Monday, December 31, 2012


Here it is the last night of the year, and all the now-done-Christmas-hubbub had me thinking about gifts.  A story came to mind.

Some years ago, during an uncharacteristically well-behaved period in my life, I was involved in a women's group.  Each Christmas, an older lady I'll call Joan would invite the whole group over to her house for a Christmas party.  The highlight of the party was a sort of "Dirty Santa" game, except that Joan provided all the gifts. 

Joan loved to shop.  She especially loved to bargain shop, and so, throughout the year, whenever she'd see some gifty-type item that was ridiculously discounted, she'd buy it and store it away for her Dirty Santa Party.   Some of the gifts were cool, no matter who got them, like a fancily wrapped "tower" of chocolate candy, or a big set of assorted-color dish towels.  Some were great, but only if you were into things like that--like a fondue pot complete with little forks and plates or an electric coffee grinder.  Some were perhaps a bit less impressive, like a set of kitschy little egg dishes for soft-boiled eggs or a little gadget for taking the tops off of strawberries along with a small serving bowl festooned with painted strawberries.  And truthfully, some were a bit tacky.  The gifts ran the gamut.

Joan must have spent days wrapping all the gifts with beautiful wrappings, ribbons, bows, and little charms and things on them, and the table itself was decorated to the nines, with greenery and big fluffy bows and artificial snow and lights and ornaments. The gift table at Joan's party was like the Christmas fantasy-land around Santa's throne in a department store of old. 

The rules of the game were simple.  Everyone drew a number.  The person who drew number one would make the first selection from the wondrous gift table piled high with packages.  The next person would likewise pick a package and then decide whether to keep her gift or trade it for the gift of number one.  This would continue through all the women at the party, with each person able to keep their gift or forcibly trade it for any other gift that had been opened.  Then the victim of that forced trade got to keep that gift or make one forced trade of any opened gift except the one she'd just lost.  The only limitation was that after the same gift had been taken three times, it stayed put.  And the final trade fell to number one, who could open the one last unclaimed gift, or trade for anything in the room that hadn't been traded three times already, or keep the gift she already had. 

Believe it or not, this pretty large group of pretty non-homogenous ladies were really into this game.  People staked out gifts they wanted, and tried to devise strategies to get them.  Sometimes it was by "talking up" something they'd gotten in the hopes that someone would take it and they'd get a shot at the zen candle garden or whatever it was they had their eye on.  Sometimes, especially as the night wore on, it was by out and out bribery.  By the time you got to thirty-five or forty gifts, the trading activity was spirited.   Wine served to most of the ladies made the competition both more fierce and more humorous as the night wore on.

Now, I'm not much on receiving Christmas gifts.  At least since turning about 10, I've always enjoyed giving presents more than getting them.  And I'm even less into party games.  So the Dirty Santa game at Joan's was usually something I watched in bemusement more than having any goal of "winning."  I came away from those games at different times with a set of vanilla bath stuff , a grouping of  too-sweet-scented candles,  and once, a gadget for slicing boiled eggs.  Meh.

But one time, I happened into a real find.   I had been the number one gift-picker.  I don't remember what my first gift was, but it was something good, and I lost it promptly.  I had a couple more through the evening, but surprisingly ended with quite a nice thing--a big pasta bowl with very pretty Tuscan-looking designs on it.  People with lesser gifts were hooting that I should trade with them.  One lady who had a Tuscan-themed kitchen was offering unauthorized bonuses, like chocolate, if I'd trade her for a mini-food-processor.  I was considering that, and thinking about trading for a stuffed figure that danced and played Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, which I knew my mother-in-law would love, and then I looked over at the Last Gift.  It was gorgeously wrapped, and quite large.  It could be one of those chocolate towers, and it really was intriguing.   I felt daring.  I traded for it.  Joan's face fell.  

As the lady with the Tuscan kitchen booed loudly and then started to negotiate animatedly with Joan for the bowl,  I tore off the paper and opened the box.  Inside was a cookie jar shaped like a chubby black and white cow, seated erect like a dog begging, with all four hooves and a prominent pink udder molded and painted on the front, a tail on the back.  There was a collective gasp from the ladies, who thought I had just really gotten the shaft--a beautiful Tuscan pasta bowl traded away for a tacky cow cookie jar.

But I'm not really the Tuscan kind, and the fat little bovine whose head came off to reveal the treasure inside really spoke to me.  I liked that cow.  I took her home and she became a fixture in our kitchen.   She became known as Clovis, the cookie cow.  I even bought other tacky cow-themed kitchen stuff like dish towels with Bossies grazing on green, green grass and cow-spotted borders, so Clovis would feel at home.  I was fully aware the cows were tacky, but I didn't care, my husband didn't mind, and my girls were little and loved that cow, knowing she would have a treat for them, always.   Clovis was our cookie-bearing friend, well-used for years until an unfortunate accident shattered her all over the floor of a subsequent kitchen she adorned.

So, a long story to close out what has seemed like a very long year.  We've been through it in spades in 2012.  Economic doomsaying, mass shootings, elections, fiscal cliffs, money-laundering, rate-fixing, and now surviving the "end of the world."  Wow.  There's a lot that needs handled, dealt with, changed, and fixed in this world of ours--and dammit, the end of the world didn't take us off the hook for it.  So, you ask, what's the point this New Year's Eve? 

Just this:  some gifts are fancy; some gifts are plain; some are easily recognized as valuable; and  some are pretty darn weird and might only be appreciated by the person to whom fate grants them--like my cookie cow.  We all have a place and a role to play in addressing the challenges that will come in this, "the year after the end of the world."   Each of us has unique gifts that will help us to do that, in large ways or small.  And each of our gifts will only be put to their best use by the one person in the world who's wound up with them.  Here's hoping that we each see and appreciate our gifts--even the weird ones--that we embrace them, develop them, and use them fully, uniquely, and with joy to make our own part of the world a better place this coming year.   God knows it needs to be a better place.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Culture Problem

In the wake of the shootings last week at Sandy Hook Elementary, we're hearing a lot.  A lot is simple media sensationalism, like the accounts in which children are interviewed, telling of hiding in classrooms and closets as their fellow students were shot.  Some is sappy sentimentalism, like the abuse of these children's memories as we relive their birthdays and hear about their favorite toys.  And it's possible that some will be worthwhile, although little I've heard yet falls into that category.

As usual, we're hearing how this man was mentally unstable, how he was troubled, a loner, a nut.  How someone could have known the guy was a menace if only some set of circumstances would have occurred.  How he wasn't like other people. This is how we comfort ourselves.  Over and over and over--every time one of "them" mows people down.  We convince ourselves that the problem of people murdering kids, or employers, or teenagers, or moviegoers, is someone else's problem--the junction of too many guns (lawmakers' problem,") too little healthcare for the mentally ill (the healthcare system's problem), or an individual case of bad parenting (other parents' problem).  At all costs, we avoid the realization that this problem is a culture problem--OUR problem--by making the person who did it not like us.

I'm here today to point out the ways in which shooter Adam Lanza (and Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold, and James Holmes) is just like us.   Because until we see that, we'll have mass shootings and massacres come along like buses--regularly--just like we've been having ever since Columbine.

So how is he like us?  Well, for starters, he was raised in a diseased culture where males are taught in innumerable ways that the way to be "manly" isn't to be emotionally stable, good at expressing yourself, nurturing of your family, calm and measured, but instead to be a brute--to give less and get more--taking what you want, with force if necessary, whether more means more money, more sex, or more controlling power over others.

This sickness tells boys it's expected that a "real man" crushes his "enemies" on the sports field, or the playground, or the workplace or the battlefield.  It says that it's par for the course for men to philander, to kill, rape, beat, or blow up anyone who opposes their desires, no matter how childish, greedy, perverted, unfounded, or unfair.  To buck this trend gets one labeled a "faggot," a "wimp," or other charming epithets.

We teach our males, through TV shows, video games, sports, and "boys-will-be-boys" excuses for bad behavior to be Rambo caricatures, blasting their way through life, unaccountable for being brutes, because "that's how men are."  Our most recent mass murderer, Adam Lanza, is like millions of young men who are raised to be fearful of life (of women who want to "emasculate" them, or the underclass who will take their due, of Commies, or Muslims, or illegal immigrants, or other tougher men), while convinced that "safety" and "power" come not from strength of character, strength of your argument, goodness, and emotional security, but from forcing another person to do what you want at the point of a gun or after being pummeled, tortured (or should I say interrogated using enhanced techniques), or threatened.

Now, many of you are shaking your heads, saying, "that's not how I raised my boy."  And I'm here to tell you that most likely it is, at least in some measure.  Because no matter how anti-gun you are, no matter how pacifist and dove-like, you've probably bought into some part of the man-myth, and you probably passed it to your kids.

For example, do you think there's a different standard of behavior for men and women?  Is it "ok" for a boy to be loud and rough but not ok for a girl?  Are men "only to be expected" to yell, punch the wall, or go off and sulk in a huff instead of talking about a conflict?  Is a boy or man who sleeps around a "whore" or a "tramp," or is that honor reserved for females?  Do you expect that boys "play differently" than girls--with war games an pounding each other and blowing stuff up standard fare in the boy world and taking care of babies and playing school and pretending to cook more "girlish?"   Are men who are mild mannered, kind, and nurturing "wimps," while their loud, competitive, and aggressive counterparts are "men's men?"  When people refer to a man being a "good catch," does that mean he's faithful and loving and gentle, or that he's the best at today's most common form of warfare--earning money?  Is a man whose wife is the primary breadwinner while he stays home with the kids a good caretaker or a lazy bum?  What about in business--a guy who sees what he wants and steps on others to go after it is a "go-getter;" a woman who does the same is a conniving bitch. 

There are a thousand examples--and we all go for them at some point or other to some degree.  We've systematically made it the standard in our culture that men don't have to be as "nice" as women.  Our expectation, collectively, is that a "real man" is, compared to a woman, not just more physically powerful, but also more aggressive (physically, emotionally, or economically), more exploitive, and less capable of handling feelings, non-physical conflict, and communication. 

The corollary argument is, "men are just different."  We glorify male domination and aggression as not only the way things are but the way they ought to be.  Once they were the hunters and the protectors, the story goes, and so aggression, power-mongering, and even violence is "only natural."   Well, it might be--if they were animals in the wild.  But once a creature is brought to live in a society, those traits are not useful--they're abusive of others.   For example, being the biggest and fiercest might have served a dog well in the wild, but when they're living with humans, and a particular animal displays aggressive tendencies, that animal is not allowed to breed.  If only it worked that way with humans, but alas.

So here we are again, with 20 barely-more-than-babies and 7 women dead.   The problem isn't a gun problem--he could have used a knife or a bomb made of fertilizer or a can of gasoline and a match.  The problem isn't a mental illness problem--millions of people have autistic spectrum disorders and  mental illnesses and never hurt anyone, and this young man didn't believe he was killing demons or some other psychotic delusion--he knew he was getting back at his mother for some perceived slight.  No, the problem is a culture problem--yet another man taught by just about every influence in his life that male aggression is natural, that domination of others is the quickest form of  persuasion, and that violence is an acceptable way to deal with disappointment, rejection, fear, or anger.   Adam Lanza simply decided, on a grand scale, the same thing that thousands of men decide on a smaller scale every day when they beat their partners or rape their dates or punch out the guy who made a smart remark or torture the prisoner--that violence works.  And once again, we're trying to excuse the real causes of the problem, as we do so often when we we cast about looking to lay blame on the weapon, or the "terrorist," or the medical system or the woman who went out where she oughtn't to be in clothes she oughtn't to wear. 

So--other than the man himself, what or who is to blame when a man decides that the way to relieve his jealousy, fear, and insecurity is to blast people with high powered weapons or fill a truck with explosives and bomb a building, instead of talking it out or sucking it up or seeing a therapist? 

It may be all of us.

UPDATE:  I understand that a particularly dense Republican member of Congress appeared on an MSNBC show Friday morning, after my post, and referred to Sandy Hook as a "cultural problem," as he defended the unrestricted sale of assault weapons.  I regret that this "gentleman" chose the same words I did, after I chose them.  Unfortunately, he is one of the people I'm talking about--one of those who uses fear to justify violence (in his case, encouraging people to use guns to feel "safer"). I disagree with him entirely on the issue of an assault weapon ban.