25 August 2014

An Honest Conversation About Ferguson

Believe me, I have been thinking for some time now about writing a post about the events that have been unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. (In case you have been living without benefit of news outlets, you can catch up by reading a fairly good, if sparse, timeline of the events here.) The basics: on Saturday, August 9, shortly before noon, a police officer in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, responding to a call about a suspected shoplifting, shot and killed an 18-year-old unarmed African-American man named Michael Brown. The exact events leading up to the shooting were not made immediately clear, and they still haven't been, but the community, the nation, and the world erupted in outrage, with the people of Ferguson rioting and the governor of Missouri calling in the National Guard for help. Things have quieted down somewhat, but I think it would be inaccurate to say that peace has been restored and that all is well.

Peace has not been restored, and all is not well in America. As Mother Jones recently reported, at least five unarmed black men, including Brown, were killed by the police from mid-July to mid-August of 2014. No one knows for sure how many unarmed people are killed by the police each year; because of inconsistencies in reporting, estimates vary widely (source). But the issue is one of great concern to just about all observers, particularly those who, like myself, take more than a passing interest in the issues of gun violence and race relations.

Why haven't I written about it? Well, first of all, it seems to me irresponsible to write unless I have solidly educated myself about the issues, and that takes time. I've read everything I could get my hands on, from news reports to blog posts to first-person accounts of the Brown killing and several other, similar incidents. I have been struck, though not particularly surprised, at the anger - most of it justified - coming to the surface in reaction to the incident. The conversation seems to be in part about the use of force and the militarization of the police, but most of it centers around the age-old problem of race in America. Why are the young men being shot to death on the street primarily black? What is it that makes the racial divide one of the defining features of our society, and why can't we rise above that divide?

Smarter people than myself have tried and failed for two hundred years to answer these questions, so I won't attempt to solve society's evils in a glib blog post. But I am not going to be afraid to enter the conversation. I am aware that many commentators have hesitated to venture into these waters because they are afraid that, not being "people of color," they will be viewed as unqualified to opine. They have been told, or led to believe, that the color of their skin somehow invalidates their thoughts on the subject, or makes them incapable of understanding the depth and horror of the situation. But anyone can understand the depth and horror of the loss of a loved one (a son or otherwise) for no good reason.

We cannot be quiet, and we cannot sit on the sidelines and allow the color of our skin to determine the validity of our opinions. The idea that only people of a certain racial background are qualified to talk about the problem of race in America is not only polarizing, but also renders a solution to the problem - if a solution exists - nearly impossible. We cannot hope to unite ourselves under a banner of equality, and to eliminate racially-based violence, if our first instinct is to define ourselves as black, white, or other, to separate ourselves accordingly, and assign a value to our thoughts based on nothing more than pigmentation.

I had thought that our parents' generation, those who lived through the Civil Rights era, who fought a hands-on battle against segregation and prejudice in American society, had made some progress. I had thought the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had made a difference. I had thought that the summary execution of young people on the street had become anathema to a country of laws. But as I read the news and the conversations it engenders, I see no progress being made. We are treading water in a poisoned pool. We may never reach the other side, because we are pulling each other down under the surface.

Let us talk, but let us also listen. Let us come up with constructive suggestions for forward progress. Can we have an honest dialogue about the relationship between our law enforcement and our civilian population? Can we talk about violence and its prevalence in our society, state-sanctioned or otherwise?  Can we get to the root of and address the disproportionate numbers of African-Americans living below the poverty line, spending their lives incarcerated, and dying on the streets? Can we separate our opinions of each other from the many shades of skin color our ancestors gave us and instead focus on the ideals they left us as their legacy?

I am willing to try, and I hope you are too.

08 August 2014

Thinking About Change

I learned a lot of things at the BlogHer14 conference in San Jose.

First, and most important to me, I learned that there are people out there who read my blog regularly and actually like it. This seems like a small thing, but sometimes, as I have said, I feel like I am writing into a vast void. Though the stats tell me someone is reading, I get very little direct feedback on my posts. Imagine my joy at being recognized by a reader at the BlogHer conference!

We were at a breakout session, going around the table introducing ourselves, and when I said that my name is Jennie and I write "Still Life With Crockpot," one of the other bloggers gasped and said, "You write 'Still Life'? That's one of my favorite blogs!" She sought me out later, obviously delighted to have met me, and we took a selfie together. Weeks later, I am still living off the high of her praise. She has motivated me to keep going.

Moments like that make me feel like the effort of writing is worth it. There are trolls out there who can be very discouraging. My husband posted my Hobby Lobby post on his Facebook wall, and one of his high school classmates absolutely tore me apart with his criticism, accusing me of shameless self-promotion and questioning my legal credentials and my objectivity. I don't know this man at all, and I am pretty sure he's not a regular reader, but his words still hurt, because I put a lot of research and effort into that post. I've been writing this blog for a few years now, but I still have trouble separating my work from my feelings. I take criticism very seriously, especially when the criticism attacks me personally. It happens more often than I'd like to admit.

(I'd like to publicly thank one of my amazing cousins, an experienced writer and media professional, who, at a recent family gathering, made a point of thanking me for the Hobby Lobby post. He probably doesn't know how much his words meant to me, but even a small amount of whispered praise does wonders in bolstering me against the criticism.)

I learned - am learning - that I need to just do what I do and not worry about the critics. The BlogHer conference reinforced that idea. It takes courage to write about controversial subjects, and the existence of that courage is important to us as writers and to the marketplace of ideas in general.

Another, more mundane thing that I learned: when I handed out business cards that said "Still Life With Crockpot" on them, people instantly assumed that my blog is about food and cooking. That's not an unreasonable assumption. When I first started this blog, I did not know what it was going to be about. My general idea was to write about the slow-cooker lifestyle: what it's like to work as a professional woman eighty hours a week and still be expected - still expect - to run a home and raise a family and have a meal on the table when the sun goes down. That's a conundrum unique, I think, to my generation of women, the generation that was taught that it is possible, and even desirable, to do everything at once and to do it all well. We now know that it's not that simple, but I thought there were lessons to be learned from the myth. And I thought the Crock-Pot - that piece of kitchen equipment on which working moms like myself lean so heavily - was a symbol of the struggle.

It turns out, I think, that the reference was so subtle as to be lost on most people. Contemporary social, feminist, and legal commentary, which is what I want "Still Life" to become, is a tiny voice in a blogosphere dominated by food, parenting, travel, and crafting. I know I sometimes post about crafts and travel, family and even food, but that's not my primary interest here. And I am in the process of concluding that my blog needs a name change. Something that more accurately reflects what it is about.

If you are a regular reader, or just someone who has recently stumbled on my site, I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this. Does "Still Life" need a makeover? If so, how dramatic should it be? Should I separate out the knitting, travel, and family stuff into a separate blog and use this space to focus on women's issues? Or do you like things the way they are?

Please let me know. I really do value your input.

28 July 2014

What You Must Know When Traveling Cross-Country By Train

My husband and I recently traveled to San Jose, California by train to attend the BlogHer14 convention. I’ll write more about the convention soon, but before that, I wanted to give you a few tips about traveling by long-distance train in the United States.

We took the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville, California (not far from San Francisco and San Jose), and then we flew to Seattle and boarded the Empire Builder back to Chicago. Here’s what I learned.

The Empire Builder at its stop in Spokane

The trip from Chicago to the coast takes three days in each direction, assuming the train is running on time. (More on that below.) Choose your sleeping accommodations wisely. There are three main options that you can consider.

If you’re a college student, traveling alone or in a group, you might be able to get enough sleep in a reclining coach seat, using your backpack as a pillow. Coach tickets do not include food, so you must bring yours along or buy snacks and meals in the club car or dining room. Bathrooms and showers are shared – they are small, but not too awful. Think about an airplane restroom, and you have an idea of the space in the train loo.

      The next option up is a “roomette”: a small compartment about six by three feet, with two facing seats that recline into a bed of sorts and a bunk bed that folds down from the ceiling. If you are traveling alone, with little luggage, you are not very tall or wide, and you do not have an issue with claustrophobia, this might be a good option for you. Roomettes include three meals a day, unlimited coffee, water, and juice, and porter service (an attendant who makes the beds up, provides you with towels, pillows, and other comfort-based needs, delivers food to your compartment if you wish to dine there, and generally provides advice). Bathrooms and showers are shared. My husband and I traveled to California in a roomette, and we frankly found the compartment too small for our needs.

      On the way back from California, we upgraded to a “deluxe room,” which has wider beds, a closet, an en-suite toilet and shower, and a wide viewing window. The deluxe room also had space for our luggage, whereas we had to keep the luggage on a hallway rack when we were in the roomette. Porter service and meals are also included in a deluxe room, and a “family room,” which includes a fold-out child-sized bed, is also available for a slightly higher fee.

Travel as lightly as possible. You will not be subject to the same luggage restrictions as you’d have on a plane, but you will not have a lot of room to store the items you bring. Unless you want big bags underfoot all the time, leave them at home. And don’t worry about theft if you are staying in a compartment; Michele, our porter on the Zephyr, told us she’d been on the job for twenty years and had never had an issue with laptops, phones, or other valuables wandering.

The trains stop, but not long enough for you to do anything but stretch your legs for a moment on the platform. Bring with you everything you will need: your usual toiletries, including shampoo and toothpaste, medications, diapers and sanitary supplies, if necessary, and any food you can’t live without. The staff will help you as much as it can, but its onboard resources are limited. Do not bring towels, blankets, or pillows. Your porter will supply these items, and they’re perfectly acceptable, so don’t waste precious luggage space.

Give yourself plenty of time. This is not a mode of transportation that lends itself to people who are in a hurry. The weather and track conditions will influence the train’s punctuality. Delays of hours and sometimes even days can occur, though they are infrequent. Be flexible.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in the dining car and are included with all sleeper car accommodations. A snack bar operates from early morning to late at night, offering sandwiches, chips, beverages, and small entertainment items (like decks of cards) at an additional cost. The dining car menu is limited but includes healthy options and items for children.

If you dine in the dining car, you will be given a reservation time and seated with fellow travelers, just as if you were on a cruise. This is a great opportunity to get to know your neighbors, but if you’re an introvert or someone who doesn’t chat well with a wide variety of people, some of whom can be very different from you, be forewarned. We had wonderful conversations with a fracker from North Dakota, a little girl traveling with her grandma, an English couple and their three teenaged sons, an Amish couple from rural Indiana, and a single gay man from Chicago. Prepare to make friends, We got business cards from all of these people and look forward to staying in touch.

Lastly, bring a camera, something to read, and your portable hobby. There’s a lot of time to be spent just relaxing, either in your own seat or in the wide-windowed sightseeing car. Cell signals are few and far between, so your phone and MiFi will work only sporadically, and the train does not provide its own internet service. In the long stretches between towns, I knitted, read, played Scattergories with my husband, slept, and chatted with my new friends. Most of all, I gaped at the mountains, rivers, gorges, and prairies: those are the reasons, after all, that one travels this way, and if you yearn for breathtaking scenery, you will not be disappointed.

Happy trails!