Hey, Girly Girl: How To Turn a Hero Into a Heel in < 5 Minutes

MusicMan_CoverI recently saw The Music Man for the first time. (I’ve lived in Des Moines for three years, and there seems to be an unspoken rule that you can’t really call yourself an Iowan until you’ve seen a community theater group sing “Iowa Stubborn.”) I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but it was reasonably enjoyable, even though I beat the median age of the audience by about 20 years. One of the things that really stood out for me was a short scene about 3/4 of the way through the show that’s pretty relevant to the modern debate about street harassment.

At this point in the show, a self-professed serial con artist, posing as a music teacher and band leader, has spent weeks deceiving the residents of a small town. He’s sold them uniforms and instruments, and promised to turn dozens of children with zero musical training into a marching band. Before the “professor” can cash in and skip town, a travelling salesman shows up with a case full of anvils, and a ream of evidence that will expose the scam and save the townspeople from being swindled.

This development poses a problem for the script. The writers have worked pretty hard to make the “professor” a sympathetic character. He’s charming and dashing and witty, and his budding relationship with the local librarian has given him a few minor pangs of conscience. Still, it’s really hard to ignore the fact that he’s moments away from pocketing his ill-gotten gains and grabbing the next train out of town, fully intending to pull the same scam at every stop down the line. The guy who shows up to put a stop to that should totally be the hero.

So what do you do when you’ve got less than five minutes of stage time to make it clear that the guy who’s going to save the town turns out to be a bigger scumbag that the guy who’s trying to swindle it? Have him obnoxiously hit on a woman he’s just met on the street. (Insulting her intelligence and giving her a demeaning nickname doesn’t hurt, either.)

The show was written in the 50s, and depicts small town life in the early 20th century, so its treatment of female characters isn’t always stellar. The librarian’s flirtation to distract the salesman, or the number that explicitly compares gossipy women to clucking hens, don’t portray women in the most respectful way. Still, it’s telling that a show that opened on Broadway in 1957 knew that an uninvited advance toward an unfamiliar woman was an effective way to signal creepiness, yet in 2014, we’re still arguing about why the ladies can’t shut up and take a compliment.

Also, I’ll save you the trouble of making this argument: #notalltravellingsalesmen

Winter Wünderkind

I am now deep in the throes of my third winter in Iowa, friends and neighbors. It’s been an unremitting schedule of awful, marked by long stretches of daytime high temperatures in the single digits and wind chills in the double digits below zero. I learned the term “Polar Vortex,” and used it in conversation without pointing out that it sounded like a sex game for Arctic explorers. It was either a snowy landscape, or a screenshot of a weather forecast that might have come from Hoth. I think we can agree that I made the right call.

Between an unreasonable number of regular snowfalls, we’ve been treated to surprise storms that have swept in without warning to snarl traffic for hours, and a few random days where the temperature spiked near 50°F, teasing us with a glimpse of spring before sneaking up behind us and trying to drown us in freezing slush. On more than on occasion schools have been cancelled not by snow, but because the projected wind chill was considered life-threatening. Our front yard looks like it could comfortably support a whole family of yeti, and we’re expecting to be sweeping snowmelt off the sidewalk on Independence Day.

Despite the grinding cold and the socks that are always damp and the toes that never quite thaw, I can’t help feeling oddly, incongruously fortunate. Not only because I have a warm, cozy house (and a wonderful woman and two football-sized lumps of feline fluff with whom to share it), but because I’ve had the ridiculous good luck to be eased into it.

My first winter was really only a slight hiccup between fall and spring. It only snowed a handful of times, and it was never cold enough that walking to work was a major hassle. I can’t count how many times I was told that I’d picked the best possible year to move to the Midwest. Last year was incrementally worse: more snow, colder temperatures, and significantly less snickering about the “realness” of my Iowa winter experience.

This winter has been a constant shovelful of snow in the junk, but if I’d gone through it only a few months after moving here, I might have been tempted to lay down in front of a snowplow and hope being crushed to death might feel slightly warmer. As it is, I’m drastically uncomfortable, but I feel like I’ve worked up (or down) to it. I’ve had some time to toughen up, and it’s made this year a lot easier to handle. So consider this a vague and grudging expression of gratitude.

And if it gets much worse next year, look for my wallet in the red smear behind a salt truck.

How’s The Job Hunt Going?

There are few gestures so loaded with simultaneous promise and peril as asking someone who’s been out of work for awhile how their search for a new job is going. It is, of course, very kind and considerate that your friends/peers/acquaintances are interested in how this big, important, possibly life-defining thing is progressing. So what could make an otherwise thoughtful question so fraught?

In a stupidly overbroad way, looking for a new job is a bit like recovering from major surgery. If you’re healing up from an emergency organectomy, the process is kind of awful. There will be some victories along the way, but the day-to-day generally sucks. Something similar can be said of job hunting. Especially if you’re currently unemployed, casting about for a new position is a slog. Not only is it a lot of work finding and applying for jobs, but you’re dealing with the constant anxiety of financial insecurity. You’re also trapped in a continuous loop of excitement and disappointment, psyching yourself up for each new possibility, only to face (another) rejection.

Until it’s done. Once you’ve got a job, you’re relieved and excited and the news is good. Up to that point, your progress is measured by small victories (job openings found, applications finished, interviews landed) and many more disappointments (jobs already filled, applications that never garner a response, interviews that don’t pan out). Would I rather be healthy and job hunting than recovering from surgery? Of course. It’s an analogy, and not one that’s intended to diminish anybody’s health challenges. I’m just saying that, in both cases, if someone asks you how it’s going before the process has reached something resembling a satisfactory conclusion, your answer is liable to contain rather more uncertainty and disappointment than is strictly pleasant.

All of which makes framing a response a considerable challenge. If you’re anything like me, you’re painfully conscious of not being too negative all the time. You’re desperate not to be a burden or a pain in the ass, and you really don’t want to bum out somebody who was kind of enough to show an interest in your situation. You’ve also completely internalized the idea that nobody gets a job without networks and connections and introductions, and come on, who wants to help out (or hang out with) some doofus who’s whining all the time? So whenever someone asks about your job hunt, you duck and weave, trying like mad to put a good spin on an otherwise stressful and depressing situation. Then you go home, and quietly (or not) freak the f@#k out about your latest “we heard from many talented applicants” letter.

The thing that you (and by “you,” I mean “I”) need to keep in mind is that most of the people who ask are genuinely curious about what’s going on in your life. A handful of the people who ask might just be making conversation, and will bolt at the first sign of negativity or frazzlement. But it’s far more likely that they’re asking out of actual interest/concern. Unless you’re shrieking or sobbing or somehow blaming them for your setbacks, chances are they’ll be able to handle some honest vexation without making a panicked exit. A certain amount of composure is a good thing, but if you’re pretending that everything is super peachy all the time, you’re doing friendship wrong, and slathering on a bonus layer of added pressure that’s both unproductive and unnecessary.

All of which is a long way around of me telling myself to stop being so scared to admit when I’m discouraged. The middle ground between utter stoicism and abject fatalism isn’t actually as elusive as all that. I’m lucky enough to have people in my life who care enough to ask how I’m doing; I need to trust them (and myself) enough to give them an honest answer.

Let’s Do This

I’ve been sharing random details about my situation as they were relevant, but I think it’s time to tell the complete story. The TL;DR version is short. My job has ended, and I’m looking for something new. If you want the rest of the context, keep reading after the jump.

Photo by Dan Chibnall

Photo by Dan Chibnall

I moved to Des Moines in August of 2011, to take a job as the Director of Research and Programs at the American Judicature Society. My primary work was studying judicial selection (how judges get to be judges in the first place). I conducted and managed grant funded research, wrote articles and opinion pieces, gave public presentations and legislative testimony. I also wound up writing press releases, updating the website and social media feeds, and the other things that people do at understaffed nonprofits.

I have to confess that I made the move somewhat reluctantly. After living my whole life near Philadelphia, and in the city proper for seven years before and after law school, my conception of Iowa was entirely consistent with my East Coast snobbery. I expected to be bored out of my skull, surrounded by people for whom corn (and the growing thereof) was the most exciting thing in their lives.

Instead, I discovered a vibrant, diverse, engaged community, with opportunities to experience culture, art, food and entertainment in an atmosphere that lacked a lot of the pretension and self-importance of a place like Philly. I’ve met some wonderful people, made invaluable personal and professional connections, and begun to identify with the community in way that was entirely unexpected.

Early in the summer of 2013, I found out that AJS was moving to Nashville, TN, and my position was going with it. I was faced with the prospect of starting over in another unfamiliar city, or staying in Des Moines and finding a new job after the end of September. Neither option was exactly exciting, but after a lot of thought, the safety and familiarity of the job didn’t mean as much to me as the people and organizations that have become a part of my life in Iowa.

What’s important to remember when I talk about Des Moines is that I haven’t exactly grown out of my elitism. I’m still very much a city person. I value a certain amount of culture, sophistication and tolerance. Des Moines has all of those things in abundance, and it’s become a place that I’m proud to call home.

The last thing I need to make this place perfect is a job where I can challenge myself, put my skills, education and experience to good use, and hopefully give back to this community that I prize so highly. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m confident that it’s out there, out here, in this city that I’m so happy to be a part of.

Come on, DSM. Let’s do this.

Iowa GOP Doubles Down on Bigotry

The Iowa Constitution (Article I, §6) says “the General Assembly shall not grant any citizen or a class of citizens privileges or immunities which upon the same terms should not equally belong to all citizens.” In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court interpreted this to mean that, if the Assembly grants straight people a state-sanctioned marriage, it has to grant that privilege equally to gay people. (Because, last I checked, homosexuality wasn’t grounds for revoking citizenship. And if gay people are gay citizens, then the privilege has to be extended to them equally.)

The Republican Party of Iowa (slogan: First In The Nation) calls this “unelected activist judges attempting to impose their personal views on the public.” (Those crazy judicial activists. They looked at the word “equally,” and forgot the part that says “except teh queers,” which isn’t actually in there, but c’mon, we know that’s what it means, right?) The Iowa GOP has decided that Justice David Wiggins should be removed from the bench, apparently for the heinous crime of disagreeing with them about what the word “equally” means.

Their press release is stuffed so full of boilerplate rhetoric about arrogant, unelected judges that it could have been written by a cliché-heavy chatbot, but I’ll give you just a taste of the magic that it contains. (Emphasis added for later parsing.)

“In 2010 Iowa voters chose to dismiss three activist judges who allowed their own politics to influence their obligation to uphold the Iowa Constitution. These three were among a handful of judges who chose to disregard years of legal precedent on the status of marriage and how it was to be defined. Instead of allowing the people of Iowa to decide this issue at the polls, these judges instead chose to impose their will upon the state and re-write history without weighing the merits of our laws and values. Regardless of political pressure or the state of cultural affairs at the moment, it is the people of Iowa through our elections that must be permitted to decide this important issue.”

  1. Their own politics: The Iowa GOP has just stated publicly that discrimination against homosexuals is a political issue. Voting Republican is a vote for bigotry, folks.
  2. Disregard years of legal precedent: This is code for “we passed a marriage amendment in 1998, and the first time it was challenged in court, it was ruled unconstitutional.” So it’s what those of us who care about such things colloquially refer to as “completely incorrect.”
  3. Allowing the people of Iowa to decide this issue at the polls: By virtue of living in a constitutional republic, the voters of Iowa have the final say about this issue. Although you wouldn’t know it from this press release, there is already a mechanism for allowing the voters to decide this issue. It’s called amending the Iowa Constitution, and the process is clearly defined in Article X, §1. If you want the voters to decide, get an amendment on the ballot, or STFU.
  4. Without weighing the merits: It’s true! The court ignored all the briefs submitted by the parties at the trial stage and in preparation for the appeal, the longer-than-usual oral argument, and the 24 amicus curae briefs submitted on both sides of the issue. The  justices had a vigorous round of Rock/Paper/Scissors to decide the outcome, and drew straws to see who would get stuck writing the opinion. Then Justice (now Chief Justice) Mark Cady (who was appointed to the court by notorious liberal activist Terry Branstad) drew the short straw. Most of the nearly 70 page opinion in Varnum v. Brien consists of transcribed internal musings about what Justice Cady was planning to have for lunch that day. The remaining six justices signed the opinion by email from their beachfront villa in Cabo San Lucas. (A confused Justice Hecht, apparently the only justice aside from Cady to read the opinion, tried to order a Cobb salad.)
  5. The state of cultural affairs: In keeping with their statement that the Iowa GOP is committed politically to discriminating against gays, here the party admits that they’re in the minority that is still sorely afraid of marriage equality. Which is curious, since you’d think the last thing they’d want is a vote on an issue when a majority of voters disagree with their position. Oh wait, I think we’ve just figured out why they haven’t managed to put a marriage amendment on the ballot.
  6. It is the people of Iowa through our elections that must be permitted to decide this important issue:  There’s an important point that shouldn’t be lost in the noise. Voting Justice Wiggins off the court will have exactly zero practical effect. It won’t roll back the decision, or make discriminating against homosexuals constitutional in Iowa. Voting no on retaining Justice Wiggins is a symbolic gesture, that will do nothing more than prove that Iowa Republicans can get voters to the polls merely by appealing to their bigotry and hatred of gay Iowans.

All of which raises the following questions. What does “equally… to all citizens” mean, if it doesn’t literally mean that everyone is equal? Is it more appropriate for the Iowa courts to be in the business of deciding who’s a citizen and who’s not? Or is that a question that the Iowa GOP has already answered for itself?