Monthly Archives: April 2008

Culture Clash

We’ve all heard about how easy it is to send the wrong signals and even give offense when we’re visiting other cultures: everyone knows, for example, that the same hand gesture that means “peace” in America looks remarkably similar to the one that means “sod off!” (or words to that effect) in the U.K. And let’s not even get into all the ways you can offend someone with a simple handshake: too strong, too weak, wrong hand; in fact, given that handshakes evolved as a means of showing others our peaceful intentions it is somewhat ludicrous that there are so many different ways for them to do just the opposite.

And yet, even beyond handshakes there are so many different ways to offend others that a whole industry has arisen to teach us how not to. Worried about that upcoming trip to the Far East? No problem: simply pick up a handbook on Eastern etiquette and find out beforehand that it would be extremely offensive for you to touch a monk on the head with your foot while visiting Thailand. (Although, if you have to be told that’s it not ok to touch anyone–anywhere–on the head with your foot, then you probably shouldn’t be allowed to walk out your own front door on your own, let alone travel to foreign countries).

Still, even with the availability of all these books and instructional DVDs, when it comes to successfully interacting with “the other” we still manage to get it wrong. In fact, some of us are so inept that we contrive to offend the “other” on a daily basis–twice a day, sometimes, if we have to drop them off and pick them up from school. I am speaking, of course, of the most “other” other there is–our children–because, while it may be possible to learn enough hand signals and foot etiquette to get along when you visit Britain or Thailand, we have no hope of success when it comes to visiting the land of our offspring.

It took me a while to fully comprehend this: for a long time I believed that all our communication difficulties were simply a part of the generation gap. (After all, I thought, what point of reference is there between someone who thinks “soon” means “in the next two seconds” and someone who believes it means “within the next year–maybe”?)

After a while, though, I realized that our misunderstanding were too great to be explained by any mere age difference, and started to believe that they must, instead, be part of something much bigger–like a political problem. [It made sense: when the proletariat (that would be us–the people who are earning the money) and the aristocracy (that would be them–the people who spend the money) are all sleeping under the same roof it is somewhat inevitable that every morning will start out like a revolution.]

Finally, though, I came to my current position: that just as has been true of nearly every conflict that has rocked this planet since Captain Cook first got eaten for having the temerity to ask for his hammer back , this one, too, was a clash of cultures. At the time I came to this conclusion I believed that it was actually a good thing, because, as I mentioned before, the catalog of books written on understanding other cultures is practically endless. Surely, I thought, there must be an out-of-work cultural anthropologist out there somewhere who has written at least one book on understanding the strange culture that lives within our own homes?

Apparently, alas, the answer is : no.

I guess that it’s a lot easier creating a guide to England than one to Childland, which is unfortunate, because a lot less rides on our ability to understand the English–for one thing, they’re not the ones who get to decide which nursing home we go into.

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Reality Blows

As much as I despise reality shows, I have to admit that, a lot of the time the people appearing on them actually receive something of value in return for being humiliated on national television. The “guests” of How Clean is Your House get someone else to scrub the fifteen-year-old pee stains from around the base of their toilet (both kinds–those that have been there for fifteen years, and those that were made by a fifteen-year-old). Extreme Makeover participants get a new face, a new body, or a new house. And even the spouses on Wife Swap get a break from their (usually) highly annoying mates, if only for a little while. Those considerations aside, however, the byproduct of most reality shows is shame, humiliation, and mockery, which is why I have never been tempted in the least to appear on one of them. After all, I can easily get all the scorn and mocking I ever need (and then some) without ever having to leave the comfort of my own home: I have a preteen daughter. And, as everyone knows, living with an (almost) twelve-year-old girl is, at best, like being on a reality show with a particularly ill-tempered host; at worst it’s like signing up for one of those tough-love self-improvement boot camps–the kind where all of the counselors end up getting arrested for abuse.

In the reality show of my life, the day starts with host Clementine opening the dryer to see if her favorite threadbare pair of jeans (the ones I had to pry out of her sleeping fingers the night before to get them into the washer) are dry yet. When she realizes that even after six minutes of intense drying they are still wet ( we have yet to upgrade to a dryer with the new “thermonuclear” setting) she shuts the door in disgust and announces that “we need to get a new dryer.” Now, if this were, in fact, a genuine reality show, this would be the point where my shame at owning such a substandard appliance would be ameliorated either by looking under my seat to find a certificate for a new dryer from Oprah, or by seeing Ty Pennington wheeling one in on a dolly. Needless to say, neither occurs.

Next up: our host opens up the dishwasher to get a bowl for her cereal and discovers that the cereal stalactites that had fused to the bowl as it sat under her bed for three full days are still attached to the bowl today (again: we have yet to upgrade to the new “hydrojet” model). “We need a new dishwasher.” (Again: Oprah and Ty are notably absent.)

The trend continues throughout the day as the dining room table (too old), the computer (too slow), the car (too dirty), the house (too small) and the weather (too windy) are all held up to scrutiny (and found lacking)–and yet–time after time– no replacement ever appears. Just when I am beginning to think that this must be one of the worst reality shows ever, suddenly the lens is no longer pointing at my house and all my pathetic possessions, but instead is focused firmly on me, and I realize that this is not one of the worst reality shows ever–it is the worst.

Again, host Clementine starts the ball rolling.

“What’s up with the nerd sweater?”

“Boy, your teeth sure are yellow.”

I keep waiting for the commercial break, so we can finally get away from the criticism part and into the helping part when I realize that that half of the show hasn’t been written yet; in fact, given the not-so-benevolent nature of the host, it probably never will be. Just not high enough ratings, I guess.

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Way back when I was in college, I took a class in dramatic criticism–I thought it might come in handy someday if I ever decided to start writing plays. However, as nearly twenty years have passed since then without my having felt the slightest urge to become a playwright, I eventually put the class–and all I learned from it–out of my mind. In fact, if I thought about it at all it was only to reflect that Dramatic Criticism had turned out to be a class on the same par with Invertebrate Zoology, Calligraphy and Hebrew for Travelers (to name just a few of the eclectic jumble of classes I took throughout my long college career). In other words: it turned out to be a class that, while interesting enough at the time, proved to be, in the end, almost wholly unusable. Or so I thought.

Oy vey, was I ever wrong on that one: although I have yet to be called upon to correctly name the class and order of some poor spineless creature, let alone to illuminate a copy of the Torah, my training as a drama critic has actually been needed on a more than daily basis. In fact, I am usually treated to at least one dramatic performance every single day–two or three on weekends (not including matinees). That’s right: I’m the mother of a preteen girl.

Like most drama critics, I have found that the perks are few and the hardships many. Sure I get to see first run performances for free, but believe me: for every brilliantly original piece of work that comes along (like last year’s Today, I Shave Off My Eyebrows) I have to sit through literally dozens of hackneyed performances of old chestnuts such as You Like Him Better Than Me and I Wish I Had Never Been Born. Off off off Broadway would be putting it mildly: some of this material is so bad that even Martin Lawrence would turn up his nose at it.

The worst part of it is, though, that even as bad as the performances sometimes get, I can’t walk out on them. After all, if I did, where would I go? My living room is the main stage, my kitchen the studio theatre, and even my bathroom has been pressed into use as an avant-garde “black box” space.

And the really worse part of it is that I know from painful experience that things will only get worse. I don’t even need all those parents of grown daughters telling me with barely concealed schadenfreude to “just wait until she’s a teenager”–I know because, perversely, I’ve already had to live through this once before with the person who could easily be Clementine’s doppelganger (or vice versa): my older sister, Kim.

My sister was such a successful drama queen that she ended up getting her degree in Theatre from ASU. And while it was apparent to everyone from the start that this would be the route she would take, it certainly didn’t make it any easier for me. I mean: you try and share a bathroom with a thirteen-year old version of Lady Macbeth. It was a nightmare, and one that I had thought I had put behind me once we both grew up and moved into our own houses.

Granted, Clementine has not yet reached the grand levels my sister did when she was in her prime. There have been, as yet, no “Out, damn spot!” moments (although there have been times–such as when she rails against my habit of buying whatever brand is on sale–when her “Out, damn generic!” has come very close). Still, as everyone keeps gleefully informing me, “just wait”–she’ll get there eventually. And when she does, then I’ll really have something to kvetch about.

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Clothes Hoarse

My goal this winter–as it has been every winter for the past decade–has been to not get cited for child neglect. This is not as easy as it sounds, since ever since she has been able to take off her own clothes Clementine and I have been in a constant battle about what to wear in the winter. Traditionalist that I am, I tend to insist on old-fashioned things like coats, hats and gloves; Clementine, however, goes for the more minimalist look: jeans and a short-sleeved t-shirt for every occasion, no matter what. (Actually, this outfit would probably work for her if only I would go along with her other winter idea, which is for me to not only drive her everywhere she needs to go, but to be in a constant state of readiness–preferably in the car with the heater running.)

The funny thing is that, while I know that for many girls the refusal to wear clothes in the wintertime is the sign of being a fashionista, in Clementine’s case it is actually the sign of being a nihilist. What’s the point of trying to keep warm anyway? To her credit, at least she is fairly consistent in this philosophy. Why bother cleaning my room? and It doesn’t matter if I eat breakfast before the AIMS test being just two more examples of her devotion to the cause. Of course, when I respond to her comment against the wearing of warm clothing by positing that there must be some point to it–after all, you don’t see a lot of naked people on top of Everest–her nihilism segues into it’s natural companion–skepticism–and she replies “Mom, they have to wear coats on Everest–otherwise, how else would they ever be able to display all of their sponsors’ logos?”

For many years I was willing to accept her arguments against warm clothing as just another part of childhood, like vegetable loathing and soap and hot water avoidance, and was therefore willing to cut her some slack. After all, I thought, kids will be kids. But then–unfortunately for her–her little brother Clyde came along, and Clementine’s clothing fetish was exposed for the aberration that it is.

If Clementine is a nihilist, then Clyde must be a student of Leibniz– he certainly believes that this is the best of all possible worlds. And, when his “best possible world” happens to include snow, and therefore gloves, he is even happier, because obviously hands and gloves were made for each other. (Whether or not he is such a Panglossianist that he believes that hands were made with five fingers because that is the number of fingers on a glove is not yet clear.)

Even without the philosophical differences, though, I suspect that Clyde would still be easier to dress, because, above all, he is a regular guy, and therefore has the regular guy’s approach to clothing–in other words: just tell me what to wear. I could send him out the door in a parka in July or swim trunks in December, and, as long as neither of them were pink, he would stoically accept my decision.

The place where Clyde really blows it for Clementine, however, is in the matter of shoes. Case in point: he’ll wear them. (Again, whether this is because he believes that feet were designed to be shod is not yet known.) Clementine, on the other hand, true to her philosophy, insists that wearing shoes is of no help; although the sight of her hopping about on one foot and saying “Ow, ow, ow,” would seem to put the lie to that. Then again, the fact that most of her shoes stay hidden in some remote corner until they no longer fit is always there to reinforce her precious beliefs once more. After all: Nothing ever really fits, anyway.

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