Sunday, March 22, 2015

Safety Dance (In the Category of Be Where You Are.)

Say, we can act if we want to
If we don't, nobody will
And you can act real rude and totally removed
And I can act like an imbecile

And say, we can dance, we can dance
[“Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats]

I’ve been reading about “safe spaces” more than usual lately, you know, the metaphorical and literal environment we create for ourselves with each other so that we can pretend to avoid the risk of rejection or ridicule. It comes in handy while discussing topics that may or may not be comfortable for us to discuss. I credit Starbucks although I doubt they intended this consequence when they started the #RaceTogether coffee cup hashtag. As a non-coffee drinker, I first worried that some caffeinated person wanted me to run a 5K with them. Then I read the PR and realized the Starbucks' CEO expected his baristas to engage customers in conversations about racial equality.

Smart, funny, bold coffee addicts populate the majority of my Twitter timeline; they go to Starbucks, and this past week some of them asked the barista to start the conversation. That’s how I learned that the Starbucks’ baristas have been given no script and very few guidelines on how to conduct a conversation about race relations in America, which seems risky. What if the barista is actually a closet racist faking a tolerant mindset just to keep the job? How would that conversation go? But I digress.

Whether or not Starbucks artfully executed the program, they at least started a conversation, and that is never a bad thing. But it has led to some sidebars about “safe spaces” in which to conduct difficult dialog, and whether or not such spaces exist. Earlier today, a Tweep shared an article link to a New York Times op-ed piece on the topic that piqued me.

The article begins with the author detailing the “safe space” created at Brown University in response to a debate being held to discuss campus rape culture. The potential for a nuanced and informed exchange of ideas to make rape survivors feel invalidated may or may not be a dominant concern, but a few students saw the risk and created a safe space for attending rape survivors who might experience a trigger during the debates. This space they stocked with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” The trained students and staff members made perfect sense to me, but bubbles?

The space sounded more like my old kindergarten classroom. Were the victims children? If so, I could understand it, but how were cookies and coloring books going to help college-aged women work through the trauma, talk about the nightmares, face the triggers, and learn to defeat them? How would Play-Doh educate their friends, sisters, brothers, parents, and lovers on how to better show compassion? The space sounded more escapist than safe.

I retweeted the article with my own two cents thrown in: “Cookies and coloring books? Are they ten?” I did not ask the questions sarcastically (although I own that sarcasm is my usual demeanor where retweets are concerned). I sincerely did not understand how coloring books made a place safe. My questions reverberated as snark though, and someone else on Twitter quickly reminded me that the person who created the space was “a rape survivor, but whatevs,” which is Twitterspeak for “but if you want to be an asshole, just know I think you are being an asshole and shame on you.” (At least that is how I use “whatevs.”)

Twitter likes to shame. Twitter is no safe space.

The world is no safe space.

And college is supposed to be teaching that.

Humans can create the illusion of safe space – we can fill the metaphoric room of our choice with like-minded people and promise not to step on each other’s toes while we do a safety dance of political correctness. We’ll hold conversations on pre-approved topics with expected emotional responses ranging from mild interest to active encouragement. We’ll discourage negative criticism, everyone wins a trophy, and those who disrupt the order, we will shun. In this bubble we’ll convince ourselves we are enlightened. It is the ultimate denial.

In that “safe” space, we lose our ability to think critically, to argue successfully, to change a mind, plead a cause, march for reform. I think we also lose empathy for one another – that necessary element – the only hope to keep Homo Sapiens from fully devolving into sociopathic narcissists. So many people prefer to avoid uncomfortable truths or refuse to listen to the stories told by fellow humans of racial injustice, sexual violence, abuse, and oppression. In the absence of conversation , they (we, I) never learn to understand the courage of those who experience it, survive, and press on. Those in true denial delude themselves into thinking it doesn’t happen often or only to people who deserved it. It provides their rationale to ignore the calls for change or the suggestions that one could do better. In the blind eye turned, others perpetuate the violence, parrot the old hatreds, and create a new generation of intolerance. The space is anything but safe.

More baffling is why today’s future leaders think safe spaces are necessary. No one ever taught me something by agreeing with me. I was schooled in how to debate and raised with an open mind. I learned more through hard conversations with others who, rightly or wrongly, believed I was the problem, than I learned in books and movies, which are skewed by their creators’ personal biases. As a teenager I was threatened with a beating for my whiteness while walking home after school: “Didn’t you see Roots? Don’t you remember slavery?” Rhetorical questions unanswered by my feeble “yes” and “no, I wasn’t alive then.” In that moment, I had no safe space, and it was a hard conversation.

My takeaway from that scary experience? Getting judged based only on skin color really fucking sucks. I empathized. I quit doing that to others.

I was never informed by being called a name either, and I have been called many, but I don’t care. If you have resorted to that, you have lost the debate. Your toolbox is empty, and your clue bag is filled with trash.

We each have the power to create a safe space, not just for ourselves but also for others. It’s a choice we make – recognize shared common ground, celebrate what’s different in ourselves and in others -- dance if we want to. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Breaking Up With Twitter on a Saturday Night (In the Category of Mean What You Say.)

@KStreetHipster broke up with Twitter tonight. I watched it happen. I wished her well. Whoever she really is, she is smart, and funny, and bold. She Tweeted like she gave a shit, but maybe something in Twitter broke her. Or maybe she got smart about the thinness of the thread and the use of time allotted. It happens. I’ve seen it before.

Twitter is a strange playground. I’ve met Tweeps in real life; we have become friends -- I love them now. Other Tweeps I wish I could meet; we live only four hours away and they make my Twitterverse a happy place. I have left coast Tweeps and a few who live across The Pond. I still need to pin down logistics on how to tweetup with them, and my life will be richer when I manage it.

I dig that KStreetHipster chose a Saturday night to tell Twitter, “Got a life, need you not.” It adds to the drama – the Twitterverse got dumped like a bad blind date; the nightmare of green beer on amateur night, the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day. She didn’t seem hostile or suicidal. I’ve seen those sorts of Twitter farewells also. They scare me – calls for help I can’t answer.

I don’t mean to mock. Social media means different things to different people. Even I, who thought I fully understood the connections I could make in this ether, have met with the unexpected. It’s been wonderful, and sometimes, it has made me cry. Did I waste time? I could argue yes and no. Certainly, I could do other things with the time I spend Tweeting but I can say that about the time I spend writing, or baking, or gardening, or cleaning the house. Playing with the kittens is as fruitless and fabulous as Twitter. I’m mindful to be where I am.

I recall the first time I saw someone bid Twitter farewell. The implied hubris amused me. It carried a certitude that one would be missed in this digital world we all created together, reaching out to each other, sometimes with teeth and claws. I get where it comes from – filling in the dash – that spot between the day Mom birthed us and the day we died – but I never imagined that if I just dropped off the grid, anyone would notice.

Whatever use @KStreetHipster will now make of her free time, I hope it fulfills her soul. I hope she never looks back, never looks down, never questions each second of breathing. I hope the keen edge of uncertainty leaves her uncut. I hope she finds meaning in the space.

I dance here because it feels like the still point of the turning world. I’ve met devils. I’ve met angels. I’ve crossed lines I never meant to draw. But should the day come when I must leave, I will quietly disappear, wish you well, and never look back. You won't miss me, and I will be fine.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Child’s Drawing Colored Outside the Lines and Crumpled in A Clear But Failed Attempt to Discard It (In the Category of Be Where You Are.)

I never dreaded aging, knowing, as I do, that it beats the alternative. But Dad died suddenly and unexpectedly five days before my forty-seventh birthday, and just today, a week out from my forty-ninth, I realized that I now link my age increase with his sudden death.

It’s a bummer.

Before Dad died, my birthday, positioned near the last day of winter, always conjured for me hopes of spring. Daffodils were usually out by then, though that is not the case this year. The odd brave forsythia could be spotted (again, not happening this year). As the equinox approached, the angle of the sun bent back onto my deck, and things held an air of potential. I had ideas to write and a conviction that the time spent writing them was time spent well. I easily connected with that life force, that surety that I was alive and living fully, with purpose.

I took it for granted.


For Christmas I received a 365 day calendar, the kind where you tear off a new page each day. I find myself startled at how quickly the thick stack of thin sheets printed in kittens and italicized wise words has diminished. Today’s quote is Longfellow, sappy and contemplative. I like tomorrow’s better: “The darkest hour has only sixty minutes.” (Morris Mandel)

It turns out that I don’t care for daily calendars. The need to turn them regularly eludes me, and I end up peeling away weeks at a time to get caught up. I lose the continuity of wisdom; it feels like skipping chapters in a book, but I toss them unread. I do flip quickly to see the pictures of the kittens, though. Daily calendars produce in me a psychological anxiety similar to an hour glass – the surety of pages dwindling, the passage of time and no means to prevent it, no matter how cute the kitten, no matter how wise the words.

Time and age make fools of us all, I think. It’s a question of when, not if. At some point in each of our lives we reach some unknown milestone, something clicks, and we free fall into a sense of irrelevancy. In the plummet, we grab for handholds, helpful or otherwise. We look into false mirrors to see flattering reflections that have no true substance. We abandon beliefs that anything is possible – foolishly because only quitting makes failure inevitable. We forget carefree days of coloring outside the lines, choosing yellow for the face but red for the tail. Instead, we label it imperfect, rip out the page, wad it tightly, hiding the nonconformity. Throw it away and never worry that someone somewhere in the world might find it, smooth the wrinkles, and hang our effort like art.