Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Messer/Anti-Messer Total Mind and Body Workout

I've written on my blog before about my practice of picking up litter when I walk around my town. It's a simple way to do something useful. I focus primarily on cans and plastic and glass bottles because I want to make sure that they get into the recycling containers rather than the main garbage stream. I'm especially concerned about glass bottles because they can be broken and thus do serious damage, but I hate seeing beer cans lying around the streets of my town (it makes a bad impression and seems so . . . low brow), and the number of plastic bottles is astonishing. I always think of that Texas-sized plastic island of garbage (oops; just looked it up; it's now twice the size of Texas) that's floating out in the ocean somewhere. I don't want to see that become even larger. 
Anyway, my husband and I were out walking last Saturday (it was my birthday), and we encountered the usual array and picked up a few things as we went. He noted that if people aren't even respectful enough of their environment to realize that when they leave their bottle or can in the street or on the grass or sidewalk, they're polluting, then what hope do we have to address something as huge as global warming. That's the surface of the earth where they're abandoning their trash, but for some reason it seems just fine to them to simply drop or throw whatever they're carrying and go forth. How can we expect people to make the big, hard sacrifices they will have to make to solve the big problems if they can't do something so small as put their item in an appropriate receptacle?
     This discussion got me into thinking that I needed to get more intentional about my litter walks again. That is, I used to carry bags with me (one for recyclables, one for regular garbage) and then take the booty home to my own receptacles. But for the past few months, who knows why, I haven't been taking the bags, but just pick things up and drop them in other people's receptacles as I go. Sometimes this limits me because I can only carry a few things in my hands at once, so I have to leave some things behind. 
    This week, then, I started with the bags again. There's an unusually large amount of stuff lying around. I think it's because the big snow has now melted, revealing the multiple layers of leavings and droppings. And as I was walking, and picking, I realized what an excellent workout this is. First of all, as the baseline, there's the walking, which I do briskly. Second, there's the mental and visual acuity involved in spotting the items. Third, there's the quick pivots needed to cross the street or duck down an alley or veer over toward the bushes or whatever to nab the item. Then, there's the bending and the reaching (across a puddle, snow bank, or dog droppings) and (sometimes) the stretching (if something is under a bush or in some other hard-to-reach place). Then there's the memory factor when I don't have the bags--that is, keeping track of where the closest recycling bin is or isn't.  Finally (this might not really be the final benefit; I might think of more, or you might), there is the benefit of mental fitness that comes from the meditation on the earth and the people who live on it and how they do or do not care for it and why they do or do not. Try it. Soon you too may look like Jane Fonda with her red leg warmers. As with so many other problems, perhaps appealing to self-interest is the way to a solution.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

One Common Approach to Addressing Discomforts of Diversity

Great Wall of China
Walls. I've been thinking (and writing) about walls. Not the Great Wall of China but . . .
Birwood Wall
The Birwood Wall, in Detroit, makes an appearance in my novel Grand River and Joy. In book discussions, it's gotten a lot of people talking and a lot of people stirred up. This wall was built so that white Detroiters (and builders and bankers and so on) would feel more secure investing in homes that were close to primarily black neighborhoods. Here's another famous wall:
Berlin Wall
And another:
Wall on U.S.-Mexico Border
And another:
Israel 
A wall can be a beautiful thing, complex, evocative:
Stone Wall
It can contain and exclude, protect and isolate:

Fortress Wall
Yesterday, on NPR's Marketplace, I heard an item about walls, referred to as "separation barriers," which is a good way to think of them. A person named Niall Farell produced a documentary about these separation barriers in which he lists many of them. Here are just a few from his list, with dimensions and type.

Name: Baghdad Wall
Country: Iraq
Built year: Under construction
Length: 5 km
Type: Civil pacification

Name: Belfast Peace Lines
Country: Northern Ireland
Built year: 1970s
Length: .5 km
Average type: Civil pacification

Name: Ceuta Border Fence
Country: Spain/Morocco
Built year: 2001
Length: 8 km
Type: Anti-illegal immigration

Name: China-North Korea Barrier
Country: China/North Korea
Built year: Under construction
Length: 1,416 km
Type: Anti-illegal immigration

Name: Egypt-Gaza Barrier
Country: Egypt/Palestinian Territories
Built year: 1979
Length: 3.071 km
Type: Anti-terrorism and illegal immigration
We all know that walls can be scaled--some more easily than others.


So many things more to be said about walls, about separation, about barriers, about the ancient yearning for a sense of safety and security.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Discomforts (and absence) of Perspective-Diversity


I've written here before (several times) about the difficulty of listening to perspectives that differ from my  own. Like that little boy, I just want to cover my ears and make a bad face. A recent article in the New York Times made me think about this again. The subject was social scientists, and one presenter at a meeting of said scientists was John Haidt.
[He] polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.
“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.
This seems important to me. And others must also find it so, as this article is currently numero uno on the Times website list of "most popular." This is also a topic that blogger D. G. Myers has brought up several times in the months that I have been reading his blog. Here's one of them. I found out about D. G. Myers because he discussed my novel on his blog, and Google Alerts alerted me to same. And although not everything he said about my novel was complimentary, he also honored it, and this seems to be a pretty good thing in the world of reviewing. He's a tough critic (and an incisive writer), and the fact that he took my book so seriously was pleasing to me. One thing he said in a follow up to his review was that he liked my book because he couldn't tell what my politics were. Some books/novelists wear their politics on their sleeve, as (Myers says) Franzen does in Freedom (I haven't yet read his novel).
         But that wasn't really what I wanted to talk about (politics in novels). The subject was general lack of exposure to and interaction with diverse perspectives and the impact of this lack. You probably can guess that I think this lack is not such a good thing but that I'm pretty much in the same boat as those social scientists.
     And here's the thing I like most about blog posts. No need to wrap it up or come to some conclusion or final point. Some of my favorite blog posts meander and then leave it in the hands of the reader.   

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Feeling My Mind Expanding


I was thinking how old-fashioned the word mulatto seemed. According to Phil Herbst's The Color of Words: An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States (the book that got me started on this blog; see early entries if you're interested in the origins),  the word comes from the Latin mulus, a "mule" or hybrid. "In early ethnic discourse," he says, "the term loosely meant a person of mixed descent, especially someone half African, or someone half Native American and half black, but typically now and almost always white and black." As with many of the entries in Phil's book, the discussion is extended, and extremely thoughtful (honestly, it's an amazing resource), but I will not present the whole thing here.
     The reason I was thinking about this at all was a recent article in the New York Times about young people who identify as mixed race, noting that the percentage has gone up. As the article notes,
Many young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity. Ask Michelle López-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”
 This seems to me to be a good thing. Anytime I have an opportunity to resist or overcome or see beyond categories that have been externally invented, I feel that I grow as a human being. I actually do feel my mind expanding. So, one young woman describes herself as Japanese and Irish. A young man, as African-American-Portuguese-Haitian. Another as Ghanaian/Scottish-Norwegian. One as Japanese/Spanish. One as Black/German. You get the picture. These are complex human combinations that I for one might not have ever before imagined. Because of the human genome project and the ability to identify genetic ancestry, we now know (or can know) far more about our hybrid ancestries. Which brings me back to where I began
“Are you mulatto?” asked Paul Skym, another student [mentioned in the Times article], using a word once tinged with shame that is enjoying a comeback in some young circles.