Monday, March 22, 2021

The Threat of Not Caring

24 Aug 2017.

For those of you who can look at a swastika or a confederate flag and say "Why can't people just let it be?" I have been thinking: maybe you haven't had the experiences I have had. Maybe you don't know the things I know. Here is why we can't "let it be." 

The Nazis imagined a purified society ruled by what they thought to be a master race. They tortured, mutilated, stole from and murdered millions of people. Not as part of some other plan. The genocide was the plan. Maybe you didn't know. Maybe you didn't read the Diary of Anne Frank when you were twelve years old. Maybe you didn't identify with the young Jewish girl hiding with her family during World War II. Maybe you didn't read the epilogue, horrified to learn that she died in a concentration camp. That her father found her diary afterwards, read what she wrote about how she still believed people were good, and decided to publish her private thoughts so people all over the world could understand what we lost when Anne was murdered. Maybe you didn't have that experience. 

Maybe you didn't grow up as a non-theist, being told several times that you were going to burn in hell, as I did. The first time it happened I was six years old. I heard the threat implied by those words: you're not in the in-group, you're not good, you're not worthy. It's not quite "I'm going to kill you" but more "If someone else killed you, I wouldn't mind." I mean, after all, if my soul is damned, why should anyone bother to protect my corporeal form? This is why a belief in the supernatural is so dangerous - it allows people to believe and do terrible things. Every time I meet a new person, I wonder: if they knew I didn't believe in any supernatural beings, would they see me as less human? Would they care if someone murdered me for it? I am constantly reminded, by the passive assumption that Christian=good - or, at least, that religious=good - that I am seen as less human than other people. Maybe you haven't had that experience. 

I am not a person of color, so I don't know what that's like. But here is what I imagine. Seeing a confederate flag in a public place says to me: you are not wanted here, you are not in the in-group. It's not quite the threat of "I'm going to kill you" but rather "if the police shoot you, I won't mind." The flag is not an offense. It's a message. And the message is: white=good. White is best. All others are less than. Not quite human. 

Being reminded that you are seen as not quite human is terrifying. As a human, I rely on other humans to support the environment I survive in. If they reject me, I will die. If they ignore me, I will suffer. If they exclude me, I will not thrive. And any monster may come to take me. A Nazi. A white supremacist. A fundamentalist Christian. A frightened cop. An angry young man who defines his self worth by sexual conquest. Poverty. Disease. Starvation. Any of these monsters could take me, and people won't mind. 

That is why we can't be quiet. Why we can't brush aside cruel remarks, or fascist symbols, or racist flags. It has to be called out. In my case, I'm asking: "Will you care if someone kills me? Am I human to you?" 

Things you can do if you don't understand:
  • Read the Diary of Anne Frank, a murdered Jewish girl whose spirit survives.
  • Watch the film Night and Fog, a documentary about the Nazi concentration camps.
  • Listen to a talk given by a holocaust survivor.
  • Read a first-hand account of the horrors of slavery in the United States. Consider that people were born into slavery under our system. Families were forcibly separated. For generations.
  • Read the books 1493 and 1491.
  • Read the book Lies My Teacher Told Me.
  • Ask a Jewish friend if they have ever received death threats. They have.
  • Read about Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who was beaten and murdered for offending a white woman.
  • Read about Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death for being gay.
It matters what people think. It matters what people say. It matters what ideas we promote or condone. It matters that public figures are equating a movement explicitly devoted to kicking non-whites out of the country (white supremacy) with a movement devoted to highlighting the inhumane treatment of people of color. They are not two sides of the same coin. They are not simply competing theories or opinions, like a disagreement between environmental protection and resource extraction. One is about dehumanizing people, and the other is about re-humanizing them. 

BLM might well have called themselves "Black Lives Matter, right? Right? Right....?" Either way the answer has been a deafening silence. 

The Nazis gassed people in chambers. It took a while to die. People tried to claw their way out. Their fingernails broke off and stuck in the walls. Sometimes, the Nazis threw emaciated people into mass pits, before they died. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. People. 

People did this to people. Ordinary people did this. And not that long ago. And in a culture not far different from our own. 

American soldiers took German civilians afterwards into the camps and confronted them. The American soldiers were horrified. Adult men weighing 70 pounds - walking skeletons. Mass graves. Murdered children. The Germans acted like they didn't know. But it was worse than not knowing. 

They just didn't care.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Nations of the World: Nigeria

"Truth is like a baobab tree; one person's arms cannot embrace it" (African proverb)

Nigeria is an old, complicated place. As the most populous country in Africa, and with the largest economy of African nations (20th largest economy in the world), Nigeria is an important world power. Culturally, Nigeria is growing in importance, too - for example, Nigeria's film industry Nollywood is now the second largest producer of films in the world.

Like so many other modern nations, Nigeria struggles from the lingering effects of colonialism. The southern part of the country, more influenced by British control in the 20th century, is largely Christian and practices common law, while the northern part of the country is largely Muslim and officially practices Sharia law. There are huge differences in wealth and influence, deepened by ongoing government corruption, and fueled (pun intended) by the oil industry. But more than that, Nigeria is a country of multiple ethnic and linguistic groups who have been vying for influence for at least a thousand years. There is bound to be conflict.

I found a great thread where Nigerians were swapping myths and superstitions from different parts of the country. The common themes are fascinating, and resonate with similar myths from all over the world. But there are some interesting differences, too, such as the proper response to a snake in your house. Some people say you should kill the snake, and bury its head separately from the body. But others say you should pick it up with a stick and carry it far from your home.

In 2002, a 21-year-old journalist named Isioma Daniel wrote an article for the fashion section of a paper about the upcoming Miss World contest to be held in Nigeria. In addressing the grumblings of some Muslim Nigerians about the inappropriate nature of the contest, she quipped that the prophet Mohammed would probably have married one of the contestants. Her comment became the catalyst (or excuse) for riots in the country, ultimately resulting in the deaths of over 200 people. A Muslim leader in the North issued a fatwa saying she had blasphemed and that her blood could be spilled. Daniel fled the country, and has been in Norway ever since.

As a country rich with cultural heritage, Nigeria is of course rich in mythology, too. But one story I particularly like is about the baobob tree. The tree has adapted to conserve water by not having leaves for nine months out of the year. It's a huge, long-lived tree that looks like a normal tree that has been pulled up and shoved back in the ground again upside down. In fact, one story has it that the god Thora did not like the baobob tree in his garden, so he threw it down to earth, where it landed upside down but kept growing. Thus the baobob tree represents strength.

Trees were important to my nordic ancestors, too, so this story really resonated with me. Resilience is certainly a trait we humans associate with trees, and I think we are a little jealous of them for it. I hope that the people of Nigeria can survive the struggles they are dealing with now, and continue to be the great and vibrant nation they have been for over a thousand years.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

How Writing Should be Taught

The way writing is taught is, by and large, terrible.

Starting at an early age, English teachers encourage students to think of writing as an unbearable chore, a hellish task, and something that only the rarefied few will ever excel at. It doesn't have to be this way.

I loved writing as a kid, and love it still, but it was in spite of my writing teachers, not because of them. They did their damnedest to make writing a miserable experience. Frequently a first draft writing assignment would come back to me marked up with red ink, with harsh comments in the columns. This is not the way to teach a creative process.

Often the way writing is graded by teachers puts too much focus on the mechanics. I know why teachers do this. It is a fact that poor mechanics in writing will make other people think you are stupid. A single typo on a resume could mean you don't get invited for an interview. People love finding ways to elevate themselves above others, and the English language is an absolute minefield of opportunities for error - homophones, silent letters, foreign spellings, irregular plural markers. And often in modern society your first impression on another person is through your writing. An error in mechanics can have an outsize impact.

But writing is not mechanics. Writing is not spelling and grammar and handwriting. Those are the tools we use to produce writing, just as paintbrushes, paint and brush strokes are the tools a painter uses to create art. But the writing itself is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Writing can be many things. Analysis. Explanation. Persuasion. Expression. Good writing has a voice that is unique to the writer, and ideas combined in new ways. The raw material of writing is drawn from experience, and the practice of writing improves the result. This is a creative endeavor, and it should be taught as such.

If art teachers taught painting the way English teachers teach writing, no one would enjoy art. And in fact, some art teachers do teach art badly, and the result is a lot of people giving up on something they enjoy, because they think they can't "hack it" as artists. Shame on those teachers.

Imagine if you were trying to learn to paint, and every time the art teacher came around to look at your work they said things like "your lines aren't straight enough" or "these proportions are all wrong". How long would you last under that treatment?

And yet so many people think this is the way to teach writing. The vast majority of my writing teachers felt it was appropriate to laser in on every error, prejudge my work before talking to me, and to deconstruct what I wrote rather than to engage with it holistically. Very few of them ever asked questions like "what were you trying to do with this section?" - and of the few who did, I LOVED those teachers.

By way of contrast, let me describe the methods of my favorite art teacher.

First, she made us comfortable. She made tea. Sometimes there were crackers or little cookies to nibble on. We talked about our week, and how we were feeling that day. Sometimes a student was tired or just "not feeling it today" and would abstain from painting. Instead, they would watch the rest of the class and provide encouragement. This had the double benefit of giving them a break (you can't force art) and making the process feel more like a team effort.

Next, she helped us find ideas. You can't just sit down to paint. You need to have something in mind that you want to work on. Often, this is the hardest part of the creative process - just getting started. Sometimes she would bring a curious object. "I found this wierd lamp at a yard sale!" she would say, holding up some ugly glass thing. "Anyone want to paint it?" Often, she took us outside, where the light and subjects were always changing, and inspiration was much easier to find. If we brought our own ideas to work on, she encouraged that heartily.

She engaged with our art on its own merits, not based on what she wanted us to produce. Once we were sitting in the alley, painting a scene of the fence and trees in her back yard. She came to look at what I was working on, and asked me "tell me about your piece." This gave me the opportunity to describe what I had picked and why. "I liked the way the light was coming through the tree and breaking up on the fence. See? I'm painting the speckles." She nodded. "That's great!" she would say with real enthusiasm. She meant the idea, not the painting - she was encouraging the process, not the mechanics. She did not say things like "your fence lines are all wavy" or "this shading is all wrong." She might, however, after asking several questions about the choices I had made and the techniques I had chosen to employ, offer some advice about technique. "You're spending a lot of time in this corner of the paper. See if you can fill the whole sheet." This had the effect of stretching me, encouraging me to build on what I had already achieved. It buoyed me, and made me want to work harder. If she had criticized my fence lines, do you think I would have felt buoyed? I don't think so.

The way writing is taught can be this way. It SHOULD be this way.

Writing is a creative process, and writers get better with practice. Too much focus on mechanics, like spelling and handwriting, gets in the way and discourages people from the real meat and potatoes of writing - the analysis, the expression. Does a 9th grade English teacher really think they are going to improve on a student's handwriting at that point? Are they really going to succeed where the 3rd grade teacher, who spent considerably more effort, has failed? If a person has bad hand-writing by the 9th grade, they probably always will. Give that student a computer and never look back. And as far as spelling goes, that is something that improves the more a person READS. Correcting spelling is important, but it should happen at the end of the editing process, never near the beginning of the writing process. And this is where a computer can shine, too. Students should be taught not to trust spell check or auto-correct completely, but to use them as tools to help find errors, which are difficult to see even for the most experienced of writers.

Writing, a skill so needed to be successful in our modern society, must be taught in such a way that it does not terrify or shame the student. Here is a hypothetical way that a writing teacher could adapt the methods of my favorite art teacher, and in fact, a poetry teacher of mine did many of these exact things.

First, encourage students to WANT to write. By 6th grade, many of my classmates had come to view writing as some form of punishment. Perhaps if they had been invited to write about something that was of interest to them, they would have been more inclined. For example: you like model planes? Here is a book about it. Write me a page about anything you loved in here. That sort of method works for some people. For others, writing seems like a boring, pointless pursuit. Appeal to them on practical grounds. Don't like the way the city runs the parks? Write them a letter. Don't like the way the movie theater overcharges for popcorn? Write a complaint. Write a review. Want to get a scholarship? Write an essay. For people who don't enjoy the expressive or explanatory aspects of writing, it's important to show them its practical value as a tool for getting what they want in life.

Second, encourage an environment where writing can happen at all. Asking a class to sit down together - with people they perhaps don't like, in uncomfortable wooden chairs, with fluorescent lights overhead, in a drafty room, probably on an empty stomach, tired from staying up too late watching TV - to write an essay about the use of symbolism in Catcher in the Rye, is just too damn much. The hand writing is bad, and they know it, but they can't help it. Their spelling is wrong, and they know it. They never much liked Sallinger anyway - they prefer Star Trek/My Little Pony cross-over fanfic. They can't think of anything to write. Their mind is wandering. They scribble something down. They turn it in. They get it back the next day, covered in red ink. Missing paragraph breaks. Poor transitions. Lacks a conclusion or thesis. They got the dates wrong. It's wrong, wrong, all wrong. This is not a situation that's conducive to writing.

Here is what my poetry teacher did. He asked us how we were feeling. We chatted, we laughed, together as a group. He took us outside, had us walk around, and talk to each other about what we were seeing, smelling, feeling. He gave us good writing to read, and we talked about it, as a group, bouncing ideas off each other and making new connections. Then, and only then, he had us write.

Third, always engage with the writer first, not the writing. Ask questions. "Tell me what you were trying to do" is a good place to start. Writing is just thinking, written down in a linear fashion. Our brains don't really think the same way that writing works, and this translation is harder than most people appreciate. A good teacher will ask the student to think about what they were trying to accomplish, and then help them assess whether or not they achieved that.

Fourth, encourage the writer's voice. If I had a nickel for every time a teacher told me a phrase I used was "too informal" or used "inappropriate tone" I could buy a sandwich. Fortunately, I had some well of "fuck you" to draw on that saw me through those frustrating situations. I often argued with my teachers. I would say "that is my voice and if you don't like it, too bad." Later in life I have looked at these writing samples and agreed with my teacher's comments, but that is NOT the point. By commenting on my voice, they were telling me what my voice should be, and that is wrong. If my art teacher had said my painting in the alley was "too cheerful" she would have been just as wrong. Perhaps my tone was inappropriate to what I was trying to achieve with my piece, but did these teachers ask what my intent was and engage me that way? No. They assumed and dictated, and in doing so, they were inadvertently crushing my unique voice and risking damaging my desire to write at all.

Finally, the last thing a teacher should do is to critique mechanics. Mechanics do need to be taught. Good writing does need to be readable. But there is a reason that professional writers write first and edit later. Writing and editing are two completely different processes.

My art teacher gave suggestions, but they were not commands. If I chose to ignore her and press forward, she never said another word unless I asked for help. Once, when I expressed frustration with a piece - and crucially, was in a place where I wanted to hear advice - she suggested that my painting looked overworked. That I needed to learn to recognize when it was done and to stop, to leave something up to the imagination of the viewer. In this way, she gave me an idea for future pieces, but was not overly critical of the one I had just produced. I took this feedback graciously and have carried it with me ever since.

And so, in conclusion, I learned more about writing from an art teacher I met with a few times for fun on Saturday mornings, than I did from countless hours spent with English teachers and their red pens. Writing is an art form, and a crucial skill for success as an adult. Everyone can learn to do it well, but only if they practice. And people will only practice if they enjoy it at least a little bit.

Writing can be a powerful expressive skill. Teachers, please: don't kill that spark.

Cowboy Hats and Waterfalls

Last night I asked my husband to give me a writing prompt and he offered: "cowboy hats and waterfalls"

I didn't really find a satisfactory way to connect those two ideas, but I spent about an hour and a half on Wikipedia learning more about the 1800's than I ever did in high school history class. I used to hate history; now I think it's about the most intriguing thing of all. It's the story of the humans who came before us, and how they set the stage for our lives today. What could be more important?

Anyway, an hour and a half on Wikipedia showed me that I am: a) a really terrible American, because I should have already known this stuff, and b) that the history of the U.S. is really fascinating. Every scoundrel, every do-gooder, every inventor, every prophet, every mother and every dirty politician - I love them all.

Cowboy Hats and Waterfalls?

The morning of November 18, 1890, in the New York naval shipyard, 12-year-old Alice Tracy Wilmerding - granddaughter of the then-secretary of the navy - christened the USS Maine in a well-attended ritual marking the launching of this ill-fated ship.

History doesn't make much mention of Alice after that, but we know she later married and that one of her two sons - Frederic - served 5 terms as a New York congressman. She died in 1962, having experienced all the significant changes of the modern world over her lifetime. I think you could say, just based on that, that she did well.

The same cannot be said about the USS Maine. It was originally ordered in 1886, in response to concerns about Brazil's then superior fleet. (Navy leaders at the time claimed that if the entire US fleet went up against the Brazilian ship Riachuelo, they wouldn't stand a chance.) But due to supply issues and union strikes, the Maine was not completed until 1890, and not commissioned - under the command of Captain Arent S. Crowninshield - until 1895. She took so long to build that she was already obsolete when her hull touched the water.

Just three years later, the Maine was sent to Havana to "protect American interests" in the Cuban revolt from Spain. We were friends with Cuba then.

In the evening of February 15, 1898, the USS Maine mysteriously exploded and sank in the Havana harbor, killing almost everyone aboard. The most likely cause seems to have been a combination of a design flaw with a build-up of highly flammable gases from the bituminous coal used to power the ship.

Although not officially the cause of the Spanish-American war later that same year, the USS Maine became a hot topic in the so-called "yellow press" (a.k.a. unmitigated bullshit) of the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who whipped Americans into a fury over the event. The catchphrase became "Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!"

But that's not what I came to tell you. What I want to tell you is this: one of the men aboard the Maine owned a Stetson, the hat that came to be known as "the boss of the plains" - a hat that became synonymous with the culture of the West.

The hat was invented by John B. Stetson, whose father was also a hat-maker. As a young man, Stetson was diagnosed with tuberculosis (that common killer of so many famous people once upon a time), and given a grim prognosis. Stetson traveled to the West, fearing he wouldn't get to see it before he died. While there, he noticed all the hats everyone had brought with them from their previous lives were terribly ill-suited to life in the West. So, he came home and invented a hat so good that it became the mainstay of an entire cultural movement and has not changed in design since.

Inspired by traditional hats of Northern Mexico, made from beaver felt, and designed by a New Jersey boy who fell in love with the West, the Stetson could not be more quintessentially American.

The hat was so good, in fact, that when the US government pulled up the Maine in 1912, at the request of the Cuban government who did not appreciate a shipwreck clogging their harbour - they found a Stetson onboard, cleaned it up, and reported it undamaged. Fourteen years under water, covered with sludge, and it looked just fine. That's a damn fine hat.

Another man who was both captivated by and then shaped the West was John Muir, who immigrated from Scotland and later moved to California. On seeing the Yosemite valley, he had a near-religious conversion and became our country's greatest advocate for the preservation of wild places.

In 1890, the same year Wilmerding christened the Maine, Muir successfully petitioned the US government to pass the National Park bill, paving the way for federal protection of places such as Yosemite.

Muir was a cowboy renaissance man: a naturalist, engineer, geologist, philanthropist, and botanist. He founded the Sierra Club. He theorized that Yosemite had been formed by glaciation (not earthquakes, as the prevailing theory had it at the time), and he even discovered an active glacier there. He spent many days climbing mountains and visiting waterfalls. And he wore a Stetson.

Ribbon Fall in Yosemite park is the highest single drop waterfall in North America at 1,612 feet, on the West side of El Capitan. There is a picture from 1903 of Teddy Rosevelt and John Muir in front of Ribbon Fall, both wearing Stetsons.

The history of America is one of inspiration and transformation. Of people moving and mixing, designing and building, trying and failing and trying again. And like the seasonal water at Ribbon Fall, we keep coming back to provide new inspiration for future generations of ship-builders and hat-makers, scientists and philosophers, mothers and politicians.

So put on your Stetson, and get out there and do something great.

Bootstraps or Compassion?

People tend to differ along a spectrum about how much help they think we should give to our fellow humans. At one extreme, there are people saying everyone should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" or that we need to "empower people to help themselves." At the other end of the spectrum, there are people speculating about whether our past and our environment predict our behavior and future success, and whether free will is even real.

It does help to "empower" people to help themselves, but there is a point (and we may disagree where this is exactly) where the individual is no longer able to help themselves. And frankly, the idea that anyone does anything alone, absent a context that helps or hurts them, is an illusion.

But to say that people are 100% NOT responsible for their actions is also unhelpful.  If I am to blame for my situation, that's actually great, because it means I can do something about it by changing myself.

Maybe we would all be better off seeing this as a continuum, rather than a binary phenomenon, and recognizing that different individuals will be better suited - or worse - to adapt to the environments they find themselves in. At that point the question becomes: how much suffering are we willing to let another human being endure before we say "that's not struggling leading to growth - that's just senseless misery" and we intervene?

Why Write

Writing is just like thinking, only better than.  It lets us organize our thoughts.  It is "thinking out loud", so to speak.

Writing is intimate. It's a way to share with others thoughts more private than we could ever say. Sometimes talking is too painful, where writing feels safe.

Writing is eternal, at least potentially. Once it's written down, it can be shared and shared again. It can be copied and translated and repeated and recorded anew. Writing is a damn good shot at immortality.

Writing is lonely. Some writing can be done with others but I think the best writing happens at the contact between writer's pen and paper, or between fingers and keyboard. Writing is one person, interpreted, distilled, cultivated, transcended. It is a cry in the dark, a call across the abyss.

Writing is meant to be read, even by those who only write for themselves. Writing communicates, it infiltrates. It echoes in its readers' heads. It slips in under the radar and creeps over the walls people erect in their minds to protect themselves from scary, bad New Ideas. Writing is ultimately, hopefully, read. Read and re-read, loved or hated. It creates something in the world that can spawn new creations, new interpretations, new insights leading to new discoveries.

But still: why write? Not for the money - duh. Maybe for the readers, but nah - that's not nearly good enough. Mostly I think we write to keep the darkness at bay, to shine a light in our lives. We write to keep the crazy within from consuming us. We write to create worlds, fantasies, where things make sense and play out as they should. (Histories are the greatest fantasies of all.) We write to create order from chaos, to turn infinite senseless variability into a purposeful, orderly narrative, with well-behaved capitalization and punctuation, and nicely-dressed grammar.

Write to create. Write to enjoy, to entertain. Write to share, to expand knowledge. 

But most of all, write to make a better world.