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Archive for December, 2009

For the past month, I’ve had a seasonal job selling jewelry in a large department store.  Most of the merchandise is expensive and, in my opinion, ugly.  But, as retail jobs go, it really hasn’t been so bad.  And now that I’ve sufficiently damned it with faint praise, I’ll even go so far as to say it’s been interesting–and fun, sometimes–to help confused but well meaning men buy gifts for the various women in their lives. Mostly, though, it’s made me think about what a strange and fraught role gift-giving plays in heterosexual relationships.*

Here’s an example.  One day I was helping a guy who’d bought a diamond pendant for his fiancée.  Since he was also in the market for an engagement ring, I was showing him diamond solitaires and asking about his girlfriend’s tastes and what he thought she’d like.  And he replied, “Oh, she never wears jewelry.  She’s really outdoorsy, and she likes camping and hiking, and whenever I ask her about what ring she wants, she shows me something really simple.”  He then proceeded to tell me that he only liked the bigger, more expensive settings, and that that was what he was going to buy for her.

Obviously, this guy is a clueless boyfriend and a bad gift-giver.  He was very resistant to my suggestion that he look at the simpler settings we had, or that–God forbid!–he go ring shipping with his fiancée so she could give more direct input.  Now, on some level, I can understand the pressure to buy a fancy engagement ring, since the whole practice is historically predicated on the man proving his worthiness as a husband/provider.  But why would anyone buy a diamond pendant as a Christmas present for someone who doesn’t like jewelry and probably won’t wear it?

I think it’s because (in addition to this particular guy being thoughtless) gift giving is supposed to be one of the sacred duties men perform in romantic relationships.  Sure, women are supposed to buy things for men, too–because everyone is supposed to buy everything all the time–but I think it’s fair to say that there’s much more cultural pressure for men to prove their love and commitment to women by giving them presents than the other way around.  Men want to be with women because they want sex, and women will have sex as long as they get DIAMONDS, or so the narrative goes.  And so jewelry and flowers and candy become shorthand for a man’s love and fidelity.  That he is only obligated to buy these gifts about four times a year–Holidays, birthday, anniversary, and Valentine’s Day–heightens their symbolic importance.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “that’s just what Jared wants you to think!”  And it is.  But Jared and Kay and Weisfield aren’t pulling these mores out of thin air; they’re merely using them to their advantage.  I also have to think that part of the appeal of the diamonds-and-flowers brand of romancing stems from the fact that heterosexual relationships are still mostly unequal.  Women are expected to put up with a lot from their male partners, and they’re also conditioned to believe they’re so undesirable that few men would willingly be with them.  So overt displays like diamonds become both a consolation prize and a necessary assurance that your boyfriend thinks you are, in fact, valuable.  And a guy who is trying to be a good boyfriend will probably pick up on all of this and consider something like a diamond pendant the best proof of his affection.

It’s a pretty fucked up, insidious dynamic.  I don’t really give a shit about marriage or diamonds or engagement rings, yet I’ve still found myself wanting similar kinds of validation.  In fairness, though, I only felt that way when I wasn’t getting much respect and emotional validation to begin with.  It’s much easier to feel secure in a relationship when things actually are secure.  But that knowledge didn’t stop me from beating myself up for being silly enough to want to go out to dinner on Valentine’s Day.

*I have no idea whether it’s like this for gays.  I can only call out the craziness I know.

UPDATE:  This old post on Pandagon is very apropos.

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I am completely serious about this.  Much virtual ink has been spilled over the fact that this past decade has borne witness to the emergence of television as a legitimate, honest-to-goodness art  form.  And since I strive to have my finger on the pulse of popular culture, and because I like both art and being entertained, I want to watch more TV.  Here’s a short list of what I plan on ordering as soon as I restore my Netflix account:

The Wire: I know, I know, I have NO EXCUSE for not having watched this already.  It’s at the top of my queue.

The Sopranos: I’ve seen a few episodes on A&E or something and was very impressed.  Plus, I read somewhere that The Sopranos is to TV what Citizen Kane was to movies, and I love me some Citizen Kane, so.

Six Feet Under: A friend recommended this to me, and she has really good taste.

Carnivale: Word on the street is that this series depicts the struggle between good and evil, free will and destiny, uses both Christian and Masonic imagery, and is set during the Dust Bowl.  What’s not to like?

Dexter: Recommended by multiple reliable sources.

The West Wing: I should be conversant with this.  Plus, I hear it’s entertaining.

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The New York Times has a fascinating piece on the woolly legal issues surrounding surrogacy, highlighted by a sad, complicated case in Michigan.  The short version of the story: an infertile couple, the Kehoes, created embryos with donor eggs and sperm.  They then selected a surrogate, Laschell Baker, to carry the pregnancy to term.  The Kehoes reimbursed Baker for her medical expenses, and expected to gain guardianship of the babies after they were born.  Things got dicey, however, when Baker learned of Amy Kehoe’s psychiatric history during the guardianship hearing.  (Kehoe had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had been arrested years earlier for cocaine use and driving under the influence.)  Despite the fact that she was on anti-psychotics and, according to her psychiatrist, had had no symptoms of mental illness for nine years, Baker argued that Kehoe was an unfit mother.  Since Michigan law regards surrogacy contracts as void and unenforceable, she successfully disputed the Kehoe’s guardianship and the twins are now in the Baker’s custody.

It’s a heartbreaking story, and I’m pretty disturbed by the fact that Amy Kehoe was determined an unfit mother not because she was currently displaying erratic or abusive behavior, but because she had a medical history of mental illness.  I don’t think that Laschell Baker was right to withhold the babies for that reason.  But!  The article really drove home the idea that in surrogate situations, children (or potential children) are being treated as commodities—straight up, I-paid-money-for-it-so-it’s-mine commodities.  The basis for the Kehoe’s legal claim to parenthood was that they commissioned and paid for the babies’ creation.  To wit:

“We paid for the egg, the sperm, the in vitro fertilization,” Ms. Kehoe said as she showed off baby pictures at her home near Grand Rapids, Mich. “They wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for us.”

While I’m not discounting the importance of either this or the obvious emotional investment they had, the idea that parenthood in these situations must necessarily be awarded to whomever paid for the conception and gestation of the fetuses, as opposed to whomever did the gestating, is not immediately obvious to me.  One of the commenters on Jezebel, purpleshoes,  summed it up really well:

To me, there are two different questions here: whether a woman gains the legal right to decide what happens to other people’s genetic material once it’s in her uterus, and whether women can sign ultimately binding legal contracts dealing with the disposition of a fetus that is not yet born. I say the precedent for the first is clearly sperm – in that a woman has a right to continue or discontinue a pregnancy even though some portion of the genetic material involved is not hers, because the major requirement to continue the pregnancy is not the existence of the initial cells but rather the major involvement of her internal organs – and the precedent for the second is clearly adoption, in which women can’t sign away rights to children that legally don’t exist yet, so any decision made before birth can only be considered provisional.

In other words, carrying a pregnancy to term is A Big Deal, both ethically and biologically.  It’s not like watering someone else’s house plant for nine months.  There are good reasons why most states have been reluctant to recognize surrogacy contracts.  Parental rights and obligations cannot usually be contracted away, and like that last quote mentions, it’s legally impossible to opt out of one’s parental responsibilities to a child who doesn’t exist yet. Birth mothers considering adoption cannot relinquish custody while they’re still pregnant, and a lot of states allow a grace period of a few days after giving birth before they have to make a final decision.

(more…)

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Oma-isms

This thread about things your mom says is hilarious.  Both my parents have arsenals of stock phrases, but I’ve come to realize that my maternal grandmother’s sayings are where it’s at, linguistically speaking.

Here are a few of them:

“Himself”/”Herself”:  This one is hard to explain, but she uses these pronouns to draw attention to a third person in the room (usually a child) without letting that person know she’s talking about him.  For example: you and another adult are in the same room as a two year old.  The two year old does something cute, so you say, “look at himself,” to the other adult.  A second, less frequent, usage involves using “himself” or “herself” to refer to a recently disgraced person, i.e., a misbehaved child or a philandering politician.  Also, you always say “himself” or “herself” as though it’s in italics.

“God Love ’em”: OK, it’s not that unusual.  But it’s very useful for expressing goodwill mingled with condescension and pity.  My cousin once said it about Michael Jackson.

“That’s dear!”: In this context, “dear” is how you refer to the actions or creations of a person with questionable taste who is nevertheless well meaning.  Your great aunt gave you a kitschy wall print for Christmas?  How dear!  It’s like “sweet” or “adorable,” but with more bite.  “Dear” can also be used when speaking to children, as in: “that was a dear birthday card you made me!”  Interestingly, in this case it is not at all condescending.

“Well”: This is a conversational panacea which you can say in response to something either very boring or, more often, something very shocking.  –” Oma, I like chocolate ice cream but not the kind with chocolate swirls in it.’ –“Well.”  Or: –“Hey, look at my tongue ring!” –“Well.” Now that I’ve described it, this doesn’t seem like a strange use of the word, but I assure you that it is.  Maybe it’s the intonation she uses; somehow, the one syllable conveys whole sentences and paragraphs.

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