Monthly Archives: June 2012

That Which We Call A Rose

No one is immune to the volcanic force of language.  An altered preposition, an inflection or a simple nuance can change the course of events if not our mood for the day. This awesome power is acknowledged before we even arrive on the planet. Our names will be labored over (sometimes literally.)  First names, middle names even last named will be constructed to pay respect or foretell character traits or ensure we’ll never have a seat on the supreme court. The words we are first taught, those we are allowed to hear and those we are punished for saying are all overseen with a scrutiny befitting a bank manager. Our legal system and our government are keen on the minutia of language and are poised to change and limit it all the time.  (Lest we think only of the dangers of limiting free speech, let us remember that screaming “fire” in a movie theater is simply not prudent.)  As a society we are continuously reexamining what words and terms are inflammatory or used to incite.

One of the most potent uses of language is that of branding.  There are words and phrases whose intent is spin.  Over the course of time we have found ways to passively (aggressively) brand people or things.  When a grown woman is continuously referred to as a girl, it just sounds more polite than repeating, “you are less than a man.”  Almost any person who’s affiliated with an underrepresented group could offer examples of this paradigm.  As groups become more visible and vocal, words and labels change.  People and groups are still labeled but with new words that have yet to ring as offensive to our ears.  No doubt there is a predictable timeframe of revision that is in play.  What sounds innocuous in 2012 will probably be horrifying in 2032.  We need only think back to what a compliment it was in the 1950s to be called a ‘housewife.’  In the 21st century it is considered an insult (to houses or wives, I’m not sure.)  People now stumble and scramble over terms such as: ‘stay at home mother’ (which suggests an ankle monitor) or “work in the home” (which could mean anything from novelist to parenting to piecework.)  Lots of awkward vague phrasing which rarely accurately communicates anything.

Of course where this less than graceful terminology stems from is the discomfort we’re currently experiencing around women, work, and parenting in the 21st century.   There is much anxiety around the freedom of choice that some women experience.  The anxiety is only exacerbated by the fishbowl we now inhabit.  Even a person 100% certain about his/her choices is barraged by confidence shaking messages.  Culturally we are reacting vigorously to the fact that women now do have choices (perhaps not enough but far more than any other time in recent history.)  If you were a Martian and found yourself at a magazine stand you would think it was in fact the 1950s.  Women are cautioned and coached on how to keep a man interested.  Fashion consists of girdles (with naughty names) sky-high heels, artificial hair (all the better to swish ‘round a pole) dark lacquered nails (requiring daily maintenance) and false eyelashes (forcing perfect posture so as not to inadvertently drop one onto someone’s lap or lunch.)  Now of course no one would confuse a fashion magazine for anything but a nicely bound advert delivery system.  But people are buying them and presumably reading them (which takes all of 10 minutes.)

Is it any wonder that in the midst of what can appear to be a pop culture feminist backlash we find ourselves peppered with the ‘man’ prefix?  It all probably started innocently enough with the first utterance of “male nurse.’  As if we are French and need gender defining articles preceding our nouns.  We now find ourselves in a sea of ‘man caves’ ‘man bags’ ‘bromance’ ‘manny’ ‘manscape’ and countless others I’ve been fortunate enough to ignore.  I’m not sure when a tote bag became feminine or why male friendships need a new name.  Having had male sitters as a child, I’ve no idea why nannies need gender identity.  Manscape?  Really?  It’s called grooming.  What really sticks in my craw however is the ‘man cave.’  If this was a real cave, one in which caped crusaders worked on mammoth computers and were served tea by stiff-upper-lipped British man-servants, I’d be all over it.  But alas, it’s not.  It is a reference to an abode or part of an abode that is reserved for a man.  You know, like how Ward Cleaver had his den and Don Draper had his office because the home was really the woman’s domain?  Look, I’m no Martian (or am I?) but it’s beginning to look a bit like the late 1950s.  Women molded into a Betty Boop silhouette (surgically or through the miracle of spandex) teetering on heels, men sequestered in their “he-man women hater no girls allowed’ space looks an awful lot like there is a yearning to get the genie back into the bottle.

Whether there is something worthwhile in this yearning for a time with clearly defined roles is an interesting concept.  It could be illuminating to tease apart our feelings and desires around equality and options.  But to do so, to have a discourse which goes beyond soundbite or 1000 word blog post we need to know what we’re actually saying.  Understanding ourselves, let alone each other is not facilitated by euphemism or trendy semantics.  There is a difference between using language that is respectful and using language to obfuscate.


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The Ails Of Justice

Anyone with even a cursory (Law & Order watching) understanding of the legal system knows it is rarely a true arbiter of right and wrong.  There are endless shades of gray and bizarre roadblocks.  Most arbitrary of all is that verdicts are often rendered by juries.  Juries made up not of young Henry Fondas and Jack Klugmans, but of people who did not get out of serving.  Outside of the courtroom, media frenzy and/or public sentiment can’t help but find its way into the mix.  In the end, everyone involved in meting out justice is merely human.

None of this however prevents me from shaking my head in bewilderment with the news that the three ivy league college students who poisoned a 19 year old during a fraternity ritual were acquitted.  Even more disturbing is that they were charge with hazing, not with murder.  They filled a teenager with four times the legal limit of alcohol and left him to die.  Granted they are no longer attending the university and the fraternity in question was forced to close its chapter, but these young men are free.  They walk away from what they did without any tangible repercussions save their conscience.  The more you know about this case the more dark assumptions you can make about the wheels of justice.  But even a cursory glance strikes one as odd.

The news is made all the more jarring with the announcement that Peter Madoff is headed to jail.  Yes, it has taken three years, and no he hasn’t actually admitted to anything (but innocent people don’t usually agree to ten years time and $143 billion restitution.)  These cases have absolutely nothing in common except for a shared sense of entitlement.  They should not be compared at all.  That salient fact does not seem to be sinking in for me though.

Many many people’s financial security has been shattered by the Madoffs.  No one would dispute that.  For some people it was their retirement accounts that vanished, for others it was college funds.  There were not-for-profit organizations whose losses left them wondering if they would survive at all.  No doubt there were also people who suspected that investing in something pitched as private and exclusive and guaranteeing a high rate of return, sounded too good to be true, and only lost what they could afford.  But to my knowledge, no one involved in the bilking of billions actually killed anyone.

My rational, “da-dum” “no, you’re out of order” brain knows that there are no physics involved in the law.  There is no relation between what happens in one case and what happens in another (unless we’re actually talking about precedent.)  While our entire popular culture and consumer economy is based on trends, not everything else is.  Looking for patterns in justice is futile and disheartening.  However, humans are wired to understand the world through interpreting the behavior of others.  When we can’t do this, either organically (i.e., autism, brain injury) or because events are indisputably random and haphazard, we feel unease.  There is nothing to gain from looking for a universal logic or explanation for the disparity between two completely unrelated events.  However, I’m certain my brain will hurt for most of the day.

It would be easy to explain away the (perceived) disparity by claiming that money will always trump all else.  It might not even sound entirely heartless to suggest that the Madoff wrongdoings affected far more people than those of the fraternity brothers.  It would be accurate to point out that the country is captivated by the Madoffs (either in a schadenfreude way or in a celebrity way.)  It’s safe to assume that there are very well connected people who want to see the family pay for what they’ve done.  They want to see justice, and they have the power to see that is happens.

One could choose to see it that way I suppose.

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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Cultural Critique


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A Letter To A Freshman

Dear Recent High School Graduate – Feels good to be done, doesn’t it?  That ’12 tassel looks kind of cute hanging from your rear view mirror/lamp/mirror/bookcase.  Take a long nostalgic look at it and then turn away.  It’s time to look ahead to a degree which done correctly will make your world as big as you want.  (‘The world is your oyster’, ‘the future is yours’, and every other platitude you read on those cash containers called greeting cards is actually true.  But happy endings are not a given and you need to be in the driver seat.)

You’ve already chosen where you will spend your freshman year.  (You may have chosen the absolutely positively most perfect place for you.  Great!  If that’s not the case however, keep in mind that transferring is always a very viable option.)  You probably have been hearing about the dismal employment prospects for recent graduates.  You may even have an older sibling who is living proof.  However you may have also been hearing from some friends or relatives of questionable maturity, that college should be above all else a social amusement park.  You may have even visited some colleges and universities that bear a striking resemblance to Disney U.  (Hopefully you chose the school that speaks to your goals not the one had the best rides.)  Unless you will never be expected to support yourself, ignore your friends and those relatives chanting ‘Toga Toga” under their breath.  In 2012 (“Yeah! Class of 2012!!”) a college degree should be a tool for job readiness.

To help you achieve that goal here are some key tips:

  • College is your job now.  Show up to class, be prepared and do a good job.
  • Before you choose a major look at job requirements.  Think about the industry or job that appeals to you and find out what course of study and/or credentials are required.  Speak to people in the profession.
  • Before you choose a major consider how far you want to go in your studies.  There are baccalaureate degrees that are meant to be a starting point in higher education and some that are meant to be the finish line.
  • Find the right adviser for you.  You’re paying for this experience.  If the adviser you’re assigned doesn’t work for you, find another, and even another if need be.  Good advising will open up the world to you and could save you from wasting time and money.
  • Get a job.  If it’s a requirement of your work/study package great, if not, go find one.  Even if it’s only 5 hours a week.  A college job will provide you a respite from student life/studies.  A job is also a good way to find out what you absolutely do not want to do.
  • Make a point of getting to know people entirely different from yourself.  (Remember this whole experience is about making your world bigger.)
  • Try something so not you.  Take a class you would never ordinarily consider (you can always drop it after one or two sessions.)  Attend an event that sounds ridiculous to you.  Volunteer for something odd.

You are about to learn so many new things; about the world and yourself.  It’s really just the beginning.  Life above all else is a learning experience.  Take the biggest bite possible out of the next few years.  Don’t worry too much about making any mistakes.  Embarrassing yourself in public or failing an exam or class doesn’t count as mistakes.  The only mistakes that really count at this point are those that limit your choices later on.


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Posted by on June 25, 2012 in Education


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A Place Of One’s Own

Do you remember hearing about people who kept an uncle in the attic?  Was that just my family?  The attic seemed to be where relatives who might not be entirely suited to living in society, were stashed.  You never hear these references any longer.  We could chalk that up to the demise of the cohabiting extended family, but I doubt it.  If there ever really were uncles up there, they’re long gone now.  The modern generation of uncles is more mainstreamed or perhaps people don’t have attics any longer.  The extended family does seem to still be cohabiting, but now it’s the adult children.  And they seem to not be in the attic or basement but be in their old room.

You’ve heard countless reports of adults in their 20s (or older!) living with their parents.  They don’t seem to be there to offer support to parents presumably in their senior years, but to live as they did as a teenager.  They live in the manner they’ve grown accustomed with; reliable climate control, plumbing, food, laundry, cable, wireless, and perhaps access to a car.  You’ve no doubt heard that unemployment is the cause of this phenomenon.  No doubt for some it is.  But there’s something else in play too, no?

Let’s think back, way back (cue flashback music and wiggly screen.)  There you are headed off to college.  You’ve got your new comforter, milk crate of albums, a hotpot and every stitch of clothing you own.  Maybe a parent drove you to campus.  If so they’re long gone by the time you start to unpack.  Those first few hours are filled with nervous meetings of roommates and suite-mates and a growing euphoria of having left home.  Yes, the university is nice.  Yes, the classes seem mildly interesting.  But YOWZA, you don’t have to live with your parents anymore!!!!  You go through the next four years jerry-rigging yourself into a major that will render you employable.

Ah the world of work and the demoralizing entry-level position.  You probably worked weekends, maybe even graveyard shift.  You’d stumble home to your apartment, careful not to wake your roommates sleeping on the couch.  You’d collapse in your bed, lucky to share an actual bedroom with just one other person.  Most nights you’d be too tired to boil up a generic hot dog or open a can of no-frill baked beans.  In the morning you’d wake up 10 minutes early to avoid the maddening crush of all your roommates fighting over the shower.  Our developmental milestones were measured in how many roommates we were able to discard.  Living alone was the ultimate brass ring.  I’m not so sure that’s the case any longer.

There is now more than one generation that has no familiarity with sharing a childhood bedroom let alone a bathroom.  Colleges and universities know this and have been churning out “singles” at an impressive rate.  There is also little romance now associated with being ‘poor.’  There have been too many post-Reagan decades for communes and ‘living off the land’ to hold any mystique for people under 40.  We all spend money in ways that would have floored our generic hot dog eating selves.  Bottles of water?  Cups of coffee for $5?  Electronics?  New cars?  It’s fair to say we considered making a long-distance call a luxury back then.

There are no doubt many young(er) people living with their (extraordinarily generous) parents who have simply had a bad run of luck.  They chose a path to a degree that they could afford.  They chose a course of study that should lead to employment.  They’re ready willing and able to share a garage apartment in the suburbs with three strangers.  But nothing has gelled for them.  They are cooking all the family meals, taking care of the home and generally making themselves an asset to their parents while they look for employment and housing 8 hours a day.

And then there’s everyone else.

There’s Brandon, whose parents paid his tuition entirely and set him on a debt-free course, only to have him drop in and out of the workplace.  He currently lives at his parents’ home while working on his web business, or saving up for a condo (home ownership is now a birthright by the way.)

Emma has college debt, some of it avoidable no doubt.  She eschewed starting at a community college and floundered a bit for it.  Her 4-year degree took 5 1/2 years, but she’s done!  Yes, $200K is a staggering amount of debt for anyone, but surely a dance major can find well-compensated work?

And then there’s dear sweet Madison.  She/he (who knows with a name like Madison!) worked her way through a school she could afford.  She applied for every grant, fellowship and scholarship and even got a free ride to graduate school.  Madison has a good job with a bright future.  She lives with her parents because it makes everyone happy.

Are unemployment rates high?  Of course.  Are students being trained in areas which have projected job growth?  Perhaps.  Has our culture changed radically in the past 20 years?  Absolutely.  That flashback you, bolting through the door of your parents’ home towards your own life is now quaint.  If you had been raised in the child-centric universe that exists today, you may have been less eager to jump into adulthood.  It would seem that the most important takeaway from the “more adult children are living with their parents” buzz is that it may very well not simply be the result of high unemployment.

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Posted by on June 24, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique


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The People On The Bus

I never had to ride a bus to school, and that was a blessing.  To this day I’m still a little wary of them.  Rare class trips confirmed that they were the ideal breeding ground for my anxiety; an enclosed space with mysterious and opaque social rules and customs.  Where you sat and with whom was evidently meaningful to other riders.  On those rare trips I knew enough to stay clear of the back of the bus.  Even as a very small person I sensed that no good could come from being so far away from an adult.  As a younger child those seats seemed very high and quite conducive to hiding bad behavior.  Bad behavior has always frightened me.

A story of a bus matron (which we did not have on our class trips) being verbally abused by children does not surprise me.  Children are people.  Some people are lovely some are disgusting and some fall somewhere in-between.  What does seem inconceivable to me however is that this behavior would have continued for any amount of time.  It stands to reason that at least a handful of children on that bus are little versions of me.  They were frightened by the behavior.  The thought of getting on that bus every morning made their stomachs hurt.  They told their parents.  They asked to be driven to school.  They explained that they’re bad kids on the bus.  There is no vow of secrecy or non-disclosure agreement on the bus.  These are not members of organized crime.  They’re just kids that happen to live along the same bus route.  Someone (if not many) told.  Kids tell.

Following that theory (and it is just a theory, devoid of any factual support whatsoever) could it be that the parents did nothing to stop it?  Once we get past our shock, it does sound plausible, no?  Don’t we tend to assume that things are not our business?  Don’t we usually duck and dive under a bush to avoid any form of confrontation (unless it’s from the confines of our car and involves obscene gestures, or through anonymous comments on the web?)  Despite all government pleading, how many times do we really see something and say something?  Do we “suffer” through a broken streetlight, or wonky elevator?  Or do we fill out a maintenance report?  Do we gape, horrified at teenage girls pulling their tops up on the side of the highway?  Or do we explain how those photos they’re taking might someday limit their options in life?

Hopefully we speak up.  Hopefully we’ve been on the planet long enough to understand the dangers of silence.  Hopefully every day we choose to tip the balance away from disgusting and towards lovely.

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Posted by on June 23, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique


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