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Archive for October, 2012

No one on the corner have swagga like us…

As the days grow shorter, I find myself occasionally forced to do my running on our basement treadmill. Consider the image, first of all: mother of two on a treadmill in a small town in southern New Hampshire. Few things could diverge more from the grit of the inner city culture that gives rise to hip-hop. Yet that is what I (and many of my fellow moms on treadmills) elect to listen to while logging the most tedious of running miles.

It’s not that I reject my own “culture”; I enjoy a nice Celtic reel or the smooth vocal stylings of singer-songwriter James Taylor. However, when one must summon the will to run in place in a dim basement for an hour, one resorts to what works. So I am grateful that we have no close neighbors to see me as I lip-synch, sneering and fiercely cocking my head along to Dirt off Your Shoulder and California Love. No one would find me persuasive, and while I’m sure they do how to party in the city of Compton, I have no personal knowledge of it. It’s comical to think of someone like me assuming such a persona, of course, just like it’s makes me both laugh and cringe when my mother posts “Tru dat” in response to something on facebook. Upon meeting either of us, it’s fairly obvious that we aren’t from Compton.

My son, Vanilla Ice.

I was thinking of this the other day when I drove through my hometown of Amesbury, Massachusetts. There’s a trio of white boys there who stalk the streets around the same time every afternoon. The youngest looks to be about 11 or 12, but small for his age, and he wears his pants low, his hat sideways, and walks with a pronounced fake limp. This is really quite hilarious, since there’s no way this kid even understands what he’s trying so hard to reference. The limp, for instance. I doubt he’s: a) a pimp; b) carrying such a huge amount of narcotics that he can’t walk straight; c) feeling the lingering effects of a gunshot wound he suffered in a shoot-out. The world he’s referencing isn’t his world in Amesbury, so I can’t help but find him funny. He lacks street cred in the literal sense: he isn’t credible. He’s no more convincing as a gangsta than my five year old is convincing as a Power Ranger. But I found myself thinking about that boy the rest of the day.

I may know Amesbury after all, but I don’t actually know this boy. I don’t know what he’s up against. I know it’s not violence in the streets, but I don’t know what goes on in his house, or at school, or anywhere else. My mother can’t persuasively say “tru dat,” but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been through some heavy stuff in her life. You can’t tell by looking at her. You actually can’t ever tell. The fact is, that boy in Amesbury will get more persuasive as he gets older. Give him a couple years, and a growth spurt, and he’ll be someone people cross the street to avoid. I’ll never be scary like that, and I’ll never be persuasive when singing hip hop in my basement. Partly because people look at me and assume I’ve never been through anything tough. Maybe that boy hasn’t either, or maybe he has. You can’t tell by looking at him. But if he’s still roaming the streets in a couple years, I think I’ll recognize him and remember when he wasn’t even old enough to shave.

Yesterday, several friends of mine posted an old but classic clip of Bill O’Reilly talking with Columbia professor Marc Lamont Hill, where O’Reilly says Hill “kinda looks like [a cocaine dealer].” One presumes because Hill is black. The clip seems to have gained new life as election day approaches in light of a small but very vocal group of racists opposed to Obama for that reason alone. It’s appalling, but it’s also good to be reminded that they exist, and that they feel this way. Otherwise, I have a tendency to get very Pollyanna about race.

So, as I close this post, I was thinking of all the trite morals I could offer. There’s the perennial favorite “You know what happens when you assume…” or “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” But I think I’m looking for something a little more concrete. Something along the lines of “Not all black folks are cocaine dealers, and not all white folks have cushy lives.” That ought to do it.

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Last month, I was reading a study that saddened but did not surprise me. The article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported on a experiment designed to assess the gender biases of science professors at research intensive universities. While women are studying science in larger numbers now, and numbers of female PhDs are also on the rise, they are not joining the ranks of professors in the numbers we might expect. Most of the time, this gets attributed to the tendency of women to off-track their careers to have babies and stay home with the kids or work only part-time. This is clearly true; I, for one, am waaaay farther behind in my career development than my husband, who has never gone part-time to tend the children. I am only just now starting to think of an actual career; he’s been a full time lawyer man for about eight years.

Despite this clear disparity, the authors of the new study were interested in whether or not gender bias among college professors might be holding female students back even before graduating. In their experiment, they presented several biology, chemistry and physics faculty members with essentially identical job applications for a lab manager position. The applicants differed substantively only in their gender. The results of the study showed a subtle but definite bias toward male applicants even when all experience and qualifications were the same. Professors offered a lower salary to female applicants, tended to rate them lower in perceived competence, and offered less mentorship than males. Consistent with previous studies, the faculty members described the female students as more “likable” than the male students, but this likability did not convert to professional advantage or even parity. What was particularly striking to me, as a female instructor in biology, was that female faculty were as guilty of favoring male applicants as their male colleagues. Even in biology, where women majors outnumber men in undergraduate programs, female faculty will tend to favor the male students on the basis of their perceived superior ability. This undermines our Pollyanna faith that women entering the sciences will tend to pull still more women up and along with them.

So, do I do it too? I don’t know. That’s the nature of subtle bias; you don’t know you’re doing it. I know I have biases; I tend to judge my students mainly on how they dress (students showing up in pajamas or velour tracksuits with “Juicy” written across the ass tend to equal stupid in my knee-jerk reactions), though what role unconscious gender, racial, or ethnic bias might be playing, I just don’t know.

Right about here’s where the creepy dude was hanging out. Probably I was right to be nervous.

I was thinking about just this subject while out for a run on a local rail trail. Not many people were around, and as I rounded a bend, I saw a dude sitting on a bench in fatigues and work boots smoking a cigarette. I was wary, but smiled at him as I passed, and he just stared at me, tracking me with a wolfish, predatory sneer. I could feel all the vestigial hackles on my neck rise, and I felt my long buried African primate ancestor stir inside me, looking for a tree to scurry up. I had to pass the same dude on the way back, and was nearly sprinting by the time I got back into the safety of the downtown. I don’t know if this guy was as malevolent as he seemed to me, and it occurred to me that I judge most men to be a threat, at least when I meet them in a semi-secluded spot while running. Not all men, certainly. The tubby Indian guy on his cell phone at the other end of the trail raised no such alarms. Nor did a pair of scrawny Chinese teenagers. Nor the white gay couple walking their impeccably groomed Tibetan spaniel. So was my fear actually a warranted female guard response to something real that I was sensing? Or do I assign threat too broadly?

As I relaxed my pace up the hill into the comforting crowds, I remembered Obama’s famous “race speech,” the one where he described his white grandmother, who dearly loved her half black grandson, but would cross the street when a black man approached. I love my houseful of boys. I certainly don’t hate men; I married a really good one, after all, and I’m trying to raise a couple more. But I often get the same kind of unease when passing a man on the street that Obama’s grandmother seemed to feel about black men. That’s the similarity that troubles me. Because, after all, people who cross the street to avoid black men will tell you about the statistics on crime, and the numbers of black men in prison for murder or assault compared with white men. But it’s still racist to cross the street. And I can tell you all day long that about 100% of rapists are men (and, rape, after all, is what we women are all actually worried will happen to us, more than murder, actually). So yes, the statistics bear me out on that. But that hardly means all men are bent on assault. Not even most men. So what’s with my overactive fear trigger? I don’t know. But I’m willing to bet, you’ve got one too.

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Too cold for comfort? Throw a hat on and get to swimming!

I’m not against comfort. I like our woodstove, and our comforter, and a lovely hot shower with at least adequate water pressure on a day like today. But as fall closes in, and people begin to contemplate the winter on the other side of it, I hear a lot of obsessing over how very very uncomfortable it will be, and how that’s just terrible. We’re  a rather comfort obsessed society, on the whole. It wasn’t always this way; “comfort” as something we should strive for, let alone expect, did not really exist until after the Renaissance, as one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, makes clear in “At Home: a Short History of Private Life” (which I highly recommend). Before that, no one even spoke of comfort. They threw another layer of straw down on the matted, lice-seething floor every night and passed out from the exhaustion of another day’s subsistence.

What a luxury that we live in a time where people can say things like, “Well, we really need at least 5 bedrooms because the kids just can’t share a room. That wouldn’t be fair,” or “No double sinks? I don’t think so. And we really need a heated floor. In this climate? I mean, obviously.” We’re totally ensconced in a comfort bubble all the time. And what’s wrong with that, aside from the fact that it seems to be the track that led humans to become cheerful but boneless and obese blobs in Wall-E? Because comfort all the time is stultifying. It’s boring. Comfort is comfortably lame. Discomfort, on the other hand, tends to mark all the things we’re proudest of. Birthing babies, running long races in very bad weather, carrying a three year old up to the top of a mountain just to eat a sandwich and come back down. These things are not comfortable, but they are the things that make my life into something I love, and not just something that insulates me from that life. Many of these things are not pleasurable in any conventional sense. Christophe, my husband, just ran a half marathon today, in the rain. He surpassed his time goal by a full ten minutes, and as he passed us near the finish line, his face was the picture of obliviously inward focus and exhaustion. Also, any runner can tell you that such a scenario can lead to a lot of chafing. A lot. Of chafing.

Christophe (white shirt) was actually running with his eyes closed. None of these people look comfortable.

Adults learn to shy away from discomfort, but kids embrace it. Kids have to be hauled out of the ocean with blue lips and bodies convulsing with cold, and will still shriek to be permitted to swim a little longer. Kids will shear off half their leg skin in a bicycle mishap and return for another round after a brief, stunned crying jag. Kids will run until they throw up. Last weekend, we stopped at Echo Lake in Franconia Notch and Simon wanted to swim. It was about 50 degrees, but I stripped him down to his diaper and permitted him to go in. He was cold, to be sure, and so, in a classically New Hampshire fashion move, I placed a winter hat atop his head and he kept that ensemble for the duration of our beach visit until I hauled him, teeth chattering, to the car.

I’m not looking for us all to move into unheated yurts with a single pallet on the floor made of lichen and oak leaves. I’m not advocating a particularly harsh form of austerity or deprivation. I’m merely suggesting that we look at the most important moments in our whole lives, and think, in how many of them were we feeling comfortable? Getting married, having kids, taking a new job, getting asked a really good question by a student and not knowing the answer: they vary in degree, but my discomfort was always part of what defined these moments for me.  We all need some comforts, both physical and emotional, but discomfort counts for something too. It’s the profound unsettling of the ground under our feet, and it’s the things we most vividly remember.

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