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The Putting America to Work Act has been putting people to work in our town, or so say the signs alongside the barriers on our street, where they’ve been fixing sidewalks for the past few weeks. This week they got to the sidewalk outside our house. One square of sidewalk had risen up (we think due to a tree root) so that you’d trip over a three-inch immovable block of concrete if you weren’t looking at the ground. At some point the city jerry-built a kind of ramp between the adjacent square and the raised edge, which was an improvement but still left a section of sidewalk uneven enough to be a trip hazard. I have no idea how this new crew handled it–not through cutting down the tree, since I’m happy to say it’s still there–but there is now a nice fresh, perfectly even sidewalk in that spot. If Barack Obama accomplished nothing else in these four years, we could still point to our sidewalk, on which the munchkin, exercising a new skill, has inscribed her name.

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My daughter the munchkin, age three, has begun to sort out the world into boys and girls. “I a girl,” she explains, and asks other people, “Are you a girl?” We do let her know that there are people who don’t fall into either category, but as everyone who’s been asked so far has responded as expected, she might not grasp that concept yet. She is starting to assign her stuffed animals fixed sexes. We ask her sometimes about one or another of them, and get answers that are charmingly clueless about the linguistic implications:

“What’s Doggie?”
“He’s a girl.”

(She has also been known to tell us that she has a husband and that “She’s”–the husband’s–“sick. She has to go to the doctor.”)

You can almost see her drawing conclusions about all the possibilities open to her as she watches movies and notices that Coraline of Coraline* is a girl, as is Violet of The Incredibles–both with blue hair, so that she has already declared the intention to have blue hair too; I think she sees it as a badge of big-girlhood. And we pay attention to what she watches, trying to ensure that what she’s seeing doesn’t narrow down her world while it should be opening it up. Coraline and Violet are smart, brave, and eminently capable. The princess model is everywhere–to Munchkin, the basic requirements, and benefits, are that you have long hair and wear swirly dresses–but she doesn’t balk when I tell her a story about her taking a hot air balloon to a castle in the clouds and being shown around by, not the Princess, but the President. (I specified that the President had long hair. I didn’t comment on what she was wearing, and the munchkin didn’t ask.)

Things have definitely improved in the media since the days of Bambi and Winnie the Pooh, in which the only female characters are introduced in order to be someone’s mother or girlfriend. Not wanting to deprive her of the classics nor give her the message that the world is populated entirely by boys and men, with books I freely change the pronouns sometimes. It’s quite easy to turn Pooh and Piglet into girls if you just pay attention as you read aloud. But you can’t do this with movies, and I’m dismayed to observe that Hollywood is stuck at the tokenism stage.

Here are several movies we’ve watched recently, all of which I’ve enjoyed very much, but that collectively tell my daughter, who loves them too, that she lives in a world where almost everything interesting is done by the boys and the men.

Madagascar: Four main characters. So what do you figure the breakdown is–two male, two female? Nope. Three female, one male? Don’t make me laugh. Naturally, one is female and the other three are male. Gloria the Hippo is also the least important of the four, the sidekick’s sidekick. All of the other major players–the penguins, the lemurs–are male. I’m not sure about the bush baby.

Madagascar Escape 2 Africa: Gloria the hippo gets a plotline! Naturally, it’s about her love life.

Monsters, Inc.: Great movie! And the little kid is a little girl! She’s supercute, too, and brave. Plus, as in Madagascar II, a small juicy part goes to a woman. But the characters we spend the most time with are all male. (It’s a kind of buddy movie, and one of moviedom’s rules is that two women can’t be buddies, at least not without committing suicide by the closing credits.)

Shrek: Another buddy movie, another pack of writers who seem to think that if you create one spunky female character, you’re done paying attention to girls and women. My daughter loves this movie. How I wish I could show her a version where the hero is a girl. Or the hero’s sidekick is a girl. Or half the minor characters are girls.

Robots: Male robot (not sure how that works) goes off to land of male robot hero to redeem male robot dad, teams up with male robot friend, defeats male robot villain. This one has a slightly larger sprinkling of female characters than the above, but the central story is once again about one-half of the, um, species.

Ratatouille: Has a great female character, Colette. She really holds her own–which she has to do, because every other named character is male. Naturally, her main role is Love Interest.

The Incredibles (or, as Munchkin calls it without intentional humor, The ‘Credibles): This one actually has four significant female characters (and a black one! Hallelujah!), and everyone in the family regardless of sex has superpowers, but I’m putting it on the poop list for two reasons: Although Mom and Dad are both superheroes, the story isn’t Elastagirl’s, it’s Mr. Incredible’s. (Of course she becomes Mrs. Incredible when she gets married.) And when they have three kids, of course two are boys and one is a girl, because the rule is that the girls may never, ever outnumber the boys, except in the real world we’re all actually trying to live in.

None of these would ring alarm bells on its own, but looked at as a trend, they make a depressing one. Who is making these movies? As young as they are–as much as they grew up in a world where women weren’t just nurses, secretaries, moms and girlfriends–they seem to bring to writing and directing a worldview no different than the male writers a generation or more older, like Ray Bradbury or J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom I also adore, but who write about worlds almost exclusively male. (Don’t tell me about Eowyn. I’ve read the book and I know all about Eowyn. And about Arwen, Galadriel, Goldberry, Sam’s girlfriend Rosie, and Shelob. There you have it, the complete list of named female characters in a book of 1400 pages. It takes even less time to list the ones in The Hobbit, since there are none whatsoever.)

Does no one in the entire production process look at the cast list and say “There’s something odd about this picture”? Do any of them imagine watching it with their daughters? I wish that before the script moves on past its first draft or casting begins, everyone involved would consider whether it would pass the Bechdel test: the story has two named female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man. It doesn’t sound like that onerous a requirement, but it would be a huge leap forward.

Our little girl is just becoming aware of the fact that she is a girl, and as she sorts out what that might mean, the message she gets from almost all of the movies we show her–when they don’t just stare past her as if she doesn’t exist–is that it means her role in life is Minor, or at best Secondary, Character. I feel as if we are doing her a terrible disservice.

*A movie that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and more

It’s election season, and like clockwork the wedge issue appears.  Pick an unpopular group and stir up potential voters with the prospect of their doing something dreadful.  Even Republicans are starting to shy away from using marriage between same-sex couples as the bogey–maybe the number of supporters, even within the party, is just rising too fast–so this year’s scapegoat is Muslims. 

The New York Times quotes Elliott Maynard (Republican candidate for Congress in West Virginia) as saying, “Ground zero is hallowed ground to Americans” (GOP Seizes Mosque Issue Ahead of Elections). And Newt Gingrich said on Fox, “We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.” Do you see the sneaky little move they’ve made there?  Muslims are equated with a foreign country at war with the United States. 

Which is exactly the bigotry being tapped: the myth that Muslims aren’t Americans.  Even the ones who live and worship in New York; even the ones killed at the World Trade Center because they worked there or were trying to rescue others who did.

Maynard again: “Do you think the Muslims would allow a Jewish temple or Christian church to be built in Mecca?” I don’t know whether there are synagogues or churches in Mecca; I doubt it, because the Saudi government, which, unlike Islam as a whole, controls what does and does not happen in Mecca, does not allow religious freedom.

Well, we do, despite our support for our ally Saudi Arabia being so knee-jerk that our response to its apparent sponsorship of the 9/11 attacks was to attack a different country. And to suggest, as Maynard has done, that the mass murder of 2000 Americans makes a spot ground sacred only to Jews and Christians is not only an offense against religious freedom, it’s an offense against Judaism and Christianity.

Some Americans feel that that spot has been hallowed by the tragedy that struck there; some don’t.  I’m one of the ones who do; I’m sure some of the New Yorkers who are Muslim do also.  What an insult to them to say that my worship is welcome near there but theirs is not.  When we play the “real Americans” game, real people get hurt.

A web search for quotations on waiting, part of my topic for Sunday’s sermon, led me to a philosopher named Anna Callender Brackett who has now grabbed my interest. Brackett was a teacher, educator, traveling lecturer, and translator, and her area of philosophy was one of my passions, philosophy of education. She was also an early feminist, promoting education for girls and women, becoming the first woman appointed principal of a secondary school in the United States, and reinterpreting Hegel to value a life of the mind for women as well as for men (interesting to see that turn-of-the-century St. Louis had a Hegelian school–or am I just revealing my “everything intellectually interesting happens on the coasts” bias?). Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry on her–yet.

According to Women-Philosophers.com, Brackett had a female life partner (Ida Eliot). Not only did they run a girls’ school together, they also adopted two children, the first in 1873. Cool. I’m expecting to discover any moment now that she was a Unitarian too.

I kid, but seriously, how does one discover such a thing? The compilers of the Unitarian Universalist Biographical Dictionary could give me some tips, no doubt. Search the archives of the churches in the places she lived, sure, but I’m looking for something I can do from my desk chair. She gave a lecture on Margaret Fuller and wrote an obituary for Maria Mitchell, but so many prominent women of the 19th century were Unitarians that that’s barely suggestive. Brackett’s own obituary doesn’t mention her religious affiliation, if any; her funeral was held in Linden Park, New Jersey, where we may have had a congregation once, but don’t today. “Was she or wasn’t she?” would be a fun detective project, and along the way I could learn more about her philosophy and see what I think of it, but I will probably just do the latter without fussing about whether she was a sister Unitarian.

At the moment, I’m not even sure how she spelled her middle name; the Times says -der, the Women Philosophers site says -dar but is very typo-ridden. But thanks to Google Books, I’m reading her The Technique of Rest under the rationalization “context for Sunday’s reading.”

The last two things (ha!  the last two of the twenty randomly chosen from the hundreds) that I’ll miss about San Miguel, and life in Mexico in general, will have to be posted from the United States.  Everything is packed and in five hours the shuttle will come and take us on the first leg of the trip toward California.  Joy has already been there for a week (health insurance weirdness requires that she work onsite in July to have coverage in August) and we’ll be exceedingly happy to be back with her, with the kitties, in our home, in our town, with friends, and at church.  But I’ve already warned the munchkin I’ll be crying as we drive away.

For these last several hours, we’re off to the playground at Parque Juarez.

Hot water wells up from the earth in several locations close to San Miguel.  Unlike some other hot springs, their water is perfectly clear and unladen with a lot of minerals, stinky or otherwise.  We’ve been to two of the springs.

One is a real water park, very much for kids, so it’s the first one we went to, but the munchkin isn’t into going down water slides and so on, yet, so after her initial excitement about all the bells and whistles (giant mushrooms with water pouring off them, for example–the place is kind of like Disney on a budget), all she really wanted to do was hang out in the kiddie pool.  It was barely warm enough for me to be happy spending hours submerged, so I had no real desire to return.

The second place we went to, La Gruta (the cave), by contrast, is more like a spa, with a pretty good restaurant, roving waiters who will bring you drinks poolside, little tables dotting the lawns, massages for an extra fee, and lush greenery.  When I hear the term “spa” or “hot springs,” I think of dark little pools somewhere, and of course people covering themselves with mud.  But La Gruta’s are just small swimming pools in familiar blue, meant for fun as well as relaxation.  The munchkin adores the place and so do I, and even though we’re in the rainy season and it storms almost every afternoon (the last time we visited, we had to hop out of the pool because it started to rain), I was determined to bring her back there one more time.  Today was the day.

Munchkin likes the fountain with the fish

Carless, we have to take a taxi there, and because it’s remote, we have to arrange with the taxista to come get us again at a set time.  I guessed that three hours would be about right, and it was a good guess; the munchkin was just starting to get that glazed look and that grumpy attitude when the time came for us to get changed and meet the taxi.  We bought a floatie ring on one visit, which allows her to “swim” with an adult’s guiding hand, and today a family visiting from Mexico City let her ride on the back of their inflatable dinosaur.

La Gruta has five pools, which vary in temperature from “a little cooler than I like my bath” to “too hot for me to stay in for more than a few minutes.”  The hottest is in a cave that gives the spa its name, which you reach by wading or swimming (the water is about 3 1/2 feet deep) through a tunnel long enough to be good and dark.  The first time we went, the munchkin was a little nervous of the tunnel, but she still wanted to go back to the cave, and does on each visit.

I don’t usually enjoy swimming much because I’m a complete wimp about the initial cold, and even though most water does feel warmer after a few minutes if you just take the plunge, I can’t stay too long in water that’s significantly below body temperature.  Also, breathing the chlorine makes my lungs ache after an hour or two.  In blessed contrast, a day at La Gruta, with its warm, chlorine-free waters, is like a day spent in the bath, except that my bathtub at home isn’t surrounded by tropical plants and stone walls, nor is it under a blue sky, and if I want to sip a limeade I’m expected to get out and make it myself.

Even the showers are beautiful

At 100 pesos each way for the taxi, 90 pesos per adult for admission, and inevitably some money spent there on lunch–a total today of about $30 US–it’s a pricey day out by our Mexico standards, and in fact by our family outing standards, period.  But worth every penny.

There are hot springs near the Bay Area, but I’m not really interested in going to Calistoga unless it has pools to play in, lots of kids, and fresh-squeezed limonada.

(#18 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

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