Monday, May 23, 2005

If This Is Paradise I Wish I Had a Lawnmower

Twenty-two bonus blog points if you can tell me the source of the title.

EDIT: Please read the comments after this. I won't violate the post, but Connor shot me down in fashions I consider extremely productive. END OF EDIT.

I went away last weekend in celebration of Sarah's birthday. Her mother owns some land in Wisconsin, with an RV, and a whole bunch of us spent the night on there, cooking corn and potatoes on a campfire, looking at stars, doing as the bears and the Pope do in the woods, playing Marco Polo and calling back and forth to cows (seriously, the cows responded) in a valley the next day. Rarely do I have such a good time, and of course the wonderful people present were a large part of it, but something changes the instant I'm out of urbanity and urban environs, something just completely lightens--something other than the literal air, I mean. I've lived in major, MAJOR urban areas all my life, and lately pastoralia has been on my mind. Why and how do people make the choices to live where they do, particularly with regards to raising children, and how exactly *do* these choices change us?

As the lifelong urban dweller that I am, I felt all right about completely belittling suburbs, about not honoring or respecting the choice to live in them, until a (fairly) recent conversation with Virginia. She mentioned the disparity that often exists both between the property values in smaller cities and their suburbs, and between the public schools in same. Having grown up in New York and been a grown-up in Chicago, I assumed that in a city there are always decent cheaper neighborhoods to be found, and that if you're putting that kind of focus on your child's education in the first place, there are always better public education options to be found--magnet schools, gifted programs, charter schools, bla bla bla etcetera. But those educational movements, Virginia pointed out, do not always flourish in smaller cities, and in such cities, the culture of the suburbs is often not so drastically different from the culture of urban living. (In the suburbs of New York and of Chicago, it is a seriously different culture.) So I've had to tone down, or at least revise, that opinion: I'm allowed to be contemptuous of subruban living when we're talking about the suburbs of major cities.

So then, why am I contemptuous of suburban living in the suburbs of major cities? First, because I'm a snob, and I think the cultural offerings of a city and the inspiration that population diversity and density lend to artists of all kinds are really important. It's not that you can't do art in the suburbs, it's not even that you can't be good at art in the suburbs, it's simply that all artists--be they in middle school, undergraduate conservatories, or suburban residents their entire life--are limited by being around people like themselves all the time. It saps depth from Hollywood actors, too. Secondly, because that diversity of community is important even if you're not an artist. I think it's important to raise your children in a diverse environment, and that the concerns about children's safety in the city often voiced by suburban-dwellers are cop-outs. If you're of a class where you're capable of making this choice in the first place (i.e. you have the capital and the credit rating for it), you'll be able to live in an urban neighborhood where you're just as safe as you'd be in the suburbs. The reason cities overall have a higher crime rate is because they have larger populations and contain subsidized housing, which makes it easier for people of low income to live there, and if you're desperately poor and feel that society holds some responsibility for that, which it usually does, you're a lot more likely to commit crimes either as an income-generator or out of anger. Your backyard or lack thereof will be as safe as it was in the suburbs, which isn't quite as safe as some would have you believe anyway. If you don't have kids, you still have these responsibilities to yourself. I understand the desire to have a small and supportive community, but that exists in urban neighborhoods while allowing you to feel you're also part of a larger context, the city itself, and I think that balance not only cool but important, because it shows you the multiple aspects of living in the nation as a citizen and in the world, the responsibilities and balances that come with it, that no one should be insulated from.

SIDEBAR: Okay, yeah, I recognize that that's opinionated and unfair. It's a blog, so I suppose I'm allowed, but I acknowledge that any logic I managed to insert into that doesn't make it any more generous, nor does it make it come from experience, and a good number of people I love come from suburbia. Therefore, if you have an argument, you should make it.

THIS IS NO LONGER A SIDEBAR: But then there's pastoralia. Probably like many people who grew up in major urban areas, I'm totally amazed by the rural. Land that goes on for miles, just being land, and nothing looks the same. People who choose to have the land be part of their community. Why do I accept rural living, which lacks a lot of the same things that suburban living lacks, when I can't accept suburban living? I want to say that it's associated with a choice to go *to* something, rather than a choice *not* to be in something, but that's not always the case--I think as many rural as suburban dwellers move to escape the relentlessness of city life. The transformation in the case of rural is more complete, certainly, and I appreciate the lack of ambivalence--not the lack of ambivalence, I like ambivalence, but the ability to make big and definitive decisions in spite of ambivalence. But I don't want to see it solely as a rejection of urban living; it's also its own thing. Maybe that's it: as I see it, suburban living is defined as the absence of some elements (of urban living) without the full addition of other elements (of rural living) to compensate. Rural living honestly has natural culture in proportion to what it may lack in human/artistic/whatever culture by means of not being urban and not having that population density or (sometimes, as in the case of small cities) monetary incentives for artists. Natural culture, the culture of humanity's interaction with things it did not create or build, is the absence I'm feeling these days.

Obviously, I've a penchant for human culture. I recall in particular one night when I was on the Staten Island Ferry with Mel, going towards Staten Island and away from Manhattan . . . I honestly can't remember if this was before or after September 11, which given that we were departing from the southern end of the island (where the towers once were) is *weird.* I think after, but I'm really not certain. Anyway, it was night and we stood at the back of the ferry and looked at the buildings, and Mel said, "And sometimes I think that man made all this, almost everything I can see, and it's amazing." Those are words into which I never would have put it, but it *is* amazing. What a piece of work, indeed. But then sometimes the factor of our having eliminated or confined everything we ("we" being humanity) might not be able to control is a little creepy.

I recognize that for some people it's the city that feels out of their hands, but it's not that way to me: a good day in the city makes me believe I can control everything, or if not everything (I'd actually hate that) at least enough of what happens to me that if things are in a bad direction I know how to change them. On a bad day in the city, I still feel I *should* be able to control that much, but I can't. Leaving the city I immediately have a sense of how much I don't control and become much more okay with that. That is probably a different process if, say, you live in a rural area in order to be a farmer and your livelihood is entirely dependent upon the balance of control and lack thereof. But still, living in a rural area seems to never force you into the illusion of invincibility--in fact, it forces you into the other direction. In some ways, the only way to live well in a city is to occasionally have that illusion, and the only way to live well in a rural area is not to do so.

I *value* the illusion of invincibility. Is that seriously problematic, or not?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Donuts of Doubt

A few weekends ago Emma and I watched episodes of THE SIMPSONS. I introduced her to THE SIMPSONS, and she's only ever watched 'em with me. The first time, we watched several episodes, and she concluded it was sexist and she wasn't interested. For some reason, two weekends ago she was interested, and we watched two more (the first set from Season Four, the second set from Season Two). She still thinks it's sexist, quoth she, but she likes it anyway.

Certainly, I can see where one comes up with that. The show does, in the end, praise a very stereotypical suburban nuclear family--with heavy-duty senses of irony and cynicism (not necessarily in that order), yes, but nevertheless the Simpsons ultimately are loving, ultimately feel the pull of family life and family honor that we as Americans are supposed to feel. Even in these later seasons, it isn't just Marge--the father-daughter bond is continually extolled even in the face of Homer and Lisa's difference. It's a show that does, in the end, love its characters. But I think there's little narrative art worth watching that doesn't love its characters. The question is the degree to which it enforces its love of its characters upon us, and how prescriptive it is as a television show.

Are we supposed to aspire to be *like* these people? No, we are not--they're fucking animated, and Groening is well aware of this fact. However, it is a dominant cultural phenomenon for younger children to aim to be cartoon characters, and perhaps it's for this reason that so many parents object to their young children watching THE SIMPSONS, for fear of the malign influence entering their homes. When I was in fourth grade, I used to believe that could happen, too, and for that reason I wouldn't watch THE SIMPSONS, though my mother watched it and had never said anything of the kind. I think one of the crucial differences in THE SIMPSONS is that it has adult characters. In most children's shows, either very little distinction is made between youth and adult--viewers sympathize with a character who lives independently, (sometimes) has some form of employment, and behaves exactly as they the viewers would themselves--or adults exist on the periphery, legs or voices, with one or two lines of dialogue as a nod to the caregiver who might be watching. THE SIMPSONS is intended for all ages, and each character within the family is fully developed, for all the stereotypes they embody. THE SIMPSONS is about developing stereotypes, and that's where an important artistic concept comes into play: you can't honestly develop *any* concept, no matter how stereotypical it may be, without going beyond the stereotypes and surfaces. And the characters on THE SIMPSONS--the central figures, 'tleast; I'm not going to go into Burns or Flanders just yet, though there is a lot to be said about the secondary cast--are developed. Even in the painfully contrived and absurd plots that have sprung up in the last few seasons, for the most part not even character-driven, we continue because we're invested in the journeys of these characters, even the journeys that only last half an hour and arise from situations that don't make a lot of sense. But because it's for adult viewers as well, it seems a reasonable expectation that children and adults will watch it together, which will temper the younger viewers' desires to emulate the characters' exact behavior. (THE SIMPSONS is also smart enough to have addressed this particular aspect of the issue head-on--see "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge," where Marge launches a nationwide protest against cartoon violence.) And the fact that kids take things literally doesn't mean that shows shouldn't be on the air or shouldn't present things with a certain sense of irony, it means that parents should be on hand to explain. I'm aware that one is a little simplistic as an explanation, but I think the final outcome is the same in spite of that fact.

Next question: does THE SIMPSONS endorse the sexism it demonstrates? I mean, no matter what, you can't make a feminist icon of Marge Simpson. She's a homemaker not by choice, but by default and by feeling that's her position; when we watch "The Way We Was," an episode detailing how Marge and Homer first met and fell in love in high school, we see Marge as an extremely active, intelligent, forward-moving person, and though she occasionally demonstrates both her intelligence and her political know-how in further episodes and seasons, I think we're meant to be a little saddened by the fact that she didn't realize any of her other ambitions or ideas. THE SIMPSONS is a satire of everyday life as it sees it--a little less so of late, but I think the character development still does go along these lines--and it sees sexism in everyday life. It doesn't endorse it, but because it loves its characters, tries to respect at least at some level their thoughts and their choices, it doesn't offhandedly reject it either. And then there's the presentation of Lisa and the generation gap at play regarding her--Lisa isn't mocked by her peers because she's a *girl* dork in particular. Gender comes up, but Lisa doesn't exist in a paradigm where girls especially are not supposed to be smart. *Kids* aren't supposed to be smart--the treatment Martin Prince gets is very similar to Lisa's, differing only occasionally, and realistically, in questions like, "Lisa, are you going to marry a carrot?" ("Yes. I'm going to marry a carrot." "SHE ADMITTED IT! She's gonna marry a carrot, she's gonna marry a carrot . . .") Lisa *is* a feminist, and has taken on substantive crusades (see "Lisa v. Malibu Stacy," where she wages a campaign against the female-deprecating talking Malibu Stacy doll), and when her gender does come into play in her day-to-day life there are a lot of positive outcomes (see "Separate Vocations," in which Bart and Lisa take standardized tests that will determine their future careers--Bart gets "police officer" and Lisa gets "homemaker." Bart's thrilled, but Lisa's devastated, and eventually, Bart rebels once more against law and order to prove that the test did not determine his future and therefore will not determine Lisa's either). The show started in the '80s, which was about when the children of feminists would notice that their kids had been raised in a society that had feminist consciousness--and that the same was true even of the peers that were raised by homemakers. Which didn't, and doesn't, mean that sexism was not still rampant, but its form and therefore its content were in many ways different.

In other words, THE SIMPSONS presents a sexist universe, and loves the characters that live in its sexist universe, and by living in this sexist universe said characters sometimes conform to its sexist ideals. Does this mean that the show itself is sexist or encourages you to adopt the attitudes its characters exhibit regarding gender? No, but nor does it not do so, because--y'all ain't ready for this--it's not an answer show, it's a question show. It unequivocally makes fun of everybody who crosses its path, and as such we see a lot of aspects, both positive and negative, of the behavior of all of its characters. However, it has a nucleus (yes, that nucleus is a nuclear family) of characters it loves even as it mocks them, and so it shows them ultimately being content to live a life that has incredibly sexist aspects. And as far as I'm concerned, that's the case for all of us that are basically happy.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

To Get to the Other Side

I learned long ago that there are three answers to every question that begins with "why?" Those three answers are "to see if time flies," "to keep your/his/her pants up," and "to get to the other side." I've used these relatively flippantly and interchangably in everyday conversation for a long time, but recently I realized that the masterminds of the No Child Left Behind genre of education reform use the last answer with the same flippancy that I do. Sadly, when they say it, something actually happens as a result.

The truth is that the culture of educational testing is entirely based on getting to the other side. To teach towards one exam that is intended to be all-defining means, as many have pointed out, that very little else gets taught along the way. I did practice Iowa tests (the Illinois version of the ERBs, for the East Coasters who read this animal) with my second-graders last year, and some of the questions were just embarrassingly vague or even inaccurate. And yet it's supposed to be all-seeing, all-knowing, or if not those things then certainly all-determining. How can people being taught to the test be taught to question?

The underlying question, always, is whether the powers that be *want* people to be taught to question. I mean, the American dream would say so, that we're a democracy and part of what we are to teach towards is towards the ability to follow the mandate set in the Declaration of Independence (fuck off, I like clauses), but the fact is that we as capitalists *do* require a subservient class; capitalism needs laborers, needs cogs. To not allow the people who become cogs to go as far as they could go would contradict the American dream; therefore, it makes perfect sense in the logic of capitalism to poorly educate groups of people to begin with and then claim that those groups' capacities were limited in the first place, and therefore in becoming cogs they *have* gone as far as they could go.

So I argued in a response to Jonathan Kozol's SAVAGE INEQUALITIES in my Arts in Education class last year. A year and a half later, having done much more work in the Chicago Public Schools (it needs to be added here, in the interests of making my unconscious biases clear, that I did not attend public school), that argument still holds water for me and really disturbs me. I *always* favor question people over answer people, and therefore favor question teaching over answer teaching. However, it isn't just oppressed minorities who are being taught to the test; it's everybody. However again, public schools in areas with higher property taxes and therefore more resources (can we *please*, for a second, pause to consider how many issues in public education might be resolved if funding for public schools was based upon, say, state income tax rather than community property taxes?) have a lot more "extras," things that don't pertain directly to the test, which is one of the several factors that could lead those kids to do better on the tests. If you can *think*, you can figure shit out for yourself. If you're taught always to look for one answer, you can't figure shit out for yourself unless you know in advance exactly what the question is.

American society--I guess Western society in general--is really bad at seeing things at ends unto themselves. I can never really get my mind around whether that's simply capitalism or not, but I think it is. We simply are unable to process things, as a society, unless we see them as part of the path to monetary gain. I teach in a program that youth receive a stipend for participating in, in which they are intended to learn "job skills" in the arts, communications or technology. Now, teaching job skills as in professionalism or courtesy to high school students doesn't really happen, at least not directly, at least not in that form. However, I feel confident my students had a really positive experience, and being able to add that experience to who they are and what they feel will benefit them tremendously, as humans in general and probably as capitalist humans too. I (mostly) like the concept of paying the kids for what they do (mostly because it makes it a lot harder on me as an instructor), but why does everything have to be "job skills," to benefit what you might do later? Why do I always have to argue that theater can contribute to everything you do in the future--I mean, it *can*, I'm not exactly bullshitting, but what's wrong with enjoying something? (I was going to add " . . . and becoming a better person as a result," but I realized that has the exact same problem.)

Since all of my students and most of the students who benefit from the After School Matters program generally are members of underpriveleged minorities (racially and financially), that specific portion goes back to Lisa Delpit's (fuckin' fascinating) book, OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN, which I also read in Arts in Education. Among about a million other things, Delpit would argue that couching these things as "job skills" and making them in many cases actually be so is to allow my students access to the language and mental framework of the culture of power. You have to know these things before you can change them from the inside; that's fair. But there's something about it all . . . at the elementary school where I taught last year, there was a "market day" where the kids had to learn about capitalism, supply and demand, from the inside. You put down enough money to buy things to sell at the market day, you charged a higher price for it, you saw what you earned. This is how to be a venture capitalist, this is how it works. And what's wrong with that, either? I mean, we *do* live in a capitalist world. But somehow this whole pattern of doing things to get to the other side, and the more roads you cross in your lifetime the better off you are, is deeply disturbing to me. Why shouldn't kids have days that teach them about other economic systems, as well, structured within the school system? (Yes, I know the answer's obvious. The question is at least partially rhetorical.)

I think this has to be a series, because I have a cold and am overwhelmed by these questions. But if you have contributions or thoughts, I want 'em.