Friday, February 26, 2016

Interactions With Our Kids in the Modern World


    A few weeks ago I was at a party at a friend’s house. It’s an annual affair-I know the friend from a discussion group and from my old neighborhood, and every year he throws a big breakfast party for the group and for his friends. There were about 40 people there, and I noticed this woman in her 30’s who was there with her daughter, who could not have been more than 3 years old. The woman was involved in talking with a lot of us older adults, and she watched part of a video with us as well. She also danced to some classic R’n’B. During these times she gave the kid a cell phone to look at some cartoons. I spent a lot of time talking with a number of friends I hadn’t seen in a while, helping with the cooking, and watching some of the movie-it was Stormy Weather, a great 1940’s Lena Horne movie. But for some reason my attention kept getting drawn back to the woman and her daughter. As I watched them I noticed the woman sat with the kid for a bit, and they watched some cartoons on the cell phone together. She also ate with the kid and explained what some of the foods were the kid was either unfamiliar with or unsure about. At one point when she was watching the Lena Horne movie, the woman put the kid on her lap and whispered some things about the movie to her. When the girl was clearly bored with the movie, the woman got up and went through the house with the kid, holding her hand and pointing out some of the things on the walls and tables to the kid.  The woman was involved with the adults at the gathering, but she never lost track of her daughter. The images of them together struck me for some reason, and those images stayed with me.

      A week or so later it become clear to me why the interactions of that woman and her daughter were so striking to me. I was taking a train from Chestnut Hill into Center City, and I was sitting in the car alternately reading, looking out the window and watching my trainmates. Across the aisle from me were two parents with young kids under the age of 4, and what I saw on that train ride solidified for me what I saw at my friend’s party. Directly across from me was a father and his son, and the son was kneeling on the seat, looking backwards and forwards out the window as the train rolled on. He was pointing at things outside the window and excitedly saying things, like, “Look at that, Dad!” and “What’s that?” And his father was looking at the same things and answering him and engaging with him and pointing things out to him and asking him questions. At one point the father’s cell phone rang. He answered it, talked for a couple of minutes, then clicked off and went back to interacting with his son.  This happened for pretty much the whole ride into town. A couple of seats in front of this pair was a woman and her son. The son was looking around at things, like the first kid, and asking questions. The mom was on her cell phone, and she looked over at the kid, gave a couple of short answers, and then went back to her phone conversation. The kid asked a few more questions whereupon the woman reached into a bag that she had and pulled out an IPad. She gave it to the kid, the kid sat down, turned it on, and for most of the rest of the trip had his head down looking at the screen while his mom continued her phone conversation. And the meaning of the mom and her daughter at the party and that father and his son on the train came into focus for me. Those parents were able to do the adult things they wanted to do or had to do and still find times and ways to interact with their kids. The mother on the train, for whatever reason, was not. And I truly mean “interact with"; asking and answering questions, being with the kids where the kid was, responding to the kids’ concerns and interests, and for awhile at least, putting the kids’ interest on a level with the adult’s. And I realized that I just do not see that that often.

    When I think of all the distractions, interruptions, and demands for our attention with which the modern world bombards us, I find it amazing that there are parents who can sidestep all of that and give good attention and focus to their children. That woman at the party and that man on the train reminded me of how precious and rare that is. Too often I see parents walking down the street, holding their kids’ hands, but jabbering away on a cell phone. Or sitting with them in a coffee shop or restaurant with the kid looking around and the parent’s eyes glued to a screen. Or worse yet, the parent and the kid both watching separate screens or engaged in separate cell phone conversations. It seems to me that such scenes are more and more common. Not that I am a Luddite and opposed to electronic communication and digital devices-after all, I have a cell phone and I am sending this by e-mail. But I also believe that in our helter-skelter, super-fast modern world, times spent together between parents and kids are fewer and shorter. And there should be every opportunity for maximum interaction between them. Those parents that can do that, who can prioritize their time with their kids, have a lot to teach and show us. Yes, we need to be a part of the modern world and involved in it. But we also need to step back and find time to attend to the other things that can bring us well-being and happiness in a way the electronics, digital systems, and algorithms can’t. We need, if only for the occasional moment, to be humans embracing and sharing our humanity with other humans. In human ways. And I can’t think of more important ways of doing that than doing it with our children. Here's hoping more of us can remember to do that more often.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Curiosity and Black History Month

                                        Black History Month and Curiosity

“The thing about Black History is that the truth is so much more complex than anything you could make up” Henry Louis Gates

“Black History is not only a separate history-it is American History.” Morgan Freeman

   It is February, and in schools, newspapers, websites, museums and more that means that it is Black History month, a time to place a special emphasis on the accomplishments, experiences, and importance of African-Americans in, to, and in spite of American culture. While I have some problems with how the month tends to be looked at in a lot of places, the month does often provide me with opportunities to experience and learn new and exciting things. I look forward to a lot of the activities during the month because I often hear interesting interviews with fascinating people, see some wonderful art work, get introduced to musicians, writers, and thinkers I may not have heard of before, and get greater insights into an event, time period or a person about whom I knew a little. Such was the case Saturday, February 6th when I took a trip to Doylestown’s Mercer Museum to see a first person presentation on the life of Maryland’s Benjamin Banneker, the great colonial writer of almanacs, astronomer, and a surveyor on the team that laid out the city that was to become Washington, DC. He has long been one of my heroes, and this program promised to provide me with greater details about him and his life.

   As a kid in the 1950’s we had Negro History Week, and as an inveterate reader and devourer of all types of information, I loved learning about things that were not part of the regular school curriculum or in my history books. I went to a majority black elementary school, and my teachers and parents nurtured my curiosity and encouraged me to read, ask questions, and to explore. I got my first library card in the 2nd grade, and the libraries at 52nd and Sansom, 54th and Media, 40th and Walnut, and 19th and the Parkway were sacred places to me. They and magazines such as Jet and Ebony were sources that gave me a lot of basic information on Black people from all different times and places that were not covered in school or in the mainstream media. So I had known some things about Banneker from my own study. I knew he had written an almanac, created a clock, had surveyed the land that later become Washington, DC., and that he had an ongoing relationship and correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. But the Doylestown presentation offered a chance to see him portrayed and to have his life brought off the pages-to sort of encounter him. And there was a great chance that I could get more detail and learn more things that I did not know about him and his life. 

   I was not disappointed. Bob Smith from Baltimore has made a career of doing what he calls, “First Person Presentation”, and he presented us with a Banneker that had a sense of humor, unbridled enthusiasm, curiosity, ingenuity, and an intense commitment to education and freedom. And I learned some important things about what it was like to do the work that Banneker did in colonial America-what it took to track and study the stars outside at night in all types of weather to be able to put together an accurate almanac, for example. Or how physically hard and uncomfortable it was to do the surveying to lay out DC. And how he had taken apart and put together a pocket watch several times until he could do it blindfolded, and then used that memory to attempt to build the first clock in the colonies. It took him three tries and two years, but he was able to create the first clock made in colonial North America in 1756. It kept perfect time until his death in 1806.
    The other fascinating things that I found through Bob Smith’s portrayal were details of Benjamin’s family and of the help of the Ellicott family, Bucks County PA Quakers who had moved into the Baltimore area to establish a grist mill. When Ben was 40 George Ellicott lent him a book on astronomy and a telescope; those fired up his enthusiasm and took his interest in astronomy to a new level. It was George's cousin, Andrew Ellicott ,who recruited him to be a part of the surveying team for the District of Columbia. The Ellicotts definitely played a big role in Benjamin’s life. I also learned a lot about his family-his grandmother was apparently an English indentured servant who had served her full term, was given land as the term of her indenture, and who bought, worked with, freed, and married “Bannake,” an African who became Benjamin’s grandfather.  And Bannake’s son, when he was made an inheritor of the family farmland, included 6-year-old Benjamin on the deed, making sure he could never be taken and sold into slavery.  To complete the picture of Benjamin’s life and times there were also some colonial era tools, a printing press, a telescope, maps from the time period, and more. It was a fascinating look at an impressive person, some unusual people, and a special time.

   As the Gates’ quote above notes, truth is often stranger and more involving than fiction. Benjamin’s story makes that clear.  For me seeing the presentation at the Mercer was also a chance to add on to that knowledge that I first came across as an eager-to-learn young person. And as I continue to read and haunt libraries and dig through websites and museums I suspect I will find out more about this incredible individual and be led into other paths and interests as well. I hope that whatever your interests, questions and/or points of curiosity are that you devote some real time to feeding and nurturing them-to indulging that spirit of curiosity that seems so vital to human life. Museums, libraries and trips are especially wonderful ways to feed and nurture that spirit. And when we do that perhaps we can better make sense of the world around us and our role in it. It is definitely worth a try. Surprises and wonders await.

   (For more information on Benjamin Banneker go to:

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

It Takes A Village

"It takes a village..."  Anonymous

"For too long in this society we have celebrated unrestrained individualism over common community"  Joe Biden

 Two weeks ago in my last newsletter I mentioned that we were not experiencing much of a normal winter in these parts. Temperatures had been higher than normal, plants were still blooming, and snow was nowhere to be seen. I did mention that the glory of the winter skies was still there and that we could know what season it was by looking up at night and in the early morning. That is still true-the stars and constellations are magnificent, the full moon came when it was supposed to, and if one gets up at about 5:30AM in the morning and looks southeastward, one can see a wonderful rare event-the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter seemingly in a straight line. This rare "alignment" occurrence is in the sky from now until February 20, and it is a sight to behold. The skies have been in winter mode all along, and that alignment has only added to it.
But last weekend we finally got the "on the ground" proof that it is winter in the form of one of the largest snow storms to hit the area. From Friday through  Sunday morning we were hit with steady to heavy snowfall, winds that were gusting up to 50 miles per hour, and accumulations that ranged from 19 to 23 inches. Neighborhoods were buried, transit was halted, folks were stranded and life as we are used to came to pretty much a standstill. We had been warned, and people had stocked up on eggs and milk and cereal and the staples that we seem to need at times like this, and most of us just hunkered down. We stayed inside wherever we were and prayed as we waited that we would we would not lose power, that trees and tides would not do damage to our houses, streets or apartments, and that we would once again get through this as we always seem to do. Sunday revealed the damage and saw the region struggling with beginning the digging out and recovery. Plows worked the streets, transit workers, street workers, and snow shovelers did their thing, and slowly, sometimes frustratingly, we accomplished things. It was and is difficult. But one of the great things about all of this from my perspective is the way neighbors and strangers and people of all ages came together to help each other solve problems, find solutions, and meet the challenges. I live in West Mount Airy, and one of the things I love about my neighborhood is the way we work together in a time of crisis. People of all ages helped shovel each other out, volunteered space in their yard and driveway to put the snow, helped shovel off walks of sick or elderly folks, pushed cars out of spots, and more. And that is how we regularly respond to snowstorms. Shortly after we moved into the area Philadelphia had a terrible storm in 1994. The people in our neighborhood got together and literally went block by block from one end of each street to the other, shoveling together to clear the street and freeing cars. Some folks made and served hot chocolate, coffee,and snacks while others shoveled, and that experience cemented me to the neighborhood. From that experience we set up a fund to hire a snowplow to come around during storms, and we still do the "help each other out" thing when there is a crisis. It is who we are, and it is wonderful.

And  I know that we are far from the only neighborhood to do this type of thing. I have talked to a lot of folks over the years who are fortunate enough to live in places or on streets that work the same way. And I am sure you saw newspaper coverage and TV stories about strangers helping dig people out and helping stranded travelers and more during Storm Jonas. That "connectedness" and helpfulness of people is often something that we take for granted or forget about. Then something likes this storm comes up, and the wonder, beauty and necessity of it is front and center and impossible to ignore.  We are brought face to face with the simple fact that as humans we need each other and that no one lives a good life totally by themselves.  Yes, my back hurt for a while, and, yes, traveling around was still a hassle for a few days, and yes, some of the effects of the storm are still visible. But there is also a warm feeling and an extended, "Thank you" to my neighbors and friends for making the storm bearable and for making this such a wonderful place to live. I hope you are all finding necessary help and support in dealing with the storm, its effects, and other things that come up in life. And I hope that you occasionally get to experience the quiet wonders and power of that thing called, "community". As a good friend of mine  says, "If we're lucky, no one will get out of this life alone." I hope that was and is part of your life experience.  Be well