Friday, December 16, 2011

"B" Stings: You're Naming Your Kid WHAT?!!

"B" Stings: You're Naming Your Kid WHAT?!!: My all-time favorite among unfortunate given names is Stringfellow Barr . Yes, yes, I know he was the founder of St. John's College an...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

You're Naming Your Kid WHAT?!!

My all-time favorite among unfortunate given names is Stringfellow Barr. Yes, yes, I know he was the founder of St. John's College and quite obviously a gentleman and a scholar. Even so, I'm compelled to imagine the circumstances in which his naming took place.

Perhaps it went something like this:

Prospective Mother
(to Prospective Father):  My dear, what do you think we ought to name our dear, wee boy? I'm rather partial to Twinetot.

Prospective Father: That's a bit of a sissy name, don't you think? What about Fiberfeller?

Prospective Mother: If you're looking for a more manly-sounding name, how about Ropebloke?

Prospective Father:   Ropebloke?  Sounds rather working class, I should think.

Prospective Mother:  Well, there's always Stringfellow, I suppose.

Prospective Father:   Stringfellow! Now that's a damn fine name. A damn fine name, indeed.

Big Jim Hogg, governor of the great state of Texas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, named his only daughter, Ima. The poor girl managed to rise above the suffering caused by this act of blatant cruelty and became a noted philanthropist. When signing a document, however, she trained herself to write in an illegible scrawl.

Names like Joy, Grace, and Spike carry the potential for being gross misnomers. What if Joy grows up to suffer from severe clinical depression, Grace turns out large and clumsy, and Spike develops into a geeky botanist?

Hippie names such as Sunshine, Dharma, Rainbow, Krishna and Skye are a potential obstacle in the path of conservative aspirations. For instance, as an evangelical Christian pastor, the Reverend Dharma Krishna Jones is unlikely to attract a large flock, and how many Republicans would vote for Rainbow Smith as a candidate for public office?

Some names set people up for ridicule:  Fanny, for a girl, for example, or Galen, for a boy.

Then there are the unpronounceable names. If you were a boy born in Madagascar, you name might be Andrianatmpokoindrindra.  However, one needn't look further than America's linguistic Mother Country for a list of names which the average American finds daunting. St. John, for example, when used as a first name is pronounced SIN-jin, Siobhan is pronounced ShivAWN and Niamh is pronounced Neev.

Among the above list, I count my own name, Bronwen, pronounced BRONwen (short o, short e). You see, my father's family was Welsh, not a particularly prestigious ethnicity in Britain but apparently rather exotic here in America. My sister fared somewhat better having been given the name Gwendolyn (shortened to Gwen) and also the middle name of Margaret. My middle name, on the other hand, is Powell, leaving me no alternative except the diminutive Bronnie.

To say I detested my name is putting it mildly. Perhaps if Id been an extroverted, easy-going sort of a child, I would have felt differently. I might even have felt differently if I hadn't been born during an era when everyone was named Sally, or Suzy or Jane. The truth is, I was excruciatingly shy and when the classroom teacher, while taking the role, called out "BRON-son?" or "BROWN-wyn?" I  whispered "Here" amidst a cacophony of giggles. The diminutive, Bronnie, was almost as much a subject for ridicule. People either pronounced it Bonnie, or, more often, Brownie. One or two people even said Baloney (I swear, I'm not kidding). Anyhow, by third grade I stopped trying to correct them.

My hands- down favorite misconstruction of my name came to me in a letter addressed to Bro. Nwyn. Presumably the sender thought I was in residence at a monastery.

Unlike naming practices in other cultures, Americans are largely indifferent to the actual meaning of a given name so long as it sounds good. For example, a well-educated couple I know named their daughter Mallory which derives from the French word malheureux, meaning unhappy. Would the name, Brendan, have achieved such popularity, I wonder, if people understood that its meaning, in Irish Gaelic, is smelly hair?

I was informed by my father that I was named for a Welsh princess -- which is total bullshit! Actually, the word, bron, in Welsh, means hill or breast and the word, wen, means white. So, if I wanted to go by the translation, I might invite everyone to call me Whitetit or Fairbooby.

Here's a ray of sunshine, though, at the end of the long, dark nomenclature of my hapless life. My name actually derives from the Mabinogian name, Branwen, which translates to White Raven. The fact that the goddess, Branwen, ends up dying of sorrow doesn't entirely diminish my happiness in this discovery.

You can call me White Raven if you want, or Bronwyn (spelled with a y instead of an e), but, actually, for more than a decade now, I've mostly been called "B".  Anyhow, those are your three options. If you call me anything else, I'll probably hit you.

I think there should be a Naming Police, possibly a division or sub-division of the Department of Social Services. Whenever names such as Stringfellow or Moonmaiden appear on a birth certificate, the Naming Police should rush in and threaten to arrest the parents for child abuse.

I must admit, the image of my eminently dignified parents being threatened with jail on my account gives me a certain perverse pleasure. To avoid the awkward publicity, they surely would have renamed me Maryann or Susan. I'm sure, if they had, my life would have been quite different.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Deadbeat Fritos (Or the Frustrations and Subtle Benefits of Going Deaf)

I am half deaf. That is to say, roughly fifty percent of my hearing is gone. Yes, I know you can't really be half deaf anymore than you can be half pregnant. The thing is, when I contemplate my hearing loss, I picture a flag at half mast struggling bravely to catch the wind. As my hearing continues to decrease, other metaphors will no doubt leap to mind -- a quarter moon perhaps or one-tenth of an Oreo cookie.

Right now, though, I'm in mourning over the death of half my hearing. I am, in other words, half deaf.

What this means is that in a room of ten or twelve people seated around a table for the purposes of discussion, I might catch about forty percent of what's being said and that's only true if the people in question are articulate, middle-class Americans from the Northeastern or Far Western parts of the country. I am incapable of comprehending anyone with a foreign accent, anyone who mutters, anyone whose voice is unusually nasal or high pitched and virtually anyone under the age of six.

Loss of hearing allows me essentially two choices. I can either pretend to know what the other person is saying and make a wild guess as to how to reply or I can say, "I'm sorry, can you repeat that please?" Consequently people think either that I'm frustratingly needy or just plain bat shit crazy. They may also conclude that I'm a bit simple minded, possibly in the early stages of dementia.
For instance, if I find myself alone in a restaurant without a friend or relative to serve as interpreter and the food server is someone who has never bothered much with articulation, the conversation can go something like this:

FS:   Dyawansouprsala?

Me: I'm sorry?

FS:   Souprsala, whayawan?

Me (taking a wild guess): Yes.

FS:   Ma'am, yacantavboth?

Me:  No thanks, I don't want broth.

Speaking with children yields similar results. My oldest grandson used to be pleasantly (though somewhat loudly) audible. Since becoming a teenager, however, his mode of communication consists of aiming his words in the direction of his collarbone and talking in a low (usually sardonic) monotone.

My youngest grandson, aged six, communicates while jumping up and down, twirling and circling around the room and tugging at various articles of his clothing.

The only one of my grandsons I can understand consistently these days is my middle grandson, age eleven, whom everyone else thinks is too loud.

Children, typically, find hearing-impaired people infuriating. A typical conversation between myself and a child might go something like this:

Child:  C'navsumteet?

Me:    Who's Canasta Pete?

Child:  NO'MUNGRY!

Me:  Nome's in Alaska, not in Hungary.

You are perhaps wondering whether I wear hearing aids. I did briefly but now I do not. You see, the thing about hearing aids is that they are expensive -- $2,000 to $7,000. Medicare does not cover them -- understandably, since being able to hear is clearly a luxury and not essential to one's quality of life.

Before I went into retirement and relative poverty, I did purchase a pair of hearing aids for $3,000. They continually malfunctioned and had to be sent back to the factory over and over again. Finally, I lost one of them after yanking it out of my ear in frustration because it had -- once again -- gone dead. Needless to say, this happened after the warranty had expired.

So much for hearing aids...

The upside of being half deaf is that what you think you've heard people say can be quite funny. For instance, when my son-in-law said, "Can you pass the salt, please?" what I heard was "I'm fasting with a cod piece."

The other day, that same son-in-law (I only have one) was lecturing me about my unwillingness to adapt my driving skills to a more challenging climate. "Are you going to freak every time it snows?" he demanded.

That time I understood him perfectly but pretended not to. "Did you just ask me if I wanted to eat deadbeat Frito's?" I inquired innocently.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Birthday and the Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

I was born a day before the two-year anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I can't prove this is significant though I'm sure my parents, on more than one occasion, perceived December 6, 1943 as a date which will live in infamy.

I was not a good child. However, the magnitude of destruction I wrought in the course of youthful rebellion is memorable only to a few surviving members of my parents' generation. When they die, my unfortunate reputation will be forever erased and expunged. Then I'll die, too, and no one will know or care that I trampled my father's ivy plants, kicked down the door to my bedroom, stole pickles from my neighbor's pickle jar, sassed my teachers, terrorized my babysitters and got kicked out of Girl Scouts for breaking and entering (as well as for using swear words).

Various explanations have been put forward to explain why I behaved so badly, but all of them pale when one takes into account that I was born under the ominous shadow of Pearl Harbor. It's worse than being born on the Ides of March, though (admittedly) not so bad as being born on September eleventh.

My daughter was born on Friday, the thirteenth. At first I was distressed by this proverbially unlucky date, but then I read a lot of books about Christianity's attempt to stamp out Paganism and learned that the number thirteen, if you were pagan, was actually fortuitous. If you are a neopagan, you will understand this. Anyhow, instead of mourning my child's birthdate, I took pride in it and I still believe that her mass of coppery gold curls resulted from liberal sprinklings of fairy dust.

From a purely rational, scientific point of view, I suppose it doesn't really matter which day you were born on. This perception is fine for people who weren't brought up on stories like Peter Pan, The Water Babies, Grimm's Fairy Tales, and Arabian Nights, and were never attracted to folk lore or mythology.

Even if you are one of these rational types, you have to admit that being surrounded by people all talking loudly and indignantly about exploding battle ships is not the most propitious atmosphere in which to celebrate one's birthday.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Good Old Days vs.Nowadays

"No one cares about being polite these days," an elderly woman commented sourly. Though the temperature was in the mid seventies, she was wearing a bulky cable-knit sweater that smelled faintly of mothballs.

Her female companion, also elderly, instantly warmed to the subject. "These young people can't even be bothered to say 'You're welcome,'" she snorted.

"That's right," her friend agreed. "They say 'no problem.'"

I overheard the above conversation while shopping at Target and found it profoundly depressing. I am currently sixty-seven years old. How long, I wondered, before my shriveled, lemon-sucking mouth begins spewing forth these resentful criticisms and comparisons?

Will I, someday, actually care if "no problem" comes to replace "you're welcome."?

Are there, I wondered, any conditions and/or conventions, outmoded and outdistanced, that I long to have back?

I guess double-scoop ice cream cones at only ten cents each would be nice.
So would five and ten cents stores. And old-fashioned variety stores.  And comic strips like Little Lulu, Rex Morgan, M.D., Brenda Starr, Pogo, and Denny Dimwit.
  Well, maybe not Denny Dimwit.

On the other hand... a teenager in high school, I dressed in pleated skirts and wore stockings secured with a garter belt. My seams were always going crooked, and the garter belt cut painfully into the backs of my thighs. The whole world seemed booby-trapped to snag my stockings and I (or more often my mother) was obliged to spend a fortune on nylons.

Back in the fifties, there were no warning labels on cigarette packages. There were, however, abundant television commercials applauding the smooth taste of this or that brand. Hardy, outdoor types like the Marlboro Cowboy inhaled deeply before casually mounting a bucking bronco. Sophisticated ladies sucked on Salem's while seated decorously beside a tranquil lake.

The few African-Americans on television (referred to as Negroes or Colored People) were confined to certain roles such as corpulent household maid or comically ignorant manservant. At some point, Harry Belafonte was Hollywood's only dark celebrity to be followed later by Sidney Poitier. Women were restricted, too.  According to a popular joke of the time, men went to college to get their BS, women to get their MRS.

All that said, however...

I've always secretly resented having to wear a seat belt. It makes me feel confined without my consent. I am also ambivalent about cell phones because they keep you on an invisible leash -- multiple leashes actually. You go on a private adventure only to be tugged back by something urgent that someone wants you to do. There is something exhilarating, I think, about being out of reach even if it sometimes places you in danger.

Restriction of range is another thing I regret. For instance, as a teenager, I wandered through the downtown Washington, D.C. at night with nary a fear of being mugged, mauled, raped or whatever. Downtown, in those days, was full of bongo drummers, beggars, businessmen, people from the projects, bureaucrats, beatniks, foreigners, folk singers, etc., all mixed up together. There were also plenty of cheap restaurants with good food that weren't part of some food chain.

Then there's the matter of airports...

When you left on an airplane, your family and/or friends followed you all the way to the gate. Once on board, a perfectly coiffed and well-proportioned stewardess would offer you chewing gum to keep your ears from hurting. Later, you were treated to a free meal (not gourmet, perhaps, but usually quite edible). When you deplaned, your welcoming party was stationed right there at the gate and could help you manage the extra shopping bags you'd acquired during your trip. You could bring your razor and your nail clippers with you. You could even bring your Swiss army knife. Nobody groped you; nobody scrutinized you in your radioactive nakie.

On the other hand...

I am quite happy not to rely on a typewriter and, especially, not having to struggle with white-out or smeary sheets of carbon paper. Being able to surf the net is far better than having to consult an encyclopedia or spend hours in the library where you can't eat, drink, or swear profusely out loud.

I also appreciate not having to write letters in my awkward arthritic-looking cursive. E-mail and Facebook suite me just fine.

Are children ruder, wilder, lazier, more ignorant than they were forty or fifty years ago? I really can't say but I will say there was nothing exemplary about sixties teens. I, for one, specialized in being outspokenly rude and judgmental. To my way of thinking, my parents generation had made a whopping great mess of the world and it was left to us -- their enlightened progeny -- to repair the damage and fashion a utopia in which everyone would somehow survive happily while doing only what they chose to do. I mean, don't do it, if it doesn't groove ya, man!

Kids have sex younger and more of them do drugs than they did in my day. On the other hand, there is less shame and secrecy over becoming pregnant and (despite the Republican Party agenda) greater access to abortion. There is less of a stigma attached to being in psychotherapy or following a twelve-step program.

In the fifties, when I was a child, children of divorced parents were looked askance at and sometimes shunned. This, however, does not mean that today's practice of serial monogamy is necessarily a good thing.

What I'm getting at, of course, is that the progression of time yields a mixed bag of positive and negative changes.

It seems pretty obvious, if you study history, that there never was a time you could reasonably label "The Good Old Days."

What there is is a group of old people, once lithe and limber, once needed if not valued, once clever and energetic who, now are clumsy, slow-witted and essentially irrelevant unless, of course, they are rich and in a position to make others rich as well.

If I ever find myself spitting out negative comparisons between now and then, I hope I will pause long enough to remind myself that what I actually miss is the range and freedom of a young body and the quick responsiveness of a young mind.

Meanwhile, if someone thanks me, I'll respond to them by saying, "No problem."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Truth As I See It

"I don't want my son placed in a class in which he will be required to feel compassion."

The above is a direct quote from a mother who did not want her son in the same fifth grade class as a student with disabilities.

The student she was referring to was my student. I was his "full inclusion" assistant."

If you don't know what a full inclusion assistant is, it is someone who assists a disabled student placed in a regular public school class. In my case, I adapted curriculum to my student's level of understanding, created and implemented a behavior plan, and came up with strategies to involve him in interactions with his typically developing peers.

Sometimes it was rewarding; other times it was frustrating. By the end of my stint, it was mostly heartbreaking.

My student was a strong-willed preteen boy with a great sense of humor and an enormous capacity for generosity. He was challenged with cerebral palsy, seizures, and was cognitively delayed.

Initially, my gut reaction was to hate the mother who didn't want her son in my student's class.

Lately though, I've wondered, was she really a monster of consummate selfishness? Was she all that different from most of us? Or just more honest?

Before I continue, let me make one thing clear. When I use the word "compassion" I am not referring to the impulse that prompts us to donate to charities. Nor am I talking about being part of some group action to address hunger, racism, illiteracy, or some specific disease.

What I am addressing here is compassion on an individual basis -- i.e., how we respond to a friend, neighbor, relative or co-worker, etc., who is going through a rough time.

I belong to a group called "Getting Old and Grumpy." Last time we met, we talked a little bit about a phenomenon called "blaming the victim."  You know how that goes. If someone has a run of bad luck, it's because they somehow brought it on themselves:

        They didn't have a positive attitude;

        They pursued an unhealthy lifestyle;

        They were reaping the consequences of bad karma;

        They didn't accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior.

If we're honest, we'll admit that we all, at one time or another, have found reasons to justify our lack of compassion toward someone who is suffering.

I said if we're honest. The one true thing I know for sure about human beings is that they are fundamentally inauthentic. I did not make this up. I learned it during a weekend, several years ago, when I participated in an event called The Landmark Forum. Since then, everything I observed about other people and about myself corroborates this fact.

The dictionary definition of "compassion" does not necessarily imply empathy. Yet, it is empathy, primarily, that weighs us down, compels us to imagine what the afflicted person is actually feeling to the point where we come close to suffering along with him or her.

At the same time we feel GUILTY for having escaped the same or a similar fate. Why him?  Why her?  Why not me instead?  In our hearts we know it's mostly the luck of the draw.

GUILT, of course, can be useful if it inspires one to become a better person. More often, though, its crippling influence only serves to make things worse.

To escape GUILT, we take refuge in denial or in blaming someone else -- including, of course, THE VICTIM. Thus, we are prone to distance ourselves with false or irrelevant justifications:

        "She brought this on herself;"

        "God is punishing (and/or testing) him;"
        "Never interfere in another person's karma;"

        "Better leave compassion to the bodhisattvas;"

        "I don't have time for other people's problems."

In pondering all this, I am reminded of a man I overheard, back in the sixties, who refused to treat his horse that had somehow become wounded. "Yeah, man...I mean, like he (i.e. the horse) did it."

In a similar vein, I remember tending to my cat who was suffering from feline pneumonia while an observing hippie chirped, "I guess Nature's going through a weeding out process."

I also think of the many parents I've known whose children were born with significant disabilities. Most of them stepped bravely up to the plate and did whatever was needed to provide their child with some quality of life. These people came from every strata of society, every ethnic group, every religious affiliation, every type of lifestyle and displayed every type of personality.

Except in a very few cases where drugs and alcohol were involved, none of them brought this suffering on themselves.

If I am totally honest, I must confess that I would rather not be associated with a situation in which I am required to feel compassion. Mainly, I want to be a happy, peaceful person surrounded by other happy, peaceful people. Of course, if something goes wrong with me or my life, I will expect other people to feel compassion.

So what's to be done about this predicament? Basically, I think we begin by recognizing that we are full of shit (or, in the language of Landmark), we fully acknowledge our inauthenticity.

Next, we acknowledge that our emotional impulses are perhaps not the best guides to follow in terms of our actual performance.

We recognize that -- logically and fairly -- the right thing to do is to be supportive of the person who suffers, however time-consuming or emotionally burdensome that support.

We acknowledge that we are all somehow interconnected.

We understand that our rush to judgement is most likely a defense mechanism against fear and guilt.

We also need to respect and forgive our own need to distance ourselves from the sufferer so long as the distancing is temporary -- i.e., does not constitute abandonment.

If we are religious, we follow the Golden Rule.

If we believe in a universe where there is no a priori right or wrong, we choose, nonetheless, to do what is right.

In either case, we choose compassion.   

Friday, October 21, 2011

Reflections on the subject of IQ

The most important thing in life is to be smart.
The worst thing in life is to be average -- or downright dumb.
These are the absolute truths I grew up with. The trouble is I could never figure out quite where I stood.

I grew up in the Unitarian denomination where the average IQ is probably around 140 (and that could be a low estimate). In Sunday School I said a lot of dumb things. I could tell that my Sunday School teachers were swallowing verbal expressions of profound disappointment. I was, after all, the daughter of a celebrated Unitarian minister whose IQ was clearly off the charts.

In elementary school I easily mastered reading but the simplest math problem made my brain go numb. I also had trouble distinguishing right from left. I was late learning to tell time and was almost ten before I could tie my own shoelaces.

On the other hand, I was endowed with certain gifts:  I could act in plays; I was pretty good at learning a foreign language, and I excelled in creative writing.

In high school, my English teachers thought I was brilliant while my math teachers wondered if I might be borderline mentally retarded.

Was I stupid or was I smart?  I still don't know.

What is intelligence really?  Is it something you're born with? Something shaped primarily by your environment? Or something complicated and mysterious that can't be quantified?

My friends, over the years, have come from many different backgrounds and have demonstrated a wide variety of abilities and talents. One of my co-workers who grew up in "the projects" possessed extraordinary common sense. From me, she learned to increase her vocabulary; from her, I learned to think in a less fanciful and more practical vein.

My very best friend for a number of years was a daycare provider who had pretty much shrugged off the benefits of formal education. Yet, her interactions with children (especially emotionally, mentally or physically-challenged children) were a product of her innate genius. For example, an autistic boy who was virtually mute at school spoke to her (albeit in a high-pitched, mechanical tone), coming out with words and phrases his teachers never thought he knew.

In fact, and on reflection, I'm forced to conclude that good teaching has little to do with being exceptionally smart. A stupid teacher, to my way of thinking, is one who can't imagine what might be going on inside a student's brain, someone who doesn't take the trouble to find out what a child actually knows so as to be able to attach new knowledge to old. A stupid teacher usually lacks passion, empathy and -- above all -- a sense of humor.

Some people trip over their own sentences yet can design and build the perfect home. Or compose and perform the perfect song. Or soothe and tame a wild animal. Or play soccer with cunning and agility.

To some extent, it's possible to increase one's intelligence. One does this by studying hard, listening closely to what others have to say, and carrying in one's head a model for excellence. I did these things in college and everyone thought I was incredibly smart.

Probably there is a difference between being smart and being able to think. Some people in America appear to have given up thinking altogether. These are the people who equate Obama's health care program with the Third Reich agenda. They carry signs that say, "Government out of my Medicare." They believe it is possible to live the good life without paying any taxes. They think the Bible (despite its many contradictions) overrides scientific data when it comes to issues like the theory of evolution or global warming.

These people believe whatever provides them with emotional satisfaction. In a morally complex world, they have a passion for absolute certainty.
Smart people do not seem to know how to communicate with these people who have given up thinking. Smart people think they can convince the ignorant by coming up with a plan, trotting out scientific data, or by coining weak slogans. This approach lacks the passion and moral indignation that hooks the unthinking.

Worst of all, smart people persist in letting everyone know they are smart. My father once commented that the hatred of the poor for the rich was as nothing compared with the hatred of the ignorant toward the knowledgeable.

If smart people want to change the world, maybe they ought to bear that in mind.

Can the unthinking population actually be converted? Can the willfully ignorant be made smart?

I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that intelligence is far more complicated, subtle and, yes -- unquantifiable -- than most people seem to believe.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bad Times Pass Good Times Come Again

The aging mind appears to forget things quickly. For instance, I have a vague memory of living in a wind-swept, dessicated inferno called Los Alamos and longing with all my heart to return to Marin County where the green and gentle hills were festooned with wild flowers and the air was sweet with rain.

Then the monsoon season arrived and so did the flowers -- so many varieties, most quite new to me. Small streams bubbled up from the ground. The marauding winds were gone and the wildfires mostly contained. Now it was beautiful in Los Alamos, the morning sun so dazzling in the oxygen-thin air, I sometimes felt as if I'd taken some mind-altering drug which made the world seem more sharply-defined.

We seem to be having, now, a sort of extended summer with temperatures reaching into the sixties. It is October 19th and one can see great swatches of gold amidst the green on the slopes of the Jemez Mountains. The peaks of the distant Sangre de Christo Mountains are already dusted with snow. Outside my apartment building, the locust trees are bright yellow with branches covered in dark, curling seed pods. Pyrocantha bushes are heavy with crimson berries. Some flowers are dying but others, like the sprays of purple aster and roadside samplings of morning glories, live on. People are putting their gardens to bed; young heads bend over homework assignments; the soccer season is in full swing.

I know it gets very cold here, colder than I've experienced in a long, long time. Back in Marin County, we complained if the temperature plunged into the forties. Usually, the winter temperatures ranged between fifty and sixty during the day. Will I become accustomed to avoiding patches of ice set like cunning traps waiting to break my brittle bones? Will I learn to stumble bravely through snow and sludge? Will I be better prepared when the fierce winds come again?

Will my aging mind remember the floral grandeur of late summer? The many-splendored majesty of fall? Here's hoping that I will.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Roaming the Neighborhoods

Some experts have recently concluded that today's children are being micromanaged to a fault and, as a result, are growing up without the ability to think and act creatively and independently.

My two oldest grandsons are pretty much tied to a schedule during the school year, though not so much during summer vacation. My youngest grandson, who is in first grade, appears to have more free time which he uses mainly to exercise his powerful imagination.

My daughter reports that it is difficult sometimes to weigh the advantages of learning a new skill against the advantages of unstructured play. Some of the mothers she knows worry about safety and are loathe to let their children out of their sight.
Is the world really less safe that it was?
Or are fears of lurking kidnappers, dope dealers and pedophiles exacerbated by media hype?
Is learning to ice skate, playing soccer and practicing the piano more important than playing Hide and Seek with the neighborhood kids?

I can't answer those questions, of course. I am not an expert.

Though I didn't, by any stretch of the imagination, have a perfect childhood, I did have more freedom than most middle class children have today.

Back in the fifties there was no such thing as a play date.
After briefly informing my mother of my plans, I would dash over to a friend's house five or six blocks away. Most of the houses in our neighborhood were large with many rooms and the rooms had many cupboards and closets. There was also a lot of free-standing, bulky furniture -- in other words, a perfect environment for playing Sardines or Hide and Seek.

I loved the exotic tension of holding my breath as the designated seeker came near my hiding place and the suppressed giggles when several of us were jammed into a closet attempting to remain hidden for just a while longer.

Often a group of us would ride our bikes up and down the maple-lined streets in search of adventure. One day we found a lost dog and returned him to his owner.  Another time we discovered a fire in someone's yard and proceeded to stomp out the flames until the fire department came and chased us away. (We left knowing in our hearts that we were the real heroes of the day.)

We climbed the stone wall by the Methodist Church and dared each other to jump down. We rode our bikes like fury downhill taking our hands off the handlebars and waving them triumphantly over our heads. We rode with the wind in our hair since no one, in those days, wore a helmet.

We ran from bullies and laughed at the crazy old lady on the corner who claimed she talked to ghosts.

We made up plays and performed them, with or without an audience.

We built snow forts and tree forts. We jumped into huge pile of carefully-raked autumn leaves.

We played Jump Rope, Red Rover and Mother, May I.

When I look back on these exploits, I don't remember a single adult intervening except showing up briefly to scold us, warn us, or chase us away. If one of us acquired a lump on the head or a skinned knee, we usually took care of it ourselves, at least over the age of eight or nine. After all, we knew where the band-aids were kept and how to make an ice pack.

Many aspects go into what constitutes a happy childhood. Unscheduled, adult-free time is perhaps one of them. On the other hand, acquiring skills is important, too, and I often wished I had learned to do more things like ice skate or play the piano.

I know I would have hated being watched over all the time. I was, in many ways, a timid child and I credit what bravery I acquired to the dares and taunts of my peers and to my desire to live up to their expectations.

Ironically, my mother thought of me as rather fragile and worried that I would never live to grow up. The fact that I was allowed to roam freely in the company of my peers was due mainly to 1950s society's view on childhood and not to my mother's temperamental inclinations. Also, my mother was British and the British attitude toward children has frequently been described as one of "benign neglect."

A teacher I used to work with often said of his students, "They learn in spite of us."
This is perhaps the best description of how children survive the interventions (or lack thereof) of well-meaning adults.

As human beings, we are paragons of imperfection. In general, I think we do the best we can while the absolute knowledge of right and wrong remains forever hidden.  This seems particularly true in regard to parenting.

Friday, September 30, 2011

I Don't Get It

Human beings are truly a strange species with many seemingly contradictory behaviors.

One of the first things parents do after the birth of a child is buy him/her a stuffed animal. Teddy bears probably predominate but farm animals (soft fluffy piglets, calves with embroidered smiles, and adorable yellow ducklings) are destined to become part of the toy menagerie.

Early reading material includes The Three Little Pigs, The Golden Egg Book, Chicken Little, and The Little Red Hen. After that, we move on to classics like Charlotte's Web and Babe.

All the time we are doing this, we are encouraging our children to dine on something we refer to as meat.

My daughter nailed this dichotomy at an early age (five or six, I can't remember). Shrewdly eyeing the Sunday pork roast, she demanded to know "What animal is this?" "Who killed it?" and finally, "How many pork chops would Wilbur be if you cut him up?" Shortly after, she announced that she was a vegetarian and remained one until her late twenties.

I am reviewing all this because one of the family ducks somehow acquired a broken wing and, after a serious discussion among the adults, was summarily slaughtered and prepared for consumption. This delighted my son-in-law who perhaps was not brought up  on stories of talking farm animals. My oldest grandson, whose emotions take a back seat to logic and scientific curiosity, was also fine with this. My middle grandson was distraught, however, and believes that eating one's former pet is an act of sacrilege.

My youngest grandson (age six) has the same sensibilities as his mother. As of this writing, his strategy re the transformation from barnyard pal to tasty entree is simply not to talk about it. He is upset, though, and may even be on the path to vegetarianism. Last night he wanted to know what animal provided the meat he was eating.

In theory, I have no problem with people raising animals for food. After all, that is how nature is set up to operate. You are either prey, predator, or savanger unless you decline to participate and opt to become Vegan. I do have a problem with the way most domesticated farm animals are raised -- jammed into cages, pumped with hormones, etc. I am a hypocrite, though, and continue to let myself be fooled into thinking that packaged meats are somehow unrelated to tortured animals.

What intrigues me most, though, is why we present our children with toy ducks and stories of talking animals. Perhaps it is a tendency that harks back to hunter-gatherer days when an animal was hunted and eaten yet simultaneously revered and ceremonially thanked for providing sustenance.

We are a long way gone from that time. I mean, can you imagine saying a prayer of thanks for each genetically modified chicken before you slit its throat, or for each steer in a long line of steers before you conk it on the heard?

Are "civilized" human beings programmed to use their children as foils against cognitive dissonance?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

On the Subject of Cats

Is there such a thing as a normal cat? This is not a rhetorical question. I am trying to determine whether there is something about me (some dark, pernicious influence) that has caused each and every one of my feline companions to turn psycho.

My childhood cats were clearly suicidal. They demonstrated this from time to time by "making a mess" (to use my mother's euphemism) on the couch in my father's study. My father's study was his sanctuary, on a par with the Forbidden City. Furthermore, he HATED cats. So why, I ask you, was my father's study the ONLY place in the house where this act of feline atrocity was committed?

My first adulthood cat was named Bear-Bear because, as a kitten, she resembled a small fuzzy black bear cub. She was supremely affectionate and I loved her dearly. At some point, though, she began to appropriate articles of clothing (odd socks being a favorite). She would carry them out from the bedroom in her mouth, lay them carefully on the living room floor and massage them with her front paws making odd little bleating noises as she did so. Sometimes she would switch from socks to bathroom sets -- towels, washcloths, even an occasional bath mat. On one occasion she dragged out a pair of my husband's jeans.

Pretty Paws, a stray acquired by my animal-loving daughter, spent the entire day on the roof of our house which, in time, became decorated from corner to corner with dried cat turds. This same cat perfected a quite credible imitation of human speech. "Hrrrow!" she yowel, "Hrrrow, hrrow, hrrow!" Her preferred time to practice this talent was three a.m. or thereabouts, thus waking the entire household with her eerie monologue.

Pasha was a fluffy, cream-colored cat with blue eyes, slightly crossed. He adored my mother and would perch on the back of her reclining chair tenderly licking her hair. If someone other than my mother occupied the reclining chair, Pasha would wander in circles, meowing piteously, stopping only to gaze in bewilderment at the chair with its alien occupant. Pasha also permitted himself to be captured and molested, on a regular basis, by my daughter's French lop, even though he could have easily escaped either by clawing his way to freedom or jumping out of reach. In the history of cognitively-challenged cats, Pasha stands out as a stunning example. He was friendly though and welcomed all kinds of strange cats into our yard and into his presence. I once discovered him seated companionably beside a scruffy tom. It was raining steadily at the time and the two of them were occupying a large flower pot that was gradually filling up with water.

My current feline companion is a tuxedo female who, when I purchased her, seemed not only normal but notably calm and sociable. Consequently, I named her Serenity which turned out to be a misnomer. Serenity perceives my family, especially my youngest grandson, to be true descendants of Attila, the Hun and rushes to hide behind the stove the minute they cross the threshold of my door. Like Pasha, she is a licker, but a licker with a vengeance. Thus I am often awakened at three or four in the morning with the sensation of a small, sandpaper tongue scraping lovingly against my ear.

My daughter, who has never had a normal cat either, is the current owner of a long-haired, ginger-colored male called Marmalade Lion. M. Lion is prone to climbing on people's laps where he perches tenuously purring and waving his tail simultaneously which means (1) that he is please and agitated at the same time, or (2) that he hasn't yet decided whether he is pleased OR agitated and is currently entertaining both possibilities. At some point he is apt to nip you on the arm prior to jumping down as if he'd suddenly decided you were to blame for his cognitive dissonance. M. Lion has a particularly unpleasant-sounding meow which sounds like someone with a megaphone whining in a New York accent.

My son-in-law appears to believe there is such a thing as a normal cat and that he is uniquely qualified to choose one. I  find this position somewhat arrogant but I'm open to any possibility...