Free Speech: For Whom is it Free?

WE THE PEOPLE of the United States…

Yesterday the so-called president of the United States had what should have been the pleasant task of honoring Navajo code talkers from World War II. As we all know by now, he did so at the White House, in front of a painting of Andrew Jackson, fetishized Native peoples, and then, for at least the twelfth time, referred to Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.”  Donald Trump’s and Elizabeth Warren’s workplace is the Unites States government, whose buildings include the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and media venues and publications.  This racist epithet, repeated now so many times, constitutes not only demonstrated racial harassment of Elizabeth Warren as employee in the national workplace, but also racial harassment of Native peoples in general.  This could be grounds for a Title VII lawsuit against the harasser-in-chief and should be added to the long list of discriminatory, harassing, and retaliatory actions taken by this individual.

Some of you out there might think, “Oh, come on.  This is no big deal.  These are just words.  Let’s move on.”  I would ask you, though, how often will we agree to move on?  The racist-in-chief already lowered the bar so far so as to not only allow, but actually encourage, the violence of Charlottesville, thus chilling and degenerating conversations about racial justice, extreme incarceration, and hate speech.  These highly public statements, made live, on the news, and impetuously, through Twitter, create a hostile work environment for the individuals targeted and for the groups the harasser-in-chief believes they represent.  I also wonder if those who do not belong to legally protected categories but who do experience harm from the hostile work environments that impinge on others’ freedoms have some sort of claim here to insist on improved environments for all.

In this piece from The New York Review of Books (9-28-17), National Legal Director of the ACLU David Cole asks these important questions: “Does the First Amendment need a rewrite in the era of Donald Trump? Should the rise of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups lead us to cut back the protection afforded to speech that expresses hatred and advocates violence, or otherwise undermines equality? If free speech exacerbates inequality, why doesn’t equality, also protected by the Constitution, take precedence?”  Cole examines the elasticity of the First Amendment, stating that fewer millennials have faith in free speech than did previous generations and that some European nations differ from the United States in the scope of prohibitions against racist speech.  While Cole acknowledges the importance of these points, as well as the significance of the 1993 collection of essays titled Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment, he still insists: “If free speech is critical to democracy and to holding our representatives accountable—and it is—we cannot allow our representatives to suppress views they think are wrong, false, or disruptive.”  In a speech delivered in Lexington, Virginia, Virginia ACLU Board member Wornie Reed cogently and ardently defended free speech along the same lines, as he does in this piece about the Virginia ACLU’s defense of Charlottesville white supremacist rally leader Jason Kessler.

Ted Gup writes in “Free Speech, but Not for All?” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4-27-17): “Barring speakers or preventing hate speech does not safeguard the oppressed. It empowers the oppressors, and it suggests that their words are to be feared for a compelling, persuasive power that, absent the muzzle, might infect others.”  As Gup defends free speech in his critique of Ulrich Baer’s argument, he makes reference to “Baer and his ilk.”  He cites “abolitionists, gay and lesbian people, civil-rights activists, feminist, and others on the cutting edge of change” as groups who have benefited from unfettered free speech, but then uses Arthur Miller as the principal example of someone who was barred from speaking at the University of North Carolina.  Arthur Miller did not suffer for lack of visibility and invitations to share his work publicly, but many others from the groups cited by Gup certainly have.

Cole, Reed, and Gup make excellent arguments in favor of maintaining free speech laws.  These arguments have sound basis in constitutional law and knowledge of traditional touchstones for democracy.  Nevertheless, I find the arguments also to be steeped in a nostalgia for the United States as the cradle of democracy from centuries past, when founding fathers owned human beings and limited the rights of enslaved individuals and women.  Democratic freedoms played favorites back then, and they still do now.  When I think about the $17 million of taxpayer money used by members of Congress to hush cases of harassment against them, I think again about who gets to speak, who is silenced, and who pays for it all.

My question, then, is this: At what point have we indulged free speech so thoroughly and allowed free speech to become so married to Second Amendment rights that free speech can be said to limit the freedoms of others? If African-Americans and other people of color felt unsafe just existing in the streets of Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, then they were less free to navigate the public sphere during those days.  If Nazis and presidents continue to be given maximum public forums to expose hatred, they change the environment and the level of risk for the groups they hate (people of color, migrant peoples, women, non-Christians, LGBTQIA+ individuals, etc.).  Why must someone’s right to use the N-word or the C-word, both of which can constitute physical threats, supersede others’ rights to move through public spaces, which include workplaces, restaurants and stores, schools, and government office buildings?  If the Sessions Justice Department advocates for greater free speech, especially on college and university campuses, can we interpret this as providing a more ample forum for hate speech?  If so, then hateful speech acts will require more corporeal forms of resistance, thus upping the ante on conflict and the real risks and dangers it represents. (*See Tiya Miles’ piece, “Fighting Racism Is Not Just a War of Words,” in the 10-21-17 The New York Times.  See also Adam Harris’ free speech-hateful speech piece in the 10-25-17 The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

In her book License to Harass, Laura Beth Nielsen states: “Rather than seriously engaging in an analysis of the costs and benefits to society of rules that might limit such behavior [hate speech], American courts have treated such conduct as ‘speech,’ which can be regulated only if the state offers a compelling justification.  This doctrinal treatment in effect grants a license to harass.  The judicial protection of offensive public speech works to normalize and justify such behavior” (3). Nielsen then (on page 3, and later in Chapter 7) makes the point that the most legally restricted form of public/street speech is that of begging, a restriction which demonstrates a significant class bias.  We might consider swinging the pendulum away from granting power to practitioners of hate speech and violent speech and towards those who have already been afforded certain protections under the law (Title VII, Title IX) precisely because of their historically limited free access to public spaces and media outlets.

The harasser-in-chief has created the biggest hostile work environment possible—the United States of America.  We do not have to allow this to continue.

Trump Must Go (and Take Thomas With Him)

(Meme from social media; Access Hollywood quote)

The assaulter-in-chief continues to be busy, as he ejects Haitians by the tens of thousands from the United States, proposes a tax plan that benefits only him and his cronies, launches more money-making products and schemes from his White House perch, and moves on North Korea to grab its metaphorical pussy and put us all in danger.  In the meantime, we citizens must plan for his impeachment, indictment, and/or imminent invisibility.

The post-Cosby, post-Weinstein, post-Louis C.K., post-Spacey, post-Franken, post-Rose, post-Moore era tells us that there is nothing “post” about any of this.  We are living with and among men who use their power and position to serially harass and assault women (and men and transgender individuals).  As I wrote in the 2016 Gender Shrapnel book (and often have to remind people who write to say, “But, Bill Clinton, but, Bill Clinton…”), I have never viewed sexual harassment and assault as the domain of only Republicans, and I do believe we have to understand politics and entertainment as real workplaces, subject to Title VII and Title IX.

If we have learned nothing else from the #MeToo era, it is that many men use their power and privilege to stalk, bait, hunt, harass, assault, and rape women.  The only saving grace of some Democrats is that they at least don’t also (or at least always) punish women through brutal legislation that denies us our humanity.  Both sides of the aisle swim in hypocrisy.  The Democrats run on being the party strong on women’s rights. See Susan Brison’s article on Al Franken to understand the depth of Franken’s hypocritical stance on women’s rights.  On the other side, the Republicans boast of being the “family values” party.  Ohio state lawmaker Wesley Goodman ran an anti-gay, pro-“family values” campaign, only to resign last week when it was discovered that he has had relationships with men, at least one alleged as non-consensual.  Roy Moore is the symbol of the entrenched Christian-values right that is completely bereft of values, except for crime, greed, and stupefying self-interest.  If these power-laden individuals spent more time thinking about others’ needs, they would be less criminal and more effective legislators and governors.  As it stands, they are assholes and, in some cases, felons.

Franken and Rose both formally stated that they don’t remember the encounters the same way the women did.  Exactly!  This is the problem.  They have approached, groped, and/or assaulted women to remind themselves of their own power.  These very actions remind the women, both in the moment and for years beyond, of their own lack of power in public and private spheres.  There is no way these accounts can or will ever line up—not until the harassing men learn to check their privilege, and likely not even then.  Louis C.K.’s non-apology statement re-enacted the allegations of his pulling out his penis in front of unwilling women and forcing some kind of interaction with it.  The more this individual used the word “dick,” in the very statement that was supposed to demonstrate recognition and contrition, the more he emphasized again that he gets to put his penis wherever he wants to, no matter the willingness or unwillingness of his audience.  These statements and non-apologies serve to attempt to discredit those who have registered the felonies and misdemeanors and to re-harass the already harassed.

Ronan Farrow’s “Harvey Weinstein’s Secret Settlements” (The New Yorker, 11-21-17) very capably lays out the power play inherent in non-disclosure agreements and the enormous disservice these documents do to our society. The documents silence those who have suffered sexual harassment and rape and ensure that serial felons can strike again.  Farrow makes explicit that Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, at the age of 22, was bullied into signing a non-disclosure agreement, but that she also insisted on trying other remedies.  In addition, Zelda Perkins appears to have attempted also to impose legal vigilance and restriction on Weinstein, but she was shut down at every turn.  Our legal system is poorly equipped to institute real remedies and operates only for the almighty dollar, thus reinforcing the sheer power and financial and social capital of these serial harassers.

Yes, it is appropriate to go back and understand our nation’s indulgence of Bill Clinton, who, at the very least, was not molesting girls.  Still, two other things are even more urgent: (1) for our nation to revisit the question of Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment and to end his long term as Supreme Court Justice; and (2) for our nation to gather information and testimony from the 16 women who went on the record against Donald Trump, the sitting President of the United States (it’s still hard for me to refer to him using this term), in order to accuse him of sexual harassment and assault.

Let’s put it bluntly: Anita Hill is a hero.  For over 26 years, Hill has shared her profound legal expertise on sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation through her writing, teaching, and talks.  All the while, Clarence Thomas has set silently on the most important bench in the land, benefiting from the all-white-male panel’s aggressive dismantling of Hill’s testimony.  Even Joe Biden’s “apology” removes blame from himself and emphasizes Hill’s victimhood, rather than her truth-telling and bravery.  Biden soft-pedals admission of participation in the attack in his use of the passive voice (e.g. “Anita Hill was victimized”).  Until I start hearing first-person singular apologies with real admissions of wrongdoing and a plan for rightdoing, I will reject this ridiculous genre of harassment apologies.  What will it take, all these years later, to reckon with 26 years of Thomas on the bench?

The current events surrounding sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and assault should make us regret the Clarence Thomas case and address the cases before us now.  We could look back on this era and proudly declare that we cleaned up our act.  The most significant case before us, of course, is that of Donald J. Trump.  *See Amanda Marcotte’s call to investigate Trump, published yesterday in Salon.  I wholeheartedly agree with Marcotte’s recommendation: “There is one solution that hasn’t been, as far as I know, floated yet: The Justice Department could appoint a special counsel to open an investigation into the years of accusations against Trump.”  YES.  Exactly this.  As Marcotte astutely notes, the investigation is warranted and will keep the public’s ever-straying attention on this issue.  Two special investigations (Russia and sexual harassment/assault) are a drop in the bucket for this sitting “president.”

Those of us who live in the United States should share the above meme every day, in every way possible.  We must write to senators and congresspeople to insist on this special investigation.  We have done this for healthcare, travel bans, DACA, and the tax scam, and we need to respect women’s and transgender individuals’ rights enough to advocate for Title VII and Title IX protections to be applied to the groper-in-chief.

While Trump’s “Al Frankenstein” tweet served to slam Franken, it actually worked harder to re-enact the harassment of Leeann Tweeden.  Add this action to the list for the special investigation.

Viejo Verde = Sexual Harasser = Criminal Action

(From Yale Alumni Magazine‘s classified ads, current issue)

In Spanish an old lech or pervert is called a “viejo verde,” or a green old man.  I used to think this was funny because I was so accustomed to normalizing the harassing behaviors of men imposing themselves on women in public and private spaces.  I basically thought, of course there will be old perverts, of course we have to protect ourselves and others from them, of course, of course, of course.  It took me until I was 27 or 28 to take these issues seriously—to understand the ways in which the men who engage in sexual harassment and assault cloak themselves in the “no big deal” protections they have always been afforded—and to stop accepting harassment as a given.

The spate of reporting about Weinstein and so many others over this past month (and, of course, about the assaulter-in-chief ) suggests that we in the United States are at least starting to come to terms with the myriad ways in which we have indulged grown men’s felonies and misdemeanors through our undervaluing of girls’ and women’s humanity (and, in not a few cases, boys’ and transgender individuals’ humanity).  Somehow, we see men as the smart adults who get to run the world, while also constantly surrendering to a boys-will-be-boys narrative that implies that men are just victims of their own animal drives.  I recognize this as both binary and Manichean, but, somehow, men get to have it both ways (treated with seriousness and respect and indulged when they commit actual crimes), and women get to have it in no ways (undercut in professional and personal settings and disbelieved when they state difficult truths).  Go back and read 17th-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz for an artful catalog of these unjust social mores, and then come on back to the 21st century to see how little has changed.  Even the Weinstein avalanche doesn’t make up for centuries of not caring, not reporting, not attending to profound, gender-based mistreatment.

This month’s reporting has been over the top, maybe precisely because sexual harassment and assault have been so woefully under-reported for centuries.  I doubt many of us have been able to keep up.  Here are a few references whose content has informed this blog post: Rebecca Traister in The Cut (11-13-17); Roy Moore accused by the fifth woman (The New York Times, 11-13-17); Jessica Valenti in The Guardian writing about Louis CK, Roy Moore, and #MeToo (11-10-17); Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, “Louis C.K. and Hollywood’s Canon of Creeps” (11-12-17); Karen Tumulty on Trump and his accusers (The Washington Post, 10-21-17) and Jia Tolentino on the same (The New Yorker, 11-9-17); Jessica Bennett on the “tsunami” of the Weinstein scandal (The New York Times, 11-5-17); James Hohmann on Roy Moore and the GOP (The Washington Post, 11-10-17); Yamiche Alcindor on sexual harassment in the House and Senate (The New York Times, 11-13-17), also reported on here in The Washington Post (10-27-17); sexual harassment and assault in higher education since Weinstein (The Chronicle of Higher Education; 11-13;17); Laurie Penny’s “The Unforgiving Minute” (Longreads, November, 2017); gender discrimination in the tech industry (The New Yorker, 11-20-17); The New York Timeslisting of men accused of sexual misconduct (11-13-17); today’s reporting about the #WeKnowWhatYouDid campaign at Spelman; in this older article from Forbes, recently making the social media rounds, John Grisham soft-pedals pedophilia (10-16-14).  I could go on, but this sampling certainly demonstrates the pervasiveness of the problem and the variety of reporting angles available to us.

The women (and others) using the #MeToo, #MeAt14, and #WeKnowWhatYouDid hashtags are making the still-important point that most societies across the globe have indulged harassing behaviors, including the felony of sexual assault and rape, for most of their existence.  #MeToo allows us to see the abundance of cases and the pervasiveness of these power plays, while also revealing the detail and texture of each of the individual stories told.  #MeAt14 stories make clear that, just like 14-year-olds of all genders, 14-year-old girls are not yet adults and should not be hunted, fished, baited, or otherwise treated like animals, especially not by adults, whom they might still believe are to be trusted.  #WeKnowWhatYouDid acknowledges that most reporting and adjudication mechanisms still harm victims of sexual harassment and assault and are therefore still far from effective or efficient.

When I was four or five years old and playing in my backyard, a 12-year-old pulled down his pants and asked me, “if I wanted to piss with him.”  This was somewhat frightening, and I told only my oldest brother, who then told my parents.  When they reported the incident to the police, a police officer came to our house and asked me to “show him” what had happened.  This was far more frightening to me than the initial event, which reminds me again that we still have much more work to do to make reporting and adjudication as non-threatening and non-punishing as possible.  When I was 12, my parents took some of us kids to the holiday concert at the school where my dad taught.  As we navigated the crowded bleachers, someone shoved his hand up my skirt and grabbed me between the legs.  I was in absolute shock, I didn’t know which of the coat-and-tie high-school boys had done it, and so I shoved the one on the end into the one next to him, attempting some sort of lame game of dominoes in my surprise, anger, and hurt.  I told no one because I didn’t even know how to articulate what that was.  When I was 13, my basketball coach felt us all up as he showed us techniques for foul shots.  A foul shot, indeed, especially when we actually joked about it in front of our parents, and no one did anything.  I should mention that the person was also a guidance counselor at our middle school.  When I was in college, a friend of a friend wouldn’t leave our apartment, pulled a Louis C.K., and then left.  When I saw him at the friend’s wedding a few years later, I re-experienced the shock I had felt back in college.  In a mega-city in another country, I embarked with friends on the metro, the most crowded metro car I had ever been on.  As I held my purse tight to me with one hand and held the upper bar of the metro car with my other hand, hands were all over my body.  I had nowhere to go.  There was not an inch of open space to move into.  I exited the metro at the very next stop, which was not my intended destination.  My exit from the car was as violating as the ride had been.  Two weeks ago, my daughter and I were at a hotel.  As we took the elevator back up to our room, two drunk men hopped on and leered at my daughter, while I half-backed her into the corner behind me.  She is 12 years old.

The photograph you see above is from Yale Alumni Magazine’s classified advertisements.  This ad invites older men to “find” women 10-30 (+) years their juniors.  For many men, that makes the “women” they are “finding” underage—not women, but girls who should be allowed to develop fully before making their own decisions about their bodies and sexual selves.  What other media corners are selling, trafficking, raping, and assaulting women and thereby reducing our collective humanity?  Why aren’t we calling them out more?  When is enough enough?

There should be no turning back.  We all know these stories. We know these people.  They are committing crimes, and we do not have to let them.  No more making light of the viejo verde, the old perv, the neighborhood lech, the harassing movie producer or comedian, the groping politician, or the raping swim or gymnastics coach.  No more (and no Moore).

Resist, Construct, Repeat

Greetings!  How many of you feared Tuesday night, thinking you would sit on a couch somewhere, watch election results, and feel even more doomed than a year before?  Friends of mine have mentioned nerves, nausea, and even PTSD to describe that total physical-emotional connection of dread and hope.  As election results from New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, and other states were announced, I could not believe my eyes.  The results came in so fast, and they were so encouraging, one bit of news after another.  We watched Republican strongholds crack, watched people of a variety of genders, races, religions/no religions, and classes roar back at a brutal year of unrelenting hatred.

On the local front, our smart, hard-working, and caring candidates from the Democratic and Independent slates fared far better than in past years.  As I saw all of these results, I whooped and yelled upstairs to my family members, who were already surrendering to homework obligations.  I wondered whether I should get out of my pj’s and run up and down the street with pots and pans, singing and banging victory.  But mostly I just sat there on the couch, watching joy spread across my Facebook feed.  At the same time, I felt physical relief wash over me, releasing a tension felt every minute of every day for 365 relentless days.  (*Last year I dragged my sorry ass to the computer to write this Gender Shrapnel Blog post the day after the election. I suspected events to come, but they were even worse than I could imagine at that point.)  Today, I am exhausted, absolutely wiped out.

When President Obama won eight years ago, I shared with so many people elation and irrepressible hope.  The morning after election day, I arrived at my early-morning class, smiled broadly at the students, and said to them in Spanish, “What a glorious day to be 18 years old.”  They did not smile or grin back, for the most part, and I realized then that I should hold onto, but also temper, the joy of political victory and hope.  Today I feel slightly different.  After a year of having our government, the body elected to represent us all, issue proposal after ban after statement after tweet to represent fewer and fewer of us, I want to hold onto a sense of victory and every particle of hope and carry it forward in action—resistance, construction, resistance, construction.  As I do so, I keep in mind these “takeaways” from an NPR piece from yesterday and this blog post from Robin Alperstein’s Voluble blog.

Two weeks ago, the 50 Ways-Rockbridge (local resistance group) board members had a conversation about our direction.  Over the past year, we have observed people come together to learn about the issues, plan events to educate others, attend political meetings, register voters, call and write elected representatives, write blog pieces, op-eds, and letters to the editor, and think deliberately about what kind of town, county, state, country, just world, we want to live in. As we spoke at that meeting, we expressed great satisfaction about all of this, but also preoccupation about inactive issues groups and fewer active members among us.  We were tired, a bit frayed at the edges.  We realized that we hadn’t taken much time to evaluate where we are and how we’ve done, mostly due to our M*A*S*H unit mentality of staunching the flow of blood, shunting resources where they’re most needed, playing mostly defense and a little bit of offense.  At that point, I wrote a document that listed what we have accomplished to date.  This document represents a necessary accounting of the actions taken by well over 200 people over the last year to create a space of resistance and hope.  In that space, we have had beautiful conversations and messy ones in which we’ve realized that even potentially like-minded individuals have myriad ways of expressing themselves, solving problems, and interacting with others.  In other words, we came to understand more deeply that “community” means togetherness and messiness.

Unlike many Indivisible groups, 50 Ways-Rockbridge has created an umbrella structure of multiple issues groups who count on the overall group for action on specific issues.  This rambling organization allows for issues groups to form and disband according to need.  One example is the “County Unity” group, which came to be organically (it wasn’t pre-determined by the 50 Ways Board) at the first really big meeting we had, when people who live in our mostly red county said that they needed a way to be able to talk with their neighbors.  Another example is the Title IX working group, which is working to create more safe spaces at our local high school.

The big 50 Ways group meets once a month, and the issues group coordinators set meeting times for their groups.  Many people belong to more than one issues group.  Big group meetings have had attendance of 25 people on some nights and 153 on other nights.  Outrage and action seemed at their height in January, February, and March of last year.  There has been some burn-out, for sure, because we all have to balance the rest of our lives with our resisting lives, in terms of both logistics and physical and emotional well-being.  Nevertheless, we carry on.

Here I share a summary of the work of 50-Ways Rockbridge over the past year.  It is not comprehensive, but it should capture how we have lived this year, forged real resistance, and attempted to create additional building blocks in our community.

We have:


  • Written a mission statement and followed it
  • Created an attractive, lively website for resources and action
  • Created a large e-mail database for daily communications with 50 Ways members
  • Learned—a ton
  • Sent hundreds of postcards to our representatives
  • Written dozens of letters to the editor of our area newspapers
  • Sent thousands of e-mails and made hundreds of phone calls to our representatives
  • Tracked Chris Gavaler’s Dear Bob blog and Gene Zitver’s Goodlatte Watch
  • Registered voters
  • Gotten out the vote
  • Accepted generous donations from community members
  • Survived, together, so far

Formed Issues Groups

  • Formed subcommittees, studied the issues, and created talking points (see the website!)
  • Relied upon the excellent leadership of our issues coordinators
  • Fought off Trumpcare not once, not twice, but three times (Healthcare)
  • Sponsored Earth Day Celebration and Walk (Environment)
  • Sponsored in-person protests and vigils for the Environment and for Women’s Rights and LGBTQIA+ Rights; sponsored “A Day Without a Woman” (Women’s Rights)
  • Sponsored two “Trash Talk” events (County Unity)
  • Sponsored films (Environment, Gerrymandering, and Women’s Rights), ACLU Rights sessions (First Amendment), informational talks and panels (Environment, Gerrymandering, Healthcare, Immigrant Rights, Racial Justice, Title IX, and Women’s Rights), and workshops (op-ed writing, Twitter, organizing rallies and marches), relying upon the expertise of many generous people in our community
  • Encouraged greater participation in and interaction with the city and county school boards
  • Drafted a statement about Lexington in the post-Charlottesville era and presented it to Lexington City Council
  • Survived, together, so far

Built Community

  • Brought together over 200 people in person to participate in the group
  • Brought together over 500 people on Facebook
  • Collaborated with Indivisible groups across Virginia
  • Held monthly meetings, which have included visits by representatives, delegates, candidates, and members of community organizations and agencies
  • Organized people to attend the Goodlatte sessions on Thursday mornings
  • Supported a greater variety of candidates in our area
  • Supported the revival of the Lexington-Rockbridge NAACP and supported Coming to the Table
  • Collaborated with Lexington-Rockbridge Democratic Parties on a community help center initiative
  • Supported the Women’s March, the March for the Environment, and the March for Science
  • Sponsored a community picnic
  • Sponsored 50 Pints every Monday night
  • Participated in the Rockbridge Community Festival and other community events
  • Enjoyed getting to know more of our neighbors in a variety of settings
  • Survived, together, so far

We still have such a long way to go after a year of fending off this government’s full-court press, but through the little crack of Tuesday night’s election results shines a little light.

Talking through the Generations

(Our new family member)

For two reasons, this week’s post is neither weighty nor timely: (1) Election Day is Tuesday, and I’m extremely nervous about it. Many of us Virginians are working hard to see this fine slate of Democratic candidates elected (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and local representatives and court of clerk).  We understand this election to be something of a referendum on the “president.” I, for one, need some small or big reassurance that people are understanding him to be the sociopathic, selfish, inexperienced lout (for lack of a stronger and still acceptable word in pleasant company) that he is; and (2) yesterday we brought home a bundle of puppy love.  Her name is Nimbus, and she has charmed the socks off even the most reluctant among us, including our grumpy and adorable eight-year-old dog.  I would like to be an adult and say that the first reason overrides the second, but I’d say they’re running neck and neck at this moment. In this lighter and less urgent post, I ruminate about getting older and how aging can change how we communicate with other generations.

This past summer, my father, siblings, and I navigated hospice and loss.  I am the sixth of seven (but really the seventh of eight) children, and so most of my siblings are my elders.  Through this time, I feel I’ve learned better when to offer an opinion, when to quiet one, when to step in, and when to step back; or at least I learned this in the very specific context in which we found ourselves.

One evening at my parents’ house, my dad and I had helped my mom to bed.  I then went back to the kitchen to do the dishes.  I did them thoroughly but as quickly as possible so that I could join my dad in watching the Phillies on television.  This past summer was the first in a long time that I learned the entire Phillies line-up and knew when to cheer and when to despair (and when to call the players mean names, like any good Philadelphia fan).  After watching a few innings with me and celebrating the feats of a new rookie outfielder, my dad went to get something in the kitchen.  I heard him call my name.  “Ellen,” he called, in a stern, dad-voice of decades past, “can you please come to the kitchen?”  Unconcerned and mildly amused, I went into the kitchen, where my dad awaited me by the silverware drawer.  The kitchen was spotless.  What could possibly be the problem, o-Type-A-like-me dad-of-mine?  “Ellen, your mother and I keep the spatula here,” he said, opening the regular silverware drawer and pointing to a specific spot in it.  “Right here.”  For a millisecond, I thought he was kidding, but I quickly realized the stakes.  I had no need to place the spatula in the drawer with the whisks, lemon squeezers, serving spoons, and other spatulas.  When your wife is struggling, the Phillies are losing, and your house has been invaded by your opinionated grown-up children, you get to tell people to put the spatula wherever the hell you please.  I observed my dad’s serious and somewhat stern face and said, “You’ve got it, Dad.  Thanks for letting me know.”  Then I wondered, what is the spatula in my own life?  What little things am I insisting on that don’t matter to anyone but me?  How can I be more flexible about the spatula?  Also, when is it time to tell people to stick the spatula where you say?

The spatula lesson can be applied to my siblings, who were truly a joy to grow up with and continue to be an interesting, funny, and loving collection of human beings.  When you grow up in a big crowd, you learn to love your opinions, which you fight to express, while at the same time competing for seconds at the dinner table.  Loving your own opinions means that you believe you’re always right, you undervalue (“menospreciar” in Spanish—sounds better to me) opinions different from your own, and become vociferous in the expression of these always-right opinions.  I am partly grateful for loving my own opinions because I don’t think I’d write a blog (or much else) if I didn’t.  Nevertheless, applying the spatula rule (“You’ve got it, Dad”) helps me to make room for more voices at my own real and metaphorical dinner tables.  (I didn’t realize I would spend so much time in the kitchen for this post.)

So far, I’ve claimed to improve communications with my parents’ generation and to be working on doing the same with my own generation.  As for generations younger than mine, I often forget that I’m 52 and that 52 is kind of old.  Except for some physical ailments, I feel like my spirit is the same as when I was 42, 32, maybe even 22 on a particularly lively day.  Sometimes I catch an unexpected glimpse of myself and am reminded of my age.  Sometimes I watch a younger person react to me in a certain way—maybe expecting to see shock when I feel none or assuming my children are older than they are–, and I’m reminded that she or he sees me as older.  This gives me increased sympathy for people older than me, who must experience this some or most of the time.

For any of you reading who are from a generation or two younger than me, please bear with the following comments and offer opinions and suggestion about what you’ll read next.  I want to understand which are the spatula moments (accept and move on) and which are not.

I have been teaching for over 30 years, and I love this profession.  Sharing ideas and subjects you love with young learners, helping them to develop skills, watching their own ideas develop, and then seeing them as friends and peers is a gift.  I treasured this gift at 22 when I started, and I still do to this day.  I continue to feel nourished by the students’ youth, energy, and humor, along with the books, films, and conversations that fill my classroom, life, and home.  Wow, how lucky I am.

And here is my older-lady preoccupation of the last several years:  When I meet with students, which I do all the time, I am so impressed by their keen sense of time and organization.  They arrive with laptops, they flip them open before I even notice they’ve done so, the meeting starts without any official nod, and we’re off to the races.  These days, I am absolutely the only person in the room without a laptop open.  I have a pad and pen and am ready to listen, offer ideas, and jot down tasks I’ve agreed to take on.  Now, always, early in the meeting, I notice that all the people around the table are completing the tasks they’ve just been assigned.  They are not listening to the meeting, which is no longer a meeting, because it has simply become a co-working site.  This transition is difficult for me, as I plan to complete my tasks after the meeting so that I’m focused on the meeting at hand.  But no one else is perturbed by this dynamic, and now no one is running the meeting.  My sense is that we end up not exactly knowing where we stand at the end of the meeting, but most of the attendees believe their work is done.  We have spent 30 or 60 minutes together in a congenial environment.  When we conclude the meeting, a moment which to me never seems official or real, the students have completed their tasks, and I’m adding mine to my to-do list.

I like their no-nonsense way of getting things done together, but my generation hasn’t grown up with devices separating us or dictating the flow of our conversations and meetings.  What the students are doing seems inherently rude to me, but I can tell that they don’t see this style as rude, but rather smart and effective.  I try to understand this, I do.  Nevertheless, I observe this meeting-no meeting phenomenon even in one-on-one meetings with students.  It’s almost as if I say to them, “You have great qualifications to apply for X grant.  I really think you should,” and the student immediately starts applying for that grant while I sit there.  They think I’m okay with just witnessing their work, and they type happily on.

I learn a lot from these very capable young individuals.  What should I accept from their ways and understand to be a necessary change, and what should I call out as unacceptable for any generation?  Do you have any advice or words of wisdom?  I’m all ears!  (Big, floppy, golden ones, that is.)

 (Our sweet older fellow.)

ann e michael

Poetry, nature, books, & speculative philosophical musings

Ms. Magazine

Ellen Mayock

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Edurne Portela

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ann e michael

Poetry, nature, books, & speculative philosophical musings

Ms. Magazine

Ellen Mayock

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics


killing joy as a world making project

Edurne Portela

Bio, información sobre publicaciones de libros y artículos, agenda y más

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