Thursday, May 22, 2014

Maybe this Post Should have a Trigger Warning...

Sunday morning-- well, afternoon, really, because who gets through the whole Sunday paper in the morning?-- I read this article in the New York Times about calls for "trigger warnings" on assigned literature in college classes.  


The way I understand it, students and some faculty members at colleges and universities across the country are lobbying their administrators for some kind of warning labels about content that could make some students uncomfortable.  My first question was, "what kind of pornographic, violent, or otherwise seriously offensive crap is required reading at these two-bit institutions?"  Then I read further and saw that there were references to books including The Great Gatsby, The Merchant of Venice, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some of the colleges named were Oberlin, Rutgers, and UC Santa Barbara.


Apparently there is some concern that students who have suffered trauma, such as rape, or the horrors of military service in a war zone, might be taken by surprise by violence or other elements in such books. Thus startled by literature, they might suffer symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.*  Trigger warnings would accompany texts which contained war, violence (especially against women), racist or sexist or antisemitic language, or other elements which could upset sensitized individuals.  While I sincerely believe that people do endure tremendous genuine trauma which may sensitize them for the rest of their lives, I can't agree with the notion of requiring literature to come with warning labels. 

I feel I can speak about this with some sense of what sensitized individuals must be going through, because I was the victim of repeated, life-threatening, domestic violence, which I narrowly escaped by sneaking out on one of the rare occasions while my ex-husband was at work. That was after secretly packing my children's clothes and toys in black garbage bags which were thrown over the side of  my second floor balcony to generous family members who were willing to help me get out.  Before I could file for divorce, I had to obtain a restraining order so that I could go in and out of my parents' house without encountering my screaming, crying, threatening, soon-to-be-ex.  I've also been the object of sexist and antisemitic language, including quite a lot by that husband. I hadn't ever considered myself traumatized by it, so I offer that only as a background fact to support my claim that this is a discussion I am qualified to take up.  I returned to my college studies after I left my abusive husband, so I could have found myself among those deemed potentially sensitive.  

Wow.  Just reread that.  Maybe what I'm really sensitive about is whether people will think I'm qualified to talk about something.  Maybe I'll take that up in another post.  Or with a qualified therapist...

All of that qualifying brings me back around to saying, emphatically, that the whole idea of lit with warning labels is something that's not only ridiculous, but in some sense, appalling.  I'm sorry, I thought that the purpose of literature was to touch human beings and affect them viscerally.  I thought the idea of studying literature was the opportunity to grapple with, discuss, interpret and deeply understand the human condition as it is presented on a page by writers who have done some of the same grappling and interpreting. Literature, in fact has been found to increase empathy in readers according to the study discussed in this NPR squib.  Though the study cites that the immediate effects are short-lived, the researchers conjecture that repeated literary reading will exercise "empathy muscles," and improve such social skills over the longer term. 

So, even if you ignore enjoyment and pedagogical value,  reading literature still has to be considered a good idea, even though it might trigger upset in some people. But really, what harm might come from requiring instructors to put warning labels on some books?  Well, it actually seems like kind of a lot, because once requirements starts, the nature of what might need a warning could grow exponentially.  If you think for a moment about all of the traumatic experiences people might have and all of the experiences portrayed in literature, you realize how gigantic the overlap is, and what a Pandora's box we might open if warnings are deemed necessary.  There's also a point raised by a professor quoted in the NYT article, who mentions the "chilling" effect such requirements might have on untenured faculty members who are concerned about how student complaints might impact their employment.  More and more classes are taught by adjunct, part-time and junior faculty than ever before, so this opens up the possibility that a number of important books will be effectively banned from the classroom because everyone is afraid to teach them.

One more thing.  And maybe this will make me sound mean and insensitive, but come on, how much can any of us expect to be warned about? Part of me wants to tell sensitized people to just suck it up.  I know that's wrong, but there is something about the call for trigger warnings that makes me think of it as an extension of the "helicopter parenting" which has become prominent in some socioeconomic groups in the last decade or so. There are parents who try to cushion every possible blow for their children, taking away their opportunities to deal with adversity and effectively impeding the kids' ability to handle life when the real shit hits the fan. 

David 3 Names 
And it will. Some way, somehow, because none of us entirely escapes adversity-- even if we are warned about it.  It looks like literature, at least literary fiction,  helps with this too, as noted so eloquently by David Foster Wallace: 

Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it finds a way both to depict this dark world and illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. (from Conversations with David Foster Wallace)

Wallace was no stranger to darkness within and without-- he ended up taking his own life-- but he was also a proponent and producer of literary fiction that opened up the world in the way he described.  Even if literature wasn't enough, in the end, he said it helped.  I believe that literature connects us to circumstances and to each other.  It seems that having to think too hard about what will upset some people might keep others from getting the help that literature gives us.  Losing that, even in the service of sensitivity, would be an incredible shame.  

*This is a summary-- the call for these warnings is much more nuanced on some campuses-- but here, I want to take up the general idea of these warnings, even though I know there are details I am eliding. Please read the Times article, and know that I read it too.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Cake from Eileen

Today, both the girls have the sniffles.  Nothing serious, just a Spring cold, I think.  Annoying, but not catastrophic.  I would have had them stay home, as it is an early release day, so school lets out just after noon.  I couldn't though, because while they're at school, I'm going to nip over to the dentist's office and have a tooth pulled.  It's a broken, cavity-ridden tooth that's been giving me trouble since the end of last year, but I have been babying it, because doing something about it costs money.  Last week, when my jaw started to ache as if someone had punched me, I figured I couldn't wait any more, and sure enough, I was put on some antibiotics for the raging gum infection below the bad tooth, and told to come back this week for the extraction.  It should be a fun way to spend an hour before I need to pick the girls up, and then I plan to spend the afternoon sitting on the couch and letting all of us watch something I don't usually allow, like a binge-watch of Wizards of Waverly Place or the umpteenth showing of Frozen since Easter, when the girls were gifted with the DVD.

That's today: cranky, sickish kids, tooth pain, and the possibility of several spontaneous interpretive dances to "Let it Go."  I know, you wish you were me.

 Yesterday, however, someone gave me a cake.
If you want to make yourself a chocolate bundt,
this recipe  looks like a great one. 

I was working at the tiny post office inside the strip mall bike shop, and Eileen, one of my regular customers stopped in to buy some stamps.  I had some time to chat because traffic in the post office has recently declined pretty sharply owing to a combination of factors.   For one thing, the Easter and Mother's Day rushes are over, and then, of course, a half of the regulars are what we real Arizonans call "snowbirds" or "winter visitors" (what the state lawmakers call "tourism dollars") who have now gone back to wherever they live when they are not escaping a hundred feet of snow in their own backyard. They've already created their own little postal rush here, sending boxes back home, trying to calculate when to send them so they get there before the boxes, but don't have to wait too long to get them.  The grand kids do not want to wait around for that Cactus candy they were promised...

Also,  tax season has ended, so we don't have people waiting in line to mail their tax returns certified, with return receipt, so there's no chance that the bastar-- er, government-- will lose the the filing this year.  Honestly, I have heard enough horror stories about people's tax returns to think that there must be monkeys working in the mail rooms at all of the IRS facilities in the country.  Not the cute circus-trained monkeys with the little fez-style hats either, but crazy monkeys who treat precious envelopes like they were so many banana peels to be flung about for sport before they are hidden or discarded.  (I apologize now to everyone who thinks I am unfairly stereotyping monkeys, or, for that matter government employees.) But I digress... 
Picture from here

The customers still coming in are stalwart Arizonans who hang here during the months when the temperatures rival those on the surface of Mercury. (I know, I'm exaggerating, but really, we are closing in on the beginning of the 100 days over 100 degrees and I am not looking forward to that...) They are chatty elders who remember when a first class stamp was ten cents, guys who work in the hardware store and pharmacy here in the shopping center, and parents of kids who go to school with the girls. These are people from the neighborhood, who like to chat while I get them stamps or put postage on their packages.  One of these is this lady Eileen, who often mails birthday and anniversary cards to nieces and nephews across the country. She is always up for a joke, and sometimes tells stories about her thirty years as a stewardess-- because she started when they were proudly called stewardesses, when that was the way for an adventurous single girl like herself to travel the world.  She flew international flights out of New York for years, but she grew up here in Scottsdale, back when it was a little pueblo surrounded by the undeveloped, cactus-filled desert.  Her eyes still have that twinkle that must have charmed plenty of pilots and world travelers back in the day... not that I've heard many of those kinds of stories.  Eileen is a fun gal, but she is definitely a lady

She lives in our neighborhood, so I sometimes run into her at the library, or the pharmacy or, most recently, the grocery store.  The girls and I were trying to decide which of the on-sale Popsicles were the perfect compliment for a pizza dinner, when Eileen came around the corner with her cart, heading for the Lean Cuisine.  "Are these your beautiful daughters?  They are?  Oh my gosh, could you just die? So cute.  One sweet blondie and one stunning brunette. Aren't they just wonderful?"  

"Thank you," I said, mumbling something about how they "have their moments," and we talked for a minute about the weather and a movie she just saw and then we decided on Popsicles and moved on.  

The next day was my birthday, and the day after that I was working when she came in to buy some stamps.  She likes the ones that say CELEBRATE!  for birthdays and graduations, and we got to talking about Mother's day, and she mentioned my beautiful children, and she talked about her mom, who passed ten years ago, and she misted up a little, then said it was her birthday the next day, and I said that must be why we get along so well, our birthdays are so close.  By then, I had a couple of other customers, so she waved bye and we wished each other happy birthdays again.  

Twenty minutes later, she was back with a chocolate bundt cake from the grocery store, and she had festooned the plastic dome the cake came in with pink and purple ribbons.  She sang Happy Birthday and told the customers that I was helping that I was wonderful and had wonderful children.  And she misted up a little, again, and so did I,  I mean, she brought me a cake, and she barely knows me.  "Share it with those beautiful daughters," she said, "and tell them it's from the lady they met buying Popsicles."  

And I did.  And we had cake for breakfast today too, because when you have the sniffles and you still have to go to school, even for a half-day, or you are getting your infected tooth pulled, and having to pay to have that pain inflicted, you should eat cake for breakfast.  I'm going to tell Eileen next time I see her.  I think she will approve.
If we keep this up, I may have to get this,
from here, to hang up as our motto.
Note:  I actually started this post the day I had the tooth pulled, but couldn't get back to it until today.  Good news is the girls are better, and my jaw doesn't ache anymore, but sadly, I have the sniffles now and we are out of cake....

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Nothing Doing

In Arizona, where we live now, school ends just before the month of May does.  Since today is the first of May, I think I can confidently say that the countdown to summer vacation has begun.  As much as the girls like school, and as quickly as they will start thinking about life in the next grade and all the fun and glory it will surely bring, there is the sense now that summer is out there, and it has some fun and glory to bring first.  Of course, summer weather in Arizona compares to a cool evening in the first ring of hell, so I have some trepidation about the season to come, especially where my air conditioning costs are concerned.  That's generally overcome, though, by a nostalgic feeling from my own school days when summer stretched out like a three month magic carpet, where anything was possible, and nothing was compulsory.  
Phineas and Ferb, seen almost daily on the Disney channel,
doing their best to enjoy every day of summer vacation.

That, I think, is the real allure of summer vacation:  the daily grind of school days is suspended and the requirements of homework and learning and just plain having to show up every day disappear with the warm breeze of the summer months.  Summer days seem to evaporate.  And that's okay.  The pressure to get ready for the next day, to get through the week, to make it to the weekend, doesn't exist during summer vacation.  A most excellent vision of this is available on the Disney Channel series Phineas and Ferb, in which the title characters strive to make the most of every day of their "104 days of summer vacation, until school comes along just to end it."  The amazingly intelligent and well-adjusted stepbrothers are often seen relaxing in their backyard until the big idea for the day comes to them, as Phineas exclaims, "Ferb, I know what we're going to do today !"

That's how it when I was a kid. (Minus the kicky music, the zany inventions, and the pet platypus, of course.) I'm sure it makes me sound nothing but ancient to say this, but when I was a kid, time after school was kind of like that too.  Kids played on sports teams and had piano lessons, and there was plenty of homework, by my reckoning, but there was also time to to just hang out. I would say it was like a taste of summer vacation in the middle of a school week, but it wasn't a big deal then, to just spend an afternoon hanging out at a friend's house, playing or reading or listening to music.  It wasn't anything as formal as a "play date," it was just a matter of everyone checking with their moms, then getting on their bikes, or getting out some toys.  

There are any number of reasons why kids are so incredibly scheduled these days, and if I were more inclined as a social scientist or better with statistics, I might be able to offer some kind of explanation.  I could rant about it, but that's only going to raise my blood pressure.  Instead, I can just express some nostalgic sadness and some righteous outrage for the lost opportunity to do nothing.  At least I won't be alone.  I ran across this article by writer Anna Quindlen, which pinpoints the importance of free time so much more eloquently than I ever could:

Of course, it was the making of me, as a human being and a writer. Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don't believe you can write poetry, or compose music, or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity.

What really strikes me about what she says is how clearly she associated the free time she had to sit around doing nothing (and sometimes, to be totally bored) with the growth of her creative mind.  It seems kind of crazy to think that we need to remember that our kids-- all of us, really-- need time to sit and dream.  The thought that this is wasted time is a sad feature of our culture, when all of us can be connected to others 24/7, without ever being left to entertain ourselves with our own thoughts and actions.  Most adults, and I include myself here, can't sit and wait for more than a few minutes without picking up our phones or tablets and trying to find out what everyone else we know is doing or thinking.  it doesn't make for a very introspective or creative future generation, does it?  And the way the world is going, we might need our kids, and theirs, to be skilled creative thinkers...

So as we look forward to summer, I think am going to impose a requirement on the girls while school's out:  Do nothing!   Get bored, then make up something to do.  I want them to take time to let their minds wander until they get to some fantastic world of their imagination, populated with princesses and Lego men and flying horses and stuff I can't even imagine anymore.  But I'm going to try.  It will be my summer vacation too...

Schoolhouse pic from this page.