April 24, 2010

Reason to consider unschooling, #281

Posted in Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , , at 12:29 pm by chavisory

Schoolgirl withdrawn from school over ginger bullying

In the real world, most people have more compelling things to do with their time than send death threats to redheads.

April 19, 2010

Food and Self-acceptance

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 11:37 pm by chavisory

Peggy Orenstein’s columns annoy me on a regular basis, and yet, to be honest with myself, I had to read this one twice just to be sure of why it annoyed me so, so much.

Orenstein is wondering how she can raise a daughter with a healthy relationship to food and her own body when she herself has so many weight and body issues, and whether it’s even possible to raise a daughter to love her body while still watching her weight.  “How can you simultaneously encourage your daughter to watch her size and accept her body,” she asks?

Well, you can’t.  At first I wanted to rail against the surface hypocrisy inherent in the question; no, you can’t always be bothering your daughter to stay thin, and still raise her to accept her body, thick or thin.

I appreciated that Orenstein wants to do whatever it takes to not pass on her own pathologies to her daughter, though I thought, it shouldn’t be that complicated: encourage eating for health, not for weight control.  Don’t keep junk food in the house.  Turn off the TV.  Make sure she knows how to cook.

But the truth is that I too worry about being able to raise children to be healthier, physically and emotionally, than I am in so many ways.  I wonder how not to obsess about not obsessing about something that you are in fact concerned about.  Because I so rarely really identify with or understand the worries or preoccupations of other women, I find myself expecting not to be able to sympathize with pieces like this.  I want to believe that things are simple, but I know the facts are that for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, they aren’t, especially when you become a parent.  So to be intellectually honest with myself, no, I don’t think her concerns about how to impart both healthy body acceptance and good health are unfounded.  Especially when what’s all around us in the media, in ways we don’t even fully grasp, is so profoundly damaging.

Upon second reading, what I realized caused my visceral reaction of irritation, was that she raises the issue of, but then doesn’t really challenge or criticize in any way, how parents use their children in competition against each other, and in defense of their own self-image and social status.

We are not only what we eat, we are what we feed our children. So here in Berkeley — where a preoccupation with locally grown, organic, sustainable agriculture is presumed — the mom who strolls the farmers’ markets can feel superior to the one who buys pesticide-free produce trucked in from Mexico, who can, in turn, lord it over the one who stoops to conventionally grown carrots (though the folks who grow their own trump us all).

If this is what it’s like to live in Berkeley (and I don’t necessarily take her word for it that it is), that’s a toxic environment for raising emotionally healthy children with a decent self-image, regardless of how organic and local the vegetables are, or how well she manages to suppress her own insecurities about food and weight.

She writes about a study which found that mothers are more likely to notice a daughter’s excess weight than a son’s, acknowledging the expectation of girls more than boys to project the right image:

For organic-eating, right-living parents whose girls are merely on the fleshy side of average, “health” may also mask a discomfort with how a less-than-perfect daughter reflects on them. “ ‘Good’ parents today are expected to have normal-weight kids,” says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of the book “The Body Project” and a professor of history and human development at Cornell University. “Having a fat girl is a failure.”

But does she feel this way?  She doesn’t seriously question the presumption that having a fat girl is a parental failure, and that the girl, by implication, is a failure.  I don’t think she’s saying that that’s true, but she legitimizes the prejudice by taking it for granted.  (And she’s engaging in some nasty assumptions herself about the motivations of the “organic-eating, right-living” parents in her community.)  She’s pretty clear; while she doesn’t want her daughter inheriting her own disordered thinking about food, she does want her daughter to stay thin.  Why?  Just for health reasons?

She seems to recognize the wrongness of it, yet still tacitly engages in it, if the first paragraph of the article is any indication.  Whether or not she actually sees having a fat daughter as a failure, she’s seeing life and child rearing in terms of competition over image and reputation, and I think that’s potentially just as damaging to a child’s self-acceptance as being saddled with a parent’s food issues is–the knowledge that you’re never valuable, sufficient, or truly loved, apart from the image of the family that you project.  That more than being healthy, content, and comfortable with yourself, you need to worry about what other people might think of you, or might think of us because of you.  And that’s what it means to a child to say, “be healthy, but watch your size.”  Having healthy kids isn’t a competition.  Living well isn’t a competition.  Orenstein doesn’t quite seem to understand that, and I’m not sure that it’s Berkeley’s fault.

April 17, 2010

My generation. Conclusion?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 5:02 pm by chavisory

I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to conclude this little series–which was never intended to be a series in the first place; it just turned out that I had more than one post’s worth to say–because the conclusion is, as of yet, impossible to know.  What we’ve done and what will become of the Millennials will conceivably not be known for 20 years, or 30, or longer.

Two cases have been weighing on my mind lately, in this frame of reference, which I think are in some ways mirrors of each other: those of Constance McMillen and Phoebe Prince.  I think the stories of these girls have the potential to say a lot about who we are, and who we’ll be.  Constance and Phoebe and most of their classmates are 10-15 years younger than most of my readers, those from the first years of the “millennial” generation.  These are the kids who will probably be considered the end of it.

Most of you probably know both stories by now.  Constance McMillen, 18, wanted nothing but to be able to take her girlfriend to her senior prom, and to wear a tuxedo to do so.  Her school refused, and when the ACLU threatened a civil rights suit, the school canceled the prom rather than allow a lesbian couple to attend and scapegoated Constance to her classmates, who proceeded to have a “secret” prom intended to further exclude Constance and put up a mean-spirited facebook page, filled with their prom pictures, called “Constance quit yer cryin.”

Phoebe Prince, 14, after brief relationships with two older students, was hounded to her death by suicide by four months of vicious, merciless bullying by a group (5-9, in varying reports) of fellow students, in which school officials declined to intervene.

Somewhat astoundingly, both stories of heartbreaking cruelty contain reasons for hope.

The younger end of our generation is represented not just by Constance’s classmates at Itawamba Agricultural High who participated in her exclusion and scapegoating, but by the hundreds of thousands who subsequently became facebook fans of “Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to the Prom!” and protested her treatment in other ways (and the 2800 or so who hijacked the “Constance quit yer cryin” page just to rail against the level of human meanness and vileness that allowed its creation.  It’s now been almost entirely taken over by supporters of Constance and of equal rights.) and of course by Constance herself, who I look up to her for bravery and accomplishment although she’s 10 years younger than I am.

Kids like Constance will be the ones who make our future whatever it will be.

Nothing in the world will ever make up for Phoebe Prince’s death.  But the progression of the case indicates that things may be changing in how we treat young victims of violence and bullying, in how adults treat kids and in how we allow kids to treat each other–all of which sets the stage for the treatment of people that we allow in society at large.

In a turn which I feel fairly confident saying would never have happened when I was in middle and high school, nine students who tormented Phoebe to her death have been criminally charged for their actions.  I don’t read many forums online which attract commenters young enough to be Phoebe’s classmates, but if what I have read online is any indication (a very unscientific survey, admittedly), people around my age who were bullying victims ourselves are overwhelmingly in favor of the prosecution, and though there are no charges filed against school officials, there’s a great deal of criticism and astonishment directed towards the adults who knew what was going on and failed to step in to protect Phoebe.

Attitudes are changing concerning how we should treat young victims, and young perpetrators; people are demanding that bullying victims be protected and not dismissed.  And people my age are starting to become parents.  The people my age I know who are parents make me hopeful that our children are going to be raised with far less tolerance for cruelty and injustice.

I think that we overwhelmingly want to make the world a better place than we found it.  We can, and we are.  My grandmother, a few months ago, told me confidently that she knew that in one more generation, the idea of gay marriage equality would be “no big deal” anymore, that the opposition was simply going to die out.  But we can’t just take it for granted that it’ll happen.  This is what I want us to do:

Remember the lesson of Obama’s election. Whether you supported him or not, whether you love him or hate him, remember: all of the people who were supposed to know, said that he couldn’t be elected.  We cared enough to prove them all wrong.  We changed the course of this country.  We changed the course of world history with Obama’s election.

Vote, for heaven’s sake. The 18-24 cohort was the only age group to experience a statistically significant increase in voter turnout in the 2008 election…to 49 percent of registered voters.  That’s pathetic.  The 25-44 year old group participated at about 52%.  Still pathetic. This is why our representatives don’t feel they need to take our concerns seriously.  We have their jobs in our hands, and we don’t make use of that power.

Never believe anyone who tells you that one person can’t make a difference. Anyone who tells you that, by word or deed, doesn’t want you to get anything meaningful done.

Speak up. When portrayals in the media of our generation, our lives, our problems, don’t match up with your reality, when political leaders use bigoted, false and shallow characterizations of young citizens to push their agendas (as was done in the passage of the health care bill) speak up and say so.  E-mail the editor when a publication does it.  Call and threaten their jobs when politicians do it.  We don’t have to tolerate what they say about us, let alone believe it.

And throw the whole weight of your support behind kids like Constance McMillen, who refuse to be bullied or frightened into submission by idiots.  Tell kids what they are capable of, which is anything in the world, rather than what they’re not.

April 10, 2010

Explorations~High Bridge Park

Posted in City life, Explorations, Uncategorized tagged at 2:26 pm by chavisory

When you’re a freelance theater artist, you can often wind up with a very atypical and erratic work schedule.  Like this winter and early spring, I’ve been doing a lot of work for Juilliard on a 3:00-10:00 PM schedule, leaving my entire mid-morning free.  When I’ve worked a whole day and get home exhausted at 6 or 7 PM and it’s dark and cold out, I’m fine with fixing dinner, cleaning the apartment or other petty chores and curling up in my room with a drink to surf the internet or catch up on TV before bed.  But that’s no way to spend a gorgeous spring morning if you don’t have to go to work till 3:00.

So one of the things I’ve loved doing with my morning hours is seeking out places in Manhattan, and beyond, that I haven’t yet made myself familiar with in the five years I’ve lived here.

When I decided that I was moving here, I feel like my family thought I was nuts–being a very introverted person who treasures quiet and nature and open spaces–because a lot of people, when they think of Manhattan, automatically think of Times Square, or Macy’s and the midtown area, or 5th Avenue.  But most of New York City actually isn’t anything like that at all, and there are some uniquely charming, stunningly beautiful places here.

Today, my AEA day off from rehearsal for my current project, is a bright, sunny, blustery day which I wanted to be spending exploring Inwood Hill Park, at the northern tip of Manhattan, but alas, I’m at home fighting off debilitating monthly cramps with large quantities of coffee and Irish cream and ibuprofen.  Heating pads have never worked much for me, but the warmth of the Macbook on my lap is nice and soothing nonetheless.  So that’s why I’m home on a gorgeous day off, blogging about a trip to the park instead of being there.  This was my fascinating but slightly heartrending field trip to High Bridge Park on a nice morning in March a couple weeks ago:

High Bridge Park is named for the bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx which once carried the city’s fresh water supply along the Croton Aqueduct by gravity from north of the city.  It runs for about 30 blocks along the north-eastern corner of Manhattan.  I started walking south from around 178th St. along the Harlem River.

Walking through some of New York’s lesser-known parks can be a saddening experience.  NYC has a huge amount of park space to take care of, so the Parks Commission has its hands full to begin with, and I’m sure that between the recession and both city and state budget crises, they have to make some difficult decisions on priorities.  Additionally, Central Park suffered massive damage in a brief but fierce summer storm of a type known as a “microburst” last year, which they’re still cleaning up, and which I imagine will continue to be a drag on budgets for months still to come.

The result can be neglect for parks in less-traveled, and frankly, lower-income areas.

High Bridge has lovely architecture and landscaping–bridges, arches, tunnels, curving paths and steep winding stairways, old-fashioned street lamps.  But some of it is just in terrible shape.  Lamps are broken and gutted and look like they have been for quite some time.  I actually saw one street lamp with a thick clump of moss growing where its bulb should be.  Stonework is covered in graffiti.  Fallen trees and branches laid thickly across paths, and probably not from one of the most recent storms, either, as there were crocuses coming up deep in the depressions left by upended root bulbs.

Call me cynical; I just have a hard time believing that conditions like this in someplace like Central Park would be let go for very long.  I hope I just happened to hit High Bridge in an unusually neglected pocket, or that springtime cleanup wasn’t underway yet.

There’s a nice walking/biking trail overlooking the Harlem River, though.  And the jewel of the park is the High Bridge water tower, which once upon a time was used to control water pressure across High Bridge itself.

I was disappointed not to be able to go up inside it; it’s locked up.  Currently you can’t walk across High Bridge itself, either, though it was once a popular promenade for walkers and bikers.  It was closed to traffic after a couple of rock-throwing incidents in the 1970’s, but word is that plans are underway to refurbish and reopen the walkway to the public in 2011, for which I am extremely excited.

April 1, 2010

Contentment; or, blaming the poor for the wrong things entirely

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 12:55 am by chavisory

I was having yet another debate with an old friend this week via facebook; it’s been a common occurrence in the wake of the passage of the health care bill.  The debate quickly turned from my instigating question to the subjects of socialism and the dangers, and advantages, of welfare.  My friend said,

“There are too many people that work very hard to make a living to just give everything they have worked for to people that have not. When a society makes everything equal, the country begins to not be as productive, because people loose a sense of working hard to earn a living.”

I don’t mean to single her or her views out for judgment, because they are far from unique, at least in my recent experience as I wrote yesterday.  After I argued that in the first place, that’s not what socialism is, and secondly, it isn’t happening, she told me of a family she knows from the school where she works: neither parent works; they’re both on disability, and can’t seem to stop having children.  All five of their current children have some degree of mental or developmental disability and are all receiving disability payments.  And in this school, which largely serves low-income families, this family is far more representative of the norm than the exception.

My sister, a registered nurse, when she works overtime, sees close to half of her paycheck withheld in taxes and FICA.  Who does she get angry at?  The military; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  The crimes of Wall Street and the bank bailouts, the fraud that toppled the world economy?  The sheer numerical fact that there are more baby boomer retirees than there are younger workers supporting them?  George W’s unprecedented level of deficit spending, largely on tax cuts for the richest?

Nope: the welfare mothers and illegal immigrants on the neonatal ward.

Okay, I said–even if these parents are not really disabled or too mentally ill to work, and are therefore committing social security fraud and getting away with just not working…even if it’s true that the illegal immigrant teen mothers brag about being able to take advantage of the welfare system…look at their life.  Would you want it?

I don’t necessarily mean materially, because they probably do have a car, computer, television, cell phone, DVD player, whatever.  But look at their real quality of life.  Is it really a life that you’d want to live?  Is it a life that you’d trade places to have?

Or do you think that the government does too much for people, protects them too much from the natural consequences of bad choices?  Look around your city streets on a cold night.  Are there no homeless people?  A third of them are veterans, and a quarter are severely mentally ill.  Don’t worry; the world is still more than capricious enough that the wrong choices, or simple lack of resilience, can devastate lives.  NYC has had an increase of one third in the homeless population this year alone.  I promise you, that surge is not made up of people who just decided they’d rather not work anymore.

So be content.  They’ve made their choices, and the consequences of those choices, I think, are punishment enough for them.  You’ve made yours, and if you have a life, and work, and family that you’re proud of, there’s nothing at all that you need to envy or resent from the poor.

I just don’t understand this kind of vitriol towards people who have so much less.  I really think that a lot of revulsion towards the very poor, the homeless, people dependent on government aid, comes from personal fear, that we ourselves could’ve been in such a position, if things had been a little different, if we’d been born into a less fortunate situation.  Every time I see a bag lady on the street, I know that that could’ve been me, and the confrontation of that knowledge is both chilling and humbling.

So the next person who thinks that the poor are getting away with something, that you’d be happier about your income tax return if you made a lot less money, that it’s easy or carefree to need public assistance or that the poor have too much given to them, this is my invitation to you:  sell your car and move here, to NYC.  Get a rent-stabilized apartment in Washington Heights and a café job for $7 or $8 an hour.  Good luck getting your landlord to deal with the rats or fix the bathroom ceiling when it caves in, and oh yeah, they’re raising subway fares again this year at the same time they’re drastically cutting back service, which is going to make it a lot harder to get to your opening shift at 4:45 AM.  Fantastic, you’ll be poor!

Sound good?  If not, think about why not.  Because you do actually have the enjoyment and appreciation of the things you’ve worked for and earned in life.  Because you know that you are fortunate.

I’ve been reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden this week, and at the conclusion of the book, as he looks back on his experiment with simple, deliberate life in the woods (where he actually only lived in his tiny, hand built cabin for about two years; he wasn’t a hermit or misanthrope), he gives much of the most eloquent advice in the book, urging all of his readers not necessarily to do as he’s done, giving up every superfluous comfort, but to wake up to the realities of their own lives.

It’s easy to misread much of the ranting in Walden as a condemnation of a materially comfortable existence, but it isn’t; it’s a condemnation of the illusion that life is what we acquire, of a life lived in material riches and comfort, but without meaning, hospitality, reflection, or purpose.  Someone who has those things within himself, Thoreau says, is always richer, and far more of a whole person, than someone without them.  Stop worrying about how badly other people conduct their lives, and make what you truly want of yours, because someone who has set out deliberately to live the best life they know how, never has anything to envy from those who have not.

Except that I envy anyone whose bathroom ceiling doesn’t cave in every 6 months……