Saturday, August 16, 2014

Courtship and Dating: Where Next?

I've written before about the problems I've seen with courtship, but I'm deliberately refraining from making any pronouncements about what would be better. My children are too young and I am too married for it to be immediately relevant or even give me grounds for immediate observation. One thing I confess is that, like many people backing away from courtship, I still felt that "casual dating" was a rather dubious proposition.

This article has me rethinking that feeling: Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed. It's probably worth clicking over to read (though not the comments, unless you're in bed with the flu), but to summarize he points out that the problem with courtship was there was no mechanism provided for single people to get to know each other *without* the pressure of an exclusive relationship, which naturally leads to heavy emotional and often physical involvement.

Courtship was a reaction to the dating culture of the 80s, at which point it had become routine for even young teenagers to date with the goal of forming serious boyfriend/girlfriend relationships as quickly as possible, maintain for several months or years, break up, then reattach to someone new. The courtship proponents were quite right that this is not a particularly healthy thing to promote--better practice for serial monogamy than permanent monogamy. So they rejected it--but they neglected to put something in its place. They just raised the stakes on the long-term, exclusive relationships by naming them courtship and putting the pressure on to move to marriage as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the dating scene was scaring off nearly everybody. Even when I was a young single, I noticed that hardly anybody I knew "dated," whether they were into courtship or not. People just hung out together. Because I mostly knew church people, it was apparently limited mostly to hanging out, but people in wilder circles had a similar phenomenon, only with hooking up added on the side. Either way, the formal emotional commitment that we had come to associate with dating was way too scary. Apparently, this phenomenon continues and dating is something of a lost art down to the present. 

Umstadd suggests we might do better to look a little farther back, to how dating was practiced by our grandparents (or maybe great-grandparents for today's teenagers). He calls it Traditional Dating. I think of Norman Rockwell:



The idea was, that there was expected to be a time period of dating in which young people were expected to go out with a number of people, not forming a serious attachment with any of them, but simply getting to know a number of different potential partners in a number of different settings. Dating was different from "going steady," which was a state that was expected to wait until the people were close to marriageable age and probably headed that direction.

He then goes on to offer some advice for singles, but since my interest in this topic is less immediate, I'm more interested in stepping back to some broader social questions. The challenge is, one person cannot single-handedly form a social convention. So it is worthwhile for people not currently in need of a partner to stop and think about what social institutions are beneficial and worthy of promotion.

I am analyzing from the Christian/traditionalist/romantic assumption that a reasonably amicable, permanent, monogamous relationship is the best and healthiest means for the expression of adult sexuality and upbringing of the next generation, and that it is in the best interest of society to smooth the path of its rising members into entering into such a relationship if they so desire. I'm not going to delve into the why of this assumption because this post is already far too long and I've barely gotten started.

The question for now is, How? Arranged marriages is one option--and some courtship advocates come very close or even openly advocate this--but no matter what you can cite for the success of such marriages in other cultures, the fact is that they have not been practiced in *this* culture for centuries, and we have not the slightest idea how to go about it. Ripping up a custom from one culture and stuffing it wholesale into another culture without all the related customs and support is like trying to transplant a cactus in the rainforest. It's not going to take.

So that leaves us with some variation of what Western cultures have long practiced--people choose their own mates, with more or less guidance from the rest of society on how, when, and whom. I notice that the time period of casual interactions has good precedents. No, it doesn't always look like the Norman Rockwell trip to the soda fountain. It might look like a social round of balls, dinners, etc. Or, at a simpler level, church socials, singing schools, and riding out together. But somehow, someway, the precedent seems strong that when people must choose their own partners, there is benefit in making a time and a place for meeting a number of different potential partners, and getting to know them on a casual basis before making a selection.

Some people will cite examples of how two people miraculously met each other in totally unexpected ways, after totally failing through normal means, as proof that such ordinary means are unnecessary or inadequate. However, as put in the film Operation: Danger, "There is a difference between recognizing miracles and depending on them." (You probably haven't seen Operation: Danger, which was a private production done by a friend from law school, and so you are missing out here.) Whatever may come about in exceptionable circumstances does not mean we should fail to promote easier circumstances for the ordinary course of events.

In reality, most of those of us who practiced courtship--especially those who practiced it more or less successfully--did have such a time. We went with what was currently acceptable and flew under the anti-dating radar--we had friends. We chatted (a lot!) online. We hung out in groups. This had some advantages. Friendship is an admirable basis for marriage. Talking is one good way to get to know each other.

It had some disadvantages, too, though. One obvious one is that, in courtship circles, it was always somewhat suspect. It wasn't supposed to lead to anything more. You were supposed to be totally disinterested, always, and if you were rather shy or if your parents were rather strict you didn't even have the option of friendship. So while it served as the necessary prelude to deeper relationships, it could do so only as long as everyone successfully pretended that it wouldn't. This was hardly a healthy situation. Even among groups that are not philosophically anti-dating, there seems to be a great deal of confusion as to whether friendship might be an acceptable prelude to romance or an absolute bar to it, and as to how or when one signals the transition. As another law school friend put it, "People are friends. Then they are confused. Then they are engaged."

I see another disadvantage to the "friendship" paradigm, and this one applies across the board: friendship is, by its nature, an open-ended, loose-formed relationship of mutual and spontaneous convenience. One doesn't *ask* someone to become a friend. It just happens. Nor does one demand exclusivity from one's friends (unless one is an obnoxious, jealous person). Nor does one have the obligation to persevere with a friend when things become difficult, or rearrange your life to preserve the friendship in its original form. I have many dear friends whom I communicate with once or twice a year.

But all these things are necessary to build a stable, monogamous sexual relationship. At some point you *do* have to make a deliberate choice. It *is* exclusive. One must rearrange one's life, and persevere in the face of difficulties. Friendship is a fine basis in one sense, and a grossly inadequate one in another. And I have to wonder if this is not a factor in the increasing delay of marriage and fear of commitment--the diminished opportunity to practice these things during the preliminary stages.

Because it seems that other getting-to-know-you settings *did* contain practice in these things. As Henry Tilney pointed out (yes, I'm still on an Austen kick), the country dance was a miniature of the marriage customs: The man had the right to ask, the woman to refuse, they both had to remain exclusive for the dance, do their best to accommodate their partner, and not act like they wished to be elsewhere.


And in another setting, the casual date of the early twentieth century provided a miniature of that era's customs: still the man has the right to ask, still the woman to refuse, there was still an expectation of loyalty for the duration of the event (as my mother would put it, you must "dance with the one who brung you"), and, reflecting the changing economic realities, the date was expected to cost money and the man was expected to provide all of it.

In other words, you had some practice, not in having a long-term intense emotional connection to another person which you then break off and try elsewhere, but in making choices, facing the possibility of rejection, focusing your attention deliberately for a season, all in a setting that openly acknowledged that finding a life partner was a worthy and deliberate goal without pressing you into a choice too soon.

This certainly does not eliminate the possibility of heartbreak, bad choices, or never finding a mate (human relationships will never come with a money-back guarantee)--but it does seem like it does what human society *can* do to help the next generation on. And I do think grownup society has such an obligation, rather than leaving the next generation to figure out sexuality from scratch, any more than we would expect them to figure out medicine from scratch. Roles and scripts can be too confining if taken too far, but if you start with nothing you spend all your time negotiating and not enough having fun.

But we can't import another generation's practices wholesale any more than we can import another culture's. Still, we can learn from what has been done and do our best to find parallels today. Perhaps in reflection of today's consumer but egalitarian culture, costs and the obligation of asking must be more evenly split. Friendships are all very well, but there needs to be a recognition and, yes, encouragement of the other dynamic. And some practice in deliberately asking, choosing, showing loyalty, in a way that does not insist on premature long-term attachments.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Book Review Mashup

Books are usually reviewed one at a time, but I personally never read only one book at once. In fact, I usually have six or seven going at various speeds, and at least two fairly intensely. Not only does this better accommodate various moods and various locations in the house, the ideas tend to feed off and illuminate each other, even in very different books. So it makes sense to review them together.

Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, by Scott Barry Kaufman--a book on the ways schools and society define, measure, and predict intelligence. I've been reading it slowly for the past few months and finished it at the library at the end of its renewals.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen--which needs no explanation, and which I was rereading for the umpty-eleventh time after watching the 6 hour miniseries, because even 6 hours has to leave out so many good lines.

Ungifted was particularly interesting because it was written by a man who spent most of his childhood in special ed due to a delay in language processing, yet who went on to become a cognitive psychologist. His look at the limited and self-fulfilling nature of intelligence testing and classification is therefore both deeply personal and thoroughly supported. The book examines many of the variables that go into achievement independently of intelligence (such as grit and passion); the obvious limits of many gifted programs that base massive outcomes on the strength of a single test at a young age; and looks at what intelligence tests are good at (predicting overall scholastic outcomes) while questioning whether that is really measuring intelligence or just shows that school is tailored to a few factors. If there was anything that disappointed me, it was that he didn't come to proposing his *own*, broader definition of intelligence until the very end of the book.

However, here it is: "Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals." This is a pretty intriguing starting place, and I immediately thought of the people in the P&P world: How would their intelligence be evaluated by this standard?


Mrs. Bennet: Mrs. Bennet has one of the most baldly stated and consistent personal goals of any character in literature--she wants to get her daughters married. Her engagement in this task is high. She thinks and talks of little else. But what about abilities? Here she flounders--most of what she does in hopes of furthering her goal works against it and, most damning of all, she never notices. Her blatant and empty-headed speech, her bad manners, her nurturing of Lydia's wildness, nearly scare off the truly eligible. It is in spite of her that her older daughters get married at all. Therefore, we must concur that by this definition (as by nearly any other), Mrs. Bennet is of low intelligence.


Mr. Collins: Now, Elizabeth describes Mr. Collins as "the stupidest man in all England," but is this fair? What is his personal goal? A respectable and comfortable living. What abilities does he engage to achieve this goal? Blatant and unrelenting flattery of Lady Catherine. It may not be a particularly noble goal, but it is certainly one he is fully engaged in and he knows very well how to use his abilities to achieve it. However, it does not require much adjustment or growth to continue achieving, so, although we cannot concur with Elizabeth that he is the stupidest man in England, we do not need to rate his intelligence very highly.


Darcy: Darcy's goal, at least as it evolves through the book, is to win Elizabeth. He starts out on completely the wrong tack, of course. However--here is the great point--he recognizes what doesn't work and tries again with something else. Abandoning the method of insulting her family and presuming any woman would accept him (and as one of the richest men in England and looking like Colin Firth, it was not necessarily an empty presumption), he remains fully engaged with his goal but tries civility, hospitality, humility, and using his money to get her family out of a terrible jam without presuming anything in return. It's a brilliant change of strategy, and when you combine it with the less-prominent but still obvious in the background abilities he uses to manage his personal business, it is evident that Mr. Darcy is a very intelligent man.

Elizabeth: I admit, I'm rather challenged here. Obviously Elizabeth is intelligent, but how is it manifested? What is her goal? (And if one of the most beloved protagonists in English literature doesn't have a clear goal, what does *that* say about writing truisms?) Marriage is not really her goal. Mostly she seems to want to observe and understand people and avoid being excessively embarrassed by her family, but the latter is one she cannot do much about. She does exercise her abilities extensively and in varying ways in coming to understand more about other people, but somehow it just doesn't seem to capture enough. I feel like either the definition of intelligence or my understanding of her motivations are too weak here.

Edited to add: Perhaps I have it. I think Elizabeth states her goal to Lady Catherine: to secure her own happiness. Stated as that, it seems a rather selfish and narrow goal, but I think Elizabeth's choices and behavior indicate that she means it in the broadest and best possible sense: to live well; to attain happiness through virtue and wisdom. The philosophers would approve. And part of pursuing that goal is observing and learning from others; part finding out her own wishes; part simply learning to enjoy and make the best of the moment she is in, even if it is at a ball with too few men. She remains engaged, flexible, creative, and charming in her pursuit of a worthy goal. Intelligent indeed.



Wickham: Mr. Wickham's goals appear to be to get as much money and as many girls as possible. Unfortunately, since he plans to marry for money, his two goals are in conflict, but he drifts along trying to accomplish them both. His failure to see the conflict clearly and hew to one course or the other marks him as considerably less intelligent than he manages to convey at first blush.

Lydia: Lydia appears to have but one goal, she is fully engaged in pursuing it, and she achieves it. That her goal is quite limited in scope and very easy to accomplish for an uninhibited 16 year old girl at a military encampment in any era prevents us from forming a very high estimation about her intelligence even so.

After evaluating these characters, I do think the definition has potential, as long as you allow for the intensity of abilities needed to pursue a goal--successful pursuit of goal that is easily achieved cannot indicate as much intelligence as even failing at a difficult one. Worthiness of the goal is another concern, but not strictly an intelligence one--obviously an evil mastermind will have unworthy goals, but that does not indicate he is unintelligent in his manner of pursuit.

Monday, August 11, 2014

What We Did on Our Summer Vacations

DOB: Constructed the LEGO Tower of Orthanc. Slept in very late. Tidied up his alcove. Went swimming in a nice, clean pool.

Me: Read several frivolous books and laughed very hard. Organized and decorated the master bedroom and bathroom. Took long walks. Avoided cooking, mostly.

DOB and Me: Watched the Lord of the Rings Director's Cut (12 hours in one day). Watched Firefly and Serenity. Watched the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. Ate brownies and ice cream. Played Scrabble and cribbage.

Ducklings: Met new friends. Swam in lakes. Various lakes. (His Majesty had the bright idea that the lake next to their house, which had been closed due to contamination earlier in the summer, would be the best lake to swim in since (1) the water quality would be closely monitored; (2) no one else would be there. So far everyone has been in excellent health, and Duchess and Deux have reputedly both learned to actually swim.) Performed dinner theater on the garden wall (lots of sword fights and falling).

It was, in short, a very lovely and relaxing time for all of us, if somewhat lacking in the exciting adventure department, and the only fault Duchess had to find with it as a summer vacation was the lack of spending money (which, as DOB pointed out, would have been to little purpose since they didn't go anywhere to spend it). I'm feeling a lot less brittle than I was. DOB is coming to where he can honestly take stock of how much energy he has and what his limits are.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

In Which I Face My Fears

Although our new house has many wonderful advantages, it has two main drawbacks. One, of course, is the size of the mortgage payment.

The other one is the yard.

We have always lived in places with very small yards, and back when the big kids were babes in arms whom I could not safely leave unsupervised while I turned on a slathering beast of a gasoline-powered mower (something I never got the hang of), I got a little push mower which never needed the gas refilled nor had difficulty starting. It made a pleasant soft clattering noise and didn't smell at all and I could use it in perfect safety with infants playing close by. Indeed, as soon as they grew tall enough to hold up the handle, they could take a turn with it themselves.

Then we moved here. At some point a predecessor in title had looked at the lovely indigenous forest, which still stands in large swatches throughout the neighborhood, full of fir and cedar and huckleberry and salal and fern, all self-maintaining and some of it quite tasty, and decided they would rather see the sky occasionally.

So we have nearly an acre of mangy grass, dandelions, plantain and a few more sinister and prickly weeds. There's a small yard up front that is pretty much pure grass and easy to maintain. But the back is a steep and gravelly hill which takes better to weeds than grass. And there is an awful lot of it. One look at the size of it and I passed my beloved little push mower on to Wondergirl, who had just moved into a development with tiny, grassy yards.

That left us the problem of mowing. It was intended that we would eventually get one of Grandpa's lawn tractors, but of course that took time and arrangement and meanwhile the grass and weeds grew as grass does in the springtime and DOB sneezed as he does when the grass grows in the springtime. The neighbor took pity on us and mowed it once and some people from church did it another time, and B5 started to mow once after we got Grandpa's mower delivered, but then it broke down and took some time to get it fixed. And then DOB's father was out and he mowed it while they were here.

Eventually, though, the mower was fixed and no one else was around there really wasn't any good reason why I, myself, should not do the mowing instead of begging it done elsewhere. Except that I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to run the thing. Not that I had never done it before--Grandpa taught both Toolboy and I to run the tractor as soon as our legs were long enough. But that was a long time ago, and I have a natural antipathy to machinery as strong as Toolboy's natural affinity for it. (It's not a gender expectations thing; I was just as terrified of Grandma's sewing machine.)

I debated calling up someone for instructions, but it was embarrassing and I am terrible at following instructions anyway. I turned to Google instead and found a page entitled, "How To Start a Riding Lawn Mower." Those instructions didn't make sense, but I printed them out and took them with me to the mower. I was unable to identify any of the parts I was supposed to do things to except the brake and the key, but I put my foot on the brake and turned the key several times and much to my wonder, the thing started.

Indeed, it was very excited to start and began tearing around the yard at an alarming speed, belching fumes. After a while I began to get the hang of it, and then I noticed that it wasn't actually cutting anything. More experiments with everything that could be prodded in one direction or another and I found the lever that turned on the blade. I was actually mowing! And after a while I discovered where to move something else so that I could move at a reasonable pace. Indeed, the only thing I never did figure out was how to work the parking brake, but that was only a problem once when I ran out of gas on the uphill slope. And it didn't make it all the way to the pond, so no harm done.

Thus I tamed the mighty beast and conquered the lawn and felt very proud of myself. I'd still much rather have woods, but unfortunately letting it return to woods on its own would mean putting up with twenty years of blackberries and scotch broom first.

Monday, August 04, 2014

You've (not) Come a Long Way, Baby Weight

Several eons ago in internet time--last month, maybe--Facebook was filled with a happy little meme on the theme of "Let's End the Mommy Wars," with women holding various signs showing that they can be friends despite different parenting styles and achievements.

Being the sort of person I am, I can hardly let such harmony and goodwill go uncriticized. So I'd like to hone in on one of the pictures, the one where one mom is holding a sign that says, "I lost all my baby weight," and the other mom is holding a sign that says, "I'm still working on losing the baby weight."

In other words, guess what is still *not* an acceptable option in this love fest of moms who do and don't breastfeed, co-sleep and eat organic? That's right--it's not caring about the baby weight. You don't have to lose the baby weight, necessarily, but you have to *try.* If you cannot return your body to its mythical pre-baby state, you at the very least should have the decency to feel badly about it.

(And before someone starts droning on about the Serious Public Health Problem of Obesity, let me point out that the mom holding the "I'm still trying" sign is not, by the most extravagant stretch of the imagination, fat in any way that threatens her health or even would be noticeable to another human being. It's the scale and the idealization of the Pre-Baby Body that is driving her quest.)

In the interest of honesty, let me say that I am, by the official government numbers, overweight. I never lost the baby weight, and carrying twins full term packs on a good bit. I breastfed for a year, I eat a well-balanced diet of whole foods, and I exercise moderately but regularly because I like to. Doesn't make a difference. This is the weight I am (I'm not going to say a number because comparisons are exactly the thing I'm trying to get away from here) and, barring extravagant measures, this is where I'm going to stay.

Yes, I'm noticeably heavier than I was pre-children. I also don't melt down into a screaming lunatic at 5 p.m. if I haven't eaten. Or need to take a nap in the morning despite an uninterrupted night's sleep and working at a desk. In other words, I'm healthier and stronger. And heavier and bigger around. (Ironically, although it never bothered me much, I really did think I was on the chunky side back in those days, when any sane person could, and sometimes did, tell me I was borderline emaciated. My family runs to large bones and dense muscles and the BMI doesn't really apply.)

Increasing stoutness with middle age, and especially with child-bearing, is not, after all, anything new or tied to our evil modern lifestyle. It's the normal human condition, in settings with adequate food. There are always a few naturally slim folk who avoid it, but it is not especially virtuous or healthy to try to dodge it if you aren't one of those. (And I'm not going to call them lucky. They're not luckier, they're just different. There are tradeoffs to everything. As you get old--which I'm sure we all want to do, given the alternative--less fat just means more wrinkles.) 

If we really are seriously concerned about problematic obesity, then the *last* thing we should be doing is encouraging mothers to worry about how their body will look after the baby. Because restricting a mother's diet before the baby is born sets the child up for metabolic syndrome and truly serious weight problems.

It's good to encourage people to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and to exercise regularly, because those things really are beneficial. But they won't necessarily make you thin, especially not if you've been through an event that may have reset your base weight, like pregnancy. It's important to be honest about that. As soon as thinness becomes the goal, people start being lured into diets and exercise programs that are not really healthy and not really sustainable.

Please don't tell me about how you have found the one common-sense dietary program that really works. In five years it will be discredited and you yourself will have forgotten about it. They always are. They all boil down to some combination of (1) not eating specific kinds of food; (2) not eating enough food; (3) not eating often enough; (4) following rules for eating so complicated that it's just too much trouble. All of those have problems in the long run.

And exercise is fine, but intense programs that lead to injury and then inactivity are not good for your long-term health. Better to do something moderate and unimpressive (but fun) that you can keep doing for the next 50 years.

Guess what? It probably won't make you thin. It will help you live longer and leave you free to laugh and enjoy the time you have and eat ice cream occasionally without making a big deal about it.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Remembering

These are old pictures, from 2012. We had a photographer friend come and take a whole series of them, and they were beautiful. Somehow she managed to make our weedy backyard look like a fairyland and a broken bench look like a deliberate prop. At the time I was a little uncomfortable with the pictures. They felt dishonest. It had been a rough summer. I had sprained my foot in a way that persisted in not healing, and that had put too much strain on DOB. DOB was beginning to feel the cumulative effects of life on his feet in such a way that his beloved Camaro would have to be sold in the next month so that he could buy a truck and start using a wheelchair full time.  And that, in turn, precipitated a whole series of changes that still have us reeling and trying to find solid ground under our feet. It hadn't all happened yet that summer, but we could feel it coming.

Looking back on that year and those pictures, I realize they weren't dishonest. Our weedy backyard was a fairyland. DOB only got to enjoy his Camaro for a couple of months, but he did have it. The bad things happening were true, but so was the beauty. And I am glad we stopped to notice it. Because what do we have in life, at the end, but a few memories? And if we are lucky, we have held on to the beautiful ones.

A week ago Duchess and Deux finished up the drama workshop they like to do in the summers. It had a science-fiction theme, and they together played two heads of a three-headed monster; Deux was also a sample body for a mad scientist and Duchess a talking dog. We thoroughly enjoyed the show and then we went and got ice cream cones for everyone at Carter's, whose peppermint chip ice cream is otherworldly.

With a little difficulty about curbs--because fewer places are ADA compliant than you might think--we took our cones to a little gazebo by the water, where we watched dusk falling over the harbor in the soft coolness of the summer evening. It was a beautiful moment. It didn't make the worries about health and life and work and money go away, but nothing does. Life keeps needing to be lived. But it keeps bringing beautiful moments, too. And that is why we have words and pictures and hearts, to stop and take notice and hold onto those moments.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Full Stop

We still don't seem to be any closer to answers on what's going on with DOB. He still has episodes of paralysis, especially after stress or exertion. The neurologist thinks it must be psychological and the psychiatrist thinks it must be neurological. He tried driving once and found it too draining so he is back to the passenger seat, an unpleasant situation for both of us. We're going to try to talk to more neurologists and do more tests, but getting anything scheduled is on a scale of months.

In the meantime, one thing that seems clear is that whether or not it is entirely caused by exhaustion or not, it is certainly heavily correlated to exhaustion. And a break is something that DOB hasn't really taken . . . well, ever, except for an overnighter here and there. We haven't even had a good bout of the flu in over a year. And between trying to keep DOB and his law practice propped up while dealing with four kids and a house and a move and an estate, I was pretty near the cracking point myself.

So, thanks to Wondergirl and Their Majesties for taking the kids for several days each, we are taking a long break. (Unfortunately, it means we are also missing B3's wedding, but there was no way we were in condition to travel 3000 miles.) We're not going anywhere (except places like the chiropractor and Papa Murphy's). We're not making any plans. We're not doing much of anything. So far I've read three completely frivolous novels, finished beating all the encounters in Magic 2015, and started writing a science-fiction story based on Greek mythology. DOB has slept in very, very late, reached the next level in his game, and gotten halfway through rearranging his hot wheels. We're watching Crusade in the evenings, an offshoot of our all-time favorite Babylon 5.

It's nice. I'm still tired. But a little less frantically tired.