Sunday, February 26, 2006

Much more important...

Okay, I've been stalling hoping I could figure out how to work the cool link buttons, but it's too important to wait for my dubious technological skills to emerge from wherever they have taken up semi-permanent hibernation. Oh, wait, I never had any such skills in the first place. During my delightful marriage to the world's smartest and funniest man (how I miss him), I got to live dizzyingly beyond my own technolgical capacities. I even went on the job market with a kick-ass website, including writing samples, teaching materials...and no link to any blog site.

But I digress, and from a matter far more important than my endless drivel:

A page has been set up to raise funds for medical expenses for Annika Tiede, a five-year old who needs a liver transplant (and not her first...).

Annika's mother keeps a profoundly beautiful and heartbreaking blog here. And she has a powerful post on how even with so-called "excellent" medical coverage, her family has been devastated by the financial impact of Annika's illness. Read her post about why we should all live in abject fear of the medical insurance industry and any health disasters, here. We academics, even with "good health care," are all one hospitalization away from bankruptcy...oh, wait, we can't file for it anymore. Okay, one major illness from living in cardboard boxes and holding signs saying, "will lecture on the Modernist aesthetic for food." And we are, I realize, so much more fortunate than vast numbers of Americans. (How does a poor American stomach the news that his or her government is spending billions in Iraq, while rending the last vestiges of a safety net? People die in this country every day because they can't pay for care. And we accept that. I'm not talking about last-ditch efforts or expensive procedures with minimal expectations of results. I am talking basic and even preventative care for things that are often readily controlled or curable. We think it's normal. Until someone lost in the bureaucracy says to us, "Sure, we have medication that will help. It costs $562.00/week." Which is basically a death sentence: "you are too poor to be worth saving.")

Except in the larger scheme of things, (stage II cancer, terminal cancer, death of my beloved husband), our family was "lucky"; I have incredibly generous family members and friends, and my husband managed to spread his crises out over several years' worth of coverage. My colleagues helped out so I never had to take unpaid leave (the only kind available to me unless I myself am having chemotherapy). We had enough support and savings to allow us to pay the exorbitant premiums, staggering numbers of co-pays, and additional niceties throughout his terminal illness, while keeping a roof over our heads.

Moreena's posts strike terror in my heart; perhaps the only thing worse than losing my husband would have been having my daughter seriously ill. All the fear, pain, and helplessness; incredible financial anxiety, and the heartbreak of knowing that my child didn't—couldn't possibly—understand why she had to suffer in this way.

In honor of her own husband's brave struggle, and to honor the survivor spirit that he and Annika share, Badger (who has her own troubles), has contributed a piece of Mr. Badger's powerful, moving artwork to help Annike's cause. Bid for it and read more here.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Odds, ends, silver linings

1. Lace has some astute follow-up to my post on the "intention" conundrum and white privilege. I want to think much more about how/whether the internet is a useful forum for discussions about things like white privilege, and what role anonymity or pseudonymity (which in my case ain't worth much, since anyone who knows me IRL, even casually, would recognize the tragic particulars of my life) plays in the stakes of this all-important question.

2. I find it really interesting that Scott Eric Kaufman and others jumped so quickly to the issue of intentionality vis a vis rape or sexual encounters (and, of course, specifically heterosexual encounters). With all due respect to him (I love his blog, and find him a smart guy), it troubles me that there seems to be an underlying assumption that the male "intention" seems to boil down to "I want to have sex with any girl who doesn't aggressively resist, even if her eyes are a bit glazed and she's never seen me before, or is at a potentially sexually fraught situation like a frat party."

I have male friends who assure me that, despite their veneer of civilized sexual restraint, this is, in fact, their goal. And as with the "good intentions" claimed by so many white folks, I still think it's bullshit. My whole point, I think--and please disagree with me, but don't excoriate me, yet--I am working this out and promise to follow up with more coherent thoughts--is that the group members to whom our inherently inequitable society has granted greater power (economic, racial, social, physical) have a greater obligation to question their own "intentions," and to avoid putting those intentions above the realities claimed by those who are, for whatever reason, disadvantaged. [And I don't necessarily mean a "unversally" greater obligation; but a greater obligation if the goal is to question and dismantle that privilege, and to build a better and more equitable society]. This means, gentlemen, not that your intentions are insignificant or necessarily suspect, but that in order to dismantle some of the inequities of society, you might have to consider that your "intentions" do not get to define the experience. As a white woman, I don't get to define the ways in which my speech and actions are "read" by my black students, colleagues, friends, or neighbors. I can participate in that reading, but I don't get to define its meaning. If I am to give up my privilege, that is what I must give up. Not my intentions, but my insistence that my intentions are definitive, prescriptive, and legible to someone whose experience of the world (as a black person, as a woman) is not my own.

3. The world's most fabulous niecelet, who happens to be my niece, has placed me at the top of her "loving list." Now, I don't know exactly what such a list entails (is it like the famous Seinfeld "speed dial" episode?), but it is worth incurring potential violence from her mother (formerly number one, now demoted to number two) for getting to feel, for a little while, like I am the best-loved auntie in the universe.

Edited to add: Apparently my status as number 1 on the loving list does not involve kicking or being kicked. Apparently only my sister, mother of the niecelet extraordinaire and kick-er non pareil, is the kick-ee. The rest of us get all the glory, but none of the pain. But that seems to pretty much define motherhood, non?

Friday, February 17, 2006

in which I think about something other than bereavement, for once

I happened to catch part of Oprah's recent show on "Changing Races" in rerun last night. Confession time: I am embarrassingly prone to watching ice skating competitions, the glitzier and tackier the better. I love the adaptations of bad Broadway scores, the horrific costumes, the desperate athleticism. I'm not above surfing the channels on Sunday afternoons while "grading papers" or "reading" in the hopes of stumbling across some obscure championship. If it redeems me at all, I have to say that I find "ice dancing" a travesty of the sport....Anyway, I was hoping to catch the finals of the men's iceskating, and during the breaks, found Oprah.

In life and at work, I've been thinking a lot about white privilege. It's a particular issue for us, with our largely white student body, many of whom have lived in relatively homogenous suburbs before coming here, and whose attitude toward issues of race, culture, and social relations is best described as benign neglect or fatigue. They have been raised by teachers who, products of the Civil Rights era and those just following, have introduced more and more "multicultural" material into the classrooms. Most of them are from what they themselves consider "liberal families," which in practice tends to mean families who object to overt acts of racism, pay lip service to the idea that "we're all alike under the skin," and live, whether by conscious or unconscious choice, in ways that almost guarantee the absence of any meaningfully diverse encounters across social, racial, or economic class lines. In other words, these kids largely represent the (white) American dream: safe suburbs, good schools, and a homogeneity whose roots in discriminatory institutional practices are well-concealed from its beneficiaries.

So "teaching race" at our college is largely a matter of convincing disinterested and occasionally hostile white students that race relations are not "solved," that inequality exists, and that their own life experiences are not, in fact, representative of "everyone" in America. At the same time, we find ourselves having to work hard to protect our students of color (many of whom are themselves from affluent, middle or upper-class communities, and may have had little explicit contact with the poverty and social ills we associate with American racism) from being turned into "experts" or, worse, exotic representations of some kind of racial identity truth.

Oprah's show featured two families who, with the help of Hollywood make-up teams, "switched races" and lived together in L.A. while venturing into the world as members of the opposite race. Here I need a disclaimer: I did not watch the whole show, and so the following comments are meant not as a definitive interpretation of either family's experience, but as my own meditation on the pieces I did see..

But what I did see made me very, very uncomfortable. And at the risk of being one more white liberal woman trying to have her say on the race issue, here's why.

Carmen, the mother from the white family, dominated the segments I saw. Drawing heavily on the rhetoric of "prayerfulness" and a kind of new-agey desire for "speaking her truth," she insisted, over and over again, on bringing the discussion back to her intentions. She and her husband were, apparently, amazingly naive about the freighted history of things like "the N-word," and took their foray into "blackness" as apparent license to test out the limits of black tolerance for what are, perhaps, the most history-laden and pain-evoking words in contemporary English (okay, perhaps some derogatory words for women have equally long and ugly histories). And they insisted on doing this despite the explicit responses of the black family with whom they were sharing a home. Perhaps worse yet, they felt defensive for having to be "careful" in their choice of language, after deliberately invoking words that--as they finally admitted--mean something different depending on who is saying them.

And Oprah, I thought, was a bit too careful to provide her "understanding" that these self-described 'well-intentioned' but horrifically ignorant white folks wanted to be given a "pass" for deliberately, if, as they claim, unintentionally trying out every indignity associated with blackness in today's world. I can see why, in a larger sense, she needed to be very careful not to appear to simply side with her black guests on every issue and attack these white people, but I think she missed several opportunities to ask the hard questions that might have promoted some real learning (from the audience, if not from the particular white family in question).

Now, I know this is "just TV"--carefully edited, with the dull, harmonious parts cut out. And I know that more careful, perspicacious white folks would probably not a) persist in tossing out offensive racial epithets just to test the waters; or b) agree to such a loaded experiment in the first place. It takes an especially dense or self-righteous person to persist in such arrogant acts in the face of clear messages from other people that these acts are causing pain.

But what scares me is how typical the interaction seems, and how it's emblematic of a key element of white privilege.

From what I could see, the white parents (Bruno and Carmen), never really "got it." That is, in spite of their statements about seeing things differently, they still expected, whatever the historical reality, to be judged by their "intentions," and by "what was in their hearts,"—even when, in practice, they deliberately did things someone else had specifically identified as hateful.

It seems to me that their insistence on "intentionality," and the refusal to take responsibility for anything outside of what one acknowledges about his or her intentions and desires, is at the root of white privilege. The black family (Renee, Brian, and Nick) tried to explain (and I don't mean to paint the white folks as simple "villains" against the noble black family, I'm focusing only on this specific aspect) the difference between Carmen's and Bruno's "intention" and their own reality (coming up against racism in multiple settings), but Carmen, especially, insisted that she be read in terms of her own desires and intentions, despite the reality of centuries of black history, and the explicit statements of the black people about whom and to whom she was speaking. Her "solution" to the 'race problem' is the same as well-meaning white folks everywhere: "believe what I say that I mean, and let me define the terms by which I say those things; Ignore your own experience, your history, and your visceral reactions and forgive me for whatever I might do that hurts you, as long as I don't do it intentionally (or say that I don't). Then we'll get along."

Sorry, but that's just bullshit. It's a demand for understanding and tolerance from those to whom you refuse to extend the same courtesy; that is, the courtesy of allowing them "their truth"—historical truth—if it means you might have to change your own behavior or accept that your experience is not, in fact, an infallible measure of reality.

As long as white people, especially well-meaning, liberal, politically correct, and, ostensibly, non-racist white folks, persist in insisting on their own "feelings" (and their right to express those in whatever terms they please) as more important than either a) the realities of black/white history and the legacies of institutional racism, b) the feelings of actual black people, I suspect we are all going nowhere.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


I dreamed my husband was alive. In my dream, he was as sick as he was near the end of his life: emaciated, his body ravaged by tumors. But despite dismal prognoses, he was alive, and we were discussing strategies for more aggressive treatments.

It was an ordinary day, for us.

And then, as in a bad short story, I woke up.

And I am alone all over again.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Three months today since the joy went out of my life. How appropriate, too, that tomorrow is the "romantic" holiday that I always loathed for its forcedness, its elevation of a particular manifestation of love above all others in the world, and its smug exclusivity.

On our first Valentine's Day together, my then-future husband made me chocolate mousse. He was not one for the cheap, trite gesture, and he shared my disdain for the generic exaggerations of the holiday, but we had just started dating, and so he made this rich, decadent dessert for us.

Today and tomorrow are going to be bad, bad days. And I now understand that there are no rewards for endurance in this race I've been forced to run. The best I can hope for is not to feel as bad all the time as I do right now.

Thursday, February 9, 2006

A Long and Lonesome Road

It seemed as though I'd gotten through a bad patch, and was about to come out the other side. Instead, I'm just discovering the unrelenting awfulness of single parenthood. My daughter (BL, from here on out; she deserves a better, unique acronym, but this is a modified version of a nickname I use for her, and will have to do) has had a nasty bout of something, and has resorted to listlessness, clinging, whining, and an adamant refusal to allow me to do any of the things that might help her feel better. Maybe this is typical of a sick three-year old? But it's played havoc with my various responsibilities (I'm teaching on the fly, as it were, and canceling office hours like nobody's business), including my new strategies for a sane and functional--if no longer anything approaching "happy"--life.

And now my mother-in-law, who has been helping watch BL this week when I have to teach, has decided that my daughter is "depressed." (I suspect this idea originated with one of my husband's sisters, who are noteworthy for their effective absence during his illness and for their intrusive and pedantic "advice," which is almost always delivered via the MIL). Maybe she is depressed. I am; and I'm pretty much central to her existence. She's also had 5 days of fever, a racking cough, and almost nothing to eat.

But I'm having a hard time coping with the sick child, the feeling I am failing to meet my professional responsibilities, my own sorrow, anger, and boredom at what my life looks like these days, and the "speculations" about BL's mental health, divorced as they are from much actual help in managing the day-to-day issues in our lives. I realize I'm being unfair, here; but today, I want to be unfair.

I want to rail at the hostile universe for making me the thing I most wanted to avoid: a single mother. I can handle the "practical" aspects; to be honest, my husband had been so ill for so long that I effectively "parented" by myself in terms of the logistics and the work. But I am having far more trouble adjusting to the loneliness of making every decision by myself, of having no one to turn to for reassurance that I am doing an okay job at this most important task, of losing the one person to whom my daughter and I meant the world. That emotional gulf is immense, and unfillable.

In the first days of widowhood, I worried about the mechanical aspects of being alone: paying the bills, getting the oil changed, finding someone to paint the house. I still worry about those things. But far more wretched is the alienation I feel from everything around me. Yes, I have fabulous and supportive friends. But I don't want "friends," who come and go from their own lives (lives that seem so much more desireable than mine, these days). I want someone in the trenches with me, for good and bad. I love my daughter, but I want someone there to console me at the times when I don't like her too much. I want someone to console me at the times, like today, when I don't like me too much.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

The Mouths of Babes

My daughter seems to have sounded the death knell for rock's aging bad boys, the The Rolling Stones. As Mick Jagger pranced about during the Super Bowl halftime show, she became quite agitated.

"Take them away!" she shouted. "I don't like the Wiggles! I don't want the Wiggles!"

Sorry, guys.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

The saddest club ever

The week is not even half over, but it's been a hard one.

Yesterday morning, my daughter had one of those perfectly normal three-year-old days on which her response to everything was, "No, I don't want to do that thing." She wouldn't eat her breakfast, which included at least four separate items I had prepared. She vetoed everything I was putting in her school lunch. She refused to wear a sweater, or to leave her shoes on.

I was feeling especially pressed yesterday; I had class prep left to do, and a list of phone calls to make and return that is approximately the length of my leg (and I'm pretty tall, for a girl). We're finishing up a search, and in anticipation of its conclusion, all the postponed tasks for the department and the university are reasserting themselves. We didn't have anything for dinner. It had been 3 days since my daughter last encountered a vegetable. The weather has been crappy, the bills are unpaid, the plumber isn't returning my calls. The chimney repair guys want to wait another month.

And I miss my husband. Oh, wait, that should have been the first item on the list, and the subtext of every other item.

By the time my daughter (I have got to think of a clever acronym for her) and I got to her school, we were both crying. Her teacher reports that she got over it much sooner than I did.

And now I find out that the lonely club made up primarily by Badger and me has another member.

It's not supposed to be like this. Worst of all, I suspect there are more of us. There must be.

I guess—no, I know—that it is wonderful that we found each other. I know that reading Badger's story has helped me endure my own, and that there is great strength in simply knowing others endure and survive this. There is also great sorrow in knowing someone else is suffering as we have suffered (and still do).

It's exhausting, being brave. I'm so tired that fate has made me an example of how to "get through" things. I don't want to be courageous, competent, or exemplary. I just wanted a life and family with the man I loved. I wanted him to have a rich, long life of his own, and with me. I'm still not ready to give up that wanting, or the anger at the destruction of our dreams.

Snickollet, we're here. We know, and we grieve, and we celebrate the minor miracles. We're proof that it can be done, and that it is also unbearable. How I hope your story has a better ending.