Pink Is Just Light Red

“It clashes.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Pink and red clash.”
“Do blue and light blue clash? Green and light green?”
“That’s different.”
“Why?! Pink it just light red! We’ve been culturally brainwashed to see pink as a completely different color!”
“Mom…”

I argued this with my daughter. She agreed that it was strange that light red had its own name, but pointed out “grey” was also light black with its own name. I told her grey had its own cultural preconceptions as well and technically isn’t a color. It also depends if you’re talking about pigment or light.

She is an art student and we debated color and culture. She told me about a lecture she heard on how indigo was included in the rainbow. (There needed to be seven colors since that’s a super-duper-special number, and purple is only one color so it was made into two: indigo and violet.)

We touched on how we see color in the first place, but then how language shapes our perception of color. A study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology looking at color and language from children in different cultures concluded: “Across cultures, the children acquired color terms the same way: They gradually and with some effort moved from an uncategorized organization of color, based on a continuum of perceptual similarity, to structured categories that varied across languages and cultures. Over time, language wielded increasing influence on how children categorized and remembered colors.”

Continue reading Pink Is Just Light Red

Why I Don’t Throw a Vulcan Salute

I remember standing there, my eyes pressed closed, my face buried in my mother’s hip. As I got older I would instead look down and softly recite a prayer with everything in my heart, soul, and mind. Above me, around me, engulfing us all was the sound of the chazzan (cantor) and the priestly chorus.

By יעקב [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Priestly Blessing in a synagogue in Ofra. By יעקב [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Continue reading Why I Don’t Throw a Vulcan Salute

Raising an Adventurous Eater: Vague on Venezuelan

Orinoco-Tequenos
Tequeños are Venezuelan cheese sticks. Photo: Rachel Cericola.

So far, my family has had a few good eating adventures. I knew that sooner or later, we would hit a roadblock. That block was at a Venezuelan restaurant—and it was made up almost entirely of fried cheese.

That’s not to say that fried cheese is bad. (Oh, quite the opposite.) And I’m not going to say that this outing was awful, because it wasn’t. We went to a place in Boston called Orinoco, which has gotten all sorts of awesome reviews. I was very excited. Going into this restaurant, I had all sorts of mouthwatering ideas about spice and corn and more spice. Alas, it was not to be.

The restaurant is in a beautiful location in the city. The decor was great, the service was great, and even the menu was really appealing.

I started off the evening with a Mojito Cojito, a drink that the waitress had recommended. It definitely made me feel like I was hanging out on the beach, but only because it had a slight taste of Coppertone. That’s because this drink is made with coconut rum and had tons of pieces of coconut swimming in it for good measure. The more I drank it, the more I liked it though—go figure, it’s made with rum!

Orinoco-empanadas
The empanadas. Photo: Rachel Cericola.

For an appetizer, we opted for Tequeños, which are basically Venezuelan cheese sticks. The big difference between these and your typical cheese sticks is that the dish is made with guayanés cheese, which is a white cheese that originates from the south east region of Venezuela. American fried cheese is typically served with tomato sauce, but these came with a chipotle ketchup. It was a yummy, spicy condiment, but it also seemed really weird to be dipping cheese sticks into ketchup. I don’t mind weird, but I was a bit disappointed that the ketchup was the star of the dish. The cheese was supposed to be salty, but it and the coating on the outside came off as a kind of bland. My mantra that “fried = good” was blowing up in my face, people. That said, my son hoarded the extra stick to himself. He wasn’t the least bit disappointed—yet.

For the entrees, he chose what seemed to be the most authentic between the three of us: empanadas. We’ve had a few empanadas before, but these featured a Venezuelan-style shredded beef and peppers. He’s not a fan of peppers to begin with, but he picked a few of those out and managed to wolf down a good portion of the beef and a few of the outer fried pockets. My husband said the flavor reminded him of sausage and peppers that you’d get a ball park—and he meant that with the highest of praise. The dish also came with a salad, which had a sweet, garlicky dressing on it. That was enjoyed by all.

My husband picked Parrilla Caraqueña, a mixed grill plate that included strip steak, chicken, and chorizo. It also came with a side of yucca fries and guasacaca, which is Venezuela’s version of guacamole. He said it didn’t taste particularly ethnic, but that everything was very well seasoned. Overall, he was completely happy with his meal and almost cleaned his plate (and some of my son’s too).

Orinoco-grill
The Parrilla Caraqueña, a mixed grill plate. Photo: Rachel Cericola.

For my entrée, I opted for Pollo Adobo, which is a chicken dish. I also ordered up a side of yucca fries, which sounded like a good idea at the time. I love me some fried goods, but after the cheese, the fries felt like a bunch of little bricks sitting in my tummy. The chicken looked pretty enough and was made with oregano oil and scallions, which it was swimming in. It was cooked really well, but a little fatty for my taste. It was also a bit saltier than I like.

I’m not sure how authentic the food is here, but I had read it was pretty darn close. I don’t expect all of our adventures to be wonderful, but I found this one to be particularly disappointing. I think because I was expecting so much more. I would love to come back again though and maybe order something different. The atmosphere was lovely and the menu was filled with other options that I had my eye on. In the meantime, onward and upward!

Unlock Big Adventures with Little Passports

Little Passports © Little Passports (Fair Use)
Little Passports © Little Passports (Fair Use)

Little Passports is a subscription service that sends your child a monthly package designed to teach them about a specific country. Each package includes activities and items themed around the culture of that month’s featured country. Geography has never been one of my strong points, in fact it was the subject I hated most at high school after gym, so I had more than a little trepidation when my son (FB) began to express a keen interest in the subject by constantly asking me to label maps and point out locations my husband and I had visited in the past.

Despite my lack of subject knowledge, I was keen to develop his interest at a young age—beginning first with simply buying a globe for his room and investing in an atlas. However, when I began to hear about the Little Passports service I was keen to sign him up for a trial.

Continue reading Unlock Big Adventures with Little Passports

Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: Last Names and Culture

Save the date card commissioned from Matt Schubbe.

There are many differences between marriages in the United States and Canada. I explored some of these differences in an earlier post about the ceremony. The change of last name after marriage is another one of those differences.

In Canada, the rules around this are relatively simple. At least, in my mind. One of the reasons this post is so far overdue is that the United States has 50 states, each with their own rules about such things. In some states, the bride simply has to check a box when signing the marriage registry and her last name is changed. In other states, the bride has to notify difference agencies in order to change her last name. In only a handful of states, it is legal for the groom to take the bride’s name. I’m not even sure what the rules are in the states that allow same-sex marriage. Trying to research the rules in the United States surrounding this left me a little bit weary in the brain.

But, what I do know, or at least what I have been lead to believe, is that in the United States it is considered a legal name. In Canada, that is not the situation. Because of Canada’s views on multiculturalism, and there are many Canadians who come from countries where it is not the norm for the bride to assume the groom’s last name, the act of changing your last name is one of culture and not law.

When two people get married in Canada, either spouse is allowed to assume the last name of their partner. It doesn’t matter if it is a same-sex marriage or an opposite-sex marriage. But, that is all it is. It is a legal alias, one that can only be used if not intended for the purposes of fraud. In fact, up until recently, you had to have your spouse’s permission to use their last name on your passport. Of course, with the exception of Quebec, where you are not allowed to use your spouse’s last name for any reason whatsoever. Also, Quebec does not recognize common-law partnerships.

Some people decide to assume their spouse’s last name in the workplace and add the legal alias on their bank account, which requires proof of marriage, but keep their identification under their birth name because it is both expensive and time consuming to change these things. There are only a couple of provinces that do not charge to change identification after marriage.

Also, because Canada has common-law marriage laws, in some situations you don’t have to be legally married to assume your partner’s last name. Recently, passport laws have been changed to make it easier for both legally married partners and common-law partners to use each other’s last name on their passports. Spouses are no longer required to get permission for use of last name and common-law partners are now allowed to have a passport issued using their partner’s last name with a letter attesting to the fact they’ve been living in a marriage-like relationship for at least 12 months.

In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, they have a common-law marriage registry. If your common-law relationship is registered with the province, you are allowed to assume your partner’s last name for the purposes of a driver’s license, healthcare card, and other provincially issued identifications.

In all provinces except for Quebec and British Columbia, you are allowed to create a double-barrelled last name comprised of two parts, either hyphenated or not. Unlike some South American countries, it does not matter in which order the last names are places. In Quebec, there is no way around this law. In British Columbia, you have to undergo a legal change of name in order to use a double-barrelled last name.

The process in British Columbia is very simple. When I changed my first and middle names, it took less than two weeks for Vital Statistics to process the change, even though the website says four to six weeks. However, undergoing a legal change of name in Canada is not something you do lightly. If you do decide to legally change your name, for all intents and purposes, you are going through a rebirth. Your original birth records are destroyed and new ones are created in your new name. Then you are issued a new birth certificate, not an amended one, reflecting the new name.

I changed names because I’m a trans man, and for my marriage to be legal the officiant has to use the names on my birth certificate, and I couldn’t get married with a feminine first name. In this case, there aren’t too many ramifications involved in making this decision.

Because of how our name laws work, if you want to legally change your last name after marriage, one really needs to think about that. Why? Because in Canada, upon getting married, you can either use your last name at birth, assume your current spouse’s last name, or assume the last name from any other marriage. You are allowed to go back and forth between your legal name and any other alias at any time, as long as you are not intending to do fraud. This means that once I am married, there are three last names both Andrew and I are allowed to use, as we have both been previously married. But, if you go through the process of legally changing your last name, you cannot just simply go back to the last name with which you were born. If you got divorced and wanted to go back to your last name at birth, then you would have to once again go through the legal name change process, paying all of the fees involved, and spending a lot of time updating your identification, bank records, employment records, etc.

Even though it took less than two weeks for my legal name change to be processed way back in April, two months and hundreds of dollars later, I have only now received the last of my new identifications.

Many times when talking with my American pals about my name change and a handful of my Canadian pals who were unaware of our laws, they assumed that I was referring to changing my last name. I was actually changing my first and middle names, a process with laws no less conflicting between provinces. In British Columbia, it doesn’t require going to court, or placing adverts in the paper declaring intent because doing so places people in jeopardy. It really is as simple as filling out a form and having the Royal Canadian Mounted Police do a criminal record check so that any record that may exist will follow to the new name. Other provinces have different procedures, so confusion around all of these things is very understandable, especially from a cultural point of view.

In case you are curious, I will not be assuming Andrew’s last name after we are married. I’m very attached to my last name. Andrew has somewhat suggested that he would be willing to adopt my last name, but I think that would sound funny. Also, for those curious about what middle name I ended up choosing, I went with Coniah.

Still to come in this series over the next few months—I will finish the series after the wedding:

  • The location
  • Gifts
  • Things we’ve learned, and other miscellaneous things we did.

You can download all six previous posts in this series, in either PDF, ePUB, or MOBI, here. These parts include: Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: Introduction; Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: The Proposal and the Rings; Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: The Outfits and Wedding Attire; Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: The Wedding Party, Family, and Guests; Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: The Ceremony; and Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: The Reception.

If you would like to see a post about something not already mentioned, I want to know. Tell me, what has you curious? About what would you like to see me write? If you let me know, I will try my best to include it in a post.

Finally, if you are an American, what is the procedure for changing the last name in your state? Please let me know in what state you live. That would be very helpful. If you live outside of Canada and the United States, what are the laws where you live?

Jazzy World Tour Shows Kids Music and Culture From Around the World

Main Menu Map © The Melody Book
Main Menu Map © The Melody Book

A year ago I wrote about a pre-school music app called A Jazzy Day. The app became a favorite of my son and featured cute cartoon cats who learned all about the instruments in a jazz orchestra by visiting the big band in New York City. A sequel, Jazzy World Tour, has recently been released and my son has been enjoying playing this new offering for the past few weeks.

Jazzy World Tour moves away from the linear story mode of its predecessor and broadens its educational reach. Rather than learning just about musical instruments, Jazzy World Tour introduces geography and cultural studies as players travel between countries from the main menu (a map of the world) and see each nation’s instruments as part of a wider cultural experience. Seven countries are available to explore: The USA, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Egypt, Kenya, and India, and each country has three options to explore with (learn, play and create).

The Play Tab in Egypt and the Create Tab in Australia © The Melody Book
The Play Tab in Egypt and the Create Tab in Australia © The Melody Book

The “learn” tab introduces some basic objects that teach players about the culture of the chosen country. These include a selection of musical instruments, local wildlife, famous buildings, foods, religious deities and more: The India selection includes a lotus flower, the Taj Mahal, a cobra, a sitar and Ganesh. Each of these objects is drawn in a colorful cartoon style. Tapping it brings up a short, simple paragraph explaining what it is with the object’s name spoken aloud, this is very helpful for certain words you may not have encountered before. The “play” tab brings up a single screen in which many of the items found in the “learn” tab are brought together to form a picture of that country along with local music forming a backdrop. Tapping each image animates it. Many of the musical instruments will be represented, so by tapping around the player, can create music from that location. The final tab is “create.” Here players can use animated stickers to create scenes (either still pictures or short animated videos) which can then be added to their “travel book” as they visit the different countries; they can also be instantly shared via social media, emailed or saved to the device. The Travel Book is accessible from the main menu and serves as a sort of scrapbook of the player’s experiences as they travel the world.

Naturally, an app like this cannot go into great depth for each of the countries it includes, however the scenes and items from the different cultures are great for young children only just learning about the way in which places and people differ. The app is bright and engaging, the animations are often funny (my son fell in love with the emu in the Australia section which would run off screen and then slip back on a moment later) and the learning is subtle. In choosing not to have a linear story mode, the app does feel like something is lacking when compared to its narrated predecessor. As it is, the app feels a little disjointed from my perspective. However, my 3-year-old loves jumping from country to country making as much noise as possible.

The Learn Tab in India © The Melody Book
The Learn Tab in India © The Melody Book

Jazzy World Tour is a great addition to your app collection and is great for kids beginning at pre-school age and ranging up to middle school as their reading skills increase and they can move from using the app as a musical sticker book to reading the information about different cultures by themselves. I’d love to see more countries opened up on the map and hope that we might see such an expansion one day as there are so many great cultures left to explore.

A copy of Jazzy World Tour was provided free for this review. It is available on the Apple Store costing $4.99/£2.99 for the complete game, or you can download a “free” trial edition featuring just one country, and buy the rest of the map as individual expansions costing 99c each.

Bully, the Movie

My son, getting interviewed by our local news network after we saw the movie Bully. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.

Not long after my children returned to public school after two-and-a-half years of homeschooling, it started.

At this point, my older son was in 8th grade and so gym meant changing in a locker room with the other kids in his class. A couple of his peers developed a habit of coming up behind my son while he was changing, cupping his chest, and informing him that he had breasts. On the gym floor and in the hallways between classes, these boys would leer moon-faced at my child and call him “Scoops.” At the time, my son shared none of this with his father or me or his inclusion teacher or the school psychologist that he was seeing once a week.

Part of the reason that we’d decided to homeschool in the first place was because my younger son had been physically bullied in elementary school–finally, after a third call in as many days from the school nurse telling me that my 2nd grader had been injured again by a peer at recess, and a third day of ignored calls to discuss the matter with the principal, I picked both children up from school and left a message with the principal saying, “I will allow these children back on school grounds when I have a guarantee that they will be safe.”

One day passed. No phone call. Two days passed. I called the district superintendant’s office. A message was taken.

On the third day, the principal finally called. She opened our conversation by saying that she was very disappointed in me for keeping my children out of school for three days. The second point she tried to make was her last: “Mrs. Schwalm, you cannot possibly expect me to guarantee your children’s safety at all times in this building–I am only one person.”

“This conversation has ended,” I immediately replied. “You’ll have the paperwork for homeschooling on your desk tomorrow morning.”

And so, we homeschooled for two-plus years–and it was great. We read together and went to parks together and visited museums and wrote plays together…and then I felt it was time to send my children back into the fray. Ironically, I was worried that by homeschooling, I was making things too easy for my sons and blocking them from experiencing necessary social challenges or developing important coping skills.

The way we found out that my older son was being bullied was through a call from the middle school principal informing me that my son was being placed on three days of ISS (in-school suspension). Having suffered through months of taunting, he’d finally had enough, and when the boy who had been teasing him the most reached out to cup him in the chest for the hundredth time as he was passing my son’s locker, my son had thrown himself at the boy and knocked him against a wall. No one had been hurt but a half-dozen teachers standing at their doorways monitoring the hallway had witnessed the entire inelegant encounter.

The principal’s voice was heavy on the phone as she spoke with me. “I know what happened–all of it now–but we have a zero-tolerance policy for violence in the school. The other child is being suspended out of school–at home with a parent–for a week, and other measures will be taken, as well. I have to protect the privacy of the other student but I am telling you: we will put tools and consequences in place so that this will not happen again.”

Outside of a lecture on the importance of talking to trusted adults when you need help, we didn’t punish our son at home. On the night of the incident we actually went out for pizza and ice cream. He did his three days of ISS and when he came back to class, two boys in his gym class told him that they thought he was cool for standing up to the other kid and not taking it anymore; a trio of girls nearby agreed.

A week later, my son joined a running club for children with disabilities. Within six months he’d lost 40 lbs. and was requesting that we buy healthier snacks when we went food shopping. He has never felt like a victim at school again. At his most recent annual review meeting as we discussed moving my son out of inclusion and into a more-rigorous curriculum, his teacher told me, “Whenever I pass him in the halls, he is chatting and surrounded by friends.”

Closer. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

So, after all of this, I thought it would be a good idea to go as a family last Friday to see the documentary Bully. My older son is a member of his high school’s Anti-bullying Club and was planning shortly on participating in its Gay-Straight Alliance’s Day of Silence to support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students. I wanted my children to see that they were not alone in experiencing either bullying or inept school personnel. I thought that the movie would give their experiences a broader context and soften some of the residual sting in all our memories.

The boys brought a friend and all three agreed afterwards that the movie was worthwhile. “That was a lot better than I thought it was going to be, actually,” my younger son confided. “I thought it was going to be boring but it really wasn’t–and I can understand why you wanted us to see it.” As my older son walked off then to be interviewed by the local television station, I excused myself to the bathroom for one last, brief, shuddering crying jag before we all drove off to an afternoon of cheese fries and amusement park rides at Coney Island.

It may sound melodramatic, but I cried through this entire film. The opening scenes intersperse home movies of a toddler giggling up at a camera with scenes of his somber father recounting the life events that ultimately lead up to Tyler Long committing suicide at 17, and that was it: 90 minutes of continuous crying and a headache that followed me all day until bed.

I saw aspects of my children in almost all of the children followed in this film: like my older son, Alex has some developmental issues and refuses to tell the adults in his life how badly he is being abused. Like my younger son, Alex had a frail, perilous babyhood. Like the principal at Alex’s school who tells his parents, “These children are just as good as gold,” the principal at our elementary school was clearly not trained in creating a school culture that rooted out bullying and abuse. Like my older son, Ja’Meya also finally decided that she needed to fight back against her bullies–but she didn’t just push a child against a wall, she brought her mother’s handgun onto her school bus and brandished it in front of her peers in an effort to get them to leave her alone (and wound up incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for six months).

“Geeky” Tyler Long suffered through years of being abused in his school’s locker room and being called “a fag” before he hung himself in his bedroom closet. Ty Smalley was a beautiful little boy with freckles and wide eyes similar to my younger son’s features. He killed himself after he was suspended from school for standing up to a bully…

I can’t help but believe that if conditions were only a little different, I could be one of the devastated, shell-shocked parents in this movie. Don’t mistake me: I empathized with the other parents in Bully but I was crying for me and my children. The policeman in the film who suggests that 14-year-old Ja’Meya be charged with 44 counts of kidnapping and receive hundreds of years of imprisonment because she hadn’t “really been hurt” simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Bully is playing in a still-expanding number of theaters nationwide. The movie was initially given an R rating by the MPAA but after a great deal of media attention and public outcry, this was changed to PG-13. Go with a group of people you care about. Get ice cream afterwards. Or cheese fries.

The Night Before Christmas and More Classic Holiday Tales from Scholastic Storybook Treasures

Image: http://www.newkideo.com

I love the holiday season, especially now that my daughter is old enough to start to understand what is going on with the holidays. We celebrate Christmas, but I’d like her to know that there are other holidays that people celebrate during this time of year. The Night Before Christmas DVD set from Scholastic Storybook Treasures has been very helpful when it comes to being able to show my daughter some of the different holidays celebrated during this season as well as how different cultures celebrate.

Like other Scholastic Storybook Treasures DVDs, The Night Before Christmas has several stories per DVD that are animated and narrated. There are classics like The Night Before Christmas and The Little Drummer Boy. There is also a Hanukkah story, In the Month of Kislev, as well as a Kwanzaa story, Seven Candles for Kwanzaa. There is even a story about Chinese New Year called Sam and the Lucky Money.

My 3-year-old liked all of the stories, but she enjoyed the ones that had to do with Santa most of all. I think these DVDs will become holiday favorites, especially as she gets a little old enough to appreciate some of the other holidays and traditions that people celebrate during this time of year. I would recommend this DVD set to anyone who has young children and wants a great set of diverse stories for the holidays.

Note: I received a copy of these DVDs  for review purposes.

YouTube Geek: Say the Right Words

If you’ve spent much time on YouTube lately, you’ve probably heard about VidCon, the great big vlogbrothers-organized convention for the amusement and edification of YouTubers that happened in Los Angeles last weekend. By all accounts, it was a smashing success, a rocking good time, and caused jealousy in the hearts of vloggers everywhere who were unable to attend (myself included).

Fortunately, this was a convention by vloggers and for vloggers, so you know every minute of every event at VidCon was captured on video by someone. And thank goodness, or else the rest of us would have missed out on a real treat: A stirring performance by geeky rapper and spoken word artist George Watsky.

(Fair warning: Adult language and high levels of inspiration.)

Also for all the word-lovers out there, we have a video blog from OhItsJustKim, who only recently discovered savethewords.org, a website where all sorts of odd English words retire after they’ve been kicked out of the dictionary. My two favorites from the site are murklins (in the dark) and veprecose (prickly) – what are yours?

Continuing today’s fun education theme, the next video takes gives us a tour of an extraordinary museum exhibit featuring very various versions of the humble periodic table. Watching this gave me several great ideas for how to introduce my son to chemistry without the often intimidating classroom chart.

From there we move on to something relevant to geek culture in general, but especially to geek moms. We love our media and we love our families, but sometimes the former is a poor support for the latter. How often have we found ourselves halfway through an otherwise enjoyable sci-fi television series, only to be disappointed when the writers finally include motherhood in the script? Motherhood itself isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the way pregnancy and birth and the events that follow tend to be abused for the sake of shock value. I don’t know about you, but at this point in my media-viewing career, I’d actually be more shocked to find a realistic mother character in a sci-fi TV show.

Finally, we arrive back where we started; at a convention. The following video was shot ahead of Otakon – an unrelated, yet simultaneous convention on the opposite side of the continent from VidCon. Not surprisingly, attendees of the anime fan-gathering are every bit as talented and geeky as the vloggers assembled a coast away. There’s probably a lot of overlap between those two sub-cultures, come to think of it…

(Fair warning: The featured song is ‘Raise Your Glass’ by P!nk, which includes a well-timed F-bomb part mid-way.)

Geek Hope

Hope crosses all party lines.

Anand Giridharadas, a columnist for both the International Herald Tribune and New York Times Online, was a guest on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show recently to  promote his new book, India Calling. The book chronicles first-generation-American Giridharadas’ changing attitude toward India–how a country that he once looked upon as “a place that it felt better not to come from” has evolved for him to become a place where he would like to live.

At the end of the interview, in response to Stewart’s somewhat-blunt query, “Do you think America can still kick [India’s] ass?” Giridharadas answered:

When we talk about India and China in this country, we talk about an economic threat…emerging markets. I think that the real thing that America should think about is that these countries pose a challenge to culture and spirit. [In America] we are creating a culture of destruction and pulling each other down.  India and China, for all the work that lies ahead of them,  are starting to create cultures of hope and cultures of creation–where there’s a consensus on the question of  ‘how do we create something extraordinary?’ We need to be worried not by an economic threat…but by that spirit in about two and a half billion people.

It struck me, though, that this criticism might not be completely legitimate, that there are deep pockets of hope and creation already in existence in our culture–and what is interesting is how many of them are related to the fields of science and technology.

In her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal identifies an emerging group of gamers, Super Empowered Hopeful individuals, or SEHIs–individuals who feel not just optimistic about the future but capable of changing the world for the better. McGonigal feels that technology-based collaborative gaming challenges  like her alternative reality games Superstruct and World Without Oil help create this type of individual:

Technology can enable individuals or small groups [of SEHIs] to carry out socially beneficial actions at a scale that would have required the resources of a large NGO or business in decades past…SEHIs don’t wait around for the world to save itself. They invent and spread their own humanitarian missions. More importantly, they are able to do so with smaller numbers, greater speed, and a far larger impact than a slow-moving, risk-averse organization.

According to “Charter for Compassion” architect Karen Armstrong, it is no accident that the first city to ratify the Charter (as part of a Ten Year Compassionate Cities Campaign) is Seattle, birthplace of Microsoft. In fact, as Armstrong explained in a recent New York Public Library lecture, executives from Microsoft and neighboring tech firms fill many of the seats  on the steering board for this culture-altering campaign.

In this month’s Make Magazine, the article “The Little Engine that Could” explains the cultural significance of one small invention: the Arduino–a simple, inexpensive micro-controller that can be used by artists and other non-technical users to control sensors, lights, sounds, motors, etc.

The Arduino community is growing fast, defined by cooperation and creativity more than competition. These tinkerers are discovering more imaginative and functional applications and sharing them, which only spurs others to think about what’s possible.

If you look closely at thriving online and tech communities, you’ll see that oftentimes there is, indeed, a culture of hope and creation present. Most of Flickr’s photographers, for example, take and upload pictures not to make money but to be participating members in a like-minded community. This  is evidenced by the site’s popular use of  Creative Commons licensures (which allow third parties to freely use images with varying degrees of restriction).  Long-term open source projects like Wikipedia and Linux also emphasize creation for creation’s sake. The web is full of communities and projects like these that emphasize hope and creation…

In this week’s State of the Union speech, President Obama acknowledged the United States’ greatest hope for emerging successfully from the “Great Recession” when he said:

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology–an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Later in his speech, echoing Giridharadas, he also made a point to mention India and China:

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies.

As in the time of Sputnik, the President is saying that we are going to have to educate and invent our way out of our current economic dilemma–that the “spend our way to the top” model has been exhausted as a viable strategy. Essentially, the financial problems our country  faces today require the “culture of hope and creation” that Giridharadas separately identified and that already exist in abundance within the geek science-and-technology communities.

Theft! A History of Music—Part 3: If I could turn forward time…

Panel from Theft! A History of Music
All images from Theft! A History of Music courtesy of Jennifer Jenkins, James Boyle, and Keith Aoki

[Read part 1 of this series about the upcoming graphic novel Theft! A History of Music and the history it reviews and part 2, which discusses how copyright entered the picture.]

Imagine a 20-year-old musician publishing his work today. Let’s pretend he’s living the fast and reckless life of a rock star and will die young at 45. Because the copyright term has been ratcheted up to life of the author plus 70 years (or 95 years from publication for corporate works), you won’t be able to sample his work without permission (for your heartfelt tribute song, of course), until 2105. But since you’re not living his rock star lifestyle, maybe you can hang on another 95 years to grab your chance.

“We are the first generation in history to deny our culture to ourselves,” Jennifer Jenkins said.

Furthermore, as the new year approaches, we’ll soon again “celebrate” Public Domain Day, January 1, which is the day when works entering the public domain in a given year do so. But as I explained for this year’s non-celebration, because of copyright changes and extensions, there will be no previously copyrighted works entering the public domain in the US until 2019.

Under the law as it stood until 1978, most music would go into the public domain in 28 years, which would put works from the 80s into the public domain now. But the new terms have been retrospectively applied, sometimes applying to dead musicians, who presumably have other things to worry about besides their copyrights.

Panel from Theft! A History of Music

Copyright law has a built-in, careful balance between control and freedom. And we haven’t just added a few marbles to one side of the scale—we’ve dropped an anvil on it. Outside of a conscious choice to release work to the public domain or to use a tool like Creative Commons, nothing you or any of your contemporaries creates will be available for building on, which was not the case for the works of Brahms or Beethoven, or many of the giants of jazz, blues, or rock ‘n roll.

The real tragedy is that we’re unlike the classical composers and rock ‘n roll pioneers in another way. We have the Internet. Remixing software. Sharing tools. The technologies we have now offer anyone unprecedented opportunities for creating and sharing music. We live in a time that has the potential to be the most creative period in history. But the law is constraining that possibility by making those activities illegal.

“The gap between what technology is enabling and what the law is disabling is growing,” Jenkins said. This gap will restrict the creativity to the fringes, rather than push it to the mainstream, which in the long term is the culture that is preserved and maintained.

So what do we do about it?

We could roll with increasing regulations. Lose your Internet connection for file sharing. Take away artists’ rights to terminate recording contracts. We could go even further. Jail someone for singing in the shower, or for merely thinking about a song. (Those supporting the latter have probably heard me play Karaoke Revolution.)

Or we could turn around and march toward a future of digital revolution and cultural anarchy.

Panel from Theft! A History of Music

Neither extreme is particularly attractive. To say that we would be better off with a more balanced system is not the same as saying that we should abolish copyright altogether, much less that downloading music is a fundamental human right. But culture should not be degraded for a business model.

What if we could imagine a more balanced debate that includes the interests of artists and creators, record companies, civil liberties, digital freedom, and technological development—not just one of them. By looking to and learning from musical history, we can learn how to treat the fundamental components of how music is made.

Jenkins and her co-author and artist, James Boyle and Keith Aoki, expect to release Theft! A History of Music under a Creative Commons license in the spring or summer of 2011.This series was originally written for opensource.com.

Cultural Condomnation: Let’s Talk About Sex (With Our Kids)

This song was a lot more fun when I thought Salt n Pepa were singing it to my generation

So there we were in rush hour, driving down the Long Island Expressway, and from the eleven year old in the back seat comes the question:

“So, Mom, if guys can get erections, I’m wondering, does anything like that happen to girls?”

I’ve got to admit, when I get these questions—and these days they are coming with an insistent, rhythmic regularity—my first instinct is to look around for my husband and suggest a guy’s night out. Or, better yet: a weekend. Hey! I’ll supply the informational pamphlets!

I suspect, though, that part of this process for my son is figuring out where the lines of communication exist in his changing emotional landscape. Questions that mom can answer by sounding like a department of health manual? Still okay. Requests to be driven to the bookstore to pick up the latest issue of Maxim (initially discovered at the barber shop around the corner from my home)? Denied. He is looking for answers, but just as important, he is also looking to gauge my emotional response. And, while the 14 year old is less likely to ask this type of question aloud, I can feel him listening ferociously from the passenger seat while simultaneously monitoring me for stuttering eye tics.

This feels exactly like a minefield–but instead of blowing up, one wrong step lands everyone on a Freudian psychologist’s couch or pacing the floors of a neonatal unit. As I try to frame the facts around this latest question into a cogent, age-appropriate response that implies unconditional love, support, and the message DO NOT USE THIS INFORMATION UNTIL YOU ARE IN A LOVING, MATURE RELATIONSHIP MANY YEARS HENCE, a Lexus minivan swerves in from the side, cuts in front of me, and then slams on its brakes…which feels about right.

Here are some facts that I’ve been mulling  over (because this is what I do when I get anxious, I hunt up statistics):

  • In Western Europe and the United States, the average age people have their first sexual experience is 17.
  • 1 out of every 3 American girls becomes pregnant before she reaches the age of 20.
  • Half of all sexually active youth will contract an STD by age 25.
  • 15 percent of women who are infertile cannot conceive solely because of an untreated STD.
  • Half of all new HIV infections occur among adolescents.

Sure, some of our kids will fall outside of those statistics…but not as many as any of us grown-ups would like. We are all going to know some of these statistics personally—if they are not our children, they will be our children’s friends and peers. Young people we care about will be affected.

More food for thought: Last week I happened upon a Slate.com slideshow,  “The Dream Team, The European Approach to Teens, Sex, and Love, in Pictures.” The protagonists in this public health “dream team” are Love and Condoms–and in the slideshow presentation, both are suggested as vital prerequisites for a rewarding sexual relationship.

The slideshow is aimed at an American audience and it is asking that audience to consider the strategies and outcomes of a Western European model–something that, quite frankly, will not be everyone’s cup of cultural tea.  The presentation first compares young adult public health statistics in the United States and (for the most part) the Netherlands, stating that the two countries have comparable economic, education, and family-planning resources, but then goes on to outline dramatically differing outcomes:

  • Teen pregnancy rates are 3-6 times higher in the US than in Western Europe.
  • Teen gonorrhea and Chlamydia rates are 20-30 times higher in the United States than in the Netherlands.
  • Germany’s teen HIV rate is six times lower than ours.
  • The majority of U.S. teens—63 percent of boys and 69 percent of girls—wish they had waited longer to have sex, compared with only 5 percent of boys and 12 percent of girls in the Netherlands.

It is that last statistic that jumps out at me the hardest. Effective condom use (the first time they had sex, 64 percent of Dutch teens used birth control, compared with only 26 percent of American teens) can protect young adults from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, but it takes something much more complicated than a “condoms, condoms, condoms” mantra to protect against trauma or regret: my best guess would be trusting relationships and open and honest communication…and yes, that is what the slideshow professes, that, “At the heart of [this issue] lies a contrast in attitudes toward teen sexuality. This is clear from research about how families talk about sex.”

Okay, I think as I read through the slideshow. I’m laying that foundation. We talk, we trust…

And then I get to these two paragraphs:

In a 2004 study, [researcher] Schalet asked parents: “Would you permit your son or daughter to spend the night with a girlfriend or boyfriend in his or her room at home?” Not surprisingly, nine out of 10 American parents said, no, often adding, “Not under my roof!”

Nine out of 10 Dutch parents told Schalet they have allowed or would allow a romantic sleepover under the right circumstances: With a child who was 16 or older and in a loving committed relationship that the parents observed develop gradually. It is common for Dutch teens to sit down together with each set of parents to discuss why they think they’re ready to have sex, and to seek permission.

After I’d unrolled back out from a rocking fetal position, I realized that as a parent I might be operating from more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” perspective than I’d ever acknowledged. Sure, I am  willing to provide pie charts and cautionary literature–but is that enough? It hadn’t occurred to me that it might be common anywhere for parents to sit down with their children to discuss their actual (as opposed to theoretical) sex lives, or for children to “ask their parents for permission” before entering into a sexual relationship. To be honest, I felt like it was invasive to imagine my children, the people I diapered and breast-fed, as ever being sexual. Whether I realized it or not, “send them off to college and hope for the best” was probably my go-to strategy in this instance.

Clearly, though, my children want to have this dialog with me. On their terms, at their pace. So, we’ll continue to hammer out what our family believes is moral, what love means, what emotional groundwork should be laid before sexual relationships take place…and also, we’ll continue to discuss how best to keep those two bodies that I grew inside of me healthy and happy as they become adults.

ADDITIONAL READING:

  • I’m going to cite it twice: the Slate.com slideshow referenced throughout this post.
  • For hard number on the rates of STDs in our country, this New York Times article is helpful.
  • If you believe that advertising helps shape culture and attitudes, this article on how media corporations define appropriate advertising criteria for condoms is interesting–essentially, condom ads that stress disease prevention are acceptable on television, while ads that even imply that condoms can be used as a form of birth control are not.

(Read Kate Miller’s post on a similar subject: Confessions of a Sex-Ed Addict)