Page 2 of 2
I know by writing this essay I will have allayed any suspicion that I am a happy, practicing member of this new electronic age. I am not. But neither am I a hard-core Luddite – running away from any decent potential that new technology may harbor. My first foray onto the electronic highway (more like the median strip) was in 1982 when I became the proud owner of an Apple II computer. It was Halloween when we set up the computer. We suddenly became the first place for parents to look for their tardy offspring. The (real floppy) floppy disk containing the game Falcons was better than candy as more than one child sat down in front of the black screen to take their turn at shooting green dots that turned all sparkly as they fell to the ground. I realized that owning a computer made us almost as popular as the 10 puppies our dog had given birth to the spring before. But, from this communal camaraderie, we have come to a cultural crossroad with one direction leading straight to this zombie producing nation of kids plugged in and plugged up as they walk along busy streets with the ubiquitous dangling side-locks of the earpieces. I cringe when I see young people today, staring glossy or vacant eyed waiting and thumb typing the time away. These young people seem to measure their lives not in coffee spoons, but in text messages and Facebook tags and likes. They walk along busy streets, seemingly, emotionally blind to their surroundings, blind to any beauty and (sadly) any potential danger lurking unnoticed. Also, I am uncomfortable with the idea that young children have to be entertained all the time. As a culture we put this canard front and center in our capitalist zeal to sell. Witness the car commercial in which a high angle camera shot follows a luxury SUV traveling through some of the most beautiful landscape this country has to offer – U.S. Coast Highway 1. Once the camera moves inside the car we see all the external beauty going to waste, unrecognized as the faces of the young occupants in the rear seats are cast in the sickly blue light of the video being run on the latest, built-in technological baby-sitter. Looking back, I’ve always been at odds with new technology in way or another. I was living in L.A. when the first rumblings of pay T.V. started shaking the cultural ground. Yes, I too gave the derisive sneer along with, “Please – who is going to pay for television?” I was obviously blind to the concept of Home Box Office – the great and lucrative idea of showing movies on television. Once we moved to rural western New York I did not have to consider paying for television. Our one-hundred and forty-year-old farmhouse sported the latest in aerial technology – meaning the antennae was easy to reach when we wanted to change the channels and get better reception with less snow. It wasn’t until 1986 – when my beloved Mets were on the fast track to a world-series championship – that I relented and agreed to a satellite dish. I was a reading teacher, at the time and fully aware of the message given by the huge, in your face, aluminum mesh dish in my orchard.
As a writer, technology, for the most part, has been my friend giving me any number of innovations to improve the look and content of my writing. But I always left the computer store fearing that by the end of the two-hour drive home my new acquisition would be obsolete. But obsolescence, I know now, was not planned. Those inventors, in their rush to figure out ways to push information faster and further seemingly, gladly, never slept in order to be on to the next new thing that would help us improve our ways to communicate important news and information. But what now? We can pass information around the world in nanoseconds, we can explain, detain, and maim in social networking environments with some restricting the makeup of our word-based weaponry to 140 characters. And innovation makes all of this good?
My fear is that while we may be on the cutting edge of electronic expertise, that technological Damoclean sword will certainly cut just as deeply on the backswing. Nothing pushes my point home better than the television commercial for Google Nexus 7 in which a middle-school boy asks the meaning of the word glossophobia. Does he ask an older brother or sister? No. Does he ask mom, who is sitting right beside him? No. Does he ask dad, who is nowhere in the picture (but that’s another rant for another day)? No. He goes to his beautiful android-tablet device for the answer. And the viewer is taken in with a sweet historical vignette in which the young boy learns about another “ordinary” individual (King George VI) who suffered from the same fear of public speaking. And yes, it ends well – he gives the speech of his young life and gets the girl of his dreams. In all fairness, there is another longer online version of this commercial in which FDR is featured telling us what it is we should fear. And in this longer version the mother uses the reminder app to wish her son luck on speech day. Cool technology meets warms and fuzzy. But, for me, the warmth did not last long as I fully expected the boy to get up and go find dad and ask him how to ask a girl out – you know, like handing down gender tips from one generation to the next. The boy does not seek any help from his parental units because the electronic parent is there to answer all questions – even the hard ones, without any parental wisdom for the child to store in his own arsenal of future references. The underlying message here is that mom and dad are obsolete and unnecessary for this generation of hooked up, plugged in, self-absorbed adolescents. And this is what makes me angry; the idea that we live in a culture in which we pay (mightily too) to stand in line for the right to become hardened to beauty, nature and, saddest of all, human contact. We will not survive as a species if this becomes the case.
Today is October 2, 2013. This country is in its second day of a government shutdown because a group of grown individuals, elected to represent the people and uphold the laws of this country, are unable to get beyond the “kindergarten sandbox” politics that adheres to the time-honored tradition of, if I don’t get my way, I’m going to hold my breath. Well, these people are actually holding the financial breath of us all – they are still getting paid as opposed to the more than a million citizens who are not.
But I am writing to make another point – even as the above has acted as the catalyst for this point. I have been astounded at the vitriol and mean-spirited attacks by young adults on others less fortunate. A former student set off a FaceBook barrage of meanness when she called individuals on welfare cheats and lazy. There were other choice adjectives thrown in this tirade but one gets the point – even without the expletives. First I have to say this former student is a long-standing hero of mine. She was and remains (for me) the only high school girl to try out for the football team. She fought hard, very hard at the heavily padded sports wall set up between genders. I was privy to some of her thoughts on afternoons when she would stop by my classroom before practice flushed with excitement even as she showed me her bruises up and down her back and rib cage. Initially, like most competitive individuals, she was proud of the black and blue proof of her rugged spirit; this was a test and she was, if not succeeding magnificently, going the distance. My heart burst with pride for her. She was the daughter I wanted – standing toe-to-toe with the sport-dominant gender and holding her own. Then one day she came to my room saddened, believing her desire to quit the unnatural abuse that was heaped upon her (I am sure to teach her that her place was on the sidelines and not on the field) meant she had, somehow, betrayed her gender. My heart broke even as we sat and discussed where she might best put her future energies. Girls’ lacrosse became her next goal as she put together a winning team of young women as beautiful and rugged as she. Needless to say, I was surprised to read a post of such insensitivity from her. I made my comments and also responded to another poster who happily spouted astoundingly ugly comments about people forced to live in poverty. I guess my mistake was suggesting this person not call herself a Christian. I was bombarded with her anger and her telling me, “You don’t know me.” She was right; I didn’t know her life – any more than she knew the lives of the majority of people on public assistance – the ones she so blithely castigated. I sat back and wondered how such meanness could have taken space in the hearts of my s/hero and her friend. Surely it was not learned in any of the literature I selected for students – literature that pointed to the beauty of diversity by showing no one group is ALL anything. Stereotyping is discrimination plain and simple.
Later, I came to realize that what is going on in our nation’s capitol has spread like jelly from a sloppily made sandwich. These young people have bought into the idea that all of their problems begin and end with those whom they accuse of ‘gaming ’ the system. Oh their qualm is not with those who game the system on the high-end; they are, in fact, the perpetrators of the myth. More money is lobbied and directed into programs that benefit only a few. The one per-cent of this country has never, ever in the history of the republic been richer. Money makes a formidable opponent. I see evidence of this every day in the front page of the Times. On the other hand, weakness is easier to denigrate and exploit and believing one’s problems lie with those who live in poverty is easier than fighting congress. Poverty makes a sweet target, like hungry children and education.
It seems I have been on a quest the last few years to find the root-source of hatred. No, we are not born hateful, warring, abusive people. These lessons – most under the guise of human Intel – happen by passing on messages that should inform future generations. From my Brief History of Mankind course I’ve learned that it was man’s ability to hold independent ideas or symbols in his head and discuss things or concepts that could not be touched or seen that moved us to the upper ranks of the food chain. Before this we were running down our food as we needed, feeding, housing, and caring for our clan – ensuring posterity. We had no heft, claws, teeth or venom to protect ourselves. Initially I assumed opposable thumbs were the reason for human success but today’s caged apes tell a different story. And the story is the key. The idea of gossip – yes, according to professor Hahrari, it is gossip that saved our bacon. The ability to discuss and create stories of potential allies or enemies along with early man’s propensity for caring for the group, the community – each other – is what helped us mount the ladder of dominance. Without the kindness of caring – we would not be having this discussion. I came away from that lesson believing the person who governs the ‘story’ is the one who can, for good or ill, dominate the culture.
Today, we are living in a culture dominated by meanness. We vicariously root for the anti-hero in our stories because he is given something to hate, avenge and destroy. Meanness is good as long as it’s directed at _____________ (fill in the blank). Today’s politicians have masterfully promoted the story of meanness – a story even they would have to admit, on their kindest day, (in church maybe?) has no validity. And while the heads of those young adults who buy into the ‘story’ are turned away in a manufactured self-righteousness, they are being robbed of something so very dear and yet so simple as to be overlooked. They are being robbed of opportunity to witness caring for others and their future. Our future.
My young friend messaged me this morning (this second day of this government shutdown) apologizing for the storm caused by her post. I had to remind her that I too was once young and rigid. I told my friend of the time I was complaining about poor people on the streets of Los Angeles and how they “smell.” My gentle, southern-born grandmother held up a preemptive hand – cutting me off with an unusual sternness, saying, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”
It is Labor Day and as I start to work in the pumpkin field – old times come flooding back. These memories speak of times when all the acreage across the road was full of the bright orange orbs and working out in the slight change of season was a welcome event. This was before parenthood and woodchucks found my husband and me I can’t remember when we decided to not sell pumpkins anymore. It could have been when the huge Amish family moved in six miles down the road and put in a crop. And with their low overhead and penchant for incredibly hard work, it was an easy decision to make. By then though, our place was known as the pumpkin house – even today I am reminded of this when I give out my address “Oh, you live in the pumpkin house. We took a field trip to your pumpkin patch in 4th grade.” Even as I write this I am forced to smile. I’ve always loved pumpkins; bright orange orbs of pleated happiness. Planting, weeding, curing and harvesting have given me good foundation in teaching and parenting. I have learned that the huge, bright orange ball in the center of the field – the one that screams perfection causing me to run headlong to the field’s center is, more often than not, hiding something that could rot the entire endeavor if left unchecked. I know too not to ignore the ones that stay green longer than their neighbors – even those sprouting from the same hill. No two are alike – ever. I am smiling too at the memory of my son – a baby still, not quite a year bundled and propped up between two pumpkins about his size and weight as he sucks happily on a bottle. By his second year he is out in the field with us, his wagon wheels dragging the entangled vines that somehow do not trip him as he attempts to lift (always) the biggest pumpkin he could get his young arms around.
We used to take our bright orange product into town and Wegman’s supermarket that took everything we could get to them but we stopped after one year. An anti-capitalist move I suppose but nothing, nothing could be worth the smile on the face of the two-old girl working her little fingers around two smaller pumpkins. “If she can carry them she can have them –said her mother,” Or my seven-year-old son proudly sitting atop a pile of orange beauties he and his dad brought to the sorting area. It was easier to put our own signs up – one and two dollar piles – three- dollars for the giants. Many a weekend writing time was spent listening to the trill of the valley’s young forever in search of the perfect pumpkin. And perfection in pumpkins, as in children, is relative. Yes, there may be a few woodchuck bites but with a bit of artistic nurturing (carving?) these scars can harden into a creative scar tissue that in adulthood will be called wisdom. It has been almost 20 years since our last serious pumpkin crop and today the bright orange beauty screaming perfection from the center of the field does not seduce me. History tells a different truth. And by the time I’ve moved to the center, cutting and setting encouraging pumpkins to the side, I can see the gaping hole in what had, earlier, shrieked for my attention.
Our sales policy too has changed; we will not be putting out the old coffee cans suggesting a dependence on the honor of strangers. In fact that last year we sold pumpkins was the first year we had to use a locked box – anchored to a table. Up to that point it had been eight years of honest human interaction. Did everyone always pay? No. But I still have the notes from those of reduced circumstances conferring blessings and good karma upon us and our household for providing pumpkins. One event that stands out occurred on a Friday evening just before Halloween – a young father knocked on our front door wanting to know if we had any pumpkins left. He had been driving by our house all week, to and from work, hoping there would pumpkins left on this, his payday. That year we sold out early – (even the blemished ones) and my heart sank when I looked at the empty side lawn and the thought of his sad six-year-old at home just waiting for a pumpkin to carve. I left the young father at the door to collect two pumpkins from our personal carving stash on the back deck. I handed him the two pumpkins and refused his money. This much happiness should not be for sale.
So, I anticipate another four to six weeks of pumpkin moving – this activity will certainly offset the zumba lessons I had promised to attend. In the past, moving, and handling pumpkins, I have on average lifted about 1000 to 1500 pounds in a good crop year. This season, maybe I’ll average a third of that – the labor of the woodchucks seems to have blessed me so.
ACT I – SILLY LITTLE GIRL
I just got your e-mail, two weeks before commending your step-father’s ashes to the ocean. I say e-mail but knife is the better descriptor because it sliced me up nicely. It would have gotten you an ‘A’ in a Benihana school of knifery; so precise around the edges but dense and delusional at the center where the truth certainly lies – waiting for reinforcements.
Calling you delusional is my only accusation to fling – as I watch you unwilling to turn your wasted unicorn around. I am hoping you are smart enough to study the landscape and choose another more soul-soothing direction. But no, it is so much easier for you sit, blocked by the four walls of your 40 + years of emotional poverty and blame me.
I want to tell you that success is a terrible, terrible thing to achieve in a miserable family such as ours. It goes back to a mother (your grandmother) who held her six candles burning at both ends in her own need for love and survival. She was a mother who fought long and hard for the protection of her family. I used to think that is why she so fancied the acrylic nails because they covered the blood-stained natural nails worked to the quick with responsibility. And towards the end even she would admit to parental failings. Even so, I suppose I always felt loved – even if I had to fight for it. Feeling loved was enough – should have been enough for all of us. And, my niece, I honestly thought if I took you under my roof, held you close when you needed, showed you the world (as much as a 27 year-old aunt could anyway), point to a future of hope that you would come to see these deeds wrapped in a package labeled LOVE. Now I see, for you, that package never arrived. My love was not enough. I am not that naïve to believe ours is a family unique; in happiness all families are alike. It is misery that brings about unique permutations that frolic legless, twisting, slithering throughout the human body waiting for the right moment to escape in word or deed.
And so it goes. Your misery escaped as you tapped out your love-less message of loss with fingers wrapped around your machete sentences; wildly swinging as you cut me up before serving me up; “If I’ve said anything to offend you I apologize….I love you and respect you…” If this is love – please keep it to yourself. Without a doubt, you have the greater need.
I can’t even cry at your version of truth. I’m just left with a deep, deep sadness at the vision of you swinging wildly at your faux-memories – slicing and dicing both ways through a forest of half-truths – cutting each blade below the root.
Silly, silly little girl.