Saturday, May 18, 2013

Summer 2013: Porchfest

Although summer officially begins on Memorial Day (Americans liking to keep their calendars simple), the warm weather brings a plethora of festivals and celebrations to our area. There are disadvantages to living in a densely populated area - the traffic and the difficulty in escaping to the countryside, for example - but there is a lot to be said for being able to walk to at least two different festivals every weekend from May through to the middle of October.

Today, we faced the difficult decision of attending EarthFest or PorchFest. EarthFest is sponsored by Whole Foods... think live music on a big stage, free food, a range of stalls, and that sunshine-y festival vibe on the banks of the River Charles. Nice.

PorchFest is a little bit different. It's not sponsored by a big organization, it doesn't sell anything, it doesn't have any stalls, and it doesn't have a single venue. PorchFest takes places on people's porches all over Somerville (the neighboring city whose city limits jut up against Cambridge just a 10 minute walk from our house). Musicians from all over the United States set themselves up on people's porches and play music. There were about 100 porch-venues today - we only saw a handful, but we'll be back next year. Here's a visual guide for one of the strangest, eccentric, and most enjoyable festivals we've ever done.
Step 1: Fill up with food at a favorite local diner
(Baby back ribs, collard greens, cornbread and pulled pork at Redbones Barbeque). 
Step 2: Find a porch.
(Hornography - trumpets, trombones, saxophones of all shapes and sizes, a melodica and a woman playing a triangle. Their set included the theme tune to the A Team, a medley of Inspector Gadget and the Pink Panther, and a few A-ha covers).
Step 3: Find another porch.
(The Hot Porch Mamas - intricate melodies, wistful country tunes, and a fast few jigs on the fiddle. Awesome music. We knew they were good and had this confirmed by eavesdropping on the excited recording agents who were sitting in deck chairs next to us).
Step 4: Take a break and climb a tree. Just because...

Step 5: Have a parenting dilemma.
(Amazing funk band, fantastic front man, but - ahem - how to explain to Iola not to copy the crotch-grabbing bit of the dancing. Maya blushed beetroot and said it was a bit 'too sexy').

Step 6: Find some local art (in this case, the painted pet shop) and have a photo session.

Step 7: Repeat step 3... (Appalachian country band with beautiful melodies between an old guy and a teenaged girl. Magic).
Step 8: Abandon the map that you've been using from your mobile phone, and just follow your ears
(I have never heard such happy musicians - the singer was still at High School, sang like an angel and was quite possibly the happiest person I've ever met).

Step 9: Revisit previous blog on popularity (this band drew a crowd because they're hip and popular. They are also unremittingly miserable. Think Leonard Cohen without the music or the poetry of his lyrics). 

Step 10: Head for home with smiles on your face and your toes tapping to the tunes that you've heard. 
We'll be back next year - one of the best festivals ever. If anyone wants to join us - it's the week before summer starts....

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A perfect world...

Radcliffe Quad
After six months of winter, Cambridge has been given one of the best springs in living memory. As Iola said on her way home from school a few days ago, "Mummy, all the gardens are exploding with flowers". The pictures to the left were taken today between Harvard Square and our house - just under a mile. The weather was perfect. A temperature in the 80s (about 28C according to my American-English conversion system) and the humidity was low. The world seemed to be a perfect place.

First Church, Garden Street
My current theory is that one of the reasons that Americans pay so little attention to issues of the environment and global warming is because the world appears to be in excellent condition when you walk along these streets. The air is rich with the smell of blossom, the leaves are green, and the sidewalks are filled with pools of cool shade. It's an illusion, of course, but melting polar ice caps and the desertification of entire countries seems far distant... I mean, just look at the color of the leaves on that horse chestnut! I have even heard Americans who will ask why global warming is such a problem: the seas getting warmer means that there have been bumper crops of lobsters over the past two years; and the possibility of rising temperatures might mean that people don't have to jet down to Florida for their winter vacation.

Raymond Street
So, given this sense of well-being and optimism, how does one cultivate an environmental consciousness? It's on the policy agenda, it's just that it doesn't get very much air time. It is illegal not to recycle bottles, plastics and cans in Cambridge, but I'm not sure that many people know that. Leaded gas (a.k.a. petrol) was phased out across the US from the mid-1990s and the stricter US emissions policy (stricter than the UK and Europe!) mean that there are few diesel cars on the road here. Conversely, car manufacturers boast if cars have more than 20mpg; people still drive huge gas-guzzling SUVs; and there is no legislation about running parked cars' engines, which, I believe, is now forbidden in many European countries. Since we moved here, there have been pamphlets delivered through our door about improving insulation in houses, but this is within the context of most houses having virtually no insulation because fuel costs are so cheap.

Huron Avenue
So how can one promote an awareness of the environment into the New England consciousness? We're seeing a few more baby-steps towards this. This weekend EarthFest is being held in Boston and Whole Foods run endless campaigns to promote environmental awareness: but Whole Foods is a successful corporate venture and, while well-meaning, commands a massive profit. With the advent of summer, local farmers' markets are popping up all over Greater Boston and there is a steady increase in Community Supported Agriculture, where people buy shares in farms in exchange for a box of fruit, vegetables and/or flowers during the growing season.

The desire to 'think small, think local' is positive in terms of yard sales (each weekend there are at least half a dozen within a few blocks of our house); buying fruit and veg from farmstands; hanging out at trendy farmers' markets; and supporting initiatives such as the man to the left who was selling books from his car roof in Harvard this morning. But the downside to thinking locally is that things really seem to be quite marvelously well in our little corner of the universe. The sun is shining, the weather is warm, and the trees are looking spectacular. And, while I might be a doom-monger and try my hardest to spread the word about the importance of treading lightly upon the earth, I'm also going to enjoy the weather while we can.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What's so great about being popular?

Maya has been having a hard time at school because she's not one of the 'popular' girls in her class. She has good friends - both boys and girls - but it's tough being eleven and not being part of the 'in' crowd.

I mentioned this to a neighbor and explained how my friends had all offered Maya lots of support following an incident of cyber-bullying.
'You didn't tell them, did you?' asked the neighbor with apparent horror.
'Didn't tell them what?'
'That your daughter was being bullied.'
'Well, it's not bullying as such, it's just not very nice.'
'But you mustn't tell anyone,' the woman counselled earnestly, 'They'll think that Maya isn't popular.'

There are many things that I wouldn't want to tell people about my children: the particular color and shade of their stools, for example, or the fact that they insist upon wearing underwear with holes in. And there are many things that I would choose not to know about friends' and neighbors' children: the clothing that they imagine that they would like their, as yet unconceived, children to wear, for example, or the lengthy word-by-word explanation of everything that was said at the last parent's evening. But why would anyone choose to misrepresent their child's experiences so that people would think she was popular? What's so great about appearing popular?

I can imagine a conversation between Mrs. Hitler and her neighbor as they leant on their garden fences in 1937:
'How's little Adolf doing these days, Klara?'
'Oh, you know, we've had a few issues with tendency towards genocide and unjustifiable violence, but he's very popular you know.'
'Oooooh, isn't that lovely. You must be so  proud of him.'

Popularity is seductive. Many people lack the courage of their convictions and trust instead the opinions of the majority - that's why democracy is such a flawed political system (as Churchill once said, 'Democracy is by far the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried'.) It seems far better within our society to like the band that everyone else professes to like rather than risking having an unusual taste in music; far better to wear the season's latest fashions and fit in with the majority rather than risk being laughed at for wearing clothes that other people might not like; far better to make friends with the girl who has the most friends rather than trusting yourself to like someone who might not be to everyone else's tastes.

Look, for example, at the run up to the last US election. Mitt Romney wasn't seen as a credible candidate until he gained a critical mass of supporters. The critical mass wasn't defined in terms of enough people to elect him, but enough people to make him appear a popular candidate. He didn't need to change his policies, he just needed to appear more popular: people vote for people who other people vote for. It's popularity, stupid.

And there's the problem with popularity - it is essentially no different from the Emperor's New Clothes: you can be duped into believing in its worth, or you can make your own independent judgments.  I don't consider that UKIP's policies are more credible, for example, because they have become more popular as a political party. I don't consider that the bands which head up the American or English Top 20s are better musicians than a thousand less popular bands in either country. And I don't assume that the most popular children in Maya's class are somehow brighter, more intelligent, or generally better than the other children in her class.

I am fortunate to have great friends who I love - people whose views I value, whose opinions I trust, whose company I adore. Friends are important, and I couldn't imagine my life without mine. But I love my friends because of who they are, not because of what other people think of them. And I know that my daughter is as unique and special as every other child in her class, regardless of the views that a very small group of eleven and twelve year old girls might have of her. Their views do not alter my opinion of the talented, beautiful, thoughtful young woman she is growing up to be.

Glen Forde - one of my good friends for about two decades now - accused me once of being an iconoclast. I'm happy to make my own decisions rather than following the herd. In terms of my opinions of my daughter, I also happen to be right. Luckily, all my friends agree.