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.


Between my Living Room and the Marketplace

I recently hosted a gathering of women who graciously agreed to come to my house to view a clothing collection that is not sold in stores. They may have come also because I said there’d be wine. Because I hosted, and a certain amount of clothing was ordered by my awesome friends, I got a big fat discount on no fewer than nine (9!) items of clothing. None of which I need but all of which I’ll love and probably spill stuff on.

I do love clothes. But I also love thinking about the social circumstances in which clothes are bought and sold. My favorite part of the evening was when the clothing rep referred to all of the clothes as “her” and “she.”  Just once I wished she had referenced the translucent peach sleeveless blouse with a phrase like “Don’t you just love him?” I’m no marketing genius, but it seems to me if you have a room full of tipsy women who I’m pretty sure fancy men, then naming the clothing with masculine pronouns could increase sales.

In addition to pondering the gendered pronouns referring to inanimate objects, this party got me thinking about the long history of women gathering in living rooms to look at products, try them, buy them, and perhaps even make a living selling them to each other. My mom did this in the 1980s when she would venture out onto the cold and snowy Minnesota rural highways several evenings a month to sell beautiful candles and silk candle rings to small gatherings of hearty rural women who needed pretty things and warm flames in their rust colored living rooms and in their cold and snowy lives. (Note to self: continue to keep quiet about the whole Amway era in the Janning household).

I also grew up knowing about and attending parties selling products from direct-selling companies like Mary Kay and Tupperware, both of which have been the subject of historical and sociological analysis. Because of these experiences, I came to understand that skin care and food storage were categories of consumption not just reserved for actual stores in actual towns, but also for purchase in private living rooms and parlors (I don’t use the word parlor ever, but doesn’t it sound nice when referencing old timey gatherings of women in the 1890s and even the 1980s?). I have fond memories of these parties, filled with snacks, drinks, and purchasers ooh-ing and aah-ing over pink potion bottles and plastic lids that made a burping sound.

And then when the items arrived, it was like Christmas! Ooh! Aah! At last my face and my lasagna can be preserved for days!

Today, I see announcements for parties in women’s living rooms to buy and sell things like candles, kitchen utensils, jewelry, clothes, and even lingerie and sex toys. (I say “and even” when referring to lingerie and sex toys because, despite these items being more prevalent in living room sales than in the past, they’re not as loudly touted on social media compared to, say, unsexy measuring cups) (note to self: design sexy measuring cups).

A brief side note: I’ve also tried a clothing subscription, where I logged onto the computer in our living room and submitted my style profile to an online clothing company. And then I got clothes that someone else (are they in a basement somewhere? are they even human?) picked out and sent to me. It made me feel like it was Christmas all over again! Ooh! Aah!  This is kind of like what I’d pick out if I was in Nordstrom Rack anyway, but super cool because I didn’t pick it out and I still kind of like it! Last year I ordered myself one of these boxes to arrive on December 23 so I could open a box of clothes that were the perfect balance of surprise and I-sort-of-picked-these-out-myself. The difference between this kind of shopping and the living room woman party is, I suppose, that the shopping via subscription box is not social. Rather, it’s solitary unless you post on social media how much you hate those rust-colored stretch jeans they sent. Not a party. Not a store. Just clothes in a box.

In all of these past and present cases, our living rooms have turned into marketplaces. Sure, now we can attach a credit card swipey-thing to our smartphone to pay, but the story is the same as it always has been: there’s something going on with women buying private things in private spaces with private parties. And that something has everything to do with women finding places in the economic marketplace that are pitched as complementary to their other roles and consistent with what women are supposed to do. Add to this that the products bought and sold are gendered, too (and not just because they have feminine pronouns), AND that there are online places where this kind of social experience and economic exchange is replicated in a pseudo-social way (e.g., Etsy), and you can see why a fashion-hound sociologist like me may find this fascinating. Buying and selling feminine things with feminine people in feminine spaces.

Somebody please tell me where I can find a direct-sales power tool company that may need me to host a party in my living room, especially so I can serve pink wine and tiny toast points, preferably with some kind of cheese spread, amidst the displayed hardware and blades (not to be confused with sex toy parties, which may also contain hardware and blades).

And if I host such a party, you can rest assured that I will happily refer to the shiny rust-proof reciprocating saw as “her.” As in, “Ooh! Aah! Look at her trying to saw that corporate glass ceiling to pieces by hosting a party in her living room where women buy stuff they’re supposed to buy.”



Between Game of Thrones and Murder, She Wrote

Death on TV is nothing new, but we all have our thresholds of seeing what it looks like.

I made it to the second beheading in Game of Thrones* before I said to my husband (who is a GoT fan), “I’m sorry. I just can’t handle the blood. And realism. I recognize that the costumes are magnificent, but I’ve heard there’s misogyny.”

My husband, a calm and gentle man, is one of the biggest Game of Thrones fans that I know. As in, stay awake for three extra hours after the “Red Wedding” episode because it shook him to the core. As in, watch the second season 6 preview trailer three times and get just a little more excited each time. As in, “I will talk about this and my wife will write about it even to audiences who care nothing for the show because it is just that awesome.”

My endurance athlete husband combines his passions for prolonging his own life and watching other people’s deaths by watching Game of Thrones when he rides his bike in our garage. For you cycling aficionados, he rides on rollers starting about when winter is coming, and then moves to the hills in the spring. For you Game of Thrones aficionados, he rides on rollers starting about when winter is coming, and then the rest doesn’t matter because WINTER IS COMING. For the rest of us neither-cycling-nor-Game-of-Thrones fans, he rides for a long time and when he does it indoors he can put on wireless headphones and watch HBOGo. Hence, Game of Thrones on a bike. And for you garage aficionados, we have a back room in our garage that can receive HBOGo because we got a nifty internet extender doohicky that makes it possible to livestream whatever we want from our cable channels in a room that maintains a temperature suitable for cycling.

Lately, I have been binge watching Murder, She Wrote, a spirited, blazer-ridden, and nearly perfect 1980s show starring the incomparable Angela Lansbury, who, as far as I can tell, transcends age, geographic location, and identifiable accent. I do not watch this while riding bike, nor do I watch it in a  garage. I watch it in bed, just before I fall into a deep and lovely slumber, aiming to dream of all of the good things that stem from an undersung middle-aged female detective from Maine in the 1980s, and aiming to avoid analyzing all of the problems associated with everything that I just wrote.

But of course, I’m still watching a show about death.

In both cases, my husband and I are dealing with death on TV. And death is something that is tolerated at varying levels of explicitness in the shows we choose to watch. I have figured out that I have a threshold for what kind of death I can watch before my middle-aged detective dreams turn into a nightmare with neck parts strewn about. And my threshold is lower than my husband’s. It always has been.

This week, in a rare dinner out, Neal and I chatted about whether I could stand to try GoT again. Giver that he is, he offered to watch with me starting from Season1Episode1 and warn me, with a good half-minute notice, every time there’d be something past my threshold of grossness. He proposed that he would say, “close your eyes…”

And here is how our conversation went:

Me: Okay, what kinds of things would I see if I watched beyond the second beheading?

Neal: Well, what about someone who slits someone else’s throat and you only see the blood?

Me: That’s not horrible. But I can’t tolerate seeing the insides of people’s bodies. Just like I can’t eat food on my plate if it has a face on it.

Neal. Well, what about a bunch of bloody severed heads stuck on a wall?

Me: Nope.

Neal: Whaddabout a pregnant woman getting stabbed? [incidentally, here’s where “what about” turned into “whaddabout” in the conversation, because it just came at me so fast and slurring it together carries with it a certain youthful fan voice that seems to just fit here].

Me: Remember how I said all of my previously weak tolerance for horror movies was made even weaker when I was pregnant? Yeah, so, no.

Neal: Whaddabout a man getting his throat ripped open by a wolf and the camera lingers on his wound for at least two seconds with some blood pooling at the surface? [insert grimace from me] Whaddabout a slice through a throat from at least fifty feet away? [another grimace] Whaddabout a collection of dozens of bodies in a field after a battle? [actually, I can take that. There’s something about my experience as a short-lived art history major studying Hieronymus Bosch paintings that makes this okay. I’ll allow it].

Note to self: look up those wacko Bosch paintings in spare time.

Here is where Neal looked at his phone to try to find more scenes to assess in his Whaddabout campaign. Included in this search were two things: first was IMDB’s Parents’ Guide, which we use to assess movies like Big Hero 6, and which required no fewer than seven vertical swipes when he searched for Game of Thrones‘ inclusion of sex and nudity (which I generally don’t mind); second, and more relevant to this discussion, was the listicle “Best Kill Scenes” from; here was also where I raised one eyebrow and said, “Remember the misogyny part that I hate?”

Whaddabout, oh never mind.

At this point, we paused and ate some dinner. I said, “You know, I want to be like Angela Lansbury. I even know someone who knows her in real life and he says she is just fantastic, has aged well, is smart and lovely, and is active in promoting good arts and theater. I also wouldn’t mind being like her character Jessica Fletcher, since she’s independent, fit, solidly grounded in her logic and convictions, sometimes responds to the calling of good looking men at her discretion, is a successful writer, and doesn’t take any crap from anyone in coastal Maine or anywhere else where she travels and where there always seems to be a murder.

“And furthermore,” I shift into a lofty monologue over the din of plates and glasses and restaurant noises, “She knows how to deal with dead bodies. She looks at them, comforts people who’ve lost them, logically deduces who made them dead in the first place, and then confronts killers who magically confess before her with remorse. And after all of this, she is asked out by men who think she is hot stuff precisely because of her logic and spirit. Often she declines because she has to go write her next novel about that gruesome murder, dammit. But still.”

But, I then wonder, whaddabout the blood and guts that are sanitized in every episode of Murder, She Wrote? I don’t really care. I’d rather see her solve a crime and move on to her writing and independence than watch her figure out how to manage a bleeding wolf-bitten neck or wall of heads that a bunch of medieval naked women are somehow forced to promenade in front of because “that’s what gender looked like back then in that time period that we made up that has that kind of gender stuff in it.”

It’s not that gruesomeness and misogyny didn’t exist in New England in the 1980s. I’m sure it did. I’ve seen the heels she wore while filming episodes on beaches – just stupid. It’s that when I binge watch a show just before bed, I’d rather be sent off to dreamland with a strong person who can solve murders in her head and magnificently reveal the solution at an opportune time, than with a wall of bloody heads.

If I am going to watch a TV show about a writer, I’d rather it be titled Murder, She Wrote, not Severed Head and Amputated Thigh Next to Stabbed Pregnant Queen Who We All Thought Would Live, She Wrote.

But hold on, I may be speaking too soon. After all, I have just agreed to watch the first five episodes with my husband, as long as he tells me when to close my eyes. Murder, She Didn’t See. I can take that, maybe.

*P.S. I would have offered a spoiler alert, but I haven’t actually seen any complete GoT episodes.

Between Bird and Word

I am both a former mascot and a current sociologist, which situates me in a particularly unique position to grapple with the puzzle around whether mascots ought to be changed for schools that want to wrestle with their troubled pasts.

The college where I work is trying to solve this puzzle now. The ether in which this is operating, for those of you who don’t spend all of your free time reading about colleges and sports teams and race and history and the West, consists of a strange mix of voices making really intriguing arguments, all of which are found in debates about many topics in higher education in the U.S. today. Here are some of the arguments I’ve seen, more or less and very much oversimplified:

  • Argument 1: The coddled kids of the last two decades are now showing their heightened sensitivity on college campuses, and this sensitivity has reached an absurd point where we can’t say anything without fearing someone’s feelings will be hurt (or academic freedom will be violated). What’s next – trigger warnings to hear a cheer for a school with a mascot that might offend some people? Changing the word “seminar” to “ovular” so it doesn’t have the root word “semen” in it? (New for Fall 2016! Interdisciplinary Studies 101: Ovular in Political Correctness). (sorry, I’ve always wanted to write a paragraph where the voice in your head may go immediately to “crotchety old person who also yells at kids to get off their lawns”).
  • On to Argument 2: People with privilege have spent too long blissfully reveling in privilege that has made injustice invisible to them, and need to be less complicit in the whole thing. Mascots and symbols that celebrate the victory of the privileged should be erased. This, of course, is going to be hard and uncomfortable, but that’s the point, since it’s been hard and uncomfortable for any groups that have not had the same privilege.
  • Argument 3: We should honor the ideas of our historical ancestors by keeping alive and visible the names and symbols of past people who maybe did some good things like discover our town/college/river/church/homestead/hospital, but who also caused lots of trouble in the name of racism and colonial conquest, and often with much violence. We need to know the past, even (especially) if it means feeling sickened by what happened.
  • Which is related to, but countered by, Argument 4: We should honor the bright ideas of the present by wiping out names and symbols of past people who caused lots of trouble in the name of racism, colonial conquest, and often violence against disenfranchised groups. This will better represent how enlightened we are now.

In terms of changing the names of schools, buildings, mascots, and, in a recent news story on our campus, the school newspaper, these arguments lead some people wanting to keep words attached to a sordid past, and some people wanting the words and symbols to be pushed away in order to allow room for new words and symbols to emerge that better capture the place today. Towards the latter point, or so the argument goes, if a school prides itself on deconstructing colonial enterprise and white violence against indigenous people, it ought not plaster words like crusader, missionary, pioneer, Indian, and colonialist on its wares. Toward the former argument, keeping words that represent a bad past can lead to good conversation. Plus, it’s hard to change. It just is.

Since words are symbols, especially to sociologists who study through a lens of something called symbolic interaction, talking about the visible symbol of a mascot should happen under the same umbrella of talking about the power of words.

Which brings me to the word “Bird.”

I mentioned earlier that I was the mascot for my high school – I embodied, nay I WAS, the Redwood Falls Cardinal. I was affectionately called “Bird” by citizens young and old. I was awesome. I even received an Athlete of the Month award for my Bird Athleticism. For two years I dressed up on many cool-then-frigid autumn Minnesota Friday football nights in a red corduroy bird costume, with a massive papier mâché bird head on my shoulders and yellow bird feet on my teenage girl feet. I had no peripheral vision because I had to look through the giant beak. More than once each game, a feisty grade schooler in a coat that was not nearly warm enough for the weather would run up to me, pull my tail feathers, run away, and giggle with her friends fifteen feet away. These kids never saw me grimace, what with my face being hidden inside a giant bird head and all (note to self: buy giant bird head to wear at meetings with cantankerous people). I put up with a lot as the Bird, but it was so great to jump around and only kind of learn the steps to the dances the cheerleaders were doing. Sloppy happy goofy dorky avian glee. That was me.

When I was the Cardinal, I often wondered where that mascot came from. I suspected it was because the cardinal is a red bird, and our town had the word red in it. Red for Redwood – which, according to the Minnesota Historical Society, came from the Dakota word Chanshayapi (chan=wood; sha=red; ayapi=are on). There are different reasons given by different groups about what this word was referring to. Was it from the reddish insides of a native tree, often mixed with tobacco by the Dakota and smoked? Was it the red leaves of the plentiful and beautiful sumac bushes everywhere? Was it red cedar trees on the bluff of the waterfalls where many trades took place? Or was it from trees marked by red paint used for guidance during travel when the Dakota battled the Ojibwe?

In a sense, my hometown’s name is a memento of a troubled past, regardless of which interpretation you follow. Yes, the name of my home town was about natural beauty. To see red in nature is always a thrill.  But it is also about conflict. About people fighting, or negotiating and then fighting, or fighting and then smoking and then negotiating. Across multiple complex groups. Native land turned trading post turned town. Not without violence.

The red color of the cardinal mascot – an animal that will not voice a concern over its political symbolism because it has no voice to do this in a sea of human arguments – symbolizes this past. Yes, perhaps indirectly. Perhaps not even consciously to most. And maybe incorrectly, given the errors that can occur when history is passed down from 1864 until now, and then interpreted in the mind of a mascot-turned-sociologist. To me, I guess, there is no escaping the past, no matter what word or symbol is used. But I recognize that some words and symbols are more powerful than others. “Bird” is not a particularly troubling word. To most, an animal (or plant, or inanimate object) mascot seems better because the “something” that it’s about is not really directly about people’s troubled pasts.

Where I see the biggest tension in this whole issue, like countless other culture wars, boils down to this: the issue is much ado about nothing to some, and much ado about something to others.

The spectrum between nothing and something contains different tipping points for different people, much of which relates to their position of privilege and overall willingness to take a side. You can probably tell where your tipping points are by re-reading arguments 1-4 above and measuring your blood pressure after each one.

It is precisely in the difference between nothing and something where this struggle appears. Here’s a hypothetical conversation that illustrates this.

Person 1: I can’t see injustice, and so it is nothing. I don’t feel it. It is not real.

Person 2: I feel injustice, and so it is something. I see it. It is real.

Sociologist: If we define something as real, it is real in its consequences. Defining something as nothing, or nothing as something, matters not necessarily because it is actually nothing or something. It matters because how it is defined affects what happens next. And it matters because telling the story of a place or a team or a school or a community makes some people feel included, and others excluded. Whether one feels included or excluded depends on how one interprets the words and symbols. Whether one thinks, in pondering the idea of changing a mascot, “Gee, that’d really be something.”

Bird Mascot: I can’t see you, but I know you’re real. Stop pulling my tail feathers.

Maybe the new mascot for a school troubled by its name’s connection with white settlers should be a snowy owl. A majestic white bird, sometimes with flecks of black. Signifying both a troubled past where external color has mattered, and where the ongoing work in today’s puzzle is to find some semblance of wisdom, patience, and a keen ability to notice anything. A snowy owl bleeds red, just like a cardinal. Just like a pioneer on her path. Just like the person whose path was mangled by that pioneer.

Or maybe the mascot should be blood. Blood is life. Blood is honor and sadness both. We think blood is gross, but it isn’t. Blood is what pressures our veins when we feel passion about any of the four arguments listed earlier. And it is the fuel that flows to our hearts and brains as we wrestle with all of it and come to the conclusion that we cannot go any longer without thinking about this stuff.

If not blood, then I suggest some sort of plant. Sumac is nice. It’s red.


Between Theory and Reality

I am writing a book that I hope will be read by a wide audience of all sorts of people. Sometimes part of the process of writing a book is stumbling upon a book by another author on an online bookseller website, reading the book’s summary, worrying that this author has already written your book, then ordering the book, reading it (okay, honestly, skimming it frantically), and finally feeling relieved that, in fact, this author has not written your book.

This happens about three times a week.

The most recent version of this stumble-worry-relief storm for me was when I read British anthropologist Daniel Miller’s book Stuff. As in, how and why objects in our everyday lives tell us something about our social world.

Uh oh.

My book is about this. About home stuff. And spaces. And families. And everyday life. I do love Daniel Miller’s work, but I think I still have stuff to offer the world in my book. Plus, I am neither British nor an anthropologist (which, trust me, actually matters in some of my circles). So we’re good. Until I look on Amazon again later today.

Anyway, it was during my frantic skim of this book where I stumbled upon (you must think most of my work is all about stumbling, which, for a klutz like me, is an entirely reasonable hypothesis) a quote where Miller encapsulated exactly and precisely and wonderfully my belief in why I do what I do:

[insert drumroll]

“Theory, philosophy, modern art, economics and other movements that utilize obscure abstractions can easily degenerate into pretentious obfuscation and become oppressive playgrounds of academic divas and elites used to intimidate as much as to impress. Academics, tempted by the promise of an easy and assured claim to cleverness, create vast circulations of obscure and impressive citations… It is only through the subsequent processes of maturing and re-grounding theory in its application to everyday lives and languages that such cleverness becomes transformed into understanding and re-directed to a compassionate embrace, rather than an aloof distaste… So the task now is to take our artistic-looking idealized theory, once white marble, nowadays more angular perspex, and drag it back into the mud and murk of everyday life until it looks a lot less intimidating and more like something we feel at ease with bringing home to the folks” (pp. 79-80).

Now, you might be saying, “Michelle, I do sometimes think you’re a diva, but that’s more related to your short stint as a rock star. Also, I didn’t understand most of that quote and, in fact, if I brought it home to my ‘folks,’ they’d look at me weird and ask me to translate it or, better yet, ask me to just go grab them a beer already. Also, what the hell is ‘perspex?’”

Or, you might be saying, “Hey Michelle, I remember that time when you took a class called Political Theory, and then dropped the class after you got a D on your first paper. But then you took Social Theory later and ended up tutoring the student who you thought at first was super smart but was really just a talker. But I’m not sure why that may matter here.”

Or, you might be saying, “Get on with whatever your point is.”

Here’s the gist of what Miller is saying, and that I believe: theory is both abstract and wonderful, but many smart people believe wholeheartedly that they’ll seem smarter if they talk a lot only about theory and abstract things. A better version of understanding (a compassionate understanding) is to find out what people’s everyday lives are like, and be legitimately interested in that, and be able to talk about that with anybody. Smart shouldn’t be intimidating and all about looking down one’s nose at others. It should be accessible. And compassionate. Not abstract. Real.

In many ways, the quote from Miller above really helps me feel great about why I’m trying to write my book the way I am. In part because he captures my philosophy so well. And in part because he does it in a way that I still find a bit inaccessible, which calls for a different voice. My voice.

And don’t get me wrong. I love theory. My book has a theoretical foundation (and I even call it a foundation, since it’s about homes. Get it?). I write about it. I teach it. It matters. I know amazing theorists, who are quite real. But it’s more exciting to me to see an idea play out at someone’s dining room table rather than talking about the idea over dinner.

Back to the quote. I made my eleven-year-old son read the passage from Miller’s book. I watched him read it and then stare off to the side, and realized that he had no idea what it meant.  I suppose this says something about whether the above quote that totally rails on fancy words and complex phrases for the sake of seeming smart is, in fact, a victim of its own critique. Or it says that eleven-year-olds are not the audience for the book.

I translated the passage to my son. This was no easy task, given the big words (obfuscate was not in his vocab list this week). He found it interesting. I could tell by the ever-so-slight rise in his left eyebrow, a trait he has inherited from his subtle-facial-expression-father.

After some discussion dissecting this paragraph, and after a few seconds of him looking up to the ceiling to think, he said (again with a slightly raised left eyebrow), “It seems that the problem is that theory is not focused enough on the real world. But don’t theorists actually live in the real world?”

Maybe my book needs an eleven-year-old co-author to bring the lofty questions down to the mud and murk of earth.