Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

A Reader

Yes, I read.
Making small talk at my husband's office Christmas party earlier this month, I asked the boss' wife what she was reading.  The question was not out of the blue, she had mentioned something about reading during the holiday break and my response was a natural follow-up. The question, however, seemed to catch her by surprise.  Her face turned up towards mine with hopeful anticipation, "Are you a reader?" she asked.  My ambivalent response left her looking quite crestfallen.

Clearly, this woman is a reader. She didn't want to simply recite the titles on her bookshelf and move onto the next topic of conversation.  She was hoping to talk to me about books.  If I was a reader, perhaps I would have read the book she was reading, or another book by the same author, or in the same genre.  If I was a reader, we could talk about how the book was going and what we saw in the characters, what we hoped for them.  We could go to that place on the other side of the pages and leave the party's cheese cubes and awkward banter behind us.

I do read.  I read a lot for work, skim the New York Times every day, and read the articles my friends post on Facebook. All of this, however, does not qualify me as a reader.  Not like my mother who regularly sits with her tea and a book in the chair next to the window.  Not like my sister and her husband who reserve books on-line at their library, creating a steady stream of pages through their home. Not like those 7th grade girls who I see walking into school with a book tucked under their arm, just waiting for a free moment. Not like that.

But, hey, it's the New Year, so we get to be who we want to be.  This year, I am going to be a reader.  Not so I can talk to the boss' wife or join a book group, but because reading is wonderful.  I was a reader once, and I remember it very well.  Crouched with Nancy Drew inside the hidden staircase, listening for the creaking door.  Talking with Jane Jacobs about why our cities succeed and fail.  Deep in a pile of trash on the outskirts of Mumbai, watching the neighbors fight. I've been to the other side.

My first book of the resolution was a gift from my mother last Christmas, as in 2012.  Written by a team of anthropologists, the book begins with the story of instant noodles to tell a larger tale of the industrial food complex and the challenge of feeding the world.  A lot to chew on.  Overall, the book made me feel grateful that there are some extremely smart and dedicated people thinking about these issues because they are enormous and scary and I am busy with other things. Highlights included their descriptions of noodle museums in Japan, how MREs are developed for our troops, and how instant Ramen noodles were introducted into the culture of Papua New Guinea. I also find it interesting that the authors are married and wonder about how that collaboration works. I spent some time between chapters thinking about Margaret Mead, just because I think she is fascinating, which made me think of my anthropology courses at Columbia and other stuff related to those college years. And so it spins and spins off into the great beyond.

Beach in Winter

Miley at 20.
When I was 20 years old, I lived in Madrid.  My job as a nanny was undemanding and entertaining, offering me a nice salary plus room and board in a chic apartment in the city center.  Nice set up.

Then "20" hit out of nowhere and things started getting funky.  After tensions rose in the house due to my selfish and unprofessional behavior, I quit the job, did a bit of couch surfing, and then decided to move to the resort town of Ibiza, on the island of the same name, with a couple of friends.  From perfect plan to no plan in 60 seconds or less.

We arrived to Ibiza in early March and found winter.  Who knew? Yes, winter comes to the Mediterranean as well.  The downside of this condition was that there were no tourists, which translated into no jobs.  The upside was that there were no tourists, which meant this place was beautiful and calm. What is more stunning that the beach in winter?  No ugly T-Shirts.  No crowds.  The streets and the beaches were empty, hotels shuttered, only locals lingering quietly along the piers and in coffee shops.  One of us managed to get a part-time night job in security and this salary carried all three of us through the winter.  Mostly what we did was hang out in our unfurnished apartment, listening to the radio, and doing what we want to, as Miley would say.

The number one song during that winter of 1990 was Sinead O'Conner's Nothing Compares 2 U.  If we had a 1,000 pesetas for every time we heard that song on our little radio, we would have been living large.  But frankly, with basically nothing to our names, we actually lived pretty large.  Three 20 year-olds with nothing but our imagination and the world around us to fill those long cloudy days and nights.  Our house, our rules, as Miley would say.

Now it's 23 years later and Miley Cyrus is #1 on the radio and her song, Wrecking Ball, is accompanied by a video that literally made me shudder the first time I saw it.  I actually had to look away because the "20" was so thick and gooey.  I was busy railing against the misogyny, desperation, and objectification of this young artist's grown-up image when, coincidentally, Sinead O'Conner came out with a public statement about the video which, as the fates would have it, Miley says was based on the Nothing Compares 2 U video.  Among other thing, Sinead scolded Miley for selling out to the man and allowing sexual shenanigans to overshadow her singing talent.  My reaction to this unsolicited advice was, "Go! Go! You righteous bald lady! Tell that little girl how to live her life!"

But then I realized it wasn't going to be that easy.  Sinead's resurfacing brought me back to that winter at the beach.  Back to when I wore underwear as outerwear and lived in a sparsely furnished apartment with strangers.  Engaged in what we in the business like to call "risk behaviors."  Suddenly, Miley's teddy bears didn't seem so wrong.  When did I become the old person from the Bowie song, spitting on children who are trying to change their world?  Maybe Sinead and I know things that we didn't know back then, that would have been helpful to us, and/or maybe there are things that we have forgotten that would be helpful to remember.  Thanks, Miley, for reminding me.  Don't stop.

Winter became spring and then summer at the beach, the English and Germans came en masse, and soon we all had jobs.  I got work as a bartender at a go-kart place on the highway.  The owner was tall, thin man who liked to drink Tia Maria and dance after the bar closed down.  His nephew, the cart mechanic, was an injection heroin user whose deeply set vacant eyes and hollow cheeks still burn in my memory.  In the early afternoons, before the drunk tourists descended on the bar, the women who worked at the brothel next door would stop by for a beer.  It wasn't the glamourous nightclub scene that I had hoped for when I imagined what life on Ibiza would be like, it was better.  My "20" - whatever it was or meant or didn't mean - brought me into a world that captured my imagination and sparked the inquiry that has fueled my professional life ever since.

So, go ahead Miley, lick that hammer!  Get naked on the big ball!  Do that thing with your tongue and your butt and whatever else it is that your "20" brings.  I may let some harm reduction messages slip now and then, but I am not going to stand in your way.  Afterall, you're just being Miley.

Green Sparkling Eyeliner

The Eye of Employment
I live in a food desert.

  • A few blocks from my house is a "Food Mart" that sells ice cream, 25 cent bags of chips, and rolling papers.  No thanks.  
  • Across the bridge and down the road is a dusty "Latino" supermarket that has a nice stock of yuca, bread, and tamarind juice.  Not a horrible option, but the parking lot is dicey and rails at the door prevent shoppers from wheeling carts out to their cars which I find depressing and inconvenient.  
  • The Super Walmart on the highway can be super if you want to buy milk and bicycles at the same time, but usually I just want food and entering into that labyrinth is a exhausting endeavor that usually includes at least 15 minutes in the check out line. Sorry Sam, no can do.
Traditional supermarkets (e.g. Stop and Shop) are within reach, thanks to my minivan and US-Middle East foreign policy, but it's a drive to and from that doesn't make a lot of sense seeing as I live in a city.  Jane Jacobs would be sad.

So, you can imagine how happy I was to see that the space where the A&P was, and then went out of business, was reopening in the form of a Shop Rite.  Clearly, spelling doesn't count.  Driving into the lot last week, after a short 5 minute spin in the Odyssey, was a thrill.  A nice big corporate supermarket in my edge of the woods.  My expectation was that I would find the yogurts I like, good bananas, and bunch of yummy cheese.  On all accounts, I was not disappointed.  

What I also found in abundance - quite unexpectedly - was happiness and hope.  What a lovely surprise! Here's a lot in East Haven that has been vacant for years.  Then a bunch of grown-ups got together and did the deal that brought a supermarket back.  Open for only two days when I arrived, the store was impeccably clean and organized.  And everyone, especially the employees, was smiling.  It was clear to me that most of the employees had not been working, and now they were, and they were psyched.  Perhaps because one of my first jobs was working in a supermarket, I found the cadre of high school students bagging at the end of each check out especially sweet.  

Surely the attitude in the market could be attributed to the novelty of it all.  Will the job bagging groceries at the market on the highway generate such a thrill for the boy with braces six months down the line?  Maybe not.  But the impermanence of a happy moment should not diminish its value. It was a grand opening on many levels.

The cashier who checked me out was a woman in her 20s.  Her eye makeup was beautifully done, lined with sparkly green, to match the shop's uniform apron.  She looked amazing - she had gotten ready for work that day and was doing a great job at her brand new job.

In short, if you want to know what economic development looks like, what it feels like, go to the Shop Rite on Route 80 and there you will have it, right before your very eyes.  And next time you drive by a vacant lot, a boarded up supermarket on the side of the road, stop, imagine, and get involved.

Rachel's Hair

Who among us has not admired Jennifer Anniston's perfect hair? Wondered if our hair might turn under just so if we get a trim and commit to blow drying every morning?  While Farah's iconic hair was obviously dyed, curled, and styled ad nauseum, Jen's was realistic, she was just another girl like me who lived down the hall with all her cool friends.  Not a reality show, but almost.

Well, the other day I read an interview with Aniston who is out on the press circuit to promote her new film, "We're the Millers." In the interview, she said she grew to truly despise the famous style in part because it took the stylist THREE HOURS every day to make her hair look like that.  In other words, not even Jennifer's Aniston's hair looks like Jennifer Aniston's famous hair.  It's fake, not real.  A hairdo created by and for television. Duh.

Which brings me to my long-awaited review of Orange is the New Black.  Since the release of this Netflix Original Series, based on the book by Piper Kerman about her time served in the Danbury (CT) Federal Correctional Institution, I have received lots of emails and comments asking about the show:  Is it accurate? Is this the way it really is inside a women's prison?

First of all, to be clear, I have never been incarcerated at Danbury, or any other correctional facility. I have, however, visited a few prisons and talked to a lot of formerly incarcerated people, especially women, about their lives on the inside. So I know a version of reality that has been constructed by my personal experience and the accounts that people have chosen to share with me. Not the truth, a truth.

Second, as is the case with all film/TV based on a book, you should really read the book. Kerman's book is different than the TV show and, I would argue, does a better job describing and analyzing the complexities of her incarceration experience. In particular, her book explores her white, upper middle class privilege in a deeper and more thoughtful way than the TV show.

THE REVIEW:  First few episodes are really bad, relying primarily on stereotypes and lesbian/women having sex with women scenes to carry an uninteresting protagonist through her first weeks of incarceration.  I would say skip them all together but it might be confusing to watch the rest of the series without this introduction, however feeble.  Then, out of nowhere, the program actually gets really good. The story lines are engaging, the characters are complicated, and the viewer is offered a somewhat accurate portrayal of the dynamics of prison life.

Bottom line? This is a TV show. Do the things that happen on the show actually happen in real life at Danbury?  Well, did the circumstances and events on Friends reflect your own experiences living in New York with a couple of roommates after college? Sort of, kind of. It is unlikely that all of the events portrayed on Orange is The New Black would actually happen to a small group of a women in the span of a few months, but most have probably happened at one time or another. Highlights include all the food stuff which does ring true, the portrayal of the woman who returns to the tier shortly after giving birth, without her baby, and Piper's 48 hours in solitary which I found almost unbearable to watch.  Remember the hunger strike?

I recommend you watch it.  Also read the book.  Better yet - volunteer at your local prison or halfway house and construct your own truth.

Alabama is the New Connecticut

A is for Aliceville, AL
If you want to hear someone talk trash about the South, look elsewhere.  It ain't me you're looking for, babe.

When I studied in Northern Florida, I had the opportunity to travel extensively in the South, including tours of LA, AL, and MS (not to be confused with MI, aka Michigan).  With my Dad. Unexpectedly fun and engaging.

My favorite state, con diferencia, was/is Alabama.  Lovely people, delicious food, and endless history.  A lot of nasty bad stuff when down there to be sure, which makes the resilience and bravery of the state even more remarkable.  The folks who walked the bridge at Selma were, after all, mostly from Alabama, not Boston. Helen Keller. Jesse Owens. Rosa Parks. Zelda Sayre. Definitely something strong in that water.

So believe me when I tell you that my outrage about the closing of the US Federal Prison for women in Danbury, CT, and subsequent relocation of the 1,000+ inmates who are held there to Aliceville, AL, has nothing to do with Alabama, per se.  It has to do with the fact that the move will place these incarcerated women, who are primarily from the NE, over 1,000 miles away from friends, family, and the community based programs in their hometowns that will make their re-entry successful.  If the move happens, there will be no federal prison for women in the entire NE part of the US. The official reason for the move is that the system needs the Danbury space to accommodate increasing numbers of male prisoners.  Don't even get me started on that one.

Piper Kernan, semi-famous author of Orange is the New Black, the book and now the Netflix miniseries, was incarcerated at Danbury and wrote this very excellent editorial for the New York Times.

Here's a letter from 11 US Senators to the Federal Bureau of Prisons basically asking, "What the h***?"  My CT guys are signed on. Are your representatives?  Call. Write. Speak up.

The fight is on.  Be a part of it or get ready to carpool down to Aliceville.

The Beach Gets Interesting

The Revolution Will Be Live!
Yesterday morning I went to the supermarket to buy the daily essentials:

  • Water:  Not sure why we aren't drinking tap water here, basically just following the cue of those around us.  Sheep.
  • Empenada Gallega:  Delicious thin pie of yummie-ness.  My major staple food in Galicia. Couldn't decide on a single filling, so I got three types:  Cod with Raisins, Tuna, Clams.  Triple yum.
  • Maxi-bon: Sounds like a feminine hygiene product but actually the most delicious ice cream sandwich, according to Javier and me, the Spanish Ice Cream Experts.
Not a sanitary napkin.
When I got back to the apartment, instead of the sweet sounds of children laughing on the beach and waves hitting the shore, all I could hear was loud whistles and drums.  Went out onto the terrace, and what to my wondering eyes should appear?!  Protesters marching in the street against banking shenanigans and other Spanish economic corruptions.  Primarily older people drawing attention to the actions of a local bank which stripped their savings.  Interesting approach. Instead of marching in a major city, these protestors brought their message to the bankers' vacation spot.  So the posh beach and the oppressions of the world meet head on - an almost perfect response to my previous blog post. Perhaps rather than a hunger strike at Pelican Bay, prisoner advocates should march on Southampton or occupy the Vineyard?

Standing on my terrace, taking pictures with my iPhone, I was so excited to bear witness to this event. The revolution will not be televised, the revolution will be live!  There I was, in the thick of all the contradictions of our postmodern lives.

But what did the protestors think and see as they walked by my apartment building?  The middle-aged lady with the blond highlights taking pictures with a silly "smart" phone from the terrace of an apartment that cost the equivalent of two months of their pension pay for a fortnight.  Maxibons and bottled water chilling in the refrigerator/freezer.  And so the contradictions never end...

If a Tree Falls in the Forest...

It has been a month since prisoners began their hunger strike in California to protest conditions there, particularly the use of indefinite solitary confinement (22 hours a day in a cell, years on end) for people suspected of having gang affiliations and other disciplinary reasons.  On the first day in July, 30,000 inmates participated in the strike, now there are approximately 550 strikers, although the mechanism by which participants are officially counted is contested by organizers who maintain the number of strikers is much higher.  One man is dead.

One of the strikers 5 Demands is that the prison, "Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food."

I am at a posh beach town in Spain where families where matching, ironed, outfits to the beach.  I am eating pulpo and pimentos drenched in olive oil and salt, by the pound. When I go to sleep at night, I can hear the sound of the waves crashing on the shore.

Oh baby, it's a wild, wild world.  How do our realities align and intersect with the world of Pelican Bay?  Are we capable of hearing and seeing the lived experience of these incarcerated people in California?  Or incarcerated people anywhere?  Who's problem is this? What would it take for this debate to matter, on a large scale, to the people of the United States of America?

Trees are falling but the sounds of this collapse are not being heard in large part because there is very little media coverage.  Here are a couple of links to bring you up to speed.  Check it out and mention it to a friend or family member as you turn over on the beach, linger at your desk, travel through your daily life.

Off Line

Picasso, Figure at the Seaside, 1931. 
What is the postmodern postdoc doing in Spain?  Sleeping, running, eating, drinking, talking, watching politicians yell at each other.  The usual.  Reading, organizing thoughts, and slowly starting to write a little bit.

Today we leave for the beach. A rented piso without WiFi. Probably just what the doctor ordered to get the writing off the ground.  Let's hope so.  See you on the other side.

La Madama, Sanxenxo, Galicia, Spain

Donut Dollies in España?

A touch of home in the midst of chaos.
More than 600 women served as Red Cross Volunteers, or Donut Dollies, during the Vietnam War. These women traveled to the front lines of the conflict to offer recreational programs for combat soldiers.  They offered a break from the intense and devastating reality of war with with handmade games, a cup of Kool-Aid, a song, and a smile.

My aunt Nancy was one of those women. She remains an active member of this group and the larger Vietnam Veteran community.  This summer, she showed us a documentary, "A Touch of Home," about these volunteers. Here's the trailer:

The movie asks, among other things, how can you help? What can you do? And highlights the value of connection to home when you are far away and in danger.

This week when I learned that a train had jumped the rail and smashed into a concrete wall just a couple miles from where I sat, at my in-laws home outside Santiago de Compostela, I felt what we all felt: sad, confused, heartbroken.  Soon we learned nearly 80 people had died and more than 100 were injured in that moment. While I was happily talking to my brother-in-law about the impending birth of his baby girl and if the stroller would fit into their building's tiny elevator. Such is life.

It wasn't until the day after the accident that I learned there had been several US citizens on board, one had died and the others were hospitalized.  Not exactly sure if or how we could help, a couple of American friends and I went down to the hospital this morning to see if the injured Americans were still there. We brought books and Reese's Peanut Butter cups. As it turned out, there was only one US citizen in the hospital, and she is in a coma.  The others had been transferred to other facilities or discharged. We called the local consulate and gave them our phone numbers, in case a family member came into town and needed something we might be able to offer.  A place to stay, an American accent, a smile, a touch of home.

Not exactly a Donut Dolly effort, but an intention perhaps worthy of the tradition.


Where's Edith?
The texting started when we landed. One of my daughter's best friends was in the Madrid airport, for the next hour, and the goal was to see her, to be with her.  Text, text, text.  We agreed to meet at the gate her friend's plane was leaving from, or at the gate of our connecting flight - scheduled to leave in 5 hours - if all else failed.  I handed over her passports and boarding card and when the doors to the plane opened, she rushed forward.

Javier and I lazied off the plane and through immigration, from T4 to T1, squinting at the Spanish sun. Exhausted. I am a person who needs sleep, and I hadn't slept in a long while.  In the terminal, it became somewhat unclear which flight her friend was on, which gate to go to.  In retrospect, confusion due to sleep deprivation more than anything else, but seemed unclear at the time.  We went to one gate, the wrong gate, she wasn't there.  When we started towards our next best guess, the correct gate, I lost steam.  Irritated that I had to walk back and forth across the shiny airport, looking sloppy while surrounded by Spaniards in nice shoes, tracking my daughter. Had to pee. Tired. So we detoured to the lounge and took a break.  Once I connected to the airport WiFi, I sent her an email and a WhatsUp to let her know where we were.  She's always texting, right? She can find us.

After an hour, still no daughter.  So I left Javier in the lounge and went looking.  Didn't find her because, coincidentally, after an hour of waiting at the gate, she started wandering around looking for us.  Returned to Javier, who fell asleep in my lap for the next 3 hours, so I couldn't move, chose not to move, didn't move. There I sat, staring at the revolving news about the Royal Baby and Egypt, vacillating between bother and panic.  Is she really off-line or ignoring my message for some bizarro reason? If she fell on the escalator and her hair got caught, could the hospital find me?

When it was finally time for our connecting flight, we went to the gate.  She wasn't there.  My head clouded.  I turned to take some unknown action and there she was, walking towards me. I was angry at first, then apologetic for not making the effort to go to the second Gate. For choosing my son's sleep over her discovery.  Couldn't sleep all night, confused by a too long mid-day nap and images of her looking for us, which she did, for hours on end at the airport. Unable to connect to WiFi without a credit card, having spent her 15 free/intro minutes texting to her friend. Spending her 10 euros on a package of sliced chorizo and a latte, wondering if we had been caught up in some kind of confusion at immigration.  Why else would her mother not come for her like she said she would?

Sleepless night = GIRLS, Season 1 (more on that later); first three chapters of Michele Berger's Workable Sisterhood (more on that later); this post.  The blog is back.


Boy & Graduate
My doctoral journey came to an end with graduation on May 23, 2013.  Lucky 23.

If nothing else, we've learned that everyone has a story.  Mine includes a huge cast of characters; here are the leading roles (reprinted from my dissertation's acknowledgements, all rights reserved):

First, the scholars.  The PhD role models who led, and inspired, by example: Carl, Dr. David D., Jonathan, Stacy, and Trinka. My mentors at work who urged me to start, and stop, and gave me the flexibility to make it happen: Kim and Nate.  My CUNY cohort, each of whom brought a unique style and curiosity to this endeavor: Craig, Jama, Johanna, Johanna, Martha, Michelle, Rhoda, Shannah and Wan.  All of my teachers along the way, especially Sandra Sparrow, Elizabeth Blackmar, Sharon Maxwell, and my dissertation chair, Deborah Tolman.  May your findings always be significant.

Second, you, my blog readers, especially Alycia, Jennifer, Jessica, Jon, Pete, Trace and my English class in Pontepedriña. Your tolerant enthusiasm and attention to my ranting can never be repaid.

Third, the New Haven-Hooker community of friends who keep me all fuzzy and warm: Andy & Cameron; Christine & Lance; Kaveh, Salma & PK; Libby; Lisa & Rich; Monica & Todd; Rebecca & Ben; Sandy & Jay.  Pam at Evergreen. Thanks for inviting me over and letting me stay.

Fourth, my family from Marion to Santiago de Compostela, Fairbanks to Akron, young and old, dead and alive, who have created the foundation from which this all grows.  Especially my parents who taught me to be unafraid and curious, cheered me on every step of the way, and covered the home front; my in-laws, for their unconditional support; cousin JJ, the keeper of the ring; and my sister, Laura, for listening and always agreeing with me, unless I am wrong.

Finally, the ones at the center.  The women who participated in this study and allowed me to learn and grow from their survival.  My little mermaid, always kicking deeper. My patient boy.  And the cute guy who thought it was a good idea and has never stopped believing that.

The full dissertation will be available on ProQuest (for free!) and, perhaps, at a theater near you.  Still hoping to cast Jodie as me.

Blog coming to an end now as well, perhaps to be rekindled sometime in the future should I find the need to carry on some more.  Let's close with words from the brave Ossie Davis:
“We can’t float through life. We can’t be incidental, or accidental. We must fix our gaze on a guiding star as soon as one comes upon the horizon, and once we have attached ourselves to that star we must keep our eyes on it and our hands on the plow.


Small, possibly uninteresting, everyday scenario that I - and probably you - have experienced countless times.  But I need to get this one off my brain.  Here's the rant:

I came home from work on Friday, changed into my yoga clothes and sat in the kitchen.  I was tired and the house was cold.  Then I remember that I had forgotten something in my car so I put my coat on and went outside.  I walked down to my car, got what I had forgotten, and started walking back to the the house: about half a block up the fairly steep hill in front of my house.  It was twilight, no cars, no people, just me walking.  Then a truck drove up the hill, beeped and turned left at the corner.

I have always reacted to these beeps with outrage.  My heart jumps and blood, literally, boils.  Back in the old days, as I walked in the sun along the Avenues of Miami Beach, I would try to moderate my reactions by kidding myself that it was a compliment.  That I was that cute.  But I am way past that stage now.  On Friday afternoon, it was a very tired 43-year old woman, in faded clothes and clompy boots, who was trudging up that snowy hill in the grey light of a deeply February evening.  A beautiful sight to behold for those who love me, for sure, but not hot, not sparkling.  But even if I was a sight to see, it was never about me.

This horn beeping is patriarchy enacted. This is man who - consciously or unconsciously - is asserting his presence across the horizon.  Performing his masculinity through my objectification. Scholar, mother, daughter, blogger, worker-bee no more, his horn recognizes only my female self.  Reminding me that I am alone in the face of his power should he wish to control me.  While it may be a far cry from rape, for me, it's on the continuum of violence that oppresses all of us.

A few years back, New York's Mayor Bloomberg instituted laws against honking horns while driving.  In an effort to make the city less noisy and aggressive, drivers who honked at other cars could be ticketed.  I'd like to propose a similar initiative here in the Elm City against the Beeps of Patriarchy together with some kind of public education campaign.  Every two minutes someone in the US is sexually assaulted.  Let's take on this culture of violence against women from all sides, including this most minute and insipid habit.

That's the rant.

Remember the Ladies

Yoga practice involves bringing your body to the mat, day after day, and seeing what happens. The motions are more or less the same, but they often feel different and may vary from the right side to left. The idea is to be aware of what is there, without judging it. "This is what my practice feels like today."

Writing a dissertation is very similar. Every day - or every three or four days depending on distraction - you bring your mind to the data and see what happens. Sometimes it's more of the same, and sometimes you notice things you never saw before. Twisting and turning the mind in different ways, observing your reactions. Hoping you don't topple over.

True of life in general, I suppose. I go through the same motions every day - bed, coffee, contacts, drive, sit, drive, sit, bed - yet my reactions vary enormously.  

Earlier this week, for example, I was driving from work to Javier's school when I saw a tall. lanky 8th grade girl, about 14 years old, who I have known for ten years. She was walking alone down the street with what seemed like a sense of calm purpose. Not rushed, but deliberate. Comfortable. A common day occurrence, a habitual motion, that struck me at that moment as extraordinary. The images and information that I have recently ingested about women's lives in New Delhi changed the pose. I found myself in side-crow, breath shallow.  

But how long can you really hold a pose?  Before you know it, you are in legs-up-the-wall, taking your breath for granted. No judgement.

It Gets Better

Thanks to a tip from my amazing nephew Owen, Javier and I went to see Rise of Guardians on the day it was released, in late November.  What a lovely, imaginative movie - I can't recommend it enough. If you ever wonder how the Tooth Fairy does it and what Mr. Sandman is like, this is the film for you.

Among the many details in this film that brought tears to my eyes, were the filmmakers' ideas about what might happen to a child's spirit when he dies and their expression of compassion, and even love, for the Boogeyman.  Little did we know how meaningful these story lines would become.

It gets better, right? But today, the minutes go like hours.  There is a sense of distraction and sadness, even miles away, that makes imagining what folks are experiencing in Newtown breathtaking.

Might this sense of excruciating slowness also be what the boogeyman experiences?  Caught in something so thick and mired with pain that both present and future seem impossible. A never-ending disconnect and invisibility that infuriates beyond belief. One article I read said that much of this pain dissipates by middle-age, so apparently it does get better.  Still, 30 years of waiting is a long time.

So Yes to gun control, mental health services and unwavering support for teachers and first responders.

Also Yes to stories.  To allowing people to tell their stories - stories about themselves, their communities and the children who draw frost on our windowpanes. Allow every body, including the boogeyman, to be heard and seen so that they need not clamor for our attention with semi-automatic weapons.  Make room for the happy, funny stories, and the dark, scary and inconvenient ones, as well. Ask, listen, learn.

Spirit of the Season

2012 Edition Hess Truck
As a girl growing up in a family of metrosexual men, I can't remember ever seeing a toy truck in our house.  Maybe a plastic dump truck for sand at the beach, but that's it.  I am not much of a truck expert.

Luckily for my son, when we moved to New Haven in 2002 (he was 6 months old), we lived upstairs from Mr. R.  A man among men, Mr. R. had served as a fighter pilot in WWII and enjoyed a long career as a general contractor/home builder.  His apartment had a choice collection of model airplanes and baseballs. Among other things, Mr. R. knew trucks and every Christmas he gave Javier the annual Hess Truck.  They are really awesome, with lights and lots of moving parts.  If you've got little people on your list, buy this truck for them.

So I was thinking about Mr. R. and Christmas time when I pulled into the Hess this morning (8:30 am) to fill my tank.  Javier says he's too old for a Hess truck this year, so I was thinking about that.  And the fact that the little door on my gas tank is hard to open, even though I got it "fixed," and one day I might not be able to  pry it open anymore. Then, behind me, I heard women's voices screaming.

I turned around from the gas tank and there were two 30ish White women, in pajama bottoms and short-sleeved t-shirts, fighting.  One was on the ground in a fetal position.  The other was kicking her in the stomach while pulling her head up by her ponytail.  The woman's glasses flew off her head.

I was wondering just what I should do, I hadn't even had my coffee yet, and then they stopped.  The woman on the ground got up and they were insulting each other.  Then they were quiet.  And then they both got into a blue sedan that a third person was filling up a the pump and drove off. Together.

I was shaking when I got back into the car.  What was that?  Two really sad people in the middle of some messed up chaos.  Friends? Family? Lovers? How does one go from being the kid with the Hess truck, to the woman lying on the ground at the gas station getting kicked in the stomach on a cold December morning?  Random acts of unkindness to mark the holiday season. Unseen by all except for the two participants and a few casual onlookers.  Hmmm....that's an odd thing to see at the gas station.  Keep pumping, onto work and the morning coffee.  There but for the grace of God, go I.

Monte do Gozo

View of the city from Monte de Gozo.  See the 3 towers of the Cathedral in the distance?
For more than 1,000 years, pilgrims and other wanderers have walked the Camino de Santiago.  Beginning wherever they are, usually some place in Europe, and moving along the path until they make it to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela (Spain), days, weeks, months or years later.

This is one of those journeys where the trip matters more than the destination, still I am told it is thrilling to finally see the Cathedral in the distance.  The point where most pilgrims see the towers of the Cathedral for the first time is called, "Monte do Gozo."  The translation from the Gallego to English offered on Wikipedia is "Hill of Joy" but I think this is quite a feeble translation that does a disservice to the glory of this place.  The Monte is a mountain top, not a hill, and gozo is closer to ecstasy, in the religious sense of the word, than joy.  If you ask me.  When you get there you are damn happy and relieved, but you aren't done yet.

I haven't walked the Camino de Santiago yet, this blog is chronicling a different kind of journey.  An exercise in ego, intellect, persistence and - for my friends and family - patience: the PhD dissertation.  Well, I haven't made it yet, but tonight is my Monte de Gozo moment.  The second draft is done (ish) and I am embarking on the final leg.  Oh, the ecstasy!  See you at the Cathedral.


What colors do you see?
One more section of data analysis to conduct in order to finish the second draft of my dissertation.  The topic? Race.  Stories about prison.  Stories about food.  What is the role of race in these narratives?

I didn't specifically ask study participants to comment on how race shaped their incarcerated experiences.  So, on the one hand, I have little data about race.  On the other hand, all the data is about race because the US criminal justice system is so racial-ized. Visible. Invisible.

To help me along, I have been reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  And doing a lot of yoga.  So here we go.  Deep breath right into the twist.  Let's see if I can begin let go of what is held right under our shoulder blades.


More nature metaphors for my loyal followers.

Talk about slow-roasted...this turkey is going to be juicy!

Happy Thanksgiving to all, near and far.  PDX, SFO, SCQ, LAX: thinking of you!