29 August 2008

The Persistence of Hope

It’s awfully easy to be cynical about the American political system. Sometimes it feels like a struggling marriage: objectively, you can still remember what you saw in it, back when you were young and the Bill of Rights was more than a string of broken promises, when you and Congress strolled hand in hand over the moonlit grass on the Washington Mall, when you split a bottle of wine with the Supreme Court and you stayed up until dawn listening to Miles Davis and sharing stories about checks and balances and unbiased interpretations of the law. Now, though, you hardly have time to put your feet up after work before you’re dragged into the same old argument you’ve been having for years now, bringing up old wounds and fighting again about hanging chads and disenfranchised voters and campaign mud-slinging and wasted Congressional potential and stolen electoral votes…. Every now and again, you catch a glimpse of the political system across a room at a party, or you find yourself defending it to a friend, and you get a rush of affection for it after all these years, for what you’ve had together, and for what it could be still….

But with so many disappointments behind you, it’s so hard not to lose faith.

Lately, I’ve found myself with idle thoughts about these potentially historic times, and wondering if I shouldn’t be doing a better job of documenting them for any future children who might need to interview me for their fifth grade family oral history projects. “Grandma, what were you doing in 2008?” they’ll ask, and I’ll search through the cobwebby corners of memory and come up with, “Well, I was… hmm. If I recall correctly, I was… well, I do seem to remember spending a lot of time at Target….” Earlier this summer, I was at the Old Town Art Fair watching Peter Mulvey, and to introduce a song about Dwight Eisenhower, he said, “Back in the old days, we used to have presidents who wrote – and read – books!” The audience laughed, and someone yelled, “We will again soon!” and a couple other voices echoed him, and I thought I should write this down. These are the little moments I’ll want to remember. And then the tiny, cynical voice in my head said, Unless it doesn’t matter. Unless nothing changes.

And this is how we squash hope.

On the night of the 2000 presidential election, I was supposed to be working on a paper for some class, but instead I spent half the night down the hall in a friend’s dorm room, watching the results roll in state by state. Blue… blue…blue…blue… we were pleased, but not particularly surprised… until midnight, when the states all started switching colors, and the country turned red… red… red… red. Reeling, my best friend and I staggered back to my room to mull over this strange shift when we looked out the window and saw flames, hot orange fingers making dancing black shadows against the building next door. For a moment it seemed the world was on fire, and I thought, so this is how it will be from now on. We rushed down to call 911 and help if we could, and found that someone had torched the wooden dumpster behind Quad. The night was full of such violent, ineffective protests: shattered glass and arson and vandalism, all of it hateful. None of it helpful. Still, I can’t think of that night without seeing orange flames, the world ignited.

Hope, squashed.

Sometimes, when I talk politics with my parents, they start to sound hopeful and then back down with, “That is, unless he gets assassinated first.” My god, what a terrible thing to say! And yet, how can you blame them: they lost John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy (and Wellstone, and….). There was the Democratic National Convention of 68, the Chicago Seven, and Kent State, and how could your heart not be a little shattered, after living through all that? Still, is this what the glorious baby boomer generation has learned about hope? Foster it, feed it, hand it over shyly, and then watch it get murdered in front of you?

We are the children of the Vietnam generation, and this, I think, has shaped us more than anything else. We’re not really Gen-Xers and we’re not really Millennials. We are the heirs of the late sixties and early seventies, the children of the flower children, raised by parents who protested the Vietnam war or who enlisted or both, parents who heard the call of their generation and changed their majors to sociology and education, who became social workers and union organizers and teachers to make positive change in the world, to make the world a better place for their children. For us.

As a teenager, I used to wish I had a cause to fight for like my parents had, studied Vietnam in my painfully dull Contemporary American History and yawned my way through videos depicting the events of my parents’ young lives. The events of their youth that informed their politics and shaped their personalities and shook their world were translated into multiple choice tests for my classmates and me, a series of dates and names to memorize the night before the test and forget immediately afterward. And yet, as a sleepy teenager in southern Wisconsin, I was impressed by the video footage of monks setting themselves on fire in protest, of marches and sit-ins and all that conviction. I wrote in my journal then, age sixteen or seventeen, that I wished we had something to protest, like my parents did.

In retrospect, though, I don’t think it was the fight I wanted but rather the conviction, the sense of community and purpose, the honest belief that one person could make a difference in the world. That if you worked together, you could literally change the world.

Of course, we got a taste of that after September 11, when we were all united in grief. But of course, instead of taking that newfound sense of communal understanding and sisterhood and directing it toward making things better, we allowed it to be squandered and we allowed ourselves to be divided. In 2003, we marched to protest the war in Iraq, a war not only unjust and unwarranted, but illegal. “The French political scientist Dominique ReyniĆ© has estimated that, between 3 January and 12 April 2003, some 36 million people took part in nearly 3,000 protests around the world against the Iraq war.” We marched – millions of us, across the country and across the world – we marched together, with a sense of shared purpose, with a common goal, working together to make things better, marching together to change the world.

And nothing happened.

Under the government’s thumb, the media gave little coverage to the protests. The Pentagon literally bribed news analysts to speak favorably of the war. Millions of voices, working together, went unheard. And this is how hope is squashed.

How can you not be cynical? How can you not give up? We are a cynical generation, a generation of lethargic hipsters who hold ourselves at an ironic distance from everything. We have to preface everything we say with qualifiers about how we don’t actually care, we don’t actually believe, we won’t actually let ourselves fall headfirst into anything like hope.


Last night I went downstairs to watch Obama’s speech with my neighbors. Five of us sat around watching the speech, occasionally cracking jokes but listening goddammit, sitting together for an hour to see history unfold before us. Making memories to share with our grandchildren. Because we can do this. We can make this happen. We can be the change we wish to see in the world.

Folks, we've been waiting our whole lives for causes as worthy as those our parents had, and now we're in the SAME place our parents were in the late 60s and early 70s. Vietnam, Kent State, changing norms and expectations of gender and relationship roles, barriers in race and class and sex breaking down.... and here we are again, if we embrace it. Our parents' generation talks about how Kennedy got them excited and inspired about politics; maybe Obama will serve a similar function for the facebook generation.

And if Obama’s not enough, and you can't inspire yourself, go talk to the people who came before us, our parents who changed themselves in order to make a change in the world. They worked to make the world a better place for their children -- US -- and their children's children -- and now it's our turn to pick up where they left off.

Keep hoping. Keep working. Keep the faith. We can make the world a better place. We can be the change we wish to see in the world. Yes, we can.

25 August 2008

Ten YEARS, Man!

It was an historical weekend on several fronts. First, Friday the 22nd was the ten year anniversary of meeting my college roommate, partner-in-crime, fellow Cool Math teacher, and all around BFF Alison C. Brown, aka AliBrown, Ali N. Brown, "Sally," Alicakes, and Monsterface.

Freshman Year

The summer before college, everyone I knew regaled me with their stories of crazy roommates. The roommate who didn't talk but compulsively sniffed things, including my friend's clothing and shower poof. The roommate who stole my friend's address book and attempted to steal all his friends. The roommate who -- when my friend woke up with a start in the middle of the night -- just happened to be lying ON TOP OF HIM. Whoops! Needless to say, I was completely terrified of the possibility that my future roommate would be a complete and utter psychopath.

Instead, I got Ali.

Ten Years Later

Though some might argue that Ali is, indeed, a monster (Cam, for one, can't get through a single conversation with me without making fun of Ali, even if she's not there to hear it), she's certainly a loveable one. Ten years ago, there was a moment where we stared at each other in our room in Langan, worried about our mother's descriptions of us (they got along fabulously, and chatted on about their darling daughters in language that made us both sound incredibly uptight and unfun), by the end of that very first day, Ali and I were BFFs for life.

Monster Attack

My roommate is fabulous. Her name is Ali, she’s from NY, and we have so much in common. We listen to the same music, we are both directionally impaired (can’t tell our right from our left), both have friends named Jesse with whom we were in love in [HS] Freshman Bio... we even have the same toothbrush! Last night we were sitting out on Mac Field until 3 am, just talking.... (23 August 1998)

In retrospect, it seems rather amazing that such a strong friendship could be built on such a simple foundation. Same music! Both have to look at our hands to know which way is left! Crushes on boys named Jesse! Same toothbrush!! WE'RE OBVIOUSLY DESTINED TO BE BFFS!!!

Funny that it turned out to be true. It's been ten years and I can wholeheartedly say that I would not be the person I am today without Miss Ali N. Brown, and I love her for it. Happy Ten Year Friendship Anniversary, Ali!

The World According to Ali

Oddly enough, the weekend I celebrated Ten Years of BFFhood with my college roommate was also the weekend of my Ten Year High School Reunion. Particularly observant readers will notice that this was actually my second school reunion of the summer. I started the summer at my five-year-cluster college reunion (technically, six years after graduating) and ended the summer with my high school reunion. It was hard not to compare the two. For most people, the high school reunion is more meaningful, because most people went to college with thousands of other people, and it is their high school class of only a few hundred other people that feels like a family. But I graduated from college with about 300 people, only fifty more than my high school class. AND, unlike my high school class, I lived with my college class in a tiny square of rural Iowa where there was almost nothing to do that didn't involve a bunch of other college kids. We danced and drank and slept and studied and gossiped and grew together in four of the most intense years of my life. In comparison, high school was pretty tame.

On the other hand, I graduated from high school with people I'd known, essentially, since birth. We grew up in the kind of small town that leads you to go to prom with the same kids you sat next to in preschool. At our reunion, we weren't just reminiscing about our four years together and catching up on the six years since; we were telling stories going as far back as preschool, and catching up on a decade apart. It was intense.

Matching Tiger Suits, ca. 1986

I got a ride to the reunion with my other BFF, Cindy Owens, aka CJ, CindyJo, CJFO, and Seege. Cindy and I have been friends since we were four years old, when she and Jenny Buchner gave me the ugly Barbie in a brown dress and piled all their Barbies into a Barbie camper and drove away without my bad Barbie, who hopped after them on her chewed-on plastic feet. "Hey guys... wait for me...." As a little girl, I was known as "Cindy's Shadow." My small family was folded into her large one decades ago, and her son calls my mother his aunt and treats my childhood home as his own (much as his mother did in high school -- I remember being startled sophomore year when Cindy grabbed me in the hallway between classes to let me know she'd gone over to my house at lunch to "borrow" some aluminum foil for a class project).

Ben Franklin Bitches, ca. 1996

But of course I see Cindy all the time. She's one of the few people I've been consistently in touch with since graduation. It's not that I have anything against the people I went to high school with -- if anything, I've been impressed by how interesting and rich and diverse their lives are. In high school, I saw our small town as a cultural sinkhole from which few of us would escape. Now, I admire equally the people who have stayed close to home to share their lives with their extended families and the people who have left the state, the region, and even the country. Everyone has a story to tell.

Some of the people I talked to this weekend surprised me with how kind they've become since high school, or how insightful, or how funny. Natalie made me laugh out loud with her ranting about how few Cheesemakers have actually attacked anyone. Jess wowed me with her deep empathy and insights about life. Joe entertained me with gossip and questions like "Why didn't we call [Geri Sphatt] G-SPOT in high school? Answer me that!!"

Senior Year

Overall, I left feeling fond of my town and proud of my classmates who have grown into such caring, insightful adults. Of course, there were a couple of d-bags there and a few people whose high school personalities have calcified into utter obnoxiousness. [Not you, of course. If you're reading this, you're clearly one of the most enlightened and awesome people from our class.] I realized that in high school, I always gave people the benefit of the doubt, assumed that they'd grow into themselves, get over themselves, grow up. In high school, everyone's personality had a glow of potential to it, not only what they were, but what they could be. Now, most of them -- most of us -- have grown into that potential, have broadened our horizons and let the world expand our understandings of who we are to ourselves and to each other.

I expected it to be more Grosse Point Blank, but instead of getting to kill a ghoul with a pen and rolling him in a school spirit banner, I got to watch a third grade program from twenty years ago with a bunch of laughing grownups who still recognized the third graders inside the adults, and vice versa. I saw third grade Molly standing in a row of little girls, standing on tiptoe to see over the girl in front of her as they all sang "My Favorite Things," and I got to imitate her bobbing head while a table full of old friends laughed and looked for their third grade selves. And I have to say, it was pretty sweet.

13 August 2008


Sometimes I wonder what exactly my life is missing. It's nothing obvious, no clear gaping hole in the center of my life I have to step around during the day and fall into each night, nothing so apparent. Just that, from time to time, I have this ghost of a yearning, the feeling that my life should be slightly more, that I'm not adequately cashing in on all life has to offer.

Today it becomes clear: oh yes. Of course. What I've been missing is BABY MOOSE PLAYING IN MY BACKYARD.

08 August 2008

Walking in Chicago

Ever since I sold my truck in May, I've been walking to and from work nearly every day. I work about three miles from my house, and sometimes I walk the entire way home, though the last mile or so is rather ugly. I prefer to walk through the neighborhoods, off the main streets, but the Chicago River limits the ways to get home.

The Chicago River from Diversey

I can wander through the neighborhoods for a good while, but eventually I have to pick Damen, Diversey, or Western to get me across the river, and they're all ugly. Generally, I prefer to wind my way through the neighborhoods over to Western or Damen and then take the bus home from there. Either way, I've been averaging about three miles a day.

I love it.

I love walking to work in the morning. I like to get off the bus early and walk down Grace, with its big houses and leafy trees. I like the cool, early light and the morning friendliness of the firefighters hanging out at the station. Even if I'm feeling cranky and stiff, a leisurely mile's walk wakes me up as well as coffee, and I find that I arrive at work feeling rather fond of the world, unlike the days I take two buses and arrive glowering.

Tree in Roscoe Village

The walk home is even nicer. I have more time to stop and look closely, to explore new streets and look for secrets. All my life, I've looked for secrets on familiar journeys: the falling down barn on 151 whose slow disintegration marked my years between Grinnell and Madison, the beautiful bridge slowly eaten by creeping vines off of Hwy 6 on the way to Iowa City, the pond outside Oregon where I often see cranes, herons, and swans. This curve of road, along a woods and down into a meadowed plain. That stand of rock which looks different in every light. The moment when the sky opens up, the decent into river valley, the place where we always see hot air balloons. Before, my commuter secrets were wild places, the kind of secrets you can see from the road as you go speeding by.


Now, my secrets are smaller, slower. The house with the pretty shutters. The block where every building's street numbers are fixed in antique stained glass. The window where the cat watches the street below. The gated garden full of wildflowers. The wrought-iron fence covered in grapevines.

Sidewalk Art

One day I meet dogs named Walt and Harper. "After Harper Lee?" I ask, and the man nods unhappily. I don't bother to ask him if the lab is named after Whitman. Another day I find a necklace hanging on a low branch of a tree. There is art on the sidewalks, a woman carrying a bouquet of flowers, a gutted building with a dark brick cave where the stairs should be. A little girl in pigtails intently painting spindles on a porch railing, alongside her father, both cross-legged.


Walking through the neighborhoods makes me love this city. Last weekend, we camped in the woods of Northern Illinois and woke to a morning raucous with birdsong. We wandered through a giant meadow of prairie flowers and examined the blood drops in Queen Anne's Lace, the undersides of milkweed leaves, the textures of different grasses. We held our hands to the horizon to judge the minutes before sundown, watched the stars come out in spots between treetops, built a fire and cooked dinner on sticks and told stories in the flickering shadows of flames. On the trainride back into the city we were quiet, and when we reached the big intersection near our house it was uglier than usual. "Dirty urban wind," we told each other, our shorthand for the way nature eludes you in the city, the way you forget the earth is still under your feet though you have to imagine your way down through layers of brick and concrete to find it. Back from the woods, Chicago was stark and dirty and too bright, too harsh, too loud. In that moment, it was hard not to hate it.


Some people are enlivened by the city. The lights and noise, the culture and food and music and streets and art and people and pigeons and speed and life, some people it feeds. Me, it depletes. I need quiet nights, starry skies, opossums on back porches and flashes of fox in back yards. I am a country mouse at heart. But walking through the neighborhoods and quiet streets helps me to love this city too, and almost - almost - begin to call it home, and mean it.

07 August 2008

Obama's Stand on LGBT Families

While we live in a nation that is enriched by a vast array of diverse traditions, cultures and histories, it is our commonality that most defines us. The desire to build a life with a loved one, to provide for a family and to have children who will grow and thrive — these are desires that all people share, regardless of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

[...]But we also have to do more to support and strengthen LGBT families. Because equality in relationship, family, and adoption rights is not some abstract principle; it’s about whether millions of LGBT Americans can finally live lives marked by dignity and freedom. That’s why we have to repeal laws like the Defense of Marriage Act. That’s why we have to eliminate discrimination against LGBT families. And that’s why we have to extend equal treatment in our family and adoption laws.

I’ll be a president that stands up for American families – all of them.

Barack Obama

Read the whole letter here