Archive for November, 2013

Turkey, Interrupted

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I’d be hard pressed to tell you what year it is in our family room right now.

My wife is seated on a couch we purchased in 2005, piecing together a thousand-piece Christmas jigsaw puzzle based on a painting from 1958. My daughter is reading a book published in 1980 on a Kindle Paperwhite from 2012. I’m writing this on a 2013 laptop straight from the Dell box, a long-overdue tech refresh, while listening to music from the Montpelier Codex, a 13th-century book of vocal music, on an album released in 1994 and available to me through 2012 tech Spotify.

Oh, and by the way: we’re doing all of this in the wake of putting another cultural touchstone to the test, because none of us can stand turkey.

“Are you grateful for turkey?” I asked them this year. Heads shake in mute dissent. “Then why don’t we eat something we’re grateful for?”

“I thought we were supposed to eat turkey for Thanksgiving.”

“We’re not. We’re supposed to be grateful. If tryptophan stimulates your gratitude synapses, great. Otherwise, why don’t we come up with a meal featuring foods that do trigger those synapses? Why don’t we eat something we can chew and taste and swallow with a smile?” The resulting table did not look much like a Norman Rockwell print, but we were grateful for the food we ate, for the time we spent together cooking and baking it, and the fact that we focused the holiday on the mindset, rather than the meal.

This is the sort of thing that begins to happen with more regularity when you start homeschooling full time: everything falls under the lens of re-examination, and not all of it emerges on the other side. The way it’s always been done ceases to have a great deal of meaning when you’re forging entire curricula anew. Their scholarly time begins to migrate from the compliant – I need to finish multiplying these mixed numbers, Dad! – to the critical: when do I use this? What problems are relevant for this theorem? Is there a better way? And along the way, we discover – often, together – that the status quo is just bullshit. We are, in many ways, like the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlamp – not because that’s where we dropped them,  but because the light is better there.

Now, I hesitate to teach them that all that has gone before them is bullshit, because that tends toward a certain cultural nihilism that leaves them with a blank (and bleak) page to fill in on their own. But I also find myself with a responsibility to let them question the status quo and make their own decisions, and so with that in mind, we went in search of whether we were discarding a deep and historically relevant tradition, or another made-up Hallmark holiday. They’re always deeply disturbed to find out how recent all of this modern American culture is, and to be honest, so am I. Thanksgiving as a concept is an old holiday, dating to 1863, but it has only been since 1939 that the holiday has been celebrated in anything like its modern form, and only since 1947 that turkey became the gustatory meme of the season.  Nor did the Pilgrims likely eat turkey as the centerpiece of the meal; that would have been venison, courtesy of the Wampanoag (who were not, in fact, invited to dine with the Pilgrims, but simply happened by and felt bad that such a large number of people were eating eels and radishes and parsnips and liverwort). So we’re neither celebrating the original eely, parsnip-y Thanksgiving, nor are we honoring any sort of centuries-old tradition, either. But doesn’t it feel that way?

Weirder yet, most of our major holidays have comparatively recent scaffolding to them, at least in their secular forms. Santa in his current jolly red-and-white form dates to about 1906 (not the 1930 Coca-Cola myth, but not a great deal earlier, either.) Trick-or-treating only became a national holiday convention in the late 1940s, having begun in the Western U.S. and Canada and then stalled in its eastward expansion by wartime sugar rationing. What our kids tend to think of as timeless staples of holiday activity were relatively new to my own parents, and by the time I came along, many had been in place only for a few decades.

Weird, isn’t it? But these and other ‘givens,’ I teach them, are anything but. Credit cards in their current form were first issued in 1958. Automobile leasing – now considered just one among many acquisition options – was unheard of prior to the prime lending rate reaching 21.5% in December of 1980. Modern consumer advertising had its origins with the growth of television and suburban commuter populations in the late 1950s (and we’ve watched it grow up, in infinity-lens fashion, through Mad Men.) We tend to treat virtually anything that existed prior to our birth as belonging to a timeless, eternal continuum, but in reality, our own parents saw customs, goods, services, and cultural tropes born during their own lifetimes. So have we, and it seems normal to us, but to my children, life before the Internet must have been unthinkably primitive and bizarre.

From literature to mathematics to civics to science, we teach a common mantra: take from what has been done before, but never accept it as a flawless and unassailable brushed-steel given. In our house, we tend to borrow the best and question the rest, much like the crazy quilt of centuries in my living room right now. ‘Because we’ve always done it that way’ is a wobbly, worm-eaten plank at best – and we’ve found it to make fine firewood, the better to finish a jigsaw puzzle by.

Bobamento

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In the summer of 1979, there was much to be excited about for me. Van Halen II still had singles in heavy circulation, Alien  and Star Trek were in movie theaters, and Trivial Pursuit was a brand-new source of intra-family strife on board game night. Hell, it snowed in the Sahara for thirty minutes that year; anything, it seemed, could and would happen. It was in that spirit of unbounded excitement and possibility that I ripped open a padded mailer from the Kenner corporation to reveal an action figure I knew absolutely nothing about.

Boba Fett was a giveaway in the summer of ’79. Collect enough proofs of purchase, and he was yours, but with a catch: Kenner told you next to nothing about Boba, because they didn’t want to give the plot of Empire away. Still, he was yours to do with as you saw fit between June of 1979 and May of 1980, when Empire came out, and we found out who the hell he was. But for those glorious eleven months, I had the time of my life with Boba, who was one day a rogue with a heart of gold, assisting the Rebellion in its takedown of the mighty Empire, and the next a soulless blackguard who would sell his grandmother’s ashes for beer money. Boba had no story, and, conveniently, no memory from day to day of who he was or what he did the day prior; he might as well have been Guy Pierce in Memento. Boba changed allegiances and personalities at a pace that would have made Loki ill, and I often paired him up with another group of masterless ronin, the Micronauts, a translucent army of action figures imported wholesale by Mego without so much as a thought for backstory or explanation. The Micronauts had only titles and suggestive coloration; Baron Karza was, likely, bad, just as Force Commander was probably good, but who knew? Even the Star Wars figures I had to play with in 1979 were near-ciphers themselves, since we had little concept of what a Jedi Knight even was, let alone the enigmatic Clone Wars. Without an ethnography of the Jawas, or a robust explanation of who Jabba the Hutt might be, I just forged ahead devil-may-care and made up my own stories for all of them.

Flash forward to November of 2013, and the Collective’s Christmas lists are decidedly hesitant. E wants a compound bow, but beyond that, she’s pretty much left things in my capable hands. A, similarly, has designs on a few items, but they’re not just more than broad strokes, and A might be the most toy-detached of them all. The reality is that they grow less interested in traditional toys with each passing year, and I can’t honestly say that I blame them. Toys come with baked-in universes anymore: everything has either an online tie-in, or a supporting TV show, or another culturally circumscribed environment that’s belted so tightly that there’s not much to do but to act out what’s already happened on one screen or another. Where’s the fun?

If Kenner existed today, there would be no possibility whatsoever of a ten-year-old opening an action figure that had no rigorously developed backstory, online product push, television tie-in, and, probably, soft drink promotion at 7-11 tied into it. Everything, it seems, has converged on the concept of play guided by consumerism.  Even Legos, the most historically stalwart of open-ended playthings, has succumbed to this. Everything in Legoland is now a set, and builds a defined entity (or, if you’re lucky, three), but that’s it, and God help you if you toss it into the Lego bin intact for repeated rummaging to begin abrading that completed vehicle into its component blocks.

In 1979, I built an entire army of X-wings out of Legos, and every single one was a ragtag assemblage of rainbow-colored blocks, as if the Rebel Alliance had hired the Teletubbies as its fighter repair mechanics. When one broke, I fixed it. I came across an X-wing that A and I built for his birthday in 2012 in the Lego bin the other day. It was substantially still together, but missing some key chunks. I asked A why he didn’t play with it anymore, and he shrugged and said it had gotten to be too hard to fix. It was, too; it was too close to perfection for intensity to tackle, whereas my godawful rainbow X-wings were usually just a brick or two away from being pressed back into service against the Empire. But creating X-wings from bricks I already own has no value to the Lego corporation, and the more kids are told, stepwise, what to do, the more dependent on Lego ‘set logic’ they become.

The reality is, that was we face off against another holiday hijacked by the consumerist economy we live in, we’re increasingly confronted with what one blogger called ‘junk toys’ -mindless, scripted-recreation plastic that does nothing to let our kids expand their creative horizons and everything to line the pockets of corporations.  It’s strange, that as we’ve begun to purport to value creativity more in our society, we’ve actually provided our kids with toys that encourage less creativity: just follow along with the script, no thought process allowed. It’s for that reason that they’ve come to count on me – in the form of a Christmas who-kn0ws-what-you-might-get construct called the Randometer – to find cool stuff for them. I can’t disclose what this year’s Randometer might bring, since they read this blog, too – but I’m confident that what they find under the tree on Christmas morning is going to encourage out-of-the-box thinking.

Jonathan’s Game

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This week, a three hundred-pound man and a skinny genius collided in my world, united by a common experience, and divided by a single action.

The man was Jonathan Martin, the sort of physical specimen you wouldn’t normally think of as the victim of bullying. Jonathan Martin stands six feet, five inches tall and weighs three hundred and twelve pounds. He’s not only enormous, he’s bright – a starter at Stanford – and relatively wealthy, earning a 2013 salary of $607,466. In short, he’s physically imposing, intelligent, and possessed of considerable – if not NFL star-level – wealth. And this week, he left his team – the Miami Dolphins – because he was being bullied. We’re not talking about some sort of exotic grown-up bullying, either. According to teammates, he was teased, called names, and – I’m not making this up – forced to eat his lunch by himself, because they would actually get up and move if he sat down next to them. Grown men did this. Seriously.

The skinny kid, meanwhile, was Ender Wiggin (portrayed by Asa Butterfield), protagonist of the new movie Ender’s Game1, who’s bullied twice – first on Earth (where he’s fairly sure his response gets him kicked out of the training program), and again in space – SPACE! – where the same cycle of guilt and shame repeats. Watching Butterfield up on the screen brought back the same throat-closing adrenaline rush I experienced when I first read the book back in 1985, a year that found me freshly on the other side of the bullying ‘line,’ having shot up two inches during the year and gained twenty pounds from a full season in the swim team weight room. I was bullied incessantly from the time I entered the fourth grade through the summer of my eighth grade year, and when it dissipated, I was keenly aware of its absence. Not being bullied is something you notice, especially being a smart kid that was a frequent target; one day, they’re looking for you, and the next – it seems – they’re not.  But looking back after the fact, Ender’s Game spoke to me, and I’m sure it’s spoken to bullied kids ever since. It still speaks to me, because of what separates Martin and my current adult self from my own 1974-1984 self (and from Ender): choice.

With, seemingly, at least a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, Martin could – literally! – afford to make a choice. It might turn out to be an unpopular choice, or one that might end up branding him with many of the same words that kids across the country get branded with – insert your own pejoratives here, I’m not going to dignify them by typing them here – but it was a choice nonetheless. That choice said a lot, too. It said that bullying is in the experience of the bullied, not the intent of the bully himself/herself. Martin, of the Stanford education and the 20 reps at 225 pounds on the bench and the six-figure bank account, simply had no answer for teasing and name-calling and lunch exclusion, but he did have choice. He left. Kids in school bullying situations don’t, and thus begins the cycle I saw up on the screen with Ender Wiggin: the desire to somehow end bullying permanently. I won’t spoiler the movie for those that haven’t read the book, but bullying – and some unseemly steering of his emotional state by authority figures – transforms him into a monstrous entity. Did Martin try to do the same through all those hours in the weight room? Was he trying to permanently outrun bullying by becoming something unbullyable?

It’s easy to look upon Martin’s situation as a reflecting pool of the bullying issue. Some would find his situation laughable, or dismiss his issues as easily discardable; a six hundred-thousand-dollar salary might be interpreted as sufficient to balm the wounds of plenty of names called, or plenty of lunches eaten in isolation. Others would find Martin to be a case study in the lack of hope for bullied kids everywhere; if a starting NFL  offensive lineman can be bullied, what hope is there for skinny junior high kids trying to avoid eye contact with the hulking eighth-grade brutes, dog-eared copiesof Ender’s Game in hand? We all looked forward to being Jonathan Martin someday: frighteningly huge, college-educated, wealthy. Unassailable. What would I have thought of this news when I was in the sixth grade? What does his plight say to those kids today?

What I took out of it is the depressing permanence of the damage bullying causes. It leaves scars that no one can see, and worse, are expected to heal on their own. I’ve taught my kids that school bullying has three timeless and eternal aspects: it exists, it is temporary, and it is best solved in groups.  No amount of school assembly speeches or stern hallway posters are going to eliminate bullies from human existence, but it does pass – at least in the aspect of confinement to the bullying environment, since adults – like Martin – can just pack up and go. It’s also a test of group fortitude, since if even one friend can be counted on to stand up and side with you against a bully – let alone an entire class – bullying can’t survive for long.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Bullies pick loners, the Ender Wiggins of the world, to go after. They don’t have classrooms on their side, or even groups – and sometimes not even a single friend – to side with them. Who are the loners of the junior high hallways? Smart kids. Kids with intensity. Kids with learning disabilities. Combinations of the above. I don’t know that Jonathan Martin wasn’t bullied in the Dolphins training room; maybe he was. Or maybe, the kid within Jonathan Martin, the smart kid who got bullied in those junior high hallways, never got a chance to grow up feeling safe – and thus never got a chance to really grow up at all. Souls don’t necessarily benefit from the strengthening effects of bench presses, and bullying scars don’t necessarily heal in the cold tub.

His certainly didn’t.

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Yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of writing a bullying post involving Ender’s Game when author Orson Scott Card has turned out to be a homophobic monster of an individual, and yes, I’m aware of the backlash against the movie. Here’s what I would say about it: at the time I read the book, Ender’s Game had one of the most powerful messages of compassion, inclusivity, and empathy I had ever read, It moved me deeply to see those qualities present in Ender and his friends, and the book encouraged me to continue along that path in my own life. Clearly, I wasn’t alone in those feelings. If it was Card’s intent to instill in me instead a hatred and suspicion of those different from me, he did a colossally piss-poor job of it, and somehow ended up doing precisely the opposite. In the end, I went to see the movie in large part to close the chapter in my own life that Ender’s Game had been a part of.  I take issue with what Card has become in the years since the publication of the book, and I wonder if he would, himself, not benefit from a careful re-reading of Ender’s Game.