2015: New Year’s Goals (with bonus 2014 self-eval!)

It’s that time of year where everyone sets high-minded goals for self-improvement! As anyone who knows me well will attest, I tend to be a never-ending fountain of ideas for Being Better At Life, so this holiday is sort of naturally in my wheelhouse. But before we get to that fun task, I thought I’d do a bit of self-eval for last year’s goals.

First, I’d like to give myself a virtual high-five for achieving my Goodreads goal of reading 48 books. I’m upping that to 52 for this coming year, less because I care about achieving a specific number and more because I like being able to go to a website and see all the book covers together.

The theme of my goals for 2014 seems to be achieving the spirit of the goal, if not the letter. To wit:

  • Clear my print magazine backlog: I did not get down to one issue or fewer for everything, chiefly because I still have about a year’s worth of The Sun to get through. But, I read all my copies of High Country News, made the stack of Orion and Mother Jones a reasonable size, and kept up on a subscription to the Economist for most of the year too.
  • Listen to one good music album in its entirety each month: My final album total was closer to about 10, but I did buy a lot more music in album form and spent the first half of the year actively seeking out new artists. I’m going to try to keep that up and take advantage of my long-ass drive to Coeur d’Alene twice a week to listen to something other than my rotating Top 40 hits playlist.
  • Build a website: Success! I made rachewalexander.com into a mini data journalism project (really just like 3 things) before backing off because of my Fancy New Job. But nevertheless, there is now a website. And I learned a lot in the process, however short it might have been.
  • Put together a working professional website: I did revamp my Tumblr to function as such, and added some portfolio-like elements there. Between that and my data project, my online presence is in a better place, though I wouldn’t say I quite have  a portfolio site yet. Someday, maybe.
  • Participate in 365 in Focus, a group photoblog project: I succesfullly did this for about half the year before I just got sort of tired of it, so it was more like a 180 in Focus. In the process, I learned how to use some new photo apps and got more comfortable with mobile photography and editing, so that’s good. You can see my pictures here.

Given how last year played out, this year’s goals are going to be more holistic. Here’s what I’d like to do in 2015:

  • Make exercise, especially training for derby, a priority. I’ve been good about going to the gym a couple days a week on top of practice, but I’d like to have a workout routine specifically targeting building endurance for derby and strengthening the muscles I need most.
  • Get back outside. I’ve gone climbing once since moving here and am really excited to get back into that. I’d like to spend more of this fall and spring hiking, being outside, getting to know my new home and learning some regional ecology. (Summer I’ll be off on a crazy travel extravaganza.)
  • Read the news more systematically. Working at a newspaper, I tend to read a lot, and I’m pretty happy with the amount I read about what’s going on in the world. But I’d like to read more broadly and seek out international news sources other than the Economist. Basically, do more than just relying on random stuff from Twitter, the New York Times and stuff my friends send me.
  • Write more regularly. I’d like to journal everyday or close to it both because it’s been such a useful tool to hone my writing skills and because having a chronic of your life is an amazing thing for later. Blogging more would be awesome too, especially since I’m going to be traveling so much.
  • Get my online presence in order. This blog needs a makeover, and I’d like it to eventually be a WordPress.org install on a custom domain instead of a WordPress.com hosted thing. My data project also needs an update note, and I could always use better Twitter lists and Facebook friend groups. Plus, I want to get real about using some of the newer social networks that still confuse me – I’m thinking Vine and Pinterest specifically this year.

6 things I learned during my first summer as a college graduate

It’s been bittersweet saying goodbye to so many friends in the last week. Walla Walla is losing some wonderful people as the Class of 2014 heads off into the world, but I’m excited to see where the amazing and talented people I got to know at Whitman go from here.

I remember graduating a year ago – that sentence terrifies me slightly – and struggling to find footholds during my first few month of post-graduate freedom, so I thought I’d list a few things I learned during that transition period.

I’m not preaching to anyone here – you do you – and my experiences are to a degree particular to getting a job immediately post-grad instead of traveling or going to grad school. And it’s very possible all of this stuff is really obvious and I’m just slow on the uptake. But if you’re wondering “did anyone else feel like this?” or not sure where to start, maybe this will help.

1) Sleep debt is really, really real.

You’ve  probably spent the past four years not getting a lot of sleep. If your senior year was at all like mine, the past few months were probably especially bad. Two nights of conking out for 12 hours once you get home aren’t going to make that up.

It took me weeks of getting good sleep consistently before I stopped feeling exhausted all the time. So don’t skimp on making up your sleep debt now that you have the time.

This goes for anything else related to your wellbeing that you put off while you were in school. If you stopped exercising or eating healthy food or neglected a bunch of cavities, now is the time to straighten that shit out. Get in the habit of taking care of yourself.

2) If you approach real life like college, you’ll burn out in three months

In college, I evaluated my workload by asking myself, “Can I survive this for three months?” Overachievers of the world know the pattern: you load up on classes, extracurriculars and more, run yourself into the ground for a semester, and then get winter/summer break to recuperate.

Adult jobs do not work like this. Working at the pace you set for yourself in college is a surefire way to feel exhausted, miserable and undervalued three months into your first job. Take a deep breath. Slow down.

Focus on building relationships with coworkers, setting long-term goals and working at a steady pace. You have more than one semester to make the difference you want to make in whatever organization you’re part of.

3) Rejection is normal. And it sucks.

If you’re entering the workforce, you will apply for 10 jobs you’re qualified for, and none of them will take the time to email or call you to tell you you didn’t the the job. It sucks. It just does. There’s no sugarcoating how hard it is to put a lot of work into something, get yourself excited for it, and get let down. Especially if you’re unemployed, or you hate your current job, or all your friends seem to be doing fine.

There’s no silver bullet here, but know you’re not alone in this. Your wildly successful friends were turned down for internships. I’ve been rejected for every job and internship I’ve applied for since graduating. Find people who can remind you that you’re still amazing. Find friends who’ve been through the same thing and will buy you dinner or a drink or a movie ticket when it happens to you. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, job-wise, whether that’s training yourself for a new skill or taking up a career as an activist to make the economy suck less (we’ll all thank you for that one).

4) Feeling socially isolated is normal. And it sucks too.

It’s rough to go from living half a mile (at most) away from all your friends to a city where you might not know anyone (or where the people you do know are spread out and busy). College makes socializing easy by forcing you to meet new people all the time and facilitating a never-ending stream of events and parties to go to. You might start out your adult life without a lot of friends nearby, and that can lead to loneliness really quickly.

That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to having no social life, but…

5) Finding friends might look different than what you’re used to

The single best way I’ve found to meet people in a new place is by doing stuff. Volunteering and doing roller derby have all given me opportunities to get to know people and fill the social holes that were created when all my friends evaporated after graduating.

Doing an activity takes a bunch of the pressure off of chatting with someone casually to see if you get along, and it also exposes you to a much bigger and more diverse group of people. If skating isn’t your thing, try finding Meetup groups for common interests, becoming a regular at a bar or restaurant (if you can afford it), joining a gym, taking a class or just asking coworkers to go out for a drink after work.

It’s going to take more work than you’re used to, and it might feel awkward. It helps to remind yourself that most humans enjoy being social, and most people your age are looking for friends or people to hang out with. So don’t be afraid to get someone’s number, invite them over or otherwise express an interest in Becoming Friends. You won’t die, I promise.

Be open to friendships with people you might not have interacted with much before graduating. School tends to segregate people by age, but once you’re out, you’ll end up befriending people several decades older than you who come from all kinds of different backgrounds. Embrace it.

6) You might enjoy having less of a social life

Senior year, I felt a lot of pressure to Do Stuff With People, because all of us were operating with the knowledge that in a few months, we’d scatter to the winds and never again have the opportunity to go camping/watch a movie together/climb the WWCC dome/get ice cream.

Having a whirlwind set of social opportunities is fun, but after graduating, I’ve also come to enjoy not feeling like I’m missing a bunch of fantastic opportunities every weekend if I don’t go out. If you find yourself, by choice or circumstance, in a less social place, that’s okay. Rediscover your love of young adult literature (hello, summer of 2013) or knitting or some other hobby you totally stopped doing in college because you ran out of time. Get back in shape. Write poetry. Tackle your Netflix queue. There’s a lot you can do solo with your newfound freedom, even if you’re working full time.

Trigger warnings are not the end of academic freedom, I promise

(Content warning: brief mention of domestic violence and sexual assault.)

My junior year of college, my Environmental Communication class spent an afternoon discussing the pros and cons of a shock value approach to advertising for environmental causes. Our professor put together a slideshow including a number of ads as examples. Many of them were from the animal-rights group PETA, which often poses women as animals (for instance, in cages) to make points about animal abuse.

I don’t remember the exact nature of every image we looked at, but one of them involved a woman who had been severely beaten–a close-up of her face with bruising, blood and the whole nine yards. It was realistic, graphic, and it was huge, sitting larger-than-life on the whiteboard while we kept the discussion going.

That image came less than a week after I’d gotten a call from someone I care about very much. I can’t and won’t repeat the specifics of what she told me through sobs, but it boiled down to this: she was in the hospital because her husband had left her covered in bruises the night before.

I don’t consider myself a fragile person, though goodness knows I have my days, just like everyone else. But seeing that face larger-than-life on the board, while we talked about it in the most unemotional terms possible was, to put it mildly, agonizing. My chest tightened. I flashed back to our conversation, and to conversations like it I’ve had with so many people I care about. I kept seeing the faces of people I loved projected onto this bruised woman’s face. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I thought about getting up, saying something, but I didn’t know what I would say, so I sat there.

Eventually, I got my reaction under control with some deep breaths and asked the professor, after class, if he wouldn’t mind giving us a heads-up if we was going to show images like that in the future. He said sure and seemed concerned, sensing that something was wrong, but didn’t ask me any questions. The issue never came up in that class again.

I’m telling this story because lately, a lot of people have been writing about trigger warnings. If you’re unfamiliar, a trigger warning is a note (in written or verbal form) that some piece of content might contain something which could trigger a panic or post-traumatic stress disorder type reaction in someone else. They’re often seen on graphic descriptions or images of violence, abuse or sexual assault and are commonly found in some spaces online. They’ve also started migrating to the classroom, with students at some colleges requesting content warnings in syllabuses (for example, for books with graphic rape scenes in them). This last bit is something Jenny Jarvie at the New Republic (and many other writers over the past few weeks) have taken issue with:

What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off. The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.

I get that for people who don’t hang out on the social justice-oriented parts of Tumblr, the pervasiveness of trigger warnings might seem unnecessary, amusing, or even threatening. The syntax of written warnings– “tw: rape” or “tw: abuse” stuck at the beginning of an article–seems to lend itself to mockery. And trigger warnings, as they’ve evolved, aren’t perfect. Some people dilute the original intentions of trigger warnings by using them mockingly or to denote ideas that the author finds personally offensive (eg. tw: Republicans). For people with highly specific  phobias or triggers to everyday objects, it’s probably not possible to configure the world in a way that ensures they never come face to face with something that’s going to set them off. There are legitimate concerns related to censorship and academic freedom when the issue at hand is whether or not students should be able to opt out of triggering material. These are all issues and concerns worth discussing.

I take issue, though, with the critics who think triggers are about being “offended,” or that they signify some sort of unwillingness to confront tough issues head on. The day we looked at those images in my Environmental Comm class was in the middle of one of my hardest semesters of college. I’d been doing interviews with sexual assault victims and eating disorder survivors for the school paper–work that would later end with me being treated for PTSD because I kept flashing back to memories of other people’s worst nightmares. I had several close family members going through their own experiences of sexual assault and domestic violence. I had spent an entire semester confronting some of the worst kinds of trauma I know of head-on, carefully rationing my brain’s ability to absorb more violent images and awful stories. And on days like that, one more thing I wasn’t counting on could be enough to cause a panic attack or flashback.

There are those would say that that’s on me, and it is. It’s on me to walk out of the room, to close my eyes, look away, to get a note from the counselor excusing me from class for the day, or whatever. But I can’t do that if no one tells me what to expect. To suggest that people with triggers need to get over them is essentially to suggest that I can or should get over a slew of mental illnesses instantaneously over the course of a single class period. We understand bodies don’t work that way, which is why we have allergy warnings in dining halls: people can’t just make themselves un-allergic to nuts. Brains don’t work that way either.

Some anti-trigger warning people have said that you can’t deal with your triggers by avoiding them. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case, learning how to deal with trauma without dissociating or having a panic attack was an important part of healing. But that was a long process, and one that was best done with the help of trained therapists, not in the middle of a discussion in class. Even if our end goal is to help people deal with their triggers, warnings can help smooth that process over, let people deal with mental illness at their own pace and give people time to prepare themselves. If my professor had said, “Hey, just so you know, there are a few graphic images in this slide show,” I would have been able to prepare myself mentally, to take some deep breaths before we started, and know that I was in an environment where the professor would likely sympathize if I needed to step out for a minute.  A similar warning on a book (“FYI, there’s a graphic rape scene in this week’s reading”) allows people like me to make an informed choice about when to do that reading–maybe not right after interviewing another survivor, maybe not right after the sobbing phone call from a cousin or a friend who’s just been sexually assaulted.

The phrase “trigger warning” might be a newish one, culturally, but the concept really isn’t. We rate movies and give reasons for those ratings, presumably so someone considering watching “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” can make an informed decision about whether they want to see a film containing “brutal violent content including rape and torture.” Most media outlets that published Boston Marathon bombing photos put a warning above or before them to tell readers that they were particularly graphic and violent. Our culture has evolved a lot of ways to tell people, “Hey, this is some pretty heavy shit you’re about to look at, so if you want to do something else now, here’s your chance.”  It’s simply a way to give people tools to avoid topics that might be (a little, a lot) more than they’re able to handle on a given day, for reasons that are far more outside people’s control than simply “being offended.” I would hope that’s something everyone can get behind.

“The Disconnected Millennial” and other myths I’m tired of

Another day, another trend piece analyzing my generation and our supposed shortcomings. This one’s from the National Review, based on a Pew study, and calls us the “disconnected generation.”

Someday, I will learn how to not read things that frustrate me, but until that day comes, I’m just going to respond to some of these supposedly dire warning signs about the current batch of 20-somethings.

From the top:

Today the Millennials, write the Pew analysts, are “relatively unattached to organized politics and religion,” and significantly more unattached than the age cohorts — Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation — that came before.

This article doesn’t make it clear if they’re talking about Millennials compared to present day Gen Xers and Boomers or relative to Gen Xers and Boomers when they were this age, which is an issue in and of itself.

I think it’s fair to say a lot of people my age have an overarching distrust of institutions, including major political parties and organized religion.

You can see that as evidence of our disconnection if you want to (though at least some polling suggests we volunteer more and are more likely to be involved in local politics than the general population), but I’d ask you: if your formative years included the Catholic Church’s child molestation cover-up, the collapse of the entire global financial system (followed by an incredibly anemic recovery), increasingly dire predictions about imminent environmental collapse and a bunch of religious leaders saying that your LGBT friends (or you, yourself, because of your orientation or gender identity) didn’t belong in their house of worship, would you really grow up with a ton of faith in religions and political institutions?

(Maybe you would, and more power to you. But I think a lot of Millennials can be forgiven for seeking community elsewhere.)

The fact that we don’t connect with the institutions older folks wish we would doesn’t mean we’re not connected, though. And no, I’m not talking about our propensity for sharing selfies on social media. Here are some communities I feel connected to, in lieu of a political party (which I’m not allowed to be part of anyway) or church, and in addition to my friends:

  • The other volunteers at the free medical clinic I work at every week
  • The community of journalists I’ve met in the course of my work, who are spread all over the country but often give me advice or help
  • My college’s alumni and other community members (faculty, current students) here in town
  • My coworkers
  • My roller derby teammates

I’ve got friends who have friends through board game or Magic groups, friends who hang out with people twice their age because they’re all in a band together, friends who engage in activist work and find community there, and friends who spend every free minute climbing and backpacking and spend time with a community who does the same.

Some of these activities might seem less serious or life-defining than a religious or political affiliation, but I think humans are every bit as capable of finding serious meaning and purpose in life from pushing themselves through physical challenges or working as a team to create beautiful music.

At any rate, calling us “disconnected” based only on our involvement in organized political parties and religious groups is specious. Onward!

Millennials aren’t entirely rejecting parenthood, but 47 percent of births to Millennial women are outside marriage. Even so, about 60 percent of Millennials, like their elders, say that having more children raised by a single parent is bad for society.

…not being married is not the same thing as being a single parent, y’all. For example, I have a boyfriend. We live together for a number of reasons, including the fact that we both earn no money and rent is cheaper when you share it. If I were to have a baby right now (not planning to, but for the sake of argument), I would not be a single parent, though I would remain unmarried.

They note that we’re also marrying and having kids later. Which I’m pretty sure is a) a trend that’s been happening for a while now and b) also explainable by the fact that none of us earn enough money to do things like buy a house or start saving for college for our kids.

Only 19 percent say that, generally speaking, most people can be trusted, compared with 31 to 40 percent among older generations.

That doesn’t look great (really, older people, only 40%?), but I think you have to give us some credit for all the circumstances we grew up in suggesting that people aren’t trustworthy (again, financial apocalypse). Based on the Pew analysis, they attribute this in part to increasing racial diversity. I’d imagine they mean “people are racist” but I’d also suggest that people of color who have experienced things like racial profiling and police brutality are probably not inclined to just trust random strangers on good faith as a matter of safety and survival.

To the extent this is just general distrust, it’s concerning (though again, you have to correct for age; maybe we get more trusting as we get older). But if this is an issue, I think it’s likely indicative of larger social problems that aren’t just about Millennials and our “disconnection,” like the feeling that the U.S. as a whole has become increasingly polarized and partisan. Let’s talk about the whole issue, and not just my generation’s symptoms.

So whom do Millennials trust? Their friends, those they are connected to in digital social networks. Some 81 percent of Millennials are on Facebook, with a median 250 friend count, and 55 percent have shared a selfie.

I feel like there’s this conflation of “people you trust” with “people you spend time with voluntarily.” Plus an implied dichotomy between online and “real life” that’s less and less relevant. Yes, I talk to my friends online. I also call them (online, because it’s free and video chats are great), drive long distances to visit them, and still interact with other humans who live in the town I’m in (friends, acquaintances, people I’ve selected as peers and people I’ve met through circumstance).

Facebook is a tool that allows people to stay in touch with casual friends they might otherwise lose contact with. I know people like to talk about it being a revolutionary game-changer, but in terms of maintaining distance friendships, it seems like a pretty linear path from snail mail to phones to email to social media/IM/other more instant and shortform tools. And when you strip the mystique of Facebook from this is, it reads like, “Young people are more likely to trust their self-selected friends than random strangers.” Which seems like a statement that can safely be applied to most generations across time and space.

And for pete’s sake, people, can you stop writing about selfies?

What else we can talk about when we talk about travel

My post earlier today about Nick Kristof’s column on travel was mostly critique, and because it bugs me when people critique stuff without offering solutions, I thought I’d offer a few.

One, I’d like to see people (not just Kristof) acknowledge other, less sexy ways of promoting global citizens and multiculturalism, especially alongside their writing about the virtues of travel. Perhaps I’m jaded from all the study abroad program marketing I was subjected to as a student, but I think you can do a lot in the U.S. to foster some of the same goals on a community, not an individual, level.

He’s right that learning Spanish is a hugely important thing, so let’s get more elementary school students in Spanish immersion programs (or Chinese, or Arabic, or really any other language) and stop treating foreign language courses as optional electives to be started in middle school or later (or not at all). Let’s have conversations about sustaining diverse neighborhoods in major American cities and creating community events and spaces where people from different racial, ethnic and religious background will interact regularly.

I’m willing to concede that travel brings a certain perspective and immediateness to a lot of things that aren’t possible in another context, but I think we can all agree that not everyone is going to study abroad or take a gap year. If we’re serious about an aware and engaged citizenry, I don’t think individual choices to see the world aren’t enough to get us there. I also don’t think people unable to travel for whatever reason should be left out of those benefits when they’re attainable in other ways.

And for those who do want to travel but don’t feel they’re quite able to? A lot of the issues I brought up, like the racism, sexual harassment or fear of violence some people might face while traveling isn’t really a problem one individual (even someone as big as Nick Kristof) can solve, especially not overnight. But I do think people who feel strongly that everyone should travel can help their case by trying to break down some of those barriers. (I also want to see people talking about these issues when they talk about travel, not as a follow-up or afterthought.) Kristof suggests colleges offering a semester of credit for a gap year, which is a cool idea (though one some of my professors might take some issue with). A lot of other people are going to have better ideas than these ones (and I’d love to hear them), but here are a few of mine:

  • Get creative with ideas to pay for the “little costs” of travel: things like visas and medication that add up. Maybe colleges could collect frequent flier miles from school-sponsored travel and use it to fund tickets for students in need. Maybe campus health centers could bulk-buy malaria meds and hand them out at free or reduced cost for students studying abroad.
  • Wherever possible, highlight no-cost opportunities for travel, not just stuff with free room and board. I’d also love to see people advocating for the creation of more all-inclusive opportunities like that, especially ones that aren’t tied to heavily to U.S. foreign policy objectives and/or long periods of commitment (the Peace Corps is awesome, but not for everyone).
  • Colleges often charge equal tuition to students studying abroad even when their programs cost less than regular tuition would. That seems unfair, but consider that at least some (including my alma mater) do this because they lose money paying out financial aid packages in cash to study abroad programs. There’s no magic bullet for this, but a serious conversation about getting more students to study abroad needs to talk about financial aid and college affordability in general.
  • Don’t pretend everyone can travel in the same ways. Be aware of which countries are especially risky for LGBT people or inaccessible for people with disabilities and highlight resources to help people who want to do so navigate those challenges instead of just telling them to go elsewhere. (This is motivating me to start a resource list, so if you have a suggestion, let me know.)


It’s easier to travel if you’re Nick Kristof

Nick Kristof has a new column, one in which he proclaims everyone should study abroad or take a gap year and travel the world:

All young Americans should learn Spanish — el idioma extranjero de mayor importancia en los Estados Unidos — partly because growing numbers of seniors will finance retirement by moving to cheaper countries like Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Yet it makes no sense to study Spanish on a college campus when it is so much cheaper and more exhilarating to move to Bolivia, study or get a job and fall in love with a Bolivian.

To be clear, I think seeing other parts of the world is a great way to broaden horizons, and I’d love to live in a world where everyone who wanted to do so was able to travel freely. Coming from privileged circumstances, I’ve certainly been guilty of viewing travel as a panacea that everyone should embrace. But Kristof is so tone-deaf throughout this column that I have to wonder if he’s stepped beyond his own individual experience to think about what’s truly required to make major international travel possible.

He cites his own experience bumming around the world as an example of the type of eye-opening revelation travel brings, and it definitely sounds like fun. It’s great if you can hitchhike, sleep in strangers’ barns, stay in group hostel rooms and never worry about anything besides petty theft, but let’s not forget that feeling safe in foreign circumstances isn’t a universal luxury. Queer people risk harassment, assault and arrest in many countries, and some might rather stay home than hide who they are so they can feel safe abroad. Many (probably most or all) countries have complex and completely different social systems of race and racism which people of color have to figure out how to navigate.

It’s not as if these issues are absent in the U.S., but I’ve found that knowing how to be female and queer in the U.S. doesn’t mean I know how to be either in another country. That’s not an insurmountable obstacle, but it is one that requires extra energy to adapt to. I’ve been sexually harassed, followed and occasionally groped by strange men dozens of times while abroad. When I went to Ecuador, we were warned that especially in coastal cities, men would pose as taxi drivers and take single women who got into their cabs to a house where they would be held and gang-raped.

It’s true that reports of violence often get overblown in travel advisories, that I risk many of the same things by staying home, and, I suspect, that I’m far less likely to be a victim of rape and assault traveling to Ecuador than a woman born there. Still, even if the material risks I face don’t change abroad, my sense of security does, because being in another country means you often won’t have the language or cultural skills required to navigate the medical or legal systems, should you need to. Nick Kristof, I suspect, has never done the math of abortion being illegal and rape rates being higher in his intended destination and decided to stock his first aid kit with a dose or two of emergency contraception, just in case. I’m just privileged enough that these sorts of realizations are more likely to be instructive for me than truly prohibitive–two years later and I still pay attention to Ecuador’s LGBT rights movement and a few local organizations working to legalize abortion. But let’s at least acknowledge that a lot of people have valid reasons to feel unsafe in many corners of the globe and shouldn’t be faulted for choosing to spend their time doing something else. (Let’s also not forget that issues of access to medical and legal services are a serious issue for many immigrants to the U.S.)

Even for those who do want to travel, there are often other barriers, and I’m not just talking the financial ones (something he glosses over, but seriously, even if you get free room and board via volunteering, a plane ticket/passport/visa/vaccine course isn’t cheap, especially if being abroad means losing income from a work-study job.) If you’re HIV positive or don’t have a clean criminal record, it’s impossible to get a visa to many countries. If you’re undocumented, leaving the U.S. at all means, in all liklihood, never being able to come home. If you have chronic health issues—mental or physical—and depend on regular access to reliable medical care or support networks to get through school (something I certainly did during my last semester), uprooting your life to go somewhere you can barely speak the language may be a challenge too many.

And his thesis, which is essentially, that travel leads to global awareness, multiculturalism and multilingualism? That’s true on some level, and moreso for kids who grew up in privileged circumstances or without a lot of exposure to the world, but it’s not a requirement to be multicultural. What about the child of immigrant parents who grew up speaking Spanish, Vietnamese or Tagalog at home, who grew up more bilingual than a semester in Bolivia could ever make me?* What about the student from such a vastly different America (whether it’s rural Appalachia or inner-city Los Angeles) that the campus of Harvard or Whitman or the University of Michigan might as well be a different world?

It’s easy to say these people aren’t who he’s talking about, but the group excluded by the rhetoric of travel-as-universal-good is so large that Kristof comes off seeming like he views his own particular set of life circumstances as universal. I want a world where everyone’s able to move freely and visit other countries if they choose, but I think we’d get there with more people on board by having a realistic conversation about access and borders.

*Edit: A reader pointed out to me that Nick Kristof himself is the child of a Yugoslavian immigrant and suggested I was making assumptions about his background. That’s entirely fair, and I’ve changed the wording of this paragraph a bit in response. It’s far beyond my ability (and the point) to deduce how his experiences at the child of immigrants influenced his views on travel, but I stand by my point that its proponents should be thinking about ways to improve accessibility, not just touting its benefits.

A chronicle of my attempt to create a spreadsheet of every attempted recall of an elected official in Oregon State

Or, how I spent my week starting at Ballotpedia and the Oregon Secretary of State’s website and losing all faith in humanity.

Rachel’s note: I started writing this blog post in October, when I was working on this article about Weston, Ore.’s seventh recall election in 15 years.

Trying to understand why a town of 700 people had so much political turmoil, I ended up finding that Oregon’s laws make recall elections really easy, so I decided to try to make a map showing every recall election in Oregon I could find.

The resulting map took me most of a week (with a good chunk of overtime) and is here. I never published the blog post because I never finished it (or the map, really—I still want to clean up my data table and post it). But I think the humorous things I found while researching are worth sharing, so here you go.

Day 1

3:36 p.m.

Decide to revitalize my efforts to chronicle Oregon recalls. Consider how long this will take and wonder whether I’ll end up having enough hours to get paid for it. Forge on anyway.

3:45 p.m.

Discover that my method of looking on county elections websites for recall attempts is going rather slowly. Also, several smaller counties don’t appear to have working websites or websites with a comprehensive list of election results.

4:12 p.m.

Begin investigating recall committee information via the public search tool on the Oregon Secretary of State’s website.

4:13 p.m. After discovering the existence of 79 recall-related committees, take a break to Facebook.

4:35 p.m. Back to work. Ballotopedia has helpfully guided me to their list of Oregon recall attempts.

5:02 p.m. Discover one election where “charges leveled against the councilors ranged from ‘nitpicking’ at council meetings to an incident where the mayor brought a gun to a council meeting in a suitcase.”

5:11 p.m. “The recall petition said that voters mistakenly voted for Stephen Clark because they thought he was the mayor’s son.”

5:35 p.m. Realize I’ve just finished 2012. We’re going to be here a while.

5:52 p.m. Call it a day after getting halfway through the 2011 recalls.

Day 2

11:03 a.m. Resume combing Ballotpedia data. Come across my first recall which seems serious–a 2011 attempted recall of four city council members in the city of Oakridge was prompted after a $420,000 hole was discovered in the city’s budget. The story apparently made national headlines and led to a significant investigation by the Register-Guard, though surprisingly, all four held on to their seats.

Day 3

8:19 a.m. Discover a recall attempt for the Yoncalla School District where, among other things, petitioners complained that the school board “fail[ed] to respond when [Superintendent] Thielman danced in an Elvis costume at a school assembly.”

8:22 a.m. From a news story about the recall: “Superintendent Thielman did perform at an assembly and did admit his costume was too tight and has apologized.”

8:51 a.m. Another town, Lakeside, had two separate recall petitions filed in the same month: one for five city council members, the other for the remaining councilor and the mayor. The article notes that, had all attempts been successful, the city would have been left with no council or mayor.

On sticking with the godforsaken profession of newspaper reporter

(Cross-posted to my journalism blog.)

I spent yesterday morning in a social studies class in one of the school districts I cover. The class is a new requirement for freshmen called Success 101, which teaches students about making life plans, career goals and budgeting for their future needs.

After I had finished snapping some photos, the teacher asked me to come to the front of the class and tell them about my job and the pros and cons of my work. My answer wasn’t a polished as it could have been with some forewarning, but it made me think about why I got into and stuck with this industry.

The newspaper reporters I’ve encountered, especially the younger ones, tend to be a particular kind of masochist. Every one of my coworkers has at times complained about hating the industry to me (as I have to them). And there’s plenty to hate.

We make no money. (We got a 2 percent cost of living increase for 2014, the first COLA or raise anyone in the newsroom has seen in about five years.) We’re supposed to be happy with this because at least we still have a reporting job at a newspaper, and really, it’s true—we could be doing a lot worse.

We work odd hours. I’ve had to put date night plans on hold to go to a three-hour long city council meeting, get home at 10:30 and then be at work at 7 the next morning to write a story about it. For an afternoon paper like ours, my work day becomes a de-facto split shift when I have to go to a meeting in the evening, which makes it really hard to have a life.

We’re supposed to be able to do everything. My beat (which is supposed to be half-time; the other half, I’m a web editor) requires covering schools, city and county government, business and anything else that comes up in two counties (each with its own main town) plus four other small towns spread over Washington and Oregon. Theoretically, this means I should be an expert in educational policy and laws governing public records, land-use planning and municipal government in two states. In practice, this means I’m usually playing catch-up.

Our jobs are high-stress and sometimes require us to confront the worst of human nature. We spend weeks on in-depth feature reporting projects or investigative pieces only to see them get almost no feedback from readers, and then we spend half an hour writing and posting a story about a dead body being found and watch it become the most-viewed article online that month. Any mistakes we make are instantly in the public eye, and our desk phone and cell phone numbers are intentionally available to anyone who asks, making us easy targets for people with a bone to pick.

But I wouldn’t trade this for anything (until I have kids at least, and need to start saving for college for them). As much as the pay sucks and the stress feels like too much sometimes, my job is one of the few I’m aware of where my day-to-day work is always different and rarely boring. Some days, I sit through school board workshops and learn how federal education policy passed 10 years ago is going to impact the students in my area next year. Sometimes I get to drive around wind farms with a biologist who cares deeply about bat migration. And sometimes, I sit in the office reading the New York Times online and waiting for the seven or eight people I’ve called to get back to me.

Being a reporter is a license to keep learning. It’s a license to stay in school indefinitely, except you don’t get graded, you can stick to learning about topics you’re interested in and the only papers you have to write are supposed to be in plain English without formatted citations.

Especially at a small-town paper, being a reporter means people look to you as a source of information. You get to find important stories and share them with your community, and hopefully help give voice to people whose concerns might not otherwise be listened to. You get to give people a platform to be heard. You make sure everything is working as it should by sitting through long, boring meetings so other people don’t have to.

It’s not an easy profession to stick with in 2014, and I think my brief speech to those kids made it sound like reporting is, on the whole, not that great. But when I’m able to make the pay work and see past the hours and the stress, I can honestly say there’s no job in the world I’d rather be doing right now.

New Year’s goals

It’s been pointed out to me that I’m weird for differentiating between goals and resolutions, but here we are. I like goals to be specific and achievable things, and resolutions often seem to be general enough that they’re hard to measure (eg. “Be nicer to my family” or “Exercise more”).

My 2013 goal was to read one fiction book each month, something Goodreads tells me I achieved rather nicely. That modest success has inspired me to be a bit more ambitious in 2014, especially now that college is no longer taking up so much of my time. So, here’s what I’m holding myself to in 2014.

1) Clear my print magazine backlog.
Ever since I studied abroad in the fall of 2011, I’ve had a backlog of my copies of Mother Jones, High Country News, The Sun, Bitch and Orion stretching back between 6 and 18 months and taking up almost a quarter of my bookshelf. By the end of 2014, I will be no more than one issue behind on each magazine. This goal is being made partially because those magazines present more of an obstacle than they should to moving, and I’d like to not cart them with me to my next home, wherever that may be.

2) Listen to one good music album in its entirety each month.
My musical taste is all over the place and often very passive: I hear things on the radio or from friends’ music collections, say “Hey, that song is good” and go acquire it. It’s rare for me to seek out new music or listen to complete albums, whether they’re new releases or classic works. But Beyonce’s surprise album has reminded me that some music is really worth listening to as part of a complete album, and that I’d do well to broaden my tastes intentionally every so often. So, each month, I will find a well-regarded or critically acclaimed album that’s new to me, acquire the whole thing and listen to it consciously and deliberately.

3) Build a website.
I want to put my HTML and CSS to good use doing an actual project that’s for me, not for work or some fictitious company invented by Treehouse. My only rules are that said website require HTML and CSS and that I do all the coding myself—no using complete CSS frameworks, though I may borrow and copy.

4) Put together a working professional website
This could be the same project as the one above, but by the end of the year, I want a real professional website that I had a significant role in designing and building myself. Something with a blog on a subdomain (probably my journalism Tumblr), links to articles and a space for me to upload my own projects, like the I made this year.

5) Participate in 365 in Focus, a group photoblog project.
A friend of mine invited me to participate in a 365, where you take one photo everyday for a year. We’re doing it group-accountability style, with 120 or so of us contributing to a group Tumblr. By this time next year, I will have 365 photos that I like up on the group blog. Some will be shots showing life in Walla Walla, some will be just about my life and a few will actually be good photos.

Do some prisoners matter more than others?

Walla Walla Penitentiary prison boundary

I stumbled across a blog post asking this question earlier this week. The author, S.E. Smith, notes that prison reform advocates tend to talk almost exclusively about nonviolent drug offenders when discussing prison reform and the rights of prisoners:

So when we talk about prison reform, many people shy away from talking about murderers and rapists and their rights, as well as the fact that they deserve justice. Despite the fact that the racial disparities seen in nonviolent drug convictions, robberies, and similar crimes are also seen with rape and murder, there’s an unwillingness to engage with issues like the possibility of profiling, false conviction, harsher sentences because of an offender’s race, and the myriad complicating factors that interfere with true equality for prisoners in the US, all of whom do in fact deserve human rights, no matter what their crimes.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve spent a good chunk of time at the Washington State Penitentiary this year. A friend of mine (my first childhood babysitter, actually) is serving a 15 year sentence there for armed robbery (he was initially sentenced to 20 and got 5 knocked off because the length was ruled cruel and unusual punishment). Like me, he’s from Seattle and his family and friends are there or further away, so he doesn’t have regular visitors. Since the prison is right in Walla Walla, where I’m living, I try to visit him once every few weeks.*

By and large, Robbie is not who people talk about when they talk about prison reform or justice for prisoners. By his own admission, he carried a gun into a store and shot a few people in the process of trying to rob it. He didn’t kill anyone, and injuries were fairly minor, but his crime certainly wasn’t a victimless one.

Reconnecting with Robbie after years of not seeing him took a little while. After initially attending a powwow for indigenous inmates at Coyote Ridge, the last prison he was in, our early visits in Walla Walla mostly involved playing Scrabble (he’s really good from a couple months reading the Scrabble dictionary, but I’m terrible) or Sorry (where I fare better). But now, we often just talk for an hour or two.

He tells me about his classes, how he’s due to finish his AA next quarter, the papers he has to write and the readings they discuss in class. I tell him about my job and the roller derby team I’m on, and he complains that the other guys on his team can’t play soccer as well as he can, which cost them the championship last season. We talk about our families, who haven’t seen each other in years—who’s working where, which side of the world our siblings are on.

We’ve also talked a lot about how he’s changed since getting locked up. He’s told me he’s learned to be less impulsive, to avoid fights and other bad situations, to keep his thinking positive. He works in the kitchen most mornings, takes classes and is part of a group of indigenous men who do traditional bead work and other crafts. He’s also involved in the prison’s teddy bear program, which sews bears to donate to homeless children and elderly people.

After a year and a half of letter writing and about six months of regular visits, we’ve gotten to know each other a lot better. Now, our conversations are often about what he’s doing to do once released. Robbie’s been in prison since about 2001, when he was just 19. He’s told me that there’s a saying that “prison preserves you,” meaning you stay acting roughly the age you were when you went in, no matter how long ago that was. Though he’s nearly 30, he jokes around and acts like he’s my age, but he’s also aware that in about two and a half years, he’ll be out on the streets. He hopes to go back to school and become a veterinarian.

Prison reform conversations often talk about the cost of keeping people behind bars. Drug crimes are victimless, treatment is cheaper, and we could really save taxpayers a lot of money if we treated drug addiction as a public health issue instead of a crime issue.

All of those statements are statements I agree with, but the more I hear them, the more I think they still fit within the logic of prisons as they exist now. Prison is just punishment for a crime. It’s what’s deserved, what’s fair. Nonviolent drug offenders allow us to make the case that these people aren’t truly “criminal” and therefore don’t belong in prison. That position doesn’t engage with a lot of questions I’ve thinking about, like: How can a person spend a decade and a half behind bars, miss the rise of laptops, tablets, smartphones and social networking, and be expected to get a good job that pays the bills when they get out?

I haven’t talked to Robbie much about his thoughts on incarceration as a whole, or how “fair” he feels his sentence was, if that’s something that can really be discussed at all. I don’t want to speak for him or try to make sweeping political claims based on our friendship, and I’m not sure I could even say what those claims would be. I know nothing I’m saying here, personal details aside, is especially original. But that blog post spoke to a lot of the thoughts I’ve been having since Robbie and I got back in touch, and I thought it was worth sharing as a reminder that there are many types of prisoners out there, all of whom deserve to be included in conversations about justice and human rights behind bars.

*Rachel’s note: I would hope this goes without saying, but I’ve gotten Robbie’s permission to write about him and our friendship.