Coronavirus and Our “Second Places”

First, if you aren’t familiar with the concept of first, second, and third places (home, work/school, the social gathering spaces), watch this video wherein sociologist Ray Oldenberg explains the concept to you. This is an 18 minute lecture. There are no visual elements. You can just listen and you won’t have to listen to all of it to get the general gist.

Now, Oldenburg here is arguing for and focusing in on the third place–the shared social space–and he pooh poohs the idea of the virtual community as a viable third place. I think that his 2013 assessment does not hold up as well in July 2020, but I’m gonna put a pin in that for now because I want to think about the space that he doesn’t talk about: the second one. Work-place. School-place. The places where the majority of us spend our waking/working hours.

We can’t use these second places right now, not in the way we want to; individuals and institutions are grappling with our expectation that these second places are just always available to us and are baseline containers for what we do in those working/learning hours.

The second place is now deadly. It is a disease transmission vector at a scale at which it hasn’t been ever in our modern world. The ability to earn/learn while hunkering down in the first place (home) is increasingly a marker of economic privilege.

The second place is also, I suspect, expensive. It is the physical home of the work/learn function in our society. Think about where you work or go to school–the place. What is the value of the physical property–the buildings, the underlying structural elements, the greenspaces, the actual land itself? What is cost/value of the labor associated with building, maintaining, securing, and facilitating the use of these places? How much skin in the game does an institution have in these physical spaces, and how does that factor into their calculations about when, if, and how these places became/become physically active again?

The second place is also a container for human bodies. It is the structure in which we do our “work”–be that the work we do to earn money to pay for our first place and our third place activities or the work that we do to eventually be able to do the work that pays. The school provides the place to contain the small bodies that are attached to the larger bodies that must go to work.

If the school is dangerous and not accessible–and third places are not as appealing when we are really safest (in a virus-avoidance sense) in our first places–where do we safely contain and monitor the small bodies? How does that impact the workplace-as-container? What percentage of the square footage associated with second places–and all of the attendant support features of those places noted above–will not be needed in the short term? How might we shift in the long term? And, again–how do these human economics factor into decision making on the part of the owners of the second places, particularly pre-, primary, secondary, and alternative schooling environments that are under pressure to contain those small bodies? At what rate of infection and/or death of teachers/staff/students do we as a society go back to the second place drawing board?

I have to work to make money to pay for my first place, so I’ll be heading to my second place and my son will be heading to his to the extent that we are required to. And I recognize that I haven’t even touched on the second spaces that are deemed essential to the maintenance of the first spaces. The paradigm is shifting.


The Classroom to Come: A Few Musings

My son, age 10, exploring microscopes. This is, we know, a home activity not available to many, and we are grateful to have it available to us.

As I constantly adjust to the shifting sands produced by the COVID-19 situation, I’ve been thinking a good deal about what is to come for schooling, in particular. If, as I suspect, we end up looking at something like “rolling blackouts” for occupation of school buildings (with the emergence of a case at a school triggering a learn-from-home protocol), how can schools, teachers, families, and students best prepare? What are the sorts of realities that would govern that situation? What is the amalgam of best practices for online instruction and classroom instruction, and how can we work around the unknown nature of the school year in such a hybrid environment to plan for a consistent and mostly-seamless educational experience? And the 20 billion (or so) dollar question: what happens to our assessment protocols and results usage when we can no longer control the scene of instruction?

As I take up these questions in subsequent posts, I’ll also be thinking through the following thoughts as I go. These are some of the “realities” I suspect we’ll need to deal with, and I know I’ll be giving them more thought as I progress:

  • Not all students have access to the same resources, support, and time.
  • Learning from Home isn’t the same as homeschooling, nor should it be.
  • Learning and teaching are two ends of the same event. The learning mind is the active-in-the-moment mind. The teaching mind is present, but isn’t necessarily organic or alive.
  • Hybrid environments require attainable baseline elements for all. That means that everyone in the learning situation needs to be able to reasonably expect all participants to have access to the same things. Our current school environments only operate that way in so far as the school building itself can make those elements available at the point of instruction. Learning from Home doesn’t have the same consistency.
  • We’ve done this before. We can do it again.

Finally, a note: I’m thinking of this “project” in terms of K-12 education, but as an 18 year college educator, of course I’ll be thinking in those terms as well. The spaces are dramatically different, one of the most profound differences being the K-12 environment’s long-term and critical role in loco parentis; we expect that our children will be watched during the school day so that we may do our own work in the world without having to also manage their care and supervision. The college student is a legal adult, and while they have needs that I know all too well, this particular need is, by and large, not one of them. So I’ll be taking that into account along the way, too.

Questions? Thoughts? Please feel free to sound off in the comments; I’ll respond and bring in your voices as I go.



The drive back from Louisiana today was slow. There was the expected rain in various quantities accompanied by thick fog. The bear grew concerned as we crossed the Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge, noting that he couldn’t see anything and wondering how I could drive. I pointed out that we could certainly see directly in front of us. This was satisfactory. As the rain started to come down, I was thankful for the tail lights ahead, glowing red breadcrumbs for the trail home.

Yes, my brain feels foggy today, too. Yesterday I was high on being me. Today I’m in the fog of not quite knowing who to be at any moment. Daughter role gets pushed to back burner when I head back to Jackson, mom role is always engaged. A phone call from my assistant pulled me into administrator role for a few minutes on the drive. I mused about my teacher role and about taking on the student role again (more on that later). Pet owner, housemate, crafter, reader, writer, ukulele player…at any moment I am any of these and I never feel like I’m being the right person at the right time.

I welcome the fog. I welcome the safe haze of the day after the new year begins, when there still feels like there is great possibility but I am starting to see the outlines of the year ahead emerging. Peanut and the bear and I got home ok. The bear is off to dinner with his dad, and the dog and I have settled in, cozy and dry. He is exploring his secret stockpile under the bed. I am discerning those red tail lights. I’ll make out the shape of the cars tomorrow.


In the Habit

I have a coffee mug problem. Ask my housemate, ask my office mates–ask my son. They’ll tell you that the coffee mugs proliferate like rabbits in our quarters. I want to say that I don’t buy them all, that most are gifts or swag, but that would be a liar’s lie. I just like them and when I see one that I like, I acquire it.

The mugs speak to me and speak my mood. They mark the season of the year. They warn people away. They inspire. They aspire. They are my freak flag, and I let it fly.

By now you are expecting to see, no doubt, a photo gallery of mugs. My mugs are not here to meet your expectations. They will show themselves when ready.

Since I’m visiting family for the holidays, I don’t have my usual mug palette from which to choose, but this is of no consequence today. On this day, the first day of a new year, I had the pleasure of sipping the first cup of coffee from this favorite that I never remember to bring back to Jackson with me.

A bit of wisdom as I go into the new year: let it be. The old. The vexing. The triumph. The failure. The painful. The joyful. Let it be in the past. Let the present be in the present. Let the future hang out with itself. *

I am in my fiftieth year on this planet. On the 28th of September, I will mark the end of that year and the start of the fifty-first. These numbers should be panic-inducing, but when I look at them as words I find it much easier to let them be and to walk into this year being me.

I’ve put on my habit for the year, so to speak. Let it be. Let myself be me.

*A few other messages to myself from this photo: Knit warm hats. Make more gumbo. Take the bear to NYC. Write. Play cards. Don’t forget to do the dishes.


Hit Dogs Holler

Yesterday I shared some reactions to the predictable reactions to the results in Mississippi’s recent US Senate runoff. I was frustrated–am frustrated–by the holier-than-thou attitudes demonstrated by some outside of the South (and, if I’m honest, within as well) about Mississippi. Some of the commentary, I dare say, would put one in the mind of Donald Trump’s question about whether or not Mike Espy even “fit” the state of Mississippi. Does Mississippi “fit” the United States?

I would argue–have argued–that it not only does fit the US but that it is the US. Mississippi is the United States of America in the most sublime and ridiculous of ways. Out of our pain has come some of the most American artistic creations and we have taken pleasure in our role in some of America’s cruelest moments. I may be unpacking that last statement for a while on these here interwebs, but I’m going to let it sit there for now. I, like Mississippi, take my time.

Friends and colleagues shared my little commentary yesterday. Several folks thanked me for putting into words what they’d been thinking about but couldn’t quite articulate. Others thanked me for just putting down words that had meaning and gave them some sustenance or comfort. And some, inevitably, pushed back, although they didn’t do so in this space, but chose to express their suspicion of my emotional motivations.

I have a chip on my shoulder. I’m defensive. I’m not being fair to other less awful parts of the US.

I will be the first to point to Mississippi’s peculiarity with regard to the legacy of racism in this country. I distinctly recall that, in the Spring of 2010, I told a class of students that I’d never felt my blackness the way that I feel it in Mississippi. I stand by that statement all these years later. Being in Mississippi, however, was just what my bull-headed self needed to experience to finally recognize what I’d been seeing and resisting for so long in all of my dealings with the world outside of Mississippi. Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee.

I stand by what I said yesterday, too: Mississippi doesn’t exist to be a dumping ground for the nation’s dismay and anger that racism still exists. Mississippi can’t be the scapegoat for our national sin. To make Mississippi the scapegoat means that we abandon those in Mississippi–who are like others all over this world–fighting for a more perfect union, and it makes it easier to do a little bit less than we can do because there’s nothing to be done about Mississippi.

If Mississippi can do what it did yesterday, Mississippi can–with time and support and encouragement–do all of the things so many of us want it to do.


USA, Goddamn

Everybody is singing “Mississippi, Goddamn” today, rolling out their progressive bona fides and dunking on this state in the aftermath of yesterday’s US Senate run-off election. Mike Espy, a black man who had the audacity to run against the appointed representative of Mississippi caucasity, Cindy Hyde-Smith, lost. A nation’s two-week-old hopes for change in the state Most Likely to Show Up in a Hoop Skirt to Obama’s Inauguration were dashed by the (predictable) voters in this most racist swamp backwater. The narrative wheel rolls on.

I’m tired of this sheepfold bleating. I’ve lived in Mississippi for over ten years now, in the Deep South for my whole life. One thing that I know about white folks in the South is that as long as they have someone considered lesser than themselves, they can hold their heads high in a shack with cardboard covered windows or peer down judgmentally from their four-door pickup trucks or sneer from their compact and energy efficient hatchbacks. They can hold their heads high and vote over and over and over again for the white man (or woman, in this case) who will let them keep feeling like they are better than something.

It’s never stated that overtly in our modern discourse, although lately the veneer of egalitarianism is wearing dangerously thin. This nation elected–not once, mind you, but twice–an educated, smooth, beautifully made black man and his beautiful black family to be the nearest thing we have to royalty in this country, and the response to that was both a national sigh of relief that we had “slipped loose the surly bonds” of our racist past and a rude awakening to the knowledge that the racists were still inside–had always been inside–the house.

And so we got the Tea Party and Sarah Palin and the ratcheting up of the Fox News/right wing propaganda machine and the poison spread from one node on the system to another until we got the current resident of the White House, who has clearly made it his mission to erase any vestiges of the black folks that sullied that space (the government it represents) by daring to sleep in the beds instead of making them.

You feeling good about yourself yet? Self-righteous because you aren’t one of them? Shaking your head about those cretins in Mississippi/Georgia/Florida/Texas/Cloudcukooland who keep on showing how awful they are by electing people like Trump and Hyde-Smith and Cruz and on and on and on?

That–that right there–is a HUGE part of the problem.

No, I’m not going to argue that we have to reach across the aisle and play nice with Nazis. I’m not a fatalist. I am going to hold a mirror up to you, though, and remind you that you are not that far away from your own Mississippi, that Mississippi has been a fundamental part of this nation from its inception, that when you woke up on the morning of November 9, 2016 you realized that you’d been living in Mississippi all along.

Mississippi does not need your scorn and your mockery and your derision. Mississippi does not exist to be your political punching bag to help salve your wounded progressive soul. Your violent behavior toward Mississippi is just your misplaced anger and ire in the face of what you’ve known all along: that this nation is deeply racist, fundamentally so.

There are no magic bullets. Y’all got all excited about Espy’s chances after what you perceived as a less-than-satisfying narrative conclusion to the mid-term elections. You wanted a big symbolic win because you believe in Hallmark card fairy tales where people make enormous changes to their beliefs and behaviors when presented with a bit of holiday magic.

You can’t have that. Black folks, in particular, have known the truth of that in this country all along, but y’all are just waking up to that reality. Change takes time and work and hope. Obama tried to tell y’all (and Obama wasn’t a saint, but that’s a story for another day), but y’all were too enthralled with his basketball playing and Biden Bromance to listen.

So lay off Mississippi, OK? While you’re humming along with Nina, start replacing the names of those southern landmarks with ones more local to you and get used to feeling how well that shoe fits so many places in this nation. Mississippi is everywhere.


America, a Fantasy


William Blake, Plate 2, Title Page, from America. A Prophecy, 1793. Color-printed relief etching in green black with pen and black ink and watercolor on paper. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about fantasy. I don’t mean unicorns and elves and orcs and mystical castles; these fantasies are the sort that can take root in our minds and communities and create visions by which we order our worlds.

That’s not a bad thing; we could argue that this experiment we call America* is one mass-produced and sustained fantasy, a series of land masses filled with beings who elect to bind themselves together (and remain bound together) by their acceptance of a long-ago written document that begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. Our ancestors bought into this narrative, this fantasy, and they shared it and organized their lives (and the lives of those to come after them) around it. The fantasy of America demands tacit acceptance of and agreement with fundamental ideas/ideals/beliefs/concepts in order for the grand experiment to continue. Over time, our communal understandings of and agreements about those ideas/ideals/beliefs/concepts change or become sites of conflict, and we find ways to reach some sort agreement or understanding about them that allows the experiment to continue.

This is how we work: mass-acceptance of a fantasy of how individual lives can best be lived in community to ensure “liberty and justice for all.” I keep using the word “fantasy” because it’s central to several questions I’ve been turning over in my head for no small period of time:

  • when a shared communal fantasy breaks down, what are the consequences to the life of the community?
  • when one part of the community begins to alter the meaning(s) of key ideas/ideals/beliefs/concepts and those alterations are rejected by another part of the community, what happens to the communal fantasy?
  • when the community is so split on these fundamental elements of the shared fantasy as to decrease the community’s ability to function efficiently and effectively toward shared goals, what can be done to bridge the divide?
  • how, if desired, can we intervene in and disrupt fantasies that threaten to do tremendous harm to the community?

These are questions I want to explore more formally this summer, beginning with a refresher on Ernest Bormann’s theory of symbolic convergence, a communication framework that relies on fantasy-theme analysis as a key element of understanding how we form community through the fantasies we spin out together about our world. We are currently multiple Americas–always have been, in some senses–and some of those Americas have become so prominent as to threaten a shut down of the whole enterprise.

I’m far from the first person to consider these questions/issues, and I won’t be the last. I won’t even be close to the most competent. What, though, is the purpose of the platform if not to give space to share the work of the mind using it? I need a place to put the stuff that’s rambling about my head and maybe that will lead to some fruitful pathways for connection.

Feel free to share your thoughts; comments are screened but welcome.

*I use “America” here to reference the United States of America; I am in no way trying to speak for or about two continents.


Fix it, white people

I was going to address this to Jackson, but this goes beyond Mississippi, beyond the South, and straight to the heart of this country I call home.


This morning three people I love and hold dear, a unit that we would call and recognize as a traditional family, were assaulted by the ignorance and fear masquerading as “civic duty” that seems to be becoming more and more commonplace. After enjoying a lovely breakfast at a nearby Waffle House, this family returned home to continue their quiet Sunday only to have their peace disturbed by the police who, having heard a report of two Mexicans who had kidnapped a child, showed up at their home demanding to see the child. I have no doubt that the police were as dismayed as the parents and the child, but there is no way in hell they were as shaken and harmed by their role in this assault as the victims of it.

Let this sink in for a moment: a six year old child was seen with a male and female who are bilingual and had the audacity to exercise their linguistic abilities in a public space, and this was reason enough for some “well-meaning citizen” to FOLLOW THEM OUT OF THE RESTAURANT, TAIL THEIR CAR, AND THEN CALL THE POLICE WITH AN ACCUSATION OF KIDNAPPING.

The mother? A tenured faculty member at the best college in this God-forsaken state. The father? A physician-in-training just finishing his rounds at the hospital. The child? Six. Years. Old.

Violent actions don’t always leave visible scars and don’t always look violent on the surface, but I promise you that this entire scenario bears the marks of the sort of violence that will become all too familiar in the days to come if we don’t get a grip on ourselves as a nation, as a people. The knock on the door, once a welcome thing, cannot help but become the potential harbinger of doom for so many of us in this time where “ordinary folks” take it upon themselves to judge what they see based on little to no actual information.

Fix this, white people. This is YOUR problem, not ours, the black and brown and native peoples of this land. Your fear—grounded in your expectations that your violent and racist history must of necessity dictate equally violent reaction from your victims—will be the thing that actually destroys your soul in the end.


The Morning After

This morning I made my seven year old son cry. He woke up and, bleary-eyed waking, asked me if Hillary Clinton had won the election. I told him that she hadn’t, that Donald Trump had won. He buried his sweet face in the pillow, wiping away the tears. I rubbed his back, asked him if he was sad. He nodded. I asked him if he was scared. He nodded. I told him that there was nothing to be afraid of, reminded him of the conversation we’d had the day before about how our government is made up of a system of checks and balances to make sure that one person can’t ruin the whole glorious mess of a thing. 

I told him that while Clinton had won the most votes, Trump had won the most states, and I was thankful for the foresight to explain the electoral college to him. I told him that meant something: that half of the country thought she should have been elected and that means that half of the country don’t believe that Trump should be and that means that we’re not alone. 

I told him I’d made chocolate chip muffins. He asked if he could have two. He’s seven.

As we got him ready to go to school–no rush to be on time today, why rush to be on time today–he told me that he was scared. I asked him what of. His answer?

“X says that if Donald Trump is elected, he’s going to ship all of the black people back to Africa.” 

I had to pause for a moment at that. X is the child of a former student of mine. I tucked that away for further contemplation.

I told him that was not true. He looked at me scared, and I knew what he needed to hear.

“Mommy isn’t going anywhere. Donald Trump can’t send me or any of our family members anywhere. We were born here.”

He was worried about the Mexican American mother of one of his best friends. I reassured him that she, too, would not be going anywhere. I tried to explain to him the nature of birthright citizenship, but that was a bit more than the morning could bear. We talked, too, about race, about his half-blackness, something he really can’t understand yet. He’s seven.

On the drive to school, he told me that he was going to tell X that Donald Trump may be president, but he’s not shipping anybody anywhere. I’m gonna let him hand on to that for a little while. He’s seven. 

My child was born into a country with a black president. He was utterly shocked to learn that we’d never had a woman as president. He’s seven. He has so much to learn, but at least he’s learned that a black man can be president. That’s got to stand for something. And I have to raise him to be the kind of man who will continue to be shocked that a woman has never been president, that anyone, really, who isn’t white and male and heterosexual and Christian so that he will understand that what is “normal” isn’t always what’s right.