Thursday, October 22, 2009

What is a hero anyway? (or do we live in an age without them)

I spend the large majority of my time addressing this very question. As a teacher of 9th grade literature, my days are often filled with the likes of Odysseus, Atticus Finch, Guy Montag, Romeo and Juliet, and many others who fit, if not always perfectly, the role of hero. Every year I ask a new set of 14 year olds to tell me what a hero is and year after year the answer fluctuates very little. The qualities these teens list? Unselfish, honest, kind, law-abiding, brave, giving, moral people who do the ‘right’ thing. The problem, of course, arises quickly because, after all, who decides what is right? Who arbitrates what is moral? It can be difficult to introduce to modern American teens a hero who is as admired for his brutality and his ability to lie, as Homer’s Odysseus was. Without fail there is shock at his philandering while his poor, faithful- to- a- fault wife, Penelope, wards off the attentions of a hoard of suitors. There isn’t a deep well of sympathy amongst today’s teenage girls for a man who cheats but excuses himself by saying he never consented ‘in his heart’. The carnage that cleanses the house of Odysseus of the unwelcomed guests rises to a level of brutality that shocks even the jaded among them. Stringing up a a line of faithless female servants and cutting off cods of a disloyal man only to feed them to the dogs is a vengeance most have difficulty acclimating to the someone deemed ‘heroic’. Clearly, what makes a hero changes over the course of time.
I have stood in front of many classes and listened to them debate what qualifies as heroic. Some of these groups are fairly sophisticated some argue that one man’s hero is another man’s terrorist, I’ve heard some go so far as to say that ‘hero’ is a cultural construct and that while the 911 hijackers are, to the American sensibility (and many others for that matter) terrorists, to some they are heroes. It gets really sticky quickly and that’s a good thing. Life is full of contradictions and complexities and for a group of fourteen year olds to show even a cursory knowledge of this is pretty awe inspiring.
I ask them if a flawed person, a cheater, a philanderer, an addict, anyone with a serious moral flaw could be a hero, again they say, ‘it depends’. We discuss the personal shortcomings of such figures as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, both of whom, it has been widely reported, were given to cheating on their spouses. I couldn’t help but wonder to myself if such a person could accomplish today what these men accomplished in their day? Is it possible that this generation is being robbed of its heroes by our insatiable appetite for the details of public figures lives? Would Kennedy and King, were they living today, fall victim to the media’s appetite for the sensational? Could a movement as vital to America as the Civil Rights movement have been stopped in its tracks by a paparazzi lurking in a hotel lobby? Could Kennedy have been impeached because of his marital dalliances?
The questions are disturbing. I want to believe that a movement cannot be stopped by exposing the foibles of a single leader but in the current atmosphere of gotcha journalism, I believe it’s a valid concern. John Edwards is clearly a less-than-stellar husband but he worked diligently to bring light to important issue of poverty. Are there families who could have been helped that aren’t getting the assistance he’d have facilitated if he’d gotten power? Impossible to know. We are far more forgiving than we used to be, Rush Limbaugh was among the most vitriolic critics of ‘drug addicts’ but his slide into addiction has been all but forgotten by his loyalists. One after the other high profile preachers, celebrities, politicians, and various others sit down with talk show hosts in an attempt to receive absolution from the American public and we are more likely than ever to give it. I remember a certain British actor who, after being caught with a prostitute, made his sheepish apology on late night and won his career back. Gone are the days of Fatty Arbuckle, enter the age of redemption.
Ah, but how much forgiveness is too much? It seems that when Hugh Grant sat across from Jay Leno he established the apology script as a staple of modern life. Cheat on your wife? Talk to Oprah. Have an illicit gay encounter that may or may not have placed the state you were charged with preserving in danger? Stand behind a podium and pronounce you’re a ‘gay american’. As far as our ‘heroes’ go, America is addicted to the mea culpa.
So, is this real forgiveness or just the desire to keep the flaws of others on display? Celebrities are afforded the kinds of chances that politicians, at least lately, don’t seem to be getting. Perhaps it’s justifiable, celebrities don’t shape policy. Hard as they try to attach their faces to various causes the people who really influence our daily lives are largely unknown to us. President Obama is beginning to see what George W. Bush must have seen quite clearly, you are always the devil to someone. For liberals, Bush was a good old boy who could barely finish a sentence. Daily we were barraged with his oratory fumblings, he was labeled illiterate and backward because he lacked eloquence. Obama, who suffers no such challenge in elucidation, is routinely maligned for being haughty and elitist. It’s a lose/lose for the ‘hero’ and a win/win for the media.
How will the coming generation find heroes in a society that feeds on the flaws of others? How can we expect our kids to grow up moral people when all around them corruption and bad behavior are on display? People complain regularly about the jaded nature of teens, they lack respect, they lack work ethic, they steep themselves in violence and sexuality, they live in an age when politicians lie, spouses cheat, random violence intrudes on their lives. Well, I ask them, who hasn’t? Since the beginning of time people have found hope in morally imperfect heroes: Odysseus, Beowulf, Lancelot, even Leopold Bloom. While we adults sit around lamenting the loss of moral certainty, the slow slide into depravity, the loss of morally sound role models, it’s the fourteen year olds that haven’t lost focus. As almost any teen can tell you, heroes aren’t perfect. Teens don't seem as obsessed with the paradoxes as we adults do, they understand imperfection and know how to dig the hero out from underneath the rubble.

Monday, September 14, 2009

What Ever Happened to Decorum?

I would be the first to tell you that I have never read Emily Post or any other expert on etiquette. For much of my life I have felt that ‘etiquette’ could be equated with snobbery and unnecessarily proscriptive school marms. Does it really matter if you wear white after Labor Day? Thank You cards are thoughtful and appreciated but I don’t really care if someone doesn’t send one, if they called or said thank you when the gift was presented that’s enough for me. I could care less which fork you eat with as long as you don’t chew with your mouth open.
Of course I have always held a set of internal standards of conduct, maybe they come from my parents, maybe common sense, maybe some combination of both. I put my napkin on my lap when I sit down at the table like my mother taught me, but try as she might to stop me, I still say shut up. There are times when ‘be quiet’ just doesn’t cut it. My parents used the word ‘class’ as a measure of their childrens' conduct. Good conduct was ‘classy’ and bad ‘low class’. We knew, in the same way that we knew to avoid hot stoves, that the phrase “show some class” was often the precursor to some serious repercussions.
In our house, girls didn’t call boys, people didn’t burp at dinner (or for that matter anywhere public), you did not reach across the table, or stab your peas with your fork. All sorts of brutal rules were enforced in the name of being classy. It seemed the rules on being mannerly were innumerable and that we’d never master them all, so like any good American girl, I rebelled. When my parents weren’t around I put ketchup on my eggs, I talked during television shows , I planted my elbows firmly on the table and grinned from ear to ear as I slurped my soup. When I got my first apartment I systematically violated every rule my parents had ever set. With the sort of relish usually reserved for gourmet meals, I ate in the living room, stood in one room and yelled to my roommate in another room, stood with the refrigerator door open, ate dinner with no napkin on my lap. This, I was sure, was what freedom felt like. Grownups acting any old way they wanted to. God Bless American and all that, I was free to have as little class as I wanted.
Recently, however, I’m beginning wax nostalgic for the days of good manners. While I don’t want Ozzy and Harriet back, I’m not sure I want shows like ‘Date My Mom’ were I get to watch such open-mindedness as a woman explaining her daughter’s sexual liaisons with other girls to potential suitors. I don’t necessarily need Lucy and Ricky in separate beds but I could do without a constant parade of loud, half-dressed women pole dancing to impress yesterday’s recording artists.
I suppose I should have seen it coming years ago when Geraldo Riveria’s studio erupted into a full out brawl and then saw the rating sore. When Jerry Springer’s guests regularly engaged in felonious assault to the cheers of the audience, it was a harbinger of sorts. Springer himself offers an impassioned defense of his show’s content by claiming to give the common man a venue in which to be heard. Sounds very noble until you listen to what is being discussed. Are topics like sleeping with your best friend’s husband, being infatuated with random farm animals, and being unsure of your childrens' paternity really issues that call for a nationwide discussion?
Now they do, if only because somehow the codes of conduct that reign at the Jerry Springer show have begun to weave their way into important venues. It is one thing to have the television saturated with boorish, out of control behavior, it is quite another to find it in the halls of government. Of course, thanks to people like Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford I harbor no delusions about the ‘values’ that govern the behaviors of our leaders. I understand that sleaze of all sorts is not new to the halls of government, but when did it move from being shameful to being acceptable. All you have to do in the current climate is apologize, you don’t even have to come off as particularly sincere, just apologize and redemption shall be yours. Ask Marion Barry. Ask Mark Fuhrman, you can restore your respectability with a sob story and the passage of a year or two.
So, am I saying that we shouldn’t forgive? That we should shun and scorn those who do not adhere to the rules laid out by Emily Post? No. I think rules regulating the length of a boy’s hair, the color of girls clothes, or even the time you have to issue an official Thank You, are silly. They don’t make our society a better place but rules about table behavior, not talking through movies, not shouting down those who disagree with you, those are rules we ought to consider upholding.
When you reach the point where Congressman are shouting “you lie” as the president addresses the nation, perhaps it’s time to ask if you’ve gone too far. When a reporter hurled a shoe at then president George W. Bush most of us were righteously offended at the blatant show of disrespect. I was never a Bush fan but I respected the office and understood, at least vaguely, just how little I understood the pressures he faced. Arguably he did lie about weapons of mass destruction but he made it out of office without a single member of Congress ever screaming “you lie” in the middle of one of his nationwide addresses.
Just last night Kanye West exhibited some of the worst behavior I’ve seen in a day or two (reality tv never lets you go more than that without witnessing horrendous breaches of etiquette) when he literally took the microphone from the young woman who had just won, to rant about how much better one of her competitors was. When did it become okay to act this way? Why do Kanye West, Mark Wilson, and countless attendees of the recent town halls think it’s okay to shout down, speak over, or hurl insult toward people in venues that are supposed to celebrate achievement and offer a forum for the exchange of ideas?
So ladies and gentlemen of the town hall, reality television, dueling pundits on 24 hour cable news networks, and members of Congress, I want MY America back. The one where we conducted ourselves with dignity, we didn’t compete in thongs for the affections of has-been musicians, we didn’t shout slurs at each other across crowded rooms, we respected even the people we disagreed with. I want napkins on laps, mouths closed, kids who say please and thank you, mothers who protect their daughter’s reputation rather than extol her promiscuity to win her a date, and most of all I want a Congress that behaves more like ‘distinguished gentlemen’ and a whole lot less like the audience at the Jerry Springer show. Can I have that America, because I’m sure having a tough time with this one.

Monday, September 7, 2009

What is Real? Thoughts on Adoption.

What is ‘real’?
Authentic, genuine, actual, sincere, all of these words appear in the definition of the word ‘real’. Each of these words carries with it pleasurable association. We want ‘authentic’ designer bags, genuine affection, actual money, sincere friends, we want, in short, what is real.
What of the unreal? If you look up antonyms for real you find words like insubstantial, false, fictive, nominal. Who among us wants to be seen as having an insubstantial role, a false sense of security, subscribing to some fictive ideology? Worst of all to be a nominal member of whatever group it is that has influence in the areas you care about. Do you want the nominal heart surgeon cracking open your chest? Me neither.
There is value in what is verifiable. Who could argue that it isn’t so? In high school I remember that to be accused of being a phony was a stinging insult. No one wants to be seen as pretending to be something they are not. They may want to be something they are not but they certainly don’t want people seeing it. Still who, if they were being totally honest, could say that they have never compromised to attain something they wanted? Most of us, at one time or another have been less than sincere. Maybe when your boss is being unreasonable, or when your spouse asks if they look fat, or when a friend said something stupid that hurt, we may not say what we ‘really’ feel. So is it ever better to not be or say the real thing?
The first time ‘real’ felt like an insult to me came when my husband and I were going through the adoption process in order to expand our family. The process itself was rigorous. I have often joked that by the time they arrived for the home visit they knew just about everything about me except what color underwear I was wearing that day, and who knew, maybe they even knew that. I was often asked if I would tell my child about his ‘real’ parents. If I thought I could love a child who was not ‘really’ mine. I realize that these questions are as much about semantics as they are about insensitivity but with them came the implication that no matter how much we loved our child, our relationship would always be something less than genuine.
Talk shows at the time provided a steady stream of mother/child reunions. They repeatedly brought in an adult who has always felt a void in their life and beside them, Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Rafael, Geraldo Rivera or some other fawning host would commiserate with the grief of being separated all your life from your real family. How, I asked myself, could I invest years of my life and the entirety of my heart into a relationship that might never be seen as valid?
Would I let my children’s real parents see them? How would I tell them I wasn’t their real mother? I didn’t know but, like so many other things in my life, I knew I would find a way. My sons are now 14 and 16 and I gave birth to a daughter 13 years ago. I have both a biological child and two I have no genetic hand in creating. When people ask how many of them are really mine, I reply with a pat, “all of them.” It’s not as much that I find the question lacking in sensitivity, though I do, as it is that I believe it.
Each of my three children is wholly and completely a part of my husband and myself. Though both of my sons were older when they came, 21 months and three years respectively, we have ‘really’ nursed them when they were ill, been there when they scored in a game, helped with homework, and it was me who sometimes burnt their pancakes, my husband who taught them to tie their shoes, pitch a tent, and all those other little things that make a relationship authentic. It has been the same with my daughter, the only notable exception is that I was afforded the honor of being the one to carry her in my womb. Our relationship began earlier and sometimes when I look into her face, I see shades of myself and my ancestors. My love for her is deep, all-encompassing and exactly the same as the love I have for her two brothers.
Don’t misunderstand me, I know that my son’s biological parents are also a very ‘real’ part of who they are. My oldest stands nearly six foot four, while my husband and I are 5’4 and 5’10. I am a descended from Irish and Portuguese ancestors, they from African-American. Our differences are real and obvious but so are our similarities. I owe my son’s biological parents a debt of gratitude that I will simply never be able to repay, because without them I would not have these two amazing boys in my life.
Will my sons go looking for those who share their bloodline? Maybe, and that’s okay. I understand that, like all other aspects of reality, the ones that make up the facets of my particular family are complicated. If someday my sons come and tell me they would like to find their biological parents I will roll up my sleeves and do what I can to help them. I will even look forward to the opportunity to see where Corey got his height, or where Jesse got his gorgeous smile. What I won’t do, however, is look into these faces and find my sense of reality disrupted. I hope that, despite some nervousness, I will remember that I know what is 'real'.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Dear John Letter to CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News

Dear Cable News,
This is difficult for me. We have been seeing each other for some time now and I’ve become quite attached. Lately, however, my feelings for you have begun to change. I find myself becoming tense around you, my shoulders stiffen, my stomach begins to churn, and sometimes I even develop a throbbing in my temples, so I have decided that we need to spend some time apart. I think it is best for both of us.
Please understand that I know and appreciate all you have done for me. If it wasn’t for you I’d never have experienced a smug sense of superiority while watching Jay Leno. Every time he’d flash a picture of John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld or some other politician to a passerby who could not identify them, I laughed at their ignorance. Who wouldn’t know the major political players in their country? Thanks to you I existed above the masses, I was informed. Not only could I identify politicians, I could pronounce Ahmadinejad and I knew the warning signs of anthrax exposure. I learned these things from you.
I remember clearly how it all began, that white Bronco traveling the asphalt arteries of California. I stared into your shimmering face for hours as OJ Simpson tried to evade both justice and presumably his conscience. We bonded at his hearings, through his trial and I feared we’d lose each other when he walked out of jail. What would become of my new found friends Dan Abrams and Greta Van Susteren? Still, even after OJ, we found things to share, hurricanes, amber alerts, presidential impeachments and more. How would I have known the alternate uses of cigars if it weren’t for you CNN? You opened my eyes to so many new ideas.
Together Chris Matthews and I experienced tingling legs. With Larry King I came to know the foibles of Anna Nicole Smith and her entourage and don’t even get me started on Anderson Cooper. Still, things have begun to change between us. I find myself becoming easily irritated with you. I’ve begun to yell openly at the screen, to wish ill on Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. How did this happen? It was Bill O’Reilly who taught me the words ‘pithy’ and ‘opine’. Years ago some of what they said made sense to me but now their pontifications cause me nothing but pain. I am weary now of Al Sharpton and Armstrong Williams and their sometimes, when I look into the faces of my African-American children, their voices echo in my head filling me with fear for my children’s future. Give me Harold Ford, give me Oprah, give me hope.
I suppose the end began during the presidential election when Fox kept ‘accidentally’ writing ‘Osama’ in place of ‘Obama’ or maybe it was the near-merciless skewering of Sarah Palin’s parenting. All I know is that recently, the hours and hours of Michael Jackson coverage, the irate crowds at town hall meetings, the references to ‘real Americans’, and the statistics about Swine flu have my heart racing and my indigestion has become unbearable.
I finally decided to make the break two days ago when I had lunch with a dear friend. She urged me to change the channel, said you’d become manipulative that you’d begun to use fear tactics to keep me coming back. She though that the constant barrage of accusations of racism on both sides, the terror alerts, the demonstrations of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, the seething condescension between political parties had become a cancer of sorts. She said she hated to see me so stressed and because I know she has no hidden agenda, I have decided to take her advice, at least for awhile.
We can still see each other from time to time, I’ll check in on you once or twice a week but gone are our daily rendezvous. I will be taking walks and reading novels. I will be conversing with actual people. I may begin reading newspapers again. I’ve missed the smear of ink over skin, the calmer delivery of facts, the quietude of absorbing the written word. Please don’t worry, there will still be tragedies and milestones for us to share, planes will go down, presidents will deliver addresses, celebrities will die and I will find my way back to you to share those moments, but for now I’m hitting the off button on the remote, leaving you to work your magic on countless others. Still, I hope you know we’ll always have O.J.

Why Worry?

As a teacher the year begins weeks before I ever see a student. They begin to creep into my consciousness in August. It begins with bulletin boards usually. I find myself on the patio sipping iced tea or on the hammock reading a book when suddenly the thought of color schemes and clever headers seems to overtake my train of thought. The dreams begin soon after, usually I dream they’ve removed the numbers from the rooms and I am wandering aimlessly down the hall worried because I’m going to be late. I begin to think again about the travels of Odysseus, about what I’d have done in Hamlet’s shoes. I find myself turning toward the fall in much the same way I turned in May toward summer. Why is that?

Why do so many of us turn away from what is happening now and move, at least mentally, into the impending future? I do this in my writing too. When my son was 8 or 9 I wrote poems about him as a teen. I envisioned I am up to my ears in planning. him full of angst and struggling with racial identity long before either of those things crossed his mind. I suppose I thought if I envisioned the future I would be prepared for whatever was coming.

My mother will tell you that worrying is a weakness of mine, that I need to box things up. Every year my parents buy me a calendar about how to handle ‘worst case scenarios’ because they know there is something in me, and I believe many others, that fears being caught off guard. The gift is made partially in jest and partially because they know that I will find comfort in knowing how to wrestle an alligator or survive an avalanche, that for someone who is a natural worrier, escape plans are essential.

Next week, I will meet over one hundred teenagers for the first time face to face but in truth I have been preparing for them for weeks now. I expect the shy girl who seems almost pained to speak, the ‘look at me’ kids whose hands are always in the air, the ‘way-too-cool’ kids who wear indifference like a shield, and all the others who I have tried so hard to prepare for. But like the so many times before, they will not be what I expect. They will be better and worse and different, like all the other things I’ve prepared myself for.