Sunday, June 12, 2011

Boyhood on the Cusp of Manhood, and Other Gadgets

The story of my younger son is a beautiful story. A classic tale of wonder and boyhood on the cusp of manhood and I am holding on tight as I know it will soon be nothing more than vapor that I can no longer hold on to, or capture, or completely recall. I will tell it from only one event and so the story will unfold.

Tonight I went to the 2010/2011 Rhinebeck Crew Awards dinner. I went with the delight in knowing that the season was over. My weekends will be a little freer, my commitments my own. My celebratory feeling was a bit self-centered. The awards were given at the end of dinner. The coach of this team is this rare and unique man. At times, he appears zen-like, ethereal and fluid, other times perhaps disorganized and distracted. Occasionally I hear he “gets crazy”. Which generally translates to, he is an adult responsible for numerous adolescents transcending hormonal fits and jags, those beasts with illusions of immortality and all-knowingness, with assorted parents that seem deluded into believing each of their own children have been created to lead the universe with some supersized trait or another. I don’t know exactly what he does that might appear “crazy”, nothing crazy enough to speak of. Perhaps he raises his voice or sternly asks them to pay attention. Crazy stuff like that. Even zen-like humans have their limits, I suppose.

At the dinner when rowers are called up to receive their athletic pin or varsity letter, the coach typically shares something personal and meaningful about each rower. We parents sit waiting, eager to have our beliefs affirmed. Tonight I was delighted and thrilled to hear a small piece of my son’s tale. It was told initially when he called up my son’s friend, another rower, his partner in crime, so to speak. It was not entirely shared, the story, but a gadget was produced and held up for all to see. Suddenly the coach called my son up as he was known to be involved with this gadget. And the moment I saw it, I was elated. I clapped. My beliefs about my son’s supersized traits were surely being affirmed. I felt a part of the magic that will never be mine to experience. The partner in crime, I believe was the inventor or at least the developer of the, let’s call it the “Pre-Manhood Cusp Gizmo”. I only know the story because the gizmo that was produced and revealed at this awards dinner was first unveiled a few weeks earlier in my car. My first reaction, which is standard by now, a joke even, because it is overused, “Is it explosive?” The assorted gadgets that are frequently produced have not been, but I believe it is important to check. My son feels otherwise, but still laughs, in my face pretty much.

The gadget consists of wires and string. A bent wire, maybe a piece of a hanger, doubled and curved hook-like, similar to a gyro wheel, but taped up. Attached to this is a small rod smaller than a pencil, with twine twisted around it. When it was first pulled from the sport bag and unraveled slowly, a knowing glance and a wide beaming smile grew upon my son’s face. The partner looked a bit smug or sleepy, gently nodded, wrapped it up, returned it to his bag and nodded off. Crew schedule is a 6 am kind of thing, nodding off is part of the deal. “That’s not going to blow anything up is it?” I didn’t quite demand, but wanted to feign seriousness. Laugh, “No” followed by snorty, huffy laugh, “Why do you think everything is an explosive?” As if I am obsessed with mad science, and explosions! I quieted myself, certain that I did my job, imagined it might be for fishing or retrieving sunk cox boxes or treasure and went on my way. Enjoyed the meet, enjoyed it more that it ended earlier than scheduled, and enjoyed that my weekends would soon be free.

After we dropped off the partner in crime, I asked. “So, what was the contraption for?” And so the tale was told.

Earlier in the season, we were playing with a ball while we were hanging out, y’know, like when we all play hacky sack or we’re just goofing around? So someone threw the ball, (or hacky sacked it, or some such boyish detail) and it got stuck in a vent up near the ceiling, (or high on the wall above standing level). So we’ve been trying to get it out every so often when we’re bored. Every once in awhile someone has some idea and tries to do it but no one has been able to do it. So we were talking and trying to figure out what we would need to get it. Flash forward to son, friend with gadget and current meet.

This is what I love about my son, and his friend. They are creative and imaginative thinkers and problem solvers. They are strong enough to be silly and innocent enough to not care about so many other unrelated but creativity deadening peripheral factors. So they unraveled the gizmo, climbed or jumped and attempted to free the ball. The joy in this being, the ball could easily be replaced, the need for it was long gone, but they kept it alive, discussing it, toying with ideas, attempting to retrieve it, others were involved and interested. Now they had supplies and a strategic plan. On their first attempt, someone went “crazy”, (think back to the earlier use of this expression). A coach approached them, yelling at them to get down, get away, get outside. A couple of other coaches were also approaching. One was their own coach. They explained what they were doing, and they were listened to, if only briefly. Suddenly as if the Pre-manhood Cusp Gizmo shimmered or glowed, the coaches seemed to collectively become boys. Innocent boys with wonder and an innate knowledge that they can fix things and figure stuff out. The coaches began to offer ideas and thoughts. They made suggestions and told them to get something to stand on to make it easier. They encouraged and allowed. They gave permission for these soon to be men to be boys in the ways that boys can be if allowed. Suddenly they were all together, softer, but inspired, in a way the coaches could remember from a time long ago.

In between races and events they went back to the vent and the ball. In the end, they were discovered again by another coach, who yelled and carried on and would not listen. He didn’t care what their coach said or anyone else, they needed to get down and get away from the vent. They left, defeated and chagrined. All but the friend was left. He continued on, quietly, out of radar. He suddenly felt, foolish, alone, as though he were involved in a ridiculous and meaningless pursuit. He started away from the vent, gently tugged the gizmo, wrapping it up as he meandered out, and then heard the roll and thud of the released ball freed from the vent behind him. He won. The Universe was on his side, and he got what was his due. Not an old stuck ball, but inspiration and the ability to spread wonder.

The last coach to take the stern approach and not hear the story missed out. Many of us do. Life gets tough, and long, and sometimes it is a nuisance and an act of frustration to care for kids, work with them and just be around them. I have had those moments with my kids and others, and for that I am sorry, it is unfortunate.

I am happy that my son and his friend have the spirit and imagination that they have. I am delighted to know they have been encouraged and permitted to explore and discover and participate and problem solve. I love how the gizmo touched the lives, if briefly, of the several coaches and team mates in a way that only Steven Spielberg or Jerry Spinelli can capture boyhood wonder and make it mean something precious and “right” in a world that is moving childhood far too quickly and much too rigidly. I am thankful that they were honored and valued for these acts by a coach that still gets it. My son is after-all, a somewhat perfect being and a future leader and dreamer.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A bottle of red, a twit and a tweet

Weiner, Spitzer, Clinton, Schwarzenegger, Gingrich, Edwards, … The list goes on and on and the interest grows. I just don’t get it. Truly, really, honestly this is all mind-boggling to me. I want so much to hear a woman’s voice about these “scandals”. I want to hear many women and I also want to hear different male viewpoints. Honestly, I want to just stop hearing about them this way. I want the twists and turns from sex scandal and overworked “modern” manhood to make its way back so that we can focus on what I believe is the one issue at hand: the inability to accept accountability, or simply put, to be honest. I want political leaders to be honest. Perhaps that is too large a reach. They, we all, are human, with failings and flaws. Human, with wants and needs. Human, with weaknesses and insecurities and false beliefs, thoughts of grandeur, and sad desperation. Humans, with hope and intellect and a great many other defects and qualities.

I imagine some people are outraged by the sex drive of these modern men. I don’t particularly care what other people do or don’t do in their bedrooms, hotel rooms, oval offices, cellphones, laptops, internet et al. I do care about the way we get the news slanted and diverted. I can't quite understand why we are so quick to defend and compartmentalize. I do think being deceitful does interfere with the ability to lead. But really- has any one of these guys or others just stopped and said “Oops, you caught me with my pants down and my shirt up, I am screwed, caught, sorry, quite modern, human, horny…? What would happen if they did?

Alec Balwin recently commented on Weiner’s actions in the Huffington Post. He made several remarks that interest me. This is sex for many people now. Meaning? Sneaky, dishonest, self-destructive, and detached? Perhaps that’s what was meant. It still distracts from the issue of understanding what honesty is, now, later, before. He added, "No time for Mateus and cheap spaghetti. No time for slowly moving toward one another with a combination of hope and caution, lust and integrity."

Weiner is so busy, he forgot the important rule that everyone you interact with on this plane becomes a co-conspirator. You rely on them to remain confidential. He forgot? Really? C’mon Mr. Baldwin, Weiner seemed to be pretty busy pulling his shirt up and his pants down to excite those co-conspirators. Perhaps to delude himself into imagining his interested “friends” represent some level of popularity. The use of this plane in this manner is exciting and interesting because it offers the illusion of being potentially anonymous while offering a known risky thrill. It also allows the opportunity for sharing and flirting with someone you may already have a true level of confidentiality with, that’s a bit modern and also risky but not quite so damaging. Certainly he could have and maybe he did, send similar posts to his wife. I somehow doubt it. Sadly, as Mr Baldwin is familiar with, and I myself, in these modern times of push button impulsive internet sharing, those we were once married to or in relationships with and felt a strong sense of trust with, can and do turn on us and expose our weaknesses and slander us and hurt our children and families, quickly and cruelly. Risks we take when we love and trust. Relying on people is a risky business. Sometimes it works and sometimes not so much.

Internet sexting can be perceived as three dimensional by adding the component of "feel", regardless of how cheap and unearned those feelings are. That person on the screen is doing whatever they're doing... just for you. Of course Weiner was doing what he was doing just for her, and her, and her and her, not for her that he is married to, but most of all for him. Baldwin discusses the perceived purpose, The affirmation that comes when someone lets you know they want to sleep with you. Or even cyber-sleep with you… Again, can we call a spade a spade? This has little to do with wanting to know someone wants to sleep with you. Sending pictures of your manhood, modern or otherwise to more than a few is purely self-serving and momentarily thrilling. Weiner married a woman with a powerful, meaningful career. I don’t begin to imagine I have any insight into whether she wanted to sleep with him or not, I imagine making the decision to marry Weiner and the fact that she is currently pregnant could be indicative that sleeping with him was part of the deal.

Let's just stop pretending these issues arise because these so called high-functioning men are too busy or modern with human flaws. If we don’t believe the vows of marriage need to be upheld, lets change them. If we don’t really expect leaders to be honest or trusting, lets stop focusing on these virtues in such a way that we force the leaders into these compromising and embarrassing situations because the expectations are impossible. If one political party or party member needs to expose, lets expect they are not simultaneously engaging in similar activities. Either redefine what it means to be married and a leader or lets expect modern leaders to lead.

Mr. Baldwin quotes "Let he who is without sin....." I would like to add:
"and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." Additionally, once we all know the truth, please stop holding on to the lies. Surrender.

I am looking forward to sitting at a red checkered table with a bottle of Mateus and cheap spaghetti, send and receive a few flirtatious texts from time to time, perhaps exchange a visual or two with an honest modern man, knowing there are no promises, but much hope. I wish Mr. Baldwin luck on his mayoral campaign and an understanding that honesty is the best policy.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Diversity is Not A Threatening Word, But Conformity May Harm You

This week I attended the best faculty meeting ever. I know this is not something that is typically shared or effusively emoted. And yet, if I could have jumped up in the air, chest-bumped or fist pumped Arsenio-style I would have. Ok, I could have, I have the physical ability, sort of, but I couldn’t have, it’s not my nature, it would have come off like a seizure, or a restraining order might have appeared to be in need.

Why? What was so special at a faculty meeting in June? Test Score results? Earlier summer dismissal to match the collective disengagement and out of body dismissal that has already occurred by most? Summer bonus pay? No, No, and No. GSD. Oh yes, G S D- Gender/Sexuality Diversity. A presentation, a speaker, a welcoming and much needed conversation about an unwelcome still needed discussion. Dr. Jennifer Bryan, Ph.D., Psychologist and Educational Consultant, presented information about a topic that many of us still can’t seem to discuss, identify with or come to terms with, in our own private and personal lives. Asking us to discuss Gender and Sexuality in our professional setting is simply abhorrent to many. We are teacher’s after all and we must remain neutral or at least appear somewhat neutered. In some states this topic is probably illegal, if done on a Sunday, or in a public building, or in the company of people of some differing or opposing gender(s). And yet, the kids, our students, are doing it. Doing “it”. And even doing the it of conversation with such freedom and abandon. While 16% of 7th and 8th graders have already had intercourse, 50% are experimenting with what they consider more acceptable sexual activity, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Can you imagine what kind of parents they must have? What about the parents that are not ready for this?

After a year long commitment to gaining understanding and providing a structure or process for providing Diversity Awareness Training in one form or another, nothing was more disheartening than one of our team’s last conversations about the need to soften (or weaken) the use of the word “diversity”. If we are so frightened by the connotation or threat of using the word “diversity” to train and support staff, how will we ever be able to educate our students? If variety is the spice of life, why is diversity so dreadful to name?

How can we possibly cover these issues, concerns, ways of being that are so different, diverse, sexual? The reality is we can no longer NOT talk about sexual identity and gender identity. Society is changing. Families are different and diverse. Holding on to old standards and rigid rules that promote conformity while restricting and marginalizing specific groups and individuals does not benefit or build communities. It is also illegal, unethical and damaging.

I wonder if talking about gender differences is so uncomfortable because we might have to truly acknowledge the disparities. We can’t keep pretending there are no differences. We can’t continue to ignore inequalities and detrimental practices. If we talk about sexuality, we might need to recognize that middle school students are sexual beings. How can we possibly teach in a classroom full of sexually gendered students? I imagine it won’t be much different than teaching in a classroom with our current and past groups of diverse and developing sexually gendered students, except that we might ensure that everyone is welcome and safe and understands that we expect them all to have futures with the expectation and knowledge that they are worthwhile beings. Perhaps we may even quiet some of their own fears and unfamiliar feelings about those newly activated, not yet regulated hormones and body parts. While I have been in classrooms on occasions that could have used a visit from Father Abstinence and Sister Mary No-More Masturbation, I also wonder why a brief statement about appropriate time and place (or a note from the clergy) might better serve students than the don’t ask, don’t tell-wish-you-could hose-them-down-and-hope-for-the-best technique.

Many of us continue to promote the one size fits all means to an end. We can’t quite imagine that gender and sexuality are not simply choices that can be carefully considered and determined. Isn’t it best to pretend that there is one “normal” choice for life, and hope for the best? Boys like girls. Girls like boys. Bathrooms neatly labeled, locker rooms identified. Genitals predetermined. Grow up get married live in suburbia, have children, never look back or to the side. Of course statistics on marriage longevity, domestic violence, child abuse, depression, infidelity, and substance abuse support this one way approach, right? I understand being free to be you and me doesn’t necessarily end the social ills associated with “acting” normal, but it is a starting place.

Middle school students are so afraid of not being able to fit in, the easiest way to fit in is to help determine who doesn’t fit in. Labeling each other as gay, is often an easy and fast way in, or out. It’s easy. It’s even accepted and overlooked. Kids will be kids after all. And quite frankly, don’t some of us feel similar? Why do “they” have to throw it in our faces all the time? If some of those students didn’t act so gay they wouldn’t be treated that way. Right? What we fail to acknowledge is the fact that acting or being straight does not direct us to automatically think of sexual activities, acting or being lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, queer, transgendered, or intersex appears to force some of our thoughts. Many no longer see individuals, multifaceted humans, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, parents, and friends. We stop and try to make sense because we just don’t understand, or get it or want to know. Why, oh why do they have to throw it in our faces? Sadly, the incidence of suicide in the LGBQTI community is often a result of self-hate based upon a biological make-up that is judged unacceptable. Why would any school need to have a speaker at their faculty meetings?

We need to learn how to separate individual and culturally based personal feelings about sex and sexuality from the need to provide social-emotional supports for all students. We need to accept that middle school students each have varying degrees of identified and identifiable sexuality, they all have a gender and they all have academic expectations that should not be impacted by gender or sexuality. Some have started the process of individually identifying gender and others are not yet sure, or ready or interested in these developments. Some may never approach it. Many students struggle with giving up some of the non-gender-determined freedoms of pre-pubescence. Others struggle with premature pubescence. All this is happening while singing songs about sex, watching movies about sex, reading books about sex, sexting, tweeting and twittering sex, and even experimenting with sex. We can no longer ignore it. We need to provide opportunities for guided and supportive, developmentally appropriate conversations when they are raised.

Dr. Bryan was able to present the typically, electrically titillating or for some, disturbing topic of sexuality in a way that calmed all of the electricity and quieted the arousing taboo. She presented an overview of terminology. She charged us with the task of identifying what we needed in order to educate our students. Wow, what a concept. Educate our students about themselves and others in the world in a way that is thoughtful and developmentally sound, about topics that we all can identify with. Dr. Bryan discussed gender and sexuality and diversity and education. It seemed almost easy. We don’t need to teach the facts of life, but we need to be factual, unless we are teaching health, in seventh grade, when 50% are becoming sexually active in one way or another. We don’t need to stake our claim on the continuum of sexual or gender identity but we need to acknowledge that there are differences. We don’t need to prophesize or sermonize, we need to neutrally synthesize biologically sound information if or when it comes to our classrooms. We could even determine how to recognize and target social-emotional growth, biological and developmental milestones in a meaningful way. Maybe even incorporate guided supports into our daily routines. We don’t have to sit and wait for these topics to come to us. We can boldly and calmly prepare our students to live in a world that is diverse and inviting.