Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Bring Your Parents to School" day... is every day.

What irked me most about Schooled were the parents.  Ok, maybe that's not a fair statement, because a lot of Schooled irked me.  Most of Schooled irked me.  But the mothers stood out, at least with my educational background.  I'm attended public school in the Denver, CO suburbs up until coming to Colby, and truly loved it.  It wasn't a cultural melting pot by any means, but I did come in contact with a bit of class variety, as well as variety in personalities.  Public school was definitely about working hard to stand out, about getting involved in as much as you could if you really wanted to build a competitive resume for college application season.

What the Schooled mothers reminded me most of were the "helicopter moms" of my public school education.  I know the concept of a parent that sticks way too close to their maturing child's life is not one that is unique to a public school education and that it certainly occurs in private school as well.  But I couldn't help but comparing the differences between the Langdon Hall parents and the ones I came in contact with during my schooling.  The "helicopter moms" of Arapahoe High School seemed to cruise in when the child encountered any difficulties in grades or competitive extra-curriculars.  Jenny didn't get the "A" she needed on that big government test?  Well, she needs to keep her GPA up for college applications next fall, and mom is going to have a word with her teacher.  Mike got benched after a week of slack playing?  Dad has something to say to coach about that.  Parents would come in to teachers' office hours, send emails, make calls to let the teachers and coaches know that their child deserves more recognition, a higher grade, a better spot.

 However, when confronted, these parents seem to certainly have their childrens' best interests at heart.  They wanted their babies to succeed, to stand out, to rise above the 2,000 other suburban teenagers at Arapahoe.  It's not easy to make a stance in public school, and while I certainly don't support their behavior, I understand that they are motivated by how much they do care for their children.

This is where I saw the biggest discrepancy between public school parents and Lakhani's depiction of public school parents in Schooled.  A moment between Anna and Lara (Benjamin's mother) in the restaurant stood out to me especially.  Anna notes that the conversation they had over lunch was completely centered on her (Anna), and she feels as though she is "on a very lavish date with a man who was clearly trying to seduce me".  She also recognizes that they had not spoken about Bejamin once.  The mother is not there to discuss her child, to promote his merits or tout his academic skill.  She invites Anna to lunch solely to build a relationship in preparation for the "tutoring" sessions that these parents will offer to her.  Nowhere in the conversation does Lara communicate love, affection, or dedication to her child.  Nowhere in the conversation does she even mention him.

So I suppose helicopter moms do exist across the boundaries of class or wealth, but for different purposes.  My public school helicopter moms seemed intent on securing for their children the most rich and successful educational experience, while the Lakhani's private school moms seem only intent on buying their childrens' grades.  This may be just my own bias, though; my parents did a fantastic job of not helicopter parenting, and I definitely have fairly strong feelings against helicopter parents and what they ultimately do to a child.  Anyone have any thoughts on the subject?  Does anyone from a private school have a counterpoint I may have missed?

Why we struggle with Carolyn Chute.

EDIT:  Paula brought it to my attention that this essay is actually the one she had listed on the syllabus.  Pay attention much, Melanie?  Guess not...

I came across this really interesting essay by Professor Roberta Rosenberg while reading The Beans of Egypt, Maine.  We had a good discussion on Monday in class about how some of the members of our class really didn't like the novel.  I myself was undecided-- I couldn't decide between my love for Chute's writing and language and my overwhelming fear and sadness for the Bean family's situation.  But there were definitely members of the class who didn't enjoy the book, and this essay addresses that directly.  The author is an English professor who teaches the book in some of her undergrad and grad courses.  She has had students in her course vehemently oppose this novel, and looks into why that may be so.

She centers around the idea of what it means to be in the middle class.  Rosenberg suggests that to be successful in the middle class, one is required to have a significant amount of self-motivation, a self-sufficiency and autonomy that drives and sustains motivation.  Middle-class success is hard work, and the middle-class students that she teaches approach the literature with a high value for  "originality, innovation, and individual personality".  Rosenberg then cites sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich in suggesting that to be poor is to possess "a peculiar psychopathology which precludes them from adulthood: "the poor person live[s] for the moment, unable to think ahead, to save or plan for the future . . . trapped in the past, unable or unwilling to grow up, as the middle class ha[s]".

As her students approach the Beans as "immature adults"  that reject religion, education, work, motivation, and the possibility of a future.  In many ways, we get to see our own view of the Beans through the eyes of Earlene, who is obsessed and yet repulsed by the Beans as she watches them from her middle-class window.  Earlene denies to the end that she is a part of them, clinging to her middle-class value set despite her obvious integration into the Bean family life.  

I think this is a fair analysis of why so many members of our class had such a tough time with this novel.  Especially as Colby students, we have an immense value for the importance of hard work and motivation, and to face the Bean family is to face (to us) a population of individuals that ignore success and chose a stagnant lifestyle over one that is upwardly mobile.  I know I have a lot of trouble with a few of my fellow Colby peers that refuse to work hard or put their all into their education.  It's a small population, but the students that do blow of schoolwork for personal pleasure and fun infuriate me to no end.  I see Colby as such a place of oppurtunity, and to waste the potential we have here is, in my eyes, to take for granted what we have as upwardly mobile, middle-class young adults receiving world-class educations.

I think I personally need to get much more used to the idea that the Beans are indeed trapped in poverty in order to accept and enjoy this novel to its fullest extent.  As long as any of us view the Beans' extreme poverty as something of their own doing, I believe it's almost impossible to love this novel.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

My Beans of Maine

Reading The Beans of Egypt, Maine was very, very difficult for me.  I'm in Peter Harris' "Teaching Poetry in Elementary Schools" class this semester, and I've been going in to Waterville elementary school classrooms twice a week to teach poetry to the kids there.  I've enjoyed it immensely, but it's also been marked by some very intense moments that have absolutely set me back in my place and reminded me of the level of poverty and just daily tragedy that exists in some of these kids' lives.  It comes out as artistic expression in the poetry they write in the very innocent way that only children have.  They reveal things without realizing they're revealing; they let on to things that they don't know are secrets.  I've found out accidentally about mom's violent boyfriend, dad's arrest, his abusive brother and her mom's debilitating unemployment.  All this gets very heavy over time, but returning to the hill after a class can be very grounding.  It's like I get back here and surround myself with all these enthusiastic, brilliant students and can't help but feel better.

But Beans really grounded me.  The kids give me glimpses of what their home lives are like, but this novel put it all in your face.  Who knows which of the little kids in my class go home to Beal Bean?  To "big bean babies" or Roberta Bean?  There are a few little girls that always give me hugs before I leave class at the end of the hour.  There's a girl who always writes about kittens, no matter what the prompt.  There's a boy who has a unnaturally expansive lexicon, yet always writes about very dark and violent topics.  There's a painfully shy girl that just recently discovered that her writing can make people laugh.  There's a boy who will not write anything, who just stares at me when I try to talk to him.

I don't know where these kids are going.  I don't know if they're actually going anywhere at all.  I don't know what they come home to, who washes their shirts or braids their hair.

I'm actually having a lot of trouble writing about this, so this will be sort of a short blog.  It's just hard to suddenly realize what's actually going on, and maybe even harder to have no idea.

Sorry, Cora Lee.

I know that one of the biggest points of this blog is to encourage us to connect out into the world, to link the literature to salient details about today.  So I do try to link our literature to things that matter.  But, unfortunately for Ms. Cora Lee, the only thing I could think about when reading about her story was Octomom.

For those unaware of Octomom, she's a single mom who has used fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization to give birth to octuplets.  That's eight babies at once.  Oh, and that's on top of six children she already had.  While unemployed and on welfare.  The initial public reaction to the miraculous survival of her eight new babies was congratulatory and joyous, if a little dumbfounded that something like that could happen.  We, as Americans, were overwhelmed by the incredible cluster of tiny new lives before us and were all behind our medically-impossible mother, donating food, clothes, and even significant amounts of money to the new family.  But as the facts started coming out about her fertility treatments, her unemployment, her welfare, and (worst of all) her six other children, things went a little downhill for Octomom.  People condemned her, ragged on her irresponsibility, berated her poor mothering skills.  To be true, she was a terrible mother.  Latest updates on Octomom confirm that she actually received plastic surgery in hopes of making her lips more like Angelina Jolie.

What I'm trying to get at in all that information is that we seem to be initially overjoyed by babies, but the preliminary celebrations wear off rather quickly.  The fairytale of new birth only lasts for a little while before the reality of raising a family sets in.  This is the same for Cora Lee; she consistently fails to confront her responsibilities as a parent to the children that are aging and instead focuses on her youngest children, those who are still babies to love and hold.  Octomom was quoted in stating that "all I wanted ... was to be a mom. That's all I ever wanted in my life."

But unbenownst to these women, motherhood extends past the initial months and years of babyhood.  Children grow, and to have kids is to say "yes, I know what I'm doing with my life and I'm stable enough to provide completely for another human being".  Neither Cora Lee nor Octomom have jobs, husbands, directions, or ambitions.  Raising a baby is relatively easy, raising a child is frustrating, raising a teenager is infuriating, and putting fourteen young adults through college without a consistent salary is impossible.  Let's hope Cora Lee has a savings fund somewhere, because the path to motherhood will only get harder as she goes.

Cannot get enough of this woman.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Where have all the good men gone, and where are all the gods?

As they ate pieces of sugar cane in the fields, Butch told Mattie to "spit it out while it's still sweet".  Not only does this foreshadow their relationship, but it also illustrates a theme of movement and rearrangement that differentiates between men and women in The Women of Brewster Place.  Butch spends the sweetest times with Mattie, enjoys the physical pleasure of the moment, then gets out before her father finds out and the baby must be supported.  He doesn't get away while the sweetness has ended; he leaves while the sweetness is at its peak.

In many ways, I feel like this typifies many of the men in this novel.  So far, only Kiswana's boyfriend is a good man, and he has yet to make a physical appearance (up to where I've gotten).  The rest of the men are abusive, neglectful, lustful, animalistic, and negligent.  The theme of illegitimate fatherhood runs through the work, as few children are conceived within wedlock or even within a healthy relationship.  What I realized, upon this later consideration of Butch's words in the context of the novel, is that the men are taking advantage of the sweetness of the Brewster women.

Take, for example, Mattie and her son, Basil.  She loves him unconditionally, and makes huge sacrifices to help him grow up well.  She provides for him to the point of spoiling him, and is arguably blind to the rather rotten child she has ultimately raised.  In the end, Basil leaves her alone, deserting her as many of the men in the novel continue to do, whether to mothers, wives, girlfriends, or one-night-stands.  The Brewster women are unanimously forgiving, endlessly full of hope in the goodness of the men in their lives despite the blatant evidence to the contrary.

To me, this all begs the question of why?  Why on earth are these women so willing and ready to return and trust the men that betray and destroy them?  What about their histories or personalities make them so vulnerable to these sleazy men?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER... itty bitty living space

I realized that I missed my "How the Other Half Lives" blog, and wanted to share something that a friend of mine from Japan recently showed me.  They're called capsule hotels-- google it if you don't believe me.  There are just plenty of pictures.  They're unbelievable space savers, able to fit enormous amounts of people into absolutely miniature spaces.  It's such a compelling part of Japanese culture to me, that a nation should be so successful but be just inherently limited by the simple, unconquerable force of geography.

Now, a lot of the blogs and articles I read about this were of people telling about the night they spent in a capsule hotel, just to see what it was like.  But this New York Times article talks about unemployed men and women that stay in capsules every night out of necessity.  Apparently they were originally built with the intent of housing workers who had been drinking and missed the last train home (quite a significant population, apparently), but have now become refuges for the unemployed and homeless, who keep their belongings in tiny suitcases and rent the capsules for far less than it would cost to keep an apartment in Tokyo.

That part really got me, that these were never intended to be housing for the desperate.  The recession forced many our of their homes, and this was really the only option for staying in the city.  I linked this instantly to the tenement houses in Riss' work and was reminded of the absurdly cramped living conditions that families struggled with every day.  We certainly saw it in Maggie; she and her family live cramped up against hundreds of other families in the filthy tenements.  What boggles my mind about both these situations is the extreme lengths that people will go to in order to stay in the cities.  I know Riis mentions that this is centered on the ethnic and cultural communities that formed, and also in both situations for the jobs available in the cities.  But could this really be it?  I can't personally imagine getting by in such an extremely limited space.  I guess I'm just missing that extra factor that's keeping people in the cities from moving away to the countryside, or at least the suburbs.  Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

And I guess, to move it into my own life, some of our living spaces here at Colby can be rather cramped as well.  Now, it's nothing like the capsule housing or tenements, but there was nothing spacious about my freshman year double.  We could certainly choose to live off campus in a house, and in many cases it would be almost more affordable, but most of us choose not too.  My reasoning, and I know the reasons of my friends as well, centers around the desire to be in the social scene, to be constantly surrounded by the people I love and in the middle of all the absurdity and fun that can be Colby College's social scene.  Maybe that's what keeps people in cities as well, that desire to stay close to the people and places they are comfortable with.  Even if that means suffering through the most uncomfortable living.


In taking a look back over my blog this weekend, I realized that I missed out on writing a blog for Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class.  I'm actually really glad that I'm writing it now though, because I think it raises some really interesting points and makes me look over what we've covered in class so far in a new light.

We covered chapters on Conspicuous Leisure and Conspicuous Consumption.  Each of these themes cover the idea that the leisure class must live their lives in a very outwardly luxurious manner in order to secure the esteem of their colleges.  In a way, this manner of living is almost directed at harvesting jealousy, as it hinges in the innate comparisons that members of the leisure class form with each other.  Who has the newest car?  Whose house is the largest?  Who quit his job and hires servants to press the orange-juicer button?  It definitely spoke to many of the works we've read, obviously Gatsby, Silas, and House of Mirth.  It even extends to the novels of the lower class as well, specifically Maggie.  Maggie's goal is obtain some kind of security and stability in her life, but she certainly feeds off of the outward social richness that Pete provides.  She basks in the evenings out, the fancy dinners and shows that put her in a position of public appraisal of her wealth.  Pete succumbs as well to the seductive call of social wealth, as his encounter with Nellie sends him off into her arms, as she hails from a higher social class and can therefore offer him a higher position in society.  From the lower class to the upper crust, no one is resistant to the temptation of being able to live a conspicuously wealthy lifestyle for purely social reasons.

For a while, I assumed that every work in this class would be sort of in that general vein.  It's a very American thing, after all, to compare yourself to others and show off your accomplishments, is it not?  I guess I've been taking these paramount ideas of conspicuous leisure and consumption to be overarching truths of America, from the low to the upper classes.

However, reading Grapes of Wrath kind of switched things up for me.  The Joad family lives in a state of extreme poverty and wants nothing more than to get to the mythic opulence and comfort of California, the land of "milk and honey".  At face value, they're like any other group we've seen in the other novels: striving for wealth.  But they're not really striving for wealth, persay, just the wealth of comfort.  Of stability, of a lifestyle unburdened by the strains of hunger and need.  Grampa simply wants to eat the grapes and let the juice run down his chin; nowhere does he suggest wanting to have anyone watch him do it.  Their wealth is based not in the having of things, but in the comfort of the family unit as a whole.  Ma's dream is of a white house on a farm-- she doesn't want anything big, just something to contain her loved ones.  And at night, when the cars park in impromptu villages, everything is shared, people give to those that need without expecting anything in return.

I wonder of Grapes of Wrath represents a turning point in how America approached wealth.  Surely an event as monumental as the Great Depression could have the the potential to restructure the social construction and concept of wealth for the nation.  In the light of such nationwide destitution, did we move from a nation of show-offs to a nation of bare-necessities?  Was this a permanent change, or did it revert right back to conspicuous leisure and consumption once the nation had pulled itself out of the depression?  Or is this portrait of "wealth is family" America unique to the impoverished farmland families of the Great Depression?  I'd be very interested to see what the wealthy were doing during the Depression.  Did they live their wealth just as blatantly, or lay low?  I'll be interested to see how the remaining novels in this course approach this issue.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Play Spent

Obviously, I am all about the online games.  I found this one in an online search about homelessness for a project I was doing for another class.  It's called Spent, and it takes you through what a month might look like as an unemployed member of the modern day extreme lower class.  You start out with a budget of $1000 and navigate the month of bills, food, and surprise expenses.

I started out knowing that I'd make it through.  I was a smart kid, I get by on my loan-burdened college kid budget, so I should be able to handle this.  And I did.  I ended the month with around $300 dollars.  But the situations that Spent put in my way definitely made me reconsider the kind of person I was or what I would do to stay afloat.

In one situation, I had surprise medical bill that sapped a chunk of my finances and was struggling to get toward payday.  With a few days left to go and more groceries to by, I got a popup that said that one of my children got a birthday card in the mail from his Grandma that contained $10.  The game asked me if I would keep the money, or let him hold on to it.  I thought it out-- sure I could let him keep it, but he'd probably just buy a toy or something.  I was the adult, right?  I had to make the best decision for everyone, right?  I knew that I'd be back on my feet at some point, and I could always just pay him back later.  So I kept the $10 and used it to buy groceries.

In another scenario, our family pet got ill.  A vet visit would have been around $1000, euthanasia about $50.  The third option was to let it suffer.  I wanted to do something, but pay day was still a long way off and I had to think about food.  So I let it suffer.

After playing this game, I actually had to sit back for a few minutes and sort myself out.  It was amazing how personal it got, how it forced you into some pretty unthinkable life situations that seem unreal but are actually very present in the lives of thousands of Americans every day.  Spent definitely got to me.  I'll be honest-- being at Colby can be overwhelming, and I definitely get jealous of some of the beachside vacations and luxury clothes that my family doesn't really have access to.  But this game put it all in perspective for me.

It also tuned me in to some things I didn't really connect with or understand about the Grapes of Wrath.  The big thing was the driving force of food.  The whole focus of the novel was centered around feeding the family, on reaching a land of abundant fruit and work.  I guess it didn't make sense to be because I've never actually experienced not having enough money for food.  It's not that I didn't believe that they truly were struggling to feed themselves, I just couldn't connect with the idea of that level of poverty. 

I won't claim now to know exactly what it's like to be struggling to that degree, but Spent definitely gave me some perspective for The Grapes of Wrath and for my own life.  I would totally recommend it, I feel like a lot of the Colby would totally benefit from reading a thing like this.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath and the Green Light

I found this little cartoon on a Google image search for "grapes of wrath".  Creative, I know, but this is usually my go-to method for looking for blog ideas, and I think this photo actually brings up a pretty fascinating idea when we start to compare what was happening in Depression-Era America with what is happening in the country today. 

I'm at first really hesitant to jump to the "compare then and now" idea because at face value, then and now seem so obscenely different that it seems unfair and almost blasphemous to try to draw similarities.  People were literally starving to death, farms evicted and destroyed by the hundreds of thousands, and in the present day, we have a horde of college grads that are going back home to live in their parents' basements.  Men jumped out of windows then; men have to take out loans now.  Coming from a family that has certainly understood the effects of the recent economic climate, I certainly understand that it's bad.  But is it that bad?  One assumes, of course not.

But then I took a little step back and considered it all again.  What makes me reconsider my attitude towards two so drastically different periods in the American economy is the difference that I see in Americans' opinions of the future.  Take the above cartoon, for example.  It's a clear parody of the Grapes of Wrath journey across America, done in reverse from Nevada to Oklahoma.  The family is fleeing some sort of poverty and moving back in with the Grandparents.  Perhaps it's a commentary on a trend of families consolidating across generations to save money; perhaps it's a jab at today's economy being so bad that we'd rather be back on the farm with Granma and Grampa.  I'm not sure.  What it made me consider, though, is how our hopes for the future have changed, from then to now.  The Joad family chased the dream of California across the country with an almost humorously hopeless fervor; we, as the audience, saw the tragic, dramatic irony of Pa and his bulletin about the 800 workers needed for fruit picking and the way he clung to it from stop to stop.  It was clear that California was no paradise, but with the stubborn insistence of the Joad family that they were headed for peaches and grapes straight off the vine, they pressed on despite all signs of disaster.  They had in them such a singular, shared hope-- such a driving force that held them together and pushed them forward.

 I think this is the biggest difference between then and now, and the difference that carries the heaviest implications.  What are we striving for?  What gets us out of bed in the morning to press onward, what makes us fight against the inevitable in spite of how impossible it may seem?  I don't know, and I don't know if we know either.  I'm not sure that present-day America has a really good feel for what it's working for, for that optimism that things do get better.  Do we even feel that things can get better?  Even though the American Dream was tragically foolish and futile at times, it was centered around an undying optimism that could outlast even the most profound poverty.  I don't know if we have that any more, and that definitely makes me nervous about where we, as a country, stand now, and where we're headed.  Anybody else have any ideas about all this?