Imperfect Serenity

Atom Site Feed

Monday, April 21, 2008

Show of Unity

Two incidents this weekend left me feeling hopeful about racial reconciliation in Philadelphia, though both had sobering aspects as well.

Saturday we attended a wonderful neighborhood event to reclaim a school mural that had been defaced by racist graffiti. The swastika, racial epithet, and death threat had been covered with grey paint as soon as parents and teachers discovered them on the way to school, but this "Unity" event covered the grey with something more hopeful: colored hand prints by all the people who attended, including students from the mostly black student body, families from the mostly white surrounding neighborhood, the new black mayor who won with an unprecedented and racially mixed majority, and the local white reverend who has been preaching about tolerance from her Presbyterian pulpit. It was a symbolic gathering engaged in a symbolic act, but sometimes symbolism is powerful. I was glad so many people showed up.

Attendance at the event shows that our neighborhood is more committed to tolerance than it was thirty years ago, when my former black neighbor moved here and was greeted with a pipe bomb on his front porch and no community outrage about it. I have a sense, though, that not everyone wants to see the connection between the neighborhood’s history and the recent graffiti. I’ve heard several people comment that “it must have been kids,” as if admitting adults might have done this (as a news report claimed) would make it harder to digest, which it clearly was for many people. A 60 year-old white man, who attended the school himself as a child, was quoted in the paper as saying that race “was such a nonissue when we were 6, 7 and 8.” Well, actually, race was kind of an issue in the United States in the mid-1950s, but it may not have seemed like it to children in East Falls, a community that excluded anyone who wasn’t white for many decades. Still, I’m glad the man was at the event and willing to speak with a reporter. Progress is progress.

That was how I felt Friday night at the Barack Obama rally on Independence Mall. The Philadelphia Inquirer estimated 35,000 people filled the space from the Constitution Center to the Liberty Bell. I was standing near the back and at one point realized that the boards I kept kicking were the traces of George Washington’s old house and the slave quarters that the park service paved over to build a parking lot. When I looked up, I saw snipers on the surrounding roofs, reportedly stationed there because Obama has received so many death threats. Despite these sobering reminders of our past and present, the event was electrifying. I have never seen such a diverse and unified crowd in our city, which is indeed diverse. As I looked around I saw behind me a young white woman with pink hair, in front of me an old black man with white hair, and beside me a group of men who looked liked they were from different corners of Asia. The whole crowd seemed like the kind of diverse ideal usually seen on murals (like the one defaced in East Falls) more often than in real life. Diverse music played on the loud speakers, and at one point a section of the crowd in front of me started doing the Electric Slide in unison. It was just great, even before the main attraction arrived.

As a friend said the next day, it says something about Obama that he can bring together that diverse a crowd. There are many reasons I will be voting for him tomorrow, but the hope of building a cross-racial coalition is one of them.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

How Would Jesus Vote?

I haven’t had time to blog this week, but since a picture is worth the length of an average blog post, I’ll simply leave you with my favorite political cartoon of recent weeks by F/friend Signe Wilkinson. To protect artists, her cartoon network web site prevents copying, so please click on this link.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Blogging to Death?

My first reaction to this New York Times article— “In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop—was to laugh. None of the Quaker or mother bloggers I know are making money cruising the web at all hours. For me blogging is often just a chance to express myself without worrying if my article length will fit an editor’s preference. But even if the problems the article describes are far removed from the lives of most bloggers, it still raises two serious issues that I can relate to—writers being underpaid and many people being over stressed.

Stress has been a theme here lately, and I have to bring it up again to plug an excellent PBS series Unnatural Causes…is inequality making us sick?. The first episode examined the effects of stress on the body and how understanding stress helps to explain why our life-expectancy correlates so closely to our incomes. The argument is that while the hospital CEO experiences a lot of what we think of as stress, the CEO also has a lot of control over how to handle things, as compared to the janitor, who just has to do what other people tell him to and sometimes has the stress of different people telling him to do different things at the same time. The experience of feeling powerless, the series argues, has profound health effects that also show up in monkeys who get bossed around by other monkeys. I found the monkey studies particularly interesting because all the monkeys had the same diet and environment, so the health problems of the low-ranking monkeys couldn’t just be blamed on eating French fries.

It’s got me thinking about stress and control in my own life. Although I often feel too busy, I realize I have it pretty good in the control department. I can blog today instead of later in the week because I know I will be grading papers after tomorrow. If I finish blogging early, I can go take a walk before picking the kids up from school. Actually, I could go walk without finishing—it’s just my own work ethic that is pushing me, not someone else’s demands, which makes me very lucky compared to the vast majority of working people in the world. Even my teaching job includes a lot of flexibility. For example, I could schedule the paper I’m collecting until after my children’s spring break when I knew I wouldn’t have time to grade. At the moment the thing that feels least in my control is the kids' schedules, though even that I could change if I really wanted to. Megan’s play practice gets out at exactly the same time Luke’s baseball practice starts, in a different neighborhood. If this is my biggest problem, I guess I’m doing OK.

Still, whether my stress is self-created or circumstance created, I need to work on managing it better. My only complaint about the PBS special was that it didn’t tell us how to do that. Some of the statistics it presented were pretty shocking, especially around the health effects of racism, but they were a little light on solutions. So when in doubt, I blog and breathe.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Rewarding Children

A recent Brain, Child debate has me thinking about the pros and cons of rewarding children. Instead of taking the magazine’s pro/con argument format, I want to make some distinctions about when I think rewards make sense and fit my Quaker values.

Both Brain, Child writers acknowledge that life is not always fair or easy, and that children need to learn to deal with it. I agree, which is why I wouldn’t give my child a treat just for accepting a vaccine or some other discomfort, as one of the writers did. I may sound a little heartless, but I worry my children don’t have enough difficulties in their middle class lives and could do with a bit more character building. If they ever have to face a war or an environmental catastrophe (not to mention more common problems, like car accidents and cancer), I want them to have some experience working through difficulties. The further my children get from diapers, and the closer they get to asking for the car keys, the more I see my job as training responsible adults.

It’s in service of training future adults that I like to use rewards, to encourage children to try some new challenge that I think is worth tackling. If it also teaches delayed gratification, so much the better. Recently we used a reward system to get our son to improve his behavior at school. The teacher said he was doing well academically and held his abundant energy in check most of the time, but in times of transition—on the way to recess or gym class—he was prone to go wild and get other children in trouble in the process. He had to maintain two weeks of excellent behavior, as reported by the teacher, in order to get a book he wanted about how to make paper airplanes. The strategy worked: not only did the teacher report a marked improvement in her classroom, but he seemed to be proud of the fact that he could do better than he thought he could. That to me is the real pay off. Now he knows he can do it. When he headed back to school yesterday after spring break, he joked that he might need another reward in order to keep it up, but he did well without one. I have found in the past that breaking a negative pattern with a short-term reward often has long-term results.

My biggest concern about this sort of thing is the fact that so many rewards in our culture are material: a book, a toy, a piece of candy. Most of the time I try to give rewards that have no carbon cost: compliments, hugs, and smiles. Still, we live in a material culture, and as rewards go I felt pretty good about the paper airplane book (until my son worked through my pile of recycled papers and started making all manner of aircraft from the new paper). For his birthday, my son has started asking for a DS, a PCP, or one of several other electronic devises with initials. I’m good with paper airplanes.

Those of you who followed the Christmas gift controversy should know that my daughter continues to want an iPod Nano. This desire has been so persistent (as have her requests) that my husband and I are taking a new approach. We have told her that she can buy one herself, as long as she earns at least half the money (as opposed to just using the gift money she has in the bank). Every spare minute she has been making friendship bracelets to sell, and last week with a friend, she baked chocolate chip cookies and sold them on the sidewalk to passing travelers. I admire her determination and want to encourage it. I also suspect that when she finally gets the iPod she’ll take better care of it than if she had received it in a box at Christmas.

On the making money theme, we finally started a system of chores and allowance. For years my husband has maintained that giving kids allowance was like paying them to be part of the family. The kids have always had a few light chores, but we are now upping the ante. My daughter is taking over the downstairs vacuuming and a few other jobs that could theoretically lighten my load, if all goes well. They will learn to earn money, keep track of it, and lose it if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain. I think those are reasonable life lessons and the kind of rewards and challenges that I face as an adult.

Who Links Here