Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

The ‘Burbs, Essay Three: Entrepreuener and Shopper

In Uncategorized on May 24, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Two years ago I was sitting in Three Crow Bar on the steamy summer day of East Nashville’s Tomato Festival. I looked out the open window and saw my boss and his family crossing the street. It by no means shocked me to see my suburban boss leading his pretty wife and two teen sons across the street to the Tomato Festival because many families come to enjoy the festivities of that event. What did shock me was what he said the next workday when I told him I’d seen him there. “Yeah, they’ve got a good thing going with that Tomato Festival,” he said. “But what they need to do is get some big corporate sponsors; you know, make it really big!”


Nothing would be more revolting to me than seeing East Nashville’s beloved Tomato Festival turn into the mediocre corporate-sponsored monstrosity my boss envisions. I shudder to think, as would anyone who loves East Nashville as much as I do – and there are plenty of those people – how boring and failing my boss’s Tomato Festival would be. I wondered what makes him want to make everything so mediocre and boring. (It is important you should know if you have not read my previous two blogs in this series on the suburbs, that my boss is suburban to his core. His sons go to private schools, he has two cars plus his wife’s, and is proud to have just moved into a large new house on a golf course. Incidentally, he still hasn’t sold his former residence – a house two miles from the one he just moved in to.)

I think his brand of entrepreneurial vision says something about suburban living. In the suburbs it’s not about reaching up, it’s about pulling everything and everyone else down into mediocrity. And the reason so many people are so comfortable with the mediocre is that it’s so graspable, so like them. Two paragons of mediocrity are Jason Mraz and Taylor Swift; their songs are so easy to listen to, get stuck in your head, and for suburbanites to relate to because there is nothing challenging about their lyrics, nothing original about their songs’ hooks and formulas. There’s nothing on the suburbanite’s radio dial that would do anything to keep mediocre suburbanites from being anything but mediocre suburbanites. All their preferred music and entertainment is just themselves reflected back to them. The suburbanite entrepreneur follows the same principle as these other areas of its culture. Uncomfortable with true innovation, the mediocre suburbanite entrepreneur is likely to depend on some existing formula to either start or grow a business. He is uncomfortable with ingenuity and vision because it’s not his own.

By contrast, the vision East Nashville entrepreneurs have comes from their true desires, their passions, their artistry; not from jumping on someone else’s bandwagon, but from jumping totally off the bandwagon – or never jumping on in the first place.

Do you know what the most important thing that culturally thriving towns and cities have that mediocre suburbs don’t? Guts.

The people who live in a place like East Nashville have guts. They are brimming over with gumption. For many of them, it’s the only way they know how to live. They don’t do things they’re supposed to do; they do things they want to do. They don’t do things because other people are doing them; they do things that are right for them personally.

They don’t choose their clothes and music based on whatever is available; they choose their clothes and music based on a trueness to themselves. They like to get out and have new experiences that challenge them, change them, and make them better people.

Hence, the ‘suburbs versus cities and towns conflict’ is a geographical one that reflects a cultural battle. It’s a battle that no one talks about, but people feel it. The evidence lies in suburban envy and dissatisfaction.

Recently, Target Stores (the hallmark of all things suburbanite) has caught on to the envy its patrons often feel toward communities of original entrepreneurs. Like my co-worker who claimed to be jealous when I told her there is a charming gourmet ice cream shop around the corner from my house in Nashville, and, more recently, that the Nashville Farmers’ Market is just five minutes from my house, many suburbanites are feeling a little shafted. They just have the same boring places to shop all the time while we have boutiques and cottage industries, art festivals and artisans, gourmet ice cream shops and bold food trucks. So, Target has come to their rescue. They have launched a new line of products that can be found in their “The Shops” department.

The very existence of Target’s “The Shops” is an out-and-out admission that suburban life is boring and that they can hardly be depended upon to come up with and actually support an artisan community. They’ll only support an artisan community if it’s bundled up inside a big box retail store where they know exactly what to expect when they walk in.

There are two reasons why suburbanites love their big box retail stores and support them without question or fail.

1) Suburbanites want a spacious area in which to shop. They like things big. They like big cars that can support their sometimes big families and big children. But they also like spaciousness because it allows them to keep distance from others. By extension of where they’ve chosen to live (in the suburbs), they grow to prefer a distance from the hubbub of the rest of the world. They like seclusion and the sensation of exclusivity it brings, even though they’d be loath to admit it. They’ve already taken great lengths to place themselves in a bubble that is far removed from “otherness”. One way “otherness” is expressed is through originality. To the suburbanite, “otherness” is originality, and that’s why they’re so put off by the idea of entering a place of business and interacting with its actual originators. They’d rather go into Target, chase the experience of shopping boutique items – an experience Target is more than happy to help them superficially create -, and not have to confront the uniqueness suburbia so desperately abhors. This unoriginal, mediocre person I call “the suburbanite” does not like to be faced with bold, creative people because it reminds them how desperately deficient they are. (In essence, it’s the same reason popular kids in high school rarely want anything to do with members of the marching band or the art club.)

2) Suburbanites want the best of all worlds in one convenient location. Simply put, they want the world to come to them; they don’t want to have to go to it. Just as my boss made evident when he wanted to make the Tomato Festival lame by bringing in rich, suburban-focused sponsors, he – my sponsor suburbanite – would rather dilute any originality he finds than actually express admiration and awe for it.

One more word about Target: Target’s worst nightmare is to have a lower suburban population. A lower suburban population would mean that people are becoming more progressive, living more in cities that can support small businesses or communities that have ordinances against large corporate businesses. It would mean Target would experience less power over its consumers because it would mean they Target and large stores like Target were competing with originality, with small businesses in which consumers would be in direct contact with the business owners. And Target knows that would be bad news. Target could never compete with that level of personality if consumers would wise up and truly shop local.

My boss’s idea of “shopping locally” is to go across the street to Sam’s Club instead of ordering office supplies from Staples’s website. Well, I appreciate the movement toward reducing green-house gas emissions by decreasing the traveling that is necessitated by the purveyance of our office supplies by delivery, but what does it say about a community whose choices are Sam’s Club or Staples? This suburban Tennessee community needs more choices, more small businesses, and more consumer power. Patronizing Sam’s Club, Target, and Staples ain’t gonna get it there.

The ‘Burbs, Essay Two: Education in Hell

In Uncategorized on May 15, 2012 at 9:11 pm

This essay is the second of a multi-installment series called “The Burbs”.

You know, I constantly hear sound bites of severely out-of-touch conservatives bemoaning people who want what they call “hand-outs” or who feel “entitled”. But the people using these terms and clinging to a belief that there is some reserve of dirt poor, drug-addicted panhandlers trying to get their hands on the well-to-do’s precious tax dollars don’t see what I see. If anyone operates on a sense of entitlement, it’s the middle class, cash-clutching, tight-fisted suburbanites.

I could not imagine more irresponsible spending than what I have witnessed in this suburban community. They may claim to have chosen to live where they do because of the “good schools”, but they don’t seem to understand that school funding comes from taxes, which conservative suburbanites wish to be low to non-existent. They become the most indignant people in the world with the addition of one more child to their child’s classroom. “Why can’t they just hire another teacher? My gosh! Isn’t that why I’m paying taxes?” a stay-at-home mother who has never held a job outside the home will proclaim. (The same woman complains when she has to stand in line at the post office or at the bank when only two agents are on duty.)

There are three large-ticket items suburbanites are happy to spend their money on and one thing that makes them sweat to thinking about spending money on.

The one thing is public or supplemental education.

The three things are: cars, their children’s sports activities, and church.

They spend money on cars so they can keep up with their neighbors and appear successful. They spend money trying to get their kids to be sports phenoms in order to entertain the bored, suburbanite dad as he attempts to vicariously succeed through his offspring, but also so the entire family can avoid thinking about the importance of knowledge, or education, which is, in their lifestyles, exceedingly inconvenient.

They spend money on church because they are supposed to according to what the Bible says, what their neighbors say, and to avoid thinking about how they could fund a better education for their children. They also need to maintain a rigid two-day-per-week schedule at church so they can justify not spending time on education. I’ve learned they do not expect to be argued with on this point. They are appalled to think that someone would not find this excuse acceptable: “Well, we can’t do anything [educational] on Wednesday nights because that’s church night.” They usually do not have a good response when I say, “Well, I’m sure [your] god wants your child to learn and he wouldn’t mind him missing church on Wednesdays for just a month or so. I mean, that’s why [your] god gave him a brain to think with!” (Incidentally, most public school teachers in this area do not assign homework on Wednesdays because they know most of their students will be spending their evening doing church-related activities, and therefore will not have time for reading or doing math.)

I don’t think there are many things that make a Christian suburbanite squirm in his/her church pew quite as much as education.

Like the gutless, mediocre suburbanites of today, the early suburbanites of the 1950’s and 60’s couldn’t have their children going to school with Black kids, no siree. If they weren’t allowed to legally segregate, they would find a way to do it acceptably: move away from disparity, “otherness”, and, in effect, originality and the beauty of difference.

If you need evidence that suburbanites today are still motivated by a desire to segregate from “otherness”, ask them why they live where they live (especially if they have the audacity to tell you they’re jealous of where you live). They’ll answer you by saying, “We moved here for the schools.” Oh, really? Well, your next question should be, “And, in your opinion, what constitutes a ‘good school’?” After they look at you with a bewildered face, they might have the presence of mind to be able to formulate an answer. If they do, it’ll sound something like this: “Good teachers, strong leaders, individualized attention, small classrooms – you know?” Now, ask this suburbanite if he/she ever went to their child’s would-be school system’s website to investigate its report card. “Uh, well, no, not really,” he’ll/she’ll say, “but, I mean, I knew someone whose children were in school there, and she said it was great.” Now you say, “So, you don’t really have a clue what makes a good school or a good education, do you?” (And that friend who referred them to the school district? She was undoubtedly white.)

“Good schools”, to these people, means white schools. I’ve had a number of parents of the suburb where I work tell me they pulled their kid(s) out of a metro school because “they didn’t want their children exposed to a certain element.” “You’re just scared of anyone who’s not like you,” I wanted to say. What’s more, such suburbanites live in terror that their children are going to learn new things, have experiences the parents cannot relate to, or actually turn into the “other” themselves (gasp!).

But suburbanites (especially in the Bible Belt) have solutions for the dilemma of desegregated and publically funded education.

Education: that pesky legality that requires you send your kids to school everyday. Oooo, nothing sticks in the craw of religious suburbanites like annoyingly having to education their children in public schools where (supposedly) no one is allowed to push their beliefs on you and you’re not allowed to push your religion on them. Public schools are a place where beliefs should not enter the conversation. Schools are a place for learning how to learn, learning how to think critically so you can see the world for what it really is. There are three ways in which the conservative, religious suburbanite (and they are, by and large, conservative and religious) handle the disgusting issue of public education and its separation from all things god and Jesus.

The first solution is to ignore that conversations about beliefs really have no place in public tax-dollar-funded schools. A week ago I had a meeting with a public school principal in the next county over. There was a huge picture of Jesus with a Bible verse underneath it hanging on her office wall. Last year, a principal in the school system of the county in which I work was asked to resign because she was handing out Bibles during registration day at school. Several months ago I met with a teacher in the teacher’s lounge of a public school. In the teachers’ lounge a Bible verse in quite large print was attached blatantly to the room’s bulletin board. And probably 80% of the time, if you have the displeasure to be transferred to a public school teacher’s or principal’s voice mail, the message will end with, “Have a blessed day.”

I believe these religious fanatics are taunting and daring the values our country was founded on. They especially daringly thumb their noses at the separation of church and state. They want to be respected for their religious beliefs and freedom, but won’t give any “other” the same consideration. It’s as if, if you are the one offended by a Christian Bible verse or a picture of someone else’s prophet or god, YOU are the one in the wrong. If you’re offended by Christians, you’re wrong; not them. They’re on the right side.

But just to give Christian zealots another avenue in which their child could be more inundated with religion than the typical Bible Belt public school student, churches create their own schools, where the teaching and indoctrinating of religion comes first, and learning facts comes a distant second. Some of these schools are populated by a fine staff of well-trained and well-meaning professionals. Many of them are very small schools who exist for one lonely reason: to get out from under the thumb of the evil government who expects all people to operate under the same laws of tolerance and respect – even Christians. These really small schools are usually terrible. I mean, terrible. Many times the children who emerge from six years in a small, Christian elementary school go on to a small, Christian middle school. Then, they go to a small, Christian high school. And they are like little fragile baby birds who simply cannot find their way out of their thin but confining shell. They are dependent, naïve, cannot think critically to save their lives, and often do not go to college. If they do go to college, they go to a small, Christian college. And this area of the country has those colleges in abundance, to be sure; some of them are accredited, some not.

What do you get when you employee a person who has spent her whole life in the scenario I have described above? Let me tell you. Because I work with one. And it’s maddening.

I have been writing this article on my lunch break for about thirty minutes now and have received no less than (oh, as I’m typing right now, another one popped up) ten instant messages from, let’s call her Jane. She simply cannot be handed a project of any degree of simplicity without asking my opinion at every turn. She is apparently incapable of handing me a finished project and saying, “How’s that?” Jane uses minimal common sense, and I often have to walk her through the steps she should take to resolve a minor issue. She is afraid to have conversations with some clientele because they intimidate her so intensely. I can always tell (and I’m sure the client can, too) when Jane is not confident because she switches from a normal register to a high-pitched squeak. Jane is so self-unaware that she doesn’t even realize when she’s doing it, even though I’ve mentioned it to her multiple times. In her last employee review I flat out told her to stop doing it.

Jane is the product of a system of under-educating the over-religious. Can I blame her that she doesn’t know how or when to use the brain between her ears? She has actually been taught not to rely on thinking. She’s been taught to feel first, react, and think later – if at all. She’s learned more about using her brain since she’s been working for me than she did during her sixteen years of “education”. One of her past employers, she once told me indignantly, actually told her, “You’re daddy didn’t do you any favors.” I have to agree with that insight. I think the same thing everyday I work with her.

The third solution the suburbanites propose to handle their child’s education rather than send them to a public school where they won’t be encouraged to pray, witness, and might learn a thing or two that isn’t covered in the Holy Bible, is homeschooling. The region in which I work is among the most densely populated homeschooling areas in the country. Some homeschooling parents do it the right way. Most do not.

A man who, I must say, was NOT very well-spoken called me several months ago to learn more about homeschooling, and during the course of our conversation informed me that his wife would be doing the majority of the teaching of their three children they were pulling out of public schools, even though she did not even have a high school diploma. From what I’ve seen, this situation is not uncommon. Homeschooling is severely under-regulated in this state, much to the detriment of the children subjected to such an education. Do we really expect the student of a teacher who does not have an 8th grade education to go on to achieve great things, get a higher education, and contribute to society?

Consult any data collection agency or census and you will find that the number one reason homeschoolers cite for removing their children from public school to be homeschooled is because they want more oversight over their children’s ‘moral upbringing’. They want to shelter their children from everything “else”. In my opinion it’s all just an effort to breed more conservatives, but that’s a topic for another day. (I mean, the more ill-educated conservatives we have, the more likely we as a country are to elect conservative policy-makers and soon we’ll have the church-run state conservatives want. Once a country is “run” by a church, rich Republicans will be able to very easily buy all the policy they want. The church will sell it to the people who won’t question it because, after all, churches are “moral” and people who are uneducated but very religious tend to be less questioning and unequipped to comprehend the complexity of government and politics.)

Most of the time, I find most of the people of this community absolutely revolting. From gentle, naïve Jane to the outspoken professional woman client who informed me earlier this week that she really tries to be a subordinate wife because “it’s biblical”, I can’t stand them. And I’m surrounded with this lack of sense until I get back to where I belong and am understood; I can totally be myself in East Nashville. I don’t have to hide the fact that I live with my long-time partner and have for eight years though we’re not married. In my neighborhood, with my true friends, I don’t have to constantly justify my choice not to have children. In East Nashville I don’t have to hide that I am an atheist who left her Southern Baptist faith gradually over the course of six years, during which I was getting an education; some of what I was researching during that personal glorious enlightenment was prehistoric religions that centered on the divinity of women.

These suburbanites don’t understand me, but feel I certainly understand them. Of course, I’m much more likely to understand them than they are me because I’ve been where they are: but they’ve certainly never been where I am. I was once a romantic, very conservative and religious child (up until about age 25). I remember being blind and thinking very similarly to the way these people think. But it was because I was closing myself off to learning and growing. That’s what you have to do when you care more about your neighbor’s perception than you do your own growth, more about protecting your child(ren) than educating your child(ren).

They’re the people who are scared. They are scared of “otherness” and originality. They don’t shop or eat at places with which they are unfamiliar. They don’t talk to people who are not like them. And they don’t want their children to talk to people who are different, either.

Lucky for them, after World War II the suburbs were created, and the phenomenon swept the country, giving rise to “white flight”. The suburbs provided (and still provide) a place where they can get away from the otherness that terrifies them. Even the minorities who do live in suburbs like the one I work in are trying to escape an undesirable element their kids might be accidentally exposed to. And, to be fair, minority kids are likely to be swayed toward the misadventures of other minority kids. But, here’s a newsflash, everyone: There are just as many, if not more because they are the majority, terrible White kids. I’ve seen some absolutely horrible White children in my life. I have no doubt some of them will grow up to be the scum of the earth. But most of them who grow up in the suburbs will grow up to be unaware of the “other”; they’ll be mediocre, unhappy, unfulfilled people. They’ll divorce the spouse they married to please their parents and prove to their parents, “I’m like you! I really am! I’m like you, just like you always wanted!” They’ll spend the rest of the their lives in the bubble their parents created for them. And some of these bubble-dwellers will run for some influential political office. Or they’ll be teachers of our future generations.

I, myself, find that terrifying. What better way to water down education than to breed an army of teachers who really don’t care about the significance of the nuances of language and the higher level thinking fostered by algebra? What those teachers are or will be more concerned with is how they can insert their own personal religious beliefs into the classroom. They are or will be people who have rarely traveled to distant, foreign cultures, are not very well-read, and do not represent any “otherness” our children could be benefiting from being exposed to, educated by.

Working in the ‘Burbs, or, Hell

In Uncategorized on May 15, 2012 at 8:16 pm

In the coming days and/or weeks I’ll be blogging a series of essays about suburban life versus city/town/progressive living. The number of blogs I’ll include in this series is yet to be determined.

“Look, I’m just going to be straightforward with you,” I told my boss. “I don’t feel a real connection with the people here. I don’t live here. …And I don’t want to live here. It’s hard to connect with them because we’re so different. I don’t have a lot in common with people here. You do, and that’s why it’s no problem for you to connect with them.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I guess I understand. I mean, I have kids, most of them have kids.”

Uh, no. That is not at all what I meant.

He totally missed my point. But it was obvious to me from that one response that he did not and would never understand where I was coming from.

And that’s because he doesn’t understand where I come from.

I work in the suburbs.

I live in Nashville.

Driving home every evening from a suburb situated northeast of the city of Nashville, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief when I see the buildings of the Nashville skyline peaking over the trees on Ellington Parkway. I even crane my neck a little sometimes, I think in an effort to just get my head into the city a little faster. It’s an enormous relief to me that just a quick turn left on Cleveland Street will get me to the streets of passionate, creative people who are working hard to make our little corner of the world special and desirable to travel to, dine and be entertained in, to learn in. They set up their cafes and coffee shops, their garden emporiums and saloons, urban green labs, pet hospitals and antique stores, their micro-breweries and beer gardens, bakeries and butchers, their salons and music stores in East Nashville because they know they’ll not only be patronized, but celebrated and encouraged.

When I turn my car onto Ellington Parkway every weekday morning to head north to work, I audibly groan. The skyline is behind me. What’s before me is a seemingly endless stream of chain restaurants, mega-churches, the same clothing retailers you’d find in any town of this size, and, just as I get off the bypass, I pass a Sam’s Club – the paragon of all things big, bad, and destructive.

When conservatives refer to job creation, know that they’re talking about creating jobs at places like Sam’s Club. It’s a magnet for the undereducated, uneducated, unskilled, and downtrodden job-seeker; the desperation of the afore-described worker makes it possible for employers to exploit their workers, treat them terribly, and expect a “thank you” for the privilege.

If you ever wonder why Republicans rail against making college more affordable, student loan interest rates lower, it’s because they are uninterested in helping to create a talented, knowledgeable work force of critical thinkers who will stick up for themselves and demand to be treated like humans. The highly-educated work force doesn’t want to work somewhere like Wal Mart or Sam’s Club; no, they want to create their own businesses. A larger work force of college-educated or highly skilled workers who are opening their own businesses, pursuing their true dreams while rejecting the corporate-ladder-ascent made popular in the Reagan, or Me Era means a smaller pool of desperate workers large corporations could choose from. And a smaller pool of unskilled workers would mean increased wages and more staffing competition between big-box retailer “job creators”. And that’s not lucrative for a big business’s bottom line profit or its CEO’s bonuses.

So, as I pass by Sam’s Club and see all the hulking SUV’s in its parking lot, I moan, “Gods, I hate this place.” The people of this community never seem to consider their own power as consumers. They do not ask who they are benefiting or hurting by shopping at Wal Mart, Sam’s Club, etc. They just go there because it’s cheap and because, well, it’s there. They sadly seem to be asking no questions at all. Indeed, Sam’s Club and Wal Mart patrons are seduced by all things “inexpensive”, as if the less money one has to spend on something, the more justifiable the purchase is.

A coworker (whom I love dearly) asked me one Monday if I’d had a good weekend. I explained to her that after watching a televised Predators playoff victory over the Red Wings, my partner and I had walked a couple of blocks to an ice cream shop. “It’s close enough to walk to? Oh! I’m so jealous,” she proclaimed.

People who live in the cultural deserts we call suburbs are always claiming to be jealous of people who live in interesting towns and cities. And I’ve no doubt they are. They have just as many reasons to be jealous of non-suburban community-dwellers as I do to feel sorry for the unknowingly oppressed suburbanite.

But they’ve made their beds. Now they have to live in them.

They chose to go the way of the first suburbanites – the parents of the Baby Boom generation – without question. The first suburbanites were immensely proud of themselves and their country. They were living in a time of victory and prosperity. They had just won the biggest war in the history of the world, their standard of living was on the rise, and some of them were being given the chance to become far more educated than their parents had ever dreamed of being. They were becoming privileged.

The earliest suburbanites fled the cities for the haven of newly constructed neighborhoods that bore nature-imbued names like “Sunny Meadows” or “Oak River” or whatever contrived, vapid misnomer a developer effortlessly vomited. The first suburbanites may have thought they were in search of meadows and rivers, a natural landscape, and they weren’t completely wrong about that. But the less palatable truth of the matter is that they were in search of a plantation without Blacks. The Blacks were meant to commute daily into White neighborhoods to accomplish the menial tasks of a White household, but then disappear to ‘across the tracks’ until the next morning’s chores beckoned them back again.

This was the era of white flight. Suburbs were white, cities were black. Suburbanites wish to build as wide a chasm as possible between themselves and anyone who is different. Suburbs love conformity; and if you don’t believe me, just Google “Levittown” and gaze upon that early suburb’s uniform, saltbox houses.

Suburbanites are deathly afraid of otherness. They resent it when people branch out, explore, and become, essentially, different. It struck me as odd (partly because I was such a lover of all things different, “alternative”, as a high schooler) when I was first getting to know this suburban community, that their worst fear was that their children would become “Goth”. Black fingernail polish and dark hair dye are always looked upon suspiciously in this suburb. I tried to tell many of these suburbanites I work with that I, myself, was “Goth” in high school, but they just wouldn’t accept it as a truth. I believe they think I’m joking. They couldn’t possibly comprehend how a young girl who explored her “dark side” could end up being a successful, widely admired leader – and that they themselves ended up working with her!

In the following days’ blogs I will explore several aspects of the suburb I work within. Those aspects include religion, money, economic interests, and education.