Politically Correct: Musings and a Poem

Several years ago I wrote a poem about a phrase I kept hearing: politically correct. Or political correctness. Or PC. It was used to shut people up, like duct tape over the mouth. Espouse a position that makes someone else feel guilty or uncomfortable? You were likely to hear that you were “just being PC.”

For a while, the term faded away, at least in discourse to which I was privy. Now it’s come roaring back. All over the place, I hear people proudly proclaim “I’m not politically correct.” The implication being, I suppose, that anyone who has a different opinion on the issue at hand can’t really be sincere. The implication being: “Deep down, you know I’m right. It’s simply inconvenient for you to admit it.”

To me, answering someone’s challenge or question or opinion with a dismissive charge of political correctness is the laziest kind of ad hominem attack. Instead of considering the issue, you call them a name and are done with it. Uttering the phrase “politically correct” absolves you of the need to listen or reason or self-examine. It’s right up there with the antiquated practice of calling women hysterical every time they challenged the status quo.

Since the term is back in vogue, my poem seems timely once again. I had fun playing around with it. I hope you have fun reading it.

Parity Considerations

Politically correct?
Is the accusation a
pertinent criticism
or just a
peevish complaint?
Does it matter whether my actions
are a result of
passive compromise
or of a truly
principled cause?
Could it be that
persistent charges
of PC are no more than
panicked counterattacks
against anyone refusing to fit a
particular conformity?
Should I lay aside my
personal convictions
out of fear that some
piously corrupt
person might
possibly call
me names?
If someone else can
purchase compliance
from me with
pretentiously contrived
allegations of PC
does that make me
politically correct
or
politically incorrect?
Pardon my confusion,
but if you are
preoccupied constantly
with whether I’m “just being PC,”
whom does this say more about,
you or me?
Please clarify.

 

Facing 2013: the Daily Checklist Project

I tend to shy away from major resolutions at the beginning of a new year. But I do like the opportunity for reflection, and the idea of a fresh start, the prompt to decide how I want to live the next few months of my life.

This time around, I’ve started my New Year’s plan early. I decided to make a daily checklist of things that are important to me, with the goal of accomplishing most of the items on most days. Here it is:

1. Exercise
2. Studies/classwork
3. Creative writing
4. Something to improve the house/keep the household running
5. An act of love for someone else
6. An expression of gratitude

Some of these can overlap. Buying groceries can fall under headings 4 and 5, for instance, especially if I make an effort to find one special item for each member of the family. I have a few more specific thoughts about each goal I listed.

1. Exercise. This is pretty obvious. I need to take care of myself. I walk to work, which helps me meet this goal. However, it’s only on five-minute walk, if I take no detours. Then again, some days I work split shifts, so I make the round trip twice. On those days, that’s 20 minutes of walking. If I can manage to leave the house a few minutes early on workdays, I can add a loop around the park and end up with a fair number of steps. Days I don’t work pose more of a challenge, as unintuitive as that seems. But I find I’m trying to run all of my errands and catch up on other things, so the opportunity for exercise isn’t automatically scheduled in. I’ll have to remind myself to make the effort on those days.

2. Studies/classwork. I’ll write about this in more detail in a future post, but I’m pursuing a course of study that has me taking one on-line class right now. I might bump it up to two at a time after I finish this one, depending on how my schedule is feeling. Nevertheless, it requires the discipline to make myself show up and do the work.

3. Creative writing. I have a theme in mind for poetry for the coming year. I’m thinking in terms of a chapbook, so I don’t want to divulge too much detail at this time. I’m also about 30,000 words into writing a novel.

4. Something to improve the house/keep the household running. There is no end to the number of home improvement projects that need done around here. A couple I plan to tackle that will probably require the use of vacation time. We have a new accessibility ramp, and we can’t put any finish on it yet. Around March or April, though, it’s happening. We also had a new back door put in, and I need to paint the door frame. Same project more or less. My husband and I tentatively plan to repair and repaint the walls in our entry room as well. Beyond that, I need to get a better handle on housework. If I can even just clean a sink on days I’m super busy, that will be better than nothing.

5. An act of love for someone else. The older I get the more I think love is defined by how you act, rather than how you feel. I hope I don’t disappoint myself on this one. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Listening with genuine interest to one of my kids talk about something that excites them, or taking some supplies to my mom, or getting a cup of coffee for my husband. I just want to make sure I’m remembering to be part of the world around me.

6. An expression of gratitude. Another one that can be accomplished in mere seconds, yet I can forget it some days. It can be as brief as noticing that – yay! – our water heater still works. Or  a sincere thanks to a store clerk.

That’s it. Nothing huge. But daily attention to the basics feels about right.

A Tale of Two Classrooms.

It was the best of educational experiences. It was the worst of educational experiences. It was a time in which a student could get an A on her English assignment for writing her “how-to” paper on the subject of How to Begin Your Secret Mission. It was a time in which a student could get no credit at all for writing a paper in World History with the assigned topic of “Ancient Greek Mythology” because she went beyond the rubric when she explored the sociological aspects and explained why the myths made sense in the context of the culture, when they can seem so nonsensical today. It was a time in which English teachers were lauded and World History teachers reviled within certain households. Creativity was nurtured and creativity was punished; individuality was encouraged and rigid conformity was enforced. Students were going directly on to brilliant college success because of their abilities to stretch their minds; students were headed to a life selling cigarettes at QuikMart because of their inabilities to follow directions to the letter. It was an American girl’s sophomore year in high school. The two classrooms were in the same building, but may as well have been on different planets.

Does any of this sound familiar? If you have a child in public school, I’ll bet it does. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from seeing my kids go through the school system, it’s that the administration can be good, bad or indifferent, and so can the curriculum. But it’s the classroom teacher who makes the most difference between a good educational experience and a bad one. If you’ve had a good teacher, remember to thank him or her.

Those are my thoughts for today.

 

To Do Lists

I was sorting through some of my poems, and came across this one I wrote in 2006.

To Do Lists

To be done before vacation:
Catch up all laundry
Make sure the grass is cut
And the bills are paid
Clean out the van

Upon returning:
Write a novel
Land a book contract
Transform my chronically messy house
into an aesthetically inviting
gathering place for the group of very hip
writers of which I will be a central figure
But first:
Clean out the van
Do the laundry
Pay the bills
And mow the yard

**

I’m still working my way through the line items. But I can check mark “write a novel.” And I’m making efforts at some of the others. Some photo evidence from the past year:

 

I still have a distance to go, however. One step at a time.

 

Cosmic Pushback

And the fates laughed. I knew that as soon as I made a plan, the universe would rebel.

“You have five hours scheduled into your week for writing? How about if I send you a rotator cuff injury? What if you had to spend your time on doctor’s appointments, special exercises and ice packs, all while moving at 75% your usual speed? What then, hmmm? Think you can handle it? How about if I pile on two unexpected snow days out of school for your children? Think you’ll do those five hours now?”

And I reply:  Ohhhmmmmmmm. I will not wait for my normal life before I start writing. Ohhhmmmmmmm. This is normal life; I will write anyway.

But I didn’t make my five hours the first week. My writing log tells me I clocked a total of 4.1 hours. Looks like I have some make-up to do in the next seven days.

Hiding the Truth With Facts

Several years ago a scientist I knew in the Kansas City area was on a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of atrazine in drinking water. Atrazine is found in some pesticides and a lot was running off from farms in outlying areas, then making its way into the water supply. Soon enough an article appeared in a local newspaper saying studies had shown no increased risk of cancer from atrazine exposure. The article was  technically correct, my friend said, but also dishonest. The dangers from the the chemical, he explained, included disturbing neurological symptoms, and possible heart and liver damage among other things. By discussing only tumors and stopping there, the article was lying by omission, the implication being that there was no danger at all.

I saw something similar on the other side of the environmental divide later on. A different friend vowed off buying “regular” baby shampoos after reading a label on a bottle from the health food aisle in the grocery store saying “contains no numbing agents.” Again, factually correct I’m sure. But also treading on the hairy edge of promoting the false rumor that a well-know brand of baby shampoo does contain numbing agents, though this claim has been thoroughly debunked.

I’ve mulled over both of these incidents several times in the past year or so as I’ve read much discussion about how true memoir has to be in order to be distinguished from fiction. No writer is ever going to get in every fact with complete accuracy, nor do they need to. I think of translating life into memoir as similar to translating a novel to a movie. Some things are going to get cut, some things are going to be changed, and yet you can still end up with a production that is very true to the original. Or not. I give you To Kill a Mockingbird vs. Practical Magic for those who have read and seen both books and movies.

I believe I was an accountant in a previous life: I like accuracy. Even in my fiction, I strive to get facts right. If I have character watch the Apollo 11 moon landing on television, I want to know what day of the week it happened, so I won’t have my person come home from public school on a Sunday and flip on the TV. I’ve made only a few attempts at writing short memoir pieces, but I find it more difficult than I anticipated to resist giving in to a bit of self-serving dishonesty by hiding it with facts. I suppose it’s human nature. I want people to sympathize with me more than with the other characters in my story.

Here’s a memory I haven’t committed to writing before now. I was nine years old, throwing a basketball back and forth with one of my cousins. I flubbed a catch and jammed the ring finger on my right hand. It looked horrible – purple, swollen, the epitome of a body part rendered dysfunctional by injury. Hurt pretty bad, too. But did my mother take pity on me *at all* by releasing me from my dishwashing duties that night? No, she did not, even though she had let my brother off for a similar injury some weeks previous. She wouldn’t even glance at my finger, only saying “The hot, soapy water will be good for it.” And I tell you, I could barely hold those plates, never mind the agony of turning the water faucet handle.

I could compose all of this information into a memoir. I could describe how the hot water in reality increased the swelling. I could describe my feelings of hurt over the blatant favoritism I thought was shown to my brother over me, of the indifference I saw my mother display toward my well-being. I could possibly even dig up some old diary had I been keeping and let my readers know the exact date of the occurrence of what I saw as one of the terrible injustices of my life. I could wrack my own memory and interview family members to try to come up with an accurate description of the dishes I would have been washing. My mom still owns some of them; I could go as far as taking photos.  I could relate all of these true factual facts and leave the impression that my mom treated me with great callousness. Which wouldn’t be honest at all.

Or I could write a different version. I could say it happened when I was eight instead of nine and I could describe the kitchen with the cabinets along the wrong wall and I could say that our plates had pictures of mushrooms when it was really flowers, but then include the larger truth about the context in which this incident occurred. I’m talking about my malingering tendencies during said time period. I had been going through a phase of feigning illness and/or injury in order to shirk my responsibilities. I’m sure my mom was sick of it. There was a good reason for her to ignore my complaints. Looking back I now feel I got what I deserved. My second version would be less factual and more true.

The Right Book at the Right Time

A friend recently shared the information that her daughter had been assigned to read the book Beloved by Toni Morrison for a high school class last spring. The daughter struggled through the text, disliking it all the way through.

Beloved is one of my favorite works of literature. But I first read it in my early thirties, after my children were born. Would I have understood the book at age 16? Parts, I think. Would I have liked it? I’m not sure, but I think not. I came upon the book at the right time in my life, after I’d had enough life experience to be haunted by some true regrets.

Thinking back, I can recall books I’ve read in years past that left me shaking my head in bewilderment. Crime and Punishment comes to mind. I wonder if I should re-read it now. Maybe I’d get it in some fundamental way I didn’t before. Or maybe not.

I did read, enjoy, and understand many “adult-level” books in my adolescence. So I’ve put very few restrictions on what my kids read.  I think they’ll either be ready for a book or they won’t and they’ll figure it out for themselves. Maybe there are hundreds of teens out there who do appreciate Beloved. Maybe there are even some who appreciate Crime and Punishment.

I remember the first true grown-up book I read and enjoyed. It was A Tale of Two Cities. But I had started to read it twice before I finally finished it on the third go.

My 11-year-old son just finished reading the Harry Potter series. When he was younger, we read the first couple of books to him, but he lost interest even as the rest of us in the family were avidly reading and discussing the series. He’d say “I don’t see what the big deal is. I don’t think they’re interesting.”

Then one day around his 11th birthday (the same age as the main character at the beginning of the story), he was looking for something to do, having used his allowed computer time for the day. He spotted Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone lying out on top of the bookcase and picked it up. Two hours later, he looked up and told me “This book is better than I remembered.”

He proceeded to read all seven books straight through. He’d become ready for them.

I think what I’ve figured out is that not only should you not judge a book by its cover. You possibly shouldn’t even judge it by your first reading of it. True, there are many honestly terrible books out there. But sometimes a book I don’t like right off may deserve a second look.