Mar 16

Picture Window

map of Africa from the 1911 Encyclpaedia Britannica

Map of Africa from the 1911 Enyclopaedia Britannica [source]

This is an old, old essay from my MFA thesis, posted in honor of the Shelter House Used Book Sale, happening again today from noon to 4 pm at 1925 Boyrum Street in Iowa City. Many of the books mentioned below are for sale there, as well as many other books you might actually want to read. Every kid who goes gets a free book, and proceeds go to support services for the homeless in Iowa City.

For four years, from third through sixth grade, I lived with my mother and our cat in a brown shingle house tucked far to the back of its lot on a side street near a large park in our small midwestern city. The house was an ordinary split level, ugly and unprepossessing, with a sad band of trees planted haphazardly in its yard: a tilted Russian olive, a sinking willow, a nearly barren pine, trees I climbed and sat in and put stones around, even in their brokenness. The house’s chief feature, and the reason that my mother bought it, was that in back, opening out from the living room, there was a library, added by the house’s previous owner, a lawyer, who moved out when he needed even more room for his books.

Although we gave away 108 boxes of books to my father’s former students and colleagues shortly after we moved in, we still had over 2000 volumes, which is what you get from the marriage of two Ph.D.s with eighty years of book-collecting between them.

My mother kept fiction and children’s books in the living room, and sci-fi novels in her room, but the mass of books was in the library.

The library had greenish-blue industrial carpet and a sloped ceiling. The wall on its higher side was made of bookshelves, and the wall on the lower side was dominated by an enormous picture window.

Out the window you could see our yard and into our neighbors’ and almost all the way to where the street dropped off into a sudden ravine. Over the years, fueled by enthusiasms from reading A Girl of the Limberlost and Gerald Durrell’s The Amateur Naturalist, I learned the rocks and plants and birds outside—shale and limestone, columbine and yew and wild rose, cardinals and chickadees and mourning doves with their low, insistent notes.

I spent a lot of time in this room, often looking out the window instead of doing math homework or practicing viola. But, especially as twilight darkened the window so that it reflected the space in time, my attention turned to the other wall, too, to the shelves and shelves of books.

They were arranged, I now realize, by the Library of Congress system, by genre and nationality and century. The volumes were elegant, many of them hardback, black or grey or blue or olive green or, occasionally, red, with gold leaf and lettering on their spines. The titles and the covers o f these books were as much a part of my landscape as any living aspect of the natural world: The Oxford Book of English Verse, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Studies in Words, De Boetheius, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse, and its companion, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, The Imitation of Christ, The Vagabond Scholars, The Greek Stones Speak, The Faerie Queene, and, at the bottom, the twenty-odd volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1911. Unlike the World Book at school, these encyclopedias, though alphabetical, were not separated a letter at a time, but in groups — ITA to LOR, one was called, LOR to MUN, MUN to PAY. I often pulled them out so I could wonder at their tissue-thin pages and unfold with care their delicate and ancient maps, as if they might hold some key to these lost worlds, these foreign words.

* * *

When people asked me what I wanted to be when I was a kid, I said a naturalist and a writer, which produced a certain degree of puzzlement, the latter being an impractical career and the former an obscure one. One could be a journalist or a scientist, but the desire simply to study nature and write of what you saw was, I suppose, peculiar.

The belief that nature has something to teach you, and that you can start from scratch, with the world around you, is as arcane to the world of science as the notion that you can read literature without theory is to the world of letters, but it was not always so. When Aristotle w anted to know how many teeth a horse had, he went out and counted them. That later generations took his word for it seems to me a sign not of progress but of an appalling lack of curiosity. Book-learning may help me identify the species of a bird or the meter of a poem, but what the bird and the poem have to teach me they will do themselves.

In college I was technically a Classics major, but I spent a great deal of time in the eighteenth century. It was an age that seemed to have much that the present one lacks. They all read Latin and Greek, they had intelligent and witty conversations, they never tolerated a fool, and even when they were angry, they were very, very elegant. But, most appealing of all, they seemed genuinely interested in human nature and natural law. All the men I read seemed to be natural philosophers — natural both in that they were observant of the ways of nature and natural in that their observations seemed to come from them, not through any critical or sociological theory. I read Hume on natural religion, Rousseau on man in a state of nature, and Montesquieu on natural law, and I wrote an entire term paper
on American natural history of the eighteenth century, when everyone was trying to figure out the nature of the New World, its new governments, and what Crevecoeur called “this American, this new man.”

But I also learned -— or was told -— that by and large, these men got nature wrong. Their ideas of order and equality left a lot of people out -— had I been around at the time, in fact, they would have excluded me by mere fact of my sex. Rousseau, that great proponent of noble savagery, had no desire to live amongst the “savages” himself, and abandoned his illiterate wife and five children to schmooze with the upper classes. Benjamin Rush, an American physician much enamored of Enlightenment philosophy, believed that black skin was a disease of the moral faculty (located, he posited, in the spleen), though by selective breeding, it might eventually be possible to purify the morals and thus lighten the skin. That phrase that Thom as Jefferson so charmingly altered to “the pursuit of happiness” was still understood by all to mean what John Locke had originally written, “the pursuit of property.” The prescription for manifest destiny and destruction was carved on the cornerstone of the country, and much of it, I was told, came from pondering not only nature but also the very books I had stared at in the library as a child.

Somehow, it seemed, I had horribly misread the words and the world. Growing up in that space where art and nature met had made me want to plunge more deeply into each. Apparently others were similarly impelled, but for them that plunge meant drilling for oil in the wilderness and arguing for the advancement of one group of people by the oppression of another. The effect was something like that of learning you and your worst enemy share a common ancestor or a fondness for the Gospel according to John -— yet it makes sense in a way, for what is enmity if not a belief that someone else is perverting that thing which is dearest to your heart?

Lately I have been reading Longinus, the first century AD rhetorician, in a translation with commentary done by my father and his former student and colleague, James Arieti. His chief work is On the Sublime, a treatise on composition that deals explicitly with questions of art (or technique, as my father and Arieti translate it) and
nature. Are poets born by nature or made through technique? An old question. Both, says Longinus: without nature, art would have no substance; without art, nature would have no form.

Always I find myself back in the library at dusk, watching the world as it fades and then reappears, as the trees turn to books and the leaves to words printed on a page. Always I remember searching for smooth flat black stones to place in a circle on the ground beneath a tree, and lying on the ground to listen and feeling something listening back. Always I remember the night my m other turned to the shelf, pulled out a volume, and read to me from Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Policy.

Now if nature should interm it her course, and leave altogether though it were but for a while the observation of her own laws; if those principal and mother elements of the world, whereof all things in this lower world are made, should lose the qualities which now they have; if the frame of that heavenly arch erected over our heads should loose and dissolve itself; if celestial spheres should forget their wonted motions, and by irregular volubility turn themselves anyway as it might happen; if the prince of the lights of heaven, which now as a giant doth run his unwearied course, should as it were through a languishing faintness begin to stand and to rest himself; if the moon should wander from her beaten way, the times and seasons of the year blend themselves by disordered and confused mixture, the winds breathe out their last gasp, the clouds yield no rain, the earth be defeated of heavenly influence, the fruits of the earth pine away as children at the withered breasts of their mother no longer able to yield them relief: what would become of man himself, whom all these things now do all serve?

See we not plainly that obedience of creatures unto the law of nature in the stay of the whole world?

Perhaps, then, these things, this space, are more than just a hall o f mirrors, art and nature, nature and art. Perhaps they were preparing me to walk that narrow, filmy spider’s thread that connects the ages, touching mountain peaks and hidden caves, galaxies and nuclei, tangled in spots and often invisible, but ever present, just waiting for you to find it.

Jan 16

On Resolution

an illustration of a woman sewing and the caption Little Things

An illustration from St. Nicholas magazine, 1873. [source]

In the late summer or very early fall of 1987, my mother and grandmother took me to hear Joe Biden speak at a picnic shelter in Upper City Park in Iowa City. He was running for president at the time. That was truly a golden caucus year — Bruce Babbitt, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, Paul Simon, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, and a few others listed here I don’t even remember. Biden dropped out shortly after we saw him, and my family transferred its allegiance to Bruce Babbitt, thus continuing with our long line of unsuccessful presidential candidates (Paul Tsongas ’92, anyone?). I believe Adlai Stevenson is the only guy we’ve liked who ever got a nomination. I missed the caucus in ’88 because I had strep, and I’m bummed out about that to this day, but a bunch of us at my grade school collected discarded stickers the next day and wore them around proudly till they unraveled in the wash.

But back to that evening in City Park. Biden gave a rousing speech to a few dozen people, most of them the same sort of upper middle class white professionals that we were. I remember he said damn once and changed it to darn. I remember he said every American high school student should be required to take four years of English (that got a lot of cheers). And my mother remembers that he said that even when school was boring (calculus was the example he used — sorry, mathematicians), it was still important.

In 2008, I was living in Wyoming, far from the land of the first caucus and the People’s Republic of Johnson County. I asked my mother whom she was caucusing for, and she said Joe Biden. “Why?” I asked.

“Do you remember when we went to hear him speak?”

“IN 1987???”

“Yeah. Remember how he said that education was sometimes boring but it was still important?”


“Well, that just really impressed me.”

“So you’re caucusing for someone based on a speech he gave twenty years ago… ?”


I tell this story a lot because of course I love to make fun of my mother (whom I love very much), but in actuality, I agree with its message.

I never planned to have children, and thus I never imagined what I would do with a child, or what I would want to teach one or instill in him. I have my doubts about the ability of parents to teach or instill anything in their children, but if I were to pick something, it might well be this: we don’t always get to do the things we want to do. Life isn’t all about fun. You don’t always get to do what you love. And that’s okay. There’s honor and dignity and meaning in all sorts of work, even the dullest. My job is far from glamorous. Once in awhile I get to talk on TV or radio. Once in awhile I get to clean up puke. Most of the time I deal with the cash register and try to make sure the desk schedule is taken care of and handle various problems. Even the parts of my job that sound exciting are often not all that. I order all the adult fiction for my library, which sounds great (and sometimes is, because I get to buy and promote amazing books like Love Me Back and Battleborn and After Birth and Women), but mostly it means that every month I order five copies of the newest James Patterson* novel, because my job is to keep all the readers happy, not just to pander to my particular tastes.

This time of year tends to be full of people Living Their Best Life, or pledging to, and casting aside the past year and planning for only bright and shining things ahead. And that’s all great. (I have a few plans myself — they include getting all my pictures framed and hung and finding black ankle boots that fit. Check back with me in a year to see if either of these things has happened. I have my doubts.) But I often think we don’t give enough credence to drudgery and toil and even ordinary mind-numbing work. It doesn’t matter how many great ideas you have — someone still has to collect the garbage. The folks who make our clothes and gadgets — including the black ankle boots I’m coveting and the fancy machine I’m typing on — still make wretched salaries, work horrendous hours in horrific conditions, and have very little of what we all might consider life.

I was of course raised not only on speeches by Joe Biden but also — and more importantly — on literature that posited a very specific kind of world view. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott and so many of the other books I read as a child were about nothing so much as stoicism in the face of deprivation. When Pa survives by eating the candy he was going to give the girls for Christmas, or when Laura wonders if she can bring part of the orange she gets at a party home to share, as she’s never seen an orange before, or when Marmee insists they take their Christmas feast to the poor family — these things have stayed with me, even if I don’t live up to their ideals. “We must never complain. We must always be grateful for what we have,” says Ma over and over and over again. I know there’s a lot to be said against that point of view. No one should be grateful for terrible working conditions or domestic abuse or rape culture. But absent the kind of horror you can and should fight against, there’s a lot to be said for it, too.

*It’s true that Patterson gives a lot of money to independent bookstores and booksellers, including here in my town. But buying multiple copies of books whose major plots involve women getting raped and dismembered always leaves a sick feeling in my mouth. Just handling book covers of hazy women’s body parts — and there are a LOT of these, not just by Patterson — makes me kind of ill.

Aug 15

The movement empowers the community: Steven Kanner, In Memomoriam

The fall of 2001 was not a particularly good time for anyone, but it was a particular kind of very bad time for those of us who are pacifists.

I taped a peace sign to the front window of my apartment with masking tape that night; it stayed there till I moved out two years later. It was a patched together thing, uneven, hopelessly hippie-ish, a sign to most, I would guess, that I could not be taken seriously. But I did it anyway, and I kept it up.

Those weren’t easy days. Neal Conan was hosting call in shows on NPR where he’d lambaste anyone who suggested maybe we shouldn’t be bombing Afghanistan. And that was NPR (which my friend, who’d been calling it Neoliberal Propaganda Radio, just started referring to as Nationalist Public Radio). I couldn’t bear to check any other major news source. A group of us met on an upper story lounge of the IMU a few nights after the planes hit to start a group to do something, and Iowans for Peace later did a lot of things — rallies and candlelight vigils and letter-writing campaigns and all the things you do to fight a force larger than you, one you know on some level you can’t stop but that you know you have to resist. And then you wonder at your metaphors — fight, resist, disobey — because all you ever wanted to do was create the beloved community, and here you are in the master’s house with nothing but the master’s tools.

But we met and we marched and we stood in silence, shielding lighted candles, and we wrote letters at a pizza joint downtown, because we cared about stopping the war, but also because we cared about each other. And so sometime that fall when some people started talking about going down to the SOA protest that year, I decided to go along.

Steven Kanner’s sister Rebecca was serving a prison sentence at that time for civil disobedience at the annual SOA march a year or two before. Steven had been going for some years, and likely he was the impetus for the trip that year. I knew Steven as the progressive on City Council, the one who came to Students Against Sweatshops events, the one took us seriously, as he took everyone seriously. I also knew him as something of a doofus, a guy I knew and liked and respected but that I knew no one on Council, and few in town, would ever take as seriously as he took us.

We had a few meetings, rambling affairs held on the porch of the coop house in town, where people would half talk politics and half strum guitars, and then we took off in caravan. My friends Meg and Erica and I took my car, Steven and our friend Karly and a WWII resister whose name I’ve forgotten were in the next, and the rest, whom I can still picture but can no longer name, came in a third.

The times were awful, and the cause was deathly serious, and the drive was long, but it remains suspended, as some drives do, in a magical, out of time place. Meg and Erica and I lost track of the caravan at some point because we got so dreamily distracted singing along to “Rocky Mountain High.” None of us had cell phones yet, but we found each other again somehow. We drove through the night, taking turns, and pulled into a Waffle House in Georgia just at dawn. We stood in the parking lot, dazed, exhausted yet awake, blinking slightly, and Steven — of course Steven — insisted we all do a sun salutation, which he led us in, right there in the parking lot: nine pasty white Midwestern hippies doing poorly formed yoga in a deep South Waffle House parking lot as the sun rose. That was Steven all over.

That night we settled into our rooms at the motel, and Steven — of course, Steven — organized a group to go watch the Leonid meteor shower, and of course I did not go. I don’t remember if it was that night or the next day, but at some point Meg came to me and said, “Oh God, we’re in trouble.” What was it? I asked. “You know Karly rode down all the way next to Steven?” she said. “Well, she just came and told me, ‘Steven and I are in love!’”

We rolled our eyes and sighed, certain we knew better, sure this was going to end in more heartbreak.

We were wrong, of course — or if we were right about the heartbreak, we were wrong about its cause or its timeline. Meg is dead now, and the School of the Americas is still there, and we are still at war. And now Steven is dead, too.

But we were wrong about their relationship, which started that trip and carried on. We were wrong to doubt love and faith and strength, which are the only things, ultimately, that keep us going — the things themselves, and the memory of them. Meg and I talked about that a lot, when she was still here, and writing now I feel her chortling with me still — chortling and then weeping.

This has ended up being more about me, and about Meg, than it is about Steven, which is wrong for Steven but reflective of him, too, and the ways in which he cared for others above himself at all times.

I knew him very little, really, and I learned very little about him. It is my loss. I’ve been reminded in these past weeks of a story someone told at my own father’s memorial service — an old rabbinic tale about “a scholarly and pious man who was repeatedly and brutally rebuffed by those to whom he tried to impart his love of truth. Finally he was asked by a sympathetic man why he persisted in the face of continual failure. He replied, ‘At first I spoke to change people and when I realized I could not change them I kept speaking so that they would not change me.’”

That story is one part of Steven — the part we all know that loved social justice, the part that, as another old friend of our said, was “at odds with a world at odds with justice.” But as I’ve thought about it more I’ve realized it isn’t nearly all of him: for Steven wasn’t simply a person who spoke out against injustice and continued against the odds (though he was that, too). He was a person who in his own life created the beloved community.

We live, I think, by these moments of grace that come in the midst of chaos and tragedy and fear and boredom and nitwittery. Mostly you work and grocery shop and pay bills and do dishes. Sometimes you drive insane distances to protest human rights abuses and don’t get enough sleep and eat too much bad road food and possibly have no effect on the state of the world at all. But then sometimes you find yourself with your friends, doing sun salutations in a parking lot.

Steven lived more of those moments than anyone else I know, and he was better at creating them than anyone I have ever met. I wish I had paid more attention and shown up more.

At the last hootenanny I remember going to before I left town, or before Steven and Karly did, we sang Phil Ochs’s “When I’m Gone.” I’ve always thought of it as the depressive’s social justice anthem, in that it lists both all the pleasures and all the responsibilities that one can’t enjoy or take on when one is dead, so, as the refrain goes, “I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.” Steven was a far more energetic and upbeat person than Ochs, or than me, and when I let his spirit in, it’s talked me out of many a funk—as it has many others, I would venture. I guess we’ll have to do it on our own now, but with the memories and moments he created to guide us.

Jan 15

A Birth and a Choice

Today marks two things: It is my son’s third birthday and it is the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I assume that at least one of my readers will be concerned that I connect those two events, but to me their link is crucial. For a long time I wasn’t sure what exactly made me decide to have my son. The other day I realized: I was free to choose to have a baby because I knew I didn’t have to.

Like almost half of the women in the United States who get pregnant, I did not plan to get pregnant. In fact, I went to considerable trouble and expense — $500 out of pocket and three visits to a clinic 30 miles from where I lived that was open only during the hours I worked — in order not to get pregnant. Like all birth control, though, mine had a failure rate, and I am one of its number. (That I did not ever get pregnant while using much less reliable methods of birth control, or pure blind luck, still strikes me as deeply ironic.) Look around you: half the women you see with children did not plan to have them (half the men, too, presumably). That is a lot. Look again: one in three of those women will have an abortion during her lifetime. That is a lot, too. I offer these statistics not as reasons to mourn or to celebrate. I offer them as facts, like the rocks beneath your feet that may trip you, like the water in which you will either sink or swim. What I hope for is not so much a change in any particular policy as a change in attitude, one where pregnancy is seen as what it is — something bestowed at random, just as frequently coming to those who hope to avoid it as it avoids those who seek it. (It is also not lost on me that the day I took a positive pregnancy test is also the day I read my friend’s story about IVF.)

Abortion rights are perhaps the most heavily euphemism-ridden of all modern political issues, so we end up with “pro-life” people fighting the “pro-choice” people. I tend to say I am pro-abortion rights, as I find it less dodgy than the pro-choice formulation, and, like most people, for many years I was uncomfortable with saying I was pro-abortion. I’ve changed my mind on that, though. I am pro-abortion. I am in favor of recognizing it as a reality, as a necessity, as an inalienable right.

Roe v. Wade was decided, according to my limited understanding of the law, as a matter of privacy — that a woman’s right to her body and to privacy in the decisions she made about it outweighed the state’s interest in her body and its offspring. That’s still a good argument, and it’s still the right one, but it positions abortion as a thing that must always be private, and what is private is often seen as shameful. I am on the side of those who fight shame with openness, and thus I greatly admire (among other things) the work of the Sea Change program and this excellent op-ed piece by Merritt Tierce (really, just go read it — it’s much better than anything I’ve written here). And thus I write this here.

There’s a picture of me on the history wall of the Emma Goldman Clinic here in Iowa City. I was standing near the front of a Roe v. Wade anniversary rally when I was fifteen, and some of the organizers knew me from the anti-war movement, so I was asked to hold the amplifier for the primitive PA system the speakers were using. I was standing right by the speakers, and thus my picture got in the paper with theirs. Twenty four years later I am living back in the same town with my son who is, as the former director of Emma said to me when she met him, “a chosen child.” I would choose him all over again, and I do, every day. But my independence and my ability to do so come, so much, from knowing that I have that choice.

Jun 14

An Open Letter to W. Bradford Wilcox, Robin Fretwell Wilson, and the Editors of the Washington Post

Dear Mr. Wilcox, Mrs. Fretwell, and Editors:

I am writing to ask for your advice on how I might go about getting married. I’ve just learned that, as an unmarried woman, I’m at increased–one might say terrible–risk for sexual assault. Since I’m also the mother of a small child, I’d like to make sure I minimize the risks to myself, and to my child, as quickly as possible, and according to your op-ed of June 10, the best way for me to do that would be to get married. The subheadline even proclaims that “#yesallwomen would be safer with fewer boyfriends around their kids.” [Note: the original subheadline actually read “the data show that #yesallwomen would be safer hitched to their baby daddies.”]

Clearly you have the data on your side. Indeed, you’ve convinced me with your links that not only am I unsafe as an unmarried woman; my child is at risk, too. I’d like to end that situation for both of us as soon as possible, but I have one problem: how do I go about getting married?

Let us set the stage here a bit. I’m a 38-year-old heterosexual* white female with two masters degrees. I live in a community with excellent schools and a low crime rate. People tend to assume I’m married. Just this morning the dental hygienist asked what my husband did. A medical assistant once asked me if she could just put husband on her form, because my situation sounded “too complicated.” (I assume “baby daddy” was not in her drop-down menu.) My child’s father and I are friends but we do not live together and we never have, and we have never married.

I suppose the obvious answer might be that I should marry him, since we have a child and we get along, but, you see, I’ve asked him if he wants to get married, and he said no, so that’s out. As a WASP (well, mostly–there’s Native American blood on my father’s side and Jewish blood on my mother’s), I wasn’t raised in a culture that does arranged marriages, so I’m not in a position to ask my parents to find a husband for me. (Actually, my mother would also like your advice on how to get married in order to protect herself. She was widowed 33 years ago and thus also raised me mostly as a single mother.)

The obvious answer to my problem would seem to be that I should date, but I’m concerned about that, because it sounds as though having a boyfriend would create enormous risk for both my child and me. The report you quote notes that “only 0.7 per 1,000 children living with two married biological parents were sexually abused, compared to 12.1 per 1,000 children living with a single parent who had an unmarried partner.”

So I’m stymied, and I’m asking for your advice. How do I find a husband without first finding a boyfriend? Should I have accepted the one proposal of marriage that I did once receive, from a man outside the Omaha, Nebraska Greyhound station when I was nineteen? He approached and asked me if I was married, if I spoke English, and if I would like to get married. I said no and yes and no. Was that the wrong thing to say?

I would very much appreciate any assistance you might give. With a toddler and a full-time job, I don’t have a lot of time to date anyway, and clearly if I could just skip that step and go right to getting married, we’d all be better off. (At least I think so–your studies don’t seem to indicate what the risk factors are for a child living in a home with a nonbiological parent that their biological parent is married to, only those for when the parent in question is living with someone they aren’t married to.) Or, of course, I could just go on being single. It seems to have worked for us so far, but I hadn’t been aware before of the terrible dangers I was facing.

I understand that you have busy jobs and lives yourselves, but if you could help me out here, I would be be forever in your debt.

Laura Crossett
*For the sake of brevity, I’m not even addressing here what the situation might be for unmarried homosexual, bisexual, or transgender women, many of whom do not have the option of getting married even if they have a partner and would like to do so.

Feb 14

I’d Rather Be Smart: A Review of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

book cover of How to Work for a Woman Boss

Possibly the worst awful library book out there, happily now gone from our collection.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is a book written by a privileged white lady for other privileged white ladies, and most of the criticism of it — much of which I agree with — is based on that limitation. I needn’t rehash it here. It did dawn on me, though, while listening to her book (as read by Elisa Donavan), that if I were going to dismiss books by privileged white ladies written for other privileged white ladies, I would also really have to dismiss A Room of One’s Own, which was, after all, based on talks Virginia Woolf gave to the early 20th century British equivalent to the graduating class at Barnard (which Sandberg addressed in 2011). Thinking about that leads to all kinds of places I don’t really want to go, along the lines of I should just shut the hell up because I am just another goddamned privileged white lady talking. That’s a worthwhile pursuit, to an extent, in that it’ s important to consider what one might do (or not do) to increase the diversity of the voices that we hear. Unfortunately for me it usually ends not with me coming up with radical new plans for myself and society but rather with me thinking I should probably either kill myself or quit my job to do something more demeaning or ennobling, or both.

So instead I’ll say that I decided to approach the book both as a laugh (because really, it is kind of funny to hear a near-billionaire discuss her difficulties with having it all) and with at least the possibility of an open mind. And I was down with that for quite awhile. I was grooving on all the statistics she and her research team dug up on all the ways that women are dismissed and overlooked professionally, a few of which were even new to me. I was even kind of digging her attempts at humor (doubtless aided by her cowriter, Nell Scovell). Then I got to the part of the book where she’s discussing high school and how she was known as the smartest girl in the class, and “who wants to go to the prom with the smartest girl in the class?” And then I knew for certain that Sheryl Sandberg and I are and always have been engaged in fundamentally different projects.

I didn’t want to be the smartest girl in the class. I wanted to be the smartest person in the class. I still have and treasure a geometry test on which I got the highest score and, if I recall correctly, the only A. I beat my friend Aaron (who now works at Microsoft). I was pleased as all get out that my thrown-together the night before term paper for German class got an A+ when the smartest guy in the class, who had actually worked on his paper, only got an A. I was properly miffed when an English teacher commented that my paper was good but probably too out of reach for the seminar audience of high school students for whom it was intended.

So yeah, I wanted to be smart. And I didn’t aspire to go to prom. I wanted to end the war (the “first” Gulf War took place my freshman year of college). I wanted to keep Operation Rescue out of my town (they visited my sophomore year) and out of everyone’s town. I wanted to learn more and do more and go more places, on the Greyhound, if that’s what it took.

Sheryl Sandberg wanted — and wants — to change the world, too, and it’s undoubtedly true that her work with the US Treasury, Google, and Facebook has changed the world far more than I ever have or will — for better and for worse.

I suppose ultimately my objections to the book aren’t that it offers bad advice (it doesn’t) or that its facts aren’t good (they are). It’s that it’s shallow. A world that she envisions — one where half of companies and governments are run by women and half of households are run by men — will still be one with rampant poverty, disease, and homelessness. I don’t think that having women in charge of governments will change the unemployment rate or make transgender youth feel safer in their homes and their communities. It could do a lot of good. I would love to see better maternity care, from pregnancy parking for everyone (not just senior executives) to affordable prenatal care for all, and I do think those things are more likely to be enacted by women.

Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time includes, as I recall, several passages describing the main ongoing argument in her corner of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s — is the problem men or capitalism? — and I suppose as I read what I’ve written here that I am coming down on the side of capitalism. That’s not surprising. It was also in high school that I began to think it was the worst economic system out there (aside, of course, from all the other ones that have been tried). I still think that, and I’d like to see something better come along, though I’m not sure what that is yet.

As I was listening to the book, I kept thinking, “Oh, that, I have to write about that,” where that was yet another example of privileging the prom over, I don’t know, authenticity and revolution. I’ve forgotten what all those instances were now, of course, because I listened to the book in bits and snatches in my car only at times when I wasn’t driving my toddler around, since then we have to listen to the Beatles. They sing about how you ain’t gonna make it with anyone carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, and I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with that song. I’m not in favor of destruction, but I’m not at all sure it’s going to be all right. Sheryl Sandberg has a lot to say about how you are and aren’t going to make it, too. She probably is right, but I don’t want her to be.

Nov 13

Thanks, Birth Control?

Like, I suspect, many women (and I hope a few men), I have a complicated relationship with birth control. Specifically mine is complicated because I spent $500 out of pocket on an extremely reliable method (0.2 percent failure rate, according to the CDC) that failed. I chose to have that baby, and now I have a wonderful toddler. But I still give money to the National Network for Abortion Funds when I have the chance. And I still wish, more than anything, that I could redistribute fertility, and grant some of mine — if not all of it — to those who struggle.

Today I learned from Bitch that it’s National Thank Birth Control Day, and my feelings were, as usual, mixed. A friend said I ought to post, just to be on the record, so I made this tweet:

I have a great toddler. #thxBirthControl Of course, I also had a great run before my birth control failure.

— Laura Crossett (@newrambler) November 12, 2013

Then I mentioned it to my mother, who wondered if Big Pharma was behind the whole thing. I’m a librarian, and, after smacking my forehead for not checking into this first thing, I did a little digging. The answer? No, Big Pharma is not behind this. But the organization that is gives me a little pause. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy states in their mission that they hope, “in particular, to help ensure that children are born into stable, two-parent families.”

Almost half of pregnancies are unplanned. 10 million American women — 12 percent of all households (not just those with children) are single mothers to children under 18. [Table 4] It may be admirable to want to change those statistics. But it does nothing for the real lives of the women already living in them. It does not feed, shelter, or clothe them. It does not (though thankfully the Affordable Care Act does) provide them with affordable contraception. It does not make them feel less ashamed, guilty, or afraid.

Ironically, it was also today that I came across an article about the closing of the Florence Crittenton home in Lexington, Kentucky shutting its doors. That home, and the many others like it, were where girls were “sent away” in the days before readily available birth control and before Roe v. Wade — the days when being pregnant and unmarried was shameful, something hidden, sometimes even from your own siblings. (The comments on my post about the home on MetaFilter have yet more stories.)

I was 35 years old when I got pregnant unexpectedly. I had a good job and enough money to buy a house, which I did. I had the support of my family and friends and the baby’s father. And that pregnancy was still the hardest and most horrible time I have ever been through. I support easy access to birth control and to abortion, and I work for both those things. But what I wish, more than anything, is that we could stop with slogans and start with conversations, conversations about how frightening, and difficult, and sometimes unstoppable, our lives really are.

Aug 13

Working on a Dream

Peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread, and grapes. That’s what Hilda packed for me for lunch on August 28, 1993, after feeding me a breakfast of eggs and toast and scrapple. “This is what I packed for them back in ’63,” she said, “because it would spoil on the bus, and they couldn’t stop at restaurants.”

Hilda was the mother of my mother’s best friend from high school, Rachel, who had ridden a bus from Chicago with an integrated group to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. That’s why they couldn’t stop at restaurants, of course: few if any would have seated a mixed-race group in 1963. Their high school had its prom at a fancy hotel downtown that year, because no place in the suburbs would accept interracial couples.

I was staying overnight with Hilda, who by then lived in Washington, DC, near the National Zoo, the night before the 30th anniversary of that march, whose 50th anniversary was today. The next day I’d meet up with my best friend and then ride home on a bus that was half International Socialist Organization, half NAACP. A few days later we started our senior year of high school, wearing our tshirts from the march, as Rachel had gone back to start her senior year of high school from the original one (where, I must admit, I doubt they sold tshirts). I had been out east with my mother visiting colleges, the very sorts of colleges that many of the white civil rights volunteers in the South in the 1960s attended, the sort that I myself attended a year later. We ended our trip at Swarthmore, and then my mother put me on a train from Philadelphia to DC, where Hilda met me at the station. That night I started reading a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany that was in her guest room, though I still haven’t finished it. The next morning I took the subway to the Mall and met up with my friend near the Washington Monument.

I remember very little about that day because it was very, very hot. It was the kind of heat we had today in the Midwest, only multiplied by tens of thousands of bodies surrounding the Reflecting Pool and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where so many people got  up to speak that day and where so many of my heroes had spoken before. I know that Rosa Parks spoke, but I do not remember what she said. Mostly I remember an endless search for people selling water, in tiny six-ounce bottles for $2 each, highway robbery for water in 1993, but it seemed I could never get enough to drink. And I remember the seas of people in colored tshirts, like slices of a pie chart. There was the NAACP in one color, then the AFL-CIO in another, then some smaller union or state delegation in a third and a fourth and a fifth. I remember the tshirt vendors and wish to this day I’d bought the better looking $10 tshirt, which was white on black, instead of the cheaper $5 one, which was white with yellow and blue lettering. And I remember that on the bus ride home, our first stop was at a strip mall pizza joint outside district, a place where we were so rambunctious from exhaustion and dehydration that we left a tip for nearly fifty percent of the cost of our meal by way of apology.

It was, in short, the sort of experience you go to not so much because of the experience itself but so that you can say that you were there. I wore my tshirt back to school with pride, though no one seemed much impressed. But I was impressed. I had been there. I had been there with my best friend, who had been to the 20th anniversary with her mother when she was seven. I had stayed the night with the mother of my mother’s best friend, who was there for the big deal, the real thing, in living memory. I was there.

Later I would read about the problems with the March — how a lot of the SNCC kids hadn’t even wanted to go, how John Lewis’s speech had been censored (or toned down, depending on your point of view) so it was less critical of Kennedy, how a lot of the real activists thought it was just a big show. I got a bit cynical myself. I’d been to a few other marches on Washington, and after awhile they all start to seem the same. Take the bus (or drive, in my later, more decadent years) for twenty-four hours, get out and protest for eight hours, get back on the bus. Listen to a lot of people speak for three minutes each. See the event get no news coverage whatsoever, except perhaps for a picture of a guy on stilts (“why do they always take a picture of the guy on stilts?” my late friend Meg would say) or a giant puppet.

Later still I’d be in Wyoming watching the inauguration of Barack Obama in a school cafeteria, where it was being shown under duress. I stood in the back and cried, knowing that no matter what a disappointment Obama already was, or what a disappointment he would prove to be, that there was something miraculous about this, something to take note of. My friend Tim said some years previously that he assumed we’d have a black man as president before we had a woman, but that he’d probably be a Republican. I thought that was probably true but that it wouldn’t happen in our lifetime, and yet there was a black man being inaugurated. There was Aretha Franklin singing. There it all was, streaming through on a TV in a room full of tense white people, and me, crying.

Today I had the 50th anniversary of that great March on Washington streaming on the second monitor in my office, though I only got to watch bits and pieces of it. The other day in the car I broke down in tears listening to bits from John Lewis’s speech there on Saturday, and I went in to my son’s daycare and attempted to explain to them all what it meant. I was there twenty years ago, I said. I was there. “Oh, you must have been a child!” someone said in response, I assume in an attempt at flattery.

I’ve seen at least three stories lamenting the lack of a Republican presence at the event — amusingly enough, from the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, and MSNBC — bipartisanship exists in the media, people! Mark the day! I get the lament, but in a way I am glad. Dr. King was not bipartisan, although he was no great fan of any party. But he was explicitly political. His was not the politics of flags or commemorative postage stamps of inventors and entertainers. He was not, in his lifetime, someone everyone got behind because he had a dream. He was a leader in a movement that wanted to cash a check, that wanted jobs and votes and admittance as full-fledged members of society, not just drinking fountains and abstract ideas about character and freedom.

It’s pretty common in my circle of friends for people to post links every MLK Day to “A Time to Break Silence,” King’s speech opposing the Vietnam War, or to mention that he was speaking to striking sanitation workers when he died, or to talk about how yes, he did associate with Communists. But all of that is rare in official King celebrations. Making his birthday a national holiday was a triumph in many ways but also a disservice in some ways to the causes for which he fought.

Eradicating racism isn’t just about loving your neighbor and joining hands (although perhaps a little more loving your neighbor would have saved Trayvon Martin, and Amadou Diallou, and countless others before them). It’s about figuring out how to end the discrepancy between the black population of Iowa as a whole and the black population its prisons. It’s about ending the (sadly) quite reasonable fears that people of color have about being stopped by the police or even about being doubted in customer service transactions. It’s about people like me — people who think of ourselves as enlightened and with it white people — reading about how it’s actually not really helpful or cool to describe times we’ve witnessed racist behavior to people of color, because it just reinforces to them that such behavior exists rather than making us look cool for recognizing it.

So Republican leaders were invited to today’s commemoration and they didn’t show up? Well. Perhaps that should tell you something. Perhaps that should tell us that Dr. King isn’t just a faded memory, the sort of person you dig out when you want to think harmonious thoughts and sing “Kumbayah” off key, but with feeling.

Today I ordered a poster of the famous photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X standing side by side, smiling. I’ll feel like a little bit of a white girl poser when I hang it up in my office, but it will also remind me of something important: that both men are people my mother told me were important. Both were people she let me stay up late or go out at night to learn more about. Both had dreams, and both worked on those dreams through any means they found necessary.

The pie chart of colors I saw at the 30th anniversary march in 1993 was beautiful and inspiring but also depressing, as if each slice of the pie were only there for a part of the dream. I didn’t see that color coding on the Mall today, though perhaps that was due to the rain. I don’t have a solution to it. But I want to try. And I want to believe.

May 13


For many years, I carried a keychain with a key to my grandmother’s house (which was never locked), a key to the house of some old family friends, and a key to whatever dorm room or apartment or I was living in at the time (which was also rarely locked). Sometimes I had the keys to the apartments or houses of other friends, or places where I was house or petsitting. Notably absent from this list, even during the times I lived there, was a key to my mother’s house.

From the ages of seven to eighteen I went every summer but one to camp in Maine. A counselor would pick me and other campers arriving then up at the airport in Portland — my flight always arrived in the late afternoon or evening — and drive us back to camp, where my trunk had been shipped and was waiting for me in my cabin. I’d dig around in my pockets and my carry on bag for my trunk key. I’d try to remember the last time I’d seen it or used it. Not to lock the trunk — it locks automatically when the lock falls into place. But surely, surely this year I’d remembered that I always had this problem. But I hadn’t. I couldn’t find the key, and I’d go to the dining hall for a knife and force the lock open. I still have that trunk. The last time I locked it was in November 2010, when I was packing to move back to Iowa. I was sure I had the key. I’m sure I do, still, somewhere, but I don’t know where, and my skill at popping open the lock with a knife is gone.

I have the key to the u-lock for my bike but not the u-lock. There’s a cord with a MasterLock currently locked around my bike handles, but I don’t have the key to the MasterLock, though I have some keys that I think perhaps go to another padlock that I can’t find. I have small appliances without cords and and cords without appliances, containers without lids and lids without containers. Along with the detritus that all but the most skillful of us collect over a lifetime, I seem to have acquired a particular talent for missing pieces.

There is not much you can do with such a life but make art from it. Even that is suspect, of course. No one in her right mind could stand to read a story that began “My life has consisted of locks without keys and keys without locks,” and you’ll notice that I did not start this story that way, although saying you lack a key to your own mother’s house may sound even more maudlin. (Sorry, Mom.)

Motherhood has many gifts, but it will rob you of any illusion you might have had of independence and competence like a thief in the night. A more enlightened person than me might regard that as a gift, too, and come to Jesus, or at least Hillary Clinton, on the subject of it taking a village to raise a child.  I am not that person, though (despite having found Jesus long ago), and I resent the things I no longer am able to do for myself due to lack of time or energy or talent or strength. I regularly broke into my own house as a child, climbing in through windows or piling things up so I could climb up to the back porch and get in through the porch door. I cracked that trunk lock open with nothing but a ten-year-old’s strength and a table knife. I hiked miles alone in the wilderness in Wyoming and trained myself one summer to ride up the Benton Street hill in Iowa City. These seem, in the face of attempting to install a child bike seat, like simple pursuits, things I could do on my own, things that required no tools save the ones that were to hand and no strength but that I had or could develop in myself.

I often believe once I’ve found the first line of something that it will write its way to an ending, and often it does. When it doesn’t, I tend to abandon it as a failed start, an idea that doesn’t have an essay in it, or one that I haven’t found yet. I’m not sure what the ending here is, except that there isn’t one. We are always who we are, and I will likely never find my trunk key, or never learn to keep track of it. I may start to tell people that it, and everything else I’ve lost, are sitting on a ledge on the south rim of Oregon Basin in Park County, Wyoming, having fallen out of my pocket with my old car key that, to the best of my knowledge, is sitting there still, though the car is long gone, and the wind and the sun and the snow have doubtless faded the keychain, a small rubbery piece of plastic in the shape of a cow that said IOWA and LAURA.

Apr 13

Mythical Land

England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It’s the home of police who kill blacks boys on mopeds
And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving
I don’t want him to be aware that there’s
Any such thing as grieving.

Sinead O’Connor, “Black Boys on Mopeds”
[ full lyrics ; YouTube ]

I didn’t know this Sinead O’Connor song until my friend Steve posted (or rather bumped) it on FriendFeed yesterday. Like most people who aren’t terribly musically aware, I knew “Nothing Compares 2U” because the video was everywhere when I was sixteen and “Last Day of Our Acquaintance” because it was on a mix I inherited from a former roommate of a friend. Surely I heard the rest of the album at some point, but not so that it stuck in my head. Not until yesterday.

Yesterday people were listening to the song because of Margaret Thatcher.

Yesterday I was listening to it on repeat in part because of Margaret Thatcher and in part because I have a baby and in part because I talked to a kid recently who didn’t have enough to eat and in part because I worry a lot about race relations in the town where I work and the town where I live. But I was listening to it on repeat most of all because I realized it was the song I was looking for — the one that explained an idea I’ve always had about England, about the world, even. But I’ll start with England.

I grew up on English children’s books (like Salman Rushdie, I believed that going to boarding school in England might be like moving into one, though unlike him, I was not disabused of this notion by actually attending an English boarding school). Before Harry Potter, that meant Narnia, of course, but also The Wind in the Willows and The Five Children and It and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Secret Garden and The Sword in the Stone. Many would be quick to point out that there are poor children in some of these books and bad things in almost all of them. But they all too have a strong heaping of England’s green and pleasant land. They look back to a past (where, as TH White writes, “the weather behaved itself”). Those that despair often look for a coming again.

My awareness of the news as a child was, like most children’s, spotty, and informed by what I was exposed to (CBS and NPR and Time magazine and the local newspaper) and my mother’s reactions to it. I knew that Mikhail Gorbachev was preferable to Ronald Reagan and that the reforms of Lech Walesa were better than those of Margaret Thatcher, but I couldn’t have told you why. These beliefs were there, in the background, not primary to my understanding of the world nor of great interest, but present, like buildings you pass every day but have never been in.

Instead I walked along hoping that the mists would part, hoping that there was a garden behind that wall, and that someday I might see it.

There wasn’t, though. The mythical land was there, but it was the land of imagination. The land around me was what it was: full of broken concrete, ugly houses, fences. I was doing okay, but other people were not. I’m not sure if I knew that first or if music helped me see it, but Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” I realized, was a song about a world that existed, that I held some responsibility for, and “This Land is Your Land” was a song about a world we could aspire to, not a mythical one.

But what of England? Did England exist? It seemed to me it must be odd to live in a place where everything was old, where everything that people came to see was something that was dead, something that didn’t exist anymore, something you could never hope to live up to. I was grateful to be an American: we’d wiped out our history, it was true, and we’d built ugly things in its place, but at least no one expected anything but vulgarity from us. We might still surprise people.

When I got to college, friends played me the Smiths. Most people think of their music as being about mopey adolescent angst and unrequited love. I thought it was that but more than that, I got a glimmer that these people were singing about the very problem I’d identified. “The Queen is Dead” was about the way the world felt; “How Soon is Now?” was a question about life, not just love; getting a job as a backscrubber was what one might aspire to.

Later I heard the Clash and the Sex Pistols, later still I read about the effect of Thatcherism on Northern England. Later still I heard and repeated jokes about New Labour being like New Coke. A couple of weeks ago I started reading Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, where I read about his hopes for boarding school in England and the realities he found there.

I got older, in short, and I read more, and more things connected. And yesterday I listened to “Black Boys on Mopeds” again and again and again, because it was a song about this world I inhabit. And then I thought about my son, and the books he has yet to read, and the things he has yet to discover, and I wondered if I should stop.