BLACK LIVES MATTER

On May 25, a black man named George Floyd was detained by police. They laid him on the ground on his stomach, and one of the officers put his knee on his neck for over eight minutes. Mr. Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe. The people around them pleaded for the officer to move. He did not. Mr. Floyd died. On the morning of May 26, I saw the news story shared on Twitter. I didn’t know the person who had shared it, the story it seemed too extreme to be real. I checked the publication, then Googled to see if other sources confirmed the story. They did.

The realization was like a jolt of electricity going through me. On top of the report about the killing of jogger, Ahmaud Abery, only a week before, on top of Eric Garner, who had also said he couldn’t breathe. On top all the others on the list that keeps getting longer. My eyes watered. My chest felt tight. Each of the other times I had felt… but this time felt different. After the fact now — in the wake of the outcry and the protests, I know this visceral reaction, the feeling of electricity — was shared. So often I feel witness to as opposed to part of, but in this case I was part of, without knowing, a pervasive a reaction that people felt, that would lead to protests across the country.

At this point, however, the world still seemed quiet. It was morning. No one else on my feed had mentioned the story. I hit “retweet,” knowing the news needed to be shared, but stopped short when it came to figuring out what I should say, what I could say — about this.

Any version of Beyond belief or This can’t be happening seemed specious when Black people in America live with the reality every day. Any version of horrible or awful, felt insufficient, like those of a distant speculator not that affected (which, it could be argued, I was). But to scream — to express the rage I was feeling — seemed performative, like the casual acquaintance who shows up at a funeral and cries on the shoulder of the widow. If I wanted to scream, how must Black people in America feel? Still, I knew it needed to be said, in some way, that I see this and this is wrong.

In the end, I posted whatever I posted, which in the scheme of things is unimportant as I have no Twitter engagement and soon enough social media exploded with many people who had more better things to say.

But, along with following the biggest issues at hand — those of police violence and systemic racism — I couldn’t help tracing, across the various platforms I follow — a hopping conversational thread where the voices in the world echoed the conversations inside my head. Calling out those who remain silent and are thus complicit, those who join in without understanding for cluttering the airwaves, those who hijack conversations and explain when explanations are not needed.

In general, I am probably guiltiest of the first, of silence — perhaps because I am scared of being tone-deaf, of making a mistake, of getting “yelled” at. This is not an unusual response for a white woman, and it certainly describes me. There is also the fact that when surrounded by many voices– regardless of topic and regardless of venue– I tend to “go quiet.” That feels like a sorry excuse in this case and I know it. I see the privilege and frivolity in taking this moment to claim that HSPism and introversion make it almost impossible for me to do otherwise. Am I saying I’m not white fragile I’m just fragile and hoping that makes it better?

And yet, there is part of me that resists eating this narrative whole. After struggling for much of my life to overcome the outward presentation of my interior qualities, I am learning to assert — at least to myself — that I believe those interior qualities have value. Going quiet means I am listening, that I am processing, and that eventually I will react. Granted, when it comes to injustice, there is such a thing as reacting too late… but the sad truth is that the world is so rampant with unfairnesses that a slow reaction for one event might be ready just in time for another.

Quick, reflexive soundbites are not my strong suit. But I hope my tendency to gather what to some seems an overabundance of information also can have value. My years of study are what I mine when I help other people tell their stories that are different from my own. I’ve seen my ability, in that context, to dive deep, to analyze and empathize, to provide a sounding board and suggest a framework, that I know that is a contribution too.

I am still going back and reading and watching the various articles and media posted over the last two weeks. And of course –no surprise — I’ve joined a book group that I’m very excited about — with a year-long reading list ranging from Souls of Black Folk, from the early 1900s, to White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-racist.

BLACK LIVES MATTER. This has never been a question for me. The questions, that I have asked before but now arise anew, lie in how that belief should impact how I move through the world and how I relate to others.

Life in the Time of Pandemic (March 13-20, 2020)

By Friday, March 13, all students had been advised to leave campus until March 31st — if possible. The end date feels arbitrary, will they all fly home and return two weeks later? I guess the truth is that nobody knows. The faculty receives a query from our department chair asking us to report if our classes were on track to move online by Monday. The university seems to mobilize faster than I would have guessed. They’re negotiating with the software companies to expand licenses directly to students. The dozen emails I send to university tech support got quick responses.

From California, friends are sharing pictures of bare shelves at the stores where toilet paper and household cleansers would be stocked. One sends a picture of a truck with toilet paper being guarded by police, but at our Family Dollar, there are still paper goods — though fewer cleansers — no more Clorox wipes. Though we’ve been encouraged not to have large gatherings, no one has yet said anything about small gatherings. We’re reading the first articles about social distancing, and navigating what this means. Our yoga studio is still open, sending us messages to say they’ve decreased the number of students per class, and are ramping up their cleaning and sanitizing. If we don’t use equipment, we figure, we’ll only be touching our own mats. Our county still has no documented cases of community spread, so on Saturday we go to class.

We also have plans, in place for over a month, to have dinner with another couple and their son. The fact that we don’t know them well makes it seem ruder to cancel. I check to see if they still want us, and our hostess seems not to have even considered otherwise. Their house is beautiful and large; it’s not hard to keep some distance for most of the pleasant evening. When it ends, our hostess hugs me, which feels strange after a week of bumping elbows. “Oh, we’re still hugging!” I blurt in surprise.

“Yes, of course,” she answered.

The need to make things smooth overtakes our group. Paul hugs our hostess two, and I hug her husband. No one is scared. Everything’s all right.

The following day (Sunday, March 15), I’ve made a “study date” with another teacher, to figure out how to make online quizzes for our students. “Should we go?” Paul and I deliberate, and decided we will. I bring my Clorox wipes, which are already something of a joke between us.

I’d assumed their family would be doing some form of distancing, but when we arrive, their youngest is having a play date with two other little girls.  They run around the house as normal.. The older son, newly driving, came and went, picking up food for us. “Wash your hands!” his mom reminds him as he begins to unpack the food.

Coming home Paul and I feel we have felt for the boundaries of our comfort level, and found those boundaries. We agree we’ve made the last of our home visits, and that for us, social distancing, like online classes, will begin in earnest the next day, Monday the 16th.

Sunday night the democratic debate features Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders hooking elbows instead of shaking hands, and standing at podiums placed six feet apart. The news that night announces that both Los Angeles and New York are tamping down on bars and restaurants, limiting them to food delivery only. In California Gavin Newsom asks everyone over the age of 65 to sequester themselves. One journalist notes that the democratic debate, between two candidates in their late 70s, would be in defiance of that request if the debate were to take place in California.

On Monday, the stock market drops by 8% and trading is temporarily halted for the second or third time–I’ve lost track. l realize that while we have food, paper products, and cleansers, in our temporary rental we have none of the over-the-counter medications that accrue over years, so I walk again to the Family Dollar and purchase a motley collection of cold medications and acetaminophen.

On Tuesday the 17th, UF announces that, instead of possibly resuming March 31st, classes will remain online for the remainder of the semester, and into the summer. There will be no commencement ceremonies in the spring. 

“I guess if everything is online, nothing’s really keeping us here,” says Paul.
“Should we just go early?” I respond.

We discuss the pros and cons. It could save us a month of paying rent in two places, which is appealing. At the same time, the situation in California looks crazier than Gainesville. There are also complicated logistics – how and when to make a forty-hour drive across internet-less terrain when we’re teaching a combined fifteen hours a week online, plus grading and correspondence? With the car packed to the gills, where should we sleep? Our presence might endanger the friends along our route, and hotels, if open, seem undesirable.

We table the discussion as I’m still organizing my first Zoom class for that afternoon, as well as an online pitch and an online midterm using an online proctoring service for Wednesday. On Wednesday, as I scramble up various technological learning curves, the news cycles around me: the stock market tanks again, the president proposes a billion dollar economic stimulus package of which $250 million directly to taxpayers, the rest to corporations, and West Virginia reports it first case of Covid 19, meaning the virus is now in all 50 states. There are now 5800 recorded cases and 107 deaths nationwide. New York is considering instituting a “shelter in place” edict. When our temporary landlord emails to let us know that our place was now available through April, we tell him we’ll stay through April 24, the day after our classes end.

On Thursday, Italy is front and center in the news. Their death toll has passed 3000. In California, Governor Newsom orders people not to go out. A friend of Paul’s to combat his own anxiety, invites people to read War and Peace with him — aiming for 50 pages a day. I order it for my Kindle.

On Friday we embark on what feels, in this new world, like an exciting outing: A trip to the GNC to buy zinc lozenges, to a sporting goods store to buy small hand weights (since our gym and yoga studio are both now closed) and to the grocery store. In the strip mall that houses the GNC there’s a line outside the Trader Joe’s – it’s our first sighting of a store admitting only a limited number of shoppers at one time.

The GNC is sold out of zinc, so we make a call and visit the location that still has two boxes – the one in the indoor mall. At the GNC we stand at a distance from the cashier, then exit through the mall, walking past dozens of closed and empty stores. We don’t stop to window shop at the few that are open, and are careful not to touch anything. At one of the small tables in the center of the mall, two women, leaned their arms on the table’s surface as they talked to each other– their faces a mere foot or two apart. They appear relaxed, feeling none of our trepidation.

A few more calls locates a sporting goods stores that is still open. We find a bottle of Purell at the entrance with a sign asking us to sanitize our hands on the way in. Inside, the middle of the store is empty. The clerk tells us most of the weights and home gym equipment have been sold.

At our final stop, Publix, a friendly worker wipes down and sanitizes the carts as they’re returned. Inside, someone is mopping the floor. There’s music playing. Feel It Still by Portugal. The Man — Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks now… For a moment I suddenly felt buoyant. It feels good to be out, to be pushing a cart and skipping with the music in the wide, clean aisle between freezer cases full of options.

And then the feeling and our trip is over. We’re home, with no other excursions to look forward to. One of my students has written to say that where she is, with her family in Miami, there are more cases than in Gainesville. With family member who are immunocompromised, much of the shopping falls to her, and if would help if she were able to predict her classwork. This hits me deeply, knowing that there have been some unannounced assignments in her class. I spend the rest of Friday and most Saturday – which is today – editing and publishing assignments for the rest of the semester. It doesn’t feel heroic, but I guess that my part in this, as a teacher, is to offer what stability and support I can… to do my job. And I want to. As someone familiar with being underemployed, I keenly feel my good fortune at having a job I can still do during this time.

A Belated Brett Kavanaugh Post

This past weekend a couple of things happened. The first is that The New York Times published an article based on a new book called The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An InvestigationThe second is that, in a too-rare attempt to clean  documents from my computer’s desktop, I came across a post that I began about a year ago having to do with Brett Kavanaugh.

I didn’t publish it at the time. It was in need of a time-consuming edit, and also I think I felt that there were so many opinion and think pieces happening at the time that mine didn’t add much to the conversation.  Across the country, women and  men who had experienced abusive actions, were speaking out, (#metoo). This prompted a backlash of mothers and others worried about false accusations and how it could affect men’s lives (#himtoo). In the midst of this, what business did I have adding to the noise? A year later though, I’m looking at what I wrote with gentler eyes and figure it can live here on my little piece of the internet:

October 11, 2018.

The other day our roommate told me a story: In between her various work gigs, she’d gone to the movie theatre where she bought candy from the concession stand. As she walked away, she realized she didn’t have her credit card. She returned to the concession stand and told the worker that she hadn’t gotten it back. He told her he didn’t have it.

They had a discussion which culminated in my friend looking the counter-guy in the eye and saying, “Look, I don’t know your life, you don’t know mine. I can skip this movie and walk to the bank to de-activate this card, and it’s going to be a big inconvenience for me, and not helpful for anyone else. Or I can walk across the lobby, and then come back and find my credit card sitting right here on the counter.”

She walked across the lobby, and when she returned, her credit card was there.

She told me, “He’d taken it. I knew he’d taken it.”

I thought my friend was pretty badass. I am the sort who too often questions my own perception of reality. In her place, I almost certainly would have questioned myself, wondering: Did I drop it? Did someone already pick it up? Did I aim for a pocket and miss? Will I find the card in a hole in the lining of my purse a month from now?”

I asked her, “How did you know?”

She responded, “Because if you tell someone—just any normal person–that you’ve lost something, their first reaction is some kind of compassion. Like, ‘Oh, that sucks. I’ve had that happen.’ And then a normal person would say, ‘Let me look around here,’ even if they know they gave it back, because, why not? But there was none of that. This guy wasn’t normal. He immediately jumped to the defensive and got mad at me for “accusing” him, which, at that point, I hadn’t done. All I said was I didn’t get my card back.”

I  thought about her take on this as I listened to coverage of the recent confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh to become a supreme court judge.

The hearings were contentious because a professor, Christine Blasey Ford, claimed that Kavanaugh assaulted her at a house party back when they were both teenagers. He denied these claims and his responses to questions regarding this entire part of his life at the hearing were very impassioned.

People have been talking about how Kavanaugh “lost control” of his emotions as he responded. I actually wonder if Kavanaugh was advised to be emotional, i.e. ANGRY. Righteous anger I’ve found, is a good way to hi-jack whatever topic another person wants to discuss. Also, the wrath of a man, especially a white man, commands something from us. I get it. I grew up with it.

And we tend to look with suspicion at people who are too calm and rational. I know this too, from being this person — I am the calm  person  who questions every assumption — and thus would be unable to confidently accuse the candy-seller of taking my credit card.

As this person, I can’t jump on board with the impassioned posts on my Facebook wall with the brightly-colored backgrounds that call Kavanaugh “a rapist.”

He is, at most, an “alleged attempted rapist,” which, even believing all of Blasey’s testimony, could be downgraded to a “drunk-to-the-point-of-stupid-violence, assault-est.” She said she was “afraid he would accidentally kill” her, which sounds truly terrifying, but also uses the word “accidentally.”  In a generous mood, recollecting drunken teenaged pile-ons I witnessed in my own youth, I would have to admit to the possibility that he had no intentions at all to harm or rape. I would have to concede to the possibility that he was just stupid drunk at a stupid age where people do stupid things that they walk away from and forget —  if they are lucky enough and usually privileged enough in terms of race and gender and economics to be able to do so.

I am a person who believes in the possibility that some asshole jocks from high school and asshole frat-boys from college do grow and evolve as they grow older, that those underdeveloped parts of their brains develop and they become better people. After all, (yes, I’m going to cite Star Trek: Next Generation) even Captain Picard had a brash and unthinking past, and he became a thoughtful leader. But Captain Picard also reflected on his past decisions – how they hurt him and others. He felt regret, even as he came to acknowledge that his mistakes helped him grow into who he became.

Kavanaugh’s testimony, by contrast, was chillingly devoid of such self-reflection or compassion for anyone other than himself. Like the guy at the movie counter, he bypassed that moment where “a normal person” might say, “Oh, did you lose your innocence, your confidence, your ability to feel safe in the world? That must suck,” and jumped immediately to the defensive . He looks back on his youth with glasses tinted rose and shouts “betrayal” at anyone who might look through a different lens.

If  you are ever brought before a judge, what traits do you hope that judge will possess? For my part, I would want intellectual acuity and legal expertise. But even more, I would ask for empathy, for the imagination to step out of ones own shoes and into the shoes of others – others who might be different in their race, gender, political beliefs, educational background and a thousand other ways. Does Brett Kavanaugh, as he steps into a lifetime position of power, have this ability?

I have not seen it so far.

And that, to me, is chilling.