Tag Archives: opinion

Why I Can’t Get Into Vlogging

It’s been said that blogging is dead, which is a shame, although I’ll continue to do my part to keep it alive. But one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people who used to be prolific bloggers are now channeling their energy into vlogs instead.

 

I’ve changed my mind before, so who knows if I will at some point in the future, but right now I feel pretty comfortable saying that I won’t be one of those bloggers-turned-vloggers, for a lot of reasons. The first is that, as I said in this post, I blog because I love to write. And vlogging is not writing. It’s talking to a camera, which doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I have a much harder time articulating what I want to say when I’m talking rather than writing. The few times I have vlogged were for Snark Squad’s Segue Magic, and I feel like what came out in those vlogs would have been much more articulate if I’d written it down instead.

 

Also, vlogging means that you have to look at yourself. A lot. I forget that there are people who actually like looking at themselves, because I hate it. But I guess it makes sense—I mean, look at people who vlog regularly. Literally ALL of them are attractive. Looks don’t matter quite so much in blogging.

 

It’s a shame, too, because while there are a lot of now-vloggers whose blogs I loved, that love has not transferred to their vlogs. And it’s not that their vlogs aren’t good or entertaining. It’s that I wish I was getting the same information in blog format. I read very quickly, for one thing, but YouTube videos have a set time, and I know that reading whatever the vlogger has to say would be quicker for me. And usually, if the vlogger is someone who’s regularly blogged in the past, there’s nothing that comes across in a vlog that wouldn’t in a blog post. I’ve never seen a vlog by a former blogger and been surprised by it or thought that they seemed different speaking than they do in writing—I find that most good bloggers are pretty good at writing how they speak. Consequently, I very rarely watch vlogs, even by bloggers I really love.

 

This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the occasional vlog. But I think in order to choose to vlog something rather than blog, it has to contain some kind of content that doesn’t come across in writing. Like it involves singing or music, or a point of the vlog is pronouncing something or using a particular accent.

 

The other thing that can make a vlog worthwhile to me is a vlog that shows us something other than the vlogger’s face. Good example: I love the vlogs that different actors do and have done for Broadway.com—they show us interactions with other people and what things are like behind the scenes of different shows. (I’m particularly fond of these ones.)

 

The Internet is changing, and not always, in my opinion, for the better. I think it’s great that people find community in vlogging the way we used to at Twenty-Something Bloggers, but it’s not for me, and I wish blogging didn’t seem so dead.

 

I guess blogging joins the radio star in the list of video’s victims.

Stop Throwing Cold Water on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

You’ve heard about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge by now, if you or your friends haven’t done it. Unfortunately, by now you’ve already probably heard some of the backlash against it. I know I’ve been reading a lot of negative articles about it, seeing people rain on the parade on Facebook, and hearing friends and coworkers be cynical about it. Let’s see if I can sum up the Debbie Downers of the world’s thoughts on it:

  • It’s a stupid gimmick and people should just donate to ALS research and skip the ice.
  • Why are you only supposed to donate if you don’t do the ice bucket? Donating shouldn’t be the consolation prize.
  • People are doing it for the wrong reasons—for attention or because it’s trendy, not because they care about ALS.
  • People were doing it anyway before it became about ALS.
  • It’s taking attention away from other worthy causes.

 

Did I miss anything?

 

I’m sick of hearing all this, and I’m more than happy to be part of the backlash-to-the-backlash, as New York magazine would put it.

 

The Ice Bucket Challenge first started popping up on my newsfeed a couple of weeks ago, but it wasn’t my first time hearing about  Pete Frates. I don’t know Pete, but he was at Boston College when I was, and I’ve been hearing about him and his battle with ALS through the BC alumni community for a while now. At first, it was just people from college doing the challenge, and I was thinking it was mainly a BC thing. But I was surprised by how quickly it spread. I saw friends I knew from places other than college start to do it, and, well, the rest is history—everyone from Justin Timberlake to Bill Gates to Ethel Kennedy has done it by now.

 

Can you donate to ALS research without throwing ice water on your head? Of course you can. You can also donate to charity without running a marathon (or any other road race or bike race or swim race or triathlon or walkathon) or attending a gala. And dousing yourself in ice water, unlike those things, is free. But athletic events, galas, and ice bucket challenges get people to pay attention in ways that simple discussion of a cause doesn’t—a basic marketing principle. Those of you arguing that it’s taking money away from other causes, why don’t you just find a better way to draw attention to your cause? This certainly shows that it’s possible for charity to go viral.

 

I do understand skepticism about social media gimmicks to raise awareness. The Facebook trend where women were posting the colors of their bras without context, ostensibly to raise awareness about breast cancer (a disease I can’t imagine anyone being unaware of), was beyond pointless. But ALS is a disease that could certainly benefit from greater awareness, and this challenge is about raising money as well as awareness.  

 

And if you want to talk about money, here are some numbers for you:

$5.5 Million: How much money has been raised for ALS since the Ice Bucket Challenge started.

$32,000: How much was raised during the same period of time last year.

 

That should be the end of the argument right there. ALS is a horrible, progressive, incurable disease that causes its sufferers to lose control of their bodies. Maybe one day there will be a cure, but cures are found through research, and research needs money. Now there’s $5.5 million more going towards that research.

 

So who cares how or why that money was donated? It’s not even the ends justifying the means—more like the ends justifying the motive, even if that motive was less than altruistic. Yes, there are people who are only doing it for attention or because it’s trendy and haven’t given ALS a second thought. Even so—$5.5 million. It’s hard to argue with that. And by my own unscientific analysis, I believe that most people who do the challenge are donating anyway, even if technically the rules say that you only have to donate if you don’t do it.

 

There are so many terrible, sad things going on in the world right now. The fighting in Gaza, the Iraq crisis, the Ebola outbreak, the killing of Mike Brown and its aftermath in Missouri, the suicide of Robin Williams. It’s beyond me why anyone would want to turn people raising millions of dollars for an extremely worthy cause, something I’d consider unambiguously positive, into something to complain about.

 

I myself got tagged by my friend Erin on Monday. I had to wait until yesterday to film it (turns out there are unforeseen challenges to living alone, like not having anyone to hold the camera when you want to make a video!), but I would have donated even if I’d done it within twenty-four hours.

 

And so should you. Enjoy this video of me throwing ice water on myself, then visit www.petefrates.com and donate. I tagged my friends Christina, Jon, and Steph in the video, but if you’re reading this, consider yourself tagged!

 

Why E-Readers Are the Devil

I moved about a mile away on May 31 and am loving the roommate-free life so far. Moving is a huge pain, though, and despite my efforts to get rid of as much as possible prior to moving, I still ended up realizing that I have way too much stuff. I do, thankfully, have more space for it in my new space and I’ll be working again to get rid of more of it, but still.

A lot of the stuff I have, though, is books. Here’s what my bookshelves look like AFTER I got rid of the ones I didn’t want:

As much as a pain it was to move six or seven full boxes of them, though, I’m glad I own all these books. I have no intention of being a person whose bookshelves aren’t full.

And I absolutely have no intention of being a person whose books are all contained in an e-reader. As a matter of fact, I think e-readers are the devil.

Why? Well, there are many reasons, but the biggest one is that they are putting bookstores out of business.

Let me repeat that: they are putting bookstores out of business. For book lovers, I don’t know how that’s not the end of the argument right there, but somehow it isn’t. It seems that after years of reading the printed word, book lovers have suddenly found it inconvenientthat books are, you know, objects. With mass. And weight. And apparently, the desires not to carry things under five pounds and for more room in their bags have seduced them towards these bookstore-destroying e-readers.

Back in the days when You’ve Got Mail portrayed big bookstore chains as the enemy, I never imagined that I’d be defending Barnes and Noble as fervently as I have been, but here I am lamenting that aside from college bookstores, there is now exactly one Barnes and Noble in the entire city of Boston. Borders is now long-gone, slain by the e-Reader phenomenon. The Boston area does, at least, have a good number of used and independent bookstores, but I miss having options for book superstores, where you could settle into a chair and read and where you KNEW they’d have the book you were looking for.

There are plenty of other reasons, of course. I don’t think the experience of reading should feel like looking at a computer, which I do all day long at work. You can’t lend eBooks to your friends. You can’t have them signed by your favorite authors at readings. If you have kids, your kids will have no idea what you’re reading if they see you on your Kindle or Nook and won’t ask about it or try to read it themselves. E-readers might spare you some embarrassment if you’re reading 50 Shades of Grey in public, but they also spare you the shared experience of someone else who’s read the book bonding with you. And you can’t hand your favorite eBooks down to your children and grandchildren.

There’s also the matter of Amazon being a bully towards publishers. Here’s what they’ve been doing to Hachette Books recently. If you have a Kindle, you’re supporting this—so for the love of God, at least get a Nook if you absolutely MUST have an e-reader.

I’ll admit that there are a few upsides to e-readers aside from the more-room-in-the-bag thing. eBooks are less expensive to produce, so they allow publishers to release books that wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise. I actually do have a Nook for PC on my laptop because I wanted to read this book by Lois Duncan, a sequel to Who Killed My Daughter?, which is only available in eBook format. eBooks also help authors because they don’t have to worry about losing money from used book sales.

But that’s it. I can’t warm up to the idea of e-readers because I just keep getting stuck on the bookstore thing. I do not want to live in a world without bookstores. Browsing a bookstore and flipping through pages of a book I haven’t read is one of my greatest pleasures in life. A couple of years ago, Ann Patchett (an author whom I’ve seen speak twice and who is as talented at speaking as she is at writing, which isn’t always the case with famous writers) appeared on The Colbert Report and spoke about how, since her hometown of Nashville no longer had a bookstore, she’d opened one herself. She thought the community needed somewhere to have conversations about books and have story time for kids and get recommendations from actual people. In a wonderful bit of wisdom that applies to so many things besides buying books, she said, “If you never, ever talk to people and you meet all of your needs on the Internet, you wake up one day and you’re the unabomber.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Look, I’m not saying you’re a bad person if you have an e-reader (really, I think more than half the people I know have one), but I am saying that you should think about the consequences of the choices you’re making. Because when bookstores are all gone and buying online is our only option and there’s nowhere to go and browse and we’ve all turned into little unabombers? Well, I hope you enjoy all that extra room in your bag.

We Reduce People

In fiction, moral complexity is in. Today’s golden age of TV have brought characters who are difficult or whose intentions are ambiguous out of the realm of literary fiction and art house movies to popular shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and countless others. And we love it. When you consider a character, your opinion of that character is colored by many things other than “hero” or “villain.” On Mad Men, when nearly every main character has either cheated on a significant other or knowingly slept with someone who’s cheating, how do you measure which character you enjoy the most? On Breaking Bad, why do some people root for characters who’ve killed innocent people but hate other characters for smaller, personality-related reasons? I don’t watch Game of Thrones, so I can’t really comment on it, but I’ve picked up on some of the Snark Ladies’ interesting thoughts regarding the actions of some characters on that show.

Here’s what I’ve been noticing lately: this cultural embrace of moral ambiguity does not extend to actual human beings. With current events, there always has to be a villain, even in accidents where no one was really at fault. On the Internet, if anyone says anything regrettable, they’re never given the chance to backtrack or apologize—and even if they do, people will label them and discount anything they say from then on. There’s this ridiculous Tumblr, which I won’t link (if you’ve heard of it, you’ll know which one I mean) that catalogs everything that popular celebrities say that could be construed as “problematic”—even though some of those things are hardly problematic and some of them are things said or done while playing a character.

We reduce people.

We boil down every single thing about a human being—all experiences, all circumstances, all thoughts, all actions, all feelings—to one single thing we don’t like and slap a label on them.

We do it all the time, with everyone from celebrities to politicians to criminals to people we know personally or engage with online. It’s too much work to consider the bigger picture or to imagine that there’s anything more to a person than whatever we don’t like.

I say “we” because I’m guilty of this, too—too often. It’s easy to reduce. It’s harder to look closer and find the humanity in people we don’t like, or people who do things we don’t like.

I mentioned before that Schindler’s List, which I saw for the first time last year, is something I have a hard time talking about. The reason why is that what I took away from it was very personal, and I was afraid if I tried to explain it, it would come out sounding like I was making a movie about the biggest genocide in modern history all about me. But this was the revelation I had while watching it, a movie about a man who, despite doing an incredible thing that saved over a thousand lives, was not by any means a saint: if you lose your ability to see beyond whatever you don’t like about a person, if you can dehumanize people enough to boil them down to a single thing about their complex being—then that’s one thing you have in common with the Nazis.

When you don’t consider the humanity of every person, the inherent worth everyone has just by being alive, even people who do terrible things with their lives, it looks pretty ugly.

I’m often amazed by people who are more generous, compassionate, and forgiving than I am. When Fred Phelps died recently, I was surprised by the subdued reaction, which could be summed up as “let’s not stoop to his level.” My basic instinct is more often than not a desire for revenge, even if it always stays just a revenge fantasy, but thank God for the example of people whose hearts are bigger than mine.

Sometimes I’m not very good at forgiveness. But I’m trying to get better.

There’s no one thing that inspired this post. It’s a conglomeration of observations of things around me and in the world. But this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and something I always want to keep with me as I check my reactions when anything upsets me.

I don’t want to reduce people. And I don’t want anyone else to, either. People are all more than the sum of their complex, sometimes infuriating parts. I need to remember that while there is a great capacity for evil in humans, there is an even greater capacity for love, kindness, and compassion. And I need to recognize that greater capacity in all people as well as in myself.

In Praise of Teachers

I always seem to be surrounded by teachers. My mom is a teacher. Some of my best friends are teachers. Many of my other relatives—aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmother—are or were teachers.

I am not a teacher, although there was a time as a kid when I thought I might like to be. You know why I’m not? Because I know I couldn’t handle it. And after talking with the teachers I know as school starts up again this year, I’m even more convinced that I wouldn’t survive a week as a teacher.

So you can imagine how much I hate it when I hear people insult teachers or talk as if their jobs are easy. You want to know what teachers have to deal with on a daily basis? Here’s just a small sample of it:

-I have fond memories of reading books as a class—we read Stone Fox in third grade, The Witch of Blackbird Pond in fifth grade, etc. In a lot of school districts, this is no longer part of the curriculum. Why, you ask? Effing MCAS. That’s Massachusetts’ state testing, but every state has state-wide testing, and since performance on it reflects on the district, everything revolves around it. Creative writing, which was my favorite part of elementary school? Forget it. My friend’s curriculum director actually said to her once, “Why would you teach the students to connect with what they’re reading? That’s not going to be on MCAS.” The same friend’s superintendent greeted all the teachers on their first day of school by yelling at them that they still weren’t at the highest MCAS level. Oh, and in that same school system, they eliminated an entire year of social studies due to, you guessed it, MCAS.

-Teachers all need to get their master’s degree. If they get it before they start teaching, districts have to pay them more, which makes them less hirable. However, if they get it while they’re working, they have to work full time while also taking classes. And once teachers have their teaching licenses and master’s degrees, they’re not anywhere near done taking classes. They have to take all kinds of classes to keep their licenses up-to-date, some of questionable value. One certain relative of mine spent months whining about a class she was taking on brain-based education (quoth another certain relative: “As opposed to what? Ass-based?”). And these aren’t quick, two-hour seminars—they’re multi-week, 30+ hour classes that teachers take while working full-time.

-Another thing teachers have to deal with now that wasn’t as much of an issue when I was a kid is an increasing number of students with special needs. Full inclusion wasn’t as big of a movement when I was a kid, but there’s a big push for it now. I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of inclusion, but I will say that teachers now have to deal with more students with autism, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, ADHD, mental health issues, the works. Even with help from special education teachers, it can create a lot of challenges. My friend had to evacuate her classroom multiple times when a kid with severe behavioral problems started throwing chairs. If a student is on an individualized education plan, the teacher has to meet with parents and special education teachers many times to discuss the student’s progress—and has to do this for every single student on an ed plan.

-And then there are the parents. The helicopter parents who won’t leave the teacher alone, wanting to know every single thing going on in class and why their kid only got a B+. The parents who yell at the teacher after their kid blatantly lies to them. The parents who can’t believe their little angel is an asshole in school. One of my friends had a parent yell at her because she wouldn’t let her son have his cell phone with him during MCAS (which is a state rule). At the other end of the spectrum, there are also, sadly, some parents who are abusive or neglectful, whom teachers are legally obligated to report to the authorities.

-If you’re one of those people who bitches about how “teachers only work until three” or “teachers get the whole summer off,” do me a favor and punch yourself in the face. Want to know how wrong you are? Let’s start with hours. A new teacher is often encouraged to be an advisor or a coach, which means lots of after-school time. Teachers do most, if not all, of their lesson planning and grading after school, and it usually adds up to way more than a typical 9-5 job. And many teachers don’t get the summer off—because they make so little money to begin with, they take summer jobs. Some even have second jobs during the school year. And not only do teachers not make much money, because districts are cash-strapped, they have often have to buy supplies for their classrooms with their own money.

-And speaking of cash-strapped districts, job security as a teacher? For the first three years, it’s non-existent. The odds are good that a teacher will be laid off after that first year—maybe being re-hired after receiving the pink slip, but maybe not. One friend was laid off and re-hired her first year teaching, then laid off for real after two full years of putting a boatload of time and energy into a difficult inner-city teaching job. Another was laid off, rehired, and almost laid off again after her first year teaching—although by that time, understandably, she’d opted to find another job in a different district. After three years, a teacher is granted tenure and becomes immune to layoffs, but if that teacher ever wants or needs to leave the school district, he or she will have to start over with zero job security somewhere new. That is, if anyone will hire him/her—teachers with more experience are less hirable due to the district having to pay them more.

-There are lots of other things teachers have to deal with as well. Like being paid as a part-time rather than full-time teacher because you’re teaching five high school classes instead of six. (Happened to a friend of mine.) Or having to take over another teacher’s classes because he was fired for sending inappropriate text messages (ditto). Or spending months or years trying to negotiate a new teachers’ contract just to raise your salaries to the average for the area in which you live (happened to a relative). Or dealing with education policy laws that are created by people who’ve never taught before. Or barely having ten minutes to scarf down lunch every day. And zillions of other things that I can’t think of off the top of my head.

Are there bad teachers out there? Absolutely. There are people in every profession who aren’t good at what they do—bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad waiters, bad salespeople. And while in Massachusetts teachers can be fired with cause after they have tenure, that’s not the case in a lot of other places, which I think is a mistake.

The dialogue about what’s wrong with schools today often focuses, I think wrongly, on bad teachers. There’s talk of paying teachers more for getting better results—and results, of course, are measured by standardized tests, with no regard for the specific populations a teacher serves or how well the teachers at a school work together as a team or progress made in a classroom that can’t be tangibly quantified.

Here are some better questions: what makes good teachers leave? How can we attract intelligent, competent, caring people to teaching jobs? What do teachers themselvesfeel could help them do their job more effectively? What do we want the goal of teaching to be—high test scores, or students who love the knowledge and understanding they’ve gained and will go on to do great things in the world?

We all, hopefully, had great teachers through the years whom we remember and admire. I’d love to think that if I ever have kids, they’ll have teachers like that, too, and that those teachers will love their jobs and going to school every day. Most of the teachers I know say that they love the teaching part of teaching and love their students—it’s the rest of the crap they have to deal with that they hate, and sometimes good teachers leave the profession because that crap gets so overwhelming.

So as one small step toward improving education in this country—can we at least give some appreciation to the people who devote their lives to educating kids? There are all kinds of things that teachers deserve that they aren’t getting, but since it may be awhile before there’s fair pay, job security, money for school supplies, support when things get tough, or measuring progress without teaching to a test, for now, we can show teachers the respect they so richly deserve.

Along With Death and Taxes…

…we can always depend on drama when it comes to commencement speakers at Catholic colleges.

To warn you, this is going to be a rant. It bothered me three years ago and it bothers me now.

My sister Caroline is graduating from BC in a few weeks. I don’t know who her graduation speaker will be yet, only that it won’t be President Obama, who was her freshman convocation speaker (this was in the fall of 2005, when he hadn’t yet announced whether he’d run for president—way to go, BC!). Instead, Obama will be speaking at Notre Dame, a school that any BC football fan is not too fond of.

So, that was an unfortunate choice on his part, but not as unfortunate as the reaction that’s coming from some people at ND. People are calling it a scandal—a scandal!—that Obama was asked to speak and to receive an honorary degree. Mary Ann Glendon is even turning down the award she was going to receive because of it. Why? Because Obama supports abortion rights, to which the Catholic Church is staunchly opposed.

I’m not at all surprised by this. I suspect the culture wars are present on every college campus, but there’s an extra layer added to the arguments when you’re at a Catholic school. At BC, people would always try to validate their opinions by claiming that the Catholic Church was on their side. On the left, people would bring out that argument to try to convince the administration to disinvite Raytheon from the career fair or to ban military recruiters at school. On the right, people would cry Catholic in their arguments against The Vagina Monologues on campus and the gay-straight alliance.

And it’s all such bullshit. If you’re going to invite a politician to speak at a graduation at a Catholic college, I can guarantee you that there’s not one politician whose positions align completely with that of the Catholic Church. The Church is opposed to abortion and stem-cell research, sure, but it’s also opposed to the death penalty and the war in Iraq. Find me one politician who’s against all those things.

“But Katie,” some of you are probably thinking, “you only feel this way because you’re a Democrat and an Obama supporter. Would you object to a Republican speaking at a graduation?”

Funny you should ask, because I wouldn’t, and I didn’t. Three years ago at BC, my commencement speaker was Condoleezza Rice. While I personally don’t like her and don’t agree with her politics, I was excited when I heard she’d be our speaker. I thought it was an honor to have the Secretary of State give our commencement address, and regardless of my views on Rice’s politics, I do think she’s articulate and a good public speaker. And when she did speak, her speech was well-written, well-delivered, and completely devoid of politics.

BC is not a particularly liberal school, but I was astounded at the reaction from a good portion of my graduating class. Protests were held, petitions circulated, armbands that read “Not in My Name” were worn, and backs were turned when Rice received her honorary degree. People tossed around phrases like “not representative of Jesuit ideals” and “against Catholic values.” Outside the school, 200 protesters shouted and held up signs saying things like, “BC Supports Lies and Torture.” There was even a plane flying overhead with a banner that read, “Your war brings dishonor.”

I’m uncomfortable with displays like that for a simpler reason than opposition to this position or that position. People certainly have the right to protest, freedom of speech, yea First Amendment, blah blah blah fishcakes. But common decency tells me that there’s a time and a place for protesting and making statements, and honestly, I just think that protesting anything at a graduation is incredibly rude. This is the thing that a lot of people lose sight of: there would not be a commencement address if there were not a large group of people receiving bachelor’s and advanced degrees. No one is there specifically to hear the speech or see someone receive an honorary degree. They’re there to honor the people who have completed years of studies and earned degrees. I always took it for granted that I’d get at least a bachelor’s degree, and nearly everyone I know has completed college, but according to this recent study, only 29% of US adults can say that, and only about 9% have graduate or professional degrees. Even if it might not seem that way if it’s something you’ve always expected, graduating from college or grad school is a major accomplishment. The commencement speaker might receive an honorary degree, but the people a commencement ceremony really honors are the ones with their names on the diplomas. It seems a shame to let politics and religion get in the way of that.

So to the class of 2009 at Notre Dame: congratulations on graduating, and on snagging Obama as your speaker. Regardless of your political views, I hope you enjoy the speech, since I think even his most zealous opponents would admit that he’s a great public speaker. I should warn you, though, that my graduation started hours later than it was scheduled due to the very tight security we all had to go through, so I don’t envy you that. Also, your football team still sucks.

And to whoever is choosing the speaker for Caroline’s graduation, I really hope you pick an interesting person whose presence is not a matter of national security.

Where Was I?

(Note: Consider this the make-up post for the three election posts that I didn’t make in November. This will not be the most interesting or the most insightful thing you read about the inauguration of Barack Obama, but I can’t let the day pass without writing something.)

I was at Amrhein’s with a bunch of co-workers. Like most people, I had to work today, and I was a little nervous, since I didn’t want to have to tell my grandchildren, “Uh, when Obama was sworn into office, I was importing a test bank into ExamView.” (If you don’t work with me, you probably have no idea what that means, and neither will my grandchildren. Trust me, the inauguration was more interesting.) Then an email went around about all of us watching it in a conference room with a computer hooked up to a projector, but when that wasn’t working, and we confirmed that we didn’t have cable in the building, there was instead a mass exodus to Amrhein’s, a restaurant near our office, where the inauguration was playing on several screens. (Unfortunately, I ran out so fast that I forgot to grab my purse so that I could buy lunch.) And together we all cheered, burst into applause, and maybe got a little teary-eyed as we watched Barack Obama become President of the United States. (Side note: neither Barack nor Obama is recognized by spell check? Seriously?)

I voted for Obama. I think he’s smart, has a lot of good ideas, and understands where the American people are at. It’s not a coincidence that people in my age bracket were a big force in helping to elect him. On election night back in November, I remember hearing someone on CNN say that he thought one reason that young people are so supportive of Obama was that they see him as kind of a cool guy who “gets them.” It was a very condescending way of phrasing it, but I think he kind of had a point. I do think Obama “gets us.” The McCain campaign trashed him for being “the biggest celebrity in the world,” but why was that supposed to be a bad thing? He attracts crowds because he gets people excited. Because he gives people hope. Because people feel like he “gets them.”

The country has changed a lot in four years, and there’s a lot we can learn from this campaign and election. For one thing, I’m encouraged by the backlash against Sarah Palin. Maybe enduring the Bush presidency has taught Americans to recognize, and not vote for, politicians lacking in intelligence. And now that we’ve rejected Palin and Hillary Clinton is going to be Secretary of State, maybe young girls will see that it’s possible for women to succeed using their brains, and that trying to charm your way through serious questions to make up for your lack of experience won’t get you anywhere.

Seeing as I’m white and was born in 1984, I don’t feel qualified to write about the racial implications of this election. But it is pretty incredible that segregation was outlawed three years after Obama was born—and now, at age 47, he’s leading a country that would have sent him to the back of the bus less than half a century ago.

But of course, there was one truly ugly thing that came out of this election season—Proposition 8. I am glad to hear that if no one over 65 voted, Proposition 8 would have failed—people over 65 have fewer elections left. And while I can kind of excuse older adults for their votes for Prop 8, I think that for someone of my generation, being for Proposition 8 and being a good person are mutually exclusive. I don’t care whom I just offended by writing that. Do you think someone who goes up to a person who’s never done him any harm and says, “I don’t want you to be happy,” is a good person? Because that’s what the people who voted yes on 8 did to gay couples all over California.

But today makes me wonder—if our outlook and priorities can change so drastically in the four years since the last election, and if we can go from a segregated nation to one with an African-American president in less than five decades, in 50 years, will we be electing a married, openly gay president? Will we be standing here in eight years, no longer ruefully starting sentences with, “Well, in this economy…”? Will we be able to open the paper without reading about another soldier killed in Iraq? Will we be able to seek medical treatment without a single thought about what our insurance will charge us?

Maybe we won’t. Obama’s not a miracle worker, after all, and he made one mistake before he was even done with the oath of office.

But maybe we will. At the very least, we hope so, and it doesn’t seem silly to hope so. And that’s why we elected Obama. Because in a way unlike any other politician I can remember, he gives us hope.

Local Politics Rant

I don’t often discuss politics in my blog, but this is one local issue that I can’t get off my mind lately, so excuse me while I vent.

I grew up in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, which is about forty-five minutes north of Boston. One of the reasons my parents chose to live there was because of its good school system, and I agree that for the most part, I had a great experience in the Chelmsford public schools. I had some amazing teachers, and I feel that I was so well-prepared for college that college actually seemed easy to me. I majored in English, and none of the English classes I took at BC were as rigorous as the English classes I took at Chelmsford High. I had a terrific calculus teacher who made things so easy to understand that I wondered why anyone thought calculus was hard. I had some wonderful teachers in elementary school and middle school, too, and some of my fondest memories of high school involve extracurriculars: swim team, musical theater, treble choir, yearbook, etc.

I don’t live in Chelmsford anymore, so I don’t really follow the local news there, but this week, I read in the Globe that voters had failed to approve a property tax override that would have prevented several budget cuts. I was sad to hear that, but I had to give the voters the benefit of the doubt, since I’ve never had to pay property taxes myself. Nobody likes tax increases, and I thought that if the override had failed so decisively (3 to 2), it must have been a significant increase.

Then I found out more facts about it. Because this override failed, an elementary school will have to be closed permanently, when the schools are already getting overcrowded. Students will have to be redistricted yet again. There’ll be a $200 bus fee per child, when previously, buses were completely covered. Student activity fees will be significantly increased, which means that some kids might not be able to afford to participate in the extracurriculars I was involved in. 35 school employees will be laid off. A fire station will be closed permanently. Police officers and firefighters will be laid off. Libraries will have to cut their hours.

These are not small things. These are life-changing, property-value-diminishing, educational-quality-decreasing, threat-to-public-safety changes. The people of Chelmsford decided, through the democratic process, that several people should lose their jobs, residents should be more vulnerable to crime, homes should be more likely to be destroyed by fire, and that the town should no longer have a high-quality, enviable school system that makes people want to raise a family there. That override must have been for a hell of a lot of money, I thought.

Then I found out exactly how much. This document explains that the taxes on a home valued $370,000, which is slightly above the town average, would increase by about $200 a year.

Whoa.

Back up there.

$200 a year? $200 a year! Not a month! A year. A YEAR! $200! Not $2,000. $200! Two zeroes! Two!

Now, you all know that I have no money. The first word of my blog title is “struggling.” I recently joined a Facebook group called “I work in publishing and I’m underpaid.” Taking a vacation is a dream of mine, and God only knows when I’ll be able to afford a house. But when I can, I will most definitely be willing to spend $200 a year to help schools and town services. I’d be willing to pay that now, for God’s sake, as little money as I have!

I just don’t understand this way of thinking at all. Not wanting a tax increase when you don’t know where your tax dollars are going is one thing, but how can you see these very specific things that are going to be cut and think, “Oh, we don’t need good schools! Screw the fire department and police, I’ll take the risk and save myself $200 a year!” I get that a lot of the people voting against it are senior citizens on fixed incomes, but most of them had children in the school system in the past. How can they look at the kids in their neighborhood and feel okay about decreasing the quality of their education so that they can save $200 a year? How are that many people so selfish?

The last override in town happened seventeen years ago. I actually vaguely remember it—I was in first grade, and my parents, along with many, many others, had a bumper sticker on their car and a sign on their lawn urging people to vote yes. I was only six and had no idea what taxes were, but I remember thinking, “Well, of course people should support the schools. Why wouldn’t you?”

Seventeen years later, my thinking hasn’t changed at all. Maybe someday I’ll look back at this and think, “Oh, you stupid, idealistic twenty-three-year-old. You have no idea how the world works,” but I really don’t think so. Last year, Chelmsford was named the 21st-best place to live in America by Money magazine. Somehow, I doubt that it will happen again. And I used to think that once I was married with kids, I’d like to live there and have my kids go through the Chelmsford public schools. Unless something major changes between now and then, that’s most definitely not an option anymore.

I believe strongly in public school education. In college, I was amazed to meet so many people who had gone to private schools, since I barely knew anyone who did growing up, and I’ve never quite understood the school choice position because it doesn’t address the problem of how to fix failing schools. Education is a right, not a privilege, and the people of Chelmsford, who, according to the PowerPoint presentation on this page, spend $2,000 less per student than the state average, aren’t asking for anything extravagant. They just want a school system in the town they live in with good teachers, small class sizes, available transportation, and affordable extracurriculars. I thought most people in Chelmsford felt the same way.

But apparently, by a 3 to 2 margin, they don’t.

No Gray Area

Too often, people make things that should be black-and-white into a gray area. There’s absolutely no excuse, for instance, for cheating on a significant other— but of course people continue to justify and excuse the behavior of their darling cheaters so that they can stay in relationships with people who don’t respect them enough to remain monogamous. And there’s never a single instance where rape is not a heinous, vicious crime, but some people still continue to insist that its victims “ask for it.”

And then, of course, domestic violence. It’s such a simple concept. People in relationships do not hit each other. Period.

At least, that’s the way it should be. But people stay with abusers all the time. People at all levels of society stay with violent partners—everyone from teenage mothers on welfare to wives of professional baseball players.

So while it’s not exactly news that people stay with abusive partners, this particular case of it is. While the Phillies were in town this past summer, pitcher Brett Myers was seen beating his wife Kim on the streets of Boston. But this past week, the charges were dropped. Kim didn’t want him to be prosecuted.

I have yet to decide what the most disturbing part of this is:

1. That she’s going back to a man who has no qualms about hitting her on the street in front of people, so God knows what he does to her behind closed doors

2. That the statements of the people who witnessed the incident, and who were only trying to help, can be completely disregarded because Kim told the courts, “”There’s no violence in our family. That night in Boston we had both been drinking. I was not harmed that night. I was not injured.”

3. That the Phillies actually let him pitch the day after he was arrested

4. That Brett’s comment after his arrest was, “I’m sorry it had to go public. That’s it. Of course, it’s embarrassing.” (Because, you know, it’s perfectly fine when it’s in private and you’re not surrounded by pesky reporters trying to humiliate you.)

5. That Brett and Kim Myers have two young children who are going to have to continue to grow up in a home where their dad hits their mom

I know that it’s easy to say from the outside looking in that domestic violence is unforgivable and that violent partners should get no second chances. But the truth is, people often see only what they want to see in their significant others. We overlook incompatibilities that could destroy our relationships. We tell ourselves that just because he says he doesn’t want a girlfriend doesn’t mean we can’t be the exception. We rationalize that we must have done something that led to him sleeping with that other woman—it can’t be entirely his fault.

I realize that none of these things are equivalent with spousal abuse, but think of it this way: if we keep raising our tolerance level within relationships, how long is it before we’re claiming we walked into a door again? If we can justify someone battering our feelings, how is tolerating physical abuse any different?

I’m not too familiar with the Phillies, so I don’t know how popular a player Myers was before this incident, but I sincerely hope that his fans no longer support him. I love the Red Sox (and I love the fact that Gabe Kapler and his wife, who was a victim of dating violence in a previous relationship, work to raise awareness of the dangers of domestic abuse), but I know that if I found out that one of the Sox was beating his wife, I’d hate him. I wouldn’t care if he could break the home run record or win the Cy Young Award. As a fan, I deserve better. Fans deserve players they can admire for playing well and for conducting themselves professionally on and off the field.

But I can’t get out of my head the image I saw on the news of Kim Myers leaving the courtroom. She was wearing a white pinstriped suit and looking straight ahead, her posture stiff as a board. I think she was aiming to look strong and dignified, but all I could think of was how tiny she looked next to her husband, a former amateur boxer who, according to his bio, is six-foot-four and 234 pounds.

And it’s scary to think that Kim Myers is just one of millions of women who stay with abusers. What do they think they deserve?

Experience Freedom: Read a Banned Book (In Celebration of Banned Books Week)

My dream is that one day, I’ll write a book and it will be banned.

I’m serious. I can’t think of a better way to honor my writing. It’ll put me in good company. The Harry Potter books, The Giver, Bridge to Terabithia, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Wrinkle in Time have also been banned.

What else do these books have in common? They’ve been banned for all sorts of reasons—swearing, violence, sex, contradiction to religious beliefs (because, you know, flying on a broom and wearing an invisibility cloak like Harry Potter is possible and everything).

But the other thing they have in common is that they all get kids to think.

When I was a sheltered suburban kid, books were how I learned about the world. Number the Stars and Freedom Crossing taught me about the parts of history we wish had never happened. I’d never thought seriously about modern-day racism until I read books about it, like Iggie’s House and certain Baby-Sitters Club books. If I had a problem, like having a fight with my friends or being teased by the popular kids, I’d seek out a book with a protagonist going through the same thing. I even learned about menstruation after reading the word in a book and asking my mom what it meant.

The fact is, books, unlike TV and movies and videogames, can never be called mindless entertainment. The fact that they do get kids to think is undeniable. The books I’ve mentioned that have been banned get them to think about concepts like good and evil and the importance of choice. About serious issues like death and violence and racism. Sometimes just about the possibility of a world other than the one they live in. And because they can’t physically see the story they’re reading unfold, using their imaginations isn’t an option.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that parents don’t have the right to tell their kids they can’t read something they don’t feel is appropriate. I’m also not saying they should. What I am saying is that parents shouldn’t take away another kid’s right to read a good book just because they don’t want their kids reading something with swears (because all kids learn bad words from books) or homosexuality (because their own kids will never meet a gay person in real life) or sex (because there isn’t any other way a kid would possibly be exposed to sexual content) or anything else that they could, you know, just talk to their kids about.

And why won’t they talk to their kids about uncomfortable things? Because they want their kids to go on thinking the world is perfect? Because they don’t want their kids to know that there are people with different viewpoints?

Sadly, there are many people like this in the world. Just check out this web site. On one part of this site, people review movies and TV shows from a Christian perspective, and basically, if it’s not VeggieTales or The Passion of the Christ, someone is offended by it, whether it’s because there’s some vague implication of “magic” (which always means the devil) or because a brother and sister are fighting (which, you know, siblings never do in real life).

I should mention that my first sentence isn’t just idle talk. I actually did write a young adult novel for my senior thesis in college, which I’m currently editing so I can send it to an agent. It’s a book that deals with some serious issues and has some swearing in it. And honestly, while I’d love for it to be challenged, I wouldn’t love for it to be banned, because that would mean that overzealous parents had successfully kept my book out of the hands of kids other than their own.

So I think what I really wish is that a kid whose parents don’t want her to read my book will read it anyway—and think about what I have to say.