May 31, 2010
A friend sent me an article last weekend from the Chicago Tribune, entitled “Transition to Adulthood Takes Longer than Ever,” filled with now-familiar tales of the impact of the Great Recession on the career goals and financial independence of young adults: low-wage service sector jobs, college graduates returning to live with parents, and career and further-education plans on indefinite hold. According to the MacArthur Research Network, far fewer young adults in the year 2009 had reached five common rites of passage, known as “traditional markers of maturity,” than in 1960. The five markers are: living independently, completion of schooling, full-time employment, marriage, and children.
The problem is, I think the article (and a great many like it), as well as popular imagination, falsely conflates two different phenomenon—that of extended childhood and adolescence, and that of increasing economic barriers to specific, material, culturally desired behaviors. Both may very well be real, and absolutely are related, but I wonder if there aren’t also real and negative consequences to young adults of our common, but false, conflation of emotional maturity—or real adulthood—with economic enfranchisement. I don’t necessarily think there’s a problem with using the incidence of these milestones to help track broader economic or lifestyle trends, but the way in which these metrics being used more colloquially to judge adulthood is deceptive and superficial.
Obviously, the five markers are only easily-measurable stand-ins for real characteristics of adulthood, and by using the former to talk about the latter, we risk mistaking them for each other.
The only one I can easily agree with, for the most part, is the first. I think it’s extremely difficult to know yourself fully as a self-sufficient person, and your capabilities, if you haven’t lived away from your parents–and college dorm living doesn’t count. (And even then, other cultures don’t judge this to be the case; it’s common around the world for three or more generations to share a household continuously.) The others have fairly gaping logical holes when it comes to their usefulness as representations of actual maturity. Haven’t plenty of woefully immature and ill-prepared people graduated from high school and college? Gotten full-time jobs? Gotten married too young to partners they didn’t know well enough? Had children when they were in no emotional or financial state to support them very well?
Isn’t it a more mature position to put off marriage and children if you know you’re too young or not financially secure?
Additionally, the traditional five criteria of maturity exclude certain groups of people almost entirely from economic consideration as full adults. Arts professionals and freelancers, for instance, may be very unlikely to have a single, stable, full-time job, or consistent full-time employment. For instance, though I started working at 15, have often worked 80-hour weeks, held multiple jobs at once, and been consistently financially self-sufficient since graduation from college…I’ve never held a full-time job. I probably never will.
Same-sex marriage is still illegal in 45 states. According to the traditional markers of maturity, gay and lesbian citizens are definitionally excluded from full adulthood merely by virtue of sexual orientation, regardless of their desire to marry or participation in long-term committed relationships. Six states have outlawed or severely restricted gays, lesbians, and same-sex partners from adopting or fostering children, and regardless of state law, same-sex couples face far higher logistical hurdles even to have biological children (and clearly are drastically less likely to experience unplanned pregnancies—the cause of 50% of all children). So on the count of having children, again, LGBT citizens are far less likely to be counted as full adults than their straight counterparts.
The common usage of the markers of maturity designates one particular model of work and family life as mature or adult–completion of college, obtaining a full-time job, heterosexual marriage and children–and effectively discounts different life choices which equally mature people might make as valid models of adulthood: lifelong singlehood, whether chosen or not; childlessness, whether chosen or not; long-term partnership without marriage; declining high school or college attendance if it doesn’t fit your goals in life; creative or independent work which would never be described as a full-time “job;” living in a multi-generational household if that would be the best thing for your family.
When we’re talking about whether young people are taking longer to grow up, I think we need to talk about the real characteristics of adulthood that the “traditional markers of maturity” are only arbitrary representations of. Goal-orientation and completion rather than school completion. Dedication to an occupation or meaningful work rather than full-time job. Sustenance of long-term, intimate relationships (including with lifelong friends) rather than marriage; reliability rather than simply having had children, which, by itself, in no way demonstrates the skills which we wish it did. And also the traits necessary for a rich and independent life, especially during financially difficult times, which aren’t explicitly represented by the five markers at all: good judgment, self-direction, resilience, creativity and problem-solving, adaptability and ability to adjust expectations.
I think it is true that people are taking longer to grow up; I’ve seen people only a few years younger than I am, almost completely unable to function confidently in the world: to go to the library to apply for a library card or register to vote or pick up tax forms, to conduct their own financial affairs, to cook, to become familiar with their neighborhood and find their way around, to make decisions or act independently of others’ opinions or approval. But it’s not for lack of a residence, college degree, job, or marriage; it’s some kind of basic lack of engagement and confidence with the world, of which I’m not sure of the origin.
I fear that if what we’re telling young adults is that being an adult is contingent on these particular markers, and they give every indication of remaining out of financial reach for the foreseeable future, it’s a discouragement from thinking of themselves—and behaving—as real adults. There’s an implication that you haven’t accomplished the right things if you haven’t accomplished these things, and that’s a discouragement for young adults to think confidently and flexibly of their real options and choices, and an encouragement of superficiality. That’s the opposite of what we should want to accomplish.
Further, there are troubling implications for civil rights. Many of our rights as citizens are conferred or denied on the basis of age as a proxy for presumed maturity: not just the commonly celebrated vices of ability to buy alcohol and tobacco, to gamble, visit a strip club or get a tattoo; but obtaining a full driver’s license, voting, running for public office, having the confidentiality of your medical treatment, and your bodily autonomy, guaranteed; military service; ability to sign a binding contract. If it becomes commonly accepted that people who have not attained particular milestones are not actually full adults, then the presumption of their right or ability to participate fully in democratic society could be imperiled.
May 24, 2010
I heart xkcd.
Okay, so really I’m just messing around on the internet trying to stay off of Facebook since I can’t watch the LOST finale until morning due to an unfortunately scheduled dance rehearsal (really, I don’t understand how the cast didn’t mutiny). I just had this conversation with my roommate…mass reaction to the episode evidently hit Facebook at like 11:44 PM exactly:
EMILY: Oh, dear.
EMILY: I’m not gonna say anything.
ME: Oh, fuck.
EMILY: (mildly evil laughter)
ME: Oh, fuck fuck fuck.
ME: Are people happy or are people not happy?
EMILY: I’m not gonna tell you anything.
ME: Oh, fuck me. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!
EMILY: Okay, I will say this, because I don’t think it’ll….The number of happy and unhappy responses are about the same.
ME: Oh, okay, that’s to be expected. That just means…
EMILY: Just don’t get on Facebook.
May 20, 2010
I distinctly remember a book called Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, sitting on my parents’ bookshelf in the loft of our house for much of my childhood, and then on a shelf in a spare room of my mother’s house for all of my adolescence, and always in my continual quest to find something to read, I would see it, and decline to pick it up and read it. It looked boring, in my childhood judgment.
Then last Christmas, literally as I was about to leave to get on a plane back to New York, my mother brought out her copy from the spare room for me and said she thought I would like it. Why then, I have no idea. But I did read it. It was not boring.
Pillars of the Earth follows the trials of a family of builders, and their adopted town, in their ambitions to build a cathedral in 12th-century England. The eventual heroes are Jack, the illegitimate son of an outlaw woman and a mysterious traveler, and Aliena, noble-born, disinherited, and self-made merchant, whose unlikely romance flourishes against all taboos and obstacles thrown in their way. Quickly it became one of my favorite books; despite somewhat flat and clunky writing, Follett’s storytelling is masterful. I wanted it never to end.
I didn’t know there was a sequel until tipped off by a colleague as we were trading book recommendations: World Without End, released almost 20 years after the original. Oh joy!
“We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage–almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance,” writes Thomas Cahill in his introduction to How the Irish Saved Civilization, and there could hardly be a better characterization of the situation of the characters in World Without End, whose story picks up 200 years after the conclusion of Pillars of the Earth with Caris and Merthin, descendants of Jack and Aliena, childhood friends navigating a troubled love affair on the verge of the beginning of the Black Plague. Except that I would add to the graces of historical narrative, the desperate efforts and innovations of people bent on little more than survival. Reading World Without End, I found myself again stricken strongly with the lament, “Wow, they really didn’t teach us anything in school about how history actually works.”
Many conflicts are illustrated through the hardships faced by the characters of medieval Kingsbridge: peasants versus cruel and despotic nobles, poor families against hunger and cold, reason against magical thinking and superstition, independent women and ambitious girls against institutionalized misogyny, the rigid and all-powerful church against the interests of the people it governed, circumstances continually stacked against people without money or influence, and rule of law against the presumed superiority and “might makes right” mentality of the ruling classes. In one sense, the both the book, and the course of history, could be conceived of as the narrative of the vulnerable learning to stand up to bullies of all kinds, in all times and places.
But Follett’s narrative implicitly proposes an even more central conflict of history: that between people who are sincerely trying to accomplish, build, or create something; and those seek primarily to advance their own position or ensure their own power. The astonishing but elegantly simple thesis of World Without End is that the advancement of humanity rides on the triumph of those who create or build something real over the obstructionism of those who seek only to advance themselves (usually by controlling or oppressing other people). The heroes of this book are not heroes because they’re particularly admirable as people (often, they aren’t), or because of their resilience in the face of impossible odds, or even because they’re less self-interested than their powerful adversaries, but because they find a purpose in building something real, or in making their world richer, more fair and less cruel as it directly affects the real lives of themselves and their neighbors, when they see that the only obstacles to a truly better world are the ego, incompetence, rigidity, or spitefulness of those in higher position. They didn’t set out to change the course of Western civilization, but just to do something worth doing–building a cathedral, a hospital, a bridge–or even simply what they needed to do under the circumstances to survive or to preserve their human dignity and autonomy–starting a new business, becoming master of a craft, figuring out how to grow a new crop to lift your family out of serfdom, standing up for your legal rights when they’re all you have left. And in so doing, they became the great gift-givers of history, the hinges upon which would hang the fate of the world as we know it today.
In yet another curious incident of thought-pattern synchrony this week, Rachel Maddow gave the commencement address at Smith College, telling the graduates that, sometimes, “personal triumphs are overrated,” illustrated by stories of people whose personal aspirations to fame turned out very badly for society, as opposed to people who found “glory” in real creation and lasting contributions to human well-being. “Don’t be the granddad, don’t be the grandma, whose temporal, personal triumph is something that you only hope gets forgotten in history,” she said. “Gunning not just for personal triumph for yourself but for durable achievement for life is the difference between winning things, and leadership.” I can’t help thinking that Merthin and Caris would agree. The entire speech is well worth watching.
May 10, 2010
I’ve always felt strongly that my chosen career field is in fact what I was fated, or maybe even divinely intended, to be doing with my life, even though the process by which I got here superficially appears so tenuous and dependent on sheer chance, even luck. So it’s especially appropriate that this article and this music video came into my life at about the same time last week, both introduced to me by fellow cast and crew members of my current production.
In Back From the Future from the April 2010 issue of Discover Magazine, Zeeya Merali explores the emergence of the hypothesis of “backwards causality,” or how the bizarre and counterintuitive rules of quantum physics predict that not only do the events of the past cause the circumstances of the present, but that the events of the future affect those of the past, and what this implies for human decision-making and free will. (Do not fear, my non-science-y friends and readers; the writing is very clear and straightforward. You don’t have to be a physicist to be able to understand or be amazed by it.)
I watched Ok Go’s music video, This Too Shall Pass, about 15 times in a row the night that a cast member told me I had to go home and google it, it made me so viscerally and irrationally happy. The story of the video is quite amazing; knowing what kind of video they wanted to make, the band enlisted the help of 20 engineers and physicists to plan it; the Rube-Goldberg apparatus took 3 months to set up, and 89 takes to obtain the footage of it running smoothly. The perfection of the mechanics, musical timing and sensory and emotional beauty of the piece are stunning for just how not inevitable that perfection was, but rather the result of voluminous planning, history, fortune, focus, relentlessness of purpose, torturous tech rehearsals, and thousands of ineffable and seemingly inconsequential decisions which lighted the path to the final frame.
Recently I looked around at my world, and my life, on a sunny late afternoon in SoHo as I was on my way back from dinner to a rehearsal and thought with thankfulness and amazement, “wow, everything here feels right right now.” I believe that the universe, or fate, or God, offers us signposts and signals, if we’re paying attention, that we’re on the path where we should be…and that’s what these two little snippets of human creation felt like, as well as reminders that your fate is not a single ultimate destination, or inevitable outcome, but the entirety of the way in which you live your life.
May 6, 2010
In his New York Times op-ed yesterday, “Tearing Away the Veil,” French politician Jean-François Copé attempts to make the case for France’s impending legal ban of the wearing of Islamic veils–the burqa or niqab–in public. He convincingly does just the opposite. His argument for the ban is a snide and condescending apology for authoritarianism. He claims to be arguing for a reaffirmation of liberty, but it’s clear that he has no idea what religious liberty is. He claims the practice of wearing a burqa is a “blow against the dignity of women,” but his own arguments are just as contemptuous and intolerant of women and their freedom to make decisions–especially unpopular decisions–to live on their own terms as are the clerics and cultures which enforce the wearing of the burqa.
He, too, fears women who do not behave as he thinks they should.
None of his justifications for his assertions that the ban is necessary for public safety or for the defense of French principles of liberty and fraternity even hold up to logical scrutiny, and are in fact a threat to the freedom of all citizens, not only Muslim women who wear a veil.
First, he claims that the allowance of full-face veils is a serious security problem in a society dependent on security cameras to maintain safety and order. “As a mayor, I cannot guarantee the protection of the residents for whom I am responsible if masked people are allowed to run about,” he says, and cites an example of a man in a ski mask who committed several robberies in a Paris suburb.
Has this man ever experienced winter in Chicago or Minneapolis? I dare him. Masked people running about everywhere! Oh noes! A couple years ago in New York, we had a man in a ninja costume rob seven houses in Staten Island. Ban the ninja costumes! We cannot have ninjas running about!
This reasoning is silly, of course, and factually absurd. Major cities all over the world allow masked people to run about all winter long. The visibility of the face in public is not always a public safety requirement. What’s serious, and disturbing, is that Copé presumes the criminality of his citizenry, and suggests that it’s their responsibility to live so as not to inconvenience the security cameras. Has he even read 1984? His example of not allowing people to walk naked down 5th Avenue not being an encroachment on liberty is the wrong one entirely; the correct one would be, are people allowed to walk down 5th Avenue masked? And of course, they are.
Secondly, his appeal to social norms as mandatory for maintaining a political community and its dedication to equality and fraternity is a threat to anyone who has trouble with conforming to those norms or who chooses any expression of nonconformity. “How can you establish a relationship with a person who, by hiding a smile or a glance — those universal signs of our common humanity — refuses to exist in the eyes of others?” he asks. Really, this is so hard? By talking with them and listening. Treating them kindness and courtesy on the basis of the simple fact of their humanity. God help the blind or autistic, stroke victims, the facially disfigured, or simply shy people–what do you do with them now, Mr. Copé? People establish relationships with others by letter, phone and internet, without ever seeing their faces, on the basis of shared feeling and humanity, every single day.
Copé tries to discredit veil-wearing by citing experts who say it isn’t actually required in the Koran, but this is irrelevant to civil government. In the US, hundreds of different denominations have very different interpretations of what the Bible requires. The government is not in the business of deciding their validity; it protects all religious practice to the extent that it doesn’t do violence to the rights of others. It’s a danger to all religious liberty if we give any credence to the proposition that the government can take any holy book and dictate which is the acceptable interpretation.
Finally, Copé maintains a profound ignorance of how integral and necessary religious belief and practice may be to religious people’s understanding of their own personhood. He doesn’t have to like it, but he doesn’t seem to have any inkling of it. He doesn’t consider that the veil may have meaning to women who wear it which is utterly different from his own presumptions of its meaning, and his presumptions are arrogant and insulting: “The person who wears one is no longer identifiable; she is a shadow among others, lacking individuality, avoiding responsibility.” But it is his prejudice which makes this true in his eyes; he makes no apparent effort to understand what the veil means to women who wear it. It is his prejudice and fear which robs her of individuality and human identity, not the veil.
It is his attitude which excludes veiled women from participation in democratic society. He is attempting to impose a “condition for living together” that will force women to reject either their religious practice, or their participation in society. He is the one trying to forcibly exclude veiled women; the veil itself cannot do that.
If the French are disturbed by the implications of women choosing to wear the burqa, they would do better, and be truer to their purported principles, to redouble efforts to simply show respect and tolerance in normal, daily interactions with both veiled and unveiled women, demonstrating incontrovertibly to Muslim women that with or without a veil, they can expect to be treated with dignity, equality, and civility in France. But Copé’s ignorant and bullying apologetic for the ban demonstrates the opposite: that a woman will not be trusted to live on her own terms in France.
Even the imagery of his article’s title, tearing away the veil, suggests violence, not liberty, not equality, certainly not fraternity. He is saying to Muslim women, you will be exposed to the extent that makes us comfortable, or you will not be allowed to participate in society.
May 2, 2010
Like many, I’m sure, I’ve been enjoying Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution reality show the past several weeks, and was disappointed that it was such a short series. At one point I remarked to my roommate that if the entire horrific, sordid history of reality television in America has led us to this point, it’s been worth it. Much as I had qualms about one town being used as the embodiment of American ill-health, I thought it had real potential to get people interested, and angry, concerning food issues and especially how we feed children.
Of course I’m also aware that people and situations had to have been manipulated in the interest of making exciting television; it was still television, after all. Jamie had a more than slight tendency towards mild hysteria and blowing situations out of proportion, notably his assertions that if the local hospital wasn’t impressed enough to donate $150,000 to his cause, or if Alice was negative with a visitor, or if DJ Rod wouldn’t come over to his side, then the Food Revolution would be OVER.
He was wrong, of course. Not insofar that the support of elected officials, local popular figures or lunch ladies is important to changing our food culture, but that the kind of overblown, invented competitions that make for suspenseful reality television will be what accomplishes the food revolution.
A friend of my roommate’s–a kindergarten teacher–was visiting over her spring break and watched a couple episodes with us. She e-mailed recently to say that when she went home and back to work, she asked her own kindergarten class to take the plain milk at lunch instead of the chocolate milk. Not only did they do it, they said that they liked it better.
This will be how we actually accomplish the food revolution–incrementally and cumulatively, person to person, by parents parenting (and getting together to put pressure on their own school lunch programs) and teachers teaching, through confidence that we are capable of making small but meaningful changes to make our food culture better.
Jamie frequently asks his fans and readers to learn two of his recipes, and then teach them to two other people; if everyone did that, it wouldn’t be long before we all knew how to cook again. Well, I already enjoyed cooking before the Food Revolution came along, having started making my own food, and baking, when I was about six, and most of the people I’m close to here already cook as well. So in the spirit of spreading the revolution, dispelling the myth that good cooking must be difficult or expensive, here are a couple of my own recipes I love making and sharing.
Chicken and mushroom cream sauce
I threw this together from stuff I had in my kitchen one day.
6-7 cloves garlic
2-3 stalks fresh rosemary
8-10 oz. baby portobello mushrooms
4 chicken legs (with thigh and drumstick)
About 1 stick of butter
About 1 cup white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
Heat oven to 450°. Melt about 2 Tbsp. butter and brush over chicken legs in a baking pan. Put chicken in oven to brown.
Mince garlic, slice mushrooms, and snip up the rosemary or strip it off its stalks if they’re woody. In a big skillet over low heat, melt the rest of the butter. Add garlic and rosemary and simmer a few minutes (don’t let the garlic burn!) until they start to get fragrant. Add the wine, return to a simmer. Add mushrooms. Continue simmering and stirring gently. Add cream, and keep stirring and simmering until the sauce is thickened and very fragrant. It may be a little brown from the mushrooms; that’s okay.
Check the chicken. When it’s very nearly cooked all the way through, take it out of the oven, pour the sauce over it, and put it back for 10 minutes or so more, until it’s completely done. Pepper to taste. Serve with lightly steamed green beans or asparagus.
Italian Bread Salad
My mother taught me this. It’s a stretch to even call it “cooking,” but it’s an easy, light but substantial meal, wonderful in the summertime. It came about as a way to not let stale bread go to waste. I made it all the time when I worked in a little Belgian café here and was always coming home with half-stale baguettes.
1 stale baguette or Italian bread.
Any combination of the following: sliced Roma tomatoes, red onion, cucumbers, and olives
A little crumbled feta cheese
A couple tablespoons olive oil
A dash of balsamic vinegar
Cut the hard bread into chunks about 1″ square. Place in large bowl or pot with all the veggies and cheese. Add just enough olive oil to coat the bread mixture and a dash or two of balsamic vinegar. Cover the pot and shake to mix well. Leave covered in the refrigerator overnight. The bread will become tender and chewy again from the oil and moisture from the vegetables.
I’m always on the search for simple, good recipes myself, so share yours, and support the Food Revolution, in the comments.