Monday, December 29, 2008

Toni Morrison: a mercy

Toni Morrison is a cornerstone of modern literature, or at least, modern literature as I understand it. "Beloved" was one of the first books I remember rereading, and rereading because I knew that I would learn more from it the second and third time. OK, and because one of those re-reads was required for high school (middle school? who can remember). I have picked up various Morrison books over the years and been moved by her language, her images, her portrayal of voices that don't get voiced. "a mercy" is a disappointment in this way: Morrison seems to be feeling out some new voices, but leaves them undeveloped. We get a chapter or two from each voice, but not enough to love them or care about them deeply.

The book is just too short: barely 150 pages, in large font, and it's more of a novella than a novel. I wanted to know more about this early 18th century world Morrison has created, but there just wasn't time. Morrison unfolds an intriguing tale about a mostly woman-headed family complete with a Native American girl, a sort-of-ex-slave, an orphaned white "half-wit" and the matriarch, a happily immigrated English "mail order bride" who loves her new life. "Sir" is some kind of pisspoor farmer/trader/is he involved in the slave trade now? With "Beloved", I felt if I read and reread the book, I could learn more clues about the characters. I'd know who Lina's man was, I'd know more about Florens' "a minha mae", and about Sorrow's previous life. With "a mercy," I feel like I'd just spend another two hours enthralled with Morrison's beautiful writing, and left very short of satisfied.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Rickie Solinger: Beggars and Choosers

This is the longest short book I've read in awhile. I think I've lost the ability to process "big ideas" gracefully- really, Solinger packs so many ideas in here that a few pages left my head swimming. The main "big idea" is that the struggle for women's rights has been lost in the shift towards a consumer mentality, and we now ascribe "choice" towards reproductive issues, which allows society to deem some women better choice-makers than others. This is a bad shift, Solinger argues, as young women, poor women, women of color, etc, are deemed unfit mothers, and icons like the "Backalley Butcher" and the "Welfare Queen" are used in lieu of real facts about motherhood and rights. Moving forward, Solinger argues, we need to get back to speaking about and arguing for rights, and full citizenship for all women, not just the ones who pass a financial test.

As someone who has always been outspoken about NOT wanting to be a mother, this book really points out how that "choice" is only mine to make because I am white, economically privileged and educated. Solinger describes forced adoptions for young women in the 60s and 70s and how feminists denied any links between forced adoptions and the abortion rights/reproductive rights movements. Birthmothers demanded to be acknowledged as women with rights that were being denied, and feminists refused to ally themselves with these women, refusing to claim motherhood as a feminist issue. I admit that I, too, have refused to see having children as a feminist issue, and my outspoken childless state, is a feminist issue that I need to deal with.

I wish Solinger had written this book now, as her book ends just as the Clinton years started: I don't have the brain power (or the resources) to analyze what "choice" looks like now in the current picture of welfare/adoption/abstinence education, but I know it's grim. How can we (royally) preach that adoption is a "win/win", while denying that the birthmother exists? How can we argue against welfare, and force poor mothers out of the home and into work, while looking down on women who don't spend enough time providing their children enough resources (ie: proper enrichment in the home, "good" daycare/preschool, etc.) How can we teach abstinence and avoid mentioning sex, and then frown on the "teenage mother" or the "single mother" and then cut welfare benefits? I don't know the hows, I just know we do, without the facts to back it up.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

So bad, it's good.

You have to laugh sometimes, right?

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

My Thoughts Exactly

(or at least sort of...) As usual, I'm 9 months behind on my New Yorker reading. It's timely, though, as the current (for me) issue that I just read had a David Sedaris article about spiders. His opening on spiders discussed New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina and the bizarre (to me) outpouring of interest in the animals and animal rescue after the storm. Of course, I was interested in the animal situation in New Orleans after the storm- I am a shelter worker, and was a shelter worker then.

Multiple layers of the fascination with the Katrina animals disturbed/surprised me. First, I wondered: "what about the humans?" Obviously, I care about animals. I care deeply, enough to devote my life to them. As I said, I'm a shelter worker. I don't do it for the big bucks, I don't do it for the glory, I certainly don't do it for the easy, clean, cushy job. But I still have perspective on the world (I know it sometimes seems otherwise). Really, Hurricane Katrina affected so many people- human beings, with families- old people, young people, sick people, healthy people, of all races. And yet people viewing the storm from afar were obsessed with the animals. Something seemed just off. Nothing is wrong with caring and advocating for voiceless animals, but there was a disconnect, a distorted amount of money and effort and time and worry spent on the animals, as opposed to the humans affected by the storm. The second part of my curiosity/fascination about the emotional response to the animals of Hurricane Katrina was the obsession with THOSE animals. I get it, they were displaced, which made them special. At the time, I was working at a county-run, publicly funded shelter, which was always full. We did not take any Katrina animals, but I fielded sometimes 10 calls a day asking if we had any Katrina animals and where people could donate to them. I fielded calls for months about adopting Katrina animals, and people would straight up tell me they only wanted to donate to Katrina animals and only wanted to adopt Katrina animals. This struck me as odd, and strange, and frustrating. There are homeless, displaced animals everywhere in the United States. In your city, in your county, there are displaced dogs and cats and chickens without a dramatic story. Your local shelter needs donations of money and blankets and food and would love to have you adopt a dog. But something about disaster struck a chord with many many people, and made me just a *little* bitter.

So it was timely that I returned from New Orleans, where humans (and their animals) are still very much displaced, and read Sedaris' article. I was in New Orleans working on restoration, for humans (and animals if they had them). I think much of America has forgotten Hurricane Katrina, and lots of people think this is okay. When I mention my trip to people, they say, "oh well, it (New Orleans) isn't coming back." Ok, I guess. But there are still people there, people deserving of our support. New Orleans is part of this country, a part of this country that was very let down by this government in a time of need. Why didn't we respond in with the same outpouring of support to the people that we gave to the animals? It's not too late.

Here is the excerpt from April & Paris:

People I know, people who had never before contributed to charity, emptied their pockets when a cocker spaniel was shown standing on a rooftop after Hurricane Katrina hit, eight months later. "What choice did I have?" they asked. "That poor little thing looked into the camera and penetrated my very soul."
The eyes of the stranded grandmother, I noted, were not half as piercing. There she was, clinging to a chimney with her bra strap showing, and all anyone did was wonder if she had a dog. "I'd hate to think there's a Scotty in her house, maybe trapped on the first floor. What's the name of that canine-rescue agency?"
Saying that this was everyone's reaction is, of course, an exaggeration. There were cat people, too, and those whose hearts went out to the abandoned reptiles. The sight of an iguana sailing down the street on top of a refrigerator sent a herpetologist friend over the edge. "She seems to be saying, 'Where's my master?'" he speculated. "'Here it is, time for our daily cuddle and I'm stuck on the S.S. Whirlpool!!'"

Sedaris writes tongue in cheek, in part. But this hits home for me. People care about the cockers and the Scottys and the iguanas, but what about granny? I spoke to a woman this week who relocated from New Orleans with her 4 kids after spending 2 nights sleeping under the freeway during the storm with her family, to stay dry. She told me her whole family has moved back to New Orleans but she won't go, so she is here alone, with her kids, because she knows the levees have not been repaired. Who cares about her? This is Mr Paul, whose house we helped restore. He is just moving back into his house, three years after the Hurricane, with his wife and three children with the help of the St Bernard Project.

mr paul- stranger #21

Don't worry, his two dogs from pre-Katrina are moving back with him, as is Tyson, his boxer that he acquired while living in Houston before coming home.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Prop 8, People of Color, and Passing the Buck

I hate Prop 8. I hate that I feel weirded out to live in California, and Oakland, for the first time in my life. I've always had a strange Oakland Pride- strange because this little city is famous all over the US (the world?) for being a dangerous place, yet I call it home, and return here every time I move away with a sigh of relief. Prop 8, and the vociferous, vehement, volatile supporters of a hateful bill, made me uncomfortable here for the first time in my life. It's not like I could just move to Berkeley or San Francisco or somewhere else in California- this whole state has gone the "wrong" way.

It's almost worse for me to hear friends and family saying things like "it's too bad that the Obama vote helped get this passed" or "the minority churches really helped get this passed." Sure, I was disappointed to see church groups supporting Prop 8 (from the LDS to the local Tongan church in my neighborhood), as I'm a big supporter of religious feeling being used for positive social change, and I was especially disappointed to recieve a full paged, full color, ad on election day of Barack Obama with a misleading quote implying he was for Prop 8 when in fact he had not come out for the Proposition.

On the other hand, over half of Californians voted for Prop 8, and against gay marriage. They weren't all black. They weren't all Hispanic. In fact, everyone's favorite election statistician (I hear he does baseball, too) says that pointing the finger at people of color and new Obama supporters is incorrect. What I can say about Prop 8 "yes voters", whoever they are, is that they all voted against basic civil rights, and felt that in some way, gays and lesbians are "different" or less deserving of the right to marry (privelege? opportunity? whatever you want to call it, separate and not equal). Adele Carpenter at Racialicious says it better than I ever can in Resisting the Racist Blame Game. It's old news: the feminist movement is/was historically very "white" (to be gentle) and "racist" (to be honest) (I'm going to go with is), and the LGBT movement has followed in their footsteps. It's easy to wear blinders and point fingers, but it's not productive. We have to move forward, and figure out how to make Oakland and California a place that sends the dominoes falling in a positive direction again.