Archive for March, 2011

The Seasonality of Self

Monday, March 7th, 2011

To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.

- George Santayana, Reason and Art

Spring is not yet here.  Try as I might to will that it be so, I have no such powers.  So as I twiddle my thumbs until mid-April finally arrives, I am prone to consider why it is that I get so itchy about the seasons this time of year.

I love experiencing seasons.  Even more so I love the change of seasons.  I love the feeling of anticipation (and even sometimes the frustration) that builds this time of year when I’ve long since quenched my desire for jeans and hooded sweatshirts and I yearn for sandals and sundresses.  I love knowing that something lovely is on the horizon.  Something about the change itself – not just what’s on the other side of that change – excites me.

I’ve long believed (based on nothing but my own certitude) that as human beings we have some emotional need for seasons; that there’s something in our biorhythms that demands the cyclical nature of our seasons.  Some amateur internet sleuthing on this topic quickly disappointed me.  Our seasons have nothing to do with anything but the tilt of the earth’s access.  And we don’t technically need them for any emotional purpose.  People who evolved in cultures located at the equator have no innate knowledge of seasons and don’t “need” winter, spring, or fall any more than I “need” the 365 days of sunshine per year that they have.

Apparently it’s all in my head.

Comedian Daniel Tosh understands this.  He does a bit in his stand-up routine (which you can catch occasionally on Comedy Central) that pokes fun at people like me.  To paraphrase:

Why wouldn’t anyone want to live in LA?  I don’t get those people who say, “Oh, I could never live in LA.  I just need seasons too much.  I could never live in a place that didn’t have seasons.”  Well, to them I say, “I love seasons too.  That’s why I live in a place that skips all the crappy ones.”

That line about needing seasons?  I’ve said it a few hundred times in my life.  And I know many people who share my sentiments.  There is a chance that my “I need seasons” hang-up is just my way of justifying why I continue to live in a place where winter is cold and crappy, and summer is hot and humid.  But I’ve known more than a few people who moved to milder climates and hated it because they could no longer experience the changing seasons.

So what is it then about our human nature that causes us to crave these changes?  If it isn’t biological must it be learned?

Harvard and UCLA psychiatrist John Sharp’s book The Emotional Calendar delves into this question.  And while I haven’t read the book in full, the synopsis of it that I have read nevertheless intrigues me.  Sharp asserts that numerous factors – seasons being chief among them -  influence our “emotional calendars.”  He also points out that when our emotions don’t correspond with the traditional feelings associated with a season we experience an unpleasant dissonance.  But they are the emotional markers – personal experiences that are forever tied to a time of year – that are the greatest influencers of our relationship to any particular season.

For me, though, the seasons themselves still hold meaning.  Something about the smell of a hyacinth blossom or the crunch of fallen leaves under my feet keeps me tuned into the passage of time.  I like that each month feels different than the one that precedes or follows it.  I like the feelings of anticipation at the start of a season, and the feelings of relief at the end.

Sometimes research backs me up and sometimes it doesn’t.  But, as my sister is fond of pointing out, some things don’t have to be fact in order to be true.

Photo of the Week #5

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

Cinderella Ate My Daughter (and she’s coming for yours…)

Friday, March 4th, 2011

Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter* reads a little bit like a post-feminist woman’s anthem: We are facilitating the indoctrination of our young girls to the detriment of our entire culture.  Yadda, yadda, yadda.  That said, I’ve never heard our national anthem performed at the start of an event and thought, “Is this really necessary?  Can’t we just skip this part?”  The answer is obviously No.  We can’t skip this part.  We go over it and over it and over it because it is important; too important to ignore.

I plunged into this book from a place of unsure footing.  Was I reading it as a former girl?  Was I reading it as the possibly-future mother of a girl?  (Right now I have one son, although we plan to have more kids.)  Or was I just reading it as a curious adult who likes to keep her finger on the pulse of our culture?  I didn’t know.  But by the end of the book I realized, it really didn’t matter.  The cultural tidal wave presented in Cinderella ultimately affects us all – whether parents, teachers, hiring managers, or anyone else.  If you know a woman or girl under the age of 25, you have come face to face with Princess culture whether you realized it or not.

To grossly over summarize the premise of the book, it is about how American adults (with the power of the purse) have allowed a marketing bonanza to preordain for their daughters how they play.  And permitting that preordination of play weaves a complex web of side effects that can, if left unchecked, trap our girls (and eventually our young women) into the worst possible versions of themselves.

Synergy! That business school buzzword bounced around my brain as I read Orenstein’s book.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  It is not any one aspect of Princess culture that will become our young girls’ undoing.  It is the aggregate effect that scares me.

Each of these things accounts for just a drop in the bucket.  But take a look at the bucket and you’ll realize how significant each drop is.  The onslaught of pink clothes and toys since 2000 at some level tells girls that they must love pink in order to be a girl.  The generic princess fairy tale tells them that they must be beautiful and well mannered and patient and helpless (and that all there is to wait for in life is a man to rescue you).  The pint-sized pageant set sends most parents running scared (while smugly congratulating ourselves that our girls don’t participate in such warped worlds).  Yet what exactly is the pageant circuit if not merely an exaggerated version of the princess culture that most girls live and breathe day in and day out.  Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez teach girls to whore out their virginity as badge of honor.  And online social networking sites further entrench the idea that the self is not something carefully cultivated from within, but rather a brand to be marketed to people she may or may not actually know in real life.

It starts with a plastic tiara.  But it ends someplace much more sinister.

This isn’t to say that if I have girls I won’t let a Sleeping Beauty costume cross the threshold of my home.  As I said, no single component of the Princess culture can take down an adolescent girl alone.  This means that I don’t have to be the princess police.  But it also means that I do have to take care in deciding what to permit and what to deny.  I will have to talk with my daughters about the culture they participate in.  I will have to know them well, understand to what extent they are internalizing their entertainment, and rein things in when necessary.  Orenstein herself confesses multiple moments of confusion and misstep.  I don’t expect to be any different.  Like many things, my own awareness will be an important first line of defense.

This whole world is still an arm’s length away from me.  But even if my family turns out to be all boys, I’ll still be glad I’ve read this book.  I might have come to this conclusion on my own, but one line toward the end of the book made the point obvious to me.  In the ninth chapter about the influence of the online world (which was probably the freakiest chapter in the book) Orenstein tells the story of a friend who found on her 14-year-old son’s computer topless photos of one of his classmates.  The parent commented, “We’re trying to teach our son that women are not playthings. … How are we supposed to do that if a girl sends him something like this?”

And that, my friends, is why this matters to everyone.

As I reviewed all of my margin notes after finishing the book a passage in the chapter on pageants caught my attention.  Orenstein tells the story of a young pageant heavyweight (figuratively, not literally, of course) whose home life is complicated by a severely handicapped brother.  She explains that the pageant world perhaps gives this girl a time and place in which she can pretend that her life is as perfect as it looks.  Orenstein continues:

And isn’t that, at its core, what the princess fantasy is about for all of us?  “Princess” is how we tell little girls that they are special, precious.  “Princess” is how we express our aspirations, hopes, and dreams for them.  “Princess” is the wish that we could protect them from pain, that they would never know sorrow, that they will live happily ever after ensconced in lace and innocence.

Written like that I might sign up for a powder pink ball gown myself.  But that’s not the end of it, is it?  Because even within the confines of a Disney movie there’s more to the story, isn’t there?  The great irony here is that the description above doesn’t even reflect the fairy tale.  Their lives are not so rosy as this.  These princesses are not valued for any of their abilities or intelligence.  They are frequently embattled against evil queens, step-sisters, or other enemies.  They are usually trapped in some way until a man can rescue them.  They are given two choices for vocation – life as a maid or life on a pedestal.  And they are condemned to an eternity of wearing a dress in which you cannot reasonably sit down.

On its surface Princess may seem like the innocent, utopian vision of what we want for our girls.  But when you look under all the tulle you see that it’s probably the last kind of life you’d want for your daughter.

Orenstein casts a bright light on something that has become so commonplace most of us didn’t realize it was worth discussing.  I’m glad she called us out on our oblivion.

*Disclosure – complimentary copy provided by publisher Harper Collins.

Just Because It’s Legal Doesn’t Mean It’s Right

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Maybe this makes me a bad person, but I don’t believe in moral absolutes.  I don’t believe that any one action is right in every situation.  I believe that we are complex beings and that the maze of conundrums we face during the course of a life requires a palette awash in shades of grey.  Black and white is kid stuff.

Matters of life and death are about the stickiest wickets we can hope to pass through, and every such matter is mired in the nuance of discrete circumstance.  Is it wrong to kill?  Is it wrong to kill if your own life or that of another person is in danger?  Is it wrong to kill if you are a soldier fighting for your country and a cause you believe is right?  Is it wrong to kill if you disagree with someone?

It’s that last question that has me fretting lately.

Surely the answer is yes, right?  It should be wrong to kill merely over a difference of opinion; even if that opinion is strongly held.  Yet when I read about the proposed legislation in South Dakota and Nebraska that would legalize the murder of abortionists on the grounds of “justifiable homicide” all I see is: It’s okay to kill someone if you disagree with them about abortion.

I don’t mean to start a debate over abortion.  I really, really don’t.  I have my opinions about a woman’s right to choose, and you have yours.  For the purposes of this post I will assume that your position is well-thought-out and private.  I hope you will grant me the same courtesy, because abortion itself is not what this post is about.  This post is about moral inconsistencies and vicious cycles.

The pro-life platform is rooted in the belief that all life is sacred.  I get that.  What I don’t get, then, is how anyone who believes that all life is sacred can explain the decision to murder someone else simply because they believe differently.  Is that person’s life no longer sacred because their belief conflicts with yours?

The proposed South Dakota bill (which has since been shelved) only protected the pregnant woman, her husband, her parents, or her children in acts of “justifiable homicide.”  The Nebraska bill reaches further and protects all third parties.  The significance of that discrepancy is huge.  As explained by Melissa Grant of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, “In short, this bill authorizes and protects vigilantes, and that’s something that’s unprecedented in our society.”

State senator Mark Christensen proposed the Nebraska bill and, according to the article (linked above), “For his part, [he] insisted that his measure is not intended to target abortion providers. … [He] claimed that his bill is merely meant to allow pregnant women to defend their unborn children without fear of prosecution.”

This is where Christensen really loses me.  I have never – ever – heard of any abortion provider wanting or trying to terminate a pregnancy against a woman’s will.  When I was pregnant with IEP I had no concern that I might go about my day and inadvertently walk into some altercation with an abortionist and be forced to terminate unless I killed him.  It just doesn’t happen.  Perhaps some women – women who aren’t equipped to care for a baby, or whose babies have been diagnosed with severe illness or deformity – are encouraged to terminate.  Perhaps some of these women are unduly influenced by an overbearing clinician.  But I have never heard of any woman have to “defend her unborn child” against the malicious advances of an abortion doctor.*

Further still, what if one “justifiable homicide” begets another?  In a hypothetical scenario let’s say you have a pregnant woman pursuing abortion, an abortion doctor, and an angry boyfriend who doesn’t want the pregnancy to be terminated.  On the pro-life grounds that all life is sacred, the boyfriend can legally kill the doctor for endangering the life of the fetus.  Can the doctor’s wife then legally kill the boyfriend for endangering her husband’s life?  Can the boyfriend’s mother then kill the doctor’s wife for endangering her son’s life?  How many homicides are “justifiable”?  Where does it stop?

Finally (and I am not a lawyer but I’ll lean on common sense for this one), how can a state authorize murder over an act that has been legalized by the United States Supreme Court?  It flies in the face of federal case law.  If Nebraska wanted to say, “It is justifiable homicide to kill any black student who enrolls in a white school,” it would go straight through the appellate court system and all the way to nine esteemed justices who would take one look at it and declare it illegal.  How is this any different?**

The legal maneuverings of this issue are certainly interesting.  But to me they pale in comparison to the moral ones.  For all my wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth on this topic I just don’t understand how Life A is sacred, but Life B is not.  I don’t understand how murder (and the legalization thereof) actually solves any problem.  It doesn’t even address the issue.

So I will hope.  I will hope that the Nebraska legislation is abandoned as the South Dakota legislation has been.  If it is not abandoned I will hope that it does not pass.  And if it passes I will hope that no one actually has to be murdered in order for the constitutionality of this law to be challenged in court, and (again, hopefully) overturned.

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*The only situation I can imagine where this kind of scenario might play out is one where the expectant mother is mentally handicapped in some way, is not equipped to make the decision herself, and is forced by some legal guardian to terminate.  I’m sure something along these lines has happened at some point.  I’m also sure that in this case – as in any other – murdering the doctor isn’t the answer.

**If we want to get technical about things, the difference here is that the nine particular justices on the Supreme Court bench today might see it differently from their Roe v. Wade-era counterparts.  The integrated school example was an easy one because there’s no chance that Brown v. Board will ever be struck down.  It made my point cleanly, but with a bit of oversimplification.