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Monthly Archives: February 2012

I Got You Babe

Women have been having babies on their own since the dawn of time.  (Having them, not making them.)  It’s not really anybody’s business, least of all mine.  But that would never stand in the way of me wondering why there’s been such a surge in the incidents lately.  I wondered for awhile if celebrity single motherhood had seeped into mainstream culture.  I also wondered if science had spawned the later-in-life-oh-I-should-probably-get-one-of-those upswing.  But both of those trends speak to a kind of intent on the part of the woman that does not necessarily jive with the recent statistics.

Most of the babies had outside of marriage are being born to women under 30 without a college degree.  About 40% of the babies in this country are born to single women.  That’s a lot of babies.  The popular theory is that marriage is seen as a luxury item, a step up if you will.  If the baby’s father is not in a position to be a solid marriage partner, the woman parents alone.  Logical on the face of it, no?

But what does it mean to be having sex with a man (at least once) who you find unsuitable?  One young woman refers to having to buy her boyfriend’s cigarettes for him, such is the degree of his uselessness.  It would be one thing if this smoking man had been a one time indiscretion, but this is a man she sees fit to seriously date.  Why?  The explanations could be plentiful and varied, but none leave me confident as to her future.  Now we add to the mix a baby, an expensive all-consuming baby.  Born to a mother who is not formally educated and may not have marketable job skills.  You see where this is going, no?

Marriage, like it or not, provides protection, both for the spouses and the children.  While states in our nation are waging a fight for equal marriage, there are locations in which heterosexuals have lost interest in the institution. How do we explain a vocal percentage of the gay and lesbian community rallying for something a large swath of the working class has eschewed?  And why are the single parent births so high within the working class?

There is no data to suggest (or dispute) that these women under 30 are living with their baby’s father in a lifelong committed relationships.  One assumes that these women are raising their child alone.  If marriage occurs at some time in the future, it won’t be viewed as a path to anything (such as parenthood) but as an end point.  Generations ago, middle class women went off to college in hopes of obtaining an M.R.S., and working class women hoped for a ring to wear at their high school graduation.  Getting married was the mark of adulthood (for men and women) of all classes.  Something has happened and now having a baby is that mark.  A generation raised on instant gratification can’t be the reason.  It’s far more fun to be a bride than to be a young single mother.  Economics doesn’t explain much either, as it is far more expensive for a mother and father to live separately than together.  Certainly it’s not a morality issue, as people from all classes dabble in an around the edges of their own morality.  It couldn’t be a perceived lack of educational opportunities, as there never have been so many remote ways to obtain a degree.

Turning this issue around and around, I am still left pondering the woman in a relationship with a man who does not have the wherewithal to purchase his own cigarettes.  Somewhere in there lies the answer.

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Cultural Critique

 

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Testing To Teach

If you just landed here from Mars, you would be convinced that schools have become sheltered workshops for sex offenders.  Every day there’s a new story of not just one individual accused of mistreating a child, but of entire schools infested with abusers.  “What in the world,” says the Martian, “is going on?”

Twenty or so years ago, these stories were much less frequent.  To be fair, we should attribute some portion of the increased reports to awareness on the part of children and the thirst of sprawling media.  But surely that can’t account for the ubiquity of these incidents.

Pedophilia is a pretty specific condition.  I’m not willing to suggest that every person who has abused a child is in fact a pedophile.  But most likely they all do share one very strong trait.  They like children.  A lot.  They are far more comfortable with children than adults.  They are uncomfortable with their adult selves.  Their social circles (if they exist) are limited and mostly center around child-centric events.  It is no wonder that these men and women are attracted to a professional in which children outnumber adults by a wide margin.

Without diminishing for a moment the severe and debilitating effect abuse has on children, I suggest that if there is an increase in child abuse, it is the result of an infantalized society.  There are endless degrees of immaturity of course.  At its most innocuous, these child/adults are wearing baseball caps as chapeaus.  But at its worst…

I’m not sure our entire culture can wake up and smell the (non-whipped cream/foam topped) adult coffee, and embrace what is rightfully and wonderfully theirs.  But certainly what we can do is insist that every employee working with children have a psychological test.  Schools love tests.  A minimum screening is the very least we can do.  It does not impinge upon anyone’s civil rights to determine if they are suitable for a job based on their disposition.  There is nothing inherently sinister about working with children, but there is something alarming about preferring their company.  Wringing our hands and being alarmed is an appropriate first response.  But adults step up and take action to protect the most vulnerable members of society.

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2012 in Childhood, Education

 

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How I Learned To Drive – Review

It is difficult to write of something which everybody feels they know everything about.  How do you take a story about pedophilia and make it nuanced, new and compelling?  Paula Vogel did it with How I Learned To Drive, earning a Pultizer Prize (1998) for her effort.  The writing is so exquisite, it’s difficult to imagine a production faltering.  Yet, the first major revival of any play of importance stirs apprehension.  Could anyone match David Morse’s unique blend of innocent man child and demonic predator?  His presence is so distinct, that having never seen the (1997) original, I still could visualize him on the stage.  (Morse, is only rivaled in innocuous/sinister duality, by a young Richard Masur.)

However there is absolutely nothing to fear with this revival (except for the evils that lurk inside families) it is remarkable.  Directed by Kate Whoriskey (Ruined) every layer of human struggle and motivation is gently exposed.  Whoriskey is no stranger to coaxing out the beauty behind the ugliness.  While there is much humor in this play, it is never at anyone’s expense.  The characters are realistically complex without donning a sandwich board which says so. There is a delicacy and a subtlety often found in real life but rarely in its portrayal.

The story, told in flashback and with a wonderful Greek chorus, is that of an uncle’s molestation of his niece (Li’l Bit) over the course of years.  The metaphor, and actuality of driving lessons works as an effective device in moving the story.  Using flashbacks allows us to develop feelings for the characters before we have to witness the actual horror of what they’ve done.  Towards the very end of the play, we discover how this could have happened, and there are no surprises.  But as is often the case with victimization, we need to know, and to hear it from the characters themselves.

Norbet Leo Butz (Catch Me If You Can, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) is simply remarkable as Uncle Peck.  He is vulnerable, ingratiating, and deeply troubled.  We never see him interacting with adults, but suspect that he can’t.  His niece (Elizabeth Reaser) is saddled with early puberty, an unorthodox household and the 1960s.  Reaser is new to the stage and it showed when she first appeared all alone on the stage (she needs a little work on her enunciation and projection.)  She quickly finds her groove however, and is quite convincing at every age (27,18,17,13,11.)

The Greek chorus adds so much to this play that could feel quite insular.  Jennifer Regan, Kevin Cahoon, and Marnie Schulenburg, take on the role of family members, an actual chorus, and a waiter.  Ms. Regan is mesmerizing.  No doubt she tires of being compared to a young Carol Burnett, but I can think of no higher compliment.

The set (Derek McLane) and setting (Second Stage Theatre) are simply spot on.  There is a ’57 Ford upstage, some street lights, and a few rolling pieces of furniture on stage.  The lighting design (Peter Kaczorowski) conjures time and place.  The house size and design are perfect for reinforcing the intimacy and insulation.

This is a play, and production which linger, and should.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in Theatre

 

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C’est Magnifique!

Have you heard the news?  The French are way better than us.  No really.  They are all thin, are good parents, and have as many ways to tie a scarf as we have cable channels.  And that’s just the French, you should get a load of the rest of western Europe.  Now before we all slink back to our McMansions to drown our inferiority in a box of wine; let’s think this through.

Europe is old.  Really really old.  They are the grandparents at the family function, in their appropriate attire, watching the young over-sugared Americans run amok through the catering hall.  It’s not exactly that they are better, it’s that they know better.

They know that food is to savor, not to eat on the subway or in the car.  They know that flavor always trumps portion-size and that good ingredients don’t need sugar or batter.  Meals are social and not a shared experience between the diner and the television.  They also invest in beautiful clothing that lasts a lifetime.  Therefore their size must stay relatively constant.

The French are also in it for the long-haul when it comes to parenting.  They aren’t so interested in ensuring their cherub never knows a moment of woe.  They are committed to raising well-rounded, competent human beings.  They have no need to be their child’s friend, as they relish their adult life.  They do not dress like their children either as they have those gorgeous clothes in their closet.  There is a division between the adult world and the child world that we once actually had in this country.  Perhaps it was the blush of youth, but before we knew any better we were confident.

In New York, a city filled with posh private schools, European parents (here on business) are sending their children to public school.  They find the notion of fancy cafeterias and homogeneous classmates, abhorrent.  Public schools were good enough for them…(you may be old enough to remember hearing that in your house!)  For those who are concerned about their children keeping up with their French, they send them to one of the several bilingual public schools in the city.  Street smarts and competency are more important to them than amenities.  They’ve been around a while, they know what it takes to make your way in the world.  Competency and self-esteem can not be bought.

Let us not despair just yet.  Might I suggest, sitting down for a leisurely cafe au lait, and consider integrating just a bit of La Belle Vie into your own life.  If the idea of stopping at the market every other day for fresh ingredients is a bit daunting, try for just one additional trip a week.  Is the idea of owning one black pencil skirt for twenty years too foreign?  Instead, before you pick up another black skirt at BananaGapTaylor, count to ten.  If letting your child take responsibility for their own homework is just too much of a leap, consider having them cook one night a week.  Take their personal education as seriously as their formal education, and have them sit with you while you pay the bills.

Confidence comes from trying new things.  Succeeding will never be as educational as trying.  Draw inspiration from the French but don’t let them get you down.  They have their own idiosyncrasies; the whole country smokes and they are always on strike.  But they do have the courage of their convictions, and that really is worth emulating.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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The Mad Men Guide To Life

Does anything more need to be said about the brilliance of Mad Men?  The production value soars above most cable series and the story lines have not faltered.  The series has benefited tremendously from continuously casting relatively unknown actors.  Above else, unlike most retro productions, they get very little wrong.  Credit the producers for perhaps having been alive during the early 1960s or at least having the good sense to hire people who were.  Mad Men is 99.44% anachronism free.

While much of the period perfect depictions seem quaint and distant, there is much that is timeless.  Every generation thinks they are covering new terrain and making new discoveries.  Every twist and turn in life seems unique and in need of a brand-new solution.  But there is much to gain from being reminded of the continuity of life and its annoyances.

Work is Demanding – Long before instant communication, Peggy was working nights and weekends.  Personal lives were impinged upon with after-hours work related functions.  Before technology companies put playrooms and free dry cleaning in the workplace (to keep workers at the office) companies had coffee carts.  Break rooms, sandwich machines and even office bars, were designed to keep workers in the workplace.  Work has never been fair or nice.  Meetings will happen without you, you will be left off of organizational charts and someone might just run a lawn mower over your foot.

Thin and Pretty Sells – There is nothing new about selling a female ideal. Media has been single minded in its affair with pretty, young thin women.  Before Spanx, there were girdles.  Creating a perfect form was a rite of passage for a young woman.  Pointed bras bore no more resemblance to the human breast than the wonderbra of today.  Before diet shakes, there was melba toast and cottage cheese.  Women carried lovely little boxes of (deadly) saccharin in their purses and smoked like chimneys to avoid eating.  Clothing was expensive and spandex wasn’t invented yet, so not being able to zip your dress meant not being able to leave the house.

Marriage is a Mystery – From a wedding guest’s perspective, do any two people really belong together?  Don cheats with the same woman, over and over again.  He craves emotional attachment with an intelligent, professional brunette, but married Betty.  Kitty is happily married to Sal, a man who doesn’t want Ann-Margret, he wants to be Ann-Margret.  Joan, in her early thirties, with a panic she feels deep in her bones, grabs what looks like a gold ring.  There is nothing new about making fear based choices and there rarely is anything good that comes from it.  Joan married beneath her on so many levels, and we wait for the “we regret to inform you” letter from the war department.

Fake it Till You Make It – The only people who don’t at one time or another feel like a fraud are sociopaths.  Everyone, regardless of achievement or talent has feared being found out.  Don struggles with that issue most of his adult life.  Joan, herself her greatest creation, visibly stumbles at times.  Peggy, a woman whose emotional sophistication belies her tender years, forces herself past those moments.  She gets the job, the haircut, the wardrobe, and the office, incrementally and with intent.  She always had the talent, if not the experience, but by the time she’s done with herself, she looks like a competent middle manager (at 23.)

Parenting isn’t Pretty – Glossy magazines aside, there’s nothing pretty about raising children.  Betty didn’t feel the need to self-censor when she likened the presence of her children in her car to that of horse poop.  The children misbehaved and developed strange behaviors, they refused to eat and sleep, they got sick at the most inopportune times and mixed a pretty lousy drink. But parenting was made a little easier, not just because of the drinking and sedatives, but because of a bit of emotional distance.  When little Sally ran amok in the house (with a dry cleaning bag on her head) her mother was concerned about the mess, but not enough to put out her cigarette and interrupt her adult conversation.

Experience Breeds Calm – There is much to savor in getting older, even during the youth revolution of the 1960s.  Bert Cooper is a sage beacon of calm during many a storm.  Sure, he knows firsthand how to succeed in business, but it’s more than that.  His Eastern sensibilities and embracing of modern art, speak to a man who is taking a big bite out of life.  He enjoys the fruits of his labor and has a deep generosity of spirit.  He takes his relationships as seriously as he does his job.  He is not feared but revered, a management lesson, yes, but also a life lesson.

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique, Style

 

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