17 December 2014

Waxing and waning

I enjoy sending holiday cards.  It's my little way of reaching out, to the extended family on the other side of the globe, to friends made during travels and work and school, and to local friends too.  I often write a holiday letter if inspiration hits, and I enjoy receiving such letters myself.  The French don't follow this tradition so I know my cards last year surprised many of our French friends.  They seem much more likely to connect over new year's wishes, which are frequently sent via mobile texts or Facebook posts these days.  Holiday card sending and receiving may even be a little passé in the U.S., what with the ubiquity of social media, but frankly, in a year when I'm not writing a holiday letter (too little time and inspiration), sending cards still lets me connect with others, AND it is a very good way to take stock of the year and of one's social connections.  As it turns out, my address book and my card list both have needed some adjusting this holiday season, in ways that I haven't experienced before (and that I'm not sure I like).  Up to now, my address book has been something that has generally gotten thicker; it grew quite a bit over the past few years during my French sojourn.  (I use a physical address book to which I add little cards that represent each entry and that slip into a special binder: Levenger's mini-Circa model which may not even be available anymore.  I use digital address books for email and phone number lists only.)  Over the years, I've had to order additional cards to keep up with births, marriages, new friends, new addresses, but this year there seems to be a notable tightening going on.  In at least two alphabetical sections, I have had to cross out, condense, or rewrite a number of entries due to many more relationship breakdowns, divorces, and deaths than usual.   Perhaps it's just coincidence this year, but as a sociologist, I have to suspect that what I see may be a more significant, age-related shift in my social networks.

Is it all downhill from here?  Maybe, but maybe not.  As I consolidate my address book, my social networks on social media continue their intricate spread, even in the face of divorce or death. This month I've had my first significant experiences with the ways that social media are used to memorialize people and announce deaths.  I recently lost a childhood friend who was an avid Facebooker and while I got the news of her sudden passing via the now old-fashioned phone, it is through our more contemporary forms of social media, and the tributes posted via those media, that I have learned more about this friend's remarkable adult life.  And on my Facebook news feed the other day, I caught the announcement of a memorial service for another friend's deceased family member. While I haven't felt comfortable posting a personal message of sympathy on the boards for all to see, I've been astonished by the depth of feeling and the eloquence expressed by others.  I have also wondered if these posts and tributes are comforting to the immediate family, or is the 'public' sharing overwhelming?  I suppose we all in some way like to know that we have made a difference, or that our loved ones have, and perhaps these social media announcements and tributes offer sufficient testimonials to that.

Obituaries in more traditional media like newspapers also continue to be important testimonials.  In the U.S., at least in my local paper, the obituary section has grown while I was in Europe and now frequently includes photos and detailed stories of the dearly departed.  On the other hand, I have always found even the simple death notices in the national newspaper in Finland to be quite moving for the small glimpses they reveal, of the 'personal ', in what is generally a fairly discreet and private society. These are fairly large rectangular notices without the detail of U.S. obituaries, but there is often a poignant verse in addition to the name of the deceased, the birth/death dates, and the immediate survivors' names.  Such subtlety may be lost on the Facebook generation (and anyway, it's only the family that posts such an announcement in the paper), but I think such notices still matter. Posting Facebook tributes, reading obituaries, updating address books, sending (or not sending) holiday cards are all social rituals that mark, in small ways and big, the waxing and waning of our social networks and the inevitability of the human cycle of life.

21 October 2014

Waste not, want not

I've tried several times now to de-clutter our refrigerator.   You'd think I'd be delighted to get back to our U.S. sized double wide fridge after barely managing with skinny French frigos for several years.  I appreciate the space of the U.S. version, but I find that more space means I don't have to be so strategic about how I organize or purchase the food, and it's really easy to over-buy.  I have to be honest; in our U.S. home we have two refrigerators, an old one in the basement for drinks, plus a standing freezer.  Sometimes we can't possibly eat all the food in storage before it spoils and this is precisely one point made in an article about the growing popularity of refrigeration in China.  Experts note that despite the advantages of refrigeration for food storage (to prevent waste), too much refrigeration can also lead to waste, at a later point in time.  (See Twilley, Nicola. 2014 (July 25). "What do Chinese Dumplings have to do with Global Warming" NY Times magazine online.)  The tendency to keep shiny big refrigerators well-stocked often means those same refrigerators serve as nice cold trashcans when the overstock isn't consumed fast enough or gets lost behind other more newly purchased food.  Anyone that has been to Costco knows these problems--how to consume the contents of the large boxes of lettuce or giant tubs of sour cream before they spoil or where to find that special condiment behind the big bottles of other ones.

The waste problem applies to other overly-abundant consumer goods too.  James Collins writes amusingly about his discovery that the box(es) of replacement staples for his paper stapler and his other office supplies will outlast him: (2014 March "Let Me Count the Days" NY Times Opinionator.)  He calculates that he uses about 15 staples a year, which means his box of 5000 staples is really overkill.  That box of staples is going to be something his descendants will have to deal with, and I'm afraid I have the same staple supply problem, even after parsing our belongings twice in 4 years to accommodate a move to Europe and back again.

Then there are the extra spaces that some of our homes come with which also create opportunities for waste: the garage, which everyone in the U.S. knows isn't really for our car but for storing all our STUFF, and the attic.  In France, we were lucky enough to rent a dedicated garage 'box' as they called it, but it was so small that we could barely get our car to fit into it, let alone any stuff, and it was a block from our home.  So not much storage there or opportunities for waste, but we did have ample space in our apt. for bikes that were hardly ridden and toolboxes and countless supplies bought at the hardware store.  As for our attic here in the U.S. house, we packed it with all of our belongings that we didn't take with us to France, and....it still contains a large portion of our belongings that we didn't take with us to France.  I think we could easily empty the attic and not even realize what we are missing.

Having abundance, of goods and spaces, is a privilege for sure and having access to refrigeration is too.  I wish everyone would have such privileges, and I appreciate how these can contribute to lowering some of the costs of living.  But, there is something to be said for that mindful shopping, that careful planning, that is required when we are dealing with less space, fewer means, and fewer options.      

09 October 2014

Dressing up

I recently attended a concert by Natalie Merchant, an alternative rock singer from my college years, who, with her stunning voice. has experimented with different music platforms over the years. This time, she performed with the Seattle Symphony so her songs had a different sound and beat than her recordings and other performances do.  Perhaps to go along with that more stripped down style, Merchant was dressed simply and elegantly, swirling around in a black form-fitting dress with a lovely wide skirt, accompanied with heeled Mary Janes.  She seemed comfortable and confident in her mid-life body and I was also impressed by her long, now fully gray, smooth, loose hair.  It was as much a part of her act as her exceptional voice.  She looked real, she looked like an adult, she was beautiful.

Celebrities know more than most that outward appearances matter, as it is these that we use to present ourselves to others and manage impressions.  Some of us are more calculating about our appearances, striving to make a statement, or to express ourselves (this is how I interpreted Merchant's style), but for most of us, (those of us with the means to choose what to wear), we are just trying to not stand out too much.  To do this, we first have to know what is normative.  In the Pacific NW, for example, dressing for the symphony or dressing for church, well, these are fairly indistinguishable from dressing for the every day, and all involve a fair amount of earth tones, denims and khakis, flat shoes.  There are no real uniforms for different events, and comfort is the operative word.  The symphony crowd at the Merchant concert was dressed in this typical (in my mind uninspiring and somewhat sloppy) manner. Despite my opinion, this is simply the dressing norm where I now live, the Seattle aesthetic so to speak.  In contrast,  the French style has been described as real, adult, respectful (see two descriptions:  http://www.vogue.com/1648381/lauren-santo-domingo-parisian-style-french-women-make-coffee/ and http://www.parisescapes.com/paris_wear.html )  All this means is that the French have stronger expectations for what is appropriate dress for different settings and they do not consider sweats and running shoes as regular streetwear (see my earlier discussion of this: Les tenues, April 2013).  The French are no more real or adult than Americans, but their social conception of how an adult dresses is simply different.

In the U.S. we might call the French style 'dressing up'.  I hear that often when I have a skirt on in the driving rain, or have worn something other than sneakers to an athletic event.  I don't think of these as dressing up but as normal, or authentic for me.  I prefer styles that imply effort, thought, care, creativity, purpose (is this 'conscious dressing'?).  I also like the new attention placed on the dressing choices of older adults.  Before, it seemed that creative dressing was reserved for the young.  But, creativity and effort and style are ageless: here's a street-style blog I recently discovered that explores the style choices of older people: http://advancedstyle.blogspot.com/ (see below).   Dressing up?  Dressing one's age?  How about a style where one dresses authentically for the real, adult person that one is?
Ps. There is no reason that such authenticity must be maintained when it comes to naturally graying hair. That's the adult prerogative!

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14 July 2014

The beautiful game

For the time being, I think it's fair to say that I'm 'soccered out'.  I've followed more World Cup games in this year's competition than I've ever done, recording almost faithfully the outcomes of each.  This is all on top of the live trainings and games and tournaments in which my own son plays and which I orchestrate as the family's resident soccer mom.  So, while I wished Messi, the magician, had been able to help his fellow Argentines win, I found the goal by the German "Super Mario" yesterday to be a magnificent end, for his team, and for my 2014 World Cup viewing experience.  (An earlier experience, in 1990, culminated in a similar result, except then I found myself in Germany, celebrating that victory in the streets of a small town.  It's hard to believe that this year's hero, Mario Goetze, was not even born then.)

Soccer/football has been widely called the beautiful game.  It's the name of a documentary film on African football, and apparently, the soccer great Pelé has referred to football as such.  It's definitely beautiful because it is so simple, anyone can play, with very little equipment and space.  The game has also been called an illogical one and an anxious one, because it's not often the team with the greatest possession or the best shots at goal that wins, and this World Cup certainly showed us this a few times.  But why do I enjoy it so much?  I've never played it, not even as a child.  I suppose having children who play, especially at an increasingly higher level makes it beautiful because the experience feels very academic to me.  I learn so much from each game; I absolutely enjoy watching a game and then reading analyses or talking with knowledgeable individuals about what I've just seen.  I also learn about how the sport is organized in different societies, like what I learned about le foot in France: Un certain regard May 2013.

Friendships have also come about through this sport and that's a beautiful thing too.  It's not just our son who hangs out with his football buddies; our entire family spends a lot of time with football families.  We travel and socialize with them: we've recently  attended a wedding with our U.S. soccer friends, and in France, we camped several times over tournament weekends.  I even shared a humble bungalow with a French dad and his son.  Not all of the moments were beautiful ones, even in Provence, but the French penchant for proper pique-niques alongside the soccer pitch, complete with wine, (see A table, May 2013) and the many language and cultural lessons learned make for many cherished memories in my book.  (See Allez les gars for what we learned about Provencal cross-town rivalries, Nov. 2012, and Le bonheur, Dec. 2012, for the challenges some French girls face if they love the beautiful game too.)

The ultimate beauty of fútbol for me though is how sociological it is and how well it reflects social life.  David Brooks at the New York Times captures this, yes, beautifully, in his op-ed piece last week: Baseball or Soccer? 10 July 2014, where he argue that soccer is in a sense a mini-sociological platform, and how each of us in our social worlds is playing soccer.  We all have our roles, and these roles may be enacted in different ways depending on all kinds of social factors: who is filling the other roles--the ones with which we are interacting, what are the constantly changing environmental conditions (on the football pitch, in our workplace, or at home...) and so on.  Even when we feel tuckered out, by sometimes overwhelming social demands, by too many football matches, too many hard tackles on the pitch, whatever it is, we may retreat for a short while, but never completely.  Who we are, the game(s) we play, and the life we live are all inherently social.  I'll let Brooks sum this up:  "Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize."

08 July 2014

Game nights

Instead of those languid summer days we had in Provence the past few summers or that I seem to remember from my own childhood, I've had an exceptionally full June and July.  My teaching schedule is much lighter and my kids are out of school, but those same kids seem to have more activities than ever, plus we had a French exchange student for a few weeks.  So, the food and organizational demands on this household have been much greater than ever before.  That said, over the past weekends, we haven't done anything too much out of the ordinary for a summer spent in the U.S.: some swimming, some shopping, some fishing, a summer solstice festival day in town, a World Cup and birthday party, a day trip to Mt. Rainier, and a 4th of July weekend on Hood Canal.  From our visitor's perspective, several of the activities were probably no different from the ones he and his family would participate in at home, such as the various summer festivals and day trips.

The big difference though is in the weekday activities this summer, especially the scheduled kids' activities that persist year-round in the U.S. In France, music lessons and sports trainings are on hiatus for the summer so the weekdays are much, much quieter.  Being inner city dwellers the past few summers in France, our only real recreational options on foot during the day were to the neighborhood pools or parks, which weren't that attractive, to be honest.  There wasn't much to do at the parks in the broiling heat, and the pool area wasn't even properly shaded.  (This summer, that same pool in Aix is closed for renovations, which I really find to be strange timing!  See my blogger friend's post on this at Aixcentric.com.)   Here in the U.S., we easily fill each summer weekday and evening with sports camps, trainings, music lessons, games and competitions.  Just this week, I've already driven a carpool to soccer camp, am attending two evening swim meets, and am sending a child off to a five day national soccer tournament in North Carolina. I am hoping to fit in a water aerobics class or two for myself, make some raspberry jam, and get to the grocery store again, before I collapse on the weekend!

Apparently, our U.S. style summer did not overwhelm our exchange student like I thought it might; his father reported that his son arrived home to Marseille this past weekend radiant and 'very pleased' by his visit to the U.S.  I think that our activity level here in the U.S. does appeal to many: we just don't sit still much around here. (I've commented earlier on my quieter and more reflective life in France: En famille Oct.2013, Un été en Provence Aug. 2013 )  Even unscheduled activities seem to be more engaging or involved here: musical jam sessions between the boys (our guest brought his saxophone, one of my sons plays piano and guitar) became recording sessions and mini jazz concerts for the rest of us, casual fishing off a dock became a game of how many can you catch, the lighting of an enormous pile of safe and sane fireworks (the only kind I buy) morphed into a late night teen campfire circle, and the pile of board games in our basement led to a few game nights à la façon Américaine.  The fireworks and the game nights were especially novel to our guest because such fireworks are interdict in France and playing board games en famille is just not a common activity.  Both ended up being great ways for our guest to practice English and for us to share how we spend our time here, in this family, in this community, in this society.  And that is what a cultural exchange is all about.

30 May 2014

Fake cake

Growing up, the only kind of cake in my home was homemade cake, made completely from scratch, as we say.  Cake mixes were something very exotic, very American to our immigrant eyes, and my mother never bought them.  My sisters and I were avid bakers as children, and we wished we could make a 'box cake' once in a while, like those brightly colorful confetti cakes served at our friends' birthday parties or those teeth-chatteringly sweet cupcakes that quickly sold out at the school bake sales.  I suppose we were a little like the son of one of my adult students who frequently complained to his mother that there was never anything good to eat in the pantry because all they had there were INGREDIENTS.  My sisters and I quickly learned though that our pantry ingredients made much better cakes than those composed out of boxes containing industrial blends of odd-sounding ingredients, flavorings, and colors.

When I got married years later, the sad truth is that my wedding cake was a box cake, made by a local woman in my small hometown community.  We had had to outsource the making of the wedding cake because my family was already making all of the other wedding food and we simply didn't have the time or experience with making wedding cakes.  I remember that the cake was a spice cake, in three tiers, decorated simply with white frosting and fresh pink flowers. The cake tasted fine, but it was not at all in the same league as the cake that a Norwegian family friend generously made as a contribution to our sweets table, full of luscious, light cream.  I only managed to get a small bite, but to me, that was a real cake!

Recently, I attended a wedding where I noticed that the wedding cake looked very much like mine had 20 years earlier, with its simple design: white frosting, several tiers, and fresh flowers.  After dinner, the bride and groom did the customary cake cutting and tasting, and then the wedding party and guests moved on to the dance floor.  A little while later I wondered why the rest of the cake hadn't been cut up and served, yet guests were appearing with pieces of cake on plates.  I made some joke about the fake wedding cake that turned out not to be a joke at all.  That beautifully simple multi-tiered cake was indeed a fake cake.  The only cake there was the small slice at the bottom, for the cake cutting, and the top tier, destined for the newlyweds' freezer.  The middle and bottom were frosted something--cardboard, styrofoam?  The real cakes were two sheet cakes being served up in the other room.  I learned later that this is one way that wedding cake is done these days; it's a much more economical way to serve wedding cake, particularly when the guest lists are large, and often allows a better quality cake to served.  Who knew!?

And, where's the sociology in all of this talk about having cake and eating it too?  It's a bit trite, but it's like the cakes in the French pastry shop vitrines that my sons and I were choosing between for our Sunday afternoon coffees last year: the prettiest ones were rarely the most satisfying or best tasting ones.  It's not just the presentation, but the ingredients that matter.  This is related to a core lesson in the Social inequality course that I am revising right now for this fall: we should be careful when forming impressions of others. It's easy to stereotype based on people's visible social markers, like their age, gender, social class position, or their immigrant status.  It's harder, but often ultimately more revealing, when we delve a little deeper, to see what's really there, influencing people's circumstances, choices, and opportunities.

21 May 2014

In the boat

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown (2013) is currently getting a great deal of attention in the Pacific NW.  The book was mentioned in the local Seattle paper before the opening of boating season this spring, a local university where I teach has just selected it as its common book for next year's incoming freshmen (see http://www.onlinefast.org/wwutoday/news/the-boys-in-the-boat-selected-as-western-reads-book-for-2014-15 ), and not too many months ago, I caught a mention of the book on a Facebook post by a brother-in-law who was a Husky varsity crew alumnus himself.  Brown frames the story around the life of a young man of very modest means who goes off to the University of Washington in the early 1930's to study engineering and becomes a member of the collegiate rowing team.  The broader story is about the importance of teamwork and perseverance and how underdogs do sometimes win (a favorite American theme).  Along the way, we learn about the sport of rowing and a little bit about the craftsmanship of wooden boatbuilding, and while the writing is a bit heavy on hyperbole and foreshadowing (the Nazi specter looms large as do impending dust storms, cold spells, and heat waves), Brown shapes and paces the story well, enhancing it with details of the broader socioeconomic and political context.  For me, the best part though is the endnotes which are offered in an abridged version in the book and more completely online.  Brown's transparency is refreshing and satisfying as he explains the sources of his accounts and statements and even how he contrived some of the obviously undocumented quotes.  Some might quibble that he was brazenly filling in too many gaps but I would say he was telling a story based upon his interpretation of the sources available to him (and he wasn't lazy in digging for sources).

It is the sources that Brown had available to him that really caught my eye.  The interviews, and especially the journal and logbook entries, printed photos, and personal handwritten letters that the author relied upon made me realize how increasingly rare those latter archival sources are, and make me wonder how our different modes of recording the ephemeral events of our lives today will color future stories and accounts of lives lived, victories won, or events experienced.  For example, my children have never written the kinds of letters or had penpals like I did, or experienced the regular bliss of receiving a letter in the mailbox (many of my letter-writing Finnish cousins and penpals, and my Swedish and Danish ones,are still part of my life, if in smaller ways than when I was younger).  They have never waited for photo prints to be made or thumbed through packets of them fresh from the photo processing shop.  They do not have boxes of old letters, in the handwriting of grandparents, younger siblings, from a romantic partner, or half-filled old grade school diaries, piles of printed photographs--loose and in albums.  I'm not imagining that any of those in the boxes in my attic and the files in my office will ever be of value to anyone except me and I am sure most will likely end up being thrown out someday.  I am grateful though that my spouse's grandfather's precious letters home during World War II were lovingly saved by his wife and later collected and archived by his eldest daughter so that we can all have a small understanding and the physical touch of how the war was experienced by a family member and how it likely colored his life.  Similarly, if those UW crew men in Brown's book hadn't kept journals and written letters in the first place, and if their sisters, girlfriends, grown children hadn't saved these, and if the logbook of the crew coach hadn't survived, we would not have the rich story that Brown tells us.  I wonder how authors will fashion and tell the stories that my kids and their kids will read years from now.  What will the documented sources of these stories look like and feel like?

Saving everything, especially today when many of us have so much, threatens to overwhelm us in clutter and garbage.  It is satisfying to reduce, to de-clutter, to clean out, but some of the 'documentation' that reminds me of the story of my life and of my world I just won't part with; I'll leave that decision to my descendants! They'll have to decide if my huge email inbox, my yearly wall calendars, my tattered photo albums, or even the posts of this little journal-y blog are archive-worthy.  Others are already making similar decisions about loved ones' materials on social media sites and on laptop hard drives.  In the meantime, I will record here, for posterity or for the garbage can, that my family had a magnificent in-the-boat experience once too, last year, when our German cousins arranged for us to take a one-day, 32 km paddling trip together down the Ardèche river in southern France.  While our less than harmonious paddling and some mild rapids resulted in a few out-of-the-boat instances and there was no gold medal at the end of our trip, the eye-catching nudist beach along the way, the very mad rush among hundreds(!) of other canoeists to make it to the endpoint in time for the last bus, and the eventual reward of a bottle of French champagne all made this an epic experience in our lives.  And I'm very glad I saved some documentation of it.

01 May 2014

Longhand reading

Since my family's return to Seattle five months ago, we've noticed all kinds of differences and similarities between our brief French life and our American one.  (See The big (and) easy, 11 Dec. 2013, for some of those initial discoveries.)  More recently, I've noticed how tethered I've become to my smart devices, and how that has affected my concentration and memory.  Because I'm now in the same time zone as my students and colleagues, their emails bombard my various inboxes in real time all day long.  I am jumpier and reactive and spend little time reflecting.  By the next day, if I haven't taken notes about what I did or with whom, I forget some of the more mundane interactions and transactions of the previous days.  Similar effects are now being documented by the scientific community, such as the one about note taking.  UCLA psychologists have found that students who take notes longhand have much better retention and more sophisticated understanding of what they are learning than those that take notes onto their laptops or tablets. The latter mode tends to discourage students from engaging actively with the ideas but promotes instead the tendency to just transcribe word-for-word what is being presented.  (See Barbash, Fred. April 28, 2014. "Why students using laptops learn less in class even when they really are taking notes" Morning Mix. The Washington Post.)

For me, the more laborious, tactile, longhand approach also applies to reading.  In France, I read a lot of books, magazines, newspapers, usually in print, in French, English, Finnish.  Aix-en-Provence is a bookish town, and we were surrounded by bookstores, even a well-stocked English-language one. We bought books in London, in Helsinki, and occasionally, supplemented with orders to Amazon.uk.   A few times during our French sojourn, I used my ipad and the Barnes and Noble nook store to order and read some books for an Anglophone book group I had joined and during our final months in France when I did not want to add any more books to the numbers of boxes we were shipping back.  It is those books that I read electronically that I can scarcely remember.  For example, this past fall I read two such books on the ipad that I remember finding riveting and sociologically relevant but that I did not remember to add to my blog's book list.  I recently found the books again while idly tapping on my device and now I have had to skim them in order to refresh my memory. I believe my forgetfulness is partly due to the lack of my physical engagement with either book.  I saw the covers perhaps once, when I opened the books electronically initially, but the physical books were never lying around on my bedside table or on a chair so I do not have a very strong visual memory of them.  And with e-books, flipping pages and re-reading a passage or section, or skimming is awkward so I don't engage much in these ways.  It's no wonder Appassionata by Hoffman and Ousby's Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-44 both slipped out of my mind entirely: I simply had not had a 'longhand' reading experience with them.  Touching the physical book DOES matter to me, sometimes, however quaint this sounds.  (Mireille Silcoff writes about this quaintness amid the death and fetishization of books in this past weekend's New York Times Magazine. The online article is titled and dated: "On Their Death Bed, Physical Books Have Finally Become Sexy." Riff column, Apr. 25, 2014.  The picture on this post shows my color-coordinated but unsexy bookshelf of some of my English language reading over the past few years, and a small piece of the Berlin Wall that I brought home in 1990.)  I certainly read work documents, student work, and journal articles online regularly, but it seems that depending upon what I'm reading, the tangible physical experience may matter.  An academic journal article doesn't come with a great deal of visual 'personality' so reading it online doesn't change my experience much, but reading a book, a popular magazine, and even a newspaper is a much more colorful and lively experience when it's in my hand and I can feel the pages.  If that makes me fusty, then I embrace that characteristic.  Now my challenge is to keep finding those physical books and print media: one unfortunate discovery since my return to Seattle is that the local shopping center no longer has a single bookstore!

08 April 2014

In the blink of an eye

While our attention is fading even as the story is incomplete, the loss of the Malaysian jetliner and the people on board now has some very clear sociological ramifications for the rest of us.  Similarly, so too do natural disasters, such as the mudslide that buried part of the small community of Oso in my home state of Washington a few weeks ago ("Oso, Washington, 'forever changed' by deadly mudslide, by Jonathan J. Cooper and Lisa Baumann, March 29, 2014, Huffington Post), or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that is the subject of Sonali Deraniyagala's haunting memoir Wave (here's Teju Cole's review in the New Yorker, "A Better Quality of Agony, March 28, 2013). What am I talking about? It is the sudden disappearance of social roles that is especially relevant now.

Social roles, or social statuses as some refer to them, are the positions we occupy in society.  In my Sociology of Family course I lay mine out very clearly when I tell my students that I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a college professor, an immigrant, a woman.  These reveal my family status, my work status, my ethnoracial or immigrant status, and my gender status.  We all have social roles along these lines, some of which are more prominent than others. The ones that stand out as our central ones are called master statuses.  For example, in some societies, one's racial status figures as a master status, even if for the person himself his social roles as father, coworker, husband feel more important than his social identity of black man. Many of us no doubt have had the experience of seeing someone whom we identify so closely with his or her master status that we are tripped up when we see this person in a different social setting or playing a different social role: ever see your grade school teacher at the grocery store shopping for her family?  As children, it was hard for us to imagine a teacher as a mother and wife buying milk and bread for her family.
Femme [woman], 1953, by Le Corbusier
Social roles also evolve throughout our lifetimes; obviously at one point I was not a mother or wife, but a daughter and student.  Some people cycle through many social roles and some are even able to reinvent new ones relatively late in life.  (This weekend's New York Times presented a captivating joint interview of Nancy Pelosi, the current U.S. Senate Minority Leader, and comedienne Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Pelosi tells us that she started her congressional career at age 46, after 3 of her children had gone off to college.  Now that's inspiring!  See Power Lunch, Times Two, by Philip Galanes, April 4, 2014)  Eventually, our social roles have to be replaced, when we age out of them, or when we die.  New mothers give birth to new sons and daughters, new business majors become marketing managers, new immigrants replace earlier ones. That's the normative pattern, and this all usually happens with some kind of transition, where we have time to adjust to new roles. Illnesses, injuries, graduations, job offers, retirement parties, moving plans all ease us into the new situations where we or others shed old roles and take on new ones.  However, suddenly the unexpected can happen.  Natural disasters or man-made ones may dramatically and irreversibly erase social roles, sometimes almost in the blink of an eye.  Two sons and a husband are swallowed up by a giant ocean wave, a town librarian is caught and buried in a mudslide, a co-worker and someone's daughter inexplicably disappears forever on an airplane.  These people's disappearances alter the social environment in which they were a part.  Not only do they and their social roles disappear suddenly but so do the ones of the people connected to them.   That's what struck me when I read Deraniyagala's recounting of her tsunami experience and its aftermath, where she had to make sense of her altered social role.  She was effectively no longer a mother or a wife even though she had been just a little while before.  The relatives,  friends, and colleagues of the people on the lost airplane or under many feet of mud are now similarly disoriented.  As living members of human society, we expect to have at least a little time to ease in and out of social roles so that we can adjust cognitively, socially and emotionally. While this is surely not much consolation to those suffering the profound losses of their loved ones and of their own social roles, sociologically speaking, we do know that life goes on, because human society depends on it.  Sooner or later, the newly vacant social roles will be filled again.

01 April 2014

Spanish hours

[Spoiler alert: This is not a hoax blog post despite the date. :0]

Our server was a little slow to take our lunch orders yesterday and then to inquire about coffee after our meal, and I found myself irritated until I remembered that I had had the opposite problem a few weeks ago when I went out for dinner with my spouse.  After our time in France, we've become accustomed to longer and later restaurant meals and on a recent Saturday, we wanted to enjoy a full late-night dinner in downtown Seattle after attending a performance of the Seattle Symphony (photo below).  We'd always had problems finding good restaurants in Seattle that would serve full meals until midnight even before our French sojourn, but I was delighted to find a Spanish-themed restaurant (Aragona on Union Street) which recently was nominated for a foodie award (see this article by Britt Thorson in Seattle Refined/KOMO News, Feb. 20, 2014) and which conveniently approximates Spanish dining hours (Spaniards seem to eat even later than the French).  We made a reservation for 10:15 pm and were happy to find the restaurant still well-occupied by Seattleites, even if we were definitely the last ones to order dessert, a lovely flan.  Unfortunately, we had to rush through that last bit because our meal was stretching dangerously close to the time that the parking garage where we had left our car was closing.  It was very disappointing to have our evening curtailed, with the added pressure of paying a sizeable monetary penalty if we missed the midnight garage closure.  This was something we never had to worry about in Aix en Provence; the numerous parking garages circling the city never closed (except for the fermeture exceptionnelle for maintenance once in a very great while).   On the other hand, the shops closed in Aix sometimes in the middle of the day, just like they do in Spain.

The different cultural concepts of time have been well-documented in all kinds of literature.  Recently, a New York Times article reported on some revisited ideas in Spain of adapting to more northerly business hours (see "Spain, land of 10 p.m. dinners, asks if it's time to reset clock" by Tim Yardley, The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2014).  As the article reaffirms, time is clearly a cultural construct, and changing how time is used alters all kinds of cultural meanings and expressions.  That famous siesta in the middle of the afternoon for example continues to be a ritual for many Spaniards, and we thought it made a lot of sense because during the hot Aixois summers we ourselves were forced indoors into our darkened apartment to get through the hottest hours.  But that was possible because I worked at home.  My spouse on the other hand sat in an office all day, like many working adults in Spain and France do, so he didn't and they don't have the option to take such a significant snooze in the afternoon.  Workdays also start early enough these days and continue long into the early evenings that serving dinner to families at 10 pm creates problems in the mornings.  In many ways, parts of southern Europe have been tied to these traditional conceptions of time much longer than I expected, but they can change, because the social and cultural conditions change and warrant other adaptations.  Our family is a case in point; now, in the U.S., we still eat late, even on the weeknights, where 8 pm is a regular dining hour.  We enjoy this custom brought from Europe, but we also eat late because long commutes and evening activities make a 6 pm dinner difficult.  Dining at 10 pm though is something we save for the weekends because even that is a bit of a stretch for our family. (And that's no April fools' joke.)

27 February 2014

Potty talk

As human society moves relentlessly forward, things that some of us experienced as luxuries have easily become normative expectations in contemporary society.  For example, my spouse and children were aghast to discover that our rental house (in which we have been biding time as our own home becomes vacant) had a big, old, fat television with only a handful of channels.  Quelle horreur! (How awful!)  The situation had to be fixed immediately, so now our own flat screen television sits atop the antiquated monstrosity. (Or, which is the monstrosity?)

Having an up-to-date television is one thing, but probably the greater hardship for my family in our U.S. rental has been sharing a single bathroom with one toilet.  Our sweet little rental home was built in 1936 and for the time in which it was built, that indoor toilet was probably quite the luxury.  In some parts of the world, indoor toilets still are a luxury and the focus of philanthropic work (see Gates Foundation work on this: "What we do: Water Sanitation Hygiene strategy overview"). Today though indoor plumbing is ubiquitous in the West; the OECD indicates that 97.8% of OECD countries have at at least one indoor toilet (see OECD better life index.). We've gotten to the point where a single toilet has become the minimal standard in private homes.  Most everyone we know in Seattle has at least two bathrooms with a toilet each, and during our sojourn in France, we lived in two different apartments with two toilets in one and four(!) in the other, arranged variously as full bathrooms or water closets (or wc's), with just toilets and sinks.  Occasionally, in France, we'd come across a bidet (not to be confused with a toilet), but these luxurious items seem to be much less common today.

Luxury in toiletry does seem to be reserved primarily for the private home.  Public toilets continue to be much more minimal, even in the West, although here there are variations.  In France, we attended quite a few all-day soccer tournaments with hundreds of attendees at public stadiums where that minimal standard of a single, barely clean toilet was considered sufficient to meet the needs of all the players and their families.  The conditions often required the provision of one's own toilet paper and the same kind of dexterity as the standing Turkish-style toilets at the French aires de repos (rest stops).  Talk about antiquated models! These toilets off the toll highways were really old school (or barbaric, according to one expat friend.)  In our beloved and bourgeois Aix-en-Provence, public money was finally coughed up in our last year there for the installation of several fancy public toilettes (these are always referred to in the plural in French, even when there is only one!).  I had to laugh at the installation of one which was right next to the location of a very popular children's bungee-jumping attraction, making it difficult for tourists to stand in line or to enter the 'facilities' without being jostled.

French tourist offices don't typically offer access to toilets (not in Aix, not in Nice, not in Lyon), but the staff do direct people to private toilet facilities where you can pee for a fee, but these facilities were often a bit scruffy too.  It seems that the French do not put a lot of money or effort into the provision of public facilities, while providing ample access seems to be much more important in the U.S., even if the toilets aren't always flushing models.  I'm thinking of the outhouse style port-a-potties such as the one I noticed two weekends ago, prominently stationed adjacent to a soccer field at my son's tournament in Beaverton, Oregon. Permanent facilities were also available at the sports complex, but since one particular field was a bit farther away, someone had thoughtfully installed a temporary toilet.  I've even been to tournaments where a dozen such port-a-potties were set up, all in a row.  When you gotta go, that's nice to know.

05 February 2014

A moment of loudness

In a twist, today at 12:12 pm, the state of Washington will have observed a moment of loudness, in celebration of the Seattle Seahawks professional football team's recent Superbowl victory.  That shared moment will no doubt have been most deeply felt and expressed by the thousands of victory parade attendees in downtown Seattle, while other fans are decked out in fan gear as they go into school and work today.  (The superintendent of the Seattle public schools apparently misjudged the fervor of the fans in the city and had to back down from his initially firm statement that school absences to attend the parade would not be considered 'excused' by the school district. Local King5 news has reported on tv that over 500 of the 3000 district school teachers are absent today, and 13,000 students out of 50,000 are out.)  Markers of fandom are still visible in the aftermath of last Sunday's game, with ornaments and flags on homes, yards and cars all over Washington state (and apparently elsewhere, among non-Washingtonian fan club members, see "Vancouver Seahawks fans are Superbowl Ready," Jan. 31, 2014, CBC news).  The flags and jerseys depicting the #12 are especially popular (see flag in photo below).  It's not an idea original to Seattle apparently (see Ballard, Chris. "Into the belly of beast mode in Seattle's 12th man," Nov. 6, 2013, Sports Illustrated), but it has cleverly linked more fans to the team and created new merchandising opportunities.  As a single entity, the fans are depicted as the imaginary but instrumental 12th man on the 11-man team roster.  Those fans, the ones with tickets to home games anyway, have been credited with creating so much noise inside the stadium that they have helped derail opposing teams' efforts.  Presumably, other Seahawks fans wearing #12 jerseys while watching at home on tv contribute in spirit.

Such fandom represents the quest for social solidarity in modern society. It is similar to the religious fervor that ties people together and that fosters essential social cohesion of which sociologist Emile Durkheim spoke over a century ago. Social connectedness is what gives meaning to people in their lives as members of communities on multiple levels. Without it, societies would cease to exist. In the past, shared religious beliefs were the source of such ties in much of the West (and continues in some parts of the world), while nationalism, or national pride is a more modern source. In the current era, love of country is often supplanted by enthusiastic fandom focused on loyalty to sports teams and their wins and losses. Wars between countries fought on fields and trenches become socially constructed as war-like athletic skirmishes on artificial grass fields created by a "civilian leisure class", as Steve Almond notes in his riff about football and its real physical risks for players (
"Is it immoral to watch the superbowl?" Jan. 24, 2014, The New York Times Magazine).  Some sporting events bring together national pride and sports fandom such as the Olympic games beginning today in Sochi, Russia. 

source: http://blog.thenewstribune.com/seahawks/files/2012/05/MemorialDay.jpeg
The connections between war and sport, and religion and sport are nothing new.  Neither are the intense feelings and the potential fanaticism that these all may bring about, and that spell potential danger. (Fan is short for fanatic.)  When groups of fans recognize and bond tightly over shared identities or feelings and expressions, the implication that often follows is that if we are this, then THEY, those people and groups who are not us, are something else, not as good, not as smart, not as human perhaps. This us vs. them mentality is inescapable even when the distinctions are really quite weak.  Obviously there is nothing that inherently different from a Seahawks fan or a Denver Broncos fan, or a Olympique Marseille fan and a Paris Saint-Germain fan if we want to talk football as the rest of the world knows it. Yet, in my family's short experience as denizens of the south of France, we quickly learned that it was interdit (forbidden) to root for the Paris team, even when this team was playing a foreign team such as Barcelona's team!  (Read my take on French football rivalries here: Allez les gars! Nov 26, 2012)  In this case, team loyalties seemed to go much farther than nationalistic ties, and sometimes these have led to fights and vandalism between warring fans.  When local or national or religious or sports pride supersedes good judgment and mutual respect for fellow humans, that is when we get into trouble and undermine our humanity.  It is our shared and more fundamental identities as human beings and citizens of planet Earth that would seem to be more significant (at least until we discover other analogous life forms elsewhere).  Go world!

28 January 2014

Midlife wrinkles

Midlife crises have long been the privilege of men in society.  The seemingly impulsive desire for a sports car or the beginning of an extramarital affair or the sudden ending of a marriage have been emblematic markers of, and excuses for, midlife crises for some men.  (I'm not sure that this is applicable to Monsieur le Président Hollande of France whose current philandering was the subject of my previous post--see La trahison, Jan. 2014--but for whom such behavior seems typical rather than tied to his particular age.)  In the sociological literature on the topic of midlife crises, there are plenty of articles exploring men's midlife transitions; one even considers the possibility of male menopause (Isaac 2002, citation below).   Midlife crises though are no longer the exclusive domain of men.  We've heard a bit about midlife crises from the U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama who revealed last year that cutting her hair into bangs was her midlife crisis (Michelle Obama's "midlife crisis" bangsby Morgan Whitaker, MSNBC 2/19/13), and who, upon turning 50 recently, hinted at her midlife interest in the dermatological wonders of Botox treatments (A First Lady at 50, finding her own path, by Jennifer Steinhauer, The NY Times 1/16/14)  Had my French been better, I probably would have recognized similar attention to women's midlife crises in France, but now I am certainly hearing more about U.S. women who are in that midlife demographic and who are experiencing what sound like crises or turbulent life transitions.  Some of these are on the order of big personal changes such as extramarital affairs and comings-out, or sudden departures from well-established careers, while other manifestations are of the Michelle Obama variety, such as a new or renewed interest in combating facial wrinkles and blemishes and the other physical outcomes of aging or menopause, and the thinking about one's social role and functions as one's children leave childhood.

Obviously, midlife as a human age affects men and women alike, but it does so only as society and its members define and recognize it as a salient time in one's life.  There may be physical and hormonal shifts that affect the human body at midlife, sure, but it is the social construction of this period of life that probably has a more important effect. (We socially construct the meanings of all ages of life: see my postcards of 'little adults' in my post La jeunesse, July 2013 for how we have done this with childhood.)  At the midway point in human life, be it at age 50 or in the range say between 40-60, besides physical changes, people may experience boredom, discontentment, emotional upheavals: work conditions are changing, one's children are reaching early adulthood while other loved ones are becoming ill or dying.  These events will affect how we as individuals understand and experience a particular life stage, and how our society as a whole then constructs the meanings around that stage of life.  Broader social forces, like prevailing economic conditions and political climates, are also going to affect our personal and the social conceptions of midlife, or any other stage.  Previously, midlife was thought about as a mostly male transition but today, the social temporalities have changed, to put it more sociologically (citation below for Kearl and Hoag's seminal piece on midlife crises and this idea of social temporalities, 1984).  Our perceptions of this time of life, they are a' changin. Today, we recognize and accept, as a society, that women may experience midlife transitions as men have, some more or less publicly, dramatically, and radically than others.  Helping to make midlife crises more accessible and acceptable for women is the presence of strong, outspoken, visible women who tell us about theirs.  Certainly, midlife crises are not something we may want to celebrate--think of the potentially disruptive and damaging effects on families and friendships--but the explicit acknowledgement that women can have these too is a small step towards gender parity.  Perhaps we'll really be 'there' when middle aged men begin to publicly consider their wrinkles and the merits of bangs and Botox.

Isaac, E.P. 2002. Male menopause and men of African descent.  Journal of African American Men, 6(4), 3-16. 
Kearl , M.C. and L.J. Joag. 1984. The Social Construction of the Midlife Crisis: A Case Study in the Temporalities of Identity. Sociological Inquiry 54(3), 279.

16 January 2014

La trahison

C'est l'amour....apparently, for the current French president who has been discovered in a romantic liaison (affair) with a woman other than whom we thought was the French first lady.  And that first lady was actually not really his 'first' lady but the one that followed a woman with whom he had a longer intimate relationship and with whom he had four children.  François Hollande has apparently never been married but he has managed to keep alive the French presidential tradition of having mistresses, and the French don't seem overly concerned about his latest escapades. This is in contrast to the probable reaction in the U.S. were the president here to engage in an affair.  Such behavior would likely be characterized as adultery (since all modern U.S. presidents have been married ones), and would likely cast some doubts as to his judgment, political viability, and moral goodness.  As an editorial in today's NY Times suggests, the different outlook and attention is probably rooted in the differences between the U.S. and France in social attitudes about sexuality, morality and privacy.  (See The François Hollande Affair, Jan. 16, 2014, The New York Times.)

Sociologically speaking, the current president's relationships do point to some very modern permutations and understandings of coupling relationships, and invite some thinking about how to interpret relationship betrayals in regards to newer coupling arrangements and how gender might influence our impressions.  In many ways, Monsieur Hollande has been a front runner in terms of coupling modes; in most Western societies today, marriage is no longer the only means by which we couple for the long term.  It remains the most common form of coupling, but increasingly, couples cohabit for long periods, or permanently, while some even couple without living together.  (The newer LATS phenomenon has been sociologically recognized and studied for some time.  Here's a short overview, "Living Apart Together" by Constance Rosenblum, Sept.13, 2013 The New York Times).  In some societies and among some social groups (notably the less educated), cohabitation has become a substitute for marriage, rather than a precursor to it.  In France, civil marriages or PACs (pacte civil de solidarité) are increasingly common too, where couples can form a legal relationship that comes with some legal rights and responsibilities (taxes are jointly filed), but is short of a full-on marriage.  This registered coupling option has been available to same-sex couples as well.  (See "In France, Civil Unions..." by Scott Sayare and Maia de la Baume, Dec. 15, 2010 The New York Times.)

Yet, the more choices we have for coupling, the less consistent we are in our interpretations about situations where unfaithfulness is present.  My impression is that the French see cheating as somewhat expected and less damaging or less of a trahison (betrayal) when one's partner isn't a married one.  Yet, at the same time, they seemed to have considered the president's relationship with his first lady as a legitimate one.  (Maybe they just don't like her, or maybe they see this as no one's business?)  In any case, Americans perhaps have less public experience with all of this, since our leaders are mostly married heterosexual men.  But is there a qualitative difference in the emotional investments made in different kinds of couplings and how are we to understand and talk about cheating as it occurs in registered but legally unmarried couples, or unregistered cohabiting couples?  (Is it adultery?  We can't refer to extramarital affairs; are they extra-relationship affairs? Intimate betrayals?)  And, does the lesser legal commitment in the relationship really mean that intimate betrayals are more tolerated, less significant, less painful?   President Hollande's jilted first lady, has reportedly been hospitalized in emotional shock over the affair.  We have to recognize that marriage no longer has the monopoly on true commitment and love, and that couples in all kinds of relationships are going to have similar, visceral reactions when faced with wandering partners, regardless of the legal basis of their relationships.  And think about the families formed out of coupling relationships: today, the numbers of children born to couples who are not married is growing, and these couples, regardless of the state of their legal relationships, represent 'mom and dad,' or 'dad and dad' or 'mom and stepdad' to these children.  (Monsieur Hollande formed such a family with a former partner.)  So, an affair or couple breakdown is going to affect these kids just as much as an extramarital affair and divorce may affect others. I guess I'm saying that marital and non-marital couplings are increasingly similar today in their functions and meanings to people, and so to are the ways in which such couplings are affected by betrayals.

Finally, what does the Hollande affair suggest about gender?  I'll just end with some provocative questions in this regard: What would the reactions be if the tables were turned?  Would the French shrug their shoulders if it was the first lady who was having an affair, and would it matter if she was the married or unmarried first lady? Would the press be as tolerant?  For that matter, how many women around the world can reach elected public office while in cohabiting relationships or with lovers in tow?! And what kind of public reaction might we get if these women were ever caught cheating?!

02 January 2014

A fish out of water

One of the most indelible images from our first few months in France was of the asylum-seekers I saw storming the door at the prefecture in Marseille one morning.  The foreigners were mostly men, and the speed and aggression with which they approached the doors at opening time revealed so clearly and painfully their desperation and their need.  They were grabbing as hard as they could for the chance to find a safe place for their families to re-build a home and a life.  My family was in the longer, more sedate line, of legal immigrants, of people with residency permits in process, all of us with far greater prospects for staying in France.  The road to residency was still not an easy one, even for us as temporary seekers (see Les documents Sept. 2011, for a small example of the monumental pile of documents we needed), but we did not have the added pressures of a lost home or the painful memories of a lost life.

I've been thinking a lot about those asylum-seekers as well as of the thousands of refugees that were passing very close to France's southern shores in the months before we left, those Eritrean and Somalian refugees arriving by the boatload to Italy's islands (see for example, Italian coastguard rescues 700 refugees, Oct. 25, 2013, France24news)  Then there were, and are, the enormous waves of Syrian war refugees fleeing their villages and country to re-start their lives in Europe, adding to the pressures of those tasked with helping refugees.  And finally, in November, a natural disaster on the other side of the globe created more refugees, by uprooting the homes and lives of thousands of Filipinos.  Meanwhile, my family prepared to leave our temporary home in France, and we arrived fairly calmly and to open arms to our 'home' in the U.S.  Yet, because our physical home, our house, is currently occupied by renters, we have since had a very small taste of what life must feel like for those forced to move from shelter to shelter, bed to bed.  We've slept in 7 different beds since we moved out of our French apartment a little over a month ago, carrying our winter clothes in two suitcases each, and bags of books, electronics, and food.  Certainly, our welcome has been significantly warmer (after all, we have returned to what we call 'home'), and our shelters have been much more comfortable than the government-issue tents or makeshift lean-tos of scrap wood and metal used by the Eritrean, Syrian, and Filipino refugess.  But we understand a little of what it must feel like to lead a nomadic existence all the while trying to work, to attend school, and to manage the mundane tasks that every family needs done, day in and day out.  It's very different from moving about say as tourists, because being a tourist is such a temporary, and more luxurious and artificial experience of daily life.  Not having a real place to call home in the long-term, in which to settle in, to rest, to recharge is debilitating, on both a personal and social level.   I've discovered how rootless one feels living out of unpacked bags and suitcases for weeks on end, and how disorienting it is to wake up in so many unfamiliar beds.  It's like being a fish out of water, not a good situation in the long term.  My family's status is quite temporary and far from being detrimental, but imagine if we had to figure out how to get water, cooking supplies, and food, and access to toilets and showers, on a daily basis for months to come, as many thousands of families all over the world are right now, or if we had to deal also with the lingering personal and other traumas related to forced and dangerous departures, such as those resulting from political unrest or war in one's country, or a natural disaster in one's town, or even abusive relations in one's home.  Without stable, safe, permanent places in which to catch one's breath, in which to lick one's wounds, in which to prepare for one's social roles, children can't do well in school, and adults can't be effective employees and contributors to society.  Homelessness hurts on so many levels.