Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Ask Me No Questions

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

There are plenty of reasons I often wish I were British.  The accent is certainly foremost among them.  The ability to travel throughout Europe without having to pose as Canadian is a close second.  But working its way up the rankings is a trait that I’d long been aware of, but only recently really come to appreciate: tact.

I’m currently about halfway through The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (yes, I realize I’m a bit late to this party) and as I’ve read it, I’ve been struck by the tact and restraint of the characters.  The book is filled with people getting to know each other in post-WWII Guernsey and, as you would expect immediately following a war, their lives are mired in fresh and painful memories.  One must not run roughshod amongst the thoughts and experiences of the recently occupied.  And so, as they tiptoe into new friendships they are admirably respectful of each other’s boundaries.

Making my way through the pages I’ve thought back on previous British novels I’ve read and realized that this courtesy seems to hold true.  The earlier reads that sprang to mind were also of a WWII era, so I’m unsure if this trait is a function of the time or the culture, but either way I find it refreshing.

As Americans we tend to believe that everything is best discussed in full.  We tend to believe that our curiosities should always be explored.  We tend to believe that any question is within our rights to pose.  The British play it closer to the vest.  Of course, at times they are mocked for this – for lack of emotion, for lack of intimacy, for lack of candor.  But I suspect that just as most Americans are not as brash as our international reputation would purport, neither are most Brits as repressed.  So, assuming that the reality of it is more moderate than the stereotype, I’m inspired.

I was inspired by the character who admonished her lifelong best friend for asking straight out whether she were in love with a suitor.  In her admonition the same character recalled posing a series of more benign (but still telling) questions when said friend was being courted by her future husband.  She wants to know what is in the tattered box carried everywhere by a little orphan girl, but confesses to a friend, “But I couldn’t possibly ask.”  She wonders about the stoic nature of her strong, silent male friend.  But she dares not ask a string of probing questions to further her understanding of him.  She lets him come around in his own time.

Americans would never be so reserved or so patient.  We are a cut-to-the-chase people.  I suppose this has its benefits as well.  Perhaps we are quicker to confess our own needs in times of crisis.  Or perhaps our relationships are more easily deepened when we are fully transparent to other people.  I can’t know for certain.

What I can do is take this admiration to heart and emulate it in my own life.  I cannot speak with a British accent.  I cannot sign my e-mails “Cheers.”  I cannot drink a cup of hot tea and actually like it.  But I can meter my own curiosities instead of satisfying them.  I can respect people’s privacy and boundaries.  I can let my relationships evolve over time, rather than rushing to kindred spirithood on first meetings.  I can shepherd my inner Brit in a way that is ultimately far more meaningful than accents or salutations or national beverages.

And with that, I will try.

An Especially Tricky Topic

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Once again, this is the week of touchy topics here at TDT.  For my earlier disclaimer on the matter, click here.

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There’s a great bit in an Eddie Izzard standup routine.*  I’m paraphrasing here, but he says, “The National Rifle Association says that, ‘Guns don’t kill people – people do.’  But I think the gun helps.  I think just standing there going, ‘BANG’ isn’t going to kill too many people.”  And if we’re going to grossly oversimplify things, it’s a pretty good summary of how I feel about gun control.

That said, I understand that if we’re going to address the issue in any kind of a meaningful way we can’t afford to oversimplify things.  This is not a simple problem.  But it is a huge problem.  It is a huge problem that is mired in all sorts of political and emotional complications.  This makes it an especially tricky topic to broach even in the most civilized of forums.  Unfornately, these days our national conversations are typically broached in the forum of cable news, which is anything but civilized.  (That’s a topic for another day.)  I will try, though, to broach it here in a way that is fair and decent.

If we want to take it all the way back to the beginning we look at the Second Ammendment.  There are two primary ways to read it.  The first is that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed.  Period.  As you no doubt inferred from my opening paragraph, that is not my interpretation.  My interpretation is that the Second Ammendment was first ratified in 1791, eight years after our young nation successfully defended itself against the British.  It was the era of minutemen.  We had to be able to defend ourselves against foreign governments and arming civilians with muskets was a critical component of doing so.  We also had to ensure that citizens could protect themselves against their own government, should it desire to attack them.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that that is no longer true.  If a foreign government wanted to attack the United States today, or if the United States government wished to attack its own people neither one would do it on foot with or with rifles.  It would involve bombs, tanks, and predator drones.  And no civilian would stand a chance, armed or not.  I will concede that a “well regulated militia” is still “necesary to the security of a free state.”  But we have one.  It’s called the United States National Guard.

While purists will quarantine their arguments to the interpretation of the written law (which is a fair stance), I am willing to admit that it’s not necessarily a realistic approach these days.  American citizens have had the right to own guns for centuries, and like it or not gun ownership is a big part of large swaths of American culture.  It’s also a big part of the American economy, grossing roughly $6 billion annually.  Even if everyone admitted that our adherence to the Second Ammendment has been misguided all these years, forcing our country to go cold turkey on guns would be a bad decision with all sorts of unintended consequences (most significantly, a huge black market for guns).  This doesn’t mean, however, that today’s permissive gun and ammunition laws aren’t due for revision.

Call me crazy, but I believe that people should be able to go to the movies without the risk of an ambush.  I believe that children should be able to go to school without walking through metal detectors.  I believe that students and professors should be able to walk freely around a college campus without being mowed down by gunfire.

I get that guns are big part of life for many people.  Hunting is a very popular pastime.  Handguns provide a sense of security for people who live in rough neighborhoods.  Many responsible adults go to shooting ranges to blow off steam in a safe and controlled environment.  And by and large, these people are not the problem.  I understand that it seems unfair to penalize the sweeping majority of gun owners just because some people are erratic and dangerous.  But I also think that it’s unfair for movie-goers, school children, and college students to risk death just because some people believe that their right to guns trumps other people’s right to life. No person’s hobby is more important than another person’s life.

So where do we go from here?

I believe there has to be some sort of reform.  (Even Bill Kristol believes there should be some sort of reform.)  The data bears it out that a strong correlation exists between stricter gun laws and lower gun deaths.  And as information has become available about James Holmes and his actions leading up to last week’s attack I’ve been shocked and saddened to learn that not only were most (if not all) of his gun, gear, and ammunition purchases legal, they didn’t even raise any red flags.  This man was able to outfit himself to the extent that the SWAT team nearly took him for one of their own without any part of our gun control system taking notice.  That shouldn’t be the case.  I won’t sit here and suggest that I know what the right regulations are.  I am not knowledgable about what is an acceptable number of guns or bullets for a single individual to have at any given time.  (Is “none” too constraining a suggestion?)  But I know for certain that semi-automatic assault rifles (such as the one used in Aurora last week, and those affected by the now-expired 1994 Assault Weapons Ban) exist for one reason alone: killing large numbers of people in short periods of time.  And there is no reason that any civilian person should have access to that kind of weaponry.

The popular refrain among gun advocates is that if more people have guns, fewer people will use them.  That if someone else in the Aurora movie theatre had been carrying a gun, fewer people would have been killed.  For starters, no one with a pistol in her purse was going to outshoot a man with chemical bombs and assault rifles.  Further, as a friend of mine aptly put it, crossfire doesn’t improve anything.  More shooting is just more shooting.  No one comes out ahead there.  So then what’s the point?  Well, the argument is based on creating a culture of fear.  Its proponents assert not that it’s the gun that reduces violence; it is the fear of someone else’s gun.  ”I won’t shoot at you because you might be able to shoot back.”  It’s a position I can’t begin to understand.  The idea that we are all safer because everyone is carrying deadly weapons is unfathomable to me.

Another popular response to the call for stricter gun laws is that murderers aren’t likely to follow them in the first place.  In that vein, a Facebook friend of mine (who is also a gun rights advocate) posted a digital postcard this week that read, “Gun laws would prevent shooting sprees?  Please tell me more about how criminals follow laws.”  And while I take his point to a certain extent, it’s not the inner city gang bangers I’m expecting will be reined in by gun laws (though if they were, it would be terrific).  It’s the James Holmeses, the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds, and the Seung Hui-Chos.  It’s the people who are disenfranchised and disturbed and looking for some outlet for their pain.  It’s the people who act out in fits of massive violence because they can and because it’s easy whom I want to prevent; people who, without access to 6,000 rounds of internet-purchased ammunition, would have would have done something far less tragic with their destructive energy.  The data tell us that mental illness is negatively correlated to gun deaths, which is encouraging, but even if the people mentioned here are outliers, they’ve still managed to kill dozens of people.

With that in mind, the other thing I think we should do is learn about James Holmes.  Some people will say, ”It’s done.  Why does it matter why he did it?”  To those people I say, because he has problems.  And he’s certainly not the only person with these kinds of problems.  So let’s try to understand what drove him to do this and find ways to identify and help people like him before they go on a rampage..  Let’s try to understand what the warning signals were (aside from, you know, the detailed description of the attack that he mailed to a psychiatrist more than a week before he actually carried it out, but which wasn’t opened until nearly a week after the damage was done…)  Let’s try to understand how to help people with problems like this so that we can prevent future killing sprees.  So often in situations like this the shooter is killed – either by himself or law enforcement – at the end of the raid.  I see the fact that James Holmes is still alive as an incredible opportunity.

The saddest part of all of this is that for all the conversation about gun laws, chances are slim that things will change.  Research shows that support for gun control is withering away in this country.  It’s a fact that’s hard for me to digest.  I want to know who the people are who believe that the lives of the victims in Aurora were appropriate prices to pay.  Or what about the victims of the recent homicides in Tulsa (in April and July of this year)?  Were their lives less valuable than the right to bear arms?  I don’t think so, but our decreasing support of gun control measures indicates that many Americans do.

This is the longest post I’ve ever published here.  If you’ve read this far, thank you.  You may or may not agree with me.  If you do agree with me, I’m glad.  If you don’t agree with me, I hope I’ve presented my position in a way that you found worthwhile, and that you’ll consider my point of view.  I don’t believe that this one blog post will change anything.  But I do believe that it is my part of the national conversation, and to keep quiet on the issue would be a waste.  I hope you’ll continue this conversation both here in comments, and in the offline world with people on both sides of the issue.  It’s far too important a matter to let slip by just because it’s hard to talk about.

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*Actually, there are lots of great bits in that particular Eddie Izzard standup routine.  It’s from his 1999 show “Dress to Kill” and it’s probably my all-time favorite standup routine.

When $60 Million Isn’t Enough

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

I’m treading into touchy territory this week.  For my disclaimer on this little foray, please see yesterday’s short post.

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I don’t suppose there are many occasions in life when $60 million doesn’t seem like enough.  But upon reading the list of NCAA sanctions imposed on Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky’s conviction and the findings of the Freeh Report, that’s exactly how I felt.

Unfortunately, though, no amount of money can right these wrongs.  Nothing can unrape those boys.  So absent the ability to change the past, incredible focus is being paid to what punishments will be handed down to Penn State in the future.  People went sort of berserk yesterday at what most media outlets, FB posters, and Tweeters seemed to think was quite a stiff penalty.  But I just don’t see it.

Amidst all the discussion of the imposed sanctions the vacating of losses during the Sandusky era seemed to draw the most attention.  Per the NCAA’s official tally, Joe Paterno is no longer the winningest coach in the history of college football.  And I can’t help but respond with the question, ”So what?”  In a conversation on this very topic a friend of mine said something along the lines of, “You have to admit, being stripped of that title… it’s pretty symbolic.”  And I said, “You’re absolutely right.  It’s symbolic.  It doesn’t actually mean anything.”  Paterno isn’t even still alive to suffer whatever humiliation might have come from having his record stripped away.  So why bother?  Why not focus the sanctions on something that will make a difference moving forward?

With that in mind, I also bristled at the four-year bowl game ban and scholarship reductions.  Bill O’Brien and whichever Nittany Lions don’t head for the hills* will now pay the price for the hideous acts of Sandusky and the inexcusable complicity of Paterno and others.  Ineligibility for bowl games doesn’t even come close to being as damaging as what Sandusky’s victims endured.  Not only is it a trivial punishment when compared with the crime, but it is inflicted on people who weren’t even implicated.

As for the fine, $60 million is one year’s worth of football program revenue for Penn State.**  One year.  That’s all.  It seems like a drop in the bucket, doesn’t it?  I am thankful that the NCAA mandated that the $60 million must be spent on child sex abuse and awareness programs.  But given that, why stop at $60 million?  Why not $100 million?  Why not $300 million?  Why not mandate that all profits from the football program must be funneled into advocacy programs for sex abuse victims for the next 20 years?

As I socialized my objections to a few people yesterday, someone actually confronted me with a reasonable answer.  That answer was that it’s not the NCAA’s job to inflict the punitive measures for the entire scandal.  That is the job of our legal system and under the jurisdiction of our judicial branch Penn State University will like have millions more in civil damages to pay out to the victims.  The NCAA’s job, on the other hand, is to correct a culture where football was so revered that many people opted to knowingly allow multiple boys to be raped over a period of 10+ years rather than to risk so much as a blemish on the spotless sheen of the Penn State football program.  One way to do that is to knock the program down off its pedestal and force the State College devotees to square themselves to a losing team for the next several years.

I can respect that the NCAA isn’t on the hook for administering the full legal ramifications of this crime.  But in light of the severity and duration of Sandusky’s actions; and in light of the casualness with which most Penn State supporters treated the allegationsbefore they were proven in court (fiscal 2011-2012 was PSU’s second highest fund raising year ever), I feel confident that it’s going to take a lot more than a four-year bowl game ban to convince many members of the Penn State community that it was the very thing that their love and idolatry built up into legend that laid the groundwork for this sex abuse scandal to become so widely known and yet still unreported.

Stripping a dead man of wins?  So what.  It’s a hollow gesture at best.

Curtailing scholarships and access to bowl games for four years?  Sandusky raped and abused boys for at least 14 years.

A five year probationary period?  Given the number of people in the Penn State administration who knew about it the probationary period should last for as long as any one of them is still employed by the university.

A $60 million fine?  A drop in the bucket.

People are saying that this collection of penalties somehow adds up to a fate worse than the death penalty for the Penn State football program, but I don’t follow that logic.  Football with limitations is still football.  And knocking the program down a peg or two isn’t the same as knocking it out altogether.  Let me be clear.  Winning football games will never be more important than protecting the health and safety of children. And I’m not sure that the Penn State community fully understands that yet.  That isn’t to say I think everyone at PSU is as deluded as those who were involved in the scandal.  But if even one person thinks that this punishment outweighs the crime, then that’s proof enough for me that the lesson hasn’t yet been learned.

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*Permission to transfer for all entering or returning football players was one of the sanctions.

**Well, it was one year’s worth.  I wonder if the program’s revenues will decline in the face of what is almost certain to be a losing team for several years into the future.

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

For a woman who spends a not-insignificant amount of time online, I sometimes worry that the internet is bad for me.

I e-mail.  I use Facebook.  I write two blogs and post to each one multiple times per week.  I read news online.  I shop online.  I watch videos online.  And as I think now about all the time I spend in front of a screen, it kind of makes me want to go be a park ranger.  …  I kid, sort of.

I’ve done a fair amount of pondering about the merits and perils of online social media on this blog.*  And I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but… I really think we don’t yet fully understand the effect that our online lives are having on our offline lives.  I fear that we’re backing ourselves into psychosocial corners that we don’t know how to get out of.  My solution to this problem is twofold.  1)  I have become more proactive about scheduling face time to maintain the relationships I most value and to guard against whatever negative impact may be born by the presence of online social media in my life.  And 2) I read.  I read the opinions of people who study this stuff – people who know more about it than I do and can provide me some perspective on the issue (scientifically substantiated, where possible).

It was with that strategy in mind that  I picked up the May issue of The Atlantic at the gym on Tuesday night and read it’s cover article entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”

The article was long and investigated several interesting aspects of who uses Facebook, our motivations in doing so, and how some types of Facebooking (scanning without interacting) are correlated to increased loneliness, whereas other types (using it to interact and facilitate in-person contact) are correlated to decreased loneliness.  But there was one component of the article that really spoke to me: the matter of the projected identity.

If you only know someone on Facebook you only know a carefully crafted persona.  You see the Hawaiian vacation pictures, the darling children, the pithy e-cards, the girls nights out, and so on.  Even if a person laments a bad day or vents about a frustrating situation, it is still something they are choosing for you to see.  But by and large, most of what we see on Facebook is positive.  (If it were a giant online gripe-fest I doubt it would have grown to 845 million users.)  It is a way for us to share the things we want to share.  This, in turn, means that it is also a way for us to hide those things that we don’t want to share.

So all of a sudden keeping up with the Joneses just got a lot harder.  Pre-Facebook the Joneses had to maintain a particular image in all corners of their lives – during chance encounters at the grocery store, after a long afternoons of yard work, at work, at play, at church, and so on.  Now the Joneses you’re worried about keeping up with are not just the Joneses around your neighborhood, but also the Joneses from high school, college, and your old job – all the Joneses you’ve ever met.  And you won’t ever bump into them at the gas station with no makeup on.  You’ll only see what they want you to see.  And what most people want you to see is a pretty picture.

So why have 845 million of us joined Facebook?  The Atlantic article offered these thoughts on the matter:

Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.

But the price of this smooth sociability is a constant compulsion to assert one’s own happiness, one’s own fulfillment. Not only must we contend with the social bounty of others; we must foster the appearance of our own social bounty. Being happy all the time, pretending to be happy, actually attempting to be happy—it’s exhausting.

Constantly comparing ourselves to others’ idyllic portraits is usually a losing battle.  (We know what our own underbellies look like.)  Those people who use Facebook merely to scan and not to interact apparently often walk away feeling disconnected and bad about themselves, which doesn’t surprise me at all.  It’s like looking at your friends and seeing 200+ prom queens.  (We don’t necessarily know what their underbellies look like.)  The Atlantic puts it this way, “It’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear.”  Not only do we have to contend with the happy visions of our friends’ lives, but we must also decide what aspects of our own lives to put forth.  Will I post the a picture of the basket of unfolded laundry?  Probably not.  My kids at Disney World?  Much more likely.

But if you are a person who doesn’t have darling kids who say darling things; or if you haven’t been on a vacation in years; or if you didn’t have a fantastic evening of margaritas with your best buddies last night; you might feel lonely anyway.  Then trying to figure out what to put into your own projected identity may just make you feel even worse.

The answer to all of this?  I don’t have a silver bullet.  But I do have a little comment.  Actually, I have lots of little comments.  The research suggests that people whose wall posts are “liked” experience less loneliness than those whose are not.  People whose wall posts are commented on experience less loneliness than those whose are merely “liked.”  So what can I do?  I can comment.  I can reach out into the digital abyss and actually connect.

“It looks like her swimming lessons have really paid off!”

“I’ve been thinking of you lately.”

“Have a great trip!”

“Congrats on your new baby.  He’s just perfect and I can’t wait to meet him.”

Little comments that might, if I’m lucky, add up to something for someone else.

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*Prior posts about technology and social media include: Do Not Disturb, Darwin and the Airplane, An Army of Gadgets, Robotic Relationships, Apple TV: Friend or Foe?Mass Mailing, and Facebook Friend: An Oxymoron?.

Shorthand

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

You can set your watch by it.  If my sister and I are together and we aren’t having a good time she will look at me and say, “This place is a tomb.  I’m going to the nut shop where it’s fun.”

It’s from “You’ve Got Mail, ” and if you recognize that line then you might have watched it as many times as we have.  It’s one of many movie lines that comprise a sort of shorthand that we’ve been using for years.  And as the internet blossomed yesterday with touching responses to the news of Nora Ephron’s death, my response was different from most of what I read.

It’s worth noting, of course, that there were several lovely descriptions of the many ways in which her contributions to modern culture were important, particularly for women.  Lisa Belkin of The Huffington Post published two pieces about Ephron, (here and here), both of which I really appreciated.  Just as many people wrote, she truly did validate the female experience in ways that no other filmmaker before her had.  But her impact on my life was  more personal.

It was sometime around my senior year of high school that my sister and I became really close.  We’d gotten along just fine throughout most of our childhood, not counting a few rough patches during the middle school years.  But after we emerged from seventh, eighth, and ninth grades without killing each other, it took us a little while to settle into the groove of best-friendship that would carry us through college and into early adulthood.  That settling-in process, however, was in reality not nearly as charming as Nora Ephron might have imagined it.  Thankfully for us we were able to lean on her (and a few other screenwriters) as we stumbled our way through.

I suppose it is not surprising that our transition from childhood sisters into adult friends would be forged at the movies.  We share the same sense of humor.  And we each have an uncanny memory for shared pop culture touchstones.  When more meaningful topics of conversation didn’t interest us, quoting pithy movie lines back and forth to each other communicated something deeper without having to state it explicitly.  It said, “We have this thing in common.  It was a shared experience and it mattered to me.  And this relationship with you?  It matters to me too.  I’m glad that you’re my sister, but I’m also glad that you’re my friend.”  I realize that’s a lot to extrapolate out of one college girl saying to another, “Don’t you just love New York in the fall?”  But somewhere between the lines, that’s exactly what it meant.

No one can ask Nora Ephron now what her career meant to her.  I know that she cared a great deal about forging new paths and upending the status quo.  I admire her for that.  But I most appreciate her for writing movies that my sister and I wanted to watch over and over until we’d committed them to memory.  I appreciate her for giving us a shorthand; a quirky way to tell each other that the relationship between us is like no other in our lives.

The American Question

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

I mentioned in Tuesday’s post that I’m reading Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, and that I’m really enjoying it.  It is the part-memoir/part-parenting book written in response to her experience raising small children in Paris.  She is a charming writer and even when I disagree with her position her humor and wit still make it a fun read.  That said, in spite of being a quick and easy book it’s given me a lot to think about.

Amidst Druckerman’s evaluations of how we feed, socialize, and care for our children I’ve been prompted to consider and question some of the key tenets of both French and American cultures.  There is a line in the 1995 remake of the movie Sabrina in which a glamorous Julia Ormand explains to a stuffy Harrison Ford that French culture is all about pleasure.  And she’s right.  When it comes to savoring life I’m not sure anyone does it better than the French.  (Although the Italians might give them a run for their money.)  America, on the other hand, is all about achievement, and Druckerman crystallizes that stance when she quotes a Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.

Druckerman researches various parenting philosophies as she tries to pin down exactly which discrete components add up to “French parenting.”  In her investigation of French parenting she tells how Piaget came to the States in the 1960s to share his theories on child development.  As he explains the various developmental stages through which all children must go apparently nearly all American parents ask some version of what he calls “The American Question” because it was asked ad nauseum by American parents.  That question was, “How can we speed up our child’s progression through these steps?”

Druckerman writes,

The American Question sums up an essential difference between French and American parents.  We American assign ourselves the job of pushing, stimulating, and carrying our kids from one developmental stage to the next.  The better we are at parenting, we think, the faster our kids will develop.  …

French parents just don’t seem so anxious for their kids to get head starts.  They don’t push them to read, swim, or do math ahead of schedule.  They aren’t trying to prod them into becoming prodigies.  I don’t get the feeling that – surreptitiously or otherwise – we’re all in a race for some unnamed prize.

This isn’t to say that the French are a bunch of louts.  Sure they can only claim 64 Nobel laureates to America’s 331.  But when you normalize those tallies by population (roughly 65 million for France and 313 million for the U.S.) each country has earned about one Nobel prize per million people.  And this doesn’t even begin to count the contribution of French art, music, literature, and food to the modern international cultural landscape.  No, they didn’t invent the cotton gin or the iPad, but  they seem to have discovered that more factors into a worthwhile life than mere commercial success.

I must admit, there’s something about the French approach to child rearing that really appeals to me.  Perhaps it’s just that Americans’ “concerted cultivation” can be exhausting (it can), but I also wonder if, at some level, the French way isn’t just a better way to raise kids.  When you get right down to it, most of us don’t grow up to be Condoleezza Rice or Bill Gates.  Most of us grow up to lead lives that are invaluable to ourselves and those in our immediate circles, but which would be considered unremarkable when evaluated at a global level.  Given that, would we not be better off learning from the very beginning how to live life in a way that maximizes enjoyment, rather than accomplishment?

Nevertheless, despite all of my misgivings about middle-class American parenting practices, I am American and I abide by many of them.  I still want my kids to hit their milestones at least on time, if not early.  And I want to see signs of their talents and intelligence even as they are tiny little youngsters.  But before my American-ness gets the better of me I make a point to remember an interview I heard with Malcolm Gladwell on NPR a couple of years ago.  He commented that when you meet someone as an adult, no one cares at what age they learned to talk or to read or memorized their multiplication tables.  Once we reach adulthood it matters that we can do these things, but not when we first learned.  So if that’s the case, what’s the rush?

Nothing To Be Proud Of

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

I was proud of myself.  And then I was ashamed of myself for being proud of myself.  You see, the very thing of which I was so proud was something over which I had no control – a complete coincidence, to be sure.  No one deserves to be proud of themselves for something they didn’t do on purpose – like being tall, or not needing glasses.

Why was I proud?  I had just dropped off a couple hundred ounces of frozen breast milk packed in dry ice at a UPS distribution center for overnight delivery to a milk bank in Indiana.

Why was I ashamed?  Because given the circumstances donating the milk was the only decent thing to do.  It wasn’t heroic.  It was the very least I could do.  Anything else would have been borderline despicable.  So being proud of myself for donating it felt awfully self-serving.

What are the circumstances I refer to?  Well, the fact that I had a few hundred ounces of frozen breast milk to give in the first place.  For reasons that are unknown to me and completely out of my control, I produce a lot of milk.  (I joke that I’m part Holstein.)  It was this way when IEP was a baby, and now with SSP we’re right back there.  I make more milk than any one baby needs and it piles up in our freezer.  When this happens I have two choices – let it go to waste, or ship it off to a milk bank for babies who need it.  Seriously, there’s only one right answer here.

As I got to thinking about this I was reminded of a passage in the book I’m currently reading, Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman.  It’s a charming and insightful book; one that I’m quite glad my mother pushed on me.  Amidst the author’s commentary about all that American parents do wrong she does call out the French for quite shamelessly ignoring the benefits of breast milk.  As a culture they turn, almost unilaterally, to formula.  It was one of the few parenting decisions she made that ran counter to her fellow Parisians.  However, in her discussion of this topic she also calls out American mothers for turning nursing into a competition.  She writes:

After the baby is born, the first obvious difference between French and American moms is breastfeeding.  For us Anglophone mothers, the length of time that we breast-feed – like the size of a Wall Street bonus – is a measure of performance.  One former businesswoman in my Anglophone playgroup regularly sidles up to me and asks, faux innocently, “Oh, are you still nursing?”

It’s faux because we all know that our breastfeeding “number” is a concrete way to compete with one another.  A mother’s score is reduced if she mixes in formula, relies too heavily on a breast-milk pump, or actually breast-feeds for too long (at which point she starts to seem like a crazed hippie.)

In middle-class circles in the United States, many mothers treat infant formula as practically a form of child abuse. The fact that breast-feeding requires endurance, inconvenience, and in some cases physical suffering only increases its status.

It is a passage that stuck with me.  Reading it made me realize afresh how absolutely ridiculous it is to associate any amount of status with nursing.  Yes, I’m all for promoting the health benefits to both the mother and baby.  I’m all for eliminating any negative stigmas attached to nursing.  And I would certainly advocate for anyone who has the ability to nurse her baby for at least six months (and up to a year if possible) to do so.  Nevertheless, many of the circumstances that add up to that kind of success are often out of our control.  A woman’s milk supply can be affected by her diet, level of hydration, and how frequently she nurses or pumps.  But by and large it’s a part of her biology that was determined long ago and in which she had no hand.  The second major factor in successful nursing is the ability to nurse regularly.  Granted pumping greatly increases the freedom and flexibility that a nursing mother has.  Nevertheless, many working women have jobs that don’t afford them the opportunity to stop working for 20 to 30 minutes every three hours so they can pump.

Some women do deserve to be proud for going the distance with nursing.  Women who struggle with supply and pump between feedings just to produce enough milk for the baby to thrive.  Women who battle thrush, and mastitis, and clogged ducts.  Women whose jobs are not at all conducive to pumping and who finagle a way to make it work in spite of crappy logistics.  These women should be proud of what they’ve accomplished if they manage to nurse their babies for longer periods of time because they’ve overcome some major obstacles to do so.  (Which isn’t at all to say that they should be ashamed if they switch to formula instead of doing battle with their breasts each day.  These are highly personal decisions.)

As for me, I am lucky.  I have a good milk supply and a desk job with an office door that locks.  Given this stacked deck nearly any woman could easily nurse her baby to a year.  But the fact remains that not all women are dealt this hand.  And every time we judge or condemn a woman who weans her baby earlier than that we undermine the community and fellowship that all mothers should share.

For a woman in my position, donating the milk was the only decent thing to do.  Being proud of it would be like being proud that my kids are up to date on their shots; or being proud that I gave a seat on a bus to a 95-year-old woman.  When it’s the only reasonable option it’s nothing to be proud of.

Do Not Disturb

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

When I was a kid we didn’t answer the phone during supper.  It was a pretty strict rule that was only broken if an important call was expected.  Supper was a special time set aside for talking and spending time together without interruption.  As I think about that now I am struck with a big sense of nostalgia.  Can you imagine that a phone call to your landline was the only opportunity for supper to be interrupted?  That, for sure, is a bygone era.

Today our cell phones – on our persons almost all the time – buzz at us constantly.  And phone calls are the least of the distractions.  We are also notified of incoming e-mails, meeting reminders, text messages, Facebook updates, and Scrabble turns.  Sometimes it seems there’s no end to the electronic shoulder tapping we face each day.  And, not surprisingly, we’ve come to expect, want, and even need such constant input from our gadgets.  You would think that the cell phone companies would be laughing all the way to the bank – and for the most part I think they are – but earlier this week there was a tiny shift in that paradigm.  For the first time ever, a cell phone company conceded that less interaction with our mobile devices might be in order.

Amidst all of the buzz about the new MacBook Pro at its Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, Apple announced a new feature to the iPhone: the Do Not Disturb setting.  Basically it allows all of the incoming data to be registered by your phone, but doesn’t announce their arrival to you.  So as you sit there at dinner, or in a movie theatre, or working a jigsaw puzzle on the floor with your kids your phone sits silently as though no one were trying to reach you at all.  Only when you pick the thing up and activate its touch screen will you see the calls, texts, and e-mails that you’ve missed.

As I’ve thought about this feature over the past couple of days a few themes have stuck in my mind.  For starters, I’m mightily impressed with Apple for being forthright about the role that cell phones play and for admitting that there is a point at which they detract rather than add value to our lives.  But I’ve also had some mixed emotions about it.

When you get right down to it, our cell phones have always had a Do Not Disturb setting: the power switch.  We’ve always had the opportunity to set boundaries for ourselves.  We’ve just never done a very good job of it.  And as our phones have evolved to become digital proxies for everything that happens in our lives our reluctance to separate ourselves from them has only grown.

Mobile phones aren’t the only electronic distraction rendering us largely devoid of self-control either.  The internet itself, while incalculably valuable in today’s world, is probably the most utilized time suck in the history of man.  I’m pretty confident that more hours have been wasted online than with any other single medium.  This theory is further solidified by the popularity of the internet-blocking compeer application called “Freedom.”  According to its website, “Freedom is the world-famous app that locks you away from the ‘net so you can be productive.  If the internet is distracting you from your work, Freedom might be the best 10 dollars you’ll ever spend.”

Apparently we are weak, weak, weak in the face of technology; so much so that we require new software programs and features to help us meter its presence in our lives.  We can’t just turn the phone off while we eat dinner, or close the web browser when we need to do actual work.  We can’t trust ourselves to exercise any kind of restraint and so we have turned to digital handcuffs to keep our focus where we want it to be.  And I’m not sure how that sits with me.

Is it better to admit our weaknesses and work around them?  Or should we be able to conquer them without artificial legs up?

I suppose I’m inclined to believe that admitting a weakness and taking steps to work around it is superior to denying that the battle exists and continuing to lose it.  Nevertheless, I think it’s worth exploring why we, as a culture, have come to rely so heavily on constant input, feedback, and stimulus from the digital world.  The reasons, of course, are myriad.  (We are expected to respond to work e-mail at all hours just because it can reach us at all hours.  We have come to rely on texting for short snippets of conversation.  We crave the affirmation afforded by likes and comments on Facebook status updates.)  But just because we can explain something doesn’t mean we can justify it.

In a perfect world perhaps we would be better able to exercise restraint in the face of temptation.  But as it is I guess I’m just glad we have the tools to take temptation off the table altogether.

Darwin and the Airplane

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

When she sat down she immediately pulled out her book.  She was relieved to see that the guy sitting next to her did the same.  She intended to fly to New Orleans quite happily without having to chit chat all the way there.  As it turned out, she married the guy about three years later.

The “she” I refer to?  One of my best friends from undergrad.  And yes, she married a guy she met on a flight.  Five years and two kids later, they are happy as can be.  Had they both kept their noses in their books as intended that likely wouldn’t be the case.

I got to thinking about my friend when I read this article about how Baltic Airlines intends to allow passengers to board planes according to their moods.  Worker bee travelers can tap away at their laptops in concert.  Those looking for networking opportunities can join up as well.  And those wanting to keep to themselves can select a “relax” option.  At first blush this strikes me as a genius idea.  We’ve all been stuck next to a Chatty Cathy when all we wanted was some peace and quiet.  I’ve also been in the inverse situation where after long and sometimes lonely business trips I’m looking for a conversation, only to get major nonverbal cues from my seatmates that they are not.  Nevertheless, there’s a part of me that bristles at this idea of mood-based seat assignments.

It seems that via social media and other electronic conveniences we are increasingly able to control what exposure we have to people around us.  We can use Facebook to “check in” at various locations and events, enabling us to find people we already know in the same place.  We can hunker down into our smartphones, iPads, and Kindles while waiting for restaurant tables.  We can chat on the phone while riding in taxis.  And now we can have some say in how we are seated on airplanes to ensure that we either are or aren’t disturbed, according to our mood.

It’s not that I mean to be a total grinch / luddite / hater.  I believe that all of these conveniences have real value.  But I also think there is real value in facing the unexpected.  For starters, the real world brings unexpected things our way all the time.  How are we to learn to deal with them if we never have to?  We read in parenting magazines and blogs that we have to allow our children the opportunity to fight and fail and resolve conflict because our interventions will ultimately prove counterproductive.  I can’t help but wonder if the same isn’t true at some level for adults.

Not every unexpected encounter is one for the history books.  Plenty of them come and go without lasting in our memories.  But I think that the more we minimize or narrowly select our human interactions the worse we become at interacting.  And then a cycle starts:  The worse we are the less we want to do it.  The less we do it the worse we get.  And so on.  And that is why I believe there is value in chatting up the bartender while you wait for your date.  There is value in smiling and nodding while a person tells a story that doesn’t particularly interest you.  There is value in sitting next to a person on an airline with whom you have nothing in common.  Relating to people is the only way we learn how to relate to people.  (How’s that for meta logic?)  I fear that this Darwinian selection process of only linking up within our existing cohorts will ultimately make us socially weaker.  We will never have to flex new and different interpersonal muscles.

The traveler who wants to work or network or sit silently may get more out of a flight by electing to sit next to someone just like him.  But  with that he loses the opportunity to find that he has something in common with a person who, on the surface, seems foreign to him.  The soccer mom and the tattoo artist who both have kids leaving for college.  The sales guy and the computer programmer who just finished the same book.  He also lose the opportunity to meet someone who is truly different.  The musician going out on tour.  The person who writes mobile phone apps.  The person who used to work for the Fed and now drives a cab.

When you get down to it, I suppose this is a post about being open minded.  Finding like-minded people quickly and easily via the vast electronic capabilities available to us today is an incredible thing.  The world can be an isolating place and I think it is often made better by the ability to seek out compadres we might otherwise not have found.  But I think we have to be careful not to let the pendulum of our interactions with the world swing too far in the other direction.  We can’t allow ourselves to only find like-minded people or we’ll lose the ability to relate to anyone who isn’t already a kindred spirit.

Back to my friend who met her husband on a plane.  The irony of it is that they both intended to avoid each other and ended up finding a connection in spite of themselves.  Sometimes life throws people at us and we must interact no matter how much we don’t want to.  Nevertheless, I think we have to beware the pitfalls of keeping our circles small.  There’s a whole world out there that is filled with people we might not want to miss.

Who’s the Better Boss?

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

IEP and Nanny on her wedding day

I’m here to follow up.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Manhattan’s niche industry of super high end nannies and mused about why some people will pay astronomical prices for childcare.  I was responding to an article in The New York Times Magazine that discussed this topic and has since gotten quite a bit of national attention.

Take, for example, this article from Slate’s Double X section in which experienced nanny L. Wood discusses why she would rather work for a rich family (specifically a rich mother) than a working one.*  Wood comments that the obvious issue of compensation certainly factors in.  But, rather, she believes it is the way that wealthy mothers manage their relationships with nannies and babysitters that makes them preferable employers.  Specifically, they don’t have relationships with their nannies – according to Wood, that is.

Perhaps I come to this topic defensively.  Except for the fact that we did go through a well-reputed referral agency (rather than Craigslist or similar) to hire our nanny  I am everything she described in a working mother.  We went through a series of awkward interviews.  We ultimately made a decision based on a gut feel.  When our nanny was new to us and we were new to parenting I’m sure that I micromanaged her more than was warranted.  And – at the heart of Wood’s position – we have a personal relationship with our nanny.  It seems we’re everything she’d hate.

So now that I’ve gotten my disclosures out of the way let me ask this: what’s so wrong with all of that?  When it comes to babysitters I can see her point.  They are there to keep your kids fed, amused, out of trouble, and put to bed for an evening here and there.  They are paid hourly and if they are reasonably experienced there is no need to go through lengthy pre- or post-game rituals with them.  But a nanny is different.  This person is caring for your children on a daily basis for long periods of time.  (I know of a family who had the same nanny for 12 years!)  Nannies are working (and sometimes living) in your house for the majority of your children’s waking hours.  What I don’t understand is why anyone wouldn’t want such an employment arrangement to come with some degree of personal relationship.

Wood argues that, “Wealthy moms know how to manage their help because they have experience hiring, managing, and firing people in their homes.”  She believes that this level of comfort with household employees makes them better employers because it affords them some degree of detachment from their nannies.  While I would agree that someone well-versed in managing a household staff is better equipped to be a good boss, I wholly disagree that the detachment that supposedly results is any kind of asset.

Any study that analyzes people’s job satisfaction tells us that one of the biggest indicators in whether or not people like their jobs is the relationships they have at work.  This usually outranks even the work itself in measures of job satisfaction.  In a professional environment the friendships and camaraderie that are built amongst coworkers are highly valued.  Yet Wood seems to believe that such relationships come as a detriment.

Taking this a step further, a nanny’s job is to help raise your kids for a portion of their lives.  Certainly she should do so in accordance with the parents’ rules, values, and priorities.  But she’s still shepherding them through life on a daily basis.  In the same way that two parents need to communicate about their children extensively, so should a mother** and her nanny.  Raising a child is a huge job and a collaboration.  If a nanny is part of that collaboration in your family then shouldn’t there be more to a mother’s return home at the end of the day than, “You’re dismissed”?

I don’t pretend that our nanny comes to our house every day out of the goodness of her heart.  She comes because it is her job and because we pay her.  Nevertheless every morning when I leave for work thank her.  And every evening when she leaves our house we thank her.  Perhaps this isn’t the way things are for most working adults.  Come to think of it, I don’t think my current boss has ever thanked me for anything.  But maybe that should be the way things are for more of us.  How much happier might we all be if our employers told us on a regular basis how much they appreciate what we do?

In my last post on this topic I mentioned that IEP was Nanny’s ring bearer when she got married last month.  I couldn’t have imagined it any other way.  And I’m pretty sure neither could she.  And I know for certain that we’re both very grateful for that.

*For the purposes of this blog post I will overlook the incredibly erroneous assumption that no working mothers are affluent, and that all stay-at-home mothers are.  Clearly she’s never heard of Sheryl Sandberg.  Nor has she, apparently, ever met a family that made financial sacrifices in order for one parent to stay home.

**I don’t mean to exclude fathers here.  But Wood limits her argument to mothers, so for the sake of practicality so am I.