Monday, October 25, 2010


People like to claim that foreign aid doesn't work. Obviously it doesn't always work as well as we hoped. But sometimes it succeeds in invisible ways.

This week, cholera hit Haiti. Know what's amazing? That it didn't hit sooner. Since the earthquake in January, the country has been crowded with tent cities. Sanitation is a real problem, and waterborne disease was always a huge risk. When I worked at Oxfam, donors were sometimes puzzled that we focused more on water than on food. Cholera is why. Yes, it's important that there were agencies dealing with food. But the fact that Oxfam and others were digging latrines and trucking in water are the reason there's been so little disease in Haiti since the earthquake.

Clean water isn't that exciting, especially to those of us who have constant access to it. We can understand hunger, but we've never watched a child die from diarrhea. And an absence of disease doesn't make for news stories. There are no headlines proclaiming "No Typhoid Again Today In Port-Au-Prince."

This is why aid matters, even when you can't see it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pathologizing princesses

I guess I shouldn't have expected social workers to be perfect. In general, I think the profession is oriented to meeting people where they are and helping them in a non-judgmental way. But there are times when I'm disappointed. Don't get me started on phrases from professors like "the opposite race" and "everybody has sexual desires."

As part of my social work training, I'm interning with a school counselor. This week as I looked through the child psychotherapy manual in my supervisor's office, and I saw the section on Gender Identity Disorder. I knew that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual lists it as a mental disorder, but doesn't prescribe any treatments. This book does. Apparently if I get a girl who wants to dress like/act like/be a boy, or vice versa, I'm supposed to talk her out of it. We're supposed to talk about her mommy - doesn't she want to be like her mommy?

Gag me with a spoon.

I've seen the fear of children's gender-bending. I've seen teachers deeply uncomfortable about the idea that the child over there with the short hair and cargo pants - that one? really? - is a girl. After a nail polish extravaganza at daycare, I've seen a boy gleefully show his mother his purple-and-gold nails, only to be yanked to the sink and scoured. (She was so upset she forgot you can't take off nail polish with soap.)

It doesn't have to be like that. Take Cheryl Kilodavis, author of My Princess Boy. At first she was worried about her four-year-old son's taste for high heels and sparkles. But his family rallied around him, and when he decided to be a princess for Halloween, she called the school. And the school made it clear to everybody, students and staff, that nobody was to laugh at Dyson. On Halloweeen, some of the male teachers came as ballerinas and performed a dance for the school. The kids loved it, of course.

When he's older, maybe Dyson will transition to living as a woman. Maybe he won't. Do we really have to wrestle with a four-year-old about this?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Did you know?

We've all heard the human interest story about Helen Keller: water pump, fingerspelling, etc. But there's more to her story.

Newspapers liked to pat her on the head for her work with the blind, but things changed when she voiced a political opinion. When she started advocating socialism, the Brooklyn Eagle editorialized that her "mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development."

Keller responded:
The Eagle and I are at war. I hate the system which it represents, apologizes for and upholds. When it fights back, let it fight fair. Let it attack my ideas and oppose the aims and arguments of Socialism. It is not fair fighting or good argument to remind me and others that I cannot see or hear. I can read. I can read all the socialist books I have time for in English, German and French. If the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle should read some of them, he might be a wiser man and make a better newspaper. If I ever contribute to the Socialist movement the book that I sometimes dream of, I know what I shall name it: Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness.

Dear Ms. Keller,
You're my hero.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Waiting it out

One of the first lessons I remember from high school Russian class is about why it's traditional for Russian brides to be sad. It's because they are leaving their family to live with their husband's household. As in many traditional cultures, women had no clout outside the home and had to get all their power within the family. The matriarch ruled over daughters and daughters-in-law. A girl marrying into the family could gain rank by bearing sons. Stick it out enough generations, and eventually you become the matriarch.

Jeff comes from the kind of close-knit family you rarely see in our culture. There are so many of them, it's overpowering. At our wedding, there were eight of my relatives and thirty-four of his. The house is like a shrine, covered in photographs of ancestors. And woe betide the woman who marries in and tries to change things. When Jeff's widowed grandfather fell in love with an abrasive woman, the men in the family took it in stride and the women freaked out. Even aunts who married in years ago never make it to the inner sanctum when it comes to making decisions.

I could probably push more before I met with real resistance, but I'm terrified to try it. I don't want to be that woman they laugh at. This weekend on a family vacation I tried to negotiate for the presence of mustard at a meal. It was a disaster.

Our lease is up in a few weeks, and we've considered moving back into the family house rather than paying too much rent for our tiny apartment. We love them and they love us, but it would be nuts. At this point, I just need to remember that there's a reason I have my own household. I came to this family twenty years too late to be on even footing. In another generation or two, I'll have a chance at being a matriarch.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

I must say . . .

I sometimes wonder why some people seem naturally taciturn and others (like me) can't bear to have an interesting thought without sharing it. One thing I love about being married is that there's someone whose job it is to listen to me talk.

Today I got a lesson in where that comes from. I ate lunch with some kindergarteners, each of whom individually asked what my name was what I was eating. Then they began to tell me things, some of which were true. "That's my friend over there." "I'm allergic to bread." "My teacher's name is Ms. Henry." One gap-toothed girl beckoned me close enough to hear her whisper: "I ate chicken soup at my home."

That's it. No concept of what facts will be interesting to other people. Just the urge to share, which some of us apparently don't outgrow. I love it.