Welcome to Dowsing, formerly subtitled "Finding a New Way to Believe" now just "Finding My Way." I write about science, politics, social justice, education, labor, literature and writing, and what it means to be an aging, single, cishet woman living in New York under the Patriarchy. Passionate arguments welcome. Civility not required but trolling will get you blocked with extreme prejudice.

Plague Poems #4

PandemicMoi
Day 56

No one is chasing us
through bombed streets
or trying to systematically
hunt us down and murder us

except for this virus
like a mine bobbing in the droplets
of our own spit, or a mace that
cudgels the careless and arrogant,
which we can outwit
by holing up like
the Frank family
sans Nazis and
plus grocery and liquor delivery
and Internet.

Don’t say you can’t take this anymore.

Six weeks is nothing
in wartime.
Ask the Afghanis
and Syrians, the Somalis
and Congolese,
the grandparents and great grandparents
who fled Europe
with only what they wore,
or who lived nightly
in terror of bombs
dropping on their houses
and beloved cities.
Think of their years of uncertainty,
how much sweeter
stability and peace were
when they found them again.

Think of yourself as called
to this moment in history
as to a vocation.
It is our turn to
practice lovingkindness.
It takes so little
to save someone else
in this invisible conflagration,
this firestorm of infection,
this slow-motion earthquake
of the Old Ways:
soap, twenty seconds of diligence,
a mask, a temporary resistance
to the human need for
proximity and touch.

Our calling now is not to fight
except with words
against the ignorance
that could destroy us,
and to resist
returning to the world
that spawned that ignorance
and the poverty of thought and time
and compassion
that led us here.
Our calling is
to learn patience with
ourselves and others, learn
compassion for their fears
and our own, learn
to be with ourselves
and ones we love
and don’t yet love
in a new way
for an unknown time
that—if we allow it—
can reshape not only us
but the world
for the better.

‒April 25, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #3

PandemicMoi

Black Horses

I hear them in the night
when the flesh is weakest,
somewhere at a distance,
our little crossroads
of small houses and
apartments hardly taller
mostly spared
until today.

This one, brazen,
stopped right outside, silently
painting my walls red/white/red/white
under the storm-grey skies,
the driver and partner
masking and gloving up
like highwaymen
but carrying two tackleboxes
like fishers of souls.

It used to feel like help was coming
to see the strobes of light
come up the street and park.
Now it’s like seeing
the black coach-and-four of the Cóiste Bodhar and
the hearing the siren wail of the Bean-Sidhe.

And yet I called out the window
to thank them
for wading into a building
like a leper colony,
afire with infection,
only to be relieved, later,
to watch them leave again
without a passenger
and no hearse behind them—
no one overrun
by nightmares
this time.

‒April 23, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020


Plague Poems #2

PandemicMoi
Psalm

The day before Easter.
Astarte’s season,
before the branches are so heavy with leaves
that there is no sunlight
below them,
only a dappled, cool shadow,
and skies are bluer and wisped with
high frivolous clouds
limned in spring sunlight.
My neighbor, who is a poet
in Polish and English,
calls this the
coming out of darkness:
out of winter’s short days, growth pushing up
out of the dark soil, buds furling
out from the closed knobs of branches,
the weak little chick peck-pecking
out of the wet dark of the shell, and she herself
out of the dark hopelessness
of her Lord’s death
into the light of His resurrection.

Six feet apart, we talk in the courtyard,
I in my mask and nitrile gloves,
she with her cigarette
and apron from the Easter meal
she’s cooking, each food a symbol,
as a third neighbor, eighty-seven, joins us
wearing green woolen mits
to take out her trash.
We stand in the spring sunlight
pouring down on us,
Jew, Buddhist, and Catholic,
faces turned to the bare branches
not yet in flower.

Tomorrow I’ll bake leavened bread
and break it alone
in my quarantine of sunlight
not knowing what shadow
summer might bring us.

-April 12, 2020, Brooklyn
© Lee Kottner, 2020


Quarantine Thoughts, Part 2: Science Will Save Our Asses

PandemicMoiI got a private message from a FB friend recently that basically said she felt insulted because I argued with her about the folk "cures" and preventions that are going around the Interwebs (esp. Facebook) for COVID 19. She's learning to be an Ayurvedic therapist and feels, somehow, that this is on par with the level of knowledge that microbiologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, geneticists, pharmaceutical and organic chemists, and MDs on the front lines of treatment are bringing to the COVID 19 table right now. Imma just say it: older is not necessarily wiser. 

The argument was over this piece of disinformaton (with my comments in brackets), which Snopes has debunked piece by piece:

Doctors are reporting they now understand the behavior of the COVID 19 virus due to autopsies that they have carried out. This virus is characterized by obstructing respiratory pathways with thick mucus that solidifies and blocks the airways and lungs. So they have discovered that in order to apply a medicine you have to open and unblock these airways so that the treatment can be used to take effect however all of this takes a number of days. Their recommendations for what you can do to safeguard yourself are ...

1) Drink lots of hot liquids - coffees, soups, teas, warm water. In addition take a sip of warm water every 20 minutes bc this keeps your mouth moist and washes any of the virus that’s entered your mouth into your stomach where your gastric juices will neutralize it before it can get to the lungs. [gastric acids do not kill it; it's been found in feces. Liquids must be 133° F—hot enough to scald you—to "kill" it.]

2) Gargle with an antiseptic and warm water like vinegar or salt or lemon every day if possible [only bleach, alcohol, and soap "kill" it. These gargles do nothing.]

3) The virus attaches itself to hair and clothes. And detergent or soap kills it but you must take bath or shower when you get in from the street. Avoid sitting down in your home and go straight to the shower. If you cannot wash your clothes daily, hang them in sunlight which also helps to neutralize the virus. [You do not need to wash your clothes every day or shower every time you go out. Nobody is doing this. Just don't shake what you've worn outside as it releases the virus into the air.]

4) Wash metallic surfaces very carefully bc the virus can stay viable on these for up to 9 days. Take note and be vigilant about touching hand rails, door knobs, etc. and keep these clean in home home [This is true.]

5) Don’t smoke [this is true in general.]

6) Wash your hands every 20 minutes with any soap that foams and do this for 20 seconds [You don't need to wash your hands every 20 minutes. Only if you've been outside or touched things that have come in from outside.]

7) Eat fruits and vegetables. Try to elevate your zinc levels [Maybe this helps, maybe it doesn't]

8)Animals do not spread the virus to people. Its a person to person transmission. [This is true.]

9) Try to avoid getting the common flu as this already weakens your system and try to avoid eating and drinking any cold things. [Getting the flu or anything else doesn't weaken your immune system. If you get too many things at once it might stress it though. Eating and drinking cold things don't affect you one way or the other; that's a holdover from Chinese folk medicine and they have a different definition of hot and cold foods that has nothing to do with temperature.]

10) If you feel any discomfort in your throat or a sore throat coming on, attack it immediately using the above methods. The virus enters the system through the throat but will sit in the throat for 3-4 days before it passes into your lungs. [The virus does not sit in the throat for 3-4 days. It immediately enters the mucosal tissue in the mouth and nose and starts replicating itself.]

In addition ...

Experts suggest doing this simple verification every morning: Breathe in deeply and hold your breath for 10 seconds. If this can be done without coughing, without difficulty, this shows that there is no fibrosis in the lungs, indicating the absence of infection. It is recommended to do this control every morning to help detect infection. [Fine. whatever]

The problem here is that the pathogenesis (how the virus infects and proceeds to make you sick) is not just factually false for this virus, but the recommendations are starting from a baseline assumption of some immunity. We've been exposed to cold and flu viruses for years and have some immunity even if those viruses mutate a bit. They are still cold and flu viruses, and we already have some antibodies to them floating around in our bloodstreams from exposure and vaccines. The blueprint for more antibodies is already programmed into us.

For this virus there is nada. Nunca. Nothing. Squat. Fuck all.

Those pre-existing antibodies from other corona viruses don't help. Our baseline means nothing right now. This is an entirely new species. It doesn't matter how healthy our immune system is because it has nothing to work with. We are starting from zero. None of these things mentioned above will help us produce antibodies to a brand new pathogen any quicker. Perfectly healthy people with well-functioning immune systems are getting this and are totally overwhelmed by it. Something similar happened with the 1918-1919 Spanish flu. It was the healthy people it really pummeled, overactivating their immune systems. We were terrorized by that virus for much the same reason that we are being terrorized by COVID 19: there were no vaccines to jumpstart our antibody production. We're at the mercy of this corona virus as we were at the mercy of Yersina pestis, the cause of the Black Plague—except that we now have Science on our side. 

When we talk about a "healthy" immune system, we're talking about one in which all the component parts function as they should. That's a lot of different kinds of cells, and a lot of complex processes. While it's true that being healthy in general, and eating real food that's good for you probably means your natural processes are getting the fuel they need to work as they should, that's no guarantee you won't get sick, because you can't guarantee you won't get infected with something. Some vitamins and minerals, which are best gotten through diet and not supplements, directly contribute to the healthy functioning of your immune system, but the way you boost it is to get vaccinated.

Vaccines provide the blueprint for possible future infections and prime the body to start producing the specific antibodies in large enough quantity to overwhelm and shut down the invader when it starts showing up in large quantities in your body, whether it's bacterial or viral. Without a vaccine for a pathogen, you have to fall back on treatment and support. For a totally new pathogen, finding a treatment is a bit hit or miss. You have to look at the symptoms and decide what's causing them, then match that up with an existing pharmaceutical that treats a similar problem. That may or may not work because you might have the wrong cause, or there's a different mechanism causing that symptom. Failing successful treatments, you can only support the body physically while it fights like hell to produce enough antibodies on its own to kill or deactivate the invader. In the worst cases of COVID-19, that can mean ventilators, because the most horrifying and critical symptom is the production of bloody mucous that floods the lungs. Sometimes the support is enough. Sometimes it's not.

Common sense should tell you that if gargling and good food and not smoking and avoiding the flu were enough to prevent getting this, we wouldn't have an out-of-control pandemic. People like to think they can do easy things to avoid terrible consequences because we're all basically lazy and it gives us a sense of control. Good news! In this case, you can do some easy things to avoid getting sick:

  1. Stay the fuck home. If at all possible, don't go out for groceries or anything else for the next three weeks, especially if you live in New York (we're kinda fucked right now). Isolation will stop this virus dead in its tracks. That's the best case scenario and it's not going to happen. The best we can hope fore is keep it from overwhelming our medical facilities. Staying home is literally the best thing you can do. 
  2. If you do have to go out, wear gloves and a mask, don't touch your face, and stay at least 6 feet away from other people. I know the evidence for cloth masks is uncertain right now but here's something else to think about: a mask reminds you to not touch your face, and it keeps other people safe from you by catching the moisture from your breath. It's also a reminder that this is serious business.
  3. When you get home, or when you touch anything you or other people have brought in from outside, wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds after you've disinfected what's been brought in with a bleach solution or wipes (or Lysol), or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol in it. If you're wearing gloves, peel them off so they turn inside out, and for God's sake, don't throw them away in the parking lot of the grocery store. Who do you think is going to have to pick them up, and why are you spreading your germs around more?

You won't kill the virus doing any of these things, but you will thwart its spread or deactivate it. I use the word deactivate because viruses, bless their freaky little selves, are not living things. They are molecular constructs built to deliver RNA or sometimes DNA to the interior of a host cell to hijack the host's replication machinery and insert its own genes to make more of itself rather than the host cell. In the case of the corona virus, there's a lipid (fat) shell, holding together little protein molecules that bind with the surface of the host cell and let it penetrate the host. When you wash a greasy pot with soapy water, the grease breaks down and washes away. Same thing with the virus. When the soap breaks the lipids down, the virus falls apart and the mechanism by which it enters a cell becomes inert. Deprived of moisture, it dries out and falls apart, also becoming inert. So you want to either break down the lipid shell or dehydrate it. Soap, bleach or alcohol are the only things that do this.

So if somebody is telling you to use vinegar or peroxide or some other non-toxic "natural" cleaner, wake them up. I've been moving from some of the more egregious chemical cleaners to less toxic ones; I clean my windows with vinegar instead of Windex, for instance. But I keep bleach and alcohol in the house to disinfect surfaces and really ugly wounds (like cat punctures), respectively. This is a mean virus and it needs to be dealt with harshly. Bleach, soap, alcohol. This is what the scientists tell us, and they've been doing their damnedest to keep us all safe. The other people telling you other stuff? At least some of them are out to make a buck. Some of them mean well but don't have any scientific basis for what they're saying. Some of them don't believe in science, and those are the most dangerous.

Rigorous, science-based medicine and hygiene based in germ theory are the new kids on the block, relatively, but the track record for them is a hell of a lot better than anything else we've come up with in the last 6,000 years for just about any acute and infectious disease and condition that you can name: typhoid, yellow fever, polio, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, rubella, chicken pox, small pox, intestinal ulcers, cancer—you name it. Anything that was a scourge to humans before germ theory and antibacterials and antivirals, western medicine has done a great job of getting a handle on it. So great that people have forgotten what it's like to live just like we're living now: in terror of something that we can't see without a microscope. People who got AIDS or were at risk for it remember, but the treatment and prevention of it have been so successful in my lifetime that the younger generation has never experienced that terror, either, and has too often thrown caution to the wind. That's the beauty of science based medicine: it's its own worst PR. But no other theory of health successfully found the cause, explained the mechanism, and developed those treatments and preventions. No other system is going to do it now. Peer reviewed, systematic, replicable science is going to save our asses.

Unless you can explain the actual mechanism of how what you're touting works on this virus and its symptoms in the body, just sit down and let the experts save lives. Stay at home, sanitize with bleach or alcohol or soap, wear a mask if you go out, and wash your damn hands in the meanwhile.


Quarantine Thoughts, Part 1: Reshaping the World

PandemicMoi

"Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate."

–Michael O. Leavitt, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 2007

 

Soooooo many thoughts. So many.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the Big Picture lately, and that's where I want to go right now. I'm not all that detail-oriented as a person but I'm good at pulling back and seeing patterns in events. If I could parlay that into working the stock market, or cared enough to, I'd be rich. But I'm more interested in the ebb and flow of history and social trends. Fascinated by it, really. William Gibson's book Pattern Recognition really spoke to me. I think I may have to re-read it. Anyway, I fear this will be one of a multi-part series. If the pandemic goes on long enough, I'll have my own collection of plague letters.

Because you realize that's what this is right? It's a plague, like the Black Death. A plague, but not The Plague. Not as virulent, thank goodness, but potentially able to wipe out a significant percent of the total population. And the Black Death, when it swept through the world in the Middle Ages, changed everything, in a way the last great pandemic, the Spanish Flu, did not. I'll append some links to useful information and science-geek sources on Covid-19 (the disease vs. the virus) at the end, but I've been doing a lot of that at my Facebook page (yes, I caved and went back; more on that in another post), where you can search the #covid19 hashtag, but that's not where I'm heading right now.

Right now, I'm seeing this as a watershed moment not just in the US, but the world. We are at a tipping point of many consequences, one that has the possibility to change the way we work, the way we interact socially, our political systems, our economics. Even how we arrange our lives. I don't think it will be long before most of the U.S. is forced into quarantine like China, because our response has been so woefully inadequate from the git-go. Americans don't obey orders well, and the last several years have seen us inundated with scientifically illiterate talking heads, poor scientific education for the masses, and most recently, a demagogue who is a moron and a fool who believes only in what he knows, which ain't much. So this is unlikely to be the orderly quarantine of China or Europe.

As an example, there's "Katie Williams, a former Ms. Nevada who was stripped of her title for putting pro-Trump postings on the non-political Ms. America social media accounts [responding to AOC's call for people under 40 to stay the hell home:] 'I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I’m 30. It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want,'” cited by the indispensable Heather Cox Richardson. I had an argument just last night with a young college-age idiot who repeated the "this is just a media hoax to weaken the president" party line from Fox (the perpetrator of which has since been put on leave, to Fox's credit). Assholes like that, and like a well-educated Facebook acquaintance—who insists on traveling because he's old, and he's got a zillion frequent-flyer miles to use up, and doesn't care what happens to him—are what make pandemics what they are. Quarantines only work if people have no physical contact with infected people or surfaces. It's not about you getting it, dumbasses, it's about you spreading it. This is why I'm at home right now.

I've been a little under the weather since about last Thursday (March 4th). The symptoms have been so mild that I didn't think much of it: a teeny fever I didn't know I had until I bothered to take my temperature; an almost-sore throat; a cough I attributed to seasonal allergies, though my nose isn't running much. By the time I had the information and presence of mind to think I might have been infected, it's possible that I'd been spreading it for at least a week, if I've got it. I'm not happy about that. I'm not sick enough to warrant going anywhere for treatment, and I couldn't get tested if I did, because our government has fucked this up so royally that we may never get a good count of how many people this virus infected, unlike China or Korea, who will have tested hundreds of thousands if not millions of people to get accurate data. But the idea that I've possibly been infecting other people really bothers me.

But this post is not about me. This is not me virtue-signaling either. This is me trying to model what the right thing to do is because so many people don't understand how serious this is. Stay home if you can. If you must go out, keep your distance, wash your hands, cover your mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough and throw the tissue away, wear gloves you can either throw out or wash. Stay. Home. I've been self-quarantining now for a week, and will continue to do so. My office asked us all to work at home if we could on March 5th, the day after I decided to stay home and take a sick day. Yesterday, our CEO announced that it seemed likely we would be working at home beyond the initial projection of March 23rd. I think we're likely to be doing it for a long time.

A looooooong time. Like, months. (A friend who was on a CDC conference call today said they are predicting ongoing infections into next year.)

And the longer that time is, the more businesses shut down or shift the way they do business—from us going to them to them coming to us—the more changes happen in our economy. The more changes in our economy—lost jobs, mandatory paid sick leaves, quarantining of all non-essential workers (medical personnel, people in infrastructure jobs, repair people, banks, pharmacies, grocery stories, delivery people) the more our way of life changes. The longer that goes on, the more normal it becomes. The more normal it becomes, the less we want to go back to the old ways when this is over. The end result is massive social change.

There is a tsunami of things that need to happen to support ordinary people in the midst of a pandemic, especially in a country like ours where there is very little in the way of social safety net. When people get sick or infected, we don't want them working in public or with pubic goods. That means mandatory sick days or loss of jobs for people who are running public transportation, delivering your mail and goods, manning the gas pumps. When people lose their jobs, they can't pay bills or rent. Landlords and banks lose mortgage and rent payments. They can't pay their bills. Wealth doesn't trickle down, but poverty sure does in this instance. Our lack of mandatory paid sick days is a major failing. My vote for Most Despised Motherfucker in the World, Jeff Bezos, owner of Whole Foods, has offered his serfs two weeks of paid sick leave and unlimited unpaid sick leave, and urged his workers to donate their vacation time to their colleagues. Like he couldn't afford to absorb a month or more of paid sick leave for all his Amazon and subsidiary employees without missing anything in his grotesque pile of cash.

Hoarding wealth & TPI can rant about Bezos's lack of humanitarian values all day, but Amazon, especially, is illustrative of the underlying problem. If you cannot afford to not work, you are a source of contagion. If you are too sick to work, your fiscal house of cards falls over in the winds of a system that demands money for everything. When enough houses fall over, when enough people are evicted, have their utilities cut off, their internet turned off, their houses repossessed, their cars—that plunges more and more people into the kind of poverty it's almost impossible to get out of later. Capitalism has no mercy. And with the majority of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people, we are in no position to weather even a couple of months of non-payments. That will lead to economic collapse. And the dispossessed are an excellent pool of vectors, so the pandemic takes longer to burn itself out, and then they become endemic sources. Trade and tourism get shut off because we can't get our shit together. That tanks our economy further. The cause and effect here is really fucking brutal. 

Closing schools is another example of the unintended consequences problem. School is a source of contagion. Kids are germ factories and snot everywhere. We all know this. But if you close schools, who's going to watch the kids of people who can't afford childcare and must go to work to pay the rent, many of whom perform vital services for the rest of us? Where are the kids who depend on school lunches for their main meal of the day going to eat? What if we had a basic income? What if we had affordable childcare for all? What if we had a president who wasn't eviscerating the food stamp program? What if he hadn't bankrupted so many farms with his stupid manufactured trade war bullshit? 

And don't even start me on healthcare. I don't think I need to explain what a hot mess that is in the middle of a pandemic, with or without gutting the CDC and making us utterly unready to face this. Or the fact that so few of us have access to healthcare that won't bankrupt us. And when people start dying in large numbers of something their government should be helping to alleviate, it tends to make them a little testy. That can lead to all sorts of world-changing things. Or at least regime-changing.

So the system we have now, of unfettered capitalism and the sequestration of wealth among a few people, along with a group of leaders who think less government is more, is abysmally failing the test of the pandemic. Now what?

I can see this going a couple of ways, one good, one not so good.

After 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers did an amazing job of helping each other out. People lined up to give blood, to volunteer, to search, to help rebuild, to feed, clothe and shelter each other. Sure there were some ugly incidents. There always are. But overall, we pulled together and helped each other. We became not just a city, but a community. Even when government failed, and it did in both instances in a big way for many people, the community didn't. 

Now, we've had too many years of meanness both on social media, via Faux News, and from our own elected officials. I don't think there's ever been an American administration as gratuitously, indifferently, indiscriminately cruel as this one is, even the ones that practiced genocide on Native Americans, supported slavery, and locked up Japanese Americans in concentration camps. This one fucks over everyone who is not a rich white male of a certain age. If you are not rich, fuck you.

One way this pandemic can go is that we can follow the lead of the administration and adopt an every man for himself attitude. Can't get healthcare? Too bad. Die, motherfucker, and your little dog too. Can't afford to not work or don't have any paid sick leave? Too bad. Work while you're sick, spreading the disease. We don't care. Quarantined and can't get out to get food? Too bad. Starve. Lost your job and can't pay your rent or mortgage? Too bad. Out the door. In this scenario, disaster capitalism rules and everything gets privatized or bought up that isn't already. The black market that is already getting started continues unchecked and encompasses more and more goods, including food and medicines that may or may not be efficacious. T-Rump uses this opportunity to impose martial law at the height of the quarantine and institute his favorite fascist policies. Your civil rights, always dicey during national emergencies, are "temporarily" suspended. Elections are "delayed." Schools and universities are permanently closed. Big business is bailed out but the common consumer is not. Eventually, the pandemic subsides, but we are left with a massive number of homeless people, and more dead than we should have had. The National Guard, or perhaps the army, deployed for the first time on American soil to enforce the quarantine, remains in place to suppress citizen unrest. The U.S. becomes a fascist state with Trump as president for life, our government pared down to nearly nothing, the rich getting rich and the poor—eh, let them eat cake.

Probably the sole check on the full horror of this scenario is that the pandemic is not Ebola or something more virulent and deadly. With that kind of a disease, even close neighbors can easily get panicked enough to weld you into your house and/or set it on fire with you inside, while handing over all their authority to whomever's in charge, hoping to save themselves.  Covid-19 is pretty mild by comparison. Being an old fart with at least two contraindications myself, I'm not going to say it doesn't matter that it mostly affects older people and the immuno-compromised. I have two friends with new kidneys I'm deeply worried about. But that it doesn't prey indiscriminately on everyone is far better than otherwise.

Now, here's what I'm hoping will happen: 

First, all those old, rich, white, male Republicans who pooh-poohed the severity of Covid-19 and went everywhere shaking hands and raising money for their re-election get sick as dogs and die. Kidding! (Maybe. Something has got to stop that sociopathic fuckhead Mitch McConnell from using his ideology to obstruct anything that might help people who aren't his donors and cronies.) Somehow, we hold T-Rump's feet to the fire and Congress manages to pass a massive aid bill (suck it out of the border wall funds and some of the military budget) that includes: mandatory paid sick leave; free covid-19 testing and treatment; a basic income to tide over people who have no other source of income and can't work during quarantine, have lost their jobs, or who are too sick to work; a moratorium on evictions and mortgage, rent, and utilities payments for the duration of your illness; strict enforcement of the ADA regulations forbidding people from being fired for this illness; suspension of student and other loan payments for the duration; investment in internet infrastructure to facilitate distance work and learning (let's just call it a public utility and be done; we all know we're paying too damn much for it now). Let me know if I forgot something.

None of this is impossible. Some of it is being instituted now in New York City and California, who I hope are leading the way to more community-minded action. AOC, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi (and Bernie, I think; I haven't kept track) have all put forward plans to help ordinary people out, while T-Rump and his gang of robber barons are busy shoring up big business. But it's less the details of plans themselves that are important, though they are, than the message they send, which is, Take Care of Each Other. Help your neighbors. Don't pretend you can do this alone.  As my friend Sylvie Richards posted:

Do you know who the elderly people are in your building or neighborhood? In my building, the doormen have identified the elderly people who live alone. We are making sure that they have groceries, medicine, wipes, etc. and that they know that they are being cared for. Now is the time for us to take care of each other. Please -- identify and care for the elderly around you.

And of course, one of the reasons Mitch McSatan is fighting anything like this tooth and nail is that this legislation is a slippery slope to FDR-like programs: single-payer healthcare, free college, an infrastructure that serves the people not the corporations, loan forgiveness, job protections, maybe even—gasp!—higher wages. Not utopia, by any means, but a better way of life. Just as a sample of what this might lead to, the unintended consequences of supporting people: With better, cheaper internet service, maybe more of us will continue to telecommute, having broken the grasp of our micromanagers. Our cities would become less congested We'd need less office space and have more room for affordable housing. Imagine less commuting, less pollution from that commuting, less crowded public transportation. But again, the biggest change would be in us abandoning the bullshit myth of pulling ourselves up by our non-existent bootstraps, and bootstrapping each other instead. I'm not going to use the words kinder, gentler because they leave a bad taste in my mouth now, but there's so much room for us to become more humane. In becoming more humane, we become more human, less bigoted, more welcoming. 

My company had a massive Zoom meeting partially about our response to Covid-19 this Friday, followed by a note from our CEO. This is what she said, in part:

Please end the week by noticing what an incredible set of colleagues you have, and take time this weekend to rest and rejuvenate. I am so grateful to work with all of you, and proud of how everyone has engaged in problem-solving this week, across all levels of the organization and all our departments.  Take care of yourselves -- this is going to be either a half-marathon or a marathon, but certainly not a sprint.

Let's start work on Monday by finding ways to continue being kind to one another - for example, set up some cyber coffee breaks that help you connect with others at [work], relaxed time with either people you work with regularly or perhaps someone you've been meaning to get to know better. This is a weird circumstance in which our usual rituals of gathering with friends in our communities - whether at church or temple or at a restaurant - are being curtailed just when we need those comforting interactions.  So just as we have been creative at solving the challenges facing some of our projects, let's think outside the box about how to stay connected with one another and offer each other support. As one of many emerging examples, the intrepid group working on our Thursday 3/19 "critical conversations and celebrations" has been reworking it into a cyber-based community gathering. Something to look forward to toward week's end! 

In this spirit, I decided to organize a once-a-week or so Virtual Happy Hour in Zoom to keep track of my friends both online and the ones I usually see in meatspace. It's likely to be awhile before we can meet in person again, and seeing one another via videolink is far better than just interacting on social media. Let me know if you're interested, and I'll add you to the email group. Because our actions as a community and in-community might help tip this the right way for everyone and reshape the world in a good way.


Filthy mittnesAs promised, some #covid19 resources:

Natalie Dorfeld's Colonel VonMittens (left) says it all.

Advice and explanations from science reporter Beth Mole at Ars Technica.

Very in-depth and multi-sourced information on Reddit.

Geeky: Covid-19 Surveillance Dashboard. And this one, made by a 17-year-old. Watch this motherfucker spread.

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

For the thick among you, a vivid illustration of how your heedlessness and selfishness makes other people sick. From WaPo.

A really great podcast.


Baby Steps

DreamingBooksThe solstice is a time of new beginnings. The light starts to come back, overpowering the dark, the seasons turn, and we hunker down for the winter, which is a time of introspection and creativity. So it seems, I hope, oracular that I had the day I did yesterday. I've started doing some electronic housecleaning, getting my bookmarks and passwords back in order for accounts I haven't touched in several years. These are mostly creative accounts connected to my website building, or bookmaking, or my now defunct teaching and freelance careers. Some of them are old enough that I've already been scrubbed from the sites themselves, which is fine. Most of those are obsolete or I don't use them anymore anyway. It's a little sobering that it's been that long though.

I'm also trying to change the way I work, so I set a repeating timer for 20 minutes and then got up out of my chair and did something else for varying amounts of time when it went off. Peed. Made the bed. Did the dishes. Looked over the mail. Had lunch. Made tea. (I just found a great Darjeeling from Arbor Teas in Ann Arbor. Fragrant and lush.) Planned dinner. Cooked. Stood up and sang a bit, which felt great! Ran out to do shopping. Swept the floor. Emptied the catbox. I thought it would be annoying, but it was actually good to get my ass out of the chair and not get sucked into the Intertubez so deeply, as deeply as I have been. I've also been weening myself off Facebook in preparation for my exodus in January (which won't be a total one, at east not yet; I'll be over at MeWe, too, for those who'd like to join me, just not as often, either).

Not Hopeless bullshit
credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

All of that electronic housecleaning and organizing seems a hopeful (and useful) step in my personal rehabilitation. That's what this feels like: rehab. I'm still feeling a little displaced, or maybe "unplaced" would be a better description, in an apartment that's not quite home but becoming it, in a life that's very different from one I knew for 25+ years. Yesterday was a bit like rediscovering that old self, or maybe unearthing her again (hopefully not like a zombie or vampire). I'm reminding myself of what I used to do when Facebook hadn't become an escape and a focus for my energy and rage. First thing in the morning, I used to read Arts & Letters Daily, which is a great aggregater for the kind of stuff writers and readers read. I used to read the comics every day, so I spent some time weeding my comics bookmarks, and adding some to Feedly. I reconnected with some old 2D friends, major portions of whose stories I've missed and may never catch up on, which makes me a bit sad. I may have to buy books to do that. (Oh no! Not that! Don't make me buy books!)

I also spent part of the day cleaning up my poetry market bookmarks and adding new ones. It's sad to see how many journals have folded in the time since I was regularly sending work out. But there are plenty more to take their places and lots of venerable ones hanging on. I won't start with how it pisses me off to have to pay to have my work read, which is one of my many soapboxes, this one about how our government doesn't support the arts in this country. Regardless, I'm at least thinking about submitting work again, which I haven't done much of, lately. And starting to act like a real writer again, whether I'm writing or not. It's a business if you're serious about it and some of your time has to be spent doing the business end. So while I'm waiting for my brain to clutter itself up again with voices, this seemed like a good way to spend my time.

And it led to a really wonderful and exciting day-making interchange with an editor who seems like she might be a new friend. 

Perfidy-Report-buttonI've been wondering what to do with all the poems I wrote about T-Rump in the first year of his reign, poems I wrote in a white-hot rage, one a day for a long time, until I was worn down and couldn't keep up with all the acts of cruelty and vileness. They were posted on Facebook and a resurrected blog I'd run during W's torture regime, The Perfidy Report. Fifty-four poems later, Days of Perfidy became a collection I despaired of ever finding a home for. Then, while trolling through the Poetry Submissions Portal on Facebook, I ran across a call from Headline Poetry & Press, which is all about political poetry. I looked over the submission guidelines, which included an email address to drop the editor a line if you had questions. I didn't just want to upload the whole manuscript so I shot her a note instead, explaining the manuscript's genesis and that the poems had been published on The Perfidy Report and giving her a link, thinking I'd hear back in January at the earliest. Much to my surprise, she responded only a half hour later with an enthusiastic interest. That started a really pleasant and fun back and forth email chain of the kind you have with new and interesting people, asking questions, answering them, sussing out what each of you like and are like.  

It's always gratifying when people like and are interested in publishing your work but it's even better when you make a personal connection with someone who likes your work. This was really great because I don't often email editors with personal requests like this. Like, never, in fact. Maybe I'm getting bolder in my old age. I'm not sure I can explain why this whole thing was so delightful. In part, it was the speed of the reply, the curiosity and openness and collaborative nature of the person on the other end and her sense of humor. I realized this morning that she reminds me, at least on paper, of my grad-school friend Gwen, another poet and generous soul that we lost to cancer a few years ago. Anyway, it was a really delightful experience back-and-forthing with her. Just what I needed to restore a little faith in myself.

 

 


Gratitude, Schmatitude

BitchbuttonHappy Colonial Holiday, everyone. That should tell you what kind of a mood I'm in. Well, not really, but I was trying to write one of those gratitude lists because it is the Appointed Day On Which We Should All Be Thankful. And my id was just Not Having It. I started it twice, after "accidentally" erasing the first one, then gave up. I've learned to listen to the noise of my Freudian lingerie flapping in the breeze, so I headed over here to ponder it instead.

It's not that I'm not grateful for oh so many things and people; I'm not that big an asshole. I can tell you right now one of the things I'm resisting is showing how grateful I am on this particular day by doing that particular thing. I'm really bad at that kind of conformity. I get very sneery about it because I don't trust it. I don't trust it because it's not of the moment. I cherish most the spontaneous expression of emotions, when they come bursting out of us because they must. Even anger. If you've had to build that up, I'm gonna be mad at you that you didn't say something sooner. Maybe it's just me, but I can't tell you how often I feel like Cordelia and the rest of the world is Lear:

KING LEAR

Tell me, my daughters,—
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,—
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?

CORDELIA

[Aside] What shall Cordelia do?
Love, and be silent.

Ugh Ugh Ugh. Pernicious, manipulative, selfish old man. This is what the enforced gratitude of Thanksgiving feels like to me. It's performative, to use one of my new favorite words. And it's not that we don't need a bit of performative grease to make the wheels of social interaction run more smoothly. Of course we do. The performative is not always false and insincere, but that's exactly how having a special day of gratitude feels to me: false and insincere. It also, like church on Sundays and confession, too often lets people off the hook for the rest of the time. Like, I said I was grateful for you all at Thanksgiving. What more do you want?


Second thanksgivingThen there's the public nature of it. One of the lessons from years of Bible study that formed an integral part of my ethical foundation is Matthew 6:5. "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full." Public prayer is performative as well, or can be, even when you are standing in representation for the people around you. It's a tool televangelists use all the time to manipulate their audiences and signal their holiness and how blessed by god they are. Public gratitude always strikes me this way too; there's an element of bragging in it. Look how lucky (rich) I am to have all these things to be grateful for! That's the part that makes me really uncomfortable, the similarity to bragging. 

Granted, not everybody is like this. I read some really beautiful, thoughtful, and heartfelt expressions of gratitude today on Facebook. All of them were from people I'm friendly with and hope someday to meet in the flesh and call them Friend. They were from people I admire, who do good work, who are themselves thoughtful in their expressions and compassionate in their responses and lives, as far as I can tell. They're the people who are going to make leaving FB hard, the folks I'm going to have to work at staying in touch with. They seem genuine to me. And I'm grateful for the opportunity of "knowing" them, even virtually.

And here's the thing, finally: I'm grateful every goddamn day, more so, the older I get. Grateful to wake up, grateful to be alive, grateful for the people who demonstrably (and otherwise) love me, for my job, for my apartment, for #JillybeanCalico, for being born where I was (though that one's getting a little dicey now), for good English Breakfast tea, for the hit of cold brew heroin caffeine in the mornings, for the steak I'm going to grill tonight, and the pumpkin pie that's in the oven. I'm grateful for everything, too much to list, that makes my life not just bearable survival, but actually good: music, art, conversation, books, Scotch, beer, good food, my education, my former students, a body that still works pretty well, the City of New York.

Life is goddamn wonder. How can I not be grateful with every breath? Even when I'm bitching. I'm grateful I can bitch.

And while I'm bitching, can I bitch about the bullshit story of Thanksgiving we teach our kids? Frankly, I much prefer Heather Cox Richardson's story of the origins of Thanksgiving to the one we're taught in school. The positively turning tide of a war against slavery seems like a great reason to be thankful. I don't know how this got tangled with the the Pilgrims (Anybody? Bueller?), who were not the kindest or most compassionate people in the world. It could do with a good untangling because the real story of our colonialism on this land is nothing to be thankful for. If you're going to be grateful, you should thank the people whose land we stole, that they don't murder us in our beds as they have every right to do. 

Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy your pie.


Patriot or Not

RadicalMoiI've been watching bits and pieces of the impeachment hearings (who hasn't?) this week, in between work tasks, and it's quite different from either the Nixon or the Clinton hearings. The latter was truly a farce over largely farcical and personal misconduct that should have just been handed to Hillary to deal with. (Yes, Clinton lied to Congress, but that's not what that was really about, was it? It was a foreshadowing of the mentality that's festered in the Republican Party to stay in power at all costs, even the loss of democracy.) Nixon's was far more shocking to a nation that still believed in itself, and it was clearly a criminal act, sprung from the paranoia of another Republican that mirrors the minority party's current paranoia.

Lord of the liesT-Rump's hearing is different. The criminality is equally paranoid, and serves Republican paranoia about loss of power and a conspiracy of Others, but it's wrapped up in his own narcissism, attempts to be more subtle, and is more complex in nature than a break-in, as befits a second-rate, wannabe mob boss without a mob. Nice country you got here. Be a shame to lose it to the Russians. How about saying in public that you'll start an investigation of Joe Biden and his kid? We'll see what we can do for you. Jesus, the ineptitude. Of course, the denial of this kind of extortion only gets a pass when you propagate a distrust of the press and the career bureaucrats and diplomats who are the true professionals running the government. That distrust didn't exist during Clinton's or Nixon's hearings. 

Which brings me to Dr. Fiona Hill and the decorated Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Immigrants both, serving their adopted country at the highest level and at the cost of personal injury in the latter's case.  Vindman telling his father, scarred by Russia's methods of dealing with dissenters,

Dad, I’m sitting here today in the US Capitol talking to our elected professionals, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union, come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.

Fiona Hill, daughter of coal miners in the north of England, insisting, 

This is a country of immigrants. With the exception of very few people still here, everyone immigrated to the U.S. at some point in their family history. This is what, for me, really does make America great.

Both statements brought me to tears (admittedly, it doesn't take much), I think because I once felt this way myself when I was younger, and because it had to be a covert emotion. Roger Cohen writes in the Times about the ideas I've wrestled with since I was a child: an emotional love for the place where I was born, and disgust with the injustice it perpetrates, i.e., patriotism. 

WeThree2Let me give you a little of my background for context: On Dad's side, I'm a second-generation American. His folks emigrated from somewhere in Austro-Hungary (it was always a big secret, so I'm not sure where) and Dad was born here. Like Vindman, he joined the army (the Army-Air Corps then the Air Force) and fought in one of our wars (WWII), in his case, against people who spoke the same language his parents did (they were German-speaking Hungarians). Most of Mom's people, by contrast, have been here a very long time indeed, long enough to have left the American Colonies during the Revolutionary War to take up big land grants from King George in Canada. I'm not a Daughter of the American Revolution, but a Daughter of Union Empire Loyalists. At least one of the Canadians came back to the US to marry my Welsh-American Grandfather, whose family had been in Pennsylvania for a couple of generations, too. So I'm sort of the nexus of both aspects of American colonization and immigration: newcomer and founding colonialist. Add to this that as a Jehovah's Witness, I was supposed to not stand for the pledge (which I still don't; loyalty does not require pledges), not celebrate the 4th of July (boy that was tough in 1976), not vote, to have no loyalty but to God's Kingdom, and to be utterly neutral politically. Not just non-partisan; non-political.

That last one was a kicker. Politics and history, inextricably intertwined, were the number one topics of conversation in our house: Dad was a relentless FDR Dem; Mom, in a non-JW life, would have been even farther left. We supported unions, didn't cross picket lines. Dad voted fairly often and he and Mom always talked about who was running. Dad was also an inveterate writer of Letters to the Editor, mostly about politics and politicians, as well as local policy issues. Being retired WWII military and someone who got out when he saw what was happening in Vietnam informed a deeply ingrained sense of Honor and Right, the same kind Vindman exhibited and spoke about before Congress. You find this in a lot of career military people. They join up because of a real desire to Do the Right Thing, to give back and to serve in the only way they know how—with their lives. You see the same thing in many career diplomats and civil servants as well. They have a vision of a country and government that at least tries to Do the Right Thing, to make the world better, no matter how often or badly it fails, and they want to be part of that work.

It's no surprise Dad hated Nixon with a fiery hatred. I can only imagine what he'd say about T-Rump. There would be a lot of swearing. He hated Lieutenant Calley too, for sullying the uniform, so the recent pardoning of war criminals would result in much more swearing. He wasn't fond of the damn hippies, but he knew they were right about Vietnam, and supported their right to protest. Members of the KKK and the "goddamn John Birchers" were beneath his contempt. He was, nonetheless, ferocious in standing up for people's civil rights, especially if he didn't agree with them. "That's what I fought a war for," he'd say. Mom pretty much agreed with him, but extended her dislikes to most organized religion, except her own, fondly (and rather hilariously) quoting Marx's "religion is the opium of the people." She took any injustice in the world personally: racism, sexism, religious persecution, persecution by the religious, wage inequality, war—you name it, she hated it. I finally realized that the thing that appealed most to her about being a JW was the idea that Armageddon was a way to burn it all down and start over. I think she was really a thwarted Anarchist at heart. 


Conservative vs. liberalBoth my folks were outraged by injustice, for different reasons. But I always think of Dad as one of the most patriotic people I knew. He couldn't care less about the Pledge of Allegiance, or the flag or the visible trappings people sport. He was a reluctant respecter of authority, so God help you if you abused that authority. Dirty cops, dirty politicians, war criminals, there wasn't anybody he hated more. He was a little guy and the little guy you didn't piss on. If you wanted to burn the flag as a protest, he'd support that. Free speech, freedom of religion, and the right to dissent were deeply important to him, but he was a "work within the system" guy. Mom was the one who wanted to see it all burned down and replaced with something better.

So here I am, raised by a couple of shit-stirrers and closet radicals. All the while I was clinging to being a JW, I was frustrated by their inaction and "giving it up to god" attitude that said humans were incapable of fixing anything. I was most frustrated, finally, that the attitude included poverty and hunger, which we manifestly can fix. It took me leaving my religion to become a card-carrying, out lefty. I pined in secret to go to anti-war protests, and finally went to my first march in college, the No Nukes rally in DC in 1979. That makes me proud in a way being directly connected to American colonialist history doesn't. I've always been, like Mom, a dissenter, and demanding, like Dad, that we as a society Do the Right Thing. One thing I'd never call myself is a patriot.

I've never had a good definition of patriotism, and it's always been a semi-dirty word to me because of how often it's trotted out in support of something really vile. The line about fascism coming to America wrapped in a flag and carrying in cross, whether Sinclair Lewis said it or not, is chillingly true. We're watching it happen. Every time T-Rump says "Make America Great Again," he's personifying what's worst about patriots and patriotism. It so often the refuge of fools and scoundrels, to justify acts that benefit no one but themselves and their increasingly tiny interest group of old white men. In that sense, the Patriot Act is aptly named, because it negates, in the name of "safety," the rights that are codified in the Constitution for everyone. 

This is part of what I wrestle with: the harm we've done and are still doing versus the good we try to do, the ideals we hold up and so often fail to uphold. I am heartened and touched by Vindman's belief that he will be okay telling the truth before Congress, even while the Army has had to relocate his family to a military base to keep them safe from the fucking Trump troglodyte MAGAites. It is still not the government coming after him and his family, as it would be in Russia, and that's what matters to him. I am heartened by the fact that Hill succeeded so well here when she couldn't because of the even more rampant classism in her country of birth, and touched that she decided to repay that opportunity by serving in the government. Her calling out of officials of the government she works for, right in public, in front of God, Country, and Everyone Else, to stop lying about Ukraine's meddling with the 2016 election—that's a patriotic act if ever there was one. 

And while that self-serving prick Devin Nunes insults him by not recognizing his rank as a serving U.S. Army officer, Vindman reiterates his belief in the U.S.:

As Vindman’s testimony neared the end, Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat from New York, asked the witness to reread the message he delivered to his father in his opening statement. He obliged....

“Why, then, do you have the confidence to “tell your dad not to worry?” Maloney asked.

“Congressman, because this is America,” he replied without hesitating. “This is the country I have served and defended, that all of my brothers have served. And here, right matters.”

Right matters. 

Maybe that's what patriotism is in a democracy: the dogged insistence that morality and ethics matter, that Doing the Right Thing is our duty, not a part but all of what being an American is, even if it means holding your leaders' feet to the fire of accountability in public. Maybe especially that. And to have two recent immigrants do that shows how important immigration is to who we are. Cohen, in his opinion piece on Fiona Hill, writes,

This [that American is a nation of immigrants] is the very revolutionary American idea under attack from Trump and his Republican enablers and the Fox News fabulists. Make America Great Again is, in fact, Deny What America Is.

Dissent is patrioticThe people who come here from all over the world—even from places we've helped ravage like Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam—come here with a sense of hope and idealism that we born-here citizens often have lost. Look at the new crop of immigrants, and first and second generation Americans newly elected to Congress, how they're tearing it up. They're tearing it up because they believe in the system. And what they believe of the system is that it's supposed to work for all of us, not just Big Business, not just stinking rich people. They believe that government's main job is to take care of its citizens, especially the most vulnerable of us, to lift us up, to protect us from the predatory and the greedy, to give us equal opportunities to succeed and pursue happiness. It's what I still believe and demand but don't expect. That these people are working for it when their colleagues on both sides of the aisle (with some exceptions) are not only shows how much we need immigrants to renew our democracy. That kind of faith in the process can only come from the young and from people who have experienced far worse times than most American citizens have. When you come from war, or genocide, or desperate hand to mouth poverty, or a land savaged by climate change, or authoritarian government, America still looks like a haven and a promise. People like these are not what Thomas Paine called Sunshine Patriots. They become, instead, our Winter Soldiers. 

And we need them because what's Right is grossly at odds with our practice of capitalism, which, unchecked and unregulated, is anything but Right. It's grossly at odds with the gospel of bootstrapping, as well. The idea that every person—regardless of skin color, sex, nation of origin, or any of the artificial labels we slap on each other—has a set of inalienable rights that a government cannot strip from you is the foundation of Right. Without getting into what the founders meant by "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," I think we're at least starting to accept the notion that the inalienable rights include the right to basic necessities, health care, and education, all of which are necessary to life and the pursuit of happiness. And you certainly don't have liberty without them. The freedom to starve, be homeless, and die young is not liberty.

And Right is grossly at odds with the two party system as it's in play now. Too many of the Democrats are in thrall to special interests and Money, especially when they call FDR's policies "radical left." And where to start with the Republicans? Where? Oh Lord. Let's just say, if you have to lie and cheat and allow others to break the law to stay in power, you are Wrong, not Right.

Sadly, we are currently being governed by the most Wrong administration ever, and opposing it is probably one of the most patriotic things we can do.  I fear that our democratic experiment is failing  and has been failing for a while now, a good part of my lifetime, every time we allowed money and/or power to matter more than people. And that experiment matters because people's lives matter. The whole point of civilization and government is to make people's lives better. Everything else is gravy.

So, patriot or not? If dissent is patriotic, then yes. If I need a flag for it, then no. Unless I can burn it.


Use It or Lose It

BooksMadeHereBeen thinking a lot about creativity lately and how I seem to have lost mine. It's always been a bit of a struggle for me, in contrast to some of my friends who seem to have new things pop out of them all the time (I'm looking at you, Marcia Gilbert. And where is your website for me to link to?) That goes way back. My mom was a creative person too; she crocheted a bit, did embroidery, needlepoint, and crewel work, tatted, sewed quilts and clothes, baked, poured and painted ceramics, and most of all, painted china. Needlepointing and china painting were her two main creative outlets and she was really good at both. She and I made ceramics for a while when I was a kid (the kind you pour in molds with slip, not the thrown kind) before she started china painting, and that was fun, but I think I would have liked thrown ceramics better. Messy, more intent involved, glazes to mix and a bit of chemistry to learn. Still a goal. I love ceramics the way Mom loved porcelain.

Rose&Lilac_10in
One of Mom's painted plates

She was also a perfectionist and really tough on herself, so I had that role model, which didn't make it easy to be creative. And she was an honest critic, which was both good and bad. Kids need a mom who thinks everything they do is brilliant; I had one who thought everything I did had the potential to be brilliant. On the plus side, I learned to take criticism well pretty early. It made me practice and practice and practice and practice when I was teaching myself guitar, but it made it excruciating to take lessons in anything. Failure wasn't an acceptable part of the process. But it has to be, and it's taken me a long time to allow myself to do that, to fail, to make failures, and not feel like one at the same time.

I think Mom was hoping we'd have a hobby or craft we could do together, so I tried crocheting, hooking rugs, embroidery, and making ceramics with her. She really wanted me to learn china painting, but I didn't have the patience for it and, well, see above about taking lessons. I explored very different creative avenues from Mom's, too: pencil portraits, pen and ink, guitar in high school, and finally writing. Writing was something Mom didn't do at all and it was it like breathing to me. The words were always there, shaping themselves into sentences or lines and stanzas. There was a voice in my head most of the time stringing them together. All through school, when my teachers thought I was taking notes like mad, I was writing stories—fanfic and stories about the kids in my neighborhood—that I shared around at lunch or on the bus after school.

Then I took a mechanical drawing class in high school and fell in love. I've always scored high on the spatial relationships part of aptitude and intelligence tests, the ones where you rotate 3D figures or take them apart in your head, and I liked the tools of mechanical drawing. I've still got my set of pencils and compasses and my T-square. And then I learned to type, on an IBM Selectric that was almost, but not quite, a typesetter. (In grad school, I got a daisy wheel typewriter/printer that was even closer; heaven.) I joined the yearbook staff. And that's how I got interested in layout. I learned real typesettng on the college newspaper, and when PageMaker came out when I was working my first job in New York, I was in ecstasy. I taught myself PageMaker, QuarkXpress and InDesign as they each came out, studying typography along the way. I bought a copy of Words Into Type. I bought typography and design books and learned to see what makes a good layout and good design. I bought art and artist's books. I laid out newsletters, pamphlets, proposals, posters, book covers, and reports. And that's how I wound up with the half-assed graphics/layout/word processing "career" I've had. I've never worked as a graphic artist in high end design jobs like magazines or advertising, but I've learned a lot from paying close attention to them. In one of my freelance proofreading jobs, I worked with a guy who was a fucking genius with Photoshop, who advised me to learn that instead of Illustrator. Turned out to be a wise choice for someone who's largely lost her drawing skills. I still hesitate to call myself a graphic artists, self-taught as I am. But I'm good at layout.

About ten years ago, I managed to scrape enough money together to take an intro to letterpress printing at the Center for Book Arts. And if the daisy wheel printer had been heaven, and the page layout programs had been ecstasy, working with a Vandercook and setting my own type by hand fucking blew the top of my head off. As a class, we designed and printed a broadside poem by Gregory Pardlo, "Glass," (which I loved). I suggested the design and set the type while everybody else picked it out and prepped the press. We each got a chance to set up and run off 25 copies ourselves. It. Was. Awesome. I fell in love with the Vandercook, which is a monster of an electric mechanical press. It fed all my love of machinery and tools and making large things do my bidding. I went home with dreams of my own letterpress shop dancing in my head. This of course requires that I win the Powerball lottery to buy a suitable building for my friends to live in and me to run  my press out of. Sure. Why not?

During the course of the long fanfic career I've had, I met a woman who was a conservator at a university library. When we became friends, she brought me into the lab she worked at and showed me how to do library bindings. I had no idea it was as easy as it was. That only fueled my press dreams a little more. We wound up making some very fancy fanzines together, a couple of which I'm still really proud of, with an imprint we formed called Two Vixens Press. In the meanwhile, as a poor substitute, I bought the equipment for a tiny, strictly digital press: a good Epson color printer, an HP laser printer, a powerful desktop hand built by another fandom friend, a big screen, and the Adobe software to go with it. I also bought myself a cast iron book press, which has been really handy. And I made some books (links in the sidebar). I started blogging about book arts, and going to book arts shows. Thus was born Maelstrom House. Then the Roommate happened.

So it's been a long, dry period of nothing creative and I'm easing my way back into making books, which appeals to my love of layout and typesetting and hand making things in mixed media. My equipment is outdated or broken now, so I have to rebuild that, and my hands are not as strong as they used to be and thanks to the growing arthritis, not as nimble. I feel like I've lost a lot of good creative time and momentum. I'm trying not to be resentful about that. It won't help.

For many reasons, I decided to ease my way back in with a book of my own poems. For one thing, I'm sick of the fact that the only way to get a collection published in the U.S. is to pay someone to read your work in a contest, the entry fees for which average $25. I've had enough individual poems published, and had enough people whose opinion I respect tell me I'm a good poet to not look at this as a vanity project but rather as another way of getting my work out there. I won awards for my poems in high school, college, and grad school. I've had a couple of near misses with contests, making it to the finalist pile. Besides, I'm in good company with Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, and Virginia Woolf. The stigma of self-publishing is largely gone now, and there are many avenues of it. I've decided to put it out through Maelstrom House in a new imprint, or the resurrection of an old imprint—Long Meg Press—to keep it separate from the publication of other people's work. I'll start with a few handmade, perfect bound editions, make some print-on-demand editions available somewhere (I'm trying desperately to avoid Amazon; suggestions welcome), and learn how to make an ebook, which is a skill I've been wanting to add. And I know a thing or two about making books now. 

Well. I'm relearning it, anyway.

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Imposition in InDesign. credit: Adobe

When I left my job at AKRF, I was a power user of the then-very-new InDesign CS2 and I could make it sit up and bark. I've laid out a number of chapbooks and zines and pamphlets and cards since then, so you'd think I'd remember how that signature thing works. Oh hell no. InDesign's newer versions do this cool thing called imposition, where you lay out the book in the page order it should appear in when printed, and the program makes the signatures for you, without screwing up your original layout. In the early versions, you had to do this by hand and it was an unholy fucking mess of linked text boxes. One thing that taught me was to make dummies first. But now InDesign does the messy work for you. It's almost too easy. Nothing like printing on a letterpress would be. 

But could I get that damn program to give me five signatures of an 80 page book? I could not. Took me four tries and a trip to the Adobe Help Desk (where I should have gone first) to remember I had to treat the first and last pages like a half-signature (of 4 pages) and check the box to print blank pages. (JFC, Adobe, why would I include blank pages in a document if I didn't want to print them? That should be the default, you dumbasses. Not a special box to check, buried in the printer preferences.) Then I realized if I was going to perfect-bind this thing, I didn't need a set of five signatures, which I'd have to pamphlet stitch and then bind; I needed individual four-page signatures. Duh. *Dramatically smacks forehead.*

Anyway, I got the innards laid out and fancied up with a nice typeface and a few ornaments here and there. It needs a bit more futzing with, but it looks good. And now it needs a cover. And Long Meg Press needs a logo again. I was dreaming about making that, the other night. It's good to dream.


On Bubbles and Lost Time

Dark Side CookiesSheesh, did I. It's called Facebook.

I spruced up the blog a bit this weekend, to bring it up to date. Changed the layout and banner. Added some new/old content in the sidebars. Checked the links. In doing so I rediscovered some places on the web I hadn't been to in a while: interesting blogs, magazines, web comics. Things I miss, that I hadn't realized I missed until I saw them again. You'll see them over there on the right in the sidebars. In the editing, I discovered some of them were gone, or had come to a conclusion, or their authors had moved on to new projects, or to new places on the web. Most of them dated from about ten years ago, which is an eternity in interwebs time, and a fair amount of time in realspace. All things change; nothing is immutable. But I also spent part of this weekend starting a new account over at MeWe, which is largely antithetical to the conclusion I came to today.

I think I'm done with social media.

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Posing outside my office at NJCU with fellow adjunct activist Bri Bolin's signifying gifts.

For two reasons: one is that it is a huge, exhausting time suck of the "somebody is wrong on the internet!" type, and two is that I can't be part of the (sociopolitical) problem any more. I was initially pretty skeptical of Facebook when it arrived and killed my first account after a few weeks. I didn't like that it lived on, zombie-like, for weeks afterward, either. I was a lot more fanatical about my privacy back then. I've now reached the conclusion that it's impossible to have any privacy in an internet world without living totally off the grid like the Unibomber, so what the hell. It's not like my life is so utterly fascinating or that my secret thoughts are so dangerous that I'd be injured by them getting out. Embarrassed, probably, but not actually, you know, ruined in that Victorian sense of reputation. As I get older, I give fewer and fewer fucks about that. I'll never see any of you people again anyway. (Ah, the lessons New York has taught me!) I mean, I've already had this picture (above) circulated on the web back when it actually could hurt me, so what's the difference now? (In case you're wondering, the hat and mug are an in-joke with a somewhat vicious history. My fellow adjunct activists and I were embracing what was supposed to be a slur. I love that mug, and that hat is warm.)

I don't remember how I got sucked back in to Facebook again, but I dove in head-first with gusto the second time around, the way I tend to do with new things. It's a bit like infatuation with me; I can't get enough of it at first and then the fire dies down, eventually. Except it didn't with FB. I love the fiddling with settings and getting things to look just right (which is why I end up working in production so often). I also like to meet new people and make new friends. And before I knew it, Facebook was my principle "place" of social interaction, which is not a good thing, at least for me. I know chat rooms, BBSs, Tumblr and FB have been lifelines for folks with social anxiety or who live in the boondocks and can't find anyone like them to socialize with. And I think that's the beauty of the Internet: the opportunity to meet other people like you (and not like you). I rolled around quite a lot in Fandom-space through the Internet, and met some wonderful people I still think of as friends, though I'm not very involved in that subculture anymore. I've met some very cool friends of friends on FB, too, folks I would love to meet in "meat space" someday. Some of them, like some of my activist friends, I've actually been lucky enough to hug in real life. And for activism, social media is a godsend. It's not the be-all and end-all, by any means. Nothing beats face-to-face live action. But it's a great way to plan and connect and get the word out (c.f. the Hong Kong protests, most recently), although it can be a two-edged sword, when the government gets hold of it.

Somehow, in my embrace of all things social media, I wound up running not just my own but my union adjunct caucus's page, and New Faculty Majority's social media: blog, Twitter, FB. And after the election, the League of Nasty Women FB group. I went from adjunct activism to political activism. And I have spent hours a day on FB, shitposting and information and news posting for, literally, years. 

Years. Egads.

As I mentioned in the previous post, it was its own kind of lifesaver for me at the time, for at least five years. But I find instead of expanding my world, it's narrowed it to the issues of the day. Especially since the 2016 election of the Not So Great Pumpkin (apologies to Linus), I've been utterly absorbed in working to counteract the horrible crap he and his bigoted, greedy minions are foisting on us. It's felt like both a cause and a mission, in a way none of the obligatory proselytizing I did when I was younger ever did. But I have what I call a vacuum cleaner mind: if it's in the way, I suck it up, and the steady diet of politics and injustice I've been living on is beginning to take its toll. Quite a while ago, I decided I can no longer do nothing but wait for god to clean up our messes, as my former religion dictated. But I know also this is not something I can do alone, and it's not something I have any control over. I can speak out, be a good ally, vote, but I can't reach people who won't listen, and the ones who do listen don't need much talking to. As for that "someone is wrong on the internet" factor, I'm learning to let that go too, which is a good thing. I don't have to win every argument or even join in. Let the antivaxxers Darwin-Award themselves out of existence. A sign, maybe, that I'm finally maturing and don't always have to have the last word. Just sometimes.

I realize now that I miss literature. I miss poetry. I miss browsing through the internet for interesting articles not on politics or social justice. I miss following a couple of webcomics I was following before. I've been confined to the links in my bookmarks bar, which consist largely of newspapers and social media and work tools, and that's just crazy. The interwebs are vast and wonderful. There are still books being written, new poets to discover and read, things not directly related to politics and social justice to write about. I'm not sure whether what I've been doing is an addiction, an obsession, or—at least for the last few years—a form of self-care, but I'm ready to move on now. Even as I was doing this, I knew it couldn't last, but what I hadn't counted on was quite how much it would wear me out.

One of the other things I did when I was sprucing up the blog was have a re-read of my raison d'être for it ("Dowsing for What?" in the sidebar). I started this about 10 years ago, after my folks died,and I finally made the move to stop calling myself a Jehovah's Witness. I was much more concerned with spirituality and religion then; the tag line for this blog was then "Finding a new way to believe." I've changed that now to just "Finding my way." I haven't become an atheist in the meanwhile and I doubt I will, but I haven't become a Buddhist either, which seemed likely at the time. I wouldn't even call myself a monotheist, because the whole notion of god seems fairly limiting somehow. I'm trying to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect. The universe that we know is just too vast and unknowable for what passes for religion to be a viable option. I keep coming back to Arthur C. Clarke's assertion that any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic; the corollary being that any sufficiently different and/or advanced life form seems like a god. If energy is conserved, as it seems to be, we do have a kind of immortality. And if the Many Worlds hypothesis is true, "I" may exist everywhere, which I find both kind of hilarious and negating of my uniqueness in a very Buddhist way.

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Don't draft me to run for office.

When I was a JW, one of my frustrations with it was the neutrality in politics they practice. Unlike the Mormons, with whom they're often compared, they don't vote, they don't lobby, they don't run for office, they rarely go to court, unless it's to fight for a civil right that sustains their public preaching and right to bang on  your door on a Saturday morning. I grew up during the Vietnam war, and even though I was in a military town, there was enough dissent about how right the war was to make me sympathize with the anti-war protesters. Like most young people, I was full of zeal for right and wrong, and my religion prohibited my participation in such "worldly" things, or I'd have been a hell-raiser a lot sooner than I finally came to it, in my late fifties. Who knows where that would have led? Jail, probably, like Jane Fonda, bless her. Sadly, she's got a lot more energy than I do right now. and I find, after immersing myself in activism and politics for the last five years, that I am not just tired, but less passionate than I was. The infatuation has worn off. I would never run for office because people like me should never have power (c.f. Galadriel; Dunning-Kruger; and Good Intentions, Road to Hell Paved With). Also, that window is closed now. It's time for people younger than me to step up, and time for the Old Farts™ to give it a damn rest. You had your chance and blew it. Lead, follow, or get the hell outta the way.

This doesn't mean I'm abandoning the field entirely, or that my own personal code of ethics and morals does not continue to be offended by the Fuckhead in Chief and his Dark Minions. Or by his enablers. I'm looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg. The last straw for me, with you, sir, was your approval of Brietbart as a "legitimate news source." But before that, I watched with disgust and dismay as the algorithms your company developed silenced anti-racist, anti-bigotry, anti-fascist, anti-rape culture, feminist, and other progressive activists while leaving the hate-mongers to spew their shit simply because they were white men. Any platform on which women cannot say "men are trash" without being censored and thrown in your stupid FB jail, while men can threaten women with rape and violence with impunity is a misogynistic hot mess. If calling out racism gets you censored, but being racist doesn't, that's a hot mess. Fuck that shit, Mark. You are part of the problem, and you're responsible for skewing our election by taking money from Russian trolls without compunction and refusing to do your duty as a private citizen to stifle hate speech in your business. Your cool little creation that aimed to connect people all over the world is turning into 4chan, and you're letting it. Not to mention that you expect people to sift through the sickness and violence posted to your platform without providing them with mental health benefits. I cannot be party to that anymore. Hence the MeWe account.

 

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Jillybean has a bath.

I'm not sure how that'll work out. I'll probably maintain my FB account for a good while, and I've promised to stick around at the League of Nasty Women until the 2020 election, but I'm weaning myself off it. I abandoned Twitter quite some time ago because it really is a sewer and I'm too long-winded for that kind of character count. I ditched Flickr because I think I'd like to do something professional with some of my photographs, but I'll keep my Instagram account at least for sharing pictures of the Jillybean Calico. (Here's another.) And Pinterest has been really useful for a lot of art projects and world building; also, the infatuation has worn off there, too. It's just occasional fun now. I never did much with my Tumblr account and the platform has turned into a puritanical rule-bound shit show now (in a way that has nothing to do with curbing misogyny, bigotry, or white supremacy), so that's just as well. I've got 616 "friends" over at FB. There are people not following me over to MeWe that I haven't yet formed meat space social bonds with that I will miss, and it means I'll have to try harder to stay in touch if I want to keep them. But so will they. It's our own special kind of bubble, and I'd like to get out of it, at least until the bigots and fascists get chased back under their rocks again. 

And as Auntie Maxine said, I'm reclaiming my time. I've got other things I want to say, and I'll be saying them here. Follow along if you like, and feel free to argue with me here.


Catching Up, Starting Over

Feeling My Age MoiOkay, so it's been a while. The last thing I actually wrote, as opposed to just posting some graphic, was in 2015, about a year before I lost my summer teaching job at NJCU and things started to change. I promised in the last post that there would be a catch-up about why I haven't written anything here lately, and this is it. Its a long and kinda of ugly story, about five years worth of ugly story that I'm still sorting through and—though I hate this word—processing. Where one enters a story is crucial and I don't know where to do that to explain this to you; five years is a long time to encapsulate.

Encapsulate. Huh. The image I have of that is of a sliver, a piece of shrapnel that can't be removed, enveloped and surrounded by the body, encased, so it does no more harm, so the sharp edges are blunted and infection doesn't spread. That seems apt.

As I said, it's a long, convoluted tale with numerous actors and locations and consequences, bad employers and good employers, brokeness and broken-ness, desperation and relief, good friends and bad. It involves another move, a new job, the end of a friendship, another rescue cat, and what it feels like to be starting over while pushing 60. All kinds of doors opening and closing, losses and gains. I'm not sure how important the details are and I don't want this to sound like a wailing litany of misery, because it wasn't. It was just Not Right, and Not Good For Me.

O Hindsight, You are a Cruel Bitch.

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In Parkchester

Let's try this: back up a bit, to June 2013, when I take in a Friend who is jobless and being evicted from her apartment. Foreshadowing: I'm the only one of her friends or family to offer to do this. I'm living in Parkchester (pic at right) and have an extra bed, though the apartment is only a one-bedroom. She has two teeny cats that my then-beastie, HRH Queen Mab the Cruel and Beautiful, loathes (and has met before since Friend had been HRH's initial rescuer). So right off the bat, we have cat fights and separate litter boxes (more foreshadowing). I think the stress of two cats in her territory made HRH sick and killed her before she should have died. She gets sick and I have to put her down not long after the Friend moves in. That breaks my heart.

The humans living together doesn't go too badly otherwise, though we are worlds apart in ideas about neatness and cleanliness. Friend makes an effort, which I appreciate, though I fail to fathom people who have no personal concept of "cleaning up after yourself." She's getting welfare and SNAP benefits, but there's no way in hell I'm not going to share my food with someone who needs to eat, regardless of what those fuckers in the benefits office think is reasonable. Six months in, she gets a job, though the salary is minuscule and generally unlivable, and offers to split the rent. I tell her to keep it, to start getting herself back on her feet, thinking she'll use this as a launch pad to a better job.

About that time, my landlady, a friend of a sort-of former friend (there's another long story, but I have no need or desire to go there), informs me she's selling the condo I'm renting from her and offers me a very generous "buy out." Roommate and I decide we "haven't killed each other yet" (her words) and decide to keep living together to help each other out (my words). I still have to borrow money from my friends (you know who you are and I am still paying you back) to move us to a new place, smaller and four flights up, in Harlem, that Friend finds through her connections. It has the potential to be a cute apartment with decent amenities, but this is where it all goes to shit.

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From the Dunbar, Harlem

I run out of money and can't retrieve roommate's stuff from storage after all, as I'd promised (although she's been working for three months now, she's contributed little more than half of one month's rent; I've covered the damage deposit and brokers fee, in addition to moving expenses and my half of the rent); I don't know what else to do but apologize, which I do. When it comes time to write the checks for rent after the moving is done, I get "billed" for her storage fees for the next couple months, until I reasonably ask why I'm paying for her storage. This precipitates screaming accusations of me lying to her (and reveals her failure to hear my apology), but she starts writing her checks for the full amount of rent she owes.

When I try to talk to her about splitting chores, she looks at me like I'm asking her to murder her cats and just shakes her head in apparent terror. I cannot keep up with her failure to clean up after herself. It's like living with a frat boy who never puts anything away, never takes out the garbage, never cleans a dish, never mops, wipes a counter or sweeps, never washes out the sink or tub or toilet, doesn't scoop the cat box, and tramps through the apartment with wet and dirty feet without cleaning the mud off. I never unroll my good carpet. The cats use it as a scratching post.

We argue. Loudly. Not often, but enough that I start walking on eggshells, never sure what will set her off. I am now the enemy. We stop talking to each other except when necessary. I hate this. I don't mind confrontation, but I hate unnecessary conflict. We're two adults, we should be able to have a reasonable discussion without name calling and screaming accusations. I hate the person she brings out in me; it's one I've fought all my life not to be, with the temper I have. A lot of passive aggressive shit gets done by both of us because there's no possibility of reasonable communication and I will not be screamed at. The cats shit and piss all over the apartment, ruin my furniture and belongings, kill my plants. Roommate (no longer Friend) ruins a fair number of my possessions too, out of sheer carelessness. This goes on for a total of four more years. By the last year of it, I'm only sleeping and showering in the apartment. I've quit trying to clean it. Another friend who's only here part time lets me hang out at her place when she's not there. I'm not homeless in the literal sense of the word, but I'm Home-less. And Home is deeply important to me.

Working (For) It

In the meanwhile, in June of 2016, NJCU's shithead Badmins close down the Writing Center where I've been working over the summer, without any notice, leaving me and my colleagues unemployed. Director and staff wage a hard-fought battle for its life, but we lose. I'm literally a week or so away from utter penury and considering bankruptcy. Roommate offers no help, doesn't seem to give a shit. So much for mutual aid. 

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My office cube at Vesey St.

Miraculously, after sending out at least a couple of resumes every week for, like, five years, I finally get an interview with a non-profit for nearly the same job I had at AKRF, lo these many years before. It's even in the same neighborhood. But, unlike ARKF, it's full time and the pay is much better, as are the benefits. It's a nerve-wracking couple of weeks before I get hired, but get hired I do. I'm sad to leave teaching. I'm sad, to be specific, to leave the classroom and my students. I am not sad to leave the exploitation, the terror of not knowing if I'll have classes enough to live on every four months, the scramble to get by, the utter insecurity, the indifference of Badmin to both students and professors, the indifference of tenured faculty to the ruination of their profession and the living conditions of their colleagues. I haven't had a full-time job since 1990 and I'm worried about how I'll feel about it after a while. I've loved having the freedom to create art, to sit in cafes and write, to be able to take terribly paid but deeply rewarding teaching jobs in my field—but not the freedom to starve. The economy has changed too much and I'm 56. Freelancing is too precarious. Teaching doesn't pay well enough and is also too precarious. I need new glasses, good healthcare, dentistry, disability insurance, a retirement plan. A decent salary. Safety nets. Stability. I have to start taking care of myself.

Thanks to eight years of lousy academic "salary" and sudden unemployment I am up to my ass in debt: friends, credit cards, federal and state taxes. My credit rating is in the toilet. But I'm working now, in a great job with great people, and working toward getting the fuck out of this apartment. I cannot stand it any more. I start squirreling away cash in a strong box under my bed. State tax arrears come due and suck up all  my meager disposable income. This job is good, but it's not that good. Friends come to my aid—swarm to my aid—in a GoFundMe and I manage, with their financial and physical help, to get out of Harlem and into a new apartment in March of 2018. (Shout out here to Daniel Chow of Leonidas Realty, who really went to bat for me.) In a final fit of rage when I don't sign the lease again, Roommate accuses me of "always getting what I want." I'm not sure what that means. That I was supposed to keep taking care of her? There had been signs of that all along, and resentment when I haven't. She's still in the same badly paying job she was in five years ago, having made no effort to move on. Last I hear, she is in North Bergen, New Jersey, commuting to Times Square every day. 

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Jillybean Calico

A few months before this, I find a little hell-cat calico abandoned in her carrier on the street, with the door left open. She's scared and fiesty as hell, but I get her shots and spayed and move her into my bedroom, like I did with Taz, the tuxedo the Roommate brought back after her wee sister cats died. This calico stays nameless for a long time because I'm trying not to get attached to her, thinking it's going to be hard enough leaving Taz, who thinks she's mine. I don't have the emotional wherewithal for any more cats, or the income. But eventually, she convinces me that I'm hers now, and that her name is Miss Jillybean Calico. She's full of piss and vinegar and made of sharp edges, but a great snuggler and funny as hell. She comes with me out to Brooklyn in her carrier, in the front seat of another friend's car, and when I cut her loose after the movers have gone, she runs around the apartment in utter joy at all the space and snarls like a cougar that this is hers now. All of it. Me included.

It seemed to take a Herculean effort to move this time. It was too messy, in too many stages, and the last one involved way too much of me running up and down four flights of stairs, throwing out my possessions. I think that finally broke me, physically. Six months out, I'm just starting to feel a tad less exhausted and getting some stamina back. It's taken me that long to unpack, too. The last two boxes were just emptied this weekend, and the contents await the pleasure of the people I've offered them to, or of folks who will love them more than I do. 

This account, of course, has two sides, and many more details of everyday cruelties offset with moments of beauty. Harlem is a great neighborhood and I liked it up there. It feels like New York in a way Brooklyn or anywhere else I've lived doesn't. It's a close-knit neighborhood. I wish I could have afforded to stay, but it's just as well I couldn't. It doesn't need white people. It needs more well-paid Black folks loving it so people like me can go enjoy the great jazz spots, the restaurants, the architecture and art, and go home to elsewhere, leaving our money behind. I always felt a kind of guilt living in Harlem, and a lot like an interloper. Part of the problem, not part of the solution. So as much as I liked living in that part of Manhattan, I don't particularly miss it. 

As for the friendship that went south, well, after enduring four years of verbal abuse, false accusations, and irresponsibility, I don't miss that either. When people show you who they are, believe them.

Home Again, Home Again

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Fall in Bath Beach

The City of New York took a while to feel like home, but it's definitely that after 33 years. But nobody lives in the City of New York; you live in the neighborhood. In the run up to the move, I was forced to think about what I really require in a home and in a neighborhood. My previous moves have been opportunistic or of necessity. This time, I had the opportunity to find somewhere that felt like home, instead of having to wrest the idea from what I was given. I  had a cute, cheap apartment in Sunset Park, but the neighborhood was (then) pretty grungy and amenity-free. Parkchester was the closest to home that I've come, and I did love that apartment and neighborhood. But not the Bronx so much. Parkchester was an enclave, sadly, not part of a wider borough I felt at home in. Harlem was a great neighborhood that spoiled me in a lot of ways: great restaurants and bars, good grocery store, handy laundry, excellent cafes, libraries and bookstores, and a great commute. The building was seedier than it should have been, because it had clearly once been glorious, but the apartments had been chopped up and were tiny and claustrophobic, even without a roommate who, left to her own devices, would cover the floor knee-deep with her detritus. My bedroom barely held my queen-size bed, a dresser, my hope chest, and a dry sink. The closet was like a coffin. So was the room, after a while. I don't know how Jillybean survived in it for as long as she did. I'm not sure how I did, either.

I stopped looking for a new place in the Bronx after a while, disheartened by grunge and distance, and focused on Brooklyn. When I saw the picture of the building I'm in now, something about it just felt right. It was the third place I looked at on a really raw, rainy day and even in the dark, I knew this was it. I don't know what made it so, but I basically just told the realtor to take my money once we got inside. I gave them the down payment that night. Brooklyn feels like home and always has.

Some of my habitational requirements have been constrained by my accruing years. I'm done with non-elevator buildings unless I'm on the first floor. That's where I am now, with four steps up from the entry, and some days when I first moved in, it was all I could do to get up those. I don't know how I did four floors every day. I don't know how I dragged stuff up and down it. I want more quiet than I used to, and this is blissfully quiet. I want a neighborhood, like Parkchester, that I can walk around in and shop in, and Bath Beach is definitely that.

I'm still discovering its charms. Every workday, I stop and chat with Phyllis, my Jewish neighbor who feeds the pigeons at the end of the block. I say Ni hao! to the Chinese immigrant woman who fishes for cans and bottles in our recycling bins. Her smile is always luminous. The neighborhood is full of Chinese folks, storefronts in alphabets I can't read, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Russian, and Italian food markets. My neighbors are Polish and Russian immigrants and long-time Brooklynites. I haven't tried the restaurants yet, but there are several that look enticing. Still looking for a bar, but found a good diner and a couple of bakeries. I come home via Bay Ridge, and it half feels like an extension of my neighborhood, it's so close. I've discovered the good grocery stores (even the Key Food here has a great pasta selection; advantage of living in an Italian neighborhood): JMart, Net Cost, and the little Middle Eastern shop with barrels of turmeric and gram flour and a Halal butcher.

Being close to the water—smelling it, watching the freighters come in closer than I ever did on Lake Huron, hearing it crash against the breakwater—is heavenly. It's a low-rise neighborhood of two and three story houses and apartment buildings, tree-lined so heavily on my street that when I come home at night I have to have a flashlight in the summer. In the winter, Orion hangs in the sky over my building. I don't miss Northern Michigan, where I grew up, but I have missed being walking distance from water and seeing the stars and fireflies. On July 4th, there were 360 degree fireworks: Coney Island, Satan Island, on the bay, and behind us in the park. 

It's different out here, a bit more suburban, though still urban density without the high rises. I don't miss those either. Not quite car country like the interior of Bensonhurst or Satan Island. Enough of a commute to get some reading done again. If I had the heart for that.

Next! Next?

So here I am, back in Brooklyn, the borough where I started out in 1986, alone again in a 700 sq. foot ground-floor apartment half a block from the water, where I can see Orion in the winter sky and fireflies on the lawn (lawn!) in the summer. I have a hilarious, half-mad rescue calico whom I never meant to keep. I'm simultaneously deliriously happy, relieved, exhausted, and ... numb. I've never felt like this before, so I don't have words to describe it. I hesitate to call it PTSD because I don't feel traumatized; I might be a bit beaten up, but I'm pretty resilient. I'm not suffering anxiety, nightmares, or any of the typical symptoms of PTSD. I suspect what I'm feeling is more like exhaustion, and has more to do with staring down the barrel of 60, but also with various losses and the grief of those losses, and with the realization that I'm starting over.

I've lost half my furniture in the last two moves and what I've got left has had the shit beaten out of it by Roommate and her cats and time. I abandoned a lot of stuff out of necessity, not being able to afford to move it. Some the smaller stuff disappeared into the maw of squalor that was the Roommate's bedroom and rec (wreck) room over the course of five years. I need a new dining table and chairs (old ones were claimed somehow by Roommate, who insists I promised them to her), a new daybed (given away when it didn't fit in the new Harlem apartment), new accent chairs (one gave up the ghost in Parkchester, the other was ruined by the Roommate; neither owed me anything at their age). I've already bought a new, cheap trestle desk, where I'm writing this. But I can't yet afford internet service (work has graciously loaned me a mifi) and I need a promotion and better salary. Half my take-home goes to rent. I lost $800/month in disposable income between higher rent and paying back the tax man. Only a couple more months of the latter, thankfully. 

I've lost a lot more than possessions, though. I've lost my cooking chops, which is weird, because up until the last year when the building management ripped up our kitchen and never fixed it, I cooked a lot. Things I used to make with confidence come out tasting weird, or just wrong. Maybe it's the ingredients. I'm buying cheaper stuff than I used to. Or it's learning the quirks of a new kitchen. And not having good pans anymore. I've also lost my singing voice because once the Roommate moved in, I stopped using it. I used to sing all the time, and I'm starting to do so again, though I don't have any music equipment set up but my phone right now. I suppose that will come back too, the more I use it. In the meanwhile it's painful. I've always had a good strong voice and now I sound like a weak old lady who can't carry a tune. I'm afraid I might be one.

The worst thing is that I've lost the sense of who I am when I'm alone, and this is the thing I'm having the hardest time both explaining and dealing with. I think part of the reason is that my fantasy life has wandered off on its own somewhere. I used to have a rich and deep one, full of characters and plots that developed over weeks or months as I walked through my day. Now it's all empty up there. There's no people to "try on." The non-rent-paying boarders in my head that I used to joke about have vacated. I'm alone in my own head.

Alone, but not lonely. I do miss my cast of characters, but it's bliss having space to myself again. I just ... I don't know how to fill it. I don't mean the furniture. You should see the Pinterest boards I've got for that. I mean that I spent so much time on my laptop on FB, raising hell and instigating by way of distracting myself from my home situation that I don't know how to be in my own head, my own physical space, my own body anymore. I'm disconnected enough that I don't even know what that feels like, what emotions I have about it. Not dissociated, but not entirely present, either.  Here in body, here in intellectual capacity; maybe it's the emotions that haven't caught up yet. Disconnected, maybe. 

In that disconnection is my need and desire to hunker down on the weekends, stay indoors, and not see anybody. When I was living up in Harlem, I saw folks quite a bit, in part because it was a way of being out of Hell Apartment, and partially because, well, I like my friends. And I had more disposable income. Now that I'm alone again for the first time in five years, I kinda wanna just roll around in it. I cook, clean, do laundry, tease the cat, watch a show or two sometimes when the signal is good. I'm done unpacking and mostly with arranging, until I get more furniture to arrange, and I'm making small things. What I'm not doing is writing or reading, for various reasons.

Island&cat_sm
Jillybean contemplates the Maker Space

Until I moved, I hadn't had a work space of any kind for five years, and now have more than I quite know what to do with. It's not all set up yet. I haven't hooked up the desktop and its peripherals, or got the maker space quite the way I want it. There's not yet enough storage space to clear the island top for working. I haven't made any books in ages, but I've been doing teeny little craft projects related to the apartment since I moved in. Last night I bought two 12x12 galvanized steel tiles to make into bulletin boards and got out the washi tape to put a border around them. I've made a gazillion magnets out of my old pins and buttons. I miss the sewing machine I left behind because all of a sudden I have a bunch of things I want to sew.

But the beauty of writing is that you don't really need much of a work space for it. What you need the most of is headspace, and I've lost that, too, in my lack of privacy and retreat from my living conditions. I haven't written much in the last four years, either fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. For a while there I was churning out a lot of political pieces for the Cause. I had a frenzy of poetry after the election and that seems to have exhausted me. And fiction... pfft. I've had this next novel churning around in my head for years now and I cannot bring myself to even do the research for it. I keep looking for a way into it and everywhere it's a locked door. Even the fanfic is on hold. I've been doing mostly graphics at work, since that's my job, and even got to make a book there, but it's not the same. It's work. Sitting in front of this computer at a desk again, crafting something with words, feels good in a way that sitting at the one at work doesn't. I don't feel blocked, just empty. That's more disturbing.

I blame The Orange Dumpster Fire for some of my malaise (for everyone's). The shit show that is his regime (not administration; there is no administration. There are only cronies and sycophants.) has taken the heart out of many of us, and added to a lot of the anger I was already feeling with the Roommate. It changed and reduced what I could bear to read, changed the focus of my poetry (not for the better), stripped me of energy to do anything more than run my political action boards on FB (The League of Nasty Women, a clearinghouse for resistance actions and education and Against Trumpism, which is my personal shitposting about T-Rump), and march when I have energy.  Because I do not have that energy anymore, dammit. It's occupied too much of my headspace too, both being angry about how I'm living and being angry about the Orange Regime.

All this is a very long way to saying that I am Starting Over. I keep thinking about Lewis Thomas's essay "The Selves," which I've written about elsewhere. If I've written this long screed as a way to figuring out what the fuck is wrong with me, I think it's this: I'm between selves. I'm aging, and getting used to that. I'm alone again, and getting used to that. I'm not teaching anymore, and getting used to that. I've become far more politically active and opinionated, and getting used to that. I'm living somewhere new and working somewhere newish. I have a new cat. It's all new. The integration has not yet happened and I'm still disparate parts of a whole.

What a puzzle. Hope the pieces are all still here.


The Problem of Intent

Writer Moi I haven't been back here in a while, due to various circumstances I won't go into here. If any of Rob's class is watching this space, I just want to say hi. Hope you enjoyed the essay of mine that he assigned.

Anyway, I woke up this morning thinking about the word "intent," as I have been off and on for some time, for reasons relating to the circumstances mentioned above (more on that in a later, catch-up post). My ruminations finally solidified yesterday after watching an episode of Red Table Talk on Facebook (another reason I haven't been back here in a while—Facebook, not Red Table Talk). It's a good episode with Chelsea Handler talking with Jada Pinkett Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Jones about white privilege and parts of it are really painful to watch, mostly the bits from Handler's documentary, in which she interviews white women, mostly poor and conservative, about whether they think white privilege exists (they don't). Handler's own previous dumbassery on the subject is also pretty painful, but she's getting it right now, and that's what matters most.

But there's a point in the video where she tells a story on herself, illustrating her former dumbassery and the person who calls her out said, "It's not about the intention, it's about the reception." A little further on, Handler acknowledges that white people don't want to learn because it's uncomfortable to learn not to be an asshole or a bigot to other people, "you gotta go head first into deep things and get in trouble and say stupid things to learn how to say smarter things." All of which is true. Not just say smarter things, but know smarter things, I would add. The process of learning to be a good ally to people who don't have your privilege is hard and embarrassing and upsetting. It's heartbreaking and guilt-making to realize you've been walking through the world hurting people (if you're not a Rethuglican who enjoys that kind of thing; but I digress.) 

And then Jada Pinkett Smith says that key thing that I've been thinking about for ages now: "I think we gotta make some room for people to say stupid stuff sometimes," because racism has been going on for so long that most of it is unconscious now. People don't realize they're being racist unless it's pointed out to them (and that's where other white people need to get off their asses; it's not Black people's job to do that). She continues, "Not every—you know, not every action is racist." So while it may feel racist to the object of the action, it may not to the actor and it may not have that intent behind it. 

This is why intent matters—also. Not by itself, but in addition to reception. Because if we are doing our damnedest to be a good friend and generous person, to do the right thing, to not be racist, sexist, bigoted, insensitive, ableist, oblivious to the experiences of others, and we fuck up along the way, a little compassion helps fuel the struggle for everyone. There's a mental health element to this too, and Handler prefaces her part of the discussion with what seems like her irrelevant experiences in therapy to make this point. She spends a long time talking about her own struggles with pain and anger and how realizing how angry she was was because she was in pain was the thing that broke her open, finally, and got some real work done. When we're operating primarily on a foundation of pain (and here I walked away to go make my bed, because, yanno, pain), then the world becomes our enemy. Everyone becomes our enemy. Everyone is out to hurt us, to insult us, to fuck with us, plotting against us to make us miserable, being mean to us. Everything everyone says or does to us that hurts us (and when we're already in pain, this doesn't generally take a lot) is intentional. Because people are bad and mean and hurtful and fuck all ya'll anyway. I hate people.

And that's clearly bullshit. It feels right when we're hurting, and damn if there aren't days when I get up in the morning and look at the news and think What the ever loving fuck is wrong with you people? about nearly everyone in the world after seeing all the hurt we do each other. But to think the whole world is your enemy, that every person you meet, every friend you make, will ultimately betray and hurt you creates a huge number of problems and solves nothing. First, believing we are somehow important enough for individuals in our lives (never mind the rest of the world) to spend their time machinating about how to hurt us is one of the best examples of narcissism I can think of, and utterly delusional. That's like gaslighting yourself. It's also an example of flawed perceptions and expectations. It's our expectations of others, ultimately, that wounds us: expecting perfection, expecting an intimate and automatic understanding of our POV, expecting unearned unconditional love, expecting all the attention. Love people as you find them, and if they, in their own pain and rage, hurt you, love them from a distance.

Worse than this, though, is that anticipating injury from other people assures that this is all we'll ever get from them. Ever. Because everything they do will be an injury to us if we fail to see their intent and their focus. One of the last times my mom came to visit me here in New York, we were walking along the street and she said, in what was clearly a revelatory moment for her, "wow, people are really so focused on themselves that they don't really pay attention to anyone else." This was coming from a woman who agonized over what other people might think of her if she went out without looking perfectly dressed, perfectly coiffed, perfectly dignified, who was painfully self-conscious about how her disability made her look. I wish she had had more time to enjoy the liberation of that revelation. Because she was right about that. People are all dealing with their own pain, their own stuff, their own troubles, and hurting or judging you is not a high priority on their to-do list.

Unless they are so wrapped up in their own pain that they are going to lash out first, and there are some people who are that hurt, that broken. It's good to remember that it's still really not about you in those circumstance; if they are hurting and judging you, what they see  in you that they hate is almost always what they hate or feel insecure about themselves. Those folks have a lot of work to do that you can't do for them; all you can do is wish them well and get out of range. Because in their pain, they create more of it. This is what intentional, unexamined and institutional racism and sexism does to people. It creates a cycle of pain that needs work to be broken.

Again, this is why intent matters. If I'm hurting you out of maliciousness that's one thing; I need a slap upside the head and a boot in the rear. If I'm hurting you out of my own pain, that's more understandable but still not excusable; I've got some work to do on myself, then, and owe you an apology and an effort to do better. But if I'm hurting you by accident, because I'm learning to do better and still making mistakes, cut me a break please. Work with me. Call me out, by all means. I can't learn if I don't know I've screwed up. If it's really egregious, don't spare your anger. I can't rightly ask you to do that and I probably deserve it. But don't use my mistake to make judgments about what kind of person I am at the core, because then you're doing the same thing that bigots do. If you think I'm the kind of person who would intentionally hurt others, then we already have a problem of perception and reception on your end. And that's bad intent.


Closed Borders

Prick us
and we bleed
like all animals.|
And prick each other
we do
with guns and bombs and
fear most of all
until we see an enemy
everywhere
who does not look like us
as though our own tribe
were not capable
of the same atrocities.
Like the snailwe pull ourselves inside
our imaginary walls
and close the doors—
or think we can.
But the guns and bombs
are just tools,
the real enemy not other people.

When we look at each other
only through borders
we can’t see
what a wide and splendid world it is.

–For Beirut and Baghdad and Gaza and Paris, Nov. 14, 2015


The Valorization of the (Academic) 1%

Bad capitalistJason Brennan is at it again (Wayback machine link, just in case, because Jason has a bad habit of deleting anything that receives criticism he doesn't like) and I've decided to tackle him here, rather than on the NFM blog, because it's a waste of NFM resources to reply directly to this nonsense. But I'm happy to waste my own resources doing it. School doesn’t start for another week.

A quick recap: Brennan (PDF) surfaced a few months ago with an article (now deleted; see above) about how adjuncts (more on that term later) are responsible for their own suffering by agreeing to teach for poverty wages, when they could just go sell insurance instead (hence the moniker Prof. Geico). Not only is Brennan likely to delete his posts if they get too much of the wrong kind of attention, but he’ll delete comments he doesn’t like and both he and his crony Phillip Magness aren’t above closing of the comments portion of their blogs altogether while freely commenting on dissenting venues themselves. Brennan, as his group blog indicates, fancies himself a "bleeding heart Libertarian," which seems largely like an exercise in contradiction, since Libertarian hearts bleed for no one but themselves. In his new essay, "The Valorization of Envy," he proudly calls himself an "academic 1-percenter" whose work is certainly NOT made possible by the underclass of adjuncts teaching general education classes to free him up for research. That's probably more true now that adjuncts at his home institution of Georgetown have unionized.

Before we go much farther, a word or three about the term "adjuncts," especially as it comes into play with a crony of Brennan's, Phillip Magness, whom I also wish to address here. Within adjunct activist circles, the word "adjunct" covers a world of hurt: it generally includes any contingent faculty whose working conditions are precarious and untenured and/or off the tenure track: full-time contract professors and program managers with some benefits and security but almost always lower pay than tenured or tenure-track; part-time professors with extended contracts, paid by the credit hour; part-time professors hired semester to semester or "just in time"; part-time instructors who have full time jobs in industry (the original meaning of the term); part time instructors who rely solely on academic work for their income; visiting professors; graduate teaching assistants; postdocs. There are a number of terms used to refer to these working conditions: adjunct lecturer, adjunct professor, adjunct instructor, adjunct assistant professor, instructor, lecturer—you get the idea. In Canada and Australia, they are called sessionals, in the UK, fractionals. The problem with the terms is that universities are free to call these workers whatever they want, so there is no single term that covers them all or all the different positions they occupy. The commonality is in the precarity and exploitative nature of their positions, in contrast to the (now less so) security of tenured faculty, who, no matter how the statistics are cooked, remain a mere 25% of the faculty (down from 70%). So when I say "adjunct" in this essay, the term includes all these various working conditions. I'll come back to this when I address Magness's specious arguments.

On to Jason Brennan's newest essay.

In "The Valorization of Envy," Brennan sets out to critique Richard Goldin's Counterpunch essay, "The Economic Inequality in Academia." First, let me just say what a dick it makes you seem if you think that people working for equality and fairness in society are merely envious of "people like you." It also makes you look stupidly arrogant if you think everyone who's not like you envies you. It's like reducing Freud's concept of penis envy to the envy of the actual organ rather than the undeserved social power it represents. It's a juvenile argument that should be confined to the playground, but it's also one rooted in a deep fear that the people working for social and economic justice will redistribute the wealth before you get yours. And in a deep hatred of the very concept of equality. But enough of the free armchair shrinkage. Brennan's undoubtedly got a good health plan that would pay for the professional variety. But he'd have to admit his insecurities first.  

Reducing Goldin's analysis to an "envious rant," as I just reduced Brennan’s critique to a juvenile argument filled with ad hominem insinuations, doesn't replace sound argumentation. It's fun, but it proves nothing, and it really has no place in the academic conversation. Attributing motive and making personal attacks are the kinds of tactics used by those without solid ground to stand on. So let's see what kind of ground Brennan's on.

First we get the argument that there aren't as many adjuncts as the activists like New Faculty Majority (characterized on Phil Magness's twitter feed, especially me personally, as "crazy cat ladies") claim, for which, see above. Brennan cites his pal Magness, who makes artificial divisions based on the vague nomenclature used by under-reporting universities to characterize their precarious faculty. Aaron Barlow of AAUP's Academe blog posted a host of graphs to refute this, but again, it depends on how you define adjunct faculty. Unless Brennan and Magness agree to stipulate that non-tenure-track full-time faculty share issues with "just in time" part-time adjuncts, there's not much more to be said.

Part of Brennan and Magness's refutation of this idea of commonality is their focus on R1 universities like their respective institutions, Georgetown and George Mason. I'm not sure why they're so blinkered about this, except that they both work in such institutions. They are a small fraction of the total number of higher education institutions (around 400 or so out of approximately 4,700 total, not counting the for-profit sector). Where R1s fail to employ Magness's narrow definition of adjuncts, they happily employ and exploit graduate assistants and postdocs. More than one college has cut the number of part-time instructors to replace them with grad TAs because TAs come even cheaper and have a harder time unionizing because of their student status.

F-t-p-t-faculty-1Next, Brennan claims that "contrary to what everyone keeps saying, the number of tenure-track faculty slots has been increasing over the past 40 years." Nobody has said this. What we have said is that the proportion of non-tenure track to tenure track has been increasing. That's a big difference. Furthermore, the table he and Magness cite as proof actually shows the proportion of full-time to part-time, without any tenure distinctions at all. We can assume that part-timers are not tenured or tenure-track, but we cannot assume that all full-timers are tenured or tenure-track. But that same table shows the proportion of part-time to full-time hires narrowing drastically until they are neck in neck. So even if only half of those full-timers are untenured, the growth of untenured is still outstripping tenured. Here's a better graph illustrating that growth. Note the growing proportion of non-tenure-track faculty of both kinds, just from the turn of the century. It's even greater from the 1970s.

Next, after some more fun but semantically null snarkiness about postmodernists and Koch infiltration and accusations of lying about making minimum wage (the credit hour fallacy, anyone?) Brennan turns the lens back on himself again, reminding us that he is an "Academic 1 percenter":

I’m not making bank because Georgetown exploits adjuncts.  Martin Gilens isn’t making bank because Princeton exploits adjuncts. R. Edward Freeman doesn’t make bank because Darden exploits adjuncts. Rather, the exploited adjuncts are getting exploited elsewhere, at community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, third tier/low output “research” universities, and the for-profit colleges.

The implication, of course, is that Brennan's "making bank" because he's an academic hotshot.

First, I would ask him how many general education courses he teaches, and if the answer is none, who does teach them. Because that's generally where the adjuncts are. And because the adjuncts are teaching the most time-intensive courses with the most grading, that frees him up to do his research, while adjuncts, often scrambling between two or three institutions, have no time or monetary support to do research. While anybody can apply for a Fulbright, adjuncts are generally ineligible for travel funds to go to conferences and for sabbaticals to have time to pursue their own projects. That's just as true at Georgetown as anywhere else. In fact, Georgetown's own Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor produced a report that illustrates this. (See especially pages 9 & 10.) If Georgetown pays its adjuncts better than most places, it's because their union helped negotiate a good contract and because Georgetown has a long history of just employment practices as part of its Catholic ethos. Brennan seems not to realize that he benefits from those too, but more so than his adjunct colleagues. FYI, Dr. Brennan, Georgetown employs about 650 adjuncts. That's hardly the "few" that you claim. Perhaps they are invisible to you in your elite tower.

The next bit of Brennan's argument is largely an ego-driven assertion of the supremacy of research over teaching, of the sort I've heard before from people who don't like teaching. It's a chicken-and-egg argument without winners. They're both equally important. Some people do one better than the other, but it's impossible to say that research hasn't been overvalued in the academy when someone like Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, asserts that "It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964" with the pressure of publication currently in vogue.

Brennan then complains about Goldin's characterization of academic hiring practices as a lottery. I can see why Brennan doesn't like this, as it makes his own hiring look less merit-based. Again, that's not actually what Goldin says though. He calls it "something of a lottery" (a difference without much distinction, true) but then goes on to explain that hiring committees have been found to pretty much replicate themselves in their hiring practices: white, male, Ivy. It's one of the major problems in STEM disciplines, especially physics.

Finally, Brennan gripes peevishly, "If madjunct crowd [sic; adjunct activists] sincerely believed that academia is a lottery, they would not act surprised or indignant that they lost and would move on with their lives." In other words, just shut up and take what we hand you, whether you think it's just or not. I've got mine, fuck all y'all. This is apparently the best argument Brennan and his Libertarian tag-team partner Magness can make, because neither of them can do data analysis for shit.

In many ways, all of this is beside the point. The core issue here is the uncollegiality of Brennan and Magness’s attitude. As fellow educators, what is the point of their hostility to financial and labor equity for their colleagues? Or is it that they don't really see adjuncts as their colleagues? (Ironic in Magness's case, because he is one.) The phrase that comes to mind is “punching down,” because none of the people this dynamic duo are griping and complaining about have any power to do anything against Brennan and Magness but what I’ve just done: excoriate them in public via an obscure blog or some other publication. What they’re doing is a bit like kicking puppies. Or crazy cat ladies.

So what makes you all such shitheads? What are you afraid of if adjuncts gain equity in pay and position? Why waste your time on people who are virtually powerless? Why the name calling and derision? Who took your toys, boys?

 Crazy Cat Lady, huh?

Crazy Cat Lady
You want Crazy Cat Lady? Here. Let me get my Docs on.

 

 UPDATE: Phil Magness responds on Twitter (where I have been blocked) with more of his usual selective editing and complete lack of cogency. I guess I hurt his feefees, but it's okay if he slams an entire class of colleagues.

Cat lady response

 

 


Failure of Leadership: Money, Power, Privilege

RadicalMoiI'm generally a big picture kind of person, though my own focus for activism right now is pretty narrow. In case you haven't been watching my every move, I've been spending the last couple of years concentrating on education labor activism but my personal impulse is to be outraged by every sort of injustice: racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality, war, greed, you name it, I'm pissed about it. I've always believed that everyone should have equal opportunity, a fair and level playing field, and the right to be treated in every way with dignity as fellow human beings.

I have to give my parents credit for that. In many ways, they were a lot like Alice Dreger's Polish emigre parents. My dad was a working class, old school FDR/JFK Liberal and my mother was a deeply religious woman constantly outraged by injustice. Dad's belief in civil rights and free speech were unshakable and he had a real soft spot for underdogs, even if it did take him a while to come around to feminism. Mom was more the avenging angel type and would have gladly carried one of those Biblical flaming swords, had they been issued to mere mortals. So I grew up in a kind of Truth, Justice and the American Way household, without the jingoistic patriotism. In my house, everybody deserved respect and a fair break. Is that so hard?

It sure seems to be. And I've been thinking a lot about why, lately, as I get ready to teach my research course that focuses on economic inequality this summer. Human failing is the obvious "Duh!" reason for injustice, or what we more frequently call human nature. We have it in us to be absolutely selfish, vile shits, but we also have it in us to be amazingly altruistic. The sheer number of beautiful, generous, uplifting things we do for each other is one of the best parts of the internet, along with cat videos. We make cheap artificial limbs for kids and dogs. As individuals, we collect massive amounts of money for the victims of natural disasters. We turn our ingenuity to making the lives of refugees and the poor easier. We get out in the street and protest injustice even when popular opinion is against us, changing those opinions in the process.

OutofbalanceAnd still, what we see in the news, and in our lives, is a grossly unequal and unjust world where far too few people hold not just most of the money, but all the cards. Two immediate examples, one petty, one part of an ongoing battle: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration spawned, among other scandals, something called Bridgegate, in which Christie's cronies "conspir[ed] with Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly to close the lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to 'punish' the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie in his re-election bid." This doesn't sound like much; traffic sucks in New York and New Jersey most of the time anyway. But this was an intentional obstruction that created a public safety hazard and held up EMS vehicles, resulting in at least one death. Christie and his cronies grossly inconvenienced and endangered thousands of drivers and helped cause the death of a 91-year old woman because somebody didn't play pattycake with them.

I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

The second example, much more immediate and appalling is the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. Charges have just come down today against six police officers who not only illegally arrested Gray, but then proceeded to beat the crap out of him somehow in the back of the van he was being transported in. It's too early to say exactly what happened, but it seems clear that neither Mr. Gray's safety nor dignity were paramount in the minds of the cops who picked him up. His pleas for help were ignored and he was not secured safely in the back of the van. Somehow, he acquired a spinal injury that killed him between the time he was cuffed and when he arrived at the station. The New York Times has highlighted a practice called the "rough ride" or the "nickle ride" used all over the country to rough up suspects without having to physically touch them, a form of torture not quite as egregious as that practiced by the Chicago Police Department but nonetheless abhorrent.

A third example, larger and even more systemic than the deaths of black people at the hands of police, is the denial of living wages to workers all over the world, and the sequestration of the majority of wealth in the hands of a few, and the way that gets talked about by others with relative privilege. Far too often, as in the case of this white, male, privileged tenure track asshat, it leads to a rhetoric of blaming the victim for the very injustices under which they are suffering. Likewise this equally phantasmagoric piece by David Brooks, in which he asserts that poverty is not really about lack of money but social psychology. The poor are poor because they want to be, because they're lazy, because they're incapable of taking "advantage" of a broken public school system handed over to shysters, an overpriced higher education system that leaves them tens of thousands of dollars in debt, or of non-existent living wage jobs. Meanwhile, living in poverty has a whole host of deleterious physical, psychological, educational and social effects. So, we fuck children up by not helping to provide secure, healthy living conditions and then blame them for failing. It's a brilliant strategy with all kinds of denial of responsibility built in.

This is where we come to the title of this post. All of these examples illustrate a failure of leadership—or the success of a certain kind of leadership inimical to the welfare of the people these leaders are supposed to be serving. If we posit the idea that political life in a democracy (hell, any political life), especially leadership, should be grounded in morality, compassion, and justice, then the leaders have, in these cases, failed spectacularly. Or succeeded in upholding a morally bankrupt, bigoted, unjust social order. Take your pick.

Humans are herd animals, by and large. We like to be together, we like to be led, we like to follow for the most part (see also: crowd theory). Even so, we are rightly suspicious of the motives of leaders who emerge from the crowd. Lord Acton famously said "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." What seems to actually be true is that the exercise of power heightens already existing personality traits. If we are compassionate, moral people when we're given power or find ourselves in power, we tend to exercise it with those qualities in mind to the best of our abilities. Nobody's perfect, but we've had some truly compassionate presidents in my lifetime, and before (FDR, JFK and Jimmy Carter all come to mind, despite their human failings). We've had plenty of the other kind too: the sorts who are more interested in power and personal advantage than they are in service to their countrymen or anyone else. I don't think you need examples of those. *Cough*Bush-Cheney*Cough*

Money, however, seems to have a more universally deleterious effect on people. Money creates a buffer between us and the rest of the world. When we have enough of it to live comfortably, it reduces stress and makes our lives easier and healthier (see above). It also allows and encourages us to be generous. Poor and middle class people give larger percentages of their income to charity than the wealthy and uber-wealthy do. Anything in excess of a comfortable income seems to turn us into greedy asshats for whom there is never enough money. We think, hey, I've made it; I don't care about the rest of you. This kind of contempt is the polar opposite of what we should want from our leaders, whether they are political, financial, or intellectual leaders. Sadly, that's mostly what we've got now: police departments that see a large proportion of the people they serve as insurgents; educational leaders who see children as nascent criminals and sources of income; political leaders who see citizens as potential terrorists and their own nation as a battleground; business leaders who see natural resources as exploitable commodities.

Leaders like Chris Christie and the chiefs of particularly abusive police departments foster an atmosphere of contempt in which abuse, selfishness and cruelty thrive. Christie is known for being a particularly petty jerk who verbally abuses constituents who challenge his god-like self image. It's not surprising that his administration should cook up a juvenile scheme like Bridgegate. That's the kind of tone that Christie sets; he has all the diplomacy and maturity of a 12-year-old schoolyard bully. Likewise, the kinds of police chiefs who look the other way when their officers brutalize or racially profile the public they're supposed to "serve and protect" foster contempt for their own communities. Broken Windows policing sounds good in theory, but without including respect for the people in those communities, it fosters the idea that everyone who lives there is currently a thug, practicing to be a thug, or used to be a thug and might be again at any moment. We then stray far from the principle of innocent until proven guilty and common sense, not to mention the spirit of the law. And if our elected leaders allow the (often useful) paranoia of intelligence agencies to be the pervading attitude toward our nation's citizens, that fosters distrust, hatred, and disrespect of everyone who does not look like "us." Who that "us" might be in a nation of immigrants from all over the world eludes me, but there are plenty of "others" to go around in the minds of the frightened. Right now, it's Muslims who are the potential terrorists of choice, even though lone wolf homegrown white supremacists like Timothy McVeigh are far more dangerous.

What concerns me most in all of these examples is the almost complete lack of compassion for our fellow citizens. More and more we as both nation and individuals are exhibiting not just a lack of compassion but an outright contempt for others who have less power, less money, less luck, less stuff, less education, less privilege than we do, whoever we are. We are "punching down" more instead of lifting up. In the courses I teach, we talk about inequality and social violence of many kinds. Most of my students are first generation college students (like me); many are first generation Americans (like my dad). Most of them buy into the "work hard, get ahead" American dream and are shocked to discover it is out of reach for most of us. But when they read about the fraying safety net we have, they immediately bring up welfare queens and foodstamp fraud, even though many of them have used those services themselves. The rhetoric of our privileged leaders is teaching these kids not to work hard but to hate themselves and their families for failing when they can't realize the return on their own investments. It's hiding from them who the true culprits of their oppression are and turning them against each other. It's an excellent tactic for social control and our leaders are making very good use of it.

But this doesn't let the rest of us off the hook. We're currently living in a society that lionizes socio- and psychopathic personalities. If you think I'm exaggerating, think about who we admire most: hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, bankers—none of whom actually produce anything—the Forbes 400, most of whom (with some notable exceptions) are vile, exploitative creeps. Example: The Koch brothers (numbers 3 & 4), the Walton family (numbers 6, 7, 9 and 10). Even when they mean well, as I suspect Bill Gates (#1 with $81B) does, money seems to give them an excess of paternalism that is completely misplaced, as though knowing how to make a fortune means you have the intelligence to solve all the world's problems, or even know when there is a problem. Gates's meddling in education is a prime example. According to Bill, our public education system is failing and needs the expertise of Microsoft's genius to fix it. Instead of listening to actual experts in the field—you know, people who've been educators their whole lives, who have degrees in it, and years of study and experience—we should let Bill tell us what's wrong and how to fix it. And now we are eviscerating public education, and firing our best teachers on the basis of an untried testing regime that makes kids hate learning. But that's another post.

Worse than the moneymakers are the politicians, like Christie, that they buy with those billions: ultra conservatives like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann, Bobby Jindal, the Bush boys who apparently really hate poor people, women, minorities, immigrants, or anyone who can't give them money for reelection. Why do we elect these people? Evil must have better PR. We're not just voting for them though. We're validating their frightened, narrow, cruel worldview and often parroting it. We're encouraging their failed leadership and becoming part of the problem.

Stop voting for petty, mean, selfish assholes, people, lest you become their victims. Better yet, maybe it's about time the compassionate, honest people who care about justice showed the leaders we've got now how it's done.


Shock Parents! Enlighten Students! Embarrass Badmin!

Adjunct Wage Theft MoiTell your stories to PrecariCorps in 300-500 words. What's PrecariCorps and why should you care? If you're an adjunct professor anywhere, you know what the wages and treatment are like. Unless you're the kind of adjunct who has a full-time industry job and moonlights because you like to teach, you're making poverty-level wages for those contact hours, teaching up to 9 classes at multiple universities/colleges/on-line for profit diploma mills to make ends meet with no guarantee you'll have anything to teach next semester, let alone next year or over the summer. This is the new academic precariat and we're 75% of the faculty now. Our wages are a fraction of what similarly credentialed experts make in industry, yet we often can't get jobs outside academe because we're overqualified. That's a fine Catch-22, yet many members of the public don't know that their tuition dollars are not going to our salaries, or that their taxes are subsidizing us the same way we're subsidizing WalMart workers: via social services we need to pay our bills: Obamacare, food stamps, unemployment (if we can get it), WIC and other forms of welfare.

That's where PrecariCorps comes in. Their primary purpose is "Improving Lives and Livelihoods of Contingent Faculty with Hardship Relief Funds or Grants for Faculty Development. To accomplish our first goal, PrecariCorps will offer contingent faculty donations through one of our programs, the Hardship Relief Fund or the Grant for Faculty Development. Applicants may email a completed application to receive either a donation to help them pay one bill or help them travel to one conference." To this end, they're applying for 501(c)(3) status as a charitable organization.

Think about that for a minute. Imagine if public school teachers in pre-K-12 were dependent upon charitable donations to survive while doing their jobs, instead of making a middle class living (though that has become more rare now too). Imagine if engineers, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers and other highly qualified professionals were in the same boat. Would you want a doctor who couldn't pay off her med school bills and had to scramble for work among four or five different offices, never knowing where they'd be and making it impossible to see the same doctor twice? Oh wait, that's what it's like at many clinics for the poor. And we see how well that works by the mortality rates for the poor.

At the same time, professional administrators make many times what adjunct professors do, and never set foot in the classroom, never do the real work of a university, which is education. At many institutions of higher education, there are now twice as many administrators as faculty, full-time or otherwise. Twice as many.

Guess where that tuition money is going.

So to my mind, a large part of PrecariCorps purpose is to highlight the shame of our academic system which is being sucked dry by an overabundance of parasitical administrative positions at the cost of the quality of some of the best education in the world. Hungry, stressed, impoverished teachers don't and can't do their best work when they're worried about survival. No one does. It's time we decided who was more important in higher education and start supporting our educators and not via charity.