Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A spoken word trio of STRONG WOMEN

To close out National Poetry Month, I thought that I'd highlight three female slam/spoken word poets, StaceyAnn Chin, Alix, Olson, and Suheir Hammad. All three have been featured on Russell Simmon's HBO Def Poetry Jam and are notable for speaking truth to power and their extraordinary rhetorical and lyrical power.

For me, I think they remind me that poetry began as a spoken art form--it began in the tradition of Homer--the oral repetition of stories, recording the lives of heroic men and their exploits in love and war. These three women are the inheritors of Homer, taking the form to a new level, telling their own particular truths and stories, recording the heroic aspects of their own lives.

StaceyAnn Chin:

Alix Olson:

Suheri Hammad:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why aren't there more black golfers? (Don't) Blame it on Tiger

ESPN has an article that came out on April 5 (so before the Masters and Tiger's impressive rally/duel with Phil Mickelson--really, it speaks volumes about the skill of both players that they should come from behind and make a real push at the end--and both came close to being in that 3-way final sudden-death round with Cabrera (the winner), Perry, and Campbell) about Tiger Woods, his racial identity, and the dearth of black golfers on the PGA. In other words, it's an article about why Tiger hasn't heralded a new wave of young black golfers into the professional ranks, which is what everyone was talking about/predicting back when Tiger turned pro and won the first of his Master's green jackets by an impressive margin (12--the largest in Master's history).

Here is ESPN's "video" article and the actual "article" (click here) about Tiger and race and the lack of black golfers on the PGA:

Of course, regular readers can imagine that I have an opinion about all of this because (1) I am a golfer (2) I am a Tiger Woods fan (3) I work/teach/write on issues of race (4) I've written about the specific issue of Tiger and race before (actually many times, but the post that is most pertinent is "Let Tiger Be Tiger" as is this one "Gee You Don't Look 'Asian'").

So here it is in a nutshell: Tiger is not the sole person responsible for the PGA identifying, supporting, and promoting young African American golfers into its ranks. He's not even the main person responsible. The main body responsible for identifying, recruiting, and ensuring that there is a cadre of black, as well as other non-white American golfers is the PGA (which at last glance was comprised of mostly white American middle-aged men). And guess what? There are others, aside from Tiger or other professional golfers, who should be working on this issue--golf instructors/pros, golf writers, golf club members of all races could all be putting their individual and collective weight behind this issue.

Because here's the thing: this is not just a "black" issue. Wanting the Professional Golf Association of AMERICA to look more like the actual demographics and composition of AMERICA seems to be an issue that all AMERICANS can get behind. And whether or not Tiger identifies as African American or mixed-race American or Afro-Asian or Cablinasian, the issue of diversifying the PGA is a responsibility of everyone associated with golf in the U.S.

I also think that it's silly for Eddie Payton to say that Tiger doesn't identify as African American. That statement implies that somehow Tiger is ashamed of his African American heritage or his relationship with his father or his friends (among whom are some of the most prominent African American professional sports figures, like Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan). Just because Tiger chooses to identify as mixed-race (which he has says he does so as not to deny/ignore the existence and influence of his Thai mother) doesn't mean he doesn't affiliate with his African American heritage or doesn't appreciate the black community.

Should Tiger be doing more politically active and social justice oriented work, given his power and influence? That would be my own personal wish. However, I don't think it's his especial responsibility to take on "racial" issues because he is the most powerful and visible non-white person in the PGA. I understand the logic of believing that he should--because the assumption is that no white person is going to care about identifying, recruiting, and promoting African American golfers, nor will they care about changing the culture of golf so that it is much less privileged/racist/classist/sexist and more inclusive of diversity in all its permutations.

I should also note that while there have been, recently, some prominent Asian American golfers (a shout out to Anthony Kim, "AK"), the PGA is pretty white. I mean, one could ask, where is the next Lee Trevino? I recognize that an Argentinian recently won the Master's championship, but what about an Argentinian AMERICAN? Where are all the Latino golfers? And American Indian? And mixed race golfers? If you dig into the history of golf, it's not a surprise to understand why golf has been such a traditionally white, male sport. There are still many country clubs that admit men only -- and their membership of non-white members is pretty scant.

But we CAN do something about it. Or we should try. And by we, I mean all who love golf--all who play--all who watch and, especially, all who are involved in positions of power and decision making and who have access to MONEY and INFLUENCE to change, literally CHANGE the face of golf.

And to close, let me leave you with this latest ad from NIKE that shows the impact of Tiger's absence from the world of golf last season and the impact of his return on his fellow golfers:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This week's poet: Vikram Seth & The Golden Gate

You may accuse me of cheating a bit in my recommendation of this week's poet--or at least this week's poetic text. Because for those of you who haven't picked up Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, let me just say: what are you waiting for? Go out to your local bookshop and pick up a copy NOW!

Vikram Seth was born in Calcutta, India. He is truly a Renaissance man, for he began his writing career at Stanford, not out of the English Department but in-between writing a PhD in Economics (I think he's still ABD). While working on his dissertation, he decided to apply for the very prestigious Wallace Stegner writing fellowship, got it, and then took some time out from his PhD work in Economics to write poetry -- and he published a book of verse out of that endeavor, Mappings. Then he became fluent in Chinese, lived a few years in China, and published a travel memoir, From Heaven's Lake, followed by another book of poetry, The Humble Adminstrator's Garden, and then The Golden Gate. He has gone on to publish half-a-dozen other books of fiction and poetry and memoir/biography, and he currently lives in San Francisco (although I think he splits his time between CA and India).

Published in 1986, The Golden Gate is a novel in verse, modeled on Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin.

[NOTE: Pushkin, who is REVERED in Russia (something crazy like 90% of Russians have read Eugene Onegin), is also 1/8 African, which makes him one of the world's great mixed-race writers.]

The novel is set in the early 1980s and follows a cast of young, urban professionals (remember Yuppies?) in the SF Bay area, falling in and out of love, protesting nuclear war, trying to reconcile their queer sexual desire with their Catholicism, and, in general, being 20-something post-graduates.

But what makes this novel truly unique is that it is composed entirely in Onegin stanzas. Let me show you through the opening stanza of the novel:

To make a start more swift than weighty A
Hail Muse. Dear Reader, once upon b
A time, say, circa 1980, A
There lived a man. His name was John. b
Successful in his field though only C
Twenty-six, respected, lonely, C
One evening as he walked across d
Golden Gate Park, the ill-judged toss d
Of a red frisbee almost brained him. E
He thought, “If I died, who’d be sad? f
Who’d weep? Who’d gloat? Who would be glad? f
Would anybody?” As it pained him, E
He turned from this dispiriting theme g
To ruminations less extreme. g

I know that a few of you may think, "UGH! A novel composed entirely of sonnets!" But really, after you start to get into the rhythm of the work, you become used to the formality of the verse, and there is something about the juxtaposition of such contemporary themes with such a traditional verse form that is simply wonderful.

Plus, there's the whimsy! Seth has a fondness for animals, especially cats. There is one named Charlemagne who develops a deep animosity for his owner's boyfriend. And there is an iguana named Arnold Schwarzenegger (and all this before he became the "Governator"). He actually rhymes "piranha" with "iguana," when describing how one of the characters, Ed, goes into a petshop originally intending to buy the flesh-eating fish only to walk out with the green reptile.

But this novel isn't just whimsical--it ruminates on the nature of love, on issues of social justice, on queer love, the duty to family, to God, to ourselves. Anyway, if you want to read something truly original, let me recommend that you try Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate. There is just something truly pleasurable about this book, and I believe it is due, in large part, to the brilliance and skill of his verse.

Monday, April 20, 2009

I am Elizabeth Bennett

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if you are a Jane Austen fan (or Austen-ite), then of all the female characters in Pride & Prejudice you will most identify with Elizabeth Bennett. Or at least you will WANT to be Elizabeth Bennett. The other female options are just not real options for those of us who live and breathe the Austen aura. Mary? Too pedantic. Kitty? A follower. Lydia? A thoughtless, narcissistic flirt. Mrs. Bennett? A grown-up, hypochondriac Lydia. Caroline Bingley? Stuck up bitch. Jane Bennett? Too sweet/good/anemic.

That really leaves Elizabeth. She's willing to walk three miles with mud up to her ankles to tend to her sick sister at another person's house. The fault laid against her by her friends and family is that she is not quite as pretty as Jane and (more telling) that she is too apt to speak her mind. She reads (but doesn't consider reading more important than other livelier pursuits). She plays the piano (although not quite well). And she values people not for their rank, position, or wealth but the quality of their character (and their kindness).

Now, none of us can truly be Elizabeth. She's a fictional character of another era (Regency Britain of the late 18th C). Sure she's rendered into celluloid life by both Jennifer Ehle (6-hour BBC version) and Kiera Knightley (major motion picture release). And actually it's these cinematic renditions that I want to talk about. Because of course, on film, you want to render things realistically--which means you pick people who are white and British (or who can do a passable British accent--and I'm thinking of you Gwyneth Paltrow) and you put them in period costume and throw in some ducks and geese and pigs to show how "real" life was back then.

But in the theater? Well, theater is a different venue altogether.

Now for those of you wondering (where the heck is she GOING with this in a blog called "Mixed Race America") this is what I mean.

Yesterday I saw a theater production of Pride & Prejudice. And like with many Shakespeare plays, this one engaged in color-blind casting. Which means, they weren't trying to cast everyone "authentically" as British or white. No one even tried to do a British accent (well, actually, one actor did). But it also means that there were four roles who went to visible people of color: Kitty was played by an Afro-Latina actress (I say Afro-Latina because her appearance suggested African American but her name suggested Latino influence). Mr. Binghley was played by a South Asian American actor and his sister, Caroline Binghley, was played by an African American actress. And most astounding enough, the lead--THE LEAD--was played by an Asian American (Filipina if I had to guess by both name and appearance) woman.

That's right. Elizabeth Bennett was Asian.

And while I can't vouch for the actual production (lets face it--it would have had to have been SPECTACULAR for any Austen-fan to think it was better than either of the films I mentioned above, let alone the novel itself), as I was watching Elizabeth deliver her lines (she wasn't bad, by the way--the actress that is), I imagined the following imaginary scenario:

You are an Asian American girl in High School and your English teacher assigns Pride & Prejudice. You and your girlfriends love the book and talk about wanting to be like Elizabeth. Your class takes a field trip to see a theater production. Lo and behold, you see the actress and realize that you actually CAN be Elizabeth Bennett!

This is why I went to see this play. Not because I love Pride & Prejudice, but because when I saw the stills from the production, I saw that Elizabeth was played by an Asian American woman. And I wanted to have that experience--of seeing someone who could be me, portray one of the most beloved of Austen's heroines on stage. I wanted, briefly, the idea that I, or someone like me, could be the protagonist--the hero--the one who everyone cheers for (and claps for) at the end of the performance. For the first time in my experience, Asian Americans, along with African American and Latinos, were put into the British literary canon in a really tangible, visible way.

And I though: well it's about time!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Oriental describes rugs not people

Growing up, I often heard the word "Oriental" used interchangeably with Asian or even Asian American. It wasn't until I went to college and took my first Asian American studies course during my freshman year that I learned about the history of this word--that it was used as a sign of Imperialism against people from Asian (and Middle-Eastern) countries in order to objectify them and render them as objects of study, colonization, and/or plunder.

If you look at a dictionary definition, like the Oxford English Dictionary (and what better place to start than the OED), the first two definitions of Oriental are:

1) Belonging to, or situated in, that part or region of the heavens in which the sun rises

2) Belonging to or situated in the east of a country or place, or of the earth; eastern.

But here's the thing: it matters where you are situated to figure out what is "east." If I'm standing on the Great Wall of China, then what is technically "east" is the continent of North America (if we're talking in terms of continents")--so isn't "Oriental" all a matter of perspective?

At any rate, I begin here with Oriental because I have been thinking about the question of appropriation--which I brought up when talking about the film Rachel Getting Married. And one astute commenter asked whether or not the use of an Indian motif in this film was a matter of irony versus cultural appropriation, which is what I had written very directly in my initial post in response to the image below:

"A scene right before Rachel and her new husband are about to cut a cake that is in the form of a stylized Indian elephant--by the way, this was one element I definitely thought was odd because neither Rachel nor Sidney nor their families appear to be Hindi/Indian and this "theme" for their wedding is never explained--which raises another question about cultural appropriation, especially for weddings, but I'll save that for another post."

So why is this cultural appropriation? Or rather, why am I using the word "appropriation" versus noting that they had an Indian themed wedding?

Because in this case, I feel that appropriation--the act of taking something that doesn't quite belong to you--is the more accurate sense of what is happening, aesthetically, in this film for this fictitious wedding. Yes, it is perhaps part of the multicultural/bohemian/anything-goes-lets-throw-in-the-kitchen-sink-if-its-a-different-ethnicity "tone" of the film. But it also feels stylized in such a way that it made me feel like it wasn't simply another "additive" to their hodge-podge racial/ethnic/national mix of friends and family; the details of the saris and the elephant cake and the rehearsal dinner at an Indian restaurant was the dominant motif of the wedding. And yet, neither family revealed themselves to have any connection to India or Indian culture.

Indian isn't just what you have for dinner. And it's not a decorating choice for your living room. And unless you grew up with Indian culture or in an Indian home or in India, it seems like having an "Indian" wedding would mean you are taking part of someone else's culture for your own purposes--you are appropriating their culture--you are Orientalizing someone else's culture for the sake of being hip, cool, ironic.

But Indian culture isn't ironic--at least not for people who are in India or among the millions in the Indian diaspora. Indian culture is complex, multifaceted, segmented by region, religion, history, politics, sexuality, and a host of other things that can't be whittled down to a single cuisine or decorative choice. In terms of the overall feel of the film, the Indian-themed wedding seemed to be another "quirky" element, one signaling openness to multiculturalism, but only in a surface way--it's not as if they had a Hindi ceremony or chose any of the spiritual practices associated with various Indian sects (like Sikh, Buddhism, Jain, Islam or in Southern India, Catholicism).

Anyway, in my book, all this means is that it feels like cultural appropriation for the sake of achieving a certain tonal element in the film. And while I did like the movie, I found the "Indian" details to be unnecessary and a bit too precious and pretentious, especially due to the absence of actual Indian people/bodies in this film.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Paisley Rekdal & not fitting in

This Poetry Month's poet of the week is Paisley Rekdal. Rekdal is an Associate Professor at the University of Utah. But it's her book of essays that first drew my attention. While living in the Pioneer Valley, I saw her book of essays in my favorite South Hadley independent bookshop, The Odyssey Bookshop. Here's the cover:

The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In is a great collection of Rekdal's non-fiction. In particular, for those of you looking for a mixed-race writer, Rekdal writes honestly and introspectively about her bi-racial, bi-cultural experiences, both in various Asian countries (she's done a fair amount of sojourning to places like Taiwan, China, the Phillipines, and South Korea). But whether you identify as mixed-race or not, most of us can relate to the idea of "not fitting in"--although I suppose some of us my identify with that phrase more than others (esp. depending on the context/region of where we are).

In addition to being a wonderful prose writer, Rekdal is also an accomplished poet--her latest collection, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope (2007) is a testament to that. And here's a selection, "Bats" from her latest book:

by Paisley Rekdal

unveil themselves in dark.
They hang, each a jagged,

silken sleeve, from moonlit rafters bright
as polished knives. They swim

the muddled air and keen
like supersonic babies, the sound

we imagine empty wombs might make
in women who can’t fill them up.

A clasp, a scratch, a sigh.
They drink fruit dry.

And wheel, against feverish light flung hard
upon their faces,

in circles that nauseate.
Imagine one at breast or neck,

Patterning a name in driblets of iodine
that spatter your skin stars.

They flutter, shake like mystics.
They materialize. Revelatory

as a stranger’s underthings found tossed
upon the marital bed, you tremble

even at the thought. Asleep,
you tear your fingers

and search the sheets all night.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The sad, the despicable, the disappointing

I know my Saturday post seemed to be sunshine and bubbles, but even a glass-half full gal like me has to acknowledge that there are things I've been reading about that make me shake my head/cringe/roll my eyes/beat my head against a wall. Here are a few of the frustrating issues about race in America:

*Hey all you Asian people, change your names to make it easier for us simple-minded "Americans."

Texas Rep. Betty Brown (R-Terrell), during a questioning of expert witness Ramey Ko of the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA), made several remarks that implied that Asian Americans were not real "American" citizens AND that they should change their names to make it easier on everyone else. Here's Brown:

"Do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here."


"Can't you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for both you and for people who are pollworkers, if there were some means by which you could adopt a name just for your poll identification purposes that would be easier for the Americans to deal with?"

Brown's questioning of Ko was on the issue of voter identification. She has, apparently, apologized, but it's more along the lines of "Oh crap--people are accusing me of being racist and insensitive and I'd better apologize and say I didn't mean to offend because I am a white person of good intentions" than an apology that signals that she truly understands why her comments were painful/damaging/and reeking of her white privilege. Click here to read the apology on Angry Asian Man and click here for the Huffington Post article (Thanks "M" and "D" for the heads up).

*Shame at my Alma Mater: PIKE not just about plaid and pearls but racial slurs and assaults.

On March 2, Vietnamese American Thanh Hong and a friend were assaulted outside of the PIKE house at UCSB after a several racial epithets/slurs were yelled at them from a balcony at the PIKE house. Click here for the initial story by the Daily Nexus (UCSB's student paper) and here for a follow-up where the police claim that there was only a "single" assailant. Which may, indeed, be true--but the fact that no one at the PIKE house came forward or better yet STOPPED their friend/fellow-brother (if the assailant turns out to be a PIKE--he may have only been a guest/friend of a PIKE--either way, the dude yelled racial slurs and then beat up an Asian American guy and NO ONE STOPPED HIM).

*Fear and intimidation: The Pro-Straight-Breeder-Marriage Campaign. Our Motto: We will scare the crap out of you so that you'll support a ban on gay marriage.

With the increasing good news of Iowa and Vermont's legislatures supporting gay marriage, we have to keep in mind that the forces of fear, anxiety, and intimidation (and can I also say just plain silliness?) are still out there in the form of the National Organization for Marriage (in this case, marriage between two adults of different genders--although I wonder what they would say about a transgendered man marrying a transvestite woman? Technically two different genders...Anyway, the Courage Campaign has the latest ad from NOM on their website (click here). It's pretty awful. This campaign uses a rhetoric of fear, intimidation, and danger to convince people that they should not support marriage of two loving adults who want to enjoy their lives together and be recognized by the state--to have the same rights as any other U.S. citizen.

*And now for something not-quite-so completely different:

"Barackophobia" by Jon Stewart/The Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Baracknophobia - Obey
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What Mixed Race America looks like in my town

I am a California gal (not counting the first 4 years spent in Flushing that is). But I have to say that I have really grown fond of the tiny town I live in, which sits adjacent to Southern U.

This morning I set out with my canvas bags to the local farmer's market. I passed by several families and couples walking their dogs, also headed to or from the farmer's market. I dropped off a load of clothes to a charity drop box at the gas station. I saw the local sculpture/metal artist's latest creations in his front yard--he has several interesting pieces, including a huge bronze head of Barack Obama. I waved hello to a pair of brothers who were sitting outside enjoying the spring sunshine--their family had once owned a big chunk of our tiny town, and I wondered if they saw, in their mind's eye, what it looked like before all the homes and town hall and other buildings were erected.

And one of the things I noticed walking to and from the farmer's market was the fact that I am not the only one. I suppose what I mean is, among the people I passed by, spoke to, waved, and bought fresh greens from this morning, not all of them were white or black, which is what my assumptions have long been about the South--that people are either white or black. But my tiny town is actually a fairly mixed race town. I passed by mixed race families and couples. I talked to mixed-race people at a cafe and the farmer's market. And as I was walking home, it dawned on me that I felt at home. I don't mean that I felt like I was in CA. I just mean that I felt fairly comfortable walking around on a sunny Saturday morning with my canvas bags full of greens (and some white irises that were still tight in their buds).

And even though I suspect that the drivers who wave at me from their cars either mistake me for that other Asian woman they know, perhaps they wave at me because I'm the Asian woman who lives in the green house on the corner and they want to be friendly.

[Aside: This is one thing that I've definitely noticed that is different about the South than other places I've lived, especially New England--total strangers will say hello to you or wave at you or tell you good morning or say "have a nice day." While walking my dog "B" I will have bus drivers and sanitation workers and the mail carriers honk and wave at me and "B" all the time. And people just wave and say Hi when you pass them by on the street. I must admit that it has taken me a while to adjust to all this casual friendliness, and for lack of a better word, it definitely feels very "Southern" to me.]

Either way, it's sort've nice living in a place where people do wave and say hi to you. There's a lot of discouraging things and disappointing things I could be blogging about with the topic of "mixed race America"--and I'll get to them, I'm sure, in the days and weeks ahead. But for today, I just wanted to share that I felt really good about where I live, and part of that good feeling has to do with feeling like my tiny town is sometimes a tiny vision of the kind of Mixed Race America that I want to live in.

Friday, April 10, 2009

T.G.I.F.: Jimmy Carter

This is my 401st post, and given the recent Judeo-Christian holiday season we are in, I thought it might not be a bad time to re-introduce an MRA series: T.G.I.F.: The Great Incredible Feat (click here for the inaugural post). And the subject of today's T.G.I.F. is President Jimmy Carter (click here for a biography of the 39th president of the U.S.).

[This was a recent photo of President Carter, I believe taken earlier this year]

I have long been a fan of President Carter. Although I was in elementary school during his presidency and didn't really understand the nuances of the various troubles that plagued his administration or why the Camp David Accords with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat were so significant, Carter struck me as a man who stood by his convictions, no matter what the political fall-out.

[Jimmy Carter, Roslynn Carter, and their daughter Amy]

My impression of President Carter as an ethical and dare I say moral man was heightened in college when I took an intro to Poli Sci class and wrote my research paper on Jimmy Carter, a figure that both my TA and I agreed had been maligned by history and would, hopefully, one day be vindicated in the progressive measures his administration undertook--like creating a national energy plan that focuses on conservation and renewable, non-polluting energy sources and signing the clean air act (all things that now, in 2009, we take as a given). Almost everyone agrees that President Carter's work after his presidency has been exemplary and more impressive than the work done during his administration (although I think that people sell Carter short--especially in terms of his work in energy and foreign relations). Both Jimmy and Roslynn Carter's support and actual labor for Habitat for Humanity shows that this couple doesn't just do lip service: they actually sweat and work alongside people for causes they believe in. Which is also the message of the Carter Center, the president's institute for working on the world's problems of inequity, poverty, disease, and war, and, of course, his good works have been acknowledged with one of the world's most prestigious awards: the Nobel Prize for Peace (click here for Carter's eloquent acceptance speech).

[Jimmy and Rosslynn working on a habitat house]

And after watching Jonathan Demme's documentary Man from Plains, I was so moved by the humanitarian portrait of Jimmy Carter that I wrote him a letter this past September--here is an excerpt:

"I know you must get hundreds if not thousands of letters each year, and I realize that this letter may never actually reach your eyes (but I hope it does—whoever is reading this, it would be a great honor if President Carter could be handed this letter). Ever since I read your Nobel Prize acceptance speech to my class at Mount Holyoke College (I taught there as a visiting Assistant Professor before joining Southern University) I felt compelled to write to you to say that I have appreciated all the good works that you and your wife Rosalynn have done during your career in public service, and particularly after your term in the White House. Your life is an example of what we can achieve if we only recognize that we should try to live each day with compassion for others. I confess that I get mired in the minutiae of my daily life—I do not do enough to make the world a better place. But each time I encounter a reminder of your own works in this world, I am spurred to once again try harder—to live my life with compassion and care for others—to try to alleviate suffering in the world. I hope that the world, in whatever small way, will be better because I have lived in it. I know that this world is a much better place because of your dedication, hard work, strength of conviction, and kindness. Thank you for your work in human rights President Carter; thank you for being such a good person."

[This is President Carter in Nigeria, on a trip to promote ending guinea worm by promoting clean water practices as well as treatment]

A month later, to my utter amazement, I received back a photocopy of my letter with a message by President Carter written in the upper right-hand corner:

"To Jennifer: Thanks for your beautiful letter & your high ideals. Best Wishes, Jimmy C."

[I am 99% positive this is actually President Carter's handwriting--I held it up to the light and looked at the Carter Center website and it's definitely his signature so I think President Carter actually wrote to me!]

I have framed this letter and it has a prominent place in my office. I know people may disagree with my assessment of his administration, but I think everyone acknowledges that President Carter's humanitarian efforts post-presidency has been nothing short of incredible. And for that, President Jimmy Carter--and Rosslynn Carter, who is a true partner in every sense of the word--deserves a T.G.I.F.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hug a poet or, even better, buy a book of poetry

So I missed the boat with Women's History Month. I think I squeaked in an acknowledgment of African American History Month. But by golly, I'm an English professor so I'm going to TRY MY BEST to get you a poem a week (for hopefully four total) during National Poetry Month.

Today's featured poet is Gary Soto (click here for his official website). Although I like Mr. Soto's poetry, it's actually a short autobiographical essay that he wrote, "Like Mexicans," that is my favorite piece of writing by him. It's about how he met and fell in love with his wife, Carolyn, a Japanese American woman, and it's about marrying and, more importantly, loving across the racial/ethnic/cultural divide.

[To find a copy of this essay, may I recommend the excellent collection of California literature, Highway 99: A Literary Journey through Califorina's Great Central Valley -- Soto, along with other fine California writers -- is featured in this collection, which is published by Heyday Books.]

So in honor of National Poetry Month, I bring you "Nelson, My Dog" by Gary Soto--because I am a dog lover (and dog owner) and much of what Soto describes about dogs feels very true to me.

Nelson, My Dog
by Gary Soto

Like the cat he scratches the flea camping in fur.
Unlike the cat he delights in water up to his ears.
He frolics. He catches a crooked stick –
On his back he naps with legs straight up in the air.
Nelson shudders awake. He responds to love
From head to tail. In happiness
His front legs march in place
And his back legs spark when they push off.
On a leash he knows his geography.
For your sake he looks both ways before crossing,
He sniffs at the sight of a poodle trimmed like a hedge,
And he trots the street with you second in command.
In the park, he ponders a squirrel attached to a tree
And he shovels a paper cup on his nose.
He sweeps after himself with his tail,
And there is no hand that doesn't deserve a lick.
Note this now, my friends:
Nelson can account the heritage of heroic dogs:
One, canines lead the blind,
Two, they enter fire to rescue the child and the child's toy,
Three, they swim for the drowning,
Four, they spring at the thief,
Five, they paddle ponds for the ball that got away,
Six, for the elderly they walk side by side to the very end,
Seven, they search for bones but stop when called,
Eight, they bring mud to all parties,
Nine, they poke among the ruins of a burnt house,
Ten, they forgive what you dish out on a plate.

Nelson is a companion, this much we know,
And if he were a movie star, he would do his own stunts –
O, how he would fly, climb the pant legs of a scoundrel
And stand tall rafting on white-water rivers!
He has befriended the kingdom of animals:
He once ran with wolves but admittedly not very far,
He stepped two paces into a cave and peeked at the bear,
He sheltered a kitten,
He righted the turtle pedaling its stumps on its back,
Under the wheeling stars he caravanned with the mule,
He steered sheep over a hill,
He wisely let the skunk pass,
He growled at the long-bearded miser,
He joined ducks quacking with laughter,
Once he leaped at a pheasant but later whined from guilt.

Nelson's black nose is a compass in the wilds.
He knows nature. He has spied spires of summer smoke,
He circled cold campfires,
He howled at a gopher and scratched at the moon,
He doctored his wounds with his tongue,
He has pawed a star of blood left in snow.
He regards the fireplace, the embers like blinking cats,
This too we know about Nelson.
True, he is sometimes tied to parking meters
And sometimes wears the cone of shame from the vet's office.
But again, he is happiness.
He presents his belly for a friendly scratch.
If you call him, he will drop his tennis ball,
Look up, and come running,
This muddy friend for life. When you bring your nose
To his nose for something like a kiss,
You can find yourself in his eyes.

[Taken from Poets.org, where you can sign up for a poem a day to be delivered to your email account.]

Monday, April 6, 2009

Talk Etiquette

I go to a lot of talks, both on campus and off, of people who are famous nationally (and internationally) as well as famous in their own minds. So I'd like to give some unsolicited advice to those both giving talks and those attending talks (especially those who participate in Q&A).

*Please turn OFF those cell phones! It's annoying and embarrassing and cringe-worthy when your damn cell phone goes off in the middle of someone's talk. And it's just plain rude.

*Under no circumstances should you do the following, especially during the Q&A of a VERY FAMOUS, INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNIZED POLITICIAN with a standing-room crowd of hundreds and a line of people at two mics trying to ask questions:

1) Do not ask a follow-up question. You probably do have a follow-up question or comment or response that you want to make. But do you see all those people behind you? They'd also like to ask a question. If you stand at the mic and ask your follow-up question, especially when it's NOT a real question but a comment in which you ask "Don't you agree with me?" then no one is going to be agreeing with you--they will be annoyed with you because no one, but you, is as interested in your pet topic as you are.

2) Do not ask a question based on another talk that this person gave that you heard/saw/read about weeks ago. Those of us who weren't at THAT talk or who didn't read about THAT talk will be out of the loop/confused. And we came to hear THIS talk not that other talk that you have a question about.

3) Do not ask the famous senator why Barack Obama's campaign this summer did not return your email message because you decided this would be the first time you were going to volunteer for a political campaign. Seriously! You now look crazy. You just asked Senator X why Candidate Obama's campaign never returned your email message. And it took you ten minutes to get to THAT question--ten minutes in which you gave us all your biography and your credentials. Which just proves that just because someone has a PhD doesn't mean that you are smart--because clearly having a PhD and asking Senator X why Barack Obama's campaign HQ didn't respond to your email message makes you look a little crazy and not so smart.

*You were invited to give a talk. More than likely you were PAID to give a talk. And if you were invited and paid to give a talk, you should think about the following:

1) People have come to hear you talk about your subject because they consider you to be an expert. They are showing you respect by coming to your talk. It would be nice for you to reciprocate that respect, especially during the Q&A. Even if you think a question is stupid, it would be nice if you didn't reflect that sentiment so clearly on your face or even to insinuate it in your reply.

2) If you are someone who is here to give a talk on social justice, especially on the way that the academy does not pay enough attention to class and poor people, then you severely undercut your authority when you claim that for the sake of your argument you don't care about *real* poor people. Last time I checked, people who were interested in issues of social justice didn't just think about poor people as fodder for their theories and theses but as real people whose lives they care about, in the abstract and the actual.

3) Even if you are an internationally famous person, or especially if you are a famous person in your particularly academic discipline, you don't have to act like a diva. It's unattractive and a turn-off.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Wanted: Useful survival skills

Normally I try not to talk about too many personal details in this space, partly because I'm trying to be pseudonymous and partly because I figure you aren't reading this blog to find out what kind of breakfast cereal I eat (right now it's Kashi Go Lean).

But I feel the need to brag--not about myself, but about Southern Man, my partner. Because due to his quick thinking and his ability to act rather than simply react, he pulled an elderly woman from a burning car.

Let me set the scene for you. Southern Man was driving and came upon an accident--an elderly woman had run a red light and plowed into a pickup truck, ricocheting off the truck and careening to the side of the road. Her hood was billowing smoke and she was crying and screaming, pinned by both her airbag and her seat belt. She fumbled for her seat belt, but because she was so hysterical, she couldn't release herself, and her car was starting to go up in flames, so Southern Man took out his knife (yes, my partner carries around a utility knife with him), cut her seat belt, and helped her out of the car and to safety.

I didn't witness any of this--I had this reported to me by Southern Man, who initially didn't even disclose this information--he called me from the scene of the accident, and I thought he was just checking in during his errands, but it became clear when I heard sirens and other odd noises that there was something going on--and only after asking him what all that background noise was did he reveal what had happened.

Southern Man is a modest man, and when I told him how proud I was of him and how incredible it was that he was so quick witted and competent in helping this woman out, he shrugged it off (or the verbal equivalent since we were still on the phone) and claimed that anyone would have done the same in that situation.

But here's the thing: I'm not sure I would have. Don't get me wrong. It's not like I wouldn't want to help, or wouldn't try. But I don't carry a big utility knife on me. And I would have certainly been freaked out by a car on fire, although I'd like to think that I would have tried to get this woman freed. At the very least I would have called 911 (and according to Southern Man, more people did stop to help, so there was a woman who called 911 and another man who stopped and helped Southern Man carry this woman to safety once he cut her free from her seat belt). But the ability to act in a crisis the way he did...I just don't know what I would do in a similar situation. I've, thankfully, never been tested in that way.

Yet...I can't help wondering and thinking: what kind of life skills and useful survival skills do I possess? I mean, sure I'm technically a "doctor" but a doctor of literature--it's not like someone has a contemporary literature crisis I can solve or even a comma splice emergency. Sure, I have read and researched a lot on issues of race, but in a real racial crisis, is the fact that I've read Michael Omi and Howard Winant's work on racial formation going to be helpful, or is it someone who has skills in crisis management in de-escalating a tense situation who will be more helpful? I took a CPR class once upon a time. I have watched my father change a flat tire. But really, what kind of real life skills do I have that will enable me to be useful in a crisis situation?

I suppose none of us can ever really know how we'll act in a moment of crisis. I'd like to think that I'd be calm and would assess the situation quickly and accurately and then act appropriately. But it's knowing how to act--and having the right tools let alone skills that seem to be a key thing in these situations. Heck, I can't even text message quickly in a hostage situation.

At any rate, these are the things going through my mind right now. I'm really quite proud of my partner--it's not everyday you can say that you potentially helped to save someone's life. So I just wanted to give him a shout out, but also to ask all of you what kind of survival skills you wish YOU had or that you think would be important (like taking a refresher CPR course) in a crisis situation.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Today's Headlines

"$700 billion dollars found under retired couple's bed"
--Says Mrs. Wanda Smith, "We TOTALLY forgot we had been saving up for a cruise to the Caribbean and just kept adding to our 'fun fund.' Now that we've been to the Caribbean, we figured we'd donate the extra to the U.S. government to pay down the debt and stimulate the economy."

"Pakistan & India, the Unionist and Nationalist factions in Northern Ireland, North and South Korea, Palestine & Israel, and Turkish and Greek forces on Cyprus all agree that they're all tired of the violence and bickering and pettiness and are ready to unite under the umbrella of peace"
--"It's about time," says deceased peace activist Mohandas Gandhi. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa shared in his sentiment.

"Size 0 is out, Size 10 is in"
--Modeling agencies, magazine editors, and fashion designers all agree that the "skinny" look that has predominated for so long is now passe. Fashion Designer H. Coture had this to say about the news: "I'm tired of all these bone thin models. Women PLEASE! Go eat a donut!"

"Decline in video game sales linked to increase in library patronage and participation in school spots."
--"I just realized that rather than playing tennis with my wii, I'd actually like to do the real thing," says seventh grader Bill Jones. "Yeah," echoes his friend James Turner, "I realized that there were these places called libraries, and they have all these books you can check out FOR FREE!"

"Inter-racial marriages spike to a record high"
--Census bureau spokesperson Juanita Chang-Pulaski describes the spike as "incredible!" "We knew that attitudes in the country were changing towards mixed-race marriages," says Chang-Pulaski, "but we had no idea that they now accounted for 50% of all unions."

"Conservative pundits and Christian leaders admit that gay marriage will stabilize society rather than disrupt it."
--"We were wrong," says Rev. E. Vangelical, "our bad!"