“Love That Dirty Water. Boston You’re My Home”

My family lives near the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, named for its location in the Boston Marathon.

Photo by Jerome Gerrior Racing. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Jerome Gerrior Racing. Some rights reserved.

For a while, we were under the false impression that we, in fact, lived at the top of Heartbreak Hill and we would yell “congratulations! The hard part is over!” Oops. Sorry. (In our defense, the youth race is called “Heartbreak Hill Race,” even though it’s on one of the earlier “Newton Hills”).

***

Every year, my parents take a walk after the Passover Seder. One year, Passover fell out on Patriots’ Day. My parents took their walk late at night, long after every runner had finished. The streets though, were still littered with paper cups and orange peels, signs that at some point earlier, all along the route, people had held out cups of water and orange slices for runners to grab as they came past. As my parents walked down the street, a truck driver pulled up, clearly completely lost. My parents gave him directions, and the truck driver looked up and down the litter-strewn street. “Man, you guys sure know how to throw a party,” he said. I think of that story every year, my parents hosting a 26.2-mile party, and laugh.

I told that story to some friends last night, adding that I remember learning the proper way to hold out a cup of water: palm curled just enough so that the cup doesn’t fall out of your hand, but open enough so that when a runner comes by, he or she can grab it from you without slowing.

One of my friends said, “people just take cups of water from strangers? Anything could be in those cups! I would only take sealed bottles of water from official water stations.” I was totally confused: “But why would anyone put anything into the water? What would be the point?”

Every year people run past, right near my parents house. We cheer them on. We yell encouragement. We offer water or oranges. We see neighbors we haven’t seen in a while and buy lukewarm lemonade from little kids who have set up a stand in their front yard. Because, I guess, that’s what you do, when someone runs a marathon in your neighborhood.

***

Today was different. Today, I was on the T, trying to get to my parents’ neighborhood, when Hynes Convention Center T station was evacuated. The announcement came three times, uncharacteristically clear, and very calm. “This is an emergency. Please leave the station.” No one on the T itself moved, since it wasn’t clear if we should get off, or if the best way to leave the station would be to stay on the T. There were murmurs of confusion. And then, someone must have realized what was going on. The fourth announcement came. “This is an emergency. Please empty the train and leave the station.” And so we did.

People wearing Boston Marathon medals and wrapped in “space blankets” limped a little as they headed back up the steps. Others gave them sympathetic looks. Once outside, police directed us away from Copley, but had little other information to offer. So we walked. Alongside, but in the opposite direction of, the Marathon runners still heading towards the finish line. “Good job! You’re almost there!” spectators yelled, cheering on strangers.

We steered clear of the emergency vehicles racing down the street and of the cops on bicycles who easily made it clear that they were no longer just policing an ordinary race. At one point, one of the cops along the marathon route started telling runners he was going to direct them to one side so motorcycles could pass. Everyone moved aside but kept running.

It took a few texts from my family and then a stop in Dunkin Donuts to watch the news for me to fully grasp what was going on. I kept wondering if there was anything of use I could have done had I had a press pass, (I would have had to have crossed many police barriers to have gotten close to the scene).

But my first concern was contacting my parents, who knew I was supposed to be heading through Boston just as the bombs went off. (As far as I can tell, the T must have been under or just past Copley at the time of the explosions). Once I managed to convey to them that I was safe and that I had figured out a way to walk back to Cambridge, I joined the people walking over the BU Bridge. On the Cambridge side, some people–clearly not from the area, and now completely adrift –stopped me to ask, “what’s in this direction? If we walk this way will there be some place for us to go?”

“Yes,” I said.

“We’re all walking the same direction,” someone else crossing the bridge said, “so follow us.”

***

Later, home, I read that people who finished the Marathon as the bombs went off kept running to go give blood. That emergency personnel lept the barriers between the spectators and the runners so they could reach the wounded; they ran toward the explosions. People opened up their homes to stranded runners and checked in with people they knew. I was, throughout the day, completely impressed with how helpful, calm, and informative, cops along the Marathon route were.

It didn’t occur to me that anyone would ever have a reason to attack the Marathon. Even when the train had been evacuated, I assumed there was some sort of threat, but that it would turn out to be unsubstantiated. Because, who would do that?

But we step up. We offer water, and shelter, and blood, and information, and encouragement, and prayers, and comfort. Because, ultimately, that’s what you do when someone attacks a marathon in your neighborhood.

Our Children

A memorial to a student killed in Chicago. Image from This American Life from their radio show on gun violence at Harper High School in Chicago.

“I’d rather have ten kids be killed in Chicago than have my house broken into…. Do you know how scary it is to have your house broken into when you are in it?”

I think my jaw literally dropped when a Harvard graduate student (at a non-HKS school) said that to me this weekend. He might have been saying that to get a reaction from me (it worked) but he said it, which was unfathomable to me whatever  his reason was.

The underlying argument doesn’t work from either side. It’s not clear that stricter gun laws alone will save Chicago’s kids, since most of the shooters don’t have legal guns anyway. The correlation between gun laws and number of guns also isn’t entirely clear; it (unsurprisingly) depends on the substance of the gun laws.The solution needs to be more comprehensive, for sure. And, it’s also not clear to me that guns prevent home invasions. I’ve had a really hard time finding data that showed that gun ownership leads to fewer gun invasions.

But the inflammatory statement isn’t really about gun control. It’s about empathy. It’s about the speaker not knowing anyone who was killed with a gun, but he does know someone whose home was broken into. That’s not surprising since the burglary rate is far higher than murder rate, but he also probably doesn’t know any public school teenagers living in Chicago, let alone living in the neighborhoods most affected by gun violence.

I was privileged to be able to take a class with Robert Putnam last semester. He spoke throughout the semester about the loss of a sense of “our children,” the sense that we are all responsible for each other, outside of our own families. It’s tricky to build the bridging social capital needed to make sure that people with immense privilege debating laws in Cambridge Massachusetts (who, regardless of background have immense privilege by virtue of being Harvard students, and who, obviously, includes me as well) know teenagers whose lives are so full of gun violence that they walk straight down the middle of the street so that they have a few more seconds to run if shooting starts. 

My friend, Tanveer Ali, just wrote an excellent article arguing for more coverage of the victims of shootings.  There are arguments to be made for not covering every murder in the newspaper. The arguments are sad, and generally stem from the idea that the murders are   common (506 in Chicago in 2012) but also have a more positive angle, that writing about every murder in the newspaper makes the city seem like one defined by murder.

But Tanveer’s argument is compelling: “by striving to treat all victims as human, journalists and their audiences may well seek out further information on social, economic, and other factors that play directly into the numbers of violence. And those results would be a good first step in changing the homicide numbers.”

I think the empathy argument, the one I’ve been mulling over all weekend, is a trickier one to pin down: I’d like the media to tell stories that make people inside the beltways and the ivory tower to feel a little bit more that all victims  of violence are valuable and more similar to us than dissimilar.  I don’t know how to get the people who are most likely to talk about only the statistics that support their point of view and only about their own experiences to read things that challenge them, to listen to radio that tells stories about lives completely unlike their own.  But that doesn’t mean that media outlets should stop trying. This American Life did an incredible job going deep into the effects of gun violence on the families, staff, and students of Harper High School in Chicago. At the very end of the two-part radio show, Ira Glass went back to the statistics, to make sure that listeners knew that the problems and struggles and tragedies of Harper High were not unique to Harper High or to Chicago. But it was the stories of the individuals that made the radio show.

How we in the news media expand empathy is something that has no easy answer, and I am sure there are a lot of people who say it’s not our job. But a lot of journalists are working on it. We’re a minuscule part of the solution (and I haven’t even broached the topic of race). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our absolute hardest to expand the definition of “our children.”

P.S. On the issue of the gun control debate there is surely a problem of neither side knowing the other, a problem that The New  Republic appears to have tried to tackle recently by running an essay about a gun owner, but the question of empathy for the victims of violence (which can be expanded to non-gun violence as well) seems to me to be a bigger one, because people can stand up and demand action out of a sense that something must be done, even if they disagree on how it should be done.

The Year of the Woman?

The cover of the Atlantic issue featuring Slaughter’s article

Malala Yousafzai. Image via the New York Time’s Adam Ellick’s short documentary about her last week in school

There is a narrative to be woven about 2012 being the year of conversation about women–really important conversation, despite  evidence that there is still so much going horribly wrong.

In the media arena, there was  Anne Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” Atlantic article, and the movie Brave, for starters. (The movie is getting slammed as a disappointment in the year-in-review list-icles, but its messages about women’s strengths in diplomacy and more generally its “you go girl” vibe were clear and important). In the political arena, it was the year when a female Michigan legislator was banned from the State House floor for saying “vagina,” when Congress debated birth-control legislation, and when both parties tried to court the female vote in the presidential election (then there was the “binders full of women” comment, the meme, and the much more interesting discussion about hiring practices).  And that’s just what comes to mind right now.

Much of the conversation was enlightening and exciting (though I was surprised to see the number of people who appeared to have read only half of Slaughter’s article; reacting to the “can’t have it all” part but not to the solutions she suggested in the second half of the article). It’s easy to sit in the Ivory Tower and have lofty conversations about the issues, to get excited about the record number of women sworn in to the Senate and talk about how to keep that number rising. But the conversation seems so futile and disconnected from the world at large.

A record number of women in the Senate seems like a marginal accomplishment when a girl is shot by the Taliban for daring to advocate that she be allowed to attend school, when a woman in India is gang raped and left to die, when the women who want to protest in response to the crime are afraid of being groped. 

It was a smaller thing that reminded me of the differing levels of conversations about women (click image below to enlarge).

Photo from MissRepresentation Facebook page, captioned as "The 113th Congress, officially sworn in today, is the most diverse in American history - including a record-breaking number of women."

Luckily, we have capacity to have conversations about tragedies and accomplishments; to push for progress in ensuring safety of women all around the world while also pushing for the ( not entirely unrelated) election of more women. But conversations like the one that was had  on this (public) Facebook wall, reminds me that while we are having those conversations, while Biden points out a record number that is far from a representative number of Senators, we also still need to go back to the basics, to talking about WHY women should be serving in elected office. This David guy (whose post will get way more reads on Facebook than on this blog, so I don’t feel any concern about leaving up his name) might be a troll, and I know, I know. Don’t feed them. This is a snapshot of an online conversation about one issue–women in office–and doesn’t touch on the other issues at all. I don’t know any of the people in the snapshot, and I don’t know their views outside of what they expressed here.

Still, I can’t believe that this is still a conversation, let alone believe that in the 21st century, women’s safety is still so fragile.

Here’s to more conversation, and more progress, in 2013.

To Increase The Light

On Friday night, someone asked why it matters what order light the candles–there is a debate in the Talmud as to whether we should add a candle for each night of Chanukah or start with eight and go down to one. The Jewish law is the former; we go up in number. On Friday night, I gave a somewhat flippant, academic answer. We go up in number because in these debates, we always come down on the side of the House of Hillel.

*   *   *

I read the next-day coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, while the I watched the candles for the last night of Chanukah burn.

I don’t have anything  to say that hasn’t been already been said.  In line with my academic work, I thought briefly about what areas of policy need to be tackled, about whether there were ways to have discussions about policy that weren’t also political.

Ultimately, though, I was drawn back to the candles, away from my academic approach to life. We do determine law as argued by the House of Hillel. But Hillel argued that we increase the candles so that we could increase in holiness each night, we could bring more light into the world. Move into light, away from darkness.

For so many families and friends these have been days of darkness, at a time that should have been one of light.

Nobody has answers here. Only a wish for more light. IMG_5325

Deep In the Night Kitchen: On Childhood and Authors

I’ve been thinking about authors today, particularly Maurice Sendak, who died today.

I’ve been thinking about authors and how children relate to them, or rather, how I related to them as a child.

Today, I watched Sendak on the Colbert report. It was Sendak’s last interview.  It is a thing of wonder, and it was amazing to me to see Sendak and his honest and curmudgeonly personality. I imagined showing the clips to kids who more recently had discovered Sendak. I realized they wouldn’t care.

Obviously, there are some children who are interested in the author. All the children who wrote to Sendak, for example. I am sure that, if prompted, I would have written to an author or two as a child. After all, I wanted to be an author.

But, the only memory I have about authors as a child was my discovery that not only had I read all of Edward Eager’s books but that he was dead and would write no more. The disappointment had nothing to do with Eager’s death 30 years prior, it had to do with the fact that there would be no more of those magical books, and that was quickly put aside when I learned his favorite author was E. Nesbit. It wasn’t the bit of biography, it was the book recommendations that were important.  Even when I knew about an author–I knew that Roald Dahl may have been anti-Semitic–my knowledge had no bearing on my enjoyment of the books. The only thing that mattered was: is the author alive? Will there be more if I run out?

Today, as an adult, I still haven’t met very many of my favorite authors. I learned an immense amount about creative writing from Mary Gordon, but I only read (and loved) her books once I had already met her as my creative writing professor. I can only think of one other fiction book signing I have attended (Jasper Fforde. Thankfully, he was hilarious in person too. (Thankfully? Why should I care? But I do believe I would have been disappointed).

I once wanted to write to Joyce Carol Oates after she wrote that she likes to think her students at Princeton has not read her writing. It seemed so preposterous. Not read her writing?

“I’ll write to her,” I thought. “I will tell her that  We Were the Mulvaneys was the first book not written for children that I remember that I chose to read without any input, guidance or recommendations from adults. That her books shaped my transition into adulthood and changed my ideas about what it was allowed to do with language.”

But, of course, I didn’t. Still, now, I want to know more about the authors I love. I love reading about the craft of writing. I follow Margaret Atwood on Twitter.

So, what is it about childhood authors? I think it is the sense of experience that is somewhat lost in adulthood. When I remember In the Night Kitchen, Where The Wild Things Are, and Pierre I remember them with fondness and a sense of safety that is not reflected in the text of the books. It comes from being read to. When I listened to a recording of In the Night Kitchen today, I heard my father’s voice even as another voice read the lines “I am not the milk, and the milk’s not me! I’m Mickey!” Reading  was an entirely immersive experience. It didn’t matter who the author was, because he was not part of my world at the moment. That world was contained in the book and in my parent’s lap. Later, when I was reading to myself, the book itself sufficed.

On the best days now, I can read for long enough and with enough intensity that the outside world–author and all–fade to nothing.

I have loved reading about Sendak’s life today. I was honestly sad to hear he had died, but I have to admit that the sadness was surely selfish, sadness  that a man who had created worlds of my childhood had died. That there would be no more books. After all, when we say someone was a “beloved children’s book author” isn’t it usually the books that are beloved? The worlds that are created?

Sendak offered so many worlds, and a lot more. Now, too late, I write to him:

Thank you, Maurice Sendak for the adventures, the escapes, the immersions into places and experiences both so recognizable and exotic.

A Word of Advice For Those Who Google

I’m not really an advice type of person, but my back-end stats, tell me that someone found this blog because she (I assume given the school) had googled “making friends at Barnard.” I hope it was someone who is in the position I was in five years ago. Five years ago, right around this time, I was struggling to write my senior column for the Columbia Daily SpectatorI had no idea how to write about the importance of the moments I had experienced, the lessons I had learned, and the friends I had made at the paper, at Barnard, and at Columbia University. I am sure I googled all sorts of things in an attempt to find inspiration.

But, I am a realist, so I figure the woman who googled “making friends at Barnard” is looking for tips or is a prospective student wondering how hard it is to make friends at college. To those women, I say: join a club. Any club or activity that you think might interest you. Try out a few and stick with only the ones that make you feel happy and whose mission you believe in. Dive into it, even if if means letting your grades drop a bit. You will find camaraderie in the commitment.  Join for the activity, stick it out for the experiences, and eventually, you’ll stay for the friends.

When my senior column was finally written and was published, a friend who was not on the paper came up to me and said “I read your column; it made me jealous. I wish I had found a place like that.” I was taken aback because this is a kid I generally considered popular and outgoing with no shortage of community. In college–perhaps especially in New York City–commitment can look like obsession and can feel like sleep deprivation, but in the end it manifests itself as a community of friends.

Strong, Proud, Barnard Women (Updated)

Three of my friends and Barnard classmates show off our Barnard College pride before the Columbia University-wide commencement. (Yes, Barnard students wear the same robes as all other undergrad graduates at Columbia University)

I started writing a post about Barnard-Columbia relations in the wake of the announcement that President Barack Obama will be the commencement speaker at Barnard College, but I decided it was too specific for a broad audience. But then, The New York Times decided it was a story worthy of a national newspaper.  And Jezebel followed up with a blog post. This letter is to Anna Bahr, the sophomore at Barnard who sent in the information about the comments on the campus blog, Bwog, to Jezebel.

If you don’t want to click on the links, here’s the one paragraph version of the back story (up to date through March 7): President Barack Obama, a graduate of Columbia College,  told Barnard that he would speak at Barnard’s commencement (likely a reflection of the central role women’s issues have taken in the current election); Barnard said “yes, please,” and the executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, who was scheduled to speak said “I’ll come another time.” Students got annoyed that Barnard was getting Obama instead of Columbia, and wrote nasty comments on the campus blog, Bwog. The New York Times picked up the story and quoted the President of Barnard as dismissing the comments (their verb, not mine) as “19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.” Students got annoyed and angry and asked for a better response, and the presidents of Barnard and of Columbia University issued another statement.

Here’s my response to one annoyed student who wrote into the feminist blog Jezebel, which is published by Gawker media.

Dear Anna,

As an alumna of Barnard I’ve been following this story with interest. I first heard that Obama was coming from a text from a fellow Barnard alumna. (You should know that the word “Barnard” will make you instant friends with not only other Barnard alumnae but also other Seven Sisters alumnae. It’s pretty great). I called her and we got really excited for Barnard and then, because we are now public policy students, we talked about the politics of it.

I’ve also been following it with rolled eyes. I suspect that this kind of conversation about the Barnard-Columbia relationship has been around since 1982, when Columbia became co-ed. The Internet just brought the insecurities to the surface and allowed people to express them with the kind of disgustingness that is only possible with anonymity.

Bwog is its own special (and often terrible) ecosystem. It was launched when I was in college, and I can tell you that it used to be much worse. People used to post terrible terrible things about individuals, naming them by name, and Bwog, then an infant publication, didn’t have a policy to deal with those kind of comments. I think that they do now, and I think that that level of vitriol has improved a bit.

This is all to say that everything and everyone grows up. Bwog has grown up, and the people posting on Bwog will grow up. I think that Barnard President Deborah Spar,  wasn’t simply dismissive, it was a description of reality.

You know as well as anyone that Barnard isn’t easier than Columbia. There is nothing intrinsic in Barnard’s distribution requirements that make them easier than Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum, just wildly different. And a required thesis and a required major–which Barnard has and Columbia does not– certainly do not make completing a Barnard education easier than a Columbia education.

In a lot of ways, the schools are so totally different. There are different cultures; there are different attitudes from the administrators about what students should get from college experiences (See: Barnard offering Greek Games, a functional advising systems, student leadership awards, and the I ❤ BC Day for examples). There are different opportunities. And, of course, there are a lot of similarities. They share sports teams, clubs, and a school newspaper. And, Columbia University has a hand in conferring degrees to the students of both Columbia College and Barnard College (not to mention they also confer or have a hand in conferring degrees to the students of SEAS, the school of General Studies, Teachers College and a lot of other schools). I say “hand in conferring” because the degree is issued by both Barnard and Columbia, not just by Columbia.

But the main difference that people on those boards seem to be griping about when you cut through the crap? Admissions rate. Barnard has a higher admissions rate than Columbia College.

Long story short, I think that this is the reason that President Spar told the New York Times the nastiness in the comments  “probably is 19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.” It’s not just dismissive. It’s reality. By the time junior year rolls around, SAT scores and admissions letters should feel distant. What seemed like the cornerstone of self worth as a senior in high school (how prestigious, according to admissions rates the college you chose is) should fade into new measures (how happy am I? Is this school a good fit? Am I getting an education I enjoy, and am challenged by?).

So, when people write that Barnard getting diplomas that are similar to Columbia College degrees somehow diminishes the value of a Columbia College degree, they are still stuck in the high school mentality. I wish there was a way to see who is commenting on Bwog, but I’d be really surprised if the people harping on admissions rate were seniors. Admissions rates should fade from view as other things become more important and better arbiters of your employability or all-around awesomeness.

Don’t take President Spar’s statement as simply dismissive (I mean, of course you can take it that way, but know that it might not be the only way to take it). It can also be seen as a statement of hope: that people grow up, and where you went to college matters less and less.

XKCD: "Duty Calls", http://xkcd.com/386/

Are the terrible comments terrible? Yes. But the first rule of surviving the Internet should be “don’t feed the trolls.”

The graduation requirements only matter in so far as how much you can apply the knowledge you have learned, along with your experiences outside of the classroom, to your life post-college.

The admissions statistics don’t matter at all.

The comments on Bwog don’t matter at all, either.

Love,
Leora

P.S. Do you know who the second person to text me about Obama’s speech was? A friend who is a Columbia College alumna. She also thought the news was cool.

UPDATES: President Deborah Spar and President Lee C. Bollinger have issued an updated statement that says, in part, “we join in the sentiments expressed by so many of our wise and thoughtful students that disrespectful comments are not representative of our community”. 

On March 4, a day after the post about Obama speaking at Barnard went up on the site, Bwog put up a call to “help us rewrite our comment policy.” I  just noticed it while updating the links  for this post.

And, a current Barnard student makes a case for why the comments matter more than I think they do.