Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cocktails and Hypocrisy

I'm hosting the inaugural Cocktail Club meeting tonight, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like; I'm taking a stab at creating an intentionally social group and using the hapless cocktail as an excuse. I came up with the idea because a bunch of people I really like get together on a regular basis to play a game I tried once and just couldn't see the point of, and I was jealous of the camaraderie, so decided to try a similar group in which Catan remains unsettled. I have no illusions about the chances of this actually working out - it might not - but I figure I'll set up the infrastructure and see what happens.

Since my goal is to create a small community, the Cocktail Club membership roster is carefully considered; I want folks to have the opportunity to meet new people, actually get to know them over time, and eventually become friends. Since that's the goal, I tried to keep the total number low. I included only people I really enjoy spending time with, and not even all of those. I left off people with whose partners I happen to not be friends, and I invited only a few people from each of my several social circles. It didn't really work, of course; I ended up with about fifteen people on the list, but I figure that not everyone will be able to come every time, so we should be okay.

I'm not looking for ways to exclude people, but it's impossible to be close friends with an infinite number of people, at least for me. My brain is only so big and my capacity for socializing in groups is fairly small. The worldwide Cuban dance community is huge, and I realized long ago that meeting someone once at an event is not sufficient for friendship, even the Facebook version. Even locally, I've released myself from the expectation that I'll get to know everyone. We have new people coming up through classes all the time, and even though I'm paid to help teach one class a week, it's not enough to even learn all their names, much less add everyone to my personal social life.

Also, my house is the opposite of a Tardis house. It looks big from the outside, but you get inside and it's really tiny. Occasionally I do love to cram thirty people in here for standing-room-only drinks, usually before we go out dancing, but that's not what I'm looking for with this project. Five people can comfortably sit in my living room on the couches and upholstered chairs, and with four kitchen chairs and the antique sewing machine bench, my house accommodates exactly ten people for grown-up sitting around.

I was driving to a meeting today (one of the social circles from which only half of the people are invited) and I found myself thinking about how I hope that the folks who are coming have the good sense to not tell other people about it. (Unbelievably, that happens; this summer I had a get-together and the first guests were two people I hadn't invited - one of whom had specifically not invited, and he brought some other guy I had barely even met. They were early, and then they ate all the snacks.)

And then I realized that I'm a hypocrite. I'm trying to get Twelve to be the kind of person who excludes no one, but at the same time I steadfastly defend my right to be friends with only the people I actually want to be friends with.

My past and current selves are in conflict. My past self, the scared seventh grade self, would like for everyone to be included in everything, always, because she remembers how hard it was to be excluded. She wants her daughter to go out there and be friends with everyone; to rescue all the poor lonely seventh graders so they won't feel so bad.

My current self, the comfortable-with-herself self, recognizes that this is impossible, because personalities and houses can hold only so many people and because not everyone likes everyone else. She enjoys the fact that she is now in a position to choose her friends from a relatively wide range of prospects. She wants it to be okay that she has fairly high expectations of people who might become her friends; she wants to devote her emotional energy to people who are interesting and engaging and who capably reciprocate. She realizes that her daughter should be free to spend her time and emotional energy in pursuit of relationships that she values and cherishes.

(As long as she continues to choose to pursue relationships with young women and men of the highest caliber, that is.)

My current academically inclined feminist self also recognizes that cultural norms of womanhood involve the giving of oneself to others, and identifies this as a big fucking problem. Women are supposed to provide emotional work for others in every possible way; we learn to be so in tune with others' emotional needs that we don't know how to tend to our own. We give and we give and we give (particularly to men and to children) until there's nothing left. Sometimes we're lucky enough to have other women in our lives to take care of us, but still, maybe it would be better if we focused first on meeting our own needs and then looked around for ways to help others.

Listen to your flight attendant: If cabin pressure is lost, secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

Ladies: We cannot be everything to everyone. 

Okay, Twelve, I'm going to continue to expect you to be cordial and gracious with the general public and with the sixty other seventh graders in your class, but I hereby release you from being everything to everyone. You do not have to retroactively rescue your hapless mother by befriending every awkward member of your class. Again, be polite to all and sundry, but first be your confident, capable self. Perhaps you can lead by example. Would I have been less hamstrung by social ineptitude if I had had a confident, cordial role model? Okay, probably not. But in retrospect I'm not sure there *were* any confident, cordial people in my junior high, or high school for that matter.

Would I have been less picked on if my seemingly confident classmates were truly secure in themselves and less concerned with battling to the top of the heap by scrambling over others? I think so. Such a person wouldn't even have had to be my friend, but I think it would have helped to see someone my age being comfortable enough with herself that she didn't need to pick on others.

Perhaps the best I can do for the imagined reflections of myself in Twelve's sphere of influence is to encourage Twelve to be her best and most secure self.

When they all go to Washington, DC, four kids and one chaperone stay in each hotel suite; each child makes a list of her or his top five or six roommate choices, and then the teachers figure it out. I'd previously envisioned Twelve ending up in a room with girls outside of her current circle, girls who are perhaps a bit on the fringe of things at school, girls like I was. I imagined that Twelve would have some sort of epiphany of inclusion and the girl like I used to be would have some sort of transformative experience of becoming one of the gang (I don't know, it was all very vague, what can I say).

Now I'm suggesting to Twelve that she her girlfriends should sort it out amongst themselves ahead of time, so that they all request each other and get to pick their own roommates. After all, when I go to events requiring shared hotel rooms, I am fairly particular about the people with whom I'm willing to room, so I figure Twelve should be extended the same privilege.

But I still feel guilty with my short Cocktail Club list, and I still feel guilty for not trying to get to know everyone who comes through our Wednesday night class. What if I am paying my former self back for years of unpopularity by an inappropriate use of social power? It's hard to tell the difference between maintaining healthy and necessary boundaries based on my ability to function socially and the side dish of satisfaction that comes with being finally in a position to exclude others.

It's much easier to come up with new cocktail recipes. Just pick a fruit juice, an alcohol, and a carbonated beverage that go together, and fiddle with the proportions until it's delicious. Tonight's is the Pear Fizzy: Two parts pear nectar, one part vodka, one part club soda. Shake the pear nectar and vodka with ice, then add the club soda and swirl gently before straining into the fanciest possible glasses. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Friendship [or] Please Don't be That Woman

Tonight on our way home from taking dinner and socialization to some friends who just had a baby, Twelve and I had a great conversation about the social dynamics of her group of friends. It seems that they're starting to compete with each other for attention from the boys, for closeness with the queen bee (who I think is turning out to be her best friend L), and over the relative status of this or that consumer product. I'm really bad at recounting these conversations, but here goes.

She started by telling me about some things L does that are starting to get annoying, though she was a bit unclear about whether these are new behaviors or whether they're just now starting to bug her. L is whiny, she thinks her opinions are the final word, she has to be the best at everything. Apparently today Twelve was talking to the boy she likes about volleyball, and L turned around and started talking about how much better at volleyball she is than Twelve. When Twelve pointed out that her team had at least been league champions, L responded that, well, her team had been in a much harder league.

While it is in fact accurate to say that L is a better volleyball player than Twelve and that they had played at different levels, it seems that it is typical of L to highlight her belongings, her skills, her experiences, and so on, even at the expense of Twelve. When Twelve remarks that her legs are sore from the week's riding lesson, L (a highly accomplished rider) teases her about her legs *still* being sore. When Twelve shared that she had cantered by only her third lesson, L dismissively said that she'd been galloping for years. Twelve, at least in the retelling, just wants her best friend to be proud of her - or, at the very least, to not poop on her parade.

"I think she just wants to feel superior to everyone else" concluded Twelve, in a moment of brilliance.

Yes, my dear, that is exactly what's happening. You're right, it is ironic that L, who is so good at everything and owns several of everything else, would be the one who needs to put other people down in order to make herself feel better. It is ridiculous that she would work so hard to insert herself into your conversation with the boy you like. It is absolutely appalling that she can't even congratulate you on learning how to canter.

L just may be on the path to becoming That Woman. You know, the manipulative woman who bosses everyone around and flirts with all the men because she's insecure and not handling it well.

I told Twelve that I know exactly what it feels like to be in her position and that I felt that I could advise her, since adult women do the same damn thing, at least in the realm of competition for male attention. I was searching for the right words to emphasize the importance of what I was about to say when Twelve interjected with crucial. Yes, I said, it's crucial that you refuse to compete with other girls for the attention of the boys.

I think Twelve kind of gets this, because it's something that has come up for me and R a few times. For some reason, women who need more male attention than they're getting are drawn to R. Okay, he's a pretty handsome guy and Those Women usually do it to other men too, but it drives me nuts because it's so damn disrespectful of me when you fawn over my partner and pretend like I'm not STANDING RIGHT HERE. Seriously, Those Women try to connect with R while acting like I don't even exist, and it makes me crazy. It's particularly annoying when they are visibly triumphant when they are able to draw his attention away from me.

I am now extremely careful of my behavior when I first meet the women partners of men I've known for awhile. I make a point of talking to and making eye contact with both of them, orienting my shoulders toward the women instead of the men, avoiding subjects that are specific to whatever context in which I know him instead of her, etc.

Anyway, the following are instructions to Twelve that she will probably never read but will hopefully follow instinctively because of what she's observed in the adults in her life and what I've modeled for her. (And by 'modeled' I mean 'complained a lot within earshot.')

My dearest daughter,

Be a self-contained person. I don't mean you should try to be a totally independent person, but be an interdependent person among other confident people. You should not be dependent on attention and approval from other people to feel okay about yourself. Be okay with who you are without having to manipulate other people to make yourself feel better. Don't derive your sense of self from the extent to which you are able to get other people to do the tasks you don't want to do or the amount of attention you are able to get from someone. 

You mentioned tonight that, while L may be popular, you are able to get people to do things for you, and that they like to do things for you even though you are not necessarily their friend. This scares me, and if you hadn't waited until the end of our conversation to bring it up, we would have talked about it a bit more. We're definitely going to talk about it again another time, so just be prepared.

You say you're hetero now, Twelve, but you also still think sex is gross, so we'll use that as the example in what follows, but with the understanding that you may someday desire women instead of or in addition to men. In twenty years, when you're old enough for such things, of course. 

If you can help it, never compete for male attention, Twelve. It is a sign of weakness and of weak character. If a man is attracted to another woman, that means he is unavailable to you; it does not mean that it is appropriate for you to pursue his attention. It is fine and good to have men friends, but it is imperative to respect their women partners when they have them. No matter how tempting it may be to see your partnered male friends as convenient sources of male attention, don't go there. If you find that you simply must have attention from men, for the love of all that's holy (your Coach bag), get it from available ones. 

If no men seem interested in you at any given moment, be okay with that. Go ahead and keep an eye out for an attractive, funny, and intelligent partner who might be around the next bend, but do not, under any circumstances, ever shove another woman out of the way (metaphorically or physically) in pursuit of one. When you are in a group with more women than men, or when only a small number of the men are attractive, be your confident and beautiful self, but in the perpetual game of single womanhood, be a good sport.

Being a good sport is not that difficult; the Golden Rule applies. Don't do anything to another woman that you wouldn't want done to you. If you're in a social dance community (which you probably won't, given that you're growing up as a child of one), don't go up to a couple who are talking, perhaps even holding hands, and ask the guy to dance. You're interrupting, which is rude enough, and you're leaving her all alone, which is worse. You're also probably doing it at least partly because you feel like you're winning by taking him away from her, which is reprehensible.

If a man is talking to another woman, by all means join the conversation, but gracefully: Listen to what they are both saying and contribute as you like, but do not hijack. In particular, address your remarks to and make eye contact with both of them; never, ever, under any circumstances, attend only to him. Do not interrupt her to say something that will impress him. I know that you are capable of doing this very thing, my dear, and not only because you are currently a practiced interrupter of conversations. You have social skills, special social powers, and you must use them for good instead of evil. One of my biggest fears for you is that you will become a Mean Girl; I have been proud and relieved that you have not so far, and I'd hate for you to become That Woman later on.

Keep in mind that if a guy is attracted to you, you will know it. In the seventh grade, you will know because he will tell his best friend, who will tell your best friend, who will tell you. In adulthood, you will know because he will suddenly decide to attend that same upcoming dance event in Miami as you and casually books the seat next to you on the flight.

If you find yourself in a partnership and That Woman seems to have invaded your life, remain calm. If she gets your partner to run her errands and interrupts you to talk only to him or to ask him to dance in that sickly sweet voice with a triumphant undercurrent, do not panic. Wait to see if the pattern holds, and if it does, discuss it with your partner. He will not have noticed what's going on, so don't take it out on him. Acknowledge that he probably feels just a bit flattered, though he should know that if she's doing it with him, she's doing it with others. It's not about him, you see, it's about the fact that That Woman is insecure and it makes her feel better if she can get more attention than you, even from your own partner.

If yours is a good man, he'll eventually learn to recognize That Woman's manipulative shit and continue to be polite to her but will think to check in with you when she intrudes. Her behavior will soon become a shared joke between you and your partner, and you will magnanimously allow her to 'win' sometimes and learn how to establish boundaries when you need to. You probably don't see this very often because it happens when you're asleep, but R and I have pretty much figured it out: When I come back from a trip to the restroom or the bar and find that That Woman has installed herself at his side the moment I left it, I meet R's eyes, roll mine, he smiles at me, and I go talk to someone else. Later, he makes a point of coming to find me. When I am waiting while R puts on his dancing shoes and That Woman comes up to us and asks me if she can dance with him (yes, that happens from time to time, and it's just as absolutely ridiculous as it sounds, especially since it's clear from her tone of voice that she thinks she's going to get away with it), I reply that we were actually just about to dance together (as was clear from the way that I was STANDING THERE WAITING FOR HIM TO GET READY). Sometimes you must protect yourself from That Woman, but guard against finding too much satisfaction in triumphing over her; instead, find satisfaction in a strengthened relationship with your partner.

If yours is not a good man, heaven forbid, and encourages That Woman in her attentions or refuses to understand that it bothers you, then she's probably done you a favor. Let him have her, and wait for a worthy partner.

Do the right thing, my dear. Be the best self you can possibly manage, and if you can't be perfect, just don't be That Woman.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I Have a Teenager. So There.

Fortunately, our sojourn at DFW on our return from Mexico was only as long as it should have been. After going through immigration, customs, and back through security, we needed another terminal. DFW being laid out such that you very nearly might as well take a cab from one terminal to another, to the SkyLink we went.

(I am pretty sure that the SkyLink drivers assuage the boredom of driving in endless circles by racing each other around the track. Can't say I blame them.)

A group of young women joined us at the next stop. They were probably college students - I think I saw a vaguely collegiate logo - but they seemed younger, in keeping with the standard academics' observation that they keep getting younger every year. They were dressed in that carefully fashionable way that stops just short of hyper trendiness, and they had a familiar look about them and a familiar feeling attitude toward me. Of course, I could be projecting all of this or making it up entirely, but when I am confronted by a group of fashionably dressed 18 to 22-year old women, I experience an acute feeling that's equal parts pity, disdain, and intimidation.

Pity at either my feeble attempts at fashionability or my complete lack of fashion sense. Today, a combination of both; I borrowed Twelve's Toms as effective cross-climate traveling footwear but am wearing them with ankle socks, leggings, and a t-shirt. Not quite a Twelve-sanctioned outfit, but an excellent air travel ensemble, and one in which I feel perfectly fashionable enough except in contrast to a pack of 20-year-olds with their leggings and boots and huge shiny logo bags and their immaturity masked by insolence.

Disdain at my clearly advancing age, as I am obviously no longer eighteen and therefore am no longer a threat. It's a complicated disdain, though, because I am both older than I look (this trip without Twelve, several new acquaintances reacted incredulously to the fact that I have a thirteen-year-old) and a harbinger of things to come. Someday, my dears, you will look like me, so don't look at me like that.

You'll look like me if you're lucky, that is. I often want to take these types of young women by the shoulders, give a firm shake, and tell them to start wearing sunscreen every day, right now. It's your only hope of looking as good as I do when you are 33, I'd tell them warningly, and this is about as good as it gets in the age-defying business. (It's true. I am regularly told that I don't look my age. Either they're right or they're lying, and that conspiracy would be one heck of a waste of time. I've done daily sunscreen for over a decade and am a dedicated proponent of the sun hat. I am ahead of my time in the sun-avoidance game and if I get skin cancer it will be a particularly ridiculous irony.)

Intimidation because I am an adult woman of a certain height and a certain class status and a certain race and a certain bearing, and people react to me a certain way. I read recently that people are quicker to assume that higher-status people are angry, and that helps explain why my students didn't connect with me when I dressed more a bit more fashionably. It's something I tried last year in an attempt to be more relatable, and it had precisely the opposite effect, I now think; they thought I was mad at them when in fact I was simply not smiling every second. The three-inch wedges were probably a particularly big mistake - and I was just thrilled to have jeans long enough to wear with three-inch wedges!

In my lifelong quest to escape my inner scared twelve-year-old's insecurities, it's possible that I've overcompensated. After high school, I realized that an effective way to develop self-confidence is to just pretend you have it, since (I decided) nobody can tell the difference. Somewhere along the way I somehow became actually confident. It helped to realize that nobody cares (which is applicable to an awful lot of circumstances) and that I don't care if they do anyway.

It's that last bit that Twelve and I might never have in common. Well, the first one too, since I'd lay even odds that Twelve maintains the ability to look cute and fashionable long beyond age 33. (Okay, now that I think about it, I've never really looked cute or fashionable in my entire life. When I do now, it's carefully calculated and I usually feel like an imposter. Classic and elegant are safer feeling fashion adjectives for me, and you don't have to buy clothes as often.)

However, I don't detect any scared seventh grade insecurity in Twelve. She seems perfectly comfortable with herself and her social role. She is popular - last time I checked, she and L were the most popular seventh graders - and she admires at least one of the eighth graders but is not too intimidated by her to chat about the other girl's new hot pink Juicy Couture hoodie (*gag*). She has spent enough time with adults that she's annoyed by at least one friend whose behavior is consistently annoying (I'm pretty sure that she never shuts up; I don't know how Twelve can stand it). I think she's got a lot of capacity to be overbearingly confident, and I highly suspect that she's already begun to alienate less-confident peers with her taken-completely-for-granted comfort with and confidence in herself. Even if it takes a hit in the next few years, heaven forbid, I am at least confident that it will eventually return.

Anyway, as R and I jolted our way to Terminal Whichever, enough of the 18 to 20-year-olds chatter drifted toward us that I suddenly turned to him and said I'm not sure if I'm quite ready to get Twelve back tomorrow. It had been a lovely week of tropical vacation, and listening to those girls reminded me of just how much energy it takes to effectively spend time with a thirteen-year-old daughter. You have to be totally focused on her; for one thing, she notices if you aren't paying attention and gives you a hard time about it, and for another, it takes effort to respond in a way that keeps her involved in the conversation.

I had not quite put those pieces together until just then, as I started to prepare for re-entry into the world of emails and meetings and people wanting things from me. I knew I had been feeling stressed out about it, but thought it was just that there were too many threads that I needed to re-gather (yes, I'd been reading Sherlock Holmes on the Kindle during the trip). I realized that there's even more legitimacy to the I Have a Teenager thing than I had previously thought, and it's important to set aside that time and mental space.

So, all of you people who want little pieces of me, you can stick it where the sun does not shine. I Have a Teenager, and that takes time. I'm not available for meetings from three pm to bedtime, most days, and I'm not going to go out of my way to arrange to be gone overnight unless I really want to. The pay is lousy and the hours are inconvenient, but it's what I'm doing now and I'm not going to take any crap about it. 

In Defense of Criticism

One of my jobs right now is to write the first three chapters of my dissertation. I'm basically reading a ton of articles and deciding if and how to cite them, and most of the articles are only peripherally related to my research (which lends credence to my work - yay!). There's a lot of good stuff that I can't really use, such as today's discovery that, in one study, "adolescents consistently received the least positive evaluations, being the targets of the most criticism, the least praise, and the most efforts to change physical appearance" (Striegel-Moore and Kearney-Cooke, 1994, p. 384).


Twelve hates criticism. I don't mean that I constantly criticize her and it bothers her, I mean that she hates any mention of anything that's remotely negative, like not getting an good score on an assignment. She'll even call me out on it ("Gee, mom, that's not very nice"), and I go back and forth between feeling like I'm being too critical and worrying that she's becoming an entitled, snowflaky brat. Thirty-four out of 50 is less than 70 percent, which isn't very good! I wouldn't be doing you any favors by praising you for doing below-average work. And you want me to say something positive about it? Surely you jest.

It's possible that I am too critical. It is what we do in my family, and we're pretty good at it. We often think of it as a negative thing, and it certainly can be. We are quite capable of picking on each other to the point where we lose track of our positive attributes, although for the most part I think we're getting better about it. However, a critical perspective on the world is a very useful skill, assuming that it's used for good instead of for evil and deployed gracefully: It allows you to foresee potential problems, ask tough questions, make good decisions, and is a very useful characteristic to have in a friend (not to toot my own horn, but ... me). 

If you are house-hunting, take me with you. I will ask you if you really want a twelve-square-foot kitchen when you are one of our community's main hosts. (Answer: No. Buy the house with the full-sized kitchen and large backyard that just so happens to have a partially finished attic that would make an excellent sewing room.) 

If you just got dumped, call me. I will recognize very quickly that the guy was a total douche canoe and gently encourage you to stop wasting your time worrying about his bullshit list of non-reasons. He dumped you because he knew from the beginning that he was moving away in five months and figured he would enjoy your lovely company in the meantime without telling you the truth. (Side note: It is astonishing how susceptible women are to believing that being rejected by men is their own fault and that they need to figure out what they can change about themselves to be accepted. Come on, sisters! Demand that your partner be with you because he absolutely cannot help but be with you!)

If you are having trouble envisioning your dissertation research project, talk to me. During Twelve's volleyball games last season, I helped one of the other mothers sort out her thoughts about her dissertation. All I did was ask questions about her target population and methodological approach, but she said it was more useful than talking with her advisor. A critical perspective just might be essential to the performance of academic work. Research starts from a place of critical inquiry; from asking the question What is going on here? If your orientation towards the world isn't one of trying to figure out why things tick, you're probably not going to make it. 

If you are shopping for clothing for yourself, take me with you. Under no circumstances should you go with me to shop for clothing for me, since nothing fits and it's all mass-produced crap anyway, but I am brilliant at helping other people pick out clothes. I'll tell you if something looks like crap because it doesn't fit properly, it's designed poorly, or it's a ridiculous style in the first place (nobody looks good in those shirts that are gathered under the boobs and then flare out stiffly). Just the other day, Twelve and I were at the trendy local resale shop (staffed entirely by 20-somethings who ignore me almost completely) looking for a pair of jeans for her and exercising our critical thinking skills together.

We have a pretty good shopping routine, which I think developed (now that I think about it) as a form of Mother-Daughter Bonding Time. I am a fairly impatient shopper, but I've learned to cram myself into the premise of shopping with Twelve and have built up my tolerance to the point where I can do it for tens of minutes at a time. Truthfully? It is almost not possible for me to care less about the specifics of what she wears. I do not care which shirt or pants or type of socks she picks, as they all look pretty much the same to me. I could accomplish the same clothing acquisition objectives by giving her some cash and reading a book in the car. But it is an important investment in this whole intensive parenting thing that I'm trying, so I gird up my proverbial loins and participate.

In the initial rack-combing stage, we both hold up things for the others approval; sometimes my suggestions are actually acceptable and usually if I grimace and shake my head at something particularly heinous she puts it back. Once we have an armload of possibilities, she tries everything on and shows me anything that she's seriously considering so I can weigh in. I wait just outside the fitting room during this part, and am careful to examine each prospective garment gravely, giving the impression that I am invested in the process. I also serve as the hanger fairy, putting everything back on the hangers. It keeps me busy, and I empathize with the employees whose job it is to run on the hamster wheel of putting clothes back on the racks.

Twelve has good taste and modest expectations in both propriety and quantity, which makes my role as the Final Arbiter an easy one. We almost always reach an easy consensus on what to buy; very occasionally I'll veto something outright because it's particularly awful or unnecessary, and she acquiesces gracefully. She humors my principled objections to billboard clothing and I indulge her desire to wear name brands by allowing garments with discreet logos. Often our final decisions are price-based; in our jeans shopping foray, I had her try on jeans at all price points, with the logic that I'd rather pay more for a perfect pair of jeans than spend the same amount on several not-quite-right pairs. She, thrifty Scottish soul that she is, was aghast at the notion of spending $100 on a single pair of used jeans. She's not wrong about that, and luckily none of them fit anyway. When it came to tops - of which she already has approximately a thousand - she narrowed it down to two. Both carelessly assembled of cheap materials, and both reminiscent of the eighties. I allowed the weirdly-vintage-looking floral one, because it was deeply discounted, but said that the neon pink one just wasn't worth the ten bucks. Twelve agreed, and off we went to the register. 

It's a small thing, but I want Twelve to be able to make fine distinctions like that. I want her to have the ability to determine that she doesn't need the shirt, that the shirt probably retailed for less than $10 in the first place, that the purpose of the outing was to buy jeans, and that the discounted shirt was a sufficient treat for the time being. 

She's learning fast. At tea today, she told me about the elaborate guarding rituals at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington. She was pretty amazed by the precision and complexity of the whole thing, and I was just happy that she was showing enthusiasm about something, when she asked why they only do that for those three people. What's the difference between them and all of the other people? she asked. That's a very good question, I replied. Why don't they just do it for the highest ranking people? she continued. Or, I said, for everyone, with emphasis on the 'everyone.' 

I don't know (or care) very much about military rituals, but I love that Twelve asked the question and I hope that she asks it when she visits Washington, DC with her class in March.

As I wrote these paragraphs, I realized that I see the world as a series of problems to be solved and situations to be analyzed and then improved. Striegel-Moore and Kearney-Cooke also found that "adolescent girls were rated significantly fatter than adolescent boys" by their parents, even though there was no gender difference in the reported BMI ratings. 

I spy a problem. 

My analysis is that this finding is consistent with beauty norms that require girls to be thin and masculine norms that allow boys to be less concerned about the way they look. 

This situation should be improved, perhaps by sweeping changes in media portrayals of men and women and by a shift in societal expectations of everyone. 

If this means that I am too critical, I don't care.  

Work Cited

Striegel-Moore, R. H., and Kearney-Cooke, A. (1994). Exploring Parents' Attitudes and Behaviors About Their Children's Physical Appearance. International Journal of Eating Disorders. Vol. 15, No. 4, 377-385.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Extreme Participant Observation: Bus Edition

When we finally arrived in Mexico City, we got on a bus to Zihuatanejo. Nine hours, 34 seats, two bathrooms, four fold-down tv screens, and at least eight children, all of whom were sitting on laps. As we boarded and got situated (no seat pocket, but two strong elastic bands that hold your stuff without collecting who knows what in the bottom - I approve), R and I remarked to each other that we were really in for it. Nine hours on a bus with as many children? We assumed it was going to be awful. 

Instead of a nightmarish scenario of bored, whiny kids making our trip miserable, it was the fact that they showed the dubbed-in-Spanish version of The Devil Wears Prada twice that made the trip really tedious around about hour seven. The children were totally chill. They chatted with their family members, looked out the windows, watched the movies, ate their snacks, and took occasional bathroom breaks, all in a perfectly calm and straightforward manner. The most annoying thing that happened, if you could even call it that, was when a particularly cute five or six-year-old propped her chin on the back of her seat and gazed solemnly at us for a couple of miles.

Oh, did I forget to mention that R and I were the only non-Mexicans on the bus? 

I know it's a small sample size, and I'd hate to overgeneralize, but I observed a stark contrast between the behavior of Mexican children and the behavior of US children. The logistics of our bus trip were essentially the same as an airplane, and just think about every single time you've been on a flight with a bunch of kids. If they're not whining, they're throwing a fit, and if they're not running up and down the aisle, they're kicking the back of your seat.

In our ten days in Mexico, I don't think I saw a single Mexican child have a temper tantrum or fit of whining. I was also struck by how evenhandedly Mexican parents interacted with their children. It's so common in the US to see parents get frustrated with their children and react with impatience, even cruelty, but I saw none of that in Mexico. Possibly, as our just-married expat friend pointed out, good behavior is the result of being raised with the threat of corporal punishment. I don't believe that corporal punishment is a necessary part of raising great kids (I don't think I ever spanked Twelve, and she's turning out pretty well), but there does seem to be something happening in Mexican child-rearing practice that isn't happening in the US. 

Oh, and did I forget to mention that there wasn't a single Primate Anesthetizing Device on that entire bus? All of those kids were perfectly capable of hanging out on a bus all day without electronic assistance from personal devices. They did watch whatever was playing on the drop-down tv screens, and I was a bit surprised that they showed the movie about the guy who cut off his hand to get out from under a rock. I tried really hard to sleep through that one - score one for always having a few pairs of earplugs in your bag.


Twelve is missing out on a ton of booby jokes. 

In this small Mexican coastal fishing village, Barro de Potosi, there are lots of different kinds of seabirds: Magnificent Frigatebirds (which I remembered from the Dry Tortugas! Love it when something sticks), a couple of different sandpipers, Brown Pelicans, American Terns, Little Blue and Snowy Egrets (my favorites - they're so graceful), Sanderlings, and Brown Boobies. Boobies! Pelicans, Terns, and Boobies - boobies! - all dive-bomb the surf in search of food. It's really fun to watch, actually; they'll be just flying along when suddenly down they go, splashing straight into the water at full speed from twenty feet up.

Perhaps as a result of eating a bad batch of fish - being the only bird that dives down to a particular depth, they are the only species that would have been exposed to something that is found only there - many Brown Boobies have been washing up on shore and just sitting there, sick, waiting to die.

R hates this kind of thing. He has had to humanely dispatch a few creatures in the course of his career, and he just absolutely hates it. So he's tried to help the boobies by feeding them bits of fish, moving them to safer locations, and watching out for human and canine harassment.

For a bunch of well-educated people, we sure do find lots of ways to make booby jokes. R gets up in the mornings and announces that he's heading to the beach to watch the boobies. Where's R? Someone might ask. Oh, he's checking on the boobies. Several times, he's even grabbed brown boobies on the beach.

Beyond booby jokes, the birds' plight and R's ineffectual attempts to help are reminding me about the total futility of life. Like the video that shows all the tiny fish that get eaten by the school of medium size fish, only to be all swallowed up by a whale, what's really the point of any of it? Especially those parents trying to raise kids in an environment where simply reaching adulthood is an accomplishment and the primary parenting goal. (Immediately read There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz if you do not think this is a real thing. I'll wait.)

Like other middle-class parents, I have the luxury of assuming that Twelve will become a grownup in due time, and that she'll have the luxury of choosing an occupation, and that she'll have the luxury of assuming and expecting that her occupation will be fulfilling and rewarding. But why, though? What's the point? Without religious imperatives, there's a certain hedonism required to avoid going crazy when you realize that life is, fundamentally, totally meaningless. We may not be eaten by a whale in one gulp with a thousand others of our kind, but really all I'm doing with Twelve is grooming her to become a small fish-cog in the school-machine of capitalism, where she and the products of her labor will disappear into the gullet of whichever gargantuan corporation is allowed to collect it. 

Sobering thought. Depressing, really. Maybe I should move with Twelve to Mexico and spend lots of time on the beach, just enjoying the sunshine and warm breeze. She'd hate the bugs, though, and there's no getting the sand completely off of anything. And it wouldn't be much fun without money.

It strikes me, sitting here on the beach, enjoying the sunshine and warm breeze, that it would be so much easier to be a part of a species or a culture with less emphasis on achievement. Here we are, encouraging Twelve to get better grades to build the good habits that will allow her to get good grades in high school so that she can go to the best possible university in order to get the job she wants, when - unless she's exceptionally fortunate - she'll just end up minting money for some corporation.

Then again, I strongly suspect that T will be perfectly happy doing that as long as she can buy a lot of consumer goods.

The tiny fish probably don't know any differently either.