Women’s empowerment, from proposal to reality – The Olive Press Reblog

At my current position at Anera, I have been fortunate enough to put my training from academia into applied practice. This summer, I visited one of our women’s economic empowerment projects in Qalqilya, Palestine, a project that was the result of one of the first successful grant applications that I had submitted with Anera.

Here is a snippet of a much longer post I wrote for Anera’s blog. If you are inspired by what you read, please consider a monthly donation, however large or small, to Anera.

Recently, I was fortunate to take my first visit to Anera’s country offices in Lebanon and Palestine. In my previous life in academia, my research related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Finally seeing the places I had written about moved me in ways I could not have predicted.

While in Palestine, I traveled through much of the West Bank. My country office colleagues narrated the way, telling me about their homeland.

One of the most beautiful places we visited was the city of Qalqilya. Picture a sub-tropical Los Angeles surrounded by farms, with beautiful sandstone buildings and streets lined with palm trees and bougainvillea. Qalqilya is situated in the West Bank, near the 1949 Armistice border with Israel. It is a vibrant city, full of fresh fruits and vegetables. The climate there is perfect for growing everything.

We went to Qalqilya to visit one of the training sessions for Anera’s Women Can program, generously funded by Islamic Relief USA. The goal of Women Can is to give women a means to earn their own income.

Anera identified 100 women who are heads of household and who have an idea for a small business that will help them support themselves and their families. Most of these women had little or no income, yet they shouldered the heavy responsibility of being the primary breadwinner for their families. Some of them are divorced or widowed. Others have spouses with chronic health problems. All of these women support at least five children or other dependents.

Some women already have a business but need assistance to be able to scale it up. Others are starting from scratch. The businesses are based on the local market and the interests and skills of each woman.

Anera provides marketing and business classes to the women, mentoring and training in their particular areas of interest, and a start-up grant to buy the equipment they need to pursue their plans. For example, we might purchase a sewing machine, kitchen appliances, or a professional-quality camera — the tools essential to each woman’s small venture.


Reflections on The Model Arab League Manual

CcdaDXRW0AIYtX2.jpg-largeToday, my dear friend Phil and I celebrate the publication of The Model Arab League Manual: A Guide To Preparation and Performance, published by Manchester University Press. This book has been in the making for over two years now, with our principle writing beginning in January 2014. At that point, I had been involved in the world of Model Arab League (MAL), a diplomatic simulation program sponsored by the National Council on US-Arab Relations (NCUSAR) geared at high school and college students that mimics the procedures of the Arab League, for roughly ten years. MAL fosters leadership, public speaking, and knowledge of the Arab world, with committees ranging from Social, Political, and Environmental Affairs to special topics on the Status of Women and Heads of State. If you had told me in 2004 that I would go on to be a national leader in this program, let alone coauthor the book on the program, I would have laughed. Hard.

“What’s Eritrea?” – this simple question began my involvement with the Model Arab League (MAL) program. A question that, I admit, shows my complete ignorance in the early days.

I began my studies of the Arab world in 2003 as a freshman member of Converse College’s then-called “Model League of Arab States” program. Unlike many of the illustrious women in Converse’s now almost 30-year program, my career did not begin as auspiciously as most. Having failed to secure a spot on our team during our tryouts, I was asked later to join the team by my adviser, Dr. Joe P. Dunn. I was thrown into a world of study that I now find myself defending my dissertation on, knowing as little then about the Arab world as most American freshmen. In that first academic year, I met some colleagues I still work with regularly, including Dr. Philip D’Agati, then just masters student Phil from Northeastern University, the former Secretary-General of the National Conference cum chair of the Ministers of the Interior (Political Affairs) Committee chair.

My position at that conference was glorified “gopher” for the secretariat, brought along with my team because we did not have a debating spot open. Instead, within minutes of the beginning of the conference, I found myself representing the entire delegation of Eritrea, splitting my time between Ministers of the Interior and the Arab Court of Justice. I had almost no time to prepare my country’s position and, I’ll admit, had no idea that my country even existed.

“What’s Eritrea?” has become a joke between myself and Phil, who, as the lead student for the Eritrean delegation the previous year, took it upon himself (along with a few other Northeastern University students) to brief me on everything I would need to know in the ten minutes he had to spare. Their willingness to step in to help a completely green delegate from an opposing delegation was my first experience with my MAL family. My head delegate, Josie Fingerhut (now Major Josie Shaheen, United States Army), told me to find Phil, whom I had never met before, and ask him about Eritrea. “What’s Eritrea?” was the wrong question to ask, which Phil pointed out immediately.

“It’s ‘Where’s Eritrea,’ and clearly we have a lot of work to do.”


That work, found in countless binders (this was before the days of laptops in committee and Wi-Fi access) that still grace my home office, has become a life’s project, and I still reference them when working on my courses and research. In fact, this program has touched parts of my life I never would have expected. When applying for my first job out of graduate school in 2010, the person doing my interview for a communications position at the First Presbyterian Church of Athens, Georgia saw Model Arab League on my resume. “If you thrived in that program, you can handle anything we’ll throw at you,” she said. The reputation of the MAL program, which as students we help to form through our involvement, exists outside of political science programs and university campuses.

I got the job.

The value of this program can be seen in the lives of both the students I matriculated with and those I have since advised. The MAL program, and NCUSAR, has afforded us all so many opportunities, including summer Arabic language study in the region and specialized two-week fellowships to individual member states. Alums of the program have gone on to work for the United States military, NGOs, the State Department, and yes, even to careers in academia studying the region. Upon attending the 2013 Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference, I was delighted to see so many nametags, mine included, proudly displaying “Alumni” ribbons.

While pursuing my Ph.D. at Virginia Tech, I began a small program with our political science undergrads, bringing two students, Rachel Kirk and Elizabeth Womack, to the 2012 Southeast Regional Model Arab League. Our fledgling partial delegation, which managed somehow to come in seventh when only present in three of the eight committees, led to the reestablishment of the Regional and International Organizations program at Virginia Tech, for which I taught the corresponding course and served as faculty adviser.

From 2003-2012, I held nearly every position possible in the world of Model Arab League: delegate, justice, vice-chair, regional chair, national Chief Justice, and faculty adviser. Only a few others from our student ranks can say the same, and in 2012, I was awarded the NCUSAR “Model Arab League Lifetime Achievement Award” – not too shabby for someone who still is not quite 30 (though one does wonder from time to time if one has peaked when achieving a Lifetime Achievement Award before even graduating from their Ph.D. program).

Virginia Tech Delegation at CARMAL

Virginia Tech’s 2013 MAL Delegation winning awards in every committee at the Capital Area Regional MAL.

If someone had told me freshman year that I would end up being the faculty adviser for a MAL team, let alone would receive an award for my service to this program, I doubt I would have believed them. It was only through participating in the Model Arab League program that I developed the skills necessary to hold this position, and for the experiences Joe Dunn, Dr. John Duke Anthony, and others have granted me, I am forever grateful. I cannot describe the pride I experienced as my students prepared for the 2013 Capital Area Regional Model Arab League conference, nor the utter joy I felt when  they earned their first “Best Delegation” award, sweeping individual awards in every single committee. This is why I sought to start a team at Virginia Tech—to help give students the same opportunities that have helped shape me into the academic I am now.

The Model Arab League Manual is the culmination of over decade’s joys and frustrations, all shared with one of the best colleagues I’ve ever had. Thank you so much to Manchester University Press, NCUSAR, and all of our former students and colleagues who helped us delve through mountains of paperwork, PDFs, and archival research to make this book a reality.

Damsels, Distress, and Deadpool: An Indictment of Movie Trailers

So this won’t be a movie review, per se. This movie lived up to the hype and, while not perfect by any stretch, was enjoyable and did the main characters justice. Plus, it was a fantastic setup for future projects.

Note: Spoilers for Deadpool and Star Wars: The Force Awakens follow.

That being said, I’m here to talk today about trailers: how they hype us up and, often, let us down. Love Actually is a standard one that comes up (and one I remember vividly): Mark’s cue cards have a different setup in the trailer than the movie (one card was cut for obvious reasons—the fat joke was awful). Both the Fantastic Four trailers and the extended preview prior to Jurassic World this summer made me actually hold out hope that it would be a faithful, fun rendition of the source material.

Oops. My bad.  Sorry, Sue. Let’s just ruin your origin story.

My partner has a strict no-trailers-for-things-I-care about policy that he holds to religiously—complete with bringing noise-cancelling headphones to the theater. I’ll admit, I scoffed at first (read: a while)—how could trailers possibly be that big of a deal? Because, he reminds me, you spend the entire time watching the movie just waiting for those scenes. And when they don’t happen (or, happen in an order you don’t expect), it throws off the entire viewing experience.  Plus, often, trailers give away far too much information.

Here’s a great example. When we went to see The Force Awakens, he had somehow magically missed every trailer before entering the theater. When we hit the scene where we see Darth Vader’s mangled-up mask, he reacted, audibly. I watched his split-second flinch of recognition of Vader’s theme followed by his shock at seeing the mask.

After the movie, one of his first comments was along the lines of “the trailer would have ruined that moment for me!”

He’s not wrong.

Enter Deadpool. I’ll admit that while my partner’s no-trailers policy has influenced me quite a bit (I’d seen the teaser for TFA but purposely had avoided the full-length trailers), where my curiosity has gotten the better of me lately has been with all-things-Marvel. So I immediately watched both the Deadpool trailers and the trailers for Civil War upon release.

My most anticipated moment of the upcoming film came from the second red-band trailer (NSFW, y’all.  Especially you, Dad):

Morena Baccarin! Calling out, through pithy dialogue, the lack of strong women in comic book movies (and most movies)! And then punching someone in the face![1]

I watched the movie, excited for this one moment to occur, and then…



I’d been set up for disappointment by a trailer.

Of course, I know a couple things are true. First, we’ll get a copy of this scene on the Blu-ray (either as part of an extended cut or as a deleted scenes). Second, the spirit of the line is still there, even if the line (and the really satisfying punch) are not in the theatrical cut.  Third, Angel Dust and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are both amazing characters I can’t wait to analyze further.

And fourth, I know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that my partner is right about trailers.  Laugh it up, fuzzball.

Deadpool did so much right (as of the writing of this blog post, it has an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). For one thing, in true Deadpool fashion, it’s so self-referential and fourth-wall-breaking about how it handles itself. From the references back to Reynolds’ other failed superhero stints to the acknowledgment that they, in fact, are breaking the fourth wall from within the fourth wall, to the comments about the lack of other X-Men, the movie is aware of what it’s doing right and what it’s failing to do.  The self-congratulatory tone of the entire film is wonderfully overwhelming.

What the film does, quite well, is deal with issues of gender. From the sexual fluidity of Deadpool himself to the complete lack of concern over gender in fight scenes,[2] this film pushes boundaries in ways no other superhero film has.  By the end, I found myself rather unfazed by the fact that it had failed the Bechdel test.

So, back to the trailer.  The choice to cut Vanessa’s line hurt because she’s right, she’s not a damsel in distress. When the only way to escape a cage is to grasp a sword by the blade and shove it back through a glass door, she doesn’t hesitate. She’s no Princess Buttercup that only realizes three-quarters of the way through Westley’s struggle with the ROUS that “Oh, hey, I suppose I can pick up a stick and whack the huge rat!” Vanessa is a BAMF that does not act the way we “expect” superheroes’ girlfriends to act, and I love her for all her glories and flaws (and killer haircuts).

So here’s my actual beef with the line being cut:  while Deadpool (and yes, I understand he’s the titular character) gets to congratulate himself on being amazing throughout the entire movie, it is disappointing that Vanessa doesn’t get the same opportunity.

My disappointment is heightened by the fact that, had some decisions not been made on the cutting room floor, she would have had the same opportunity.

Which I only know from having watched the trailer. 

#@$%ing trailers…

[1] Oh wait, I could see how that last bit might upset some people—but if it does, you probably shouldn’t see Deadpool.
[2] With the exception, of course, of Deadpool narrating his internal concern over whether hitting Angel Dust is sexist (or, conversely, if not hitting her is also sexist).

Nerd Cred and Teaching with Ms. Marvel

Given my overall nerd cred (Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.), the fact that I was nearly 30 before I really began to get into comic books might be surprising to those who know me. I would say that my first brush with Marvel came with a computer game my brother and I had called “Spider-Man and Captain America in Doctor Doom’s Revenge.” It came with a comic book, which I’m pretty sure is still at our mom’s house (along with a decomposing pile of 5 ¼” floppies). Regarding DC, Christopher Reeve’s Superman was on regular rotation in our VCR, and to this day if someone in our family says “I’ve got you!” the only response is “You’ve got me… Who’s got you??X-Men: The Animated Series was a huge part of my formative years, and my roommate in college had copies of Wolverine: Origin that I sometimes skimmed, but nothing ever sucked me in.

Nevertheless, comics are something I’ve always dabbled in cursorily. I know myself. Huge, overarching storylines, alternate universes for certain characters, intricate plots? Sign me up! So I avoided them. Harry Potter kind of burned me for Works in Progress (let us not forget the Three-Year Summer), so comics just seemed too… open-ended.[1]

When Iron Man came out, I wasn’t terribly interested. Eric Bana’s Hulk had been less than stellar, so when The Incredible Hulk came out, I responded much in the same way as I did when they announced the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies: Really? Again?? Right after Iron Man came out on DVD (blu-ray?), my cousin E. and her husband C. had me over to their house to show off an awesome new home theater system, and we watched it.

My interest was peaked. However, that might have been RDJ blindness more than anything else.

I really didn’t bust my butt to watch anymore MCU movies, though. On the DC, side, beyond the original Superman movies, I had seen Batman Begins and of course saw The Dark Knight (though to this day I still haven’t sat down and watched The Dark Knight Rises). Other encounters with Batman (go Keaton!) as a kid came edited for TV with commercial interruptions on TNT. My only brush with the Fantastic Four prior to last summer’s mishigas was season 4 of Arrested Development. I hadn’t even seen the X-Men movies until early 2015 (the rampant livetweeting of which led to several unfollows on Twitter and Facebook).

Mystery Men and The Incredibles, however, are still on my list of favorite movies of all time.

So why this lengthy confession? Well, things began to change in 2014. I barreled through the MCU in preparation for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which I knew I’d be seeing that summer. And I started watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and then Agent Carter (if I start something, I watch it all. Completionist/Perfectionist Syndrome). And then… Yeah, it became my go-to distraction when I needed a break from work.

But jumping into actual comic books from the movies and television shows was terrifying and daunting. It’s like jumping into Doctor Who: where do you start? From the beginning? From the most recent major event? And with which character? And what publisher? And will people judge you if you pick the wrong place to start?

The answer came in the form of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel. Word had gotten around to me that the new Ms. Marvel was going to be a young Pakistani-American Muslim woman, and I was intrigued. I began to talk to others about Kamala Khan, and intrigue became genuine interest. It was a new series, and really all that it required was someone to basically tell me who Carol Danvers was and why this was a Big Deal.  So this summer, armed with my debit card and my super supportive partner, I began buying comic books.

The summer of the Secret Wars seemed to be a pretty good place to jump in. I picked up the first trade paperback of Ms. Marvel… and then several back issues… and then some Captain Marvel… and then Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps

It got out of hand. Not in a “I spent all my rent money on comic books” kind of way. More of an “I bought a box and dividers and bags and boards and now it’s all organized” situation.

Students at Roanoke College after our discussion of Ms. Marvel.

Students at Roanoke College after our discussion of Ms. Marvel, December 4, 2015.

The idea then came up to use Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal in the classroom. During Fall 2015, I taught a general education special topics course at Roanoke College entitled “Who or What is God?”  In it, we focus primarily on the history of God in Western religion. I try to incorporate media in the course each time (this year, the syllabus included An American Tail, Saved!, Doctor Who, and Ms. Marvel).

The first time you use a new resource in a course, you never know how it’s going to go. You, of course, bring your expertise to the table and pick what you hope are well-informed resources, but at the end of the day, you just never know how students will react. I used The Frisco Kid in a Judaism course once… it didn’t go well. Conversely, I’ve used Doctor Who several times at this point, which has been so successful I was able to publish an article.

A few days before the assigned day for Ms. Marvel, I reminded my students of the upcoming book assignment and asked how many of them had ever before read comic books. Of the fifteen students in the course, only one raised their hand. This got me even more excited—sharing a new medium and an awesome story is the kind of stuff of which teacher-dreams are made.

On a whim, I tweeted G. Willow Wilson to see what might come of it. Her kind words inspired me to share them with my students, who in turn were about as excited as you might imagine (read: super-super-excited).

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 11.19.32 AM

Not gonna lie. I got a little Kermit-the-Frog-Flaily.

The class discussion went wonderfully. We were able to tie in Kamala Khan’s story as a Pakistani-American woman to the inflammatory comments being made by Donald Trump regarding the Muslims of Jersey City after the 9/11 attacks. Most of my students are barely older than Kamala Khan herself and they, to, grew up in a primarily post-9/11 world. Overwhelmingly, they stated that they appreciated reading the story of a young woman from their world, representing Islam in a positive way. The last few years of teaching Islam have been some of my most rewarding—my students come in just wanting to know what they often call “the truth” about Islam, which generally refers to separating away radical Islamism from Islam. I think in some ways, this is influenced by the fact that every semester brings more Muslim students in my classes, so students are dealing with having Muslim peers more often than in years past. I was proud of my students this semester, especially for being so willing to check their biases at the door and consider the experiences of Muslims their own age.

In other comments, first-generation students in the class were able to tie in their experiences with those of Kamala Khan–being stuck between two worlds and not being quite sure of their identity. As a whole, the students appreciated the different representations of Muslims they saw in the comics, from Ms. Marvel’s concerns over the modesty of her clothing to Kamala’s brother Aamir’s more pious observance as compared to her parents’ traditional values. Many students were able to compare Kamala’s experiences to religious affiliation in their own families, religion and denominational differences notwithstanding. The title of the trade paperback might be “No Normal,” but much of the conversation revolved around how Kamala was “just like them”: from secretly writing fanfiction to being tempted to eat bacon to getting caught having snuck out after curfew. This is why I love using fiction to apply course concepts—students find themselves and their own experiences in a text, and their empathy with “the other” kicks into overdrive.

I absolutely will put Ms. Marvel on my syllabi in the future (in fact, I already have–I’m using it in my course on Islam this semester).  My only regret with the assignment was that I did not assign a written component to our discussion. I would have loved to hear even more of what they thought. I definitely will be assigning a journal or some sort of responsorial writing assignment in the future.

The students brought many questions to the table. But by far the best question that I got at the end of class?

“Are there more comics, Ms. Jordan? About Kamala?”

Yes, dear student, absolutely.

[1] PS: To my dear buddy MW, I still blame you for getting me to start Game of Thrones without telling me that only four (at that time) of the books were out…

For forays into using sci-fi in teaching, see my post The Impossible Pit:  Satan, Hell, and Teaching With Doctor Who.

The Apple Watch Sport and the (sort of) Perfect Month

If you had told me this time last year that half my laundry each week would be in the form of workout clothes, I would have laughed hysterically.  For me, exercise is something that often goes along with avoidance behavior.  Don’t want to write an article?  Jump on the elliptical (it’s work/productivity)!  It is also something that I tend to say I’m going to do starting around January, and by February, I’m sleeping in again.

The last two years have been a time of transition for me.  2014 was definitely the year to Get Happy.  And 2015 has turned out to be the year to Get Healthy.  Since last January, I have been keeping an eye on food and exercise in a way I never have.  And it shows.  I feel stronger and more flexible than I have since college, which is really my goal.  I haven’t been “dieting” or “cutting carbs” or anything–just eating slightly less, cooking at home, and making sure I move around more.  And yes, I’ve lost weight, but in healthy, consistent ways.


The Activity app gives you achievements.  They’re like Xbox achievements, but with less Cheetos and more going outside.

I’ve had an Apple Watch (38mm Space Gray Aluminum Case with Black Sport Band) since June and have come to appreciate many of its functions.  Without question, my favorite feature is getting navigation steps on my wrist rather than having to look down at my phone while driving.  But the apps I use most by far are the Activity and Workout apps.  For the first several months, I kept myself aware of the parameters it was monitoring–Move, Exercise, and Stand–but I really didn’t care too much about them.  But with the increasingly shorter autumn days and the lack of sunlight making me crabby (and knowing that exercise really helps), I made the decision to shoot for a perfect month in November:  290 calories of movement, 30 minutes of exercise, and 12 hours of standing/moving each hour for 30 days.  Looming holiday weight gain was also another motivating factor (last year’s for me was about 4 pounds).

First, some statistics:  I’m 30, 5’0″, and my basal metabolic rate is roughly 1352 calories per day (I’m currently shooting for 1200 calories of food a day if I don’t exercise).  I set a goal of 290 calories of additional movement per day–a goal that was totally doable on days I went to the gym (a “normal” gym day plus my normal movement gets me in at closer to 385 calories) but slightly difficult on days off.  These parameters allowed this 30 day challenge to myself to actually be a challenge.  Luckily, I had friends along for the ride to keep me on track (thanks, B, B, S, and T!).

And now, Some Things I Learned About Myself and the Watch in November:

  1. I don’t move enough when I’m working – the Watch, if you enable the feature, reminds you to stand up at the :50s of every hour if you haven’t moved around.  Standing is not enough–you’ve got to move around a little (or, as I learned, do 30 squats).  If I’m really focused on writing or grading, I apparently can sit in place for 3-4 hours straight.  Everything I’ve ever been told about working at computers (or working in general) states that you should take small breaks every hour to move around and focus.  Having a reminder to do that (and a daily goal of 12 hours of standing) really helped me to realize how sedentary graduate school can make me sometimes.  And I’ve found that at the end of a day of writing where I move around appropriately, I’m far less stiff at night.
  2. Lazy Sundays really are lazy – by far, the most difficult day each

    The Activity app gives you achievements.  They’re like Xbox achievements, but with less Cheetos and more going outside.

    week for me was Sunday.  My gym access is at work, which I’m at MWF.  On TTh, I generally walk downtown to work.  On Saturdays, my brother and I usually run errands and I do stuff around my apartment.  Sundays are total slug days, meant for catching up on TV, grading, and general lack of changing out of pajamas.  There were days that I had to exercise for nearly an hour at night just to make up for how little I had done during the day (and getting motivated to do that at 7:30 p.m. wasn’t always easy).  Luckily, I had friends keeping me motivated when I couldn’t find the motivation myself.
  3. It’s possible to psych out the Watch – The first three weeks of this challenge were hard but doable; I would exercise before bed if I had

    I was in the car from noon to 7:30. You can totally see my once-per-hour-fist-bump-for-stand-goal in the exercise chart.

    not met my goals by the end of the day.  But by week four, holiday travel got in the way, and there were times that I simply could not stand up each hour (being stuck in the car for 7.5 hours on the Sunday after Thanksgiving will do that).  Fist-pumping raises your blood pressure and moves your arm around enough to make the watch think you’re moving (in some cases, it also gives you exercise minutes).  Bumpy car rides also psych it out–according to my Sunday statistics, I was moving around a little bit all day on Sunday.  So you might be asking, how accurate are the metrics?  When used normally, the metrics seem to be very accurate.  But as with all new tech, it’s not perfect yet.  So technically, did I have a Perfect Month? No…  But I did stay mindful daily of taking care of myself, so in that way, yes, it was perfect.
  4. Aristotle was right about habits – Several things kept me motivated this month:  not letting my friends also doing this 30 day challenge win/beat me (this was a huge motivator), wanting to continue this year of positive life-changes, wanting to stay ahead of the winter blues.  By the end of this month, though, I found myself feeling ooky on days I wasn’t moving around enough.  And consistent exercise every day made gym goals (including increasing weight at my BodyPump class) come easier.  I find myself breathing easier during cardio and feeling less fatigued after 30-45 minutes of hard exercise.  Many people say it takes 21 days to make something a habit (though others argue that depending on the difficulty of the habit, it could take longer), and on some level, I think that was part of what made that last week so hard–getting over that hurdle.  While this month (and all of my life changes this year) weren’t about losing weight, I did find that this consistent movement helped me break through a weight plateau I’ve been waffling around since May.  But I’m less concerned about weight and more about strength, and I’m definitely stronger now.

So what does that say about the coming month?  I’ve already been challenged by my peers to keep going (and, conversely, to keep supporting them of course), but with all of the upcoming travel I have for Christmukkah, I worry that this will cause more stress than good (plus, not gonna lie, it’s gray and gross outside, and I just want to stay on the couch).  But the voice in the back of my head, augmented by writing all this up, is reminding me just how much better I’ve felt this month.  So yeah, I’ll probably try.  Plus, the app is already peer pressuring me in continuing…


That 12/2015 showed up out of nowhere. And I wants it…

Wedding Cake for All

Yesterday was a good day.  I woke up to the news that SCOTUS had ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage.   And while the ruling doesn’t change my life in any real way, it does give many of my friends the same rights that many of us take for granted simply for having been born straight.

I decided that I had to do something to help celebrate this day.  I didn’t know what might happen, given gay marriage has been legal in California in June 2013, but I had the idea to go to the Santa Clara County offices and hand out cupcakes to newlywed couples.  If someone was eloping today in celebration, they deserved the best part of weddings:  cake.

24 Cupcakes and a Pentax Camera

Banana for scale.

Given that the SCC Wedding Chapel was going to close at 3:40, I realized I didn’t have time to bake the cupcakes myself, so I got a tray of beautiful rainbow-colored cupcakes from Safeway, grabbed my camera in case anyone didn’t have someone taking pictures, and headed to downtown San Jose.

With the help of some employees, I found the wedding chapel, located adjacent to the cafeteria.  The first thirty minutes or so were rough–I almost gave up. honestly.  A news crew from NBC Bay Area showed up, thinking like I had that there would be a line of people getting married.  They left within a few minutes.

Cupcakes with Sign

You’d never know I used to do graphic design…

I decided to give it fifteen more minutes, and I’m so glad I did.  I got to witness four couples getting ready to get married yesterday (I didn’t actually enter the chapel).  I had positioned myself near the entrance of the chapel at one of the cafeteria tables.  It was a little awkward at first–I was just sitting there, and several people just assumed I was waiting for another wedding.

Eventually, the universe smiled and someone asked me what the cupcakes were all about.  And I explained to them what I was hoping to do: bring a little wedding cake joy to anyone getting married on this historic day.

The idea was a hit, and I almost started crying.  After that, everything just kind of flowed perfectly.  I met four couples yesterday, some opposite-sex, some same-sex, all super happy to be getting married that day.  I’m actually on the official camera rolls of one of the couples, which was so fun.

Happy couple at wedding.

Super happy couple!

I wanted to share this with you all simply because it was fun.  And appreciated.  Small gestures as allies can go a long way toward showing people how much others care.  Pride is happening up in San Francisco this weekend, and I’m sure it’s going to be one of the most amazing on record.  I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to take part, but being around yesterday’s couples totally filled a need to be outside doing something that I didn’t realize I had been missing.  It’s been a whirlwind couple weeks of events for our nation, between the events Charleston and SCOTUS’ decisions on the ACA and FHA.  I’ve been outside my bubble of close friends and family, so going out and doing something fun simply for the sake of doing it was refreshing.  And seeing the joy of the happy couples getting married (and enjoying cake–who doesn’t love cake??) was so worth it.

Bride eats cupcake.

The speed with which she ate this cupcake was inspiring.

Let’s be real, the upholding of the constitutionality of same-sex marriage (or, as we should probably call it, marriage) isn’t going to “fix” the discrimination LGBTQIA individuals face on a daily basis, in the same way that having a black president didn’t end racism.  Multiple states still have no laws protecting the aforementioned individuals from being fired based on their sexual orientation.  But yesterday was a step toward making a large portion of the US population feel like accepted citizens of our country.  One good friend expressed her feelings as “overwhelming,” that she now felt like a full citizen of our country by being given the legal ability to marry the woman she loves.  And yes, this friend is in California, where she could legally have done this since 2013.  But there is something amazing about the knowledge that your marriage options aren’t limited by the state you live in, that all people who feel as you do have the same right to marriage as any heteromonogamous couple.

This isn’t the first major decision on who can marry whom this country has gone through.  Anti-Miscegenation laws in the United States weren’t officially deemed unconstitutional  until 1967 in Loving v. Virginia.  Spanning from all non-whites in several southern states, to laws specifically including Blacks, Asians, and Native Americans in countless others, anti-miscegenation laws are generally recognized as racist today (though trust me, there are many exceptions).  But these laws were justified with the Bible in the same way that laws against same-sex marriage have been justified my whole life.

Photo of couple at Nevada/California border.

Two places at once!

I can’t fully understand the joy so many of my friends yesterday.  And while yes, my partner and I do sometimes get dirty looks when we’re out together, I generally go from day-to-day without my current relationship being questioned by anyone (in fact, generally it’s pretty encouraged).  But knowing that even fifty years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case (hell, it wouldn’t have even been legal), breaks my heart.

I could talk about the separation of church and state, or Judao-Christian values.  I could be an utter snob and translate some biblical Hebrew or Greek to show off my MA knowledge.  But trust me, it doesn’t work.  Instead, I’m choosing to focus on the looks on the faces of brides and grooms I saw yesterday, the joy that literally radiated off of them.  I’ll focus on those friends who expressed relief for finally feeling a part of this crazy project we call America.  And I’ll feel grateful that a small step was made toward improving the quality of life of so many families across our country, families who will now have inheritance rights, death benefits, health insurance, and access to most of the basic economic and social rights so many of us take for granted.

Thoughts on Not Being Vegetarian (in California)

I need to admit something to all of you:  I’m in a mixed relationship.

You see… sometimes, I eat meat.  My partner… well, he’s a lifelong vegetarian.

I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism for years, sometimes for ethical reasons, more often for health reasons.  Most days, I prefer getting my protein from plant-based sources, finding I feel healthier on days my stomach isn’t weighed down with animal parts.

And then, about once a year, I have a Ron Swanson-level squee-fest over the mere idea of a steak.

Thanks http://nbcparksandrec.tumblr.com/ for the perfect visual.

Thanks http://nbcparksandrec.tumblr.com/ for the perfect visual.

This preference toward vegetarianism is on a moving spectrum, from complete vegetarianism in high school to having chicken and turkey in the house during most of grad school.  The last year or two has been mostly a “I don’t have meat in the house, but sometimes I eat it out” sort of situation.

So where’s my “so what?’ of this post?  Let me tell you a story.

As of today, I’ve been living in California for a month.  San Jose, to be specific.  And I’ve noticed a few differences between my current home and where I live 9 months out of the year:  gas and groceries are way higher priced, diversity is actually a thing here, annnd there are usually way more vegetarian items on a menu (complete with being able to eat my body weight in avocado – yay!).

While I may not be ethically/religiously vegetarian, my partner is.  So while I honestly will eat whatever you put in front of me (including hákarl with a brennivín chaser while attending a conference in Iceland), I’ve learned to be more mindful of scouting out vegetarian options (don’t even get me started on being on the lookout for hidden gelatin and chicken broth…) when we go out.

And we’ve had some pretty good food the last month.  By far, my favorite find has been the Haute Enchilada in Moss Landing, whose vegetarian/vegan and seafood options are truly top-notch.

But lately, I’ve been noticing a trend when we order food.  I do say trend, as at this point, it’s happened multiple times.  The first couple times, I chalked it up to the server mixing up seats on an order.  Or the fact that often, a second person (not our server) would bring our food to the table.  No big deal.

But then it kept happening.  The most recent example was when we went out for pho on Saturday.  We’ve found a lovely place near us that does a decent vegetarian pho, which I’d ordered the first time we went.  But this time, I was feeling seafood.  I’m from the Chesapeake.  For me, seafood is generally always going to win over a vegetarian option.

So we’re sitting there, munching on vegetarian spring rolls when our food comes out.  The gentleman carrying our food announces “vegetarian?” and before we can answer begins putting it down in front of me.

Actually, no, thank you, that delicious bowl of seafood is mine, thanks.

So what’s going on here?  I’ve come up with a two options.  Either

  • there still is an inherent bias that women are more likely to be vegetarians than men, or
  • given my partner’s height, people assume that he can’t be vegetarian.

This second option has actually come up repeatedly.  People legitimately think that if you’re tall, you must eat meat.  When visiting family in India, people actually vocalized on several occasions that my partner must eat meat in America because there’s no way he could be that tall otherwise.

If I really wanted to make this article even more confusing, I could add in an entire side adventure about misconceptions in the West about Indians and vegetarianism.  But it seems that conceptions about size, masculinity, and vegetarianism, at least with what I have encountered, trump the “all Indians are vegetarians” myth (though you would think the conflicting perceptions would at least make servers pause before automatically plunking down a bowl of veggies in front of me).

I’m laughing to myself as I sit here thinking about all of this–in California.  In the Bay Area.  You know, the part of the US that all of us East Coast snobs refer to as “crunchy,” “granola,” “organic,” and high on its own smug (thanks Matt and Trey).  If any place were going to be openminded about vegetarianism, this would be it, right??

The good news is, through all of this, I’m having to rethink my preconceptions about living on the West Coast.  Yeah, there might be more vegetarian options (and yes, the aforementioned avocado comment is real – you really can get avocado added to anything) out here on the Left Coast, but male vegetarians still confuse people (apparently).

Which is intrinsically ridiculous.  I started doing some research and came up with some things, including a website devoted to vegan bodybuilders and this list of famous vegetarians (including Sir Paul, Mike Tyson, Ben Franklin, and, of course, Gandhiji).  I even found this really interesting article about Griff Whalen, a wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts who decided to go vegan for health reasons.  Just read this excerpt from the article:

Despite the health benefits and Whalen’s decided push for such a diet, being a vegan is not the most popular move to make in the NFL. The few other players who have professed plant-only diets have riled up fans, media pundits and even teammates.

They’ll ruin the team’s chances of a winning season. They’ll be weaker on the field. They’ll get tackled and outplayed more easily. Meat is a must for the NFL. Protein. Manly food. To eat plants-only is foolish for a football player.

So yeah, there definitely seems to still be a misconception here about size, strength, and the health benefits of a vegetarian/vegan diet.  And of course, we can debate all day about size, strength, and whether or not vegetarianism affects either.  But the bias really seems to be clearly on the side of “of course you can’t be big and strong only eating plants.”  Unless, of course, you’re Popeye.

Notice he's not standing up straight...

Notice he’s not standing up straight…

So does what I’ve been witnessing at restaurants really come down to this continued belief?  Does it really just come down to the 15-inch height difference between myself and my partner?

I have no idea.  But it keeps happening.  And every time, I roll my eyes, and my (far more) gracious partner smiles and tells the waiter “No, actually I’m the vegetarian.”

And then I chow down on the souls of recently departed shellfish, preferably slathered with all the avocado the kitchen has.

Shellfish that, from what I’ve been told, apparently isn’t kosher

Judaism, the Convert, and Identity

Today, I take a short break from dissertating and finishing the road trip blog (yes, I know I’m three weeks late and 2 days of trip behind… I’m having problems with the GoPro footage) to bring you some thoughts I’ve been having about race, identity, and Judaism in light of the Rachel Dolezal coverage.

I can’t speak the motivations, thoughts, and aspirations that led Dolezal down the path she has taken the last several years.  And frankly, plenty of other people are weighing in on those sorts of issues.  What I can speak to is the kind of personal questions her story is making me ask about my own identity.

I’ve spoken before about converting to Judaism on this blog, so I won’t rehash those details.  What I instead want to focus on is one’s identity once one converts to Judaism.

Part of our religious lives as human beings is the history we inherit from our family members.  And I can give you dozens of such stories about my family: from stories my dad has told me about getting Easter suits to the history behind each of the Christmas ornaments my mom’s parents bought for myself and all of my cousins each year to the hour upon hours of my own childhood spent rolling and mixing cookies with my Baltimore cousins in December.  And I will gladly tell any children I may have these same stories.

However, these are the stories connected with my formerly Christian identity and my family history.  The stories of my Jewish identity, while plentiful and fun in their own right, do not stretch past my own lifetime.  In a religious tradition where history is so linked with identity, being a convert to Judaism leaves me at least feeling somewhat bereft of history and traditions.

I’ve talked to many of my convert friends about this feeling–like something is missing or, even worse, like we’re “faking it” on some level.  We don’t have years of camp memories or a menorah we inherited from a family member.  On some holidays, even years after our conversion, we still struggle to sing songs that, if we were raised Jewish, would be second-nature to us.  Our hearts are Jewish, but our cultural memory is sorely lacking.

For me, my first Passover as a convert was a pivotal moment in this search for a Jewish identity.  Would my fiancé and I be serving rice and beans as part of our seder?  Were we instituting Ashkenazi or Sephardi rules in our house?  And for what reason?  I brain-agonized over this for a while.  My family history is that of Western Europe, so… Ashkenazi?  I’ve actually traveled and studied in the Middle East and have (barely) learned some conversational Arabic, so… Sephardi?  And those of us who convert often joke about which identity we get to “claim” (most of us go Sephardi because, let’s face it, a Passover without rice, corn, or beans sounds like hell), but the jokes really cover up a feeling of emptiness.

The beauty of conversion is that one chooses their religious identity–that one becomes Jewish because it the religion that speaks most to them.  But there is a comfort that comes from inheriting tradition that we did not realize we took for granted prior to conversion, from the little things we did in our pre-Jewish lives that we did not realize were so much a part of our identity.

For instance, I had a Christmas tree in my California apartment this year–the first Christmas tree in my home since my conversion.  Hanukkah bushes as a general rule annoy me–Hanukkah has plenty of its own beautiful traditions without having to co-opt the Christmas tree, too.  And yeah, I do get it.  Christmas trees have absolutely nothing to do with the baby Jesus and any sort of truly Christian symbolism.  But in my brain, you can’t separate the two.  But my partner (also non-Christian, I might add) grew up with a Christmas tree and decorations and mentioned missing having them in our apartment, so I picked up a small rosemary plant and some lights and baubles and set it up as a surprise.

I didn’t realize how much it would hurt, not because I felt like I was betraying my Jewish identity in any real way (Again, I totally get that a Christmas tree is a pagan symbol brought into Christianity.  It’s not like I set up a manger scene in my living room.), but because I didn’t realize how much I missed the ritual of decorating a tree.  And yeah, I do get that warm, fuzzy religious feeling from lighting my menorah and setting up my seder plate, but I don’t have the memories of a childhood of doing that to meditate upon as I do it.

What I’m trying to say, incredibly longwindedly, is this: for the last week or so since the Dolezal story broke, the story of a woman who went great lengths to take on an African-American identity, both internally and externally, I’ve been asking myself if I am any different as a convert to Judaism?  I say prayers I believe in with all my heart, attend services with other Jews, and identify with Jewish culture and literature, but I was not born/raised Jewish.                               If (and I say a huge if here because, again, I really don’t know enough about the situation to pass any judgements) Dolezal has anything to feel/be guilty for, am I guilty of the same things?

So I’ve reached out in various ways to other converts I know.  And we’ve all kind of come up with the same answer:  the difference is in transparency.  When you wish to convert, you make your intentions known to the community.  The entire conversion process is very public.  First, the rabbi introduces you to members of the community as one seeking conversion.  Then, you go through classes, some of which include members of the temple/synagogue who are there to instruct you on ritual, practice, Hebrew, or any other number of things.  You publicly attend services and eventually, you stand before that congregation stating your intentions plainly.  And once you have converted, it is considered a sin for anyone “born Jewish” to remind you that your ancestors were not Jewish (basically, you are to be treated as if you have always been Jewish).  You are not barred from any part of Jewish life after your conversion; you are as Jewish as anyone else.  This sort of transparency seems to be lacking from Dolezal’s story.

Judaism is a religion.  There are cultural elements, there are ethnic elements. There are last names inherited in some traditions, and there are dietary traditions.  Judaism is far more than the books of the Tanakh and the Talmud.  And conversion to Judaism is accepted by the community (though I can tell you that more than once, the other Jews in my life seem baffled that I would convert).

As a convert, I have had to learn to navigate these elements, and sometimes, in incredibly weird ways, I’ve had those moments of “passing” as a lifelong Jew.  I remember inviting people to my conversion, and having one of my Israeli friends be shocked to find out that 1) I wasn’t Jewish already because 2) I “looked” more Jewish than her (I still can’t even tell you what the second half  of that means).  And with the last name of Jordan, I’ve had Jews go 50/50 on whether or not they consider Jordan to be a “Jewish last name.”

But I’ve never lied about my convert status, even if it supposedly is a sin to remind me of it.  I have never and would never enter a new Jewish community and lie about having a grandparent who survived the Holocaust or claim an Israeli family members that did not exist.  I don’t create a narrative of participating in childhood Purim spiels or fake knowing prayers I don’t actually know.  This would be an insult both to my tradition and to my loving family who raised me with their own traditions, holidays, and prayers–family members who have been beyond supportive of me on this journey.  My cousins, aunt, and father, for instance, held a Hanukkah meal for my ex-husband and I years ago, asking us to bring a menorah and say the prayers so they could learn about who we were.  And if my mom or dad ask me to help put up Christmas lights, you better believe I will.

I guess what I’m saying is this:  identity is fluid.  I don’t feel comfortable making decisions on where to draw the line on that (in Dolezal’s case, the conversation has gone from can one be transracial to whether or not she has been performing the equivalent of blackface to whether or not she should lose her professorship–and I feel in no way equipped to answer any of this), but in any case of identity, and maybe this is my background in religious and ethnographic studies talking, I do believe that transparency is key.

I’ll admit it:  I do sometimes feel that I’m not as Jewish as someone who grew up in the tradition (and I wonder if others see me that way).  It’s a pretty shitty feeling, and one I know I shouldn’t have.  I worry about what being a stand-alone convert (one without any sort of Jewish heritage and without a Jewish partner) will mean for raising children to feel any sort of connection with a Jewish identity. And then I remember all of the Jews in my life who have welcomed me into their homes and lives and realize that any kids I may have are going to have plenty of adopted aunties and uncles that will spoil them rotten (Singer, I’m looking at you) and give them the kinds of Jewish role models that helped shape my own religious life.

I’ve gotten really far away from Dolezal, I know.  Like I said, this post was going to be about the things her story has made me consider.  Frankly, this TL;DR post is going to end in aporia, mostly because I still don’t really have any answers.  If nothing else, talking about her story with other Jews-by-choice has helped me remember both that I’m not the only one who has these doubts and that I’m incredibly grateful for a religious community that is supportive of my entrance into their tradition.

Road Trip 2015 Entry 5 (Day 3 – MO to TX): Everything is Bigger (and Weirder) in Texas

As promised, I’ve got some more thoughts and stats about Day 3.  Between a lack of internet and sheer exhaustion, I’ve gotten behind on this blog.  Luckily, I took trip notes.

I-40 went on forever... and ever...

I-40 went on forever… and ever…

Left Springfield and made it to Oklahoma within the first hour or so.  I was immediately surprised by the speed limits on many of the state routes and highways.  I don’t believe I’ve ever driven on roads were the posted speed limit was 75 mph.  (I have, however, driven I-85/I-285 in Atlanta hundreds of times, and while the understood speed limit was at least 75, it wasn’t, exactly, legal.)  My mileage was definitely affected by going this quickly, but it was completely worth it.

As I mentioned before, Oklahoma looked nothing like I expected.  I think we get this impression growing up on the coasts that the “middle” of the country is just open, brown, and boring.  Oklahoma was anything but boring.  Rolling hills out of the Ozarks morphed to wide open spaces full of trees.  I only really got to the prairies I was expecting toward western OK going into Texas.  Tulsa was kind of a weird city to drive through.  Both kind of cooly modern while simultaneously weirdly dappled with casinos.

Me and my Aunt!

Me and my Aunt!

Stopped in Shawnee, OK to have lunch with my awesome Aunt T.  She’s my aunt in the sense that she is my mom’s oldest friend/maid of honor.  While the trip that day wasn’t particularly long mileage-wise, it was nice to have the break in the middle to catch up (I hadn’t seen Aunt T. since high school) and have some Pho at the brand-new Shawnee Pho (I’d link to it, but that’s how new it is).  Got that selfie in for Mom (how adorable are we?) before hitting the road again for Amarillo.

Leaving Shawnee began the long trek across I-40/Route 66.  Once I passed Oklahoma City, the road completely opened up and it began to get flatter.  The cross into Texas  was exactly what I expected.  Lots of oil fields and refineries.  The largest free-standing cross in the Americas (complete with matching late 90s style website!).  The prairie got more scrubby and desert-like as I went.  Absolutely stunning.

Got to Amarillo right before sunset for my second night of Couchsurfing.  While I still completely recommend it, I was a little wiped by the time I got there.  I get unusually (for me)  introverted when I get tired/stressed, so as lovely as Angela and her family were, I found myself struggling to be sociable.  Luckily, she and her kids seemed to get it and let me sit there watching Full House and Fresh Prince with them without expecting all that much interaction with me.  Went to sleep relatively early, as Angela needed me to get out of the house by about 6 a.m. (kids had to go to school), which gave me the opportunity to get going on my longest leg of the trip pretty early.

At this point in the trip, I’m at 1514 miles, so over halfway.  Definitely going to need an oil change once I get to California.

More posts coming up in the next few days.  Don’t want to rush this.  Luckily, all of the tech I used on this trip (and the actual handwritten notes I took) are allowing me to reconstruct this pretty well.

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 10.28.14 AM

Genius playlist based on “Everlong”

Trip Stats:
Starting OD (Springfield, MO):  214830
Ending OD (Amarillo, TX):  215407
Stop 1:  277 miles (Shawnee, OK)
Stop 2:  Some Miles (Somewhere near Texas?)
Stop 3: 299.3 Miles (Amarillo, TX)

Fill-up 4:  12.263 gallons @ 2.36/gal – $29.05
Fill-up 5:  10.217 gal @ 2.37/gal – $24.20

MPG Day 2:  Tank 1:  27.23 mpg.  Tank 2:  27.11 MPG.  75 MPH highways had a lot to do with this.

Walk the Moon – Talking is Hard
Genius Playlist based on Foo Fighters “Everlong”
Jimmy Eat World – Futures
Kongos – Lunatic
matchbox twenty – Yourself or Someone Like You
MuteMath – Armistice

Road Trip 2015 Entry 4 (Day 3 – MO to TX): Brief Edition

Apparently this is the Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere...  East Coast, take note.

Apparently this is the Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere… East Coast, take note.

Made it to Amarillo, Texas in one piece (though I am a little scarred already).  This is going to be a brief update, as I don’t have access to wifi at the house I’m surfing at today (I’m using my phone’s hotspot).  I’ll do something more extensive later today or tomorrow.

Oklahoma was far greener and prettier than I could have possibly imagined.  Apparently, there has been a ton of rain in the last couple weeks, so it was unseasonably green.  The rolling hills of Eastern Oklahoma slowly blended into the flatter plains and scrub of Western Oklahoma right as I dumped into Texas (I’ve finally made it to I-40 y’all).

Couchsurfed with the lovely Angela, her two daughters, and three dachshunds.  Got my own room and everything, so I feel very spoiled.

Today’s goal is Laughlin, NV (via Route 66).  Who can say no to a $15 hotel room ON A BOAT??

Like I said, I’ll do a far longer post later, including trip stats.  Music yesterday included Walk the Moon, Foo Fighters, matchbox twenty, and MuteMath.

Peace, Love, and *cough*Signal Boost*cough*!