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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Gang Rape of Low Caste Girls in Uttar Pradesh; Where Is the Outrage Against the Hindu Caste System?

In "Save Send Delete" I talk about why I am a Christian. To me, Christianity makes sense. That doesn't mean that I don't respect, and even love, other religious traditions.

I fell in love with the Indian subcontinent when I was a little girl. My earliest memories of this love are from when I was five years old. I was haunted by the sense that I had lived a previous life there. I vividly remember, in kindergarten, drawing my idea of beauty – a woman with long, straight, black hair. I asked my parents for a doll in Indian dress, and they were kind enough to buy me one. When I heard sitar music it sounded like home to me. When I ate Indian food for the first time I realized I had discovered what would remain my favorite cuisine for the rest of my life.

When I read the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as Buddhist writings, I realized that the sophistication of humanity's musing on eternal questions has not improved since ancient times. Over a thousand years ago, thinkers in the Indian subcontinent were asking the big questions, and articulating big answers.

I felt I had to live in the Indian subcontinent before I died, and I did. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal. I lived in an isolated village. I describe that village here.

I was ridiculously happy. I had a lot of friends, including a lot of boyfriends, whom I saw when I went to Kathmandu, and from whom I received love letters on air mail paper.

I was overwhelmed by Nepal's beauty. I am not a photographer and I took virtually no photographs, and I was actually happy for that. I used to stop while trekking through some overwhelmingly magnificent landscape and say to myself, "I'm glad I can't photograph this, because no photo would do it justice. Just remember, after you forget every geographic detail, that you once were in the most beautiful place on earth."

Nepalis treated me really well. I noted that some Peace Corps Volunteers I met were treated not so well. One was an African American. One was an Asian American. Nepalis were mean and rude to them. This surprised me greatly.

This bad treatment woke me up. I finally asked Nepalis why they treated me so well. I was told. "You are pale, and you have a long nose, so everyone thinks you are high caste." The volunteers who were treated badly were darker skinned and had flatter noses. Signs of low caste.

When new volunteers first arrived in Nepal, the women were taken apart and Peace Corps laid down the law in no uncertain terms.

You will never wear anything but traditional Nepali clothing. You will not wear American clothing. You will always be covered down to your ankles. You will not sleep inside your own house when you are menstruating. You will sleep outside. You will not touch another person while you are menstruating. You will keep your eyes downcast when you are menstruating.

You will never ask a Nepali woman her husband's name. She is not allowed to say her husband's name.

Nepali women, ideally, should wash their husband's feet first thing in the morning, and consume some of the wash water. You will not comment on that.

Your classes will consist mostly of boys. Nepalis don't generally send their daughters to school. You will not protest that.

If there are girls in your classes, they may disappear without warning – they've been married off in an arranged marriage to a stranger, often someone older. You will not protest that.

These people are Hindus. They practice untouchability. According to the Vedas, humanity was created when a primal human, Purusha, was divided up. His head became Brahmins, the highest caste. His arms became Kshatriyas, the next highest, on down the body. Untouchables were not created from Purusha's body. They have no place.

The caste system is the foundation of Hindu ethics. If you do bad things in a previous life, you are punished by being reborn as something lowly.

From the Upanishads:

According to his deeds and according to his knowledge he is born again here as a worm, or an insect, or as a fish, or as a bird, or as a lion, or as a boar, or as a serpent, or as a tiger, or as a man, or as something else in different places.

From the Garuda Purana:

The murderer of a Brahman becomes consumptive, the killer of a cow becomes hump-backed and imbecile, the murderer of a virgin becomes leprous, all three born as outcastes. Who steals food becomes a rat; who steals grain becomes a locust; who steals water becomes a Chataka-bird; and who steals poison, a scorpion. Who steals vegetables and leaves becomes a peacock; perfumes, a musk-rat; honey, a gad-fly; flesh, a vulture; salt, an ant.

The devout Hindu's only hope lies in living out the destiny his own karma has made inevitable. If you are a mathematical genius, but, thanks to bad deeds in a previous incarnation, you are born a low caste woman, your only virtuous choice is to ignore your mind and submit to your husband and your low caste status. To do another's dharma is death – so dictates the Bhagavad Gita.


Peace Corps holds cultural relativism as sacrosanct, unquestioned dogma – even while Peace Corps insists that it is in foreign countries in order to improve them, to make them more like America (this was stated to me explicitly.)

Peace Corps' message: we are here to improve you, but we are not allowed to say that there is anything wrong with you.

This irreconcilable schizophrenia and folly are at the heart of my regretting, now that I am older and wiser and now that I have come to see the failings of the left, ever having been a Peace Corps Volunteer.


In May, 2014, two cousins, aged 14 and 15, in Katra Shahadatganj, Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, India, went into a field to relieve themselves. They, like millions of people in India, had no toilet in their home. They were gang raped by perhaps seven men. The girls were found hanging from a mango tree. Some say the rapists hanged them; some say they hanged themselves.

The girls' relatives went to the police. The police refused to register the crime. They mocked the relatives. You are low caste; the alleged rapists are higher caste.


Merely the shadow of a low caste person falling on a high caste person is polluting. Untouchables can be punished for allowing their shadow to fall on a high caste person.

Untouchables have no rights in traditional Hinduism. None. Anything can be done to them, and anything is done to them.

Untouchables are forced to clean sewers with their bare hands. To carry sewage on their heads.

Violent crimes, including murder and human sacrifice, are committed against them regularly. Here's the lead sentence from one article, "Three people, one a tantric, have been charged with murder after pouring boiling oil over a four-and-a-half-year-old girl before beheading her as part of a religious sacrifice, police said on 17 June."

And no one seems to see any of this.

A useful phrase when talking about the left is "selective outrage."

Buckets of outrage dominate television news, and op-ed pages, and Facebook posts, when and if Israel should be so impudent as to protect its citizens against terrorists. The United Nations gets all worked up. The pope prayed at graffiti comparing Bethlehem to the Warsaw Ghetto.

If an American Christian minister, no matter how obscure, says he wishes that homosexuals would not be able to marry, the world explodes.

Untouchables in India live lives worse than American dogs – that is no exaggeration – and no one sees them, no one hears them, no one agitates for them, no one mentions them on the floor of congress, no one says we must factor in concern for them when it comes to treaties or trade.

Hinduism, whose great writings I have respected all my life, gets a free pass. I don't know if I have ever heard anyone in public ever say one negative thing about Hinduism. Stars like Deepak Chopra market Hinduism as utterly benign and groovy. Americans swallow this swill without question. New Agers toss around words like "chakra" and "karma" and have no concept of their full meaning.

We betray the Untouchables by ignoring them. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Christophobia in Seth MacFarlane's "A Million Ways to Die in the West" 2014

From Stephen Holden's New York Times review of Seth MacFarlane's new film, "A Million Ways to Die in the West"

"Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), is a prim, virginal shoe repairman whose girlfriend, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), is a prostitute who services up to 15 clients a day.

With the chirp of a naïve schoolgirl reciting the day's events to her parents, she regales Edward with graphic accounts of her sexual exploits, to which he registers no reaction. Ruth insists that she and Edward not consummate their relationship until marriage because they are good Christians.

From David Edelstein's review:

"Giovanni Ribisi is the tender virgin affianced to prostitute Silverman, who screws ten men a day and has a butthole sore from overuse, but won't have sex with Ribisi because 'We're Christian.'"

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Richard Dawkins: I am a Secular Christian


Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist and scientist, has admitted that he is a “secular Christian” because he hankers after the nostalgia and traditions of the church.

Speaking at the Hay Festival, where he was presenting the first volume of his memoirs An Appetite For Wonder, the evolutionary biologist claimed that although he does not believe in the supernatural elements of the Christian church, he still values the ceremonial side of religion.

The author made the comments after being questioned by an American minister in the audience who claimed that he no longer believed in miracles or that Jesus was resurrected, but still considered himself a Christian and preached the teachings of Christ.

“I would describe myself as a secular Christian in the same sense as secular Jews have a feeling for nostalgia and ceremonies,” said Dawkins

Full text here

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Garret Mountain, First Visit. Oooooo Aaaaaa

Barbour Pond, Garret Mountain. Paul Metaxas Source
Some of us are born weird and no amount of tweaking will ever result in our fitting in.

This is one way I am weird: I love New York City. I thrive on the most effete of art forms; when living on no money I found cash to purchase tickets to opera premiers and I go to see movies I know I won't enjoy because they are of cultural significance. I'm a glassy-eyed news junky and headline writers jerk my chain with every rumored MH 370 black box beep. I test as pure extrovert and I am the only person I know who loves being in crowds. Christmas Eve in a shopping mall? Let's go!  

And I chose to spend years of my life in remote villages in Africa and Asia drawing my water from creeks and being serenaded to sleep by jackals.

They're both me. The person who loves human civilization and cities and the person who needs to get away from even the mere sight of another human and get dirty and be bitten by bugs and stare at wild animals – city mouse and country mouse – they are both me.

How about you? Are you a nature lover? Are you a city dweller? If you are both, could you please let me know? I don't want to be the only one.

I currently live in a city, Paterson, and I live with a constant craving for contact with trees. I am in love with a park, Skylands Manor and Botanical Garden. Without a car, through walking, busing, and more walking, it takes me three hours to get there, three hours I regularly invest. At Skylands I hike to a spot where I see nothing, in every direction, but trees. I stand there, facing the trees. The trees say something to me. I listen with my whole body. When I feel I've absorbed enough, I return to the city, taking the message of the trees with me.

Being a birdwatcher is a little bit different than being a nature lover. Some birdwatchers really care about numbers. I used to be a numbers birdwatcher but then I stopped. For a long time I really wanted to see a lammergeier, the definition of an exotic, remote species. Lammergeiers are beautiful vultures. Their breasts glow, as if they were always right next to a crackling fire. They live in high mountains and consume the last of the food chain: bones.

When I lived in Nepal, I lived under an aerial lammergeier highway. I would stand outside on the porch, washing my hair, look up, and see a handful of lammergeier flying overhead. My most desired, exotic bird had become part of my household. After that, I could see what an exquisite miracle a common bird like a chickadee is, and I vowed to stop with the numbers. Well, at least to slow down with the numbers. I still want to see new species and amass a big, fat life list. But I also want to appreciate that miracle, the chickadee, and not rush past it in my search for the next new species.

I see very few birds at Skylands. I get something else at Skylands. I get what I call "oooooo aaaaaa."

I've talked my friend Robin, who, in spite of her avian name, is not really much of a nature girl, into hiking with me at Skylands. She hikes as if the trail were an elliptical trainer stationed in front of a TV in her living room – head down, moving very fast, to get it all over with quicker. I have wanted to stop Robin and say, "No, no, you have to ooooo aaaaa." But I don't say it, fearing it might sound weird.  

Ooooo aaaaa isn't just beauty. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and they could export their beauty; in fact, they do, in movies in songs and posters. Confession: I NEVER ooooo aaaaa ed in the Bay Area. I don't know why. I hiked every chance I could, through Tilden Park. I saw coyote, and a rattlesnake, the expansive views of California's "golden" hills, and never once was I moved.

Skylands is the queen of oooo aaaa for me. Skylands feels overwhelmingly spiritually alive to me. I feel a palpable grace there, an overarching energy, the music of the spheres. It's akin to what I felt at Chartres Cathedral.

But I don't see a lot of birds at Skylands, and what birds I do see I've seen a hundred times before – the phoebe at the small, stone bridge built by the WPA, the pileated woodpeckers in the orchard, the broad-winged hawk over the hill, the wood ducks in the pond, the crested flycatcher on the dead tree sticking out of the glacial-carved granite gneiss.

I've subscribed to an email list devoted to birdwatching in New Jersey. People kept talking about Garret Mountain. I was surprised by this because Garret Mountain is in Paterson, and I didn't think any place in Paterson would be a birding hotspot. So many emails mentioned Garret Mountain that I decided to give it a try.

Because it is in Paterson, I assumed that Garret Mountain would be a tacky, ugly, unsafe and depressing place. I expected broken glass, loud hiphop played from boomboxes, and muggers.

Paterson's reputation will change when Patersonians decide to stop throwing their garbage in the street, to turn down the boombox, and stop stealing.

I went to Garret Mountain this morning and I was amazed on every level. It's a very small park, but I stayed over five hours, and I wanted to stay longer.

I was always within eyeshot of people and pavement, and always within earshot of cars – but the people were well behaved. I heard no boomboxes. I was not robbed.

I began at Barbour Pond. I saw at least ten people wearing binoculars or other birdwatching equipment. Two men carried tripods and lenses the size of the Hubble Telescope. As a fellow birdwatcher, my binos slung around my neck, I tried to make small talk with them. One immediately said, "We have to keep moving," and walked away from me. I would happen across this man later. "Have you seen anything good?" he asked. "Nope," I lied, and kept walking.

I was a newcomer after all and I did not know the local mores. I didn't attempt to chat with anyone else wearing binoculars, which is usually not what I do when I stumble across birdwatchers in public. I assumed that the birdwatchers of Garret Mountain are an aloof bunch and chatting is uncool.

The birds. The birds! No, I didn't add any numbers to my life list – I didn't see any new species – but everywhere I pointed my binoculars I saw birds, birds, birds, which is very much NOT what happens at Skylands.

Point up at the sky – turkey vultures, black vultures, red-tailed hawk, osprey, chimney swifts, barn swallows, tree swallows. Point at the pond – yellow-legged sandpiper, killdeer, cormorant, great blue heron. Point at the treetops – red-eyed vireo, warbling vireo, Cape May warbler, black and white warbler. Stand still and listen: wood thrush, veery.

I stood in one spot, beside the paved ring road, and a scarlet tanager worked his way through the branches surrounding me. I usually strain my neck, staring at treetops, to see scarlet tanagers. This one was as obvious, as in my face, as someone sharing the sidewalk in Paterson.

In spots you can stand at the edge of a cliff face. The view is enough to make the bottoms of your feet sweat. Way down below, route 80. Off in the distance, Manhattan's skyline. There are canopy birds you usually strain your neck to see as you stand on the ground and point your binoculars upwards. At these cliff-edge spots in Garret Mountain, you can see canopy birds at eye level, as they munch on bugs in the leaves of the tall trees that scale the cliff falling away beneath you.

And these trees are tall. Heart-leaved poplars, straight as arrow tulip trees, alders, oaks, maples, smooth gray beeches, shiny, horizontally striped cherries, vase-shaped elms: big, tall, beautiful trees. It's a gorgeous May day today, blue skies, cumulus clouds, seventy degrees, breezy; as I walked around Garret Mountain ooooo and aaaa overcame me. Bliss. And from one of the cliffside viewpoints, I could see my apartment building!

God, all those years I wasn't visiting Garret Mountain, living in Paterson, yearning for green – if only I had come sooner! Regret! Punching self in head!

But the ooooo aaaaa I was getting from Garret Mountain soothed my regret. I felt so good, it didn't bother me that much that I hadn't found this place earlier; rather, I rejoiced that I was here today. 
Lammergeier by Brendan Marnell. Source
Chickadee Source: Chickadee Award Books 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

On Doing Something Brave

I did something brave yesterday and I want to write about it.

My senior year of college I was violently sexually assaulted. It was a traumatic event that knocked my life off course for the next several years. It was so traumatic at least partly because I became homeless immediately after the assault, and because people who I had thought would help me let me down. These betrayals were worse than the assault itself.

Immediately after the assault I threw on a shirt, a pair of jeans, and sneakers. That's all I was wearing – no underwear or socks. I wasn't carrying anything. I cadged coins and entered a payphone in a strip mall. Whenever I pass that strip mall now, I feel the fear and desperation I felt that night. Even just being out, alone, at night, lit by neon, was terrifying. I was (and am) a daytime person and a homebody.

I phoned one of my professors. She said something I remember to this day: "I am sorry this happened to you. I would give my eye teeth to have a daughter like you." I was so grateful that she said this kind thing to me, the kind of thing that I was not at all accustomed to hearing and that I had no reason to expect to hear, that I didn't mind that she had no concrete help to offer. I think her problem was that she was chronically ill and her husband was cranky and she couldn't take me in for the night but she wished me well.

There was a small, quiet girl who sat next to me in one of my education classes – I was training to be a teacher. This girl had tightly waved dirty blonde hair that clung close to her head. She wore thick fabrics in beigey colors and boxy designs, and eyeglasses. I don't remember her ever speaking in class.

I'm not very good with names, she and I did not keep in touch, and I have tried to forget these events, rather than remember them. So I can't be certain, but I think her first name was Nancy. I am sure her last name was Gallo.

Most people think of "Gallo" as an Italian surname, but it is also Slovak, and I am Slovak, and I have relatives named Gallo. That's what prompted Nancy and I to first converse with each other – I was interested in her last name. Otherwise, Nancy is the kind of person everyone would be tempted to overlook.

I phoned Nancy.

She never hesitated. She and a friend drove to pick me up. I slept on Nancy's floor that night, actually under her bed because her room was so crowded, and for the rest of the fall semester.

Nancy already had a roommate. She was also small, blonde, and a physical education major. This roommate was one of those uncomplicated sports-oriented gals. "Oh, there's another body in our tiny dorm room? Great, fine, no problem." But if you tried to body check her during a hockey game, she'd go nuclear.

Nancy had two other suitemates, who shared the room next door. They were big, broad, brassy, like expensive cars. They were mean but knew it would be uncool to complain about a fellow female who had survived sexual assault. They resented my presence and let that resentment show in little ways. There were unkind notes left on the refrigerator door about who was eating whose eggs. I remember one night they entered the room where I was sleeping and had group sex on the floor. It just felt anthropologically exotic to me.

The thing is, though, these four women – nice Nancy, her sporty roommate, the hot, bitchy suitemates – saved my ass. They were violating their rental agreement by letting me stay, and lying through their teeth to anyone who asked, saying that I wasn't really there, when I plainly was.  

God bless you, Nancy Gallo, if that was your name, wherever you are.

By spring semester I had enough money saved up from my nurse's aide job to get my own room, with Lisa Fanciullo, my very first official roommate. The view out my window included the World Trade Center.

I was never able, that year, to scrape up enough cash at my nurse's aide job to pay tuition, pay rent, AND buy food. Food was always the last item on my list of priorities.

Enter a guy named Orpheus. His real name was John Ellis. He was thin and ragged and he read a lot, though he was several years past college age. He stepped out of nowhere and began to show me the ropes. He taught me how to wait around in food courts and finish food that people left on their trays. We also foraged for mushrooms.

I told him that I felt sad that I didn't have access to a TV because Pope John Paul II would be visiting the US and I wanted to watch the coverage, and because I missed smelly Bohunk home cooking – the food court gambit netted a lot of pizza, but no glumpkis. Orpheus showed up with a TV under one arm and a cabbage under the other. Wherever and however he had acquired either, I don't think a cash exchange was involved.

I hungered for guidance.

I went to Father Lou Scurti, who ran the campus' Catholic Center. He responded by giving me a paper bag containing several boxes of uncooked spaghetti. Obviously he meant well but this offering was inadequate.

I phoned one of my professors, Virginia Mollenkott, a gay rights activist. I very much admired that she was a woman and smart and that she had mastered a command of English poetry. She radiated the air of authority and independence that I craved to exercise. When discussing James Joyce, who wasn't even on the reading list for our class, she talked about how Catholic priests are just a bunch of power hungry phonies who want to feel that they can transubstantiate bread into Jesus' flesh. Pretty much all of the students in that class were, unlike Prof. Mollenkott, blue collar Catholics whose last names ended with vowels. We were working class kids, not used to defying WASP authority, and we remained silent and shamed.

I phoned Prof. Mollenkott. It was almost like an English class lecture, but on the wrong topic. I remember word confetti and that feeling I had in the course of the conversation that she was saying a lot of stuff, and that absolutely none of it had anything to do with being 21 years old, and a survivor of a recent assault, and having lost everything you thought you owned and any sense of security you had. There was an awkward goodbye.

I phoned a crisis hotline for a battered women's shelter. I can see myself standing next to the wall telephone in the crowded dorm room. I had waited till everyone was out. I had the room and the phone all to myself and I could finally tell someone everything that happened.

The ultra-feminist voice at the other end of the phone line hammered me. She sounded like the snotty girl in English class. "You don't sound traumatized. Look, I've been doing this gig for a month now. I can recognize the voice of a traumatized person. This is probably just another crank call, right?"

I wasn't traumatized enough, and she could tell from my calm, rational, dignified voice.

You know, if I could, I would slap that bitch silly right now.


The next betrayal was worse than the assault itself. I phoned a sibling. Someone I loved. Slept with, baked with, hiked with, laughed with. Explained. Asked for help getting some of my clothes and other belongings. Sibling sounded strangely cold on the phone. Hung up quickly and abruptly. Sibling met me in the spot we'd agreed on, at the time we'd agreed to meet – in front of the Science building on campus. I was feeling hopeful for the first time since it happened.

Sibling marched up to me with a look of complete hate, said "Fuck you and drop dead," and marched away. This sibling would later throw away every piece of writing I did for over the first twenty years of my life. Stories, poems, operas, some of it really good. All gone forever because one person's momentary whim to destroy.

My brother Mike got married that year, to Maureen Skidmore – at least I think that was her name. As far as I know, Mike never made any attempt to discover where his sister had gone, and why she was not at the wedding of the older brother who used to carry her on his shoulders because they were traveling over broken glass and she had no shoes. Mike died a few years later so I can't ask him.

I think what the people I'm related to wanted me to do was just take it, shut up about it, and not inconvenience anyone else. My running out into the night made it obvious that something bad had happened, and so I was the problem, the one who needed to be erased.

My first job after graduation was as a Peace Corps teacher in a remote country in Africa. After that, Asia, after that, Poland. California and lots of writing sprinkled in between. People often say that they envy me my twenties, when all I did was travel and write and teach. That envy, like all envy, I suspect, is misplaced. I was moving so fast to get away from that night, and the subsequent betrayals. I was uninterested in committing to anything because I had learned that I was invisible and worthless and no one would have me, anyway, and everything can be taken away from you in seconds. And no matter how hard you fight, you lose.

But this isn't the brave thing I did yesterday.

Over twenty years ago, I wrote a memoir about that night. The memoir is titled "Hard Currency." The point of that title is that I learned that I am worthless, that I have no currency to exchange for stable and safe housing and a place in society.

I sent the memoir out shortly after I wrote it. The editor who read it sent it back to me, with derogatory commentary. The editor said, basically, that my writing sucks and is not fit for publication.

I felt very ashamed when I read the editor's letter.

Please understand this. I didn't feel ashamed because I was sexually assaulted. That was not the big deal. The big, shameful thing was that my writing sucks. My writing sucks, and I had been stupid enough to show it to someone.

So, so ashamed.

In the years since I have sent out a lot of writing, and gotten back many rejections. I'm used to it, now.

But I've never been able to return to "Hard Currency." Never been able to get through rereading it. It has hibernated in the various floppy discs, hard drives, and thumb drives I've had for the past twenty years, unread.

Yesterday, I felt brave enough to reread it. After I read it, I needed to put my head down for a while, and take several deep breaths.

And then I sent it out, to two, small, literary journals.

I did something brave. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

On Failing a Student

This is a true story. I change several identifying details in order to preserve the student's anonymity, without changing the substance of this account.

I sent out a warning email to "Jo," a failing student, early on in the semester. Here's the text:

"You are receiving this notification because your work has been insufficient and your final grade is in jeopardy. Please address this matter immediately. I encourage you to contact me during my office hours, after class, or via email.  The syllabus outlines weekly assignments and the impact of late arrivals and lack of attendance on grades.  The majority of students have handed in their work, arrived on time, and attended regularly. Grades are assigned on a comparison basis, with better-performing students receiving higher grades. If you are having trouble and need help, there are many campus offices, including tutors and counselors, that can help. Please ask for help if you need help. At the same time, remember that any help you receive should contribute to your being able to meet scholarly requirements. In terms of your final grade, nothing can compensate for a failure to meet the academic requirements of a class."


The syllabus explicitly outlines course requirements. Example here.

Expectations for written assignments are similarly explicit. The syllabus asks for the following:

A page will constitute 8 ½ by 11 inch paper, one side. White paper. Black ink.   
Student name will appear in the upper right-hand corner.     
Text will be double-spaced.      
Text will appear in # 12 Times New Roman font.     
 There will be a one-inch margin on all sides.
 There will be no skipped spaces between paragraphs.

There are a couple of reasons I ask for simple things like white paper and black ink and a one-inch margin.

I want to ask students to do things that are easy to do. If they don't do them – if they hand in assignments on colored paper, as some do, with blue or green or even pink ink, as some do, with two inch margins, as some do – I get it that the problem is not a question of IQ. The problem is, rather, an unwillingness to put in the effort to meet expected standards. That barrier must be overcome before intellectual performance can be addressed.

Most often, when students fail, it isn't because they weren't smart enough. It's because they lack a concept of performance, of effort, of work ethic. "I didn't come to class yesterday because it rained" and "I didn't think that you really expected me to do what you told me to do and what I agreed to do," rather than, "I found the assignment too intellectually demanding to comprehend."

"Jo," was failing. I sent Jo an email.

Jo wrote back. "Please cut me some slack," Jo wrote. "I am dealing with a serious illness in a loved one. I am very sad."

I was impatient. I was impatient because I had recently been diagnosed with the same illness that this student's loved one has. On top of that, someone I care about very much also received this diagnosis.

In spite of my own illness, in spite of losing health care when Obamacare came in, in spite of my loved one's illness, I was showing up for work every day.

I replied to Jo with a very terse note. I said, "Look, I have that exact same illness, and so does my loved one, and I am showing up for work every day."

I expected anger, resentment, possibly even a complaint to my boss.

Instead Jo waited for me after class.

Jo said, "I never would have guessed you have this illness. You come to class and smile and you don't show it at all."

Uh oh. This student was being nice to me. That's a challenge. I want to grade fairly. If a student flatters me, I fear that that will interfere with grading.

Jo's academic performance did not improve after this. Jo's performance went downhill. Jo entered and left class randomly. Normally I jump down a student's throat if he gets up and leaves class during the class period. I did not do that with Jo, because I knew Jo was dealing with so much … at the same time, these entrances and departures did disrupt class.

I hoped that Jo's performance would improve. I didn't want to be faced with the challenge of failing Jo.

Jo and I spent more time talking about illness and mortality. Sometimes Jo cried. I did my best to be comforting. I didn't want to create false hope, though. Jo simply wasn't doing very well in class. I wanted to keep up the message that unless Jo improved academically, Jo would not pass.

Toward the end of the semester, Jo brought me a present and a handwritten note. Jo said that no other teacher had ever been so kind.

When, after all the students had gone home, I sat with piles of student papers and my roll book recording a semester's worth of absences and quiz grades, it was clear. Jo had failed the class.

Jo hadn't failed the class because of a lack of intellectual brilliance. Students can and do achieve A and B grades in my classes just by attending regularly, handing in work that meets the minimum formatting guidelines of one inch margin and black ink on white paper. Jo had failed because of a lack of a work ethic, a lack of an idea that you plod through, every day – you just show up.

Yes, a beloved relative was ill. But people can and do perform when beloved relatives are ill. My brother Phil was killed in a car accident on my seventeenth birthday. I was an A-B student that year as I was every year. My father died a slow death from disease my first year in a PhD program; I received all A grades.

One of my students, a German woman, was a mother. Her son almost died in a car crash while she was pursuing a degree. She was one of the very best students I've ever had, and I said so, in the letter of rec I wrote for her.

As a child, I had attended St. Francis, a Catholic, eight-room schoolhouse in a working class town. We didn't even have a real library; a floppy, generic ball was our one piece of sports equipment. There were no excuses. There was much hard work. My PhD program did not teach me as much as St. Francis.

Jo is a minority student, a member of a group that has truly been raped by the American Dream.

This is the perfect storm of ingredients that might cause me to alter a grade: Jo had flattered my teaching, flattered my compassion, cried on my shoulder; Jo's family member had the same illness I had, and my loved one had.

If I failed Jo, I might hurt Jo's feelings. If I failed Jo, Jo, who had come to like and value me, might come to hate me. If I failed Jo, Jo might be wounded and traumatized and might not overcome the barriers Jo faces as a minority.

If I failed Jo, maybe I was racist dirtbag. Sure, the numbers – Jo's absences, Jo's test scores, the number of assignments Jo handed in – sure, all that added up to a failing grade. But wouldn't someone else record a passing grade out of sympathy for the suffering of Jo's people?

My pen hovered nervously over the little box in my roll book where I record final grades.


A Facebook friend recently posted a message about how the poor in America are hungry for food. I'm not close to this woman and I normally don't respond to her posts, except to praise her haiku.

I posted a quick and emphatic response. No, I said. No. No. No. Hunger for food is NOT the problem of the poor in America.

America is rich, compared to other nations, and food is relatively easily gotten. You could eat from dumpsters, from food banks, from begging on the street, and still get more calories per day than millions of people around the world.

There is a problem for the poor in America, and part of it is that our souls have been crushed.

Look at my fate under Obamacare. I lost healthcare coverage in November. I've been trying to get it back ever since. I need healthcare coverage. I qualify for healthcare coverage. The big, anonymous state-run machine keeps denying it to me, for reasons no one can understand. I've been begging, emailing, phoning, going to offices, writing letters, amassing and photocopying paystubs and tax forms … no healthcare coverage.

It's a soul-destroying experience. That is not a metaphor. It's a soul-destroying experience.

Poor people in America DO need something. We need dignity. We need a world where A means A and B means B and effort counts for something, where, if you put two plus two into the machine, and crank the machine, the expeller nozzle expresses a four, not a letter saying, "You have been denied; we won't tell you why; we won't tell you how to rectify this."


I recorded a failing grade for Jo.

Jo wrote to me. Could I do something to change the grade?

I wrote back. I talked about Jo's performance in relation to other students in the class. Jo's performance was simply not as good. I promised to work with Jo in the future on improving Jo's performance, so that Jo could get better grades in the future.  

I didn't give Jo what Jo wanted. I recorded a grade that accurately reflected Jo's performance. I am a meanie. I did not pity Jo for having a loved one who was gravely ill. I'm just another white oppressor.

I didn't do that because I thought a failing grade would be to Jo's benefit. I did it because it was the honest thing to do.

But maybe a failing grade would be to Jo's benefit.

If I had communicated to Jo, "Yes, I, the powerful white person, feel sorry for you, and I will use my pity to lift you up, however temporarily,"

Jo would learn from this: "Aha. The road to what feels like success for me is to flatter powerful white people and make them feel sorry for me and receive desirable things that way."

What I may have communicated to Jo is "Yes, there are such things as standards of performance, and I can and should meet them, and when I meet them, I will receive the things I want. And I will be able to thank myself for my performance, and I won't be in debt to anyone."

If you like my blog please check out my book "Save Send Delete" available here on Amazon.

Friday, May 16, 2014

An Invitation to Liberal Friends re: Mariam Yahya Ibrahim


Cultural Relativism is dogma today. It's like a religious tenet – you really can't question it, and if you do, you are subject to sanction.

Cultural relativism was put forth by Franz Boas, "the father of American anthropology," a hundred years ago. Boas was lashing out against the racism pervasive in anthropology in his day. The British Victorian scholar, EB Tylor, "the father of anthropology," was a racist. Tylor really did insist that educated English men were at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, and African savages and European peasants were way down at the bottom.

Boas came along and pointed out that "primitive" cultures were just as good as any others.

Boas made good and important points, but we've taken cultural relativism too far. How far?

When I was in grad school at Indiana University Bloomington, I mentioned clitoredectomy as a violation of women's rights. My fellow grad student lashed out at me. No, no, she insisted. I was a "bigot" and a "racist" and a "cultural imperialist" to judge clitoredectomy negatively. "You're Catholic," this grad student snapped. "Clitoredectomy is just like your ritual of confirmation."

That grad student has gone on to a stellar academic career. Me? Not so much.  

When I protest against clitoredectomy, child marriage, acid attacks on women and girls, and acts of jihad on Facebook, my liberal friends often excoriate me. Not a few have unfriended me, always denouncing me first as a bigot, hater, cultural imperialist, racist, and hooded KKK grand dragon

These attacks are often accompanied by cultural relativist arguments. Jihad is just like the Crusades. Child marriage is just Miley Cyrus twerking. Clitoredectomy is just like wearing high heels.


Mariam Yahya Ibrahim is a 27 year old Sudanese woman who has been condemned to death for allegedly converting from Islam to Christianity. She is eight months pregnant. The Sudanese court's death sentence is in accord with Islam. "He who changes his Islamic religion, kill him" – hadith Sahih Al-Bukhari 9:57. This precept is and has always been widely supported in Islam (see here).

I'd like to invite my cultural relativist friends to defend Mariam's murder, or to culturally relativize it for me. If all cultures in all respects really are equal, if there really is nothing superior – or even merely preferable – about the Judeo-Christian tradition and Western Civilization, please explain how murdering a young woman, wife, and mother for the crime of being a Christian in a Muslim-majority state is really okay.

Above please find a blank piece of paper on which you can detail your reasoning. 

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Only Thing That Matters

Janice Van Cronkhite, Pearl of Great Price
My friend, I am writing to remind you of the only thing that matters.

Look, we all already know: I'm a loser; I'm a failure.

I had a life. I broke it down into its constituent parts and placed it into three piles: give away, recycle, pack into a backpack that can fit on my back and take it with me.

I gave away a couch to a man who carried it off himself, declining my help; he had previously told me he that had a bad back and lived on disability payments. Bitter laughter at that.

I gave away a television set that one of my Polish students had given to me and on which I used to watch daily reruns of "Night Court" and the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. That's what it was called, back then.

I don't even remember what I slept on in those days but I gave that – a mattress? A futon? – away.

I hadn't planned on giving friends away; I thought I'd be back soon enough to resuscitate the friendships I was leaving, to rescue them from sinking beneath the surface, from expiring from lack of oxygen. But I didn't return soon enough and by the time I returned, weirdly, all my old friends were transformed into old ladies with adult kids.

How the heck did that happen? Especially since I still felt quite young. I wasn't yet married or a mother and I knew that that would happen eventually when I got older … oops. Uh oh.

I hitchhiked to California and went to grad school and I came out of that exile with a PhD, but so what?

Academia killed me.

I was harassed by a powerful professor. I testified against her. I got sick. I went deaf. I couldn't see. I couldn't move. I had an operation and I tried to rejoin the world, but the world had moved on without me during those years of paralysis and vomiting.

And now I am a loser, a failure, a bum. I live in government-subsidized housing in a slum. I fight day and night for really simple things, like a door in my apartment. That isn't a metaphor. I have to fight for a door in my apartment.

Your story is very different from mine. You made six figures. You bought many cars. You promised the moon. You felt it a mere matter of standing on tiptoes in order to reach it.

But lately you, too, have felt the heavy fist of fate.

You, too, are applying for jobs that you know you could do blindfolded, with your hands tied behind your back, better than anyone else. You can't get these jobs. You are rejected. You are crushed.

You are feeling left out by those for whom you sacrificed, and provided, so very much. You are no longer a human ATM. Ka Ching. Suddenly no one likes you.

You submit your writing to editors. It is rejected. You submit your love to your blood relations. It is rejected. You post a message on Facebook. No one clicks "like." You go for a walk. A pigeon shits on your head. A dog pees on your leg. It was sunny when you left the house, but suddenly the skies open to a deluge. You have no umbrella. Weathermen are amazed. You are surrounded by fingers pointing at, blaming, you.

You wonder, "Do I have the word 'loser' tattooed on my forehead?"

Suddenly blunt cliffs suggest a new use to you. Sharp knives. Gun stores. Prescription medicines. It could all be over so fast.

At my end I can say that you have become a difficult person. You are mean to me. You break commitments. You storm off. You embarrass me in front of mutual friends.

I try to share with you something that delights me. You ignore me. I try to converse with you. You call me a "bitch" and say I am difficult. I offer you some homemade baked goods. "I hate sweets." I offer to buy you lunch. "I'm in such a bad mood I wouldn't be good company."

Let me tell you something. Let me share an insight with you.

Yes, I have nothing and I am nothing. But like those motley fools from the Middle Ages. Losers sometimes know things that winners don't know.

I know the only thing that matters. Lean in close. I must whisper. We can't let this news leak out to too many.

Okay, this is it. Listen carefully. Take notes. Memorize this. This is the only thing that matters.

Me, hurt by you, deciding right now to care about you, and to act, however imperfectly and stupidly, on that care. That's the only thing that matters.

You, right now, your ear, listening to me with hope, hoping that the very next minute will be better than this minute of despair. Your decision not to sink down into the mud. Your decision to be your best self right now. That's the only thing that matters.

You and me, two human beings, struggling to get past the fear and distrust and disappointment and built-up gunk we feel for each other. That's the only thing that matters.

This May, not last January, not next September. This May of plump and purple lilacs, of migrating warblers, of the opening of the 9-11 Museum, of my former students graduating, of your kids finishing their school year and looking forward to the future, that's the only thing that matters.

The pleasure you get from writing, from learning new things about obscure topics that no one else has ever heard of – how will you find your audience? The belief that somehow, someday, you will find your audience, you have to, because you love your work so much – that's the only thing that matters.

My decision, in spite of everything, to be the best damn teacher I can be, even though I have no future, even though I face nothing but poverty and isolation, even though I am so low on the totem pole that lichen look down on me from their lofty height – my determination to go into that classroom and teach as if my students were all, every last one of them, on a trajectory to the Nobel Prize committee to pick up their awards, my treating their use of commas and apostrophes as the most important agenda items on the planet at any given moment – that's the only thing that matters.

My taking time after class to look into the eyes of a student who is in pain, my inner turmoil, rolling around inside my head, struggling to find the right words to say, my having no idea what to say but just letting that student's pain wash over me and me absorbing it thoroughly and me finally saying, "May I give you a hug?" and the student accepting that hug and finally breaking into tears and wetting my shoulder so deeply my shoulder is not dry till I walk home and change, but the despair is not so easily removed as the tears – that willingness to connect with one other human being in however confused and clumsy a way – that is the only thing that matters.

The joy I felt when I smelt the new lilacs this year, joy that took me back to being five years old and registering lilacs for the first time as me and my brother Greg hunkered down in a blooming lilac bush and looked up at the blue sky scored by lilac limbs – that is the only thing that matters.

You, knowing full well that when you call me by that little, two-letter nickname that you have for me, knowing that no matter what is going on between us you can touch me beyond words or defenses by speaking that nickname – that is the only thing that matters.

The love you feel for your children, beyond whether or not you can buy them this or that. Your determination to make it better for them than it was for you. That is the only thing that matters.

YES people who are better than we and richer and more powerful and smarter can crush us into dust, define us as without definition because worthless, steal our dreams more thoroughly than Paterson's thieves have stolen my mail, my money, and my sense of security.

But you know what? That doesn't matter. It really, really doesn't.

Our decision to get up every day and to serve something, and to enjoy something, and to be something – in spite of EVERYTHING – that is the only thing that matters.
Magdalena Pasnikowska, who totally understands this blog post.