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Category Archives: Children

Letting Go

The previous post addressed attachment vs. non-attachment. I took a walk through a nearby cemetery a few weeks ago, and thought of Christ’s imprecation: Let the dead bury the dead.1  The gravestones attest to our continued connection to those passed on and the difficulty (if not impossibility) of letting go. Cemeteries are made for the living, and for providing comfort in the face of our inevitable mortality.– CDL

1Luke 9:60

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Attachment & Being Human

I’ve seen a lot of advice lately against getting ‘too attached’ — to people, desires, hopes. Is there’s a gauge like a radiation badge to measure how much is enough, or too much? Is our chief end to control our unruly natures and turn our emotions on and off like robots.1)

Emily Dickinson on Hope

Emily Says —

Something bugs me about non-attachment as a blanket answer to all human desire for connection, never mind the notion of karma. These can become unthinking dogma like anything else. The following nails something self-evident, however much we try to deny it, about our desire to connect:

… It is in our biology, in the fabric of us, to connect to other human beings, and anything which tries to insert shame and doubt into that instinct is bound to always twist us… If the thought, “I am happy right now”, can never occur without an accompanying, “And I am just delaying my ultimate fulfillment in being so”, then what, essentially, has life become? I’ve seen it in action – people reaching out for connection, and then pulling back reflexively, forever caught in a life of half-gestures that can’t ever quite settle down to pure contemplation or gain a moment of genuine absolute enjoyment.Dale DeBakcsy, New Humanist

The idea of non-attachment is useful in the right context. But we are human. We do grow attached to kids, loved ones, hopes, pleasures, ideas, beliefs pursuits large and small.2 Also toxic things. There are a lot of mixed messages in the Buddhist, Christian and New Age traditions. Maybe our goal should be to be more choosy about holding on and letting go and how. And savoring and enjoying worthwhile attachments while we’re here. And not putting so much energy and effort into stupid and harmful ones. — DA

1See most religion, utopian experiments, contemporary psychology, scientific futurism, psychotropic medication, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

2E.g. Wallace Shawn’s appreciation of a cold cup of coffee in My Dinner With Andre

Being & Parenting

On being a father and a philosopher at Aeon.  Personally, I subscribe to the Calvin and Hobbes school of thought. — CDL

Me Talk to Me

We tell ourselves stories in order to succeed:  The virtues of self-talk in sports, work and life. (Op-Ed piece by Charles Fernyhough, Los Angeles Times)

Only Connect

I walked through one of our city’s urban wild spaces several weeks ago instead of participating in something quaintly referred to as an active shooter drill. The phrase reminds me of playing army in our backyard when I was a boy. (Bang! You’re dead: now fall down.) That used to be a thing children did innocently when such a thing was possible.

20160427_093104I felt the need to disconnect from the alienating hive mentality we seem to live in increasingly these days. In an attempt to find myself, I had to lose myself high above the madding, maddening, crowd. I walked across a bridge and up a hill in one of Pittsburgh’s historic districts a mile or so from downtown and found a path. I followed it – drawn to greenness and space.

While my colleagues practiced hiding under their desks in the new workplace normal, I came upon a community garden waiting for the first shovel of earth to turned over for planting. My schedule is too fraught with change and busyness to take on a new project, but I thought I could stop by later in the season and offer to weed and hoe someone’s plot in exchange for a few tomatoes.

20160427_101444I helped in our garden as a kid. There’s something about turning over fresh soil, kneeling down and feeling the clots of dirt and clay crumble in our fingers that recalls some essential part of us.

We spend our time lately connected with people virtually near and far. Our conversations, if I can dignify these  stunted exchanges with that word, are severely attenuated. We decipher the texts and e-mails, codes of our existence, like entrails for portents of hope and meaning, anger and desire, interest or indifference. 19th-Century correspondents sent telegrams shorn of definite articles and prepositions to save money.  (Arriving 8 AM train. Hope see you. Stop. ) We do it today because we’re impatient or lazy. (LOL CU L8R.) We shout our urgencies and frustrations standing in vacant lobbies or on crowded buses among strangers over medical tests, jail sentences, kids to pick up and dogs to walk. More often, we settle for garbled, aphasic voice messages left over a bad connection.

On my sojourn I encountered a young woman walking a large shepherd -mix dog. We exchanged greetings and walked on – having observed the social niceties. I guess I didn’t look too threatening: a skinny guy on the downward slope of my fifties with gray in my beard. It was a refreshing change from days with colleagues in cubes barely acknowledging each other. At the start of work I encountered a colleague I think of as a friend. She has a small dog, a husband who recently had his hip replaced, and a singing voice that could make angels weep. She also has a chronic illness she’s afraid to tell her employer about. Her reply when I wished her a brief good morning was ‘I don’t have time to talk.

20160427_093018At the top of the hill I turned looked out over a view once obscured by smoke and flame from Satanic steel mills. The mills provided the blessings of livelihood to the people who worked in them.

The smoke and flame are long gone, banished by the demise of the steel industry and the ‘Burgh’s urban gentrification. Instead, further on, I came upon a small crab apple tree  starting to bloom pink and white.

20160427_095831Apples trees carry a Medieval symbolism related to the Fall and the gift of redemption. I saw a source of beauty and shade this summer that will allow me to sit in quiet and peace (not silence – that would be too much) away from cell phones and conference calls and a thousand voices calling out our urgencies and hopes together.

When I first encountered Tony Judt’s phrase connected Isolation1, I took it as a judgement of the many ways we have to communicate, share, like and stay in touch contrasted with the emptiness of the messages  transmitted and received. In our search for comfort and assurance, we seek to distract ourselves from the triviality, vanity and chaos around us. The messages we receive from corporate, governmental and media sources around us usually emphasize a lack within ourselves to be fixed, improved or soothed by being a better consumer – as though all can be made well by purchasing the right service, product, therapy or medication. When these fail, as they always seem to, we buy more, or different or turn up the volume. And still we still live in fear and confusion, hiding under our desks.

Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately and transact some private business. That business was himself. For someone so antisocial, Thoreau wrote a lot about society. Walden2 contains references to traveling on the Fitchburg Railway, of going into town and meeting with friends and family. Contrary to his popular role (I will not say brand) as a prophet of bucolic solitude,3 Thoreau advocated for a human and collective relationship with nature. For him nature was not something to be walled off and kept segregated from human beings and the civilized world, but a place we could retreat to and connect with a wild part of ourselves. Today Thoreau might text from his cabin, keep a Walden blog and tweet about hoeing beans in his garden. Some folks argue that he was a poseur. I think he was human. Although Life Without Principle contains snarky comments about someone in town hiring a laborer to move a stone from one location to another, throughout Thoreau’s work is a craving for company; whether of birds and squirrels or his human neighbors.

20160427_100308My solitary walk connected me to myself and the earth: the leaves on the trees, the insects on the ground – even the trash or leaves bagged up. The detritus we leave behind is not bad, but part of who we are. We live on this earth, all six billion-plus of us. We occupy space and affect the ground we walk on. How can we presume to stop global warming, reduce our carbon footprint and save the planet when we can’t save what some of us call our souls? For that we have to let go of our urge to control the world and connect periodically with that part of ourselves not for sale – talked about, squawked about, tweeted, branded, scrutinized weighed and displayed in the marketplace like melons in a grocery store.

20160427_100725Doing so requires practicing a radicalism that is actually not so radical, but part of our DNA as humans. It requires us to withstand all the slings and arrows that our society, despite our claims to embrace diversity and individual liberty, throws at its members who dare to step to their own drummer and dance to their own beat. It requires us to risk being called egocentric, self-centered and antisocial. But when we are alone with ourselves away from the noise, we can connect with who we are and decide where to put our time, energy and talent toward being part of something more. — CDL

‘Only Connect’ is a quote from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.

2 Life Without Principle is Thoreau’s strident argument against, among other things, his fellow-citizen’s complicity in the war against Mexico

3And proto-environmentalist and naturalist, according to author Stephen Railton

 

 

 

Fellow Travelers and Other Strangers

You’d think experiencing hardship and prejudice due to your ethnic identity or nationality would make you more tolerant or sympathetic to a group of people in your midst encountering these. Especially if the differences between you are slight — so that the world sees you as sharing more similarities than differences.

The Irish have had more than their share of hardship and tragedy — from invasion by Cromwell in the 18th Century to rebellion and the more recent Troubles. As Yeats wrote:

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.1

Ironically, now the Irish themselves – some of them, anyway — lack sympathy with a group among them who call themselves the Travelers.

The Travelers are not Gypsies, or Roma. They are a distinct group that has existed for hundreds of years throughout Ireland and Great Britain. (One group made its way to South Carolina.) They have strong family connections, and have made their their living traditionally as itinerant tinkers, traveling from town to town repairing small items. Sometimes by stealing. They are a small group, ethnically distinct by one definition; maybe not so much by another. They use their own language, Cant, which at times their hosts proposed to outlaw, as was tried with Welsh and Gaelic. Given their small numbers, the Travelers seem not worthy of much attention by international groups and individuals (government officials, reporters, ‘advocates’). One thing’s clear: no one in Ireland seems to want them in their backyard.

Bridget O'Donnel and her starving children, 1849, Illustrated London News

Bridget O’Donnel and her starving children, 1849, Illustrated London News

In October the New York Times reported a fire that killed ten people in a Travelers’ encampment in Carrickmines, Ireland, near Dublin. The dead included five children and a pregnant woman. The town – with a name redolent of Irish labor and suffering – contains a fragment of an ancient castle built to protect the invading English from marauding Irish tribes. (It was subsequently used as a piggery.) Encampment, summons up associations ancient and more recent — from Celtic nomads, to the Irish monks setting sail to the Shetland Islands and Scandinavia and (possibly to America) in curraghs, to Famine ships carrying human cargo, and now Syrian refugees fleeing to Hungary and Germany.

Following the destruction of the fire in Carrickmines and shock of their fellow Travelers’ deaths, the survivors sought a new location to settle. Those in the surrounding community who at first expressed sympathy refused to extend that sympathy to allowing Travelers a place to live. Local residents in Dublin  blocked access to a temporary location being prepared for them.

No doubt the situation is complex. How do you create a inclusive community with those who stubbornly refuse to assimilate – who are in fact perceived as a threat? But this has always been the case. In America the dance of assimilation bred as much intolerance as tolerance as each group of immigrants made its way. The Irish showed little sympathy to Italian and Slovak immigrants. Neither group sympathized much with African Americans’ struggle for freedom and equality. 19th-century illustrations by Thomas Nast depicted Irish immigrants as violent, apelike savages.

Political cartoons during the Red Scare of the 1920s characterized Eastern European and other immigrants as bomb-wielding radicals and Bolshies. In the 1950s McCarthy-era rhetoric charged ‘fellow travelers’ as consorting with communists bent on the destruction of American democracy – which some were. It’s a short leap to the terrorists of today.

My own family, illiterate coal miners who ranged between Edinburgh and Belfast, arrived in the U.S. before the First World War. They traveled to Indiana to mine coal and then to Pittsburgh, where my grandmother was born in 1909. She was the first in her family to attend college and became an elementary school teacher – a vocation my own daughter follows.

The Irish have always been travelers, great fighters, and great laborers, willing to take the dirty, dangerous work that others would not, and live in dirty, dangerous places. I have seen their handiwork and witnessed their graves on my own travels cycling and canoeing the Erie and C&O Canals.

In 1844 I arrived upon the fateful shore.
I left the land that was no more
To work upon the railway2

Erie Canal Graves

Cemetery at Adams Basin on the Erie Canal (Photo by the Author)

The truth is we are all travelers, making our way existentially and physically through the world, seeking a home. It’s clear from recent events that some pursue their journey less benignly than others.

Articles in the Irish Times have highlighted entrenched attitudes about the Travelers: among these that they are antisocial criminals, that they are uneducated. Money allocated to create settlements for Travelers remains unspent to opposition from their fellow Irish. One resident near Dublin said, “They just don’t live the same way we do….That’s not a slant on them. It’s just a fact.” “We just don’t want them here,” and, “No one in the country would accept this.”

These 21st-Century words echo those heard and published during the 19th Century. The Great Famine of the 1840s and ’50s, The Great Hunger – An Gorta Mor — killed thousands and sent millions fleeing to American, Canada, New Zealand and other countries. In Great Britain the general attitude was good riddance to their strange ways and tragic lives – contributed to by Britain’s own poor laws and policies of discrimination dating from Cromwell’s day.

inbusinessAs Cecil Woodham-Smith writes in The Great Hunger:

The wretched, ragged crowds provoked irritation, heightened by the traditional English antipathy toward the native Irish. … “No attempt was made to explain the catastrophe to the people; on the contrary, government officials and relief committee members treated the destitute with impatience and contempt.”

No doubt my ancestors and their acquaintances were among those discriminated against. In America they were met with political cartoons and rhetoric emphasizing their antisocial behavior, their ignorance, profligacy, religion, language, criminality and otherness.

Now we witness refugees fleeing Syria and the Travelers in Ireland seeking a home. Questions of Illustrated London Newsimmigration policy arise once again in the long-winded rhetoric surrounding the windup to the U.S. Presidential election, fanned by the horrific scenes perpetrated on Friday November 13th in Paris.

Nevertheless, I am struck by the minute degrees separation that alienate rather than bind us as human beings. In the 1840s The Illustrated London News published accounts uncharacteristically sympathetic to the Irish. One article quoted an eyewitness to their suffering who declared Everything has been tried but a little sympathy and kindness. But how do you maintain sympathy for someone you’re afraid, rightly or wrongly, is trying to kill you? — CDL

Our Institutions, Ourselves

Here at Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies we examine the received wisdom of crowds and other presumed or self-appointed sources of authority. The news so far in the first month of this year reassures us that our mission is not wasted.

The congress convenes, prosecutors prosecute, politicians pontificate, the media mediate (but not much meditate) on the sublime and the ridiculous: church and state, small and great. Financial institutions gain rewards from damaging the economy. Businesses profit from outsourcing and layoffs, while claiming to engage and value their workers. Organizations of higher learning declare their noble mission and beneficence in educating and building the character of students, while refusing responsibility for paying taxes, raising tuition or their own employees’ depredations.

There is no lack of souls looking for a cause with which to identify themselves. There is no more zealous fanatic than a convert. Lost souls and gifted people alike (who are often the same) seek a cause greater than themselves to belong to. Ideally, this leads to the greater good.

But there’s a fine line between the faithful and the fanatic (from Latin fanaticus “mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god,” also “furious, mad”). As we immerse ourselves in the tribal identity of Republican and Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, the right to bear arms or freedom from wanton death and mayhem, we may invoke the darker angels of our nature. The darker side of devotion leads else elsewhere. Soldiers for the cause, whether volunteers or employees, along with the defenseless and the innocent, come to be seen by their leaders merely as expendable resources, along with ethics and accountability.

A colleague grew up in central Pennsylvania where they worship American football. Every fall people there dress in blue and white and drive past the crisp autumn leaves to attend the games in Happy Valley. In America uniquely sport tends to drive institutions of higher learning (and their contracts with cable television). Six-six, two-hundred fifty pound halfbacks and running backs subsidize the study of computer engineering and post-modern cultural deconstruction. The size of the elephant in the room sometimes obscures the cost of its care and feeding, and the sacrifices made for someone’s presumed greater good.

Charitable, governmental, educational, or business institutions can become corrupted when their own perpetuation becomes an end, rather than a means, to fulfilling their mission. Communism culminated in the toppling of the Berlin Wall, after the loss of millions of lives. Fascism led to worse. Its mirror image, McCarthyism, prompted an elected government in a free society to betray ideals of free speech and democracy and destroy lives of its fellow citizens. Even in America, land of liberty and libertarian , there is subtle or not so subtle pressure to wear the right clothes, say the right words and think the right thoughts.

Thomas Paine insisted on promoting an Age of Reason over religious dogma in his later years. This made him the unacknowledged founding father, with little honor in his own nation. John Locke wrote about the social contract that guides relations between the individual and civil society. Thomas Hobbes wrote about the unruly mob’s need to be led by some single unifying leader, whatever the cost to individuals. Between these two orbits we seek the golden mean.

The goal of an institution formed to find homes for the homelessness, end hunger or find a cure cancer should be to eliminate its own raison d’être. But the poor, the unborn, the disenfranchised will always be with us – as will young boys needing protection in the locker room or sacristy, and women from rapists in their community. Where fund raising, administration, marketing and promotion for social and charitable organizations become ends in themselves, effective leadership may lie more in knowing what side their bread is buttered on than feeding it to the hungry. If your livelihood depends on making the case for the need that keeps you in business, you may not be inclined to make it go away or take accountability for flaws in carrying out your mission. Thus the justice of your cause easily becomes justification for a host of ills.

Thoreau, the poster child for the environmental movement, wrote the beloved Walden preaching a transcendent, personal connection with the world. But Life Without Principle, his lesser-known essay contains words that would be considered subversive to the children of any middle class school district today:

  • The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse…
  • Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient

And to those obsessed with the trivia elevated to significance now on Facebook:

  • I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish,to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. .. It is so hard to forget what it is worse than useless to remember!

Thoreau was not an advocate of unbridled capitalism, nor for unthinking patriotism, that last refuge of scoundrels. The same man who argued for the love of nature pleaded for the life of a murderer and fanatic, John Brown, following the latter’s brutal murders in Kansas and insurrection at Harpers Ferry in the cause of abolition.

Rescuing puppies or ending global warming or electing a candidate depends on putting your cause in front of the right people and convincing them to ante up. More importantly, it depends on recruiting dedicated people and finding symbols who will support your cause through thick or thin, even at the expense of their own interests. Businesses and nonprofits have a host of ways now to reach out and declare their social conscience and how much they care. E-mail updates, Facebook invites and twitter feeds invite us daily to be part of of their communities and causes. But they don’t hold our hand in the middle of the night at the hospital or listen to us talk about what to do about our lousy jobs. And they quickly abandon us if we do not fit their agenda or prove a liability or embarrassment.

Thoreau died mostly forgotten at forty-five in the bedroom of his parents’ home surrounded by unsold books published at this own expense. Leon Trotsky, communism’s one time true believer and acolyte, was hunted down and murdered. Joseph McCarthy died a shunned alcoholic.

Human beings also aren’t merely icons for a cause, to be replaced by the new icon du jour. They don’t exist to promote brands or as algorithmic functions of their connections on Facebook. No man (or woman, or child) is an island. We are not merely our beliefs and needs devoted or subverted to the needs of institutions that do not mourn our passing or care about our true selves. As Nelson Algren, that troubadour of Chicago’s lower depths in the 1940s and 1950s, wrote in the Man with the Golden Arm, ‘We are all members of each other.’ – DA

David Abramoff, Ph.D., is Director Emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies. Copyright 2013. For permissions and reprints please go to our Contact Us page.  We gratefully accept donations made through Fractured Atlas.

Learning to Master the World

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) recently provided $3,447,740 USD to organizations in the U.S., including one in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The goals of the award are to:

  • Create engaging learning experiences
  • Support the role of museums as community anchor institutions
  • Enhance collections stewardship

The local recipient in SW PA plans to use the award to ‘conduct a research study of family participation in museum-based “makerspaces.” As one staff member told a colleague, “Basically, we are going to use the award to research how children play and learn.” The organization will work with academic researchers at Carnegie Mellon University “to design tools that recognize and measure productive patterns of family participation and their associated learning outcomes in these spaces.” Most likely this will involve the use of computer technology. Every hammer must find its nail.

When I was a boy barely knee-high, I often stopped on the way home  from school when it rained to watch water flowing from a downspout. Left to their devices, kids are naturally little physicists. They try to figure out how the world and people work. Perhaps it is easier to understand the function of dark matter than plumb the mysteries of the human heart. When children play, they try different roles. They cast pieces of wood adrift in mud puddles. They build forts outside. They get messy. Sometimes they do things that result in conflict, bruises or tears. This is how they learn, have fun and practice being human. To do this they need a balance of structured and unstructured (read, unsupervised) time.

Of course childhood may be viewed as an invention, a construct of society that become possible since about the eighteenth century when one in five children stopped dying before the age of three and the rest were put to work in coal mines. Now that children are our future, they have been turned into a preoccupation (if not fetish) of society and a multi-billion dollar industry.

Parents and adults in positions of self-appointed authority feel compelled to direct the efforts of children to make sure they are equipped for our dubious future. Many of these efforts (and the money invested) involve applying new technology to create learning environments and products. They take the form of initiatives to promote literacy and early learning. Millions of dollars are invested by schools (and parents) in technology to address the so-called digital divide.

One product advertised on TV allows a child to draw in different colors on a digital tablet. This offers an advantage over a pad of newsprint and crayons or water colors in that it’s less messy. There is no danger the child will express his or her creativity and fingerprints on the walls or furniture. All the child’s efforts are neatly packaged within the digital environment for the parent to save and admire and post on Facebook — ensuring John or Judy fifteen minutes of fame before the age of five. The company that sells the device has occasion to hire programmers, designers and marketing personnel, and turns a profit to create an artificial environment for children to play in.

Are we doing children and ourselves a favor by creating such adult-designed, carefully circumscribed  ‘spaces’ on their behalf in which they can develop their 21st-century skills and practice social interaction (presumably learning to type with their thumbs and talking to themselves while crossing the street)?

After thousands of years human beings have still not mastered the control of nature or ourselves. Despite our remarkable advances in technology and prognostications for the future, our creations will  inevitably reflect our imperfections. We spend our brief time on this earth futilely trying to impose our will upon the entropy within our souls and in the void without. We can choose do this in enlightened or idolatrous ways.

Our freedom to play may extend into our adult lives and at least elements of our jobs. The Wall Street trader plays Monopoly with other people’s money. The CEO organizes and runs part of the playground by his or her rules and gets others to play their game. In creative pursuits such as the arts we can try on different roles, write our own stories, leave our fingerprints on the wall where none have been left before. But we still need to pay the bills, pay the piper, make a living by putting our fingerprints in the service of someone else (or the public taste). When play becomes indistinguishable from work, the fun of creation may be lost in drudgery despite employers’ attempts to make the workplace a barrel of laughs and convince employees that work/life balance means dedicating one’s life 24/7 for profit.

Children play in the present with every ounce of their being. Becoming adults means making a transition to building sand castles on the beach knowing that eventually the ocean will overwhelm our creation. We persevere, living our lives in the midst of joy and sadness until we exit this confused, confusing, unfinished world leaving behind whatever contributions or depredations we have made.

The seductive promise that technology and the marketplace seem to offer to us is to become creators of our own reality; either controlling the world to suit our whims and desires, or divorcing ourselves from it to live in our own cocoon of virtual reality. The legacy of this may be to deny (or spare) future generations the pleasures and frustrations of discovering how the world works alongside their own limitations and possibilities. What kind of future will it be if human beings are arrogantly devoted to controlling what they don’t understand and remaking the world in their own egotistic image, or retreating  into an alternative world restricted to rules and possibilities devised solely themselves? — DA

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