It was my last Friday night in Tucson, and I was reading at home alone, despite several friends’ sincere wishes to see me one last time before I leave town. Traveling always makes my existentialist side surface, and when that happens I prefer to be alone or with people I feel very mentally close to. Unfortunately, sometimes I inexplicably stray from my instincts and I end up bowing to social pressures and conventions. More succinctly, I made a terrible decision that night: My roommate invited me to her friend’s birthday dinner, and I said yes.

The sushi restaurant was of the variety that men wear black t-shirts and clean jeans to, downtown and popular and not good for groups but groups go there regardless because they’re not really going for the sushi or the service anyway. They go for the exotic, expensive (but not extraordinary) food, for the proximity to the clubs, for the generic soft-beat techno, all of which that trigger associations with modernity and city life and being young and independent and surrounded by twenty of your best acquaintances on a night out. I don’t want to say that the desire to be — that — is necessarily wrong or right; I merely wish to state that it seems to be an overwhelmingly popular aspiration that I have never identified with.

When we arrived (late, thank god), the table was not looking very spirited. The woman to my left was half-heartedly picking at fried rice with chopsticks, several people were barely making an effort to text surreptitiously, the birthday girl appeared utterly indifferent to everyone around her but extremely interested in her California roll. That’s not to say there wasn’t a conversation happening – people were laughing and joking with each other and complimenting each other’s choices in tempura or tuna, but sometimes when I am feeling far removed from situations, body language is more memorable. It is only my own that I could not interpret. How good of an actress am I, I always wonder. Is my apathy visible in my lack of makeup or heels? Does anyone notice that I laugh only when it would be awkward not to? And then I remember that acting requires an audience, and more often than not, no one is watching. And it’s not so much that I care that no one is paying attention to me – it’s more that the larger issue of the decrease in amount and quality of human interaction in the world suddenly becomes very localized and relevant and you remember why so many people live their lives rarely feeling or thinking anything at all. I hadn’t felt anything – not the least connection with anyone there – for the first 45 minutes, except perhaps hunger and isolation.

Pictures from the evening tell a different story. Everyone is focused and smiling and close and enjoying a shared experience of camaraderie and seafood. And of course, these days it’s also somehow normalized and necessary to look at the pictures immediately, as if looking at your sake and squid salad on a screen enhances the reality and pleasure of having them right in front of you. I want to say that I don’t understand, but I do. I understand what it means to grasp at straws for conversation, because even though so many people resist it with their actions and habits, I think most of us DO want to love and connect with each other. We have just forgotten how, or perhaps have forgotten that it takes effort. Eleven different perfect and unremarkable hairstyles were documented this evening. I counted. I don’t know how many shades of lipstick or eye shadow. I only know that collectively, hours must have been spent getting ready for an evening of socializing, and still people arrived completely unprepared to relate to each other. My roommate spent 45 minutes in front of the mirror before we left, and during a conversation about how everyone looks so nice, bragged about how little time she spent preening.

The whole ordeal was over after two hours. We even had separate checks, so there was never any need for me to know any of the people’s names on the other side of the table, or what kind of fish they liked, or if they were as overwhelmed by the menu and evening as I was. I managed to duck out as soon as I got my card back and walked home, trying to make sense of it all: misanthropy and love and sushi bars, in the middle of a desert.

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all of my friends are updating their blogs these days. why not me?

Update: upon publishing this post, wordpress gave me the following message:

“This is your 83rd post. Great! This post has 13 words.”

Positive reinforcement at its best.

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Borders to Democracy

Cornel West spoke several days ago at the University of Arizona. I didn’t know much about him — I’ve only read a couple of his articles about immigration — and didn’t realize he was such a huge name. There were easily fifteen hundred people at the event. He spoke as part of the ongoing series of events, “Who Draws the Line? Social Justice Perspectives on Diversity.”

Honestly, I was not prepared for what I was in for. Usually at this sort of lecture, I take notes about events and ideas that I have not heard of. But Cornel West barely said anything that could be considered academic outright – he did cite a lot of different facts and statistics and their authors, but not as what he was saying, but to support what he was saying, which I think is a concept that social justice academics lack a lot of the time. They are too busy talking about their research.

Anyway, the point is that he spoke powerfully. He was engaging. He was incredibly personable and human and passionate and I know the reason many people don’t speak like him is because it takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of people and tell them how you feel instead of what you know. Nowadays, as he said, “too many people don’t want to be courageous. They just want money.”

Continue reading

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I am feeling really strange these days, mostly due to this job. I’m the volunteer coordinator for a non-profit that puts water out in the desert for migrants and has an aid station on the Mexico border for deportees. I feel like my role within the activists I interact with has moved from thinking of ways to empower vunerable people to thinking of ways to improve and protect our organization. I also feel really weird about the fact that a humanitarian problem now means job security for me. If they were to pass any sort of competent immigration reform right NOW, I would probably be jobless very quickly. Putting myself in a situation (this job) where I would have mixed feelings about that, even if 99% of them would be “awesome awesome awesome” and only 1% “what am I going to eat?!” almost seems to be against my goals. I feel that an important part of being part of a social justice movement is making sure not to put yourself in situations where you might be tempted to join “the other side,” much like Christians protect their belief by never reading science books, or reading them with selective understanding.

But anyway, I’m here, and I don’t think I’m going to quit, so I might as well talk about the actual work: There are so many people from so many places (as far as Canada and Germany, as close as people I meet in the street in Tucson) that want to help. And my job is to tell them how they can do that – and honestly, I don’t know what to do with them all! We are not limited by the work that has to be done, but by the work we (as an organization) can provide.

What I want is to know what to tell these people. I want to ask my roommate, who is a history major with a focus on labor movements and writing his thesis on the social movements of young people in the United States, what HE would have happen if he had a lot of people who were saying, “we want to be part of this movement.”

But I’m worried that he’ll tell me there are no answers. If there were, we would know them, wouldn’t we? Sometimes I feel like I am incredibly under-qualified for my job, being so unsure about everything, but I know that historically, even people who have a lot more training and experience than I do haven’t changed much from this position. I only know this from the fact that nothing substantial is happening. Our organization continually loses people who want to be part of an anti-racist humanitarian-centered movement because we are unable to mobilize them! As much as we “resist” racist legislation here in Arizona, it continues to get passed. As much as we learn about and document abuses at the hands of our government, people continue to get shoved into cactus and taken away from their children and denied access to water in the DESERT, of all places. I’m not saying resistance is futile and we should just give up – but I think we need to resist BETTER. I do not see any organizational improvement where I feel it’s really necessary – but every day, there’s a new way to brush your teeth faster in the morning so you can get to work earlier and make more money and shave more closely and effectively so that no one has to get razorburn. THIS IS WHERE HUMAN ENERGY AND CREATIVITY IS GOING!? Where and when does educational theory turn into practice as far as social  movements go?

In reality, I do know some answers. I just don’t know how to address them. First of all, I really believe that it’s great that people come down to the border to volunteer – BUT – they need to understand that the action isn’t all here. It’s everywhere – people are getting deported and exploited in Chicago and New York and Tennessee and oh god, Idaho. So it bothers me when people say they want to help, but that they feel they have to be here to do it. I want to say, “stay home! start organizing over there!”

The other thing I know is that the government has no interest in ending death and suffering in the desert or in comprehensive immigration reform. This is because it’s beneficial to them to have cheap and quiet labor. The solution to immigration problems is not going to come from lobbying our “representatives.” Its backbone is going to be in labor rights and corporate boycotts. You DEFINITELY don’t have to be on the border to be involved with that. No More Deaths is just a somewhat effective bandaid on our country’s damaged skin – the true cure has to involve the whole body.

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Guernica / Aviva Chomsky: Testimonies from the Desert: What’s Behind Our Standard of Living?

Guernica / Aviva Chomsky: Testimonies from the Desert: What’s Behind Our Standard of Living?.

The first and last paragraphs of this are really powerful:

In early March I spoke about immigration rights in a colleague’s class at Salem State. “We can’t be expected to take care of all the world’s needy people,” one student protested. “If we let in everybody who wanted to come, we couldn’t maintain our standard of living here.”… “Nobody,” I wish I had told the student, “ever asked ‘us’ to take care of all the world’s poor. Maybe, though, we could work towards a world in which the world’s poor do not have to spend their lives taking care of us.”

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in which quantification is oddly satisfying to me

I only kept track for the last six months. This is rather unfortunate, as most of my time was spent in the desert, and not anywhere near I could buy anything if I wanted to. My groceries were mainly provided where I was, so I didn’t have to buy much of my own food. The last two weeks were spent traveling and spending a LOT of money on eating out. So the results are kind of…useless…But still interesting. It was definitely not useless to see the actual amounts I spent in the past month traveling. I was shocked. I know I was traveling, but still, I feel weird looking at the amount I spent eating out, even though in the previous five months I spent nearly nothing on it. It’s definitely something to look out for, as far as spending goes.

My friend Anahita told me that on average, Americans spend roughly a third of their income on food, and that fraction is very low compared to other countries. Since I didn’t keep track of what percentage of income I spent, just how I spent what I did spend (I’m pretty good about saving), it’s not really comparable. But it’s interesting to note that exactly 34% of the money I spent was on food…

I’m pretty excited to have a long-term (well, nine months is long term to me), stable job and life, mostly because I’ll be able to observe my spending patterns over a longer and more informing chunk of time. I’m going to try to do this every month this year instead of spending an entire Sunday afternoon early next year adding.

Okay, 2010. I have quantified everything I can. I am officially done with you.

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Books Read in 2010

Good year for reading, but never good enough…After this, 2010 is almost over. I just have one more thing to record about it. I am kind of obsessive about recording and analyzing things (as if it’s not obvious by the fact that I have been recording my thoughts all over the internet for nearly half my life).

One star is “good,” two stars is “great.” I’m also including some key subject words and commentary if the title doesn’t make what the book is about obvious.

1. The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss – Claire Nouvian

2. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga – Colonial Africa/Feminism/Bicultural inner struggles

3. Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the city’s most unwanted inhabitants by Robert Sullivan

4. Dead in their Tracks: Crossing America’s Desert Borderlands in the New Era: Mark Annerino

*5. What is the What by Dave Eggers – Sudanese refugees

6. Under the Bridge: Stories from the Border by Rosario San Miguel

**7. Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut

8. Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbot Abbot

**9. As the World Burns: Fifty Things you Can Do To Stay in Denial – Graphic novel/ecocide

10. Better OFF: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende – Amish living

**11. the art of racing in the rain by garth stein

*12. Say You’re One of Them Uwem Akpan – Short stories with children protagonists set in Africa

13. Beyond the Rice Paddies by Linda West – Vietnam war memoir

14. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig – “philosophy.” I greatly disliked this book.

15. A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhov – Kommunist Russia memoir

**16. O Pioneers by Willa Cather – Swedish immigrants on an American homestead. I love Willa Cather.

**17. An Autobiography, or The Story of my Experiments with Truth by Mohandas Ghandi – AMAZING.

**18. You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train – Howard Zinn – Zinn’s autobiography. Quick and good.

19. Naturalist – E.O. Wilson – This book was a memoir and talked a lot about ants and academia. It was interesting.

20. Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us – Kate Bornstein

21. Banker to the Poor – Muhammed Yunus – The beginning of the microfinance industry by the winner of the nobel peace prize

*22. The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto “Che” Guevara – Didn’t have Gael Garcia Bernal, but there was a tone in the book which could not be reached in the movie.

**23. The Complete Humorous Sketches of Mark Twain – Hilarious. A good mid-year break from all the serious stuff I had been reading, but not complete fluff, either.

24. Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman

**25. Jazz – Toni Morrison – The same usual themes Toni Morrison has, in the same AMAZINGLY WRITTEN way

**26. The Master and Margarita – Bulgakov – Can’t really explain what this is about, but it’s worth it.

27. The Death of Bunny Munro – Nick Cave – Stay away from Nick Cave’s books. Stick to his music.

28. One Hundred Demons – Lynda Barry

*29. johnny got his gun – dalton trumbo

30. i am america and so can you – stephen colbert

**31. the bluest eye – toni morrison

**32. song of solomon – toni morrison

*33. watershed: the undamming of america – elizabeth grossman – literally about dams. Sounds boring, actually very interesting.

34. Bless Me, Ultima – Rudolfo Anaya

35. A Mercy – Toni Morrison – wasn’t as much of a fan as the rest.

*36. High Tide in Tucson – Barbara Kingsolver – great essays. Better to read if you live in Tucson, but I’m sure they’re enjoyable otherwise.

*37. Love – Toni Morrison

38. Secrets, Lies and Democracy – Noam Chomsky

39. On Democratic Education – Howard Zinn

**40. Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey – Abbey’s time in Utah. GREAT BOOK.

**41. dry – augusten borroughs – alcoholism

**42. Deschooling Society – Ivan Illich – getting rid of institutions in society

**43. y: the last man – brian k. vaughan and pia guerra – apocalyptic graphic novel in which all the men except one die of a mysterious disease. The end sucks, but the other 59 issues are worth it.

**44. a power governments cannot suppress – howard zinn – essays on various movements in American history

**45. teaching to transgress: teaching as a practice of freedom – bell hooks – pedagogy/teaching/social justice

46. a sand county almanac – aldo leopold – nature essays

47. Residence on Earth – Pablo Neruda – poetry. I don’t like Pablo Neruda as much as I thought I did.

*48. footnotes on gaza – joe sacco – graphic novel set in Gaza.

*49. kiss of the spider woman – manuel puig – two people meet in an Argentine prison

**50. player piano – kurt vonnegut – deindustrialization/revolution/satire

**51. how the garcia girls lost their accent – Julia Alvarez – four sisters move from the Dominican Republic to the US

52. Chomsky on Miseducation – edited by Daniel Macedo

53. The Tortilla Curtain – T. Coraghessan Boyle – takes place in “so cal,” tells the story of an immigrant and a wealthy nature writer whose lives cross paths

Some quickly-counted subject-to-fault statistics:

By Topic

Science and ecology/ecological politics: 7
Anti-modern society: 4
Politics and history: 11
Africa: 3
Immigration: 4
Philosophy: 2
Education: 3

Recommendations always welcome, particularly in the above-mentioned categories. Goals for next year include more stuff in Spanish, about Latin America, education, and finally finishing whatever I haven’t read by Kurt Vonnegut (it’s not much).

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