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A benefit of being in Mexico is that I don’t have my smartphone. My service wasn’t easily transferable to Mexico, and rather than sign up for something that would deliver data here, I just got a pay-as-you-go cheap phone with Telcel, a Mexican company. It lets me text and call, which is all I need, and frees me to look around and be more present. My smartphone is waiting out the six months in a drawer, but I recognize myself in the people all around who are doing this:

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The only reason I’m not doing the same thing is that my phone doesn’t work.

I made the above piece under time pressure. I had to draw something for a lesson in silkscreening, since the project I had in mind didn’t fit the criteria of simple lines and three colors. So I drew what I’d been noticing, wincing a little at the preachiness of it. Silkscreening turned out to be fun and frustrating; of 30 prints, I didn’t get a single one that was in register (colors lined up properly) and lacked smudges and had a clear print of all three colors. Just the same, there is something very satisfying about lifting up the screen to see what the squeegee has accomplished.

Most of all I am glad I made this piece because it lodged a reproof firmly in my mind: the preachiness hit the mark it ought to, myself. When, last month, the munchkin and I spent a week in Maryland and Pennsylvania and I reactivated my phone, I remembered this just-finished print and managed to use the phone mostly for its important purposes–calling and GPS–and stay off it the rest of the time. But oh, the lure of Facebook! So much of what I’m seeking there is simply “We see you,” as Marc Maron says, in a statement illustrated devastatingly by Gavin Aung Than on Zen Pencils. It is a supremely ironic reason to ignore my friends and family. But the data access and other tools are very useful, so I’ll have to find a good site blocker when I’m back, to use them without giving in to addiction. And maybe I’ll post this print where I can see it often.

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In my last weeks in San Miguel de Allende in 2010, I set out to write 20 posts about things I would miss about it. I wrote 18, then followed up with #19 some months later, and as is my way, never wrote the twentieth. I felt a strange pressure to make sure it was about something really important, maybe about the thing I’d miss the most of all, and what was that? Now that I’m back in Mexico, it’s abundantly obvious.

The best thing about Mexico is Mexicans. Of the ten or so countries I’ve visited or lived in, Mexico’s people are the most generous. Most notably, they are generous with their time. Our experience today was a case in point. We went to Teotitlán del Valle, a town half an hour east of Oaxaca that is known for its weaving. At the final shop we visited, we asked if we could look at the looms. The man who’d woven the rug we were buying, Jerónimo, not only eagerly showed us his loom but invited the munchkin to have a go. She loved it, and he was a natural-born teacher. He didn’t just show her how to run the shuttle back and forth a couple of times; he worked with her on several inches of weaving, patiently showing her every step and letting her do them all.

While they worked, Julián, another member of the family (like all of them, it’s a family business; I think they are brothers) chatted with us about the process, with as much patience with our (especially my) limited Spanish as his brother had with Munchkin’s novice weaving. We had a dozen questions about the dyes, the wool, the designs, etc., and he was eloquent and thorough. He showed us a couple of his wife’s designs, abstract at first glance but actually a reference to the Pleiades, and explained why the Pleiades were significant. (I missed this part–my Spanish wasn’t up to it–but Joy says it was about his grandmother, who never wore a watch but always knew the correct time within 10-15 minutes by looking at the sun or the stars: specifically, often, this cluster.) Then he told us about his grandfather (grandmother? the two of us heard it differently and Joy’s Spanish is far better), still alive and still weaving, and the teachings he/she had passed on about the significance of a spiral motif that appears often in Zapotec art. Altogether they spent over an hour with us, sharing their knowledge as if there were nothing they would rather be doing.

Not every encounter with people here is like this, of course. They can be rude and impatient and I’m sure they aren’t always generous. But an experience like today’s, which would almost never occur anywhere I’ve lived in the U.S., is not at all unusual here. People are very quick to give of themselves: their expertise, their time, their attention.

And I don’t really have to say it’s something I’ll miss when we go home in December, because there are plenty of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and a strong presence of Mexican culture right in the Bay Area.

 

 

The news is all about how Melania Trump was channeling Michelle Obama last night. But the Congressman from Iowa’s 4th District was busily repeating old but, sadly, energetic white supremacist lies.
“Where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” —Rep. Steve King, July 18, 2016
Whether the people who contributed more than “any other subgroup” are “old white people,” as King originally said, or “Western civilization,” as he said in a quick definitional retreat, it means simply: we’re the superior race.
But many people may nod along because it’s the history they learned. Sure, that’s us! We’re the cradle of civilization! And then when the evidence of other peoples’ accomplishments becomes too much to deny, we deftly sweep them up into our tent. Egypt, with all its accomplishments, can’t possibly be African–it’s “ours” (Western, white–Steve King’s kind of people). The Babylonians developed algebra centuries before Christ–oh, then they must be part of Western civilization too! (Even though they’re the bad guys in the Bible and seem to have been located in . . . oh dear . . . Iraq.) By the way, speaking of math, the supposed birthplace of Western thought, ancient Greece, was embarrassingly late to the foundational concept of zero. The Egyptians, Babylonians, and Olmecs were busily using zero while Socrates’s contemporaries were still dismissing it.
And then there’s agriculture, astronomy, music, literature, art, religion, philosophy, navigation, etc., all shaped by the contributions of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the pre-“Columbian” Americas, even though in U.S. American education, these contributions are often afterthoughts at most.
I remember when an English professor at my college asserted that the syllabus of his early-American lit class was composed of white male writers because others just hadn’t contributed. Students started posting flyers all over campus: “Professor, have you heard of:” followed by a long list of African-American and female writers of the time. I don’t know if it changed his views, and I doubt very much that such a stream of “people you should have heard of” would change Rep. King’s. But that list changed me forever. So, not for King but for the sake of anyone who might be thinking, quietly, “He’s right . . . ,” please comment with some of the greatest contributors to human thought and culture who were not “white people.”

Fear is so subjective. Three men, laughing loudly and jostling each other, walk towards you on a nighttime street–does it make you smile, make you nervous, make you cross to the other side? A kid brings an electronics project to school–do you applaud his initiative and skill or call the police? An armed group gathers in a department-store parking lot–do they make you feel safe or threatened?

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

–from Citizen, Claudia Rankine

When the people with the power and weapons are deeply afraid of you, your life is in danger. That’s why so many civilians are dying at the hands of police, isn’t it–because the police find them frightening? Isn’t fear the reason police perceive that there’s a “war on police” even though officer deaths are, thank goodness, steeply down this year?

If we can acknowledge that our perceptions are not always accurate, and start acting on reality rather than on our fears, then we can get closer to our ideal of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Men armed with semiautomatic weapons in a Target parking lot, Irving, Texas, 2014. Irving is the Dallas suburb in which Ahmed Muhammad was detained yesterday after a teacher was afraid his electronics project was a bomb. Screen shot from KDAF-TV.

Men armed with semiautomatic weapons in a Target parking lot, Irving, Texas, 2014. Irving is the Dallas suburb in which Ahmed Muhammad was detained yesterday after a teacher was afraid his electronics project was a bomb. Screen shot from KDAF-TV.

Well, this was an ironic little nugget to find in my news feed this morning, of all mornings: Gender-Neutral Alternatives to “Boyfriend” and “Girlfriend”

The words Maddie McClouskey suggests are fine (though I’m not referring to anyone over ten as my Boo outside the walls of my own home, thank you). Gender-neutral language is great. But her aim, as she says ad nauseam, is to help people stay in the closet about being gay, trans or bi–not to avoid getting fired or arrested or beaten up, but just to keep from rocking the boat with relatives. Oh, she doesn’t say it in so many words. She says,

“some of your family may not feel comfortable referring to your boyfriend or girlfriend as your ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend.’”

“if you’re a queer person who doesn’t feel the need to go into details at the moment”

“gender-neutral dating words might be easier for everyone to stomach”

The possibility that gender-neutral terms are useful if one’s partner doesn’t identify as male or female gets a brief mention, then it’s back to McClouskey’s main concern.

Hi, I’m Amy, it’s Coming Out Day, and I cry an end to euphemisms for “hide who you are so others won’t have to deal with their discomfort.”

It may take some practice to get comfortable with the questions that do arise. So why not practice, instead of disguising your loved one in hopes that the questions won’t come up? By the way, they will, anyway. Say “My sweetie’s coming to visit,” and the person is likely to ask, “Oh, where does he live?” What are you going to do then, if your sweetie’s a woman? Play along? How would that work, exactly? Rather than get into a tired sitcom situation where you invent elaborate lies to keep from deflating a simple misunderstanding, why not be ready to say, “She, actually–and she lives in Chicago”?

If you’re a bi man, you mention your boyfriend, and someone asks you, “Wait, weren’t you straight before?” there are some good responses. “Nope, bi then, bi now,” if you want to give the facts and educate them a bit about the existence of bisexuality. “I thought I was, but then I fell in love with Mike,” if they’re a good friend and you’re willing to share some intimate history. “That’s a rather personal question,” if they’re an acquaintance and really have no business knowing any more about your personal life than what you volunteer. “Oh, I’m sure there are more interesting things for us to talk about than my sexual orientation. How about those Giants?” if you want a more polite way to say MYOB. See? The question isn’t so scary if you have a response ready.

If you’re a lesbian and that relative or devout person (by which the author means a particular brand of religion) responds to your referring to your girlfriend by saying, “I hope you’re not one of those gay-marriage people, because I just think that’s wrong,” and you “really don’t want to start a debate on same-sex marriage,” you can answer, “I really don’t want to start a debate on same-sex marriage. You wanted to know what I’m doing this weekend. As I said, I’m going to the coast with my girlfriend. How about you? Do you and Aunt Helen have some plans?”

This is what it means to be out of the closet. It’s uncomfortable for others sometimes. It’s uncomfortable for you, the LGBTQIA person, sometimes. But the solution is not to go quietly back inside. A closet by any other name still stinks.

Virginia Woolf famously noted how unusual it was to find accounts in literature of women being friends–not rivals, sisters, mother and daughter, etc., and not in their relationship to men,  but friends with one another. Paging through a new novel by Mary Carmichael,

‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. 

So much of women’s lives had been obscured, and so much lost to literature, as we would have lost Julius Caesar and Hamlet and Prince Hal if writers had not seen  the friendships between men as a worthy subject. (She goes into much more detail, and if you haven’t read “A Room of One’s Own,” do! It’s indispensable.)

Something just as troubling, or more, seems to be true in our time and place, not in literature but in real life, and it’s signaled by the trending term “bromance.” “Bromance” refers to a non-sexual, close relationship between unrelated men, as in “the thriving bromance between Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen,” who’ve clearly enjoyed spending lots of off-stage time together during their tour as co-stars in a couple of plays. “Brother,” “bro,” “romance”: get it?

In our culture, we don’t need a special name to describe the relationship between two women who love each other, love to spend time together, and are not romantically involved together nor seeking to be. We already have a term: friendship. What disturbs me about the embrace of the “bromance” term is the shunning of the obvious, available word.

Is there something so extraordinary about a close, loving, non-romantic relationship between men that we need a cute, arch term for it? Do men in our culture not feel comfortable calling each other friends? Is it difficult in real life, as it once was in literature for Chloe to like Olivia, for Patrick to like Ian?

Men, what’s your experience?

I am in a playground, sleepy from a lot of dim sum and driving, and wishing I could stretch out on this bench while the munchkin bounces around. However, the designers probably wanted to make the park unattractive to homeless people; the bench is a little too narrow to lie on comfortably, or for that matter, sit on comfortably. I feel like the nose that’s been cut off to spite someone’s face.

I haven’t seen nor read The Hunger Games–haven’t seen it because I haven’t read it, and it’s going to be tough to get it from the library until the movie furor dies down, so I don’t expect to do either for awhile. However, I gather it’s about a government that compels young people to fight each other to the death, even if they have no personal animus and might even respect and care for each other.

This does not sound like fiction to me. It sounds like real life. It sounds like war.

Well, that’s why I read scifi: to hold up a mirror to our world and maybe notice something there that hadn’t seemed as clear before. As Ursula LeGuin wrote (in her excellent introduction to the 1976 edition of her even more excellent novel, The Left Hand of Darkness), “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” If the Hunger Games trilogy suggests to the teenagers for whom it’s written that their government also threatens to conscript them into a fight they don’t want engage in and can’t win, no wonder it is so popular. I hope it gives them, and the rest of us, some ideas about how to change the situation.

The idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare is so completely unsupported by any evidence that you have to wonder why anyone still takes it seriously. It might make a good movie (or not–haven’t seen Anonymous, but there are some terrific actors in it, so maybe it would be a hoot) but as a theory, it’s ludicrous.

For example, three major plOnly known painting of WS, possibly by John Taylor. National Portrait Gallery, London. Public domain.ays of Shakespeare were produced after Oxford died (1604): King Lear (c. 1606), The Tempest, (c. 1611), and Macbeth (c. 1603, when Oxford was alive but dying of plague). Could they have sat in a cupboard after their author’s death? Well, The Tempest and King Lear make reference to real-life recent events that happened well after Oxford had shuffled off this mortal coil, as he himself did not write. Lear talks about “these late eclipses,” referring to solar and lunar eclipses that happened in quick succession in 1605, causing great consternation. The Tempest draws heavily on a 1610 report of a major shipwreck in Bermuda, as is clear from the parallels between the play’s text and the report.  It’s harder to prove that Macbeth was written in 1603 or later, but scholars have long thought it was timed to respond to the Scottish King James VI’s ascension to the English throne that year, so that someone who spent the year dying of plague was probably not its author.

While a theory may be sound even if it has been proposed for unsound reasons, it’s worth looking at why and when the “Oxford was ‘Shakespeare'” myth got started. It began in the 19th century, when theories that “eminence” correlated to intelligence were popularized and given supposedly scientific backing by such psychologists as J. M. Cattell. Shakespeare gave the lie to such theories. How could a tradesman’s son (his father was a glover) be so brilliant? Surely the greatest  poetry and drama in the English language must have been written by someone with wealth, advanced formal education, and status–someone (hm!) like the scientists themselves.

This idea, which of course was applied not just to Shakespeare but to all of us, got a new boost in the 20th century, when Catherine Cox, working with her mentor Lewis Terman (developer of the IQ test), engineered a neat piece of circular reasoning by using social class, the education level of one’s parents, one’s own amount of formal schooling, etc. as part of the formula for intelligence. As Stephen Jay Gould wrote in The Mismeasure of Man, “In one case, however, Cox couldn’t bear to record the unpleasant result that her methods dictated. Shakespeare, of humble origin and unknown childhood, would have scored below 100 [i.e., subnormal]. So Cox simply left him out, even though she included others with equally inadequate childhood records.” (217) So much for a scientific approach.

The same arguments about intelligence and class were rewarmed and served up again in 1994, with a similar disdain for scientific rigor, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve, a book that got far too much serious attention. The belief that the achievement gap between rich and poor (where it exists) has to do with inherent differences rather than the socially constructed inequities of opportunity and privilege is alive and well. We are looking for talent at Harvard, where the biggest affirmative action program is legacy admissions (that is, you get into Harvard because your dad went to Harvard), when it is just as likely to be found in places the aristocrats don’t hang out. As Gould wrote elsewhere, “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” If we don’t shake the myth that people who share Shakespeare’s background are inherently unlikely (that is, even more unlikely than wealthier others) to share his genius, that’s where they’ll stay.

A BBC story reports that the US has the worst rate of death from child abuse or neglect of any industrialized nation, with 1,770 kids killed in 2009. (A recent Congressional hearing estimates that the real numbers are even higher.)

So how do these other nations differ from us? By and large, they have lower poverty rates, lower crime and imprisonment rates, universal health care, better family-leave and child-care policies, better pre-school options, and much better networks of help for families with children.

Another thing we learn when we compare ourselves to the countries that are doing much better is that they have markedly lower rates of teen pregnancy. Very young people with unplanned children, unstable relationships, a curtailed education and therefore low earning potential, and lots of contempt from their community* are at an elevated risk of killing their kids. This paper compares measures of US teens’ sexual health (rates of pregnancy, abortion, STDs, HIV) with the teens of Germany, France and the Netherlands–you must click, just to see how much higher our teen pregnancy rate is than these countries’–and concludes that we would do well to adopt their approach of “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” regarding teenage sexuality.

That sounds a lot like the sexuality education program we offer at church, Our Whole Lives. OWL was developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, but you don’t have to be UU or UCC, or religious in any way, to enroll your kid, and–speaking for my own congregation–we won’t pressure you to join our church or ask you to donate money. It’s part of our ministry to the community. (It’s also not only for teens; there are developmentally-appropriate versions for K-2, 4-6, and adults of various ages, too.)

I know we save lives through this program when we teach young people that it’s okay to be gay, that it’s not okay for your partner to mistreat you or for you to mistreat your partner, and that sex is supposed to be safe (as well as fun, loving, and pleasurable), but I hadn’t thought about the impact on the next generation. I have no doubt that if every teenager in the US received a comparable education, we’d see a huge drop in those child death numbers within ten years.

—————–
*A babysitter of ours, then 17, said that she got lots of dirty looks when she and Munchkin were out alone, such as on their happy trips to the playground. Apparently we had all too many neighbors who (a) had never heard of babysitters, (b) disapproved of teen moms, even one who was taking excellent care of the child, and (c) thought they ought to express that disapproval. Did they imagine that that was somehow helpful?

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