Sunday, December 27, 2015

Gender Inequity on Local Boards and Commissions

In a recent commentary on Hillary Clinton’s highly-publicized bathroom break, Soraya Chemaly observes: “The male-centeredness of our opinion making and public space continues to reflect the male-centeredness of our understanding of the world.” 

It would appear at first glance that women are well represented in local government in Northfield, Minnesota. There are 4 women and 3 men on the Northfield City Council. There are 4 women and 3 men on the school board. But on city boards and commissions the situation is markedly different. I looked at the membership of thirteen city boards and commissions and found that 58% of current appointees are men (as of December 2015). Here’s the breakdown:

Board or Commission
# of male members
# of female members
Arts & Culture Commission
Charter Commission
Economic Development Authority (EDA)
Environmental Quality Board (EQB)
Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC)
Hospital Board
Housing Redevelopment Commission  (HRA)
Human Rights Commission
Mayor’s Task Force on Youth Alcohol & Drug Use
Parks & Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB)
Planning Commission
Rental Housing Board of Appeals

Not included in the numbers is the Northfield Area Fire and Rescue Services (NAFRS) joint powers board, which has no women members. Three other important bodies—the Charter Commission, the Economic Development Authority, and the Planning Commission—have no women members.

Why is gender equity on local boards and commissions important? Here’s a statement from the international organization United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG):

Local governments are key promoters of gender equality and can improve the quality of women’s lives and increase their opportunities. Increasing the number of women in local government, and taking the needs of women into consideration when developing policies and services, is essential to achieving the goals of sustainable development. It is also a question of justice and recognizing gender equality as a human right.

In Northfield, the absence of women on the Planning Commission is particularly troubling. Women tend to use and experience public space differently from men. These examples are from a UK study, but are also applicable to the United States:

There are many examples of the differently gendered uses of space. Women make more complex journeys than men, often travelling to childcare, school, work, and shops in journeys that are often referred to as “trip-chains.”* More than twice as many women as men are responsible for escorting children to school, seventy-five per cent of bus journeys are undertaken by women and only thirty per cent of women have access to the use of a car during the daytime.** Poor public transport and lack of caring facilities and shopping outlets near employment locations restrict women’s access to the labour market. Women feel less safe than men being out alone after dark, especially in the inner city, or social housing estates. Poorly considered land-use zoning policy separates residential areas from employment locations, with a greater impact on women’s mobility.

The perspective of women is needed in planning public spaces in order to create a safer and more just community for all its citizens.

*For gender differences in "trip-chaining behavior" in the U.S., see this study.
**These numbers may not reflect the actual situation in the U.S. generally, or in relatively affluent Northfield specifically. On the other hand, in the U.S. low-income families are less likely to have access to a car. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: "One-fourth of families earning $25,000 or less don’t have a car." It would be interesting to find out how many low-income women in Northfield lack access to a car during the daytime.

Note: In 2012, the Iowa legislature mandated gender balance on local boards and commissions, and released a useful publication on how to achieve this end.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Second Self

One of the highlights of 2015 for me was having the opportunity to return to my alma mater, Oberlin College, to participate in a symposium to honor Professor Thomas Van Nortwick on his retirement from the college. This is what I said on that occasion.

In 1986, the year I graduated from Oberlin, Tom entered a new and important phase of his life as a classicist. That was the year he published “Travels with Odysseus” in North Dakota Quarterly. With that essay, he began a long and fruitful journey of self-examination using the classics as guides. He began to ask himself how the stories of the ancient heroes—Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Oedipus—might illuminate his own life and relationships. How could reading the Aeneid help him work through his own sense of loss? What could reading Sophocles’ Oedipus plays tell him about the cycle of his own life?

Looking back twenty-five years after the publication of that first personal essay, Tom reflected on the effect this mode of engagement with the classics had on his teaching. In another essay for NDQ, he wrote: “The detachment I had cultivated as part of my academic persona gave way to a more direct engagement with the Greek and Latin poetry I was teaching. Once I began asking myself what these stories had to do with me and my life, it was natural to ask my students the same kind of question. I didn’t invite them to write autobiography, but to ask themselves why these works ought to matter to them.”

In an essay on the Aeneid published in 1990, Tom explored Aeneas’s ambivalence about this mission and the ways in which pursuing that mission requires him to confront feminine parts of himself. Fate has cast Aeneas in a role he isn’t suited for, and that he would rather not play. He’s fallen into a life different from the one he imagined for himself, and somehow has to figure out how to live it as if it were his own.

Tom’s reading of the Aeneid and the insights it gave him into his own life came at a particularly opportune time for me. After a graduating from Oberlin in 1986, earning a Ph.D. at Brown University, and teaching for a year at Gustavus Adolphus College, I spent most of the 1990s as a stay-at-home father. After writing a dissertation on the Aeneid, I spent my days changing diapers, feeding the babies bottles of expressed breast milk, trying to get them to take naps, and pushing them in a stroller all over town. 

My role models at the time were the older women who had come to town as faculty wives in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They had come to a small college town on the heroic journey of their husbands toward tenure, and in the process had found their own journeys. They had made homes and raised children, created art and written books, served in public office and founded important community organizations. They had adapted and thrived.

All of this began to give me a different perspective on the hero’s journey.  As a stay-at-home father, as someone who spent his late twenties and most of his thirties engaged in what was still considered women’s work, and as someone who has now reached the age of fifty without what would generally be recognized as a career, my life hasn’t exactly conformed to the heroic ideal, which for my father’s generation—the generation that shaped my expectations—at least involved a regular paycheck and some measure of professional prestige.  I found it difficult to go against such powerful expectations without an equally powerful counternarrative to give shape and meaning to the choices I made and the life that resulted from those choices.

One of the books I read early in my years as a stay-at-home father was Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life, about the improvisational nature of women’s lives. Bateson contrasts the traditional hero’s journey toward a single pre-ordained goal with the shifting commitments and constant adaptations of women as they navigate the competing demands of family and career. “Women’s lives offer valuable models,” Bateson writes, “because of the very pressures that make them seem more difficult. Women have not been permitted to focus on single goals, but have tended to live with ambiguity and multiplicity.” This was certainly true of the women who became my role models, who arrived in Northfield as trailing spouses and emerged as community leaders.

In 1998, I published my first personal essay in North Dakota Quarterly, the same journal that published most of Tom’s personal essays on the classics. I wrote about being a stay-at-home father and baking bread with my sons. I wrote about a male yearning for the nurturing experience of motherhood, and illustrated my point with a brief analysis of the story of the birth of Orion in Ovid’s Fasti: the story of a man who wants a child.  I introduced the story with a quote from Louise Erdrich about the experience of breastfeeding her child. Erdrich wrote: “I realize that this is exactly the state of mind that so many male writers...describe with yearning—the mystery of an epiphany, the sense of oceanic oneness, the great yes, the wholeness.”

But as I tried to get my son to suck on a rubber nipple, I felt physically inadequate and out of harmony with my situation.  I was a cisgender, heterosexual man with a longing for the experience of motherhood.  I wasn’t able to do what a woman could do, and I wasn’t doing what a “real man” was “supposed” to do. This left me feeling, in Tom’s words, a “sense of alienation from traditional maleness.”

Those words come from the essay in North Dakota Quarterly in which Tom explored Aeneas’s ambivalence about his mission and his own uneasy relationship with his father. That 1990 essay was a milestone in Tom’s exploration of the meaning of a masculine life—both his own life and the lives of the heroes who populated Greek and Roman literature.

In Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life (1998), Tom reminds us that the heroic journey can be seen as a psychological quest that calls on the hero either to reject or reconcile with externalized aspects of himself, who appear in the form either of companions like Enkidu and Patroklos, or of adversaries like Hector and Turnus.  The encounter with this second self is central to the hero’s own development.  Tom also points out that the second self frequently offers a more “feminine” counterpart to the more masculine hero. Patroklos, for example, offers a “contrast to Achilles’ overbearing masculinity, honoring solicitude for his friends over his desire for honor, compassionate where his friend is solipsistic, defining himself through relationships rather than through the lonely competitive absolutes of Achilles.”

In his reading of the Oedipus plays, Tom writes about the hero’s journey from an assertion of autonomy to an acceptance of interdependence, from imposing his individual will on the world to recognizing his place in a universe of relationships. He writes about learning to “think less about what separates me from others and more about how I am connected to them.”  He writes about outgrowing what R.W. Connell calls “hegemonic masculinity,” and embracing a masculinity that incorporates aspects of feminine experience.  As Tom puts it: “The hero’s final evolution toward maturity and spiritual integration is marked by an acceptance within himself of those very ‘feminine’ qualities embodied by the second self.”

Once my own children started school, and I was no longer a full-time stay-at-home father, I started picking up part-time teaching jobs, including as a tutor of homeschool students. My favorite homeschool student, a young woman named Peytie, once told me that she didn’t learn as much from teachers who, as she put it, seemed to be reporting back from the end of the journey. She said she learned the most from teachers who were on the journey with her.  She’s described exactly the kind of teacher Tom has been for me over the past thirty years. With his great sensitivity and insight, he’s been a model for me as a writer.  He’s been a father figure, the kind of caring and generous man I would like to be.  He’s made me think in new ways about what the classics mean to me, and in doing so has helped me find the heroic counternarrative to make sense of my life.

Last year, Peytie and I co-wrote an essay about mentorship. I’ve known her for eleven years now, since she was fifteen. She’s an off-the-charts extrovert, she talks a mile a minute, she’s an actress who appears on stage regularly in the Twin Cities, and she teaches classes in movement and body awareness. None of those things apply to me.  But Peytie wrote something in the essay that made me think about teaching as an encounter with the second self. She wrote: “it was like my own mind had separated from itself and was teaching me.”

I often feel that way when I read Tom’s books and essays: like he’s making sense of my own thoughts.  And Peytie wrote something else that made me think of Tom.  She wrote: “The vision you have of me inspires me to be the person you see. You help me make her real.”  

Robert Inchausti writes that “the real self is the moral self. And the moral self is a second self.” It isn’t the self we are born with, but “an ethical accomplishment,” the result of a journey. This self isn’t created in isolation, but through our relationships with other people. In Inchausti’s view, the second self isn’t someone else. It’s the person we become, the identity we create—and that others help us create—on our journey through life.

I think this expresses exactly what Tom’s importance has been for me: he has the ability to see what is best and most promising in me, to see my best self, and to inspire me to be the person he sees. He’s one of the people who has made me real.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Reading, Empathy, and Solipsism

A handful of recent studies have demonstrated a connection between reading fiction and the development of empathy and “theory of mind,” that is, the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of other people. Several of these studies have even shown that reading fiction acts upon the brain at a neurological level: reading about an experience activates the same parts of the brain as actually participating in that experience.

But the connection between fiction and empathy is not a recent discovery. In his 1970 essay “Fiction as Truth,” for example, British novelist Richard Hughes addresses the case of a man who considers it “proof of his serious-mindedness” that he never reads fiction. Hughes criticizes the man’s refusal to read fiction as “a solipsistic retreat into the fortress of his own ‘I am.’” It is a refusal to face “the fact that other people are not ‘things’ but ‘persons’”:

Not mere machines mass-produced on the genetic assembly line complete with built-in obsolescence, but persons; not things to be studies only from outside and even then in numbers large enough to form categories and classes, not things to be regarded in relation to his own Ego as mere obstacles or raw materials or tools—but what Sartre calls the “Other,” just as much persons as he is a person himself.
He concludes: “It was the vast failure to learn that lesson which built the gas-chambers. The archetypal non-reader of Fiction was Hitler.” Hughes regards empathy—the reader’s ability “to be someone else”—as the foundation of a society that values human life and human rights. In an age of “mutually-assured destruction,” it was also essential to the survival of the human race. For Hughes, the consequence of neglecting fiction is solipsism, a catastrophic failure of empathy.

Others would argue that even the reader of fiction can retreat into the fortress of solipsism if his choice or manner of reading only reflects and reinforces his own experience rather than opening him up to the experience of others. In a 2013 article for the conservative National Association of Scholars, William H. Young attributes the “literacy problem” to progressive educational approaches such as critical pedagogy and constructivism—the construction of a text’s meaning through reference to the reader’s personal experience—which he says encourage students to see texts “only through the postmodern prism of their personal identity, experience, feelings, and opinion.”

“From constructivism,” Young writes, “they know only solipsism.” 
This is not a concern only for conservative critics of multiculturalism and progressive education. In a 2014 essay in Slate, “The Awful Emptiness of ‘Relatable,’” Rebecca Onion dissected her problem with “relatablity” as a criterion for understanding and appreciating literature. The word “relatable,” Onion writes, “presumes that the speaker’s experiences and tastes are common and normative.” She quotes University of Iowa English professor Adam Hooks, who writes that “‘relatable’ is a sign of a failure to engage with the work or text, a a failure to get beyond one’s own concerns to confront the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable.”

“In other words,” Onion adds, “the quest for the ‘relatable’ circumscribes the expansion of empathy that you can gain through exposure to new things.”

In an essay in the New Yorker on “The Scourge of ‘Relatability,’” published a few months after Onion’s, Rebecca Mead distinguishes between “relatability,” which expresses the expectation “that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer,” and “identification,” in which the reader “is thinking herself into the experience of the characters.” Relatability, Mead says, implies “a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.”
Identification involves active engagement with a text. It involves the effort to move out of one’s comfort zone and inhabit the experience of someone unlike oneself. Relatability is the path of least resistance. Identification turns us into someone else. Relatability assures us that we are with others who are like us.

In 2014, when I published an essay in Critical Flame about being a stay-at-home father and reading women’s domestic fiction, one man tweeted: “This guy needs a Playstation and a copy of Grand Theft Auto badly.” The implication was that I needed something to boost my masculinity, something stereotypically masculine like a violent and misogynistic video game.

This seems to be the reasoning behind Esquire’s list of “80 Books Every Man Should Read,” a list of books full of machismo and glorification of the male experience, all but one of which are by male authors. This lopsided Esquire list prompted Rebecca Solnit to respond with an essay titled “80 Books No Woman Should Read,” in which she observes that the books on the list seem to be offered as “instructions” on manliness, reinforcing a traditional concept of masculinity that treats women as objects or as disposable or as unimportant. In a follow-up essay, “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” Solnit writes:

There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not. Or to go deeper within ourselves, to be more aware of what it means to be heartbroken, or ill, or six, or ninety-six, or completely lost. Not just versions of our self rendered awesome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance and cater to the male imagination. Which is a reminder that literature and art can also help us fail at empathy if it sequesters us in the Boring Old Fortress of Magnificent Me.

If a man reads only books that reinforce his own masculine experience and self-image, books with male characters he finds somehow “relatable,” this is still “a solipsistic retreat into the fortress of his own ‘I am.’”

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Pennine Way Day 1: Edale to Torside Reservoir

The Official Start of the Pennine Way
Edale, Derbyshire
"The forecast was for showers,” said James, the proprietor of The Old House, the bed and breakfast we reached at the end of the first day. “I suppose that was true. There was one shower that lasted all morning, and another shower that lasted all afternoon.”

Climbing Jacob's Ladder onto the Kinder Scout Plateau

We climbed all morning into cloud. On Jacob’s Ladder, the steep initial ascent from the narrow valley of the River Noe, we passed a group of teenagers participating in the Duke of Edinburgh Award, their bright orange pack covers the only objects visible in the mist. As we reached the top of Jacob’s Ladder and emerged from the lee of the mountain, a steady gale pelted us with cold rain. Past Edale Rocks—a faint shadow in the mist that gradually solidified into a mass of gritstone boulders—I lost the trail and wasn’t sure I had found it again until we reached the trig point on Kinder Low. There was nothing that looked like a path, nothing but boulders and black earth and cloud, nothing to follow but the compass needle.

Edale Rocks
We didn’t see another soul until we reached the vicinity of Ashop Head, where the Pennine Way crosses the Snake Path, and a party of half a dozen middle-aged walkers appeared suddenly out of the cloud. The one woman in the group clutched a broken black umbrella over her head.

“Lovely English weather,” one of the men said cheerfully.

For the six days we spent walking on the Pennine Way, the weather was an unfailing topic of conversation. It was one of the central facts of life on the trail. Like the landscape and the blisters and the crowded contour lines on the map, it was part of our shared experience, a basis of our fellowship. We walked in whatever weather the day dished up. We got drenched in the rain, scorched in the sun, and the weather was always either ironically or genuinely lovely.

Hern Clough. We followed Hern Clough upstream for about half a mile,
crossing and recrossing countless times, to reach Bleaklow
When we stopped near Ashop Head, there were still miles of supersaturated peat bogs to cross before we reached the Old House at six in the evening, nine hours after we set out from Edale, just as the clouds were beginning to thin out above Torside Reservoir. 

Torside Reservoir
We were soaked to the skin, and it took a pot of tea and a hot bath to get the chill out of my left shoulder. We had spent the entire day walking in cloud, and although it was disappointing not to have seen any of the views from Kinder Scout, I felt exhilarated. I had made it through the toughest day of the toughest long distance walk in Britain in some of the most challenging conditions. The disappointments were just points on a larger arc of accomplishment.

Warming up in our room at The Old House

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .