Saturday, September 22, 2007

World's Tallest Elvis Tribute Artist is Coming!

Here is small town excitement at its most sublime. An ad in our local paper, the Advocate-Messenger, proclaims "Attention ELVIS fans:" A local paint store is sponsoring a show to commemorate that important event in the civil religion, the anniversary of the King's death (30 years! Where did the time go?) In addition to featuring Paul Staley, World's Tallest Elvis Tribute Artist, the show features a special guest whose claim to fame is that he is the 2-Time Winner of the Elvisfest of the Bluegrass.

Only ten bucks. Such a deal.

Friday, September 21, 2007

40-somethings Are Still Married, Barely

The Census Bureau just came out with its scary report that most marriages contracted in the late '70s did not make it to their 25th anniversary. Mrs. G. and I, who married in the early '80s did, thank the Lord, but we know ours is not the universal experience. My age group, the 40-somethings, seems to be the tipping point. In 2004, among all men 40 - 49 years old, 52.8% were in their first marriage; among women of the same age, 49.7%. This averages out to just over half of all Americans in their 40s are in the first marriages. Odds are that it won't still be a majority in our 50s.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Summers Rejected Again

Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard, was hounded from office for suggesting that one of the reasons that women don't make up half of those at the top of science and engineering is that women don't make up half of those at the top of the math ability spectrum. Summers was invited to speak to the University of California regents recently. The faculty got up in arms, and got 150 signatures in a couple of days. Maureen Stanton, organizer of the petition drive, said "I was appalled that someone articulating that point of view would be invited by the regents," Stanton said.

This is why people despise political correctness. I think Summers is right. Even if you don't agree, the issue is an important empirical question, which can be addressed empirically. That is what universities are for. Perhaps the University of California regents could look into that. But no, they had no more spine than the Harvard trustees. They rescinded the invitation.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Marriage Beats Class, Eventually

George Vaillant has drawn some conclusions from his long-running study of aging men:

Among his most striking findings was that social class seemed to diminish in importance as the men grew older, while factors such as quality of marriage and coping mechanisms played more important roles in predicting happiness and success.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"American Girls" and Their Dads

Mrs. G. did all the work on this one.

As I wrote yesterday, Mattel has introduced a new doll in the American Girl line. Julie, from 1974, is the child of divorce. Each American Girl comes with books introducing her life and describing her distinctive adventures. What happens when we compare how Julie and the other girls relate to their fathers?

Amazon makes it easy to “look inside” the first few pages of books. In historical order, try these experiences.


Felicity Merriman pushed open the door to her father’s store and took a deep breath. She loved the smell of coffee beans and chocolate, of pine soap, spice tea, and apples. No place in the world smelled as good as her father’s store.

“Good day, Mistress Merriman!” said her father. He smiled and bowed.

Felicity grinned. Her father always pretended she was a fine lady customer when she came into his store. “Good day, Mr. Merriman,” she answered. She liked to pretend to.


Josefina shaded her eyes. Even from this far away, she could see Papa. He sat very straight and tall on his horse. He was talking to the workers in the cornfield near the stream. The rancho had belonged to Papa’s family for more than one hundred years. All those years, Papa’s family had cared for the animals and the land. It was not an easy life. Every one had to work hard. Some years there was plenty of rain so that the crops grew and the animals were healthy. Some years there was not enough rain. Then the soil was dry and the animals went thirsty. But through good time and bad the rancho went on. It provided everything Josefina and her family needed to live. It gave them food, clothing, and shelter. Josefina loved the rancho. It was her home. She believed that it was the most beautiful place in all of New Mexico and all of the world.


Addy Walker woke up late on a summer’s night to hear her parents whispering. She thought no more of their quiet voices than of the soft chirping of the crickets in the woods just beyond the little cabin. Often she awoke to her parents’ whispering. Addy liked the sound. It made her feel safe, knowing her mother and father were close by.


Papa’s black wool jacket flapped like a gull’s wings as he crossed the deck. “There’s a storm coming,” Papa said. “It could be dangerous. The coast is rocky here, and the wind is getting stronger.” Papa lifted Kirsten out of the coiled rope. Then he pulled Marta out too. “Come below where we’ll be safe,” he said.


“Jessie, did you know my mother and father?” Samantha asked.

Jessie spoke gently. “You know I didn’t, child. That accident in the boat happened when you were just five. You know I didn’t come to work for your grandmother till you were seven.”

Samantha had known that. Asking had really been wishing. She touched the locket pinned to her dress. Inside the small gold heart was a picture of her mother and father. She would have loved to hear Jessie talk about them. When Jessie told stories, she made everything sound like magic. Jessie would have made Samantha’s parents seem like a princess.


Sometimes, now that Dad was gone to the war, Molly would climb into the plaid chair and sniff it because that vanilla pipe smell made her feel so safe and happy, just as if Dad were home.

Molly remembered the fun they had at the table when Dad was home. He teased Jill and made her blush. He swapped jokes with Ricky and told riddles to Brad, Molly’s younger brother. And he always said, “Gosh and golly, olly Molly, what have you done today?” Suddenly everything Molly had done-whether it was winning a running race or using a multiplication bee—was interesting and important, wonderful or not so bad after all.


“Remember when we built that fort out of clay we dug up from the garden? And we dressed up our Liddle Kiddles in old time clothes.”

“I remember,” sighed Ivy. The room turned middle-of-the-night quiet. Julie and Ivy couldn’t look at teach other.

“I can’t believe you’re moving,” said Ivy, flashing her dark eyes at Julie.

It’s only a few miles away, across town,” said Julie. “It’s not like I’m moving to Mars.

“I won’t be able to blink lights at you from across the street anymore to say good night,” said Ivy.

“But we can call each other up,” Julie pointed out. “And you’ll see me on the weekends when I come visit my dad.” There was that lump again. She felt it every time she thought of being without Dad. She thought she’d gotten used to the idea of her parents being divorced, but now that she wouldn’t be living with Dad any more, suddenly it wasn’t just an idea. It was real.


So, for the first hundred years of the stories, girls start their stories by delighting in their fathers’ nearness. Then the one orphan is allowed to mourn, and the soldier’s daughter is allowed to pine. And then the child of divorce gets to protect her friend by hiding her grief out of sight.

Isn’t that an amazing triumph of individual liberation?

Monday, September 17, 2007

New From Mattel: Happy Divorce Girl

My girls had American Girl dolls -- Addy and Kirsten, respectively, for those who know and love the idea. American Girl was born just a couple of years before they were, and the first dolls were just the thing needful when they were ready for dolls. American Girl dolls are fully formed historical characters, with a whole backstory and books to fill in the historical narrative. One of the features that my wife and I, schooled in '70s feminism, most treasured was that each girl had some money of her own.

A few years ago Mattel bought American Girl. They did maintain the old characters, and developed them in coherent ways, but we worried that the American Girls would be Barbie-ized. My own kids aged out of dolls, so I have not kept up carefully. Lately, though, Mattel has brought out a new American Girl doll, Julie Albright, set in 1974. The crucial distinction that Julie has from previous dolls is that her parents are divorced. This is how Mattel describes her:

For Julie Albright, life after her parents’ divorce holds as many ups and downs as the hilly streets of San Francisco. Julie misses her old bedroom, her pet rabbit, her best friend, Ivy—and most of all, having her whole family together.
But Julie begins to see that change also brings new possibilities. By taking charge of her new life, she learns to believe in herself—and that love can hold a family together even when they live apart.

Ah, the "happy talk" divorce of the mid-1970s, when parents had to be free, and kids were expected to just suck it up. Divorce was not treated as a disaster that ended their childhood, but a change that brings new possibilities. You can buy Julie's school locker, complete with Brady Bunch poster (the happy blended family) and a "Hang in there, Baby" poster showing a kitten literally at the end of its rope.

Perhaps the later Julie books in the AG series can include Julie Torn Between Two Worlds and The Unexpected Legacy of Julie's Parents' Divorce When Julie Tries Dating.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

"The Lives of Others" Not a Road to Damascus Moment

I commend to you the excellent new film, "The Lives of Others," by Florian Henckel von Donnsermarck. The central drama is the moral struggle within an East German secret policeman as he spies on a prominent playwright and his actress girlfriend. The policeman is a true believer in the East German state -- and the playwright is a hopeful socialist, "our only non-subversive writer who is read in the West," as another secret policeman describes him. The Stasi (State Security) man comes to see that his surveillance is just a tool of corruption and petty politics. The playwright, too, is driven to an act of covert rebellion against the police state. Their lives become deeply entangled. I'll not say more about the conclusion.

There is a lovely moment early on when a little boy asks the secret policeman if he is really a Stasi agent.
"Do you know what the Stasi is?"
"Yes. My dad says they are the bad men who put people in prison."
The audience knows this is a dangerous moment for the little boy's family.
"What is the name of ..." the policeman begins. And then he pauses. The actor - East German theater star Ulrich Mühe, who had his own large Stasi file in real life - shows the moral struggle going on inside the Stasi man using only his face.
"What is the name of your ... ball."
"You're silly. Balls don't have names."
The man lets it go.

In an interview included with the DVD, von Donnersmarck says that he wanted to show the policeman's moral struggle as slowly evolving, "not a Damascus moment." He remains the same tidy, quiet, almost compulsive man that he always was, even while his morals are changing. Von Donnersmarck, who spent some of the time writing the screenplay at the Cistercian abbey run by his uncle, said he didn't want his man to go from a gray bureaucrat to a hedonistic bohemian, like the artists he was watching. People don't change from Saul to Paul, the director said, unless there is divine intervention. "The Lives of Others" is about the moral changes we can come to make and choose for ourselves.