Sunday, June 28, 2009

Girlhood in America

In Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, Friedan analyzes women's magazines from before and after World War II. In the 1930s, magazine stories pictured the female heroine in the cockpit of a plane, with her adoring man beside her. She was portrayed as passionate, independent, and strong; and their relationship was equal and dynamic. Yet media and advertising depictions in the 40s, 50s, and 60s stepped away from this New Woman and the gains of the first feminist movement. They put women back in the kitchen and back in the home, which as part of a woman's life is healthy and good, but when it becomes a national obsession and cultural ideal, can be limiting. Journal articles and ads went from female empowerment (what women have and can give to the world) to female subjugation (what women need).

Now the emphasis is not as much on the perfect 50s housewife, but the perfect body: the perfect weight, boobs, and butt. Women feel enormous pressure from the barrage of these ideals. See articles on anorexia and bulimia, plastic surgery, weight-loss programs; and the movie clips below.

Dove Evolution

Beauty Pressure

Killing Us Softly

I lived a fairly sheltered childhood in terms of media. I did not have cable TV, and the only shows I watched during the week were "Wishbone" and "Arthur." I did not know the members of the Backstreet Boys or NSYNC until sixth grade when a friend took it upon herself to tutor me. I was largely disconnected from popular culture and all that it entails.

A year or so ago, I did an experiment. I bought some magazines like "In Style" and "Lucky" and ripped out all of the advertisements which showed idealized or sexualized portrayals of the body. I hung them in my dining room, so that any time I was passing through, or sitting down to eat, I would see them. An interesting thing happened: I found myself desensitized to the images. The ads became normal to me, as they have to many women and girls in America.

This brings me to the following questions: are we fighting this at all? And what are our options? Could advertisers be prevented from objectifying the body, just as Camel had to remove the Joe Camel icon from its ads? Could policymakers restrict the amount of money (and in effect, the volume) of ads a company can put out? Could we create a publicity campaign about the healthier and more functional portrayals of the body in countries less hyped on the consumerism drug? What is our duty and role? Where is our voice?

Midnight Color Madness

A few days ago, some friends and I did graffiti of our own. The goal was to get out in the community and get people thinking about ideas.

The mayor's office hopes to encourage more groups to chalk, with messages like "Happy fourth of July!" and "Enjoy your night on the town!" It's an effort to bring people together, spread happiness, and generate community pride.

(Click to enlarge)

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Banksy is a English graffiti artist I heard about through my friend Alex. His work is incredibly thought-provoking:

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Thoughts from Kashmir

I met a man named Saghir today while shopping in his store. Our conversation quickly turned from bartering to world issues, beginning with the partition of India and the bloody fights for Kashmir (where his family is from).

Saghir said that Americans are nice, but very naive. They think people from other countries are scary, dangerous terrorists. They do not travel beyond our borders or realize the repercussions of their lifestyles. Many Americans do not read the newspaper, or better yet think critically about what they read.

Mass media keeps us in a bubble-- isolation through a culture of fear. He held up the New York Times and Washington Post to show that they had the same picture of an Iranian protest on their front pages. This is not a true depiction of life in Iran, he said. While it's important to understand these events, the majority of people in this country are not violent and rioting. They are peaceful and family-oriented; they work hard and like to have fun. Americans never see this side.

Saghir said that people in America point fingers. They say that Middle Eastern women are subjugated because they wear burqas or head scarves. But Pakistan and India have had female leaders, and the United States has not. He said that Americans blindly support Israel and have a polarized view of blame. To Americans, it is the defenders versus the terrorists, while the truth (if it could be called that) is a version of gray.

Before I said goodbye, Saghir reiterated his original point: Americans are nice, but very naive. We shook hands and I continued to ponder this idea as I walked away. I'm already planning my next visit to Saghir, the little man in the dusty store.

Urban Foraging

I found this awesome article on my friend Alice's blog.

I got too excited not to mention it here, so check it out, along with Alice's impressions.

For future reference, her blog is linked to this page... and the delectable things she cooks up will make your mouth water!

Recession's Silver Lining

The recession has negatively affected people in many ways: some have lost their homes, others their retirement funds, and still others their children's college savings. Yet positive things have come from the economic crisis, as well.

People have become more creative with limited resources-- playing monopoly in chalk on a city street, walking places, and making wash cloths out of old bath towels. Ailing businesses have closed and sprawling ones have consolidated, eliminating some of the excess in our consumer culture. Fewer people have bought new cars, and more are biking to work. It's as if the economic crisis is stripping the fat of society and reminding us of what's most important: relationships, the environment, slowing down. The following articles are about the simplification of life, some because of the recession, and others on people's own volition. These stories are grounding and refreshing, free and unafraid.

Living with Less

Frugal Portland

Tight Times Loosen Creativity

The Joy of Less

Last but not least is Thomas Berry. His writing does not refer to the recession, but suggests the idea that the "universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects." Berry challenges us to think differently about our place in the universe, which correlates with some of the priorities I have been developing, and some of the ideas referenced above.

Thomas Berry

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Beautiful Feet

The following is from my journal during a recent travel abroad. I'm going to build on these ideas in later entries when I write about functionalism, simplification, and getting back to the basics of life.

It’s a liberating experience not to shrink from mankind. I’m seeing poverty in a different way that I’ve seen it before. I’m seeing the humanity in it, which is easier in countries where gun violence is not a problem and the cities are centers of humanity rather than crime and pain. Clothing is worn for function, not fashion. Pants and shirts clash; they are dirty or small; they are sweaty or rolled up; they are mere afterthoughts for the body and soul inside. The same goes for shoes. Some people wear them, but many of the shoes are old and falling apart. The feet inside are calloused and tanned, the nails are rounded and thick; the feet have an animal quality to them, which cannot be civilized by a piece of protective skin. These feet are ugly, but that makes them more beautiful. They drive tuck tucks in Chennai and sink into wet mud in the village Erode. They grip weathered wood on boats in the Mekong Delta and chase tourist buses in South African townships. They are more natural than soft, pink feet with painted nails. The clothing and shoes here do not change the person, just as the people and their civilizations did not change the land in countries like Morocco and Namibia. I like when humans and nature can maintain their integrity in relation to superficial or invasive things (clothing and humans, respectively).

The houses we have seen are not bunkers like mine. They let the heat and humidity through the windows and the rain in through cracks in the roof. They are small and pieced together by colorful pieces of metal and wood. Some of them—in the South African townships, in poor areas of Chennai, and on the riverside in Vietnam—look as though they will collapse with one puff of wind. They do not cover or hide the people. The people are outside—tending the clothesline or cooking food, washing things in a bucket or holding a child. There is more transparency here—the same as with the clothes. The people seem stronger because they don’t hide behind thick walls. They seem happier because the community is closer knit and everyone raises every child. I don’t mean to romanticize poverty. These peoples’ lives are hard—filled with hunger, drugs, violence, and disease. I do not want to have their lives—or to live in their homes—but I respect them, and theirs is not an inherently doomed or sad way of life. I’ve seen their faces fill with joy, and I have seen human strength.

Woman pulling her boat through a traffic jam in Vietnam (click to enlarge)

Man in Vietnam

Child in a village outside of Chennai, India

Sweaters in Summer

I was in class the other day when I noticed that I had goosebumps and that members of my class were rubbing their arms to stay warm. I thought to myself, "It's eighty degrees outside and students are reminding themselves to bring sweaters? Where's the logic in that?" If we cannot have the windows open, why can't we at least sit comfortably in our summer attire? Additionally, why should professors (particularly business professors) feel obligated to wear the traditional long pants and long shirts? Such formalities do not reflect temperature patterns. They are superficial uniforms, which separate us from our natural selves.

Recalling an article from the September-October 2006 "Sierra" magazine, in which a man traveled to malls and other public spaces, taking room temperatures and encouraging executives to lower the thermostats, I decided to do the same. I checked the thermostats in the buildings I frequent (some of them were around 65 degrees!) and contacted the Office of Physical Plants to learn more. Apparently, the buildings were warmer during the first few weeks of summer because the thermostats were still on "winter mode." Now, they've switched to "summer mode," which is entirely necessary, of course. I'm currently trying to convince OPP that raising the temperatures a few degrees would protect the environment, save money during the economic collapse, and keep students comfortable rather than cold. The dialogue continues... but for now, we shiver on!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Delayed Introductions

I realize now that I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I haven’t introduced myself (my name is Carolyn), or the way I will approach this blog. The following will be musings on the latter idea:

Why am I creating this blog? Am I more confident in my ideas and believe that I should spread them? Is it some sort of ego trip? Or a trick of youth… because this is the only forum that will receive my words? Am I trying to market my mind, as people market their social lives on Facebook? Am I trying to connect with others with similar ideas? It’s taken me a long time to enter the blogging world. I have eyed it from afar but hesitated to step onto the stage. What do I have to say to the world? What unique filter can I provide? What can I say that an adult will not know with 11 more layers… and then scoff at as the naivety and idealism of youth? No, I will not claim to be wise; but rather, curious, purposeful, and active. Here I will relay the ways I question, create, and exist in this world. Hopefully, my journey will generate dialogue or inspiration for others along the way.

How will this blog change me? I am an avid journaler, producing 145 typed, single-spaced pages in the past five months alone. Yet my writing has always been for me. Sometimes it is eloquent, and sometimes it is choppy. My voice is clear and indicative of my mood and the writing task at hand. How will this translate to a public space? How will I share myself between the journal and the blog? How much will my voice come through?

Interestingly enough, I’ve found my early forays into blogging to be analogous to the beginning of a relationship: full of giddiness, excitement, and some confusion. Whereas in a relationship, one learns (among other things) to balance emotional, physical, and intellectual interactions, I have engaged in blog balancing acts, as well. How much should I write? How light should I be? How much should I focus on thought versus action? How much should I focus on mine versus others’ ideas? I was somewhat of a bumbling idiot at the start… trying on different voices and tones… in a frenzy of several posts in one day. I was learning to find myself in this new writing relationship. And as in any relationship, if I am to gain anything from blogging, I hope that it will be honesty, growth, and new levels of fulfillment through time. I guess for now, I'll have to wait and see.

When I Grow Up - by Sekou (the misfit)

Ask me now mommy.
Am I too late?
Ask me now what I want to do for a living.
Am I too late? Cause I think I finally figured it out

I don’t want to do for a living
I want to be for a living

I want to be life.
I want to make things grow, and move, and breath, and reproduce, and respond.
I just want to make things respond and react and rejoice and relax and relate and release and receive
as soon as I recite.
When I grow up,
I don’t want to be like those other kids mommy who want to be doctors and ballers and astronaughts.
I want to be passion, and heat and energy.

When I grow up,
I don’t want to be a fireman mommy, let me be the fire
The explosion behind the soul’s big bang theory that leaves in it’s place . . . desire
That burning within that gives life to the word “aspire”
Let me warm the cold souls of the despairing and heartless
Let me light the paths of those wandering in darkness
And provide children with their first definition of “hot”
And when the artists of the world have become so infatuated with ice that the whole world freezes over,
Let me be the poet that melts the ice-caps, drowns the planet, and starts this world over -
2 poets at a time like Noah. . .
When I grow up

I don’t want to be an astronaut mommy, I want to be the space that he explores -

Not the doctor mommy, let me be the cure.
The prescription for a better life . . .
the way through which the sick and the shut-in can find hope, health, happiness, and healing.
I want to be the pill of which they take two, and the call that is placed that next morning.
I want to be the white blood cell that strengthens the immune system,
the clot that stops the bleeding,
the antidote that counters the poison;
I want to speak antibiotic poetry that defeats your life’s viruses,
but only if you take my words in 3 times a day until the entire bottle is gone;
I want to be the perspective of the world through the eyes of an autistic child who is diagnosed with a sickness when in fact she merely sees the world with a clarity that the rest of us could only dream of having. . .
When I grow up

I don’t want to be a preacher mommy, I want to be the word

Not the artist mommy, I want to be the art
Not the painter, let me be the canvas
Not the choreographer, let me be the dances
Not the poet, let me be the stanzas

When I grow up

I don’t want to be a singer mommy, I want to be the sound!
The song you sing the way you sing it when you think aint nobody else around

When I grow up,
I don’t want to be a lawyer mommy I want to be justice.
Not the philosopher, but the philosophy that the brilliant minds try to follow,
Or the brilliance in those minds,
Or even the elusive concepts that they can’t quite figure out like
hope, purpose, faith . . . and time.

I wanna be time mommy!

So that the world will go to sleep every night feeling like they never got enough of me.
And will panic when they feel me slipping away.
Time! So that I will never feel this depression I feel now for being abandoned by it
Time! So that I will never again be before myself, never be out of myself,
Never be too late, never be too early,
So that for once in this life of unfulfilled dreams that have left my cheeks streaked from salt water erosion and my mouth pertpetually coated with the bitter aftertaste of disappointment,
for once I can be right on me!

When I grow up,

I want to be the antonym of void,
the antithesis of without,
the contradiction of silence,
the inverse of absence,
the reverse of regression,
the antilogy to emptiness,
the illumination of shadows,
the opposite of darkness . . .
I wanna be the opposite of darkness when I grow up mommy!

So that when the greatest poet in existence
recites the first line
of the greatest poem ever written

“let there be light”

. . . then I can begin.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Thought Work vs. Physical Work

"I had a dense tangle of reasons for wanting to build something, but one of them was to join the world of the makers-- homo faber--and leave, if only temporarily, the dodgier world of words. I was looking for an antidote to the increasingly abstract and abstracted nature of my altogether typical working life, most of which was conducted in front of screens at an ever greater remove from the natural world."
-Michael Pollan, on constructing his writing house in 'A Place of One's Own'

Reading this quote, one starts to wonder... are we meant to be this disconnected from the natural world? These articles address this idea:

The Case for Working With Your Hands

Many Summer Internships Are Going Organic

Use Your Voice

I am a daydreamer. Today when I should have been paying attention to something else, I began thinking about the town I grew up in on the Jersey Shore. It's a long island-- 18 miles, in fact-- with no public transportation. I began designing a public transportation system to send to the mayor.

First, I thought about beneficiaries. Significant numbers of old people and immigrant workers live on the island, and both groups (sometimes) have limited access to cars. Where would these people want to go? Work, the grocery store, community center, library, and hospital, to name a few. After creating some alternative bus loops and a list of advantages and disadvantages, I emailed the proposal to the mayor. He replied within a few hours that bus plans have been in the works for a year and we might see results soon. So while I did not actually affect anything, it was empowering to use my voice.

Later on, some friends and I emailed senators about the same issue. Because of the energy crisis (particularly involving oil) and global warming, it's the perfect time to advocate for and innovate with public transportation.

Maternal Instincts Gone Astray

After joining the local foods movement at the consumption end, I decided to try my hand at the production end, as well.

I am now the proud mother of a sweet banana pepper plant.

I planted it this weekend, after a particularly exciting trip to Home Depot. It sits on my window sill most of the day, but today on my lunch break, I came home and put it outside for some sun. The plant is supposed to get six hours of sunlight a day, and I worried that it would not get that from inside! It might seem strange that I referred to the plant as a child, but I've never been responsible for a living thing before. I feel like a new mother, fretting about food and maintenance schedules (I guess a real mother wouldn't use those terms). I've started to record leaf growth in a journal and I've taken a few pictures so far. These efforts are purely scientific, I swear. Down the road, I hope to plant herbs and berry bushes to keep the banana peppers company. The beautiful thing about adding to a plant "family" is that you don't have to worry about replacement levels or overpopulation. You can let the "family" grow and grow!

Trekking through Suburbia

One characteristic of suburbia is that it is structured around the car. This weekend I decided to challenge that idea. After a power lunch, I got on my hiking boots and packed my day pack for the "trail." I must have been quite a sight hiking along the highway. People honked as they passed in their SUVs... it was mostly old men, but perhaps someone was inspired! It was four miles each way to my destination, which was a small community outside of my college town.

After arriving, I read for a little in the diamond (equivalent to the town square) and took a nap in the sun. I felt a little like a hobo, as posh couples passed on weekend shopping sprees. I smiled to myself and rolled over in the grass. Before beginning the trek home, I visited the local museum. A grandmotherly woman named Ann clapped her hands when I entered and proceeded to lead me through the museum. Her shoes were off, and she seemed grounded and real. In the 45 minutes I spent with her, I heard about her and her husbands jobs, some of their grandchildren, and helped her climb the stairs because of her bad hip. She gave me a hug before I left and told me to come back with friends.

On the walk home, I felt refreshed. How centering to have escaped the weekly grind, how calming to move at the pace of my feet, and how energizing to make a new friend. It takes effort to uproot routine and live in the moment. But every day I want to try.

Civic Engagement


Today I went on a civic engagement spree, attending both the city council and school board meetings in my town. I was eager to see how many people attend and what kinds of things are discussed. The city council meeting was slightly bland and virtually unattended, though our town is installing LED lights (yay!)... but the school board meeting was fascinating. Parents, teachers, professors from the local university, and journalists had all shown up to argue about the math curriculum in the local schools. Should the school district stick with “Investigations,” a discovery-based model, or move toward a more traditional, memory-based scheme. This issue relates to the larger debate between (traditionally) Democratic and Republican education mindsets. The Democratic mindset has been for educating the “whole child” through experiential learning, team projects, and treating education as a public good. The Republican mindset has been for “excellence,” individualism, standardized tests, lots of homework, and competition. The Democratic mindset is generally refuted after economic downturns because it’s seen as soft and weak—not competitive enough for the global economy. We have been experiencing this Republican backlash since 1980 with Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk.”

The issue manifested itself tonight as follows: teachers, people associated with the schools, and some parents supported the “Investigations” curriculum. Parents and external “experts” (professors, engineers, and particularly self-possessed parents) supported the traditional curriculum. Two of my favorite commentators supported the former (this is also where my allegiances lie). The first was a woman from Taiwan, who said that the true issue between the international achievement gap is not curriculum, but the time spent in the classroom. Children in Taiwan go to school before it's light, come home after dark, go to evening tutors, and spend every other Saturday in school. The main pedagogical approach is rote memorization. The woman said that she’s impressed with the way her sons can talk about and conceptualize math. They are more empowered and creative than she was with her math education. Coming from a part of the world the U.S. tries to imitate, she passionately called for this school district to “stay the course” (at least in this way). The other commentator I particularly liked is a man who worked in the school district, though not as a teacher. He tried to dispel the misconception that teachers are robots who read from scripts, suggesting instead that they’re dedicated people who tailor the curriculum to meet each child. He said that parents know their children, but that it’s impossible to know all children. As a result, parents and other external experts should leave the task of deciding curriculum in the hands of the true experts and professionals: the teachers. All in all, it was an exciting evening. I relished the chance to see a national debate brought down to scale.