Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Perspective

In the final days of the year, it is customary for one to look back and see what has happened. What went really well? Where have things gone awry and what was my part in all of that? How can I take what I've learned and apply it to making next year even better? How have I been a good person and how can I replicate that behavior? Where have I been inconsiderate and how do I make that right? The end of the year is an appropriate time to take an inventory and see where I am in life's ocean, figure out if the little flotation devices strapped to my arms are working and figure out if I'm going to sink, swim or lay still.

Speaking of laying still, I did that this morning. I have slept in every day since school let out, at least until 7 a.m. I wake up to a little grey kitty pawing at my hair. "Hey, lazybones, feed me before I blow chunks on your nice new comforter set." Eleanor is a good reminder that routine is a healthy and necessary part of life. I will not allow myself to lay still for long. This is my time of rest and rejuvenation. In a few days I will hit the ground running again, racing for the finish line of dissertation writing and revision, of research and reflection and becoming a better teacher.

It has been an interesting year. Julian Assange is the most fascinating person of 2010 for his Wikileaks and the backlash against him. He knew going into this operation that world governments would try to stop his project- that of publishing dirty government details online and in selected media and exposing corruption in Kenya, other parts of Africa and specifically in the United States as we try to keep the lid on our operations in Guantanomo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are even leaks about Scientology. He gets help from from anonymous bloggers, hackers and those interested in the transfer of information from the U.S. government to everywhere in the world. National Public Radio observed that Wikileaks cannot at this point be shut down without cutting power to the entire internet and I'm pretty sure that Al Gore isn't going to pull the plug. Interesting that Assange, an Australian, chose the United States as the primary target of his free government information for all campaign. This might be because the U.S. has the most liberal information policy- the Freedom of Information Act- or perhaps he had more contacts in the states. Our government is looking into legal recourse and has for now decided upon a smear campaign, insisting that while freedom of information is important, that it is reckless and dangerous to publish information about the wars we are fighting. Maybe this is true, but while lots of people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I mean oodles both from direct fire and the aftermath of war, nobody has yet to die from what Assange put out there. Sweden is attempting to trump up charges of sexual assault and rape against Assange. If the charge is valid, I say Assange should go to jail for the crime. If it's not, and it appears to me as though this is a convenient way to make him disappear, then fuck it. Leave him be. The average American is too lazy to read Wikileaks anyway. Who cares if the leader of Libya has a male traveling companion who is probably his lover? There is more juicy information to be found on Perez

I agree with a friend who observed that perhaps Assange has selected the U.S. for his campaign not for the bountiful information, but for the lack of assassins employed to take care of people like him. As far as we know, the White House does not condone assassination and our 007's are currently occupied and have been for the last several years in the ongoing search for Osama bin Laden.

In other national news, I admire President Obama for his decision to repeal the draconian "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy. When President Clinton instituted the DADT law, it was an effort to protect gays and lesbians from persecution. That's where our country was at the time. And times have changed. I hope this decision reflects that. I love my president for his insistence that all men and women are created equal. I cried when I heard the news, for as Dr. King tells us, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

While I dislike the tax cuts for the rich that he agreed to, I trust that perhaps there is a better trade off for those who most need assistance from our government. I predict and hope that in 2011, everyone in the United States will gain the right to marry, regardless of gender. I have heard the argument against marriage equality- that if same sex partners marry, it will erode the family structure. This is 2010, almost 2011 and divorce is common, with adultery and emotional betrayal almost expected. It's time to let go of the myth of the nuclear family. Moms and dads have to work, children are commonly born into single parent households and frankly, there just aren't that many unplanned pregnancies or abortions with same sex couples. And no, nobody will marry their chihuahua or donkey if same sex couples are allowed the same rights as heterosexuals. These arguments didn't hold up to scrutiny in the 1950's when we banned interracial relationships and they don't hold true today. With Obama at the helm, hopefully our country will continue forward on a path to equality.

Speaking of equal and fair, I'd like to see a few other changes in 2011. Let's actually CLOSE Gitmo bay for good and figure out how to bring justice to those interred there without charges for years on end. Perhaps each and every one of them deserves a lifetime in prison for their crimes but they still have a right to due process of law. Beyond that, I want us to be a nation that gives due process according to the Constitution because it's the right thing to do and the moral obligation of a fair and just country. While we're at it, let's just go ahead and legalize and tax the shit out of marijuana. Nobody ever went on a pot rage, unlike the drunken alcohol-fueled rages we sometimes see now. And it can help glaucoma, still nausea for chemo patients and help the economy through regulation. It's mostly legal in many states now, so let's just go ahead and apply capitalism to the concept, k? Think of it: fewer people incarcerated, more people walking around happy (or at least stoned out of their gourds) and lots of revenue to pay for health care as we Americans burn our lungs out with ditchweed.

Next year, I plan to swim rather than sink or float through and pretend I don't see the world around me. I resolve to speak up and out when necessary. I'll put my money where my mouth is, buy locally and help my neighbors and friends. I will learn from teaching and teach learning and probably smack my head on some wall or door in the process. This is a good thing, though. Keeps me humble as I bumble. Keeps me open to learning, to love and to compassion and hope.

A friend recently asked me if I thought my students read the comments I put on their papers and if I thought it helped. Part of me is defensive- of course every student would read every word I write! They care and want to be better writers, or at least see what they need to do for their next paper to improve and get a better grade. But then I think that in a hundred years, nobody is going to care about what think of their writing. Hell, in five years, nobody will care. Ok, maybe just one year or next week. What my students think of me or what I do is not my business. I only rarely see the positive side of my work. I'm a tree planter and arborist and so are other teachers. The fruit doesn't ripen or even set on until roots go down, branches go out, the sun shines and the bees do their thing. I am even one of those trees, planted years ago and offering flowers to the sun. Asking me if I think it helps to write on student work is like asking a gardener how many of the thousands of fruit trees he pruned will one day bear fruit. Teachers and gardeners can only assume that their work is good and productive and hope that one day, the fruit will not be bitter with selfishness, but sweet with kindness passed on.

Happy New Year. Let's go sow some seeds.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Westboro Baptist Church Can Teach Us About Peace

This semester in my Composition classes, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was often the topic of conversation. In a unit on rhetorical analysis, I used their website to teach analytical tools. From the upside down flag to the music, page layout, words and blatant appeal to emotions, the WBC people seem like a cartoon because they are so overdone.If you don't know what the WBC is, they are a small group of people- mainly the family of the leader, Fred Phelps, who came to national attention for their protest of the funeral of a young man killed in a hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming. Matthew, a gay college student, was lured into a truck with two men whose sole intent was to rob him. They drove him outside of town, beat him, took his wallet and shoes and tied him to a fencepost. Eighteen hours later, he was found by a bicyclist who thought he was a scarecrow until he saw the chest moving from Matthew's labored breathing. Matthew later died in the hospital and both perpetrators are still in prison. The WBC put a counter on their website- back when the world wide web was gaining popularity and not all bumper stickers had a website address on the bottom- with the "number of days that Matthew Shepard has been burning in hell" for being gay. The WBC bases their gospel and teaching on sex, mainly that it's the worst thing in the world to be gay and most of the bad things that happen are because of either being gay or supporting those who are gay. The church also discusses the opposite of love, which they claim is hate and decided to protest Matthew Shepard's funeral. This caused a national outpouring of opposition. Then Westboro decided to picket all sorts of events, from Fred Phelps is an attorney and he does do a good job of defending his group and winning challenges under the auspices of Freedom of Speech. These days the group focuses on homosexuality and soldiers killed in combat.

This makes the group easy to discuss from a rhetorical standpoint so I use them. You can imagine the reactions, ranging from outrage to a desire to shut the group down and discussions of burning at the stake and large caliber artillery. Then come the thoughts on
the differences between morality and democracy and decency. Once students get past their emotions, which can take some time, we attempt to discern the true purpose of the group and how powerful they really are.

The WBC has been active in Oklahoma this year, staging numerous protests against homosexuality and those who accept what I know to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. They decided in November to picket in McAlester, Oklahoma, at a funeral for a young man killed in combat. The unit on rhetorical analysis was over, but my students brought the protest to my attention. They asked for extra credit for attending the counter-protest, which is a common practice anytime the WBC people show up anywhere. Sure, I'll be happy to give you chump change as an excus
e to go see some real life up close and personal. Go right ahead and jump outside of your comfort zone. Four students went to the protest and reported back on the six prot
esters from WBC - including two children- and the thousand or so counter-protesters. The police had to surround the protesters to protect them from the citizenry. Lots of news and media hype. Someone slashed two of the tires on the church van, and nobody in town would fix the flats so the WBC had to have their van towed to a nearby Walmart. The students were giddy. We had discussions in class about the ethical dilemma of free speech and slashing tires (or worse).

I offered that if I had been there and had the opportunity, I would have endeavored to stop anyone from causing harm to the WBC people. No way, said the students. They got what they deserved.

But there are reasons and deserve has nothing to do with it. Chief among these reasons is that I remember the life and teachings of Dr. King. When effecting social change, we have got to follow the four steps of direct action and always act peacefully, taking full responsibility for our actions. It's cowardly to sneak up like a guilty thief and slash someone's tires. It takes no responsibility and works agains
t peace. How? Because in doing so, we justify the hateful actions of that group. They now have something to point to in order to further their own argument. He who angers you, controls you. And in taking a non-peaceful action, you negate your own efforts to restore sanity and serenity in the world.

Unless sanity and serenity and peace are not your primary intentions. In that case, go nuts.

The WBC decided to hold a couple of protests in Norman last weekend. The first was at Harvest Christian Church to protest women speaking in church and women pastors. The second was at Trinity Baptist and the third at Journey Church, to spew the regular hateful rhetoric. I put out a call on Facebook for friends to join me in counter protest. Three ladies showed up, one with her two little girls. We took our signs and attended the counter protests.

The first one was fine. There were only five or so WBC people and about fifty of us, including some bikers, some high school kids and assorted feminists. Women were the most prevalent, and we concentrated on slogans of peace and love and acceptance for all, and in enjoying the fellowship. At
the second protest, there were a lot more people, from bikers and Army wives and children to Zombies holding signs proclaiming "I was promised brains". The mood was almost prurient, with many people getting too close to the protesters and emotions running very high. I brought two dozen donuts and passed them out as though we were all at a picnic. I used the opportunity to diffuse emotions and met a friend I only knew through FB. Mr. David Slemmons, outlaw poet and peaceman extraordinaire. Another friend, a former student, attends Trinity and was glad to see me. I was glad to see her too. The thing is that the WBC people feed off of negative emotions. That's why they carry offensive signs, wear upside down flags that they walk on and sing ridiculous songs about death and destruction. They are easy to hate and they want that hate. I'm certain that they don't even believe their own rhetoric. Today on their website they had slogans proclaiming their gratitude for breast cancer. Huh?

This group is not that powerful. They are only fifty people strong, if that. They are easy to resist because they are so ridiculous. It's just like anything in life: an exercise in not taking it personally.

One of my students called me from Bowlegs, Oklahoma. Yes, it's a real place. The semester is over, but the WBC was coming to his town to protest the funerals of three of his friends killed in a car accident. In a car accident. Why does this require a funeral? Same reason they wanted to protest the death of a little girl who died in a house fire: retribution for slashing tires. There are always consequences of our actions. My student commented that he thought there would be a rumble, since "everyone in Bowlegs is armed." Perhaps with this one, the WBC has bitten off more than they can chew. They may have the legal right to protest, but eventually their luck will run out and someone is going to get more than a slashed tire and a punch to the face. They have already had their church attacked (from which they drew much media attention) and he worried that there would be even more problems.

I advised him to attend the counter protest if he wanted but to suggest that people focus on drowning out the WBC and keeping the attention where it needs to be- on the family of his friends and their time of grief. I knew that the bikers would show up to drown them out and that others would come to join hands and somehow create some peace from the chaos. I reminded him of Dr. King and how in his letter from Birmingham Jail, he said that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." I think this experience will stay with him for some time. I know it will stay with me.

In times of great inequity, injustice and blatant disregard for what is right, it matters what we do and how we act. Our children will follow the example we set since they will ultimately enact our principles.


Saturday, December 4, 2010


I have always had a sense of adventure. I like new places and exploration. I never felt the need to stay rooted to one spot for too long. I like the ramble, the movement, the excitement of what might be just around the corner. We moved a lot when I was a kid and I learned to be portable. I remember when we bought a place up in Dayton, up the Touchet river in Rogers Gulch. It was 50 acres of rimrock and hillside punctuated with a strawberry field and a wheat field. It was surrounded by 800 acres of nothing but cattle, coyotes, deer, elk and bears and we had the whole gulch to ourselves. Yvette (my sister) and I scrambled all over that property in our Levis and boots and teeshirts. I loved it. And I loved moving on afterwards, though my fondest memories took place there, with a doublewide trailer and a 10% grade driveway. I think I left a good piece of my soul in the wild rosebushes and green apple trees that grew along the half mile dirt road. That's ok; it's happy and safe there. Tons of rattlesnakes to protect it.

As an adult I've moved around too. Washington, Colorado, Nevada, Oklahoma and some sticky places in between. I used to love tossing everything in my truck - because everything I had fit into just one truck- and moving to some new and exciting/depressing/hopeful/scary/unknown locale for new adventures and good coffee. I've always had a few common denominators along the way. A few photo albums, a very few mementos from my youth and Gray Kit
ty. Gray Kitty was a gift for my second birthday and probably the one constant from when I was growing up. I had a big teddy bear named FuzzyWuzzy that I used as a pillow, but my mother gave him away when I was 8. So I've had Gray Kitty my whole life and also tend to adopt cats that are gray. Go figure.

Five years ago this month, I bought a house. It's the third time I've purchased property but the first time entirely on my own. My ex-husband and I had purchased a house and some land several years ago, so I at least knew how to do it. I wasn't sure that this is what I wanted to do- to put down roots. I talked to people I respect and got their opinions. It's scary to stay in one place for me. I feel as though I'll get stagnant, bored, that I'll somehow grow old and die. For Yvette, it was easy because she doesn't share the same philosophy as me. She still lives in our same small town where we graduated high school. I'm not sure I possess the moxy to stay in one place for more than 5 years or so.

As one could imagine, moving around takes its toll on relationships. I like looking around the corners of the world and traveling light, with nothing to tie me down. I'm like a dog who jumps the fence at every chance, running through neighborhoods, tongue hanging out, smelling new things and sometimes getting rebuked by a skunk. I guess that not everyone shares this wanderlust. As I near the end of my doctoral program, the thing that has held me in Oklahoma will disappear. I find myself at an uncomfortable crossroads. I have solid relationships in Oklahoma. I know some very good people here. I love some people. I am a supportive friend and I have supportive friends here. I am a known quantity in my professional life. This is where I learned to be an adult. This is where I know the good sushi restaurants and where to find Ethiopian food that will make you poop funny for three days and this is where I know to go when my heart hurts. But I am also a fearful person and in some ways immature. Perhaps if I stay someplace for too long, then that place will define me. I will look around and ask "Is this as good as it gets?" and I'm afraid of the answer. So the open road calls. away...

So I have mentally hunkered down in a corner lately to try to figure things out. I don't know where I'm going to be in six months. It could be here. It could be Ada, Port Angeles, Oregon or Rome or any point on the map. I feel uncomfortable letting people get too close right for fear of hurting them or me if I leave. Maybe that makes me selfish; maybe that makes me unselfish. Maybe that just makes me cautious or maybe I'm just a scared little girl looking for excuses.

When I was 18, I wanted to go away to college. I had a boyfriend that I stayed in the area for. The guy is long gone and as it turns out, so am I. I didn't want to stay in that small town. Since I'm always coming and going and on my way somewhere, I think I don't have time to have relationships that are lasting. I sure don't think anyone would want to follow me around the world. Eleanor is easy but it's hard for me to own a dog because I can't go too far for too long.

I'm alone a lot by choice. It's the nature of my work as a writer and teacher and easier than speaking to people face to face, which is often exhausting for me. I don't know if I'll ever pull myself out of this and I don't know what it will take for me to commit to one time and place and situation and stay there for more than two years. I wonder if that is in me or if I will always be a gypsy and a wildflower, a dandelion seed blowing in the wind.