What is culture for?

I am extremely cultured.  I know history and philosophy and I’ve read most of the classics (and can fake many of the ones I haven’t read).  I enjoy opera and theater (but not ballet or symphony, though my sister loves ballet) and old movies and classical music.  I can swim and play the piano and embroider and cook (though I was never able to get over my complete lack of artistic talent when it comes to drawing or painting or my complete boredom with ballet lessons).  #2 and I can trade Gilbert and Sullivan or PG Wodehouse jokes with ease.  I know which silverware to use at a fancy restaurant (pro-tip:  start with the outermost) and how to pretend I know what I’m talking about with wine.  Sadly I only speak two languages (English and Spanish), but I know enough French and Italian to get around as a tourist or to get most literary references without Google translate (ditto Latin).

I used to think that I had all this culture because my parents were sharing what they enjoyed, and culture was something to make it easier for me to entertain myself.  (And part of this is true– my father is a European immigrant who grew up in a fancy US coastal city, so his love of operetta patter songs is as real as his love for Jacques Brel or the Beatles.)

But a couple years ago I was rereading Penrod, by Booth Tarkington (free on Kindle).  In addition to being shocked by the casual racism and animal cruelty that I did not remember from my initial childhood reading (from my mother’s childhood hard copies), I was struck by a passage.  Penrod, who is established as having been from a middle- to lower-middle- class family, takes ballroom dancing and etiquette lessons.  A public school kid, this is the only time he rubs shoulders with the private school children of the town elite.  His mother wants to social climb.  His parents, I realized, are trying to help him advance.

Recent readers of the blog may also be aware of my current turn to regency romances.  In regencies (and in steampunk), women have “accomplishments”– somewhat useless entertainment skills such as embroidery or harp or watercolors that are class markers.  Wealthy tradespeople could send their daughters to finishing school so as to marry up into the aristocracy without embarrassing their impoverished future sons-in-law.

One of my mother’s refrains has always been, “to make you a more cultured person.”  And “to give you opportunities I didn’t have.”

I suspect that many of these skills and much of this knowledge that was poured into me may have been for the same reason we were pushed into math and science.  To improve our lot in life with the next generation.

But… Penrod was written in the 1910s.  By the time he was an adult, the parlor manners he resisted being taught along with the formal dancing would be archaic.  In Regency novels, the landed aristocracy of the early 19th century would be replaced with the age of industry and business would supplant tenant farming.  Eventually, stenography would be a more important skill for young ladies than the harp.

I always thought, growing up, that once I got to college I would meet people who were passionate about opera and history and so on.  (Note, this is one of the reasons that #2 and I hit it off right away in high school.)  But even though I went to a top small liberal arts college, that was not the case.  I would even occasionally have to explain literary references to professors in college and graduate school.  I did spread my various loves to my friends (especially those with cars!) and in return picked up passions for anime and Asian food.  High school also provided me with nerd culture in abundance adding, for example, the entire Monty Python library to my repertoire.

As an upper-middle class citizen approaching middle-age, I haven’t found my elitist skills to be particularly useful.  They still provide me joy, but to be honest, they are not shared by many people.  I don’t have much outlet for them away from the city.  When I am in a city partaking, I’m surrounded by professionally coiffed white hair.  These elite class markers are markers of a previous generation.

Times change.  Social class markers vary.  The approaching-middle-age elite who we rub shoulders with today are also first generation wealthy and formerly from the midwest.  They are not from East coast old money.  And so, my esoteric knowledge that my mother worked so hard to provide me with, those classics I was forced to read to “be a more cultured person,” were not as useful as the love of math and ambition that she also fostered.  In fact, I’m a bit out of place with them– elitist in many eyes.

But fortunately, even when it is lonely, cultural knowledge still provides personal entertainment.  It still makes jokes more funny and deepens appreciation of even modern media (since people in the film industry who direct and design are remarkably cultured themselves).  So maybe that itself is enough in this ever-changing world.

Middle school leaves scars

We’ve had this post title for a really long time in the draft.  And we know exactly what we mean.  But… we really don’t want to talk about it.

Middle school leaves scars that can hurt well into middle-age, possibly longer.  They’re revisited less frequently with age, but occasionally we will be reminded to feel completely socially inadequate, even though we’re adults and we know it wasn’t us it was them and once we were allowed to control who we spent time with we were no longer friendless or bullied or ostracized.  But the scars are still there.  Scars that one of us is trying her best to keep her children from ever acquiring.

John Green says it well.



Because everybody cares about my life as much as I do.  (Not really!)


After one week at the new daycare, DC2 decided ze loved it.  Ze proudly proclaimed that ze had friends and named some.  Dropping off only took a little lingering.  After two weeks, ze stopped having nightmares.  Dropoffs became, “Yeah mom, bye, whatever” (though more in body language than words) and instead of clinging and crying ze complained about getting hugged if my coat was wet from rain.  Ze informed us that ze loves hir teachers.  Every day when we pick hir up ze says, “I had a good day.”  Since starting, hir eczema has also been entirely gone, which makes me suspect that they’re a lot better about making sure that ze doesn’t accidentally eat wheat.  Either that or there’s some topical allergen ze isn’t being exposed to in the new place (that just happened to not always be present at the old place).

High quality daycare is amazing and awesome.  What a difference!  I am a bit worried about next year though… I feel like we haven’t quite been fair with DC2 compared to DC1 who never had to experience a bad schooling experience.

Nice kitty who sometimes pees on cloth:

So far we’ve tried having 4 litterboxes for 2 kittens (6 litterboxes for 3 cats, but the other two are in the utility room instead of the master bathroom the kittens use as home base).  One covered litterbox (formerly 2 covered litterboxes), 3 uncovered.  3 with standard litter, 1 with special pine litter.  Different depths of litter.  Scooped every single night whether they need it or not.

They stay in the master bathroom (~100 sq feet, lots of windows, cupboards, scratching posts, a cat house, etc.) overnight until the late afternoon.  This keeps our older kitty from feeling overwhelmed and has allowed us to minimize pee damage.  They’re used to it and willingly go back to their home-base at night when it’s time to go.  If we let them out earlier they often just stay in the room.

We’ve tried not leaving cloth out, for example, putting our bedsheets away before letting the kittens out.

We’ve tried litter retraining (not letting the kittens out of the master bathroom while we’re out of town for a few days).

All of these have worked to decrease the amount of peeing on things, but none eliminated it.

The most recent thing that we still have our fingers crossed for was Prozac.  Nice kitty did not like being pilled at all, and while on Prozac she would hide from us and mostly stay under our bed or in the master bath during their family time.  The vet said to try it for two weeks.  During those two weeks she didn’t pee on anything (other than the litter, presumably), even though it seemed to make her more anxious rather than less anxious!

After the two weeks, we stopped the Prozac, because nice kitty really hated being pilled, and the vet said it was possible that even after stopping Prozac after the two weeks her peeing on cloth habit might also be gone.  So far so good.  But we keep waiting to find something peed on.

So those are my updates.  Fun times.

Fond grandparent memories

My MIL threw a party for DC2 when they visited this summer.  She rented a pony.  A PONY.   DC2 still talks about it– ze got to ride the horsie and feed it carrots and its mouth tickled hir hand.

My mother says she can’t compete with that and will stick to sending books (which are much appreciated!).  I can’t compete with that either.

But what are grandparents for, except spoiling kids?

I have fond memories of my grandmas (both grandfathers died long before I was born).  My one grandma had birds and would give me a banana every time I visited, which was often when we lived in the same state.   She eventually died of a stroke caused by a broken hip she got fighting off a purse snatcher in her mid-80s.  She was a tiny little woman who looks a lot like my sister.

My other grandma was considerably younger and thus more active.  In between stints with the Peace Corps, she made great chocolate chip walnut cookies and lived in fun places with barn cats or pools and lakes for swimming. (Until she moved to a boring little town in the midwest.  We still visited.)  She was the spoiling grandma– every time I went to her house there would be a new toy or dress for me.  When I was little and she lived in the same state she’d hide the new toy in a cupboard for me to look.  She gave me a much-desired Lemon Meringue Pie doll.  Once we went to the candy store (Fannie Mae!) and she let me buy one of every candy that they had (except the expensive pecan rolls).  My parents were upset with me for letting her do that, but what could be more magical than buying one of every candy in a store?  She didn’t seem to mind– she reminded my parents that she saw grandparent’s main job to spoil the grandkids, something my mother has repeated to me.

We lost her a few years ago after a decade-long struggle with Alzheimers, something my husband is dealing with with his remaining grandmother now.

But our memories remain.

What memories do you have of your grandparents?

Give a little bit

The holidays aren’t the only time to think about charitable giving!  It’s summer and that means your local animal shelters are probably overrun with too many kittens.  If you can’t give money or be a foster house, try cleaning out your closets.  Humane societies often love donations of cat food, old clean towels, sheets, rags, paper towels, maybe office equipment, etc.

Does your local library need help with its book sale, its summer reading programs, or donations?  If you want to encourage a love of reading, try Literacy Volunteers of America.  They help with adult literacy throughout the country.  Toys for Tots takes books, in case you were wondering if it had to be toys only.  Other organizations for summer giving (time, money) include Reach Out And Read (ROAR), which promotes literacy at young ages and where you can donate a book online.  There’s also Reading is Fundamental, which gives new books to kids (some in Spanish).  Child’s Play also runs year-round, though their fundraising focus is the holidays.  They bring toys to kids in hospitals, and many hospitals have wishlists on amazon.  Even a box or two of crayons is a nice treat.

#2 gives to her alma mater in the summer.  :)  She’s also been giving to political campaigns, but perhaps that shouldn’t count.

Got more summer givin’ ideas?  Tell us in the comments.



Even the super-confident super-awesome are not immune to culture

Occasionally I have to take a break from mommy-blogs.

Why?  Because they make me anxious.

I know, you’re thinking, how could *I* be anxious about parenting?  I’m the laziest (non-negligent) parent on the planet and my kids are disgustingly perfect (though of course you note that I would never use the adverb, “disgustingly,” I would say they’re “awesomely” perfect or something [actually I would say “amazingly,” but I grant you our frequent use of “awesome”]).  Both of these are true.

But mommy-blog anxiety gets even to me.  Culture is *that* strong.  There’s only so many blogs on having to lose the baby-weight, worrying about what/how much baby is eating or how much screen time toddler is getting or worrying about whether something is too early or too late or too long or whateverthe[expletive deleted] before even I start questioning if these are things I should be worrying about and are my kids really as wonderful as they seem [spoiler alert:  they are!] and if so, what’s wrong with them [rational answer: nothing!].

Now, I’m not talking about blogs where the kids or parents have actual real problems+.  [Also, I’m not singling out any one blog right now.  This unnecessary anxiety seems to be a contagion that is going through a huge number of mommy blogs right now.]  I’m talking about blogs where the kids are seemingly perfect, and the mom is seemingly perfect, but instead of acknowledging that fact, it’s anxiety this and worry that.  If their seeming perfection is wrong, then maybe I’m wrong about mine.

Of course, I’m not.  Even when the skinny girl complains about how fat she is, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with my normal weight.  But (just like in college with the weight thing) I can only stand so many repeated hits before it starts to get to me.  The patriarchy is expert at using the virtual paper cut as a primary weapon.  It perfected the ton-of-feathers attack.  Any one blog or post or NYTimes article can be brushed off, or given a supportive comment in response.  At some point part of me wants to say, “CALM the [expletive] down!  You’re working for the patriarchy!”  But that’s not supportive so I try not to, especially since it’s not any one post’s fault or even any one blogger’s fault– it’s the culmination of many posts and blogs with the same message to be more anxious.  I get grumpy because the patriarchy does that to me.

And you may be thinking, “You’re grumpy because deep down you know things aren’t really that perfect.”  But that’s not true.  Deep down I know they really are, because I have huge trust in my family.  I have trust that even if there’s bumps and growing pains, that they’ll figure things out for themselves even if I’m not doing whatever is “optimal” for them.  I trust that there is no “optimal,” that there’s just “different” and “sub-optimal” is another word for “learning experience” (or, as my mom would say, “character building”).  I trust that my husband and I love our kids and will always be there for them and that they know that.  I don’t have to trust me to know deep down that my kids are doing great, I have to trust them and my husband and that we’ll tackle the challenges as they come.

And I’m sure there will be challenges and we’ll work through them.  But if there aren’t any right now, I don’t need to @#$#@ing create any.

I could do one of three things.  1.  I could comment super-supportive calming words on these blogs in an attempt to spread confidence (though of course this sometimes backfires because tone is difficult in writing among other reasons), 2.  I could do lots of introspection and re-affirm my core confidence and awesomeness, or 3.  I could avoid the anxiety paper-cuts by not going to those blogs.  Guess which option is the least work and most conducive to getting two more papers and a grant proposal out before summer ends?++

So… currently taking a break from mommy blogs, at least until swim-suit season is over.

+And we are *certainly* not talking about things like post-partum depression.

++Also note that we are not blaming people for working through their anxieties via the media of blogging.  It’s the patriarchy that is the ultimate root cause of that kind of unnecessary anxiety.  But that doesn’t mean we have to read about it if it has negative effects on our own well-being.

Ask the grumpies: Kids and screen time

Bogart asks:

What is the actual evidence on kids and screen time? Preferably broken down by age and screen-time type. Most of what I can find that seems of any quality is about childhood obesity and/or physical activity, neither of which is high on my list of concerns about my own kid.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently changed their recommendation.  (According to my uncle the doctor because I’m too lazy to look it up.)  They used to say NO screen time at all for kids under 2 yrs, but that was when screen time was passive, like watching a video.  Now that touchscreens, iPads, etc., have made screens much more interactive even for babies, they have said that they just don’t know how much screen time is good for little kids.  They don’t even know.

#2 (the one with the kids) doesn’t know and doesn’t particularly care (this, she suspects, is what happens if you have a second kid– it changes from, “what does the research say” to “the hell with it, mommy needs a break”).  (She does vaguely think the APA is still recommending little screen-time for babies, but they don’t even know anything about introducing food, so how would they know anything about screen time?)  She does point out the interesting work by Jesse Shapiro that finds no negative effects of tv exposure, and perhaps some positive effects for some groups.  She’s willing to go with that because Jesse Shapiro and his coauthor (who she believes just won the Clark medal) on that paper are good economists.   (A related paper on obesity points out that tv seems to be replacing sleep and other passive activities rather than more active activities in time-use studies.  They blame the rise in obesity on food intake, not energy output.)

She also notes that many for many kids, the tv stops being entertaining after a certain amount of time.  It is quite possible that these kids have an internal turn-off switch and can self-regulate.  A good reason to limit screen time if you can — so that you can save it for when you really need it.

Any members of our readership have a better answer?