City life: a visit to the local library

The local Chicago Public Library just re-opened after some weeks of construction. This closing coincided with the kid’s long weekend, so it was fairly painful for our family.
When I get there, I drive around in search of parking for a good ten minutes. The parking lot is half-occupied by city construction vehicles. I loop around and park a good distance away in the residential area, and carry a heavy bag of books to return inside. I get there and climb the historic flights of stairs to the upper level (the elevators are, of course, out of order). As I wander, I find that the audiobooks are inaccessible due to construction, but it’s only by wandering around the stacks that you actually find out. 
So I go back downstairs and plonk down, exhausted, at a computer to explore the audiobooks and kids’ books on Mesopotamia and DVDs on fractions. We have lending privileges for many, many city and state libraries but on-shelf on-site holdings are far fewer than I had in the suburban library. I’ve spent a short amount of time wandering, lost, in the catalogue when a security guard/staff comes up to me and asks, accusingly, if I’m using the printer. I say no. He says, well, then you have to log off and go use the computers UPSTAIRS because these are the only ones available to printer-focused customers. I sigh and stare at him, wondering if I can tell him how much energy it’s cost me to get this far; but I just say, okay, I’ll leave in a moment.
He watches me, so I log off and leave. I go to the reference desk and a very helpful, nervous young lady to help me find materials on Mesopotamia and Sumeria (she needs help spelling them). We find stuff in the catalog, and she sends me back upstairs to get the DVD on the ancient world. Since the DVDs are also blocked by yellow tape, I ask an elderly staff lady upstairs to help me. She is not very happy today. I think of how glad I am that I chose not to bring the kid with me, as she would have by now thrown several hissy fits. 
Meantime, construction is going on around me, and a strange dust fills my lungs and I start to cough and my throat starts to close up like never before. The lady takes a while. By the time she returns, I have lost all interest in my child’s education re: the ancient world. I stagger back downstairs, check all my stuff out, and travel back to my distant parking spot (which is blocked by some delivery vehicle).
As I pass celebratory banners about the Cubs, I think of how much/little I care that I live close to Wrigley Field and its historic events, and how much I miss the boring, shiny library in the northern suburbs. 


14947797_1141461325900883_5754059126705941825_nWe joined the early voting queue at Northeastern Illinois University’s El Centro location today. It is nice to have Early Voting, and it is even nicer to have Early voting locations that are open to all Chicago city residents regardless of residence location. I also appreciated the Election Commission’s list of voting locations ranked by degree of use. We chose the nearest among the lowest-use locations. It was still a 1 1/2 hour wait in line. That NEIU-El Centro building is cute and modular, but it heats up like a greenhouse. The voting room was crowded, hot, and airless. I started to feel pretty lightheaded, so I wonder how the elderly felt.

I would much rather go with a public holiday on Election Day, but I guess then all the poor and people of color will stream out to the polls, and the GOP would be bummed.

Our 10 year old was not happy to be stuck with us, but we were determined to have her join us. From the look of the crowd, I would guess it to be a solidly blue one, but I’m just an ethnographer. We took up booths, checked off our choices, and grabbed our wristbands.

As a US citizen, this is my first presidential vote.

This is also my first-ever presidential vote. I grew up in Pakistan when General Zia-ul-Haq occupied the Presidential building for 11 years. It’s telling that, as a child of military dictatorship, I didn’t even bother to vote in 1990 or 1993. I then left Pakistan and was in the UK as a British citizen, though I arrived in the US as an international student before the British election of 1997. Then I became a green card holder, and voted in the primaries – for Bernie. It is a sad day, in many ways, that I’m unable to vote for Bernie today.

It was only when I sat waiting for a booth that it struck me how historic the act of voting is. For most of human history, as I told my daughter, regular people did not have any input into who would rule. This point in human history is startling in contrast, where we do have input in the political process. But the contrast not a night-and-day one. The United States remains an oligarchy. Electoral colleges remain a problem.

Our political system is not the best we can do. It is desperately in need of reform. I voted, but with an eye to how much more we need to do. Not just on voting day, but everyday, not to protect the status quo but to make it better – to ensure regular people have better representation, better protection under the law, more equality, better lives.

As for third parties – good luck to them in the current circumstances. If the Greens succeed in capturing 5% of the vote, they become eligible for federal funding in the next election. That could change the terms of the political context entirely, and end the stranglehold of the two sets of elites.

The terror of a Trump presidency – which is an entirely horrific prospect, probably unprecedented in its  nature – leads critics of both parties to hold their noses and vote for Hillary Clinton, especially in swing states.

Get out and vote. Educate yourself about the candidates. Don’t be like the Brexit voters who voted with their moods, and then whined about how they really didn’t think anything was actually going to happen. In the context of human history, most of your ancestors wouldn’t have this opportunity at all. Treat it responsibly. This is no occasion for you to throw a hissy fit. Act like you’re actually 18+ years old.

Teaching about refugees

hopeLast night, in my graduate class on World Literature, we discussed Laila Lalami‘s novel Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits, along with clips of the excellent Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag. The title of the under-exposed but brilliant film (its budget was under $1m) is a play on words: bhaag means both fortune, portion, lot in life, or destiny, but it also means to flee or run; and zinda bhaag can mean “run with your life” as well as, literally, “living fortune” or idiomatically, “good fortune.”

In the discussion, we highlighted the timely issue of refugee movement – Syrian, Afghan, Mexican and other refugees from South and Central America, Rohingya, etc. Lalami’s novel trains the gaze on the lives of refugees and migrants *before* they become branded as a pestilence, unwanted bodies roaming the seas, as well as during and after the movement of bodies between lands, in liminal spaces and identities. We engaged with the lives that are so trapped that people are willing to plunge (with their children) into the dangers of illegal immigration, including very possible death, rootlessness, and loss of self. The book brings the narratives of four individuals – 2 men and 2 women – who find themselves so trapped due to global economic pressures, widespread corruption, elitism, and exploitation, hyper-competitive higher education opportunities (there are few seats in MENA universities given the youth bulge), domestic violence and gender, religious movements, the fear of extremism and terrorism, oppressive dictatorships where to speak critically of a monarch means to destroy one’s life prospects, and so on. In a relatively short novel, Lalami succeeds in capturing a world of forces that push illegal migrants into the sea and, if all goes well, into the ghorba and loneliness of unwelcoming societies where one loses contact with previous lives.

Homework supervision

Everyday I tell myself I will focus on my writing. Writing that book review. Finishing that article. Everyday there is service and admin work. And everyday – every day – there is homework. I need to decide certain days of the week when, after picking my child up from school, I can satisfy my conscience with B- or C+ parenting, while I get work done. The problem is homework supervision.

For a child who struggles to focus.

Tons of homework. New work. If it’s English or Social Studies, I’m all good. The problem is MATH – the bane of my existence. “I’ve never seen this before” homework. “It shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes” (according to the teacher) homework. (I think they meant per subject). Me watching Khan Academy videos so I can help with homework. Me supervising homework while she sits in the back of my undergrad classroom. Catching up with new material on the weekend.


How the climate of hate leaks into schools

u1_schoolbus.jpgI highly recommend school staff take a look at the  report “The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools.”

But I also want to remind school staff that the effects of this election season is not limited to classrooms where hate is actively promoted. These effects on schools, classrooms, children, teaching can occur even with well intentioned school staff, if they’re not well informed.

For example, when sharing world news videos about ISIS/Daesh, it’s pedagogically essential to properly frame such news for your young viewers. If teachers fail to contextualize, frame, and inform students, the climate of hate will frame world events as further foundation for hate. Teachers may not mean for it to do so, but inaction and lack of pedagogical proactiveness will let the devil in the door, despite your intentions.

Just now. Nothing else.

carriage ride copy.jpgThis morning as I struggled to get back to sleep – I have insomnia – my 5th grader joined me for a cuddle before changing for school. When you let her be, she is full of joy, full of dance, full of imagination, full of affection. When you block her, tie her down with busy work, she is irritable and sad.

“I wish you didn’t have so much homework,” I told her. She giggled and said, “But then I might have no idea what to do with money, and I’d say, ‘Throw all the money down the gutter!'”

When I bask in her energies, I realize that the workplace worries, the personal grief, the existential angst can melt away, and I can focus on today. I can just be. I can enjoy this moment. This moment is a challenge I’ve been trying to meet for ages. I’m anxious about tomorrow, about this afternoon, about tonight, about teaching tomorrow, meetings tomorrow, communication with other anxious people tomorrow. About my body, which – since cancer – is still not willing to come back to normal. About how to meet people in their expectations for normal physical energies. Their emotional energies. About how to protect my own fragility from their tumult. About how to keep up with my daughter’s physical energies too.

But in this moment, I can smile. In this moment, I know I am everything to her. If I can talk to her about kleptocats and how cute they are, everything is okay. And it doesn’t have to be more.