things to think about


today i am thinking about: THE BECHDEL TEST
October 18, 2011, 11:08 pm
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Yesterday I went undercover as a frum Jew. I put on a long black skirt and stockings, made sure my knees, elbows, and collarbones were covered, and went down to Kingston Ave. It’s kol hamoed Sukkot, which is to say that it’s basically a 24/7 party. All the families are out and about, enjoying each other, eating snacks, and there I was, Lubavicher ground zero, toodling about in my skirt.

I was there to, of all things, see a movie. I somehow ended up on a listserv for a whole world of observant Jewish women’s arts. Women are forbidden from performing? singing? in front of men. My impression is that this has historically meant that women just don’t get to do much of that, or maybe that’s just my outsider bias. But I saw an ad for this movie, The Heart that Sings,  and I watched the trailer and I was won over. A musical! About frum girls! How could I not?

The movie itself is a touching and movie-musical-worthy story about a young Jewish woman (Miriam), a Holocaust survivor, who ends up the music and drama teacher at a summer camp for rich and pampered Jewish girls. Will she pull off the annual camp show? (Yes.) Will she finally resolve her past? (Yes.) Will the other counselors grow to like her? (Yes.) You know. It’s all wrapped up in frumkeit – long skirts, Yiddishy language, watching Miriam wash before eating, music praising and praising Hashem but also encouraging the girls that whatever their dreams are, they can do it if they pray. The story itself unfolds differently than the standard “nerdy teacher who wins in the end”; the girls end up liking and trusting her because they feel bad they have been so mean after all she has been through, rather than because she finally wins them over in a montage. She wins over the camp at large only after she is the beneficiary of a real miracle. There are dance numbers, and a hundred songs, and a couple of Holocaust flashbacks.  The film itself was beautifully shot with all of the lighting and period-accurate props you could hope for.

The movie is the work of this fierce woman, Robin Saex Garbose, who – as she put it yesterday, after the screening – saw a niche market and realized it needed to grow. She has a serious theater background in the secular world, although clearly has become more observant. She was teaching classes for frum girls, realized they needed a place to perform and build as artists, and so she made that space vis a vis two feature length films. Two feature length films!

I kept thinking, though, how good this is. How awesome it is to see women making their own art, for each other, and taking each other forward. This movie passed the Bechdel test higher than almost any movie I have seen – not just because there were no men, but because women actually talked about themselves and each other caringly and all got to be real characters. It was no Fiddler situation where the women are only characters inasmuch as they get married or have opinions about marriage. These were observant women, acting religiously, having adventures and singing about being strong and taking risks and so on and so forth.

The Q&A was super interesting inasmuch as 1) clearly the women and girls present were REALLY GLAD that this movie existed, leading me to believe there is not yet much content out there; 2) the concern that showing frum girls bullying each other might somehow reflect badly on the frum community, as if somehow those of us out here in secularlandia really expect that these things don’t happen everywhere. The filmmaker also, in passing, talked about the difficulty of finding conflicts that still reflected the morals she wanted to espouse, saying that (for example) she would never be able to do a film of a girl going off the derech (ie, becoming less traditionally observant.) It’s a huge bummer – I can only imagine how that could be a really interesting and thoughtful film, even if it ended up with her coming back into the fold.

This is the part where of course, it’s easy to roll your eyes – oh lord, those fundamentalists and their propoganda. But really, look at any other teen movie – the tropes are just as strong, the plots just as predictable. Of course nothing revolutionary is going to happen. Teen movies are about reinforcing the prevailing morality, not analyzing or deconstructing it.

I liked The Heart that Sings. I liked that it passed the Bechdel test so well. I like that it gave girls a chance to think about what they could do. I liked that it was a film about girls learning and growing and not a film about girls worrying about dating boys. And I like the idea of women doing it for themselves – I hope that this goes even further, that more girls and women make movies, that we get to hear more voices and more stories and the nuance that goes along with it. Because that? Is feminist. And I? Am not nearly enough a part of that community to be passing judgement.

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today i am thinking about: BABY I HATE MANARCHISTS
October 14, 2011, 3:05 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It is so easy to be cynical about The Movement.

Manarchists and unchecked white privilege and unchecked class privilege and ideologues and grandstanding and the need for ideological perfection and lack of forgiveness and hidden trust fund babies and white person dreadlocks and lack of ferocity and willingness to infight and a hundred other things make it so easy to pour a tall glass of haterade and drink, drink, drink.

I don’t go to actions that don’t have at least one woman as a featured speaker. I don’t go to protests that aren’t backed by people of color-centered organizations that I trust. I don’t go to protests that I think are foolhardy, or pointless, or about marching around to prove we can march around. I hate protests, period, really – it’s not like they change anything, they just are a good reason for us to feel good, and whatever, half the people there need to shower anyways.

And I HATE a manarchist. I hate them deeply. I hate the whole culture of white man manarchy where you show up SUPER RADIKKKAL and take up all the space and don’t think critically about how you are being oppressive in the name of “being an activist.” I hate name dropping manarchists and maoist manarchists and bearded manarchists and especially the ones with the white man dreadlocks. ESPECIALLY THOSE. They are everywhere, in every movement that isn’t explicitly queer or people of color-centered and sometimes, even then, the manarchists roll out and make stupid choices that end up screwing people over.

I have no idea why Occupy Wall Street has not succumbed completely to the manarchists. I saw them there, this morning, when we were there to hold the park in case of police attempt to shut it down. I heard them – I think I heard them, it’s hard to tell on the human mic – orating broadly about the way we will rise up together. You can always tell a manarchist. They like to orate broadly about the way we will rise up together.

But somehow OWS hasn’t fallen into that rabbit hole. The plan for civil disobedience in the face of the park considered all of these things like people who can’t get arrested and varying levels of willingness to risk – because the direct action committee, according to my friend, is largely made up of women of color. The kitchen staff isn’t just women, although there are a lot of women there. Somehow things have not dissolved into partisan tantrums, or hopeless fracturing. The manarchists are there, smelling up the joint and running their mouths and trying to take people on ill-advised “civil disobedience missions” that are mostly excuses to look macho. But that force of ew has been resisted by a much larger and smarter force that seems to be thinking critically about how much danger that kind of manarchy can have to the larger cause.

My other friend was telling me that the whole thing got started by a bunch of white man college students. This could not be a larger red flag – except that no one knows who these white man college students are. Rather than stay up there and manarchist about, they pulled back and started creating structures for many people – any people – to take the mic. That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s enough to make this hardened cynic start thinking about how maybe I should not just bitterly sign another internet petition and, instead, take it back to the streets.



today i am thinking about: occupying wall street
October 7, 2011, 12:08 am
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I marched yesterday as part of Occupy Wall Street. I was trying to think of the last time I was at a march this big – probably the immigration march in 2007 or so. It poured down Broadway and kept coming and coming; unions, assorted radical organizations, and tons of people who were just SICK OF IT.

I love this protest. I love this occupation of Wall Street. I love this nascent growing community. I love it in a way that is almost irrational; somehow this is cutting past my usual skepticism. There are so many white dreadlocks there! The demands are so poorly defined! And yet I love it.

I love it because of how many people I know who are walking around with their mouths dropped open in anger. We have all been systemically screwed: my friend’s parents, who lose their entire retirement savings due to the greed of some Wall Street bankers; the tons of people I know who are looking for work and can’t find any, or can’t find enough; those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs and still can’t make ends meet. I have a job that I have been at for almost 5 years (!!!) and there have been no raises or cost of living adjustments in 4. My benefits have been systemically slashed. This isn’t even about greed on the part of the management, it’s about simple ability to keep the organization afloat at all.

I have inadvertently turned into one of those people who is very heavy on matters of personal choice. I have no sympathy for people who choose not to work day jobs and are consequently broke. I have no sympathy for people who spend too much and end up in debt. I hold myself to these standards, too – it’s not like I let myself off the hook. I have turned down a lot of things because I was not sure I could afford them. Parts of this really hit buttons for me because who ARE these people who can just take time off, who will sleep on Wall Street, who have nothing better to do than hang out? I am uninterested in anything made up of entitled people who do not take responsibility for their own actions. (Which, ps, describes the 1% pretty nicely!)

But, being down there, I don’t think that’s this. I think this is a space that is trying to do better actively, trying to be as un-racist as possible, trying to make it possible for people to take this space to do good work. I think it’s made up of people who have tried to find jobs and failed; who have jobs and come after work; who are unemployed and underemployed. The lifestyle hippies are there too, but there’s more going on than just that.

My feelings on how the US economy has been going are best articulated by a gurgle of agony and rage and some frantic gesticulation. I feel best about this movement/space/etc because it is making room for all of us who greet the world with this rage and pain to come down and figure out what happens next. There are many steps between a gurgle of agony and rage to a well-articulated mission. But for once, it seems like the space to do that work is actually being held. Here’s to the 99%!



today i am thinking about: COME ON IRENE
August 24, 2011, 12:25 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

There was an earthquake! Maybe you heard! But barreling down the Atlantic ocean is an even MORE interesting problem: Hurricane Irene.

There are a lot of actual meteorologists making a lot of actual predictions. Already, havoc has been wreaked in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and the Dominican Republic – and it’s coming for the continental U.S.

Over the next few days, there will be a ton of predictions as to what is coming next. As of 8am EDT, NOAA is predicting Irene’s eye will be around Florida by 2am Friday; she’ll keep blowing up the coast to make landfall sometime Saturday in the Carolinas. It’s a prediction, though, not the truth yet – although North Carolina is preparing. NOAA probably won’t release a hurricane watch/warning until closer to the expected landfall, which is sometime Saturday.

So there is lot to report and there’ll be a lot more. It’s not quite panic time yet in the United States; it’ll depend how it goes as Irene progresses. Predictions currently indicate that she is about to pass over a lot of warm water, and warm water is food for hurricanes. Irene is a category 3 right now – which means sustained winds of 111-130mph – and she could stay at Cat 3 or get even stronger. Once hurricanes are over land, they start to peter out due to topographic obstacles and lack of that all important warm water food. Notably, the islands she is currently decimating are flat and don’t provide a lot of resistance.

What does this mean for folks on the Eastern seaboard? It means we should probably go buy some water now, before it gets more likely – you should have water in your house anyways, in case of emergency. It means that you should do a little digging to figure out where you are relative to evacuation zones (NYC: you can click here to find out.) It means we should be holding in our thoughts – and finding ways to support – all of the people whose homes are already ruined. Hopefully, we will miss this, but from all accounts, North Carolina is about to get it hard and likely it will move up along the East Coast. Stay calm, get some water and food into your house, and keep listening. Hurricanes change all the time.



today I am thinking about: EARTHQUAAAAAKE
August 23, 2011, 3:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

So I am sure by now you have heard about the !5.8 earthquake in Virginia! At least, if you are on the East Coast, youA map showing the intensity of the August 23rd earthquake in Virginia from the United States Geological Society are pretty obsessively blogging/tweeting/facebooking about it, and/or freaking out and trying to get through to your family. A 5.8 earthquake is a big deal when your mom is a few miles from the epicenter. But, geologically: not so so bad.

What does a 5.8 earthquake even mean? It is the logarithm of the amplitude of the waves felt by the seismograph, as corrected for the distance from the epicenter. What does that even mean? It means that however big the displacement the seismograph felt, you scale that number accordingly. It also means that each whole number step means the earthquake was 10 times larger than the previous whole number step: so a 5.8 is ten times bigger than a 4.8 and an 8.8 is 1,000 times bigger than a 5.8.  (Want to know a ton more about this? Like math about waves? The United States Geological Survey has a website for you!)

So a 5.8 earthquake isn’t nothing, but really, in the world of earthquakes, it’s pretty small potatoes. Damages to buildings will mostly happen when they are poorly made or very old. A water main burst at the Pentagon. That kind of thing.

So, if it’s so small, why did we feel it? It’s because this was an intraplate, rather than interplate, quake.

The U.S. east of the Rockies is, for the most part, pretty far from any boundary between the large plates that make up the earth’s crust. A lot of the dramatic earthquakes on the West Coast (or in Japan, for that matter) come from interplate activity – two plates getting stuck on each other, pressure building, until the pressure releases in a big burst. But here in the rest of the country, earthquakes are intraplate, caused by a fault inside of a larger plate.  It’s the same basic idea, but they’re harder to detect. Often scientists don’t even know about the faults until they earthquake. (That is probably not the right verb.)

These kinds of earthquakes also travel further. Ergo, this quake was in Virginia, but we were feeling it all over the eastern seaboard.

The big mother intraplate earthquake was the New Madrid Earthquake of 1812. It was a series of intraplate earthquakes felt across the eastern United States over a few days in December 1811 and January 1812. There weren’t seismographs back then, but estimates put it as a series of 4 earthquakes all at ~7.5 on the Richter scale. The descriptions are dramatic:

The earthquakes caused the ground to rise and fall – bending the trees until their branches intertwined and opening deep cracks in the ground. Deep seated landslides occurred along the steeper bluffs and hillslides; large areas of land were uplifted permanently; and still larger areas sank and were covered with water that erupted through fissures or craterlets. Huge waves on the Mississippi River overwhelmed many boats and washed others high onto the shore. High banks caved and collapsed into the river; sand bars and points of islands gave way; whole islands disappeared.

(taken from the United States Geological Survey’s website on the quake, where much of this info came from.)

So it’s not as if intraplate earthquakes are less potentially hazardous; just that they’re a little less common and a lot less predictable. (That should make you feel safe!) These New Madrid earthquakes were felt all over the United States – over an area 10 times larger than the giant San Francisco quake of 1906, which (again, without a seismograph, it’s hard to know for sure) was probably of a higher magnitude.

What does all this mean? It means we might keep feeling aftershocks, even if they’re relatively minor. It means that feeling it from far away doesn’t correlate directly to the size or damage. Especially since the Japan earthquake in March, it makes sense we are all feeling a little panic. But in this case, it is probably unnecessary. Hopefully everyone is fine, and if the Pentagon is a little soggy, well, serves them right.



today I am thinking about: getting co-opted
June 25, 2011, 12:16 pm
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Yesterday was my favorite part of pride: the drag march. Hundreds of beautiful queer freaks take to the street, wearing whatever is most fabulous. Dressed to the nines, we parade across the city, from Tomkins Square Park to the Stonewall. There are drums, and horns, and merriment, and so many amazing outfits you just have no idea. It’s what I imagine pride ought to be all the time – a ton of people looking fabulous and taking the streets to show just how good it is. Who are we to feel so free? We’re fucking awesome is who we are.

This year it was particularly awesome. It was huge – everyone kept commenting how huge it was. A Japanese dance troupe came and joined us as we crossed 2nd Avenue. All the gawkers/tourists/normals were watching wistfully from their brownstone apartments and lining the streets. There were horns, a bass drum, and 3/4 of the people I love most in this city.

Every year, in front of the Stonewall, everyone comes together and sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The first time this happened, I cried. It was healing – standing in the street with my friends and community, holding each other, dreaming of a better world. And there, in front of the Stonewall, where everything started changing, where the brave and visible queers started fighting back; it was a powerful moment of remembering what it is to be free, not defensive.

This year, when we got to the Stonewall, there were news cameras all over. We knew we were fabulous, but we are rarely THAT fabulous. Photogs. Every major news station. We sang our song, we danced hard to a bike set of speakers, and we successfully held the street when the police decided the party was over. We went on and on, dancing harder and harder, everyone taking our pictures like they ought to…

And then gay marriage passed.

I am not a person who hates gay marriage. Frankly, I love it – I love anything that allows people to take care of each other. I don’t love marriage as the only option, and I don’t love marriage as the only goal of a movement, but I feel good about both marriage itself and the symbolic victory it (hopefully) represents. It’s not being able to sponsor your spouse for immigration, or having health insurance for everyone, but it’s something. (You should read this article for a better critique.)

But suddenly, there we are, the freaks, the queers, the drag stars, the dancers – and we’re being coopted into the marriage movement. Here I am, out on the wire, first Gawker, now the Miami Herald (I’m the one in green watching):

Fucking hot-ass queers dancing hard in front of the Stonewall.

Dancing queens - I'm the one in green on the side.

There is something that turns my stomach about this other march, this march about being fabulous, about taking space, about NOT giving in, being coopted into the best and most interesting pictures (let’s be real) of people celebrating marriage. The drag march isn’t about assimilation or striving to get married; it’s about accepting that one day a year – ONE DAY A YEAR – we can take to the streets in all our weirdness to celebrate not the right to get married but the right to be fabulous on whatever terms we want.

This person isn’t dancing because she can get married. She’s dancing because Beyoncé is fierce, because there was a vogue-off, because she was taking the streets in front of Stonewall in the name of a good party and the rights we choose to take that go way beyond marriage – the right, in fact, to be ourselves, without waiting for state permission.

I’m taking my sweetheart/girlfriend/partner/shmoo pie of 3 years home to meet my family in Missouri next week. I am so excited for them to meet her and for her to see the particular swirling insanity of where I am from, bad jokes, matching faces, cranky kibbitzing, and all. Right now, I am dreading the questions that suddenly are possible: are you guys going to get married? When are you going to pop the question? And I am dreading what it will mean to our relationship if we say no, not really – will people take our relationship, or care and love for each other, less seriously? Will they think we ought to break up if we’re not going in that direction? Marriage isn’t just about solemnizing a commitment; it’s a certain kind of ritual act that ends up invalidating so many other choices. Sunshine Sugardish and I might never get married – not because we don’t love each other, but because it just might not be where we want to go.

I wasn’t marching in the street yesterday for the right to be like everyone else. I was marching in the street for the right to be exactly myself, to have my relationships validated on my terms, to feel good about being the weird and complicated creature that I am with the weird and complicated relationships that I have, inside the large and sprawling family that I have built to hold myself that has nothing to do with solemnizing one relationship as the most important in my life. That large and sprawling family is what made all those pictures great and interesting. To have us co-opted in the name of assimilation is missing the point.



today i am thinking about: TINY ISLANDS
May 3, 2011, 5:53 pm
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Let’s be real. I am always thinking about tiny islands, but lately I have REALLY been thinking about tiny islands. I have a world map up in my apartment, and sometimes when I am stressed or bored I like to look at it and see new interesting features. Some old friends cropped up:

* Vanuatu, population 221,000;

* Nauru, population 9,200

* Tuvalu, population 11,000

These are some of the tiniest sovereign nations in the world!

There is so much to say about these places: Nauru, the only nation without a capital, which was systemically strip-mined of its phosphorus and now makes its money housing Australian immigration detainees; Tuvalu, who has had a ban on public assembly after civil unrest threatened to overthrow its government and whose primary industry is the .tv domain; Vanuatu, giant in comparison, and its intense tourist trade.

But been there, done that. I’ve priced flights to Nauru, for heaven’s sake! (answer: $500 USD from Brisbane to Yaren. Ouch!)

This time, the small island rabbit hole led me to one of my favorite tiny islands: Little Diomede. Part of Alaska, in the Bering Strait, it is actually its larger friend, Big Diomede, that is visible on my world map. Little Diomede is the westernmost part of America and possibly the western hemisphere (although I imagine there are islands in the South Pacific that come close). Little Diomede is less than half a mile from the International Date Line. There are about 170 people who live there. The mail comes once a week, depending on the weather. Aside from the school and the tribal council, people live a subsistence lifestyle: they hunt for their food and make their own livelihood. People pee in honeybuckets and when the water runs out over the winter, they melt snow and ice to drink. Contact with the rest of the world depends on the weather; sometimes the boats can come over, sometimes they can’t.The sea is solid half the year and half the year it’s choppy and unpredictable. It is 99%+ Ingalikmiut, and I imagine that last 1% are imported teachers.

There is a school there, of course, part of the Bering Strait School District. The BSSD is ungraded, promoting students based on skills rather than age, and integrates the Native languages and traditions. A big grade at the Little Diomede school is 3 students.

I want to go so bad.

I want to go as a teaching artist, although since they focus on Native arts, I think it would be more of a learning artist. I want to go as an extra pair of hands, although I don’t know much about hunting a walrus or paddling a skin canoe. I am compelled by how different it is, how small, how clever you have to be, how everyone must know everyone.

Outsiders like me have been fascinated by Little Diomede and the Ingalikmiut population there. There are collections of documents from the 1900s but even before that (thanks, Wikipedia!) there was contact with Western explorers. Natives traded ivory and skins to the western sailors and explorers that found this tiny place.

People can survive anything. I can only imagine how clever you have to be to survive on a tiny island in the Bering Strait, 25 miles from land, buffeted by wind. I can only imagine how well you have to learn your skills: killing walruses, making things from them, making your boat and then boating it around some of the coldest water in the world. This is the set of skills I am most captivated by – the way in which people can survive anything, anywhere, and find ways to make their homes even in the worst circumstances.

It sounds like such a delicious challenge. Would I bring anything to them? I don’t know. But I sure would like to give it a try.