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.

Aug 12

Single Motherhood and Ice Cream

We all know Republicans hate single mothers. (Dude, I’m not even going to provide you people a link for that. You’ve lived through at least a few decades in this country, right? That ought to be enough. If you need help, just Google Dan Quayle Murphy Brown. Trust me.) I had no idea until quite recently that single mom was a controversial term even among those who claim it.

By most definitions, I think, I am one, although the more I read on that comment thread, the less sure I am. But let me break it down for you: I’m not married, I have a kid, we live without the kid’s father. So that makes me a single mom. Of course, he helps out a lot, as do a lot of other people, which makes me perhaps not a totally single mom. I rarely feel that way, anyway.

But this is not a post about reality. This is a post about feelings, which only occasionally match up with facts.

Once in awhile I feel sorry for my single mother self. You know, when other people talk about their husbands handling bedtime, or bringing home ice cream. But mostly, I regret to say, I feel smug. Smugness is not a superior emotion to self-pity (in fact, I’m pretty sure smugness is but a subdivision of pride, putting it at the very top of the seven deadlies). But it sure as hell feels a lot better.

Oh, you poor married people whose spouses are away at a conference and thus making you handle bedtime solo! I do that every night! You say you had a hard time traveling with the baby? I did a trip with the baby by myself! And I had my period! I did it all! Backwards, and in high heels! (Oh, fine. That last part is a lie. I can barely stand in high heels, despite everything my grandmother tried to teach me.)

And when I do have help (as I often do), I tend to get resentful. Why are they not doing more? Why, in fact, are they not doing EVERYTHING? After all, I do everything. I put the baby to bed and feed him and change his diapers and get up with him, usually several times. I play with him and take him around on errands. I give him baths. I sing him songs! I tell him stories! I leap tall buildings at a single bound, with my baby in a sling! Why are they not doing ALL THESE THINGS? SIMULTANEOUSLY?

I can give you an earful on my opinion of American maternity leave and prenatal care and childbirth practices and utter lack of affordable daycare or support systems for parents. Google any of those phrases and I bet you’ll come up with arguments as cogent as any I could make. And all of those things would certainly improve my life, and I’ll continue to fight for them. But in the meantime I have this funny talented tiny human to take care of. And I have a lot of help.

So as the election season progresses this fall, you can expect me to look more and more smug. I’d apologize, but really, smugness is what I get. It’s what I get when I look at the politicians of the world and think, “Oh yeah? Try MY job for a day. No? Well, while you’re out, could you get me some coffee ice cream?”

Mar 12

Too Many Martyrs, Too Many Apologies

I once asked a black man in a hoodie for his identification.

I am not proud of this.

I am less proud because the man in question turned out to be not only someone I knew but someone I worked with, and our job was working campus patrol at my college. It was the night of a big party on campus, the sort of thing where there was a lot of free beer and a lot of other stuff floating around that was probably free if you knew the right people. I was working patrol that night, and one of our jobs, as always, was to get non-students off campus after dark. I saw two people walking toward me from off campus with hoodies pulled down over their faces, and so I asked them for ID. Anthony raised his head up and gave me a look of death. I apologized. Later I confessed what I had done. But to this day every time I think of it, I think of what my drivers ed teacher used to say when we made mistakes: Don’t be sorry, just don’t do it.

I thought that was terrible advice for people like me who were forever mistakenly turning right instead of left. I think it’s the best summation I’ve ever heard of how we need to deal with race relations in this country.

On Monday night I took my nine-week-old son to my town’s Million Hoodie March. It was held on the same pedestrian mall where I’ve been attending rallies since I was fourteen years old. Going there often makes me feel very, very old, which is a common side effect of living in your hometown as an adult, especially if you then have a kid.

There was a crowd when we got there. The days when I used to count people at rallies are over (we used to joke that you had to count yourself, or take the police count and triple it), so I’m not sure how many exactly, but it was in the multiple hundreds. What impressed me was not the size, though — I’ve seen smaller and larger over the years — but the make up. I said to my friends when I found them, “I was going to say this is the most racially diverse rally I’ve ever been to here, but actually I think it’s the only racially diverse rally I’ve ever been to in this town.”

There were plenty of usual suspects there — people like me who are prone to going to rallies and accosting you with quarter sheets on street corners and standing around with signs or candles or red tape over their mouths. But much of the crowd was made up of what I am afraid people around here often refer to as “people from Chicago.” That means black people, of course, but more specifically it means “black people who are not like us.” And “us,” sadly, means people like me.

In a demographic sense, that’s true. Different socio-economic background and work experience and education and religious affiliation and all sorts of other little boxes you can check on forms. But that’s stupid, because they also are like “us”: the “people from Chicago” may be from Chicago, but now they live here, and that means we are all Iowa Citians and we all bear responsibility for our community.

This rally was different from others I’ve attended in another way. It was quieter. That doesn’t make sense, give the level of outrage over the events that inspired it. But I think it was quite out of respect and out of despair.

The problem with racism is that there isn’t an easy legislative solution. We’ve done most of the work of enacting the legislation that ended separate but equal and the denial of voting rights and so on. Those things still exist, of course, but that’s a problem of enforcement, not a problem of the law.

If you are upset about the death of Trayvon Martin and you want to find something tangible you can fix, you will have to look hard. Changing laws like the one in Florida that allows almost anyone to plead self-defense for any reason, or no reason at all, would help prosecute the killers, but it wouldn’t stop the killing.

You can’t legislate attitudes. You can hope to outgrow them. You can think you’re above them, that you aren’t poisoned by their presence, but you’d be wrong. This very blog post is poisoned by them. I can put all the scare quotes I want around “us” and “them” in an attempt to convince you that I find these categories false, but I have still written them down. And that means I’ve thought them. And that means, well, that means I can say I’m sorry all I want, but I still did it.

I don’t have a solution to that. Perhaps one day my son can help find one.

Nov 11

The Operation of the Machine

Mario Savio is famous, or at least he’s famous if you’re an activist at all interested in the history of student activism in the United States. He is famous enough that he’s even been institutionalized — or co-opted — at the University of California at Berkeley:

The steps [of Sproul Hall] are named for Mario Savio, the eloquent graduate student who was the symbolic face of the movement. There is even a Free Speech Movement Cafe on campus where some of Mr. Savio’s words are prominently displayed: “There is a time … when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part.”

The speech continues — although this part, apparently, they haven’t seen fit to emblazon

And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

That’s the idea of nonviolent protest. It’s the idea of strikes and sit-ins and of linked arms and of destroying draft files with homemade napalm. The idea is to keep the machine from working at all. But it turns out that in a lot of situations, that’s very hard to do.

When I was involved, in my own small way, in a sit-in at the University of Iowa in 2000, our idea was that we would keep the machine of the administration from working by occupying their main building. We ended up occupying their hallway for a week, and while we certainly inconvenienced them somewhat (I’ll never forget the woman who came out to spray air freshener over us every morning), we could not, as it turns out, stop the machine. We never even saw then UI President Mary Sue Coleman. She had, we assumed, some sort of bathole entrance to the building, because we were there round the clock and we never saw her enter or leave. She never once spoke to us.

And so our fight, like those of many of the Occupy movements now, became not against the machine itself but against its minions. We were lucky: when the cops came to get us, they acted nonviolently. No one was sprayed with pepper spray or dragged or beaten. Others, as anyone who watches YouTube knows, have not been so fortunate at late.

Most of the people who are involved with Occupy movements didn’t set out to treat the police as the enemy. Sure, police brutality is a problem, but I think for the most part we recognize it as a symptom, not a root cause. It’s true that the actions of the Chicago Police Department at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 were officially deemed a riot, but it was Mayor Richard Daley who gave the “shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand . . . and . . . to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city” order to the police some months prior to that in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

It was ordinary soldiers who carried out torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, but it was officials of our country at the highest levels of power who endorsed waterboarding.

It was campus police who pepper-sprayed students at UC Davis, but it was Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi who issued their orders.

And while it is local police who have done the dirty work of cracking down on Occupations in Oakland, Portland, New York City, and elsewhere, it is the mayors of those places — acting, apparently, not only with each other but also under the advisement of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security — who have issued those orders.

It’s damned hard to get to the chancellor of a university. It’s hard to shut down the machine of Wall Street. Even throwing money on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange only interrupted things for a little bit. It’s hard. You throw your body up against the machine, and fifty years later, they put your words in a coffee shop.

I understand that people are disappointed in those occupiers who have turned their attention to battling the cops. It saddens me, too. I’d rather be talking about economic inequality and the Supercommittee and the latest appalling contract between the University of Iowa and a multinational sweatshop and the work that Shelter House and the Free Mental Health Clinic have to do because we don’t actually bother to take care of people in this country and the staggering numbers of people who are out of work or on the verge of losing their homes and — well, I could go on. But how do you get people to talk about these things, or more importantly, to do something about them? And why, when people do try to dramatize them, do we insist they be “cleaned up?”

If you have an answer, I would love to hear it.

Oct 11

Occupy Iowa City No. 1

I am not actually occupying Iowa City (although this being Iowa City, we are transforming, not occupying. Liberating was rejected on the grounds of being too confrontation and sharing on the grounds that someone did not want to share with the 1%). My six-month’s pregnant old lady butt is instead occupying my sofa, which is where I’ve been sleeping lately because it seems to result in less back pain that sleeping on my bed. But I did stop by the occupation/transformation at College Green Park last night and stayed for a couple hours worth of the General Assembly, which churned out a preliminary statement of intent and a statement of nonviolence in two hours.

If you’ve ever been a part of consensus decision-making, especially in a group of 200 people, you’ll know that two statements in two hours is actually kind of a record. As I was telling a friend, it’s always instructive to remember the story of the SDS chapter in New Jersey that once spent 24 hours trying to decide if they could take a day off to go to the beach.

Decision-making of the sort being practiced at College Green Park and in public spaces all over the country is not something a lot of people are really willing to do. Even those of us who participate in such things are likely occasionally to say Dude, let’s just pick a word already. But that, of course, spins off into a debate about whether and how words matter.

Regular life affords few opportunities for such debate. Oh, sure, advertisers and politicians argue about wording all the time. But advertisers and politicians have a mission that’s about convincing other people, not about satisfying them. Wording a statement as an activist is about convincing other people, sure, but it’s also about defining yourself. It’s about defining and creating the kind of world and society that you want. In the beginning was the Word, and in some sense even atheists function that way.

I loved being at the park last night not because I really love sitting on the ground for two hours and repeating everything everyone says in phrases and twinkling with my hands to show approval. What I love is seeing people engaged in the process of creating something, watching them get to feel — for some for the first time — that they are making something that is real and true.

When I got home last night, I listened to the Friday installment of Planet Money. I have a perverse love of economic news and analysis (I lay it entirely at the feet of Louis Rukeyser for being so funny and dapper), even though it routinely pisses me off. Despite what the right wing seems to think, NPR, especially in the form of Planet Money, is not even remotely left-wing. It’s taken as a default position that capitalism is good, that the democratic process as displayed in the United States works, that growth is good. I disagree with almost everything they say. On last night’s show, they decided to visit Occupy Wall Street. I was immediately worried. It’s going to be like the time they interviewed “a socialist,” I thought (although to be fair, they poked no more fun at him than they did at the folks at libertarian summer camp, who were checking the price of gold on their smartphones in order to calculate how much gold to offer for goods at the camp). But it was actually pretty good: they are the first media people I’ve heard to understand that the part of the point of the protest is the protest. What we want for the larger world is what we are creating for ourselves. If hundreds of people living rather uncomfortably in a public place and sleeping on the ground can come to consensus, why the hell can’t the grown ups?

I don’t speak for anyone else at any Occupy event. But for me, at least, it’s true. The means is the end. Or, as one of my favorite bits of writing from another era put it,

We conducted a long struggle, assuming responsibilities we should not have been made to assume, heartbreakingly alone until the end, taking time out from our studies and our lives to do a job that should not have needed to be done. And we comported ourselves with dignity and grace, on the whole unexpectedly so, and with good hearts and kindness for each other. Confronting an institution apparently and frustratingly designed to depersonalize and block communication, neither humane nor graceful nor responsive, we found flowering within ourselves the presence whose absence we were at heart protesting.

(excerpt from a letter sent by a Berkeley Free Speech Movement participant to the judge in their case, quoted in Michael Rossman’s The Wedding Within the War)