Dear Republicans, We Need Your Help

bald-eagel-with-chicks

It has been more than three and a half years since I have posted on my blog. Short version: my concerns haven’t been ones I felt were relevant to others. On Tuesday night, that changed.

It may seem as though a chasm of political differences lies between us, and you may feel that anti-Trump voters have unfairly painted you as a racist misogynist who wants to remove everyone but white Christians from the country; or who doesn’t care if we alienate our allies, set off nuclear war, or invite Russia to meddle in elections; who is willing to excuse all Trump’s crimes, lies, and idolatry of repressive authoritarians just because he’s not Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama; or who is just not all that bright.

No doubt some Trump voters are all these things and worse, but I am not writing to those people. I am writing to you, one of the basically good and intelligent people, who, like me, has concerns about the direction of the country. Maybe your solutions are different from mine, but as far as I can tell, you voted for Trump because you felt that Clinton would continue policies from the Obama administration that you opposed, that haven’t done enough to help you, or that you felt put Americans at risk. I’m sure we could debate about whether Obama or Congressional obstructionism should be assigned responsibility for the shortcomings of the past eight years, or whether anyone could have been more successful given the circumstances Obama inherited from the Bush administration, but I certainly don’t blame you a bit for wanting a change.

In my basic writing classes, I have been talking to my students about ways to use writing to make themselves heard and to be voices for positive change between elections. On Election Day, we happened to be working on an assignment in which students write a letter to praise or criticize a business, policy, or employee (I only gave them “praise” as an option for individuals). Privately, I have also given considerable thought over the past few days to how I, too, can make a difference through writing. I have asked my students to identify a recipient for their letters. For mine, I have chosen you, the good conservatives among my friends.

I am not writing to justify my feelings about this election, nor am I asking you to justify yours. Honestly, I’m feeling a little raw and would just as soon not go there. Whether or not you voted for Trump (and I know a lot of conservatives who didn’t), I know in my heart that you are not bigots, misogynists, neo-Nazis, and homophobes, even when you show you don’t understand the depth of the grief that some of us are feeling.

I write as a teacher of students at a diverse community college, some of whom are terrified and devastated by some of the language Trump and his supporters have used to discuss race and gender. They are even more alarmed by some of the actions that have been reported since the election. A Hispanic student said one of his friends recently started joking, “You’re going to help Trump build that wall.” Another student broke down in tears when she expressed her struggle with what it meant that her fellow citizens could elect a president who so openly objectified and professed violence toward women. A conservative student who couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump after the bus tape was released worried that everyone in the class would think he was a racist or a homophobe. Yes, I’m aware that as of this writing there has also been violence against Trump supporters and at least one faked incident of hate speech, but I’m assuming that, as decent people, we can agree that hate speech and hate crimes are bad without arguing over who is the bigger hater.

Unfortunately, some of Trump’s supporters have interpreted his victory as an endorsement of white supremacy, race warfare, sexual assault, misogyny, mass deportations, declarations that suggest disregard for the Constitution and infringement on free speech, a cavalier attitude toward human rights, and use of the power of the office to persecute individuals who dare question him. Based on how many Congressional actions have split along party lines, I am concerned about the possibility that the legislature will drift toward Trump’s worst excesses and away from what even you and I—probably on opposite or nearly-opposite ends of the political spectrum—can agree are American values.

I am asking you to speak for these values, forcefully, clearly, and loudly. If you voted for what you saw as the positive aspects of Trump’s platform or against what you saw as the negative aspects of Hillary’s, we need you. We need you to speak out about what you voted for, and if you didn’t vote for religious, gender, or racial persecution, we need you to say so. Trump has already dismissed dissent as “unfair,” and I’ve seen more than one post bemoaning “liberal crybabies.” To the best of my knowledge, Trump won the election fair and square under the election process we have (#notmypresident notwithstanding).

For me and others who voted against him, the worst aspects of Trump and his campaign were disqualifying. If you were one of the many people who voted for him because other aspects of his candidacy overrode your concerns about the man, prove it. Make it clear to me, your party, and the president-elect that you didn’t vote for hate crimes or hate speech. Most likely we still have plenty of political disagreements ahead. But where we do agree, please, for the love of country, please speak out.

One easy way to speak out is to sign this petition: https://www.splcenter.org/tell-donald-trump-reject-hate-and-bigotry-0.

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Rubbernecking

from the Boston Globe

from the Boston Globe

It is fashionable to express contempt for those who drive past an accident and slow down to look. According to the critics, rubbernecking signifies a prurient interest in the misfortunes of others, a fundamental and irresistible inhumanity automatically triggered by the prospect of blood, gore, and emotional wreckage. The same principle applies to other varieties of voyeurism activated by celebrity meltdowns, tell-all memoirs, sexual indiscretions, mass tragedies, noble sacrifices, and spectacular acts of strength and courage. If we were a better species, not so prone to viewing destruction and exposure as entertainment, so the story goes, our curiosity would not be so much on display.

Personally, I’m not convinced that our human interest in calamity (and calamity barely averted) stems from something sordid that sprouts from the brickwork of civilization. In a work of literature, captivation begins where good luck runs out, and we attribute the burning compulsion to turn the page to curiosity or a search for meaning rather than bad character. When disaster hits bricks-and-mortar reality, though, the same impulse seems outré. If the medium is the message, then Twitter, facebook, Reddit, and the blogosphere seem to lead us towards the worst of both fiction and reality, where facts and meaning are equally elusive.

Yes, I am talking about the Boston Marathon bombings.

When I see a car accident, I always, always look. I am not ashamed of looking. I want to know two things: Is it someone I know? and Are the victims okay? I do not seek the frisson of adrenaline rush that comes from contorted metal or imagining something worse behind the ambulances and fire trucks. In a work study job cataloguing historical photos when I was an undergraduate, police photos of local car crashes comprised a good portion of the collection, but I couldn’t bear to look at them; and in high school Driver’s Ed, when we were forced to watch several editions of the car-crash scare series Red Asphalt, I became so terrified I would kill someone that once I finally got my license I didn’t want to drive. In other words, I am looking for reassurance, not a cheap thrill at someone else’s expense.

I think that something similar happens when someone seemingly “normal”—or at least normal enough—commits a large-scale atrocity. Some people complain that we are more interested in the perpetrators than in the victims, who are more deserving of media attention. But, to me (and, I suspect, to others), the victims’ role is not nearly as frightening as the perpetrators’. Certain horrific acts, like what took place at the Boston Marathon, or Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Tuscon, make us seek answers to our most terrifying questions: Who could be capable of such a thing? Could I? Could someone I know? Would I recognize such a person? How does someone make the decision to become a terrorist? Could he have been stopped?

At least from the preliminary reports, both the Boston Marathon bombers turned to violence in response to ordinary human pain: parents’ divorce, immigration, a best friend’s murder. The evidently more volatile brother, who already felt out of place in the United States, lost the possibility of citizenship when he committed domestic violence, and, in response, threw away his own humanity to retaliate with terrorism. He went to Bunker Hill Community College (where I have colleagues), and then dropped out while immigrants with similar problems kept going. The younger brother, the one almost universally described as warm, kind, and popular, bafflingly went along with his brother’s plans—why?

Peter Young Hoffmeister, a high school teacher and former Huffington Post blogger, lost his HuffPost blogging gig when he submitted a post recounting his past as an angry, lonely, gun-obsessed young man. After being expelled for carrying a loaded, stolen handgun to high school, he got kicked out of two more schools before “the support of some incredible adults” and an outdoor program for troubled teens inspired him to straighten out. Compassion saves, at least sometimes. Maybe there will always be Loughners and Holmeses who spiral out of reach, but on the other side there are also Hoffmeisters who force us to ask, Couldn’t something have been done?

I have noticed that it’s much easier to throw around the “evil” label, to dehumanize, to call for the torture and death of the “monsters,” than to ask such questions—at least judging by the talk shows, media rhetoric, and inflammatory facebook posts that have rippled through my feed the past few days. Now that the victims are maimed or dead, it’s too late for compassion to make a difference in the outcome, but to look for reasons is to acknowledge that there might have been a moment, or even moments, when someone might have intervened, or some time when a few kind words might have helped prevent so many worlds from breaking.

The Tyranny of the To-Do List

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If I were a rose-colored glasses type, I would breeze through a list of everything I accomplished in 2012. Since I’m more the ochre-colored glasses type – in other words, I see the world in approximate shades of cat vomit – I have given a lot more thought to what has not been accomplished. A more puce-colored personality would hurry the leftovers into a list of New Year’s resolutions for 2013 and blog about them in case someone reading perchance gives a rip.

Being in an ochre mindset, though, I have realized that I will probably be much more successful if I strive for imperfection. In terms of learning experiences, I’m an overachiever; in terms of achievement, my record is mixed. My ambitions are a glass house from whose windows I can never quite remove all the spots. Better to chuck mudballs at the thing, I say.

Ochre Jill has hypothesized that the contents of the yearly to-do list, and not the dearth of checkmarks, might be the actual problem, and she has decided to drag Puce Jill vaguely in the direction of reality. Puce Jill, of course, wants to keep scrubbing the windows of the glass house in hopes that they will somehow be perfectly clean. Ochre Jill prefers to scream obscenities.

I’ve learned a lot this year. I have learned that I’m not a good multitasker and that I’m not especially efficient; that my skin is still on the thin side; that I can tell what someone really wants by what they actually do, even when I don’t want to see it; that I don’t know why I love my dog or why he loves me; that most of the time, if I don’t force myself to follow a recipe, I can make something decent with what’s on hand and skip the shopping trip; that the perpetual problem of balancing teaching and writing has continued to be perpetual, but that my relationship with procrastination has cooled…a lot.

Basically, I have decided to reevaluate my relationship with time and space. This year, I will fail again – but this time, I will fail deliberately. If my to-do list is a hoarder’s paradise, I have nobody to blame but its author. And really, there is no audience but me who cares about the ending, which I dearly hope is not “Here lies Jill: She crossed everything off her list.”

Because what is a to-do list, really, but a series of decisions about how to spend my time on earth? And do I want to judge my life by what I have crossed off, or by deliberate choices about what I have chosen to include?

Please visit Bloom (www.bloom-site.com) to discover other writers who published their first major work after 40!

Bloom

by Jill Kronstadt

1.

In the fall of 1882, Kate Chopin’s husband Oscar lay dying of malaria in Cloutierville, Louisiana, where they had lived for the past three years of a twelve-year marriage. Several months before, Kate had departed for St. Louis soon after her husband returned from a sanatorium, a trip so conspicuously timed that it aroused suspicions of marital trouble. Summoned back to Cloutierville, she returned to find medical and legal bills mounting while her husband succumbed to a series of fevers and finally died.

She was thirty-two years old, with six children and more than $12,000 in debt.

Twelve years later, Chopin, on her way to becoming one of the South’s most popular writers, published her widely-anthologized “The Story of an Hour.” In the story, Louise Mallard, a young wife with a heart condition, learns that her husband has died in a train accident. She mourns…

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The Million Meeting March

On the first day of class, I always try to avoid reading through the syllabus. One reason is that students, anticipating a day of tedium, sometimes skip the first day and miss hearing the course requirements. The main reason, though, is that I don’t want to start the semester with a day of tedium.

For some reason, however, for faculty the academic year generally starts with several days of tedium, most of which have no relevance to the things that excite us about teaching. At the start of the year, what I find most invigorating are discussions of pedagogy, innovative assignments, and shared insights from a summer of reflection; but where we spend most of our time is sitting in large halls listening to announcement after announcement and wishing we were back in the classroom.

In my opinion, the just-kill-me-now endless rounds of meetings are a wasted opportunity. When we teach a course, we have course outcomes and activities that support these outcomes. The more interactive and active the classroom activities are, the more likely participants will meet the outcomes. When we go to conferences, we have specific disciplinary or pedagogical issues and problems that the presentations address. In most of the everyone-must-go meetings, the intended outcomes are not clear, the activities are not tied to student success and don’t actively involve participants, and the speakers generally repeat information that has already been delivered via email, at other meetings, and even within the same meeting.

I have heard staff complain that the meeting content is too academic, and faculty routinely complain that the meetings rob us of valuable start-of-semester prep time. Administrators, as far as I can tell, are not free to give their opinions. I will be honest: I am writing this blog entry from an auditorium in a meeting that has already gone on nearly two hours and shows no sign of ending. The highlights were the delightful acceptance speeches for the staff and faculty excellence awards – but they didn’t come up in the agenda until well after the meeting was scheduled to end.

While we’re sitting in here, our college wrestles with a reorganization, an upcoming accreditation review, budget crises, public pressure to demonstrate that our students are learning, and sometimes-flailing efforts to bolster student retention, persistence, and completion. As of this writing, midway through the week, I have already attended more than 12 hours of meetings, with at least six more hours to come before the end of the week. The clock is ticking, and my fingernails and toenails are turning blue.

As I have said more than once, I am blessed to work at a college where everyone – faculty, staff, and administration – are talented, intelligent, innovative, collegial, and dedicated to improving the lives of our students. So why are we wasting our own time?

Pete and Repeat Were Walking Down the Street

The year I finished graduate school, I moved into a squat, well-proportioned brick building on a street in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. Within a couple of years, the entire building needed to be repointed, a term I’d never heard but which meant removing and replacing every bit of mortar around every single brick. A couple of very nice men spent months hauling massive sacks of concrete up scaffolding and painstakingly repairing the masonry.

The nice men had a radio, and all day the radio played “oldies” from the sixties and seventies. On one Saturday afternoon, radio blasting right outside my window, I vowed that if in twenty years I was still listening only to the exact same music I did in my teens, someone should just kill me right then, since clearly I would be half-dead already. (I realize that sounds extreme, but those are the words I said to myself.)

An editorial by David Hadju (an associate professor of journalism at Columbia) in the New York Times hypothesized that so many music greats turned 70 around 2011 because musical tastes form at age fourteen, and when 2011’s seventy-year-olds were fourteen, they listened to Elvis. Elvis’s primacy during these septuagenarians’ formative years, the theory goes, seeded an enchanted forest of newly-planted musical trees. It’s an interesting idea, but I disagree with the article’s premise that taste and identity are basically a done deal by fourteen. The best practitioners of every profession continue to evolve and pursue what lies beyond their comfort zone – and the artists, writers, and musicians whose work I most respect have reimagined themselves over and over again.

The idea that we mature into a permanent shape bothers me not only in terms of artistic but also human potential. People love to say that people can’t change, but what they actually mean is that true change requires boundless devotion akin to what’s required to compete in the Olympics, and that rather than admitting they don’t want to expend the energy required, they prefer to believe that the task is impossible. Having made profound changes in my own life, and having had the honor of seeing a large number of friends and students also make profound changes, I know that the naysayers are just plain wrong: The quest for change may take every bit of strength you have, but it is always, always possible.

All this is to explain why I believe that replaying the broken records of my youth is a form of premature death. Though I am relatively tolerant of stasis in others, I oppose it in general and loathe it in myself. I actually enjoy music from all time periods and nearly all genres; I just refuse to write “THE END” on the last page of my musical tastes, or any other aspect of myself or my life, at least while I have any say in the matter.

Calcification, on the other hand, has no place in the classroom, politics, or the arts – to name just three areas where I abhor it – which may be why I am one of the only movie lovers in America who disliked Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris enough to turn it off partway through.

My dislike of the film probably says more about me than about the movie. On Rotten Tomatoes, I saw only one negative review, although I suspect that most of the people who watch Woody Allen movies these days are already loyal fans (maybe they saw his films at fourteen years old and couldn’t let them go).

I have felt wary of Woody Allen ever since his 1992 affair with his partner Mia Farrow’s adoptive daughter Soon-Yi, who was thirty-five years younger than he was, and whom he married in 1997. More to the point, I also found his shtick outdated, annoying, not particularly funny, and a sign of a general failure to adapt to changing times. As he continued to play the same character in film after film, always paired romantically with a young, beautiful woman I also felt – even though I have friends who will consider my opinion heresy – bored.

Once Allen scaled back on acting in his films and focused the main action on younger Hollywood hotties, I regained some interest…for a while. Javier Bardem, Patricia Clarkson, and Penélope Cruz are always interesting, so I enjoyed Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for example. I had high hopes for Midnight in Paris: good reviews, Owen Wilson, a lively cast of expat literary icons from the 1920s.

From the opening frame, with the same jazz track, black screen and white font Allen has used since I can remember, followed by a series of shots of Paris tourist landmarks that flashed and lingered in tempo with the soundtrack, though, I felt irritated. My annoyance escalated as the screen filled with bickering characters: Gil, a screenwriter writing a novel about the owner of a nostalgia shop, a premise that has about as light a touch as Versailles, which the characters are touring as Gil explains his idea; Inez, his shallow and materialistic fiancée; her parents, who are even shallower and more materialistic than Inez; and Inez’s pretentious, blowhard intellectual friend.

Every scene reminded me of being in an elevator with a jabbering neurotic who won’t shut up for love or money. Seeing Owen Wilson mimic Woody Allen’s characters, with their stammering, relentlessly self-referential monologues, I felt like I was watching something not quite obscene, like photos of Jon-Benet Ramsay or Allen’s own marriage to Soon-Yi. John Lahr, writing in The New Yorker (December 9, 1996), writes, “Allen admits that in fact he was never a nebbish, never that schlub in his stand-up routine.” Along the same lines, Lahr writes in the same article, “Allen does not stammer. He is not uncertain of what he thinks. He is not full of jokes or bon mots…”

Of course, it is possible that at some point beyond the point where I hit the eject button, Allen made some postmodern use of a film with a nostalgic protagonist whose time travels lead him to 1920s writers who seem to be two parts artifice to one part history, in a Paris obscured by Gil’s dreams of Paris, just as the opening frames seem to be a visual riff on tourist postcards. The trouble is that this postmodern postcard arrives three decades late, and that Owen, playing Gil, comes off like an imitation of the persona of an artifice.

If the artifice were interesting and the characters were more relevant, I would have kept watching. In the shadow of the uproar over Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi, again in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik argues, “By the early eighties, the distance between the comedian and his audience was becoming more noticeable, and the tension between high-modern fastidiousness and Upper West Side middlebrow life was becoming more and more attenuated…It was said that the problem was that the comedian had been cut off from real life. Woody himself had lived in a penthouse for a long time, and that’s not a place from which to make shrewdly gauged social observations.

Rather than conceding this disconnect, Gopnik goes on to blame – surprise! – feminism, lamenting that it has led the public to unfairly condemn things like lechery and “even mildly predatory desire…Our present situation is bad for everyone, but it is cruelly bad for Woody Allen. The loss of lechery as an acceptable emotion robbed him of his comic subject.” I’ve seen this argument before, from the pedophile Humbert Humbert, in Lolita. There is a lot I love about The New Yorker, but the sexism embedded in such sentiments – and the gender stereotyping in the cartoons especially – seem to me to be not only anachronistic, but alienating. So, Gopnik’s argument implies, if I didn’t find Midnight in Paris funny, it’s the feminists’ fault.

With all due respect, it wasn’t the unholy stew of Zelda Fitzgerald, gold-digging Inez, and snarky Mom that made the movie too interminable to watch. It’s seeing the same themes, characters, and stereotypes (which were funny a couple of decades ago) regifted and recycled. Intellectually, I can appreciate a nostalgic film about nostalgia, but it is possible for a piece of art to become too much of what it purports to satirize.

It’s like the old riddle, “Pete and RePete were walking down the street. Pete fell down and broke his feet. Who was left?” “Repeat…” I’ll say again that my reaction probably says at least as much about me as it does about the film. So, in that spirit, Pete, I ditched repeat – get back on your feet.