Lady Wildcats

In four months, my partner’s and my 13-year-old daughter will start high school.  She has been on a swim team since she was five, started playing soccer at 9, and has played lacrosse now for four years.  She likes sports.  She likes competition and challenge.  She likes her coaches and teammates.  I think she thrives on the structure, too.  My daughter and her teammates can go to their left as well as to their right, they can catch and throw, and they get the sense of movement on the field, where to be and when.  My daughter and other 8th graders are playing this season for the high school’s junior varsity lacrosse team, and the team is darned good.

When they get to high school in four months, are my daughter and her teammates destined to be the “lady” form of the team mascot?  Athletics teams are still famously divided along binary gender lines, which is complicated to begin with.  Nevertheless, if we work within this binary, then we should question the use of certain terms and how they shape our children’s perception of themselves and others.  While the boys are referred to as “wildcats,” the girls are referred to as “lady wildcats”—not only over the loudspeaker at the games, but also in the local newspapers and even on uniform jerseys.

Check out our local newspaper’s reporting on the performance of boys and girls at a recent high school track and field meet (April, 2018).  The reporting is clear, and I like celebrating the success of our young local athletes, but, once again, the boys are “wildcats” and the girls are “lady wildcats.”  Even the jerseys of the girls’ varsity and junior varsity basketball teams bear the moniker “lady wildcats.”

Readers will likely fall into three categories in their response to this blog post: (1) What’s the big deal?; (2) But, the girl athletes want to be called “lady wildcats”; and (3) Why call the girls “lady wildcats” if you don’t call the boys “gentleman wildcats?”. The following paragraphs should answer all three questions.

I grew up knowing that there were Lady Vols, Lady Huskies, Lady Cavs (and a long etcetera), but never getting the chance to see any of the women’s teams’ games or competitions televised.  “Ladies” trained, worked hard, refined skills, competed fiercely, but did so without visibility or recognition.  “Lady” in front of the name implied “less.”  In the meantime, when you heard about the Vols, Huskies, and Cavs, you asked yourself which of the many men’s teams would be featured on television on that day—football, basketball, baseball, or other higher-visibility sports?  The lack of modifier for the team mascot signaled importance, visibility, success.  They were the main show, the real deal, the ones to watch.  The more we receive this message, the more we believe it—all of us, every single one of us, unless we learn to step back and analyze the effects of the message. This message reinforces that big-money television and stadium contracts will go to men’s team sports and that even the most elite of women athletes—especially in team sports—will have few opportunities to pursue their athletic interests and talents beyond their college years.

Title IX was passed in 1972.  While many people interpreted the legislation as primarily to achieve equality in athletics in educational institutions, of course, it addresses far more than athletics: “Section 1681. Sex: (a) Prohibition against discrimination. No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (with a list of exceptions). The principal punishment for Title IX violation is the removal of federal funding from the particular educational institution.  Since 1972, not one school has lost funds, and so we might question interpretation and enforcement of Title IX across the board, and especially in athletics. (*See this 2014 HuffPost piece; this 2014 MSNBC post; this NCAA Title IX FAQ post).  For as much gender-based discrimination, harassment, and retaliation as exist in our United States schools, the law is still stacked against any individual who comes forward.

The NCAA lists the three ways in which Title IX applies to athletics: participation opportunities; scholarships; and the “laundry list.”  The Women’s Sports Foundation explains these three prongs very clearly here.  On our local landscape, the questions of participation opportunities and the laundry list are the most problematic, as girls’ soccer and lacrosse compete for players, coaches, and practice space in the spring season, instead of being spread across fall and spring.  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect this is to protect football practice and game space from the boys’ and girls’ soccer and lacrosse teams.  This becomes a Title IX issue in that football becomes the biggest sports opportunity for fall-sport athletes.

The fall-spring division also has implications for the laundry list prong, which works to ensure equity in locker room, practice, and game spaces and scheduling, equipment allocation, medical training access, travel budgets, coaching, and publicity.  If we did an audit of our local high school, we might well find that locker room spaces are unequal (I don’t know this; I’m just saying that an audit would be welcomed), that practice facilities and game times are squeezed due to the protection of football in the fall, that male coaches are paid more (I don’t know this; I’m just saying that assurances to the contrary would be welcomed), and that publicity efforts might favor boys’ sports teams in a few ways.  Calling the boys “wildcats” and the girls “lady wildcats,” thus making the girls less representative of the whole school, constitutes one signal that not everyone is on the same page about equity in public school athletics and, by extension, public school education.

I have made ample allusion here to boys representing the universal and girls representing the “other,” the difference.  Even if some girl-power ethos has girls and women reinforcing that “lady” mascots are to be cherished, the result brings us back to that message—girl athletes are perceived as other, lesser, and therefore less deserving of proper facilities, scheduling, and publicity.  This becomes universally accepted, or at least tolerated.  My partner teaches and coaches at our local high school.  For many years, he has raised this issue of the girls bearing this other nickname and having game times that are less inviting to fans.  The administration has been more responsive to these issues this year, varying practice and game times to be fairer to all involved, but still can’t seem to eliminate the use of “lady wildcats” over the loudspeaker at games and on jerseys.  This is progress, for sure.  We must keep in mind, though, that the compass north always points to man=universal and woman= other, and certain habits are extremely hard to undo.

No more Lady Whatevers, for whatever it’s worth.

Out of Step

For a few days now, the word “desfasada” has been walking around with me.  It is one of those words I just know in Spanish without ever thinking of an English equivalent.  “Desfasada” woke up with me, telling me I felt out of sorts, went to the gym with me, telling me I was creaky, accompanied me to work, reminding me I’m cranky, and pushed me towards bed, saying, “Shh, sleep, this clanging, chiming loudness will go away.”

Yesterday afternoon, I went to a multi-school jazz concert sponsored by the Virginia Military Institute.  This lovely event features jazz musicians from local middle schools, the high school, and VMI.  They call it “Jazz Farm”—I’m not sure why, but I imagine the flutes singing their early-morning birdsong, signaling to the trumpets to make the rooster call, and then waking up the whole farm of trombones (are you seeing horses?), a range of stacked-hair saxophones (the honking geese), electric guitars, a bass, and a piano (all plucking and clucking, like the hens), and telling them to get that big-ass farm party started.  I also imagine little piccolos and soprano saxes born with each new spring.

As I listened to the music and watched heads bopping, fingers tapping, and bodies swaying, my mind, jazz-loosened, starting translating “desfasada” into English: out of step, out of sync, out of style, out of “phase”, basically off.  Damn, prepositions are the English language’s biggest challenge, aren’t they?  All those semantic differences created by prepositions attached to just one little bitty verb, made periphrastic.  How to distinguish between and among these?: To take in; to take on; to take out; to take off; to take up; to take down; to take around; to take over—you get the picture.  The music and the community worked together to ease, for a few moments, deep sadness over the loss of young life.

In any case, “desfasada” unfolded before me as the many ways I have been feeling out of step, some due to external events, like great sadness in my neighborhood, the loss of more than several friends’ loved ones, and the ever-close Trump regime; and some due to internal events, like causing strife with a co-worker I greatly admire, feeling old, with outdated opinions, at every meeting I go to, and combatting chronic pain while still feeling real energy for life.

Nothing makes you feel more “desfasada” than joking to an 18-year-old student about how cantankerous you’ve become and having her ask you what “cantankerous” means.  Or receiving an e-mail from another student who asks you if you have made available a list of all the authors and works studied in the class and having to gently remind the student that we like to call that list a “syllabus.”  Out of step means wishing we didn’t always have a screen between us and longing for days with fewer apps and fewer ways to organize.

Today’s post in and of itself is desfasado—out of sync with the themes and length of most posts.  A little more time at the jazz farm should do the trick.

Civil Wars

At Home with the Civil War

Major Stonewall Jackson and his sister Laura had a disagreement, the Stonewall Jackson House guide tells us.  Laura stayed with West Virginia, she supplies reluctantly.  When I ask directly if Laura was a Unionist, the reply is snapped back, Yes, she was.  Now, can you please open that door and direct us back to the foyer?

***

Although I’ve lived more than half my life in the United States South and my two children were born in none other than Stonewall Jackson Hospital, my Philadelphia accent and blunt demeanor usually give me away as a Yankee.  The soft, drawn-out syllables of the guide remind me again that I’m an intruder, a carpetbagger.  Stonewall Jackson’s home is not mine. Su casa no es mi casa, even after decades of life in Virginia.

It’s much easier to navigate the silences of other countries’ civil wars.  Without a grandfather thrown inhumanely into a common grave or a great-aunt forced into exile, you read avidly about the two sides of the war:  atrocities, political motivations, tremendous loss of life, depths of economic crisis, despair.  You care deeply about what you read and learn about others’ civil wars, and you even take sides, but you can’t claim true blood-involvement or kin-cache.  Despair—desperation—the emptying out of hope.  In Spanish esperar, a loaded verb, means to hope, to wait for, and to expect.  Is civil war somehow the opposite of hoping, waiting for, and expecting?

***

I’ve been researching, writing about, and teaching the Spanish Civil War for two and a half decades.  This three-year war set the stage, in a bone-chilling way, for World War II.  Francisco Franco infamously sold off a Basque town, Guernica, to Adolf Hitler and his murderous bombs, while the Republican army, supported in part by Russia, struggled mightily to get aid from the future Allies.  The war inspired thousands of writers to attempt to capture the global political shift, the absurdities of warfare, and the violence and loss in one little European country.  Even before the war, Dolores Ibárruri (la “Pasionaria”), famous Communist labor organizer from the northern Asturias region of Spain, was penning memorable radio broadcasts, which would later be aired clandestinely and then archived carefully by the Communist Party.

Monumental Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s life neatly frames a cataclysmic era in Spanish history—his birth in 1898, when Spain lost the last of its colonies and could no longer call itself an empire, and his death in 1936, when Francisco Franco’s forces were sweeping through the south of Spain and stopped right outside of Granada to murder an outstanding poet and playwright who was “out.”  García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, which debuted the same year as the Spanish Civil War, forcefully captures a society’s fear of beauty, passion, non-conformity, and change and presages the claustrophobic enclosure imposed by Franco in the early years of his regime. César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and George Orwell are just a few of the non-Spanish writers who wrote so movingly of the war, during the war.  No one can forget Neruda’s call: “Venid a ver/la sangre en las calles/Venid a ver la sangre en las calles” (“Come to see/the blood in the streets/Come to see the blood in the streets”). And then to think that iconic Spanish poet Antonio Machado fled to France in 1939 to protect himself from the violent reprisals of the Franco victors, only to find that France, also now complicit with Hitler, was no longer a safe haven.  Some people say that Franco killed García Lorca and left Machado to die.  These legendary figures reveal a nation unafraid to make heroes of its teachers and its literati.  They also make it easy to understand Spaniards’ deep connections to their literary and political pasts.

The many authors who wrote during the Franco regime from the shadows and out of the silences of the Spanish Civil War float across Spain’s postwar landscape.  They portray familial violence, death and loss, extreme hunger, the emptying-out of the small pueblos into the big cities, and fear, lots of fear.  Their own battles with the official censor speak through and around the edges of their fictional works, so fiercely populated by armed guards and frightened, tiptoeing almost-citizens.  These authors—both the ones who remained in Spain and those who went into decades of exile—are the pallbearers of the Second Republic.  In the literary coffins they put into the world we find dashed hopes of the separation of church and state, the voting booths that wouldn’t be needed for 36 years, women’s rights, open education, hope for laborers. These notions lie alongside the very real skeletons of the mass graves that would be exhumed well into the new millennium, when it was finally time to excavate for DNA and silence.

As a non-Spaniard, I, too, have been drawn into this narrative of change, of grand potential for peace, love, and literature—and how it was removed from its cradle in an increasingly violent world.  When I teach the Spanish Civil War to classes in the United States, I usually have students from Mexico or Venezuela whose grandparents or great-grandparents were forced to leave Spain right after the war and then forged new lives in exile.  I have other students who have lived for a time in Spain, whose “madres españolas” complain of a lack of order and respect in today’s Spain and express a longing for the “order” imposed by the Generalísimo.  Inevitably, the students are pulled in by their familial links (by filiation or affiliation, as literary critic Sebastiaan Faber writes), the unfortunate attraction of atrocity, the international character of the conflict, the social, political, and religious implications, and, most of all, the impact of loss, love, and silence that seems to linger through several generations.

Somehow, I’m at home with the Spanish Civil War.

***

Although I had studied my own country’s civil war in middle and high school, I didn’t give it enough thought until I saw, on the first day of my first year of college in Charlottesville, Virginia, a large Confederate flag hanging on the wall of a first-year student in a neighboring dorm.  I am white and from Philadelphia, Betsy Ross land, and, while I had seen various versions of the 13-star flag, I had never seen a Confederate flag “live” before.  Being white brings with it many spoken and unspoken privileges, as we know all too well in “this land of milk and honey” (Grandmaster Flash), and one of them must be that I was able to scoff at the Confederate flag, to write it off as a relic, a silly recollection of a loss, a weak rendering of bygone days.  But then I started to realize how that flag’s weight distributed itself across the campus—in its code of civility, the Kappa Alpha tradition of the “Old South” gala, deep networks of money and power, and daily contradictions in the very figure of Thomas Jefferson himself.  While I naively appreciated neoclassical, Enlightenment ideals of education for all, public libraries, and predictable architecture, I also felt beneath those Jeffersonian layers, emerging from the orderly, white columns, a Confederate embrace—something of a warm, inner-circle hug that I could sense but not join.  And certainly black friends of mine were even more distanced from that white man’s embrace.  Being poor kept me out of the inner circle, but being white certainly brought privilege.

Two years later, when I became a Resident Assistant in a dorm known as one of the most Southern on campus, a fellow RA and I walked down the first-floor hallway and saw not just a large Confederate flag on the wall of one of the residents, but a large Confederate flag with nooses hung on either side of it.  The shock I had felt two years before shot exponentially through my body, as the starkest possible link of Confederate flag with race-based murder somehow blithely decorated an 18-year-old’s walls.  I froze, staring at this scary-ass symbolism, and slowly realized that my fellow RA, a black student from Washington, D.C., had run, run away from this display and the idea that he would live for the next year right down the hall from it and its owner.  Even if the display were to be removed (as it was), its ghost remained, floating menacingly through the halls and insinuating its race-based threat.

This is my country’s civil war.

***

Twenty years ago, when I moved to Lexington, Virginia, I understood that Thomas Jefferson’s analog here was Robert E. Lee.  His legacy was everywhere—street names, yearly celebrations in his honor, the Robert E. Lee Museum in the campus chapel, quotes on fraternity t-shirts, and, again, Confederate flags decorating the “recumbent Lee” in the Chapel.  I started reading the stones and placards and obelisks on and around campus—all to men who, as a friend framed it, “had gotten their asses kicked in the Civil War.”  I had lived in the South at that point for a good number of years and had grappled with Mason-Dixon cultural differences and my own biases.  In part, moving to the south had galvanized my own liberal sense of self—my awareness about race, religion, gender, sex—and had challenged me to sift through what could be cherished, combatted, left alone, or discarded in my new culture.  I cherish the landscape and the local pride in it.  I combat the blind adherence to tradition and the love of the status quo.  I try to understand (and come to grips with my own hypocrisies about) why friends and neighbors love to hunt.  And often I must discard—the constant barrage of racist, sexist, locally produced text whose content is morbidly predictable.

I always come back to Lexington’s hero Stonewall Jackson as a strangely compelling symbol of a politics of defensiveness.  This man, celebrated as a war hero and strategist, was shot by his own troops when he had gone on a re-con mission and told them to shoot anything they saw.

I met Laura Jackson Arnold at her brother’s house on Washington Street, but barely.  The guide so insisted on everything Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson that it was hard to find Laura there at the house.  Laura seemed to be everything Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was not.  It seemed that, while Thomas was slow to learn and dull to others’ ways, Laura was quick as a whip and notably perceptive about the world.  Folks said that Thomas was always the last in his class, but that severe self-discipline and handy connections helped him to find a place in his college class, a commission in the army, and not one, but two, women to agree to marry him (at different times, of course).  Thomas muddled along to prove himself competent for and worthy of the posts and spouses awaiting him, while perhaps his sister Laura was busy reading every book in the family library.  I imagine her learning the natural sciences (she did become a nurse) and mastering French.  Maybe she also learned to play the harp and gave serious thought to the politics of the day.

When I first encountered Laura, I saw her as the firecracker of the family, and I understood right away that no one—not Thomas and Laura’s parents, not Thomas’s teachers, not the local church preacher, not the stern family friends—would pay Laura enough mind to perceive the differences between her and her increasingly famous brother.  Thomas was The One, The Chosen One, The Military Officer, The Church Deacon, The College Professor.  Nevertheless, Laura watched her brother scrape his way up the ladder from 99th (out of 99) in his military school class to 17th (out of 59; can you say ‘attrition’?).  Thomas also lobbied his friend the minister to allow him—finally—to read in church, as he believed was his due.  Reluctant to acquiesce to this uncomfortable social request for a favor, the minister subtly told Thomas that he was a weak reader and would have to work on his style.  I imagine Laura knowing the minister would give in, knowing that Thomas’s dull, dutiful voice would get its day in the sun every single Sunday in that stark, cavernous, greystone Virginia church.  Laura watched Thomas give gifts that he himself wished to have—pedestrian, fairy-tale blue-sky paintings of children in school and of children praying together.  He gave these gifts to loved ones, and they remained in his home for him and all to see.

Laura’s Bible seemed to be just such a gift.  Thomas could have given her oilcloth, an item she dearly needed, but he insisted on the Bible.  It might have been something he believed his wayward sister needed, but it seemed something she didn’t want.  That extra-large, old, leather-bound holy book inscribed by her brother and intended for her was never actually delivered to Laura’s hands—yet another of Thomas’s gifts for others that was tagged for (and by) Thomas himself.

In Thomas’s house, where I met Laura, few talked of Laura.  I learned of Thomas, his two wives, the infant children buried nearby, the enslaved people owned by Thomas, his teachers, his minister, his students and neighbors, even his physician, but very little about his sister Laura.  Laura’s life exists in the opposite spaces of Thomas’s—not like a chessboard, where the black makes the white more visible and the white throws the black into sharp relief; not like the Ying/Yang symbol where the one so clearly relies on the other; not even like the sun and the moon, where one illuminates the day and the other the night.  No.  Laura’s opposite spaces are shadowy, dusty corners covered over by the muted reds of the centuries-old wall-to-wall carpeting of that house on Washington Street.  Even today, 155 years after the death of Thomas and 107 years after the death of Laura, Laura’s name in that house is a whisper.

The Stonewall Jackson House foyer leads to the gift shop, where Major Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is celebrated as a sort of small-town, Main Street muse.  You can buy replicas of his letters, uniforms, and photographs.  You can visit the small kitchen of his house to see the plastic representations of the breads, cakes, and pies that Major Jackson was too stern, and maybe too hypochondriac, to eat. The gift shop even has a Dover Thrift Edition of a coloring book titled Famous Women of the Civil War. But you can’t find Laura—not in the coloring book, not in the house, not in most histories of the United States Civil War.

That Bible intended for Laura, the holy book that sits in the family dining room of the house on Washington Street, holds tight the Stonewall signature dedicated to his upstart sister.  There exists a copy of a rather quotidian letter from Thomas to Laura, in which he exhorts her to take good care of herself:

April 16, 1860
Lexington, Va.
My dear Sister,
I have been desiring to write to you for some time, but have been prevented from doing so. I am sorry to learn that your eyes trouble you so much. I wish you would try the simple remedy of washing them with cold water, lifting the water to the face in both hands and washing the face until a little water gets into the eyes and they commence smarting. Do this at night just before going to bed, and again immediately after getting up. I hope that you are improving, and that Mr. Arnold is likewise. Anna is suffering from a very bad cold. She has been confined to her bed for nearly a week, but is up this afternoon…

I hope that the children are all doing well. Anna joins me in love to you all.
Your affec. Brother Thomas

(http://civilwarwomenblog.com/laura-jackson-arnold/)

This same website tells us that a Pennsylvanian Cavalry officer recounts that Laura is saddened by the news of her brother’s death in May of 1863, but that she would rather know that he was dead than to have him a leader in the rebel army.  Laura Jackson Arnold:  faithful nurse to the Union soldiers, mother of four, honorary member of the Society of the Army of West Virginia, affectionately named “Mother of the Regiment” of the 5th West Virginia Cavalry.  We in Lexington aren’t allowed to learn of her abolitionist leanings.

The Bible didn’t even become a ghostly representation of Laura’s and Thomas’s fraternal relationship, for Laura cut ties with her Confederate brother and, later, with her unsupportive husband.  One of the few women known to have formally divorced in the late 1800’s, Laura knew her mind.  She would serve the Union and care for Union soldiers until the end of the war or her life, whichever came first.  Her steadfast devotion to the Union was one element in her permanent split from both her brother and her husband.  A local Beverly, West Virginia, attorney said this of Laura (also from the Civil War Women blog): “Mrs. J. Arnold—sister of Gen. Jackson—went off with the Yankees.  Arnold stayed at home, says he is a good southern man, that his wife is crazy, but Hell he says, could not govern a Jackson.”  I want to meet Mrs. J. Arnold for real, see a statue to her, know what she ate for breakfast, understand how she became a nurse, learn what her children called her, find out what kind of artwork she liked, research her religious preferences.  I want her to have a grave and a statue and a celebrated horse, a museum, a biography, and a place in history.  Civil war often means familial strife.  The Unionist manifestations of the Jackson clan are not to be explored, much less celebrated, in Lexington, Virginia, one of the homes of the United States Civil War.

(Photo from this website)

***

My nation’s civil war in contemporary times includes some overwhelming battles—mass incarceration of black men and women, illegal traffic stops, rounding up of brown-skinned peoples, gun violence in schools, gun raffles for sports teams, rape as a common experience in the educational environment—in sum, the diminution of existence of those rendered less important.  White supremacy, the KKK, and Nazis asserting power and threatening lives. This civil war has everything to do with dignity, respect, group identification, money, power, and greed.  Those silences that we thought were a part of our past—1865, Reconstruction, 1920s, and 1950s and 60s—live with and in us.  They are our continued civil war.  This is no longer a Mason-Dixon split.  This war is the elevation of all military members to “heroes” and the reduction of teachers to lazy good-for-nothings.  It is the fact that Wall Street won, even after the 2008 revelation of its deep wrongdoings.  It is the glorification of guns and the scorn of peace.  It is the celebration of jaded irony and the disparagement of kind sincerity.  When we look back on this era, what will we say has died?  What will count as a lost life?  How will we express nostalgia?

I am not at home with the United States Civil War.

Scattered

Anger, frustration, curiosity, and love fuel many of my blog posts—not all at once, but usually two at a time, and sometimes in unusual combinations.  This week I feel too scattered by the national news and life’s day-to-day busyness to feel fueled by any singular or dual emotion.  Last September, I wrote a blog post, titled “Day of Reckoning,” to organize my thoughts and plan my actions.  Today’s post shares a similar impulse but will also reflect how all-over-the-place I am in this penultimate week of classes of our winter term. I am operating on a constant sad, mad, hanging chad, baghdad, ironclad, stalingrad simmer about the state of the union.

The murder of Stephon Clark, another unarmed black man, in his grandmother’s backyard has brought our nation to a new low.  Yesterday The New York Times said that the killing of Clark “reignites a furor,” which seems to me an unfortunate way to frame this most recent in a long line of race-based killings.  This phrase renders invisible (again) the consistent work done by Black Lives Matter and the significant collaboration taking place now between Chicago teens and Parkland survivors to address broad issues of gun violence across race and class.  (*See this March 5th piece from CBS Chicago and this March 14th NPR piece about Chicago students’ approach to the Natioanl Walkout.)  I am confused about and frightened by our nation’s continued refusal to address what is truly an epidemic.  How can we talk about democracy in any sincere way when we are killing citizens and suppressing voters’ rights?  Of course, our 242-year-old nation has all too comfortably settled into an EZ chair of smug self-satisfaction about being the world’s finest democratic nation, all the while ignoring a history of slavery, a past and present of colonialism, and an imperial and imperious approach to judging other nations’ governing styles.

I have become sensitive to the criticism that my blog posts and in-person political comments are “too negative.”  How can I paint the killing of unarmed people in a positive way?  How can I regard a “president” who created a paper-towel-toss television game show out of the destruction of Puerto Rico as anything but deeply narcissistic and destructive? I try to adopt critical postures that allow me to think through theory, practice, history, and current events in order to see positive, negative, and neutral points.  I don’t see us making any progress on the Black Lives Matter project because our nation’s knee-jerk reaction is to link the protection of black lives to the immediate mortgaging of police force, which is to say, a weakening of the militarized, hypermasculinized police forces who haven’t learned the lessons of Ferguson or of any other death of a black person since then.  (*See related posts: Black Lives Matter, Damn It; Charlottesville (and Lexington); Women in the Resistance; Mary Beard’s Manifesto.)

We learned this week that the 2020 United States Census is slated to include citizenship questions—a fraught proposition in fraught times.  This proposal incorporates “build the wall” rhetoric in one simple question about who belongs and who doesn’t—the very same questions we should consider when we think about institutions of colonialism, genocide, and slavery that have shaped our nation.  The very same questions we should ask ourselves when we look at the United States legacy of gun violence.  I draw some comfort from seeing 12 states challenge this most recent move of Trump’s House of Whites, and I hope that my home state of Virginia soon adds its name to the list of challengers.  Local, regional, and national bipartisan efforts to change unjust gerrymandering laws also reassure me that good people can work together to do the right thing.  That’s positive, right?

Mueller’s work and, bizarrely, Stormy Daniels’ exposure of Trump’s lying and cheating in personal and professional realms seem to indicate progress in revealing this “president” for the liar, cheater, groper, racist, misogynist {fill in the blank} that he is.  We must protect Robert Mueller’s ability to get this job done correctly and forthrightly.

In the meantime, I take great stock in massive, nationwide protests, regional efforts to collaborate on projects for the greater good, and local community groups who resist on so many fronts.  In the past two weeks alone, our local community has: announced the first general meeting of the newly chartered NAACP chapter; sponsored an immigrant rights clinic; witnessed its middle- and high-school students organize and bring to fruition their own walkouts; held women’s history and women’s rights events; protested the Atlantic Coast Pipeline; initiated conversations about farms and farmers; seen teachers draft a letter advocating for increased safety in their schools; and encouraged a broad slate of excellent candidates for regional office.  There is much to celebrate here, and we should do so.

Thanks for reading this scattered post.  Stay tuned for a possible guest blogger for next week’s post to offer a different voice after 88 consecutive weeks of mine!  (Damn.  I just realized that, if you’ve read 88 Gender Shrapnel Blog posts, I should send you a prize of some sort.)

(Yard signs in adjacent yards.  Pennsylvania, 2017. )

Cardinals Rule

A month ago, the cardinals returned to the backyard, the red males puffing out their breasts and the tan and red females flitting through the bushes.  They seemed busier than ever, flashing red, singing songs, chasing tail.  Last week, our large puppy Nimbus and I were sniffing around the backyard, further back than Nimbus had yet roamed.  Nimbus surprised herself as she discovered the back fence.  Sharp metal met curious snout, and a large cardinal flew towards the fence on the other side.  I was amused and surprised. Nimbus was afraid, and then curious, and then predatory.  The bright red cardinal looked as shocked as the overgrown puppy, and they each flew away as they could.  This little flirtation with my own backyard produced in me a much-needed belly laugh.

The next morning, I went to see one of my favorite people in the world, the person who cuts and dyes my hair and has done so for years.  This woman and my brother Matt are two of the most natural comedians I’ve ever met, and I have always loved that they crack themselves up as much as they amuse their interlocutors.  As I did the public disrobing—glasses tucked away, earrings out, sweater off–, I noticed a small, stuffed cardinal on the hairdresser’s station.  “What’s up with the cardinal?” I asked.  “Nothing, really.  They’re supposed to represent a sudden appearance of loved ones who have passed.”  Well, I had never heard that before, and I immediately thought of my friend/hairdresser’s loss of a dear nephew and how comforting the thought of a cardinal could be.

Now that I’ve googled “cardinal” and learned all the things the internet will tell me about the cardinal (for example, it is the state bird of several states, and its population is not in danger), I see that the sense of comfort for the loss of loved ones is a top hit on the search engine.  I’m always amazed at how not in the know I am.  The “All About Birds” website tells us this about the Northern Cardinal: “The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off. Even the brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.”  I was only going to copy and paste a line of this, but the description of the sights and sounds of cardinals proved irresistible.  This idea that cardinals stay beautiful and stay put, whistling while they work, makes them close to ideal for representations of loved ones who have passed.

I’m not at all religious, don’t believe in the afterlife, and usually pooh-pooh signs and symbols that imply this kind of belief.  (I want to make clear that I admire and respect others’ engagement with these spiritual questions. I was not raised in faith and still find it an unnatural posture for myself.)  Not so last Thursday. I was all in.  I mean, how many cardinals do you come across in an 18-hour span?  The whole family, the surprise single cardinal, and then the stuffed fellow at the work station.  It was too much.  The cardinal at the back fence had to be my mother; he just had to.  He had to be telling me something, anything, so that I could make sense of three random but interconnected events.  But, nope, there was no celestial message, no pithy remark, no profound advice.  Just a fence and a laugh.  Maybe that’s all we get on some days, and it is enough.

I think my mother would find it deliciously ironic that we got a puppy, at my insistence, so that I could walk briskly for miles with a dog who wanted to walk, only to find that walking the dog ignited every arthritic wick in my shoulder.  Now I dutifully pee and poop the dog in the backyard, while the less enthusiastic amblers in the family are left to trot the energetic gal around the neighborhood.  I’m very much reminded of the one misbegotten adventure my family had with a dog when I was young.  My mother most assuredly did not want another critter to care for, especially not beyond the seven children (eight born in eight years) she was already bathing, feeding, chauffeuring, teaching, scolding, and shepherding.  The energetic puppy we adopted back then ended up, by our mother’s mandate, on seven daily walks—one with each child around our big block—to tire him out.  I imagine the first three or four spins around the block were fun and the last three or four were forced marches, but I don’t remember too well.  The canine experiment lasted under four months.  Back at my house now, I just imagine my mother shaking her cardinal head, thinking, “Well, kid, you wanted a dog.  Put your arthritic shoulder to the wheel.”  And then I pick up more poop, toss it in a can, and move on.

But what of this need to understand the cardinal as something?  The need to create the equation, cardinal = loved one. Of course, our reckoning with mortality inspires terror, sadness, nostalgia, tenderness—many of the emotions on the wintry side of life.  Last week, my Intro to Spanish literature students grappled with Miguel de Unamuno’s “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” trying to understand a village priest who busily keeps his parishioners believing while he himself does not trust in the notion of the afterlife.  This week, we read many poems by Antonio Machado, digging into the sights, sounds, and textures of rural landscapes and their invocations of memory, longing, and death.  This poem in particular struck the students as stark:  Al borde del sendero un día nos sentamos / Ya nuestra vida es tiempo, y nuestra sola cuita / son las desesperantes posturas que tomamos / para aguardar… Mas Ella no faltará a la cita.  Loosely translated: We sat one day at the edge of the forest path / Our life is only time, and our only preoccupation / is the desperate position we occupy / to await… But She will not miss the date.  For my students, this frank confrontation with death at our door appears premature and unnecessary.  For me, there is something comforting about it, something that reminds us of the universality of passing, of the need to read into (maybe even over-read) the cardinal’s sudden appearance or constant presence.  Surely, with others’ recent losses heaped on top of my own, I feel more keenly aware of the collective fragility and beauty of it all, and of the eternal need for poetry.

On some days, you just let the cardinals rule.

Zero Tolerance

First and foremost, I’m sending a huge shout-out to the many school children across the nation who walked out from their schools this morning in protest of lax gun control laws that place the students in what my husband calls “perpetual code yellow” (perpetual potential lockdown).  Deep, heartfelt thanks go to this big, brave group and to the teachers, staff, and administrators who joined them.  (*If you have access, check out Rockbridge County High School Latin Teacher Patrick Bradley’s account of the walkout at his school.)  *Here is the Gender Shrapnel post on guns from a few weeks ago.

Next, I’d like to address the use of the term “zero tolerance,” especially in the college/university environment, as it pertains to hazing and other forms of sexual and racial discrimination and harassment.  This issue comes up in the 2016 Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace book, but I have not written much about it here in the blog.

When institutions cite “zero tolerance policies,” they are referring to the requirement that they investigate reported cases of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, along with sexual violence.  They are not saying that they do not tolerate hazing and other forms of harassment.  In fact, such high-profile and troubled institutions as Pennsylvania State University and Ohio State University and dozens of others  tout zero-tolerance policies, while news reports show them to have tolerated for decades lethal hazing and other forms of sexual abuse and assault.  They also are not saying that, when they investigate these cases, they often find for the complainant. (*Here are some examples of zero-tolerance policies at: George Mason; Penn State (specifically addressing bullying); University of California-Riverside; University of Oregon; University of Southern Maine; news report on zero-tolerance policy at the University of Virginia.)

The National Education Association has published this interesting 2011 article on alternatives to zero tolerance policies.  The focus in the article is more on all-or-nothing punishments than on misleading rhetoric, but the content can help to guide conversations on the whole concept of zero tolerance.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definitely considers zero-tolerance policies when it is presented with reports of employment violations.  Just insert “zero tolerance” as the search item on this site, and you’ll see what I mean.

The rhetoric is incredibly misleading, for it implies that school officials have eradicated violence based in structural hierarchies, when exactly the opposite is true.  I would argue that using the “zero tolerance” term in an environment where hazing runs deep and dangerous (e.g. fraternities, athletics teams, military organizations) contributes profoundly to the “blind-eye phenomenon” I write about in the Gender Shrapnel book.  It covers up an all-too-often whispered reality of lords demanding servitude through violence—something clearly allowed, if not directly fomented, by our university cultures.

I hear it in this way: Hazing will simply not be tolerated in our midst—except for when we tolerate it every day—and I mean it!  Those who created the zero-tolerance policy meant well, didn’t they?  They must have been people who believed that you could say, “Fiat lux!” and there would be light.  Oh, how easy it is to zip out the “zero tolerance” lingo.  If you just declare “zero tolerance” of an odious practice, then clearly that odious practice has ceased to exist. We have zero tolerance, and therefore nowhere on our campus do we tolerate hazing or discrimination based on gender or race.  Just like that!  That’s faster than you get a milkshake in the Cook Out line.

I remember that a long, long time ago, in my first year at the university where I teach, I saw an older faculty member sit in the back, mumble epithets, and occasionally punch the carpeted walls of the meeting room.  He was really frustrated, and also vaguely amused by younger faculty members’ naïve belief that discussion could be had and change could be wrought.  I appreciated his frank demonstrations of frustration and futility, but also thought that of course we could create change, even as I listened to the story of a fraternity whose members were suspended for using electric cattle prods on their newest “brothers.” I remember being horrified at this news, naively believing that kind of practice could never be a part of a brotherhood ritual, and stating openly that our honor system should be under question if we knowingly allowed these activities to take place for at least eight straight weeks, every year.  As we left that spring faculty meeting, at least five older faculty members gently warned me that I’d better be careful if I wanted to earn tenure.  I risked it and kept talking.  As you can see, I still risk it and keep talking.  My position at the university is less precarious than back then, but my big mouth, combined with crumbling faculty governance, still introduces an element of vulnerability.

About five years after I arrived at the university, I sat as an elected member on my university’s board of appeals, which hears cases of student discipline that have been decided upon by the student governing bodies and have been appealed.  I listened to one particular hazing case for many hours, more than I would have spent on even the lengthiest of stints of local jury duty.  As I recall, the fraternity in question had sophomores and juniors who were alleged to have tied new members’ hands behind their backs, forced copious amounts of alcohol down their throats, and left them to lie in each other’s vomit.  I believe that other cases of corporal abuse accompanied these accounts, although I do not recall that element as clearly now.  I watched as well-known lawyers and alumni of the particular fraternity arrived to testify, to indulge the “boys’” actions, and to seek the lowest possible penalty for something that surely we all understand as just a tradition.  I watched as the fraternity was suspended, not expelled, from campus.  I watched that fraternity return to campus and resume its rituals.  In fact, it is the very same fraternity that was just suspended, not expelled, from our campus for reports of the very same kind of hazing.

About a year ago, I wrote this “Loving People” post in response to the report that a Penn State University student had died, had been left to die, as his “brothers” covered up their felonious actions and the university again had to confront its indulgence of violent, supposedly underground practices, even as they continued to invoke zero-tolerance policies.

At our faculty meeting this week, I foolishly jumped back into the belly of the beast I’ve avoided for several years.  The beast is the fraternity system, whose hazing practices range from mild to lethal and whose academic focus for new pledges ranges from zero on the Fahrenheit scale to zero on the Kelvin scale.  Two years ago, I taught intermediate-level courses in the semester in which fraternities conducted “new member education.”  Approximately 72% of the students in these classes, already dominated by male students, were men receiving fraternity “new member education.”  Their performance in the class went from mediocre to piss-poor to mostly nil.  Their sense of privilege went from high to higher-than-a-kite to sky-high.  I’m too old to think this is cute, or good, or simply a rite of passage.  Mostly it seems like a huge waste of time, money, and the opportunity to learn to live at times outside of oneself.  I am definitely old enough to understand that these so-called “boys will be boys,” “brotherly” behaviors can be deadly.

How are we doing as we continue to say that no hazing is tolerated?  Have we sent the message that boys won’t be boys, that hazing is not tolerated, that our young men aren’t learning to be lords of the manor?  Recent and past events certainly tell us otherwise.

Process

(Basílica Santa María del Mar, Barcelona.  Photo: E. Mayock)

“Process.” This word rarely motivates and often stultifies, but we know that the steps we take in big decisions matter in both the short and long term.  How we make decisions matters as much as the decisions themselves.  When we make decisions, we are showing that we have gathered as much information as possible, have included as many people as possible, have followed guidelines, and have attempted to effect the best outcome for the most people.  We should also be showing that we respect people’s work and ideas, that these form a part of how we operate together in the workplace, that no final decision supersedes our respect for each other’s work.

An on-campus adjudication process determines that an alum who sexually harasses undergraduate work-study employees still gets to move freely around campus, just not in the one building where he has harassed.  This leaves the undergraduate students wary of where they can be on campus, feeling less than safe because the harasser can be anywhere.  The alumnus has more freedom to move where he wishes than the currently enrolled students.

A high-school student brings a loaded gun onto campus—before Parkland but after every other school shooting since Columbine.  The administration takes care of the incident and informs the staff and faculty that they have done so.  They neglect to tell parents, who receive four different kinds of alerts when a little snow falls, when the wind blows, when there’s a Longaberger bingo session scheduled for a Friday night at school, and when armed bank robbers are in the area.  When they realize that parents are dismayed that they were not informed, the administrators write a letter to the parents, which they post on the website but whose presence on the website they neglect to announce.

An administrator calls people into his office and repeatedly raises his voice with and at them in the hour-long discussion.  The meeting room door is wide open.  Twelve yards down the hall sits a work-study student, by herself, possibly wondering if she will soon have to be alone with the violent-voiced person.  Hours later, the people called to the meeting receive odd, half-insistent, half-regretful e-mails from the violent-voiced person.

A lengthy strategic planning process involves hundreds of faculty members, whose well-intentioned ideas and carefully crafted proposals are to be voted upon by a committee who will implement the one, best shining idea.  After hundreds of labor hours executed by numerous workers, the idea the committee voted fifth-best becomes the darling of the administration and the other proposals are returned to the dust heap of institutional great ideas.  The fifth-best is a great idea, too; it is just not the one elected through the established process.

A university fails to meet accreditation standards and does major acrobatics to get back in line.  Most of the new policies restore the university to curricular policies held several years before.  The new policies are now the old policies, which had been criticized as antiquated and “meat and potatoes.”

A university requires its faculty members to attend monthly meetings, where quorum is rarely reached.  Faculty members choose not to go to the required meetings.  Faculty governance seems almost an ironic, romantic notion, as faculty members vote “yea” when the administration wants them to and “nay” when the administration wants them to, and then hurry home to complete all the tasks not completed in the busy day capped by a futile faculty meeting.  Nevertheless, these faculty members do appear in droves at an optional meeting whose ostensible purpose is to question process.  Thoughtful administrators show up at this meeting, too, but remain silent on the issues because corporate administrations require “team players” who will toe tacit and spoken party lines, who will hesitate to reveal in public enlightened debate and dialectical differences of opinion.  I understand the silence, for those who do beg to differ are shown the door in a variety of creative ways.

A department’s temporary faculty, who together have contributed multiple decades-worth of work, are excised from the department.  They are all women.  Other department members find out about the decision months after the temporary members.  The department is told to make do.

Faculty governance used to tell us that elected committees matter, that national searches for big posts are the norm, that tenure is not supposed to be an automatic gift, that curricular decisions should be in the students’ best interest.  Faculty governance used to communicate that conversations and processes surrounding diversity matter, that they are rich, varied, textured, difficult, and that they lead to hard-won decisions that satisfy the greatest number of thinking people.

We can think of process as a column that requires a strong base, or plinth, upon which will rise the vertical piece (the process in motion), to be topped by the capital (the end result).  If the base is lacking core elements (e.g. goals/objectives; timeline; people involved; task list) and clear communication, then the vertical piece will not develop well.  People will be afraid to stand near or under the column.  The final touch of the capital will seem improbable, and maybe even dangerous.  Building upon the faulty base and justifying such construction lend themselves to absurd conversations based on absurd processes.

I recommend this decalogue on process:

BASE:

  1. Develop a set of questions. Share them broadly with all individuals and groups who might be impacted by the final outcome of the process. Revise questions appropriately according to good feedback given in this step.
  2. Develop goals and objectives from the questions posed in Step 1. Share them broadly with all individuals and groups who might be impacted by the final outcome of the process. Revise goals and objectives appropriately according to good feedback given in this step.
  3. Determine who will be involved in the process and justify the selection. Share this information, including the justification, broadly.
  4. Write rules to guide the process.
  5. Create a reasonable timeline and task list.
  6. Communicate clearly and broadly everything you have done so far.

VERTICAL CONSTRUCTION:

  1. Follow your rules. If something occurs that impedes clean adhesion to the rules, share this fact broadly, and then reset the course transparently. Do not break the rules of the process without making clear why you have done so.
  2. Follow your timeline and task list.
  3. Communicate clearly and broadly everything you have done so far.

CAPITAL:

  1. Announce the results. Evaluate the process. Celebrate hard work, good communication, and transparency.

As you can see from the decalogue, much of the work for a good process takes place at the base.  Solid construction in the base establishes clarity and trust and motivates more good work.