A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, November 14, 2016

Surviving Piggington




Among my friends and colleagues, there is a waterfall of grief and despair going on.  I’ve spent the past few days wallowing in that deluge.

I haven’t gotten over it.  I won’t really ever get over it – and that’s a good thing.  There are going to be a lot of letters to write, a lot of booths to staff, and a lot of charitable donations to make, over the next four years. I need to hold onto a kernel of outrage.  I need to promise myself that I will not let this – any of this -- become the “new normal”.

But I also need to focus my energy and channel my wrath.  Talking though these election results with two ten-year-old girls has been hell.  But it has also been good for me.  It turns out that the hopeful, optimistic truths I dug deep (REALLY deep) to offer to two distraught children are my own truths, too. 

Thus, although this list is still growing and morphing, I’ll share a few of my thoughts.

1) This election mattered A LOT.  Like, really, really, really a lot.    There are many ways in which our new President can threaten human rights and the environment, in the U.S. and worldwide.  However, our government is set up such that the President is not a dictator.  There are people who can check his actions.  We, the people, can peacefully, effectively, fight back.  This is not un-American; it is, in fact, intensely American.  Just as we are a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of rebels, and always have been.

2) Although the President is certainly a Very Big Deal, most of what we experience in our daily lives depends not on how we are treated by the person in the White House, but how we are treated by the people who live next door… and the kids on the playground…and the folks who ring up our groceries or change our oil… and the teachers in our schools and universities. Yes, there are bigots out there, and that is horrible, but we already knew they were out there.  They were out there last week, last month, last year.  And, with the possible exception of Ku Klux Klan members, no one is 100% bigoted, and no one is 100% unbigoted.  Including me.  So, even as I’m trying to fight sexism, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the great big world, I’m going to try to avoid slapping labels on other people.  

3) Taking the high ground on being “informed”, like taking the high ground on being non-bigoted, feels crucial, yet shaky.  I have a PhD.  I read a lot.  I employ critical thinking skills.  But do I know everything about how to run this country?  Nope.  So while I’m going to do my damnedest to help counter misinformation in areas of my own expertise (“Anyone want to hear about climate change?  Anyone?  Anyone?”) I’m also going to try to keep learning.  And listening.

4) Even though right now it feels like we’re spiraling back to the Dark Ages, the choices of young voters and mock-voting children suggest otherwise.  Granted, I lead a privileged life.  I can’t speak for the experienced of LGBT or minority Americans.  But, heck, among locally reporting fifth-graders (in this red town in this red state), Hillary won all the electoral votes from “Narnia”, “Si-bear-ia”, and, indeed, all “states” and “territories” except for “Piggington”. 

Oh, Piggingtonites… I don’t think this is going to go any better for you than it is for the rest of us. 

The above photo depicts an exhaustive comparative literary analysis of the 1963 and 1980 editions of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever.   My daughters report, after intense scrutiny, that the awkward amendments intended to make the anthropomorphic bunnies, cats, walruses, and worms less sexist, do not, in fact, make the book less sexist.  They have a few editorial suggestions.  They have a few suggestions about other things, too.  Lots of other things.

5) On the morning after Election Day, one of the twins asked me how old she has to be before she can run for President. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Don't Know Much About History



In history books, the world is ordered and analyzed according to Important Events: the reigns of inbred hereditary dictators; tiffs over dead archdukes that result in seventeen million other deaths; and intercontinental invasions euphemized as discoveries.  In our house, however, events tend to be wrangled into a haphazard semblance of context according to whether they happened, say, before Twelfth Night, or soon after A Christmas Carol, or at about the time of James Herriot. 
In the past couple of years, the twins have developed an ardent affection for a whole host of dusty old volumes full of references to shillings, coal scuttles, and doublets.  They have not developed an equal fondness for fourth-grade Social Studies lessons. 
“I hate history,” says Lizzy flatly.  “Learning history is like, ‘Blah, blah, blah, and then in 1982, something happened, blah, blah, blah.’  But I like historical fiction.”
“Nineteen eighty-two,” I point out, “is when I was your age.”
“Oh.”  She contemplates my ancientness for a moment.  She shrugs.
I’ll admit it:  the twins’ knowledge of history is as much of a disorganized disaster as the drawer in which we keep the eggbeater, the potato masher, and eleven chopsticks.  In my responsible-and-educated-grownup role, I worry about this – and feel guilty.  Because, via some sort of genetically-linked penchant for obliviousness, I’m almost certainly to blame. 
Raised in a household entirely comprised of ardent history buffs, I was a defensive contrarian.  Names, dates, dead presidents, blah, blah, blah.  I get it, Lizzy.  I shouldn’t admit it, but I totally get it. Yet, like Lizzy and Molly, despite my hatred of schoolbook history, I fell in love with novels that were not intended to be historical fiction, but which had become so, over time. 
Indeed, the twins’ penchant for reading archaic literature surpasses even that of my own childhood.  For one thing, the passage of more than thirty years between my elementary years and theirs has rendered antique all my “contemporary” recommendations.  Wait… Henry and Ribsy is not historical fiction!  Furthermore, many of the best recent stories aimed at the 8-12 set abound with voracious human-sized rats and parent-murdering wizards.  Such fare is anathema to my kids – especially at bedtime.  Tamer offerings are often written at a reading level that the twins dismiss as babyish.  What they want are 400-page densely written, well-crafted, vocabulary-rich stories in which the level of terror doesn’t go much beyond getting lost in the fog, spraining an ankle, and being rescued by charcoal-burners.
Charcoal-burners? 
Well, yeah.  They’re these old guys who hang out in the woods making charcoal.  Obviously. Also, logs are chopped with axes, wood-carts are pulled by horses, milking is done by hand, torn clothes are darned, and children signal each other between farmhouses with lanterns, using Morse Code, because they have neither electric lights nor telephones.  But, whatever – none of that is the point of the story, which is about this awesome adventure with sailboats and pretending to be pirates and camping and…
Children’s tales from bygone eras were (mostly) not written to be “historical”.  Thus, all the details of the past are skimmed over as understood, as normal, as background.  The setting rarely coincides with an Important Event.  Even if it does, that Important Event often seems utterly incidental.  In Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy novels, the young protagonists collect scrap metal for the war effort, raise money for a War Bond by holding a concert, and try canning the produce from their large Victory Garden -- but the focus is wholly on the joy and drama of the collecting, the performing, and the cooking.  The war itself is never pontificated upon, or even named.
Intentionally-historical fiction tends to focus much more heavily on the designated Important Things – but a truly history-resistant child can overcome this problem.  When I was eight, I read a novel entitled Rebecca’s War, checked out of the library by my big sister.  In order to win that week’s Summer Reading Program prizes, Sarah and I gave, consecutively, brief oral reports.  My mother later told me that the kindly librarian who had to sit through these synopses was deeply amused by the radical discrepancies in our focus.  While Sarah offered up details of the setting and background – it was 1776, and the British were occupying Philadelphia during the American Revolution – I merely noted that there were soldiers and stuff.  Then I got to the good part, which mostly involved a young girl smuggling gold and alcohol. 
My children likewise fail to even feign historical sagacity.  They seem happy to focus on story, character, and action, while brushing aside such details as whether anyone happens to be wearing petticoats and button-boots.  They flit from the “long ago” in which two Prince Edward Islanders are disappointed by the gender of the orphan they are sent, to the “long ago” in which Mario makes friends with a cricket in a New York subway station, to the “long ago” in which a wretched child from Colonial India discovers a garden door under trailing ivy – all without even noting the turbulence.  The Bastable children were invented by E. Nesbit not in the last century, but in the one before that.  Nonetheless, the twins are eager to decide which of these immensely relatable siblings they like best. 
“Oswald”, says Molly with a grin, “I love how he thinks you won’t guess it’s him telling the story, and it’s SO obvious!”  Lizzy leans in favor of Alice, who is tough and reckless and fiercely protective of her laughably poetic twin brother.   
The coal-tenders, farthings, pinafores, and ink-wells all make perfect sense in context, and pose no challenge to the ten-year-olds of 2016.  Even Shakespeare’s bodkins, bavins, and bawcocks don’t throw them off much; kids the twins’ age are learning, on average, about twelve new words every day. 
Yeah, that’s right.  Twelve new words.  On average.  Every day. 
That the brains of children are so sponge-like makes me even more concerned that they are missing out on a prime opportunity to learn history.   Isn’t this their big chance to cram all those names and dates and battles into their tender young skulls?
Or is it?  “I hate history,” says Lizzy.  But she likes stories from long ago.  She like those a lot.  And, although these stories hardly ever feature dates of Important Events, and skim right over the names of dictators and generals, our read-aloud sessions with books from bygone eras do often sidetrack into discussions of substantive societal changes.  Is the invention of plastic – and our entire dependence on oil – really so recent?  Why would someone disapprove of a girl wearing shorts, or going to college? Why are Native Americans referred to in ways that are insulting or just weirdly wrong?  What the heck was going on in Colonial India, anyhow?  Wasn’t school free, back then?   Because Molly and Lizzy care about the fictional Oswald and Alice and all the rest of them, they also care about the characters’ struggles, their choices, the obstacles thrown before them, and the limitations of the worlds in which they live.
I now realize that one of the reasons that school-book history felt so abhorrent to me was that it didn’t feel human.  Even the heroes were not vivid and real.  I was told about Harriet Tubman’s most important exploits, and I thought her brave and admirable, but I was never asked to imagine her sharing a joke with a friend or whispering softly to a child.  Of course, we don’t know what words Tubman might have whispered to what child.  If we make them up, we are falsifying history.  But are there ways in which fiction can actually feel truer to life than a history book does?
The connection between truth and history feels slippery to me.  I’m pretty sure no one learns anything worth remembering if they’re told an over-simplified and prettied-up pile of falsehood.  I like to think that even as a little kid, I could tell how much was being glossed over, and how much of the “history” I was taught was a pack of outright lies.  Columbus.  Yeah.  Him. 
On the flip side, no one can know the Full Truth of History.  For starters, the world is a large place.  If most Americans don’t even know what continent to find Togo on, it’s doubtful that they know everything that has ever happened there.  Second, recorded history covers a fair bit of time.  Do you know all your Chinese dynasties yet?  Good luck.  And, even if we could wrap up all that in a tidy bundle, it would still be the tip of the iceberg.  What we call “archaeology” rather than “history” encompasses more than ninety-five percent of the 200,000 years that modern humans have been busy doing modern-human things with our big, awkward, complicated, modern-human brains.  Finally, even picking from among the scraps of that which is recent and recorded, the veracity of the recorders ranges from “iffy” to “manipulative liar” to “were these monks on ‘shrooms, or what?”
In a young-adult attempt to recover from the history-phobia of my childhood, I read Howard Zinn’s classic, A People’s History of the United States.  It was radically different from almost everything I’d been taught.  It was a heck of a lot more interesting.  It also felt truer – but still not, perhaps, entirely true.  The author, after all, still has a slant, a bias, a perspective that he wants to present – and he is only addressing a very limited space of time, on one part of the globe. He wants to tell a story – or a series of stories.  But, I am gradually coming to realize, labels be damned – stories are precisely what history IS. 
Sure, there are those Important Events that we’re told constitute History, but even when carefully ordered and dated in a textbook, they no more tell the “whole” and “complete” and “true” story of the past than Dickens does.  Or Montgomery.  Or Cleary. 
So, what is it, exactly, that I want my kids to internalize, by learning history?  Blah, blah, blah, and then in 1982, something happened… 
All educated people have a working knowledge of history is no more a meaningful answer than is, I want my offspring not to seem dumb amongst intellectuals at cocktail parties in the 2040’s.  Even the easily-accepted adage that learning about history helps us avoid the mistakes of the past is up for debate – notably, in a new book by David Rieff that I have to admit to not having read yet.
So, no, I don’t need my kids to memorize a pile of heavily edited semi-facts just for the sake of memorizing them.  But I do want them to know that humanity covers a broad swath of time and space, in richly complex diversity.  I want them to know that shit goes wrong a fair bit.  People fight for incredibly dumb reasons.  People are compelled to fight for reasons they don’t understand.  Governments rise and fall and struggle and try to reinvent themselves and try to right injustices and sometimes do so, but much too slowly. 
I want my kids to know that in the context of what the textbooks call “history”, the relatively egalitarian bubble in which they live is new-blown and fragile.  For most of the last few thousand years, being a girl has been a bum deal, and being white has often been way too good a deal.  Conversely, I want them to know that things were probably a lot less unequal during the 95% of our hunter-gatherer human past that we don’t call history.  In this way, perhaps more than any other, history feels like a lie.
But through all this, I also want my children to know that people are people.  Kids are kids.  They might wear pinafores or leaves or rope sandals or body paint.  They might happen to exist at a time when Important Events are occurring.  Regardless, the core of their lives is most likely in the small adventures, the friendships, the daily discoveries, the humor, and the family travails. Children – let’s say, kids just about exactly the twins’ age – have stories to tell.  They have stories about the cake to which they accidentally added liniment instead of vanilla; about Albert-next-door’s uncle who doesn’t get mad when they almost bury Albert while digging for treasure; and about the heart-lifting realization that the gray rosebushes of winter will burst forth in growth and flower, come spring.  They have stories not about history, per se, but about being human.
This is true whether they lived before Twelfth Night, or soon after A Christmas Carol, or at about the time of James Herriot. 
Or in 1982.



Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Deep Thought





“Mom, is there a…”
I was microwaving chili and hacking jagged hunks out of a pan of leftover cornbread in a hurried attempt to get a decent meal packed up. 
 …logical reason for…
We needed to dash out the door – like, NOW – if the twins were to be even vaguely on time for another evening performing in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the university.
…life?”
Um, what?
 Is there a logical reason for LIFE?  Seriously, what the hell, Lizzy. 
This child, my child -- small, pigtailed, scruffy, and deceptively quiet -- sometimes brings to mind Shakespeare’s Cassius, who “has a lean and hungry look.  He thinks too much.  Such men are dangerous.”  Such little girls, likewise. 
Okay, no, I don’t really think that one of my nine-year-old daughters is hazardous -- or destined to stab Caesar, for that matter – but Lizzy’s ruminations often drop like flaming zeppelins from a cloudless sky. This is a child who, when stymied in her desire to cover all windowsills in the house with plant seedlings, chides, “Daddy, sometimes I think you are not very good at delaying gratification.”  This is a kid who glances around the living room and says, apropos nothing, “There would be so many right angles in the house, if you tried to count them all.” She is not merely making conversation; she is searching for logical patterns within the dizzying fractal landscape of existence.  Such observations might seem delightfully precocious -- until you are forced to attempt to address them in three minutes while simultaneously wrestling mini carrots into a Ziploc. 
About a year and a half ago, my children were subjected to a test to determine who would get to be part of the euphemistically labeled “Extended Learning Program.”  That afternoon, I asked the twins what they’d thought of the experience.  “Oh, it was pretty easy,” said Molly, with casual confidence.  “You just had to find the patterns.  The last few, though,” she continued, blithely, “didn’t have any pattern.” 
Ha!  I’d laughed indulgently at her childish conceit.  How funny to think that no patterns exist, just because you aren’t bright enough to find them!
Um, ha.   
Apophenia is the perception of meaningful patterns within random data – our Rorschach-elephant cloud-locomotive propensity to confabulate monsters under the bed and tin-foil hat conspiracies.  Confirmation bias is the equally human tendency to only look at evidence that supports what we want to believe -- because my political candidate farts rose-petal freshness.  A false negative or a Type II error is denial that a pattern exists, even when it does.  Even when it totally does, dammit, dammit, dam—uh, yeah.  Patterns.  Ha ha… 
Now, I struggled to gather my thoughts and my cornbread.  Could this Life-the-Universe-and-Everything- level introspection be symptomatic of too many “adult themes” in my kids’ lives?  Wallowing in Tennessee Williams’s dark and cerebral play about death, fear, lust, and denial is an unlikely after-school activity for fourth-graders.  Kids, welcome to the tsunami of deception that erodes our souls! 
Lizzy was being semi-patient with my density -- but insistent: “There’s the Big Bang, galaxies form, the Earth, and evolution… but is there a LOGICAL REASON for life?”
There are lots of great books out there on parenting.  I probably should have read some of them. Instead, when the kids were toddlers still struggling to master their fricatives and glottal stops, I decided that I would not be the parent who snaps, “Because I said so”, or “You’re too young to understand”, or “It was the stork”.  I wanted to let them find the patterns – the messy, confusing, terrible, real patterns.  Jay agreed with my strategy of dispensing Too Much Information, although he quickly granted himself an egress in the form of, “How about you ask Mommy?”
Brick: What makes you think Big Daddy has a lech for you, Maggie?
Margaret: Way he drops his eyes down my body when I’m talkin’ to him, drops his eyes to my boobs an’ licks his old chops!  Ha ha!
Brick: That kind of talk is disgusting.
Margaret: Did anyone ever tell you you’re an ass-aching Puritan, Brick?
[Cue four children to run across the stage, shrieking.]

The twins were cast as “no neck monsters” – two of the insufferable and over-abundant children of manipulative, abrasive parents in a dysfunctional, unfulfilled, greedy, Southern-polite but below-the-surface foul-hearted and foul-mouthed family.   After the first read-through, decorously held in a meeting-room at the campus library, the actor playing the family patriarch greeted me with anxious discomfort.  “It’s not exactly an appropriate script for children…”
A few days later, Molly chirped up at me, “Mommy, what does ‘poontang’ mean?”
Snigger.  “It’s a rude slang term for female genitalia,” I told my kid.  She nodded.  She’d guessed as much.  No harm, no foul.
Other questions are harder. 
A logical reason…
I took a deep breath.  I closed the fridge.  “Lizzy, pretty much every aspect of philosophy and religion, throughout all of human history, has been an attempt to answer that question.  Seriously.  It’s a great question.  People have come up with a ton of crazy possible answers.”  I mentioned a few topics the twins already vaguely comprehend – world religions, pantheons, legends, holy doctrines, passionately held beliefs.
“No, but I mean a LOGICAL reason.”
Yeah, kid.  Yeah, I know.
A few rehearsals into Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Molly was enjoying herself.  (Shout and run around?  Giggle backstage with friends?  Great!)  Lizzy was not.  She said she hated the play.  Why, she wanted to know, does everyone seem angry at everyone else?  Why is there so much yelling?  Why would anyone want to watch a play about such horrible people? 
I felt guilty.  My urge was to try to shelter the kids from the full force of the script.  Couldn’t the nine-year-olds just don their adorable costumes, zip out for their cues, and let the rest wash over them?  But no.  That wasn’t working for at least one nine-year-old.  So I did the opposite.  I encouraged the kids to examine, to understand, to dig deeper. 
Brick: You think so too?  You think me and Skipper did, did, did! – sodomy! – together?...
Big Daddy: … This disgust with mendacity is disgust with yourself.  You! – dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it – before you’d face truth with him.
Brick: His truth, not mine.
Big Daddy: His truth, okay!  But you wouldn’t face it with him!
Brick: Who can face truth?  Can you?

Yeah.  We talked this through.  We talked through… a lot.  
I asked the kids how the character Maggie, might feel, married to a man who could not love her.  I asked them how Brick might feel, trapped by a society that reviled his kind of love.  I asked them why Mae might be avaricious enough to use her kids as pawns, why Gooper might feel so bitter about his father, and why Big Mama might prefer a constant cocktail of lies to the truth in which she is drowning.  I also asked what might have been changed, to break these toxic patterns.
Slinging the bag full of chili and scripts over my shoulder and hustling my kids out the door, I told them, “Grownups don’t know the answer to this question.  Not a full answer.  Not a LOGICAL answer.  In fact, our inability to answer this question is so universal that a really funny author made a joke out of it.”  I summarized, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, the conundrum faced by the computer named Deep Thought -- and its comically unfulfilling answer.  Forty-two.
They got the joke.  I grinned.
As the theatrical experienced progressed through dress rehearsals, Lizzy seemed to find her groove and become more comfortable with the storming and raging.  By the time we reached the final performance, she was ready to wax philosophical about the nuances of each altercation, the failings of each individual, and the drawbacks of the social mores to which they adhered.  In her tiny A-line dress, waist-length blonde braids, ribbons, lacy white socks, and Mary Janes, she took to the stage with greater confidence.  “I hope I’m not getting type-cast as a cute little girl,” she observed, her brow wrinkled.   
Only, I thought, through apophenia and confirmation bias.  The frilliness of the socks does not fit into an easy pattern with the personalities of the wearers.  At the final curtain call, the no-neck monsters took their bows earnestly, alongside the Real Actors.
A week after the final performance of the show, my one-minute-older-twin was busy tending to the seedlings that her father had declared to be an unmitigated irritation.  She looked up at me with a perfectly-Lizzy abstracted gaze.  “In real life,” she announced, “there are no good guys and no bad guys.” 
I asked her to elaborate. 
“Like, if I told the story about Daddy and the plants, he might seem like the bad guy.  But from a different point of view, if I told the story about him taking me out to breakfast, he’d be the good guy.”  Lest I harbor any over-inflated sense of my own merits, she added,   “You, too.  There are downsides to a person -- and upsides.”
Gosh, thanks, kid.  But… yes.  You’re right. 
The patterns are not stark in black and white.  Sometimes – apophenia -- they are not there at all.  Sometimes – confirmation bias -- finding them will stretch your brain.  Sometimes, recognizing them will make your heart ache and twist and break with the pain of truth.  Sometimes, they will remain forever beyond your grasp.  Some answers, perhaps, are better left at “forty-two”.  But … search on.  Search on.