The Personal Is Political

“The Personal is political.” When I first started hearing this phrase in college it was more of an accusation than anything else. Wearing lipstick, dating men, these were all personal choices I was making and they were somehow harming feminism. I had seen this train of thought in action from the other side. For years, my mother hated the way she looked. Her jaw stuck out at an unattractive angle. My sister and I had the same jaw and we’d had orthodontia to correct the problem.

Over the years at appointments for my sister or me a variety of dentists and orthodontists had suggested that they could fix her jaw and make her more attractive. She dismissed them, angry and upset at their sexist focus on her appearance. Then, one dentist finally explained that fixing her jaw was not just about appearances, it was a health issue. My mother broke down in tears and shortly after began the long process. I wondered how long my mother had wanted that surgery, how long she’d hated her jaw but been limited by her notion of what a good feminist would and wouldn’t do.

The personal is political. I wanted no part of that second wave feminism, the subjection of my personal needs and desires, to a greater political goal.

As my friends and I all got older and better at political debate and nuances and less eager to attack each other, I came to understand that the phrase means something slightly different. The personal and the political are not separate things, they are entwined. You may see your choice to quit your job when you have kids as purely personal, but in fact, you’re making that choice based on some political realities. Would everyone who quits their job do so if a more robust maternity leave were offered, if childcare was subsidized, if flex-time were feasible, if working mothers were not routinely portrayed as cold and uncaring? These are political factors that play in to your personal decision.

Today though, I think the expression is taking on a new level of meaning. Personal stories have always been used to advance political causes. It’s why we refer to famous court cases by someone’s name, not a number. It’s why we have laws named for crime victims. It’s why the President invites ordinary everyday people to watch the State of the Union address to help sell his agenda. Telling a story helps make a situation real and important, it helps make it personal and understandable.

Blogs are allowing more and more people are telling their stories. Those stories are personal, but they are also becoming part of the political conversation. People have always had personal reactions to political stories, but are we now allowed to have political reactions to personal stories?

Emily Letts, an abortion counselor, filmed her abortion and wrote about it. She wanted her personal story to become part of the political conversation about abortion. But does that make her personal decisions fair game for political or public discussion? Having read her story are we allowed to criticize her for using the rhythm method instead of a more reliable form of birth control? Are we allowed to criticize her for not telling the man who impregnated her of her decision? Are we allowed to criticize her personal choice to have an abortion?

I imagine many people would say in this case, the answer is obviously, “yes.” She made what was personal public. But remember Kim Hall, who wrote a blog post about why girls shouldn’t take sexy selfies, and then published photos of her shirtless sons. Her post was on a small, personal blog, like this one. It went viral by accident. It entered our public, political conversation about gender roles and social media. But, does the fact that we read her views mean we get to criticize her personal parenting decisions? Does it make a difference if the writer wanted to be part of the public conversation? If a blogger writes about her family’s struggles, if she encourages us to read her writing, is that inviting us to comment on her family and her decisions?

What if the comments and stories aren’t really public at all? Is it possible, for example, to make a political critique of the ice bucket challenge, or Susan G. Komen’s pinkification of cancer, or homeschooling without implicitly criticizing those who have made a private decision to participate? What about the recent Slate article about a study showing that many people find cooking family dinner difficult. A lot of people saw the article not as a report on a study, but as an attack on their personal commitment to cooking family dinners.

If the personal is political, is the political always personal as well?


Posted in The Blogosphere | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Summer Farewell

When I was in college I liked to write narrative poems. Before the Internet and blogs were invented narrative poems were the perfect outlet for people like me who lack the attention span necessary to write a short story and the attention to detail  necessary to write a regular poem.

I think it was my junior year of college when I wrote a narrative poem about summer. It was all about the plans you make at the beginning of the summer, the trips you’ll take, the discussions you’ll have, the parties you’ll throw, and then suddenly, it’s August and time for the State Fair and you realize that summer is over.

Obviously, it was longer than that – and hopefully more poetic.

I think you would have to lose all sense of childhood and joy not to mourn the end of summer at least a little, but I remember that year there was an added sense of drama and sadness. A friend of mine, a boy I loved, was going away at the end of the summer. He and two friends were moving to the Virgin Islands (I think, but maybe it was some place else, it was some place exotic).

He was not my boyfriend, this boy I loved. He was in fact the boyfriend of one of my best friends. I loved them both and they loved me and we were all much too sophisticated and mature to think of it as anything like a love triangle.

I was barely 20 at the time and I had spent most of my teen years walking carefully on a line between trying to fit in and trying to stand out. But there was something about my friends, about the way they were together but open, a couple but without the normal rules. There was something about all this openness and freedom, and their beauty that made me feel like I could be free, too. It made me feel like I did not have to decide between all the parts of me, that I could just be me.

It was understood by everyone that the boy would come back in a year or two, and some day my friends would get married and make beautiful babies.

But I did not really believe it. Somewhere in my attic I have a photo booth strip from the State Fair that year. The three of us are smiling and goofing around but I feel like I knew that at the end of that summer, when the boy went away, everything would change.

I don’t remember the details. I know that soon after he left, the girl began seriously dating someone else. Of course, they had both agreed that dating while he was gone was fine,  because, you know, they were sophisticated. Seeing her start a serious relationship so soon after the boy left showed me something in us that I hadn’t known before. For years, I think I blamed it on her. But now I know, I finally saw that we were not sophisticated and free, we were young and afraid and none of us wanted to be alone. I don’t know if was that discovery or just that I didn’t know the new boy very well, but my friend and I began to spend less time together.

The boy came back sooner than planned. The adventure hadn’t been as expected, I remember something about a robbery, and maybe some drugs. It seems to me that suddenly he was home and then he was dating a girl who had been on the outskirts of our social circle for a while. I was not fond of her, but because he was, I decided to like her. Eventually, I had to admit that she was good for him in ways that my friend had not been. Eventually, all three of us married and made beautiful babies with other people. There has been divorce and death and all the things that happen as you get older.

Every August, when people start to talk about State Fairs and going back to school I think of that summer. Every August I feel a little sad, because I know, when summer ends, everything changes.

Posted in Random Stories | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Daily Online Meeting of the Aggrieved

aggrieved dog

Hi, my name is Sammy Segal Beagle Block. First, please note, I do not hyphenate any of my names because I think that indicates an acceptance of a false binary when it comes to identity. I want to thank you for welcoming me here to your daily online meeting of the aggrieved.

I must admit that it wasn’t until I underwent a temporary move to Bozeman, MT that I realized that I am in fact, aggrieved. Here in Bozeman, as a dog of small stature and uncertain origin, I am subjected to daily microaggressions and triggers.

Now, any of us who are dogs know that humans feel entitled to come up and touch our fur because it is so different from their hair, which has somehow gained stature as the normative covering experience. I am thinking about seeing if I can crowdsource some funding to create a humorous video showing humans how wrong they are in all their interactions with us. I’m sure adding humor to it will mean that everyone will learn their lesson and begin to interact with all dogs in the way that I approve. I’m going to call it “If dogs did the things humans do,” but that’s for another day. Although I would like to point out that since humans tend to control the banks, it is unlikely that I will have my important social projected funded in any other way.

Here, in the land of large dogs their human owners routinely demand to know “what I am” and, because of my small stature refer to me as a “puppy.” This last remark is especially hurtful and triggering because of course, I transitioned to adult dog status and clearly prefer to be referred to as a “dog.”

The dogs who are native to Bozeman do not seem to understand my grievances. I feel that these dogs do not understand the privilege that they enjoy as large, native, non-afraid dogs. They are routinely allowed to wander off-leash and display this privilege by rushing up to me and barking in my face. This flagrant disregard of one of my many triggers can only be solved if these large dogs are willing to check their privilege, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Speaking of triggers, since I live near a university campus, I do not think it would be too much to ask if the following things came with trigger warnings: Magpies, construction vehicles, squirrels, cats. I understand that education is supposed to take me out of my comfort zone, but I have the right to be here without anyone ever triggering any possible bad memory from my past as an unfairly incarcerated dog.

Anyway, thanks again for accepting me in to your very large group of the aggrieved. I hope to be able to check in again soon as I have more to say. A lot more to say.

Posted in Random Stories | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Watching TV in Different Time Zones

HD TV on wood stand

I remember being sent an email with a list of examples of bad similes from high school papers. I felt one was unfairly included, “It was like when you’re in a different city and all the same TV shows are on, just at a different time.” Who could hate this simile?

I have always  liked this feeling of everything being just slightly off. Not so out of kilter that you can’t find your bearings, but just enough that you know you’re doing something different. There is no need to learn a new language, just a few new slang terms. No need to start from scratch, just buy a few staples.

My children, however, are not fond of this feeling. We have rented a house and are spending the month in Bozeman, Montana. The kids are excited and nervous. Happy to have more of their father’s time, excited about mountains and adventures, but missing their friends. “I just want to go home to our normal TV where everything doesn’t look fake,” says my son about the gigantic HD TV in our temporary living room.

The other day, we went to a cave and slid down a rock polished in to gorgeous stone by millions of people doing that before us.  Today, my son, feeling the need for something he knew he would love begged for a zoo day. So, off they went, the kids and their dad to Billings, about two hours away. That too is different.

Thanks to an unexpected change with one of my clients, for this month, the majority of the work time belongs to me. My husband, with no classes or students, will be editing his book, fitting his work around the kids’ schedule. For this month, he is in charge of meals, and so in charge of shopping and planning. None of this is unheard of in our house, we often take turns trading off work and childcare. He enjoys cooking, and I hate it. But, it isn’t the norm. It is slightly off kilter.

When I first moved to Chicago I translated everything in to terms with which I was familiar, Louisville terms. When talking about Chicago’s CTA, in my head I said, “TARC.” When someone mentioned “The Jewel” I translated that to, “Kroger’s.” And yes, when I was looking for a certain TV show, I translated the network to it’s Louisville station and the time from Eastern to Central in my head.

I’m not sure when I stopped making the translations in my head, but it was one sign that Chicago had become my home and now, for the most part, when I go back to Louisville, or travel elsewhere, I make the translations to Chicago terms and times. Except, I still use Louisville zip codes and phone numbers to make sure I have all the necessary digits of something.

That’s the thing about travel and transition, you never know which changes will hold. You never really know when you’re making a transition. You never really know what will become your new time zone. This is why I’ve ever moved my kids ever so slightly out of their time zone, out of their comfort zone. I want them to slowly learn to appreciate that things don’t always have to be exactly the same. I want them to know that they’re capable of transition and change.

So, for now, we are here in Bozeman, watching a giant TV, in a different time zone.

Posted in Family Life, Montana | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Change of Address

Like most people, I don’t spend a lot of time at the post office. Years ago, when I ran a small hotel in the middle of nowhere, I went there weekly to mail a package of paperwork to the owner’s accountant. I’m sure today the manager sends everything electronically. I loved my weekly visits to the Desert Hot Springs post office. Once, I taught a woman there how to address an envelope. She was probably 45, or maybe 70, it’s very hard to tell in the dessert. She had simply never learned how to address an envelope and didn’t know where everything went.

For the most part though, I liked seeing the clerks because they were the same people every week. I met a lot of great people in the desert, but I met different ones every week. The postal clerks were my constant. I think they were both old, the man had a shockingly white beard, as though it had been bleached by the desert sun. Although even after six months they didn’t seem to remember me from week to week, I remembered them, which was enough for me.

Last week, while preparing for another western adventure I went to my local post office to mail a package of paperwork. There was an old man painstakingly filling out a card. He was so slow and so careful that a few people broke post office protocol and moved in front of him in line while he was filling out the card at the counter.

When he finally finished and unbent, I could tell he wasn’t really that old, it was just the bending and slow writing that had made him seem that way. He was probably 65 or so. He approached the counter and got my favorite clerk. A middle aged woman with the remarkable Filipino talent of being simultaneously generous and kind and absolutely terrifying and intimidating.

When the man handed her his card her face broke out in a huge smile, “Look at you, you’re moving to the fancy buildings downtown, nice! No more shoveling for you mister.” The man looked pleased and explained, “I love it here, I’ve been here a long time, but I married a woman who wants to live in the city.”

“You got married?” She exclaimed, “Congratulations! Oh, you’re going to love it, so nice and clean, no shoveling or yard work, you go enjoy yourself.”

I thought about how often in life we have these big moments that we somehow think everyone will notice, but they don’t. “Well, I’m pregnant,” you, barely six weeks along, whisper to the teen at the checkout lane bagging your ice cream and saltines, and she, lost in her own big news, her own life, doesn’t even bat an eye.

“Now is this just for you, or is it a family change?” The postal clerk asks.
“Well, my wife is moving too, but she has her own last name.” He answers
“Ok,” she says, “let her fill out her own.”
“Thanks,” he answers and turns around to leave, so much younger than the man bent over the form a few minutes before.”

“Congratulations!” She calls out after him.
“Thanks, honey.” He answers, smiling as he walks out the door.

I approach the counter and deliver my package. I imagine myself saying, “In case you’re wondering, I’m mailing this for my husband, we’re going to Montana for a month.” I want to bask in her smile, her approval of life marching on and new adventures happening. Alternately, I want to thank her for making the man feel special, for giving him that rare moment to know this change was for the best. I want to ask her if she noticed how much better he looked when he left than when he came in.

But, I don’t. I move through and leave her to the next customer and think of all the changes we all have still to come.

Posted in Random Stories | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Motherless Sons

This weekend, as I was packing my son for camp I got a phone call. My friend’s mother had died.

Like most parents I spent the first few months of my children’s lives simply trying to keep them alive. Even after those months with impossibly small and fragile beings were over, I thought constantly, possibly incessantly, about what would happen if they died. As they have gotten older I have found myself thinking less about their deaths and more about my own.

When I was pregnant with my first child I remember telling a friend that for me one of the hardest parts of the experience was that I was fully giving in to the circle of life. I had created a life, which meant I had once been created, which meant that one day I would cease to be.

Sometimes in the middle of explaining something to my children or teaching them a skill the thought hits me, I am teaching them this because I am preparing them for the day when I’m no longer around.

But I am still not sure that I fully believe it. I’m not sure that I believe I will ever be able to separate enough from them to leave them alone on this Earth. As horrible as it is, when I hear a story about a severely depressed or mentally ill mother who kills her child and herself, I understand it on a deep level. If it is too difficult to be in this world, how much more difficult would it be to leave a child alone in it?

As I pack my baby boy for camp, as I prepare him to test the inevitable waters and spend a few days in a strange place that does not include me, I think of my friend and another friend who lost his mother last year. Both of these men are the youngest sons of large families. Both born in unusual and difficult circumstances to strong mothers who probably weren’t entirely planning on their arrival. But their mothers adored these amazing, brilliant, talented men and how well deserved that adoration was.

Both mothers were unusually strong women and had unusually strong faith. They left their sons convinced that it was only a temporary situation, that they would be together again one day. Their mothers left them in a world knowing that they were accomplished and skilled, well loved and well situated to survive the loss.

But still, in my mothers’ heart I know, leaving these grown men, their babies was not something they ever thought they could do.

Posted in Family Life | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Yes, My Kids Go to Camp

There are two categories of online mommy shaming. One consists of  the articles and comments about how mothers do not do enough for their children. They are not careful enough, do not feed organic enough food, do not breast feed long enough, watch the children closely enough, do not provide enough enrichment.

In the second category, the one I feel like I see more often, are articles about how we are all doing too much for our kids. We are watching them too closely, hovering and helicoptering, giving out too many awards, not letting them play with machetes as children in the Amazon do, caring too much instead of sitting around drinking martinis and smoking, as our parents supposedly did.

Lately an article from this second category has been showing up on my Facebook feed a lot. It’s called Ten Ways to Give Your Child a 1970s Summer. It’s pretty mild as the mommy shaming goes. But it’s been bugging me, in large part because I was a child in the 1970s, and that was not my summer.

My summer, like my kids’ summer was spent primarily at camp, first day camp, then sleep away camp. Why? Because I, like my mother before me, work for a living. The funny thing about this piece is that I know all the things she’s talking about, I too built forts and played Simon (although a quick Google check will tell you it was invented in 1978, so the author and I probably remember it primarily from the 1980s) and watched a lot of TV.

But, I went to camp most of the day, every day, most of the summer.  There weren’t a lot of different options for camp, and I hated most of them. But I went to camp. In fact, so did a lot of the people I see re-posting this. I know, because some of them went to camp with me. We did not do these things all day every day, we did them part of the day some days. We remember them because it was different than our routine, but we did have a routine.

Today, my son did not want to go to camp. He went with his dad and sister to get a donut and drop off his sister, who did want to go to camp. He played Wii and iPad while I worked. He walked with me to the drugstore. I took him to the comic book store to buy some baseball  and Pokemon cards. We went out to lunch, then his friend came over and they played Wii. They watched the World Cup, they played soccer outside. It was a lovely day, I hope one day he remembers it fondly.

But the day before he went to an insanely expensive day camp. It’s an amazing place with options and opportunities galore. He played soccer there, too, with older kids he didn’t know. He also baked bread and made stop action animation videos. Then, he went to his Little League game. On Sunday he leaves for sleep away camp and a whole new set of experiences.

Today was lovely, but if that’s all that my son did every day, it would quit being lovely. I get the idea that parents are tired of feeling like they have to measure up to a parenting ideal and be involved in every second of their children’s lives. I don’t like the guilt that gets passed out to parents. But it’s no less noxious to hand out a false notion of “the good old days” and make parents feel that trying to do something different for their children, or trying to earn money with which to clothe and house their children, is somehow cheating their kids out of a “real summer.” Honestly, the “good old days” were not that good. Think of how many screwed up adults you know over the age of 40, they grew up in the 1970s eating that damned pineapple upside down cake the author is so fond of.

Here, summer break lasts two months and two months is a long time. There is time for lazy days full of TV and fort building. There’s time for Mommy to drink a beer while her children catch fireflies (if fireflies still existed). There’s also time for summer camp.

Posted in Family Life | Tagged , | Leave a comment