Speaking of the Dead

The question of whether we can communicate with the dead has provoked endless speculation.  Ironically, this cultural preoccupation is often matched by our reluctance to Candle2speak about the dead.  This reveals not only fears concerning our own demise, but also our anxieties over losing someone else through death.

Fortunately, children and youth don’t typically encounter death.  Even when they do, they are often more resilient than we might suppose.  As Psychology Today magazine rightly notes, such resilience can be fostered by giving children opportunities to discuss the person who has died (and the feelings caused by that loss).  Because they are older, young adults are more likely to know somebody who has died, including a friend or peer.  Various resources are available for these individuals, including a recently formed grief support group on the campus where I teach, an encouraging and timely development.

For many adults, death is all too common.  One reason is that Baby Boomers—a huge percentage of the American population—have been dealing with their parents’ mortality for almost two decades.  At workplace lunch tables and water coolers, in car lines at elementary schools, at social, civic, and church gatherings, it’s not uncommon to hear a person discussing the death (or approaching death) of his/her parent.  These interactions, albeit sometimes painful, provide social and emotional solidarity—a glue of grief, empathy, and understanding that has helped millions of people confront life’s finitude.  If it takes a village to raise a child, then it also takes a village to bury the dead.

However, there’s an exception to these examples.  Almost everybody with whom I work or socialize has a spouse or partner, so their relationship with that person is often a topic of conversation.  This is natural and understandable: a spouse/partner is frequently the most significant individual in a person’s life.  Given that my own partner died seven years ago, my references to him are in the past, not present, tense.  Though I assumed this would go largely unnoticed (he was rather than he is), it nevertheless produces—more often than not—noticeable reactions: a hesitant pause, an ever-so-slight shift in body language, a break in eye contact.

I initially thought that these conversational cul-de-sacs resulted from the concern that I might become weepy (or—gasp—actually start sobbing!) if others encouraged me to discuss my deceased partner.  Or maybe it was just the awkwardness of mixing the living with the dead—the former are tangible, vibrant, and consequential, while the dead are, well, none of those things.  Or perhaps I gave the impression of being stuck in the past, unable to adopt a Hallmark attitude about the future.  As plausible as these explanations might be, I can’t help from thinking that something else might (also) be going on.  And here is where social psychology can provide some insights.

In 1967, two American psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, created a scale of life events (the Social Readjustment Rating Scale) that they hoped could be used to determine the likelihood that somebody would develop a stress-related illness.  To predict this likelihood, Homes and Rahe had to determine the relative amount of stress that various life events cause.  Among the 43 events they eventually listed, they concluded that the death of a spouse generates (by a large margin) the greatest amount of stress.  This is one of the most robust and consistent findings in modern psychology.  It varies little with age or by culture.  Little wonder that the Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in the so-called same-sex marriage case in 2015 (Obergefell v. Hodges), noted that committed relationships respond “to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one is there.”  Having a spouse or partner, Kennedy continued, offers two people “the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live, there will be someone to care for the other.”

Therefore, what had seemed mysterious to me, now seems less so.  When a person in the midst and middle of life brings up the subject of a deceased partner, it’s bound to make others—also in the midst and middle of life—think about the possibility of losing their own spouses/partners.  Admittedly, thinking about something is not the same as actually experiencing it.  But why even think about it—especially if it’s the most stressful thing that can happen to a person—if you don’t have to?  (A few friends who have thought about it have responded to me by saying “I’d go crazy” or “I’d kill myself.”)

Consequently, when some of us want to speak about the dead, we might need to limit our remarks to the dead.  The awkward pauses are far less frequent, though they are also considerably longer.

Musical Chairs for the Misbegotten: Gay Dating at Midlife

Seven years ago, my partner unexpectedly died. For the first time in almost 25 years, I was plunged back into the dating world. If you’re a middle-aged gay man, that can be a very tough task. Let me explain why.Loneliness2

The odds are bad from the start.  The most reliable surveys (including those conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA) indicate that roughly 2% of the American population identifies as either gay or lesbian. If we assume an equal percentage for each, that means about 1% of the general population identifies as being a gay male. Although that figure is undeniably higher in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, it seems like a fairly accurate percentage for Greenville/Upstate South Carolina (the region I call home).

How does that percentage translate into dating realities? Let’s say I walk into a room of 199 (single) men. That means that two of us in the room are gay. Because I’m one of those two men, that leaves me only one other dating option. And, all things being equal, in any group containing fewer than 199 men, I could potentially be the only gay man.

Now let’s imagine that a straight man walks into a room of 199 (single) women. On average, two of these women are going to be lesbians (well, technically 1.99, but let’s round up). That would give the straight guy 197 women to choose from. As a gay man, I would need to walk into a room of 19,700 other men to have that many options. That’s a lot of chairs.

Location, location, location.  Historically, the only social institutions for LGBT individuals have been bars (John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities). However imperfect bars might be as places to meet potential partners (bars have typically catered to young gay men who are looking for sexual hook-ups), many communities still lack even this resource. (The only bona fide gay bar in Greenville closed several years ago.) In large cities there are growing numbers of LGBT support/social networks, but they are the exception, not the rule, throughout the rest of the country (including Greenville).

Unfortunately, almost all of the venues that assist heterosexuals in finding partners—workplaces, churches, civic groups, and community organizations—are far more difficult, if not impossible, for gays and lesbians to utilize for the same purpose. In such settings, gays and lesbians are not only vastly outnumbered by heterosexuals (see previous section), but they also (almost always) have to guess or rely on their “gaydar” to figure out who else might be like them. Imagine if the other 98% of the population were forced to meet potential dates/partners under the same circumstances?

As documented in a recent New York Times article, there are whole swaths of the country that are considered unfriendly to gays and lesbians (South Carolina is one of them). This means that gays and lesbians tend to avoid or leave certain areas, making those areas even more challenging for the (single) gays and lesbians who have to remain behind (usually because of job or family considerations).  In my own case, a personal matchmaking service indicated that at least six men have refused to contact me because they couldn’t stomach the idea of living in South Carolina. I wonder what straight people would think if they received a similar message: “I’m sorry, we can’t find heterosexuals who are willing to live in South Carolina.”  So much for Southern charm.

The good fits are already taken.  Most of us have heard the saying, “The good ones are already taken.” Well, maybe. But in my experience, it’s more a matter of the good fits having already been taken. And there’s some logic to that proposition. Most (though not all) people who want a partner spend their 20s and 30s finding one. Consequently, if you look for a partner (within your own age cohort) later in life, there will be fewer eligible individuals to choose from. Sure, some people re-enter the eligibility pool in midlife (as I did), but there sure seems to have been more good fits for me when I was in my 20s than there are now that I’m in my 50s.

And that brings me to the unavoidable topic of online dating sites. Among the oh-so-many disappointments I’ve encountered with seven such services (fake photos, fake ages, hucksters, hustlers), one of the biggest is that the vast majority of other members aren’t good fits for me, even if I were enthusiastic about attempting long-distance relationships (they aren’t easy). Again, this doesn’t make me any better than any other lonely heart. Nevertheless, two people are either compatible, or they aren’t.

I’ve also deputized more than thirty local and far-flung friends to be on the lookout for me. They usually respond by saying, “I know this guy who’d be a great fit for you, but he already has a partner” or “The only other gay man I know wouldn’t be a good fit.” As for the match-making service I mentioned earlier? After paying them a very large non-refundable sum, the best they’ve been able to do in almost four years is to set me up with a dead guy. That’s not a typo. Call me picky, but I declined that date.

Age, age, age.  Over the decades, one of the most consistent characteristics of the male gay community is the premium that’s placed on beauty and youth, especially the latter. It can even result in something referred to as “internalized gay ageism.” During the past seven years, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been told, “You’re too old.” To make matters worse—and against my repeated protests—the online dating services constantly match me with guys who have indicated that someone my age is too old for them. Mind you, these are guys in their 40s and 50s, but unadulterated youth (pun intended) is what they want. Sadly, verbal (and often physical) shunning can do a real number on your self-image. This makes Freud’s notion of narcissistic injury pale by comparison.

There’s another group for whom aging is also a great liability: middle-aged straight women. They face equal—sometimes worse—disdain from middle-aged men. In other words, both gay and straight middle-aged (single) men seem to place a huge emphasis on having young(er) partners. I think that that’s one reason that middle-aged straight women are more attracted to me than middle-aged gay men are; they (the women) see my other qualities as being far more important than the fact that I’m no longer 25 years old. Admittedly, some gay and straight men are attracted to older partners. All I can say is that the older men to whom they’re attracted must have something I don’t.

Musical chairs.  We’ve all played musical chairs. We know that when the music stops, the players must run to an empty chair. Anybody left standing is out of the game. That’s certainly the feeling a gay middle-aged man can experience when he tries to find a kindred spirit to share his life or—at the very least—an occasional date. Naturally, if it were a real game of musical chairs, nobody would feel anything but a transient sting of disappointment. Alas, the games of childhood are not the realities of adulthood.

If Boys Will Be Boys, What Does that Say About Girls?

StudentDaniel Handler recently published a provocative (or at least provocatively titled) article in the New York Times, “Want Teenage Boys to Read? Easy. Give Them Books about Sex.”  Handler is the author of the wildly popular children’s books that appear under his pen name, Lemony Snicket.

Handler is genuinely concerned about the reading habits of boys–and not just because he’s a writer.  An exhaustive 2016 study in the UK concluded that boys between the ages of 5 and 18 read less–and less well–than girls do.  It seems highly probable that the same is true in the US.

Handler’s solution is summed up in the title of his article: Boys don’t like to read because they can’t find books that contain the topic that interests them the most–sex.  Handler is right to point out that young adult novels contain a surfeit of violence, but are sanitized when it comes to depicting anything remotely close to the sexual thoughts, desires, and/or activities of adolescents.  (The mere mention of masturbation in a young adult novel can get it removed from school libraries in many communities.)

Whether young adult fiction should or should not contain more sexually explicit material is a complicated and obviously contentious issue, which is better left for another time and place.  However, equally problematic is Handler’s apparent belief that only boys have a near-obsession with sex from puberty onward.  Absent is any acknowledgment that girls might also be interested in–not to mention confused or troubled by–sex.

If, then, authors of young adult fiction were to follow Handler’s advice, we might likely get a lot of books that portray sex from a male rather than an equally gendered point of view.  Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that girls are avid readers because they don’t care about the absence of sexually explicit content.  A more plausible reason is that girls read more than boys because they are encouraged and praised for doing so.

And this brings us to the problem that lies at the heart of Handler’s article: The mistake of confusing biology with socialization.  Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a recent op-ed by the conservative columnist Suzanne Fields.  Under the deceptive title of “The Most Destructive Words a Boy Can Hear are ‘Be a Man,'” Fields parrots long-disproved shibboleths of biological determinism.  “Anybody who has watched little boys at rough-and-tumble play, taking risks that frighten their mothers and indulging a fascination with machines and gadgets, rather than dolls, understands that such little-boy behavior is rooted in biology,” Fields authoritatively asserts.

Fields also cites Christina Hoff Sommer, the former philosopher and author of the polemical The War Against Boys (Simon & Schuster, 2000): “Women tend to be more sensitive, esthetic, sentimental, intuitive, and tender-minded, while men tend to be more utilitarian, objective, unsentimental, and tough-minded.”  That is pure rubbish, the flipside of believing that boys are interested in sex, but girls aren’t.  These sorts of putative biological differences have been persuasively refuted by neuroscientists Lise Elliot and Cordelia Fine, among many others.

If we want boys to read more, we should start by telling them that there’s nothing inherently un-cool or emasculating about reading.  In other words, it’s not a girls-only treehouse.  As for sexually explicit content, boys easily find that material elsewhere.  It’s called the internet.

Reading Should Be Fundamental, Not Flunkable

Starting with the 2017-2018 school year, South Carolina children who aren’t reading on grade level by the time they finish third grade could be retained, which means that they would need to repeat the third grade.  This is part of a policy enacted by South Carolina lawmakers in 2014.  As an article in The State points out, this law could result in more than 3,200 children flunking third grade during the upcoming school year.

Reading is a critical skill.  Without it, academic success is impossible, which makes subsequent financial survival very difficult.  However, to impose retention on a third grader is draconian and likely counter-productive.  Mounting research has shown that retaining a student just once–especially in the lower grades–can dramatically lessen the likelihood that that student will graduate from high school.  Retention also has negative mental health consequences, such as lower self-esteemstick-kids-reading-clipart-4Although the Director of South Carolina’s Education Oversight Committee, Melanie Barton, says that retention is not meant as a punishment, it’s hard to imagine that children will perceive it as anything other than that.  Moreover, using sticks rather than carrots flies in the face of all that we know about how to optimize human motivation.

To her credit, Barton notes that education starts at birth, long before children begin school; therefore, “that’s where we’ve really got to put our emphasis.”  But if that’s the case, then the 2014 law is approaching this issue from the wrong direction.  We should start by pouring resources into early childhood and preschool educational services, not by creating an extremely punitive policy that can potentially cause more harm than good.  Worst of all, the current policy could make some children dislike reading for the rest of their lives.  And who could blame them?  If we told children that they were going to get spanked if they didn’t get a certain number of math problems correct, we’d have a lot of children who grew up hating math.  We have no reason to think reading is any different.

When Equality was Not a Good Thing

Ninety years ago–to mark the 50th anniversary of South Carolina’s official assumption of education as a public responsibility–Henry T. Thompson published The Establishment of the Public School System of South Carolina (R. L. Bryan, 1927).  This overview was primarily a paean to his father, Hugh S. Thompson, who had been South Carolina’s third superintendent of education (1876-1882) and later governor (1882-1886) of the Palmetto State.

contentDespite his filial affection, Thompson took time to review the efforts of the superintendent who preceded his father, Justus Jillson.  Thompson described Jillson as a man of “intelligence and education,” as well as one of the few “honest carpetbaggers” (p. 12).  Regardless of his honesty, Jillson’s efforts were “in vain” because (according to Thompson), “in no department of the state government were the evils of the carpetbagger-negro domination more acute than in the administration of the state’s educational system.”  That system was one of “vast fraud” and “a disgrace to civilization” (p. 12).

While it is true that there was some malfeasance in the Reconstruction governments of the American South (at the time, no state government in America was bereft of corruption), Thompson adduced little proof that South Carolina’s Department of Education was guilty of “vast fraud.”  Indeed, Thompson (also the author of Ousting the Carpetbagger from South Carolina [R. L. Bryan, 1926]) tipped his hand when he added the following:  “Jillson made himself very obnoxious to the white people of the state by his persistent advocacy of social equality, and of mixed schools for the two races as a means to that end.  His insistence on the enforced equality of the races was conspicuous in an otherwise commendable career” (p. 14).

Thankfully, that form of conspicuousness is no longer considered a liability, even if we still don’t provide equal educational opportunities to all children.

When “Public” No Longer Means Public

It appears that Clemson University will be raising tuition and fees next year by 2.75 percent.  While that’s the lowest increase in twenty years, it nonetheless means that in-state undergraduates will be paying $14,712 in tuition and fees for the 2017-2018 academic year.   The annual median household income in South Carolina is approximately $44,000; to pay one-third of that for a child to attend a year of college is well-nigh impossible.

Clemson, however, is not where the blame lies.  clemson-universityIt is a world-class university that provides an excellent education to its students.  Like all institutions of higher learning, it has faced (and will continue to face) many challenges, but its legions of alumni will quickly attest to the benefits of having received a Clemson diploma.

Where we need to point the finger is the South Carolina legislature.  During the upcoming year, it will provide only $69.5 million toward Clemson’s projected $1.15 billion budget, which is a scant 6 percent of the total.  This is a trend that we have seen throughout the country over the past three decades: the near starvation of our public institutions of higher learning.  It seems silly to continue to call them “public,” given that they receive so little public funding–and have, as a consequence, become financially prohibitive to many members of the public.

New Buses are a No-Brainer

Providing safe buses for our schoolchildren is a no-brainer.  Unfortunately, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster doesn’t understand that–but, fortunately, the Greenville School Board does.

On June 12, McMaster vetoed $20.5 million for new buses, arguing that the funding source–lottery revenues–should be used exclusively for scholarships.  That line of reasoning assumes that we face an either/or proposition.  We don’t.  But–putting that debate aside for now–nobody can deny the precarious state of our school buses.

South Carolina is the only state that doesn’t give local school districts control over purchasing and maintaining their own buses.  Centralized oversight, however, has been nothing short of a disaster.  As recently as 2007, an investigation by The Post and Courier (Charleston) determined that South Carolina had “the oldest, most polluting, and least safe bus fleet in the nation.” (For a review of developments since then, see the Dec. 3, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.)  At the time (2007), South Carolina was replacing some of its buses with used ones from other states (for example, Kentucky), buses that had been deemed too old by the states that were selling them to South Carolina (!). school-busMoreover, since 2007 the average age of buses in South Carolina has actually increased from 14 to 15.5 years (over 1,500 buses are more than 20 years old).

Maintaining a dilapidated bus fleet is not only costly, but it can also have serious–even dire–consequences for our children.  According to a July 7, 2017 issue of the Greenville News, there were 3,500 bus breakdowns in Greenville County alone during the 2016-2017 school year (180 days)–that’s more than 19 breakdowns per day.  These breakdowns are not just an inconvenience: they lead to missed instructional time.  Furthermore, Greenville County has 68 buses (Thomas models made in 1995) that are more prone to fires.  In early May, one such bus burst into flames while transporting students to Duncan Elementary School in nearby Spartanburg County.  Approximately thirty percent of the state’s buses are Thomas models.

To their credit, Greenville School Board members have made a rare public appeal to the county’s legislative delegation to vote to overturn the governor’s veto.  Let’s hope for the sake of our children that they do so.


Happy (Belated) Birthday Harry Potter!

Last Monday (June 26) was the twentieth anniversary of J. K. Rowling’s publication of her first Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [1997]).  The seven volumes that now comprise the Harry Potter series have had a profound global impact (the books–translated into 79 languages–have sold more than 450 million copies).  No other books have so rekindled the love of reading among American children and adolescents–not to mention a significant number of adults.  In an era when reading seemed to be an all but antiquated pastime, the books prompted children to wait in line (sometimes iterminably) for the latest installment of Harry Potter’s exploits; equally remarkable, virtually none of the Hogwarts fans could postpone (much less forgo) reading until the inevitable movie version appeared (the films have had an equal, though different, influence on popular culture).  With all the Potter books now in print, today’s children have become binge readers, while–perhaps sadly–an increasing number of adults have become binge watchers (a far more passive activity, regardless of what one watches, which includes the Harry Potter films).

That a new generation is discovering the joys of reading books might also combat the consequences of reading screens.  Mounting research suggests that reliance on digital reading undermines and/or fails to promote what scholars call “deep reading” (the term was coined by Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age [1994]).   This kind of reading (versus scrolling through lines of text on a phone, tablet, or desktop computer) is deliberative and purposeful–the reader focuses on gaining a full understanding of the text for both enlightenment and enjoyment.  It sparks interior monologues that go beyond factual recapitulation (“What did Harry Potter do?) to embrace speculation (“Why did Harry Potter do that?) and even self-examination (“Would I have done what Harry Potter did?).  Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone_Book_CoverThese skills may well provide the foundation for empathy, compassion, and other aspects of social/emotional intelligence. (See Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain [2007]; Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains [2010]; and Daniel Willingham, The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads [2017].

Related to deep reading is something that all good literature does: it poses moral dilemmas.  From Hamlet to The Brothers Karamazov, from Charlotte’s Web to Beloved, readers encounter the chiaroscuro of moral choice–which, in turn, helps develop their capacity for moral reasoning.  The eminent psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg believed that moral reasoning was the key to moral behavior, a powerful but admittedly controversial theory.  (Lawrence Kohlberg, “The Development of Children’s Orientations Toward a Moral Order: Sequence in the Development of Moral Thought,” Vita Humana 6 [1963]).  So–just maybe–reading about Harry Potter’s decision to choose good over evil might help children learn to do the same thing.  And any book that can do that is worth celebrating.

Rangel and Pickering Fellows Update

Reversing itself, this past Thursday the U.S. State Department announced that it would indeed comply with its obligations under the provisions of the Rangel and Pickering Fellowship programs.  Both are prestigious government fellowship programs aimed at recruiting under-represented groups into the U.S. Foreign Service.  The fellowships provide funding for undergraduate and graduate education for individuals who agree to devote a certain amount of time in government service.  In early June, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that current Rangel and Pickering Fellows would not be offered positions in the Foreign Service; instead, they would be given the option of accepting lower-level clerk positions in consulates–or paying back approximately $85,000 (each) in scholarship funding.  This was apparently connected to the Trump administration’s pending proposal to cut the U.S. State Department’s budget by 31 percent.  While the outcome was ultimately favorable for the Rangel and Pickering Fellows, other scholarship programs–such as the Fulbright Scholarships–are hardly out of the woods yet.