Tag Archives: children

Throw Them Into the Deep End

Woah. This website is both fascinating and… a little evil. (In the same way that all advertising intel on how to exploit the masses feels a bit evil.) That aside, their claim about millennials, true or not, is worth some thought. The idea is that kids have been too coddled, and now the trend is to let children run free and learn from their mistakes. There’s one story about a parent who left their kid in a department store and let them find their own way home. Maybe that’s what I ran into at Maker Faire last weekend?

When I was a kid my dad used to blindfold me and drive out into the countryside. After an excruciatingly long time he would pull over to the side of the road and park. When I could finally take off the blindfold I would look around at some completely unfamiliar farmland or suburb. “OK,” he’d say, “tell me where to go to get home.”

This would typically take place on a Sunday after we’d left church and so I’d have all afternoon to wander aimlessly, in desperate hopes of catching my dad either wincing or grinning out of the corner of my eye so that I’d know where to turn. Sometimes I got lucky and spotted a landmark, but often the whole affair ended in shame and exasperation.

Lit Match by Dabe Murphy
When I built my hot rod Miata years later it was in part so that I could make faster U-turns and catch exit ramps at the last second, to make up for my still completely inept sense of direction. My ability to get around hasn’t improved much, but I have adapted by learning to be comfortable on long, meandering drives across town. I remember one particularly spectacular high school homecoming where I drove my date around, completely lost, for several hours.

We did a lot of trekking when I was growing up and so a similar scenario played out at the campfire each night. My dad would hand me a single match and say, “here you are. You’re trapped alone in the wilderness. All you have is this one match…” I would carefully build a little teepee of twigs and arrange the heavier sticks nearby. Putting the match head against a stick I’d lean in close and then run it across the wood. My body was as tense as that matchstick and I’d struggle to hold it just right so that it would get enough traction to light, but not snap in half. Each time I put a little more pressure on the matchstick and it put a little more pressure on me. By the second try I would hold my breath and try not to shake. Suddenly, with a sharp stzzzzzzzt, fire appeared. In a panic I would immediately swing it in towards the pile of sticks, only to see the flame vanish into a thin thread of smoke that wandered up from my hand and away.

My dad would sigh and let his shoulders drop for a second, and then reach into the waterproof film canister for another match. “OK, here you are. You’re trapped alone in the wilderness and all you have is this one match…”

On this front I’ve been a little more successful later in life. I’ve taken some survival training and at least have the basic skills to start a fire with a pair of sticks. The disappointment I felt at not being able to meet those early expectations was always brutal, though, and I think I was still shaking that when taking the class and expecting that somehow this was something I was supposed to be able to do. I think the compromise here is in giving a kid a few pointers and the expectation that they shouldn’t be able to succeed the first time, but that they can learn. This gives them more room to fail and feel exhilarated when they finally do succeed.

Click on image to find photographer’s flickr page

India: Farmer Suicides aka Why We Went

I was hired as one of two cinematographers to travel into the Punjab region of India to shoot a documentary about the epidemic of farmer suicides. The problem is not confined to Punjab, but this region has been known as the breadbasket of India and the Indian government stands to lose the most by letting the nation know the extent of the problem there. Work done over a subset of this region over the last 20 years or so estimates 150,000 suicides. The government currently acknowledges 7.

The Scale

When we started out we would enter a small village and go to the house of a fatherless family to interview them. We would then walk across the street to the next house, and perhaps two houses down to the next. Often there were 50-60 suicides in a village, even within the same household.

The suicides themselves are the result of intense economic pressures due to a variety of governmental policies, unchecked industrialization and the so-called green revolution.

Stadiums and Water Rights

While I was there I heard it said that India may be one of the largest democracies in the world, but it is also the most corrupt. Votes are easily bought and sold. I heard firsthand from a man who was offered a literal chest full of cash to push a campaign. I met another who kept the Mercedes he was given as a souvenir. Keep in mind that in this country, while they are becoming much more common, a high end Mercedes is still like having a rocket ship in your back yard.

During my morning walks in the countryside I would occasionally wander over to a huge pink stadium that had been dropped like a giant child’s forgotten toy in the center of the otherwise green and level fields that surrounded us. I thought at first that it was a Kubaddi or Cricket field. There were high bleachers on two sides, modern showers, locker rooms, and weight rooms that were all locked. Our host explained that the complex had been built by a campaigning politician seeking local votes. It was pitched as a place for children to play. In order to maximize the voter impact, it was placed in between several villages. This made it just far enough away from all of them that it was, quite literally, never used.

Given this kind of concern for the people that elected them, it is not surprising that government leaders sold off Punjab’s water to the desert areas of neighboring Rajistan. We saw massive canals sucking water away en-masse. In the years that followed, Punjab became drier and drier. Apparently the clouds of dust we experienced there were, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon. Farmers can no longer count on the once plentiful existing water to grow crops, and have been forced to dig wells, buy pumps, and then buy fuel for those pumps, thus increasing their costs.

The Green Revolution

In an attempt to feed its ever exploding population, in the mid 70s India implemented the Green Revolution. They began using genetically modified seeds which produced much higher yields, but in turn required significantly more water. These new crops also required pesticides and chemical fertilizers that, while greatly increasing cancer rates, also greatly increased farmer cost.

Unchecked Industrialization

We visited a large river so thick with pollution that it was dark and stank so badly we had difficulty being near it. Periodically this particular river overflows its banks and kills off all of the crops in the surrounding area. There are no rights, insurance, or protection of any kind. The farmer is simply SOL.

Price Controls

Using India’s large population of poor as justification, the Indian government has fixed prices for wheat and other crops. With these artificially lowered returns and an ever-increasing input cost, the Indian farmers are effectively being forced to subsidize India’s poor population and are thus steadily being impoverished themselves.

Loan Sharks

Enter the money lenders or, more accurately, loan sharks. These gentlemen offer the farmers the loans they need to survive when a crop fails, a family member gets sick, or they need to buy more fertilizer or seeds. They regularly charge between 40% and 60% interest. When the farmers cannot make payments these men often become aggressive, illegally taking land and property, often stripping the farmers of their means of ever paying off the loans. Most of these village farmers are not educated enough to know their rights or understand the nature of the interest they are paying. The loan sharks threaten and harass them. They verbally and (I believe) physically abuse the women of the family.

Ultimately some combination of the harassment and loss of hope and dignity cause these men to give up and either drink pesticide, jump in front of trains or burn themselves alive. Their families are left behind with the debts and without a primary breadwinner. It is not uncommon for the older male children who must then take on these burdens to themselves commit suicide.

When I asked whether the men worried about the children that they left behind, I was told that the common response was, “god will take care of them”.

India: Learning About Children

Note: I am entering these lengthy posts unedited so as to assure that I produce them and don’t get caught up in an unending cycle of edits. Please read them with this in mind and I promise to apologize only this once.

Despite spending as much time as I have around my nephews and niece and the various Burner children that are flickering to light like tiny candle flames all across Austin, I still don’t seem to have as much of a grasp of how to interact with them as I did when I was a teenaged babysitter. Most of my discomfort comes with having to be a disciplinarian, or trying to understand the expectations of the adults watching me interact. Learning to not only deal with children, but love them, was one of the many transformative elements of this experience for me.

The Lens

Everything that’s been said about the safety of looking through a camera lens is true. A nice little filter, it serves both to make the image I am viewing more abstract, as well as take my focus from the subject being viewed and turn it towards how that subject is being framed or lit. Never was this distance more striking than in Punjab where I was looking through that filter at people fresh from extreme personal tragedy. After the first few interviews I forced myself to look up regularly and take a moment to soak in the reality of the situation, to feel the tears and the averted eyes. I was still new to the environment itself and had very little time to process my surroundings let alone the people standing before me.

The first few days of interviews were quick and intense. We captured the essence of the stories and then jumped quickly to the next location and began again. It was physically and emotionally challenging but, again, the camera helped give me some distance. Then came the first day of workshops.

Workshops

We brought 14 children from 6 different families who had lost a father to suicide to the estate where we had set up camp. The day was filled with new experiences for them. They played on swings and a slide, most for the first time in their lives. I had to stop the camera and show them how to use the teeter-totter before their butts turned blue from the alternating “wham! wham!” of the seats hitting the ground. I showed them how to use their legs like springs through a combination of miming and handwaving, much to their delight.

Of course the camera itself was a fascinating new experience, and they wanted to look through it and play with it. It was hard to convince them that I wasn’t there to be played with too, especially being a gorrah (white person) and having a strange little braid (ghuttini) coming out of the top of my head. I managed to keep them at bay for the most part, and they resorted to performing for the camera until I turned away enough that they gave up and became themselves.

That evening, after a long day, we were waiting for a driver to pick up the remaining kids. The sun had long departed and my camera was put away leaving me defenseless. We started having Jasbir and Gursev sing songs they knew and somehow, inexplicably, they managed to turn it into an excuse to teach me Punjabi. I’m not even sure how it happened, but suddenly I was surrounded by little kids sitting on my lap, wrapped around my shoulders, and peering at my notebook as I wrote out each number they taught me.

Kai, Jesbir, Jagtar, Gurpreet

Ironically the group included two of the very boys, Gurpreet and Jagtar, I had thought would be the hardest to deal with. Outside they ignored adults and frequently ran off to find new ways to injure themselves. Now they were both intensely focused and very sincere as they repeated each number for me and gently corrected my pronunciation, nodding and grinning as I got it right. In that moment, due to some combination of feeling their physical affection, uninhibited trust, and sincerity, something inside me snapped and I saw them in an entirely new way.

Each time I went to see the families the familiarity and trust grew. The kids would shout, “Meester Kai!” until at last I responded with a sharp look or two, finally breaking out in a crazy gesture or wild dance move that brought waves of laughter. I would then return to what I was doing as though nothing had happened and they would eagerly try again.

On the bus ride into Delhi the bus, despite bouncing harshly over endless ruts and potholes and careening from left to right at the most inopportune moments, became an irresistible dance space. With Punjabi Bhungra music blasting from the speakers and the bus’s red, green and blue interior lights ablaze, the kids took turns spinning and bouncing in the aisles and, inevitably, dragging me from my seat to join them. Over time little Jagtar (the youngest boy) began singing quietly with me and the older Jagtar and his brother Gurpreet started cuddling up next to me as the night grew late and the bouncing bus lulled them into sleep.

Kai and Gurpreet

When we reached our final destination, the golden temple in Amritsar, Gurpreet held my hand whenever I wasn’t holding the camera. This is a kid with no parents but for his 12 year old sister. Through some natural encoding in all of us he found me as a father figure and trusted me. He dragged me to see the giant goldfish. He babbled incoherently about everything around us. He insisted that he was, “the UNDERTAKER!”

There were definitely other kids that I connected with. We taught everyone to sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” in English and Sher insisted that I sit with him until he had it down perfectly. His sister Salma hassled me endlessly and was first to insist that I take the dance floor. Naresh was the oldest and experienced the biggest transformation. He came into his own as a leader for the children, slipping smoothly from comedian and playmate to confident speaker. I feel certain that he will become a powerful voice for and to his community.

Leaving

It was so difficult to leave, and harder to imagine that I might not see some of these kids again. Worse still, I can’t be there to protect them from what will inevitably confront them as they continue to fight their way through a world for which they are under-prepared and stripped of defenses. I think the confidence they gained from this trip has great potential to get them moving in the right direction to take control of their lives but the abysmal education available to them and the sheer difficulty of getting enough to eat will be hard to overcome. I will be sending support money through a local activist who has been working on these issues for many years. I will also be sending them letters that they may one day be able to read in their english classes, along with recordings of my children’s songs and photos of my life in Austin. I still have no interest in having children of my own, but maybe I just picked up a few more nieces and nephews.