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Petition

July 1967. Northern New Jersey, 12 miles outside of New York City. My older brother, Tom, then a high school student, had a summer job in Newark, New Jersey at Lafayette Radio. The city erupted in race-related riots to the extent that my brother was instructed to miss work and stay home for a few days. A white face could have been a target.

The New Jersey neighborhood where we lived had been mostly populated since the early twentieth century by Dutch and German immigrants, and then the children of Dutch and German immigrants. If you crossed over one major avenue in one direction, it was the Jewish neighborhood. If you were to walk past our elementary school, you had the Italian neighborhood to the right, and the Polish neighborhood to the left. So, I grew up with a fair amount of diversity, although everyone was of European ancestry.

So, I think it was the same summer, that the old couple, the Muldners, in the house next door finally passed away. Their house went on the market.  The for-sale sign went up, and people started looking at the house on Clinton Avenue.  One couple shopping for a home who looked at the Muldner’s former house was African-American. I thought it was kind of neat.  I just hoped there would be kids to play with.

So, maybe a few days later, I was at home with Dad, and the doorbell rang.  Dad got there first, but I was nosy and stepped out onto the window-lined porch behind him.  A man I had never seen before stood there, a clipboard in his hand. He began explaining that he’d started a petition to prevent anyone Black from buying that house next door to us. And, the man conjectured, we’d probably want to sign it, as these would be our neighbors. After all, having one Black family move in would invite others, and then the property values would go down, and who would want that?

What happened next had a profound influence on the rest of my life. My father said “NO.” He said it strongly. Then he gave the man a lecture about how that house next door could be purchased by anyone who had the money.  And that he, or any petition, had no say in the matter. The petitioner was quite surprised. He tried to argue. Dad would have none of it, and shut the front door on him.  I was so proud of my Dad that day.

It also made me wonder. I went to a large school, which had only white kids. Tom went to the new high school with over 3,000 kids, and they were all white. Why was that?  Dad taught in a high school in an adjacent community, and there were students of color there. Later it camhttps://archives.weru.org/esoterica/2020/01/esoterica-1-28-20-petition/e to light that the realtors in the area had gotten together and formed an agreement, that they would show no houses in our city to any people of color. I felt embarrassed.

A few times in my life, I have had to stand up for something, something not everyone agreed with. Adults, not just kids exert peer pressure sometimes. I remember he also became president of his teacher’s union – twice. I remember he stood up for worker’s rights in a labor strike as a young carpenter.

The image of my father on the porch always comes to me. It calls up strength. It calls up legacy.  I am reminded that I am my father’s daughter.

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Honky Mom

Honky Mom

Most people I know did something special to commemorate the year they turned 50. My friend Joanne went to Paris, Martha went hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and Linda bought herself a Mercedes. I decided to adopt a child.  I was single, and had a very good job with flexibility, and my field meant that my knowledge of child development was extensive. Moreover, I had love to give.

I decided to stay in the public adoption arena, and because of my age, to seek a placement of an older child. After all, I did not want to be sitting at PTA meetings and dance recitals when I was on medicare. There are many children needing homes. And the majority of children awaiting adoption where I lived were African-American.  So, I ended up with a nine-year-old African-American girl named Amanda. I was Amanda’s 14th placement.

There’s much I could write about the experience of being an adoptive parent. But here, my focus is the surprises – of what it means raising a child whose ethnicity is different than mine.

First of all – hair. Hair is a big deal among African American women. “Nappy” hair is very different than my kind of brown straight hair. It requires special moisturizers and shampoos. Many African American women get regular “perms” – which means chemical straightening, relaxing tight kinky curls.

But the bigger issue was the subtle racism I saw everywhere. Where I lived, people of color were well-represented. Thus, I had no problem buying the needed hair products. My African-American colleagues and friends were only too happy to recommend their favorite brands, and sometimes even help teach me -the honky mom – how to use them.

I enrolled Amanda in ballet. She loved it. When recital time came, her class was assigned a cute frilly tutu. The tutu was meant to look strapless from a distance and so there were spaghetti straps that were – beige. Yes, light, light beige. Why don’t these things come in a few color choices? I asked myself.

For the Christmas concert at school, my daughter brought home a notice saying girls needed a back skirt, white blouse, and pantyhose. The skirt and blouse were easy. Then, I went shopping for Amanda’s first pair of pantyhose.

I have always chosen my pantyhose a shade darker than my skin. I looked through all the offerings – and every color was “beige” or “nude” or “tan.” Where were the brown-colored shades of pantyhose? Where do Black women buy their pantyhose? So, Amanda went to the school concert in pantyhose the color of wheat flour.

I had been thrilled at Christmas when the toy store had one black “Barbie” doll. Whew! Lucky, I thought. But later, when the therapist was trying to address Amanda’s many developmental delays, she asked me to assemble enough dolls to make a family – a mother, father, and children.  She’d use these in role playing family situations. So, I went shopping for a dark skinned “Ken.” There were none. The best I could do was a “Ken” with a tan – dressed in gaudy swimming trunks and holding up a surfboard. And so, I also bought a brown magic marker.

Yes, you guessed it. I sat there with a “Ken” doll and a brown marker and colored every inch of his body to make him brown.  He was a bit streaky in places, but mostly, it worked well.

It still bothers me that in a region of the country with plenty of people of color, that I had such a difficult time locating appropriate products. It seemed to me to be a subtle racism. A carelessness on the part of manufacturers. Certainly, a lack of sensitivity.

That was 20 years ago. I hope things have gotten better. At least now the internet opens up vast shopping opportunities. I hope black dolls and darker pantyhose are readily available.https://archives.weru.org/esoterica/2020/02/esoterica-2-4-20-honky-mom/

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Re-vision

Me with glasses. Saying goodbye to them!

I am over the moon happy. Today is day 2 of no-longer-needing-eyeglasses. My first cataract was removed last Tuesday. By Sunday, I noticed my glasses no longer worked. That, and noticing how colors are so much brighter ( to the point where I need sunglasses often). My glaucoma was also treated in the process, and a teeny tiny stent means that I will not need so many eye drops any time soon. My vision went from 20/80 to 20/25 in my right eye. Unbelievable!!

Monday is cataract surgery number #2! Left eye-my weaker eye. Cannot wait for more “re-vision.”

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Why I live in Maine…..

Reasons I love living in Maine…

  1. From my windows, I see no one else’s house. No other house can see me. The privacy and the quiet is aesthetically pleasing.
  2. The last time I was caught in traffic was July, 2019, and for about 10 minutes.
  3. I can eat nearly all locally produced fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meats, and nearly all of them are raised organically.
  4. Even when it snows, it’s still beautiful.
  5. I lock my car doors and house doors out of habit (After all, I grew up in New Jersey), but I don’t really need to.
  6. Because it’s a smaller population, it’s easier to make changes, it’s easier to know your government officials on a first name basis, it’s easier to become involved, and to make a difference.
  7. I see the ocean just about every day. I see beauty almost everywhere I look.
  8. Prices on some things are cheaper (haircuts, car repairs, etc.)
  9. I can eat lobster pretty much any time I want to.
  10. When I go into shops, mostly someone in there recognizes me, and remembers my name.
  11. Neighbors help care for neighbors here.
  12. I see the incredible celestial heavens every clear night. It’s over a mile to the nearest street lamp.
  13. (I’ll add more later).
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The Intersection of Culture and Invention Part III

I’ve been an educator since 1973. In that time, I taught elementary children, middle school students, and teachers. Mostly teachers. Once I was in higher education, the opportunities to experience and visit different countries and cultures fed my intense curiosity about peoples of the world.

I visited 50 countries (so far). But, moreover, I visited schools in many parts of the US, but also Canada, Thailand, the Bahamas, Denmark, Sweden, China, Taiwan, Kenya, South Africa, Cuba, Italy, India, Turkey, Jamaica, Barbados, Australia, and New Zealand (so far).

Additionally, over the years, and enjoying working with international colleagues and students, I have made friendships or have mentored folks from Japan, Taiwan, Trinidad, Korea, the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, India, South Africa, the Philippines, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Ecuador, Brazil, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Australia, New Zealand, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.

All these experiences inform what I am about to say.

How we raise our children and young people, both in homes and in schools, matters greatly. I don’t mean just what they learn, but how they learn it. And, how the curriculum and instruction reflect the deepest and underlying values of a culture.

If you sit all your children in rows, and they are wearing the same thing (uniforms), and their hair is cut the same way, and you teach them the same things, and test the exactly the same way, and discourage dissent, disagreement, or “standing out,” then what are the chances of having a new idea? An inventive thought?

Many schools around the world believe strongly in uniforms. It’s said that it ‘equalizes” the children, economically and socially. Chuckle if you must, because it does not work. In the Bahamas, children wore the same uniform, but then they were seated by their test scores from one corner of the room all the way to the other.

I feel certain in any setting the children know their hierarchy, whether it is economic or academic. When I was in 7th grade in a large urban junior high school, we were tracked academically, using test scores. The administration had scrambled the 16 section numbers to hide the hierarchy. We’d all figured it out by the end of day 1.

If you think, in the name of fairness or equity, all children need the same lessons at the same time in the same way, then where is the room for creative thinking? Questioning? The room for invention?

If you think all students need to read the same books or stories, chosen by some “other” authority, then where is the space and the attention to “grand” conversations – one in which readers see the mirrors of themselves, and find their identities in what they read?

If the most important thing in your culture is tradition, and honoring the past, and honoring the ancestors, and fitting in, then isn’t too much emphasis on tradition an antidote to invention? Can you want something your ancestors never had? Does it dishonor them? Does it violate some dearly held ideas? Can you have a new, radical, revolutionary idea (I don’t mean like a war, but more like a cellphone or a computer)?

One summer, colleagues and I had a short conference in Denmark. The Danes were wonderful hosts and I think we loved every minute of getting to know them. We were housed in a type of school building where students board. We ate our meals in the sort of cafeteria where students ate.

We came from a long session, hungry, to find a wonderful buffet of meats, cheese, and breads. We were all Americans or Canadians. We took a plate and picked things we liked and went to a table and made ourselves sandwiches.

We were not the only folks staying in the facility and eating there. Some were local. The Danes stared at us. We didn’t know why.

Later, we learned from an American who had lived overseas, that we were not supposed to make sandwiches. We were supposed to eat those things separately, AND in a pre-determined sequence. She showed us a Danish child’s lunch box, with individual trays stacked inside a box, each for the correct part of the meal. Of course, we didn’t know.

If you have to eat your meals in a certain order and there are rules attached to how you eat (other than manners), how does this influence thinking? Invention?

Let’s mention China. I greatly respect the many Chinese colleagues I came to know in my career. We know many world inventions came from China, like silk making and gunpowder.

BUT, all those were very long ago. What sort of inventions are coming out of China since the “cultural revolution” and under Communism. What happens when during a political event, your academic elite are …..missing? How does that influence national and cultural thinking for the next century?

I believe there are indeed intersections of culture and invention. I think under closer examination, one would find that the countries with lots of inventions value diverse thinking. Value new ideas. Value positive changes. These are expressed in their systems of education. These shape the people their children become.

I would dearly love an academic conversation on this topic. It’s been on my mind for decades!

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More on “Women Rowing North”(by Mary Pipher)

I finished the book a few weeks ago. I must admit that near the end, I believed I was hearing the same messages over and over. I was somewhat frustrated with the case studies, and grew weary of some of the people in them who seemed stuck.

But, let me tell you what’s happening here. A group of women I know who have been getting together for ages once a month for drinks and dinner and now reading Women Rowing North together. Some are over 90. They are taking it slow. This past month, they gave themselves no reading assignments because they had so much to talk about.

So, here’s what’s happening in my county. As part of Aging Well in Waldo County, I lead the Social Isolation committee. One of my targets was to organize the county librarians, let them exchange ideas about senior programming, maybe come up with some new ideas. These librarians are an impressive group. Their libraries are poorly funded. Two county libraries are entirely run by volunteers. They do much with so little.

So me and my grants committee has written and received two grants, both of which help libraries. One grant is specific to funding social isolation remedies. So, we ordered 7 copies of Women Rowing North (and I gave them my copy to make 8). The set will circulate around the county, a month in each, and let groups form over the book. Looking forward to seeing how this goes.

As I said in the last post, women needed this book!

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Just Stuff

Just Stuff- WERU Esoterica

Just Stuff

 

By this time of life, people my age have already said goodbye to all members of the older generation in their families. That’s true for me and most of my friends. We all have tales of woe cleaning up after the life of parents, aunts, and uncles. Every single thing must be liquidated, assigned, sold, placed, or donated.  Of course, generally we are all doing all this while grieving for whomever has passed on. And those belongings can be a mine field of emotions and memories. And, fortunately, a few laughs.

My mother passed first. She’d had Alzheimer’s, and her remaining belongings were just as odd and bizarre as some of the things she would do and say during those last years. Like the time I visited her during the evening in the nursing home and found her sitting in the lobby near the entrance.

“Oh, I am so glad you are here,” she began, unable to recall my name, but certain I was familiar. “Have I missed my train?”

“No, Mom. You have plenty of time. I’ll check the schedule.”

“Good,” she said, relieved of her agitation.

After she passed, I sent all her clothes to a thrift store. But cleaning out her drawers and closet was difficult. I tossed pantyhose with runs, stained cosmetic bags, rusty hairpins, and the pink rubber rollers she had once used on my hair when I was small. There were pens that had been out of ink for decades, broken pencils, brochures, dirty tissues and stretched out headbands. But most amusing was an entire drawer full of prostheses for her left breast following a mastectomy when she was 70. Medicare provided a new prosthesis every two years. She lived to her late 80’s. So there was an entire drawer of fake boobs.

“Why don’t you use them, Mom?” I’d asked her once before Alzheimer’s had entirely set in.

“Oh, they’re too hot,” she replied, explaining it was easier to stuff the empty bra cup with a sock. “And I don’t want to wear them out,” she’d added. “Besides, I’m over 70, what do I need two breasts for?”

My father passed a few months after Mom. Then it was important to vacate his two- bedroom apartment before the end of a month, or we’d be charged another month’s rent. I found a Mom with 6 adopted kids that could use all the furniture.  Little stuff like dishes and knick-knacks all went to the thrift store which supported a local hospital.

Dad had a lifelong love of books. He’d culled books when he’d left his last house. But not enough. He was adamant that the remaining books were valuable, and that I should get a good price for them. He thought he had something very precious because he had every book Jack London had ever written.

A kind man, a specialist in antiquarian books, graciously agreed to peruse Dad’s collection. After half an hour, he pronounced that the books were still good for reading, but that they had no monetary value.

Most of us are not privy to the romantic side of our parents. I always knew my folks had a strong love story. But I got a good laugh when I found a stack of vintage Playboy magazines in Dad’s closet.

The process of cleaning out someone’s stuff is tedious and dreadful. But what I learned is that in the end, it’s all just stuff. Just stuff. What someone values has little to do with money.

Now, I try to look at my home this way. Everything I have, everything I will have by the time I die, it’s just stuff. My stuff. Stuff that means something to me, and probably not to anyone else. I will try to remember not to collect so much stuff.  Because, in the end, it’s just stuff.

W.C.  Kasten

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