Monthly Archives: May 2014

Party like its 1999…

90s-Prom-profile

If you want to relive your 90s prom, or if you were unfortunate to have your prom in another decade, join Somerville Local First for Right Here! Right Now! A local extravaganza held in fashionable 90s style.

Get your tickets here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/690799

The party will go down on June 27 at Cuisine en Locale (or, as I like to call it, the former Anthony’s space)

All proceeds benefit the fine work of Somerville Local First (where I serve on the board). SLF nurtures an environment where the independent, local economy thrives and encourages a diverse economy in Somerville, MA, that is local, sustainable, and fair.

So, join the local party and have some fun!

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Crazy/Thoughtful

I like to play a game. Well, many games, in fact, but one that I’ll talk about today.

I call it Crazy/Thoughtful. The game is to decided whether an action – either planned or accomplished – is crazy or thoughtful.

I have, for example, told strangers they are wearing name tags or informed them that they likely will get a ticket if they choose to park illegally in Somerville. I tend to do these things without thinking – its an automatic reaction, like calling after someone who’s neglected their wallet or umbrella.

But after the moment has passed and the interaction is over, I find myself taking pause, wondering, Wait, was that weird? Or was that nice? Was that the socially appropriate thing to do?

Crazy/Thoughtful.

But maybe I’m the only one who needs games to manage social interaction.

And this isn’t just a game for strangers. Buying flowers, sending a card, or really any sort of gift giving not connected to an officially sanctioned gifting holiday. Is that weird? Or is that thoughtful?

I don’t know. I usually just do it anyway, because, you know – whatever. But it’s interesting that there’s such a fine line between these states. Crazy and thoughtful.

Upon receiving flowers, a friend was once annoyed. What crazy person was sending her flowers? But, upon discovering who the flowers were from, she declared the gesture acceptable. “Well…he’s Southern,” she explained.

What would have been crazy for a Californian was acceptable for a Southerner. “They do things like that,” I’m told.

And before you argue that it’s never crazy to send flowers – it really can be. The guy who sent Valentines’ Day flowers to a group of (female) friends he’d hung out with a few times at bars. Crazy. Definitely Crazy.

So these random acts of kindness can be crazy or thoughtful. Or maybe both crazy and thoughtful.

And I think that holds us back. Nobody but a creeper wants to be a creeper, but sometimes it takes little creepy to be kind.

It’s too easy to get caught up in the game, debating is this crazy or is this thoughtful? Shying away from doing something thoughtful because…well, it really is a kind of crazy thing to do. Crazy and thoughtful.

But, you know what I say – embrace the crazy.

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On Being a Badass

Someone asked me recently what it means to be a badass.

I’d scrawled that phrase in the cold and dark of January, declaring it to be my 2014 goal. Be totally badass, to be precise.

But what does that mean? Can a 40-something-year-old woman, no longer hip to the kids, but with a child of her own be a badass? Is it all James Dean and Jimmy Cagney, leather jackets, sun glasses, and the lingering smoke twisting from a cigarette?

It’s more than Marlon Brando and Sylvester Stallone.

As a quick response to the question, I’d written this definition: Being tough enough/confident enough to do the things I want to do and be the things I want to be regardless of what society says I should do or be. That’s what makes you a badass.

That was my gut reaction, but I find it somewhat lacking. What does it mean to be tough? To be confident? What if the things you want to do are the things society wants you to do? Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

I’ve described select academics as badass. Seriously, there are some real badass researchers out there. How do they fit in?

I don’t know.

As it turns out, I don’t have a tight definition in my pocket ready to go. I don’t know what makes a badass, but I do know this: it’s not about being popular, or being cool. It’s not a rebel without a cause or a public enemy. It’s not all tough guy talk and bad boy walk.

Sometimes its a miracle I can face the day –

We are all of us battered and all of us broken. We each bear our scars from the whips and chains of outrageous fortune. We have each seen dark places and glanced upon our own private hells. We have each our own intimate relation with despair.

Being a badass is going on when you can’t bring yourself to go on. It is standing resolute when all you want to do is crumble. It’s gathering the pieces when all you see is destruction.

There’s nothing that says a badass can’t find themselves sobbing uncontrollably on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night. But a badass stands back up. A badass goes on.

Badass is a state of mind. It’s not a permanent achievement you unlock with a greaser jacket and slicked back hair. It’s a way of living – a way of fighting – for every moment, every breath, every accomplishment.

Sometimes it is social norms that make you feel like you can’t succeed. Sometimes it’s a colicy baby and years of sleep deprivation. Sometimes its a series of missteps, or a terrible tragedy, or something else in your life that opens the wound of despair. Sometimes, you don’t even know –

But being a badass is fighting through those moments. It is taking a deep breath and gathering the will to carry on. And it’s reminding yourself that whatever happens, you can get through this. There may not be exploding buildings or bloody combat or sultry romance, but you can get through this.

Of course you can. You’re a total badass.

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The Cost of a Free and Undivided Republic

It’s unclear where the first Memorial Day took place. The U.S. ceremony emerged from the Civil War, but as the Department of Veteran’s Affairs explains, “Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the war dead were buried.”

Nonetheless, in 1966, “Congress and President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo, N.Y., the birthplace of Memorial Day.” I can only imagine how my Southern brothers and sisters feel about that.

Speaking of which, eleven Southern states recognize “Confederate Memorial Day” – an observation on which the now generalized Memorial Day was based.

One story broadening Memorial Day to honor the Northern dead comes out of Columbus, Missouri. On April 25, 1866: A group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well.

This early group of mourners made a conscious choice to recognize all the dead. Not just their dead. All the dead.

At that moment of grief and hope and pain, disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, it did not matter who had won and who had lost, it did not matter who was friend and who was foe. All that mattered was that good men had died, and good men deserve to be mourned.

Whether you believe war to be a necessary evil or an evil beyond necessity, the outcome is always tragic. The cost is always high.

Since first Man took his brother’s life, and the sad world began, as Oscar Wilde says.

In 1868 General Logan ordered his posts to decorate graves of fallen soldiers, saying, “Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

The cost is always high. And we should always mourn.

And, disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, we should mourn all those who fall. We should mourn every brave hero and every life cut short. We should mourn every brutal act and every brutal reaction. We should mourn with the greater angels of our nature that men commit acts so heinous war seems a solution.

We should mourn, we must mourn. But more than mourn, we should do better.

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Honoring Harvey Milk

harvey_milk_stampYesterday, the United States Postal Service unveiled a stamp honoring Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States.

Milk, elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, was assassinated less than a year later along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.

The pair were shot and killed on November 27, 1978 by former City Supervisor Dan White.

After frequent clashes with Milk and other Supervisors, White resigned, citing dissatisfaction with the corrupt inner workings of politics. He soon changed his mind, though, and petitioned Mayor Moscone to regain his seat. Moscone ultimately declined this request, reportedly after pressure from Milk and others.

On November 27, 1978 Dan White climbed through a window at City Hall, avoiding metal detectors. He went first to Moscone’s office, fatally shooting the mayor. Done there, he headed to Milk’s office, shooting the City Supervisor five times.

As the New York Times reported in 1985, following White’s eventual suicide: Mr. Milk was one of the nation’s first acknowledged homosexuals to be elected to major public office, and many homosexuals said that was a factor in his death.

In his confession, White described his motivation, saying ”I saw the city as going kind of downhill.”

Following his trial, White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter – a lesser charge than the first-degree murder which Milk supporters had hoped for.
Growing up, I was always told that White was let off the hook after his lawyers argued he’d been driven mad by eating too many Twinkies. While not not quite accurate, that’s how this “Twinkie defense” is remembered in collective culture. Too many Twinkies made him do it.The actual argument isn’t much better – that White’s switch to a sugary diet of Twinkies was indicative of the deep depression he was suffering.And all this American history is now captured on a 49 cent stamp bearing Harvey Milk’s face. Ironically, perhaps, labeled forever.The White House blog post announcing the stamp declared: Milk’s achievements gave hope and confidence to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in the United States and elsewhere at a time when the community was encountering widespread hostility and discrimination. Milk believed that government should represent all citizens, ensuring equality and providing needed services.At a time when the community was encountering widespread hostility and discrimination.
At a time when…
Indeed.

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Dispelling Misbeliefs

I’ve previously reflected on the need for spaces where people can speak freely. Where they can share thoughts that are generally considered taboo or inappropriate to say.

These spaces can come in many forms and cover a range of topics.

A therapist’s office, for example, can be a personal safe space. Where you can admit that you have a problem. Where you can speak the unspeakable and process intense experiences. It’s a deeply personal space, where you (mostly) won’t be judged for your thoughts, behaviors, or actions.

But what about collective spaces?

There are many efforts to develop such spaces – where communities can come together to discuss – and hopefully address – their collective challenges. But such spaces are fraught with challenges of their own.

First – what ideas or opinions are off-limits? Should someone who genuinely believes that homosexuality is abhorrent to their religious beliefs be able to express such an opinion? Or should such discrimination not be tolerated?

What about those (seemingly) well intended people compelled to make comments starting, “I mean, some of my best friends are black, BUT – ” You know that sentence will never end well.

Personally, I’m inclined towards being inclusive – even of offensive points a few. Assuming we all restrain ourselves from degenerating into a shouting match – if someone believes something discriminatory, I’d rather hear them say it.

I’d want to understand where that belief came from – and help them understand where that belief came from. And most of all, proselytizing though it may be, I’d want them to understand where I’m coming from.

I am rarely accused of being optimistic, but perhaps I am in this regard – I understand hate so little that I have to imagine a sustained, open dialogue would set people straight, so to speak. After all, there really are former white supremacists.

When the Massachusetts legislature decided not to pursue a constitutional amendment which would stop gay marriage, those legislators who dropped their opposition to same sex marriage overwhelmingly shared that it was the stories of people, just people, that changed their minds.

And here’s the next challenge. Perhaps these spaces are important. Perhaps these conversations are important. But it shouldn’t always be on the LGBT community to speak out against homophobia. It shouldn’t always be on people of color to speak out against racism. It shouldn’t always be on women to speak out against sexism. It shouldn’t always be on religious minorities to speak out about religious discrimination. It shouldn’t be.

It’s not their job to go around educating every yahoo with a loud mouth and a chip on their shoulder. It’s really not.

These conversations need to happen, this education needs to happen, but it’s on all of us. It’s on all of us to create safe spaces, civil dialogue, and collectively learning. To push back on discrimination and microagressions and all the stupid little things that people don’t even know are wrong.

None of us can speak to another’s experience, but we can speak from our own experience, and we can speak to the betterment of the collective whole. We can speak up for what we know is right, and speak up in favor of acceptance, openness and understanding.

We can stand together, and talk together, and work together.

And yes, slowly but surely, we can improve together.

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Modesty and the Confidence Gap

Modesty and humility are generally taken to be virtues – as, I think, they should be. Few things in life are more vexing than a bombastic fool.

But I wonder how these traits interact with the so-called “confidence gap” – defined by research which shows that “women are less self-assured than men.”

As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman write in the Atlantic, “For years, we women have kept our heads down and played by the rules. We’ve been certain that with enough hard work, our natural talents would be recognized and rewarded.”

On the whole, women, perhaps, are too modest, too willing to cede the spotlight, too quick to share credit for their work and ideas.

Of course, once I get past the fact that “Men” and “Women” are treated as monolithic entities, what drives me crazy about the “confidence gap” conversation is that the solution seems to be for women to be more like men.

Just be more confident is the prescription, along with window dressing comments about social norms and equity.

Just be more confident, as if half the population missed that day in school.

But there is nothing wrong with a healthy lack of self-confidence. A man who runs into battle sans armor is a fool. It’s good to have self-doubt, it’s good to hold yourself to impossibly high standards, it’s good to think before you act.

Or at the very least, its okay if that’s your style. You don’t have to change.

The challenge with a lack of self confidence, isn’t, perhaps, the confidence itself, but the paralyzing fear that comes with not knowing the right course of action.

It’s good to think before you act, but one doesn’t always have that luxury.

Confidence and modesty are, of course, not quite antonyms: one may have confidence in one’s abilities, but modestly choose not to announce this to the world at every opportunity. But, still, the words seem inextricably linked.

Modesty is a luxury. It’s something you can have when nobody doubts your ability. When you have nothing to prove to anyone but yourself.

For those women – and men – victim to the confidence gap, its not just their nagging self-doubt that’s holding them back.

It’s the subtle hints and the blatant actions, it’s the inescapable innuendo and discrimination, it’s the unavoidable fact that not everyone around you has confidence in your abilities.

Being confident in the face of all that is the challenge.

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Fortune favors the bold (?)

Is it better to quit while you’re ahead or to charge bravely forward?

The socially appropriate answer to that is conflicted. Our stories and expressions celebrate those who took bold stands –

The Greeks, at Thermopylae, fought to the last man. Flanked and facing an insurmountable foe, 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans defended the pass, allowing the main host to escape entrapment. These men were slaughtered. But we remember them proudly. Over 2000 years later, we remember them proudly.

Fortune favors the bold.

Tacking into the wind.

Tenacity. Grit. Perseverance.

These words capture the awe inspired by those who fight when all is lost – or at least for those who win.

Even the Spartans, dead though they may be, succeeded in their goal – they gave their lives to protect the main body of the Greek army. The Trojans, who unwittingly welcomed their conquerors, are remembered less fondly.

Even the story of the honorable Don Quixote De La Mancha, tells us that while we may be inclined to treat such men as fools, there is indeed something noble about tilting at windmills.

But why are we inclined to treat such men as fools, surrounded as we are by stories of glory and honor?

Stubborn. Proud. Immutable.

Those are just a few of the words we may use to describe those who fight when all is lost – or at least those who lose. For those who stand their ground when a wiser man might flee.

So which is it? Is history to be our only judge? If you overcome you are a hero, if you lose you are a fool? How then are we to know whether to quit and go home or to persevere?

Or is there, perhaps, something noble about fighting the good fight no matter what the outcome?

Should we bear badges of stubborn and fool proudly? Tough in our resolve to stand firm no matter the cost?

Or, perhaps, should we chose instead to live to fight another day?

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Mapping blog posts

The last few months I’ve been doing a lot of network mapping. Students in my class created network maps of their morals, and I’ve played around with mapping themes from Hamlet’s soliloquies.

Last summer I created my own moral network map by responding to prompts like What abstract moral principles seem compelling to you? and What personal virtues do you strive to develop?

Creating my own map, and indeed, creating a map for the tragic Dane, were interesting, reflective processes, but somewhat unsatisfying in their unscientificness.

It was too arbitrary, too driven by my own whims and biases. And while perhaps a map of my own morals should be driven by my own whims and biases, I can’t help but think there’s a better way to capture this information.

A more proper methodology would be to conduct interviews, develop a coding scheme, and to capture what ideas came up in what contexts – noting not only the ideas themselves, but what ideas are connected to each other. David Williamson Shaffer takes this approach in much of his methodology looking and the development of epistemic frames – that is, specific professional ways of thinking.

Well, that sounds great, but it’s way too much work for a weekend. Also, I can’t exactly conduct a focus group interview with myself, now can I?

But as I thought about this more, I realized that I do have rich data on my ways of thinking – captured nearly a year’s worth of blog posts.

Text analysis can be a rich and complex process, but, curious to see what I could come up with in a short Sunday afternoon, as a first step I intentionally kept it overly simple. Looking at my first two weeks of blog posts (10 posts), I relied upon word counts to extract key themes:071913_v2

The above network was created with the following rules:

  • A word is recorded if it’s used four or more times in a single post. Four times was an arbitrary cut off based on the distribution of word counts. I would have had a lot more words if I’d included those used three times or less. Interestingly, one post has no impact on this map as a result of that cut off.
  • “Common words” are removed from the count. The word count software had a filter for this, but I ultimately elected to also remove words like “really” and “truly” as well as various forms of “you,” “your,” and “you’re.” After some debate, I elected to keep the word “what.”
  • Words/nodes are sized by frequency – the more times I used a word, the larger it appears.
  • Each word is connected to every other word taken from the same blog post. If a word appears in two blog posts, it is connected to both clusters of words.
  • Colors were generated by an analysis of clusters within the network – groups of words that are highly connected to each other.

It’s particularly notable that this blog-generated map includes many independent clusters of various size, including two nodes which stand alone. This is very different from the map I generated through self-reflection, which was highly interconnected.

However, challenges of the word count approach can also be seen. For example, my post “Petty Bourgeois Radicals and the Freerider Problem,” was inspired by reading Roberto Unger. However, with only one mention of Unger in that post, the cluster generated by that post stands alone and isn’t connected to the post which explicitly references Unger multiple times.

Elinor Ostrom, who was also mentioned once, doesn’t appear at all.

But, problems aside, this is an interesting and relatively quick approach for network mapping. And – here’s the coolest bit – by connecting a blog post’s date to the words from that post, you can create a time-lapse animation of the network’s evolution over time: (Try a different browser if the animation isn’t working…)

071913_v2

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Marriage equality is not enough

Ten years ago tomorrow – on May 17, 2004 – Massachusetts began recognizing the marriages of same sex couples. The first state in the Union to do so.

Today, 17 states have the “freedom to marry” and over 38% of the U.S. population lives in a state that recognizes same-sex marriages or honors out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples.

These are victories, but it is not enough.

In my home state of California, for nearly a hundred years “all marriages of white persons with Negroes or mulattoes [were] declared to be illegal and void,” an edict which held until that state’s Supreme Court declared that “marriage is thus something more than a civil contract subject to regulation by the state; it is a fundamental right of free men.”

Of course, that 1949 ruling didn’t stop the California electorate from passing Prop 22 in 2000. The Act, stating simply that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” was approved by 61% of the voters.

61%. In California. In 2000.

I was in high school at the time. As President of my high school’s Gay Straight Alliance, I campaigned against the proposition.

To be honest, I didn’t work that hard. It was a fun opportunity to see the insides of a political campaign, but why bother fighting too much? It was California. In 2000. Such a ballot measure could never, ever pass.

61%.

A few short months later, I had my senior prom at some ritzy, San Fransisco hotel. The photographer, who took chintzy shot after chintzy shot of young couples in their glamorous best, refused to take a photograph of me and my (female) date. He graciously included us in a group photo, but made us stand on either side. Separated by all the mix-gendered couples wrapped in embrace.

61%.

I was proud to live in Massachusetts when this state’s supreme court found marriage denial unconstitutional. I was thrilled when Margaret Marshall, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts SJC was selected as my college commencement speaker. When she told us, just days after the first same-sex marriages, that it does get better. That we can make a difference.

In the political battles that followed, I made daily pilgrimages to the Massachusetts State House. Standing in solidarity with those who would not see the the inclusive ruling over turned.

There was no constitutional amendment. Same sex-marriages continued to take place. We won. And here we are, ten years later.

These are victories, but it is not enough.

It is not enough because young men and women continue to be taunted and abused for their sexual orientation. It is not enough because, as the CDC reports, a study of LGBT middle and high school students found that 80% had been verbally harassed at school; 60% felt unsafe at school; 40% had been physically harassed at school; and 20% had been the victim of a physical assault at school.

It is not enough because lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers. Because between 20 to 40 percent of young, homeless, people are gay or transgender – a disproportionate share for a group that makes up only 5 to 10 percent of the overall youth population.

Because another Matthew Shepard could die any day.

It is not enough.

We should celebrate our victories. Indeed. We have much to celebrate. But the battle is not over. Far from it.

A new day is dawning. There is much work to be done.

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