Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The trouble with testosterone

Testosterone- that poor, controversial little hormone.

As the name suggests, it's produced in men by the testes (and the adrenal glands). It helps men do those male things, like deepen their voices, enable a sex drive and produce sperm. No testosterone, no sperm, no babies. Thanks, testosterone.

But guess what? Women produce testosterone too in our adrenal glands and, of all places, our ovaries, those silly bisexual little reproductive organs of ours. We actually need it in order for our ovaries to properly function. And what's one of the primary functions of our ovaries? Producing ova (egg). No testosterone, no ova, no babies. Thanks again, testosterone.

If you're feeling grateful to testosterone right now, you obviously didn't hear about it in last week's big stories where it was held to be accountable for 1) men being non-communicative jerks and 2) "people" not finding black women as attractive as other women. Huh.

I am pleased over all that Chaz Bono's journey from female to male has been met with such positive media attention. Transgender people are on the map and part of the discussion. Bono has put a somewhat familiar face on a group of people many others have been squeamish about.

But... damn, he's saying some indefensible things. Because he's now on testosterone, he has no patience for what his longtime girlfriend is talking about. Because he's on testosterone, he can now access his anger. Because he's on testosterone, he's more gadget oriented. I can't even make this stuff up.

This is an issue with memoir: to a certain extent, the reader doesn't have the right to question another individual's experience of their own life. What Bono ends up saying is, because of testosterone, I have the male body I feel more comfortable in. I don't feel any need to argue with that. But I don't hear anyone of his interviewers pausing as he makes his claims. "Well, Mr. Bono, I think we can understand this is your experience, but the science on that hasn't been confirmed." Is that obnoxious? Maybe, but it's also part of a responsible journalist's job.

In a way, I don't really expect more. This is the same group of people that shined a light on a certain idiot millionaire for over a month as he spouted ridiculous conspiracy theories about President Obama. The truth is that these people don't really have the job description they used to have. So, eh, who cares?

I care. No one is questioning Chaz Bono's story about himself because it reinforces a narrative about how testosterone makes men bigger, badder, stronger, better with numbers, analytic thinking and more sexed up than any woman could ever hope to be. (I'd like it noted that this is one of the few times where we can put "analytic thinking" in the same sentence as "sex". Damn testosterone- you are a super hormone!) I suspect that if Bono's story had been different, it wouldn't have been picked up as eagerly.

(To all of you who would argue that men and women are different and that much of that difference is testosterone, please go read Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. I bet it's in your library. If you don't want to read the 239 pages of text and 42 pages of notes, please take a look then at this study. In addition to proving some points about how negative gender stereotypes reinforce themselves, it also includes the concept of high testosterone individuals- including women. If our testosterone levels are high, we can be as vulnerable to the effects of the hormone- in this case, causing us to be more status-conscious- as men. Go figure.)

Just as I'm recovering from Bono's interviews, I read one of the worst articles that has been published in a mainstream publication in the last twenty years. Psychology Today should be ashamed of itself for publishing an article asking Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women? Don't look on their site- they took it down after thousands of people complained. It's not just a racist piece of garbage, it's also less analytical than a seventh grade research paper.

But... do you know why black women aren't rated attractive as often? Were you going to say something like institutional racism? Were you going to say that they don't have as much status value? That's our soft-science culture for you. No, silly- it's testosterone! Africans have more testosterone than anyone else, men and women. On men, it makes them more attractively masculine, on women, it makes them less feminine. Light bulb! And now it all makes sense. Whatever beauty you appreciated in Alek Wek, Naomi Campbell, Beverly Johnson, Iman, Naomi Sims and Jada Pinkett Smith obviously proves how much you like masculine or androgynous features. Right? And I' sure Dr. Kanazawa made sure that all of the models who were photographed for the study- black, white, Native American, Latina- had their testosterone levels measured beforehand so he could compare the participants' reactions with the actual levels. No? Maybe that's why there's talk of him losing his job at the London School of Economics.

I am not saying that testosterone is neutral. It's obviously not, and that's why Bono and other females transitioning to male take it. I am not arguing that there are physical changes and that it can have an effect on mood. However, it's not nearly as simple as both of these stories would have us believe. I'm pleased that in one case there was an outcry, but I'm nervous that in the other people nodded, shrugged and moved on. I can access my anger very well, and I bet it has more to do with my upbringing than my hormones. I don't like to listen to gossip either, but that feeling is pronounced now that I'm out of environments where that's part of the constant chatter. But it's true- I'm not very gadgety, although somehow I think that might be a function of my reluctance to invest money in electronic toys.

One might argue that I might be one of those high testosterone women... but I've been told I look very feminine. Whatever that means- or proves.

Deb in the City

Friday, May 20, 2011

I'm so spoiled

I warn you, I'm complaining, possibly ranting. You're not going to feel sorry for me, but you might be mildly amused, either at my expense or in that universal way humor gets to us all. You've been warned.

My life is unstructured, but I've got a little bit of a routine going on in the morning. I'm attached to it. I wake up in the morning, sometime between 5 and 6, I work out and then I edit and write. Editing requires even more special alone time than writing because it requires me to read out loud. I've already made a number of passes at my manuscript, but reading out loud is the only way I can catch the mistakes that would otherwise make me bang my head. Writing- drafting?- requires some quiet time as well, for obvious reasons. I can and have written while people are jumping up and down around me, but it's slower and usually requires more correction.

I think my children are offended by my routine, and that is why for the past four days they have come up with some reason to get in the way. People have been waking up early for no good reason, but last night I did some calculations and observed that no one should need to wake up early this morning. So imagine my annoyance when one of my children's cell phones starting buzzing at about 7:30 this morning, twice. It was loud enough that one of the other children woke up, looked outside and started crying because the weather was bad and therefore he couldn't see his friend as he had hoped. (As it turned out, we couldn't see his friend because he had a fever, but that's another story.) My point? I didn't get as much done with as much focus as I'd been planning on.

When everyone woke up, I asked the child who owned the loud phone what happened. It turns out her friend had taken her phone and texted another friend of hers last night with a semi-suggestive message, and that friend had replied this morning. That reaction was understandable. Annoying, but understandable. I have no idea what got into her other friend though, and I'm not sure if I should say something to the other parents or not. Or maybe I should just keep the kids under lock and key.

Simon, meanwhile, was miserable about his friend. I felt bad too, so I agreed to replace the toy Jacob had thrown away during one of the purges last week. Suddenly everything was okay. First we thought we'd go by bus, but then we decided to get a ZipCar and run another few errands. We'd be productive, he'd be happy, all would be well.

But then the five of us walked into Toys R Us. Sam, Jaz and I collectively shuddered. Was it the brightness? The Hello Kitty Lego set? The plastic? The Hannibal Lecter doll? Maybe it was all of that. I know as a child I used to wish I could be more a part of that world, but I was aghast today. More to the point, my girls were too. After we found what the boys wanted, the three of us told them that they were never going to enter a store like that again. If they want toys, we can make them. (I'll take requests under advisement for birthdays.)

As the boys were getting carsick in the car they always want to drive in, the girls and I were reflecting on how lucky we are to live in a city. Are we, in fact, the ones who live in the bubble, and not the suburbanites? (So you know, that question is one posed by my children.) Those stores- that car- are not regular parts of our reality. Two and a half years ago, being confined almost solely to public transportation would have sounded like deprivation. Now it feels so liberating. There's a smell associated with all of it. Some people call it the new car/fresh plastic smell; I call it sterile, and it set off a coughing fit in Jacob.

The boys were so sick that I had to drop them off at home before I could buy groceries. So much for efficiency. I guess that means I'm going to have to come up with a better solution for grocery shopping. Oh well.

That's my story today, and part of why you have yet to have the pleasure of reading my thoughts on testosterone and Higher Education (separate thoughts, in case you're wondering). I'm thinking good thoughts for tomorrow, in part because I don't have to go anywhere. In the meantime, I'm going to collapse on my couch in my small little living room and be very thankful for what I don't have.

Deb in the City

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The ultimate in Project Clean Up

We all have our crosses to bear. My family's is that we have six people in a small space. Boo hoo. People all of the over world live in much smaller and can make it look much cleaner. The feeling of deprivation settles in when you have too much stuff for your space. Twisted, weird, but true.

I went into my children's room this morning and something snapped. Do they have a small space? Yes, and I'm genuinely sorry for that. But they also have a place for most of their stuff. They just choose not to use it. Or when they do use it, they use it with contempt. You can literally see contempt when someone puts their clothing into the drawer but doesn't fold it and leaves it gaping open.

The books piss me off. The boys are too short to put things up there, and I understand that, but the girls aren't. They just choose not to. Well, swell.

You know what I chose to do just now? Put everything I found on the floor, on the window sills and on top of their drawers in paper bags. Four of them in fact. They saw me walking back and forth from their room to the kitchen but didn't notice. Someone is in the room right now and doesn't seem to notice. I know this because no one is screaming.

There will be a showdown today, I'm sure. Which is good, because it's raining and I have nothing better to do until Jazmyn goes to Hebrew School. Or there won't, and I'll just end up throwing everything away.

But either way, friends and family, please don't get my children ANYTHING until you receive word that they've learned how to take care of what they already have.

Deb in the City

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Couldn't you tell?"

Of my four children, Jacob is the one least likely to be identified as Korean. As it happens, his twin Simon is the most likely. Genes are funny that way. Jacob is more and more conscious of this, and seems to have decided that since he doesn't look as much like his half-Korean mom as his siblings do, he must look more like his Jewish father. So, yesterday, completely out of the blue, he announces, "And I'm Jewish." I stifle a laugh, and the woman he's talking to nods along. He then says, "Couldn't you tell?" She and I- and I think Jazmyn a few feet away- are trying very hard not to giggle at this point. "No," she says very seriously. "I couldn't."

When we talked about it later, I asked Jacob if Daddy looked Jewish. Yes. Does Sammy? Yes. Before I could continue, he started raspberrying us- he didn't like being amusing. But I just asked him now, and the verdict is that we all look Jewish, even me, even Simon.

I think he's right. Jews come in all shapes and sizes, and you can't tell by evaluating nose or hair. You can't tell who's "black" or South Asian by the shade of their skin, who's East Asian by the shape of their eyes and who's Latino by the language they speak. Self-identification is the result of a complex formula, and most people don't see the variables that go into it, and pre-judgment can make you look like a fool.

So how was it that I came to tweet "Bridesmaids- OMG! The ladieez get their own comedy movie! Oh look- they're ALL WHITE. I'm staying home, thanks." when Maya Rudolph, one of the co-stars, is half-black and half-Jewish? Is it that I am one of those people that has trouble carrying my lofty beliefs? There is more of that in many things than I care to admit. Is it that I haven't watched a lot of SNL and I'm not as up on the bios of the cast as I should be? Yes- for the last decade, I haven't been keeping up like I did before the kids and Sunday morning commitments.

But there's something else too. That's a link to Maya Rudolph as Condoleezza Rice. I did manage to see a few episodes of SNL in the last decade, and one of them included Rudolph playing Rice. This isn't the exact episode, but this is the same makeup.

You know what that looked like when I saw it? Dark makeup on a light woman to make her look like the African-American Secretary of State.

I had issues with that when I saw it, and I still do. Poor SNL. While Bush II wasn't the first president to have African-Americans in his cabinet, the Secretaries of Commerce, Health and Human Services and Veteran Affairs don't tend to be as funny as the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor. So they didn't have anyone at the ready when an impression of Rice was needed for a skit, and they figured that the best way to get that across was to darken one actress' skin. I think that's pretty tasteless- just as I thought it was tasteless when they put "Asian" eye makeup on Mike Meyers to do an impression of an Asian man years before- but if they felt like looks were part of what they needed to get across, I guess I see the logic.

So... Rudolph wasn't black enough to play Rice on SNL. Forgive me, this is why I thought she was white. Silly me- I should have thought it through. It wasn't about Rudolph's ethnicity or skin color. The important thing was that whoever did the impression of Condoleezza Rice *really* needed to look dark-skinned no matter who played her, because that's essential to her character. Because they did the same thing for Colin Powell, right? Yep- except for the time Darrell Hammond played him and I think they actually made his face look even paler. Go figure. I'm sure the fact that the tabloids liked to sell the idea that Bush and Rice were having an affair had nothing whatsoever to do with the difference in treatment.

My apologies to Ms. Rudolph. I have no idea what, if anything, she classifies herself as, and I hope she is not offended that I assumed she was white. Never assume.

What I don't have to make any assumptions about is that the characters in this movie are almost all light-skinned. Um, isn't that the case for a lot of movies? Yes, but most of them don't try to blackmail me into buying tickets with Girl-Power/Make-Female-Comedy-Viable bs campaigns, blog posts and even movie reviews. Seriously, people. The fact that we have the same reproductive organs does not mean that you stand for what I stand for, and it doesn't even mean you look like me. The trailers- yes, I forced myself to watch- offend me: there's a fat woman who is alternately tough and gross; a loser looking for love in all the wrong places; and a manipulative, passive aggressive alpha-jerk. The person who seems to be the least messed up is, of course, the woman getting married. I am not going to see this just because I have a uterus.

I guess I should be relieved that these stereotypes are played by light-skinned people; broad Hollywood comedies using dark-skinned people with non-European facial morphology don't always take the high road. (Would the East Asian woman be the domineering dragon lady? Would the South Asian woman be the princess? Would the Latino woman be sexually voracious?) But it doesn't.

Somebody wake me up when they do a multi-ethnic update of "Julia" or "I Love Lucy".

Deb in the City

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mom's cheap thrills

A few weeks ago, Michael, the boys and I were at Downtown Crossing. I fixed my watch, so now I'm a big girl/real person who can tell time without having to look at a cell phone. I met the menfolk at the Army/Navy store... and then I wanted to stay. I don't even know the word for someone who gets excited by really basic, sturdy, useful stuff, but I'm sure "geek" is in there somewhere.

Today I decided to take Jaz and the boys to Dollar-A-Pound in Kendall Square and then the Army/Navy store on Mass. Ave. They went with an older friend of theirs a few weeks ago and were just fascinated by the machine gun he bought. (His mother/my friend looked like she wanted to throw up, but I assured her that they had already been corrupted.)

For future reference, do not take young children to Kendall Square and then walk four blocks when it's raining and you're carrying a lunch bag. It's just annoying. The boys weren't entirely in love with the concept of a heapful of clothing on the floor until they realized they could jump into it. I didn't see anything for myself, in part because I was too distracted by the boys to dig deep, but we did find a shirt and pants for Jazmyn and paid all of $2.10 for both. Ha!

Jacob wanted to walk to the Army/Navy store because he "want[ed] to make his body strong." What a difference a year makes! However, because of the rain, we opted for the train instead. God, I love the train between 1 and 2- as Jazmyn noted, everything moved quickly. Then Jazmyn complained that the walk to the store wasn't that long. (Um, okay. These are good problems to have.)

On the way there, Jacob kept insisting that I should let him get the gun their friend got. I tried to fob it off on price, but they assured me that it was within the budget I'd set. Hmm. My boys are crazy, but they're not psychotic. They know that toys are toys and can tell, as well as any other six year old, the difference between playtime and real-life. They're energetic, but they're not malicious. Maybe a gun was a possibility.

But I couldn't do it. The price was right, but looking at a toy gun creeped me out, and the thought of my children playing with them made me ill. They just looked too much like the real thing. Jacob didn't care- he found a plastic samurai sword, for all of $2.99. Simon was not happy though, and showing him a Viking helmet and more metallic looking sword didn't help. He also had no interest in the bow and arrow Jacob had originally wanted. Finally, though, we found a small backpack filled with plastic soldier toys, helicopters... and whatever else they put in those things.

I paid $10.99 for those things, which is more than I usually like to spend on toys. But as soon as I came home, Simon and Jacob went into their room and became engrossed in their army/soldier/war play. Why does this not bother me? Probably in large part because Jacob has been singing, "Absolutely nothing! Say it again!" for the past two days.

Michael gasped with delight and surprise when he saw the toys and proceeded to play soldier with the boys on the homemade Risk board for fifteen minutes before he reluctantly returned to work. For $10.99, I could have done a lot worse.

Deb in the City

Monday, May 09, 2011

Protecting our children

This Saturday, my husband, three youngest children and I went to the Boston Commons to participate in the Boston Slut Walk. There was a lot behind the walk: there were the repugnant cops in Ireland who made a joke about raping someone in their custody, there was the threatened defunding of Planned Parenthood, there was the House vote to change the definition of rape and the Toronto cops who thought that girls could avoid rape by not dressing as sluts. I've got a tip for these cops and politicians: remember, it's the 21st century.

I really, really wanted to go on this walk, and even more, I wanted my children to be there.

I know more than a few parents who will be speechless with shock that I would bring my children to something like this. They don’t expose their children to the news and rarely if ever discuss politics with them. They believe in maintaining their children’s innocence.

It’s a good thing most of these kids don’t listen to Justin Bieber, who recently was quoted making comments that were anti-choice and minimized rape. Or that their slightly older siblings didn’t ever watch anything Lindsay Lohan ever did and therefore wouldn’t have heard about the controversy over about her possibly using the word “colored” to describe our president. And of course no one has ever watched the Kate Gosselin “family” show and then followed her to visit Sarah Palin (please, don't make me put up a link for that). Let’s not even talk about the projection of the perfect nuclear family onto our screens (television and computer) that has not changed in about 60 years (don’t even argue that they are zanier and more slapstick; I’ve seen “I Love Lucy” and I know you’re wrong) or the constant exposure to stereotypes about anyone who isn't white and heterosexual, however ironically it might be done.

Yes, putting NPR on while my children are in the room or talking about bin Laden, the NRA or the assault on women’s rights is much more corrosive to my children.

The Hell of it is that I couldn’t keep this from them even if I wanted to. Last summer I took my children to run some errands and go to a playground in neighboring Brookline. Do you know what I saw on a usually quiet section of Harvard Street? A demonstration against abortion across the street from a playground (and not very near a clinic). I had been planning to have a discussion with the boys about abortion, but even I didn’t think it would happen at age 5.

There was some whining on Saturday when we were walking around the Commons, and Jazmyn’s allergies were bothering her. Of course, because it was me, some guy wanted to debate equity in the workforce, and my husband thought that maybe he didn’t need to be so close to me. (Possibly- I could tell he was drunk from about two feet away.) And we were at the back of the line. I am never at the back of the line when I’m walking! So it wasn’t a perfect day. But two things happened that made me feel like I hadn’t made a terrible mistake.

1. A young man saw me talking to the kids. He said something encouraging to my sons, then said, “You’re an awesome mother, by the way.” I laughed and looked at Jazmyn. “Tell that to my seventeen year old and my eleven year old.” He looked uncomfortable, and I quickly told him I was joking. Then he said, “Well, I’m seventeen.” I know nothing about anything, but the look on his face made me wonder if he wished his parents were there.

2. As we first started heading out, Simon and Jacob were talking to each other about why, in effect, we were marching. Before I could say anything, Jacob said, “Because they’re hurting women and children.” I looked at Michael. Did he tell them that? No. Somehow, Jacob picked that up all by himself.

There is much that I will protect my from, but women’s rights is not on that list.

Deb in the City

Saturday, May 07, 2011

They don't play jazz in Nirvana

My friend Beryl writes about business communication. Her posts are almost always about what goes on in an office setting, but I frequently find myself nodding when I read her latest because it applies to something that has happened to me, long out of an office. Her latest was about the need for specific praise and how it is ultimately more beneficial than saying “good job!” or, as she put it, being a human Facebook Like button.

My friend M. read the article and then sent me to a story in NY Magazine about how that same concept applies to parenting. Here, if you haven’t already seen it, go read it now. If you’re a parent, as soon as you’re done covering your mouth and bugging out your eyes, let’s chat.

My takeaway is that praising a child for their “native” intelligence can blow up in everyone’s face. “You’re so smart!” doesn’t end up making a child feel better; it ends up making him or her feel like their identity is tied up in their intelligence and if they do anything to jeopardize that they’re going to lose whatever value they have. However, if you praise a child for the effort or the work they are doing, they are more likely to take the “risk” of being wrong. Risks are good; when successful, they can also be called “innovations” and even “inventions”. The act of trying to solve a problem you've never encountered before also helps your brain develop in new ways. If anything, taking the risk has the potential to make you "smarter".

When I read the article, I cringed. That was me when I was younger, that is my children now and that is a lot of people I know. More importantly, it *wasn’t* the friends whom I admire so much now. Many of them had never been the alpha kids in any way, so they didn’t have anything to lose. Some people have all the luck.

I was thinking about this a lot yesterday, and I remembered Ken Burns’ Jazz series. I mean, I always remember that series, but in this case I was thinking about the insight he and Wynton Marsalis shared when they were on Charlie Rose’s show. The myth of the artist who needed drugs to achieve his or her genius is bs. They went to drugs because they were tormented, and it was that they were *so* driven that they were able to achieve despite it. Billie Holiday’s voice didn’t degrade because of age but because of heroin and alcohol; Charlie Parker made really good music on drugs, but he made great music off of them. The amazing thing is that they persisted in spite of their demons. Holiday learned how to negotiate around her voice, and Parker kept playing up until his death.

I’m no expert on anyone else’s life, but it seems that what separates those masters from everyone else was that their ambition was driven not only by a desire for recognition but by a passion for their work. Passion, for better or worse, can trump ego.

We are in danger of stilting our children’s drive to create and innovate by keeping them afraid of making mistakes. Our children have somehow been convinced that native intelligence and hard work are mutually exclusive. Worse, questions are a weakness; they indicate ignorance, not curiosity. This, I think, doesn't leave much room for the passionate pursuit of anything.

This is a rough game, but if you win you will be allowed to sit in the mountains and bask in your unquestioned intellectual superiority. You will simply Know All, and you will never have to prove yourself again. It’s Nirvana. I can totally see the appeal, I just don’t think you’re ever going to hear any jazz there.

Deb in the City

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

There is no justice, there is just us.

Perhaps you've heard. After almost a decade, we finally got Osama bin Laden. The man who came up with the clever idea not to bomb a plane but to use a plane as a bomb and kill thousands of people in the US, and who previously killed hundreds on the USS Cole, was killed this weekend.

Do you feel any better now?

Some people certainly acted like it. They screamed in the streets and from their blogs, twitter accounts and Facebook pages about how great it was that this bastard was dead. They happily posted fake, dead pictures of bin Laden. It seemed not to matter too much that they were fake; it was the sentiment of having reduced the man to gore that they wanted to revel in.

Okay. Well, having now psychically smeared ourselves with his blood, do we really feel any better? Are we ready to move on?

The death toll on both sides in Afghanistan and, inexplicably, Iraq, is incomprehensible. And let us not forget the many who have come back injured- and then unaided. We have spent billions of dollars and lost much standing. But, finally, we got him. Can we end this nightmare now?

Well, not just yet. The President and the Secretary of State assure us that the war on terror continues, and Al Qaeda cannot hide from us. There is a very vague hint of what victory in Afghanistan would look like, but I have no idea what victory in the war on terror would be. Right now, the party line is that we're not done yet.

I don't think that's worth dancing in the street over.

Admittedly, my mellow is a little harshed right now as some people are strenuously asserting that we wouldn't have finally caught bin Laden if it hadn't been for waterboarding and other forms of torture. (Yes, it's torture. If anyone did that to our people, that's what would we call it then, too.) That claim appears to be untrue. Yes, there was some torture, but that was a while ago, and it seems to have led to conflicting information. To my layman ears, that seems like it could cause delays, but since the War on Terror goes beyond bin Laden, obviously, who cares?

It's sort of a shame that the president made his announcement mere hours after 60 Minutes aired its interview of Lara Logan in which she described the murder attempt she suffered in Egypt on the night Mubarak stepped down. People need to see this and hear her. Yes, it was a sexual assault, but they were trying to kill her while they were at it. She describes her hair being pulled in tufts as if they wanted to take pieces of her scalp. She describes how her injuries included overly stretched muscles; they were trying to tear her limb from limb.

As I heard her describe these things, I flashed to the first chapters of "A Tale of Two Cities" and the description one of the characters had of someone who was drawn, quartered and lost two limbs but still lived. It is that world that our founding fathers wanted to leave behind when they prohibited cruel and unusual punishment.

It's not okay when someone else does it, but it is okay when we do it. Or, to put it more succinctly, screw the Geneva Convention.

I think there is a chance that we will draw down in Afghanistan sooner because of bin Laden's death. Once we're out, I will dance in the streets too. But while we still have one set of rules for ourselves and another for everyone else, we have lost the war on terror, and bin Laden died a victorious man.

Deb in the City