Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Open Letter to Eliza Nichols, Dean, School of Fine and Performing Arts, Columbia College Chicago

Dear Dean Nichols:

I'm an alumna and current part-time faculty at the arts college where you are an administrator. I'm one of many people who have been grieved, confused, and even angered by your decision to remove my chair, Randall Albers, from his post, effective Fall 2012.

Dean Nichols, your letter was full of glowing praise for Dr. Albers and his dedication to his students, his department and the college. It would seem that you know--although perhaps not as well as his students, colleagues and friends know--that Randy has been a consistent and dedicated force in his classrooms, helping young people to discover their voices as artists; that he has created countless opportunities for artists and writers to collaborate across disciplines, across schools and colleges, even across international borders; that he has been motivating and supportive, and often the driving force, of faculty development in the Fiction Writing Department; that he is a jewel in the crown of the Chicago literary scene; that he is, in a word, irreplaceable. Knowing all of this, I am flummoxed at how you can, and have, dismissed him so quickly and easily from his post as Chair of the Fiction Writing Department.

Yes, it's true, this Blueprint: Prioritization process is, not to put too fine a point on it, a clusterfuck. You've made recommendations about the School of Fine and Performing Arts that have been difficult for faculty, staff and students to understand, and not just in my department. Now the Provost's recommendations have been released, which are equally alarming, if not more. I look at her suggestions and believe my alma mater is taking swift and decisive steps away from its legacy and identity as an arts school and toward something else. But to bring this back home, the reality of combining writing departments has been an interesting one for many people to digest. While I believe profoundly in students' ability to work across disciplines in order to grow as artists, a change like this has the potential to be damaging in ways that are unclear, perhaps because this process has been so unclear. In my most recent faculty meeting, my colleagues and I intended to approach this impending change with open hearts and minds. It is an exciting time to be at Columbia, we were told. We must move forward in a spirit of collegiality and cooperation. Above all else, remember that we must do what is best for our students.

Dean Nichols, your actions have made our intentions extremely difficult.

If you were a student in my classroom, I would say, Eliza, consider your audience. You're writing to people who've just learned that the department that they know and love, and maybe even call home, is going to be changed into something else. Many of these people work here part-time trying to eke out a living while still maintaining and feeding their creative pursuits; many of them are working without a salary commensurate with their skills, and even more of them are working without an employment contract or benefits: without health insurance or retirement plans; they are here because they care about teaching, because they care about their students, because someone--because Randy Albers--cared about them enough to help them grow into the faculty that makes Columbia such a great place. Right now many of your readers are confused and frustrated, and this Prioritization process at the college has been, despite yours or anyone's best effort, maddeningly opaque. These people are most certainly feeling defensive, and they may be feeling vulnerable or threatened. You are about to tell them that their leader will not be returning to his post, and because you haven't said why, you're creating a lot of mystery around this.  How do you do communicate with these people, Eliza? Do you send a letter to their offices, so that it will be impossible to distribute it before the close of business on a Friday? Do you fill it with praise for Randy Albers, but omit any explanation of this decision, making your praise of Randy and his efforts seem at best like you're trying too hard and at worst like flattery? What are you trying to do here, Eliza? Do you mean to communicate to your colleagues that, despite this time of confusion and transition, they are valued members of the Columbia College community, or do you mean to alienate them and undermine their roles and their presence by robbing them of their leader?

But you're not a student in my class, Dean Nichols. I can't challenge your craft or your process. But as an audience member of your letter, and as a faculty member at an institution of which you are a steward, I can say this: I feel alienated and undermined by this behavior. Given the reality that my department is changing shape, I have a tough time perceiving Randy's dismissal as chair as anything other than a calculated and deliberate act of destruction, and as an action purposefully linked to the Prioritization process. If you want to create confusion, infighting and destruction among a group of people, you take out their leadership. I don't know, Dean, if this was the plan all along, if this is just another step in the Prioritization process that seems determined to destroy many people, relationships and college institutions, all in the name of "best practices" and "reallocation of funds". I don't know if you've chosen to remove Randy from his Chairpersonship in order to make it easier to create a new Creative Writing department, because you know what a strong, dynamic and successful leader Randy is of his faculty. I don't know if the college hopes to silence and disenfranchise as many of us in the Fiction Writing Department as possible. I don't know if you've removed Randy from his post as chair in order to better position him to assume a role of leadership once our new Creative Writing Department is created. Help us understand, Dean Nichols. Make clear to us your actions and their motivations. If your devotion to the students is as true as you say it is, if this process is about the students, then you owe them an explanation. If your respect and admiration for Randy Albers is as true as you say it is, then he deserves better--and God knows he has earned better--than for you to treat him as a casualty of Prioritization, and you owe his faculty an explanation.

I want transparency. I want to know why Randy Albers was dismissed from his post as Chair. I want Randy to have a seat at the table where the choices and decisions are made about how to craft this new Creative Writing Department.


Jessica M. Young, MFA
Part-Time Faculty, Fiction Writing Department
P-Fac member
Class of 2008

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Because I love my alma mater.

Weeks ago, a trusted friend and advisor told me that I would know when the time was right for me to get involved.

He was right.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

is this an earthquake or is a truck driving by?

Last week in a staff meeting, my supervisor said it was an interesting, exciting time to work where I work.
My husband says, "May you live in interesting times" is a Chinese curse.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Like a Good Neighbor

Recently a new friend asked me why I moved out of Rogers Park, a neighborhood on Chicago's far north side. I gave her all the standard reasons--we wanted to experience as much of Chicago as possible, especially if we decide to relocate, the work commute was too far--and then I mentioned that we didn't really like where we lived. There's a lot to like about Rogers Park: it's far enough out of the city that when you live there you feel like you're out of the throng; it has a lot of interesting small businesses and a thriving neighborhood scene; it's one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. But after several years of living there, we found it just didn't suit us the way we wanted a neighborhood to suit us. There are some parts of Rogers Park with large tree-lined streets and great, pre-war rambling houses, or amazing apartments with stained glass windows and original moulding; we lived in a rehabbed six-flat that didn't sell in a part of the neighborhood that was just lots of sad, slouching brick buildings and failed housing-market investments. Our next-door neighbors were in an enormous building, a place where people seemed to live on top of each other, where during the summer it wasn't unusual to hear blaring classic rock until two or three in the morning--and the off-key voice of the classic rock lover singing right along. The worst of it was children screaming in rage and frustration and adults screaming right back at them; the worst of it was used condoms or vomit on the sidewalk; the worst of it was 5-0 outside on the next-door lawn breaking up violent domestic disturbances that brought out the whole neighborhood to gawk, and unmarked cars zooming down streets to infiltrate gang activity, and police cameras appearing on telephone poles with all the silence and insidiousness of suspect-looking mushrooms.

Now I'm not so naive as to believe that this kind of stuff only happens here. This isn't the only rough neighborhood I've lived in, and I know that gang activity, prostitution and urban rage are not unique to Rogers Park. But there just came a point when he and I said, yeah. It's time to get out of here.
This is a view out our front window on one of the last (rainy) days we lived there. The trees really were pretty.

I've never regretted this decision; we've been in a new part of the city for over four months, and although we traded space for convenience, I still don't regret moving. But when my friend asked me why we left Rogers Park, I could hear the choir behind her of voices swelling with the "Rogers Park is Great!" chorus, and I felt a little convicted. Not by her asking, but by my own choice. After the chorus died down, I heard a voice inside me ask, Jess, why did you leave? It's an awful lot of privilege you have to just run out on a community that needs you. You gettin' too saditty for your own community?

Years ago, I went to a church that had as a tenet of its mission incarnational ministry. My best sense of this  that those members who felt called to minister did so by moving into the community where this church was housed (Humboldt Park) and to live a life that models Christlike behavior. A kind of contemporary Christian commune, a la Acts in the New Testament: giving back to the people, taking care of the sick, investing in local economies. Like that. At the time, I lived in the neighborhood because it's where I happened to land when I moved (back) to Chicago. The church was conveniently located: even on the coldest days, it was only a bundled-up 10-minute walk away. But incarnational ministry wasn't something I was seeking from my worship experience; I was just on the hunt for a worship space that had politics I could live with and a community that I could appreciate and who could appreciate me. This place was that: the people were young and diverse, the theology was grounded in grace and integrity and the relationship practice was radical*. I liked it a lot. I liked the idea of doing the heavy lifting that is relationship work in order to heal relationships as pursuit of Christ, and while I didn't always like the practice at times, I always came to the table, because I believed in it (and still do). I liked the idea of living in the community where you worship, and using your resources to connect with others and hopefully to model a healthy faith-based life practice that's grounded in love.

(There's a really interesting story about a similar concept of a black family patronizing black businesses here in Chicago for a year on Marketplace. Despite my own irritation at one point--Kai Ryssdal, for all of his wisdom, is still another white person who says to his guests, "Gee, you don't sound black." Seriously, white people? Enough.--it's an interesting story.)

I lived in Humboldt Park and attended that church for years. I left the church for personal reasons, and moved out of the community a short time later. It saddened me to leave the neighborhood, which was becoming, and since has become, a more expensive place to live, and I moved into part of the city where I frankly didn't want to invest, financially or otherwise. I don't know that I was "called" as the evangelicals like to say, to live in Humboldt Park, but I know Nobody called me to Uptown. Then I made a life with another person, and incarnational ministry was a concept with which he was unfamiliar and uninterested in pursuing. Our home choices were dictated by things like location relative to city center, neighborhood vibe, parking, stores nearby, the usual stuff. We spent most of our lives together so far in Rogers Park.

The move into Rogers Park felt to me like a kind of return to incarnational ministry. There was no worship body we were attached to, no conversation between the two of us about what it means to live out our (differing) life philosophies in a new neighborhood, not even so much as a chirp on the Jesus phone that might be "calling" me. But I felt like I was moving to a neighborhood where there were more people with whom I shared some common experience, based on our race if nothing else. But this time I found I couldn't do it. I spent too much time feeling unsafe from all the catcalls walking to and from the Howard Street el station, or feeling like a suspect from all the CPD who would slow down to size me up before speeding onward. I was too horrified watching women with sad flat eyes slap and yank their children around to say Good Morning to them, and I was too nervous about the packs of young men wandering the street with nowhere to go to say, "have a good night, fellas." I wanted to be doing a good thing by living there, shopping local, and I wanted to know my neighbors, and to do it all with a great Jesus beam shining out from my chest , but I couldn't do it.

Now I realize that maybe it's ridiculous to think that I might know anything about what people need. How arrogant it seems to me that I thought I could move into a neighborhood with my education and my middle-class money and my well-meaning heart, and demonstrate the love and compassion of Anyone to anybody. The fact that we're both brown? Meaningless. I don't know these people's lives, and they probably don't see me as an example of anyone except more of the suckers who move into the crappy rehabs that are taking over their neighborhoods. I feel ridiculous. Disgusting. And humbled.

And now I live in a building with a doorman. There are two markets less than five minutes away by car, and I'm close to a lot. Aspects of my neighborhood seem pretty diverse, but not the way they were in Rogers Park. People here care as little about my philosophy of life as they did anywhere else. I haven't stopped believing that how I behave can set a small but powerful example of what the world can be, of how people can show and feel enduring and miraculous love for each other with some Help.

But it's not what dictates my ZIP code anymore.

*Yes, I must admit, to the outside this can seem like white people moving into a neighborhood of brown people with a white man's burden to save them from themselves. There may be people  in that worship community acting from that place. But enough of what I witnessed and experienced in my time there teaches me that there are some who live and work in this community with sincere hearts.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Blackboard of the People: Or,

How Many Links In One Post?

I was at a great party this weekend--thanks, Chicana on The Edge!--and among all the things we talked about came a really fantastic conversation about art and what it means to make art now. My friend The Photographer said that the internet has been this amazing tool that gives a voice to the voiceless and has been a huge tool in the democratizing of the artistic process. The Internet is going to save the arts*.

I think there's something to it, and it's not the first time I've heard this argument. There's probably some article from Wired magazine about the internet and how it's providing platforms for film production and the new wave of publishing. Consider the Life in a Day project or the fact that record labels aren't even making CDs anymore, or that Kodack stopped making cameras.  Consider online entrepeneurs like Michelle Phan, who started as a YouTube filmmaker and art student in Florida and who now is now an international spokesperson for Lancome and who has 5.3 million views for her videos. These are just the examples that I know about, and I know there are lots, LOTS more that I don't know about it. But the internet's been an incredible means of putting art into the world, of connecting with others. It's like a giant blackboard.

But it's also like a giant lost and found.

If you read my recent post about the hot snakeskin heels, you know I don't hate Lost & Found's. But this weekend at the party, I made the comment that I think that the Internet may be causing a kind of leveling off of work. Comment trolls notwithstanding, I think there's a kind of plateauing that's going on. There are some really interesting, thoughtful and insightful things on the internet: I've been reading this blog, and this one, (p.s., they're sex-ed blogs, so be warned, and enjoy) and even this one, which, despite the fact that I'm linking to, I struggle with a lot--and maybe it's a stretch to call them art. I've also been frequenting this site and this one. But I feel like I can't swing a dead (virtual) cat without hitting a fashion blog--yes, I read it, with an ever lessening sense of shame, because that whole world is new and interesting to me--and this morning I read this article at BitchMedia about what blogs like these are actually doing.

Langston Hughes said sometime, somewhere, "The prerequisite for writing is having something to say." I wonder how much the Internet is a microphone for people who think they have something to say, but who maybe just don't. Who just want to post pictures of their cat in a necktie or show off their new striped tights or write out their wildest fantasies or their racist dogma. Shouldn't they be allowed to do this? Maybe this is what the Internet is for. Maybe the Internet isn't equalizing for the good or evening out our standards; maybe it's reinforcing a standard or class. Maybe the odds that you'll experience some crap art are higher if you're looking on the Internet than in one of the gallery spaces or concert halls or local theatres.

But we all know that's not how it works. We've all overpaid for theatre tickets to a play that was lauded to be the shit and wound up being half-baked with wooden dialogue; we've all been to see the next Citizen Kane and been pissed that we paid $12.50 and what we got was Flash Gordon instead. So the Internet's not indicative of what's good or not good.

I am loving the irony of asking if the Internet is a global microphone of mediocrity on my blog, too. I wonder frequently what I'm saying here, if maybe I'm not just one of those people who thinks they have something to say, but who really don't. Or at least, who shouldn't be saying what they have to say in this venue. This might be the pot calling the kettle mediocre.

But I don't know. I want the Internet to be part of this wave of joy and sweat and amazing-ness that transforms what we put on our stages and hang on our walls and listen to and read to one another in bed as we're falling asleep. But then I see really stupid things, or really offensive things, and my chest hurts and I have to go away and do some breathing just so I can concentrate again, and I think the Internet is nothing but a cesspool of boredom and stupidity.

Which makes the fact that you made it to the end of this post a triumph and a gift. Thanks for reading! ;)

*for the record, I'm using "arts" really loosely here: film, the written word, photography, also fashion and design, etc. Wide net.
Final total= 8 links. I really wanted to show (some of) what I've been reading lately.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

where'd you go?

I have a hard time wrapping my head around death.

I was sorting through some old paperwork from my honeymoon the other day, looking for something I'd lost, and I came across an email from a dear friend who used to live there. (Funny, I did a search for her to see if I could find a photo, and noticed that her alma mater still has an active portfolio for her--hasn't been taken down.)  But here's one.

My sweetheart and I are supposed to be returning to Maui in the spring for--many reasons--and as I came across her email, I thought, oh, I should get in touch with her and let her know we'll be there. It's no small island, but we could get to her. Then I realized that she's gone. She passed some time ago, almost a year now; and then there was this empty feeling in my chest where she, or rather my connection to her as a fellow human here, used to live.

Today I was doing some research and picked up The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman: a fantastic book about the clash between ancient healing, modern medicine, small communities and big ones. I was looking for the work of Dwight Conquergood.  Dwight was a legend in the cultural ethnography circles of academia; he was also my undergraduate thesis advisor. I wish I could talk to Dwight, I thought, reflecting on my current project. He'd have some really useful advice on how to proceed, and he'd remind me that I don't have to be so timid, that I have the skills that I need. Dwight passed in 2004, of a cancer that he kept so secret from his friends and colleagues that no one know he was sick until the end was inevitable.
look at how young she is here. this is the woman I remember. I sang all her songs, badly and at the top of my lungs.

Then of course, there's this loss, coupled with this reality, that caused me to lose some sleep last night.

I know how old the question of loss is, that people pay good money to sit in quiet rooms on top of mountains and think about death and impermanence. There's also the chorus of Christian training sounding off in my brain about "Lord and Savior" this and "more than a conqueror" that and "overcoming sin and death". But I'm talking about the relationship you've had with another person that ends not because they move or because you change jobs, or because they become a douche and stop being someone you want to keep company with, but because they cease to exist. The machine that is their body stops working, the energy that is their mind and their love for you change form and evade you in the manner that you're accustomed to experiencing them. You don't have a friendship anymore, at least not how you used to, because who they were has changed so profoundly and so fundamentally that you're on different planes.

I don't really have a lot to say on the subject. I'm pretty fortunate. Although I grieve with many others over the loss of Whitney Houston, although I miss Robyn and Dwight and others who've gone ahead of me, even so, I've never suffered a great loss. No loved one with whom I shared a close connection has ever died. I suppose all I have to say is that today I am feeling the emptiness and the sadness that comes with loss.

Friday, February 10, 2012


I've been taking classes the last several weeks at Tejas Yoga. Every time I go in, I notice these shoes. They're on the coatrack in a kind of makeshift Lost&Found.
"Look at those shoes!" I said to the guy who checked me in one evening.
"I know, right?" he answered. "They've been there for months. We've made up stories about the woman who left them here."
I stared at them a while longer, tugging off my white sweat socks and grabbing my mat. Who is the woman who walks into a yoga studio in fierce snakeskin heels and who walks out forgetting them? What happened to her in that 90-minute 80-degree class that made her forget her shoes? Maybe the spring day was so nice and the yoga felt so good that she decided that she wanted to walk down the street barefoot and feel the concrete of Wabash Avenue underneath her feet. Or did she have a pair of kicks, or flipflops, in her tote bag and she was so blissed out after all the stretching and pranayama that she just forgot they were there?
Or did she undergo some special, magical, life-changing decision on her mat? Did she realize, after the chakras and the sweating and the purifying that she'd somehow contributed to the suffering of a fellow creature by buying and wearing those shoes? Did she, in that moment, experience a profound understanding of ahimsa, convert to a vegan lifestyle, and choose to leave these shoes behind, no longer bound by her old ways of life?

My mother told me a long time ago that people don't change; generally, you wanting them to be different than they are isn't enough of a motivator for them to adjust their behavior, and they're just gonna keep doin' what they do. (She said lots of other things too, things that were as potentially damaging as this could be: any man who lives with you for more than six months without proposing is using you; watch the way you dress, you don't want to be one of those girls who's just asking for it; white people look at you and they think what they see in you is true of all black folks--I know now she was speaking out of a profoundly painful life experience and that she was trying to spare me her past injury, but man: let's just say I'm investing a lot of time and energy (and money!) in cleansing my self of some these principles.)
About people changing, I've sometimes thought that she was right. I remember having the same arguments with several women I used to know, over and over again, and wondering why we were stuck in the dysfunction loop.
But she's also totally wrong. I've been married for less than two years and already I'm a different person. My husband looks at me and comments on my language and how much I sound like him. I don't just ditch the paper bags we collect recyclable goods in, as I used to, I reuse them. I'm more analytical than I used to be. I'm more considerate. I listen better. I may even be more patient. I've gotten lots better at expressing myself in a self-focused way (as opposed to you you you, what's wrong with you, you make me feel X), and I've also gotten better at saying, Hey, you hurt me, even if the other person can't handle hearing that.
I can lay the bulk of these changes at the fact that I've married one of the greatest humans I've ever met, yes. But I can also say that I want to change. I look at myself a lot and think how might I do this better--live, write, relate, teach, listen, eat, sleep, exercise--how might I create a practice that makes me feel better about some part of my life?
I just read a photo in a blog about where Ryan Gosling meets radical sex ed* that argued that the new year uptick--"it's a new year, and your opportunity to a great new you" type thing--is tantamount to self-hatred. Maybe for some people it is. But change is as universal a part of the human condition as loss, pain, joy, growth. Maybe change is like growth more than anything else: that which doesn't change, dies. I don't know. I know there are loads of us on journeys of self-acceptance, of creating tolerance or beauty or awareness in the world, of writing policy that treats all of us as equal citizens in the world. (and don't kid yourselves friends; even after the good fight for marriage equality has been won, there will still be plenty of second-, third- or even lower-class citizens without a voice. A look at our current justice system should show you that.) Part of this journey requires change: change in the hearts of our legislators, change in the hearts of our neighbors, change in our language, in our speech, in our hearts and our thinking and action. If this change comes from a place of shame or hatred, for our selves or others, it's no good; but if it comes from a desire for a better life for all of us, maybe that's okay.

When I started dating the man I married, I'd decided to stop eating meat. I'd spent the summer working grueling hours teaching around the Midwest, and I'd been struggling to take care of myself under such a tight schedule. My yoga practice was becoming a serious part of my life, I was about to make a big move away from one of my closest friends, and I was undertaking the first large-form creative project I've ever done. There was no juice fasting and vision quest, no wandering in the desert for forty days, not even a silent prayer asking for blessing or guidance; I just did it. I stayed that way a vegetarian for almost three years, through plenty of great dates, and some awkward ones, through some bad news about my body--unrelated to dietary choices--and some other changes to my diet that weren't as easy to navigate, through a graduation, several dinner parties and some truly unpleasant family holiday observances. Then, right before my husband and I married, I decided to start eating meat again. Neither of us were sure if it was a good idea. But I didn't like the idea of refusing food that someone had set before me with their grace and joy, because I don't eat that. So on my honeymoon I ate Kalua pig and poke and lomi-lomi. It was great. It's been almost two years and I've spent the bulk of them omnivorous.
But recently I've drifted back the way of the meat-free. While eating meat and fish provided more options than existed when I was a gluten-free vegetarian, it never really felt satisfying. I often felt sluggish, quite like a python post-antelope. Heavy, clogged, fortified to the point of overstuffed, and inert, in as many ways as possible. At the start of 2012, the Husband and I made a commitment that we'd try to take more vegetarian meals; I was really bummed that so much of our diet had become animal-based, and we're both on the lookout for ways to make healthier choices for the both of us. Not long ago, I saw Bryant Terry give a convo and cooking demo, and I felt convicted in the loveliest way by some of the things he said. The least of which was his charming freestyle interpretation of this Boogie Down Productions classic

So I came home and listened to this, and while I've rarely been the person who didn't eat meat because she loved animals, it hit me. Not hard, not like Food, Inc. or Earthlings, but still. I'd never heard this song before. I'm pretty sure I was ten when this song came out, far from hip-hop, instead all caught up in Michael Jackson, New Edition and Al B. Sure. Terry talked about what a transformative experience this song was for him, how he became the guy everybody loves to hate, in your face about what you're putting into your body and what it does to you*. That didn't happen to me. But something happened to me. I came home from that conversation and demo galvanized, certain of something I'd been waffling over for months. I'm not using any labels to describe it--maybe in that sense it feels like a new kind of relationship--but I know it's there.

Which brings me back to the shoes. They're hot right*, and I know, I know, high heels are the devil, but I can't help it, I really like them. I've begun to accept that: I'm a woman who likes to wear high heels, not because it's professionally advantageous or because of anyone else's standard or because I feel like I have to subject myself to painful footwear in order to be taken seriously or conform to some majority-culture beauty standard, but because I like the way they look on me. No, I did not sneak out of the studio and try them on to see if they fit, in case you were wondering. I'm content to admire them every time I'm there, and wonder about the person who left them behind, and if they ever miss those sassy snakeskins.
May the changes we want to make, the changes we make freely, whether easily or hard-fought, be as easily left-behind as these pair of shoes.

*This blog is interesting, and while I'm not sure I understand it, and it sometimes provokes frustration in me, I think it's compelling.
*For the record, he's not that guy anymore. He identifies as a food activist, someone who uses food to bring about social change within the African-American communitiy.
*The only thing that would stop me wearing these shoes are the actual snakeskin. It's not an animal-treatment issue; I think snakeskin--gator, too--is really creepy.