Tuesday, August 11, 2015

In Defense of Horrid Penmanship

            “I’ve got a paper here I can’t read.  Looks like it was written by a guy…maybe Aaron or Adam…”
            “That’s mine,” I would respond to whichever teacher fell prey to my spell that day, snatching the sheet of lines and squiggles from her judging hands. 
            Yes, it’s true—I have a problem.  It’s called cacography: bad handwriting.  It’s been an issue ever since I first picked up the mighty pen.  My mom, my friends, my teachers: everyone has commented on it.  I used to be so embarrassed when other students peered over at me scribbling not-so-sweet nothings.
            “Has anyone ever told you that your handwriting is a bit illegible?,” my twelfth-grade English teacher asked me, several months before the AP Language & Composition Exam.  “They’re not technically supposed to take your handwriting into account, but it may factor into their subconscious.” 
Did she think she was my Psych teacher all of a sudden? 
One day we anonymously exchanged in-class essays to grade, and one loudmouth proclaimed to the whole group that she couldn’t read what hers said. 
Did she not think the culprit was bound to hear her in a class of fourteen?
But the original shame came from my first grade teacher: “Now everyone look at Trevor*.  He’s holding his pencil just right—look at how he gently grips it instead of wrapping his fingers over each other.”  Sitting next to Trevor I could feel her eyes darting my way, somehow implicating me as the token bad example.  It didn’t help that Trevor was my long-time bully, a title he would smugly hold until he moved away in the seventh grade.  Now he’s playing football at Yale.  He’s about the last person who deserves to be in that position, but that’s beside the point.
            In researching why society gets so hung up on bad handwriting, I found a study, aptly titled, “Poor Handwriting: A Major Cause of Underachievement,” by Linda Silverman, Ph.D.  Her main finding is that a lot of “bright underachievers” have “difficult births” and suffer from ear infections in the first few years of life, leading to “sensory-motor integration dysfunction.”  Well, from what I’ve heard, I didn’t experience any of these issues as a child, and many of my fellow chicken scratchers didn’t either.  I had an ear infection or two in elementary school, but that’s past the initial developmental period.  My birth was pretty seamless, too; actually, it was my twin brother who tried to force his way out feet first and ended up being pulled out with a suction cup.  There was one time in second grade that my teacher signed me up for special “Resource” classes because she thought I couldn’t read, but it turns out I just didn’t want to talk.  Perhaps poor handwriting is correlated with underachievement in some, but it certainly does not cause it.  There’s a big difference between cacography and dysgraphia, the latter being the “inability to write coherently, as a symptom of brain disease or damage.”  Shyness, not a sensory-motor delay, was my hang-up.
            My brother suffers from this same “disorder,” arguably worse than I do, and he doesn’t compensate for it with a little bit of sketching on the side (“Wow, your handwriting is so bad, but your art is so good!,” said my ninth grade art teacher).  But Daniel’s not a girl, so society almost expects him to have bad handwriting, at least at first.  It expects him to be in the storied troublemaker phase, hoping he will grow out of it some day.  It expects me, on the other hand, to be a perfect little angel from the start, only growing more and more civil as I get older.  Neither of us quite fits these models.
            Ever since I learned my penmanship could never be remedied, I committed myself to breaking as many stereotypes as I could.  I stopped taking dance lessons in favor of field hockey scrimmages, I ate like a wild hog on a mission to kill, I roughhoused with all of Daniel’s friends, and I watched endless basketball games with my dad.  Today I mostly make fun of women who still expect men to carry all their shopping bags for them, or who fantasize about marrying strong men with broad shoulders, blue eyes, and a faint-worthy smile.  I even convinced my grandma to stop asking me to help bake her famous cinnamon rolls.  Now she only asks Daniel, who would do anything for a cinnamon roll.
For all the times a TA has asked me to type up my in-class midterm, I can take pride in the fact that they probably thought I was a man when they first read it.  No, dear Teaching Assistant, it is I, Amanda Rose Miller, designated jar opener and cliché averter of apartment 416.
            My handwriting also serves as a sort of secret code, a special language of sorts, reserved for me and for anyone else who dares decrypt it.  I can tell you now that anyone who tries to read my diary won’t get anywhere; that stuff is sealed in a ten-ton vault made of solid gold.  Come to think of it, I regret never exchanging notes about crazy kid stuff with Daniel.  Then again—while we did share our own verbal language as babies—even he can’t read my mishmash.  Nonetheless, it’s entertaining to see what comes out of my friends’ mouths as they attempt to sound it out.
            “He…intervention for ranging and cattle?”
            “No, ‘The intersection of language and culture.’”
            “Oh, wow.  Have you ever thought about being a doctor?”
            A deficit of manual dexterity has taught me to exercise what little I have to its full capacity, so when I do produce a drawing, or a field hockey goal, or a well written essay, I really treasure it.  Art, of course, comes in a variety of packages, very few of which are contingent on Immaculate-Conception-Jesus-Christ-is-this-God’s-handwriting penmanship.  We can’t say what perfect handwriting looks like anyway; for all we know, God’s handwriting could look exactly like mine—you don’t know. 

            I look back at my fourth-grade projects, and if anything, my handwriting has gotten worse.  Years of copying down PowerPoint slides will do that to a girl (or a guy, for sure).  But in a lot of other ways, I’ve gotten better.  I can’t attribute all of that to bad handwriting, but I can say it has helped shape me into the cynical feminist writer I am today.  I’ve heard my fair share of groans, gasps, sighs, and even psychological diagnoses in response to my handwriting, but it never really got to me.  I just kept on scribbling.   If nothing else, my bad handwriting gave me a unique perspective and a voice, and that’s really all an aspiring writer wants.  Even if some people can’t see it.

More posts to come as I start law school next week! :D

Top and Skirt: Paperdolls Boutique, St. Louis.

All photos by Alex Zhu.

*Name changed because I know all of you with your mighty powers of stalking would have looked up "Trevor" here or somewhere else. ;)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Human is a Human, is a Human: Why this Essay Makes Sense

My brother, Daniel, and I in Rome.

            Humans are quite distinct from animals.  The former write poetry and memorize things like the Pythagorean Theorem and the U.S. presidents.  The latter eat poop.  Whether we deserve to be inside or outside of bars, we generally know where to draw the line.  So why is it that we still can’t get it right for some of the most oppressed people—Native Americans?  As time has passed, Americans have eliminated many forms of native-themed paraphernalia, and Northwestern University has established a committee redressing John Evans’s role in the Sand Creek Massacre.  But the fight for basic human rights remains paramount.  And who’s a better mascot for this cause than the Cleveland Indians, located, ironically, in Progressive Field? 
Sure, Willie Wampum isn’t dancing down the fifty-yard line anymore, but the names and logos still in commission highlight our nation’s shameful exploitation of an important race and culture. 
            To be clear, I don’t allege any Native American heritage, and my experiences can attest to that.  A white friend and central Illinois native once shared his family’s rite of passage: accompanying dad to watch Chief Illiniwek parade across the field.  Notwithstanding this time-honored tradition, children witnessing such events will blind themselves to the historical and contemporary struggles native people face unless they actively challenge them—an approach the NFL and MLB could uphold by retiring racist mascots. 
            Most influential to my beliefs on this matter are those of my own aunt and uncle, who defend constantly the Chicago Blackhawks’ right to shape an underrepresented people’s history the way they see fit. 
My brother told me of an argument he had with our aunt while he was living in Chicago: “Well, what about Satanists?  Aren’t they offended by devil mascots?,” she remarked one day, playing devil’s advocate.  “Perhaps,” my brother said, “But Satan isn't a human being deserving of human rights, namely the right not to be portrayed as a violent savage."  I later added in my own accounts that Satanists might admire Satan precisely because of his ruthlessness, whereas Native Americans probably wish every day that the rest of the world could see them as they are: people with hearts and souls and complex identities.  The devil is not here to disprove his popular portrayal, but Native Americans are, and we need to listen.
Arguments revolving around animal rights and certain human roles or nationalities—such as the Cowboys or the Fighting Irish—are less extreme but nonetheless question our use of any mascots.  The fact of the matter, however, is that animals are animals, cowpokery is an outdated job, and the Irish have not experienced the American oppression that native peoples are all too familiar with.  There’s no escaping that reality.  While perhaps none of these groups deserve to be defamed on a football field, our most pressing issue is that of the people our forbearers persecuted.
I don’t blame my aunt or my friend for the relentless pride they take in their local teams.  That’s the way they were raised, and it’s hard to change long-imbued mindsets.  But it’s far from impossible.  Over time, sane Americans have released their hold on the institution of slavery, on the Confederate States of America, and on barring women from higher education.  We can find something other than native-themed mascots to cling to—something that all humans can agree on.  It’s a challenge, but a worthy one.
The ubiquity, popularity, and sway of the sports-media complex greatly desensitize us to larger inequalities.  Most days we hear some version of: “The Redskins whipped the Dolphins today, and look at those Raiders go!  Yeah, demolish those Cardinals!”  And most days we don’t even notice it.  Implicating the media for many of our problems isn’t a new technique, but our apathy toward the bubble in which we live is getting old.  Football will still be the majestically violent sport it always has been when we drop the associations with savagery and primordial instincts.
All of this is not to say the plights of other ethnic groups are invalid.  Implicit and explicit racism continues to line the doors to justice in this country, especially as we consider consistent evidence of police brutality, a lack of comprehensive immigration reform, and the stigma that interracial couples still face.  But all of this seems to start and end with the media’s plain endorsement of inaccurate and antiquated imagery, which reminds Native Americans everyday how twisted their past has become.  If we can nip this in the bud before it spreads any further, we can prevent a lot of damage.
By virtue of enduring colonialism, Americans think they can lay claim to everyone and everything that came before us.  Despite all the wrongs we have committed against people of African descent, however, we have enough common sense not to name a team the Tallahassee Tutsis.  Even when we have stooped so low, national and even local recognition of such mascots as the “Chinks” has stopped altogether. 
So what’s our obsession with Native American culture?  It’s powerful, it’s mighty, it’s just the way it is?  Since when is “the way it is” always the way it should be?  However sexy the “noble savage” is to us virgin white men, there is no reason other than fetishism, a quest for domination, and/or conformity to bigotry to explain our insistence on Native American mascots.  And if these are our only reasons, we really have no reason at all.  Once we realize this particular defect in our ancestor’s ambitions, society will raze the bumps history has created and give way to a level playing field.  All humans will have the opportunity to voice their concerns, address evils, and portray the image they want to portray.  Immutable human rights will be won for all. 
            The last counterargument comes from my dad, who for the heck of it, threw out the idea of  “the Sante Fe Ethnic Cleansers.” 
“Isn’t that a non-human ‘role’ just like a cowboy or a Viking?,” he prodded, facetiously.  “Well, I guess it is,” I said, “but isn’t the whole point about being sensitive to the mistreatment and misrepresentation of other cultures?”  After everything we’ve been through and everything we have at stake, let’s just see if that name takes off.

I write this in the hope that I can convince a few of you that no one has anything to gain from Native American mascots.  More than anything, however, I share this with you to further my brother's petition on change.org, calling for the NHL and the Chicago Blackhawks to retire their racist mascot.  Please take a moment and sign this petition here.  Thank you so much for reading.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


I wrote the following for a course entitled "Fabulous Fictions."
Long ears, pointy nose, wistful eyes, like those of a man over the hill, parting ways with a long-lost high school sweetheart.  That was young Cynthia Swift for you. 
            Cyn had an adult face, always did.  She looked just like her mom, and at six, that wasn’t exactly a good thing.  She used to stare at herself in the mirror wondering who she was and what the deal was with her pronounced features.  But she never looked too long, for the mature curvature of her face frightened her beyond anything else.
            Cyn was stern.  Always stern.  Whether she was playing hopscotch or dashing the hopes of a pervy preschooler, Cyn was always stern.  She was also shy, unbelievably shy, so shy that she didn’t even talk to her grandparents.
            “How is school going, Cynthia?” her grandma would ask.
            She shrugged her shoulders and gently smiled.
            It’s safe to assume she never ever talked to her kindergarten teacher, Ms. Schmidt—so much so that on days when she had to go to the bathroom, she simply held it in until all hell broke loose on her own toilet.  One day she left a huge butt-shaped imprint on the pavement from the pee she couldn’t quite suppress.
Cyn thought a lot about morals, based if nothing else on the sheer number of times a day she heard the words “sin,” “sinny,” and “sinifred.”  She at first thought the odd iterations of her name were meant as a slight against her.  Of course, she also knew kids would be kids.
Cyn’s friend Cassie was one of the worst culprits.  Cassie further took the liberty of speaking for her whenever Cyn wanted to ask the teacher a question or air a grievance.  Cyn didn’t mind this interlocution; she just felt it came at a price.
Always a third wheel in whatever play date Cassie devised, Cyn put up with a lot of offhand critiques of her shyness and gangly features.
After catching Cyn admire her crush for a good two minutes, Cassie interrupted: “I don’t think Josh really likes tall girls.  What would you even say to him anyway?”
Cyn wanted so hard to rebut all of that, but it’s true, she wouldn’t know what to say.
            It wasn’t that Cyn was mute; she just didn’t have anything to say—well, she had stuff to say; she just didn’t want to say it.
            “How are you?”, “How’s it going?”, “What’s up?”—none of these questions merited verbal answers.  She wasn’t rude or resentful; she was a lot of other things.
            Cyn had a habit of staring deeply into other people’s eyes, parsing every black mark and greenish-blue tint in their irises.  She was fascinated with the eye—so beautiful from a safe distance, but so disgusting up close.  The pink glob of nerves in the inner corners, the red lightning bolts of fatigue, the crusty yellow build-up…she stayed far enough away to avoid these things.
            Ms. Schmidt’s eyes were the faintest blue you could imagine; they’d look the same whether in color or black and white.  There was almost no texture to them, like perfectly sculpted cuts of glass.  Cyn felt a funny sense of solidarity with her teacher, for every time Derrick walked by and cut a big lock off of Cyn’s hair, she watched Ms. Schmidt overcome a bit of hesitation to tell him that wasn’t right.  Cyn peered into Ms. Schmidt’s eyes and waited.
            Cyn loses control of what would be her arms and legs and simply goes through the motions.  The vision is a bit blurred, but manageable, especially once her glasses fit themselves neatly over her eyes.  She’d seen that pink mug on Ms. Schmidt’s desk many times before, but in her new eyes it looks purplish.  Looking hard around the room, she notices Cassie entertaining a bunch of other students, in awe of her sassy pants charm.  Cyn’s new mouth begins to purse and she suddenly finds herself telling Cassie to “quiet down,” two words she never dared utter before.   Cassie looks back with a glaring intent Cyn had never seen, and in a sense, she still hadn’t.  She then turns to a young Cynthia staring right at her.
            “Sinny, did you hear what I was trying to say before Ms. S interrupted me?  It was important,” Cassie said.
            Cyn shook her head, turning her gaze back to Cassie.
            “Okay, well I’m having a birthday party tomorrow night, and I’m inviting you.”
            Cyn walked home from school, wondering whether there was such a thing as a fourth wheel, or a fifth.
            “Mommy, is it okay if I go to Cassie’s house tomorrow night for a birthday party?,” Cyn asked as she walked into the kitchen.
            “Sure, dolly,” she said, “but I want to make sure you’ll have a good time.  I don’t want to see you cry again.”
            “This time it will be different,” Cyn said, “There won’t be as many girls there, so I should get a chance to spend more time with Cassie.”
            “If that’s what you want, honey.”
            Cyn’s mom walked to the other side of the kitchen, fidgeting with the oven settings, then going to the fridge to pull out some ground beef, recently defrosted.   As she unpacked the meat, Cyn couldn’t help but admire her deliberate gait, her beautiful blond hair, her hybrid blue-green eyes as deep as the ocean, dotted with specs of black and a halo of gold.  She couldn’t stop her gaze.
            Her eyes dart every which way, looking almost simultaneously at the stove, the countertops, the floor, the window, and her own hands.  They shake if ever slightly, partly because it is hereditary, partly because the situation seems to warrant it.  Cyn knew she had a great mom, but she didn’t know how much work it took.  Every second is equally active and reflective, as if doing one at a time isn’t good enough.  She looks back at herself, a daughter, young but with a mind so much older.
            The next day, Cyn took the bus home with Cassie, as did seven other girls.
            “Who wants their nails painted?!” shouted Cassie’s au pair, Queen—a twenty-five-year-old Kenyan woman with a shaved head and enormous hoop earrings—as they all walked into the living room.  Cyn was never much a fan of decorating girly extremities, so she just watched while the others took part, slapping on layers upon layers of “Teal We Meet Again” and “The Blonde.com,” forming a more perfect union around Cassie.  Unlike the Founding Fathers, however, Cassie did not create a set of guidelines to help out her posterity.  She made the rules as she went.
            “Okay, now we’re going to play teacher,” Cassie proclaimed to the whole group.  “I’ll be the teacher; the rest of you can be my students.”
            After soundly passing the first “test” consisting of ‘1+1’ and ‘draw a picture of a CAT’, Cyn thought she would make for a good laugh by intentionally failing her ABC’s.  She made up a series of nonsense letters designed to make her stand out among the sheep.  The bottom half of a capital L, the top two-thirds of an R, the bottom right portion of a Q cut diagonally: all these letters were sure to incite amusement in her best friend.
            Cassie gave her an F—not the top half of an F or the right side of an F, but a full F.  Nothing seemed more final than that.
            Cyn stared into Cassie’s eyes with the same unbroken intensity with which Cassie stared into Ms. Schmidt’s.  The bulging, light brown, perfectly ambiguous nature of her eyes made it all the more frustrating.
            Standing three inches shorter than Cyn, Cassie nonetheless sees the world as her oyster.  Each of her friends sits like an anxious heap of ribbons and bows, waiting to be called upon.  Cassie’s eyes twinkle with ego as she breathes a quiet but purposeful “hmmph.”  She walks in a slow, dignified manner, taking in every bit of her surroundings calmly, yet never pausing to look for any prolonged period of time at any one particular thing.  Cynthia’s fiery stare is no exception.  The room is large, and Cyn is just a small part of it.
            “Bloody Mary.  That’s it—that’s what we should play,” Cassie said.  “Everyone find a partner, and you can go in together.”
            Of course there was an odd number of girls—nine including Cassie—so everyone paired up except Cyn.  One of the other girls snatched Cassie up before Cyn could even get a chance scope out her surroundings.
            “Sorry, Cyn.  You know I always pick you.  Besides, Sam asked me first.”
            Naturally, Cassie volunteered Cyn to go first, as per her usual ventriloquism.  Cyn walked tentatively into the bathroom, lights switched to OFF, and shut the door.  She looked into the mirror and recited, as promised: “Bloody Mary.  Bloody Mary.  Bloody Mary.”   She realized too late that as she was waiting in fear for Bloody Mary to appear, she had been staring into her own eyes, a shifting combination of green, blue, and grey, depending on the lighting, the mood, and the eyes.
            Cyn is now inside the mirror, looking through her own reflection.  Shards of silver reflect the Victorian-style crown molding, the gold faucets, the marble bathroom tiles.  But she is powerless to see or do anything else, for her bodily movement is controlled by her actual body, which is entranced watching her reflection.  The game, her body, and the world have all stopped, but Cyn’s thoughts are still going.  Her mind is all that she has.  It is who she is.
After nearly five minutes, Cassie is convinced that Cyn has actually seen Bloody Mary and walks into the bathroom, only to find Cyn in a static daze.  Cassie pushes her forward, and Cyn snaps out of her trance, clutching the sink for support.
            “What happened?   Cassie asked, gripping Cyn by the shoulders, “Did you see Bloody Mary?  Did she put you under her spell?  Are you gonna cry again?  Do you want me to call your mom?”  Cassie wasn’t behaving at all out of character, nor did she mean any harm by what she said.
            It wasn’t until this moment that Cyn realized just how red and yellow—how frantic and insincere, if ever so slightly, Cassie’s eyes looked up close.  She had never seen anything like it.  It was almost as if Cassie was looking through her, as if Cyn was her reflection on the wall.
            “Cassie,” Cyn said, “Shut up.”
            Cyn had an adult face, always did.  It didn’t frighten her so much anymore.

All clothing designed and made by the wonderful Sarah Worley.  
All photos by the fabulous Nicole Picchietti.
Nicole Picchietti
IG: @your_favorite_weapon

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Why Do I Write?

I listened to an NPR segment the other day that asked this exact question.  Writing takes a great deal of effort and promises very little payoff at times, even if you devote your entire life to it.  So why do I do it, even in small spurts?  There are a number of reasons:

1. It helps me vent.  Now that I've reached the point in my life where writing is overwhelmingly more of a joy than a chore (at least when I'm not juggling three terms papers with a 12 AM deadline), I consult it as I would a close friend.  I put all my thoughts down on paper and let the appropriate tone and arrangement find their way to me as I go.  Don't get me wrong; I still do that whole burrying-my-face-in-my-hands-until-I-can-think-of-the-perfect-word-and-the-perfect-feeling-and-the-perfect-meaning thing, but that's all part of the process of creating something heretofore invisible.  Writing is my chance to turn raw, unadulterated stress, love, or fear into a compelling narrative.

2. It's in everyone's domain.  Writing does not discriminate.  Period.  Anyone can write because everyone has a voice.  This isn't just me being optimistic or humanity-loving; it's fact.  Anyone or anything with a mind has a say in how the world runs, and writing is the best way to capitalize on that.  Reading someone else's work gives us a direct link to his/her soul, and that's beautiful.

3. It's not always kind...and that only motivates me more.  For the most part, my writing makes me feel good about myself because I take ample time to develop it.  I put my heart in most everything I do, but other people don't always see that.  And that frustrates me.  So I write a reply...

Today I had a somewhat unnerving workshop experience in which I received an overwhelming proportion of criticism over compliment.  I wrote an attack against the use of Native American Mascots in U.S. sports, making clear that I do not claim Native American heritage, nor do I believe any oppressed group's harm to be more or less valid than any other's.  Nonetheless, there were a few unrelenting critics who argued that I was writing from a "privileged position," being a white woman with no direct stake in the matter.  They further argued that I was saying Native American mascots were worse than police brutality and murder.

I admit, I could have phrased my stance on the issue better.  In general, however, I think it was pretty clear that I was advocating for broad social justice initiatives on this particular issue and NOT barring remedies for any others.  I mentioned police brutality in my essay not to downplay its gravity but to acknowledge its continual and harmful presence.  I included the plights of other groups not to give them any sort of obligatory recognition, but to open the door to future essays discussing these topics.  There is only so much I can cover in mine.

I later anticipated a different counterargument, contending in my essay that while "The Fighting Irish" is a problematic name in its own right, people of Irish heritage have not faced the same sort of oppression in America that Native peoples continue to face.  Here, those same students who said I was writing from a privileged position told me that I couldn't say the Irish haven't been oppressed.  (Obviously they have, but not to the same extent or in the same way as Native Americans.)  If you're going to play the "you're white and can't relate to oppression" card, at least be consistent with it.

I don't often defend the white race (it's never been remotely high on my agenda), but I feel it is necessary with regard to those white people fighting for social reform.  By pigeonholing all white people into the category of "elitist" or "snob," we discount the opinions of those who really give a damn, and that's a form of discrimination in itself (of course much less severe than most other types).  It is white people themselves who are often most guilty of this view.  I myself have questioned my license to address certain problems that members of my race caused in the first place.  But silencing my own voice--just like silencing those of black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American people--on issues I really care about would be an injustice indeed.

No, I don't have a direct stake in the use of Native American mascots, but I do have many indirect ones.  I have a right to argue for a fairer, more equal, open-minded, and empathetic country and world.  Everyone does.  I do not wish to take agency away from anyone else by permitting it in myself.  The more voices we have, the closer we get to a consensus on what's right.  If that's not important, I don't know what is.

You have a right to believe whatever you want to; I would only suggest that you be respectful of others and constructive while believing it.

Thank you for listening,

Coat: Topshop.  Tights: Express.  Bag: Kate Spade.  Shoes: Banana Republic.

All photos thanks to Sean Su.