May My Reputation Precede Me

Friday night began Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, and perhaps unsurprisingly, stacked with the sudden loss to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I’ve been thinking deeply about the legacy I hope to leave after my ife and the reputation others will hear of me while I’m still living.

Perhaps these two things are unrelated. Perhaps legacy is the more important measure of a person’s life, but today, my mind settles strongly on the idea of reputation.

What is reputation? What is my reputation? And what do I hope it says of me?

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May the Mob Be Ever in Your Favor

Lately I’ve witnessed the toxicity of social media. I have no intention of going into the details here, but essentially a tasteless post became viral, and the public backlash came incredibly close to me personally. I had witnessed this same excoriating rage previously, but had refrained from jumping aboard the bandwagon. “It’s none of my business,” I said.

Well, now it’s my business.

And because of that, I was struggling to really articulate my thoughts on the matter and all the nuances of circumstance versus values versus reality. It’s a messy process.

Finally, I posted the following on Facebook. It was, I fear, opening a can of worms.

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Feeling, Wild, and White

About a month ago I posted my updated “Book-it” List of books I’d like to read before the year’s end (a literally impossible goal, but I’m okay with that; I’ve often remarked humorously that if I ever found a genie in a bottle who offered me just one wish, with the usual caveats of not asking for love or immortality, I’d simply have to wish to live until I’d read everything on my reading list and then, by default, I’d live forever because it’s always growing).

Since then, I’ve read approximately six titles.

It’s worth talking about a few of them.

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Event Horizon

It’s been about two weeks since I’ve published a post. I’ve written a couple, part of an extended metaphorical discussion of mental illness that I’ve been adding onto for maybe two months but have yet to feel like it’s “complete” enough for publishing.

Probably that doesn’t matter. I don’t need five or six or maybe seven posts on backlog, although that might not be a bad thing since school starts again in two weeks.

The truth is, I want to write meaningfully. Cheap writing isn’t my style. (Not that cheap writing doesn’t have value; it’s just not the right fit for me.) But this often means I’m struggling to find inspiration. Which is often shorthand for “my depression is making me so lethargic and lackluster that I’m not sure I could write something even if I tried” or “my anxiety is keeping me so strung up that I can’t stay still long enough to even think about writing.”

I’m a work in progress. The world is a work in progress.

So we progress.

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Making Mistakes

Today we’re learning distribution. I’ve just done a few whole-class examples and now I’ve put some practice exercises on the board.

As my students begin copying them into their notebooks (so they can show their work), I begin circulating the classroom.

My intent is clear: identify mistakes and correct them. This is important, both artificially because it’s on state exams and implicitly because the relationship between multiplication and addition that is distribution has profound impacts on number systems that underlie a plethora of physical phenomena and theoretical constructs alike.

The first few students I check in with are plowing ahead, all the way to the second question already. Then I get to one of my struggling learners. Let’s call him Joe.

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Hear, O Israel

It’s been over ten years since I visited Israel, and yet I still see that time as a formative period in my life: It was the first time when I came out to a large community of people, and the support and love I received encouraged me to live more openly as a gay man.

When I started college, later when I added a second major in political science to my degree, I focused primarily on national politics: After all, it was my desire to achieve LGBTQ civil rights in the US that first drove me to political activism. Even later, when my responsibilities directed my focus toward pedagogy and equity in education, inevitably my involvement in politics waned.

And with it all, so did my awareness of current events in Israel. As a child, I heard most of my Israeli news from my rabbi’s sermons every Shabbat; when I moved to college and no longer regularly attended services, that avenue of information closed, and I was so focused on my studies and campus involvement that I never searched out that information on my own.

Now, in the news, there are big talks about annexation and sovereignty and human rights and racism–and as a Jew, what else can I do but to do what I do best: write about it?

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The Black Guy

I remember attending a party, a get-together, maybe I was just out at the bar. A few days later, I was talking with a friend, and he was asking if I knew someone there. “He had short hair, a white t-shirt…” the descriptions kept going, and literally they could describe half the people in the room. So finally I asked, “The Black guy?”

My friend got flustered and didn’t know what to say. Finally he stammered, “Yeah.”

I shrugged and said, yeah, I knew him, and said his name. End of story.

Except it isn’t, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how I’ve been racialized, how I’ve been shaped as a white man, how as a white man I’ve made mistakes that have hurt the people of color around me, that I’ve done things I thought were right that were actually pretty racist.

So why did my friend feel so horrified to fully describe that person as Black?

On the surface, as another white person, I’m sure he felt that if he acknowledged a Black person’s race that he would be doing something racist–it’s bad to describe people based upon their race. But that’s wrong: race is as valid a descriptor as height, hair color, or if he has hair at all. It isn’t until we make assumptions based upon race that it turns into prejudice, and it isn’t until that prejudice turns into action that it becomes discrimination.

But the fact that he couldn’t say, “He was Black,” screams of racism.

Think of it like this: What if instead of being Black, the man had done something embarrassing that would’ve immediately made his identity known. Maybe he’d dripped cheese dip on his sweater. Maybe he forgot to zip his fly. Maybe he came overdressed to a casual party. To call him out on any of these things would be describing him according to a fact that we perceive as embarrassing, as impolite to mention, as undesirable and inferior.

So we wouldn’t say, “He spilled wine on his pants,” because that would be rude, so when we refuse to name his race, when we refuse to acknowledge his Blackness, then what’s the unspoken conclusion we’re creating about what it means to be Black?

That being Black is undesirable and inferior.

Erasing parts of his identity to appear in-offensive implies there’s something offensive about the part of his identity we’re erasing. When we ignore race, when we refuse to see race, when we insist we’re colorblind, we’re perpetrating racism by stifling the conversation. By implying that just acknowledging someone’s race is calling them out for being something bad.

Moments like this bubble up for me all the time. Small bits of memory that seep into my awareness at odd moments throughout the day, while I’m watching something on TV, reading a book, hanging out with friends. They’re innocuous moments, the sort of filler that’s too bland, too real to ever be captured in cinema or script. Yet something about those moments riled me inside, left me unsettled and questioning: Why? Why did I react like that? Why did he?

It’s uncomfortable, I’ll admit, but maybe I’m a masochist: Examining that discomfort feels meaningful, feels significant. I don’t have all the answers, I don’t know the solutions to the problems we’re facing, but maybe by looking back at these instances of cognitive dissonance, I can discover something about myself, something about the world I’m living in.

So, yeah, he was the Black guy. Why couldn’t we just say that from the start?

Why I still read racist, sexist, and transphobic stories

Consider this: HP Lovecraft and JRR Tolkien wrote stories that are blatantly, textually racist, but I’ll still cite “The Call of Cthulhu” as one of the greatest horror stories of all time and I’ll fawn over The Lord of the Rings whenever I’m given the chance.

Also consider this: I once attended a book signing for Orson Scott Card, of Ender’s Game fame, who coincidentally is also from North Carolina like I am, and when I asked for his signature on a notepad because I didn’t have the money to buy his new book, he gave me a free copy instead. Years later, as I learned his staunchly conservative views on homosexuality and how he actively promoted homophobic policies, I still happily bought and read his books.

And finally, this: I grew up with Harry Potter, and no matter how many transphobic comments JK Rowling posts on Twitter, I’ll still proudly wear a Golden Snitch tattooed on my forearm and never once question my love and adoration for her books.

But, uh, if I want to be anti-racist, why do I do any of this?

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The “Book It” List

I love reading, and I love books, so much that I have the habit of trying to read too many books at the same time–the highest I’ve counted was over a dozen.

While this does allow me to indulge many interests simultaneously, it also prevents me from making significant progress toward finishing any of these books–which, in the grand scheme of things, I feel holds me back from achieving and experiencing everything I want to read.

So today I’m going to look back at my reading list for the year and try to map out my next steps–to possibly, hopefully, just maybe reach my goal of reading 40 books in 2020. (You know, because it’s 2020, and 20 + 20 = 40, I mean, that’s valid, right?)

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O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart: for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.

T. S. Eliot

In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign. Secondly, a just cause. Thirdly, a rightful intention.

Thomas Aquinas

Your success and happiness lies in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.

Helen Keller

So I begin.

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