Thursday, December 30, 2010

It's All About the Corporate Benjamins, Baby: Education, a.k.a., My 2010 Year in Review Post

(This has been cross-posted at All Things Education.)

During 2010, thanks to the work of Lawrence Lessig and Chris Hedges, I became much more aware of the unhealthy corporate influence in American democratic institutions. I put aside my creative writing to launch a series of posts on my more general blog on the topic. I wrote about corporate money in politics and government, after which I took a break to write about the VA-07 congressional electionwriting, and journalism, and to start a blog dedicated to education. I've intended to regularly update my food blog, as well, but the best laid plans. . .

Right before the Christmas holiday, I completed a piece about Teach For America, which I am hoping will be published somewhere bigger (not likely, I know). In the meantime, I was going to use winter break and the grandparental child care that comes with it to write, blog, publish, write, blog, publish. However, as I tried to organize my thinking about the present and future of journalism, of writing as a profession, of teaching as a profession, of public education, and of efforts to reform education, the topics all swirled together to form a toxic sludge of anxiety that, helped along by my kids' germs, rendered me existentially and then physically ill. As miserable as it was, being sick forced me to take a step back and ignore all of it for a number of days. From this pause grew a less fevered end-of-year collection of thoughts about the confluence of corporate influence and public education.

I am vulnerable to conspiracy theorizing about what's currently happening in the name of education reform, and I understand why others are, too--I think, in fact, that democracy benefits from this type of push back. Are the reforms of wealthy and politically connected individuals harmful to the institution of public education? I have said on my education blog and continue to say: yes, that in many cases they are. But are those folks sitting around together and villainously hatching some grand scheme to bring down public education? No, that's way too simplistic of an explanation for what's going on. Furthermore, I'm doubtful that describing problems with their efforts in terms of a conspiracy is productive. The problem with talking like a conspiracy theorist, even if there's at least some truth to what's being said, is that you're likely to be dismissed by the very people you need to be taken seriously by. In that vein, it is equally hysterical and irresponsible to cast teachers and teachers unions as the villainous "deep-pocketed" (ha!) root of all of our nation's problems or even as the root of our education system's problems, or as sitting around conspiring to ruin children's lives because they only care about the "adults." Unfortunately, these seem to be prevailing narratives these days.

Teachers' unions may defend some people who don't deserve defending and they may make mistakes, and yes, there are educators out there who aren't doing their jobs and yes, teachers need fair and rigorous evaluations, but as a group, teachers and their unions are not responsible for how our society has failed us over the past year. Did teachers unions cause twenty-seven plus percent of America's children to live in poverty? No. Have teachers and their unions driven up heath care costs? Do they deny coverage and care to our the most vulnerable among us? Nope. Did teachers and their unions cause our economic system to melt down? No, that was another group of professionals. Did teachers and their unions go start costly and futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did teachers and their unions create a criminal justice system that disproportionately and often unjustly imprisons poor people and minorities? No, they aren't behind such travesties. Did teachers and their unions fail to recognize the impending dangers of climate change and then sabotage legislation meant to lessen the havoc it's going to reap? No. It's not been teachers or their unions that have done all of these things, but our political leaders, policies, and system. And who is now clearly behind those? Not a bunch of middle class educators, but business, financial, industrial, and corporate interests.

While I don't believe that there is some evil master plan being hatched by the likes of DFER (Democrats for Education Reform), Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons, their influence is unhealthy, undemocratic, and dangerous. Teachers unions and organizations like the National Education Association at least are accountable to the systems and large numbers of people they represent, systems and people whose work and studies will be most affected by the reforms being brought. Whom do DFER, Gates, Broad, and the Waltons represent? To whom are they accountable? Were they elected? Since when should a handful of unelected, extraordinarily wealthy people be entrusted to represent the interests of millions of poor, working, and middle class people?

Two of the most egregious examples of corporate influence in education are in higher education. As there is less public funding of public universities, wealthy patrons such as the Koch brothers are stepping in to establish "institutes" that put out research and teachings that serve not the interests of citizens, but the interests of the industries they own. In medical schools and schools of public health, much research on drugs and treatments traditionally funded by public monies is now funded and supervised by the very pharmaceutical companies who stand to reap profits from their successful trials.

In K-12 education, there are not as many cases of such overt conflicts of interest, but I'm afraid we're moving in that direction.  Gates, Broad, and the Waltons support market-based reforms that would include mayoral takeovers, vast expansion of charter schools (which are public schools that can be run in some instances as private institutions), the de-professionalization of teaching, and CEO-like leadership of schools and school systems, and they are pouring money into the system to see such reforms actualized. Influential organizations with deceptively neutral-sounding names such as right-wing ideologue Jeanne Allen's Center for Education Reform directly promote privatizing our public education system. As they already have in New York City Public Schools, test prep companies such as Kaplan (which is owned by the pro-corporate education reform Washington Post) stand to make millions from the new education reformers' policies which rely heavily on standardized tests.

As public schools are being told by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to do "more with less" and as school budgets are being reduced and reduced and stimulus money runs out, with no enthusiasm for alternative means of raising revenues, the private sector is stepping to fill in the gaps often with strings attached, shaping our education system to their liking, whether its largesse benefits its supposed recipients or not. What's about to happen in Los Angeles Unified School District is only the tip of the iceberg.

An example of private takeover of public schools already in progress is in DC. The DC Public Education Fund is privately run on private donations with no public oversight, and very little of the money that's raised goes directly into the D.C. Public Schools' budget or is dispersed by those appointed to run the schools; yet, the fund directly influences outcomes in public schools. For example, the organization funded IMPACT, DC's controversial new evaluation system, teacher bonuses, as well as the infamous new contracts with teachers. During the negotiations, then-Chancellor Rhee stated that if she wasn't going to be around later, a.k.a., if Adrian Fenty didn't get re-elected, that the money raised for the teacher contracts would go, too. That is a clear example of private interests using private money to influence public elections and public policy. When public money is used to fund public schools, such blackmail can't take place, at least not legally. Much more democratic would be for the wealthy individuals who are behind such efforts to be taxed appropriately with the tax revenues funding social and educational programs vetted by democratically elected and appointed officials.

The Gates Foundation and the DC Public Education Fund have their hands in many places, and surely, not all of them are harmful to public education, but when I read Gates's thoughts and ideas about education, for example in these interviews about teaching in Parade and Newsweek, I'm horrified. (I'm also horrified about what such coverage means about the state of education journalism, but that's another story.) Not only has Gates not been elected or appointed by an elected official, he speaks simplistically and ignorantly about education even just at the level of basic facts, and his ideas have not been shown to work or improve the systems they impact.

While Eli Broad is no right-wing ideologue, his private education foundation and school leadership training centers have profound impacts on the public systems they're meant to reform. This New Yorker article about Eli Broad's influence in the Los Angeles art world is very instructive on Broad's approach to philanthropy. Broad has good intentions and interesting ideas, enlarging the arts scene in LA and making art exhibitions more accessible, for example. But he doesn't simply give money directly to art institutions or entrust the experts with funding; rather, he has to own and control the institutions, even if that means promoting poor practices or destroying the institutions. I can only imagine that a similar dynamic occurs in the Broads' education philanthropies.

If Gates, Broad, the Waltons, and the hedge funders behind DFER weren't rich, would they be listened to? Why are they being listened to now? Why are such a small group of extraordinarily wealthy individuals allowed to wield so much power and control over education policy? This is at the expense of democracy. Obama has rightly stated grave concerns with the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Why is he not concerned with big money in our public education system? Why does he, in fact, welcome it? Is corporate influence any less problematic in the halls of our schools than it is in our halls of government?

One need not launch ad hominem attacks, speak of ethical dilemmas, or list the hypocrises of these education reformers. All Americans, regardless of political affiliation and educational ideology, can agree that our great nation was founded on the ideals of democracy. Corporate money and influence in our public democratic institutions, especially in our public schools, corrodes and corrupts our democracy. Anti-democratic forces are un-American. A healthy democracy requires a well and publicly financed, equitable public education system. Unfortunately, that's not what the Obama administration and the particular education reformers they throw their support behind are going to produce. Unchecked private and corporate influence in our public education system is as big a threat to our democracy as the unchecked corporate influence is in our political system. In fact, they are one in the same. Our public schools should no more belong to Gates, Broad, Bush, or any DFER member as they do to any taxpayer and any citizen; it is from them we must take our country, our democracy, and our schools back.

UPDATE 1/6/11: Too bad I didn't see this brilliant piece by writer Joanne Barkan before I posted this. I could have saved myself the trouble--it's a much better, more comprehensive piece on the problems with education philanthropy than anything I have ever written. Read it in Dissent Magazine or in truthout.

Friday, November 19, 2010

On False Equivalencies, Dichotomies, and Golden Ages in the Media

Still taking a much needed break from the behemoth in the room that is corporate influence. . .

When I first heard about plans for The Rally for Sanity and/or Fear, it kind of annoyed me. What's it about? What's Jon Stewart trying to do? Do we really need another rally? Mobilizing thousands of people--for what? The explanation that it was going to be a "festival" didn't squelch my grumpiness, either. Then why call it a rally?

Upon my neighbor's recommendation,  I watched Jon Stewart's speech and I thought: Okay, he did a good job with that; I enjoyed hearing what he had to say. I liked what I saw and what I heard from folks who had gone. But still something nagged at me about it. Although his speech was stirring, he looked rather undignified. I know, I know, when does Jon Stewart actually look dignified? But there is an authoritative dignity in how he metes out criticism, regardless of party affiliation or views, of those he satires, and I admire him for that. His rally undermined my high estimation of him. To me, he's not the guy who is supposed to organize or host the rallies; rather, he's the guy who is supposed to critique them.

When the more lefty pundits responded to his rally and the statements he made with the criticism that he was making false equivalencies between the right-wing television media, such as Fox News, and the left-wing television media, such as MSNBC, although it was not my particular quibble, I thought they had a legitimate point. As Bill Maher said, "two opposing sides don't necessarily have two compelling arguments."

After defending himself against the criticism, Stewart agreed to an interview with Rachel Maddow, which was quite lengthy, so I won't reflect on all of it, but one thing he did say was that he organized the rally in response to what he sees as the false dichotomy the media portrays between, for example, red states and blue states, and that what he hoped to bring attention to were the real problems, for example, of corruption and of deception. This is exactly what I like about his show and what I think he compromised--he should have known better than to expect to maintain that message during and after such a rally. Of course, then Stewart went on to make more false equivalents, this time between Republicans' seeing President Clinton through rose colored glasses and the Democrats' viewing Reagan much the same way. "Come on, you hated these guys," Stewart chided. No you come on, Jon, were the Iran-Contra hearings really the same as those of impeachment?

As  I was pondering the death of journalism and my own role as a blogger and writer after reading this article in The New York Times Magazine and this one in the Columbia Journalism Review, this op-ed by Ted Koppel came out in The Washington Post, entitled, "Olbermann, O'Reilly, and the death of real news." I think I was kind of bemoaning the same thing in this post about the death of true print journalism. But I realized after watching Olbermann's response that just as there was no golden era of television journalism, there probably was no golden era of print journalism, either.

Come to think of it, as I explained in my comment (scroll all the way down) on Ted Genoways's "Death of Fiction" piece in Mother Jones, I'm usually suspicious of false golden era claims or what I sometimes call "the kids today. . ." complaint. Conditions change, perspectives change, technology innovates, and transitions occur, but human nature and the need to write and report stay the same. In his response to Koppel's piece, wise lowkell over at Blue Virginia was able to express way better than I could, especially at 9:21 on a Friday night, how this is all coming together here and now.

On that note, good night and good luck.

UPDATE I: I forgot to mention this excellent article in the Atlantic by Michael Hirschorn about what happens to facts as they go through internet reports and social media.

UPDATE II: I'm waaay too sleepy to write coherently about this seven-year-old article in the Columbia Journalism Review that I just read about journalism and objectivity, but I will say for now that man, is it good and man, is it still relevant. If only anyone had or would follow author Brent Cunningham's proposals. Unfortunately, we're more entrenched than ever in a journalistic culture that includes major holes in coverage, lazy reporting, balancing coverage (as opposed to truthful coverage), and dearth of varied perspectives, aka, economic diversity, in newsrooms. But, hey, that's what happens when investigative journalism is not funded or valued as an integral part of a healthy democracy. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

From Writer to Blogger to Writer

I have been quite busy with my education blog, but I wanted to take a break to write here about writing, a.k.a., the reason I started this blog in the first place.

Recently,  I was a guest blogger on Valerie Strauss's blog on The Washington Post website, "The Answer Sheet." I sent her this, the original post, a critique of Michelle Rhee's tenure as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. 

Valerie wrote back and said it was "terrific" and that she wanted to run it. Yay! After a day or so she wrote back to let me know that she still wanted to run it but that her editor said it was too long and needed to be cut and reorganized. I agreed, given the context and audience. Since I was tired of looking at the thing and knew she could do a much better job than I could of molding it to fit her particular blog, I let her do the edits.

The final version of the revised piece came out more strident and less contemplative than the original post, as it should have been, but the experience caused me to do some thinking about writing, blogging, voice, and what my goals are.

When I started this blog, my purpose was to self-publish and get feedback on my writing, to hone my craft, same with the food blog, just that the topic merited its own blog. I got good feedback on the writing, but many told me, including my own mother, that the posts were too long. One friend asked me if I could provide cliffs notes. Valerie's editor was essentially saying the same thing. As I've sent my education blog around to education people, I've gotten some additionally similar feedback, for example, one guy told me the posts should be "shorter and punchier."

This feedback is right on, for blogging, but when I started this blog I had no intention of becoming a blogger, per se. I just wanted to work on being a writer. On her own blog, education journalist Dana Goldstein discusses what it means to be a blogger and a writer in the digital age. I thought it was she who said (I can't locate the sentence now), "why can't blogging just be called writing?" Indeed. But I have come to realize that I should be writing in one way for my blog and in other ways for other publications.

This article in The New York Times Magazine explores the world of online journalism and blogging (and I just discovered another good one on the same topic in the Columbia Journalism Review). One line that really resonated with me was, "Opinions posted on blogs are cheap. Great journalism is expensive.” That's basically what I was trying to say in this post on journalism. For me, though, I am blogging to become a writer. It's so challenging to get anything published right now for reasons I won't go into here--blogging keeps me writing, publishing, and keeps the discouragement at bay that the constant stream of rejections bring. 

But blogging is cheap, or rather, uncompensated, and I can't go on doing it indefinitely. People say, "do it for yourself," or as Ted Genoways, the infamous editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review, spat at writers last winter, "Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood." I agree with that in principal, but one has to eat. Does that mean only independently wealthy or comfortable people can afford to write? Is that fair? What will that do to the richness of our country's body of journalism and literature?

I suppose I could move to Norway where, I read in McSweeney's Issue 35, writers are heavily subsidized by the government. I found, though, that the stories in that Issue 35 collection (and perhaps that collection wasn't representative) were rather, well, boring. Is that what comfort and security do a country's body of literature? Does the system in the U.S. weed out the crap and publish only work with the most vital sense of urgency?

I don't know. In the meantime, I'll keep writing, and blogging, until I either can't or won't any longer. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Eric Cantor is a Threat to Democracy

On Monday, October 25th, a Louisa County, Virginia, voter and Democrat named Jon Taylor showed up with some members of his family to a local Louisa coffee shop, Solid Grounds, to attend an Eric Cantor campaign event (see event invite below). Eric Cantor is his congressional representative (VA-07) and he and some friends of his had RSVPed for the event.

They wanted to talk with their congressional representative about his campaign and about his policies. They ordered their coffee and sat down. The police came in once and asked Mr. Taylor to move his car, which was adorned with campaign material of Cantor's Democratic opponent Rick Waugh, from a metered public parking spot. Mr. Taylor produced his receipt. The officers left and returned later, and a combination of the police, the coffee shop owner, and Cantor's advance man asked him to leave. Jon Taylor ended up out on the street being roughly slammed against a car and then to the ground by three policeman as they arrested him and charged him with trespassing, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. The officers charged some of the other Dems there similarly.

 There are a few different versions of what happened. There's Jon's account, on the blog Blue Virginia. There's an eyewitness account, also on Blue Virginia, by Lewalta Haney. There's coverage on MSNBC's The Ed Show. There's a sad excuse for a story about it in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. The Daily Kos features a bit from all of these, including the video Jon Taylor's son took of his father's arrest. Eric Cantor's campaign declared that, "this was a clear attempt [by Taylor] to disrupt the meeting. The voters of Virginia are going to reject this thuggery." When I called Cantor's campaign office--he is also my congressional representative--to voice my discontent about this incident, I was essentially told the same thing by the woman I spoke with.

Now, I'm sure these folks weren't there to give Eric Cantor a Progressive Representative of the Year Award, but this is how the democratic process in a representative democracy works. You decide to run for office, you get some signatures to get on the ballot, you debate your opponents, and you go around and talk to the voters that you're going to represent. You talk to them, you answer their questions, and then they decide who to vote for.

At this point, although I don't agree with it, I am not asking Eric Cantor to change his philosophy of government. I accept we have different views. I am asking him to honor the democratic process that he agreed to be a part of when he decided to run for office. Even though he is morally reprehensible and even though he is owned by corporations, until yesterday I still had faith that he believed in at least a tepid democracy and that he would uphold the democratic process. That he would say, even if they don't agree with me, my constituents are allowed to hear what I have to say about where I stand and they are allowed to ask me questions; I work for them. Even Eric Cantor, I thought, has some small amount of respect for the democratic process.

Eric Cantor is supposed to a leader in our democracy but Eric Cantor is a traitor and a threat to American democracy. Eric Cantor is a coward. Eric Cantor is a tyrant. I weep for any citizen who would hand over their voice in our national legislature to someone who would so denigrate democracy's basic tenets. But most of all, I weep for the democracy that Eric Cantor would see destroyed.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Check out my new education blog!

Hello loyal readers!

This is a quick note to let you know, in case you didn't already, that I have started a separate blog dedicated to education. It's called All Things Education, inspired by the name of the N.P.R. program All Things Considered, which reminds me of the show's theme song, which reminds me of my mother preparing dinner on weekday evenings, which I am doing as I type.

In any case, I have copied and pasted and accurately dated all of my education-related posts from this blog to that blog and have so far posted four new pieces, including An Introduction: "My New Education Blog!," "What I Read About About Waiting for Superman," "On the False Manifesto," and "Follow-Up to 'On the False Manifesto': What about RE:FORM SCHOOL?"

Please read and if you think it's worthwhile, subscribe and suggest to your education-interested friends, family, and co-workers.

Thanks for your support.

Fighting the Corporate Dragon: We Need Solutions, Not Just Presentments

I continue to read about corporate influence in American democratic institutions and I continue to be alarmed. Most recently I read three articles, all in truthout. In "The Perfect Storm" Robert Reich describes how our democracy is turning into a plutocracy: "We're losing our democracy to a different system. It's called plutocracy." In "Juraissic Ballot: When Corporations Ruled the Earth," Rebecca Solnit, a California-based writer and activist, compares corporations to dinosaur-like monsters:
"We call these monsters corporations, from the word corporate which means embodied. A corporation is a bunch of monetary interests bound together into a legal body that was once considered temporary and dependent on local licensing, but now may operate anywhere and everywhere on Earth, almost unchallenged, and live far longer than you."
Finally, I read Chris Hedges weekly essay, and this week's was entitled "The World Liberal Opportunists Made," which makes the case that the liberal class has done failed and died:
"The lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, which looks set to make sweeping gains in the midterm elections, is the direct result of a collapse of liberalism. It is the product of bankrupt liberal institutions, including the press, the church, universities, labor unions, the arts and the Democratic Party. The legitimate rage being expressed by disenfranchised workers toward the college-educated liberal elite, who abetted or did nothing to halt the corporate assault on the poor and the working class of the last 30 years, is not misplaced. The liberal class is guilty. The liberal class, which continues to speak in the prim and obsolete language of policies and issues, refused to act. It failed to defend traditional liberal values during the long night of corporate assault in exchange for its position of privilege and comfort in the corporate state. The virulent right-wing backlash we now experience is an expression of the liberal class’ flagrant betrayal of the citizenry."
I'm feeling a wee-bit down about all of this. Perhaps I should stop reading these truthout writers or perhaps I should try reading them with more skepticism. But I don't want to put myself in the position of not reading stuff because it's too hard to hear or because it's too dark or too complex. I want to face what's wrong, but I also want to try to fight for what's right in a productive way.

In "What If? So What?" on truthdig via The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson says that there was only so much that the liberal class, embodied by Obama, could do to push the liberal agenda, and that while "nothing would have been more satisfying than an FDR-style progressive blitz that set the nation on a path toward being stronger, fairer and more prosperous" that Obama and his administration are constrained by certain economic and political realities.

So what are the solutions, then? Because paired with descriptions of the problem, we need solutions. Otherwise, we are accepting, as I fear Hedges is doing, defeat--in this case, defeat of a liberal society and of democracy. At least in the essays cited above, Reich and Robinson offer none. To find one from Hedges, I had to go back to his first essay that got me started down this road, to find this:
"All resistance will take place outside the arena of electoral politics. The more we expand community credit unions, community health clinics and food cooperatives and build alternative energy systems, the more empowered we will become."
Solnit offers more actionable solutions in her depictions of how the people of Richmond, California, many of whom are poor, have latched onto "The Phantom of Democracy" and have organized themselves and fought the Chevron oil company's incursions. She also describes how groups around the world are "acting locally and thinking globally" to fight for ownership of their communities.

We must all act locally and think globally, take ownership of our communities as communities and as citizens. And we must not let corporations do that for us, for they will not act in our best interests, but in their own.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It's All About the (Corporate) Benjamins, Baby: Politics & Government

The most commonly recognized type of corporate influence in American democratic institutions is in politics. I recall learning in Mrs. McCarthy's US Government class at DC's Wilson High School that special interest groups or PACs (Political Action Committees) wielded a certain amount of influence. It wasn't until the past couple of years that I realized how many of these are funded by corporations. Furthermore, it has become impossible to successfully run for office without gobs of corporate money. It has oft been said that the media is the fourth branch of government. That idea needs updating: corporations and their lobbyists, including conglomerates with holdings of media companies, now make up the fourth branch of the U.S. government. And it looks like the new branch on the block may increasingly be pulling the strings of the other three branches.

In my post about the death of journalism, I rather pooh-poohed this essay by Naomi Klein entitled "How Corporate Branding is Taking over America" as sensationalist and conspiracy-theory crazed, but I really shouldn't have. I am, I admit, late to the party here (or perhaps now I'm the conspiracy-theory crazed one). Klein was right to point out that while George W. Bush was criticized for incompetence and "acts of destruction," that he was very effective in privatizing many essential functions of government. It's true that Obama marketed and branded his campaign better than many ad campaigns for popular products do. I agree with her that,
"This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much. . . . Another way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an insurgency against the two-party ­monopoly through dogged organization and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then pursued 'bipartisanship' with crazed Republicans once in the White House." 
Obama didn't only take money from Wall Street, but, according to Mother Jonesfrom corporations such as BP as well. I don't feel as strongly as Klein and Chris Hedges do (an essay by Hedges started me down this path of blog posts about corporate influence in American democratic institutions). For example, I assume, perhaps naively, that Obama preferred not to take money from corporations, but that his m.o. was to get into a position of power first, no matter with whose money, and then fix things from the inside. The only problem is that "fixing things" has become next to impossible. This Vanity Fair article gives some insight into what Obama's presidency grapples with.

If the most recognized type of corporate influence is in government and politics, then corporate money in Congress seems to be the most easily identifiable manifestation of corporate influence in American politics. Members of Congress routinely take enormous sums from corporations to fund their campaigns--just take a look at this Campaign Cash Seating Chart in the September/ October 2010 issue of Mother Jones.

In a 5-4 ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, the Supreme Court allows corporate money to flow unchecked into campaigns. Another less publicized case, previous to the Citizens United one, Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life did essentially the same thing. According to The New York Times, the Roberts court is the most conservative and corporate-friendly Supreme Court justice we've had in decades. One of the principal themes of Jeffrey Toobin's recent profile in The New Yorker of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is that the Roberts Court is looking to get rid of one of the primary reforms of the Roosevelt era: government regulation of our economy. As New York University Law Professor Barry Friedman and SCOTUS expert Dahlia Lithwick tell it in this recent piece in Slate, what's particularly dangerous about the Roberts Court is how sneaky it is in hiding its conservatism as it chips away at U.S. citizens' fundamental rights.

And that's only what the three "official" branches have been up to.

According to this recent article by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, prominent members of the unofficial fourth branch of government, Charles and David Koch, who are the almost sole owners of owners of the Wichita-based oil conglomerate Koch industries, have been funding organizations that advocate for lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and less oversight and regulation of industry, as well as funding ones that fight health care reform and economic stimulus programs. They fund Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Tea Party organizations and training sessions, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, as well as many other conservative and/or pro-corporate organizations. One former Koch adviser cited in Mayer's article was quoted as saying,
"They're smart. This right-wing, redneck stuff works for them. They see this as a way to get things done without getting dirty themselves." 
Just as in the Civil War when mostly poor non-slave-owning men were drafted to fight for the Confederacy, it looks like middle and working class white people are allowing themselves to be the lackeys of the powerful, rich, and corporate, even as they are railing against that kind of influence. Although Mayer shows that billionaires, like George Soros, who fund more liberal causes are more transparent and less likely to fund studies and programs that are only self-serving, she still makes the case for the increasing danger of politics, politicians, policies, and programs being bought and sold by a few wealthy individuals.

Matt Taibbi also wrote about the Tea Party with a focus more on its followers than on funders, but he came to a conclusion similar to Mayer's: "The Tea Party today is being pitched in the media as this great threat to the GOP; in reality, the Tea Party is the GOP. What few elements of the movement aren't yet under the control of the Republican Party soon will be, and even if a few genuine Tea Party candidates sneak through, it's only a matter of time before the uprising as a whole gets castrated, just like every grass-roots movement does in this country. Its leaders will be bought off and sucked into the two-party bureaucracy, where its platform will be whittled down until the only things left are those that the GOP's campaign contributors want anyway: top-bracket tax breaks, free trade and financial deregulation."

Now, what to do about all of this? I agree with Chris Hedges that it's not just the G.O.P. and Tea Partiers who are responsible for the current state of affairs, but the Democratic Party too. Lawrence Lessig, a Berkeley law professor, is one of the leaders in the fight against corporate money in Congress. His organization, Fix Congress First is doing good work. The Fair Elections Now Act could also help get us out of this pickle. Finally, Hedges's giving Ralph Nader a voice in his essay is a nod to the idea of moving beyond our two-party system. I don't think that we were quite ready for it in 2000 and the idea that there was no real difference ideologically between Al Gore and George W. Bush was wrong and ended up causing a great deal of harm. But now members of both parties seem equally beholden to corporate interests, neither party has halted the privatization of government functions or adequately upheld the idea that the government, while flawed, is the best institution we have to maintain our democracy and represent the needs and rights of the American people.

The solution may be to move beyond our two-party system, to divide into neo-liberals, liberals, greens, social democrats, moderates, conservatives, neo-conservatives, right-wingers, and the like.  But would this even work? Is our two-party system also "too big to fail"? Are we too deep in what Taibbi describes as "an entrenched oligarchical system in place that insulates us all from any meaningful political change"?

Unfortunately, this won't happen in time for the upcoming mid-term elections. For now I feel I've been thrown a small bone. In my congressional district, the 7th of Virginia,  Eric Cantor is facing two challengers: a Tea Party candidate named Floyd Bayne and a Democrat, Rich Waugh, a former social worker who has said that he has taken no corporate money. Is this maybe what we could consider a step in the right direction? I hope so.

Rick Waugh, you have my vote.

(photo from Public Citizens photostream on flickr)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

It's All About the (Corporate) Benjamins, Baby

People across the political spectrum are talking about getting corporate money out of politics. I've come to realize, though, that corporate influence is ubiquitous throughout American institutions--it's not just in politics. It can seem tricky to figure out who is funding what, but once we get past the misleading maze of independent- and beneficent-sounding organizations, it's pretty simple: the pool of wealthy people and companies have shrunk down to a few mega-conglomerates and uber-rich individuals. What's been more tricky for me to figure out is how my behavior as a voter, as a citizen, and as a consumer can counter this corporate takeover of American institutions.

A facebook friend recently posted this essay by Chris Hedges. Hedges states that, "There are no longer any major institutions in American society, including the press, the educational system, the arts, religious institutions, and our dysfunctional political parties, which can be considered democratic. The intent, design and function of these institutions, controlled by corporate money, are to bolster the hierarchical and anti-democratic power of the corporate state. These institutions, often mouthing liberal values, abet and perpetuate mounting inequality. They operate increasingly in secrecy. They ignore suffering or sacrifice human lives for profit. They control and manipulate all levers of power and mass communication. They have muzzled the voices and concerns of citizens. They use entertainment, celebrity gossip and emotionally laden public-relations lies to seduce us into believing in a Disneyworld fantasy of democracy."

Hysterical and doomsday-toned pieces like this often turn me off because they are dire to the point of making me feel utterly hopeless, i.e., we're all screwed, so why bother? I understand, though, that such a style can often demonstrate the actual direness of a situation and can light a fire beneath readers. No matter the style, I couldn't help but think that Hedges' piece had an enormous grain of truth to it.

Corporate takeover of American democratic institutions and the development of an American ruling oligarchy is one the defining issues of our democracy's time, if not the defining issue. With this as an introduction, I plan to write a series of blog posts about increasing corporate power over American democratic institutions. Let's just hope, although Hedges might claim otherwise, that it's not the final challenge to face our dying democracy.

(photo by flckr user PaDumBumPsh)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

My Adventures with The Coffee Party

This is a tale I meant to tell months back, but the best laid plans. . .

Last spring, I joined the Coffee Party after questioning the effectiveness of my spending all day calling my representatives, signing petitions, and sending prefab e-mails developed by various organizations and non-profits. (And believe me, a person could spend ALL day doing this. I know because it's one of my top writing procrastination tools: I'll finish my novel after I stop the feeding of chicken feces to cows, prevent babies from being born with hundreds of chemicals in their blood, and help the nine tortured elephants that urgently need me.)

I participated in tele-training, organized a meeting at Ashland Coffee & Tea, tried to recruit people, suffered through my husband's dubiousness about the whole thing, and worked in earnest on starting a local Coffee Party chapter. There were six of us at the first meeting and I had received e-mails expressing interest from many more. We came up with our key issues which were: civil rights, health care reform, education, and too much corporate influence in our government. It was very exciting. I was part of something HUGE!

But then, during a second meeting, I got into a debate with an off-duty member of the Ashland Police Department (I actually know him from around town--we've compared notes on running workouts) about the veracity of Glenn Beck's "journalism," particularly as they surrounded the912project and claims of Obama's socialism. The CP representative for the state of Virginia interjected to say that we were both "right." I didn't think too much of that.

Then, during a tele-debriefing of that meeting I got told that I was being "too confrontational" and not focusing enough on the central piece of the Coffee Party platform: civility. (The lady from LA with the New York accent, talking about taking down Henry Waxman, however, supported me.) And that the best thing I could do was to tell Eric Cantor that I was here and that I was ready to be civil (oh yeah, that will make him change his tune). When I explained to the next CP higher up for the state of Virginia, who was very empathetic, that I didn't think that a non-political political movement would be effective, she responded that many Coffee Party people felt otherwise. "Some people think we should be political, but some people don't." "But aren't you a political, albeit, supposedly non-partisan movement?!?!" I wanted to scream. I mean civility is a worthy type of comportment, but it's not a stance.

The last straw was the CP's use of the pseudo-scientific "Coffee Sphere," which I had drafted my quantitatively-gifted and -trained husband to explain to them was an inaccurate and faulty crap-o-meter. You can read that exchange here. The Coffee Sphere remains in use as tool by the Coffee Party and claims to be "Reflecting America's views: the 15-minute issues barometer to ignite dialog and educated actions."

I continue to be in touch with some of the fabulous people I met at the initial meetings, and I hope that the Coffee Party is successful. Besides their use of the Coffee Sphere, I think they're doing good work, and I appreciate the way that the Coffee Party has gotten so many people to be politically active in a way they hadn't previously been before. But being a part of that organization just wasn't for me.

Since then, I have returned to firing off the prefab e-mails and receiving a daily piece of mail from Eric Cantor saying that I may be rest assured that he will keep my views about health care reform and the saving of the sea turtles in mind. Some of the organizations I think are doing great work are: Media Matters, MoveOn, CREDO, Bold Progressives, ColorOfChange,, Fix Congress First, American Rights at Work, DC Vote, Rethinking Schools, TrueMajority, Repower America, and Green America. Check them out!

Monday, September 13, 2010

From NCLB to RaTTT

Just as I love Mondays, I love back-to-school time with its promise of a fresh start, return to structure and routine, and feeling of possibility. Come Wednesday, and February, I usually feel otherwise, but that's a different story. My family is personally having a great return to school, but back to school for me also means back to writing and thinking about education, and I continue to feel discouraged by Obama's education policies.

One of my least favorite of the current administration's initiatives in education is Race to the Top, for which
eighteen states and D.C. were named finalists. A few weeks ago, nine of those states (Hawaii, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, New York, and Florida) and D.C. were awarded a total $3.4 billion. Under Bush, we got NCLB. (No Child Left Behind), which I liked to call No Child Left Untested. There were some positive things about NCLB, for example, it forced school systems to pay greater attention to the education of ELL (English Language Learner) and SpEd (Special Education) populations, and it forced educators to document and pay more attention to achievement gaps among different groups of students, sorted, for example, by race. However, NCLB caused standardized tests to become the centerpiece of the public school curriculum, with much less emphasis on critical and analytical thinking and writing, scientific inquiry, rich experiences with literature, arts education, physical education, and conflict resolution.

Now, we have Obama's Race to the Top, which I like to call Race to the Flop or
RaTTT. There are several education academics who don't like RaTTT, either. For example, Dan Willingham, University of Virginia cognitive psychologist and author of Why Don't Students Like School? says it's a doomed bribery scheme, not much of a change from NCLB, and that it's based on ideas that fail to take scientific evidence into account. In these two blog posts, UCLA education professor Mike Rose talks about the flaws of RaTTT as a policy: Part I and Part II. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems like a good guy and I think he means well, but according to this New Yorker profile his background in education before working for Chicago Public Schools consisted of helping out in his mom's after school program. Really? Does that qualify him to run a major public school system and then to be secretary of education? Oh, I forgot, according to the same profile, Duncan was a good basketball buddy of Obama's, and he has an MBA, so those must be his qualifications. Now, don't get me wrong, I like Obama. He's a good man and the best president we've had in a long time. But he doesn't know squat about public education and he's outsourced the top education job in his administration to someone who knows only a smidgen more than he does.

The criteria for winning RaTTT funding includes allowing school districts to take over failing schools, improving curriculum standards, encouraging school innovation (meaning lots more charter schools), and retaining the best teachers possible. I don't disagree with these goals, or with the "ends" of Race to the Top. Mostly what I disagree with is the how, the "means."

I think we should have national standards, but they need to be thoughtful and superior to what they'd be replacing. So far, I don't see much evidence of that. Dr. Willingham says that
the new standards are solid, but that they neglect to include the crucial step of how they will be achieved. In these other Washington Post blog posts (Part I and Part II), Willingham talks about what else is missing from national standards.

I am not anti-charter school. I think it's good to have some public school alternatives for students who aren't successful in more conventional public schools. I have considered sending my own children to charter schools (and would in the future), and I have considered teaching in them. I can understand why people would want to form them if they feel that they can't get a decent education at their neighborhood schools. But most charter schools can pick and choose their students and can expel them easily, and often families have to provide their own transportation. We should really focus on improving our neighborhood schools first and ensuring that all children have a reasonably close neighborhood school option first.

I don't disagree that the model of teacher seniority and permanent job security needs reform. I, too, think that teachers should be laid off when there are budget cuts based on quality rather than seniority. And teachers should be paid more and be provided with better working conditions. I also don't disagree that many of the current evaluation systems are seriously flawed. But on what basis should teacher salaries be raised, and how should we measure teacher effectiveness? On what basis do you decided quality?
Furthermore, how do you classify a failing school? The answer to this, according to Duncan and the architects and supporters of Race to the Top is: test scores, test scores, and test scores. Dr. Willingham says this is a terrible idea and I agree. Test scores mostly tell you about the students who are taking the tests, and not much about who is teaching them. When I taught in public schools, there were certain evaluation criteria that I didn't make, like high test scores, but there were other ways that my administrators had of observing and giving me credit for being a decent and hard working teacher. Now, it seems like some of the new evaluations, such as IMPACT in DCPS, proceed just as the previous instruments did in that they contain arbitrary and ridiculous criteria, such as putting standards up on the walls, but they don't give administrators some space to get beyond the superficial and arbitrary.

This article in the New York Times describes how RaTTT has interacted with the institution of teachers unions. After reading this, I kind of thought, well, maybe these "reformers" have something, maybe I'm just being obstinate in my thinking, maybe I just have a bad attitude. And, yes, I guess that teachers and their unions should join 'em if they can't beat 'em. If this is the way the ship is sailing, maybe educators should climb aboard and make the best of it rather than give up. Maybe they should take a deep breath and understand that this is just a passing fad, hang on to their principles and their concept of quality education until leadership with smarter and deeper thinking comes along and puts our education system on the right track. I'll just hope for that. I'll hope that soon we can get back to focusing on the art, science, craft, and trade of educating, to reforms of quality and substance, that we'll get out of Arne Duncan's RaTTT race, out of the rat race that I, for one, went into teaching to get away from. Let's just hope that Duncan and his groupies don't do irreversible harm before it's too late.

(photo by flickr user Kate's Photo Diary)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fare Thee Well, Dear Summer

We went to day camp, art camp, theater camp, science camp, and had swimming lessons. We went bowling, roller skating, biking, and to the library. We played pick-up dodgeball, kickball, soccer, and baseball. We played legos and we read books and magazines. We wrote in our journals (though not as often as we should have). We played board games and we played cards. We went to the Carter Park Pool so many times that the mention merits its own sentence. We went to a Flying Squirrels game, and we visited the Science Museum, the Children's Museum, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. We went to Three Lakes Park and Nature Center and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. We traveled to DC, Charlottesville, New Paltz, Lake George, Cooperstown. We witnessed and participated in the wedding of two of our very best friends. We drove all the way down and across the state of Pennsylvania. We hosted family and friends from out of town. We drank gallons of water. We frequented the produce stand and the farmer's market. We ate tons of tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, green beans, peaches, peppers, greens, and more tomatoes. We slept until 7:00 am, 8:00 am, and sometimes even 9:00 am. We said farewell to old neighbors and welcomed new ones. We lost a few teeth, scraped some knees, and suffered our fair share of mosquito bites. We turned 34, 37, 7, 7, and 3.5. Two very happy boys went to Kings Dominion for the very first time to mark the occasion.

We had a glorious summer, but now it's time to get back to the classroom and back to our other work. Camp Mama (and Papa, though he was fairly busy teaching and researching) is closed for the school year. We will re-open on June 17, 2011.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Submissions, rejections, and meta-lit mag pieces

One of the secrets to becoming a good writer is to be a good reader: to read widely, deeply, and constantly. Although it can work both ways, in general the nonfiction that I read informs the content of what I write, while the fiction and poetry informs my craft. Sometimes, however, simple functional texts can influence my writing.

This past fall, I went on a major submitting spree, which meant I was reading lots of writers' guidelines, so many, in fact, that the format inspired imitation and I coughed up
my own (mock) writers' guidelines and got them published in Defenestration.

Submitting work feels goooood. I get a rush every time I hit "send" to e-mail work, click on "submit" to an online submission manager, or mail a stack of yellow 9 x 12 envelopes from the post office. Unfortunately, most of what goes out comes back in: a few months after my submitting spree, the rejections started pouring in. I read and save every single one.

Some rejections are short, but personal and thoughtful. Some are longer form letters, but are thoughtful and encouraging, nevertheless. The next tier down are form letters also, but are shorter--direct but diplomatic. My least favorite come printed on post-it size pieces of paper that are wrapped in 8 x 11 sized offers to purchase subscriptions to the rejecting publication at a "special writers' " rate. (Ooooooo! I get the special writers' rate! I'm in!) The kicker is that they are mailed in the same SASE I provide for a response, so not only am I paying for the transport of my own pithy rejection, I am paying to receive a solicitation, as well. This is kind of like telemarketers charging callees for the phone calls. I understand that these publications are desperate to stay afloat and that the world of literature and ideas needs them, and I want to support them (most of the time I purchase or read at least one issue before I submit), but that's just plain tacky. Anyhoo, after reading so many rejections, I felt moved to compose
a (mock) rejection letter of my own, published recently in swink magazine.

Now, to figure out how to get my more serious stuff published. These "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction" found in the have gotten me started as did this provocative piece in Mother Jones by VQR editor Ted Genoways. (My comments are found on the third page--I try not to limit my procrastination-fueled nitpicking to facebook!)

Thanks for reading!

(photo by Mike Atherton, flickr username: Sizemore)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I want my, I want my, I want my NYT!

Has it actually been over two months since I posted? Yikes! Well, after a feverish period of rejection letter solicitation and much hounding from my loyal readers (hahahahaha!) I am here with another post.

I know relatively little about journalism as a field, except for what I read and discuss with those people who are in the know. But I do know the death of newspapers is a much bemoaned topic these days. This report in the Columbia Journalism Review (which I found in a re-tweet of Nicholas Kristoff's) paints a bleak picture of state of the media. And I can tell you how journalism has disappointed me lately: it seems like there are more and more pieces that sacrifice nuance, accuracy, and any acknowledgment of complexity for the sake of a strong thesis and an uncomplicated narrative. Journalistic essays seem to be posing as investigative journalism. Maybe this has always been the case, but to me, it seems worse lately. I am all for a good journalistic essay, but sometimes, I want just the facts ma'am first.

Back in November 2009, in my vaccines & science series, I touted this article in the Atlantic, only to find out later that while the narrative is compelling, the facts and accounts of the science are off.

Being an education person, I immediately saw this article by Amanda Ripley in the Atlantic for what it was: an infomercial for Teach for America. Amanda Ripley is a bona fide journalist who does good work, especially on natural disasters and epidemics, but she seems to be dabbling here. I found this article in the New York Times Magazine to be much more balanced, detailed, and informative on the topic of teaching.

In this piece in the, Naomi Klein shows creative thinking and challenged my own, but only once I was able to wade through the sensationalist, conspiracy-theory-minded theme. In this piece in The Nation, Lawrence Lessig does a much better job of showing the insidiousness of corporate influence in American politics. This essay on 3quarksdaily (a blog I read religiously) on a similar theme, is interesting and makes some of the same points that Matt Taibi does in this meticulously researched article in Rolling Stone, but Mr. Strabone's thesis is over-reaching and lacks evidence, and hence fails in the end to be convincing. I later found out that Jeff Strabone is not a journalist or academic with expertise in political science or economics, but an English professor, although to be fair, he does hold a degree in political science and appears to be an active citizen.

This article in Time managed to be both amateurish and condescending; Dan Fletcher decided to decry the faddish but harmless Doppelganger Week on facebook by comparing it to groupthink, a most disastrous and ill-thought out analogy.

Finally, I hate to pick on Nicholas Kristoff because he's a good guy, a great journalist, and, you know, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, but this hysteria-inducing column on BPA (bisphenol A) was full of misinformation, which is evident in the comments, where several people more knowledgeable than Kristoff set him straight. Lately, I've noticed more and more columns in the Washington Post and New York Times that are written like model A.P. essays, which may be a triumph for a high school student trying to place out of Expository Writing 101, but looks rather jv on the editorial page of a major newspaper.

Why is this happening? I don't blame the journalists here and I don't meant to bash them. First of all, it seems like as journalism is being replaced by the likes of blogs and opinion-based "news" (think of words that rhyme with "crocks lose"), journalists are being driven to publishing bits like the ones I was critical of above because of pressure from investors and the need to compete with publications like The Huffington Post, which, by the way, while flush with funds, pays their columnists and bloggers $NOTHING. Smells like exploitation to me. (To get a beautifully-researched whiff of Ariana Huffington's hypocrisy, check out this article about Fiji Water in Mother Jones.) Furthermore, it seems to me that as news publications are forced to cut positions, journalists are forced to abandon specific areas of focus or expertise, spreading themselves too thin. Michael Kinsley argues in this Atlantic piece that many newspaper articles are simply too long.

Personally, I am praying for the the rejuvenation of investigative journalism. A healthy democracy needs strong investigative journalism and we need journalists who are trained and experts in what they do. We bloggers can provide analysis of and links to journalistic work, but we shouldn't try to replace journalists. And I know many journalists maintain blogs, but if they're done right, they serve as a forum for expansion and discussion of their work.

We need to start reading and supporting again publications that feature investigative journalism and stop getting our news from the likes of Fox News and The Huffington Post. We need to get used to the idea of paying for our news again or donating to non-profits that will, and we need to start paying our news reporters in a way that matches the importance of their work (I used to think teachers were paid poorly until I saw reporters' salaries). Subscribe, subscribe, subscribe! Despite ripping on two Atlantic articles here, I just recently ordered a subscription. And I unsubscribed from The Huffington Post--until they cease their sweatshop-labor-like practices, I encourage you to do the same.

Let's leave the investigating and reporting to journalists and the dabbling and blabbing to us bloggers.

(photo by flickr user Ricardo Francone)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I had a miscarriage and gave birth to a poem

In mid-December of 2005, I had a miscarriage. I was about eleven weeks along when it happened, so I hadn't told the world yet that I was pregnant, but I had gotten the old maternity clothes down. Now this isn't going to be a poor-me-I-had-a-miscarriage story; I am not in the business of trying to rattle the fertility gods who have been more than generous to Cedar and me. I've only had the one miscarriage and at that point I already had twin boys, Caleb and Liam, who were conceived spontaneously just a few months after I went off of birth control.

I've heard stories of pregnant women intuiting that something is wrong with their pregnancies. This may well be in hindsight, but during this pregnancy I did not feel totally right. I had almost no nausea and just didn't feel, well, pregnant. But because I had an inherently high-risk twin pregnancy and because I had gotten severely ill when I gave birth to them (which is another story), I reasoned, faultily it turns out, that
I had nothing to worry during any subsequent pregnancy; I figured I had earned a get-out-of-miscarriage-and twins-and-other-complications-free card. So when I started spotting, I was optimistic that it was just normal bleeding. Then the bleeding continued and intensified, and I went in to see my ob/gyn and she confirmed that I was, indeed, having a miscarriage. Sitting in her office that day, I was definitely bummed, but I kind of thought of the whole thing as akin to a dental procedure--you make an appointment for it and it happens and it's uncomfortable and unpleasant, but then it's over after a few hours and you go about your day. "Will I still be able to work while it's happening?" I asked, thinking that making sub plans would be a real drag. She paused and looked somewhat disturbed and responded tentatively, "Well, some people do." Translation: You have no idea what you're in for, do you? Two days later, I was so weepy and distraught, I could barely drive myself to her office for the examination I needed to have.

At this point, once the miscarriage was really underway, I realized no way could I have worked. Luckily, I shared my classroom with a sympathetic, supportive, and talented teacher and she agreed to cover my classes. But then a major snow storm came that night or the next day, so the schools were closed for a long weekend and it turned out I didn't have to make those pesky sub plans, or attempt to teach E.S.L. and World History to ninth graders while my body purged itself of a botched pregnancy.

I also remember telling my and Cedar's family and our friends about it in the beginning and feeling pretty self-satisfied with myself for being so rational about and comfortable with it all. "It's how nature works," I explained. "It meant there was something seriously wrong with the embryo and so it wasn't meant to be," I reasoned. "I have two already and I'm happy with them. It's just a bunch of dead cells anyway," I reassured them and myself. Of course, I still
knew all of that when the great purge really began, and I still know it and then some (with the gift of perspective), but once it was really happening, I felt much differently. Soon, I was cramping, contracting, bleeding, sobbing, and grieving.

Even so, in the world of miscarrying women, I was one of the lucky ones. Besides having the weather elves on my side, I had excellent medical care and my caring husband, my two boys (just seeing and being with them during that time cheered me up), and a very supportive group of friends by my side. Plus,
it all happened naturally: I was able to go through most of the process in the privacy and comfort of my own home, I didn't have to take a pill to jump-start the process, and I didn't have to have a D&C (Dilation and Curettage) at the hospital (where they essentially extract the dead embryo from you). I didn't even get to the point where I felt I needed to take the percocet prescribed for me. Part of me wanted to, to treat myself to a percocet high(Mmmmm, percocet), but the other part wanted to be all there, all present, to be a responsible mother to this little being, which maybe never was a being, but in the case that it was, to accompany him or her in sobriety to wherever it was they were off to next.

So the real point of this post is to share a link to a poem that was accepted and published recently in
Literary Mama that I wrote about the physical and emotional experience of the miscarriage itself. The piece started as a series of free writing and was gradually whittled down to the essential narrative and images. The version published in Literary Mama, though, was not the original one. The editors suggested I cut out the first five lines, feeling that "the opening material acts as a preface and weakens the poem's urgency." So even though it was painful to sever a limb from my poem, I decided they knew what they were doing and to trust their judgment.

Looking at it on
Literary Mama's page now, I am fine with that change, but I feel like I could have tinkered more with the formatting; for example, adding mores pauses and white space within the poem. That being said, when I was in the process of writing the final versions, I chose a block form without much white space to recreate the sensation of that experience being a blur, with one moment running into another. Also, I wanted to create the sensation of being surrounded by water, by liquid, because that's what it felt like, emotionally and physically: the tears and emotions and the waves that they came in but also the event of the miscarriage itself started small but then grew and became like a storm, the contractions rhythmic like the tides of the ocean. Finally, I was sending the embryo out into the water, into the sewage system, actually, the idea and images of which serves as the heart or climax of the poem. It was very hard for me to get past the fact of just flushing it all down the toilet; it seemed so heartless, so inhumane, so flippant. At the same time, there was no other option and no way to preserve anything for a ceremonial burial or anything like that--there was just so much well, stuff, coming out of me and I had no idea which part of the "product" was the actual embryo (or even what to call it).

Before I share the poem, I want to stress that all of this has a happy ending. The day I found out I was pregnant again (with Amelie), was the due date of the miscarried baby. Even if I had not had another baby after that for whatever reason, I'd like to think that I would not have considered the miscarriage to be a tragedy or anything of the sort. Liam and Caleb would always have been enough, more than enough (those of you who have spent more than five minutes with us know what I mean).

I know this probably contradicts some of what I said in the recent posts that emphasize science and reason, but it helps me to make sense of what happened: I feel like that miscarriage happened for a reason, to bring Amelie to us. We all love her so much and she brings so much magic into all four of our lives that I actually feel grateful that I had that miscarriage. I also know that so many women have them (something like 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage), that I feel like it was a rite of passage for me. Of course I have the luxury of feeling this way--perhaps I wouldn't were I on miscarriage number five; it's simple and easy to have just one. But I really learned from the experience and gained wisdom from it and was humbled in a positive way.

So, here's the published version:

Thanks for reading. And thank you, universe, for my wonderful life.

(photo by Robin Macklin)