Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Discomforts of Listening

Lately I have been thinking a lot about listening--in particular, how difficult it can be to listen to something that I strongly disagree with. While thinking about this topic, I did a Google image search for ears and noticed for the first time how much an ear looks like a fetus--something curved and huddled. But it is also a receptacle--made to receive.
     The experience of having to listen to something I don't want to hear--of fending off a message someone else is trying to deliver--can be agitating and almost intolerable. I have this experience while listening to particular politicians or particular political or moral/ethical opinions. This can also happen in the context of some personal disagreements (with friends or family); I become so preoccupied with defending myself--preparing my defense or next remark--that I can't take in what the person is saying. I guess that "can't" isn't the right word, because as I mentioned, I don't really want to hear what "they" are saying.

"What could be so bad?" you might ask. Afraid to hear a few words? It's not like you're being tortured. But yes it is. Or it can feel that way. "Why?" is the question. This is something that requires some reflection, and I will report back in future posts, I hope, as to what I discover. Because, really, I believe that I should and want to be able to take in what people have to say--even if I disagree or the other person's message seems to diminish me in some way. It seems like the one and only hope for connecting with people. And connecting with people seems to be one great and hopeful possibility for us humans. But that sense of diminishment? That seems to be key. 
     So now, that idea of the ear as a fetus is seeming double edged--something that can grow, develop, become an independent life form (well, I mean, the message can do that; not the ear itself). Oh, I'd love to hear what you have to say about this. But asking for that assumes you are listening (can tolerate listening) to me. Now there (below) is an image of joyous listening.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Martin Luther King, a brilliant speaker

My novel takes place in the mid-1960s, in Detroit, just as  the civil rights era is merging into the black power era (if you can call these things eras). As part of the research I did, I borrowed the amazing Eyes on the Prize video series from my local library. This series was created by PBS to honor and educate us about the civil rights movement in the US. I did not watch all of it, but I did watch several sections that included speeches by Martin Luther King (pictured, above, with just a hint of worry on his familiar brow). As we have just celebrated another MLK Day (two days ago), I wanted to mention this.
     I am embarrassed to report that I had never before watched and listened to one of his speeches in its entirety. Of course, I've heard and read excerpts--especially the "I Have a Dream" speech. I want to say that I was stunned by what a brilliant and moving speaker he was. It struck me once again that even though I "lived" this piece of history, I was mostly oblivious to it, immersed in my youthful preoccupations. At any rate, we can all thank PBS for having the wisdom and the skill to preserve these images and speeches in such an artful way. And of course we have Martin Luther King to thank and honor for what he gave us and what he left us.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Discomforts of Diverse Childrearing Styles

In my novel Grand River and Joy, two of the main characters--Harry and Curtis--discuss their differences regarding child rearing. A few readers commented on this (thank you Alesia, Deborah, Caryn), and I was very pleased that they did, as this was a thread that felt important to me. Of course, every novel has so many threads. Even if people notice them, they don't always get around to commenting. 
     At any rate, in the novel Harry is Jewish, and Curtis is black. (I know the photo above is of a mother and child, so it doesn't quite fit with Harry and Curtis and their parenting styles, but the photo has the feel that I wanted, so I'm going with it.) Harry views Curtis's parenting style as too strict, while Curtis views Harry's as too indulgent. Harry tells Curtis he should encourage his son more, be more loving. Curtis tells Harry that he should teach his daughters a little more civility. In my mind, differences in parenting style flow from socioeconomic and cultural differences, and this is supported by research in the field of child development--something I know because of my other life as an editor of numerous child development books. But it makes sense. Though not a wealthy man, Harry has far more resources than Curtis does, and can afford to be more indulgent. Curtis, the marginally employed father of a teen-aged son, knows there's little room for error, that his son Alvin has the deck stacked significantly against him. 
     I mention all this because the other night, we had friends over for dinner, and one of them mentioned this aspect of my book. Then she told a story. When her child was in first or second grade, she used to go into his class once a week to help with math stations. She and her son are white, and one day he came over to her to ask if he could do something. She said that they'd talk about it later or that it depended on whether he could finish doing something she had asked him to do. An African-American boy who was sitting nearby overheard, and said, "Why are white parents always negotiating with their kids?" Even at age 6 or 7, he noticed the difference. 
     When my friend finished telling this story, the rest of us in the room shouted in unison, "Because we're white." We'd each had a couple of drinks, so we were laughing, and "Because we're white" might not be the most precise research-based, clinically accurate answer available, but it seemed to do the job at that point. For those of you who don't know me well, I do want to point out that the laughter was in part laughter of embarrassment.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Profiling and filtering and screening

This is the cover of a book by Moustafa Bayoumi. I ran across it this morning when I was thinking that I wanted to write about profiling--a topic much in the news and in our minds these days. The subtitle of the book (in case it's too small for you to read) is "Being Young and Arab in America." Bayoumi has won several awards for this book, and in an interview, he explains that the book's title came from a question posed decades earlier by W.E.B. DuBois. In the book, Bayoumi presents portraits of men living that title question. I admire the whole concept and plan to read the book.
     I've been thinking about profiling because of the two recent terrorist events and the government's new thinking about how to try to head off future terrorist attacks. The word profiling sounds ominous, with its attempt to boil people down to a few variables--to look at them from the side, so to speak, rather than full in the face. I'd always before thought of profiling as racial or ethnic, which it often is, but now I've learned that it can also involve other aspects of identity: behavioral (acting nervous?), national, religious (of course), and probably lots of other things. The idea is to narrow the field; this is filtering, as we do on certain websites when we're trying to find a restaurant of a particular cuisine in a particular neighborhood in a particular price range. A related concept is screening, which they do at the airport, when they x-ray our carry-ons and have us walk through the metal detector and compare our ID with our tickets.
     My mother-in-law does not think they're doing a very good job of any of this--profiling, filtering, screening. She thinks the focus should be on the people who go to particular mosques or study with particular religious leaders--as did the man who did the shooting at Fort Hood and the man who tried to blow up the flight to Detroit. I guess this would be behavioral profiling. Once the profile is applied, everyone in the group becomes a problem. Complicated. Did you see the debate in the New York Times on the subject of profiling? It's worth reading.