Thursday, June 28, 2012

I found another treasure

Check out my friend Kristin's blog post and short film  There's Something Inside about a magical day last year where her daughter Magnolia played with Wally in the empty yard near our house.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bowling with other people

I'm reading Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. It's one of those books that I periodically refer to in conversation without having properly read (I've only skimmed, poked around). And since lately I've been referring to it more and more as I think about the pervasive loss of community and how to rebuild it, I figured it was time to actually read it. The guy is a Harvard professor and lives near where I grew up in Massachusetts. He talks examines the factors that contributed to "the erosion of social capital" and in an initiative to encourage civic participation called Better Together at the Kennedy School of Government he makes some good suggestions for reversing the trend. I wanted to direct you to this list of his 150 THINGS YOU CAN DO TO BUILD SOCIAL CAPITAL. Here are a few of my favorites:

7. Start a front-yard/community garden
51. Eat breakfast at a local gathering spot on Saturdays
55. Host a block party or a holiday open house  
66. Say "thanks" to public servants – police, firefighters, town clerk…
75. Volunteer at the library
79. Ask neighbors for help and reciprocate
93. Assist with or create your town or neighborhood's newsletter
102. Cut back on television
109. Pick it up even if you didn’t drop it
113. Hire young people for odd jobs
134. Help kids on your street construct a lemonade stand***

I especially love #101 "Greet people". This sounds like a point that would be made in Life for Dummies. It's kinda obvious, yet not as common as you might think. I myself am always greeting people. But the return hit rate is so low. The number of people who in return scowl, ignore, grunt, groan, push by or glare is just infuriating. And if you think it's a city thing, it's not at all. It's actually much worse in the suburbs or country where people are often really skeptical of strangers. The worst is on the playground when you smile at someone's kid. The kid runs to his or her parent and the parent looks at you with total distrust, like, Why are you smiling? What are you trying to sell? Are you planing an abduction? Is this a trap?

Just today at a playground in the suburbs of Boston Wally tried to join 5 or 6 different kids and all refused to say hello and ran off or ignored him. Then the same happened with the grownups (he just kept trying again and again). At one point he was trying to engage a whole family in playing on a fire truck. It was this morose, dour group of four, it's not like they were even laughing or talking to each other. But anyway, I did feel like maybe he was a little bit close--having a different concept of personal space because of growing up in NY--but they just flat out ignored him. the parents made suggestions to the kids about heading off to different parts of the playground. "Why don't you go on the slide?" "Why don't you go on the swings?" while Wally stood there asking if anyone wanted to help with a rescue.

So anyway, greeting people is a nice way to start with rebuilding social capital and getting out of an isolationist, distrusting mindset. Lots of people won't greet you back, (they may even scatter off to the remote parts of the playground), but the important part is you are friendly. I have to admit I am so tempted to start scowling at certain neighbors (Alex refers to them generally as "mugs"). It's just like -- I give up! I don't want to say "Hi" and smile and be met with your mug. But who wants to give them so much power? Smile anyway, like "build anyway" in the poem always wrongly attributed to Mother Theresa.

Speaking of civic engagement -- this afternoon we are off to The Lion's Club Fair. I haven't been to it probably since senior year of high school.The Lion's Club is one of those really old-fashioned civic groups. Unlike many of the ones Putnam talks about, it seems to still be going strong, with 1.35 million members worldwide. These sorts of things always had an antiquated sort of feel to them. I remember a few high school dances held at the old Maynard Elks Club with its wood-paneled rooms, a musty carpet. I was probably quick to dismiss them, to see them as a dying breed--which they were. Now I am more interested. 

As Robert Putnam writes "In the end, however, institutional reform will not work--indeed it will not happen--unless you and I, along with our fellow citizens, resolve to become reconnected with our friends and neighbors. Henry Ward Beecher's advice a century ago to 'multiply picnics' is not entirely ridiculous today. We should do this, ironically, not because it will be good for America--though it will be--but because it will be good for us."

Maybe I'll see you out there at the Lion's Club Fair. We can play skee ball together. I will recognize you by the fact that you don't scowl.

**All taken from Better Together, is an initiative of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Books that make me feel hopeful

Here are some children's books that promote the themes of green and simple living, community revitalization, protecting children from commercialism, jumping off the hyper-parenting bandwagon (or Bugaboo Donkey Mono stroller as it were--real name). "Mono" means for one kid - as in, your everyday, average, regular old stroller that's for one kid, not two, in other words, a stroller, but this one will run you between $1100 and $1600, depending on extras.)

We face the sun, its light and warmth, as we live our days.
On Earth by G. Brian Karas is a lovely tour of the planet we live on, its seasons and years, and how we grow, spinning on its axis and around the sun as "night becomes day, summer becomes winter, and years go by".

Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus, pictures by Jose Aruego is a great anti-Tiger Mom manifesto, so well-suited to that role, in fact, that it features a Tiger who won't bloom. Everyone else is reading, writing, drawing and he's just putzing around, stressing his father out. Finally his dad lays off him and stops with the pressure and comparisons. It still takes a while, and nothing seems to be happening all winter. Even in spring, with flowers bursting from the trees, no blossoms from Leo. "Then one day, in his own good time, Leo bloomed!"

My third-grade teacher Norma Elias gave this book to Wally a few months ago. She was very understanding about kids learning at their own pace. The only tricky thing is I find it hard to explain "bloomed" to a four-year-old. You don't want to say it's learning how to do all this stuff like read and write and eat without leaving a trail of smooshed grapes behind you. But "coming into your own" doesn't make a whole lot of sense, either. But I think the overall message is still very effective-- that you can't force someone to jump across some developmental milestone. And that there really is no rush with these things. In fact the opposite is often true -- kids "forced" to read early show reluctance to read in first grade. 

When that sun has dropped from view, Mama's going to read a book with you.

Hush Little Baby by Sylvia Long is a rewrite of the famous lullaby, but instead of promising material stuff (buying rings, a looking glass, a cart and bull -- who has the room these days?) the mom sings about experiences she can share with her baby, like watching the sunset, singing songs and cuddling in bed. As the author writes "It seems much healthier to encourage children to find comfort in the natural things around them and the warmth of a mother's love."

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown was apparently inspired by The High Line. A dreary, gray city where no one much goes out turns into a beautiful, vibrant green wonderland thanks to a boy named Liam who sees potential in plants pushing through an abandoned railway track. In this review in The New York Times, Urban Nature Boy, Sherie Posesorski writes, "As all good, enduring stories are, “The Curious Garden” is a rich palimpsest. Echoing the themes of “The Secret Garden,” it is an ecological fable, a whimsical tale celebrating perseverance and creativity, and a rousing paean, encouraging every small person and every big person that they too can nurture their patch of earth into their very own vision of Eden."

Good night, laila tov by Laurel Snyder Illustrated by Jui Ishida is a sweet, gentle book about a family taking a trip first to the ocean, then to a field where they plant some trees, and then into the woods where they camp in a rainstorm. On the way back, the kids are holding the nature treasures they've collected jars. At home, the parents fall asleep first, and the kids tuck them in.

And finally, Take Time to Relax by Nancy Carlson. In it, this family of three is always racing around to work and computer class and aerobics, wolfing down dinner in the car and spending the weekends cleaning and catching up, exhausted by Sunday night. A snowstorm keeps them housebound, and they realize they can not only survive without racing off to work or an organized activity, they actually like being around each other, eating popcorn, playing guitar and telling stories. 

Thanks to all these authors for sticking to what amounts to a rather subversive message these days, that time with family and friends and in nature is more valuable than possessions, building your resume, or enhancing your "status". That you are free to develop at your own pace, and that we are lucky to be here on this spinning earth, that we won't always be, and that we should remember to be grateful. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"America's Worst Mom" takes Wally for a walk

What if she's going to tie him with weights and throw him out into the middle of the lake? Are there sharks? Is that quicksand? Has the water been sanitized? 

Here's Wally last weekend with "Free-Range generalissimo" and "America's Worst Mom" Lenore Skenazy. We were by this little lake and she was explaining that if Wally  were to jump on the lily pads they probably wouldn't hold him up. Plus he might hurt the lily pads. 

Lenore has a show on TLC showing pretty much everywhere but here in the U.S. where it's most desperately needed. How could the media show it? They want us to be terrified of all the hidden dangers that lurk around every corner (even though it's safer now than it was in the 70s, and safer for kids by far than in most areas of the world). Forget refusing to let your kids walk around the neighborhood by themselves at 6 or stay home alone at 10 like you did. You have to start overprotecting them way before that. Judging from Babies r' Us, just learning how to walk, for example, must be one of the most extreme sports known to man. As Lenore said in an interview with Salon: "Kids have been toddling — it’s a whole stage we actually call toddlerhood — ever since we started walking upright, which has been a pretty successful experiment for the human species. But now you’re supposed to think that it’s too dangerous for a kid to do without extra protection and without extra supervision and without this stupid thing you can buy."

In person she's just like you'd expect from her blog and vlog and book and TV show which is sweet and funny, sarcastic, quick-witted, and a little bit neurotic, too. She's definitely not one of those Brazilian-style --let the kid find out a fire's hot by touching it-- type moms. (Okay, "Brazilian mom" is a bit of a generalization. I am basing this on Alex's mom.) In fact, she worries a fair amount, especially around real dangers like water and car accidents. I told her I did too, and yet I agree with almost everything she says in her book and on her blog, that we have got to stop acting like our kids might be in danger at any moment from milk that's not organic, plastic that's not BPA-free, a slide that goes too fast, a friendly neighbor offering a (possibly poisoned?) cookie, or a photograph of their soccer team that appears online (What is it with the fear of photography these days? Aren't the kids themselves visible in public, assuming no one carts them around with paper bags over their heads or whatever Michael Jackson did? So what is the presumed risk with an image captured on film?) That just goes to show how far the country has shifted, she says, that we are now in the laid-back camp of parenting, less anxious about most of this stuff than the rest of the people we know. That in itself is absolutely laughable.

Monday, June 18, 2012

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's someone eating seitan

Thinking more about quiet acts of revolution, I wanted to repost this article from The NYTimes blog by The Times Magazine's Food Columnist Mark Bittman called We Could Be Heroes from May 15. In response to Ariel Kaminer's challenge to readers of "The Ethicist" to argue the ethics of meat-eating, Bittman makes the case that the ethical question of killing animals for consumption is secondary to a debate over the meat industry's environmental impact. In short, industry farming is not a sustainable practice for many reasons, including: 

  • a massive contribution to greenhouse gases (between 20 and 50%), 
  • dwindling water supply (much more water required in beef production vs. wheat)
  • no room to put livestock (okay this is nuts, but nearly half the earth's land is related to raising livestock)

As Bittman writes: 

"If you believe that earth’s natural resources are limitless, which maybe was excusable 100 years ago but is the height of ignorance now, or that 'technology will fix it' or that we can simply go mine them in outer space with Newt Gingrich, I guess none of this worries you. But if you believe in reality, and you’d like that to be a place that your kids get to enjoy, this is a big deal."

The problem is, humans have proven time and again they don't believe in reality. According to a recent article in The Nation by Katha Pollitt one quarter "of Americans with graduate degrees believe dinosaurs and humans romped together before Noah’s flood."  

I don't know how you combat this on a large-scale. I mean, where do you even begin? Pollitt makes the point that "rejecting evolution expresses more than an inability to think critically; it relies on a fundamentally paranoid worldview. Think what the world would have to be like for evolution to be false. Almost every scientist on earth would have to be engaged in a fraud so complex and extensive it involved every field from archaeology, paleontology, geology and genetics to biology, chemistry and physics. And yet this massive concatenation of lies and delusion is so full of obvious holes that a pastor with a Bible-college degree or a homeschooling parent with no degree at all can see right through it."

Pollitt brings the argument around to global warming, successfully cast and rejected as "liberal myth" by Creationist Republicans. She quotes Kenneth Miller, a devout Catholic biology professor at Brown University: "To have a near majority essentially rejecting the scientific method is very troubling."

So where do we begin? Back to Bittman, who ends his article on an uplifting note, assuring us that there is a "simple solution" to the specific problem of livestock consumption and the toll it is taking on the planet. "We can tackle climate change without inventing new cars or spending billions on mass transit or trillions on new forms of energy, though all of that is not only desirable but essential.

In the meantime, we can begin eating less meat tomorrow. That’s something any of us can do, with no technological advances. If personal choice enacted on a large scale could literally save the world, maybe we have to talk about it that way. We could be heroes..."

The “Meatless Monday” movement is already underway. Laurie David, author of the fantastic cookbook The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, writes about it here. And today just happens to be, you guessed it, Monday. 

Have you ever noticed how pepperoni pizza always gets left and plain is always the first one to go?

(I actually really don't like seitan. And I should be a vegan, but I'm not. Maybe I'll start with Vegan Mondays or something.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Blessed be the fruit of the vine (what's left of it, in your freezer)

People are giving me skeptical looks when I mention carrying compost down to the West Village on Saturdays. I told them Alex isn't crazy about storing orange peels and rotten kale in the freezer, either. No one blames him. But I just really don't think it's that bad. I mean it's kind of like hamburgers or something. Many people scrunch up their noses at the idea of hunting an animal but would have no trouble eating that animal served in disguise with a side of fries. A lot of people I know feel bad about the vast amounts of organic materials that end up getting heaped unnecessarily into landfills, but they don't want to have to store it in their freezers, either. On Harvard's website there's a helpful little page called "Common Myths About Recycling" which debunks the theory that more trash is okay because we're not short on space to dump it. 

"As organic matter (anything that was once living) breaks down in a landfill, it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. By reducing the amount of organic material sent to the landfill, by composting, paper recycling, etc., you are helping to reduce greenhouse gases."

In this fascinating little video "Waste Removal" by Urban Omnibus, part of a series City of Systems, Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land says: 

"I think we could improve our waste management system by separating organic material. So if we compost the stuff, we'll avoid generating methane and we'll also make something nice to put back on the earth and regenerate our soils."

So, just a little plug for composting (in my opinion, the easy way, i.e., no worms crawling on your countertops), and -- for those of you in New York -- an updated list of collection points from GrowNYC.

Wally came in a minute ago as I was watching the video on Waste Removal linked above. He asked what I was doing. I said I was trying to get more people to join in with composting. He saw the garbage trucks and asked to see garbage philosophical or wise from him on the subject to throw in here. But, I will say, it was the first time ever that I was working on my blog where he asked me what I was up to, and I felt good about the answer. 

It's not by any means a "good" post. I'm not offering any insight or creating anything original. There's nothing here that you couldn't have found a zillion other places. It's really pretty mundane. When you peel carrots or forget to use the beautiful kale you bought last week at the farmers' market, put the scraps  into a plastic container in the freezer and, when you get a chance, bring them to a farmer's market. As I wrote on GrowNYC's blog post, if you bring your kids along, it's an "educational experience" for free. (Though they can almost always be free, these days "educational experiences" are usually attached to giant price tags, accompanied by play "facilitators" in a "stimulating, learning rich environment" you couldn't possibly recreate at home (or in the backyard). Wally loves telling people about how worms turn apple peels back into dirt. 

So, here's a (kind of) stay-at-home-mom just giving you a little bitta advice about the kitchen. The opposite of lofty, literary dreams that usually occupy my thoughts if not my writing. Which makes me think of a Chinese proverb I love. 

"The miracle is not to fly in the air or walk on water, but to walk on the earth."

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Quiet Acts of Revolution

Yesterday I was running out there on the river again, going really slow. I still enjoy it, but compared to where I was with “training” two years ago, I’ve lost momentum. It’s too hard to push Wally in the running stroller now. We no longer go to the YMCA. I want to use the 4 hours a day I have while Wally’s in school to get work done. So I don’t prioritize it, basically. I was getting better, and now I’m behind where I was. But still I go out there. I feel a lot of resistance, but I’m willing to face it.

As I ran up past the Intrepid, I thought how it was true with my blog, too. In the beginning it had momentum, and now that’s been lost. Two years ago there were lots of friends and even strangers who read it and commented on it and there was an energy, an ongoing discussion. That’s all but died out. And yet I keep writing, keep posting. There’s some kind of weird dream I can’t let go of, that I feel like I’m trying to keep up this chimerical narrative for. It’s one that imagines a childhood with more time, more imagination, more staring out windows, more impromptu picnics, more time to stalk fireflies. I can’t lay it to rest, even though I feel it hasn’t gotten anywhere. I’m behind where I was.

Last night I told Alex about how discouraged I felt about this blog. (Even he doesn’t read it!)

He said, “You never promote it.”

“Like what?”

“You don’t have advertisements, you hate those mom blog give away things, now you’re not on Facebook so no one even knows when you post.”

I’ve got to do a better job of selling it, he told me, if I want people to buy it. Free is worthless. Free has no place in a commodity system. Like free CDs people can’t give away on street corners. Free books left out by the trash.

If whatever message I’m trying to pass along is not gaining momentum or joining with messages of like-minded people, then is there any point to it? Am I “part” of any movement geared toward letting kids be kids if I’m still just writing mostly in a vacuum? Can I have a voice—a tiny one, almost imperceptible—if almost no one listens, if I’m not willing to join the market system (or able—to sell out, you have to first sell)?

In What Kids Really Want that Money Can’t Buy: Tips for Parenting in a Commercial World, Betsy Taylor offers many suggestions for “old-fashioned fun” that doesn’t require money or accumulating more stuff. She mentions starting a book club, organizing a block party, creating a toy lending library, using old clothes for dress-up (no one does that anymore, right? You buy new stuff for dress up, or use $75 dance costumes) birdwatching, stargazing, picking wildflowers.

At the end of the list she says  “Many of these simple things may seem a little unconventional now—even radical—although they weren’t in our parents’, or perhaps grandparents’, time. I often think the most revolutionary thing we can do is just slow down...”

I like that idea. That we can be revolutionaries, simply by slowing down. Doing things like making our own bread, repairing holes in clothing (I can’t really do either of those things), avoiding expensive cooking classes and letting kids make a mess in the kitchen instead, finding neighbors instead of arranging playdates, saving eating out at restaurants for special occasions – the stuff that every middle class family took for granted two generations ago– now these things are radical acts. This provides a different kind of framework for evaluating whether something is purposeful or not. Maybe it’s the wrong context that’s inhibiting me from taking a step forward, one that could make more of a contribution.

All around me there are people engaged in these quiet radical acts on a daily basis.

Dara (my sister), you are radical, for commuting an hour each way to work in the public school system, even though you have to use your own money to buy folders and rulers and colored pencils for the class, even though you have to put up with ridiculous testing mandates that distract from real learning, even though you have to endure evaluations based on the flashiness of a classroom and not how well students understand math and you don’t even have your own classroom. You are radical for pushing that cart full of text books around in between classes, for making your way the wrong way down the hall teeming with wild and defiant teenagers, with your light step and your gentle manner asking them to let you through. And Dara, you are radical, for not sending your kids to summer camp and instead facing the stares of disbelief from all your neighborhood friends. You are a quiet activist, for keeping them home in July and August reading Judy Blume books and making cookies for July 4th and taking them to the local playgrounds where now they invariable exclaim upon arrival, “We’re the oldest ones here, again.” (They are 6 and 8. All the kids their age are at camp.)

Alex, you are radical for answering a friend who said that now that you know IT stuff you could make a lot more money, “Why would I want to make more money? I love my job.”

A friend of mine homeschooling her children in New Hampshire, another friend who skipped in vitro when she waited too long to have a baby and adopted instead, a new friend whose child got a scholarship to a special needs school with a level of support he didn’t require who said – give the spot to someone who needs it - and chose to put her son in a public school instead, a friend of mine who holds onto number #5 plastics like Chinese takeout contains and cleans them out and hauls them from Brooklyn to Whole Foods in Manhattan because they won’t get recycled in the regular recycling bin, another friend who bypasses Dunkin’ Donuts on 8th ave and searches for a small, hole-in-the-wall dive bakery so she can support local shops, another who—despite two kids and a demanding job—always prioritizes her friends, never hides behind the guise of being too busy, another who waited an extra year before starting her child in school at the over-the-hill, you’ll never learn to read now, all hope is lost ancient age of “gasp” 4, to another who held a simple birthday party in the park despite the means to hire entertainment and erect a bouncy house and all that kind of stuff, all of you who ride your bike to work, who turn empty lots into community gardens, who downsize your house, who consent to worms in your house for a compost bin, who spend summers in a bungalow with peeling linoleum years after you could afford something much nicer, who let your kid play a sport he or she is terrible at, who deny your son or daughter the latest gadget everyone else has, who unplug for 24 hours every weekend. You are rebelling against a system intent on convincing you the key to happiness is earning more money and spending more money, no matter the cost to personal relationships, spiritual fulfillment, a sense of community, or the natural world.

Hosting simple birthday parties, playing with sidewalk chalk instead of taking an art class, refusing to shop at Costco or BJs, all of these are, sadly, becoming defiant acts. They are by nature discreet. Done without fanfare. There are no drumrolls, flashing lights, in most cases no pats on the back even for these quiet acts of revolution.

They don't get a lot of recognition, many of them no more than I’m giving here on this blog which itself gets hardly any at all. In fact, you’re part of a system that needs to suppress this kind of thing, that is bent on distraction from the joy to be found in quiet, in spending time with family, in serving others, in appreciating nature. For the corporate machine that controls our media, there is no advantage to be gained of in any of these things. 

“People who take more pleasure in talking with friends than in machines, commodities and spectacles are outrageous to the system.”

All of you who give stuff away on freecycle rather than selling it on ebay or, who take the job with half the salary if it means being home in time to eat dinner with your family, who leave a steady corporate job with its steady corporate paycheck to “do your own thing", who teach 17th century British literature to bored teenagers, who attend poetry readings, who write thank-you letters by hand, you are outrageous to the system, you who had a shot at fame and fortune and gave it up, you who write quietly in the dark words you don’t know if anyone will ever read, who hemorrhage money on your art or music without knowing if anyone will ever see it or listen, who do your best to block out the shrill voices of commercialism, the siren call of a bigger house, a better wardrobe, a fancier stroller that will impress more people. You who opt for the hand-me down clothes, the beat-up embarrassing stained stroller, you who choose to make dinner even though your kids will complain and beg for chicken nuggets, who invite a friend to sit on the porch rather than head to a bar, who choose the public school rather than private, even if it’s not the greatest, even if it doesn’t guarantee an Ivy League admission, you who take more pleasure in spending time with your child than reading the comments on the photo taken of you spending time with your child, you who wear the same dress to this wedding that you wore to the last one and the one before that, who walk instead of riding, who grow or make instead of buying, who resist the lure of magazine covers, Hollywood glamor, age-defying secrets, who resist the pull of activities that “enhance” resumes, who care little for the collecting of trophies, who let their kids – God forbid – go outside and play. You are all resistance fighters.

It’s discouraging sometimes, to have this utopian dream and meanwhile to feel like you’re planting carrot seeds that don’t grow, explaining algebra to kids who don't care, that you are always the schlumpiest and least well-dressed among your friends, to buy eco-friendly dish soap that costs 4 times as much and doesn’t generate any bubbles, to carry around a bag full of number 5 plastics, and meanwhile headlines are screaming “Raise the Next Steve Jobs” or “Birthday Parties for Under $300” or “10 Beauty Products Every Woman Should Own”. 

It can feel like we’re not getting anywhere, like we’re not changing anything, like no matter what we do the earth is heating up, public schools are  crumbling, kids in Cambodia are working for 5 cents a day so we can buy cute cheap clothes at Target and H&M. It feels like throwing sandbags at the flood. Quiet acts of desperation.

But given what we are up against (6 giant conglomerates now own 90% of mass media), throwing the sandbags is a heroic act. Like in that poem attributed to Mother Theresa, but really written by some unknown guy, “What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway.” 

It’s not easy, to stand against the current luring you out to the glistening promise of fortune and fame. And it’s especially discouraging when powerful forces of commercialism and materialism keep sweeping over you, seeming to wreck what it is you’re trying to build. You’re trying to live sustainably, reform education, think independently, fight misinformation, support local business, level the playing field, serve others, spend time with family and friends, give kids back their childhood, tread lightly on the earth. Those are great dreams to have. But day to day you’re out there, you’re soaking wet, your hands are dirty, the sea level is rising, there's no one else in sight, you’re outrageous to the system and the currents are strong. Not giving in is a radical act. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

It Starts with Ladybugs

After school a few weeks ago I took Wally to the Jefferson Market Library for a story time. He sat down on the floor with the other kids. (With only 3-4 pop ups per story.) He sang songs and did hand motions, glancing back at me to make sure I was doing them too. Afterwards the librarian Rebecca gave them a little craft to do. It was a ladybug on a leaf with googly eyes. 

The body, leaf and wings were already cut out. All you had to do, really, was rip the black paper into pieces for spots and antennas and then glue everything together.

As Wally started ripping the black paper, I looked around us on the rug. Other kids were watching as their moms and nannies ripped black paper. 

As Wally started gluing the body to the leaf and the wings to the body I saw kids watching their moms and nannies glue the body to the leaf and the wings to the body. 

I've heard nannies say they feel they have to do this. The parents want to see what the kids have done all day, the rationale goes. (But they won't get to with this method, will they?) They want to hang their kids artwork up on the fridge.

Wally only did one spot per wing. He did a slipshod job of coloring. One antenna was pointed down. The other was gigantic.

I tried to remember to praise Wally for his effort and not how incredible the ladybug was turning out. That wasn't hard.

You know how sometimes "bad" kid art is still really cute? Not so in this case. 

In the 2010 article Has Coddling an Entire Generation of Children Set Them Up for Failure?, David Rock wrote "It may be that we have failed a whole generation of children by telling them how special and great they are, and coddling them from doing anything too difficult (or dangerous). We've done this because psychologists have told us that self-esteem is important." He goes on to talk about status-seeking and "re-thinking self esteem", arguing that kids need to see themselves accomplish difficult stuff, not just be told that they're fantastic when they haven't done anything to prove that.

An article by Anna Patty called Helicopter parents not doing enough to let children fail, inspired David Rock to write his piece. Patty reports that "One of the first empirical studies on generational differences in work values shows Generation Y or the ''millennials'' (born between 1982 and 1999) are entering the workforce overconfident and with a sense of entitlement." 

Helicopter parents goes on to quote the professor who conducted the story, Jean Twenge at San Diego State University. Twenge says, "'More and more students are reaching university not knowing how to do things for themselves. Parents think they are helping young people by doing things for them but they are actually making them less independent.'"

See, it starts with ladybugs and ends up with calling your kids' professors for him/her and coming along for job interviews because they can't do anything by themselves.

Be part of the resistance with  me. Let kids make crappy ladybugs. Even in public. And put them up on the fridge. 

The one featured above has been on our fridge now for a while. It's probably time to take it down. It's really not that good.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Sending a Life Raft into Lake Wobegon

On the heels of that toss-off post about junk mail I came across "one of the best" graduation speeches I've ever read. Denise Schipani wrote about it on Mean Moms Rule. A High School English teacher named David McCullough gave it in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Here's the full transcript.

My favorite part:

"You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another-which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality - we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point - and we're happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that's the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it's "So what does this get me?"  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans.  It's an epidemic - and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.  And I hope you caught me when I said "one of the best."  I said "one of the best" so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition.  But the phrase defies logic.  By definition there can be only one best.  You're it or you're not.

If you've learned anything in your years here I hope it's that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning.  You've learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  (Second is ice cream…  just an fyi)  I also hope you've learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It's where you go from here that matters.
As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance..." 

Also I love how he draws attention to the exertion implied by the founding father's choice of the word "pursuit" in delineating our inalienable rights. David writes: "...quite an active verb, "pursuit"--which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube."

I love that it's catching on as a "controversial speech". Not that it should be controversial -- but with the way parents overindulge and worship their kids these days I can see why it would be. Either way I hope lots of people read it, and think about what he's trying to say. I've been thinking lately about how everyone seems to approach any opportunity or event with a  "What's in it for me?" type evaluation and how it's so disheartening, and unsatisfying, most of all for the "me" so intent on boosting him or herself up. To get where? I think he's absolutely on point that "Americans love accolades more than genuine achievement" and that the crazy competition and--I would add--the Facebook phenomenon of doing PR for your own life --has its roots in our "dread of mortality". I love that he had that balls to say that. So few people do. Denial of Death permeates and leads to all kinds of destructive behavior. Mentioning it is almost verboten (unless accompanied by a rosy picture of eternity). But fear of it doesn't evaporate, however much it's pushed to the side or left unaddressed. Like the people who claim not to be in a bad mood, but they're just seething and they ruin the night. 

Great advice from this guy. Wish I could meet him. (And here we trail off into hero worship again..."transference heroics"...I should reread Becker myself.)  

Junk Mail Travail

Sometimes junk mail is just annoying, like those Val-Pack coupon booklets for Sleepys' mattresses and Manhattan Taxi, other times misleading, appearing to be a bill when really it's just another offer for better APR, or maybe a good-guy organization that you already give to or just don't include on your list for whatever reason and basically don't need any reminders about. For good-guy groups or candidates I'm interested in I always ask them to email instead and most are responsive. I get off the list for a while, and then some signature or purchase or donation jump starts it all back up again. 

This is one of the creepier items I've received in the junk mail category. 

I waited way too long to look at it, so I guess I missed that 24-hour window for a God-given financial windfall (just so wrong, praying for money? Have these people ever laid eyes on the Bible or tried squeezing a camel through the eye of a pin?) One method I've co-opted recently is opening stuff, asking to be removed, and then sending back in the postage page envelope. So that's what I was about to do with this prayer rug when I just had to post about it. It's just too weird. Hmmm, I'm gonna check off... "A Closer Walk With Jesus"... and why not throw in "A New Car" while you're at it? 

According to the EPA junk mail breaks the scale at 4 million tons annually. Millions of tax dollars are hemorrhaged to get rid of it. Only a fifth of it gets recycled. 

Has anyone had success putting a stop to this? I know there is the National Do Not Mail list. Definitely worth signing up for. My sister tried catalog choice, which didn't seem to have much of an impact. The EPA has some good ideas here. Let me know if you have any more. It's this constant deluge, and I know I can recycle it without even opening it. But still it feels so wasteful, annoying and --as in the case of the prayer rug with Jesus' eyes that are closed but open as you stare at them (it works, I tried it)-- downright disturbing.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How to fall down

I have a friend who has a problem she chooses to keep. She is always late, no matter what. She hates being late. It’s stresses her out. She forgets things. Breaks things. Wastes money because she doesn't get time to pack lunch. She shows up schvitzing. Her eyes are water. Her face is red. She's all apologies. And yet day after day she’ll admit to not having left enough time to get from where she was to where she needed to be. She’ll admit to having tried to squeeze one more thing in to her morning routine, one more phone call with a client, one more page of a new grant. 

My dad is very busy even though he “retired” going on thirteen years ago. Two days a week he works at the VA Hospital where he used to be on staff as a clinical psychologist. Three nights a week he has patients and comes home around 9. He designs programs for education nonprofits. He has a brilliant German friend who moved to Alabama for whom he’s always doing some work. None of us know what it is. It’s referred to as “Alabama” and he enjoys it largely because of the brilliant German friend. He now heads up the board of the condominium complex where my parents live. He’s still sorting out all his mother’s paperwork. He does his own paperwork for his private practice, an activity always accompanied by a great deal of swearing about managed health care. Then he’s got the same stuff to fit into his day as anybody else: bills, taxes, exercise. And the thing is, he really wants to write. He’s got the beginning of a novel, which is awesome (and yes, anyone can tell you writing an awesome beginning of a novel is the easy part, but still, for a math person turned psychologist, he’s definitely got writing chops). He says he wants to write a memoir. He’s got a great short story and the two of us wrote a self-help book years ago that’s been languishing on the shelf, not helping anybody. But, the point is, despite all these writing dreams—and potential—he finds time for everything but writing.

Whenever I talk to him and he mentions some new thing he’s doing and says, “It’s just been so busy”.

I answer, “The way you like it”.

He says, “I don’t like it like that. I want more time.”

I did something recently he’s often done with me – which is go over his schedule hour by hour. There’s plenty of time in there for writing. Yes, he’s busy, but not having time for writing is a problem he chose to keep. Drowning in paperwork is easier than facing the blank page.

My mom hates clutter. She’s organized, loves to plan, and good at keeping track of details. At 29 she was a head librarian in a branch library in Stockton, California. But the most important spaces in her house—her bedroom and her desk--are always laden down with papers and all kinds of crap. She makes them into spaces she doesn’t want to be in.

What’s weird is she’s okay with empty space and loves time alone. She doesn’t need noise or distractions to block out anxiety, chooses reading over TV, and is perfectly okay with quiet. So why does she choose to be surrounded by chaos in those spaces where she most wants peace? I can't figure it out. 

What dream does it keep buyoed up, out there in the distance, the vague, shimmering unreachable realm of "someday" or "if I only had time"? I think she would love the dream described by Elizabeth Bishop in the poem "The End of March",

“I'd like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.”

and yet the bare room is the one thing she can't allow.

Clutter, being busy, running late -- these are all versions of the same thing. I think about the places these demons hound me in my own life. In almost every case it seems clear the result is the same, keeping something you really want out of reach.

Here, from Heather Sellers in Page after Page
"Not being busy. That is the greatest, most fearless act we can commit. That is a way of thanking, praising God for ensouling us. Being, and not distracting ourselves with the illusion of power that is busy....

For me, it's too passive, too fake, too braggy to always be saying how busy I am...

Get real, I want to say to my "busy" friends. Be accurate and tell the truth... You do have time. Get a grip. Time is not all that surprising."


In April I got to the post office at 6 on Tax Day and felt my old sense of disappointment at getting there too early. According to the signs, I could have waited until 11:50 PM, ran over nearly shaking with adrenaline anxiety, dropped it in the box, and still had gotten my checks to the IRS postmarked on time. What a drag, I thought, waltzing out, light as a feather into the lovely April evening, before recognizing what that impulse was. It was my version of being late to meet friends, my version of taking on one more thing even though I’m already “so busy”, my version of the cluttered bedroom that circumvents true peace. Racing to get the taxes in on time  is just another way to pretend to defeat time, to get all out of sorts so that I wouldn't have to think about getting much if anything else done that day. Everything is chaos. If I just manage to get the envelopes in by midnight -- I'll have jumped through all the hoops I need to. 

It's easy to make getting the taxes in on time, something I had months to do, into a giant obstacle course for a single day, to get to the other end panting, and feeling pretty good. 

These are all the same story. We have – most of us – problems that we choose to keep. Why? Because the hardest thing in the world is to be your own man (I should say person, but man sounds better). That’s the thing – freedom – agency – self-individuation, reaching our full potential – that we’ll do anything to avoid.

So instead there are the hours, weeks, and years devoted to searching for the lost wallet or the misplaced keys, to cleaning up the broken glass, complaining about the unfair boss, bemoaning the lack of eligible singles in New York, blaming the lazy coworkers or the loud party upstairs,wasting time going a block out of the way to avoid the pushy neighbors, picking up the phone call from the demanding friend, cursing the insufferable forms, the corrupt judge, the crazy tiger mom pressure of achievement. We are awash in externalized conflict, fights we pick rather than real existential struggle, playing therapist’s to friends, any excuse, anything, it’s “this damn compulsion to justify everything I do”, the refusal, refusal, to be your own person, to face the empty space, the bare room, the blank page, the lonely track, the silent classroom, to truly make your own decisions, to do the best with the little time you have, with the unfair boss and unruly students and horrible forms you have to fill out, the loud neighbors, the keyboard with the missing “a”. To accept that today is judgment day, today you hold a sweaty little ripped off piece of paper in your pocket, and it’s up to you to scrawl something on it, something to tell the world or keep like a secret, but either way, to acknowledge once and for all that it’s up to you.

People will create religions to answer to, search for bosses everywhere, in my case, create a blog and then imagine criticism of the posts I do write or irritation at the ones U don’t, imaginary reactions yet another projected smokescreen of some internal, endless battle to keep me from fighting one I really want to fight.

As for the essential conflict in all my stories and novels? They are problems, I realize now, I choose to have my characters keep. It's like I won't let them self-actualize, won't let them continue through all the stage of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey. There are the tests, the enemies, the trials and setbacks, but I just won't let them get through to the other side of the main ordeal. The mortal enemy is never faced down. I won't let them return to their own island holding an elixir. By not finishing my projects, I am keeping them from true growth, keeping them from mastery.


When you study Judo, Alex tells me, you spend the first few months just learning how to fall down. That’s it. You put on that white outfit. You go into the dojo (classroom) and then “ha–boom”--Alex got up and demonstrated for me, in the kitchen, after dinner--again and again, all you do is fail, you just keep falling down. Every single possible way and from every direction. Nothing else is even relevant, until you've mastered that.