Thursday, April 25, 2013

Proms, Weddings, and Other Catastrophes

My cousin Durrie got married when he was in his late thirties, so he’d been to a lot of weddings by then. Late in the reception, my wife and I came up with an axiom: every wedding is, in part, a referendum on every other wedding the bride and/or groom has attended.

Specifically, Durrie had been to a number of weddings, probably mine included, where the buffet was closed well before he was ready. So, at Durrie’s wedding the buffet remained open after the cake was cut, after the dancing had begun in may still be open fifteen years later for all I know. Whatever this little statement on other people's weddings cost him in dollars, the chance to say this to all of us was worth it to him.

Once you start to see this kind of thing, you can’t miss it: weddings where the flowers on the table match the ribbons in the bridesmaids' hair, which match the color of the minister’s eyes; weddings where they give out favors like iPods, instead of those nasty little almonds; weddings where they give out candied almonds, rather than those pedestrian Hershey Kisses; weddings where the bar is: open the whole time/open only during dinner/open only before dinner/open only after dinner/only available by crashing the wedding next door—each serving as an unequivocal statement on an aspect of every wedding in existence up to that point.

This referendum factor is especially prevalent at weddings, but also noticeable at other Big Events, including proms, showers, sweet-sixteen parties, and district chorus festivals. Especially district chorus festivals--sooner or later, we're going to show up to find a swan carved from ice at one of those things, and no one will ever sign up to host again.

I’m more comfortable talking about weddings because I have much more recent memories of those than of proms, but if I recall correctly a number of these issues regarding weddings are even worse at proms. Issues begin with the:
  1. Proposal. The first step in these events is often a mini-event in itself: the proposal. Previously, this was limited to weddings, but prom date requests are apparently also getting in on the action. If there really never is a second chance to make a first impression, there really is no do-over for this special moment. Asking a person to prom, or to marry you, always had fairly high stakes, and this has only intensified now that there are huge casts, complex sub-plots, and elaborate scenery involved. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of the:
  2. Tension. As with all once-in-a-lifetime events (even if they aren't always so once-in-a-lifetime), weddings come with a pretty crushing level of pressure for everyone involved. Some of this tension begins before the event itself with:
  3. Seating arrangements. In Harry Potter, they play a version of chess in which the pieces move themselves, resulting in a lot of dead pawns and broken equipment laying around the board at the end. On Star Trek they play a version of chess in three dimensions. Neither version of this game is nearly as complicated or dangerous as the prospect of arranging tables at weddings and proms. For weddings, the inevitable outcome is that someone, maybe your college roommate, has to sit with your weird Aunt Sally. At prom, you're fine as long as the number of friends you have is exactly the same as the number of seats at each table, and all of these people are properly coupled with each other. Otherwise you're screwed. You will try to recover from this conundrum with:
  4. Over-preparation. My wife informs me that she rather enjoys having formal events to prepare for, because it’s a rare treat to have your clothes, hair, skin tone, makeup, fitness level, and teeth-whitening all come together at the same time. Though, as a guy, I agree that having a clean shirt and a clean car on the same day is rather nice, the truth is I’ve rarely seen my beautiful wife content with all of the aforementioned aspects all at once. One way to achieve all of this is:
  5. Overspending. The once-in-a-lifetime-event tension, Durrie's referendum axiom, and fact that everything for weddings (and proms) costs double what it would on the normal open market combine to make the whole thing nauseatingly expensive. Riding in a limo may be very cool, but high school students, and recent college graduates for that matter, can have some real difficulty coughing up hundreds of dollars for a twenty minute car ride and some flowers to take along. I don’t know about proms, but if I remember correctly, brides are even expected to be decked out in special wedding-day knickers that cost lots more than normal fancy white underwear. This probably seems especially necessary because of:
  6. Sex. The fact that the bride and groom are more-or-less required to have sex the night of the wedding puts some bit of pressure on all of the other couples there too. The fact that prom is supposed to be a great night for losing your virginity does the same. Though teenagers seem uniquely qualified to bow to this kind of pressure, I do know one married couple who, after attending a friend's wedding, welcomed the birth of an unplanned second child, brought on by the sex pressure and:
  7. Alcohol. This year my school will have an additional expensive little accessory at prom—a breathalyzer. After all of the overspending, and before the planned- or unplanned-sex, often comes lots of alcohol. The occasional aforementioned unprotected marital sex or ill-advised dates with bartenders (another friend, and another story for another time) aside, drinking usually turns out mostly fine for adults. For teenagers, though, it's compounded by the fact that it’s illegal. This further complicates matters through the efforts undertaken to keep it secret (e.g. drinking a whole lot beforehand, since you can't drink at the event itself). It's also especially unhealthy, due to their lousy tolerance, limited experience, and bad risk-assessment skills--made worse when under the influence.
A larger, much larger, question is whether weddings and proms are good for relationships. To borrow a turn-of-phrase from my wife: I think they are, provided the person you’re going with is good for you. If getting married, going to prom, or taking a date to a wedding launches a relationship of two people who are together more than the sum of their parts, then it does. If this incentive for coupling is an end unto itself, probably not.

I must confess that for the proms I went to, I was just as likely to be a bad date as to have chosen a bad date. I never took a date to a wedding, except for my wife, so while I have a better track record there, my experience is very limited.

A problem, or advantage—depending on your point of view—with both proms and weddings is that they are sign posts in your life’s journey. One observation: proms make students believe that the year is pretty much over, which is a significant problem if the only date the country club has available is in late April. More generally though, if you’ve made it to prom with your virginity intact, you’re likely to take notice. If you attend a friend’s wedding and you’re not yourself engaged, you’re likely to take notice--especially if the happy couple has been together for a shorter period of time than you and your not-yet-betrothed. If you are married when you attend a wedding, you may take notice of all of your contemporaries who have already had children.

Whether the identification of these things presents a problem or not probably provides a good barometer of how you feel about where you’ve ended up in life. Couples who are just friends often have a better time at prom than those who are in a serious relationship, provided that both sides of the couple are on board with the idea of remaining just friends. Similarly, watching your best friend marry a complete tool may make you feel better about your place as an unattached single.

Enjoying these events can so often come down to putting things into perspective. My once-in-a-lifetime prom experience actually happened four times in high school, and was repeated half-a-dozen more times through college formals, chaperoning, and other people's weddings. If you're not actually getting a marriage certificate out of the whole thing, maybe thinking of it as a nice dinner and a nice out with friends is better than bowing to the pressures and inflated expectations of Big Events.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Gender Studies from a 9-Month-Old

This entry is part of a continuing series (see also: here and here) in which I explore the learning that has been inflicted on me in the time since I became a father for a second time (fifteen years after the first). Rather than focus on the aspects of this particular time of our development, I've chosen to explore a particular aspect, namely, being the father of girls. 

I've been putting off writing this essay for months now. Most people assume that when I don't do something, it's because I'm a Slacker. My wife, who has been watching me fail to complete tasks for twenty-some years now, has theorized that sometimes when I don't do something, there's a Reason. I think the Reason in this case is the fact that writing about gender issues as a man comes with the following dangers:

         a. Coming off as simultaneously lecherous, sexist, and boorish: "Heh, heh, heh...'gender studies'...heh, heh..."
         2. Descending into a post-feminist rant about how bad men have it these days: "It's really tough for us to get by when we only take in $1 to each of your $0.74."

It doesn't seem that this discovery has made writing this much easier, but I can try to deal with those specific concerns. Regarding the first, I know I may be at times lecherous, sexist, and boorish, but I don't intend to be--and when I do it on purpose, I'm kidding (yeah, that's it, kidding). On the second, I do know how good we have it as the male of the species. Given the relative equality of the sexes in our society now, I can't imagine how things would be if the odds hadn't historically been so seriously tilted in our favor.

So, with that out of the way, here are some observations and discoveries that Ms. Catherine has helped me to understand through her nine months of educating (and re-educating) me:

  1. Gender-neutral - I worry that there is increasingly no such thing as gender neutral toys. When we were kids, we had girls' bikes and boys' bikes (because, I guess, girls are more concerned that their crotch may come into direct contact with their cross-bar), plus Barbies and Matchbox cars. However, there were also lots of toys that were more or less free of gender identity, including LEGOs, Lincoln Logs, saxophones, teething rings, Kermit--here's a game: think of anything at all and Google it along with the word "girl." Maybe, don't do that at work.
  2.  Temperature- My wife lives in an alternate universe that seems to exist ten degrees colder than the rest of the world, meaning that she seems to be most comfortable in the range of 78-88 degrees Farenheit. I, on the other hand, wear shorts all winter, even when I go outside to feed the chickens. The baby's build seems so far to take after her father--that is, like a brick shi...shed. Consequentially, she seems to be more often upset by being too hot than too cold. On several occasions, however, I have been scolded by strangers in public for not having the baby "properly" warmed. Sometimes, this is done by actually reaching out and re-organizing the baby's blanket to the stranger's specifications.
  3. Clothes - We are big on hand-me-downs in our house. Most children outgrow clothes before they wear them out, and every stitch of clothes (and every toy) that comes from a friend, a relative, or a thrift store is an item that wasn't bought at WalMart. More or less half of the other babies in the world are male, and so are the previous owners of many of Catherine's clothes. This means that  we are often faced with a decision: do we care if the child looks like a boy? If we don't care, are we prepared for the scolding that we will encounter from strangers? Can we accept the possibility of  long-term confusion of casual acquaintances who will perpetually call her a cute little fella regardless of how she's dressed at that particular moment? Again, you would think that most clothes fall into the "either" category, and that this is at least the case for girl babies, but not so much. Therefore, we do a tiny bit understand the temptation to permanently affix a little headband to the child, just to be safe.
  4. The low bar - Dads enjoy a secret advantage. Well, secret until Joel Stein ruined the whole thing. Since the gig is up, I will also share it here: people think you're a very good dad if you manage to keep your baby alive while you take it along with you while you go about your daily life. People only think you're a good mom if you entirely cancel your daily life to take care of your baby, while somehow maintaining an immaculate home, and keeping the baby engaged in enrichment activities all day. Here's a parenting tip: if you're going to bring your baby to a bar, a Region Chorus concert, a date, or a demolition derby, I recommend being a dad.
  5. Work - In removing the prohibition on women in combat, the Army recently reignited national discussion of the question of which jobs are not suitable to both genders? When I was in college, I assumed that there were more men in major symphony orchestras because men were better at symphony-level playing (even on instruments like the flute, played by lots more girls in school bands than boys). Then I read Blink, and found out that as soon as auditions became blind, the gender gap began to disappear. It seems that men don't play the trombone better (or even stronger or louder) than women, and I wasn't the only one who thought they did. Men got more symphony jobs because conductors assumed that men would get more symphony jobs. So, jobs still off-limits to Catherine: Roman Catholic priest (and, therefore, Pope); opera baritone; sperm donor; men's restroom attendant; and member of commando (though, presumably not commando) units.
  6. Women's health - Know what a labial adhesion is? Neither did I, but I had to learn. Being a father of daughters demystifies the female body in mystifying ways. I assume it's a similar situation for mothers of boys.
  7. Parents' gender preference - One personality trait of which I'm particularly proud is the fact that I didn't really care whether either of our kids were to be a son or a daughter. Like many other successes that I can boast, this required absolutely no effort for me at all. My chosen sports are tennis, swimming, and watching TV; my chosen recreational activities are choir, musical theater, and reading; my favorite movies are When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride; and my favorite TV show is Downton Abbey (no, not gay; why do you ask?). Therefore, it never seemed particularly important which gender my kids were, since either boys or girls could participate in this stuff equally well. If you're struggling with this, let me remind you that having a boy child does not guarantee that you will have someone with whom to throw a football, shoot guns, or argue the designated-hitter rule--also, having a girl child doesn't guarantee that you won't.
I am actively fighting the superstition that writing about gender serves to enhance and worsen gender bias. As a white, middle-class male, aged 18-49, the world is constantly catering to my needs. I grew up thinking that we were beyond racism, beyond sexism, and beyond class warfare. What I didn't realize was that I thought we were past these things because my side was doing just fine. Until Spike Lee told me otherwise, I thought that The Jeffersons was proof that we were done dealing with all of this stuff. I also assumed that I couldn't be a feminist because I was male. I also grew up thinking I didn't know any gay people. Turns out, I just didn't know any gay people who wanted to come out to a bunch of raging, flaming homophobes.

The discovery of my difficulties with talking and writing about these issues may be important in itself. The path of least resistance--always my favorite path--has been to deal only with the gender issues that affect me directly--namely, nothing much. With further thought on this, I may conclude that my daughters should be made aware of all of the challenges faced by those of their gender--that they should see clearly all the obstacles in their way. I may conclude that they should ignore all hindrances in the hope that by stumbling over enough of them they will make real progress. Either way, I think that denial that we still do have gender issues may be over for me, and that a father of daughters is not entitled to such blissful ignorance.