Posts Tagged 'Politics'

What To Say About Stress

Well, it’s certainly the cause of my sparse posting lately. Sometimes, when your calendar/planner begins to look like mine does (below), it’s just not a good idea to spent two hours on a thoughtful blog post.

Radiolab produced an early episode on Stress (listen to the podcast here). In it, they discuss the evolutionary rationale for stress, which is basically: stress is the body’s biological response to being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger.

And that response ain’t minor: your body shuts down all non-necessary functions including ovulation, digestion (this is why you get a dry mouth when you get nervous, because you’ve stopped producing saliva for digestion), even growth itself.

Except– we don’t really have to escape saber-toothed tigers anymore. Instead, we have Important Deadlines and College Loans and Computer Viruses. Even before adulthood, we have to face Mean Bullies and Peer Pressure and First Kisses. The problem is that our body perceives First Kisses as the stress-equivalent to Sabre-Tooth Tigers. Which it’s not, unless you had a really bad first kiss experience.

But while a tiger is only a temporary threat (whether you escape or get eaten is only a matter of a few hours), deadlines and paying bills are perpetual, and this means your body is put into a stressful state far more often than it should be. This is why we end up today with stress diseases, which range from anxiety attacks, alcoholism, and high blood pressure, to heart disease and ulcers.

Based on this, you might think that the most stressed-out people are high-powered CEO’s, stock brokers, or politicians. But again and again, studies show that the population most affected by stress is poor people.
Frankly, the problems that come with being poor are closer to a sabre-tooth tiger: paying rent and putting food on the table are issues of survival. But the real reason why poor people are more prone to stress and stress diseases is that they can’t buy the therapy, massages, medications or vacations that CEO’s can.

And we wonder why all homeless people seem to be crazy. The relationship between homelessness and mental disorders is like trying to figure out the chicken or the egg.

Being poor will stress you out, but…

…so will being Black: it turns out that there’s a significant racial disparity in stress and stress-related diseases. Before you object, this isn’t just poor Black people who are stressed out. Wealthy, successful Black people are also far more affected by stress diseases than wealthy, successful White people.

In fact, there’s a significant gap in the overall health of Black and White Americans, not just in stress diseases. There’s this academic term called allostatic load, which refers to the way that social and psychological stressors build up over time and take a physical toll on the body. In the United States, this means people of color (of all economic classes) are more prone to disease and injury, and are less healthy overall than white people. Which is, I think, pretty good evidence that racism and racial discrimination is still alive and well in America.

Kinda stresses you out just to think about it, huh?

Thinking about this sort of thing did stress me out for a long time. But now, I welcome a stress that involves real thought about a real problem. Most deadlines and loans are sort of egotistical stressors: they’re issues of a privileged life, not of survival. And it’s always good stress therapy to step outside of yourself.

Coming Soon

My First Aurora Fountain Pen
Women at Work
How might Rural Design Differ from Urban Design?
A Gutsy Criticism of Breast Cancer Awareness Month
And, as always, More Watercolors

* N.B. Unfortunately, I can’t link to any of my sources because they’re in academic databases, but most of the data comes from academic and industry journals such as American Journal of Public Health and others.


The Game of Giving Gifts

A watercolor I painted as a present

Gift-giving has always had a political element to it. Tribal groups typically exchanged gifts in order to keep good relations, build new alliances, or repair tensions; from the Middle Ages through the Reformation and the Victorian Age, elements of charity and philanthropy evolved into various forms– but they were always based on the foundation of the Gift.

Today I might argue that gift giving has become less political, but no less strategic. In a globalized free market, our primary form of exchange is monetary, and certainly that economic element infuses our gift-giving: last year we spent $446.8 billion dollars on retail gifts alone during the holiday season.

But real strategy of the gift game plays out on an individual level:

  • How well do I know this person? (How personal should this gift be?)
  • What kind of a relationship do we have? (How much time or money should I spend preparing or buying this gift?)
  • What is this person’s personality? (What the hell should I actually give?)

The political element hasn’t disappeared from gift-giving, though– especially when women complain how hard it is to buy presents for men. Or when men feel frustrated because they don’t know how to shop for women (or how to shop at all). Marketing and sales industries are primarily aimed at women; women are taught how and when to spend money from a very young age. Men, on the other hand, are given a small range of typical gifts for women they care about: flowers, jewelry, candy. It kindof limits their creativity, don’t it.

I’m feeling the strategy of gift-giving these days. All of the birthdays in my family but one fall within the October to December range (not to mention that whole Holiday Season thing…).

I recently made the painting at the top as a gift for one of my co-workers (a cheaper alternative than pitching in for a gift certificate). But now I’m questioning my strategy: is it appropriate; will she like it; is it her style…

I’ve also never done a still life before– I tried a lot of new techniques with this piece. A word of advice to artists: it’s REALLY FRIGGIN’ RISKY to experiment with a new technique when you’re planning to give away the painting as a gift.


When was the last time you received a letter that looked like this? (...If you're one of my pen readers, don't answer that.)

The clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.

–Neil Postman


When Neil Postman writes, “Each medium makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility,” he means that each medium for sharing information (letter-writing, telephone, smoke signals, etc.) re-orients our brains—not in a neurological sense, necessarily, but in the way we communicate, and in what we communicate. More than that, the medium affects what we think in the first place.

For example, I would never think about tsunamis or earthquakes in other countries if it weren’t delivered to me as “the news of the day.” If letter-writing were our main means of communicating information, I wouldn’t find out until months afterward—and they probably wouldn’t even tell me unless I had a family member in the region.

Sometimes I like to imagine…

How different our constitution might be if  it had been composed on the computer. Would typing, instead of writing with dip pens, have altered the things that the Founding Fathers thought important enough to include? Would they have wikipedia’d other nations’ governments first in order to do a thorough comparison study?

But the medium affects more than the contents of the information-document. The difference in information-mediums between the 18th century and the 21st —that is, dip pens and written letters versus email, news web sites, and texting—affects the quality and the meaning of our individual (and national) character. Think about how different a meaning “patriotism” had when it didn’t involve bumper stickers or even military service, but rather it meant: sitting at a desk in a cold, cold house, way out in the boonies, reflecting on the things that you believed in. You wouldn’t have been affected by any media-hype; instead, you would read a bunch of pamphlets, written by other people in cold, dark houses. You would reflect on their thoughts, and respond to them. And each of those pamphlets would have been well thought out– you kind of have to be more thoughtful, when you’re writing more slowly. (Dip…5 words….dip…4 words…)

If we still defined patriotism this way, I think we’d have a healthier nation. How strange to think that we might actually reflect on our beliefs, instead of becoming a “fan” of ideology X on Facebook. Personally, I think we’re damn lucky that the Founding Fathers were writing with dip pens when they declared independence. We at least know that it wasn’t a rash decision (“Shit! I hit “send” on that email to King George too early!”).

Quite a few people have already written admirable essays on the benefits of letter writing–though I embarrassingly don’t have their links on hand–and I don’t need to repeat them. It’s also important to note that none of us are advocating for the demise of technology: emails and quick-composition on the computer serve an important function in today’s world. My point is that we must keep in mind the effect that each medium has on what we write, not just how we write. In other words, it’s not about using “omg” instead of “oh my god” –it’s about how our responses to surprising news have become limited to an automatic acronym—“omg!”—without any real, individual reflection.

So I received this great letter  (pictured at the top) along with my order for ten new dip nibs this past week. I appreciate knowing that this person took ten, fifteen minutes to focus on communicating with me. And it wasn’t multi-tasked with checking email or youtube (because distractions, trust me, are a killer when you’re using dip nibs. India ink dries fast. And the next thing you know, you’ve shellacked your fingers together).

Check back soon to see what projects I come up with for these new nibs. I’m currently working on a big artsy birthday present for a friend, so they might become a useful tool for that…

A [Semi-Autobiographical] Tutorial on the Politics of Blogging

First things first: If you’re a new reader or subscriber, welcome! Whatever it was about yesterday’s post that intrigued you, I hope to offer more of that in the future. And do please continue to comment with feedback, suggestions, and (constructive) criticism.

This Weekend's Comment Moderation Madness

A good RLF (ahem. Real Life Friend) of mine who subscribes to this blog gave me some incredibly valuable feedback yesterday regarding my post, “Why Don’t Intellectuals Go To The Rodeo?”. He observed that my writing style (my “blog-voice,” if you will) was much more removed in that post than usual; that this detachment may have contributed to the sense of judgment that some readers felt.

As my hip urban friends would say: “Truth.” *

Compared to previous “lengthy sociological” posts, my discussion about the rodeo was far more journalistic. I place at least some of the blame for the stylistic change on having just re-read David Foster Wallace’s essay about the Illinois State Fair. Unfortunately, that essay is one of the few where Foster Wallace loses his compassion halfway through—and it works against him. Detachment is useful on occasion, but I wasn’t expecting my experiment to be featured on the WordPress home page.

Ironically, back in the infant days of my blogging career, I almost titled The Orchard “Blogging for Dialogue” because I was passionate about the importance of storytelling—in sharing life-stories—in the pursuit of understanding and sympathy across cultural differences. This idea emerged out of womanist theory, farming on a former Virginia plantation, and, well, my life.

The discussion in the comments section was a valuable reminder that detachment must be balanced with compassion and storytelling. It was only when I took the time to share my own background that the post took on the angle I originally intended it to. Some of my favorite comments came from readers who shared their own stories—rural or urban, lovers or haters of the rodeo.

In a weirdly serendipitous coincidence, I ran across an article from Stepcase Lifehack while entrenched in moderating comments called “31 Proven Ways to Get More Comments on Your Blog.” The #1 thing on their list?

Take a Stand. – Most bloggers wallow in moral cowardice because they fear backlash. Take some time to outline your beliefs on an issue that matters to you and publish your thoughts. …Readers love watching to see if you’ll lose your cool in the comments of a post.”

I guess I asked for it. Luckily, when it comes to comments, I take my mother’s (typically Southern) advice: “kill ‘em with kindness.” I also take her (typically feminist) advice: “learn how to say no.” So, when I chose to reject a few offensive or aggressive comments, I took the time to email them personally and have a dialogue that way. I highly recommended this strategy, for the record.

But hey, for all this touchy-feely business, bloggers also have to have some snark (of which I have plenty …I think. At least, in real life).

I’ve tried to maintain a fairly tricky balance on this blog—the balance between Real Things and Non-Essential Hobbies (or, as I think of them, “Pretty Things”). I’ll be honest: I enjoy posting about Pretty Things. It’s less risky. When it comes to watercolors and fountain pens, the worst I can do is bore an uninterested reader.

But with Real Things—well. That’s a different game.

Other important lessons:

  1. Cover all your bases.
  2. Walk the line between snark and sensitivity.
  3. Maintain Mutual Respect (for both readers and for yourself).


* Does anyone know if this is a TV reference? This past year, everyone at my college suddenly started saying in response to everything, and I was clearly left out of the loop.

Intellectual Approaches to New York Fashion Week

abby boots

Full disclosure: I didn’t really wear clothes until I started attending school. It was, you might say, a “short but liberated childhood.” And while I did experience the painful middle-school tensions to “wear cool clothes,” that phase is more about the social significance of the clothes than the clothes themselves.

In any case, “fashion” never really did it for me. I did, however, become fascinated with the concept of self presentation– the way that we all play a grown-up version of dress-up every single day, playing different characters for different situations. Even if we dress for comfort, we’re sending a message about our character and priorities (“I value comfort over other qualities”). Lately I’ve been embracing the “studious/androgynous” character [ripped jeans, ribbed tanks, sexy-librarian glasses].

So, right now it’s New York’s Fashion Week. Last year was the first time I really browsed through the runway photos (they were on the NYTimes home page)– at first feeling somewhat disgusted at myself, and then, funnily enough, feeling strangely inspired. It made me think about form, about art, about identity. And yeah, it made me think about what a big fuckin’ waste of money the fashion industry is. But still, the aesthetic inspiration does it for me.

It’s also, for the record, a fascinating social study. The way that the fashion industry is overly-associated with gay men, while many gay female runway models live in a strange “out/not-out” tension. Or the way that “[Designer X]’s bold colors imply that this season, she is all about empowered women.” As though being empowered were a seasonal trend? I’ve also gotten into several heated debates about the unambiguously racist structures of many fashion photoshoots– the “supermodel in a 3rd world country” is an ever-popular theme.

In any case, here’s what I’m into from Spring 2010 (click to view full):

Commercialization of Childhood

Fascinating series about kid-targeted marketing.

Accents, Vernaculars, & Slang

I have some Strong Feelings about accents. And no, I’m not referring to a fetish for Italian accents (actually, accent fetishes are a pretty big pet peeve of mine).

I just discovered that, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Southern American English gets an acronym too (SAE)! Unfortunately, it’s the same acronym as Standard American English, which causes some problematic confusion, but it can be forgiven.

I’ve also been reading a bit on the linguistic overlap between African American Vernacular English and Southern American English, which makes sense for a couple of reasons:

1) The Southern United States is historically the area most reliant on slavery, and therefore had a much higher population of enslaved black individuals than other areas of the country. Historians are now discovering that other historical local cultures were far more diverse than we had previously assumed– cowboy culture, for example: there was a significant population of black cowboys who had escaped slavery and traveled west. Nonetheless, even after slavery was ended, various unjust laws meant that a large portion of the black population remained in the South. So obviously, there’s been linguistic overlap between black and white Southerners.

2) Both of these vernaculars are looked down on, if not outrightly ridiculed, in a similar way within the United States. Other accents certainly encounter tensions and problems as well– a woman with a Spanish accent is often suddenly transformed (at least in the listener’s mind) into a voluptuous, sexual, hot-tempered stereotype, and Asian accents are most ridiculed for being the most humorous and/or difficult to understand. But at least in my experience, Southern and Black vernaculars are the most clearly associated with being uneducated and unintelligent.

A fair bit of cultural attention has been given to the topic of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), from the 90’s controversies over teaching “ebonics” in school systems to questioning President Obama’s adoption of a “blackcent.” I remember watching a funny-ish (at least at the time) special on VH1 back in high school about the drastic difference between Tyra Banks’ accent and voice depending upon whether she was interviewing a black or a white individual.* I was talking to a friend recently who went back to visit her family’s farm in Alabama after her father’s death. She said that she and her daughter spent the entire time being harassed by the extended family for being impossible to understand. “I kept telling them, ‘we’re just speaking correctly, we’re just trying to speak well,’ but they wouldn’t stop.” A friend of mine from New Orleans told me about a professor friend at LSU, who has one vernacular– accentless, and with correct grammar –when he gives a lecture, and a completely different voice the rest of the time. I met a woman in Washington D.C. who rolled her eyes when telling me about all the savvy DC residents who assumed that she was uneducated and/or unintelligent because she was from the Carolinas.

Think about how you are likely to imitate someone who says something stupid. Almost all of the time, the imitator adopts some version of a southern accent– even if the original speaker has no ties whatsoever to the American South. Even I do this, exaggerating my own accent, and I always feel gross immediately afterwards. It’s clearly an accent associated with redneck and hillbilly stereotypes, but the accent-intelligence assumption extends even to the privileged. A southern belle, for example, is often white and rich and worthy of playing the babe in a few Hollywood movies– but she is not often portrayed as the most intelligent creature.

So I’ve picked up a bit of a drawl after having been back with my family for the summer. I didn’t notice it until I came back to school, where a handful of gracious people have taken care to point it out. Or to be more precise, have made fun of it. For a girl with Something To Say, it is very frustrating to have your statement ignored while your diction becomes the subject.

Many white people don’t realize that accents are heirarchical. I want to amend that statement, though, by saying that many Northern white people don’t realize this. Or perhaps, Northern educated white people. It seems like an increasingly small group, but it’s the group that dominates the majority of U.S. politics, economics, educational system, and mainstream media. And they don’t recognize the accent hierarchy because they’re on the privileged end of the diction spectrum.

My point is bringing this up is that, when people pay attention to the way you say something, they ignore what you are saying. I go to a fairly prestigious school; I feel like there should be a general assumption that any student or professor here is intelligent. It turns out, though, that a lot of rich white kids are dumb as hell.

Here’s a few things I like on this topic:

*I noticed also that when I googled “ebonics” (to try to find the link about the Oakland controversy), that of the 92 user-submitted definitions on, the one that shows up in the google results is “a poor excuse for a failure to grasp the basics of english.” If I were a kinder soul, I wouldn’t mention that this definition is actually grammatically incorrect (which I think undermines the already somewhat racist sentiment).

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