Saturday, August 18, 2007

Teen Anecdote, With Cats

Endub took the cats to the vet for rabies shots, worm meds, etc. I helped her load two cats into one carrier, which the kitties were not too happy about. Trilby, who is being a young teen boy in an excellent way, agreed to help her take them. The carrier was too heavy for either of the kids to carry alone, so they calmly each took an end and carried it out to the van. I gave Endub a blank check. My only worry about the trip was her backing the van out without hitting the garage. When she had successfully negotiated that turn, Mrs. G and I were congratulating ourselves on having such competent, helpful kids.

Then the phone rang. It was Endub. She was at the end of the driveway. "How do I get there?" she asked.

Still, wonderful kids.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Sworn Virgins of Albania

I am posting on this story mostly because it is fascinating. In the mountains of northern Albania there is a centuries-old custom that if a woman takes an oath of perpetual virginity, she may have all the freedom, authority, and respect of a man.

This is a good illustration of the idea that gender is a social construct -- a liberal's idea, put to conservative use. It reminds me of anthropologist Mary Douglas' argument (in Purity and Danger) that we make systems of categories to help us sort out the world. There will always be a few anomalies, though, which are dangerous to the purity of the system. So we usually build in some escape valves, to allow anomalies to be socially constructed into a new category that doesn't violate the rules.

Some proponents of social construction want to take this idea as license to do away with all social categories. I don't think that is a livable solution. Recognizing that there are limits to our necessary category systems, though, lets us use them while still being humble about how absolute the categories are. There will always be anomalies. If they are not actually dangerous to society, we can find a place for them, too.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Safe Neighborhoods vs. Resegregation

(This is the beginning of a good idea. Maybe I will back it up and write a famous article someday. Here is my first cut.)

Part of the hidden work of protecting their families that dads do is to move their families to safer neighborhoods. Couple-headed families usually have more than twice the income of single-mom families, and can afford better neighborhoods. Fathers provide direct protection for their own households. Fathers also usually contribute to everyone's safety in their own neighborhoods in a way that families in fatherless neighborhoods rarely do.

Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton won the big sociology prize a few years ago for American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. They argued that American cities were resegregating, especially by separating African-Americans from other Americans in neighborhoods that were increasingly black. Massey and Denton attribute this to racism.

One of the ways that African-American families are distinctive from other racial-ethnic groups in this country is that black children are much less likely to grow up with their married father in their home.

Putting these two ideas together:

Fatherless families tend to end up concentrated in the least expensive neighborhoods; and

Fatherless neighborhoods tend to become the most violent; and

African-American families are the most likely to be fatherless and live in fatherless neighborhoods; so

One of the main underlying factors in the increased racial concentration of African-Americans is really an increased fatherless concentration of African-Americans.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Marriage Makes You Happy, But Some Would Still Rather Be Unrestricted

Swiss economist Bruno Frey conducted a massive study of whether marriage makes people happy, or whether happier people get married. To his surprise, he found that marriage really does make people happier.

What struck me in the news accounts of his lectures on this study was a side point. The woman with whom he lives, also a professor, still does not want to get married. She "doesn't think it contributes anything additional and is only putting restrictions on you."

I have argued before that marriage as a social institution does make most people happier even when it just concerns a young couple. Marriage really comes into its own, though, to protect children. It is also a helpful structure for couples who are not so young. Marriage is best when making something that lasts is more important to you than keeping your options open.

Prof. Frey's non-wife's response, though, raises an interesting question: would you forgo happiness in order to avoid restrictions?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Heartwarming Viagra Ad

I hold no brief for Viagra as a product, and most of the ads, from Bob Dole's onward, have been kind of creepy. There is a new one, though, of a bunch of middle-aged guys jamming at a roadhouse about how much they love their wives. The chorus? "Viiiiiiiiva Viagra," done with a big Elvis flourish. They then get in their cars and scamper home.

That is surprisingly charming.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Two Ways to Play the Privilege Game

A friend who works for the NCCJ - now the National Conference for Community and Justice, formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews - told me of an exercise that they run at their summer youth camp, Anytown. All the campers hold hands in a long line, standing side by side. The leader then reads items from a list of privileges and disadvantages. If you grew up in a house with more than 50 books, take a step forward. If your mother is a college graduate, take three steps forward. If you grew up with only one parent, take three steps back. And so on.

Kids at Anytown soon find that it is hard keep holding hands with their friends, with some moving way ahead, while others stay still or even fall back. The ones who move the furthest down the field can see graphically what an advantage their privileges have given them, privileges that most did not realize they had. For kids who choose to go to an NCCJ leadership camp, this experience fills them with a desire to work together to lift everyone for the sake of community and justice.

Another friend was telling me that his daughter had done this exercise as part of orientation at a fancy northeastern prep school. I don't think he said they were holding hands. The leaders, who had been brought in to teach this very privileged group about privilege, had added some options appropriate to that setting. "If your mom is a college graduate" got most of the kids to go three steps forward, though some of the kids on the biggest scholarships did not. But then they started adding some unusual instructions - if there is a building on this campus named for your family, take ten steps forward. The particular child who marched down the field at that instruction was so far ahead of the others that the instructors gave him a chair to sit in on the field.

What was different at the prep school from the justice camp was that many of the students came to see the privilege game as a competition to see how many privileges they could add up. My friend's daughter got the intended point. Many of her classmates, though, looked forward to each new set of privilege steps as a way to catch up to the lucky dog sitting in the chair downfield.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

One-Hour Presbyteries

Suppose each congregation in a presbytery were no more than one hour from every other church in the presbytery. (This principle could apply in other polities, too, even among congregational polities.) This would be small enough that all the ministers and elder cadres could have steady, organic relations with one another. This is closer to the way presbyteries used to be organized. In some places, especially in the west, this rule might not be practical. Still, I think a one-hour dispersion rule would be a good rule of thumb for the Presbyterian Church.

I am working on a document about rebuilding the Presbyterian establishment. In the draft, I argued that the Executive or General Presbyters, the ongoing staff person of the presbytery, is a natural advisor to the General Assembly. The EP, though, is not a constitutional officer. The constitutional officers -- the offices every presbytery has to have someone fill -- are the stated clerk and the moderator. I also believe the stated clerks are natural advisors to the General Assembly. The moderator usually serves for only a year, so does not have quite the breadth of experience that the stated clerks and EPs have.

A reader of my presbyterian establishment draft commented that EPs are a recent invention. In order to assure that most presbyteries had the resources to afford a permanent paid staff member, the presbyteries were made much larger. In much of the country presbyteries today far exceed the one-hour rule.

If going to one-hour presbyteries meant doing without EPs in most places, so be it. I think it is more important to the life, connection, and solidarity of the church that the local ministers and elder cadres know one another.