Monday, June 8, 2015

Words Matter

Not long ago I reached out to someone I'd never met about helping with program for students in a local arts program.  The woman commented that she appreciated the opportunity to work with young people, especially those who are underserved.  This conversation reminded me of the power of language.  It also reminded me about our community’s current public discussion about having certain neighborhoods officially designated as slums in order to meet federal funding guidelines.  

As an educator, I made a shift from compensating for students’ deficits to identifying and building on their strengths. Not much different from what the wrestling coach taught my son about how to build a base. I began to use people first language and replaced one word with another:  children with disabilities rather than disabled children, accessible rather than handicapped, typical rather than normal.

As a lover and teacher of languages I have always been fascinated with idiomatic expressions.  Why do the French describe someone as an elephant rather than a bull in a china shop?  While English speakers let grass grow under their feet, Russians wait by the sea for the weather.  There’s even research about how language reflects and shapes perceptions of the world

But language is just the beginning.  Choosing our words is little more than an attempt at being politically correct unless we also think about how language reflects new and different ways of thinking and acting. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Gift of Siblings

Andy, Susie & Rolf circa 1957. Almost two years ago NY Times op ed columnist Frank Bruni wrote a terrific piece, "The Gift of Siblings."   I especially l liked this quote: Siblings are the only relatives, and perhaps the only people you’ll ever know, who are with you through the entire arc of your life (Jeffrey Kluger observed to Salon in 2011, the year his book “The Sibling Effect” was published).

Saturday, April 25, 2015


§  Treat (a person, group, or concept) as insignificant or peripheral, as in attempting to marginalize those who disagree.  (Google)
§  To relegate to an unimportant or powerless position within a society or group. (Merriam Webster)

It’s not surprising to learn from Googling around that more people than ever are using the word marginalized.  It certainly describes my feelings these days. Shortly after I retired five years ago, I decided to reconnect with my local political party.  Before completing a Ph.D. program and taking on a demanding job in a nearby community, I had served the party and city for almost 20 years as an elected member of the Common Council, Chair of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, appointed member and officer of the regional planning association, member of a Charter Revision Commission, member and officer of the party’s town committee, and chair of my district committee. I learned quickly that my interest was misguided.  New party activists who openly practiced age discrimination and less seasoned veterans were in a reform-minded place which seemed to brand anyone who had been around as long as I had, “part of the problem.”

Rules.  Many attempts to win friends and influence people failed.  It wasn’t that I didn’t get a sympathetic ear most of the time, just that others knew what they were going to do, how they were going to do it, and there wasn’t a place for me in the plan. Along the way I experienced a problem with party rules which resulted in a complaint to the state level. I offered to help re-write the party rules with a group that had apparently been working on this for some time but my offer was declined.  I renewed my efforts over the years with no success.  Last fall I volunteered again in response to an email invitation but heard nothing more.   I finally attended a meeting in February 2015.   At this meeting my questions about who else was supposed to be on the committee and whether the leaders had copies of prior complaints to State Central were rebuffed, at one point described as “stupid.” When several of us tried to help by creating a “red-line” version of the work that had been done, we were told it was too confusing.  When a member said angrily that “only certain people should be allowed to serve on this committee,” the other member and I took our cue and left.  The experience gave me insights into the ways some people view rules as a way to control and manipulate.

Race.  I think of social justice and civil rights as a journey not a destination.  It’s not something that can be achieved solely through legislation, proclamation or war. I get it – right now, there is increased tension and unrest in our country.  Unfortunately it seems to have taken needless, tragic deaths to refocus people’s attention on the work that still needs to be done.  There has also been a major change in people of color.  New immigrants from many countries, multi-racial citizens, and Latinos have joined African Americans, who typically have deeper, personal understandings of our country’s flawed history and incomplete civil rights efforts.  Instead of redefining the agenda and beginning the difficult but important work, too many people seem to be stuck in blame. They seem to operate as if old school identity politics is the only way to go.  Unfortunately that leaves people like me on the sidelines, marginalized because of skin color.

Religion.  If current racial tensions are sensitive and painful, it becomes even more confusing and frustrating when religion enters the picture.  What happened to the separation between church and state?  Do people believe that convening prominent, predominantly Christian ministers to lead public community prayers is the best way to move forward with tackling issues of racism, incivility and injustice? What about those of us who feel marginalized by this approach?  Is there any evidence that people who engage in public prayer come away better able to build a more just and civil society, or to deal with interpersonal anger and violence?  While time marches on and school children move from one grade to the next, many who see themselves as disenfranchised seem to spend more time praying, venting and blaming than working with those who might bring wisdom, experience, and talent to dealing with social justice. 

Respect.  For some years I’ve been interested in civility, specifically its erosion in public discourse.  That is why one of my first retirement ventures involved organizing and convening several community conversations about civility:  What does it mean?  How do we experience civility (or lack thereof) in Norwalk?  The past president of the Association of Opinion Journalists joined us one evening, another time the author of “Saving Civility” shared her work. Great conversations, helpful ideas, and it was heartening to hear more people talk about how important civility is, especially for governance and to promote adults serving as role models for young people.  However instead of really thinking about what it takes to change culture and behavior, boards of education, legislatures and councils, even governors began adopting civility guidelines or making public events out of signing civility pledges.  But the walk needs catch up with the talk.  Good public policies need to have some kind of built-in accountability or monitoring system to see if they’re having any impact on how we treat and speak with each other.  The good news, an unscientific analysis suggests people are at least thinking and talking about civility more.

My feelings of marginalization are based on recent personal experiences with rules, race, religion and respect.  These experiences have been powerful, sometimes painful, and often demoralizing.  But at the end of the day I am a positive, resilient person who derives strength from my work with young people and reminding myself of what it means to have come of age in the 60’s.  At the end of the day, this is not about me,  but how my experiences and feelings may be similar to those of many others who are on the path to disengaging from participatory democracy - or sadder yet, who have already opted out.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Braiding Ideas

Braiding usually involves taking three strands of hair, three ribbons, three pieces of string, weaving them into a single thread.  Some years ago I became intrigued when a workshop presenter talked about composting ideas.  This morning I found myself thinking about health care, public education, and baby boomers and realized I was braiding.

With increasing frequency – twice over the past few days – I’ve heard people bemoan the fact that going to the doctor now feels so impersonal, like being a small cog in someone’s out-of-control machine.   From personal experience in public education I know many teachers feel oppressed by a system which has turned them into data collection portals.  And boomers?  Just yesterday in a large planning group Gen Xers bemoaned what they described as an outdated boomer-driven mindsets about economic development.

Then I read a wonderful NY Times opinionator piece about the value and importance of doctors’ stories to round out what can be gleaned from data, and how the trend has been to squeeze the art out of its science. This was the first thread in my braid.  Next I thought about how much teachers would appreciate an invitation to add their stories to the vast student information databases, and to have these stories valued along with the numbers.  This was the second thread.  And finally, I thought about who seems to have been most responsible for shifting medicine and education away from admittedly incomplete anecdotal stories toward technology-facilitated numbers – not the boomers, but Gen-X.  (Of course those of us who are boomers must take some responsibility for having raised our Gen-X children.)  But I contend, we are not the ones defining public policy, other than by virtue of our sheer numbers.

So my idea braid suggests that there is a real benefit to finding ways to capture and add vignettes to our public policy data sets; and that we would benefit from spending more time thinking about how the different generations’ dispositions inform our past, present and future, rather than dismissing valuable perspectives and experiences.  Sounds so 60’s doesn’t it?  Makes sense since Peter D. Kramer (b. 1948), author of the article, and I (b.1949) are both boomers.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The thing about apple crisp...

Yesterday I posted a picture on Facebook of the apple-pear crisp I made. The ladies who prepared lunch in my elementary school cafeteria set the apple crisp standard for me - a perfect balance of fruit and crunch.  In those days they actually cooked the food from scratch at North Mianus!  Some years later I found this topping in a recipe for fresh rhubarb crisp and I've used it ever since:  1 cup flour, 1/2 cup raw rolled oats, 1 cup light brown sugar, 1/2 cup melted butter or margarine.  Sometimes I use granola for part of the oats and reduce the sugar.

I was also inspired by a special fruit delivery from my friend, Ikuko.  Last week she dropped off a few Asian pears and yesterday she delivered some Mutsu apples along with a dozen Italian prune plums. I think she got them at Blue Jay Orchard.  I decided make a plum torte (Marian Burros' recipe is the best) but wanted a way to easily share tomorrow with my former colleague, Pat. I decided to try making small, individual tortes rather than the larger one described in the recipe.  Here's the result. Not bad but I think next time I will cut the plums in smaller pieces and try to arrange them more artfully.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Aunti Randi's Curry Kit

Last May I went to Sandpoint, Idaho to be part of a loving bedside vigil for Aunti Randi, my mother's younger sister.  She passed from this life as she had requested, looking out on the Pend Oreille River, surrounded by  family and friends.  During our stay, my cousins and I explored Aunti Randi's pantry and freezer - in part to see what was available for mealtime, but also as cultural anthropologists, investigating the ways artifacts reveal people's lives.  We were not surprised to find bags of frozen rhubarb and berries, key ingredients in her famous Rhurazz jam.  We noted a large basket in the pantry marked "curry fixings."  Randi learned how to make curry early on in her marriage to please Uncle Roger who was born and raised in India, the son of medical missionaries. Several days ago I received a box in the mail from my Seattle cousins after they cleared out Aunti Randi's home before it was sold.  Powerful smells and fond memories of curry dinners long ago flooded my senses.  Proust had his madeleines but I have Aunti Randi's curry kit!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Did I used to be like this?

I've been interested in ethics ever since I took a graduate course many years go.  The take away for me then was that there is a difference between ethical and legal.  I also enjoy reading The Ethicist in the Sunday Times Magazine.  As a school  administrator I sometimes got involved with interpreting and enforcing our town's code of ethics.  Over time I became more and more convinced that most people really want to do the right thing, but sometimes they need a little help understanding the finer points of ethical behavior.  Then there's the issue of perception vs. reality.  So when I learned our local Ethics Board did not seem to be doing the work they were appointed to do, I offered my services.  Time went by and nothing happened until two current members of the Board were proposed for reappointment.   OK, I said to myself, it doesn't matter if I'm on the Board but is it a good idea to have people who haven't been doing their jobs continue?  So I wrote a letter to the editor expressing my consternation.  Several weeks passed and I learned that my letter had apparently disqualified me from further consideration.  "No problem," I said to the  terrific elected official in his mid 30's, who conveyed what he described as "bad news."  I told him not to worry, this was not about me!  I felt I had done my civic duty by offering to serve and by highlighting what I viewed as the current board's shortcomings.  He listened thoughtfully and apologized.  I again stated, this was not about me.  He repeated that he felt badly about being the bearer of bad news.  After we ended our conversation I started wondering if I used to think the end game was about me rather than the well-being of our community.  Sometimes getting older feels good.