Monday, August 18, 2014

Parenting, Fears, and White Privilege

Spawn #1 and Spawn #2, circa 1998

Once upon a time, I fooled myself into believing I could always keep my boys safe. It was simpler to suspend my disbelief about the real world when they were small. In those days, I could wrap them in safety gear, manage their experiences and interactions, and generally keep our lives controlled. (Of course I know - I even knew then - that this is a comfortable fiction.)

As they got older, I learned to pull back more and more, giving them longer and longer 'safety tethers' as they learned to negotiate the larger world. Suddenly, they are grown up. In two weeks, both boys will be off to college. The younger one starts as a Freshman, the older one as an upperclassmen.

It's ironic: I write stories with young teen and young adult protagonists in them. In much of my work, the characters have problematic relationships with parents and authority. And they face challenges and dangers, but none of the stories I have ever invented are as frightening to me as what I saw happen on the streets of Missouri this past week.

I certainly don't have to worry about either of my sons being abducted into the world of Faerie, having to cope with prescient visions of inner-city violence, or dealing with a space ship whose heavily damaged and paranoid AI is trying to get them killed. These are the dangers of my fictional worlds.

It's telling what I do worry about in the actual world my children inhabit: car accidents, painful relationships, disappointments. I don't worry about either of my sons getting shot by the police or considered a threat because of the way they look.  

That is what white privilege looks like.

Let me tell you what has become an amusing story in our family. If we were African American or Latino, or any other non-white minority, it might very well have ended differently and not been amusing, but a tragedy.

When my older son was a high school senior, he participated in an independent study project that released him from classes for the latter half of his year. Instead, he commuted via the 'T' every day to an inner-city community farm. His commute required that he connect in a large urban train station. One morning, he noticed two men following him through the station. He sped up. They sped up. He thought for sure he was going to be mugged and tried to get away from them, but they shouted for him to stop and finally identified themselves as undercover transit cops.

My son stopped, quite confused, wondering what he might have done wrong.

They insisted he show them ID.

Ultimately, they hadn't believed him to be a student (my son is over 6' tall and had a thick beard) and assumed he was using a student transit pass illegally. They still didn't really seem to believe him, despite him showing them all 4 years of his HS photo ID's (identifying him as a student in a well regarded suburban district). But my son is (despite being large) softly spoken, polite, and has an air of innocence/naivety about him. They all laughed and he headed to his assignment.

I didn't think of it at the time, but now I look back in horror. What if we were not white? What if he'd been wearing a hoodie? Or his pants were sagging? My son is tall. He looks intimidating from a distance. He was wearing headphones and had music on. It had taken him some time to realize the men were shouting at him. I can imagine a narrative where two cops see a black man doing something they identify as illegal, and then rushing away from them when they tell him to stop.

That's not what happened. And I hadn't even imagined any other scenario. That is what white privilege looks like.

I have the luxury of worrying about my sons' grades and if they will get enough sleep and make it to their morning classes. I worry about alcohol, not gun violence. And I don't ever even consider that either of them might get shot in the street.

We live in a community where our biggest brush with crime was a stolen bicycle. My younger son, who does not yet have his driver's license, often walks home from friends' houses late at night and I have no concern that he will be questioned by police or be the victim of crime. I have every reasonable expectation that my sons will live to graduate college. That is what white privilege looks like.

This is what we need to be talking about, in painful, frank conversations both within our own communities and outside them. We will be a 'post-racial' society only when no mother has to worry about her child making it home alive at the end of every day.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams, in memorium, 2014

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, 'O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?' Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"

--From Robin Williams' amazing role in "Dead Poets Society, 1989."

 The Powerful Play Goes On

I was never good enough for starring
roles, for characters with names
other than 'ensemble' or 'chorus'.
There is no shame in it now, and no pain
in waiting for my cues from the wings, though once
I thought I might die from the wanting. How
Shakespearean! How dramatic! I envied,
not the cheerleaders, but the Thespians.
The funny girls. The self-assured boys. My voice
was used to blend and smooth the sharp edged divas, lit
with their own burning desires and a follow
me spot. I am older now and rarely even sing
for myself, but my voice is still sure. If I could write
a new play for the past, I would give myself
a speaking role, something quiet, something simple, not
to upstage the leads, but to softly harmonize,
so no one had to carry the show alone. So
no one has to carry the show alone.

--LJ Cohen, August 12, 2014

Friday, August 08, 2014

On being told girls didn't grow up to be astronauts

Never noticed the similarities until today. :) Even though CONTACT is one of my all-time
favorite movies, I didn't create the cover art for DERELICT. Must be a 'GMTA' issue.

When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up and be an astronaut. Which shouldn't be surprising for anyone of my generation when the world pretty much stopped for the Apollo missions and they wheeled huge black and white TVs into the classroom to watch live. Okay, true confession - I don't really remember the moon landing. I was a little too young and all the images from NASA missions got tangled up into one mental folder of 'really cool space stuff' that pretty much informed my childhood.

But I was female, and started kindergarten in a fairly conservative district in Long Island in the late 1960's, well before Title IX.

So what did that mean?

It meant that girls weren't supposed to grow up to be astronauts. That was a message I was told both implicitly and explicitly, even though I was a good student and smart, and did well in both science and math classes as well as language arts/english and history classes. I could both think analytically and quantitatively and articulate what I was learning. But, when I was picking courses in High School*, my guidance counselor steered me away from advanced math and science classes (since the boys needed them for college) and toward typing (so I could be a secretary - I kid you not.)
*Chronological aside: Yes, Title IX was passed in 1972, but I suspect my school system was living in some kind of time-warped 1950's dream/nightmare of strict gender roles and duties

Well, I did learn to type, but not because I was going to be a secretary. Luckily, my parents were very insistent on higher education and my older sister had warned me that college meant papers and papers meant typing. A lot of typing.

I ended up graduating a year early from HS and going to college in 1980 at the University of Rochester where HOLY SHIT (sorry!) I could take any class I wanted in a bazillion majors. And I was around other smart, interesting, motivated people. It was heaven.

But I was already at a disadvantage in being able to sign up for some of the classes I had wanted to take, since I didn't have the background knowledge. I ended up designing a major focused on the history of medicine and medical ethics, and then went on to become a Physical Therapist, earning my Master's degree in 1986. (About which, by the way, I have absolutely no regrets. I had a fabulous 20+ year career as a PT.)

I do often wonder where I'd be now if I had been in primary school well after the revolution of Title IX. With my interests and skills with computers, I might have studied artificial intelligence. Perhaps I'd be working at Google or Microsoft. Or if I'd been really able to pursue the science/math route, I might have grown up to be an astronaut, or maybe a scientist with NASA.

Now, at 50, I get to do all of that as a writer, and more, living vicariously through my characters. I can trace a line from my childhood dreams, to influences like Ellie Arroway from CONTACT, directly to the character of Ro Maldonado, in my most recent SF book, DERELICT.

I'd like to imagine that I would have been less 'prickly' than Ro, but I do like to believe that in some alternate future, I might have grown up to be the skilled computer programmer she is. (And I'm still holding out for the true heads-up interface with which she 'tickles' the AI.)

Seeing women active in science is an amazing thing. There really weren't a whole lot of role models for me when I was growing up.  Which is one of the reasons why I was so thrilled to find out that Ellie Arroway (the main character of CONTACT) was loosely modeled after a real life SETI astronomer, Jill Tarter, who was a friend of Carl Sagan's.

Things are slowly changing. Just the other day, I was chatting with a fellow potter in the ceramics studio and he was talking about his daughter who has a PhD in Food Sciences and does research in California. He is a middle school science teacher, working in an impoverished district and one of the things he does is invite his daughter into his classroom to inspire the next generation of scientists. There is more diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) today than ever before, but we can do much better as a society.

Our media and our fiction play a large part in this change.

When Nichelle Nichols was cast as Uhura in the original Star Trek, she became a role model for a whole generation of women and men of color. Mae Jemison, a former NASA astronaut, has acknowledged that as a child, seeing Nichols on the bridge of the Enterprise allowed her to believe she could go to space.

We need to be able to see possibilities for ourselves, in life and in art. This is especially important for young people, for children growing up in less advantaged circumstances, and for girls, who are still woefully underrepresented in STEM.

Representation that challenges stereotypes is vital and since I can't grow up to be an astronaut/scientist/computer programmer anymore, I'm going to keep writing about characters, like Ro, who can.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Hey! That's me!

Last night, I appeared on Buddy Gott's Writing Show, where he regularly interviews writers (wow - I bet that was a surprise!) on a live video stream which is then archived on his youtube channel.


I have to admit, I was initially nervous at the thought of being interviewed 'live'. I'm a writer. I rely on the ability to edit, rethink, and rewrite my words. It's the ultimate 6 second delay. Having to speak 'off the cuff' is something I'm not practiced at.

My one experience prior to this, where I had to speak to an 'invisible' audience, was from over 30 years ago. When I was in college, I worked at our college radio station, doing advertisement and public relations. In the interest of trying out other aspects of the station, I tried a stint as an AM radio DJ. I figured it would be a low pressure gig, as the signal was basically just strong enough to reach the student union. (Shout out to the University of Rochester and WRUR!)

It was a nightmare.

I was so nervous about filling silence and not messing up the segues between songs - this was in the days of turntables, remember! I felt like Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory episode! (Only less fun, because you couldn't eat the music. . . )

2 hours later, and I swore never to be near a live mic again.

But Buddy made our conversation an enjoyable and effortless experience, making sure the questions and conversation flowed smoothly.

If you want to see some of my Doctor Who loot (I have a wall in my office liberally decorated with it), hear about my travels through Kyrgyzstan, learn about my accidental poetry collection, or just put a voice and face to the words, take a look see.

Oh, and I also talk a little about my books. My husband has already told me that I sat too close to the laptop, and if I was a little bit back, it would be in better focus. Ahh, live and learn. Also, it was a good thing that the camera only showed my shoulders and up - I spent a good chunk of yesterday in the ceramics studio and there is dried clay all over my clothes. :)