Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dove Promises and the Gender Divide

My girlfriend Deena gave me a bag of Dove Promises for Christmas. Until I bit into my first Promise, I thought Hershey’s Kisses were good. Dove, however, has spoiled me, and I won’t waste the effort of chewing a Hershey’s Kiss ever again. Each time you unwrap a Promise, you get to read a fun little saying on the inside of the wrapper; Hershey only has that white flag thingy, which is not nearly as interesting. Sucker that I am for anything inspirational, getting a saying in addition to deliciously creamy chocolate is like having icing on cake. My grandma’s icing. Which was actually fudge. Oh my goodness, ….

Sorry. I zoned for a minute. Fudge has that effect on me.

Deena’s Christmas gift put a brand new monkey on my back, and I’ve been stockpiling supplies of Dove Promises for the next hurricane. We have hurricanes in Ohio, you know. Really.

Not all the sentiments that grace the inside of Dove Promise wrappers are equally appealing. Occasionally, the sayings are thinly veiled advertisements. It’s such a disappointment to read “Enjoy a Dove Promise with a friend.” I don’t share a chocolate—I’ll share chocolates (plural) if there are enough to go around, but the message clearly uses the singular. These mini-ads make me toss the wrapper aside and reach for another Promise in hopes of finding a better saying: an example of marketing at its most insidiously delicious.

Some messages are sappy and should come with a side of insulin. These saccharine statements resemble what you might find in a bad self-help book written by someone on heavy prescription medication or really fun illegal drugs. Consider these examples:

Count your blessings not your worries. Does anyone really do this?

Make the most of today. The "most" what? Don’t you think Charles Manson probably “made the most of today,” at least from his point of view? This is too vague to be useful.

Life is all about making memories. I’ve made memories that I would like to forget. How are they inspiring? And is life “all about” any one thing? I prefer to think it’s much richer than that. Like dark chocolate. Or Grandma’s fudge icing.

Create peace for yourself. I wish the Dove wrapper would tell me how to do this.

Despite the obvious shortcomings of these examples, they still grab my attention because, sadly, I am a sappy girl. I’m also a former English composition teacher who stood in front of 28 freshman composition classes at four universities spouting the mantra “Be SPECIFIC!” The folks at Dove may have hired a stoned self-help guru to write some of their vague messages, but they must have also hired one of my former students to write these refreshingly specific and useful tidbits of advice:

Take 5 deep breaths. This is ALWAYS a good idea, especially for those of us who don’t handle stress well.

Buy yourself flowers. YES! We shouldn't need permission from a chocolate wrapper to do this for ourselves, but we do.

Learn to say “hello” in another language. (Why not? Hola, Buon Giorno, Bon Jour…add your own translations in the comments, please!

Chocolate therapy is oh, so good. YES! And it’s cheaper than psychotherapy.

Make a pledge to get 8 hours of shut eye. I so totally WISH I could do this.

I love these messages so much they make me SHOUT! Sorry about that.

Finally, some sayings have a bit—sometimes just a bit—of philosophical depth and sincerity:

Believe in and act on your dreams. This one works if your dreams are nice dreams and not Charles Manson’s dreams, but I generally agree with this.

Success is the sum of many small efforts. It’s hard to argue with this one, and I like how it makes all the small efforts of my life seem so much more important…because they are.

The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate. This borders on psychobabble, but I’m starting to believe that, unless your brain chemistry is messed up by PMS or mental illness, you pretty much determine how happy you are.

Remind yourself that it’s okay not to be perfect. The people at Dove wrote this one for me, personally. How did they know?

You may be wondering by now what all this has to do with the gender divide. All of the above is pretty girly; Dove clearly markets its Promises to women, which makes sense seeing as we eat more chocolate than men. George, however, loves the Dove Promises as much as I do and reads his wrappers with an active Y chromosome that drains all the girly out of them. Consider this snippet of conversation over dessert:

Me: This one says, "Give of yourself to someone who needs you." Do you need me?
George: I need you, baby. For three to five minutes.

See what I mean? He sucked the girly right out of that sentiment and dragged it down into the gutter. He did this instinctively, too, with no need to pause and think about his response. He has also invented his own sayings to replace the girly stuff he can’t relate to. If Dove hired George, many more men would eat chocolate:

Go find somebody smaller than you to pick on. It’ll make you feel better about yourself.

Road rage is a virtue.

Crush your competition.

Believe the best in yourself. Assume the worst of others.

Success is the sum of many small efforts if you want your success to be small.

Of course this anti-motivational, Y-chromosome talk amuses me, but there are times when I long for the presence of double-X friends and relatives who will not turn road rage into a virtue and will experience the same blissed-out state of well being and oneness with the universe as they savor fine chocolates (plural) with me.

In our house, however, Y chromosomes dominate, as demonstrated by the following conversation over a dessert of Dove Promises last week:

Nick: Mom, Dad hit me!
George: Nu-uh.
Nick: Ya-huh.
George: Nu-uh.
Nick: Ya-huh.
George [to me]: How does it feel to be the only adult in a house with four boys?
Me: Please pass me another Promise.

Create peace for yourself…any way you can.

More Questioning

I have started a second blog about autism called (surprise!) Questioning Autism. For those who don't know, I am writing a book on autism, and this new blog is basically to help with that project. I would like Questioning Autism to evolve into a useful resource for other parents and family members of people with autism.

Each week, I will post a question asking people in the autism community to share their answers either in the comments or via email. Most of the questions will probably be aimed at parents but other relatives, teachers, doctors, and therapists are welcome to add their two cents anytime. As time goes on, I'll also add links to useful resources and information on other blogs and websites.

I know many of you will not be interested in subscribing to Questioning Autism, but if you know anyone who has or works with a child on the autism spectrum, please forward this link to them. Also, any ideas you have for promoting the blog online would really help, too. My online friend Joan B kindly promoted Questioning Autism and Autism Awareness Month on her blog, Paperlicious. I've linked to her blog before because it's so funny and her stamping is divine, so if you haven't checked it out, I highly recommend it!

For those of you who are part of the autism community, I am asking for constructive input, suggestions for things I can do to make the blog more helpful and interesting, sites I could link to, questions I could ask, etc. I really appreciate any help or suggestions anyone can give!

For those of you who subscribe to Questioning my Intelligence, thanks so much for your support and encouragement and comments and emails. You have no idea how grateful I am. Next essay coming prepared to laugh!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Strange Adventures with the United States Air Force, Part 1

I was married to the United States Air Force for twenty years. Most people don’t marry institutions, but when you marry a person in the military, you marry the military as well. It’s a bizarre, entirely legal polygamy that leads a person on many startling and strange adventures. Ah, the stories I can tell….

It all began in 1988—half my life ago—at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, California, on a dark and stormy night. Well, it was dark, because night is always dark in January in Sacramento. It may have been storming, but I honestly don’t remember. We drove onto base on a Friday night and saw a huge group of women, dressed to advertise, around the guard house. George explained that they wanted to go to JOC (Junior Officer Council…pronounced “jock”) Night at the Officers' Club. A bus would come and take them there.

Suddenly, I realized I had entered the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. These women were trolling for husbands who were officers.

I’d already hooked my officer, and I wasn’t even looking for one. I wanted a PhD, for heaven’s sake, not twenty years as a good little officer’s wife. While I was proud of George’s commitment to flying into the wild blue yonder, I’d have been happier at the time if he wanted to be a professor of aerospace engineering or something equally academic. We would have had something in common.

Oddly, it turns out you don’t need to have much in common at all to build a successful marriage. Go figure.

Back to 1988. We’d been married a year and a half, and I had just joined George after a few months of separation while I finished college on the opposite coast and he started navigator training. We lived in a little one-bedroom apartment near the base in a complex called Chesapeake Commons. I found this name strange, given that I was a long way from Chesapeake Bay; shouldn’t the complex have been called something like “Gold Rush Commons”? Still, its location so close to the base had served George well in the months before I joined him; he could walk home from the Officers' Club after getting drunk without risking a DUI. Little did I know that “Designated Driver” would be a major part of the job description of a military spouse.

JOC Night was a regular occurrence at Mather’s O Club. Since I was off the market, so to speak, it was great fun to watch all the people who were desperately seeking attachment, at least at first. I was gratified when a fairly cute lieutenant hit on me while George got me a nonalcoholic beverage. “This song’s really lame, but there’s a slow dance next. Will you join me?” I coyly held up my hand with its wedding band and said, “Thank you, but I don’t think my husband would appreciate that.” I giggled in a self-satisfied sort of way for minutes after he walked away. Please forgive me. I was only 21 and couldn’t do any better than that.

Most of the guys at JOC Night were happily single and, it turned out, mainly looking to get laid, not married. Some didn’t wait to take their hook-ups back to their rooms. Two little nuggets of information pretty much cured me of wanting to go back to the O Club on a JOC Night ever again. One of George’s friends joined our table and said, with envious delight, “Hey, some guy’s getting a hand job in the corner over there!” Then, another guy reported that someone was getting lucky in the men’s room.

Um, can I go home now?

There’s a very good reason I got married so young, besides the fact that I was stupidly in love and dazzlingly naive. All this pursuit of sex made me horribly uncomfortable. I’d always had guy friends who were my chums, but the idea that boys would pursue me for anything other than friendship pushed me way out of my comfort zone. Except George, of course. I was happy he pursued me because we were simply meant to be together in the biblical sense. Realizing, however, that I was surrounded by a few hundred horny men in the Mather O Club was more than I could take.

I did attend a few more JOC Nights, but only after I had some decent guy friends to distract me from all the unpleasantness. I’m very good at being oblivious if I need to be. It’s a useful survival skill for military life, and I highly encourage young officers’ wives to cultivate it.

George finished navigator training and the follow-on Electronic Warfare Training and was sent TDY (temporary duty) to Castle AFB in Atwater, California, to learn how to do his job in the B-52. He generally came back to Sacramento on weekends, along with two friends whose wives had also elected to stay in Sacramento like I had.

These two women were not, shall we say, fellow nerds. They thought I was highly weird for having taken a couple of classes at Sacramento Valley State University just for fun. (FYI, I took a course in Medieval Literature and a graduate seminar on Satire in the Age of Swift and Pope…yep, I’m a nerd.) These women defined “fun” as going to JOC night and seemed to enjoy the frat house pong of pheromones and alcoholic vomit. They did encourage me to join them on a spur-of-the-moment surprise trip to Atwater. We dressed provocatively and vamped our husbands, which really was well within my comfort zone because it was all blessed by the sacramental bonds of marriage.

We had a night out in Sacramento that no amount of obliviousness could get me through. One weekend, we went out with a few other couples to the Stagger Inn in a somewhat seedy part of Sacramento. I did not want to go but was unanimously outvoted. You see, it was lingerie night. All the servers were tarted up in Frederick’s of Hollywood ensembles, serving beers and raking in huge tips with their barely covered, um, tits.

George actually had the temerity to leave me alone at the bar to order his beer and my cola. Some drunken sot twice my age with greasy hair, bad teeth, and beer breath hit on me immediately. Ewww. I tried to act oblivious but he didn’t take the hint. I was forced to engage the enemy: “I’m ordering for my husband, who just went to the restroom.” He replied, “Oh, that’s cool.” He backed away. Far too slowly.

Oh, the depths to which I had sunk!

When George returned from the restroom, I informed him that he owed me big-time—like evening at the ballet big-time—and he wasn’t to leave my side until we were safely out of this God-forsaken hell hole. Fortunately, we didn’t stay long, probably because the guys were feeling a bit weird ogling waitresses in lingerie while their wives looked on. We headed off to someplace less memorable.

Nothing in my sheltered life before marrying the Air Force prepared me for the testosterone, alcohol, or rampant sexuality of it all. I stayed on the fringes, an observer and commenter and designated driver, never a participant, for which George is grateful. Well, I did get drunk once, but we’ll cover that another time. With help from George, a few friends, and the safe, solid morals of my Methodist upbringing, I made it through with my sense of humor and virtue intact.

I honestly can’t regret any of that year, as weird as it was. Besides, because of my experiences at JOC Night and the Stagger Inn, I didn’t bat an eyelash when we found out we’d just missed all the wife-swapping fun when we arrived at our next base.

But that’s another story.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Aging Gracefully

I’m going gray. I’ve been going gray since my late twenties. Every time I look in the mirror, more shiny silver hair sparkles back at me and reminds me how eating my own words leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

You see, my mother used to color her hair. Her gray hair was silver, shiny, and pretty, and the color she got out of bottles just looked wrong to me. Being the tactful child I was, I told her so. Repeatedly. She eventually gave up coloring and let nature take its course. Now, she has a gorgeous head of sparkling silver hair.

My gray is coming in just like Mom’s did, so if I colored it, I would be a hypocrite. Hoist with my own petard. What exactly is a “petard,” you ask? So did I. Turns out it’s an explosive charge for breaching a fortification. Well, the fortification of my vanity is certainly being breached. With gray hair. Lots of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not morally opposed to hair coloring at all. I see hair coloring as a fashion statement, and for a few people, it’s an essential means of correcting that which Mother Nature got wrong. If you want to color your own hair, go for it. But if your gray is really sparkly and compliments your complexion, what’s the point? Spend that money on a great purse, the perfect red lipstick, a classic pair of black pants, or a bunch of rubber stamps. I do.

I am not alone in this approach. At my son’s field day last year, I met a grandmother with a gorgeous head of white hair. She looked beautiful, so I told her how I admired her hair. She admitted to feeling the same way about coloring her hair as I did. “If it were some ugly shade of gray, I’d color it in a heartbeat,” she said. “But since it’s shiny and nice, I’m leaving it white. It’s so nice not having to worry about my roots like my daughter does.” What a smart woman. Just like my mom.

I’d like to age gracefully, and letting my hair go gray without a fight seems a good start. Unfortunately, Mother Nature does more than turn your hair gray as you age. Can someone please help me locate the graceful medium between pathetically giving in without a fight and pathetically fighting the inevitable?

Like pornography, ungraceful aging is easy to spot. The nipped and tucked of Hollywood’s red carpet very publicly demonstrate that, with their fat lips, stretched eyes, and stiff, plastic faces. Don’t you love the Geico commercial with Joan Rivers in which she pokes fun at having no feeling left in her face? Plastic surgery for purely cosmetic purposes is just a really dumb idea. It’s a wonderful blessing for people with deformities or injuries, but when it’s used to keep natural aging at bay, it’s sort of pathetic. Is it worth running the risk of looking all fake and plastic or—this may possibly be worse—dying to have fewer wrinkles or a skinnier butt? I don’t think so.

Then there’s the cost. I read an article years ago about plastic surgery and learned that rhinoplasty averaged $3,000. Do you know how many rubber stamps that would buy? Sheesh. I may not like my nose but I definitely have my priorities.

In fact, when it comes to anti-aging products, I’m sort of cheap. This should surprise no one who has read my
China Policy. I use Neutrogena eye cream and moisturizer. When Target raised the price of the eye cream by $6 last year, I quit buying it, and within three months, I looked ten years older. Considering my gray hair and not-so-fine lines, I pretty much look my age of 42, so adding ten to that didn’t seem graceful at all. Now, I pay for the eye cream. A tube lasts me about three months, so I feel it’s a good investment even at $16.99. Some desperate people spend hundreds of dollars on tiny jars of fancy designer “crèmes.” I wonder if the pretentious, Frenchified spelling makes them work any better.

There’s a huge gap between plastic surgery and spending $16.99 every few months. I’m definitely a long way from what could be called a pathetic pursuit of the fountain of youth. On the other hand, perhaps I’m not trying hard enough. Does $16.99 buy me “graceful” wrinkles. I just don’t know.

Then there are the clothes. Women of a certain age look silly when they dress themselves like teenagers or wear provocative necklines and navel-baring crop tops. I didn’t wear those things when I was young, and feel no desire to do so now. My personal fashion statement has always been best described as “safe and boring.” I can’t remember the word “graceful” ever applying to my wardrobe. Most of my clothes come from the casual departments at Eddie Bauer, LLBean, and Lands End. In the winter, I wear relaxed-fit jeans, turtlenecks, and big, bulky cardigans or fleece jackets. If it’s over 25 degrees Fahrenheit and relatively dry, I wear my Birkenstocks with fleece socks because they are the most comfortable footwear available to humankind. Perhaps wearing Birkenstocks with fleece socks is undignified. I just don’t know. In the summer, I wear Bermuda-length shorts or cropped pants, polo-style shirts or nice t-shirts in solid colors, and sandals. Sometimes I paint my toenails red. Would pink be more dignified?

A little more effort on my part might make me look graceful, but I’m not sure how to pull that off given the last few years’ fashion trends. It took me two days of rigorous searching to find a dress for my husband’s military retirement ceremony. Every dress I tried on made me look either a) like I was trying too hard to be hip, or b) like I was a grandmother going to a wedding. I finally located a simple black dress that I think looked graceful and appropriate, but I can’t be sure because it was on sale at a really good price, and I may just have been fooling myself.

Ultimately, will it matter one way or the other if I age gracefully? When we stop aging, we die. When that happens to me, if I’m blessed enough to go home to Jesus, I’ll be too filled with Amazing Grace to care what a graceless thing I was back on earth.

If I’m not in heaven, I’ll have much bigger problems to deal with than wrinkles and gray hair.

That sort of puts it in perspective, don’t you think?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Perspectives on Happiness

I reconnected with an old college friend recently on Facebook, and our exchanged messages made me think about my youthful dreams for the future and how unfulfilled those dreams are now that the future is very much the present. In my twenties, I honestly believed only a PhD would make me happy. While I still think I would have been an excellent medieval literature professor and I’m fairly certain that path would have led me to happiness, it would not be the same happiness I have now. My perspective has changed a bit since my twenties. Having children will do that to a person.

When I turned 32, I experienced an intense yet short-term depression because I didn’t have a PhD yet and felt like my life was a complete failure. (Can you say “Drama Queen”?) Fortunately, I heard the siren’s call of my biological clock ticking at the same time and very shortly found myself blissfully pregnant.

My apologies for mixing metaphors. I can’t help myself sometimes. Really.

Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” My parents raised me with the saying “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” “Thinking, saying, and doing” this pithy little gem is why I always had stellar job evaluations, from the time I worked in fast food at age 17 to my last paid job as a writer/editor at a major computer memory manufacturer.

It’s also why last Thursday I went from just sweeping my floor to sweeping and then vacuuming the baseboards and then Swiffer WetJetting so hard I broke the handle on my Swiffer and was forced to bend over double using just the bottom half of the handle to finish the last third of the 2,000 square feet of hardwood floor in my house.

Okay, I exaggerate. We don’t have 2,000 square feet of hardwood, but it felt like 2,000 square feet, especially after shoveling all that snow and ice the day before. Oh, my aching back! When I told George about this, he asked why I didn’t quit mopping when the Swiffer broke.

Failure—quitting is just a form of failure—is generally not an option in my world. I see all the tiny details which need to be done and am incapable of stopping myself once I start a job until every little detail is finished…as perfectly as possible. And don’t try to interrupt me once I get started because I will punch you where the bruises don’t show. Just ask George.

This monomaniacal focus is a curse that has led me not to clean something until I have six hours and plenty of hormones built up to carry me through the ordeal, which explains why my house is generally so messy that I won’t invite friends over because I’m too embarrassed for them to see the chaos. Karen, I hope you’re paying attention here.

Gandhi was right. Harmonious “thinking, saying, and doing” does make me happy. Not necessarily while I’m “doing,” mind you, but once I am done, an amazing sense of accomplishment fills my heart to bursting with joy. This joy motivates me in all areas of life, but as you might imagine, it’s exhausting. If I had a job in academia, my brain would constantly be working on papers, syllabus, conferences, lectures, tests, committee meetings, planning, grading, and so forth, striving to do its best to cover all those details. I would hardly be able to cope with the infinite details of motherhood such as clipping fingernails, or wiping bottoms, or doctor appointments and snotty noses and chapped lips and barf buckets, or shopping for clothes for kids who grow overnight, or preschool Valentine’s parties, or school paperwork and homework, or corralling the 1.6 billion toys that appear by spontaneous generation in my home, or limiting computer time despite the whining and begging, or arbitrating disputes, or cooking, or doing 20 loads of laundry a week….

I could go on, but you probably need to breathe. Besides, if I keep going, I’ll realize that my current feeling of being on top of all these details is actually an illusion.

I cherish this illusion.

My dreams of a tenured position at a major university and a curriculum vitae ten pages long are dead, and instead of filling me with grief, the memory of those unfulfilled dreams leaves me with a fond smile. You see, if I had gone back to an academic career after Jack was born, I would have been forced to leave that career when he was diagnosed anyway. The wacky schedule of a special-needs mother is often incompatible with a paying job, but it does allow the over-achiever in me to volunteer in Jack’s school as an early literacy tutor, to volunteer at Nick’s school library and book fair fundraisers, to take a Disciple Bible Study class, to write a blog and a book, and to make a bunch of cards for the troops.

I sure do a lot for someone who doesn’t get paid, but can you imagine what I would be like if I were paid to do these things? Don’t you think that an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist who can’t stop mopping her own wood floor after the mop breaks would go crazy trying to get stellar job reviews from both family and an employer? Don’t you think, given this strong evidence of mental instability, that all the pressure I put on myself would be incompatible with happiness? I thank God above and George below that I have a choice and don’t have to find out the answers to these questions for myself.

Helen Keller said, “Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not achieved through gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” If we are to be happy, each and every one of us has to figure out our worthy purpose. No two purposes are the same, just as no two people are the same. Furthermore, our purpose is not a constant; it changes over time, which means we need to reassess our priorities frequently and sometimes may even surprise ourselves with a new and worthy purpose we hadn’t expected. No one is more surprised than I am that my worthy purpose has changed so much and that the PhD means so little to me now.

Right now, my worthy purpose is being the best mom I can be for my boys, and in our particular situation, that means not working at a paying job. As the boys get older, I imagine this will change. But for now, my plan for a dissertation on the significance of sacramental symbolism in medieval romance can wait. I doubt many people are heartbroken over this.

I certainly am not.