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Archive for December, 2012

screen-shot-2012-12-15-at-7-07-49-pmDo not let the outrage die.

In the wake of the horrific mass murders in Newtown, Conn., we’ve read plenty of newspaper articles, listened to numerous TV commentators, read hundreds of Facebook posts, all with the same message:  we need to talk about gun control.

And yet. My biggest fear is that, once the grief and shock die down, so too will the resolve to take, in our President’s words, “meaningful action.”  As Huffington Post polling editor Mark Blumenthal wrote on Friday, interest in gun control spiked after the 1999 massacre at Columbine, but faded within a year:

“The post-Columbine bump faded about a year later, and support for stricter gun laws remained roughly constant over the next eight years. Following the 2008 election, however, it dropped off considerably. By April 2010, Pew Research found more Americans placed greater importance on protecting the rights of gun owners (49 percent) than on restricting gun ownership (45 percent).”

I beg you: Do not let the outrage die.

We know why politicians are often loathe to put gun control front and center, hiding behind the Second Amendment (which, for the record, was designed to allow citizens to arm themselves against tyranny, not each other): the NRA and the powerful gun lobby, as well as the overwhelming number of Americans who own guns.  (As Alex Pareene reports in Salon, America “is home to 310 million nonmilitary firearms. That’s nearly one gun for every resident of the country, or just about three for each ‘household’.”)

According to Sunday’s New York Times, after Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in 2011, the Justice Department made a list of measures to keep guns away from criminals and those with mental illness – a list that was predominantly shelved as campaign season approached.  And, as the New York Times’ Nate Silver reports, over the years the very rhetoric surrounding firearms has changed:

For opponents of stricter gun laws, the debate has increasingly become one about Constitutional protections. Certainly, many opponents of gun control measures also argue that efforts to restrict gun ownership could backfire in various ways or will otherwise fail to reduce violence. But broadly speaking, they would prefer that the debate be about what they see as Constitutional rights, rather than the utilitarian consequences of gun control measures.

Their strategy may have been working. The polling evidence suggests that the public has gone from tending to back stricter gun control policies to a more ambiguous position in recent years. There may be some voters who think that the Constitution provides broad latitude to own and carry guns – even if the consequences can sometimes be tragic.

Discouraging news.  But what I wonder is why we can’t follow the lead of another group of outraged women, Mother Against Drunk Drivers, and, if nothing else, make owning a gun as socially unacceptable as driving drunk. Both can kill.

Could Women Against Guns be as powerful as Mothers Against Drunk Driving?

Obviously, there are other issues at play when it comes to Newtown, where 20 children who still believed in Santa Claus were killed by multiple gunshot wounds from a semiautomatic weapon — some of them shot as many as 11 times — in slightly less time than it takes to read this post.

Yes, we need to talk about mental health, to recognize and treat mental illness, no matter the cost.  We need to remove the stigma around mental illness so that families are given the acceptance and understanding that would allow them to get their ill children adequate treatment and support.  We need to talk about the prevalence of violence in video games, movies and TV shows, and its effects. We need to tackle the problems of schoolyard bullies and young people’s alienation once and for all.

But above and beyond the why is the how.  What turns things deadly is America’s easy access to firearms, which makes acting on violent impulses quick, efficient and final.  Had Adam Lanza been armed with a knife or a baseball bat, or even a single Saturday night special, how many children could he have killed in the 15 minutes before he was stopped?

I myself have never seen a real gun, except on the belt of a police officer.  But I have been privy to the devastation they can leave:

• A neighbor’s twenty-something son, suffering from a severe depression, went up to his bedroom and shot himself in the head one evening while his mother was downstairs doing the dishes.

• A beautiful, ebullient, brilliant — and bipolar — young attorney, after a week of horrendous migraines, shot and killed herself one afternoon while her husband was at work.

• The young son of family friends was showing a playmate his father’s hunting rifle when it went off.  And killed him.  Though this happened before I was born, I heard the story over and over, a tale of heartbreak from which the family barely recovered.

In all these cases the firearms were perfectly legal.  As were the guns used by Adam Lanza. They were owned and registered to his mother, who apparently kept them in the house.

According to Sunday’s Washington Post, Calif. Sen. Diane Feinstein told “Meet the Press” that she would introduce legislation to ban assault weapons at the start of the next Congress. (She sponsored a ban on semiautomatic weapons in 1994, after a mass shooting in San Francisco’s financial district.  It expired in 2004). It’s a good first step.  But frankly, it’s not enough for me.  I won’t be happy until we consider owning a gun as socially suspect as getting behind the wheel after a couple of cocktails.  Especially if there are kids in the house, or anyone with mental illness.

I know what comes next: When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. Who cares?  There will still be fewer guns on the street.  And, by all  definitions, neither Adam Lanza nor his mother were  outlaws.

We have no problem turning drunk drivers or even smokers into pariahs.  We would never let our kids hop into a car with an alcoholic at the wheel.  But what about playing at the home of a playmate whose dad keeps a gun beside his bed – a gun designed to protect but, as statistics show, is likely to put the household at greater risk.  According to Mark Rosenberg, president and CEO of The Task Force for Global Health, speaking on NPR this past August:

.. a study that was done to look at whether having a firearm in your home actually does protect you, or whether it puts you at greater risk, showed that families and homes in which there was a gun, not only were they not protected against homicide, but the risk of gun homicide to people in those households was 2.7 times greater than the households without a gun. And the risk of suicide in those households was 4.8 times greater in the households with firearms.

So what can we do?  Here’s a start:

• Put pressure on our elected officials to take “meaningful action”.

• Refuse to vote for any politicians, local or otherwise, who take money from the NRA, and let them know why you will not support them.

• If your community has a gun buy-back program, support it.

• Sign one of the many online petitions floating around the internet.

I’ve even heard, via Facebook, of the potential for a “One Million Child March on DC for Gun Control.” In the meantime, the most important thing we all can do is keep the conversation going:  Mothers were the driving force to get drunks off the road.  Can we women do the same when it comes to guns?

Those beautiful first-graders of Sandy Hook were America’s children.  We are all their mothers.

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imagesThe Year of the Woman? Oy vey.

It’s a phrase that’s always struck me as ridiculous. It would be one thing to declare it the Year of the Short, Redheaded, Left-Handed Woman, or the Year of the Unmarried, Urban-dwelling Thirtysomething Woman, or the Year of the Woman Who Doesn’t Want to Have It All, but, I mean, half the people there are are women. Saying its our year is so broad as to be totally meaningless. And more than a tad condescending. (And, as any good writer knows, a mere three examples is all it takes to make a trend. Which is to say, as easy as it would be to round up three examples that prove it is indeed the year of the woman, it’d be equally simplistic to find three examples that demonstrate that, no, in fact, this was not such a good year for women.)

Interestingly, I got to thinking about this idea while reading Sunday’s New York Times magazine, which, upon first glance, would seem to be proclaiming 2012 as a the year of the woman. The cover story, “Hollywood Heroines,” is accompanied by a beautiful photo spread that spans 21 pages and features the big screen’s biggest ladystars of the year. It’s exactly the sort of thing you see, and expect the accompanying text to be proclaiming the dearth of quality female characters over, the representation equaled, the hierarchy overturned! (Citing three examples, natch.) Oh, actually, the deck did say that the hierarchy had been overturned. But, turns out, the piece, written by A.O. Scott, was right on the money, and its lessons stretch far beyond the reaches of tinsel town.

Scott cites some good examples of movies from this year that feature strong female characters, and/or pass the Bechel Test (the shockingly simple, yet equally, perhaps more, shockingly impossible-to-pass test comprised of three criterion: 1. the movie must have at least two named women characters; 2. they must talk to each other; 3. about something besides a man).

But the heart of the matter, I think, is this:

The rush to celebrate movies about women has a way of feeling both belated and disproportionate. Pieces of entertainment become public causes and punditical talking points, burdened with absurdly heavy expectations and outsize significance… It is a fact beyond dispute that the roles available to women in what movie-lovers nervously call the real world have expanded significantly in the last half-century, a fact at once celebrated and lamented in backward-looking pop-cultural phenomena like “Mad Men.” But the things that women do–the people they insist on being remain endlessly controversial. It takes very little for individual tastes and decisions to become urgent matters of public debate. It takes, basically, a magazine cover article. Women are breast-feeding their babies, pushing their children to practice violin, reading ’50 Shades of Grey’ on the subway, juggling career and child care, marrying late or not at all, falling behind or taking over the world. Stop the presses!

The problem is not that these issues are not important but rather that they are presented with a sensationalism that tends to undermine their ongoing and complicated significance. The behavior of a woman who appears on the public stage can be counted on to provoke a contentious referendum on the state of women in general. Is this good for women? Is she doing it wrong? This happened, in the last 12 months, to Sandra Fluke and Paula Broadwell, to Rihanna and Ann Romney, and, closer to the matter at hand, to Lena Dunham.

You did not really think I would get through a whole essay on gender and popular culture without mentioning her, did you? But the reception of ‘Girls,’ even more than the show itself–which is, to keep things in perspective,  a clever half-hour sitcom about a bunch of recent college graduates–is an interesting sign of our confused times. Dunham was mocked for her body, sneered at for her supposed nepotism, scolded for her inadequate commitment to diversity and lectured about the inappropriate things her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, does in bed. That much of the criticism came from Dunham’s peers is both evidence of a robust feminist discourse in the cultural blogosphere and a legacy of the under- and misrepresentation I have been talking about. Dunham was not quite allowed just to explore her own ideas and experiences. She was expected to get it right, to represent, to set an example and blaze a path.

And while the great majority of us are not Lena Dunham, I’d say that pressure and that judgment–and, more to the point, that expectation that we’re gonna be judged–is something we all deal with. Because no matter how many movies about women or girl heroes or headlines about secretaries of state or tiger mothers get paraded out on (to borrow Scott’s point) magazine covers, the message we take home has far less to do with the specific example itself than it does the analysis. What we absorb is this: Whatever you do, every choice you make, says everything about you, and, by God, you’re gonna be judged for it.

When we write about women and choices and the struggles we have determining what to do with our lives, I think we can’t overstate the lesson here. In order to make choices that are right for us, individually, we have to recognize how much of our pro and con lists are occupied by these pressures. The pressure to get it right, to represent, to set an example, to blaze a path. It’s interesting to wonder, if we could somehow apply a filter that’d shut those considerations down, how much easier our choices would be.

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Gift Boxes and BallSanta, make it stop!

My inbox, which has exploded exponentially every day since Thanksgiving rolled over into the Season of  Shopping, has sent me on the fast track to crazy town.

Among the fifty-odd messages that popped up since I went to bed last night are emails from everything from Bloomingdales to the Stanford Wine Club to Toys “R” Us, each and every one of them with urgent subject lines, imploring me to get on the stick before it’s too late:

Final Hours:  30 percent Off!
Friends and Family!  Sale Ends Today!
1 day only: Free Shipping!
Shoes and Bags, Starting at $49.99
Up to 35% Off! Cybersale ends today!
Top Foodie gifts!
Last minute holiday deals!

Last minute?  Gulp. The silliest offer, who knows how they found me, was for a half-price gift certificate at the local batting cages.  Go figure.

So crazed was I the other day, in fact, that I misread an email from a local retailer that one of my kids happens to love offering a 24-hour-40-percent-off sale.  I rushed to the mall, only to find out that the sale was online only.

You would think that a smart person such as myself – and one who genuinely enjoys Christmas shopping – should be immune to all this insanity.  And yet, I succumb each year to a ridiculous sense of panic starting a few days before Thanksgiving is in the books:  All these options, all these sales!  Get it together before it’s too late.  Decide, decide, decide!

As in shopping, so in life?  As we’ve written before, choices are hard, and time pressure makes the decision-making process a hundred times worse.  Add in the constant barrage of information (thank you, interwebs) and we’re headed for a serious case of analysis paralysis.  In fact, what we learned in the research for our book is that the greater the number of options, the less likely we are to choose one, whether we’re Christmas shopping — or more importantly, trying to figure out what to do with our lives.

It’s not unlike choosing between the red sweater for Aunt Jean or the blue one — or no sweater at all.  Because, as we learned from Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice’, one of the insidious effect of having too many choices is that you naturally expect that one of them will be perfect.  And so you search and search until you find it.

Or you don’t.  Cue the holiday shoppers wandering through the mall with the thirty-yard stare

This analysis-paralysis business is especially strong for women when it comes to career decisions.  Consider the newness of it all.  Back in the day, college-educated women were routinely told they could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary.  (Until, of course, they stayed home to raise the children).  Now, young women know from the earliest age that they can do or be anything – with or without kids.  That freedom is what we’ve fought for, but with it comes a mountain a stress.  There’s an added wrinkle, too, which is what I hear from so many of my female students:  Before they’re legal to order a cocktail, they feel pressure to decide on their life’s path: Choose the right major! Get an internship! Build a resume!

Before it’s too late.

But anyway, back to me.  As background, I rarely start Christmas shopping until I get Fall quarter grades turned in, sometime around the second week of December.  And you know what?  Santa always comes.  I know this, truly I do.  And yet: with stacks of final papers awaiting my red pen, I am making a list and checking it twice, in a total twit because, you know, I haven’t bought one thing.  And with all those emails, all those sales, all those choices blinking at me from my computer screen, I can’t help but thinking that the perfect gift, at the perfect price is out there waiting for me.  But I had better act now.

So here I sit, with a terminal case of the head spins.  That cute little pencil skirt?  You can never have too many.  Or, um, can you?   The Northface half-zip?  But wait, doesn’t he already have one?  So maybe the cashmere V-neck would be better after all.  Just not quite sure of the color.  Good price, though.  Sigh. At least for today.

But hold the phone: What about the batting cages?

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