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It’s New Year’s Eve, and if I wanted to really get started, I’d have a lot to say.  I don’t know if any of you would find it interesting–it would be, largely, about the state of my own life–but it’s building up in here somewhere and I figure I’ll have to do something about it sometime.

When and what are two perfectly good questions, but at the moment I’ve got a keyboard, an office that isn’t frozen solid, and Gustav Leonhardt playing Bach.

That will do to be getting on with.

So, some end of the year notes:

1) In re the post from a couple of days ago, I admit to being perfectly flabbergasted by the phenomenon of people who don’t read. 

I don’t mean people who can’t read.  There can be a lot of reasons for that, some of them fixable and some of them not.

I mean people who don’t.  I go nearly nuts when I don’t have a book with me when I’m doing something.  I read on line at the bank.  I read when I’m waiting to pick up the boys from one thing or another.   I read when I’m on hold.

Sometimes, when I’m going around to various places, I see people waiting for things, just sitting and staring out at nothing, and I really don’t get it.  If that were me, I’d be chewing the carpet or pacing or otherwise making a nuissance of myself.

And then there are those prison reality shows that I sometimes watch, mostly because they’re there and the remote is on the other side of the room and I don’t want to get up and get it. 

You see these guys in single cells or in solitary confinement.  They don’t have access to television or radio.  They don’t have Game Boys or computers unless they go down to the prison library. 

They’re just there, all alone, staring off into space and doing nothing.

I mean, for God’s sake–they can have books.  They just…I don’t know.

Okay, under those circumstances, I’d probably kill myself or somebody else.

I can understand why some people can’t stand schools and don’t want a formal education.  I don’t understand people who don’t read.

2)  I think it’s interesting the extent to which people who eventually prove successful at work that takes a lot of imagination–think Spielburg and Lucas, say, or even James Fennimore Cooper–so often do so badly in schools.

I used to say, often, that schools reward conformity and life rewards creativity, but I know that’s only half true.

If you’re bothg really talented and really luck in your timing, life can reward creativity really well.  If you’ve got no talent at all, or you’re not in the rigt place at the right time, it might not.

But it still bugs me the extent to which schools have become loci for enforcing social control, and the extent to which that social control is being enforced.

When I was growing up, it was enough of you sat still, turned in your homework, and didn’t cuss or beat anybody up on the playground.

These days, notes go home to parents demanding that no chips or cookies be sent in with bag lunches (bad nutrition! childhood obesity!), and the list of “red flags” for potentially violent behavior (he could turn into a school shooter!) includes things like playing cowboys and Indians and pretending to shoot things.

It bothers me even more than it might have because I’m fairly convinced that most of the “studies” used to defend this kind of thing are not properly controlled, and rely a lot on the post hoc fallacy.

And that brings me to

3) A really depressive feeling about the enormous emphasis now put on two things:  the idea that people are not in control of themselves and their actions AND the idea that what we need to do is to make sure everything is “safe.”

When I was ten or so years old, I would get on my bike on summer afternoons and ride–all alone, by myself–fifteen or twenty miles or more, across town lines, into places I’d never been.

It was largely a rural area–well, suburban-rural–with lots of trees and woods and few houses anywhere.  I’d go and go and go and turn around when I got to the point where I felt like turning back.

I’d spend all my time doing that thinking through fiction in my head, writing the things I’d put down on the brand new typewriter my grandmother had bought me for Christmas.

If I write books now, a lot of them come from those afternoons alone.

But my children have never had that experience, and they’re too old for it now.  If they travel to strange places and wander around on their own, it will be as adults.

The simple fact is that I wouldn’t have dared to allow them to wander around like that.  Nobody does dare anymore, as far as I can see. 

Most of the parents I know don’t let their children trick or treat for Halloween, either, except when accompanied by a parent and usually in a car, going only to houses the parents already know well.

By the time I was nine and my brother was six, we went all over the place on our own, on foot.  It was a matter of pride with all the kids we know to go farther and get more candy than anybody else. 

And all of this is justified in the name of “safety,” because of course there are predators out there, there are pedophiles, there are rapists and kidnappers and murderers.

There may even be more of them now than there used to be, but I’m not sure that’s true. 

I do know that there is something incredibly debilitating, to a child, of being brought up this way.  I developed a lot of independence and confidence on my walks and bike rides alone, and a strong sense of an individual self not formed by either adults or other children.

A lot of the children I see–and, yes, the adolescnets–seem to lack this. I don’t know if it is a result of this mania for “safety” or for something else.

What I do know is that this approach teaches, first and foremost, a fear of the world, and an inner conviction that one is not capable of handling one’s own life.

And that’s the good news.  The bad news is that there’s another way it can work out–and that is that kids get the idea that adults lie to them all the time about what will happen if they try X.   They can’t distinguish between the bullshit (one marijuana joint and you’ll be hooked on heroin in a week!) and the real (sticking your finger in a light socket and you’ll get yourself electrocuted).

Which brings us to:

4) The enormous effort that is being put into redefining adults as not-really-adults.

I talk a lot on this blog–and lots of other people talk about it elsewhere–about the entire “addiction” thing as a way for adults to evade responsibility for their own actions.

But that’s only half the story.  The other half is that the entire concept of the “at risk population”  provides a rationale for government, government bureacracies, and several different kinds of instutitons (schools, nursing homes, hospitals) to treat adults as if they’d been declared incompetent to handle their own affairs–even when they haven’t been.

Under ordinary circumstances, it’s up to the adult to decide what he wants to eat, or wear, or ingest otherwise, or do for recreation.

Under the concept of the “addicted” and the “at risk population,” we declare that the adult only things he’s making choices. What he really is is being manipulated by corporations or peer groups or whoever.  When he decides he’d rather eat a Big Mac instead of a salad, or smoke cigarettes instead of quit, he’s being controled by his addiction.  Therefore we have to step in and make his choices for him.

The breathtakingly arrogant and insulting premise here is masked by a whole array of different devices.

The first is that the usual approach is to begin with “education”–if we only teach people the basics of nutrition and how to make healthy choices, and then demand that the fast food restaurants carry healthy food–well, the people will do it for themselves.

Then, when the salads in Burger King sit for day after day unsold, when the nutritional labels on the cans and boxes go unread, when everybody opts for the Big Mac and the fried shrimp anway, we go to–

Oh, no!  This can’t be happening–there must be something wrong!  Obviously, these people are incapable of behaving rationally.  They must be in thrall to something, maybe an addiction, maybe corporate advertising.

One one complained that restaurants kept putting out food that was not only high in fat and calories, but “highly palatable.”  That means it tastes good. 

If you opt for something that is “highly palatable” instead of something that is supposed to be good for you–well, you can’t be trusted, you’re a slave who can’t make choices, we’ll just have to step in and make sure you do the right thing.

And this is even funnier–in a black sort of way–because the principle excuse for the need to “step in” is childhood obesity, which I’m willing to bet anything is being at least partially caused by the fact that we never let our children go out and do things on their own any more.

And children, like other people, strongly prefer to do things they want the way they want them rather than take a class or join a group with formal structures and rules.

And that leaves me at:

5) The fact that I’m coming to decide that the real culture war is not between liberals and conservatives, or the religious and the secular, but between those of us who want to be “safe” and those of us who…don’t.

Written by janeh

December 31st, 2010 at 10:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Janus'

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  1. 1) The National Endowment for the Arts discovered a few years ago that felons in prison had lower than average reading competency. Just no getting past the NEA.
    Reading frequency appears to track closely with reading competency. Mind you, not everyone who reads well reads much fiction, but if we could get people to read better, they’d read more. And if we could get them to read more, they’d read better.
    The need to occupy the mind somehow–anyhow–seems to vary with the capacity of the mind. I don’t like being without reading material, even for short periods, but now I just get grumpy. Forty years ago, when I could focus on three things at once, I’d have gone completely nuts.
    But an active, educated mind without an accompanying book still seems very wrong.
    2) Schools want carefully controlled imagination–nothing too upsetting to the system. Sadly, science, business and government are also pretty much that way.
    3-5) “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from the highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.”

    –Robert Heinlein, TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, reprinted in NOTEBOOKS OF LAZARUS LONG


    31 Dec 10 at 11:57 am

  2. It is awkward these days to carry a book to read while waiting in a doctor’s office, because I need to use a walker. I have come up with a way to “read” which works quite well, and keeps me from going nuts.

    I download an older book from Gutenberg as text, I then use my new Mac’s wonderful text-to-speech conversion feature to create an audio version of that text, using the “Alec” voice, which is quite listenable and not too robotic. I use ITunes to load that audio file to my iPod, marking it as “audiobook”. I stuff the iPod and some earbuds or headphones into a fanny pack, and take that setup along to the doctor’s. It works great, and I am working my way through Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles, inspired by one of your posts a few weeks ago.


    31 Dec 10 at 2:46 pm

  3. You can’t simplify life down into two nice neat little packages, as much as I enjoy doing that myself sometimes.

    The ‘safe’ and the ‘unsafe’ categories are blurred by the way one person’s ‘unsafe’ is another’s ‘safe’ – or, possibly, some of the difference is in the way each person looks at risk. The structure/unstructured thing…lots of people, including those who in other parts of their lives revel in unstructured activities LIKE classes and structured environments. (I’m reminded of the time I was instructed to be ‘creative’, which effectively put what few original thoughts that might have entered my mind out of it, whereas I do better in many situations with structure and organization). And I think, oh, sure, I roamed where I wanted (within limits) as a child, and children don’t do that now really, but OTOH the most paranoid and nervous person I know is a generation older than I am, and if paranoia about exploring the world is increasing by generations, that’s exactly backwards. And yes, I know anecdotes aren’t evidence.

    But I spotted an absolutely marvellous article about obesity in my rambles around the web that almost inspired me to look up the articles it reported on. I’ll try to find a link before I submit this. If I don’t … talk about the ultimate excuse for non-responsibility! (Perhaps I should add as a disclaimer that I disagree with you about addictions, and although I am generally strongly in favour of personal responsibility for one’s actions, I also think that calling that entire complex of obsessive/compulsive problems merely matters of choice misunderstands them badly.) But this article…someone noticed that lots of things have been showing steady increases in weight…whole lab animals. Pets. Wild animals. Now, my first thougt was that maybe feeding and exercise protocols have changed over time, but I didn’t get a chance to try to track down the original papers. But the wild animals? A sampling error, or possibly something in the environment that’s making everyone fat?? Can you see the possibilities for a ‘popular science’ explanation for the ‘obesity epidemic’?

    Can’t find the original, but this is it:







    31 Dec 10 at 4:31 pm

  4. I was also one of that lucky generation that had the leisure, opportunity and freedom to pretty much go wherever I liked whenever I liked. As a young child living in the semi-rural suburbs of Sydney, we had breakfast and mostly didn’t return home until the sun went down, when mothers (fathers were mostly away in the war somewhere) for miles around were calling their kids by name to come home or go to bed hungry. Even they didn’t expect that these calls would be heard first hand, because it usually took some time for the calls to be relayed and for kids (suddenly exhausted for some strange reason) to walk sometimes up to a mile or more home in the gathering darkness.

    A few years later, at boarding school in the mountains just west of Sydney, we spent our weekends either playing some inherently dangerous sport or wandering for miles in the hundreds of square miles of wilderness virtually adjacent to the school. Back home on the farm we had thousands of acres of country to explore and the further we got away from the house, the fewer chores we were stuck with. Parents worried about our safety, but were rarely if ever paranoid about it, so we were given very loose boundaries and constraints. The only inflexible rule was never to go through the (clearly identified) boundary fences into neighbouring properties where we could easily get lost and die of thirst or heat stroke before we could be found.

    Which leads to the next point – reading. What else was there to do to fill those long miserable days and nights when outside activity was impractical. There was no TV and little or no radio worth listening to, so we read, and read, everything we could lay our hands on. Our imaginations were very, very lively, and we acted out the adventure stories in an environment where it was not very difficult to replicate the locales and scenes in which our favourite stories were set.

    I really do pity modern kids who have so much in a material sense, yet are deprived of opportunities to live rich lives in their imagination.


    1 Jan 11 at 3:51 am

  5. My family’s rules were: (1) When you hear the 5 o’clock whistle (marking the end of a shift in the mine, I think), head home, and be close enought that you get there pretty quickly. (I think if we were allowed out after supper, a rare thing on a school night, we were supposed to be home by dark, which is a rather elastic time). (2) Don’t go Down in the Valley – an area marked by the swimming hole where one of my cousins cracked his head open while diving, a group of siblings and friends of my elementary-school-aged classmates got lost and were found just before they were about to die of exposure, and allegedly by hard-to-spot ventilation shafts for the mine.

    But this attitude wasn’t universal even then. There were people who thought this kind of wandering about was bad or dangerous, and I went berry-picking (always a good excuse to get out, at least during the right season) with girls of my own age who’d been taught to never go anywhere alone, and to hide in the bushes at the sight of another person. The extreme paranoia about childrens’s safety wasn’t there, but the basic attitudes and beliefs certainly were.

    And eventually, the freedom to wander around the bush and read lots wasn’t enough, and I desperately wanted to get out and see the larger world. To this day, my mother cannot understand why I came to dislike my hometown so much, but unless you can find what you want there, reading will take you only so far and, in fact, by reinforcing the idea that there are more and difference places Out There, might even contribute to rural depopulation!


    1 Jan 11 at 9:18 am

  6. Our rule was a set rime–maybe five minutes?–from when Mom shouted from both the front and back porch, or we were grounded. If we were where we couldn’t hear, she wanted a phone number or name.

    But still, a much looser time. We burned trash, and I was sent out at pre-school age with the trash and a book of matches. Dogs roamed the neighborhoods unsupervised, and Halloween was after dark and lasted three nights. We’d be driven to a different neighborhood each time, and homemade treats were welcome.

    Safety is the pretense, but not the reason. The only recorded instance of a child being poisoned by Halloween candy turned out to be a parent (step, woudl be my guess) trying to collect on insurance.


    1 Jan 11 at 10:46 am

  7. I remember wandering by foot or bike as a child. But that was in the 40s and what with the depression and world war, I suspect adults were not obsessed by child safety.


    1 Jan 11 at 7:14 pm

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