Wednesday, May 30, 2012

More police

I've been thinking about the police a lot today. They were busy this weekend, managing memorial day parades all over the state. Then this morning I rode the bus past a huge funeral with tens of shining police motorbikes and row upon row of polished police cars. Some police attendants were in their full blue uniform, others were wearing hats which looked more like something you would expect on a Canadian Mountie. They were waiting for the funeral to begin, I think; standing around in the sunshine chatting before the kick-off.

Elsewhere today, a guy called John was stopped by the police. It wasn't anything out of the usual: he slipped through the subway gates behind me and the police saw him. Because he hadn't used his own ticket, they took his details and fined him $15. John was just out of hospital: he's had a hip replacement and is currently out of work. The policeman was sympathetic. John doesn't have a lot of money at the moment and is clearly in pain. The policeman empathized and explained that John has a year to pay the fine. He said that he hopes that John is 'back on his feet' by then - I don't think that he was talking literally. John called the policeman 'sir' whenever he answered a question. He was very polite. In return, the policeman called him 'John'. He was also very polite, although his police badge looked slightly incongruous against his civvies - he was wearing a Boston Red Socks sports shirt and shorts.

Workmen are digging up the road at the junction on the corner of where we live. They look as though they are working hard. Whenever I walk past they are covered in sweat (it's hot and humid at the moment) and I have seen no evidence of tea breaks. Two police officers are managing the traffic at the junction. They've got their sunglasses on and they chat back and forth to one another. They are not sweating. When they see me trying to cross, they stop the cars and call me 'ma'am' and tell me to 'have a nice day'. I feel very grown-up (too grown-up, if truth be told, with my bag of groceries and my respectable moniker of 'ma'am') and I feel responsible to cross at exactly the moment that the police tell me to. The police around here instill that kind of respect in people. You'd never disagree with a Cambridge cop.

When Maya was in hospital in New Mexico (a time so very awful that I am reluctant to write about it here), we stayed in the Ronald MacDonald House for the parents of sick kids. I had breakfast several mornings with an amazing woman called Bonnie. She was in her forties, recently remarried, and she was staying in Albuquerque to take care of her new husband's young nephew while her sister-in-law traveled backwards and forwards to visit her brand new and very premature baby who was in a nearby hospital. I really liked Bonnie. She was down-to-earth and had a great sense of humor. Her new husband is a State Trooper in Wyoming. On the morning that we left, she told me how excited she was that her husband was driving down to Albuquerque that day. He was bringing two guns with him, she told me. One to carry with him and one to keep in his car. He thought that it was important to plan to be on the safe side. I didn't ask Bonnie if she kept a gun in her car. There was a big sign on the entrance to the Ronald MacDonald house stating that guns, smoking and alcohol were not allowed on the premises. It seemed to me to be highly unlikely that Bonnie would have broken the rules: most people here don't.

It's easy to be flippant and the temptation is always there. I suspect that the two policemen at the end of my road are more expensive to fund than the temporary traffic lights that accompany roadworks in England and I'm not completely sure that they are doing a better job. Critics argue that the Cambridge police generate a disproportionate amount of funding through the statutory requirement that police must be paid to be present at every piece of roadwork in the city. There aren't a lot of crimes in Cambridge, compared to many places in both England and America. So, either the police strategy is working well, or there really isn't that much for the police to be doing around here (except stopping derelicts who lack subway tickets and masterminding road-building operations). There have been no recorded murders in 2012, and the most common crime is bicycle larceny - 66 bicycles have been stolen so far this year. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, police can normally be seen cruising around in their huge cars while drinking huge coffees. It doesn't seem to be the worst job in the world!

One morning, Bonnie and I shared a few tears. We were talking about how happy she was in her second marriage and the romantic moments of serendipity which had led her to  meet up with her new husband. She was a charge nurse in a trauma unit. He had been badly shot. She helped him in his recovery. Every day when he goes to work, she worries that he might be shot again. Every time that he stops a car, she worries that the drivers might be armed. As with traffic control at building sites, that's just part of their job.

Monday, May 28, 2012


We have sent the wheelchair back to the company from which it was leased and Maya is now able to walk around on one crutch. This seems like a good place to reflect upon walking around Cambridge.

To be honest, it is probably easier to drive. The sidewalks are made of red bricks which are buckled and weed-filled in places. Cars are legally required to stop for pedestrians at the crosswalks, but cannot be relied upon to do so. The gardens of some houses have branches and shrubs that block the sidewalks and mean that passers-by have to pass by on the road. But - if you manage not to trip on the paving, avoid being run over by errant drivers, and don't have your eyes poked out by the stray rose bush - walking around Cambridge can be a lovely way to spend a little time.

Maya, Iola and I have taken to going for a walk in the evening, after the dish-washing has been finished (and Maya's recovery means that this has returned to being a collaborative activity) and before the bedtime story. We have our favorite gardens in the neighborhood and stop by their fences to look at and smell some of the flowers. I would think that this was eccentric if there weren't so many other people here who do the same. Many of the people who are in their gardens take delight in curating their flowerbeds on our behalf. There is the man on Upland Road who has a cardinal's nest in one of his shrubs and who spends time updating the girls with news of the cardinals' progress. There is the old lady who loves to pause from her weeding to ask the girls how their day has been. There are many dog-walkers who stop for chats while the girls pet their dogs - and the girls are now experienced enough to know which dogs they can cuddle and which they should cross the road to avoid.

Walking around the neighborhood on a Sunday night has added bonuses: it's the evening when people put out any furniture or books that they no longer want. We've picked up a range of things from our evening walks - today I brought home a huge folder of colored sugar paper for Iola's art, last week Nathan acquired a batch of science fiction paperbacks. We've also collected a few larger items: an old-fashioned telephone table which just needed a bit of a scrub and a polish, a desk-chair which now sits out on our balcony.

We've the space to bring things home from the sidewalks because we recycled a lot of our own things before we moved here. A year ago we moved from a large house with five bedrooms and endless shelving to a tiny two-bedroomed flat. This meant that we had to reduce our "stuff" by more than half. As part of that downsizing, we gave away about half of our furniture through Freecycle, donated more than 500 books to Amnesty International, raised nearly a thousand pounds for Barnados from the children's toys and bikes, and donated two vinyl LPs (out of Nathan's collection of more than 700) to the local Oxfam. It felt like a good thing to do - the furniture would still be used (and we met some fascinating people while engaged together in activities such as dismantling trampolines or pushing sofas into the back of borrowed vans), the books would still be read, the toys would still be enjoyed, and someone somewhere would acquire two recordings of authentic Greek dances from the 1960s.

In the area where we now live there isn't a culture of charity shops. When we left England, there were charity shops on every high street. These accept used items and then sell them to raise money for whichever good cause the store represents. Most are well worth a visit. Me and the girls still have items of clothing which had been 'gently used' before we got them (or, in my preferred terminology, we have 'experienced clothing'). We also had a much broader assortment of jigsaws and books than if we had only bought new. There are some thrift shops in Boston, but I haven't seen very many: it doesn't seem to be part of the culture in the way that it is in England. Several of the thrift shops which I have seen are privately owned and run as a profit-making enterprise rather than as a means of raising money for charity. But the street recycling is another way of free-cycling or rehousing things which might be useful for someone else.

After our walk around the neighborhood, the girls get into their pyjamas and we settle down for our bedtime story. We're reading Roald Dahl again at the moment. Incidentally, his daughter lives around the corner. Perhaps I ought to start walking past her house on a Sunday evening.... you never know what might find its way out onto the sidewalks.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Where do you come from?

While the recent national political discourse has focused upon the issue of gay marriage, our local political discussions have focused more upon issues of ethnicity. Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat candidate for Senator, has been lambasted by critics for identifying herself as having Native American heritage. Warren's great-grandfather (or possibly great-great grandfather) was a Cherokee, which means (according to critics' statistics) that she is 1/32 Cherokee. That Warren listed herself as a 'minority law professor' in the Harvard Directory thirty years ago has led her critics to argue that she utilized her Cherokee heritage to unfairly further her career. A more generous interpretation suggests that when faced with an equal opportunities form, Warren thought that 'white Caucasian' did not sufficiently reflect her ethnicity.

After more than half a year in America, we continue to reflect upon the prejudices that we brought with us to this country. Americans tend to be white Anglo-Saxon protestants who drive big gas-guzzling cars, eat fast food, destroy the economy, and strain at the waistbands of generously sized clothing. Faced with a picture of an obese white person chowing down on a burger, you'd say 'American', right? Except it's not what we've seen and it's not correlated with the people whom we've met. I recognize that Cambridge might be a demographic exception to the rule, but I haven't yet found any evidence that the 'rule' exists.

We've been thinking about this a lot over the past week or so. When I worked as a teacher in London, I was committed to anti-racist education. I've been interested that the girls' school doesn't appear to have any kind of anti-racist education policy (this was a lengthy, although under-utilized, policy at the school where I taught). The girls' school is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. In Iola's kindergarten class, children's home languages include German, Korean, Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu, Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole. There are fifteen children in her class. We didn't have a choice over which public school the girls needed to attend (public here equates to 'state schools' in the UK): a place was allocated within Cambridge on the basis of our family's income. The school district seeks to ensure that all schools have a socio-economic equivalence. We were not asked about our ethnicity and one of the reasons that there is no evident anti-racist policy within the school is that everyone is seen as an immigrant. If you spend time talking to anyone in this area you soon here stories about their family's heritage. One of our friends can trace her family history back to the Mayflower, but most are far more recent. The children don't seem to call one another names based upon their perceived ethnicities and things seem very harmonious within each girls' classes. It's just that Black and Hispanic students are far more likely to drop out of High School, are over-represented in relation to behavioral problems and learning difficulties, and are almost unrepresented in relation to the highest paying jobs within the US (when one thinks about the one-percent, one thinks white. It is only in the 99-percent that one finds ethnic diversity).

For a micro-sociological snapshot, I've been reflecting on our weekend. On Friday night, Iola attended her Taekwon-do class, which is mainly taught through the medium of English with some South Korean words. I was embarrassed that Iola had to be disciplined for misbehaving with her best friend, Abdullah. During the lesson, I chatted to one of the mothers who had emigrated to America at the same time that we did. She had come here from South Korea and we talked about the linguistic advantage that I had had coming from an English-speaking country. Then we watched the lesson for a while and laughed about the advantage that her daughter had over Iola in being able to follow the instructions of the entire lesson (and to throw a few more practiced punches). That evening we picked up the car that we share with Dey, a neighbor from Puerto Rico. The car is owned by our friends, Maria and Greg, who are currently living in Spain with their three children. They're American, but the children are bilingual Spanish so they are spending six months in Europe attending a Spanish-speaking school and doing a lot of skiing. On Saturday, we took Iola to a birthday party. Her friend, whose father is German, was 6. In the afternoon, we had a lovely time eating ice-cream in another neighbor's garden: her father emigrated here to escape the concentration camps during the Second World War, her husband is Italian-American. In the evening, friends came over to watch 'Bringing up Baby' and to eat popcorn and pizza. Karen is an American academic who specializes in comparative literature, speaks four more European languages than Nathan and I, and is writing a book about Wittgenstein's influence upon Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Her children are bilingual and attend the nearby French school. On Sunday, we packed a picnic and met up with Jan and his family. Jan moved here from Denmark after studying his PhD in Oxford, England. Then I spent the late afternoon talking over the fence to my next-door neighbor rather than mowing the lawn. She has just returned from a trip to her birth town in China and volunteered to help Maya with her Mandarin classes next fall. She's lived in the house next door for nearly twenty years.

So, our life now seems very multi-cultural and in many ways it is. But, there are glaring systemic differences as soon as you begin to look at our community from a more abstract perspective. I am a member of a local gym. It's a really nice gym - smells good, women-only, up-to-date equipment etc. etc. It is also philanthropic and a percentage of our membership costs go towards providing free exercise opportunities for poorer communities within Boston - this is important to many of us. If you look around when you're exercising, you might notice that the majority of members seem to be white and, when you look through the marketing materials, you might notice that the communities in Boston that we contribute towards tend to be Hispanic - this disparity troubles some of us. Then, while you're reflecting upon these things, you might notice that the people who invisibly keep the gym smelling nice by cleaning up after us all are all black. While we've been living in Cambridge, I haven't seen any black police officers. The teachers in my daughters' school are nearly all white (although the students are not). The church that I occasionally attend prides itself upon having a Hispanic minister - despite the multi-cultural demographics of the congregation this is seen as special, rather than normal.

In Cambridge, we all want to think about ourselves as being immigrants. If we didn't physically emigrate here, then we tell the stories of our parents, or grandparents, or great-great-great grandparents who did. Our children stand up together in their classrooms each morning and make the Pledge of Allegiance ('I pledge allegiance to the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands. One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.') It's the use of that word 'all' that troubles me. The American focus is upon equality of opportunity and I'm not fully convinced that this is the best way to address the systemic inequalities that surround me and my children. Elizabeth Warren is lambasted for apparently cheating in terms of the opportunities available to her, there is little discussion about her perceptions of her identity or whether there should be positive discrimination to Native Americans who practice law. There was a time in the UK (and I might be romanticizing here) when the focus was upon equality of outcome. I'm not saying that was perfect, but I miss that thinking. I believe in a meritocratic system and I support equality of opportunity, it's just that I think that there needs to be greater attention to the fact that we're not all starting in the same place. All of us here have interesting stories to tell when you ask us where we come from, it's just that not all of us have the same opportunities to get where we might want to go.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Life with Wheels

Things are different now. Since Maya's horse-riding accident, we have reverted to an earlier stage of parenting. Maya can no longer dress herself or move about independently (although she becomes more accomplished every day); we have a wheelchair parked by our front door (and hanker after the all terrain three wheeler buggies that she had when she was smaller); we attend physical therapy sessions twice weekly so that Maya can learn to walk again. There is less time to work on our blog at the moment: although that will soon change! But here are some reflections upon life with wheels....

  1. Distance changes. We can't pop out to the shop for that extra pint of milk or take a quick stroll down to the park. Getting out of our second floor apartment means getting Maya to the top of the stairs, putting on her shoes for her, supporting her as she hops down each stair (a great improvement on carrying her up and down!), unfolding the wheelchair and getting ready to go... This means that our outings are special - planned out like a military operation and feeling a little bit like a holiday. 
  2. Wheelchairs work like supermarket trolleys. You can run really fast and then hop on the back. You might get the occasional disapproving look from a grown-up, but it makes me and the girls laugh!
  3. Beggars don't ask for money from people in wheelchairs. Me and the girls can walk anywhere in Boston without anyone trying to canvas from us, beg from us, or ask us for anything. I think that people worry that misfortune might be contagious, and people tend to give us a wide berth (or that might be because of the manic laughter and our occasional outbursts of speed). 
  4. Posh hotels couldn't be nicer. 'Caught short' on a recent outing to Boston, we approached the doorman of the very grand Copley Plaza hotel if we could use their rest rooms. Not only were we escorted through to a private bathroom, but the girls were given free goody bags filled with toys, games and sweets. They are going to be so disappointed when we return to the normality of the public conveniences. 
  5. The elevators attached to public subway stations are not nice places. Really not nice. Really really really not nice.  
  6. Maya has privileges at school. She is allowed to ride in the elevator. Her classmates take it in turn to ride with her. She's suddenly Miss Popularity 2012!
  7. There are many different kinds of zip cars. On the days when we can't access our wonderful neighbor's Highlander and the thought of the subway elevators is too horrific to contemplate (see 5), we hire a zip car to whizz back and forth to school or to the Children's Hospital in Boston. The girls love the chance to ride in different vehicles and there is something quite cute about the fact that the cars all have their own names and personalities described on the zipcar website. We get quite jealous when we see our favorites being driven by other people. It will be a blow when we return to our pedestrian ways...