Monday, February 16, 2015

This is What a Feminist Looks Like

On how we can elevate the pop dialogue about feminism

Lately, there's been a pattern repeatedly taking place in the pop-o-sphere. A reporter asks a woman (usually a young actress) if she's a feminist.

If she says, "Yes, unequivocally," there's some cheering from the feminist camp and some grumbling from others about how she probably hates men (or if she says more than that, she could be subjected to online terror like name-calling, threats, and doxxing). And a lot of people will comment on how she looks.

If she says something like, "Well, I believe in equal rights but I don't think I'd consider myself a feminist because, you know, I like men," then a bunch of people shout at her that believing in equal rights makes her a feminist and isn't she ignorant. And a lot of people will comment on how she looks.

Sometimes men are asked if they're feminists, and a lot of the time they're all: "Yeah, my mom/girlfriend/wife/sister is a really strong woman." Then everyone goes, aww, that's so sweet.

I'm glad that the word "feminism" is getting play in the popular dialogue, but now that it's having a moment, it's time to elevate the conversation. The types of dialogue described above help no one. At least, no women. Whether women do or do not claim feminism, they face ridicule or worse.

So how can we shift the conversation in a more productive direction?

1) Avoid reductionism

When Gina Rodriguez was asked if she was a feminist
and said no, this was the reply.
I love how open-minded Gina is,
but wonder if we're making
being a "feminist" too simple.

Photo credit: here.

I've noticed a trend of people claiming that feminism just means "equal rights" for women, so if you believe in equal rights, you're a feminist. While that is one way the dictionary defines feminism, for most feminists, the movement goes beyond equal rights. 

Let's imagine that we woke up tomorrow and the ERA had passed, and women and men were completely equal under the law. Also, in this magical night, women's paychecks became equal to men's, and all laws that privileged men were taken off the books. Would feminism become unnecessary?
I would argue no, because the cultural patriarchy would still be intact.

If we pass laws so that rapists are prosecuted fully, will that mean we're free from rape culture? If women are given equal rights within the military, will we stop killing women and children in other countries? If men and women are completely equal in marriage, but our lesbian sisters can't marry in all fifty states, are we truly equal?

Besides the fact that feminism is about more than just equal rights (although it's definitely about that), there are lots of different brands of feminism... as many as there are women. 

So let's stop trying to convince women who don't identify as feminists that they are "really" feminists by getting them to accept a reductionist definition of a diverse and complicated movement. Instead, let's engage others in a dialogue about what the systems of patriarchy really are, how they are intertwined in all aspects of our society, and how we can work together to dismantle them.

2) Don't make it about dudes

Look, as a straight feminist woman, does my heart go pitter-pat when I see a favorite male celebrity wearing a feminist-themed t-shirt? Sure. 

Do you think, "I'm attempting to
dismantle patriarchy" would fit
on a shirt?

Photo credit: Elle UK
However, feminism isn't about guys. The fact that we make it about the benefits guys will reap from dismantling patriarchy is just evidence of how our society defaults to men's voices, even when we're talking about lady stuff.

First, while it's great that campaigns like #heforshe point out that patriarchy hurts men as well as women, we need to make it OK to argue that even if it didn't, we should still dismantle it. We need to argue that it's right and moral to consider women's rights without reference to men's feelings, desires, or needs. You know, because women are people.

Second, I love it that lots of men consider themselves feminists. I believe that men can be feminists, which is in itself sort of controversial among feminists. Yet it has to be the prerogative of women to confer this status on men. Just as, as a White person, it is not my right to name myself an ally to people of color, or as a straight person, to call myself an LGBT ally; men should let women confer allyship to the feminist movement.

Instead of men saying, "I'm a feminist," how about: "I'm trying to be anti-patriarchal." I know it's not as cool on a T-shirt. But it will elevate women's voices and acknowledge that men benefit from the privileges of patriarchy whether they want to or not.

Another way that men can be allies: make the internet safe for all of us to talk about feminism. Call out your brothers who doxx, threaten, and bully women online. Refuse to be silent when other men joke about rape, call for women's submission to men, or when women are called ugly and fat (or beautiful and elegant) in conversations about issues.

3) Make it inclusive
Photo credit: here (if you know the original illustrator,
please let me know so I can credit!)

I believe that the patriarchy is deeply embedded in a system that is White supremacist, hetero-
normative, and oppressive to well... do you have all day? 

Yet feminism often refuses to hear the voices of women of color, trans women, religious women, etc. A woman shouldn't have to feel like her feminist sisters will criticize her if she decides to wear hijab. Trans women shouldn't be barred from feminist spaces. And no woman should have to choose between her family's culture and her own equality. When we make feminism only about White, upper middle class women's lived experiences, we reinforce the patriarchy, rather than taking it down.

I recognize that these three things are not easy. Yet I believe they are worth doing, so that we can take advantage of the resurgence of discussion about women's rights. If we don't do these things, I fear that the moment will pass, and we will be in the same place we were before the word "feminism" began popping up all over the internet.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Holiday Letter You Didn't Get From Me

Dear Friends and Family,

Hello! And happy holidays.

Yes, I know that Christmas is long passed, and you may have received a card from me with no personal message written on it. Not even a signature. Or maybe you thought you'd get a card, but then I got side-tracked and never made that second trip to the post office. Feel free to call me names.

If you were remembering the clever little missives of the past, just know that I didn't manage to get myself together in time to do that this year. To those of you who did, you earned your humble brags just by having the foresight to write your Christmas letter (I actually like these Christmas letters, although that seems to be an unpopular sentiment. But keep them coming!)

And if you didn't get a Christmas card out this year, no sweat. Your great-aunt is probably silently judging you (or not-so-silently judging you, or not-so-silently comparing you to your cousin Eileen  - Did you see Eileen's Christmas letter? She has four kids and an organic hand soap business and SHE managed to send a letter... (dramatic pause).

2014 brought me travel and adventure! To recap:

Flight map of the South on the day we were trying
to get to Birmingham. I'm not sure what that little plane
was trying to do, because there was
nowhere to land.
Winter 2014
The year started off with a trip to Nashville, TN: Music City! Of course, I had originally been attempting to go to Birmingham, AL, but due to a freak storm we were re-routed. 

If you have never been to Nashville, I can recommend the airport, where you can while away the hours in such pursuits as sitting, listening to country music stars give pre-recorded messages about how great Nashville is, and talking to the pleasant Southwest staff members about which cast members from the show Nashville they have seen in the airport.

You may never want to leave the airport, but if you do, the airport area has many fine hotels where you can attempt to get some dinner from the single waitress on staff. Get up early to get back to the airport to return home, never having reached your final destination.

Spring 2014
As spring rolled in, I was excited to find a special offer in my mail, that you can see at right. It really is amazing all the wonderful things that you can get these days, if you just pay attention to the coupons in your weekly mail. Personally, I enjoy redeeming free cremations as often as possible. You never know know when you'll need one!

Summer 2014
Ah summer! There's nothing like a Houston summer, when the air coats your skin like a hot wet blanket has been wrapped around you, tighter and tighter until you  think that you might need to redeem a free cremation any minute. When the weather is so delightfully warm that your thighs stick together every time you walk down the street, it's the perfect opportunity to explore the activities that summer brings.

My friend Melanie and I decided that we would try the wooden roller coaster at Kemah Boardwalk, little realizing that people in their thirties are perhaps not the target audience for a contraption made of match sticks which tosses you back and forth  at high speeds. While we had a great time, we also came out looking like car crash victims due to the gigantic bruises we acquired. I'm not sure if there's a ride at the boardwalk that involves sitting and drinking wine, but if there is, next time we'll try that.

Photo tip: When taking pictures of
sidewalks, make sure that your shadow
is not in the picture. You'll treasure
these sidewalk pictures for years to come.
Fall 2014
Fall brought the trip of a lifetime, as my Mom and I visited our ancestral homeland of Spain! We enjoyed the fine cuisine, such a chicken stew surrounded by French fries, chicken on a bed of French fries, and French fries with hot sauce. And ham. We also enjoyed the many cobblestone and tiled streets and alleys, which my mother urged me to document in photos as often as possible. 

There's nothing like foreign travel to test the mother daughter bond, but luckily we passed with flying colors. So... to all of you who asked, "You're spending how long with your mother?" I can tell you that it was amazing. As long as I agreed to get to the train station an hour or more before every leg of the trip, nothing could come between us!

I hope that you had as wonderful of a 2014 as I. As for 2015, I give you the words of Warren Zevon:

"Don't let us get sick
Don't let us get old
Don't let us get stupid, all right?

Just make us be brave,
Make us play nice,
And let us be together tonight."

Love, your friend

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What Are Police For? And Other Questions Of Justice and Protest

It would be lovely if it were true...
If you happen to be four or five years old (target audience for this blog) I can predict at least one thing you will do in school this year: you will learn about "community helpers." You will learn how firefighters save kittens, how doctors give scary shots that keep you healthy, and how police officers can help you if get lost.

"Community helper." Sounds quaint, doesn't it?

Let's consider police officers. Without the context of knowing what most police officers actually do , if I was to imagine someone who has the job of "helping" to ensure community safety, I would imagine someone who deeply knows the people of the community, investigates situations that would cause breaches in safety of community members (such as unlighted areas, abandoned houses, etc.), and works with other community leaders (clergy, doctors, teachers) to address threats to the community's well-being.  These community safety helpers would understand the context of the community and the history of its residents.

Maybe there was a time when some of these things happened, when beat cops walked the streets and whistled happy tunes. I know that there are many amazing programs going on throughout America to bring back community policing, support the mental health needs of communities through police actions, and more. 

It's time to face facts, though. These types of programs are not the norm. North America is in crisis today, and part of the reason is that  we have military forces trained on our citizens.

I imagine (hope) if you're living in the United States, you're familiar with the situation in Ferguson, MO. A young Black man got into an altercation with a police officer and was shot to death. The details are clouded in controversy, but what we do know is that the young man, Michael Brown, was unarmed. Despite conflicting witness testimonies that should have signaled the need for a trial to suss out the truth of the situation, and despite the very low burden of proof when it comes to indictment, the officer was not charged by a grand jury.

Given that grand juries almost always return an indictment, the message was clear: if a Black man is killed by the cops, he probably deserved it.

(The many, many internet comments I have read over the past few days have confirmed that lots of Americans believe that defying the police means that you asked for your own death.)

At the same time as this has been going on, protests have ignited in Mexico over the disappearance of 43 students who were taken into police custody and then reportedly handed over to a criminal syndicate and killed.

If I sit back and listen, I can hear the blustering objections. How could the convoluted tale of the death of Mike Brown be compared to the obvious sins committed by the Mexican police?

And to that, I answer: what are police for, if not to ensure the safety of the community? to help the community, as our little ones learn during their social studies time?

Instead, our police have become a military force, set to enforce systems that do not serve the community. As income inequality grows, I expect this will only get worse. And this will put the men and women who join police forces because they actually do want to help the community in the tenuous position of protecting systems that are not serving the best interests of middle- and lower-income people of any race, but particularly people of color.

Americans are deeply divided in how we think about the police.

When I've gone through jury selection, they have asked us, "do you believe someone is more likely to tell the truth just because they are in law enforcement?" Having been raised with a healthy skepticism of authority, this question has seemed odd to me. Yet the last few days have brought home the number of people, mostly White, who unequivocally believe that police accounts of events are true (even when, in the case of Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, they contradict the physical evidence of the case, and, you know, basic math.)

On the flip side, many Black Americans mistrust police forces and the courts. Which is hardly surprising, when you think about the numbers of Black men who are incarcerated compared to Whites; when you think about stop-and-frisk policies and racial profiling in traffic stops; drug laws that provide greater penalties for drugs that are used more often in Black communities than White;
school police who begin ticketing Black and Latin@ youth at greater rates, putting them in contact with the justice system at an early age ... the list goes on and on. 

Again I ask, what are police for? What is a justice system that protects injustice?

I'm a pacifist. In fact, I'm such an extreme pacifist, that I don't watch sports because I believe they contribute to a culture of war. I don't believe in violent revolution. 

Yet I understand the impulse that drives the violence we've seen over the past few days. When faced with a system that is patently tyrannical - when the police force can kill an unarmed citizen and then be protected from even a serious inquiry into whether it was appropriate force, and your city is filled with paramilitary forces, then what do you do? What do you do with that much rage when all promises for uncovering the truth and for safety are broken, when the state clearly communicates that you are not worth justice?

If you believe that we must come together in order to invert systems of power in our country, as I do, and you believe that these actions must be non-violent, one thing you can do is look over the list of 198 non-violent methods of protest and persuasion that fill the armory of peaceful protest. Ask yourself, which of these am I uniquely positioned to do? Non-violent action is not just about street protests. It consists of writing (like this blog), art, symbolic acts, theater and film, consumer actions, non-cooperation ... well, there are 198 (and that list was created before social media, so there are definitely more things you could do). If you disagree with what is happening in our country, if you want a justice system that is fair for all Americans, then do what you can to subvert the current paradigm.  You can be like my friend Jamar, who is sharing petitions on Facebook to influence Congress to require body cams for police officers. Or my friend Ceci, who is using art to comment on the situation in Mexico. Or Dhathri, who is urging others to participate in Black Friday boycotts.

But what we can't do is ignore the opportunity presented to us to ask for the police force and justice system we need, so we don't have to explain to our pre-schoolers that we were wrong when we told them about those community helpers.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Favorite Vegan Resources (for non-vegans too!)

Lately, I've been looking for some new cooking challenges. I feel like I've cooked a chicken every way possible, and because I don't eat mammals, this cuts back on my potential cooking explorations. There are only so many things you can put an egg on before you've exhausted the list.

I've also cut way back on dairy products. Aside from the splash of milk in my morning coffee, I'm eating dairy only once or twice a week.

Which brings me to vegan cooking.

Eww, you might be thinking. Isn't that a bunch of twigs and leaves in a bowl?

Luckily, vegan cooking has come a long way. Even better, there are now lots of resources for vegan recipes that are also made from whole foods. I don't know about you, but a lot of vegans I've known have eaten as much processed crap as carnivores. As whole foods become more popular and readily available, vegan recipes are popping up more often to use them (and it's easier to find recipes without soy products, which I try to avoid because a) gross; and b) there are questions about how healthy they are for women).

(And I don't have to tell you that diets high in plant foods are way better for the Earth. Activism on a plate).

Recently, about 2/3 of my diet has been vegan. This means new techniques to learn and new cooking questions to answer, such as: how do you make foods full of vegetables not turn out mushy? And: how many ways can you actually use a cashew to mimic a dairy product?

Along the way, I've found some favorite resources that anyone, even carnivores, can enjoy:

Oh She Glows (cookbook and blog)

My mom bought me the cookbook for my birthday, and when she handed it to me, she said, "I don't mean you have to become one." Vegan, she meant. She just thought that the recipes here looked healthy and delicious. And boy, was she right. Every single recipe I've tried has been great - easy, interesting, and filled with wholesome things. Many of the recipes are gluten-free as well as vegan, meaning that they have all kinds of fun alternative grains. I've cooked fewer things from the blog than the cookbook, but author Angela Liddon has filled it with variations on some of her popular recipes, including lots of yummy-looking desserts.

Smitten Kitchen (cookbook and blog)

This is not a vegan or even vegetarian site, but author Deb Perelman was once a vegetarian and she continues to elevate humble vegetables into delicious and creative meals and sides - her website has both vegan and vegetarian categories in the index. Simply the recipe for slow cooker black bean ragout would make it one of the most highly used resources in my kitchen. (The recipe is from the cookbook and you can also find it here). I make the black bean ragout every few weeks, doling it out into zip-locs and freezing portions for use in any recipe that calls for black beans. Canned black beans seem positively blah in comparison.


Pinterest is a home cook's best friend. Not only can I peruse the recipes for hours on end, but it allows me to keep my recipes organized. Every week when I make my weekly meal plan, I get out my favorite cookbooks and my Kindle with Pinterest open on it -- I often find that I'll plan a whole week of meals just from Pinterest. It makes it easy to find recipes for any kind of special diet, and it can lead you to great blogs that you never would have discovered otherwise. (My veggie/vegan board is here).

The Post-Punk Kitchen (blog, and author Isa Chandra Moskowitz has also written some cookbooks and made videos and done all kinds of fun stuff).

Have you ever had a cookbook where everything you make from it is always a success? That's how I feel about the recipes I've made from the Post-Punk Kitchen. Ancho lentil tacos (see here)? The bomb. Brussels sprouts fried rice? To die for. Red lentil Thai chili? So warm and delicious. I admit, I haven't gotten as deep into the playlist on this site because I keep coming back to these awesome favorites. Isa loves to play with interesting flavors and the spices, and lots of her recipes are beloved by non-vegetarians as well. I'm pretty excited to try the stout shepherd's pie with a potato biscuit topping...

These are the resources that have gotten me started in this new cooking adventure. Any others I should know about?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Recipe: Overnight Oats, 2 Ways

I think I've mentioned before, I'm a super-cool urban hipster who is always up on the latest trends.

Oh, wait, what was that? You're snickering at me?

OK, fine. If you don't believe me, check out this lunch I recently packed for myself:

Why, yes, that IS a green smoothie in my lunch.

See, that's THREE Mason jars in one lunch. Other hipsters tip their waxed moustaches at me (yes, I spelled it the French way!) when they see that.

One trend that I've been enjoying recently is the rise of overnight oats. This is oatmeal that you don't have to cook; it's vegan-friendly (I'm not a vegan or even a vegetarian, but sometimes I play one on TV) and it tastes delicious ... if you are someone who likes things that are the consistency of rice pudding. I say this, because there's a large segment of the population that doesn't like pudding-type things with chunky bits. However, if you LOVE rice pudding or other types of chunky pudding (tapioca, bread), then you will like this a lot.

There are a lot of overnight oats recipes out there, from simple to complex. The basic principles are these: You put 1 part oats to 1 part liquid (I like almond milk) and an optional 1/3 part chia seeds in a container and put it in the fridge overnight. The oats and chia seeds soak up the liquid, and become a kind of pudding.

PUDDING FOR BREAKFAST!! And it's pudding that's ready the moment you wake up!

Make it in a funky jar for extra street cred -
if the street is in Portland and is lined with artisan barrel makers
and food trucks selling Korean-Finnish fusion food (kimchi herring - yum!). 

In experimenting with overnight oats, I've come up with two variations that are my favorites. 

The first is Cherry Vanilla Almond. I am a huge fan of dried cherries, particularly of the sour variety.

The second variation I've dubbed "Funky Monkey." The first time I ever had a smoothie, it was at a little shop in Santa Barbara, and the drink I had was called the Funky Monkey - peanut butter, chocolate, and banana (hence the monkey).  I've named my concoction after this perfect combination of elements.

Here are the easy-peasy recipes.

Cherry Vanilla Almond Overnight Oats

Ingredients (per serving)

1/3 cup rolled or steel-cut oats (steel-cut make a chewier texture)
1/3 cup vanilla almond milk
about 1/8 cup chia seeds
1/3-1/2 banana, mashed (optional)
a dash of cinnamon
a handful of dried sour cherries

Mix all the ingredients in a container (or Mason jar!), making sure to incorporate the banana well. Cover and put in the refrigerator overnight.

When you take it out of the refrigerator, it will look pretty firm and the chia seeds may be resting on top. Add a splash of the almond milk and stir. Garnish with your favorite fresh berries or sliced almonds (blueberries are especially delicious).

Funky Monkey Overnight Oats

Ingredients (per serving)

1-2 tablespoons peanut butter (I find 1.5 to be the sweet spot)
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1/3-1/2 banana, mashed
1/3 cup vanilla almond milk
1/3 cup rolled or steel-cut oats
1/8ish cup chia seeds
a squirt of honey or other sweetener, if you want (I don't like very sweet things, so I often omit this, but the pudding isn't very sweet without it - especially if you're making this for a kid, I would add it, at least until you have them hooked)

Whisk together the peanut butter, cocoa, banana, and almond milk until well incorporated. Then mix in the other ingredients. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Splash with almond milk and stir to serve. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Funeral Blues for Ferguson, Missouri

"Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos ..."
                                                        W.H. Auden

These words keep running through my head as news rolls in about Ferguson, MO. It feels like everything should just STOP and pay attention to what's happening. I read the news, Twitter, so choked up that I can hardly breathe.

But the world just keeps going.  At least, it does for White America. I see a sharp division between my White and Black friends in how much headspace this story is getting. I'm not talking about everyone, but let's be really real for a second: I've seen more Facebook coverage of the ice-bucket challenge than the fact that real tyranny is happening not just in Ferguson, but throughout the U.S. 

And I've been thinking a lot about two little guys I know, just on the cusp of teenagerhood. They are best friends. They love Minecraft, rap music, and have secret crushes on girls. I'll call them H and J. H is White. J is Black.

They are going to do a lot of dumb stuff over the next few years. That's what you do when you're a teenaged boy. It's the result of a partly-developed frontal lobe, a growing body, and more freedom.

But the results of those dumb teenaged choices could be harrowingly different. 

J is more likely to be stopped for things like walking and driving than his friend H.
When he is, he is more likely to be subjected to unconstitutional searches.
If, during these searches, he resists, he is more likely to have force used against him.
J is more likely to be arrested, and if he is, to be convicted, and sentenced more harshly.
The list goes on.

And it can all start with just ... walking down the street.
Memphis, 1968

I've seen a lot of articles like "10 (or 12 or 8) things White people can do about Ferguson." I don't have any good advice. But what I know we have to stop doing? We have to stop acting as if there is ANY justification for killing a young unarmed Black or Brown boy in the street. 

Not his clothes.
Not his past crimes.
Not Facebook photos of that boy doing dumb, teenaged stuff.
Not holding something in his hand, be it a cell phone or Skittles.
Not talking back to authority figures.

When we try to argue about whether that boy was a good boy, or a troublemaker, or a scholar, or a criminal, what we are really saying is this: Black lives only matter to us if they conform to some standard that we White folks have set up.

A boy is dead. Not just one boy... but many.Many more are in prison.

Let's mourn that, and that turn our eyes to the justice that is the only thing that will bring peace.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Re-post: 5 Things You Shouldn't Say About Mental Illness

I wanted to re-post this piece that I wrote a little while ago because, in the wake of Robin Williams's death, many people on the internet have been openly expressing prejudice and hate against those with mental illnesses. This has been in somewhat subtle ways, such as posting articles that provide religious reasons why suicide is not OK, to blatant hatred toward Williams's daughter on Twitter.

I am very lucky, in that I have never considered suicide. I have always been able to get out of bed, and go to work, and complete necessary tasks, even in the worst days of anxiety and depression. Yet that's just LUCK. 

Below, I've written about 5 things you shouldn't say to/about people with mental illnesses. But beyond that, before you post or re-post something on Facebook or Twitter, before you say something to your friends at work, think to yourself: if the person reading this was in the darkest time of their life, if my colleague standing across from me has a mental illness, would my words show grace? Or would they increase the depth of despair that person is feeling? And if the answer is the second thing - DON'T share, DON'T speak. Please don't use the privilege of being mentally healthy to keep others down.

Here's the article:

I'm one of the 57 million Americans who will experience a mental health challenge this year. I know that I will, because I have a chronic anxiety disorder and have dealt with bouts of depression since I was a child. I've been treated for my anxiety with an anti-depressant for about 15 years. 

I'm telling you this because I'm one of the lucky ones. My company is understanding. My family is understanding. I am helped by a very small dose of medication with no side effects for me, and I have been more successful at life than I could ever have imagined when I was pulled over on the side of the road crying for no reason all those years ago. I feel a responsibility to declare the fact of my illness because so many people suffer silently, afraid that they won't be accepted or will lose their jobs. Many people with mental illness wait as long as 10 years before getting treatment - for reasons that include the stigma of being thought "crazy."

I once heard mental illness described as a "hidden disability," and I believe that all of us have to help to "un-hide" it. This means that we have to be careful with our words so that we are not perpetuating harmful stereotypes or casting out microaggressions  that subtly belittle others.

I want to name some of the things that I've heard people say that are hurtful to those of us who have mental illnesses, so that we can start to strike these kinds of statements from our speech, and create a world where people feel free from stigma if they take advantage of the treatment that's now made more available by the new insurance rules.

5 Things You Shouldn't Say to Someone With a Mental Illness

Why doesn't she just get treatment?
I've heard this said about people who are struggling in their work or lives because of mental illness, and it's often said with a great deal of judgment, and often said to others who have gotten treatment for their mental health challenges. First off - you don't know that this person isn't being treated. Finding the right treatment for mental illness can be difficult. Doctors often have to try several varieties before something works. And second - the illness itself can keep someone from getting treatment. For example, I have an anxiety disorder, which means that when untreated, I experience paralyzing anxiety about new situations. I couldn't overcome the anxiety of getting treatment until the need became greater than the fear. That took awhile. And finally, the stigma of being thought "crazy" can keep people from facing their illness. Or they may have their own stereotypes of mental illness, and not realize that they don't have to hear voices to be in need of help. It absolutely breaks my heart every time I hear of someone who is struggling but won't see someone; they need our love and understanding, not our judgment.

Have you tried ... (insert: yoga, meditation, therapy, getting a pet, etc.)? That always makes me feel better.
Mental illness is different than a lot of health problems, because the symptoms are often extreme versions of things everyone experiences. We all have anxiety sometimes - it was necessary to keep us alive in the evolutionary environment. But just because you've experienced anxiety, it doesn't mean that you can treat mine. For example, when I'm untreated, I have a crippling fear of talking on the phone. I have literally felt that I would die if I called a pizza place or a store to ask their hours. Even with treatment, I have been known to write out what I'm going to say on the phone. That's an extreme kind of anxiety, and it belittles my experience when you suggest that you know what will fix it.

Have you tried ... (insert those same things) instead of drugs?
Does anyone ever say to someone with the flu, "Have you tried meditation to get rid of that virus?" We don't (most of us, anyway) just say a prayer when someone is having a heart attack. We give the person aspirin and call 911. But for some reason, we think it's OK to suggest to people with mental illnesses that they shouldn't need medication. It's seen as a sign of weakness. 

Most people dealing with mental illness are incredibly strong people. They are going through terrible suffering, and still managing to live their lives, take care of their children, do their jobs. Why would we then suggest they should not have something that will improve their suffering?

You have to just face your fears.
As I mentioned, my fears are completely irrational. For example, I have very little anxiety about: spiders, public speaking, snakes, the dark, and most other things that are considered rational fears. But those things that make me anxious provoke a strongly physical reaction, almost a paralysis. I literally could not face my fears because I couldn't move. I've had students with selective mutism (a kind of anxiety disorder) who wouldn't speak in class, and who were harassed by teachers (even special ed teachers) and other students, urging them to talk. These kids can't just face their fears and start talking. 

There is a point where you can be helped by exposure to things that scare you, but it's usually not something that can just be done through force of will. 

You're just sensitive/special/extra caring/sad/nervous, etc.
Being depressed is not like being sad. Having an anxiety disorder is not like being nervous. Both have physical symptoms (like joint pain, lethargy, sleeplessness or over-sleeping...). This isn't something that's all in your mind. It's all over your body. And even when symptoms are primarily mental, this doesn't mean that someone is just being dramatic or overly-emotional. Depression can be triggered by things that are supposed to make you sad, like the death of a loved one or pet. Doctors can diagnose when someone is having emotional reactions that are proportional to events, and those that aren't.

These are just a few of the things people say that bug me. I hope that by having some open conversation, we can begin to de-stigmatize living with mental illness and come to accept it as we would any other health challenge.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Resurrecting SAID

The new school year is almost upon us. This year, I think it's time to start a revolution.

We need to resurrect said.

See that ghost rising from the grave?
That's Said. We're bringing him back.
In classrooms all over America, teachers create posters, decorated with gravestones, memorializing the word said.

"Said is dead," they say, and urge kiddos to use other words as dialogue tags. Writing teachers plan lessons dedicated to the idea that "good writers use more interesting words than said to let us know how characters are speaking." They have funerals for said and ban the word from their classrooms.

The problem is that this is wrong.

Said is dead has become such conventional wisdom that teachers actually get upset when I've tried to suggest otherwise. Google "said is dead" and you'll get hundreds of hits for posters, lesson plans, and charts you can use in your classroom.

For a long time I figured that this was  a battle that wasn't worth fighting. Teachers I respect and admire tell their students that said is dead.  As someone who writes teacher trainings, I've found that this constantly crops up in lessons, but it's hardly the biggest fish to fry when it comes to writing instruction.

This morning I was scrolling through Pinterest and saw an example poster that a teacher might use in class, listing other words that could be used instead of said.

"Great poster!" was written in the comments.

I was filled with a white-hot rage. I decided it was time to speak out.

The Case For Said

Contemporary authors rarely use dialogue tags other than said or asked.

It's OK if you don't believe me. Go to your bookshelf and open to random pages in some of your favorite books. Likely, you will see that almost all of the dialogue tags are said or asked (or variants thereof). I just did so, and opened up To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Atonement, and Faithful Place, by Tana French. Out of thirty or so dialogue tags, two were anything other than "said" or "asked".  One was "boomed" and the other was "called."

See. This sounds silly.
None of these are necessary.
Why is this so?

The purpose of dialogue tags is to let readers know who is speaking when the situation might be ambiguous. In these cases, So-and-so said is all that's required. Our brains usually register the name of the character, but don't linger on the word said. Many teachers tell students that we shouldn't use said because it's boring, but it's not boring because our brain doesn't really notice it. It's more like punctuation. If periods and commas aren't boring, neither is said.

When we use other dialogue tags, we create sort of a hitch in the smooth reading that we want our readers to be doing. By telling students not to use said, we're forcing them to conform to rules that actually make them sound like amateur hacks.

The Case Against Exclaimed, Snuffled, Chortled, Screamed

The secondary purpose of dialogue tags is to tell readers how the words are being said. 

Ha-ha! you might be thinking. That's when we use our other, interesting dialogue tags!

Yes, true.

There's a caveat here. These should only be used if the way the character is saying the words contradicts the emphasis or meaning the reader would infer. Otherwise, most "interesting" dialogue tags are redundant or silly. Let's look at some examples.

"Let her go," he commanded.
Commanded is redundant, because "Let her go" is already a command.

"It's my birthday!" Grace exclaimed.
Again, redundant. The exclamation point implies exclaiming.

"It was all part of my plan," he snickered.
Can you really "snicker" words? Go ahead. Try it. This just sounds silly. To snicker means to "give a half-suppressed laugh." You can't snicker words. Likewise, you cannot sneer, laugh, or chuckle words.

"You stole my baby," she whispered.
Now, here's a case where you might actually use this dialogue tag. If someone's baby was stolen, you might infer that she would be wailing or screaming or crying. But she's whispering. This provides a more complete picture of what's happening in the scene, and the dialogue tag is necessary because most of us wouldn't imagine her speaking in that way.

Double whammy! Using a redundant dialogue tag
with a redundant adverb.

What we should teach instead:

If said isn't dead, what do we teach kids about dialogue instead? I think we should be teaching them three considerations: 

1) When you write dialogue, choose meaningful words that tell the reader something important. Choose punctuation carefully as well. If you choose your words and punctuation carefully, the reader should be able to hear how the character is speaking.
2) Use a dialogue tag to show the reader who is speaking. It's only necessary if the reader might be confused about who is speaking. Use said almost exclusively.
3) If the character is speaking in a way that is unexpected, then you might use a tag other than said.

Why this matters:
This might seem like something trivial to blog about at length. However, there are a few reasons why I think this is important:

First, and most importantly, we should strive to teach children things that are correct and true. It doesn't matter that funerals for the word said are fun, if we're encouraging students to write in ways that are not skillful. (Trust me, there are lots of overused words that deserve funerals.) Truth matters. It's easy to forget that in teaching, but we should all be vigilant that our kids are learning things that are critical and truthful.

Second, we undermine our credibility when we teach students things that are obviously untrue. Any child who reads a lot is going to realize that "good writers" use the word said all the time. I did by the time I was in high school. When I asked my teachers about it, they fumbled for answers and couldn't explain. I didn't see them as trustworthy anymore, and so I didn't accept feedback on my writing from them that might have actually been valid.

Third, teaching kids not to use said is indicative of a larger problem with writing instruction in general: we tell kids that we are teaching them what "good writers" do, but we are actually teaching them what "good writing students" do. We default to conventional wisdom about writing because we're not writing or reading enough ourselves. To be good writing teachers, we have to truly understand what real authors do. We have to read, write, and think if we want our students to do so. We can't just look on the internet for cute lessons, or follow a curriculum that gives "rules" for writing that are based on conventional wisdom. If we write, we'll help our students to be better writers.

Last, we just don't want this to happen:
When I was a kid, I was a zealous reader. I mean, I read a ton. I loved old-fashioned books like The Five Little Peppers, Little Women, and Little House on the Prairie. Apparently, I would read anything with "little" in the title. 

Of course, my teachers taught me that said was dead, and I tried to find other, clever dialogue tags in the books I was reading. One day, I found an unusual one that I knew was going to make my teacher proud. I added it to my writing and showed my mom my homework. She blanched.

"What's wrong?" I said.

"Honey, you just can't say that."

"Why not? It was in the book I was reading."

"Honey, we don't use the word ejaculate to mean exclaim anymore. It means something else now."

Lesson learned.

Monday, July 28, 2014

To All the Fandoms I've Loved Before...

If you're a proud feminist fanwoman,
you can buy this at
When I was about seven, I held an established and respected place in the playground hierarchy: I was the only girl who played Star Wars every day at recess. This meant that I always got to be Princess Leia, no matter the occasional girlish interloper who got tired of whatever girls do and decided to play with us for one or two days. She could be my handmaiden.

Playing Star Wars was a demanding pastime. You had to remember where you hid your stick that looked like a blaster so you could come back to it from one recess to another. You had to weave your way around other kids who didn't know the monkey bars were the Millenium Falcon. If you were the only girl who was Princess Leia, you had to transfer your burgeoning geek girl crush from the kid who was Luke to the kid who was Han because (spoiler alert from 1983) Luke was your brother. You also had to wear Princess Leia buns to school sometimes.

Being a fan is not easy.

This is Nathan Fillion,
and this was huge news in the geekoverse.

This past weekend was Comic-Con, the four days when every geek's heart beats in San Diego. For those four summer days, the city that's always 75 degrees and sunny becomes the capitol of all fandoms. Hobbits mix with Avengers, and Avengers hug it out with Westerosi. Westerosi give the appreciative head nod to Whovians. Nathan Fillion dresses like Captain Kirk.

For non-fans (one might call them Muggles, mundanes, etc.) this all sounds as indecipherable and pointless as the NFL draft does to me. Google "psychology of fandom" and you get a whole mess of articles about fandom as coping mechanism, fandom as outlet for personality type, and on and on. For fans of genre entertainment (that's what all that Comic-Con stuff is), I think there's an alternate explanation: we're narrative junkies.

Very rarely does someone become a rabid fan of something one-off. If they do, they often clamor for more. (Visit the Twitter profile of Rainbow Rowell, author of the near-perfect Eleanor and Park and you'll see how many people want a sequel, even though it's the ending that makes the book so amazing. You know, according to me.) Ongoing entertainments (comics/book series/TV/multiple movies) provoke our deepest fan-love. We become fans of expansive universes with multiple ongoing narrative threads, histories only-hinted-at, minor characters who have their own back stories and favorite breakfast cereals. And because of this expansiveness, there's always more to explore.
Supernatural fans have a reputation for being able to make
any conversation on the internet about Supernatural.
It's actually pretty impressive.

Critics of genre fictions call this escapism. There can certainly be an element of that. As a fan, I'm pretty fan-lite. I may pin a few Doctor Who-related jokes on Pinterest, but that's about the extent of my extra-curricular fannishness. However, there are plenty of fans who write fan-fiction and go to conventions and talk on forums about their fandoms and sort Supernatural characters into Hogwarts houses. They continue the narratives, analyze them, build their own corners of the stories. Escapism? Yes. But no more so than calling radio shows to talk about sports teams or visiting all the Major League baseball stadiums in a summer (something friends of mine did), which is considered mainstream.

Many say that escapism is all there is to genre fandom. Consider the following quote from Steven Petite at the Huffington Post:

"The main reason for a person to read Genre Fiction is for entertainment, for a riveting story, an escape from reality. Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses."

Petite states that one is not better than the other, just different. However, saying that literary fictions provoke "real" emotional responses implies something ... that our emotional responses to our genre stories are not real. Anyone who has watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Doctor Who knows that there are real emotional responses to be had in these stories.  Just because the world of Buffy has vampires in it, doesn't mean that it's not also our world, and that it can't help us navigate the world around us.

That's what narrative does. Our brains are hard-wired to make sense of the world in stories, and the narratives we love most help us figure out how to be in the world. From Buffy we learn what it means to be a woman with power, and what it means to accept and choose that power. From Who we learn that no matter who we are, we have a responsibility to make our own story great by helping to make the world better. From Supernatural we learn what it means to strive to be a man and fall short, and then keep striving. At least, those are the things I learned. Because each of these stories has its own universe, fans will pull universes of meaning from them.  Stories are meant to be our teachers.

But even after all that, I still don't get the Sherlock fandom.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I'm sorry... was I standing in the way of your privilege?

The other day I was at Spec's, which is this giant liquor store we have in Texas. It's more than just a liquor store - it's your one-stop-shop for entertaining. Do you need (for some reason) Kahlua, a single-malt scotch of the finest quality, a prickly pear, a frozen pizza, and a roasted duck? And you want to pay discount prices? Then Spec's is the place. (Seriously. It's a miracle.)

As you can imagine, such a fantastical magic land is usually packed, particularly on the weekends. On this Friday afternoon in question, several folks, including myself, were patiently waiting at the check out. It's one of those places where they have one line that feeds into all of the check out stands. As we were waiting, a man walked up to one of the customer service employees (they have lots of knowledgeable folks to assist you in picking out whatever you need; they are real experts. Did I mention that this place is amazing?).

The man had a bottle of champagne in his hand.

"Is there a way I can just pay for this one bottle?" he asked.

Meaning, without standing in line like all of these people.

This stuck out to me because not too long ago read an article about such a situation at the post office, discussing how in these situations White men are acting on their White male privilege without even thinking about it. In that article, though, the man who tried to cut to the front of the line at the post office was denied and sent to his rightful place in line.

At the liquor store, however, the employee tried to put off the man for a moment, but the man continued to press, and so he was ushered to another check out that had just opened, passing by the women and people of color who had been waiting in line (there were no other White men in line). None of us said anything.

In a nutshell, this is White male privilege at work.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, you might be thinking. You are reading way too much into this situation. After all, the guy was probably busy. Maybe he was late for something.

Sure, of course. Maybe we were all busy and late for something, but we waited in line.

Let's play out the situation if it was a little different. What if I, a White woman, had been the one asking. After all, I only had five things in my basket, and several people in front of me were buying cases of liquor.

First off, women are socialized not to ask for favors that inconvenience others - so it's pretty unlikely that I would do so. In fact, if there was some urgent, urgent reason I couldn't wait (I don't know, like an alien invasion?) I think it's more likely that I would actually leave the store without buying something than actually believe I should go to the front of the line. 

But I do know what happened one time recently when I was the airport, in the security line, and I heard the announcement that my flight was boarding. I was nearly at the front of the line, and I asked the woman in front of me if I could bypass her, as my flight was boarding. I received a hate-filled look from another woman. She did let me go ahead in line (after all, women are also socialized to say yes, even when it inconveniences us), but when it turned out we were on the same flight, she gave me the bitch, you are out of line look - the one that women use to regulate other women who aren't following norms. To this day, I still feel sort of guilty that I even asked for this favor.

That's your problem, you might be thinking.

Of course, I can't know what it feels like to be a person of color, and so I don't want to speak to as if I could. But I will say, I think most of us know that if the man at the liquor store had been Black, it's a lot less likely that he would have gotten his own lane opened for him. That doesn't mean that Black men don't have male privilege, but intersectionality makes it complicated.

It seems like when it comes to privilege, a lot of the "advice" out there is for those who don't have privilege to be more like the dominant culture. For women, it's about how they can be more like dudes. Men are successful because they're confident, says The Atlantic.  Women can learn to take more risks and be more confident. "Lean in" and ask for more, says Sheryl Sandberg. And when it comes to White privilege, many seem to believe that the answer is in teaching children of color in "successful schools" to be facsimiles of some weird version of WASP life, wearing polo shirts with khakis and sitting up perfectly straight with their hands folded and unmoving.

Well, what if the answer isn't leaning in? What if we need to look in the mirror, and when our privilege is hurting others, try to lean out a little bit? Not just teaching girls to take risks but also teaching boys to be more nurturing and considerate of others? Teaching White children about their privilege and at the same time affirming the value of cultures other than European, making schools places where success doesn't mean "White and male."

 To do that, we need to change the big systems of society of course. My whole career is dedicated to that. But I also believe that when it comes to ending oppression we have to sweat the small stuff, the moments in line at the store, the tiny words we use that put people down, the eye rolls that tell others they aren't doing life right. We're definitely going to get it wrong a lot of the time, miss opportunities, make mistakes. I do it all the time when it comes to my own privilege. But when we're not even willing to consider that our small actions actually do have weight to those with whom we have to stand in those lines, then all the governmental change or policy papers in the world won't make a difference.