Why I Prefer Todd Schoepflin’s perspective to Orlando Patterson’s

My friend and colleague Todd Schoepflin tweeted earlier today about having enough points on a ‘sub card’ to get a free sub. It’s an exciting moment. I’ve been there, and that sub really does taste better. It’s revealing about the value of money and food, I’d argue, and how emotions and physiological experiences are context dependent. I might be over interpreting that, fine, but there is certainly room for an interesting sociological analysis of sandwich transactions.

Todd later made a somewhat self deprecating tweet about ‘tweeting the mundane.’ I think sociologists can and should say revealing things about the mundane. Most of every life is mostly mundane. It is the routines of the mundane that makes sociology possible in the first place, and it’s a part of human life that I think sociologists have a unique opportunity and skill set to explore. I believe this even in light of the recent conversation on my social media sources about Orlando Patterson’s complaint that sociologists have made themselves irrelevant. First, I’d ask irrelevant to what? Next, I’d say I just don’t think it’s true that we’ve ‘made ourselves’ irrelevant. I think it’s at least as reasonable to argue we’ve been ignored and demonized by policy makers for doing exactly what we should be doing – questioning the ideologies of the powerful.

Yes, sociologists should make their work available to policy makers and do everything we can to affect change through such channels. I know several sociologists who do this very well without finding the limelight or writing Piketty-esque books. But it would be a shame if our collective effort was aimed at becoming part of the power-elite at the expense of paying close attention to how and why folks buy subs, make subs as employment, sit in traffic, parent in public, fall in love, manage the work/life balance, and all the million other mundane things most of us do most of the time.

Banned Essay: You’re Probably a Pheminist

The following essay was written by Le Moyne Peace and Global Studies/Political Science double major Kailey McDonald. She submitted it to the Le Moyne student newspaper, The Dolphin, and the student run paper refused to print it. So, I’m sharing it here.

***

You’re probably a Pheminist

By Kailey McDonald ‘15

GUEST WRITER

“I support equality and everything, but I’m not a Feminist because…” WAIT. Stop right there. You actually are a feminist. I understand the confusion, though. Feminism has a lot of reincarnations, and the most well known is the man-hating, bra-burning warrior queen. To be fair, that Feminist is still pretty darn badass.

It takes an incredible amount of courage to speak out against the mainstream the way our foremothers did, and some pretty hefty ovaries to burn a 50 dollar bra [the sheer amount of cereal and PB&J that money could’ve bought is staggering]. But I’m a feminist, and I love men. I love my bras. I don’t feel any particular desire to burn them either.

So what does it mean to be a feminist?

The answer is pretty complicated. There are different types of feminism, and people wield their feminism in many different ways. But my feminism is about gender justice for every type of human, and plain old justice in general.

Maybe this is the fourth-wave of feminism, this “I’m not a feminist, I’m an equalist” rhetoric popular amongst the youngin’s these days [but let’s stick with the term feminist, I’d like to honor our foremothers’ courage with their coined term].  We’re moving away from the exclusive women-only feminist model popular in the 70s towards something new, something that has a place for every person burning for gender justice.

Millennial feminism can’t and won’t hate men, because it’s not [millennial] feminism if it’s exclusive. We cannot ignore the feminists that do not fit the middle-to-upper class white cis-women mold, the way they were excluded from the movement in the past. We cannot exclude anyone, because it’s not justice if it’s not for all.  This is my feminism, and my pledge.

We will not skinny-shame, fat-shame or slut-shame. We will not tell you that you cannot be a stay-at-home mother or father. We will not tell you that you can’t wear makeup, or must work full-time, or any of the other things you think feminism will tell you.

What feminism will tell you is that you alone can make the decisions that regard your future, your education, your body, your clothes, your makeup, your sexuality and all of the other decisions we make in our lives, whether you are a man, a woman, or identify as neither. These are basic rights that belong inherently to every human being, and I am here as a feminist to fight for them.

Chances are you want to support human rights for everyone. You like the idea of justice for all, and maybe you don’t know what gender justice is but it sounds pretty damn awesome. Chances are, you are a feminist. And there’s nothing negative or shameful about it! Let’s celebrate our feminism! I say we all get loud and proud. Let’s  make Le Moyne the cultural center of a movement. Let’s reclaim feminism, and make it the feminism we want it to be. If you’re “not a feminist, but…,” why don’t you join me, and take all of those absolutely dreadful things you hate about “feminism” and throw them out the window. Ixnay on the bra-burning for now [though I repeat, pretty bad ass]. Let’s brand it as something all Dolphins stand for. Let’s make feminism ours.

Let’s stand up as ‘Phins for Pheminism.

‘Merican Douchebags?: Elitist and Redneck discourse

This Michael Mark Cohen essay about ‘douchebag’ as a white racial slur has come my way a few times recently. Whatever you think about the argument, it could be a useful resource to start conversations about the intersectionality of white, male, upper class privilege.

Here’s how Cohen puts it:

For the time being, this is the vernacular critique of whiteness that we’ve always needed, and its been right before our eyes all along. The term douchebag, again used as we already use it, has the power to name white ruling class power and white sexist privilege as noxious, selfish, toxic, foolish and above all, dangerous.

What got me thinking about this again today was sitting in a Bruegger’s watching a ‘preppy’ white guy parked in a running Jeep Grand Cherokee 4 X 4 on his cellphone for at least 15 minutes, and he was still there when I left. As anyone who drives with me knows, I’ll barely let my car idle between turning the key and moving, or stopping and shutting down. Idling, in almost any instance, is bad for the environment, our health, and wastes expensive fossil fuel (8 facts and myths about warming up your car). This well dressed guy, sitting in a behemoth that probably cost north of $30,000 and manages an around town mpg rating in the low 20s, clearly cared about none of those things.

But, I don’t think this particular automotive behavior is significantly classed or raced in America. If anything, being obsessed with environmentally conscious behavior is maybe a bourgeois affliction. The term I thought when I walked past this guy, tempted to knock on the window and ask him what the hell he was thinking, was this: Merica (urban dictionary). I realized, however, that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the term (what is the correct version, anyway?) except to denigrate or celebrate what I think of as working class, white culture. I grew up in that culture, in a town that has advertised “Redneck Games” on the webpage of its visitors bureau. If that’s not ‘Mercia, I don’t know what is.

So, I checked, and Cohen’s article doesn’t make any mention of “merica” or its other forms. I’d hypothesize it’s use would correlate with ‘cracker,’ ‘hillbilly,’ and ‘redneck,’ or the other terms that Cohen correctly points out also discriminate by class. Google Correlate didn’t show any search results, but this post at floatingsheep (Welcome to ‘Merica (Or is it ‘Murica?)) maps Twitter use of the two terms, and argues that the more sarcastic ‘murica is preferred by coastal elites who may be eager to differentiate themselves from the yokels in flyover country. At the same time, I’ve been to fireworks shows and sporting events where people in the middle of a good time shout ‘Murica!’ to advertise and celebrate their fun.

So, what’s the function of ‘merica/’murica? Is it for elites to denigrate America’s working class? Is it to celebrate ‘middle America’ fun? When I saw that douche in the 4 X 4 guzzling gas and a large coffee, was ‘Merica a reasonable response?

Let’s settle it with some enraged comments on the internet!

 

Sports: Who benefits?

Who benefits from sports? A lot folks, certainly. I’m sitting here watching a Milwaukee Bucks game as I write. I’m benefiting because I’m being entertained. The players are benefiting because they are being paid, and hopefully having fun. The coaches and team staff benefit because they get jobs, and the owner benefits because he (they are mostly men in pro sports) makes money. There are stadium staff from food service to custodial. Restaurant and bar owners in the area benefit from folks who gather to watch the games and buy food and drink. Fans may stay in hotels, so the hotel owners benefit too. The league and other retailers sell team merchandise. In short, there is a lot of economic benefit to go around.

What about amateur sports? Who benefits? If we are talking about NCAA sports, it’s very similar to the pros, except for the players aren’t being paid. But, they must love the game more, right? Otherwise, why play? Sure, there is the college education, but student-athlete is in many cases a misnomer. Especially for ‘big time’ college sports, the athletes are often playing as much for the chance to make money in the pros as they are to get an education.

What about folks who play in recreational leagues and pick up games? There, it seems that the economic benefits for others not involved in the play are much less direct. I’d guess they are still there as it’s not that uncommon to go from the game to dinner or a bar, and a few folks will probably stop and watch for a few minutes to see what’s going on in the park.

In recreational leagues the benefits accrue most completely to the participants themselves. What about as sports become more commodified? Do the athletes still benefit the most? It’s hard to argue that’s the case for ‘big time’ college sports. So many people are making so much money, and getting so much entertainment, while the student-athletes tend to be so focused on the sport that they often don’t have time to take full advantage of the academic scholarship, and the NCAA produces some funky numbers to inflate ‘graduation rates.’ Do the athletes get what they deserve given the work they do to produce the product? This Forbes article compares the market value of college athletes to professional athletes, and it doesn’t seem to be the case.

I’m obviously asking more questions than I’m answering, but these are questions worth considering. Who gets the most from sports? Players, those who extract value from the game but don’t play it, fans? Who should get the most?

As I wrote the Bucks lost, so it wasn’t quite as fun as it could have been, and those guys still get paid!

The locker room as sexualized space?

Today’s ‘Sports in America’ discussion was about 2 recent articles related to Michael Sam and the details of his pre-draft coming out, draft result, and experiences with the Rams and Cowboys afterward. Here are the two articles we read, both by Dave Zirin:

After the Press Conference: Michael Sam and “The Man Box

Michael Sam gets drafted and the NFL has issues

These were great conversation starters, but I couldn’t have predicted the way the conversation went. Early on one of the students asked if Michael Sam being openly gay would be a problem in the locker room, and if so, why? The class was in general agreement that while, morally, it shouldn’t be a problem, sociologically, it almost certainly would be. Why?

While our 50 minute conversation took many twists and turns, we spent a good bit of time talking about locker room norms and culture. The male students, most of whom are athletes now or have high school sports experience, told stories of ‘life in the locker-room.’ One said, basically, ‘in the locker room everyone is 12.’ I said, but why would homosexuality matter, in that case? It turns out that the locker room must be a very sexualized space. To hear my students tell it, the locker room is a place where straight men engage in a range of behavior, some of which mimic sex, and sexualized dancing. One student said it really was expected if you are to be part of the team. So, everyone should be sexual, but no one should take it too seriously. The fear (yes, it’s homophobia) is that a gay teammate might ‘take it too seriously.’

Obviously there is much here to explore, but I was surprised to learn that the locker room may in fact be a very sexualized place for male athletes. I shouldn’t have been surprised that performances of masculinity would be different in a locker room than elsewhere, as Tristan Bridges points out here. Bridges writes that locker rooms are “often presented as a cultural “safe space” for men—a space in which they can talk and act however they want without fear of reprisal.” I would have imagined hyper-heterosexuality, not ‘blurred lines’ between heterosexuality and homosexuality that would generate homophobia because ‘gay guys might not understand.’ The female student athletes seemed to know this, too, but said the female locker room isn’t the same. Nonetheless, there was discomfort at the thought of lesbian athletes in the women’s locker room. What explains it there?

A sociological reflection on the APSA fire

The meetings of the American Political Science Association were significantly disrupted by small fires that started around 1am on Saturday morning at the Wardman Park Marriott in Washington DC. What exactly happened, as far as I know, isn’t yet certain. Was the cause arson? Was there someone loose in the building after guests had been evacuated? Was the ATF called in to investigate? I have no answers, but perhaps some of the rumors we were hearing and sharing as we spent around 7 hours either waiting outside the hotel, sleeping in the lobby, or herded into a ballroom are true.

To make some sense of the experiences of those hours between 1am and about 8 on Saturday morning, it really doesn’t matter what facts about the cause of the fires are true. The ‘facts’ of the event as I know them include these: we were woken up at 1am by an automated voice, accompanied by a traditional fire alarm, saying “there is a fire emergency in the building.” I got out of bed, quickly put on a pair of jeans and my shoes, grabbed my wallet with the room key and headed into the hallway. The first image I saw was a middle aged woman who appeared very frightened, and I heard someone, maybe her, say “we can’t find the stairs.” That disconcerting moment was quickly resolved as I watched the woman open the fire escape door just a few feet behind me and we entered the stairwell from the 9th floor. The stairs were crowded and slow moving. It took us only a few minutes to make it down, but it was stop and start, and near the bottom a few people rushed past others who were making an effort to give folks in front time. The perceived slowness and rushing added to what was an altogether nerve wracking few minutes.

Once outside and across the Marriott’s main drive I did like others and looked up. There was no visible evidence of fire, but there was a strong odor of what I assume was burning plastic. At that point I wondered if my colleague who was on another floor was out yet and sent a text. She wasn’t out yet, but was on her way. So, I waited a few minutes until I received a text that she was out, but on the other side of the hotel. Now attention turned to what would be the primary question of the next 7 or 8 hours: When do we get back to our rooms? The building wasn’t an inferno, and in all the fire evacuations I’ve experienced I’ve gotten back to normal within minutes. Not this time.

Instead, the hundreds of us outside watched as firefighters moved in and out of the building. A few minutes stretched to 3 hours as hotel staff began distributing bottles of water and bed sheets for those who were cold. Some started to sleep on the grass around the building. Others stood an chatted with colleagues like you might at any professional conference when you run into friends you only see once a year. Of course, the main topic of conversation was ‘What’s going on in there, and when do we go back in?’

Around 4 we were allowed back into the lobby. Some of us got chairs and benches, while the majority sat or slept on the floor throughout the large first floor of the hotel. I’ve never seen anything like this. The pictures I tweeted to express just how strange it all was got shared pretty widely, including on two local tv news stations.

Those pictures don’t do justice to how surreal it was to see all these folks, many pretty well known scholars, relatively dazed and disheveled, and sleeping under sheets on the floor. Walking and tweeting was dangerous because you could easily have stepped on someone. The situation was outside the bounds of any of my own experience. The pretensions of the self so common at academic conferences were thrown into sharp relief (aided by some who continued to network, work on presentations, and even run statistical analyses on the laptops they’d grabbed on the way out of their rooms).

Around 6 we were all moved into a large ballroom on the first floor. I found it unsettling and had the urge just to leave the building at this moment. Some folks were starting to yell for some info, many made jokes to deal with the nerves and uncertainty. I have a much better understanding of the value of gallows humor now than I did before. It was a scary situation, and what I’m sure looked like crass tweets from outside were comforting to those of us using them to find some relief and common understanding.
 

There were, I think, representatives of the fire and police departments talking to us. I’m short, and in a crowd I can rarely see who is speaking. Also, the room had two sections with a divider between them, and I ended up on the side away from the announcements. As we sat barely dressed at round tables, eating the semi-fancy fare common at catered academic conferences and drinking the coffee provided by Marriott, we strained to hear muffled instructions from the authority figure who was controlling access to our rooms. After a failed attempt to distract us all with about 5 minutes of what looked like a movie few political scientists would find entertaining, we began to learn how we’d get to our abandoned stuff.  

 
First to get back would be those with early flights out of town or medication needs, and they’d go back floor by floor with police escorts. The rest of us would wait, but for how long? Around 7, as that process was wrapping up, we were told we’d all get to back to our rooms, by floor, to retrieve our stuff before the building was shut down and we’d all have to find somewhere else to stay. The conference events planned for the building had already been canceled until noon, so now it sounded like everything was off. But then, 5 minutes later we were told that in just 2 hours or so we’d all get to back to our rooms and stay. Then, about 5 minutes later we were told the building was open and everything was returning to normal as a ‘last sweep’ of the hotel was complete. In around 10 minutes, at the end of a very strange 7 hours, we’d gone from a serious situation requiring closing a major DC hotel to ‘everything is normal, return to your activities.’ 

Many of us went quickly to sleep to try to rest up for whatever we had to do later. I stayed in the lobby for a few minutes and called my wife to report the unbelievable events of the night. As I stood on the phone in my jeans, sneakers with no socks, and white t-shirt I watched as academics in standard conference attire (political scientists love suits and ties, by the way) filled the hotel for working breakfasts and early morning sessions. 

 

On not caring about students getting jobs

Like most college teachers at this time of year I’m thinking about my fall semester courses. Most of these thoughts are about details – choosing readings to assign, revising class policies that prove inadequate every semester, shifting last year’s M/W/F dates by one and remembering to schedule in the vacation days, etc. The details, however, are really only worth fussing over if you are trying to design a course that reflects what you think is important about teaching as a craft. I had a nice conversation with a friend tonight about exactly that.

I’ve never been eager to teach to the job market. Yes, social science students end up with skills employers will value – don’t worry mom and dad – but taken to its logical conclusion, teaching to the job market would require us to bring in employer-consultants when we design our curricula. I mean, reading Mills’ critique of the fourth epoch probably isn’t going to directly translate to a good performance evaluation or an annual bonus. But it is valuable. Feel free to read any current defense of a liberal arts education you can find, probably something about how critical thinking and comfort with diverse cultures and ideas are valuable in the workplace.

So, even these common defenses are really ceding the argument to those in control of the job market. Saying that what we are doing is valuable because of its marketable byproduct doesn’t really give me the inspiration I need to worry about test dates and policies about line spacing.

After saying basically this to my friend and colleague, he asked (out of curiosity, not dismay) ‘if you don’t care about your students getting jobs, then what do you teach for?’

I think my answer was basically “First I want students to be good citizens, next I want them to be compassionate, and third I want them to be ready for graduate school. And then, maybe, I care about job readiness.” No administrator at a school living and dying on enrollment and selling its ‘real world’ applicability is going to want to hear that, I imagine.

Nonetheless, the basic question ‘why do I teach’ and the tension between teaching to the market versus teaching what I hope is at least a little bit of a ‘critical’ social science are things I hope I never stop thinking about. To that end, I’ve spent the last few hours trying to articulate it a bit more.

A good social science class ought to be oriented toward civil society, not the job market. I want students to recognize the value of being curious about the world around them for the sake of living a richer life. I want students to be thoughtful about how they live in relationship with others; who recognize that the decisions they make as members of society have consequences beyond their own lives. I want students who take my classes to believe that it is important to be an informed citizen who thinks not only about how they make their own way, but also how we might make a different society that works for everyone.

Tea Party activism, electoral success, and terrorism

Eric Cantor, as you know by now, lost a primary election to economics professor Dave Brat. Brat is, by all accounts I’ve read, “Tea Party backed.” The Tea Party isn’t a political party like we typically think, but rather a well funded social movement of sorts. Not being a party like the Democrats or Republicans, its organizational structure is rather diffuse, with a number of small, local organizations across the U.S.

In general, Tea Party organizations that identify as such promote small government and lower taxes. They don’t like ‘Obamacare’ and want it repealed. Many websites of ‘Tea Party’ groups promote strong defense of the 2nd amendment (well defense of one interpretation of it, really). Many Tea Party groups (though not all) oppose recent proposals for immigration reform that call for amnesty – forgiving entering the country illegally for immigrants who are already in the U.S. (see an old post of mine about why borders are bad – this professor won’t be getting any Tea Party backing).

The Democrats have the Donkey and the GOP the Elephant. Does the Tea Party have a symbol? Again, because the movement isn’t strongly centralized, there isn’t an official emblem. However, the Gadsden Flag, or the ‘Don’t Tread on Me Flag’ commonly appears at Tea Party rallies and on web pages, etc. Fox News ran a story last winter about the popularity of ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ license plates in Virginia demonstrating the strength of the Tea Party movement. It’s not unreasonable, it seems, to give the Tea Party the rattle snake.

Brat does seem to walk the Tea Party line. A look at his issue positions shows he wants to defund Obamacare, wants a balanced budget amendment, wants to ‘secure the borders’ and rejects amnesty, and calls himself a strong supporter of gun rights. He told Fox News (I think Sean Hannity) that he was happy for Tea Party support. A web forum at ‘The Last Refuge’ was full of celebratory posts cheering the Tea Party victory, including gifs of the Gadsden Flag and hopeful calls for the end of ‘amnesty for illegals’ and calling Cantor ‘Mr. Amnesty.’ So, a quick look at responses on the internet seems to show Tea Party folks very happy about the win, Brat was thankful for Tea Party support, and the media narrative is certainly that this is an electoral win for the Tea Party. (To see the page Google search ‘last refuge, Brat wins’- I don’t want to link to it. As of 1 am June 11 the post “Update #4 – Dave Brat Wins!!!!” had 182 responses).

Is the Tea Party just an electoral force? We know the movement is diffuse and its members choose a number of ways to express their displeasure with established authority. Do we see other forms of participation in political and civil society? For example, in Las Vegas last week two terrorists shot two police officers and then draped their dead bodies in the Gadsden flag. Is this Tea Party terrorism? There is not a centralized movement to claim responsibility, and Tea Party activists will certainly deny it. However, terrorism is violence aimed at political ends, and the shooters chose a symbol of the Tea Party movement and representatives of the government as targets. It fits a Tea Party narrative.

Finally, just last week I was driving around and noticed this pair of decals on a car.

wpid-wp-1402455620883.jpeg

Tea Party activism via decal?

Here we see the Statue of Liberty holding a gun on top of the outline of the United States made up of the phrase “Fuck Off We’re Full.” Never mind the engraving on the Statue of Liberty’s pedastal:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

To the contrary, the driver of this car appears to be promoting a well armed defense of America’s borders to keep out, well, anyone not already here. Again, this strikes me as activism, in the civic sphere, that nicely fits the Tea Party tenets of gun rights and secure borders, two of the points that seem to have helped Brat beat Cantor in Virginia.

So, in the last week I’d say I’ve seen Tea Party action in civic life, as terrorism, and now in electoral politics.

The biggest big data: qualitative observation

Sometimes I wish sociologists would write and share detailed observations of brief public moments. These vignettes could be compiled into a large data set others could use for analysis. It’d be qualitative big data. Obviously the data we’d record would be influenced by our background conceptual knowledge and interests, but what data isn’t? This could be the biggest big data set ever established.

Here’s an example:

Today I was walking through a public space; a park. In the park, which is a large, flat swath of grass without much else, there were two softball games being played. These games weren’t being played on formal softball diamonds, but rather on make-shift diamonds set up with small orange cones. Others who were enjoying the park were walking through the grass, generally following an informal path along where the two improvisational outfields merged. I walked between the two games, and then stopped to watch for a few minutes.

As I stood on a sidewalk that wrapped around the park, a group of young men, probably in their mid twenties, walked past. They pointed to a location directly across the park, between the two games, to indicate that was their destination. They also noticed the two games, and I heard one of them say ‘they’re playing softball, we shouldn’t walk through.’ He hadn’t seen the others walking through I guess, so they followed the sidewalk as one of them mentioned taking the ‘longer way.’

In the back of the group, one of the men said to everybody, “that’s ok, some of us could use it!” He then turned and smiled to the man next to him, the heaviest set of the group, who replied “what’s that supposed to mean?” The first man, who had made the comment, laughed, leaned over and grabbed the second man’s shoulders. The look on the second man’s face, however, was one of shame and embarrassment, not a laughing smile.

**

I’m sure I’ve done more interpretation in this short observation than I’d like, but I tried to keep it as descriptive as possible. How would you make sense of it?

Cottonwood seeds, my dad, and me: 20 years and a day after a funeral

I wasn’t going to write a post about the 20 year anniversary of my dad’s death. That was on May 15th. I thought I might write about the 20 year anniversary of his funeral, which was on May 19th. Reflecting on the funeral ritual and tying it to my own identity development, I thought, might be reasonable sociology content for whatever my blog is becoming. I also thought it would probably be more personal and self indulgent than I feel like being right now, so I was going to let the anniversaries pass without comment.

Then, this morning, May 20th, I was driving to our district high school to vote on the school budget. I was imagining some snarky tweets like “I vote yes in school budget elections just to piss off the Syracuse.com ‘cut my taxes’ crowd.” I was mentally crafting some pretty terrific tweets as I turned on to Grand Avenue and headed for the school when the windblown cottonwood seeds engulfed my car and entered the open windows.

My dad used to say, as best I remember the saying*, “when the cottonwood’s a-flying, the fish are a bitin’.” I think he fished less than he would have liked, but I actually have a good number of fishing related memories of time we spent together. I never much liked fishing or fish, and today fishing is about the last thing I’d do to pass the time. Nonetheless, every spring when the cottonwood fly I think of that saying, I think of my dad, and I think of his funeral procession.

It was on the ride from the church to the cemetery that the saying really got burned into my memories of my father. I was riding with my family in an SUV behind the hearse (did we call them SUVs, then?), we were heading north on Janesville’s Ringold street, approaching my elementary school, and for some reason the ‘Snow’ song “Informer” is strongly associated with this memory (was it on the radio? No way, right?). And of course the cottonwood was flying. My mom quoted my father’s fishing wisdom, ensuring that every spring since, at unexpected moments, memories of my dad would enter my thoughts through an open car window.

I held on to a few of my father’s things after he died: a fishing knife I lost sometime during college; a business card I’ve misplaced somewhere in my messy home office; and a jeweler’s loupe I pull out occasionally for no real reason. These material things symbolize memories of my dad, sure, but they do more than that too. They keep the relationship with my dad alive. That’s why I kept them and why I occasionally spend time with them. But it’s the cottonwood seeds more than anything else that makes my dad feel present. I’m not religious and I don’t believe in afterlife or souls. I do, however, believe in memory and emotion, and in their fundamental place in identity. The memories and emotions the cottonwood seeds trigger are a function of that relationship with my dad, which continues to structure who I am 20 years later.

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*the accuracy of the memory is less important than the existence of the memory