Monday, December 23, 2013


I'll be enjoying some time off from blogging the next couple of weeks. I'll be back on January 2.

Wishing you all the best for 2014!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Fiction Friday: Bargaining

With the holidays coming up, this is likely to be the last Fiction Friday for a couple of weeks.


Daphne stared down at her hands, biting her lip.

"Yeah, I knew him," she said finally. "But that doesn't know..." She trailed off.

She couldn't lie, but she couldn't talk about it, either.

It'd be better to come clean, better for her, better for those around her. That's what the therapist had said. And she believed it, but she couldn't do it. She just couldn't. She'd open her mouth and say nothing.

Words would make it real. But it hadn't been real. It couldn't be real. It felt like a lifetime ago. Like a dream.

The detective smiled patiently. "I'm not implying anything. We're just trying to piece together the timeline from that night." She paused, letting the words sink in.

"Neighbors saw you enter the apartment. What time would you say you got there?"

"Around 7, I think," Daphne paused, deciding where to go next. There was no choice, she'd have to lie. "And then I left, around 10."

The detective tried to keep her face a mask, but Daphne saw it. The detective thought she was lying. Her mind snapped to focus. Anger and adrenaline began to kick in. The truth didn't matter any more, she had to survive. She'd do anything to survive.

Daphne took a deep breath, gathering her thoughts. She smiled. There she was, her fearless savior.

"We had dinner together. I would have stayed later, but I had to get to work early the next morning," the lies were coming easier now. "I almost wish I had stayed. Maybe if I had been there...maybe then this wouldn't have happened. Maybe...I could have done something to stop it."

Daphne's eyes glistened as she bit her lip uncertainly. She knew how to play this game. "I know I should have come to you sooner, but...I just couldn't. I couldn't. It was too much. I couldn't believe he was really....gone." She stayed strong despite her grief.

The detective sat there silently, giving Daphne her space.

"I know it's difficult," the detective finally said. "But I need you to walk me through exactly what happened that night. I need your help."

Daphne nodded silently. She was in the zone now, she could make this work. But she'd have to be careful, thoughtful.

She didn't trust this woman.

Detective Jones waited patiently. She'd smoked out criminals before and this would be no different.

Be calm. Be polite. Be observant. Don't force it. It was like playing chess. And Detective Jones was very good at playing chess. She smiled.

"I'm not implying anything. We're just trying to piece together the timeline from that night. Neighbors saw you enter the apartment. What time would you say you got there?"

The woman she was interviewing responded - a little too precisely. Detective Jones made her face a mask, trying not to reveal her hand.

Everything told her that this woman knew more than she was saying, that she herself was likely the killer. But she'd have to get there in time. She didn't have enough yet.

Jones listened with detached compassion as the woman told her story, shared her grief. It seemed so real, but something was off.

She took a deep breath, focusing her mind. She could do this, she knew. Just a little further.

"I know it's difficult," Dective Jones said "But I need you to walk me through exactly what happened that night. I need your help."

She sat back and listened, thoughtfully, carefully.

She didn't trust this woman.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


There's an ideal of effortlessness that is simple unobtainable.

I was never very good at social interactions, so I used to watch people closely - so I could learn what a person was supposed to do.

Around about high school or middle school, I distinctly remember thinking that this is how girls were supposed to act:
  • Eat junk food
  • Talk proudly about how you eat whatever you want, and down on all those body shamers who would dare to tell  you otherwise
  • Be really skinny 
 I never really figured out how people managed to do all three of those things. I was pretty good at those first two, but was shocked at the number of people who seemed to manage all three.

As an adult I see a similar trend in house upkeep and other adult-y activities.

You should complain about how difficult it is to keep your house in order, but your house should still be in order.

I don't know if this is a gendered thing, though certainly many of my interactions on this topic have been gender biased.

But it's interesting to me that there should be such an urge. I suppose nobody wants to be the kid at the front of the class who has their hand raised for every question, but must we always be both the kid who gets all As while simultaneously vocally complaining about how challenging the work is?

That seems like an effort in futility, but it also seems like the norm.

Be perfect, but effortlessly. All while complaining about how difficult it is.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Footprints in the snow

It seems that footprints in the snow are often used as a metaphor for individualism.

It describes those eerie and magical moments when you find yourself alone on a moonscape, forging ahead into unexplored territory. When everything's quiet except the pattering of snow and the whispering of wind. When the world has been transformed into a sea of semi-coherent shapes. When it seems as though you are the last living being on earth, leaving only footprints as a mark of your existance.

But I see footprints in the snow as a metaphor for community.

Walking through a snow storm last night and through the aftermath this morning, I was very thankful for other people's footprints.

The places where no one had shoveled, so the only path was the malformed imprints left from pedestrians shuffling past. The curb cuts where the snow was so high the first brave explorer must have plunged in knee deep, leaving a foot-sized clearing of compressed snow for the rest of us to follow.

I don't know the faces of those who came before me, but I literally follow in their footsteps as we collectively carve a path.

When I'm wearing good boots and feeling energetic, I make a point to step on the piles of snow still blocking the way.

Through this, I hope, those who follow can benefit from my footprints, just as I benefited from the footprints before me. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Children Know Best

Too often youth engagement seems tacked on, or pointed to with feigned enthusiasm like the end of a Mentos commercial.

Adults start cooing about how isn't it just great that there are young people involved. Their perspective is just so fresh. If only more young people could be like these young people or if only we could get more young people to want to come to these discussions. Please, young person, tell us what we should do to make more young people like you.

That's about when it gets awkward. If it wasn't awkward already.

Adults seem awfully fake when they talk like that. Like they're talking to a baby. Or a puppy. Adults don't talk to people they see as peers that way.

This upset me when I was younger, and truth be told, it still upsets me now.

This morning I was struck by a memory from elementary school.We used to periodically have some kind of team building consultant come in and you know, team build or something.

The adults loved it. The kids hated it.

Honestly, I don't remember much about it except that I thought it was stupid and I thought the guy who led it was a total fake. And I remember raising a little bit of hell over it. Not too much, though, it wasn't that bad.

And my elementary school encouraged that kind of behavior. If you weren't happy about something you should speak up. Polite-(ish)-ly and vocally. We won a few battles. We lost many more. But it was always clear that advocating for ourselves and those around us was expected.

As I thought about it this morning, it suddenly seemed very odd that these adults who had encouraged us to become radicals, to never comprise our integrity, to always question authority - these same adults would be so enthusiastic about some phoney team-building business guy.

Oh adults, where did you guys go wrong?

Here's what I thought: Practicality it the enemy of the radical.

As I've gotten older, I've become more concerned with the practical, often to the detriment of the radical. I'm unlikely to do something radical, because I'm overly concerned with doing something practical. What's the long-term impact? What's the strategic thing to do?

Everything is very serious and adult-y.

As an adult, I've been conditioned to think in terms of the practical. To be overly-concerned with the little details.To be very thoughtful about how words and actions will be interpreted. To be careful not to rock the boat, or perhaps, to only rock it carefully, strategically.

These are useful skills, and I'm glad I have them. But I wonder if I lost myself in there somewhere.

I used to laugh at the commuters who would run to catch their train in the morning. So busy. So caught up in their little lives. I used to promise myself I'd never be so self-absorbed.

But I have run for the train. I have important things to do, after all.

It's like I've learned to lie to myself in a way I couldn't do before. I was much more genuine then. Now it's all just a show.

So really, we should probably let non-adults run the world.

Honestly, I think they'd be better at it.

Monday, December 16, 2013


During my sophomore year of high school, I saw the same girl at the same time every day. Our PE classes were at the same time, and our lockers were right next to each other.

We never spoke.

Having limited social skills and being not so great at the whole high school thing, I quietly ignored her while silently hoping that some day she might say hi to me.

While the elusive rules of high school socializing were mysterious to me, I knew enough to not initiate contact with someone above my station. Since I was, or thought I was, a nobody in high school, I dutifully remained silent.

It was really awkward.

I mean, we we're right next to each other, and through no word or glance would we acknowledge eachother's existence.

It's possible my thoughts became less than charitable. I mean, yeah, I was a nobody, but was I really so low as to be practically invisible? It was ridiculous. What was that girl's problem, anyway?

Months went by.

Then one day I realized. All I knew about her was that she was in a PE class for Freshmen. All she knew about me was that I was an a PE class for anyone but Freshmen. For all she knew, I could be a senior with the run of the school.

Never in a million years would that girl say hi to me.

I was the one with the power.

It took me about six months to figure this out because it honestly never crossed my mind that I could be the one with higher social standing. I mean, really.

There's a tendency, I've noticed, to think about power as a binary state. The Haves and the Have Nots. Those who rule and those who are ruled. Us and Them.

But that's not really acurate.

We all have power sometimes. Whether we like it or not, every interaction has a power dynamic and in some of those interactions - perhaps just a few - you will have power.

Some of us are just so beat down and used to not having power that it can be hard to recognize those fleeting moments when you do have power.

It's important to me to remember this.

Because as much as we talk about building power to fight power, we also must be sure to recognize our own power. Because whether we like it or not, the person with power sets the tone.

Only by recognizing your power can you change the power dynamic. Otherwise, you're just the person in power that others need to build power against.

Making the world better isn't just about building power and advocating for change. If we're truly going to affect change, we must each intentionally recognize those moments when we individually have power. And we must use those moments to share our power as best we can.

And as for that girl in high school - yes, of course I said hi to her.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Fiction Friday: The Villain, Part II

Fiction Friday continues.

Remorse had started to creep in.

At first it was only a tiny pang of nothingness. A blind spot. Rough and calloused around the edges, but easily ignored.

But every day that hole grew bigger.

She'd wake in the morning and see his face. She'd catch glimpses of him while she walked down the street. See him smiling one moment, then broken and lifeless the next. And it only made the emptiness grow.

Daphne wondered blandly if this is how other people reacted - or would react if they did such a thing.

She'd expected it to be different. After she murdered Carlos, she'd felt - briefly - so alive. That moment was a flash a brilliance in her dull, grey, life and she'd thought, just for a moment, she thought she'd never feel so empty again.

She expected to feel terrible or exhilarated. To hate herself or feel the rush of pride. She expected to feel... something. You don't just kill someone and walk away the same.

But Daphne felt empty now, just as she'd felt empty before.

Some days she'd tell herself that she was a mastermind. She'd gotten away with it. No one knew it was her. It proved she could do anything. She could outwit them all.

Other days she'd say she was terrible. The villain of the story if there were to be one. A vile creature hardly earning the status of humanity.

But whatever stories she told herself, they'd never ring true.

Some days she'd stand in the bathroom for hours, staring at herself in the mirror. Wondering if there was a person under that skin somewhere or just a malfunctioning robot. That would explain a lot.

Some days she wouldn't get out of bed, passing the time just laying there for hours, staring at the ceiling. No movement, no thought.

She started to realize she needed help.

She couldn't quite say when she realized it. But one morning she woke up, and...really woke up.

As if she'd had a dream where she'd cried uncontrollably for hours while sticking her hand in a flame to make herself feel better. A dream where she was repulsed by what she was, trying to destroy herself because she knew she was beyond redeeming. A dream where the emptiness swallowed her whole, where she simultaneously felt the lash of self-loathing and the cool relief of nothingness, as though no pain could ever touch her again.

It felt like a dream. Had she really done those things? She couldn't remember. Not really, anyway. She remembered it like a book she'd once read. The actions were there, but not the feelings. Had that really been her?

Almost in a trance she got herself up to go to the local mental health clinic.

She could talk to someone there. Maybe they could help her.

Probably not, she thought.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sorry/Thank You

As I walk to work or otherwise move from place to place, I find I often have a steady stream of internal dialogue about interacting with those around me.

This commentary usually starts with one of two words: sorry or thank you.

Sorry that the light changed when I was only halfway across the street, I thought I had enough time!

Thank you for slowing down so I wouldn't have to wait in the rain to cross the street!

The list of sorrys and thank yous is seemingly infinite, but each of these interactions happens only in my mind. The people I'm "talking" to are transitory in my life, just as I am transitory in theirs. I never have the opportunity to actually say sorry or to actually say thank you.

This bothers me.

I often wonder what these fake friends of mine are thinking when we meet. When I'm thinking sorry, are they thinking, ...damn pedestrian thinks they own the street...?

I hope not.

So this is what I think of when something happens like - when I have the walk light and someone's stopped in the middle of the cross walk

Instead of thinking, damn drivers can't pay attention to where they're going, I assume they're sending a silent sorry my way. And I think, no problem, man, we're all a-holes sometimes. It's all good.

Then next time I accidentally walk into oncoming traffic - which, you know, doesn't happen a lot but isn't like, outside the realm of possibility - then I send my silent sorry and I imagine them saying back, no problem, man, we're all a-holes sometimes.

It's all good.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

9 Books

I've been challenged, via Facebook, to "list 9 books that have stayed with you in some way." Since I'm incapable of doing something like that without comment, I figured this was a better forum for me.

So, in to particular order:
1. Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carrol
When I was growing up. I had a copy of both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I read it over and over again. I still have the book, but I believe some of the pages have fallen out. As a "talent show" trick, I used to recite The Jabberwock in Pig Latin.

2. The Stranger, Albert Camus
I read this in high school, and it was the first Camus I read. My English teacher at the time believed that Meursault's emotional detachment made him a bad person. But I always read it differently. Meursault's emotional detachment is a reasonable reaction to a terrible, broken world. Meursault is a "bad" person because he chooses to be a bad person. No one (or no being) is telling us what to do. All we have is ourselves.

3. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde
This is cheating a bit since it's a poem, but after reading several, lighthearted Oscar Wilde plays, I was shocked to learn this dark, beautiful poem, which I read in middle school, was written by the same man. Wilde wrote the poem after being imprisoned for being gay. I used to know the whole poem by heart.

This too I know—and wise it were 
If each could know the same— 
That every prison that men build 
Is built with bricks of shame, 
And bound with bars lest Christ should see 
How men their brothers maim.

4. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami
I read this in college, and it was my first Murakami. He writes metaphysical fiction. A little hard to explain, but interesting and mind-bending. The world is not always as it appears.

5. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
I read this in middle school because I'd been on a James Michener kick and a character in Space references this book through the line, "Blessed Saint Leibowitz, keep 'em dreaming down there." It was among the first  post-apocalyptic books I read, and I found its metaphors of the cycle of birth and destruction to be quite powerful. In the end, it's only the vultures who win.

6. The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli
I read this book in college and thought it was hilarious. Just remember to do all the terrible things at once so later you can be nice and relax regulations a little. If you try to draw out all the terrible changes you want to make, your unpopularity will just continue to grow.

7. The Complete Works of Edgar Alan Poe
I couldn't choose a specific Poe piece, so I had to go with the whole book. While I enjoy his short stories, I've always been more partial to his poetry. Particularly Annabelle Lee, and, because I enjoyed the cadence and its (relative) levity surprised me for Poe, The Bells.

Hear the sledges with the bells -
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

(Don't worry, the story gets darker from there)

8. The Encyclopedia
I used to spend hours sitting in my basement reading the encyclopedia. I was really popular.

9. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
I read this in middle school. And, unlike the terrible movie version, this book is very civic. In fact, nearly half the book takes place in a civics classroom. Really the whole book is just a discussion of what makes good citizens, what should be expected of good citizens, and how institutions should work to support good citizens. For some reason, I was really into thinking about that. Go figure.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Trick of the Light

This was the view out my office window this morning.

It was a little after 7. Still dark enough out that the street lamps were on, blazing brightly.

The construction site down the way had lights on as well. Not as bright from this distance, but enough to get them going in the dark. I'd just gotten in, but these workers had clearly been at it for awhile. The whole area was abuzz with the dull hum of machinery.

Just beyond that was a brilliant flash of orange and red. The sun was rising. A reflection from my view.

The world was alive. It was beautiful.

I took a picture.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Making Enemies

Sixty-five years ago, on December 9, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Polish American lawyer Raphael Lemkin is generally recognized as the driving force behind this convention. He coined the word "genocide" in 1944 and made ending genocide his life's work. He is praised among anti-genocide advocates as the the man who gave name to these atrocities. Who worked tirelessly to raise awareness of these atrocities. Who did everything within his power to ensure these atrocities would never happen ever again.

Seven people attended his funeral.

Raphael Lemkin was not very popular.

As it turns out, the difficult work of lobbying for a cause, of being the person who won't shut up when everyone else wants you to, of being a relentless reminder of what is right...doesn't earn you too many friends.

Just think of the people you know who are like this. You're in a community meeting, which you went to after work. It's 7:30 pm and you haven't had dinner yet. Maybe you have a bit of a headache. You're glad you went, but you also can't wait to get home. And then, Old So-And-So gets up to speak. And before they open their mouth you've already rolled your eyes and tuned out - you already know what they're gonna say, cause you've heard them raise the issue a thousand times before. Yes, it's important, but can't they see it's just not practical?

It's possible your thoughts are less than charitable.

Nobody wants to be that person. Everybody dislikes that person.

But if we ever hope to to change things for the better, then somebody must be that person.

And as difficult as it is, each of us should try to be that person. We must speak out against injustice and refuse to remain silent in the face of oppression.

Otherwise you're just a bystander.

Honestly, I don't know that I have the fortitude for such a life. But, I believe, it's a noble calling if you can do it.And perhaps, I would say, it is a life worth striving for. As poet Charles Mackay puts it:

You have no enemies, you say?   
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;   
He who has mingled in the fray   
Of duty, that the brave endure,   
Must have made foes! If you have none,      
Small is the work that you have done.   
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,   
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,   
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,   
You’ve been a coward in the fight.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fiction Friday: The Classroom

Fiction Friday is back!


The classroom was noisy, chaotic. Students roamed freely or leaned lazily against walls. Some were shouting and yelling.

Everything was under control.

Nadia sat in the corner watching her class. Hardly saying a word.

"When you look at the historical use of government surveillance, there's no clear correlation showing their use leading to a drop in crime," one student said, adding citations of several studies in his favor.

"But this isn't really an issue of trying to prevent future crimes," another student chimed in, "It's about trying to catch someone who has already committed a crime. When something like this happens, there should be documentation, a lead, something to go on."

"But nothing like this has happened in years," another student added. "Is it really worth recording us all the time, just for us the rare instance that we need it? What about our privacy?"

"I'd give that up for safety," another student injected.

"No one's really watching the video most of the time, so I think maybe it's okay?" Added another.

"I don't seems like a drastic reaction," another student spoke up. "I mean, this is important and all, finding this person, but...privacy is important, too. I don't know that I want the government to have the power to watch me all the time. I mean, I don't really do anything interesting, but...I dunno, it just feels wrong."

The students paused for a moment, pondering all these options. The pros and cons. The tradeoffs and considerations. The bustling energy of the room died to a light hum as students screwed up their faces and shook their heads, trying to work out their own thoughts on the matter.

Nadia had her eye on the one student who hadn't spoken up yet.

Most of the kids had been actively engaged in the conversation. Speaking out with their ideas, their research, their questions. But some people are just naturally quieter. Some people take more time to formulate their thoughts, or have a harder time jumping in two rowdy, engaged conversations.

It was no problem, but she wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to engage. She wondered if she should say something.

"This is a lot to think about," one of the active students spoke up. "But I'm not sure what's best. What do you think?" She asked, turning to the student who'd been silent.

Nadia smiled.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Job Equity

Of the roughly 3 million jobs in Massachusetts, around 1 million are considered "bad jobs."

Jobs with low wages. Jobs with no benefits. Jobs with real safety issues. Jobs with no path for growth.

People in these types of jobs are often stuck in these types of jobs. If they're lucky, they're stuck in three of these jobs - 'cause that what it takes to make ends meet.

They have no time for family. They have no time for community. They have no time to support their child's education, to speak out against a policy change that will hurt them, or to make connections with neighbors.

Bad jobs aren't just a problem for workers, they're a problem for the community.

I got these numbers from the Good Jobs Coalition, which visited a group I work with, Somerville Community Corporation's Jobs for Somerville, earlier this week.

In Somerville, in particular, we're faced with an interesting opportunity and challenge. New development will bring new jobs.

The city's strategic plan envisions 30,000 new jobs to be created within the next 20 years.

But what types of jobs will these be? And who will get them?

These are important questions that affect us all. I'm pretty happy with my job, so in one sense these 30,000 jobs mean nothing to me.

But as I see my friends and neighbors leave the city because they can't afford it, as I see my community colleagues unable to attend meetings and actions about improving jobs because they're too busy working their third shift, as I observe the voices that are continually missing from community dialogue, I know this issue impacts me deeply.

So I was excited when earlier this week, the city sent out an RFP for creating a system to connect and train local workers for these new jobs.

Not only would this 'first source' system provide a path for local workers to connect to local jobs, but importantly, it would connect these workers to job training - ESOL, computer literacy, worker's rights. It would help bridge the gap, and, hopefully, empower workers to get, and demand, good jobs.

But of course, this issue isn't just a Somerville problem.

My whole world is about four square miles, so I tend to look at things through a Somerville lens. But the issue is much broader and deeper than that.

The Good Jobs Coalition works regionally across Greater Boston, connecting groups like Jobs for Somerville so we can learn from each other and work together.

Fighting for local jobs in Somerville is not a matter of trying to exclude workers from Medford. It's about trying to break the cycle of poverty or near poverty. About empowering people to have voice and agency within their communities. About making the community stronger and better for all of us.

Some of us will work very locally, some of us will work regionally, some of us will work nationally, and some of us will work globably.

But all of us can work together and fight together and build better communities together. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Authentic Selves

All of us are living in closets.

Our society - our human society - is built around norms. Around the mainstream. Around social conventions and unspoken rules.

And some of that, I would say, is good. It leads to social cohesion and common ground. We are, after all, social animals.

But as we try to navigate that world, we are in danger of losing ourselves, our authentic selves, in a quest to be what we perceive society expects.

Some of us feel this danger more sharply than others. Racial minorities are pressured to "act white," gays and other sexual minorities are pressured to "act straight," women are pressured to "act 'feminine.'" The list goes on.

But all of us feel this danger to some degree. The dark past we don't want to share. The unpopular opinions we don't feel we can voice. The personal or family dysfunction, struggles, or suffering we hide from those around us. All of this diminishes our authentic selves.

I, for one, couldn't begin to list the identities I hide from the world.

Kenji Yoshino, professor at Yale Law School, covers this topic extensively in his book Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights. Covering is essentially a matter of conforming to the mainstream, or, perhaps, the perceived mainstream. As he writes:

When I lecture on covering, I often encounter what I think of as the "angry straight white male" reaction. A member of the audience, almost invariably a white man, almost invariably angry, denies that covering is a civil rights issue. Why shouldn't racial minorities or women or gays have to cover? These groups should receive legal protection against discrimination for things they cannot help, like skin color or chromosomes or innate sexual drives. But why should they receive protection for behaviors within their control - wearing cornrows, acting "feminine," or flaunting their sexuality? After all, the questioner says, I have to cover all the time. I have to mute my depression, or my obesity, or my alcoholism, or my schizophrenia, or my shyness, or my working-class background or my nameless anomie. ...Why should my struggle for an authentic self matter less?

I surprise these individuals when I agree.
Yoshino, while deeply respectful of the fights and progress made by the civic rights movement, considers covering to be the next front of the civil rights movement.

Current civil rights law, he points out, protects people within certain protected categories for things they cannot change. But it does not protect people from things they should not have to change.

You can't fire someone for being black, but you can fire someone for not "acting white."

You can't fire someone for being a woman, but you can fire a woman for being too "masculine." You can fire a woman for refusing to wear make up.

People are stuck between "covering" and "reverse covering" demands. Women are expected to act "masculine" in order to progress in the workplace, but can be simultaneously penalized for not being "feminine."

White society may pressure African Americans to "act white" while their black peers pressure them to "act black."

The list goes on.

Yoshino argues that to move forward, we need to step away from group-centered civil rights and focus on supporting authentic selves to flourish.

This isn't just a matter of law, but a matter of every day interactions. Of sharing your authentic self with others and being open to others sharing their authentic self with you.

We shouldn't be discussing whether a woman or a man is too "masculine" or too "feminine." We should allow them to have whatever personality they have, and embrace them for owning it and sharing it.

It's a tall order.

But, perhaps, with time we can get there.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Consumers and the Free Market

I hate the word "consumer."

Perhaps not so much the word as the concept.

It makes me think of bacteria. Consuming everything around them. Excreting something in response.

When I talk about the world as a marketer, I use the word "consumer" a lot. Grad school was all about understanding consumer behavior. About conditioning consumer responses. About motivating consumer actions.

I imagine a school of fish swimming synchronously in one direction, then suddenly, just like that, simultaneously changing direction.

In a marketer's ideal world, the marketer is the cause of this inexplicable direction change. Silently orchestrating actions. The master of cause and effect.

Not even the fish know why they move.

But they think it is their choice.

To be clear, I don't think of this as my own professional ideal, and there are many, many marketers who don't think this way. But that's what the word "consumer" makes me think of.

It dehumanizes people. Treats them as objects to be manipulated. As only consumers of product. Of value only insofar as their purchasing power.

That's what I think of in this Black Friday Cyber Monday holiday shopping season excitement.

On the one hand, I think it's disappointing that stores now open on Thanksgiving day. On the one hand, I think you'd have to be crazy to go out in the Black Friday rush. On the one hand, I agree that Thanksgiving could facetiously be renamed Thanksgetting.

But on the other, I need to give a tip o' the hat to the marketers who thought it up. Who convinced people that they wanted to spend Thanksgiving shopping 'til they dropped. Who engineered a system that appears to give bargains while only benefiting the businesses' bottom line.

It's easy to say that people choose to go shopping on Black Friday. But I'm not completely convinced that they do. Like the school of fish, what appears to be a choice may in fact be a carefully orchestrated phenomenon.

Free choice isn't always as free as you might think.

And this causes me pause when I think of the free market.

People are free. Consumers are not.

So if you have a market built entirely on consumers whose actions are deeply, perhaps intrinsically, motivated by marketers; whose reality is manipulated in the form of fake bargains, purchasing environment and countless other strategies; if your market is built on these manipulated consumers

Is that market really free at all?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Contrarian's Thanks

I rather like Thanksgiving, but as a jaded, irascible, contrarian, I struggle with it as well.

While others can say a genuine, heartfelt thanks for all they have and more, when I say these words they feel shallow. Don't get me wrong - I am deeply thankful for all that I have. But stating such thanks on a day of thank giving feels pithy and forced.

So here is my attempt at a genuine reflection on the things for which I truly am thankful.


I am thankful for the hardships I've faced
Because they've made me stronger
While making me realize how much easier
I've had it than others.

I am thankful for my anger
In the face of injustice.

I am thankful for my passion
To keep fighting injustice.
However long it takes.

And longer.

I am thankful to all those who
Share in this fight.
To those who started before me,
And to those who will continue after I'm gone.

I am thankful to all those who have shared their
Voice, views and experience.
Who have trusted me to listen to them with an open mind.

I am thankful to all those who have
Listened to me with an open mind.

I am thankful to all those who have challenged me
Who have opened my mind and clarified my thinking.

I am thankful to all those who have supported me,
So I know I'm not always alone.

I am thankful for moments of silence.

I am thankful for moments of joy.

I am thankful for pain, sorrow, death and grief.

I am thankful that life is not static.

I am thankful for the good and the bad.
For the people I've hated and the people I've loved.

I am thankful
To be alive.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Hi Friends,
I'm signing offline until December. I wish you all a lovely Thanksgiving, Chanukah, or week.

Sorry to leave you in suspense on Fiction Friday, but I'll be back to posting in no time.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Welcome Project

Last night I had the privileged of joining the board of The Welcome Project.

I've been lucky to work with The Welcome Project, serving for the past two years as the chair of the event committee for YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City. (Save the date: April 10, 2014!).

I'm excited to become more involved with this tremendous organization and see them continue to grow.
This nonprofit "builds the collective power of Somerville immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions."

They offer a powerful mix of service and advocacy, equipping residents with important skills and knowledge while working to close participation gaps. 

Many immigrants are shut out of civic life.

It's not at all helpful to say, "if you want to change the system, vote!" to someone who isn't eligible to register.

It's not at all helpful to say, "if you want to know what's happening in your community, attend a community meeting!" to someone who doesn't speak, or isn't fluent in, the language the community meeting is held in.

It's not at all helpful to say, "if you care about your child's education, get involved in their school!" to someone who is working multiple jobs, doesn't speak the same language as the teacher, or who is unfamiliar with the educational system and process.

Obviously not every immigrant faces all of the challenges illustrated above.

But enough of them do that important voices are missing from our community.

And that's bad for all of us.

So The Welcome Project offers ESOL classes, including special topics course like “English for Helping Your Child in School,” and - in partnership with the Somerville Community Corporation - “English for Helping Our Communities."

They run an amazing Liaison Interpreter Program of Somerville (LIPS), which trains bilingual teens to interpret at community events and meetings.  They organize a First Generation to College Program a Summer Camp/Digital Storytelling Program and the Mystic Wizards Homework Help Club.

Service and empowerment.

A powerful combination.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

School Choice and Educational Mobility: Lessons from Secondary School Applications in Ghana

Does attending a lower performing school result in applying to lower performing schools?

Conventional wisdom says yes. Certainly in the U.S. context, I'd venture a guess that kids who go to lower performing high schools, on average, attend lower performing colleges. That is, if they attend college at all, which 42 percent of young Americans do not.

A new study by Kehinde Ajayi, Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston University, provides interesting insight into this question.

Her work looks at process of applying to secondary schools in Ghana. That country has a national, centralized process which uses a standardized test to have 150,000 elementary school students annually apply to 650 high schools.

Students may apply to up to six schools, ranking their preferences. After applying, they take a standardized test, the BECE, which determines their qualifications. Test scores are sent to their top choice school.

The school will look at all the students who applied and take the top performing students based on how many slots they have. Test scores of rejected students are then sent on to their second choice school.

Schools then compare new candidates to their existing pool - again taking the students with the highest test scores. Etc.

If you break students into two groups of "high performing" and "low performing" schools - again, based on test scores - and look at what high schools people go to, you get a graph like this:

So if Student A and Student B have the same score on the BECE, and Student A is from a low performing school while Student B is from a high performing school -- Student B will generally go to a higher performing high school than Student A. 

That's for students with the same test score.

Ajayi emphasized that if anything the gap is underestimated in the above. Students from lower performing school tend to have few resources and less "test prep" access - so Student A, from the low performing school, probably has a higher innate ability than Student B who got the same score while attending a higher performing school.

Ajayi found a number of reasons for this gap.

For one thing, students from lower performing schools tend to be less saavy about their application choices. While the "selectivity" of schools is not fully public, students from higher performing schools seem to have a better sense of which schools are more competitive and tend to have a better developed strategy of the order to apply in.

Students from higher performing schools are also more willing to travel - about 40 percent of schools have options for boarding.

Perhaps most interesting, Ajayi examined the effect of policy changes on the gap.

In 2008, Ghana changed the increased the number of schools students could apply to from 4 to 6.

This widened the gap, as saavy students from high performing schools were more likely to get into a school of their choice. Students who exhaust their choices are administratively assigned to unsubscribed schools - which had previously resulted in more students from higher performing schools being randomly assigned.

In 2009, Ghana made additional policy changes.

They assigned each school to one of four ranked categories and implemented standards for how many schools from each category a student could apply to.

This helped narrow the gap as students from lower performing schools now had better information about the selectivity of the schools they were looking at.

Reflecting on these findings, Ajayi warns of the unintended impacts system-wide reform can have, saying instead that targeted interventions - like increasing information, financial aid, and student counseling - may ultimately be more successful.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Patriot

A few days ago, I saw a tattered American flag getting run over in the road. If it hadn't been rush hour, I would have stepped into the the street to save it. But as it was, cars were whizzing by with no sign of stopping.

So instead of doing anything, I just walked on by. I felt badly about that.

It was a small flag. Probably came off somebody's car as they flaunted their patriotism to the world. I wonder how they felt when it touched the ground.

Then today I saw this:

Yes. That is a cement truck painted in red, white and blue.

This annoys me.

I respect people's right to not respect the flag. It is a matter of free speech, and I'm totally down with that.

But here's what drives me crazy: when people disrespect the flag while wrapping themselves in patriotism.

There is a U.S. Flag Code and corresponding standards of respect. For example:
  • The flag should not be used as "wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery", or for covering a speaker's desk, draping a platform, or for any decoration in general (exception for coffins).
  • The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions.
  • When a flag is so tattered that it no longer fits to serve as a symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning.
So when I see cars go by, tattered flags taped to their antenna, it makes me wonder what the driver is trying to say.

The message I get is that they think they're a big ol' patriot who's proud to be an American. The message I get is that they think I'm unpatriotic for not wearing my star-spangled jacket while jaunting down the street.

But when I see the flag in tatters, when I see it not taken in or illuminated at night, when I see the flag re-purposed for clothing and napkins...I see disrespect.

I am a patriot. That's not a word commonly associated with liberals these days, but it's true.

I am a patriot, and I show my respect for the flag by not displaying it. By not letting it become tattered, dirty, or darkened in my care.

I am a patriot. And no amount of flags flaunted by others will change that.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Power is Knowledge

While you're probably familiar with the adage that knowledge is power, it's important to remember the inverse is true as well.

As Danish urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg writes, "Power is knowledge...Power defines what counts as knowledge and rationality, and ultimately...what counts as reality."

In his work, Flyvberg documents how power directly and indirectly influences outcomes.

In the Danish town of Aalborg, for example, decisions about a major transportation project are significantly influenced by those in power. Key elected officials make their opinions known and technical workers seek solutions that implement those official's visions.

They decide what questions to pursue and what findings to present based off what those in power hope to accomplish.Then their proposed designed, shaped at it's core by politics, is presented as a purely technical document. As unbiased research. As simply the facts.

I love Flyvberg because his reflections of how power shapes knowledge and defines reality rings true beyond Aalborg. I've seen power shape knowledge. I've seen power define reality. And I'm willing to bet most of you have too.

And while many of us may find this new adage useful as we stand up to power and try to empower others, it's also important to remember that...power is knowledge may apply to us as well.

I didn't grow up in a position of power, but I'm certainly in one now. There are many more powerful than I, of course, but there are those with less power as well.

"Power is knowledge" is not a story of villains. It's a story of people who pursue what they think is best and use their power in pursuing that vision.

Maybe those in power are right. Maybe they do know what is best and maybe the outcomes they devise really are ideal.

But that's not really the point.

The point is that by leveraging their own power, they disempower others. They take certain data, questions, or whole topics off the table and in doing so diminish the agency of others.

I've said before that I believe the best outcomes come from the most voices. That's a truly hard goal to pursue, but, I believe, it's a worthy goal.

Should I find myself in a position of power - however little that power may be - I aim to always remember that goal. And I hope you will too.

If we're fighting for what we know is right - for justice, equality, and fair treatment. If we're fighting for the good by using our power to shape reality, to suppress knowledge that doesn't conform with our views. If we're using our power to disempower others...then just what are we fighting for?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fiction Friday - Dialogue

Fiction Friday continues below. I'd almost thought of abandoning this particular pastime, but after hearing a some of you express interest in what happens next, I decided to continue on for awhile.

To be clear, I wouldn't exactly qualify this story as a mystery. We do, after all, already know who committed the crime. (Or so it seems?) But, I would say, the story is an exploration. An exploration of a utopia of sorts. A world where people are flawed and imperfect, but where they work together as best they can.


A hard rain battered the windows. The wind gusted. Trees shook. It was a dreadful night to be outside.

Yet many had braved the storm. Pushed through the wind, huddled tightly in their jackets. Inside-out umbrellas flapping at their side.

Despite the cold storm raging outside, the community room was warm and cheery inside. The youngest kids played off in the corner, under the watchful eye of all nearby. Older kids crowded in with their parents, taking extra servings of dinner and stuffing their pockets with cookies while engaging intently with the discussion.

Three weeks had gone by since the brutal murder of a young man. A friend and neighbor. Known well by some, though unknown by others.

It felt as though the whole city had shown up at this meeting - the second in a series of dialogues to collectively process what had happened. How it happened. What it meant.

As the final stragglers dragged themselves in, neighbors greeted each other warmly. Strangers met and became friends. Soon the buzz of conversation died down as folks settled in their seats and the discussion formally got underway.

Nadia Hakim sat a table of ten, her two children on either side. Her wife, unfortunately, was still at work. Buried in the details of this very case.

She listened politely as Greg McManners went on about the value of security cameras. 

While neighbors were generally very alert to their surroundings, this crime had taken place in the middle of the night. Neighbors had been asleep. By the time they awoke to investigate, the perpetrator had already fled the scene. If there had been security cameras on the street, he argued, the perpetrator would almost certainly have been caught - if not entirely dissuaded in the first place.

Nadia had known Greg for years. He was always eager to cede his privacy in the name of protection. From his experience, she knew, it seemed like the best solution. She disagreed.

She waited as Greg finished his comment and let the interpreter finish his last few words. She looked around the table to see who was most eager to speak next.

"You raise some really good points," her teenage son spoke up. "But, from my may be necessary to have some authority, but I's better to have as little as possible. I understand your concerns, but I'm concerned that if we put security cameras in our streets, if we hope that authority will deter people from doing things like this...well, I'm concerned that will just raise a different set of issues."

The listeners nodded thoughtfully.

The conversation went on more than another hour. People shared their thoughts. Their reactions. Their ideas. Solutions were still a long way off, but even in the discussion, some progress was being made.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

When social marketing goes wrong and feminist fairytales

I always love a good advertising story, and there have been a number of good ones lately.

First, Kellogg's UK branch recently apologized after tweeting, "1 RT = 1 breakfast for a vulnerable child."

The Twittersphere quickly responded with comments like, "Kellogg's if you have the ability to feed children in need then DO IT." And, "Promote our brand or the kids stay hungry. Stay classy Kellogg's." I love this.

Frankly, I'm not too surprised by the original tweet. It's common for companies to have "vote for your favorite non-profit" competitions, or to do similar "matching gift" type campaigns. I wouldn't be surprised to have a tweet like this receive no negative response.

So, I love the fact that it did. 

Social marketing can be a powerful tool for companies and can be great for our communities. There are, I believe, many businesses who genuinely want to make the world better and synergy between these companies and their cause can be powerful.

But there are also plenty of companies who only use social marketing a tool to support their bottom line. So it's good to stay skeptical. Just feed the kids, Kellogg's.

Also this week, an all-female Catholic college-prep academy in Kentucky launched a brilliant new ad campaign.

The fairytale inspired campaign has ads like, "You're not a princess, but you can still rule the world." "Don't wait for a prince, be able to rescue yourself." And "Mirror, mirror on the wall, be more than just the fairest of them all."

I find there is often a tension between the concepts of "feminist" and "princess." 

I hear this a lot from parents of girls. How do you support a young girl's obsession with all things "princess" while raising her to be strong and independent? How do you let her explore her interests without having those interests be entirely dictated by gender norms? How do you not accidentally send the message that "princess" is bad?
For me, these ads manage to embrace both concepts. The fairytale inspired imagery is very princess-y. But the images and the words show strength and intelligence.

Be a princess if that's what you're into. Or don't be if that's not what you're into. But either way, be smart, tough, and capable of totally ruling the world.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Work and community

At a meeting last night, a community colleague commented - and I paraphrase - "there are so many talented people in our community and too many of them are unable to put their talents to work within our community."

It was a meeting of Jobs for Somerville, a group of the Somerville Community Corporation that pushes for policies which support local workers - connecting them with good jobs and job training.

When I talk about why this work is important, I often focus on the benefit to the individual.

In a rapidly gentrifying community, affordable housing will only go so far. People need good jobs if they're going to be able to remain in their community. In a capitalist economy, the personal benefits of a good job are self-evident: you need a job to pay your rent, buy your food, and to keep the heat on. Having a job which is local can also provide personal benefits: less time spent commuting means more time with your family. Or perhaps for many people, more hours at your second job.

Sometimes I also think about the benefits to others in the community.

I like living in a diverse community with people of different ethnic backgrounds and different socioeconomic status. For some families, a good job can mean the difference between being able to stay in a community and being forced to leave. If good jobs allow more working class and lower income folks to stay in the community, if access to good jobs allows my community to remain diverse, then there is indeed a personal benefit to me. There is a benefit to the community.

Additionally, less time spent commuting can also mean more time to engage with the community. More time to attend community meetings and public hearings, for example. Since I believe the best solutions come from the most voices - having more people at community meetings also provides a clear community benefit.

But none of those are the benefit my colleague commented on last night.

Her comment gets at the idea of public work. The Center for Democracy and Citizenship defines public work as a "sustained, visible effort by a mix of people that creates things - material or cultural - of lasting civic impact, while developing civic learning and capacity in the process."

Construction workers provide a tangible example of public work as they literally build the world around us. Their work is inherently civic, yet rarely seen as such.

In a society increasingly focused on "professionalization," the concept of public work recognizes that we are all citizens and we are all professionals.

Think of a public meeting around, say, the design of a new train station.

One model of how to run this meeting is to have professional city planners in charge of the project explain the design to the lay people.

Another model is to say that the "lay people" have expertise as well - they are the ones who will be using the station. Therefore, professional city planners may run the meeting, but their goal will be to draw out the expertise of the community members.

The framework of public work is slightly different.

It's still true that the "community" has expertise on how they will use the station. But the individual people in the room also have professional expertise.

Community members are also professionals who could design a train station. They are professionals who could build a train station. The citizens themselves might know about zoning laws or electrical requirements. The citizens are professionals.

And conversely, the "professionals" leading the meeting may live in the area. They may have thoughts and feelings about how the station will impact them and may plan to use the station as well. The professionals are citizens.

In some ways, the idea of public work - of bringing together your professional and civic identity - is so far removed from how I'm used to looking at the world that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it. But it's a good thing to think about.

What would that meeting look like if you accept all attendees as both professionals and citizens? What would your day to day work look like if you approached it both as a citizen and a professional? What would our communities look like if all of us brought these identities closer together?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Pro patria mori

Yesterday was Veterans' Day, and as my Facebook newsfeed filled up with thanks to veterans and tributes to family members in uniform, I thought about my own friends and family who have served.

My grandfather fought in World War II. He didn't like to talk about it.

My father, who turned 18 in 1960, did not serve in Vietnam, but had friends who did. He didn't like to talk about it.

My cousin, who served in the first gulf war, has got...some issues. We don't really talk about it.

I could go on.

I am deeply thankful to all the men and women who have served this country, who have fought to keep us safe and who have sacrificed their lives, bodies and minds.

But even as I am thankful, I feel that we must do better.

We must do better to support all those who have served and we must do better to minimize the numbers who need to serve in the future.

I believe that we can do both. We can love our military brothers and sisters and work to protect them just as they work to protect us.

Honestly, I don't know whether or not war can ever solve anything, but I do know that war is never glorious. It's never pretty. It's ugly. And tough. And if indeed we need good men and women to make the sacrifice of military service, the least we can do is recognize that it is, deeply, a sacrifice.

And we can do better.

So on Veterans' Day, I am thankful. I am grateful. But also I am thoughtful. And I remember the words of Wilfred Owen:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori is Latin, meaning, "it is sweet and right to die for your country")

Friday, November 8, 2013

Fiction Friday - the strain

A continuation of Fiction Friday.

It'd been a rough day.

Detective Jones felt completely drained.

She'd thought notifying the family would be the worst part. It usually was. Trying to remain calm and project comfort. Remaining compassionate without losing herself. That was always exhausting. She'd been expecting the strain. She'd prepared for it.

But she hadn't prepared for the ongoing, day-to-day pressure of the case.

Nothing like this had happened in years. The public was in an uproar, eager for details of the case, for assurance they were safe. The department had been flooded with press inquires, as media clamored for the latest.

And through it all, Detective Jones battled her own demons.

No matter how many times she went over the case in her mind, she could still barely believe it had happened.

Usually, she was able to analyze cases with a professional detachment. Caring about those involved but able to marry that with a calculated understanding of the facts.

But not this time.

Every time she tried to step back, tried to take in the big picture, tried to see the nearly indiscernible pattern she'd always excelled at finding...the gruesome details of the case would snap her back down.

How could she hope to solve a case she could barely even accept?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Wage theft, a public health crisis

Today, I had the pleasure of hearing UC Berkeley (go bears!) professor Meredith Minkler talk about her work as she accepted the Tisch Research Prize for Civic Engagement.

A leading practitioner and proponent of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR), Minkler spoke specifically about her work with restaurant employees in San Fransisco's Chinatown.

In CBPR, community members play a key role in shaping the research approach and goals, bringing critical local knowledge. This approach brings community members and researchers together as equal partners who co-learn from each other through the process of the the research.

For example, initially, the research team was interest in questions of worker health and safety. However, the community members involved in the project quickly pointed out another pressing issue: wage theft.

In their subsequent research, they found 58% of this population had experienced wage theft - such as businesses taking employee's tips. 65% reported working overtime for no pay. Every year, workers lost an estimated $10,450,000 to wage theft.

Minkler began to see this as a significant, neglected public health problem.

And it is.

While particularly challenging for workers who are undocumented or who are not native English speakers, the problem of wage theft is endemic to the food service industry. There are certainly a lot of great restaurants who treat their employees well, but in my experience there's an unspoken darker side to the industry as a whole.

Working with San Francisco's Chinese Progressive Association, Minkler conducted and presented research and brought public attention to this issue. They fought for, and won, a wage theft ordinance to protect workers. They even got enforcement provisions included, "giving the law some teeth," as she said.

And that's all fantastic. It's a great example of the value of CBPR. Not only did community members help researchers understand their community - where to reach people, how to ask questions, what needs there are - community members were able to act on the data because it was something they cared about. It shows what can happen when research serves a community rather than the other way around.

But there's still so much more to do on this issue.

The partnership is now looking for ways to reward businesses who do treat their workers fairly and to further penalize those which don't.

The wage theft ordinance is great, but it's only a piece of the battle.

Until workers feel safe speaking out against unfair conditions, until it's easy for them to get the resources and support they need, until business stop thinking they can get away with wage theft, there will be more work to do.

And yes, this is a public health issue. Because workers who lose wages work more and live on less. Because the stress of just trying to get through the day in the face of such financial insecurity has been shown to have severe negative health effects.

Because there are more people suffering around us than we probably know.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


In physics, there's an accepted level of uncertainty - no, a required level of uncertainty - that governs how the universe works.

You cannot know both the position and momentum of a particle.

When you work out the math, σx and σp (standard deviation of position, x, and standard deviation of momentum, p) have an inverse relationship. The more precise one measure is, the less precise the other.

It's important to note that this is not just a mathematical trick. This uncertainty is actually built in to the universe.

I mention this because so often in life, as people, we are striving for absolutes. Searching for truth, justice, right and wrong.

But I'm not so convinced those absolutes exist.

That's not to say everything is entirely uncertain. There is much we can know that helps define the edges of these amorphous topics. But we can't define them as absolutely as we might like.

In his book, We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, my colleague Peter Levine talks about people having moral maps, networks built from opinions and experience.

The metaphor of a map or network can be very helpful, but I find it somewhat insufficient. My morals aren't fixed points on a map, they're constantly shifting and changing, blurs of energy that can't quite be defined.

No matter how perfect your measurement, you cannot know the position and momentum of a particle. Similarly, no amount of reflection or thought can absolutely define my morals. The uncertainty is built into the universe.

And I embrace that.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Generation DNE

Almost 15 percent of those aged 16 to 24 are neither in school nor employed.

The Boston Globe seems to think that indicates an "amiable, tech-savvy, yet minimally employable crop of Americans who will ultimately need more subsidies than a dairy farmer."

But to me, those numbers tell a different story.

A story of kids who were promised the world, but then saw it all fall away. Kids who never had a chance in a system that locks you in to your assigned social standing. Kids who give all they can only to find that it's not enough.

We shouldn't be blaming the victims here.

To be fair, life's not easy for just about anyone. If you lose your job over 50, you can expect to be unemployed for about 53 weeks, compared to 19 weeks for teenagers. But at least people rightly call that age discrimination, not a generation of [insert disparaging remark here].

I sometimes joke that I belong to Generation DNE (Does Not Exist), because I used to be in Generation Y, then Millennials became a thing. I'm still unclear as to whether I fall into that category or not.

Growing up a disillusioned radical in northern California, it seemed to me that Gen Y disappeared when They realized we weren't going to sell out. When They realized we were angry. When we knew unequivocally that the future wasn't as bright as The Man would have us think.

So we got edited out of existence and They went on to try subdue younger generations. Tried to make them pacifist consumers who wouldn't raise an eyebrow at scurrilous affairs.

But it didn't work.

Whether it's because the economy crashed, we've been fighting two wars, or the fact that OH MY GOODNESS HAVE YOU NOTICED HOW MESSED UP THE WORLD IS, they too realized that life isn't the idyllic adventure advertisers would have you believe. 

But, I suppose, you can't just edit generations out of existence indefinitely, so rather than being ignored, Millennials are being disparaged. Being told they are worthless, wrong, and a waste of space.

But that won't work, either.

'Cause those of us who are maybe a bit older, who were lucky enough to start building careers and paying down our student loans before the economy tanked - those of us They thought could be disappeared with a generation name change...we're still here.

And we know it's not the kids' fault. We know they're doing what they can. We know they are right to be angry and that their voices and opinions matter. And we know that The Man is trying to silence them just as The Man once tried to silence us.

And we won't stand for it. We'll stand with our younger peers. And we'll know - the more They disparage, the more scared They are.


Monday, November 4, 2013

No place for hate

Something happened over the weekend which has happened to countless people countless times.

A group of people yelled racial slurs at another group of people.

I know this happened to at least one group of people, but I'd venture a guess it happened to more.

But even if it only happened to one person,
that would be one person too many.

I want to say that I am shocked.

I honestly can't comprehend what goes through a person's mind when they spit hate.

And I don't understand what could happen to a person
to make them end up that way.

I almost feel badly for the haters.
How did they end up so broken?

No one should end up that way.

I want to say that I am shocked,
But I am not shocked.

This happens too often.
It's too deeply part of our society.
Too accepted, ignored, or explained away.

No one should have to experience such hate.
But so many people do.

In stores, on streets, in images passing by.
So many people do.

Systemic is one of my favorite words.
Or perhaps, I should say, my least favorite.

It conjures images of deep growing weeds.
Choking off flowers.
Burrowing deep.
A tangled web,
Seemingly impossible to irradiate.

Hate is systemic.

It's almost easier
to shake your head.
To silently sigh.
To shrug and say, "What are you gonna do?"

Hate is too deep. Too complicated. Too messy. Too impossible. Too easy to ignore.

So what are you going to do?
What am I going to do?
What are we going to do?

There are no magic wands. No silver bullets. No simple solutions.

But I will be dissatisfied
for as long as hate runs deep.
And I will speak up
for as long as hate runs deep.
And I will keep fighting
for as long as hate runs deep.

What are we going to do?
Whatever we can.
For as long as it takes.
Working for a tomorrow,
just a little better than today.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fiction Friday: The Villain

A continuation of Fiction Friday....

Daphne walked confidently down the street, a slight smile playing on her lips.

She felt rejuvenated. Full of life. Vim and vigor as they say.

She was on top of the world. She could do anything. Be anything. It was exhilarating.

And such a shock after long years of empty grey. Of trying to fit in. Of pretending that everything was okay. But everything was not okay. She was not okay. And she hadn't been for a long time.

But things were different now.

She watched people walking past. Caring about their little lives. Bustling from here to there. Fools, all.

And none of them knew.

Shivers of excitement coursed through her veins as each passing person shared a nonchalant greeting. Treating her as they'd always done. Just another friendly neighbor. Another average Joe.

She was bursting to shout what she had done. To tell them all. To show them all how meaningless their little worries were.

She couldn't believe none of them knew. The emotions were pouring through her so strongly it seemed impossible no one would notice.

But then she'd spent so many years fitting in, burying her true thoughts, showing the right emotions she never felt. She was practiced at staying calm. At exuding normalcy. She was better then them.

And none of them knew.

Daphne basked for a moment in the morning sun. She had the whole day ahead of her.

What should she do?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Red October

The Red Sox won the World Series last night in a 6-1 home game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

So, that's pretty great.

But since everyone else is already talking about that, I'd like to write more generally. About why baseball is great.

It is, I like to say, a game of suspense.

I grew up in a big baseball family. In Oakland, CA the A's were my home team. I have many fond memories of going to the park as kid.

Waiting in line for hours to get a free Miguel Tejada bobble head doll. Getting there early to watch batting practice. Memorizing the roster. The batting averages. The ERAs.

When Jason Giambi played for the A's, Crazy Train was his entry music. They used to play Darth Vader's march if we were up around the 8th inning, but I can't quite remember the rules for when they did that. I used to always lose at dot racing.

And I never felt more patriotic than when I heard the national anthem before a game, and few things feel more communal than a rousing round of Take me Out to the Ball Game during the 7th inning stretch.

Baseball was also an affordable pastime growing up in Oakland. Average people could go to games regularly. I used to go with my whole family. Aunts, uncles, cousins.

I love Fenway, but the first time I went - with my Grandmother for a Red Sox/Yankees game - we dropped $50 per ticket. And this was pre-2004 series victory. Almost sounds reasonable given what I'd expect to pay for a comparable game today, but still a far cry from the $1 Wednesdays back in Oakland. It's a shame.

To be clear, I am a Red Sox fan. It was a long and difficult transition, but after 13 years in Massachusetts, I got there somewhere along the way. I haven't watched an A's/Red Sox game in 13 years though. Too painful.

And finally, I can't talk about baseball without a shout out to the one and only Richard Delaney. My late cousin and fellow Oakland resident, Richard used take me to games with his family somewhat frequently. But he was also a...somewhat opinionated radical labor organizer.

And whenever I think of baseball, I think of Richard Delany complaining about the wave.

At the ball park one summer day, the energized crowd started doing the wave. I was pumped. Everyone has to work together to make it happen. And it goes round the stadium. An artful human force.

Richard was not pleased.

After a rough back and forth, Richard finally looked at me dead on and said:

"Don't you know it's just a capitalist conspiracy to create pliable people through the illusion of collaboration?"

I hadn't known that. But now I do. I guess.

And I still love baseball.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wealth migration

I spend a lot of time thinking about gentrification.

Poor and/or working class communities begin to develop a hip vibe. College grads not ready for the suburbs move in. Artists can afford the rent. Start up business can afford the low capital costs as well.

Pretty soon, everyone wants to live there and folks from that community can't afford to live there any more.

But gentrification is a complicated story.

Sometimes it's called revitalization.Sometimes there's high crime and no jobs. Sometimes a community needs a little something to make it better. Sometimes that's what the residents want. Sometimes the residents who leave a community are cashing out - glad of the retirement plan secured by their now-valuable house.

I've always looked at gentrification from within the view of my communities. Somerville, MA is rapidly gentrifying. Parts of Oakland, CA are gentrified and other parts...could use a little revitalization (I say with love).

But what does gentrification look like on a larger scale? Where are all these new people in my community coming from and perhaps more importantly...what happens to the communities they leave behind?

A recent paper, Why Has Regional Income Convergence in the U.S. Declined?, which I saw presented by co-author Daniel Shoag, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, got at this question.

Shoag compares state-level economic snapshots over time with an eye towards understanding how people migrate within the U.S. over time.

I won't go through his math in detail here, but essentially he argued that in 1960, a state where you could earn 1% more for your work cost 1% more to live in. And that was true across job and skill types. This created income convergence as people from all classes migrated to "wealthier" cities.

Comparatively, in 2010, a state where you could earn 1% more for your work costs an average of about 2% more to live in. This leads to "skill sorting" as "high skilled" (white collar) workers move to wealthier areas while lower income workers move out.

Shoag traces this all back to the increase in housing regulations of the 1970's - leading to dramatically increased housing costs in "wealthy" cities.

That's doubtless a piece of the puzzle, though I'm not sure whether it's the ultimate cause. Either way, though, it's important to think about this greater sorting happening around us.

In Somerville, MA poor people might be getting pushed out, but in Flint, MI they might wish for such "revitalization."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Times have changed

On the news this morning, a commentator was decrying children's overuse of computers, television, and all manner of electronic devices.

The concern was brought on by a new study out from Common Sense Media. Here are some numbers for you:
  • 72% of kids have used mobile devices
  • 38% of children under 2 have used a mobile device
  • Children's average daily use of mobile devices has tripled since 2011, and is now at 15 minutes per day
Now, if I were a parent, I might indeed find this concerning. I'd probably appreciate the American Academy of Pediatrics' new guide on how to create a family media plan. Most families, it would seem, believe children should have rules. So whether it's a curfew or a media plan you're into, I am not here to judge.

But, I would say, the world is not ending.

At least not because of this.

Hearing the commentator talk about how things were "back in his day," only makes me roll my eyes. Whenever anyone complains about how society is rotting and how modernity has sucked all sense of humanity from us, all I can think is:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.

The world has gone mad today
And good's bad today,
And black's white today,
And day's night today...

Written almost 80 years ago by Cole Porter, those lyrics are from, you guessed it, Anything Goes.

To be fair, there are plenty of people who think society's been rotting for more than 80 years. Many theorists trace the curse of modernity back to the Enlightenment or thereabouts. When science made us lose our souls.

But that is a subject for another day.

The point, today, is this: create whatever guidelines work for you and your family, but blustering about how technology is draining our children's brains does nothing. I have survived radio, television and video games and no doubt plenty of others have emerged unscathed as well.

Calm down and buck up. I think we're going to make it.

It is a shame, though - back in my day, the world was perfect.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Villains always blink their eyes

When I was a child, my father made a joke about Holly from Miami, FLA. When I didn't get it he, like any good father, made me listen to some Lou Reed. 

I don't think that's how most people were introduced to this musical legend who passed away over the weekend, but, I guess, that's what happens when you grow up in Northern California.

Years later, when I first saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I identified with Hedwig's fictional story of growing up with his head in the oven. Listening to Walk on the Wild Side.

I never did that, but it certainly felt that way sometimes.

As if the whole world would melt away. No troubles or concerns. Just the music. The beauty and the sorrow.

Incidentally, I don't think I can mention Hedwig without commenting that my first job out of college was running lights for that show. Also, I still laugh at the line:

I got kicked out of university after delivering a brilliant lecture on the aggressive influence of German philosophy on rock and roll entitled "You, Kant, Always Get What You Want."

But I digress.

On the news this morning, someone described Reed as the pessimists' response to the optimism of hippies. I'm not sure I agree with that, but I can see where it comes from.

His music can be dark and gritty. It can be tough and uncomfortable.

But it's also beautiful.

Lou Reed taught me that people are often not what you expect, that you should be whoever you are, and that life is hard...but that's okay.

To live life fully, you've got to take the good with the bad. Just experience. And be. Live. Love. Lose.

What else is there?

Some people, they like to go out dancing
And other peoples, they have to work (Just watch me now!)

And there's even some evil mothers
Well they're gonna tell you that everything is just dirt
Y'know that, women, never really faint
And that villains always blink their eyes (ooh!),
And that, y'know, children are the only ones who blush!
And that, life is just to die! 

(Sweet Jane, The Velvet Underground)

Friday, October 25, 2013

Fiction Friday - the call

Last week, I started Fiction Friday, a futuristic film noir. Below the story continues.

Also, I perhaps should have warned people that my fiction tends to be dark. There'll be some light moments coming. But, I fear, not today.

The world was empty. A gnawing pit. Sinking. Darkness. He can't begin to describe how he feels.

Feel. The word was wrong. He felt nothing. He felt confused. Why would someone play such a cruel joke. His mother had called him. Tears in her voice. So convincing. But it couldn't be true. It was a joke. A terrible joke. It didn't make any sense.

Because it wasn't a joke. He knew that, but he didn't. It wasn't a joke. His mother had called to tell him. She wouldn't make that up. His brother was. Was. He couldn't say it. He couldn't think it.

The police must've been wrong. That was it. His mother was confused. That's why she'd say such a thing. It was all a hoax. Or a misunderstanding.

Mitch'd call any second. With some story. Some explanation. Something.

It couldn't be true.

But it was.


Gabe shook himself and looked around. He wasn't sure how much time had passed since he got off the phone. It felt like a life time.

He looked up as his wife came back in. A sad smile. Comfort in the cold darkness.

"Talked to Reyes," she said softly. "She'll let the foreman know. So. You don't need to worry about work."

They sat in silence.

"I'll start packing," she breathed. "We should head out in not too long. Should be with your family."


He should be with his family. He should.

But he couldn't. Not any more. His family would never be together again. He'd never be with his brother again. Never see his brother again.

His brother. His brother. His brother was.

His brother was murdered.