Monday, January 26, 2009

Haggis and hard conversations

Last night, I went to a good friend's haggis party, which raises the question, "Do friends make friends go to haggis parties?" (I guess it was technically called a "Robert Burns party" but when the star of the evening is a sheep's stomach stuffed with sheep's heart and liver as well as non-organ things like oatmeal, you kind of forget about the Scottish poet part.) It was a very fun evening with lots of interesting people, most of whom I didn't know, reading poetry and eating shepherd's pie together. SB saw her first kilt: she sidled up to me in that very unsubtle way of four year olds and said, in what she thought was a whisper, "Mama, that guy's wearing a skirt." The haggis, though I'd worked myself up over it, was no big deal: kind of like a mushy meatloaf. Watching it boil in the pot beforehand was much more traumatizing.

But in the week before the party, I'd also worked myself up over Portland's Mayor Sam Adams scandal, which broke, sadly, on inauguration day. On what should have been the most uncomplicatedly blissful day of the year for Portland Dems, we were instead faced with news reports that our new mayor, while a city commissioner, had a sexual relationship with a young man who was probably 18 but may have been 17 (age of legal consent in Oregon is 18), and then lied about it (and encouraged and abetted further lying) when confronted with the allegations during his mayoral run last year (which wasn't really a close race at all). So instead of basking together in the Obama afterglow, Portlanders found themselves arguing in the shadow of Sam-gate: Should he resign? Should he stay and fight and possibly face a recall? Should he pay penance through public pantsing (my favorite solution)?

This is a hard one, y'all. I talked with lots of people and read lots of articles, but by Thursday, showed up at a rally at City Hall supporting the mayor, mostly because I don't think the sex or the lying were a big deal (cynic that I am, I compare this to Goldschmidt's 14-year-old babysitter scandal and Illinois Governor Blagojevich's attempt to sell a senate seat, and it doesn't seem so bad). Plus, I have a fondness for the mayor, warts and all, and his 20 years of loyalty and dedication to the city. I want Portland to keep being a great city, and I think he can help us do that. But I've lost lots of sleep over this because it's not like Obama-love at all. It's much messier and harder to figure out.

At the haggis party, a nice man--a friend of a friend who I only casually know--stopped to tell me how much he liked the last issue of the magazine I edit, especially the article about how civil conversations, the kind that involve truly listening to someone who doesn't agree with you, are important to a democracy. Though I thanked him for his compliment, I admitted that the whole Mayor Sam controversy had really been a test of my resolve and that I was incredibly tired of having "civil conversations" with everyone. I just wanted to talk to people who completely agreed with me (those of you familiar with my blog will no doubt be laughing at this point because of my earlier post complaining about Portland being filled with "people like me").

Sure, many of my friends ultimately felt that Mayor Sam shouldn't resign, but we came to that conclusion in different ways. Many people felt that it was wrong for him to lie but that the sexual relationship seemed to be no big deal. Other people expressed rage over his inability to make the right decision and not start the relationship to begin with. Sigh. I get what everyone is saying, I really do. But I'm exhausted from processing it all. I just want conversations with my friends to be simple again, at least for a while, stuff like "Groundwork Organics strawberries are totally better than Thompsons" or "Robert Downey Jr. should definitely get a nomination for Tropic Thunder." Simple yuppie dreams. I suddenly see why people move to the suburbs.

Maybe the idea that it's good to have conversations about hard things with people who don't agree with us is BS, good in theory, icky in practice. Maybe I should just drink the Kool Aid and start compartmentalizing a bit so that life is easier to understand and sleep is easier to come by. Or maybe I should just wait this out and get some of my gumption back--with any luck, I'll be ready to spar again this time next week.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The awkward transition from cynicism to optimism

One of the best things about being done with my thesis is that on a holiday like today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I'm not stuck at home flipping through architecture books and trying to churn out pages. I actually got to go out into the world and do something that pertains to the holiday--in this case, go door to door and collect food for Oregon Food Bank. I kept SB out of school (her preschool is one of the few that stays open on most holidays except the big ones) and met a friend and her daughter--and 150 other people--at Abernethy School in SE Portland, where we were given a pep talk about Obama's National Day of Service and offered pretzels and bagels before we ventured out into the neighborhoods.

It was a fabulously clear, albeit cold and windy, day to be wandering through one of Portland's prettiest neighborhoods and pulling wagons full of canned foods while two four-year-olds scampered ahead, pretending to be banana-eating dinosaurs or baby hawks. Most of the people we talked to were glad to see us, ducking back into their warm homes to rummage through their cupboards and returning with armloads of cans and boxes. When we thanked them, some said, "No, thank you." Maybe it's the good weather, maybe it's the spirit of the day, but I think mostly, at least in this inner-eastside neighborhood, it was the anticipation of tomorrow's inauguration that has us all in fine spirits.

Those of you who know me know that I've never been a political person. Sure, I always voted (except one year in the 1990s when I forgot to go to the polls, but I was in college and also sometimes forgot to go to class--hence that F in geology), signed petitions, read the occasional op-ed piece, etc. But like a lot of women, since having a kid in 2004, I've changed.

Sure, if you're left-leaning, the past four years would be a pretty good time to become interested in politics, new parent or not. After all, 2004 was the year Barack Obama electrified the Democratic National Convention and George Bush was reelected for his second miserable term. I was in my last trimester the day I first heard Obama on the radio, giving his now famous speech talking about one America. I was swollen and grouchy and craving a huge plate of teriyaki chicken and rice. On our way to pick up some takeout, the rising crescendo of his voice cut through the NPR white noise and I turned up the volume. We pulled up in front of the restaurant and I gestured for Alex to go inside alone to the get food; by the time he returned, I was choking back tears. I couldn't remember the last time I'd been moved to tears by a politician's rhetoric.

That year, election day fell on my birthday; SB had been born only weeks earlier. As results started coming in that evening and analysts tried to make sense of the numbers, there I was, bouncing on one of those big yoga balls with a six-week-old clutched to my chest, sleep-deprived and bewildered--both by hormones and the dawning realization that it would be four more years of buffoonery in the White House. Needless to say, one of the crappiest birthdays ever.

I'd like to say that was a turning point for me, but it wasn't really. After all, the first year of parenting is more like an improv act, full of bits that work and bits that don't. I didn't become a rabid political junkie: I still can't identify more than a handful of U.S. senators in a matching game of names and photos. But that was definitely when I began to understand turning inward, as comforting as it may be, wasn't making anything better. Besides being a crappy conversationalist, I was most obviously a crappy citizen, which meant there was a good chance my daughter would grow up to be a crappy citizen, too. So I began doing volunteer work here and there, giving more money to causes I believed in, and figuring out ways to be a more active, public person. I even made phone calls during the heated days before the 2008 election, asking sometimes hostile people if they'd turned their ballots in. The pre-mom me would never have done anything so political.

But with this new openness and sense of obligation to the world comes something else that's been harder to adjust to: optimism. As a young adult in the 1980s and 90s, optimism was akin to naivete. Sure, we got married and had kids--optimistic acts, for sure, but ones somehow tainted by practicality and resignation that these were things that middle-class adults did. But my cynicism of and disdain for the American government and, at times, for the very notion of being an American were elemental--birthrights, even, given that I am the descendant people who's autonomous island nation was seized by greedy American businessmen and made into the fiftieth state in the union.

So it's hard for me to grasp but what started with me crying outside a takeout restaurant while in my third trimester, and wend its way through a thesis project called "At Home in the World: the Middle-Class American Home as a Twenty-first Century Public Space," and led to my daughter and I knocking on strangers' doors and asking them to donate canned food--this is what optimism looks like. Of course, when, at Abernethy School, an earnest young woman and man led us through a round of "We Shall Overcome," I couldn't help but roll my eyes and wander off on the pretense of finding my daughter: I can't unlearn old habits overnight, after all.