When Fences Come Down

Fence.Mtn Lake

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost, and I think he was onto a larger truth. Of course, Frost – in his “Mending Wall” – was talking about rocks and neighbors, and the poem leaves us with ambivalence about the goodness of fences.

Fences and walls may, at times, make good neighbors – but the big ones tend to be symbols of enmity (think Berlin, Israel, Arizona…) and we just want them down.

A few months ago a high, dark fence went up around lovely Mountain Lake, in the San Francisco park that is one of my favorite spots on the planet. It’s a city park, but the lake (fortunately for us all) is part of the Presidio National Park and has been undergoing an extraordinary restoration for the past few years. It may not yet be back to the purity that made its water just fine for Spanish settlers (and probably the Ohlone and Coast Miwok indigenous people before them) to drink, but years of accumulated glunk, trash and sludge have been hauled away and the lake’s return to life has been a rare joy to watch.

The problem? Although the waters began to clear and native greenery emerged, a proliferation of non-native fish were quashing any hope of bringing back the fish who once belonged. We’re not talking just a couple of ordinary intruders. It was possible to stand on the beach near the murky water’s edge and watch goldfish the size of ahi tuna swimming casually back and forth. With native fish and turtles long displaced by casually dumped household pets, the lake was overrun with carp, bullfrogs – somebody reported a sturgeon – and who knows what else. This writer remembers the brief residence of an alligator, who famously evaded a gator hunter imported from Florida but was eventually removed to the local zoo.

Presidio Trust personnel tried snagging, netting and every known removal method before conceding that the only solution would be to poison the lake. They chose plant-based Rotenone, which kills everything with gills (and happily not much without) and disappears within three days. Thus the fence went up – presumably it was still not a good idea for gill-free people to be wandering near the water. Almost the moment the solution was poured into the four-acre lake, the alien fish died. They were scooped up by the thousands to be studied by ecologists (who reluctantly went along with the project) to determine their origin and soon composted as a final act of goodness. But the fence, for assorted reasons, did not come down.

Sign.Mtn Lake

And over the long weeks that followed it was as if the park itself was inhabited by an alien being. Children still played on the adjacent swings and slides, dog walkers still tossed tennis balls, this writer still exercised on the bars of the fitness trail – but the now-sparkling lake was hidden behind its foreboding shield. Even when the gulls could be heard returning beyond the black screen, and actually seen if you peered through the mesh, the park felt bifurcated and somehow forlorn. Thanksgiving came and went, Christmas was less merry, the New Year not yet happy.

A few days ago, the fence came down. Mountain Lake, the shimmering heart of Mountain Lake Park reappeared, putting on a show of new life. A few familiar ducks may never have left; now they have been joined by coots and grebes and a spiffy ruddy duck who is apparently courting two slightly less flashy lady ruddy ducks. Western pond turtles, chorus frogs and native fish will begin to return in the spring.

Lake.Mtn Lake

The metaphors are abundant: fences come down, sunlight spreads from reflected waters, varied creatures happily coexist, romance blooms.

 

Where is Robert Frost when we need him?

 

 

 

 

Moving in with mom and dad

Waiting lines at the bathroom? Overflow in the kitchen cabinets? Welcome to the suddenly multi-generational family home.

Yesterday a friend of mine was alternately laughing and crying (I mean, literally) over the tales of her once comfortable, now overstuffed home. Her daughter and son-in-law, both unemployed for an extended time and overwhelmed by mounting debt and loss of health insurance, recently moved in with the older generation. With them came three grandchildren, ages 3, 8 and 11. It could make a great sitcom pilot. “My husband was so desperate to get into one of our two and a half bathrooms the other day,” she said, “that he suggested getting one of those take-a-number things they have in hospital waiting areas. The kids put labels on their snack bar boxes, but now I can’t even find which shelf the boxes got stuffed into or what they’re hiding behind.”

Welcome to the brave new world of extended-family housing.

The extended family is making something of a comeback, thanks to delayed marriage, immigration and recession-induced job losses and foreclosures that have forced people to double-up under one roof, an analysis of Census Bureau figures has found.

“The Waltons are back,” said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the analysis.

Multigenerational families, which accounted for 25 percent of the population in 1940 but only 12 percent by 1980, inched up to 16 percent in 2008, according to the analysis.

For the rapidly growing 65+ segment of the population, there’s good news and bad news in this. Loneliness is often cited as a great fear among the aged. At talks and workshops this writer often does on end-of-life issues (advance directives, end-of-life choices, etc.) the response to any “What do you fear most?” question is never “death,” almost always “pain,” “isolation” or “loneliness.” When younger generations move in, loneliness is unlikely, but other problems may well take its place.

The analysis also found that the proportion of people 65 and older who live alone, which had been rising steeply for nearly a century — from 6 percent in 1900 to 29 percent in 1990 — declined slightly, to 27 percent.

At the same time, the share of older people living in multigenerational families, which plummeted to 17 percent in 1980 from 57 percent in 1900, rose to 20 percent.

While the pre-World War II extended family may have been idealized as a nurturing cocoon, the latest manifestation is too recent and a result of too many factors, positive and negative, to be romanticized.

“It calls to mind one of the famous lines in American poetry, from Robert Frost: ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,’ ” Mr. Taylor said. “I don’t know that I can offer a value judgment of whether it’s good or bad. It reflects our time.”

The decline of extended families coincided with an exodus to the suburbs, where many young adults preferred to raise their children, and the enactment of Social Security and Medicare, which made older adults more financially independent.

A lot of factors combine to create the more than 49 million adults currently living in multi-generational homes, the census figures show. We’re living longer, getting married later, getting divorced more often, losing jobs and losing homes. One ray of good news is that the homes now housing multiple generations tend to be larger than a generation ago. Two and a half bathrooms for three generations still beats the olden days of one bathroom for a family of five. But not many families get along as well as the Waltons did. “We love the kids and the grandchidren,” remarked my stressed-out friend mentioned above, “but my son-in-law’s first paycheck is going to go for the down payment on a new apartment.”

Households With Extended Families Are on the Rise, Census Shows – NYTimes.com.

Obama on community colleges — & one teacher's response

Some of us, still believers, admit our expectations of Barack Obama might have been too high. And it may go both ways. Anna Tuttle Villegas, a teacher at San Joachim Delta College for 35 years, wonders if expectations of what community colleges can deliver are a little muddy themselves. Villegas, whose literary distinction — award-winning poetry, fiction, essays — would have supported a far more prestigious career choice had she not been dedicated to those community college students he has in mind, ventured a response to the President’s address:

Nobody, absolutely nobody, appreciates better than a community college teacher the transformative effect education can have on the quality of life of her students. As our president explained last night in the preface to his promise to revitalize the nation’s community colleges, “the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”

Amen.

The president’s enlistment of me in the federal plan to make college accessible to more students inspired my own new year thought.

College students agelessly enter and depart classrooms year after year, never growing older. Sure, their hair color changes from day-glo green to hi lites and low lites, their musical tastes boomerang from reggae to screamo, and their pants grow shorter and tighter and then longer and looser and sometimes fall off. Beneath superficial alterations in fashion, college students remain forever youthful, making their teachers, witnesses to an endless parade of youth, especially vulnerable to the conclusion that it is our outlook — and not that of our charges — which has been fundamentally corrupted by the passage of time.

When I went to college almost forty years ago, the expectations of academic culture were fairly clear. Instructors and professors were generally assumed to have, if not greater innate intelligence at the moment of instruction, then at least greater skill and knowledge than their wards.

Times have changed. Villegas (herself educated at U.C. Santa Barbara and Stanford)  suggests that expectations brought by students themselves are murky, and roles of instructors and learners often confused. She gives some anecdotal evidence of how and why the “one-size-fits-all approach to community college enrollment” may call for re-examination of expectations laid on colleges and teachers both:

Years ago, a student encounter introduced me to what is now commonly recognized as the Joe Wilson school of public discourse. Upon being informed that spotty attendance may have played a pivotal role in the student’s bewilderment (Was it really Wednesday? There was a paper due? And who was I, anyway, expecting him to be in possession of a course syllabus?), this particular student threw down his weighty backpack and proclaimed me an “f-ing bitch.” Several times.

That school marms sometimes do turn into f-ing bitches shouldn’t surprise anyone. But the frequency with which contemporary students feel the need to remind us of the fact, colloquial dialect and all, should.

Back in the day when one-on-one conferencing was hip, I recall explaining to a bright and sassy young woman how sentence fragments, not advisable in college essays, were marring her otherwise insightful writing.

She didn’t buy it. Hand on cocked hip, very Mae West, she growled at me: “What if I don’t think it’s a sentence fragment?”

Indeed.

Villegas concludes her essay with a quote from Robert Frost: “Now when I am old my teachers are the young.”

Now I am old. What the young teach me is that many students fail to approach their college studies with the respect for learning essential to our college model.At the risk of being an f-ing bitch yet again, I want President Obama to consider that before we commit to sending even more students to community colleges, we should decide what exactly it is we expect of them.

Anna Tuttle Villegas: College to Go.