The unpopularity of kindness


I watched my son and his preschool group on the playground this past fall.  I saw a little boy filled with compassion, the only child who worked to not only acknowledge the tiny girl with Downs Syndrome, but to actively invite her into activites, and help her with her shoes.  His teachers commented on this at the teacher-parent meeting, and how the previous year he was known for not hesitating, running to hug any crying child and ask, “are you ok?”  He was 2.  This child, who seemed to wriggle out of the womb with a smile, who hardly ever cried, and can charm even the coldest stranger, this child who never takes a bad photo (he has even had photo development folks ask to copy his photo for their stands), I fear for him.  His greatest gift is that he has a well of instinctive compassion, and a skill for kindness.  He is a typical boy too- he competes with his brother from time to time, and has been known to recklessly throw a shoe at the cat in a moment of high enthusiasm to get her to pay attention to him.  But he feels instantly regretful, running up to her and telling her he is sorry.  I have cried at night when I have seen him earlier in the day rejected by another child, or treated with distanced curiosity by children who are not as open, enthusiastic, or kind.  He struggles with his impulsiveness and lack of focus (distractibility) to a degree that makes me fear he might be dyslexic (like his grandfather, and genetic links for dyslexia are becoming clear in research), or have attention deficit issues.  Yet at the same time he sings precisely in tune, and has lyrics memorized effortlessly.  He is altogether a normal kid, but for his outstanding ability for kindness.

I have given the notion of kindness a lot of thought in the past few weeks.  “Spontaneous/random acts of kindness” has become a hip bumper sticker, a phrase for talk show hosts to throw about; setting up the expectation that a single act gives an individual moral integrity, even authority–but the truth is, it does not.  Real kindness is not popular.  It does not make one popular, it is not profitable, it does not seek attention, nor does it offer clear long-term benefits.  There is no “sell advantage”, no advertising, that addresses real kindness.

It does not take the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, or any text to determine and instruct anyone on kindness, though they have been known to help.  I argue that our current dominant culture pressures us NOT to develop the skills of kindness, from a very young age.  When moral and religious texts are used to popularize hate and war, kindness is gone from the message.  When money, prestige, appearance, and being first- and only first- dominate all forms of media and symbolism, there is no kindness.  Token PSA’s reminding people to drive with caution, to learn to negotiate instead of fight, fall on deaf ears.  Any instinctual, social drive to be kind is quickly eradicated by fear.  Fear of failure, fear of association, fear of rejection.

My in-laws are on a trip through the Southwest right now.  In the snow with night falling, they found themselves in desolate northern New Mexico with a bad tire.  A young Latin man stopped, made sure they were o.k., and helped them fix it.  When Pops offered him money, he shook his head with a smile, thrust his hands into his pockets, and got into his car and drove away.  Enacting kindness is difficult, but accepting it can also be hard.  It can make us feel weak, vulnerable, or needy.  Accepting kindness, especially with grace and sincere thanks, even pleasure, is none of those things.

I read a recent study reporting that even very small babies had a way to intuit who was kind and who was not.  This has clear evolutionary advantages for babies, but might it also be a sign of the deep need for compassionate social interaction- that lasts until we die?  Critics of the technological revolutions of the 20th century claim the worst that has happened is that our humanity has been diminished, that we have become even less communal and more isolated, reduced to cogs in machines, or passively vegetated in front of one.  While this is certainly true to some extent, it has also offered new ways to connect to people.  It is not a balanced picture, and not in a vacuum, separate from the bigger context of what has been happening on a global scale.  We in the US have of late bought into innuring ourselves from criticism or self examination with desperate exclamations of “fight for freedom”, “we are the free world”, and lots of other catch phrases intended to salve the fears of struggling people, reduce complexity to simple ideas, and most importantly, obfuscate any ability to show self-examination or self-knowledge.  We are, as it has been said, entertaining, or “Amusing ourselves to death” (Neil Postman, Penguin, 1986). 

When we crawl out from the barrage of media, objects, and activities we immerse ourselves in, what do we have left?  Do we surface, heads above it all for a moment, and see family members?  Good and true friends?  Do we feel hope, a shifting quality about life that is not immediately tied to anything in particular, but is a force in our lives we can’t live without (Hope dies last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, Studs Terkel, New Press, 2003)? If we see or feel none of this, then it is a desolate horizon we turn from, sinking again into the obfuscating madness. 

How do I value, encourage, and nurture the ability for kindness in my son?  This thing which comes so easily to him now, and is only beginning to cost him emotionally?  How do I help him feel connected when he is inevitably rejected, when he is discouraged, and when he is lonely?  How do I remind him that accepting kindness is often one of the kindest things we can do? Who will be there for him when I am gone?

Perhaps if anyone had asked these fundamental questions early on about the children who perpetrated the Columbine massacre, it would not have happened.  It is just an idea, and the backlash can already be heard.  We don’t want to think about preventative medicines, preventative social efforts, or the what if’s that implicate us all in what we do.  We want to toss change into the pickle jar for the cancer victim at the gas station, make the donation to the United Way, wave a driver in front of us in traffic and let that suffice for kindness, and feel good about it.  We don’t want to think about these actions as less than the very baseline of action we ought to have in order to live real kindness.  We don’t want to risk that fuzzy place in the social order we fight for every day, risk being seen as weird or unacceptable, or weak.  We don’t want to ask why we fear these things, or think of them as risks at all.  Self knowledge is scary, and sticking your neck out is dangerous, right?

Who hugs the old man who waits for his free Monday breakfast outside the Co-op diner, alone and set apart from the cluster of chain smokers huddled at the other end of the walk?  Who runs up and asks the woman waiting at the bus stop if she is ok, and why is she crying?  Who helps the old couple stuck on the highway in the snow to change their tire?  Who asks the little boy playing by himself in the sand what he is doing and what he likes?  Who helps the little girl with the funny eyes struggling to put her shoes on?  And WHY AREN’T WE DISCUSSING THESE QUESTIONS?

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people

Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world

You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will live as one

–John Lennon, 1971


What do you do with a desiccated orange?

In my hand I hold a wizened orange.  It got lost behind a bag of cereal and the sugar jar, just under the kitchen window.  Said window, missing trim now for a year from a rehab project for which Husband has not found time to finish.  I could do it, but it was not my project.  Thus a few nights of cold dry air seeping under the window turned this lovely fruit into- what?

If I was Martha Stewart (and I am not) I would probably advise myself to “Go ahead!  dry out a couple more, hot glue them with bay leaves onto a grape vine wreath for a decorative piece on the front door”.  No offense to Martha, I admire her: the divorced mom- spurned even though she did it all like she was supposed to, jailed for fuzzy reasons, no-nonsense boss, funny, getting old with wit and style woman.  But I do not confuse the woman with the hype, the product, and the M.S. magazine reading, Oprah attending types for whom the new mothering magazine Cookie has been designed. These women I generally avoid comparison to.  You know who I am talking about- a largely affluent, white, appearance obsessed base, aged 22-55.  Living in those June Cleaveresque, strained superficialities of homes, no desiccated orange will be found. 

After 55 I think these women just get drunk, break a few dishes and emancipate themselves, shoving the magazines into the trash and going out for a walk.  At least, I hope they do.  Because we have no magazines or films or TV to tell us what they do, only our personal experiences, our own mothers.  Entertainment executives don’t think they merit attention, are off the collective cultural radar except for rare parody or soppy Lifetime snoozers.

This orange?  This once ripe fruit, bursting with sensuous scent, firm flesh and bright appeal?  No, decoration is not for this objet d’art.  I am compelled to take a knife to the hard skin, see if it still retains any smell, and sate my curiosity about what is inside.  Is it black?  Is it soft and rotted?  Or is it stringy and hard, all the moisture drawn away?  My bet is on the latter, given how much it weighs.  I could toss it into the compost heap, that big box of organic matter we started in the back yard.  Where that compost will go next year is in question.  Our lovely black walnut tree, offering such cool shade in the summer, so good at keeping down weeds, is I just found out a poisonous, selfish thing.  Easily one third of our yard is hostile to anything but grass and the off-spring of the Big Walnut.  The only stretch of yard that nurtured my crazy striped tomatoes has become another in-progress home improvement site.  So what of this orange, this possible compost?  I am not sure where it will go now.

I have been told by a young friend whose family runs a large cherry farm in Washington State that we really don’t know fruit in the U.S.  Most of the “good” fruit gets sold to Japan, and most of our fruit is so engineered, so greenly picked, that it has no flavor, no textures, no taste.  Having read Epitaph for a Peach-
four seasons on my family farm (Mas Masumoto, Harper San Francisco / Harper Collins, June 1995), I knew fruit, like many things in the U.S., had become something other than the celebrated production of the fertile, ripened ovary of a flowering plant.  When I was pregnant, the only smell that could curb my nausea was that of a fresh orange.  Oranges revive the spirit, as well as the body.  Oranges glow, and color even the most drab scene- meriting its own crayon, a very own color concept.

My mother used to put an orange every year in our Christmas “socks” (those felt creations no more useful on a foot than the plastic fruit in her table bowl to our stomachs) and we would take the oranges out on Christmas morning, thinking to ourselves “What the heck is this about?” tossing them aside.  Later when she was clearing the torn paper, broken bows, and empty boxes she would sigh as she picked the fruit up and put it back in the kitchen.  Only once did she ever tell me that as a child, she had gotten an orange every Christmas, as had her mother before her.  Oranges used to be rare, a treat every bit as wonderful to a child as candy.  In the Little House on the Prairie books, I recall the iconic scene when Laura gets an orange and is thrilled.  Now days, if I can find an organic, reasonably fresh California orange (I have given up on Florida. The state ag powers are not interested in demanding decent worker conditions, restraining pesticide use, or ever offering anything edible) I am thrilled.  Hence my guilt at discovering this sad shriveled specimen.  My sons like oranges, and I had saved this one for them, putting aside my greed.  It silently slipped away, and was forgotten.

Excess at Christmas is more than just the toys, the noise, the lights and general public pandemonium.  It is as simple as having access to fruit everyday, even if it is not the best fruit, and forgetting it is there.  Once forgotten and now found, what does one do with a desiccated orange?  Alas, poor orange! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath been eaten but a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those pips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? 

This orange, like my mother, is gone.  All that is left is the memory of the orange, the knowledge of what a good orange is.  I place the desiccated wonder on the sill to ponder further, to remind me of what is passing.  Merry Christmas, mom.  The boys will have fresh oranges in their “socks” this and every year, as often as the fruit is available to us, and I will not wait to tell them all the reasons why.  I hope I never live to see the horrors of Soylent Green or Silent Spring, and I hope one of the last scents I smell when I go to meet you is that of a fragrant, fully realized orange.

Of Rap, Opera, and sippy cups

There is no rap music for middle-aged women. 

A warm day in the midst of winter is an opportunity to open the windows and air out the house.  This is not a fortune cookie statement, but a fact of domestic life.   I have a 4-disc set of Rai, what one might think of as international rap music, and cranked it up as I cleaned.  Passers by might have thought an annoying teenager lived here, but lo- it is I, Middle Aged Woman!  The MAW whose husband and children had gone off to decorate Christmas cookies with a couple of other dads and kids, leaving me a rare afternoon alone in the house.

What would you do if you saw my neighbors and I dressed in baggy but comfortable clothes, no makeup, and rapping out sharp lyrics about our lives?  It might make U-Tube, and people would get a good laugh.  We are not male, and while female, we are not young.  The image would not fit the standard mental slot for rap.  Yet can’t we empathize?  What legitimacy do middle aged woman have?  Can’t MAW’s of all colors rap-out about their lives and what they see as repressions, frustrations, threats, and sins?

Oh I hear the standard backlash now- you are appropriating our form and messages.  Hmm.  And who started this form?  How long has it been going on, transformed by every user and communicator who has opened his or her mouths?  You might want to listen carefully too, because aside from the subtle forms and change ups musically, the messages will be very different.

This got me to thinking about David Byrnes 2004 “album”, Grown Backwards.  On it is a rendition of the grand opera classic Au Fond du Temple Saint (G. Bizet, The Pearl Fishers– re passion, friendship) .  Much like Harry Chapin describes in his classic song Mr. Tanner, there is a quality about Byrne’s rendition that is so raw, so innately human, that it reminded me of what happens after one attends a particularly good opera production.  You might find yourself standing under a streetlight late at night, after the post event meal and wine, singing.  Singing at the top of your voice with like-minded friends, singing the aria that captured all the pain, symbolism, and raw emotion of the show, of life; singing slightly out of tune, off tempo, but engaged.  Engaged fully in the human experience, in the joy that can be music, joy even when it transmits pain.  Byrne’s voice is not well suited to singing, but it does convey a very sincere and engaged quality that is compelling to listen to.  When this voice is married with his own lyrics and musical fusions of sound, it is repeatedly worth listening to.  When singing grand opera, it is the person on the street, the everyday nature of music, the– dare I say it– Humanist quality that draws me in.  I have sung grand opera arias, and I know that if one can get beyond the cultural stereotypes, the anticipated problems with different languages, all the “baggage” that most often accompanies opera, it can be a powerful musical experience.  Often a character is singing out about his or her tragedy, asking the listener to witness- just like good gospel or rap does – hear, learn, and at best, to understand.

My father knows this.  My factory worker, ashamed-he-never-went-to-college father, who tried one evening many years ago to take his wife and young son to hear a traveling company perform a grand opera, a one-night-only-performance at the local higher education outpost.  He could see as the doors closed that less than a third of the seats were filled, but the box office attendant stood firm that he had not reserved his ticket, this was a special fundraising performance, and his family could not go in even as he could pay.  He had listened to classical music his entire life, and knew the story of the opera, knew it’s power, and only wanted for once to see it performed live.  He didn’t bring a pocket lighter, he wore his only suit and tie- he knew how to behave.  He begged the attendant, explaining he had brought his wife and son; they needed to see this, to really hear it, to understand what he understood.  He was still turned away.  They drove the hour back home in silence.  He is 71 now, and he has still never seen an opera performed live.   Yet when he is cleaning, he will occasionally crank the worn audiotape I made him of “popular” arias and sing out at the top of his voice.

What I sing about today as I throw the plastic sippy cups into the trash is an angry lament for plastic.  Recent reports of exceedingly high lead levels in children’s toys, baby products, and even vinyl decorations on children’s towels (!! What the hell is THAT about?  Who puts lead into vinyl and why?  What known chemistry would have that make sense?).  Many parents jittery, but more disturbing is that yet another company( has begun ceasing the use of bisphenol-a, or B.P.A, a common plastic chemical. 

The research so far is clear, there is a low baseline of toxicity for this product and the effects are decidedly carcinogenic (cancer causing) as well as endocrine-disturbing, to the sex hormones of boys in particular.  Amidst junk food (see or read Fast Food Nation if you have not), amidst air pollution, amidst the tainted food and slack FDA enforcements of this administration, we also have pervasive toxins that alone, in small concentrations, others would argue are “safe”.  Sure, if you only come into contact with the substance once in your life, in a small amount.  But the truth is that we come into contact with these things everyday, everywhere, and under less than perfect conditions (mixed with other hazards, and under heat and cold that break them down and make them more available to our bodies).   As a parent, my job is to educate and protect my children.  Convenience be damned, bye bye sippy cups.  You don’t want a mentally deranged, damaged adult ruining your nice dinner or drive someday, so we as parents are expected to help “train up” children to be socially responsible, contributing members of society.  It isn’t easy, and it isn’t always clear how to do this- so forgive my caution.  Forgive my anger.  My children, your children, are not commodities to be drained of all value and discarded.  They are not just little consumers who ought to be treated as if caveat emptor was the primary rule, and if you can get away with hurting them then do so. 

Rap that ‘fiddy, or shut up and listen.  Hear and understand.  Sing it out.

I gotta go open a window.

Is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city?

Is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city? 

Today I suffocated under 4 consecutive hours of a crying 20 month old, and the usual domestic duties.  I told my husband, who came home at 6 p.m. intellectually on fire after participating as a mentor in numerous trying and yet exhilarating grad critiques, that I was jealous.  It had been so long since I had discussed David Byrne’s Big Suit, or the tricky route from symbol to meaning in creative endeavors.  So I cracked open yet another bottle of cheap red wine (now 0 for 6, the other 6 in the past two months having been relegated to cooking use after a first sip), surprised at the irony of finally getting a drinkable glass on this of all days.  Perhaps not irony then, but grace.

Ever seen the movie Network?

Of course you have.  If I have not completely alienated all readers of every stereotypical stripe, what’s left will understand.

It is a true life partner, it is true love, when one melts down and says “I just want to get up at 5 a.m. tomorrow, throw the kids in the car and go to the city for the weekend and feed my head”, and partner says simply “Ok, let’s do it.”  After a moment adding with wry humor, “heck- is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city?”

I grew up working class- yes the word class.  The taboo word of not only the academy, but also public life.  Sniff at the socialist whiff, turn to the GOP fantasy and tell me I am obsolete.  My colleagues in academia have already beaten you to it, Race being the “good”, and strangely exclusive, concept of the moment (if 40 years is a moment).  I worked in pizza restaurants at 15, and a string of cheese factories (where I was not asked to sit with women my age at break, on the midnight to 7 shift because I was going to college- I was informed by the matrons on shift- and was perceived as having a way out), temp jobs, restaurant jobs, and other good working class girl wage endeavors while trying to rise beyond, explicitly so, the factory and receptionist life my parents were relegated to and hated.  It was not the honest work; it was the gradual decay of respect and evidence of respect (lost health benefits, wage stagnation, retirement raiding, lay offs and eliminations, dismissals of concerns, rudeness, invisibility) that wore them down.

What is this hybridized identity- so post modern, yet so not cool- that finds me university PhD educated, middle aged and female, discarded and invisible to most.  Bitter?  Angry?  Hell yes.  To a mutual friend of ours who writes “graphic novels” (not to over simplify, but a fancy name for comic books), I said my hero is the middle-aged woman who becomes a vigilante.  Say, have you seen the new series on TV about that?  Yea sure, those glamour pusses are my ideal.  As my niece would say, NOT.

Perhaps you could call upon women writers of 40 years ago, who had rage and understanding in spades.  Say I am “uninformed”, derivative.  I say, No.  I know them.  I have read them.  And that they are still relevant does not negate this space, this life.  After the first blog, I was told I was angry.  I laughed.  Oh yeah, you got it.  Acerbic?  Sarcastic?  Yet still sincere?  Oh my.  Fold another napkin on the fire, and let me apologize for my lack of tact.  NOT.

Think of this as the anti-Ann Coulter.  That scion of current journalism who has never worked an honest day in her life.  And yet, I say you go girl, savor it while you can, because when it all goes away all you’ll be left with is your nasty coke habit and wrinkly neck skin.  Those GOP puppet masters who romanced your rise to fame will run and hide, bounce your emails and treat you as the pariah you are.  You may want to have a feminist moment when this point comes, you may even think you earned it, but you’ll probably find yourself alienated.   Whisper to yourself that you are still good, you are still important, while the world shuns you.  Welcome to the real world baby- if you have not saved, you have not earned- as that female money guru Suze Orman would say.

You want placebo? You want sexy, palatable, mildly amusing mother? Read the syndicated folks.  Those who get paid to entertain.  Enter here, and enter another realm.  My hero Molly Ivins died this past year, and a little bit of my hope went with her.  When Studs (Terkel) goes, I don’t know what I’ll do.  .  . Scream, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it any more”.  Not that many will notice me without an AK-47, or other armaments- the standard attention getting (and economy riding) devices for all from Dub to the local sad teenager.  I guess middle-aged women are just not threatening or sexy.  Pass the Provigil and the written ammunition. 

Halleluiah. . .get your hands off the scissors!  Get in bed! Where is that damned cooler? 

See you tomorrow at the Smithsonian.