Friday, November 11, 2016

Open Letter to the Trump Supporter Who Contacted Me About My Star Tribune Article

November 11, 2016

Dear Mr. [redacted],

Thank you for reading my essay in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the challenges of teaching during this election. I appreciate you taking the time to reach out and express your views. Most of your e-mail explained why you are supporting Donald Trump for President, and I don’t think it would be productive for me to respond to your opinions on that matter (though I respect your right to believe whatever you want and vote accordingly).

However, I do want to engage with your claim that you are “99% sure” that despite my efforts to maintain a politically neutral persona in the classroom, my students knew that I would be voting for Hillary Clinton. I think you may be right, and I want to explore why.

It can’t be because of my race or gender, given that 53% of white women supported Trump. And it can’t be because of where I grew up and where my family resides – I’m from Missouri and still have family there, as well as in Florida and Arizona, all of which are red states. So what could have given me away? Let’s get to the bottom of this.

Given that I teach at a university, my students could probably guess that I myself hold a college degree, and indeed, it was non-college-educated voters that accounted for much of Trump’s base. So that could have been a clue, that as someone who is not just a product of higher education but also is dedicating their career to it might not support a candidate who appeals to uneducated voters and is being sued for creating a fraudulent for-profit “university.” 

Could it have been that I repeatedly encouraged them to exercise their right to vote and provided them with information about how and where to register? That might have indicated my leanings, since the Democrats historically are the party that tries to enfranchise voters and not suppress them by doing things like gutting the Voting Rights Act (which a Supreme Court with a conservative majority did in 2013). And since millennial voters did overwhelmingly vote for Clinton, one could argue that I assumed encouraging my students to vote would translate to a victory for Democrats.

Or maybe it's that I require them to cite their sources and only rely on credible information in their papers, since Trump proved in all three debates and countless interviews to have little regard for facts. For instance, he said crime in inner cities is up; it’s actually way down. His comments about late-term abortions were fraught with dangerous misinformation. There are many more examples I could cite. I teach my students information literacy and how to back up their arguments with actual evidence – an approach that seems completely at odds with President-elect Trump.

But now that I think about it, I think maybe I showed my hand on the very first day of the semester, when I didn’t cordon off a section of the classroom for the students who were “other” (and by other, I mean not white/straight/Christian/able-bodied/cisgender) and disrespect their personhood. Maybe that was when a collective lightbulb went off and they all realized Professor Vagnino does not support Donald Trump. And every day since that I have endeavored to move through the world as an articulate, intelligent, compassionate human being who cares about the welfare of others and the planet-- perhaps that tipped them off. When my students disagree with me or each other, I don’t threaten to put them in jail or deport them. I don’t even threaten to flunk them. My classroom is a safe and tolerant space, and yes, there is a trigger warning in my syllabus since we cover some very sensitive topics that relate to our course theme of mental health.

So which of these things was the culprit? I guess we’ll never know. Maybe I just don't come across as a woman who would enjoy a non-consensual pussy grab. But I can see why you think it might have been apparent, my preference of one candidate over the other. And to that, I say: Guilty as charged.


Katie Vagnino

Thursday, April 28, 2016

So You Think You Don't Like Poetry

If you had told me that a Beyonce visual album would have introduced me to my new favorite poet/poem, I might not have believed you. But here we are, and thanks to "Lemonade," I have discovered this poem by Warsan Shire. Let's just say it hits very close to home.

for women who are "difficult" to love

you are a horse running alone
and he tries to tame you
compares you to an impossible highway
to a burning house
says you are blinding him
that he could never leave you
forget you
want anything but you
you dizzy him, you are unbearable
every woman before or after you
is doused in your name
you fill his mouth
his teeth ache with memory of taste
his body just a long shadow seeking yours
but you are always too intense
frightening in the way you want him
unashamed and sacrificial
he tells you that no man can live up to the one who
lives in your head
and you tried to change didn't you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer
less volatile, less awake
but even when sleeping you could feel
him travelling away from you in his dreams
so what did you want to do love
split his head open?
you can't make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.

 Warsan Shire. She looks pretty easy to love to me.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

What I Know About Football

For most of my life, my attitude toward football has been indifference mixed with a little disdain. I had no interest in understanding its rules; it looked barbaric and chaotic. Men in suits commenting on the plays. Men on the sidelines calling the plays. Men on the field chasing and tackling each other. Men in bars and on couches cheering. Men men men men men. The only women you really see or hear about are the egregiously underpaid cheerleaders and the wives and girlfriends who make headlines when a player gets suspended for beating them.

In spite of this, I have always made a habit of watching the Super Bowl, and sometimes even hosting a viewing party. But that's only because I like spectacle and taco dip. The halftime show is always a shitshow for one reason or another (wardrobe malfunctions! left shark!) and the ads are usually amusing. And let's be real, I will jump on any excuse to entertain -- I love throwing parties. Oscar parties, election night parties, and sure, even Super Bowl parties. When it comes to parties, I don't discriminate. I never cared about the actual outcome of a Super Bowl game -- I would just randomly pick a team to root for, and be only mildly disappointed if they lost.

But as Elphaba in Wicked would say, something has changed within me. Something is not the same.

I sort of like watching football now. (I am actually watching the Broncos/Steelers game as I write this. Go Broncos!)

I know. It's crazy. But I live in Wisconsin, the state with the most notoriously rabid and devoted NFL fan base. Inevitably, I started watching more games -- purely for social purposes. Everyone knows when the Packers are playing. And when there's a game, the streets in Eau Claire are like a ghost down, eerily deserted. Because literally nearly everyone is glued to their TVs. Bars that don't serve food regularly have free food on game days -- crockpots of deliciousness, hot dishes galore, lemon and lime jello shots at the ready. 

The more I saw, the more I had to (somewhat begrudgingly) respect the complexity of the game. Because it really is complex. And the athleticism is astounding. It doesn't hurt that Aaron Rodgers is easy on the eyes AND the king of Hail Mary passes. Seriously. So for the first time in my life, I actually self-identify as a fan of a professional sports team. I am a Cheesehead. And I am proud. I am seriously considering buying Packer paraphernalia.

Now I would like to show off some of the things I have learned, mostly from watching with people who have been watching football their entire lives. Every game I feel like I learn something new!

1. It is important to "protect the pocket." I think this refers to keeping the quarterback from getting sacked before he can throw the ball. The pocket "collapsing" is bad for the offense. I think.

2. A football team is really like several teams! There are the offense guys and the defense guys, and the special teams guys like kickers. I JUST LEARNED THIS!  I had no idea the quarterback didn't play the whole game. Mind. Blown.

3. People talk a lot about "the line of scrimmage." Important shit goes on there. I'm not sure exactly what. Regardless, "scrimmage" is a fun word to say. Also fun: "blitz."  

4. Penalties can be declined. I find this a little confusing, to be honest -- in other sports, I'm pretty sure fouls are fouls.

5. Time outs are not just breaks -- they are strategic ways to slow down the game and are often reserved for the final minutes. But the clock also stops during a time out, so I'm not sure how that works. Maybe it can break the other team's momentum? I just know that if a team still has all their time outs toward the end of the game, and they are losing, it's good that they have those time outs. For some reason.

6. There are tricks! I just learned about fake punts, when the punt team (another team!) comes on the field, but then instead of punting, the QB runs a play. They fake out the other team, and it's sneaky.

7. Everyone is guilty of holding, but the goal is to not get called on it. And which way your body is facing can mean the difference between getting busted for pass interference pass interference.

8. Fumbles are exactly what they sound like. Adrian Peterson fumbles a lot, which is a bummer for Vikings fans.

9. Onside kicks are rarely successful but are exciting to watch.

10. Calling a time out right before a field goal is called "icing the kicker" so he might get psyched out and miss. It's kind of mean, in my opinion. Dude's been waiting to whole game to do his thing, so just let him, alright?

I'm really impressed with my knowledge. But not as impressed as I am with Aaron Rodgers's arm.


Monday, November 23, 2015

On Hating Eau Claire (and Elephants)

The railroad crossing on Starr Avenue in Eau Claire will always remind me of the night I came close to driving at full speed into a moving train.


It was the night of the day when I discovered that the person I loved and wanted to spend my life with, who the previous week had been helping me recover from a major surgery, had cheated on me. Had been messaging strangers online and on at least one occasion, fucked one. I thought the pain I felt would surely kill me; the train was just a way to expedite things. As I sat in my car, contemplating (how fast would I need to be going to ensure instant death? Should I unbuckle my seatbelt?) the point became moot – the train finished crossing and I was still breathing. The urge to annihilate myself temporarily abated. I continued on to my destination – the regional two-gate airport to pick up my best friend who had gotten on a plane to be with me after receiving my distressed phone call.

Every time I drive to the airport, I have to cross those tracks. It’s a strange sensation to be living through something, right in the thick of it, and still have a sense of how you will view it in hindsight. I still live in Eau Claire, but I already know I will look back on this period (two years and counting) as incredibly difficult. A time when I cried more days than I didn’t, struggled to get out of bed, and tried my best to downplay my misery for my few local friends who were, on the whole, happy and healthy. I can say without a doubt that this trauma has and will continue to transform me in ways I can’t yet articulate. I can only hope some of the changes are positive. Like, maybe I will get a good poem or two out of it. Or maybe if I find myself in a similar situation again, I’ll be better equipped to handle it and won’t consider death by train.

I wasn’t miserable when I first moved to Eau Claire. I had a stable teaching job with good benefits. For the first time, I had an office. I was able to afford a one-bedroom apartment as opposed to a cramped studio. And within three months of moving here, I fell in love. The kind of love that announces itself as major right away. Our feelings for each other were so intense that we even had an inside joke that involved elephants – we knew it would be silly to say “I love you” after only knowing each other a few weeks, but we acknowledged that it felt like an elephant in the room because the feelings were so clear, so palpable. So we sent each other pictures of elephants and signed e-mails “I elephant you.” One day I came home from work to find a necklace with an elephant charm hanging from my mailbox. After we started actually saying “I love you,” elephant ephemera continued to be a gift theme—I brought him back a stuffed elephant from Mexico, and he gave me a black-and-white scarf with an elephant print and earrings carved in the shape of elephants for my birthday.

Now when I see elephants, I want to punch something.

When our relationship abruptly ended, a strange transference occurred that has made living here very difficult: I find that my rage and hurt is now directed at Eau Claire itself, the setting of my most ill-fated love affair (to date, at least). The city feels somehow complicit, like an accessory or co-conspirator. It’s the scene of the crime and no matter what I do, the faint chalk outline of a body (my body) resurfaces, refuses to fade. Everywhere we went, and even places we didn’t go but might have, feels toxic, tainted, ominous. Needless to say, the campus where we both work is a minefield – I could run into him literally at any time. Whenever I see his car in the parking lot, I have to resist the urge to key it. 

I know this could have happened anywhere – but it happened here. Would I have found happiness in Eau Claire without meeting him? I’m not sure. It’s possible I still would have found much to dislike about the culture of an upper Midwestern college town. But we’ll never know -- unfortunately I'll always associate Eau Claire with this experience; it'll always be the place that broke my spirit to the point where I became almost unrecognizable to myself, where I flirted with oblivion. It holds the distinction of being both where I have been most happy and most miserable in my adult life. Obviously, I hope that I will achieve a new zenith of happiness (perhaps not tied to a romantic relationship. Hey, there's a novel idea!). When that happens, maybe I will be able to appreciate some of the good things I found here, the friends I made, the not-horrible moments. I hope so -- but I don't see that happening until I live elsewhere and can use physical distance to help me achieve emotional distance. From him, and from here. 

(Forgive the self-indulgence of this post. I know that in light of all the things going on geo-politically and domestically, it's rather silly to whine about a boy hurting my feelings. But this is a personal blog, and not The New York Times, so I hope an occasional post that looks solely inward is forgivable.)