Monday, November 1, 2010

Reason, Civility, and Carrot Fennel Soup

(Warning: the foodie turns somber in this post.  You can read a cheerier post and enter the $25 King Arthur Flour giveaway here until November 3 at 10pm!)

I've been pretty quiet on this blog about the recent suicides of gay teenagers, and about conversations in the media and in government about civility, and schools being stripped of federal education funds if they are doing nothing about bullying.  But after a friend posted yet another one of the "It Gets Better" videos on his Facebook status the other day, I felt like I couldn't be silent any more.

It so happens that I have first hand experience of the gay suicide tragedy, because of where I work.  Saying this will "out" me, in some ways, but hopefully not in obvious enough ways that people I know will find this blog too easily.  The response of my workplace has been swift, in general: there was already a two year initiative underway to sponsor a series of conversations about civility, bullying, and in general being thoughtful human beings, from the perspectives of journalism, philosophy, political science, and much more; student groups organized protests and vigils; there have been conversations between the president and student leaders and faculty about safe spaces on campus.

But honestly, I have felt very little palpable change.  Few people hold the door for each other.  Students still cluster in groups, talking about this person or that group of people, who don't fit their idealized version of normalcy.  Hordes still shove themselves and others onto buses, not thinking about letting others off before they get on.  People still look for excuses to jump down the throat of another person who is expressing an opinion.  Students still saunter into class 20 minutes late without an apology.  There's a deeper problem that I'm not sure can be solved by campus dialogue.

Mel posted recently on the Rally to Restore Sanity, and wanting to return reason to our conversations.  I'm glad that I was represented there.  And yet, I'm kind of wondering ... what can a rally do?  When I was in high school youth group, we'd spend a weekend in retreat, all together, and come out feeling like we were going to change the world.  Problem was, the world was still there when we got back to it, and we hadn't made any concrete plans for world domination.

And the Anti-bullying Bill of Rights doesn't seem to me like a huge step forward, either.  You can't legislate niceness.  It's sort of like rape laws.  As of 2005, it was estimated that 60% of rape cases go unreported.  Why?  Because of the stigma of being victimized.  So all of those rapists go unprosecuted, and unpunished.  In a culture that tolerates violence as "part of growing up," and given parents that encourage the cliques and cold shoulders and taunting by their own example (those people I was taunted by in grade school are still, unfortunately, among the people I find cruel today), I don't have much hope that a law--which puts the onus of detection and punishment on the schools--is going to turn things around.

The thing is, we do a lot of talking.  Even the YouTube videos, well-meaning though they are, are talking heads.  And what I posted in my Facebook status, in response to some of the other statuses I've seen lately, is that while I'm glad about the "It Gets Better" videos, I want to know why our kids--or why we--have to wait for it to "Get Better." Why can't we create an environment that is safe and loving for the next generation right now? Why do we have to tolerate the behavior of adults and children that make others feel like they are alone, unloved, or different?

Honestly, even "it gets better" feels a little bit disingenuous to me, because yes, while most of us do find our communities, and grow out of the awkwardness that leaves us feeling isolated as teenagers, the world is still not a perfect place, and people still forget to treat others with dignity and civility.  There are a lot of thoughtless people out there.  I read this in others' blogs all the time ... about people who post hurtful comments, about people who say things without considering how others might feel.  This certainly applies to the Land of IF ... how many times have people said things to us that show us they're just not thinking?  And maybe they're not bullying, but they're missing the civility boat, big time: all it takes to be kind is a little bit more awareness and empathy.  It's part of why I feel connected to the IF blogging community.  People here get it.  Even if we don't share the same viewpoint, we are here for each other.

So I guess I want to know ... what are we doing to make it better?  What are you doing to make it better, to make the world a safer, more loving, more tolerant place where people don't feel alone and unloved?  I don't want to start with Bills of Rights and rallies and vigils--though those are all good things.  I want to start with small actions, directed at individual actors, which I believe are much more powerful than bullying awareness training for teachers and principals (c'mon, do you think we don't recognize the signs?  and honestly, how, in a university of 50,000 students, lecture halls of 250+, are we going to catch them?  More effective, by far, to cultivate a culture of not just tolerance, but acceptance).

This soup seems fitting today: fennel is not the most universally loved of flavors, but I had to do something with the bulb that was in our CSA box.  There were also carrots, and I happened to have some orange juice.  And there's almost always Greek yogurt in the fridge.  My goal wasn't to hide the fennel taste--after all, fennel doesn't taste any better if you just keep eating it--but to change it by giving it a new context.  We can't dismiss the bullying and the incivility by telling people it will "get better," and I suspect that we can't legislate it away.  We can make it better now, together.  One ingredient, one blog post, one person at a time.

(OK, let me have it ... you know you want to comment ...)

Carrot Fennel Soup

1 medium fennel bulb, stalks trimmed flush with bulb, and bulb sliced thin crosswise
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 lbs. carrots, sliced thin (about 4 cups)
1 garlic clove, sliced thin
6 c. water
1 t. salt, or to taste
1/3 c. fresh orange juice
1/4 c. sour cream or plain Greek yogurt or plain soy yogurt
In a 3-quart heavy saucepan cook fennel bulb in butter over moderate heat, stirring, until softened and beginning to turn golden. Add carrots and garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add water and salt and simmer, covered, 20 minutes, or until carrots are very tender.

In a blender purée mixture in batches with orange juice, sour cream/yogurt, and salt and pepper to taste until smooth, transferring to another heavy saucepan. Heat soup, stirring, just until heated through (do not let boil).
Serve soup garnished with chervil leaves or fennel fronds.
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  1. What do I do? I don't bully people. If I see someone in the street struggling with a map, I ask if they need help. If I see someone with something heavy and I'm going the same way, I ask if I can spell them in carrying it. If I disagree with what someone says on their blog, I don't comment - it's their space to air their wacko views. If I have too much of a veggie or lettuce in my garden, I bring it into my office to share. And I give my dog an awesome life. I may not change the world, but it helps make my corner a bit mmore pleasant and sometimes even generates a smile. And smiles are important - people are much less inclined to be nasty to each other if someone's just been nice to them.

    And then I go home and scream at the news. Cuz I'm not a saint, and some things just need to be screamed at.

  2. Great post, thanks for saying all this.

  3. This is a great post. And you raise a difficult question because, really, it's not enough to protest, to talk, to be horrified. And you are also right that it is part of a larger problem, a general selfishness - or cruelty - that people harbor. The Tyler C thing, especially...I have thought about this quite a bit. Firstly, because it so shocked me and he belonged to a an age group I frequently teach. Secondly, maybe, because it happens so much more than anyone admits.

    Sometimes, I'm heartened. My students are a different kettle of fish. Things that were issues for my generation have become less so for younger generations, though I realize that this is not true for all. Sometimes, though, I'm saddened. Because humanity does appear to be stuck in a perpetual cycle of meanness.

    I think - and this may sound inane - that I believe in leading by example. I have always admired kind people. Politeness, niceness, tolerance, decency: these are things that people don't HAVE to practice all the time, but the ones that do...those are the people on whom I tried (not always successfully) to model my adult self. And I have to believe that this will be the case for many of the young'uns behind us.

  4. I hear you. I was sitting in shock watching the World Series seeing all those violent commercials. DirectTV was the worst. In one a guy breaks into a movie booth and poisons the film-guy in order to steal movies so you can watch them on DirectTV. The other has two droids beating the crap out of each other in this guy's home as he moves from room to room quietly watching them destroy his house. And what about the scary movie adverts?! Is it really family tv to show a submarine guy get drowned to death? I just hate the level of desensitization these days. It seems like we've crossed a threshold.

    Can I be really controversial? Here goes. In some ways I think this level of rudeness also relates to the level of lies and rhetoric that have come to be accepted in our country's politics. I really dislike that some prominent political leaders decided that misrepresentation of the truth can become truth if you just repeat it often enough. What happened to integrity? Being considerate went there, wherever "there" is...

  5. I think, as I said elsewhere, that it's not an either/or proposition. Yes, we must work to make the world better, but we must also assure children who are being bullied right now that they are valued and that there is life beyond the place where they are now. I doubt that Dan Savage thinks that his It Gets Better Project is going to save the world from bigots, but it does get the word to those bullied kids that there is more to the world than bullies.

    As for the answer, I don't know, except that we must strive to be civil and compassionate in our every interaction, and those of us who are parents or teachers or mentors must demand respectful and compassionate behavior from the children we influence, and we must also teach them to look with a critical eye at the culture.

    As we were leaving the polls today W asked me why I voted, and I told him that voting decided who would get some very important jobs,and that I had voted so that the people who got those jobs could make the world a better place for other people. And he asked "and will other people make the world better for us, too?" I told him I hoped so.

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  7. It's a really good question and a lot of times, it is just a lot of talking. Though, while it may not create immediate change, it may influence small shifts down the road that can result in changed behaviours for future generations. I hope even if I affect no visible change now, that somehow it starts adding up down the road. If that makes sense.

  8. I really like this post. It is honest and realistic.
    I try to be kind to others but the biggest task on my plate is to raise my children to not bully or alienate. I think the best way to do this is allow them to be themselves and for my husband and I to be tolerant of our kids. Teach them acceptance of themselves. Then we try and extend this out to the world. We were reading a book the other day which had a picture of a black child. B was caught off guard. I used it as a teaching moment. We all need to take more time and more responsibilities for our own children.

  9. I agree, talking does not change things. It's good to talk, but our actions need to back up the words. I'm not sure how to change the nation into a kinder more civilized group of individuals. I have chosen to be nice, and to encourage others around me to show the same compassion towards others. One day when I'm finally able to have a family, I will teach my children to love others, and learn to appreciate our differences. but for now, I think it takes all of us as individuals, to continue working with the individuals around us, and to help each of them learn to be kind, and understanding. Legislation does not change people's hearts, that is something that happens when they are affected by others, and they choose to change.
    I love your blog, and of course, your honesty.

  10. thanks for the recipe!


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