Obama and the state of American politics

•November 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

After six years of watching the right wing in this country lose its head about anything Obama does, and simultaneously watch the left wing lament him not being progressive enough, here’s what I’ve come to conclude: the presidency is inherently a moderate position. It’s why everyone — Democrat and Republican — runs to the extremes to get the nomination, and then runs back to the middle once they get it. It’s also why it so hard to get anything done. The odds of having something a majority of representatives, majority of the Senate, and the president agree on are slim. So change at the federal level, and through the presidency in particular, is slow as molasses.

Why did this not occur to me before Obama? Because Republican presidents are inherently not threatening to the status quo, hence the definition of the word “conservative.” And because the only other Democrat president in my lifetime, Bill Clinton, was so good at being a moderate. He is so charismatic and likable, he held us together as a country. He’s an affable white man, and white men are the standard for the presidency.

But Obama, being an American black man, is inherently a political figure. Because to be a black man in America is by definition to be political, given this country’s history of horrific racist violence and policies, and continued refusal to acknowledge how white supremacy has affected race relations and how black people feel about this country, To be a black man in America is political because of what Americans project onto blackness.

Therefore, there has been a fundamental contradiction which Obama has tried to straddle his whole presidency – he’s a black man, a fundamentally polarizing force in a racist country, and the president, a fundamentally moderate position.

“Ableist language”

•October 27, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I’m a very big fan of language. I’m a poet, and a fiction writer, and a playwright. I love language and dialogue in particular. So there’s something intuitively wrong to me about the current political correctness trend of telling people “don’t use this word” and “say this instead.”

Here’s the thing – any word can be used as a slur. The word “gay” used to mean “happy” and then came to mean homosexual, and then became a slur for “stupid” because of people’s innate homophobia. The word “retarded” comes from the actual mental health diagnosis, which was “mental retardation.” Literally, slowing of the mind. It became a slur because many people are uncomfortable with people who appear to have a disability. But I don’t think the answer is to start telling people not to use the word “retarded” or “gay” because that’s too reductionist. Tell people to stop being assholes instead. Tell people to stop using language in hurtful ways.

Here’s one that hits close to home, as a mental health professional: Crazy. “Crazy” can be used as an insult, for sure. But it is also a very descriptive, evocative word to convey something that is out of control, fucked up, or driving you bonkers. I think we all know the difference between telling someone “you’re acting crazy” and “you are crazy.” I also think we all know the difference between telling someone who is behaving out of control that they’re acting crazy and telling someone who is struggling with depression or bipolar disorder that they are crazy. See how easy it is to tell the difference between an insult and a legitimate use of a word?

Telling people to not use a word is not going to solve the problem, in fact, it’s probably just going to piss people off and make them stop hearing the point underneath. They’re going to roll their eyes at you and think you’re just being politically correct, and not listen further. Which, if they’re being an asshole, is a much bigger problem. Wouldn’t it be more effective to cut to the chase and just tell them they’re being an asshole instead?

End of the year reflections

•September 29, 2014 • 1 Comment

We are in the Days of Awe, according to the Jewish calendar. According to the toddler calendar, my son has learned to say triple the number of words he could a year ago, put together full sentences, sleep through the night in his own bed (not every night mind you), ride a balance bike, and how to take turns. And much more. Toddler time makes it easy to distort chronological time. On the one hand, they grow so fast it’s easy to forget they were once tiny and nonverbal. On the other hand, they grow so fast it’s easy to forget that it’s been less than a year for some things.

This has been a challenging year in the friend department. One of the things that I find it easy to forget has been less than a year in the making is the loss of four friends – two couples, for a total of four people. One couple suddenly dropped off the face of the planet, no reason given. In the other couple, one of the two people showed her true colors – hurtful, controlling, spiteful. You might think, well, you’re well-rid of friends like that. Rationally, this is true. Emotionally, it’s hard not to internalize these losses.

It’s not like we don’t have trouble keeping up with the friends we do have. We have plenty of wonderful friends and having a little more space in our lives just makes more room for them.

Here’s the kicker, though. All four of the friends we lost are Jewish. On a practical level, this means a significant hole in Passover seders we might want to host, for example. But on an emotional level, it’s also got me thinking: What is the Jewish response to this?

The Days of Awe are supposed to be a time for reflection and meditation. A time to think about what we could do better next year. A time to make amends for anyone we may have hurt in the past year. How do you do that when you’ve been abruptly cut off? What do you do when someone has done things to you that are not forgivable, at least not in terms of letting them back into your life?

Here’s what I found online:
Arguably the most important aspect of friendship in Judaism is the notable lack of obligation or contract. While all other relationships in the Jewish perspective are characterized by a series of duties clearly defined in the Torah, from parenthood to marriage to business associations, there are no such measures of propriety or legality among friends. This makes friendship both freer and more fragile than any other kind of relationship…In the Pirkei Avot, the Talmudic collection of moral and ethical wisdom of the great commentators, it is stated, “…woe to him who is alone when he falls and there is no one to lift him”…It is then the ability of one’s friends to be a system of support where all else has failed. We help our friends not because we must, but because the world is made better when we do.” — msarko, http://judeotalk.com/article/friendship-judaism

I like framing friendship as the most free, unregulated type of relationship we have. I’ve always said that, just not in terms of Jewish law. Friends are supposed to people we choose because they make us feel good and support us, not because we are biologically related to them or feel an obligation to for other reasons. But the flip side of that is needing to accept that we can’t possibly hold onto every friend forever. Gotta let some of them go, and we don’t always get to say when or which ones.

And here’s what I found on forgiveness.  Jewish law suggests three different levels of forgiveness, the first of which is simply to not wish harm on the person who has harmed on you, to even wish them well. Next comes to completely let go of anger and hurt, and finally the last stage is to reconcile the friendship, but Judaism acknowledges this is not always possible.

The Talmud explains that even if someone has hurt us terribly, it is expected of us to find the strength to forgive them at least on the first level. Absence of any forgiveness whatsoever is a sign of cruelty.” — http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/593022/jewish/Must-I-Forgive-Everyone.htm

I wish I could say achieving even this first step was easy, because admitting it is not makes me feel like a terrible person.  But I think I’m almost there, and knowing that this is the only stage Judaism commands me to make it through gives me hope.   My goal for this Days of Awe, then, is to achieve this first level of forgiveness. Maybe someday I’ll let go of the hurt and anger completely, but for now, it keeps me safe.

What makes for community?

•April 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes community, and what doesn’t. Here’s the best definition of community I can come up with: a group of people who care about each other, look out for each other, and are capable of and committed to finding ways of working through disagreements.

Based on this definition, I have come to the conclusion that online forums are rarely if ever communities. Maybe this is obvious to some people, but it’s a new revelation for me. Revelation and resignation, because for many years I have tried to seek community in online forums as well as in real life.

I didn’t wind up seeking community online because I like beating my head against the wall. I did it because in the 90’s I sought community through punk rock culture and zines, which eventually gave way to blogs. Blogs eventually gave way to Facebook.

Kaphine thinks we found community in Livejournal for a period of time, and it’s true I did form some genuine friendships there, but I’m not sure whether it ever felt like a community in and of itself. My theory is that the anonymity of the internet – that is, how easy it is for people to write whatever hurtful, false, or ridiculous thing they want without being held accountable – my theory is that this is fundamentally at odds with creating community. Maybe this is mitigated in a forum where people already know each other offline – for example, a private group blog I created for the other women who participated in a poetry workshop with Marge Piercy with me.

But mostly, I think Internet forums should be viewed as listservs. Useful ways to share information, perhaps have limited intellectual discussion, but not really a place to expect community to develop, because that usually just leads to disappointment and sometimes drama.

What do other people thinK? Do you think it’s possible to form a genuine, healthy community in an online forum? Have you experienced this? Comment and let me know. You know, like in a community.

Why South Park is funny

•January 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

South Park is funny because we are South Park.

I’m pretty behind on South Park, like about seven seasons. But I watch it when I can (Jet Blue flights, Netflix, people’s houses) and always like it when I do. Last night, we randomly picked the Guitar Hero episode to watch, and it was no exception. The premise is that Kyle and Stan become Guitar Hero masters and learn the meaning of choosing friendship over money and fame. It’s less heartwarming than it sounds, thank G-d. In usual South Park form, there’s a throwaway line at the beginning that kind of nails the whole episode (and usually some aspect of American culture) on the head in a brilliant way. This episode, it was Stan’s mom telling Stan’s dad “if they spent half the time they did learning that game they would actually know how to play musical instruments.”

But what occurred to me in general about South Park is that it is funny because it is us. We are a nation of eight year old boys, often jumpy and xenophobic, obsessed with fart jokes and Jesus, and utterly sexually clueless.

Friendships and parenting

•January 16, 2014 • 1 Comment

So, in addition to all the drama a couple weeks ago involving one friend who decided to act like a controlling nutjob (thankfully that seems to have died down, but I know she’s been stalking my blog.  (Sidebar: Why are you here, if you want nothing to do with me?  Get a life) — we’ve had another growing friend situation that has been making me weary and sad.

This one isn’t really dramatic.  It isn’t dramatic at all. It may be a boring, sad story about friends growing apart.  But because those friends were ones I had hoped could be a part of our lives, and our kid’s life, for a long time, it makes me particularly sad.

Is there anything in the world that people have less opinions about than parenting?  Whether they are parents, or aren’t, whether they subscribe to a particular philosophy, or not.  There’s no shortage of ways in which parents can be made to feel not “good enough” no matter what you do.  Should you let your kid fall and get back up, or prevent her from falling?  Should you let her sleep in your bed, or let him cry it out in his crib? Should you send her to public school, or send him to a private school?  Should you wean off the bottle or nipple before a certain age?  Should you avoid letting him eat peanuts or give small tastes and see how it goes? On and on and on.

And then there’s the differences that come up because of adoption. Recently, a FB group I belong to erupted into hurtful remarks and several members leaving – including the friends we may have grown apart from – over private adoption versus foster-adoption.  I mean, talk about a small minority turning on each other!  We’re all there because we’re transracially adopted families, people with whom I feel desperate to connect – and we can’t keep from turning on each other because some people think private adoption is elitist and some people think the foster system is fucked up.  They’re both right, by the way. Both systems are fucked up and need reform.  But there’s decent good people in both systems and kids who need homes and who find good homes in both. Surely there’s a way we can support each other despite making different parenting choices.  Right?

One day a couple weeks ago, as an art therapy exercise for myself, I made a social atom of the people in my life. I needed to take inventory of who I have and who I can still count on.  It just seems like there’s so many ways we humans push each other away, it’s amazing we ever build communities.  But the good news is, I still had a very full social atom with lots of people who love and support me and my family. And that’s who I need to focus my time and energy on.


•January 2, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Wise words from a true friend: “These things don’t die until somebody starves them of attention.”

I won’t be bullied out of my blog. I won’t be bullied out of anything, or into doing anything. But there’s also a time for disengaging, because continuing to engage only gives the bully what they want.

True story: When I was in second form (A.k.a. Seventh grade) and living in London for the semester, I was bullied every day for weeks on the bus by some bloke. I diligently practiced ignoring for weeks and weeks, and then one day I had had enough and without any planning or forethought I turned around and punched him. He never bullied me again after that.


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