26 August 2011

never confuse substance with symbolism.

I don't agree with the notion of King as the singular representative of the civil rights movement any more than I agree with the notion of West as the singular (and self-appointed) representative of all black or poor people everwhere, but this I can get on board with. Memorials should not be equated with absolution, pretending public memory, or the delusion of a complete and successful civil rights movement:

"King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.
In concrete terms, this means support for progressive politicians..., extensive community and media organizing; civil disobedience; and life and death confrontations with the powers that be. Like King, we need to put on our cemetery clothes and be coffin-ready for the next great democratic battle."

22 August 2011


I spent the last week at a national training institute for a prison education exchange program called Inside-Out. It is difficult to sum up my time with that group and what I learned, but there was a moment that was illustrative of where our hearts were after learning a great deal about how to facilitate courses in a prison setting.

Saturday we made our second trip to the prison. We went on Wednesday. It was an intense day-- there is nothing like waiting for two hours because the prison is on lockdown. Nothing like realizing that you are beyond the walls-- walls that our government built to keep these people in, to keep people like me out. Nothing like seeing the desperate hunger for knowledge and the many ways that knowledge liberates. Nothing like coming to know changed hearts that want change in the world. We met lifers and men who had three or six years left on their sentences. Men who give their 40 cents to 2 dollar an hour wages to scholarship programs for the children of other incarcerated men. Men who will be forever be defined by the worst thing they ever did. Men who came into the prison as children and will probably die there.

So when we had made our way along the winding country roads to the prison, our hearts were heavy. We had learned a lot in our training and we were coming to the prison to learn yet more from the men who were training us inside. When our car turned the corner, the first thing I noticed was the fog. The prison silhouette loomed large. And then I looked a little closer- and I saw people dancing.

In one of the cars, some women had fallen asleep on the drive out. The other women in the car turned up the music really loud to wake them up. The doors flew open and they began to dance. With each car in the caravan rolling in, people spilled out and joined this parking lot soiree. I did too.

our cheesy, unlikely anthem

The rules that govern prison parking lots are restrictive- you are told where to park, no pictures or videos, you come in as few cars as possible. You can't have maps laying out when you go in. As we danced, I could see a guard stepping out of the tower to watch, backlit by sun and fog. A truck with a correctional officer in it circled the parking lot. It dawned on me that this was very, very subversive. It was the most radical thing I had ever been a part of.

But in spite of the surveillance, and maybe because of it, we danced for the whole song. We danced because we know we are free. We danced because we needed strength to go into that milieu to do our best work. We danced because the kind of people that want to teach in prison are the kind of people who dance in parking lots. We danced because we believe we can make walls come down.

We were grateful that we didn't get in trouble for our dance party. Our program is fragile and we know that. The guards were genuinely amused and we haven't heard of any blowback.

We went into the prison that day knowing that we had just experienced something that had defined us as a group, something that we would return to as we spread out to fill our different missions across the United States and Canada. What we do is sobering and hard work, and I came away with a greater appreciation that my heart and my spirit will always need to be in the right place for me to do the work effectively. We had a beautiful day in the prison as we communed with intelligent people who believe in the power of our program. It was hard to say goodbye because it is hard knowing that human beings are kept in cells. It is hard knowing, really knowing, that you are free and others are not.

We did not dance when we left.

13 August 2011

summer reading list.

Last summer my extra-curricular reading list was relatively straight forward: I read Updike's Rabbit tetrology, an experience that was beautiful and worthwhile and easy to get sentimental over in contrast to my vigorous schedule of watching The Wire and trying to crack the scholarship on moderate Republicans, which I thought I wanted to do m dissertation on (oh how things change!). This year, following the disaster of my comps and the trauma of such gluttonous and deliberate reading, I just started loving on books again and let my list emerge organically.

Here's what it became:
Bossypants by Tina Fey
The first book I read this summer, I think the weekend when I should have been preparing for my oral exams. It was anti-climactic but a nice way to transition from crazy town into summer sloth.

Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie
This was actually for work. I knew I wanted to discuss Alexie in my Race and Ethnicity class because he is from Washington. Also short stories are my favorite type of literature. These stories were amazingly satisfying. I think this was the only piece of literature that I started and finished while I was in Washington, which is a little bit disconcerting considering how long I was there.

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
Pulled this one off my roommate's shelf. I seem to remember my brother reading it in college. This is geeky, but it was made more interesting to me by both the introduction to Jewish culture that has characterized my 2 years and Philly and reading Canuto's The Ungovernable City last summer, because who doesn't love John Lindsay

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
An interesting compliment to the identity issues of the Roth book. I cried at the end, the sadness of the main character was just so deep. A quick and worthy read selected because I had really enjoyed Ten Little Indians and this book won the National Book Award.

Wifey by Judy Blume
I read this book after reading Rich Juzwiak's post "You should read Wifey". The writing is hilarious and Blume's story invoked for me, a female narrated Updike story of suburban discontent. This book was funnier after reading Portnoy's Complaint because now my summer reading list has this weird comic New Jersey thread running through it.

I Don't Care About Your Band by Julie Klausner
Thanks again to my roommate, I now diligently listen to Julie Klausner's How Was Your Week podcast. I love Klausner's sense of humor, but I was kind of terrified that I would hate this book, as dating memoirs or commentaries sometimes promote really, really fucked up ideas about relationships that I always take more seriously than those that emerge from mid-century male writers or things that I say at happy hour after a couple of beers (double standard!). But Klausner dances gracefully through the minefield of possible terrible things that could be said, and the book winds up being this really wonderful gift from a cool older sister who is all about being real and takes the ridiculous of one's 20s in stride. I'm rambling here, but of all the books I've read this summer, I will probably buy a few copies of this book to give as gifts because I think it is wonderful and I want to be like Julie Klausner when I grow up. As a memoir, it is much better than Bossypants.

In progress:
Operation Shylock: A Confession by Philip Roth
I have been slowly, slowly inching through this one. It's postmodern! It takes a lot of focus. I have read several other books since I started it. Another one from my roommate's shelf.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
As I mentioned in my post yesterday, this is a classic that I was kind of embarrassed about neglecting. I felt like I had to read it after reading Wifey and I am really glad I did. Again, with Portnoy and Wifey, it's as much about Northeastern Jewish culture as it is about sex and relationships and inner life. It is a magnificent primary source from the 1970s. Taking into account everything I've read this summer, Isadora Wing might be my favorite character so far.

What are you reading this summer?

12 August 2011

really raring to go.

Today is delicious. The weather in Philly is absolutely perfect- sunny, 84 degrees. gentle breezes, no humidity. Earlier I found myself power-grading and reading in Rittenhouse Square, drunk on sunshine and iced coffee. It made me happy to realize that at 26 I am still doing the thing I prized most during the summers of my youth-- reading outside. To be able to do that in the middle of a Friday afternoon is bliss. It is exactly what I want my life to be.

I'm reading Erica Jong's classic Fear of Flying (because why haven't I read it already?). There are so many poignant and pithy passages, but this one sums up how I feel today:
"...I'm really happy with my work for the moment and I don't want any more fulfillment just now. It took me years to learn to sit at my desk for more than two minutes at a time, to put up with the solitude and the terror of failure, and the godawful silence and the white paper. And now that I can take it... now that I can finally do it... I'm really raring to go. I don't want anything to interfere right now. Jesus Christ! It took me so long to get to this point."

Jesus Christ! It took me so long to get to this point.

09 August 2011

the last poets.

In spite of my best efforts to stay focused while I read this book about hip-hop, I can't help myself. Totally waylaid by The Last Poets.

Up through the years we've continued this fight
our liberty to attain
And though we have faced insurmountable odds
yet the will to resist remains

What is freedom? related to what?

08 August 2011

working from home.

How to Work From Home from dooce on Vimeo.

I was kind of amused watching this video from Dooce about how to work from home. I have a friend who claims that "working from home" is the best euphemism for masturbation ever invented. While I can neither confirm or deny this claim, anybody that does self-initiated work and makes their own schedule can appreciate the meaning of what he said: it's hard the resist the pull of doing other things. Take for example, my day today:

10:30am: Reluctantly get out of bed. My neighbor's dogs barked all night. For real. The whole entire night. It was unsurprising to me that when I finally fell asleep, I had really violent dreams. I am unhappy to be awake.

10:35am-11:30am: Call SPCA on neighbors. Spend too long cooking breakfast (scrambled eggs with a bacon and tomato sandwich) and reading the internet.

11:30am: Realize this has been going on too long. 

Noon: Finally shower. Commence deep conditioning of hair. Resume reading of internet. Respond to student emails cheerfully; send angry emails to everyone else. I was still mad about being awake.

1:05pm: Realize that I never actually rinsed my hair out and that the shower cap is starting to steam. Rinse.

1:10pm: Attempt laundry. This endeavor meant washing my shocking pink shorts for the first time, which meant that I turned a number of my whites pink. This day is stupid.

1:30pm: Sit down with a book. Read at five minute intervals so I can get up to check for a response to my angry email. Watch Chloe' videos with my roommate.

Eat. Dance. Eat.

3:30pm: Realizing that not enough has been accomplished, decide to go to the coffee shop to work. Swap out enormous working from home shirt for coffee shop-appropriate shirt and make cut-off shorts three inches shorter, because what am I, Mormon? Also, it turns out wearing fat clothes from four years ago is way warmer than regular clothes. Eat a popsicle because I am still angry about being awake.

4:00pm-5:30pm: Read at coffee shop. Most productive period of the day until I realized that I could redeem the whole day entirely by going to the taco truck.

5:45pm: Taunt roommate with prospect of taco truck as he's leaving for swim practice.

6:15pm: Bike repairs lite.

6:45pm- 8:30pm: Actually leave for taco truck. Back to school shopping at Target. More popsicles.

So I recognize that this day was only possible because it's summer, my students have a shit-ton of work to turn in that I'm going to have to grade this week but not now, and because I didn't technically have something that had to be done (Spanish study remains on the calendar). But think of what I could have accomplished if I HAD SET A SCHEDULE.