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How to Douse Chronic Workplace Stress Before It Explodes into Full Burnout

My article for the Society of Human Resources Management
By Antoaneta Tileva June 1, 2021

If it’s true, according to a recent Gallup study, that nearly 8 in 10 workers experience burnout on the job at least sometimes—and more than 1 in 4 experience it “very often” or “always”—then it’s clear that “chronic workplace stress has not been successfully managed,” as the World Health Organization has said.

“Burnout is when people have been highly engaged for a long time, without the personal skills and organizational support to maintain their well-being,” said Lindsay Lagreid, senior advisor at the Limeade Institute, a Bellevue, Wash.-based institute that conducts research on employee well-being.

Unsurprisingly, employee burnout levels in 2020—the year of the pandemic—were high, with one major shift from previous years: Fully remote workers are now experiencing more burnout than onsite workers. Before the pandemic, the perks of working remotely—either part- or full-time—led to lower levels of burnout compared with employees who were onsite all the time.

Burnout has effects on the micro and macro levels. If employees’ well-being suffers, they may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. They may also become less productive and unfocused.

Managers play a significant role in employees’ mental health and can take several approaches to ease the effects of burnout:

Conduct regular and varied check-ins. Brandon Greiner is vice president of operations for MedExpress, a Morgantown, W.Va.-based urgent care provider. He emphasized the need for honesty and transparency from both managers and employees: “An important first step in keeping stress in check is for managers to regularly check in with employees and encourage them to provide honest feedback regarding their workload, work environment and responsibilities.” These discussions can take a variety of forms, including hosting group or individual talks, creating employee surveys, and reviewing employment data.

Lagreid advises managers to “start asking better questions.”

“Asking ‘How ya doing?’ and accepting answers like ‘I’m fine’ or ‘hanging in there’ aren’t going to cut it anymore.” Instead, try more specific questions like:
*Have you been able to complete your projects on time? If not, why do you think that is?

*Do you have the resources you need to get your work done? If not, what else would you need?

*What can I do to make your job easier?

Educate employees on what burnout is. Educate your team on what burnout is and how it shows up, so they have the right language to describe their experience to you.

Workplace burnout is not a medical condition. Rather, it is a sense of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a feeling of reduced accomplishment, Greiner said. He defines workplace burnout as “often characterized by feelings of exhaustion, depersonalization and inefficacy. Workplace stress can cause mental and physical reactions that make employees less effective. Prolonged stress, which results in severe mental, emotional and physical fatigue, can lead to burnout.”

Said Lagreid: “First is a deep feeling of exhaustion—almost a soul-level feeling of depletion, not just needing a good night of sleep. The second step is cynicism—being ‘fed up’ or negative. This cynicism is how the brain protects itself from the source of exhaustion. The final stage of burnout is inefficacy—feeling like there’s no point and having a loss of hope, optimism and purpose, [and asking] ‘Why do I even try.’ ”

Some potential signs of workplace burnout include:

*An increase in irritability or conflict.

*A pessimistic outlook or marked lack of interest.

*Decreased productivity or quality of work.

*Fatigue or exhaustion.

*Restlessness or insomnia.

*Increase in physical illness or discomfort.

*Mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression.

*Isolation or avoidance in the workplace.

*Decision fatigue.

*Concentration or memory issues.

Identifying the root causes of employee stress is the hard part, as is making successful organizational adjustments. “For instance, if employees find that long work hours contribute to stress, managers could consider accordingly adjusting work schedules,” Greiner advised.

“Evaluate workload, turnaround time expectations and support. Find things you can take off employees’ plates or find more efficient ways to get things done. All the burnout recovery in the world isn’t going to last long if an employee comes back to the exact same reality that caused the burnout in the first place,” Lagreid said.

Reflect on your management style. Managers should self-reflect. Are too many mandatory meetings getting in the way of completing work? Are assignments aligned with employees’ strengths? Managers can also do simple things that can make a big difference, such as not scheduling meetings during the lunch hour or late on a Friday.

“If you haven’t fostered that level of vulnerability and trust within your team, start by answering those check-in questions yourself,” Lagreid said. “Be honest with your team about your own challenges and stressors, so they feel safe doing the same with you.”

Encourage downtime and unplugging. People need time to recharge. Managers should encourage their employees to take time off. Lagreid advises managers to “model healthy boundaries for employees. Take walking meetings, don’t respond to e-mails outside of working hours, and take time away from work. Share the things you do to take care of your well-being, and ask them to share what works for them.”

Other tips include starting meetings by sharing fun trivia, holding a moment of mindful breathing or having workers share the things they’re grateful for.

Identify and encourage employee strengths. “Share specific and thoughtfully-worded gratitude often: Tell your people the specific skills and strengths they have and the value that brings to the team and the organization. Recognize contributions and celebrate wins,” Lagreid said.

Get familiar with resources for your employees. Make sure you, as a manager, are well-acquainted with your company’s employee assistance program or other mental health resources, how to contact them, and what the benefits are so that you can steer your workers to those resources when needed.

“Burnout has become commonplace in the modern workplace, and it doesn’t need to be this way,” Lagreid said. “The best strategy is an ever-present, strategic approach to employee well-being that is supported by the organization … from the top down and is integrated into daily work-life. … Creating a culture where well-being is a priority can provide the safety net needed to prevent and address employee burnout.”

Remember that everyone deals with stress differently, Greiner said. What’s stressful to one person might not affect another. Additionally, factors outside of work, such as taking care of children or elderly parents, health issues, or personal issues like loneliness or depression, can impact people’s ability to manage stress.

“It’s important to recommend resources that are appropriate for the individual employee,” Greiner said. “Promoting a meditation app may not be ideal, for instance, if the worker doesn’t enjoy using technology.”

Antoaneta Tileva, Ph.D., is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. 

Book Review: Still Mad by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Literary critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in this follow-up to their The Madwoman in the Attic, offer a comprehensive, sweeping engagement with voices from the tradition of second-wave feminism. Spanning the 1950s to the present, Still Mad contextualizes — historically and personally — the works of singers, poets, essayists, and prose writers while exploring the creativity that started on the page but moved far beyond it.

In their introduction, Gilbert and Gubar outline their intent to feature works which “they consider to be the ongoing second wave of feminism,” as they believe “the debate in which women continue to engage swirls around the issue of how many ‘waves’ of feminism there have been.” While that’s a questionable assertion (perhaps this debate is taking place in the rarefied halls of academia), parsing the conversations surrounding the feminist zeitgeist decades ago is important to understanding the choices the authors make regarding which writers to include here.

Still Mad is striking in its breadth and scope but especially in that selection of authors. Structurally, Gilbert and Gubar write chronologically, which enables them to trace the fluidity of the featured authors’ thinking. For example, the section on Audre Lorde follows her career from “lesbian biomythographer” to one who “dismantles the master’s house.”

Aside from a couple of questionable diversions, such as interludes on the (mis)education of Hillary Clinton and the Trump presidency, Gilbert and Gubar stay the course of weaving together passages from literary pieces, quotes from people in the writers’ lives, and keen sociocultural analysis. And while there is clearly a bias toward poetry, Still Mad impresses with the creativity of its selections (for example, Nina Simone is featured) and the compelling way it makes connections between seemingly disparate currents in the feminist movement.

The book’s deep dive into Adrienne Rich (including her tenuous-at-best link to Judaism) isn’t quite as interesting as the section on Audre Lorde, in which the authors capture the tension between vulnerability and anger that feminists felt and continue to feel. Lorde’s alienation as a “Black in a lesbian world and a lesbian in a Black world” drove her to ever more ardently seek out words that would rupture those boundaries. When she said that the master’s tools won’t dismantle the master’s house, she was referring to the inadequacy of existing language to disrupt this boundary-making.

So, new words and tools — a new vocabulary — must be forged to chip away at these walls. The title of Lorde’s “Sister Outsider,” Gilbert and Gubar write, reflects “her commitment to the sisterhood of the women’s movement as well as her insistence on positioning herself as an outsider questioning its boundaries.”

Still Mad also reveals the way in which activist anger was and is a part of the personal lives of these writers. Lorde, for one, from her position as a poet writing from the underpaid trenches, excoriated the economic injustices that her fellow academics were perhaps sheltered from.

Another especially compelling part of the book focuses on Andrea Dworkin and the sex wars. Few have written about the anti-pornography crusader, whom Gloria Steinem called “an Old Testament prophet.” Gilbert and Gubar capture the separatist movement that Dworkin is credited with starting — one that viewed men’s values as opposed to women’s and which created female-only spaces such as rural communes called “womyn’s lands.”

Still Mad explains the strategy behind Dworkin’s anti-pornography polemics: namely, to legally codify pornography as a civil-rights violation. Regardless of one’s opinion on sex work, there is little doubt that Dworkin was an effective, passionate advocate for elevating the testimony of women actually involved in the sex trade over that of commentary based on purely abstract or philosophical arguments.

A brilliant inclusion is that of Gloria Anzaldua, whose Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) is among the most seminal feminist/intersectional works (and one too often overlooked). Her “mestiza consciousness” is one of the best descriptions of those living in the borderlands of multiple identities. Because this experience is so unmooring and disorienting, Anzaldua uses both linguistic and spiritual-healing practice as a salve to suture the wounds wrought by white patriarchy. She refuses to “accommodate” English speakers, instead code-switching between slang, English, Spanish, Chicano Spanish, and Tex-Mex to build a creole reflective of this unrest and dispossession.

Still Mad is rich and carefully and creatively curated; it is madly in love with words, which remain some of the best tools we have for dismantling the master’s house. The way Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar wield them as weapons of personal and political redemption and healing will leave readers speechless.

Book Review: Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen

Put down your avocado toast and close that Zillow page — the latest salvo in the intergenerational war between boomers and millennials is here, and you don’t want to miss it. In Can’t Even, media scholar (and millennial) Anne Helen Petersen offers an insightful treatise on the “burnout generation” that is a far cry from the essentialist portrayals of both generations that dominate the current discourse.

Rather than dissect who is to blame for the plight (and it is a plight, histrionics aside) of millennials, Petersen offers a moving discourse on why the kids are not alright and, even more importantly, why they are not, despite how they’ve been characterized, the spoiled, lazy, feckless generation.

“Okay, boomer, sit down and read” is an apropos prescription for this book.

In 2019, Petersen published a Buzzfeed article titled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” which drew millions of readers. Wry title aside, Can’t Even, an expansion of that earlier piece, is well researched and sobering in its findings. The book examines a variety of areas of millennial lives, including work, education, social-media culture, relationships, and parenthood, zeroing in on issues like student debt, workplace burnout, and millennials’ astronomical levels of anxiety and hopelessness.

The section on millennials’ childhood is especially engrossing. Petersen uses the concept of “concerted cultivation” to explain how the parenting style of the previous generation sowed the seeds of the thorny relationship between millennials and work. Dispelling the popular trope of millennials refusing “to adult,” the book illustrates the very opposite: that millennials have been adulting since they were kids:

“The child’s schedule takes precedence over parents’; the child’s well-being and future capacity for success is paramount; baby food should be homemade; toddler play should be enriching; private tutors should be enlisted if necessary…Every part of the child’s life should be optimized to better prepare them for their entry into the working world.”

And, of course, the first step toward that world is education. Here, too, Petersen is masterful in foreshadowing the inevitable burnout. She describes millennials as the “first generation to fully conceptualize themselves as walking college resumes.” Because — you guessed it — getting into college (let alone paying for it) isn’t as easy for them as it was for boomers.

Getting a job isn’t as easy, either. Can’t Even offers an excellent analysis of how millennials graduated into the “worst job market in 80 years,” one with an excessive list of demands:

“To be valued, you need plans, lengthy resumes, ease and confidence interacting with authority figures, and innate understanding of how the job ladder works. You need connections and a willingness to multitask, and an eagerness to overschedule.”

Not to mention that being groomed to find a job one is “passionate” about created a toxic mentality disconnected from the realities of the working world. Fracturing the cliché that millennials heedlessly hop from one job to another, Petersen shows how it was boomers who instilled the “one’s work is one’s identity” mantra into their children. With that conflation came the predictable — and incredible — stress millennials feel about their careers.

One thing missing in Can’t Even is a broad discussion of how class factors into the boomer/millennial dynamic; the author only briefly suggests that concerted cultivation is, in part, a reflection of class anxiety. That is, while only wealthy boomers may have been able to afford things like private tutors, less-affluent boomers could at least sacrifice all their time and limited resources in the name of their child’s future success.

Speaking of time, Can’t Even presents a thoughtful commentary on free time. Connecting it to the groan-inducing “unstructured free time” term from child psychology, Petersen’s conversations with adult millennials are moving and unsettling. These people can’t even have fun: “Any down time began to feel like I was being lazy and unproductive, which in turn made me question my self worth,” one subject shares. So much for the popular image of the carefree, brunchin’ millennial.

The moments when Can’t Even grapples with the burnout that has now become the hallmark of the millennial generation are insightful and leave the reader hungry for more. I, for one, would’ve been happier with fewer statistics and more of those first-person testimonials. Nevertheless, like a good millennial, Petersen has done her homework.

Can’t Even is a must-read both for millennials and the generation that made them. In the immortal words of Tupac, “I was given this world; I didn’t make it.” This book illustrates exactly that: that millennials are living in a world that’s a far cry from the one they were groomed to inhabit. And all that hard work they were taught would lead to a better life has led, instead, to nothing but a need to work even harder.

Show Me the Money: Representation of Women + Capital in Media

My article for District Fray Magazine

Shakira sang about she wolves in the closet, which (albeit not) might as well have been a reference to the absence of popular media portrayal of the She Wolves of Wall Street. Kept pent up for far too long, women’s roars are finally falling on some eager ears. 

In reality and on screen, Wall Street has been a boy’s club. Not only are women less represented, but they are also less remunerated. Citi — one of the world’s largest banks– reported in 2019 that its female employees earn 29 percent less than its male employees globally.

But women are wresting the wads away from the dominant grasp in some surprising ways, including starting their own investing clubs and creating new enterprises during the pandemic.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, here are some bankable portrayals of women and money:

  1. Equity–is a corporate thriller that follows Naomi Bishop, an investment banker working on the IPO launch of a Silicon Valley company. While taut and engaging (and thrilling), it is also a very sophisticated exploration of the power dynamics on Wall Street between and among genders. One of the most memorable lines from the movie is Naomi’s deadpan, “I like money.” Taking a Wall Street opening bell hammer to the groan-inducing gold-digger trope, director Meera Mennon, portrays women as enjoying the competition, the chaos, the hard work of their careers but the perks, too (hello, enviable power wardrobe). And while Naomi’s character has been a caretaker for those around her, she reminds us that “Don’t let money be a dirty word. We can like that, too.”
  2. Drug Short on Netflix’ “Dirty Money”–Dubbed the “femme fatale of short trading,” Fahmi Quadir, a brilliant short seller who left a Ph.D. program in algebraic mathematics for a career on Wall Street, takes on drug behemoth Valeant…and wins.The recent Gamestop kerfuffle and techbro Elon Musk’s relentless Twitter beef has shorted short sellers, portraying them as predatory. Fahmi is a testament to a different kind of a short seller–one who looks to identify corporate malfeasance and (yes) reap the rewards. When she says, “I do my work in the shadows,” she is referring to the fact that short selling is sleuthing and hours of poring over quarterly earnings reports. In other words, you won’t find the kind of information Quadir unearths readily available and even less so revealed by the companies themselves. Short selling is especially male-dominated, so this documentary on a world understood by very few is illuminating: “All short sellers are outsiders. And women are especially outsiders in this world,” says Quadir.
  3. Capital in the 21st Century–”We have a mythology that what’s good for Wall Street is good for Main Street, but that’s really never been true,” says Rana Foroohar, financial journalist associate editor of the Financial Times, in this documentary take on Thomas Piketty’s tome of a book. Foroohar’s commentary features prominently in the film. And her recently-released bookDon’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech” is a searing indictment of the extent to which tech behemoths are monetizing our data.
  4. Bethany McLean’s podcast “Making a Killing” Known for her book “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” journalist and contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine, McLean takes issues you may think you understand and complicates them, featuring clever titles like “Keynes was wrong. Gen Z will have it worse.” Her more recent 2018 book “Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World” is also thoroughly engrossing and a must-read for the energy heads out there.

While portrayals of women in finance have been scarce, the tide is certainly turning, as is the cash flow, with more women asserting their seat at the table at this former boys’ bastion.

Book Review: The Horror is Us by Justin Sanders (Editor)

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

Riffing on that famous quip that “horror is other people,” the authors in this slim, affecting anthology from Baltimore-based Mason Jar Press speak of the horror that is us. The stories are pithy — most run just a few pages — but powerful in their parsimony.

Laura Walker’s “A Trick of Uncertain Light,” for instance, at first appears to be a simple tale of a girl stranded in a car on a dark desert road who encounters a guy driving a tow truck. But she’s not a girl in a car; she is “a rabbit feeling the primal liquid-boned fear of desert prey.” And the man in the truck hasn’t stopped out of concern. “Something’s not right. I can feel it the way you can sense the threat of storm when the wind kicks up before the clouds start rolling in.”

The imagery is evocative: “He cuts off my response, slices into the fear of the moment, spilling it.” Fear is spilling toward an inexorable end here, one that is not described and, hence, looms even larger. “Besides, there are things that bullets can’t stop from happening.”

Abigail Teed’s “Rise” and “The Pine Witch” by Alexandria Baker are both about a return to something from the past. The former has Native American mythological elements, while the latter features Wiccan notes. Continuing the theme of the everyday gone awry, the coven in “The Pine Witch” isn’t too far removed from members of a sorority house, sort of like a modern (and far less corny) take on the 1996 supernatural-thriller movie “The Craft.” As with other stories in the collection, the menace is unnamed — and thus all the more terrifying — and the words relentless in their simplicity: “I closed my eyes and reveled in the smell of burning flesh.”

Another brilliant offering is Justin Sanders’ “Baphomet and Blue,” about a Neo-Nazi death cult. The subject matter is all too believable and seemingly plucked from the headlines — police racism and brutality — but it’s given a sinister twist. A music fest turns brutal as participants wreak havoc and enact the violent reality idealized in the songs. As the author points out, “White power music is the number one method for recruiting new members.” Evil sometimes wears a badge instead of a pentagram.

Comic-book writer Scott Bryan Wilson’s “The Enthusiastic Butcher” is a keen dissection of our social-media-obsessed world. Its protagonist cuts deeper and deeper into himself (on several levels) in a vanity-fueled quest for attention and an escape from a life of loneliness. “He was like a king washed up on a desert island, his subjects sending him messages in bottles.”

The tale is a trenchant commentary on the terrifying ways in which we as a society keep pushing beyond boundaries personal, ecological, and global. The first cut is the deepest — or not, it seems to suggest.

Though spare, The Horror Is Us is nonetheless incisive and provocative. Its stories are smartly curated and fleshy, making it a must-read for any fan of the horror genre in its most modern iteration.

Book Review: You Exist Too Much: A Novel by Zaina Arafat

My review of the Washington Independent Review of Books

Love addiction is vividly brought to life in this exceptional debut.

Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much is an engrossing character study of a young, bisexual Palestinian American woman. Much more than an exploration of intersecting lines and identities, the debut novel revels in their clouding: “Ambiguity was an unsettling yet exhilarating space…I enjoyed occupying blurred lines.”

This is not a book about isms, however; it is squarely centered on its unnamed protagonist, whose voice is enthralling. Oscillating between prescient self-awareness and oblivion, she transports readers into her rich emotional realm. Her identity is beautifully captured when she travels to Palestine with her mother, who “knows the rules instinctively, in that part of the world, and I only learn them by accident.”

While she fits in (mostly), she also doesn’t: “Anytime I heard of another Arab girl’s engagement, it snapped me out of my gayness.” Her parents’ fraught relationship is also wryly captured: “If my mother was Hamas — unpredictable, impulsive, and frustrated at being stifled — my father was Israel. He’d refuse to meet her most basic needs until she exploded.”

While the book engages with both the narrator’s heritage and her queerness, it is ultimately a story about love addiction. Lest you groan in anticipation of high doses of schmaltz or wince at the prospect of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” being stuck in your head (sorry, not sorry), the novel’s brilliant exposé on a real psychological condition will leave you, well, addicted and wanting more.

Arafat’s description of the protagonist’s stint in a rehab program to treat her anorexia and love addiction is one of the best accounts of the rehab experience I have ever read. The writing is precise, keen, and relies on observation and no pathos, which is somewhat odd considering the subject matter. It is also well-researched. Arafat reveals love addiction for what it is — codependency, which she defines as “the inability to have a healthy relationship with the self.”

The protagonist is in love with being in love, which puts her on a never-ending Don Quixote-like quest in pursuit of the feeling. And much like Quixote, she is chasing chimeras:

“When love addicts develop a relationship with the object of their affections, they stop seeing who that person actually is, but instead focus on a fantasy image.”

Arafat captures why this addiction is particularly damaging, rejecting anyone’s glib dismissal of it as a made-up disorder. The protagonist’s emotional gyrations are captured powerfully: “I had been clinging to her I love yous like a refugee clings to a threatened nationality.”

The author writes about other characters in the rehab program with compassion and depth, too. There aren’t many books about recovery from this particular addiction — less flashy, perhaps, than drug or sex addiction — which gives the book a bright spark.

You Exist Too Much tackles bisexuality with equal care. The title is what the protagonist’s mother says when her daughter comes out, and its interpretation is rich in ambiguity: The Palestinian mother would never have had the permission or space to be anything but heterosexual. She interprets her daughter’s orientation as a demand for the right to live free of old constraints. But the phrase is also an incisive commentary on the daughter’s fixation on unavailable objects of affection and her lust for a life filled with emotional highs.

This novel is truly captivating. I read it several times over and found something new each time. Arafat’s writing extracts emotion from every word and builds vast psychological landscapes. One of the best releases in 2020, it cements Zaina Arafat’s position in the ranks of Carmen Maria Machado and Lydia Yuknavitch. I cannot wait to see what she will offer readers next.

A Spotlight on The DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival

My article for District Fray Magazine

For the past 10 years, the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival has celebrated Palestinian culture. It has been an umbilical cord to a motherland that increasingly lives on only in the hearts and minds of its people driven into diaspora. The festival has not only been a border-defying place to hear often-unheard voices, but it has preserved traditions imperiled by extinction. It has reaffirmed a sense of identity and community for Palestinians the world over, and offered a look behind forbidding walls.

Founded in 2011 by three women – Noura Erakat, Huda Asfour, and Nadia Daar – it has showcased both local and international artists and been hosted by Busboys and Poets, the Kennedy Center, the Goethe Institute, and Studio Theatre. This year, like the diasporic culture it represents, it has gone beyond the confines of a space and into the virtual realm. Though the festival ran from October 1-10, you can still stream the films, watch the lectures, and support through volunteering and donating.

The festival has highlighted a variety of creative mediums. This past summer, the organization hosted four cooks who offered free cooking and culinary history lessons for Sufra Sundays. Two female Palestinian DJs played free sets this year, and previous years have offered Dabke dancing lessons and breakdancing.

One of the highlights of the festival was Tatreez & Tea. Wafa Ghnaim, the author of the book “Tatreez & Tea” and the creative mind behind Palestinian embroidery workshops, explains the origins.

“I started Tatreez & Tea in 2015 as an oral history documentation project,” Ghnaim says. “My mother has been teaching tatreez since she came to the United States in the 1980s and, before that, she taught at refugee camps.”

Tatreez is an Arabic word meaning embroidery. Palestinians are renowned for their cross-stitching, which shines amongst the already very rich textile traditions of the Levant.

“I learned tatreez, not embroidery,” Ghnaim adds. “To say ‘tatreez’ is a true reclamation of the practice.”

In the Palestinian tradition, tatreez is passed down from mother to daughter. This is why it is such a strong thread to family and identity.

“Initially, I never saw it as a special skill because I learned tatreez when I was a young child. It was just such a natural thing and something that was always around me. My mother had dreamt of writing a book, and I wanted to make her dream a reality.”

In 2015, Ghnaim applied to a number of grants and received every one of them.

“I was a no-name coming on the scene. My mom was really the traditional artist and cultural worker. I took this as a sign that I should really do this.”

The festival’s intersectional orientation is another way in which it differs from other festivals. Bhasma Ghalayini, the editor of “Palestine +100: Stories from a Century After the Nakba,” shares the process of creating this first anthology of Palestinian science fiction.

“When I was growing up in the Gaza Strip, we had very limited access to books or films,” Ghalayini says. “You had to ask people traveling abroad to bring you back those things. I was working as a translator for Comma Press, a British publishing company, which had released “Iraq + 100,” a book that posed the question of what Iraq would look like in 2103. I wanted to do a similar project with Palestinian writers. The Nakba in 1948 displaced 700,000 Palestinians. This catastrophe that all Palestinians have a connection to seemed like an appropriate date on so many levels.”

Sci-fi is a new genre for the writers featured in the collection.

“We are not used to writing about anything in an imaginative context because it feels like it is almost too much of a luxury to write about the future,” Ghalayini adds. “But if you think about it, the current situation has all the makings of a dystopian future: siege, surveillance, lack of resources and water, pollution.”

The DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival offered a diversity of perspectives, and a thoughtfully and lovingly curated glimpse of talent and creativity that bursts beyond any physical walls. Learn more about the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival and like the festival on Facebook.

Decoding Dog Behavior in D.C. Parks

My article for District Fray Magazine

Longtime D.C. resident and fourth-year PhD student in George Washington University’s Department of Anthropology, Courtney Sexton studies the coevolution of humans and dogs. She is particularly interested in nonverbal communication and behavior.

Sexton’s graduate program requires students to undertake an internship in the public understanding of science, promoting how to present scientific information to nonscientific audiences. When her internship project got funded by the D.C. chapter of the Awesome Foundation, she knew she was on to something.

“D.C.’s dogs and dog parks have been a controversial topic,” she says, “less so because of the dogs and more so because of their human guardians.”

She started thinking about the project at a time when the public discourse around dog ownership and public space was particularly contentious. And while many dog owners are aware of their responsibilities to their animal companions, they may perhaps be less aware of what their animal friends are trying to communicate to them.

This is how Decoding Dog Talk was born. Before the start of the pandemic, Courtney planned to host a series of Tail Talk tables at dog parks and recreation areas across the city where residents could get free information, diagrams and mini demos to help them learn basic principles of dog behavior.

“Most humans are not in tune to the subtleties of dogs’ language,” she explains. “Hint: Not all tail wags are created equally. Being armed with even a basic understanding of dog behavior could reduce stress on the animals and increase their quality of life – [which is] always a challenge for city pets – and help to avoid complications and confrontations with neighbors and other members of the community.”

After the fur-ruffling that New York Times article “The Dog Park is Bad, Actually” caused, this sounds like a much-needed thing to yap about. Dog parks are great places for play, but they certainly have downsides as well.

“The reason why I would like to be there for those Tail Talks is it’s hard to give general advice. The context is critical to understanding the body language of the dogs. Not all tail wags are happy. Also, the owners tend to space out while their dogs are constantly looking to them for guidance on how to handle social situations.”

Sexton says the way humans often view social and antisocial behaviors in dogs is quite wrong.

“I hope to impart on folks the importance of the contextual clues in body language and the trigger warnings that hint their dog is about to get into a fight,” she adds.

The fights between dogs can sometimes lead to their learning inappropriate behaviors like bullying – and then repeating those behaviors outside the park. Knowing how to recognize signs of aggression and learning how to control the dogs in that case is especially important. Simple obedience commands are critical in a dog park environment. While Decoding Dog Talk is on hold, learning about dog communication is definitely barking up the right tree. And as Covid restrictions lessen, Sexton plans to starting hosting safe, socially distant Tail Talk Tables.

“I was actually able to host one socially distanced Tail Talk Table at the Virginia Ave Dog Park a couple of weeks ago, and it went great.”

Learn more about Sexton’s project here and listen to her speak on the topic here

Book Review: The Pleasure Plan by Laura Zam

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

This honest account of a quest for pain-free intimacy pulls no punches.

With its pink-purse cover and self-help-conjuring title, Laura Zam’s The Pleasure Plan has the auspices of yet another treatise on the elusive art of sexual-spark kindling. And while there can never be enough books written on the topic, this one has a slightly different audience in mind — namely, those of us too “broken” for a conventional sex book and for whom there is nothing normal or conventional about intercourse.

Not to mention that this book is more a quest to avoid pain than to find pleasure in the face of dyspareunia, vaginismus, or sexual aversion disorder. As the author puts it, “I have every hooha hangup in the DSM.” Though the condition affects between 10 and 20 percent of women, the author herself didn’t know it had a name — or names — until she was in her 40s.

Lest you’re inclined to think that incredibly painful intercourse is no big deal, people with disorders like vaginismus often cannot even wear tampons. Psychologically, they experience during sex something akin to PTSD. Intercourse is “like being a virgin every single time. Madonna, this is not sexy,” the author explains. And since sex is the lingua franca of our society, you can surmise what a death knell this can be for relationships.

The book — which grew, in part, out of the author’s “Modern Love” essay in the New York Times — starts on a happy note: Zam has met and married her husband, Kurt, but hasn’t told him about her “hooha hangups.”

Insert screeching-halt noise here.

You might be wondering how someone could not know his partner isn’t only not having a particularly good time in bed but is enduring lightning-bolt levels of pain. You might also wonder why the author hasn’t revealed this fact to the love of her life.

This dynamic is less a commentary on Zam’s particular relationship than an indictment of the social norms that drive women to literally grin and bare it. These norms also discourage women from admitting to anything other than a perfect sex life. As Zam puts it, “Privacy has stolen my life force.”

But tell her partner she does, and she goes a step further, undertaking the Sisyphean task of trying to remedy her problem. Like a lot of us “broken” ones, however, as a survivor of childhood trauma, she first must untangle how much of the issue is psychological, how much is physical, and how much is both — a case of “my mind is telling me yes, but my body is screaming a hell no.”

Zam begins a tortuous tour of 15 specialists, exploring EFT (emotional freedom techniques), hypnosis, tantra, trauma therapy, group couples’ workshops, pelvic-floor physical therapy, vaginal weights, and dilators. Unfortunately, vaginismus is poorly understood and difficult to treat, and the situation isn’t helped by various medical professionals’ dismissive stances.

For example, a hypnotist asked Zam pointedly, “You do want to stay married, right?” before doling out the several-hundred-dollar advice to “Just do it.” A sex therapist refuses to see Zam before sending her to a physical therapist first because “she doesn’t deal with vaginal pain.”

(Please, dear reader, don’t start in about how patient Kurt must be for going through this with her. Enough about others. Let’s talk about us, not the long-suffering partners we have a really hard time finding in the first place.)

While Zam’s book is filled with levity — which I interpret as “laughing to keep from crying” — there’s nothing funny about being in so much pain that every attempt at intimacy feels like something to be endured. “Do I love Kurt in these moments? I don’t know. I am too far away to notice,” writes the author. “I strap down my animal sadness so I don’t saturate the bed with the wrong kind of moisture.”

Zam interweaves into The Pleasure Plan stories of her family and growing up as a commentary on trauma and resilience. It makes for engrossing reading and, likely, some vigorous nodding in agreement from people who identify as female and who, like the author, laugh to keep from crying.

Although the clinical term of “vaginismus brought on by fear of penetration” is one way to describe the Hydra she is fighting, “I don’t want anything inside me” captures it more aptly. In its face, Zam perseveres long after most would have given up. At times, the methods of the “healers” she consults are downright hilarious, such as the cringe-worthy approach of “repeating vapid, lascivious language while in a pseudotrance.” (No, it doesn’t work.)

The response to Zam’s book has been overwhelmingly positive, and she has been praised for her bravery in writing it. Of course, a subset of critics harps on Kurt’s patience and understanding. But forget him for a moment. This is about her pain, remember?

The Pleasure Plan isn’t a quest for pleasure. It is an attempt to contend with physical and social pain — the pain of being rejected as a weirdo too broken to repair. Sex is enormously important in our society. If one can’t function sexually, is one doomed to a lifetime of loneliness?

The book is full of questions and exercises to help readers develop their own plan and asks, “Where are you stuck in your sexual healing?” Alas, this presupposes that we all want to become unstuck, when many of us have simply dropped out of the, er, marketplace altogether. Maybe in her next book, Zam could address some alternate forms of relationships where intimacy is not expressed through intercourse alone, open relationships, or even asexuality.

Despite this small cavil, The Pleasure Plan is a must-read not just for people affected by dyspareunia, but for anyone interested in learning more about a complicated condition foreign to most. The book will move you and keep you reading no matter your gender or “hooha hangups” — or lack thereof.

A Solid Foundation: Why has the housing market weathered the economic downturn so well?

My article for the Kogod School of Business

A wave of pandemic-induced uncertainty has thrown a pall over America’s economic performance, yet one sector remains a defiant shade of rose against a generally dark background. Why are home sales rebounding so quickly, with some locations reporting a return to the days of bidding wars? Is this a meaningful and lasting trend or simply a function of limited data from which to draw conclusions? “I think everyone in the industry is asking themselves what the new normal will be after such a cataclysmic event,” says Professor Steven Teitelbaum, who teaches Kogod’s Real Estate Development class and works in transit-oriented development and smart growth.

At the beginning of the pandemic in March, home sales fell by 8.5 percent as potential buyers lost their jobs, contended with economic uncertainty, or simply avoided moving due to health concerns. Existing home sales in April fell by almost 18 percent, but prices rose 7.4 percent compared to a year ago.

What could explain why basic supply-and-demand principles don’t seem to apply here? A huge drop in demand should put downward pressure on prices as the market sways in the buyers’ favor. But in this case, while demand dropped, so did supply. Sellers withdrew from the market for the same reasons that buyers did. New home listings fell dramatically after the stay-at-home orders, with estimates ranging from 29 percent to higher than 50 percent.

The drops in supply and demand were generally proportional to each other, but the lower number of transactions made it more difficult to analyze how prices moved in aggregate. “Data is so scarce that one blip sends things teetering toward one end or the other. It is hard to come by meaningful averages,” explains Teitelbaum.

Limited housing supply is likely to be a more prominent issue in certain areas. The pandemic has also affected new build construction. Professor Kim Luchtenberg, professor of finance and real estate, says, “The DC area will remain relatively sheltered from a real estate sector downturn because housing is in such limited supply. This will keep prices high, so buyers will not see much change.”

The number of homes listed for sale in the DC metro area dropped more than 37 percent compared to April 2019, resulting in the lowest inventory in the past 10 years.

A decrease in overall home sales has a number of effects. Home sales generate much spin-off economic activity. Local governments rely on revenue from deed transfer taxes to fund public services. Occupations like real estate agents, home inspectors, and other agents lose streams of income, as do support services like moving companies, furniture and appliance stores, landscapers, and maintenance technicians.

From a social perspective, people often buy homes when relocating for work, having children, getting married, or downsizing for retirement. An economic downtown that makes homeownership inaccessible may delay many of these milestones. For example, the Great Recession caused delayed household formation among young adults.

A much more grave concern is what will happen to the homeowners affected by the general economic downturn. “Foreclosures and mortgage defaults are sure to happen once the protection period ends,” says Luchtenberg. No one is sure how this will affect the real estate industry or the economy as a whole.

With so much turmoil in the stock markets and retail and hospitality real estate markets, plus general economic uncertainty, are investors attracted to the seemingly untouchable residential real estate sector? Luchtenberg and Teitelbaum concur that this trend is afoot, but in an unusual permutation—investment in single-family home rentals. This was the case immediately following the 2008 collapse, and currently, these kinds of rentals are one of the fastest-growing investment vehicles both for large corporations and individual investors. “The second-best option to owning a home is renting a single-family unit. Investors see that,” says Teitelbaum. Luchtenberg is currently writing a research paper on this phenomenon as well.

While understanding the “new normal” seems like an impossible proposition, in the DC area, at least, the old normal of a robust residential real estate market remains.