Speaking up on Facebook: When the political is personal…

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Last week, one of my former students posted on Facebook that she was disappointed: Inne of the Abingtons was one of the venues she liked for her wedding reception, but the owners refuse to host same-sex receptions.

Two FB friends shared the news on their pages to discourage people from using the venue. Then another person’s Inne of the Abingtons post received attention and was reported by several local publications, and those pieces were shared by lots of my local FB friends. I’ve heard people talking about the issue in real life on a couple of occasions in the last week as well.

I liked all the posts I saw that called out the Inne of the Abingtons for its terrible discriminatory policy. But I haven’t shared any of the posts. And I didn’t write about the local problem until now. The reason?

Because I know the owners of the Inne of the Abingtons.

I don’t know them well—I cannot even think of their first names. But I know their son’s first name, and I know their little girl is adorable, and I know that I would have said hello and been happy to see them if I ran into them.

The Inne of the Abingtons actually sponsored my son’s baseball team a few years ago. That means my son wore that name on his shirt for an entire season, endorsing and publicizing their business.

[Sidenote: What would I do if that were the case at the time I found out they refused to host the reception of a person I care about, and that refusal was because they judged her love as being unworthy? How could I continue to let my son wear that shirt? I guess I wouldn't be able to, but it would be hard. It would cause a ruckus, and my kids would be embarrassed by me, and people would talk about me. But I think I would take a stand.

Or I like to think I would take a stand. It's so hard to know, isn't it?]

Okay, back to the situation at hand. I didn’t post a FB status calling out the Inne of the Abingtons.

In addition to me sorta knowing the family who owns Inne of the Abingtons, I imagine many of my Facebook friends know the family very well. So I feel hesitant about posting a status that would ask people not to take their business to the Inne of the Abingtons. To do so would feel mean. It would feel like I was targeting these people who have always seemed like nice, friendly, everyday good people.

But that’s not all, is it? I mean, it’s not just that I would feel mean. It’s really that I might seem mean to other people. Friends of the owners could easily be angry with me for targeting these nice, friendly, everyday good people who just think differently than I do.

I didn’t know that’s where I was going to end up when I started writing this post. I have more to say and to think through. But now that I know that my hesitancy to post a status is at least partly because I want people to like me, I feel ashamed.

It is not okay to look the other way or stay silent simply because conflict is uncomfortable.

***

After spending some time thinking and writing, I know that there’s more to it, so here’s some more context to frame my lack-of-an-anti-Inne-of-the-Abingtons status.

For a long time, I had an unofficial no-politics policy on Facebook. I wanted to connect with people and keep things positive, enjoy jokes, share stories, find out more about others’ lives, yada yada yada.

I actually have a lot of strong views, however, and as FB became a more politicized place, I found myself “liking” a lot of political posts. That’s a pretty low-key action: It shows support to others, but it’s not likely to bug any of my FB friends who may disagree with my politics. My happy place is just happier if all I do is “like.”

But “liking” didn’t feel like a strong enough gesture when I was inspired or impressed by something I saw or read. I wanted to share the eye-opening political stuff. I wanted others to see it, too! And as FB has grown, I’ve found more and more good stuff to share.

And when I’ve really cared about an issue and have felt very well-informed, I’m more likely to post about it myself, in addition to sharing what others have to say.

Sometimes it’s been easy. Most of my FB friends seem supportive of gay rights, so it’s easy to be supportive together. (Yeah, I know that seems ironic in the light of my worries that some of my FB friends would be unhappy with me if I were to call out the Inne of the Abingtons for their discrimination.)

At other times, it’s been difficult. I have both liberal and conservative (and, it turns out, libertarian) friends on FB, and my politics are decidedly liberal. One FB friend (who was a real-life friend from high school) told me she was defriending me because our “values and ideologies” are vastly different. I imagine others have silently defriended me or unfollowed my posts.

“Sharing” just doesn’t seem like “sharing” if I end up alienating people who think differently.

Then again, I’ve also had people go out of their way to tell me that they appreciated my blog posts and various articles I’ve shared. One friend told me she felt less alone because of my political posts. I know I’ve felt similarly because of what others have posted.

So. Where does this leave me?

Even if I alienate some people, I’ve decided that part of building community online is building community offline. And building community doesn’t mean pretending everything is always hunky-dory. Instead, it means addressing conflict. It means standing up when I see injustice. It means risking people not liking my posts—not liking me—and defriending me or unfollowing me because they don’t agree with my views.

It turns out that taking a stand was somewhat difficult in the past, but it’s even tougher if the people involved are close to home.

***

I’ve had major issues with Hobby Lobby and the insistence of the Green family on limiting access to contraceptive healthcare while claiming the right to religious liberty (you can see two early posts here and here). I will not shop there, and I have plotted some possible protest actions to discourage others from shopping there. (I haven’t carried these out, but they involved sidewalk chalk and the dissemination of facts, and it felt mighty good even planning the protest.)

Today, I chatted with my daughter about how I might feel if I knew the Green family personally. If I knew employees of Hobby Lobby who would end up unemployed if Hobby Lobby lost a lot of business. If I was somehow connected to the three-dimensional people involved in the case instead of collapsing the people into the single unjust stance that is almost all I know of the Green family or Hobby Lobby.

My response to the discriminatory policy of the Inne of the Abingtons helps me notice the limits of protest and boycotting. It is one thing to change a law or to force business owners to behave ethically by boycotting.

But what do I really wish for? What do most of us wish for?

Nothing short of changing the hearts and minds of others. We don’t want people to be forced to care about others and be respectful and supportive. We want people to do it of their own volition.

***

Yeah, I know. That’s not gonna happen.

But I still wish for it.

I wish the owners of the Inne of the Abingtons would realize that same-sex marriages are reasons to celebrate love and commitment and community. Just like different-sex marriages are.

I wish the owners of the Inne of the Abingtons cared about individual people who identify as LGBTQ. Is there any way they could know the actual people and still refuse to host them? Could they see the hurt on the faces of people in love, and close the door anyway?

I wish the owners of the Inne of the Abingtons would prioritize the lessons of the Bible that connect with the Golden Rules of other world religions.

I wish the owners of the Inne of the Abingtons would see that turning people away from the inn is not the right thing to do (even if they know the Bible well enough to know that the story of Jesus’s birth is not quite the manger story that’s often accepted…).

I wish it were easy to know what to do in the face of discrimination.

And I wish it were easy to do it. But it’s not.

 

 

 

 

 

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Quick book reviews

I think it’s weird that this blog is titled “Laurie Mac Reads” and I hardly ever discuss books. And I LOVE to read! Especially in the sun.

Anyhow, here are some opinions of books. I try not to give anything away!

If you have book suggestions, let me know in the comments….

***

Flight Behavior
The Lacuna

both by Barbara Kingsolver

I just finished reading Flight Behavior. The start was slow, but it picked up a bit as the book went on. The characters were fairly realistic; as a matter of fact, I found myself calling them “people” instead of characters and had to go back and edit that sentence. Ha! In places, the book was preachy. I liked what it was preaching, so I didn’t mind terribly, but I do prefer when a story can let readers figure out most of the lessons on their own. I know there’s always the risk that readers won’t get the lessons, but still….

Also in that vein of criticism, in places the book had to work to educate readers. That kind of thing is just hard to pull off.

In the end, I liked the ideas and the characters and the plot itself was all right.

I read The Lacuna at least a year ago, and it was a weird kind of summer where I found myself reading several books about the Red Scare without ever planning to. There were also a lot of books about ravens in a row that same summer, but I don’t remember if there were any ravens in The Lacuna.

At any rate, The Lacuna got off to a slow start just as Flight Behavior did, but once I allowed myself to get swept into its current, it was amazing. Local humble stories mixed with great historic figures in ways that brought both fictional and historic characters to life. It’s a long book, with a lot to it, and I didn’t anticipate the ending. Definitely a good one, but you will need some patience at the start in order to reap the rewards.

***

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Hollow City

both by Ransom Riggs

I highly recommend both of these young adult books. They’re cool in that the stories are connected to vintage photos that appear in the books, and the info about the photos themselves is pretty awesome. The stories are fantasy to a great degree, but there’s lots of realistic and historical fiction elements as well. The WWII themes make me think of Chronicles of Narnia, except these ones don’t seem to be Christian allegories in any way that I can tell.

The one recommendation I have is to wait until the series is complete before delving into these books. I had a time lag between these two books, which made the second one just a bit more difficult for me because my memory was not completely sharp, and I discovered at the end of Hollow City that more are to come.

But, whether you wait for the whole series or not, these are totally worth it. The end of Hollow City took me completely by surprise. Well done.

***

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness  by Susannah Cahalan

I’m pairing these books because they’re both about lives being interrupted by brain issues. The former is a fictional account of a conditions caused by traumatic head injury, and the latter is a nonfiction first-person account of a severe mental condition that resulted from an unknown pathogen affecting the brain.

My short review: I got more out of Left Neglected, though in lots of ways the story is over-allegorical. That is, it may be too pat and easy at times instead of allowing messiness and unresolved details and fully pulling us into the scenes.

However, it may be because of those very qualities that I remember a lot of Left Neglected and find it inspiring. The book definitely helps me to slow down and look at my life in new ways. And it’s not super-preachy like Mitch Albom’s Five People You Meet in Heaven. A few women in my book group said they preferred A Stroke of Insight because it seemed more realistic (which makes sense, since it’s non-fiction :) ). I haven’t read that book yet, but I read Left Neglected twice. An easy read that made me think.

Brain on Fire was a good read, and it’s impressive that the writer put together her own story by doing a lot of research since during her mental illness she was not aware of what was happening. But the narrative didn’t grab me as much as the fictional piece did, maybe partly because the writer had to portray her family and boyfriend in wholly positive ways. I don’t love conflict in real life, but in books, well, it kinda pulls me in and moves me along. Portraying real people has got to be one of the biggest challenges in writing autobiography or memoir or whatever.

***

Paper Towns by John Green

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I paired these books because the major theme is similar across both of them: It is tough to figure out identities, our own as well as others, partially because we are so busy constructing who we are within social systems.

There’s more to it than that, but I basically enjoyed both of these books. Paper Towns is a young adult book, and it’s a quick and easy read. I liked that there was a degree of mystery to it, and I didn’t know how it was going to end.

Both books have characters who think a lot. They do stuff, too, but they do stuff while philosophizing. I’m good with that, but it might bug some people. I feel like I gave Flight Behavior a hard time for being preachy while I’m letting every other book off the hook, but sometimes the philosophizing works better than other times. Not sure why I’m mostly okay with it in these two books, but I am.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a French novel (though I read an English translation). It’s not a difficult read, but it’s not as easy as Paper Towns. It switches between a couple points of view, one of which is that of a young person named Paloma. I think Paloma would be friends with the narrator of Paper Towns if they got a chance to hang out together. I also think Lisa Simpson and Bobby from King of the Hill would be friends if they could hang out together, but that’s rather off-topic.

Elegance has a great bathroom scene. Seriously.

And I liked it because it was an unusual book, more so than any other I’ve reviewed today, except perhaps the Peregrine books because of the role the photos play.

I wasn’t crazy about the ending of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It seemed kinda melodramatic to me. Sometimes I think it’s difficult to end things with closure when real life just kinda goes on….

 

 

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Hating on humans: not cool

On Friday, April 4, 2014, I was watching the Today Show and saw former president George W. Bush reveal paintings he had completed. It was a short and sweet human interest story, with his daughter Jenna Bush Hager interviewing her dad and George W.’s mom appearing via satellite (or whatever they use now–skype? FaceTime? I have no idea, but I like the sound of space-age sound of “satellite,” so let’s go with that) to comment.

I have never been a fan of George W. My political opinions are probably the opposite of his in almost every situation.

You know what? My husband and I have opposite political views as well. But I am a huge fan of my husband. He’s a really good person, and he constantly makes me laugh, and he gives good advice, and he’s kind. Blah blah blah. I could go on an on, but I kinda hate overly sappy stuff (what my friend Christina calls “Celine Dion moments”), so I’ll stop there.

What’s the difference?

The difference is that the primary way I’ve known George W. has been as a political candidate and president. The only part of his life relevant to me was his role as a politician. I was not a fan of his politics, so I was not a fan of George W.

from vanityfair.com, 2 images leaked from GWB's collection

from vanityfair.com, 2 images leaked from GWB’s collection

Now, with his presidency over and a minimal role in public policies, when I see that the former prez is painting, and he’s there interacting with his daughter and his mom, I put my lack of fandom aside. He’s not being a politician. He’s being a human. And if the only way I’m going to judge a person is by their political beliefs—even in situations when their political beliefs are not relevant—well, I think I’m missing out.

Sure, the paintings are not professional. But he’s learning! and he’s expressing himself. and he’s finding pleasure in the process.

And those are great things for a former president to be modeling. Even a former president whom I didn’t care for in terms of his politics.

My Facebook newsfeed is full of liberal postings, and I usually appreciate the news, the education, and the deep thinking.

But I have not appreciated the hating on George W. Bush and his painting. Each time I read a snarky remark, I feel yucky. I know I have Polyanna tendencies sometimes, but they’re not super-extreme. I get irritated pretty easily, by a whole lot of things that seem unfair or disrespectful or arrogant or whatever. And I have a lot of tolerance for other people’s irritation, too, even when they get bothered by things that I hadn’t even noticed. But I cannot get irritated by a man who is painting inoffensive portraits during his retirement. And I feel less happy about the content of my newsfeed when I’m surrounded by such irritation.

Repeatedly in my life, I have found that politics are one thing, everyday behavior is another. Mostly, I judge politicians by their politics, just like I might judge bakers by the quality of their cakes or jugglers by their, um, juggling. But if I know politicians or bakers or jugglers in other contexts, my opinions are likely to be a bit more complex. “Baker B makes great chocolate cakes, I hate the peanut butter ones. And what a great parent B is!” OR “Juggler J is super with technical skills but needs work engaging the audience. Did you know J does great work helping out when a disaster strikes locally?”

Yeah, I know politicians can affect a lot more people than bakers and jugglers. But I also think that if we force politicians to be judged only by their politics, all of the time, no matter what the context—then we are losing our ability to think deeply and accept complexity. And we’re also being haters, plain and simple, and being a hater just isn’t a healthy way to go through life.

How’s that for irony? I’m irritated by irritation that is

a) expressed by people (or pages) who share my political leanings
b) leveled against a man whose politics I don’t respect at all

But I feel better now. Thanks for letting me vent.

 

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A sucky attempt to understand the Hobby Lobby perspective

Okay, are we ready for another plunge? By “are we,” I mean, “am I.” Yes, I’m talking to myself, the way I do when I’m on the edge of a pool and I know the water is going to be cold. While my rational self knows it will soon be more comfortable and I’ll enjoy the water, my less-rational self tenses up when I’m poised on the edge, anticipating the cold to the exclusion of all other thoughts.

Maybe you think I’m being overly dramatic, but I feel very strongly about reproductive rights. It’s difficult, and even scary, to step away from my own perspective and inhabit others’ narratives. But I enjoyed it the other day, and I learned from it, and I liked people better because of it. So I’m gonna do it again. And after I work through the perspective of others, I’ll hop back into my own body and tease out what informs my perspective.

4 notes [you can skip these if you’re tired of background!]

1) The other day, I focused on a particular FB status that asked a general question about birth control and “personal responsibility.” I wrote my way through that part of the thread as well as I could.

Several of the responses to the general status offered specific comments on the Hobby Lobby lawsuit. They didn’t mention the similar suit involving Conestoga Wood Specialties; the latter is much smaller and is run by a Mennonite family here in Pennsylvania.

At any rate, while my previous post was somewhat general, I’m going to address religious freedom here, with specific references to the Hobby Lobby arguments. A high school friend provided some helpful insights in response to my previous posts, so I’m going to again paraphrase some views (from the original thread and from my high school friend) in order to see how much I can understand.

2) A colleague/friend mentioned the way my previous blog seemed like a form of Rogerian argument. Yes, it definitely did! I focused on Cheryl Glenn’s inspiration for my rhetorical approach rather than the widely-taught Rogerian argument because a) Glenn’s approach was fresh in my mind and b) the “argument” term that gets paired with the modifier “Rogerian” seems inappropriate.

Do I secretly hope to persuade, to “win the argument”? Sure. I’m only human! But I’m trying to focus on mutual understanding. It doesn’t necessarily resolve the conflict, I know. But I’m hoping it makes it easier to discuss the issues respectfully.

3) Like my other blogging, my writing reflects my personal beliefs and is in no way connected to or representative of the university where I teach.

4) I’m not a lawyer and I don’t have expertise in law. Just to help you set expectations at an appropriate level for what follows. :)

***

This is me inhabiting the viewpoint that the government is forcing people to violate their religious beliefs in the Hobby Lobby case.

Hobby Lobby Birth Control

Let me start here. I hate to be told what to do. Seriously! If I’m asked to do something, I’m very likely to do it. If I’m mandated, well, that just rankles. I’m WAY less likely to comply.

That reaction to being bossed around isn’t really what’s going on here, though. What’s going on is more invasive. It’s being bossed around in a way that goes completely against a belief I hold.

I get this. If my children are required to take high-stakes tests in which essays are graded by computers, I will balk. As a matter of fact, in Pennsylvania, the only way to opt out of testing is to do so on religious grounds. I would use my religion to opt my kids out of such tests, as this parent did. The truth is that it’s not religion that grounds my stance but instead research and my commitment to good educational practices.

So maybe that’s not a great example.

And a great example may be tough for me to generate. My religion, which is Unitarian Universalism, doesn’t really mandate what I think or believe about anything. I tend not to use my faith (or lack thereof) as an argument for my political stances.

But my religion does give certain guidelines in the form of seven principles, so I’ll use those as a jumping off point to set up a situation that would lead me to claim freedom of religion.

Okay, the seventh principle is “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” If I owned a business and the government said we needed to put our trash in rivers, and I was certain that putting our trash in rivers was a bad thing to do and would have awful repercussions, I would definitely resist the mandate. If need be, I’d take it to court.

Interestingly, once in court, my argument would not simply rest on a religious belief. It would also rely on research showing that dumping trash into the river has terrible effects.

In this way, I can understand the Hobby Lobby suit. They are not opposed to all birth control but instead are opposed to certain forms:

  • Plan B (aka “the morning after pill”)
  • Ella (which is another emergency contraceptive pill)
  • the IUD (which can be used as an emergency contraceptive or a long-term contraceptive, and which comes in different forms that work different ways)

The contention is that these forms of birth control abort fertilized eggs. The Greens (the family who owns Hobby Lobby) believe abortion is a form of murder.

Although I don’t think abortion is a form of murder, I’m pretty good at understanding that people who do hold this belief see themselves as heroes of sorts, standing up against bullies who think it’s okay to kill babies so their lives are more convenient.

I’m against river pollution, even if it’s sorta disguised by a sneaky mandate to get trash to end up in the river. And Hobby Lobby is against abortion, even if it’s sorta disguised by a sneaky mandate to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives that not only prevent eggs from being fertilized but also affect the linings of the uterus so that eggs cannot be implanted (see more on this below).

In both cases (the real and the fictional), the government does offer a choice: pay the fine if you don’t follow the mandate.

If I didn’t win in court, I guess I’d try to minimize the negative effects. Maybe I’d try to avoid producing a large amount of trash. Maybe I’d refuse to dump my trash in the river and would pay the fine. But, either way, I’d definitely be pissed about the messed-up morals being displayed by the government, and I’d be doubly pissed that I’d be implicated in these wrongful rulings.

Yeah, the whole river-dumping thing would make me upset. I’d stand up to the government, and I’d hope other people would rally to support me and my adherence to the UU church’s seventh principle.

***

BACK INTO MY OWN BODY…

I don’t know if I went far enough to inhabit the other side. Honestly, the whole time I was writing, I was thinking a whole number of things that were undercutting the argument. And that kind of thinking is really not what my goal was here.

I’m way more frustrated with myself than I was the other day.

Why am I struggling to really understand? What is holding me back?

It’s a whole slew of things. I’m 45 years old. I’m carrying some baggage. And a lot of my baggage is not the typical baggage with all its negative connotations but instead is stuff I want to be carrying. It’s stuff I don’t want to cast off easily.

the happiest-looking baggage ever!

the happiest-looking baggage ever!

1. The way I see most religious arguments.

My friend Lori told me that regularly during church services, she would tell her toddler daughter Jordan,

“Shhh. God wants you to be quiet.”

Then, one day, Lori and Jordan were at the park and Lori told Jordan it was time to go home. Jordan said,

“No, Mom. God wants me to keep playing on the swings.”

1a. The connection to the Hobby Lobby religious argument: Justification for anything.

Clearly, anyone at anytime can say God wants them to do something in order to justify a decision. I’m sure I make some decisions because I feel called to, and I may be hard-pressed to present my reasoning in a rational form. That’s all well and good when I’m operating within the realm of the law in ways that don’t affect others.

But I’m not okay with a “God wants me to” justification when it affects people other than the individual making the decision.

Here, the government is trying to make healthcare accessible. Hobby Lobby is saying some of that healthcare is against their religious beliefs. Such a claim could be made about any workers’ rights, at any time. Before we go around claiming the right of corporations to not comply with government regulations based on religious beliefs, we need to stop and think about how such a precedent can be used by corporations for their profit. When people claim that this case is not about workers’ rights, they are blinded by this case’s focus on this particular right—women’s rights to contraception. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I point out that women’s reproductive rights are regularly contested in the U.S.

But the Hobby Lobby case could open the door to any number of claims. That’s scary. “God wants me to” is not okay reasoning when it comes to corporations’ decisions about workers.

1b. More connections to the Hobby Lobby argument: Absence of a reason-based argument.

If there were good reasons beyond “God wants me to” then I would be more willing to listen. Lori might’ve told Jordan, “People are trying to hear, so it would be helpful for you to be quieter.” That’s a justification for asking Jordan to be quiet during church.

But the justification offered by Hobby Lobby seems bogus. It goes something like this: “My religion says these forms of contraception are abortion, and I’m against abortion, so I get to limit insurance accordingly.” I have issues with this stance for several reasons.

  • Just saw this info about Christians standing against Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit. So it’s not a simple “we all believe this” kind of thing…it’s more of a Green-family-choosing-what-they-want-to-believe kind of thing….
  • Hobby Lobby argues that the 3 contraceptives in question cause abortions because they keep the egg from implanting in the uterine wall. That’s not accurate.The truth is, the emergency contraceptives Plan B and ella prevent pregnancy by preventing the egg from being fertilized, either by blocking sperm or by tricking the body into thinking it’s already pregnant so ovulation does not occur. Neither prevents uterine implantation.

    The 2 forms of IUDs do affect the uterine lining, but the primary way they prevent pregnancy is by immobilizing sperm and/or thickening cervical mucous so the sperm is blocked. IUD are often used as long-term rather than emergency contraceptives.

    Thus, the argument that the birth control methods are forms of abortion because Hobby Lobby views a fertilized egg as the start of life…well, it’s an argument that ignores the fact that these forms of birth control prevent eggs from being fertilized.The links to each of the 3 forms of birth control above provide information about how they work. More updates on research regarding Plan B and Ella are in the “not accurate” hyperlink.

    None of these contraceptives is considered an “abortion pill.” And there’s good reason behind that distinction.

  • Hobby Lobby was actually using an insurance plan that covered all of the contraceptives under question until the Affordable Health Care Act said that it was required.The Green family said they didn’t realize they were covering these contraceptives, and once they did, they changed the plan.

    If the insurance plan is that far removed from the Green family—far enough that they were ignorant of what was covered for most of the history of the company—then the suit seems more intent on chipping away at Roe v. Wade (with wrong facts and with the belief that women cannot make their own ethical decisions) than on protecting religious freedom.

    Of course, if this contention is correct, then it’s truly ironic. To the degree that women are denied contraceptives, abortions are more likely to happen.I can’t help but wonder if the Green family just doesn’t like to be bossed around by the government about insurance decisions in the same way that I wouldn’t want to be bossed around by them about my healthcare decisions if I was their employee.

    I cannot know what is going on in the minds of the Green family. And I am critical of their stance for other reasons (detailed below), so it might be that they are more genuine than I give them credit for. Still, I need something way beyond, “God wants me to” as a reason for limiting other people’s healthcare coverage. Especially when the coverage has not been limited before.

  • And, here’s further evidence that the Green family is disingenuous: Hobby Lobby’s retirement plan includes investments that support the manufacturing of the very contraceptives that offend their religious beliefs. Huh. Way to practice that religious belief that means so much to you.

1c. Last connections: not a matter of Constitutional rights

The first amendment has two clauses regarding religion, as explained here, and they basically say that the government won’t make people practice a religion and no religion will be favored over another (the establishment clause), and the government won’t stop people from practicing a religion or interfere with their worship (the free expression clause).

Neither Lori nor Jordan nor Hobby Lobby gets the right to use their religious beliefs to ignore legislation. That’s not what’s protected.

There’s a whole other religious thing that was passed: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That’s the thing that’s causing trouble in this situation, not the First Amendment. Interestingly, the Supreme Court ruled the RFRA unconstitutional when applied to state laws; that ruling alone should give people pause when applying the RFRA to the Hobby Lobby suit.

Here’s the low-down on the free expression clause (the establishment clause from the first amendment is not relevant to this case) from “firstamendmentcenter.org”:

The free-exercise clause of the First Amendment states that the government “shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” Although the text sounds absolute, “no law” does not always mean “no law.” The Supreme Court has had to place some limits on the freedom to practice religion. To take an easy example cited by the Court in one of its landmark “free-exercise” cases (Reynolds v. U.S., 1878), the First Amendment would not protect the practice of human sacrifice even if some religion required it. In other words, while the freedom to believe is absolute, the freedom to act on those beliefs is not.

But where may government draw the line on the practice of religion? The courts have struggled with the answer to that question for much of our history. Over time, the Supreme Court developed a test to help judges determine the limits of free exercise. First fully articulated in the 1963 case of Sherbert v. Verner, this test is sometimes referred to as the Sherbert or “compelling interest” test. The test has four parts: two that apply to any person who claims that his freedom of religion has been violated, and two that apply to the government agency accused of violating those rights.

For the individual, the court must determine

  • whether the person has a claim involving a sincere religious belief, and
  • whether the government action places a substantial burden on the person’s ability to act on that belief.

If these two elements are established, then the government must prove

  • that it is acting in furtherance of a “compelling state interest,” and
  • that it has pursued that interest in the manner least restrictive, or least burdensome, to religion.

The Supreme Court, however, curtailed the application of the Sherbert test in the 1990 case of Employment Division v. Smith. In that case, the Court held that a burden on free exercise no longer had to be justified by a compelling state interest if the burden was an unintended result of laws that are generally applicable.

After Smith, only laws (or government actions) that (1) were intended to prohibit the free exercise of religion, or (2) violated other constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, were subject to the compelling-interest test. For example, a state could not pass a law stating that Native Americans are prohibited from using peyote, but it could accomplish the same result by prohibiting the use of peyote by everyone.

The RFRA changed that last part when it comes to federal laws.

At any rate: The Green family has not proven their sincerity because they have offered the contraceptives under question and have contributed to investment funds that go to the manufacturers of the contraceptives under question. The government, on the other hand, has “a compelling state interest” and is not restricting religious practice.

The criteria themselves are overly generous. Are they met? I’d say yes. But I do admit that I’m totally biased in that direction.

2. The recent history.

Roe v. Wade was settled a long time ago (1973), but politicians have been chipping away at a woman’s right to abortion in alarming ways in the last few years, armed with wrong information and a sense of righteousness that disrespects women’s ability to make their own decisions.

The 3 contraceptives in question are not “abortion pills,” but even if they were, I’d say: Not your body, Green family. And definitely not your choice.

3. A longer view of history.

Religion is regularly used as a convenient tool to justify unfair systems—the entire feudal system, for one, and the idea of grace and manifest destiny in the U.S. for another. (See The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism if you’re unfamiliar.)

What’s even more familiar to me is the way the issues that are raised most regularly when it comes to healthcare are the issues that disproportionately affect women.

Women need control of their own reproductive systems. When Hobby Lobby or any other corporate entity or individual uses religion or science or family or law to wrest that control from women, I read my Kollantai and Rubin and Steinem and Valenti. Those are my religious texts. And I’m feel in’ mighty infringed on, lemme tell ya.

4. My own history.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I’ll reward you with a story.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, just as I was turning 34. (Don’t worry: I survived! It’s a happy story.) Insurance covered my screenings that led to diagnosis, the surgery and radiation used to treat the cancer, the tamoxifen I took for five years to prevent recurrence, and my husband’s vasectomy because my doctor told me the surge of hormones that would occur with another pregnancy could lead to a cancer recurrence.

(Does anyone want to argue with any of that coverage? Is it an issue? Is it against anyone’s religious beliefs? Are you even okay with the vasectomy? Why, exactly? Why should all of this healthcare be covered even when someone somewhere could decide it’s against their religious beliefs? If you still have some argument left for Hobby Lobby, read on.)

At this point, 11 years later, I have not had a recurrence, and it looks like recurrence is not associated with pregnancy as my doctor believed all those years ago.

However, my own situation makes it clear to me that contraceptives need to be available. What if my doctor was right, and pregnancy could greatly increase my chance of recurrence? In that situation, if I was raped or if I had sex with someone other than my husband, emergency contraception would be appropriate healthcare. It would prevent not only pregnancy but also prevent cancer.

And, whether I was a Hobby Lobby employee or not, I should have my health care covered under the Affordable Care Act. I should not need to have emergency contraception cut from the list anymore than radiation or surgery or tamoxifen should be cut from the list.

You can’t argue with me: I had cancer! I’m a victim! (This is a joke. Sorry if it’s not funny. It’s hard to make good cancer jokes. But it’s also a transition to #5, so you can enjoy it on that level if the humor doesn’t work for you.)

5. And, finally. The “who is actually being oppressed” game.

There’s this weird thing that happens in arguments where people try to portray themselves as the victim who is being oppressed. The government is violating the religious rights of the Green family. The govt=bully, the Green family=victim.

When it’s pointed out that the Green family is enforcing their religious beliefs on employees in their attempt to limit insurance coverage so certain kinds of healthcare are not covered, the equation becomes Green family=bully, employees=victim.

People who argue on behalf of the Green family say that religious freedom is a guaranteed right; contraceptives are not a guaranteed right.  I already pointed out that the right to ignore legislation due to religious beliefs is not part of the first amendment. (It’s #1c, which mostly consists of a helpful link, in case you need a refresher.)

Furthermore, these people argue, women can go ahead and pay for contraceptives themselves. And I addressed this point by wondering why this form of preventative healthcare should be denied coverage when other forms are not, and any employer at any time could claim a religious objection to any form of healthcare? (This stuff was pointed out mostly in #4, with parts implied in #2 and #3. But I’m sure you’re reading carefully and have it all under your belt.)

We can talk all day about what is a “right” and what is not a “right.” But let’s pause for a moment and simply think about what is right. Preventative health care is good for all of us. The government is trying to provide preventative health care to citizens. The government is actually trying to do something right. Yes. The government! I know. It is shocking. But preventative healthcare is a good thing.

The Green family is saying “No” to part of that preventative health care.

In this case, it’s preventative health care that the Green family is associating with abortion, which is a point of controversy for a lot of people. But think about how you would stand if the preventative health care being contested was for any other health need. Are you still thinking that the government is bullying the Green family and the employees should just go out and pay for it themselves? If you are the employee and your children are denied coverage for vaccines, if you are the employee and you or your spouse is denied coverage for an epidural during childbirth, if you are the employee and you are denied coverage for tamoxifen to prevent a cancer recurrence…are you okay with this?

Me? No, I’m not okay with this. I say “yes” to workers’ rights to preventative healthcare, even if the big bad oppressive government is the one trying to establish such rights. And I say “no” to using religion to deny preventative healthcare, even on behalf of the oppressed and victimized Green family who struggles to express their religious beliefs in a culture where Christianity is often invisible and, when it is visible, is widely disrespected and thus difficult to practice.

Yeah, that last part was irony. If this lawsuit is Hobby Lobby’s Plan A, I’m hoping they turn to Plan B sooner rather than later.

Plan-B

 

 

 

 

 

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On contraceptives & insurance: A response to a Facebook status

This morning, I read a Facebook status asking

Why should anyone be responsible for paying for birth control except for the person using it?

As someone who cannot imagine having such a viewpoint, I felt compelled to read the comments below the status.

The responses elaborated on the idea that birth control is a “personal responsibility,” so it should not be covered by insurance. The comments also referenced the case of Hobby Lobby with the idea that requiring insurance to cover contraceptives (or, in the case of Hobby Lobby, particular contraceptives—the IUD and the morning after pill) is an infringement on people’s religious beliefs.

My beliefs are so far distant from the commenters that it is a challenge for me to hear their opinions fully, in a respectful way. My instinct is to shut down each of their points and arguments, quickly and logically, pulling the rug out from each statement.

But I just heard Cheryl Glenn speak at a conference. She described the way ruptures can lead to violence, and she advocated using feminist rhetorical practices of caring, collaboration, and understanding to bridge these ruptures (and thus prevent violence). She challenged her audience to respond to others by listening with empathy instead of always being ready to talk. She told us one of her role models says to people, “Tell me more. I want to understand”—especially when hearing something that feels objectionable or offensive. And only with understanding is it appropriate to share your own perspectives, with the hope that you, too, will be heard.

So I’m going to respond (in just a minute) by doing my best to listen first. And my response is not meant to persuade but instead to increase understanding.

Before I get to my active listening and my active speaking, just a bit more background.

I actually wrote responses on FB four times over, and I read many of them out loud to my daughter. But even as I was writing, I knew I had more to say than what is appropriate in a FB comment. I also knew that I didn’t feel good about the tension that’s created when a person steps into a conversation as a dissident voice. And, finally, as an English professor at a Catholic university, I’m careful about what I say publicly, and to whom I say it.

Just to be explicit: I’m not Catholic (though I was raised Catholic, and I’m a fan of the new pope!). And I’m not representing my university in any way in my comments here. This stuff is from me, a person, not a professional. I won’t even mark students down for seeing things differently. :) And if you have an issue, know that it is with Laurie the person, not Laurie the professor.

Now, with all that said, let me write about what I’m hearing.

****

I am not going to directly quote from the people in the FB conversation because I haven’t asked their permission, and direct quotes are often easy to trace back to particular people. Instead, I’m going to paraphrase; and I’m going to do so as respectfully as I can, because my whole point here is to hear what people are saying.

One part of the thread is about personal responsibility and a tendency for people to shrug off their own responsibility and expect other people to take care of them.

Holy cow! I totally get this sentiment! As soon as I separate the concern from the particular issue, I can relate. (It’s funny how good that feels, that feeling of relating and understanding. It’s like, Yes. We are part of the same species and we can talk to each other. Who knew? Political rifts sometimes seem too gigantic to ever cross. Which is not cool.)

I have two kids, ages 14 and 11, and I sometimes clean up their dishes for them. But if they expect me to clean up their dishes, well, forget it. They are old enough to clean up after themselves, and it drives me crazy if they act otherwise. To a great degree, actually, we are moving to a point where my kids are expected to not only clean up after themselves but also to more actively contribute to the well-being of the household. That means vacuuming, dusting, emptying the dishwasher, and so forth. As my kids get older, they are also more responsible for making their own purchases by saving up their allowance or birthday money or whatever. When my kids don’t follow through with their responsibilities, they lose privileges.

I have a similar dynamic with my students. There was actually another FB thread recently on the wall of a colleague of mine at another college. She was disappointed about the number of students who were not taking responsibility to read the syllabus, keep up with due dates, and follow assignment instructions. Many other faculty commented, commiserating and wondering whether helicopter parenting was leading to this problem of students expecting to be spoon-fed.

The truth is, I probably spoon-feed my students on occasion, but most of the time I try to put responsibility on them for looking things up and knowing how to take notes and study and so forth. And most students seem okay with that. When they ask me for a due date and I tell them I don’t know, they look it up, and we’re both glad that they’ve been empowered to find answers for themselves.

Okay, so I get why personal responsibility is important. The bigger challenge for me is to understand why expecting birth control to be funded through insurance is flouting personal responsibility. But I’m gonna try.

*scrunches up face in utter concentration and effort*

Okay. Birth control is often a way of having sex while avoiding a pregnancy. Having sex is a choice—it’s not something anyone must do in order to survive. And sex is a source of pleasure.

(Note that I’m not talking about rape or any kind of sexual assault in this characterization of sex and birth control. I don’t think those kinds of violent situations were being referenced in the particular FB conversation to which I’m responding. A more specific conversation about IUDs or morning after pills in the context of rape or sexual assault might have led to different statements from the same commenters.)

I think the idea of personal responsibility, then, is the point that if people choose a pleasurable activity, they should be willing to fund it themselves. When I phrase it that way, it doesn’t seem so objectionable. I do lots of pleasurable things that I would never think of asking others to fund—going to concerts, enjoying happy hour with my colleagues and friends, playing board games….The list goes on and on. (I almost want to write “reading books,” but that activity is funded through public libraries. My #1 source of pleasure is free! Three cheers for Ben Franklin!)

Anyhow. I feel even more satisfied that I have at least some understanding of where the commenters are coming from. I pay for (most of) my pleasurable activities. It’s possible that I’m misunderstanding in some way or other, I know, because this is just me thinking on paper (or on a screen, rather). It would be better to hear the people themselves. But it’s easier to avoid bristling and feeling defensive to think here, on my own. I’m not saying that’s something to be proud of! But I think it’s accurate. Taking some space allows me to hear with more openness.

And I am utterly exhausted. It’s hard work, this trying to figure out where other people are coming from.

I’m gonna respond to this piece of the debate and write up the other parts separately.

***

While I, too, see sex as a pleasurable activity  (with the above note still in play, distinguishing consensual sex from any form of sexual assault), I don’t see paying for birth control as paying to have sex. Instead, it seems to me that I can have sex without birth control, the same way I can take a walk down the street. I don’t need to buy anything the way I’d need to buy concert tickets or a beer or a board game or whatever to enjoy those sorts of activities.

To me, then, birth control is not the pleasurable activity. Sex is the pleasurable activity. Birth control is a way to enjoy the pleasurable activity in a responsible way. Right here, then, where the FB commenters see birth control coverage as a sign of people refusing to take responsibility, I read it in the opposite way. More people enjoying safe sex and preventing unplanned pregnancies? Yes, please!

But let’s not be so cavalier so quickly….

Maybe birth control is like a life preserver when you go on a sailboat. In that case, people do buy their own life preservers, just like they buy their own sailboats. And it still makes sense that people buy these life preservers themselves. Life preservers aren’t covered by insurance companies. (Isn’t it amazing that I’m still thinking in terms of people with a completely different viewpoint than my own? It’s not even on purpose now. I’m kinda freaked out.)

So, the question is:

Why do I see birth control as appropriate for insurance coverage even though I don’t see life preservers as appropriate for insurance coverage?

I’m not entirely sure, but I think it’s for these reasons.

1)   Sailing is never completely free and life preservers are part of the costs associated with sailing. (Well, sailing may be free if you have friends with a sailboat, but even then the friends will probably let you use their life preservers instead of insisting that you buy your own.)

 Sex, on the other hand, is free. Anyone (well, almost anyone) can have sex regardless of income, so some people struggle to afford birth control.

I was in that position years ago, making minimal money while working a full-time job with the ARC and working part-time as a waitress. My insurance did not cover the birth control pill, and it was a hardship. Many people are in more dire straits than I was.

 Part of the purpose of the Affordable Care Act is to help people who are in dire straits. I think it’s a good idea to make it easier for people to make responsible sexual choices.

I imagine some people would say, “If you can’t afford birth control, don’t have sex. That would be the responsible choice.”

That may be some people’s ideal vision, but it doesn’t seem very realistic.

It’s easy to say “don’t have sex if you can’t afford birth control” if you’re someone who can afford birth control or if you’re someone who isn’t interested in having sex. However, sex is pleasurable for a lot of people, and it’s free. I think a lot of us would go sailing without a life preserver if sailing were free and convenient. And maybe then I’d believe in insurance coverage for life preservers.

For many of us, sex is an important part of a committed relationship, and even a marriage (contrary to stereotypes of married life!). Do people in low-income jobs really need to avoid sex in their marriages because that’s “responsible”? Are we okay with discriminating against the poor that way? My answer is “No.”

I say, let people have sex. Pleasure is a good thing, and sex may be even more important for those who can’t afford concert tickets or sailing or board games.

And let’s help those who like to make safe and responsible choices by having insurance coverage for contraceptives.

2)   In all of the above, I avoided the question of rape and other forms of sexual assault. But when it comes to the morning after pill especially, I think it’s vital to remember that not all sex is consensual. Insurance coverage for the morning after pill is critical. And I don’t see “personal responsibility” (or the lack thereof) as being relevant.

The FB commenters didn’t take up such cases, so it might be that they do believe in free contraceptives (maybe through an emergency room visit?) as appropriate in such cases. I kinda hope there’s at least that much of an overlap in perspectives.

 ***

Religion and economics were two other major themes in the thread. I’ll take up those next time. I hate to separate the issues because I think they’re all interrelated, but I’m going to as a matter of time and energy.

I hope I’ve done justice to other people’s ways of thinking while also articulating my own perspective clearly. It’s been good for me to make the attempt, at any rate.

I welcome respectful responses. Thank you for listening!

 

 

 

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Why my daughter’s middle school makes me happy

Callie is 14 years old, and she is a great kid who tells me about her life (at least some parts of it). I’ve been loving her school for a couple reasons recently, and I asked Callie whether she minded if I blogged about it. She said no, as long as I didn’t tag her in it.

REASON for LOVE #1

About a week ago, I had a parent-teacher conference with Callie’s reading and English teachers. I told them that Callie seemed a bit unmotivated with her writing recently. She was specifically complaining about writing in the formulaic 5-paragraph essay format, and would it be all right if…

I don’t even know if I got a chance to finish asking my question. Both teachers looked at each other then back at me and explained they were both writers themselves, and they understood perfectly. And they said, Sure. Callie seemed ready to explore other ways of organizing her essays. WOOT!

We talked specifically about an upcoming persuasive essay that Callie had discussed with me, and they were supportive, and I went home to tell Callie the good news. She could please her teachers AND herself.

It didn’t take a 5-paragraph format to persuade Callie’s teachers—they were open and receptive and clearly cared about writing and education—and their students!—in all the right ways.

REASON for LOVE #2

Callie has been participating in a mock Congress in her social studies class. I have never seen her go so far beyond the requirements of an assignment. She and I have talked and talked and talked about her experiences. [Note: I added a few updates to this post after Callie read it; each update is labeled.]

It has been awesome.

I know I said Callie is a good kid. I will also add that she’s smart. But it is her school and her teachers who have provided this particular experience that has challenged her and motivated her to research and think and discuss and act.

I don’t really know all the details, but here are some things Callie has talked about.

  • each student had to research an issue and write a bill, modeled on actual bills, with definitions and clarifications and so forth (Callie’s bill focused on reproductive rights)
  • each student claimed a political party, and each class had a Speaker of the House, majority and minority leaders, and so forth (Callie’s class had a majority of Republicans, though Callie was Democrat; she might’ve been the minority leader, though I’m not certain. I know Callie wanted to have a leadership role so that she’d have more opportunities to speak rather than having to wait to be called on. [UPDATE: Callie was not the minority leader.])
  • each class was divided into committees, and the committees voted to approve bills for debate on the floor (Callie’s bill made it out of committee, but a lot of bills died in committee, just like in School House Rock. Callie rehearsed her arguments and quoted statistics in preparing for the debate in committee. [UPDATE: Callie was her committee chair, which in itself proved challenging because her committee struggled to debate all the bills in the allotted time.])
  • once the bills made it out of committee, they were debated by the whole House—that is, the class.
  • Callie was extremely stressed after her bill was debated. Hers was the first one, and she was the only person who had done extensive research on reproductive rights, so she had to answer any and all questions. It was tough for her to be on the hot seat, feeling like she was almost alone against the world. But I’m sure it won’t be the last time she’ll have that experience, so I’m glad she had such an opportunity in a safe environment, stressful though it was….
  • And the uneven debate was a learning experience in other ways as well. The most stressful parts seemed to center on poor communication; Callie complained to me that a couple students interrupted her to argue instead of listening to what she had to say before responding, and she was also upset that her teacher (a Republican and also President with veto power in this mock Congress) used a poor analogy to argue against her bill. I could relate to Callie’s distress: I can usually cope all right with disagreement, but I am most upset when I feel like I am not heard or respected. Callie and I talked about coping strategies for future times when she might be interrupted or when an authority figure disagrees with her publicly (perhaps using a poor argument).
  • Callie came to me one night a few days after the debate and said she still kept thinking of things she should’ve said. Yes, that is how much she cared. And that moment gave me the opportunity to tell her that coming up with good things to say after-the-fact is a common human experience, and the only thing to do with such thinking is to apply it to the future or share it with others who might be in a similar situation.
  • Callie and I chatted about the entire debate with her friend Samantha, who was arguing for a similar bill in another class section. That’s normal, right? To drive around a couple young teen girls while they discuss the best ways to debate their bills in Congress…
  • Callie said they were considering impeaching the president (that is, the teacher), but he bribed the Republicans with lollipops.
  • That night, Callie researched impeachment and found that bribery is grounds for impeachment. She texted (or Instagrammed? or tweeted?) the Speaker of the House, Carina [UPDATE: Carina was the Minority Leader. Callie and Carina were also in touch with the Speaker of the House, but the Democrats led the impeachment efforts]. They found Republicans who would testify against the President. Callie wrote up two paragraphs calling for the impeachment….
  • The next day, another class of students sat at the back of Callie’s social studies class, and the vice-principal showed up. Why? Because Callie’s classmate Alex knew that the Senate (the extra class of students) and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (the vice-principal) were necessary for impeachment. Callie’s paragraphs were read aloud. Witnesses were ready to testify, but the teacher denied everything and said he would resign from his position.
  • Callie couldn’t wait to tell me. Her teacher said their class led the most-organized impeachment case he had ever experienced.
  • And here and there in the experience, members of Congress have been censured. By their classmates. Because they screwed up in their Congressional responsibilities.

It’s crazy, right? and amazing?

My daughter has been learning about American government and politics, about fighting for what she believes in, about dealing with conflicts when working with others, about stepping up and using research to get things done, and about building coalitions outside of school hours to make sure that

when class starts, she and her classmates are ready to make things happen.

THAT is the kind of education that matters. And it’s happening all the time. Even when no one is measuring it.

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Why do we mourn celebrities?

Philip Seymour Hoffman died on February 2, 2014. He was one day younger than my husband, Scot.

And Harold Ramis died today, February 24, 2014. All I can think about is Bill Murray’s line from Stripes. Near the start of the movie, Bill Murray’s (that is, John Winger’s) girlfriend is moving out because John is unmotivated and she’s had enough. He begs her to stay, finally yelling,

You can’t go! All the plants are gonna die!

Scot quotes that line to me regularly, and he has done so since the first year I met him. It’s not just a line from Stripes anymore; it’s a line from my marriage. I don’t know if Harold Ramis wrote that line since he was one of three people who worked on the screenplay for Stripes, but I do know that I tend to attribute it to him.

This attribution comes partly because of Ramis’s work on Groundhog Day and the way it allowed me to see Scot and his family in a larger context. I didn’t know what to make of Scot’s family when I met them on Easter day and they gathered in the living room to watch PayPerView wrestling. I have never watched wrestling with my family, never mind on Easter day.

Then, in Groundhog Day, I saw Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, encounter small-town Pennsylvania life, and it all started to make sense.  When Phil Connors gave a newlywed couple tickets to WrestleMania, I felt like that moment in the film had been written just for Scot and me. We looked at one another and said, “It’s funny ’cause it’s true.”

***

In the Proserpine myth (or Persephone, if you’re partial to Greece), Ceres (aka Demeter) mourns her daughter who has been kidnapped and taken to the Underworld. The mourning of Ceres, who is goddess of agriculture, results in the death of all growing things: fruits, grasses, trees. The world grows barren.

You can’t go. All the plants are gonna die.

It’s not funny, ’cause it’s true.

***

Philip Seymour Hoffman. Harold Ramis. Countless other celebrities whose deaths touch us, even though we did not actually know them. Well, let me rephrase that. They did not know us.

But we knew them, at least a part of them that they shared with us. We may have hung out with them in a dark cinema while they made us laugh or cry or squirm uncomfortably. We may have invited them into our living rooms. We may have decided we didn’t want them in our homes at certain times and turned them away. We may have introduced them to our friends or our kids. We may have seen them again after many years apart and welcomed their return and the reminiscing over shared memories.

We may have used them to forge stronger bonds with one another. And they let us.

Sometimes I don’t understand why people are upset about celebrity deaths because I don’t feel a connection with a particular celebrity who has died. Sometimes I hate celebrity culture and the way we obsess over building people up and tearing them down. Sometimes I think fans and fan culture must just be annoying to celebrities, and I don’t want to be part of it. Sometimes I think celebrities are part of the suckiness of the world and I hate myself for enjoying looking at sparkly dresses at award shows.

Other times, Harold Ramis dies. I tell my husband the news, and I think to myself all day:

You can’t go. All the plants are gonna die.

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New year: Resolve this

The best resolutions I ever made were the ones I really wanted to keep.

1) Aim for mediocrity.
2) Prioritize happy hour.
3) Be sillier.

These were healthy messages for me since 1) I easily stress out 2) I LOVE to socialize and 3) well, I’m already silly, but I enjoyed being even sillier that year. With each of these resolutions, I set aside the constant focus on self-improvement and striving for success. I implicitly told myself:

  • Forget being better.
  • Forget “new and improved.”
  • Forget the constant messages in our consumer culture that tell us we need to have shinier hair and better smells and a more awesome car and the correct peanut butter in order to be loved or happy or fulfilled.

I’m more or less satisfied with my hair and my smell and my car and my peanut butter. “Better” is not necessarily better.

The temptation is still there, though. I want to eat healthier. Go to the gym more. Move forward with the WinkyFace YouTube project. And work on a big research project with unbelievable amounts of energy. Be better, Laurie. Better, better, better!

I want to call my parents more. Buy people gifts more regularly. Spend more time with friends. Play board games with my kids. Spend more quality time with my husband. More, Laurie. More, more, more!

Those voices are likely to keep playing in my head. I think they may be part of who I am. But those voices are strong enough and do not need to be elevated to the status of a resolution. Really, those voices need to hush up a bit so I can occasionally relax.

So here I am. On the one hand, I pressure myself to be better. On the other hand, my best resolutions are the ones that give me permission to enjoy life.

My answer? Wherever the next year takes me—whether I work hard or not, whether I face difficult times or not, whether I “improve” or not—I resolve to appreciate. To take pleasure. To suck the marrow. Yum.

Washing the dishes. Dealing with a broken computer. Binge-watching TV. Not part of the ideal picture of my upcoming year, but these are the realities. And they are beautiful. Or at least they can be.

broken glass

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Growing up next to a graveyard

As a kid, I could go in my backyard and see a cemetery through the chain-link fence—the Laurel Hill Cemetery, to be exact, a first name just a bit close to my own. On occasion, I would see grave diggers or mourners when a burial took place close to my house. I never thought about them seeing me, though now I wonder whether I was ever a distraction, doing whatever random things a kid does in the backyard.

A cemetery similar to Laurel Hill.

A cemetery similar to Laurel Hill.

When I was very young, my sisters and I would play in the cemetery with other kids from the neighborhood. We would climb on a row of small headstones and pretend we were on carnival rides. Part of me wants to justify that behavior now and commend us on our imagination, while the other part of me has no idea why that seemed like a fun activity.

We would also go visit a large square gravestone that was topped with a huge, dark grey reflective ball. We called that ball “the world.” We could see our neighborhood reflected in it, so it did seem like a globe of sorts, displaying where people lived. I often stood on the bottom edge of the base and imagined climbing up that gravestone, but there wasn’t even enough room to stand on the top of the square base, never mind scale the slippery sphere on top.

A comparable sphere headstone

A comparable sphere headstone

When we did want to climb, we would head to a couple of boulders further up one of the hills. I could climb one easily; the other, I might have tried at some point, but my only memory now is the memory of knowing that it was beyond my ability level. I climbed the boulder I knew how to climb, and I felt good about it. That seems like a shortcoming in my character now, all these years later, this lack of interest in pushing myself to do what seemed difficult if not impossible. But I’m gonna give myself a pass because I may have known, even at a young age, that there wasn’t any reason to climb the second boulder beyond just saying that I did it. That would’ve been something, but it’s not the kind of purpose that compels me even today.

Carnival rides, the reflection of the world, the boulders to climb or to not bother climbing. And more.

Sledding down small and medium and suicide hills year after year, on wooden toboggans with iron slats and on red plastic sleds with yellow handles. Dodging gravestones and trees. Overly-soft snow and overly-wet snow. Trudging up hills with soaking-wet mittens. Bailing out of sleds, diving into the cold, to avoid crashing into the stone wall that separated the cemetery from Main Street.

Riding on Big Wheels with neighbors, and on bikes with sisters.  The blue bike with training wheels and a white seat that matched Janet’s, as the two of us learned to balance and move.  Then the brown 3-speed that meant I was a “big kid.” Flying with Diane down steep hills and skirting around curves, standing up to pump my legs up and down to make it through the cemetery streets and back to the top of the hill where we would do it all again. Owning those streets. They were ours.

Playing Hide-N-Seek with our dog, Max. My dad would let Max off-leash, and Max would jet all over the entire place. My dad and I (and sometimes Diane) would hide when Max first disappeared over the hill, and we’d whistle until Max came back and found us. Eventually Max was so good at finding our hiding places that we learned to trick him. From a hiding place, we’d watch him look for us in the copse of bushes (or wherever), and once he disappeared over the hill again, we’d head straight to those bushes (or wherever), knowing he wouldn’t re-check. It wasn’t long before Max caught on. He never did his searching systematically, but he did learn that we may end up hiding in a place that had been clear the minute before.

The one copse of bushes was across from a family of gravestones surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. I would enter that fenced area as if I were visiting. Then I would depart, and I’d wend my way into the midst of the bushes. I would imagine building a fort within the bushes. I’d collect acorns to eat, and the nearby fenced area would be a part of my neighborhood—not a good place to live since it provided so little shelter, but still a clearly-defined spot for something, and clearly something of a fancy sort with a fence like that. 

Of course, now it just seems sorta crazy, all that money and time and energy spent on a wrought-iron fence to demarcate the lines between this group of graves and all the other graves in the cemetery.

A fenced area similar to areas in Laurel Hill

A fenced area similar to areas in Laurel Hill

On occasion, when my sisters or I would decide to run away, I always imagined I’d sleep in the cemetery, probably in that same imagined fort-in-the-bushes. I knew I had to eat, and my realistic side was not willing to count on acorns; but there were neighbors who gave me candy every time I visited, so that need seemed covered. My running away never lasted more than 15 or 30 minutes, so my plans were never executed beyond collecting candy from neighbors, but the plans were there—a possible escape if it ever came to that.

Then there was Jenny. Her grave was in a section of the cemetery we’d pass by on our way downtown. (Did I mention we always walked through the cemetery on our way downtown?) There was a wall (to sit on or walk on, from my perspective back then) and steps, and there was Jenny’s grave. The headstone had Jenny herself depicted. I believe she was holding flowers. Her figure seemed kinda like figures of Mary sculpted in stone. An epitaph was on her grave, though I don’t remember anymore what it said. I believe it was sad. Jenny was young when she died. But her grave had been there throughout my lifetime.

Jenny's grave from Laurel Hill Cemetery

Jenny’s grave from Laurel Hill Cemetery

Sometimes on Halloween we’d dare each other to walk through the cemetery. Sometimes we actually did so. It was never scary, but sometimes we pretended it was scary.

One time my sister Janet and one of her friends had some man flash them. I didn’t really know what it was all about at the time, but I gleaned enough that once I learned about flashing, many years later, I could put it together.

Teenagers would often drink in the cemetery, and I’m sure they did way more than drinking. That was never my style, though I believe a couple of my siblings were into this scene over the years. I saw signs of various vices as a kid—the cigarette butts and empty bottles or cans strewn near Jenny’s grave. Those steps, the wall—they lent themselves to company, way more than the wrought-iron fenced area on the other side of the graveyard. Yup, Jenny was set up for young company.

When I saw PoltergeistI thought it should mean more to me because of living next to a graveyard. But that was really a put-on, and I was never scared or bothered when thinking about the dead bodies in the ground just past my backyard.

Growing up next to a graveyard did not mean I knew death better or that the reality of it was part of my life in some organic, natural way. Growing up next to a graveyard was, to me, growing up next to a giant park, available for recreation and imagination and fun. I wonder if death was actually less real to me than to most people. After all, the people who didn’t grow up next to graveyards most likely view graveyards as sacred, as mysterious, as separate from everyday life. And this view seems to conflate the burial site with death itself, not in a dishonest or cheap way, but in a way that grants the space of the graveyard the power to stand in for death–to make the overwhelming and intangible a bit more approachable, a bit more manageable.

Cemeteries don’t signify in the same way for me. Still, I wonder if there’s something good about the way I grew up. I hope that it was more than childhood cluelessness that I now have to overcome. That would just suck; it’s one thing to overcome negative childhood experiences, but my cemetery experiences tend to be pretty wonderful memories.

Hmmm. The truth is, I don’t know. Maybe it just doesn’t matter that I grew up next to a graveyard, beyond the graveyard being a setting for a whole bunch of good memories that have a kind of ironic tinge to them now. And maybe that’s how all good childhood memories are. Maybe they all seem both ironically sad and impossibly but wonderfully hopeful. And maybe that’s okay.

Maybe the lesson of growing up next to a graveyard is simply one of acceptance. Not blind acceptance, but acceptance that the ironically sad and the impossibly but wonderfully hopeful can go together–can even, somehow, be one and the same.

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Wolves, abuse, terrorists in my head

On Monday, April 15, 2013, my literature class went outdoors because the sun was shining. We gathered on steps, in a tight group, and we talked about “The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter from about 2:30-4:00.

On Monday, April 15, 2013, at the same time that I was teaching that class, my younger sister Diane was a half mile from the explosions at the Boston marathon. I talked with her at about 4:15, making sure she was safe, worried about her and all the people I care about in the Boston area. I followed the news that night to find out more, turning to blogs pretty quickly when I heard TV newscasters asking people if they had seen “carnage” or any of the people who had been “maimed” in the explosion.

I don’t want my news to be like an action movie, full of suspense and terror and gore. News that tries to be like an entertaining movie makes me feel yucky as I watch. I do not want to be entertained by hurt bodies or extreme violence.

Luckily, FB was full of Mr. Rogers memes, and bloggers and journalists took their time to treat the situation with respect (I suspect it’s easier to be respectful in writing than in live news because there’s opportunity to edit and revise when writing). I turned to the internets to get the news the way I want it–with respect and restraint rather than sensationalism and gory entertainment.

***

When discussing “The Company of Wolves” on Monday, the students and I noticed that wolves and people are sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another. Instead of setting up a clear attacker and a clear victim, Carter’s narrative plays with the roles of attacker and victim, so that readers’ sympathies can suddenly change.

The style and language of Carter’s story contributes to the effect. The start of the story demonizes wolves and makes people very afraid, but it’s written almost as a ghost story told around a campfire at night, meant to provoke a delicious kind of fear that turns into screams and dissolves into giggles. In other words, the scary characterization of the wolves at the start seem rather tongue-in-cheek—they’re scary just to the point that we enjoy scary things, not to the point of actually hurting the listeners.

As the story goes on, men turn into wolves and wolves turn into men, and it’s tough to pin down who “the bad guy” is in the tales because things are so changeable and inconsistent.

We talked about more of the story (especially the Red Riding Hood part), but it’s this part of the conversation that I’m extremely interested in right now, today: Friday, April 19, with one of the bombers from Monday killed and the second one being sought while the greater metropolitan Boston area is in lockdown.

***

About seven or eight years ago, one of my students wrote a paper on child abuse and why it happens. I knew it tended to be cyclical, with people who had been abused as children more likely to abuse their own children, but that’s pretty much all I knew before reading Kim’s paper.

[Note: abuse is way more complicated than Kim's focus, and my take on her paper is from memory and is very brief, so take this with a grain of salt; if you want to understand child abuse with more seriousness, there are volumes written about the subject.]

Kim explained that the trauma of abuse stays with a person, and future situations are understood through the lens of the childhood abuse. That is, the feeling of helplessness experienced by a child who is yelled at, punished, and beaten by an adult is a feeling that comes back even when the situation is completely different.

The abused child becomes an adult survivor, and when a conflict arises with his or her own child, the adult survivor perceives that child as powerful rather than vulnerable. That is, the situation is misperceived, so the adult survivor feels helpless and lashes out at the child, understanding themselves to be the weaker party despite all evidence to the contrary.

Without intervention, the trauma tends to continue, the abuse tends to continue. The adult survivor of abuse appears to be “the bad guy”–indeed, is the bad guy in hurting a child. But the adult survivor of abuse is also a hurt, traumatized victim.

And it’s only in understanding that the bad guy and the victim are usually not binary opposites that we can intervene, working to create community dynamics and bonds that heal.

***

I appreciate the messages about Boston being tough and going on despite adversity.

I appreciate the focus on helpers and the people who went out of their way to be there for others who had been hurt.

I appreciate the appreciation for first responders, investigators, law enforcement. I’m married to a trooper, and I know how he feels about his work. He cares an incredible amount, and I believe most first-responders and people in law enforcement are similarly mission-driven.

I am sad that these responses have given way in fits and starts to violent anger. The wish for death for the bombers. The threats. The easy anger that perceives the “bad guys” in black and white. And all the “likes” for the hate. It makes me sad.

***

Wolves used to populate most areas of the United States, with indigenous tribes often depicting healthy relationships between people and wolves in their paintings and carvings. Wolves were even worshipped by some tribes.

European fables and folk tales, however, depicted wolves as evil characters. As the bad guys. And increased farming and ranching in the U.S. led to vexed relations with wolves, to the point that wolves were killed aggressively, especially in the 1800s and into the late 20th century. Much of this killing was a systematic attempt at completely exterminating the species.

Today, extinction of the wolf is viewed as a horrifying possibility rather than a hope. The “bad guy” in the story of the wolf in the United States is not the wolf at all but rather the people who indiscriminately worked for the wolf’s extinction.

The perspective has shifted. Our understanding has changed.

***

I regularly kill insects. I usually feel a little bad about it, but not too bad. I’m bigger than every single insect I’ve ever killed. I’m the bully. I’m the bad guy.

I’ve also killed mice.

I have trouble explaining why I’m not more bothered by my own willingness to cause death of other living beings even though the story of the wolf in the U.S. is deeply disturbing to me and I’d like to think that I wouldn’t be a wolf-killer even if I was a rancher in the early 20th century. Okay, I guess I would be. I guess I could easily end up killing wolves if I was positioned differently.

And I guess that means that I can’t really blame the people whose reaction to the marathon bombers is to kill.

But I do prefer a different response, a response that asks WHY. A response that doesn’t settle on easy good guys and bad guys but instead recognizes that the people hurt or killed in Boston (and now in Watertown and Cambridge) should not have been hurt.

And recognizing that truth perhaps means that we need to respond in a way that is completely different from the instinct to kill. That is completely different from the way the “bad guys” behaved at the marathon on Monday.

It may not be our first instinct, just like the live newscasters were likely to ask people if they had seen “carnage” on Monday.

But maybe, just maybe, we can be thoughtful and complex, like the writers sharing their thoughts on Monday, with time to sift through their ideas before settling on a particular perspective.

Maybe, just maybe, we can wait long enough to have a bigger picture.

Maybe, just maybe, we can honor the work of the helpers and the hurt of the survivors by acting and speaking with compassion. Even when it is most difficult.

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