Who represents me?

Every voter in my country has a list of people who are supposed to represent them. People who they can, if they need to, call upon for help with public problems. For efficiency, these elected officials divvy up responsibility for responding to problems by geography and numbers, with those elected by fewer people responsible for more daily problems and those elected by greater numbers of people responsible for more systemic ones.

Public problems range from potholes to Post Office closures, from grandma not getting a visa to uncle being convicted unjustly. They are waking bureaucratic nightmares that consume their victims as the world goes on without them. They are problems that intersect with systems, with policies and with the government. They require collective action and thus are the perfect use of government.

I decided, as an experiment, to make a collective portrait of myself with everyone who represents me. From the King County Council to the President of the United States. Here it is:

The numbers in the portraits are the constituents to whom the pictured official is responsible. When I need to fix a public problem, I have a better chance of getting a response from my state Representatives or Senator, whose responsibilities lie in the range of 100k people, than from my President, who has over 300 million souls to work for.

A composite like this not only reminds me who I vote for and why, but also helps me see if my elected representatives in fact represent me in terms of experience and demographics. I’m proud to have 2 female U.S. Senators and 2 state reps who are LGBTQ. I am less thrilled that so many of the people who represent me are white men, but this is a problem that time and work can fix.

Seeing their photos makes their potential to influence my life and my feelings of ownership over their actions in my community more real. I think I am not the only person who needs this reminder, that elected officials can and often do serve the public in the individual unit and not just the collective.

I’ve called about 500 voters in the past week on behalf of a Congressional campaign. Most of those went straight to voicemails or the modem-esque squeals of an out-of-service number, but some were exciting and fruitful conversations. They reminded me of the things people hope for when they send a politician to Washington or Olympia or Town Hall; roads that won’t wreck our bike wheels and police that won’t beat our friends; safe water and treated sewage, non-discrimination clauses, and pet shelters. Those all require systems.

But sometimes, people don’t just need hope: they need specific help for a specific hurt. I didn’t realize how much of the work of governing is case management and personal advocacy until I interned for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco Office.

Like most elected officials, Senator Feinstein had staff whose time was dedicated in whole or in part with helping constituents (37 million of them at the time) interface with the government. This is the ground-floor of policy. People wrote for help–in summer 2008 often about their underwater mortgages–and case managers would track their issues through constructed systems, placing calls to contacts at federal agencies, following up and reporting out. It was exactly the type of work I would see case workers serving survivors of human trafficking do at Polaris 6 years later: social work.

The beauty of the current system is that elected representatives have staffs that do this social work, engage in this kind of retail politics, and then turn around to use those experiences to remold policy. The 2 roles are reinforcing. In the best cases, policies change to fit the ways people use the government and at the same time the ways people use the government change to fit policies.

I may pull together a few more of these portraits, since friends from Lancaster, PA to Mountain View, CA to Fairfax, VA have shown interest in me doing so. But whether I do or not, this project has helped to remind me of why politicians matter to their communities, and why the upcoming election will change lives.

I’m sure you were planning to, but remember to vote: it’s about more than ideas, it’s about getting the right people in office to impact people’s lives by representing them to their democratically elected government.

Inspirational Quote:

“Activism is my rent for living on the planet.” ― Alice Walker

The gendered discipline of blueberry cobbler

Tonight I baked a blueberry cobbler for a political campaign. It’s one of a number of recipes I’ve been learning and making with Matthew a few nights a week in our shared home in Seattle.Blueberry cobbler
I’ve been learning to cook since high school, when a combination of my step-dad, social events requiring food, and Baking Illustrated‘s luscious paragraphs explaining the chemistry of cooking connived to take over my weekends and evenings.

As a feminist, I think that learning historically gendered disciplines is an act of resistance. I believe women have always been important, and though most of our achievements were not noted down in history books, we have been hacking and making and organizing and designing for as long as humans have existed.

When I’m sewing a dress, I like to think I’m using tools and skills honed by generations of women. The engineering of a corset, the craft of a quilt, those contain hidden histories of women’s intelligence and struggle to create in a world where they had fewer options for expression than the men in their lives.

When I was cooking tonight, I was thinking about the chemistry of the blueberries and the cornstarch. I was thinking about the politics of sourcing, since the blueberries are from Washington state and the butter from Oregon while the cinnamon is from outside my country. I was thinking about the campaign staffers I’m going to feed with my cobbler, and the best ways to cook for a large group that won’t have time to sit down to eat.

The logistics, politics, and chemistry of baking a cobbler are fascinating in the same way the logistics, politics, and chemistry of beer-brewing are fascinating. But, in my experience, the former is more often coded as female and in the same breath as a lesser skill than the latter.

This is one of the simpler forms of sexism to see. Seeing it is simple: at their core, any argument which predicates that something that women have nearly always and almost exclusively done is less valuable than something men have nearly always and almost exclusively done is a sexist one. War-fighting over family-rearing: a sexist judgement.

I say “female coded” and “something that women have nearly always and almost exclusively done” because of course in the history of people, men have baked cobblers and women fought wars. But one of the powers of sexism is that it makes us forget a truth, that women are people and have always been important. Sexism holds our noses while we swallow the lie that women’s disappearance from history books signals our disappearance from matters of importance.

There are few records of women’s achievements when compared with men’s only when we only look for records in official histories. But look at cookbooks, at dress patterns, at folk songs and family stories, and our histories come to life. I think that learning the trades that historically consumed the lives of women while living a fully emancipated life allows me a deeper connection with the history of women than ignoring that past to focus only on the brightening future.

As a feminist, I stand astride two kinds of histories. I engage in the formal histories of my country, to see and understand how we’re viewed and how we’re taught to view ourselves. But I also engage in the private histories, in the clothes and the folk songs and the recipes which are treated sometimes as light-weight, as inconsequential, unworthy of serious understanding, because they tell the stories of women. To me, baking is a political act, not just in the personal politics of choosing to feed and love the people around me, but the broader politics of raising up the standard of living for women. I live my feminism by treating the work of women as valuable.

I try to take that respect for historically female undertakings and bring it with me into the world that the work of the grandmother and mother gave me. A world where I can volunteer for political campaigns, where I can work for female members of Congress and the state legislature. Where I can live in a state where both of my Senators are women.

I see a responsibility to bridge these two experiences, to bring my cobbler to a political campaign. It is my way of respecting the many ways of being a woman in the past and today, of bringing the work of generations of women to the work that women today are privileged to do. It’s my way of remembering while moving forward.
Blueberry cobbler


Inspirational Quote:

“Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege. I want to live in a world where all women have access to education, and all women can earn PhD’s, if they so desire. Privilege does not have to be negative, but we have to share our resources and take direction about how to use our privilege in ways that empower those who lack it.” ― Bell Hooks

Visiting the mountain

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Today I went to Mt Rainier and explored with some friends. Mt Rainier is visible from most high places in Seattle during clear weather, including from the top of my building:

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It’s the tallest volcano in the lower 48, has the deepest snow of any peak competing for that record, and the fifth highest peak in the contiguous United States. It’s also the home of some of the most beautiful wildflowers in the region and some stunning subalpine meadows.

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But I didn’t come for the wildflowers or the snow: I drove 2 hours south, past a tricky bit of I-5, for the rocks:

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Mt Rainier is a young mountain when compared to other peaks in the Cascades, but makes up for her youth with colorful and dramatic geology:
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Here is a massive rockflow; driving up the mountain, we criss-crossed over the same tumbled-down valley with nearly blue water running through it several times.

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The surrounding peaks are no less dramatic. The trees are hiding it, but I’m pretty sure I saw a cirque.

The mountain also is home to a number of glaciers, making this trip the first time I think I’ve ever seen blue ice:

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Mt Rainier’s sister-peak is Mt Fuji in Japan, and from some angles the resemblance of these sororal volcanoes is clear:
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Taken at Reflection Lakes, which turned out to be a good name.

It was a beautiful day and I look forward to hiking more soon.

Inspirational Quote:

“Geologists on the whole are inconsistent drivers. When a roadcut presents itself, they tend to lurch and weave.”–John McPhee

Visiting a Volcano Tomorrow

Tomorrow I’m driving up to Mt Rainier with Matthew and some friends. Reading this, my immediate family may feel a frisson of concern. Not because I’m visiting a semi-active volcano–we do that for fun.

My family is nervous reading this because I will be driving. I got my first permit at 16, like most people in my grade. But I didn’t get my license until Spring of last year, and only because a road trip to Kentucky to see a Black Keys concert hung in the balance.

Some of this is because I’ve lived in cities where cars are encumbrances; a waste of parking-space money and an ill-use of time. Some of this is because, for a long time, I found driving on freeways terrifying. The power to crush half-a-dozen people, often wielded by others between coffee sips and glances at a phone, seemed too much a price for a faster commute.

Instead, I took the train and the bus; I bought and sold several bikes; I walked. I ate blackberries on the wild path between my apartment building and the metro and became familiar with the Street Sense vendors around Farragut Sq. I got to know which sidewalks sloped sideways and which were level, which coffee shops pushed the smells of their pastries out and which kept the AC in. I listened to podcasts and mashups and rock music and rap. I learned my cities by foot.

Since getting my license, when I do drive it is to facilitate a journey. That first trip, my friend and I traded off driving the 12 hours from DC to Louisville and back in a weekend. This April, I drove with Matthew to Montana and back to see Glacier National Park–that’s about a quarter the width of the United States. Matthew and I alternated driving to the Sierras this past August.

In those situations, where I’m driving to see a great beauty, to be near the bones of my continent or the lay of several states-worth of land, the potential price of freeway driving seems worth it. The wildness of exit lanes and the cool-handed-drivers in the far left are all fellow travelers, rather than slip-fingered assassins waiting to swerve wrong into my lane, or become my victim, haunting my blind spot.

I tried driving I-5 at rush hour last week; it was not a good experience. I did it for convenience, using a Car2Go, to get to a trapeze class faster than I would on the bus. After class, I went for $2 tacos with my fellow flyers and took an Uber home. It cost the same and was less of a hassle.

I’ll be driving the same route down I-5 to start tomorrow. There will be things that are different about that trip: it will be early Sunday morning, with fewer drivers desperate to get home before supper cleans up. There will be better sunshine and, hopefully, fewer Mac trucks.

I will also be different on this trip. I will be driving to experience the rare and raw beauty of the tallest volcano in the contiguous United States, a volcano that has not erupted in 1,000 years and is the snowiest of the places that try for that record. The mountain is worth the journey. That will make all the difference.

Inspirational Quote:

“The world, we are told, was made especially for man — a presumption not supported by all the facts.” ― John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf

Beautiful breakdown and the weathering of Gargoyles

Beautiful breakdowns Like people, any individual rock can have its own story, but in aggregate, on mountains, their stories tend to follow a similar structure. Any given igneous rock could break in any number of ways–it could be dropped by an eagle, crushed by a tractor, or eaten by gastrolith.

Most igneous rocks will break in the same kinds of ways: frost, trickling water, acids, plants or animals. This is a good thing.

The sand that makes up the sandstone in Petra survived life as lava first. In fact, every rock on earth today was once broken down and melted–the earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years old, but the oldest rock we have ever found is only 4.28 billion years old. That’s 260,000,000 years we don’t know anything about. 260,000,000 is longer than the amount of time it took for humans to evolve to our present state.

That quarter of a billion years we don’t have any information about pales in comparison to how little we know about the past of the vast majority of the rocks, those that weren’t lucky enough to hide out in Quebec for a few billion years. For example, the oldest rock yet found in Jordan is from the Precambrian period, which was only 570,000,000 years ago, leaving nearly 4 billion years of history of that region hidden in the molten rock beneath it or crushed to sand at the bottom of the sea, because all rocks break.

Most rocks will break in the same ways as other rocks like them in a process called weathering. On my trip to Gargoyles in the western Sierra Nevada mountains I caught pictures of some of the most common ways rocks break. A video is below. As always with posts like these, I used my Physical Geology by Charles Plummer, Diane Carlson and Lisa Hammersley as a reference.

Liquid water breaks down rocks View of what happens when water and volcanic mud mix I talked before a bit about volcanic mud and how weak it is when compared with other kinds of rock that form from lava. The beautiful cliffs at Gargoyles exist because of water. Water carves that weak rock into dramatic and suitable craggy faces as to appear almost like gargoyles on the buttresses of a cathedral. I’ve never been able to see them myself, but I’ve also never needed to analogize rocks to make them beautiful. View of Sierra Nevadas4 This type of breaking down is easy to understand for anyone who’s played in a sandbox. The water runs over the volcanic mud, scooping up bits that are loose and carrying them downhill. This leaves only the parts that are strongest, in whatever shapes they formed, some of which are quite beautiful with or without the faces of gargoyles rising.

Frost breaks down rocks
See affect of frost-wedging on massive granite boulder.

Frost is the hardest kind of mechanical weathering to illustrate because it’s slow and often happens inside a rock. But everyone who’s ever exploded a bottle of Coke after putting it in the freezer knows that it looks like. Frost wedging happens because the same number of H2O molecules take up more space as ice than as water:

When that water is inside a rock, it in some ways becomes harder than rock and in little wiggles, it breaks the encompassing rock to pieces.

Plants and animals (the biosphere) break down rocks

A lot of the trees in the High Sierras are scrubby little things. There isn’t a lot of dirt, there isn’t a lot of room, and unlike lucky trees on sedimentary rock mountains, there aren’t any luscious aquifers under the surface to drink up. View of Sierra Nevadas5 But while they’re scrappy, they can do some damage to survive. That tree just above is cleaving stone from stone with its tiny little roots. In a few centuries, it will have a pile of gravel and some nice nutrients for it/its grandbabies to eat. Trees play the long game.

That’s it for types of weathering igneous rocks go through. For folks who have been playing along since last fall’s Jordan Geology Project, you might remember some of the terms. If you have any questions, drop a question in the comments.

Inspirational Quote:

“This is it now Everybody get down This is all I can take This is how a heart breaks You take a hit now you feel it break down Make you stay wide awake” – Rob Thomas, “This is How a Heart Breaks

(The original title for this post was “This is how a rock breaks!” but then I thought, nah)