On Kids Alone in Parks: We Need a Larger Collective Response

Responses to the arrest of Debra Harrell, a single, black mother who allowed her 9-year-old daughter to play unsupervised in a park, are largely individual. Stories have focused on Harrell herself, obviously, so that we can understand her situation: unable to afford child care, she allowed her daughter to play in a park so that she could work her shift at McDonalds. She was then arrested, and her daughter was taken into protective custody.

People are rightly outraged at the injustice against Harrell, and have focused on how viciously U.S. society distorts children’s safety through the corrupted lenses of race and class. Jonathan Chait in New York decries Harrell’s arrest and tells of letting his kids play in a park unsupervised, with no consequences (he is white). In her lovely article ‘What Black Latchkey Families Stand to Lose,” Stacia Brown also shares her opinion and personal experience, to make clear exactly what is at stake when people report women like Debra Harrell.

We need these stories because they help to bridge the chasms of lived experience in U.S. culture. We will never resolve issues of race and class if people do not fully hear each other.

And I’ve got my own personal response filtered, of course, through my identity as a single, white mom. Like Chait, I, too, recently let my daughter play hide-and-go-seek in a park with another kid. Adults were watching from across the street, but later that day, my daughter told me that, while she was hiding under a bush, a cop walked by and asked if she was okay because he didn’t see anyone else around. She said she was fine, and that was the end of that. He didn’t ask where her parents were or come looking for me.

There you go, anecdotal evidence at its best. It’s not the same situation as Harrell’s, but for me, it confirms the double standard: a cop perceived my daughter, who is younger than Harrell’s, as sufficiently supervised, and his perception was at least partly informed by race.

The public outrage about Harrell’s arrest has spurred a crowdfunding campaign to help her to regain custody of her daughter (Harrell is reportedly out of jail now). This is a great idea because it will help Harrell with her immediate legal fees.

What interests me, though, is how virtually all the responses, rhetoric, and action I’ve seen (like here, here, and here) are limited to the individual realm. I found one article on Vox focused on the overall problem of childcare in the U.S. But mostly it’s, “Was Harrell right or wrong? What’s my experience with this issue? What can we do for Harrell?”

Again, these are necessary and valuable, but it’s also as if we can’t bear to raise the dire need for collective change, so we limit ourselves to the personal in both responses and solutions. Why? Do we feel too hopeless to advocate (again!) for reasonable, affordable childcare solutions for working moms, especially when we see things like yesterday’s Senate filibuster blocking the Hobby Lobby legislation fix?

Is it too tedious to repeat the obvious––like sending another email about how it’s time (right now!) to get big money out of politics? Is it too risky to repeat a larger truth that everyone already knows?

Individual stories and solutions are valuable but limited and, in a weird way, show how we’ve internalized the relentless privatization that makes the U.S. so hard on everybody, especially on working families. It will never be possible to crowdfund enough money for all the moms who are criminalized for living in poverty.

So I’ll be the uncool one and just say it: we need a collective, public response. We need to force this issue and demand legislation that supports working mothers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kudos to the Church of England

In the context of the U.S.’s regressive laws and culture on women, it’s great to hear some good news from across the Atlantic: the Church of England has voted to allow women to become bishops (they were allowed to become priests 20 years ago). Check out these sweet pics of celebration and joyous faces. It’s lovely to have something to celebrate about women’s rights, a much-needed respite from the sad reality that a centuries-old religious institution “has more modern views on women than [U.S. supreme court justice Antonin] Scalia.”

Mishandling of Rape Allegations, Again

Yet another story of rape on a college campus in upstate NY where the administration allegedly grievously mishandled the case. The report in the NYT is unusually detailed and shows, as Joyce Carol Oates tweeted, that the “value of investigative reportage can’t be exaggerated.” The victim was incredibly brave and identified herself for the story but, sadly, now regrets having reported the assault. Her lawyer appears in a video denouncing the college’s handling of the case. Let’s hope that all get their due justice. Read the full piece here.

On Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle”

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s has written a six-volume autobiography called My Struggle, the first part of which was published in 2009 in Norwegian, with the first three books published in English translation in the past several years. The first book received a glowing review in The New Yorker and books two and three were likewise praised in The New York Times.

All these reviews have noted the minute detail with which the author chronicles his everyday life, and in the Times’ review of book three, Rivka Galchen raises the issue of gender:

If “My Struggle” — which is arguably most engrossing when it describes the care of children in what feels like minute-to-minute detail — were written from the point of view of a woman, would it be the literary sensation it is?

She answers “I don’t think it would be,” but for her, the more important gender difference is actually part of the story itself:

That cultural norms are obtuse about men and women in such different ways is an essential part of Knausgaard’s predicament; he changes diapers, he cooks dinner, he is said to be pretty good-looking, he doesn’t talk about sex all that much — he often feels perceived as too feminine.

In contrast, Katie Roiphe’s commentary, published yesterday in Slate, takes the view that the cultural discrimination outside the book does matter. She, too, wonders

what would happen if the literary sensation were written not by the handsome Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard but by Carla Olivia Krauss of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

Her answer is that readers and critics would find the author “narcissistic, well-traveled, self-indulgent.” But, refreshingly, she doesn’t use this as an excuse to reject Knausgaard’s work, in part because it’s more complicated than a simple male-female divide:

I am not trying to make the point that male readers and critics would dismiss Carla, which they would, but that female readers and critics would as well. I mention this because of the enduring fantasy of a shadowy male literary establishment that discriminates against women writers, when in fact the discrimination is much trickier and more pervasive than that.

Well, I would hardly call the male literary establishment shadowy; it is, in fact, rather blatant, but Roiphe’s point that both men and women enact discrimination against women is also valid. Read her full commentary here.

The key point is that debates like these inspire me to read Knausgaard’s work––and to encourage the Carla Krausses of the world.

Finer points on Citizens United and Hobby Lobby

First, Jill Filipovic, in her new gig at Cosmopolitan.com, gives us 13 Reactions to the Hobby Lobby Case That are Completely Misinformed. Many of them I already knew about, but one that stood out was this:

While Hobby Lobby the company did object to only four forms of birth control, Hobby Lobby the case is about the contraception mandate as a whole, and its holding applies to any closely held company.

For details read the full piece here.

Second, many people understand why Citizens United is unjust. In the Atlantic, Norm Ornstein uses the Hobby Lobby case to elaborate in clear terms on why Citizens United is illogical. One key point: Corporations’ key objective is to make profit, which is never subordinated to their religious beliefs, and this is true for Hobby Lobby as well:

Give the Hobby Lobby owners’ family credit for their deep religious convictions. But if profit-making were truly subordinated to those convictions, which are strongly in opposition to abortion rights, Hobby Lobby would provide paid maternity leave for employees who shun contraception and abortion to have babies. It doesn’t.

Others have made this point by exposing Hobby Lobby’s investments in companies that produce contraceptives. Ornstein’s piece is especially valuable because he uses this case to illustrate the overall flawed thinking of Citizens United. It helped to clarify my thinking on the issue. Read the full piece here.

The Supreme Court’s “Hobby Lobby”

Pretty much everyone who supports women’s right to reproductive health has been lamenting the SCOTUS decision yesterday on Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, in which the court ruled that certain closely-held corporations can claim exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that companies employing 50 or more people cover the cost of workers’ prescription birth control.

The decision claims to be narrow on the basis of its application to closely held corporations, which are corporations with a limited number of shareholders, and because the decision is limited to two forms of birth control, the IUD and emergency contraception.

Many people are outraged over the general implications: With this ruling, the court not only confirms the erroneous view that corporations are people but goes further by asserting that a corporation now has the right to impose its religious views on its workers. And a corporation’s religious views, i.e., its supposed “personhood,” are now more important than the personhood of its female employees (and, by implication, all women), specifically women’s right to reproductive health as part of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate. Hence the illustrated guide to American personhood meme that’s been all over Facebook.

People are now waking up to the fact that the decision is anything but narrow, in other equally alarming ways. Closely held does not mean small, first of all, and the Wall-Street Journal reports that at least one source claims that about 90% of U.S. companies are closely held.

More important is one of the points made by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion, an implication that people are just now starting to absorb (here’s a report of some of the best points). She rightly understands that if a corporation can claim religious exemption about the issue of birth control, there is nothing to stop them from claiming exemption from covering other things, too. A corporation owned by Jehovah’s witnesses could claim they shouldn’t have to cover blood transfusions; Scientologists would have grounds for rejecting the coverage of antidepressants; Muslims, Jews, and Hindus could claim exemption from medications derived from pigs (including anesthesia, IV fluids, and so forth). On this basis, Ginsburg wrote “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”

We are already in the minefield that is the ongoing assault on women’s reproductive health. This ruling comes on the heels of the court’s decision last week to strike down a Massachusetts law requiring anti-choice activists to remain a certain distance from people entering clinics. Now, in certain places, it will be harder to prevent pregnancy, and should you elect to have an abortion in Massachusetts, obnoxious protestors have the right to get in your face and make an incredibly difficult life decision all that much harder.

Chipping away at women’s reproductive health rights and safety is evidently the court’s latest “hobby lobby.”

In conversations and on social media, I’ve been seeing lots of outrage but relatively little commitment to boycotting Hobby Lobby, even though campaigns to do so have already begun.

Here’s the deal: one of the few ways we can influence corporations––perhaps the only way given that the law is not on our side––is to make them understand that we will hurt their bottom line if they try to impose their religious views on others.

That’s why I’ve decided to boycott Hobby Lobby. I don’t care if my daughter is begging and pleading and they’ve got the last freaking piece of yarn on earth. I’d rather she (and all women) have the right to control her health, and I’m not actually confident that she will have that right in the coming years.

If you support the rights of people to be free of their corporate employers’ religious views, will you do more than simply denounce this decision?

 

 

 

You’re Asking the Wrong Question

Youth. Aging. Death. Renewal. A lovely perspective by Jan Wilberg over at Red’s Wrap.

Red's Wrap

Jan - Purple 2

I’m sorry. Let me say this in the kindest possible way. Asking me what I will do to stay ‘young at heart’ as I get older is ageist.

Why would anyone assume that it is better to be young at heart than old at heart unless being old at heart implied a lot of unpleasant, undesirable things. Of course, that wasn’t the intention. Assuming that young is better is a deep cultural belief, one that is, unfortunately, absorbed by many people as they age, making them mourn their younger selves rather than enjoying the age they are.

I was already young at heart when I was young. Then I was middle-aged at heart and now, I think, I’m probably old at heart. And I’m here to tell you, all of you 40-somethings filled with dread about the future, it’s more interesting over here on the other side than you might…

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Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: Impediment Removed

Have you ever read something for years and felt like you never quite got it and then one day it finally clicked? This has happened to me with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. It’s the one that insists on love as constant and (by implication) true lovers as faithful until the “edge of doom”:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments; love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The meaning is clear enough, but I’ve always felt a little cool toward this poem, admiring its virtuosity but not really loving it for some reason. The language has always seemed a bit oddly formal compared to many of the other sonnets, with their precise but colloquial language. Like those brilliant lines in Sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun): “I grant I never saw a goddess go – / My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.”

The other thing is that this sonnet doesn’t seem to be addressing anyone in particular, unlike so many others in its group, the first 126 sonnets dedicated to the young man. By comparison, this poem can read like a boring and not especially convincing PSA. Thank you mom for telling me about true love. Can I have the car keys now?

But 116 comes alive if we read it not as a declaration but as a rebuttal, as the lover talking directly back to the young man, despite the lack of obvious direct address. A few clues invite this reading: The sonnet comes toward the end of those addressed to the young man; many of these later poems, especially 87-90, but others too, chronicle the failure of a love relationship. The young man has evidently moved on to greener pastures.

The poem is also full of “not,” “no,” and “never” (lines 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 14), a hint that the lover is not just making some noble claim about true love; he is arguing against something and responding to someone.

What’s the situation and the argument he rejects? The language of 116 suggests it is something like this: In the process of dumping him, the young man claims, “Things have changed (altered)… I need space…new impediments have arisen.” All the dull standbys when somebody is lame and just wants out.

The lover savagely calls him on it. Well, you can run that crap if you want, but “let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” You can say things have changed, but I say that true love is an “ever-fixed mark.” Love is not this; it is that; x, y, and z don’t matter; what matters is faith and constancy.

The lover also implies that the real issue is the young man’s superficial attachment to beauty, and he attacks this by saying love is stronger than the passing of time and the rosy lips and cheeks that time will eventually ravage.

The idea of a rebuttal makes this poem comprehensible, and makes perfect sense coming from Shakespeare the playwright. And I love this reading, which I learned from Stephen Burt’s and David Mikics’s The Art of the Sonnet and Helen Vendler’s classic, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, because it reminds us not only of what good poetry is but what it does.

The best lyric engages some real person, thing, or situation. It can be a lover, or death, or birth, or something far more ordinary but still profound in its way, like the shock of fresh cream, an afternoon flower, the weird shadow behind the door, the annoying socks you keep having to pick up.

For me, imagining a context for 116 doesn’t just bring the poem to life; it makes it burst into life, reminding us that poetry–all art–is part of life, not some frivolous decoration of it.

Both writing and reading a good poem means there is something at stake. Find it and prosper.

 

 

 

Death and Stories

If Ben Franklin is right that death and taxes are all that’s certain, our time in this world is pretty much defined by uncertainty. And if you’re seriously ill, like Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who wrote a lovely piece for Sunday’s NY Times about his fight against cancer, the uncertainty of knowing how much time you’ve got left takes on an entirely new level of intensity.

Skilled at offering hope to terminally ill people while being careful not to predict how long they might live, Kalanithi suddenly found himself in the same maddening position as his patients. At first, he persisted in trying to get his oncologist to tell him how much time he might have – of course to no avail.

But eventually he realized something important:

I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one.

He began to understand that when patients become obsessed with how much time they have left, they are not really asking about how much time they have left:

What patients seek is not scientific knowledge doctors hide, but existential authenticity each must find on her own. Getting too deep into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.

Science has helped to keep Kalanithi alive for a bit longer, but it had no power to help him through what was arguably his real crisis: a heightened and crippling uncertainty. For that, he needed Samuel Beckett:

I remember the moment when my overwhelming uneasiness yielded. Seven words from Samuel Beckett, a writer I’ve not even read that well, learned long ago as an undergraduate, began to repeat in my head, and the seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted.

What are the seven words? Read the full piece here to find out.

And then go read Samuel Beckett. Or whatever writer helps you grapple with the uncertainty that – unlike death and taxes – actually defines our lives.