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First, They Came for the Romantic Relationships…

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Conversation has become a luxury. The Conversation by Kobe de Peuter.

I think of my generation as the one in which the meaning of “love” shifted and became larger (a good thing) but also more confusing (a bad thing). My female college friends and I both celebrated and mourned the loss of the clarity that most of our mothers seemed to have about what love meant. To them, it meant marriage.

To us, it meant so many other things. For one thing, marriage wasn’t available for those among us who were gay. Yet it was becoming clearer and clearer that gay love was a reality that needed to be acknowledged. And at the same time, our heterosexual relationships were undergoing massive upheavals—marriage, though we didn’t wish to deny it to our gay friends, seemed to many heterosexual women like a “property relationship.” We wanted our love to be free, not attached to economic or child-rearing promises.

The men I knew often took perhaps unfair advantage of this. Even when what they felt was clearly not love to them, they might claim to love us, but to just not to want to participate in the strangling institution of marriage. For the most part, women still wanted to be loved. This made for a lot of broken hearts, and many women eventually “got over” their liberation from marriage. Women and men (gay, straight, and bisexual) began to redefine marriage in multiple ways that (we hope) retain the goodness of an institution of intimate commitment and jettison the woman-down or gays-denied aspects.

Not that the redefining of romantic love is over, but lately what I find shifting more radically is the meaning of friendship.

This weekend I read an article in the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche. It is one of many litanies lately about the dangers of our reliance on social networks on the Internet. Bruce also sent me a link of a TED talk by psychologist Sherry Turkle, who is mentioned in the Atlantic article and who has changed her once-upbeat take on the social network into a lament for the depth and spontaneity of real conversation.

These two commentaries bring so much to my mind. Mainly, they resonate. I myself can experience great loneliness in spite of the ever-enlarging circle of Facebook and blogging friends that I have. Blogging sometimes brings about more substantive exchanges, but even that is not real companionship.

And I have noticed that even my dearest friends no longer want to talk. Now, I am a “long-talker,” as my boss once told me, and I have tired people out for many years in that regard. But I feel more and more removed from this quick-take social interaction that has become the norm. I worry that my pleasure in and need for complex, digressive, even desultory conversation is becoming more and more anachronistic. My friends love me, and I love them, but we don’t have time to talk with each other. Conversation has become the ultimate luxury.

People don’t even like length in writing any more, as literary magazines shrink and shrink the length of manuscripts they will even consider for publication and as those of us teaching creative writing shrink and shrink the length of assignments we accept from our students because we have more and more students and therefore fewer and fewer hours to devote to critique of their work. We indeed are living in an aphoristic time.

Turkle, in her talk, reports that one 18-year-old, “who uses texting for almost everything,” told her “someday, someday, but certainly not now, I would like to learn to have a conversation.” And it is true that sometimes my students today have a hard time participating in a workshop at all. I have even had a few students so afraid that I had to coach them outside of class about how to manage to participate in class. I had to teach them how to have a conversation.

So, another thing that came to my mind is the continuing value of the creative writing workshop model. In creative writing workshops, we still talk. This may be on its way to becoming a lost art, but it may also be something that we should emphasize as part of the value of a liberal arts education. Rare skills can become extremely valuable, after all. And the magic that can sometimes happen in a creative writing workshop (the minds melding, the contributions mixing, the starts and stops coalescing into something new that no one thought of alone) will never, I believe, be replaced by even the most detailed online critique.

That some 18-year-old, who probably has hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, can have all those friends without conversations strikes me as odd. Yet I know that I have some friends on Facebook I have never met, or have met once or twice, or who simply “liked” some brief quip I made in response to someone else’s post.

And this phenomenon of friends we don’t really know is more and more being extended to relationships that have nothing to do with actual friendship and everything to do with business. I offer a mere two examples, though I could go on all day with more:

* I just recently had to purchase a new insulin pump. I’ll save the internecine details of this most recent set of frustrating health care exchanges for another time, but here I at least want to object to the constant reference by the insulin pump company to their being my “partner.” In fact, the company website refers to us as “partners for life.”

Forgive me if I view this with cynicism. I had to order a new pump because my previous one went completely kaput a few days after the warranty expired, not because I desired any of the minimally new features. (Most of which, I am finding, have created a kind of neurotic, nagging, numbing effect with lots of extra alarms.) Since the new pump takes a while to “process,” the company offered a loaner pump for the duration. However, they informed me that if I canceled my order, and didn’t buy my next pump from them, I would be charged $3600 for 90 days with the loaner.

If this is a “partnership,” it’s a coercive one.

* At least the pump company still uses a neutral word like “partner.” In other business news, however, Brighthouse has launched a new advertising campaign in which they pull out all the stops and go right to calling themselves my “friend,” your friend, everybody’s friend. That friendship could be offered to all comers for the price of subscribing to Brighthouse services totally perverts the meaning of the word, of course.

At first the only clue to the identity of who was paying for these prime-time and expensive Hello Friend ads was the combination of blue and yellow in the text portion of the ads. Now, they are gradually introducing ads that move from soft-touch pleasantries to out and out courting. Brighthouse wants to be your friend, the ads say.

How, I wonder, can anyone take this seriously?

Bruce tells me that the campaign is likely a response to the horrible customer service reviews that Brighthouse has received in the past on Internet complaint sites. “Brighthouse,” he said, “gives notoriously bad service. There are all kinds of comments like, ‘DirectTV is bad, but Brighthouse is the worst.’”

In fact, the campaign may actually indicate an actual change in policy that could be important. This would never have occurred to me if the folks who helped put in our new flower and garden beds last week hadn’t accidentally cut our Brighthouse cable. When we realized what had happened, I thwacked myself in the forehead repeatedly, cursing the fact that I’d mistakenly believed all the cables were away from our dig areas. How much would they have to dig up again, and how much would this foolish oversight cost us?

Within 24 hours, the repairman came, made a quick fix, and charged us nothing. I was so relieved not to be punished that I have to admit I felt almost like this man was my friend.

The ads, however, have made me feel simply that the world is more pathetic than ever. I wondered if it’s true that people are just getting more and more disconnected from other real humans and more lonely than ever. That such ads could be deemed effective seems to coincide with the research that Turkle and others report about heavy Facebook users being lonelier than those who use it less or not at all. And with the fact that more and more people use it regularly.

In addition, I think it’s a documentable fact that more and more of our daily needs are met through these large corporate entities. There are few family-owned corner grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, hardware stores, and pet food stores, so we don’t have even the same kind of superficial acquaintances that we know over a long period of time and that might bloom into something like genuine friendliness, even if not intimate knowledge. I visit the same stores over and over again and hardly ever see the same clerk twice because they are chains that move people around and that people leave at the next best opportunity.

We also have witnessed the rise of various kinds of stealth marketing, where people who purport to be our friends are actually (or also) trying to use us for financial ends. To me, these practices are particularly heinous because I like to know when a spade is a spade. But many young people today live lives much more merged with advertising than an oldster like me is comfortable with. They see nothing wrong with defining themselves with logos, with trying out free sample products and sharing them with friends, and so on. For them, there is no private sphere.

(And there are so many how-tos and analyses of these kinds of marketing that I can’t find a single link to represent them, but if you’re interested, the key terms are stealth marketing, viral marketing, word-of-mouth marketing. And don’t forget product placement!)

These secret agendas also exist in terms of pyramid schemes like Amway, Landmark Forum, and Stargate. Whenever someone approaches you with some ulterior motive, there’s a kind of strain. This person is not approaching with an open mind or with curiosity, but with a pre-determined agenda: to get you to join so that they can get a discount on their own self-help seminars.

One of the most disturbing trends noted by Stephen Marche in the Atlantic is this: “In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.”

And so we also pay others to listen to us. Marche also reports on the dramatic rise in the numbers of psychologists, other kinds of therapists and counselors, and life coaches. This marketplace is more legitimate—at least most of the time you know what you are paying for and it’s about your own needs, whereas the stealth marketers are lying to you to meet their needs. But sometimes even that gets confusing. In my dealings with Landmark Forum, I encountered several members who had also become independent life coaches—they had little in the way of credentials I would recognize for advising others about their lives, but there is no licensing necessary for life coaching. Even in the realm of professional “friends,” the stakes can get confused these days.

What many commentators have begun to notice, including Stephen Marche and Sherry Turkle, is that what many of these online friendship forums promote is a kind of uber cheerfulness, an editing of our personal lives into success stories and personal p.r. campaigns.

I think, however, this trend goes far beyond and certainly doesn’t originate in online social networks. Landmark Forum, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Kris Carr, and the whole host of self-help gurus have over the past decade moved so deeply into the superficial tenets of positive psychology that this kind of self-editing has become ubiquitous. Everyone, nowadays, fears being a “drag,” whether in person or online.

Marche’s article thankfully makes this connection, and he cites a recent study by Iris Mauss and others at the University of Denver that finds that valuing and seeking happiness can doom people to disappointment. Mauss and her fellow psychologists all consider themselves to be working in the arena of positive psychology, and in other writings that I found, she seems a true believer, even in “positive neuroscience.” They apparently expected happiness to be like other goals—those that value academic achievement usually make better grades in school. But they found the opposite—at least in situations of low stress, the valuation of happiness correlated with lower happiness and life satisfaction and higher symptoms of depression.

So, I believe that what Stephen Marche points out about Facebook’s pitfalls is actually something that spreads beyond the online environment. I suppose it’s a chicken-and-egg question whether our online habits have created the changes in our psyches concerning friendship, but I do know that it’s not only online that this issue exists.

However, in a live chat about his Atlantic article, Marche just now referred to another article he wrote—for Toronto Life—about his institution of a Digital Sabbath. I know that I agree with him fully that simple pleasures have become filled with distraction. He mentions playing Legos with his son; for me, this shows up in a variety of ways. How often do I sit quietly with a cat on my lap without checking Facebook and email on my phone every few minutes? How many nights do I wake up and cuddle with a Scrabble game rather than with my sleeping husband? How often when I’m talking on the phone with my mother am I also answering emails?

It seems a supreme irony that we learn so much on Facebook and other online forums and yet also isolate ourselves this way. We won’t give them up, and doing so even on a Sabbath seems unlikely for many. I do hope, however, that we can strive to use them more thoughtfully. No doubt, the meaning of “friend” has changed permanently. But it’s good to remember what’s at the core of it. Else, I fear, friendship will see a worse fate than the changes wrought in the world of romantic love. Sex, after all, still cements romance in the physical world. Friendship may not have such a tangible hold.

Remnants, or Songs from Fourth Grade

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Today, I am still keeping my cat alive. She has revived somewhat—her longer-term survival is still much in question, but she is holding her own and, we hope, healing. Because she was so near death this past week, I couldn’t help but think of “El Señor Don Gato,” the traditional children’s song about the cat that dies and then comes back to life at the smell of fish. We’re still hoping we’ll be so lucky around here, but we also know that it’s a brutal song with a tacked-on happy ending that’s not too realistic.

We knew that even in fourth grade, where I first encountered “El Señor Don Gato.” Whenever I think of the song, I also have to think of fourth-grade chorus, unfortunately probably the pinnacle of my musical education. Oh, yes, I took guitar lessons during high school, and I certainly had my ears opened when I went away to college and encountered whole new styles of music—New Wave and punk and so forth and so on.

When I look back now, though, I think fourth grade was a watershed in determining I would never be a musician. It’s something I regret, though it’s not difficult to live with. Both my parents had grown up singing at church and both had been put through the requisite piano lessons. Neither had taken to any of it, and they didn’t want to force my brother or me. We were given lots of lessons outside of school—as soon as my father was out of graduate school and well employed, we had a private French tutor (remembered primarily for his one blue eye and one brown eye), and my mother provided me with tap dance lessons, drama and acting lessons, and those doomed guitar lessons. The arts were poorly covered in our Tennessee public schools. Some things don’t change much.

But in fourth grade, we actually had a class specifically for singing. I always loved it and approached it with gusto. That is, until preparations began for our holiday-season performance. It was at that time when my best friend in class, Karen, informed me that she would not be able to stand beside me in the risers.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, hesitating slightly, “you’ll make me sing off-key.”

I, of course, had no idea that I’d been singing off-key. I didn’t really even know what that meant. I had just been enjoying belting out the lyrics.

Karen, on the other hand, had a father who was a music professor at the local university and a mother who was a former opera singer and who gave private music lessons in their home. Immigrants from Germany, they had a certain, shall we say, highly disciplined, old-school approach to life.

I’d spent a good bit of time at Karen’s home, and her mother terrified me with her heavily accented and tremulous voice that could easily rise to a Wagnerian-Brunhilde pitch. I recall one day when Mrs. L gathered Karen and me in the kitchen to help make rhubarb pie. Rhubarb pie was something I’d never had before, and as a newly diagnosed diabetic I wasn’t sure I should be having anything to do with pie, but I tried my best to help. Mrs. L put me in charge of mixing together the dry ingredients for the crust.

Of course, I didn’t get far. As soon as Mrs. L saw me dip the measuring spoon into the sugar tin, she grabbed it out of my hand. “You have to mix the salt with the flour in the bowl before adding the sugar,” she said. “You must follow the order of the ingredients in the list.” I felt terrible that I couldn’t even properly mix together a mere three ingredients.

So, no doubt that Karen was under a great deal of pressure to perform well in the holiday concert at school. Still, it hurt my feelings that Karen refused to stand beside me on the risers, and no doubt I sang less well myself without her strong, well cultivated voice beside me. Now, I wonder at the fact that Karen’s mother never made any gesture to help her daughter’s friend develop better musical skills. In spite of a devotion to music, and in spite of the fact that Mrs. L would sometimes be doing complex vocal exercises or giving a lesson while we played, it wasn’t the kind of house where people sang around the piano together. Probably my mother knew better than to sign me up for formal lessons with her.

At any rate, that was a time in my life when I was encountering the wider world and realizing my own limited place in it. Karen’s German parents were one example, as was my friendship with a girl from India, Sonchita, with whom I played all through second and third grade. In fact, other than my failure as a singer, what I remember the most about my fourth-grade chorus class are the tunes from other cultures—the Spanish origins of “El Señor Don Gato” were explained to us, as were the Scottish ones of another of my favorites, “The Skye Boat Song,” a melancholy tune that might be more akin to my mood these days than the cheerful gato song. “The Skye Boat Song” opened my eyes to the complexity of history. It is a song of survival, but of survival after defeat. It’s a tune I will always love in its making of sorrowful beauty.

“Why Don’t He Come In Here?”—Crying for Public Education

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The osprey is a common bird in Florida, but like problems with public education is also ubiquitous further afield.

I have been meaning to delve more into education issues since writing about Rick Scott’s attacks on higher ed in Florida last fall, but have been following different avenues lately. Fortunately, my friend and colleague Terry Thaxton has provided this terrific guest post, a tapestry of thoughts about childhood school days, her time in the public school trenches, and concerns about today.


* * *

“Why Don’t He Come in Here?”–Crying for Public Education

by Terry Thaxton

Just mention public education, and I’m likely to walk away. Or cry. I cannot fathom where to begin with what needs fixing. I don’t know how to articulate the enormous inadequacies of our education system. I’m a product of public education, and at one point I attempted to teach in our public school system.

I lasted two years as a teacher. The first year, almost every day, on the way to school, I had to pull my car off the road, open the car door, and vomit, worried about what lay ahead that day. On the drive home, I cried because of the conditions of the building, the poverty many of the children were living in, the lack of support for teachers to do their jobs, the expectations that created Catch-22s for students, teachers, and administrators. I cried because of the media which usually reported what some politician in power had to say, that all society’s ills lay at the feet of public school teachers. For my own sanity and health, I left high school to teach part time at the university, taking a huge pay cut, but I was no longer sick every morning or crying all night.

I still live in Seminole County, Florida, the county where I taught for those two years (1997-99). Last year, the School Board closed one elementary school despite community protests. The closing, the Board claimed, was a necessary measure because of state budget cuts by Governor Rick Scott which he began touting at a Tea Party meeting in February 2011, suggesting cutting the State’s education budget by $4.8 billion. By March—due in part to public outrage—he’d reduced the cut down to $1.75 billion. That money would not be lost, he assured us all. No, it would provide tax breaks to corporations. By December 2011, he declared an “increase” for this upcoming year’s education budget of $1 billion. Perhaps because of his low approval ratings, Scott changed his tune, but this still in reality represents a net loss to schools of $.75 billion over 2 years.

Just a month ago, January (2012), the Seminole County School Board announced the impending closing of at least two more elementary schools with several others on the chopping block. Thanks to the parents, students, and teachers of these schools, the Board has agreed to not close the schools (at least for now), and to look for other options for saving money. Teachers, however, haven’t had a raise in three years, and I’m betting most are still purchasing their own classroom supplies (as I did during the two years I braved the classroom). I know of at least two teachers who, in the past three days, have said after this semester, they’re leaving.

When I was in fourth grade, the Florida Education Association staged and successfully carried out a teacher’s strike. Teachers did not show up in their classrooms–in some schools for a couple of months. Before the strike began, the teachers at my elementary school told us they would not be in class during this time period because they were concerned, like all teachers, about budget cuts and lack of support from the State (I can’t recall how long our teachers were on strike, but I do remember it), and I remember all of the parents supporting them. I’m not sure why teachers aren’t uniting in a strike now, but perhaps it has something to do with the state of the economy.

In May 1970, Sarasota County School Board threatened to close Osprey School, the six-classroom schoolhouse where I attended elementary school. Parents, led by my father, protested. My father, already Vice Chairman of Osprey Chamber of Commerce, formed “Osprey Citizens Committee” and attended every School Board meeting from the moment the Board announced this possibility until the Board backed down. My father rallied parents and teachers, presented the school board with “petitions signed by about 450 Osprey residents.” His petition argued that “closing of the school would halt growth of the area and virtually assure that no school would ever be built or reopened in the community.” It was a valiant, and successful, effort to keep our small neighborhood school open.

At the time, I was in sixth grade and I had siblings in fifth, third, and first grades. The school had been built in 1927, and though there had been updates on the building, each grade level had one room. I still remember the hard-wood floors, the scoop of honey-peanut butter Mrs. Reardon gave us for dessert if we cleaned off our lunch plates, the parent and teacher organized Halloween party that included games like bean-bag tossing and (my favorite) the cake walk, which was held in Mrs. Draggoo’s classroom.

I should point out that there are of course, many factors that enter into a school board’s decision to close schools. In 1970, there was of course, the issue of desegregation. Osprey was an all-white school. This complicated things, but the “Osprey delegation indicated…they would have no objection to Negro children being bussed in”; however, they did not want their children bussed out.

My father’s motives to halt the closing of Osprey School were not pure, and were even tinged with racism. But 1970 wasn’t the first time the Board had threatened to close the school, nor would it be the last. In 1975, the Board again announced the closing of the school, and this time they succeeded, closing at the end of the 1975-1976 school year. In addition to desegregation, Osprey School served only about 145 students with another small school, Laurel School, two miles away serving another 100, and another larger school, Nokomis, about five miles away that could absorb the students from Osprey and Laurel. Fiscally, it was a wise decision.

And the school has continued to serve the community in other ways. For a couple of years, the building was used as a continuing education center for public school teachers, and then leased to the Spanish Point Historical Society, then eventually sold to the Historical Society. The building is still there, serving as the Visitor and Welcome Center for Spanish Point. Last time I visited, I walked through each of the old classrooms, each now serving some type of educational purpose—though no teachers standing in front of their group of students—now updated into gift shops, historical information about the Palmers and Webbs (wealthy land owners), displays of old ships, explanations of burial mounds, and meeting rooms.

Osprey School today has become the welcome center for the Spanish Point Historical Society.

I loved Osprey School. I loved knowing all of the other kids’ parents, knowing each teacher.

With less funding coming from the state, local parents here in Seminole County have realized the only way to keep their neighborhood schools open is by increasing property taxes. Last year, Seminole County residents voted down a property tax increase. This coming fall, I’m expecting it will pass because the parents are eager to do whatever they can to be able to walk their children to school where they know all the teachers.

While there are a few teachers who do less than others, and there are teachers who abuse their students, most teachers deserve much more than the even modest pay raises they’ve been denied in recent years. Every morning I am aware of the teachers who make an attempt at teaching our children. They do this in spite of their pay not keeping up with the cost of living, in spite of larger class sizes, in spite of inadequate supplies and buildings, and some do it in spite of the lack of parental or administrative support, mostly in spite of the lack of State and Federal support rather than with it.

I remember the day in 1997 when Governor Jeb Bush came to “tour” our school. I was teaching tenth grade English. I had forty students in a room with thirty desks. I’d gotten my own desk from “the shed” at the beginning of the school semester. I had no idea what color the carpet was originally because now it was stained with urine, gum, dirt, sweat, and who knows what else. The only markers for the marker board were ones I’d purchased at the office supply store. My students were referred to as “general” students, meaning they were not “honors,” a designation primarily for students whose parents had insisted they be in those types of classes; honors had very little to do with intellectual ability.

Anyway, as I was teaching in that classroom, Bush’s entourage of security, media, and school administration came down the exterior hallway. I knew this because all of the students in my class stopped whatever they were doing and ran to the side windows. They asked me what was going on. “Oh, Governor Bush is touring the school. He wants to see how well the school is doing,” I said.

“Why don’t he come in here?” several of them asked.

“He’s going to the Magnet Program classrooms and the IB classrooms.”

In the IB classrooms there were a maximum of fifteen students; in the Magnet Program classes, twenty. And though all of my classes had at least forty, the ratio of teacher/student at our school was well within the State’s requirements.

“He need to come in here,” my students argued. “We should be the ones showing him what be real.”

When politicians use education as platforms, I can only roll my eyes. They have no idea what happens in most classrooms every day. Like former Governor Bush, they see only the “pretty” parts of the schools. He saw the delightful art in the hallway of the IB building, the eager students, the caring administrators, and the bountiful supplies in the Magnet Program building. I’m sure this confirmed for him the need for the FCAT which began that following spring in 1998. Created to hold schools and particularly teachers accountable for their students’ learning, FCAT hassles have been the reason for many teachers, good teachers, leaving the school system.

For the most part those two hundred forty students I “taught” that year graduated. I watched them walk across the stage. I knew which of them still could not write, could not spell, and could not read a paragraph and comprehend it.

Despite what some politicians think, teachers do know what they’re doing and parents do care a great deal. Sadly, many politicians can’t comprehend what teachers and schools really need—an end to posturing and slashing and a start to genuine and consistent financial and practical support.