Presence or numbness

September 22, 2003 at 11:33 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

Interesting article in yesterday’s Iocal paper, Hope voiced for native children. Since the link will decay soon, I’ll quote:

British Columbia’s aboriginal leaders are facing a historic opportunity to heal their youth in traditional ways and help the next generation stand on its own, a Native American studies expert told child-care advocates in Brentwood Bay Saturday. (…)
(…) On Saturday [Martin Brokenleg, a professor of sociology and Native American studies in Sioux Falls, ND] addressed about 100 child and youth advocates at a two-day conference called Collecting Wisdom…. (…)
After the fall of apartheid in South Africa, Brokenleg worked closely with Nelson Mandela’s government, using his Circle of Courage teachings to transform the child welfare system there.
The philosophy is based on the fundamental needs of children: to have a sense of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity.
Research supports the loving, caring and respectful aboriginal way of treating children and rejects the North American philosophy in which children are less important in society, he said. He used the pay differential between a professional athlete and a school teacher as an example of the way children are valued here.
He also said North American tough-love and zero-tolerance forms of discipline and teaching have been a ‘miserable failure.’
He also stressed that children most need ‘human presence’ over anything material. He referred to an American study that says the average female guardian spends three minutes a day engaged in active conversation (not giving orders or directions) with her child, while the male parent spends an average of about 45 seconds.
‘The power of presence… it’s the most significant factor in the lives of successful children,’ said Brokenleg. ‘Too many children are living without that contact.’

Compare this with the competitive philosophies that determine modern, anxiety-riddled “good” schools. Compare it also to Nicole Nolan’s slightly tongue-in-cheek piece in the Globe and Mail, New lessons in true Canadian grit. (This article, too, first found via Wood’s Lot.) Nolan’s article is delightful, and without a doubt true. She writes,

When one begins to teach, one inevitably seeks guidance in one’s own experiences as a student. Thinking back carefully on my Canadian teachers, I realize there can be no doubt at all on the matter: they were harsh. Whether it is because of our history as hewers of wood and drawers of water, or the stiff-upper lip influence of British culture, Canadians prefer that life — even the life of the mind — have a certain bracing quality to it. There is no benefit at all in writing a philosophy paper, the theory seems to go, unless the experience bears some resemblance to jumping naked into Georgian Bay in early summer.

Nolan’s telling it the way it is (or was, in my day back in the 14th century). When I came to Harvard from the University of British Columbia, I was appalled at the grade inflation, at the shallowness of the papers accepted by professors, and at the general lack of real work that was required. At UBC, my professors competed as to who could be the biggest sadistic pain in the butt. But do I endorse that for children? No way. And I even have my doubts about applying the psychological abuse that goes with that kind of regime to young adults — that’s the kind of nice person I am. (And no, it’s not the case that I’m still secretly plotting to kill some of my former UBC profs.) It’s as Brokenleg says: presence matters. And regimes work toward eliminating presence in favour of numbness and abstraction. The more numb — the number? — you are, the better you’ll adapt to becoming a functioning cog (a number) in the machine. On that note, too, see Elaine Frankonis at Kalilily Time and her excellent rant against Bill O’Reilly’s 10 Rules for Effective Parenting (gah, another fucking list!!!). Here’s Elaine:

— Discipline is essential, but no parent should inflict FREQUENT physical or mental pain on a child.
— A good parent will ensure that home is a refuge — a place where a child feels protected and loved. There will be no RANDOM violence, intoxication, sexual displays, UNCONTROLLED anger or vile language at home.

Does the first mean “occasional” pain is okay? And the second that “planned” violence, etc. and “controlled” etc. are okay?

Faced with a choice between O’Reilly and Brokenleg, it’s a no-brainer to choose the latter. But he expects you to trust to love, while the former trades on fear and anxiety, and our outsourced economies and homegrown anxieties unfortunately leave too many people yearning for the pain that O’Reilly advocates.

Unless, another list

September 22, 2003 at 10:40 pm | In yulelogStories | 4 Comments

Mark Woods points to an article by Deron Bauman on minimalism in literature (the link doesn’t work, however), who quotes this list: Don DeLillo, Thomas Bernhard, Guy Davenport, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Gabrial Garcia Marquez, Saul Bellow, J.D.Salinger, before concluding: “writers of craft, intelligence, and wit [who] exhibit efficiencies of language, that, although not purely minimal, place them in a realm that begins to transcend the necessities for the genre.” They’re also all men. A couple of days ago I quoted Arno Schmidt’s comment about himself: “I don’t find anyone who is right as often as I am!” I remarked that I wish I had some of that attitude. But I also think that Carol Shields was right, that you typically have to be male to believe it fully enough to make it work. The list above reinforces that it’s your prerogative as a man to feel this way. Pace to the men who don’t feel that they’re right or have a right to be right. The point is that many — most — do and that as a man you’ve got a ready tradition to step into, one that’s constantly, incessantly being reinforced as natural. In Shields’s last novel, Unless, her protagonist Reta Winter is in the midst of a real crisis during which she begins to write “extreme” imaginary letters to people — men — who are pontificating on cultural matters. She does this because her crisis is provoked by the actions of her teenage daughter, who has reached a figurative dead-end through her realization that there’s just no way forward for women. Here’s one of Reta’s letters, which all the male list-makers should glue to their eyeballs:

Perhaps you were tired when you ran through your testicular hit list of literary big cats; trying to even out the numbers may have seemed too much of a reach or too obvious in its political correctness. But did you notice something even more signficant: that there is not a single woman mentioned in the whole body of your very long article (16 pages, double columns), not in any context, not once? …Bean counting is tiring, and tiresome, but your voice, Mr Valkner, and your platform carry great authority. You certainly understand that the women who fall even casually under your influence (mea culpa) are made to serve an apprenticeship in self-denigration.

That’s exactly why women don’t (typically) say they don’t find anyone who is right as often as they are. They wouldn’t know how to believe it. It all wouldn’t be such a crying shame if it weren’t for the fact that men are so often wrong.

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