My Conversation with Gloria Steinem

March 2, 2018

New York City is always filled with unexpected moments and celebrity sitings. This week my wife saw Robert DeNiro walking down MacDougal Street in the Village while was I was staring at my phone, texting a friend. My moment was when feminist godmother Gloria Steinmem walked into an event that I was scheduled to speak at on Tuesday and suddenly this woman, whose pictures I had pasted into PowerPoint slides and classroom handouts on feminist history, was standing in a room with me. There are few people, living or dead, who are more associated with the modern American feminist movement than Ms. Steinem.


We were in the Big Apple to help launch Michael Kimmel’s new book called Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into-And Out of-Violent Extremism. Kimmel is one of the leading scholars on the pitfalls and promises of masculinity. His 2008 bestseller, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, was required reading for my Social Theory students at Portland State. Healing From Hate follows the story of men who have left the hate movement and it recognizes that it wasn’t hate that brought them in but a deep pain associated with a crisis in their gendered expectations of how the world should be. The event was held at the downtown campus of Fordham University, which is part of Lincoln Center. There was wine and spanakopita, and Gloria Steinem.

I ran into the auditorium to tell Andrea who was in the house. “Go talk to her!” she said. “And get a picture.” It turns out she’s friend of Michael Kimmel’s and came to support him at his event. “Did you see Gloria Steinem is here?” he asked me. I just made some sounds that were not actual words and then, not wanting to wait until she was mobbed made a beeline to talk to her.

“Hi Gloria, I’m on the panel tonight and I just wanted to say hello.” I said something about being a feminist criminologist and I wasn’t nervous about speaking that night until I saw her arrive. She said something to the effect of “thank you for your service” and that we’re here to support each other and that I shouldn’t be nervous. I immediately relaxed and just noticed how, at almost 84, perfectly she had aged from the young firebrand infiltrating the Playboy club, to the founder of Ms. Magazine, to now, the elder states-person of American feminism. So I blathered on a bit about how I fell into feminist theory through my research on racist skinheads and now study the toxic masculinity in prisons. Then I thought, Holy shit, I’m talking to Gloria Steinem. I need to ask her a question.

“Okay, since this is rare opportunity for me. I have to ask you, what the hell is going on in this country. What’s your take on the whole Trump thing?” And then she laid this goddess wisdom at my feet.

“You know when a women is at most risk of being killed by her abuser is the moment she tries to escape him. When the battered wife tries to leave, that’s when he is his most violent. That’s where we are. We are finally escaping our abuser and he is violently attacking us. But we can do it. We can finally break free.”



That said it all in one elegant but ugly analogy. When Trump was elected Steinem’s sister in the struggle, Angela Davis, called the shocking election the “last gasp of dying white male supremacy.” Trump and his bullies want to drag us back to before Gloria and the feminists upset the applecart. He says he is not a feminist but is the “greatest supporter” of women and even claimed to break the glass ceiling “for” women. The man does not know what feminism is and the past year of Trump policies have been a executive version of a drunk husband in his “wife beater” telling the Mrs. to get back in the kitchen. The Alt Right shock troops and their president excusing domestic abusers (“He’s a great guy!”) are all connected. Hell, Trump would have raced into that school shooting even without a gun. He’s THAT macho. America is great again! Now make me a sandwich.

So we talked a bit more about her hopefulness and I added that the kids in Florida are the indicator of where we are headed and that I had a theory about the fourth wave of feminism.

“Oh, I don’t buy any of that stuff about waves. It’s all just one wave,” said the Second Wave poster child.

“Okay, then I guess I shouldn’t tell you my theory.”

“No please, go ahead,” she said nicely, as if I could offer any insight on feminism to the woman who wrote the book.

I told her the next step was what our friend Michael Kimmel was doing, to encourage men to embrace feminism and see it as not only an act of social justice but a way to liberate themselves from the limitations of patriarchy.

“Men, have been doing that since the sixties,” she said, alluding to the men’s groups that pioneered consciousness raising but remained fairly isolated on college campuses and places where white men had the resources to “dialogue” in “rap sessions.” My campaign to expand that discussion to young and diverse men got a positive nod.


“This generation of boys is really different,” I said, explaining how I often go to high schools to talk to classes about these issues. “I love to tell young men about how when I was their age  someone started telling us that ‘Real men don’t eat quiche,’ which I hated because I loved quiche. I tell them real men go to the store to buy tampons for the woman in their lives. Half of the teenage boys squirm and respond in horror but the other half say, ‘I already do that!'”

She laughed and told me about how her date that evening had written a piece in the early 70s about how different things would be if men could menstruate (which she rewrote for Ms. in 1978). I felt like I was carrying her torch. That we were parallel lines and it was cool as hell. We got a few pictures together, which I immediately uploaded to Facebook. Even though taking my wife to New York for a few days was an epic treat, that picture will go up on the mantle.

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The event itself was incredible. Michael discussed his book and how racist men don’t stop being racist because someone told them their racism was stupid. An excerpt from an upcoming film about the topic by documentarian Peter Hutchison was shown. I’m in it so I wasn’t sure how to react when my face appeared up on the big screen. And then an assembled panel of former racists, representing the organization Life After Hate, and researchers spoke. The two researchers were myself and Kathleen Blee, who has done some amazing work on women in organized racist movements, including the Ku Klux Klan. Gloria sat in the front row and every time I tried to bring the conversation back to gender I’d look at her as if to say, “You’re the reason I’m talking about this.”

I know things like this happen in New York all the time, but there can be magical moments when you connect with someone, human to human, who has inspired you. I’ll always hope I didn’t come off as an annoying fanboy and I’ll sit with the fantasy that maybe she was actually inspired by something I said that night in Manhattan.




In Defense of the Classroom

January 12, 2018

The first time I ever taught a college-level class was as a graduate student at Atlanta’s Emory University in White Hall, probably the fall 1986. I was the teaching assistant of renown criminologist Robert Agnew. He was out of town at a conference and left it to his 22-year-old TA to give a lecture on some crime theories that were to be covered that day. I spent a week preparing, including jokes and pop culture references I thought the undergrads would appreciate. When it was time to shine, I just froze. Like Cindy Brady on that game show, I was frozen, nailed to podium. My main memory was the realization that I can see my own cheeks. So much for the dazzling young professor.

It wasn’t long before I got my 10,000 hours of teaching in. As a grad student, I was teaching at private Emory, urban community colleges, and rural universities up in North Georgia. All my peers were musicians and I had found my own performance platform. Give me a topic and I was ready to rock it. I had found what I was good at.


My inspiration for my whole approach can be blamed on the British film, To Sir With Love. The 1967 classic stars Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackeray, an American teacher thrown in with a bunch of working class “unteachable” students. It’s the racial opposite of all the American white savior pics, like Dangerous Minds, where a rebellious white teacher shows all the minority kids why they should value education. Thackeray is black and his students are white and he soon realizes a traditional curriculum isn’t gonna a work with these hoodlums so he throws their school books in the trashcan and takes them out museums and shit for some real-world lessons. Cue greatest theme song ever.

I had a similar moment at Emory when I realized that not only were my bourgeois students not doing the readings, they weren’t really taking my class seriously. Channeling Sidney (who shares my birthday), I threw all the books out of the classroom window in the Candler Library. I cancelled all the quizzes and exams and told them that now the only requirement was that they come to class and participate. They were always bugging me, on nice days, to have class outside on the grassy Emory quad. I told them we would now have every class outside, no matter what the weather.

That little tantrum paid off because that was the most engaged I had ever seen students on that campus. They read, discussed, and did a lot of the work for me. There were days when it was a brutal Georgia thunderstorm and we’d be sitting in the grass, soaking wet, discussing semiotics and doing class analysis of subcultural phenomenon. People must have thought we were crazy but I still hear from those students.


There are two general ways of thinking about teaching at the university level, what we call pedagogy. One is the “sage on the stage” who stands up there and shares his or her knowledge with the lucky students. The other is the “guide on the side” who facilitates the learning process, building on the student already accumulated knowledge. As I began to fashion myself as a feminist educator, the guide on the side made much more sense. I could assign a book, like The Beauty Myth, but, the real learning came from the testimony from female students. Similarly, I would tackle race by assigning a classic like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but the students of color would have the real authority on the topic. I just sit there with my coffee taking it in.

My teaching style over the years has been a bit more like a grand performance art piece. Once, on the first day of my Youth Subcultures class at Portland State University, I walked in the classroom and asked to the students to follow me. Like the Pied Piper, I led them outside to Southwest Broadway, the main boulevard that runs through campus. I asked the students to lie down in the street. They did, stopping the busy traffic across three lanes. It looked like a protest but I was trying to make the point about the street as a multi-facet metaphor for youth in America. We were literally on the street. That one got back to the dean.


I’ve been mourning my exit from PSU and sad that my program at the University of Oregon was defunded, throwing a lot of committed teachers out of work in favor of some “on line learning” alternative. There is nothing that matches the magic that happens in the classroom. So I couldn’t be more exited to finally be back in the classroom teaching sociology. I started my adjunct position at Portland Community College on Wednesday with a discussion of how the sociological imagination liberates us from the boxes that we have been shoved into. Like getting back on a bike, I was right back in the zone. This stuff matters.

In a time when universities are shedding tenure track faculty in favor of websites, the vitality of the classroom is the last fortress of our shared Enlightenment values. Online education is a hoax. Research demonstrates that online students retain less information. (There are some effective online classes and, for some students, it is their only access to higher education.) The student who is registered for the class may not be the one who is actually taking it and the professor who is listed as the instructor may not be the one who is actually teaching it. It’s a money making fraud. So back I’m there in the classroom. I don’t need a Powerpoint slideshow or any fancy technology. I just need students who are ready for an adventure. I’m back, let’s go.

The emotional fatigue of looking for work

October 19, 2017

I had no idea it was going to be this hard. When I jumped ship from Portland State University in 2015, I thought I could just spend some time being a writer and taking care of my daughter while my wife went back to work. I had a small publishing advance, a book optioned in Hollywood, and a nice nest egg I had built for a rainy day.

It needs to stop raining.

The hope was, with my credentials, I could just hop into another gig when the time was right and the opportunity was meaningful for the work I do. It hasn’t played out that way. I’ve had a couple of close calls, including a great job opportunity at CUNY in Manhattan that I probably priced myself out of. (NYC is  expensive! Especially for a family.) There was a job with the city of Portland as a “hate crime program specialist” that looked like I had written it for myself. I didn’t even get an interview even though I’m already doing this work in the community. A longtime city employee told me it’s often the case that the city already has the hire identified and the applicant search is just an empty, but required, formality. Great. Thanks for getting my hopes up.

With a mortgage and a kid in daycare (and two maxed-out credit cards), I’ve suddenly realized that I’m the downwardly mobile American I’ve been lecturing about since I started interviewing skinheads in the Reagan years. Matching my old salary would be fantastic. Meaningful work is vital. But at this point, I’m starting to wonder what UPS drivers make during the holidays. I’ve been picky, hoping to stay in Portland or, if we have to move, some exciting Mecca of culture. God bless, but I’m not applying for the open position at South Dakota State University. My work requires gangs of disaffected youth and stellar coffee shops.

I’m writing this because I’ve learned that a lot of my friends are going through the same thing. Finding the “perfect job,” writing a compelling cover letter, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know how many trips I’ve planned with my wife after I get back to full time work. The excitement for Cozy to be in her pre-school five days a week. An end to the sporadic income from consulting work. Benefits! A kitchen remodel! Work clothes! And then the “Thanks, but no thanks” email pops up in my inbox and bursts that bubble. Again. It’s an emotional roller coaster. And there’s typically one moment each day when I wonder what happened to my financially secure life and how the hell am I going to get out of this.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m plenty busy. Between conferences in Spokane and Birmingham this month, CBS is flying me to New York City for an on camera interview. After I take Cozy trick or treating I’m being flown to Michigan to give a keynote. It’s exciting but it’s not the steady income a parent needs to provide for his child. Plus, Andrea says when I get back to work full time, she’s just going to stay home and make Mexican food. So there’s that. At 53, I should be fully able to provide for my family, but a Gen X mid-career change in a Millennial world has obstacles I didn’t foresee. You start to see why some men going on shooting sprees.


As someone who has written a lot about masculinity (and its connection to violence), the upwardly mobile ethos is woven into my self concept. Male depression is acutely connected to lost economic status. I flash to that image of Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness where he’s clutching his son in a train station bathroom where they are basically living. I think about that scene all the time. I know that won’t be Cozy and I, but I don’t know that either. I know I’ve got a great skill set to offer, but why am I not working full time?



Middle-aged men are the fastest growing demographic for suicide. There was a 43% increase between 1997 and 2014 for men between 45 and 60. Much of it is related to economic stress. I had my bout with suicidal ideation in the late 1990s. But a two-year-long prescription to Zoloft and writing my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart (about suicide), got me back on track. Now, as a father, I can’t imagine doing that to my daughter. I hope Frances Bean Cobain curses her father, Kurt, once in a while for abandoning her that way. It doesn’t mean the thought doesn’t creep into my head occasionally, as the ultimate F.U. to the people that ripped away my career. But it’s better to be here and broke then not be here at all. Being an agnostic, I don’t rely on the belief that after I’m dead I can just sit on the cloud and watch all chumps cry, “We should have given him that job!”

I’m pretty lucky. My child is healthy. My marriage is strong. My roof isn’t leaking. And thanks to Obamacare, we (still) have health insurance. But it’s really hard sometimes. The uncertainty. The wondering what I can sell to pay a bill. The wear and tear on my wife as she shoulders the economic load and wonders when the old “full time and fulfilled” Randy will come back. It can double a soul over. I think all my fellow jobseekers probably have a certain Tom Petty song on a loop in their heads.

Well I know what’s right

I got just one life

In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around

But I’ll stand my ground

This blog is partially about men coming to terms with their vulnerability without resorting to the tired and destructive tropes of old school masculinity. So a message to those trying not to lose too much while they build something new – Hang in there. Everything is in the rearview mirror at some point. The sacrifice will be worth it.

“Speaking for all feminists…”

July 28, 2017

I’ve never pretended to speak for all male feminists, let alone all feminists on earth. I don’t even speak for my own feminism from a year ago. Life, its lessons (and a few good articles in Gender & Society) have their impact. Just like a person can’t step in the same river twice, one’s understanding of the world is constantly evolving. Take a look at Donald Trump. A year ago he pledged to be the advocate of transexual Americans and now he’s throwing them under the bus to divert attention from his multiple dumpster fires. He’s (de) evolving!


When I taught feminist theory at Portland State University, I would warn students about people who painted feminism with broad brushstrokes and feminists as simplistic caricatures. People like woman-hating personality Rush Limbaugh, who is fond of using the therm, “femi-nazi.” People who think being pro-woman means being anti-man. People who can’t even define feminism but spend their free time making the feminist-bashing memes that litter the internet.


The reality is that feminism is a many splendored thing. It’s a huge umbrella under which there are multiple ideas about gender relations. I’ve spent some time on this blog discussing liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and Riot Grrrl feminism. There’s first, second, and post-modern third-wave feminism. Eco-feminism has a voice but so does free-market feminism. There are Muslim feminists, Catholic feminists, and conservative feminists. Even Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist. There’s also a growing phalanx of male feminists who I hope will become the fourth wave, smashing male domination from inside the old boys club.


There’s plenty of disagreement within these camps. Just read bell hook’s first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981). In it she writes, “It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement.” There are plenty of people who call themselves feminists in the pop world and have no idea what intersectionality is (and I’m guessing that includes Ms. Palin).

So to say, “feminists think…” is hugely problematic. What is the feminist position on the Wonder Woman movie? I’ve read dozens of different positions, all rightfully feminist. The people that paint feminism with a broad strokes don’t truly understand what feminism is and is not. I got some chuckles when I presented a paper at a conference in the late 1990s making the case that the Spice Girls were an effective vehicle for teaching tweens about feminist principles. Nearly 20 years later there are a lot of millennial feminists making that exact same case.


What feminists of every stripe have in common is a belief in patriarchy, a power dynamic that advantages men. Some see that as a individual level thing, like men’s use of violence against women, some see it as a macro-level systemic thing, including any religion that defines God as “He.” Even more see it as both. But after that, all bets are off. I often argue that all women understand the presence of patriarchy, whether it’s the glass ceiling at their job, or their rapey uncle, or the constant pressure to “look good” in the face of the tick tock of age. They might not have the intellectual vocabulary to “frame the present discourse,” but all women are feminists IMHO. Even anti-feminist women have a feminist brain.


There are plenty of aggro feminists who don’t think men can be a part of the dialogue, just as there are black activists that don’t think there is room at the table for white allies. I get it. As a white person, I can dip into the struggle for black liberation when I have time and pat myself on the back for being “woke.” My male privilege is the same thing. I can work to smash patriarchy, but I’m still benefitting from that patriarchy even when I’m in the middle of a woman’s march. “Look, it’s a man here to save us!” I’ve been tackling both the issue of male privilege and white privilege in my Recovering Asshole podcast and some of the conversations have been challenging for this “woke” white boy.

There is this emerging concept of “solidarity work” – showing up to the liberation work of groups you don’t belong to.  It’s all about being ready to take a backseat and asking how to help. That means men can be feminists but they have to know when to shut up and listen to their female compatriots. Since men have traditionally been the “voice of authority,” it can be a new experience for guys to STFU, especially when males have been taught to disregard female voices. Remember when Trump said he didn’t think Hillary Clinton had the stamina to be president? I guess by “president” he meant “playing golf every weekend.”

Without a doubt there are people who have hijacked feminism for their own purposes. This includes the “victim feminists” who see all women as inherent victims of men. This is not feminism. These fake feminists erase women’s agency, including to be sexual beings who want what they want and have every right to go after the shama-lama-ding-dong. Consenting adults, even the female ones, can get up to some freaky hanky skanky. (This is a theme in my recent book, The Dream Police.) No leading feminist, not Andrea Dworkin, not Catherine MacKinnon, has ever said “All sex is rape.” But the enemies of feminists repeat this fake feminist mantra, and it’s not just Rush Limbaugh doing it.


There’s a whole world of feminism to explore, something for everyone, and none of it is set in stone. People’s perspectives evolve. Just ask a roomful of feminists whether or not transwomen are part of their struggle. You’ll get lots of answers. Then ask that same room six-months later. My own feminist path as been a jagged path with plenty of missteps. Becoming a father of daughter certainly has played a role in that. So beware of anyone who claims to speak for all feminists. You just can’t have that many brains in one head.


The Need to Work

June 22, 2017

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It was a blessing in disguise. My paternity leave from Portland State University was involuntarily extended thanks to a bizarre collaboration between a clinically psychotic felon and a couple of administrators with a clear agenda. That time away from full-time work has allowed be to help my daughter transition from a baby into a little person. It’s also allowed me to publish a book, teach on a tropical island, write this weekly blog, start a podcast, and “man” the homefront while my wife advances in the work world. And I got to be home with Cozy from the first gurgle to her saying things like “Let’s check it out,” and “I ran like a cheetah.” It’s been a beautiful experience filled with art, adventure, and great love.

And now it’s time for it to end.


The truth is I’ve been looking for work ever since I jumped off the gangplank at PSU. But I had a nice cushion made up of a settlement, savings, some publishing money, and a perfect collection of rare Avengers and Hulk comic books that now (sadly) belong to someone else. A $50,000 loan from my retirement was going to get us through to my next gig. Now, suddenly, I can see the bottom of the well. The money is about gone. Invest the last bucket in Powerball tickets?

Two years ago I thought I could just make a local lateral transition. There was a visiting professorship at Reed College (they wanted a quantitative methods teacher and I’m a qualitative schmoe) and a tenure-track gig at the University of Portland (they could have me but only with my tenure). I was sad but not shocked when those didn’t pan out. (They must not have known how awesome I was.) So I branched out and got an interview at CUNY in Manhattan and then a second interview with the provost. (I must have asked for too much money for that one.) What seemed like it would be a relatively smooth “mid-career” move looked increasingly more and more difficult. On top of the fact that universities are replacing tenure-line professorships with the academic slave-labor known as “adjuncts” and “on-line education,” the person that was applying was me, and, according the rumor mill, I have baggage.

What started off as a few disheartening roadblocks became dozens of rejections. Some positions I was a stretch to qualify for. (I would have made an awesome dean at Eastern Oregon University.) Some positions I was definitely an over-qualified candidate. (After my great interview, nobody could tell me why I didn’t get the job teaching Intro Sociology at Green River Community College.) Some jobs would have pushed me out of my comfort zone. (Oh, how I wanted to be the new executive director of Caldera Arts.) And some jobs were tailor-made for my experience and skills. (Whoever ends up being the new Diversity Program Specialist for the Portland Police, I challenge you to an equity duel.)

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Why am I not getting these jobs? You’d think people would want an award-winning professor, published in his field, with a long record of community service, who is likely quoted in your copy of the New York Times or making points on CNN while you’re on the treadmill. Are all the other candidates that much better? Or is something else going on?

I left PSU under a cloud of suspicion. It’s no secret that there were a few higher-ups that had it in for me. They were fueled by the rumor and innuendo that I was some type of campus playboy. A old bogus post on an internet gossip site that had a picture of me with my girlfriend of almost three years and the assertion that she “slept with me for an A” gave them additional ammo. There was never anything of the sort ever in my academic career. No human can say they got any special treatment in any of my classes for anything. But when gossip rules, you can’t win. (Hillary Clinton, I feel your pain.)


Then a “former racist skinhead” named Steven Stroud decided he was going to try everything he could think of to attack me for some perceived slight that existed in his psychotic mind. He began writing numerous letters from his prison cell to the university, accusing me of everything under the sun. Out of pure luck, he finally hit on one thing these powerful few could use.

My crime: My wife was a former student.

That’s all it took. Forget that Andrea and I were consenting adults. Forget that she was the one who first asked me me out (after the class had ended). That was it. I had signed an agreement five years earlier that I would never date a PSU student after a stalker went all Basic Instinct on me and it was a quick way to resolve the matter. Now the torches were relit. They even traveled out to Eastern Oregon to visit this guy in prison to see if there were any more salacious details he could add to their “case.” They were giddy.


I have zero regrets about my relationship with Andrea. We are incredibly happy and more in love every day. And that love produced our beautiful daughter. Cozy is the sun my little planet was destined to revolve around. She will change history. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. My only regret is that I quickly settled my lawsuit against the university. I had the moral high ground and could have won, especially if I took the story to my colleagues, students, and the general public. But we had a new baby and I was scared I would burn up our nest egg on lawyer fees while they used tuition and taxpayer dollars to fund their highly skilled legal team. I settled and thought I could just leave my academic home of twenty years and move on.


Now over two years later it feels like I have been blacklisted; that the rumor-mongers are still waging their campaign against me. I need to work. The loan has to be repaid, the mortgage is due, and my daughter deserves the life I waited 50 years to give her. (I was one of those people who said, for decades, “I can’t have children, I’m not financially stable enough!”) She is so excited to exist in this world, I should be able to give her some security (although I will be eternally grateful to WIC for making sure my child at least had $8 worth of fruits and vegetables each month). This kid already deserves more than I will be able to give her.

So here’s the deal: I’m a passionate worker with a PhD. from Emory University and a long employment record. My last full time salary was $82,000 for a 9-month contract. I will work for less than that, but it’s gotta cover the bills. And I need benefits. Republicans  have made it clear they want to kill the Affordable Care Act which, at the moment, provides health care to my family. We’d like to stay in Portland but for a decent job we’ll move to Arkansas and just annoy the locals by playing Bikini Kill and drawing Hitler mustaches on Trump posters.

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I was an awesome professor. There’s plenty of people who will tell you that my classes at Portland State changed lives. I’d like a job that makes the world a better place. If you can convince me that selling vacuum cleaners can do that, I’ll listen. But it’s time for me to get back to work. My family is depending on me.

Please share this with anyone who might be able to help. References and my mother’s secret cheesecake recipe available on request. Email:



The Art Teacher Was a Lady

March 2, 2017

Art Lady, you saved me.

It was big thrill when we got out of our usual elementary school routine to go to art class. It may have been for only one hour once a week, but it gave the kids a chance to use a different part of their brains. The teacher was usually a lady with crazy make-up and funky clothes (a big deal in 1970s Georgia), but we were happy to be unleashed. I seem to remember making a lot of crappy ashtrays for my parents who didn’t smoke. But whoever she was, Ms. Art Teacher always let us do our own thing. And I don’t ever remember any Mr. Art Teachers.

There was a coded message that art was feminine. Men taught math, even football coaches, and women “let you” do art. History (as the history of wars) was necessary, but art was extracurricular. When President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002, public schools saw a dramatic defunding of “non-essential” arts and music programs (as well as history and language classes) to shift resources to math and English. Once again the feminine was devalued. So the millennials got even less time with the Art Lady then we did. Gee, what could go wrong?

There are a truckload of studies that show the benefits of exposing kids to arts in school. Students that have arts, music, and dance in school score better in reading, writing, and math and have higher graduation rates. Kids with an art background become better citizens and add to community cohesion. Schools with art programs have fewer disciplinary problems. Students who take art classes even have healthier brains. And the findings go on and on. But why waste our time with artsy fartsy arts when we could be teaching our youth to find the value of x?


I’ve been reflecting on my own arts education, or lack of it. The elementary school arts teacher didn’t follow us into high school. (There was no middle school in Georgia in the 1970s). There was a small arts club at our school but not much beyond that. (The Industrial Arts Club had more members.) Certainly if you showed any affinity for the arts you were called a “fag.” This was especially true for boys. I’ve written about my short tenure playing high school football as simply a performance of the narrow definition of high school masculinity. I was riding the bench when I would have rather been reading and listening to records. It wasn’t until the arrival of punk rock to rural Georgia that I found righteousness in being bullied. Iggy Pop saved me from a life as a half-assed jock.


I was one of the lucky ones. My parents were from Cleveland, not Stone Mountain. My mom played saxophone in a jazz band and got to hang out with Louis Armstrong. Her mother was a globe trotter and brought us musical instruments from all over the planet. (I used the balalaika to mime to Kiss songs.) My dad traveled for business and brought the outside world back with him. We had a baby grand piano in the house and regularly gathered around and sang the songs of old. I liked to act in school plays. (I was Mr. Grumpy in Mr. Grumpy’s Toy Shop, dammit!) My great love of literature was nurtured at home, so while my friends were off getting drunk in a field, I was reading George Orwell, Jim Carroll and barbarian stories by Robert E. Howard, while listening to Blue Oyster Cult albums. My cohort seemed to reject anything connected expression, by themselves or others. (Although there was a brief moment in 1980 when it seemed that half of Redan High School was reading Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire.) The mission, as it is in every high school, was to manage conformity. And anyone a few steps outside of normal had to be punished.


By my senior year there was a small group of us punk kids and it was brutal. We’d get physically attacked by boys who demand that we stop listening to “fag rock” and “go buy some Nugent.” Gender conformity extended to even music. (I actually had Ted Nugent in my LP collection, between the New York Dolls and Gary Numan.) Thanks to rock magazines, like Creem and Circus, I got into the Australian band AC/DC long before they broke in the US. But I knew if I wore my AC/DC t-shirt to to RHS in the 70s, the reaction from the rednecks was like the drool of Pavlov’s dogs. “Hey, Gayzak! AC/DC? That means you’re a fucking faggot! Ha, ha!” Two years later they would worship this band, but they had to make it to the overground first. Anything from the underground was associated with “fairies.”

Of course, for me, the underground is where I wanted to be. I wanted to escape to the Lower East Side of NYC and hang out with Patti Smith and the Ramones. Or San Francisco and sip cappuccinos with the bastard children of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Or the Sunset Strip in LA where I could have a funny haircut and hang out with actors. There was one store at Lennox Square Mall in Atlanta called Rain that sold “new wave clothes,” and once I got my drivers license I was a regular customer, fully knowing that identifying myself as “other” would lead to more beat downs from the boys. Saint Iggy, protect us.


The world of art was my escape. I was never told by the people that mattered to me, including parents, teachers, and rock stars interviewed in the sacred pages of Rolling Stone, that I should not search for my own voice. When you’re a kid, it’s mostly consuming to find the idiom that most speaks to you. Am I a realist, surrealist, goth, or mod? And then you start, in bits and pieces, and five-line poems and napkin sketchings, to externalize your own internal chaos. For me it was discovering the teenage poetry of Liverpool writers, like Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, that got my #2 pencil moving. “In forgotten graveyards everywhere the dead will quietly bury the living and you will tell me you love me, tonight at noon.” They opened the door to bebop jazz and the world of bohemia. My mind was gone and my body soon followed. Out, out, out of Stone Mountain.

I’m reflecting on all this because the strange world of Facebook has given me a fascinating (and totally unscientific) longitudinal data set. It’s allowed me to reconnect with my high school peers and peek in on their trajectories over the last 30+ years. Those of us who hung out on the fringes of conformity, the formerly despised “art fags,” generally ended up in some pretty cool places and are still rooted in a cultural defiance that others never got to enjoy. The Nugent-crowd still has a vested interest in the status quo. (“Give Trump a chance. Get rid of those illegals. Religious freedom of cake bakers to discriminate!”) There are certainly exceptions to this, but the art-averse climate of my little Georgia Klan town is not that dissimilar to the defunded arts program world that gave us Trump and the “mandate” to not offer protection to transgender kids who need to use the goddam bathroom.


At what point did we become truly human? One could argue that it was when Paleolithic people first began making art. Artifacts dating as far back as 50,000 years show our attempt to translate our experience for others. The 10,000 year-old cave paintings in France are vivid depictions of not only the real but the spiritual. What is life? There is a direct link from a cave dweller banging out a new rhythm on a hollow log to the latest Ed Sheeran song. (Well, I’m guessing cave drummer didn’t see the beat as “product,” but you get what I mean.) The arts tell us we are unique and have our own voice. You don’t need Ted Nugent to speak for you.

It’s funny how the arts are framed as feminine. All the most famous artists are male. Name one female painter other than Frida Kahlo. Meanwhile girls and women are creating amazing works because it is an innately human act. It’s like how cooking is a “feminine art,” but all the highest paid chefs are men. Casting the wide world of the arts, whether it’s playing a cello or writing a memoir, as a feminine world allows it to be marginalized. Artists are in touch with their feminine side and soldiers are in touch with their masculine side. And we wonder why ISIS blows up libraries and Donald Trump wants to defund the National Endowment for the Arts to help pay for record build up of the military.

Our future as humans depends on fostering the arts among our youth. I bet the Art Lady would agree.


My Unintended Gap Year: The humility of looking for work

Sept. 1, 2016


I had my dream job. For twenty years I was an award winning sociology professor at Portland State University. My research on hate groups made me an internationally recognized expert on the subject and I did countless media appearances, from The O’Reilly Factor to Al Jazeera. I published and presented and diligently worked my way up the ranks: the young Assistant Professor, the tenured Associate Professor, and finally the stately Full Professor. Most importantly, I would walk out of every single class and feel privileged that I got to impact so many lives on crucial issues like race, gender, and power dynamics. Occasionally, I felt it was like a huge mistake that a punk like me ended up with such a wonderful career.

Then this career that meant something to the world was taken away from me because I fell in love.

In what seemed like a David Mamet play, a small group of powerful administrators teamed up with a racist skinhead incarcerated in an Oregon prison to purge me from campus. I was an officer in the faculty union and we had recently voted to go on strike so there were already battle lines drawn. My crime? My wife was taking an online Women’s Studies class at PSU. After numerous accusations generated by the inmate, all of which fell flat, they asked me, “Are you sleeping with any students at this university?” I responded, “Yes, I sleep with one every night. My wife.” Our child was in her carrier set next to me when I said it. And that was that. They had their technical violation.

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Andrea had been a student in one of my huge Intro Sociology classes and I never really even spoke to her during the class. After the class was over I ran into her at Dante’s bar and she bought me a shot of tequila and asked if I’d like to go out sometime. I told her I didn’t date students. She bought me another shot of tequila and I said maybe we could be friends. It wasn’t long after that that we fell madly in love, became travel companions, got married and had a beautiful daughter. Not once in this drama did I ever regret choosing to be with Andrea. She is the partner I’ve waited for all my life. Any regret is reserved for the trust I placed in university administrators to recognize that love is a gift to be celebrated, not punished.

The whole thing was pointless, yet emotionally devastating. I can’t speak to their true motives. I have my suspicions. They had discretion to weigh my contribution to the university against this supposed offense, so it’s hard for me to see their response as a rational action. Perhaps they saw my unconventionality as a liability. My only real regret in the matter is that I let the lawyers make all the decisions after that point. I should have fought harder against the rumor mongers and for my place at the school that I loved. But we had a new baby and I was afraid if I didn’t accept the settlement, I would have a hard time finding work in my field again.

So I walked away from my dream job.

I wanted to write and be a stay-at-home dad for a bit. I hoped I could land in something quickly, a visiting professorship, a publishing advance, an invitation to be on Dancing with the Stars. Turns out the market for full professors is pretty slim. Shrinking academic budgets have departments looking for cheap Assistant Professors just out of grad school. “I’ve already been through the tenure process,” I said to myself. “I’m not going through that hell again.” With my experience couldn’t I just hop over to Reed College or the University of Portland? I had guest lectured at both.


In the meantime, the great health benefits I had at PSU ended and our baby needed health care. We went on to the Oregon Health Plan and signed up for WIC. These services for “poor people” I had lectured about since my grad school days at Emory were now a vital part of keeping my family going. I would take Cozy to the dental services with the other low income parents and thank the universe that Obamacare was actually a thing. But going to the bank to take out my unemployment funds or using the WIC vouchers to purchase milk and government cheese for my child was the first lesson in humility. “This is just temporary,” I would promise myself. My wife, who actually had a job would laugh. “You’re a white man with a PhD,” she’d say. “You’re gonna be fine.”


I had plenty of irons in the fire. I was happy to have time to work on a new novel, partially inspired by what happened. Friends and fans of my last book fully funded a $10,000 Kickstarter project to back it. I developed a reality show about teachers that might have some legs. I sent off applications for jobs I seemed to be cut out for, including at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC. I was flown out to interview for a professorship at a great university in NYC and then flown out again to meet with the Provost. When she asked me what salary I’d require, I answered with my last salary at PSU and hoped that would be enough to move my family to the very expensive Big Apple. They ended up giving the job to some kid straight out of Harvard who probably said he would work for half that,

All the money I had banked away over the years started to thin out. Andrea got a great job at a law firm but I had to start selling off my beloved comic book collection. My summer teaching position in Isla Mujeres meant we could live on pesos and stretch it out for a while. I had fashioned myself as a bohemian stay-at-home dad, writing, pouring wine while Andrea painted, and presenting on Portland’s civil rights history with the baby on my hip. As long as the mortgage was covered I got less and less interested in looking for a job that didn’t suit me. (Although, I worried I might end up working weekends at the Foot Locker.)

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I’ve had a great detour for the last year-and-a-half, away from regular work. I desperately miss my students and colleagues at PSU, but I’ve continued to teach classes at the University of Oregon and on Isla Mujeres. I’ve done dozens of important tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, worked as a grant evaluator at the National Institute of Justice in DC, and written a pretty damn good book that will be out in a month. But it’s time to get back to work. Cozy is 2 and Andrea has her eyes on law school.  I need to step back into the provider role.

The second stage of humility is the asking for help finding a job. My Pisces brain thought someone would just hand me a plum gig because I’m just so fabulous. I don’t think it works that way in the real world. It’s time to put myself out there and get my foot in a few doors. That might include swallowing my pride and taking a few steps back so I can compete with those kids right out of grad school. A friend messaged me, “Don’t be afraid to backtrack with teaching in Higher Ed. There is no need to be prideful. You had a great run in education and maybe you could have another great run.”

There are so many philosophies to job-seeking. Some think you should wait for the job you envision yourself in. I just want to be able to take care of my family and the world they live in. Also, I know Excel.

I’ve worked steadily since I was 15. I got a job putting up Christmas decorations at Northlake Mall. At 16, I was the youngest person hired at Turtles Records, a great local Atlanta music chain that is long gone. I’ve loved work all my life, making this “gap year” a strange experience. But raising a child is a full time job in itself and I think Cozy is a better person for hiring me.

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So here I am, passionate about seeing the human race evolve into a kinder species. Sometimes my sense of humor is questionable. I’m obsessed with music I haven’t heard yet. I’m completely devoted to my wife and child and making their dreams come true. I love to teach and write and sometimes forget where the comma goes. I have a lifetime of community involvement and thousands of former students that hopefully learned a thing or two about how the world works. I’m paper trained and I need a job.