The Tardy Times

Columns and Comment
    1. The apple tree of life.
    2. Rename schools as prisons.
    3. Boys can learn from girls.

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The organic tree
   Mother Nature's in charge

By Margo Freistadt

IN LATE SUMMER, we harvest several hundred pounds of Macintosh apples from the tree in our San Francisco backyard. We call them, and the applesauce we make from them, "organic." But this year's Slow Food Festival and the current discussions about food sustainability make me wonder if "neglected" or even "feral" might be better terms.
    We do nothing more active than admire the tree between the explosive blossoming in March and the day in August when we climb the branches and strip the tree. "Organic" suggests fruit that gets a bit more attention. Though this tree is woven into the story of our family, its fruit sometimes seems a byproduct.
    Fifteen years ago, we planted the tree, a sapling about 4 feet tall. My husband had just come home from the hospital, still very weak, after recuperating from a heart attack. We were worried about how long he would live and how his recovery might constrict our lives. We chose 'Macintosh,' his favorite apple. We planted the tree in the middle of our minuscule backyard with a tremulous prayer that he would recover, maybe gaining sustenance from the earth and sunshine.
    Fifteen years later, the husband is still fairly robust. The tree has taken over the yard, casting its shadow on the second floor and making me replant the whole garden with shade-tolerant plants. But, as we sing in synagogue, "It's the tree of life for those who hold fast to it." It's not as sacred as that, but our tree marks the seasons, starting with the eruption of leaves on the bare branches in late winter and the apple blossom fragrance that drifts through our bedroom window at night.
The growth is amazing
    We watch for the tiny little rock-hard green beginnings of apples that appear at the base of the blossoms as the petals wither and drop to the patio. Through the summer, there's astonishing growth. Week by week, you can't believe the size and abundance of the fruit, eventually making the branches bend and sag. It's like looking at your kids and saying, "How did you get so big so fast?"
    As harvest day approaches, more and more fruit drops to the patio, getting bruised and drawing fruit flies. We hesitate, trying to delay the sadness that marks the end of summer. Eventually we choose a day. When the kids were little, they loved climbing the tree and passing down the full baskets. For the older kids, it's more of a chore, but my teenage daughter still loves going up as high as she can, edging her way outward on creaking branches as I stand below repeating my mantra: "It's just an apple - not worth getting hurt for."
    Then we have hours of sorting and polishing apples that are good enough for eating and more hours of chopping up the non-eating apples - the ones with bruises, worms or teeth marks - culling the usable flesh. And then there's a day of boiling all those bits of fruit, filling the house with the sweet aroma of cooking apples. The Cuisinart works overtime, pureeing gallons of applesauce that we label "Organic Applesauce - from the Ludstadt Farms of Bernal Heights." And that's where I got stuck this year. How can we call it "organic" when we don't put any effort into it?
Laissez worms
    Organic farmers, like my husband's cousin, who ekes out a living in northern Minnesota, are hardworking, conscious beings, focusing their expertise on their produce, weeding and spreading natural fertilizer. Instead of spraying pesticides, they practice integrated pest control. Pest control? We just let the worms eat their fill, and we take the rest. I compost our food scraps and feed the black gold to the garden, but the layout of the patio, which pretty much encircles the trunk of the tree, makes it impossible to directly feed compost to the tree.
    We admire the tree year-round, not only through the blossoming and fruiting cycle but also as the leaves yellow and then go brown, drift to the ground, and eventually find their way to the compost pile. The bare branches allow the winter sun to reach our windows. And usually some weekend in the winter, though truthfully it doesn't happen every winter, I go up the tree and prune a bit - inexpertly, but with good intentions.
And that's the crux of my unease with the "organic" label. Organic agriculture, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is based on "management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony." Not only are we ignorant of restoring, maintaining or enhancing anything, but we don't even practice management.
    We carry on anyway. We've found over the years that we can't keep the apples fresh and crisp for long after the harvest. I would like to store them for months in the cool of the basement, and make that 'Macintosh' crispness last well into the winter. But we've found that the apples go soft pretty quickly. We had similar bad luck with the refrigerator, where our apples shriveled. We realized it would make more sense to just give them away while they're at their best.
    So in the late summer and early fall we appear at the doors of our neighbors and friends with the fruit of our one-tree orchard. And we offer up our "organic" apples and applesauce - the fruit, not of our labors, but of our tree, the edible part of this year's chapter in our family story.

Margo Freistadt is co-owner, with Lynn and Kenny Ludlow, of the Ludstadt Farms of Bernal Heights.
                        San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 20, 2008

Raising the Bars
Complete sentences: Turning students into prison inmates

By Margo Freistadt

A SIMPLE SOLUTION would avert the budget disaster facing California's schools: We should declare every public school a prison.
    Details need to be worked out, but I want every child in California to be given a 13-year prison sentence at age 5, with the possibility of a four-year extension.
    That way, the $7,000 the state spends per student each year could immediately be raised to $27,000 -- what the state spends on each inmate annually. And our criminally under-funded schools would qualify for the only category in the governor's proposed budget that's slated to get more money this year.
    Gov. Gray Davis is asking for a 1 percent budget increase for the California Department of Corrections. Meanwhile, our schools are flinching at threats of abusive slashes in state support.
    Given the alternative of layoffs, more crowded classrooms, fewer teachers' aides and disappearing supplies, school officials should jump for joy at the chance for their district's schools to be transformed into prisons and their students to become inmates.
    My daughter's middle school in San Francisco would be renamed Herbert Hoover Juvenile Correctional Institution. Her brother's elementary school could be Buena Vista Juvenile Redirective Ranch. The university from which my sister just graduated would become the California Honor Farm at Davis.
    The benefits are many.
    Elementary schools in San Francisco haven't been staffed with school nurses for many years. Recent court cases, however, have set minimal levels for acceptable health care for prisoners. If schools suddenly became prisons, students would be entitled to the same health-care standards.
Prison nurses would step in and school secretaries, administrators and teachers' aides could get back to educating -- instead of tending to the endless parade of students needing Band-Aids, ice packs, lice checks and help with their asthma inhalers.
    Labor relations and staff morale would improve. Math, science and English teachers could sign on as members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents prison guards. The union, which has given $3 million to Davis campaigns since 1998, has the clout to keep salaries growing and benefits flowing.
    The prison guards union's Web site used to brag that its members earned higher salaries than teachers in California. That boast, wisely, has disappeared from the site. Nonetheless, if our schools became prisons and our teachers were covered by the same union contracts as prison guards, educators would get the immediate raises they deserve.
    Prison guards deserve every penny they get. It's a tough and stressful line of work, often unappreciated by the inmates and their families. Sound like a teacher's job?
    From Lakeshore Elementary Jail to Lowell State Penitentiary, wardens and their little inmates should move quickly to get formal status under the California Department of Corrections. Otherwise, county hospitals and nursing homes might beat them to it.
     San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 19, 2003

Girls Can Teach Boys Some Valuable Lessons

By Margo Freistadt

THE SPATE of hand-wringing about how our schools and our society are failing boys includes a recent Newsweek cover story on "The Boy Crisis." The main article quoted an expert: "Boys are being treated like defective girls.
    "To which I can only say, "Amen! They are!"
    I say that as a woman who grew up in an America where girls were treated like defective boys. And we were.
    I was what was called back then a tomboy. That meant I was a girl who was defective at being a defective boy. I climbed trees. I wore pants. I played basketball with the boys at recess. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was a wide receiver in the NFL or a doctor.
    Teachers, principals, neighbors, any grown-up who had a voice told me I was not a real girl. Real girls were happy being defective boys, and didn't challenge the assumption that girls were not strong enough, fast enough or smart enough to be like boys.    
    My father told anyone who would listen that I was going to be a doctor, not a nurse. People just shook their heads, probably thinking: "Her father's crazy, too."
    Thirty years later, in the mid-'90s, I was looking for an elementary school for my daughter. I was trying to find a schoolyard where the girls played in the middle of the yard, like the boys. At every school I visited, the boys' games of football, basketball, kickball or soccer took up about 90 percent of the yard at recess. Girls congregated (not to say huddled) around the edges of the yard, or under the protective cover of the play structure.
    I often saw one or two athletic girls -- no longer called tomboys (small victory!) -- participating in the boys' games. But the space and power paradigm was not much changed from my elementary-school days.
Thirty years later, it still bugged me. One of my first volunteer activities in the elementary school was coaching the kindergartners at basketball. And one of my first speeches at the PTA was about the need to get the girls out into the middle of the yard, playing ball, learning to assert themselves with their bodies.
    Part of this for me is about equity. But it's also about my belief that girls whose bodies are physically competent and strong are less likely to fall into the teenage girl trap of believing that their bodies serve a mainly decorative function, good only for attracting teenage boys, and that they are beautiful only if they mirror the latest anorexia trend in the fashion magazines.
    So I spent quite a bit of time trying to coax the elementary-school girls out into the middle of the yard. They would get out there if they were pushed, and if the boys could be persuaded to let up a bit on physical intensity -- and the teasing. Even though in the past 30 years the number of girls on sports teams has grown dramatically in the United States, it hasn't really translated into the yard at recess.
    After a while, it became clear that most girls preferred to sit on the benches around the side of the yard and talk. I started to see that both the girls and the boys got what they needed from recess. The boys, most of whom have a physical energy that is repressed during the hours they sit still in class, would burst through the school doors, shouting and sprinting into the yard. And many of the girls, who aren't allowed to chat with their friends during the hours of class, would head right for the areas where they could exchange the latest news.
    Around the same time, I was becoming acutely aware that our family and community lives depend largely on women dialing the phones, arranging the appointments, figuring out who can do the carpool or attend the meetings, making sure the sick relatives get care. Our whole society would fall apart if women stopped working the wwww -- the women's world-wide web.
     It occurred to me that perhaps I was wrong in disrespecting the girls' recess-long networking sessions. I was still in the "girls are defective boys" mind-frame of my own childhood.
    Maybe the current concerns about boys' success should focus on what skills boys have traditionally not learned. Girls on the sidelines are developing networking skills and group dynamics -- figuring out how the group functions, who plays what role in the group, and of course, in the less idealized version, who can be excluded from the group. The only boys I can think of who spend a lot of time chatting with the girls are considered a bit odd, even teased for it.
    For those worrying about the current "boy crisis," maybe promoting networking and group-dynamic skills for boys might be as useful as my campaign for girls to get strong and be comfortable in their bodies. If boys are required to be like girls, they are going to be defective girls unless they are schooled in communication. It's the mirror image of 30 years ago, when boys' traits were valued.
    It's no coincidence that girls have become more successful in the classroom during the same period that athletic girls have evolved into a respected part of the mix, not misfits called tomboys.
     And for average girls, there are thousands of soccer teams, softball teams, basketball teams, places they can get comfortable with the physical strength of their bodies, places that just didn't exist for girls 30 years ago.     Perhaps when the boys who are master networkers are also a respected part of the mix, the average boy will be more comfortable with the social part of his nature. Maybe he'll be comfortable picking up the phone to ask his friends for help with his homework, or even asking for advice on a social problem.
    What we adults need to do is to respect, teach and reinforce both aspects of our kids' natures -- the physical and the social -- starting with the skills they learn and use at recess.
        San Francisco Chronicle, April 22, 2006

N.BMargo Freistadt, now happily self-employed in an occupation she calls "handyhuman," left the Chronicle in 2006 after almost 20 years as a copy editor on the news, sports and features desks. She had worked as an editor and reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Examiner, San Luis Obispo Tribune, Turlock Daily Journal (sports) and City Sports Magazine. She is a graduate of Oberlin College.
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