Running, Racing, and Dealing with the Unexpected

From AP

Runners have been making a lot of headlines over the last few days, but not always in a good way. Sandy, the super storm that hit the northeast earlier this week, has caused a lot of damage to a lot of lives and has affected the weekend dreams of a lot of runners. I’m not going to compare the magnitude of these things, but I do think the initial backlash against runners when Mayor Bloomberg first said the race would go on was unfair. I got into a heated exchange after that announcement with a friend who runs, who openly declared online that she believed any runner who would show up and run an event under the circumstances was “selfish.” From my perspective, this statement is completely unfair. Keep in mind the following facts:

  • It’s the decision of city leadership, not of runners or NYRR, to hold or cancel the race. They were the ones responsible for saying the race was still on, and they also bear the responsibility for the 11-th hour decision to cancel. Consider this: If the race were held, and even if no one showed up at the starting line, the street closures and police deployments panned by many would still have occurred, because city government had ordered it.
  • According to the New York Times, by the time the race was cancelled on Friday night 40,000 of the 47,000 expected runners were already in the city. Even excepting native New Yorkers, that means thousands of visiting runners made it to the city on the expectation of a race, only to find out it was off. If part of the goal of canceling was to prevent the diversion of resources to visitors, on that count the city leadership certainly failed.
  • I would argue that canceling the race doesn’t really create any “winners,” per se. Now, in addition to all of the folks without homes and power, many runners lost non-refundable entry fees into the hundreds of dollars, plus the thousands that some have spent on travel, lodging, and meals. When panning these runners, it’s important to remember that some of them are also losing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All of them (one hopes) had spent months training for the event, some waited years to gain an entry. Some will probably not be able to return to New York for the marathon in the future. I definitely see both sides of this story, but I also think the stories of massive amounts of “resources being diverted to runners” were exaggerated.
  • What strikes me most about this story, though, is how runners showed up in the end and debunked the selfish image that some people painted of them. Earlier today, it’s estimated that over 1,000 runners showed up in Staten Island to help distribute supplies. (See also this first-hand account from running legend Amby Burfoot. He estimated the crowd at 700, but the larger figure was reported by NBC News.) Others who ran in Central Park raised money for those affected by the storm. Let’s also not forget that many runners entered the race in the first place through charity programs, raising money for different causes or just seeking to improve their lives and inspire others. I hope these many individuals succeeded in reminding the media and ordinary people that runners–especially distance runners–tend to be a socially conscious bunch. You can’t spend hours on the road without thinking of the communities you run in, the causes that your races benefit, and the environment.

The NYC Marathon Web site offers info on ways you can help.

City leaders in New York showed some poor leadership in this instance, but it looks like runners did great things in New York today and I hope residents affected by the storm feel like this was ultimately worthwhile. (As we all know, sometimes the best-intentioned plans don’t work out as intended.) If any of you were affected by the storm or participated in the aid efforts today, please let me know! I’ve seen some blogs about this already and I’d like to read more about what people are doing. For my part, I donated to the Red Cross today and would encourage my readers to find a way to help as well.


Movie Review: Argo

If you know me in real life, you know that I have to be really intrigued by a movie to go see it for full price on a Friday night on opening weekend. However, Argo hooked me with great early reviews and a fascinating premise: The story of how the CIA (working with our Canadian allies) rescued six American embassy personnel from Iran during the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981. So was it worth $10 to see the film in theaters? Simply put, yes. In fact, Argo is hands-down the movie of the year for me.

Affleck as Tony Mendez

Ben Affleck (who also directs) plays the lead role as Tony Mendez, a down-on-his-luck CIA exfiltration expert who is initially called in to “consult” with the State Department on rescuing the six, who amazingly were able to walk out a back door as the embassy in Tehran was being stormed. Mendez quickly realizes that State is way in over its head, and lobbies to take over the whole operation with a brainstorm (inspired by his son’s Star Wars obsession) to sneak out the six disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi film. The whole operation takes on a tongue-in-cheek air as Mendez recruits Hollywood types John Chambers (a real Hollywood makeup artist, played by John Goodman) and Les Siegel (played by Alan Arkin, who steals every scene he is in) to make the film–Argo–look like the real deal. Victor Garber also does an excellent turn as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who risks his own life by hiding the six Americans in his residence.

Part of the genius of Argo is that blends tone perfectly. On the one hand, director Affleck creates a genuine sense of danger and thrill surrounding the fate of the six. While they are never fully developed as characters, their terror is conveyed mostly through looks, gestures, and sparse dialogue. Affleck also gives us a glimpse of Iran spinning out of control, an extremist state where people are executed in the streets. The threat to Americans is very real. At the same time, the antics of the Hollywood storyline provide lots of laughs. The whole cover story is ridiculous, and everyone involved knows that, but Chambers and Siegel are in the business of BS and they’re determined to sell it for all it’s worth. The film also deserves kudos for the costume, makeup, and set design, which recreate the era so deliciously that it’s like rolling around naked on a shag carpet.

Those who like politics, thrillers, and spy movies will love Argo. Anyone who follows current-day political events will also note the parallels between 1980 and today: Popular revolutions in the Middle East spinning out of control, American diplomats in danger, and a government trying to keep pace with rapidly unfolding events. Argo also suggests how things have changed. Today, it’s hard to imagine that the press and a president in the midst of a hotly contested election would unite in secrecy and refrain from publicizing this issue. If this crisis happened today, I wonder if the Obama administration and the press would unite the way they did in 1980 to avoid publicizing (and politicizing) a rescue operation in the interest of protecting the Americans still in Tehran.

Argo is the type of movie you leave wanting more. It will certainly spark after-discussions and Internet searches about how much of the story is true, and how it relates to the world today. To me, such curiosity is the sign of a great film. This one deserves a spot at the top of your to-see list.

The Day of the Girl

Malala Yousafzai

Today, October 11, has been declared by the UN as the first worldwide Day of the Girl. There are a lot of international action days out there, but I want to highlight today because recent events have shown us that there are so many challenges faced by girls worldwide:

  • Child Marriage is a special focus of action today. UN Women shares these factoids: Globally, one-third of young women were entered into marriage before age 18. One in six were married by age 15. 90% of teen pregnancies in developing countries are to girls who are married; child marriage legitimates pregnancies early in life, which can be detrimental to the health of these girls.
  • Maternal mortality is a related issue, since complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death for women aged 15-19 in developing countries. (UN) These problems are further exacerbated by the problem of female genital mutilation, which is widely practiced on girls in several African countries.
  • While access to education for girls has improved, many women and girls still face barriers to receiving a secondary and tertiary (university) education, and even completing primary school can be impossible in some parts of the world. If you haven’t read about Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban after speaking out for female education, please check out her story. Malala is still fighting for her life, and her father (who supported her fight for an education) is also on a Taliban hit list.

If you want to take action for girls today, the AAUW has some suggestions. Use social media to share information about the Day of the Girl today, and write to your Congressperson–or Congressional candidates–to ask where they stand on HR2103 (The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act) and other efforts to protect women and girls worldwide. Find a volunteer program close to home that helps girls, like the Girl Scouts or Girls on the Run, and find out how you can support their efforts. Remember that girls in your community may also be affected by poverty and malnutrition. Internationally, consider supporting the efforts of UNICEF, Camfed, and other charities that support the health, education, and welfare of girls. We all have a role in helping to support girls, whether you are male or female. The girls of today are the mothers, the workers, and the hope of tomorrow. Let’s make a better world for them.

TV Review: Half the Sky

[FYI: This post contains some graphic descriptions of female genital mutilation, and links to related material.]

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend an advance screening of part of the new PBS/Independent Lens series Half the Sky. The series doesn’t air on public television until October 1 & 2, but screenings are taking place at public libraries now across the country.

This series, based on the bestselling book by authors and NY Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, highlights issues affecting women worldwide. The entire 4-hour series will cover several issues dealt with in the book including education, human trafficking, maternal mortality, and violence against women. In my screening, we saw a 45-minute segment focused on maternal mortality and female genital mutilation.

I hope everyone will check your local listings and tune into this series. Even as someone who has read the book and understands the issues involved, I still found this episode powerful, moving, and informative. While maternal health was the focus of this episode, Kristof and the filmmakers do a great job of showing this issue in a holistic way. Most of this segment takes place in Somaliland, where the problem of women dying from preventable causes like obstructed labor, infections, and eclampsia are tied to larger problems within the society. First, no type of family planning exists for these women, and we are told that it is not uncommon for a woman to have 8-10 babies over her lifetime. One woman interviewed in the film has 15 children. Having too many children too close together poses obvious health risks.


Another, more horrifying problem is that of female genital mutilation. While maternal mortality is billed as the focus of the episode, I think FGM is really the story here. Most Americans probably don’t know this practice exists, and many that do probably don’t grasp the brutality of it. Even this episode shies away from fully explaining or illustrating the problem, and I think that’s a shame. While I understand the limits of what can be shown on TV, this practice needs to be brought out into the light. People need to understand that FGM still happens, and they need to understand that it’s not “female circumcision” as some kind of counterpart to male “circumcision.” Circumcision as we know it for boy children involves removal of the foreskin, often for religious or cultural reasons, and while there is debate about the practice in the U.S. today, it is often done in safe and sanitary conditions and doesn’t hinder male reproductive functions or sexual enjoyment. FGM, on the other hand, is a practice that has as its primary purpose to control women. To protect female honor, FGM is practiced to make sex less enjoyable for a woman. Extreme forms also make childbirth and premarital sex impossible.

In the most basic form of FGM, the clitoris and/or clitoral hood are removed. This inhibits sexual pleasure. In more intensive forms like that practiced in Somaliland, though, the process goes even further. All of the external parts of the genitalia, including the inner and outer labia are also cut away. Then, a girl undergoing the process is literally immobilized, her legs tied up for as much as 40 days while her genital area heals together, literally healing itself shut except for a small hole–sometimes as small as a matchstick–through which she can pee and menstruate. During the healing process, she also often receives little or no food or water because she has been so intensely mutilated that she can’t excrete properly. After experiencing all of this horror, once a girl comes of age to marry she will literally have to be sliced open again so that she can have sex or deliver children. And all of this is usually done by traditional “cutters” without anesthesia or proper sanitation. (You can see diagrams of various procedures here.)

Folks, this isn’t like the circumcision that men experience. I can’t emphasize how inappropriate the term “circumcision” is. This is like if circumcision involved cutting off a boy’s entire penis and foreskin, sewing up his genital area, and then slicing him open again when it was time for his testes to drop. It is unimaginable, barbaric, and it would never be done to a male child the way it is done to females.

Crusader Edna Adan

This segment of Half the Sky does a lot to educate about the procedure. We meet a “cutter,” an elderly female who says she continues to perform the procedure mostly to make money. We see a traditional birth assistant and hear how she has sliced open several women with the same blade. We hear mothers explain that the procedure continues because it is demanded by the community; no one would marry their son off to a non-mutilated girl. We hear from Edna Adan–a former UN diplomat and the true hero of this episode–about how dangerous the procedure is not only because it obstructs labor, but also because mutilated and scarred tissue cannot properly stretch for delivery. Adan is fighting this practice with education, building a hospital and training midwives to go out in the community and fight this tradition. But she has a long road ahead.

This is just one of the six Half the Sky segments you will see on PBS, and I can’t urge you strongly enough to watch them all. As I said, the series avoids some of the more graphic details I’ve provided here, which is both a plus and a minus. The series is appropriate for older teens and young adults, but at the same time I hope it will spur viewers to pick up the Half the Sky book, hit the Internet, and research these issues further. Kristof and WuDunn make credible narrators for the series, though some of their celebrity co-hosts seem unnecessary. Watching Diane Lane talk to Somaliland women, constantly looking shocked and asking silly questions… it’s probably the typical reaction a lot of privileged U.S. women would have to the problem, but she was the least engaging part of the episode for me. I didn’t even know who she was at first.

If you’d like to know more, please check the Half the Sky web site for more info and showtimes for the series. You can also learn more about Edna Adan’s hospital online, and Tostan is another organization that fights the FGM practice and accepts donations, interns, or volunteers. FGM is a practice that should not exist in any form, anywhere in today’s world.

On Todd Akin

I am angry. Todd Akin has pissed me off. I don’t want his comments to get under my skin, I didn’t want to write this blog entry–which I’m sure will once again have someone noting how sad and pathetic my life is. I don’t want to think about my own rape, but it’s hard to think about anything else when the word rape is all over the fucking news. I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to stick a big **trigger warning** as I list off some of the many ways rape has fucked with my life. (See also, last week’s pity party on the subject.)

  • When I was raped, I had to take drugs. Lots of them. I took emergency contraception, because it turns out you can get pregnant after all. And did he wear a condom? Who knows. It’s just a bit hard to think straight when you’ve been slipped so much GHB that your memory comes in spurts, that you lose consciousness, and that you wake up semi-aware, but completely unable to move your body for what seems like an eternity–unable to run away and unable to push him off you. Does that sound like a “legitimate rape?” When you tell the hospital staff you don’t know if he used a condom, they give you more drugs. The anti-retroviral drugs that you get to prevent HIV are the worst. After being raped, after being poked and prodded by a rape kit, after letting strangers take photos of the intimate parts of your body, they hand you a supply of drugs almost guaranteed to make you vomit over and over again.

  • The drug regimen ends, though. What doesn’t end is the anger and mistrust. Eight years later, I’m still surprised by my own responses. Rape jokes make me angry.  Any man could be a rapist. A lot of men see me as just an object or a sexual target, I can see it in their eyes (or at least I imagine I do). I can’t forget the look that I got this morning from a man who decided to drive by me reeeeal slow and get a good look as I was walking my dog. At 6:30AM. I try not to wear shorts and a tank top when I walk the dog anymore. It doesn’t really change anything. When that guy leered at me, my mind just thought: Predator.
  • I drank too much. For years. Now I get to feel shame about that, too. I was a “monster.” Yet, since I quit drinking, I find that just being in a bar makes me intensely uncomfortable. Going to parties makes me uncomfortable. So I stay home, night after night. It feels like there’s no winning. If there’s a middle ground between social anxiety and full-on drunk, I haven’t found it yet.
  • I am also afraid. I am afraid I will never find love, because who wants to love a nutcase like me? I am afraid that I have no future and nothing to live for. I am afraid I might hurt myself sometimes. I am afraid to run before dawn. I have panic attacks where I can’t stop crying. I cried this morning in the pet store. I am afraid of myself. Sometimes I don’t want to be alive anymore. Sometimes I think surviving was a mistake.

My point here is not to make you feel sorry for me. (Although, wow have I done a great job of making myself look bad here…) My point is that rape can ruin your life. It can mess with your head. Years later, after you start a new life and when you think things are fine and when you think you might have a bright future after all–WHAM! A news story, a scene in a movie, even the word “rape” sneaks up behind you and knocks you to the ground.

If my life is this unmanageable now, imagine how I would have felt if I had been pregnant and had to carry my rapist’s baby to term. Imagine, amongst all I already feel, if I carried the knowledge that I’d given birth to that child and gave it away, or if I kept it and was reminded of rape all the time. Abortion is not a win, either, mind you. But don’t these women deserve a right to make a choice they can maybe live with? Don’t they deserve to at least have their suffering called “legitimate?”

Todd Akin, you did not misspeak. You did not show empathy. You cannot possibly have empathy for my life, or the life of a victim who is pregnant here in the U.S. or in Rwanda, Bosnia, or the Congo. You cannot imagine, and I’d never wish it upon you or anyone you love. Fuck you.

Remembering Rodney King

Via CBS News

It was a big surprise yesterday to hear about the death of Rodney King, whose beating by  LAPD officers in 1991 led to a trial, to the acquittal of the police officers involved, and to subsequent race riots. I was young and living far away when all this occurred, but I remember the event as a pivotal moment. As a young, middle-class white girl in a primarily while suburb, I had no awareness of what life in this country was like for so many others. We’d learned about the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King in school, surely life was great for everyone now?

Rodney King’s famous question, “can’t we all get along?” is no less relevant today than it was decades ago. Furthermore, the question is still tied to issues of race and masculinity. To break it down by gender, three-quarters of murder victims in this country are male and men are also far more likely than women to be committing violent crimes. Domestic violence remains a scourge that kills 6-7 people a day in the U.S.—the vast majority of victims being women. In terms of race, in 2005 almost half of all murder victims in the U.S. were African American males, putting young black men at a much higher risk of being victims of violence than their peers of other races. African American men are also more likely to end up in jail. Nearly 40% of male prisoners in this country are African American, a statistic that is far higher than the balance of the population. Does this reflect a “culture of violence,” or does it reflect a system of justice where the young, black, and poor often receive inadequate representation and are often not judged by juries of their “peers?”

As a white woman, it’s still tricky for me to try and walk in another person’s shoes or make judgments about what life is like for others. But I can say this: Every American should see something troubling in these statistics. Race issues are still alive and well in this country. Poverty is still alive and well in this country, and is likely feeding the problems of violence and crime in urban areas. Rodney King himself struggled with substance abuse and was unable to find steady work in the years before his passing. But King did leave a legacy and provoked a change in the justice system. Maybe his death at such a relatively young age can prompt us to again reflect on the question he asked so long ago. And maybe it can prompt us to do more.

Review: Precious Knowledge on PBS Independent Lens

This week, PBS’ Independent Lens turns toward the embattled (and currently abolished) Mexican-American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. As a Tucson-area educator, this story was of local and professional interest to me. At the start of the hour-long documentary, we are told that high school dropout rates for Mexican American students are 50% nationwide, the highest of any minority group. In 1997, the Tucson Unified School District approved an ethnic studies curriculum as a way of engaging students and lowering dropout rates. The program appeared to be a success, with over 90% of students in ethnic studies electives graduating, according to a study conducted over the course of six years. Students interviewed for the film, many of them Latino students from underprivileged backgrounds, but some white and minority students as well, express admiration for the program. We are also told that courses were created dealing with Mexican-American studies, Pan-Asian studies, and African-American studies, and all of these courses were available to students of all races.

Tom Horne: Pretty sly, for a white guy

So why did these courses come under fire? Former Arizona Superintendent Tom Horne argued that these courses were anti-American. His basic arguments, as portrayed in the film, are vague. He says that courses were teaching students to think collectively and not as individuals, which is apparently “just not what we do in this country.” More importantly, he also claims that these classes were anti-American, teaching students to “hate America.”

Initiatives aimed at breaking up the ethnic studies curriculum initially failed under Gov. Janet Napolitano, but under Gov. Jan Brewer and with the support of Former Arizona Senate leader Russell Pearce, House Bill 2281 passed in 2010. Courses in Mexican-American Studies in TUSD have ended, for now, but a federal court challenge is ongoing that may eventually bring classes back.

What strikes me about this entire debate, as portrayed in the film, is that there was a lack of understanding and dialogue about the courses. Tom Horne never attended an ethnic studies class, despite being invited. Neither did school board member Michael Hicks, who notoriously said on The Daily Show, “I base my thoughts on hearsay from others.” (Seriously?) In the absence of actual knowledge about the curriculum, Arizona legislators considering the bill make such enlightened statements as, “I looked at the citations of this book and saw Marx, Lenin, and Che Guevara.” Looked at the citations? I’m pretty sure a lot of mainstream history texts probably cite Marx as well. Heck, back in New York in the public college I attended, Marx was required reading as part of the undergraduate humanities sequence. But something that wouldn’t have caused a moment’s uproar in New York is apparently an outrage in Arizona.

To his credit, John Huppenthal (later to replace Tom Horne as superintendent) is shown in the movie visiting a class and talking to students. While there was civility on both sides in the classroom, what I saw in these meetings was an air of mutual distrust. By this time, with protests by TUSD students already taking place and attracting major media attention, and in the wake of the passage of SB1070, it was too little too late to hope that a productive dialogue might have taken place. In fact, footage from Arizona legislative debates on HB2281 show Huppenthal presenting his experience in the classroom in a negative light and using a comment made by a teacher in conversation–not as part of a classroom lesson–to support his view that the classes are anti-American. (Incidentally, the comment was about Benjamin Franklin and some racist views he expressed. Huppenthal seems to be making the point that it’s not cool to call a founding father a racist. I wonder if he knows that Jefferson owned slaves. And Franklin had at least one child out of wedlock. And none of them were fans of women’s rights. Just saying.)

The filmmakers’ sympathies here are clearly with the TUSD students, and as a result the lens is a bit soft on them at times. Yes, they got a raw deal, but some of their methods of dealing with the problem–wearing faux military uniforms or invading school board meetings and chaining themselves to chairs–didn’t really help their cause. Ultimately, though, the kids have clearly been the biggest losers in this debate. They can’t design their own curricula or teach themselves, so someone needs to have their best interest at heart. What amazed me about this documentary is that at no point did state education officials, local administrators, and teachers sit down and say, “We have a problem with these classes, but kids are succeeding. Can this program be reformed in a way that preserves the benefits and saves everyone face?” What happened instead was combativeness and bad feelings on all sides. And, unsurprisingly, nothing got resolved to the satisfaction of anyone.

Today, Russell Pearce is out of office after being recalled. Tom Horne is under investigation for campaign finance law violations. Mexican-American Studies classes have been disbanded and teachers reassigned (though, surprisingly, Pan-Asian and African-American studies classes have come under no scrutiny and continue as they did before). And supporters of ethnic studies have taken their fight to court. This show left me wondering (again): Has anyone won this fight? It seems that, in the process of getting rid of “un-American” classes, ethnic studies opponents have only encouraged students to rebel and reinforced the sense of collective identity that they found so objectionable. When you single out and disband classes focusing on one group’s heritage and history, but leave other groups alone, what kind of message do you think you’re sending? I came away seeing the disbanding of MAS classes as a short-term win, but a long-term loss. Any time that the people in power make a decision that sends students the message that school doesn’t represent them, doesn’t want them, or doesn’t care about their levels of engagement or success, the future is in danger.

*Precious Knowledge airs this week on Independent Lens on PBS. Check your listings for showtimes.