Friday, November 9, 2018

Privilege Walk




As I watched the election results Tuesday night I sincerely enjoyed, for a moment, knowing that almost everyone in America had something to be happy about. Democrats flipped the House. Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate (right Florida?). We could all celebrate! Even if what we were celebrating was division.

And speaking of division!

This week my 9th grade daughter Jolie told me that she participated in something called a "Privilege Walk" at school. Have you heard of this? I guess it's a thing.

It was an exercise that began with everyone in the class being asked to stand in a straight line. Then, she said, they were told to take one step forward or backward in response to statements about their personal privileges.  For instance, "If your mother went to college, step forward," "If you have ever been unable to afford a meal, step backward," etc.

The questions ranged from family, education and financial status to race and discrimination, and she said that almost all of them prompted her to take a step forward, while other classmates made their way to the back of the room. She described it as painfully uncomfortable. So much, that she admitted as the questions progressed and the gap became wider she opted to stay put regardless of her answers.

But I think feeling uncomfortable was the whole point. 

And if it was awkward for her, I can only imagine how the kids in the back of the room must have felt. Middle school is hard enough if you're wearing the wrong shoes, let alone being asked to declare under scrutiny of your peers that your parents are poor, or divorced or illegal.

I guess I'm struggling to understand how this is helpful.

When I asked Jolie how it made her feel, the first word she used was "guilty," and I imagine this to be a pretty normal reaction for any student with half a heart, who has been asked to distinguish themselves from the ranks of disadvantaged friends by walking away from them. I told her that guilt is for people who have done something wrong, and the last time I checked she hadn't personally contributed to the disparity in her community.  Jolie is no more responsible for the privileges she enjoys than the kids behind her are for the disadvantages from which they suffer.

Compassion seems like a more appropriate emotional response, or gratitude, but it's pretty hard to feel either in a room full of silent kids avoiding eye contact and wishing they were anywhere else.

But I'm certainly not looking to conjure sympathy for Jolie.

Please save that for the students in the back of the room, who have been paid a much greater disservice by this ridiculous demonstration. Aside from the obvious embarrassment of admitting what they lack, I wonder what the effects might be of directing young teenagers to identify themselves as underprivileged, and make a comparison to those who aren't.

I'm not saying the exercise isn't accurate.

Is there disparity in America? Yes. Does racism exist? Certainly.  But is it helpful to label yourself as a victim of either? I can't think of a single argument in favor of it.

Categorizing students this way is intentionally divisive

and heaven knows we have enough of that. Perhaps the worst part is that the only debriefing they received afterward was the question, "How do you feel?" before they were dismissed to collect their backpacks and head to the next class.

I'm not suggesting we outlaw privilege walks

as much as I would like to. But I would like to suggest an alternative conclusion.

How about telling the scattered students this - 

Look around you. Look where you're standing, and where everyone else is standing. Now go ahead and feel whatever it is that makes you feel. Grateful. Shortchanged. Guilty. Jealous. Embarrassed. Disappointed. Enraged.

Now, gather back into a straight line 

because here's the best thing about living in this country.  A student who ended up in the very back of the room today could someday become the President of the United States. And a student in the front of the room could wind up on welfare. And neither of those outcomes can be credited to the race, education or financial status of their parents.

Privilege only goes so far. Then merit takes over. 

If you live in the United States, take a step forward.

If you are at school today receiving a free education, step forward.

If you'll be given the right to vote when you're 18, step forward.

If you will have the freedom to someday apply for college and scholarships, step forward.

If you have a roof over your head, if you are healthy, if you have a dream for your future, any dream of your choice, and understand the amount of work it will take to make it happen, step forward,

forward,

forward,

forward.

Friday, November 2, 2018

November 1st

November 1st is my dad's birthday.  For years after he passed I would try to come up with creative ways to make the day feel happy, but always fell a little short.

And then ten years ago, on November 1st, this boy was born, and every November 1st since has been so effortlessly happy that I refuse to believe it was a coincidence.

Happy Birthday James, and Calvin James.



Friday, October 26, 2018

Priority Four




When my kids were all small I knew that reading to them was essential, but struggled to fit it into our exhausting days. One night I was feeling determined, so I gathered them up and announced that we had four priorities to accomplish before bed. We said a prayer, read scriptures, wrote in their journals, and I read aloud to them from a chapter book.

That night, without intending, the phrase "Priority Four" stuck, and years later it is still how we refer to our evening routine.  On any given night in our house you can hear someone say, "Is it time for priority four?" "Can I have ice cream after priority four?" "Eddie, you have to wear clothes to priority four," etc.

It's one of those things we say automatically, without thinking about it. Although lately, I've been thinking about it.

Because here's the thing - I'm a morning person, and one of the downsides to being a morning person is that you are not a night person. Ask me to mop the floors and finish a school project at 5:00 am and I'll do it while singing Disney songs.  But ask me to get the kids a drink of water after 8:00 pm and I'll flatly refuse while muttering to myself that I never liked you and you're ruining my life.

So when they ask me to read in the evening, when my patience and motivation have depleted, my impulse is to decline in favor of a bath, ice cream and Ross Poldark. But, hearing them request that I attend to a "priority" on the other hand, puts alternatives in their proper place.

Deepak Chopra has said that "language creates reality," and I think maybe this is what he meant. The word priority is defined as "highest in importance," and when I hear it my brain seems to respond by moving it to the front of its queue.

Priority four has evolved over the years, and can change from day to day. Sometimes we skip the journaling, or watch a YouTube clip instead of reading a book, and some nights all we can pull of is priority one or two.

But we persist in doing it, and referring to it as priority four, because if there is anything in life "higher in importance" then gathering children (and now a tween, and a teenager) with their family to learn or read or pray or talk, I have yet to discover what it is.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Vote Mitchell



I received my absentee ballot this week, and wondered which is a more exciting mailbox discovery - Christmas cards when I'm missing faraway friends and family, or an absentee ballot when politics has had me banging my head against the wall.

It's a midterm election of course, which is when voter turnout typically falls, but by all accounts this one is gearing up to be the exception. A record number of new voters registered last month on National Voter Registration Day, there are a record number of women on the ballot, unprecedented amount of money being spent on campaigns, and Kanye West has been sporting his Make America Great Again hat way more times than anyone expected.

It seems unlikely to me that many, if any, voters who also opened absentee ballots this week are undecided. Whether driven by feelings about immigration, the Trump administration, or handling of the Kavanaugh confirmation, I personally don't know anyone in the political center at this point, or looking to be persuaded from across the aisle.

But let me try and persuade you anyway.

Rozan Mitchell is running for Salt Lake County Clerk against the current Clerk of 28 years, Sherrie Swenson. I had the privilege of working with Rozan during her tenure at the State Elections Office, and over the last couple months as a campaign writer, and can personally vouch for her integrity and unparalleled knowledge of the Utah election system.

But what I most want you to know about Rozan, is that she's fearless.

Since 2004 she has worked under Swenson as the Salt Lake County Director of Elections, which means that her decision to run for Clerk was a decision to challenge her boss of 13 years.

It is not easy for a subordinate to challenge her boss. Not easy at all. In fact, Mitchell had to take a leave of absence shortly following her declaration of candidacy, after being frozen out of decision making and many of her usual responsibilities.

I mention this not as gratuitous political gossip, but as an indication of how committed Mitchell is to implementing long-overdue improvements in Salt Lake County. After serving on the front lines of Utah elections for two decades - including her work in the State Elections Office prior to her appointment as County Director - she knows better than anyone what improvements need to be made, and is so committed to ensuring a more a secure and efficient voting process, that she is willing to endure the personal setbacks it has cost.

At the top of her agenda is the implementation of a new voting system. As the largest county in Utah, Salt Lake should be at the forefront of acquiring and implementing progressive voting technology. Instead, we are lagging behind. Eighteen of twenty-nine counties are transitioning to new voting equipment this year, and Salt Lake is not among them. This is not only embarrassing, it’s unacceptable. The touch-screen machines we currently employ are aging and outdated, and our current clerk plans to wait until at least 2021 to implement a new system. With growing concerns recently over hacking and meddling, we cannot afford to wait until an election is slowed or even compromised to take action.

In addition, Mitchell also plans to implement a mobile-first approach to voter outreach, including the ability to search polling locations and check wait times from your phone. This is another change our current clerk has still not explored, after 28 years in office. She also has groundbreaking ideas for expediting marriage licenses and passport administration, to name a few.

It has been said that it’s not the people who vote who count, but the people who count the votes. Granted, it’s rumored to be Joseph Stalin who said it first and I don’t think he cared much for democracy, but I do agree with the sentiment.

And there’s no one I trust more with my vote and yours than Rozan Mitchell.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Kavanaugh for Kids




I was twelve-years old when Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas. My parents followed the proceedings, so I remember being aware of the names and basics, but didn't have a clue how salacious it all was until I was an adult.

Back then, you either turned on network television or you didn't, and if you preferred your kids not asking you to explain what Thomas found on his Coke can, you just tore that particular page from the newspaper before they got to it.

Today, we don't have that luxury. Today we have constant, instant access to information and as a result, are raising a generation more aware than ever of what's happening in the world around them.

So we talk about it.

And while I would certainly prefer that a discussion on Supreme Court appointments was simply an explanation of our independent judicial branch, checks and balances, and upholding the Constitution, this one also happens to involve drunken minors and accusations of groping and gang rape.

With our daughters, the discussions we should have when stories like this arise are obvious. Unsafe behavior. No means No. Never feeling ashamed to report something that makes them uncomfortable. Bonus points if they tolerate your rendition of the Girl Scout classic, "Stop! Don't touch me there! This is my no no square!"

The discussion with our boys, on the other hand. Now that's a different story.

Google "How to talk to boys about sexual harassment," and you'll find endless advice based on the assumption that sexual misbehavior is inevitable. Our sons have been conditioned, after all, by a culture that condones violence against women. Even more frightening? Someday they'll grow up to be (gasp) men.

One article, published by The Globe and Mail, says that a discussion with young boys about acceptable behavior toward women is "urgent," as though they're all little misogynists just champing at the bit, waiting for their chance to make unwanted advances. It says, "When powerful, prominent adult men are groping their coworkers and exposing themselves to interns, how can we expect our sons to act any differently?"

To which I say, speak for yourself.

During the Kavanaugh hearing yesterday, a group of protestors stood on Capitol Hill wearing shirts that said, "Men are Trash," and I wasn't the least bit surprised. The last couple weeks have demonstrated that it's no longer enough to assume that all women are innocent. We also have to assume that all men are guilty.

Of course I want my daughters to understand that some men are predators.  Of course I want them to be able to protect themselves, and to know their rights. But I also want my sons to understand that most men are not predators, and to know that they have rights too.

They have the right, for instance, to be unapologetically male.  I want them to grow into men who aren't ashamed on behalf of their gender, or sorry for crimes they haven't committed.

When I was 9-years old, a man exposed himself to me and my friends after school.  We were walking home and just as we passed his house he appeared facing us from his garage, naked. We ran home and told our parents, who of course unleashed fury and all of their legal rights, and found us a new route home from school.

What they didn't do, is generalize his behavior in a way that made me fearful of all men. Never once after that incident did it occur to me that because one idiot exposed himself, that every man I met wanted to expose himself. I understood him to be an isolated nut job, and experience since has taught me that women are also capable of disgraceful conduct.

Yes, men start wars. Men commit crimes. Men sexually assault women. But not the men I know. The men I know are respectable, and respectful. They are strong, self-sacrificing gentlemen. They are providers, protectors, and defenders of their families.

This is the conversation I have with my boys.

Because as troubling as it is to imagine my daughters feeling like they can't speak to defend their rights, I also find it troubling to imagine my sons feeling like they can't speak to defend their rights; to not be slandered or dragged through the mud by a culture of guilty until proven innocent.

I have two daughters and two sons, and when people hear this they often make friendly jokes about how lucky we are to have a level playing field. I tell them I'm doing my best.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

One Man's Trash



It was about 11:00pm, 

and I was on the verge of a meltdown. Jack was in graduate school at the time, and consumed with his dissertation. We had a two-year old and newborn, no money, and lived in a tiny, old apartment without a washer, dryer or dishwasher. I was tired, had just put the baby down to sleep, and the combination of all of it suddenly caught up with me as I confronted a pile of dishes in the sink.

Jack, finding me in tears, did what good husbands do. He listened patiently to my laundry list of complaints, rational and otherwise, and then he offered solutions.

Now normally when I'm in such a state, offering solutions is the worst possible thing he can do. Normally all I want is for him to tell me that I'm absolutely right about everything, and then offer to go buy me Ben & Jerry's. But this time, I was all ears.

He brainstormed a number of time-saving ideas. Among them, he suggested, "What if we didn't have to wash dishes? What if we used paper plates and cups instead?"

He may as well have offered to hire a full-time housekeeper. With that one suggestion, the clouds parted and life seemed manageable. We went to Costco the next morning and stocked up on disposable bliss.  "Don't worry about putting those in the sink after you eat," I would announce dramatically at dinner.  "JUST THROW THEM IN THE GARBAGE." As though I was referring to my problems, and not the dishes.

A couple weeks later, 

I attended a gathering for mothers in our student housing complex, and decided to gift everyone with my new life hack.

"So you know what's made a huge difference for us?" I said, as I buckled the two-year old into a swing. "We started using paper plates and cups, like all the time, and it's just really simplified my life."

Silence.

Until, I swear on my life, one mother burst out laughing. "Wait, are you serious?" she asked. "Like, every meal? All that garbage!"

The next couple minutes were so awkward I started to second guess whether I had accidentally said, "So you know what's made a huge difference for us? Every night when the kids go to bed, we pull out a ouija board and use it to summon Satan! You guys it's the best!"

In retrospect, I understand that my declaration was a bit naive. These were graduate students and spouses of UC Santa Barbara. Our complex boasted a community garden, extra recycling bins, a center for exchanging used clothes and furniture, and weekly rounds made by a cloth diaper truck.

I was instructed that morning on sustainability and environmental impact and and couldn't come up with a single intelligent response. I just smiled, and nodded, and confessed to what I hadn't realized was a sin. And then I went home, and Jack once again found me in tears.

Now, I mentioned before that Jack is a good husband. Jack is also an economist. To his core. He sees the world objectively, in terms of opportunity cost and competing preferences, and it is from this perspective that he absolved me of my guilt.

The decision to use paper goods, he explained, is simply a choice between disposable and reusable. It is not a choice between good and evil.

During an overwhelming time in my life, those stacks of paper plates and cups were like towers of support. We were choosing to sacrifice the extra money they cost in order to have extra time for sleep and children. My critics on the playground, on the other hand, were choosing to sacrifice their time and dishwater to fulfill what they felt was a moral obligation to the earth.

But what about the earth? 

The earth can handle my paper plates. According to New York Times science columnist John Tierney, all of the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on 1/10 of 1% of land available for grazing. And much of that will be covered with grass and converted to parkland, like beautiful Freeman Park in Idaho Falls.  Did you know that the US Open is played on the site of a converted landfill?

But what about the trees? 

The trees will also survive my plates. Jack explained that this is a simple matter of supply and demand. Paper products come from trees, many of which were planted for the purpose of becoming paper. The more paper that we use (and throw away), the more trees that are planted. As more trees are planted, more carbon dioxide is absorbed, thus making the air cleaner, a concept known as sustainable forestry

Jack also drew a parallel to beef, and cows.  The reason we have so many cows is because we eat so much beef. More beef consumption means more cattle, just as more paper consumption means more trees.

In fact, he said that scientists are now able to produce cultured beef - meat produced synthetically, in labs, and that if this were to take off, it would cause the population of cattle to go down, and not up. So, recyling paper may actually reduce the number of trees. I think I just wrote a new verse of Ironic for Alanis Morissette.

But what about recycling? 

The best reason for recycling that I've been able to find is that it makes people feel good. Aside from that, it doesn't make a lot of sense.

According to William Shughart of Utah State's Hunstman School of Business (among many others), the cost associated with the process of recycling almost always outweighs the benefits. He says that it is actually more expensive and resource intensive to recycle paper, than it is to cut and replant trees. It is also cheaper to make new plastic containers than to recycle old ones and again, we have more have enough space to bury them and convert the land.

John Tierney also says that, according to environmental author Chris Goodall, the simple act of rinsing cans and bottles before putting them into the recycling bin can actually release more carbon into the air than recycling itself.

A few years after the paper plate incident, 

we moved from California to Virginia, and learned that the school our children would be attending was "Green Flag Certified," an honor bestowed for their eco-friendly efforts. In addition to learning to read and write, they also sang songs about recycling, participated in composting, environmental poetry contests, and learned to associate guilt with their carbon footprint. Sometimes we wondered whether we had registered for a public school or private religious institution.

The kicker came late one October, when we received a notice form the principal requesting that children wear green to school on Veterans Day, where they would honor our veterans...with an assembly celebrating recycling and the environment.

We scratched our heads, gathered every red, white and blue article of clothing that they owned, and explained to them that one thing veterans fought for is our freedom from participating in rituals that we don't agree with.

To be clear, I love the earth. 

I am in awe of how beautiful it is, and what it has to offer us. I try to teach my children to love the earth. We hike mountains, explore deserts, swim in oceans, and follow the Scout law of leaving no trace when we do.

We also fill our green recycling bin every week, but we do it as a matter of economic preference and not morality, and we don't judge our neighbors if they don't fill their recycling bins, or compete with them to see who has the smallest bag of trash.

And when my friends have a new baby and are feeling overwhelmed, I always bring them dinner, a stack of paper plates and cups, and permission to use them without feeling like they've done something wrong.

Privilege Walk

As I watched the election results Tuesday night I sincerely enjoyed, for a moment, knowing that almost everyone in America had somethin...