Category Archives: Correspondence

Correspondence from Chicago

by Sophie Johnson
CHICAGO

When CNN broke a story earlier this month that showed reports of black heart disease patients dying at a much higher rate than equally sick white patients, there shouldn’t have been any surprise. The story—on racial inequalities in the American healthcare system—is an old one, and the reasons behind it are manifold and debatable. Why is this happening?

That question, of course, gets right at the heart (no pun intended) of race issues in America today. It cannot be answered by individual patients, nor can it be answered by medical institutions alone. To find the answer to that question, we must look at the living conditions of the typical African-American in the U.S.: from his diet, to his job, to the place he lives.

The study concluded that among those with serious coronary disease, black patients had a 36 percent survival rate and white patients a 46 percent survival rate after being tracked for nine years. Researchers reflected on the possibility that racial discrimination by doctors may have played a role, but they said that that sort of allegation was difficult to prove.

Not too difficult, in my opinion.

Researchers need only look a few years back, in fact, when the Duke University Medical Center conducted a similar study, which examined 1,392 white patients and 242 African-American patients who suffered from heart disease and had been diagnosed between 1998 and 2001. At the time of diagnosis, both groups had similar symptoms, but somehow only 60 percent of the African-Americans received either a bypass operation or angioplasty, while 72 percent of white patients had received such procedures. Furthermore, a poll conducted six months after the study began found that the African-American group reported worse symptoms and quality of life than the white group.

Because race is a social construction and should not, on its own, produce physical differences in peoples’ health, we must conclude that racism was at play in both these studies. A 12 percent difference in the amount of major surgeries recommended to white patients versus black patients is too large a difference to overlook. It is impossible to argue that the recent findings concerning discrepancies between the physical conditions of black and white heart disease patients has nothing to do unfair medical treatment based on race. In other words: doctors can say what they want, but the fact is that African-American patients receive unequal treatment in our healthcare system.

But can doctors really be blamed? I am skeptical that doctors make a conscious decision to be racist in their medicinal practices. More likely, our prejudices are so deeply ingrained in our beings that we don’t even realize we’re exercising them.

Mary Mitchell, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, likes to cover race issues in her bi-weekly column. She recently published a controversial article detailing the reasons that black men need to get married.

“I kept getting phone calls from white women who said, ‘My boyfriend won’t marry me either! Why do you have to make this about race?’ These people don’t realize that we read about white issues every day. There is only one column that covers African-Americans, and I’m writing it. I’m not going to apologize for covering race, because race is a real issue,” Mitchell said while speaking to our class.

It is true that many whites—especially liberal, middle-class whites—are ready to dismiss the whole race issue and move on. Herein lies the very problem. Without recognizing the severe institutionalization of racism that has happened since the Civil Rights Movement in this country, we ignore one of the biggest cover-ups in history, which is happening right under our noses. Too often, as these medical studies show, it becomes an issue of life and death.

Unfortunately, racism is so institutionalized that we cannot stop with medical organizations while talking about medicinal racial disparities. According to research done by Wayne State University in 2001, the age-adjusted death rate for cancer was 25.4 percent higher for African-Americans than for white Americans, the infant mortality rate among African-Americans was more than twice the rate for white Americans and the diabetes age-adjusted death rate for African-Americans was more than twice that for white Americans. And that’s not just because doctors are racist.

To understand why these gaps are so great, we must look at the living conditions of African-Americans versus whites. Why, for example, is the leading cause of death among African-Americans heart disease? The median income for African-American citizens, of course, is much lower than it is for white Americans. Therefore, African-Americans (like other minority groups) are often forced into economically underprivileged neighborhoods, where resources are scarce if not completely unavailable.

For example, in the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago, more than 97 percent of the residents are African-American, according to the 2000 Census report. Forty-three percent of those living in Englewood are living below the poverty line. As a result, there is a relative surfeit of fresh fruits and vegetables, and residents of the neighborhood are forced to eat foods high in deadly trans fats and cholesterol. Those employed with minimum wage jobs typically work at least 10 hours a day, and don’t have the luxury to exercise for the sake of exercising. This kind of diet and lifestyle, of course, leads to heightened blood pressures, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Even if doctors in the United States practiced perfect racial equality (which I might argue is impossible in today’s society), many African-American citizens don’t have the money to afford the healthcare they need. This has as much to do with medical institutions as it does with unequal treatment across the board: in job opportunities, resource availability and adequate welfare systems.

The point is that racism has become so much a part of the American soil that it’s no surprise its crops are growing everywhere.

The best thing we can do at this point is educate. If the typical American can see the way the strings of racism connect—can see the ultimate result of the current system—more can be done to strengthen equality and bring justice to all.

The problem is that the truth in terms of race relations is under-reported in this day and age. People are dying because racism is an institution in this country.

The American public needs to know that.

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Correspondence from France

by Sally Sorte
FRANCE

Last weekend a couple of friends and I headed to Paris for the least traditional Thanksgiving ever. The Mayflower was booked so we went with RyanAir, which was kind of like tuberculosis because it was airborne and inconvenient as hell. Our flight departed at five-something on Thanksgiving morning, so we had the genius plan of taking our bags out with us to the bars of Plaza del Sol on Wednesday night and then going straight to the airport from there.

This plan was good motivation to pack light, and we met one another—and the rest of Madrid—at point zero, under the clock at Sol, with our shoulder bags. The bouncers, with whom we are rather familiar, didn’t even look twice at our excess baggage, which we hung on the back of chairs and forgot about for the next several hours.

After Coronitas with other Americanos, we chatted with a group of English stock brokers who are always up for some “sex on the beach,” and then ran into the same globetrotting Australians that I’d met in Portugal—small world! The clientele at our table continued to diversify until it was time to collect our things, which now reeked of smoky Amstel, and hail a taxi. After prying the life ambitions out of a groggy-eyed young driver, we entered the airport and promptly followed suit by belly flopping on the pristine floor and drooling on our bags during our catnap before security.

In some respects we were better prepared than a boy scout, with our toothpaste and mascara in less than 10-ounce containers and placed in Ziploc bags; in other respects we were those discombobulated people that don’t deserve to board a plane. I tried to go through security without my boarding pass, then almost forgot my belt when I went back to check-in, and my friend left her cell phone in one of those boxes at security (don’t worry, it was waiting for her at lost and found on Sunday).

Another RyanAir oddity: choose your own seat! After overcoming this unheard-of level of autonomy, I put on my headphones and passed out for take-off.

Next thing I knew we were landing in some seriously peripheral suburb of Paris, from which we took a two and a half hour shuttle through the dense morning traffic into the heart of the cloud-covered city. Then we fumbled our way to and through the French metro and to our hostel (confusing because there were two number 48s on the same street), which was located just down the hill from Sacre Coeur and six blocks down from the red-light district and its capitol, the Moulin Rouge.

“The Moulin Rouge. A nightclub, a dance hall and a bordello. Ruled over by Harold Zidler. A kingdom of nighttime pleasures. Where the rich and powerful came to play with the young and beautiful creatures of the underworld….”

We sold ourselves to some crepes, greasy slices of pizza, and foot long hot dogs with cheese, and then set out for the Louvre to say what’s up to Mona and Venus.

Our Thanksgiving may have been turkeyless, but we stuffed ourselves with Paris’ top 10 monumental wonders, and showed good taste by joining some 137 million other Americans in shopping on Black Friday, the day after.

I always hear that French people are snobs who dress for funerals on a daily basis; from my experience, neither is true. Aside from the French chic in our hostel who turned on the light and flung hair mousse around the room at ungodly hours, everyone we talked to was nothing but nice—from the man at the Tourist Information booth who offered to a personal tour on his day off to the lady who gave me her toilet token so that I didn’t have to pay to pee. As for wardrobe, neon is Prada’s new black and there are Longchamp bags in every color to match.

While I didn’t find my “media naranja” (Spanish word for soul mate, or literally, “other half of your orange”), I fell in love with the swanky city of lights and art.

From a broad, in the land of ice cream puffs and warm baguettes.

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Correspondence from France

by Emma Wood
France

It’s not my calendar but instead my grammar teacher, Madame de Pous, who serves as my measure of time. Blue eyeliner brightens her leathery face as each Monday she reminds us: “You’ve been here four weeks now … five … six. If you haven’t started speaking French yet, it’s time. You didn’t come to France to go out drinking with other Americans.” Yeah, that would be stupid, I scoff—forgetting that other Emma who spent her samedi soir on a marathon tour of the downtown bars.

Seven weeks it is now. No longer a vacation. I’ve been here to watch the trees at the Fac transform into red-hued beauties (oh! I was scared they didn’t have fall in France). I’ve been here for a birthday—my 20th!—a day full of “joyeux anniversaire”s from people who didn’t exist in my world last August. I’ve been here long enough that I suddenly, magically, understand the benediction my Very Catholic family recites each night before we eat.

Scariest of all, like the Velveteen Rabbit, the people here have started to be real. I miss them when there’s a day with no “textos.” I have people with whom to eat too many croissants, take bike rides, watch clouds. People who write me fairy tales for my birthday, about papillons and all things magic. I don’t know when it happened, really. Seven weeks of tram rides and confusion and feeling too American and ashamed of my Chacos and deprived of “your mom jokes”—and suddenly this place is my own. I’m scared to come home. The tiny French roots have finally sprouted, and I’m in love with my Franco-Brazilian capoeira instructor, who chants and frowns like an Indian chief, with the girl in my lit class who packs picnics for lunch, even with Madame de Pous. And that creepy guy in my art class who stalks around while the rest of us stay still, feverishly sketching from every angle—damn it, I’m going to miss him too.

But, to stay here? To miss the fluffy pink Walla Walla spring? And that moment when, with the trees, the Venus statue looks almost passable … and my grandmother … my mother. I, the utterly-independent college student, have thousands of threads to draw me back home! Poof poof … (that’s the French form of eeny meeny miney moe) … poof poof, time will tell.

I have one last thing to teach you: “He loves me, he loves me not,” en francais. “Il m’aime; un peu; passionnement; a la folie; pas du tout.”

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Correspondence from Spain

by Sally Sorte
SPAIN

Portugal is appropriately located on the West Coast of the Iberian Peninsula in relation to the Spanish East Coast, which fits the laid-back attitude of its inhabitants. Lisbon is to San Francisco as Madrid is to NYC—Lisbon even has its own golden gate bridge.

In Portugal, without Halloween or Thanksgiving to splice the holiday season, Christmas lights and decorations are already being hung over the streets and sweet steam billows upwards from carts of roasted chestnuts in cobblestone intersections.

We struck gold with our hostel, which had Internet, comfy beds, a wide selection of DVDs in various languages, videogames, and 24-hour check-in and came with breakfast. The temperature was in the 70s as Lisbon is Europe’s hottest capitol, so we were wearing flip-flops and tank tops in the middle of fall. Our luck continued when we went to the train station and learned that the company was celebrating its 150th birthday so we got to ride for free. We went to the quaint, gingerbread town of Sintra and climbed ancient towers while a minstrel played “Green Sleeves” in the castle courtyard, looked up the palace’s double chimneys that were shaped like kerosene lamps at circles of blue sky, and explored the village that was straight out of Belle’s provincial life.

The nightlife in Portugal was equally impressive. The streets in the clubbing district were full of revellers that preferred ‘aire libre’ to smoky bars. We sampled local cuisine, collaborated with a graffiti artist and free-styled with some Portuguese gangsters.

One thing I don’t understand is why we call the capitol of Portugal “Lisbon” when its populace and all the street signs refer to it as “Lisboa.” Like when I tell people from which of the 50 states I spawn and they take a few seconds and then say, “Ohhh, you mean Oregoooooan.” No, I mean Oregon, like I was mining and uncovered ore again; I wouldn’t say ore all gone. My Spanish friends understand; they do not live in Spain, they live in España. Names shouldn’t translate. Of course, on the good days when my Señora remembers his name, she calls my Bostonian roommate, Andrew, “Andrés.” People also get confused with my name since phonetically it’s a Spanish verb conjugated in the preterite ‘yo’ form. I guess in Facebook terms, I should just take “whatever I can get.”

Another befuddler is that in Madrid I could dress for the Space Party and be ignored on the metro, but if I eat an apple on the way to class people will stop and stare. I can’t masticate fruit, but Spanish couples are allowed to eat each other’s faces all the time? “Pay Day Ah” occurs in the elevator (“ascensor” yourself!), on the street (you “calle” that a goodnight kiss?), in the park (the “césped” is becoming a cesspool!), in the car (“coche” her another time), in the promenade (go inside and then make a “paseo” at your crush), on the bench (put that in the “banco” and let it gain interest until tonight), and everywhere in between (“entre” yourself indoors, por FAVOR!). Hey, at least I’m left without an appetite.

From a broad.

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Correspondence from Chicago

by Sophie Johnson
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

It is getting colder. The days are getting shorter. The wind is getting stronger. Finally. I know I’ve been waiting to employ “the layered look” (sooo chic right now) since mid-June.

Before I go any further, I must preface this column by telling you that while I think of myself as pretty progressive (sweat shops = bad; negative body images = bad; expensive clothing in general = bad), I have a weakness for fashion magazines. I’ve been putting off admitting it for far too long, and now I feel I need to embrace my love for couture, eclectic fabrics, and Harper’s Bazaar. And on the record: I hated “Project Runway”’s Jeffery throughout the whole third season (glaring neck tattoos? Dumb!), but his final collection was the best.

Naturally, a perk to living in Chicago is taking trips to Wicker Park to check out the skinny, skinny girls (how I love the skinny, skinny girls; they’re just like hangers for beautiful clothes) in their hipster outfits. I obviously knew that my wardrobe was going to quadruple while I was here, so I intentionally did not bring very many clothes. This was just the excuse I needed to invest in a slew of vintage-y sweaters from the myriad resale shops scattered around the city. After extensive research (read: staring at the skinny, skinny girls for hours), I have deemed myself a fashion deity. As the Pioneer does not currently have a regular fashion writer, I pen this column for the good of Whitman-kind.

Let us start with the basics: No, Whitman students, you do not have to wear Carhartts. Nor do you have to wear Birkenstocks, tie-dyed t-shirts, or linen pants. I looked in the Whitman Students’ Handbook, and contrary to popular belief, these are not requirements to fulfill your status as a student on this campus. The administration does not necessarily want you to wear ugly clothes. So go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief. Then I suggest you find a Goodwill donation center post-haste.

I guess it is okay to own sweat pants and sweatshirts (I personally like the bookstore’s semi-new version of the “gold” Whitman College sweatshirt), but it is certainly not okay to limit yourself to them. One day a week (preferably following a legitimate all-nighter) is the maximum amount of times any single person should wear sweats or pajamas. I know that life is hectic, so I grant your waistline one day of breathing room. But that’s all.

This is where a reliable pair of jeans becomes necessary. As I do not constitute “khaki” as a legitimate color (let alone something that should ever be worn under any circumstances), the only option for comfortable day-to-day wear is denim. This can be tricky, I know. I like Levi’s, but that’s because I have big hips.

Skinny jeans are all the rage right now, and while some argue this is nothing more than the re-marketing of the vastly unflattering tapered jeans of the early ‘90s, I think they’re miraculous. I don’t know about you, but I have always been rather proud of my calves. I am pleased to be able to don denim that shows off their shape without being impractical for winter. The close fit is very warm, and they can double as leggings under mini-dresses. What a fantastic resource!

But it does bring me to a very difficult topic: the jeans tucked into the boots look. I have heard from reliable sources that this look is somewhat ubiquitous among the fashionably-forward on campus these days, and has gained popularity even among some of the fashionably-flawed. This is certainly controversial.

Let me just get this out there: I have tucked my jeans into my boots before. My best friend, Kim (incredibly well-dressed), does it all the time. I think the key is that you have to be careful about it. First, it is important to choose the right boots. The look does not work with leather boots (too wannabe porn star), nor does it fly with Uggs (can anyone say “2005”?). Choose a boot that is understated but slouchy (Target has some great ones that all the indie scenesters are wearing right now), and make sure you are wearing very skinny jeans. If the boots-in-jeans look is seamless rather than bulky, it can look very sophisticated.

In terms of jackets, pea coats are always safe. But why be safe? Punchy red and green are the colors for coats this season (skip an ostentatious tweed; it’s on the way out). Get creative with cuts and styles (mid-length is very in). Sure you’re only going to be wearing it for one season, but what else are you going to spend your money on? Food? Food will only make you fat.

I think the looks for men are basically self-explanatory: Please dress like my boyfriend. I like him and he dresses well. Men’s clothes are boring.

In summation, I think it’s safe to say that, in a lot of ways, fashion is more important than anything in the entire world. If you look hot in what you wear, people like me are going to idolize you. And you know what my motto is: The better you dress, the more likely you are to end world hunger and war and stuff like that.

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Grapevine philosophy

Tagging the ‘good life’ of the French with American social graffiti, a good dose of deviance
by Emma Wood
FRANCE

I’ve long had a bone to pick with those women with baby strollers, the steamroller type who walk two abreast and render entire sidewalks useless—but my grumblings came to a crashing climax yesterday morning. 10:13 a.m.: I’m late for my lit class, bike in hand but no time to use it; she in the queue with her stroller. The tram that arrives has little room left for humans, not to speak of us wheeled delinquents—and in a moment of divine cosmic alignment, we enter the tram side-by-side just as the doors slither in to prepare for take-off and crunch—bike and baby embrace.

I hadn’t yet known what it’s like to get yelled at by an angry French mother: “Vous etes maman, eh? Qu’est-ce que vous pensez, bebe ou velo?”

She doesn’t know Sam Johnson.

Now, you’ve gotta be part native for that. I am now a full-fledged social deviant, like those Nantais teenagers who stick traffic cones on General Mellinet’s upturned sword.

My little host siblings, too, know how to relish those moments of deviance. Tuesday evening, the children (plus Emma) have been shooed out of the kitchen to make way for un “diner” chez les de l’Espinays. As the grownups downstairs dine on olives and chevre, we’re dancing in my room to the Greatest Hits of Wynne and Sylvia’s KWCW. Satisfaction Hour, spring 2006. (Little can they imagine the midnight dance parties those beats have known at the upstairs office in Reid; as they raid my closet for all things frilly and shiny, I tell them we’re exactly like real American college students.)

Last weekend we made a four-in-a-row tour of the chateaux of the Loire, and there I found that same kindred wildness in the forests and grapevines of the castle grounds. I listened tranquilly to the first guided tour: how such-and-such rich but plain-faced woman funded the castles construction to the liking of her husband’s mistress, how kings used to use an extra chair to catch ink droppings from their plumes.

Two tours down, I ducked out on the next, hunted grapes in the garden and napped beneath a trellis. I wandered, belly full of grapes, and found myself suddenly in Tom Davis mode. Tom Davis wouldn’t be eating grapes here. He’d be thinking about the wild intricacy of those masses of vines, the vitality of that smooth, three-tiered fountain, the visual joke of bulbous hedges with spindly bottoms, and the interplay of freedom and borders in those decorative plots of kale and chard. (Yes, kale and chard—wouldn’t you guess—the Europeans make art with their plants; the Americans eat them.)

It’s the same interplay of deviance and structure we’re talking about in my musical analysis class: the rubato and syncopation that slowly crept into flawless, symmetric Gregorian chants in the 16th century; in the same evolution, architectural curves that came to soften angular Gothic peaks. So I’m playing a bit, within the structure. Evening baguette counts (on last night’s tram: three) and deviant bicycles—a daily dose of social graffiti.

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Weighing in on the future: Where exactly is home?

by Sophie Johnson
CHICAGO

For John Denver, it’s “the place I belong”; for Her Space Holiday, it’s “where you hang yourself”; and for Simon and Garfunkel, it’s “where my thoughts escaping, … where my music’s playing, … where my love lies waiting silently for me.” What is it that allures us so much about the definition of “home”?

My boyfriend Grant came to visit me in Chicago over four-day weekend. We hit the vegan diners, walked along the lake, stared up at the skyscrapers and rode “the el” to exhaustion. It was a great weekend, complete with late-night Pad Thai and frequent voyages to the local hookah bar; it was really hard to see him go.

After I dropped Grant off at the airport on Tuesday, I felt myself getting homesick for the first time since I got to Chicago. I missed Portland, my parents, my dog Foofie, driving my car and even Walla Walla. With my heart in so many places, how could I begin to explain where my home was?

We grapple with this question at this junction in our lives more than ever. For college students, home isn’t always where we live. I’ll spend the semester in Chicago, spring in Walla Walla, the summer in Georgia, but I’ll still be going “home” to Portland from time to time to visit my family. Where do I belong?

I have been in Chicago now for seven months, and I have to be honest with you: I have planned my future Chicago life brick-by-brick. That’s right: I’m going to get married here, have adorable children who go to school in Hyde Park (where R. Kelly graduated, a fact which was integral in my decision regarding my future children’s schooling) and work for some kind of liberal magazine with an emphasis on race relations. I’m going to take my future children (tentatively named Emerson and Eliot after my two favorite writers) to art classes at the Art Institute, walk my future dog (tentatively a playful rescue mutt with a heart murmur) along the trails on the lake and keep my future apartment (tentatively and miraculously big enough to comfortably house four people) smelling like spiced apple cider. It’s going to be quite the life.

Simultaneously, I can imagine no better city than Portland. Let’s face it: Portlanders are pretty weird (read: downright eccentric). Everyone’s always riding their bicycles everywhere and turning out for gigantic protests and stuff. People buy hemp purses and eat vegan food and everyone seems pretty happy. Plus, it’s just so green there. The world’s biggest and smallest parks within city limits reside in Portland, and it is the city with the most coffee shops and porn stores per capita in the United States. Furthermore, it’s the place where I grew up, and on Sunday nights there’s a house on Burlingame Avenue where a rather unwieldy family (read: mine) eats more pasta than you may have thought was humanly possible.

And then there’s Whitman: a community of thoughtful, outgoing people with curiosities and imaginations that stretch to epic proportions. When I was a prospective student at Whitman, I asked a current student what her least favorite thing about it was. Her response, of course, was, “It sucks that you ever have to leave.” There’s always a concert to go to, a play to attend, a forum to participate in, a club to organize. And that library! I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve spent stretched out between bookshelves just lost in volumes of poetry and prose. There is simply nothing better in the universe. Oh, and let me just say what we’ve all been thinking: Ducks are fucking rad.

So which one is home? Some will say that home is where you are most comfortable in your own skin. Others will tell you that home is with the people you love. Neither of these definitions is wrong, nor is either entirely right.

Maya Angelou wrote, “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” I share that sentiment. Admittedly, there are places where I have never felt less at home (Southern California offers a perfect example), but I’ll strive to find home in every place. It’s just another impossible dream but a lovely thought, nevertheless.

When I asked Grant about the “home” dilemma over the phone, he told me what I must have known all along: There simply is no definition. The solution is in the puzzle. We must continue asking, searching and constantly examining our surroundings. In this search, we will always find new and different answers, and in so doing, new and different definitions of ourselves.

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