America’s Cemeteries are Filled with Good Folks

We lose students all too often at Chico State. Some die from accidents, some from overdose, some by their own hand. Not many die as Melinda Driggers did last Thursday, though, on campus, in the middle of the day, in the middle of our Student Services Center.

We got an email Monday from the University, telling us of Melinda’s death, and my breath caught in my throat as soon as I saw the subject of the email: Passing of student Melinda Driggers.

Melinda was a non-traditional student. She came to the university after she had raised her son and twin daughters, after she had married and then lost her husband suddenly. She was the one who found him, unresponsive, much like she was found on Thursday. She performed CPR on her husband, that day, hoping to save her husband, and I imagine, her own life. She donated her husband’s organs so that others may live, and that her husband may live on. In a paper she wrote for me last semester, she said that knowing she had done everything she could to save him, and then donating his organs, brought her peace.

Her first semester at Chico, she became a Social Work major, and enrolled in my class. She was quiet, but a guiding force in discussions in my class. When she spoke, it was deliberate. She listened critically, and made invaluable contributions to the class.

I tell stories about my kids and my husband a lot in my class and often; she would nod her head in empathy when I complained about late nights spent with sick kids, the trials of married life, and juggling work and school and family life. She had been there; she had done that.

Life had worn her down by the time I met her. She carried a bit of extra weight, her hair was always a bit disheveled, and she always looked tired. The death of her husband had left her heartbroken, and trying to go back to school and rebuild her life in her late 40s had been an overwhelming experience.

Melinda never complained about anything though. When I mentioned the expense of college, time management issues, difficulty with school schedules, she would watch me intently, smile in a knowing way, then would shake her head slightly, nod in agreement, and go back to writing her class notes. She had been there, done that before.

She was worried about money, and doing well in school, and trying to survive after the loss of her husband. She was still traumatized over finding her husband unresponsive, performing CPR until paramedics arrived to take over.

There are a lot of Melindas out there, worrying, stressed over finances, then suffering a catastrophic event. Most who die relatively young are impoverished, most are hard workers who have just had a bad turn of events. They die younger, because of what the stress of “just getting by” does to a person.

This is what stress does to people like Melinda, people who, despite working hard, being good people, doing the best they can with what they have, still can’t make ends meet. I emphasize to my students every day in class: learn how to manage your stress because life is hard, and it’ll kick you when you are down and some of us have more of a safety net than others, and if you don’t figure out a way to handle the stress, you won’t make your 50th birthday.

Cemeteries are filled with folks like Melinda, people whose only fault was they lived in a world without a safety net for blue collar workers.

Melinda’s husband didn’t make it to 50, and neither did Melinda.

I walked into class Monday afternoon, the same classroom and the same subject, Sociology of Stress, where Melinda sat 7 weeks ago. Last semester, we talked about the stressful lives we all live in this fast paced world, and we talked about the diseases and illnesses that are more likely when stress gets out of control. We watched videos about the stress of inequality and poverty and wrote critically about stress, and the students analyzed their own sources of stress. We meditated and practiced Qi gong, we learned breathing techniques and relaxation methods, and still, for Melinda, it was too late. The stress of trying to get by, the stress of losing her husband, the daily stress of juggling family life and school life and volunteering hours, became too much last Thursday.

From the report from the University, I suspect that Melinda had either a heart attack or a stroke while in the Student Services Center, but regardless of the acute cause, the death certificate won’t mention the underlying stress that was the major contributing factor in her death.

I thought I was going to be okay when I walked back into that classroom, but as I scanned the room full of students, the reality of Melinda not sitting in her seat, her books open, her pen ready, her shaggy brown hair framing her glasses as she organized her papers, hit me, and as I faced my students, I didn’t hide my tears. Instead, I told them about Melinda, and I showed them where she used to sit, and we talked about learning how to manage your stress better, and about taking time for yourself, and learning how to say no to too many obligations, because this life is harder for some people than others, but you never know that it could be you, until it’s too late.

I hope you find peace, Melinda, and that finally, you can stop worrying.

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Gallows Tale I: The Hanging File of Tanganyika Territory, 1920-1928

Another point requiring your attention in the cross bar which holds the trap door in position. When this is released and falls into its groove in the wall, it should be caught by a socket of some kind, to prevent its rebounding on contact with the stone. At present it is quite possible that, in the rebound, it hits the hanging man as he drops from above. True, if the hanging is properly done, the man is probably dead before he receives the blow from the iron bar: but you will agree every possible precaution should be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.

Some years ago I was working on a project in the Tanzanian National Archives in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. While there, I saw a file listed in the catalog called “The Hanging File.” I was not quite sure what to expect, so asked to see it. It turned out to be the bureaucratic correspondence, mainly from the Tanganyika Police and Prisons, about the implementation of the new British government’s policies on hanging prisoners. Tanganyika had only in 1920 been transferred from German to British colonial rule, and this meant proper British methods of execution needed to be established.  And that meant wherever possible, the condemned were to face the hangman’s noose rather than a firing squad.

Much of the file was correspondence back and forth about the nuts and bolts of establishing procedures for executions in a fashion consistent with British colonial law. I had the whole file photocopied in 2004, with the vague idea that there is a great story in the file—though I was never quite sure what it was, so never wrote it up. Now is perhaps the time.  So I will be writing blogs about in coming months in the hope that someone somewhere can tell me what the point of this file is.

This first memo I am posting is dated October 6, 1922, and it is from the prison in Morogoro, central Tanganyika, and addressed to the Director of Public Works, who has been charged by the Governor with establishing facilities to hang prisoners. As you can tell from this memo, such a program is not that easy—proper well-designed facilities must be established so that “every precaution can be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.” Which in the case of the Morogoro gallows means a socket of some kind to catch the bar that is underneath the trap door. It seems there was some evidence that the bar was bouncing off the concrete wall of the pit as the prisoner dropped, and there was some chance he was getting whacked on the head before their neck was broken. Clearly a condition that suggested a degree of inhumanity incompatible with British colonial justice!

 

Office of the Commissioner of Police and Prisons

Dar Es Salaam, 6th. October, 1922

Registered Number H. Q. . 55/Gen/30

The Director of Public Works

DARESSALAAM

RE: GALLOWS – MOROGORO

I desire to bring to your notice the following unsatisfactory points in connection with the gallows at Morogoro, which were brought to notice during my recent Inspection of the Gaol at that station.

 

  1. In the first place it is absolutely essential that proper steps should be made leading to the pit, so that the body of the hanged man can be properly carried up for burial. At the present time, the entrance to the it is by an ordinary ladder and any one decending [sic] the pit, for instance the doctor, has to duck his head to clear the platform. It is quite impossible to remove a body with any decency by this exit.
  1. The present system is revolting to any decent ideas. The body is hauled up by the neck, through the trap doors, through which it has dropped, without undoing the noose. Last Monday a very heavy and big man was hanged, and his body had to be treated in this way, with unpleasent [sic] results to all who were present.
  1. At the time the gallows was made, the Superintendent of Police expostulated at the proposed plan, but for some reason or other, possible expense, it was decided to go on with the original design. At Lindi, Tanga and Mwanza Gaols, proper cement steps have been made, and are satisfactory. I desire to ask that the necessary improvements to remedy the existing state of affairs at Morogoro may be taken in hand at once.
  1. Another point requiring your attention in the cross bar which holds the trap door in position. When this is released and falls into its groove in the wall, it should be caught by a socket of some kind, to prevent its rebounding on contact with the stone. At present it is quite possible that, in the rebound, it hits the hanging man as he drops from above. True, if the hanging is properly done, the man is probably dead before he receives the blow from the iron bar: but you will agree every possible precaution should be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.
  1. Finally the present chain supplied from your workshops is far from satisfactory. The other day it was necessary to take off some links to shorten the drop. At the first tap of a hammer, the link snapped. Surely this is not right. I have instructed the Assistant Superintendent of Prisons to send this chain to Daressalaam as soon as it can be spared for your inspection.
  1. I trust that you will be able to treat these matter as urgent, as they are of vital importance, if the executions are to be carried out without any regrettable incident.

Signature illegible

Source Tanzania National Archives, TNA AB 518

Hanging File 1 Morogoro

So how would you as a anthropologist or sociologist analyze a memo like this?  Would it be about colonialism, bureaucracy, or criminology?  Or the human condition?  I have been wondering about this during the ten years I’ve been sitting on the file, and hope to hear what Ethnography.com readers think in coming months.

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The Best Book of the 21st Century (so far)

Junot_wao_coverIt’s Monday and I don’t know what you did this weekend but I finished one book (Americanah) and started another (Descent). Since I quit teaching, reading has returned as my favorite thing to do. I always had the time but never took it, something about the frenzy of teaching that made it so I could only make time to read books I wanted to during the summer. Several summers ago I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I’d read Drown, his collection of short stories and so I knew the novel would be good because you can tell a lot about a writer by a short story and his were wonderful, compact tales punched with reality.

Recently, the BBC polled several U.S. critics in search of the best fiction book of the 21st century. They ended up awarding it to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoPublished in 2007, it took Diaz eleven years to write and it’s no wonder. The footnotes kept me up doing late-night searches on Wikipedia and reading about the history of the Dominican Republic.

And it’s a fun and funny book, not something I’d usually write about a book that explores socio-political history, love, the immigrant experience, and what it means to be an American (and who gets to call themselves American). But that’s the talent of Junot Diaz. I don’t know what he’s like in person but I really liked Oscar Wao. Oscar is not a typical hero protagonist and is in fact, a huge nerd. If you were a weird, socially awkward sci-fi kid who loved Lord of the Rings and comics, you’ll love him too.

Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to. -JD

If you click the link to this article, you can see the top 20 books the critics selected. I was sad that my beloved favorite The Goldfinch didn’t make the top 20 but then that is how it is with books and critics. Many of my favorite books (The Four Seasons by Stephen King) will never make a critics list. But that’s for another blog. In the meantime, check out this list and head to your local library (you do have a library card, don’t you?). Of the 20 on this list, I’ve read and enjoyed #’s 1, 5, 6, 11, and 13 (now you have to click the link!). How about you, what are you reading these days?

 

 

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The Toothache

“The Toothache” is excerpted from Marianne Paiva’s book Breathe: Essays from a Recovering Paramedic which tells of her life as a paramedic in rural areas of northern California in the 1990s. This particular story tells of the time she was called to take a man by ambulance with a toothache to the emergency room at 3 a.m. You’ll need to read the whole story to find out why this was the case! To understand the context for this story, you will need to read the whole book!

Marianne has since gone on to teach Sociology at California State University, Chico, and blog here at Ethnography.com. Copies of Breathe can be purchased for very reasonable prices at Amazon.com in both paper and Kindle versions.   TW

Slide1

The Toothache

By Marianne Paiva

In paramedic school and in the field, instructors and veteran medics downplay the inherent stress of the job. Instructors will say, “As long as you know your job, you’ll do fine. Just always know your job,” and continue innocuous demonstrations such as how to stab an orange with a two-inch needle or how to start an IV on a life-sized plastic arm. And veterans, those people who have been in the field at least ten years or so, will laugh when you ask, “So, what’s the worst part of the job?” They don’t laugh because they think its funny; they laugh because if they knew, they wouldn’t be doing the job. But stress is the reason people leave so quickly, why the burnout rate for a paramedic is less than ten years. Why paramedics are more likely than the average person to have an affair, to commit suicide, and to use illicit drugs. It’s getting better; in the mid-1990s, the burnout rate stood right around four years.

 It comes from all sides in prehospital emergency medicine. The patient yells in pain; the family yells because you didn’t get there quick enough; doctors glare and occasionally, when you’ve really screwed up, they tell you to leave. “Get the hell out of my hospital before you kill someone!” Screaming doctors don’t cause the most stress; the most stress often comes from the unexpected and unlikely sources. When you are a paramedic, the most stress comes from the perfectly mundane. I often ask paramedics who have left the field, “why, why did you leave”? And they tell me stories of broken families, long hours, the managers who expected miracles all day, every day, and the one call—that final call—when they realized they were done.

The call came at 3:00 a.m. on a frigid winter morning in March 1997. A thirty-four-year-old man with an address just up the block from ambulance quarters, in run-down apartments we are all too familiar with, has a toothache. It’s my call and I wonder today, would this have been my breaking point if the call rotation had fallen to my partner? Would I still be working on the ambulance? But the rotation had fallen to me and the toothache was mine.

It takes only a minute from quarters to reach the low-income apartments where the man with the toothache lives. My eyes are still swollen with sleep and my boots are just barely zipped when I spot a Latino man standing on the sidewalk outside the apartments. The man, wearing a thin, worn multi-colored 1970s polyester coat, faded blue jeans, and work boots, bows his head as the lights of our ambulance flash in his dark brown eyes. A girl, no more than eight or nine years old, stands next to him. They are waiting for us, even though it’s nearly freezing and the girl is wearing only shorts, a thin shirt, and flip-flops. Her dark, wavy hair falls to her shoulders and makes a deep contrast to the pale pink t-shirt with the giant purple cartoon dinosaur on the front. The resemblance between the two is noticeable. She has his deep-set eyes and if the man ever let his hair grow out, it would be identical to his daughter’s.

I roll the window down as the ambulance nears the curb. “Did you call the ambulance?” I ask the father. He looks alarmed and glances at the girl.

“Yes, my papa. His tooth hurts.” The girl wraps her arms around her body and tries to capture some of the heat that escapes into the frigid air. The father nods quickly in confirmation.

“And you want to go to the hospital?” I can feel my partner, David, rustling behind the driver’s seat. He’s impatient and would rather be sleeping. And he forgot his Diet Coke. Before leaving quarters, on every call, David grabs a Diet Coke on his way out. On this call, he forgot.

The girl speaks quietly in Spanish to her father. He leans in to hear her, then straightens up and nods. Yes, he wants to go to the hospital.

An involuntary sigh escapes my lips as I open the passenger door and motion for them to follow me. Warm air and bright lights flood the girl as I open the double doors at the back of the ambulance. I wait for her to climb into the giant box, then over the gurney and onto a seat tucked away between the cabinets filled with blankets and medication and plastic tubing. Her father follows, taking his place on the gurney. He sits upright, with his feet still on the ambulance floor and his hands in the pockets of his coat. I pull the doors of the ambulance closed behind me and find the warm bench seat beside the gurney.

“Ready?” David calls from the cab of the ambulance. I look at the man and his daughter and wonder, can I ever be ready?

“Not yet, give me a few.” David turns to glance at me briefly and I shoot him a stare with one eyebrow raised, “Just wait, just wait.” I turn my attention to the girl and her father.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I ask the girl. I do not speak Spanish and my patient, her father, does not speak English. I know the routine better than I should; parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles rely on their children, often too young to read, to translate their pains and injuries to medical providers in emergencies. Children are kept from school to accompany their parents to doctor appointments and are allowed to see their mothers and fathers die because someone needs to translate from Spanish or Hmong (war refugees from mountain regions in Southeast Asia) or Laotian (war refugees from low-lying areas of Southeast Asia) to English and back again. When I was a rookie EMT, we responded to a medical aid for an elderly Hmong woman who spoke no English. Her husband and other adult family members who spoke no English surrounded the woman as she lay in pain, curled up on a couch in a small apartment. We relied on her grandson to translate. But it’s difficult to understand a five-year old whose second language is English and the paramedic didn’t know how to treat her. How do you treat a severe stomachache? We didn’t; we took her to the hospital and let them care for her. She died a few hours later. She had cancer of the stomach, but her grandson didn’t know how to say “cancer” and so she was in pain for longer than she should have been. If we had known, we could have requested morphine. We could have made her comfortable. Instead, she died in pain.

This girl speaks English well, though. Her father has been in pain all night and can’t stand it anymore. He needs a doctor.

“Why did you call the ambulance? Do you have anyone to drive you to the hospital?” Many people will call an ambulance instead of driving to the hospital themselves, thinking they will be treated faster. But if a patient can walk to the ambulance and gurney, like this man has, the triage nurse will escort him to the waiting room even though we delivered him through the back door.

“We don’t have a car,” she tells me. No car and I suspect, no friends they can wake up at 3:00 in the morning for a ride to the hospital, twenty miles away.

“If you go to the hospital, how will you get home?”

She shrugs her narrow shoulders. She speaks to her father in Spanish again. I pick up only a few words of the discussion, but enough to know that he doesn’t care how they will get home; he is in pain now, not later.

“The doctor will only give you aspirin, nothing else for the pain. Do you have any aspirin at home?”

“No”, she says, “We don’t have any money for aspirin.”

“Ok,” I say finally, “I need to see the tooth and call the hospital.” I snap on a pair of latex gloves and move toward the man. “Can you ask him to lay back so I can see his tooth?” The girl translates my question. I adjust the gurney into a reclined position and the father rests his head against the rough pillow. His tooth is abscessed beyond repair, the black shell of what it used to be hangs between other teeth that will see the same fate fairly soon. The stench—not morning breath stench but rotting flesh stench—knocks me back onto the bench. I wonder how he has been able to stand the pain until now.

The nurse on duty who answers my call is not happy. “A toothache?” she asks me, not believing what I have said. I called her so she will know I tried to convince the patient not to go to the hospital, because if I bring them a toothache at 3:00 in the morning, they will question everything I do later.

“Yes,” I confirm, “a toothache. I’ve advised the patient that treatment at the hospital will be equivalent to over the counter aspirin. He is adamant in his desire to be transported to the hospital.” She makes me wait for her reply.

“Copy Westside, ETA?”

“ETA twenty-five minutes. Do you have any orders for me?” Maybe she’ll let me give him a little morphine on the drive, but I don’t want to ask her for it directly. If anyone else is listening, I’ll be a laughingstock. But the nurse says “no, there are no orders,” and I am embarrassed to have asked, although I know my patient needs something for the pain. The nurse has obviously never had a toothache.

Since my patient cannot converse in English and his daughter has fallen asleep on his lap, and there is nothing I can do to treat him. I have time to think on the twenty miles to the hospital. I am surprisingly angry. Not at the patient or his daughter, but at the nurse, for not understanding a toothache and denying the man morphine. And at the way we treat undocumented workers in my town and country. The man refused to give me his name and wouldn’t provide any identification, a sure sign that he was undocumented and illegal. How desperate must we make another human before we break them? It is a long twenty miles. The father and I try not to stare at each other for too long but in the tiny ambulance, we catch each other’s eyes a few times. I try not to breathe through my nose, because the smell of the abscess is overpowering and makes my eyes water.

The nurses glare at me when I escort my patient and his daughter into the emergency department. “Take him to the waiting room,” the triage nurse tells me. “Couldn’t you do anything to persuade him not to come in?” The mild anger I felt in the ambulance flares and I walk back to my ambulance before I say something I will regret. I am done, I realize. I am done. I can’t take any more babies beaten and scalded with hot water. And mothers who extinguish cigarettes on their children and fathers who rape their sons and the people who cover it up. I can’t take the woman who goes back to the man who molested her children. I can’t take one more boy struck by a car on his way to school and my best friends being shot by their boyfriends. No more drug overdoses, suicides, and near misses. No more. No more nurses who turn their nose up as we walk into the department with a drunk transient. No more. And I can’t take any more toothaches in the middle of the night.

The next morning, as I am driving to school, just at the city limits entering Chico maybe two miles from the hospital, I see two figures walking on the side of the road toward me. One is small, dressed in shorts, a light shirt, and flip-flops. Her father’s polyester coat hangs around her shoulders, draping her like a dress. The other is a slightly built Latino man in his thirties. The man with the toothache and his daughter, who should be home in her warm bed, just waking up to get ready to go to school, are walking the twenty miles back home.

The girl shivers as she climbs into the front seat of my SUV; her father takes a seat in the back. He doesn’t say anything when he closes the door, but pulls the seatbelt across his shoulder and tightens it as I shift into gear. I glance at the girl; her pink cheeks warmed in the stream of heat from my dashboard.

“You’re not working?” the girl asks.

“Nope, not today,” I confirm. I wait while she settles into the seat. “Buckle up,” I instruct gently. She pulls the belt tightly and snuggles deeper into the coat. We drive in silence back the way we had come just a few hours earlier. Their little apartment appears even more run-down in the daylight. I wait as the girl’s father gets out of the car and scoops his daughter from the front seat. She has fallen asleep somewhere along the way. He looks slightly embarrassed at the situation. I smile, trying to tell him it is okay; she’s a kid, she should sleep. I shift into gear as he moves away but then he steps back toward me and I think maybe he has forgotten something. I wait.

“Thank you,” he nods slightly. Holding his daughter in his arms, he nudges the car door closed and carries her home.

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Why we Make Stuff Up at Ethnography.com, and by the way, the American Anthropological Association Decided to Dissolve Itself  

Two weeks ago, we posted a really great essay by David Van Huff “A Tale Within a Tale: The Dual Nature of Ebenezer Scrooge.” David wrote this story for my class, and it helped me see Durkheim concept of the “Dual Nature” of humanity in a new way, which is why I wanted to post it.  Anyway, in coming days we will post more such stories. What they will have all in common is that they are all fiction. So spoiler alert: Good social science can be made up. David’s story is in fact just an extreme version of this genre of social “science,” since not only did David make up the story, he also wrote the story about Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge who is also completely fictional—Dickens made him up too!

For that matter the all-time downloaded article from the American Anthropologist, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” is also fictional. It was made up by the sociologist Horace Miner who at one-time was a Lt. Colonel in the United States Army. Despite all this blasphemous conduct (sociologist, militarist, fiction writer), the article continues to be a staple of anthropology textbooks because it highlights so well how arbitrary cultural practices are always relative, and always taken-for granted.  People learn from it–the article enjoys its high status for good reason.

Oh yeah, and a couple of weeks ago, we republished Franz Kafka’s brief piece of doggerel Gemeinschaft/Fellowship.  That too, come to think about it was complete fiction, written by someone who was known for the oddity of his imagination.  And of course the “five friends” Kafka wrote about, as well as the sixth, are really quite made up!

Then there is sociologist Michael Young who in 1958 wrote a book The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1880-2033. The book invented the word “meritocracy” to describe the dysphemistic world where everyone is evaluated for merit by testing, and those who are successful create an isolated world in places like Cambridge (Massachusetts and England), where alone they rule over the masses who do not do so well on standardized tests. As a result of this relatively unknown novel (i.e. fiction), the word “meritocracy” entered the English language as being something very desirable—in fact it has become a political staple when politicians whine about favoritism and nepotism. Oddly, this was not Young’s point—he though the meritocracy was actually a bad thing because it leads to oligarchy, and the book explains why in ways that are chillingly real over 60 years after it was published.

And just recently I read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka, which is a fantastic novel about modern England, World War II in Ukraine, migration, gender, and aging. Read it—it is great sociology (the main protagonist even teaches sociology at a British University).

And by the way, the classical sociologist W. E. B. DuBois wrote a great short story “Of the Coming of John” about two boys, one black, and one white, who grew up on a Georgia plantation at the turn of the century. The story is a tragic one which illustrates well DuBois’ main point about “Double Consciousness” and “The Color Line” in race. DuBois made it up.

But isn’t this blog then really about literature, and not sociology or anthropology? Shouldn’t such works be sent over to the Literature Department—why should serious social scientists even consider such work?  Bottom line, if you want the truth, and nothing but the truth check out your home town newspaper (mine is the Nevada County Scooper which you can read here).  Otherwise do not be afraid of too much fiction.

And by the way, did you hear that the American Anthropological Association finally decided to dissolve itself?

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Yes, Feminism Has a Class Problem

From fieldnotes, October ninth, 2004: The Red Tent: A gathering of women

According to the program, it’s time for the final event at The Red Tent, titled: “Living our wholeness” with Donna Carlson-Todd, certified life coach. Before us is a petite blond woman in her fifties who is passing out business cards and telling us about herself and that we are here to celebrate what it is to be a woman. While finishing up, she says we need to stand and stretch, voice aloud what we’re feeling at that moment—everyone stands up and some “Aahs” and whispery moans are voiced from the group. Then she tells us to sit down at our tables where two sheets of paper have been placed during our stretch, one a worksheet the other a guide to it that outlines the “Universal cycles of change” and the “10 keys to living your wholeness”. Donna Carlson-Todd guides us through the worksheet, prompts us to fill out each section honestly, tells us no one will look at our answers. 

After a half hour of being guided through the worksheet, she asks us to stand again, to leave some space in front of ourselves. She tells us to close our eyes, imagine a circle in front of us—doesn’t matter how big—where we place (figured out from the worksheet we just completed) our intentions, groundedness, hearts desire, beliefs/imprints, and goals. We are told to imagine the colors in our circle, the feelings we felt when we filled out the worksheet. Then she asks us to step into our circle of intentions, groundedness and hearts desire, etc and then, step out, step back in again, “how do you feel inside your circle?” she asks.  A woman exclaims, “I feel better!” She asks us to vocalize how we feel, and several women’s Oohs, Aahs, and hums fill the room. She continues in a soft voice, telling us to step out (a woman behind me moans) then back in, and a woman exhales to my left. Then, Donna Carlson-Todd asks us to step out of our circles one last time and bend over and pick them up, hold them in the palms of our hands, and then close our eyes again. 

I’m not bored, but I’m feeling inauthentic, so I squint my eyes and peek at the women around me. Two women to my right are stroking their circles, another holds hers up, close to her chest, as Donna Carlson-Todd is telling us to place our circle to our hearts so that we always remember how it feels and have access to it. Then she tells us to sit quietly with our group and unwrap the purple blobs of cellophane-wrapped clay in front of us to create with it the feeling we felt in our circle of intentions, groundedness, etc.

So, I play with my clay, while everyone else at my table is quiet and busy with theirs. Fae is good, obviously knows what she’s doing, she’s sculpting a woman laying down with her arms entwined above her head, but the others are just making odd shapes that don’t look like much except Connie’s, which looks like a punk Christmas tree to me. I wind up making a heart shape, stick a rose petal in the middle of it and run off to the bathroom for some quick jotting.

When I return everyone is standing in a large circle holding hands and singing. I run in and stand between Connie and Monica and we are lead in several choruses of “Woman Am I.”

Woman am I

Spirit am I

I am the infinite within my soul

I have no beginning          

and I have no end

All this I am.

Several years ago I attended this all-woman gathering as part of my MA thesis research (participant-observation/ethnographic interviews). I wanted to explore the ways women relate to other women in organized, formal spaces such as work and feminist social gatherings. I grew up in a working class family where the women didn’t “return to work” they just worked. And mostly in pink-collar service work: clerical, food service, and light bookkeeping. I was the same as them and worked in low wage, service-oriented jobs with mostly women co-workers. The kernel of the idea for my thesis was the result of a few years of bookselling at Barnes & Noble where I worked with almost all women employees and a male boss. I may be a bad feminist for saying this aloud, but there was plenty of conflict among my women co-workers, what I call bullying and microaggressions these days when I consult with organizations that have problems with employee conflict.

Through my participation in The Red Tent (a public event held on a university campus that served as a means of ritualizing women’s experiences) I hoped to understand what is meant by ‘sisterhood’, this sense of community that middle class feminists talked about and what I observed was lacking at Barnes & Noble. In the process of interviewing women, I started to develop a hunch that the ways women relate in everyday life were influenced by larger cultural ideas (including from mainstream feminism) about how women should relate rather than how they actually do.

What I know now—after the research plus life experience—is that I was right, there are heavy expectations placed on how women should interact, and they are based on cultural and gender norms. That yes, women do have conflict with each other and that it has to do with the structure of the patriarchy. The big question however, the one that still sticks in my brain, is what of class norms? The Red Tent (and I’ve never told anyone besides my husband this) was one of the most awkward social experiences of my life; if I hadn’t been doing research I would’ve quickly made an Irish exit. Despite being a student, I didn’t feel connected to the white women there, I felt like an outsider in the most Goffmanesque way, the stigma of my social class was obvious, I didn’t dress like the other women or look like them, and I did not experience feelings of “sisterhood.”

I thought of all this last June when I read, “Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?” I’ve been stewing about it ever since, wanting to write a giant YES rather than bore you with my MA thesis and why I’m concerned about the state of feminism. Plenty of women have reaped the benefits of mainstream feminist policy, heck, where would middle class white women be without affirmative action? The problem is (and if you’re on twitter you already know this) is that mainstream feminism does little for women of color and working class white women. Mainstream feminism focuses on things like “leaning in” so that women can have it all and encourages women to push against gender norms and over work in the same way as men in order to secure the corner office. But, where does this leave a woman who doesn’t have the resources, the particular motivation, and/or the education to do these things? Where is feminism for them?

What Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In did best was expose the tremendous class and race divide in feminism. I saw it when I was teaching at a community college, several working class women who said they weren’t feminists because they were stay-at-home moms. Or the woman who thought a two-year degree and dental hygienist career was just fine, thank you very much; she said that she couldn’t be a feminist because they were “into getting more education.” The mythology of feminism being man-hating, etc.is well-known but what I heard was something more nuanced, it seemed like feminism was perceived as something academic and thus, completely out of touch.

Yes, feminism has a class problem (and a race problem too, which you can read about here and here). A little navel gazing isn’t a bad thing and singing songs and holding hands with other women is nice too; sisterhood is possible but hardly a guarantee in the competitive space of work. What’s nicer though is raising the minimum wage, family-friendly labor policy, free childcare for single parents (women and men) that are also college students, reproductive rights, and greater assistance and outreach for woman headed families struggling to care for elderly and/or disabled family members and children. Real stuff, because what middle class feminists don’t understand, is that leaning in was never a problem for busy, multitasking working class women. What I want middle class feminists to understand is that individual empowerment gets a real boost when the bills are paid, food is in the fridge, and gas is in the car. It’s the simple things, like good policy.

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On the Culture of Binge Drinking in a Residential College Town

Culture: The values, beliefs, behaviors, and expectations of behaviors or social norms of a given population of humans.

Do you know what I find amazing? I find it amazing that I never see people burning couches and cars in the streets of my neighborhood. And I find it amazing that I never find discarded red plastic cups in the gutters outside my house. And I never find my neighbors passed out in the bushes in front of my house. Never. Not once in the 7 years that I’ve lived in my neighborhood. And there is never a Beer Pong table set up in the front yard of any of my neighbors’’ houses, ever. It’s kind of disappointing, really, because from what I remember from my college days, drinking games can be fun.

My students laugh when I express my amazement at these events, or the lack of these events in my neighborhood, because more than likely, it does happen in their neighborhood. I have the privilege of teaching at California State University (CSU), Chico, which, unless you’ve been living under a rock with no internet access, was the first college in the U.S. to top Playboy Magazine’s first list of Party Schools more than 25 years ago. We unfortunately held that title for 15 years, only because Playboy didn’t bother to print another Top Party School list in that time. It’s been a dubious honor, one we were all more than happy to shed in 2002 (Dear Arizona State, thanks for taking the heat off of Chico and making us #2). But still, the reputation lives on, even with the current students, most of whom weren’t alive when we first were honored in Playboy.

I think, at the time, that we may have earned the title. During a few debaucherous years in the mid 1980s, Pioneer Days in Chico, which was the equivalent of Spring Break in Florida, produced, what some would call, the heyday of the party era in Chico. As a result of several years of increasingly publicized partying, local college students and thousands of out of towners flocked to Chico for special event weekends, and for Pioneer Days. Thousands of young people filled the streets of Chico during Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, and Pioneer Days celebrations, and filled the Sacramento River on Memorial Day and Labor Day, floating down the river with tens of thousands of other young people.

Chico made national news with alcohol-fueled rioting in the streets in the name of a good time, cars were overturned at the infamous intersection of 5th and Ivy Streets, and MTV even offered directions on how to get to Chico for Pioneer Days. The result was catastrophic, and stained the reputation of any student who attended Chico State at the time.

But 1987 was a long time ago, especially for popular culture references to still be relevant, without some continuing activity that reproduces the culture and supports the cultural references of Chico as a party school. Today, there is not as much of a debate in our little city about whether an excessive party culture exists; most residents of both the town and the university agree: there is a problem here at Chico that revolves around drinking alcohol.

Stories float through the halls of Chico State with a fairly regular pattern about alcohol related incidents both on and off campus, and in Fall of 2012, four young adults died in Chico due to alcohol related incidents. The fatal incidents range from the slightly bizarre (falling out of a tree while intoxicated) to the expected (driving while intoxicated) to the quiet (not waking up after ingesting multiple forms of drugs and alcohol). The non-fatal incidents range from waking up in bushes, getting lost on the walk home from partying downtown, injury or assault, sexual assault, or just not remembering what happened the night before. Both on the record and off, alcohol related incidents permeate the discussions around campus and have for many years.

Sit in a classroom in the few minutes before the beginning of class, and you’ll hear students boast about the previous night’s escapades, most with fuzzy detail, a bit of bravado, and a hint of awe that they survived the night. Listen at the Union cafeteria on Thursday afternoon and you’ll hear plans of the best places to find a party for the night, how much they can spend on alcohol, and who will be hanging out with the group. Honestly, the conversations probably aren’t too dissimilar than that of most other college campuses around the U.S.; recent studies have found that about 80% of college students in the U.S. drink alcohol, and of those, about half binge drink.

But what makes Chico, and Chico State, so different from most of the rest that at one time in our history, Playboy put us at the top of the Party School list? And what makes Chico culture so different, that in a 2011 study of alcohol consumption at California State University campuses, Chico students reported the most frequent use of alcohol, and the most alcohol consumed on each drinking occasion, of the 14 CSUs in the study, and 20% of Chico students report drinking enough alcohol in one sitting on a weekly basis to be intoxicated,

My students describe the consequences of too much alcohol, and too frequent consumption in great and heartbreaking detail, but the 2011 study illustrates the consequences much more succinctly. In the report, students reported risky sexual behavior, including not using protection, having sex with someone they did not previously know, and having sex with a new partner following drinking. Additionally, 16-20% of students who attended parties at either Greek organizations, in campus residence halls, and at private residences reported passing out after drinking at least once during the previous semester. Perhaps most disturbing, students at Chico State were the least likely to report there was a system in place at the parties they attended that was designed to look after anyone who became intoxicated, and Chico State students were the least likely to report that obviously intoxicated partygoers were refused alcohol at those parties. Chico has a culture of drinking alcohol unlike any other CSU.

How did we get to this spot? This place where students drink more frequently, drink more in each sitting, have riskier behavior, don’t bother to take care of their friends and fellow students when drunk, and continue to serve them alcohol when they are obviously too drunk to care for themselves?

I don’t doubt the statistics, by the way; the statistics mirror what my students tell me in class: they drink hard and fast, and a lot, at Chico State.

This is what we talk about in my sociology classes here at Chico: why does the party school behavior continue at Chico? What makes it different than all the rest? What is our culture here at Chico that perpetuates the behavior and reinforces the reputation? Also, how does the larger culture influence drinking patterns in our youth?

There are a unique set of geographic and environmental factors that play a role in the drinking culture here at Chico. Chico State is a highly residential campus, with a high concentration of student housing in a very small area.

Lack of late-night opportunities in neighboring businesses such as movie theaters, concert venues, and alcohol-free clubs for people under 21 years old contribute to the excessive drinking culture here at Chico. The biggest movie theater is over two miles away from the closest university neighborhood, and three to four miles from the farthest neighborhoods. There are no cheap late night movies on or near campus, no dance clubs geared for the under-21 year old crowd, and only two concert venues that have limited seating (both are small former movie theaters) with shows rarely scheduled.

Approximately 80% of the 16,000 students enrolled at Chico State live within two miles of the university campus. The residential area immediately north, south, and west of the university, is comprised of apartment buildings, dozens of old Victorian homes that can house 10-20 residents each, a dozen or so fraternity and sorority houses, and University Housing, which houses over 2,000 students a year. This concentration of student residences creates a climate where the norm is college life, where college hours dominate the neighborhoods (in other words, no pesky middle-aged folks with 8-5 jobs who will complain about loud parties). It’s not uncommon for house parties to flow onto front yards, sidewalks, and meander from house to house in a neighborhood.

Most students live within walking distance of the main party area in Chico, and thus, don’t worry about driving home from bars and parties, so no one needs to abstain from drinking to be a designated driver. They can walk, or take a pedicab, or just sleep on someone’s couch, at a moment’s notice, when coming home from a night out. Walking to and from areas where parties might occur is more convenient than going to the movies, taking in a concert (few and far between in Chico), or going to any restaurant in town.

Within the College Town are 8-10 liquor stores, depending on where one draws the boundaries of College Town, and in the adjacent downtown area, there are dozens of restaurants and bars that sell alcohol. Statistically, Chico has a severe over concentration of liquor outlets, and those outlets are centered in and around College Town. More access to alcohol outlets increases consumption and binge drinking.

Big houses: Chico enjoys large lot sizes, with very large houses that can physically support large parties. Walk down 5th Street on any weekend evening during the school year in Chico and you’ll find a party, or three or four. Everyone is usually welcome as long as they aren’t looking for trouble. Large porches offer couch seating and a place to watch people walk by, and invite them in to join in the fun.

Moderate climate: During the traditional academic year, Chico enjoys fairly moderate weather. Sure, it gets hot here during the summer, and occasionally, we have rain and cold nights in the winter, but generally, Chico enjoys temperate weather during the school year, which means large parties can congregate on lawns and streets. Also, college students walk in Chico, especially in College Town because of the geography of the area around the university, but also, due to the weather. It’s almost always nice enough to walk in the downtown area and College Town because of the weather. It creates a very social environment, and influences the number of people out in the neighborhoods.

A side note here: Incoming first year students are discouraged by the university administration from bringing vehicles to Chico due to the high rate of auto thefts in the area, but more importantly, the lack of parking space at the university. What does this create? A situation where students have to walk, ride a bike, ride the city bus, take a taxi, or rely on friends to take them out of the downtown area. Pedicabs are available in Downtown, but are limited in schedule, passengers, and area of service.

From the micro-culture of College Town, to the larger university culture, the excessive drinking culture at Chico persists. Faculty often condone drinking excessively by reminiscing of their own drinking exploits in college and canceling classes the day after big party holidays. Students are the servers at the downtown restaurants where their professors have dinner, and drinks, and get drunk. It is a not-so-subtle acceptance of both underage drinking and excessive drinking.

Consider this: students at Chico reported that they drank 2-3 drinks BEFORE going to parties; this is called “preloading”. Mostly, preloading happens with shots of hard alcohol. It gets the party going before students even leave their home. Why do they do this? My students report that they do it for a number of reasons, but mostly, they do it because they are afraid they won’t be able to find alcohol after they leave their homes since they are not yet 21. But at Chico, that’s not likely, given our culture. Regardless, preloading happens still. Once students leave their homes, they have another 2 or 3 drinks while they are out often due to peer exposure, then finish off the night with a drink or two at home. That’s the average. Some people drink less; some people drink more. By the end of the night, the average person will have consumed enough to be intoxicated.

Most students underestimate how much they drink and overestimate how much their peers drink and in the CSU alcohol survey, most students thought that their peers drank significantly more than they did. That skews the “normal” behavior expectations to the higher end of alcohol consumption, and increases one’s own alcohol consumption.

The underlying problem with alcohol consumption at Chico State does not begin with Chico State. Sure, we may help it along some with our climate, our geography, our access to alcohol here, and the lack of alternate social activities in the area, but these things would not be a problem if the larger culture, the American culture, didn’t contribute to irresponsible and excessive alcohol consumption as well.

Ask yourself this question: Where and when were you first exposed to alcohol? How did you learn how much to drink? What to drink? How do you know who to trust to make you a drink?  Was it modeled in your home with your parents’ drinking habits?  Was it your friends in high school, who had limited access to alcohol but likely binged when they did get access? Was it in college? Maybe, it was here at Chico State when you were 18 years old.

How did you learn to drink alcohol?

I ask my students this same question every semester. They giggle with nervous laughter when I ask them how their parents taught them to drink. Forgive the pun, but it’s a loaded question. A few, less than 10%, tell me they have never had a drink of alcohol, and they’ll wait to drink until they are 21, and do it responsibly. Fair enough. More students tell me they started drinking with their friends in high school or earlier, but the alcohol was usually beer, often pilfered from their parents’ refrigerator, and with limited access. A few tell me their parents allowed them the occasional beer or glass of wine at the dinner table in a limited manner. But the majority, the vast majority, tell me they learned to drink when they came to Chico State at 18 years old (most have some alcohol before they enter college, but they don’t start drinking regularly until college).

It’s a rite of passage, I hear people say about drinking regularly in college. Maybe, but maybe not. Regardless of the rite of passage argument, most people who learn to drink at college, learn to drink while partying with their peers. They tend to model the behavior of their peers at this age and in this environment, especially if they’ve never had responsible drinking modeled for them by adults previously.

We know, through extensive research, that parental attitudes and behavior modeled to children play a significant role in teen and young adult drinking patterns, either positively or negatively. Parents who binge drink, are more likely to have children who binge drink, and the opposite is true as well. Parents who tell their children that they disapprove of underage drinking, will have children who delay drinking compared to children whose parents are more permissive.

Parents are suppose to set the limits for their children, and we do that with bedtimes and eating vegetables and curfews on Friday nights, and who our children can hang out with, but many parents are afraid, or don’t know how to model positive drinking behavior to their children. Maybe parents, too, reminisce about the glory days of college drinking, maybe they binge drink, or fail to monitor their own attitude about underage drinking and shrug it off as not a big deal.

Regardless, we have failed, and are failing every day, as a culture, at socializing our youth and modeling positive drinking behavior, Binge drinking is on the rise, irresponsible drinking is epidemic, and as a result, 3 college students die each day in America due to alcohol related injuries.

Your children will likely come to a place like Chico one day. We have no limits here when it comes to access to alcohol, the weather’s nice so there’s always a place for a party, our students have a skewed view of peer drinking habits, and we let other young adults model the worse drinking behavior a young adult can see. It’s a place where the odds are stacked against your children in terms of responsible drinking behavior, and if you don’t socialize your children to drink responsibly, they’ll likely learn to drink here. And what they learn here, will likely stick with them throughout their entire life.

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