Saturday, June 23, 2007


[There is a small spoiler in this post]

For his 13th birthday, I went with my son to see the new "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. At one point one of the characters is revealed to be the goddess Calypso bound in a human body. When the right spell is said to release the goddess, the character suddenly grows to be as tall as the ship's mast, harangues the crew for being rotten mortals -- then bursts into a hundred thousand crabs, who scuttle across the deck (and over all the humans) and jump into the sea.

Boybot turned to me and said "Worst piñata ever."

Friday, June 22, 2007

Feminism is Over? 'Kay

Kay Hymowitz says feminism is obsolete. On the one hand, equal opportunity is a sacred belief of the civil religion. On the other hand, most women want to use their equal opportunities to have a life that includes getting married and staying home with the kids when they are little. Most young women, even the ones who do think of themselves as femininsts, are willing to sacrifice some money and power in the world to get that kind of life. If the graying Second Wavers don't like it, they can lump it.

The best story Hymowitz recounts in the "The End of Herstory" chapter of Marriage and Caste in America is of Peggy Orenstein speaking Second Wave truths to college women. A Washington University student said from the audience, "I don't want to wait until I am 35 to have kids!"
Orenstein's reaction: "I nodded sympathetically. It really wasn't fair. Then suddenly I thought, 'Wait a minute! I am nearly 37 and I don't have children yet. These women don't want to be me."


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Three Nice Teenagers

Today my youngest child turns 13. He joins his sisters, who are 17 and 19. This is the Year of the Teenager.

I do not face this with apprehension, though, they are pretty good kids.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Mission of the Marital Caste

I think the best idea in Kay Hymowitz' Marriage and Caste in America is that higher class parents see their main job as educating and developing their children, while parents in the lower classes see their main job as simply assuring that their children have the necessities of living. Middle class mothers, especially, organize their lives around what Hymowitz calls The Mission. The mission to educate the children becomes the organizing principle of middle class households.

Hymowitz says the importance of the Mission has multiplied in recent years, as our economy is more and more based on knowledge and the sustained capacity to learn.

When you tie together the Mission, the knowledge-based economy, and the caste-like advantage of the married classes,

... the reason for that Mozart or Rafi tape in the morning, and that bedtime story at night, for finding out all you can about a teacher in the fall and for Little League in the spring, for all the books, crib mobiles, trips to the museum, and limits on TV ...

looks not so much like a fussy lifestyle as it does the foundation of the next ruling class.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Keep the Engagement, Lose the Diamond

Diamond engagement rings are a fad ingeniously cooked up by DeBeers, the diamond monopoly. Now that diamond engagement rings average $3,200, they are becoming an obstacle to engagement, the way that the absurd cost of weddings -- now averaging nearly $30,000 -- are becoming an obstacle to marriage.

Meghan O'Rourke, writing in Slate, is against engagement rings altogether, because they are one sided and therefore, in her mind, sexist. I do not have the same objection. I think men and women are complementary but not the same in their approach to courtship, a difference as much rooted in our different biology as in culture. It is important for men to give public tokens of their exclusive commitment to a woman. And, as Steven Rhoads writes in Taking Sex Differences Seriously, if you had to show a space alien an example of what a happy human being looks like, you could not do better than an engaged woman. Now, that token of betrothal does not have to be a ring, and certainly not a diamond ring. I gave Mrs. G. an opal that had been in the family. It was bigger and flashier than our "homely Protestant" aesthetic would have picked if we had been starting from scratch. Opals are fragile enough that you wouldn't want to wear it all the time. Still, I think a gemstone ring on the left ring finger would be universally understood as a engagement ring in our time and place.

O'Rourke cites legal scholar Margaret Brinig's argument that big engagement rings became popular in the middle of the 20th century in a transitional cultural moment. At the beginning of the century, if an engaged woman gave up her virginity, then was abandoned, she could sue for Breach of Promise to Marry. As the century wore on legal fashion turned against making a legal case out of it. By the end of the century, loss of virginity was not much of an obstacle to marriage anyway. In between, though, a woman deserted at the altar still had a big asset she could sell, as partial compensation for what she had lost.

We can go a little deeper into this story, though. Edward Jay Epstein tells a fascinating story in The Atlantic in 1982 with the instructive title "Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?" He tells the story of how the DeBeers cartel hired the Ayer advertising firm in the Depression to create a market for a useless kind of rock which, thanks to DeBeers' own mines, was no longer even rare. Ayer invented the slogan "A diamond is forever," and planted the notion that a man's love for a woman can be measured by the size of the diamond her gives her. Having successfully planted that thought, DeBeers today is trying to create a market for anniversary diamonds.

Let me say that I really like the mushy romantic DeBeers ads. I like the young couple holding hands looking at the old couple holding hands. The one in which the husband re-proposes to his wife in Trafalgar Square, with all their friends and relatives showing up to surprise her, makes me laugh every time. And the guy shouting to the world in St. Mark's Square "I love this woman!" is something I can plausibly threaten Mrs. G. with.

I like the mush. I just skip the diamonds.

Monday, June 18, 2007

What American Marriage Does

This is the title of the second essay in Kay Hymowitz' Marriage and Caste in America.

The answer is "raise children." The distinctive feature of American marriage, compared to the Old World models against which we revolted, is that couples were much more supported in choosing who they would raise children with. A republic needs civic-minded, self-reliant citizens, and the best nursery for such adults is a strong democratic family. What has changed since the cultural revolution is that children are being driven out of the picture. Marriage has been redefined as being about the happiness of the couple, not the protection of their children.

The good news in Hymowitz' essay is that this redefinition of marriage may not be a permanent change, but is another idiosyncrasy of Baby Boomers. As they age out of childrearing, the generation on the front lines gets to try to restore the main task of marriage to the center of the job description. She cites a Yankelovich survey that found a bare majority of Boomers supported a return to more traditional, child-oriented standards of family life -- whereas nearly three-quarters of Gen Xers do.

It will be a hard slog to restore democratic childrearing as the first job of families. But it will be worth it, because that is what American marriage does.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father's Day Gratitude

Father's Day is a pretty bogus holiday. Nonetheless, I am genuinely grateful for my three wonderful children. Good, smart, funny, well-behaved, teen-aged kids. I am listening to the sounds of them getting ready for church -- showering, ironing, reading the paper. We will walk down Main Street to church. The eldests will fuss at the youngests, and the youngests will do silly things to amuse themselves and, with a delay, the eldests.

I don't know what the future will bring, but this day, this moment, is the fulfillment of the promise.