Thursday, November 29, 2012

Turning a corner

I've always found one particular aspect of our online lives fascinating. We create a persona for ourselves at a certain time in our lives. We hop on Facebook, get involved in Twitter, start a blog. The word "branding" is overused in this context, but really, it's quite apt. By our tone, behavior, activity, personality as exhibited in these online spaces, we establish who we are. And if people connect to it, well, they connect as much to that established pattern as to "us ourselves," the complexity and variability of the offline self.

There are a lot of people I really enjoy following on Twitter and Facebook, and reading their blogs, because they are funny, helpful, positive, creative people. That's why I add them to my life feed and get pleasure out of having them be a part of my environment. And because I like sincerity more than poses, I take it for granted that people I connect to in this way are really like that.

But people change. Hairstyles change. Interest rates fluctuate. People who are basically helpful and positive have down days. People who establish their brand as funny probably aren't hilarious every day. But we know why people have connected with us, we know what they've come to expect, we know what our past behavior has promised, and yes, we feel pressure to deliver.

So when we don't have anything positive, helpful, funny, creative to say, we might just go silent.

I know this is something of a false trap. I've seen it over and over. Normally online-bubbly person apologizes because she hasn't felt like being bubbly lately but was a little afraid to tell us, and the reaction is overwhelmingly supportive. Because people who once upon a time asked you into their lives because of some trait you exhibit online, have probably in the meantime come to care about you in a fuller way, as a human being. They understand. It's simple, really. It shouldn't be so hard to admit.

Or maybe we apologize because we suspect that these people didn't add us to their life feeds to hear about our troubles -- for us to be a burden Again, true in the start, but the longer you've been reading, probably less and less true, or at least less and less important. It doesn't take that much psychic energy to sympathize with someone on the rare occasion that she's more in need than able to give. People are generally happy to do it. I do it all the time, and typically, it gives much more to me to be able to express a tiny bit of care than it could possibly mean to my online acquaintance, who might not know me from Adam except as a stat blip on her blog.

Now I'm not saying I'm a relentlessly positive person. But I do avoid talking about troubles and frustrations here online. I just don't think anybody signed up to be on the other end of my complaint box. However, being a human being, there are times when the troubles and frustrations are a bit more ... pervasive. Where it's pretty much what you're thinking about a lot of the time, and if you were going to go to all the trouble of writing a blog post, it's probably not going to be about something other than those things.

I had a bit of an epiphany in the last couple of weeks. All semester, and really stretching back into summer, I've been under increasing stress. Some of it was identifiable (deadlines and crises at work, the national elections, etc.). Some was hidden to me, but made itself known in the tightening knots of my upper back and other minor health complaints. Gradually I came to admit to myself that I was at the stage of life known as mid-life crisis. I'm 47 years old, about to apply for promotion to full professor, looking down the barrel of my boss's retirement and the expectation that I would be a candidate for his job. No matter how good you've got it, when the treadmill is bearing you inexorably forward on a career path like that, you start to feel a little panicky. The anxiety starts as "can I make it?" but quickly expands into a more significant and difficult question: "do I want to?"

While in Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, I threw open my mid-life crisis to almost anybody who innocently asked how I was doing. From strangers on shuttle buses to dear and intimate friends, I told them I was not sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I listened to their advice. Just deciding to be free and unashamed about asking the question was liberating. And I got some terrific guidance and affirmation, both from the strangers and the friends.

You can't get closer to an answer until you decide to ask the question. And so I feel more positive about my choices, just because I'm actively looking for them instead of wondering in the wee hours whether they exist. And being more positive, I can now tell you about it all. Thanks for listening.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Apologia pro se voto

For almost all of my thirteen years as a educator, I've tried to stay outwardly apolitical. I felt that students might prejudge me as a teacher if I were open and free about my political leanings. So my only political activities, by and large, were voting and hoping. No bumper stickers, no volunteering, no social media posts. We felt strongly enough about the 2004 election to put a Kerry sign in our front yard, but I remember being slightly terrified that some student would see me going to the mailbox and know. I'm sure they all had their suspicions, but there's a difference between being thought to be liberal in this blood-red state, and declaring yourself openly. After Obama was elected in 2008, I got a "Yes We Did" sticker in the mail and took it to work, thinking I might be brave enough to put it on my bulletin board; it's still buried in a stack of papers, where I run across it occasionally and wish I had the courage to display it.

In the last couple of weeks, whatever fear has kept me in that attitude for more than a decade has quietly dissipated. I started retweeting political messages, commenting on the campaign news of the day. I slapped an Obama 2012 magnet on my car.

But that "coming out" wasn't the start of the change. It started back in the summer, when for the first time in my life I donated to a political campaign. I felt deeply attached to the Democratic cause, and to the president's re-election. And for the first time, I didn't want simply to vote and hope -- hope that other people were willing to contribute the time and resources to craft a victory.  If Obama lost, I told myself, it wouldn't be because I didn't do all I could.

I've donated regularly since then. The total is a bit staggering for modest-living folks like ourselves, to be honest. This week I've made calls to get out the early vote in battleground states. My vote is already registered. But if there's something more I can do to affect the outcome, I'm not going to leave it undone.

Some of my conservative friends surely believe that such a transformation from timid voter to active campaigner could only be motivated by hatred of my candidate's opponent. I've see some Twitter conversations about how apoplectic Obama supporters would be if Romney won because they find him so despicable. Maybe that's true for some, but not for me. I don't hate Romney. I don't even think he'd be an awful president. He's clearly not an ideologue on most issues -- just witness the way his positions on them have shifted over the past couple of decades, from universal health care to abortion rights. He's a politician who believes in the political process as a way to get things accomplished (again, Romneycare is the prime example). That lack of ideological rigidity, coupled with political facility, means that he's likely to govern much closer to the center than our last Republican president (who did not share those two qualities).

I object to three aspects of the Romney campaign, and three aspects only. They are important enough to  help bring me out of the closet, but they are not the basis of any hatred or revulsion.

First, I object not to what Romney himself believes or would do, but to the agendas of those to whom his candidacy and possible election would be beholden. Any honest observer will surely admit that many of these most prominent and influential supporters are dismissive of the poor in favor of the continued enrichment of the monied class, in favor of war as a preemptive solution in world affairs, and desirous of a return to times when women and people of color stayed in their place and didn't seek power over their own lives and destinies, leaving that instead up to the people who knew best. Those people will expect their agenda to be enacted if Romney is elected, and some of it no doubt would be.

Second, I object to the premise that Romney himself seems to have brought to this campaign -- the single most important principle, in my observation, that motivates him to run. That premise and principle is: It's my turn. I've paid my dues, I've worked my way up through the establishment, I've gotten the right people to pull the strings for me, I've kept my nose clean, and now I am owed.  As an argument to the electorate, even a Republican electorate desperate to end the Obama presidency, this smacks of presumption and fails to inspire.

And third, the only reason in my list that is rooted in one of Romney's personal positions that would doubtless affect the way he would govern: Mitt Romney has no interest in understanding or sympathizing with gay people. Of all the stories of his record as governor of Massachusetts that have been passed around, the only ones that sickened and alarmed me were the ones about his animosity toward homosexuals. He dismissed, in the most callous and cavalier terms, the human appeal of a mother in his office who happened to be seeking marriage to her lesbian partner. He vindictively blocked legally married citizens from obtaining accurate birth certificates for their children except through court order. He seems flummoxed by the very existence of gay people with ordinary human needs and desires, evincing a powerful urge to flee from their presence rather than have his cognitive circuits overloaded by the dissonance they represent.

I'm distressed that, whatever his religious convictions, a man who does not believe in the full humanity of a large swath of the American citizenry believes he should serve as their chief executive.

And I'm relieved that the candidate who has my vote, the president whose accomplishments I celebrate, represents the opposite of these objections. Look at the financing of his campaign. 34% of his campaign funds have come from small donors, those giving less than $200. That's not 34% of contributors, or of donation instances -- that's 34% of the total funds. More than $214 million from people who gave less than $200. At a minimum (if they had all given nearly $200), that's a million people who own a piece of the campaign. I don't even count as one of these, and I'm certainly not the kind of fat cat one thinks of as a "large donor." (The comparable statistic from the Romney campaign: 18% of his total individual contributions come from small donors, adding up to $70 million -- less than one-third of Obama's total in terms of both numbers of donors and money contributed.)

By contrast to Romney's "I've paid my dues, now give me the goodies" political career, Obama of course emerged as a political upstart, a surprise, even a distressing line-jumper for the establishment. The premise of his 2008 candidacy was anything but "You owe me this"; instead, whatever you think of the principles and ideals of that campaign, it was clearly based in what he would do, not what he deserved to be handed.

And in terms of being the president of all of America -- including people who don't pay individual income taxes (like the elderly, service members, and the working poor) and people who love someone of the same sex -- well, there's really no doubt.

I don't write this in order to impose my political views on you. I write it to explain why I've changed from vote-and-hope to vote, speak, act, and give.  And to insure that my vote can't be mischaracterized as a expression of class hatred or demonization of the other party. However you vote and whatever your political actions, I think they should come from love rather than hate, determination rather than fear. I write simply to say that for the first time, I'm trying to live that out in public and not just in private.

Thanks for reading. Most of you probably know me in real life, and the general thrust of the opinions here can't be much of a surprise -- but maybe the package surrounding them isn't quite what you expected. I don't expect to change any minds. I only make an explanation (an apology, in that antique sense) for myself. I appreciate the indulgence of my friends and family, especially those who disagree with me politically and on any of the specific points above, in tolerating a more divisive and partisan version of myself than is normally on display in this space.

Go vote, and if your circumstances and conscience permit, also speak, act, and give. Here is a scientific pumpkin made by my daughter; I hope that brings us back to the Union, Trueheart and Courtesy status quo.