Thursday, December 10, 2009

Race in America: D responding to J responding to D

Wherein D owns what she says, smooths D-Fave J's ruffled feathers, and elaborates, possibly inciting deeper discussion or perhaps further division.
Wow. I'm kind of surprised to read this from you at this point, D.
Ok, I'm just gonna say this. This sort sounds like I'm your pet project and I backslid or something. Am I supposed to be sorry for my comments? You should know by now that there is almost always deeper thinking behind my ideas. Rather than shame or disappoint one another, let's get right to them.

There are a lot of issues at play here and perhaps the best way to tackle this is to deconstruct them.

Tiger Woods. All the hullabaloo surrounding Tiger Woods seems to be an issue of racial politics. Who owns celebrities? Can we share ownership of mixed race people? Am I allowed to claim Obama as one of my own? I am not ignorant of the "one drop" rule, nor do I have any problem with the black community using it as their own barometer of those they wish to claim. However, high achieving people are claimed by virtually everyone. Case in point: Michael Jordan. He is claimed by his family, his hometown, his high school, his college, his teammates, fans of his sports team, North Carolina, Illinois, Chicago, his racial community, his nation, just about every fucking person everywhere. Why? Because we ALL want to align ourselves with uber talented, insanely spectacular people. Who owns Michael Jordan? No one. Son of a bitch has more money than Oprah. Well, he did until he got divorced.

I will concede that a lot of what the field negro says, he says to be provocative and to initiate discussion. So when he says that Tiger Woods is just getting his come-uppance for rubbing elbows with the massah and forgetting about his blackness, I take it as tongue in cheek. But the field spends an extraordinary amount of blogspace advancing the idea that high-achieving black professionals fool themselves into thinking they are powerful. That the black power elite are neither powerful nor elite because the real white power elite can jack-slap them back out to the fields the first time they forget their place. He usually suggests this idea after a powerful black person has fucked up royally. Although I have learned a great deal from the field and respect him immensely, I think this idea (if indeed he actually believes it) is preposterously naive. He violates common rules of logic when he applies his pet theory not to the broader community of high-achieving black professionals, but only to those who have fallen from grace. It is easy to say Tiger's fall is the result of the white man's displeasure with the n****r after the black man has fucked half a dozen women outside of his dream marriage, lost a variety of contracts with morals clauses, and embarrassed himself in public.

But can we please concede that Tiger Woods is NOT subject to the same prejudices, indignities and pressures as the rest of the community of color? He's fucking fantastically rich! We're not talking Bernie Mac rich or Eddie Murphy rich. We're talking audience with the President rich. We're talking Michael Jordan rich.

I would remind the field of Obama's comment on David Letterman regarding racial backlash. Do you think for one minute that TIGER WOODS the GOLFER forgot that he wasn't white? Do you think for one minute that anyone in his professional life has ever let him forget that he is the great black golfer? That he is the barrier breaker? That he is a role model for a new generation of black youth? Speaking for myself, I celebrate the Tiger Woodses and the Michael Jordans of the world for their incredible talent and not for their color. Maybe I have the luxury to ignore their race, but I have no less right to them than you do.

African American as a race. I will absolutely allow that the shifting vernacular is not a plot to piss me off. I believe, as you do, that changing terminology is a result of an evolving sense of community. I also would like to point out that I was never irritated by this, simply pointing out that it had changed and that the term isn't reflective of racial composition. I know a number of Caucasian people from Mexico who receive whatever special considerations are given to those who are considered Hispanic by virtue of ambiguous racial definitions. Further, I was pointing out the general wackiness of a blogger's self-identified nitpicking about race when she didn't actually identify by race. Capishe?

And now, for something completely different.
Race, and culture, are impossible to precisely define, but I would definitely say there is a "pole" around which the African-American/black culture centers, and a "pole" for majoritarian culture, primarily the culture of those who don't necessarily have to give explicit thought to race.
I would suggest that white people are forbidden from giving explicit thought to race--at least since the 1960s. Sure, as a group, white America has a lot to make up for after 150 years of cross-burnings, lynchings, fire bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, water hosing of freedom marchers, George Wallace attempting to prevent the integration of the U of Alabama, and promotion testing that favors white applicants. I am the first to admit that white America showed its ass. But that doesn't mean we should have to give up our voice entirely. If anyone, anywhere tries to stand up and say something about the white race these days, they are labeled a Nazi sympathizer and white supremacist as a matter of course. Now..I'm not one for patting white American on the back for merely easing up on the pressure it places on the back of the neck of most minority communities. However, I do think that the "struggle for racial equality" doesn't have to always be a "struggle". I think that there are plenty of white Americans willing to talk to other white Americans about race....about the impact and legacy of our (the collective "we" here--referring to majority culture) culture on others. About our blindness to the lingering vestiges of racism. About our improbably but widespread acceptance that the playing field is level, and can be leveled without making anything harder or more competitive for white Americans. I can't tell you the number of young men I know who, upon entering the workforce and understanding that really would have to compete with everyone made some wistful comment about how much easier things were for their fathers. And those comments were full of a scarcely hidden anger. White America hasn't thought these things through--nor had I until we started having or substantive discussions on race here, J. I am willing to act as ambassador for racial equality, but to be perfectly honest, I could use a hand up here and not a slap on the wrist.

I don't know everything. I don't know what to say sometimes. I don't have the depth of understanding and sometimes lack the vernacular to put it in the words that will sink and stick with white folks. But I am trying.

My culture is not the caricature that Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock present to great comedic effect. White America is not Buffy and Chip upset because their tee-time was pushed back half an hour because Obama's motorcade was going through town. Sure, the comedy is in the way white people are ignorant to their incredible privilege and have wackaloon ideas about what it means to be put out, but when this is the pole that I have to swing from, how can I be allowed to have a real voice in the race discussion? It has been my experience (and here I mean ME as an individual) that I am not allowed, outside of our conversations, to be taken seriously in any meaningful public discussion about race. Unless, of course, I concede to the default POC position. And in some ways, J, isn't that what your response to me tried to get me to do?
That is to say, and I'm trying not to be shrill here, but honey, the terms black, Negro, Colored, African American, Afro-American, Black-American and others are not about you. We're not shifting around to annoy you (the bulk you--majoritarian culture), we're shifting around because we want a term that will do the impossible.
Did you just call me "honey"? :p

So it wasn't about whether the shifting vernacular chosen by this community or that irritates me. In fact it doesn't. Race is a shifting construct and I don't give a rat's ass what anyone calls themselves. I'm actually not all that fond of the term "white". I think it is becoming an epithet in itself. Neither do I have any sense of community coming out of the term European American. It just seems alien to me. And not to go all Obama on your ass, but isn't there an American culture? We are not as divided as our skin color would suggest. I don't think by leaving my voice and those of the majority culture (and I'm not talking about Rush Limbaugh's voice here either--I'm talking about enlightened white Americans) can we ever hope to truly carve a post-racial America.

Do I compare the hostility of the minority culture over real and ongoing racism with my "ideological hostility of the oppressors"? No. But when someone suggests that rude behavior becomes a crime when I do it, but doesn't when you do it, I have to wonder whether the community of color wants to have a meaningful discussion about race or wants revenge. Just as there is a die-hard white racist faction out there (*cough* Rush Limbaugh *cough*), there is also the "make whitey pay" faction out there, too. To deny it is to be naive.

By way of segue, there is a crazy professor in our department that regularly terrorizes graduate students by ambushing them regarding language. I heard her verbally berate a colleague's husband for calling a group of us sitting at a table "ladies". Forget that he was offering to "get us ladies something" all she heard was "ladies" and she went OFF on a tirade about how she wasn't a lady, she was a WO-MAN. Same wackjob went off on me because I called her by her first name when we were having a beer. After ripping me a new asshole for 10 minutes, she finally said that it was ok to call her by her first name if we were, you know, having a beer or something, but I shouldn't do that in professional environment. The irony of the fact that we were having a beer when she did this was completely lost on her. I am saying that most white Americans don't want to offend. We want to call people what they wish to be called. No one asks me what I wish to be called. Or my group. We're white. We're supposed to love it. We're white, after all, and every advantage is afforded us automatically.

Here is what I'm saying, J. I am ready to work to level the playing field in every way. I think there are hundreds of thousands of white Americans who feel the same. If they are like me, they don't understand why we're not being allowed to join the fight for racial equality. We are frustrated and tired. My suggestion to everyone is that you don't allow our frustration to allow us to give up on the cause. That would be a mistake.

Oh, and one more thing. I simply do not agree with this statement.

"Let us say, at best, I think you over-estimate the extent to which "People of Color" think/care about what the majority does."

I think "people of color" care a great deal what white America does.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Since when is African-American a race and other thoughts on racial politics

This is perhaps a roundabout away of getting to my point, but I was reading an article by field negro on Tiger Woods today, which led me to a variety of other articles on race. One in particular by Carmen Van Kerckhove, I found particularly perplexing.

Van Kerckhove self-identifies as Chinese and Dutch. Umm. Carmen, dear. Neither of those are races, but nationalities. That Van Kerchkhove would "nitpick" about race when she self-identifies by her ancestors' national origin is just plain wacky. Which brings me to my next odd example of race in America.

I recently was asked to sign a contract which asked for my racial identity. I was perplexed by the selection. The options were:

Caucasian
African American
Asian
Native American
Mixed race

Since when did African American get to be a race? That term has only been around for about 20 years! I am 46 years old and I can remember when black people, regardless of nationality, were referred to as Negroes. At some point in the 60s, Negro was thought of as condescending. So then it was Black. Then it became Black American. Now, it's African American. As if all black Americans are of African origin. I'll be honest. There have been times when I have thought that these shifting ideas about what to call POC was merely a way to prevent white Americans from having any sort of voice in the race discussion. As long as you can shout down the majority group by making them feel prejudiced for daring to open their mouths, you own the direction and tenor of the discussion. Bad form, I say.

The black community seems to think that Tiger isn't black enough. At least, that's my take on it. He doesn't date black women. He doesn't seem to want to be "one of them". I don't have any problem with Tiger's behavior. Tiger self-identifies as Cablinasian (Caucasian, Black, American Indian, and Asian). I sort of like it that he hasn't allowed anyone to own him, racially speaking. I think we should let people be what they want to be. If they don't agree with our ideas of race, so be it.

If we are to split hairs, and since this is my blog I will, shouldn't the options more appropriately be:

Mixed-race with primarily Caucasoid features
Mixed-race with primarily Negroid features
Mixed-race with primarily Mongoloid features
Mixed-race with primarily Australoid features
Mixed race without categorical dominance

I'm just saying. I don't know that I have the answer about how best to identify race in the first place. Aren't we all "Out of Africa"? There is no scientifically meaningful way to describe race. Race is, whatever we want it to be. I think I'm going to start self-identifying as mixed race. After all, my ancestors include some colorful people.

Of course, my comments are not meant to belittle the experiences of persons of color who have been actively discriminated against based on racial prejudices. But when I read a recent blog post on Feministing wherein people say that if a minority calls me an epithet, it's just being rude, but if I call a minority an epithet, it's a hate crime, I wonder how f*#@'d up our ideas about race have really become.

It would seem that Tiger Woods, a mixed-race individual, has had several affairs, all with white women. field negro appears to think that white America has given Tiger a wake-up call to the effect that his ass is actually black. I never actually thought of Tiger as black. I thought of him as Asian. I guess this is my prejudice. He looks more Asian than black to me. But it is almost as if we demand that some racial group own him lock, stock, and barrel.

Like Tiger, we are not all black or all white. We are not all white culture or all black culture. I think that the "black experience" in America has been well enough known to me that it has influenced who I am and how I look at myself. Yes, I have had black Americans treat me as though I had a sheet hanging in my closet because I am from Appalachia. Weren't they surprised to learn how far that was from the truth.

We are a human race. Our blood flows into and between us all. I'm not prepared to throw Tiger Woods or anyone else under the bus based on their skin color, racial identity, or sexual proclivities. Tiger is a man. He has to deal with his stupid shit, same as you and I do. I would suggest that race has very little to do with his current issues. Money and fame make everyone colorblind.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Journalists who don't understand their profession

Three points in response to this unbelievable news out of St. Louis, MO. An anonymous poster to a blog linked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch posted a one word comment in response to the question of the day: What is the strangest thing you've ever eaten?

His response: pussy.

The moderator of the blog deleted his post. The anonymous commenter re-posted his comment. (Probably thinking it hadn't gone through.) By mechanisms still not well understood by me, something called WordPress, sent Kurt Greenbaum, the author of the blog post and the STL Post-Dispatch's "Director of Social Media", an email, and.....well, why don' we let Kurt describe what happened next."
I deleted it [the second comment], but noticed in the WordPress e-mail alert that his comment had come from an IP address at a local school. So I called the school. They were happy to have me forward the e-mail, though I wasn’t sure what they’d be able to do with the meager information it included.
Well, I'll tell ya what they did with it. The IT department at the school were able to pinpoint the computer and the time and apparently, identify the poster because only one person had access to that computer at that time. So despite the fact that the STL P-D's privacy policy specifically states that they will not share information on posters with third parties without the poster's consent, Greenbaum did exactly that.

When confronted with the news that the anonymous comment had garnered a tattle-tale phone call from the blog owner, the school employee resigned on the spot.

Kurt Greenbaum then posted an account of the situation on the STL P-D website, whereupon he was summarily torn to shreds by every poster (save a handful) to the page.

I have three things to say about this.

1. The glee with which Kurt Greenbaum reports of a person losing their job for posting a mildly vulgar word qualifies him for mayor of Douchebaggerdale.

2. The fact that he vehemently defended his actions when everyone told him what a douchebag he was and the fact he felt blameless for forcing someone out of a job for something that was neither illegal nor immoral is further proof of his douchebaggery. What? You don't believe me? Look at this:

@Ghetto: Yeah, you caught me! I made him log on to his computer at work, visit STLtoday.com’s Talk of the Day, read the item, type a vulgarity and hit the “submit” key.

Interesting perspective. Thanks for your contribution.

Oh, I didn’t say he was fired. I said he resigned.

— Kurt Greenbaum 3:31 pm November 16th, 2009
or this:

Blocking IP addresses is a bad idea. You can accidentally block everyone from a particular place of business. I didn’t track down the guy. His place of work just showed up in the email alert because their servers were correctly configured.

Defend the guy who posted the vulgarity all you want. I’m not regulating someone’s thought. He can think whatever he wants. I’m moderating our boards. Follow our guidelines and this won’t be a problem for any of you.

Remember, I said it was a school, right? It could have been a student. I didn’t know who it was. I just thought the school might like to know about it. I sleep fine at night.

— Kurt Greenbaum 4:26 pm November 16th, 2009
Oh, the douchbaggery. It burns.

3. I wouldn't buy a STL Post-Dispatch if my life depended on it. If their Director of Social Media doesn't understand the nature of social media, he deserves to be fired for that alone.

I don't think I have ever heard of a bigger douche than this guy. But by god, don't call him a facist. At the St Louis Post-Dispatch, they'll call out your business for your personal thoughts.

Oh, and what warning do posters get to watch their language by the P-D? If you attempt to post, this is what appears in the comment box.
I guess these guys have never met my mother.

Massive fail, dudes.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Sustainable Future? A Response to J

Please see J's prescient post on our potential for a sustainable future. Because this response is too long, it won't fit on his comment section.

Ahh, the big question. Can humans live sustainably? My answer is simple: the environment carries a big stick and isn't afraid to use it to beat the crap out of us.

A plethora of B-movie scenarios are proposed for the time of scarce resources. The formula goes like this...resource inequities turn the world into a dyad of "haves" and "have nots". Governments of wealthy nations allow their populace to live beyond their means and the rest of the world be damned. When other nations come with their hands out, wealthy nations undergo a rapid culture shift, moving toward overt nationalism, intense isolationism, and a return to conservative values. This is a not so subtle way of saying, "If those people had worked harder and saved for a rainy day, they might have what we still have. Aren't we great?", and is one of the most ugly and obvious examples of First World privilege imaginable. (But I digress.) Ultimately, resources become so scarce that the government can no longer contain the situation and falls. Then it's every man for himself. Individuals and families hoard the remaining resources, hole up in our houses, and shoot all who attempt to enter. This also fails. (Think every zombie movie ever made.) After the family unit fails, the survivors (almost always very young people with one or two progressive old folks who can pass on accumulated knowledge) congregate in happy communes and human culture is reset to a more sustainable level. Lather. Rinse. Repeat every ten millennia or so.

Our alternative scenario is that we skip all the government control of the situation and go straight to the hippy-dippy commune approach. Not. Gunna. Happen.

There is a third option, and that is the one I think you are proposing. Technology and self awareness can give people the tools they need to maintain a first world standard of living, curb population growth, and feed every mouth in need. All we need is a paradigm shift in culture to get it there.

I maintain it won't work. Oh, I think it is physically possible (people CAN be taught to live within hard limits and exhibit self-restraint) but the cultural jumping off point precludes it. Somehow, American culture has embraced the idea that we get to decide our own reality. And as goes American culture so goes the world. Let me give you an example. I spent this morning reading an internet board that I can only describe as the "To vaccinate or not to vaccinate: that is the question facing the inept" fiasco. There are people who are convinced that there is a conspiracy between the government and Big Pharma to kill them, that scientists are doctoring clinical trials purposely to bring bad product to market, and that any money made off of of meds renders the entire profession corrupt. Remarkably, these same people who think capitalism in the medical profession is bad also think that government programs that make medical services available to the masses are also bad. So capitalism AND socialism be damned. For fuck's sake, J, nothing can save these morons. In the absence of a real disease outbreak here in the United States (I don't think Americans believe it can happen here even if it happens in Europe) that wipes out a significant portion of the population, nothing will convince these idiots of the error of their thinking. I say, let them skip the vaccinations. Just kick their children out of public school, let them contract small pox, and corral their idiot behinds in quarantine camps.

But the point here is, when did it become okay for people to decide whether to accept facts, whether or not to "believe" scientific findings, and whether or not to act in a way that places not only themselves, but others in grave danger?

Humans have all the intelligence, knowledge and physical power necessary to actually bring ourselves back from the edge. But we won't. It is one reason that I think Obama might actually fail. The birthers, the anti-vaccination crowd, the climate-change deniers all seem to be living in an alternate universe that the educated, thinking man can't penetrate. They are so gripped in their own ignornace and conspiracy theories that they can't see what idiots they really are. While they may not be the majority, they are the lowest common denominator. And we "leave no idiot behind". The vast majority of people would rather wallow in ignorance right up to the moment that they trip into their mass grave. Humans are smart, but we aren't rational. We clasp to prior knowledge even when doing so harms us. If we were rational, religion would have disappeared generations ago. We can justify the most outrageous behavior.

Furthermore, a culture shift demands that the majority follow the rules. What biological population is able to control all its members?

I taught an entire course on environmental issues in which we discussed the problems of oil extraction and refining, the probem of carbon release and climate change, the problems of grwing population size and world hunger. I STILL had a kid tell me toward the end of the semester he wasn't going to give up his gas-guzzling car because "chicks dig it".

Humans are animals and please, tell me one biological population that is not (ultimately) controlled top-down (by predation, parasitism, viral attack, etc.), laterally (by competition), or bottom-up (by environmental controls). Tell me one.

Consider for example, our cultural expectation of monogamy. There are always extra-couple copulations. Why? Because even when there is the expectation of monogamy, individuals maximize their offspring's survival chances by investing in a variable set of genes. Sure, one of those offspring may be the most fit today, but what about when conditions change rapidly? Variation is good. Variation is the stuff of evolution. We will lie when culture works against our best interests. Sometimes we don't know why we act like we do, even when we act in defiance of cultural norms. I maintain there is always an element of biological determinism at work.

And unlike those in the "can humans exhibit enough self-restraint to prevent disaster", I propose that humans are controlled hardest by the limits set by the environment. If we improve technology we will merely increase the carrying capacity of the Earth. We will continue to fill all available space until the environment pushes back. We will bicker and fight and joust among one another like chickens in coop.

I think there are an enlightened few capable of sacrificing their own self-interests for the greater good. Perhaps they can change the mass culture, but I doubt it. Maybe these few are the founders of the hippy-dippy communes, but the masses are far too distrusting and stupid to make it work. I think martial law is just about the only way to achieve peaceful (?!!) sustainability. The other alterantive is to let the Earth take care of itself.

I realize I have rambled here and not stuck to the true intent of your original post, but I think maybe I was working through this as I wrote my response. It would be great if we somehow could educate our way into this sustainable future. I don't think I'm likely to see it in my lifetime, but I could be wrong.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Am I fearless?

I was reading through a series of blog posts by The U, and dude got me to thinking. He posed a simple question. If you were to make this statement:

What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.1

What would you be talking about?

That got me thinking. This isn't about fear of dying. Death removes all fear or dread. Job intended to convey a fear he had to live with. What befell Job was, to him, a fate much worse than death. A fate from which there was no relief. If Job's fate befell me, what would that circumstance be? What is it I fear most?

I have accepted that those close to me will die one day, as will I. Death is a part of life. I don't fear it or dread it. Illness leading to death, no matter how painful, slow, or debilitating is also a part of life. I don't welcome it, but neither do I dread it. Dying as a result of some awful accident? Really, does it matter the form in which death comes? It is coming and it is relentless.

Loss of my senses. Sight. Hearing. Troublesome, yes. But I would adapt and lead a full life, I think. Loss of limb. A mere inconvenience. Paralysis. I'd learn to do wheelies in my chair. Can't communicate? I have a full life going on inside my head most of the time anyway. My thoughts would just be my little secret.

So what am I afraid of? Loss of freedom? Having to be or forced to be dependent on someone? I have a brother in prison. While I agree that prison is not an enviable lifestyle, I think I would survive it.

Rape? As someone who has dealt with sexual assault, I can say with confidence that it can be overcome.

Being alone? I'm not one to get lonely. Fear of dying alone? We all die alone.

Fear of failure? Fear that I have wasted my life? Fear of being forgotten? Fear that I will disappoint my loved ones? Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. I will fail. I have wasted a grand portion of my life. I will be forgotten. I have disappointed my loved ones.

I think people who have children have fears I will never know. Fear for a child's health and safety. Fear for their future. Those are not my fears.

I was beginning to wonder if I was fearless. But then something began to nag at me. Something small. And the more I thought about it, the more the lack of it seemed to fill me with an emptiness that I didn't want to consider. Because I am living with that thing I dread everyday.

My fear is that I will die before I know love. I'm 46. I'm past the halfway mark here. I haven't found a loving relationship in my adult life. I don't know what it is like to love and be loved in return. I have looked, not looked, waited, pursued, turned over rocks, kissed frogs, given up, taken up the search again. Zilch. Nothing. Nada. I'd love to say I loved my husband, but it's a lie. I don't know what a loving relationship feels like. I don't know what an honest love between a man and a woman feels like.

Funny thing. Unlike Job, for whom the thing he dreaded most arrived on his doorstep and settled in for the long haul, I live every day with that thing I dread most, and the only thing that keeps me going is the hope that one day it will move along and leave me to my happiness.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

So you think you want to go to graduate school

Lots of people toy with the idea of going to graduate school, but as we know, only a self-selected few actually do. And those who do wonder constantly if it is the right thing to do. I'm no exception. I think about whether I've done the right thing with my life a lot. I've been chasing this Ph.D. for 8 years now. In January 2001, I began to make up the deficiencies I had in my undergraduate record. I thought I'd get my masters. If all went well, I'd get my doctorate.

I wondered if I was smart enough. (I am.) I wondered if I had what it takes to stick with it. (I do.) I wondered if I would enjoy the job I got when I got out. (I believe I will.) I wondered if it was as bad as some people made it out to be. (It is.)

About a year ago, when I was in the middle of one of my blue funks, I conducted a survey of graduate students (which I still haven't properly analyzed), and got input from the people who've been here about whether they would do it all over again. Most would, but most were unhappy about some facet of the way their graduate experience had gone. More than a few were disillusioned with academia. If I can be given a little room to extrapolate here, I'd say that most clearly loved with the work, and clearly were not in love with what it takes to do that work. And that made me realize something about the people who do succeed in graduate school. We don't give up when the going gets tough, or when the going gets really tough, or when the going get ridiculously, unbelievably, inconceivably tough, or even when you-really-should-have-brought-a-lawsuit-over-this-shit-already tough.

Graduate school reminds me of marriage that way. The relationship starts off in this idealized, I'm-just-crazy-about-you way and over time it becomes more and more strained until one day you come to your senses and realize that the way you're being treated isn't ok. Not in your book. Not in anyone's book. So yeah. An ability to tolerate the intolerable because there is no other path leading toward your goals--that's what it takes to be a successful grad student.

I understand now what J meant when he said he would tell people to do something else if you could, but if you can't do something else, then, dig in and get comfortable.

So, yes, people in grad school are smart. Being smart is the least of your worries. Do you have the other traits necessary to succeed in grad school?

Are you tenacious? Can you stick with it when you hate your advisor, when nothing is going right with your work, when your committee is convinced you are a moron, and when nightmares of having to pay back those student loans wake you up in the night? If not, stay away.

Are you self-motivated. No one is going to hold your hand in graduate school. No one is going to make sure you are working. If you need a coach just to get out of bed in the morning, join the gym. No one is going to cheer from the sidelines to spur you on. Maybe your mama, but certainly no one you work with.

Do you know what your strengths and weaknesses are? Self-awareness is extremely helpful. If you don't know already, graduate school will gladly point your weaknesses out to you.

Are you thick-skinned? Can you stand people yelling at you? Because professors will. They will say things to you that cut to the bone. You will be amazed that these people can say these things and live with themselves. Trust me, their comments may hurt but they are doing you a favor by saying them.

Can you work alone? Graduate education is, by its very nature, singular work. No one is going to be there when you are in the lab night after night after night. This is your path. Remember?

Confidence. In fact, I would say that most graduate students border on narcissistic personalities. We believe in our abilities. Usually, we have the stuff to back up that faith.

Are you ready for the hard realities of life? Because I'm going to tell you, you aren't nearly da shiznit as you think you are. Most smart people are used to being the smartest person in the room. In graduate school, everyone is smart. Most of them are smarter than you. You will feel stupid around these people...for a very long time.

I have heard many people say that a graduate degree is "just a piece of paper" and "it really doesn't mean anything". I can't even address how wrong these people are. Graduate school is a gauntlet and you really can't begin to understand how much that paper represents until you have done it yourself.

I'm still wondering 8 years later whether I did the right thing.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Failure 2.0

I just returned from a three-week field research excursion with my nephew. I really didn't know him when we got in the car. My objective on this journey was to get an idea of the man this kid had turned out to be. We had a lot of conversations, he and I on our 7000+ mi journey. At one point, he and I got into a discussion about something...I can hardly remember what at the moment....and my nephew made a sweeping, unflattering characterization about black people. Something along the lines of "all black people are lazy."

I told him in no uncertain terms that all black people are NOT lazy, that the same could be said of white people in general terms, and of him in particular, and, you know, that he sounded incredibly, undeniably, idiotic.

In his most incredulous voice, he said to me, "You act like I'm racist." He explained that in the neighborhood he had lived in in Louisville while he went to school--a neighborhood that was probably 50:50 black:white and probably a heavy on the poverty (it is a college area, after all)--that THOSE blacks were lazy and not trying to improve themselves. Clearly, this was meant to portray that he wasn't racist about ALL black people. In his mind, somehow, it was acceptable to be racist about those poor lazy black people in his neighborhood in Louisville.

I didn't point out (although I should have) that he was, in fact, a college dropout...that his life lacked any direction whatsoever...that despite being given an opportunity that most of the world would kill for...HE was the one who wasn't capitalizing on this incredible opportunity that his parents had made available to him. I didn't say that. But it was dancing on the end of my tongue.

I did explain to him that not everyone was able to attend college nor had the aptitude for it and some of THOSE people had to live in his neighborhood because their economic reality, so while he had to slum it for a bit to sacrifice for a college education (in an apartment that his mother was paying for and tuition that his father was paying for), there were others that had risen as far as they were likely to go and for them--this was a decent life. They were not lazy. They were not trying "not to improve themselves". They were living out an alternative life path that--even if it didn't live up to his standards--didn't mean they weren't trying. To call those people stupid and lazy was petty and irresponsible.

Now I am the first to admit that my nephew has some serious misconceptions about the world and is in rather deep denial about himself. When I informed him that the apartment he complained about (and that his mother bought for him) cost 3X the cost of my mortgage, he acted like I must be some sort of supreme failure. He has a fairly well developed sense of entitlement all right. More than I am used to seeing in any of my college students I complain so bitterly about.

But looking at the larger issues here, I can't understand what it is that makes us look white and black people in exactly the same circumstances and only see the negative in the black people? What is it that makes us blame black people for their plight? What is it that makes us look down on black people at the same time as we co-opt their language and sense of style? What is it that makes us look at poor black people and forget that their poverty might have more to do with keeping them down than a lack of ambition? What is it that makes us not see an angry Harvard professor, but a black man out of control in a high-class neighborhood?

When it comes to this, it isn't just my nephew. I think it is a white cultural thing. White people are conned into thinking (by everyone from television news to hip hop artists) the black community glorifies the gangster-slum culture.
If his status ain't hood, I ain't checkin' for him
Better be street if ya lookin' at me
I need a soldier
That ain't scared to stand up for me
Known to carry big things, if you know what I mean

Destiny Child, 'Soldier'
Even in the younger generation where friendships are much more colorblind, they still see the general population "out there" as fitting those old stereotypes. And I just don't know how chipping away at one false premise at a time one person at a time is going to make any difference at all. It is important to me that my family do what it can to stop the perpetuation of white supremacy in this country. And I thought that in that one little bit of real estate that I might actually be able to effect change.

And that's what I was trying to do. Only I was trying to do so without tearing the kid to shreds. My nephew is trying. He just extraordinarily protected. And I'm not sure my message came across as well as I'd hoped. But while my nephew sat there, incredulous that I was calling his racism racism, I sat there wondering why the hell I didn't have a better grasp on how to tell a white person that their privilege was showing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On why this is my favorite travel pic


and this is not.


The difference in these two pics is the presence of my breasts. I think I look like a normal, healthy person in the first pic, but a grotesque caricature in the latter. Bug loving mama, a very dear female scientist who happens to be pregnant as I write this, wrote an insightful post on what it means to be a woman and a professional in this day and age. Her post has caused me to reflect on my own ideas about being a professional woman. I decided to post my response to her post. Yes, it can be read alone, but is better read in the context of the original post.

Daktari said...

I find this post very interesting. First, I tend to agree with you (i.e., professional equal masculine [attire]). And when I begin to examine why I agree with that, like you, what I find is very telling and more than a bit disturbing about ME.

We are quite the same, pregnant you and non-pregnant I. Where you have a pregnant belly, I have extraordinarily large breasts. And where you want to be taken seriously as a scientist who happens to be pregnant, I wish to be taken seriously as a scientist who happens to have large breasts. Unfortunately, we both know that a pregnant belly and big boobs trigger negative biases and stereotypes in both men and women on both a professional and a personal level. You are pregnant, therefore you aren't serious about your work. I have big boobs. Obviously, I've gotten where I am by capitalizing on my tits. Or worse, I must be a bubble-headed bimbo. Like you, my physical condition announces itself before I have an opportunity to demonstrate my competence, my seriousness, or my professionalism. So in virtually any interaction with a new acquaintance, I believe myself to be operating from a position of weakness (having to identify and diffuse each new person's biases and stereotypes). I do so predominantly by downplaying (to the best of my ability) my physical attributes (hiding them, if you will), seldom dressing in feminine attire, and by ignoring any reference to them (and trust me, you'd be surprised how many people are willing to say "Wow, those are some tits!"), and finally, by overwhelming people from the get-go with my intelligence, competence, and professionalism.

It's a lot to ask of every single interaction I have with every single person I meet. And it is one reason that people who only know me via the internet think that I am something of an intellectual snob. Because they haven't met me, they don't understand my need to diffuse a potentially embarrassing situation before it happens by overwhelming them with my competence.

It is sad but it is my life. Be thankful that pregnancy is only temporary. Unless and until I have money for a breast reduction, this is my life permanently.
Perhaps what is most sad is that I don't feel like a normal person. I haven't felt like a normal person since puberty. I wish more than anything that I could change that. Because that women in that top photo looks pretty and fun and interesting to me. And that woman in the second photo looks like boobs with legs.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One for the "Yeah, Right" category



Seems like all we've done is stand by water. Here's a few of the god-forsaken places we've had to stand and sometimes catch moths.

Life is hard on the road and research is a bitch.



(Mono Lake)










(Jenny Lake)



(Grand Prismatic Spring)


(San Francisco Bay)


(Alpine lake on Tioga Pass)


(Lake Mary)


(One of the Mammoth Lakes -- name now forgotten until looked up)as Josh has now informed me is Horseshoe Lake.

Feeling sorry for me yet?

Friday, July 17, 2009

A taste of today

Today we went from June Lake, to Mono Lake (pronounced Moan-o, not like the teenage malady), to Tioga Pass to Yosemite to San Francisco. It was quite a day and exceedingly hard to capture in a concise blog post.

So thoroughly would I fail to do so, I will leave you with this little taste of our day.

Bridalveil Falls.

Simply spectacular.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Camping hazards

Here's a little tip from your friend D. Leave the damn marmots alone.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A fond farewell to a trustworthy friend

Hikers understand the value of great boots. They are the most important piece of equipment you have. My fondness for my hiking boots is well documented. I love my boots so much that I went out and bought a spare pair for when the first one's wore out.

I bought those first ones in 2003 before my first trip to Yellowstone. They will have to be retired after this trip. This is why.










And that little bobble cost me this.


My own fault for not thoroughly checking over my equipment before beginning such a hike.


It's not as bad as it looks.

A challenge to remember

Today, my nephew and I hiked 10 miles. Might not sound like much but it was no ordinary ten miles. It was ten miles out of the Golden Trout Wilderness. From the Ramshaw Meadow to the Trail Pass Hiker Trailhead. It was a reversal of our trip in a mere four days earlier.

Pfffft, I hear you say. 10 miles doesn't sound like much.

What I did today was the single most challenging hike of my life. It was an accomplishment of which I am very proud. We did it. We crossed Bitch Pass and Mulkey Meadow and Trail Pass and Horseshoe Meadow, and we did it all by ourselves.

For those who don't know the saga, we met the packers on Thursday morning and dropped off tent, sleeping bags and pads, and our food and relaxed for a day in Lone Pine, California. Early Friday morning, we arrived at the trailhead. Elevation 10,000 feet. That's about 9,342 feet higher than where I spend most of my time. It took nearly an hour to drive up the 6,000 feet from Lone Pine to the trailhead. Yes, an hour. Yes, we were in the shadow of Mt. Whitney. I should have suspected something was up. Anything that near to the highest peak in the lower forty-eight has to be challenging. Somewhere on the way up, my lungs shrunk. My stamina must have gotten left in the hotel room with most of the food we had to abandon (bear country, you know). Walking across the parking lot felt like an aerobic workout. Air that thin makes the muscles burn and ache a lot faster. We were not acclimated.

And yet, off we set. My two new companions quickly became one when I was informed that my primary contact, a graduate student from Northern Arizona University intended to run in. Yes, you heard that right. She intended to run into Ramshaw Meadow. She is in training for the New York Marathon. She is insane. She is also so skinny that it defies description. And this is how we came to set off with Sue, the assistant botanist for the Golden Trout Wilderness. Fantastic hiking companion. She never failed to be supportive when I thought my lungs would burst. More on her later. Our first ascent was 1000 feet over 1.5 miles. About half way up, I said the words I always dread.

I may be in over my head here, folks.

Sue wouldn't hear of it. She led us over boulder scrambles, switchbacks, sagebrush-thick meadow margins, sedge-and-wildflower meadows, creeks, sinks, rivers, and passes. Five and a half hours after we started, we entered camp. I have never been so happy to see my things waiting on me out there. I knew the minute we sat down that I was NOT going to be able to make my return trip on Sunday. We had pushed too hard. We had pushed well past my limits. Five and a half hours was too fast for an out-of-shape flatlander like me. No way my legs would be ready by Sunday. So before the evening was out, I was doing the math in my head on how long our food would hold out. We had enough.

I spent four glorious days in the backcountry, exploring meadows, bouldering, watching a black bear graze in our meadow, sighting mountain bluebirds, trying to take pictures of golden trout, chasing lizards, exploring old movie sets, studying one of the most wonderful Abronia I have ever seen, and enjoying the company of three of the most interesting people imaginable and a very playful yellow lab. Most of all, I let my legs heal. This morning, it was time to leave.

Sue and Calder and Remy saw us off. Meredith, unfortunately, had left earlier to do work much further up the meadow.

The south fork of the Kern River. Our campsite.

A self-portrait after summiting Bitch Pass. Calder named it Bitch Pass. I think it is technically called Mulkey Pass, but I am inclined to let Calder have her way.

After summiting Trail Pass. This after meeting a trail packer packing heat with her daughter on the trail and who described what lie ahead as "Oh God, you've got a slow-burn incline and a bunch of gnarly switchbacks up there". I was not detered. We made it. Without vomiting or having a heart attack--both conditions had crossed my mind as possibities at various points along the path, I might add.

On our way down from the summit. The way up took 1 hour and 25 minutes. The way down took about 20.

This is the mountain through which Trail Pass passes. We did that and another just like it. We found our way out of the wilderness. Armed with nothing more than a map. We did it with 30 pounds of water and supplies strapped to our backs. We did it in one day, by ourselves, and no one can ever take that away from us.

We treated ourselves to steak dinners tonight. I think we earned it. Oh, and as you might have guessed, I sprang for a new cord for the computer to download pics.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

1136 miles and counting

So we were a little late leaving town. Like nearly a full day late. Ok, I chalk this up to having to put my car in the shop after having gotten rear-ended over the weekend, and the fact that the ONLY thing I asked anyone at school to do to help me prepare for this trip did not get done and I had to spend 2 hours when I was ready to leave town to do it. And I just have to mention that this anyone who said they would take care of that project was badgering me with phone calls and requests for help with her issues while I was trying to get out the door. So instead of leaving at 3 pm (my original worst-case scenario), we left home at 7 pm. We pulled out of St. Louis at 9:50 pm. That was AFTER convincing the people at REI to actually fit Lee for hiking boots when we arrived at the store only 10 minutes before they closed. While he tried shoes, I picked up hiking socks, stuff sacks, aluminum cookware, and waterproof matches. I'm kicking myself for having forgotten the water purifying pills (a worst-case backup for the filter), and long underwear. And that was also AFTER eating at St. Louis Bread Company, which we also convinced to feed us after we arrived 10 minutes before their closing. All I can say is REI is probably the best place I have ever shopped when it comes to quality service.

We only made it as far as Springfield, MO the first night. (A mere 313 miles from home.) Really disappointing. But I had been up since 5:30 am that morning. It was all I could do. In any event, we made up some time today. I drove from 9:50 am. until 1 am. We only stopped for gas, an oil change (1 hr) and dinner (1 hour). Which is how I came to be in Albuquerque tonight. I had hoped to be in Flagstaff, AZ, but that's how it goes.

Lesson #1 from the road. Never count on someone else to do what they say they will do, especially when that someone has a history of dropping the ball.

Lesson #2 from the road. Never listen when someone at the rental car agency tells you to "not worry about oil changes".

Lesson #3. Sleep is a necessity, not a luxury.

Lesson #4. When you are running late, in a hurry, and virtually panicked about the time you have to drive to California, THAT's when you'll forget the cord to download pictures from your camera.

So sorry folks, there will be no pictures from the road. You will all have to wait.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

How the Supreme Court got it right at the same time they got it wrong

The Supreme Court upheld the main tenants but narrowed the scope of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a vote of 8 to 1. The lone dissent came from the Supreme's only African American member, Justice Clarence Thomas. Oh, the irony.

While sidestepping the constitutional issue of the meat of the Act, in the majority opinion, the Court hinted that the Act may soon find itself on the chopping block (and you can count on the Republican party to spearhead efforts to chip away at the Act for years to come). But the Act is still needed. Racial inequality is an American reality. A President Obama has not heralded the emergence of post-racial America, yet the Court in all its insulated, isolated wisdom exhibited a collective queasiness about continuing to support what they seem to see as race-based politics.

Are they right? Are we past the point where the majority group attempts to disenfranchise the minority?

Hardly. Consider this. And this. This. Or perhaps even this. Can't forget this. But perhaps most disturbing of all is this:

The Pew Center on the States' Make Voting Work project estimates that while 39.8 percent of the general U.S. population of voting age cast ballots in 2006 elections, only 20.4 percent of the military population of voting age did so. That disparity exists despite surveys that show a very high interest in elections and voting among members of the military.

"Interestingly, of those military personnel that said they did not vote in 2004, 30 percent did not because their ballots never arrived or arrived too late to their duty stations and 28 percent did not know how to get an absentee ballot, found the process too complicated, or were unable to register," according to a Pew report.
From the Pew Center on the States and electiononline.org.

Voter disenfranchisement is rampant in America. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was intended to prevent the disenfranchisement of black Southern voters. And yes, it has changed the landscape of this country, both from a racial and a cultural standpoint. But it is not only still needed to protect voters from a return to the abuses of the past, but it is equally important that Congress broaded its scope to include other forms of legal, but morally questionable, partisan disenfranchisement.

Homeless veterans, overseas active military, the elderly, homeowners in foreclosure, newly registered voters, voters who have moved, voters who had their Social Security Number or Driver's License number entered incorrectly into state databases...all of us deserve to have our votes counted. We deserve better than to have partisan Secretaries of State purge us from the rolls of registered voters, from having partisan poll watchers challenge our votes, from having to submit provisional ballots, which may or may not be counted.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is not only still needed, it needs to cover more citizens at risk.

IMO, the primary voter fraud of the election of 2008 was the systematic disenfranchisement of legally registered and eligible voters--an act perpetrated by local and state government employees against their constituents.

Really really really bad legal advice

Found this browsing over on the DOJ website. A jury today found former Memphis police officer Arthur Sease IV guilty of civil rights, robbery, narcotics and firearms violations. Apparently, Mr. Sease and his co-conspirators used their position as police officers to rob drug dealers in Memphis and then to re-sell the drugs for their own profit.

Mr. Sease's five co-conspirators all decided to plead guilty. Their sentences are as follows:
"Andrew Hunt was sentenced in February 2009 to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty in September 2006 to a federal civil rights conspiracy, robbery affecting interstate commerce and drug distribution.

Former Memphis police officer Antoine Owens pleaded guilty in August 2007 and received a sentence of 63 months incarceration and three years of supervised release in March 2009.

Alexander Johnson, another former Memphis police officer, pleaded guilty in April 2007 and was sentenced to 30 months in prison and two years of supervised release in March 2009.

Laterrica Woods, a civilian who helped Sease and Hunt with one of their robberies, also pleaded guilty to a civil rights conspiracy in September 2007 and was sentenced to 36 months imprisonment and three years of supervised release in April 2009.

Harold McCall, also a former Memphis police officer, pleaded guilty to a civil rights conspiracy in a related case in May 2007 and received a sentence of three years probation including one year of home confinement in June 2009."

Mr. Sease decided to place his fate in the hands of a jury. Today, he received his sentence: life + 255 years.
"The sentence is extraordinary in that it is one of the longest ever imposed for civil rights violations which did not involve a victim’s death," said My Harrison, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Memphis Field Office. "We will vigorously investigate abuses of authority to defend the fundamental right to ethical behavior by government employees."
I'd fire the lawyer.

When Travel Plans Fall Apart

Today at 6:44 pm, I got a call from someone associated with my upcoming trip up Mt. Whitney. Those of you who know me know how I have looked forward to this part of my field work. I've spent months dreaming about the opportunity, and weeks planning the details, getting the permits, and learning as much as I can about the equipment I'd need. I have purchased:

a $250 custom backpack
a $300 down sleeping back and backpacking sleeping pad
a $35 backpacking stove
a $50 set of backpacking cookware
$ 48 worth of cooking fuel and a pair of Smartwool hiking socks I bought just today

I have spent countless hours planning meals, learning about bear cannisters and water purification, Sure, it was a bobble when my first field assistant backed out and I had to recruit my nephew at the last minute. But I was able to borrow a backpack and sleeping bag for him and as of last night, I was back on schedule. The only thing I didn't worry about was my companions. I had arranged to meet with another group of researchers working on the same population of plants. While I lack any significant backcountry wilderness experience (and have no multi-day backpacking experience), the group I was going with has been making this trek for the past 3 years. They were renting pack animals and had offered to allow the animals to shoulder the heaviest of my field equipment. It was great. I wouldn't have to worry about getting lost, and would have a wealth of experience to draw upon if I had questions or got in trouble.

That was, until today. At 6:44 pm, while strolling through Lowe's plant department, I got a phone call from the folks making the trip. They want to leave a day early. I can't get there a day early. I had planned 3.5 days to travel and that would allow me enough time to drive safely and sanely, pick up my backcountry/research permits, rent a bear canister, get my things in order and meet up with the group. I can't do that in 2.5 days. The drive is more than 1500 mi and I am the only driver. I can't leave before some equipment arrives on Monday, so I doubt I would even be on the road before 3 pm. I had been toying with the idea of leaving at 6 am on Tuesday morning and putting in two hard days driving to arrive, at the latest, by noon on Thursday.

I told the person who called that while I thought I could make it, I wasn't sure. Now after looking at a map, judging my driving endurance based on the last two trips I made earlier this summer, I realize it simply isn't possible for me to drive 1500 miles in 48 hours. I simply can't make it to the Forest Service Office in Lone Pine by 4 pm on Wednesday. I couldn't take off up the hill without my research permit or my backcountry camping permit. Even if I could make it by some miracle, what kind of shape would I be in to begin a hike after that kind of marathon driving?

No, it just can't be done responsibly. Nor can I, with no backcountry experience and no multi-day backpacking experience, traveling with a kid who has never camped out anywhere but his backyard, responsibly tackle a 10-mile, possibly ill-marked wilderness trek through bear country alone. The Forest Service doesn't require a bear canister as a money-making scheme.

If the group doesn't wait, I'm going to have to scratch this portion of my research, which would suck, and eat the entire cost of the purchases I made--roughly $700.

Man, when my travel plans fall apart, they sure do fall apart. Trust me. I am trying not to cuss right now.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

How Dell lost my business

The summer between my first and second years of my masters program, I bought a laptop. I justified this purchase by saying that I needed more computing power/storage/capability/flexibility/portability than a desktop to complete my masters and doctorate. I bought a Dell. I really didn't look at any other computer manufacturers. I had a Dell desktop which had performed well over the years, Dell as the leader in sales of personal computers at the time, and they had (for that time) the best deals on computers. Of course, that was 5 years ago. My how the playing field has changed.

The NYT reports this morning that Acer, the little Taiwanese company that could, is poised to take over second place in the sales of personal computers from Dell. That doesn't surprise me one bit.

At the time I bought my laptop, I purchased the smallest screen (12 inches, more portable), the fastest processor, the largest availability of memory, and the top of the line "glossy" screen. I also bought the most comprehensive, most convenient, most expensive service contract package they had available. The in-home, bumper-to-bumper warrantee, guaranteed for 4 years with a special number that ensured that I was given priority service. It was my understanding that the special number would ensure that I was always connected with American technicians. I was happy with every facet of the purchase. And for the first two years, everything was the bees knees. When I had my first problem with my computer, I called up Dell for warantee service and encountered my first problem with the company: the dreaded call center in India.

What happened to the priority American service I paid for? Turns out, I was given an 800 number to call, where I waited in line to be connected to Dell India just like everyone else. There was no "special number". When you are connected to Dell India and they realize you paid for the "special number" they either asked me to hang up and dial a different number (where I then waited in line behind every other caller again) or they transfer me to the proper department. More often, they transfered me to the wrong department, who transferred me back and the whole process began again. The $300+ I paid for the special treatment was a complete waste and actually cost me more time than if I had never paid it.

Strike one.

Service early in my contract period was competent, relatively speedy, and effective. They always had to send a technician from St. Louis, and since technicians are Dell contract employees, they get paid on the number of calls they complete in a day. Spending a half-day driving from St. Louis to southern Illinois wasn't these technicians idea of maximizing their earning power. And to make matters worse, they often required two trips to complete the repair. One trip to identify the problem and another to make the required repair. I actually had one technician suggest that I meet him half way. I suppose we were supposed to do the work at a rest stop or something.

I felt for them, but I paid a lot of money for top-of-the-line service. I refused.

But the next time I needed a repair, approximtely mid-way through year 3 of my 4 year warantee, something at Dell had changed. When I called Dell India, I was told I would have to work with them to identify the problem myself. This required that I take apart my own computer while they ran through a laundry list of potential problems. When I explained that A) I had paid EXTRA money for special service with American technicians, and B) my warantee specifically said that Dell technicians would do the diagnostic work, they claimed that things at Dell had changed and my service contract was no longer valid.

Whoa. Strike two.

Anyone who has dealt with Dell recently knows the futility of trying to talk to an American and of trying to move your way up the ladder with anyone in Dell India. I admit it. To save myself any MORE aggravation, I took my own computer apart and went with the flow. There was no more "special number" department for me to be connected to.

Strike three to infinity.

Actually, when the technician arrived that time, he basically installed new parts in most of my computer. It was a pretty good deal. My computer has held up as well as can be expected. I had to replace the battery (not covered under warantee). I bought an off-brand and I suspect that many of my current problems are from inadequate battery power. I basically have a portable plug-in computer at this point.

They say you get what you pay for. But in the case of Dell, you don't even get that. Dell did not honor the terms of the very expensive service contract that I bought. For this reason (and the fact that I detest dealing with Dell India), they lost my business. Forever. No amount of cheap computing power will ever sway me their way again.

Dell also changed the way I look at personal computers. The fact that I paid so much money for competent, efficient, quick, high-quality repair service gives an inkling of how important this is to me. The fact that I got nothing of the sort caused me to look at the service reputations of all the leading competitors to Dell. None faired much better than Dell. (Of course, I realize that Mac doesn't seem to have these service issues, but I'm locked into the PC route for now given that all my ancillary software is PC-based. And I have issues with Apple as well, just not as great.)

My decision was to treat a personal computer as a disposable item. Much like an iPod. I decided to buy the cheapest suitable computer and when it breaks, I'll just get a new one. They are now selling computers comparable with my current notebook at prices less than the price I paid for my premium service contract with Dell.

Dell, you want to know why you are losing customers to Acer?

I just told you.

Friday, June 26, 2009

More Panty Twisters

Life is linear. You learn as you go. The past two weeks were a treasure trove of life lessons. Here are a few that caught my attention.

  1. There appear to be two types of people: doers and worriers. I am a doer. I get things done. Worriers get nothing done and chap my ass.
  2. Compromise is a foreign concept to most people, who seem to think that conflict resolution occurs when the other guy gives in.
  3. Conflict resolution skills should be taught in nursery school with a refresher course every Monday morning.
  4. Scientific disagreements should never be taken personally and taking it personally is a sure sign of professional immaturity.
  5. I don't have time to resolve everyone's conflict nor do I have the desire to, and yet, I find myself constantly thrust in that position. Most people don't like my approach to conflict resolution, to which I say, "Tough shit. You involve me in your conflict, you get what I bring."
  6. In any group effort comprised of more than three people, I will get the least desirable job. The least desirable job comes with the most work, the lowest amount of recognition, the highest risk of blame, and the highest probability that you will make the undeserving look competent.
  7. If there is a way for someone to really piss me off, they will exercise it.
  8. I have no respect for people who undermine or misrepresent my work. None whatsoever.
  9. I seem to run into a disproportionate number of assholes.
  10. I like people with foreign gestures. They are fun to watch. I've decided to adopt a few.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Shedding some light on a dark continent

News out of the BBC on the incredibly shocking, unbelievably disturbing, and morally outrageous findings that one in four South African men has self-identified as a rapist. Half of that group consider themselves serial rapists. 5% of the them have committed a rape in the past year.

Nearly a quarter of Canadian women have been victims of rape or attempted rape. In some developing countries, women are initiated into sexual activity as a rite of passage. Most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.

I don't think I have ever had a conversation about rape with any of my friends. Women just don't talk about it. I don't know why.

I was first assaulted by a boy in my grade school who attempted to rape me in my friend's backyard. It was weird. We we playing in her yard. He just appeared. We didn't like that boy particularly. Hadn't spent a lot of time around him. He just showed up and was hanging around. At some point, he grabbed me and threw me to the ground. He pinned my arms. I thought he was just trying to be...well, you know how boys are. They want to prove they are strong. They want to make you squirm. Sitting on you was a means of pissing you off and when any other boy had done it, they eventually grew tired of holding me down, let me up and laughed about it. I usually punched them really hard and threatened them with a swift and violent end if they tried that again.

So at first, I didn't suspect that there was any real danger. I was angry and struggling but I couldn't throw him off me. When I realized the futility, I almost submitted. But then he went to unbuckle his pants. I didn't even know what rape was. I was in the third grade or so and I knew this boy from school. All of a sudden it just clicked in my head. He meant to have sex with me right there in Sheila Arrington's backyard. I screamed. I hollered. I fought with all I had. I kicked. I bucked. I twisted. My God he was strong. He must have been seriously disturbed and a victim of abuse himself to have attempted an all-out effort to rape a 10-year-old classmate. But I knew one thing. I wasn't going to let it happen. He finally let me loose when I began screaming for my friend's mother. I climbed to the top of the swing set where he couldn't reach me and I didn't come down until he had left. Interestingly enough, when this boy assaulted me, my friend walked away and went into her house. She did nothing. She didn't get help. She didn't inform her mother. I was on my own out there. I fought.

I won.

I remember yelling at her later. My only other experience with sexual assault was an instance of "date rape" in which some light petting turned into a forced oral encounter involving a co-worker with whom I accepted a date. I didn't realize that what he did was illegal. I just knew I he was a major asshole and I never wanted to see him again. Yeah, I was naive. I don't know what feelings you are supposed to have after having been sexually assaulted, but in both instances, I was relieved it was over and I was mad. I wasn't mad at myself. I was full-on mad at them. Not enough to kill them, but enough to make me never want to interact with them again. I can't imagine someone staying with a partner who raped them.

If there is a bright side, I am happy that I never experienced anything that seriously injured me or scarred me emotionally. But to think that good girls from good homes aren't subject to the same sort of sexual predators that are out there is insane. One of my childhood friends was sexually abused by a choir director at her local church. Religion, education and money aren't enough to protect us from sexual assault. Rich daddy's can't protect their daughters because some of the son's of rich daddies can't be trusted. You just never know behind which eyes lurk the capacity for sexual assault. There are some seriously disturbed young people out there.

Rape, or the prospect of forced sex are profoundly disturbing. At the age of 10 or so, I got an eye's-wide-open introduction to the big bad world out there. Although I honestly think I didn't extrapolate that experience to all boys (thankfully not). I think I interpreted it as "he just wasn't right". Men like my Dad wouldn't do those kinds of things. I still believed there were good men in the world. Men who would protect me. But I remember wondering, after he let me loose, about what life was like in his house. His life must have been a nightmare. The abuse must have been unreal. It's a cycle. I'm just thankful he wasn't able to complete the circle with me.

If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. And it does happen to lots of anyones. It is time we, and I do mean the universal collective we, do something to put an end to the assault on half of the world's population. It is time to speak out and speak up. This has got to stop.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Group Work

Ask anyone. I hate group work. I had a showdown with a fellow graduate student in one of my classes over the subject of group work. For a while, that interaction was the stuff of legend. People loved to relive their favorite lines from said disagreement. (Although the list of people who were present for said discussion is getting shorter the longer I remain here.) I admit it. I don't like working in groups. My problem with group work is that groups waste time and productivity on social interaction that could better be spent in pursuit of the objective. I can stand a lot of things but wasting time on extraneous matters--like other people's feelings and sensibilities--when I could be getting something done is among my top pet peeves. When I work alone, I don't have to worry about how someone else feels about my ideas, whether or not my perspective is getting it's proper due, and so on. I can just tackle the assignment. So the people responsible for wasting my time when I could be getting things done tend to fall deeply in my estimation. I view group work as an abyss that I'd do best to avoid.

I don't understand our love affair with group work. I think there is this mistaken idea that groups are democratic and therefore are inherently superior to any other schemes, that groups promote cooperation (which seems to always trump efficiency or productivity, much to my puzzlement), that group members have a greater investment in the effort due to broader participation (this may or may not be true, depending on the initial investment of all members in the outcome), and that groups foster creativity in problem solving (of course, this assumes that group members feel secure enough to interact creatively). And why is it always group work? I have seen many a group bypass an expert in some particular field for allowing a group to tackle the problem.

Oh, I will admit, if education and growth are the objective, groups may be the way to go. Giving someone a safe place to expand or experience something might best be done in a carefully constructed group. By and large, however, most groups are not carefully constructed. Who hasn't been stuck in a group because they needed a warm body and you were at the wrong place at the right time? But when conquering some objective is the point, group work can muck up the works. And the main problem in groups is the scarcity of effective leadership and the lack of appropriate authority.

I am involved in a seminar that has crashed and burned due to the misuse of group work. Foremost, the group tasked with organizing the seminar was not given the proper authority. There is a higher body of the organization that can and has abused the schedule to the point that the organizing committee looks unorganized and foolish and feels they have to apologize to the group or blame the higher-ups for the disorganization. Net effect? Group confidence is undermined at all levels. Still, I feel for them. Been there, done that.

And as if we weren't all enduring a shining example of the problems of group work, the entire organization is married to group work. I have been asked to volunteer for committees, based not on my expertise or interests but to fulfill a requirement that I be on exactly 2 and no more committees, that each contain a predescribed number of participants of my category. When our group did not do so willingly, there was a bit more than a little resistance. I offered a solution which was seconded by another newbie like myself and STILL the older group bristled. But my main complaint with the group organization is that I have been asked to do nothing alone. Not only that, but I have been given no time to explore my own thoughts on any subject. Instead, every time I was asked to accomplish some task, I have been asked to collaborate. At every turn, I feel this crushing responsibility to involve my partner in some aspect of every activity that I am not bringing my best self and my best ideas to the project. I have been given no time for personal reflection. The only way I can think to describe this feeling is being sleep deprived. I feel like I am simply being jerked from one situation to the next and asked to react. Who knows if I am acting appropriately, inappropriately, efficiently, effectively or otherwise? I have no time to plan a best approach. It's just, "Here's the task. Go!"

I find this particularly amusing? frustrating? peculiar? because this seminar is about education, and so much in education is about working within people's comfort zones and capitalizing on their strengths. As teachers, we have to provide a range of experiences so that students who work best by reading, doing, and watching can all have an opportunity to learn. And yet, in a seminar about education, I am not given the opportunity to work in the style that works best for me with at least some time allotted for personal reflection. Alone. I would never undertake a project without first thinking through a plan, potential problems, and possible workarounds. But over the past week or so, I have been asked to achieve some goal--even if I am expected to bring some expertise to the table--without having been given the space I need to bring my best effort to the task. End result? I'm doing a half-assed job. I have been paired with someone, then pairs are paired, and pairs of pairs are paired with a more experienced pair and so on.

Tempers are getting short. And it's not just my temper. (Those who know the true me would be proud of the exhibition of tolerance I have maintained in light of my frustration.) I see it in the teachers. I see it in the new grad students. But I think the utter frustration is with the group organization. It's ineffective and people are getting tired of failing. Ok, maybe we aren't failing, but we certainly aren't making progress consistent with our capabilities. Unstable group membership demands we constantly renegotiate leadership positions. Stable groups only have to establish dominance once.

Look, I am willing to let someone else lead. In fact, I like it when I don't have to lead all the time. I am willing to defer, even if it means that someone with less experience gets a chance at learning something from the whole leadership experience. But for God's sake, I need a little space. I need some room to think.

There has to be a place where it is okay for someone with MY learning style to exist outside of a group.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tempest Tossed

While Liv was out on her very own Wild West Adventure, we had a little hiccup in southern Illinois. May 8, 2009. Liv-fav D-ennis, Paul, and Mike Hanson were graduating and I decided to attend. When I left Do Well, it was bright and sunny. Midway through the graduation, I heard something. I ignored it at first. Then I heard it again. Thunder. Thunder you can hear inside an arena is bad. Very bad.

I left the ceremony and went home. They had a spectacularly craptastic speaker who basically did a half hour appeal for capital funds. It was embarassing. So I left to take care of Jake and save my house from ultimate destruction. It was raining before I made it to my car. I had never seen so much water come down so fast. I got home mid-storm and tried to calm Jake. I decided to wait until it stopped raining and he was calm and then I'd go back to school to work. When it stopped raining, I peeked outside. I thought it was over. Oh silly me.

The water. I couldn't believe the water. I snapped some pictures. I narrated some video.



And because I don't know how to combine clips, you have to watch it piece meal.







It started to rain again, so I went in and started working on grades, and just as I was ready to send them out via email, the power went out. No internet. Then the tornado sirens went off. So I gathered up Jake and went in to the utility room to wait it out...that was until the storm blew the screen clear out of my kitchen window. I got up to close it and saw this.



So I had to take a look out front.



The real reason I didn't want to stand there any longer wasn't fear, it was that I was getting soaked.



After the storm ended, I still had no power. So I called Rose at school and asked her how things were down there. She said power was out in the building and everyone was leaving. So I didn't go back to work. I decided to just wait until the power returned and go from there. I figured, you know, 5 hours at the most.

Boy was I wrong.

Tomorrow, I'll post some damage pics from around Carbondale.