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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

One Night Stand...

I was listening to a new EP by a talented musician named Nathalie Raedler and discovered a song called One Night Stand, that poignantly describes an experience that inspired her song. It got me thinking about how much progress women have and have not made over the past few decades around sexuality and relationships, particularly young women, including and maybe especially college-age women. 

As a “veteran” of the 1970’s women’s movement – or what is now being called the Second Wave – I was part of a women's group that met weekly to read and discuss historical and contemporary feminist articles, and to support one another in applying feminist principles in our personal and professional relationships. We "took charge" of certain activities that were typically done by men at the time, like changing tires and oil, and doing basic home repair. 

I remember how thrilled I was to change a doorknob and shingle a house on Cape Cod! We analyzed popular culture to understand how it was reflecting and promoting gender imbalance, and over endless cups of coffee, we bonded as friends and as change-makers, taking charge of our relationships, our bodies and our lives. A small group of us published a newspaper called "New Salt City Press", which reviewed films and major national and international news, including a how to column on topics like car repair and how to winterize your home. Our underlying message was an echo of women’s cries during World War II – We Can Do It! 
While we were not a part of the "free love movement" – that was another “faction” of cultural change at the time – we also believed that women had the agency to determine how we wanted to engage in sexual and other types of relationships. 

A few decades later, I joined the Women's Caucus at Occupy Boston, a group of women who came together because a couple of women who lived in the encampment had been sexually assaulted, and moreover, they felt men were dominating the conversation at the encampment. I was disturbed to hear about these problems, but curious about and ultimately impressed with these women, many of whom had literally been schooled in universities around the country to understand and confront sexism. I discovered that the spirit of women-oriented culture lived on among these young women, who were both lesbian and heterosexual, in a “third wave” of the feminist movement. Men were still dominating the mainstream culture at Occupy, a microcosm of the broader society. 

But without much backlash – a sign of changing times – these women at the encampment made great strides in inserting their voices into the conversation, organizing a successful “women’s” march, a speak-out on violence at the encampment, and sponsoring women speakers on reproductive rights, rigged ballots and gender and unemployment. Certainly what was different from 30 years before was that this "third wave" was bringing its collective voice to this particular table successfully. Despite enormous strides women have made in both the work and domestic spheres, it still seemed that young women – college age and in their early 20s - were experiencing gender imbalances in relationships with men. 

Musician Nathalie Raedler captures the experience of this imbalance in One Night Stand, which she wrote after spending a night out with a group of "guy friends". In this song, she describes how her “guy friends” had spent most of the night assessing women as possible pickup material, based on various body parts.
Their banter didn't result in anyone taking anybody home that night, as far as she knew, but it did reinforce the bond between and among them, as they entertained one another with the assumption that the women were there for the taking. Did they think that their banter would also impress her? Or did she become invisible as they focused their energy on objectifying the women around them? 

This male bonding over sexual exploits is explored in depth by sociologist Danielle Currier, in a recent Gender and Society article, based on her qualitative study on hookups among college-aged women and men. Based on interviews with 78 full-time, heterosexual students at a coed, public university in the South, Currier found that hooking up is common among college students, but there remains a sexual double standard. All of her study participants report that hookups are "ever present and normative in college and a central component of social life", women participants disregarded their own sexual desires, performing oral sex on men without reciprocation and "ignoring their right to sexual pleasure in hookups". As one of her participants said, "sex is defined as over when the guy climaxes". Pleasure is equated with orgasm for men, rather than the full array of physical and emotional experiences associated with sexuality. Currier concludes that a central aspect of this configuration is "gender asymmetry", with the assumption that men will achieve sexual satisfaction in hookups, and women's role is to help them achieve this goal. Another critical aspect of her analysis is that women want to avoid being labeled a "slut", worried about whether they will be viewed as having "too many" hookups. Women were "strategically ambiguous" about the nature of their hookups, not talking about them, and being vague about the details, to avoid this label which was applied only to women, not men, reflecting the "underlying double standard" used in labeling the nature of and amount of their sexual activity. 

The aforementioned finding in Currier’s research, which Nathalie Raedler gives voice to in One Night Stand, is the "importance of bonding with or impressing other men, much more than bonding with or oppressing women". Currier concludes that the gender imbalance in hookups is evidence of how "emphasized femininity is often a reaction to or an offshoot of hegemonic masculinity". Moreover, "doing femininity still often means reacting to men and cultural definitions of masculinity". In her song, Raedler describes the men as "hunting down random chicks", asserting that the men have "nothing in your head. That's why you have to think with your dick". To the women, she asks "are you looking for someone? You're selling yourself cheap." Her song challenges men and women to undo this gendered configuration. Check out her song and new album: Raedler has a beautiful and strong voice and a lot to say, and in a marriage of art and scholarship, Currier’s research captures the essence of Nathalie’s song with a strong scholarly piece of research. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Insomnia stories...

The men in my family were easy sleepers. It wasn’t uncommon to see my father and his six brothers lie down on the floor after a big meal and just nod out. Of course, that left my aunts to clean up, after they had also cooked the meal, and I bet they could have used a nap too. At the time, I figured that taking a post-meal snooze was the “way things were” for the men in the family. But gradually, as I developed a feminist consciousness, I resented these lazy guys. As my age gradually crept up to where theirs were back then, I have begun to appreciate their supreme capacity to sleep just about anywhere, anytime. My father was also one of those people who could nod out for five minutes – taking a so-called “power nap” – only to emerge refreshed and able to fully re-enter the conversation when he awoke. 

Later, when he was in his 90s, he began to experience serious insomnia, lying awake for hours and hours throughout the night, going crazy with boredom and frustration. While I sympathized with his dilemma at the time, it wasn’t until I experienced my own sustained insomnia – after a back injury – that I understood how horrible it is to not be able to sleep night after night. I discovered that sleep deprivation steals one’s energy, one’s optimism, and sometimes even one’s sanity. With increasing lack of sleep, the exhaustion compounds and the world becomes slightly, if not majorly, off-kilter. 

Insomnia is a lot of things, which includes having a hard time getting to sleep, as well as waking up early and having a difficult time getting back to sleep. Not surprisingly, it isn’t a contemporary phenomenon. No, we in the so-called modern world didn’t invent it. Insomnia goes way, way back. The term “insomnia” first appeared in 1623, and means “want of sleep”. One of the biggest causes of insomnia, stress, is something that people have been struggling with for eons. It’s just the nature of stress that looks slightly different these days, compared to a few centuries ago. But if you think about it, there are a lot of similarities. 

We’re stressed because we work hard or we don’t have enough work. We’re stressed because we live in a violent world that is unpredictable. We’re stressed if we experience social isolation or prejudice. We’re stressed when we don’t have enough to eat, and don’t know where the next meal is coming from. We’re stressed because our jobs are too demanding or not challenging enough. We’re stressed because we worry about paying our bills. We’re stressed because we don’t feel loved enough, or because we have tension with our partners or our friends. One might call these universal problems, and these stressers will vary based on your economic situation as well as your race, gender and sexual identity. And maybe a few centuries ago, we might have also worried about predators or major diseases that wiped out entire swaths of people. All of these stressors can lead to loss of sleep. 

A lot of famous people are recorded as having suffered from insomnia. Sir Isaac Newton suffered from depression and had difficulty sleeping. Winston Churchill had two beds because if he couldn’t sleep in one, he would try the other. Thomas Edison, like my father, was a cat-napper, because he couldn’t sleep at night. Some insomniacs turned to drugs. Marcel Proust and Marilyn Monroe took barbiturates to help them sleep. English writer, Evelyn Waugh, took bromides to induce sleep. As we know, Michael Jackson died because of a lethal cocktail of medications to help him sleep, including propofal, used for sedation before surgeries, lorazepam, used for anxiety, and a host of other meds, including midazolam, diazepam, lidocaine and ephedrine. He was obviously so desperate to sleep that he was willing to try them all. 

Author and columnist Arianna Huffington calls insomnia a “feminist issue”, and has written columns in Huffington Post lamenting her lack of sleep from jet lag. Another Huff Post columnist, Dora Levy Mossanen, calls insomnia a “smart, devious virus that mutates and changes form every season like the flu virus. Except that this tricky bugger is tuned to our circadian rhythm and is able to change and disguise itself at whim to confuse the heck out of us”. Mossanen does all the “right things”: She doesn’t drink caffeine, goes to bed at a decent hour, drinks hot milk before bedtime, takes warm baths, reads non-stimulating books, listens to guided meditation on her i-pod, and imagines serene seashores. And yet she says, “I toss and turn at the beginning of the night, counting backwards and forwards so many times that if my mind was prone to mathematics, I'd have solved all the mathematical problems of the world by now”. 

For the most part, my insomnia has cleared, but every so often it rears its ugly head. While in the midst of a minor insomniac “relapse”, I asked my friends and colleagues for their insomnia narratives. I wanted to know how long their insomnia lasted, why they thought they were struggling with sleep; what they did when they were awake; how it affected them the next day. I learned that the main causes of insomnia are: 

* Anxiety, the everyday kind like preparing to teach a class, and larger anxieties, like worrying about keeping a job; 
* Depression, which impedes relaxation necessary to fall and stay asleep; 
* Medications, because some meds like decongestants and pain meds keep us awake. Antihistamines might initially make us groggy, but they can cause excess urination which gets us up a lot during the night; 
* Alcohol, which may make you more relaxed, but prevents deeper stages of sleep and can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night; 
* Chronic pain, which is distracting and worrisome and can lead to anxiety, which prevents sleep; 
* Medical conditions, like arthritis, cancer, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease, which are linked with insomnia; 
* Poor sleep habits, like weird sleep schedules, or an uncomfortable sleep environment; 
* "Learned insomnia” – which is worrying too much about not being able to sleep, which makes it hard to get to sleep; and 
* Eating too much before sleeping or eating the wrong snack, which can give you heartburn and make it uncomfortable to fall sleep. 

In response to my call for insomnia stories, only women replied. I know that isn’t because men don’t experience insomnia; but perhaps men don’t want to reveal their sleeping problems publicly, even though I promised confidentiality. (It's not too late, for my male readers!)

One woman said, “You do realize you've opened the floodgates, yes? Amazing topic. Of course, I'm too sleep-deprived and deep into end-of-semester madness to respond right now! Maybe during my next bout of insomnia (perhaps tonite). ;-)” 

Here are a few responses from other insomniacs: 

One woman says, “Funny you should ask, as I am suffering from insomnia just now, maybe a week long bout this time, but by far not the longest ever. I wake up about 4am and cannot fall back asleep if my life depended on it. Not sure why I have such a hard time staying asleep, maybe it's hormonal (menopause) or maybe it's all the craziness at the office (new department chair, no office support as the old secretary retired, research lagging, ...). Often I am not the only one awake, as my spouse is also a stressed-out insomniac. I typically try to fall back asleep, but if it doesn't happen, I get up and read in the living room until I feel exhausted from being up at 4 am. What sometimes works is counting backwards from 100 in another language. Needless to say, the next day I feel a bit out of it, but nothing like the "zombieness" I did when my child used to wake me up. I am not desperate yet, but may try to find my melatonin from the previous bout to get me back on track. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't". 

Another woman says, “My insomnia stories are boring. I get up and clean the house, read, catch up and/or get ahead on my work. That makes me feel like I am not wasting my time trying to fall asleep. Usually that day I am racing, energetic and feel good about all I have accomplished. By that night I am crashing and I pay the next day in bodily aches/pain. Not very exciting…"

Another says, “I have had quite a few episodes of insomnia. There were times when I would go days or even a week without adequate sleep. I would either fall asleep and then wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to bed, or I would just simply stare at the ceiling until I finally fell asleep, only to wake up about every half an hour for the rest of the night. Either way, insomnia sucks! I eventually couldn't take it any longer and sought medical help. Come to find out, I have general anxiety disorder and that was greatly affecting my sleep. Even now – I am on medication- I still have bouts of insomnia when I am highly stressed. My mind is constantly going, so when something important is coming up I find myself having trouble sleeping. In the middle of the night I have tried a number of things: read a book, go to the gym (thank you, 24 hour fitness), eat, watch TV, and try and go back to sleep. As a student, during the day I am pretty much reading, writing, researching, or preparing for a class I TA for. 

"After a night of insomnia, I usually feel terrible the next day. Even if I am tired, I don't try and nap because if I do, the likelihood of getting a good night’s sleep decreases. If I go a few days or even a week without sleep, my brain has pretty much checked out. I go through the motions but I don't feel like I am really all there. Hopefully that makes sense. Insights? I would say that everyone is different and should try different things to help them sleep. I hate taking medicine, even when I am sick, so seeing a doctor was the last thing on my list. I tried doing yoga, eating better, not watching TV or reading at night...but nothing helped me. Being put on medication was a great relief because I sleep really well, for the most part". 

And finally, one of my neighbors says, “Sometimes I look out the window to see who else might be up in the neighborhood. I am tempted to text them or call and get together, maybe we should start an insomniac club”. 

That sounds tempting… I suppose that one strategy I’m employing is writing this post. Maybe “outing myself” as an insomniac will help diffuse the potency of this insidious problem. If I were to characterize my current “brand” of insomnia, it’s “learned insomnia”, meaning that I begin to fall asleep and then just as I’m fading into a hazy fog, my brain says “you’re falling asleep”, at which point I’m awake! Luckily, the problem has lessened since I first put out the call for insomnia stories. May it fade away! 

Tell me your insomnia story! What has helped you overcome your sleeplessness? 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Sisterhood and the glass ceiling...

What happens when some women break the glass ceiling? A few of them become authors of best-selling novels in which they deconstruct their workplace experiences and offer advice to others. This is a good thing, in the tradition of sisters helping one another out. But which sisters and what kind of advice do they offer? Perhaps the most popular and controversial of the genre right now is Lean In, authored by Facebook Executive, Sheryl Sandberg, who authored an endearingly honest and forthright book about what women need to do to overcome obstacles and move up the career ladder. What I love about Sandberg’s writing is that she has broken the code of silence about what it feels like to be a woman in corporate America. She does it with personal stories about her own insecurities and vulnerabilities as a woman manager, as well as with facts about the gendered workplace, acknowledging the uneven playing field in which a preponderance of men dominate top positions in business and government. 

I’m sure that her message resonates with thousands of professional working women across America. But Sandberg’s narrative unfortunately does not speak to women in non-professional jobs, where being assertive in the workplace doesn’t get you more; in fact, it just might get you fired. In fact, most women workers aren’t aiming for the top; they’re simply trying to make ends meet. 

One could argue that having women on top will make it better for all women, but that’s not necessarily the case. All the stereotypes that persist about women in the broader society – their inability to be assertive or think rationally in a crisis – become the yardsticks of assessment of women’s behavior when they are in management positions. Simply because they are women, they are judged more critically and closely. Not only is this personally uncomfortable for them; it may also affect their status in a company or government organization. Women on top must develop survival strategies to deal with pervasive sexism they experience on a daily basis. 

They are subject to a dominant workplace culture in America that overvalues long hours as a measure of commitment and loyalty. This is the backdrop against which women in management – or high level positions – operate. When women upper-level managers make policies about their subordinates’ work policies, they are operating in a “gender-loaded zone”, in which their decisions may be scrutinized by their male colleagues. 

We don’t need to look far to find a top female manager, Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Bayer, who offers a great example of this phenomenon with her recent announcement that she is eliminating telecommuting for her employees. This decree is counter to reams of data that support telecommuting as a cost-saving measure that may even increase worker productivity In fact, the data is so strong that the U.S. now has a national telecommuting policy that applies to all federal workers, enacted as a result of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. 

The reality is that professions that are dominated by men pay more, and those that are dominated by women pay less (e.g., programming vs. coding, doctoring vs. nursing, tenure track teaching job vs teaching kindergarten). One strategy is to encourage more women to pursue higher paid professions, and that’s fine. But this doesn’t address the devaluing of jobs that are more “gender-coded” like teaching, nursing, and anything related to caregiving work. 

While I fully support the notion of women asserting themselves in the workplace (when it isn’t too risky!), many women – and men – would benefit from a range of public policies that protect their jobs and support their capacity to balance their work lives with their personal – including family – demands. In my own research on parental leave use in a large financial services corporation, I found that upper-level women didn’t use the policy AT ALL, largely because they either didn’t have kids (was this a business decision?) or because they waited until their children were older before going after upper management jobs. Women in middle-management used less leave time than they were legally allowed to take, and women in lower-level jobs took the least amount of leave time. What about men? They tended not to use the parental leave policy at all; rather, they took two weeks of vacation time after the birth or adoption of a new baby. What I found was two-fold: Given that we only have an unpaid leave policy in the U.S. (counter to most other industrial countries that provide paid leaves), family economics often called for the lower-paid worker to take time off to care for a newly arrived baby, and that was usually a woman. Moreover, the culture of the workplace rewards long hours, so that parental leave is considered time “taken” away from the job (e.g., profits) over time taken to parent, an unpaid job that is devalued by business norms. Hence the title of my book: Taking Time: Parental Leave Policy and Corporate Culture.

A more complete picture – one that addresses the needs of all workers – must include a set of universal policies, including pay equity to break down gendered wage differentials, paid parental leave to ensure that women AND men use leave time, flexible work policies that allow people to balance their work and personal demands, and universal child care to ensure that all young children have access to quality, affordable early care and education. In addition to offering advice about being more assertive in the workplace, we need these policies if we are to make any inroads towards changing the playing field for women and men. Moreover, for those in non-management positions, there must be formal policies as well as informal organizational support to ensure that being assertive in the workplace won’t cost them their jobs. 

How can we enhance the recent messaging around women in the workplace to ensure that it addresses not only the micro level – how we as women and men operate in the context of our workplaces – but also the macro level, how workplace policies – including family policies – are needed to establish protections in the workplace? 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Writing about writing...

Writing is a solo act, but for those in attendance at the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, or AWP ( this past weekend, you’d think it was one big party, with over 12,000 people moving through the sterile hallways of Boston's massive Hynes Convention Center to attend hundreds of sessions. I had been forewarned that this event was downright overwhelming. So before I stepped foot into the Hynes, I carefully studied the program, selected sessions that fit my criteria, and found out exactly where they were physically located. Getting lost in the Convention Center was not on my agenda! As it turned out, this surgical approach served me well. 

In one day, I managed to attend five sessions, chat with five random strangers, purchase an energy bar for nearly $5, and wander around the book fair where I was invited by at least five non-residency writing programs to look at their literature. I spoke with five or so small presses about their books, and was also accosted by a woman selling a weeklong “writing trip” to Paris, which was, in sum, a total rip-off. Of my small sample of informal interviewees, a few were undergraduate creative writing majors who were totally blown away by the panoply of rich resources in one place; one was an art history professor and another was a writing professor. 

But I wasn’t there to make friends, although later I joined the Women’s Caucus of the organization (yes, there is gender bias everywhere!). I was there because I’m writing a memoir about the experience of caring for my dad in his final year of life, in which I am inter-weaving my family's experience of political persecution, the FBI and more. I wanted to hear published authors talk about their experience writing memoirs, and to garner some tips about the process of publishing this type of book. 

Here are a few gems that I got from the conference: 

In a panel called “The Art of Losing”, authors talked about how profound personal loss fuels their writing. One of my favorite speakers on this panel was Jennine Capó Cruce, author of How to Leave Hialeah (, who said that she was told that she shouldn’t write from anger. But as she wrote her book, she saw rage as her source, and while writing her book, recognized that underneath her rage was grief. 

In a panel called “How Do You Know You’re Ready?”, novelists shared stories about manuscripts they either sent to agents too soon or had locked in drawers, never to see the light of day. I realized that the question of when a book is complete is a universal question. The panelists seemed to agree that knowing when you’re done writing a book is a “visceral thing”. I was touched that the panelists also welcomed attendees to approach them with questions at the end of the session. I asked novelist Dawn Tripp ( for suggestions about making a “pitch” to an agent. She offered me a few tips, including “make it short and to the point”. And another panelist, Kim Wright, author of Love in Mid-Air (, added that it’s important to maintain the voice of the book when you’re trying to get others interested. 

In a session called “Memoir Beyond the Self”, panelists talked about the importance of writing from one’s personal experience and broadening it to reflect on cultural implications. Travel writer and journalist, Colleen Kinder ( said, “personal essays have to be brave”, and she talked about the importance of “braiding” and “weaving” different strands of a story together. In describing this braiding and weaving process, Leslie Jamison, author of Empathy Exams ( said that “something in one sphere poses a question that another sphere can answer”. That intrigued me. 

In a session called, “It’s Complicated: Memoir-Writing in the Political Sphere”, Melissa Febos talked about her book, Whip Smart, in which she wrote about her three years as a dominatrix while attending a liberal arts college in New York City ( Kassi Underwood talked about her book, A Lost Child, but Not Mine (, which chronicles her experience of having an abortion and then encountering her ex-boyfriend who was now a father. And Nick Flynn described the writing of his book, Another Night in Suck City about seeing his estranged father in the homeless shelter where he worked. The book was later turned into a film called, “Being Flynn” with Robert DeNiro and Julianne Moore. Talk about star struck! 

In a session called “Poetics of Fiction in/at Buffalo”, three writers read from their work about my poverty-stricken, yet vibrant hometown of Buffalo, New York. Ted Pelton ( began with this poem: “Buffalo Buffalo, Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo…”, saying that no other city can be a noun, verb and adjective. And Buffalo writer of Buffalo Noir, Dmitri Anastasopoulos (, brought the experience full circle for me, when he said, “Buffalo is all about loss”. 

The conference had a commercial element as well: In a so-called “Book Fair”, the small presses are there to entice writers, as are the creative writing programs and artists' retreats. But one of my favorite booths in the exhibition hall was run by 826 National, a nonprofit organization that runs eight writing and tutoring centers around the country, aimed at helping at-risk youth find a voice to tell their stories ( And who knows? Perhaps these young people will be the authors of tomorrow, and future attendees of this chaotic but enriching experience that is AWP...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Social science research matters...

The American Enterprise Institute just published a speech by G.O.P. darling and House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, in which he calls for cutting all federal funds for social science research, insisting that the money would be better spent finding cures to diseases. He uses the story of a child named Katie who battled cancer, and who “just happened” to be sitting in the front row of his audience. "Katie became a part of my congressional office’s family and even interned with us”, he is quoted as saying. “We rooted for her, and prayed for her. Today, she is a bright 12-year-old that is making her own life work despite ongoing challenges…Katie, thank you for being here with us".  

(Please note that the graphic visualizations in this post illustrate the importance of information generated through social science research which have critical implications for policy, e.g., the disproportionate impact of poverty on health outcomes by race/ethnicity)

I can imagine the emotions in that room, as the audience learns that Katie’s disease is now in remission. Some people of faith in the crowd might be thinking that prayers led to the improvement in her health. But Cantor does not invoke divine intervention. Nor does he totally discount the role that publicly funded resources may have played in helping restore Katie’s health. On the contrary, he cannily declares that there is “an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research. Doing all we can to facilitate medical breakthroughs for people like Katie should be a priority. We can and must do better”. 

But investing more public funds in research on medical cures, says Cantor, would require cuts in funding for social science research. Presumably, his argument is in the interests of budgetary discipline, because it makes no sense if the goal is to improve people’s health. Less social science research dollars will only weaken our capacity to understand the critical link between the social determinants of disease and health outcomes. We need to ask: Why did Katie get sick? Was she living near a power plant or did she go to a “sick school”? What kinds of services did she have access to? What is Katie’s ethnic/racial background? What is her class background? Because chances are, if Katie is white and middle-class, her access to services are better than if she’s black or Latino and poor. 

Cantor trots out the familiar conservative template: We need policies that are based on “self-reliance, faith in the individual, trust in the family and accountability in government”. He declares that the House Majority – aka Republicans – “will pursue an agenda based on a shared vision of creating the conditions for health, happiness, and prosperity for more Americans and their families. And to restrain Washington from interfering in those pursuits”. 

But while Cantor frames this as a message of empowerment, his solutions will only reproduce and expand poverty and inequality. Self-reliance is code for slashing government funding. Restraining Washington from interfering with health and prosperity will mean reducing taxes for the rich. And cutting social science research will eliminate needed publicly-funded analyses that provide an essential critique of social and economic policies and their impact. 

Cantor’s stance is calculated to appeal to people who are struggling in a tough economy. In his speech, he argues that in America, where two bicycle mechanics, the Wright Brothers, “gave mankind the gift of flight”, we have the power to overcome adversity. “That’s who we are”, he says. Moreover, he argues that throughout history, “children were largely consigned to the same station in life as their parents. But not here. In America, the son of a shoe salesman can grow up to be president. In America, the daughter of a poor single mother can grow up to own her own television network. In America, the grandson of poor immigrants who fled religious persecution in Russia can become the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives”. 

All I can say is, sign me up, Eric! I’m the grand-daughter of a Russian immigrant, and maybe I’d like to become the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives! Honestly? I get weary when I hear about the American dream from another rich, white guy who points to exceptions to the rule, and cynically tries to generalize them. 

I just came back from a four-day feminist sociology meeting, sponsored by the organization, Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), in which 250 scholars from around the U.S. and beyond, shared their research about how gender, race and class affect power and status, and how these determinants affect the realities of people’s lives - including their access to quality health care, decent jobs with benefits, high quality education, freedom from discrimination, and safe environments. These are the conditions that Cantor claims should be the right of all Americans, and yet his agenda makes them all less achievable. If Eric Cantor had been at that conference for just one hour, he would have heard about the importance of social science research in understanding systems that reproduce disadvantage for low-income people, immigrants, people of color, same-sex couples and more… But maybe if you preach self-reliance, limited government involvement, and the power of prayer, even a group of brilliant social scientists won’t change your mind.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Anatomy of living with a black eye...

Three weeks ago, I had a freakish accident in the parking lot of my local Trader Joe’s. My shopping cart hit a pothole and overturned, and somehow the momentum took me with it, as my body catapulted over the cart and slammed into its metal bars. I wrote about the accident in a previous post, so I won’t rewind to describe details of my night in the emergency room and the generous people who helped me. But the post-accident experience was equally challenging, in part because of the physical pain, but also because of my mottled appearance. Right after the accident, my nose swelled to around three times its size, and by the next day, I also had two black eyes. Over the course of several weeks, the bruising migrated down my face until my entire face was covered in streaks of black and blue, and then green and brown and yellow. When I went to a plastic surgeon on the advice of my primary care doctor, to see if my nose was broken, he said I had experienced “major facial trauma”. 

For the first week, I was just absorbing the shock of the accident and didn’t leave my house very much. But as I re-entered public spaces, I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable. Okay, part of that is vanity, but the other part is social perception, or how others were seeing me. What does one think when looking at a woman with “facial trauma”? You got it. She must be abused. Every inch of the way, practitioners asked me if I felt “safe”, which was code for, “are you being abused?” I am glad that they asked, because for some women who looked like me, the answer is resoundingly, yes. But even though the source of my battered face was a weird accident, I believe I got some insight into how women who are physically abused are further isolated because of the stigma of being a victim, a woman not in control of her destiny. 

In the first few days after my accident, a couple of friends made so-called jokes about how they didn’t know my partner was abusive. It was supposed to be funny, because he is the polar opposite of aggressive. But it was not funny, and I made sure the jokes stopped. I thought about Nan Goldin’s 1984 self-portrait, called, “Nan, One Month after Being Battered”, in which she stares out at viewers with two swollen, blood-red eyes, surrounded by bruises, wearing bright red lipstick. It is shocking to see her honest portrayal, with her eyes providing a window into a relationship gone wrong. 

Once again, this issue is front and center in the public sphere, as the 1994 Violence Against Women Act is up for reauthorization. This bill is critical to fighting domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, because it funds shelters and legal support for victims of abuse, regardless of their sexual orientation or immigration status. After an initial version of the bill breezed through the Senate, it hit a wall with the House Republicans who want to limit the rights of undocumented immigrants. Now a new Senate bill has been introduced which limits the number of special visas, called “U-visas”, provided to undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. House Republicans also want to block current U-visa holders from applying for permanent residency after three years, which is a critical provision that encourages women to contact law enforcement without fear of deportation. Check out this January 28th op-ed in the New York times: 

It’s time for this bill to pass. 

As this bill is up for a vote, we have an opportunity to bring attention to the issue of violence against women in a very public way, at the national and global level. Every year, on February 14th, Eve Ensler, the author of Vagina Monologues, urges women to call for an end to violence against women. This year, she has founded, “One Billion Rising”, a global movement of “women and those who love them to walk out, dance, rise up and demand an end to this violence”. All over the world, women will be gathering to dance a simple, but beautiful dance together, in public places, as a public statement to support the end of violence, and to express collective strength and solidarity across borders. In Massachusetts, youth groups, domestic violence programs, community centers, and more are banding together to dance in celebration of women, and to protest against a culture that condones rape and accepts violence against women and girls as a given. These gatherings will be multiplied all over the U.S. and throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. 

Ensler says, “One billion women dancing is a revolution!” It’s just one day, but it’s an opportunity to raise awareness of this still pervasive problem. If you're interested in joining in, there are many events being planned on February 14th, as well as days before and after, to challenge violence against women:

Find a rising near you!

A global strike An invitation to dance 
A call to men and women to refuse to participate in the status quo until rape and rape culture ends 
An act of solidarity, demonstrating to women the commonality of their struggles and their power in numbers 
A refusal to accept violence against women and girls as a given 
A new time and a new way of being

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Save the arts because the arts save lives, part 2...

Over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the importance of funding arts education. I'm still thinking about these issues, so here is Part Two: Save the arts because the arts save lives...

The arts – dance, theater, music, writing and the visual arts – have a powerful impact on children, opening the door to deeper knowledge and self-expression. I know from personal experience, and I have seen it in young people far and wide. While the current administration has said all the right things about arts education, this is sadly not enough, because federal, state and local policies STILL favor standardized testing and severely limit arts education funding. With all the concern about remaining competitive in a global market, this is precisely the time to fund arts education and allow our children to thrive. 

I started taking dance lessons at age seven. For the first year, I did ballet, but only lasted one year because the teacher was nasty and the movements were too rigid for my soul. Instead my mother found a modern dance teacher, Seenie Rothier, a kind and ageless woman with a lean body and tight bun (and buns), who spoke with a raspy voice as she led her charges through endless contractions, swirls and triplets across the floor. Trained in Martha Graham-style dance, Seenie, as we all called her, had a penchant for the dramatic, and yet she was the most grounding element in my life. I always assumed that my family life was your average normal, and yet looking back, I have realized that it was a household rife with angry silence and disappointment. Seenie’s studio on Hertel Street in Buffalo, was just up the block from Kaufman’s Deli where they sold frosted brownies, and down the block from my grandparents’ working class neighborhood. It was my salvation. She recognized my talent, and by the time I was thirteen, had invited me to join a college dance troupe. Dance was my manna and still is. 

While it is hard to “make a living” as an artist, I tried my best, working as a dance therapist in a psychiatric hospital and later, teaching dance as a resident artist in the Syracuse, New York public school system. I discovered the magic of movement as a source of expression for young children. Often in these schools, children were marched into the gym in single file, and told to remain quiet and respectful of the visiting teacher. 

Little did they know that the new visitor was about to tell the children to jump up and down like popcorn, express their joy and anger through finger dances, and shout as loud as they could, using only their eyes or feet. There was always one child in every school who attached her- or himself to me, following me around, sometimes sitting on my lap or holding my hand as I moved through the room. Sometimes I imagined that what this child really wanted was to crawl into my womb for safety. And there was always the wild child. Sometimes teachers warned me about him or her, and other times, I learned through my own encounters. If teachers were observing – they rarely participated – they might speak with the child in a stern, warning tone or pull the child away for time out. But when I could, I intervened and said ‘no, it’s okay’, because I could usually figure out a way that that child could use movement to express herself. 

Dance is a healer, a universal mode of communication that is good for children. It’s natural. It’s great exercise. It wakes up the brain. It gives children an outlet. I have observed talented movement professionals use movement with children to help them learn science and math concepts. Dance can strengthen children’s emotional intelligence, and their ability to collaborate with others. And it can provide a form of discipline and order, when students are challenged to create dances that have beginnings, middles and ends. 

A number of studies (see Critical Links) cite a positive correlation between dance experiences and nonverbal reasoning skills. One study demonstrated that “subjects” who were exposed to creative dance made significant gains in creative and critical thinking. And another study conducted with children with behavioral disorders found that when dance and poetry were combined, students’ were engaged and their social skills improved. Another study that promoted reading through dance to elementary children found that students improved significantly on all measures assessed by a reading test, including their ability to relate written consonants and vowels to their sounds. 

The research on other arts modalities is equally strong, linking the study of theater to literacy, music education to improvements in spatial-temporal reasoning, achievement in reading, and reinforcement of social-emotional and behavioral skills. And classrooms that integrate the arts are a leveler for all students, including those with disabilities. 

In my own research, I’ve found that teachers who implemented arts-integrated curriculum into their classroom had increased enthusiasm for teaching as they observed the positive response from students, both in terms of their attitudes towards learning, but also their ability to learn. 

It’s time to broaden the policy dialogue and demand increased funding for arts education!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Anatomy of a black eye…

Last night I took a major tumble in the parking lot of one of my favorite grocery stores. I’ll set the stage: First of all, it was a winter’s dark, around 5:30 p.m., and the parking lot was poorly lit. This last fact is ironic, since the lot is owned by the high-brow lighting store next to the grocery store. Secondly, the pavement in the lot is uneven, something I had noticed in the past, but not quite in the same visceral way as I did last night. So what happened? Pretty simple. My cart, full of bags of groceries, got caught in a depression in the pavement – basically a two inch hole that is one foot wide – and keeled over. Since I was pushing the cart, I went with it. Now here’s where my mind gets obsessive, as I try to envision the physics of a shopping cart falling over. Where does it land? And which contact points on my body are evidence of its motion? In that split second or seconds, as I went forward, my mind registered an “oh no”, until the final hit when my nose slammed into a metal bar on the cart. I still cannot figure out which bar came into contact with my nose, although I also realize that there truly is no point in knowing. 

Alone in the parking lot, I stood up and disentangled from the various metal pieces of the cart and walked away, searching for some help. For anyone who has been in an accident, you know that our bodies go into shock, adrenaline creating the capacity to function, to seek out safety or help. I yelled to a woman who looked at me in horror and she asked me if I wanted her to call an ambulance. Sure, I said. Then I ambled back towards the store and was met by another woman, who said she was a nurse and sat me down by the side of the road. Other people began to gather, and I realized that I was bleeding a lot. I was oblivious to how I looked, but judging by their responses, it looked bad. Someone got me tissues, and within five or so minutes, the fire department was there, and I was surrounded by around six burly guys, until a moment later, when a policeman broke through the line of firefighters and began asking me questions. “What’s your name, your address, your phone number? Did you lose consciousness at any time? Did you hit your head on the ground, or just the shopping cart? Is there anyone you need to call?” I was mighty pleased that I could answer his questions and that my mind was functioning.

Meanwhile, the fire truck and police car lights were swirling, as I sat quietly with my new friend, this anonymous nurse who sat by my side, a constant source of support. Somewhere in the midst of the chaos, a couple of employees from the store joined us, and left. Another shopper came up to me to say he had the very same accident a few moments before. I can’t remember if I asked him if he was okay. Oddly enough, I appreciated that I wasn’t alone. The ambulance arrived, and two EMT workers began to question me. “Did I want to get in the ambulance or drive myself to the hospital?” I couldn’t fathom driving at that point. “Was I sure?” YES, I was sure. I kept trying to reach my husband, whose phone was out-of-reach, but finally got hold of my daughter as I was getting into the ambulance, and she joined the action from afar. After I hung up with her, the EMT worker, the only dour person I encountered through this “adventure”, told me that I shouldn’t swear when I get into the emergency room, or they wouldn’t treat me as quickly. What? I wasn’t even aware I was swearing, but then I can imagine that I said a few choice words when I talked to my daughter, and then my husband. Isn’t swearing the norm when someone has been in an accident? What odd advice…

At the emergency room, things moved quickly, then slowly, then quickly. A practitioner examined me, my husband arrived, I got x-rays for various body parts, and the conclusion was that I possibly broke my nose. Not surprisingly, a few people at the hospital asked me if I “feel safe”; code for, “are you a victim of domestic violence?” I’m glad that the awareness of these issues has translated to policy and hospital practice. And truthfully, I do look like someone punched me in the face. One day later, and the grocery store personnel are being kind and responsible. They have reported both accidents to their corporate office, and expressed tremendous regret to me. Apparently some workers arrived later last night to fill the hole where two of us tripped and fell. I am grateful that there are so many people who rise to the occasion and share their kindness in an emergency. And I wish I knew how to contact the nurse, for example, just to say thanks again, although I discovered that we live in the same neighborhood so maybe we’ll run into each other. She may not recognize me though. I’d also like to know how the other guy who fell is doing. Neither of us are spring chickens…

Which brings me to my final point… Falls for older people can be the beginning of the end. Falls are one of the precipitating factors that land older people in nursing homes. I’ve seen the impact of a fall on my own father, and the mother of a friend just died after a nasty fall. Luckily, I’m not in that category of “old” yet, but it does make you think. As an aging woman, I’m still strong and healthy, working full-time, engaged in life and ready for more. I don’t feel like slowing down, as I hear from some of my friends who are inching up to “older”. But how DO you juxtapose moving fast through the world, which I am wont to do, while having an eye towards balancing risk and caution? I still haven’t figured it out. Meanwhile, I will nurse my swollen face and black eye, and reassure anyone who asks that I haven’t been abused, other than by a nasty shopping cart.