Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year’s resolutions: Why bother?

New Year’s resolutions have their usefulness. Maybe it’s a silly gimmick, but as a retiree, I need help keeping track of my time. One of the great rewards of retirement—all that unstructured time-- is also one of the great dangers.

I just took a look at last year’s resolutions to take stock of how I did. As I wrote this time last year:

It's easy to let the days slip by without doing much of anything. The Italians have a phrase for this-—dolce far niente, sweet doing nothing.

Yes, it is pleasant to just relax and hang out, but I really want to finish Feminism in Philly: The Glory Years within the next few years. So I have to make sure dolce far niente doesn’t take over my life.

So how did I do in 2010? Not great, but if I hadn’t been keeping track, I’m sure it would have been much worse. Last year I made four resolutions:

1)I resolved spend at least 2 hours a day on my history of second wave feminism in Philadelphia while I have (I think) full possession of my faculties. I’m sitting on a treasure trove of archival material that a graduate student in history would die for. I’ve promised those who gave me this material that I would tell their story.

2)I resolved to spend 30 minutes reading books/articles in Spanish.

3)I resolved to swim or walk briskly for 30 minutes at least 3 times a week.

4)I resolved to spend at least 20 minutes a day on the kind of housework which is not done as part of my weekly routine: cleaning kitchen cabinets and junk-filled drawers, tackling a filthy basement and cluttered attic.

I failed miserably at aerobic exercise and house–cleaning; it was so bad I just stopped keeping track.

I didn’t do much better with Spanish and when our Spanish group dissolved (people on different levels, no group leader) I stopped keeping track. However, I think I may now be on a roll with Spanish. Thanks to my friend Fran, my husband and I have joined a really serious Spanish group. There is a professor and the group pays her; if you want to learn something, sometimes you just have to pay for instruction. I’m at the very bottom of the class, so it’s not great for the ego. But I’m really stretching, and as a consequence actually learning.

I had the most success with the book project--no doubt because it meant the most. I averaged about an hour a day over 2010 (not counting vacation time). If I hadn’t been keeping track in a very public way, I’m sure I would have made far less progress.

I am making the exact same resolutions this year. Since I have invested so much already in the book, it should be easier to step up production. Also, with my new Spanish group, I have the motivation to try to improve. I will no doubt stay at the bottom of the class, but maybe I can narrow the gap.

My husband and I plan to rejoin our swim club on Jan. 2. We stopped in September as the expiration of our membership coincided with the yearly pool cleaning which usually drags on for a month. We thought: Why not save a month’s membership and renew in October?

Well, October came and there were so many garden chores. We thought: Why not get our exercise doing garden work? We got seriously behind in garden chores, so decided we would work on leaf raking and bulb planting in November. December came and I decided I could get my exercise cleaning our 3 story house and getting it in shape for the holidays. Always an excuse. Well, no more excuses and we’ll be at the pool on Jan.2.

We still haven’t gotten all the leaves raked. They’ve been covered with snow the past week, but now just in time for our New Year’s Day party the snow is melting and we have an ugly mess of melting snow and sodden leaves. As our guests walk by this ugliness, they’ll probably wonder why two retired people couldn’t manage to rake their leaves.

So here I go again making my resolutions in a very public way. This has its advantages. Many of my friends and family members read my blog and sometimes will ask: How’s the book project going? Have you learned Spanish yet? (Nobody’s ever asked me if I’ve cleaned out my basement—-why should anyone care?)

Any body else out here going through this year-end ritual? If anyone has any suggestions for sticking to one’s New Year’s resolutions, please share.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Holidays are so much more relaxing now that I’m retired.

One benefit of retirement is that the holidays are so much more relaxing. When I was teaching I spent the week before the holidays grading papers and making agonizing decisions about final grades.

I usually got my grades in at the last minute so I had the maximum possible time for dithering. I envied my husband Rick who taught Math because he did not have to deal with the inevitable element of subjectivity. It was not so easy in Women’s Studies, the Humanities, English Composition to decide who deserved an A, a B or a C. [The F’s were usually clear-cut.]

And then what to do with good students who disappeared without a word of explanation and missed the final exam. Should I assume some horrible tragedy occurred and give them an incomplete? For my husband, the answer was clear. They got an F. Although that was my official policy, I could never stick to it. But that led to debilitating self-doubt-- could I really justify the incomplete to student X and the failing grade to student Y?

After about a week of this, I was in a state of absolute and total exhaustion. Then there was the job of getting the house in shape for holiday parties. Rick and I have a division of household labor which works very well for us. He does all the cooking and food shopping; I do all the cleaning. (I’m a terrible cook and would so much rather clean a bathroom than make a casserole.)

So after total collapse for a few days after submitting my grades, I then had to tackle house cleaning. As I tended to do less and less cleaning as the semester wore on, by late December the house was a wreck and getting it in shape was a major undertaking. I was sometimes finishing the vacuuming seconds before the guests arrived. I frequently didn’t make it to holiday parties because I was just too tired.

Now there’s no late December collapse, no desperate attempt to get the house in shape hours before a party, and I have the energy accept all the invitations which come our way. And best of all no nagging little thought in the back of my mind: Will I be able to get all my course outlines done in time for resumption of the treadmill in January.

When I was young I loved teaching. As the years wore on, it became so same old, same old and so exhausting. As my friend Alison, a committed teacher in her 50’s said, “teaching is a young person’s game.” This may not be true for university professors teaching one course a semester, but for those of us in the trenches, I think Alison is onto something. (Yes, I know there are exceptions—-the teacher in her 70’s who’s as engaged as she was in her 20’s. But it was clear I wasn’t going to be one of them.)

Anyway for me freedom from that burden has made for a much more relaxing rewarding holiday season!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

An Obama supporter struggles with despair over the tax cut compromise

This has been really hard. As an early Obama supporter,Obama’s election was the high point of my political life and I had unrealistically high expectations. I’ve come down to earth.

Up until the tax cut compromise, I did not share the disillusionment of some liberal/progressives with Obama. He has an impressive record: the stimulus package which kept us from falling into an economic abyss; health care; financial regulations; the rescue of the auto industry and much more for which the President has not gotten anywhere near the credit he deserves. For a list of the President’s impressive list of a accomplishments see WHAT THE FUCK HAS OBAMA DONE SO FAR?

But I thought that letting the Bush tax cuts on high earners expire was an iron-clad promise. Okay, I understand that if nothing was done, the expiration of unemployment benefits and the expiration of tax cuts for the working poor would result in real hardship for struggling families. For those in the lowest tax bracket, income taxes would increase from 10 to 15%. The President could not let that happen.

Considering the cards he was holding, the deal was a lot better than most of us expected. I’ve never bought the argument that the President is a poor negotiator. (Read Jonathan Alters’ The Promise on the tough negotiating stand the President took during the bailout of the auto industry.)

Ironically there are more folks on the right who understand what President Obama managed to accomplish than on the left. From Charles Krauthammer:

President Obama won the great tax-cut showdown of 2010 - and House Democrats don't have a clue that he did.

In the deal struck last week, the president negotiated the biggest stimulus in American history, larger than his $814 billion 2009 stimulus package. It will pump a trillion borrowed Chinese dollars into the U.S. economy over the next two years - which just happen to be the two years of the run-up to the next presidential election. This is a defeat?
If Obama had asked for a second stimulus directly, he would have been laughed out of town. Stimulus I was so reviled that the Democrats banished the word from their lexicon throughout the 2010 campaign. And yet, despite a very weak post-election hand, Obama got the Republicans to offer to increase spending and cut taxes by $990 billion over two years - $630 billion of it above and beyond extension of the Bush tax cuts.

No mean achievement.

Krauthammer may be on to something. In a sense we have a second stimulus bill-–not the most efficient way to stimulate the economy but a stimulus bill nonetheless.

If I had had a vote in congress, I would have tried to improve the deal, but I would have voted for it in the end rather than let those unemployment benefits expire.

But why were we in this predicament? Why did the Democrats wait until after the disastrous mid-terms to tackle this? The White House claims it tried to deal with tax issue before the mid-terms. From The Hill:

The White House said Wednesday that Capitol Hill Democrats are partly to blame for the tax-cut deal they have criticized the president for negotiating....
... White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said President Obama wanted Congress to extend the tax cuts, but there was no consensus on how to do so in the Democratic caucus.
"He and the White House, frankly, urged the House and Senate to hold votes on this before the election," Pfeiffer said on the liberal Bill Press radio show. "But they didn't do that, in part because there's not unanimity in the Democratic Caucus on this."

The President put pressure on legislators to take tough votes on health care, financial regulation, and the stimulus. The capacity for tough votes seem to have been exhausted. Reid and Pelosi were both apparently dead set against taking measures they thought would jeopardize their re-election. I blame the congressional Democrats more than the President for not acting before the mid-terms when they had the votes. Robert Reich puts it best:
That Democrats have allowed themselves to get into this fix is a testament to either their timidity, obtuseness, or dependence on the campaign contributions of those at the top.

I am also really uneasy about the cut in the payroll tax and the long term implications for the solvency of social security. From Robert Reich again:
The only practical effect of adding $858 billion to the deficit will be to put more pressure on Democrats to reduce non-defense spending of all sorts, including Social Security and Medicare, as well as education and infrastructure. .
It is nothing short of Ronald Reagan's (and David Stockman's) notorious "starve the beast" strategy.

So am I upset about the tax cuts for the rich? Yes.
Am I worried about the threat to social security? Yes.
Am I angry with the Democrats for failing to deal with this issue when they had the votes? Yes.
Am I angry with all those Democratic voters who did not bother to vote in November? Yes.

Am I ready to pull the Obama /Biden sticker off our car? Not yet.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Contributions of Others to My Garden

This is a sad time of the year for gardeners. The soil is frozen and my perennials are an ugly brown mess. What keeps us gardeners going during the winter months are the seed catalogues and great garden writing. I received the following post from my friend Fran Waksler which reminded me of the rewards of gardening:

The Contributions of Others to My Garden

I have certainly purchased my share of plants, but I particularly treasure those that, in a variety of ways, came from others. Each tree or plant repeatedly reminds me of them.

When I was a teenager, my mother discovered the yew tree (pictured above) behind her garage. It was about a foot tall and with two short branches--not particularly impressive--but my mother fell in love with it. I moved it to a patch in front of her dining room window where it thrived and grew to about 4 feet.

When my husband and I bought a two-family house with my mother, I dug up her tree to bring with us. It was quite an adventure. The taproot went down forever and I only managed to get most of it out with a friendly workman in the adjoining schoolyard (who, unfortunately, got in trouble with his boss). Because of a snag, passing papers on our house was delayed for three months so the tree languished in burlap through the autumn into the winter. I finally planted it in December and was not optimistic but, as can be seen, it thrived.

As I walk through my garden, I have many fond reminders of others. The forsythia are from my mother’s yard; they were always her favorite. The crabapple tree (Alex and Frances) and rugosa rose (Peter and Susie) were housewarming gifts. The clump birch was a silver anniversary present from Jerry, Hannah, and Jim; it was supposed to be a silver birch, but the clump birch seemed a better choice for us. The dogwood is from Marjie. The kerria in the front garden is a gift from Denise; it came along with a bit of periwinkle that now covers the patch around the kerria. The asters are an indirect gift from Denise: she gave some to Assim who, when they spread too wildly, passed some on to me. The coral bells and sweet woodruff came from Peg. I had purple violets, Mary Ellen had white: now we each have both.

My two-story high white rose (pictured above) as well as my red rose come from my friend at the garden center, who gave them to me one spring because, as he said, “They look too bad to sell, but I’m sure they’ll grow for you.” And they did. (After I planted the white rose, and it was established and 5 feet tall, I realized that it was growing outward instead of inward against the porch where I wanted it. It what at the time I thought of as a bit of madness, I dug it up and turned it around. Despite my fears, it thrived.) And, of course, the purple phlox (and a stray white one) come from Karen, who always comments on how well they like my yard.

Walking through my garden is a visit with all those who have contributed to my garden.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

When a feminist activist retires: From recent retiree, Jocelyn Morris

I’ve long been convinced that there’s a link between happiness and political engagement and recent research supports this. Like my friend Jocelyn Morris, one of my reasons for retiring was to have more time for feminist activism. As the baby boom generation retires, my hope is there will be more and more women like the incredibly talented and amazingly energetic Jocelyn Morris: From Jocelyn:


I retired from the US Army Civilian Corps after 23 years and having been working since I was 14 years old after school for my family doctor. I have been working off and on for 50 years!

I went to Rutgers Law School in Camden, NJ, full time, at age 42 after completing my BA at Antioch Univ. My favorite Professor at Antioch was the President of the Philadelphia, PA, ACLU chapter. He took me to the Philadelphia City prison to interview, Mumia Abau Jamal, who was in prison for allegedly killing a Phila. Police Officer. He had me work on a Jailhouse Law Project where I assisted prisoners with their legal research. He encouraged me to go to law school.

At 42, I was older than all of my professors and students. The professors were so sexist I dropped out after the first semester and with my Active Duty spouse, moved to Sacramento, CA, where I completed my Paralegal Certification which taught me legal research skills which I use to this day.

I joined Philadelphia NOW in the 1970's, then convened the Germantown NOW Chapter in the local YWCA on Germantown Avenue in the 80's prior to moving to California.

Retirement: I decided I wanted to work on Women's Issues full time so after being appointed to Co-Chair the NOW Combating Racism Committee and running for the Prairie States NOW Board of Directors seat, I decided it was time to let my day job go.

Money was not a real problem because I had saved 15% of my Army salary (GS-12 when I retired) since 1990 when I joined the Army FERS retirement savings program. Also my spouse has his Air Force Retirement and is currently a full time employee for the US Army.

If my internet system was better I would probably spend 6 to 8 hours on line doing research. I do outreach to organizations and people (Quite a few I find on the major news stations); books I read and contact the authors for more in-depth information and papers/reports shared by other NOW Board Members. Do not believe the HughesNet commercials you see on TV. On average I can only stay on line, at most 2 hours before my computer connection times out and when the weather is bad, I can't get connected at all!

Our Committee worked on the Anti-Shackling of pregnant prison inmates which was passed at the NOW National Conference in 2008. Two women (WORTH organization) who had been shackled in prison did a workshop at the conference which I attended. I helped them make contacts with NOW people who could help them draft and present their resolution on the conference floor. NOW has had staff and interns published a NOW Anti-Shackling Tool Kit in November 2010.

There are so many problems and limited time and resources (Computer access) that I find I need to limit myself to one issue at a time.

While I was in Springfield, MO, I found this book at Barnes & Noble, which focused me on my current issue which is the Mass incarceration of Blacks and Minorities under the Government "War on Drugs" program which was started by President Reagan in the 1980s. 80% of the young Black men living in Chicago, IL, has either been arrested, in prison, or out on parole because of the police focusing on minority neighborhoods in the big cities. Our Federal, State and local Government officials has decided to replace "Slavery and the plantation systems with the mass incarceration of minorities to provide a permanent underclass using the prison industry.

The book is:



Some other books which have helped focus my work are:














Just before I retired I read the book above and joined which has over 45 different discussion groups and over 1,100 people from around the world. One of my goals is to establish a global network of women's organizations and include women outside the US on NOW's membership rolls. Women are discriminated against in every country so we should all be working together to make this planet a better place for females.

I realized that one person can make a difference and I am giving it my best shot!

That's my story and I'm sticking to it, Smiles!!

Friday, December 3, 2010

The first frost and my bulbs are still not in the ground!

We had an amazingly mild November, and I felt like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well it dropped. The hard frost finally blackened my dahlias which had been blooming (astonishingly!) until late November.

I'm face to face with the reality of another winter. I’ve written about how much I love seasonal change , but the older I get the more I wish the seasons were a little less dramatic, the winters a little less harsh.

The trees may be all “bare, ruined choirs where once the sweet birds sang,”
but I still have a little bit of color thanks to my oakleaf hydrangea and spirea:
photo taken on Dec. 3 2010

Granted I am living in the mid-Atlantic, not New England and I have flowers in my garden from late November until the first snow-drop in mid-to late January. It could be a lot worse. And poring over all those gorgeous seed catalogues on a cold winter’s night helps a lot.

The temperature’s now in the low 40’s and the long range weather report is for highs in low 40’s /high 30’s for next week so I can’t put off getting in those last bulbs. I ordered 705 bulbs(crocus, daffodils, hyacinth, fritillaria, tulips, scilla, allium and lilies) and am now down to under 100 bulbs. I was out there yesterday for about 40 minutes yesterday and about an hour today planting bulbs I should have gotten in the ground when the weather was much milder. If I manage to do this for about a half-hour the next few days I should have them all planted.

I had expected to be totally caught up on up my garden chores during retirement. Somehow it didn’t happen. I heard a great NPR post from Andrei Codrescu which explained what happened to me (and my guess is to to other retirees):

I had this crazy idea - not my first or my last - that one day when I retired from my more or less regular job, I would re-read all the books I once loved, and I'd also read all the books I never had time for.

And now that I retired from my more or less regular job, I find not only that I have no time to read, I don't seem to have time for anything. And so I think I discovered something: Hundreds of jobs that you never did when you had a more or less regular job are waiting patiently for you to retire. And the minute you do, they pounce on you. People you haven't seen in years appear on the phone, on Facebook and in person, and your guilt for neglecting them more acute. Things fall apart faster, and fixing them takes longer.

Listen to the rest at:

Thanks, Andrei Codrescu. Nice to know I’m not the only retiree having trouble getting things done!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving dinners past and present

I read Sarah Seltzer and Lauren Kelley’s hilarious article “5 Ways to Deal With Your Conservative Relatives This Thanksgiving” before going to my sister’s for Thanksgiving dinner. It got me thinking about Thanksgivings past and how life has changed. My husband and I are the older generation now. The conservative relatives who would have made those cringe inducing remarks have for the most part passed away.

I had some very ugly fights with relatives in my family of origin. Over the years I frequently bit my tongue at Thanksgiving dinners with in-laws. When you’ve married outside your racial/ ethnic/ religious group (which I’ve done 3 times), getting into a political fight is a bit more risky.

We used to drive to Rhode Island every year to spend Thanksgiving with my husband’s relatives but most of them are no longer with us. Now we spend Thanksgiving with my sister and her friends. She has created a surrogate family with a group of old friends and they’ve taken us in.

When most of the folks around your Thanksgiving dinner table are good friends who share your progressive politics, you are not likely to hear climate change denials and birther rantings.

My sister, her immediate family and friends are all liberal Democrats. The only danger of a political argument would be with liberals who have become disillusioned with Obama. So I took Seltzer and Kelley's advice and went to brush up on the President’s accomplishments at “WHAT THE FUCK HAS OBAMA DONE SO FAR?” (Yes, I know there have been disappointments but over-all it’s an impressive record.) It turned out to be unnecessary. The only political anger expressed was directed--as it should be--towards the Republicans.

My sister used to bemoan having such a small nuclear family and long for the big holiday dinner. Well, she got what she wished for. Her Thanksgiving celebration keeps growing as her friend’s children have married and bring their partners. This year she could barely squeeze her expanding family into her house.

My guess is that my sister’s mix of family members and good friends is increasingly becoming the norm in our mobile society with changing notions of what counts as family. It sure beats the Thanksgiving Dinner from Hell that Seltzer and Kelley describe.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How is gardening like politics?

This may seem like a ridiculous question but there really is a connection. To everything there is a season.

Each Spring and Fall there is an election We political activists work really hard and sometimes we have a great victory (2008) and sometimes a crushing defeat (2010). But there's another election in six months or so and a chance to make up lost ground.

The next election is for municipal candidates-—mayor, city council candidates, judges.(Unfortunately we elect judges in Pennsylvania.) Philly is very dependent on resources from the state and federal government, and the future looks grim. We need the best possible local leaders to get us through these tough times and figure out how to work with the Republicans who control state government. So I’ve already switched gears and am working on fundraisers for 2 city council candidates who will be running in the May primary.

Gardening also has its cyclical rhythms. I made a lot of mistakes this gardening season (as always) but there’s a fresh start next Spring. I love seasonal rhythms and can’t imagine life without seasonal change.

November is usually a sad month; however, this November has been unusually mild and we have yet to have a hard frost. I still have flowers in addition to the fall foliage fireworks. The last dahlia:

Dahlias bloom from June until a hard frost. The only drawback is that the tubers have to be dug up and over-wintered.

The last camellia:
Hybridizers have finally developed camellias which are reliably winter hardy in the Delaware Valley. This variety (unfortunately name unknown) has gorgeous glossy leaves, delicate flowers and fragrance.

The last Japanese anemone:
This gracreful but amazingly tough perennial blooms from August to a hard frost.

The last veggie, mustard greens:

This vigorous self-seeder gets more pungent as we approach winter and easily survives a light frost.

The last rose:

New Dawn is the toughest rose ever—-an incredibly vigorous climber and a repeat bloomer with an aromatic fragrance; it never gets black spot and sometimes blooms in December.

So I’m enjoying these last flushes of bloom and getting ready for the great die down-—in some ways a welcome respite from garden work. And then it all comes roaring back in the Spring.

There is one seasonal rhythm which no longer governs my life--the academic calendar. Just like gardening, if things didn’t go so well that season (or semester), there’s another chance with new students, a new improved syllabus. And like gardening, you never get it quite right—always room for improvement.

But I don’t miss the academic rhythms. Gardening and politics supply my need for seasonal change!

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Generation Gap: The Real Story in the Mid-Term Elections

The gains Republicans made among women voters has been one of the main storylines of the 2010 mid-term elections. Despite these gains, the gender gap has persisted and according to the Center for American Women in Politics: “was at least as evident in 2010, a year of substantial Republican gains, as it was in 2008, a year when Democrats were elected in large numbers.”

So the gender gap persists, but pales in significance when compared to the generation gap.

According to the New York Times analysis of exit polls:

The generational divide exposed in the 2008 election was more pronounced. Voters under 30 were the only age group to support Democrats but made up just 11 percent of the electorate, typical for a midterm election. By contrast, voters aged 60 and older represented 34 percent of voters, their highest proportion in exit polls since 1982.”

The numbers are striking:
In 2010, 51% of women% and 57% of men voted for the Republicans.

Among voters 60 and older, 56% of women and 60% of men voted for the Republicans.

Among voters between 18 and 29, 39% of women and 44% of men voted for the Republicans.

If young voters had voted in proportions similar to older voters, we would be looking at a very different electoral map.

For liberals/ progressives these figures give reason to hope. A segment of the electorate (largely white and over 60 and associated with the "Tea Party") is unsettled by the country’s changing demographics and can’t accept the election of an African-American president, the cultural diversity of 21st century America, and the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage.

The Tea Party claims that this is all about reining in big government. Considering that these very same people did not protest the huge deficits of the Bush administration, I can’t believe that all this anger is just about the deficit. The Tea Party may have cleaned up the overt racism in many of the signs brandished in their 2009 rallies, but their “take back our country” rhetoric has an ugly, racially charged subtext.

This segment of the electorate will ultimately lose. From Tim Wise’s widely circulated article “The Last Gasp of Aging White Power: But Time Is Not on Your Side:”
I know , you think you’ve taken “your country back” with this election — and of course you have always thought it was yours for the taking, cuz that’s what we white folks are bred to believe, that it’s ours, and how dare anyone else say otherwise — but you are wrong.
You have won a small battle in a larger war the meaning of which you do not remotely understand.
‘Cuz there is nothing even slightly original about you.
There have always been those who wanted to take the country back.
There were those who, in past years, wanted to take the country back to a time of enslavement and indentured servitude.
But they lost.
There were those who wanted to take us back to a time when children could be made to work in mines and factories, when workers had no legal rights to speak of, when the skies in every major city were heavy with industrial soot that would gather on sidewalks and windowsills like volcanic ash.
But they lost.
There were those who wanted to take us back to a time when women could not vote, or attend any but a few colleges, or get loans in their own names, or start their own businesses.
But they lost.
There were those who wanted to take us back to a time when blacks “had no rights that the white man was bound to respect,” – this being the official opinion of the Supreme Court before those awful days of judicial activism, now decried by the likes of you – and when people of color could legally be kept from voting solely because of race, or holding certain jobs, or living in certain neighborhoods, or run out of other towns altogether when the sun would go down, or be strung up from trees.
But they lost.
And you will lose.

Wise’s article at times has an ageist tone which I find a little hard to take--after all I’m in that demographic he can’t wait to get rid of--but his analysis is correct. The country is changing dramatically; at some point the political system will reflect the politics and demographics of the new majority.

The changes are happening much more rapidly than I ever thought possible. Like so many in my age cohort, I never thought I would see the election of an African-American president, the high point of my political life.

Accelerating this time table will depend on persuading young people it's in their interest to vote. President Obama certainly delivered on some of his promises which would directly impact young voters. Young people can stay on their parents' health care plan until the age of 26 and the revamping of the student loan program has led to significant savings for students and their families.

But it appears that many young people do not see the connection between these policies and voting in mid-term elections. There’s no magic bullet here, but I think making it easier to vote has got to be part of the solution. In my state, Pennsylvania, voters must register 30 days prior to the election, there is no early voting, and the process for getting an absentee ballot is very cumbersome.

Young voters, who are often juggling school, jobs and family responsibilities often find squeezing in time to get home to vote a real challenge. Older voters, who are in many cases retired, have a relatively easy time getting out to the neighborhood polling pace. This system of voting in one’s neighborhood may have made sense when most people worked close to home, but it’s clearly creating hard ships for many working people now.

We also need more young, vibrant candidates who will appeal to young voters and give them a reason to go to the polls.

So there’s a lot of work to do, but the change is coming. The question is how soon.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fall clean-up: The way to deal with depression about the mid-term elections!

Whenever I’m down in the dumps working in the garden is usually the cure for what ails me. It’s gotten me through some difficult patches in my life and it's helping me get over my deep depression about the mid-term elections. We Pennsylvanians we’re hit really hard—a Republican governor, the Republicans in control of both houses of the PA legislature, and a far right wing Republican senator.

So it’s garden therapy time! And there’s a lot to do. My bulbs are not in the ground, very few leaves have been picked up, some of my house plants are still out in the cold, and most of the daylilies and hostas I planned to divide will have to wait until Spring.

How can this be? I’m retired. I thought that when I was retired I would have the perfect garden, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I did manage to transplant a few flowering shrubs. I know enough about gardening to make sure this gets done in time for the shrubs to settle in before frost. Bulbs can be planted any time until the ground is frozen—-which in Philly usually doesn’t happen until late December. I have planted bulbs around Christmas and yes they have come up, but it sure is a lot pleasanter to do this when the temperature is in the 60’s.

So we procrastinators have some time with our bulb planting and leaf pick-up. And my guess is my husband and I will still be picking up leaves in December. One of the truly wonderful things about our Northwest Philly neighborhood is all our mature trees. But everything has it’s downside and our beautiful trees drop a ton of leaves—in addition to each one a power outage waiting to happen. Just about every year a tree (or a tree branch if we’re lucky) falls and does major damage.

But then the downed trees sometimes provide opportunities for new plantings and in a garden as jammed packed with plants as ours, the only opportunity to introduce a new plant is a death in the garden.

Despite all my complaints and frustration as the perfect garden continues to elude me, I can’t imagine a life without my beloved plants. And when I'm out there planting my bulbs, I won't be thinking about Senator Toomey and Speaker Boehner.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thoughts on the 2010 mid-terms: after the euphoria of 2008, this is really hard.

After the euphoria of 2008, this is really hard. I thought after Obama’s election, that just maybe the long backlash against the 60’s might be over. I thought I would be spending my retirement years helping to build a revitalized progressive movement.

WAS I EVER WRONG. Of course the rotten economy was a major factor in the Democrats’ losses. But there’s more going on. A segment of the electorate (largely white and over 60 and associated with the "Tea Party") is unsettled by the country’s changing demographics and can’t accept the election of an African-American president, the cultural diversity of 21st century America and the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage. This segment of the electorate will ultimately lose. But they came out to vote in large number and scored a major victory in 2010.

They claim that this is all about reining in big government. Considering that these very same people did not protest the huge deficits of the Bush administration, I can’t believe that all this anger is just about the deficit. The Tea Party may have cleaned up the overt racism in many of the signs brandished in their 2009 rallies, but their “take back our country” rhetoric has an ugly racially charged subtext.

I’ve been a grassroots political activist for 40+ years. It was one disappointment after another--the tragedy of the sixties generation was to have spent our youth at time of tremendous social possibility and our middle and later years in a time of reaction.

And then came the heady victory in 2008. Well, the euphoria didn’t last very long—-the idiocy of the birthers, the ugliness of the Tea Party and now the Republican resurgence of 2010.

Of course the Democrats bear some responsibility. Some progressives think we lost ground because we didn’t push hard enough for progressive policies. (The defeat of progressives such as Russ Feingold and Alan Grayson tends to undercut that analysis.)

Some think the leftwing attacks on President Obama for compromising overmuch contributed to disaffection with the president and his party. From Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column, “Give Obama a Break:”

The sourness toward Mr. Obama reminds me of the crankiness toward Al Gore in 2000. We in the news media were tough on Mr. Gore, magnifying his weaknesses, and that fed into a general disdain. So some liberals voted for Ralph Nader, and George W. Bush moved into the White House.

There’s a lesson here.

And from Rachel Maddow who seems to have learned this lesson:
We may have attacked the Democrats in power from the left, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow said last night, but let's take a look at what they've done. She showed a long reel of clips in which she and her fellow anchors reported on bill after bill getting signed.
With a Democratic majority in both houses of congress and a Democrat in the White House, the legislation (watered-down though some may find it) has been coming fast and furious--and although it may have spent a lot of political capital, it's made a difference.

Now she tells us after months of relentless criticism!

We progressives have demonstrated that we can elect left of center candidates like President Obama but we don’t know how to support our candidates once they’re in office. I don’t mean uncritical support. I’m not saying we shouldn’t criticize the President nor try to pressure him to support progressive polices. But there is a way to criticize that acknowledges the real achievements and doesn’t buy into the right wing narrative that President Obama has done nothing right.

This has been rough for progressives--especially for Pennsylvania progressives--a Republican governor, the Republicans in control of both houses of the PA legislature, and a far right wing Republican senator. We’re back to playing defense, most of our energy going into fighting back against the right.
Once again, we’ve got to pick ourselves up and soldier on. Not so easy.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Liberal disillusionment with President Obama has been greatly exaggerated

I’m convinced that the media narrative that liberals are disillusioned with President Obama is a gross exaggeration.

Last summer when my husband and I were traveling in New England, I conducted my own unscientific poll of friends and relatives. My friends are not media folks—neither main stream media nor the blogosphere. They’re not blogging and tweeting their political opinions.

I asked them, have you become disillusioned with the president? In every case, I heard something like: “Hell no. He’s doing the best possible job in horrible circumstances. When you inherit a mess like this, it takes time to dig out of the hole.” This is exactly what my Philly friends (with a few left wing exceptions) have been saying.

I have a little bit of sympathy for Robert Gibbs and his denunciation of what he called “the professional left.” It was a poor choice of words, but he had a point.

I’m not saying that liberals should not criticize Obama nor try to pressure him to support progressive polices. But there is a way to criticize that acknowledges the real achievements and doesn’t buy into the right wing narrative that President Obama has done nothing right.

The Obama administration has an impressive record of achievement and I’m convinced there is a silent Democratic majority which knows this. Although the president is not on the ballot this November, the election has been nationalized and the outcome will be seen as referendum on the Obama administration. I expect the Democratic base will come out to register their support for what the president has accomplished.

To cite just some of these accomplishments: The consensus of most economists is that the stimulus program brought the economy back from the brink of real disaster. It probably should have been larger, but was arguably the best that could be done given this dysfunctional congress.

And in this economic climate, President Obama (with a lot of help from Nancy Pelosi) still managed to pass a healthcare bill establishing access to heath care as a right of all citizens. Sure, it’s an imperfect bill but just as with other programs (such as social security) which started as deeply flawed, we now have the opportunity to improve the bill. We’re no longer debating the basic right to health care; the debate can now move to making the existing program more inclusive, more affordable.

The overhaul of the college loan program will save significant money for students, their families and the taxpayers. And then there is the passage of meaningful—again not as much as we need—regulatory reform. We have a long way to go before we have real recovery, but the dismantling of regulatory agencies at the root of the current economic crisis dates back to the Clinton years. This crisis was many years in the making. Reasonable people understand this.

I could go on and on, but it would be much better for folks to read the first rate analysis of the achievements of the Obama administration by Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone. Some excerpts from Dickinson’s well researched, must read article, “The Case for Obama”:

By any rational measure,Obama is the most
accomplished and progressive president in decades, yet
the only Americans fired up by the changes he has delivered
are Republicans and Tea Partiers hellbent on reversing them.

This president has delivered more sweeping, progressive
change in 20 months than the previous two Democratic
administrations did in 12 years. "When you look at what
will last in history,"historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells
Rolling Stone,"Obama has more notches on the presidential belt."

In fact, when the history of this administration is
written, Obama's opening act is likely to be judged as
more impressive than any president's - Democrat or
Republican - since the mid-1960s. "If you're looking at
the first-two-year legislative record," says Ornstein,
"you really don't have any rivals since Lyndon Johnson
- and that includes Ronald Reagan."

Taken together, Barack Obama's achievements are not
only historic in their sweep but unabashedly liberal.
By contrast, President Clinton's top legislative
victories - NAFTA and welfare reform - catered to the
right wing's faith in free markets and its loathing of
big government. "When you add them all together, it's
clear that Obama's accomplishments have been
underrated," says Brinkley. "Saving the auto industry,
health care, getting out of Iraq - these are big things
for the progressive movement." .

So why aren’t these undeniable accomplishments driving the narrative? The conventional wisdom is that the Obama administration could have done a better job communicating their achievements.

That may be, but I think the liberal Democratic base understands the argument Dickinson is making even if we’re not on top of all the specifics.

The liberal base gets it. We know this President has delivered. I’m not worried about middle aged and older liberal Democrats. The question of course is the young folks.

My only regret about retirement is that I’ve lost my connection to young voters. This week I spoke to a class at Community College of Philadelphia where I taught for 35 years. I was heartened by these students' awareness of what is at stake. They intend to come out. Of course, Philly is one of the deepest blue patches in the country, so the interest in voting I picked up in this group of students might not extend beyond Philly. We’ll see.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

In search of the holy grail of peak fall foliage

Last October my husband and I took advantage of retirement to take a two week fall foliage tour in New England.

Last year I wrote:

For many years, I longed to see New England’s spectacular fall foliage, but it’s just not possible for a teacher to take off a week or two in October. Southeastern PA is beautiful but we just don’t have all those deep reds and purples.

My husband and I just returned from our retirement gift to ourselves – a trip to New England in October. We were chasing that mythical “peak.” We just missed it in Vermont (but it was still beautiful) and we had a great time visiting with good friends.

Then off to New Hampshire in quest of the peak. Our innkeepers told us we were a little past peak. My reaction: if this is past peak, the peak must be unimaginably beautiful. We had one glorious day in New Hampshire—blue skies, brilliant sun. Then it SNOWED! See photo of Columbus Day snowfall.

Maybe next year we’ll catch that mythical peak on a balmy Indian summer day. Will I spend my retirement years chasing the mythical peak and not quite catching it? .

Well, we failed again. We had a great time visiting our friends in Vermont over Columbus Day week-end but those glorious reds and purples continue to elude us. I had read somewhere that fall is coming later to New England, but our Vermont friends say that in their patch of Vermont Fall appears to be coming earlier. Go figure.

There was still glorious foliage and unlike last year the weather was spectacular—relatively warm with dazzling sunlight—but the reds and purples were all gone. Apparently the red maples are the earliest to drop their leaves.

Oh well, the consolation prize is that it looks like we are going to have a good foliage season right here in the Delaware valley. Maybe what I was seeking is right here in my back yard.

Photos from my Philly garden:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thank you, Nora Ephron. You nailed it with your statement re feminism and abortion rights!

I’m more than a little annoyed when women opposed to abortion rights (like Sarah Palin and her Mama Grizzlies) claim to be feminists. But I get really depressed when women who are themselves pro-choice start buying into this saying things like: “Who are we to police the boundaries of feminism? Let’s be open to all women who want to identify as feminists.” Groups like Feminists for Life have been making these arguments for years. But hearing this from members of the pro-choice community is something new.

On one level, I am happy to hear that so many women want to claim the feminist label, but not at this price. Feminists differ over priorities/strategies. We have our race/class /generational faultlines. But even if abortion rights may not be a feminist’s top priority issue, it’s got to be on the list of non-negotiables! Let’s not buy into the notion that insistence on support for abortion rights makes one a narrow-minded feminist.

The recent series at Slate By DoubleX Staff, “Who Gets To Be a Feminist? That's the Wrong Question brought home to me the extent to which this “big tent feminism” has taken hold.

The comments from avowed conservatives were no surprise:

From Christine Rosen:
Americans have often underestimated the political power of conservative women. (Remember Phyllis Schlafly?) But feminists shouldn't underestimate the appeal of a feminist message that emphasizes equity and opportunity, not gender grievances. After decades of the feminist establishment owning the term, perhaps the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. The feminism of women like Palin isn't the feminism of the past. But it might be the feminism of the future.

From Christina Hoff Sommers:
If conservative women wish to describe themselves as feminists, and if they offer a new model of women's empowerment that large numbers of American women find inspiring, even determined feminist bouncers like Traister and Holmes won't be able to keep them from the party.

Much more disturbing were the comments from pro-choice feminists. From frequent critic of the feminist movement but definitely pro choice, Katie Roiphe:

I think the question of whether or not Sarah Palin should be "allowed" to be a feminist is a bit beside the point. What is interesting is the question behind the question: Who is it that does this "allowing"? What does it mean to be "not allowed"? I don't like Sarah Palin any more than the next registered Democrat, but I think the idea that she should somehow be cast out of feminism is revealing of the narrower vision of the movement and its uglier, more cliquish instincts.

Or this from Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick:
I am not prepared to announce a categorical rule for who gets to be called a feminist. It sounds too much like the rules about who gets to be called a good mother or a real woman, and such rules always obscure more than they clarify. I am also not prepared to rope out whole categories of women who happen to oppose abortion as bad feminists.

Or this from Amy Bloom:
If she[Palin] understands that she is a product of feminism and is prepared to pursue its goals, I can give her a pass on abortion because there are, apparently, honest-to-God feminists who believe that abortion is murder and even though I think that that's not true, I have to respect that (I guess.)

Thank you, Rebecca Traister and Katha Pollitt, for challenging this, and most of all Nora, who cuts right to the chase:

From Nora Ephron:
I know that I'm supposed to write 500 words on this subject, but it seems much simpler: You can't call yourself a feminist if you don't believe in the right to abortion.

For years, I’ve been depressed that we still need to defend abortion rights. When the Roe v. Wade decision came down in 1973, I never thought that I would still be working to defend abortion rights in 2010!

Women have made incredible progress in so many areas; it’s hard to believe that we are still fighting for the right to have control of our own bodies. In our tax phobic society, it’s not surprising that we haven’t achieved some of the feminist goals which would cost real money—-e.g. high quality affordable child care provided by well-paid professionals. But settling the issue of abortion rights is not an issue of economic redistribution but rather of basic human rights. Sadly, so many people who claim to want government off their backs support government intrusion into this most private decision.

It’s bad enough we’re still struggling to secure abortion rights, but to have pro-choice feminists backing away from a definition of feminism which includes abortion rights, well, that is really hard to take.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Susan Faludi's:"American Electra: Feminism's Ritual Matricide”: An old feminist's response

Susan Faludi's recent article in Harper's, American Electra: Feminism's Ritual Matricide” is the latest attempt to characterize a movement as diverse as American feminism in terms of a single theme: the generational divide. Faludi argues:

No one who has been engaged in feminist politics and thought for any length of time can be oblivious to an abiding aspect of the modern women’s movement in America—that so often, and despite its many victories, it seems to falter along a “mother-daughter” divide. A generational breakdown underlies so many of the pathologies that have long disturbed American feminism—its fleeting mobilizations followed by long hibernations; its bitter divisions over sex; and its reflexive renunciation of its prior incarnations, its progenitors, even its very name. The contemporary women’s movement seems fated to fight a war on two fronts: alongside the battle of the sexes rages the battle of the ages.

The generational faultline Faludi describes is real but no more so than the divide between those who focus on gender above all else and those for whom gender politics are inextricably intertwined with issues of race/class /sexuality .

I'm convinced that Amanda Marcotte in her response to Faludi is correct that what appears as a generational divide may be really something far more mundane.

I think the causes are more mundane than dramatic differences in outlook between generations. I think women are basically like men have always been. We struggle for power.....because we struggle for power...Older people are worried, for good reasons, that our ageist society will push them out. Older people, for less honorable reasons, think they should be able to rest on their laurels a little bit and dismiss the opinions of younger people, who they see as less experienced and therefore uninteresting. Young people can be stubborn and not willing to learn from the experiences of their elders. Everyone’s self-interest gets in the way of communication.

There are just so many good jobs to go around, just so many leadership positions available. The Great Recession has exacerbated the problem—-fewer jobs for old folks to hang on to, fewer job openings for young people trying to get a foot in the door.

Granted this is complicated; women have often entered careers later in life than their male counterparts. At 66, if one has been a tenured professor for 35 years maybe it's time to make room for a younger scholar. But if the 66 year old has been in the position for only 20 years, one can understand the reluctance to retire. And then there are those women in positions of real power. What liberal feminist would want Nancy Pelosi to step down at the height of her career? We wouldn’t have gotten health care reform through without her. But if everyone hangs on, options for young women are few indeed.

And there are just so many leadership positions in feminist organizations. It is certainly understandable that older women would not want to give up running organizations in which they have invested so much. But if everyone hangs on, where are the opportunities for younger women to develop their leadership skills?

Faludi uses the 2009 NOW conference as one of the key examples to illustrate her point that older feminists just do not want to let go:

Fifty-five-year-old Kim Gandy’s presidency had lasted eight years. With her retirement came an opportunity that many NOW members, and in particular many younger members, found hopeful. The candidate who seemed to be in the lead was thirty-three-year-old Latifa Lyles, a charismatic speaker attuned to a youthful sensibility, a black woman who insisted on a more diverse constituency, a technologically savvy strategist who had doubled the organization’s Internet fund-raising and engaged the enthusiasm of a host of feminist bloggers.....

Just weeks before the convention, another candidate had jumped into the race, fifty-six-year-old Terry O’Neill, who made a point of representing the concerns of NOW’s older, more traditional constituency. She had enlisted two young women to run on her slate, but her campaign was geared to her boomer sisters: its rallying cry was a return to Sixties-style street activism, and its view of young feminist social networking ranged from tolerance to bewilderment.

I was one of Latifa Lyle’s supporters. I was bitterly disappointed by Latifa’s defeat and at the time saw this primarily though the generational lens. But there was more going on. There were real differences about how to handle the organization's deteriorating financial condition, and anger about the Clinton defeat was also a subtext in a variety of ways. The vast majority of NOW members were Clinton supporters and that included most of Latifa’s supporters and most of Terry’s supporters. But to the extent that there were NOW members who supported Obama rather than Clinton, most of them were backing Latifa. (Being an Obama supporter and a NOW activist was a challenge as I can personally attest.)

Finally, as is always the case in any kind of bitterly contested election, personal animosities were mapped onto the ideological/ political divides and disentangling the personal from the political was not so easy.

Faludi as an outsider to the organization was probably unaware of these other divisions and she exaggerated the generational dimension.

NOW is struggling to heal the generational divide. As Faludi reports, two young women, Allendra Letsome and Erin Matson, were part of Terry O’Neill’s team. I don’t know Allendra personally but I do know Erin and she is a dynamo. So the transfer to a new generation will occur, maybe not as I once would have liked, but it will occur. And at the 2010 conference many of the divisions appeared to have healed. Those of us who care deeply about NOW have no intention of abandoning the organization just because our candidate did not win.

Younger women are questioning whether it will matter if NOW continues to exist or withers away. From Slate’s Emily Bazelon:

I'm sorry to hear about NOW's generational split, even if I don't get why Faludi is blaming the younger women for it. I'd care more, though, if I thought that NOW was central to the lives of American women or even to political feminism. But it's not and hasn't been for a long time.

As a second wave feminist who thinks the continued existence of NOW really does matter, I hope Bazelon and her generation think the organization is worth taking over! We’ll see.

Katha Pollitt in her response to Faludi’s piece, “Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?” writes: "young women in a hurry should use their fabulous social networking skills to start their own organizations.” When I read Pollitt, I’m usually nodding my head in agreement, but this is one of those rare exceptions.

It’s not so easy to start a new organization (especially a national organization). Also, I've begun to think we already have too many feminist/progressive organizations with overlapping agendas competing for the same foundation grants, targeting the same donors. NOW and other second wave organizations have resources and an extensive donor base. Rather than starting from scratch, I’d like to see a younger generation of feminist leaders (diverse in race, ethnicity and class) take over these organizations and reshape them so they connect with young feminist women and men.

Yes, there are the generational tensions Faludi describes which will complicate the transition to new leadership. But Emily Bazelon, Courtney Martin and others at are certainly right that divisions in feminism cannot be explained in purely generational terms. A part of the story? Certainly. The whole story? Clearly not.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I love getting those Facebook birthday greetings!

A week or so ago, my husband Rick and I were talking about how the number of people who remember our birthdays is dwindling. Both of us have lost our parents, we each have only one sibling, I have only one child, and neither of us has much of an extended family.

I have a few close friends, who always call me on my birthday, but Rick’s guy friends don’t remember birthdays and he’s also lost a few very close friends. It happens at this stage of life.

But Facebook has stepped into the breach and I now receive all these birthday greetings from my Facebook friends! Rick thinks it's ridiculous. He doesn’t understand how I can waste so much time on social networking sites, but I really enjoy hearing from all these folks, especially from my former CCP students.

There are people I once knew well who have moved to different parts of the country. I may not see them again, but I really enjoy getting their updates. My guess is as I get older and less mobile, social networking sites will become increasingly important.

And when you’re involved in politics you have large social network and a whole lot of Facebook friends. (I’m such a political junkie I spent my birthday at a ward meeting!)

It's nice to know that thanks to Facebook I can count on getting birthday greetings.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Working Within the Democratic Party? Is it worth it?

Working Within the Democratic Party? Is it worth it? That’s what I’ve been asking myself for the past 30 years. When I was in my 20’s, that was the last thing I wanted to do. Like so many “radicals” (were we really all that radical?) I disdained working within the Democratic Party. I saw D’s and R’s as virtually indistinguishable and didn't see the point of choosing between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee.

Despite this, I did vote--for protest candidates. My first presidential vote was cast for Dick Gregory, Peace and Freedom Party. People like me were responsible for Richard Nixon’s victory—although since Hubert Humphrey won PA, at least I wasn’t directly responsible.

For me the wake-up call came with the election of Ronald Reagan. I realized there really was a difference between D’s and R’s and that it really does matter who wins elections. A few years after Reagan’s victory I took the plunge and became a Democratic committeeperson. I’ve been toiling away in the grassroots ever since.

Not until the victory of Barack Obama did I feel that all the work we did to build the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was worth the struggle. And I still feel that way. I’ve lost patience with progressives who refuse to acknowledge how much Obama has been able to accomplish given Republican obstruction and the horrendous mess he inherited.

So yes, my answer to the question whether it’s worth working within the Democratic Party is yes— although the Philadelphia Democratic Party does test my faith. This week-end I attended my second PA Democratic State Committee meeting. The good news: we are making progress towards organizing a progressive caucus. I hope that the success of this effort will inspire our Philly progressive Democrats to do likewise.

The Philadelphia regional caucus was the one really depressing session. The meeting was dominated by complaints about insufficient street money and Philly committee people not getting enough respect from the candidates.

Of course, it’s not just grassroots committee people with their hands out, looking to politics as a way to make a buck. I am sure there were some private meetings going on with well-connected lawyers talking about how they hope to get this contract or that contract if we elect a Democratic governor.

To a social movement activist like me, the Democratic Party has been hard to adjust to. In my years working with Philadelphia NOW and now Southeastern PA NOW, none of the wonderful NOW activists volunteering their time have expected to make money from their political activism. Au contraire—many of us were donating far more than we could easily afford to feminist candidates/organizations.

Sure, we got our psychic rewards. For those of us in leadership roles, there’s the ego gratification; for all of us there's the high that comes from working with like-minded (and really nice) people for a cause we care passionately about. So yes, we get our rewards but we’re not looking for a financial pay-off.

My guess is the Philly Democrats complaining about the lack of street money are getting their psychic rewards as well. What I found really strange (and disturbing) was the meeting chair’s comment when he introduced state committee’s new young executive director “as someone who’s close to Bob Brady (the party chair) and therefore close to every one of you.” Sorry, I don’t feel this special connection to Brady and didn’t particularly like the assumption that all the State and local committee people shared that connection.

This party functionary was quoted in Mike Sokolove’s recent NY Times article which a lot of Philly folks seem to have missed:
One morning, I went to visit Lou Farinella, a top lieutenant on the Democratic City Committee under Representative Robert A. Brady, the chairman... I asked him how Sestak could make sure he comes out of Philadelphia with enough votes. “He’s got to get close to Bob Brady,” he answered. “Real close. There’s not a person running for statewide office that doesn’t have to be extremely close to Bob Brady.”
Brady and Sestak represent side-by-side Congressional districts, and I wondered why they weren’t already close. “They are, but they need to get closer,” Farinella explained. And what would happen then? “Bob has a big stick that nobody can see,” he said. “And somehow he manages to wave it in such a way that everybody knows the direction to go in. When he does that, we roll out the big numbers to the polls.”

“A big stick that nobody can see?” Huh? This cult of personality among the party diehards is one of the many reasons talented young people choose not to work within the Democratic Party.

The article continues with a fascinating quote from Ed Rendell:

The day after I visited with Farinella, I talked with Rendell, who is nearing the end of his second term as governor after eight years as Philadelphia’s mayor. ..when I related my conversation with Farinella, Rendell sort of chuckled and said the party, in essence, is over. Sestak’s victory exposed the Democratic organization’s weakness as an Election Day force. “You can’t really say there’s a Philadelphia machine anymore, because if there was one, Arlen would still be standing,” Rendell said. “We backed him, and the turnout in Philadelphia was less than 17 percent.”

The local party desperately needs new leadership. Bob Brady’s machine is probably on its last legs; after all he and Farinella aren’t getting any younger. (But by the time Brady and Farinella leave, I’ll probably be too old and tired to remain politically active.)

And the current constellation of political parties won’t last forever. My guess is that at some point there will be a new party for those who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative—a group which doesn’t fit easily into either party.

I want a political party that is both socially and economically liberal/progressive. However, since the left wing of the Democratic Party is not large enough to form a viable party, for the foreseeable future the only alternative I see is building the progressive wing of the Democratic party—although that nagging question, “Is working within the Democratic Party really worth it?” will no doubt continue to crop up.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Retirement: The new normal

Last year, my husband and I brought out the champagne. It was our first year of not going back to teaching. Every August, I had dreaded the sound of the cicadas. I felt they were taunting me with their song that I heard as: “you must go back to work. You must go back to work.”

Last year, it was real thrill to hear the cicadas and NOT hear that grim message. It was so strange after all those years of thinking of September as back to school time not to be going back. Strange and exhilarating.

This year we hardly even noticed when back to school time rolled around. Retirement has become the new normal. I’m always a little puzzled by the question: “How are you adjusting to retirement?” The assumption seems to be that there will be some difficulty.

Probably one reason adjustment has been so easy for us is that we had so much time off when we were working. I never taught during the summer, never took overloads. Time to pursue my interests was always so much more important than extra money.

Many of my colleagues who did work over time did not do this out of economic necessity. I am always stunned when I hear people say, “ I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I weren’t working.”

Fine, if you love your job and you can't think of a better way to use your time. But there’s so much I wanted to do: political activism, writing, and gardening. My job was getting in the way of all my volunteer projects.

My only regret is that I haven’t gotten as much done as I intended: I haven’t read as many books as I planned; haven’t made as much progress with my book on second wave feminism in Philly as I had hoped; my Spanish is not a whole lot better than it as a year ago (although it is better); my garden is still far from the garden of my dreams.

I spend a lot of time hanging out with my husband and catching up with old friends, and as Rick says, isn't that what retirement’s for, the chance to take life more slowly, to enjoy just hanging out?

He’s got a point and despite nagging feelings I’m not using my time as well as I might, I love the new normal.

Rick reminded me of how surprised I was when other tourists who at first were stunned by the beauty of Machu Picchu on the return train trip quickly reverted to ignoring the scenery-- chatting away, reading, writing their postcards.

This weekend Rick and I were hanging out with some dear friends (all of us in our 60’s) and we came up with countless examples of how quickly the extraordinary can become unremarkable. We never thought we would see the election of an African-American president, the rapidly changing attitudes towards same sex marriage, and the dramatic changes in gender roles. We never thought the cold war which dominated our childhood (all those air raid drills), our youth, and early middle years would end with a whimper.

And we never thought we would become old and would adjust to this and find out that it wasn’t as bad as we had feared. That too has become the new normal.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A feminist tries to overcome her Islamaphobia

This anniversary of September 11 has been marked by a much more virulent outbreak of Islamaphobia than we have had in the past. It’s motivated me to work on my own anti-Islamic biases. I do not want to be in that company!

My bias against Islam was not the result of 9/11. I realize most Muslims are not terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. For me it’s the burqas, the honor killings, the stonings.

Several months ago in a conversation with a good friend, I expressed my very negative feelings about Islamic societies' treatment of women and how, as a consequence, I could not help but feel intense dislike for the religion. She reminded me that her sister, a woman for whom I have the greatest respect, was a convert to Islam and urged me to separate the religion from the misogyny of some of the societies in which it evolved.

A week ago I was having a conversation with another good friend who was making exactly the same arguments I had been making several months ago. She was reading Hirsi Ali’s latest book and was essentially repeating Ali’s arguments that Islam was a misogynist religion which must be condemned. And I was making the very same arguments my friend with the Muslim sister had made.

With regard to Ali, I greatly admire her courage, but understand why so many Islamic feminists feel that she is undercutting the work they are doing to advance women’s rights in the Muslim world. You are not going to change people if you trash their religion.

The Islamic feminists who want to work for women’s equality without rejecting Islam are likely to make much greater progress advancing women’s rights than Hirsi Ali.

As a secular feminist, I’ve always had some difficulty understanding how important religious traditions are in most people’s lives. And it’s been particularly hard for me to understand why any woman would embrace Islam.

What I found most helpful in trying to disentangle Islam from the misogyny of many Islamic societies was Nicholas d. Kristof and Sheryl Wu's Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide . (If you haven’t already read this book, it’s now in paperback.) Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge the problem:

A politically incorrect point must be noted here. Of the countries where women are held back and subjected to systematic abuses such as honor killings and genital cutting, a very large proportion are pre¬dominantly Muslim. Most Muslims worldwide don't believe in such practices, and some Christians do—but the fact remains that the coun¬tries where girls are cut, killed for honor, or kept out of school or the workplace-typically have large Muslim populations.
To look at one broad gauge of well-being, of 130 countries rated in 2008 by the World Economic Forum according to the status of women, 8 of the bottom 10 were majority Muslim. Yemen was in last place, with , Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan right behind it. No Muslim country ranks in the top 40. Kazakhstan ranks highest, at number 45, followed by Uzbekistan, at 55.

They argue that these attitudes are better viewed as cultural rather than religious practices. Just as attitudes towards women have evolved in Christianity and Judaism, we are witnessing a nascent move towards gender equality in the Muslim world. They note the cultural attitudes which have already changed:

A useful analogy is slavery. Islam improved the position of slaves compared to their status in pre-Islamic societies, and the Koran encourages the freeing of slaves as a meritorious act. At the same time, Muhammad himself had many slaves, and Islamic law unmistakably accepts slavery. Indeed, Saudi Arabia abolished slavery only in 1962 and Mauritania in 1981. In the end, despite thse deep cultural ties, the Islamic word ahs entirely renounced slavery. If the Koran can be read differently today because of changing attitudes towards slaves, then why not emancipate women as well?

Half the Sky is a hopeful book. I had resisted reading it because I expected it to be depressing. A friend encouraged me to read it as the stories Kristof and WuDunn tell are primarily about resistance rather than oppression.

The struggle for women’s rights around the globe is the major battle of the 21st century. After reading the book, I thought if I were a young woman trying to decide on a career path I would choose working on women’s rights in the international arena. I’d try to get a degree in something like international economic development with a gender emphasis. (It would have been difficult—there’s a reason I was an English major.)

Unfortunately, at this stage in my life my contribution will be primarily a financial one. The final section of Kristof and WuDunn’s book contains a valuable list of resources and various ways to contribute to the cause of women’s rights around the globe.

Their book is a powerful argument that those who want to fight gender inequality in the Muslim world must resist simplistic notions of Islam and instead view Islamic traditions as complex and evolving. It changed my mind.

Monday, September 6, 2010

I never thought we’d return to the same vacation spot every year: Falling in love with Block Island

I never thought we’d return to the same vacation spot every year, but my husband and I have fallen in love with Block Island, a tiny little island about 14 miles off the coast of Rhode Island.

You have to really love this place to put up with the hassles of getting there. Demand for rentals exceeds supply, so to rent a house you need to book in January and book your ferry reservations in January as well. Whenever the weather is bad, the ferry doesn’t run and you’re stuck sometimes for days waiting for service to resume. (This happened to us this year and we wound up spending 3 nights in Jamestown, R.I.)

But Block Island is worth it—gorgeous uncrowded beaches, unspoiled meadows and woodland, great restaurants--the perfect chill-out place. We rent a house big enough to invite friends and relatives. Rick is from Rhode Island and it’s an opportunity for him to see some of his RI friends and relatives and we always invite some of our Philly friends . Part of the fun is sharing Block Island with good friends.

The view from our deck:

The view from our deck at sunset:

Last year I wrote a post defending our low-key vacation. In a sense I was arguing with my younger self. From last summer’s post:

I remember giving my sister a hard time about her Jersey shore rentals: “For the kind of money you’re spending on these shore houses, you could be going to Europe!”

I no longer think our choice needs defending. We’ll go to Block Island every year as long as we can drive.

I love the ocean and for years tried to interest Rick in the Jersey shore. I’m a Philly girl so the Jersey shore is fine with me. And the Jersey shore is only an hour and half away!

But I have to admit the Block Island beaches are far more beautiful than the Jersey shore and I’m hooked--and I'm not at all apologetic about going there year after year.

If a summer goes by and I don’t spend time at the beach I get really depressed. I don’t need a whole summer—a week will do. But I need that ocean fix. (Freud was onto something when he referred to religious/ spiritual experience as that “oceanic”feeling.)

I noticed that I’m no longer constantly second guessing decisions and subjecting everything I do to hypercritical scrutiny. Psychologists tell us we get less neurotic as we age--compensation of sorts for the wrinkles, aches and pains that come with one’s 60’s.

Maybe this is what’s going on with me. I don’t feel guilty about not going to a foreign country and learning about a different culture. So what if we want to go to the same low-key vacation place every summer!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The over-planted garden

This year my husband, Rick, and I were judges in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society city gardens contest. The requirements to be a judge are not that stringent— membership in the Horticultural Society and attendance at a training session for prospective judges.

At the training session, we were shown examples of good and bad gardens, including a photo described as “an over-planted garden.” I didn’t understand what the problem was; it looked good to me.

When I got home, I looked at my garden and realized I had created one of those horticultural no-no’s: "the over-planted garden." Rick said if the Horticultural Society trainers could see our garden, they would never let us be judges. Probably so.

Thanks to my friend Fran Waksler, I’ve learned the trick of taking photos of my garden when it’s especially wild and unkempt: close-ups.

Here’s the star of my August garden, crape myrtle:

And when my garden’s really a mess, there’s the close-up of the single flower. This amazing dahlia (variety unknown) begins as a rosy lavender and gradually morphs into a blazing orange:

It’s clear my garden will never win a prize in the city gardens contest. Rick made me feel a little better about it; “Think of a garden as creating an environment—a place you want to be—not a showpiece which meets the highest standards of the Horticultural Society.”

I thought I had made my peace with the messiness of my garden and wrote a post last August in which I proudly stated: “ I can deal with the fact that some of my friends think my garden is a chaotic mess… It took me a lot longer than it should have to get to this state of acceptance, but I think I’m there.”

Well, I’m not quite there yet, but I’ll keep working on making peace with my garden’s imperfections. It’s a lot easier than creating the perfect garden.