Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Barbaric rituals 3: "gender reveal" parties...don't you wish

Are you a boy, or are you a girl?*

My May 9 post covered the basics of "gender reveal" parties, a ghastly new form of narcissism. Scroll down if you want the blow-by-blow. Otherwise, here's the gist:

Set aside two or three hours to graze on frilly cookies and carrots cut in the shapes of cars and dolls while playing ridiculous games designed to make a fuss over what's in her belly and how it got there because—we're pregnant! Your reward? Barrels of fun, plus we'll let you in on our precious secret: the baby's "gender." 

No thanks. If I want to be tortured, I'll stay home and watch Glee.

"The best things in life are free, but you can keep 'em...Give me money."**
I'm all for celebrating the rewards of sexual relations. But everyone knows gender reveal rituals are reserved for those who play by the rules, specifically, procreative sex. I can hear countless retailers cheering as they tally their profits from the sale of fussy little footprint cutouts to strew along shower buffet tables and all the other precious paraphernalia associated with the birthing of babies.

In Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America University of Maryland Associate Professor of American Studies Jo B. Paoletti documents the push by U.S. clothing manufacturers around the time of World War I to agree on sex-signifying colors for infants' and children's clothing. So that they could satisfy shoppers demands they said. 

It seems immigrants to the United States brought with them contradictory customs for what constituted proper attire for boys, for girls. In the mid-1800s, any number of colors in pastel shades were considered appropriate for children to wear. But by the 1880s, when it was still customary for boys to wear dresses until their first haircut (about age 6 or 7), the convention shifted to dressing all babies and young children in white.

An elegant compromise, but not for those with capitalist appetites.

According to Paoletti, just before World War I the U.S. clothing industry began to push for agreement on separate colors for each sex. Paoletti cites a 1918 fashion trade journal article in which pink was named the right color for boys ("stronger"), blue ("more delicate and dainty") for girls. She says that formula held at least until 1927, as attested to by Time magazine and flogged by major retailers of the day, including Filenes, Best & Co. and Marshall Field.

By the 1940s it was the opposite: blue for boys and pink for girls became the rule. (Very provocative.) Then, in the mid-60s as feminists emerged and argued for gender equality, gender-neutral colors took hold and remained popular for 20 years until the hammer went down again.

Who's hammer?

"Who's Zooming Who?"***
Prenatal testing appears in the mid-80s and soon we're oohing and aahing over blurry sonagram printouts documenting budding sex organs. Manufacturers and retailers climb on board with an explosion of merchandise in pretty pink and burly blue, some of the most popular items embellished with other coded motifs like footballs and firetrucks (because one layer of sex coding is never enough).

Disney makes its return to children's films with" The Little Mermaid" and begins planning their now ubiquitous stores, the first of which opened in 1987, epicenters of must-haves designed (and color-coded) for little princes and princesses.

I'm no more than an armchair sociologist, but you can't tell me the reclamation of pink and blue sex markers in the mid-80s was all about retailers trying make more money. These were the Regan-Thatcher years, when Madonna and Queen and Prince (genius naming) were bending gender in novel ways on a new kids' channel called MTV. AIDS was decimating the gay community and straight America was running scared.

Coincidence? I think not.
Honey, let's get all our friends
together so we can reveal
the baby's gender.
Y I K E S.
Today, blue and pink sex markers are everywhere babies are: the sheets on their cribs, the diapers on their wee little bums, the teething rings in their mouths—because parents need to KNOW everything and SHARE everything about their child, even host a "gender reveal" party before the baby is born.

"You don't own me. I'm not just one of your many toys..."****
As much as some parents might like to celebrate (or even determine) it, a child's gender is one gift that only the child can know the contours of—and in time. But that doesn't stop moms and dads from trying...and denying.

Check out Jenny's post at Talk About Gender in which she quotes a 34-year-old mother, a self-described traditionalist, on her concern that if she were to dress her now 2-year-old son in "girly" colors, people—including her son—could get confused. Not that she cares about her son's sexuality, she adds. 

*     Doug Morris and Ron Morris/The Barbarians, 1965
**    Berry Gory and Janie Bradford/Barrett Strong, 1959
***   Aretha Franklin, Preston Glass, Narada Michael Walden/Aretha Franklin, 1985 
****  John Madara and David White/Leslie Gore, 1963

Saturday, June 2, 2012

IT'S THEIR WORLD: DW brides & grooms

What's worse than a command-performance cruise with your family?  A destination wedding where the guests are conscripted by the bride and groom, forced to join the troupe for a fortnight (or more) of choreographed happiness.

Destination weddings: the height of arrogance

How do you define hospitality?
How is it that "guests" are asked to invest 4 or 5 days of vacation and thousands of dollars frolicking with people you may not care that much about, at a proscribed destination in accommodations that may not suit you, all to be part of some couple's fantasy moment when their life as couple begins. And save them a bundle.

At the salon this morning for a new do, I heard a bride-to-be gushing about her upcoming nuptials in Mexico.

"Everything is so cheap there. We can't believe how much money we're saving!" Plus, she announced, they will score even greater savings having chosen Thursday for their big event, rather than a traditional Saturday.

"So, everyone will arrive Wednesday and stay through the weekend. It's going to be just perfect--everything we want."  

Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering all who serve

In honor of all who have served, I am devoting the day to a deep dive into Rachel Maddow's Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. I've poked around the book enough to know it will be a disturbing and important read, consistent with Maddow's premise that the decision to go to war should be difficult, painful and require sacrifice by all, right from the get-go. 
We can do better.

We should, collectively, anguish over a decision to go to war, Maddow suggests. As it is, we've drifted into systemic acquiescence--to appointed bureaucrats, military careerists and multinational service providers who profit (powerwise or moneywise) on the backs of the precious few who volunteer their service, their lives. We can do better.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Barbaric rituals 2: the "gender-reveal" party

Kids? Okay, but cut us a break.

Just when you thought the cult of parenthood might have peaked, what with the drop in birthrate and all, here comes the newest tsunami of overindulgence: the so-called "gender-reveal" party.
This emerging (mal)practice invents yet another platform for breeders to put the fruit of their loins on display--and coerce family, friends, colleagues and neighbors into lavishing more attention on the happy couple. Gifts, anyone? 

If you've yet to be introduced to the delights of "gender revelation," get acquainted by reading "A Boy or a Girl? Cut the Cake" as reported by Alex Williams and Kate Murphy for The New York Times--the photo alone, well...see for yourself.

I first heard about these ordeals from a Facebook friend who had been hired to bake for such an event. The mother-to-be ordered 3 dozen creme-filled lemon cupcakes capped with yellow fondant and topped with bits of green gummy worms formed into a  question mark. The baker was sworn to secrecy as to the color of the creme filling--pink or blue. 

"When the guests bite into the cupcakes..." the baker began. "The sex of the baby oozes into their mouths," I finished the thought for her. "Well, the filling oozes into their mouths," she clarified. "But yeah. That's pretty much it."

Gag me.
At least in the circles that Williams and Murphy describe in their article, typically the parents-to-be go into these parties on an even footing the guests, clueless as to the sex of the baby in her womb until the big moment when the news is revealed for all in a squirt of creme filling, or when a sealed envelope that has traveled from ultrasound technician to baker to party is ceremoniously opened and a blurry image of the wee one's sex is held aloft.

Yum, it's...a boy!
Sometimes, the envelope is dispensed with and the cutting of the cake is the main attraction. Here, the couple cuts the cake (they've practiced, they're ready) to reveal a sex-coded object (the article cites a pink shoe, as one example) or a lucky guest discovers the a small sex token in a telltale forkful. 

Greg Allen, who blogs at, is quoted in the Times article and says it all. "The whole connection of cutting into the cake to find out, like it's a stand-in for the utuerus, is sort of sickening."

I'll say.  Stay tuned for part 3.

*half what it was 60 years ago according to the CDC's Recent Decline in Births in the United States 2007-2009

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Barbaric rituals 1: the baby shower

“Are you a boy, or are you a girl?...”—The Barbarians, 1965

Last week ago, in a show of support for a young friend, I went to a baby shower—my first in 20 years. I had no idea what I was in for.

Fourteen of us were gathered for a feminist circle jerk: women of three generations trading way too much information about his and her morning rituals, pumping breast milk and episiotomies. And the games.

The silliest game was a Stasi-style race to accumulate points for catching others uttering any of 23 forbidden words—23 in honor of the 23-year-old mother-to-be. 

Come on, guess!
The most objectionable, a guessing game in which 10 different chocolate bars were wrapped in disposable diapers and heated in the microwave, then passed around the room so each of could guess which was the Milky Way, which the Three Musketeers and so on.

It's a boy!
The baby’s sex had been determined by ultrasound days before the gathering and put on display: blue balloons, blue lemonade (food coloring!), blue denim paper plates and bandana-print paper napkins, blue M&Ms and more—all of which had to be cleared from the premises before the arrival of the father-to-be, a sweet and quiet boy, who we were told didn’t want to know the baby’s sex ahead of time.

Let him be.
Good for him, I thought. Watching him edge into the gathering and clumsily accept a flurry of high-pitched congratulations, I imagined his decision to wait to learn the baby’s sex until the baby was ready to declare himself was an attempt to claim for his son a brief moment, entirely his own, when who he might become is blissfully unencumbered, all about possibilities.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Couples: how and when do two become one?

COUPLES MATH: Sometimes 1=2 and 2=3
Not for the first time, I wish English had distinct second person singular and plural pronouns instead of the all-purpose "you." Twice in the last month, I've invited someone to dinner and ended up with three of us at the table. Here's how one of the conversations went via text:

 "Sharon, it's been an age since I saw you."
 "You're right, we can do better. Dinner next Friday?"
 "You're on."

Next thing I knew, my pal's husband was part of the evening. I'm crazy about him, but I wanted to have dinner with her. 

My fault for not being explicit? Maybe. But why is it their showing up together is just assumed?

Questions for married and cohabiting couples:
  • Do you ever ask whether an invitation extended to one of you is meant to include both of you?
  • Have you ever turned down an invitation that didn't accommodate your bringing your partner?
  • Have you and your partner considered establishing specific days/times when you are each free to see a friend or do something on your own without clearing it with the other?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

How my married colleagues cash in on health care

My employer, like many, subsidizes health insurance for full-time employees. The company pays 85% of the cost, leaving each of us to pay 15%. In my case, that amounts to about $8,000 a year that the company pays so that I am more financially secure. Very generous. Thank you.

But in the case of my married colleagues, the company comes up with twice that. Not because they contribute any more or have more valuable skills. Only because they are married and want their spouses (and in some cases, their children) to come along for the ride. 

The financial security of my married colleagues in the plan is subsidized to the tune of $15,000 a year; those with children receive a subsidy of more than $22,000 a year. That's a lot of extra security accorded to some, denied others.

To balance the equation, my company could provide single employees with an equivalent benefit--say a contribution to a 403b account (one potential advantage of working for a non-profit) that is equal to the "excess" subsidy. 

Or, the company could make coverage for an employee's spouse or child/ren available but let the employee pay their way.  All possible, all proposed, all denied.

Yes, I tried to convince my employer how patently unfair this practice is for single employees. No matter how widespread or entrenched, investing more in married employees is simply unjust, I argued. 

My well-supported proposal for any one of several equitable plans needed due-diligence review by the higher-ups. Fair enough. 

Eight moths later, yes, all my calculations were correct. Yes, my alternative plans were feasible. But they were all deep-sixed on the basis that any change would be unfair to married staff. 

What the...?

We have a new CEO on the way soon and I plan to re-make my case later in the year. I'll let you know how it goes. 

In the meantime, as I have been when I first read Lawrence Ferlinghetti's awesome "Coney Island, I remain "perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder." You can listen to "Coney Island" read by A.M. Homes, courtesy of PEN.

Why employers should be nervous about tax reform

If Representative Paul Ryan (R-WIS), chairman of the House Budget Committee, is able to sell his approach to tax reform, the dirty little secret about employer-subsidized health care will soon be out of the closet. And single employees will be very unhappy.

Ryan's tax reform plan, deftly reported by Floyd Norris in the March 23, 2012 New York Times, calls for the elimination of any number of what he terms tax preferences: income that is excluded from income under current tax law. According to a nifty chart that Mr. Norris provides and credits to the Joint Committee on Taxation, employer contributions for health insurance is the biggest of these preferences, worth $147.8 billion in untaxed income--about twice the value of Medicare benefits. 

If you've never had to foot the bill for your health insurance--or your employees' health insurance--you likely have little awareness of just how much money we're talking about even at the household level. And what employers pay at the household level is the dirty little secret few employees are aware of. 

In a nutshell. married employees get a double dose of ancillary financial security on top of regular wages, just for showing up with a spouse. And it's more than just a few bucks.

I'll tell you how it works at my company in my next post.

Paying one's fair share...part 2

Why do some taxpayers with the same taxable income (and equivalent itemized deductions) get breaks that others don't?

Yesterday I asked why Sara should pay more in taxes as head of household than Chris and Christa pay as a married couple filing jointly. I could make a case for giving Sara a lower tax rate in consideration of her financial (not to mention emotional) investment in raising Adam. But why should Chris and Christa with the potential for two incomes and no children get the better deal...or any deal at all? 

Carol, introduced yesterday as a single person with no dependents, is asked to pay more. Using 2011 federal tax tables, I went through four different scenarios comparing Carol's tax bill to Chris and Christa's at the same taxable income for each of the two households. Every time, Carol pays more. 
  •  At $40,583 in taxable income, single taxpayers like Carol pay $1,008 more; at $60,875, $3,063 more; $81,165, $3,875 more; at $121,748, $5,019 more; and so on.
Plus, because Chris and Christa qualify for two personal exemptions to Carol's one, they and other married couples are able to earn (and pocket) $3,700 more at the same taxable income level. 

I know it's been this way a long time...but why?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Paying one's fair share of taxes: who decides?

Less than a month to go before taxes are due. I got my return on its way yesterday, once again asking myself why some folks' fair share seems fairer than others.
My expertise in this arena is limited to my experience paying taxes as an individual wage earner (single, then married, now single again) and, for a time, as a small business owner. So, I’m coming at this as a layperson operating strictly off 2011 IRS tax tables, without the creativity available to wealthy persons assisted by tax attorneys.

Still, why should married persons qualify for lower tax rates?

High to low, here’s the hierarchy: married filing separately; single; head of household; married filing jointly. Hmm.

Having your wedding cake and eating it, too.

Married persons filing separately pay the highest rates, presumably as a gamer’s penalty for working the system to pay less and adding unnecessarily to the stack of returns in need of processing. That said, the difference doesn’t amount to much until you get into six figures.

Here’s an example for Chris, married filing separately, and Carol who is single.

·      At an arbitrary taxable income (IRS line 43) of $40,583, the table says Chris pays $6,269—$25 more than Carol who pays $6,244.

·      Up the income ladder, with taxable income of $121,748 Chris pays $28,904—$1,198 more than Carol who pays $27, 706. And the spread widens as earnings rise further.

I get all that. But check this out.

Marriage tax discount: why?

Married persons filing jointly—whether or not they have children—pay less than a single parent with children filing as head of household. Here’s the math using the same two arbitrary taxable incomes as above for Sara, single parent of Adam, and Chris and Christa, married and child-free.

·      With $40,583 on line 43, Sarah supporting her son Adam pays $5,479—$243 more than Chris and Christa who pay $5,236

·      With $121,748 on line 43, Sarah pays $25,275—$2,588 more than Chris and Christa who pay $22,687.

Does this make any sense to you?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What "Going Solo" says about marriage

Among other things, Eric Klinenberg’s hot new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, calls attention to the continued free fall of marriage around the world. 

The corollary to Klinenberg telling us that the number of people living alone today is the highest it’s ever been (and that only 1 percent of married persons do so) is that marriage is in a nose dive. Government figures agree. Statistics collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the marriage rate has dropped every year but one since at least 1990 and in 2010, the most recent year yet reported, is at its lowest ever—6.8 persons per thousand—for the second year. 

Fewer U.S. couples tying the knot.
That being the case, the array of privileges accorded to married persons (higher incomes, richer employee benefits, and lots more) are being doled out to a shrinking population with no apparent means testing or accountability. Simply put, on what basis do married people deserve the goodies showered on them? 

Setting aside the bearing and raising of children, a compelling but entirely separate topic, what exactly do married couples contribute that, presumably, unmarried couples and single persons do not?  

I’m all ears.