Friday, May 21, 2010

Ayelet Waldman

It's hard for me to understand why so many women, who have achieved so many great things, refuse to call themselves feminists. From Lady Gaga, to Martha Stewart, to Oprah, some of the most influential, accomplished women of our time are completely opposed to this label. Their successes transcend typical "boys club" rules, yet they still want the world to know they are not a part of the feminist movement. Lady Gaga is a particularly difficult person for me to understand because she is so outspoken in so many right ways, yet she stereotypically identifies feminism negatively. I wish she could see she could help redefine the term as a positive instead of playing into the patriarchal notion that all feminists are “male hating bitches”.

I love boys. (edit: this used to read "Well, as long as they are feminists ;)" which isn't true, and I'll post about that later)

To me, as a woman, calling yourself a feminist should be redundant. Unfortunately, with women like Ann Coulter existing in the world, not all ladies want the same things. In fact, I've probably used my "blogistic" license with some of the women I've profiled. They may not want to be included in a feminist blog. Ayelet would definitely not fall into that category.

Waldman was a federal public defense attorney and is now a novelist who also publishes personal essays. In her first series, "The Mommy Track Mysteries", she mixes her legal expertise with her mothering experience. It was a year ago that I heard a story about her on NPR after the release of her memoir "Bad Mother". She actually just wrote a recent "3 books" article about Mother's Day reads. For all intents and purposes, Ayelet is the mother over at National Public Radio.  

Her interview came on while I was showering and I was so captivated that I stayed in the shower listening to her for the entire 40 minutes. Everything she was saying was so right on and it was completely refreshing to hear a woman speak so honestly about their feelings of frustration and irritation to criticism. 

Several years ago, Waldman was asked to do an essay for a compilation about motherhood and she was assigned to write about sexuality. She is incredibly open about her bi-polar disorder and freely admits that she can share too much information sometimes, but she was excited to write about this topic because it’s not something that is often discussed in the context of mothering. She ended up creating a huge controversy because her words were misconstrued and she was accused of loving her husband more than her children. Essentially, she was labeled a "bad" mother.

Of course this isn't true. However, she is in love with her husband, fellow . They have a wonderful relationship, and I think this is the key to understanding why people were so angry with her. The exact point of contention in the essay was the bit where she was talking about the idea of losing her husband and how unimaginable that would be because he is her only love/soul mate/life partner, and while losing one of her kids would, of course, be terrible, it’s harder for her to think about life without him. 

Listening to her talk about her children you know that she loves them very much. But who doesn't love their children? It's much more difficult to sustain a loving relationship with your spouse. I think that is mostly what people had a hard time relating to. It’s hard for women to hold onto personal things post-child birth. I would argue passion is one of the most challenging of these to keep.

Ayelet was attacking a very real problem with the state of motherhood in our society. Once you are a mother you are now first and foremost a mother. Sexuality is definitely something that is "supposed" to be canceled out of the equation. You need to be seen a certain way to be considered a good mother. You also need to put your children first in everything. While this is not necessarily wrong in theory, in practice it has been manipulated into something quite harmful. Waldman and Chabon are known for their love almost as much as they are known for their writing. Ayelet didn't replace her passion for her husband with her children after they were born, which is what many women seem to do. After she verbalized his importance to her, she was publicly assaulted.

Ayelet and her family.

What I like the most about Ayelet's perspective on motherhood is that it's her perspective. She is parenting her children in the way she and her partner see best. She also allows herself to experience her emotions in the way that is true to her actual experience. She speaks of her decision to have an abortion when she was pregnant with one of her and Michael's children. The fetus had a defect that could have turned out to be quite harmful to the child's development if she carried him to term. The choice to abort the pregnancy was detrimental to her emotional state and she needed to take time to heal. She does not qualify this as the only way to deal with an abortion or to make her choice to grieve standard for all women. In fact, she says that she had an abortion before she was with Chabon, and the experience was completely different. But after the second one, she was already a mother, the baby was already a part of the family, and she really felt a deep sense of loss. She seems to live as closely as possible to her true feelings and that is a quality that has become so rare. Such an admirable trait.

As women, from whatever mindset you are coming from, we are told that there is one way of doing things. Specifically, one way to be a mother. One proper way to parent. If you are going to do a good job raising your kids, it should look like everyone else, regardless of traditional or conservative sympathies. I’m not talking about to work or not to work. That dilemma has become dull and is moot when considering the realities of motherhood. What I am questioning is this idea that you have to put your children first in all circumstances. That these people, who need everything from you, inherently deserve everything from you. Ayelet says it best when she talks about her kids taking even the foam from her latte.

I grew up with a highly devoted mother. She didn’t have personal space. What little she did have was invaded by me daily. Looking back, I really think I acted that way because she was my mom. I had this sense of entitlement over her time, things, and being. Like I owned her somehow. She of course hated when I would take her make-up, clothes, or jewelry, but she was so giving that even if she got mad, I just felt like she was overreacting. Thinking about her driving us around to soccer, gymnastics, musicals; all of the activities that my sisters and I were involved with, makes me exhausted. And I know she didn’t like it. But she loved us and she wanted us to have opportunities. On a very real level, that’s the way it works. That is what being a “good” mom is all about. You must fully commit. Otherwise you are failing somehow. The system seems to be set up for failure. So why keep the system?

Ayelet’s husband, Michael, questions this as well. He discusses the roles of fathers and how they differ from those of mothers. Firstly, the smallest amount of effort from the father guarantees a certain amount of praise and admiration. You simply have to be around to be considered an active participant in your child’s life. This isn't something fathers have come up with.  It's what we as a society have decided.  Secondly, even when you are present, you don’t have to give as much as the mother does. A good example would be from my own life experience. I want to say and make it well known that my dad is amazing and I love him so much. Seriously, one of the best dad’s ever. That being said, I rarely got into his stuff without asking. And he has about 5 times more personal space in our house than my mom. Even though he fully supported all of our activities and came to all of our games and recitals, it was my mom that chauffeured us around daily. And I certainly didn’t have the same feelings of ownership over my dad like I did for my mom. He wasn’t a belonging, he was dad, and when dad needed space, dad got it. This certainly isn’t a unique experience.

What I have the most issue with, is the idea that giving up one’s sense of self to raise a family is noble. To enter into the motherhood club seems to be a choice that is full of constant critique and demands from multiple angles. Feminists are just as guilty of negatively critiquing mothers as those who judge them from an anti-choice, pro-Quiver full mindset. Because she speaks so openly and invites the criticism, Waldman has become a radical activist against “one size fits all motherhood”. She is clearly a good mom. But she is good to herself too. Her kids will be fine without overtaking 100% of her being. I don’t think my mom would say that we did that to her, but I bet she would agree we overtook a lot more of her than my dad.

Since I have the luxury of not yet having children, I can actually spend time thinking about whether or not I want them at all. This pondering in and of itself is met with a lot of criticism. I am constantly told that my biological clock will kick in, or that I’m too young, etc. etc. etc. But this seems like the perfect time for me to consider what I want. I still have a lot of “when I grow up” dreams and if parenting means implanting those dreams into other people that come out of me, it may not be the route to take. Comparing family life to single or couple life is fascinating. The outcomes can be so different but the positives and negatives to both seem to cancel each other out. Sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I mean look at Elena Kagan and the controversy surrounding her life choices. Here she is on the verge of becoming a Supreme Court Justice and “we” just can’t figure out why she hasn’t given birth or gotten married!

Obviously, I’m unable to predict what the future holds but if I express anything through this post, it’s that simple considerations can impact us just as much as the actual decisions we make. If I do have kids someday, I might consider becoming a modern day version of David Sedaris’ mother. She was pretty bad ass and produced some ridiculously awesome children. ;) Personally, my friend's Jenny and Leigh Ann have been great examples of rejecting the trend of letting motherhood just happen to us.  They are living out their lives with their children in mind but with great self purpose as well.  I will be proactive about maintaining my sense of self no matter what my life choices end up being, with or without children.  I want to live my life based on what it is that I am thinking and feeling and choosing.  Isn't that what we all want and deserve?  Ayelet is a great role model for maintaining our own self worth.  And she is doing great things for women and society as a whole while being an out and proud feminist!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dr. Jill Tarter

Last night, deciding to engage in some self destructive behavior while sitting at home alone, I chose to watch a program about USO's. (USO's?=UFO's that come out of the ocean) I had never heard of unidentified submerged objects before, which is shocking seeing as I literally have watched/read dozens of shows and articles about extraterrestrials. Aliens are one of my most irrational fears. When I am really afraid of something, I need to know as much about it as possible. Like when I looked up before I went to Alaska. Good thing I did, otherwise I wouldn't have been sufficiently terrified about possible frog/toad sightings while I was hiking and enjoying my trip. (I have a crippling, tragic fear of amphibians that hop.)

It would probably be fair to say that on some fucked up level of my internal being, I take comfort in fear. And it would also be fair to say that I use irrational terror to keep me from fearing actual dangers. I've never worried about walking alone in the city at night, but I will scan an area of grass for about 20 minutes before choosing to sit in it (toad scanning). Same goes for aliens. I will stare at a "UFO" FOREVER until I know for sure it’s an airplane but I'll dart out in front of oncoming traffic without thinking twice in order to get into some creepy cab.

I have tried to figure out why I'm afraid of such non-scary things. I mean I guess frogs are a harder fear for others to relate to.   I think my main issue with them is the hopping.
It grosses me out. And their faces. ISH. I'm getting freaked out just thinking about it. Aliens, though, probably just fall into the category of fearing the unknown. I mean I couldn't sleep for months after watching "ET", and in college, "Signs", the terrible movie that it was sent me into frozen fear in my lofted bed unable to sleep until my roommate Kersta came home to rescue me. An incident she rarely lets me forget. All of this encouraging my awe when I came across Jill Tarter. I was instantly impressed by her bravery and kick-ass-ness.

Tarter, the director of the SETI Institute, is a top astronomer who is leading the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Now, yes. The case can be made against this study by easily saying that it is unnecessary. However, people thought Columbus would fall off the edge of the planet when he left to discover the new world. She is a modern day explorer. And incredibly intelligent. It takes a lot of courage to commit yourself to a lifetime of study in what some consider to be the domain of the Sci-Fi channel. She is a pioneer not only for her gender, but for the entire human race.
SETI Satelites that scan the universe for radio signals.

She has won numerous awards and honors for her scientific research. While her main focus is on the discovery alien technologies, as the director of SETI, she has organized a lot of outreach promoting the study of science and math in American classrooms. 

When I was a kid, I was super, super into outer space. I even wanted to be the first woman on the moon when I was in 6th grade. Unfortunately, I never really took to the study of math and science. I still blame this on my third grade teacher, Ms. G, for keeping me after school every day to do multiplication tests and forever shaming me and my mathematical abilities. Once I realized that math saved the Apollo 13 mission, I knew my moon dream days were numbered.

One of the top reasons girls in elementary and middle school show little interest in math and science is due to lack of confidence in these fields of study. Encouragement and outside influences are mostly geared towards boys. If you think about famous female astronauts the first images that come to mind are the Challenger explosion or, more recently, adult diapers and crazy jealousy. Jill is so significant in changing the perception of women in science not only because she works in aerospace, but because she is the leading researcher in a field that literally is going where no one has gone before. Someday, if she succeeds in discovering alien life, we could rename our capital the District of Tarter. I mean you never know. Her accomplishments command respect regardless of gender.

On a personal level, watching her interview on CBS Sunday Morning, calmed a lot of my fears about aliens. Only for the duration of her spot, but still, she’s a better source of information than, let's say, Steven Hawking, who recently fueled my alien phobia. She makes me think that it would be cool to be alive when we figure out if there is other life out there in the universe. I'm sure I would still be terrified, maybe rationally so by that point. But, none the less proud that a woman will be writing history in a monumental way.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sophie Scholl

While living in Denver, I would make regular visits to the documentary/independent film section of Blockbuster.  One of the best was Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Even though I had a lot of friends while living in Colorado, it was a period of much needed solitude.  I would fill my time reading books and watching movies in my little studio.  I like to say I became a real person while living there.  It was my own personal renaissance.  My world view burst open and I began to formulate my own ideas about our society.  I may have financially incarcerated myself for life in a short 8 month period, but I would say the education and reformation remaining with me today are invaluable.  I don't regret a moment of it.

In May of 2005, I went on a month long trip to Armenia.  I traveled with a group from my university and we worked in an orphanage for mentally and physically disabled children.  Most of our time was spent touring the country.  Armenians don't have a lot of non-Armenian tourists and they wanted us to take full advantage of their beautiful country and to learn about their history.  We visited some of the oldest churches in the world,  saw some of the most beautiful mountains and lakes I've ever witnessed and got to know a lot of the people. 

Genocide Memorial in Armenia
One of the sites we visited was Tsitsernakaberd, the memorial and museum commemorating the Armenian Genocide. This genocide occurred during the final years of World War I and was orchestrated by the Turkish government.  It is widely accepted as the first genocide of the 20th century.  Millions of Armenians were killed and displaced by their government.

German soldiers, who were fighting in WWI, aided the Turkish soldiers in creating the methods for the massacres.  Many of these soldiers went on to become German officers during WWII and were consulted in the establishment of the European death camps.  Hitler used the Armenian Genocide to encourage support for his plans of Jewish extermination and is quoted as saying "Who, after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

This was a chilling realization.  Before signing up for the trip I had never heard of Armenia.  I didn't know where it was and I certainly had no knowledge of the genocide.  In high school, I visited Germany and the concentration camp in Dachau.  While touring this country, it was impossibleto deny the similarities between the genocides.  An entire nation was used as a trial run less than 20 years prior to the greatest systematic mass murder of the modern era and few are aware of it.  In fact, there is so much controversy regarding the specific events because Turkey still refuses to take ownership or responsibility.  There have been no reparations made to the Armenian people and, as a result, there have been negative affects to their quality of life. The reverberations from the crimes are still being felt today.

All of this new knowledge got me on a path to question how genocides occur and how they can be prevented.  I always had this idea in my mind about how the Holocaust happened.  I felt like it was this secret plan the government executed without the consent of ordinary citizens.  After visiting Germany and experiencing first hand the location of the Dachau camp, I realized many people were involved in the atrocities.  The whole thing had taken place in plain, everyday life.  If you factor in the ignored history of the Armenians, there was plenty of warning for the entire world; no one paid attention.

Sophie was a college student in Germany in the early '40's.  She became involved with The White Rose, a non-violent resistance movement against the Nazi's.  The group consisted of Sophie, her brother Hans, and several other members from their campus.  Initially, Hans tried to keep Sophie out of the group to protect her, but as soon as she became aware they were producing and writing resistance leaflets instructing other Germans to passively resist the Nazi agenda, she wanted to be included.  The group was arrested upon the distribution of the 6th leaflet.

Hans, Sophie, and Christoph
What makes her so amazing is her resolve even under the most dire of circumstances.  After their arrest, she was candid about what she had taken part in and never faltered in her convictions.  In the computer age where we are constantly inundated with opinions and news articles, it's hard to imagine 6 leaflets causing such a stir, but under Hitler's Germany, nothing defamatory was allowed.  As a result of her social disobedience, Sophie was condemned to death.  Along with Hans and Christoph Probst, Sophie was beheaded four days after being arrested.  Her last words really speak to the power of her character and have greatly affected my life:

"How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?"

Scholl Family
Sophie was 21 years old and had her entire life ahead of her.  She was a Kindergarten teacher and loved the arts and philosophy.  It was her core, steadfast belief in the value of all human life that ultimately led to the sacrifice of her own. She had a lot to live for.  She could have easily turned her back on her Jewish neighbors and lived in fear. This is what the majority of German citizens did which is how Hitler was able to carry out his final solution. (Ordinary people became Nazi's; not super crazy anomalies.) Instead, Sophie took action against what she believed was wrong.

After I returned from Armenia, I had a new found desire to understand how it is a culture can turn so violently on a particular group of the community.  How does this behavior start and how can it be prevented?  As a politics and government major I was able to write my senior thesis on this topic.  Now, to be honest about my academic history, it needs to be said I was not a stellar student in college.  It took me a long time to "care" about studying.  So my senior paper was atrocious, poorly executed and presented.  However, I did do a fair amount of research on modern day danger zones where risk of genocide or mass murder could occur.  One such area was the US/Mexico border.

If you take apart, on an extremely basic level, how the situation in Europe escalated from a fanatic's political agenda to Auschwitz, you can see how it is possible to anticipate the progression of mass murder.  Jews were required to carry their documents, then wear the Star of David, followed by the forced move to the ghetto, then the concentration camp, and finally the gas chambers.  It was a system and it was legal.  Propaganda was distributed to "educate" German citizens on the financial ruin the Jewish people had caused after World War I.  New leaders were elected, laws were passed, and a new German history was pieced together.

You can wrap up the situation in Arizona with the prettiest capitalist, patriotic bow you can find to justify the law that was passed; but the bottom line is racial profiling has become legal in one of our states and has a potential of spreading to many other places.  Do I recognize certain potential issues with allowing people into this country "illegally"?  Sure.  Do I recognize certain potential issues with allowing law enforcement to stop people at random to prove their right to be here? YES.  Forcing people to carry around documents is just absurd.  When are police states the solution?  The fence the federal and state governments spent millions on and the emergence of a civilian led Minute Men militia are inappropriate responses to the border "threat".  Several weeks prior to this law, a prominent white rancher was killed potentially because of drug violence and/or by an undocumented immigrant.  There is no specific suspect, yet anti-immigration politicians have jumped on the chance to come down the hardest on ALL immigrants.  Typical guilty before proven innocent tactics to assert their political dominance.    

What makes a person look suspicious enough to warrant the questioning of their citizenship?  I feel so completely blindsided by the fact these conservative groups are claiming patriotism and that they are the true defenders of our nation when so many of their actions and words would have the "founding fathers" vomiting at the very notion of their ideology.  Legality does not necessarily equal morality.  My good friend Jenny made an excellent point in response to a right winger's defense of immigrant persecution by saying slavery and the restriction of women's voting rights were once legal as well.  A more current example would be gay marriage as an illegal institution.  Legality has gotten in the way of many individuals rights and Arizona's new law is no exception.

When I think of what it would take for a person to risk their life and voyage through a desert, leaving behind everything they know and love, with absolutely no promise of making it across the border, the last thing coming to mind is a lazy invader ready to take a free ride on our country's public services.  What DOES come to mind are the millions of European immigrants who came over on ships escaping their own persecution to which we can credit our own right to call ourselves Americans.  We've reached a new low when we as the privileged are advocating for the right to no longer appreciate the relative peace and security we are afforded on a daily basis without grasping on to it like a petulant child unable to share a toy.  

Sophie can be an inspiration during this time because of her ability to see right from wrong.  She saw the destruction of civility in her country and she spoke out about it.  There is no reason for us not to respond the same way to this situation.  You can believe it to be an over-reaction to fear genocide, however, prevention cannot occur without consideration.

**Write Senator McCain and tell him how appalled you are at the new law.  Send emails to your own senators to let them know you will not tolerate such legislation in your own state.  Use your system and freedom to your advantage.  When we begin to allow our foundations to be constructed on sand, it can only be expected that their days are numbered.  Currency, borders, race, class, and gender are non-permanent, sociopolitical manipulations used against the masses to ensure the power remains with the ruling minority. Look beyond this.  Reject what you are told is true and become active citizens by forming your own beliefs.  (When I was a kid my dad used to make me say "Antiestablishmentarianism" because he thought it was funny to hear me say it, so I'm blaming him for my belief in it :) I probably still sound ridiculous when I say it.)

If there is any point to the execution of Sophie and the millions of lives lost to genocide it is the belief that others can be awakened and stirred to action.  Rise against fear and see the value in all people, not to justify their deaths but to honor those whose freedoms and lives were unjustly taken.  

Seriously, email McCain.  Even though this is a state law it affects our entire nation.  Follow the link to contact him.
You can do a google search to find out who your Senators and Congressmen are as well to express your frustrations and concerns.  It can be discouraging because you never know how they will respond, but it's worth trying.  

For more on Sophie, rent the movie!  I'm sure there are some great books about her too and The White Rose.  The 6th leaflet, which was smuggled out of Germany and used by Allied forces in propaganda drops during the war, is now retitled "The Manifesto of the Students of Munich".  

If you are interested in learning more about the prevention of genocide I would suggest reading "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland" by Christopher R. Browning and "Blood for Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur" by Ben Kiernan.  Both are extremely intense so I recommend small doses but they are incredibly helpful in understanding the background and history of genocide.  

If you are planning on taking a vacation go to Armenia!  Seriously.  It's so beautiful and I hope to go back someday.  

**This was first posted more than a year ago. Unfortunately, anti-immigration has spread to many other states. Please educate yourself on the current status of these laws in your own community and make effort to let your politicians know that you stand against discrimination.