Grace, Love, & Our Unmooring

“Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

 “Pity us, yes, but we are brave, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself on us.”—Marilynne Robinson, Lila

“The language of the wilderness is the most beautiful language we have and it is our job to sing it, until and even after it is gone, no matter how much it hurts.”—Pam Houston, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country

When I was a child, growing up, as I did, in the Southern Baptist tradition, the difference between grace and mercy was described to me thusly: mercy is when God relents and spares you from a punishment you deserve, while grace is when God looks upon you with favor simply because you are a child of God (the latter was always delivered with the asterisk: *though you do not now, nor will you ever, deserve His favor). I remember thinking that with mercy and grace on my side, I had it made! Not entirely, I suspect, what the Church had in mind with this teaching. Rather than striking me with fear, I felt buoyed. How lovely it once was to be a child of God, deserving or not.

Mercy is something many children come to understand at a young age, because decent parents, for whom a child’s moral development is paramount, will often show it to them. Lord knows mine did, countless times. And every child knows when they have got away with something that, by all rights, they should not have. But grace comes only when one has lived long enough to know something of the unrelenting sorrow and heartache that life delivers to each of us. Grace has something to do with our own brokenness and the way that beauty still finds us, in spite of that. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, one would say ‘unworthiness,’ but I think ‘brokenness’ is more apt, both because I do not believe that humans are inherently unworthy of anything at all (though, we certainly prove ourselves to be actually unworthy—of each other and of this beautiful planet—in a million different ways, big and small, every day) and because brokenness implies nothing whatsoever about our guilt or innocence. It rather captures something of our moral fragility. Life on earth can be long, and if we don’t muck it up ourselves time and again, then something else (our pathologies, bad luck, bad choices, addictions, tragedy, etc.) surely will. Grace is when the distinct pain of a human life can sit comfortably right alongside its breathtaking beauty. How is it possible that a perfectly delicious wild strawberry will still grow in a garden that belonged to a child whose life was taken too soon?

We will never really know, and that’s kind of the point.

“I still think it’s weird that people die,” said a new friend to me not too long ago, as our children splashed around in a pool, without a care in the world. This was offered compassionately in response to my having said that I was lately overcome with sadness at the passing of a dear old family friend. It was expected, it was time, and I have thought a great deal about death, in general, considering myself to be fairly evolved on the subject. Yet, I was somehow in disbelief, bereft of any useful language to capture my sorrow. And that sadness had something to do with the loss of this particular human life, to be sure. But it also had a goodly bit to do with the specter of human loss more generally. I presume the remark was intended to communicate something about how strange it is that a person can be here, in our presence, one moment, and gone the next. How do we even conceive of that degree of instability, the fact that our world will not necessarily hold, let alone explain it to our children? I recalled that I had a similar sense of wonder at the birth of my children, not yet among us one moment, then, just like that, here and instantly an integral part of our shared moral life. When someone dies, though, any hope must be manufactured, as we struggle to make sense of our loss and to go on with it lodged deeply inside of us.

I believe in counting blessings, even when life is grim. Not out of duty or some public show of virtue. Nor as a kind of Pauline Christian reminder to ourselves that we have somehow been favored and, thus, narrowly escaped a worse fate. This is what is meant by the familiar phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” And although thoughtful people will recite those words when they have none others at the ready—indeed, I have done so many times when, I am ashamed to admit, I felt mostly relief that I had been spared some suffering that another had not—it is a phrase that only has the trappings of empathy, distancing us from others’ pain so that we can breathe easier knowing that it was not us who fell out of God’s favor. I do not care for this sort of comparative analysis, as it sets us above and apart from others, and also has a way of obscuring the messiness and brokenness of our own lives from us. It is a kind of self-deceit.

Another familiar but, to my mind, impoverished notion of grace is one that sees those who have it as “touched,” a passive receiver of a gift for which they did not ask. I suppose that is true in some cases, but not all or even most. I think grace is rather like a seed that is planted within us and is watered over time, if we are lucky, by those who care for us. This is especially crucial when we are small. We need people who have lived a while on earth who can teach us how to open our eyes to the boundless beauty all around and to be in awe—that is, to know something of what it is to be awestricken, in the body and in the heart. I am reminded, just now, of my sons’ teachers at our precious Mountain Sprouts preschool here in Telluride. As far as I can tell, they take it as their first duty to the children to be one in which they help them to see, trust, and grow inside of things like friendships, making and sharing meals together, digging in the dirt and growing things in a garden, walking and be-ing in nature, creating art together, talking and sharing feelings and experiences, and many other things. Yet, they do not take a saccharine approach to the moral development of children, the kind that one sees so often in traditional early-education settings, in which the ultimate goal is to somehow secure the child’s happiness, where this is understood as a mere temporary psychological state, rather than a deeper orientation to the world. These masterful teachers acknowledge, confront, and sit with a lot of dark feelings and challenging behavior (the latter, we cannot deny it, so often from our own littlest JoJo, who could try the patience of Mother Teresa herself, on a good day). They encourage the little ones they care for to be honest about the sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, etc. inside of them—all of the less pretty, but no less important, parts of themselves. They may not know it, but these teachers are growing something like grace inside of our children—grace conceived of as the ability to be joyful in the world, both beautiful and heartbroken, as we all are and ever will be, so long as we draw breath.

And as we come into adulthood, grace will grow inside of us if we consistently choose to be with people who are as honest about their sorrow as they are able to keep looking to the good. Counting blessings is a hard discipline, one of noticing and appreciating the beauty all around and within us, of staying present for life’s countless mysteries and unexpected turns, which anyone who has lived past twenty years of age can tell you is incredibly difficult. It is so easy to simply check out, and we do all the time. But something about this discipline trains our eyes over time to always look for the good, to see it in unexpected places or people, and, most importantly, to reconstitute the good when necessary. Habituating oneself to grace cultivates a certain disposition, an orientation to the world, and is not the mere receiving of a gift. Could be both, I guess. But, for me, it’s an invaluable survival skill. And although I cringe when people encourage the bereaved to hold fast to the good times they had with their loved one, or to be grateful for the children born inside of a marriage that is presently unravelling beyond recognition, or to appreciate what little food is on the table when it is simply not enough, I nevertheless know that my own suffering, small as it may be, has taught me that staying open to the mysteries and wonders of life, even, or perhaps especially, in the face of unspeakable sorrow, is how we go on. That’s grace.

But, let’s face it, it is getting harder and harder to count blessings, to construct a grace-filled life. Technology, politics, capitalist greed, consumer culture, a dying planet, unparalleled violence and ethnic cleansing all over the globe, the horrifying return of white nationalism at home, etc. make many of us feel as though we can hardly breathe most days, let alone deeply engage with reality as it is given to us. “Be grateful” has become a trite slogan written in a tacky cursive on an oversized pillow, a luxury we can no longer afford, a self-indulgence we know we ought to turn away from at a time like this. The political and actual climate in which we live is daily finding new ways to implode; the wisest among us seem utterly bereft of explanations or insights about how we got here or where we are headed now; and, it would seem, we have all but entirely lost our political and ethical moorings. And to make matters worse, if grace is at least partly dependent on a certain kind of relationship to the natural world, and I want to say that it very much is, then it would seem there is much reason to despair. We can no longer trust that the earth will provide, that it will nurture us and keep us safe, that it will always bring us back to some primordial part of our being. We have beaten Mother Earth down, tortured her beyond recognition—almost, anyway, but not quite—that it is reasonable to wonder: why would she give us anything at all other than an early end to life on this planet? But, of course, we know she will continue to give to us for as long as she can, until she has absolutely nothing left, because that is just what women do.

I also find grace in literature and fine writing, in particular, that of people like Marilynne Robinson, who writes so powerfully on the beauty that exists in human relationships that, from the outside, don’t seem like all that much. No other writer that I know of can illuminate the way that a certain generosity of spirit can be present in a heart that is marked with sorrow and heartache. In her beautiful novel, Lila, the narrator, Lila, who has lived an itinerant and rather rough life, without the comforts of a home or intimacy of a partnership, thinks the following of the older widowed pastor for whom she has developed something like fondness: “It felt very good to have him walking beside her. Good like rest and quiet, like something you could live without but you needed anyway. That you had to learn how to miss, and then you’d never stop missing it.” What Robinson gives with the one hand, she instantly takes away with the other. Lila might come to know a deep love unlike anything she has known before and it might even save her, but even that love will bring new heartache and fear, which she must learn to accept and live with if she is to make a life with this good and decent man. Writing about human relationships, Robinson shows us grace and gives us a reason to be hopeful, even in times of darkness: “This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is…So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.” I have been reading a lot of Robinson these last few weeks, as I try to make sense of the way in which joy and loss can co-exist and, incredibly, even spring forth at the same time. Isn’t it one of the human soul’s greatest mysteries?

Pamela Houston is another writer that I often turn to when I want to remember that we are still in relationship with this beautiful planet and we are not only duty-bound to care for it, but we lose a part of ourselves by turning away from it. I wish to cite a rather long passage from her latest work, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, a book that is as unsentimental as it is incredibly moving, because it is so very lovely and captures precisely what I mean:

“I have spent most of my life outside, but for the last three years, I have been walking five miles a day, minimum, wherever I am, urban or rural, and can attest to the magnitude of the natural beauty that is left. Beauty worth seeing, worth singing, worth saving, whatever that word can mean now. There is beauty in a desert, even one that is expanding. There is beauty in the ocean, even one that is on the rise. And even if the jig is up, even if it is really game over, what better time to sing about the earth than when it is critically, even fatally wounded at our hands. Aren’t we more complex, more interesting, more multifaceted people if we do? What good has the hollow chuckle ever done anyone? Do we really keep ourselves from being hurt when we sneer instead of sob? If we pretend not to see the tenuous beauty that is still all around us, will it keep our hearts from breaking…If we abandon all hope right now, does that in some way protect us from some bigger pain later? In what ways does it impoverish us? We are all dying, and because of us, so is the earth. That’s the most terrible, the most painful in my entire repertoire of self-torturing thoughts. But it isn’t dead yet and neither are we. Are we going to drop the earth off at the vet, say goodbye at the door, and leave her to die in the hands of strangers? We can decide, even now, not to turn our backs on her in her illness. We can still decide not to let her die alone.”

Now I know for a fact that Pam Houston is a good steward of this earth and that she does all the right things when it comes to taking care of Mother Earth, leaving only the faintest of footprints upon her—composting, recycling, upcycling, catching rain water in barrels, growing her food, etc. Any environmentalist could point to her as an exemplar of how to live well on this dying planet. That is all well and good, and, people, please keep carrying your compost on airplanes back home to your chickens if you feel the math works out (it doesn’t, but whatever). But what I am most interested in is not so much a person like Houston’s environmental practices as her ability and deep desire to keep counting blessings in the natural world, despite her knowledge that, as she says, the jig is up. Even inside of the most self-torturing thoughts she has, she finds beauty all around.

There it is—heartache sitting right there next to unbridled joy and boundless­­­­ love. I certainly do not know if God has looked upon a person like Houson with favor, and so given her the gift of grace. It’s not for me to say. But what I can say is this: despite a life filled with more pain and suffering than most of us will ever know, she has trained her eyes to look to the good, and has made for herself a grace-filled life. And that is a thing of beauty in itself, a reminder to all of us that we are the love we make in this life—every moment of every day. That’s grace.

In Flight

It also seems honorable that another woman would value motherhood over all my priorities. But I do not believe that I am selfish and she is not. There are women who chose motherhood for selfish reasons. There are mothers who act selfishly even if they chose motherhood in a burst of altruistic love. Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices and if generosity is a worthy life goal–and I believe it is–perhaps our task is to choose the path that for us creates its best opportunity.
― Pam Houston, “The Trouble With Having It All,” in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not To Have Kids

 

An old girlfriend of mine used to say that the world was divided into two kinds of people: those who can sleep on airplanes and those who cannot. That this was a sort of implicit commentary on the high-strung nature of those who can’t (me), and the more laid back, placid nature of those who can (her) did not escape me. If you know me at all, it will not surprise you to know that I have never been able to sleep on airplanes, and I am not particularly envious of those who can. I write this on an overnight flight to Tel Aviv. I look around as we, incredibly(!), fly through the atmosphere in a metal canister at an inconceivable speed and altitude, and here is humanity—slack jawed and utterly oblivious, eyes closed, breathing heavily, slumped against complete strangers, while the movies they started but have not the attention span to finish continue to play unwatched on their personal viewing screens.

I remember to be generous. Many of these people have days, weeks, months, perhaps even years, of hardship that I cannot fathom. Everyone here is tired.

It is precisely in these moments, when the rest of the world has given up their resolve, though, that I go into a kind of high-alert mode, unwilling to surrender to sleep when I probably should, and I will pay for my stubbornness later, no doubt. Why I always wind up when others wind down, I’m not really sure, but I suspect it has something to do with the quiet I enjoyed growing up as an only child and can never quite seem to recapture. Or perhaps it is my way of playing catch up, or even getting ahead, as I often do at night. This is especially the case when I am back home in Colorado. At night, once the boys have gone to bed and I am all alone, I frequently go out onto our second-level deck to sit under the stars. It is often cold by then, and always quiet. There is something about the silhouette of the peaks against the night sky illuminated, as they often are, by the moonlight on snow, that both puts my mind at ease and focuses it. My thinking tends to be the clearest and my writing the sharpest when I am there, in that place, just me and the vast night sky.

Everyone needs a place like this, where they feel more deeply connected to the natural world. For me, that place is in the San Juans—more specifically, the box canyon that cradles the town of Telluride. I am lucky enough to have traveled to some beautiful places in my lifetime, and to have even lived in a few. But none have moved me quite like the place I now call home. Beyond its breathtaking beauty and remoteness, it’s a place that was freely chosen, and required a goodly bit of sacrifice and trade-offs. The privilege that allowed us to make this choice is not lost on me and my family, not for a second. Still, the home we have made was the result of holding fast to a dream of living in these mountains and taking risks that others might not have taken if given the chance. I would be lying if I said I did not take some pride in that.

And, yet, I become restless if left in one place for too long, even a place as magical as Telluride. In an essay titled, “The Trouble With Having it All,” author Pam Houston writes that serious travel makes her feel “in relation to the world in an utterly essential way.” This resonates deeply with me, and I take her use of the word world here to mean something slightly different than the connection to the natural world that she establishes so beautifully in her newest work, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. When I travel, especially abroad and especially without my children, my own sense of self deepens, in that I remember things about who I am that have maybe been neglected for too long. But I also feel myself expand in totally unexpected ways, and that has not only to do with new experiences but with the way in which travel abroad—travel that is taken by pleasure and choice, and not the kind of horrific travel that many migrants and refugees are facing today—involves a kind of welcomed vulnerability, anonymity and receptivity to whatever might unfold. We have few obligations, are at the mercy of people and customs unfamiliar to us, and no routine to foreclose the possibility of the unknown. How freeing it can be.

Most women I know do not like to travel if it means being away from their kids. I am not one of those women. Indeed, Houston wonders if her own wanderlust is what kept her from choosing children, suggesting that a life of travel is incompatible with rearing children, and perhaps it is. I am certainly open to that claim. I do not travel quite enough to make the question a pressing one for our family. But the more I spend time in new places, even as I miss home and look forward to returning to those majestic mountains, the more I feel committed to exploring the unknown, because of the intrinsic value that travel holds and the way it makes me a better, more generous person; because of the immense pleasure it brings me; and, last but not least, because of the particular way in which it strengthens my marriage. When we meet up in a random airport and hop on a flight to somewhere far away, something we regularly make a point of doing, Joe and I have a chance to be adventurous again, to be with one another in an unhurried way, and to remember who we are together, as an entity independent from the children we have made. A lot of work goes into making that happen—long flights (usually me alone) with two small kids; my parents and extended family take on the not-so-small task of looking after our boys, who can be a lot, and here I am honestly being generous; I have to say goodbye to these little creatures who pretty much depend on me for everything; routines are upset; sleep is lost, a lot of money spent, and about halfway through the trip I have an ache in my chest for my children like no other. But it is all worth what is gained in the experience. The adventure Joe and I make together in travel is both a privilege and, again, a choice. A great many coupled folks I know want this chance, but lack the resources to make it happen; but of those that I know, even more have the chance, but, for whatever reason, do not take it. They have their reasons, to be sure. And perhaps they have found other things that make them feel in relation to the world in an utterly essential way. I very much hope that is the case.

An old yoga teacher of mine once described air travel—specifically, the physics and mechanics of flying—as “magic” (this particular teacher had an annoying habit of referring to anything she thought neat as “magical” or “auspicious”). At the time, my devotion already starting to wane, I recall quietly rolling my eyes and thinking, “No, lady, it’s actually the opposite—it’s science.”

Which is not to say that it isn’t wondrous. The way in which flying suspends and scrambles time, the way it manages to put us into a very particular place and yet no place at all, eventually dropping us off in totally foreign lands thousands of miles from home, is one of modernity’s most delightful and mysterious achievements. I am ever grateful for the unique way it brings me back to some essential part of me, something that has very much to do with a connectedness to humanity, all the while dislocating me from the mundaneness of my daily life and the grounded nature of it. For those of us who need relation to the world and to humanity in just this way, we get to be ourselves again, but by way of exploring new places and being with previously unknown people, expanding our understanding of humanity.  There is a kind of magic in that.

Although he does not always sleep well on the road, my husband, it will surprise literally no one who knows him, has learned to sleep when he knows he has to, when it can be put off no longer. He is, above all else, a survivor. Despite the hostile conditions to rest on this plane tonight, he seems to will himself to sleep right before my eyes: “I’m going to get some rest now,” he says, “and you should too.” Then he slips into hours of what seems to me like the best kind of sleep. I am amazed, and left to tap quietly on my keyboard in the noisy darkness of this Boeing 777.

Our lives are a bit complicated at the moment, and we are not in each other’s company as much as we would like, which is to say we are not together all of the time. In fact, we are apart most of the time—he, on the road, and me, in Telluride with the boys and our dog, Friday. A friend recently asked how the two of us navigate the usual tensions and annoyances in a marriage, given that we, essentially, do not live together as most married folks do. I replied that because we do not have the luxury (or headache, depending on how you see it on any given day, and on any given day it is a coin toss for me) of being together right now, we instinctively seek peace and avoid conflict when we are in each other’s company. We spend what little time we have together loving as hard as we can, and, for the most part, we overlook the rest. This answer is true, but surprises even me. Because it is not the life we imagined for ourselves, nor the one we wanted. One can never really know in advance the many forms a commitment to a shared life will take as a result of things you didn’t choose, but with which you, nonetheless, learn to live.

As he sleeps next to me, I find that I am unable to stop staring at his face, illuminated only by the light of my computer screen. I closely examine every line there, the ones I used to trace with my fingers in the dark and some new ones, for which I am, no doubt, responsible; the whiskers beginning to poke through his skin after a long day and an even longer week of travel; and the way his brown flat cap slopes downward across his forehead and the top of his nose while he sleeps. Our absence from one another makes these moments all the more precious. For a brief moment, I recall a time when it was he who would stay up all night watching me, making sure I didn’t go anywhere, he would say. It was not entirely without cause that he did so. But we have been married a while now, have two kids, and have pretty well demonstrated that neither party is willing to let the other walk away without a fight, so everyone usually sleeps pretty easy. The fact that we are here in this airplane just now on our way to a far-off land, and yet nowhere at all really, is a gift I would not trade for the same amount of time with my children, or for anything.

A heart will soften and expand in response to different experiences depending on the person. I was recently in the company of one of the loveliest women I know, and in her I always observe an unparalleled heart-opening and generosity of spirit when she is with her three children, in the beautiful home she has created for them. Her patience with each child and, indeed, with everyone around her, seems to me to be endless, and her ability to see the world through the eyes of her children in the smallest ways is a thing to behold. This is true for me as a mother only some of the time, but I am growing more into it every day.

Just as much as when I am holding my children tight, my heart expands when I am in flight, so to speak. Travel, wherever it takes me, has a way of activating a fellow-creature response inside of me that can only arise, I am convinced, out of the unique constellation of vulnerability, anonymity, and a receptivity to the unknown that accompanies it. And rather than take me away from my children (which, of course, in the most obvious and short-term way, it does), travel returns me to them a slightly better person than before, more willing and able to see the world through their eyes, and with greater receptivity to all that is unfolding for each of us.

Telluride Bride

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I knew I wanted to live in Telluride and marry Joe at exactly the same moment. We had been bathing in a stream in town park just after a long run on part of the Hardrock course that goes right through town. This was back when we had the time, stamina, and inclination to run all day long, and when I would not have thought twice about stripping down to only my underwear and hopping in an ice-cold stream to “get clean,” because Joe said it was a good idea. Nowadays, our runs are much shorter and rarely happen together, and I find his proclivity for “roughing it” less cute than I once did. But it was the summer of 2012, and everything about him impressed and intrigued me. I had just wrapped up an intense yoga teacher training in Costa Rica. Joe met me in Denver and we drove to Telluride, a place he had loved for a long time and was eager to share with me. We were both emerging from relationships—his, a longtime marriage that produced three beautiful children and little else; mine, a brief but complicated entanglement with a person who was troubled and abusive. In any event, I was standing with a towel wrapped around me, shivering from the nearly freezing water, my muscles already feeling fatigued, gazing up at Virginus Pass, down which we had just descended into town, and thinking I want to be here for the rest of my life with exactly this person. I remember that I turned to him as we were putting our clothes back on and said, “I want to live here.” He said, in a tone of complete and total confidence that is now so familiar to me: “We can do that.”

Now, here we are. Five years in a house we loved in Chapel Hill, two more babies, and a year spent in California later, we have landed in almost exactly the same spot where those words were uttered to one another. Although snow still covers much of the ground here, I know Spring is just around the corner, and much like the columbines ready to push their way up through the dirt, I feel like I am about to re-emerge as a version of myself that is warmer, brighter, and who I am meant to be.

This past year has tested me personally and tested my marriage in ways that I, quite stupidly, did not anticipate.

Upending our lives and moving to the Bay Area for Joe to take a big job with a startup in Silicon Valley, leaving a job that I mostly liked, moving away from friends and a large extended family that I dearly love, leaving three children I helped to raise and love very much, not to mention saying goodbye to a large and loving yoga community in which I was both teacher and student for the better part of a decade. I suppose it is was my generally optimistic nature and can-do-it attitude that blinded me from seeing early on that this would demand more of me—physically, emotionally, and even morally—than almost anything ever has before. So much of my identity seemed to vanish overnight and I became only wife to Joe Lea and mother to Jonah and Oliver. Those three are great, but I never wanted them to be what defined me and or to be my only connection to the outside world, not by a long shot.

Some people will say it’s a privilege or a luxury to not work (or, more precisely, to not have to work) and to “just be able to stay home with your kids.” I’m not really one of those people. Of course, it is a kind of privilege to not be forced to work a job you don’t really want to in order to make ends meet, that is obviously true and too many people, sadly, live this way for the duration of their entire life. But it’s a kind of uninteresting point that obscures the politics and complexity of work and labor within a family (regardless of one’s class or status), the fact that whether women stay home or work outside of the home is almost always a highly constrained choice in a way that it just isn’t for men, what one gives up when one does not earn one’s own money by way of participation in the labor market, and, most importantly, the centrality of work to our public life and persona. If we are lucky, work, regardless of whether it is collecting trash, cutting hair, or teaching Latin, gives our life purpose, meaning, and connection to a wider community. It’s a Marxian point that I have understood on a cognitive level for a long time now, but didn’t really understand until this last year. When work went away for me—both teaching at a university and teaching yoga—I was thrown into a deeply and darkly private world, where I felt left behind, by my husband, my friends, my colleagues, and, basically, everything and everyone. I was completely at sea, but drowning in the labor that care for young children requires, made exponentially harder by the fact that my partner is gone a lot of the time. I was so busy that I did not have much time or energy to process the fact that I was, for the first time ever in my entire life, depressed. Blek.

It’s a story that my friends are, no doubt, tired of hearing and not the one I wish to tell again here, except to say three things: 1) staying home with my kids is the hardest work I will ever do, and though I am grateful for the time with them, I remain deeply skeptical of the idea that the “choice” to stay home makes women or their children better, happier people, 2) the time, energy, and resources my children demand have all made me less interesting and cognitively sharp in equal measure, at least for the time-being, and I pray every day that I will return in relatively short order to the sharp-witted, dynamic person I at least think I used to be. I needn’t be beautiful anymore, but I will die if I remain this boring and tired, 3) when my life has felt like it was unraveling over the course of this past year, I found it very helpful to read and write. I’ve always done both, for as long as I can remember anyway, but this year these practices were my lifeboats. One ensured the survival of an inner-life, even if threadbare, and served to remind me of the fragility and messiness of human life, especially one that is shared in a marriage, while the other has signaled, both to myself and to others, that I still have a voice and occasional thoughts about the world. I’m ever-grateful for these practices.

Here in Telluride, it has always been impossible for me to not feel at home and inspired. As I look out onto the horizon of yet another big life change, bleary-eyed and distracted with all there is to do to get our family settled here, I cannot help but feel re-connected to some part of me and even to my husband, though he is gone most of the time. When my female feminist theory students used to ask me what to look for in a partner, I would often say, on the record, if you must marry, marry someone who will support your career and be willing to step back so you can step up, and who will never pressure you to take yourself out of the labor market to stay home with the kids. I still think that’s good advice. But life is about making hard choices, and we trade our principles for personal happiness all the time. It’s hard to say this to an undergrad and not feel like a jerk. So, off the record, I would say this: only marry if you find someone you can’t live without, someone who is willing to put everything on the line to make your dreams come true, whatever they may be. Joe and I have stolen as much from each other over the years as we have given to one another, that is a hard truth about any marriage. But I married someone I cannot live without, and he’s put it all on the line for us to end up here, in this extraordinary place. At 40, I’ve got a lot of regrets, about choices I made or chances I never took, for sure. But marrying the man I fell in love with in Telluride, the one who actually delivered on that promise made all those years ago, will never be one of them.

 

On Blood and Honor

Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

                                                                       –Ephesians, 6:2-3, RSV

“Life, every man holds dear; but the dear man holds honor far more precious-dear, than life.”

                                                                        —William Shakespeare,Troilus and Cressida

Tonight, I took my children over to my grandmother’s place to say goodnight, as I do every night when I am home visiting my parents in Richmond. She lives with them, so it is a short trip and one they really look forward to each night. This evening was special, though, as one of my uncles was visiting with her. It has been a difficult week here, as my grandfather passed away last Monday, November 26th, on my fortieth birthday, as fate would have it. Uncle Dennis had come by, I imagine, to spend a little extra time with his mother, to offer some comfort, and to take away some of the loneliness for just a little bit. (Also, he had come for ham. This is a normal occurrence in my family, and one will travel great distances well into the evening hours, if it is offered.) My grandmother is blessed with five living children, and too many grandchildren and great-grandchildren to count, all of whom will help her to begin this new chapter of her life, we say. But she is old. So what we really mean is that we will help her to die a little less lonely than she otherwise would have. We will make her last years as happy as we can.

When I was in graduate school studying political theory, it was rather in fashion, for a time, to romanticize the idea of loneliness as a “way of life.” <Insert eye-roll emoji here.> Even back then, at such a time when one is apt to find every sort of faddish idea sexy, no matter how ludicrous and inane, I knew that particular line of thought was lame, thought up by male graduate students who had clearly run out of words to plug in at the end of “the politics of ______,” a phrase out of which so much BS is spun in the discipline of political theory. Oh, I got it! Loneliness! Because drinking black coffee by myself in cafes and taking long walks alone at night is so meaningful and deep, man. Aloneness is a prerequisite for the pursuit of knowledge. I am always already alone. We come into the world alone, and we leave it totally…alone. And other stupid things, etc., etc. Now that I am older and struggling with my own feelings of unwelcomed loneliness of a particular sort, I think back to the postmodern obsession with loneliness of my grad school days with even more antipathy. One need only witness a grieving old woman put her husband in the ground to know that loneliness is a cruel and devastating thing. And it is something one cannot really know until one has lived a wholly shared life, in whatever form. The pangs of true loneliness are only felt after one has been cut off, physically or even emotionally, from the loving company of another—whether a parent, a child, a spouse, or a dear friend. But someone with whom a life was shared.

I know something about loneliness now; namely, that I do not want it for myself or for those I love.

In any case, this particular uncle is a preacher and a father of five. Although he is not especially loquacious at family gatherings, he is a good one, probably better than most of us, to offer healing words that might restore some hope and faith. I was glad to see him again, so soon after our time together this weekend. He is fairly conservative, and I am fairly liberal; he is traditional, while I am progressive; he is a man of God who shepherds a church, and I am a woman who believes but continues to struggle with religion and its place in my and my children’s life. He used to tease me unmercifully about my veganism and political views, and I have been known to furiously take notes during his sermons, on the few I have attended, mapping out the fallacies and incoherencies, my mother shaking her head and nodding, unclear with whom she was in agreement (definitely, me). I was young, then, and rejecting so much of what I now find comforting — God, tradition, family, and, yes, the wisdom of age and experience. Don’t misunderstand, we still have relatively little in common and do not see each other very often; nevertheless, we have an unspoken affinity for one another, despite the failings we might see in each other. Failings that are, no doubt, thrown into sharp relief when we are in each other’s company, at least it seems to me that my own are. Nevertheless, he is “blood kin,” as we say. There is nothing I would not do for him or any one of his children, my cousins. The same is true for all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I was reminded of this fact at my grandfather’s funeral this past weekend, a grandfather who, interestingly, was not our “blood kin,” as he was my grandmother’s fourth husband—rich, I know, and it gets even better than that—but we are a family whose love has an absorptive quality that easily forgets the significance of a bloodline. We all came together, some of us not seen or heard from in years, to mourn this loss and to say to each other: you can count on this, we will be here, no matter the time and space between us. Family is one of the many things we take for granted in our youth. Knowing this, I try to be forgiving of our teenagers’ aloofness in the presence of their family. It is one of the many nuggets they will have to come by the hard way.

As we were saying our goodnights to my grandmother and goodbyes to my uncle tonight, and the boys were climbing into their great uncle’s lap for a hug and kiss, I was struck by the intimacy of the moment. They do not know him all that well, and my littlest, Jonah, has probably only been in his company a handful of times. It helps, perhaps, that Oliver, the four year-old, is a carbon copy of me as a child (and, okay, even now), and so perhaps this, too, explains some of the sweetness between them. As Olive opened his arms for a hug and leaned in to give his great uncle a kiss goodnight, my Uncle Dennis took his small face in his hands and said softly to him, “Oliver, be good for your mama, and honor her.” Oliver wriggled and smiled, and Dennis gently said it again: “Honor your mother always, son. Listen to her, she is wise.”

It was touching because it was so sincere and was a rare kind of exchange between an adult and child in that it was not performative in nature. So often, such things are said to a child for the benefit of other adults in the room, namely the parents, a thing which I have always found sad and irritating. But this was said in earnest and was for the sake of my child only. It was also interesting to me that he used that word—honor—because it is not one I use often as a parent, though I am not opposed to it. But it just so happened, that I had used it with Oliver and Jonah for the first time this Sunday, at the funeral. And I thought hard, though not very lucidly, about it then. The boys kept asking me what was happening, at each step of the way, and one of the things I would repeat to them is that this is how we honor Cliff (the name of their great-grandfather). We honor him by being here as he is laid to rest. We honor him by re-membering him, that is, by telling stories of him in such a way as to put the pieces of his life together for the sake of all of us who have only our memories of him now. We honor him by paying our respects, which is to say, by showing up and acknowledging the unique individuality and preciousness of a human life, that there has never been, nor will ever be, another one quite like him. These are things I said because I didn’t know what else to say. They are little, so I also talked of heaven, Cliff’s readiness to die, and his “spirit” (do they even know what that is? do I?) that is always with us, not because I am certain of any of that, but because such things bring comfort to a child and because I found myself completely bereft of any other language upon which to draw.

My uncle and I have both studied the ancient Greeks—he, as a seminary student and religious scholar; I, as a political theorist. Although we likely approach these texts differently, I suspect our proclivity for the ancients means that we would find common ground around the structure of a child’s moral education, if not its content. In other words, we can probably both generally agree that a child learns something of goodness, first, by being told (by someone who is good and wise) that something is good; second, by being made to practice the good and to experience the pleasure that comes with goodness, or, you might say, mimicking goodness (not yet really knowing why it is good, in the first place); third and finally, by explaining through reason why something is good. This is a rough summary of my own approach to parenting, and also of what we can glean was Aristotle’s notion of the moral development of children. I recognize it has an authoritarian bent, and so I also encourage things like curiosity, exploration, creativity, and even disagreement, like any decent liberal parent does. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I think I am sufficiently wizened to teach them about the good, and, though they have their own insight and point of view (which I try mightily to take into account), they have, as my uncle jokingly remarked tonight when they came goofily bounding into the room, “no wisdom, whatsoever, just boundless energy.” At forty, I have plenty of wisdom, but almost no energy.

He said, honor your mother. And when I was putting Oliver to bed tonight, he asked me, “How do I honor you, mama?” Of course, we do not honor the dead in the same way that we honor the living, and so I had to think fast on my feet. I told him that he honored me by listening to me, by learning from me, and by living the best life he could every day, which means learning from his mistakes, not never making them. Then he asked, “What is honor made of, mama?” These are the moments in parenting when you wish you had a pause button. And this very moment is precisely why Aristotle believed it was best to explain the good only after a child had acquired the capacity for reason and judgment, and as smart as Olive is, he does not yet qualify at four years of age. Nevertheless, I came up with this answer on the fly: honor is made of the stuff that’s in your heart that you cannot see but know is there. Honor is made up of the actions that you take when you want to live a life that is as good as the person you most admire.

Of course, I hope this person will be me one day, but I am at least wise enough to know that if that day ever comes, it will be a long way off. And will I be deserving, even?

Most people think me a good daughter, a dutiful and loving one, and I am. But I have not always honored my own parents. In fact, I have dishonored them in countless ways, big and small, over the years. Perhaps dishonor is too strong a word here. But I have certainly failed to honor them, by not heeding their advice, by not living by their good example, and by rarely learning from my own stupid mistakes, especially when I was young and so dim as to not see that they are people deserving of all the honor I have to give.

At forty, I find that I am thinking quite a lot about how to honor my mother and father. And one does that in different ways at different stages of life. In one’s midlife, of course, it would be insufficient to merely take the good advice of a parent and learn from one’s mistakes, though that would at least be a start. No, I have reached a point in life at which honoring them while they are living means having to take a long, hard look at my own life and the choices I have made and make every day, and to ask myself: am I living a life of which they have thought me capable and worthy, both by virtue of being their flesh and blood and by way of the innumerable resources they have bestowed upon me? The answer to that question is almost certainly not yes. It’s not necessarily no either. It’s likely somewhere in between, loosely tethered to the clichéd concept of a “work in progress.” How…unremarkable.

I find it odd and somewhat unfortunate that a concept like honor is generally thought to reside in the domain of religion or antiquated traditions. Indeed, it creeps right up next to something like the concept of obedience among liberals (and in the Book of Ephesians, where the commandments are given, honor comes directly after the commandment to obey your parents), and we think those who use it in the way my uncle did—in a casual sort of way, but suggestive of a hierarchy and a conference of authority—to be a bit out of touch with the values of an egalitarian and free society. I confess this might be my usual response to the directive: honor your mother. And, yet, so much of my own inner-strife these days is ultimately about a fear that I will fail to do so, and not because of some unhealthy psycho-emotional hang-up from which I must release myself in order to be truly happy and self-actualized (and other things one learns in therapy). Rather, the fear of failing to honor both my mother and my father is completely rational, because it would mean that I have not lived the good and noble life they set out for me to live by their own example.

A person is never really lonely if they have people in their life who have earned the distinction of honor, and I count myself among those so blessed. For I have many. There is so much work to be done.

What a privilege it was to honor Cliff, in life and in death. We will miss you so.

 

 

 

 

Six Months in the Valley: the Man Problem in High Tech

If you live in Silicon Valley, or just on planet Earth, and you are surprised by the story that broke out of Google in the last few weeks, wherein an insane number of executives were found to have sexually harassed and violated female employees, the company engaged in massive payouts and cover-ups, and is now doing the shameless but familiar public display of hand-wringing over what to do about the “problem of women in high tech,” you either think way too highly of moderately smart people who make a ridiculous amount of money or you literally live under a rock. That particular story had been circulating in the media for at least a year—the pay-offs weren’t widely known, but the horrifying “bro culture” at the company certainly was, as it is ubiquitous in Silicon Valley. Similarly, disgusting accounts of sexist and misogynistic cultures at companies like Tesla, Uber, Facebook, Amazon and countless other smaller firms have been uncovered over the last few years involving everything from sexual harassment, racial tension, worker exploitation, toxic culture, and just plain old corruption. I’m a recent transplant to Silicon Valley, and after living here less than six months, I have just GOT to say: WOW, people who work in high tech, what the ever-lasting FUCK is going on in your industry?

Earlier this year, I left a career as an academic advisor and professor of politics and gender studies at University of North Carolina to move to the Bay Area with my family. Although excited to move out west, it was not without some trepidation that I made the leap. My husband, an executive in high tech, took a big job with a small cybersecurity firm, and the deal was that I would stay home with the kids for a while and focus on writing, while he worked outside the home in a very intense capacity, as is customary in a start-up. In return, I got a one-way ticket out of North Carolina, the freedom to pursue other creative and intellectual interests that I have neglected for some time, the chance to live in a beautiful and culturally rich place, and, oh yeah, precious time with my kids. Although this is a common arrangement here in Silicon Valley, it was totally unexpected in our lives and uncharted territory for us. It was also something about which I was deeply ambivalent. Needless to say, this move out here was a big risk for me, professionally and personally. I’m still unsure if it was the right decision.

I managed to survive the summer at home with my kids, but only barely. By early Fall, I had begun to put out feelers in the consulting and high tech world, and had started looking into teaching again part-time. This seemed like a good fit for me, given my background and the obvious need for this sort of work in this region of the country and in the industry. Much of my academic work focused on feminism, gender equality, and queer political thought, and it would be fair to say that I have extensive knowledge of the challenges women and other minorities face in the corporate world, and in high tech in particular. I also have plenty of anecdotal knowledge, as my husband’s previous company, once a darling in the world of high-tech with some seriously impressive funding, was a deeply sexist place, with precisely the sort of misogynistic and toxic culture that is, sadly, quite common in Silicon Valley. My very first experience visiting their headquarters sounded major alarms for me personally, and it struck me as a massively unprofessional, if somewhat anodyne, workplace.

Still, nothing quite prepared me for the tapestry of complete and utter bullshit that I have witnessed since taking up residence here, and having been baptized by the fire of high-tech culture in Palo Alto. Truly, it is astonishing. And maybe it’s precisely because I am a total outsider—geographically, culturally, and intellectually—that I am totally baffled by what passes for normal out here in Silicon Valley with respect to gender relations, but from where I sit it looks to me like high tech has issues that it has not even begun to seriously face. Worse, my conversations and interviews with industry leaders and insiders—VC’s, executives, recruiters, founders, consultants, and developers—suggest that very little beyond basic cosmetic work in the area of equality, inclusivity, and diversity is taking place. How this could be true, even as we are daily learning more and more about what an awful place this is for women, is truly mind-boggling? Indeed, it is hard to imagine the press getting worse, though I’m not holding my breath, since I know that things can always worsen where sexism and inequality are concerned. After six months in the Valley, this much is clear: high tech has a serious man problem and it is way past time that we figure out what to do about it.

Reframing the Problem

Going back at least a decade now, researchers and academics, industry elites and insiders, and the media have been sounding alarms about the “woman problem in high tech.” Countless articles and books have been written on the subject, non-profits have sprung up to encourage more girls and women to enter into STEM fields, funds are now allocated for female founders, special positions created to manage and promote diversity and inclusivity in companies, and outreach programs have surfaced as a way to entice women into the field. Tomes have been written on this subject of why there are so few women in high tech, and often the reasons proffered are no different than in any other industry. There are not enough women in high-visibility, c-level positions; women tend to be more “non-technical” and most positions require relatively high degrees of technological expertise; persistence of a significant pay gap (both a cause and effect of few women in high-tech); lack of networking initiatives for women; workplace expectations that are incompatible with child-rearing and family life, for which women are still overwhelmingly responsible, even in dual-earner households; not enough women in STEM; enough women going into STEM majors but not enough staying in STEM fields long-term; poor fit culturally for women; women need to lean in more, etc. You’ll notice that almost all of the reasons tend to focus on women’s behavior, choices, or “preferences.” This is convenient, of course, because it makes the problem appear to be outside the boundaries of high-tech itself, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Things are improving for women in other fields and industries, but still lag incredibly far behind in high tech, both in terms of female representation and a less sexist culture. For all its talk of progressivism and forward-thinking, high tech has a culture that is a shockingly regressive and displays an overt hostility to the presence of women. It is riddled with overt and implicit bias, is expressly misogynistic and sexist, and tends to reward women who either conform to traditional gender stereotypes or who participate in and recapitulate the chauvinist culture that defines so much of the industry, thus each, in their own way, perpetuating the cycle of gender inequality in high tech.

Despite a real readiness on the part of women to make major contributions to this field and despite powerful incentives, financial and otherwise, for investors, founders, and executives—that is, those with real power—to focus their energies on solving the “woman problem in high tech,” not much progress has been made in recent years, and much of what has been done feels more cosmetic than substantive. One would think that the horrible press alone would be a catalyst for the kind of change that is needed, but there seems to be both a troubling collective sigh of relief every time some other company is exposed for wrongdoing and a diffusion of responsibility where the general problem is concerned. But one thing is clear. So long as we continue to think of the problem as one having primarily to do with women instead of the men who shape the culture, act as gatekeepers, and wield enormous power from the very highest levels all the way down, very little is likely to change.

Here’s the problem: Most men in the industry, like men everywhere, don’t want to give up or even share the power they currently enjoy and to which they believe they are absolutely entitled. And though many tech bros do not explicitly think about gender relations or their own privilege, they are, it turns out, smart enough to know that, though there may be many returns—even monetary ones—on the investment of gender equality, though it may even be the right thing to do (which many seem to have some dim awareness of), though they may be facing external pressures to create more inclusive, equal, and diverse workplaces, one thing that is going to disappear once equality, diversity, and inclusivity become the norm (instead of just empty buzz words), is the enormous power and status they currently and, for the most part, unjustly enjoy in this industry. Further, the frat house vibe to which they have grown so accustomed, the brotopia that author Emily Chang recently wrote about in her book by the same title, is also likely to vanish. In other words, taking women and gender equality seriously in Silicon Valley will just be no fun for a lot of dudes. They will lose some of their board seats, executive positions, stock, and decision-making power to women; they will have to tone it down in and out of the office; and they will have to stop behaving like oversexed juveniles in a pissing contest all the time. It will be a total fucking downer.

Progress, But Not Really

Both the geographical region of the Valley and the profession is, in general, very liberal and progressive, so there is a somewhat surprising disconnect between that political progressivism and the totally regressive professional culture that constitutes so much of high tech. And the former, in a totally bizarre way, seems to cover all manner of sin for the latter. Whenever I am in conversation with folks in the industry about “the woman problem” it is often as if they cannot accept that there is a problem in the first place, at least not one that is systemic and rooted in a disturbing culture that they are a part of, because it does not comport with their own self-understandings and the otherwise socially progressive culture in which the live and work. Most people who work in SV are accustomed to seeing themselves as super cutting-edge and probably even count themselves among those who literally create and define “the real world,” and that is not an entirely inaccurate picture. At the same time, very few of them realize how massively out of step Silicon Valley is with the actual real world and how totally bass-ackwards things are in their work places and in much of the entire culture here in the Valley. I am regularly taken aback by the considerable gap in how progressive and hip everyone appears to be and how totally unhip things really are when it comes to gender relations and a toxic masculinity that permeates nearly every space, conversation, and transaction.

Progressive values are touted heavily, and the language of “good culture,” “diversity,” and “inclusion” adopted broadly across the industry, which gives off the effect of everyone being sufficiently enlightened. But this is bullshit. Sexism is rampant, and the progressive brand of misogyny found in the world of high tech has the unexpected effect of making it even easier to dismiss women. The right values may be formally in place, but corresponding actions are not. Most men are married to highly educated women; most support women’s rights in theory and do not ascribe to a conservative view of gender relations; most are used to working with at least a few very competent women, and some even report to women. Yet, many, if not most, of the men I meet have wives who, though highly educated, stay home (usually with kids, but sometimes not) full or part-time and have put their own professional and often personal goals on hold for them. And so they live in a very traditional arrangement day-to-day, despite more progressive views on women and gender; and, because there are so few women in high tech, especially in a niche area like cybersecurity and AI, most see the women with whom they work as exceptions to the rule. And when a woman is pushed out of a company, either directly or indirectly, without any clear reason as to why, the response given is usually something vague: “She was okay, I can’t quite put my finger on what it was about her…she just seemed unhappy all the time…hard to say exactly what it was about her…I honestly don’t know…she just wasn’t a good fit with our culture.” Uh, yeah, no shit.

There are likely several things contributing to the disconnect between progressive values and sexism in Silicon Valley. The first is that a lot of people the field of high tech companies when they are very young, fresh out of college or business school, and so sort of oblivious to best practices when it comes to inclusivity and equality, and what women (and men) should expect in terms of an environment that is comfortable for and welcoming to all. In other words, although they may have a highly valuable skill set (or just willing to take big risks and work an enormous amount in the hopes of making a ton of money one day), many entering this profession are often hugely lacking in life and work experience. Indeed, my husband, who is an executive at a cybersecurity startup, notes that it is often people in the mid- to later-stages of their career—in their forties and fifties, say—who demonstrate a far better understanding of what constitutes a healthy and just workplace environment than younger women and men. One female developer in cybersecurity that I interviewed began her career in high tech later in life, and she enjoys a considerable degree of respect and success in her field, which she attributes to the kind of no-bullshit attitude that an older woman with other work and life experience might be more likely to adopt. Although she has been subjected to overt sexism in the workplace, she knew how to recognize, name, and navigate it, and perhaps because she is so well-respected by her male peers, several stepped in to shut the behavior down, as well. This particular woman’s story is unique, as she neither conforms to feminine gender norms in the workplace nor participates in the chauvinist culture to succeed; she does not have to do either, and she recognizes this is unusual for women in her field. This does seem to be changing a bit, in the wake of the #metoo movement and a collective consciousness about sexual harassment and violence, younger women too often grin and bear it in high tech, even becoming co-opted by the culture, and, sadly, some believe this is what it means to pay one’s dues, while the bros are all too happy to carry on as they did in college for as long as they possibly can, but with the trappings of adulthood—a wife who stays home with the kids, stock options, an expensive sports car, disposable income that most Americans can only dream of.

Another important factor in the progressive/sexist dichotomy in high tech (and the Bay Area, in general) has to do with the way in which technology is worshiped out here and there exists a false belief that technology itself has no gender, and so is, by its very nature, progressive and inherently post-gender. Like science, we tend to think of it as totally void of gender, race, age, and values in general. This myth has long been debunked in science and philosophy. We know, for example, that the kind of research that gets funded, the sorts of questions that are asked, the way in which variables are operationalized, etc., are all a product of human preferences, biases, and motives (not to mention, quite obviously, funding). Science is not value-free at all, nor should it necessarily be. Although ongoing corruption and even criminal activity at places like Facebook, Uber, Tesla, and Google have shed new light on just how badly many of these companies are lacking in any values at all, we still tend to think of the technology itself—that is, coding, software, and even most basic concepts—as gender free. But this is so totally false as to be laughable and one need look no further than AI for the proof of this lie. The ontology of AI machines—from sexbots, to autonomous weapons systems, to virtual voice and care assistants—is overwhelmingly male and, many have argued, deeply patriarchal. As a good friend of mine and one of the smartest political thinkers I know, Lisa Fox, recently said, “What we want: a more just, sustainable and equal society. What we’ll get: SEX ROBOTS!!!” Neat. On a more positive note, aps developed by women, like bsafe and Buy Up Index, demonstrate the gendered nature of technology and the power that women software developers and women founders really do have to help create a more just, equitable world. And just earlier this year, Forbes Magazine highlighted some truly phenomenal women founders and researchers making major advancements in the world of AI. They are doing truly incredible work, often having to overcome challenges their male peers do not. So, all is not lost.

It would be a mistake to not also take into account the role that the #metoo movement and the backlash against it plays in all of this. The #metoo movement, which was started by American activist and community organizer, Tarana Burke, and popularized by Hollywood actresses in the Fall of 2017 in the wake of stories breaking about sex crimes committed by Harvey Weinstein, has permeated nearly every industry and facet of our lives. Much of what we have learned—and when I say “we,” I mostly mean men, since women already knew how we are treated day in and day out—was already laid out in a systemic and scientific way in the “Elephant in the Valley” study, a study released by Stanford and partners in the industry in 2016. It says basically what you would expect: the vast majority of women surveyed report lacking a seat at the table; most report they have a problem with being seen as either “too meek” or “too harsh”; 75% of women report being asked about family and children while on interviews; an overwhelming majority report sexual harassment and, of those, 60% report dissatisfaction with the course of action that was taken. As is typical of all feminist movement, and cultural turning points like #metoo, there is now serious backlash, most of which is wholly unwarranted and knee-jerk reaction by men (and some women, too) who are being asked to do better. Just recently, NPR released survey data showing that, although 69% of people surveyed think that the movement has helped to create a climate in which offenders will be held accountable, more than 40% feel that movement has gone too far. It is unclear what “too far” means, but, generally speaking, it is suggestive of a fear that men will suffer overmuch as a result of the movement.

Indeed, my own conversations bear this out to an astonishing degree. In the last month, I have met with a number of high-level men in the industry to discuss the possibility of consulting for start-ups in the early stages and more established companies who want and need to do better on the score of gender equality. They have all been fine enough people (some very lovely, sincere, and thoughtful people) and, on paper at least, committed to improving the climate out here for women; and, yet, within the first few minutes of our conversations, several brought up the #metoo movement in conjunction with concerns they had around “playing the blame game,” “pointing fingers,” and taking a line that was “overly harsh” when it comes to the role that men play in creating and perpetuating “the woman problem” in Silicon Valley. Indeed, they all said, in their best B-school mansplaining voices (to me! to fucking me!): Pointing the finger at men doesn’t help anyone. To which I say: Yeah, it fucking does, dude, and you well know that, don’t you? It helps women. Naming bad behavior, and the men who engage in it, turns out to be hugely helpful for individual women (for starters, many find it empowering and, more obviously, an offender can’t be removed if they aren’t named). Further, as the #metoo movement has clearly demonstrated, when women name their offenders and speak out loud about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment it is very helpful to women as a group. Because, although we are vastly different in countless other ways, we face shared obstacles and disadvantages across a range of industries and workplaces and knowing that makes us feel less alone, both as victims and people who want to make things better. I think what these men meant to say is that pointing the finger at men doesn’t help them, and so it makes them uncomfortable and they don’t wish to endorse ideas or strategies that implicate them, don’t directly benefit them or, best of all, applaud them. Got it.

On the one hand, it seems totally imbecilic to worry about a concerted effort to improve things for women in high tech amounting to “blaming all men.” The vilification of men by women in this field is not really a thing. Literally no woman I know, in the corporate world anyway, thinks it’s a good or strategically viable idea to go around blaming all men—not for sexism or anything else. It is totally offensive to women working on this stuff to suggest as much, actually. In fact, quite the opposite, most women are still naive enough (or generous, depending on how you look at it) to give individual men the benefit of the doubt, even in the face of strong evidence to suggest that perhaps they should not. And literally no strategic plan, development training, or even conversation around gender in the Valley to which I have been privy goes something like this: Blame all the men and give us their jobs! The end! It’s usually more like this: Hold men as a group accountable? Meh, maybe a tiny bit. Hold men who are offenders accountable? Sure, okay, get rid of the few bad apples. Have women do most of the heavy lifting and make sure they are doing things like “leaning in” and constantly reporting shitty behavior despite the risks to them personally and professionally: Definitely! Further, many women, especially in sales, marketing, and HR positions, which is where the overwhelming majority of women are in this industry, are much more likely to either be co-opted or experience strong pressure to “go along to get along,” than they are to buck the establishment. When I hear a man fret about “villainizing white men” in the first few minutes of a conversation about how to make the Valley a more equal, less hostile place for women and minorities, I know immediately that this person is not worth my time and walk right the fuck out. It isn’t that there aren’t really compelling critiques to be made concerning the inefficacy and even immorality of blaming all white men, it’s just that no one is really doing that in the first place and that it is actually totally fine, even important, for those who are culpable, either directly or as bystanders of sexual harassment or gendered discrimination, be held accountable (i.e. BLAMED).

New Solutions to an Old AF Problem

It is hard to know exactly what will shake the dudes of Brotopia out of the Mad Men episode in which they currently live. Despite all that I have just said about accountability and acknowledging when specific men are the problem, I do think a great place to begin thinking differently about what I have called the “man problem in high tech” is to move away from the “all women are the problem/all men are the problem” dichotomous explanations and solutions when working in the field to improve gender relations and the situation for women in high tech. Yes, it is important that we hold individuals accountable and that we work to train and prepare women as a group differently so that they are better equipped to navigate a biased and broken system. However, we know that just telling women to “lean in,” although sometimes effective, doesn’t actually change broader patterns and systemic problems for companies and the culture of high tech, and it often doesn’t even alter the situation of individual women that much. It can be an incredibly stressful approach that places overmuch responsibility on individual women to solve a problem that is well beyond their individual control, no matter how powerful or empowered they may be. And, unsurprisingly, men (and women leaders), especially high achievers in the world of high tech, are not going to be especially receptive to making the problem about their own poor values and bad behavior (even if, in some ways, that is precisely what it is about, hence the title of this piece). The fact is that there are plenty of feminist men in high tech, men who are willing to call out bad behavior when they see it and to be allies for their female colleagues; men who want to work for companies that treat everyone with respect and that take the concerns of women and minorities seriously. What we need is a multi-pronged approach that focuses on implicit biases that affect everyone, misogynistic and sexist cultural norms in a company that may be hard to see and which are often upheld and reinforced by both genders in different ways, a strong emphasis on aligning the business goals of companies with a broader social commitment to inclusivity and gender equality, and, finally, widespread support for women who are victims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination and serious accountability for perpetrators. That accountability should not just be formal in nature; when educatory and rehabilitative efforts by peers and superiors prove unsuccessful, sanctioning should come in the form of social ostracism and marginalization by co-workers. There will always be an in and an out-group. Okay, fine. The in-group ought to consist of those who are not down with shitty sexist behavior, and the out-group ought to consist of the lame dudes who can’t seem to grow up. I concede that this seems like a gross oversimplification. It is also the case that people are fired every day out here for a lot less than, say, inappropriate and unwelcome touching or harassment while intoxicated at a work event. Those sorts of things happen all the time and the degree of either protection or hand-wringing over what to do in cases where problematic sexist and predatory behavior has occurred is nothing short of shameful. That is the kind of bullshit that needs to come to halt today. And all the women’s groups and networking orgs in the world aren’t going to change that. The men who are in power right now, however, can.

Given all that we are learning about our psychological and emotional resistance to facts that suggest change, though maybe uncomfortable or difficult, is better for us in the long run or even life-saving, I have to say, I am not hopeful. We know that companies with more women and a culture friendlier to women do better than those that don’t. They do better in terms of growth and profit, of course, but also in terms of less volatility and more stability over time. Not to mention that such companies enjoy better press, avoiding scandals and negative coverage about culture, hiring and firing practices, sexual harassment suits, etc. Even companies with just one board member outperform companies with all male boards by 26%. That’s significant. The state of California understands this quite well, even if many CEO’s and decision makers in the Valley don’t yet. Governor Jerry Brown recently passed a law that requires all publicly traded companies in the state to have at least one woman on their board of directors by 2019 or face a penalty. The numbers increase substantially when we look at women in leadership positions. It further requires companies with five directors to add two women by the end of 2021, and companies with six or more directors to add at least three more women by the end of the same year. This particular piece of legislation was, it seems, concerned with equality in the first instance, with Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson telling the Wall Street Journal that “one-fourth of California’s publicly traded companies still do not have a single woman on their board, despite numerous independent studies that show companies with women on their board are more profitable and productive. With women comprising over half the population and making over 70% of purchasing decisions, their insight is critical to discussions and decisions that affect corporate culture, actions and profitability.” The language, tone, and press associated with this bill was associated with women’s equality and their protection, both as employees and consumers.

Legislation like this is an important step in the right direction. But arguments for gender equality justified on grounds of fairness will only go so far, and they likely have support among people who are already primed to the problem to begin with and who are more inclined to accept a redistribution of power and resources such that those who are disadvantaged by the current system are no longer disadvantaged. I think it’s safe to say that most people who work in SV are not sympathetic to quota systems and other similar practices that seek to create more opportunities for women from the top down, at least not on the grounds that it is the fair and just thing to do, and those who prize free markets and wide latitude for industry are likely to be resentful of precisely this sort of legislation. This is not to say that they don’t want to see more women in the industry; rather, they are just more likely to see the problem as totally unrelated to the current structure, systemic sexism, and a larger culture of gender inequality. High tech companies should reconsider the power of promoting gender equality, even if just from a PR standpoint. The current political climate and the #metoo movement signals that a new day is on the horizon, and other industries are certainly picking up on this. Gender equality quite obviously has intrinsic value in our liberal democratic society—that is, it is an ethic that many customers, decision makers, and people in the industry are committed to because it is the right thing to do. After the financial collapse of 2008, brought on by not just economic factors and a lack of oversight but also by the immoral actions taken by individual people in finance, we have seen a concerted effort in business to comport with certain moral and ethical standards. Still, it is doubtful that this will be enough to persuade many investors, founders, and executives, or to even get their attention.

In my short time here, I can say with a high degree of confidence that the moral rightness of gender equality is pretty much a nonstarter in Silicon Valley when it comes to moving the ball forward. However, the instrumental and economic value of doing better where women are concerned just might cut ice, since, as far as I can tell, most people out here are driven primarily by the desire to—wait for it, wait for it—increase profits! Hard as it may be to not continue to beat the drum of fairness, justice, and the intrinsic value of equality, it is absolutely critical that we refocus our energies on the ways in which women improve technology, profits, and market growth—i.e., how women improve the financial bottom line.

Good news! Gender and ethnic diversity actually DO strongly correlate with profitability. In a study released just this year by McKinsey and Company it was shown that companies in the top 25th percentile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profits. Further, those companies with more culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to see better-than-average profits. At the board of directors level, more ethnically and cultural diverse companies were 43% more likely to see above-average profits, showing a significant correlation between diversity and performance. The Peterson Institute for International Economics released a study in 2016 showing similar but even more powerful results, as it pulled from survey data from nearly 22,000 firms across 91 countries. The report notes that “a profitable firm at which 30 percent of leaders are women could expect to add more than 1 percentage point to its net margin compared with an otherwise similar firm with no female leaders.” It goes on to say that, “by way of comparison, the typical profitable firm in our sample had a net profit margin of 6.4 percent, so a 1 percentage point increase represents a 15 percent boost to profitability.” Although it did not find any positive impact of board gender quotas on firm performance, it did find that the payoffs of policies that facilitate women rising through the corporate ranks more broadly could be significant. And with more women in the company, specifically in leadership positions, we are likely to see less gender discrimination in recruitment, promotion and retention. That gives a company a better chance of hiring and keeping the most qualified people, thus also contributing positive to a company’s profitability. Gender diversity provides different perspectives and insights. The combination of these offers a wider range of ideas and, thus, greater creativity. By excluding women from the innovation economy, we risk missing key solutions to problems, better decision-making processes, and designing products that are compatible with female physiology and psychology, not just male.

The facts are there, and have been for some time, regarding the economic, political, and, yes, moral, incentives to promote gender and racial/ethnic equality and diversity. And there are certainly more female founders now than ever, despite a still significant gender gap in investment awards for founders. A small handful of firms, such as Y Combinator, have made efforts to close that gap, but thus far they have been minimal. Each year, there are more and more conferences for women leaders and founders in high tech, and more media and press attention on the great work women are already doing. Companies are increasingly creating positions specifically tasked with managing and creating more diversity and equality. RSA Conference, a major international conference and exposition leader in information security, has just announced a huge initiative to bring more women into security and create more diversity at the conference and beyond. These are all perfectly fine initiatives, and one hopes they will, in fact, lead to an increase of women in the industry. But what is desperately needed is cultural change now, from the top down. Despite all of these new efforts, the troubling culture and massive inequity in this sector continues apace. I continue to be pulled back to the obstacle with which I began at the start of this piece, which is that not enough men are willing to step back, so that others can step forward.

I recently met with leader in the industry—let’s call him Jason—and he was surprisingly honest about his own concerns regarding what men might have to give up in order for gender equality to begin to be realized in high tech. Jason has a son who is a leader in his own small way in the industry. And Jason tells me that, although he is generally supportive of gender equality, he doesn’t want women’s advancement in the industry to take anything—“not even one little thing”—away from his son, who, as we can all probably guess, “has worked very hard, is incredibly smart and talented, and has to fight for everything has,” blah, blah, blah. Maybe that’s all true, I don’t really know. Despite what we do know about white male privilege and how it benefits those who have it educationally and professionally, I am willing to give Jason the benefit of the doubt here and assume his son is super stellar. (Sidenote: I also have a son. Two, in fact. I’m totally cool with them not getting ALL THE TOYS on the playground so that the equally deserving girls can play with them, too. For many mothers of sons, this is a no-brainer.) If that’s true, he’s surely an outlier, because what I can say with certainty is that most of the tech guys I meet out here are pretty average—I mean, astoundingly so. I am often left scratching my head as to how these people have amassed sizeable fortunes when they seem to lack general intelligence, social and political awareness, emotional maturity, sexiness or finesse, and even the tiniest bit of charm. Even after I remind Jason that we know that companies who have a more diverse workforce tend to yield greater profits and I cite a ton of data to him, which he already knows because he is a well-informed guy who knows his industry, he is unwavering. He does not contest the data and fully accepts that it is in everyone’s interest to get on board with gender equality and improving the situation for women in high tech. Still, he does want his own son’s wealth, status, or power to be diminished in any way, neither in the short nor the long-term.

Here’s the problem: although gender equality in high tech really does benefit everyone, financially and otherwise, it also quite obviously requires that men give up some of their power and status. Both are true. There are two obvious problems here. First, in a lot of ways, gender equality is a long game, and the pay-offs, certainly for men, may not be immediately felt, nor will the financial pay-offs be felt instantaneously by CEO’s and the companies they steer. So, it doesn’t play very well in a world where everyone wants to get theirs now and literally nothing has legs if it doesn’t make a lot of people really rich fast. This could be overcome, though, as some of the data I just cited does suggest that there are some relatively easy things we can do with respect to equality and diversity that can lead to greater profitability in the short term. The second issue, however, is much more serious, and makes the “woman problem in high tech” seem so intransigent: most men are totally irrational when it comes to gender equality. We know that it benefits them in countless ways, and that fact is thrown into sharp relief the enormous data available on gender and racial diversity improving profitability in business and high-tech. Yet, it may turn out that most care more about their power and elevated status relative to women (which is a more polite way of saying “the patriarchy”) than they do all of the other benefits that might accrue to them and to the women they love. In other words, if the choice is between their company doing better overall because it does better on gender (and so enriches them personally in real tangible ways) or keeping their Brotopia in which they are gods and women little more than paeans, they just might be dumb enough to keep on choosing the latter. And because high tech currently lacks enough women in positions of power, we desperately need these dudes to make a different choice.

Of course, there are some things that can be done right now to stop the bleeding and make things a little less awful for women, not to mention bring Silicon Valley into the 21st century. One that is sort of obvious to someone like me, except that when you say it out loud, people look at you like you are a crazy person: VC’s and investors should stop backing people who do not display a considerable degree of integrity, maturity, and an ability to grow their corporate culture in a way that, at a minimum, does not harm women, and ideally strives to create an equitable and just workplace. In a world in which the focus is almost entirely on the ideas and technology, this seems like blasphemy. Indeed, one thing that makes this industry and this place so appealing is the fact that anyone with an interesting idea can come here and make it. It doesn’t so much matter, in a way, who you know, what you look like, whether you have style of charm, or even how much money you have. What matters are two things: the technology and the vision. And so, as has been noted by others, this place has a way of calling home all the nerds who never did fit in anywhere else. They can come here and find a groove, and that’s not a bad thing at all. A more just world is certainly one in which we care less about status and appearances and value more of what is on the inside. But VC’s really are investing in more than technology. They’re backing people, people who they are entrusting to grow their money and to protect their interests, interests which extend beyond finances. So if the person sitting across the table from you doesn’t seem like someone you would trust to a run a household, why would you give them a ton of money to one day run a Fortune 500 company?

But VC’s should go a step further: they should seek out women founders and clients and do whatever they can to make themselves a more attractive option. Just as women in the great wide world do now, women founders have a choice, and VC firms who want to attract the best talent need to look and to be as progressive, diverse, and forward-thinking as possible. They need to do more than just seek out female founders, they need to demonstrate an understanding of the unique challenges women face in this industry and be able to offer guidance on that particular score, resources and support, and to provide a useful network. This is a no-brainer, with shared positive outcomes for VC’s and founders. VC’s get better talent that is increasingly hard to capture as more options are emerging and founders get a broader set of resources and support.

Another relatively easy step in the right direction on both of these fronts is for VC’s to take the step of bringing on consultants to do the following: (1) Advise founders in early to middle stages around how to create a culture that is friendlier to women and intolerant of misogynistic behavior, one that comports with basic best practices and standards, (2) Focus specifically on attracting female talent and making their firm more attractive as they compete for female talent, and (3) Offer a full menu of services for women and men founders and executives in later stages that includes leadership and development, networking, workshops on implicit biases and how they can affect relationships and culture, deep analyses and reviews that pay attention to cultural norms that are in play but may not be fully in view to those inside the company, and guidance on how to align business goals with a wider social commitment to inclusivity and better gender relations. HR departments are supposed to do some of this work, of course, but they very often do an inadequate job, as they are oriented towards protecting the company’s interest and focusing on what is working, as opposed to what is not. Often, these organizations are skilled at avoiding litigation and can address issues of representation and hiring/firing practices, but they don’t necessarily know how to get at deeper cultural issues in a company that may be contributing to an environment that is hostile to women or is setting them up to fail. This is true, despite the fact that women tend to be over-represented in HR departments; they are frequently co-opted by the higher-ups at a company and are not able to effectively do the job they were, in theory, higher to do. In any case, Silicon Valley could, in general, benefit from the perspective of outsiders where gender relations are concerned. Outsiders frequently see problems that insiders either don’t see or have just become so habituated to that they now conceive of practices that are actually not okay as normal and harmless.

Today, I am sitting, as I often do, at a lovely international café in downtown Palo Alto, where the movers and shakers of the high-tech industry regularly take meetings and shoot the shit over an Americano and a croissant. A group of otherwise incredibly polished, well-spoken men who, based on their conversation I am shamelessly eavesdropping on, are in high-tech, have loudly and abruptly taken up all the space they can at the table next to mine. Legs spread wide, voices booming (and always raised a few decibels when the topic of money comes up), and f-bombs dropped every minute or so. They are decked out in their fancy Italian shoes and well-tailored suits. Their self-importance is telegraphed at every turn, from the way they talk to the young, attractive female baristas behind the bar, to the way they seem to view conversation as a sport, constantly trying to one-up each other where work and personal life are concerned. Today, their topic of conversation is of considerably lower quality than their fine ivy-league degrees and fresh threads, as they are presently cracking jokes about the ridiculousness of sexual harassment claims in their office and how so many of “these girls don’t even know if they aren’t being harassed in the first place. What do they expect to happen?” Hah. Hah. Hah. For a moment, I think I am sitting outside of my old café in Chapel Hill, listening to some truly tragic male undergrads complaining about the girls outperforming them in their B-school classes. Sadly, it is not at all unusual for me to overhear a conversation like this, in which men either expressly denigrate women or speak in less direct but no less misogynistic ways about those in their industry, companies, and, yes, personal lives. This particular gaggle of bros, though, is truly the lamest, and all of the women within earshot seem to agree, based on their own hushed conversations, eye-rolls, and deserved dirty looks. The men in the café seem to be oblivious to their nonsense. Here these hapless dudes are, just carrying on, completely unaware of how out of step they are with much of the world around them, a world in which they, shockingly, remain largely in control, at least for now. The mind reels.

As I listen in and continue to contemplate high-tech’s man problem, the question I am left with is not whether, if given the chance, women can improve upon this vitally important industry and, at the same time, make significant substantive contributions to a range of areas across high-tech, thus making all of our lives better. About that, I have no doubts. Against all odds, they are already making the industry and our lives better. No, the question I am left with is whether enough decent and smart men in high tech will do all they can to eradicate a culture in which dudes like this still thrive while so many women who outpace them on every level continue to struggle for the respect and regard they deserve. Women are working so hard to make changes in this industry. It’s time for men to do the same.

 

Horror and Humanity in a Post-Kavanaugh World

“It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me…Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?
― J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello

It has been two weeks now since the most dramatic day of the Kavanaugh hearings and, despite the loving prodding of some friends and family, I’ve not yet been able to put pen to paper over it, to work out exactly what it all means and how I feel about it. Maybe that’s because so many others, far smarter than I, have already given their hot take (see Anastasia Basil, Ijeoma Oluo, Emily Witt, and my friend Layna Mosely for just a few good and varied perspectives) or maybe it’s because it increasingly feels like all we are left with right now are perfectly solid points that are ringing hollow, clichés I cannot bring myself to try and rework, and the stating of the obvious to a choir poised to nod furiously in agreement with me. (But, please, if you are a member of that choir, keep nodding! It makes me feels so good.) A lot of the latter has to do with the fractured nature of media consumption and extreme partisanship in the Trump era, and only a bit to do with the fact that we—women, queers, progressives, people who care about things like equality, dignity, and justice—aren’t always speaking in a way that makes others want to listen closely, if at all. And I know, I know, we shouldn’t have to “talk pretty” to be heard, rage is a normal response to this madness, all men everywhere can just fuck right off, etc., etc. I feel all of that and more most days, as I have for decades now.

Like most of the people with whom I keep company, I am angry and devastated by what I see, on the one hand, as a kind of thoughtlessness (in my more generous moments) on the part of people who seem to take little issue with Kavanaugh’s nomination and, on the other hand, a relentless and suffocating misogyny (in my less generous, but no less reasonable, moments) on the part of a nation that continues to lie to itself and to women about progress we have made on the scores of gender equality and women’s empowerment. The last two weeks have been so painful for too many of us, recalling and reliving our own sexual trauma and violations, bearing witness to the very public airing of Dr. Blasey Ford’s sexual assault, struggling to share space with men we may love but who we know will never truly understand, and feeling totally at sea because, as Jessica Valenti recently wrote, we still lack the precise language for the long-term trauma caused by living in a country that seems to (still) hate women. The rage simultaneously engulfs us and pours out of every fiber of our being. How could it be otherwise?

My husband will sometimes tell me, on those days when I am so angry I can hardly speak, that such anger is not useful, that it will only eat away at me and thwart any positive change I might make in the world. Truly, little else makes me want to throttle him more. See how anger works? When talking about gendered violence, it feels like more of a choice, or a privilege, for some than it does others. I have read and taught Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice, which, like so much of her work, is beautifully written and reasonable beyond all measure. In it, she makes the argument that anger, in almost all cases, is a morally untenable response to injustice and that it is not ultimately a helpful tool in working towards a more just and better world. There are many good criticisms of her arguments, but one that has not been so widely discussed is simply that anger in the face of an injustice is not something we typically experience or conceive of as a choice. Of course, one can, with a lot of work on oneself, compartmentalizing, and either personal evolution or self-delusion, depending on how one looks at it, overcome anger. But anger is such a desirable and seductive emotion, one that feels so good to us when we have been wronged, and those of us who are frequently on the side of anger, as it were, often look at people who appear unmoved by such things as the Kavanaugh hearings, not as highly evolved, reasonable beings who manage to keep the personal out of the political, but rather as totally oblivious morons who are seriously out of touch with all that is presently unravelling in our world. Sometimes that’s right, but not always.

Nevertheless, I take both my husband and Martha Nussbaum to be well-meaning, highly intelligent people, so I’d like to follow their instructive suggestion and press the pause button on my anger for a moment and to try and speak in a different register here. And that will mean doing something that doesn’t feel quite right to me at the moment and something that a lot of smart enough people might correctly think is counter-productive, which is to ratchet down the tone a bit and to refrain from making the worst kind of impulsive judgments about those with whom I disagree or, worse, whose political judgments and decisions may be inconceivably unjust to me. Why do this now, you might ask, at such a critical and low point for women in this country? It’s a fair question. (It’s especially fair if you happen to know me personally and have some familiarity with my habit of telling those who disagree with me to fuck off.) I suppose my answer to that is partly personal and partly political. Living, as we do, in a free society (by which I simply mean that it, for now, is democratic in form), but one that is deeply patriarchal and racist, necessarily means, at times, loving people who uphold or benefit from a system which we abhor and which, at times, threatens our very existence. This is a hard truth, but one that most anyone above a certain age understands and accepts. (I’ll come back to this point about the need to go on living with people who may believe, say, and do things that we find unconscionable a bit later.) Politically speaking, if we are to go on together as fellow-citizens in some democratic fashion with an eye to the common good, then we must talk to each other in a way that reflects and, whenever possible, engenders mutual regard and understanding. This requires more than a moderate temperament and a solid training in civic discourse; it requires the sort of care of one’s own soul that so much about late-modernity makes nearly impossible. One has to look no further than Facebook or Twitter to see how quickly we abandon civility and the sort of deliberative capacities on which our very democracy depends. We have to stay present for ourselves and for one another, and to keep from sliding into the abyss, from becoming so dislocated from our shared moral life that we become totally unhinged. Full disclosure: I feel my own screws loosening.

Here are my cards.

First, I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I believe she was assaulted and that her memory of the perpetrator is correct. I believe this not only because she was a “credible witness” (a phrase I have come to loathe for its condescension and the ease with which it can, apparently, be dismissed in the face of misogynist indignation) but also, quite simply, because I have lived as a girl and a woman for nearly 40 years now, and so know something about the perfectly ordinary and totalizing nature of our violation by men. I don’t require “hard evidence” in this case because I, like many women I know, live every day in a world where sexual degradation, harassment and assault are fundamental features of our existence, so fundamental and ubiquitous, in fact, that they do not register with many people. It’s the water in which we all swim every day. Until we are drowned, anyway. This doesn’t mean, of course, that false accusations are not sometimes made or traumatic events misremembered. Of course they are. But they are so exceedingly rare that to dismiss Blasey Ford’s allegations out of hand simply because neither Kavanaugh nor Mark Judge say they remember the night they engaged in acts that they and we all recognize as horrific and illegal on the grounds that Blasey Ford could possibly be lying or forgetting is totally at odds with anything approaching a fair process for adjudicating sexual assault claims. This is not something that reasonable people will debate.

Second, I believe that Brett Kavanaugh is unfit for the court both because I find Dr. Blasey Ford’s and others’ claims about troubling behavior in his youth and time in college and law school totally believable and sufficiently corroborated and, perhaps just as importantly, because he lacks the character and temperament any reasonable person should like to see in a justice who sits on the highest court in the land.

Third, I do not necessarily think that Kavanaugh himself has deep knowledge of the events that passed between him and Dr. Blasey Ford, and that is because, again, I believe Dr. Blasey Ford when she says that he was severely inebriated at the time of the assault. (Also, I have been around enough drunken men to know that most have no clue how horrifying they are when intoxicated, and rarely remember the offenses they gave or lines they crossed.) And so, in this way, I found much of his testimony compelling, too, not because I think he is innocent (I absolutely do not), but rather because he seemed to truly not believe he had done such horrific things to another person. Perhaps he was just a really good liar and remembers it all, but I certainly think it is plausible that he does not. And it doesn’t hurt to give him the benefit of the doubt on that score. Indeed, Blasey Ford herself seemed to do so. Again, this in no way makes him a sympathetic figure in this story or someone who is entitled to a seat on the Supreme Court (I quite agree with Senator Klobuchar that literally no one is entitled to this.) I’m only pointing out that it’s totally possible that he has no recollection, thus further complicating the case and how we might feel about it.

Fourth, I do believe there are plenty of liberals and democrats who do not care much at all about Blasey Ford as an actual human being who has suffered serious trauma, but rather saw her as a pawn in a political game they had little to no chance of winning to begin with. Having common cause with such craven and morally bankrupt people is not something I personally relish.

Fifth, I do believe that there are some conservatives and republicans for whom support of Kavanaugh, or at least their view that he was owed an up or down vote, does not necessarily mean that they hate women in general or Blasey Ford in particular. (I do not, by the way, place in that category Susan Collins and other senators who saw the full report and well understood the constraints placed on the FBI investigation by the administration. Those people are spineless and, in the case of Collins, offered up the weakest, most imbecilic of defenses so as to be perfectly transparent about her own weakness.)

Sixth, I am the daughter of an alcoholic. My father has been mostly sober since the mid-nineties, we remain incredibly close despite the suffering caused by his drinking, and it is because we believe in honesty, accountability, and forgiveness that our family has weathered the storms of his addiction. I mention this to reveal my own personal baggage around alcohol, but also to demonstrate that one can both be completely unwilling to countenance drunken behavior and have deep compassion and concern for the person who, for whatever reason, is engaging in it. Both are possible. I am not down with demonizing alcoholics or addicts of any kind, and the extent to which that has been done by those wishing to block his appointment is totally unacceptable. Not all drunks rape women. That said, I do find the multiple accounts (including his own!) of Kavanaugh’s excessive drinking believable, and so it is reasonable to imagine that he possibly, perhaps even probably, did many awful things during that time, some of which he likely cannot remember, and which makes his appointment to the Supreme Court untenable, in my view. I do not believe, however, that his excessive drinking alone makes him a terrible person or unfit for all manner of other well-respected and well-compensated jobs. (I do not feel the same about the claims that he committed sexual assault, however. Such allegations carry far more weight, because they involve harm to others, clear criminal behavior, and character problems that sobriety will not correct.)

These six cards I have just laid out don’t really amount to much in the grand scheme of things or reveal anything especially new in our collective thinking about the Kavanaugh hearings. I admit it: I have nothing new to say on the matter. And although I am usually eager to give my own hot take on current events, I do not think that is what I am trying to do here. Indeed, it has taken me two weeks—an eternity in the era of fast thinking and even faster writing—to write anything at all. Rather, these scattered thoughts mark an attempt by me to stay sane, to stay present, and to speak rationally and without rage about something that has shaken me to my core and, at times, made me want to write off individuals I love and an entire half of the human population (again).

I used to teach J. M. Coetzee’s novella Elizabeth Costello in my course at University of North Carolina on politics and animal life. In it, the main character, Elizabeth, can be seen at times as a fierce advocate for animal rights, as the only sane person in a world filled with people who daily participate and are complicit in the most horrific acts of violence against animal creatures they well know are sentient beings, and for little more than their own pleasure and unwillingness to consider bad habits. I liked teaching this book because, besides being written by a masterful novelist and a philosopher of sorts in his own right, it reveals quite a lot about differences between how a philosopher, particularly one engaged in talk of animal rights, thinks about our treatment of animals and how a poet writes about it. The latter, Elizabeth believes, is far more likely to move a person in the right direction. If, that is, such a person possesses an openness—even a tiny one—to seeing animals as fellow creatures. But if there is no moral uptake in a person, they will not be moved by poetry or art or literature or anything of the sort. The idea is something like this: we all have the facts, or at least have the ability to access them. They are there for us, indeed in an instant at our very fingertips, if we wish to avail ourselves of them. But facts so rarely move people, as told in this New Yorker article on the inability of facts to change our minds and the limits of reason. This story by Coetzee, and the philosophy of Cora Diamond that is closely related to it, so beautifully illustrates this feature of modern life.

Viewed another and I think more interesting way, the novel is a vivid depiction of what happens to a person when they are no longer able to live with what they take to be a horror of stupefying proportions, perpetuated every day by people they are supposed to love. It is Elizabeth, in the end, who has become so radically isolated, so unhinged from familial and social life, as to be barely recognizable as human. She, it turns out, is the wounded animal in a world that cannot make any more sense of her than she can of it. One has the distinct feeling she will slip away at any moment, choosing instead to let go of life rather than find a way to live with its ordinary evil.

I fear this is what I am becoming—a person who increasingly cannot break bread with those who do not see the massive destruction of women all around us. And, yet, I must. I’m not suggesting that I should accept immorality, banal evil, or thoughtlessness in others, not at all. Rather, I am saying that I have to continue to seek understanding, to take the more generous view of those I love whenever possible, and to find common cause. Not because I owe it to those I love but who do not see the world as I do, but because my ability to take part in the ordinary moral life we create together is how I know that I am (still) human. So let us stay present for ourselves and for others, and let us keep telling our stories any way we can. They may well be the only hope we have now.

October 12, 2018

Aretha Franklin is Dead, and Suddenly the Whole World Seems Forever Changed

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I am writing this while listening to Aretha in a tiny hotel room in Manhattan, a place that I will always associate with the Queen of Soul, both because her music seemed so much a part of the fabric of this city she loved and because my mother and I had the great pleasure of spotting her at Christmastime once on the third floor of Saks Fifth Avenue. She seemed to me to be encircled by a bright golden light, larger than life. We recall that she had the most beautiful skin of any woman we had ever seen.

When I heard the news of her passing, an overwhelming feeling of despair washed over me, of deep sadness. I sat down and cried for an hour, glued to the TV, as I watched endless clips of her many memorable performances over the years. I can’t say for sure why I had such a strong emotional response to her death. We’ve lost so many greats over the last few years, but none of them moved me quite like this one. I think this feeling of loss right now must have something to do with the fact that Ms. Franklin, besides having one of the greatest singing voices of all times, expressed a kind of female sexuality and power that resonated with so many women, from so many different backgrounds. When she belted out “Respect,” we were not only inspired and empowered, but we were put in our proper place. I grew up in the south in the ‘80s and ’90’s, where it was still all-too-common to see black women as “the help,” existing to service white ladies and their children. But she gave us a picture of black womanhood and black female sexuality that revealed what a distorted and myopic understanding most white folks had, particularly in the south, of what it was to be both black and female. Because she sang about widely universal experiences of womanhood, but did so from her own particular point of view, she both touched us and taught us.

And unlike so many of her counterparts today, Ms. Franklin did not feel the need to package herself in a way that would be widely appealing to white audiences, though she certainly was. She was a woman of substance in every sense of the word, with an authenticity and luminosity that is increasingly rare in the entertainment industry. No shade to Bey, but when Aretha took the stage we sat in complete rapture of simply Aretha—no gimmicks, no political messaging, no personal drama spun out into a public persona. I, for one, have much admiration for the artist who can do this and few, if any, have done it as well as her. In the case of Aretha Franklin, this particular achievement was the mark of both an aristocrat and a woman of the people. She was a Queen and, yet, she was also a natural woman.

Since yesterday morning, in every cafe, shop, and restaurant I step into here in New York, her voice is ringing out over the speakers. And I notice people stopping to listen, some somberly lowering their heads with eyes closed, others happily bopping their heads and smiling at the familiar and unmistakable sound of her voice, before their face quickly changes as they remember: she is dead. Perhaps my sadness has as much to do with her passing as it does with my fear that we are becoming a people and a nation to whom a great talent and woman like Aretha Franklin is no longer intelligible. This morning, the day after, I’m clinging to the possibility that I am wrong.

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