Florida, places, political action, society

2017 A Day Without a Woman

I participated in A Day Without A Woman earlier this year on March 8th, International Women’s Day. I initially learned about it from the Women’s March group, then read a Facebook post arguing they were co-opting it, and the International Women’s Strike organization was the real originator of the event.

As with the Women’s March itself, there were criticisms that A Day Without A Woman was an action only women with privilege could take. The concept behind the event was to show how much women do through our absence. This excludes women without jobs, and women with jobs that would fire them if they took the day off.

Although I agreed with some of the criticisms, I decided to still participate. I believe imperfect action is usually better than no action at all. I believe it’s better to try to live in line with my beliefs and attempt to change things than to accept the status quo simply because I’m too afraid to make mistakes or be criticized.

I was on an email list from the St. Petersburg, Florida Women’s March, and from that, found out about an A Day Without A Woman event on the beach. I drove out to St. Pete and stopped at a raw vegan restaurant to have dinner alone before continuing on to the beach.

day without a woman crowd

The day felt very peaceful. I switched my hours around at work that week, which means I didn’t technically “strike,” so I know my participation in A Day Without A Woman was more for me than for any external effect. Still, I’m glad I took part in it. Like other political activities I’ve participated in, it was rejuvenating and helped me feel more optimistic that the world isn’t as dire as it can feel when I’m viewing the news from behind a screen.

The crowd was joyful. I learned that a Quaker activist group organized the event. A large group of mostly women gathered in groups to spell out “RESIST” with our bodies. It surprised me that, near my letter, at least (“T”), men were organizing by telling women where to sit or stand. I’m sure they are kind, wonderful people, but isn’t that a little ironic?

day without a woman beach

I chatted with a couple people, and everyone was so happy. As with other events, it seemed different people were there for different reasons–some to protest Trump, some because of the threat to healthcare, some for immigrants’ rights, etc. I think the common thread was a desire to feel community, kindness, goodness, and caring.

If you want to read more about this event, here’s an article in Creative Loafing that I found while writing this blog post.

As I reflect on 2017 and look to 2018, I hope to participate in more events. I realize that I often feel disconnected, like I’m not part of a community. It’s time to change that.

(All photos by me except for the drone photo, which I found on the Quaker Huddle Facebook page.)

Florida, non-profit organizations, places, political action, Public Policy, society

Volunteering for Planned Parenthood

planned parenthood

Like many people, I was motivated to get more politically involved by Trump’s election and the Women’s March. In early 2017, I decided to begin volunteering for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.

One of the first events I volunteered for involved contributing to a physical presence on the day of an anti-Planned Parenthood protest. We weren’t supposed to think of ourselves as counter-protesters since we weren’t protesting anything. Our goal was to overshadow the protesters so anyone coming to the clinic felt welcomed and not bombarded, and so people driving past noticed us more than them.

planned parenthood

Standing in the line on the street was fun. I felt some of that same Women’s March excitement in the air. People talked more about Trump than about the protesters. It was clear that his inauguration had spurred people into action. Like me, many of the people there were volunteering for Planned Parenthood for the first time.

The event was eye-opening for me. Our show of support for Planned Parenthood in the face of the protesters was dramatic. We arrived before they did, stayed later, and outnumbered them by at least 3-to-1. Also, they were more pathetic than I had expected them to be. I figured I’d feel anger when facing the protesters, but I felt sad. There were some elderly men, and also families with children whose faces showed they had been forced to attend. Their signs were full of fear-inducing phrases in ugly colors and fonts, while ours were bright pink. The protesters looked miserable; the Planned Parenthood side was joyful.

planned parenthood

This event was meaningful for me in more ways than one–it was the first time I publicly showed support for the pro-choice movement. I’ve been pro-choice for over a decade, but it’s the one political issue I’ve shied away from posting on social media about, or discussing with family. I was raised in a fairly conservative Christian household. Abortion is a major issue for most of my family members. When they vote Democrat, they do so with a heavy heart because of this one issue. I know that they are not ignorant or insensitive zealots–they are caring and compassionate. They genuinely view abortion as murder, and want it to be illegal in order to save lives.

I began calling and thinking of myself as a liberal when I was around 17 years old, but for the first couple years, I’d mention abortion as the one issue I disagreed with–I thought it should only be allowed in special circumstances, such as rape or incest. At some point in my early twenties I began considering myself pro-choice, but if anyone asked about my beliefs, I’d say, “I’d never get an abortion, but I think other people should be able to if they want.”

planned parenthood

Now, at 36, over two decades after I first began developing my political beliefs, I feel comfortable standing in the street wearing hot pink and holding a Planned Parenthood sign. I can say I’m pro-choice without wanting to add a preface or any qualifications to the statement. The evolution of my beliefs helps me feel kindness and compassion toward people who believe differently, at least on this issue. It also shows me that political stances are fluid, not static, which gives me hope for our country overall.

Talking about politics is important. My beliefs on abortion wouldn’t have shifted if I hadn’t encountered so many people who were pro-choice, if I hadn’t been forced to evaluate my beliefs and why I held them, over and over. This is why I want to make an effort to speak up more. I’m still figuring out how to do so in a way that is kind and open rather than judgmental or forceful. Blogging posts like this is one of those ways.


The St. Petersburg Women’s March 2017

womens march january 2017Reading “The Trump Effect, One Year Later: Thousands of Women Running for Office” in yes! magazine prompted me to think about the Women’s March that took place around the country and world last January. I’m posting the photos I took at the St. Petersburg Women’s March for posterity.

I had a lot of fun painting my sign. I procrastinated until the night before, and both Walgreens and Target were all out of white poster board, so I bought black instead. I didn’t finish painting my sign until the morning, and it was still a little wet when I met up with my friends.

womens march january 21st 2017

On one side, I put “Let’s grow like weeds.” This was my favorite side, although I don’t think many people understood it because people kept stopping me and asking what it meant. Maybe because they think of weeds as inherently bad? I liked the analogy. My focus was on growth. You try to get rid of weeds, but they just keep coming back. I dunno, it seems straightforward to me. The weed angle also gave me an excuse to paint flowers and leaves. I viewed it as a positive way of approaching resistance.

women's march january 21st 2017

On the other sign, I painted the word “LOVE” in pink, with the symbol for woman taking place of the “O.” I chose this because I like the vintage aesthetics of the woman symbol (which, I recently found out, is a symbol of Venus and the male symbol is a symbol of Mars). It’s not a secret that I’m somewhat enamored with the spirit, culture, and style of the civil rights era. I felt like I did a good job of channeling that with the “LOVE” sign.

womens march january 21st 2017

I spent a lot of time thinking about what to put on my sign, and purposely chose things that felt happy and encouraging. Even though the Women’s March was a protest, I wanted my experience at it to feel like a celebration, a moment of community and encouragement in the midst of a dark time. It felt exactly like that, which was exciting and fulfilling.

I hesitated about using the woman symbol, and about wearing pink, after reading advanced criticism of the “pussy hats” people were planning on wearing. I didn’t want a pussy hat, but only because I didn’t like how they looked. I can’t find the exact article now, but the general criticism was that the pink pussy hats and any other sort of resistance gear focused on female anatomy were excluding trans women who do not technically have “pussies.”

womens march january 21st 2017

This was a surprising argument to me, mostly because I hadn’t heard anything like it before. Being a woman and being feminist are both fairly large parts of my identity. I don’t feel like embracing my body, sex, and gender is negative in any way, and initially, even though I had no desire to wear a pussy hat, I felt a little defensive on behalf of those who were planning on it. I fell down a rabbit hole of articles and came across a term I’d never seen before–TERF. It stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism.

womens march january 21st 2017

Learning about TERFs sort of blew my mind, and was the reason I began questioning whether or not I should wear pink and paint the woman symbol. I suddenly wasn’t sure if I was making offensive mistakes I hadn’t yet realized. I definitely don’t want to be a TERF! I hope to be as inclusive as possible. I really had to sit down and reflect on the differences between sex and gender in light of this new information. The argument against pussy hats was that not all women have pussies. I was forced to confront that, prior to that moment,  I had been thinking that all women do have female genitalia, which meant I had not been thinking of trans women as “real” women.

I read quite a few other criticisms of the Women’s March. Most of them were similar to the criticisms of feminists in the civil rights era, saying those who participated were really only marching for the equality of middle- and upper-class white women. Where had they been for Black Lives Matter? Etc.

womens march january 21st 2017

Later, the Washington Post asked, “Was the Women’s March just another display of white privilege?” Marchers across the country were allowed to march without a permit (the march I took part in, in St. Petersburg, Florida was supposed to happen on the sidewalks, but of course it didn’t). The marches were peaceful, and many critics said that’s because marchers were white, so the police didn’t do anything to instigate conflict.

womens march january 21st 2017

Even though the Women’s March wasn’t perfect, and even though many of the criticisms were likely true, I am still grateful I took part. I still think it had a major impact. I think it will be taught in history books one day, and I’m glad to say I was involved. As white woman who thinks of herself as an intersectional feminist, all I can do is receive the criticism openly and try to do my best to be fair, consistent, and open-minded moving forward. I have a lot of learning to do, and so does everyone.

The energy at the Women’s March was contagious, as they say. And the people marching weren’t all women, and they weren’t all white. The crowd spanned all ages, as well. I teared up, multiple times. It was wonderful to see the sheer numbers in the crowd, to know that the narrow-mindedness, the hate, the prejudice being so openly espoused from the highest office in our country was not shared. That many Americans–people who do not consider themselves “political”–were willing to get out in the streets to show their support for a more loving, fair, and kind society. I hadn’t marched in a protest for a few years, since moving out of Chicago, and I’d forgotten what a magical experience it can be.


food, health, labor, society

In defense of ethical consumerism

This post might be a bit redundant for those who regularly follow my blog (I’ve written about going sweatshop-free and conscious consumption in the past), but ethical consumerism is something that’s been on my mind in recent months. Like “conscious consumption,” “ethical consumerism” doesn’t have a hard definition, but, as the phrase implies, it essentially refers to shopping that is done with ethical considerations in mind. For me, it means first consuming consciously, becoming more aware of what I want to buy and why instead of purchasing mindlessly, then, when I do decide to continue with a purchase (many times I don’t because I realize I’m wanting to spend unnecessarily for dumb reasons), committing to seeking out brands that are not treating their employees like slaves and devastating the environment.

I’ve seen a lot of writers (you can google–I’m not linking any of them) brush off ethical consumerism as silly and ineffective, a luxury generally taken up by wealthy white women who want to feel good about themselves as they shop at Whole Foods for cage-free eggs and paraben-free lotion. I get it. To an extent, it is a luxury. Target sells yoga pants for $15 while prAna, a Fair Trade brand, sells them for $65+. At this point in time, sweatshop-free, cage-free, paraben-free, organic, ethical, eco-friendly, natural, Fair Trade–you name it, anything with a label indicating that the product was made in more ethical working conditions or has a lesser negative impact on the environment–is more expensive. That sucks for sure, but just because some people cannot buy ethically-made products right now doesn’t mean those who can shouldn’t.

At times, I have agreed with those who criticize ethical consumerism. My view of capitalism has vacillated over the years, and at more than one point in time I’ve considered myself Marxist (I do not currently). I subscribed to Adbusters for years (though, perhaps ironically given the subject of this post, stopped when they began selling shoes). I wanted people who give a fuck to revolt, not attempt to achieve change from within and ultimately fail. Capitalism was the enemy. The idea of shopping toward a better world sounded absurd, something that only someone who’d been deluded by “the system” could believe in.

Well, I’ve changed my mind. Whether you like capitalism or not, it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. No, I don’t think ethical consumerism will save the world, but it’s part of the puzzle. It’s a start. It’s a push in the right direction. People who want to engage in ethical consumerism are noticing a spark within themselves, an awareness that things aren’t quite right, a desire to change. Instead of blasting them for being only marginally effective in how they react to that spark, I want to encourage them. I want to respond with a “Yes, and” instead of a “No, but” (or, #wellactually) to steal lingo from improv (and twitter).

Shopping consciously is no substitute for voting, volunteering, donating, being politically active, etc., but it is an action that complements those other things. It’s clear cut, easy-to-understand, and does not involve much risk, sacrifice, or difficulty. For some people, it will be a first step toward becoming more aware of and involved in issues related to labor, inequality, public health, and the environment. Instead of criticizing and shutting down people who try to shop ethically, I think it’s better to support them and prompt them to dig deeper into whatever part of them felt motivated to take that step, to encourage them to think about what else they can do to get more involved and have even more of an impact.

Continuing to shop the way we as a society now shop is not only unsustainable, it’s horrible. Our current system is damaging first and foremost to the workers. In many instances, it’s also damaging to the consumers who buy the products and, finally, the earth and those living on it as a whole.

Joke about the culture and tastes of people who buy organic clothing all you want, but know that workers who farm non-organic cotton are dying from cancer caused by the pesticides used on that cotton. There is a difference between the two products and the effect their manufacturing has on those who make them. Joke about Fair Trade chocolate, coffee, and clothes, but know that there are still literal slaves in 2016 making items sold in stores all over the United States. If you have a problem with America’s history of slavery, it is only logical that you should have a problem with the current manufacturing industry.

I hate when people pit one social issue against another, which is something that seems to happen quite a bit when ethical consumerism comes up. The general implication is that the same people who put effort into shopping consciously do not put effort into other issues that are perhaps more visible here in the US–issues related to immigration, public health, segregation, police brutality, etc.

I’m not well-versed in feminism (planning on changing that), but I’ve heard enough to know of the term “intersectionality” (very basically, the concept that issues of race, class, and gender are not at odds, but rather intersect) and that I agree with it. I think the same mentality applies here. Again, it’s the “Yes, and” approach. If someone says they want to shop Fair Trade, that’s opening a doorway to help them recognize labor inequality and its effects in the US. It makes sense that anyone with that initial impetus to shop ethically in order to benefit workers in other countries would also care about domestic human rights issues.

If you don’t think there should be slaves making clothing in 2016, you probably also don’t think people should be getting shot in the street because of their skin color, I’d guess. If you don’t believe chickens should be pumped with hormones, smashed into crowded cages, and kept so fat they can’t walk, you probably also don’t think humans of skin colors different than yours should lack access to clean drinking water and adequate healthcare.

Corporations hold massive amounts of power. They spend massive amounts of money trying to get consumers’ attention. If enough people take their attention (and money) away from a company, that company will listen and begin to change. At this point, I’ve lost hope that the government will, on its own, require trade agreements to adhere to US labor or environmental standards. A multi-pronged approach is needed. Consumer action is a powerful tool, an important prong.

Right now, clothing, beauty products, and food items are those that are the easiest to research and find more ethical versions of. It’s not that hard to find organic food or jeans, Fair Trade chocolate or lipstick. Good luck, however, finding a sweatshop-free laptop, or Fair Trade car. (Spoiler: they don’t exist.) Since the clothing, beauty, and food industries are the ones beginning to undergo change, those are the areas in which I will focus. If you have any insights (additional information or constructive criticism only, please), I encourage you to share them.

Honestly, at times I feel very helpless and overwhelmed. Our world is full of violence, human rights violations, and inequality, much of which appears to be the direct result of consumerism, greed, and our current manufacturing system. I know that, at heart, most people do not want these horrible things to be happening, and they turn away from them, ignore them, because it’s easier than acknowledging that their own lifestyles and behavior is contributing to them. As a writer, I want to research and share clear, direct actions that I and others can take. Ethical consumerism is one of those actions.

fibromyalgia, health, personal growth, society

On conscious consumption

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about conscious consumption. Health issues have forced me to become more aware of and selective about the foods I eat (goodbye, dairy) and drinks I drink (goodbye, beer). While researching ingredients, I started thinking more about where my food comes from, how it’s made, and who grows or makes it. I’ve done this to varying degrees several times over the years, but I guess being preoccupied with grad school more recently made me forget. This year, I’ve (re)realized how similar the food industry is to the clothing industry in many respects: the final product often contains ingredients that hurt consumers, the manufacturing/harvesting process harms the environment, and workers throughout the chain are widely mistreated and underpaid.

Chronic illness has forced me to become more conscious not only of what I consume physically, but how I spend my time. Fibromyalgia often limits how long I can look at a computer screen, engage in physical activity, be “on” in social situations, etc. By necessity, I’ve learned to become more aware of and discerning about what information, entertainment, and social events I “consume.”

“Conscious consumption” doesn’t have a single, agreed-upon definition. For me, engaging in conscious consumption means trying my best to first become aware of what I am consuming, and then, to purposely choose to consume things that are healthy for me and the planet, and are in line with my values.

Reflecting on consumption has also made me realize how much of my time I spend consuming. Consumption is one of my primary modes of being. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the primary mode of being in the United States. Think about how much time you spend not just eating or shopping—the things most commonly referred to as “consumption”—but drinking, reading, watching TV, listening, looking, or in some way taking in something (physical or virtual) created by someone else. I’m also trying to become more aware of how much time I spend consuming. Consuming is a natural part of life and isn’t bad, but it is inherently passive, and I don’t want it to take up the majority of my time. I am working on spending more time operating in different modes, spending my time in nature, writing, creating art, conversing with close friends, exercising, etc.

I’m recognizing that conscious consumption is closely tied to the narrative I tell myself about my experiences with fibromyalgia. I received a fibromyalgia diagnosis in 2008, at age twenty-seven, but probably had it for a couple years prior to that. In 2016, I am still grappling with the illness, still processing the fact that it’s chronic and will possibly last my entire lifetime, and still accepting that unlike acute illnesses, which require a search for a cure, fibromyalgia requires I learn how to manage and live with it rather than try to get rid of it altogether.

Learning to live successfully with fibromyalgia requires heightened awareness. When my body goes into a sensitive mode, one wrong move—staying out too late, eating the wrong meal—can have dire consequences that will affect my ability to function for hours, days, or even weeks ahead. Paying close attention to what I consume is vital if I want to feel consistently healthy and balanced.

For years, I hated this situation, this sensitivity, the effort managing it all requires. I rallied against it emotionally. When feeling bad, I mentally whined about the unfairness. When feeling well, I denied that I had an illness at all. Now, I’m rewriting my story. I’m softening, I’m accepting. I’m searching for the silver lining, the benefits I receive from this difficult challenge. I’ve stopped angrily focusing on my limitations. The biggest benefit I can identify is increased awareness and, by extension, more conscious consumption. The biggest benefit I can identify is an increased motivation to seek out information about all I consume, an increased commitment to make changes in my lifestyle that not only benefit me, but benefit others and the earth.

I’ve agreed with the principle of conscious consumption for years, but my most recent health flare-ups have pushed me to really reflect on and examine my lifestyle and habits, and to commit to living a life that promotes health and is in line with my values. I have a long way to go, but am becoming more aware daily. I wrote this blog post as a preface—I plan on exploring the many facets of conscious consumption and writing more about these ideas in the future.

labor, learning, personal growth

On going sweatshop-free


I’ve written and rewritten this post for months. Time to stop being a perfectionist. Here I go, starting with a blank page and writing it once and for all, being okay with publishing it even if it’s raw and unpolished.

I first found out about sweatshops in high school and was appropriately horrified. First, I boycotted the Disney store. Over the next few years, I boycotted the GAP and Old Navy and Banana Republic. Then Nike. Then Victoria’s Secret. Then Wal-Mart and Kohls and JCPenney. Then the Express and Limited. The more research I did, the more “bad” clothing labels I found and the more I boycotted.

As the internet fleshed itself out with information in the early 2000s, I finally realized that “uses sweatshop labor” was the default for clothing manufacturers, not an exception to the rule. I realized it made little sense to approach this by opting out of confirmed sweatshop-using brands. If one wants to avoid sweatshop-made clothing, one must consider all brands guilty until proven innocent. One must boycott everything and only opt in to brands that declare themselves Fair Trade, ethical, or sweatshop-free.

For years, I tried to do this. I tried to avoid supporting sweatshops by buying used clothes from vintage and thrift stores and supplementing them with Made in the USA clothing from American Apparel. It wasn’t enough, though, and at least a couple times per year I still ended up going to regular stores and buying the same old stuff that was probably made by children or slaves (or both). I justified this by telling myself there weren’t enough sweatshop-free options out there, and that I didn’t make enough money to be able to afford them anyway. I rationalized my guilt by telling myself I was helpless to do anything about the situation so I should stop wasting time thinking about it.

This past summer, I became more mindful. I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and I turned to long meditations to deal with it. This led to me becoming more aware of my emotions. I noticed that my sweatshop guilt had not left me. I noticed that every time I got dressed in the morning, I had a slightly unsettled feeling of doing something wrong, of contributing to something bad. Although I wanted to keep pushing those feelings aside, in the spirit of mindfulness and acceptance, I looked straight at them.

It was rough. At first I found myself defensive and argumentative, wanting to push back against this nagging voice telling me to pay attention to the unsettled feeling I had. “You’ll do this later. You care. You’re a good person. That’s enough for now. You’re a broke graduate student. You can’t afford to make any change this minute. Wait until you graduate and have a real job and more time and then you’ll only buy sweatshop-free for the rest of your life.”

It didn’t take much reflection to recognize the absurdity of that. First, the sweatshop issue isn’t about me or my identity as a good or bad person, or at least it shouldn’t be. It is about the workers who are suffering. Second, how ridiculous is postponing action until after grad school? “Slavery is bad and should end, but right now is inconvenient for me. Let’s end slavery later, when I have completed my luxurious graduate degree in creative writing.” I mean, really.

So I told myself I’d listen to the nagging voice and begin paying attention to the issue I had tried to push out of my mind in recent years. I started doing research. True Cost, a documentary about the fashion industry, was immensely helpful and I encourage everyone to watch it (it is available to stream on Netflix). I plan on watching it every few months just as a reminder, as something to motivate me to continue living in line with my values on this issue. I learned about Fashion Revolution and the “Who made my clothes?” movement. I read countless articles about various specific sweatshops and began compiling lists of ethical clothing brands and organizations.

Most importantly, I vowed to start buying sweatshop-free clothes only. I recognize that this is an imperfect action, and probably not enough, but it is a start. Ideally, the US should ban the import of sweatshop-made clothing. That would make sense in a country that is anti-slavery, right? For our country to boast about ending slavery then voraciously consume slave-made goods is disingenuous.

We didn’t end slavery–we moved it outside of US borders. I’m not discounting the significance of the end of US slavery. That was a good, important thing that needed to happen. But to pat ourselves on the back and talk as if that was the end of that, to teach our K-12 students as if that was the end of that, is disingenuous. We did not end slavery; we pushed it onto other people that we don’t have see in person.

I’d like to do what I can to help people realize that slavery has not ended and that we as Americans continue to benefit from it and perpetuate it. I’m not sure of the best way to approach this. People don’t want to feel guilty or bad, especially for something that seems out of their control. Also, I don’t think the responsibility should fall on the individual. Our corporations and government are failing us. They are creating and perpetuating this situation, and then obfuscating it so individual consumers have trouble figuring out what’s what. To make an individual buying a shirt feel guilty when these systems are to blame seems misguided and will probably backfire. Most people will probably feel defensive or make excuses, just like I did for years.

I debated writing a journalistic style article detailing the atrocities and widespread nature of sweatshops. Right now, I just don’t have the time. Also, my purpose isn’t journalism. My purpose is to identify what I personally can do to help end this injustice. (If you are wanting information on sweatshops and modern slavery though, look here, here, and here.)

Moving forward, I will only buy sweatshop-free clothing and accessories. I will probably write about the items I buy here and post photos of some of them on instagram. I recognize that this is an imperfect, consumerism-centric start, but I believe an imperfect start is better than no start. I recognize that, as True Cost points out, the whole “fast” fashion industry is a problem. That we cannot just slightly improve working conditions yet keep the whole larger system in place. But this is the start I see available to me now.

I have faith that, with time, I will learn more, gain knowledge and wisdom, and gain clarity on what action to take. I have faith that, with time, I will be able to do more than “conscious consumption” and a piddly blog post. I have faith that I will think of ways to join a larger movement, to put pressure on corporations to change, to put pressure on government to properly regulate. I know that this issue does not only extend to clothing and accessories. That is where I am beginning because that appears to be the most accessible “in” to ethical manufacturing and consumption. I have faith that, with time, I will find ways to promote modern slavery-free food, furniture, technology, etc.

If you have any knowledge on this issue that I do not yet seem to have, please leave a comment. Share your resources. Share your thoughts. This isn’t something that can be tackled individually.

Florida, friendship, places, race, relationships, writing

Merry Alone Christmas from Florida.

downtown tampa

Joe texts from Illinois asking if people actually decorate palm trees for the holidays. He must’ve received my Christmas card, which has a drawing of lights- and ornament-decorated palms on its front. I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to disappoint him either, so I respond saying that people probably really want to decorate palms, but the leaves are just too high off the ground.

After hitting send, I think about it some more. Is the feature that makes palm trees beautiful the same thing that makes them poor Christmas trees? Their leaves are long and hang down. Decorations would probably slide right off.

I leave my apartment on foot and walk down the sidewalk, noticing for the first time that there is a small lemon tree and a small orange tree next door in a patch of grass outside of the property owner’s fence. I don’t pick any right now because they look a little brown and I’m not hungry anyway, but I make a mental note to keep an eye on the trees and pick from them with abandon in the future.

After I turn onto a busy street and walk a few blocks, a car slows down and whips into the adjacent bank parking lot. The driver’s side window rolls down and a man inside motions for me to walk over. I say, Nope, and pick up my pace, which irritates me, because I was just about to take off my sweatshirt on account of the walking has made me hot. Now I have to walk farther, in discomfort, because I know if I take my sweatshirt off right now this idiotic man will view it as the beginning of his own personal strip show.

After walking two blocks, I look back–the man’s car is out of view. I take off my sweatshirt and tie it around my waist. It’s my favorite and most comfortable sweatshirt. It says THE GREAT GATSBY on it. I like wearing it because it boosts my spirits. First, it’s a light blue that I find pleasant. Second, the inside is so soft I periodically become aware of it touching my arms and that feels nice. Third, if my mood sours while I’m wearing this sweatshirt, I can look down at it and switch my focus to how I, regular aspiring Fitzgerald, am writing a novel with a narrator who is not also the protagonist.

Anyway. As soon as I take the sweatshirt off, a cool breeze highlights the places I have been sweating–my lower back, my armpits, and between my boobs. I see the shady bus stop two blocks away and know that once I sit on the bench for a minute or so I will become cold and want to put the sweatshirt back on even though just now it had become almost unbearable.

Being human is frustratingly high-maintenance.

I’m taking the bus not because I need it to get somewhere, but because I want to write a story that takes place in Tampa. I hope a bus ride on Christmas will inspire me. I’ve taken transit for legitimate reasons (cost, convenience, necessity) in other cities hundreds or maybe even thousands of times, but today I am solely a voyeur. In my four months as a Floridian, I’ve gathered almost no sense of place; most of my time here has been sheltered, split between my apartment and campus.

I feel a little sleazy knowing my primary purpose behind riding the bus is watching the other riders, people who most likely have no other transportation option. I push off the idea that I’m a creep embarking on some sort of at-home poverty tourism outing and continue with my plan of, well, planned spontaneity.  Excitement fills me as I think about what I’m about to do: get on the bus, take it wherever, and see what happens. The world is open.

As I sit on the bus stop bench, a minivan stops at the traffic light in front of me. The driver of the minivan vigorously brushes his teeth. The passenger–who I presume to be his wife–looks out the window with no identifiable expression on her face. Behind her sits a child, repeatedly kicking the back of her seat. I wonder where her husband is going to spit out the toothpaste and feel as if I’m witnessing a brief glimpse into the terror-filled prison a domestic partnership with the wrong person can become.

tampa bus happy holidays

The bus arrives. I pay my $2 and sit down in the first available seat. There’s only one other person on the bus. The bus doesn’t stop nearly as often as the buses in Chicago or even Denver stop, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same.

There isn’t anything unique or interesting on the bus to observe, so I focus on what’s outside: Gentlemen’s club, TERMINEX, graveyard–I laugh, as this small stretch seems like a perfect representation of Florida in one fell swoop. I’ve heard rumors that Tampa is the “strip club capital of America.” I’ve also heard there are cockroaches everywhere because of the climate, although I haven’t seen one in my apartment yet (cross fingers, knock on wood, etc.). The graveyard seems fitting because, well, let’s be real: much of the rest of the country views Florida as a good place to come die.

The bus collects more people as we go. At one stop, the driver gets off and switches with another driver. This new driver seems angry. At the same stop, a man in a wheelchair waits to get on the bus. He’s wearing a Santa hat and holding a poinsettia in his lap. The bus driver huffs and puffs as he puts up seats to make room for the wheelchair. At the last second, the chair guy says, Nevermind, I want to go home instead, and wheels away. I wonder if he decided to go home because he felt like he was burdening the driver. I wonder who he was going to give the poinsettia to, and if he’ll be able to give the gift on another day instead. I wonder if anyone is at his home, or if he’s going to sit there alone, in a Santa hat.

A couple of stops later, another guy in a wheelchair is waiting to get on the bus. This one gets all the way on and doesn’t seem to notice the driver’s huffs as he straps the wheels down with multiple red, seatbelt-like straps. This guy is wearing a shirt that says “RIP” and has a photo of someone’s face on it. He’s black. I’ve only ever seen black people wear those types of shirts; I wonder why white people don’t generally get them made. I like them. I make a note to tell my friends that having everyone wear an “RIP Jessica Thompson” shirt with my face on it after I die will be my last wish.

A few stops later, the man in the wheelchair says he’d like to get off the bus. When the driver stands, he tells a passenger standing in the aisle to move. This begins an argument that continues for several minutes after the man in the wheelchair is off and we are moving again. It goes something like this:

Passenger: You didn’t need to tell me to move, because I already would have moved.

Driver: But you didn’t, so I had to tell you.

Passenger: Once you moved the wheelchair, I would’ve moved. 

Driver: I was going to move the wheelchair in five seconds, therefore I had to tell you.

Passenger: You’re just one of those people who likes bossing people around.

Driver: No, I’m just trying to look out for the guy in the chair, okay?

Passenger: Oh, I know more about the needs of people with disabilities than you will EVER know!

Driver: Maybe you do. Not the point. The point is you needed to move. Merry Christmas, sir.

Passenger: Merry Christmas!

Then their Merry Christmas!es continue, at first sarcastically, then angrily, until they say it at least four times each. The driver blasts a Spanish language radio station for about thirty seconds, then the bus returns to silence. The passenger looks at me with a “Can you believe this?” expression, as if I’m going to provide some sort of support. I respond by looking around and giving him a “Who, me?” facial expression.

I realize the angry passenger and I are the only two white people on the bus. Is that why he’s assuming I’ll take his side? I look down at my notebook, trying to avoid his persistent gaze. I hear the guy two seats behind me mutter something about rude people taking the bus today and needing to sit down (the white passenger is still standing). I wonder if I should mutter something similar to make it explicit that I don’t feel any camaraderie with this man. I decide I’m overthinking it and stay silent.

Only one other remarkable thing occurs on the ride: A family with several children gets on the bus. I continue to look out of my window. About a block after we pull away from the curb, I catch a flash of a woman in a parking lot who has lifted her shirt up to expose her stomach and bra and is shaking her body in an exaggeratedly sexual way. There are two men nearby. One is walking briskly away from her. The other is walking away from her, but more slowly, and he keeps looking back.

I whip my head around to see if anyone behind me caught a glimpse of this weird scene. I see a child of about ten whip his head around in the same way. I blurt out, Did you see that? He nods rapidly and widens his eyes. His mom asks him, in Spanish, what I said to him. He doesn’t respond. She asks again. I can’t understand his response because it’s also in Spanish and said very quickly, but I see him mime lifting his shirt and dancing. She looks at me, as if to question whether or not he’s telling the truth. I nod my head.

Once the bus reaches downtown Tampa, I depart, figuring that area will be the most walkable and most likely to have something interesting going on. I walk aimlessly. A drugged out-looking guy approaches me and I instantly slip into city mode, saying, Nope, and shaking my head before he can verbalize his request. He looks surprised.

I feel kind of bad, considering it is Christmas and all. I think about how I’m planning to teach a community creative writing workshop in a few months, perhaps at a homeless shelter or with recovering addicts. I wonder what I’ll say if he shows up to one of my workshops and calls me out for being a hypocrite who is nice in class, but rude on the street. After mentally debating various explanations, I settle on the shortest: Different context.

I keep walking. I figure I’ll find a dingy open restaurant or bar, hole up there and write for a couple of hours, then hop on a bus back home. As I look for a spot, a scene plays out in my mind.



JESSICA, a young and attractive writer, sits down on a wobbly barstool in an empty bar and studies the pathetic strand of half-burnt out Christmas lights stabbed into the wood paneled wall with thumbtacks.


Barkeep, I’ll take a whiskey, neat.

A forty-something BARTENDER turns from a radio playing SILENT NIGHT to display his ruggedly sharp jawline and head full of shiny, silver hair.


Sure thing, miss. Single or double?


 Sir, it’s Christmas. I’m alone and I didn’t drive here. Better make it a double. No, two doubles.






On Christmas?


You gonna pay the difference?


Hell, miss. I’m working for a reason.


That’s what I thought. So again, well.

JESSICA opens a green, leatherbound notebook and writes furiously. BARTENDER walks off and comes back with four double whiskies, neat.


Lady, I have a heart. I can’t serve you well on Christmas. A woman of your caliber shouldn’t be drinking that stuff anyway. Here’s our top shelf, no extra charge. Hell, no charge at all. Happy Holiday.


Wow, thanks. And four of them? I guess you could tell I needed these. So generous.


Not so fast, kid–two of them are for me. As you say, it’s Christmas, I’m alone, and, well, unlike you I am driving, but that’ll have to stay between the two of us.

BARTENDER and JESSICA laugh and clink their shot glasses together before throwing back both double whiskeys. JINGLE BELL ROCK plays from the radio.


You know, I’ve always liked this song. You feel like dancing?


Sure, but don’t get too attached. You won’t see me after tonight.


No problem, miss. One night is all I need.

BARTENDER walks around the bar and grabs JESSICA’s hand. She stands and they dance and laugh.


But, all the bars and restaurants I pass are closed. I decide to head toward the water, but have to consult a map every few blocks. The grid is on a diagonal and I can’t just take one street the whole way from my current location. I feel like a tool not knowing my way around downtown and am thankful no one is around to see me.

I notice “Marion Street Transit Parkway” is designated as a bus-only street on the map. I immediately think of 16th Street Mall–a touristy but fun, shop-lined bus and pedestrian walkway in Denver. When I first reach Transit Parkway, the bricked street fuels my excitement. I turn down it and walk a few blocks before realizing it is the go-to sleeping place for homeless people. After a man begins following me, I pick up the pace and take a different route.

A few blocks later, I see a hot-looking guy walking the opposite direction and cross the street earlier than planned in order to walk past him. He looks about twenty-five and has shoulder-length brown hair. That and his faded skinny jeans make me feel surprised that he isn’t carrying a guitar. He walks with a limp that’s more cowboy swagger than gansta lean. As I walk toward him, a scene pops into my mind.



JESSICA and ROCKER GUY smile and laugh with glasses of wine in hand at a Christmas party while surrounded by smiling NEIGHBORS.


How did we meet? It’s the craziest thing–we were both alone on Christmas, walking around Tampa on account of us both having silly romantic notions about such a thing, and we literally bumped into each other on the street.


Very literally. I had bruises! He never looks where he’s going.


I was composing a song in my head. And I’m glad! We fell in love on the spot.


Speak for yourself!


Well, one of us fell in love on the spot, but within a year I convinced her. And here we are, married, three years later. It’s a dream come true.


It’s all been a dream. I never even thought I wanted kids, and now look at me!

JESSICA stands and points to her protruding belly. Several NEIGHBORS reach out and touch it.


I guess once my book sales skyrocketed and I realized I would never, ever have to hold a full-time job again, ever, for the rest of my whole entire life, the thought of raising a child became more appealing.


And if her book sales ever fall, God forbid, my music sales will be more than enough to sustain our family. I know it’s gauche to talk about money at a party, but you won’t believe this–we brought in the same exact amount last year. Like, to the dollar. Our accountant was shocked. He thought we were playing a prank on him!


Right before the rocker guy and I pass each other, he turns his head to look at me directly, exposing the side of his face I hadn’t yet seen. His right eye is swollen, black, and only partially open. Before I have time to fully register the black eye, a waft of booze smell hits my nose. Before I have time to fully register that, he asks if I will give him some money.

A sexually attractive homeless person is so far outside any sort of mental schema I hold that I stand there for a few seconds staring before saying, Oh, no, sorry, I, uh…no. Nope. Sorry. He puts his head down and walks on.

I keep standing, trying to think of any possible way he’s not homeless. Maybe he just got in a fight with his idiot brother at the family Christmas gathering and needs cash to take a cab home. But no, the booze smell was too strong and jumbled to have come from a single day of drinking. I look back at him. What I initially viewed as rocker hair suddenly appears to be neglected hair that is extremely stringy and greasy. I remember Lindsay on Arrested Development pursuing a homeless man and laugh. I came dangerously close to doing the same.

That the possibility of a homeless person being attractive or dateable is a joke sticks with me uncomfortably as I walk. I again think about my community creative writing workshop plans. Although I don’t yet know what “community” I’ll be working with, I don’t want to go into it with any trace of hypocrisy or condescension. I wonder if my assumption that all homeless people are undateable indicates good sense or dehumanizing prejudice. I revise my daydream.



JESSICA and ROCKER GUY smile and laugh with glasses of wine in hand at a Christmas party while surrounded by smiling NEIGHBORS.


It’s a crazy story. You sure you want to tell it, honey?


Of course, it’s amazing. We met on Christmas. I was alone and walking around downtown Tampa, just being a silly writer looking for inspiration, I guess, and he was–believe it or not–homeless and looking for a handout.

NEIGHBORS murmur among themselves loudly.


I’m really lucky she took a chance on me. Ninety-nine percent of women wouldn’t do that. No way.


It was stupid, I know, but he was so handsome.

JESSICA and ROCKER GUY squeeze hands and look into each others’ eyes.


He was so dedicated to playing guitar that he had just sort of forgot about rent. That is, until he was evicted the week before Christmas.


I played on the street for money and slept in the park, hoping to save up enough to record a demo.


Then, on Christmas Day, someone jumped him and stole his money and guitar.


I was walking around downtown because I felt like if I sat still I would kill myself. I wanted to jump into the Bay. My guitar was all I had left.


Honey, don’t say that!


It’s true. But don’t worry, I’d never do that now. Now that I have you, and a baby on the way, I feel so rich.

ROCKER GUY rubs JESSICA’s large belly.


You are rich. That’s the ironic part. I hit on a homeless man, and now I’m married to a multi-millionaire!



Do you ever get competitive with each other? With you both being so successful in your respective creative careers?


Actually, believe it or not, last year we brought in the same exact amount of money. To the penny.


Except I think she probably spent a little more of it.



Only because he’s counting our mortgage as one of my personal luxury expenses. Excuse me for thinking room and board is a necessity!

JESSICA playfully pushes ROCKER GUY. They and NEIGHBORS laugh.


Accidentally, I arrive at Tampa theatre. The nature of the block changes quickly. No more homeless people, many middle-class. The people in line look like my parents and my aunts and uncles. I ask what movie they’re waiting for (The Imitation Game). I contemplate joining them, but feel it would be a cop-out. I’m rambling about downtown Tampa alone for real world adventure, not to sit in a controlled environment and stare at a screen. I continue on.

After I cross a street, a passing car slows and the window rolls down. I avoid looking, assuming it’s a catcaller. A female voice yells, I love your shirt! I’m startled and look up. She yells it again and this time gives me two thumbs up. I smile and nod and yell back, Thanks! The man sitting in her car’s passenger seat looks embarrassed. I want to yell, Hey, she’s cool! She should be embarrassed of you!, but I of course don’t.

After the complimenting woman drives away, I try to think of some other response I could’ve given that would’ve led to us becoming friends. Maybe, Let’s be friends! Or, Hey, you seem cool! Perhaps, Pull over! And once she pulled over, Wanna hang out sometime? I like to read and write. I feel sad that all of those things would probably be regarded as weird. I try to envision a society in which cool women regularly talk to me on the street in an attempt to gain my friendship, rather than annoying dudes wanting either sex or money. It looks like a utopia.

Suddenly I’m in Waterfront Park and it is bumping. People are eating picnics on the lawn, playing soccer and football, skateboarding, chasing their kids around. I walk around exploring and come upon a small dome-shaped area with seats painted all white. There are two men in there, both writing. They both perk up when I walk in. They’re both relatively attractive. They are sitting on opposite sides of the mini-arena, and I do not get the sense that they are together. If it were only one guy, I would sit down and begin writing myself, and perhaps we’d start a conversation. With both, it’s just too much. I continue on.

There’s a tent with a crowd around its entrance, so I walk toward it. Ice skating rink. After checking my pride, I get in line behind a bunch of preteens. Ten minutes later, I pay $10 to enter and rent skates, put the skates on while warily leaving my shoes on the floor (pushed up against some kid’s shoes so as to trick any potential thieves into thinking they are mom shoes that shouldn’t be stolen), and hit the ice.

Once I’m about halfway around the rink, I feel like my ankles are going to break. After a full lap, I am tempted to get off the ice, but force myself to skate around once more. By the end of that lap, I feel like shit emotionally. Am I so old that I can’t even ice skate? Is it true that I can barely do two laps in the smallest rink I’ve ever seen? Have I entirely let myself go? Am I decrepid and useless? Have I lost touch with all youth and vigor?

Of course, I am momentarily forgetting that I did yoga just this morning, walked a few miles yesterday, and played tennis for nearly three hours the day before that. The mind isn’t logical during flashes of despair. I trot off the ice and sit on a bench, ready to leave about fifteen minutes into the ninety I’d paid for. I begin untying one skate, prepared to go home defeated, but long-forgotten knowledge buried deep in a recess of my mind bubbles up: Wobbly ankles mean the skates aren’t tight enough.

I unlace and relace my skates; this time as tight as I possibly can. The laces make my hands smell really bad. I get back out there and it is much easier. For some reason, skating alone to pop star renditions of traditional Christmas songs amidst families, couples, and preteens makes me feel emotional. Not sad, but as if the moment is meaningful. When a small girl falls, I help her up and have to stop myself from saying something ridiculous like, This is what life is all about!

ice skating rinkThe powers that be kick us off and a mini zamboni comes onto the ice. It’s essentially a golf cart dragging a combination sprinkler/scraper. When it finishes, they let a teenage girl onto the ice alone for a few minutes. She is an aspiring figure skater, and she’s good. She does jumps and spins and people clap. I try to take a photo, but my camera isn’t fast enough. Although I am 33 years old, do not aspire to figure skate, and have never aspired to figure skate in my entire life, I feel a brief but powerful flash of envy.

I guess I just wish I could do something cool.

The more laps I skate, the more I try to spot someone else who might be in my position: totally alone. All of the alone-looking women I try to feel a sense of kindredness with turn out to be with a man or child (or both) whom she cannot keep up with on the ice (and who has not bothered waiting for her).

I see a couple in their 60s skating and holding hands. Tears spring to my eyes. They are whispering to each other, smiling, and holding each other up on the ice. Their love is beautiful. I want that kind of love.

A few laps later, I see the woman skating alone. I instantly think of the last time I went ice skating, about five years ago. My boyfriend at the time acted like he wanted to go, but once there it became clear he was doing it begrudgingly. My feelings were hurt when I realized he was humoring me rather than having fun. He wanted to go home not long after we arrived.

When I skate past the woman wobbling all alone on the ice I want to whisper, Don’t let him bring you down.

After a few more laps, I see the 60s-something husband back out on the ice, holding his wife’s hand, whispering into her ear, helping her on the curves because he is the steadier skater. I realize he was probably sitting out because he’s kind of old and his back hurt or something, not because he’s ungrateful or disengaged. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Either way, he’s not a jerk; I was simply projecting my memories onto their totally unrelated relationship. I feel happy for them again, but have had enough skating.

decorated palms

I exit the skating rink to find lit up, decorated palm trees. I take a photo and text it to Joe. That looks fake, he replies. I took the photo myself, I text back. Oh, he responds.

tampa muralBecause the sun is dangerously low in the sky, I head toward the bus stop. I avoid Transit Parkway. Once on the bus, I notice I am filled with good cheer and pleased with how I spent my Christmas Day. I scroll through my texts and message some variation of Merry Christmas to some people I care about who haven’t yet texted it to me.

Once home, I turn on Workaholics. My brother introduced me to the show two years ago and I’ve been rewatching it after recently getting Amazon Prime. Workaholics is a comedy about three, mid-twenty-something dudes who are roommates and coworkers and it’s my favorite show right now.

The other night, my favorite Workaholics character, Anders, made an appearance in my dream. It wasn’t a sex dream, or anything crazy. He wasn’t even a celebrity or tv character in it. He was just a friend like all of the other dream people, and the dream itself was so boring and routine that I don’t remember the details.

Today, I didn’t come up with any strong ideas for fiction placed in Tampa. But I think as long as I keep going downtown, as long as I check out the other neighborhoods, as long as I walk the streets and ride the buses and take the Amtrak and finally get my ass to St. Petersburg and eventually Miami and wherever else, Florida will quietly seep into my writing the way Anders seeped into my dream. It won’t be forced. There won’t be any fanfare. Florida will be just be there unquestioned, as expected and regular and unremarkable as everything else.

death, education, internet, police, race, society, teaching, twitter

On Ferguson

Along with much of the country, I’ve followed the aftermath of police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri for the past few months. Through this, I became more aware of institutionalized racism in the US, particularly where it overlaps with police brutality and the militarization of police forces. I was already aware of these issues to an extent, but really had no clue how often the injustices lead to death, specifically the death of Black men. The Guardian article comparing lynchings of years past to police killings today was one of many that opened my eyes.

As is usually true when I turn my attention toward death, I’ve felt helpless as I’ve watched the scene in Ferguson unfold and learned more about similar incidents happening all over the United States. I’ve wondered what I could do. Thanks to twitter, I found three concrete things:

1. Donate to the Ferguson Library.

I learned about the Ferguson Municipal Public Library fundraising effort via Ashley Ford. The Ferguson Library’s website has a donation button in the upper right corner of the front page. They received around $300,000 in donations last week, which exceeds their yearly budget. They might hire a second full-time librarian as a result. They stayed open when the local public schools closed as a result of unrest and they host many community events. Although I did not have very much money to give, I felt good supporting this community institution. I believe in the transformative power of reading and writing, and donating to a library is a way to translate that belief into action.

2. Talk about Ferguson in my classroom.

I learned about #FergusonSyllabus via David M. Perry, who wrote an article calling upon academics to use the lenses of their disciplines to analyze Ferguson-related texts such as Darren Wilson’s testimony in the classroom. Next semester I am teaching a composition course focused on rhetorical analysis of public campaigns so this will fit in perfectly. I originally wanted to use local social issues as examples in the class so I might choose a police brutality case from Florida to focus in on instead, but the conversation will be similar and I can easily relate it to the Mike Brown killing as well.

The challenge here will be approaching this as objectively as possible. Clearly I have strong opinions on police brutality in the US right now–I will not share them outright in the classroom and I don’t want them to become immediately obvious to my students through the structure of my lessons. The purpose will be for them to think critically about the rhetoric used by all of the involved parties, engage in dialogue about it, and draw their own conclusions, which could very well end up being different than my own. Maybe I will share what I come up with on this blog as I develop course objectives and create my lesson plans.

3. Start conversations with people. Write a blog post.

I follow many writers on twitter and several of them wrote about Ferguson. I am often awed by Roxane Gay’s writings on current events, and her response to Ferguson was no exception. She is consistently eloquent and moving, putting forth honest, raw emotion that only bolsters her often strong and logical arguments. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article on Obama’s official response to the Darren Wilson non-indictment is another one that got me thinking more deeply about the issue.

At first I hesitated to write about Ferguson. It’s a blatantly racially-charged situation and I’m White. Also, I don’t have a journalism background or regularly write about current events. I worried I’d mess it all up and look both racist and stupid (or, perhaps worse, faux-enlightened and arrogant). Then I realized that allowing my self-conscious fears to determine my action (or inaction) would be the ultimate selfish, ego-driven act. This tragic event–one of many in a nationwide pattern of similar events–is not about me.

We currently live in a society where White police kill Black citizens once every few days and face few or no repercussions. It isn’t okay. It is systemic, institutionalized violence and murder. To recognize that and remain silent is to assent to this system of injustice. Although my initial responses to Ferguson were sadness and helplessness, I will not allow those to lead to complacency or inaction. The three things I’m doing about this issue might be small, but they are the actions available to me.