James Baldwin +Black Lives Matter

#BlackLivesMatter
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The late literary genius and humanist nonpareil James Baldwin spoke for Black Lives Matter decades before the movement gained a name. And as a gay black man, born poor, he understood intersectionality in a profound sense.

Baldwin’s gifts included the ability to study himself and report, however painful or unflattering the truths that emerged. This spawned an empathy as rare as wise. He didn’t excuse cruelty but he acknowledged and, as a writer, rendered in meticulous detail the pain that (often) underlies it.

The following quotes, from interviews and from his fiction, articulate truths that are as urgent and relevant today as when he uttered them.

 

“Look, we live in Harlem, let’s say, or we live in Watts. The mother who comes down there with his cap and his own gun in his holster, he doesn’t know what my day is like. He doesn’t know why I get drunk when I do. He doesn’t know anything about me at all. He’s scared shitless of me. Now, what the fuck is he doing there? All he can do is shoot me. He’s a hired concentration-camp keeper…. All you can do is bring in tanks and tear gas—and call the National Guard when it gets too tight. And think you can fight a civil war and a global war at the same time.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

“The black cat in the streets wants to protect his house, his wife and children. And if he is going to be able to do this he has to be given his autonomy, his own schools, a revision of the police force in a very radical way. It means, in short, that if the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

“The country has got the police force it deserves, and of course if a policeman sees a black cat in what he considers a strange place he’s going to stop him—and you know of course the black cat is going to get angry. And then somebody may die. But it’s one of the results of the cultivation in this country of ignorance. Those cats in the Harlem street, those white cops; they are scared to death and they should be scared to death. But that’s how black boys die, because the police are scared.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

 

“I’d learned how to get by. I’d learned never to be belligerent with policemen, for instance. No matter who was right, I was certain to be wrong…. I only had one head and it was too easy to get it broken… I figured out what answers he wanted and I gave them to him. I never let him him think he wasn’t king.”

‘Previous Condition’ in Going to Meet the Man

“Those boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage.”

‘Sonny’s Blues’ in Going to Meet the Man

“For everyone’s life begins on a level where races, armies, and churches stop. And yet everyone’s life is always shaped by races, churches, and armies; races, churches, armies menace, and have taken, many lives.”

‘This Morning, This Evening, So Soon’ in Going to Meet the Man

“To be forced to excavate a history is, also, to repudiate the concept of history, and the vocabulary in which history is written; for the written history is, and must be, merely the vocabulary of power, and power is history’s most seductively attired false witness…. One thing is absolutely certain: one can repudiate, or despise, no one’s history without repudiating or despising one’s own. Perhaps that is what the gospel singer is singing.”

Just Above My Head

“All the years that we spent in and out of the South, I always wanted to say to those poor white people, so busy turning themselves and their children into monsters: Look. It’s not we who can’t forget. You can’t forget. We don’t spend all our waking and sleeping hours tormented by your presence. We have other things to do: don’t you have anything else to do? Maybe you really don’t? Maybe the difference between us is that I never raped your mother, or your sister, or if and when I did, it was out of rage, it was not my way of life… Maybe the difference between us is that I’ve never been afraid of the prick you, like all men, carry between their legs and I never arranged picnics so that I could cut it off of you before large, cheering crowds.”

Just Above My Head

 

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A short quarantine reading list

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Even before a ton of ordure hit the propeller-style cooling device I’d only read three books this year.

Three. 

Since the age of six or seven I’ve been capable of reading three average-length books a day. Once, when I was about 9, I read 1,000 pages in a day, to see if could.

On another occasion (again, pre-teen) I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy in three days.

The point I’m sidling towards is that it is a sign of spiritual/ emotional/ logistical malaise when my word-consumption dips to such low levels. (The other obvious conclusion is I was backward as a kid, which is fair, but there were reasons.)

Being almost too far gone in anxiety to even read a book is new and unnerving. Books have always been a reliable portal away from the unappetitliche present, but the present present has got me so tied in knots I’m afraid to miss anything.

Initially, I tried to negotiate this in my usual Protestant, eat-your-beet-greens-they’re-good-for-you fashion. That is, I started a book about Palestine. If there is one thing more depressing than coronavirus, it’s the situation of Palestine. Reading about children getting shot with tear-gas canisters and all the other interminable head-fucking brutality of the Israeli occupation was enough to make me think that maybe enough humans are ugly enough that we all deserve to be wiped out by a virus.

Not reading material for these times.

After that failed effort, I didn’t read anything for a few days. Then my friend Nick emailed and it turned out I bought his book (presciently titled It Gets Worse) last year and forgotten to read it. That’s like discovering the bottle at the back of the cupboard you thought was cheap emergency plonk is a fantastic vintage meant for a special occasion.

This is a special occasion.

So, I’m (finally) on my way to having read four books this year. When I finish Nick’s book I may go back and reread his first, Bitter Experience Has Taught Me, because it’s nice to hear a friend’s voice — especially when it is funny, acid, and laden with anecdote.

After that, I’ll try Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde and Primo Levi.

Disparate, yet equally essential.

All of these writers, including Ms Austen (whose reputation for daintiness is undeserved) exhibit rare levels of integrity, perspicacity and moral clarity. They took the world as it was, but refused to accept the supposed constraints of that relationship.

And they, one and all, write sentences so good I have to pause and let the wave of admiration/envy/admiration pass. Right now, it’s reading for pleasure, or not at all.

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The New Barebacking

I had to go to the village today.

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On the short drive to the village a couple of cars passed heading the opposite direction, both drivers wore surgical masks.

In the taxi rank in the village a driver leaned against the hood of his car, mask tucked beneath his chin, smoking.

The receptionist and vet wore blue masks.

The middle-aged man with the shock of dark curly hair who passed me on the sidewalk wore a white N95 mask.

The lady carrying two armloads of groceries wore a mask.

The young dude unlocking his car wore a mask.

 

Barefaced and bare-handed, I felt like a lowlife misfit.

Appearing in public sans mask is the new barebacking. Socially irresponsible, verging on reprehensible.

On arriving home, I decided it was time to buy masks (Amazon orders are delivering a month out, so thanksthefuckverymuch Jeff Bezos, I’m off elsewhere).

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Why the previous reluctance?

Because I don’t want to walk around thinking the next breath is going to kill me, or someone else. For the first time, I have an inkling how some men feel about condom use. Yeah, sure fine it’s the most appropriate thing to do but goddamn it, who wants to experience the world through a prophylactic shield?

Cherry blossoms are out, yellow wands of broom, did I mention the walnut trees are leafing? The air is pristine, sharp and Atlantic-cold. Our neighbor trundles up and down the road in an old red tractor, moving wine-sweet hay bales.

I do not want to touch the world with rubber fingers and breathe through layers of activated carbon. Why the hell would I sign up for that? Why not just lock myself in a sterile box and wait to die?

Okay, it’s not that dramatic but something important is being (has been?) lost in all this. Our sense of touch is already degraded from devoting too much of it to digital screens. We rarely breathe as deeply as we should. This stupid cunning virus is robbing us not just of too many lives but, sneakily, of things that make life worth living.

I’ll probably end up like wearing a mask for the common good (assuming I can beg borrow or steal one) but I refuse to think it is a Good Thing, in a larger sense.

We cannot do without enjoyment, wrote to Jack Gilbert. The ordinary sensual pleasures of filling our lungs and encountering the world through touch are not dispensable.

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Love, the Verb

Yesterday, after spending the preceding waking hours running in furious circles and generally comporting myself like a week’s worth of bad news, my friend called.

We’d scheduled a video chat (the vomitous de rigueur of current social interaction) and, armed with a glass of cava, I sat down, propped my feet on an adjacent chair and tried to think happy thoughts.

Within a minute or two of saying hello we were cackling about something.

That’s the first time I laughed today.

A guilt-breaker washed over me. Somehow, I’d found something to share a genuine laugh about with a friend while my partner had heard nothing but bitching all day.

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Love and courtesy

Once, apropos who knows what, a colleague said that one’s family is ‘obviously’ easy to get on with. I argued then, and argue now, that however much and sincerely we love someone, intimacy and proximity often cause carelessness.

I choose, when engaging with friends, to not sulk and storm. My time focused on them is brief so, even on bad days, I can muster the energy to be a slightly better self.

This isn’t falseness so much as simple courtesy. Other people have feelings too, and limited time, and worries. It is unkind to fill up their head space, which is surely every bit as overcrowded and precarious-feeling as mine, with solopsistic whinging.

But when you’re with someone round the clock, for the indefinite, it is easy to feel like every moment doesn’t count. Like, it’s okay to be grumpy and skip showering because he’s going to be here tomorrow (and the next day, and the next day).

Slipping into this perilous relaxation happens when we treat love as a noun. I love him, he loves me, ergo I can do what I like.

Fair is fair

The trouble is reconciling my bellyaching inner child with the duties of an adult relationship. I’m an individual, entitled to feel and express my feelings. Granted.
My partner is also entitled to not live with a whiffy harpy.

Excuse me while I shove a tea-towel in the gob of the me, me, me voice in my head.

It is only right to acknowledge that my rights end when they being to infringe on someone else’s. Yes, I have every right to curse, moan and carp; but when my crappy mood blackens the air for both of us, I’ve overstepped.

Basic courtesies like this are what allow us to maintain friendships and relationships. Letting ourselves act and react unchecked is what leads to breakups, meltdowns and guest spots on Jerry Springer (if that’s even still a thing).

Get to work, love

Making it work, in real time, means doing love not just giving ourselves credit for feeling it. Love has to be a verb, or it risks losing any real meaning.

Love, the verb, is making the effort to find something funny or pleasant to talk about, it’s not complaining constantly, it’s taking a shower and remember to put on deodorant, it’s shutting up for a minute and listening, it’s keeping some of the more outrageous paranoid thoughts to yourself, it’s saying ‘we’ll be okay’ even if that seems like a stretch.

Ursula LeGuin, the (Oregonian!) stalwart of goodness, sanity and fine prose, said:

Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do. It’s not a thing that lives inside of us and can be left to its own devices. It’s an action. It’s not an experience. It’s a way of relating.

Of late, my way of relating has been sub-optimal, to put it mildly. Which is, and this I must remember, okay. Only Pollyanna or a complete ditz believes that long-term confinement, financial precarity and uncertainty bring out the best in people.

It can’t be all or nothing anymore though. I can’t be one of those positivity freaks (and would hate myself more if I tried) but that isn’t licence to be unbearable.

For now, I’ll do my best in the circumstances and try to keep faith with love, the verb.

My Marriage in 10 Restaurants

Three years ago, on a bright blue morning, Chris and I walked to the Shelby County Courthouse in downtown Memphis and got married. He wore a charcoal grey jumper and Doc Martin Chelsea boots. I wore a black silk mini-dress and the gold leather pumps I wore for my first wedding, more than a decade earlier.

After the judge pronounced us legally wed, we went to our favorite restaurant and celebrated with black-eyed pea hummus and prosecco.

Food has always been central to our relationship. Our first date was in at a Mexican restaurant – vegan mole topped with pickled purple onions, one too many margaritas. Since then, we’ve eaten (and drunk) our way around Europe and the States, finding favorites that, while we may never see them again, are touchstones. We move and travel a lot. The restaurants and bars stay, reassuringly, in place. It is a comfort to know we can go to London or Barcelona, Denver or Memphis, and rediscover our memories in flavors.

Here are a few of the places we love:

Babalu, Memphis

This was the black-eyed pea hummus wedding lunch joint, but Babalu was more than that. It was where we went for happy hour when I finished work, taking advantage of $2-off glasses of wine, chatting with the servers while we wolfed down tacos made with handmade corn tortillas.

Pyro’s, Memphis

A few minutes drive from the house, Pyro’s was can’t-be-bothered-to-cook evenings, and let’s-have-a-treat (for under a tenner) occasions. It is one of those build your own pizza places and, because or despite being a chain, has a credible gluten free base. The staff were always sweet – high school kids, early-20-somethings, smiling in the face of latex gloves and polyester uniforms. Another draw: the hot sauce collection arrayed on the condiments table. As much habanero, jalepeno and ghost chilli as we could stand.

Tostado, London

Our first trip to London together, part of our week-long second date. Of course, I wanted to go to Soho, a few blocks of cramped, crowded streets woven into more than 15 years of memories. We cut through St Anne’s Court and spotted Tostado, a single line of tables along the wall – the whole joint hardly wider than the door. It served Ecuadorian food, comfort in glazed pottery bowls: corn and potato soup thick with cheese and topped with sliced avocados, steaming plantain-leaf wrapped humitas topped with spiky green chilli and coriander sauce, fried plantains. It became our home-cooking away from home.

Siam Central, London

On the other side of Oxford Street lies Fitzrovia, where I worked during my London years. Set on a corner with a handful of tables outside, this Thai place looks unremarkable and vanishingly small. Step inside and it mysteriously expands, finding space for however many friends you happen to bring along. As creatures forced to make habit out of minimal material, food is a ritual. Here, we ordered green curry with tofu, and drunken noodles – a heap of seared, spicy, basil-laced rice stick fresh from the pan – accompanied by flinty chenin blanc.

City O’City, Denver, CO,

The few months immediately after our wedding went like this: Chris goes back to work, I stay in our rented room with the strange room-mate and needy cat finishing my own contract, then cram everything moveable into a couple of suitcases, put the cat in a carrier, fly to Oregon, and spend a few weeks camped in my sister’s basement – breaking up the time with weekend trips to meet Chris. Salt Lake and Denver were excursion, my first trip to the mile high city. While they loaded in, I ran through the thin sunshine, stopping to do a headstand in the park. Later, when work was done, we sat at the bar of this vegetarian restaurant eating arepas and drinking cocktails.

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Mi Mero Mole, Portland, OR

It was a few days before Christmas and almost everyone else in tiny taco joint was drunk and in costume – elves, Santa, fairies strung with flashing lights. A courtesy drink, I told myself. Knees close under the table, I found myself staring into his coruscating blue eyes and thinking: this is something. One of the Santas upended a chair and fell cartoon-style, legs sticking straight into the air. Chris and I tried each other’s food, deciding we’d made the right decision in trying both moles. Our hands met and laced together on the tabletop. When we rose to leave we kissed instead. Walking to my car I thought: I could marry him.

Try Thai, Manchester

Because the boys are, nominally, from Manchester, we wound up spending a lot of time there. Our first week in a comically awful hotel where we could hear fighting most nights, and had to navigate a cluster of unimpressed junkies to get in the main door. Naturally, we spent most of our time out – especially after discovering this Thai restaurant. The décor boded ill, but the food turned out to be spectacular. We ate green curry rice, complete with fat fresh green peppercorns, for lunch and returned for dinner.

Alcaravan, Arcos de la Frontera

Arcos was our longest-lived home to date, a pueblo in the foothills of the Serrania de Cadiz. We walked down one steep hill and up another to reach the centre of town where this restaurant was built into the hill beneath the old fortress. The interior was long and low, like the Arches in London, with an incongruous yet charming water fountain tucked into a nook. We ordered, without fail, the warm goats cheese with pepper jam and a plate of fried potatoes. The cheese unctuous yet sharp, and paired perfectly with a local Chardonnay called Gadir.

Teresa Carles, Barcelona

Chris spent a lot of time doing flight training near Barcelona, and I would go up to visit. Teresa Carles was a lucky Google Map find. We went, the first time, quite early in the evening so actually managed a table – the aubergine rolls and tempeh salad were enough to keep us coming back, again and again.

Tamarindo, A Coruña

A few steps away from the Atlantic, we found the best Mexican food we’ve eaten outside of Mexico and likely the best margaritas in Europe. Run by a mother-son team, it is a testimony to the Coruñés proclivity for doing things properly. Everything is handmade, from the corn tortillas to the thick smoky-spicy chipotle sauce to the salbutes – a fat lightly-fried corn cake that melts in your mouth. Like the other places we’ve dined, drunk and laughed, we’ll miss it when we’re gone.

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Childless for Sleep’s Sake

There is a scene in J. D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey where Zooey tells his mother that he doesn’t want to get married because he likes to sit by the window on the train, and once you’re married, you never get to sit by the window.

It expresses, rather beautifully, how my thoughts on children. To paraphrase, I don’t want to have a baby because I like to sleep, and once you have a baby you don’t sleep.

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To have or not to have: the baby question

Throughout my adult life I vacillated between wanting and not wanting children. Aged 18 I started a list of baby names. In my early 20s, immersed in London’s club scene, I barely had time to sleep, much less think about kids. Then it kicked through my senses like a police battering-ram. One of our friends fell pregnant and a crazed, logic-free longing rushed through me: I want a baby.

The only problem was, as I said to my then boyfriend in so many words, was I didn’t want his baby. In my defense, I was skunk drunk; which is no defense at all. It was a terrible thing to say and he should have dumped me on the spot.

Whether to it’s his credit, he didn’t, and our relationship stumbled along for a few months. Then I gathered my courage, said what had to be said, and moved to out of the country. At the time, it seemed necessary; now, it suggests a penchant for self-dramatization that does me no credit.

Absorbed in a new life in Ibiza, I didn’t think much about getting into another relationship. The undertone hum of wanting a baby remained, though, reinforced by the Noughties cult of the yummy mummy, epitomized by Kate Moss. Ibiza’s beaches were dotted with plenty of stunning taut, topless mamas romping with catalog-cute toddlers. Even if I hadn’t wanted kids sheer lifestyle envy would have gotten me.

Still, with no potential baby daddy, and a freelance journalist’s intermittent wage, having a child remained an abstraction.

At 32, in a relationship, the baby name list I had been cultivating for over a decade took on new significance. I tried names out with my partner’s surname, and mine, and double-barreled. The only grain of sand in this oyster was my boyfriend’s horror of procreation. As a 30-year-old who lived on Fanta and pizza, and spent hours at a time playing Mario Kart, he felt their was enough youthful energy in the house.

Once again, a case of not your baby.

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The allure of old wounds

For the next couple of years friends and I discussed, semi-seriously, having children as lone parents. One dear friend said she’d nearby and help out (unlike most of these offers, I think she meant it). Another, already a mother, promised me it would be worth it. My ever-supportive sister said she thought I’d be a good mother.

It was this idea, perhaps, more than anything, that kept me hooked – the chance to be a good mother. My sister and I were not blessed with good parents. We, and our brothers, had to find our way through a fog of repression and emotional abuse. In a practical sense, we were on our own from adolescence, working minimum wage jobs while going to school, trying to secure our escape.

Time, distance and my father’s death had helped me be a bit philosophical. Finally, I could see my parents as wounded souls whose sins of omission and commission were grounded in unhealed traumas. Part of wanting to have a baby was wanting to prove it is possible to overcome a crappy childhood. Being a good mother would give me license to keep a little of the familiar old anger.

Axiomatically, this is a poor motive, but no worse than any other reason to have a child.

The right man

When I met my now-husband, one of the first things he told me was he never wanted to have kids. This conversation unsettled me but I figured he would be persuadable.

As our relationship developed, it was me who was persuaded.

Strands wove together, revealing a pattern unseen in earlier years.

Having a child is marketed (particularly to women) as a shortcut to fulfillment, an elevator ride to realms of higher purpose. Having a child is a route to social approbation, as long as you’re a well-educated, middle-class (passing) white cis-woman, as I am. Having a child is supposed to buy entry to some Rockwellian fantasy of family harmony.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Why sleep matters

What I found in the affection, intimacy and adventure of our partnership is that these things thrive in the presence of freedom, resources and – above all – sleep.

The toughest moments of our relationship have been when work and travel schedules left us bone-tired. I learned the hard way that it is obscenely difficult to be a nice person when you’re exhausted. And when you can’t be nice to your partner, things get rough.

Going through relatively mild sleep disruption warned me, vividly, that I’m not built for protracted sleep deprivation. More than a night or two of curtailed sleep is a kick in the face of my mental health in the face. My moods start swinging like a clobbered piñata, my sense of humor vanishes, and my self-control withers – freeing the snider, sadder parts of my personality to wreck havoc. This is consistent with studies that show insomnia is a causal factor in mental health problems.

The idea of chronic sleep deprivation – recent research published in the journal Sleep shows that women’s quality and quantity of sleep suffer for six years after having their first child – is terrifying.

Perhaps choosing to not have children because I like to sleep sounds as petty as not marrying for the sake of sitting by the window. If so, I’m okay with that.

To be a good parent, you have to know yourself – and that includes knowing your limits and being realistic about your resources. It would be a disfavor to a hypothetical child, and to my real and cherished marriage, to do something that would irrevocably change the basis on which it operates.

***

Do Less, Accomplish More

Sleeping in

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Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

Over the holiday period I’ve fallen into the habit of sleeping till 9 or 9:30 – some 90 minutes longer than my usual routine. For the pats few days, I set my alarm for the normal hour, but hit the off-button and go back to sleep. This feels indulgent, borderline sinful, most certainly lazy.

On the night of 1 January, my husband and I settled in to watch The Big Lebowski.

It was an individual favorite when we met; since then, it has become a totem for our relationship – a source of private idiom and in-jokes on loop.

The opening voice-over informs us that the Dude was a lazy man. What a contrast, I thought, to the expectations a new year brings.

Resolutions

New Year arrives with a cultural imperative to improve. What are your new year’s resolutions?

The noun resolution, in this sense, alludes to a determined wish, or decision.

It is worth remembering that another definition of resolution is ending, or conclusion.

Linguistically, all unwitting, we start the new year by demanding conclusions.

Is it any wonder they fail to materialize?

If there is one thing writing teaches it is that you cannot force a conclusion. They are reached by patience, effort and serendipity.

Let it be

The Big Lebowski is a tale of serendipity.

Sheer coincidence brings together two characters who clumsily try to exploit their chance encounter. The lostness of this cause is what makes the film funny; the universality of the impulse to connive and manipulate makes it poignant.

That The Dude comes off better in the end has nothing to do with effort and everything to do with his ability to, in moments of crisis, tune out and go bowling.

The other foot

As a stone type A, with a self-perpetuating to-do list I love Jeff Bridge’s character because The Dude is my antithesis.

Worry… it’s how I stay in shape, poet Maggie Smith writes in ‘Let’s not begin’.

Me too.

I crave resolutions – the conclusion kind – and if one isn’t plain I’ll fret all day and toss and turn all night, trying to wrestle one into being. If I can’t see how a thing will turn out, I’ll manufacture an ending, toss a match to see what sparks.

Wearing out

This leads to plenty of fractured nights, followed by days where tiredness clouds my senses like swamp gas. The demons of weariness are legion: irritability, forgetfulness, poor hand-eye coordination, binge eating, anxiety, tearfulness. If I get less than eight or, preferably, nine hours, they swarm – shattering my mood, judgment and productivity.

Given my love of ticking items off a list, you’d think that alone would be enough to ensure I got enough rest, but something in my wiring (Puritan genes + protestant upbringing perhaps) gibes me to try harder.

One of the first rational things lost when I’m tired is the ability to admit I need a break.

Instead, I try to fix myself by doing more.

I’m almost done…”

My husband has heard these words too many times to count. They are always a lie. He’s learned to spot them for what they are: a self-sabotaging effort to put my life and spirit in order by crossing off one more line on my to-do list.

Being the partner of a perpetual fixer must be a massive drag. The nearest I got was a long-running infatuation with a man who refused to date me because he had to much to do. At the time, I thought it was a terrible, bogus excuse. We stayed friends, though, and now I’m grateful to have someone who understands the ridiculous compulsion to seek solace in busy-ness.

Even The Dude falls into this trap, lamenting that his thinking had gotten very uptight.

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Corridors without doors

When I get tired, my brain ceases to create and wallows in endless grooves. Instead of romping through fields of possibility, it marches along grim, fluorescent-lit corridors without doors. Inspiration and joy are things that happen to other people, in other places; for me, the grindstone, the factory clock; the slow treadmill.

This is lethal for my writing, and sense of self.

As someone who struggles to stay ahead of clinical depression, self-care is essential. Skimping on sleep is the first domino; next come exercise, eating, socializing, work, creating. Then the need to do more panic kicks in and flattens what is left of a painstakingly built structure.

Do less, accomplish more

My guilt at “over”-sleeping is rooted in a real fear that it’ll turn me lazy, like my good friend The Dude. Life is no movie, my brain chides. In the real world, the other Lebowski was right – you gotta get a job.

Yet this fixation with being busy is, as many wise souls have remarked, antithetical to actual accomplishment. Presenteeism is malingering for suck-ups. Most of the things I busy myself with, from house cleaning to answering email, have little bearing on the things that bring me satisfaction and joy. These things – reading, writing, time with my husband – get shoved into corners and fed scraps of my energy and attention.

Fail again

Instead of resolutions, I made a list of new year’s goals. It felt good to write them down, better to fantasize about completing them.

The next day, I woke under a cloud: sad, drained, mind blank. After drinking coffee, I got back into bed and cried for no explicable reason.

It felt like I’d put too much of myself on that page. Once again, I was looking for validation in tasks, instead of being open to what a new year might bring.

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Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

Start simple

Later, my husband and I went for a walk. The sky was bright and the air smelled of wood smoke and bales of sweet straw. We said hello to cows and picked windfall apples. The world began to resume its correct proportions. Cresting another hill, I realized it was time to edit the new year’s goals: sleep, move, eat, love. Everything else will come.

How will you honor yourself this year? 

Education by Consent

Don’t wanna

He looked like the toddler offspring of Paul Simon and Crazy Frog: all exuberant curls and a rubber-band mouth stretched across his small face. It was at breaking point when I saw him, eyes clamped shut, Jagger lips flopped open in an unceasing howl. His tiny body, taut as a tug-of-war rope, pulled against his grandma’s hand.

My class, older by a few years moved into the classroom and settled into worksheets. The image of the tiny frog-face and its owner’s belly-roar of anguish distracted me from the grammar presentation.

What good is there in forcing a tiny, hysterical child into an ESL class, or any class? His brave, futile resistance was engendered by a dangerous notion: the tone-deaf, compassion-free insistence “education” was more important than his distress.

Agency

The little boy was experiencing education as an affront to his agency and personhood. He won’t understand those words for another decade or so but children, like all animals (human and otherwise) understand the difference between agency and imposition.

“So what?” you might ask. “Kids never want to go to school. You have to make them.”

If that is the case, instead of accepting it as a fact, we need to ask, why?

Children are curious to the point of being maddening, not to mention fearsome mimics. They will dog your steps demanding to know how things work, how to do things, imitating your words and actions until you’re half-afraid to move. They don’t hate learning. If they hate school it is a sign that education, as it is currently conceived, doesn’t serve them.

Coercion versus consent

Despite his protests, this little boy had “education” imposed on him by force majeure. 

Nobody, but nobody, likes to be coerced. Not even if the activity is ultimately something they would have chosen any way. We adults hate being pressured, bullied and ordered around. Children are no different (if anything, I suspect, more sensitive to it, because they haven’t yet had their spirit deaden by years of “education”).

Coercion leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Activities that we might have sought out and enjoyed of our free will become tainted, unpalatable.

When education becomes an object of coercion, we create an ugly frequency that distorts the interaction of teachers and students; parents and children. Curiosity atrophies into suspicion as the act of learning is irredeemably conflated with authoritarianism — with long-term repercussions.

One of my close friends is an intelligent, organised, motivated, assured woman whose self-perception is that she is not a good student. Why? Because as a child and teenager, she was obliged to endure rote, deadening conventional education. Unable and unwilling to conform, she adopted the label they imposed: poor student.

As an adult, she went back to school and performed astonishingly well, earning high marks and taking on leadership roles. Now, she returns to her university every year to give a talk to incoming students.

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Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash

Freedom to learn

Children, like adults, need to be active participants in their learning. The first duty of an educator is to inspire them with the possibilities and delights of learning, not drag them screaming into classrooms and force them to fill out worksheets.

Once learning has been established in kids’ minds as a positive, rewarding experience, in which they have agency and the freedom to express themselves, they will be willing and able to cope with the inevitable patches of boredom and incomprehension.

Seeking consent in education doesn’t mean we have to entertain children, or pander to their every whim, but it does mean giving them a fair say.

 

Man being … by nature, all free … no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. –John LockeChapter 8

 

 

 

How to Make your Best Students Better

The one percent

As a kid, and through high school, I loved standardized tests. Because I was the maddening specimen who scored in the 99th percentile without a flicker of effort.

Given the bias in standardized tests, it’s not surprising. I was a white kid who had been reading voraciously since age four. I was going to ace anything that measured “verbal” skills, which are, of course, in the context of the tests, reading and writing skills.

Being a killer test taker had advantages. My high school SAT and ACT scores got me into an Ivy League university, and scooped a National Merit Scholarship to help pay for it. Not bad for a poor kid from a decaying seaside town in Oregon.

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Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

Feeding the need

Being Little Miss 99th Percentile felt good. My teachers liked it because I brought up the class average. I liked it because it got me positive attention. My parents? They didn’t care, which is perhaps why cared so much. Acing those tests was more than an academic achievement, it was much-needed validation. Terrified of losing that, I gravitated towards subjects that came easy: English, history, communication, psychology.

Unfortunately, one thing they didn’t teach in first-year psych was that effort counts for more than “intelligence”. Though, to be fair, the results of Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck’s landmark study on the relationship between praise and motivation weren’t published till 1998, my second year of college.

Mueller and Dweck gave kids a series of tests. One group was praised for their intelligence, the other for their effort. They found that the children who were praised for intelligence were reluctant to try more difficult tests, while those praised for effort were eager to try harder tasks.

Kids singled out for “intelligence” were afraid of doing anything that might show them up. Like those kids, I avoided challenges, got good grades and learned almost nothing.

Opportunities lost

Each month, as I make my student loan payment (still chipping away at that. Thank you American tertiary education system), I think about the classes I avoided: Spanish, math, organic chemistry. I went to university planning to major in chemistry and go on to med school. Sophomore year, I changed to English lit.

It was the right decision, made for the wrong reasons. My motivation wasn’t love of literature and language but fear of math and science. If I couldn’t waltz into an exam and out with an A, I wasn’t even going to try.

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The teacher’s view

Looking back, I wish teachers had pushed me more — especially in the subjects I was good at. Maybe, then, I would have realized my skills weren’t “innate” and would have learned to apply myself.

But, as a teacher myself, I can’t blame them. Having a “good” student, one who enjoys and seems to effortlessly absorb the material, is a treat. S/he is one student you don’t have to worry about, one whose enthusiasm and aptitude makes you feel good about yourself as an educator, even if you don’t really deserve the credit. It is tempting to praise the student and more or less leave them to his/her/their own devices.

Tempting, but an abdication of responsibility. Perhaps the student is doing well because h/s/t are an adept learner. In that case, you should see the work gradually improve. If you don’t, chances are they’re coasting on an existing skill set. And without intervention, they may well be self-limiting to stay within that safety zone.

Breaking out of the success trap

How do you challenge a student in an area where they excel? Here are three ideas:

Process

Once, in a job interview, I was asked: “How do you write?”

It was the first time anyone had asked about my process. Formulating an answer made me realize that I had one, and that it could be applied to other tasks.

If you have a student who shines at art, trigonometry, whatever, as them how. They might think it’s a dumb question (I did) but they will discover the work that goes into their accomplishments. Recognizing their own effort and process will help them see themselves as learners, and start to generalize those skills.

Cross-pollination

Use your students strengths to address their weaknesses. If, for example, your  student loves history but hates math, have them research the history of a mathematical concept, e.g. Who was Pythagoras and how did he come up with his theory? Thus tackling something hard becomes a chance to show off what they are good at.

Let them be the expert

Once your students have assessed their own process, reinforce that by giving them an opportunity to be the expert. Pair or small group work is a good setting to allow students to display their strengths. Set up assignments where they teach each other and grade them on how well their classmates do.

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Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Life-long learning

We tend to think of “life-long learning” in terms of adults but, to deserve the title, it has to start in childhood. The best, that is highest-achieving, students are necessarily the best learners. They may, in extreme cases, be learning very little.

Helping them uncover their process, use their skills to address new challenges, and share their strategies with others will develop those crucial skills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Things I Love about “The Bold Type”

I’ve just finished binge watching all three series of The Bold Type. The only thing between me and mourning is the news that it’s been renewed for a fourth season.

Because this show won me over like no glossy American TV drama ever has. (I loved The Wire but glossy that ain’t).

For someone who veers inflexibly towards cynicism, The Bold Type might seem an odd affection. It is relentlessly, almost Pollyanna-ishly upbeat. Every problem is solvable with a bit of elbow grease and woman power, within the span of 41 minutes.

That should annoy me. Or I feel like it should annoy me. But it doesn’t. In a world where basically all news is bad news, and humanity is collectively excavating to find a new rock bottom, believing problems can be solved is a radical notion.

Believing that, as The Bold Type holds, love, friendship, integrity, hard work and learning from your mistakes is enough to craft a meaningful life verges on revolutionary.

I love me some revolution.

So here, in no particular order, are 10 things I love about The Bold Type.

  1. Sisters doing it for themselves

    Praise be: A show with three female leads whose priorities are A) career and B) friendships; and who are actually making a go of it. Disaster comedy is a dime a dozen (though, Fleabag…) but I cannot think of another female-focused show where the main characters are so functional. Jane, Sutton and Kat have their moments of doubt and despair but mostly, they have their shit together. And when it gets out of hand, they huddle in the fashion closet and figure out how to fix it. And do.

  2. Sisters doing it with each other (oh, and Lesbian. Muslim. Artist.)

    The Kat-who-thinks-she’s-straight-figures-out-she’s-not-by-falling-in-love-with-a-lesbian-Muslim-artist story-line makes me happier than a hamper of spaniel puppies. Everything about this is amazing, from how hard Adena rocks a turban to Kat’s punching a racist guy in the face for hassling her. The scene where Adena calls her out for not going down on her, followed by a conversation where cunnilingus is not a punch line should be required viewing.

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    Photo by Juliette F on Unsplash

  3. The powerful lady boss is not a bitch

    As a newbie journalist, I would have given my left leg for a boss as wise, fierce, insightful and supportive as Jacqueline Carlyle. I still would. Scarlet’s editor is an ideal we’re too rarely shown: a take charge, takes-no-prisoners woman who is also compassionate, self-aware and able to admit her mistakes. Oh, and she has a handsome, adoring husband and a couple of cute kids. Hey, girls, you can have it all.

  4. Old white guys are the enemy

    When trouble comes to Scarlet it’s usually because of the board. A coterie of aging white men who don’t understand women, media, or social media — yet hold disproportionate sway over all three. Since forever, unless you were a rich white due, rich white dudes were there to do you harm. The Bold Type accurately reflects this universal experience, yet holds out hope.

  5. They say “I love you” a lot

    Kat, Sutton and Jane are always saying: “I love you” — to each other. Which I love. How often do we hear platonic female friends say, “I love you”? Not often enough. How often do we say it to our platonic female friends? Not often enough. If you take nothing else from The Bold Type, take this: Say “I love you” to the people you love, say it when you’re happy or sad, when they’re happy or sad. There is nothing going on in the world that won’t be improved by sharing the love.

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    Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

  6. Nobody runs to mommy & daddy

    Sutton, Kat and Jane are each other’s biggest support. Kat’s therapist parents pay bills, but not much more. Sutton’s mom is an alcoholic with money issues. Jane’s mom is dead. This feels a lot more real than shows where benign parents lurk in the background, waiting to pick up the pieces. For me, and most people I know, parents ranged from merely absent to active liabilities. That reality shaped our lives, and it’s nice to see it reflected on screen.

  7. Supportive boyfriends

    Shows about asshole guys and terrible dating experiences are amusing. For a while. Then they are just discouraging. The Bold Type skips this trope entirely. Jane has an a douchey ex but in no time she gets over him with a gorgeous, clever man who proceeds to become a better person, fall in love with her and write a hit novel. Sutton is dating a company lawyer, 15 years her senior, who is respectful, supportive, and worships the ground she walks on (as he should!) Loving, equal, communicative, positive on-screen partnerships are the hens’ teeth in popular entertainment. The Bold Type is poultry dentures.

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    Photo by Kristina Litvjak on Unsplash

  8. Open relationships

    Speaking of positive relationship portrayals — Kat and Adena’s open relationship story-line is just. so. fucking.cool. A mainstream TV show portraying an open lesbian relationship as intimate, wholesome, and empowering? Yes!
    Honestly, if I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed.

  9. Body positivity

    This one is almost there. Kat, Jane and Sutton are all conventionally slender and feminine with curves in the approved places. Nevertheless, the show makes a point to discuss body positivity in so many words, with a story where the girls pose for a fashion shoot showing off their scars, freckles, stretchmarks. Better still, their colleague, Scarlet’s sex columnist is heavyset and mousy — a face and figure that would relegate her to “fat friend” status in a standard rom-com. Instead, she’s the one having the hottest sex and dishing the most divine gossip.

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    Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

  10. Booze

    When the going get tough, the tough knock back some white wine. Or tequila. Or mix a little whisky into their ice cream. America is stupidly puritanical about alcohol, and especially about women drinking. It is refreshing to see characters who can raise a glass to commiserate, or celebrate, without the next plot point involving rehab. They’re young, fun, gorgeous women who like a drink. And that’s cool. Gorgeous Muslim lesbian artist Adena doesn’t drink, and that’s cool too. Which makes the whole thing extra fucking cool.

Go on then, what’s your latest televisual delight?