Story-time.

I was driving to work the other day, listening to my usual, trashy, rage-inducing morning show, when the hosts posed a question that left me bewildered. “Do you answer your front door?” Caller after caller from the suburbs rang in to declare that they would never answer the front door, and to warn other listeners against responding to that tell-tale knock. Peoples’ answers varied from the callous (“I hate the Girl Scouts”) to the paranoid (“Remember, professional burglars pose as cleaners and repairmen all the time”). One woman replied that she would actually go into the bathroom with her toddler until she could be sure the expectant caller was gone.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!

Now, I won’t lie. I can’t remember the last time I answered a front door. I’m pretty asocial, and I don’t go out of my way to engage with other people. I’ll actually fake a phone conversation to avoid saying hello to people I know, so you can imagine how it goes with strangers. I had always chalked that up to my own, personal neuroses and singular character flaws. I’d heard the statistics that social media and technology has increased narcissism and decreased empathy, but I had no idea our society had become so sick as to ignore young girls and fear our neighbors.

But then–how could I forget the man shot to death in North Carolina when knocking on a stranger’s door because he needed help after a car accident…

I guess this is the world we live in, and, from one asocial, excessively-nervous person to (apparently) thousands of others: it’s not okay.

I want to take the time to tell a few stories, because anecdotes can be lessons and good reminders. I live in Cleveland, Ohio, fairly close to downtown. When I first told a co-worker where I was moving, she replied, “Oh, that’s where the prostitutes are!” before bashfully clamping her hand over her mouth and blushing. Other people I told followed suit, and the more acquaintances advised me to “carry a firearm,” the less proud I was of my shiny new apartment with its wooden floors, historic features, and spacious rooms. The more terrified I became of my “bad neighborhood.”

There’s a problem inherent in letting others do your thinking for you, and it’s that you never get to find out for yourself.

for the record, my apartment is pretty rad

When I first moved into my apartment, I was standing outside with my parents, puzzling over how to move an all-too-heavy chair the required distance without a set of wheels. Down the street, I could hear a three-wheeled grocery cart approaching, and I could see the man driving it. He was a black man with baggy, faded clothes, and very few teeth. He had a bandage on his forearm. My heart leapt into my throat, and I frantically bent to lift the chair. I was desperate to look strong, capable, and busy. I also wanted to get my parents into the building as quickly as possible. I had grown up in a peaceful, middle-class suburb, and then I had lived in Oberlin. I wanted to protect them from what my neighborhood was supposed to be.

I don’t hesitate to admit the thoughts I had, ashamed as I am to have had them, because hiding our prejudiced thoughts is one way we fail to confront and move past things like racism. Pretending it doesn’t exist only allows it to silently grow stronger, even within our own, well-meaning hearts. So, yeah, I felt scared and frantically tried to move this ridiculously behemoth chair because I didn’t want to talk to the homeless guy that was approaching me. That’s the beginning. Do you want to know how the story ends?

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The man came up to us and commented on the size of the chair in comparison to the size of me. He asked if my dad could lift it. The answer was no. So the man lifted the chair–by himself!–and put it on his cart. Carefully, he helped us wheel it to the fire escape stairs, and then he asked what floor I lived on. He carried that damn chair up two flights of stairs and put it in my new apartment. My mom paid him $40 for helping us out of our (honestly) desperate situation, and he refused it. He said he was just trying to help some people who didn’t have what they needed. My mom only convinced him to take the money by saying that she understood and now she was returning the favor. He left, and I haven’t seen him since.

Here’s another story. I was walking down a fairly developed street, much “nicer” than my side of town, and a woman approached me. It was -20 degrees outside and snowing, but she only wore a light jacket. She directed me to an alcove where the wind wasn’t as intense, and told me she needed bus fare to get back home. She told me she had tried asking dozens of other people, but I was the first person on that cold, windy night to have stopped and listened–to have even seen her. (And, to be fair, I had walked right past her the first time.) I gave her $10 without question. It was money I had planned on spending at a bar with my friends, but I realized that I could still go into that bar where it was warm, and no one would kick me out because of how I looked, even though I would have no money. I realized that I had a car with a full tank of gas that would get me back home, to my apartment in all its glory. I gave her my $10 because it was freaking cold outside, and no one on that busy street with its microbreweries and fancy restaurants had noticed or tried to help a woman in a thin sweatshirt.

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Another story: yesterday, I was pumping gas. Even though it’s in my “bad” neighborhood, I tend stop there after work instead of driving a few block further, because it is usually a few cents cheaper than anywhere else in the city. It’s not the most relaxing place to stop my car and stand outside alone, so I’m always on high-alert. I saw a guy walking over from the abandoned lot next door, and I immediately kicked myself for not closing my window while I waited for the gas to pump. I was wearing a tank top and leggings, and my hair was up in a loose bun. I bit my lip. I was so not in the mood to be hit on by a homeless guy.

Instead, the first thing he did was ask me about my bike rack. “Do you like bikes?” he called as he walked over. “Yeah,” I replied, a little anxious still, feeling trapped. There was nowhere to run if the occasion called for it.  “Me too,” he said, continuing our innocuous conversation. When he got close enough to see me through my window, he stopped, keeping a respectful distance. “It’s a great day for riding bikes. Why aren’t you riding your bike?”

I told him mine was broken, and we talked about the weather some more. He asked me where I lived, and I told him a general 5mi radius, but not the name of my building. He asked me if I was a student (nope), what my name was (Jen), where I worked (museums), and then he laughed, because he said I looked and acted more like a “Jessica.” His name was Harold. We shook hands.

After a few more minutes, he asked if I could spare a few bucks for bus fare. I told him all I had was a ten, and that I couldn’t spare the whole thing, but that I would go inside and get some small bills for him. He helpfully finished pumping my gas while I locked my car and went inside. “Don’t worry,” he assured me as I left my car. “I’m from the ‘hood. Ain’t nobody gonna mess with your car while I’m here.” I laughed nervously.

When I emerged with the money, I handed him a few dollars and the candy bar I had bought to break the ten. He thanked me and told me to enjoy the weather. My car was still there. Nothing was missing. I drove home, and did, indeed, enjoy the weather.

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I wanted to tell these stories, because I’ve come to realize that when people tell me I live in a “bad” neighborhood, they’re really saying I live in a “poor” neighborhood, and they might even associate that poverty with blackness. I wanted to tell these stories because I’ve found that the people who claim they “don’t see color,” are the very same people who worry that their new, upscale grocery shopping experience downtown will be ruined by “panhandling.” When they say they don’t see color, are they really saying that all they can see is wealth?

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I’m not naive. When I told a friend that I was trying to be more open and less afraid of people, he reminded me that, to some extent, my fears are valid. I am a small, young woman, and there may be people out there who want more than a bit of change. Cleveland has a shockingly high sexual crime rate and a terrifingly corrupt police. I know this, and I take precautions. When I walk out my door, I walk out prepared to drop all my belongings and run if I need to. But I also walk out my door prepared to meet my anxieties head on and unpack them, to examine why I’m afraid, and to question the roots of that fear.

When I actually investigated what was going on in my brain, I realized that the bulk of my panic comes from the various media I’ve consumed since birth, those age-old (misleading) stereotypes of white female vulnerability and black male violence, and the privilege of my upbringing. I know many others like me, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that if we can recognize and take steps to move past it. The danger comes when we ignore the effect it has on the way we relate to and regard other people in our communities. Because…ultimately, what I’ve learned, is that 90% of the people knocking on my proverbial door are asking for help, or offering help, and when we hide from that–and teach our children to hide from that–we’re teaching future generations that people who don’t look like us, that don’t live like us, are scary and “bad,” and that is 100% not okay.

in november 2014, tamir rice was shot in the park near his neighborhood. he was 12 years old. our children are the casuality of our fears.

in november 2014, tamir rice was shot by police and died in the park near his neighborhood. he was 12 years old. our children are the casuality of our fears.

So, my challenge to you (and to myself) is to look people in the eye and smile more often. If someone asks for money or help that you can’t give, apologize and wish them well. If you have the time, see if you can help in other ways. Don’t whip out your phone and pretend to text when you see another person walking down the street. Don’t cower behind the ficus in your living room when you hear the doorbell ring. Go out and greet your fellow humans with a little bit of humanity.

Frauenpower.

I’m not going to lie: I’ve completely lost track of my life. I don’t think I’ve had a coherent thought pattern in weeks. My journal has turned into a randomized list of commands and incomplete sentences. “Just do it,” I urged cryptically on March 12th. “Toddlers asking me why I’m not married,” I wrote the next day with an uncharacteristic pithiness. “Remembered why I first wanted a museum career,” I scribbled a week later in purple ink without elaboration. “Write more soon” has lately become less a of reminder and more like a testament to how scattered my mind has been. I mean, let’s face it, I even forgot to write a funny note about my weird dream last night.

(For the curious: I was simultaneously in calculus class, teaching a group of toddlers, and making out with my crush in a dark hallway…)

The point is: nothing in my life has made much sense recently, and, while it hasn’t been entirely unpleasant, it has made me an awfully absentminded person. I forgot my house keys at work the other day, and I haven’t been able to locate my peanut butter jar for a full 24 hours. I’ve misplaced my dance shoes twice, and I completely forgot to celebrate Women’s History Month. (More accurately put: I forgot that I forgot to celebrate Women’s History Month.)

Yes, I am ashamed. The guilt each remembrance (and subsequent forgetting) has brought is insurmountable. It’s like…why even celebrate my birthday now? What does it matter? The girl I thought I was is gone! I’m a monster now! I’m a disgrace–a mere cog in the patriarchy’s machine!

Melodrama aside: I did forgot, and that is kind of unacceptable, because, as short and awkward as it is, Women’s History Month is about remembering. It’s about taking the time to build a niche in our historical memory for women and using that to better understand ourselves and our communities.

At work today, I learned that elephants are an “umbrella species.” They have such a wide impact on their habitats that, if you protect the elephants, you’re most likely protecting entire ecosystems at the same time. I’d like to say the same thing about women. We make a grave mistake when we assume that women’s history is a narrow, superfluous study. Women fight; women discover; and women inspire. When we ignore and minimize the broad impact women have had on our society–culturally, politically, scientifically, philosophically, socially, everythingly–we ignore and minimize ourselves.

Now, I can always plan for future posts honoring awesome historic women, but I can’t go back and make those posts this month. All I can do is make this one post count. So, before I close this crazy thought tornado, please enjoy a heartfelt list of the women who have empowered me in my life. I hope it inspires you to remember all the women who have done the same in yours. Thank you.

My mother. The things my mother has done for me could fill volumes. It started 9,034 days ago when I was born. Growing up, I saw her graduate twice and start a career. Despite always surprising myself with my achievements, I never seemed to surprise my mother. After every performance, recital, and competition, she was there, smiling and saying, “I knew you could do it.” She let me live my dreams–whether that was wearing my Sailor Moon sweater to the Student Council picture in first grade or driving me to every figure skating performance in the city so I could meet Johnny Weir. When I was accepted to Oberlin College, she put her hand on my knee and told me not to worry about the money. When I was writing my thesis, she listened patiently while I read all 80+ pages over the phone. She never stopped me from running through the mud, and she always encouraged me to live adventurously. She gave my body life and my mind an unbreakable spirit. Truth is, I wouldn’t be anything without my mother.

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My teachers. I am extraordinarily lucky that, before I was old enough to understand what inspiration meant, I had teachers who advocated for and believed in me. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Blosser, was my pen pal for years, encouraging me to write by saying she was proud of me. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Arnold, gave me multiple books about wild, daring pioneer girls who, she said, reminded her of me. In sixth grade, despite all odds, my teacher, Ms. Simonetti, motivated me to succeed in math for the first time. The list goes on and on. History, German, politics, literature, music, dance…without my early teachers’ encouragement, there is no way I would have found my passion and my voice.

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(Note: I did not use most of my teachers’ names in this brief appreciation because I live by the philosophy that if I can google them, they can google me. Let it be known that that I am immensely thankful for all the teachers that have played a positive role in my life, and that, yes, I do google my teachers.)

My college professors. I’ve written about it ad infinitum, but it can always be said again: I had the best female professors in my time at Oberlin. Across departments and disciplines, the women who taught me taught me that there are no boundaries to what a woman can be. They introduced me to new languages, new books, new constellations, and new ideas. The more I learned, the harder I kicked against the bars of my limited, sheltered definition of womanhood. Even after I graduated, their support never wavered. They employed me, continued to instruct me, and cheered me on to bigger and better things. I entered Oberlin a soft, squishy caterpillar. I’m not going to be cliche and say I left a butterfly, but I definitely grew into something. A co-worker once told me that he had never met anyone who appreciated their education like I did, and I have these strong, intelligent, supportive women to thank.

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My bosses. My female bosses have, at times, been demanding and strict, and I have often rebelled against them with a youthful ignorance that was not charming (to say the least). Therefore, you can imagine how grateful I am that they never once gave up on me. When I look at where my career is headed, I realize that none of it would have been possible without the guidance and supervision of these women. Everything practical I have learned about teaching, children, history, and museums, I have learned from the smart and competent women that I have probably [lovingly] complained about more than once. So, consider this short paragraph an apology for anything I said or may yet say in frustration. I love you. I appreciate you. You are literally the light guiding my life right now, and I think that’s pretty awesome.

I don't have a picture of any of my bosses, but this is what they remind me of: majestic, watchful lions.

I don’t have a picture of any of my bosses, but this is what they remind me of: majestic, watchful lions.

My friends. When I was fourteen, I wrote essays about anime while my best friend wrote about reproductive rights. The truth is that I have always been ignorant, and my friends have always been there to make sure I don’t stay that way. To my woman friends, you enrich my life. From you I have learned to recognize my privilege and different species of salamanders. I have learned to appreciate different cultures and different types of beer. You showed me how to make my boobs look bigger without padding, how to paint my nails with cool patterns, how to achieve a dream, how to compromise, and how to own my independence. You have helped me find what is good and beautiful about myself, and you deserve to know the same about yourselves. Each and every one of you is a magical, passionate human rainbow. What I’m trying to say is that your accomplishments uplift and inspire me daily, and I love you.

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Women I have never met. This month is for you, Ida B. Wells. It’s for you, Elizabeth Blackwell. It’s for you, Mercy Warren and Hannah Adams. Zitkala-Sa and Heidi Lamarr and Josephine Baker. Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell. Sally Ride and Henrietta Swan Leavitt.  To Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, I raise my glass. You, too, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sandra Day O’Connor. Jane Addams, Gloria Steinem, and Angela Davis. Edmonia Lewis, Abigail Adams, Lydia Maria Child–I don’t have time to type or organize all the names that are in my head right now! I am literally just typing them as they pop into my brain, and I could go at this forever. So, allow me just to pause and issue a blanket statement: thank you for fighting for me and my fellow women. You have given me courage when my courage faltered. You have given me a voice when my voice fell silent. Thank you for never giving up.

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An Open Letter to Billy Boyd

(read aloud to the autographed picture on my dresser)

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Dear Billy Boyd,

Thank you for coming to Cleveland, Ohio. Ours is a scrappy city, but we have the heart and soul of good Midwestern hospitality. I hope you have enjoyed your short visit. I am sorry that it is so cold here, but if you look at what it was like last weekend, you will see that we did our best to warm things up for you. I hope you found the persistent, fluffy snowflakes more magical than menacing. Long winters are just a part of the charm up north.

I am sorry that I did not come to see you at the convention this weekend, although you probably didn’t notice. It is very hard to be 24, you see, and finally come within reach of a teenage dream. Ten years ago, this all would have been different. My best friend–my Merry–would have only lived a few miles away from me. One of our parents probably would have driven us, despite the weather, and funds for the adventure would have been covered in full, because they love us so. We would have faced the snow with the childish abandon, and the zit starting on my forehead would have been the last thing on my mind. We probably would have squealed and walked around with fake accents all day. You would have either found us charmingly adorable or painfully adoring.

Ten years makes a difference.

Mr. Boyd, I want you to know that, if my hours at work hadn’t been unexpectedly cut due to weather-related cancellations–if I wasn’t already so sick of driving in the snow–if I wasn’t plagued by insecurities about my haircut, my face, and the way my pants fit–if I thought I would have had anything intelligent to say–if I had a printer to print the tickets–if there wasn’t an 8% tax on admissions–if I didn’t have to eat or stay warm or pay for the Internet—-if being an adult wasn’t so gosh-darned hard, I would be at your side in a second.

I hope you can take heart knowing that you were the only person in the entire convention I would have cared to visit. I hope you will forgive my absence when you hear that I have had a total of three consecutive stress dreams about this decision. You smelled very good in all of them, and you solved a murder in one of them. I want you to know that I almost jumped off the bus yesterday and sprinted to the Convention Center. Even now, I am being slain by pangs of guilt knowing that you are sitting but three miles from my apartment.

When I imagine your night in my city, I imagine you going to my favorite downtown pub for a drink with your other famous friends. Because I know the place pretty well, it’s not hard to imagine myself there, too. I walk up to the wooden bar and lean against it, a twenty dollar bill crumpled between my hands. As I wait for the bartender, I fold and unfold the bill, staring intently at it to avoid making eye contact with strange men. With all the wood tables and stools, the light around the place seems almost golden as a familiar Scottish voice cuts through the noise.

“It comes in imperial pints?!”

Just kidding.

This isn’t just a letter for you, Mr. Boyd. It’s also written, with love, to my younger self. Ten years ago, I had a best friend I called Merry. (She called me Pip.) We played Tig and called our separate high schools Gondor and Rohan. I was never a Frodo or Sam, with a great mission and purpose laid before me. I was never wise like Gandalf or graceful like Legolas. I was always just naive and goofy, thrust too soon into something I didn’t fully understand and trying to make the best of it despite my many errors. I was always just a Pippin.

In another universe, I had the courage and money to meet you at the convention. I shook your hand and made a weird face when I tried not to smile too big. In another universe, I ran into you at a bar and stuttered my adoration for you over loud music and strangers’ conversations. In this universe, however, my dreams came true when my friend–my Merry–met you a few months ago and thought enough of me to send me a picture you had signed. When I opened the envelope and saw your face, I cried because there you were. I cried because I felt like a kid again. I cried because, despite everything I’ve done and all the mistakes I’ve made, I knew that one of the people I care about most in this world loves me back.

So, Mr. Boyd, I hope you met a lot of interesting people this weekend. I’m sorry I couldn’t be one of them, but you know how that is. Teenagers just don’t realize how hard it’s going to be later on. I don’t know where I’m going in life, and I don’t know where I’m going with this letter, so I’ll just close with a note of thanks. Thank you for the magic. Thank you for the music. And thank you for the memories.

Regretfully Not Yours,
Jen

I’ll Stay Single

A few months ago, my parents gave me a beautiful, leather-bound journal to record my thoughts. If you’ve noticed an increase in coherence and theme in my more recent posts, you can thank that journal. Four of the last five entries have originated and worked out their kinks in those hand-written pages where order and legibility can take a back seat to setting down thoughts and feelings as they come.

This entry began in that journal as an appreciative list of the various romantic moments I’ve experienced in my life. Despite my constant whinging about love and romance, I have had countless opportunities to feel cute. One time, I curled up in front of a fireplace with a boy, a scratchy plaid blanket, and a mug full of wine and pretended we were in a Folgers commercial. Another time a boy bought flowers from a market to impress me but forgot to water them so they were adorably droopy by the time I came over. There are a lot of sweet stories, and I smile when I remember them, but when it comes to translating those thoughts and memories from a private journal to a public blog entry, my confidence always falters.

The thing is…I have had nice moments with young men, but I’ve never been in a relationship. That stark failure still casts its shadow over even the happiest moments. I’ve wanted to write about my love life for a long time, because I think it’s funny, sweet, sad, and empowering in all the right ways. I tell the stories out loud all the time, but it feels somehow different to write them down. Today I learned that I’m not quite ready to reflect seriously on all those aborted attempts to create something meaningful between two humans. No matter how nice the memories, they still leave me wondering in a way that is both unproductive and self-loathing. Turns out, it’s easier to laugh at your love life than appreciate it. Today is not the day I share.

“Then why make this post at all?” you ask. The answer is simple: as I approach spinsterhood, more and more of my friends are buying cats, meeting their soul mates, and getting married. The older I get, the more my newsfeed bleeds red hearts and roses. I’m not ignoring Valentine’s Day this year because Valentine’s Day has become impossible to ignore. Since there is nothing more comforting than feeling included, I have decided to join the pink madness. Instead of letting myself rot with bitterness, I took time in the shower to [massage my feet and] create a beautifully self-affirming list.

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10 Reasons Why I’ll Stay Single This Year

1. I am more jealous of my friends with cats than I am of those with actual human partners. It’s true. If you’ve posted a picture of you with a feline friend, I have burned with envy. If you’ve posted a picture with your boyfriend….meh.

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2. I sleep best when I can fart and drool freely. When I was in middle school, I used to pretend to sleep on the bus to sporting events, hoping my male teammates would see me napping serenely and be overcome with desire. I expertly relaxed my face and fluttered my eyelashes every few seconds. I kept my neck stiff so that my skull wouldn’t crash against the window unattractively on bumpy roads. Happily, I have (almost) given up on my dreams of falling in love on a bus.

3. I hate both talking dirty and talking baby…and talking in general. Among the list of words I dislike: sexy, babe, honey, sweetheart, snuggle, whore, and nipple.

4. I take better pictures with self-timer than actual humans do when they offer to take them for me. No, you cannot take my picture, well-meaning person. Please remove yourself from this area so that I might proceed as planned.

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5. I get frustrated by novels with too many relationships and not enough plot. It is far more interesting and meaningful to me how characters engage with their world than how they engage with each other in bed.

6. I want to travel the world alone. I’ve had the best adventures of my life travelling by myself in Europe. As such, I prefer my imagination and quiet people-watching to constant companionship and hand-holding abroad.

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7. I just ran out of my favorite lipstick, and I’m too cheap and lazy to buy another. Sorry, boys, these luscious lips are going bare for a while. I bought it for my senior prom in 2008. I doubt they even make it anymore.

8. I won’t call you, and I won’t answer when you call me. Unless you’re my mom, my boss, or my best friend the best way to reach me is not at all.

9. I hate sharing the shower with anything with eyes. This includes: spiders, ants, squirrels, wasps, birds, and boys.

10. I’m pretty darn awesome as is. I’m literally a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need a man. If it ain’t broke, after all, don’t fix it.

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Valentine’s Day is great for couples. My friends are having a blast with their partners (and cats), and it makes me happy to see them smile, but there’s nothing in the rules that says I can’t celebrate my love for myself. I may be single, but I’ve got a bottle of wine, a box of mac and cheese, a video of a fireplace to add to the mood, and a new show on Netflix. Sorry, but you don’t have to worry. I think I’m all set.

400 Calories

It’s no secret. I love Parks & Rec. At different moments in my life the show has played the role of conversation starter, pick-me-up, inspiration, and life coach (often simultaneously). The moment a co-worker compared me to Leslie Knope was the moment I first began to enjoy my job. When a friend told me I might try being Ann and dating myself for a while, I clapped my hands and told him he was a genius. Even my mom uses Parks references to dole out sage advice these days. When my brain is overtired or stricken with insomnia, I can count on Parks to provide exactly the right dose of funny, sweet, and familiar. I love it and I like it, okay?

One of the show’s greatest strengths is its multitude of characters. Most people can find a reason to like it because the characters are, like us, so incredibly various. Older, younger, emotional, stoic, nerdy, misanthropic, genial, single, married, divorced, pessimistic, optimistic… What is so amazing to me is that, despite being such a motley crew, the cast is not repeatedly set against each other to generate laughs. The humor comes from within the characters themselves and what each of them brings to the conference table. There’s also no creepy laugh-track punctuating every sentence. (I’m looking at you, Chuck Lorre.)

The point is, Parks & Rec means different things to different people, and most people can see themselves reflected in the story in some way or another. This has led to a plethora of online articles about how Parks is good for nerds and millennials and women and men and gay people and bipartisanship and puppies and…okay, you get it. One article that I have yet to unearth, though, is an article about how Parks provides a unique take on eating disorders. I’m talking, of course, about Chris Traeger.

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When Chris first enters the scene, his energy is overwhelming. He is a wide-eyed lunatic with an in-your-face optimism that is, frankly, more bewildering than funny. Even as he starts to break down in later seasons, his emotions are still extreme, and I would often find myself cringing during his scenes. It’s just as awkward seeing a grown man cry as it is to see one uncontrollably happy. Blame the patriarchy and the cult of masculinity, but it was hard for me to swallow at first. It just didn’t seem to fit into an otherwise seamless show.

The episode that really changed my opinion on Chris was “Ron & Diane,” and it might be one of my overall favorites. Every character has a chance to shine. Ron is unbelievably giddy at a woodworking convention; Leslie performs her duties as emotional guardian valiantly; Ben and Chris hang out again; we meet Jerry’s gorgeous family; Ann is awkward; Donna takes charge of a situation…really, it’s Parks & Rec gold.

At this point in the series, Chris has already been established as a health and fitness nut. He meditates, prefers kale, takes supplements, and is rarely seen sitting still. At this point in the series, Chris has also been rather unlucky in love, felt isolated from his friends, and started seeing a therapist. In this episode, Chris and Ben are hanging out for the first time in a while, and they decide to go to Jerry’s Christmas party together. Hilarious hijinks ensue, but the party also happens to be full of triggers for Chris. His ex-girlfriend(s) are there; holiday food is fattening; Jerry’s wife makes a remark about a grey hair she finds on his shirt. When Ben (who has his own emotional guardian role to play) notices that Chris is drinking the regular eggnog rather than the non-fat eggnog, he cautiously informs his friend and reassures him that one glass won’t kill him.

“No,” Chris responds, “but it will add exactly 400 calories.”

That line gets me every time. The manicness with which Chris approaches situations is meant to be a humorous exaggeration. The way he so completely throws himself into events and emotions is sweet and silly, but, under it all, a very real problem starts to develop. His relationship to his body, food, and exercise becomes unhealthy. It begins in a light-hearted way. He has funny goals (to live to be 150 years old, to run to the moon), and it seems like it’s all just a part of his crazy, finger-pointing, full-name optimism. As the series progresses, his passion turns into a compulsion. It begins to negatively affect his interactions with other people and his presence during important moments. He obsessively controls his body and mind with supplements, and he literally runs from tough situations. This isn’t just absurd comedy. To some extent, this is real life.

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Back to the Christmas party. Chris shrugs off the full-fat nog and the grey hair pretty honorably, but when his ex-girlfriend Millicent enters the scene with her young, handsome fiancee, you can see him starting to fall into his old habits. Despite being okay with the 400 calories, it’s clear that he’s been at least thinking about them for most of the night. As he leaves the happy couple, he informs them with a tense air of forced camaraderie: “There’s fat in the egg nog.”

I love this for a lot of reasons. I love this because it simultaneously shows the progress Chris has made and his continuing struggle. Going to therapy a thousand times a day hasn’t been an insta-cure, but it has provided him with the toolkit to proactively deal with situations like this. There is a difference between eating kale because you like it and knowing exactly how many calories are in the food you’re eating. There is a difference between running because it makes you feel good and knowing the exact pace and mileage you need to burn off those calories. There is a difference, and, for some people, that difference takes practice.

I love this because it represents a different side to the eating disorder trope on television, which is maybe why no one has written about it. Maybe no one has noticed. (Which, by the way, is how many peoples’ eating disorders become so serious. No one notices because they show different signs than what we are trained by the media to identify.) Chris Traeger is not a young, female professional athlete. His life is not a soap opera or sports drama. He’s just a middle-aged government guy who smiles a lot, does races for charity, and likes local produce. He doesn’t have anorexia or bulimia. He’s not overly thin and weak. He’s actually quite strong, so he isn’t what our minds conjure when we think of a person with an eating disorder, and that is precisely why I think this story arc matters.

I love that he seeks help, and that even something as serious as depression is easily incorporated into the show’s comedy. I love that he is not ashamed, and that his friends stick by him. I love that the viewer is allowed to see beyond the disorder, and I love that, in the end, Chris gets to grow into the caring, passionate, happy person he was always meant to be.

“You know, the old Chris would have loved this super-fit health goddess you guys are talking about, but our great adventure reminded me that, now, I just want someone who values the important things in life. Friendships, passion, happiness, and…dimples are a plus.”

This is a really important subject for me because I’ve been there. My positive passion for exercise and eating healthy, combined with various outside factors, once became a negative thing very quickly and very quietly. It affected my emotions, academics, friendships, and even, ironically, my passion for exercise and eating healthy. I’m making this post, in part, to add to the noise and praise yet another aspect of Parks & Rec, but I’m also making this post because National Eating Disorder Awareness Week begins at the end of February. The theme for 2015 is “I Had No Idea.” Every year, millions of people will struggle with disordered eating, unbeknownst to their friends, family, colleagues–even themselves–because their story does not match what we’ve been programmed to recognize. It’s nice to see (intentional or not) a different take on such a widely popular show. Great job, Parks. Great job, Chris. Great job.

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This has been a pop-culture appreciation post, but to make up for the lack of citations and statistics to back my thesis, here are a few articles I’ve read recently:

What is Orthorexia?
Get in the Know: NEDA
Letting Go of Food Guilt

Conversation with a Boy

I was having a great Friday night. I was wearing a pair of wild, patterned leggings, a tight black dress that made me feel powerful, and my favorite pair of boots. Before I got to the show, I met a dear friend for a drink, and then I walked across a city at night by myself. The muscles in my legs burned under my brisk “city pace,” and the winter chill bit a nice, pink blush into my cheeks. I had already seen about three dudes peeing in the snow, and I felt on top of the world.

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The show started out great. I met some new people, learned a new board game, heard some music. But, as my friend’s band got up on stage, and as I moved closer to get a better view, I could tell my good vibes were about to be interrupted by a particularly onerous situation.

I could feel him staring at me from the bar. Every time I glanced over to see if he’d left, he was there, fingering the cold, wet girth of his beer bottle. I knew what was going to happen, and I braced myself for it. I am not exactly quick to warm up to strangers. Most conversations in bars involve me being incredibly rude to any man who approaches me in an attempt to nip it all in the bud. I’m either glaring at the floor while a stranger chats up my friends, or I’m lying, apologizing, and explaining that I’m madly in love with my [fake] boyfriend. I saw this guy looking at me, and I thought, “Here we go, Jen. Let’s play nice for a change. Maybe he’ll be interesting.”

Below is an illustrated account of the conversation that transpired as I recorded it later that night. All names have been changed to protect the drunk and awkward.

“Hi, I’m Gary,” he said, extending his hand as I fought every urge to glare and ignore. He just wants to know your name, I told myself. Be nice. I took his hand and shook it awkwardly. It was soft, damp, and cold.

“I’m Jen,” I replied, trying to look pleasant but hoping he would just go away. “Nice to meet you.”

“Are you a student?” he asked, leaning in close to shout in my ear. His breath smelled like my college apartment after a big party.

“No,” I said curtly. Then, remembering that I was trying to be nice, I added: “I graduated a few years back.”

“Oh, from where?”

“Oberlin College,” I answered, keeping my eyes on the band. I was hoping my friend on stage would notice how close he was to me and send a knowing glance of solidarity.

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“Oberlin!” he cried, all too joyfully. I had given him something to talk about. “I almost went to Oberlin!”

“Awesome,” was all I could say, and it came out as bland as mayonnaise. I really didn’t care, but I reminded myself that I always tell people I almost went to OSU, and that those people probably didn’t care either. Be nice. Be nice. Be nice.

“Do you play an instrument?” he forged ahead. “Did you go for music?”

“No,” I responded. He hadn’t used the words sexy or hot yet, so I decided to reward him with a few extra words. “I play a little, but I didn’t go to school for it.”

“I’m really into music,” he confessed, still leaning in, still shouting. “I do records for bands and stuff. That’s what I do, helping them out with records and stuff.”

“Cool.”

“Yeah, I am pretty cool.”

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What.

“Did you see me dancing out there?”

I had seen him dancing. He’d had his arms out like he was going to do a cartwheel across the floor, and he was bobbing his head like a giant bird as he moved back and forth doing what looked like deep lunges.

“I was looking for a partner,” he suggested, holding out his hands.

Oh, my God, no, I thought. What is a nice way to say ‘Oh, my God, no?’

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“I’m sorry,” I said out loud. “I don’t really dance.” It was the first lie I told that night, but it wasn’t the last.

“Do you know anyone in the band?” he rebounded quickly.

“I know the fiddle player,” I answered, gesturing towards the stage.

“I don’t know anyone in the band. I just really like music and stuff because of what I do.”

“The record stuff,” I said, throwing him a bone, letting him know I had been listening earlier. “Cool.”

There was a pause, and I got excited. Had I actually diffused a situation with a drunk man without being overly rude? Could this be a turning point in my young life? Did I really just—

“Hey,” he said, cutting my triumphant moment short. “I think you’re really cute and sexy.”

“Ohhhh,” I breathed, pretending to be flattered beyond words while my brain worked overtime. Be nice. Don’t lie. Be nice. Don’t lie. “Hey, thanks, but I’m not really here for that sort of thing.”

“Me either,” he mused, and I thought for a moment it was over. “I’m really into music, you know.”

“Me too, and I really want to hear my friend play, so…”

“Well, I really think you’re sexy,” he repeated. “We should hang out afterwards.”

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The true test had come. Could I get out of this situation feeling okay about myself, without lying or glaring? I inhaled deeply and took the plunge.

“I’m not from around here,” I said honestly. “I have a long drive home, so I don’t think so.”

“Oh, where are you from?” he said, too far gone to take a hint. His breath turned my stomach. This would not be easy.

I paused for a second and considered my answer carefully. I needed a place that was so far away there could be no denying I would have to go home early. I needed a lie.

“Oberlin,” I answered, deciding that lying about where I lived wasn’t the same as using a fake man to justify why I didn’t want to go home with him. “It’s like an hour and a half away.”

“Well, then you can stay with me tonight,” he shouted in my ear.

“No, man,” I said, more firmly this time. “I really just want to listen to my friend’s band and then go home.”

“Why?”

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“I have work in the morning super early.” Another lie to spare his feelings. “I have to go soon, anyway, so I’m just going to listen to the band now.”

“How early?”

“Early.”

He had been shouting at me their entire set. I was frustrated now, and my voice was getting that shrill, helpless, childish tone that always reminds me of arguing with my parents and fills me with self-loathing. I’d had enough. I just wanted to hear my friend play. I had tried to be nice. I really had.

“Hey,” he said, doing the exact opposite of what I wanted. “You know, when a cute guy says he thinks you’re sexy and wants to hang out with you after a show, you really should say yes.”

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“Okay,” I replied despondently, realizing that I actually hadn’t looked at him since he told me about his job. All I knew was that he wore glasses, was an awkward dancer, and that I didn’t care for him at all. I felt guilty and almost took a second look before I reminded myself that I didn’t have to be sorry about not liking him. With more resolve, I repeated: “I don’t want to do that right now. I just want to listen to my friend play. That’s what I’m here for.”

“Alright,” he finally conceded, “but I’m going to tell you a story.”

Oh, my God.

“I used to play football.”

Oh. My. God.

“I said I used to play football,” he repeated, even closer to my face this time.

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“Okay.”

“I used to play football,” he continued, apparently satisfied with my response, “and we had a game at Oberlin.”

Of course you had a game at Oberlin. Because I told you I live in Oberlin.

I suppressed an eye roll and nodded instead.

“Oh, man,” he laughed, apparently caught up in the memories. “I partied so hard there. It was around Halloween, and I had a raging night before the game. I remember I was in this white jump suit dressed like Wonder Bread, and I fell asleep on some stranger’s couch. I woke up 30 minutes before the game and had to run through the streets in this jump suit. I got there just in time, and my coach was so pissed that he…”

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Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod.

“…the whole team thought it was hilarious and called me Wonder Bread. That’s how I got my nickname. Wonder Bread.”

He finally quit talking, and there was a brief moment of silence before I realized he was waiting for me to respond.

“Cool.”

“Yeah, well, what I’m saying is, you need to learn to have fun. You need to learn to live your life. When a cute guy asks you to have some fun, you should say yes.”

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“Listen,” I tried one last time, “I’m going to focus on the band now, okay? It was nice to meet you.”

“Fine.” I felt relief rushing over me and suppressed an outburst of laughter. “But if you change your mind, I’m going to be over there, watching you.”

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He left, and true to his word, he kept his eyes on me the rest of the night. When he turned away to order another drink, I was ready. I sprung into action, bolted for the door, and eagerly pushed my way out into the night.

“Have a good night,” an actual cute guy said to me as I power-walked to my car past a group of smoking friends.

“Yeah, sure, whatever.”

Mean Jen was back, and Mean Jen was going to bed.

Just a note: I didn’t share this experience because I wanted to shame any of my male friends or acquaintances. I shared it because I think it is a hilarious and relatively harmless example of what it’s like to talk to a drunk person when you’re sober and of what young women often endure when they have the guts to go outside alone looking fabulous.

Ladies, I’m not saying you are obligated to be nice to everyone if you don’t want to be.

Gentlemen, I’m not saying you should never try to talk to cute girls. I’m just saying that you should probably not be hammered when you do. You should probably interpret her disinterest as disinterest. You should probably not shout in her ear. You should probably not assume that she is unhappy just because she is alone or try to instruct her how to live her life more fully. Oh, and you should definitely not tell her you’ll be watching her.

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from the mouths of babes

Preface: Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It’s a designated 24 hours where kids get off school, museums are free, and rarely is anything learned about the man being honored. My entire public school education reduced Martin Luther King, Jr., to four words: “I have a dream.” When I entered college, I could recognize those words. I could conjure the cadence of his voice out of complete silence, and I even teared up a little when I heard him speak. But when I entered college, I seriously thought that dream had been fulfilled. That’s what I had been taught. We were living Martin Luther King’s dream. How nice.

(I was also taught that men and women earned equal wages. Hah.)

The truth is: after Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, the F.B.I. felt he was such a threat that they initiated one of the largest surveillance operations in history to spy on him. He refused to compromise what he believed in to make himself more palatable to white moderates. He was anti-war, anti-poverty, and anti-capitalist. He knew the system was broken. After years of trying to integrate his dream into American life, he began to wonder whether he was “integrating into a burning house.” When King was assassinated in 1968, much of the United States was still racially divided, and supporters of the status quo sighed in relief. They seized his legacy, sanitized all the radicalism, and professed an end to racism. They erected statues, named streets in his honor, and even established a federal holiday. They went to work, and we forgot.

If Martin Luther King were alive today, he would be turning 86. If Martin Luther King were alive today, most of us probably wouldn’t be quoting him. There is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

I won’t pretend that I am an expert on the American civil rights movement. I’m not. But here is some good reading if you’re looking to learn something about Martin Luther King today:
excerpts from The Radical King
Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.
Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution by Martin Luther King Jr.

When I woke up this morning, I was honestly disappointed that I was going to be at work all day. I knew there were protests that I wanted to join in Cleveland. I didn’t want to listen to people telling me we live in a post-racial society and that we’re living Martin Luther King’s dream and not be able to engage. I wanted to be free to write and talk about what I believed in, not confined to a customer service role where I had to make nice.

On top of it all, I had created an exhibit on the civil rights movement that I was afraid of. I was afraid that no one would look at it, that I would watch thousands of people breeze past replica 1960s protest signs and text about the intersectionality of the civil rights movement for the allure of an old carousel and historic cars. Incidentally, I was also afraid that people would look at it. I am not an expert on the subject, and I am terrible at debate. I cry too easily when confronted. I was afraid people might roll their eyes and say “Oberlin,” with that particular tone that seems to simultaneously explain and diminish my passion. I was afraid parents and kids would reject the craft, which asked them to make their own protest signs about issues they cared about. I was afraid visitors would complain about the text around the exhibit. I was afraid. I was afraid. I was afraid…

Here’s what happened instead: I went to work and saw my signs around the museum, and my heart swelled with pride. My boss credited me with the work, and I tried to hide behind my co-workers, but the anticipated resentment never came. As I walked through the museum to get a drink, I heard two adults discussing a sign about black feminism, about how they hadn’t learned of any of that information before. I heard a child reading aloud about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and say how sad they were that those four young girls were killed. I even saw people taking pictures of my work. I started to relax.

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At the craft table, things were busy. Some kids, when I asked if they knew what day it was, responded with “Monday,” but most of them knew it was Martin Luther King Day and not just a random day off school. I asked one little girl if she knew who Martin Luther King was, and she told me everything she knew about him as she colored. “He loved his grandma,” she said. “They liked to sit on the porch and talk. He was born on January 15th. His dream was that his daughters would live in a world where they would be judged by their character rather than their color. My best friend is white, so I think Martin Luther King would be happy.”

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Most kids, as it turns out, have a lot of things they care about and were happy to sit down and think hard on their day off. Talking to them, as it turns out, was just what I was looking for in lieu of protesting outside. I watched toddlers proclaim that all weapons should be broken and advocate for all animals (not just the cute ones). I listened as one teenager told me she picked the colors black and brown for her sign against modern slavery because “black is beautiful.” She beamed with pride when I told her I could tell she was a deep thinker and could make a difference in the world. Another girl told me about how she collects soap and shampoo to donate to homeless shelters, and how she thinks working together is important to enact change. Kids told me about their favorite books while they made signs to support Little Free Libraries and reading. They told me why they recycle, why they think bullying is wrong, why boys should be able to play with dolls and like the color pink, why there should be more parks, why everyone deserves a loving family. I’m telling you…if you’re ever losing faith in humanity, talk to a kid about what they care about and how they think the world could be a better place. Because. Damn.

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I have to mention that this one was made by a girl who came to the museum on a field trip a week ago, and she was so excited to see me and my mouse shoes again. She kept telling me all the stuff she remembered that I taught her about Native Americans, European traders, and the pioneers. And then she donated her sign as an example of "how all people should live."

I have to mention that this one was made by a girl who came to the museum on a field trip a week ago, and she was so excited to see me and my mouse shoes again. She kept telling me all the stuff she remembered that I taught her about Native Americans, European traders, and the pioneers. And then she donated her sign as an example of “how all people should live.”  I have to mention this, because my phone didn’t save ANY of the pictures I took with her.

While trying to teach people how to more meaningfully engage with the past, I learned a lot about the future. Sometimes we can get so caught up in our own adult selves with our own adult problems that we forget there’s a whole generation after us. We think they’re just kids, so we talk down to them. We worry because they play with iPads and dress like adults, but they’ll be the ones dealing with the world we’ve properly broken for them. If they’re half as smart and thoughtful as they were today when they grow up, I can only hope they have the chance to fix what we bashed to bits.

Despite all the cool things that happened at the museum, my favorite interaction actually happened after hours. When it was all said and done, my co-workers headed home. I headed to Chipotle.

What happened was this: There was one girl who made two signs. The first was serious, something about the environment, but the other really spoke to me. Jokingly, she made a silly sign about how you don’t mess with your sister’s Chipotle. We all laughed, but something inside me snapped. The rest of the day, all I could think about was how great Chipotle would taste after a long, hard day at work. Kids were telling me about their passions, but all I could think about was Chipotle, so I decided to go to the one around the corner from the museum after work.

As I walked though the door, the Chipotle girl was there with her family. It was destiny. I ordered my burrito bowl and gathered the courage to approach them. I paid for my food, took a breath, and walked over to their booth. “I’m sorry,” I said, holding up my to-go bag, “but your protest sign really inspired me.”

We all laughed again, and then I told them I had to go because I seriously needed to shove all my food in my mouth ASAP. We laughed some more, but I was already turning towards the door. Although it was beyond frustrating at the time, I’m so grateful for the extra few seconds it took me to realize the door was a push not a pull, because I heard the most amazing thing from where the girl was sitting with her mom.

“See, mom! Protesting does work!”

There you have it, folks. From the mouths of babes…