Back-breaking, heavy-lifting

I’ve never liked being in a rush. I forget things: my coat, my wallet, my keys. I bump into doors and doorways and stumble over cracked pavement. Or, as was recently the case, I back out of my mom’s driveway and accidentally knock over her mailbox.

Oh, don’t worry—the thing’s a tank. It’s a security box made of seamless steel, including a post sheath. When the back of my Subaru Forrester drove into the mailbox, what gave way was the twelve-inch stretch of exposed 4X4 between the bottom of the sheath and the ground, where the post was secure inside an 80lbs lump of concrete. Chris and I cut the engine, rushed out of the car, and found the mailbox lying in the grass, impermeable, scratch-less even. Meanwhile, there was now a hole in the back of my car, just below the rearview window. A quick Google search on Chris’s phone revealed that the punctured part was called the “garnish,” and replacing it would cost about $500. Ugh.

With the sun going down and our tails between our legs, Chris and I vowed to return the next day. On the way home, we stopped by the Home Depot, wandered around lost and confused (Is concrete the same thing as cement?), and eventually picked up an 8ft weather-treated 4X4 and three 60lbs bags of concrete, just in case. Somehow, lugging those back to the car, we still didn’t realize the magnitude of our imminent endeavor. We were young, healthy. We had all the materials. How hard could it be?

At eight o’clock the next morning, we woke up to the alarm as usual, but instead of spending the next hour in our pajamas, making breakfast and listening to NPR, we bundled up in work clothes, drove out to West Seattle and stepped out into a light, but frigid rain. With heavy hearts, we set to work dismantling the garden patch around the splintered remains of the mailbox post. This involved removing three layers of cement garden blocks (heavy and covered in moss), uprooting tender flower shoots, and shoveling away the soft mound of dark topsoil.

That part was all fine and well. The trouble began when we hit actual ground. Tough and stony, we had to chip away at the dirt rather than shovel it. Chris hammered away, and I wandered around my mom’s backyard until I found a second shovel to help. My short-handled, pointy-headed one was a better fit for the job than Chris’s, but even so, I made only an inch of headway at a time. Worse, I often struck against rock (or dirt so compacted with rock that it might as well be rock), and bounced off, the reverberation stinging my wrist like being hit on the funny bone.

By the time we had finally unearthed the splintered stump and the two top inches of the cement, our hands were numb from fatigue and cold and we were tempted to try tying the rope around it somehow, and wrest the rest from the un-giving ground with the car. But then we remembered my Subaru doesn’t have a hitch post.

We got back to digging, hinging further and further at the hips as the hole got deeper, and eventually the cement lump began to wiggle. Chris and I tooks turns wedging our shovels beneath the lump and leveraging our weight against it. Once one of our shovels finally found purchase from beneath, Chris hulked the lump out and threw it aside. Panting, he cried, “Why don’t we have robots to do this yet?!”

Our reward for exposing the hole and getting half the job done was a half-hour break to consume coffee and Quiche Lorraine. Meanwhile, the light rain picked up.

When we returned to our hole, it was partially-filled with rain and groundwater. I grabbed an empty flower pot from the front porch, and Chris bailed most of the muddy water out. Then, as I held the new post level, Chris cut open the first bag of concrete and poured a little into the hole. As he stirred with a length of broken 2X4, the grey powder was absorbed by the accumulating groundwater. We poured, stirred, poured, stirred. We took turns on our hands and knees, dragging the stick through the gluey muck. The attendant at Home Depot had recommended using just one 60lbs bag of concrete, but the bag said to avoid a “soupy” texture, and we couldn’t keep up with the groundwater seeping in. All three 60lbs bags wound up in the hole to get the texture right, and we hustled to shovel the rock-dirt on top. Finally, there was nothing more we could do except cover the lot with cardboard and plastic garbage bags. We had to wait for the concrete to set.

We returned bright and early the next morning. Sleepily, almost mechanically, we went through the remaining motions: we carefully slid the mailbox sheath onto the new post and screwed it in; we set the cement garden stones back around the hole, shoveled the topsoil back into place, replanted the flowers, threw away the garbage, called it good as new. Chris took a picture of me posing in triumph, but really, we were both just sore all over, and grateful to return to our privileged normalcy, where the only back-breaking, heavy-lifting we do is done with our minds.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 03/21/2017.

Posted in Personal | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Fandom and fan fiction

We did it! This week, Chris and I finally finished all seven books of the Harry Potter series. For the last six months or so we’ve been immersed, listening to the audiobooks during car rides and at the breakfast table, and watching the films. Now that it’s over, I feel the same confluence of emotions that I felt after closing the cover of last book for the first time. On the one hand, deflation. What in the world do I read after Harry Potter? On the other hand, reverberation. A good story sticks with you, but a great story is a world you want to continue exploring—in all directions, at all depths—long after the last word was read. In other words, a great story inspires fandom, and in that regard, Harry Potter is one of the greatest.

There’s been some wonder about what it is that makes Harry Potter so popular. What’s not up for debate is that the Harry Potter franchise is worth at least $25 billion. While this doesn’t touch the $41 billion of Star Wars, the popular consumption of both series are remarkable similar. Each are embodied in books, films, toys, theme parks, fan clubs and fan fiction. Each are conduits for a great expanse of emotional resonance—love, joy, fear, hope, hurt, compassion, grief, thrill.

As Chris and I excitedly make plans to visit Universal Studios’ The Wizarding World of Harry Potter the next time we’re in L.A., I’m reminded of the days (during high school) when my Harry Potter fandom found satisfaction through much more unofficial means: fan fiction.

I didn’t know it back in high school, but recently I was intrigued to discover that the production and consumption of fan fiction has always been dominated by women. It turns out, back in the late 60s and early 70s, when fan fiction was first widely popularized surrounding the Star Trek series, women represented as many as 90% of fan fiction authors. Today, estimates that 78% of its users are female. Pamela Kalinowski examines why this is true in her article, The Fairest of Them All: The Creative Interests of Female Fan Fiction Writers and the Fair Use Doctrine. She posits that women in particular are motivated to broaden the scope of the original material we admire with examinations of more closely personal issues, all the while maintaining the framework that gives us a sense of belonging to a community. In other words, when a great story comes our way, a story that we relate to, that moves us, and for which our enthusiasm finds solidarity in others, we want to keep using the original source material to practice the kind of empathy it originally inspired in us, and we want to share that empathic and imaginative exercise with others.

What are other motivations? One, I think, is a combination of curiosity and nostalgia. Fan fiction, like spin-offs, explore histories, subplots, and tangents—just last year the play The Cursed Child and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them were added to the Harry Potter saga. Another motivation is to take advantage of an established framework within which to explore new ideas—my personal favorite of this kind of fan fiction is by far Elizer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

And finally, sex. There’s little research quantifying the kinds of fan fiction that are out there, but a simple Google search will reveal a culture and quantity of erotic fan fiction that is well-established and not hard to find. (Intrigued? Check out: E.L. James’ erotic fan fiction of the Twilight series was so popular that it was sold to a major publisher (characters’ names were changed) and published as its own series: Fifty Shades of Grey, which carried its weight as a franchise—movies, merchandise, and all.

I’m just as entrenched as anyone, unwilling to let go of stories and worlds that have helped me discover who I am. I realize that I’m lucky to have had to opportunity to relive Harry Potter over again as an adult, and though I’m sad this second time around is over, I feel closer to Chris because of it, and I’m already thinking about how excited I am to share it with my children. All I can think to say are the words of a fan: thank you, J.K.R., for your mentorship and imagination.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 03/13/2017.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments


Just under a year ago, my sister Delaney asked me to read and help edit her senior thesis project—an essay about her year volunteering at a local youth tutoring center. “You gotta help me, Amanda,” she pleaded. “I can’t use the verb to be.”

“That’s weird,” I said. English uses to be not only to define states of being, but also as an auxiliary verb, a necessary component of many verb conjugations. Without to be, light is neither a particle, nor a wave. Without to be, I will not be! I scowled. “That can’t literally be what your teacher wants. She probably just doesn’t want you to use passive voice, like, the milk was spilled, as opposed to, I spilled the milk.”

“No!” Delaney huffed. “I can’t use to be at all! I’ll get marked down! Help!”

So I helped, but I still didn’t understand what was wrong with a sentence like, “The program provides after-school tutoring to youth who are considered at risk for low academic achievement, poor school attendance, and high dropout rate.” I understood encouraging Delaney to think and write more directly, clearly, and concisely, but I didn’t understand advocating for to be’s removal altogether. In the end, I encouraged Delaney to keep what I considered to be a few perfectly innocent and justified to be’s in the edited draft.

Can’t use the verb to be. Ludicrous!

Almost a year later, while tumbling down a Google rabbit hole, I stumbled upon E-Prime, as in, English Prime. In the 1940s, a semanticist named D. David Bourland Jr. devised E-Prime to exclude all forms of the verb to be from the English language. Bourland argued that most, if not all, usage of to be not only uselessly clutters written English, but also perniciously fails to distinguish between fact and opinion, objectivity and subjectivity, and is used to avoid attributing agency. Take, for example, the following:

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs. The first little pig was lazy. He built his house out of straw. The second little pig was somewhat lazy too, and built his house out of sticks. Then, the rest of the day was spent playing together. The third little pig was industrious. He worked all day and built his house out of bricks. It was a red house. It was that night, when the pigs were sleeping in their houses, that the wolf came. The straw and stick houses were blown down by the wolf’s great huffing and puffing, and the little pigs inside were eaten. But the third little pig was safe. The wolf wasn’t able to blow down his little brick house.

In E-Prime, this would read:

Once upon a time, there existed three little pigs. The first little pig didn’t want to work, so he built his house out of straw. The second little pig worked a little harder, and built his house out of sticks. Then, they spent the rest of the day playing together. The third little pig worked hard all day and built his house out of red bricks. That night, when the little pigs slept in their houses, the wolf came. With great huffing and puffing, the wolf blew down the straw and stick houses and ate the little pigs inside. But the wolf couldn’t blow down the little brick house, and the third little pig survived.

On a purely quantitative level, the E-Prime version is more concise (120 vs. 114 words). The E-Prime version also corrects the structural problems of the normal English version, like passive voice: “the straw and stick houses were blown down.”

But most importantly, the E-Prime version communicates the writer’s subjectivity, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact. For example, “the little pig was lazy” is not allowed; the writer must instead clarify the source of their judgement: “the little pig didn’t want to work.” Thus, writers and readers avoid the mistake of misrepresenting subjective experience and judgement with the objective, fundamental nature of things. This motivation resembles another pedagogical writing technique: show, don’t tell, which writers employ to enable readers to experience a story through sensory input rather than through the writer’s exposition. “Amanda is in love with Chris” reads very differently than “Every time Chris looks into Amanda’s eyes, her heart catches, and tingles ripple down her neck and arms.”

I’m not advocating for E-prime all the time. It’s not colloquial or poetic. Without to be, we wouldn’t have “To be or not to be, that is the question.” But I do understand why Delaney’s teacher challenged her students to learn how to think and write analytical essays in E-Prime. Like show, don’t tell, E-Prime is a useful pedagogical tool that forces inexperienced thinkers and writers to better define their terms and always take responsibility for their opinions. If only those representing our highest office were similarly challenged. (“Sad!”)

Published by the West Seattle Herald 03/06/2017.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Sudden separation

On Valentine’s Day, my friend and I were walking along the waterfront at Lincoln Park. We came across a large stone on which someone had assembled a bunch of shells to spell out “LOVE” in large, capital letters. My friend stared at the word for a moment, then looked me square in the eyes as she swiped her arm across the stone, scattering the shells to the ground. I gave her a half-smile and we walked away.

Looking back on the latter half of my twenties, I can’t help but notice how much romance has characterized these years. Romance in my own life and romance in the lives of my peers. Many of my friends have been getting married, one after another, a wedding every few months. The first of my three sisters is getting married this November. This is both great (I love Love!) and unsurprising. Millennials are tending to get married in our late twenties; our parents and grandparents tended to get married in their early twenties. It’s a notable difference, but it’s no cultural revolution. Just like so many generations before us, we’re excited to celebrate and officialize our most important adult decision: life partner.

It’s partly because I am myself also swept up in the momentum of these especially love-laden late twenties that I feel dumbstruck as I try to support my friend through her sudden separation from her husband. She’s not my first friend to get a divorce, but hers is the first that is involuntary, and the first that I’m witnessing up close. To console her, I can’t really draw from my experience of breaking up with a boyfriend, or even breaking off an engagement. It’s not the same as the breaking up of a marriage. The crisis is more existential. Your life partner, by definition, is the last person you’d expect to suddenly decide to abandon you without warning. That sudden fracture feels as confounding and viscerally terrifying as if reality itself had ruptured.

In the past week, I’ve clutched my friend’s limp hand as she stared blankly out the window. I watched her write and rewrite and rewrite her texts, muttering furiously under her breath. I’ve admired how another friend managed to get her to eat by making hilariously lewd gestures with a pair of churros. And I’ve embraced her helplessly as she dissolved into hysterical fits of crying and hyperventilating and dry-heaving as she was forced to say goodbye to the life she loved.

As a friend, I can do two things to help. The first is to remind her that life goes on. She will love again. She is not as alone as she feels. We, her people, love her. This requires being present and especially engaged. The second is a variation of the first—to bear witness, to respect her grief and loss by acknowledging it, by feeling its weight with her, by taking an echo of it into my own heart and mind. And as a result, be struck dumb.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 02/27/2017.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Social dance

This week Chris and I learned the shim sham. Without getting technical, I’d describe it as a social line dance combining tap-style stomping, gliding, kicking, wiggle-walking, and swagger. The shim sham is what our instructors Mark and Katie K. call the seventh evening stretch of every social dance—at least on swing nights at the Century Ballroom. It’s the one time we shed our roles as leader or follower and synchronize instead with the whole room full of other individual dancers.

You can feel the difference. Your mind shifts from honing in on your partner to honing in on both yourself and the entire group, from “couple” to “individual + collective.” So, though I adore partner dancing, I was excited to finally also participate in the shim sham, for the same reason that I love participating in a choir or a theatre chorus or a flash mob. It’s magical when individuals come together and the resulting organism is greater than the sum of its parts—like a flock of birds.

I’m not talking about mob mentality. I feel claustrophobic in a crowd. Just a few weeks ago, Chris and I went to see Run the Jewels at the Showbox in SoDo. We stood towards the back, but even so, by the time RTJ hit the stage, the crowd was pressing in on us from all sides. Chris liked it. He said that losing himself amidst the jostling pressure of so many bodies made him feel safe and snug, and that he drew from everyone’s compressed energy. Not me. I felt like the encroaching crowd was treating me like an object, an obstacle even. I couldn’t breathe—not so much from being squeezed as from my rising panic.

My anxiety was grounded in the fact that, in the mob, I was just another body. For the other people in the crowd it was okay to block my view and push me around without concern for how their actions were affecting my experience. And they weren’t wrong—the show and the venue were meant to be appreciated that way. I was the one who couldn’t feel the high of the hive mind, of losing yourself in the spirit of many, of socializing by being collectively antisocial.

The shim sham—and all social dancing—is very different. These are activities which can only function if everyone acknowledges everyone else’s agency.

In the first place, the dance floor belongs to everyone. A big part of the role of the leader is scanning the dance floor so you don’t end up throwing your follower into another couple’s space. And sure, on a busy night, it’s not uncommon for dancers to accidentally bump into each other, but you always try to avoid run-ins, and you always acknowledge them when they occur.

Secondly, just as the dance floor belongs to everyone, so do the dancers themselves belong to everyone. By that I mean that anyone can dance with anyone else. Sure, you can decide that you’d rather stick to dancing with just your date—something rookies often do out of shyness or skill-level insecurity—but the spirit of the party is that you switch partners song to song, and in so doing, socialize.

It’s this second aspect of social dancing that some people find particularly challenging, and I understand why. By entering the ballroom, you’re inviting physical contact with strangers. And not the impersonal pressure of jostling bodies kind of physical contact, but eye-contact, personal attention, and touch communication. In order to dance, leaders and followers must radiate towards each other a purposeful, collaborative glow that’s at the very least playful, and often even a little bit flirtatious.

I get why that can be intimidating and anxiety-producing in people, but not for me! I love how personal it is, how I can learn a lot about a dance partner without exchanging more words than, “Care to dance?” When I dance with Wiley, for instance, I know our unique combination is going to be a little funky and playfully improvisational. When I dance with Derek, he’s going to be super fluid and I’m going to slip around him like the floor’s made of butter. When I dance with Chris, our moves are going to be crisp and precise, and we’ll always be gazing into each other’s eyes like the rest of the world isn’t there.

Social dance—whether partnered or in line—is interpersonal awareness at its most playful, which suits me just fine.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 02/20/2017.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Alone time

February 14th is creeping up, which reminds me that some of us don’t have partners with which to celebrate, and are perhaps feeling particularly alone. Not bad alone, necessarily, but notably alone, more so than on any other day. I’ve been there far more often than not, and have occasionally overcompensated in response. One year, while still living at the UW, I handmade dozens of chocolate-covered strawberries and gave them out to all my single dorm friends. They responded with perplexed expressions, and I explained, “I love Love!”

This week leading up to Valentine’s Day is also the week leading up to Chris’s and my first anniversary. Exciting! Chris also happens to be away this week, across the country at the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, taking part in a panel on H.P. Lovecraft. I find myself in a quiet house, fixing myself small meals, sleeping in a bed that suddenly feels much bigger. At first, this made me feel a bit fuzzy around the edges, like my aura had expanded and was reaching out for the person whose shoulder I always touch as I walk by, whose eyes I always meet when I pause and look up between paragraphs. Then I felt small, like my aura had retracted inward again, and I felt myself inside my own skin.

It wasn’t really sad or painful, but it was interesting that I had to stumble across a little emotional and cognitive hurdle in order to remember how to appreciate my alone time again. Because loneliness and aloneness are not the same thing. Just as you can be entrenched in relationships that make you feel alienated and invisible, you can also feel perfectly in touch with yourself and the world when in a state of solitude.

Isaac Newton never married, but he gave us calculus, among so many other momentous scientific advances. Same with Nikola Tesla. Ludwig van Beethoven composed music that overflows our hearts, and Glenn Gould played them with deeper feeling than anyone, and yet both Beethoven and Gould were celibate. Emily Dickinson was so reclusive that most of her relationships existed only through written correspondence. Jorge Luis Borges was so sex-phobic that he forfeited marrying the love of his life, and yet his short stories gave flesh and blood to such mind-bending ideas as infinity and free will.

Not everyone who ends up alone is alone by choice. Sometimes circumstances get in the way. Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen,” risked the political fate of all Europe with her choice (and non-choice) of suitor. Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for acting upon his true romantic feelings.

In life, it’s never a given that you’re going to encounter your person—or people—who will love and respect and understand you, or that circumstances will allow for you to develop your partnership. There are so many obstacles to love–war, disease, religion, societal intolerance, personal maturity—that it’s a wonder any of us find each other, fall in love, and manage to maintain a loving, life-sustaining relationship in the first place.

Really, we should be celebrating Valentine’s Day because romantic love is never a given, and so damn difficult to achieve. In the meantime, there’s beautiful, loving work to be done by all of us, together and alone.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 02/13/2017.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Opportunity to Be

I remember how Don Saulo, the chaplain at Capanne prison, visited every cell each morning and greeted every prisoner by name. He brought in movies for us to watch, and each one—Kung Fu Panda, Avatar—made him cry. He told the prison staff that he needed me to spend a few hours a week in his office helping him prepare for mass, when really he let me pass the time singing and playing Beatles songs on the guitar. When I crocheted him a bracelet, he took it, thanked me, and said, “White. The color of resurrection…” When we first met, I was freshly imprisoned and afraid and surrounded by strangers, and I told him I was innocent and I knew he, like everyone else, didn’t believe me. He replied, “I can’t say if you are innocent, but I believe you are sincere when you tell me you are innocent.”

Which is to say that, from the moment we met, Don Saulo was always a man of kindness and integrity. That very first day, he showed me his brutal, compassionate honesty, and it was because of this honesty that I knew it was true when he eventually told me he believed me, years later.

In prison, Don Saulo was my friend. Each week, we spent hours talking in his office about philosophy, life, the prison, the Church. We debated gay marriage, adoption, the role of women in religious doctrine, vegetarianism, life after death. We disagreed, amicably, about many things, he being Catholic, and me, atheist. But we also agreed on a surprising number of existential truths. Above all, despite our differences of belief, Don Saulo was able to give me a most important gift: help in translating my suffering into meaning.

We were talking about prayer. I didn’t understand the point of it. If you believe in God, and that God has a plan for you, and that God will always provide for that plan along the way, then why pray? Why do what I saw many other prisoners do—cry out to God for relief, for freedom, for money, for cigarettes? Why bother, when God never answers? Why bother, when your undesired lot was part of God’s plan in the first place?

As an atheist, the question about prayer (which didn’t affect me) was linked to the question about purpose (which greatly affected me). Imprisoned for a crime I didn’t commit, I realized that freedom was never a given. Nor, apparently, did there have to be a reason for suffering. Senseless suffering had suddenly descended upon my life from nowhere, for no reason. What I deserved, what I wanted, what was true even, had nothing to do with it. What was prayer or hope next to that? Wasn’t I powerless?

Don Saulo listened and gave me his warm, sad smile. Then he said, “When you pray to God, He always answers your prayers. Just, you may not recognize his answer. If you pray for strength, God doesn’t give you strength. He gives you the opportunity to be strong.”

Don Saulo’s words rippled through me, ringing true. Life itself is the opportunity to be everything you want to be. Life doesn’t promise you anything but that—but the opportunity is already everything.

Let me explain. Wrongful conviction and imprisonment had taken away from me everything I held dear, everything I thought belonged to me—my home, my freedom, a future where I could have a career, a family. But it hadn’t taken away my life—me. If I could divorce the specific terms and expectations of what I wanted from the essence of what I wanted, then I could be myself in any circumstance. Even in the midst of suffering, especially in the midst of suffering, I could still be smart, kind, generous, curious, creative, funny, sane…

Seen in that way, prayer is an evocation of choice. The choice to not let suffering get the better of you. To hang on to what matters to you. To intend upon certain values and principles that ultimately define who you are. Next to that intention, painful circumstance is just white noise.

So often, it felt like Don Saulo and I were speaking different languages, but understanding each other all the same. And that understanding helped save me.

 Published by the West Seattle Herald 02/06/2017.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Unrepresented atheist

This first week under the new administration disheartened me in many ways.

Already, President Trump has taken executive action to suppress the reality of climate change, to interfere with women’s access to reproductive healthcare, to refuse immigrants and refugees from entering the country on the basis of their religion, and to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, among other things.

But even on the day of the inauguration, before any of these unwelcome measures were signed into existence, I was reminded of the disheartening reality that someone like me will likely never hold the office of presidency—not from my generation, at least. What disqualifies me, or someone like me, is not the fact that I’m a woman. To our country’s credit, I think the U.S. is ready and willing for our first Madame President. No. What disqualifies me, or someone like me, is the fact that I’m atheist. I don’t believe in God.

Despite the fact that, technically, the presidency is a secular position, no less than six religious leaders took part in President Trump’s inauguration ceremony. Then, when President Trump delivered his inauguration address, he referenced the Christian bible and claimed that “we will be protected by God.” Then, immediately after the inauguration ceremony, the first thing President Trump did as president was attend an “Inaugural Prayer Service.” Finally, once all these religious ministrations were observed, only then did President Trump return to the oval office and start signing executive orders—all of them conservative, some of them heavily influenced by faith-driven politics.

Despite evidence that secularism is on the rise, atheists like myself still represent only 3.1% of the U.S. population. That’s more than any individual non-Christian religion, for sure, but those non-Christian religions at the very least agree with the majority Christian religions that God is real and that “faith” is synonymous with “truth.” There are very, very few people like myself, who believe that God is not real, that our only grasp on factual truth is through empirical observation and science, and that we can’t rationally fill all our vast gaps in knowledge with faith. Ours is a country where, to this day, no active member of congress is openly atheist, a country that still says, “one nation, under God.”

What is an atheist like me supposed to do? There’s no avenue of discussion for me with a fellow citizen who believes that abortion is murder, or that anything other than heterosexuality is a perversion, or that to be without faith is to be a lost lamb without morals or principles, because God told them so. How do I, as an atheist, navigate being part of a democracy so heavily reliant upon, invested in, and influenced by religion? What do I do if I can’t relate to, or even think in the same way as 97% of my fellow citizens?

That’s an open question.

I look at my leaders, at my fellow citizens, at their religions, and I see culture, I see history, I even see hope. But I don’t see truth. And I don’t see myself.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 01/31/2017.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , | 33 Comments

President Obama’s Farewell Speech

On Tuesday evening, as I watched President Obama make the final rounds with Michelle and Malia, waving at the crowd, I was flooded with dread. I was reminded of those rare occasions when I was very young, when Mom dropped Deanna and I off at a family member’s house so she could run a quick personal errand, and we cried and cried, pleading, “Please don’t goooooooo!” For the past eight years, I’ve found comfort in Obama’s patience, confidence, and compassion, in the fact that he, of all people, proved again and again to be honest, intelligent, steady, forceful, and kind in the face of both tragedy and achievement. I dreaded the void Obama was leaving behind, and how it shortly was going to be filled with someone already proven to be base, short-sighted, vindictive, and vain.

Indeed, when I reread the transcript of Obama’s speech the following morning, I realized how cautionary his message was. He enumerated a number of specific threats to our democracy that we need to confront with urgency and sincerity, lest we severely weaken ourselves from within.

He spoke about the threat of partisanship:
“Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.”

The threat of economic inequality:
“Stark inequality is…corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1% has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind. The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills, convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”

The threat of sectarianism:
“For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.”

The threat of the compromising of our American values:
“The fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.”

The threat of taking our democracy for granted:
“Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms, whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us. America is no fragile thing, but the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”

And the resulting threat of our present political situation:

“America, we weaken those ties [that make us when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service. So course with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen, not just as misguided, but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others. When we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. And when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”

Thankfully, Obama didn’t just express caution, nor did he leave an empty void. He enumerated as many, if not more, practical solutions to these threats: from reforming the tax code to coming face-to-face with our trolls. He called it “the call to citizenship.” And he reminded us that, historically, we Americans have always risen to the occasion, that just in the past eight years we’ve made great strides.

And Obama did what all good father figures do: he patted us on the back and handed over the reins. “My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you,” he said. “I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.” As soon as he said this, I realized just how much I—and so many others like me—needed to hear it. We needed to know that we weren’t entirely orphaned, that there were still good people with good ideas in our midst.

So despite my dread, I ultimately came away feeling like I always do after I hear Obama speak: warm, teary-eyed, clear-headed, reassured. Because, as Chris murmured, goosebumps prickling both of our arms, “Obama is just so much more mature than EVERYBODY.”

Published by the West Seattle Herald 01/16/2016.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , | 21 Comments