Forget slow food, or local food, let's talk volunteer food.

I garden. Those who know me personally may have noticed that I have a tendency to fall behind when walking or occasionally drift off during conversations outside. When walking I get distracted by plants, wanting to know what they are. volunteer tomatoesWhen talking I get distracted by space, start fantasizing about how else it could be landscaped, or what little things could be done to improve the existing landscape features. You might think that these tendencies would mean that I’d have a nice pristine back yard with a productive vegetable garden. This impression couldn’t be further from the truth. My back yard is a disaster area. Everything is in flux and anything I’m not currently working on establishing has pretty much been left to its own devices. In Southern California this basically means lots of brown grass. I haven’t mowed the back area since May, but since we typically only get rain October through May this hasn’t resulted in the overgrown jungle that an ignored area can become in less arid climates. I have a couple of areas where I’m actively trying to get native and low-water plants established, which look a little better, but not much. Meanwhile my vegetable garden, which does get regular water, is a tangled patch of green. It is producing food, but not nearly as much as I might hope. In part this is due to neglect (it’s hot and I’m lazy). In part it’s because we had a hot spring and I did a bunch of traveling this summer and I just haven’t been able to catch up on fixing the problems that started early. And in part it’s because I didn’t realize that cutting back some of the branches on the neighboring tree in the spring wouldn’t prevent said tree from sending out more branches and leaves over the garden spot, causing many of my plants to end up in much deeper shade than I’d anticipated. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the garden I planted is a failure but it’s certainly a bit of a disappointment.

However, the garden I planted is not what I really want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the garden I didn’t plant, the things that came up on their own, what gardeners call “volunteers.” This year I succeeded in growing spaghetti squash and tomatoes without even really trying. They came up in non-ideal soil, received infrequent and irregular water and thrived. The bowl shown here is what I picked this morning, and there’s plenty more where those came from.

Continue reading “Forget slow food, or local food, let's talk volunteer food.”


hitching bath-chairs to boats

There is something fascinating to me about the way certain things stick in one’s memory where they are pulled up to the surface by strange unrelated things.

As a freshman at UW I took an honors comparative literature class that focused on Kafka, Beckett, and Borges. It was intense, strange, and wonderful. The class itself often felt a bit like a Kafka novel in that we were required to write responses each week and a final paper on one of the three authors, but what the professor expected these writings to contain was a mystery. I’m sure I would have found that less weird later in my academic career but at the time the intellectual freedom to do what I wanted with the ideas was a bit scary.

For the final paper I focused on Kafka, reading his letters and some of his stories that we did not read for class. Meanwhile my friend Chris wrote her paper on Beckett. In the course of doing extra reading for her paper she came upon the line “Doubt, Despair, and Scrounging, shall I hitch my bath-chair to the greatest of these?” She used this line in the subject line of an email she sent me (I don’t recall what the email was about but I’m willing to bet that it was related to our uncertainties about the academic work at hand, paired with our relative uncertainties about various romantic entanglements). This line has stuck with me, despite not actually knowing what a bath-chair is nor how this line fits in with the rest of the piece from which it comes (it’s in More Pricks than Kicks, which I seem to recall was even more confusing to me than even the rest of Beckett).

Years later I began listening to Sleater Kinney. I was a late-comer to much of the cool stuff on the Kill Rock Stars label, picking it up long after it was new and hot. I think it was 2004 or so when I began listening to Hot Rock, a good nine years after release of the album and seven years past my semester of immersion in Kafka and Beckett. Still every time I hear the song “The End of You” I find myself jolted into thinking about that snippet of Beckett when I hear the verse which includes the lines:

Tie me to the mast
of this ship and of this band.
Tie me to the greater things
the people that I love.

I seriously doubt this is actually a reference to Beckett. It’s more clearly (taken in the context of the rest of the song) an allusion to The Odyssey but still every time I hear it I think, even if only for a fraction of a moment, of that line and the way I was back then.

I miss the intensity of classes tackling things so unfamiliar they pulled me far out of my comfort zone and made me think things I swear it would never have occurred to me to think on my own. How do you capture that outside the university? Certainly reading widely is one way, but how do you recreate the intensity of classes? Perhaps the only answer is to build a time machine and go hang out with Gertrude Stein and Picasso in Paris.

Good fences make good what now?

Some time last winter the fence at the back of our yard disappeared, leaving nothing between our yard and the yard of the neighbor behind us. Notice how this story starts with a very firm assertion of private property? It’s the nature of fences, I think. They bound where you are from where you aren’t. I’d like to say that I’m against fences. I feel like I should be, that fences impede the formation of community, of common interest. But if I said that I’d be lying, particularly since I spent a small portion of my afternoon yesterday talking with a fencing contractor about the logistics and material involved in rebuilding the lost fence. After a bit more than a year sans back fence I am looking forward to a fully enclosed yard.

Why am I so eager to finally bet the fence repaired? I’ll give you a guess, just one. Yes, the neighbors. I want to be neighborly, I want to believe in community, I want to not lock myself up in a walled property. I mean theoretically I want those things. Realistically I desperately want a fence because the neighbors are driving me nuts. It started with the dog. Smokey, the little yappy dog who obviously can’t recognize property boundaries without a fence. As far as Smokey is concerned, without a fence our yard is his yard, and he has every right to raise the alarm when we tread upon his territory. If it were just the dog, I might feel differently about our fence contractor. If it were just the dog I’d probably not look upon this man as a savior instead of just a craftsman.

Continue reading “Good fences make good what now?”

And now my high school has a wikipedia entry.

I’m not sure how much news coverage this is getting outside of Wisconsin. But this morning John Klang, the principal of the Weston school district, was shot by a student. Klang was ultimately taken to University Hospital in Madison and died this afternoon at 3:30. A fifteen year old student came into the school with a shotgun and a concealed handgun. A janitor got the shotgun away from him but when the student appeared to be pulling another gun out of his pocket both the janitor and the teacher who were in the hall at the time took cover. The principal confronted the student and was shot three times while struggling to disarm him (which ultimately he apparently succeeded in doing).

I graduated from Weston ten years ago. Klang wasn’t principal yet but he had been on the school board for years. His three kids were quite a bit younger than me but we were on the same school bus route, so I knew them reasonably well. I also knew the janitor who wrestled the gun away from the kid. He was a janitor when I was still a student. And he worked with my father while my father was still a janitor at the high school (a position he left when I was 14).

I’ve been reading the news coverage. I feel a detached sense of grief and horror. I haven’t been back to the school in years. I don’t keep in contact with anyone in the area except my parents. I always felt like an outsider there. And I was. My parents moved there when I was a toddler. They’re happy there and fit in well enough but they aren’t strongly tied to the community. Still it is the place where I spent almost my entire childhood (certainly all of it that I remember). So this feels tragic and shocking in precisely the way things feel tragic and shocking when they hit close to home (literally, in this case).

I am shocked because it is always shocking when tragedy strikes. But I am not shocked that it happened in rural Wisconsin. The same things happen in rural Wisconsin as anywhere else. There’s drugs. There’s violence. There are weapons. All of it is on a smaller scale because there are so many fewer people. Although I suppose it’s worth noting that per capita weapon ownership is probably highest in rural areas.

I am sad about John Klang’s death. My heart goes out to his family, to his children who are adults now but who I will always remember as the children I knew on the school bus. I have the utmost respect for the janitor who acted so quickly to try to disarm the student.

I am full of anger and grief. Of course some of that grief is related to the death itself, but most of it is grief over the way our society fails large groups of children. When I heard the news I thought of my fellow classmates at Weston when I was there. I thought of the troubled angry outcasts struggling to deal with bad family situations, failure in school, ostracization. Often all three at the same time. I thought of the students I had actually been afraid of. And I thought of the ones who were intensely lost in their own pain but nonetheless sweet souls.

I look at the pictures of the shooter. He’s just a kid. He’s 15. My senior year there were a couple of eighth graders who used to hang out in the band room during their study hall, which overlapped with my lunch hour. I knew them both well. They were sweet boys but intense and sometimes prone to deep anger. One was in foster care and had a string of discipline issues following him. The other mostly stayed out of trouble but you could see clouds of trouble in his eyes, nonetheless. I thought about the two of them this morning when I heard the news because I imagined that the shooter might not be all that different from either of them. I’ll admit I wasn’t surprised when stories this afternoon identified him as a special ed student (Weston shunts all the students with discipline problems into special ed, which I think sometimes only causes them to feel more isolated). And while I was deeply saddened, I was not surprised to find that he was a victim of child abuse.

I’ve known too many children in situations that no child should have to bear. And it breaks my heart to think about the long-lasting effects those situations have. How does a fifteen year old child reach the point where they show up at school with a shotgun and a pistol? Inevitably these sorts of incidents lead to a condemnation of the media. And I won’t argue that there is no effect of violence in movies, TV, and video games on children’s behavior. But I think those effects are utterly and completely trivial compared to the effects of physical and emotional violence in children’s day-to-day lives. Of course the questions that will be asked in the wake of this is how we can be sure that children are safe in school. Perhaps greater security in schools will be proposed. How many people will ask how we can be sure that children are safe in their homes? How many people will ask what sort of emotional support and mental health care this child had after his father was charged with felony child abuse and allowed no unsupervised visits for a year and a half?

I have read a number of comments various places that essentially come down to “what is wrong with people?” In most cases that blame seems directed toward the shooter. It’s sort of a “what is wrong with kids these days?” sentiment. And while I can understand that thought process, it’s not where my mind goes first. The first though that comes to my mind is “how did we manage to fail these children so completely?”

The Ivory Tower, Bastion of Privileged Ignorance

Once upon a time I was an idealistic undergrad with great intellectual curiosity who longed to spend her life in the academic realm. At the time I hated the term “ivory tower.” I hated the people who implied that academics were locked away from the world and clueless about the lives of real people. I have since changed my mind. I still think the common sense vs. book smart distinction that comes up so often in anti-intellectual critiques is a crock of shit. But frankly, I can’t argue with the tower metaphor. Not all academics are clueless about the reality of the world, of course. But enough are that if you invoke the broad-brush generalization I no longer feel any need to correct you. Perhaps the problem is less pronounced among less elite academics. But that poses little threat to the ivory tower image since the “ivory” part implies the very eliteness of the institutions in question. My experience is with academics in the big research universities. Indeed my experience is with academics in the big research universities who study inequality. And I will say without batting an eye that in nearly all cases they have absolutely no clue whatsoever what it is really like to be outside the realm of the well-educated elite.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim the problem is limited to intellectuals employed in the academic domain. Arguably the vast majority of the world’s economically privileged have no real clue what it’s like not to hold that privilege. Indeed, the vast majority of the world’s privileged have no clue whatsoever what it might be like not to hold whatever aspect of privilege it is they hold. So why do I feel a bit betrayed that the academic elite, taken as a group, seems to have no clue what it is like to be a have-not? Simply because I think they should know better. In particular I mean that if you are a sociologist or an economist who studies families, or inequality, or really anything other than the white upper-middle class, you really ought to have some clue about the subject at hand. I don’t mean you should be able to volley around statistics. I mean you should be able to bend your mind in such a way that you can actually see what life is like. And the image you get should not be some sort of Picasso-esque distorted tangle in which your frame of reference is the only right one and everything else is seen as inferior or weird. Apparently I was foolish to think that the research community as a whole had moved significantly away from the old anthropology attitude of studying the curiously strange native.

My first year of graduate school I took a class on forms of capital. We studied human capital, social capital, and cultural capital. The professor made a big deal about how important social capital and cultural capital were in reproducing class status across generations. More than once he made claims about the amount of social and cultural capital we had access to. His evidence for our privileged status was our presence in his classroom. Of course if we were well-educated, with strong social networks, and lots of cultural knowledge pertinent to middle-class life that must mean that the same was true of our parents. If our parents weren’t well-educated, with strong networks, and cultural knowledge there’s no way we could possibly be pursuing PhDs at UCLA. At the time I chalked his attitude and explicit assumptions about our privilege up to individual pomposity and ignorance. Since then, though, I have come to understand that though the assumptions are not phrased as directly as he phrased them in that classroom, the assumption is still there.

It is painful to feel that your background makes you alien. It is painful to experience this feeling of difference that you must choose constantly whether to mark or ignore. But more painful is the rampant and often offensive ignorance about the realities of day-to-day life for people with whom you strongly identify. I’m going to focus on the concept of poverty, because it is most salient to me. But I think what happens in these discussions happens elsewhere too. I don’t think the “othering” that occurs is particularly unique to the economic realm. It just feels most like a punch in a gut to me personally when it is focused on economics. There are two ways of thinking about poverty that I find particularly repugnant. The first I will call the romanticization of poverty. The second, I will call the fallacy of impossibility. I encounter examples of both all too often. And as the examples of each pile up higher and higher I become angrier and more disillusioned. I become more convinced that the tower is real, and maybe even intentional (after all, god forbid “they” try to interact with “us”).

In the case of romanticizing poverty, certain aspects of day-to-day life are drawn on to highlight how great being poor must really be. Here the simplicity of being poor is exalted. Poverty is equated with rejection of consumerism. Poverty is equated with strength and resilience. Being poor gives you something that you just can’t get if you have money. Not having money helps you realize that money doesn’t matter. Being poor makes you strong and noble and creative.

The most grievous example of offensive ignorance I have yet to experience from an academic falls into this category. I was at dinner gathering with a group of faculty members from a number of universities and disciplines. (I’m not going to go into specific details of what the dinner was, or who was there, as I would like to keep this anecdote and the players as unrecognizable as possible) A sociologist was talking to an economist. Let’s, for simplicity call the sociologist S and the economist E. S told E that she had grown up in Ohio. E asked her if she grew up in Appalachia. She said no. He asked if she was sure, since sometimes the boundaries of Appalachia were weird and some very wealthy zip codes ended up being counted as Appalachia. She insisted that she was quite sure that she did not grow up in Appalachia. E then commented that S seemed like she could be “white trash.” S was, understandably, somewhat taken aback by this comment. E assured her that he meant it as a compliment. He explained that he had once had a student who took great pride in being white trash. She was even born in a trailer. She was very vocal about her background. She was very proud of it. I interjected at this point and noted that your choices were either to proudly proclaim your background or to hide it. My comment was virtually ignored. E then went on to say how great he thought Appalachia was and how much he enjoyed going there. He insisted that the people there were just so ingenious. They took old car tires, filled them with dirt, and planted flowers in them. He extolled the virtues of this, noting how amazing it was that they could take something ugly and make it beautiful.

I could forgive E for his ignorance, his wild-eyed innocent “oh gosh being poor just makes you so strong and creative” though patterns if it weren’t for the fact that he is an economist in a powerful position in a good university. Even then, I could probably forgive the ignorance if he studied something unrelated. But, given that one of the things he studies is the economics of Appalachia and another is welfare use, I can’t help but think he should damn well know better. At the very least I would think that he could be counted upon to be smart enough to know that “white trash” is almost universally not a nice thing to call someone.

The other side of the coin from the “oh ain’t it great to conquer adversity” romantic image of poverty is the “oh it must be impossible to be anything but miserable constantly” school of thought. In this case the poor are persistantly “other.” This is very much like the school of thought that decrees that all mothers on welfare are lazy good-for-nothings that deserve their fate. The difference is that this line of thought is less negatively value laden. The thoughts aren’t framed as “the poor choose to be poor.” Rather the thoughts are framed as “being poor is horrible, miserable, all-consuming, and virtually inescapable.” Essentially the thought is that any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all.

My most recent example of this fallacy of impossibility is framed almost literally as any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all. I was at a talk given by Katherine Newman. The focus of the talk was on a follow-up study that she had done on the lives of the fast food workers in Harlem that are featured in No Shame in My Game. She described what happened to the original research participants over the years after the time period covered by the book. Though fast food work is seen as a dead end, she showed that a sizable number of the workers actually were able to find stepping stones to better things. She reported some of the incomes of the respondents. Many of the success stories she cited were making around $30,000 per year. During the question and answer session a member of the sociology faculty who studies income inequality raised his hand and asked “do you really have any success stories here; after all, what kind of life can you live on $30,000 per year?” I give Newman a lot of credit for responding “what kind of life can you have on $30,000 per year? A lot better life than you can have on $12,000 per year, I’ll tell you that.” She then put the numbers into a bit of perspective. For a family of four, $30,000 is about 150% of the poverty line. This, of course, assumes that there is only the one income. Many of her respondents were able to become more economically secure through marriage or cohabitation. She points out that the respondents with income in the $30,000 range had an easier time meeting their basic expenses. They could pay the rent. They could buy food.

It is useful to put numbers into perspective, to recognize that at $30,000 a year a family is far from fully economically secure. Nonetheless it angers me to have someone who studies income essentially put forward the notion that you can’t lead a happy life on $30,000 per year. It is important to remember that a $30,000 a year job does not solve all the problems of these Harlem residents. But to imply that getting from a minimum wage job to a job that pays more than twice is not success, to my mind puts too privileged a lense on success.

In college I had a classmate once say “you can’t raise a family on $30,000 per year.” I wanted to drag him to the side of town where people regularly do just that. I wanted to respond “funny, my parents did.”

Being poor does not make you strong and noble and creative. Being poor also does not doom you to unrelenting, inescapable misery. The truth is a much more nuanced something in between. And if you need a tired, disillusioned graduate student to point this out to you, then maybe you need to get your ass out of your protective tower and actually talk to someone whose name is not followed by a string of letters. Either that or you need to start calling yourself an “expert” on something else entirely. Because tires with flowers planted in them don’t make everything all better. And are you really willing to pay enough for the services you consume to pay all those workers more than $30,000 a year to support your privileged lifestyle? The fact that my parents pays all their living expenses for less money than some of you pay for your children’s private school tuition does not make them better than you. But it doesn’t make them worse either.

As a final note, to put my anger at E’s comments about Appalachia into a bit more perspective I will offer a few details of my own background. My mother’s family comes from the hills of Ohio, which is to say Appalachia. My family tree is populated by genuine hill-billies, not the quaint, struck oil and now live in LA kind you can see in reruns. Plus, growing up my grandparents (who I always saw as the very archetype of middle-class since they owned a house with a swimming pool) had at least two tractor tire planters in the back yard.

Let’s just say that, a year later, I still can’t find the words for how I felt sitting in that conversation. I remember trying to find the words to answer the things that he was saying. I remember spending the rest of the night wondering if I should pull him aside and explain to him that nowhere is “white trash” a compliment. And I remember crying the entire drive home because it hit me during the course of that night–while eating fancy catered food in a house nicer than anything my high school self could ever have imagined affording, in a neighborhood where houses cost more than my father will have made in his entire work history–that I will likely spend the rest of my life making the calculations I made during that conversation. Can I afford to challenge this? How do I explain the degree to which I am offended by this without seeming rude, reactionary, or otherwise unprofessional? Ultimately, someone tactfully changed the subject before I could offer a rejoinder. Notably everyone else in the conversation seemed uncomfortable. But no one challenged E on his statements. In that night it became clear to me that the off hand problematic comments I heard and the offensive assumptions about the poor that are dropped into talks and sometimes even into research papers weren’t just idiosyncratic pieces of personal ignorance. In that night it dawned on me, much the way that the pain from a punch in the gut dawns on you, that what I was looking at was a trend.

The Commodified Body

What does my body mean? What is it worth? Who does it benefit? How much are you willing to pay for it? Despite four years in women’s studies classrooms and half a lifetime of personal feminism, the questions still sound a little strange to me even as I ask them. But in the past few days I’ve come to the conclusion that these are precisely the questions I need to be asking. What do bodies mean in our consumer culture? What do female bodies mean? And if my body can be bought and sold, even if I am the one selling mine, what does that imply about freedom?

Let me start with a couple of caveats. I consider myself a pro-sex feminist. Moreover, I’ve never believed that pornography is the root of all evil and oppression. I tend to part ways philosophically from the likes of Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin pretty fast. As a primarily hetorsexual woman with some notable bisexual leanings, I actually benefit somewhat from the sexualization of women. And I’ve always been mildly uncomfortable with my own ability to objectify women, but reasoned that the objectification itself (at the mental level) is not entirely unnatural. The problem with objectification is how it’s performed in the world. At a certain level if you look at a stranger and appreciate their physical form you’re objectifying them. And frankly, I don’t think I’m ever going to get to a point where I don’t find myself appreciating the physical forms of those around me. Still, I find objectification as it tends to be practiced in our society sad and scary.

Last weekend I went to Vegas for the first time. We stayed in a hotel off the strip. As it happened, said hotel was right next to Club Paradise, a strip club. As it turns out, I’d never been to a strip club either. Not out of lack of interest particularly. It just was never high enough one my “things I want to do” list to make putting the effort into doing so. So when the friend of the friend I was brought up the idea of going to Club Paradise, I was enthusiastic. Indeed it’s probably my enthusiasm that resulted in us actually ending up at Club Paradise.

I was fully expecting to enjoy the experience. Lots of my female friends like strip clubs. I have great appreciation for the naked female form (though even going in I knew that I have an appreciation for a larger range of female forms than I was going to find there). So where’s the problem?

I’m still not sure I can explain my emotional response in a way that makes sense but I did not enjoy the experience. In fact it made me queasy, depressed, and a little angry. Something about actual women, removing actual clothes, and gyrate around their actual bodies, in an actual club was disturbing to me in the way that the theoreticals never were. B. pointed out to me that this particular club was creepier than others he’s been to on account of the particularly aggressive money extraction (i.e. cover charge to get in, minimum bar tabs for tables, etc.). But I’m unconvinced that I could have stomached any other club any better.

The first problem was two of the men I was with trying to talk me into a lapdance. I was unethusiastic and actually balked at the idea. It took me a minute of standing watching the stage to figure out why. As a woman getting a lapdance I would be playing into the lesbian fantasy that so many men seem to have. A woman getting a lapdance stops being a consumer of semi-naked women and becomes an object herself. So I rejected the lapdance, intending to just enjoy the women from a distance. Except I couldn’t.

Somehow I couldn’t get past the knowledge that they were there because they were being paid. I couldn’t get past the knowledge that these were real live women in the flesh, and they were for sale. The more the women gyrated, the sadder I got. I just couldn’t shake the realization that I was in a huge club packed with people (more men than women, but women too) who had come to consume female flesh.

I don’t hold anything against the women at the club for selling access (if fleeting) to their bodies. I don’t even necessarily hold anything in particular against the men buying it (though I find it a touch disconcerting). But the social structure that all of this takes place in makes me want to scream and cry. It seems to me to be a simple step between “their bodies are for sale” and “my body is for sale.” Actually, that’s not really the problem. They make a choice to sell their bodies and I make a choice not to sell mine. And as long as I continue to think of it in those terms I have no problem. The problem is not with the selling, but the consuming. While I choose whether to sell my body, what I realized at Club Paradise is that I don’t necessarily choose whether or not my body is consumed. It’s not as if I didn’t at some level already know this to be true. But the club just made the point too clearly. The entire place screamed out “the female form is for the pleasure of men (and the occasional woman)” It screamed “the things beneath this flesh, hopes, dreams, personalities are irrelevant.”

I’d like to believe that this isn’t pervasive, that once I walk outside the confines of a given club that I am not for sale, that my body is no longer open to be consumed. But the realities of my experiences suggest otherwise. How many times have men with whom I share no intimate involvement made comments about my body? How often have I caught eyes tracking me as I move? Or tracking other women, whose bodies conform more strictly to our society’s oppressive standards of beauty?

We are a consumer society. We recieve constant messages to consume, consume, consume. So we consume things. And we consume people. And it isn’t just within so-called sex-work. We sell products using people as objects. Movies are all to often about the consumption of the image of people on the screen more than consumption of the story. Sex sells. Everywhere.

And some people even feel entitled to that. In a discussion about the Dove Real Woman ads, Jill of Feministe links to this article, which discusses men complaining about the ad campaign because the women in the ads designed to sell products to women are not attractive enough. The men complaining are implicitly asserting their right to not just consume images of women, but to consume images of beautiful women.

I want to run around screaming “I am not for sale.” I want to wear a huge paper bag over my head (and the rest of me) so that my body does not become object as I walk down the street.

All that said, at least in a strip club there’s a certain honesty. At least in that setting women are compensated for others’ consumption of them. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ll go back to one anytime soon. I don’t really like the feeling when the realities of my society are presented to me so clearly in black in and white.

Can I Learn to be Angry More Constructively than a Five Year Old?

How do we negotiate anger in an ethical way? I ask this question because it is rooted very deeply in a personal situation right now. But I think it is important, too, to think about in situations that are less immediately personal and more about community, about institutions and the people within them. The problem is not simply the negotiation of anger, though arguably that along is problem enough to deal with. The problem is negotiating anger within relationships that involve things other than just anger, relationships that cannot simply be severed either for pragmatic reasons or reasons nestled in the heart.

What I’m getting at is the question of how do you deal with anger while at the same time maintaining other emotions. Of course we deal with this frequently in small ways. A friend, for instance, may do something that angers us. But for the purposes of this reflection I’d like to draw a distinction between very temporary anger and more ongoing forms. What is bothering me is anger about situations that are not likely to change (or are only likely to change with great effort) and situations that cannot easily be smoothed over with apologies, heartfelt conversations, or other strategies of reconciliation. I am talking here, about deep and very painful anger.

I suppose I should start by confessing that I am bad at anger to begin with. It’s an emotion that I’m never sure how to shape into constructive form. But at a certain level there are people that I can at least feel angry at without making myself too uncomfortable. I am angry at the current U.S. president and this administration. I find this easy. I am angry at the history teacher who sexually harassed me throughout high school. Again, I experience this anger with very little internal conflict. I do sometimes feel twinges of guilt for the kind of anger that starts bleeding over into hatred because it does not seem to mesh with the UU principle of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” but there are ways to mentally overcome that hurdle. Eventually, after much thought, I have come to the conclusion that it is possible for people to tarnish themselves through their actions to the point where their inherent worth and dignity is no longer visible to the naked eye.

Lately I have been thinking about a much more interally conflicted sort of anger. Perhaps it is easiest to start with the very personal example and move from there to the more generic question of pragmatic alliances forged despite anger. The short version of the story is that I am currently very angry at a friend with whom I have had a very tumultous friendship over the past three years. He is someone I care very deeply about and who has been very valuable to me. He is also someone who has treated me in ways that hurt a great deal during that time. And while we did discuss these behaviors and the way they made me feel, they nonetheless continued. And ultimately I find myself standing at what feels like a brick wall. On the one hand my heart is expansive and full of good will, happy memories, and recognition of the powerful influence this man has had on my life and my identity. On the other hand I am suffering from a long accumulation of hurt. And I am angry that my hurt has been left largely unaddressed and indeed sometimes even unacknowledged. I have expressed both my hurt and my anger. Ultimately the expression changed very little in terms of how I felt about it. I was still hurt. I was still angry.

And this raises the question for me, what is one supposed to do with one’s anger? I feel like a hysterical child caught in a temper tantrum, stomping my feet and yelling and screaming. I am angry. I am hurt. And I’m rather exhausted from all this screaming and stamping my feet. I feel like this hysterical child because I don’t know what to do next besides yell and scream. And the yelling and screaming itself seems both pointless and manipulative. I have expressed my anger. I know nothing is going to change, really. Little things might, but the larger issues almost certainly won’t. I can continue to express my anger, but that feels as if it demands some response. And what response is there really? Apologies are frail substitutes for actual efforts to remedy a situation. And, in this case, I am not really looking for a remedy. And this leaves me feeling that I cannot continue to relate to this person because there seems to be no solution to my feelings besides continuing a relationship that leaves me prone to histrionics and tantrums. Continuing the friendship on those terms seems damaging to both of us. The effort of the tantrums is exhausting for me, and unfair to him. And so I am left balancing this feeling of deep, probably unreconcilable, anger with an equally deep and unshakable feeling of care and regard.

This is uncomfortable and hard to deal with in my personal life, and a lot of my current emotional energy is spent on trying to ease that discomfort. At the same time, though, I have been thinking about how these dynamics play out in other situations. In my life as a Unitarian Universalist I spend a lot of time looking at dynamics of oppression. My home congregation is one in which issues of racism (and language-based oppression) are very salient and must be dealt with at an institutional level constantly. Sometimes things can be very contentious. And I’ve both witnessed and experienced a great deal of anger in that setting. Nonetheless is a community in which we, by the choice to form a faith community, remain in relationship with one another. And I have to wonder what the effect of this is. I have seen hurt heaped high. And I have seen people continue on and work in alliance with each other later, despite having expressed deep hurt at past points. I don’t percieve that hurt being worked through. Much like with my friendship that now hangs in tatters, that hurt just seems to be pushed aside indefinitely. And I wonder what damage that does to our ability to really be in relationship with one another.

How do we form alliances through anger? Most social movements involve some aspect of this. Those fighting to right their own institutional disenfranchisement often find themselves having to form connections with those who possess institutional power. And underneath that there is anger. If nothing else there is an overwhelming anger at the system. In many cases there is a passionate anger at all members of a group in power. But yet relationships are formed. And often they are not merely pragmatic. Often they involve real regard and trust (even if it is tinged with a patina of non-trust).

More importantly, what do we do with our anger? How do we express it? How do we use it. As a woman I am deeply angry at the systems of sexism that constrain my behavior and my perception in the world. I try not to let that anger become an anger at all men. But how do I express and anger at sexism without lobbing bullets at those who I love, who happen to be empowered by the system that I hate? How do I harness that anger for something constructive, rather than just letting it eat away at me and tarnish my relationships? How do I separate individuals I care for from the system of oppression that we all exist in?

From the other side, how do I deal with other people’s anger? How do I, as a white woman, process the anger of my non-white friends. How do I separate their, and my, hatred of a system of racism, from a hatred of white people, from a hatred of me personally?

How do we love despite hurt? How do we balance anger with that love? How do we move forward with the anger that we do have in ways that don’t hurt the innocent? How do we move forward with the anger that we do have in ways that don’t hurt us? I think these are questions I am going to be left working on for a long time.

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.