Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Imperfect Conditions

I've heard lots in my life about unconditional love- how parents love a child, how you love your spouse, how families love each other, etc.- but I can't say I've ever felt it. I have to sound like a cold-hearted wench right about now, huh? Mom, daughter, wife, sister, all those roles, and I don't know that any of them carry unconditional love. I love them all dearly, don't get me wrong, and I don't love them for what they can do for me, but "unconditional" seems like too vast a descriptor. Unconditional is unending.  Unconditional never stops.  Unconditional has no, well, conditions.  I don't know that "unconditional" is even such a great term, as by default, it implies that any other love has conditions associated with it, when that's not really the case. 

It's not that any love other than unconditional love has conditions, or requisites, it's just that is imperfect.  Just like humans are imperfect.  We all reach a point where we can't take any more.  When our love for someone isn't enough to balance against the problems- the problems they cause for us, for themselves, for others that we love.  Each relationship is different, each person is different, and we change through time, so there's no way anyone else can judge another person's relationship. 

The thing is, if a love can't end, there's no reason to improve or change or grow with the other person.  If a partner always says "It's OK," then whatever needed the "It's OK" is never going to change.  If there's the potential for a love to end, then there's a reason to change, an incentive to try, a desire to fix what's broken.  And with humans, there's always something broken, needing fixed, or that has to change. 

Unconditional love gives us an out, a reason not to try.  What's more, it cheapens relationships.  It glosses over all the give and take- the WORK- that relationships take.  It dismisses exactly how much we love the other person, enough to better ourselves for them.  And it belies our respect for ourselves, it says that we're not worth the fight to keep. 

When conditions are right, plants thrive, and when the conditions aren't, they die.  So nurture your relationships as you do your house plants, by striving for the right conditions.  When we know better, we do better. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

All the Wrong Wars

Kenny came home this week proudly sporting a "Drug-Free 24/7/365" ribbon.  Ironically, he's been on drugs all week- amoxycillin for a respiratory infection. 
I understand the desire to indoctrinate kids to the drug-free message, more than most people, but personally, I always hated the whole program.  See, it was a huge conflict for me, because I knew my dad used drugs, as do most people in the US.  Think about it; what is a "drug"?  A drug is your morning coffee, or your evening adult beverage.  A drug is your aspirin, your sleep aid, or your insulin.  A drug is also heroin, cocaine, or crystal meth.  A drug is ritalin, adderall, or others prescribed to kids. Sure, adults might understand the nuance behind anti-drug messages, but kids- especially ones as young as first grade- don't understand those shades of meaning.
What you end up doing is lying to children through anti-drug programs, by lying about what constitutes a drug, and that drugs are universally bad.  While that lie may come from a place of wanting to do what's best for students, it's still lying, and they simply end up losing trust in whoever told them lies originally, usually after a lot of struggle, pain, turmoil, and emotionality.  That doesn't do much to help getting a message across, much less getting a kid to follow your proposed message. 
Similarly, the war on drugs is an ineffective and dishonest proposition.  What have we accomplished with the war on drugs?  Certainly not the eradication of drug use, although we have put many, many people in prison for drug related activities.  Instead, we've lined the pockets of private prison operators, torn apart families, ruined people's lives with mandatory minimum sentencing, and cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.  Mind you, I'm talking most about marijuana here than other drugs, because 1) it's extremely widely used, 2) because of it's wide use, it has the widest implications, 3) it's a drug with questionable reasons for its criminalization, while it does have the potential for health benefits up to and including cancer treatments, 4) the war against pot spills over into a completely safe crop (hemp) that has been cultivated by many cultures for many purposes over human history, including the first US president, who claimed "Sow the hemp seed everywhere."  Really, if we want to show that the US puts people before profits, we need to legalize marijuana, and soon.  Too many have already paid too high a price for such an innocuous substance.

Our war on terror is a whole other bag of worms, that my blood pressure won't let me get into right at the moment, but I'll come back to that soon. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Forget Binders- Polls Full of Women!

I'd be lying if I said I didn't commonly get political on this blog, and I'm about to do that again.  Life's political; the way one lives speaks endlessly to who you are and in what you believe.  Every dollar you spend is a vote for how you want companies to behave.  Each activity in which you participate is a vote for what you see as valuable.  The compliments you give show your priorities. 
With that particular world view in mind, it might not be surprising that I'm choosing to weigh in on the whole "binders full of women" issue.  This simple little comment has spawned Twitter and Tumblr feeds, Facebook groups, and a website, not to mention the hundreds of memes and reviews on Amazon products.  There are also people saying that this is all taken out of proportion, and the comment was just a gaffe that meant nothing.  So which is it?  Is this comment a game-changer for the women's vote in the election, or was it simple off-the-cuff misspeak?  While I don't know that it will be a game-changer (I don't have that much confidence in the average US citizen to think critically and analyze at this point), I do think it shows that Mitt Romney has a huge problem with women.
Let's think about the actual phasing of "binders full of women."  If you've served on a search committee or hiring committee, you likely have an idea that Romney meant "binders full of resumes of women," and he may very well have meant just that.  However, by omitting "resumes" he essentially objectified the women represented by those resumes.  A woman- or any person- is not simply the paper that their resume is printed upon, and to use the person and the paper interchangeably is insulting for the person.  Similarly, what Romney implies in this statement is that there were separate pools of candidates- the original (male) candidates, and the new (female) candidates, and that this addition was a good thing.  In arguing this point, what Romney is saying is very much like affirmative action, an idea that the Republican party is staunchly opposed to and wants to roll back.  One could also argue that this was a quota system, which is definitely a bad idea and has been rejected by none other than the Supreme Court of the United States as unconstitutional.  At the best, what Romney is saying that he did was against his party's platform, and at the worst it was unconstitutional. 
On to an analysis of the background of this story.  Romney portrays himself as an extremely capable business person, and much of business is networking.  So we're really supposed to believe that there was not a single female in his circle that he could think of when trying to fill cabinet positions in Massachusetts?  His experience at Bain might back up this fact, as his record for hiring women there was horrible.  The fact that his circle is so insulated as to not include any competent, qualified women is disturbing, quite frankly (and if you want to make the "there are none" comments, then feel free to do that to my face so I can properly refute your idiocy). 
Also of note is the fact that his ENTIRE STORY WAS A LIE!  Romney did not go out in search of female candidates, and he did not instruct his subordinates to do so, either.  The resumes were collected by a non-partisan group MassGAP before Romney was elected.  MassGAP brought these candidates' credentials to Romney.  They fought for women- not Romney.  But this shouldn't be a surprise from a campaign that has stated that they won't let facts get in the way of their election. 
On the context of this whole issue, one has to consider what Romney has done for women, and his stances during the debate.  In response to the same question (which was on the pay gap), he talked about giving women flexibility in the workplace so they could go home and cook dinner.  In his time as governor, the number of women in high office in Massachusetts actually declined.  Romney has repeatedly said that he refers to Ann on women's issues, implying that either he doesn't know other women to ask, or that women's issues aren't important enough to him to learn about them himself. 
Let's be honest, electing Romney would be a travesty for women in the United States, and would take us backwards, not forwards.  If you really want to take women (and the nation) forward, vote for one- Jill Stein of the Green Party.

P.S.  On the disturbing side of this debate are the purported "joy books" of the FLDS. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I Am Not My Sister, and My Sister Was Not Me

I miss you, today more than usual.  I don't know why, but I do.  I really want to talk to you, just because it's been one of those days.  I've thought about you, and growing up, and our family.  Not in a bad way, or a sad way; more a matter of fact way.
Sisters have such a complex relationship, filled with love and competition, closeness even when you can hurt each other desperately.  Maybe it's true with all siblings, no matter the gender, and maybe it doesn't happen for all sisters, but I know for us, this was the case.  To complicate matters further, there was that rough patch after Dad's death, and those years of feeling more like mother and less like sister to you that made us even closer (at least I think so- and you can't disagree  :P ).
People always compared us, as they do most siblings and relatives.  Genetically, we are a mix of our various ancestors, and share "parts" with our whole family tree.  I have Dad's build, but Mom's nose, Dad's thick hair, but with Mom's color; you have Mom's build, and more of Dad's hair color, but with his smile and her hair texture.  We're like one of those cooking challenge shows, where everyone starts out with the same ingredients, but end up with wildly different meals.  And that's OK.
For a while after you were gone, I heard comparisons of us everywhere; some where verbalized as comparisons, some were statements that my mind- in its mourning- read more meaning into than was meant.  "She was so pretty/kind/smart/funny/compassionate."  "You two were so similar/different/complementary."  I cherished and hated those conversations so much.  The differences made me feel inferior, as I wondered if people would remember me so kindly some day, but also a little comforting- every difference between us meant one less chance for our paths to end the same.  The traits we shared had just the opposite effect; I sighed with relief that maybe I was just as good as you, but terrified that our fates would be shared, too.  
My rational brain knows that all this is not logical, but I'll be d@mned if my heart would listen to reason.  For some reason, that's been changing lately, and that's a good thing.
I'll never be the same as you, nor better or worse, because we are different people.  Same ingredients, different recipe. You're the chocolate truffle brownies, and I'm the ganache covered cake.  It may have felt like it at the time, but I didn't die that day, and I didn't lose myself; I lost a big piece, but it was still only a piece.  Even an amputation heals after the loss, although there might be phantom pain for quite some time.  I love you, I've lost you, I'll always feel your presence, but I will heal.  I am healing.  I wish you could have found healing, too, but I'm glad you're no longer in pain, and wish you would have sought the help you needed at the time. 
I may be my sister's keeper, but I am not my sister.  Peace and blessings be with you always, Kimmy.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Choices and Judgments

Originally published June 29th, 2012, on The Next Family.
I recently had another hair battle with my son, and this one ended in an unexpected way. His long hair gets tangled easily, as mine did when I was a child, and he enjoys dealing with those tangles about as much as I did. Honestly, I had expected the end result of this fight a while back, when he started being teased. After enough of a fight, I finally blurted out “I’m either combing your hair or cutting your hair- PICK ONE!” After a moment of shock while the implications set in, he timidly asked “Will you cut yours, too?” Trying to redeem myself, I agreed, and got out the clippers. He had quite a fun time planning to use the piles of hair to make Halloween wigs.
Unfortunately, changing things take time. Thankfully, the hair cut is going over better than the arguing, although it’s created its own controversies with some people.  Then Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” for the Atlantic.  Talk about things that take a while, and the -isms (sexism, racism, etc.) might just take the cake.  There are some interesting accompanying pieces and critiques on Slate and The Prospect, as well as some great discussion on the Facebook page of  Connie Schultz (award-winning writer and wife to Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio).
But the thing that really struck me about the Atlantic article was the assumption that everyone wants to have it all, and I think that’s the major point of feminism that Slaughter misses.  Feminism (to my limited understanding) was never about having it all; it was about having what you wanted.  It was about life choices of both men and women being respected and valued, no matter what they were, and having equal opportunities to live those choices.  Feminism isn’t about getting women out of the kitchen and into the board room; it’s about giving women equal access to be in the boardroom, if that’s what they want to do with their life. There’s so much fighting over life choices, and I’ve never understood it.  To work at home or outside the home, to have children or not, how to create your family, what career one wants to follow- I frankly don’t get how any of these things affect anyone outside of the family making those choices, and yet our culture fights tooth and nail for a particular view of how these decisions should be made.  For a country founded on freedom and talking extensively about liberty, we sure aren’t free from others’ judgment of us and our lifestyles.
Ironically, my husband has had far more gender studies classes and discussions than I have, as he is a historian who writes on definitions of masculinity and the impact that had on the civil rights movement and other revolutions.  He is, however, a staunch supporter of equality and recognizes his own privilege, and tries to do his best to not take advantage of that privilege.  And so long as we limit the issue to outside of our house, he does pretty well at accomplishing his goal.  Inside the house, I attribute the differential in division of labor as interpersonal differences in energy levels more than his or my view of gender roles; he can easily sleep ten hours a day and be happy, while I’m usually good after about six.  It wouldn’t matter what gender either of us were, I don’t think there’s a way to have that and a 50/50 split in household duties, but if anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Essentially, the right to choose our own path to follow is a huge gap in the US.  While there are obviously strictures about what is “acceptable” for men to do, those strictures are looser and less often seen as critically as the strictures around women, and there’s rarely negative connotations connected to those dividing lines for men (think of how people used to say “women’s work” and its implications).  Outside of careers, choice in family structure is also contentious.  Again, I realize that it happens to people of both sexes, but how much more is it for a man to say he doesn’t want kids, compared to a woman?  For a woman to be infertile is often seen as a critical blow to her identity, and whether a person becomes a parent through adoption or surrogacy is seen in some circles as a point to judge just easily as their politics or clothing.
The real answer, of course, is to continue the push for equality- equality of opportunity, equality of access.  In the short term, can we simply stop judging everyone with a different opinion or life choice from ours?  As many families as there are, there are that many ways to become a family and make a family work well.  So long as no one is being hurt, what does it matter if dad stays home, or mom only wants one child?  And heck, isn’t it just easier to not worry so much about what other people are doing?  Now go be lazy, and don’t judge decisions that don’t affect you, like a boy with long hair or a dad who wants to stay home.  I think that’s a pretty positive step for equality, don’t you?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Of Plants and Transplants

Originally published in the Kent Patch, on July 3rd, 2012.

In part of my research life, I study Phragmites australis and Typha angustifolia (common reed grass and narrow leaf cattail, respectively), and how they impact native frogs.  These are invasive plants, plants that don’t come from North America and have been introduced here.  Normally, my research isn’t focused on the benefits of plants, but they’re detrimental affects.  In fact, my dissertation could easily be titled “Death, death, deathidy death of frogs, caused by plants.”  Invasive plants aren’t cool, in general; they don’t have diseases or predators here many times, they often use resources that native plants don’t or they out-compete native plants.  Think of kudzu as a prime example of an invasive plant.  
Coming from this background, it’s sometimes easy to forget how absolutely amazing plants can be and how many great traits plants have.  Rationally speaking, plants do so much for our landscape, other animals, and us.  Our atmosphere- the air we breathe- is what it is today because of plants, which take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen.  This complements our consumption of oxygen and expelling of carbon dioxide pretty well, if you ask me.  Plants can alter the soil around their roots by exuding various chemicals that inhibit or encourage different plants and microbes; they prevent soil erosion; they can transport materials up or down as needed within their systems; and can alter humidity and temperatures below them through evapotranspiration and shading.  
We use many different plants as our own food crops and as feed for our livestock and pets.  We landscape our yards with plants attractive to us.  We enjoy natural areas filled with plants, bird-watching and feeding around various plants, and picking or buying flowers grown for their beauty after cutting.  Part of the beauty of plants is their diversity, from the minuscule lesser duckweed to the mighty sequoias, and everything in between, plants have covered a huge portion of the earth’s surface.  They’ve provided the whole planet with a vast array of products and performed a multitude of functions.  There may even be as much diversity found in the plants in Kent as there is diversity in people.  If variety is the spice of life, Kent has quite a complex flavor.
On Saturday, at Kent’s annual Heritage Festival, there may not be fireworks that night unless something with the weather drastically gives, but you can come see the spark of life at Kent Environmental Council’s booth.  As last year, we’ll be creating a small oasis on East Main Street, with plants, shade, water, a place to sit, and books and information to peruse.  As always, there will be fresh fruits and vegetables at Haymaker Farmers’ Market and Kent Natural Foods Co-op (even more if the weather breaks), flowers blooming in the hanging baskets and Adopt-A-Spots around town, trees growing alongside the river at Franklin Mills Riveredge park, and lawns and private gardens around town where friends and family will be celebrating our nation’s independence.  
This Saturday, come rain or shine, grab a beverage at one of our downtown spots, check out the local artists and vendors of all sorts, enjoy all the various plants and what they provide us, see a little of Kent’s history all around us, and enjoy the unique culture that Kent has to offer.  Gordon Vars won’t be representing the bog this year, and Bob Wood won’t be selling his prints, but there’s still plenty to see.  Time moves on, the seasons change, but the spirit found in this northeast Ohio town will always be here, and will ever welcome misfits and eccentrics, as well as all the locals.  It’s a small town, but we’ve got huge heart here in Kent, no matter how much we might disagree at times.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

It’s a very odd couple of weeks in the news, enough to make me wonder if my long time dream of time travel had come true in a “Monkey’s Paw” sort of way, and I’ve awoken in 1950-something. Talk of “legitimate rape,” “honest rape,” “forcible rape,” forms of conception, and eleven-year -old kids that deserve to have been raped. In case you’ve been living under a rock, all of this is framed in the discourse on abortion, and specifically personhood rights for the unborn (well, except the remark about the eleven-year-old; that’s just cruel and asinine). Now, I wasn’t there in the bad old days of the coat hanger and before Roe vs. Wade, but I’d wager the rhetoric was worse, although I’m not sure by how much.
I can respect a pro-life stance, even if I myself am pro-choice; I have plenty of friends that are pro-life for various reasons and to varying degrees, but we mostly get along. I say “mostly” because saying that any group got along all the time would be a lie now wouldn’t it? Even when we don’t necessarily get along, we’re civil and respectful, and while no one typically persuades anyone else, in the end we’re still friends. I think that’s how most of us are in our day-to-day lives, with people we know, or at least I like to think that’s the case. You’d never know it from the news, though, and I may be delusional in thinking the way I do.
Thing is, while all the talk from the likes of Akin, Ryan, Paul, and Passidomo make it sound like these are just misspoken words or verbal accidents, there’s a certain logic to these unhinged statements. What they effectively do is blame the victim and dehumanize the woman involved, and by extension, all women. As a meme that’s been going around Facebook states, a woman deserves to be raped because she’s scantily clad just as much as a man deserves to be kicked in the balls when he doesn’t put on a cup in the morning. Victim blaming is the easiest of these insidious tactics to dispel because all it requires is a simple respect for others.
The other lines are a bit trickier, in part because they rely on that first step above: respecting others. But once you do that, you have to think about dichotomies. See, any time you categorize something, you imply that not everything fits in that category. For there to be “honest rape,” that implies that some rapes are “dishonest,” or a case of “buyer’s remorse”, and nothing could be further from the truth. Rape is never OK, there is nothing that a person can do that makes them worthy of being raped. To say that they are worthy of rape is to say that they aren’t human, plain and simple.
Finally, using lies and fallacies like women’s bodies “shutting that whole thing down” and pregnancies not resulting from rapes is blatant propaganda and dishonesty, on top of victim-shaming and cruelty. More importantly, it is absolutely unacceptable for those who should be held as role models to be spreading this misinformation and mischaracterization, and even worse when this is done by a member of the House Science Committee. There is a place for opinion, if you could even call these opinions, but it is not situated somewhere north of facts, at least not in the real world, which these people have arguably left behind at this point.
On a closing note, what all of these comments have in common is a reflection of the fact that there are plenty of people in the US and the world who still consider women to be second class citizens, and not worthy of the same respect as men and not able to be trusted with decisions regarding their own body. In fact, talking about rape as another form of conception ignores the woman entirely, and focuses simply on “rape->baby” and in thirty-one states, the woman continues to be ignored by laws that allow fathers via rape to have the same rights and access to their progeny as fathers via IVF, intercourse, or adoption (yes, you read that right, rapists can sue for visitation, too). The same goes with personhood amendments which instill legal status on all embryos, including those created via IVF. Many prominent pro-life activists are opposed to personhood statutes, because those statutes go too far in limiting rights, and would effectively bar IVF due to concerns on how to deal with all of the extra embryos created in the process and the need to figure out what to do with them (and a desire to avoid additional Octo-mom situations).
Personally, I will always support a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, the same as I respect a man’s right to bodily autonomy in the circumcision debate. If we can’t control our own bodies, what do we have control over? And let’s face it, this discussion is not about protecting the unborn, or caring for children- if it were, we wouldn’t have such a high national child poverty rate. The discussion on different types of rape, abortion (and in part, surrogacy) is about control. Women are not chattel, and any politician- or human, for that matter- would do well to remember that all 7 billion plus humans currently alive are here because of a woman (or two).

Monday, October 1, 2012

Times and Presence

Originally published June 15th, 2012, on The Next Family.
In my little town, we’ve been undergoing lots of renovation, remodeling, and construction.  And by “lots” I mean half of downtown closed off and all of it choking under construction dust.  Some of that impending development has put at risk a historic home that was associated with one of our town founders, Zenas Kent.  The house is over 150 years old, and is also connected to other prominent families, which isn’t surprising considering how small towns start out and how important people tend to group together.  There’s been a lot of work put into figuring out how to save this house, and relocate it.  The problem is that the site for relocation is currently in use by the local cultural arts as a green space next to their gallery, local kids wanting to play, families for community gardens, and neighbors for a place to chill.
I understand and appreciate the need to preserve history; heck, I live in a “century-house” myself and wouldn’t trade it for the world.  But I also see the need for green spaces downtown, and for kids to have their own space.  As it stands now, this little plot houses theater classes, swing sets, solar panels, rain gardens, and veggie gardens.  Possibly the worst part of this is that one of the prominent locals helping to move the house has been active and vocal in the sustainability discourse here, so it feels like a betrayal.  Both sides have passionate arguments and believe that they are the ones in the right.  Full disclosure: I heartily support keeping the green space as it is, and consider that a higher value to the community than this house, which has lately been a student rental, and then vacant.
The two major arguments are “history” versus “green space” but the larger issue in my mind is children’s rights and privilege.  Besides ideology, there’s another major difference between the two groups, and that’s demographics.  The historians tend to be middle to upper-middle class, white, older, and well educated.  The demographics using the green space tend to be lower to lower-middle class, ethnically diverse, and younger, with many minors.  That’s a big problem.  You can always argue about preservation, development, and green spaces, but when you have a distinctly privileged group trying to put out underprivileged populations, I get irate.  When that privileged group won’t even acknowledge their privilege and see the other side- I want to scream.
I’ll admit my bias on this one; I have a kid and he and his friends enjoy that green space; I’m an ecologist and my life revolves around conservation; my favorite historian (other than my husband) is Howard Zinn; I’m an ardent activist and child advocate.  I may not be fond of kids personally (besides my own), but they are our future, and we should treat them as such.  This same town rose up in arms against an apartment complex that refused to renew leases with its senior citizens, instead choosing to target college student populations as renters.
Argument and disagreement are not uncommon in Kent.  It’s hard to be a college town, and that association itself tends to create tension.  Add the identity issues of a town where the National Guard once turned on US students/citizens and killed four, injured nine, and it’s amazing we fight as little as we do, but history always brings this stuff out here.
Really, the way I see it is that this is a matter of priorities.  Do we, as a group, value the history and culture of a fairly homogeneous group and preserve that at all costs, or do we try to be inclusive, celebrate diversity, and create places for those without means?  Do we invest in our past or our future?  Communities are simply bigger families, and we can either accentuate from where we came, or who we are right now.  Do we focus on things we cannot change, or what we actively embrace and foster, in hopes of the best?