of these must be set aside (because there is always a setting aside, and there is never all-instrumental or all-expressive) in order to get enough done.

 

Between Fact and Fiction

Sociologists will tell you that it’s cool to uncover what is really strange about everyday familiar things. Like sitting in a chair and reading a book. Seems like a boring image, but when you look more closely, you see how the person is sitting, what time of day it is, what type of book it is, and where the chair is located. And these things reveal body norms, the social construction of leisure and work time, the accessibility of certain books that may or may not challenge authoritarian voices, and the institutional realm where the reading is happening. Like a prison. Or a school. Or my living room. Something as everyday as reading can reveal much beyond the pages of the book.

I’ve heard it said that the truth is stranger than fiction, but I’ve learned recently that fiction can be more true. I’ve also learned that non-fiction is an elusive term that itself is a recent social construction.

You see, I’ve spend the last dozen weeks in off-and-on conversations about writing realities with colleagues who study African politics, the rhetoric of reproducti0n, urban health disparities, national borders, the history of French cheese, and Scottish romantic literature. Amidst us was also a novelist who teaches students creative writing. Interestingly, I found it hard to find a good way to introduce this person in the first half of this paragraph as someone “who studies something,” since, to me, writing a novel seems more like storytelling than studying.

But why do I have this distinction? And is that person now mad at me upon reading my characterization of the novelist? Why do have the notion stuck in my brain that there exists a magical land of opposites where on one end there are fiction people and the other are non-fiction people. On one end there is data and on the other there are stories. On one hand is the student, and the other is the storyteller.

I’ll tell you why I have this distinction. Because I’ve been taught that there is one. But how vast is the border wall between these ends of this constructed spectrum?

This puzzle continues as I think about the spectra present in our national politics this fall. On one end there is real news, and on the other there is fake news. Where real is paired with true and fake is paired with false.

But if there’s one thing I learned from the Tommy Lee Jones character at the end of the alien movie Men in Black, it’s that sometimes there is some truth in the news that seems fake. And, if there’s one thing I’ve been puzzled about this fall (one thing?!), it’s whether what I consider to be real news contains truths or not.

Consider these two statements:

  1. Fake news about paid protesters spread like wildfire because, in 2016, 62% of Americans turned to social media to find out what’s happening.
  2. She sat down with her morning coffee and data-depleted smartphone to get her daily affirmation that the conspiracy theories she believed about paid protesters were, in fact, true.

Which one is more true? Consider whether the numbers and hyperlinks in the first one compel you to believe it to be a true statement. Non-fiction. Consider how the words “fact” and “true” are used in the second one. Fiction about non-fiction?

If the goal is to get at what my literary scholar friend calls “the proper truth,” one could argue that the second one more accurately portrays the reality of people’s experiences with news and social media this year, compelling the reader to find a good bit of reality of contemporary social life in a fictitious statement. If the goal is to get at what scholars in my sociology midst call “science,” one could argue that the first one is more true. Because numbers are facts, and facts are science. Because, science.

When I checked with my mom this summer about a story I told about her in my book (essayists may think about this as unnecessary “fact-checking,” but my publisher would deem it crucial), her response sparked a deliberation in my mind that I could not have predicted. A deliberation that now, given my off-and-on conversations with colleagues, takes a new shape. After reading my story about her, she wrote, “It’s just fine and mostly true [inserted smiley face emoji here]. It goes with the paragraph.” She was wiser than the authors I’d been reading all fall to try to figure out what the heck truth-in-writing was! She allowed for exaggeration so the better story could be told, which would captivate readers more than a dry bit of reality would.

Immediately after getting Mom’s response, and surprisingly given the revelation it revealed to me, I revised the story to be completely true because I felt somehow guilty for only presenting something that was “mostly true.” And now, the story in my book is a little more boring, but completely true.

But wouldn’t it still be getting at a truth if I exaggerated a bit so the reader was more engaged with the underlying point of the story? Couldn’t a mostly true story get at the complete truth?

Well, my editor would remind me that my book will be neatly classified as non-fiction — you know, one that students could read to check off the non-fiction requirement in their state-mandated reading requirements. And I’m fine with imagining people reading it on their smartphones while sitting in their comfy chairs with their morning coffee, hoping that they are intrigued enough with all the facts that they get the true story about what I’m trying to say.

Maybe my next sociology study will be a set of short stories about everyday life. With a few statistics thrown in for intrigue.

 

 

Between Leave and Left

There are some who say it’s best to leave alone the menacing piles of orange leaves that fall into our yards from the massive old maple trees that dot our lovely neighborhoods, because, as we know, seasons change. Plus, to have too much involvement with the leaves disrupts the natural course of things. This, perhaps, is a disagreement for another day.

Let’s start with the assumption that it is a good idea to get rid of the insurmountable orange pile so that the plants and grass will not be smothered over the coming months. That, in order for the plants and grass to do well in the spring and for years to come, it’s best if they don’t have a heavy pile of jagged-edged orange leaves atop their little potential sprouts.

Let’s go next to my existing strategies for the leaf menace. First strategy: I have a huge rake. Like as wide as a big maple tree trunk which sometimes makes it hard to use in tight corners with delicate plants underfoot, and which sometimes makes my hip hurt after about twenty minutes. Second, I have an electric leaf blower that does a decent job in the corners but is attached to an extension cord that constantly gets stuck on fence posts and shrubs. Technically, this one is really just the vacuum in my shop-vac with the switch turned from “suck” to “blow” [bonus points for Spaceballs reference here]. Third, I am pleased with my recent purchase of a battery-powered leaf blower that not only has a special mulching feature, but that also does a great job anywhere but only for about ten minutes and then the battery runs out. Plus, I have to hold it crooked, which makes my hip hurt. Finally, I also have a neighbor with a kick-ass gas powered leaf blower and he totally wins in terms of speed and quantity of leaves that can be blasted into the street and he sometimes blows the leaves off of our yard because he’s a great neighbor and good friend. AND, its power source is in the form of a backpack so if someone uses it, they’re hip won’t hurt. But it’s gas. Alas, the gas. Using the fossil fuels to rid the lawn of dead organic matter.

As you can see, the leaf menace is managed via multiple approaches, each with their own benefits. Each with their own costs. That seems like a good approach.

Between my rake, my two blowers that are fine but deficient for different reasons, and his powerhouse blower that stinks just a little bit, we get the leaves from his yard and mine into the street. And while we’re doing this, we talk about the weather, our dogs, any current health issues in his family or mine, and what we think about the other neighbors’ dogs. So many great dogs. All of whom hide when the leaf blowers come out, and only one of whom chases a rake when it scrapes across the sidewalk.

Recently I got to see a delightful social media exchange about the menace of leaf blowers in our community, which was followed by a fun in-person interaction where I admitted that I owned a leaf blower. It went something like this:

Person 1 on social media: Here’s an article about how leaf blowers are horrible.

Person 2 on social media: Yes they are horrible. People who have them are horrible.

Me, in person to Person 1: I have a leaf blower. It is battery-powered.

Me, in my head: I wonder if this person thinks I’m a horrible person.

Person 1, to me in person, as if reading my mind: Oh, you’re not a horrible person. I bet, also, that it’s quieter than gas ones.

Me, in person to Person 1: Well, it’s not that quiet. But I figure I make up for it by driving a Prius which is so quiet that I’ve almost run over eleven people who could not hear when I approach an intersection.

Me, in my head: His response makes me even more sure that I should not think of myself as a horrible person, because now my actions match what I perceive to be his assessment of me as a not-horrible person. But, I still wonder, am I doing this leaf menace management thing wrong?

This led to more in-my-head thoughts, some about what I thought about myself, and others about what I thought others may think of me and my leaf menace management (for you sociology nerds, this sure sounds like Cooley’s looking glass self — we see ourselves as we think others see us). Ultimately it led me to concoct what I now think of as the Layered Scorecard of Leaf Identity Politics. Scores, after all, can be determined in part by people thinking that others are doing it wrong. And then we believe what our score is if we believe that we, in fact, are doing it wrong. Here’s how that played out in my head:

Rake? How adorable that you’re trying to get rid of the orange menace. But raking is too slow and out of date, and therefore makes the orange leaf pile win. And plus it makes your hip hurt. You’re doing it wrong.

Gas blower? Bad for the environment and loud; plus I’m kind of jealous of the privilege you afford by virtue of you not having to worry about hip pain. You’re doing it wrong.

Electric blower? Seems reasonable, still loud, but that cord that keeps getting caught. It makes your work look so tiresome and futile. Plus, you’re disguising this leaf blower — it’s really a vacuum. You’re doing it wrong.

Battery-powered blower? Ooh, good for the environment, but since the charge doesn’t last, I’m annoyed by the noise that comes in intermittent parts of my day when I’m trying to watch the news. It’s not doing enough in the timeframe that works for me. You’re doing it wrong.

Neighborhood dog: I’m hearing you all saying “you’re doing it wrong” to any group who’s trying to rid the lawn of leaves in a way that’s different from your way. I’m hearing some of you say “you’re doing it wrong” to those whom you perceive to be incorrect because there are definitely bad and good ways to do it. I’m hearing some of you say “you’re doing it wrong” to those who say we should NOT be telling each other we’re doing it wrong because after all we’re all just trying to get rid of those horrible orange leaves. 

All of this makes my head spin in the midst of a leaf tornado. Which is particularly hard to rake, blow, or manage.

This week I had the opportunity to teach in my introductory sociology course about a concept called defensive othering. This is when we’re part of a group that has a negative label (sociologists call this stigma), but, at the same time we acknowledge we’re part of the group, we distance ourselves from the bad bits that people think of when they think of that group. As in, “don’t worry, I know I have a leaf blower, but at least it’s not gas-powered.” As in, “don’t worry, I know my leaf blower is gas-powered, but at least it’s so powerful that the noise doesn’t last long.”

As in, “don’t worry, I’m conservative, but I didn’t vote to keep the orange menace on our lawn.”

As in, “don’t worry, I’m liberal, but I’m not letting the leaves sit on my lawn [in the way that I think you’ll think is the way I should be managing them].”

As I told my students, the “don’t worry” part of these statements is precisely the moment when the looking-glass self takes shape. If we see ourselves as we think others see us, there may be others in our lives (in certain places, in certain times, in certain groups) whose opinion of us matters BECAUSE it makes us see ourselves differently.

When we ask ourselves whether we’re doing enough, or whether we’re doing it right, we’re often imagining the rightness to be assessed by others who want the same thing. But who may spend a lot of time telling us that the thing should be gotten another way.

This appears to be the autumn of discontent for the political left. So many places where people who want the leaves to be gone are telling other people who want the leaves to be gone that they’re ridding the lawn of leaves the wrong way.

I gave a speech last week and found myself asking, “I wonder if I did that right.” I am not immune to both the looking glass self and defensive othering. Nobody is.

I’m not so naive as to think any solution or progress can be reached by just getting along. But I have learned that focusing on the wrestling is valuable and transferable to lots of parts of life. Like the parts of life where we talk to our neighbors about that weird dog that chases rakes and, evidently, can hear what we’re saying to each other.

I’m not leaving my neighborhood. And I really appreciate the possibility of multiple approaches to managing the orange menace.

Between Asleep and Awake

Below is the text from a speech I gave to a group of college women, the day after the 2016 election. My analytical mind went to other places, and this is a little longer than my usual posts, but this stuff came from the heart.

My fellow Americans, I was going to write two speeches and hilariously and joyfully rip one up before moving on to my real speech for today. Truth be told, I couldn’t write this speech until last night at midnight. I title it “Between Asleep and Awake: Post-Election Edition.”

Last night, after googling “sad quotes,” I posted a saying on social media that said, “Sometimes, all you can do is lie in bed, and hope to fall asleep before you fall apart.”

I am tired, this usual semester. With a heavy and important workload creeping into more of my non-work parts of life. Days getting darker and shorter. Sickness settling in, from my own, to my son’s, to the sickness that travels on the papers you hand in after you cough on them. I am tired, this usual semester, with the work that I do and love.

I am tired, this book I’m writing. What a wonderful and exhausting thing to do! A book about how home objects and spaces reflect what’s going on with our current roles and relationships, like love letters, Lego bricks, and smartphones show us. A book with a chapter on beds no less. Did you know that beds and sleep are sociologically interesting? They are! Some fun facts I learned when I researched beds and the sociology of sleep:

First, beds are great sites to think about how we understand what we define as comfortable and appropriate for different life stages, bodies, and relationships. If that weren’t the case, the committee I was on for the Living at Whitman initiative that helped to design the new residence hall wouldn’t have included the option of the amazing feature of double beds in the residence hall rooms.

Second, sleep is researched usually as an individual thing, but it shouldn’t be. Now we see TV commercials that advertise beds in scientific terms – foam that conforms to aching bodies, flame retardants that are supposed to make us feel safe but have strange and dangerous-sounding chemical names, numbers that signify how board-like or cloud-like each half of the bed can be, temperature control, and everything-pedic. Our bodies and our beds are now machines that work with each other. Sleeping has become a science project. Oh, and speaking of science, don’t forget the Ambien. But sleep is sociological – it contains, as a practice, group differences. Women have more trouble sleeping than men. So do people who don’t have much money. So do people with little kids and people who are older. And college students working on projects for my classes. These are social categories that, sure, have some biological dimensions, but that also show how our demographics vary in terms of their connection to health, well-being, stress, and comfort. Perhaps some of you have lost sleep lately. Perhaps this relates to your demographics more than your biology.

Third, sociologists discuss how beds and sleep call forth “couple politics.” Sleeping is interactional, whether it’s with a lover, a parent, a roommate across the way, a pet, or anyone else. When to go to bed, when to wake up, whether to have a screen lit up to watch a show or do work, whether to make the bed daily, how hot to make the room in what I like to call my family’s “thermostat wars,” whether to touch or keep separate zones, how much light to allow in the room, and what kind of bedding and pillows to use – all of these are factors that impact sleep patterns, and that are often part of people’s negotiations about how to define their bed rituals. These are social things!

And so, I am tired. This book has taken so much out of me. To write my voice in 75,000 words that I could keep editing and editing and never be quite satisfied, even though I love that I get to write about beds. I am tired.

I am tired, this election. This year of making visible the places of inequality that to some were always hidden and to others were always felt. I am tired on this day of finding out the divisions in our country are more vast than any canyon I have seen on a family vacation. I am tired of finding out that our social networks are so NOT CONNECTED, even if we think they are, to the point that we are utterly surprised by the votes of a people whose voices we thought we knew. Turns out, they’re tired too, so tired. And angry, and uncomfortable. Elites versus everyone else. Men v. women. Poor v. rich. White faces v. brown faces. Rural v. urban. Established politicians v. a bull in a china shop to shake things and break the status quo, and probably break so much more. My friends v. your friends. My people v. your people. My family v. yours.

If there’s one thing sociologists know, when people are disconnected, we don’t know what is normal anymore. That’s called anomie. And while this is all intriguing from a social science standpoint, I am tired because I don’t know what is normal anymore. I can’t keep track of the thousand canyons that separate us from each other. But I know they’re there. And it breaks my heart.

I am tired, this gender inequality. This election rhetoric that contained more reference to female body parts and the words “she” and “her” and “this woman” said with such vilification that I felt swept back decades. I have been tired for 44 years, I have felt the feeling of gender in every corner of my life, in all its glory and all its hardship, and this year – THIS YEAR — was the worst. This year when the system of gender oppression is so powerful that many women voted for what they thought they valued, but in doing so, they voted for their own misogyny. I am tired of gender inequality.

I am tired, this responsibility of motherhood. How to talk to my 12-year-old blond, blue-eyed, highly capable and highly sensitive son about a world with hatred and racism and misogyny, at the end of a day when I don’t have any more energy. A couple weeks ago I said to him, “Aaron, less than a hundred years ago women gained the right to vote.” He replied, “In five years that’ll be inaccurate.” At this point I fretted, thinking that he had heard so much horror about women’s rights this year that he feared they’d go so far backwards in time that they’d lose the vote! And so I asked, stunned, “What?!” To which he replied, “Because it’ll be more than a hundred years then.” I. Am. Tired. Of even considering the possibility of anything other than a good future for my son. I will never tire of motherhood, nor will I ever tire of my son’s drole and literal middle school humor. But I am tired of having to figure out how to talk to my child about what the hell this new normal is.

I am tired. Say it with me for whatever reason it’s true for you. I am tired.

And yet ………………….. I am tireless.

And here’s why.

I had two grandmas. One I called Oma, one I called Grandma. Oma was 16 (16!) when she came to the U.S. from Germany with her younger sister to find work as a housecleaner. She returned to Germany, retrieved a husband, and moved back to the U.S., to Chicago, with him in the late 1930s. I have to think… I HAVE TO THINK… that they came, with her lead, because they could see what lay ahead for their home country, for their brothers, some of whom, yes, likely became the soldiers of that horrifying army. I think this because I read the letters she and my dad wrote to each other when he was in college. Letters that were filled with advice to wear warm sweaters, but mostly about how essential it was that they be grateful to live in this amazing democracy. To work hard and understand how horrifying it could have been if they had not come to a place where a 16-year-old girl with an eighth grade education who later married a butcher with a second grade education could take initiative to make a better life for a family she didn’t then know she’d have. To start a path for her granddaughter who appreciates so very much this same democracy, even as she wrestles with how to live in it and how to productively critique it.

My other grandma’s story, this time in rural South Dakota, seems on the surface to be less dramatic. But it wasn’t. Grandma was a teacher in the 1930s in a rural school that did not allow women to teach if they were married. My grandma, newly married to my grandpa, hid her marital status from her employer for a year so that she could keep teaching. I know this because I read the letters she and my grandpa wrote to each other in secret – newlyweds who lived apart so she could fulfill her career. Grandma had very little to say about democracy, at least explicitly. But she absolutely embodied a fight to do what she wanted DESPITE THE STRUCTURE THAT STOOD IN HER WAY.

As you can tell, I come from a long line of sturdy women who figure out what’s right pretty darn early in their lives, and do what they can even if they’re not supposed to. And all of this, by the way, as staunch Protestant rule followers. With sturdy Protestant men in full support. Men who knew that the rules should not apply to the women they so admired.

I HAVE TO THINK THAT THESE WOMEN KNEW WHAT IT MEANT TO BE TIRED.

TIRED OF WHAT THEY SAW AND TIRED OF WHAT THEY HAD TO FACE, AND YET THEY HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO TIRELESSLY MAKE CHANGE. SURE, IN PRIVATE WAYS, BUT WAYS THAT HAD MORE POLITICAL DIMENSIONS THAN ANY ELECTION I’VE SEEN. WAYS THAT PAVED A PATH THAT I GET TO TRAVERSE AND SHARE WITH YOU.

They were tired, Oma and Grandma. And yet, they were tireless.

I am tired. And yet I am tireless. I’m among the most privileged people on this planet. I have a bed that cost twice as much as the monthly rent I paid for a crappy apartment in graduate school. I have grandmothers who paved the way for me to get such a good education that I have the capacity and resources and time to even ponder what tired means. To reflect on the social implications of exhaustion that, yes, are gendered, and raced, and classed. To learn from amazing students every day what social change looks like, what leadership looks like, and what energy looks like. You women keep me young. You need to know that. My grandmothers remind me of past work, and you remind me of the good work to come.

I believe that the beauty and the paradox of womanhood is that we are all always tired and yet we are all always tireless. We need rest and we are restless.

I am tired, to be sure.

But I am tireless for my grandmas, I am tireless for my mom, I am tireless for my son. I am absolutely tireless for myself. And I am tireless for you. You are nowhere near done with your energy that can be devoted to social change, to fighting for equality, to branching out to social networks that you don’t usually branch out to so we can understand this confusing and conflicted nation of ours. You have the hands that can reach out to others. You have more compassion than you even know you have. You have the hands that can lift someone up, but more importantly, that can reach ACROSS the canyons, not looking down at others, to build our next steps. You have the hands that can care for yourselves and each other.

BUT TO BE SURE — You have the hands that can be raised to say WAIT A MINUTE… it should NOT only be women who do the reaching and caring! You have the hands. My husband and brothers have the hands. My son’s hands are still growing but he, too, joins our hands.

And as for me… I recommend that we all get some sleep.

And then awaken.

And, in holding all of your hands,

I will let you know that

I

ALSO

HAVE

YOUR

BACK.

 

 

Between Family Spaces and Marketplaces

My sociology brain is squarely housed in housing these days.

I’m finishing up my first book, on how home spaces and objects tell the story of contemporary family roles and relationships. I figure my second book ought to be about second homes.

I was at a wedding shower this weekend and met a woman who was fearful of the impacts of a neighbor’s house being turned into a vacation rental. Not only was she thinking about the noise and safety concerns with multiple parked cars in their shared driveway spilling onto a busy street, she was worried about the loss of community feel that would inevitably occur with transient (but potentially fun-loving) weekend neighbors. Who drank a lot of wine.

In a town with a booming wine and tourism industry, and annual graduations and reunion events for three colleges, we have seen an increase in vacation rentals in our little green valley. With this, I am increasingly hearing stories from friends about loud backyard parties that keep their toddlers awake. I hear stories of garbage in places where they usually don’t see garbage. I hear stories of friends walking down their block and starting to count the number of homes that are vacation rentals. I hear stories of regret that they bought a house on a street with not one or two, but three or four, vacation homes. Their neighbors would not be neighbors at all, but strangers on a weekendly rotation. Their block parties (or their dreams of future block parties, once they organized them) would cease to occur. The rotation of neighbors would consist of new faces who were friendly enough, but who didn’t have an investment in the street’s potholes, crosswalks, and low hanging tree branches for kids to swing on. These vacation rental owners may have an interest in the property values or number of other rentals on the block, but perhaps not because they are concerned about the local residents’ well-being as much as their own pocketbooks.

Even in my neighborhood, where there were two houses for sale this spring, the conversations among those of us outside pulling weeds was whether the purchasers would actually live there or not.

These conversations are new, and they are raising important questions about neighborliness, community, and trust.

But I also hear stories from out-of-town guests that they have less stress associated with finding a place to lay their heads and gather with loved ones when they come to town for a special event. Less, at least, than what they heard was happening just a few years ago, when a place to stay was hard to get unless you called for a graduation weekend hotel room when you gave birth to your son or daughter. Getting a hotel room in a booming tourist town with lots of special events was as hard, it seemed, as getting your infant into an eventual high quality kindergarten in the bustling competitive college-prep kindergarten cottage industry.

And I also hear how other friends are using income generated from their vacation rentals to create a good retirement life or to save for their children’s college tuition. People who are good stewards of property, and who develop lovely relationships with visitors who rave about the friendliness of the community. Sure, sometimes it means they vacate their own homes and sleep in their RV or a friend’s couch across town on weekends when their home is a vacation rental. But they’re making money, representing their community well to visitors, and doing it responsibly.

As you can see, I can see the sides of the discussion emerge.

Vacation rentals are places of economic exchange, but they are necessarily also places of social exchange. No trading of money exists without people (either directly in the exchange, or among the people watching from across the street when they’re pulling weeds), and people have relationships with each other. Now it’s time to ask the good sociological questions about the construction of meaning of this whole issue. The social stuff, not just the economic stuff.

[Note: these next couple paragraphs look really boring and academic, but they’re important and also contain attempts at humor, so please read…]

The idea of focusing on the social aspects of economic exchange has been at the core of sociological thinking since the discipline became a discipline. Too much focus on economic exchange in a capitalist system? People lose their connectedness (here you could peruse dozens of writings by Weber and Durkheim and Toennies). In fact, too much focus on people merely being connected by virtue of their involvement in the economic machinery denies their very humanity (channeling Marx here).

But these ideas are a little hard to fit into polite conversation at a neighborhood block party or backyard wedding shower. As much as I love social theory, I don’t envision making friends with people while eating fried chicken and deviled eggs if words like “organic solidarity,” “gemeinschaft,” “alienated labor,” and “irrationality of rationality” came out of my deviled egg-filled mouth. This would be weird if it was with people who are feeling good about their entrepreneurial adventure in second homeownership in a post-recession decade where housing crises and economic precarity are still alive and well. And it would be weird if it was with people who are feeling bad about their loss of neighborly connectedness because the house next door is just a commodity for someone who doesn’t even live in town.

What will probably work is to talk, between fried chicken bites, about the importance of including social relationships in any discussion of economic exchange. Paying to stay? What does that do to the feeling of trust in our neighborhood? Owners are different from dwellers? What does that mean for my definition of neighbor? (here I encourage looking up the work of economist Karl Polanyi and his idea of substantivism, but I promise not to use either the word “Polanyi” or “substantivism” when I chat with people at block parties). Renting your space out? Do you remove your family pictures so it looks less like your home space and more like anyone’s home space (but a home space nonetheless)?

As I begin my next line of research on second homes, I will ask questions of various constituencies along the owner-visitor-neighbor spectrum, as well as people along something I’m calling the “Family Space to Marketplace” Spectrum. I think it’ll be interesting to see how people talk about these homes and neighborhoods, including voices of those whose aim is to never live in a second home, and those who only use the space for family time…and everyone in between. I also want to include voices of people who stay in them, and of people who live next to them. Time shares. RVs. Run down lake cabins. Urban condos. Single family homes. Small mansions. Tiny homes in the woods. All of it.

The goal of owning a home is still a strong one in the U.S. Just look at the great work of sociologist Brian McCabe in his book No Place Like Home.  And the psychological pieces that matter in someone’s sometimes conflicted decision to have a getaway AND put down roots is still present in researcher’s minds like Winifred Gallagher, whose book House Thinking has a whole chapter on second homes. What I want to do is look at how people define the meaning and impact of these spaces on family connectedness, neighborhood connectedness, and how these two may sometimes come into conflict.

I like to judge my research questions by looking at how many different topics they touch on in the news. With headline after headline about things like the sharing economy, the politics of exclusion of racial residential segregation, discrimination in the informal vacation rental business, the virtues of entrepreneurialism in today’s job market, and the perception of a declining lack of trust among neighbors, I think I’m asking questions that matter. And with the proliferation of media representation of the purchase and redesign of getaways and second homes (“Beach Front Bargain Hunt,” “Income Property,” “Vacation House for Free”), I’m asking something that touches on people’s conceptions of leisure, family, creativity, and affordability. In real life and on TV.

The woman I chatted with at the wedding shower was hopeful that there’d be some community conversations about whether there ought to be more regulation on vacation rentals in our community. The next day the big headline in the local paper read “Vacation Rentals to Get Regulatory Look.” It seems our city council has the housing issue housed in their brains, too.

I am excited to ask good sociological questions about this issue over the next couple years, and perhaps find and interpret some answers in words that matter to my community and yours.

Between Father and Son

If my dad were alive today, the first thing he’d tell my twelve-year-old son is, “I never expected another human being to look exactly like I did when I was twelve.” The second thing he’d say is, “What has happened to boyhood and manhood today? I don’t understand.”

On this Father’s Day, the loss of my dad eleven years ago is hitting me hard. I didn’t know this would happen, but grief doesn’t tell us when it’ll visit here and there. Grief can also be found in places where other sadness lives.

In light of recent events, there is a tremendous sorrow in my heart for what has become of how we think of fathers and sons and men and boys in our world. I wish more than the world that Dad was here, not just so he could offer a joke or obscure philosophy or Monty Python quote to our conversation, but because he could be a voice of kindness and peace. My dad’s past was not one of mythologized masculinity where men were men and boys were boys and guns were guns. What men were like when I was growing up was entirely wrapped up in my dad and his reality, and he was unlike any man I knew.

Who else could say he was a traveling one-man-band in rural Wisconsin as a 17-year-old, earning prize money to pay for a wood organ for his parents? Who else could say he figured the best way to make his way in the world was to strive for more than his immigrant parents and get an ROTC scholarship to attend a college that offered gifts in the form of philosophy, religion, languages, and music? Who else could say he’d skip out of target practice in the Army by pretending he’d lost his gun? Who else could say he gained a new lens on life when, at 26, he had a lemon-sized brain tumor render him physically debilitated with a young son and another just born (and a daughter in the twinkle of his eye), and that ruined his chances forever at being able to be a musical performer? Who else could say he was an award-winning and beloved teacher who started a cross-national exchange program so that teens whose worlds were small got bigger every year he did it? Who else could say he jingled his pocket keys just a little too much when he conducted the church choir? Who else could say he’d spent countless sleepless nights wondering if he’d voted to help the most people for the most upright reasons when he was in our city’s government? Who else could say he was a poet and a scholar in his last days, advocating for connectedness, peace, and, as he always said, “belief in something,” even in light of tragedy and hardship?

Who else could say that anger has its place in conversation and contemplation rather than in physical and political violence?

Nobody. Nobody but my dad could say all of those things.

And I miss his voice with all of the volume of a thousand empty caverns.

My dad, disabled and all, held me in his hands as he composed a song about me that was performed when I was a baby. He held my hand when I was scared as a child. He held a circular saw around my nervous hands when we cut up his childhood wooden train table to make a coffee table for my first apartment. He held the heavy things that I took apart and knocked out in my home after I moved to take a new job. He held my infant son when he was wiggly. He held my hand on the last day he lived. Or did I hold his?

All of these holdings were awkward, and sometimes weak, as it would be for anyone who’d lost coordination in half his body from the brain tumor. But all of them were held in confidence, calmness, and assuredness in the belief that the world must be a place where people needed to come together to hold each other in times of joy, celebration, anger, and sorrow.

My father’s hands held no single ounce of hatred. He worked every day to demonstrate how hatred was of no use to him or to anyone.

There is so much sorrow in my heart for the loss of lives from the hands and guns of angry men. There is so much sorrow in my heart for the belief that men’s roles are to somehow be strengthened when violating women’s bodies. There is so much sorrow in my heart for the loss of perspective on citizenship and responsibility, echoing from the voice of irresponsible men whose main goal is to wield power and ignore the damage that their path is creating.

I am more sad this Father’s Day than any other. I want there to be men in my midst who hold my father’s beliefs in their hearts, even if their hands are stronger than his.

But I hold gladness in my heart for knowing that there are holding hands out there, hands that are meant not to show strength to dominate another, but to show strength to show solidarity and compassion to face ignorance and damaging paths.

I hold gladness in my heart because those hands are the hands of my husband and son, and I’m glad to be held by them every day.

 

 

Between Valedictorian and Validation

At the risk of coming across as Braggy McSmartypants, I am going to tell you a little bit about being a valedictorian. Which I was. Or, rather, I say I was valedictorian of my 1990 high school class, because my family, with the exception of my Opa who barely finished 2nd grade, seems to collect that label like we collect recipes for baked goods that contain a lot of butter. That is to say, we have plenty of them in our family (valedictorians and recipes that use butter).

Really, though, I was just the only one in my class who had achieved “highest honors,” the top in a range of categories that had been created that replaced the traditional valedictorian and salutatorian labels. That replacement happened two years before I graduated, much to the dismay of my older friends who were graduating in 1988 and had spent their formative years working towards the coveted 1st place trophy-that-is-not-to-be-shared. Somehow, even with the superlative, being highest honors amidst an unspecified number of people who also had achieved the same GPA was not special enough. Plus, four or five speeches at graduation from high school seniors may not necessarily be a better show than one or two. I can say this because I gave a speech at my high school graduation. It was about the Berlin Wall coming down, which, in my seventeen-year-old editing capacity, could not have been boiled down to a two-minute feel-good address that would have been situated between student speakers #4 and #6, both of whom may have talked about prom and Prince. Speeches about prom and Prince, by the way, would not serve as good segues into our out of a talk on the downfall of the Cold War. (note to self: see how many graduation speeches this year include reference to Prince).

I think the reason my school made this terminology switch way back in the last century was so that we could seem more sophisticated in our rural southwest Minnesota town. You know, like summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude, but without that complicated Latin. Incidentally, these Latin phrases mean “with highest praise,” “with great praise” and “with praise,” according to this article. These terms came about in the 1800s.

Interestingly, the word valedictorian is actually about leaving. Valediction really means to say farewell. So a valedictorian is the person to announce that, hey all, it’s time to go. It’s like the parent who’s rounding up the kids for a family vacation and yells into the house with exasperation, “Hey, get your butts into the station wagon! We gotta make it to southern Wisconsin by suppertime so we can get some of Aunt Henny’s butter-laden BLT’s before they’re gone!”

Salutatorian, or the traditional “runner-up” label for the race towards academic prowess, means what you probably think it does. It comes from salutatory, which is related to greeting people. So, the second place person says hello, and the first place person says goodbye. If taken with these meanings, graduation ceremonies could be much shorter, with one person standing up and saying, “Hello,” the other “Goodbye,” and then we just give out the diplomas and head home for cake.

These terms are really about the speeches, I’m coming to realize, not about the honor. It’s like the word butter.  You may not know its etymology, but you know it means something good.

Now I am starting to see why highest honors, high honors, and honors were used. They actually make sense. They imply a bar above which means you are higher than others. They are related to each other sensibly. They are the translations of the Latin.

Recently there have been news stories, and then the usual moral panic aftermath, of schools deciding to get rid of the labels valedictorian and salutatorian. This is, as one argument is presented, in order to prevent the unhealthy competition and grade grubbing that have seemed to overtake American high schools filled with students clamoring to get into good colleges. The response to these stories has included those lamenting the idea that our “everyone gets a trophy” society is lessening the meaning of any awards, or that students who can’t handle competition are being over-accommodated so much that they are not ever going to be able to handle anything short of total success. The other side of the discussion comes from those who say that if a student can’t handle not getting a top award, then the award carries with it too much stress. Making things competitive and hard to achieve without collateral damage to teenage health or sanity (or ethical judgment) sends the wrong kind of validation for the majority of the students. No amount of friendship loss or sleeplessness is worth adding .25 to the already uppermost 4.0 GPA.

In the school system my son attends, the terms valedictorian and salutatorian are still used at the high school level, but they can be awarded to any number of students who reach whatever the GPA level is that is required of each. I see this as a pretty good compromise. Keep the label as special. Allow room for as many to achieve as can. Seven valedictorians and two salutatorians? Bring on those nine two-minute speeches!

Of course, it should not be a risky thing to admit you achieved something big, even for you Braggy McSmartypants-types. But it should also not be the case that students are at risk for going about their student-y lives with only the goal of winning at all costs, even to one’s soul and body and relationships, in mind.

Validate achievement? Absolutely. Celebrate as many people who have achieved a high standard? Yes. Continue to have a conversation that acknowledges this is a complicated thing, since some people view academic success as meeting a standard, and others like a running race? Of course. One winner, many winners, or redirecting what we even think of when it comes to winning — this is hard stuff. Whoever figures this out should get a prize. And then that person can decide if she’s going to accept the prize for her individual work, or share it with others who have achieved something comparable.

Incidentally, I missed summa cum laude in college by 5/100ths of a GPA point. I was always good at learning written languages, so maybe if I would have taken Latin, I could have eeked out a summa.