Eight

You’ve come a long ways since the day you were born and I hope there’s a long and splendid way left for you to go.  I see you studying the world, trying to figure out How things work and how you’re going to fit in it and I’m afraid to say anything, since whatever I’m thinking will be at least half wrong and whatever I say will be wronger still, cast with too much pessimism hoping to guard you or too much optimism hoping to encourage you.

You are good at many things these days.  Making friends and making rubber band bracelets and making worlds in Minecraft and making a ruckus when you feel aggrieved.  Making art and making your room a mess and making it cleanish again and making your brothers furious.

You say and do the most amazing things, in the humble opinion of your own mother.  May you always light up whatever corner of the world you’re in and always know that we love you.

What Game are We Playing?

Does anyone really enjoy musical chairs?  Someone must, right?  But I don’t think it has appeared at a single birthday party of my kids’ experience.  Kind of a brutal game, really.

I don’t love outdoor team building exercises, either, thanks to fear of heights and the outdoors always being too hot or too cold, but at least it’s heartening to face a seemingly impossible wall knowing that everyone is committed to getting all of you over or no one.  If you tossed me into competitive wall climbing instead — everyone for themselves and last one over the wall loses — I’d probably just give up and wander in the woods alone pondering the stupidity of walls and humanity.

It seems like a lot of psychological research reports averages and tendencies, drawing general conclusions about all of us.  “People cheat more when they think no one is watching,” “People feel calmer in blue rooms,” that kind of thing.  Lately I’ve been pondering the differences more, though.  Just now, I'd rather read a deep explanation of why some people want to fight over a chair while others would rather heave their teammates over a wall.

It feels like maybe psychologists are starting to pay more attention to differences, too.  (Or maybe I'm just noticing it now?)  I was handed an article recently (although it was published years ago), on a gene associated with ADHD.  The researchers had studied neighboring tribes, one of settled farmers and one of nomadic hunters.  (I can’t find the exact article, but it was very similar to this one.)  Among the farmers, where routine ruled the day, ADHD was a liability.  People with the gene ended up with less food.  But among the hunters, where quick reactions counted and every kill went a little differently, the gene meant more food.  It was the calm less-distractible people who more often went hungry.

There are unsettling implications to this kind of thing, especially if you see life as a zero-sum game of musical chairs.  Unsettling in that eugenics seems to have made a stunning comeback recently, with a Tennessee judge offering reduced jail time for prisoners who accept sterilization (the policy has since been pulled back after public outrage), a former senior advisor to the winning presidential campaign talking about immigration on CNN as “this is about who’s in your [national] gene pool," and congressional leadership fighting hard to make health insurance too expensive for many  people to have.  As twitter user @anthoknees put it, “I’m convinced that people want poor people to die bc they believe in eugenics (often without realizing it)”.

But if a musical chairs mentality draws us towards endorsing eugenics, could a no-one-left-behind exercise push the other direction?  Instead of survival of the fittest, the goal is survival of all.  Which is aided by building trust (generally hard to do if you're ditching teammates whenever that seems convenient) and preserving a broad set of skills with which to tackle the unknown challenges of the future.

These thoughts were humming in the background, not quite jelled, while I read How Fear of Falling Explains the Love of Trump (New York Times).  It points out the cultural divide between coastal elites and middle Americans, not over hot topics like abortion and gay marriage, but over fundamental how-the-world-works assumptions that run under the surface, powerful and unseen.  In middle America, “valuing hard work means having the rigid self-discipline to do a menial job you hate for 40 years, and reining yourself in so you” don’t “have an attitude” and create “disruption,” which would just “get you fired.”  But for elites, “hard work… is associated with self-actualization; ‘disruption’ means founding a successful start-up.”  (I feel compelled to note those quotes are all from a book, which I have not read, by Joan C. Williams, a law professor, which is quoted in the article, which I have read.)

In one world, disruption means success.  In the other, disruption means failure.  Like the hunters and the farmers, different circumstances easily end up favoring opposite traits.

Soon Twitter tossed another article into my mental stew.  Disabled and Disdained (Washington Post) shows the conflict in a struggling rural community through the lens of the McGlothlins: a woman on disability, her 19 year old son, his wife, and two other adults who live with them, all depending on that one disability check.  Her son’s been following the rules, finished school, hasn’t been in jail, etc. but things aren’t working out for him or any of them.  And many of their neighbors who haven’t fallen so far off the ladder see the world the way they’ve always seen it, with the clarity of traditional American calvinism:  workers are good, non-workers are bad.

Calvinism is another thing that’s been on my mind lately (what a segue!), and with it old memories of sitting in a plastic chair with a bolted-on “desk”, watching and listening in fascination to my favorite teacher as she scrawled chalk notes across the blackboard and responded to our comments with frustration or excitement (but always with intensity) as we tried to make sense of the theological and economic roots of the Protestant Reformation.  “Predestination” was definitely on the chalkboard (I remember she had a particular way of writing e’s so they always looked like capitals).  “Pre-“ for “before” and “destination” for “destiny” — God decided before you were even born whether you were saved (one of the “elect”, also a word on the chalkboard) or damned.  The decision was secret, of course, because God likes secrets, and there also wasn’t anything at all that you could do to change it, because otherwise how could God be all-powerful?  You’d think this would be a recipe for all kinds of hedonism because LOL nothing matters!, but people are people and they figured out a solution faster than you can say “sinners in the hands of an angry God”:  of course, no one could truly know the will of God, but they could guess.  And the guess they came up with was not impressively creative:  achieve worldly success while making a show of self discipline and you were probably one of “the elect”.  Misfortune, though, was strong evidence of your irredeemable depravity.

So let’s go back to the McGlothlins.  By Puritan standards, they are contemptible. (Did I mention it was the Puritan Pilgrims of Massachusetts that brought Calvinism to America? are all those words really supposed to be capitalized?)  No jobs between them, whiling away their days playing video games or holding a sign by the side of the road hoping for some cash to buy food.  Their neighbor calls it like he sees it: there is a “resistance to work” these days.  He himself “worked 60 hours a week — despite a thyroid condition, despite two bankruptcies, despite the depressed local economy — not because he felt like it but because that was who he was.”

Researchers have described this attitude as “a tendency by Americans in the second lowest quintile of the income ladder — the working or lower-middle class — to dissociate themselves from those at the bottom, where many once resided,” according to Who Turned My Blue State Red? (New York Times and Pro Publica, last year).  Not really surprising, is it?  I mean, if not working is evidence of incurable moral failure, then you’d want to distance yourself from that stigma as much as possible, wouldn’t you?

And if you felt like you couldn’t escape the ranks of the damned, you’d want to avoid coming into contact with the “elect” as much as possible, right?  Indeed, “She knew how she must look,” we hear of the elder McGlothlin, “in her pajamas and mismatched socks, to people who work. She knew what they must say… She would sometimes consider how she would answer.  But it’s simpler to say nothing at all, so she rarely leaves the house now.”

The societal consequences of this withdrawal are huge, explain the academics of Who Turned My Blue State Red?  Those who rely most on public assistance have “become profoundly disconnected from the political process” and mostly do not vote.  Thus their thesis: it’s not the needy stupidly voting against the programs that are barely keeping them afloat.  Instead, those who don’t need assistance at the moment are voting to take it away from their damned lazy undeserving neighbors.  And their damned lazy undeserving neighbors are too depressed and ashamed to bother voting at all.

At the end of the story about the McGlothlins, the son has been shooed away from his spot on the highway where he “holds a sign” when the family is desperate.  It’s what his father used to do, before he went to prison on drug charges (addiction followed the pain from his 30 years in coal mining... 30 years when they weren't so contemptible).  It’s what his father told him to do when necessary.  But then the cop told him to leave.  So he calls his mom from the grocery store.  “I don’t know what to do,” he says, “What should I do?”

What do you do when your strength is following the rules and doing what you’re told, but the rules have all changed without much notice and there’s no one left to tell you what to do?  What do you do when you’ve been a successful farmer but now your land won’t produce and you’ve got to try your hand at hunting?  And what do your neighbors do?  Who decides whether we're playing high-risk musical chairs, with the chairs disappearing faster to ditch the undeserving more quickly, or whether we're up against a wall of change, for the umpteenth time in human history, needing a plan to pull as many as we can to the other side so we can face the next danger together?

Always Be Prepared

One thing I’ve learned in the past ten years is that if we’re all in a bad mood, it’s probably not going to be helped by staying home all day.  Which is why on Saturday, with absolutely everyone whining, bickering, teasing, snarking, and generally being dreadful, we got on the Metro and went downtown.  A museum or two was the first plan, but a friend tipped us off that the Smithsonian Folklife Festival was on and just the word “Festival” began to shift the mood.  “Like, with food and stuff?  Can we have our own money to spend??” asked Mr. P.  

Shmoogie was more wary, “Are we going to have to walk really far?”  I said no, but it turned out her definition of “really far” was different than mine.  Still, we had the most wonderful adventure, with drums and ice cream and joining the end of a very long but very swiftly moving line that swept us right into some of the last seats left in a real big top circus tent for an hour of astonishing acts from around the world.

The noise and adrenaline was a few notches past our family’s usual comfort level and there were some requests to leave, but whenever I said “OK, let’s go,” they said No, let’s stay.

Gymnasts from China made astonishing arrangements of their bodies atop five, then three, then two, then one moving bicycle.  “That’s impossible!” said Mr. P, over and over.

A slow rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow accompanied a woman “from South America” who climbed a rope as if it were a staircase and wrapped herself in it dozens of ways to strike elegant poses with no apparent fear of falling, then make some imperceptible tug so that she did fall, beautifully, her hands and feet inscribing a few heart-stopping circles in the air before the remaining hitch caught her in yet another state of grace.  I’d never seen anything like it, but, while the miracle of the open Internet lasts, it’s a thing you can watch on YouTube.

Things get blurry in my mind at this point.  There were clowns (Mr. P says he’s afraid of clowns; I didn’t know but, also, he didn’t seem very serious about it) and a slapstick tumbling troupe and rollicking dancers who did the limbo under flaming poles while grinning men on 10’ stilts ran and danced around the ring (the flames frightened me, packed as we were into a *tent*, and I missed the lowest limbo while I was looking behind me for an emergency exit..).  There was a group of male contortionists (another chorus of “That’s impossible!”).  Acts from Cameroon, Rwanda, and Ghana, if I remember correctly.  The ringmasters — from Johannesburg and… somewhere else in Africa but with a lengthy stop in London and then maybe the Caribbean? — distracted us between acts, getting us singing and dancing and bouncing huge beachballs around.  That was entertaining enough that I have no idea how long it took them to bring in and set up the final act, the Wheel of Death, from Peru.

This is where I have some serious ethical qualms.  I mean, it was extraordinary to see.  An openwork steel beam on an axis with two steel hoop cages rimmed with handles mounted, one on each end, so that once they got it spinning, performers could jump inside the hoops and keep it going with the momentum of their running… or stop it to balance horizontal or vertical.  But mostly it kept spinning and people kept hopping in and out of the wheels.  One grabbed the handle on the outside and sailed up, centripetal force pulling his body away from the contraption until he swung himself inside the hoop at the apex.  Then there were four people on the thing, one inside each hoop and one on top of each hoop, running and kind of dancing and then jumping and then jumping rope.  Both of the jump ropers tripped at some point, but recovered themselves by grabbling the beam as their hoop descended.

And then came Carlos.  “One of only three people in the world to attempt a front summersault on the Wheel of Death!”  By this point I was holding the kids hands rather tightly (they’d been saying “That’s really dangerous!” for a while already and I could only tell them, "Yes, it is.  But these people have practiced a lot.")

I thought of that guy that walked the tightrope between the World Trade Center towers.  People that jump out of airplanes and do other astonishingly dangerous things.  I can worry, and I certainly do, that attending a performance like this encourages people taking terrible risks for the sake of entertainment, but I can also marvel at brains and bodies that clearly operate on some other wavelength than mine.  I can sit in the bleachers, shaking with fear, and watch this guy strutting around a steel hoop at the end of a rotating beam, looking utterly relaxed, playing to the crowd, and I can hold open the possibility that he might be enjoying himself.  Even though Wikipedia says this act was out of favor for decades after a series of fatal accidents.

Carlos survived.   I thought about not watching, but realized that was quite pointless, so I saw him retreat from flirting with the crowd to focus on the rhythm of the wheel, getting the feel of the spot on the top where rising turns to falling, the place where, for a few turns, he took a little jump, testing the timing and the distance before finally, terrifyingly, to the gasp of the crowd, he jumped higher and tucked and summersaulted and landed just in time to keep trotting along with the momentum of the thing.  And then he did it again.  And again, landing just a little back from where he intended, so he had to run faster and lean forward to grab the rail to recover his equilibrium.  And then he did it again.

I was still shaky eating ice cream much later, after the Wheel was taken down, after the kids stood to take “The Ringmaster’s Pledge” of unity and respect across difference — You may have different beliefs, your skin may be a different color from mine, but we are all one human race, we are all equal! — after we found seats in the shade next to the outdoor trapeze where performers were practicing, swinging high and letting themselves fall limply into the net.

People.  People are amazing.

Finally, we thought, we’ll see the Constitution at the Archives.  Mr. P was especially excited about this and it was on the way home and (as it should be) free.  We tried two entrances before finding the real one, which had a long line but it was moving well and the kids were committed so there we stood, enjoying the breeze that kept the heat quite bearable, and chatting with the couple behind us.  The wind picked up and dark clouds came in while we checked smartphone forecasts and told ourselves it would blow over, but soon I was holding Bayboh, with the folding stroller balanced on my head in some hope of shelter and the other two kids were fighting to get closer to me even though that wasn't going to keep anyone any drier.  I almost dragged them off home when we were thoroughly drenched and all of them were crying, but the suggestion put a stop to the crying, at least from the older ones, and we stuck it out.

Which is why we now all own souvenir t-shirts from the National Archives, both to save some of my modesty (a thin white shirt is a great choice for heat, but a poor choice to combine with a chance of thunderstorms and no umbrella) and to avoid hypothermia from taking small wet children on the air-conditioned Metro for up to an hour.

For next time, though, there are now some thin cheap ponchos stashed in the diaper bag.

Freedom

I've never been without health insurance.  Never.  Not for a single day.

As a child, this was not a thing I worried about and it was not a thing I had anything to do with.  That was just luck.  But as a college student, before Obamacare, graduation loomed like the end of a pirate's plank.  I had no idea how I was going to get a real job, and no idea how I could have health insurance without one.  

I was unwilling to consider going without health insurance.  Not because I was seriously sick or ever had been, but because I loved people who had had sudden expensive health problems pop up out of nowhere and because I had parents who emphasized how insurance of all kinds smooths out the small risk of catastrophe with regular, theoretically affordable, payments and shared burden.  You don't drive a car off the lot without auto insurance, you don't move into an apartment without renter's insurance, you don't go a day without health insurance.

And, like I said, I haven't.

I've had many moments of regret, though.  What if I'd been a little younger and being insured separately from a job had been possible when I was starting out?  What if I'd had a little more tolerance for risk and been willing to just go uninsured for a few years in my twenties?  Because as it was, I narrowed down my career options from the very beginning to a rather thin slice, largely because of health insurance.

Knowing we wanted to have kids some day, and knowing that part time work usually doesn't come with health insurance, we limited our ideas of how we could be parents years ahead of time.  Those limits rippled through a stream of life choices, large and small.

And, yeah, I know it's still a thing to be grateful for, having never gone a day without insurance.  Millions of us in this country don't even have the option.

But this is why I was most excited when Obamacare passed.  Certainly, it was good to know that fewer people would be choosing between bankruptcy and watching a loved one die of cancer without even knowing whether treatment might have saved them, or between food and taking their full dose of prescriptions.  But I was excited to think of the possibilities opening up for the people a little younger than me, the possibilities that would hopefully be well expanded by the time my own kids were facing the adulthood cliff.  Possibilities not just for individuals, but for our whole society as a result.

So, I could sit here and make the heart wrenching appeals and angry denunciations of cruelty that you'd probably expect and have already heard.  I agree with them completely.  But what usually gets left out is freedom.  The freedom to search for a job without half your attention on health insurance.  The freedom to quit a bad job without fearing a gap in coverage.  The freedom to start a family without fearing bankruptcy.  The freedom to share domestic responsibilities with your partner however you see fit, not however your employers and the insurance company see fit to allow you.

I've been voting my whole life for the opportunity to pay more taxes to see those freedoms spread from sea to shining sea.

One Week

Shmoogie was very excited to go.  A week of undivided grandparent attention, I could see her thinking, yippee!

Bayboh thought less of the plan.  "Is Shmoogie back?" he asked in the afternoon, hearing the dog bark at the door.  "But can we go get her?"

In the morning, realizing the school routine wasn't happening, he saw another chance.  "Is Shmoogie coming back?" he asked.  "Can we go pick her up?"  Informed that Shmoogie had camp today, out by DiDi and PaPa's house, he asked brightly, "Can I go to camp wiff her?"

Confession

A few years ago, when Mr P wasn't even in kindergarten yet, we rode our bikes to the river and walked out on the public dock, where we found a father and son fishing.  They'd already had some luck and the dad was sawing fillets off these little fish, gills still flapping, eyes still staring, mouths still trying to open and shut.  Having cut the flesh roughly away from both sides of the spine, he dropped each twitching skeleton casually back into the water, to the darkness and the crabs.

I felt queasy.

I'd fished as a child, sure, but we kept our catch in a bucket full of sea water, watching with mingled interest and sympathy as they quietly expired from lack of oxygen.  Once, fresh water fishing from a row boat with friends, there'd been an argument between the dads whether a quick bash to the head was more humane than slow suffocation.  Which side won, I can't remember, but the point is that I didn't know anyone who would carve the living flesh off a creature without the mercy of killing it first.

I didn't say anything at the dock, though, telling myself they're just fish, and going to be dead soon either way, and surely a father fishing with his son deserves to be left alone to treat his catch as he sees fit, and what do I know about the nervous system of a fish, anyway.  So I exchanged a few polite pleasantries with the live filleter, hoping Mr. P just wouldn't notice what was happening, or wouldn't care, and trying to ignore it myself.

But Mr. P did notice.  And he was horrified.

I don't remember exactly what he said to me or even whether the man heard him, but I remember the way my son shrank into himself, the shock and confusion that made him whisper instead of shout that it must be hurting them.  And I remember telling him he was wrong.

"They're dead already, hon," I said, "They can't feel it."

I knew it was a lie, and I think he knew it, too. But I made him doubt.  Whether he doubted his own eyes or my honesty or just my intelligence, I'm not sure.

I think about this little moment fairly often, whenever I look away from suffering because I don't want to see it.  Whenever I find myself saying things that can only be meant to help the people around me construct and reinforce the fiction that the suffering isn't real, isn't as bad as it looks, or at least was probably somehow deserved and certainly can't be helped.

I remember that dock, the heat and the dancing water throwing shards of blazing sun into my squinting eyes while I lied to my son about the truth of the world.  And I let myself feel ashamed.

But I wonder, too.  I wonder about the rare people who physically feel any sensation they witness happening to someone elseLucky I don't have that.  And I wonder about sociopaths, unable to feel empathy for others, who think themselves lucky to have escaped the burden of "useless" emotional pain.  I wonder where do the rest of us lie scattered on the spectrum in between and what purpose does all this variation serve?

I'm sure I used to think sensitivity was a measure of goodness.  The more empathy you naturally felt, and the wider the circle of living creatures for whom you felt it, the better a person you must be.

I don't quite think that's how it works anymore.  Maybe, after all, the most sensitive among us most often just look away.  But I do agree that, if nothing else, we'd better not trust anyone goading us to shrink our circle of empathy or discount the suffering we see.  And we'd better feel ashamed, and let shame make us stop, when we realize that charlatan is us.

Easter

I've been taking a mostly bare minimum approach to holidays this year, since just keeping things going on normal days generally feels like quite enough, thank you.  And Easter was going to be fine.  We've never made a big deal about the bunny, church was going to have egg dying and an egg hunt, which I worried about because while finding actual hard boiled eggs is beautiful and simple and all that, my kids (who definitely don't believe in the Easter Bunny, I thought) do look forward to candy.  But the grandparents were coming through with that - a candy egg hunt at their house after the pure and healthy boiled egg hunt.   It was all going to be just fine.

Mr. P even made a point of telling me over and over for the past week "I know you're the Easter Bunny."  I rolled my eyes and said nothing.

Whether she overheard or not, I don't know, but Shmoogie was on Friday suddenly laser focused on "Where are the Easter baskets?" And "Do you think the Easter Bunny will come?"  Which might be actual belief, she is only 7, but I kind of doubt it... she is, after all, almost 8 and pays such close attention to everything around her that she lettered "you need to releese your taxes Trump" with near perfect spelling and spacing on her protest sign all by herself while I was in the shower (I was pretty upset when Bayboh added all the scribbles a little later when no one was looking, but she didn't seem to care as long as people could still read it).

FullSizeRender.jpg

But anyway.  There I was on Saturday, with a seven year old I'd just discovered was expecting a visit from the Easter Bunny, but also with a pretty tightly scheduled day and nothing to put in Easter baskets and also no milk.  Or bananas.  So on the way home from my afternoon late birthday outing with a friend, I stopped at Trader Joe's for Easter basket candy and milk and bananas, and maybe also deli ham and tortillas... and $83 later I had several bags of unplanned but clearly necessary groceries, and was an hour late for the babysitter.

Then the unearthing of the Easter baskets.  Bayboh was thrilled, Shmoogie was pleased, and Mr. P was MIA.  Bayboh's basket had grass already in it, but the others didn't, so I took his out saying the bunny would take care of that, but that was not ok with Bayboh.   Shmoogie's basket has a lid, and she took it off, happy babbling about it all the while, to which I replied, walking up the stairs to fetch something or other, thinking only of table space and dinner that hadn't yet been eaten, "Oh, you can leave the lid on, the bunny can take care of that," which provoked a sudden shift in mood as she yelled after me, "How, with PAWS?"  And I scowled to myself, thinking "still with the Easter bunny is seriously a real bunny? isn't this all just a ploy to get more candy?" and yelled back "Then how does it carry the eggs??"  To which she hissed, "IN. THE. BASKET!"

So there.

It was going just great, Bayboh and Shmoogie asleep, Mr. I-don't-believe-in-anything-except-maybe-all-the-Greek-mythology-because-that-stuff-makes-SENSE Pants was awake but in his room in the basement, and I was almost done putting out these few eggs filled with candy that no one needs (really, seriously, because it turned out the boiled eggs were for giving out to grownups, the kids egg hunt was candy after all, so we now have a pound of candy each, not to mention what they ate already), when suddenly there was Mr. P wandering into the dining room, trying to look confused and half asleep.   Clutching an egg half-guiltily to my chest, I glared at him, turned him around and pushed him out the door with a firm, "Good NIGHT."

FullSizeRender.jpg

Tune In, Tune Out, Tune In

In a cold, dark winter, when the sun breaks through and there’s a five inch patch of warmth and light on the floor, a cat will find it and lie in it as long as it lasts.

My ray of sunshine, quite unexpected, was to spend three days in London with Mr. Right, the first stretch of days we’ve had alone in years.  I won’t try to say we “deserved” it, but the patch of light was there, briefly, and I’m beyond grateful that we were able to curl up in it while it lasted.

We walked a lot.  We talked a lot.  We thought a lot.  And, long-winded though it turned out to be, this is what I want to share:

The British Museum seemed like a good place to warm up (it wasn’t) and see some cool stuff (it was!).  With our hats and coats and often mittens still firmly in place, we wandered through the Assyrian wing, marveling at huge mystical beasts of stone and carved slabs bearing the portraits of brutal men deeply impressed with themselves but yet looking pretty much identical to each other.  They don’t look brutal or deeply impressed with themselves, smiling and holding out their arms as if in offering, but from the waist down they are covered in regimental lines of cuneiform helpfully translated on the signs below as saying things like “I slaughtered them all and painted the hillsides red with their blood.”

We wandered the Greek statuary, admiring bathing Venus and reading with interest the British Museum’s pamphlet on “The Parthenon Controversy”, in which they calmly — although with evident discomfort — argue that it is right and just and good for the world that half the statuary from the Parthenon is housed here and not in Greece, as the Greeks would like it to be.  We looked at the Rosetta stone, picking out the cartouches that enclosed the names of famous ancients, the key that broke the phonetic code of heiroglyphs.

We saw so much statuary from the Roman Empire, but I spent the whole time puzzling over where was the stuff from the Republic period?  (It was only day one in London and already the weight of imperial history was starting to get me down.)  And we saw a fascinating, tiny special exhibit called “Defacing the Past”, which displayed coins and statuary whose faces had been broken or scratched off to condemn the memory of hated (murdered) emperors.  A custom I had never given much thought to, they point out how it persists to the modern day, with examples of Saddam Hussein’s statues attacked and Gadaffi’s face scratched off of paper currency.

In the Egyptian wing, the smooth clean lines of massive pharaoh faces struck me with their beauty and the story of a giant stone sarcophagus caught my attention:  carved for the last native-born pharaoh, it was never used for burial because that pharaoh got driven into exile before his death; instead, it was used as a ritual bath in a mosque (they drilled some drainage holes in the bottom) which later became a church.

If there’s one thing I will always remember from my limited travels near the Mediterranean, it’s the way buildings were always being converted from mosques to churches and vice versa.  Same with the Roman and Greek temples.  We humans like to fight about our gods.

Later, at the National Portrait Gallery, I lingered at a huge painting of a dramatic scene, but failed to take a photo of the description, so this is from memory and I might have slightly garbled the details:  In the sunshine, Peace is represented as a lactating mother, squirting milk from her breast into the mouth of a chubby baby Prosperity.  Also enjoying the warm light and appealing greenery of the countryside, the female figures of the Arts and, I think, Justice approach Pax with smiles and arms full of good things.  In the dark and stormy background, the angry god of War, sword drawn, attempts to reach Peace… but Wisdom, also in the form of a woman, fully armored, fends him off with her shield.

People have known what’s what with people for a good long while.  We just haven’t got a foolproof defense yet.

When I asked Mr. P if there was anything he wanted me to bring him from London, he had said, “A picture of the Crown Jewels… and a snow globe.”  (Lucky he understood the Crown Jewels themselves weren’t possible, but it turned out a postcard was the best we could do — no photography allowed.  Snow globes, on the other hand, are very easy to come by.)

In search of the Crown Jewels, therefore, we walked 6 miles to the Tower of London on our second day, much of that on the river walk beside the Thames.  Benches and lamp posts screamed “Empire!” through every symbol worked into their design.  I raised an eyebrow in particular at the benches supported by regal resting camels.

On the other hand, at regular intervals the railing on the river side was interrupted by a portion of high stone wall with a metal bas relief plaque mounted to it.  One had a portrait of the senior engineer who constructed London’s new sewers (a crucial achievement for human health and, therefore, prosperity), another honored a poet, another a journalist.

I was a little apprehensive about the Tower tour, to be honest.  The whole concept of execution makes me sick, and I knew that was a big part of the Tower’s history.  Turns out, it’s also the part of the Tower’s history most easily sensationalized, and which the tour guides share with gusto.  Interesting, though, that the UK banned capital punishment in 1965 (we, much to our shame, have not) and that the tour guides are in fact Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary.  To become one, you have to retire with honor from at least 22 years of military service.  This all leads to a strange mix of stories and attitudes throughout the tour.  Starting with a rich description of a typical execution day, in which the assembled tour group is heartily encouraged to play the “very loud” part of the drunken crowd shouting “Huzzah!” or “God Save the King!” as the guard mimes lifting a severed head and shouts, “Thus to all traitors!”  (I refuse to play along, but I don’t think anyone noticed my silent protest.)

“At least we don't take kids to public executions as entertainment anymore,” I mutter to Mr. Right as we enter the gate for the rest of the tour.  I remember realizing I was going to have to do a lot of on-the-fly editing while reading Peter Pan to the kids years ago; the first page describes the thoughts of young children drifting off to sleep, “public hangings” being listed as one among many perfectly normal bedtime thoughts.

We have come so far.

As the tour goes on, the stories get more specific and the mood gets more somber.  We hear about the boy princes who were brought to the Tower by their uncle for their “safety”, then (allegedly) murdered and their bodies disappeared, although two child skeletons were discovered two hundred years later and presumed to be their remains.  This is told somewhat in the manner of a ghost story, but with a strong layer of condemnation for the presumed murderous uncle, Richard III, whose own ignominious end became clearer in 2012 when his body was discovered buried beneath an asphalt parking lot.

And we hear, of course, of the wives of Henry VIII, along with several others of “noble birth” who were executed in the courtyard of the Tower, rather than on the hill outside.  Curiously, the guards mention the “trumped up” charges against these women, but not the amoral character of Henry VIII himself or the issue of producing (not producing) heirs.  The thing that came through most strongly — from the facts of the stories (nobles executed within the walls instead of outside) and the manner of telling (focusing on the point of view of the executed royalty here, where outside the point of view was more that of the crowd and the executioner) and the presence of a very modern memorial on the sight — was the visceral understanding that some people’s deaths at the Tower were more regrettable than others because of their social status, even as it seemed to be held as basically inevitable that their status had condemned them to death because… that’s just how power struggles worked back then.

The tour ends in the chapel a few yards from the execution site.  “Gentlemen” are reminded to remove their hats, we are all asked to turn off our phones before entering and to treat the space with respect.  We quietly shuffle into chairs over stones so worn that you cannot read the names, can barely even tell there were ever names there at all.  We look at the alter as we are told that beneath its steps lie the murdered wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, as well as the sixteen year old “uncrowned queen” Lady Jane Grey and her eighteen year old husband, Guildford Dudley, both executed after Bloody Mary (murderous daughter of the murderous Henry VIII) seized the crown.

But our guide doesn’t want to leave us glum!  He is soon back to humor, if not quite free of gore, and sends us on our way.

Which finally brings us to the Crown Jewels.  Housed in a much larger exhibit than I would have expected, paid for by the diamond giant De Beers (insert tone of moral questioning here), several rooms of immersive multimedia displays are devoted to impressing on us the history and meaning of the Jewels, the coronation ceremony, and by extension the monarchy itself.  What hits me most is the heavy use of Christianity, not only in symbol (I’m so used to seeing that cross on top of the crown, I might not have even noticed that), but explicitly in much of the exhibit’s explanation.  The coronation ceremony is a “christian worship service of deep history”.  A gleaming gold orb, encrusted with jewels and topped with a cross, is placed in the newly crowned monarch’s hand as “a symbol of christian leadership”.  There are way more gold and jeweled objects than just the couple of crowns I always imagined, and there are crosses everywhere.

On the way out, special custom-made (duh) travel cases for various pieces in the collection are laid out above a reminder that the jewels are “working treasures”, used in ceremonial roles by the royals on a regular basis.  Start to finish, the Crown Jewels experience feels like really expensive pro-monarchy propaganda.  Interesting, though.

Then we walk through the several floors of the Tower itself, but I have to say I’m somehow disappointed that it’s all laid out as a museum, mostly of armor, with no trace of what it might have been like when people lived there (although you can step into one of the garderobes and imagine chilly royal behinds relieving themselves into the air two stories above the ground).

Finally, a walk around the circular monument in honor of the executed, which you must walk around if you want to read the inscription:

Gentle visitor pause a while, where you stand death cut away the light of many days.  Here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life.  May they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage under these restless skies.

Reading about the memorial just now, I find that the inscribed names include everyone executed on the site, the royalty and also the three Black Watch soldiers killed by a firing squad of their fellow soldiers for what sound like pretty thin charges of mutiny.  The piece was unveiled in 2006, by which time we’d come far enough to make it possible to honor them side by side (possible, but clearly not expected, if you read the artist’s statement).  As far as I can tell, though, no mention of the WW1 and WW2 spies which were the last executions within the walls.  So I guess capital punishment is no longer morally acceptable, but still the historical deaths of traitors and foreigners are less regrettable than those of native criminals, which are less regrettable than those of noblemen, which are less regrettable than those of queens.

One more stop…

The Churchill Museum.  In the cramped basement of the Treasury building, you can walk through the rooms where Winston and Clementine Churchill and a small committed staff lived (it feels a bit like a submarine) and worked through the war.  You feel the shock of dawning modernity, with a secret transatlantic telephone to the White House hiding in a closet while decisions were made in a large technology-free room papered with maps pinned to the wall in curved array to cover the whole word, while Churchill himself and all the others slept in tiny beds next to wooden tables holding porcelain washing pitchers and the weather above ground was reported by the manual changing of wooden signs in the hallway.

A Nazi propaganda poster in the exhibit area is still clear in my mind:  a thin woman slumped over a bare table, reaching for an empty bowl, surrounded by her thin worried children.  A cartoon Churchill, fat and smugly chomping a cigar, leers over them from behind and a slogan in French splashes across the bottom.  I can’t read it but I’m pretty sure the message was, “That nasty well-fed Churchill is starving you French people!”

It’s a dirty trick, hurting people and then telling them someone else is to blame.

So, we stayed a little too long at the war rooms and hit a crush of people on the underground which caused a little stress about getting to the airport on time, but I didn’t miss my flight so all’s well that ends well, right?

I’m listening to this really interesting book, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and reading a useful book called Crucial Conversations, which is how I spent most of the flight, but then I opened my phone and caught up on the tweets that had loaded before we took off.  So the last hour or so I was awash in a flood of tidbits about the chaos brought on by the muslim ban.  I was upset.  I thought hard about how to ethically go through customs and border control during this crisis.  But by the time I’d landed, I’d decided to behave as I always do, then find the protest after clearing customs.  I thought I’d have to hunt for it.  But as soon as I walked through the exit doors, hundreds of people were lining the walkway, chanting and waving and holding signs of love and welcome.  It was the best most patriotic homecoming I have ever had.

I cannot overstate the power of seeing so many people willing to give up their time and comfort and take on unclear risk to stand up for their values and their fellow humans.  This is the weirdest time I have lived through and it is seriously scary, but I am in awe of how massive numbers of us in America and around the world (London was in the streets bigly the day after we left) have reacted with love and courage and reached out to each other to fend off despair.

We always will be stronger together.

Nine Years

Of all the things my father taught me, the trick of switching time scales to put present troubles in perspective is the one on my mind today.  The whole of human history is but a blink of the cosmic eye, each of our own lives so infinitessimal.

As a child, I was both terrified and fascinated by the astonishing vastness of space and time which he described.  When I feared the implosion of the sun or the final fate of the whole universe, his idea of comfort was to calmly point out that we and everyone else would be very long dead by then, so why bother worrying?  When I understood the threat of nuclear war, I was supposed to be calmed by the idea that we'd be instantly vaporized and never know it happened.

I doubt this is the standard advice for soothing an anxious child.  I don't think it soothed me much at the time, in fact, but I definitely internalized the idea that it should be calming.  And by now I understand the lighthearted but purposeful approach to life that can come from embracing the dizzying terror of it all. 

On that note, a short video this week that I loved and which I think Dad would have loved, too:

Also, an article that is long but absolutely worth the time to read:  Neanderthals Were People, Too  by Jon Mooallem for the New York Times. 

IMG_6336.JPG

Love

It's a rainy, midwinter morning.  Bayboh has climbed into bed with me to say hello.  He would like a "cuddle".

Hugging him, I say, "I love you."

He furrows his brow and then grins, "Love. kocolate!"

Points at me, "You. love. kocolate!"

Warming to his theme, "Shmoogie. love. kocolate!  Mr. P. love. kocolate!  Daddy. love. kocolate!"

Unsettled

There was a time in our history when “reasonable people” could disagree on the question of whether some people should be allowed to own other people.  The question was argued passionately on both sides, election campaigns were run with the question front and center.  A war was fought.

But today, that question is settled.  Reasonable people cannot disagree on that question.  Reasonable people do not consider the question at all.  If any political party decided to run on an explicitly pro-slavery platform, the vast majority of Americans would be shocked.

How many other settled questions can you think of?  It's an interesting exercise.  Should children be employed in factories?  Should women be allowed to own property?  Should people who do not own their house be allowed to vote?   Should witchcraft be a legal offense?  Is human sacrifice necessary to appease the gods?

These are moral questions that were (are, in some other places) considered worthy of debate.  Reasonable people disagreed.

But now these questions are settled.  Reasonable people do not disagree about them.  Reasonable people do not consider them at all.

Imagine, though, how those debates played out over decades, maybe generations, at dinner tables, around fire circles.  By what process did they become settled questions?  How did it feel to be one person in one family, one community, living through one of those shifts?  How did it feel when the question first arose?  Who asked it and what happened to them?  How did it feel to watch your community split apart over the question?  How long did you spend in the height of rancor, roughly evenly divided?  When the “right side of history” started to win, how fast and how enthusiastically did the losing side’s supporters change their minds?  How many holdouts took their beliefs to their graves?  How many generations did they touch who hardly knew the question had ever been asked?

This is where my thoughts have gone in the past few weeks as I try to understand the powerful grief brought on by this election.  Especially as I try to understand why so many people seem to not comprehend that grief.  And this is where I’ve gotten so far:  we are grieving the world we thought we lived in, a world where we believed several ugly questions* were well settled or very nearly so.

As for those who don’t understand the grief, I think it’s clear that some wanted these questions reopened because they didn’t like the trending answers.  I have the sense that a larger number  thought these questions were so settled that they had no fear of voting for the person openly asking them.  He must have been joking, they felt, or he won’t really act on them (although his appointments and statements so far say he will).  But I’m guessing the biggest group of all just believed these questions were still unsettled and therefore, no matter which side they lean towards, aren’t greatly troubled.  “Reasonable people,” after all, “can disagree.”

For the moment, this realization is helping me to pull myself together and look to the future with a galvanizing if uncomfortable clarity.  So the moral tasks at hand aren’t what we thought they were.  No matter.  We’re still here, still with nothing to do but work and hope to bend the arc of history toward justice.


* Questions like, are there certain types of people that just don’t belong in our country?  Should law enforcement be allowed to treat certain types of people with more violence and suspicion than others?  Should men be able to grab women with impunity?  Is it OK for states to actively discourage certain types of citizens from voting?  Is it OK to mock a person’s disability or trauma?  Even — and I slightly hesitate to add this one since it feels over the top, but it did get raised by the candidate himself — is nuclear proliferation a good thing?

Number 68

Amongst the memories of civics classes that wander dimly through my brain these days, there is the year we were expecting Puerto Rico to become the 51st state.  We all had to draw flags that squeezed one extra star into that field of blue.  It’s hard to draw a few stars nicely, let alone 51 of them.  And it’s even harder to color in around them with a blunt crayon.  My edges were not crisp.

There is the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which I think I only remember because of the reaction I got when I exclaimed in horror to some grownup of my acquaintance, “You don’t remember the Glorious Revolution of 1688??!”  It does have rather a catchy name, though, so I might have remembered it anyway.  It was Glorious because it was bloodless.

And, of course, who can forget the impassioned essays we all wrote about the Electoral College?  How elitist! we grumbled.  How dumb!  How UNFAIR!  Let the people decide by simple majority!

I remember somehow avoiding having to read the Federalist Papers.

Thus, when I found Number 68 of said Papers on the Internet last week, I was reading it for the first time.  It’s dry writing and a dry subject, but in this horror of a post-election, distraught over the future of the republic, I heard the words of Alexander Hamilton speaking to me from a not-so-distant past brimming with confidence and excitement.  I recognized his passion for a well-designed system and wondered if, today, he might have been a software engineer.  I heard his worries for the safety of the nation and realized that human nature has not changed in 227 years.  I saw his trust in the protections of time and distance and realized that everything else has changed.

You can read the original words at Yale's Avalon Project.  Or you can read my own modernized version below, because I always love a translation job.

Federalist Papers Number 68, expressed in modern language

original believed to be by Alexander Hamilton

To the People of the State of New York:

Of all the elements of the new Constitution, the system for selecting the President is just about the only one that no one has criticized.  In fact, the strongest opponent of the new Constitution has even admitted that the election of the President is pretty well guarded.  I would go so far as to say that the system is excellent, possibly even perfect.  It impressively combines all the most wished-for advantages, as I will now explain.

It was important to us that the people should have a voice in the selection of the person who would be given so much trust.  For this reason, we gave the choice of President not to any preexisting body (such as the Congress), but instead to a temporary body chosen by the people for only this one purpose.

We felt it was equally important that the actual selection of the President should be made by people most capable of considering the character traits needed in the office.  We wanted those people to make the choice under circumstances that would encourage deliberation and keep them free from improper influence.  We decided that a small number of representatives, selected by their fellow citizens, would be most likely to have the knowledge and wisdom to investigate such a complicated matter.

It was also extremely important to avoid tumult and disorder, which was obviously a risk when choosing someone to hold such an important office as President of the United States.  Happily, we came up with a system that will almost certainly prevent such troubles.  Firstly, choosing a group of electors for the Electoral College will be much less likely to rile people up than directly choosing the actual President would.  Secondly, since the electors will be chosen by each state and will meet and vote only with the other electors from their state, they are more likely to stay calm themselves than if they were all to come together in one place to make the decision.  Which is good, because we all know if they start fighting, disorder could easily spread to the general public.

Above all, we had to guard against cabal, intrigue, and corruption, which are deadly to our republican form of government.  We expect these threats to come from many directions, but we were most especially concerned about foreign powers wanting to gain influence in our government.  Could a foreign power do any better than to put their own puppet in the Presidency?  So we have carefully designed the Electoral College to avoid this danger.  For one thing, the Electoral College is selected by the people immediately before the choice of President is made and the College exists for that purpose only.  A temporary body like this will be much harder to unfairly influence than a permanent body like Congress.   We’ve also tried to exclude anyone who might be or appear to be too close to the sitting President.  No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States can be an elector.  So, as long as the general public isn’t corrupted, the people making the actual choice of President should begin the process free from sinister bias.  And the key features of the Electoral College which I have already explained — that it is only a temporary body and that each state’s electors meet separately — offer the best assurance that the electors will remain uncorrupted throughout the process.  It will be nearly impossible for anyone to bribe, mislead, or otherwise unfairly influence so many people spread out across so much distance.  To attempt it would require too much money and far too much time.

Finally, the key features of the system are also intended to ensure that the President depends only on the people for his/her continuance in office.  Because each election is in the hands of a special body of the people’s deputies, their identities unknowable beforehand, the President will not be tempted to sacrifice his/her duty to the nation during his/her term by favoring a few individuals who would next keep him/her in office or turn her/him out.

All these advantages which I have laid out are happily combined in the plan devised by the Constitutional Convention.  Specifically, the people of each state shall choose electors, their number equal to the number of senators and representatives of that state in the national government.  Those electors will meet somewhere within their state and vote for some fit person as President.  Their votes will be sent to the seat of the national government and the person who happens to have a majority of the votes will become President.  Of course, it might happen that no one person will receive a majority of the votes.  Since it might be unsafe to allow the President to be selected by less than a majority, in that case the House of Representatives will select (from the five leading candidates) the one that they believe is best qualified for the office.

This electoral process gives a moral certainty that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any one who is not clearly well qualified.  It is easy to imagine that talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity might win a single state for an unfit candidate, but it will require other talents and a different kind of merit to gain the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or a majority of it.  I am confident there will always be a strong probability of seeing the Presidency filled by characters outstanding in ability and virtue.  This system will be seen as one of the strongest arguments for the Constitution by all who understand the importance of the executive role in any government’s success or failure.  Rather than agree with the simplistic poet who says: “For forms of government let fools contest That which is best administered is best,” we say instead that the true test of a good government is its ability and tendency to produce a good administration.

The Vice-President is chosen in the same way as the President except that if the Electoral College does not reach a majority, the Senate will choose the Vice President rather than the House.

Some have complained that appointing an extraordinary person as Vice-President is unnecessary, or even likely to cause trouble.  They say that it would be better for the Senate to choose one of their own members to serve that role.  In response, I offer two reasons to justify the ideas of the convention in this respect:  First, it is necessary for the President of the Senate to have only a tie-breaking vote, so that a clear decision can always be achieved.  Choosing a senator to serve this role would exchange the constant vote of that senator’s state into a contingent one.  Second, since the Vice-President may have to act as the President of the United States, it is obvious that all the arguments for the special selection of the President laid out above should also apply to appointing the Vice-President.  I would also point out that objecting to this method of choosing the Vice-President goes against the way even our state is governed.  After all, we have a Lieutenant-Governor, chosen by the people at large, who presides in the Senate, and is also the next in line to the Governor, just as the Vice-President is for the President.

Stories

We all have stories we tell ourselves, consciously or not, about who we are and what our place is in the world.  Stories that give meaning to our struggles and our achievements.  Stories that tell us how to know we are good people.

We need these stories as much as food and shelter and basic human connection, so is it shocking that we so often cling to them longer than is wise?  Is it surprising that we suffer when they fall to pieces in our hands?

I lost more than one of my most precious stories last week, smashed to smithereens in a matter of hours.  Maybe you did, too.  It hurts like hell.

Or maybe you’ve been watching your stories slowly crumble, worn down by the changing times.  Maybe you saw someone holding out a tube of the strongest glue, marked “GUARANTEED FIX”, and grabbed it with relief, telling yourself not to mind the “CAUTION: FLAMMABLE. MAY CAUSE RESPIRATORY DISTRESS, BURNING EYES, DEATH TO SOME IN THE VICINITY” emblazoned on the other side.

What if we had a way to grieve our disintegrating stories instead of desperately pouring on glue?  What if there was somewhere to look for help constructing new stories when our old ones were blowing away?

Before

Let me tell you a story.

It is Halloween, a beautiful Monday, and the high school band is forming up in the parking lot of my kids’ elementary school.  There are clusters of parents chatting sociably, parents alone jostling the strollers of younger children at nap time, a set of quiet smiling grandparents dressed as, I think, a brain surgeon and patient.  Two police cars are blocking traffic on the quiet street and school administrators, friendly witches, are striding purposefully from bus driver to band leader to police to teachers, often catching the eye of a parent or a student to wave and smile, ask “How are you?” or compliment a costume.

The music starts, a percussion extravaganza, and the band begins to move, instruments glinting in the sun.  Caught unawares by emotion, I fight back tears as the band flows past and the little kids follow.  Pre-K, then Kindergarten, 1st grade (Shmoogie is thrilled to see me and thrilled with her “Minecraft Chicken” costume assembled the day before) and on up (Mr. P punching the air with excitement in his freshly black-sprayed hair and Percy Jackson costume — clever, you understand, because a “Camp Half-Blood” t-shirt and blue jeans can be worn all day at school without breaking the rules).  Parents are taking pictures, smiling and waving at their kids.  A mother leans in to straighten her daughter’s witch hat as she goes by, and the band plays on.

Now let me share some details that might explain my misty eyes.

The band is led by two majorettes, not one.  Black and brown, they march with their arms interlocked because, I realize, one of them is blind.  The clusters of cheerful parents are chatting not just in English, but also Spanish, and I know the grinning, strutting students say good morning and good night in dozens of other languages.  The witch-hat adjusting mom is wearing a hijab. 

I know it sounds like I made that up, like I'm conjuring some ridiculous liberal dream of the future, but this nouveau Norman Rockwell spread is real.  I was standing in it on Monday.  It has already been conjured by the courage of people who came before us, many who still walk with us now.  It is my America, the America of hope and openness and simple human joy.  It is so beautiful.  And it feels so fragile right now.

Now let me confess something to you.

In the first weeks of school, it was disconcerting for my kids' to be some of just a few white faces in the student body.  It was not an experience they or I had really had before.  When I am the one to pick them up in the afternoon, my primate brain reacts a bit to the otherness of the faces and the clothes and the smells of this united nations of parents before my rational brain smiles and says, Hello!

"We owe it to other people not to be afraid of them."  What a profound idea, that fear of the other is not something that just happens to us, it is something we choose to indulge or to let go.  Our daily lives offer chances to make that choice over and over, with all its moral weight, but on Tuesday we have the rare chance to make that choice resoundingly together.

I cannot wait to mark my ballot.

Cow

When Bayboh woke up this morning, I thought we'd have a chat about yesterday's adventure apple picking and petting farm animals. "What did we do yesterday?"

IMG_4833.JPG

Slow smile.  "Play.  Ground."  His thing is saying each word as clearly as he can and pausing (to make sure you got it?) between each one.

"Playground? I think we went to a farm! And now you know why we say the cow says... What does the cow say?"

"Moo!"

"Yes!"

"Big. One."

"Yeah! It was a big cow.  Cows are big."

"Get? One?"

"You want to get a cow?"

"Yeah."

"No, we can't get a cow, sorry."

"Buy? One?"

Talk

I grew up in a family that discussed politics as a matter of course.  It wasn't maybe so hard for us to do, because aside from possibly some vague leanings in the primaries (not even sure about that, though), both the voting age members of the household were casting their ballots the same way (although I do remember some emotional arguments about how we should respond to the Bosnian war and there were probably a few other non-voting issues that caused some true disagreement).  But I've learned in adulthood that even in undivided houses, a lot of people don't talk about politics at all.

I do wonder then if it's an innate personality thing, or more a product of this way of growing up, but either way, I love discussing politics and policy with other adults, even if the conversation gets a little heated, and I love the challenge of discussing these things with my kids in ways that they can understand and find interesting.  It's not that I want them to agree with me no matter what; I actually spend a lot of energy trying to clarify for them why some people, even people close to us, have different views than I do (and I have encouraged those with different leanings to share their thoughts with the kids).  I do want them to grow up to be engaged in our democracy.  To be interested in and feel obligated to be informed, to think things through, to make decisions, and to vote.  Maybe even volunteer for a campaign.  Maybe even run for office.

So it might be to my credit that they have all wanted to stay up to watch the debates (even Bayboh, tearfully put to bed pleading "Watch!  'Bate!"), or it might just be that we're all night owls and any chance to stay up late watching anything sounds like fun.

The first debate, Shmoogie fell asleep early on.  Mr. P watched the whole thing and when I asked him what he thought of it the next day, his assessment was quite reasonable but delivered with a tone of near-disbelief: "He kept blurting out and saying the wrong words."

Before the vice presidential debate, we had some prep about who was going to be on stage and what the role of a Vice President is and why we should care at least a little but also why the debate probably won't affect the election much.  Shmoogie was tired but more awake this time, which meant she shifted rapidly towards bored and cranky instead of asleep.  She was rolling around next to me on the couch, wanting an arm around her, then throwing it off, wanting to go to bed but refusing to take herself, wanting a blanket (Mr. P kindly gave her one, then went back to focusing on the screen and telling me that Pence looks "creepy"... I did ask him if he thought he'd have the same feeling if I hadn't told him ahead of time who I was rooting for...).  Finally, Shmoogie had had enough.  "Ugh!  We might not even need to USE the Vice Presidents!!!"

Deep Story

I listened to Arlie Hochschild interviewed on the Ezra Klein Show recently while snatching a few minutes of exercise trying to keep myself out of a slump of despair (it took me a few days to finish the interview that way; jury still out on whether this particular slump of despair is a safe distance away yet).  The interview focused on her recent book, Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, for which she lived in Louisiana for five years, reaching out to Tea Party supporters and listening to what they had to say.

Her approach, she calls it “turning off my alarm system”, is to “take as my challenge and joy and task… to really stand in the shoes of this other person”.  She focuses on trying to find what she calls the “deep story”, the story that “feels to be true”.

We all have a deep story, she says, and we can reach across divides by listening to them.

It's a big thing to ask.  I know that as much as I truly want to understand the emotional currents driving the political decisions of people I know, it's hard for me to listen and respond in a way that feels constructive instead of feeling either like an attack (to them) or like seething silence (to me).  Maybe I'd do better with people I didn't know.

Anyway, lucky for you, I’m not in the right frame of mind to try to explicate my own deep story today.  I’m not even sure what it is and maybe that’s part of the point.  It isn't the people being interviewed that say “this is my deep story,” it's Hochschild who pulls it out of the hours of interviews and holds it up to them to ask, “Does this feel true to you?”

What I'm offering instead are some podcast links, to some episodes that have meant so much to me, they must resonate with my deep story somehow:

Tribes and Traitors (29 min) (Hidden Brain ep. 24, 3/22/2016)  I’ve noticed this dynamic lots of times.  It feels especially common lately, whether the topic is terrorism or politics or race.  And it dovetails nicely with a sub-theme of the Hochschild interview.

Our Politics, Our Parenting (23 min) (Hidden Brain ep. 44, 9/13/2016)  The ending.  Wait for it.

Terrorism (27 min) (Hidden Brain ep. 13, 12/15/2015)  What I remember sticking out to me here was the idea that when it comes to destructive movements of all kinds, it is the leaders that are psychologically abnormal.  The followers are pretty seriously normal.

Flip the Script (1 hr) (Invisibilia, 7/15/2016)  Fascinating stories, well told.  And goes well with both the Terrorism episode above and the Tribes and Traitors one.

I didn’t realize until I had this all typed up that most of those episodes are from Hidden Brain.  It’s a good podcast.  :)


I need to get back to exercising again, but I will admit watching the debate did help me feel somewhat better.  If that feels true for you, too,  you might enjoy the Hillary Shimmy Song by Jonathan Mann, just for fun.

More

 "Moar," says Bayboh from his highchair, serious and pleading at the same time.

"More cake?" I ask.

"Yeah," he furrows his brow in concentration, staring me down, daring me to refuse him.

"Ok, or... Are you hungry?"

"Yeah!"

"Do you want some rice and lentils?"

"No."

"No? Are you hungry or do you just like the cake?"

"Cake."

I look at him.

"Cake.  Moar!  CAKE!"

Flip

I don’t clearly remember how it started.  It could have been because I was bored and wanted to add a bit of extra mental challenge to reading the same book to Bayboh for the 100th time.  It could have been because I suddenly noticed, reading to Shmoogie, that we didn’t have many books with girls as the main character and I felt bad about it but didn't have the time to go hunting a whole new library. 

It could have been because I was reading The Borrowers to the older kids, a series which I remembered as utterly enchanting and full of female characters (it was written by a woman, after all, Mary Norton).  Reading it aloud, though, I experienced the slowly dawning horror that has become sadly familiar when I share beloved books with the kids without having cracked their covers since my own childhood.  There were female characters, sure, and the protagonist is an independent-minded, interesting girl.  But the rest of them were grownups (mostly mothers) molded (with some sympathy, to be fair, but there’s only so much you can do with such raw material) from demeaning stereotypes of the era (the first book was published in 1952, although the time period described is a generation previous).

At any rate, I don’t clearly remember which of these situations gave me the idea, but I started flipping the gender of every character as I read bedtime stories.  It takes more mental attention than you might think, so I don’t do it absolutely all of the time.  (It also sometimes irritates the children, Shmoogie in particular.)  And the truth is that while I did it pretty consistently at first, I’ve fallen into habits now and have books that I do it for all the time (becaue I might throw them out otherwise) and books that I never do (because it's too hard or they aren't that bad —some are even great — or I know them too well and it's too jarring).  So nothing I’ve gleaned from this is statistically sound or anything like that (but I’m sure other people have done more rigorous analysis).  I’ve also done it almost exclusively with picture books, although it’s also become the trusty hammer that I’ll hit a scene in a longer book with if the gender roles are driving me really nuts and I can figure out how to keep some semblance of the story intact.

All that said, it’s been extremely interesting in several ways.  One thing is, that it is so difficult to do, like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time.  I slip up frequently, although it’s getting much easier with books I’ve read this way quite a few times.

Another thing is, that it is notably uncomfortable.  Like I said, it bothers Shmoogie the most (Bayboh doesn’t seem to notice and Mr. P isn’t reading with us so often anymore, but when he does, he’s at that point where he enjoys being unconventional and fighting arbitrary social boundaries).  I do wonder, for Shmoogie, is it her age?  Her personality?  Or her own already-developed investment in socially acceptable gender roles?

But it also makes *me* uncomfortable often enough, which I find fascinating.  I encourage you to give it a go and try to reserve some brain power to pay attention to how it makes you feel.  If you’re uncomfortable, what seems to trigger that?  Is it all the women and girls suddenly having ideas, speaking authoritatively and being listened to and admired by remarkably passive boys?  Or the number of boys who seem to enjoy hanging out all on their own with a bunch of girls?  Is it the shear number of books that suddenly have no men or boys in them at all, excepting a kind, loving, selfless (and quite possibly mute) father?  Is it the grouchy, scary, ugly woman, utterly villainous yet inexplicably treated with deference and sympathy by a man or boy who calmly puts up with any amount of crap until his sympathy and goodness finally cause a change of heart (though probably not an actual apology)?  Is it the flipped roles themselves that bother you (and does that surprise or disappoint you)?  Or is it what they reveal about the air we’ve all breathed from birth, the water we’ve given our children to swim in (knowingly or not… it's hard for a parent to change the composition of the ocean)?

It’s all those things, and probably more, for me (shocking, I know, since I wrote that list!), but the one that really gets me is how many books we own that, as written, have only “he”s in them (I feel like talking animal books are the worst offenders).  Or only “he”s and one inhumanly kind, loving, and unindividuated mother.


Oh, look at that!  I was right about the blasted talking animals.  (I wish that article had been more critical at the end; I love Harry Potter immensely, but just because it’s written by a woman and I love Hermione’s character and several others doesn’t mean it smashes gender roles (look at The Borrowers!).  It’s actually chock full of gender stereotypes.  In fact, I can’t think of a character in that sprawling universe that significantly pushes the bounds of a familiar gendered archetype (except possibly Harry himself, with his empathy and grief, which we pretty much only have access to because he is the protagonist).  The new play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was so awful in that regard that I had a hard time enjoying it.)