Better living through ambling

Last month we took a day trip to Boston to see the Hermione, a breathtaking replica of the frigate that carried General Lafayette to our shores in 1780. Having previously lived in both Boston and New York, I was relatively unphased by the jarring sounds of the subway and the onslaught of sights and smells. But our kids clung to us, and my spouse–her own eyes made wider by each jostle of the train–remarked that we looked like “hayseeds in the big city”. My son said to me later, “I don’t think I ever want to go on a subway again.”

In 2011, the world population became majority city-dwellers, and by 2050 nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. There are certainly many benefits to living in town. We are able to do all our errands on foot. And when I had newborns, I could strap the screaming little bundle to me and head into town for company and good coffee. Even before my first child was born, I sensed how it important it would be for me to avoid being housebound.

Although solidly in Generation X, my decision to live right in town is in line with the decisions that Millennials tend to make in regard to settlement patterns and transportation. They appear to be shunning cars and embracing other means of transportation at higher rates than their parents or grandparents. Emily Badger, writing for The Washington Post, reports that even if we account for the depressed economy, household income, and student loan debt, Millennials still drive less. They are more likely to use mass transit, to walk, or ride a bicycle to work. This could potentially have a huge impact on how we rethink transportation systems in the future, as well as our complicated love affair with the automobile.

It’s wonderful that living right in a town–or in a city–can greatly reduce our carbon footprint. And there are ancillary benefits related to learning how to coexist peacefully in close proximity to others. But there is also a serious potential downside to urban living. Studies show that city dwelling can have a devastating impact on mental health. City dwellers have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders than those who live outside of urban areas. Yet, there may be a fairly simple antidote that could help relieve the stress of living in compact, bustling centers. New York Times writer Gretchen Reynolds recently reported that a pair of new studies indicate that walking in nature has marked, positive effects on the brain.

Gregory Bratman, a graduate researcher at Stanford, had previously shown through his research that participants who walked for 50 minutes in a quiet, natural setting were more attentive and happier afterwards than those who’d walked near traffic. Bratman’s latest study focused specifically on the act of brooding–negative ruminations or “broken record fretting”–that city dwellers are more prone to than non-urban residents. Bratman discovered that a 90-minute walk in nature led to a significant decrease in brooding behavior and a decrease in blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex–that portion of the brain associated with increased levels of stress and anxiety. In essence, a walk in nature changed people’s minds.

As we continue to push for smarter, more compact settlement patterns, it will be imperative that we continue to preserve green space to alleviate the unintended stress of these decisions. We also must insure that residents of more densely populated areas have easy access to places in which we can collect our thoughts and nurture positive feelings about ourselves–and our neighbors.

Students of the world

On a bike ride this summer, I overheard my 7-year old son as we came to each 4-way intersection. He’d look for oncoming traffic and say, “Non, non, non…et, non!” Once he cleared himself for takeoff, he’d proceed. Within a few minutes, his little sister took up her brother’s French ritual. I’m extremely grateful that their public school here in Brattleboro starts French language instruction in kindergarten. I didn’t start French until 6th grade, and I never became completely conversational; this has always disappointed me greatly.

A recent Pew Research article by Kat Devlin compares foreign language instruction in Europe with offerings in the United States. In over 20 countries in Europe, students are required to learn more than one foreign language. Sure, there is the geographic proximity–you can travel from a Swiss border town through France into Italy in just hours. Proximity alone argues in favor for foreign language acquisition. But there’s more at play here–a basic belief that learning another language makes you a true student of the world.

Forbes’ contributing editors David Skorton and Glenn Altschuler write in “America’s Foreign Language Deficit” that the percentage of public elementary schools offering foreign language instruction in the United States fell from 24% to just 15% from 1997-2008. And only 50% of U.S. higher education institutions require foreign language classes for a baccalaureate. This is down from nearly 68% in 1995. As Skorton and Altschuler assert, “We should care–a lot–about our foreign language deficit.” Our global economy demands it, but our intellectual curiosity is fed by it.

My son, who creates stop-action movies on an iPad with his Playmobil figures, ships, and castles has joined a worldwide community of young people who make these films and upload them to the web. He watches clips in French, German and even Portuguese and figures out words through focusing on context. His French accent has vastly improved by listening to dialogue, and his bright eyes are simply stunning when he rushes in to announce a word in French or German whose meaning he has deciphered. Learning another language is, at its most basic level, an extremely fun puzzle.

My kids’ enthusiasm for language acquisition has reignited my own quest for mastery. My two hour drive up to Montpelier for my work in the legislature is a prime opportunity for once again diving into conversational French. I used to dread the long drive, but now I look forward to it. I pop in the CDs and I am instantly transported to a street in France or in Montreal–“Ou et la rue Ste. Jacques?” The lessons have been so enjoyable that I now listen to them whenever I face a drive of 1/2 hour or more.

When I turned on the CD player the other day in the car, we all expected to hear the next episode of the children’s book, “Junie B. Jones”. Instead, a man uttered the phrase, “Ah, oui, Monsieur!” I’d forgotten to take out my most recent lesson. The kids giggled from the backseat and asked, “What is that man saying ‘yes’ about?” This sparked a wonderful conversation of our own about giving directions in French.

I’ve noticed, too, that my brain feels sharper and more alive when I emerge from my car and head to my committee room. I’m thinking about connections and context in a new way. I’ve also started to discover other Francophiles in the legislatures and in state government who share my interest in practicing our skills. Like my son’s network of young filmmakers across the globe, my French language hobby is broadening my world and my experiences.

“Scared Straight” and other popular mistakes

In 1978–when I was 10 years old–the first “Scared Straight” documentary was released. Narrated by Peter Falk, TV’s “Columbo”, the film followed the experience of “juvenile delinquents”–teens we would now call “at-risk”–as they meet with hardened criminals in a New Jersey prison. The inmates terrify the young offenders. Laced with raw profanity, the documentary made a big splash on network television. I watched excerpts from the program in school. And it certainly scared me.

The documentary won an Oscar and several Emmy Awards, and it spawned many similar prison deterrence programs across the country. There is also currently a popular reality TV show on A&E called “Beyond Scared Straight”, directed by the same man who created the original documentary, and, as in the 1970s version, the young offenders look frightened, claim they have been “scared straight”, and vow they will abandon their lives of crime.

These intervention programs are popular because they are relatively cheap, and conventional wisdom says they work. How can they not work? The criminals are really scary, and prison life looks awful, right? But an abundance of evidence indicates that they do not work. Not only that, but young people who participate in these programs are more likely to go on to a life of crime. Seriously. The studies show that these youths clearly have an increased chance of becoming incarcerated than those who do not attend the intervention. So why do state legislatures keep funding ineffective programs like this?

I attended a conference in Washington, D.C. last week with Vermont State Senator Jane Kitchel–chair of Senate Appropriations–that sought to answer this thorny question and offer efficacious solutions.The PEW Charitable Trusts have teamed up with the MacArthur Foundation to fund an initiative called Results First. Vermont is one of 14 states and 4 California counties that have agreed to participate. This PEW/MacArthur initiative brings together legislators, legislative staff, and government workers from various agencies and matches them with data experts and analysts who assist the teams in researching which human services, corrections, and education programs actually work–and which programs waste time, money and energy.

The Results First Initiative implements an extensive database about current and past programs from across the nation. It then provides legislators with the critical information and training they need to make spending decisions that will have the greatest positive impact on our residents. Next week, our legislative team will meet with Results First advisors and Joint Fiscal Office staff. In the Fall, the PEW/MacArthur team will head to Vermont to work with legislators and state government workers who are interested in creating a coalition to bring the Results First lens to our Vermont programs.

As a first-time legislator, I see the pitfalls of a citizen legislature. Unlike other legislatures across the country, we lack critical staff support and capacity to do the kind of research and accountability that the job really demands. We can fall prey to what Gary VanLandingham, Director of PEW/MacArthur Results First, calls “Little Timmy stories”. When we lack critical data and analysis, we are susceptible to anecdotal stories of success or failures of a particular program. When a citizen comes to a Senate or House committee to discuss an individual experience, this is important information, but it is only one critical piece of the puzzle. We also need dedicated state workers to do regular oversight and review–culling through hard data to provide a true picture of successes, failures, the amount of money invested, and (if any) the money saved.

As the “Scared Straight” example shows, sometimes “conventional wisdom” lacks both rationality and veracity.

Finding Understanding in Thermopolis, WY

I often joke that Thermopolis, WY is stuck in a time warp. Perhaps the intense high-desert heat has bent the space time continuum. Or maybe its desolate location allows it to resist outside influence. Harry Chapin, the singer/songwriter, once joked that he’d “spent a week one night in Watertown, NY”. That’s how I felt after my most recent trip to this desert hot springs town. I’d forgotten that I’d once vowed never to visit “Thermop” again.

Why did I travel to this parched hot springs “resort” on another 100 degree day? Chalk it up to that same remarkable gene that allows us to block out the agony of having a colicky newborn so that we are willing to have another maniacal, shrieking baby. Whatever the reason, I found myself in hot spring hell once again. But fortunately, our suffering afforded an unexpected opportunity for a new understanding of my son.

Like many kids, my boy is a very complicated character. Incredibly verbal at a young age, he performed slapstick comedy at 2 years old and made puns at 4. He can be very loud and super antsy, and he wears his emotions on his sleeves. In other words, he has no filter; he’s like a live wire most of the time. And this turbo-charged little guy–who can seem insensitive to others around him–is himself incredibly sensitive to his environment. On my better days I view him as a Lamborghini or some other finely-tuned, albeit finicky, vehicle. Everything must be in perfect sync. But when it is, he hums along and is delightful company–wordsmithing, cracking jokes, and bubbling an endless stream of interesting questions.

On the long drive to Thermopolis, my son fretted about water temperatures. After much discussion, he concluded that the Thermopolis waters would probably be too hot. I prepared myself for a disappointed boy. But upon our arrival, we hiked up to the top of Star Plunge–the decades-old water slide–and rode our rubber mats like soggy flying carpets. We whooped wildly and then cackled with relief when we hit the water at the bottom. Whew! The temperature was perfect.

It was then that my son noticed the smell of the hot spring’s water. The sulfurous odor, like the smell of rotten eggs, hung in the air. Although not pleasant by any stretch, most folks block it out. As tears appeared, and my son desperately plugged his nose, I knew it was going to be a long afternoon for all of us.

Sensitive to light, temperature, smells, and sounds around him, he felt not just annoyed by the odor–he was bombarded by it. As I contemplated our next move, a long-slumbering memory inched its way into my consciousness. My mother visited her sister in India in the early 1970s and brought back a beautiful carved pen made of sandalwood. I found the smell of the sandalwood so offensive, that I routinely hid the pen so others in our family would not use it. There were other memories, too. Clogs I didn’t want to wear because the leather’s odor distracted me, and cooking fragrances that drove me almost to utter panic.

My son, like 6-15% of school aged children, appears to have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Researchers at University California of San Francisco uncovered through a 2013 groundbreaking study that SPD has a biological underpinning. Pratik Mukherjee, professor of radiology and biomedical imaging and bioengineering at UCSF, asserts that establishing a biological basis for the disease is a critical step in creating a measurable, diagnostic tool for determining SPD in children. This is much-welcome news for parents, doctors and educators. It will enable us to be better advocates and allies to children with SPD.

But on that exceedingly hot day–in the middle of nowhere Wyoming–I was grateful for that memory that floated back across time and space to give me a new, visceral understanding of my boy. Although I never thought I’d say it, “Thanks, Thermopolis.”

On lions and our human imperfections

It’s a fair bet that you’d never heard of Cecil the Lion before last week when an American dentist killed him after he was lured off a wildlife preserve by local guides. If you’d spent any time previously contemplating Africa’s big cats, you were likely grateful these magnificent beasts exist in the world, and doubly grateful they do not live in Vermont. It turns out, Zimbabwe locals did not think much about Cecil, either. The Chronicle, Zimbabwe’s daily, wrote of Cecil’s death, “It is not an overstatement that almost 99.9% of Zimbabweans didn’t know about this animal until Monday.” The British media had informed them, the editorial continued, “that we had Africa’s most famous lion all along, an icon!”

I was exasperated at the amount of time and energy we spent decrying the loss of a beautiful animal while seemingly unmoved by the death of another human being, especially if that human being is non-white. Many of my friends’ comments on social media echoed my frustration. Yes, it’s sad and disturbing that a majestic creature lost its life so senselessly. But the American outrage, and the cultural disconnection over the death of a lion thousands of miles away, was all the more cruel because it was set against the backdrop of a seemingly endless stream of high profile deaths of African American citizens.

I found the story of Sandra Bland’s death while in police custody especially disturbing. She found herself locked up for days, without bail, because–essentially–she failed to signal a lane change when she was pulled over and then would not put out her cigarette. The officer almost immediately escalated the incident when, it would appear from the tapes, Bland did not demonstrate what he felt was adequate contrition or respect.

And because she did not demonstrate “due” deference, nor show fear or reverence, internet trolls excoriated her in callous comments on internet sites. If she’d been more respectful, they argued, she’d still be alive. If she hadn’t been so angry, they asserted, she would not have been arrested.

We like our victims and heroes to be tidy and uncomplicated. We don’t want them to be flawed or complex, or contradictory–though we all are. We would prefer that they be perfect. In essence, we don’t want them to be human. We can unselfconsciously release a flood of sympathy for Cecil because he was an innocent, albeit ferocious, beast. He was clearly not at all responsible for his predicament.

A thought has nagged me all week. This desire for purity is like the “noble savage” concept which has plagued white Americans’ understanding of Native Americans and their history. Edward Curtis, photographer of late 19th and early 20th century Native Americans, inadvertently helped to spread the concept of the dying “noble savage”. He retouched some of his pictures to eliminate traces of modernity and to make his subjects seem more “pure” and less complicated. Curtis wanted to present his subjects as simple–frozen in both time and space. Photographing native peoples as they actually were–including their cultural integration of both native and western tools and dress–was more complex than perhaps he believed his audience could handle.

But if we seek to understand and prevent further tragedies, we can and must hold the complications of people’s lives in our minds. Understanding the life of Michael Brown, or Sandra Bland, or Trayvon Martin as flawed and complex must not muddy the heartbreaking situation of their deaths. It should not detract from their humanity or from our quest for justice. Indeed, it is exactly their human frailties–our human frailties–that make their stories more compelling. Not one of us is Cecil the Lion.

Grit and the power game: tennis transgressors

Sports writer Ben Rothenberg’s New York Times piece on women’s tennis, “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition” caused quite a stir last week. Rothenberg tackled body image among the top female players using tennis great Serena Williams as the compass by which other players do not set their course. He asserted that, despite Williams’ clear talent and power, other WTA players think Williams is not feminine enough. Rothenberg quoted Wktorowski, who coaches Polish tennis star Agnieszka Radwanska: “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10 because, first of all, she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.” Radwanska’s coach was unabashed about the fact that helping his client be the best was not preeminent in his mind; her size and femininity mattered more.

Rothenberg’s article lacked important historical and social context. Within a few hours, the internet was abuzz with critiques that offered needed context: racism, sexism, and gender norms.

But it also shocked me that Rothenberg could write a piece on women’s power tennis without mentioning Czech-born tennis superstar, Martina Navratilova. A huge tennis fan during my teenage years, I spent the 1980s watching Navratilova methodically dispatch her opponents, including her most consistent rival, Chris Evert.

Navratilova, once dubbed “The Great Wide Hope” by the unforgiving sports press because of her weight, entirely remade her physique and retooled her training program. She became one of the greatest players of all time, racking up wins in singles, doubles and mixed-doubles. She transformed the women’s game. And despite her talent, dominance, and court smarts, she was called “mannish”, too aggressive, and let’s face it, too gay.

This summer, as we pat ourselves on the back for being progressive when it comes to Caitlyn Jenner, it is important to note that Jenner’s high-femme style is much more conventional than it is transgressive. Annie Leibovitz’s now famous “Vanity Fair” cover of former decathlete Jenner was a complete throwback to the 1950s. I don’t begrudge Jenner her chosen style. We all should have the freedom to wear the clothes that best reflect how we feel inside. And we ought to have the room to let our bodies express our grace, our power, our loveliness, and our strength.

Navratilova and Serena Williams are not given the same latitude. Williams explained to Rothenberg that she does not “bulk up” or try to expand her biceps. Her highly-toned arm muscles are a natural reflection of who she is as an athlete–the understandable result of very hard work. But what if she did workout to increase her arm size and strength? Isn’t that what muscles are for?

Williams’s and Navratilova’s success and dominance disconcert people because their strength is a proxy for something that is not easily reproduced–grit. Williams learned to play on the litter-strewn, violent streets of L.A.’s Compton area. Not just improbable, her success story is incredible. Her own sister, Yetunde Price, was killed in a driveby shooting back in 2003 in Compton.

And in 1975 when she was 18, Navratilova had the gumption to march into the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service office in New York after the U.S. Open, and leave the Iron Curtain behind, defecting from Communist Czechoslovakia. This strikingly bold move is made all the more impressive when you consider that Navratilova was also struggling with issues of sexuality at that time.

Perhaps it is Williams’ and Navratilova’s self-possession, confidence and grit that makes the press, the fans, and some of the other players on the women’s circuit so uncomfortable.Their internal strength cannot be found or reproduced in a gym and it defines their game.

Change agents take many forms

Over 20 years ago I assistant directed a summer camp in the San Gorgonio Wilderness west of Los Angeles. The setting and the weather were idyllic, but the work was demanding. During a mid-summer evaluation with a staff member, she surprised me with her candor when she exclaimed, “The problem with you is that you expect everyone to do the job the same way you do. We don’t all have the same level of energy and drive, and I think it’s wrong that you expect us to.” Taken aback, I did not know how to respond at the time. But the conversation came back in technicolor this week when I read an editorial in the Washington Post.

In “Why you should stop waving the rainbow flag on Facebook”, a 20-something gay man, refers to some allies of same-sex marriage as “Slacktivists” and asserts that “armchair allies” should not “co-opt” gay pride”.  Equating the public celebration of a landmark Supreme Court ruling with “co-opting” is unsophisticated. As a gay woman who never imagined I’d see this day in my lifetime, I couldn’t be more pleased that so many people in my social and professional circles are celebrating along with me. Democrats, Progressives, Republicans and decidedly non-political friends and colleagues have shown their support by decking out their Facebook pictures in rainbow colors. They’re not “slacktivists”, they are friends, and I rejoice in their willingness to publicly support a controversial issue.

We don’t know other people’s stories. We don’t know their trauma, their burdens, or what it takes for some folks to simply get up in the morning. We don’t know who’s taking care of an elderly parent with dementia or a nephew who has been through two stints of rehab and has come begging once again for money. We don’t know who’s working multiple jobs to try to keep their home or who volunteers at the soup kitchen each week. We are ignorant of the number of grandparents in our communities who raise their grandchildren as their own because the parents are incarcerated or have lost custody. We also can be blind to all those neighbors who help bring about positive social change through a hundred small, meaningful interactions with strangers each week. People contribute in their own ways. We can’t be on the front lines of every important issue, and it feels catty and disingenuous to pretend that we can.

I have been a punk in a Mohawk railing against the patriarchy (or meat eaters, or capitalism, or the military industrial complex). I’ve yelled at porn shop owners in Times Square, participated in kiss-ins, sit-ins, protests, marches, and “direct action”. I have had—all too recently, I’m embarrassed to say—episodes of my own strident self-righteousness. Protest is a healthy and important aspect (and responsibility) of a robust democracy. But wholehearted conversations can and do change minds, as can public images of support.

My spouse grew up in redder than red Wyoming. Sexual orientation was not something she talked about with her friends. Now, her Facebook feed is awash in rainbow colors, as her friends openly and joyfully celebrated the ruling. It was a watershed: a bridge exists between them

Senator Dick Sears stopped the joint house-senate judicial rules committee meeting the morning of the SCOTUS ruling.  He was visibly moved when his Senate seatmate, Brian Campion—an openly gay man—texted him the momentous news. It was a joyful moment and my delight was not at all lessened by looking around the room and realizing that some of us had been more involved in the movement than others. I savored the jubilation that we all felt together; open hearts find each other.



Copyright trolls: entrapping our small businesses

My kids and I discovered a great picture book last January, “Lemonade in Winter” by Emily Jenkins. A sister and her little brother open a lemonade stand in the dead of winter. Pauline and John-John are nimble and creative in their efforts, and they constantly shift their strategies in order to attract more customers. But in the end they don’t even break even.

Small business owners in our county intimately understand that it’s difficult to run a successful business. They face the obvious challenges: scraping together resources to start the business; identifying the right location; constantly assessing customer wants and needs; keeping an eye on quality control; and riding out the stretches of weak sales. But they also encounter unforeseen challenges that can cripple small businesses. Take the infuriating situation in which Peggy and Ken Farabaugh—founders and owners of Vermont Woods Studios in Vernon, VT—find themselves. They’ve been fighting a nasty copyright troll for years.

Peggy Farabaugh started the business to combine her creativity with her passion for the natural world. Heartbroken about habitat loss due to deforestation, she and her husband Ken founded Vermont Woods Studios: driven by the mission to demonstrate how our purchasing decisions impact habitat destruction. They sell furniture and flooring created out of the lush Vermont woods.

The Farabaughs simply love their business but are completely disheartened by their lengthy legal battle—one a small business can little afford. Their misery began in the summer of 2010 when a student who’d worked at Vermont Woods wrote a blog post about selling furniture to a customer in Hawaii. A photo of a Hawaiian bay was included in the post. It had been downloaded from a free download website, and it had no visible signature or copyright. Nevertheless, it was invisibly, electronically tagged.

Nearly two years later, Vermont Woods Studios received a demand letter supposedly from lawyers representing what could only be called a copyright troll. The letter demanded nearly $10,000 for the Farabaughs’ single use of the image. Peggy Farabaugh took down the image immediately and tried to reach out to the photographer to explain that they’d gotten the picture from a free download website. It is now almost certain he uploaded it himself. She was told to speak only through the photographer’s attorney. Then she heard nothing for nearly two years.

His modus operandi, apparently, was to wait and see if others accessed the image. He knew, and she did not, that the image—even though removed from her Typepad blogsite—would be stored to the Typepad library. His attorneys then accused her of “ongoing, willful, intentional and purposeful and/or reckless disregard.” Farabaugh dug around and determined that his lawyers were not licensed in CA, as they claimed to be, and the photographer withdrew the case.

Last July, they received word that another group of lawyers in Hawaii has taken up the photographer’s case, and they are in negotiations with those attorneys to reach a settlement. It will be in the thousands of dollars and it will include some kind of gag order. It is exasperating to them—and to me—that they must pay anything other than a nominal fee for an honest mistake, especially given that this photographer basically “seeds” the internet with his images on download sites and then sues innocents when they use them.

The Vermont Attorney General’s office—with the help of other excellent Vermont lawyers—has made great strides in taking on patent trolls. It’s time to figure out a creative way to take on the copyright trolls next.  Surely we can protect the creative economy while mitigating the bullying of blameless mom and pop shops.





The curious case of race

I am a huge Armistead Maupin fan and have read his “Tales of the City” series—set in 1970s San Francisco—numerous times. I enjoy his humor, quirky sensibility, and deep love of a city I also adore. But there is one part of the series that I always found decidedly over-the-top—just too farfetched to suspend my disbelief; a white character pretends to be black to further her modeling career. But then along came Rachel Dolezal. Turns out, where people are concerned, nothing is too bizarre.

Dolezal, the Montana-raised woman accused by her biological Caucasian parents of lying about her race, has resigned her position as chapter president of the NAACP in Spokane, WA, but continues to “identify as black.”

Despite her recent interviews, so many questions persist: Why would  someone very publicly appropriate another’s culture and experiences? How could someone so passionate about issues of equality and justice not see the offensiveness of a white person donning black face? How did she imagine that  the truth of her heritage would not eventually come out?

And why are we still so obsessed with the concept of race when it is not based in science but instead is a social construct?

If the social construction argument has been difficult to wrap your head around, take the case of twin sisters Lucy and Maria Aylmer from Gloucester, England. You can see pictures of these lovely 18-year-olds and their family on the web. They were born from the same mother, on the same day. But, Lucy explains, “No one ever believes we are twins because I am white and Maria is black.” Their father has white skin; their part-Jamaican mother has dark skin. They have the same genetic makeup, and yet we perceive racial differences when we should only see a difference in skin color.

When I lived in Casper, WY I had my race questioned constantly. Despite dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin, no one in the Northeast has ever asked me about my race. I suppose I never stood out. But when I lived among a sea of pale-skinned, blonde folks, and developed a deep tan from Wyoming’s scorching sun, I apparently became exotic. People often asked, “What are you? Mexican? Native American?” Or: “You’re not from here, are you? Are you from Italy?”

The strangest incident of all occurred when I worked as a substitute teacher for a week in the same school. About the middle of the week, a teacher approached me in the hall and said, “We’ve been discussing you in the teacher’s room.” (It is always a great introduction when you learn you’ve been the topic of conversation!) She continued, “And we’re trying to figure out something. Are you from that Iranian family that lives down the street? You look just like them, but your English is better.”  I do not recall my response.

We are innately curious.. We search for human connection. This is decidedly a good thing. But there is also sometimes that disturbing undertone: I need to know your race (or heritage) so I know how to make sense of you and how to interact with you.

Being asked repeatedly about my race and cultural heritage for a year did not give me the experience of what it feels like to like to be a person of color in America. It did, however, make me much more conscious of the extent to which we fixate on race and skin color. And it gave me moments of insight into the ease with which we paint individuals as “the other”.

The church shooting this week in Charleston, reminds us again that this “othering” has deadly consequences.

“Distractingly sexy” scientists in the lab

When Nobel Prize winning scientist Tim Hunt started his week, he worked at University College London. By Friday he’d resigned his position after making ridiculous statements about female scientists to the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea.  In response, women scientists all over the world have created a compelling, hilarious rejoinder. There are so many delectable, although aggravating, lessons to take away from this strange incident.

Sir Tim Hunt—yes, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2006—made the following decidedly unchivalrous comments to a room full of high-ranking scientists and science journalists: The trouble with “girls” he said, is that “three things happen when they are in the lab…You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.” Clearly Hunt did not know his audience, nor did he read the room. Whatever relevant information he wanted to share, he lost his opportunity to convey this knowledge because he did not grasp the broader cultural context in which his comments would be interpreted. His remarks went over like a lead balloon.

Like it or not, we live in the age of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and innumerable other social media outlets that instantly broadcast news and ephemera across the globe. And then there’s that pesky little detail: Hunt gave his speech to a hall packed with journalists. What did this scientifically brilliant but socially myopic man think would happen to his controversial statements? It took all of 5 seconds for  Connie St Louis—director of City University of London’s Science Journalism program—to post Hunt’s sexist remarks for the world to pick apart.

A 2012 Yale study reveals how entrenched bias is against women in science. The researchers sent identical fictitious applications to professors of biology, chemistry and physics at six major research universities. The applicants sought a position as a laboratory manager; the only difference was one fictional applicant was named Jennifer, the other was John. John’s application was scored higher; he was more likely to be hired; and he was offered more money. The bias appeared regardless of the sex, age, teaching field, or tenure status of the scientists who reviewed the application. “There’s not even a hint of a difference there,” asserts Corinne Moss-Racusin, a postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper.

Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford University has lived both sides of this coin. Barres started his career in science as Barbara Barres before transitioning to being male and becoming the first openly transgender scientist in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Barres writes about his own experience of being taken more seriously as a male scientist than he was as a female. Once, after a seminar, he heard an attendee say, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.” Barres does not have a sister; the man was referring to the work Barres did when he was Barbara.

In the face of this and other such blood-boiling comments that female scientists endure, it would be entirely understandable if these women let loose a barrage of unbridled invectives. But humor often trumps raw indignation. Take a few minutes today to get online and view the amusing responses to Tim Hunt’s sexism. Female scientists across the world are uploading pictures of themselves to Twitter with snappy quips that reference Hunt’s remarks. Just google “distractingly sexy” and you’ll find them.

Some shots honestly are distractingly funny, but what amazes me most is the depth and breadth of women in the sciences.  Despite their struggle for equity, “girls” are in the lab to stay.  Thank goodness!