Still Not Funny – On not giving in to humorlessness

I’ve been moved by a number of things I’ve read in these last few days. Blog posts, Twitter threads, news analysis and more. I’m listening. I’m processing and wondering.

I work with children during the day. I insist that we work to be fair to each other and kind and respectful; that we play our games safely and involve everyone. If I raise my voice, I have told them, it probably is because I have a concern about safety. I’m afraid someone might be hurt. They understand this even if it may surprise them in the moment. We have a relationship and trust each other.

My 9 year old and I were talking at the dinner table. He has a gift for the dramatic and was applying it while assembling his hamburger fixings. When I mentioned his tendency to dramatize, he responded: “You didn’t raise me to be humorless.”

Humorless is a interesting word choice for a 9 year old.

It’s true and he’s right, I haven’t raised him or his older brother to be humorless. On the contrary, humor is central to our relationships. This is good to remember as I feel my humor running low these days.

I’m frustrated by a lot of what I see in mainstream media, particularly in its highly conciliatory coverage of the US President-elect. There is so much focus on what he says when we know after a nearly 2 year campaign that he fabricates, lies and denies on a regular basis. His word is never his bond.

The unbelievable rush to generate clicks overrides every design to report with integrity. The examples are far too many and egregious to list. Painting neo Nazis as young, stylish folks, actually discussing if Jews are human on CNN, raising the question if the Vice President-elect was “harassed” by the cast members of Hamilton…and on and on. I keep shaking my head –  although disbelief is not an option I’ve told myself already.

I cannot laugh. I keep wondering – where are those helpers that Fred Rogers’ mom always told him to look out for? Where are the opposition leaders among our elected representatives? Because the catastrophe is upon us and just getting started.

So I’ve made my peace with the fact that there will be no saviors. I feel like many of us are experiencing a crisis of expectation. We keep believing that things will happen differently: it won’t be so bad, it’s only four years, that he won’t be all bad… Our false and completely inaccurate expectations – based on convention, level of privilege, and/or ignorance are leading us down a path towards our own destruction – and we’re walking it. Perhaps there’s a little apprehension in our step but because so many of us want to believe – That we’ll be alright, that they don’t really mean us any harm – we follow like the children behind the pied piper – oh how we fall in line.

If the New York Times or Washington Post aren’t  bent out of shape at the proposed cabinet members or the recent convention of white nationalists in Washington, DC praising the incoming President complete with Nazi salutes, well then, it can’t be so bad, can it? But precisely this must be our cue. The sign that something is very rotten, not in Denmark but in these divided United States.

Even as I am overwhelmed with anger, disappointment and frustration – my sons have not raised me to be humorless. On the contrary.  As I find my own way to resist the spectacle of the current developments, I will need to hold on to my capacity for humor, laughter and fun. To my sons and my students, I owe them at least that much.

Special thanks to Eric Spreng for his wonderful essay on why we need to write ourselves free from despair which helped me write this post in the midst of my confusion.

 

Faking it has made it

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This will likely be a short and quick post*. I am

  • amazed
  • devastated
  • appalled
  • mystified
  • overwhelmed
  • astounded

at the position we as a world find ourselves in currently. I say “world”because although I refer to the current governance developments taking shape in the no-longer-quite United States, we as a world are bound to pay the price on more levels than we can perhaps appreciate right now.

I hold US citizenship but live in Europe. I am far away from the full on day-to-day media saturation trumpeting news of the president elect and his cabinet under construction. That said, even at this distance, my anxieties and fears are being confirmed and inflamed regarding the direction public (and soon-to-be private) affairs are headed, for vulnerable and marginalized populations in particular.

And so it is with great dismay and shock that I come to terms with this notion of “post-truth,” although I already alerted friends to call me out if I publicly register disbelief at the emerging state of affairs.

What I am struggling with is the notion of how hard we will all have to work to separate lies from truth, particularly those coming from “official” sources. I like to fancy myself a fan of critical thought, of deeper than surface level research and exposition – but really, if I need to become a full time investigator for every.single.claim. that comes out of the White House and all related agencies – I am sunk.

With each new morsel of “news” we literally have to ask ourselves: Is this real? Because the possibility, no, likelihood that it is fake has never been higher. Fake news is at an all time high in popularity both for generators as well as for consumers. It creates profit! Which means that it is here to stay. And members of the incoming US leadership are high rollers in the fake news market.

Let that sink in. We can never assume that anyone with any bit of significant authority in the highest levels of US government is telling the truth. About anything. We cannot rely on traditional media to have done (or to do) their due diligence in reporting (because faster gets more clicks; viral makes money).

Christine Xu writes about the spread of rumors in China in support of the then Republican candidate for President and suggests:

The spread of small falsehoods and uncertainty is murkier, more organic, and much harder to undo. The distortions of reality come in layers, each more surreal than the last. Fighting it requires more than just pointing out the facts; it requires restoring faith in a shared understanding of the truth. This is the lesson Americans need to learn, and fast.

As the election fallout becomes denser and less readily navigable, this information uncertainty arises like an unexpected plague – a virus we struggle to diagnose, let alone treat. This is what I was not prepared for: having to fight for the truth, a genuine truth.

In my own world, I’m still a fan of integrity – in individuals and groups, in institutions. I see now that I can add this to my list of ‘things to fight for’.

Here’s the opening to a Twitter thread that helped my thinking mainly by sounding the alarm bells:

And this thread left a similar mark covering the same maneuver.

Part of the lesson here for me is to stop being surprised. Rather, I am charged with being cautious and vigilant. The deeper, more serious challenge becomes one of remaining open to trust: of my neighbors, my colleagues, acquaintances and friends.

So let us all pause, take a deep breath and realize where we are and what this means. I suspect those of you who have been reading dystopian sci-fi are feeling less aghast than others of us. Help us out. Be patient.

Let’s cull and curate our sources carefully. Which means we may need to slow down to do it.

 

* I may have believed this when I started writing but it is no longer the case. Not short, not quick, not the truth. It was in fact, unlikely. #fulldisclosure

I Notice

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I notice that the US President elect seems particularly fascinating to adolescent boys of privilege. His bad boy, break-all-the-rules-and-still-win example strikes a chord with many. While none of them would claim to want to grow up to become a nasty and morally reprehensible character ( I don’t think), for now it’s enough to know that a certain brand of misogynist swagger is all in style nowadays.

I notice that there were some people who knew and described exactly that the Republican candidate would succeed and how it would happen. But those were not the voices I was tuned into. I waited with the benevolent believers who thought our hopes would be enough to carry a woman into the position of President of the United States.

I notice that the voices of reconciliation and unity resonate briefly with me because society and a particular kind of upbringing tell me they should. For now they are more like echoes in an empty hall. I hear them but am neither moved nor especially attentive to their call. Instead, I listen for the messiness in people’s reactions. I make space for the anger, resentment and the need to lay blame. These are part and parcel of the human condition. To move along without grieving, without acknowledging the weight of our emotions is to fail the test of humanity. Be all of it and then consider what’s next. We don’t have to have those answers today. But we can work to know ourselves a little better, a little more deeply than before.

I notice how my teaching the presence of children grounds me like no other experience. My students’ multifaceted needs to be seen, recognized, comforted, and praised override my momentary preoccupations with myself. And I feel grateful to them for calling me back to my purpose: to be a guide and example for them. With them I remember that I can be whole even if I am feeling undercut by forces beyond their control.

I notice how I read and respond in these first strange days. In a vital conversation with fellow bloggers of color, I asserted that my active voicing of social justice themes in my writing is still relatively new in my life. I am a beginner in many respects. I suggested that I’m not even sure I could call myself “woke.” “Waking up” feels much more accurate if I’m being honest with myself and the world. So in my reading, I seek out connection more than content. I identify with stories more than analysis. Few, or better, no think pieces for now. Because all my thinking is in pieces I am not yet ready to stitch together.

These are what I am noticing as I feel my way through these first odd days. Some words I have read and heard which help me develop context, perspective, breathing space:

From my octagenarian uncle in Seattle: “remember, racism is in the water supply.”

From Audrey Watters in “Trumped Up Data”:

I don’t believe that answers are found in “data” (that is, in “data” as this pure objective essence of “fact” or “truth”). Rather, I believe answers – muddier and more mutable and not really answers at all – live in stories.

These questions from Bill Fitzgerald, “How Do We Support Each Other As We Do The Work?”

  • What does it mean to create a safe space for learning for black and brown kids when the leader of the country considers people that look like them to be terrorists, rapists, or drug dealers who should be kicked out of the country?
  • What does it mean to stand up against bullying when we have a leader who incorporated abusive behavior as a campaign strategy?
  • What does it mean to encourage honesty when we have a leader who actively ignores the truth?
  • What does it mean to educate women when we have a leader who consistently demeans women based on their physical appearance, and who brags of sexual assault?

And this tweet:

Notice. For now this is what I can do.

How it works when it’s not working

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Part of my day job involves working with people who are not always inclined to listen to what I have to say or to do things the way I want to have them done. I try not to take it personally but it’s hard.

Sometimes I encounter individuals who refuse to join in an activity I have designed especially for them. Some of them cry or turn their backs to me when I approach them with requests to change their minds.

It happens that some people I observe on a regular basis struggle to meet all the social, emotional and cognitive demands placed on them. Their coping strategies are multiple and varied. My responses are not always as compassionate as I could make them.

Some of the people I describe are very young and many are not so young any more. Some of them I count as students, others as friends and family members. Some of the people I know well and others I am just getting to know. All of the people above are people I care about.

I have also been all of them at different points and in different stages of my life.

When things aren’t working for one of these people on my watch,

Instead of saying “Don’t cry,” I ask: “Do you need to cry about it a little more?”

Instead of running to crowd them with my comforting platitudes, I leave them alone, give them some space and come back later when the jets have cooled.

Instead of telling them my own story in a similar situation, I try not to talk , or I talk about them by sharing my observations: What I see, like, and hope for them.

Instead of rushing to explain, I try to slow down and listen for understanding.

 

Things don’t work for us all the time. Things don’t work for others all of the time. Learning to respect that space where situations can change and develop without direct intervention is hard. It’s unnatural to many of us. We want to fix things; make them better. Make the baby stop crying. Immediately.

But sometimes the baby needs to cry.

The loved one needs to be left alone.

The student needs space to reach their own decision.

We need silence more than we need talk sometimes.

When things are not working, some of us need to simply stop working.

That’s a particularly hard lesson to learn.

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images via Pixabay.com CC0

The Self Who Shall Not Be Named

The other day I bumped into two colleagues who happen to be counselors. When the first greeted me with a warm hug and asked how I was, I took the risk of honesty: “I’m frustrated, tired and kind of angry.” He asked why and I shared my hard luck story about a stolen wallet and trying to get my Austrian visa replaced. The second counselor nodded, paraphrased and validated. I appreciated that moment. Thanks to my psych-savvy colleagues, I was able to vent, have my need to vent recognized, and as a result, move on.

Sometimes that kind of acceptance can happen for us in the moments when we need it most, but not always. On my good days, I try to be available for people to be honest with me – to take the time to listen carefully without trying to fix, cure or paper over the topic at hand. On my not so good days, I can usually still offer a sympathetic ear but I may be distracted by my own challenges in that moment.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: Talking about ourselves is subject to multiple sets of unspoken rules which vary widely depending on context and people involved. I think we learn this as we grow and develop a spectrum of relationships. And still we fail the exam again and again in everyday situations: at work, at home, at large. Human communication is inherently fraught it seems.

So I’m coming to terms with the phenomenon in increasingly intimate terms: The Self Who Shall Not Be Named. Here are some of the rules I will risk airing:

  • Being a woman talking about herself is likely to be understood as either vain or whining, so keep it crisp, humble and above all, brief.
  • Direct claims of exhaustion are invalid. Euphemisms like “underslept”, “not well rested,”  “feeling a little under the weather” may get me a few more minutes of air time.
  • People who believe to know me best may feel entitled to a sort of “free pass” which excuses them from having to listen too closely or empathetically because well, you know, they get it already, and this isn’t the first time, right?
  • Once in a while I may feel heard or even understood. This is often fleeting and entirely unpredictable. I savor it while I can and move on.

Good listening is hard to find. And while being a good listener may put you into contact with other strong listeners, they may not be right there when you need them. For now, recognizing and naming the phenomenon that has quietly sucked the wind out of my sails one breath at a time is already a big step.

Sometimes I am going to dare to talk about myself, my issues, my successes, my vulnerabilities with others. In some cases I will feel heard, understood and validated. In other cases, I will recognize when my voice and my story are not welcomed.

There are no great tips here for how to sidestep this pitfall because I don’t have them. If I’m angry and frustrated I want to be able to say so. Cultivating the relationships in which it is safe to do that is a lifelong pursuit, I suppose.

Damn that lifelong learning.

The world is not always our target audience

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I’ve been thinking about privacy and exposure in the context of this ongoing feel-your-way journey of cultivating a digital presence. On a personal level, this does not seem overly complicated. I make my choices and have to live with the consequences. The degree to which I keep myself informed as to my risks and rights in my personal use and application of particular digital tools and platforms is up to me. I can’t easily hold anyone else accountable for the choices I make on my own behalf.

But that’s the catch. My digital engagements (entanglements, perhaps?) by their very nature almost inevitably involve other people: their work, their images, their responses, our shared interactions. If I take a picture with my phone and share it on social media, it is mine; until of course someone else finds another use for it and can choose to credit the source or not. In  most cases, it seems highly unlikely that I would ever learn of any other use unless I pursued a distinct search. If that same image contains another person, then sharing the photo on social media or other open internet platform should only happen if that person has actively consented. (This is based on my fuzzy understanding of model release and use of public domain images. Which is another way to say, “don’t quote me on any of this.”)

Enter, my work in a school. I happen to work in a resource-rich learning environment which means that I and my colleagues and our students have remarkable access to hard- and software to make the most of our digital skills. In my own PE classes I have an iPad and an iPod touch, reliable and generous bandwidth access, a beamer in one space and stereo systems in both teaching spaces. I use Spotify playlists for my classes and can show short playback videos of kids performing various skills and because I can, I now take several pictures of my kids in action.

What happens with all those pictures and video clips? Some are shared with families individually to celebrate a highlight or to document a specific difficulty. Some become resources for our online curriculum archives – providing useful exemplars of successful skill applications. And still others find space on our PE website. Our school has an opt-out policy with regards to use of student images. Families may inform the school if their child’s or children’s pictures may not be used in any school related media, print or online. Unless such a statement is delivered, consent is assumed and images of students may be used in various media. As policies go, this is not uncommon among schools and districts of various sizes.

Not too long ago, privacy expert in the field of education, Bill Fitzgerald (@funnymonkey) raised this question:

And I’ve been thinking about this ever since. In a highly informative post on student directory information he points out that he does not count a school’s website as belonging to social media as they typically receive far less traffic than social media accounts. So our sharing of student images, while available to “the world,” all those images and accompanying words are really designed for our school community to enjoy: students, families, colleagues, alumni and any other interested parties.

So as I become more comfortable with various video and slideshow making tools and posting these to youtube to then share on our website, I want to be sure that my colleague and I are asking ourselves some critical questions.

  • Which story are we telling?
  • How will our students benefit?
  • How will this grow our teaching, expand our repertoire, and/or contribute to the community?

Not every blog post that we put up needs to be broadcast on Twitter or Facebook. But a single photo sent home to a parent celebrating a recent success can make all kinds of difference. Drawing the line between posting for the sake of being seen posting and posting to inform and include is healthy practice in which many more of us could afford to engage.

For our PE website, the world is not our target audience. We’re not out to prove how great our teaching is or how talented our population – rather it is an opportunity to provide parents and colleagues a window into our day-to-day operations with elementary students. And the process has helped me realize how important it is for students to see themselves! So I have promised myself that once I get a slideshow up and running, our first audience needs to be the kids we are featuring. We owe them that much. And, in fact, so much more.

image via Pixabay.com

Naming Names

Alec Couros raised a question on Twitter.

The responses were swift and many. Multiple lists of Twitter personalities, representing a handful of recognizable networks of folks in both PK-12 and higher education appeared. Much gratitude was conveyed and several statements of mutual admiration shared. My own Twitter handle showed up in more than one list. This is always an honor and I do not take such recognition lightly. Generally, serial responses of Twitter users singing each others’ praises through hashtags such as Friday Follow #FF and #SundayScholars are positive moments on a platform where on the other end of the behavior spectrum extremely vicious and harmful attacks on individuals and groups can be unforgiving, relentless and a daily phenomenon.

I also appreciate Alec’s question about the people who push and stretch our thinking about education and the wider world. The question itself is an invitation to think carefully about the connections between our online encounters and our inner processes to take on new ideas, or wrestle with controversy, or to simply to place ourselves on a spectrum of experience. Who are the people who make this happen for us – perhaps regularly? The many lists which emerged today suggest more than popularity metrics and that is important to acknowledge.

At the same time, as the train of responses grew longer and the overlapping increased, intermingled with congratulatory back and forth, I had an odd feeling. Even as my own handle cropped up here, and then there, and then again a little later, I felt a little strange.  If I step away from several personal connections I find among these varying clusters of mentions, I see lists of names and handles which suddenly lack a necessary context. So many names of people whose work and presence I value piled up in various 140 character combinations – somehow today this felt like a let down.

Because when I name a name, I want you to know exactly, explicitly why. Considering our world in which data (often numerical) takes greater prominence, creating lists or collections of names and handles suggests that this is enough. Get the Twitter handle, follow, welcome fresh insights. If only it were that simple.

If we truly want to help each other see and take advantage of what’s available, we need to spend more time (which many would claim we don’t have) to provide the necessary context. If you have followed this blog for a while you will know that @AudreyWatters and @TressieMcPhD have rocked my intellectual world in significant ways over the last 3 years. You will have heard me crow about my online mentors and explain precisely which people allow me to claim Twitter as a sort of online homebase.

Context, context, context – we are going to need more and more of it in our information-overloaded existences, not less. We may not need to follow all the wonderful folks who are writing and challenging, protesting and clarifying – but we will need the critical referral that connects us to the blog post, the rebuttal, the upcoming event which meets us right where we need to go next. Recently, I was introduced to @schmutzie’s (Elan Morgan’s) Five Star Mixtape in which she assembles a weekly cross section of  blog readings and found one post which literally opened my world up to an understanding I wasn’t even aware that I was lacking. So sometimes it can be a single piece of writing or a video or podcast that tips the scales. Let’s also remember this when we create lists. We need both the people and their work.

Yes, please tell us whom you appreciate and why and then feed us with the substance we need to go further. Provide us with the tools to get beneath the surface. Retweet with a comment. Leave a comment on the blog itself. Name names and wrap them in context. These days that can be a genuine gift.