Review – The Price of Privilege: How parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids. New York: Harper. 2008.

 

book cover price of privilegeMadeline Levine’s book The Price of Privilege gives the non-professional a good overview of the problems besetting affluent teens with some compassionate and practical alternatives to their current predicament.

 

It is tempting to dismiss the psychological ill-health that seems to be hitting adolescents from privileged homes. Like the issues dealt with in Overwhelmed, it would be easy to disregard the problems explored here as just the sort of thing that wealthy people inflict on themselves. However, Levine’s book persuades us that we should take these problems seriously. Her argument is that teens are teens, after all, no matter what their background, and need mentoring into adulthood from trusted adults. What’s more, these teens in particular, are more likely to become the surgeons, politicians, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and leaders of the future. So, we want them to be resilient, moral, compassionate, stable, and capable of making positive contributions to their community. Levine suggests that too many of them are ill-equipped for the expectations and roles that await them.

 

Levine commenced her project on a hunch that her practice was seeing ever-greater rates of depression, substance-abuse, eating disorders, bad behaviour, selfishness, fragility, self-destructive habits and all-round unhappiness in her wealthy Marin County community than in the previous quarter-century she had been a psychologist. Her initial calls to colleagues around the U.S. confirmed that her observations were not merely local, but seen in affluent communities around her country. Further research she has since carried out paints a disturbing and surprising picture – affluent teens now exhibit greater levels of psychological ill-health than their peers on the next tier down the social scale, in the middle classes. This was a mystery and counter-intuitive to Levine, as it would be for most of us. Surely, young people who have so many opportunities, who have the best education, extra-curricular activities, the nicest neighbourhoods, the most conscientious parents with the resources to support their every endeavour, would be far better off than any other group of teens in the country? These are not, after all, the kinds of teens that feature in the usual accounts of educational failure, dysfunctional families and chronic, entrenched disadvantage that, sadly, still tell a tale of wasted talent in our communities.

 

"Full Moon at Wildwood" -- Russ Seidel. https://www.flickr.com/photos/10159247@N04/
“Full Moon at Wildwood” — Russ Seidel. https://www.flickr.com/photos/10159247@N04/

Levine’s book points out that although we know the saying that money cannot buy happiness, we still act as if it does. Therefore, we think that more money always = more happiness. We also know that parental involvement in a child’s education is positively correlated to that child doing well. However, Levine argues, we have made a fundamental error here, too. Some parents have misread this to mean that over-involvement in a child’s education, in which a child is constantly coached and shaped, scheduled and pushed, is necessarily better than some involvement. Worse yet, the developmental “tasks” of adolescence, which include, crucially, the development of an independent, autonomous sense of self, and a growing ability to manage one’s own life and solve one’s own problems, are interfered with when parents prematurely solve problems for their children, particularly those of the child’s own making (like not studying for assessment and then not doing very well.) Levine argues that:

 

“Parents who persistently fall on the side of intervening for their child, as opposed to supporting their child’s attempts to problem-solve, interfere with the most important task of childhood and adolescence: the development of a sense of self. Autonomy, what we commonly call independence, along with competence and interpersonal relationships, are considered to be inborn human needs. Their development is central to psychological health. In a supportive, respectful family, children go about the business of forging a ‘sense of self’ by being exposed to, and learning to manage, increasingly complex personal and interpersonal challenges.”

 

Levine argues that over-involvement leaves her young clients feeling passive and empty, “the kind of anxious, overprotective, oversolicitous, intrusive parenting that has become commonplace in affluent communities actually diminishes a child’s sense of efficacy and autonomy.” In a neat analogy, Levine argues that while the parent of a three year old would never forbid their child from learning to climb small stairs, and then expect them to know how to climb seven flights, parents of adolescents, out of an instinct to protect their children from hardship or unpleasantness, can intervene at times when their children are making the mistakes that are necessary to learn about consequences and prepare for the steeper challenges later on as they take on full adulthood. Not having learned to climb the stairs, Levine’s teenage clients fall to pieces when they are expected to climb several floors up.

 

However, Levine is compassionate and attuned to the very real challenges and dilemmas of parenting in communities where adolescence seems so high-stakes and there is a relentless emphasis on the external signs of success and achievement.

Genuine involvement in learning emerges from an authentic sense of self. Image credit: Image credit: Jenna Carver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/babyowls/
Genuine involvement in learning emerges from an authentic sense of self.  Image credit: Jenna Carver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/babyowls/

Levine argues that while high grades and success at extra-curricular options are well and good, if they happen, they should happen as a natural outgrowth of a fundamentally more important task that faces young people – – to develop an authentic sense of self. Levine calls this an ‘internal home’: “the welcoming and restorative psychological structure that children need to construct in order to be at ease internally as well as out in the world. It is where kids – -where all of us – – retreat to when we need to ‘pull it together’, ‘think it over’, or just take care of ourselves.” It is the basis of moral action and the ability to respond to situations effectively and with integrity, as well as personal wellbeing. This is the result of children feeling like they “own” their lives, who have grown a sense of self-efficacy by having developmentally-appropriate experiences, thereby seeing that they can “have an impact on [their] world.” This is distinguished from ‘self-esteem’; Levine argues that self-efficacy is more important, as it stems from real experiences of the child acting “appropriately in [their] best interest”.

Levine is not against high academic achievement and the self-discipline necessary to learn well. On the contrary, she is advocating for a shift in values and parenting that genuinely cultivates a commitment to deep learning. If high grades are the result of the young person pursuing learning out of increasing levels of engagement, curiosity, passion, and skill, if, in short, the young person wants to pursue this learning out of a genuine, internal motivation, then they have achieved an important milestone in their growth into competent adults. As she observes, “Ultimately, motivation for any venture needs to feel like it comes from inside. When it does, it feels ‘true’”. If, however, the achievement of high grades is pursued just for the status and to please others (usually anxious parents) and that there is no genuine love of learning, if, in fact, the teenager will take any shortcut they can to get the grade, even having their essays professionally written, hacking into the school’s grade database to change their marks, or having their parents apply pressure to their teachers, then something has gone seriously awry. In these cases, the grade, once taken as an indicator of learning, has come adrift of the activity it was meant to report on, and has become, instead, a kind of fetish.

Levine dissects the values of communities where this is happening and encourages her readers to resist unhealthy cultural pressures in their own parenting – something which she acknowledges is extremely hard to do. After all, adults are also encouraged to assess their self-worth according to a narrow range of materialistic and performance-based criteria.

Levine is clear that the task of parenting teenagers is daunting and complex. Her tone is never accusatory, judgemental or dismissive. Instead, she challenges her readers to examine their priorities and values, and to critically examine the toxic aspects of the “culture of affluence”. She also encourages her readers to put their own genuine self-development high on their list of priorities, so that they can model a reflective self who acts with integrity and kindness, and responds to life’s set-backs appropriately.

Read an excerpt from The Price of Privilege.

Read an overview of research into psychological ill-health in teens from affluent communities.

Image credit: Ian Sane: https://www.flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04/
Image credit: Ian Sane: https://www.flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04/

Review: Brigid Schulte. Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No-One Has the Time. Bloomsbury: 2014.

Image credit: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/11/289018821/for-working-moms-key-to-balance-may-lie-in-elusive-leisure-time
Image credit: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/11/289018821/for-working-moms-key-to-balance-may-lie-in-elusive-leisure-time

I saw mention of Shulte’s new book in an article about the plague of over-busyness that has taken over our lives. I wish I knew what that article was now, but of course, at the time, I was merely skimming it, while fielding incoming emails, and chomping down on instant couscous and tuna in the little window of ten minutes’ quiet I allowed myself before flinging myself at the next task on the enormous and endless pile. I did not take a moment to note it, save it, even clip it, but went right on to the next thing.

Something stuck, though, from that little mention; I downloaded the book to my Kindle that night. Reading in the hour before bed is my daily, sanity-saving luxury. Schulte’s work confirmed for me that it is just such ‘clearings’ in our daily round that is one of the keys to tackling what she calls ‘the overwhelm.’

‘The overwhelm’ is what Schulte calls the endless, crushing sensation that we will never be able to fulfil all our obligations at work and at home satisfactorily. It is the way that we feel the need to answer work emails while supervising our children, and then end up spending time at work making calls for their appointments at the dentist and paediatrician. It is the factor that turns our lives – and, disproportionately, working women’s lives – into what Schulte calls “crappy bits of time confetti”.

What it is like to live inside this fractured “time confetti” is captured on Schulte’s opening page: “It is just after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am racing down Route 1 in College Park, Maryland. The Check Engine light is on. The car tax sticker on my windshield has expired. The cell phone I’d just been using to talk to one of my kids’ teachers has disappeared into the seat crack. And I’m late.” Schulte’s willingness to share with her readers the barely-controlled chaos that characterises so much of her days as a working journalist and mother was what engaged me straight away.

This shredded time rarely amounts to a good clean run at a task that requires space to concentrate and go into something deeply without interruptions. Even in moments of apparent leisure, Schulte argues, working mothers are running an endless ‘loop’ in their minds of all the other things they have to get done. This results in what time managements experts call “contaminated time” where the period of time ‘off’ is ruined by feelings of it being illegitimate, stolen from the obligations that are yet to be met. Contaminated time also describes how everything bleeds into everything else, so that work is disrupted by domestic concerns, home is interfered with by professional obligations, and contemporary technology facilities it all in an endless whirlwind of the work-anywhere-everywhere-all-the-time ethic.

Overwhelmed has garnered a lot of critical and media interest. It has keyed straight into one of the most pressing issues faced by working families – an issue that has so far remained a political sleeper. Who has not felt that endless whir of things that need to be done and the sinking feeling that there will never be a time clear for thinking, daydreaming, staring out a window, or doing something you really love? The mystery for many of us in the developed world is, for all the affluence that we enjoy, the real wealth that is wellbeing and common weal seems to have been lost. For many of us, it seems farther off than it was 30 years ago when material living standards were lower, but time for family, friends, neighbourhood and health was in greater abundance.

The promises of futurists of the early and mid- twentieth century were that by now we would be faced with a large population with surplus leisure time; what we have instead is a stratified population of the un – and under- employed, and the working poor, who have to net huge hours to make ends meet, and another population of a salaried workforce who are over-stretched and over-worked. This is especially true in the United States where Schulte lives, where there are no legal limits to the amount of overtime an employer can ask of professional, salaried staff. However, even in Australia, things are increasingly pressed and compressed as we have less paid leave and fewer limits on working hours than our peers in Europe. And that’s before we factor in the long hours of commuting many are compelled to do from affordable ‘bedroom’ suburbs on the fringes of our main cities as the price of housing relative to earnings continues to rise.

Since the second wave of feminism, women have made huge inroads into higher education and the professional workforce. The rhetoric around equality and blended roles has, however, not translated into an optimum reality for women. Despite the calls from the likes of Sheryl Sandburg to “lean in” the picture that emerges from Shulte’s research is a workplace culture that is blind to what raising a family actually entails:

“Nowhere is that disconnect between expectations and reality more apparent than when a woman has a child. Time studies find that a mother, especially one who works outside the home for pay, is among the most time-poor humans on the planet, especially single mothers, weighed down not only by role overload but what sociologists call ‘task density’ – – the intense responsibility she bears and the multitude of jobs she performs in each of those roles.”

Schulte quotes numerous studies that show that even in families that see themselves as having a mother and a father ‘sharing’ the care equitably, the father usually cares for the children when the mother is still actually around. The mother may be in another room, having ‘time off’, but she is still effectively ‘on-call’.  She is the ‘default’ partner for all matters related to children or the domestic realm.

To some degree, this is specialisation. For myself, I certainly have less patience playing with Lego for hours on end when compared to the infinite absorption of my husband as he plays with our son on the kitchen floor on a Saturday morning. However, it is also set by the patterns that take hold once the first child is born and someone – usually the mother – – takes time off work to care for the baby. While she is home, bit by bit, she starts taking care of everything else as well. ‘Childcare’ becomes childcare-kindergarten-school-homework-housework-grocery shopping-babysitters-tradespeople-grandparents-play-dates-doctors-holiday planning and remembering to put the garbage bins out. And when the woman goes back to work, that new pattern generally does not shift, leaving the working woman feeling strung-out and inefficient at everything and the father acting like what Schulte calls, “The Lion King.” This analogy does not quite work because actual male lions do not hunt; but what Shulte is getting at here is that the male breadwinner role to go out and bring home the money and then, job done, means that anything else he does around the home is constructed as ‘extra’, whereas a working mother is merely expected to hold down everything as a matter of course. In short, Schulte argues, a mother in the workforce is expected to live up to two entirely contradictory ideals – – that of the worker and that of the maternal caregiver and homemaker.

In my world, I would put it like this – how many times are women told they are “really lucky” if their male partner does cooking, or housework or childcare, as if it were out of the ordinary? Now try this one – how often do the male partners get congratulated for being “really lucky” to have a working partner, even after the first child is born, since she got a degree and qualified for a profession and she is not burdening him with the sole breadwinner role? I thought so.

Schulte attacks this double standard. However, while shoring up her argument with data and research, she also leavens her volume with a series of vignettes. There is one incredibly powerful scene in the book that may well have been the kernel of experience that set the author off on her search for what had gone wrong in her marriage and her life. As she was hauling a massive turkey out of the oven for basting one Thanksgiving, Shulte was also running that mental ‘loop’ about all the other little details she had to attend to and coordinate, meanwhile keeping an ear out for her two children who were playing in the house. Her husband slopes on by with a six pack under his arm saying he was on his way out to visit a friend’s house to watch him ‘smoke the turkey’ and that he would be back in time for the meal. Shulte blew up. Clearly, this was a watershed moment for Schulte in which she wondered how two well-educated, well-meaning, equality-committed partners could have ended up in such a place. I think it is a question that has been asked in lots and lots of similar households. As one of the women whom Schulte interviewed for her project said, “All HE has to do is go to work.”

It is inevitable that male readers will complain that they are once again being tarred with the same brush as their less with-it peers and that THEY bathe their children and mow the lawn and even cook dinner. But Shulte’s research is not about that. It is about the impact of social ideals on both men and women and how powerful they are, even when it is not in people’s interest to try to live up to those constructs. For men, it is the long-standing but ever-growing image of the ‘ideal worker’ that means that showing concern about how your career might affect your family is seen as tantamount to tainting your professional image. For women, it is the head-on collision between trying to live up to the image of the ‘ideal mother’ AND the ‘ideal worker’ at the same time.

Shulte presents persuasive experiential evidence and data that shows that the next frontier of new social movements — for both men and women– is acting on the collision between expectations at work and expectations on the home front.  Expectations in both domains have ramped up considerably since the 1970s.

For example, while working parents continuously worry that they do not spend enough time with their children, the evidence presented by Shulte suggests that parents nowadays spend significantly more time with their children than their counterparts did in the 1960s and 1970s, even in those days of shorter working hours. Expectations about housework and a presentable home are also subject to continual inflation. It is a question of perception. Time use studies from the 1970s, for example, show the gap between the idea that “American housewives, with all their time-saving appliances, would be freed from the drudgery of housework” and the reality that “they spent just as much time cleaning as did women without them, in Bulgaria.” Shulte challenges her female readers to really ask themselves what is important. Do they really need to do ‘it all’? Have they created a construct of ‘it all’ that is in fact a fantasy?

Thankfully, it sounds as if the marriage at Schulte’s household has survived, but the text of Overwhelmed is clearly a search for answers. How does the woman get back her time – and, as over-work pressures ratchet up for men as well – how does the man do more at home without imperilling his role and status at work?

Shulte attacks the problem on several fronts. First, she advises us to drop the competition that she calls the “busier than thou” attitude. Second, we can each of us challenge the “cultural imperatives” that pressure us to “not just have it all, but to fit it all on the fast track … until life feels … like an exhausting ‘everydayathon’”. Third, she analyses the cultural tyranny of the ‘ideal worker’ and ‘ideal mother’ constructs, and argues persuasively that they feed into the workaholic culture and that we internalise and then use to police ourselves to exhaustion. She also sketches out some strategies she used in her own life to rein in the overwhelm. She asked herself these crucial questions:

  • How much is enough?
  • When is it good enough?
  • How will I know?

She argues that we need to change “the narrative of success” to a broader picture of what a career looks like over the course of a lifetime and what wellbeing and wealth actually mean. This means we all check in with ourselves and see whether the priorities we are living by are ones that are genuinely important to us.

On a final note, Schulte’s cultural critique is persuasive and develops points made elsewhere by Alain De Botton’s work in Status Anxiety and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Overwhelmed is part of a growing theme in American writing about the impact of extreme work hours, ICTs, consumerist values, and economic pressures on the way we think, create, love, work, relate, and ultimately, find meaning. Books such as William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, Maggie Jackson’s Distracted, and the Take Back Your Time movement all tap into various aspects of the feeling that much is not right about the direction our cultures are heading.

However, Schulte’s book shares something else with these titles – an odd reluctance to call for any systematic, policy-driven approaches to the problem. From an Australian perspective, this fear of government-driven solutions is a blind spot in American writing and positively Cold-War in its anxiety that any government funded and regulated approaches will be deemed ‘socialist’. Schulte’s heart-rending descriptions of the infant and child deaths that are the result of a refusal to fund and regulate child-care properly in the United States are a case in point. To be fair to Schulte, she uses these stories to argue for a more coordinated approach to child care and crèches in the United States, and her descriptions of the set-up in Denmark made me green with envy. But, as is too often the case, she pulls her punches when it comes to advocating legislation around work hours, worker entitlements and other industrial issues. These discussions still seem off limits to American writers. As such, they can only offer piece-meal and personal solutions to what is clearly a system-wide problem. The social movements around simple living, downshifting and work-life balance are as yet nascent; Schulte’s work contributes to this discussion, while also evidencing the silence about these issues in mainstream politics.

Further reading:

Interview with Brigid Schulte and book excerpt on NPR.

Review by Ann Crittenden in New York Times Review of Books.

Review by Helen Lewis in The Guardian.

Yagelski, Writing, and the Lego Movie

One of the highlights of the Term 1-2/Easter Break for me was participating in a reading and discussion group at the Faculty of Education at Monash University. (Thanks to Madeleine Coloumbe for inviting me along, and to Drs Graham Parr and Scott Bulfin for welcoming teachers from outside academe.) It was a rare chance for me to engage in discussion with other writer-educators about the theories and questioning that drive our practice in the classroom.

The set reading for the discussion was “A Thousand Writers Writing: Seeking Change through the Radical Practice of Writing as a Way of Being” by Robert Yagelski. This was my first encounter with Yagelski’s work. Some of the ideas that caught my attention in the article were:

–          That writing can be a process or way of being, rather than only an effort towards producing a standard-English product.

–          That writing is a way of reflecting and also reflecting on the process of writing.

–          That this reflection and process is a powerful tool in helping students and teachers see themselves in more authentic (less alienated) ways and;

–          Writing that connects directly with personal experiences and our situatedness in the world taps into a less product-driven model of thinking.

–          That this (in some way) links to efforts to construct a more ecologically and socially sustainable future.

Yagelski’s vision is that, against the standards-based, “No-Child-Left-Behind” context of education in the United States, teachers can help students see writing as a way of constructing a sense of their own being. Yagelski’s hope is that writing becomes something in which there is a personal stake in literacy and the act of putting pen to page, rather than as an activity entirely mediated by standards and expectations set by policy. There was an element of phenomenology (via Merleau-Ponty) in the argument, in that the experience of writing as a process and practice, rather than the production of a standards-based written product, was put to the fore. Yagelski states, “writing as an activity matters, separate from any text that is produced” (7) and “Writing in the moment … has the capacity to change us” (7). An awareness of the writing as experience is offered as a way of off-setting the narrow focus on producing ‘correct’ texts.

These are challenging ideas for those of us working within the limitations and practicalities of the English classroom in Australia. The political discourse about English education has become almost exclusively framed in terms of ‘standards’ and achievement as benchmarked by such things as NAPLAN results and ATAR scores. If you teach in the VCE, there is also the added dimension of having to explicitly scaffold and teach forms such as the text response essay or the persuasive text.

On the one hand, as an English teacher, I do believe that helping students master certain ‘rules’ about standard English composition and expression does help them go on to occupy a more-empowered place in their life. Times when I have taught this concept I have used the scene from the Australian film The Castle where the characters first put their case to the courts in terms of the “vibe” of Mabo and the Constitution. It is only when they get a QC lawyer who can argue within the discourse of law that the heroes can hope to gain traction for their case.

On the other hand, my own writing and literacy journey is one in which the process of writing and the experience of writing – -seeing myself as someone who writes — has been utterly central. For me, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard are an essential facet of learning, because that is often how I formalise the learning in my own mind. I write about it and compose some ideas on the page outside the flurry of my own thoughts, where reflections on Yagelski, for example, sit alongside plans for a year 11 lesson and wondering what my six year old son is up to. Writing (and reading) are activities that have long felt like they ‘belong’ to me. Since childhood I have felt an immense sense of personal ownership of reading and writing – they matter. One of the reasons they matter is that they make a third space between the utterly shared world of sociality and the private world of thought. In this third space I can interpret ideas, critically evaluate the ideas that have been passed down to me, and, most importantly, come up with a personal synthesis that I can then share with others. Writing, for me, even when it has occurred in an academic context, has been about an experience of being, it is about composing myself on the page.

It is this idea that writing and reading matter at a personal level that I hope to foster and encourage in my students. I know that they cannot have this personal investment in their own literacy if they see it as only an exercise in compliance.

Nonetheless, I think it is inaccurate to say the ‘rules’ or standards are entirely or straightforwardly oppressive. As the first person in my family to gain a degree I have observed the ways in which people with uncertain skills in standard text production spend a lot of time simply avoiding situations in which they might have to use them. My husband has part of a law degree. Some years ago he wrote a letter for a member of my family who was negotiating with a technical education institute and felt themselves without the necessary words and literacy skills to self-advocate in a discourse the institution would recognise. I have seen first-hand how weak skills in standardised text production can harm and limit power. To be able to text and Tweet and update Facebook, but to not be able to write anything longer than that, is inadequate and damaging. Explicit scaffolding into the forms and styles of ‘standard’ texts is for me a democratising exercise.

So where is the line crossed? Where does cultural capital – in the form of certain forms of academic literacy – become oppressive? How do standards situate the student writer as merely a producer of pre-determined texts and how do they actually enable a more fluent production of a self-in-the-world?

For me the crux of the matter is Yagelski’s observation that “writing [is] an act of meaning making” (9). His vision of writing, however, seems to oppose the authentic process of making meaning through writing to the business of producing academic, standard texts. He argues that students are fed a line that drives a wedge between the aim of producing texts in ‘standard’ academic forms, and a personally meaningful experience of writing:

“Writing, they are being told, isn’t about making sense of an experience in the world or finding a way through the complexities of living; rather, it is about following rules and creating ‘good’ texts, about conforming to conventions and demonstrating a narrow kind of literate proficiency” (19).

But does this opposition always hold? Ultimately, what I want for my students is a technology and fluency in written and spoken discourse so that they can work out what they think and engage the world with their ideas. They need to be able to interpret and form their own reading of the texts and narratives that circulate in our culture, and they need to be able to formulate personally significant yet intelligible meanings of their own. Is this always opposed to growing fluency in academic literacy?

This is where I started to think about the Lego Movie. At the risk of sounding undertheorised, Yagelski’s article made me think of the film I took my son to see earlier in the break. Yagelski seems to pose division between ‘standard’ literacy and writing for “making sense of an experience in the world or finding a way through the complexities of living”. Emett, the protagonist of the Lego Movie, is a totally standardised being. He follows the instruction manuals for every moment of his day, following each guide to the letter. He strives to avoid deviation and eccentricity in a world where taste, thought and creativity have been outsourced. The villain of this world, President Business, aims to eliminate all personal creativity and reflection. The heroes of this dystopian Lego-verse are “master builders”, characters who have passed through the manual-following stage and have come out the other side able to cobble together any structure they desire from the bits available to them. In one scene of the film, the thoughts and imagination of the master builders appear as serial numbers and visual memories of the various Lego bits at their disposal. They run through them like an internal catalogue, out of which they assemble a prodigious variety of machines.

Now this is a version of creative production that suggests several things:

–          That fluency and creativity in a certain medium comes via increasing mastery of the basics;

–          That knowing the language or grammar of your medium allows you to negotiate new meanings and forms.

–          That any medium is plastic, with an inherent tension between pattern and surprise.

–          That the creative process is open-ended and that while there are forms, they are unfinished.

–          All meaning-making is dialogic, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word. That is, we absorb the forms and utterances of others, but we rather than simply recite them, we can add our own interpretations and variations to the language.

To come back to the teaching of writing, I feel that our current political atmosphere does seem to promulgate a view of writing that is like following an instruction manual. As in a lot of areas of life, there seems to be a concerted effort to eliminate the need for a person to have expertise and the powers of observation and interpretation. However, despite the attractiveness of Yagelski’s focus on writing as an experience, in practice I am not sure I can divorce the teaching of writing from the written product students are being asked to produce. What I would prefer is an approach that seeks to draw students through the process of writing that, while giving them the tools to write in academic forms, also helps them develop a personal stake in writing as meaning making. After all, the most tantalising writing assignment is, perhaps, one mentioned by Yagelski: “What matters to you?”

References:

Yagelski, Robert P. (2009). “A Thousand Writers Writing: Seeking Change through the Radical Practice of Writing as a Way of Being”. English Education, Vol. 42, No. 1 (October 2009), pp. 6 – 28.

You and me and ASD: On the Question of Labels

One of the things I have taken time to reflect on over the summer period is the six months that have elapsed since our son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome/High Functioning Autism/Autism Spectrum Disorder (take your pick). Last year proved to be a big one in many unexpected ways for us, but the ASD diagnosis was definitely the biggest change we saw.

Twelve months ago we sought help from health professionals thinking our son had an anxiety disorder. Six months after that, in June, we were told that the consensus among a psychologist, speech pathologist and a paediatrician was that the best explanation for his difficulties was ASD. I remember my concern about ‘labels’ during the initial phase of diagnosis. However, this concern very quickly melted into the background once it became apparent that a diagnosis could set a whole lot of things moving that would ultimately help everyone.

The questions are:

Are we better off since the diagnosis? Are we parenting our son with more clues? Is he happier? Are we?

Yes to all of the above.

Do we think of him as only his diagnosis?

No, of course not.

So what has changed, and how is it for the better?

Firstly, we are parenting him differently and the changes in our son are very evident. He is happier, more relaxed and more able to make sense of each day. He still has trouble with some things but we have much more of an insight into why that is and what we can do about it. The specialists we have been working with – psychologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and a paediatrician – have provided us with lots of useful strategies to support our son and make our family life run more smoothly. It is not perfect, but no family is. We use visual schedules and social stories to help our son plan his time and organise himself. We use prompts and questions to help him learn the reciprocity that underlies conversation, and we have done lots of work on his motor organisation and skills for pre-writing to prepare him for school. What’s more, the school he is going to knows of his particular needs and will take extra care of him because of this.

In short, we do things slightly differently and it works. He is happier because he feels better understood and we are no longer trying to parent him as if he is someone else. Instead, we have got a better idea about the ‘operating system’ or ‘frequency’ his brain runs on and so we no longer experience the mutual frustration that comes from behaving as if the more common rules apply.

Which brings me to the main insight that this experience has given me. This concerns the issue of ‘labels’ and the reservations we and others have had about the whole issue of ‘labelling’ a child.  Six months into this new version of normal life I have come to the conclusion that concerns about ‘labelling’ might actually be a bit of a furphy.

I have learnt that the decision to go for a diagnosis in and of itself does not necessarily mean you are ‘labelling’ your child. People tend to use this idea of labelling to signal a concern that a diagnosis means that you are stigmatising your child, or putting an arbitrary limit on who they are, or reducing their human liveliness and complexity to a blurb in a diagnostic manual. These concerns would be valid – if they were true.

In our experience, a diagnosis has had the opposite effect – it has opened up our child to us as we can now understand him better and, in his case, his flourishing and growth has only increased since we decided to have him formally assessed for ASD.

To be sure, medical labels have been used to disempower and limit people. They can be terribly reductive when misused or used to replace actual engagement with the person and life’s irreducible complexity.

I see this mirrored in my life as an English teacher. My heart always sinks when students decide to diagnose a character, as if that explains them. As if a diagnosis, once made, means there is nothing more that needs to be said and no further thinking is required.

Yeah, Hamlet, he was like, a depressive, right? He just needed to get over it? Or Emma Bovary? You know, she was like a shopping addict? What she needed was a divorce and a good SSRI. Imagine if all of literature treated human experience in this way. Macbeth? Neurotic pride in achievement and power. Anti-social personality. Emily Dickinson? Agoraphobic. Social anxiety disorder. And don’t even get us started on those Brontë sisters.

The image purveyed by the popular media is of gung-ho psychologists busily diagnosing every socially awkward and brainy kid as ‘on the spectrum’ and press-ganging parents into pursuing expensive treatment. From the waiting times for each appointment it was clear to us that the last thing some of these clinics need is more patients.

Our experience contrasted this popular image. At every stage in the diagnostic process the professionals we were dealing with left it entirely up to us whether or not we proceeded with a formal assessment. At several junctures we were given explicit feedback that we did not have to proceed. The entire process was very respectful and we were assured repeatedly that we should continue to value our son in all his complexity and brilliance and quirks and that he is still an individual. Yes. Of course.

Years ago, I was one of the ‘don’t label him’ people. Back when our son was 2 going on 3, the staff at the early learning centre he was enrolled in expressed ‘concerns’ about his development. I had many meetings and conversations with them about his ‘progress’ and it was clear to me that they were dissatisfied.

At the time, and at the request of the early learning centre, we took our son to a paediatrician. This guy said he saw nothing amiss and it was probably ‘just temperament’. We, of course, were delighted to hear this and the whole episode was buried in my consciousness; that is, until we were part-way through the diagnostic process this second time around. During the diagnostic process those memories surfaced again – and this time I had a different take on my then-resistance to what I saw as normative standards being used to construe my son as a ‘concern’. He only wants to play with one type of toy? So what? Focus is good. He doesn’t draw representations of people? Well, neither do a whole bunch of adult artists. He has not moved beyond parallel play? Well, he comes from a family of people who like solitude. And that hand-flapping gesture he does? It’s just excitement.

I did not understand what the childhood educators were getting at. But I knew that I was always going to bristle at any hint of people trying to funnel him into a narrow, normative box.

I feel the same now about norms that are cultural rather than medical as I did then. But I feel differently about worrying about ‘labelling’.

The litmus test is this – he and we were having a hard time. Now, we are having a better time. What have we told him? That he had a lot of worries and that we are helping him with that. He seems satisfied with this explanation and it has the added benefit of being true.

Japanese ASD expert Yuko Yoshida in her delightful book Raising Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome: Championing the Individual, says it all in her title. Her argument about the ‘don’t label’ view is that to not diagnose and recognise your child’s distinct reality and difficulties is also, in a way, a failure to respect them as individuals. To simply avoid dealing with a child’s difference, to not engage with their specific needs and learn what best supports them is to abandon them. The ‘don’t label’ stance can inadvertently throw a child back on their own limited resources for trying to make their way in what is for them a confusing world. Done right, diagnosis is actually recognising difference.

For us, undergoing the quite arduous process of a formal diagnosis engaged our minds and focus. We were prompted to learn about ASD and our son’s particular ‘presentation’ and his particular needs. And it is the particularity that counts. A diagnosis is not a person, any more than a map is a place. But, if you want to know a place, in all is glorious particularity, you are going to need a map to get there.

Yuko Yoshida ASD book

Weird Snacks

Capitalism throws up some bizarre products in the never-ending search for the killer niche market. Enter from stage left … the weird snack food.

It is as if the public cried out, ‘We need a sweet snack that tastes like wedding cake and looks like unwashed potatoes!’

The food designers at German company Zentis heard our cry and produced this.

marzipan potatoes

SAMSUNG

Thank-you to a dear family friend who gave me these. I don’t actually like the taste of marzipan, but the rest of my household have been wolfing them down.

marzipan potatoes

 

Reading Highlights – 2013.

As I sit here eating just-one-more-Santa-shaped-chocolate I contemplate a good year in reading.

Here are some highlights from my reading in 2013:

Memoir:

Patti Smith (2010). Just Kids. London: Bloomsbury.

Patti Smith is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking 1975 album Horses and the work she has done as a poet and performer since. The famous and arresting album cover of Horses features a portrait of Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe, who went on to great fame as a photographer. This famous shot comes from the time in both Smith and Mapplethorpe’s lives that Just Kids documents.

Just Kids narrates the determination, grit, ambition and dreaminess of Smith’s years as a new arrival in New York and her intense relationship with Mapplethorpe. The two of them explore their way into their respective artistic vocations, meanwhile watching each other’s backs, stoking each other’s creative fires, and being a witness to each other’s emergence into viable artistic careers.

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Just Kids cover

Smith’s writing is intense, personal, confessional and intimate. She presents a luminous picture of a vanished world of the New York art scene and demi monde of the late 1960s – late 1970s. It is all here – Hotel Chelsea, where Smith and Mapplethorpe holed up during their romantic friendship; Warhol’s famous circle; seedy but vibrant neighbourhoods where up-and-coming artists mingled with junkies, psychiatric cases, and others marginal. I ended up reading this book with a notebook by my side where I would jot down the names of those I wanted to look up later. Her memoir is both a map to the New York avant-garde of the day, and an account of one woman’s decision to become the person she was meant to be. It is also, poignantly, an elegy for Smith’s lost friend, who died in 1989.

Novel:

Karl Ove Knausgaard. (English Translation 2013, Don Bartlett). A Man in Love. My Struggle: Book 2. London: Harvill Secker.

my struggle 2

Knausgaard’s project in his six volume My Struggle seems nothing less than the search for a new form. The result – called a “novel” but clearly based on daily events in the author’s own life – narrates the quest to find meaning and produce something new, despite living in this exhausted period a century after modernism.

A Man in Love is the second volume in Knausgaard’s project. In it he struggles with, among other things, the task of becoming a writer and writing something worthwhile amid a pressing reality that is in equal parts banal and fantastic. Calling the series My Struggle seems provocative, and I do not quite know what to make of the overt nod to Hitler’s autobiography. Perhaps it is a deliberate appropriation and reversal of the grandiose claims of a tyrant to title the humble and quotidian concerns of Knausgaard’s author-protagonist. In A Man in Love, the narrator’s main “struggle” seems to be balancing the demands of marriage and parenting small children with the demands of an artistic career. In this way, the ‘struggle’ appeals to the straightened, time-poor circumstances of any working parent trying to manage the competing commitments of love and work and art while trying to be something more than just a workhorse/consumer.

I read the first in the My Struggle series purely by chance. A Death in the Family was on a display shelf at the library at work. I liked the cover with its forlorn weatherboard house. The Scandinavian name caught my interest because I had recently enjoyed some fiction by fellow Norwegian Per Petterson. I went home and found the writer’s excruciating honesty about his awkward adolescence and his difficult relationship with his father mesmerising. A full third of the A Death in the Family dealt with Knausgaard and his brother cleaning his father’s home after he dies of alcoholism. That a writer would devote so much attention to the sheer labour of cleaning a house that was filthy, cluttered and destitute from neglect on one level seemed bizarre and a burden on the reader. On another level it was an audacious move and surprisingly cathartic as the reader follows the narrator’s efforts to exorcise the squalor of his father’s addiction and their disappointing relationship through the powers of bleach and cleaning fluids.

a death in the family

Overtly sourced from Knausgaard’s own daily grind, My Struggle: Book 2 details the author’s own labour to become a writer amidst the chaos and interruptions of marriage and raising small children.  Having left his native Norway for Sweden, Knausgaard struggles with the subtle linguistic, class and cultural nuances of a country that, for all its proximity, accentuates different values. Knausgaard’s narrative vacillates between the high registers of philosophical discussions between the author and his friend Geir about the nature of art, the creative life and efforts to write well, and the low registers of descriptions of smoking, drinking, cooking, and the rigors of looking after small children. The author’s yearning for the quiet and time necessary to create the writing most essential to his own sense of living a meaningful and effective life is pitted directly against the demands of family living. In particular, scenes of desperate parenting amid screaming toddlers and the rhythms of housekeeping are vivid in their unrelenting portrayal of the labours of everyday life. I, for one, heartily sympathised with Knausgaard’s moments of ambivalence when, no matter how much ‘in love’ one is with one’s family, there are times when the chief desire is to find a quiet place and be left alone. I read A Man in Love on the strength of the strange momentum Knausgaard seems able to generate from the most unpromising material – that, and the warm, complex voice that comes off the page. I look forward to Volume 3.

Australian novelist Richard Flanagan was also enthused by Knausgaard’s work.

Poetry

Seamus Heaney Field Work. (1976). New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

field work heaney

By coincidence, Heaney died just as I was teaching his poetry to my Year 11 IB English class. This contact with his poetry reignited my interest in this frankly lyrical man who was so comfortable combining his own voice with the voices of mythology, past poets, and the bog-deep sources of the Irish and English languages themselves. His death heightened my sense of the preciousness of his work, given that it would no longer be elaborated on or added to. I have long enjoyed teaching the small selection we use in the course. I like Heaney’s attention to earthly details, to memory, to craft. He is an ‘approachable’ poet – rarely arch or ironic in that detached, distanced, urbane way. Instead, his work nourishes and feeds the reader even if his material is often hardship, squandered possibility, grief, violence and loss.

In Field Work, Heaney draws on all the sources of his experience, the loss of friends, the sectarian violence that was severing and ruining his country, his love of his wife, and the endless, fertilizing source of the landscape. Many of the poems synthesise these elements of Heaney’s life, as in “Polder” where a reunion with his wife is neatly conflated with a reunion with the land and origins that feed the poet’s identity and his art:

I have reclaimed my polder,

All its salty grass and mud-slick banks;

Under fathoms of air, like an old willow

I stir a little on my creel of roots

(“Polder”).

Many of the poems are elegies for those killed by sectarian violence, while others ponder Heaney’s role as poet in a land where words seem at times both useless and necessary, a “tentative art” (“Casualty”). I thoroughly enjoyed reading this work, its searching quality, its confession of not having any neat or grand solutions, and the unfinished love that animates so many of its poems.

So …those were some of the highlights. I will have to write up the next few titles anon.

Review — How I Live Now (novel and film)

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THE NOVEL:

Rosoff’s first novel, How I Live Now (2004) is a cracker of a read for adolescents and adults alike. Daisy, the hard-bitten-but-vulnerable female protagonist retells her experiences of a number of life firsts:

–       The first time she lives away from her New York City home, as she spends the summer with her cousins in the English countryside.

–       The first time she falls in love, completely and utterly with her cousin Edmond.

–       The first time she survives a hostile enemy occupation as World War III breaks out.

This seems like a rather unlikely and crowded premise for a novel that runs to just 224 pages. Rosoff pulls it off, largely through the mesmerising and at times very funny voice of Daisy herself. A typical snippet is her internal monologue sketching her impressions of her cousin Edmond:

Now let me tell you what he looks like before I forget because it’s not exactly what you’d expect from your average fourteen-year-old what with the CIGARETTE and hair that looked like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night …

The first-person narrative gives the reader the impression that Daisy is hastily confessing her thoughts, feelings and experiences directly to the reader, entrusting us with her most raw and important moments. Beneath the cynical exterior we glimpse the psychological reality of someone who is in fact deeply troubled but feels compelled to keep people at a safe distance:

… for a minute I was so glad I was 15 and from New York City because even though I haven’t actually Seen It All, I have in fact seen more than plenty, and I have one of the best Oh Yeah, This Is So Much What I Usually Do kind of faces of anyone in my crowd.

She is wise to the insincerity and pain of the adult world around her, but touchingly open to those adults who she can see have tenderness and good intentions, even if they are clearly unable to divert disaster. An example of this is her astute observations of Aunt Penn, whose role in international peace negotiations is about to leave the cousins to their own devices:

After looking at me for a few seconds more she put her hand up very gently and pushed the hair off my face in a way that for some reason made me feel incredibly sad and then she said in a regretful grave voice that she was sorry but she had to give a lecture in Oslo at the end of the week on the Imminent Threat of War and had work to do so would I please excuse her? She would only be gone a few days in Oslo and the children would take good care of me. And I thought there’s that old war again, popping up like a bad penny.

What follows is a brief idyll as Daisy and her cousins romp through the beautiful countryside fishing and picnicking and swimming, living off the land and the occasional trip to a local village for supplies. Daisy and Edmond develop feelings for each other without the restraining presence of adults. Meanwhile, Rosoff’s heroine slowly dismantles her hardened, New-York-Teen exterior, learning to enjoy life and perhaps even accept herself.

Then war intervenes. What follows is an intense tale of survival and responsibility and incredible faith.

You can read an extract at Meg Rosoff’s website.

film tie in cover

THE FILM:

Starring Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) and George Mackay as Edmond, Kevin McDonald’s adaptation of Rosoff’s novel stays true to the spirit and the outline of the tale.

Ronan is very believable as a spoilt and self-absorbed New York teen who is pushed to use her determination for higher purposes than diet and appearance by the outbreak of World War III. Responsible for keeping her young cousin Piper alive and for finding her way back home, Daisy is a heroine who must keep her wits about her.

The film makes some changes to Rosoff’s original tale – as seems to happen in the transition from text to screen. Edmond is older. A brother who appears in the book is completely left out. Daisy’s seven-year-long tale is abridged to about a year. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the film’s rendering of Daisy’s harrowing journey. The English countryside is used to great effect and makes a strong contrast to the devastation of war as the tale unfolds. MacDonald’s adaptation kept Rosoff’s approach that allowed her heroine both a great love story and a good head on her shoulders.

Apparently, some reviewers have claimed that the love story in this film is ‘about incest’ and there has been some controversy about this aspect of the narrative.

Just for the record, folks, anyone who has read L.M. Montgomery’s classic novels for Young Adults, including the Anne of Green Gables series could tell you that there are PLENTY of cousins falling in love and marrying each other there. It was once not uncommon.

Meg Rosoff herself has been taken by surprise by this reading of the film. In an interview she says:

“I really take exception to the whole notion of incest when it comes to the book. Daisy and Edmond are cousins who’ve never met each other and who’ve grown up in separate parts of the world. Call me naïve, but it never even occurred to me when I was writing the book that it was going to be contentious. If an editor had said to me, ‘Ooh, that’s really going to affect your sales’, I’d have taken it out and made them second cousins or something. It wasn’t a big thing for me. And, as I said years ago when the book first came out, I come from thousands of years of Eastern European Jews, where everyone married their cousins. Plenty of people still do marry their cousins – it’s legal almost everywhere in America.”

Source: http://www.film4.com/special-features/interviews/meg-rosoff-on-how-i-live-now

 See a Film Preview

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