On Not Using Anonymity

Buffalo Street in Winter; Morning

I made a promise to myself about five years ago: I was going to write everything under my real name. I wasn’t going to use pseudonyms when I write essays for my blog or when I write comments on websites. If I felt that I couldn’t say it without it being tied back to me, then I wouldn’t. I decided that it was important to me to be as transparent as possible, and as private as logical. I knew I needed to cultivate ownership and boldness. If something needed to be known, it probably needs an advocate for it. In addition, this was in a phase of life that I realized I struggled with boundaries and this would provide accountability: I value my reputation. So the imperative was this: I better make sure that the ideas were good ones, and I was stating, as far as I could know, the truth. If my name was attached to it, I better be willing to stand behind it. With that said, I was only outing myself. I wouldn’t identify people unless their identities were vital to what was being said or unavoidable (for instance, I belong to a religion which generally only has one church in any given geography; I only have one husband). This decision was made during a time of life where I was finally figuring out that those who love me are under no illusion that I am any better than I actually am, so there wasn’t an imperative to be perfect, just to be as good as I could be.

After a half-decade of this, I have a few observations:

    1. A half-decade goes quicker than you’d think.
    2. Transparency has fewer consequences when the experiences are exclusively yours, and more when experiences are intertwined with others.
    3. People may project themselves onto your entries when you don’t identify the essay’s target, which can be very revealing.
    4. If you decide not to be anonymous, you will not be anonymous.

It is this last point which is most salient for me. Sunday marks my 1 year Returnaversary to Buffalo. I moved here as a freelance barely-eeking-a-living copyeditor and mother of a small child. I finish this year as a comfortably-employed nonprofit research analyst expecting her second child. I’ve experienced extraordinary generosity from others in terms of opportunities and kindness. I love living in Buffalo, and my social circumstances permit my husband and I to live, and provide for our daughter, a very comfortable life in this city.

Seriously, Buffalo rocks.

It’s also not a very large city. It wasn’t long before I met new people and they would tell me that, “Oh, I’ve seen your name around.” My first thought was, “Dear God, I hope it was for something good.” There wasn’t really a rational reason for this fear. The recognition was usually due to my agency affiliation or they read something I wrote; the biggest risk was disagreement. I quickly learned that anonymity due to newness and sheer numbers was not a facet of Buffalo living. While living in Seattle, I drew comfort from being in a sea of too many people. Now, I see Buffalo’s denseness as a perk. In the same way that one builds relationships by being present, living by your name has the effect of building connections with civic endeavors, especially given that so much of communication occurs in online spaces.

It also has the impact that folks know what you are like.

There are some noteworthy things which come with this territory that makes being known safer. For instance, I do not share intensely embarrassing experiences. I do not belong to any especially marginalized groups. I do not live alone. I do not tend to write about subjects which get other female activists death threats. My employer read my blog and Twitter account before hiring me and felt that it would not reflect poorly on the agency. My husband is a fine, upstanding citizen who makes positive impressions on everyone he meets (for a good reason: he’s a fantastic fellow). I do not live a particularly controversial life, so being known, being comfortable, and being simultaneously authentic reflects a social location that not all people occupy.

I plan to continue this practice of using my name and avoiding anonymity. Honestly, I would recommend it. It cultivated a habit of given pause before publishing my words. It has allowed me to meet a lot of really wonderful people. It preemptively gives oneself permission to be known.

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Being a Control Freak is a Futile Endeavor Informed by Unrealistic Expectations

My mother’s advice was solid, “You just have to make sure that they don’t drown, electrocute themselves, or fall from too great of a height.” I had been expressing some sense of being overwhelmed at the responsibility of parenting. My mom’s advice is a version of “You can’t control everything, just sweat the big stuff.” It’s a different message than I see out there, where there seems to be an assumption that parents can and ought to foresee and control all things for their children. Flukes and freak accidents are treated as events that should have been predicted.

The assumption of control is pervasive, to the point where some discourses in our culture expect that we take responsibility for all things existing in our lives. Women apologize excessively. It often seems to me that the retort, “Quit being a victim!” is used to dismiss the significance of one’s experience with being wronged rather than anything else. It’s the cousin of the just-world hypothesis, which assumes that every thing which happens is occurring righteously. If an experience is terrible, the experiencer brought it upon themselves; clearly we can control these things. Except that we cannot. Even the man struck by lightening might have lived if he took another path, but why would he have thought to do so?

I was asked today if I like living in Buffalo. “I do,” I replied. And that was all I said until prompted with another question. I love my life here. I have a fantastic job, my husband has a great job, my daughter is healthy, my home is comfortable and my life is challenging enough that I feel alive and productive. Though if I hadn’t happened to move back to New York State around the time my low-turnover agency had an opening, I would not have this job. The person who helped my husband get his job, a very good, much loved friend of our family who has been nothing but extremely kind to us, was a random roommate assignment his freshman year of college. My daughter was a surprise. My son is a surprise. All of these are correlated to things we did, but the opportunities themselves have a high degree of coincidence. So I am very happy in Buffalo, but all I can honestly say is that she’s been extremely well-timed for me. Your mileage may vary. I could not have foreseen well enough to create this life intentionally.

I have spent much of the last few months reading about predictive analytic tools for homelessness-alleviation program referrals and they are all flawed. There is so much research that comes down to a shrug, and while it is far better than a first-come, first serve system, it is not the certainty that everyone craves. The desire for certainty and predictability is as American as individualism. With the assumption of control also comes the assumption of potential perfection. These are all the unattainable goals. These are the expectations that will disappoint. The more I remember that, the better I am.

And it can’t hurt to listen to my mother.

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White water walking

When you walk, you see things.

I am trying to make more time to write. I feel like I am my own marionette, pulling myself through a fast-paced script for a faster-paced life. It’s like the rapids on a quick-moving river. You spend all your time balancing the raft, consumed by the experience and vivaciousness of the trip, that you don’t get a chance to sit back and appreciate the beauty of the rock formations the river cut. At the end of the day, I find myself laying next to my daughter in her absurdly scaled bed, snuggled, and falling asleep. We joke that she’s putting us to bed – we often forget to wake up after she falls asleep.

Well, looks like there’s finally someone with enough balls to take on the corrupt New York State officials. We’ve otherwise been Illinois without the consequences. This gives me hope. There are a few politicians I feel whose intentions are for the people – Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz come to mind – who have spoken against very popular politicians or entities when it was fit. Most politicians in NYS fall in the rank and file. Fearful of losing whatever power they have managed to acquire, those who should otherwise be rocking the boat carefully balance stones to ensure it never tips, and our politics remain corrupt.

I suppose the facet of our political culture that frustrates me the most is the dearth of truly brave leaders. And the tricky thing is that there is a fine line between bravery and foolishness. There’s a degree to which playing nice accomplishes your goals. There’s a degree to which your colleagues – fellow politicians – need to feel they can trust you. At the same time, there’s an obvious institutionalized complacence for inefficiency and often corruption. As if everyone gets so caught up in the minutiae of what they are doing, that they don’t take a step back and say, “Wait a minute!” Politics is known for being dirty for a reason, and it keeps reminding me why I’m registered as a Green.

I walked to an emergency shelter that I’d never visited before. The clients weren’t there, needing to be out during the day as per the shelter’s rules. I felt like I was intruding on private space, but it looked like a hotel before it was occupied – everything was crisp and clean. It wasn’t that far. I don’t walk as much as I did before moving to Buffalo again. I did not have a car nor a kid, and that facilitates long walks. When you walk, you slow down. You see things, notice buildings that were otherwise absent. Driving can be like experiencing the world through a tube – you see the bits on the outside ends, but not much in between. Even bicycling can blur your surroundings a bit, but to a much decreased extent. Pregnancy-related balance issues are keeping me off my bicycle. My schedule, and its tightness, keeps me driving. I’m not Percy Grainger; I can’t take hours and hours to walk. Though when I can, the world shrinks.

My sense of distance is still informed by not having a car, despite the fact that my family is currently in possession of two of them. When you don’t have a car, your world shrinks. Your activities might be mostly bound by where you can bike, where public transit can take you, and where you can walk. I rarely left the city of Seattle. I doubt I’d often leave the city of Buffalo if I didn’t have a car. Walking blocks can take some time – walking miles takes even more. Bicycles are often faster than buses, but they are still not entirely quick. I perceive the suburbs as being far away, though my husband works in one and drives there everyday. I still think of things in walking time. I don’t like going more than a couple miles from home. And that’s a thing I think people don’t understand about the car-free. You don’t get out very far, but you know everything within very very well.

Your life slows down when you don’t use a car.

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pplkpr and quantitizing relationships

Pplkpr. I’m only aware of it because David Cervi shared it on Twitter. It reminds me of the psychophysiology articles I used to read in undergrad for my psychology degree: the dependent variable was often measured by some sort of physical response. Heart rate was a common one. Sweating was another. Being that we are corporeal beings, our thoughts and emotions are physical manifestations that can be found in the body. The creators of this app took that information and tried to optimize it so that you could compare the physiological reactions you have to people and note trends – does someone make you feel terrible? Is someone boring? What about positive? Then, it premises that it would auto-schedule those into your life, or “pplkpr can compose text messages, invite people to hang out, or block or delete their contact. These actions will appear on your home screen as they happen.” This as fascinating to me as it is something I am entirely unlikely to use.

The site itself is a single page, with an FAQ at the bottom.

This isn’t dramatically different than what social scientists and big data folks do on a regular basis, which is to say that they are seeking ways to attach numbers and operationalize all facets of human behavior into something that is measurable. When it’s measurable, one can analyze it more effectively. Science requires that you take something like “love” and break it down into all of its facets. So when you say “love”, do you really mean feelings of warmth and attachment? How do we operationalize warmth and attachment? (It’s a fun exercise. I realize that one reason I use insult curse words so infrequently is because I am in the habit of describing exactly what bothers me about a person. Blanket terms suggesting that one is a lousy person are just too imprecise to be satisfying to me. Interjection cuss words, on the other hand…) The creators of the app are using changes in heart rate to operationalize strong feelings. They’ve needed to decide boundaries over what makes a change in heart rate a “strong” feeling – is it a change of 20 beats per minute? 15? And so forth. This is so fascinating to me.

With that said, the app itself is not something I see myself being likely to use. For one, I suspect the habit of mindfulness and self-awareness probably achieves the same goal as the app. Instead of numbers telling you that person X inspires strong feelings, you’re likely aware of it from remembering the experience. Making decisions to hang out with someone more frequently or less frequently based on how you react is a purely utilitarian approach to relationships that does not correspond with how we decide who will be in our company. Read Twitter before Thanksgiving, see how folks are lamenting spending time with some of their relatives, and you’ll get what I mean. Many of our social companions are from some other interpersonal calculus. Another example: I really like my coworkers, but that’s not a universal experience by any stretch of the imagination.

Some relationships exist solely out of a pursuit of happiness. If a party does not feel happy, I suspect it may not be a lack-of-information issue. Perhaps it is a denial issue, or an issue of a lack of empowerment and self-confidence, or an abusive or manipulative relationship. All of these keep people from acting in their best interests, or best interest as defined by this app: maximizing positivity. We don’t always make the best decisions. Data alone is rarely sufficiently persuasive in the face of habits or interpersonal decisions. I’m a data nerd who is aware of this and my friends could tell you about times where I maintained relationships despite overwhelming information that it was unwise. We all have somebody in our lives that was hard to give up. So I’m not convinced that the app’s information would be necessarily used in the rational ways the creators designed it, especially if we make poor decisions in a context of information overload.

And then there is this: This is an art project, but it is also something that fits in with the ways that parts of our society are trying to use technology to solve all of its problems. Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages suggests that the goal of the twenties and thirties is to wrestle the conflict between intimacy and isolation. In some ways this means finding a partner, and in other ways it means learning to relate. The pplkpr app is a very technical solution to that problem. And why would this be surprising? Technology is just one variety of tool, and humans are noted among animals precisely because we build our tools and rely upon them to solve our problems. I suppose what I find so interesting here is that social tools are becoming tangible objects instead of bodies of knowledge. Social skills are real skills, the knowledge of how to talk to folks and what to say. If you are building a house, you need a hammer, a physical implement to move other physical implements. The skill there is in how to hold it, and how to swing it. Here, you are using physical implements and math to solve a problem that is far more intangible – human interactions.

It is very fascinating.

But you won’t see me using the app.

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The truth of the matter is that I enjoy making crepes more than I enjoy eating them. That’s not to suggest that I dislike crepes: quite the contrary. Since I initially learned to make them in Russia in 2009, I’d been craving their savory and sweet combinations. My first attempt in the States was a failure – an equipment issue, as I recall. I didn’t have any flat bottomed skillets. With a whole world of other potential culinary adventures, I forgot about crepes. Then I became vegan, and figured it was a lost cause.

Not making crepes often means not eating crepes because it is not common to find them at restaurants in the United States, at least the parts of America that I find myself frequenting. A quick search of Yelp finds only a handful of places on my side of the Niagara River; at least crepes of the European sort. I kept thinking that I would make my way to the cafe on Parkside Ave which sells them, deferring it in the way you do when something has no deadline and no particular urgency. (Ask the average Buffalonian how often they go to Niagara Falls. I reckon you’ll get an answer varying from “never” to “every time my relatives visit”.) The prices were around $4.50-8 for something I know is much, much cheaper to make. Russians, as known as they are for their caviar, tend to eat inexpensively. Then I had a really mediocre experience at its non-crepe sister cafe. So, I figured it was time to try making them myself again.

It was ultimately an impulse decision on a rainy day. I grabbed my husband’s welding glove, our fish spatula, and our cast-iron skillet. I grabbed my mother’s old Betty Crocker book, my go-to for all classic foods, and found a recipe. My refrigerator was completely lacking in milk but had powdered buttermilk, so I made that substitution. I whisked together the ingredients, buttered the pan, poured on the thin batter, and tilted the heavier-than-crepe-pans cast-iron skillet. I waited. I wasn’t sure. I know from my Russian cooking instructor that the first crepe is a sacrifice. This one didn’t make my memory of his lesson a liar. It was soggy in butter, flimsy, and broken. The second one, benefiting from a more seasoned pan and more seasoned baker, came out perfectly. My right wrist would need to build some muscle, but I had this.

I’d played with the recipe. What happens when you run out of buttermilk, and still don’t have milk? What if you grind your oatmeal into a flour? Yesterday, I realized that veganizing the recipe wouldn’t be too hard. I could replace the milk with a substitute, the eggs with flax “eggs”, and the butter with coconut oil. Add some nutmeg and almond extract and boom. And some extra water, because flax left standing will bind more. Veganizing the recipe was purely for the challenge. I do not know any vegans in Buffalo to cook for. I am not vegan anymore. I still have a vegan-compatible pantry, but it’s not exactly a cheaper way to cook.

Truth it, I find making crepes more satisfying than eating them. My life is blessed with an abundance with delicious food. Crepes aren’t special in that regard. This recipe requires that I step back from what is turning out to be a very busy phase of life, focus on the skillet for a little bit. I can’t step away. I can’t try to multi-task. I have to watch, focus, and be there. I can create something which feeds the rest of my family. I cannot deny the satisfaction of success after a “F-it, I’ll do it myself,” moment.

Presence of mind and a freedom from distraction are proving more elusive than I would have expected, at least as I was foreseeing my life at a younger age. I’m recognizing a greater need to be intentional about staying in the moment as well as being aware of the clock and schedules.

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One Word: Intention

Another year. Thankfully I am still alive and healthy enough to observe it, and my life is as such that there’s barely any reason to find that notable. I am not into resolutions for the new year. It’s a nice concept, but I am efficacious enough that when something small bugs me, or I sense a need for a specific behavioral change, I just pursue it. Instead, I’ve made the habit of taking part in One Word. It is a yearlong focus on a theme summarized by one single word. In theory, you could write about it. In practice, the word stays in the back of my head, as it is something that I know needs attention.

The word I chose for 2014 was “direction”. I wrote this:

I have been unmoored the last few months. While uncertainty has not been scaring me, and I have chosen to embrace this state of life, I have been drifting in the open waters. It is one part indecision, one part being overtaken by a new phase of life, and one part trying to coordinate in this interdependent web that I exist in. At this point, I suspect I may need to practice greater intentionality and fearlesssness. Come 2015, I may have a different conclusion.

Un-moored indeed. At the time, my husband, daughter, and I were residing in my parents’ home with my other siblings, attempting to get established in New York State. I had started a small business copyediting, and I was tutoring math on the side. Will hadn’t found work yet. Since then, I saw the copyediting grow, I branched into content writing, and then took on fewer jobs when I found full-time work. In March, we moved to Buffalo. The markers of instability we had throughout the year (feast or famine part-time work, low-pay self employment, a derelict car) were replaced with stability (apartment of our own, functioning cars, good work). It’s such a remarkably different place. I see a concrete future, I have goals, and I have accomplishments already. I feel successful in creating and pursuing a meaningful direction.

This year, I choose intention as my One Word. I feel like I’m being pulled through my days. When the daylight occupied more hours, and we were able to spend evenings at the park, life was slower and I felt like I could stop and smell the roses, and think a bit. I am pregnant now, Will takes night classes, and in the struggle to fight fatigue, I have myopically focused on getting the immediate tasks done and I am losing sight of the big picture in my personal life. With the impending birth of my son mid-year, I expect the chaos to increase and that mindfulness will be a very necessary part of life.

Folks in Buffalo have been incredibly kind to me since I have come back. My supervisors at work give me many opportunities to try new things. People think of me when interesting opportunities arrive. I had the chance to do some interesting things, a couple of which landed my picture in the local newspaper. I could not have asked for a warmer welcome. So with that in mind, I am trying to be mindful about which opportunities I pursue and looking for opportunities to be generous to others. I have a lot to pay forward.

Truly though, this one word is inspired by my relationship with my daughter. Parenting is exciting. It provides ceaseless opportunities to problem-solve conundrums that I otherwise had little reason to expect. One consequence of aging and West Coast living is that I have become quite easy going, and have far fewer preset opinions on how I want things to be. The ones I do have are pretty strict, mostly entailing boundaries, respect, and how I will tolerate people treating myself or others. IE- things that inform my activism. The rest of my life? Uh, well… sure. I don’t generally have strong opinions on aesthetics, what to have for dinner, or how other people conduct their lives (presuming it does not harm others).

This means that I am doing a lot of improvisation in the moment with my daughter. Am I OK with her doing X, Y, or Z? It didn’t previously occur to me that she would try X, Y, or Z. What are the consequences of pursuing all of these options. Uh… *decision*. I worry that I may be a bit too permissive in this process. With that said, she’s generally reasonably well-behaved in public places and she is only a year and a half. I have the big-picture goal set: I want my children to be kind, empathetic, efficacious, just, and independent members of society. Translating that to the immediate minutiae of circumstances and ensuring it conforms to reasonable expectations relevant to my kid’s development is a trick on the fly. Of course, all parents wing-it. I just want to be more mindful while I am in the process of winging it.

Finally, my spiritual life has been lacking, due to the aforementioned lack of space to stop and breathe. I feel very connected to the world around me, but not as much to creation. This is different than how I felt in Seattle, where I loved but felt a bit distant from the city, but felt more at home with life itself. I love Buffalo. I feel like I belong here. I feel like this city is a worthwhile target of my energy. By and large, I really enjoy the people and the land. I have been thinking less about the bigger picture things which consumed my younger years. I have been choosing to go to bed instead of writing or reading because of fatigue. I find that my energy is often consumed by practical matters (ie, child-rearing), so I have a bit less leisure to pursue the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. This is fine, but a thing to think about.

I obviously started considering the circumstances listed above, and acting accordingly. Intention is a more static version of direction. I am not seeking to change paths, as I was last year, but I am seeking to ensure that all of my energy and actions fit into the larger picture that I am aiming to pursue. This means I need to define that picture more clearly, and discern the smaller aspects of it.

2014 treated me kindly. I hope I can treat 2015 just as well. Thanks for reading what was likely one of the more boring posts on this blog :)

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When Power Intersects a Lack of Consequences

The news made me sick, revealing some lingering belief I had in American exceptionalism. I exaggerate not: for a week after the release of the CIA torture report, I had a bloodless feeling in my limbs. That is how I physically experience shame. Due to my profession, I am pretty good at compartmentalizing. With Ferguson, the Eric Garner case, Tamir Rice, and the CIA report, I found myself in a state of perpetual distraction. I thought we’d be better than this. And my outrage is one of ideals: I am white, I am American by birth, and I am unlikely to be a target of any of these things due to my position of privilege. It can only be a lack of empathy that leads anyone to believe one shouldn’t be protesting or rioting. What else do people all around the world do when they completely lose faith in, and feel powerless in the face of, their government?

If you learn about Russia, you learn about its rich tradition of unchecked authority. It is presented in American books as if it were something dramatically different from the American tradition of government, which prides itself on limits. I am learning that these limits are more reputation than truth. We all read the horrors in the CIA torture report. It details how we absolutely brutalized our fellow human beings, because we believed we are more special than human rights are important. We broke and killed. I personally could not care less if information we received was useful or not – that’s beyond the point. We became monsters in the pursuit of monsters. We already lost.

No one will be held accountable. Had a private citizen engaged in the actions that the government did (and there has been at least one in every place I’ve lived), and they were caught, they’d be subjected to a trial, perhaps a conviction, and a prison or death sentence. But the government can commit atrocity without consequence. It seems a private citizen can torture as long as they are a part of the government.

Impunity is not limited to the federal government. I can’t help but see the CIA’s torture program and the police brutality and subsequent lack of accountability in New York City, Ferguson, and nearly everywhere else as shades of the same color. (It happens in Buffalo too, though it is not generally publicized.) In all cases, the people who were targeted are perceived as lesser-than-human by the majority, a population that is feared due to prejudice, and the perpetrators are in a position of power. Those who are not in power, and not members of the feared groups, are too willing to accept the phrases of justification by power. So whereas the Soviet Union could brutalize its people because those in power would kill their detractors, the United States can brutalize its and other’s people because not enough of its citizens object to such measures. It is hard to tell which is worse.

Though I am not naive enough to believe we are better than that, I really wanted to be.

So now what do we do? Of course the head of our government, the president, would advocate for change using the government, but the unchecked authority appears to be a part of the problem. The relative disempowerment of those who are not wealthy is a problem. The disenfranchisement of those with criminal convictions is a problem. We have a government that is not representative of its people, and it has unchecked authority to be brutal. So now what?

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