The Queen’s Latest Meme

Back in the day, when I was named the Queen o’ Memes, I regularly posted memes on my blog and tagged other bloggers to participate. We had great fun with those memes, which were much more creative than most of what gets dubbed a “meme” on Facebook these days. Ms. Musings was a happy participant back then, and she recently suggested I might make a little exercise of hers into a new meme. I liked the exercise, so I took the challenge.

She was at a workshop for her job, in which they were assigned some homework. One thing they had to do was to write up their visions and share them. They had to describe what the best six months of their lives would look like, as (she describes it) a sort of positive thinking/empowerment/take responsibility for your own life activity. It sounded like a fun challenge, because, like she, “I find people who make poor decisions and then whine about the consequences and act as if life has it in for them entirely punch worthy.” So, here’s my vision:

1. My home is finally decluttered, dejunked, and well-organized.

2. All the furniture I want to keep that needs repair or reupholstering has now been repaired and reupholstered, and because of #1 and #2, I now love my home instead of thinking of it as monumental tasks that never get done.

3. I have been writing every. single. day. for at least 2 hours a day and preferably 3. It doesn’t matter what: short stories, blog posts, chapters of novels, letters… The key is that I’m writing every day (the way Stephen King says I should).

4. I have been submitting works I’ve written for publication on a regular basis and have had at least one thing published somewhere (anywhere).

5. I have driven cross-country and back, staying with wonderful friends all along the way to the west coast and all the way back to the east coast.

That’s it. Let the six months begin!

Meanwhile, if you’re reading this, consider yourself tagged. If you don’t have a blog, but you’re on Facebook, use the “Notes” section of that. What do your six best months look like?

What Does a Minister Do All Week?

pray for your pastor
Yet again, I recently met someone who asked what Bob does. And, yet again, we got that tiresome old joke about how a minister has such an easy job, only working on Sundays. I know it’s a joke. I know a sense of humor about all things is a good and healthy attribute to embrace, but I’m finding it harder and harder to laugh at that joke. Those of you who have ever visited Bob and me from out of town know how absurd it is. If it’s such an easy job, then why are so many ministers burning out?

Here are some staggering statistics for you: 50% of all ministers starting out today won’t last five years in the ministry, and only 10% of those who are ministers right now will actually retire from a job as a minister. There are whole websites devoted to the topic of ex-pastors and pastor burnout. I can’t read too many of the stories on those sites because they are just so, so sad.

One minister wrote something I read once in which he said that one of the main reasons ministers burn out so much is that we live in an age in which people feel entitled. They don’t think of their churches as places to honor and serve God but rather as places meant to serve them. They pay their dues and expect to get something for that. The problem is, they all want something different, and it’s hard for a minister to deal with, say, 200 people, half wanting things one way, a quarter wanting them another, and a quarter wanting something altogether different. Ministers are consistently put into no-win situations, which may be why 70% of them are constantly fighting depression.

I’m not convinced that this entitlement is the biggest cause of pastor burnout, though. At our church (btw, Bob and I hate to say “our church” or, worse, “my church”, because it isn’t. It’s God’s church. But I use that terminology here to distinguish from other churches) I don’t think the majority of people feel so entitled (I’ve lived and gone to school in and worked in enough places to know there will always be entitled people in every crowd, but they’re not in the majority at our church). The members of this congregation are humble and loving and willing to serve, and yet I can still see how a minister might burn out even serving a church full of people like that. So much of what a minister does isn’t seen by those she serves. No one observes the suicidal person with whom he is on the phone for two hours. No one sees her helping the brother or grandchild or girlfriend of a church member, someone who doesn’t attend the church but whom the member has asked if she will help. No one sees how much time he spends, week after week, writing a sermon, practicing that sermon, and preparing the rest of the Sunday morning service. No one sees her studying book after book for the Sunday school class she is teaching or Bible study she is leading. No one is there on a Sunday night at 10:00 when someone calls and says, “I know it’s late, but I really need to talk. Could you please come over?”

Ministers are on-call 24/7. Like emergency room personnel, they are always in triage mode, forever having to figure out what most needs attention at any given time. This means that if they are truly loving and caring people (which we all hope they are), all but the very most important of administrative tasks are left languishing, which is why well-organized, intuitive church secretaries are God’s Chosen People (it would help if they could also possess a little ESP, as well, but God hasn’t granted them that gift. Instead, God gives them patience), but such tasks are also just about the only thing the majority of a minister’s congregation sees a minister doing. It’s understandable that people might think a minister doesn’t do much, especially if he has a good secretary, while the minister is actually feeling like he barely manages to keep his head above water, while always dealing with the worry that maybe he didn’t help someone quite enough. And if he’s a good minister, bent on keeping confidentiality, he has no one he can talk to about such worries — not even his spouse — except in the vaguest of ways.

When Bob first became a minister, I was surprised by how much time he spent working on the sermon. Surely, I thought, he’s spending way more time on that than most ministers do. Then, one of our friends posted an article about sermon-writing that noted the general rule of thumb for sermon preparation is one hour of prep for every minute preached. Wow! That means if a minister is writing sermons of average length in America (30-40 minutes according to statistics I can find), she is putting in what’s considered in other professions a full-time job (40-hour week) just writing sermons. Bob’s sermons are 20 minutes long, which would mean 20 hours a week. In 2012, Thom Ranier took a Twitter poll (not statistically significant but still interesting) and found that more than one out of five ministers spend 15 hours or more preparing sermons each week. If you’re so inclined, you can read more interesting information from ministers about sermon prep time here. Bob, in the early days, spent about 20 hours on sermons. Now he spends about 15 hours a week on sermon prep and writing. He practices each sermon three times before he gives it, so that’s about another hour for the sermon. He also writes his own prayers for the service, and picks hymns with our music director, so service prep every week takes somewhere between 16 and 17 hours.

My guess is that most ministers are like Bob, which means they can’t prepare for and write sermons while in the church office, where phones are ringing and people are talking, and they are getting interrupted in other ways. Office hours, for the most part, are spent on email, mail, meetings with individuals, and phone calls. Other ministers have also probably discovered that the best times to write without having to worry about being interrupted (unless there is some special church function going on) are Friday evenings and Saturdays. It seems people are busy with their own things on the weekends and are less inclined to call on the minister until Sunday. There’s another minister in our community who says he spends all day every Saturday writing his sermon, and a retired minister who sometimes attends our church who recently told me that he spent every vacation he took at the Jersey Shore planning sermons while his family was on the beach (I just bet his family loved that). Bob tends to split his sermon-writing up during the week (and he does a good deal of it when most people are in bed — again, because he’s less likely to be interrupted), but he typically finishes it on Saturday.

A couple of months ago, we were having one of these calm discussions of ours, and I said to Bob, “You never take a full day off. Ever. You put in at least 50 hours every week and sometimes as many as 80 hours.” He didn’t believe me. You may not, either. You may wonder when he puts in 80 hours. Well, add a funeral or a wedding (or both) to a work week, and that’s an extra sermon to write and extra visits to make and an extra service to conduct. This past Christmas, he had two funerals, a Sunday service, and two Christmas Eve services to do in 6 days. He barely slept that week. Luckily, the sermon for the Sunday service and one of the Christmas Eve services were both very short due to a cantata and a pageant.

Anyway, since Bob didn’t believe me when I complained kindly pointed out (by the way, lest you think I’m some sort of whiner, I am not alone. 80% of spouses feel that pastors are overworked) how many hours he puts in for work, I did something sneaky. I decided to track his time. For two weeks, I tracked, as best as I could (some of that time I wasn’t around, so he might have been doing stuff I didn’t record) what he was doing. Now I have some ammunition facts next time we argue calmly discuss this topic. This is what he did each day on top of sermon/service prep.

Bob’s Week Nov. 9 – 15 (rounded up or down to the nearest half hour)

Sunday Nov. 9th: two church services, teaching Sunday school, fellowship after church: 4 1/2 hours

Monday Nov. 10th: Office hours: 4 hours (included a pastoral counseling session)

Church-related phone calls (these are calls that are in addition to whatever were made/gotten in the                          office, and are outside of office hours): 1 hour

Tuesday Nov. 11th: Abbreviated office hours: 1 1/2 hours

Leadership team meeting: 2 hours

Worship committee meeting: 1 1/2 hours

Church-related phone calls (outside office hours): 1 1/2 hours

Wednesday Nov. 12th: Office hours: 3 1/2 hours

Thursday Nov. 13th: Visited church members: 2 hours

Office hours: 3 1/2 hours

Friday Nov. 14th : At emergency room with church member: 6 hours

Kick-off youth group lock-in: 2 hours

Saturday Nov. 15th: Morning shift of youth group lock-in: 5 hours

Peace witness meeting (community involvement expected of ministers): 2 hours

Total hours Nov. 9-15: 40 + 15 to prepare sermon + 1 to practice sermon = 56 hours

Bob’s Week Nov. 16 – Nov. 22

Sunday Nov. 16: One church service, congregational meeting, and 50-member luncheon: 4 hours

Visiting church member at hospital: 1 hour

Monday Nov. 17: Office hours: 3 1/2 hours

Tuesday Nov. 18: Presbytery meeting (all Presbyterian ministers attend Presbytery meetings): 9 hours, no office hours

Church-related phone calls (outside of office): 1 hour

Wednesday Nov. 19: Church-related phone calls (outside of office): 1 1/2 hours

Met with social worker to help person he’s been counseling: 3 hours

Abbreviated office hours (due to overlap of social worker meeting): 2 hours

Thursday Nov. 20: Member of congregation had surgery, went to hospital to wait with wife: 4 hours

Abbreviated office hours (due to time spent in hospital): 1 1/2 hours

Church-related phone calls (outside of office hours): 1/2 hour

Session (church board) meeting: 2 1/2 hours

Friday Nov. 21: Church-related phone calls and proofreading church bulletin (outside of office): 1 hour

Met with organizer of the church Christmas pageant: 1 hour

Saturday Nov. 22:  Church-related phone calls: 1 1/2 hours

This week, he also began his work on the Thanksgiving Eve sermon, because next week he has that           in addition to his regular Sunday services. He put in 7 hours on that.

Total hours Nov. 16 – 22 37 + 15 of regular sermon prep + 7 of Thanksgiving Eve sermon prep + 1 to practice sermon = 60 hours

So, there you have it. Two weeks in a minister’s life. They are quite typical. An easy job, right? Is it any wonder so many get burnt out, especially if they (as many claim) feel they don’t have any support or are constantly dealing with petty complaints? Bob’s not burnt out, and he gets support. Still, he also gets tired, and sometimes a little depressed by all his worries and concerns (as anyone with a conscience would). So do I. Next time you meet a minister, give her a hug. She probably needs it. While you’re at it, give the minister’s spouse a hug. We need them, too. And no jokes about only working on Sunday, please.

Books I Won’t Read

I got this idea from my friend Stefanie over at So Many Books. Like Stefanie, my initial reaction to the question, “What books won’t you read?” is “none”. Years ago, I wrote a piece, which I might bring back here as one from the vault, about what a book slut I am, how I’ll read just about anything. I’m insatiably curious, and I possess this contrary disposition that leads me to be  both trusting and mistrusting of all book reviews I read. Add to that the fact that I’ve belonged to so many book clubs for so many years in which I’ve discovered and loved books I never would have picked up otherwise, and well, it makes sense that my initial reaction is that I read everything.

Whenever someone trashes a book, instead of discouraging me from reading it (which would be great if anyone ever took note of how long my tbr tome is), I find myself thinking, “Surely it can’t be THAT bad?” When someone raves about how wonderful a book is, well, I have to find out if I agree. I don’t even trust my own judgment, having long ago decided that every author deserves at least two chances. I mean, what if the first book I chose by her just so happens to be the only bad book she ever wrote? So I will try an author, and even if I hate his book, will try another of his before completely abandoning him (and in some cases, even then I can be persuaded to try a third). That’s why I recently decided to give Cecilia Ahern a second chance after slogging through the extremely poorly-written P.S. I Love You (although it was made into a film that is much better than the book and a great one to watch next time you find yourself stuck at home in bed with a bad cold). I read 100 pages of The Book of Tomorrow before deciding that, yes, her writing has improved a little over the years, but not enough to convince me that the only reason she ever got any publishing contracts is that she happens to be the daughter of the former Prime Minister of Ireland.

This leads me to the first category of books I won’t read: those that are terribly written. Unfortunately, this isn’t something one can know before picking up a book. And sometimes, horribly written books can be stomached if the story/plot is interesting/imaginative enough. I kept going with P.S. I Love You because I really did want to see what would happen in the end. The Book of Tomorrow, however, was not only poorly-written, but also seemed like a story hundreds of authors have written better. Eschewing poorly-written books means I don’t tend to read much popular, bestselling fiction. There are exceptions. I will read Stephen King because he’s imaginative and a great story-teller. I will read Sophie Kinsella, because even though the plots are contrived the way all romance plots are, they’re contrived in original ways, and she writes well. For the most part, though, I shy away from bestseller lists.

I also shy away from books with cutesie or annoying titles, unless someone whose reading tastes I respect recommends them, or they get chosen for one of the book discussions to which I belong. I know that’s very superficial of me, but it’s how I am. I never would have read Eat, Pray, Love whose title turned me off the minute I first saw it on display, if it hadn’t been for reviews written by bloggers I’d come to trust. That would’ve been a shame, because I so enjoyed that book. Likewise, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is one of the worst titles ever, but was such a good book. I am quite sure I’d love Alan Bradley’s mystery series featuring Flavia de Luce, but we’ll probably never know, because I just can’t get past the title of the first book in the series The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (I guess if you want me to read your book, you’d better make sure it doesn’t have “pie” in the title). That one actually has two strikes against it, because I don’t like the heroine’s name, either. And yet, an eleven-year-old chemist solving mysteries? I ought to be all over that series. Recently, only for a book discussion group, I finally read Little Bee. If the American publishers hadn’t been so stupid as to change the title from its original The Other Hand, making it sound like it was some treacly children’s book, I might have read this harrowing and important work long ago. American publishers seem to make that mistake a lot. I wasn’t too keen on reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A book called Men Who Hate Women (it’s Swedish title)? I would immediately have pulled that one off the shelf. Having worked in publishing, I know how very, very hard it is for all parties involved to agree on a title, but still, I so often find myself wondering, “What were they thinking?”

I won’t read books that feature long, detailed descriptions of sex, unless they are important to the plot (and how often are they really important to the plot?). I’m not a prude. I read plenty of that sort of stuff when I was younger, but at my age, I really couldn’t care less what others are doing behind closed doors, and I find much of it boring and/or silly. I’d much rather have an author hint at what’s going on and let my imagination fill in as needed. Most of the time I can tell when an editor, thinking it would sell more copies, has obviously told an author he/she needs to include graphic sex scenes. I understand that such descriptions maybe sold more copies of books back in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was suddenly allowed, a “new thing”, during a time when people were just beginning to talk openly about sex and maybe used such books to find out whether or not they were “normal”, but is it really necessary now, given what’s on primetime TV?

Finally, I’m not much into reading books that are nothing more than one person’s political or religious diatribe, unbalanced and, quite often, mean. If it happens to be someone with whom I agree, I rarely learn anything new and am discouraged when I find him/her personally attacking others rather than discussing ideas (a personal attack against the opponent is the first sign someone is losing an argument). If it happens to be someone with whom I disagree, he or she doesn’t encourage me to understand his or her point of view, which is what I’m hoping will happen when I read a book written by someone with whom I think I might disagree. Add arrogance on the author’s part (and it will be there), and well, what’s the point? I much prefer biographies or autobiographies of such figures.

There are also other types of books I could list, like technical manuals, that are obvious, but I’d much rather get back to reading all those books I will read. Meanwhile, I’ll pass on Stefanie’s question. Are there any sorts of books you won’t read?

The Small Room by May Sarton

Small Room

I read this one for The Classics Club.

I have to admit that I approached this, the second Classics Club read I’ve finished, a little warily when I began reading its Prologue, which is eerily reminiscent of The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart, a book I decidedly didn’t like (funny how they both have “Room” in their titles). We begin here, just as we did The Yellow Room, with our heroine Lucy on a train from New York to New England, a young woman whose physical description we get from her judgment of her reflection (here, it’s in the train window. Rinehart’s was in the mirror in the train’s bathroom), a tired writing technique. Both heroines seem a bit naïve, although adventuresome enough to be on a train alone, headed toward an unknown future.

But that was merely the discouraging Prologue, which probably wouldn’t bother anyone who hasn’t read and disliked The Yellow Room. Get past the Prologue, and this book quickly reveals itself to be a minor miracle. I’m in awe of May Sarton for having written such a rich and deep book, full of provocative ideas, in a mere 249 pages. On top of that, she’s managed to provide us with extremely well-drawn, complicated characters. I’ve read far longer books in which the characters remained complete mysteries to me by the end. Here I was, at first, tempted to identify stereotypes, but then each character goes on to prove that he or she is much more than a stereotype.

The premise of the story is that young Lucy has just broken off her engagement to a medical doctor. Having earned her Ph.D. at Harvard (sort of on a lark, if you can believe that), while he was in med school, she’s decided to take a job as an English professor at Appleton, a women’s college set in New England. During her first term, she discovers that one of school’s prize students, who happens to be a protégé of one of the school’s most revered professors, has plagiarized (from Simone Weil, of all people, a woman who fascinates me in her own right). Lucy has to decide what to do and finds herself caught in the middle of understanding both the student Jane and the professor Carryl. They both seem to trust this new arrival on campus — which is a bit unrealistic but works here because, in Lucy, Sarton has given us a character who is extremely insightful, while being young and insecure enough to be humble in a way that realistically would draw others to her.

Along the way, Sarton examines social issues of the day that are still relevant. We get a chance to see how things have and haven’t changed in the 50+ years since the book was first published in 1961. One of the major themes is a suspicion of psychology/psychiatry, and a divide between the younger and older generations, the older generation being far more suspicious, the younger being more accepting. In 2015, it seems almost laughable that a campus would be split over hiring a resident psychiatrist. By the same token, despite our counseling centers today, many still remain suspicious of therapy.

Sarton also studies generation gaps in this book. I tend to think we’re awfully obsessed these days with the naming and defining of generations. We have “The Baby-Boomers”, “The Gen-Xers”, “The Millenials”, etc. It was a bit of an obsession with the characters in this book as well. No one has trendy names for the different generations, but Sarton notes the differences among the very young (the students), the young (faculty Lucy’s age), the middle, and the older generations. They all seem to be envious and annoyed with each other by turns.

Love, in its many forms, is another theme — both heterosexual and homosexual (brave for Sarton’s time), so is the role of the teacher. Sarton also encourages the reader to ponder what, exactly, excellence is and at what costs it is achieved. Gender roles are another issue raised in the book. I’m listing all these issues and thinking how impossible it must sound to someone who hasn’t read the book that she could have covered all that while exploring the ethical dilemma of making a very young person pay the lifelong price for having made a mistake. Impossibly, though, she does. Oh, and on top of all that, we get a look at class, money, and power. It’s an amazing little book.

Before this, I’d never read any of Sarton’s prose, only some of her poetry. I remember it as being dreamy, so I was surprised by how matter-of-fact, how crisp her writing is here. The poet in her seemed only to shine through in some of her super metaphors and similes. Here’s a nice example:

This was exhausting but exhilarating, quite different from one of the freshmen sections which seemed like a huge, oppressive elephant she had to try to lift each morning.

I got to the end, though, and was no longer surprised. The poet lives throughout this entire book in Sarton’s ability to do what poets always do: evoke so much with so few words. I take multiple hats off to her.

Props for Two Companies Doing Customer Service Right

We live in a consumer society. We consumers are supposedly the ones who have all the power. I mean, if we don’t buy what someone is making and selling, well, the person making and selling it can’t survive. With that kind of power, you’d think we consumers would be running around saying, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, you can’t make me buy that.” But we’re not, for some reason. Instead, we seem to be rolling over and saying, “Give me your shoddiest product, making it as inconvenient as possible for me to get it, and I’ll take it. In fact, I’ll take two, even if I have to buy them in two different places, or even if they’re on backorder for six months.”

I don’t blame those under the age of 30 who probably never even heard the phrase “The customer is always right.” But shame on the rest of us, really (and I include myself). Every day we find ourselves buying cheap, poorly made goods from surly people who don’t even know the products they’re selling (because we’re in some store that’s a little village unto itself, and the person we’ve encountered in the housewares section is just filling in. She usually works in sporting goods). Or worse, we’re buying it online with no help whatsoever and a company phone number that is buried deep in an online vault somewhere that requires you to find the right weapons, slay a few dragons, earn 22,000 points, and save a princess before you can get to it.

And don’t try to return something that broke two weeks after you bought it. Unless you’ve filled out multiple forms and framed your original receipt in the proper frame, you’re unlikely to get much help. Even if the product you’re returning clearly has the company’s emblem engraved on it, you’re likely to be told, “I’m sorry. Without the framed receipt, the computer doesn’t know you bought it here.” If you do have all the correct documentation, you’re likely to be blamed for the fact it’s broken. You will have to convince the gum-snapping teen at the customer service desk that all you did was turn on the hairdryer, exactly as instructed, and hold it up to your head, when it suddenly made a weird squeak and then went dead. She’ll reluctantly agree that the hairdryer might be faulty, but you won’t get your money back. You’ll get store credit. Usually, that’s okay, because you really did need a hairdryer, and you just want one that works, but if this happens to be the second thing you’ve bought at that store that broke within a few weeks of your buying it, you may just want your money back so you can take it elsewhere.

Speaking of returning things, has anyone else noticed how difficult it is to get a warranty on anything? First of all, you will often be asked if you want to buy an extended warranty. What an evil genius the guy who came up with that “screw the customer” ploy was. “Instead of making the best product we can and selling it with a lifetime guarantee, so our customers will be happy, let’s see, instead, if we can prey on their fears that it might break and make them keep paying, for a while, for something they’ve already bought.” If you refuse that, you can still get your one-year warranty, but you must fill out a form in triplicate. The form will require that you search the product for impossible-to-find serial numbers. You must have all three forms certified by a notary public, and then, within 48 hours, you must send the completed forms, plus two photos of the product, your birth certificate, and a vial of your blood to company headquarters. Of course, what the company knows is that few people can be bothered with all this, so they won’t do it. When their headphones break during the next six months, the customer service rep will say, “Sorry, but you never registered your headphones’ warranty.”

That’s the norm these days, and we put up with it, but I’d like to highlight two fabulous companies who don’t fall into the norm, because as a consumer, I want to let others know who the good guys are, where you can experience hassle-free shopping and returns. The first company is Bose. I’ve been a Bose fan since I was a teenager. I learned back then that, yes, their stereo equipment is expensive, but it was very worth saving money to buy it, because its sound is phenomenal. Bob and I have a set of Bose speakers that aren’t the original ones he bought 30 years ago or so. That’s because about fifteen years after he bought them, one of them began to hiss. He called Bose asking if he could send it back for repairs. Do you know what they did? They asked him to ship them back, at their expense, and they sent him brand new speakers for some nominal fee (can’t remember how much it was — I think it was something like $50 — but it was nothing compared to the cost of replacing those speakers). This was fifteen years after he’d bought the original pair.

Bose is still like that today. They have replaced for us, at half price, a seven-year old pair of headphones that had quit working and a five-year-old pair of earbuds. We’re lucky enough to have a Bose store where I live, and the sales people there are always, always extremely friendly, enthusiastic, and knowledgable. I tend to ask tons of questions, and they are very patient with me. My most recent experience was buying a Christmas gift. Guess what. After getting great help from the salesman, I got to the register, and he said, “Now, just hold on a second while I fill out the one-year warranty for you.” (What? I didn’t have to fill anything out myself?) “If anything goes wrong with it in the next year, just bring it back, and we’ll give you a new one.” I’m sure I swooned. This is what it’s come to. I get great customer service, and I swoon.

That’s a tried-and-true company, but now I’d like to talk about a relatively new company. That company is Fitbit. Bob and I, as I wrote in an earlier blog post, jumped on the Fitbit bandwagon with gusto last year. We use them, wear them everyday, love them. They’ve done what they’re designed to do, which has been to get us moving. We had a few complaints, though. Bob always had trouble charging his, especially with the charger that came with it, so he’d use mine. And the bracelets (we have the Flex) don’t hold up very well for those of us who rarely ever take them off. Recently, his bracelet broke, and his Flex fell out of it at my brother-in-law’s house. He didn’t notice it was missing until we got home, three hours later. My brother-in-law found it, carefully wrapped it up, and mailed it back to us. Bob wore it for a few days, and it was working fine, despite its big adventure with the USPS, but then he tried to charge it. It wouldn’t charge at all anymore.

By this point, he was ready to say that, even though he loved the concept of the Fitbit, he wasn’t very impressed by it, since he’d always had trouble with his, and it hadn’t even lasted a year, but then he ran into someone who has and loves his who said, “Oh, don’t worry. Call them. They’re a great company. They’ve replaced three for me.” So Bob called, and he got a wonderful customer service representative who not only agreed to replace the Flex for Bob but also agreed to send me a new bracelet to replace the one I had that broke. He followed up with an email, as well as a suggestions for how to make sure the new bracelets don’t break. Two days later, Bob had a new Fitbit. Now THAT’S customer service. We loved our Fitbits before, but now we love the company and will remain loyal to them.

So, Bose and Fitbit, you’ve designed some marvelous products, and you’ve earned our loyalty. Please don’t change. I’m doing my best to spread the good news about you.

From the Vault: I Am From

I’ve decided, occasionally, to republish stuff I wrote in the past (either for blogs or other venues). I might do a little editing, but for the most part, I plan to keep them pretty much the way they were. I wrote this back in February 2007 when I was still living in Connecticut and had no idea that before the year was up I’d be living in Pennsylvania — where the honeysuckle also grows lush and thick. It was a response to a meme for which I was tagged and for which many people wrote beautiful responses. I really think it captures my feelings about North Carolina, what I loved about growing up there and also why I felt I had to leave. Roots are strong, though. These days, I’m more and more drawn to all the things I love about that state. (Apologies to those of you who have already read this. Perhaps you won’t mind rereading, and I’d love to hear your reactions this many years later.)

I Am From

I am from summers so hot and humid, the sheets stick to your body, and the fan just blows around hot air, but you can hear the cicadas and frogs and crickets loud and clear in their nighttime operas, and a swimming pool or the ocean in mid-July is never, ever too cold to just plunge right in without a second thought. The honeysuckle grows lush and thick along fences and over bushes; my nose forever will be so attuned to its scent. I can smell it long before I ever see it, and when I take my first whiff of some bubble bath meant to smell like honeysuckle it turns my stomach in its falsehood. I am from winters that never have enough snow, but when the snow comes, everyone stays home, and it’s like a holiday in which the traditional meal is hot chocolate and gingerbread, and snowmen guests arrive in tatty old scarves and hats, long noses turned orange rather than pink from the cold.

I am from traveling in a westerly direction to discover some of the most beautiful, soft rolling old mountains in the world. These mountains play dulcimers and banjos and go clogging well into the wee hours of the morning when the rising sun joins them to dance light off their blue ridges. Breakfast is fried eggs, sausage patties, grits with a puddle of yellow butter sitting in their center, and homemade biscuits dripping with butter and honey.

I am from traveling in an easterly direction to land upon miles of sandy white beaches, rough ocean waves rolling and smirking over the “graveyard of the Atlantic,” where ships’ skeletons provide homes for coral, colorful fish, and giant turtles, as well as plenty of fodder for folktales. The sand dunes stand up safe and tall, laughing at the ocean that tries but can’t reach them, colorful hang gliders running and jumping from their peaks to join the birds majestically soaring through the deep Carolina blue skies around them. Lunch is the best fried chicken ever, fresh-baked rolls, mashed potatoes smothered in butter, and tangy coleslaw speckled with black pepper.

I am from a place where long afternoons are spent down by the creek, barefoot and in shorts, wading around and catching tiny-clawed crawdads with nets made from wire hangers and old stockings, who are released immediately due to feelings of sorrow for taking them from their homes. I am from flying kites that stubbornly refuse to stay aloft, even though the wind seemed to be howling all night, in freshly-mown fields, blades of grass clinging to dewy legs. I am from dancing lessons in a studio below a general store where frozen cokes and candy bars await once the heinous lessons are done. Supper (never “dinner”) is pork chops and black-eyed peas and green beans cooked in fatback, and if I’m lucky, we might have chocolate or tapioca pudding for dessert.

I am from tobacco fields and cigarette factories and a downtown that smells like grape juice to a young child who doesn’t understand tobacco smells like that. I am from Moravian settlers who left their marks with sugar cake, cookies, and coffee. I am from drama schools and live theater and underwear mavens and small liberal arts colleges. I am from a very American place.

I am also from a place in which, to my horror, the “n” word is used and spoken, but where, mysteriously, blacks and whites actually work, socialize, interact with each other, and live in the same neighborhoods far better than they do where I currently live. I am from a place where, as one black friend of the family who moved north only to come back, once described it, “you hate us as a race, but you love us as people.” I am from a place where life might be much better if only everyone would admit to a legacy of unnatural and unfair prejudices. It’s a place where, contrary to popular belief elsewhere, 95% of the people are not “still fighting the Civil War,” but where many, many people are still fighting just to survive every day.

My hometown is so stiflingly close-minded and cliquish, I’m not going to be able to breathe if I don’t escape it, so I flee to a place where I’m sure I’ll find far more like-minded people. I am wrong, but not completely wrong. So, now my hometown is a place I’m learning to forgive for its stifling ways, but I don’t ever want to go back there to live.

I am from a place where people aren’t nearly as stupid and backwards as outsiders seem to think they are, but where everyone still has a lot to learn. But then, aren’t all places like that?

Twelfth Night; or What You Will by William Shakespeare

Twelfth night

I read this one for The Classics Club.

All’s well that ends well, right? And this one certainly does end well after putting the reader through the wringer, piling one mess upon another until it seems the characters will never be able to extricate themselves from the bottom of the pile. I knew the basic story, in which twins become separated in a ship wreck. Each thinks the other is dead, and the sister Viola disguises herself as a man to serve Duke Orsino. Orsino is trying to woo Olivia, a young woman whose father and brother have died, who in her mourning has decided not to respond to suitors. Orsino uses Viola (whom he thinks is the young man Cesario) to get to Olivia, who falls in love with Viola, not knowing she is a he. Meanwhile, Viola falls in love with Orsino. Then, the twin brother Sebastian (who looks exactly like Cesario, of course) arrives on the scene. I also knew this was a comedy (so there’d be no horrific, death-laden ending), and I still found myself worrying, thinking, “How on earth are they ever going to set things right?” That’s the sign of a brilliant author, of course.

Another sign of a brilliant author is that he can write comedy. I’ve said this elsewhere before, I’m sure, but I’ll repeat it here. I know Shakespeare gets most of his credit for his tragedies — and I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve credit for the greatness of those — but I’ve always been a huge fan of his comedies. Years ago, someone told me, “Writing great comedy is much harder than writing great tragedy. Anyone can make an audience cry, but it’s very hard to make an audience laugh.” That’s true. A sense of humor seems to be a much more personal and variable animal than a sense of tragedy. I’ve lived and worked in some places in my life where people “got” my sense of humor and in other places where people didn’t.

Shakespeare would’ve “gotten” my sense of humor, if I can judge by what he wrote. I can still remember reading A Comedy of Errors in the undergraduate library in college and being worried I was going to be kicked out for laughing too hard (as if a librarian would kick someone out for such a wonderful thing!). That’s one of the reasons I was a little disappointed with Twelfth Night. I did giggle a few times, but I never found myself giving way to uncontrollable laughter. Still, that’s a feat, isn’t it? 400+ years after this play was written in England it can still make an American giggle. It begs the question we literary types are always asking: what’s being written today that will still make people laugh 500 years from now?

My other disappointment was the treatment of Malvolio, Olivia’s steward. I know. I know. He’s a pompous ass who deserves to be taken down a notch, but it was all a bit too cruel for my tastes. Make a fool of him, sure, but did they have to continue it to the point that he’s locked up as a mad man? (Although, I have to admit that it was funny when he was complaining about the dark, and they were all proclaiming that he was in the bright light.)

We’re talking about Shakespeare here, though. The disappointments are only mildly so, and the marvels outweigh them. Of course, I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who loves Shakespeare. If you don’t love Shakespeare, I wouldn’t recommend this one if you’re trying to change your mind. For that, I’d recommend A Comedy of Errors. For those of you who love Shakespeare and haven’t yet read this one? Do.

The Fantasy Christmas vs. Reality

This is my idea of the perfect fantasy Christmas. First of all, no one asks me if I’m “ready for Christmas” before Christmas Eve, and we spend a lovely, restful Advent the way it should be spent, in waiting and quiet preparation. Christmas begins a few days early with a Tree Fairy who comes on the winter solstice and erects and decorates a gorgeous tree in our warm and cozy home, which is maintained by the Housekeeping Fairy. My husband Bob and I don’t have to disagree over where to get the tree, which tree to choose, who forgot to label the good and bad lights from last year, which is the side of the tree to face forward, how best to string the lights, etc. Once the tree arrives, we spend very evening prior to Christmas Eve by a real fire in the fireplace reading old-fashioned Christmas tales like A Christmas Carol.

On Christmas Eve, neither of us has to work. I make egg nog (my great-grandmother Wood’s recipe). We each have a small bowl of oyster stew (which Bob doesn’t hate) and a glass of egg nog before we head over to spend a few hours at our friends’ Christmas Eve open house in Intercourse, PA. Then, we walk to a beautiful, centuries-old church for a midnight mass, for which my husband isn’t the least bit responsible. This church is located somewhere in England. The service is one of Lessons and Carols, the carols led by the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and the sermon is one that inspires us to discuss it all the way on the walk home. Once home, we each pour ourselves a glass of egg nog and exchange one gift before going to bed by candlelight.

On Christmas morning, we get up to discover a raging blizzard outside. We light the fire and open the Christmas stockings Santa has filled for us, and he knows us well, having delivered mostly books and candy. Then, we sit down to a breakfast that includes stollen (one can only hope it is made by Sharon Stiener, who gave many a delicious stollen to the Michie family when I was growing up). By noon, the snow is still gently falling, but it is nice enough to join family members and best friends at someone’s brownstone in NYC for a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner prepared by someone who loves to cook such feasts and doesn’t consider it to be a chore at all. For dessert, there is pecan pie made by my mother with plenty of whipped cream. Afterwards, everyone takes a walk up 5th Avenue to view the shop windows and to see the tree at Rockefeller Center. Bob and I return home to exchange another gift over glasses of egg nog, on this, the first day of Christmas.

During the next eleven days of Christmas, Bob and I spend lots of time visiting family and friends, eating delicious food, telling great stories, laughing uproariously with those who have similar senses of humor. We spend the rest of the time in front of the fire and tree reading books and eating candy we’ve gotten as gifts. Each night, we exchange one gift with each other, twelve in all. The only exception is New Year’s Eve, when we enjoy a festive ringing in of the New Year with James and Elizabeth at Red Sky Restaurant in Southwest Harbor, ME. On the day after Epiphany, the Tree Fairy comes and takes down the tree, carts it away, and promises to be back next year.

That’s the fantasy, which is a vast improvement over Christmas 2014. Christmas 2014 went as follows. I began to get sick in the middle of the night Dec. 2 – Dec. 3. For the most part, I stayed in bed on Dec. 3 and thought I was much better on December 4 when Bob and I went to see the Tedeschi Trucks at the Keswick Theater in Glenside. By the afternoon of Dec. 5th, I was feeling lousy and feverish again, but I had to cashier at the church bazaar for a couple of hours on Dec. 6th and had to be at church on Dec. 7th for the Christmas play practice (I was one of the Magi). I thought I was finally feeling better on Dec. 8th and went to work. The rest of the week is a bit of a feverish blur. I made it to the one and only Amish wedding to which I’ll probably ever be invited, but I had to miss my favorite work event (the library volunteer tea) on Dec. 12th, by which time Bob was getting sick, and that day we also found out that a dear member of our congregation had died.

Instead of going Christmas caroling as planned, after play practice on Dec. 14th, I accompanied Bob to a little party for the baby he’d just baptized, did a quick grocery shop, then collapsed and slept all afternoon before leading the youth group’s Christmas party. I stayed in bed all morning on the 15th, then got up to do stuff before I had to be at work. Feeling a bit better on the 16th, I went Christmas shopping. I thought I was finally on the mend, energy coming back, and I crossed a lot off my to-do list on Dec. 17th before Bob and I went to see “Annie” at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center, where we have season tickets (it was superb!). Yet again, that set me back. I was able to work on the 18th, but since Bob was also very sick, and he had to officiate at the funeral on Friday, we had to postpone seeing one of the kids of the church perform at the Christmas extravaganza at The American Music Theatre. Sometime during that week, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to bother with Christmas cards this year.

Friday arrived, and along with it came a pain in the right side of my chest, which didn’t make sense. It felt like a pulled muscle, but my cough had been getting better, and unless I’d coughed very hard in my sleep without waking up at all, I couldn’t imagine how I’d pulled a muscle. Both Bob and I were sad and somber and sick, preparing for the funeral. Then, just before the funeral, Bob received more bad news. Our next door neighbor, another dear member of the congregation, had died. By this point, Bob was sicker than I was, so I’d taken over the task of walking Clare the dachshund in the unpredictable warm/cold weather, the sort of weather that pneumonia, according to legend, just loves. I made it through the funeral, which I didn’t realize until I was in the midst of it was our first funeral since my father died over the summer. It was hard. I almost left. After the funeral luncheon, Bob collapsed for the afternoon before getting back to work on Sunday’s service. I didn’t. I felt my energy coming back.  I got more stuff checked off my to-do list. The next day, Dec. 20th, I did some more Christmas shopping and went to work before an evening of pizza-eating and cookie-baking with the church youth in preparation for the Secret Santa party they were hosting after church the next day.

Church and the Secret Santa party rang in the true spirit of Christmas. I was feeling more energetic than ever. The chest pain seemed to be going away. Bob was still sick as a dog, but he visited the grieving family next door, and a funeral was planned for Christmas Eve morning. I worked on Dec. 22, had an annual mammogram appointment on Dec. 23, and was feeling much better that day, finishing my Christmas shopping and greeting my brother-in-law when he arrived. I attended the final dress rehearsal for the Christmas play that evening. By the time I went to bed that night, though, I realized my cough was coming back, and the pain in my chest was still there.

We, somehow, made it through another funeral and luncheon on Dec. 24. Then I spent the rest of the day wrapping presents and making egg nog, and feeling very sad, as I got in touch with my siblings, about the first Christmas without my father. I couldn’t even listen to The Messiah (one of his favorites), which I usually love to do on Christmas Eve. The early Christmas Eve service was great fun with the Christmas play a success. My brother-in-law, Bob, and I came home to discover that Clare the dachshund had managed to get upstairs (despite a gate) and had eaten half the fudge I’d had bought and wrapped as a gift for Bob (earlier in the day, she’d found and eaten some special sugar I’d gotten him for his stocking). An online search revealed that if it were going to kill her, she would’ve died immediately, but that she would probably be sick. She seemed okay, though, and there was no time to stay with her. We headed off to the annual Christmas Eve party we attend and then to the late-night service, by which point, I realized my cough had come back with a vengeance.

Bob and I arrived home from the late night service around 12:30 to discover that Clare had thrown up all over the living room, including on one of the chairs. We had to clean it up and strip the chair covers off the chair and get them in the wash before we could even think about going to bed. We fell into bed around 2:00 a.m., and around 5:30 a.m., I woke up feeling sick as a dog myself. Soon, I developed  a migraine, which ruined any idea of gift exchanges on Christmas morning, as we planned to meet family for lunch in Lititz — a half-hour drive away — at 12:30. I was in bed until 11:00, when I rallied. The headache was gone, but not the cough. Still, we managed to enjoy a lovely Christmas dinner, before coming home and collapsing in bed, yet again. Christmas gifts were exchanged in the evening (stockings almost forgotten) before another night in which Emily was sick as a dog, coughing uncontrollably and losing her voice.

Dec. 26: I had to miss our annual breakfast at Waffle House before my brother-in-law headed home. I  stayed in bed all day, with no voice, pretty much hating Christmas 2014 and hoping I’d be well enough to go to the American Music Theatre show on the 27th, the one we’d postponed last week. Silver lining: I was! And now I’m in vacation mode. We leave tomorrow. A first: every room in our house looks (as my father would say) like the Devil had a fit in it. I’m leaving it, and will deal with it when I get home.

May I Be Boring and Talk about “Serial”?

I’m going to do this in bullet fashion, because my thoughts are all over the place with this recent obsession of mine. Not sure yet whether or not there will be spoilers, but probably there will be.

  • Okay, first things first. Is having a husband who just seems to refuse to be the least bit interested in Serial grounds for divorce? Is there anyone else out there suffering from this breach-of-wedding-vow behavior? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that the traditional wedding vows speak of staying true in sickness and in health. If someone is sick with the inability to stop thinking and talking and dreaming (yes! I did dream about it) about Serial, don’t you think it’s a spouse’s duty to find out everything he can about this obsession by, say, you know, listening to an episode or two? In fairness to said spouse, there’s hope. He did, just today, tell me that he’s very interested. He just wants to have the time and space to devote to it. Then again, he’s a minister. As any minster’s wife  can attest: that time and space will never come. Not even while on “vacation”. It will come, maybe (hope springs eternal!), when he retires. By then, I will have forgotten all about this season.
  • I came to Serial late in the game. Don’t get me wrong. I love This American Life (how else would so many have discovered my hero David Sedaris?). I love other NPR shows. Okay, I (mostly, except for some of its annoying quirks — a subject for another blog post) love NPR. Still, I mainly listen to it while driving around in the car. Sometimes I bother with podcasts when I’m in the middle of something really good, get to my destination, and can’t finish it. Serial was all podcasts. I’m lazy. I couldn’t just tune into it while driving around, and I’d much rather pick up a book — instant gratification — than bother with finding and downloading podcasts. Then again, I hate doing housework, and there is NOTHING  better to distract me while cleaning, doing laundry, dusting, etc., when I decide it absolutely MUST be done (once a month or so) than listening to something interesting. Thus, I decided to download Serial during one of my “my shoes are sticking to the kitchen floor” moments. By then, we were already 8 episodes in.
  •  I am not a binge anything. I’m not a binge eater/watcher/reader/listener/whatever else one can binge on-er. If you don’t believe me, here’s some evidence: despite loving the first two books, I still haven’t read Mockingjay. I’ve only watched one season of Downton Abbey, which I also really liked, and I probably need to clear out some Christmas cookies left in the freezer from last year to make room for this year’s cookies. Nevertheless, I downloaded the first 8 episodes and found all kinds of housework to do that I normally wouldn’t bother with. I listened to 8 episodes as quickly as I could, which, luckily, wasn’t quickly enough not to be on episode 11 before I had to wait for the next episode, which (wouldn’t you know it?) happened to be the last. I had to wait 6 whole days for the finale. (I applaud all those of you who went week-by-week. How on earth did you do that?) I have to admit that while listening and being interrupted umpteen million times by things that made me have to stop, I more than once found myself longing for those days when I had a 45-minute-one-way commute to work.
  • Talk about longing. I also found myself longing for the days when I spent 8 1/2 hours in the office every day with like-minded people. I’m sure there would’ve been plenty of talk of Adnan, Jay, the weird Mr. S pursued and dropped just like that, etc., were I still standing around water coolers with such people.
  • Because I’m busy working on a novel, I’ve been doing a lot of research into sociopathy, which when I was in college, we were taught was the new term for what was once known as psychopathy. My research has led me to understand that today the two terms have evolved, although many in the field still don’t distinguish between them. Others do. Both disorders are classified under the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth edition) subject heading of “antisocial personality disorder”. I’m finding more and more that I fall into the camp of those who make a distinction. If you’re curious and want a really nice, succinct description of the difference between the two, as I’ve come to understand it, you can read this. Anyway, all this leads me to wonder: who could be labeled a sociopath or a psychopath in this series? A couple of times, Sarah Koenig, our reporter/storyteller wonders if she’s dealing with a very convincing psychopath (okay, I guess this post is going to include spoilers, so if you haven’t yet listened to the podcast, read further at your own peril) in Adnan. Personally, I don’t think so. At one point, she tells us that no one in prison with Adnan believes he is a murderer. They all like him. I know psychopaths are notoriously charming, but I also know, from my research, that most of them don’t wind up in prison. Prison is a place where I think psychopaths would easily be identified by their fellow inmates. They would’ve learned to see through the charming facade of someone who’d been there for 15 years.
  • Jay is the one described by friends as someone who lied all the time. Now, he might just be a pathological liar, but lying is also a key component in identifying sociopaths and psychopaths. I have a sneaky suspicion that Jay is a sociopath. He’s definitely presented as someone who shows a disregard for laws and social mores; and friends describe him as someone who could have violent outbursts. And from what we’re told, he didn’t seem to care too much about Hae’s death. He seems a little scary to me. I’m willing to go one step further and say he might be a psychopath, because he seems to be the sort who’s studied others’ emotions and knows how to mimic them, the way, for instance, he cried during the trial. I can’t decide because I can’t quite decide if Hae’s murder was unplanned or planned.
  • A few things have stuck out with me: 1. Adnan seemed genuinely surprised when Sarah and her producer were able to reenact Jay’s story of the murder and had time to do it. He was certain that would be the key piece of evidence proving he couldn’t have done it. Either that’s because he didn’t kill Hae, or it’s because he did but not that way, and he knows it’s a loophole that could get him off. 2. Adnan told Jay, in court, he was “pathetic”. Sarah just seemed to skim over that, but I think it’s an important clue. Why did he say that? It could be Adnan was upset with Jay for framing him. It could be that the two killed Hae together, and Adnan is upset with Jay for not owning up to his role.  3. If Adnan killed Hae, the only motive is a “crime of passion”, which means it’s highly unlikely that he would have plotted to the degree necessary to commit this crime, especially if he’s not a psychopath, which again, I really don’t think he is. Jay, on the other hand, who, if he is a psychopath, doesn’t need any real motive at all. Maybe he was upset that Adnan was such good friends with his girlfriend and maybe Hae had done something that annoyed him (she’s been described as someone who could be annoying at times), and he decided to get revenge on Adnan by killing someone he knew Adnan probably still loved, even though they’d broken up, someone he didn’t like much himself. If he was a psychopath, he would’ve plotted details carefully, and this does seem that it could’ve been a very carefully plotted murder. He had Adnan’s car. He had Adnan’s cell phone, which makes it possible for him to “butt dial” someone only Adnan would call, at just the right time to make such a call very suspicious. Psychopaths think about such things. It’s why so many get away with murder, why our prisons are not full of psychopaths, like people think they are.
  • Let’s forget who did it, though. Sarah’s right. Despite everything that makes me believe he’s innocent, Adnan might not be. This podcast was a wonderful case study in how faulty our criminal justice system is. I know a lot about this because the first church I joined as an adult was deeply invested in prison ministry; I’ve edited quite a few books on the topic, especially when I was a multicultural studies editor; my sister Lindsay used to teach art in prisons, and I learned quite a lot from her; and I’m just generally interested, reading books and watching movies that address the issue. When I was in my twenties, I was a death penalty advocate. I’m not anymore. Not because I think a psychopathic killer deserves to live, but because I know how faulty our system is, and I know how many innocent people wind up in prison, on death row. I also know how many people wind up in prison who really belong in rehab centers or under psychiatric care, or who just need to be given gainful employment so they don’t have to resort to stealing. I’m hoping that, as Serial keeps going, it will become a show that really examines these cracks in the system. We got a taste of that during this first season — the ex-cop who’s busy trying to change the way suspects are interrogated, the U.Va. law professor who has students reinvestigating cases, the juror interviewed who didn’t understand why Adnan didn’t take the stand, didn’t defend himself if he was innocent, etc. I want more stories that shine a light on how, despite the ideals we claim to hold, most people are “guilty until proven innocent” — whether by cops or jurors or just society as a whole.
  • At one point, Adnan very poignantly discusses how hurt he is that the people in his community turned on him so easily. Having no evidence, whatsoever, until the day his ex-girlfriend winds up dead, most of them easily seem to accept the fact that he’s the sort of guy who would’ve plotted down to the last detail her murder, that he could be such a cold-blooded murderer. It’s sad, but I’m not surprised at all. This is life in our society. I’ve witnessed it in school environments.  I’ve witnessed it in work environments. I’ve witnessed it in the small towns in which I’ve lived. Someone, for some reason (probably because he or she is a sociopath) decides to spread malicious gossip about someone else, and despite the fact that that person has never shown any sign of being the sort who would cheat on her husband/beat his child/torture cats, whatever, the next thing you know, everyone is shying away from that person and keeping eagle eyes trained on him or her, looking for verification (and they will find it. When you look for something like that, begin writing and believing that story in your head, you will turn the most innocuous actions into proof) that he or she is the devil incarnate.
  • This particular episode of Serial could also be an interesting case study in the hierarchy of American racism. I find it fascinating that this program was becoming a huge hit during the same period of time when this country has been shining a light on racial bias and prejudice in our legal system. One could make the argument that, in this case, Jay, being black is considered more “American” than Adnan, the Pakistani American. Therefore, he was more believable. I know I’m not the first to wonder what this case would have been like if Adnan had been white. I also wonder what it would’ve been like if Hae had been white. Interestingly, it took place before 9/11, which made me wonder if things (not sure how they could’ve been, but they probably could’ve) could have been much worse for Adnan.
  • So, what will season two be? Will we continue with Adnan (for the record, I don’t think the serial killer theory will go anywhere. That serial killer seemed to be raping his victims, and Hae wasn’t raped. Also, why on earth would Jay have collaborated at all with Adnan if Hae had just been the victim of some random serial killer? The DNA evidence might, though). Will we continue with this case, or will we get a whole new case? I’m hoping for the latter, with updates on Adnan as they become available.

Falling Down on the Job

When this story came out in the November 19 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, I was appalled and saddened to hear there was a report of a young woman who’d been gang raped at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at The University of Virginia, but I wasn’t surprised. That’s sad, isn’t it? The University of Virginia is my alma mater. I am someone who loved the four years she spent on those hallowed “Grounds”, as we call them. I received an excellent education, the best kind, the kind that inspires one to become a life-long learner, as was the intention of the school’s founder Thomas Jefferson. Yet, I wasn’t surprised to hear a story of a gang rape reported by a national magazine at said alma mater. Disappointed, yes, because I would hope things had changed a little, but surprised? No.

When I began my undergraduate career in the fall of 1982, the university had a reputation, one it apparently still holds today, for being one of the best “party schools” in the country, and what I remember most about my first-year (students are called first-year, second-year, etc. as opposed to freshman, sophomore, etc.) orientation on our all-female hall in my dorm was a focus on keeping ourselves safe in this party atmosphere. We’d been sent very fancy invitations from many of the fraternities welcoming us and inviting us to parties at their houses during that first week of school. We were warned about this tradition and its word play. The boys were targeting us, the first-year students, ostensibly to “meet” us, but it was a “meat market”, a time for them to check out the “first-year meat”. We were advised to be very careful, not to go to parties by ourselves, to stick with each other, not to walk back to our dorm alone. We were even advised, long before anyone talked about date rape drugs, to watch our drinks. No one used the word “rape” when discussing the fraternity brothers, but it was stressed that a drunk fraternity boy just might not take “no” for an answer, might take advantage of us, if we weren’t careful. (Rape was what a “townie” might do to us on the way back home from a party, again if we weren’t careful.) Protecting ourselves, of course, was all up to us. No one, to my knowledge, was going around telling the fraternity boys not to “take advantage of” us.

I, with plenty of friends in tow (I’d listened well to all those warnings), did venture out to the fraternities during those first few weeks of school. Yes, there was free booze. Yes, there was good music and fun dancing. Yes, there were cute guys. But I soon realized that the overall scene wasn’t for me. I remember going into one fraternity house that was jam-packed, wall-to-wall people, and someone felt me up and down. You have to understand that it was so packed, I couldn’t even turn around to get any clue as to who had done it. I was so happy to find my way back out the door into the cool night air. By the time I was a fourth-year student, there were only two fraternities whose parties I would attend and that was mainly to listen to the bands that came to play there.

What saddens me is that this is the same school where my own budding feminism was being awakened. Contrary to what Rolling Stone would have you believe, even thirty years ago, I was busy taking women in fiction courses and psychology of sex roles courses, as well as courses in self insight that were opening my eyes to the plight of women in our society. I was meeting other young women who had been huge supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment (remember that?) and having lively debates about it. It was exciting. By day, my fellow students (male and female) were learning that the strongest, happiest marriages were those in which spouses didn’t divide chores along traditional gender roles. We were watching powerful documentaries like “Killing Us Softly” about the degradation of women in advertising. We were learning that when adults think they’re interacting with male babies as opposed to female babies, they treat them differently. We were constantly called to consider questions about nature v. nurture. But, by night, drunk fraternity boys (and others. I don’t want to say that the only rapists among the student body belonged to fraternities. I’m sure there were those who didn’t) were “taking advantage” of girls who said “no” to them. I’d like to think that in thirty years the culture had changed for the better, that women could be safe there.

I may not be surprised that a young woman might be raped at a fraternity party at The University of Virginia (any more than I’m surprised that a young woman might be raped by a colleague at some Wall Street firm. Rape is something that can — and does — happen anywhere), but I’m not supporting Rolling Stone‘s irresponsible reporting, either. Right now, RS and its reporter Sabrina Erdely are being taken to task by The Washington Post because details of Jackie’s story have been contradicted by others. As far as I’m concerned, the whole article reeks of irresponsible journalism. It paints a portrait of a school where, of course, rape and its cover up would be an issue, its being a genteel (read “backwards”), Southern institution where there are no radical feminists. (Hmmm… I guess it’s just some Old Boys Network in charge of the school’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality Department, then.) The article unfavorably compares The University of Virginia to places like Columbia University and its “mattress-hauling performance artists” protesting sexual assault. Did Erdely and her editors not understand that those “mattress-haulers” at Columbia were hauling mattresses to protest the fact that their rapists were still roaming free on campus and that the administration at Columbia was doing nothing about it? If Erdely, as she claims, was really trying to write an article about the problem of rape on campus, she should’ve aligned U.Va. with Columbia, not set them up as being different. (I wonder if she was shocked by the protests that unfolded at U.Va. once her article was published, at this school where, apparently, there’s no one interested in protesting violence against women).

Rape is, apparently, a problem on campuses all over this country, and what we need to be doing is finding out why, prosecuting rapists, and putting a stop to it, not acting as though it isn’t a problem as long as there are “radical feminists protests” keeping it at bay. It’s also irresponsible to say “Greek life is huge” at U.Va., noting that nearly 1/3 of the population belongs to fraternities or sororities. I wouldn’t call that “huge”. I would say that when 2/3 of a population doesn’t do something, the 1/3 that does is a minority. Greek life isn’t a “huge” part of many of the students’ experience. Also, her description of Phi Kappa Psi overlooking a “vast manicured field” is laughable to anyone familiar with Madison Bowl (“Mad Bowl”), a playing field that has apparently been cleaned up in recent years, but that used to have a reputation for becoming a muddy mess whenever it rained in Charlottesville, which it does frequently, and was home to many a muddy party and football game back when I was a student. She makes it sound as though the house is some former plantation. This is the sort of reporting that annoyed me and that called the entire article into question, which annoyed me even more, because an article about something so serious ought to be impeccable, to have nothing that can be called into question. Instead, I found myself doubting a good deal of it (not doubting that something horrible had happened to Jackie but that aspects of the story were being embellished by the reporter). RS had the chance to give us a groundbreaking article on the problem of rape on campus and blew it.

At this point, I don’t really care whether or not the details of Jackie’s story are true. Do I believe what she claimed happened to her could have happened to her? Yes. I also believe something did  happen to her, as does her former suite mate. Do I believe there are plenty of silent and scared young women out there at universities and colleges all over the country with stories of rape who aren’t telling them? Yes. Do I believe we have biases at our institutes of higher learning, biases that warn young women to beware strangers on the street but to assume their classmates are safe? Yes. Do I believe we live in a society that tells a woman it’s her responsibility to protect herself from rape, rather than telling a man it’s his responsibility not to rape? Yes.

Rolling Stone fell down on its job. I’m hoping The University of Virginia doesn’t. It has the chance here to come out as a school that accepts what’s been going on for years and to make a change, to be a role model, to take rape seriously. Rape is a crime. It should be handled in a court of law, not by a university. Rapists belong behind bars not in classrooms with their victims. The first school to take a real stand on this issue, to have “zero tolerance” reactions to sexual assault, could make history. We talk about honor at The University of Virginia. It seems to me, at this point, that the honorable thing for my alma mater to do is to lead the way in the fight to stop the sexual assault and degradation of women, regardless of whether or not a pop culture magazine has published an inaccurate article. I hope it does.