A Country Divided

By coincidence, two pieces of media I recently consumed simultaneously scared the shit out of me (sorry for the cursing, mom, but it’s true). It’s no secret that I’m scared and furious at our current administration and spend most mornings reading the paper while rolling my eyes at their latest lies. No one can know what will come out of this presidency, but a new book and a new TV show do their best to show how a divided country can lead to ruin.

I’m surely not the first person to talk about either of these, but I would recommend not consuming them at the same time because it truly meant a lot of dreary, negative thoughts for me. American War takes place in the latter half of the 21st century (around 2075-2095) in a United States fighting a Second Civil War, with most of the coasts (and Florida – sorry, Florida) flooded due to climate change and the southern states fighting for the right to use now-illegal fossil fuels. As I read this book, I also started watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. I’m sure there is no need for me to summarize it here, but to be brief it shows a United States that has been toppled by a theocracy and places women in subservient roles in which the “fertile” ones are ceremoniously raped on a monthly basis by high-level men in hopes of producing more children.

So, yeah. As far as The Handmaid’s Tale goes, I’ve been too horrified to watch more than one episode so far, but all signs point to it being an incredible show – at least, incredibly written, directed, and acted; incredibly scary to watch and consider how this could become reality.

As for the book, I am the Cutthroat Reader after all…

WHAT I READ:

American War (Omar Al Akkad)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 rebel states, I give this 4 assassins.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be.

Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

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To be perfectly frank, I really gave this book 5 stars for concept and 3 stars for execution. As stated above, I love the idea of the book, but found myself at times interested and at times bored by the actual writing. Setting this book up in vignettes had some unfortunate flaws. We see life in pre/mid war border states; life in a refugee camp; a bit of life as a sniper for the rebels; a bit of life in prison; and a bit of life afterwards. But with these bits I never got a full picture of the countries, the war, or life for everyone, and most of it was a bit slow. We are tracing Sarat’s evolution into the North-hating person she becomes, but even with the intense eye focused on her, I didn’t get why she was quite so filled with hate.

I devoured the book and still recommend to others – but I suspect the topic of the book and its timelienesss will elevate it a tad more than it really should be.

Even though I didn’t love American War, I still think this book and The Handmaid’s Tale should be required viewing and contemplation for everyone. A book I was reading this morning struck me with the following line (discussing living as a gay man in modern America):

But you know we’re always going to have to rely on the goodwill of those of you who are straight for our survival. And that’s the damned truth.

This sad and beautiful line keeps sticking in my mind. It’s incredibly true for all marginalized communities – essentially anyone who isn’t a white, cis, straight, white wealthy male in America. The LGBT community, immigrants, lower class, women, non-Christians, etc etc – and all intersections of those groups – are just holding our breaths and crossing our fingers that those in power allow us to hold on to (or obtain) basic human rights like equal marriage, liberty, and the rights to our bodies. And the message of what could happen if those rights are taken away are perfectly captured in these two pieces of art.

All the Single Ladies

I’m doing it, folks – I’m keeping up with my bookish New Year’s resolutions! (Except for pledging to read a classic novel by a female author every quarter. Whoops. Jane Eyre, I’m still coming for you!).

The resolution I kept this month? Reading more non-fiction. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Rebecca Traister) has been on my read list for a while now, since it landed on the “Best Books of 2016” books.

There were a lot of really interesting takeaways in this book, which explores the historical role of women in American society and how social, political, and economic events have impacted how they are viewed – and what they are able to do.

WHAT I READ:

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Rebecca Traister)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 wedding rings, I give this 3 fully-formed individual women.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A nuanced investigation into the sexual, economic, and emotional lives of women in America. In a provocative, groundbreaking work, National Magazine Award finalist Rebecca Traister, “the most brilliant voice on feminism in the country” (Anne Lamott), traces the history of unmarried and late-married women in America who, through social, political, and economic means, have radically shaped our nation.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

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The books is full of fascinating facts, stats, and stories, but I pulled out just a few of my favorites…

First, the advice in the appendix on what is needed to make single women truly equal in America reminded me a lot of The Year of Living Danishly – and what makes people in that country so happy. Essentially, we need better policies including stronger equal pay protections, national healthcare system, mandatory parental and sick leave, and welfare benefits. And, of course, we need to “protect reproductive rights, access to birth control, and sex education.” Just something to chew over…

Another stat that stood out to me as someone who is definitely not ready to get married yet: “The ‘Knot Yet Report,’ published in 2013, reported that a college educated woman who delays married until her thirties will earn $18,000 more per year than an equivalently educated woman who marries in her twenties.” Gimme that cheddar, yo!

And finally, Amelia Earhart’s plea to her husband after she turned down his proposals several times: “You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means most to me… Please let us not interfere with the other’s work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinement of even an attractive cage.” Might be going into my wedding vows.

Highly recommended for people looking to learn a little bit more about history and a lot more about being a woman.

How I’m Marching On

On January 20, 2017, I semi-watched the 45th President get inaugurated with a pit of fear in my stomach.

On January 21, 2017, I joined 150,000+ humans in Boston Common as we gathered and drew strength from each other. We listened to the inspirational messages from our government representatives fighting for our basic human rights, and leaders of groups and movements from across Massachusetts.

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I didn’t participate in the march itself (just the rally) due to time constraints, but I did do my own personal 1 mile march from my subway stop to my home reflecting on the day and on the days following. Over and over, we’ve been hearing that this march isn’t enough. It’s a wonderful show of unity, as over 3 million people in every continent (including Antarctica!) came together to demonstrate for basic human rights and dignity. But just as important is staying informed (and keeping intersectionality front and center), staying loud, and staying involved. Here’s how I’m going to do that.

Staying Informed

I’m trying to get out of my liberal echo chamber by challenging myself to read books and articles that explore the nuances of all of America – not just the America I live in.

I’m also trying to grow my own intersectional feminism through informed research and exploration. Two podcasts that are helping me do that, and understand the fight women have had for generations and the fights we are still conducting, are Stuff Mom Never Told You and Call Your Girlfriend.

Staying Loud

I’ve saved the numbers of my government representatives in my phone and plan to be on a first name basis with their staff. I’m thankful that my representatives reflect my viewpoints that A) Cabinet officials should have a basic understanding of the job they are seeking; B) women’s rights are human rights; C) science is real; and D) universal health care is crucial to save people’s lives. But I still want to stay loud by thanking them for representing the rights of everyone, not just those who give them the most money, and also to ask what I could be doing to support them.

Staying Involved

The day after the election, I set up a reoccurring donation to Planned Parenthood, an organization that has saved millions of women’s lives and continues to be a top defender for human health and human rights – and personally has been an excellent educational resource for me.

In addition to donating my money, I’m going to be donating my time. I’ve been discouraged trying to find the best place that fits my abilities – with an unpredictable travel schedule, it’s tough for me to find somewhere that is okay with a non-weekly commitment, especially since many places prefer you to volunteer during the workday. But, on my personal march I reflected on the issues that are of crucial importance in my life and decided women’s rights fit that for me.

And so, I’m learning more about the Boston Doula Project, which provides compassionate support to women experiencing abortion and pregnancy loss. I’ve also signed up to volunteer at a women’s shelter that allows for unpredictable volunteer sign-up, and I’m going to work with my employer to see if they will allow me to take off 1 or 2 half-days per month for this commitment.

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I marched on Saturday for a lot of reasons, and my feet continue to carry me now towards positive change and peaceful resistance to a kleptocracy.

What’s next?

2017 and 29

I’ve had some incredibly exciting starts to the past several years: In January 2009, I moved to London to study abroad; in January 2010, I was shaking myself alive from a NYE Times Square reverie and prepping for my final year of college; in January 2011 and January 2012, I traveled to Turkey; in January 2013, I jumped on a plane to Bangkok to spend the spring in Asia; and in January 2014, I met my gentleman caller (we just celebrated three years!).

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However, once I settled in Boston in July 2013 – and especially starting mid-2015, when I found a lovely apartment that I refuse to ever leave and a wonderful job that continues to challenge me – I started to fall into a, how do you say, a rut. Especially when I just look at my life history from 2009-2014. When reflecting on my 2016 a few weeks ago, I realized that for the first time in over a decade, 2016 was the first year in which I didn’t move and/or get a new job.

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I don’t necessarily need the big life changes or exciting passport stamps to prove to myself that my year is worthwhile; sometimes, internal changes are just as important. I’ve always appreciated that my birthday is relatively close to the start of the New Year – it means that New Year resolutions nicely align with my “new age” resolutions (although, to be VERY clear, I hate when people give me combo presents. “This is for Christmas AND your birthday!” Okay, you wouldn’t pull that shit if my birthday were in July, buddy). Since I’ll be ringing in the last year of my 20s next week, I figure it’s now or never to make those internal realignments to my mind, spirit, and relationships.

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So, some of my personal resolutions?

  • Keep in touch with my friends: It’s so easy in the Facebook age to assume I’m up-to-date on my friends’ lives. I’ve also been lucky that my work travels have taken me to cities where I’m able to visit with old friends. But, I want to be intentional about checking back in with friends. I love sending snail mail for no reason, so my goal is to send a couple of random postcards a month just to say hello, and occasionally even (GASP) pick up the phone and call someone just to catch up. 
  • Focus on wellness: I ain’t gettin’ any younger (see: birthday next week). While my eating and exercise habits have been better this year than ever before, I still know I could be doing better. I’ve also gotten more colds and other minor illnesses than I feel comfortable with (likely because I travel so often, my body gets worn down and exposed to other people’s grossness). So, I want to talk to someone about overall nutrition and wellness and establish a good plan for myself – even and especially when I’m traveling.
  • Charity: More than ever I want to turn my attention this year to local, state, and national causes that are under attack by an out-of-touch, misogynistic, narcissistic despot of a President. I have a lot of privilege, and I want to use it to shout as loudly as I can for my rights and the rights of others. Still contemplating how to get this done, but I’m excited to kick it off – and, more importantly, keep it GOING – at the Women’s March in Boston on January 21.

I have a few more on the work and finances front, but I think that’s a pretty good place to start. Book resolutions to follow! I can tell you one thing: this year, I’ll be focusing less on reading a LOT and instead read more deeply.

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Unbought and Unbossed

As  I’ve grown wise in my advanced age, I’ve been thinking a lot more about how amazing women are and how feminism is more important than ever, especially as it becomes grossly apparently that people hate women. (See: how women are treated in public, in private, in the workplace, in government, by government, and basically everywhere.)

In the spirit of that, I’ve been diving into one of my new favorite podcasts, Stuff Mom Never Told You. In the well research twice-weekly podcast by How Stuff Works (which also produces one of my favorite other podcasts, Stuff You Missed In History Class), the hosts Cristen and Caroline “get down to the business of being women from every imaginable angle.

In the few short weeks I’ve been listening to it, they’ve examined the history of retail work and how women and particularly women of color have factored in it; the “bury your gays” TV trope in which LGBT characters are routinely killed off on television shows; and the history of “weather girls” and social workers, to name just a few careers dominated by women. (The main takeaway I’ve gotten from the career-focused episodes is that women comprise the majority of the worker bees and men a disproportionate number of leadership roles, even still today. BUT EVERYTHING’S TOTALLY FAIR AND AMERICA IS THE LAND OF THE FREE OKAY).

Far and away the most interesting episode I listened to recently was on Shirley Chilsom, a genuine kick-ass lady and one I wish I had known about from infancy. In the spirit of Shirley, here are the most inspiring things about her.

Shirley Chilsom

There’s SO much to dive into, and honestly you should look to more researched literature on her to get a good understanding (the podcast episode is a good place to start) but here are some of my favorite Shirley facts:

  • She was the first African American woman elected to Congress
  • Girlfriend was one of the truest politicians who worked for the people, and for ALL people. She was intersectional way before it was popular, folks. Just a few of my favorite facts:
    • She was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus
    • She advocated for improved access to education, was instrumental in the formation of WIC, fought for the rights of immigrants, and sponsored a bill to expand childcare for women
    • She freaking RAN for PRESIDENT in 1972 and while she knew she wouldn’t get the Democratic nomination (because remember, America not only hates women, they also hate black people. Freedom!), she hoped to get enough delegates to leverage the eventual nominee – George McGovern – to create an ACTUAL representative government with a female Cabinet member, and a Native American as Secretary of the Interior.
    • Her campaign slogan? “Unbought and Unbossed.” May that be ALL of our slogans.

And, of course, some genuinely inspiring, or genuinely horrifying that things are still the same 40 years later, Shirley quotes to lead us into the Christmas season.

“The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl.'”

 

“In the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing – anti-humanism.”

 

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

 

“That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free.”

 

I have a vagina and I’m mad

Originally I had titled this post something like “strong female characters are the worst,” because I truly hate when people praise a piece of media like a book or movie because of the “strong female lead.” Have you ever in your life heard the phrase “strong male lead?” No, because it is assumed when you say “male character” that said character will be strong, capable, probably handsome, and generally will save the day. (You only have different than the stock male lead when you specifically qualify it such as by saying “nerdy male character”) (and, of course, this in and of itself is problematic, because it is presuming that there is no overlap between nerdy and strong).

And yet. It seems to me, and to a lot of people on the internet that share my opinion, the stock female character is a simpering damsel in distress. If you say “female lead” more likely than not she will be a second to the (strong) male lead. You must specify that actually, your character is different from others because she is strong.

And that is bullshit. Thank you, Star Wars, for finally getting a female lead in your movies who is more than a princess, but everyone stop saying she’s “strong.” She just IS.

Anyway, other people have said this better than me, and I’m so enraged today I’d rather segue this into something else: people hate women. This is just a thing. Don’t be shocked. The evidence is there, and persistent, and pervasive, and tiring. (And I’m saying this from a relative place of privilege as a cis, straight, white, middle-class individual). Nowhere is this more evident than the 2016 United States presidential election wherein a misogynistic, jingoistic, racist, xenophobic, demagogic known sexual predator won over one of the most qualified presidential candidates in recent history who happens to have a vagina.

Don’t give me any bullshit about why you voted for the demagogue (“I’M not a racist! I just like people who are!”). I’m sure that is perfectly true for a wide swath of the population – at least, I have to hope so, because otherwise this country truly is going to hell – but the cold, hard, fact is that women are treated with suspicion when anyone has a hint at their strength. A female lead is supposed to be nurturing; a strong female lead is someone who doesn’t know her place.

I just finished Lean In and learned about the Heidi/Howard study and I can’t stop thinking about it. Harvard Business School did a case study in which two groups of students were given a description of a successful entrepreneur. One group was told the entrepreneur’s name was Heidi; the other group was told Howard. The students rated Howard more positively, saying he seemed to be a more “appealing” colleague, where Heidi was seen as selfish and not someone who you would want to work with. This was literally the same (fictional) person – the only difference was in gender.

I have so much more than I could say about this, but I’m trying to stop dwelling on why people hate women (or, in general, those who are a different color/religion/culture/gender identity/sexuality than “what a normal American is”) and focus instead on the future. I’m setting up recurring donations to women’s rights organizations and actively seeking volunteer opportunities with the National Organization for Women, NARAL, and immigrant/refugee support centers. I can’t do a lot, but I can do this.

Also, screw you if you say a book is good because it has a “strong female lead” but here are some awesome pieces of art that have/are written by just normal, strong, flawed, funny females. This is by no means an exhaustive list – just what I pulled from books I’ve read in the last year or so – so please comment with anything else  I should add to my TBR pile:

  • Lean in, Sheryl Sandberg
  • Shrill, Lindy West
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore girls
  • Parks and Rec
  • Some Kind of Happiness, Claire Legrand
  • Leave Me, Gayle Forman
  • Sea of Tranquility, Katja Millay
  • Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
  • The Thursday Next series, Jasper Fforde