Reasons Beyond Joy

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a clutter-hound, and that I am kind-of-perpetually trying to figure out how to get that part of my life and our house under control. (Just look at the whole Stuff about Stuff category here on JALC for a few snapshots on this theme…)

So I’ve been vaguely intrigued by the various chatter I’ve been seeing about Marie Kondo‘s new Netflix series.

I haven’t watched this show yet, in large part because I have absolutely been minimizing my TV time in order to keep a priority on my 2019 reading and writing pursuits.

Full disclosure: I’m very much on the fence as to whether I will ever watch it.

Continue reading “Reasons Beyond Joy”

Valhalla was Co-Ed

QUICK HIT: The choir season starts up again tonight, which means my Wednesday posts for the foreseeable future will have to be:

  1. Pre-written and scheduled
  2. Quick and somewhat insubtantial
  3. Non-existent in a “night off” kind of way)

Obviously, today I’ve chosen option 2. Well, not entirely obviously, since I could have pre-written and scheduled this post. But trust me: I didn’t do that. Because my life and to-do list are not currently at such a level of organization and under-controlness. I’d love to tell you otherwise, but I don’t have it in my to maintain that level of facade.

Where was I? Oh yeah: QUICK HIT tonight. In more ways than one. (Go below the fold to see what I mean…)

Continue reading “Valhalla was Co-Ed”

Going (Semi-)Viral

A funny thing happened this past week. A friend of mine shared an upsetting incident on Facebook where she experienced public prejudice against breast-feeding. Her story then went viral, earning (well-deserved) media coverage and public outrage.

That’s not the funny part. The funny thing is what happened next: I wrote a blog post about the event, and then I went viral, too.

See exhibit A, WordPress’s visitor stats summary for JALC during the last couple weeks:

stats copy

The August 12-19 stretch shows me with my customary rate of site visitors — usually somewhere in the 15-25 range, with slight upticks and down-drops depending on factors like weekday vs. weekend, if I skipped a day, etc.

August 20 is when I posted about Ingrid’s experience: you can already see the uptick to 60 site visitors in those hours between hitting “Publish” and midnight, as a few folks started sharing my post within their own networks.

The next day, August 21st was when things hit big (relatively speaking). Yeah, that’s more than 400 hits — and from there, things have dropped off until yesterday and today I seem to have re-equalized back where I started.

So, all told, this is a very mild flavor of “going viral,” as compared to Youtube videos that get hundreds of thousands, or even millions of hits. Still, it was such a disproportionate spike in attention that it feels like the junior baby blogger version of “going viral.” And the sorts of study and self-examination the experience has invited for me — well, I wonder how different these reflections would be if I were talking about 4,000 hits rather than 400. I’m thinking: perhaps not that different at all.

First: Who woulda thunk it? For the most part, my writing here on JALC has been divorced from expectations about achieving any particular readership level on any timetable. The practice for me has been a practice of showing up, of experimenting with regular, focused writing. Finding my voice again. Yes, at some level there’s the prayer of my words being read and having positive impact — otherwise I’d just be writing in my diary rather than in a blog. But I’ve maintained a pretty decent level of non-attachment from any expectations about how many readers I want to have and how quickly I want them to appear.

And if you asked child-free me what sort of post I’d predict might be the first one to get public traction, there’s no way on this earth I would have predicted it be something about breast-feeding and the mommy wars. Talk about a subject that’s completely outside of my field of knowledge! (Okay, not completely, since I do have breasts as an anatomical feature of my body. But still.)  You never know what’s going to hit a nerve and garner that flash of attention. Like catching lightning in a bottle, that is. Write something true and honest and authentic, and I guess sometimes it’ll hit a nerve, fall in with a moment of zeitgeist. But to predict what’s going to hit that zeitgeist energy? Not within my current powers, as so clearly evidenced by the disconnect between my expectations and the actual happening of which JALC post first topped 550 views.

SecondYou never know what’s going to hit a nerve and garner that flash of attention. I’ll admit, however well I’ve maintained a state of non-attachment around my readership numbers where they were at a low and steady pace, that there was something sincerely exciting about seeing the bar graph keep climbing during the 21st. And when I sat down the evening of the 21st to write my first post-viral post, I could absolutely feel myself on a precipice. Feeling the demand that I “measure up” to this new level I’d achieved, feeling the temptation towards finding some other juicy topic that’d be “click bait” and that could build some kind of popularity for myself.

I walked myself back from that precipice, reminding myself: it’s like catching lightning in a bottle, that is. All I can do is continue showing up at the screen, writing as true and authentically as I can, taking on the topics that grab me and won’t let go until I say what I have to say. That’s why I wrote my post to begin with — even though I’ve spent years trying not to comment on parenting choices or the mommy wars. Something about Ingrid’s story just grabbed me, and I couldn’t rest until I wrote about it. That’s the feeling I need to keep following: I can’t rest until I write about this, rather than I think this will get good traffic.

So who knows? Maybe another post of mine will hit a zeitgeist moment a few weeks from now. Or a few years from now. Or never again. It’s all in service, however it unfolds.

I just need to keep in the practice of it. Say it plain, say it true. Stay as authentic as I can be.

Teaching, Trust and Testing

The aspirational arithmetic behind that whole “study an hour a day to become an international expert in your field” thing goes something like this:

  1. Studying/reading an hour a day adds up to you reading/absorbing about a book a week;
  2. Which adds up to about 50 books over the year;
  3. Which adds up to a whole lot of learning.

Now, obviously, by setting more moderate goals about how much “ed-reading” I’m trying to do each day, I have ensured that my own personal arithmetic will be adding up a bit more modestly. Still, I’m pleased to say I’ve finished the first book I started when I set this plan for myself. Two-and-a-half weeks ain’t so bad, all things considered.

SchoolsWeTrustCoverEven though it’s a complete non-sequiteur, the first thing I noticed about Deborah Meier’s In Schools We Trust was that it was published by Beacon Press. I know of Beacon as the UUA‘s publishing house, but I’d not noticed till today what a vast array of non-UU books is in Beacon’s catalog. Upon reflection, this only makes sense, or else I fear Beacon might have what they call an “unsustainable business model.” Still, I hadn’t even remotely thought of Beacon as publishing education books till I picked this one up. Now I might as well export their entire catalog over to my reading wish list as I continue my ed-reading self-study project.

But on to more substantive matters…

Meier’s book is subtitled Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, and although it was published in 2002, it still senses, to my readerly eyes, as speaking to the current state of schools and schooling. After all, who could read the following passage —

[S]ocial distrust plays itself out in education in the form of draconian attempts to “restore accountability” through standardized schooling and increasing bureaucratization.

The tragedy of this approach is that it undermines what I think is the best way to make schools trustworthy and raise standards. Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust thy are aimed to cure. Even more tragically, standardization and bureaucratization undermine the possibilities for the kind of education we all claim is sorely lacking. (2)

— and not feel its contemporaneousness?

In case you’re interested, here’s a few other reviews:

Meier arranges her book into three sections. Part One discusses different aspects of building a culture of trust within schools: teacher collaboration, parent engagement, being aware of the powerful impacts and implications of race and class differences within the members of a school community (teachers, children, educators). Meier also discusses the importance of creating an environment where children feel safe taking learning risks:

Learning happens fastest when the novices trust the setting so much that they aren’t afraid to take risks, make mistakes, or do something dumb. Learning works best, in fact, when the very idea that it’s risky hasn’t even occurred to kids. . . . No one is sorting or ranking us. . . . We’re in the company of people who are most firmly on our side, no matter what. (18)

Throughout these chapters, Meier offers concrete suggestions drawn from her own experience founding small, innovative public schools in NYC and Boston. Meier outlines 7 key qualities for such schools on pages 20-22. To paraphrase:

  1. Safety, both physical safety from violence and also safety from ridicule and safety to learn and make mistakes.
  2. A supportive “expert-to-learner” ratio, achieved by understanding that school communities can draw on other adults and older peers to create a more vibrant & effective learning community.
  3. Opportunities for students to show their own expertise and passion for a topic/subject.
  4. Flexibility in how learners can experience, explore and assimilate new content knowledge.
  5. Setting aside rigid timetables to allow “time for ideas to grow” (21).
  6. Learning that is engaging and enjoyable.
  7. A commitment to connecting school/curricular content to students’  authentic, lived experiences.

Part Three of the book addresses some customary fallacies and misconceptions about the small-school movement, arguing against the common belief that small, successful urban schools are so rare, the products of such exceptional circumstances (a superstar principal, a deep-pocketed foundation, etc.) that their  models of success could never be replicated to serve all the U.S. children in need of better, safer, more engaging schools. In fact, Meier argues, the “failures” often seen in attempts to scale up successful small schools are most often caused by city and state bureaucracies making choices that impose standardization at the cost of standards — at the cost of actual success in teaching and learning.

There’s no way to guarantee that any particular system will work, or will work forever, or will not need endless revising. But until we get over the idea that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to schools, above all for schools that are trustworthy enough to do the job well, we won’t allow ourselves to do the difficult long-term work of redesigning the system, not just the schools. What we need is a new kind of system whose central task is to protect the public space needed for innovation. We need a lean, mean system, with a limited but critical accountability function, to be the guardian of our common public interest, but one that respects the fact that schools must be first and foremost responsive to their own constituents — the members of their community — not to the system. That’s the rub. (172-3, emphasis added)


You may have notched I skipped passed Part Two of Meier’s book. I did so because its contents — a devastating critique of standardized testing and its primacy in the U.S. educational system — seemed to me not-entirely connected to the book-ended discussion in Parts One and Three about what successful school models could look like and how to achieve them.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Meier’s critique of big testing is powerfully on point. When I called it a “devastating critique,” up above, that was not empty praise on my part.

Quite frankly, I’m afraid to start a more detailed summary with pull-quotes, for fear I will instead try to type out all 70 pages of this verbatim. And I just don’t have that kind of time.* Suffice to say, for the moment, that Meier has added immensely to the depth of my understanding of standardized testing, as well as to the depth of my contempt for its current use in schools. Even if you’re not interested in Meier’s thoughts about school design, Part Two of her book is eminently worth reading as its own little “capsule volume.”

So, a valuable first book in my new Earl-Nightengale-inspired ed-reading project. With any luck, I’ll finish book #2 at a similar fortnightly pace and circle back here.

Now all I need to do is figure out if there’s any sort of note-taking system I want to use to capture what I’m learning and any connections I start to make. Are these “21st century book reports” enough for that purpose, or is there something else that’s worth the doing?

* Or that level of disregard for copyright and the limits of “fair use” conventions.


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Hashtag Feminism

#wecandoitI had so much else to say last night about that damn George Will op-ed that I didn’t have time to touch on one thread of the counter-discourse against his misinformed and misogynist rant: the hashtag conversation about #SurvivorPrivilege.

Feminist writer and activist Wagatwe Wanjuki states in an interview on Buzzfeed:

I honestly started the hashtag as a way to share my frustration with the notion that survivors have privilege. It’s one of those situations where I felt like I should laugh so I don’t cry, so I used my sarcasm to start a conversation about how difficult it is to be a survivor. I hope the hashtag will help highlight the absurdity of George Will’s column and that survivors are struggling in the aftermath of sexual violence. No one wants to be the victim of a violent crime.

If you peruse the tweets reproduced in that article, or in similar articles at DCist, Feministing, Ms., and PolicyMic — or, for the moment, if you follow the live twitter feed, though batten down the hatches for the inevitable MRA backlash in 3, 2, 1… — you will see an array of experiences that is likely every bit as heart-breaking and outrage-inducing as you would expect it to be.

For example:

Meanwhile, in another corner of the galaxy, Shonda Rhimes gave the commencement speech at Dartmouth this past Sunday. (Transcript here.) Among the customary mixture of self-revelation (“Shonda, how do you do it all? The answer is this: I don’t”) and platitudes (“Don’t be a dreamer, be a do-er”) is a passage about the importance of activism in the world:

And while we are discussing this, let me say a thing. A hashtag is not helping. #yesallwomen #takebackthenight #notallmen #bringbackourgirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething

Hashtags are very pretty on twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing into your computer and then going back to binge watching your favorite show. For me, it’s Game of Thrones.

Volunteer some hours. Focus on something outside yourself. Devote a slice of your energies towards making the world suck less every week.

(Emphases added by HuffPo.)

As part of an ongoing work project, I’ve been having some conversations with colleagues about the nature of societal and systems change.* We’ve been talking about this topic within the context of educational reform, but the core principles around creating change carry across contexts and topics — including misogyny, patriarchal structures and rape culture.

Let me distill these conversations down to a kindergarten level.  The research suggests that in order for real change to occur, real, lasting, sustained change, three pillars all need to be in place:

  1. People need to know the truth about something (especially when evidentiary truth goes against your assumptions or beyond the limitations of your personal experience)
  2. People need to care, to think that a particular issue matters and that the effort of making change is worth something
  3. People need do-able, impactful actions they can take to make individual change or influence systemic/societal change

So in one way, Shonda’s right: talk alone is not enough to “make the world suck a little less every week.” But I think she goes too far when she says “A hashtag is not helping.” Because action alone isn’t enough — or maybe action would be enough on its own if we lived in a miraculous utopia where everyone was instinctively knowledgeable about and motivated towards right action.

But we don’t live in that magical utopia, so unless people are given information to help them drop their privilege blinders, and unless they are inspired to give a shit, then nothing is gonna evolve.

In other words: hashtags help.

* There are moments my job sucks, and then there are moments when it is really-super-cool.


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A Bad Beginning

The Day 4 prompt for Writing 101 is loss. Any kind of loss, from heart-wrenching to flippant. The extra twist: write so that this piece can be the first installment in a 3-part series, as opposed to the “one-off” posts that populate so many blogs. (Now that piece of advice amused me especially, considering the endless ways my posts speak in interwoven dialogue to one another. I think the comments field on JALC have more ping-backs connecting my different posts in conversation with one another than I have actual comments from people!)

During the hours between seeing the prompt and sitting down to write, I wondered whether I’d talk about my father’s death. After all, JALC was birthed during those first months of shock and grief, and we have just recently marked (or not marked, as the case may be) the fifth anniversary of his passing.* Ultimately, that didn’t sense as the way to go.

Instead, a meditation on how I parted ways with graduate school and the ivory tower.


Sometimes a good ending is prefigured by a bad beginning.

2011LinkAsTarotFoolNot that it seemed like anything bad at the time. Indeed, when I was on the verge of beginning my Ph.D. program, it looked as if — to quote a piece of adolescent dystopia — the odds were ever in my favor.

What’s not to be happy about? An Ivy League program, full graduate fellowship, and I received the offer letter so early in February that even my professors were shocked.  Even while waiting for and weighing the other offers that came, having that one letter in my hands meant that, even if the details hadn’t quite been settled yet, I had my life all wrapped up and figured out.

And there, I believe, lies the root of the problem. I had set myself on a course without enough self-knowledge to know whether it was a path that would truly suit me.


Did I set myself on this path so much as drifting there? After all, school and academics had been the only thing in my life at which I had truly excelled. During the public school years, the fruits of that natural talent were made bitter by the shames and embarrassments of not being talented at the right sorts of things — the prettiness, social, and popularity scales. Once I was at college, the environment was one that more fully valued my intellectual gifts. Why wouldn’t I think that it was the environment where I was meant to stay for the rest of my lifetime?

And so, whether by aimless drift or by self-deluded intention, I was going to become a professor.

Never mind the amazing naïveté of the choice. My complete lack of understanding about what a professor’s life and work actually are like. My false sense of limitation around how school and classes were the only environment where I could be successful. My immaturity in thinking that I would perceive the cloistered nature of academia as a safe cocoon rather than a strait jacket.

I was going to be a professor. Until I realized that no, I wasn’t. I really wasn’t.

* And there’s two more ping-backs!


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A Place to Call Home

[Bookend] The Day 2 prompt for Writing 101 is about place: “Today, choose a place to which you’d like to be transported if you could — and tell us the backstory. How does this specific location affect you? Is it somewhere you’ve been, luring you with the power of nostalgia, or a place you’re aching to explore for the first time?” [/Bookend]

Let me tell you why I love our house.

It’s not all that easy to find a place with contemporary architecture up here in Boston: that heritage of the “center-entrance colonial” runs deep. So, even though I’ve been in love with that style since I was 13 and first visited the Frank Lloyd Wright room at the Met, I made peace with myself when we started looking at listings 15 months ago. If I held to that particular fantasy too tightly, we might never find a roof to place over our heads, so I was going to have to show some flexibility.

(And yes, I know there’s officially a difference between Frank Lloyd Wright’s style of architecture and what we usually call “contemporary” architecture. Still, something about them both — the cleanness of line, the use of natural textures, the big windows that elide the boundary between the natural and the lived environment — have always felt deeply resonant with one another. And they make my heart sing.)

houseThis is why it feels a little bit like a miracle every time I come up the driveway to see our house on the hill, beautifully asymmetrical and nestled in the woods. There, to the left of the front door, is the rock garden. It’s weathered two tough winters and a summer’s neglect during the 2013 house-selling season: I’m still trying to figure out what’s plant and what’s weed, but it’s lovely to see things coming in, green and pink and purple. The bird feeder outside Mr. Mezzo’s office window is a new addition this spring: we’re pretty sure word is getting out, because the time between “full” and “empty” keeps getting shorter and shorter.

Once inside the door, you want to head left to see most of the place. First up are the two extra “bedrooms” outfitted as relics of the 21st century, two-career family: his and her offices. Mr. Mezzo’s is office-only — he telecommutes every single day, and the gorgeous built-in desk here was one of the ninety-eleven things that made us knew we were home as soon as we toured the place. I commute to an office office most days, so my home “office” is more of a reading & writing nook that can do double duty as a guest room. My little desk is flanked by two tall bookshelves — which I heard once somewhere is horrifically bad feng shui, but I don’t care. They make me happy. In everyday usage, the daybed and trundle can be a place to sit and read, and they’re also ready to serve as a place for a sleepover guest to lay their tired head.

After these two doors is a small spiral staircase going up — we’ll come back to that soon — and then the heart of the house: the living room, kitchen and dining room.

The living room is open to the roofline, with high transom windows on one wall, and then a bank of (almost) floor to ceiling windows where the room juts out just a little farther than the rest of the house. The carpet is soft and plush and blue, and the sense of light and air, sun and shade is a treasure to me. This room is sunk a few steps down from the main hallway and separated from that hallway by these stairs and a wood railing.

The hallway opens to and ends in the big room that is kitchen and dining room. Tile and hard wood floors mark a clear distinction between the two rooms, but they open directly one to the other without wall or barrier. Again: light and air and an elision of boundaries. The tile patterning on our table reminds me of the designs Wright would design into stained glass, and Wright also comes to mind with the way you can sit at the table and have windows always in view. Whether it’s the kitchen windows and the back door to the vegetable patch, the living room windows (which are still in eye-line from the dining room), or the sliding doors that lead out to an enormous deck overlooking the lawn and the trees, the sense of living in beauty and comfort and nature are very present.

loftAs a final stop on this abbreviated tour, let’s backtrack to that spiral staircase and head upstairs. Here, our “meditation loft,” is another gem that led to the instant recognition of house-on-the-market as home. If I’d been more alert, I would have taken a picture during daylight hours so you could see how this room rests in tree and sky, green and blue. (And I might just come back tomorrow and do an image swap.) No matter what other tendencies towards entropy crop up throughout the rest of the house, this room has been something we’ve held sacred. It’s the seed of how I imagine the rest of our home can be, as we continue to unpack and declutter and settle in.

Now, I’ll admit: there’s lots of the messier details of life and home that I’ve been glossing over in this tour. You’ll notice, for example, that we didn’t head down to the basement and “unpacking central.” Some other night, another visit.

Nevertheless, a core fact remains: however much I would enjoy the opportunity to travel the world and see new places, what I most treasure is the nesting sense of having a home I love coming back to.