Category Archives: American cultures

Growing into Thanksgiving

Americans seem, generally, to have a hard time with official holidays, as though the added pressure of suspending their daily living patterns tips the population into a crowdsourced demand for succor in the form of either consumption or mining family tensions. In my dotage (!), I’m pretty content with playing Thanksgiving as a necessary reminder to pause and simply feel gratitude; no need to go feast it, cheer its football teams, oggle floats and store displays, or make haste to exit the kitchen before the relative who likes to not like me enters it.

For the past 25 years, Thanksgiving has marked a special and grateful moment in my personal life, for it was on this day that I determined myself to be, in fact, pregnant with someone who has turned out to be purty darn wonderful.  But that’s personal, not a blanket experience for society around me, even my own best buddies. They have, each and every one of them, something or another just as personal, and just as gratitude-evoking, from their own years. And some of them are cranky enough to want to bypass that reminder to just pause and remember a moment of lived joy or grace or even bliss.

Which gets to the nub of pausing to feel grateful: I’m not thanking some entity out there or even my various and assorted continent exploiting ancestors, or the ones who, Johnny Come Latelies, managed to find a place of safe harbor. Those happenstances are readily mineable for all their cultural implications of greed, luck, and bad actions taken in the name of a fantasy called by various names for a deity.

And I’m certainly feeling no thanks at all, in a “there but for the grace of luck” way, for being in a safer, healthier place than friends and strangers both who live the fallout of American racism and solipcism and a bunch of other pernicious -isms that barely poke at the surface of what they are up against to simply maintain, let alone enjoy dominant culture’s smugness.

Feeling gratitude, however, is a bit like literacy: it’s something I had to learn and then have to practice, and can continually refine, without need of trappings like a feast or even a collection of others in the room. It’s a day off to remember that possibility exists. And possibility, for me, is the alphabet of the future.

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Border blues

O Canada!

The federal government of our neighbors (okay, neighbours) to the nor

ALA Editions, 2015

ALA Editions, 2015

th has spoken against my wily ways once again. This time, my unexpected–and undreamed–offense falls between the covers of a professional book. I mailed a copy of Libraries and the Affordable Care Act, fully labelled for Customs, and it came bouncing back from the border station near Scarborough, marked inappropriate for import. Okay, smarties, you have government-supported healthcare up there already (although it’s not national healthcare but rather province-by-province assured). Would it really have hurt anyone to be exposed to my admittedly dry prose steering US public library staff through their sophomore efforts with what the US (and 17 states within it) have on offer for those of us who are…well, south of the border?

My intentions in mailing it were pure: no plan to poach either patients or library patrons. I was mailing it to someone–admittedly a former US public librarian–who was beset with curious questions about how this set of 2010-enacted laws work. Heck, if the book’s good enough for library staff here, what could it hurt to share the info–with one person, mailed to a home address–there?

Or maybe I should interpret the official rejection as the book’s very first review. In which case, I am in big do-do beyond my border rep.

It’s almost exactly seven years to the day that my attempt to receive a then-six-year-old computer monitor coming across the border (again, south to north) was met with equal outrage. That time, however, I was on the north side and could be hunted down with the $1000C import fee demanded. Uh, no.

But, Canada, we gotta stop meeting like this: books meant for librarians trying to understand snaggly US insurance laws, antique computer monitors. What’s it gonna be in 2021? Should I start crafting a plan now? I’m thinking origami animals. Who can say no to them?

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Filed under American cultures, Health and wellness, intellectual freedom, reading and books

Civic engagement civilly undertaken

The runup to Scotland’s Devolution vote last month included, on this American side of the Pond, an opportunity to witness how civic engagement “over there” could be undertaken with both interest (a voter turnout of about 84%) and social media discussion among those of different stands in which the stand, rather than the shouting power of each discussant, tended to dominate. During the same time period, the case of the peremptory retraction of a signed and sealed tenure position at the University of Illinois-Urbana erupted in what amounted to blazes of emotionally supercharged shouting in the same social media venues. The UIU event, in terms of  no emotional holds barred appeals to human tendencies other than reason, was itself relatively tame when contrasted with daily troll outbursts, putatively addressing a vast swath of concerns, on local news sites all over the US.

Civic engagement, American-style, seems to come in decibels, while, in at least one other place, civil discourse flows from and to the ear and the brain before emerging  as sound walls through the mouth. Civility has that interesting capacity to keep the argument focused on what makes the argument important, while our fractious, post-Puritanical emotional outbursts reduce whatever discourse might have been  to the byproduct of cinders heaped on the quieter, slower speaker.

Yes, post-Puritanical: thererin lies the rub. While we have spent the past 250, 75, 50, and even 10 years outgrowing the rigid demands the Puritan culture winners hardwired into our civic building, we seem to have grown an increasingly untrammeled bulge of emotion-makes-right in the muscle we put to engaging with our civic interests. Instead of building toward community, we seem bent on building away from accepting diversity in member opinion. While anger at injustice can be a good and powerful engine toward unifying for change, we don’t limit ourselves to choosing when to anger for change’s sake and when to blast for the apparent delight of outyelling others. The end result isn’t civic engagement. It’s civil distress.

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A story flies

The well-coiffed and carefully casually dressed middle aged woman seated next to me at a cluster of airport boarding gates had suffered a deep bruise to her index finger hours earlier. The pain was so exquisite, she told me, that she simply needed to share the fact aloud. Neither whiney nor apparently self-conscious about breaking the kind of intimacy barrier between strangers that the setting typically inspires, she began our interchange with no small talk and instead, noting that my own fingers are bound in a clearly post-injury state, confided that she was startled by the level of pain she was feeling and felt so pressed by its force to speak of it that the visual cue of my recent experience with something that must be remotely similar gave her some immediate relief.

This is not how strangers of her age, class and culture typically present themselves to strangers, in my experience, and yet, I could meet her halfway across that peculiar landscape because her very forthrightness carried me there. She was asking nothing of me except to hear her. She had no expectation other than that in her own ability to communicate with another. Both were measures of her assurance in herself and her respectful recognition of another self who could understand.

This is the most essential breath of stories: the nexus of pressing narrative on the teller, the mutual trust between performer and audience, and the listener (or reader) as available to hear more than her own interior monolog. When my own attempts at telling sink on sandbars of audience discontent–“you tell it backwards;” “I want to know the end before the middle”–I have blamed myself. But maybe those particular listeners weren’t able to listen. Maybe my narrative could not broach their own personal space because that space was already too crowded with themselves.

Our separate flights were called. We did not mention any words of parting. No need for that existed. The teller had spoken, the listener had heard, the story had been able to take flight ahead of our embodied travels.

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Filed under American cultures, Friendship, Health and wellness

Ducks rely on webbed feet

Pundits eager to push specific areas of concern ahead on the back of Saturday’s news from UC Santa Barbara represent a varied range: pro- and anti-gun reliance; feminism and humanism; mental health and criminal justice. More to the point, the pundit audience–willing as well as passive, seems in want of having this one story be “theirs,” the essential take away from the event.

While Michael Moore declared himself unable to “respond”, the rain of assertions and opinions about which specific detail of the event requires “everyone’s” attention is playing out as a cultural battle bigger than any of the specified issues. The non-witness news-fed focus on their own reflection of the important, the urgent, and thereby miss the fact that culture is, like life, a web of interdependencies:

  • Firearms intrinsically relate to mental health and to crime
  • Feminism intrinsically attaches to societal expressions of humanity
  • Nothing is alone in its primacy

We can broach societal problems in order–sometimes and some problems–but does that really recognize that the ordering is an artifice contrived to comfort and help us to believe in our power to change others as well as ourselves? Where does a healthy society start? How can we move beyond finding reflections of a cause with which we feel connected to connecting to a reality that is the basis of cause-identification?

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Are civil discourse skills teachable?

This has become the season for big news sites to announce the alterations of their editorial policies, shelving public comment capacity (a defining characteristic of online news reporting, essentially a blogging actvity, over paper publication). The arguments put forth are all of a theme:

  • Regret at the loss of access for democratic discussion, as well as some factual correction
  • Announcing that trolls’ egregious expressions–racist virulence, ad hominem arguments, threats against other commenters as well as the original writer(s)–can most effectively be silenced by silencing all

I see another trend as related: the stories this graduation season of controversial public figures, having been invited to provide university commencement addresses then having the invitation retracted when the graduands vote against listening to whatever they might have to offer on this (future) occasion.

Demonstrative actions, including protesting public policy and political stands, and arguing against expression with responding expression are valuable and essential to a healthy society. Instead, we have evidence of our culture lurching toward censoring interchange because we seem to be over valuing the modulation of all behavior over correcting bad behavior, and closing off potential articulation lest it sound disagreeable.

Is civil discourse so all or nothing that we can’t engage in practice, in allowing good and bad models to exist, stand–or fall–to critique, open minds to possibilities each of us alone is too limited to imagine? How can we re-engage in the practice of debate?

Islands don’t choose their stream.

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Parental development issues

Reading this post in  The Daily Dot this am, my own misreading of one sentence reminded me of a little publicized detail some data mining of library challenges/cries-for-bannings reveal.

First, my misreading: “One Facebook commenter assures the trans community that ‘if Ms. Klug had been assigned to high school, where the students are at better ages to understand,’ the parents would not have complained,” my hapless brain initially rendereded: “One Facebook commenter assures the trans community that ‘if Ms. Klug had been assigned to high school, where the parents are at better ages to understand,’ the parents would not have complained.”

Which brought to my mind (besides the nearly hourly reminder I send myself to read more carefully) the patterns discernible in the list of annually challenged titles published by ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom: parents, guardians and other “caregivers” appear to have the least tolerance for youthful intellectual freedom when said youth are at any of three specific developmental stages that, intererstingly, are tied directly to asserting independence from those same caregivers. Picture books, such as Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, appeal to 4-year-olds who threaten to be aging out of tolerating 24 hour/day care provider oversight/interference–and might even have gone so far as to suggest they like the relative diversity of their friends/daycare buddies/neighboring families at least as well as the family that claims them as their own and provides the life that these experiences with those Other people allow. Next balloon on the reader audience age spectrum to warrant challenges by guardian adults encompasses those appealing to 11-year-olds (Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret may serve as a title many here can recognize), kids who just so happen to be entering that early adolescent development phase when they–horrors!–begin to prioritize peers above family members for their preferred social cohort. Next up: later adolescence, 16ish, an age synonymous in NA with drivers licensing, school sponsored dances that go til midnight, pairing up (ooo, we know what THAT can mean), and, not coincidentally, maturing analylitical capacity that prompts the reading of such undesirable texts as Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

So, folks, it would seem that we have been going about this all wrong: we don’t need to protect kids from human diversity, from their own identity formation (including gender identification, sexual orientation, and whatever else each of us finds a necessary adjunct of who-the-hell-we-believe-ourselves-to-be-most-usness). It’s the fear and loathing of adults threatened by losing their personal power over their kids’ dependency we need to address.

Full disclosure: As a parent, I once told my–coincidentally then 11-year-old–to not explore some information independently. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he woke his parents to bring the news of the World Trade Towers bombing-by-passenger-jets, news he’d garnered when waking to the radio he had set to rouse himself with the morning news. Later that day, I had to travel, or chose to continue with my already made plans to travel, away from home for the night and he was well angry/fearful about my going then. And I told him to not watch television news, where I knew the morning’s multiple violences were being reviewed endlessly. (Ours was a home in which television news wasn’t watched as a matter of course, so my edict was demonstrably alerting to him in that fashion as well). Being a relatively respectful child, he did not turn on any television. Instead he hied himself off to the public library where he, with his trusty library card, got himself online to view the news on CNN via the Internet.  Which led to my only moment of real outrage–not at him, but rather at the library staff member who recognized him and challenged him as to whether he had his parents’ approval to be viewing the news and then alerted me to his so doing. So, instead of sinking further into the slough of Sisyphean innocence protection, I instead wound up annoyed with a coworker for attempting to abrogate someone’s intellectual access and with trespassing on a library user’s privacy. Fortunately for said coworker and for myself, I kept these belated annoyances to myself.

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