E.M. Monroe

"I knew, not from memory, but from hope, that there were other models by which to live." Weems


November 2012

Models Monday: Reading off the Grid

Jacob Lawrence, “The Library,” 1960

I read Sara Mosle’s article, “What Should Children Read,” in The New York Times with interest. In the article, Mosle shares her disappointment with the content specified by the Common Core State Standards. The national benchmarks set to go into effect in 2014 require that nonfiction comprise 70% of the curriculum. According to Mosle, David Coleman, the College Board President who helped “design and promote the Common Core,” offered this as the rationale for his vision:

“It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.'”

In response, Mosle offers education researcher Diane Ravitch’s perspective.  She asks, “Why does David Coleman dislike fiction?” In support of English literature, Ravitch offers her own view of the value of fiction:

“I can’t imagine a well-developed mind that has not read novels, poems and short stories.”

Ravitch’s got the right idea. Her view of reading as an aspect of education emphasizes thinking whereas Coleman’s view of reading seems to be limited to a single context. Sure, work constitutes an aspect of life, but not all of it. Little of what I did over this Thanksgiving holiday could be described as work; that was the point. I enjoyed myself cooking, eating, talking, reflecting, listening, writing, reading. I enjoyed my time with my family. Working represents only one aspect of life, not the entirety of it.

It was interesting to read Ginia Bellafante’s article in the Times about the city’s lack of compassion for the hardships confronting people in housing projects in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in light of Mosle’s article: The lack of consideration for the diabetic who could not properly store insulin in the refrigerator without power; the lack of recognition for the danger facing young people moving about thru unlit hallways. As people have been forced to spend what little income they have in response to Sandy’s wreckage, some have not been able to afford their rent; others have not paid in protest against the city’s failure to provide adequate services. Bellafante points out that the city gave residents free tickets to Carnegie Hall. That would have been a fine gesture if it were offered in tandem with basic services. While the city’s leaders suggest through their gesture that they value art, their failure to show empathy and compassion suggests little of art’s influence.

Good students of the arts are moved by it–if not changed altogether. The arts create a sense of intimacy around the human condition. They have the power to bring you in touch with the interior lives of those we are normally cut off from; it’s a soulful experience. According to Toni Morrison, reading, specifically, is also a seductive experience.

In Paradise, for example, the seduction of reading-understood as the beckoning, siren like pull of literacy-emerges prominently in the history of rejection and dissention within Haven and Ruby; limited literacy contributes to the violence directed at the Convent women. Women are not simply victims of male illiteracy however, but have their own responses to the lure of literacy. Thus, when Mavis saw Connie shelling pecans she, “was reminded of her sixth-grade teacher opening a book: lifting the corner of the binding, stroking the edge to touch the bookmark, caressing the page, letting the tips of her fingers trail down the lines of print. The melty-thigh feeling she got watching her” (42). Mavis’s seduction occurred as a result of observing the thorough, tactile attention her teacher gave every aspect of the printed page. She was moved to feel the erotic sensation she witnessed through the teacher’s lingering, attentive fingers lift, stroke, and caress the book.

Responses to literacy are revealing. When I watched Steve James’s 30 for 30 documentary, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, there was a moment in that film that offered a telling story of Iverson’s relationship to literacy. Though Iverson was in prison, college basketball coaches still sought after his prodigious talent. In his recruitment bid, Coach Mike Jarvis, then basketball coach at  George Washington University, went to visit Iverson in prison and brought him The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Jim Ellenson, one of the attorney’s involved with the defense, claimed that when he saw Iverson in prison, Iverson’s comment with respect to the book was “what the fuck am I supposed to do with this?” Ellenson suggests that Iverson was merely commenting on how impractical the gift was for someone who just wanted to get out of prison, but I thought it a tragically revealing admission of his shortsightedness. The Autobiography should have been received as a relevant text for a young black man imprisoned in the prime of his life. It might have suggested hope for a meaningful life beyond soul crushing circumstances.

Young people need to be taught what to do with books and how to establish a relationship to literacy. If schools are not doing this, you can have  your own literacy requirements for your children. Thus, in considering Sara Mosle’s well-founded critique, your child’s reading list does not have to be limited by the school’s curriculum. Be forewarned though: your child may not like your assignments. But as I say to my own son when he shares his feelings concerning what he wants to do, “wanting to is not a requirement (think about it, instructions rarely if ever require liking what follows)–you don’t have to like it, you just have to do as you’re told.” Children must be good at following instructions–yours and the schools.


Happy Thanksgiving!

This was my husband’s plate. Mine was MUCH smaller. 🙂

Models Monday: VIP (The Thanksgiving Week Edition–Re-post)

I was invited to moderate a film discussion earlier this week for a film that has received rave reviews. My role was minimal. I was only required to ask two questions before turning it over to the audience. It was an interesting experience. I learned how seriously people take film actors and actresses as well as how highly they regard themselves. The audience was falling all over themselves trying to convey to these folk how wonderful they thought they were. Later, the Director, who I was sitting next to, was the only person on the panel who even acknowledged my presence. While she didn’t thank me, she at least turned to me and smiled. I then thanked her for participating in the discussion and wished her well on the film.

I thought the remaining panelists should have at least said “thank you” given how much it cost me to be there. I’m not much of a shopper so I’ve only been to this venue three times so I actually had to use my GPS to get there. Once there, I had no idea how to get out of the parking lot. I found some nice young people who helped me navigate from the parking lot to the theatre. When I arrived, it wasn’t clear how to even enter the theatre. Since I hadn’t eaten much, I bought a small punch and a box of Sweet Tarts, which totalled $10.67! It wound up costing me $8 to park and I had to walk in the rain to get back to the parking lot. By the time I got home to my family it was almost 11 p.m. and I was soaking wet.

In thinking about gratitude-especially as the Thanksgiving holiday is right around the corner-it was clear to me that the actors and perhaps the audience members overlooked what it cost me because of the presumed benefit that I received of having a reserved seat, sitting next to the Director, and being one of the first people in Atlanta to see this film. No one was ever directed to acknowledge anyone else’s contribution to the evening. It never occurred to them, for example, that someone would have another idea about the value of spending time away from their family after a long day of work; about spending time with Hollywood actors; about spending money at the concession stand.

When Michael Jackson died, I called my father. When he answered, he said, “Yeah, I heard. That’s too bad. I feel bad for his family and I loved his music but when my mother died, I don’t remember Mike calling me to offer his condolences.” We both laughed. I thought about this as I reflected on the presumption that I would want to spend time with these Hollywood strangers. The fact that my encounter with celebrity, no matter how marginal, occured the same week that Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis attended Marine Corp balls (Timberlake’s reflections on his experience were thoughtful) didn’t help to illuminate another view of the meaningfulness of celebrity. Like my father’s remarks suggest, I can appreciate someone’s talent and still understand the place they have as a very important person in my life. As much pleasure as Michael Jackson’s music still brings me, if I had only one opportunity to select someone to spend my last day with, it wouldn’t be him or any other Hollywood stranger. I would certainly choose from among the people who I have actually known and loved. This is also true of living celebrities and my living family and friends. My family and friends are very important people even if people don’t have to pay money to see them; they matter to me.

I was sent an alert mid-week that my name was being placed on a VIP list for another film screening and was told that confirmation concerning the details of the screening would follow. Do you know that they did not email those details until 10:21 p.m. Friday evening for a film being shown Saturday? A friend sent a text asking if I was still going, to which I replied “NOPE.” My prior experience with these Hollywood folk taught me everything I needed to know about their presumptions regarding what it means to be a very important person. So instead of heading down to the Fox theatre, I spent time with my husband and my son, I talked on the phone with my mom, my friends, and my aunt. It was a good day spent with VIPs. I’ll catch the film on DVD.

Models Monday: Avoiding Shellshock

I have been truly amazed by news reports of how shellshocked Mitt Romney and his supporters were by his loss. Claims that Romney had the “sincere belief” he would win despite the fact that he apparently ignored data to the contrary appear extraordinarily generous. I read this “sincere belief” as delusional. If Romney’s failings have anything to offer us here at E.M. Monroe it’s this: If you want to avoid being shellshocked, then you can’t ignore the conditions on the ground. You can’t dismiss what you don’t want to hear and imagine your own reality. You need to pay attention to the truth–even if you don’t like it.

Models Monday: Resources

In my work as an anthropologist studying consumer issues, I have found it useful to think of the environment as more than air, land, and natural resources. Thinking about the consumer environment, from my perspective, requires also thinking about access to important resources: transportation, education, food, shelter, and increasingly, technology. The consumer environment also includes accessibility of businesses and services, whether social, medical, artistic, or electronic. This approach does not utterly ignore more traditionally defined environmental issues, but my aim is to contextualize choices and options in ways that can account for poverty as well as abundance–and to explore how those two extremes are connected.

Elizabeth Chin, “While the wealthy may strive for ‘simply living,’ the poor try simply surviving”

I’ve thought about Elizabeth Chin’s essay from time to time since I first read it back in 2006, but her thoughts couldn’t be more relevant now in light of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. While this Hurricane didn’t leave us with nasty images of people trapped on rooftops screaming for help, it has claimed lives, destroyed homes, re-routed bodies, and stolen power. Certainly, having access to the kinds of resources that Chin identifies would have had a significant impact on how people experienced this Hurricane.

I read an article in The New York Times this weekend about people stranded in public housing without power and water. Their friends and family members were frequently in the same position so endurance was their greatest option. I know someone with a daughter in Connecticut. She was so worried about her daughter that she could hardly speak of anything else, but when I reminded her that her daughter had resources, she settled. Resources directly figure into how you can weather a storm.

I don’t have any great insight into how to make this happen but I do know that it is very important to improve your supply of resources; wherever you are, you need to make this one of your goals.

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