posts tagged with 'modern culture'
Sometimes when I'm driving on the highway I look at the cars around me and wonder if folks in them appreciate how nice it is to be driving something that you can trust completely to get them where they're going. Because I don't always feel that way. In fact, I think it's fair to say that for something like half of my driving life I've found myself in a vehicle that has something untrustworthy about it. We're in that half now. Our wonderful minivan, which we've had for almost six years now is showing signs that it doesn't have much left to give. At 233,000 miles that's not unexpected, but it is inconvenient... especially when it's not the only failing technology we're having to deal with lately.
I mentioned the couches and the oven a few months ago; the oven is still with us, and often it works like you would expect. But there are times when it doesn't, like this evening, which as you might imagine makes dinner prep kind of stressful. Leah spent the evening researching sub-$500 ovens, which might sound a little suspect until you think of how the only thing going wrong in our current model is the electronics behind all those fancy digital displays and push buttons. Maybe if we just go back to knobs and dials we'll be all right! (if we could, we'd go all the way back to wood and matches, but our kitchen isn't set up for that kind of thing). Then there's the fridge, which every couple weeks decides it's going to freeze the vegetables and thaw the freezer. All together it makes for a general background level of nervousness—interspersed with moments of existential terror. Which is about right for life here in the 21st century USA!
I'm reading a book called The Unsettlers, by Mark Sundeen. It's all about folks who chose to forgo most of the advantages of modern, industrial, capitalist existence, because they realize that those things are destroying any hope we have for survival as a species. In their view. Which I can't help but think has something to it. So I was very proud of myself on Sunday when I managed to travel everywhere I had to go—to church and back, to the playground, to friends' house for dinner; about 25 miles in all—by bicycle. And it was a hot day too!
Then yesterday morning our power went out unexpectedly in the middle of the morning. Unexpectedly—need I say it? I suppose one never expects a power outage, not in the 21st century United States. But in this case it was more unexpected than usual, coming as it did on a clear, calm, day. I suppose when a car hits a power pole, the electricity doesn't stand a chance regardless of weather. We figured it wouldn't be that much of a big deal; I just wouldn't be able to vacuum. Or do laundry... Never mind, we were going to the pond anyway. And the power came back on in time for me to make Lijah's chicken nuggets in the toaster oven (and not worry about letting the cold out of the freezer as I retrieved them). Ok, so I have a while to go before I'm ready to call myself real alternative...
A few days out from the official start of fall, it seems like everyone in our neighborhood—everyone but us—has potted chrysanthemums adorning their front porches. Lot of them! Like they must have been on sale somewhere. Since I'm a contrary old cuss, I have some thoughts.
Now don't get me wrong, mums are lovely. We have a few in our garden, and I love the half-wild ones along the side of the bike path. They're a great sign of early fall; it's so wonderful to see flowers starting to bloom just as most of the others are fading away. The coppery and deep red ones in particular are great fall colors too. But!
Never mind how sad I find it when people buy perennials in pots—daffodils or tulips or easter lillies or mums—and then toss them when their "season" is over. That's their prerogative, and if I don't like it I can just grab the cast-off plants to put in the ground myself (I have, too!). But when you have these plants, forced and trimmed to within an inch of their lives, signifying fall... it just doesn't make sense! They're all greenhouse-grown; they could just have well been forced for any other time of year. And worse, the same way you get mums you could just as well have, oh, I don't know, petunias! That is to say, there's no horticultural reason for people to be buying mums—they're just doing it because that's what one does in the fall.
It's like the plastic pumpkins that have started to move from basements to front lawns over the past couple weeks. Why are pumpkins a sign of fall? Because they don't ripen until well into the fall, when everything else is dying. So it maybe doesn't make so much sense to put them out in early September when the sweet corn and summer squash and tomatoes are still going strong. There's nothing wrong with early pumpkins—either plastic or genuine—but their connection with the season is artificial and so less meaningful and interesting.
And that's true of so many things. We celebrate the turning seasons, but we're completely insulated from any real affects as they change. Our homes are heated and cooled to the same temperature all year round; our jobs are completely season- and weather-independent; we can eat watermelon and peas and raspberries all year round. So I guess it makes sense that we need to resort to artificial means to bring back some sense of seasonality. For sure, I agree that seasons are great! And to appreciate them even more, I suggest some slightly more intensive gardening: toss those potted mums into a hole and water them a little until it freezes, and they'll come back next year—at just the right time to celebrate the fall!
Up above these words is our tagline: "living our values, as soon as we figure out what they are." We came up with it in a moment of inspiration and it's kind of a joke, but it's also kind of absolutely true. Like most people, I assume, we want to live in accordance with some higher principles. The hard part is doing that when ignoring principles would be easier—like, with cold rain in the forecast for the rest of the week I was kind of wishing we had two cars so I could drive to work. Good thing we could never afford another car anyway!
Lately I've been thinking about living values on another level: whether I actually spend my time doing the things I claim to want to do. That comes down to organization.
Modern life and media makes it easy to use up a lot of time on things we might not care that much about, objectively considered. I sit down at my computer and impulsively check out Google News... why?! I don't care, particularly, about what's happening in the world—at least not at that arbitrary moment. And beyond the news there's an endless galaxy of writing on all kinds of topics—fantastic writing, about things which would expand my understanding of the world! (also, for the record, lots of bad writing about stupid things). But when I have concrete tasks to work on—tasks I want to work on!—reading for enjoyment and vague self-improvement isn't the best use of my time.
Don't get me wrong, I'm no sort of Puritan. Reading is awesome, and just about any reading is self-improving. Watching TV shows too, if you're into that. The question is one of time management. And I'm trying to think more explicitly about it this week. To that end, I've set myself some goals for the week—high-level ones, rather than to-do list items. My theory is that, with them in mind, I can look at what I'm doing at any moment and see if it lines up with any of those goals. If it doesn't, do I have a good reason for doing it?
It's Wednesday morning; so far, so good. It does mean that this blog post, which I started Monday, is only getting finished now. Every other point when I though about sitting down at the computer I prioritized something else—sleeping, largely. But this morning it's too wet to work in the garden and the rest of the family isn't up yet, so it's prime writing time. So here you go!
Leah's parents needed to borrow our minivan so they could move some furniture down to their new Cape house, so they left us their late-model Honda SUV. Today we had cause to drive it. I'm used to our 2004 Odyssey; it turns out that there have been some advances in automotive technology in the last 13 years. Never mind the bluetooth integration—I heard all about that from my mom last year, and anyways we couldn't make it work with my phone—the rear-view camera display that comes up automatically when you put the car into reverse or flip the right turn signal is pretty amazing (and amazingly distracting, along with the rest of the complicated touch-screen controls). But for pure shock of the new, nothing can compare with the push-button start. Put your foot on the brake and press the big red button, and on comes the engine! Want to use any of the cars other electronics while parked in your driveway? Just push the button without engaging the brake. Naturally, pressing while the engine is running shuts it off. Amazing.
I hate cars.
Wednesday afternoon found us hanging out at a playground in Lexington. It was before elementary school dismissal, but there were lots of preschoolers and their parents busy playing together. As Zion, climbing over the four-foot-high chain link fence around the play area, teetered precariously with one leg on each side calling "look at me!", a mom of two preschoolers commented approvingly.
"It's great that you let him do that... I'd be a nervous wreck!"
I appreciated the remark! She continued by saying she feels like kids need to have more "dangerous" experiences, something that might be tough these days. I agreed, but reassured her that she might be a little more relaxed about things like that when her second was almost six! We also talked about how dads might tend to be more relaxed about danger, while moms handle the keeping-the-kids-from-dying duties. It was a nice conversation.
And she has a very fair point. The playground we were on was pretty safe—designed to modern American playground standards, with a cushy rubber surface under all the CPSC-approved equipment, but still most of the parents were hovering around their two-to-four-year-olds—or worse, running towards them in a panic if they started climbing up the wrong ladder. What's the worst that could happen, I wondered?
Yesterday evening I read a lovely YA novel by Patricia Reilly Giff called Jubilee. It's about a girl with selective mutism and her efforts at the beginning of her fifth-grade year to connect with the people around her. There were lots of nice things about the book, most notably its setting on an unnamed island in Maine. Besides being an evocative setting for the story, it also meant that it was plausible for the author to have the young characters wandering around on their own—island kids will know everyone they're going to come across, and there's a natural boundary to how far they can roam. Susan Bartlett did the same thing with Seal Island School, and I'm sure there are other examples too.
Now, I don't know if the authors picked the island setting for that reason. Maybe they just appreciate the romance. But it's a fact that it's harder to find—and maybe to write too!—believable stories about kids who face real adventures and get to make real, meaningful choices for themselves in real-world settings. If you ask me, that's why we see so many sub-par fantasy books, especially in the magical-wonder-collides-with-everyday-life mold of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson (it also helps that those two series are such huge money-makers that they've spawned hordes of second-tier imitators). I've got nothing against stories with magical elements. But I like real adventure too, and I think kids should read about it, and I think they should have a hope of seeing some adventure for themselves.
Climbing over fences is a good start. Playing in the woods without adult supervision. Going to the bathroom alone in the library (hey, baby steps). Staying home alone while I walk the dog. Walking to friend's houses. Any six- or seven-year-old should be able to think about doing those things (at least in a safe neighborhood like ours). Island adventures are great—and you should totally read Jubilee, by the way—but I'd like to hope that a little freedom for kids isn't just something that happens on islands.
There's a piece making the rounds lately about a terrible couch from West Elm. The notion of the article is, here's this hip $1,200 couch—the "Peggy"—that folks are buying in their late 20s when they want to move up from Craigslist finds or Ikea offerings, but really it's terrible and breaks right away; and that lots of people have had this experience. So I don't really care about that, but there was one thing in the article that really got my attention:
I went into two different West Elm stores and asked patient employees what they thought of the Peggy and if they would recommend it to somebody. ... In both cases, I asked what the expected lifespan is for a West Elm couch like the Peggy. Both store employees told me that between one and three years was normal for a couch with light use.
We're thinking a lot about our own couches here. The couch and big chair that we bought when we moved into this house are ten years old, and the dog has loved being on them for nine and a half of those years; not to mention the three kids when they came along, the two of us, and countless visitors. There have been many pillow forts. And yet I'm dismayed and disappointed that the covers are getting threadbare and are suffering lots of little holes (and a couple gigantic ones). And our other couch? My parents got that one when I was a baby. Sure, it's been reupholstered once and has a slipcover on it now, but it's still hanging on.
Talking to some other folks about my reaction to the West Elm article, I was gratified to hear that they too thought one to three years was unreasonable—but I think the majority view even among sensible people of my acquaintance is that you shouldn't expect much more than five. I just don't know what to do with that. I was thinking about furniture a while ago (just after we started our epic, house-wide furniture-moving project—still in its middle stages today) and it occurred to me that couches are a pretty new invention, relatively speaking. At least for the common folks, a couple chairs around the stove would be all you could look for by way of relaxing seating. Maybe a rocker. Wooden chairs last longer than five years, I believe.
Generally, I admit I'm too ready to believe that, since I obtained a thing once, I should be free from having to do so again. Shoes, for example, need to be replaced with some regularity, it turns out. Jeans. Socks. But I don't think it's unreasonable of me to expect twenty years out of my couches. The money is bad enough—even worse is the trouble and effort of actually managing the replacement! And what happens to the old couches? Landfill? They're not getting sold on Craigslist, if they're breaking down after one to three years!
Clearly, many people are still making solid, reputable couches, so I shouldn't overreact to this one failure of common sense. But West Elm also sold a lot of Peggys, so. Modern culture is weird.
We spent a lovely hour or so yesterday evening playing at the skate park.
After a picnic we were planning to hang out on the playground, but the boys suggested the skate park as an alternative—and it was an inspired suggestion. We joined about ten middle-school and upper elementary kids, who were playing a relaxed game of tag and generally hanging out; they were lovely company and offered to help Lijah get up the half pipe when I was otherwise occupied (they actually couldn't manage it, but it's the thought that counts!).
We got lots of exercise, and as I watched the boys play—and tried some tricks myself—it occurred to me how much more interesting the skate park is than the playground. It may seem to have fewer things to do—just a bunch of different sized ramps—but its open-endedness draws the boys in more than the playground's fancier features manage to. Or maybe we're just bored of the playground; we spend a lot of time there!
I couldn't help notice the contrast between the happy parent-free scene at the skate park (I don't count, right?) and the first-grade baseball game going on just beyond the fence. There were lots of parents there, and uniforms, and coaches giving directions. I guess those kids were having fun too.
A couple days ago we got home in the evening just as our neighbors were getting into the car to head out to soccer practice, and I was relishing our freedom to relax and ease into the night's quietness instead of having to force the kids into just one more thing (the neighbors had already managed school and homework). In the event our boys spent the next half hour shouting at each other—and I believe there was some physical violence as well—so this time maybe we got the worse of it, but overall I think we're on the right side of the question.
There's lots of interesting things to do in the world. Better to do each of them as they call to you, rather than having to follow a schedule all the time. Here's to organizing life just enough to make that possible!
Leah gets up before me these days, and lately I've been acutely aware of when she's making her coffee because the kitchen sink hasn't been working quite perfectly: turning it on or off produces a noticeable "thunk" that pretty much shakes the whole house. Which is livable, but after it started dripping both from the end and the base of the faucet stem I figured I should do something about it (like, a week after... you know how it is). Happily, all I had to do to fix it was take the faucet apart and put it back together again, which I did the other day. Not only did the dripping stop, but now the faucet is a smoothly-function joy to use. I should have done that last month!
I wouldn't mention it here except just a couple days earlier I fixed the furnace the same way. The first really cold day this winter we were out all day, and when we came back the house just wouldn't warm up; when I went down to look at the furnace I knew why. Well, I sort of knew why: the proximate cause was the furnace's failure to light, but I had no idea of the reason for that. But I didn't let lack of knowledge stop me, and with headlamp and screwdriver got to work taking apart the little panel with the igniter and flame sensor. Not very much apart, since it was late, but enough to notice that maybe the connection between the igniter and its wire was a little loose. Who knows if that was the problem, but when I put everything back together it lit right up.
Our lives today are filled with things we don't understand, and it can be a little paralyzing. That's what attracts me to "sustainability" as a goal—not that I'm afraid society will collapse and I'll need to be able to grow my own food and maintain my own primitive machinery, just that I appreciate a little bit of comprehension about the workings around me. For me at least, it makes life less stressful.
Of course, I'm nowhere near complete independence in those terms, nor do I really hope to be. But at least now I have a first step for dealing with broken things that I'm not really sure how to fix: take em apart and take a look! It's kind of liberating.
There are good things about public schools. It's great for kids of different backgrounds to be together, curriculum coordinators and adventurous teachers come up with great learning activities, and the Common Core standards have some solid ideas about helping kids really understand math. But beneath all that, there's a problem: at its heart, the whole operation is driven by fear.
The other day I was passing by the Waldorf School in Lexington around mid-morning, and I had to pause on the bike path to let a class of first- or second-graders cross from the conservation land behind the school back onto school grounds. It was a chilly day, but they were all well-bundled up and seemed happy enough to be outside enjoying the November sunshine. As I understand it, all the classes at the school spend time outside every day. That would never fly in the public school.
For one thing, the kids might get cold! Kids being cold or wet is a huge concern of public school educators in the suburbs, and most of them are quite happy to disappoint kids' hopes of playing in puddles—or even going outside at all—in order to save them from the dangers of the elements. And even teachers who think that wet feet are their own reasonable deterrent hesitate, less they incur the wrath of parents. Would most parents be particularly upset to have a kid come home still damp? I expect not; but one might be. And that's enough to shut down any puddle fun across the board, and all spring the cry of "Stay out of the puddles!" echoes across Massachusetts schoolyards.
And then of course there's the concern that, if kids are outside—even to "take regular nature walks and observe the daily and seasonal changes in the natural environment"—they'll be missing vital pedagogical opportunities. We're not going to catch up with Singapore if we're wasting time in nature! As is the case with the fear of weather, it's not clear who first decided that first grade would set the academic tone and decide if a student would be able to gain admission to a prestigious college... but now everyone seems to think that. So there are no more toys in first grade rooms, except those to use during the 20 minutes of indoor recess a day kids get when it's colder than 25 degrees or so.
As it is now, no one seems able to step back and take a deep breath and realize that, provided the right circumstances, kids really like learning.
And I understand how seductive fear can be. I fall prey to it in my own teaching, and when I think about what I'd do if I were in charge of educating a whole town's worth of kids—or even a dozen at a time—I start to have "responsible" fears about how ready the average child is to make their own educational decisions. That's nonsense, just like it's nonsense to think that eight-year-olds can't be trusted to decide whether they're cold or not. As educators, our job should be to accept kids as they are, and do the best we can to make learning appealing: not forcing facts and methods into kids' heads, but creating an environment where they can explore what interests them and make their own educational path.
It's possible that doing that on a large scale would be a disaster, or even that I won't be able to manage it for our tiny farm-school co-op. But maybe it can work... and I'm not afraid to try!
Especially when I get free farm work out of the deal!