Thursday, July 23, 2009

Confessions of a Transplanted Hillbilly

Have you ever had a window seat on a domestic flight? Did you happen to look down at some point once you reached cruising altitude? You know where this is going, don't you? I'm from an area that is frequently labeled "Fly-Over Country".

I do remember thinking that those airplanes looked really, really tiny when I'd see them flying above as a child. My home town is located in the Southwest corner of the Show-Me State. Joplin, Missouri is proud to be the capital of the four-state region, sharing its fancified services with residents of neighboring towns in Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. Although I have not possessed a Missouri address or driver's license in nearly fifteen years, I still qaulify as a transplanted hillbilly. You might say, "But Missouri is flat!" The Ozarks are not flat, and those hills are my cultural roots!

Sometimes it's fun to recollect the moments of my life spent in Paris, London and New York City, where my hillbilly origins managed to illuminate the cosmopolitan shadow of city life.

My baptism by fire into the realm of mundane city dwellers occurred at the tender age of 15, in a city no less glamorous than Paris! And that's the one in France, not Texas. I spent a month living with a French family in the chichi 7th Arrondissement. Oui, dans le septieme. The family was descended from nobility, no less. I remember glimpsing the French mother for the first time at the airport sporting a short spiky do, a black leather mini-dress and a pure-bred dog on a leash. I knew then that I would have to muster some chutzpah to survive those four weeks. Surprisingly, we hillbillies don't have a corresponding term for chutzpah! 

Among the more notable initiation experiences of that month was my introduction to my host sister's pimp boyfriend.  Apparently French nobles tend to rebel as teenagers.  This preppy young man in his early 20's told me that he could get a high price for me due to my exotic Amercian hairstyle and a darker skin color than he had seen on many blondes.  I think that was a polite way of telling me that Redneck women were a rarity in Paris.  It is of course possible that he was not really a pimp and this was a fun ruse to play on the hillbilly freshman!  My first foreign exchange experience was also my initial exposure to the subway.  The very first time I rode the Paris metro I fell down when the train started moving.  I didn't realize people were supposed to hold on to the bars! I was so proud to learn to balance on two feet without holding on by the end of the month.  I think it changed my life forever!  Another eye-opener was the plate of raw meat that arrived when I ordered Steak Tartare for the very first time.  No one explained that the dish would not be cooked--my host family quite enjoyed my shocked reaction!  I ate it.  I eat tartare of various kinds to this day. Tripe was the one thing I would not try.  I am sure there are hillbillies who enjoy pig and cow intestines but I will never be one of them.  The sheer volume of wine that I was offered and gleefully consumed as a minor made each humiliating experience well worth the effort. 

My next foreign exchange experience occurred at the age of 17 on a different continent.  Luckily my host family in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, were much friendlier than my first Parisian acquaintances.  Also a French family hailing from Paris, these folks were better able to relate to a country girl from the USA.  They taught me to sing the French national anthem at the top of my lungs and are still some of my most loyal friends.  I smoked my first cigarette in Abidjan, and some French expatriate boys tried unsuccessfully to teach me how to dance the Swing.  My glaring hillbilly habit on this trip was a constant effort to capture the local African population on film.  I took home photos of some very angry Ivorian children who must have wondered why in the hell I was gawking and acting like a novice paparazzi.  These photos were published in my high school newspaper.  Hillbillies back in the 1980's did not cotton to politically correct behavior, much to my sincere regret. 

During college, graduate and law school I was able to continue my sophisticate initiation process in Paris and then in NYC.  It's hard to say if the initiation ultimately failed or succeeded.  From a culinary standpoint, I'd have to say I will now eat almost any type of seafood raw, including sea snails and live oysters.  Ironically, I ate crawdads for the first time in France and not in the backwoods of my childhood.  Foie gras never grossed me out and I apologize to every member of PETA for this fault.  Some of the more enlightening conversations I had during these years included answering questions like, "What do people talk about in places like Missouri?  Farming?", "Do you know anyone in the Ku Klux Klan?", and "Did any of your cousins marry each other?"  These questions are actual quotes, and not jokes.  I will not name those who asked the questions but let's just say that they were either East Coast educated collegiates who became curious after a few drinks, or French people who had been influenced by television coverage they had seen of an American wedding inside of a Wal-Mart.  I truly did see this French television feature on American redneck culture, and I have to say that it was investigative journalism at its best!  I honestly saw a Wal-Mart bride, but not while living in Missouri. 

Fortunately for me, no one ever physically attacked me for my ignorance upon first arriving in NYC as a grad student.  I did, however, have one notable clash at a late-night party.  I will readily admit that the majority of southerners and midwesterners are Christian, and Protestant at that.   The Catholics and Jews do quite well, but we WASPS have them fairly well outnumbered where I am from.  One young man decided to take this up with me, again after having consumed a few glasses of cheap wine at some dude's apartment in the East Village.  "There were no Jews where you grew up.  How could you know anything about Jewish culture or history?"  I answered, "Well, actually, a decent number of my neighborhood friends were Jewish and I visited the town synagogue for field trips.  We learned about Jewish holidays in my grade school.  The class below me had a Jewish homecoming queen.  What's your point?"  The guy literally pushed me outside into the hallway of the apartment building and told me that I was a racist hick and should shut up or someone might knock me out.  This is not an exaggeration. 

I doubt that the young man referenced in the paragraph above possessed entirely accurate knowledge of my childhood religious education, but he may have picked up on some of my politically incorrect hubris which was later uncovered during my year working as a lawyer in London.  My casual boyfriend at the time was Jewish, hailing from Israel by way of Tunisia.  He had both an American and an Israeli passport and liked to travel as an Israeli.  It just so happened at the time that my younger sister was dating a Tunisian Muslim.  My sister and her Muslim boyfriend were living in Paris while I was in London.  Somehow we decided that it would be fun to spend Christmas with our Jewish and Muslim casual boyfriends in a rented house in the French countryside.  My hillbilly Mom met us there and we also invited some French Catholics up for one night.  This already sounds like the beginning of a bad comedy or a B horror movie, right?  My sister and I said to each other, "at least they can talk about their common Tunisian background".  Needless to say, it wasn't a perfectly comfortable Christmas.  In the end, we skipped the midnight mass at the village cathedral because Avi and Chiheb had nearly managed to burn down the rented house.  They got along quite well, but their point of bonding was getting a good fire going in the fireplace.  They decided that adding some cooking oil to the already burning logs would be a good idea.  We had to open every window in the house to be able to breathe, and since they made me miss church on Christmas and couldn't have cared less themselves, I had no desire to speak to either of them for the remainder of the evening.  Later on, Avi had a good time grilling my French friends on the racist and classist structures inherent in French culture.  Good times were had by all.  That's what happens when two hillbilly sisters try to plan a religious summit.  I suppose we should stick to our barbecue and church pot lucks! 

In all seriousness, Fly-Over Country is little known and very misunderstood by many people living on the Coasts.  Those of us who come from this area of the country are quite genetically diverse as compared to many of our East Coast peers, contrary to popular belief.  The pioneers who went West upon reaching American soil did tend to shed their languages and cultures of origin more quickly than those who simply dropped their bags in New York.  Irish, Italian, German, English, Polish... it didn't really matter if they could all rely upon each other to build communities in a far-flung land that had taken tremendous courage and strength to reach.  My grandmother did actually travel in a covered wagon at one point.  I do have Native American ancestry on both sides of my family.  People do talk about going to pow wows on weekends where I am from.  I can proudly say that one of my direct ancestors, coincidentally from France, fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union.  The education range in my family varies widely, with two of my grandparents having gone to college, and probably at least half of my family possessing degrees beyond a B.A. or a B.S.  It is true that my family members who stayed in Fly-Over Country are Republicans for the most part.  It is true that we eat food such as biscuits and gravy, which I cannot ever seem to find in New York.  It is also true that we don't really like it when people refer to our home of origin as Fly-Over Country. We'd prefer that the city sophisticates visit places such as the Ozarks themselves before making any cultural, much less genetic judgments!  We could all stand to be a little more polite and a little less politically correct. 

Yeeee-ha!!  God Bless the USA. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Who enlisted in the "Mommy Wars"?

Have any of you heard or seen the term "Mommy Wars" lately? It was bandied about quite a bit several years ago. There are surely some folks who still resort to this term in describing relations between stay-at-home mothers and those who choose to, or who must work outside of the home. Leslie Morgan Steiner published the book, "Mommy Wars" in 2006. Here is the top news story link to the term "Mommy Wars", dating all the way back to 1998:

I have always been bothered by the term and by the media's depiction of this supposedly intense conflict between two categories of women. Who really likes to be labeled or categorized in this way?

Before I had children I dabbled in academia for four years and then worked as a corporate lawyer for five years. I worked with a lot of mothers and probably slightly more single or childless women. I definitely heard a lot of negative talk about stay-at-home moms, certainly from the ivory tower mavens that instructed me in my Ph.D. program, and even more so from the senior associates and female law partners in the firms.

I heard disparaging remarks about non-working mothers even as a child. I remember my father commenting on the lack of ambition of women who choose to stay home to raise their children. It was even common to hear derisive language used to describe teachers, and this from many of the adults in my life. How many times did I hear the phrase, "If you can do, do. If you can't do, teach". You may say to yourself, "She grew up around some judgmental people!" That's most likely an accurate assessment. From a very young age I had the impression that when I reached womanhood, child-rearing and the pursuit of a lofty career were to be achieved simultaneously, or my life would be judged a failure. I took this advice to heart and during my early adult life, I simply assumed that through hard work and adept dating maneuvers, I would be able to achieve both goals. Older and distant female relatives were pointed out to me, those with children and thriving careers, and those who had only one or the other. Of course, there were the many mass media pictures painted for me as well. "Little girl, don't you want to be Superwoman when you grow up? You can look like one of Charlie's Angels and be the lady described in that Whitney Houston song, "I'm Every Woman"... you can bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan".

Now I have children. My one and two year old boys are my sole occupation at the present time. How did I come to this lifestyle choice? Through illness. I developed Bell's Palsy during my first pregnancy, and was soon after diagnosed with Lyme Disease, which I was told may or may not have triggered the facial paralysis. I can honestly say that had I not experienced this traumatic health issue at the end of my first pregnancy, I would never have stayed at home to raise my boys. No matter how much I may have wanted to, my mental programming would have rejected such a decision. The drastic change in my appearance following my illness had such a negative effect on my confidence that I felt unable to return to law firm life in New York City. There are a lot of stereotypes about NYC women. Ugly is probably not one of the more common stereotypes. There are also a lot of stereotypes about New York lawyers. Tough and shrewd are common ones, but faltering confidence is generally not associated with top law school graduates. For the first time in my life, I was truly at a loss for the type of persona I should adopt. I felt like an actor with my part suddenly ripped away from me. I knew there were so many understudies just waiting to step into my former childless city lawyer life. Someone else would be getting e-mails from friends that said, "Watch out! Your life is starting to sound a lot like 'Sex in the City'!"

After almost three years raising baby boys, and an incomplete recovery from my illness, I have had a lot of time to rethink my ideas about career and mothering. I have had time to remember the many times that I made judgmental comments about women who were having difficulty balancing family and career. I made these comments simply because the struggles I saw were so rare! Many women do not have the desire, and possibly not the strength or confidence to honestly describe their experience for the benefit of younger, childless peers. I said things to fit in, and also to boost my own confidence in my future ability to do it all.

At present, I feel a lot of compassion for both stay-at-home parents and for working parents. I could never have estimated the emotional and physical changes brought about by parenthood. Experience is truly the only teacher. It is absolutely impossible to judge parenthood from the outside, never having experienced it. I don't care if you have been a nanny for ten years, or if you have 50 nieces and nephews. You just can't speak if you are not speaking from experience. To all of you people who told me that before I had kids, here's to you! Right you were.

There are many aspects of full-time parenting that I have passionately loved. There are also many sad and anxious moments I have spent thinking about what I could be accomplishing in my former profession. My decision to stay home was never meant to be a permanent one, and I have a strong belief and desire motivating me to return to work. I feel that my physical condition has improved, and more importantly, I have learned to cope with it emotionally. I also wish from my heart to use my education and skill set to benefit individuals outside of my family. Part of the reason I wish to do this is to set an example for my sons. I think that stay-at-home parents set a wonderful example in selflessness and dedication. My opinion with respect to stay-at-home parents with higher education differs slightly. If nothing else, those of us with higher education can always volunteer or reach out to the world in meaningful ways once we feel ready to do so, even if that means once the children enter high school! Higher education is a blessing and a gift and I do feel strongly that it confers a duty on those who have achieved it. Paying back student loans is only a small part of that duty!

My personal feelings on educated parents aside, I do not have any judgmental inclinations or emotions toward any person who chooses to dedicate his or her life entirely to raising children and providing a stable and healthy home environment. I say "his or her" because I am meeting increasing numbers of stay-at-home dads. I love those guys! Having fathers as well as mothers to chat with makes the park feel so much more like the office! The cultural lessons on equality and gender neutral career choices still dominate my brain, so carefully programmed during the glorious Reagan years! Isn't contradiction awesome?

I love and respect career women with children more than I ever have. I have a greater sense of the strength that lies behind the facade. I also feel immense tenderness and awe for those who have set aside their egos, material and personal ambitions to devote their lives to their children. For those who cannot put food on the table without two full-time jobs and inexpensive daycare, I feel sincere compassion and I know that I could never understand that life until living it. I wish that other options were available to those who are constantly physically and emotionally exhausted. There is nothing I could ever say or write that would make me anything but enviable or despicable to those people, in spite of my illness. I didn't have to wait tables at a 24 hour diner to feed my kids. That could have been my situation. I thank God that it was not. I hope that God will show me a way to lend strength and support to parents in every situation, for the remainder of my life. I am thankful for the lessons I have learned these past three years.

And I do wonder... are there really women consciously fighting a Mommy War? I don't think so.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Twirting and Facecheating?

Since the advent of e-mail, texting, IM and social networking sites, people have been moaning and fretting over the possibility of increased flirting, emotional affairs and - gasp! - sexual escapades.

Does this reaction stem from an actual upswing in cheating, or from a suddenly more public and accessible forum for tendencies and behaviors that have always existed?  In other words, do you really think you or people you know are more likely to flirt and cheat now than they would be in an environment free of electronic media?  I do not! I would not!  And neither would the people I know.  At least not anymore than we would were we living in say, the 18th century. 

The indiscretions of public figures have fueled this critical commentary over the use of electronic media for social purposes.  Mark Sanford is an obvious recent example.  Perhaps a story thrown in from a friend of a friend who claims that his cousin left his wife for a woman he met on MySpace may have added to the uproar.  This is great fodder for psychologists, journalists, and all who peddle social commentary.  You have undoubtedly seen evidence of this chatter from your own sources, but if not, here's a frivolous little link for you:  There is even a hyperlink on this page entitled "Text message flirting do's and don'ts".  Really?? Come on...

Are we, as a culture, truly so obsessed with policing our verbal interactions that it has come to this level of pettiness?  Does this sort of attitude reflect on how comfortable we feel with ourselves?  Is it another example of self-consciousness taken to extremes?  I think so.  How often do we say something casually that we later re-examine?  I know I do it a lot!  Before computers ever existed, people said, "I put my foot in my mouth".  We have always been self-conscious to a certain extent in our communication with one another, but I see no reason to amplify that tendency just because texts, e-mails and online posts are "print media".  I have heard people say, "Once it's in print you can't take it back!"  Oh, really?  Then how do so many contracts end up in court?  How are divorces possible?  How do teenagers break up through a text message and get back together the next day on Facebook?  Why is literature the subject of interpretation and open discussion for centuries after it is published?  It is true that in a legal sense a written contract is of more weight than a verbal one, but is a wink or a slap on the bum more casual than "xoxo" in a text message?  I think not.  That's the real point I'm driving at.  Spoken words and physical touch hold much more sway over sexual behavior than written media ever could.  Why obsess over the do's and don'ts of electronic communication anymore than we would over our daily physical interactions? 

If people with poor impulse control want to cheat, they are going to find a way to do it, with or without a Blackberry or Iphone.  Are any of you fans of the show "Mad Men"?  The content of that show is 50% extramarital affairs and it is set in the 1960's.  I actually admire the show's realism in its depiction of marital angst and the human tendency to seek out greener pasture.  Most people aren't proud of this type of behavior, but hey, it goes back to the Bible!  David and Bathsheba?  And how many wives did Solomon have?  Anyhoo...

I fear that obsessing over and policing casual interaction between ourselves, whether it be physical or electronic, is more likely to lead to cheating than is having a neutral attitude about it all.  After all, doesn't temptation start in the mind?  People become tempted to sin when they find themselves thinking overly much about a certain activity or person.  Let's keep the neurosis to a minimum, shall we?  So you spent a little too long talking to your opposite sex co-worker about his personal life at lunch.  So what?  Let it go and stop thinking about making out with him!  Bonding happens.  Maybe you e-mailed your ex about a personal problem you knew they would understand.  Again, so what?  Do we really need to live our lives in such a rigid way, fearing that at every turn lies a carnal temptation?  This type of attitude plagues a lot of people who suffer from religious dysfunction.  Ironically, they are the ones who always end up cheating!  Does Ted Haggard ring a bell? 

Just for fun, and to close, have a look at this list of evangelist sexual scandals:

Now how much do you really feel like reigning in your Facebook activity?  Wanna spend some more time examining your texting etiquette?  Just try not to get too worked up about it.