Friday, December 15, 2017

the underdogs

The end of 2017 is coming, and it's hard to count the terrible things that have happened in our country this past year. Shootings, fires, hurricanes, accused pedophiles endorsed by major political parties, and more. As the sun set on 2016 I had a pit in my stomach, a deep sense of dread, of what was to come, and in some ways 2017 exceeded my worst fears. Yet in the most surprising ways it revived a sense of hope and wonder at what we can still achieve even when our allies feel weak and few.

I grew up genuinely believing that the world was getting better and better, almost without effort. Surrounded by safety and loving family and like-minded friends, it felt as if we had figured out the major problems of the world and that everyone else would catch on quickly. I wrote off disagreement and pessimism as ignorance, and burrowed deeper into the comfort of my small community. My occasional forays into the outside world were like educational expeditions - "let's get a good picture of the 'before' so that when progress reaches here shortly we'll be able to fully appreciate the 'after.'"

When I took my first job, as a public school teacher, I started my day in a long floral dress with my hair neatly braided and clipboard in hand, and ended it openly crying onto an administrator in the schoolyard. It took me a long time (and I still struggle) to understand that no matter how well-intentioned, well-resourced, or energetic I am, I cannot (and sometimes should not) bend the world to my vision. But still, as the leader of five years' worth of second grade classes, I was in the position of power to shape a small corner of the world, and imagined myself part of a wide swath of enthusiastic young teachers converting challenges and disadvantages into opportunity, equality, and peace-loving enlightenment everywhere.

When Trump won the election in 2016, my view of my country and its trajectory was shattered. It simply had not occurred to me that large groups of people hadn't shared my view (or my privilege) for the past eight years that we were nearing the eternal reign of diversity-embracing optimists. In my mind, for eight years we had mostly been winning, just needed to work out a few of the kinks, and we would continue to add members to our winning team. As that winning team dissolved to make way for Trump's antithetical agenda, I had to face the harsh truth that I was no longer in the position of power and optimism. Things were no longer going to "fix themselves" as my privilege had seemed to assure.

Facing that privilege has been a defining reality check. For all the hopelessness I've felt this year, others faced the actual day-to-day despair of seeing relatives deported or medical coverage disappear or civil rights questioned - and not just this year, but long before. For all of my outrage, others had to bottle theirs up for the sake of keeping jobs and homes. For all of my efforts to protest or make calls, others were already doing far more, and had already been doing it even back when things, to me, had seemed "pretty great." The privilege that affords me the ability to descend into helplessness without costing me my family or my health or my safety isn't distributed equally, which means that every time I think "I could be doing more" I know that people with less are definitely doing more, and have been for a long time.

Underdogs are confronted with the choice of doing nothing and continuing to lose, or fighting against horrible odds for small victories. It's demoralizing to count wins this year among crises averted or lessened, rather than actual steps forward. There's a romance in the movies to being the underdog, but this year has fleshed out the realities of fighting against tides of assault: it is exhausting, it is overwhelming, and it is, at times, nearly hopeless. And there's no promise of a happy ending.

It's been difficult to narrow my goals to the small, local things I can impact, yet I have absolutely seen that it's exactly those things, and not national presidential campaigns, that make the biggest difference. This was the first year that I traded following baseball for following politics, and can barely identify pop stars but can list off a roster of journalists, lawyers, and leaders who have been doing great things for far longer than I've been paying attention. I look at Doug Jones, who chose to devote his year to running an almost certainly un-winnable campaign, and I am astounded by what his team accomplished. With hardly any chance, here we are in 2017 with a Democratic senator in Alabama. Maybe it's my privilege-fueled optimism talking, but most days I still feel hope.

I honestly never really thought much about the title of Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, but every time I see someone taking a risk or catching a win this year I think of what it means to brazenly keep trying. I am still so accustomed to wins coming easily or costing little, but even after all of the fatigue of losing, I can't help but feel revved up for 2018. Maybe being the underdog means being audacious, or maybe it's delusional, or idealistic, or simply desperate, but whatever it is it's drawing out ridiculously strong, passionate people to the fronts of this amorphous fight.

For those of us underdogs with privilege, let's make 2018 the year of finding where we can help lift up our under-resourced underdogs to bring our collective dreams a little closer in reach. The ones fighting against the biggest odds, full of the greatest hope/delusion, are the stars we need to hitch our wagons to.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


A few months ago, someone I respect tried to defend Kanye West’s actions of, for the second time, stealing the spotlight from an artist who had just won an award. I was stupefied. How was this excusable? She made some reasonable arguments about how black artists are still largely passed up for awards and recognition. But I still couldn’t agree, not at all, and have found myself in similar positions where I feel alienated by reasonable arguments or perspectives. The problem is, it’s the delivery.

Effective communication and productive actions can be distilled down to two things: good content and good delivery. I could get behind Kanye if he were giving interviews on the red carpet about how he hopes black artists will be recognized. Or writing a passionate op-ed. Or actually using his (now-defunct) Kanye West Foundation for charitable purposes (it literally spent half a million dollars in “administrative expenses” and donated a total $583 to charity). To be honest, I don’t actually believe that Kanye is deeply concerned about the plight of under-recognized black artists - I think he just likes to make a scene - but even if he did care, his delivery is off. He’s delivering his message (if there is one) ineffectively, alienating people like me who could be on board, resulting in me thinking of him as an asshole instead of an activist.

But people are saying the same thing about the protesters in Baltimore. People are criticizing them on both counts, claiming that their delivery is bad and that their message is too - black people overreacting "as usual" to "imaginary" oppression. Other people, myself included, think that the message is on point. There is an enormous continuing problem with police brutality and, on a much larger scale, general suspicion and mistreatment of black people. But while we agree on that point, we are quick to criticize protesters in Baltimore for violence and rioting. We turn immediately to focus on what they could be doing better, how they could get their message out more effectively. There are lots of good ideas.

After a day of stewing on this, I realized that I’m wrong on two counts. First, the vast majority of Baltimore protesters are not violent or rioting. Based on what I was hearing from the mainstream media, violence and rioting were widespread. It took social media photos and interviews for me to learn that there had been a huge, peaceful march. That community groups were organizing clean-ups. That individuals were placing themselves as barriers between the few rogue agitators and the property they wanted to loot or destroy.

Secondly, I realized that even if some people are agitating, their actions are understandable. It is so ingrained in me that the police are the good guys, that my neighbors and my government are out to protect me, that I truly can’t empathize with people for whom that is not the case. If I were regarded as suspicious my whole life, if I were poor or given a poor education, if I had seen relatives mistreated or incarcerated, how could I not view the police as the enemy? Would I sit and pen a thoughtful editorial, or join classmates in planning a peaceful demonstration? Probably not. I’d probably yell and throw rocks, not just because it would feel productive to me, but because it would be exactly what was expected of me.

We expect oppressed people to magically learn to “play by the rules.” But the level of deep, self-reinforcing inequality is overwhelming. A disproportionate number of black children are born into poverty, poorly educated, denied opportunities, and most people can see this happening and bemoan it. But then these children grow into teenagers and young adults and suddenly we’ve lost all empathy - how come they are not behaving exactly the same as their privileged counterparts? How come they are “thugs?” Is turning 18 supposed to be the great equalizer? I’ve had conversations about a student facing problems of poverty and a poor relationship with her mother, and sympathetic people will share my anguish, and then turn immediately onto “what a horrible mother she has!” And I say, “don’t you understand, the mother IS the daughter! The mother was the daughter ten years ago!” They are both the result of a system that is still going strong.

Effective communication and productive action has to be taught, and learned from example. The mother sees her daughter starting to fail in school, and goes ballistic. She yells and threatens her daughter and worse. Just like the mother in Baltimore who saw her son throwing rocks at police and chased after him, swatting at him and dragging him away. Their intentions are solidly good, but while these actions are ineffective and sad, that’s not the point. When I want to criticize someone’s poorly-delivered message, it’s easy to go for it and get hung up on the poor delivery itself, “what are they thinking? There’s a better way!” But sometimes this is the wrong choice. Right now in Baltimore it is the wrong choice, it is the wrong conversation to have. We can all agree that rioting and violence are “wrong,” but the more pressing question is why, why is this happening? Why is there this desperation?

It is happening because people are too busy criticizing the methods of protest than focusing on the valid message underlying it. It is happening because it’s easier to criticize from afar than it is to let this become deeply uncomfortable and for us to grapple with the difficult things we’ll have to do to create lasting change. It is happening because we have a self-perpetuating system that literally polices the status quo. It is happening because not enough supporters are coming together to make this a shared issue and concern, letting it become just another “this doesn’t concern me and my family, I’ve never experienced this” kind of issue.

The point is, it’s on all of us on the “outside” to focus on the real issues. To listen to real concerns and value people’s lived experiences. We can’t get hung up on word choice or volume or tone or whatever else results in us invalidating the issue at hand. If Kanye is grabbing the microphone, yes, he might be acting offensive and obnoxious, but maybe if we suspend our objections we’ll learn that he has a point. Or maybe not, but the people of Baltimore definitely do, and we need to listen up.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

the other

"Hey, is it true they only have 2 seasons in Canada?” “Yup, 6 months of winter and 6 months of poor snowmobiling.” Americans love mocking Canada. It’s a pleasant American pastime to poke fun at our quirky Canadian parka-wearing neighbors who talk nonstop a-boot hockey, eh? Part of defining yourself and your community comes from defining yourself in opposition to an Other. Some of this is useful and helps us carve out a unique identity, but lately I’ve encountered too many situations in which the Other becomes a target of hatred, and things start to get out of hand. 

I’m lucky to know a talented guy, director Tomer Sinai, who captures some of this sentiment in his film “Baby Steps,” which just had its world premiere at the Chain NYC Film Festival. The protagonist, a man in NYC, struggles with revealing his gay identity at a job interview. The fear of being the Other is so great that ultimately he feels the need to deny what makes him “different” in hopes of winning a job. What Sinai captures so elegantly is the irony of how we worry and focus so much on the small things that divide us, when so many other qualities and experiences bring us together.

Furthermore, Sinai was born and raised in Israel. He has personally witnessed the hatred that has evolved between two communities that at their hearts are not so different. One response to the ongoing conflict in that region has been the call by some activists for a "cultural boycott" of any individual or product originating in Israel. Accordingly, there are activists who would encourage people to boycott Sinai's films, regardless of how valuable they are to liberalism and progressive causes like gay-rights, purely because of his ties to a country whose actions they oppose. When we demonize an entire community like this, it’s easier than acknowledging all of the complexities involved.

We’ve seen this happening with immigration, where people obsess over who “belongs” within our American community and who does not. I still react negatively when people insist that everyone in the United States speak English, and though I hope that everyone has the opportunity to learn it if they wish, it doesn’t stop me from seeing someone as American if they do not. For some, it’s too hard to identify the boundaries of our “American” identity if there are enough differences that we can’t easily distinguish ourselves from the Other. The irony being that within any given community, if there aren’t enough differences, we seek to create them ourselves. And we can’t help but laugh when we see it in action, watching people align themselves within retirement communities (think Seinfeld’s Del Boca Vista) or sports fans fighting to the death over their favorite teams. 

Where does the good-natured competition veer into the malicious? Some of it is clearly historical, making it easy for some countries to be happy neighbors while others become mortal enemies. But what turns a friendly rivalry into a passionate hatred? I’m sure that some of it comes from fear - people fear differences and that can take on vast cultural proportions. But I think a lot of it just comes from people lacking good, solid, positive things in their own lives. It’s generally not the well-off, happily employed people that take the Giants-Dodgers rivalry to violent ends. People who are suffering in some way (emotionally, economically, culturally) are more likely to have existential anger that’s easiest to channel into simple, clear-cut conflict. Which makes a lot of sense and ultimately puts fault in those whose money/religion/politics excludes and oppresses others. Which is why my proposed solution to issues like the Israeli-Palestinian one is to flood a community with resources to defray their anger in the first place, and not give them an easy target for hatred.

Humans naturally align themselves into communities. We give those communities names and have instant pride in them, whether the community is the country of multiple generations of one’s family, the neighborhood you just moved to, or your department within your workplace. Mostly random, mostly artificial, yet very real to all of us. When people have basic freedoms, as simple as food and water or the right to identify as gay, it seems like friendly rivalries are less likely to spiral into international conflicts.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


I love teachers, but I hate tenure. Based on what the teachers’ union will tell you, these feelings are mutually exclusive. I couldn’t disagree more. A teacher myself, I saw too clearly how tenure protected mediocre teachers and antiquated systems at the serious expense of student learning.

I subscribe to the data-supported argument that teacher quality is one of the most important, possibly the absolute most important, measure of student learning. Yet the tenure system prevents teachers from being held accountable for their work. It creates a system in which teachers are measured by seniority rather than data-measured outcomes, and makes it extraordinarily difficult for those data-measured outcomes to exist, let alone be used for evaluative purposes. Notice I use the word data a lot, because that was what we teachers use to measure student achievement, although I’ve been hard-pressed to find similar measures for teacher quality itself.

It’s not about firing teachers in droves, it’s about incentivizing them to never get lazy about student achievement. People like to believe that teachers’ interests are naturally aligned with student achievement, because why else would someone become a teacher? But, just like all humans, they will become complacent if they work within a system that virtually guarantees them continued employment and a sense of boundless security. Teachers who work extraordinarily hard to improve student achievement are treated just the same as ones who don’t, and there is no way to incentivize the ones who don’t while perpetuating the current system. I reiterate - it’s not about firing teachers. It’s the fact that removing the option changes the entire dynamic of the system. By basing job status on seniority, you have taken away the need for any kind of data-driven evaluations of teachers.

So, with tenure potentially gone, what will change? Note that it isn’t “keep good teachers” and “fire bad teachers.” First of all, calling teachers good or bad is absurd, and secondly, the notion that the thing to do with struggling teachers is just to fire them is equally absurd. There are actually data-supported teaching practices that improve student outcomes, by treating teachers more like other professionals in terms of employment status, I believe that they will feel more motivated to stay on their game. I know fearmongers expect a firing squad of evil administrators to descend, but based on what I’ve seen, the “evil” of these administrators is sometimes forced by the system and status quo itself (forcing administrators to make long-term hiring decisions in an artificially short-term timeframe).

All of this forces us to ask, how do we actually measure teacher effectiveness? And here I embrace the necessary evil that is Standardized Testing. Another thing you won’t hear a teacher say very often: I love testing. But here it is. I LOVE TESTING. I think the state tests are great. I think they are a perfect example of a necessary versus sufficient condition. In order to know if your students are learning at a high level, it isn’t sufficient to know just their test scores. Test scores are a test of basic skills. To me, those basic skills are necessary. If my child can’t pass a standardized test of these basic skills, I am concerned. If none of their classmates can either, I’m angry. Because I know that kids in advantaged communities all over the country are doing it with no problem, and that disadvantaged kids with great teachers are too.

People say “don’t make me teach to the test.” I say, “PLEASE teach to the test!” The test is a basic skills test. Your students should have those basic skills. “Teaching to the test” doesn’t mean silent classrooms full of kids writing in workbooks - I’m willing to stake my reputation on the belief that the disadvantaged students who perform best are the ones with the most engaging teachers who make that learning motivating. That’s not to say I think the tests are perfect or even great - I think there are definite flaws. But, I know that if the majority of children in a given classroom are failing it, year after year, that is a huge red flag. I know that I don’t want my child in that class, or that teacher guaranteed a job. Even if they claim that my child is learning so many things that can’t be measured by the test, that may be true, but if my child can’t answer reading comprehension questions on grade level or perform basic math problems, what are you teaching my kid? There are many teachers of disadvantaged kids who give them these basic, testable skills year after year. I say, ask them how they’re doing it, and make everyone else do it that way. Enough excuses.

Teachers are amazing. They affect more things about our society than I can begin to imagine. But they are not victims. They don’t deserve a certain salary or a certain job security program just because we love them so much. No one is required to be a teacher, but if you choose to be one, I say, don’t play the martyr and hide behind a vow of poverty. Take pride in the importance of your work by casting aside the established safety nets, and be willing to prove yourself year after year.

Issues I wish I had time to address further:
- Will eliminating tenure fix everything? No. I’m arguing for a first major change to the status quo that would hopefully shift dynamics and accountability in such a way as to break the old patterns that have failed many students.
- The Equity Project. My favorite social experiment is the charter school in New York where a principal has taken the budget for the school and put the vast majority into high teacher salaries of $125k a year. They don’t have much money for supplies or support staff, so the teachers have additional responsibilities, and they are employed at-will. It’s new so there’s not much data yet, but I like the sound of it.
- The teachers union in general. Teachers as victims, teachers as martyrs who have already had to give up too much. I disagree with this tactic by the union, in pitting teachers and administrators against each other, and making it seem like administrators somehow have it in for teachers.
- Idea of asking teachers to trade tenure for higher pay. There are districts that have made this offer, and I’d like to see data on how it’s working out.
- Fear that admin will run amok. There is always the possibility that administrators would in fact start mass firings. I doubt this only because there isn’t a limitless supply of teachers, new teachers require investment, and I don’t think that admin will meet student learning standards by parading in dozens of new teachers at every school (been there, seen it fail).
- Establishing metrics for teacher quality. Huge problem. Testing, imperfect though it is, is the only metric I’ve yet seen that gives some sense of groups of students learning basic skills. Obviously there’s a lot more to measure than that.
- Comparing test scores. A lot of people think that measuring by test scores is just a simple act of comparing all classrooms - so obviously advantaged communities will do better. Obviously good comparisons would involve looking at teachers’ ability to improve student scores over time, comparing only teachers who have similar student populations.
- Promotions. I would love to see a quality measure, rather than a seniority chart, that would give teachers the ability to be promoted to different levels based on performance (ex. Probationary Teacher, Master Teacher, etc)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

get out

An organization in our neighborhood just installed a new mural - a colorful scene split in two by a woman’s contemplative face looking in two directions. On one side is the Bernal Heights of the past, with colorful houses and people chatting on the street; on the other side, the present-day hill has been turned into a pile of money being grabbed by a suit-sleeved hand (the talking couple has also been replaced by a MUNI bus, but the meaning of that part is unclear). The gentrification debate has gotten so intense that even the murals aren’t being subtle anymore.

The gentrification issue in San Francisco has reached a boiling point, to the extent that even the New York Times has picked up on it. The Times reports that San Francisco has changed a lot in the past few decades; neighborhoods that used to be working class and affordable have become so expensive that only people referred to as “techies” or “hipsters” can compete to live in them. Like most major metropolitan areas in the US, there have been massive and ever-increasing income gaps between the haves and have-nots. In San Francisco’s case, the “haves” are mostly white people who have mostly moved here recently and mostly work in the tech industry. The result is that one of America’s most famously progressive cities, championing rights for minority groups of all kinds, is increasingly an island of rich white people.

Families who have lived in San Francisco for decades or even for generations are panicking as their friends and relatives are forced out - their rents have gone up, their apartments have been sold to developers, or the cost of living amongst trendy boutiques and chic restaurants has gotten too high. They are upset, and justifiably so. But the issue for me is what are they angry at, or in this case, who. The archetypal “techie” has become the common target of ire. My argument is that there is no such thing as a “techie,” well, maybe some do act the part, but most people are simply, well, people. Individuals. More complicated than a simple category can define.

Is it better to make sweeping judgements or indictments of “techies” than of “blacks,” “latinos” or “gays?” I don’t think so. Techies may be a privileged group, and as such they deserve to be the least protected group as any, but the real point is, what does vilifying any group of people accomplish? Instead of solving a problem, it demonizes a group of people and everyone spends their energy worrying about who is in that group and who isn’t. It deflects attention from working to solve the problem, and assumes that everyone is on different sides, pitted against one another.

I'm acquainted with people who bash the "google bus" culture openly as if somehow that doesn't include my husband, who for the record hates his long commute on a bus that keeps him away from his young kids for many hours each day. His family includes me, a native San Franciscan who worked for 5 years at one of SF's toughest public schools to try to solve exactly these problems of income disparity. For the record, whenever I saw a need, he and his Google colleagues jumped to lend their time, money, or creativity to any cause I identified. Instead of focusing on the notion that there are problematic people, how about focusing on the behaviors or structures that are problematic and work on fixing those?

I ultimately think that to accomplish something as a community everyone has to play by the same rules of conduct. Just because you’ve been mistreated doesn’t give you a pass to mistreat others, no matter how “privileged” they are. If you are a member of a minority group and you’ve been on the receiving end of internet tirades or cruel stereotyping, why on earth would you want to inflict that behavior on anyone else? Telling techies that they’re out-of-touch assholes or calling them names isn’t just poor form, it’s also creating an us-versus-them dynamic that doesn’t necessarily exist. I’m not saying that there aren’t some real assholes out there, but I will argue that ignorance and indifference don’t characterize the “techie” group. Furthermore a lot of the people that really antagonize San Francisco natives, like drunken frat-types or Day-of-the-Dead facepaint revelers, aren’t even techies at all, just young people who moved to the city and don’t know anything about it yet.

Every group that has come to San Francisco has been new at some point, and all of them have changed the character and culture of this place. There’s a component of this that’s simply a perennial generational problem - what’s new is bad and what’s old was better. This nostalgic attitude overshoots recognizing the historical contributions of different groups as an ongoing, never-ending process, and assumes that all change is for the worse. As Bernal Heights’ popular Bernalwood blog quoted one eloquent neighbor, “I have a hard time with folks who want to hang on to a neighborhood’s particular ethos at the time they lived there. That’s as disrespectful to the folks who came before them as it is to the newer folks who are changing the neighborhood today.” Some of the people I personally know who are fighting against gentrification have lived here less than 10 years themselves, but manage to exempt themselves from their part in this process of change, maybe because change seemed more gradual then or they just don’t like the feel of the changes happening now. I could argue that I’m exempt just because I was born and raised in San Francisco and can claim native-status, but does that really entitle me to a home or a job that a new transplant doesn’t? I don’t believe so.

Rather than just vaguely bashing "techies" how about we embrace a solution - like improving public education or creating more affordable housing or stopping evictions? I think that any group of people deserves a productive way to do right by San Francisco, rather than basically being told to leave. We all have feelings, and those feelings are all valid . . . we can abhor change and miss the past and feel wary of new trends or cultural phenomena. But feelings do not entitle us to act however we want or treat others poorly.

There are times when raising an army in protest against evil is appropriate and necessary, and I’m sure that some people would argue that this is one of those times, a time to march in the streets and confront the enemy. But who is your enemy? All of the “techies” that I know are on your side - they want San Francisco to be a colorful, diverse, welcoming place for everyone, and they want to see more affordable housing and better public transportation and more job opportunities too. Give them the benefit of the doubt, identify what they can do to help in clear and specific terms, and consider that they might be eager to help. But stop just telling them to leave, not least of all because it isn’t going to happen. If you really do love San Francisco, and consider yourself to be someone who “belongs” here, embrace the real spirit of the place and be welcoming, open, and loving to all of your neighbors . . . what’s the harm in trying?

Bernal mural

NYTimes - techies

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Last week I was listening to an NPR segment about women and feminism.  I resisted the urge to change the channel.  Why is it that I consider myself to be a decently empowered, outspoken woman, but react so negatively to "feminists?"  A lot of us do.  I think that it mostly comes from our suspicion of activists of all kinds - the people who are speaking out and acting out do tend to be the people on the fringes in some sense - people who are less embracing of a status quo that the rest of us are more inclined to subscribe to.  And feminism tends to get grouped in with a lot of specific issues that make people uncomfortable - abortion, public breastfeeding, working moms - things that I believe people have a right to have varied perspectives on regardless of their general views of "feminism."

But what I liked about this segment on feminism was that it didn't cover a lot of those familiar topics, or have a negative, frustrated tone.  Rather, it talked about the experience of women trying new things that pushed their own notions of gender barriers, and talked about women becoming moms.  It immediately reminded me of my post a while back about feeling like a handywoman, and how I had simply projected helplessness onto myself until I one day figured out that I could do it.  And how good and empowering that felt, and how it reached into other aspects of my life.  It was a singular experience and a great one, but looking back I see that I haven't had a boundary-pushing experience like that for a while, and it's something that women (and, well, everyone) should try to do somewhat regularly.  I feel like I really need to learn how to change a tire on a car just for the sake of empowerment, especially after a woman on the radio segment discussed at length the impact it had on her life.

Listening to the stories about becoming moms, and how some women never loved their children's earliest months or years, was a particularly timely one for me.  Sitting there, nine months pregnant, remembering how unimpressed I was with the capacities of a newborn the first time around forced me to confront my expectations for this second time.  Fortunately, I feel empowered enough now in my strengths as a mom to not feel too badly about my lack of enthusiasm for newborns - give me a toddler any day, or anyone with some basic communication skills, and I'm sold.  But I still hold newborns like they're going to break in my arms and have no idea what to really do with them.  

All of this, however, mostly made me think about my impending birth experience.  Birth round two.  Birth round one was mostly a success just in the sense that it didn't end up as the complete disaster that it started as.  So many things had gone wrong along the way that the fact that I made it out unscathed, with a relatively healthy son, was amazing.  But the notion of going through all of that again was frightening.  My body simply was not made to do this, almost as further evidence against my young-baby-rearing skills.  I approached the end of pregnancy with constant doubt, and left an envelope of my computer passwords in my underwear drawer just in case it killed me this time around.  Fear is my companion.

So when I went into normal, natural labor on a quiet Saturday morning after a full night's sleep, I couldn't believe it.  I swear there wasn't emotional space then for any fear or doubts - just total amazement.  Even during contractions I felt actual gratitude, and had a nearly out-of-body experience of watching myself act out the laboring as if I was just showing off what I imagined labor to look like.  I mean, it couldn't have followed the ideal birth script we had talked through with our doula any more precisely.  It was empowering beyond belief, and a perfect reminder that we change and grow as people all the time, not destined to always relive our past experiences or perceived failures.  Still, I may already have gotten a bit bored on day one with the newborn.  And I may still be picking up my new son with the caution and helplessness of a teenage boy (sorry, stereotypes!).  But I'm carrying a new sense of belief in my ability to learn and grow, so I can't help but feel a little eager to test drive some newfound confidence.

If you'd like to read the details of my birth story (none too gory I don't think), read on.  I won't be offended if you don't!  I only post it because I yearn so much to hear the stories of others and wish that the usual facebook updates of date/weight/name also included delivery/craziest part/best part/biggest surprise/etc.  I just happen to think birth, like breastfeeding and pregnancy, is really weird and fascinating.  If you feel the same way, read on. (or skip to photos at end)


Birth of Benjamin

On Friday night, January 4, I was in a complaining mood.  I just wasn't hungry for dinner, those vaguely annoying but nonproductive contractions were back, and I felt restless.  I spent the evening doing all sorts of tasks around the house - sorting through Christmas decorations, cleaning out the shoe drawer, and washing lots of dishes.  By the time I went to bed I was tired but still vaguely out-of-sorts.  Fortunately I had a good night's sleep, with just a few interruptions (James kept wanting a tissue, and every so often a contraction woke me).  But at 6:30am I realized I had been waking every 10 minutes for a while from contractions, which had become just uncomfortable enough that I really needed to move my body as they came.  I really wasn't sure if I was in labor, but decided that since I was up anyway I might as well take a shower.  

A few times during the relatively short shower I felt the very steady rise and fall of contractions, and by the time I was getting out I was pretty sure it was "go" time.  James and Bill were still cutely sleeping as I rounded up the last-minute items on my birth bag list.  At that point I almost wished I had an audience because I felt like I must have been an amusing sight - efficiently folding clothes, sorting make-up, even applying eye-liner between brief periods of moaning and rocking on all fours.  I knew right away that my best laboring position was to be totally grounded, and since I had felt so sure of that even before labor, it was surprisingly easy to just get into a rhythm.  A tugging feeling would alert me each time, I'd drop everything I was doing and hit the floor, and loudly moan my way through the comfortingly predictable rise and fall.  

In my idealized dreams birth always seemed like a marathon to me - the way that runners know their course, know their rhythm, and pace themselves, and, while "painful," they push on without suffering.  I couldn't believe how exactly like that it was in reality - each surge felt like a hill that I was climbing, but it was so easy to pace myself, knowing that by the time I was halfway through and reaching the peak, I was already on my way down the other side.  And between each one it was as if absolutely nothing was happening.  Even when I was close to the end the breaks between each one were shockingly clear and comfortable and predictable, never a moment where it felt endless or overwhelming.

Desiree, our doula, arrived quickly.  I was so grateful for her presence that I recall actually moaning her name through multiple contractions ("Desireeeeeeeeee!"  Highly moanable).  At one point she held my head to her own belly and I remember physically melting into her, so grateful and comforted.  But she was anxious about how quickly things were happening.  Minutes before she walked in my water had broken in the middle of an intense contraction on the living room floor, with a surprisingly painful jolt and pop (but bearably brief.)  Desiree had told me a story before, on multiple occasions, of how she had arrived at a client's house and then demanded that the client check to see if there was a head coming.  When she asked me to do the same, I knew things were happening fast.  I really knew it when my sister said she was 10 minutes away to help watch James and Desiree said to just throw our toddler in the the car with us.  Finally I yelled at Bill to just start knocking on neighbors' doors, and sure enough, the father-of-three across the street who opened the door barely blinked as our toddler was thrust into his arms, and waved us on.  James was as psyched to be visiting the neighbors as he was to get to watch Curious George episodes all morning on the iPad while mommy groaned on the bathroom floor.  I had been worried that my very loud style of laboring would freak him out, but James was completely unfazed. 

Desiree and Bill rushed me down the front steps between contractions, and just as another one was coming, Desiree reached for the door to the backseat only to discover that her car was locked and her keys were momentarily missing.  At that moment my sister had just pulled up, and at that same moment I dropped to the sidewalk and moaned my way loudly through a contraction, wondering even during it how absurd and frightening I must look to any neighbors walking by!  Moments later I was in the car and we were speeding to St. Luke's.  I was surprisingly comfortable lying in the backseat, not even cursing the bumpy streets of San Francisco.  Desiree yelled at me when she heard a more guttural quality of my moans to not dare push yet!  Even amidst the chaos I was still aware of the landscape passing by, noticing the tops of the buildings and trying to place which streets we were on.  I was even aware of which intersection we were about to pass, at Cesar Chavez and Guerrero, which has a notoriously long light.  I prepared for a long stop and took it as a good sign that we breezed right through.  Bill later informed me that we completely ran that red light!

When we pulled up to the ER entrance a wheelchair was waiting, and I felt like a movie character as people cleared out of my way and we literally careened down the hallways towards the elevators.  Even between contractions which felt more like pushes, I still had to inform everyone that these are the slowest elevators on earth and we'd be waiting forever.  Somehow, though, the doors opened instantly and up we went to floor three, where the first face I saw was my favorite St. Luke's doctor, Laura Norrell.  In between moans I gave her a huge smile and told her how happy I was to see her, and she smiled back even bigger with, "Girl, this is a beautiful sight to see!"  She had been at birth round one and knew how much I had wanted this natural labor, so she was completely with me in sharing the joy of the moment.  I was pretty pissed, though, that she had just finished her shift!  

But I felt so happy to be at the hospital, to know that things were all going perfectly.  I couldn't believe how I could go through these intense waves but still have a completely conscious other mind that was able to scream with joy when they declared me completely dilated and ready to push.  I was able to have halfway normal conversation between guttural moans in which I grabbed the bed rails and yelled.  But even as I yelled I was aware of how crazy it seemed, because despite the scene I was making there was still not a single second when I felt like I couldn't do it, or felt overwhelmed by pain, or felt anything emotionally other than "everything is perfect right now."  When they started to get me dressed to wheel me to delivery Bill claims I yelled something like "who cares!  just go!"  As they raced me down the hall I saw that Dr. Norrell was still at the nurse's station and managed to yell to her jokingly, "I see Dr. Norrell over there just SCREWING AROUND!"

By the time they rolled me onto the table I was ready to push.  It must have been barely a minute before I insisted on being on all fours, yelling with all of my might, bearing down and gasping in shock at feeling something moving through my body.  It was surreal, and in a moment that I'll never be able to accurately remember, something like a flash of pain/release of energy/whole-body-muscle-recruitment, Ben's head was out.  I screamed in a high-pitched voice as I recruited one more push to get his shoulders and body out, and I swear as soon as it was over I was already celebrating.  It was done.  Instantly.  No tears, just me muttering something like, "I did it.  I did it."  

They put Ben right under me, he was in perfect shape and didn't need to be rushed off anywhere, and I was afraid to move an inch.  So I just hovered over him and breathed deeply and enjoyed the moment.  I didn't feel "done" yet - my last labor had ended with my placenta never being delivered and me being wheeled into an OR for a surgeon to do the job - not an emergency but stressful and long.  So all I could think at this point was that that would be happening again.  They let me rest for about 20 minutes before suggesting that I sit upright, and in a moment of embarrassing delight, the placenta came right out and I knew I was DONE.  I think this may have been the point where I started asking for some kind of award or crown.

Since then we've been trying to collect everyone's perspective on the event.  Bill says that things happened so fast he could barely keep up - he remembers washing his hands as he walked into the delivery room, thinking that it would be a while still, but then turning around and having to be ready to make the catch.  When my sister and I asked him for his real no-holds-barred impression of watching the birth, he says that honestly it reminded him of watching a cow give birth at the State Fair, just the whole animalistic experience.  He also noted that the staff at St. Luke's seemed to be totally happy about how easy I was making their job, as most of the nurses just stood around watching and waiting as I did the work.  He also described my scream as I delivered Ben sounding like "someone having their body torn in half," which I told him I guess I should just remind him about frequently throughout our marriage.

yes, my sister brought my tiara!

Monday, November 12, 2012


When I think back to Obama's victory in 2008, I remember my wardrobe at the time being a regular rotation of different Obama-emblazoned t-shirts.  I remember working at a phone bank and using my elementary Spanish skills to harass beleaguered Floridians about getting to the polls.  I remember setting up a mock polling place in my second grade classroom for the entire school to visit, class-by-class, filling out their ballots and learning about what was at stake.  I remember the build-up to election night and planting myself in front of the TV with my laptop, hitting "refresh" on multiple news sites in constant succession, and crying tears of joy when the good news came rolling in.  This year, I found myself sitting lazily on my couch in an old sweatshirt, sighing in relief when Obama was named the victor, and being asked "you're not waiting up for the speech?" by Bill as I trudged off to bed.

Some of this could be blamed on my current state of pregnancy (the trudging, certainly, and the fact that my Obama t-shirts no longer fit), but other than that, I'm not sure that my lack of engagement had much else to do with my large belly.  I felt, well, disenchanted with the whole election.  Obama's 2008 message of hope had been so compelling, and I had fallen so much in love with the notion of real change, meaningful change, and even possibly fast change.  And there have certainly been those moments - for me, most notably, Obama's public embrace of gay rights, the Race to the Top education initiative, and the huge strides in providing health care for everyone.  But lately the negativity of the 2012 fight-to-the-death election has worn on me, and seeing Obama's lack of vigor in the first debate wasn't just a disappointing polling incident to me, it was a confirmation of my fears that the grueling day-to-day world of political games had caught up with even the vaunted idealist himself.  I still supported the campaign as much as ever, and sent in regular donations, but with less exuberant optimism.

Most strangely of all, I felt sorry for Romney and his supporters.  I had never hated him on a personal level, as much as I may have disagreed with his stances on some important issues.  I saw him as someone who, like many Republicans, felt that their version of America was slipping away.  Though I love living in the liberal fantasy land that is San Francisco (where one of our top-debated issues is if we should continue to let gay men wander naked through the city), I have true empathy for people who live in communities far from the left-leaning coasts.  In those towns I can only surmise that shared values matter more, that sharing a church and religious values with your neighbors is more pressing than it feels in the distraction of big cities.  When you've done okay for your family despite tough financial times and embraced personal responsibility yourself, the notion of voting your tax dollars towards social programs for the disadvantaged must feel hugely unfair.  And with that you also have to compromise what "family" means to you/your church, or "life" (even if I think it's time for letting go of those "traditional" values, it's still not easy for those who have to do the letting go).  I can't say that I blame Romney or many of his followers for simply feeling afraid.  The world that they've known is changing, and all they want is to preserve the things they know.  Obama's slogan, "FORWARD," could not be more apt - we plow ahead and cannot stop, even if we wanted to.  "Forward" doesn't necessarily mean better, it simply means that things can't stay the same as they've been.  Welcome to the human condition.

Quite a few friends have been mildly horrified by my elation-less reaction to Obama's win.  That's not to say that I don't think it's incredibly important - I know that Obama is someone I can trust to mostly make policy decisions I'll agree with and generally champion issues that matter to me.  But overwhelmingly I felt that the election brought out the worst in Americans.  The fear of change and compromises of values and personal financial responsibility that conservatives confronted was drummed up into a hatred of liberals and a condemnation of "handouts" and "freeloaders."  Liberals assaulted the "ignorance" of religious people and the out-of-touch millionaires of the right, and then, upon Obama's victory, condemned Republicans as losers and irrelevant.  Though each side's critique of the other may bear some truth, the extremes to which they've been stretched results in caricatures of distant, unintelligible enemies.  And now that the election is done, the residue of this mutual hatred hasn't faded.  My liberal friends delight in the genuine pain of the Republicans, and Republicans in turn attribute Democratic gains to a loss of real moral values in our country.  How can we move "forward" like this?

This past week I was frustrated by a facebook acquaintance's public condemnation (via facebook status update!) of facebook itself.  She wrote about how, ultimately, it's bad for us as humans.  I was also annoyed by a comment about the gentrification of the mission neighborhood in SF and how it's "not the same" as it was.  I found myself feeling the same emotions that I did in response to the election - a vague anger about people who fight change and condemn others without any positive proposals.  Facebook is something that has changed our social landscape, it's not inherently good or evil, it's a tool that you can choose to use for good or evil.  If it isn't working for you, quietly leave, without a judgmental epistle.  "Gentrification" is just another type of change - neighborhoods cannot stay the same forever - yes they can change in ways that some people feel are good and others think are bad, but trying to preserve it just because it's been one way for a while seems absurd.  As if there weren't entirely different groups of people (let's take it back to the Native Americans) who were there before the current ones.  

I don't at all blame people for disliking Obama or despising facebook or not wanting more Google shuttle stops in their neighborhood.  In those cases I would recommend, first and foremost, appreciating the fact that we live in a free society where you can make choices for yourself about any of those things (i.e. vote, quit, move).  But if you're driven to launch public tirades about any of the above, be willing to present a solution other than just vilifying it and shutting it out, first because all three are here to stay, and especially because whether you're talking about Obama or facebook or gentrification, what's really upsetting you are forces and issues that are far deeper than the manifestations you're railing against (a changing US demographic? too much technology in our lives? minorities being underserved in education and not getting high-paying jobs to afford local rents?). 

Rather than assail Obama or Romney or their supporters as inherently bad, focus on the specifics of their platforms and write/campaign/preach about that, but in a solution-oriented way.  If you hate facebook, identify how we could be using it better and model that, rather than just quitting and hoping it disappears.  If you hate the techies in your neighborhood, well, there's another reason to quit using facebook, and throw out your latest Apple gadget while you're at it, or move (although really I'd recommend working to improve your local public schools so that all families have the education and earning-power to stay).  But change is inevitable.  We will always be moving "forward."  Rather than clamoring for the good 'ole times of the past, focus on what direction change should be taking, and put in the work to shift things in that direction.  We can mourn the loss of things we love without throwing a fit and accusing others of being evil and ignorant.  

Change is hard, change is emotionally draining, change forces us to confront our fears and challenges us to adapt.  We may not be able to stop it, but we can stop ourselves from wasting the opportunity for positive improvements and progress.  Don't get left behind.