Vaccinations prevent children’s deaths

I am troubled by the growing sentiment in the US against having children vaccinated.  There are some who believe that vaccinations are linked with autism.  I don’t find the evidence of this convincing myself, but even if such a belief were true, several experiences lead me to conclude that a small number of autistic children is far preferable to a large number of dead children.

I was born in 1945.  From early childhood, the specter of polio hung over me and my friends.  We all knew someone who’d been paralyzed by the disease, someone who’d spent his or her childhood encased in the metal braces that allowed them some mobility.  We knew too that the disease could strike at any time—and we knew fear.  The creation of the polio vaccine was a life-saver, and we appreciated it wholeheartedly.

In 1979, I lived for a year in a village in Indonesia.  During the second month I was there, 9 children (in a population of 1000 people) died of measles.  I had been dangerously ill myself with measles, but had not encountered death from the disease until that time.  It was with shock and dismay that I realized that it could also be a killer.

After that, I went back to school to study public health.  I studied epidemiology and learned about the importance of reducing the number of people—by vaccination—who are subject to infection, and the role of such reduction in eliminating or controlling the disease.  The fewer people subject to infection (due to vaccination), the fewer sources of it circulating among the population and the fewer people who therefore get the disease.

I read today—in an article on the desperate situation in NE Nigeria—that measles is the most contagious disease on earth.  Efforts to vaccinate the population there have been seriously hindered by the war-like actions of Boko Haram.  Children in the Northeast are dying in great numbers from diseases for which vaccinations exist but against which they have not been vaccinated.

Why would we want to expose our own children to all the deadly diseases we know how to prevent through vaccination?  It simply makes no sense.  Perhaps people don’t realize that their children can die from such diseases.  If that is true, it is incumbent upon us to educate them!  If you love your own children, vaccinate them.  If you care about the well being (and lives) of other children in your community, encourage others to vaccinate their children.  Help keep down the number of potential carriers of these dread diseases.

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Protesting in Ithaca in our Pussy Hats

We woke early on 10 March as we planned to attend a political meeting with one of our Congressional representatives, Tom Reed, at the Southside Community Center in Ithaca.  Knowing that he would be confronting a hostile audience, he had scheduled the meeting for 8 AM on Saturday morning—surely in hopes that most would not want to be up and about that early on a weekend.  Or perhaps it was intended to favor his supporters in other areas of the state, whose meetings were scheduled at more civilized hours.  We’d learned the night before that to get into the Community Center (which held over 500 people), we would have to get there at 6 AM to get tickets, and even then, only questions that had been submitted the night before would be addressed by Reed.

In any event, we decided to go to the meeting.  As we left the house, we noticed that the outside temperature was 8° F.  Donning our long johns, down coats, wool socks, boots, warm gloves, and in my case, one of my Pussy Hats, we headed downtown.  Parking was not easy, and, not for the first time, we were grateful that we had a handicapped placard and could thus park reasonably close to the venue.

The street had been closed off and police were guarding both ends.  There was a long line of people who had not yet been able to get into the building, and the street was filling up with warmly dressed folks.  A number of other women had on their Pussy Hats.  I’d brought an extra, one of the many I‘ve made, and gave it to a woman with a bare head. Many had signs similar to those at the Women’s March and the atmosphere was convivial among the would-be audience, which seemed almost unanimous in their concerns.  There were signs that said ‘Single Payer Health Care’, ‘Disagree’, ‘Get your hands off my ?$%?#’, ‘Support Planned Parenthood’, and more.  One said “You say you ‘love’ America, but you hate Americans.” People chanted “Love, Justice”, “Love, Justice”, “Love, Justice”.  Then “Single Payer Health Care”.   There were so many issues that the crowd agreed on—health care, Trump’s tax returns, his Russian connection, protecting the environment, education, women’s rights, reproductive rights, inclusion—-it was hard to believe that there were so many key issues that were endangered under this regime.  And Reed was an apologist for all the policies that endangered them!

Ithaca Bakery had donated sweets and hot drinks, and we were invited (but not required) to contribute to the Southside Community Center when we imbibed.  A cup of decaf and a brownie helped to ease the pain of the severe cold in my fingers.  The temperature had risen to 14° F by 8:30 or so, but it was still bitterly cold, and felt colder the longer we stood in the street.  A loudspeaker had been set up , so we could hear the meeting going on inside.  Reed began his talk by inviting us to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Many of us gladly chimed in (many leaving out “under God”).  We turned up the volume at the end, loudly chanting the final phrases “with liberty and justice for all”, “with liberty and justice for all”, “with liberty and justice for all”.  The crowd responded with boo’s and chants as Reed expressed his unpopular opinions and policies.   Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton gave an impassioned and well-reasoned response to his comments on health care, giving data and specifics about the projected adverse effects in New York of the Republican ‘reform’ being proposed.

After an hour within, he came out and addressed the 500 or so additional citizens who had not been able to get in.  Again, the crowd listened to what he had to say and we loudly expressed our opinions (almost all negative) about his positions.  One person held up a rectangular board with a pointer positioned center bottom.  She turned the dial from the left (‘fact’), through “irrelevant pivot”, to “distraction” and “misleading” to the far right (‘lie’) and beyond, as Reed spoke. 

Reed was confident in his own opinions, stating that he had been clear about his positions, that the voters knew them and that he would not have been elected had there not been a sizable, even majority of voters who preferred his views to ours.  There is no question that many in New York, particularly in rural areas, share his perspectives.  But that was certainly not the case among the group gathered today to listen to him. 

At 71 years old, this is the second time in my life that I have taken to the streets.  The vile policies that are being considered under the Trump regime have awakened a political consciousness among many of us that has not been necessary since the 1960s.  I will not quit; I will persevere; and I know many others will as well.  Standing together in the cold on the streets of Ithaca (and beyond) reinforces our convictions, heightens our motivation to resist, and stimulates us to further action to protect the America we have known and loved.  Our Pussy Hats add a lightness that helps to maintain the peace and the humour that will carry us through these dark times to brighter days ahead.  Wear your Pussy Hat with pride, march, assemble, write and call your Congress people, run for office, and contribute to the optimism, national cohesion, and persistence that will be needed to avert disaster.

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The Color Pink

For most of my life, I’ve disdained the color pink.  It brought to mind the stereotypes of women, the arbitrary allocation of traits, desires and capabilities based solely on biological sex.  It reeked of superficiality and concerns with the froth and frilliness that I had rejected.  When I had children I refused to adhere to my culture’s dictate that I dress my daughter in pink and my son in blue.  In their babyhood, I chose yellows and greens—-colors that my eye also in fact preferred.  Pink seemed just a faded version of the more vibrant red.  I hoped thereby to grant my children the freedom to choose their own ways of being and doing, of loving and longing.

There was a time in late childhood, when I was 11 or 12, that I did embrace pink.  My parents were painting the rooms in our apartment in Turkey; and I was allowed to choose my own color.  I chose pink, and complemented it with black.  I remember the two black plastic silhouettes of ballet dancers with which I festooned one wall.  I suppose it was later that I found a more ideological view of pink.  Or, on second thought, perhaps I simply changed ideologies:  from one that pressured me to conform to the traditional ‘women’s role’ to one that longed to broaden our sphere.

My thoughts about pink took an unexpected turn when I lived among the Kenyah of East Kalimantan, in Indonesia in the late ‘70s.  After a month or two there, I noticed that many people, men and women alike, chose pink attire.  It was so common and unlike their general use of primary colors that I eventually asked about the practice.  I learned that for them, pink symbolizes mourning.  People don clothes of pink when a loved one dies—a common enough occurrence at that time.  But this experience was just a hiccup in my longstanding prejudice against the color.

A more substantial chink in this particular prejudice came a few years ago one October, soon after again taking up residence in the US.  I was startled, while watching a football game, to see the players’ uniforms—so strongly linked to each team’s identity and certainly never before in pink!—festooned with bits of this color.  Pink shoes here, pink socks there, pink gloves, any accoutrement seemed acceptable in pink. 

This was my first recognition that pink symbolism had changed.  It was of course in support of the fight against breast cancer.  But what a powerful statement of a change in gender ideology—-that powerful and admired football players, the epitome of masculinity in American culture (or many versions thereof, in any event), should take up a color so closely linked with women and femininity.  This suggested a different meaning for pink than the one that for so long had prompted my own disdain.

And then came the pink hats movement.  In December 2016, I met a woman who was knitting at a get-together.  She told me about an upcoming march to stand up for and promote women’s rights in the Trump administration; and explained that women were knitting pink hats, ‘pussy hats’ (in parody of Trump’s rude acceptance of grabbing women’s genitals), to keep the marchers warm, to express solidarity with the marchers, and to renew commitment to key American values. 

I loved knitting, and I loved this idea.  I went home, bought some pink yarn and began knitting.  I knitted 7 hats and sent them to the organizers of the march on Washington DC.  Then I knitted and distributed three more, and I decided to march myself in Ithaca’s march—something I’d never done before (despite being a ‘child of the 60’s’).  We all know what a spectacular success the march turned out to be, replicated all over the US and the world—my hats were among the sea of pink that characterized the crowd. 

And now I continue to knit.  Women  who don’t know how to knit want a pussy hat.  Three young women in a class I taught recently admired my pussy hat, expressing their wish that they could knit.  I gave them the three I had available.  I plan to keep on knitting (not like Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, with thoughts of retribution, but with strength of purpose to maintain what is good in this country).  It’s a small thing that I can do to continue to express my own commitment to these values that are under attack in my country.  We must all do whatever we can—signing petitions, writing letters, calling senators, marching, keeping the pressure on.  But in our leisure some of us can also knit and give pussy hats. 

There’s clearly been a sea change in my feelings about pink.  No one can consider the issues raised in these marches to be ‘froth and frilliness’; no one can discount the reality of unity among a population motivated by such disparate but related concerns:  Equity, justice, inclusiveness, concern for the environment and the future—these are the values that pink has come to symbolize for me.

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Something to Raise our Spirits

The election of Donald John Trump was so demoralizing that I could not write.  But yesterday, the 22nd of January 2017, has so lifted my spirits that I am again moved to put fingers to keyboard.

In December, I was in Portland, Oregon, that bastion of liberal thought, celebrating Christmas and looking after my mother.  She had invited me to participate with a group of her church cronies in a special showing of Andy Warhol’s art at the Portland Art Museum.  There we saw as well the work of Corita Kent, a follower of Warhol and a nun, who focused on more spiritual and ethical topics than he.  Fascinating and inspiring!

Following this outing, we all shared a meal at a rather fancy downtown restaurant, where Nan, one of our group, was knitting.  As a knitter myself, I engaged her in discussion of her projects, and it emerged that she had just completed a ‘Pussy Hat’—a simple pink hat prepared in contribution to the then-upcoming Women’s March on Washington DC.  The idea included reclaiming and redefining ‘pussy’ as something positive and womanly, and providing physical warmth to the women who would brave the elements in DC in January.  I liked this idea, and I downloaded the pattern, assembled my pink yarn, and proceeded to knit 2 such hats in Portland and 4 more at my home in Ithaca, New York.  As I knitted, I felt more and more a sense of commonality with the future marchers, hoping that their actions could reflect some of our dissatisfaction with Trump, our conviction about the worth of our values, and our resolution to be vigilant in preventing as much of the harm he planned as we could.  I sent off my 6 hats for distribution in DC.

I then learned that not only were several busloads going from Ithaca to DC, but we were going to have our own march here in Ithaca.  Despite being a child of the sixties, I had never marched before in any demonstration.  But I realized with some surprise that I really wanted to march in this one; that this one was likely to reflect my deeply felt anxieties as well as my faith in the American people.  I began knitting my 7th hat, for myself this time.  And when I finished that one, I knitted an 8th, initially to give my mother, but later to reserve as a spare for any women who might need a pink pussy hat on the day of the march.

Being something of a wimp about the cold, I worried on the morning of the 21st that the weather would be freezing and miserable; I wondered what to wear that would preserve my body heat; I worried about my hips, which usually begin to hurt after short walks.  I did not imagine that I would enjoy this task that I’d taken on, but I maintained my conviction that it was important to stand up and be counted at this time in history.

What a difference the reality turned out to be!  The gods shone down upon us, and provided a beautiful sunny day in mid-January.  From our parking place in front of a friend’s house, I walked with six other women, all wearing pink pussy hats they’d produced themselves—another one had a spare hat, in case someone needed it.  Someone brought three large blue banners with the Earth printed on them; another brought her dog, two drums and knowledge of the words to We Shall Overcome; another, an artist, had made a poster of the Earth saying “Global Warming is Real …Uncool”. 

We began our march.  The closer we got to the intended meeting place (City Hall), the more people joined in.  We never made it to City Hall, because there were too many marchers.  But the friendly police directed us along the intended route around several blocks (a mile) to the Commons.  There were women and men and children and old people.  There were whites and blacks and browns and yellows, native citizens and immigrants, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus.  There were signs about global warming, about the Earth, about equity and justice, about feminism, and reproductive rights—all the values for which Trump represents danger.  And the people—some 8000 of us—marched with good spirits and friendly manners.  On the Commons, there was music along with speeches (the latter, we could not hear), but good fellowship among the marchers as we waited for those at the tail end of the march to catch up.  They just seemed to keep on coming!

There were so many different signs: “Love trumps hate,” “Women’s rights are human rights,” “Build bridges, not walls,” “Respect my existence, or expect resistance,” “Men of quality don’t fear equality,” and “My kids deserve better.”  One that spoke to me was “Trump has pissed off Grandma.” These days Grandma’s can be a powerful force.

When we finally wended our way back to the house from which we’d begun, there was waiting for us a lovely meal—One woman had made spicy potato quarters, a salad and cupcakes; another had contributed buttery squash; another had also made cupcakes; someone provided wine and cheese.  It was a mini-feast and shared repast that put a lovely cap on an invigorating day.

At home, my husband had the television on, showing images of the far larger Women’s March in Washington, DC.  There were inspiring speeches given to a sea of pink pussy hats—their wearers all cheerful, enthusiastic, and engaged.  Speakers included such luminaries as Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, Madonna, Michael Moore; and others I’d never heard of but expect to hear from again, like Ashley Judd or the Indigenous groups who gave talks and performances. 

The estimates of the numbers are contested (by a childish Trump who cannot bear that ‘someone else’s is bigger than his’), but the media estimates over 500,000.  Photographic comparisons both with the Women’s March and with Obama’s Inauguration leave little doubt about the relative size of the crowds.   I looked to see if I might recognize my own hats among the marchers (impossible). 

But the good news goes on:  There were huge and similar and peaceful gatherings in Portland, in Seattle, in Boston, in Houston, in Chicago, and hundreds of other towns and cities across the nation.  In one small town in Idaho, literally half the town came out to march!  And there were marches in other countries.  Paris and London had huge marches.  In China, where marches were prohibited, women gathered together to knit pussy hats in solidarity.  In Antarctica, people on a ship marched around their deck in support.  One source said that all the seven continents were represented with supportive Women’s Marches.   It was an outpouring of both frustration with the current administration and a strong and vivid call to action for those of us who care about equity, justice, the Earth, and women’s (and all humans’) rights.

Donald Trump has the lowest approval rate of any president in US history.  He lost the popular vote.  And he has shown in so many ways his unsuitability to lead the country and to protect the rights that we now enjoy.   These marches give hope to those of us who were feeling despair.   They, like Obama’s undying optimism as he left office on Friday, the 20th of January, remind us of the indomitable human spirit and the American tradition of speaking out and standing up for what we believe.  It is definitely time to honor and strengthen that tradition.  What an inspiring way to begin!

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The Disaster that is Trump

I, like so many others, have been rendered speechless (and unable to write) by the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in our land.  It is time for us to ‘wake up’ and speak out. 

I have watched in dismay as Trump has insulted first one group of Americans then another; and then, even more vituperatively, those who have come to America as immigrants. 

What of our historical recognition of the value of diversity?  What of our longstanding attempts to obliterate racism and other forms of prejudice and bias?  What about our concern for equity and equality among the populace?

I have seen him boast and brag and acclaim his own greatness with nauseating frequency.

What about our cultural value on modesty, our common distaste for bluster? What about the dignity of the office of the President? How can such boastfulness and self-importance mesh with our expectations of a President?

Now he assigns individuals to lead different parts of the government:  a person who wants to dismantle the Affordable Care Act to run the Department of Health and Human Services; a person who disapproves of the minimum wage to run the Department of Labour; a person who prefers private schools to public, in charge of the Department of Education; a person with little concern for the environment in charge of the Department of the Interior; a businessman with ties to Russia to lead the State Department; a CIA director who believes in torture; persons who do not believe in climate change for Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency; and so on.

What of our efforts to build policy on sound science?  What about the extensive evidence showing the value of health insurance to those now covered?  What about the role of public education in providing equal opportunity and educating the populace?  What about the role of conventional energy sources in exacerbating climate change? How can these choices of Secretaries contribute to our nation’s wellbeing?

Trump tweets his childlike responses to criticism (such as to Meryl Streep’s comments at the Golden Globes event yesterday), as well as policy statements with potentially world-shaking implications (such as his tweeted taunt regarding North Korea’s claimed ICBMs, “It won’t happen”).

What of our longstanding attempts to work cooperatively with other countries?  What of the norms of diplomacy that have helped to keep warfare at a scale that has not endangered the entire Earth? What of the world’s expectations that American leadership will function in a reasoned and adult manner?  How dangerous it will be to have a full grown and powerful child at the helm—one with no impulse control, yet access to the nuclear codes, ‘the red button’.

Trump has failed to share his tax returns; he continues to involve himself and his children in his business affairs; he has pending court cases against him; he is mixing his political powers with his economic affairs; and he has questionable links with Russia, as he continues to deny their role in influencing the US election.

What of our tradition of financial openness on the part of presidents?  What of our reluctance to condone nepotism? Where do ‘questionable links’ turn to treason?

There are only a few more days until he is sworn in as President of the United States.  Is there really no way to undo what has been done, even with all this evidence of his unsuitability for the office of President?  Surely some of these actions are illegal.

If not, if we are genuinely to endure four years of Donald Trump, we will have to be vigilant, outspoken, and firm in our convictions of what is right in this world.  I wish us strength.

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Trump’s Victory and its Ramifications

I woke this morning at 6:30 AM, a mere three hours after going to bed wretched from Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.  She had failed to gain the needed 270 electoral votes to elect her President of the United States.  I had gone to bed tearful, exhausted and deeply saddened.  Although the possibility of a Trump victory had frightened me for months, until last night it had an abstract and improbable feel to it.  Like the pollsters and political commentators, I thought a Clinton victory the more probable outcome.  She’d obtained plenty of funding, had organized her followers at the grass roots, had name recognition and plenty of experience, she was intelligent.  I was excited by the prospect of…finally…having a woman in the oval office and I knew I was not alone in this.

I, like so many others, watched the votes roll in, state by state, horrified as they went, one after another, to Trump’s column.  The implications of a Trump presidency were too awful to contemplate.  We were electing a man who had consistently denigrated anyone even remotely different from mainstream white American; had insulted women and demonstrated his lack of respect for our rights over and over again; had promised to build a wall with our neighbour to the South; had refused to inform the American people of his true financial worth (all the while claiming his wealth as a basis for his ability to lead the country); hadn’t bothered to deny his failure to pay US taxes over many years; had expressed his disbelief in climate change and his disregard for science; had demonstrated his lack of self-control repeatedly—something rather important for the person who holds the nuclear codes and could embroil the world in nuclear war; had changed his policy prescriptions apparently at random (which most would consider lying and dishonest—the traits he consistently attributed to Hillary Clinton); not to mention his simplistic and vulgar language that is anything but presidential.

Yet, here we are, the morning after, facing four years of government led by such a person.  My sense of betrayal by my own people is difficult to bear.  What about our history of welcoming all (‘Give me your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free’)?  What about the progress we’ve made (or thought we’d made) opening up the halls of power, education, opportunity to those long disenfranchised?  What about our hopes for a return to education that is truly available to all? Do we lose the progress we’ve made toward affordable health care for all?  Can it really be that my fellow citizens don’t value such things?  Can it really be that they find Trump’s blustering egotistical manner and racist and sexist attitudes truly appealing?  Can they really believe that such a man can lead our country (and the world, for that matter) in a desirable direction?

And what about the international scene?  His links with Putin have been worrying all along.  Will he join forces with Putin to invade more countries?  What about his attitudes toward Muslims?  Will he act on his plan to keep Muslim refugees out and register American Muslims?  We don’t know how much of his isolationist talk he will actually try to implement.  But the fact that both houses of Congress have Republican majorities means that he may have a fairly free hand to wreak whatever havoc he chooses. 

There was a time when American values were appreciated around the world, when elements of the American democracy represented a shining light that those combatting tyranny looked to for inspiration.  People in other countries admired our economic success, but they also admired the political system in which transfers of power were peaceful, elections were generally fair.  There was a sense that we were free to pursue our dreams whatever those might be.  This sense of an ideal America has waned, perhaps disappeared altogether, as times have changed, social analysis has deepened, and vastly enhanced communication has made our warts more visible.  Trump’s rallying cry, ‘Making America great again’, taps into this changed view of America, but it looks inward and proposes solutions that push us further from these ideals rather than in any sense returning to them.

The only bright spot, and it is a small one, is that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote (by a small margin).  Slightly more voters seem to have opted out of Trump’s agenda—though our system, relying on the electoral college to make the final decision, means that this win carries only symbolic weight.  It certainly doesn’t give her the presidency.

The other element of my own disappointment, and that of many American women, possibly women around the world, is the broadening of opportunities that Hillary’s election would have opened up for our daughters and granddaughters.  We imagined that breaking this particular glass ceiling would be powerful symbolically for the young women of the country.  They could feel in a more visceral way that any job was open to them.  This slap in Hillary’s face—-after she’s shown her political savvy by accomplishing great things, gained abundant political experience, demonstrated her intelligence, long worked for the public good—tells women that no matter what they accomplish, they are likely to run up against the powerful barrier of sexism.  How many will conclude, why bother?  If they do, we are losing out, we are not catalyzing the creativity, the enthusiasm, the capabilities of roughly half the population.  It’s a waste and it’s criminal.

Wallowing in sorrow and grief will not change the situation; but yesterday’s result has increased my own sense of global danger—physical danger of more war and poorer health, danger to the gains we’ve made in gender and other kinds of equity, and ironically given Trump’s appeal to the under-educated and disenfranchised, danger (near-certainty) of enhancing the income gap between rich and poor.  Our system has dealt with bad presidents before and managed to endure.  But I think in this case, we will need an alert and vigilant populace, more vigilant than has been the case of late.  There are too many parallels with Hitler’s Germany for complacency.  Let us learn from history.  In Maya Angelou’s words, ‘Let us rise’ from our sadness and go forth with vigilance and perseverance.

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Eva Taylor: A Woman to Admire

I stood in my friend’s living room this morning, doing yoga with three other older women, as I do several times each week—driving over the hill on Ringwood Road, through the brilliant yellows, reds, oranges and browns of autumn leaves, from my nearby home in Etna, NY.  As my eyes chanced on her fireplace, I was transported back to Quilcene, Washington, to the home of Eva Taylor in the spring of 1973.  I’d been thinking a lot about friends in that community where I lived for three years in the 1970s.  I plan to return for a couple of weeks of research next spring.  By happenstance I linked with Eva’s niece on Facebook and learned, with sorrow, that Eva had died not long ago.

My first introduction to Eva did not bode well for a good relationship.  She’d written us a rather aggressive letter, basically asking what the hell we were doing at the school.  My (now ex-) husband and I were involved in a large research project to ‘monitor and evaluate’ an experimental schools program there—one intended to be designed by the local community.  Before responding, we discreetly asked other people about her and learned, for instance, that she was a member of the John Birch Society (an organization with political views about 180 degrees from my own) and a consistent opponent of the school’s yearly levies (elections called to raise taxes for the school).  These facts, combined with the rather hostile tone of the letter, led us to anticipate our interview with her with some trepidation.

She lived out in the country, and we joked that perhaps our pickup truck would reduce her sense of us as ‘educated idiots’, perhaps slightly mollify the antagonism she apparently felt.  Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, but once we met her, our preconceived notions were blown to the winds.  She welcomed us and listened very politely and with apparent interest to our explanation of what we were trying to do.  She asked intelligent questions and had responses we considered reasonable.

As we got to know her, little by little, we discovered a woman of depth, intelligence and with a genuinely adventurous spirit.  At the time, I was deep into the radical feminism of the 1970s, struggling personally with the many ways in which our culture strengthens and reinforces sexist attitudes and behaviour.  Here was a woman whose whole life was a tribute to women’s capabilities and strengths—without any apparent influence of this 1970s resurgence of feminism.  She was a real inspiration to my 27-year old self, and continues to inspire me whenever she comes to mind.

Eva had homesteaded in Alaska with her husband, who was a bush pilot there.  She had built an amazing and beautiful fireplace of giant rounded grey stones reaching to the ceiling of her living room (the image that came to mind this morning).  She had found the stones, brought them home, and built the fireplace on her own.  She had ridden all the way across the country on a mule with a woman friend.  She invited people, including us, to her home to sing and play the piano, the fiddle.  Her relationship with her husband appeared to be one of unusual equality and mutual respect.

An interchange I expected to be brief—and feared would be painful—turned into a series of pleasant memories that have stayed with me these four decades and more.  Eva Taylor, who held political views I definitely did not share, still managed to inspire my admiration and respect.  She was a real pioneer, a woman of great strength and determination, and a role model for the young women who knew her.  She will be missed, but she’s left a legacy that will live on. 

In this year of political turmoil, I find it good to remember that people of any political persuasion can be reasonable, admirable, worthy of our respect.  We will need to keep that in mind as we try to come together again as a nation after this divisive election campaign.

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An Ode to Vivien C. Smith

I woke a few mornings ago, feeling light and happy, enjoying the beauty of the Northeast’s autumn.  Innocently I turned to Facebook, to pass a bit of pleasant time reading what family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances might have to say that fine morning.  But the first message, from the day before, was from one of my nieces announcing that her “beautiful mother, Vivien C. Smith passed away at 9 PM tonight.”

Vivien C. Smith was the second of 12 children, 11 surviving when I knew her best, in the summer of 1968.  I was pregnant with Megan, my first child, and spending my first and only summer with my in-laws in Maine.  Vivien (and her sister Pat) lived in Greene, Maine, down the road from my husband’s parents at whose home we stayed.  Although Vivien had not come often to my mind over these years, the news of her death hit me like a brick falling out of the sky.  It shouldn’t have surprised me.  After all, she was almost as old as my own mother who is now 92—so I suppose she was in her 80s, but in my mind of course, she remained in her 40s.

I remember her inviting me into her traditional old Maine farmhouse, and accepting me, this strange academic young woman from the West, with open arms.  She lived on the top floor of a two story farmhouse, with her mother in law and father in law on the first floor.  Oddly, the two parents in law didn’t speak to each other, and hadn’t for years.  She’d refused to marry her husband unless he agreed that she should have her own kitchen, run her own life, and focus on the house rather than the farm.  She and her husband were both filled with curiosity about everything, and quickly looked up any topic that arose at the dinner table, in their encyclopedias.  She would surely have loved the internet, if she had a chance to become familiar with it.  And she loved opera.  In her youth, she’d played a motherly role to my ex-husband, her brother (number 8 in birth order), and inserted her cultured interests into his brain from an early age.  Surely her influence was felt as he sought and obtained a PhD.

They’d been raised on the banks of the Kennebec River near the small town of Hallowell, Maine.  Their father had been a strong union supporter, and the result had been that he was often unemployed.  They’d had to ski to school some significant distance, and they’d not always had enough to eat.  Michael, my ex-husband, wouldn’t touch rhubarb, because one summer that was all they’d had to eat.  Vivien had surely grown up in times of hardship, probably worse than my ex-husband endured.

But, where some grow bitter or hardened by want, Vivien remained caring, hospitable, and open to new people.  My mother and father, who had been working in Japan the previous year, came that summer to visit us.  They’d stopped in India, where my mother had contracted hepatitis, though at the time we weren’t sure what she had.  The obvious severity of her illness  frightened my parents-in-law, who rather heartlessly insisted that my ex-husband throw them out (causing my ex-husband great grief and embarrassment and my parents significant inconvenience and dismay).  As my mother lay, possibly dying, in the hospital and my worried father stayed in the van that we’d ‘babysat’ during their year abroad, Vivien (and Pat as well) came to visit her in the hospital. They brought the wonderful fresh tomatoes that only Maine can produce; and they brought their kindness, sweet words, and hospitality—all balm to our troubled souls.

I remember sitting at the long table on the ground floor of Vivien’s house, having Sunday supper, which was always popcorn served like cereal, with milk and sugar—a use of popcorn that was new to me.  Many things in Maine were new to me.  I delighted in people’s ways of speaking; I loved their accent. I sat in Vivien’s sister Pat’s kitchen snipping beans and shelling peas.  I learned how to knit from my mother in law.  My brothers in law delighted in my ignorance with regard to cow pies (one of which I stepped on, probably at their urging, thinking it was a stone).  And the whole family was amazed at both of our farming ignorance: Knowing we were in PhD programs, they assumed we would know a lot about the things that interested them (technical details of drilling wells, farm-related knowledge about which we were both utterly clueless). 

Through all these cherished memories, Vivien’s smiling friendly face recurs.  I learned from her about love apples:  the local word for tomatoes, believed to cause cancer and other bad things.  This resulted in my having access to all the tomatoes I could possibly eat that summer—quite a few!  And underlying all this fond personal experience was the love that my ex-husband felt for her.  She’d been a strong presence in his childhood, and I quickly learned to share his love for her.

So….it was not with happiness that I read the news of her death.  The depth of my sadness has surprised me, given that I have not seen her for decades—but my memories of her are cherished and tears flow as I contemplate her death.  The world is a poorer place without her.

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“The Boys in the Boat”: A Review

I never thought that I would choose to read a book about a sport.  I’m just not sporty!  But so many people recommended The Boys in the Boat that I took the bait….and I was caught, hook, line and sinker.

Maybe it was because it’s about my neck of the woods (the Pacific Northwest).  The central character in this true story is from Sequim, which is a town near Quilcene, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula where I did ethnographic fieldwork for three years in the 1970s.  Maybe it’s because a lot of it takes place at the University of Washington, where I got my PhD, and in Seattle, where I and also my daughter have lived over the decades.  There are segments in New York State, where I now live; and in Princeton, New Jersey, where I spent my ‘junior year abroad’ (as one of 9 ‘guinea pig’ girls on a then all-male campus).  Maybe it’s because the boys in the boat make their way to Europe by ship (which I did several times in my childhood—going back and forth between Turkey, where I lived in the 1950s, and the US, where I had and have my roots). Maybe it was the interweaving of European politics in the 1930s, the rise of Hitler’s power, into the Olympic story.  It made for frightening comparisons with the politics of the present-day Presidential contender, Donald Trump. I don’t know, but I found it an extraordinarily fascinating and moving book.

It is the story of the 8-man crew that won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, though the protagonist is one member, Joe Rantz.  The book starts with his difficult childhood, which includes the early death of his mother, his rejection by his step-mother and his father’s inability or unwillingness to protect him from her, the poverty of the 1930s, and the necessity for him to ‘make it on his own’ from the age of 15.  Throughout, however, Joe maintains a positive attitude, meeting each challenge with both resolve and sadness but without apparent bitterness.  With persistent effort he manages to do well in school and get accepted at the University of Washington, where again persistent effort is required to obtain and maintain a spot on the unusually talented crew team.  The book tells the tale of the team’s various challenges from other schools, their excellent record of wins, their growing teamwork,  culminating with the Olympic race in Germany.

Woven throughout the book are other admirable characters:  Joe’s demanding but likable freshman coach; the  strong, silent head coach; the knowledgeable shell-maker from England who also coaches informally in the background; and Joe’s faithful girlfriend from Sequim who joins him in Seattle, working her way through college as well.  We meet his team mates, and gradually build up an understanding of how their respective and varying talents contribute to the success of their shared endeavours.  None of these young men is from a wealthy family; they hail from loggers and dairyfolk and farmers—yet they are competing in what is seen as an elite sport, from England and from the eastern seaboard. 

A background element is the desire to bring Seattle, then seen as a backwater town, into the limelight and gain recognition for the city and the state as worthy of national attention, producing serious competitors.  There is also a strong democratic undertone, a recognition of the traditional American value that ‘anyone can do it’ if they work hard enough and stick to it long enough.  The book recognizes and praises the boys’ persistence; and it manages to convey the emotional components of good teamwork.  Besides the boys’ individual abilities with an oar, they need to work as a single unit if they want to move the shell through the water with the greatest speed, to find their ‘swing’.  They are led in this by the coxswain who sits in the back barking out commands and his ‘stroke man’, whom the other rowers follow as they determine their shared rowing speed.

There are long segments in which the reader follows the progress of individual races, but the prose is so compelling that, even with no initial interest in the sport, my attention never wandered.  Sprinkled into the words about rowing speeds and technique were insights about the individuals’ characters, childhoods, struggles and accomplishments.  The background of national or regional pride, personal competitions between coaches and schools, and between elites and the working class enliven such narratives.  It is a gripping personal story, an explication of important American values, and a commentary on 1936 politics that bears reading about today.

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On ‘Composing a Further Life’ and Affiliate Faculty Positions

Three bits of information prompted these thoughts:  First, I heard the sad story of a young, affiliate faculty member and mother, working part time in three universities, widely spaced on the landscape.  She is under-paid and under-recognized at work, and over-worked in both work and home settings, seriously undermining her morale and enthusiasm.  Second, I considered both my own comfortable semi-retired situation as a visiting scholar at one university, rather comparable in some respects to an affiliate faculty member, without pay; and my husband’s similar comfortable, now also unpaid affiliate position.  Third, I’m reading a book entitled Composing a Further Life, by Mary Catherine Bateson, a sort of sequel to her earlier book, Composing a Life

In both books, Bateson uses long, indepth interviews with a small number of people to reveal the variation in ways that people are making and have made peace and satisfaction within their lives as they age.  In the earlier book, she follows the lives of a number of successful women, most of whom have had their own careers and plans disrupted, sometimes repeatedly, by career-dictated moves of their husbands.  She uses the patchwork quilt as an analogy for the creative ways these women have crafted useful and successful lives, despite (perhaps even because of) these interruptions.  In the more recent book, she examines by similar methods the lives of a variety of people later in life.  She first proposes that we recognize a significant global demographic shift with wide-ranging repercussions, due to our longer lifespan.  Where in the past we recognized three stages—childhood, adulthood, and old age—she proposes that we now have a fourth stage, which she called ‘adulthood II’, characterized by ‘active wisdom’.  In this later book, she uses the analogy of adding a room on a house.  The added room does more than simply add to an intact structure; rather its addition results in changes in the uses of all the other rooms in the house.  Just so, she argues, the addition of this fourth stage, adulthood II, changes the ways that we structure and value the other stages and elements in our lives.

While reading this book, I’ve been cogitating on the ubiquity of affiliate faculty positions in the US and on their differential impacts, depending on the life stage of the individual so categorized.  Although an affiliate position could, in theory, be a perfect solution for a parent of a young child, in fact, as currently structured this situation is typically oppressive and unfair. For young people, just beginning their work lives, in need of recognition, income and time, an affiliate faculty position may be better than nothing, but it is usually in no way ideal.  If the person has a young child or children, the low rate of pay is likely to do little more than pay for childcare and possibly transport.  The need to show continuing academic/professional involvement on one’s resume provides a powerful incentive to accept such employment, despite the common lack of financial profit, recognition, and other evidence of appreciation where one works.  Compounding this adverse situation is the felt need to ‘prove’ one’s commitment to one’s profession.  The academic world (indeed, society in general) does not acknowledge the value of childcare, the socialization of children, seeing rather any time devoted to this truly life-sustaining activity, as proof that one is not committed to one’s profession. 

If one is in adulthood II (and financially sufficiently secure) however, an affiliate position may indeed be the perfect solution.  Older adults typically have less need of money—-they may have already furnished and own their home, have a paid off car, have adult children who take care of themselves, and have fewer work-related expenses.  At the same time, older adults have less energy than is ideal in a full time job.  Still, they are likely to want to continue contributing the knowledge and experience they have gained over what was once a lifetime (an age of ‘three score and ten’).  Under such conditions, an affiliate position can provide a chance to continue contributing, at an appropriately reduced rate, while slowly adapting to eventual full retirement.

In anthropology, a fair amount has been written since 1965 about the ‘image of limited good’ (introduced by George Foster).  This concept, common in many cultures, postulates that there is a certain amount of ‘good stuff’ out there, that whatever you get is lost to me, and whatever I get is lost to you.  There are indeed situations like that.  If I take the last piece of pie, you can’t have it.  However, in my own view, this concept is applied far too widely (e.g., with regard to faculty positions at universities).  Knowledge, universities’ claim to fame, is not like pie (discussed fully in Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of the Mind).   One can certainly argue, as many have done, that my providing free labour at a university is taking an opportunity away from a young person (even without my being paid).  I agree that the way universities are currently structured, this can well be the case.  But this kind of argument (and reality) is based on the ‘limited good’ notion, which we should not be applying to universities. Surely there is more need for people who can teach* young people than is currently supplied by our university systems.  Surely there is sufficient need in the world for input and sharing from both the old and the young. 

I struggle with (at least) three difficult  questions in this regard—both impinging on my own life and the lives of people I love: 

> How can we allow these aging purveyors of ‘active wisdom’ the opportunity to continue contributing their experience and knowledge—a process that is currently hindered by both a system based on the image of limited good and the ageism we know exists? 

> How can we develop systems that adequately compensate and recognize young professionals, systems that do not oppress those whose professional needs are so much greater and so different from those of the aging?

> How can we facilitate societal recognition of the vital role of enculturation of the young (and care of the truly elderly), in such a way that both men and women can find a meaningful work-life balance that adequately accomplishes such goals while not interfering with their prestige and future opportunities in their profession?

I do not have the answers to these questions; but I think we need to be seriously considering how to answer them—probably including tearing down conceptual barriers like the image of limited good, which can freeze our thinking in tired old pathways inappropriate for our new conditions.  I want us to be creating a world in which young parents can enjoy and care for their children at the same time that they are making reasonable progress in their work lives; a world in which those growing old but not yet truly infirm can make beneficial use of what wisdom and experience they have garnered over the decades.  I have been fortunate myself in being able to remain active at a suitably reduced level, but I know many whose knowledge and skills are sitting on a shelf, unrecognized and unappreciated—-what a waste!


*As I write these words, I am reminded of Tania Li’s fascinating 2007 book, The Will to Improve.  In this book, Li shows how our ‘will to improve’ the conditions of others has led to all sorts of problems (in Indonesia).  One can see ‘teaching’ as motivated by such a ‘will’—but I’m imagining a situation in which what we have called teaching is really the process of creating contexts and conditions in which others can learn most effectively, a sharing of experience.  The problem with our will to improve, comes, in my view, when we want to improve others, according to our own views of what they need.

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