In it, teachers in Oklahoma — with master’s degrees and 20 years’ experience — mow lawns, wait tables, cater weddings and drive for Uber to make ends meet.
One needs to use a food bank to eat.
If you’ve been following American news lately, you’ve seen reports of teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma fighting for higher pay and better conditions in which to teach — like textbooks that aren’t 20 years old and literally falling apart.
Last week, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill that gives an average of $6,100 raises for teachers, $1,250 raises for support staff, and adds $50 million in education funding.
From The Atlantic:
Thousands of teachers returned to the picket lines on Tuesday in their effort to secure more education funding from state legislators, forcing the cancellation of classes for public-school students in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The picketing marked the continuation of a strike that kicked off on Monday, when tens of thousands of educators in about a third of Oklahoma’s school districts walked out, affecting 300,000 of the state’s 500,000 students.
The Oklahoma legislature last week passed a bill raising teacher salaries by $6,000 on average and restoring education funding by $50 million, but educators say it’s not enough given the cuts they’ve contended with in recent years. They are asking for $10,000 more per teacher over the next several years and $200 million in restored education funding. The legislature had been cutting education spending for years, with the amount of per-student funding dropping by nearly 30 percent (when adjusted for inflation) over the past decade, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Oklahoma leads the nation in inflation-adjusted cuts to education funding since the 2008 recession.
The great American myth is that the nation cares deeply about “family values” — and the American dream is centered on the belief that each generation will do better economically than the one before.
“One of the most notable changes in the US economy in recent decades has been the rise in inequality. A key inflection point in inequality appears to be around 1980. It was during the early 1980s that there was a pronounced increase in the 90-10 income gap and a sharp rise in the income share of the 1%.
“With the advent of a more unequal society, concerns about a possible decline in inequality of opportunity have risen to the forefront of policy discussion in the US. To better understand inequality of opportunity, economists and other social scientists have increasingly focused attention on studies of intergenerational mobility. These studies typically estimate the strength of the association between parent income and the income of their offspring as adults.”
Not possible when teachers can’t even earn a living and students sit in dark, dirty classrooms with broken desks and chairs.
The Republican governments of “red” states where teachers are walking out in protest believe in cutting taxes to the bone — while offering generous perks to employers and corporations.
I don’t have children or young relatives in the American school system, but my blood boils at the inequity of this.
On a radio call-in show this week, one New Jersey teacher — annoyed she had lost $12,000 in income — said she earns $90,000. That earned spluttering disbelief from a teacher calling in from another state where he earns half that amount.
I moved to the U.S. years after completing my formal education in Toronto and Montreal, which, thank heaven, was well funded and excellent.
The book came out in 1988, but rings true today; millions of American students face a kind of educational apartheid if they live in tightfisted states and low-income neighborhoods where school funding comes from local taxes.
It is deeply disturbing and powerful; he examined the wide and brutal disparities in education funding across the nation.
You want to get schooled?
Watch how poorly and unevenly this country handles education.
And yet, and yet, the director, Feras Fayyad, was wise to also include much laughter and joy, the men singing and even taking a sunny, if brief, day out in the playground, with a bunch of their delighted little kids, to leaven the brutality.
It’s too easy to think we know this place or to not care about it — but here’s a little girl and her Dad going to six Aleppo pharmacies to try to find vitamins because her hands are now weakened by malnutrition. There are none to be found.
Here’s a couple going to get married, in the middle of death and destruction.
Here’s the men buying a bag full of goldfish, perhaps the most unlikely purchase imaginable in what is basically a war zone, combing the city to find enough water and then filling a fountain with fish and water.
As a journalist in New York, I get invited daily to events meant to promote new products and services, hotels and restaurants. I ignore 99.9 percent of them.
But I’ve long been deeply intrigued by the White Helmets and their work.
Not even sure how I ended up on this press list — as the room was filled with industry folk being asked to vote as Academy members on its merits — but I’m so glad I had the chance to see it, and a brief Q and A in the room with its director, who is now making a second film about a female doctor working there, and having to sneak back into his own country to do so safely.
My father made documentaries for a living, so I’m fascinated — both as a journalist and a lover of film — by how and when these stories are filmed and told.
I’ve read a lot about the war in Syria, and knew of the White Helmets, but never viscerally understood what they do, why they do it and the tremendous physical and emotional toll if takes.
There are a few people I always want to find again, to know how their lives turned out and if they’re happy and where they live and if they had kids or grandkids.
But two of them have — bizarrely in an age of media saturation — no digital footprints at all. One is a physician, so I guess I could track her down through a medical society but the other…no idea.
The former is someone I knew from our shared years at a Toronto boarding school, where we were both nerdy, although she was much more serious and quiet than I. The latter is a man I knew (and had a huge crush on) through high school, also in Toronto, who was extremely talented as an artist. We were, for a few years, close friends, but lost touch when we graduated.
A third person is a former journalism colleague who became a crusading lawyer, but, to my shock and dismay when I last searched for him on-line, had died prematurely.
They’re like ghosts for me, visions from my childhood, adolescence and 20s I’d like to reconnect with now.
Thanks to social media, some people I’d lost touch with have found me again and reconnected, like a childhood best friend and her two brothers, the eldest of whom took me to my first formal dance — where my cool vintage blue crochet dress split right down the back when the zipper broke halfway through the evening. He was a perfect gentleman and loaned me his jacket. But it was not the elegant impression I’d hoped to leave on him.
One of the reasons I hope to find some people from my past, selfishly, is also to reconnect with our shared memories, those unique to us. And, as someone not close to my family, my friends really are much more the repository of my memories. Too often, they know me much better than my own mother, (whose care I left at 14, for good) and father, (whose care I left at 19, for good.) I have 3 step-siblings, but we never lived together and are not close.
Half my life was spent in Canada and the second half in the United States, making me more eager to seek out those who “knew me when” — when I was young(er) and with whom I share specific memories no American has or could understand.
In London this past summer I met up again with a man I’d traveled with in Spain decades ago for two weeks after we met on a train station platform there. On that journey, I was 22, alone for four months moving across Europe, and already weary of fending off male advances.
I craved companionship and, bluntly, a male foil to keep the rest at bay.
He was smart, funny, good company. He was also handsome, with brilliant blue eyes, a student at Cambridge four years my junior. Much later he became a friend on Facebook, albeit one who never posted anything.
He asked me to go to lunch on this London visit, and I agreed, both curious and a little nervous; we’re both happily married so I knew this was innocent.
Like me, he is long partnered, had traveled widely and had no children.
We went to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum, (which we loved), and our afternoon was easy and comfortable and as though no time at all had passed since we’d seen one another.
It was lovely.
I’m glad we found one another again.
Do you seek out people from your past with whom you’ve lost touch?
If you’ve ever been a “trouble-making” student — or have tried to teach one — this recent op-ed might resonate:
The Department of Education estimates that 7 percent of the student population — nearly 3.5 million students in kindergarten through high school — was suspended at least once in the 2011-12 academic year, the last for which these data are available. Despite the Checkpoint Charlie climate in many urban high schools, where students are herded through metal detectors when they enter the building, suspensions are rarely prompted by violence. Ninety-five percent are for “willful defiance” or “disruption.”
African-American students are hit hardest. They are more than three times as likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled. As a result, as early as middle school, many black students have concluded that when it comes to discipline, the cards are stacked against them. They stop trusting their teachers, and their negative attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fall behind when they’re suspended, and many drop out or are pushed out…
In short, this kind of discipline is a lose-lose proposition. What’s to be done? Enter empathy.
This one hit me hard.
I’m white, female and grew up with privilege.
None of which exempted me from being in a lot of trouble, and eventually asked to leave the private all-girl school I’d been attending since fourth grade, when I was eight, which was when I went into boarding.
I spent every summer at summer camp, all eight weeks, so my life between the ages of eight and 14 was largely spent, (except two years living with my mother at home), surrounded by strangers and subject to their rules.
At the end of Grade Nine, I was told I would not be welcome there again.
If you’ve ever been suspended, expelled or told to leave a school, you’ll also know the feelings of rage, shame, humiliation and possible loss I felt then.
I loved our uniform, (a Hunting Stewart kilt and tie), and the rambling Victorian buildings of campus, its ancient chestnut trees and long afternoons of playing sports in the sunshine.
I would lose contact with some close friends, girls whose names I remember clearly decades later.
I lost my place as someone whose intelligence, and writing, had been winning prizes, respect and recognition for years.
None of which, of course, was ever discussed.
My bad behavior never included drugs or alcohol or physical fights — it was all very WASP-y and Canadian.
Instead, I talked back to teachers.
My bed and dresser, (we were marked every morning on neatness on a sheet of paper at the entrance to our shared bedrooms), were always a mess.
I once thew an apple core across the room, aiming at a waste basket below — instead it hit ancient paper wallpaper, leaving a tell-tale stain. I was 13 at the time.
I was excoriated for my deliberate vandalism.
It was nuts.
I’ve since taught at four different colleges and have had a few tough students.
I’ve not had the challenge of fighting, shouting and blatant disrespect of me or other students — so I wouldn’t presume to say how to manage that.
But I will say this — if a child or young adult is behaving like a monster in class, they’re quite likely plagued by demons outside of it.
They might be being bullied.
They might have parents or siblings with substance abuse issues.
They might be being abused.
You can be sure they are deeply unhappy and may well have no one who cares enough to get past their rage and rebellion to find out why. I still wish someone had done that for me.
You will only know if you care enough to ask them, kindly.
In my case, it was parents who were rarely there, off traveling the world for work or pleasure, or just not particularly interested in knowing I was troubled, just as long as I kept winning academic prizes and keeping my grades high enough to get a bursary.
I was sick to death of being ignored.
Instead of empathy, I was shouted at by ancient, furious housemothers, increasingly disdained by fed-up teachers, shunned by scared fellow students, and moved from bedroom to bedroom to bedroom as punishment.
My worst punishment made me very happy — a room all to myself.
I was later bullied for three years in high school, and didn’t much enjoy my four years at a very large and deeply impersonal university.
As a result, I pretty much hate school.
Also not fond of (useless) authority figures, most of whom insist on obedience with no interest in empathy.
It takes guts to face your feelings and try to work through them, certainly when they’re painful or confusing. I’ve found it simpler to just ignore and/or bury them.
Writing publicly about your most private emotions? I’m still deciding how much of it I want to do.
I’ve not struggled with panic attacks or severe anxiety, occasionally with depression. I haven’t been sexually abused or attacked. Therapists — starting in my teens when I was bullied in high school for three years — have helped.
I grew up in a family most comfortable expressing a limited set of emotions, often anger. There was usually plenty of money, and good health and interesting work, so there was no obvious source for it. Material wealth and a sort of emotional poverty are a challenging combination.
No one got hit, but verbal attacks weren’t unusual.
My mother is bi-polar and hated how her medication tamped down her energy and creativity — so her terrifying and out-of-the-blue manic episodes were a part of my life, beginning at age 12 and continuing into my 30s. These included police, consular officials in three foreign countries and multiple hospitalizations, including a locked ward in London.
As an only child, my father (then divorced) usually off traveling for work, I had no backup.
She also drank a lot, and smoked, both of which eventually have ruined her health. No one seemed to care very much, which was both understandable and heartbreaking. She was Mensa smart, beautiful, funny.
We gave up on our relationship in 2011; I live a six-hour international flight away from her.
It’s a source of deep and un-resolvable pain. I don’t write about it because…what good would it possibly do?
I have three half-siblings, each from different mothers; we’re not close.
When people rave about how awesome their family is, I feel like a Martian; I left my mother’s care at 14, my father’s at 19, to live alone.
I hate explaining this. It feels like telling tales out of school, or people react with pity or they just can’t relate to it at all.
Which stops me from writing about it, except for here, something, I suppose, of a trial balloon. I still don’t have the distance, or skill, to make it all beautiful, an amuse-bouche presented prettily for others’ enjoyment.
I wonder if I ever will.
My parents divorced when I was 7, and I spent my childhood, ages eight to 14, shuttling between boarding school and three summer camps. Camp saved me. There, at least, I felt wholly loved: as a talented actress and singer, an athlete, a friend and an admired leader of my peers.
But you quickly learn, when you share your bedroom with strangers, none of whom you chose, to keep your mouth shut. Guarded = safe. There’s almost nowhere completely private to cry, or comfort yourself.
At my private school, no one ever just asked: “How are you? Are you OK?”
The ability to be emotionally intimate is very much a learned, practiced skill.
Not surprising, then, that I became a nationally-ranked saber fencer!
I also work in a highly competitive field — journalism — where emotional vulnerability can provoke (and has) attack, ridicule, gossip and bullying. A friend in India once defended me there against a lie that took root in Toronto, where I worked, carried overseas by someone who thought this was a cool tidbit to share.
Luckily, later in life, I met and married Jose, a man fully at ease with having and expressing his feelings and hearing mine, a deeply loving person. He was the much- cherished youngest child of his parents, a small-town preacher and a kindergarten teacher. He was a late-life surprise baby, born after the stillbirth of a brother.
A fellow career journalist, working at The New York Times for 31 years in photography, he’s also quite private and cautious about who he lets in close.
I’m so grateful every day for his love and support.
How do you cope with your difficult feelings, of sadness or anger or loneliness?
Do you share them and/or blog or write publicly about them?
Set at least one face-to-face date with a friend (or colleague) every week
In a world of virtual connection, it’s too easy to spend our life tapping a keyboard and staring into a screen. And we miss out on so much by not sitting face to face with friends and colleagues — their laughter, a hug, a raised eyebrow.
Eat less meat
I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian, but have decided, for health reasons, to try and eat less red meat. Great recipes help, as does finding a good and affordable fishmonger.
Switch up your cultural consumption
If you’ve never been to the opera or ballet, (or played a video game or read a manga), or visited a private art gallery or museum, give it a try.
We all fall into ruts, easily forgetting — or, worse, never knowing or caring — how many forms of cultural expression exist in the world.
If all you read is science fiction, pick up a book of real-life science, and vice versa.
Have you ever listened to koto music? Or bhangra? Or reggae? Or soukous? One of my favorite musicians is Mali’s Salif Keita. Another is the British songwriter Richard Thompson.
Watch less television
I turned off the “news” and my stress levels quickly dropped. I read Twitter and two papers a day, but most television news is a shallow, U.S.-centric (where I live) joke. I enjoy movies and a very few shows, but try to limit my television time to maybe six hours a week.
Read for pure pleasure
I consume vast amounts of media for my work as a journalist, (we get 20 monthly and weekly magazines and newspapers by subscription), often ending up too tired to read for pure enjoyment.
Make a point of finding some terrific new reads and dive in.
Schedule a long phone call or Skype visit each month with someone far away you miss
Like me, you’ve probably got friends and family scattered across the world. People I love live as far away from me (in New York) as Kamloops, B.C., D.C., Toronto and London. Emails and social media can’t get to the heart of the matter as deeply as a face to face or intimate conversation.
Get a handle on your finances: spending, saving, investing
Do you know your APRs? Your FICO score and how to improve it? Are you saving 15 percent of your income every week or month? (If not, how will you ever retire or weather a financial crisis?)
Have you invested your savings? Are you reviewing your portfolio a few times a year to see if things have changed substantially?
Do you read the business press, watching where the economy is headed? If you’ve never read a personal finance book or blog, invest some time this year in really understanding how to maximize every bit of your hard-earned income and cut expenses.
I wrote five pieces last year for Reuters Money; there are many such sites to help you better understand personal finance. Here’s a helpful piece from one of my favorite writers on the topic, (meeting her in D.C. last year was a great nerd-thrill!), the Washington Post‘s Michelle Singletary.
Fast one or two days a week
I’ve now been doing this for seven months, two days a week, and plan to do it forever. The hard core consume only 500 calories on “fast” days. I eat 750, and eat normally the other days. (Normally doesn’t include fast food, liquor [except for weekends], junk food like chips and soda.) It’s helped me shed weight and calm digestive issues.
It’s not that difficult after the first few weeks and doing vigorous exercise helps enormously, thanks to endorphins and other chemicals that naturally suppress appetite.
Explore a new-to-you neighborhood, town or city nearby
Do you always take the same route to work or school or the gym? We all try to save time by taking well-known short-cuts, but can miss a lot in so doing.
Make time to try a new-to-you neighborhood or place nearby. Travel, adventure and exploration don’t have to require a costly plane or train ticket.
Ditch a long-standing habit — and create a new one
Watching television news had become a nightly habit for me, even as I found much of it shallow and stupid.
My new habit for 2015 was playing golf, even just going to the driving range to work on my skills.
My new habit, for 2016, is fasting twice a week.
Not sure yet what my 2017 new habit will be.
Write notes on paper
As thank-yous for the dinners and parties you attend. For gifts received. Condolence notes.
Splurge on some quality stationery and a nice pen; keep stamps handy so you’ve no excuse. Getting a hand-written letter through the mail now is such a rarity and a luxury. It leaves an impression.
Decades from now, you’ll savor some of the ones you received — not a pile of pixels or emails.
Even a can of paint and a roller can transform a room.
Your home is a refuge and sanctuary from a noisy, crowded, stressful world. Treat it well!
Visit your local library
Libraries have changed, becoming more community centers. I love settling into a comfortable chair for a few hours to soak up some new magazines or to pick up a selection of CDs or DVDs to try.
Get to know a child you’re not related to
We don’t have children or grand-children, or nephews or nieces, so we appreciate getting to know the son of our friends across the street, who’s 10, and a lively, funny, talented musician.
People who don’t have children can really enjoy the company of others’ kids, and kids can use a break from their parents and relatives; an outside perspective can be a refreshing change (when it’s someone whose values you share and whose behavior, of course, you trust.)
If you’re ready for the commitment, volunteer to mentor a less-privileged child through a program like Big Brothers or Big Sisters or other local initiatives. Everyone needs an attentive ear and someone fun and cool to hang out with and learn from — who’s not only one more authority figure.
Write to your elected representative(s) praising them for work you admire — or arguing lucidly for the changes you want them to make, and why
I admire those who choose political office. For every bloviating blowhard, there’s someone who really hopes to make a difference. Let them know you appreciate their hard work — or make sure they hear your concerns.
Write a letter to the editor
If you ever read the letters page, you’ll find it dominated by male voices. Make time to read deeply enough that you find stories and issues to engage with, about which you have strong and lucid opinions and reactions.
Support the causes you believe in by arguing for them publicly — not just on social media or privately.
Spend at least 30 minutes every day in silence, solitude and/or surrounded by nature
Imagine being 13 — and wanting to do something that only men have ever done.
Imagine having to climb a terrifyingly steep cliff to capture an eaglet from its nest.
Imagine living in a landscape of such beauty it defies description.
A new documentary, The Eagle Huntress, must be one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see, filmed in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia and focused on Aisholpan, a young girl — who daubs her nails with purple polish, who lugs cans of fresh milk from her family’s cows, who lives five nights a week in a dormitory at her school.
Her grandfather and father have long been champion golden eagle-hunters, a sport that requires each hunter to find, capture and train a young eagle to hunt on command. An annual competition, complete with scorecards and stopwatch-wielding judges, determines who gets bragging rights as the best. The event draws men of all ages, and she is the only female.
Imagine the pressure!
Aisholpan is a joy to watch, everything you’d expect of a 13-year-old — and much more. She’s calm, determined, easy-going and brave.
No Ipads or cellphones for her; technology for these ger-dwelling nomads consists of a transistor radio and a portable solar panel.
Her quest to find, train and work with her eagle makes a terrific story, and an unlikely but likeable young heroine, with many obstacles along the way. While the film’s main focus is on the annual competition, it also shows her and her father trudging for miles in bitter cold and through snow so deep their rugged horses struggle to move, determined to have her eagle hunt, capture and kill a fox.
The cinematography is astounding, using everything from a GoPro to drones.
I’ve been wanting to visit Mongolia for years, ever since I did some film research on it. Now I’m even more curious.
With American Thanksgiving looming and the holidays after that, many of us will soon become guests, whether meeting the parents of the one you love, (and maybe hope to marry — no pressure!), reconnecting with friends or with family you might see infrequently and who you don’t know very well.
Being a guest can also mean stepping into a potential minefield of mutually hurt feelings and/or unexpressed frustration.
Some hosts are explicit about their wishes, but many are not.
I’ve stayed with friends many times, some of whom live in fairly tight quarters; no one we know lives in a 4,000 square foot house or a stately mansion.
Fortunately, Jose and I have been invited back many times by the same hosts. (On a blessedly few occasions, it’s been a total shitshow, usually when staying with [sigh] my family.)
Here’s to a lovely holiday season!
Eleven ways to hasten a return invitation:
No political arguments!
The reason you’ve been invited into the sanctuary of someone’s home is to enjoy fun, friendship, fellowship not to engage in ferocious battles or shift them, suddenly, to your opposing worldview. (Or vice versa.)
When political conversation becomes (over)heated, contentious and ad hominem insults are flying — slow down long enough to ask yourself, seriously, what’s the upside? How much anger, even estrangement, is worth it?
(If it’s time to torch a bridge or two, have at it, but make sure there’s gas in your car or a taxi nearby and alternate lodging you can afford.)
Bring Scrabble, cards, Bananagrams, a good book, headphones and music you love, a sketchbook.
Head out for a long, head-clearing, blood-pressure-lowering walk.
Or, as some Americans are choosing to do this year after such a contentious election, just stay home, or at a hotel instead.
When asked for your dietary preferences, remember — it’s not a full-service restaurant
Some people have life-threatening allergies, but others think nothing of imposing their impossibly long list of preferences.
If you insist on ready access to a specific food or drink, bring it with you — rural options can be distant and limited.
Stay quiet until you know your hosts are awake
This seems like basic good manners to me, but friends we recently stayed with at their country house upstate said they’re often awakened with pointedly heavy guests’ foot-steps as early as 8:00 a.m.
This is a couple who work 18-hour days running their own company and I know how weary they are!
Make sure you know how to find and (quietly!) make coffee or tea. Bring your own headphones and reading material.
Be a grown-up and entertain yourself and your kids in (relative) silence until everyone is fully conscious.
Sex? Keep it private and quiet
Ask any host about the worst guests they ever had, and the screamers and moaners will likely top the list. It’s great you’re so deeply in love (or lust), but sharing space with people you might not know very well is neither the time nor place to enjoy a noisy sexual marathon.
An ex-boyfriend of mine had relative bring a sheep (yes, really) to his suburban home from upstate while visiting for Thanksgiving…
If you’re bringing your children and/or pets, have a full and frank discussion before arriving about what your hosts need and expect from them, and from you
Not everyone is used to plenty of high volume shrieking/barking, especially if they don’t have a child or a pet.
People who’ve chosen to “get away” are actually hoping to flee their everyday stresses, not add new and fresh hells to their time off. Promptly clean up every mess and apologize/offer to replace anything your kids/pet damage or break.
Buy groceries, pay for them or split food/drink costs with your host
Ditto for taking your hosts out for a few good meals. Don’t be a mooch.
Bring a gift
Don’t arrive empty-handed: offer a great bottle of wine, some beautiful soap, a lovely coffee table book on a topic you know your hosts will enjoy.
While many of us now spend ours day on social media, time away with friends or relatives means enjoying (or trying to!) actual face to face conversation, in the house, walking through the woods or wandering the beach.
Everyone needs and deserves quiet private time, but focus on the people who’ve invited you, not only your technology and distant amusements. And no phones at the table!
Write a thank-you note, on paper, and send it within a week
Sure, you can email, and most hosts probably expect nothing more. But choose a pretty card or use your personal stationery and highlight the things you most enjoyed.
Help out wherever you can
Wash dishes or cook a meal or walk the dog or baby-sit for a few hours. Maybe you can help mow the lawn or weed the garden. Your hosts will probably say no, but might well appreciate the offer. It’s a home, not a hotel.
Avoid public grooming
I was once hosted by a younger friend who sat on the sofa watching television with his wife — while both of them flossed their teeth. Not my style.
You may walk around your own home clipping, cleaning or polishing your nails or brushing your teeth in transit, but in someone else’s space please keep all of it within the confines of a bathroom with a closed door.
Create lovely shared memories, not regrets you’ll all spend years trying to forget.
Do you enjoy being a guest or host?
What other tips would you offer a guest — or host?
Two recent films have me thinking, long and hard, about the effects our parents, and their behaviors and values, exert on us, whether we’re young or adult — American Pastoral, from the book by Philip Roth, and Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen.
One reviewer says Captain Fantastic is “the best movie about parenting I’ve ever seen.”
The reviews of American Pastoral aren’t terrific, but I found much in it to think about — a solid citizen, owner of a Newark, NJ glove factory inherited from his father, ends up losing his rebellious daughter to an underground movement devoted to blowing up buildings and sowing social unrest.
It encapsulates the schism of the 1960s between the “squares” and the hippies, between those committed to the way things were and those determined to rend the social fabric edge to edge.
Dakota Fanning plays the daughter, moving from a stuttering teen simmering with suburban rage to a mentally fragile adult. Her father never gives up his search for her, a heart-rending theme for me, who has had many estrangements from my own.
The father in Captain Fantastic is a divisive figure, an authoritarian raising his six children in a teepee in the woods of Oregon, home schooling them and subjecting them to intense physical training. The breathtaking beauty of their surroundings is in contrast to their total social and cultural isolation — I thought, the whole way through it, of Cea Person, whose searing memoir of a similar childhood in the woods of Canada, North of Normal, is unforgettable.
I’m fascinated by these two films for the questions they raise about how much we want to become our parents — or rush to flee their influence.
I never had children, but am always intrigued by how people choose to raise them and to impart their values, whether social, intellectual, creative or religious. I’ve seen a few adults I know work hard to break free of their family, often with painful consequences, and others still in thrall to patterns that make them unhappy but can’t find a way out.
I’m always in awe (yes, and envious) of happy, emotionally close families, the kind where an adult daughter and her mother remain best friends, and Sunday dinners en famille go on for decades.
Both of my parents are free spirits, both of whom — not surprisingly — came from wealthy but emotionally difficult families. Neither of them ever talks about their childhood.
My father was raised in Vancouver, his father, (an Irish immigrant from a small town in Co. Donegal), founded and ran a successful trucking company there; my mother, born in New York City, was raised by a wealthy mother from Chicago who had multiple husbands, divorcing the ones who annoyed her most.
Headstrong ‘r us.
My mother, who never attended college but married at 17, lived life on her own terms, whether wearing a sari, (her best friend for decades was East Indian), a different wig for every day of the week or moving us to Mexico when I was 14. That ended badly when she had a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve, stranding me and a friend on our own for a few weeks there.
My father, a successful and multiple award-winning filmmaker of features and documentaries, never met a cage he didn’t want to rattle, hard. Both are still alive, long divorced.
My mother and I have no relationship at this point.
Even this late in life, I’m still their child in some ways — stubborn, creative, a world traveler, intellectually curious, with friends ranging in age from the 20s to 80s.
My tastes in art and music and food are both developed and wildly catholic, as theirs are, a gift I appreciate.
Both are smart as hell and super-competitive — family Scrabble games can get a little feral!
My father is ferociously agnostic, my mother for years a devoted Catholic; I occasionally attend Episcopal services. (My husband, a devoted Buddhist, was raised by a strict Baptist minister.)
In other ways, I’m quite different.
My mother has lived in such disparate spots as Lima, Peru, Bath, Roswell, New Mexico and B.C.’s Sunshine Coast; I’ve now lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years, am much less successful professionally and financially than my father was and, in some ways, more disciplined in my choices than either have been.
I’m also a product of my times, my adolescence in the hippie-ish late 1960s and 1970s and my native country, Canada, which remains socially liberal.
Which parent do you most resemble?
Or have you chosen to reject their values?
How much do you wish your children will be (are they?) like you?
Unless you live (as some of you do!) in a rural and isolated area, we’re literally bumping into one another all day every — in stores and elevators, on the subway and bus and streetcar, at the movies and opera and theater, at work and in the park, in our houses of worship, at airports and bus stations and the grocery store.
To stay sane, to function as a civilized human being, means being aware of how our behavior affects others all around us.
I’m getting burned out by a growing (?!) epidemic of selfishness, rudeness, destructiveness and endangerment — I see people driving and texting every day.
— The family of six, with screaming baby and out-of-control seven-year-old boy who ignored two staff requests to be quieter and more considerate and much annoyed shushing from fellow diners and death stares from the rest of us.
— The cafe patrons in my gentrifying suburban New York town, (where some riverside apartments now sell for $1 million), who blithely leave the front door open, not even stopping to consider the heat and noise that inflicts on those already sitting inside.
— The bro’s at the gym, apparently illiterate, (signs on the wall forbidding it), who heave and grunt with effort then let their weights smash into the floor with a terrifying crash.
— The ((*^$@@@ at our Japanese music concert, whose music was so quiet and subtle I could hear the man next to me digesting, whose cellphone on vibrate kept humming. It was so bad the host had to remind everyone at intermission that “silent mode” isn’t.
Our restaurant meal ended up a disaster; the food was expensive, the atmosphere chaotic and we’d dressed nicely, anticipating a relaxing night out. It wasn’t! We arrived at 7:30 and the noisy party didn’t even leave, (one patron even applauded when they did), until 9:00 p.m.
I wrote a polite two-page letter, with four suggestions how to avoid such a mess next time, to the restaurant manager.
I didn’t just dump a nasty Yelp review; I wanted to give them the chance to respond.
He did, quickly and well. We spoke, civilly, for about 20 minutes. He apologized, assured me that it wouldn’t happen again and gave us a $75 credit for our next visit.
But this selfish behavior is rampant…and it’s ruining too many of our daily interactions.
It’s a tough call.
No one, (and you all know me to be feisty!), is anxious to confront people who are already making clear they’re rude and obnoxious, in the vain hope they suddenly won’t be, let alone think of apologizing.
They’re so oblivious to the needs of others, even as they share public space with us all.
And sometimes our friends or partners hate it when we do speak up.
Then I put on my invisible Urban Avenger costume, muster my courage for a confrontation with a thunderbolt-throwing, flesh-eating, but otherwise pleasant New York City mother, and as Herb beats it out the door because he knows what’s coming, walk over to the table and ask the adults which one of them is the mother.
“You don’t seem to be aware of this, but for the last 20 minutes your kids have been annoying the entire restaurant,” I tell her. “This isn’t a playground. If they can’t behave like adults, they shouldn’t be in here.”
Now, here is where it gets weird. This New York mother doesn’t scream at me or insult me. She doesn’t apologize. She just makes a request.
“Could you tell that to [the spawn we will call] William?” she says. Then, turning to the largest kid, “William, this lady has something to say to you?”
What? Now I have to be the enforcer? How did this happen? Urban Avenger’s job is to tell people how to bring up their children, not to do it herself. William, meanwhile, is standing there looking at me…
“William,” I say, as sternly as I can, “you’ve been bothering everybody in here. This is not a playground, it’s not a place for you to run around and yell.”