The (accidental) Man

31
Jul
2008

My mother is a very strong woman, and very accomplished. She raised me and my brothers to believe that we could be anything we wanted to be. And she raised us to believe in the human potential of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, background or gender. She encouraged us to look at each person as an individual, not as a member of some group, and she strongly discouraged us from stereotyping people based on their membership in any one of these categories. She didn’t want us to make limiting assumptions about people especially because such limiting assumptions had been made about her at earlier times in her life. As a Jewish woman raised in the 50s in central Indiana, she had all too often been the target of stereotypes or lowered expectations based on what was expected of women in that time and place. She realized that she had internalized a lot of these prejudices and had to work many years to finally get to the place where she could rely on her own strength and judgment to determine what her capacities were. Such has been the case with many successful women in our society. And the men have also been bound in their way to the expectations placed on their potential and ability. So we were raised with an understanding that women and men could perform any kind of task they wished in any kind of setting, and that the world should not dictate a different set of possibilities based simply on gender. In short, we were raised to treat all people equally.

So it has been with some mirth that these many years later I look on the next generation of child rearing (especially in my brother’s case) and notice a few things. On the one hand, my brother is much more present in parenting than our own father was when we were at such a young age. Our parents got divorced when I was about 8 (and my brother 6) and our biological father never really played a part in our early childhood. It was only after my mother remarried about a year and a half later that we really got a father figure, and we could not have asked for a better one. My stepfather is in all ways the father we never had as very young children, and he (along with my mother) was always there for us, guiding us, teaching us, fathering us until we were adults. He and my mother are to this day one of those ideal couples I look at to demonstrate that long term love is possible and can be wonderful. They are the rock of our extended family, and spending time with them is always a treat.

My brother has been such a doting father during these early years and it is wonderful to see how much pride he takes in his family. One also gets the sense that he takes great satisfaction in being able to provide materially for them. My brother is clearly the best in the family with financial management. My parents were never great with money and the rest of us inherited their lack of financial acuity. Not so my brother, who has the right salary, investments and accounts. As a lawyer who deeply understands tax law and its implications, my brother has a clear eye on on the future with regard to retirement, health care and education for his children, each account carefully chosen and managed with some relish. Outside of the material well being of his family, my brother is constantly spending time with his kids, teaching them things, telling them how much he loves them at every turn. He punishes them when necessary, but always with a gentle hand and an eye towards making them more caring, responsible, and sharing individuals.

Yet there has been one area of his fathering that I have watched with a touch of dismay. Despite the ways in which we were raised, despite all the evidence around him, my brother is still choosing (perhaps semi-unconsciously) to reinforce gender stereotypes with his children. The evidence is everywhere, from the ways in which he describes them to others, to the names he calls them, to the way he treats them, to the different discipline paths he expects them to follow when they enter their teen years. He will describe his son repeatedly as being “all-boy” and “fearless”, and will go out of his way to reinforce these traits with rough housing and sporty activities of all sorts. He seems to find it important to talk about all the “girlfriends” he has (he is six years old) at school, and what a ladies man he will surely be when he grows up. Although I don’t think my brother would get angry if his son decided to play with Barbie dolls, he clearly has an image of how his son should be and reinforces it with his language, attitude and body language at every turn. Likewise with his daughter who is 4 1/2. She is his “princess” and he encourages her to think of herself that way. He will often talk about how she has “daddy wrapped around her little finger” and (half) jokingly talk about killing any young man that may want to date her when she is older. He routinely talks about how he will need to “protect” her in ways his boy will not need protecting, because she is a girl and therefore more vulnerable to attack. (My sister-in-law appears to be somewhat more even handed on this subject and routinely ridicules the idea that the kids should be treated differently.)

Of course there are some biological differences between boys and girls. But biology is not destiny, and certainly reinforcing the tired stereotypes of the past will not aid children in overcoming them. My mother tells a story about her not taking an economics course until college because that was something men were good at, but not women. She became the highest scoring student in the class. Society at large and parents in particular can’t always stop themselves from seeing their children in certain ways that make them comfortable, but shoehorning them into these roles is limiting. On a public policy level, my brother is completely egalitarian. He would never accept the idea that his son or daughter (or anyone else’s for that matter) would be limited by law or custom from achieving their potential. And yet it seems very important for him in his own family to see the boy as capital “b” Boy, and the girl as capital “g” Girl. When I point out to him some of these things, he dismisses it as the observation of someone who “doesn’t have children” and thus could know nothing about it. I beg to differ. Certainly there are things about the parenting role that I do not know having not experienced it myself. But on the question of gender roles in society, I am fairly expert, having experienced these things first hand. I know how difficult society’s obsession with gender conformity has made being gay for example, and I work every day to make it easier for those who come after me. Girls and boys deserve a world that doesn’t guide them along different paths for no other reason than biology. For them to become fully realized women and men, we need to encourage them to become fully realized human beings and to understand, reinforce, and create equal opportunity for all of us.

Cookies and sweat and shiny objects

29
Jul
2008

Not much to report from the past few days, but here is a short list:

– Hung out with my friends Blake and Danny while Blake prepared his cookie entries to be judged for the state fair. I found the entire process fascinating/funny and could not stop giggling about it. I kept thinking about that sketch from Little Britain.

– Went out for drinks with my super cool niece Sarah last night.

– Set up a new Skype phone and assembled two Ikea tables and a bed frame over at my brother Mike’s new place, getting totally drenched in sweat in the process.

– Went to the Apple Store with my brother David and purchased a new iPhone on a whim, proving that I am not yet entirely free from the shackles of consumerism. I am less than impressed with its performance and stability and may return it however.

– Booked my tickets for NYC on the 5th. Flying in to White Plains and will attempt to navigate mta into the city.

All in all pretty dull, n’est-ce pas?

Back from the South

27
Jul
2008

After a surprisingly quick seeming 13 hour car ride, we are back in Indianapolis. It was interesting being in South Carolina for the first time in about 15 years. My experience living (mostly) in California since that time has sharpened by far my impressions of South Carolina. Perhaps it is just that I am older now and more sensitive to it, or perhaps it was my greater interest in history and culture, but what stood out for me in much greater relief than ever before was the relation of slavery to this part of the US. It was everywhere. In the Rice Museum in Georgetown and the words of the docent taking us around; in the townhouses and mansions of Charelston; In the gardens of Brookgreen and its Lowcountry Museum; in the statues honoring people like Strom Thurmond at the statehouse; in the words spoken by some of the residents. One realizes how much whatever wealth this part of the world once had, it was based on the ill gotten gains of slave labor. It is a past that the people here would rather forget, and yet they are bathed in its incidents every day. And unfortunately, these stains fade slowly, as evidenced by the subtle play of languange in the people of the area and in the attitudes of some. After living all those years in California, I was definitely aware of race and racism within the culture, but of a more multicultural kind. It was never so obviously about a binary white/black division. Not true in South Carolina. Sure, this trip was as much about a vacation at the beach, appreciating nothing more (or less) than the beauty of the natural environment and having a great time with my family. But it was also a valuable reminder of the original sin that formed a large part of the identity of this nation, and an entreaty to move forward and heal the wounds that are still not quite closed.

Saddest little gay bar in South Carolina

25
Jul
2008

My brother David and sister-in-law Jackie and I decided to have a young(er) adults night out on the town. With the kids in bed and our parents watching them, we consulted “The Google“, found what looked like a hopping gay nightclub in Myrtle Beach, and headed out for the 35 minute trip north.¬† Once we got there, we realized Jackie had forgotten her ID and they weren’t about to let us in, despite our entreaties. The guy at the door told us there was another bar around the corner that probably wouldn’t card, so we headed over. It was a pretty sad little place that smelled of smoke and stale beer, decorated in early post-party frat house. I don’t remember what the place was called, but if I were to enter a naming contest, I believe I would submit the name “The Smelly Rainbow”. We had a beer and a dart game, said goodbye to the 6 people(including the bartender) in the place and headed back to Litchfield.

Charleston

24
Jul
2008

Bob and I went down to Charleston yesterday, and took a tour of the historic town center and several of its buildings. It was fascinating, there is a very distinctive collection of buildings that are some of the oldest in the country and most of them are restored. Charleston was lucky (in a sense) that it suffered such a long period of economic decline, or these buildings  would probably have been razed and replaced. But because they never had the money or much economic activity through the 20th century, the architecture remained intact, somewhat frozen in time until the city could be reborn as a tourist destination to see these very buildings.

Evidence of past glory and wealth (largely based on slave labor) was everywhere. We also learned a few new interesting details while touring some of the homes. For example, what was called the “Georgian” style of architecture (after King George) was renamed after the War of Independance to “Federal” style. The war was also why the Episcopal Church was so named (breaking with the Chuch of England). So the US clearly has a long history of renaming to show their “independance” from things. And lest you think the level of the silliness reflected in such idiotic terms as “freedom fries” is a recent phenomenon, you should know that in World War I there was a move in the US to rename “sauerkraut” as “liberty cabbage” (I kid you not).

Sweaty SC

21
Jul
2008

On vacation with the family in South Carolina, whose current climate reminds me a lot of southern India. It is really hot and humid here, much more so than I remember from my childhood trips here so many years ago. The other thing that I realize is that, as great as it is to be with my family, I am just not a huge fan of hanging out on a hot and sweaty beach getting bronzed. Also, something about the weather makes me eat much more than I normally would (and something about SC makes me eat more unhealthily) and I am feeling a little portly. I will probably try to take a cultural excursion tomorrow with a trip to nearby Charleston. Still, if you care to see the family album (with several pics of my adorable niece and nephew) click here.

Pic of the day: diving = danger

20
Jul
2008

Taken by the baby pool at the beach. Possibly the most graphic ideogram I have ever seen. Notice the blood radiating from the head of the figure? As if the urine wasn’t enough to keep you out of there…image

Strip out the taste

20
Jul
2008

I have always been impressed by how much better milk products (and many other products for that matter) taste outside the US. This is especially true of yogurt sold in countries such as France and Mexico. I have always chalked it up to them using whole milk vs the US obsession with de-fatted milk. But the story is actually a bit more complicated. Yesterday at the grocery, I saw a brand and type of yogurt that I recognized as one I had enjoyed in Mexico (Dannon Activia with prunes). It had identical packaging to the one in Mexico and so I thought it was the same. This was not AT ALL the same yogurt I had enjoyed just a couple of months ago in Mexico. This was something that tasted completely different, disgusting in fact. A quick look at the ingredients showed all kinds of differences from the Mexican version of the exact same product. Basically Dannon in the US makes the product out of plastic. The thing is filled with chemicals and crap you would never find in the other countries’ products (high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, gelatin, carmine, and the already suspected reduced fat milk). I recoiled in horror after reading this. What possible reason could the company have for putting all this crap in their product? All I can guess is that the transportation and storage and manufacture is easier for them somehow, and they know that Americans have no sense of flavor or taste and will eat whatever garbage they produce if they think it is “healthy” (whether or not it is). What a disappointment! If you want to know why so many Americans are so fat and unhealthy, surely the way “food” products are produced and consumed (especially with all the high fructose corn syrup) in this country is part of the picture.