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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lost Woman. Reaward?

Life changes in an instant. One moment you are sitting in the sun, enjoying a warm July afternoon and then next, you are running up and down the streets by your house frantically searching for your most loyal friend. Last summer my dog, Sukhi, got out of a small hole in our fence left by the construction crew working on the new fourplex condos being built next door. One minute he was in the yard sitting slyly by my feet and begging for a bite of my cheese sandwich, then the next, gone. As I frantically searched the yard after turning over every blanket and pillow in the house (the last time I thought he was missing I found him asleep inside a pillow case) I found the hole he escaped from.

I canvassed the neighborhood that night and put up flyers first thing the next morning. Because it was Friday on the Fourth of July weekend, I had to wait until Tuesday to check the animal shelter to see if he had been dropped off. I was devastated. I cried as I put up flyers and posted a notice on Craigslist. Cried as I sat on my front porch, gate open willing him to trot up the stairs. Cried some more as my husband and I recanvassed the neighborhood Saturday, Sunday, Monday. I was inconsolable. Saturday night when the fireworks started, I left our front door open hoping he would come rushing up the front steps and leap into my arms. Sukhi and I had been through a lot together. I missed my four-legged sidekick. 

Tuesday we went to the animal shelter. He wasn’t there. He’d been gone five days and I was heartbroken but trying to remain hopeful. As I walked out of the shelter, numb and tired into the bright July sunshine I didn’t notice the canvas tent set up in two of the parking spaces until a freshly-shaved, bright-eyed man called out, “Did you lose your dog?” I nodded.

He rose and walked over to me. “What kind of dog?” 

“Little Chihuahua” I replied realizing the unnecessary repetition.

“Friendly?” he asked.


“OK. We can help.” He replied with such conviction, such assurance that I found myself wanting to believe everything he said.

I was emotionally exhausted, slumped into a tired, sad ball. In my heartbroken state, it is hard to recall exact details and I mostly have impressions of people and events. I remember he had ramrod posture, exuded confidence and his freshly scrubbed face rosy from the sun and soft blue eyes conveyed sympathy that made it easy for me to want to trust him. I nodded and followed him to the makeshift tent set up in the parking lot. The tent had a banner running across a fold up table proclaiming to help people find lost pets. The man, clearly part of the group running the activities inside the tent, indicated that I should stand by the table.

Crates of papers were stacked neatly on one end, an old computer rested on a sagging plastic folding table, stacks of bright pastel poster board were piled against an ice chest on which an older white woman was sitting. I stepped into the buzz of six or so volunteers identified by their orange vests and walkie-talkies. A young blonde woman with a toothy smile and long fingers held a clipboard and began asking me questions. It helped to have someone take charge. Take care of things. Name? Age? Size? Chipped? Collar? Tag? I answered. Someone handed me a sweaty bottle of water while an older woman with a short sensible salt-and-pepper bob and brown loafers asked if we had a photo.

“Not with me,” I replied.

Another woman marched over looking very much in charge and she explained things to me with military precision and an authority as crisp as the crease in her button-up shirt. She said something like, “Statistically, most small friendly dogs are picked up one to three blocks from their homes and if not found at the shelter, are found by posting flyers around the neighborhood so that whoever found the dog knows he has an owner.” She paused to let that sink in, smiled neatly and continued, “We have found in our research that putting notices on cars is a very effective tactic—you get your message out as you drive around your neighborhood, doing your shopping, going to work, running errands. You should also include that the dog is micro-chipped so they know that the dog is registered and offer a reward. You don’t have to state what the reward is, just that there is one because statistically that increases the chance you will get your dog back.”

I nodded. The man who had called out to me, Blue Eyes, I silently dubbed him, asked if I wanted him to put a notice directly on my car. He informed me that research shows it helps to use bright colors and explained which words convey the most information. He asked if I was okay with him using the bright pink markers, assuring me it washed right off with soap and warm water. I nodded again, feeling overwhelmed but also lighter and hopeful. These people were attentive and helpful and seemed to know just what to do and what to say. I, on other the other hand, felt like I had been running around handing out flyers willy-nilly, dashing off in one direction on a whim and then running home to sit and cry while I hopped Sukhi would simply bound in the yard.

It felt good to ride the wave these people created with their efficiency, productivity, and energy. I was drained from walking for hours four days in a row while crying myself into a fitful sleep at night. Blue Eyes found my car and began entering information from the clipboard on my back windshield. Another person asked again for a photo. I looked pleadingly at my husband and he silently nodded and walked to the car. He drove home and returned with a photo.

Another young blond woman with wide eyes and a neat ponytail told me she would print out flyers for me to post. I thought this was nice as we had no money and I had to pull out our penny jar when I went to the copy shop to make flyers. Their flyers were on neon posterboard with large commanding lettering and centered color copy photos. Our flyers were copied sheets of 8 1/2 by 11 white paper with blurry photos and my chicken-scratch handwriting.

I sat on the curb and drank my water thinking it was laudable of the volunteers to take time out on beautiful holiday weekend to make posters for my missing dog. An older gentleman hobbled over on bowlegs and held out a bag of SunChips to me with a smile. I gratefully took a handful of chips realizing I hadn’t eaten since yesterday afternoon. As I sipped my water and munched on my snack, I watched the volunteers—they hummed about, printing flyers, writing posters, scribbling on the backs of car windows and approached people when they came out of the animal shelter with an understanding look and low voice, asking if they lost a dog or cat.

They would ask the dog or cat owner if they wanted any help and if so a volunteer would guide them to the folding table and in a soothing voice, begin to gather the necessary information— what kind of dog, how big, friendly or not and then share their strategy depending on what the research said.


“What?” I looked up to see four volunteers. Two men, one long and lanky the other short and husky and two woman, both with short blondish hair, all in orange vests, were standing over me.

“We have a team of people who will take the posters and do intersections for an hour,” the husky man said.

“Do intersections?” I asked.

“Yep.” He explained that doing intersections is one of the most effective ways to get an animal back if you believe that someone found it and is keeping it—for whatever reason. He told me that a lot of times the person who found the dog may think the dog doesn’t have a home or that they have bonded and do not want to give them back. But, when they see the poster, they know the dog has a home and is loved.

“If you have people on all four corners of the biggest intersection near where the dog was lost, you maximize coverage—people see it on their way home from work, running errands,” he said with authority.

Here were four volunteers willing to hold up posters with pictures of my dog for a couple of hours to help me get him back? I felt rolling waves of emotions: hope, joy, gratitude. I wanted my dog back. I was so grateful for how much help and support I received on this sweltering Tuesday in July. I felt lucky to have stumbled on this dedicated group of volunteers who, rather than go camping or relax over a holiday weekend were offering to help strangers find lost pets. But I also felt a pang of guilt and hesitation, even some confusion. Doing anti-racist and allyship work has made me aware of all the ways disparity impacts individuals and communities differently. I know, for example, how little support many poor families and families of color receive when their child goes missing. The image of four white semi-paramilitary looking volunteers in orange safety vests, walkie-talkies dangling from pockets, holding pink signs with a picture of my missing Chihuahua…well, it felt a little uncomfortable. Awkward. Privileged. White.

And, it wasn’t just the bright orange safety vest they handed me. Blue Eyes informed me apologetically that there was only one extra vest, so my husband I would have to choose who would wear it. My husband and I looked at each other silently. Safety vest? Knowing how distraught I was, he said nothing as he took the vest, shrugged it over his black Sunn shirt, hugged me, and walked away with his oversized sign and stack of pink flyers. I watched as he stopped to talk to an elderly couple exiting Walgreen’s with three bulging plastic bags and an enormous twenty-four pack of toilet paper. I watched him approach a group of Pakistani men sipping espresso and smoking outside of Starbucks, and then walk over to hand a flyer to two teenage girls waiting in front of the nail salon.

Many of the families living in this multi-ethnic working class neighborhood are struggling to make ends meet and keep the ends they have. I walked past a yellowed Xeroxed flyer of a little girl who had been missing for a few months. I wanted her picture to be plastered on enormous pink posterboard. I wanted an army of volunteers to do intersections for her. I looked at my group of volunteers handing out crisp professional looking flyers and working diligently to find my “Small, friendly, tan with white paws, male Chihuahua.” I felt a pang of sadness at the inequity of the world. I don’t know what supports the family of the little girl had, but I know from doing organizing work that many poor, working class families and families of color have not experienced an outpouring of support when their child went missing or was abducted. Holding this awareness, made me feel a little sheepish about all the help I was receiving.

Not that I didn’t want to find my dog. I was devastated by his disappearance and desperate to get him back. I have no doubt that many of the working class families in this neighborhood would feel the same desperation if they lost a pet. But I was also keenly aware that having a group of volunteers armed with walkie-talkies, oversized pink poster board and current research statistics, ready to canvas for me was a privilege.

While it was important to me to find my missing dog, it was also impossible to ignore the reality that holding a bright orange sign for a missing Chihuahua in the middle of a community that regularly deals with police brutality, fatal shootings, hate crimes, and discrimination on multiple fronts, can seem, well, to be honest, a little trite. I do not mean in any way to trivialize the painful reality of losing a pet. For many people, myself included, pets are family. However, I am painfully aware that I live in a country where spending on basic and preventative healthcare for many people is far outdone by the billions spent on the care, feeding, health and well being of household pets.

I was touched by the number of people who took the time to read a missing dog sign, then offer kind words, a pat on the back, or a compassionate look even as they carried six grocery bags on their way home, or shuffled by in mud crusted workboots, a neatly folded bus transfer in their hands. I imagined some long sideways glances and shaking of heads. In some ways, it does seem crazy to have nonprofit organizations dedicated to using scientific research to figure out the best way to find lost pets when people who are sick can’t afford medical care, homeless people die from exposure to the elements and communities of color continue to face racial disparity in myriad ways. I am not advocating that we dissolve all the nonprofits working to help find lost animals or any other pet rescue center. I love animals and think they make our world a much, much better and more vibrant place. Animals can teach us about love and healing in deep and powerful ways. They are companions and friends and vital parts of our communities. But there is something very disturbing about living in a society that will rally to make dog fighting illegal and more recently with the Michael Vick case, make sentences for dog fighting harsher, while “bum fights” videos received some news coverage but little legislative energy and are still being sold in the U.S. despite being banned in many other countries.

Years ago I developed and taught self-defense and boundary setting classes. During this time I realized how deeply entrenched victim blaming is in the American social fabric. Class after class participants would respond to stories of surviving incidents of violence with variations of blame-the-victim. The cultural intersections of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps and victim blaming can create social conditions that sometimes make it easier to feel compassion for an abused or abandoned cat than a homeless person. The cat is blameless, but the homeless person, or the victim of a mugging or even domestic violence, must have done something to get themselves into that predicament and so they are responsible for getting themselves out of their predicament. This makes sense to some degree, human beings can agitate and advocate for themselves in ways that animals can’t. Sukhi couldn’t tell whoever found him to take him back home. Abused cats cannot call a hotline or decide to go to a shelter. But human beings are surviving and navigating predicaments within complex social conditions. I know from my work at a domestic violence shelter that for a lot of survivors calling a hotline has not helped them leave an abusive relationship and that a homeless shelter has not always been a stepping stone to housing and employment security. Life is complicated. In that complicated messiness, I think it can sometimes be easier to open our hearts to animals than to people. Animals are often less complicated and blameless—there is never a question as to whether it is a dog’s fault when it gets abused or is found homeless. 

That hot July day reminded me that my privilege buffers me from having to feel the pain of not being cared for. My health and well being, the care of my family has never taken a back seat to an animal. This is important. Having privilege means being able to avoid or not have to think about certain things. I have never felt less important in the eyes of my fellow citizens than a dog or cat. For many communities struggling to be treated with basic human dignity, there is no such privilege. As a white person in the Untied States, I do not have to reflect on the deeper meaning that animals will often be better taken care of than many of the human members of my community. That is the nature of privilege. But once you are aware, it is your responsibility to do something. But what do you do? We most certainly do not stop taking care of animals, dismantle dog parks or cut funding to shelters and rescue centers. We widen our circle of compassion.

I wonder this, as I hold my missing dog poster. Within ten minutes a woman stops at a red light and yells at me across the intersection “I have your dog!” She pulls over and tells me she will go get him. I am ecstatic. We have a happy family reunion replete with doggie squeals, face licking and ear-to-ear grins. I walk home with him, feeling happy and lucky. Their research was right, he was found less than three blocks away by someone who bonded with him and planned on taking him to the shelter but was taking their time because they enjoyed having him around. Seeing the signs made her realize he was loved and cared for and not forgotten or abandoned. I am grateful to the volunteers and, of course, happy to have my dog back. The incident reminded me of how important animals and pets are in the world I live in. Animals fill our lives with love and for some people pets fill a void, reduce a sense of isolation or disconnection and can even give people a reason to live. That we love and trust our pets is not bad or something we should change. But I want us all to be able to love and connect with one another as much. I believe we can. I believe we have an awful lot of work to do to get there. I am committed to doing that work to the best of my ability in my lifetime with hope and faith that it will continue in future generations. I hope other allies will join me.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Skirting Sexism

It was one of those music shows where people shushed angrily if you dared to speak quietly to a friend standing next to you. During any of the bands or spoken word performances if you tried to talk at all someone would glare at you, snap a forefinger to their lips and give you an angry SHHHHHHHHHHH, which was inevitably louder than your whispered conversation. My band was playing a very short set in a very long lineup of what was being billed as “revolutionary radical political women performers.”

The three of us were on stage sound checking franticly when one of the women organizers elbows her way past the sound guy. She’s an L.A. suntanned white girl with long blonde dreads spiraled in a lopsided pile on top of her head. She’s sporting an ankle length “wrap” made from a multi-colored tapestry that looks like she bought it at what she might call an “ethnic” store. She has a tank top tied around her neck in the same pattern, different color combination of red, orange, yellow. She has a clipboard, she’s in charge and she’s pissed. Slapping her palm down on the stage, she points a finger at the bass player and barks, “you know, if you’re a guy you have to wear a dress on stage. You need to find a dress. Now.” We look at each other. It was almost nine o’clock. Stores were closed. We were supposed to play in ten minutes. Matt, our bass player who’s round face is always sporting a smile, looks up from his bass, smiles and asks, “Um…know where I could find one?” Eric, our lanky drummer who in addition to drumming does double duty as a father and clothing designer, pulls out a crumpled white prom dress from his bass drum. Tries to yank it over his head. “Is everyone wearing a dress?” It’s to small for him. He tries to pull it up over his knees. Still too small.

Rebuffed and snorting resentful puffs from flaring nostrils, she blurts out something like “Work on finding one—give it some effort guys. You need to support your sisters, yo.”

She pronounces sisters like sistahs and yo like a command. Why do I find it irritating when white people say yo? I don’t think it rolls off our tongues easily. I know a couple of white people, whose working class tongues can wrap around yo gracefully. But for the rest of us, it sputters out from between our lips like two pieces of stringy spittle—yyy-ooo. Makes my teeth itch.

Great, I’m thinking. A tightly wound event organizer with an attitude, who thinks making men wear skirts will help close the gender divide. Don’t get me wrong, I’d gladly wear a skirt for a good cause. The guys in my band love to dress up. If the promoters of the show wanted it that way, none of us would have any problem showing some leg for an evening. I don’t even have a problem with dress codes in general—they have their place. However, no one had mentioned a dress (or skirt) code. Now, we have a embittered stage manager yelling at us to just go find a skirt—like we all had one stashed in a back pocket or backpack and hadn’t put it on yet just to piss her off. I went to the bathroom wondering why they didn’t keep a box of skirts backstage for instances like this?

What got me muttering under my breath was the idea that making men wear skirts equalizes anything. I know misogynist drag queens and homophobic frat boys who wear dresses on stage—neither of which address gender oppression in any particularly revolutionary way. Having men in skirts doesn’t make me believe they know how to back me up any better than they could wearing pants, or shorts, or suits. What about the trans men and women in the show—do any of them have to wear skirts? If so, who has to and how do you decide? How is “feminizing” men via dress code (and being really rude about it) going to build an anti-sexist community? Hemlines have changed along with gender roles, women’s rights, civil liberties for g/l/b/t folks. The skirt it’s self has stitched a new identity threaded with various possibilities. Each skirt is a symbol as variable as the legs it covers. Mini skirts, suit skirts, business skirts, wrap skirts, flowing skirts, ankle length skirts, Betty Page skirts, punk rock skirts. Each one gives definition to a person. What I’m struggling to understand is how putting male performers in skirts creates a safer, or more feminist, or more women centered environment.

Instead of making men wear skirts, can we help them in addressing gender oppression of all kinds? Can we help them learn how to call their friends out in a locker room sexist shake down? Can we help them gain the skills to interrupt homophobia when it happens across bar stools at their local watering hole? Gender oppression puts us all in tight, narrow boxes. Neither feminine nor masculine is inherently bad and personally, I want macho, heterosexual (looking) men of all kinds to know how to call out sexism—in their own language. I can’t expect that a man calling out homophobia at a football game or on a construction site will use the same language I would.
I keep wondering how identifying sisterhood with dresses will liberate us? How are men on stage in skirts backing up a woman any more feminist or revolutionary than two guys in pants backing up said woman? How can we learn to support each other if we have codes about what a feminist man looks like (or a feminist woman)—especially if that “look” involves using rigid codes of gender identity that keep us isolated and separated from each other—like said skirts? Instead of wrapping our white middle class feminist consciousness around serapes bought at “Authentic/Ethnic” stores, let’s drape our brothers and sisters from everywhere in love and respect and dignity.
We can work with the men in our lives, in our bedrooms and in-between our legs to create models of liberated and respectful relationships. We can share and compare these with each other. For those folks who don’t want to be around men, have at it—as much as you can, don’t be. But, please don’t think forcing them to wear skirts when you do have to be around them makes them any less male, or masculine, or threatening, or capable of understanding gender oppression, or even better dressed.

Making men wear dresses does not break down linear definitions of gender and does not help us see gender as the fluid and ever developing phenomena it is. How can we learn to embrace trans people of all kinds of genders and orientations, fems, butchs, girly straight chicks, macho-feminist men, women who like porn, sex workers of all genders and orientations, fat chicks, muscled chicks, skinny dudes, beefy dudes, bisexual folks, asexual folks, pan sexual folks and everyone else on this sexual planet if we treat each other so badly at some “revolutionary” performance show? Getting distracted by a skirt means we often miss opportunities to do the real work; changing how gender oppression connects to and supports other forms of oppression; creating revolutionary gender oriented change in our shows, our relationships, our non-profits, our sex lives, our families, our bedrooms, our friendships, our social interactions and our way of being in the world.

I’m not feeling it in the skirt—yo.