Excuse the dust

Ok. I think last night I fixed the formatting problem. Indeed I think I fixed it in both firefox and I.E. (different renderings of CSS in different browsers are the bane of my webdesigning). I haven’t tested it on any of the Mac browsers so if anything looks rabidly amiss let me know.

And in other news, for anyone reading this via RSS feed, I need to change it. Previously I was using the blogger default, which is all fine and good except I have multiple blogs writing into a single directory and so I keep doing stupid things like overwriting the RSS feed with output from the wrong place.

So the new feed will be http://www.sliz.net/sliz.xml For the time being the old feed will also be active, but since blogger doesn’t allow you to set up two feeds at once, keeping the default feed going requires a manual copy on my part. So you shouldn’t assume I’ll keep both indefinitely.

You know, I didn’t used to be this lazy. Once upon a time, before what I was doing was called a blog, I used to write on my webpage by logging into the server and typing my entry in pico. I also manually copied old entries into an archive folder. In theory technology makes things “easier.” In reality I think it just raises the standards of what you should do, sometimes actually requiring more work. (Here I’m thinking not just of computers but also of the innovations in housework like vacuum cleaners and dishwashers since the evidence suggests that at least initially these innovations did not lead women to do less housework).

The Cult of Perfect Motherhood

A woman on a livejournal community this morning posted that she’s stressed out because her husband wants a baby and she wants a baby too, BUT she also wants to finish her PhD, to teach, to write, to publish (presumably to get tenure). I responded that it’s not an impossible situation if her husband is willing to be at least a 50-50 caregiver if not a primary caregiver. I firmly believe that academic women should be able to have families. I also recognize reality and realize that if you want to get tenure at a top tier school babies are a risky business. This is a very personal issue for me. And while right now I don’t particularly want children, I still find the bind that academic women (and high achieving women in general) find themselves in very stressful and depressing.

One woman (I’m guessing from the username that she’s a woman, but hard to say for sure) responded to my comment noting that it’s very hard for a father to be a primary caregiver in the first year if you’re breastfeeding and “If you medically can breastfeed and don’t intend to do it, then you should assess whether you really want to have a child at all.” Urgh. Excuse me for a moment while I gurgle in frustration.

Basically what it comes down to is that professional women are essentially damned if we do and damned if we don’t, no matter where we turn. Lots of people seem to share this notion that if you can’t be the perfect mother you shouldn’t be a mother at all. And somehow perfect motherhood seems to involve letting motherhood subsume all other identities. Don’t get me wrong. I am pro-breastfeeding. In fact I’m very pro-breastfeeding. But I’m also pro women having lives that are not entirely determined by motherhood. And somehow that aspect seems to get lost in a lot of the dialog. It becomes this situation where anything that does not put the immediate well-being of your child front and center is “selfish” no matter what it does to your own well-being immediate or long-term.

Forgive me if I think happy mothers are better mothers. And to me being a happy mother means making your own choices and not being thrown piles of guilt and shame. Do you want to take three months leave and breastfeed and be there every time your new baby gurgles. Fine. Oh wait. How many women actually have the privilege of doing that? Not that many. And even those who do face the very real possibility of negative consequences for their career. Does wanting motherhood to have as small an impact on your career as possible make you selfish? Well, you know it might. However, I’m a big proponent of being selfish once in awhile and watching out for your own well-being.

I’m just frustrated because women find themselves in this situation where they are made to feel guilty no matter what they do. No matter how good a mother you are, you’re never good enough. Someone will always have some reason you should have done things differently. And ultimately what it comes down to is choosing between motherhood and career. And yes men have to make this choice as well, but they aren’t punished for it the way women are. Men are allowed to say “yes I want children, but it’s not practical for me to be the primary caregiver because it will hurt my career.” And yes the situation hurts men. Yes, the situation is unfair for men. Yes, men who choose fatherhood are punished in their careers. But it’s not quite the same catch 22, and there isn’t the same cult of perfect fatherhood. A father who chooses to put his career at the forefront might get a snort of disgust for his 1950s behavior, but I’ve not seen fathers choices attacked in quite the same ways I’ve seen mothers choices attacked.

So I’ll tell you what. I’m not going to tell you how to raise your kids (short of the obvious things like make sure they’re fed and clothed and don’t beat them) and I’ll trust that when the time comes you won’t tell me how to raise mine. AND you won’t treat me like I’m a selfish bitch who can only think about herself if I decide that maybe I don’t want any kids at all.

Historical subdivision?

I live near downtown L.A. in a beautiful reasonably well-maintained Victorian house (see photo). It really is lovely, and it makes me very happy to live here. Our lovely, well-maintained house, however, is flanked by two horrendously dilapidated houses. Since I don’t actually own property, the state of the neighboring houses is only a concern in the sense that for my own comfort I’d rather they not become home to squatters, etc. Actually one of the properties came preloaded with a squatter, a tenant who stuck around after the former owner was indicted for being a slum lord. He lives in an RV in the abandoned lot that adjoins the property and is a bit eccentric, but seemingly harmless.

Until recently the condition of the neighboring properties was not much of a concern. In the past few weeks, however, the new owner of the next door has started remodeling, or should we say gutting, the house. This is annoying due to the noise, but overall an acceptable thing to do with a dilapidated house that one owns. Except two weeks ago he began redoing the roof, at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. I wasn’t actually present for this event but apparently it was loud. Also, apparently illegal. I guess doing this sort of work on a Sunday is illegal (but yet Christians claim their beliefs are persecuted, no comment). The neighbor across the street called the police. Turns out the reroofing of the house hasn’t been approved. At this point the neighbor who called the police tells my roommates that we should show up at the planning meeting where the roof will be discussed.

And thus I found myself Tuesday night in the office space of one of the neighborhood realtors sitting on an uncomfortable bench with one of my roommates. Our house is in a Historical Preservation Overlay Zone, which I would have thought a priori would be something I would approve of. But I left the meeting rather troubled. Being in an HPOZ means that anything that’s done to the outside of one of these old houses has to be approved by the board (I don’t know what the date cut off is, but their authority extends at least to building built into the 1920s or 30s). It’s not like the system elsewhere where you only have to worry if your property is on the historic registry (which generally means its in reasonably good condition anyway, and someone in its ownership trajectory had a personal commitment to its historical value). No, the zones were established by the city. As near as I can tell there’s no way to opt out (short of selling off your property and leaving the zone). And while existing non-historically accurate features are grandfathered in, once you start doing any work on the exterior you’re stuck doing it in a historically accurate way.

The board is made up of architects and planning folks. Some of whom live in the neighborhood. The chair person described the whole process of board selection, but I don’t remember the details. Suffice to say, people with an interest in preservation, at least some of whom also have personal interest in the neighborhood itself. As she was pointing out the residency requirement she noted “so it has a very community feel.” Funny. The people sitting around that table didn’t look anything at all like how I think of this community. First, this community is not a majority white community. And it isn’t composed solely of monolingual English speakers (ok, to be fair some of the board might speak a second language, but I’m willing to bet that English is a first and dominate language for all except possibly the one of them with the Spanish-origin surname). Second, this community is not predominately middle-class, though the proximity to a University means there are incursions. So yeah, forgive me if I felt the only contribution of a “community feel” came from the non-board community members present.

First up on the agenda was the owner of the house next door. My first thought when he started talking was to wonder if translation is available for those homeowners in the area who are not capable of communicating with the board in English. Of course, economic realities being what they are, most of the actual property owners probably are at least fluent enough in English to get by. But one does wonder about provisions for those who are not (and while we’re talking about access, let’s note that the meeting was held in a second floor room accessible only by a set of stairs with an extremely flimsy handrailing that could not actually be used by anyone needing something they could put weight on). Now I’m not going to throw too much support in the direction of this man since it does strike me that he pulled down the roof without permit in a blatant move to guarantee that the board would let him reroof. And there’s something about the man that suggests to me that he might not be a significantly better landlord than the notorious slumlord before him. Still, I have to wonder about a process wherein you need to get permission for your choice of color and material for shingles.

I’m torn. I love these old buildings. I love our porch (which would have been replaced with something much less historically appropriate were it not for the intervention of the HPOZ board) but I have a bit of a problem with the level of control over private property. Usually I’m not of a rabidly individualistic bent. I have libertarian sympathies sometimes, but fundamentally I think for society to function as society there needs to be some attention paid to the good of the collective. But the problem here is that good that is in question is property values. And as much as I’m in favor of thinking about the well-being of the collective, and even the economic well-being of the collective, I have deep problems with the notion that I am obligated to follow certain aesthetic patterns on my property in order to increase the value of yours. I understand that this is, in part, about historical preservation, a love for the past. But the “quality” of a block was invoked at one point during the meeting. And it sent my hackles up.

The couple after our deroofing neighbor claims to have been unaware of the rules of the HPOZ. So they tore down their old porch and started building a new one, without a permit. Granted, had they pulled a permit the way they were supposed to they would have discovered the need to approach the board before doing anything. But right now they’re in the position of having to tear down the new porch they started and start over, in a more historically accurate (and much more expensive) way. It’s just a guess, but I’m betting their budget doesn’t have much room to allow that.

Throughout the whole thing I was a bit uncomfortable but it wasn’t until the third person on the agenda that I realized what it felt like. They were telling him that he had to get paint colors approved, was required to use three colors, etc. And suddenly I felt like I was in the sprawling subdivisions of suburbia, where the board determines that your ranch house (one of four possible designs) must be painted in one of the six community approved colors. And again, I have to admit that a priori I would think that I would be in favor of historical preservation. But there is something about a table of middle-class white people telling a room half full of non-middle class, non-white people what to do with their property that just doesn’t sit well. I can forgive the draconian subdivisions. At least there the boards choosing the range of allowable colors really are representative of the community as a whole. At least there you choose to buy that property with the knowledge of the rules. But here the board is not really OF the communi
ty even if some of them live IN the community. What’s more, at least some of these property owners didn’t opt in. And that strikes me as problematic.

I also wonder if the end goal is well-served by this strategy. It strikes me that the incentives get a little weird in this situation. If you don’t do anything to your property you’re not subject to the jurisdiction of the HPOZ board. But as soon as you start doing any changes, you have to face the board (which means all projects become dramatically more expensive). So basically what we have is an incentive to let your old Victorian house descend into disrepair. Now granted, it’s not that simple since there’s a built in incentive (in the form of your own property value) to make improvements in the ways that the board leads you. But ultimately there’s a payoff question, and particularly for the absentee landlord types (the vast majority of these houses are subdivided) the incentive not to improve is likely higher than the incentive to improve. And hence, the neighborhood retains its gritty slum character despite the gentrifying force of the HPOZ.

I know a middle-class white academic who owns property in the neighborhood. One thing she noted in a discussion about this is that her neighbors who are not middle-class whites don’t seem to have the same aesthetic appreciation for the old houses. And I think it’s worth pointing out that these are Victorian houses, hence by default this is a white upper class aesthetic we are attempting to protect. I’m just saying….

It’s not that I’m against preservation of history (though I’m not sure I believe there’s any inherent need to do so on a grand scale for reasons other than aesthetic ones). I just am suspicious of placing the cost for that preservation on individuals who don’t necessarily benefit from it. If we agree that this is a public good, the cost should be distributed. If we don’t agree that preservation is a public good, then it shouldn’t be legally required. Mostly, my issue is that this seems to be something imposed upon the neighborhood from the outside and the people enforcing the rules are not the ones subject to the cost. And I can’t shake the feeling that this whole thing was probably put together by politicians who wouldn’t be caught dead here.

Revolutionary Petunias

The title of this is taken from an Alice Walker poem that always makes me think of changing the world by changing the landscape, revolution with a spade and garden gloves instead of rifles (ignoring for a moment the fact that the content of the poem itself is rather violent).

My brain these days is circling around the word revolution, around phrases like social justice. I wonder what others mean by these words. I wonder what I mean. A fellow Unitarian Universalist asks of the support of white allies in anti-racist movements: “I wonder if that support is premised on our space in the sun not creating a shadow for them.” I have spent a lot of time pondering this question and pondering whether my answer is consistent with my faith/philosophy or whether it is a hypocritical mark of racist self-interest. Because ultimately my answer is “yes.” Yes, my support for anti-racist movements is contingent upon those movements not merely shifting upon whom the shadows fall. But I would expand my answer beyond that. It is not just along the lines of color where I think my discomfort with this formulation lies. Fundamentally I am not interested in reinforcing hierarchies. I am not in favor of replacing old hierarchies with new hierarchies that simply favor the formerly disempowered. I do not seek to replace white supremacy with non-white supremacy, patriarchy with matriarchy, or rule by the rich with rule by the workers. I haven’t read Rawles in any detail, but I understand him to basically argue that justice requires the feeling that a system is just even if you don’t know where you’re going to end up in it. The way I think of this is that I should be imagining a utopia where I am not penalized for characteristics of my birth. The assumptions of those fighting for their own empowerment, however, often seem to rest on the notion of a zero-sum game, the idea that one cannot come into power without wresting power from another. And that’s a reasonable assumption, certainly. It’s the next step in the logic that puzzles me. Why does a redistribution of power necessitate recreation of hierarchy? Revenge? Where’s the logic there? Why is it any more fair that I should pay the price for my position in a system created by my ancestors than it is that you should pay a price for your position in a system created by my ancestors?

Truly I’m not much of a revolutionary, the way revolution seems to be typically defined. My disdain for violence seems to get in the way. I understand that to say that I am a pacifist is a reflection of my privilege. I understand that when the war lands on your doorstep the words “but I’m a pacifist” will not stop the bullets. On the other hand, I have seen no convincing evidence to suggest that any problem has ever been solved through violent action. I am convinced, having seen it historically and in the personal lives of people surrounding me, that violence begets violence. Of course violent revolution can be successful, but it requires an astounding amount of blood. It requires not merely overthrowing those in power and putting yourself in their place, but killing every last one of those in power or those related to those in power, or those sympathetic to those in power. Essentially it involves killing anyone and everyone who might eventually want revenge. I have to admit that I am at a loss to think of any cause I support strongly enough to endure that kind of bloodshed.

But I realized last night that I have other problems with leftists and revolutionaries, and radicals in general. Tunnel vision, a devotion to one’s own cause that leaves even well-meaning fighters of oppression perpetuating oppressions of their own even as they pat themselves on the back for their progressiveness. I realized in the midst of another conversation that part of my retreat from economic radicalism has nothing to do with my pacifism and everything to do with my feminism. I offer here two historical examples. The first is the United States in the 1960s. Sara Evans offers a nice narrative of the relationship between civil rights activism and the formation of the women’s movement (second wave feminism). Of course, if you want to look back further, you could also make similar arguments about abolitionism and the suffrage movement (first wave feminism). But flash forward a couple of decades and shift your focus a few thousand miles south of the civil rights work done in Alabama and Mississippi. Anna Fernandez Poncela and Jennifer Bickham Mendez both offer descriptions of women’s organizing in Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution that is depressingly familiar. Maxine Molyneux describes the history of women’s organizing in Cuba in ways that again sound all too familiar. And yes, my skepticism is driven largely by self-interest but I have a hard time getting behind the word revolution when it seems clear to me that I risk being put against the wall for the color of my skin (or the privilege of having pursued intellectual pursuits, never mind the ill-logic of punishing people for where they ended up rather than where they started) without even having any hope of overthrowing the particular hierarchal structure that holds me down. And as a feminist I can’t much fantasize about violent revolution if I want humankind to survive. And even if it weren’t for the issue of reproduction, nothing changes the fact that some of the people I love most are people empowered by patriarchy, men.

There is more I could say of course. But really what it comes down to is a conviction that no one should be living in shadows. And a deep underlying suspicion of anyone who would ask me to fight for their right to stand in the sun but be unwilling to fight for my right to the same.

Neighborhood Effects

I’ve been thinking a lot about community. Last week I voted in the L.A. mayorial election. I didn’t really have a deep attachment to either candidate, but I couldn’t help but think that I should at least pretend to walk my talk and focus on local issues rather than letting national ones eclipse everything else.

I walked to my polling place. I have a friend who insists that voting in person is more civic and community minded than voting absentee. I decided to take his argument one step further. It’s not just about seeing the people in your polling place at the time you vote. It’s about seeing the people in your community. Who is out on the street. What do the blocks between here and there look like.

I don’t walk much in L.A. (Don’t even start with the song lyrics. “Nobody walks in LA” is utter bullshit; in poor neighborhoods lots and lots of people walk). I used to walk more in my old neighborhood since there was a drug store within a few blocks. But even there once I got my car, I stopped being locally self-locomoting.

I’d forgotten how different neighborhoods feel on the ground. I know the blocks around my house well enough. I’ve explored a little there. I walk to the 7-11 on occasion (too often, though, I drive… to buy ice cream… how sad). But I almost never cross Hoover. The neighborhood West of Hoover is ever so slightly sketchier than the blocks around our place. I can’t point to anything solid that makes me less comfortable in that segment of the neighborhood than my own, but even were it closer I wouldn’t walk to La Barca (our favorite neighborhood Mexican restaurant) at night, whereas I have walked over to 7-11 after dark with only a minor fluttering of nerves (and anger at a world that makes walking at night such an issue for me). But, at 5 in the evening with bright LA sunshine beating down, there was no reason to think that I’d have any problems going to vote.

So I headed out. And it was an interesting adventure. Just after I crossed Hoover a car drove past and honked. I looked up and the (male) driver waved. I was mildly put out about this. I hate being forced into street interactions with men I don’t know. I hate the presumption that somehow my mere existence in the world should somehow satisfy their sexual needs, if only verbally. I hate being drug into interaction. So I was a bit annoyed at Mr. Honk&Wave. Of course I was grateful it had just been a way and not a “hey baby” yelled out the window. As far as creepiness goes it was largely innocous.

And so I kept walking. It’s important, perhaps, to note that I am not the majority demographic in my neighborhood. I am white, appear vaguely middle-class, and speak English as my first language. The neighborhood is predominantly immigrant Latinos. The houses are run down and it isn’t uncommon to see men in front yards working on cars. It’s a very comfortable neighborhood to me because I grew up in a rural working class environment and somehow, despite the radical differences between there and here, this neighborhood feels like home.

After voting I came back up a different street. I was quite content and relaxed, enjoying the sunshine and the breeze. I passed a man hauling a refrigerator. He paused and moved slightly to the side so I could pass. Without thinking about it I murmured “gracias” as I slid past. (He had spoken in Spanish to two women blocking the sidewalk). I rounded the corner and my breath was taken away by murals that I had never really registered on the side of the corner building. How many times have I driven past those paintings without a second glance? I am obsessed with mural art, and so I paused to take in the colors (and wished I had my camera in hand).

Walking up the street I was surprised by the number of dogs. Lots of barking as I passed. “Beware of Dog” signs. In some sense I could understand why people would be nervous on these streets. Decaying houses, barking dogs, working class men out on the street (who regardless of ethnicity do tend to come off as more threatening than middle class men). But I felt entirely content and comfortable.

As I came up toward a driveway a man crossed in front of me, heading up the driveway. He looked my way and said hello. It was something that would normally annoy me, make me feel put upon with its presumptiousness. I think he said “how’s it going.” Before I could even open my mouth to answer he had turned his head back to his own path and was going about his business. Not an insistence upon interaction, merely an acknowledgement of my presence. I was oddly comforted.

I came to the corner. A car was waiting at the stop sign to turn left. I paused to let him pass, but he waved me across. As he turned he smiled and said something out his open window. I couldn’t hear him well enough to understand what he said. But oddly I didn’t care. I just smiled in response and turned away.

It struck me suddenly that what felt right about all these interactions was that they were simply friendly. Growing up I was used to waving at people as they passed. If you drive past a neighbor’s house and they are outside you wave, whether you know them well or not. This felt like that. Somehow even Mr. Honk&Wave felt almost like that. And I felt utterly unthreatened.

Saturday I walked to the corner store to buy some orange juice. The cashier asked me “do you need a bag sweetheart” when I paid for the juice. I smile and told her no. On my walk back I passed a group of three women in conversation who said hello to me.

It is an odd feeling. But somehow it is like this little section of LA is it’s own small town. Except less restrictive because none of these people actually know me.

New beginnings

For the time being I don’t have a lot to say. The new design is finished (of course most of you won’t have seen my old page or my old design). There’s still some things that need to be updated and dealt with, but for the time being this page is mostly functional.

Soon it will even say interesting things. Really. I promise it will.