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29 April 2011

REGRET IN PASSING


One of my all-time favorite teachers, James May, asked my Hunanities class what we regretted? A classroom of teenagers obediently bent heads and wrote our answers on three by five cards. As I recall, we didn’t put our names on them. Like most teachers who are more attentive than I am, Mr. May recognized our handwriting, so that when he was reading our responses to regret aloud and came to mine, he glanced right at me, eyebrow raised. I’d said, Nothing. I believed I was, at 15, too young to have made any errors too big to overcome.

Oh, Mr. May, you were right to raise an eyebrow at my youthful, blithe response. I regret so much now.

I regret not taking the third year of Latin and another year of Math in high school. I regret that when people told me in college I would never be admitted to the School of Architecture, I accepted it. I regret not taking Botany until my senior year because I loved it so much! I regret that I didn’t insist Gary continue his Masters degree when his father was diagnosed with cancer and he quit graduate school to look after his family.

Worse. I regret that when we were little girls I turned a cold shoulder to my friend Gwen and refused to talk to her until she cried. What a beastly child I was to her. Gwen, wherever you are: I am sorry. There are so many other mistakes, wounds I inflicted…

More recently, I regret foolish emails and posts on line, losing my temper with technology and Standards, and sometimes with students. I regret every time I hurt someone’s feelings. I regret the direction that education is going in American, and I have little control of that outside my classroom. I have not slept well this school year for what is happening. Mark Mizell tells me I said in a meeting last week, that I was fine with Standards so long as they didn’t interfere with what I know I should be doing in my classroom. I hope I said that. I agree with me.

Regret and gratitude.

Once I stopped my car, turned and went back to find a bird that had flown into my windshield. It died in my hand. Another time I struck a seagull and nothing I could have done would have saved it. I am amazed that I never accepted blame, as a friend of mine did, for Eve’s bringing sin into the world. I am not responsible for Eve, and though I have made mistakes of my own, I have brought no evil into the world.

I am grateful for the family and friends who speak to me and even those who do not. I am grateful for life and the sea shushing outside my window, the hummer in the front yard, the gull soaring overhead, the eagles and robins, the elk and coyote that pass before I awake, the raccoons and chipmunks and small rodents, the visitors who walk the shore on weekends and ask me where I am from. I am from here.

I have brought sons into the world, whom I love so powerfully that I am brought to my knees in gratitude and fear. My most painful regrets are all about the mistakes I made in raising my sons. To list them… Oh, I could not do it! Too many, too hard. They ache in my soul, turn the future to despair, spin my heart into a wrung rag from which drips blood, where only kindness should flow. I love them. Do you know? And when the darkness comes into my soul and asks me, how much is it worth? I can say, all of it. Every error, every terrible mistake, my beautiful boys and their women, the love of my husband, the students I’ve tormented and taught. I regret—oh yes I do!—but I do not take back a thing.

24 April 2011

THE SHADOW OF OUR PASSING


I am usually working simple math in my head while I run—What time did I start, how many miles to run today, how far to the next turnaround, am I managing closer to 9-minute or 10-minute miles? I am distracted from these equations by problems at school, concern for my family, ideas for a blog post, or other plans for the rest of the day. But this morning my feet were hurting which suggests I need new shoes, maybe I shouldn’t run far today, and then slides over to concern about when I should stop running altogether?

Three of my colleagues have recently announced retirement. Two of them are younger than I am, but began teaching public school a decade before I did and under the old retirement plan. It will be a lot longer before I can retire, and most days I’m fine with that. I love my job. Sometimes I have to grit my teeth to admit it, but it’s true.

Today, once I finish my blog, I will take a shower and begin scoring essays. I have a class set of the second draft of the Junior Research Papers (JRP) that must be done no later than Thursday when I have Parent Conferences and my students need them back so that they can revise for the third draft. Next weekend I will have the second draft of JRPs from another class, and then the two weekends after that I will be scoring final drafts. After that there will be the term projects to score. And that’s only two of my classes. I also teach a college writing class and a class of sophomores this term. It takes a lot of time beyond the school day, and if there were any way I could help my students become better writers without actually assigning and then reading and scoring their essays, I’d probably do it.

Friday a student inadvertently paid me an compliment. “I wrestle with a sentence all that time and you cross out two words and it makes sense.” My goal is that he will be crossing out those words on his own when he doesn’t have me to do it for him. He will read his own lumpy sentence, think what it was he wants to say: “What I want to say here is that…” and that ellipsis will turn into a clearer sentence thatn the one he started with. He’s a smart guy. It will happen. Often what students write about is interesting. Sometimes I’ve read the same topic a half dozen times before and I still learn something, sometimes it’s brand new and I’ve learned a lot over the years from my students’ papers. But it’s still a lot of time bent over the page, green pen in hand.

My mother used to ask me how long each paper took to grade. This is awkward. First, I am very fast at reading and scoring. I can complete a set of short papers—three pagers—in less than a couple of hours. I know this. But persuasive essays with research like the JRPs take longer because they are longer, and because I must verify their sources and there are a lot of issues of MLA form and argument I need to respond to. So Mom would insist: How long? And I would have to admit that they took 15 minutes or so if they were good, much longer sometimes if they were very bad. Term projects can take up to 45 minutes, sometimes longer. Really? she’d say. Then she’d do the math. You’ll be spending fourteen hours on this! she’d announce.

Like I wanted to know this.

Now, of course, I figure all this out for myself, the same way I do when I’m running. How many papers, how long for each paper, how many papers to complete before taking a break, how many hours before I will be done? I make bargains with myself and today the bargain is looking like this: score four JRPs, then another four. Enter the grades in my gradebook. Then score the exams you didn’t get to while you were sick at home. Then score four, another four, and then see how realistic it is to complete the stack tonight. You can finish them tomorrow, I’m already thinking. (You don't really need them done until Thursday—but I'm lying to myself about that.) I am already bargaining with myself. 


When I began trying, I expected that even if I could eventually actually run, I'd have to quit by the time I was fifty. I’m going to be 59 this fall, and I hope I’ll still be running for another ten years. But ten years from now, there is some chance that I will not be spending every spring Sunday scoring research papers. I will probably miss them.

In the photo above, in the center of the frame is the female hummingbird we watched collecting nesting materials in our front yard last week. She's difficult to see because though her feathers are bright and iridescent, they are green like the ground beneath her. Look first at the shadow just below the center of the frame. Her beak is pointed to the right. 

It matters what we leave behind, the shadow of our passing. 

19 April 2011

URBAN LEGENDS


My favorite one goes something like this: The newest fad among the wealthy elite of the world (Milan, Lima, LA) are cats artificially grown to remain very small from kittenhood by insertion into glass bottles, where their cramped space suppresses growth, and they are sold as a novelty. These Bonsai Kittens spend their entire life in little glass bottles. There are pictures. There is a website. Poor, abused little kitties!

My sweet, newly teen niece was horrified. Daddy, can I use your computer to send an email? Sure, sweetie. It went to every name in his address book.

Whoops.

Three engineering students thought this story up—not as a way to artificially stunt the growth of housecats, but as a sick online prank. There are no “Bonsai Kittens” only a fake website that MIT took down after three days. I repeat: Bonsai Kittens do not exist. Three young men invented the idea as a joke.

Think that’s sick? So did the Humane Society, the ASPCA and the FBI. Ultimately, so far as I know, three young men were expelled from university, and the story is still circulating the internet. No cats or kittens were harmed in the making of this urban legend.

Now, first, there are problems with the story since mammals do not react the same way a Japanese maple does to cramped space. A seedling is selected with small leaves. The tree is pruned, babied with just enough water and soil to thrive, but snip snip! It’s not allowed to grow. With meticulous care it will develop into a fair replica of an ancient, but very tiny tree.

We don’t work that way. Poor nutrition can certain stunt growth in mammals, but not limited space. Not in the way described. And all who have ever owned a cat should shudder when they consider how those so-called bonsai kittens defecate.

I’ve received many such bogus emails over the years—most often from highly intelligent people who should know better. Afghan women, everything you’ve been told about what to do during earthquakes is wrong, plastic water bottles gave Sheryl Crow cancer, click here and Pepsi or Microsoft or somebody will give something to someone. Right now the one I keep running into is about 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, and 5 Sundays in July—it happens on once in about 823 years... except it happened in July 2005, not to mention in the last October... Doesn't anyone check facts? Try Snopes.

Once upon a time people believed whatever they found in print—result: yellow journalism. Politicians and the powerful have famously spread lies. “Remember the Main”? How about any number of lies told to trigger the sympathy of any numbers of populations to support measures that are directly counter to their own interests?

Right now, for example, Social Security and Medicare almost pay for themselves—they’re off by about 2%. It’s a self-supporting “entitlement”—most Americans pay into it their entire working lives—to which you and I are entitled to benefit. We already paid for it. I’ve paid for it for over 40 years. I don’t want to hear about how it’s “going broke” because I know that for decades it produced a surplus that the federal government used to pay for other things.

Wars, mostly. War is a costly item in any budget. I’m not talking about body armor or Veteran’s benefits. I’m talking about millions and billions spent on helicopters and armaments. Warships. Smart Bombs. Tomahawks. Money to defense contractors. Landmines that earn some companies a very healthy bottom line and blow the feet off people in third world countries. Look it up—go to the U.S. government and have a look at actual dollars. (I could be mistaken. I could be lying.)

Right now we are spending more than we take in. No one doubts this. Some are insisting that we have to ensure that the wealthy of our country don’t see their income dip because only they can make new jobs. I see business people every day who make products or sell services. They are the truly small business people of America and they are having a hard time because many Americans can’t afford to buy what they have to sell.

In other words: If the poor starve, who is going to buy what the wealthy produce? Oh, wait, you don’t have to produce anything to be rich. I forgot. But give them a tax break anyway, because somehow, the rest of us are supposed to believe they deserve it?

I don’t believe they deserve it.

We’re at war and war means sacrifice. It should not only be the service men and women and their families who sacrifice life, sorrow, grief, and loss. How about the rest of us pony up what we can, a few dollars. Surely money is easier to part with than the life of a loved one? Yes, Americans are hurting, but I have a job and I should be asked to contribute. My income has gone up 3% in the past five years or so. Raise my taxes a little. I can afford it. Remove the tax cuts for everyone. We should all pay and we should pay according to our ability. Paying should not take food out of the mouths of children. Maybe it costs us a vacation or remodeling the bathroom or a second or third home—others are paying with life.

Let me be more clear: Taxes shouldn’t go up for the poor, because we are, despite all the hype, a wealthy country and it is shocking that we have poor people here. We are also good people and sometimes very smart people. We should understand that the desire to be poor isn’t genetic, and it’s not part of our national characters. If we are getting by, we should be paying our debt, and it should not come out of the pockets of the weakest, sickest, youngest, and most vulnerable among us.

Years have gone by since I first started fact-checking online. My little cousin is all grown now, and wiser. She's no longer entitled to mess with her dad's email account. She's paying her own way these days. She's paying into Social Security and Medicare, and she is entitled to expect that the society she's supported her whole life will also support her when she needs it. But if you still believe what circulates as truth about entitlements, you might shed a tear for the Bonsai Kittens.

ABOVE: the square watermelon was said to be inspired by the Bonsai Kitten hoax.

15 April 2011

DIRTY SEX; DIRTY DRUNK


Years ago now (a decade?), boys on a local high school sports team held a drinking party at the home of a boy whose parents were out of town. The police showed up and several boys were cited with MIPs (minors in possession). One, attempting to flee before being caught, received a more serious citation for driving under the influence (DWI, driving while intoxicated). There were other drugs beside alcohol at the party, and though not everyone had indulged, all team members had previously signed a pledge not to use any drugs or even be present while drugs were used. Some boys thought this meant it was okay to indulge out of season. Some simply ignored that pledge altogether.

These boys came before a committee I served on, and the overwhelming attitude of that committee and the parents of those boys was that “drinking is something all kids do.” I had to think about that. They had broken the law. The actions of the boys could have sent them to the hospital, could even have led to an accident and death, but people forgave them.

Later that same year, another sport team entertained themselves after a game by taking turns mugging for a borrowed camera. They took dozens of pictures and got carried away emulating music performers and popular images in the media. While these girls may not have set out to be offensive or indecently provocative, there was a little too much skin, a little too much suggestion. They recognized this themselves, so the story goes, and deleted the images from the camera. But this was a while back when digital cameras were still new, the camera was borrowed, and the girls naïve. They deleted the photos, but failed to dump the trash before they returned the camera. When the owner, a younger boy considerably more tech savvy, found the images in his trash folder, he moved them out and onto the internet. Then the FBI and regional news crews got involved.

It was terribly embarrassing for the girls, the school, the entire community. The boy was the only one who had broken the law, however, and his family suffered more than embarrassment. The family computer was confiscated and the boy was subject to close scrutiny and legal action. This is one of those cases that get people excited—some shocked at the behavior of youth today, others shrugging and figuring that if you can’t learn from your mistakes while you’re a kid, when will you learn? In the end the news crews lost interest and the FBI went back to investigating adult crime.

Nevertheless, there were people in the school who wanted those girls to pay. Those “indecent” photos were evidence of immorality. Some lips curled into a sneer at the very mention of the photos and their subjects. People wanted the offenders expelled from clubs and organizations, publicly humiliated. One unthinking teacher asked a student to print the photos, still wandering the internet, and bring them to school, since printing them off at school would have been “inappropriate”.

I never saw the photos so I can’t say just how “bad” they were, but I can say that sex doesn’t have to be dirty and most people, at some point in their lives and perhaps throughout their lives, will enjoy sex with someone. I believe if they are very lucky, they will find sex a source of pleasure, passion, and intimate connection to the person they love for most of their lives. That’s something I would wish on everyone. In committee I argued that while the girls had exercised questionable judgment they had not violated the law or any honor code. What they’d done had not risked a life. We might not like it, but we were not within our rights to punish them.

Intoxication leads to thousands of traffic fatalities each year, other accidents, addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Those boys had broken several laws and as a result of their actions they might have died. Nothing those girls did was going to hurt anyone. Careless sex can result in unwanted pregnancy, disease, but rarely death—and they weren’t having sex. They were showing off before a camera. [For the record—I had to argue forcefully to win my point. There was a great deal of heat in the room.]

Despite the American reactions, sometimes overreaction, to sexual issues, it is well to consider real life consequences of all our actions. Irresponsible behavior deserves condemnation, but a knee-jerk reaction to sex serves no one. Sexuality is not inevitably more dangerous than intoxication, and it isn’t more deserving of scorn. Bottom line, sex isn’t dirty. It’s supposed to be fun.

…and while I’m on the subject and just for the record: I believe that sex is something that adults do. I believe that being responsible is one of the ways an individual proves they are ready for sex. That means that you don’t have a baby when you’re still a child or risk transmission of a disease or insist you “got carried away” and that’s why you had sex. Having a baby while you’re still in high school is a sure sign that you are not ready to be a parent and you shouldn’t be having sex. Responsible adults consider the impact on the possible child and their own lives before bringing a baby into the world. Every child deserves to be wanted and cherished. It is not the baby’s job to make the lives of others better and anyone who wants a baby to love them, or as some kind of evidence of their manliness or maturity, has rocks where their head should be (maybe their heart needs some attention too). Sex isn’t inherently wrong, but cruel, selfish, or childish sex can be a dirty trick to play on the next generation.

Maybe I’m talking about moderation. A glass of wine with dinner isn’t bad; getting wasted at a tavern or party and driving home is criminal. Patting someone on the shoulder can be affectionate; punching someone is assault. Loving your life partner is intimate, glorious; “getting some” is at best vulgar and at worse… well, save that for another day. 

ABOVE: Giovanni Baglione, 1602, Amor sacro e amor profano

13 April 2011

MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE ONE KID AT A TIME?


A school in my county has been battling budget shortfalls for years. The most recent drop, due to falling tax revenue and increased insurance, has resulted in deep cuts in faculty. As one example, at the high school next year there will be two social studies teachers to teach 680 students three years of high school Social Studies. This works out to a teacher to student ratio of 1/255 students. Each teacher will, in practice, have classes of about 50 students. What are the chances that a student in these classes will receive individual attention? What chance that the teacher will assign essays and research papers which demand a lot of time to score?

Why pick on the Social Studies department? Though socials studies—history, government, religion, world affairs, current issues, politics, sociology, psychology, and philosophy—are critical to an adult understanding of the world and of each person’s goals and roles in the world, there is no test.

My state measures writing, reading, math, and science skills. There is no test for social studies, not to mention thinking, creativity, values, or compassion. If there were a test for social studies there would be more teachers and they would be teaching meaningless drivel.

Welcome to my world.

Money for education is drying up. Tax payers look for relief—and often are desperate for it. If the money continues to dry up, what are the solutions to improving education?

Politicians demand better qualified, top candidates as teachers who are better educated in the subjects they teach and better trained as teachers. How to attract them to a job that is less secure, no longer offers a generous pension, and will demand individual attention for larger and larger classes? Uh-huh.  

Over the years I’ve had students in my classes who threw a chair at the wall, a heavy padlock at me, and played practical jokes. I had a student in my class who was convicted in adult court of rape. I’ve had a dozen kids in my class at one time discuss their probation. I’ve also had children who are homeless, whose parents are alcoholics and insane, who are hungry and embarrassed to admit it. The anger issues are always, always the result of abuse from adults. They are not born bad—they were trained, or neglected into bad behavior.

And that’s only a small part of the problem students face. In my area of the world, more and more, I see troubled and lost kids in my classroom. Their parents are struggling in the hard economic times. They work long hours and can’t spend the time with their children that they would hope in better times. It’s not a choice but a matter of the families’ survival. This is a societal problem, and working families—parents and children—are paying the price.

And I can’t fix these problems. Watch me try. The success stories, the heartbreaking failures. Kids do what they can. They are not my successes and failures, but I’m all they’ve got.
 
This year, the boy who last year announced he did not read, passed his state reading test. Last year he was failing classes right and left; now he’s passing everything. What made the difference? It wasn’t me. It was luck. It was probably the adults in his life—family, counselors, teachers. It was growing up. It was finding dreams and having enough hope to work toward them.

Finland’s school system is the poster-child for great education. Their students excel. What do they do in Finland?

Finland recruits the best college students to become teachers, pays them well, and respects them. They teach fewer days than in America, but students stay with their teachers for years, who follow them from grade to grade.

On the other hand, Finland does not have the poverty that we see in America. Their population is relatively homogeneous in terms of income, race, religion, culture.

We can still learn from Finland’s successful system.

We know teachers make a difference. We know that a personal relationship makes an enormous difference in the lives of children. One person connecting and leading the way can make all the difference in the world.

When I entered the profession, my first job was in an excellent private prep school. Since I have always believed in the right of every American to an excellent education, I am a ferocious proponent of public education. But today, as I watch class size inflate, and the pressure to pass tests to the neglect of a well-rounded education, I can only say I’m grateful my sons are grown.

There are probably many ways to improve education in America. How not to do it: Cut teachers. 

08 April 2011

WHEN I'M FEELING FLUSH: LIFE IS A BOWL OF CHERRIES

In college on payday from the University Book Store in Seattle, I would buy a tiny Chinese handwoven basket. Those baskets came as nested sets, but Miller-Pollard sold them individually for 65¢ to about $4.25. I couldn't usually afford to buy one of the more expensive ones—I started at $1.70/hour—but when I could spare a dollar or two, I bought one. I have them today in a desk in my living room. 

Here's inflation. When I'm feeling flush these days I buy a bowl or plate or cup from Rainbow Gate, handmade pottery in Santa Fe that I have never visited. I've been buying Rainbow Gate at Twist in Portland (Twist only sells jewelry online, but their stories in Portland and Seattle have other lovely things) and through the Rainbow Gate online store for over ten years. It's not cheap, but as a former ceramic artist, I can vouch that the prices are fair. I have Rainbow Gate place settings for eight.

Above at left above is a "rice bowl" of cherries on a background color called "vintage crimson." They do birds and fish and mice and rabbits and sea lions. Frogs. Fruit. I am particular, but I check their website regularly looking for something to add to my collection.

What I should be doing is throwing dinner parties on this stuff, but the colors are so gorgeous—I have purples and oranges and jades and reds to make your mouth water! There is a color called "blue plum" and I have two pieces in that color and wish I had a set of salt and pepper shakers. I'm happy just looking at it!

06 April 2011

COMMON SENSE ABOUT MISOGYNY


Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach eighteen.—Albert Einstein

Forty years ago when I was in college, I read a feminist history called The First Sex by Elizabeth Gould Davis (1971). Davis’s goal was to take another look at history and put a feminist spin on humanity’s past. Her most infamous theory is that of prehistoric matriarchies, but Gould also describes many prehistoric and historic events retold from a what-if-women-were-really-there perspective. Early on in her book, as I recall, Davis announces that she’s not going to be “fair” in her review of the role of women in history and prehistory. After all, she argued, for her whole life the past has been reported through the biased eyes of men. It was about time to hear another bias. That sounded fair to me at the time, and gave me the freedom to accept, question, or discard Davis’s interpretations as seemed reasonable to me.

At the same time I was taking Art History and Architecture classes, Physical Anthropology, and cultural Anthropology classes from male instructors. In a (terrible) physical Anthro class, the instructor (a grad student whose thesis concerned the dental patterns of chimps) was talking about early man. He began a statement with: “When these ancient men went off to hunt and the women stayed by the campfire to tend the children…”

I interrupted. “How do you know the women stayed home and only men hunted?”

For a moment he was nonplussed—perhaps because he didn’t think a student should question him, perhaps because he’d never considered the accuracy of this particular scenario. Finally he answered: “Look at primitive cultures today.”

“You are saying that societies have remained stable through tens of thousands of years?” And further, while few cave paintings show human figures at all, some showing people hunting clearly indicate that some of the hunters are male, some female.

This man constructed a scenario based on common sense about how men and women “naturally” act, are capable of acting, and have acted throughout time. Collectively, that’s a stretch.

I’m reading Jack Holland’s nonfiction work called Misogyny, which presents its own assumptions about the behavior of men and women. Holland complains twice—in the introduction and again in the last chapter—that people assume, as a man, that he is writing to justify misogyny. He is not. He documents the long history of hatred of women in the west—rape, torture, systematic disenfranchisement of women from human rights—the infamous “whore-madonna” complex of regarding women as either sexual vessels lacking humanity or as sexless icons of purity. He blames the Greeks and the Catholic church and later Christians for this pattern. From the first page it’s pretty distressing material and Holland is as horrified as his readers.

Holland was dying while he finished the book and his wife and daughter were the ones to complete the final edit and fight for publication. It’s an important book and many of the stories will be new to most readers. How we treat half the world’s population matters, how we handle our power, how we exploit the less powerful, how we overcome prejudice and hatred—these are all important issues. I say Holland’s task matters because while football coaches routinely insult their players by calling them girls and most of my colleagues assume that men are stronger, smarter, more aggressive, and naturally in charge, my students are mostly unaware that the term “misogyny” exists. They should know how women have been treated. It should sicken and anger them all, whether they are boys or girls.

Still, I find this book disappointing in a few details and maybe that’s because I am teaching the persuasive essay this term and I want to send him back to revise for balance. I’m interested in his thesis, but I want him to acknowledge that the world is not so simple, not so black and white. Women have been treated as more than streetwalkers or virgins. Women have managed, despite the odds to contribute to the world, not merely suffer through life. Holland cherry-picks (forgive the pun) the examples that support his theory that misogyny has always been with us, pervasively poisoning the minds of men. He must know nastier men than I do. He also, at times, seems to know less. And one quarrel I have is his use of the classics.

For example, in discussing the classic Greek plays he sets the comedies aside and focuses on the tragedies. Women have no role in them. Or, wait, there is Antigone, featuring, well, Antigone, a daughter of the dead Oedipus. Holland dismisses her as the hero of her tale by using the words of her uncle King Creon that do sound like what Holland is talking about—women’s concerns are denigrated and demeaned. Trouble is, the play isn’t about misogyny and it isn’t misogynistic. Antigone is jealous of her virtue, but hers is a play about destiny, honor, and dilemma. It’s not about choosing between some female notion of how to behave toward relatives as opposed to how men behave responsibly toward the state, but about unjust laws, about choosing whether to honor unjust laws of the State or natural law. Creon is the arrogant fool here and realizes at the end, “I am the guilty cause” of the continuation of the curse upon his family. Antigone chooses to defy an unjust law and follow God’s, and most analysts assume that hers is the morally correct choice. She’s going to suffer either way, however she chooses, of course—either in life for failing to bury her brother or after death for failing in her duty to family—because this is Greek tragedy we’re talking about, not some simple modern choice with a happy ending.

In another Greek example, Holland’s version of the Sabine women leaves out the most interesting details. The early Romans were short of women and the neighboring Sabines refused to allow intermarriage. In the ancient version of the story, Romans abduct (the meaning of the Latin verb  raptio) Sabine women, offering them marriage and a share of property, civil rights, and freedom for their children. The women choose to stay, or perhaps not. In any event, while the Sabine men do attempt to recover or rescue their women, this is many years later. Whether they had any choice at the beginning, the Sabine women had by then become partners and parents. They are no longer Sabine women, but Romans. Ultimately, when Sabine soldiers attack their Roman men, these women tear hair and clothing and stand before the Romans who are their sons and husbands and defy the Sabines to harm their countrymen. It is a story of a bargain on the part of the Romans, neglect and vengeance on the part of the Sabines, and absolute courage and dignity on the part of the “raped” Sabine women. As a woman I appreciate the complete story.

I’m all in favor of recording injustice in the past. It’s a necessary step in righting injustice in the present, but so far, what I see is a man trying to prove that women have been victims for the past few thousand years and I guess after spending my life as a feminist, I’m tired of hearing about abuses. Some men don’t actually like women, some women don’t like women. Some men are misogynists and some women are victims. I already know this. I’m more interested in hearing about people who don’t view being female as a disease or a fate worse than death. I’m more interesting in the exceptions. I wish he’d talked about the Minoan empire, which is still largely a mystery, but has left behind the ruins of palaces and artifacts that suggest a seafaring and trading culture with little history of warfare, goddess images, and surviving images of acrobatics involving bulls and athletes who are both men and women. I had an architecture professor who delighted in showing the views from the ruins of these palaces—always a nearby rounded hill with a distant twin-peaked mountain, the belly and breast of a woman—powerful female symbols. Over a dozen ruins. Three twin-pointed peaks. Is this proof of a time when women’s interests had sway? Maybe not, but it’s a welcome relief from the nonstop news of the torture, rape, and brutality many women suffered.

When my older son was in Fourth Grade, his entire class went on a lengthy overnight fieldtrip to explore historical locations of Oregon. One stop was the interpretive center at Champoeg Park, near Silverton, Oregon, which was a pre-contact trading center and then, in the 1840s, an American fort and trading center for whites. The ranger delivered his spiel and it was obvious that the man had had training about acknowledging the contributions of Indians to the history of the site.

One little girl in the class tugged my sleeve. “Why isn’t he talking about the women?” she asked. “You ask,” I told her. And she did.

His answer: “We have no evidence that there were any women here at that time.”

Oh my, after all that training about racial sensitivity he failed to recognize that he should have said “white women,” and he still would have been wrong, since there had been Indian women here for at least 14,000 years, and white women had arrived by the early 1800s. The next day outside Bend we read photocopies of letters written to and from white women who settled in Oregon at about that time. 

Although white women were not evenly represented among the early American settlers in Oregon, by all reports they were treated with respect by men of all races. Oregon became the seventh U.S. state to grant women suffrage in 1912. From the beginning, women ranched, rodeoed, farmed, ran businesses, and even performed legal abortions until well into the twentieth century. To judge by Holland’s book this freedom to pursue an active and safe, not to mention equitable life in the West should have been nearly impossible.

Sometimes the woman-as-victim is a matter of perspective and assumption. To some extent, Holland is inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes and failing to offer anything new. In his conclusion he makes a remark illustrating what I'm writing about.

“Long before men invented the wheel, they invented misogyny” (270). Holland knows that it was men who invented the wheel? Can he document this? 

Eli Whitney is still getting credit for inventing the cotton gin in 1794. Maybe he didn’t do it alone. There are some who believe it was his cousin, Catherine Littlefield Greene, who handed her solution to a problem in the gin to Whitney because women were not eligible to apply for patents. There are many other and more widely acknowledged examples of women’s work in the sciences going unrecognized. It was Dr. Rosalind Franklin who actually discovered the now familiar double helical structure of DNA, though she was not credited when the Nobel was handed out to three male co-researchers who gained access to her discovery without her knowledge. Am I more interested in a woman being beaten or in learning that despite everything, women have managed to make a difference in the world?

Harvard psychology professor, Steven Pinker reminds us that “equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of people are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged by the average properties of their group” (282). In practice, I believe this means that we must revaluate our assumptions not only of what men and women have done in the past, but of what they are capable of doing and how they are capable of behaving. 

What Holland does is document millennia of abuse of women. In the process I can’t help feeling he may have lost sight of the goal—assuming his goal was to improve the behavior of men towards women. There’s a danger as he argues that misogyny is “pervasive, persistent, pernicious, and protean,” of also making it sound inevitable rather than contemptible. It’s not enough to describe abuse. It is never enough to tell us what not to do: dystopian cruelty and bald unwarrantable usurpation.

Show us our better nature. Show us how we should be.

03 April 2011

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EBEY'S LANDING

A couple of years ago my husband and I were on Whidbey Island for a wedding. We were struck by two impulses—one, every time we visit an island, we find it difficult to leave, and two, perhaps we could find a place we'd visited years ago. 


About 700 years ago the Skagit Indians began living permanently on Whidbey Island. Within the rain shadow cast by the Olympic Range, the land is nevertheless rich, the sea bountiful. Whites arrive to settle in the 19th century, among them the original settler Isaac Ebey, who brought his family out and then was shot dead and beheaded in 1857 by a party of northern Indians in retaliation for the unprovoked butchery of 28 Native people. Some report the killers as Haida, led by a female relative of the chief who had been among those slain. Whoever killed Ebey, Native presence on the land would soon end. Although there were well over a thousand Indians on Whidbey Island (perhaps closer to 2000) in those years, their presence would be erased by white settlers, the American military, and disease. We learned only part of this story all those years ago. The most infamous details had to do with Isaac's missing head, and rumors of his scalp. No one lived in that part of the island while we visited, except our friends.  

In the early 70s, my future husband and I visited a friend and her family in a cabin she used each summer above Ebey's Landing on Whidbey Island. At the time the entire area was privately owned and the people we stayed with were hoping to protect it from development—plans were in the works.  We went with Billie to pick up drinkable water in former peanut oil drums—the water always tasted a little rancid. There was a wood-burning sauna, and an outhouse, of course. The view to the north and west was lovely and at the back were trees dripping lichens. I pulled some of the soft pale green lichens and used them to dye wool I had spun myself. This would make our visit about 1973.

We slept before a fire in the south end of the long narrow house. We walked down the hill to Ebey's original farmhouse (shown above) and used a key to get in and admire the high ceilings, the inland facing bay windows that came all the way to the floor. Today all this is a National Historic Reserve and the Jacob Ebey House Visitor Contact Station has opened in that lowland spot that I remember. Someone also stays at the edge of the forest where we visited decades ago. The drive in from the road is gated and shows regular use. 

It's probably true that you can't go home again, but it's good to know that some of those places that remain dear in our memories are building memories for others still. 

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