On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

Our daughter wants to visit dungeon-master Santa.

This isn’t as scary as it sounds – the local mall Santa happens to be a developer for Dungeons & Dragons.  Unfortunately, our daughter has a bit of trouble with impulse control.  I’ve heard that this is normal for three year olds.

santa-2990434_640“What would you say to other kids about Santa?” we asked her.

“I’d tell them that Santa isn’t real.”

“But, remember, only their parents are supposed to tell them that.”

“Why?”

“Well, you should know that we will always tell you the truth.  If we’re telling you a story, we’ll let you know that it’s a story.  But some other families are different.  They want their kids to believe the dungeon master lives on the North Pole with an army of elves.”

Why?”

“I … I dunno, dude.  But don’t tell the other kids, okay?”

I’ve written previously about the harm in conspiring against children – belief in one conspiracy theory makes people more likely to believe in another.  People who believe that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs are also more likely to believe that vaccines cause autism, fluoride in the water enables mind control, and the Earth is flat.

And, sadly, we start our citizens early.  The Santa story is a vast conspiracy, a large number of authority figures (grown-ups) collaborating to keep the child in a state of ignorance.  A local philosophy professor told me that he felt the story was valuable as a measure of intellectual development – at first the child believes, but then begins to notice flaws in the story.

“Uh, if it takes two minutes to deliver presents, it would take a thousand years to visit everyone in the United States, or two million Santas on Christmas Eve – but not every house has a chimney!”

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I think it would be cynical to lie to children as a developmental metric.  This measurement changes the child (which is not Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, f.y.i.).  The experience of uncovering one conspiracy will train children to search for conspiracies elsewhere.  Perhaps a child is supposed to realize that there’s no Santa at seven years old, that there are no gods at eleven, that the moon landing was faked at thirteen, that JFK is smoking blunts in the Illuminati’s underground lair at seventeen.

After all, the Santa story isn’t the final time we conspire against children.  In my school’s health classes, all sexuality outside of marriage was described as fundamentally bad.  Even if we somehow dodged pregnancy and disease, disrobed physical affection would break our hearts and leave us feeling guilty and ashamed.  Recreational drug use was described in similarly bleak terms (by a teacher who drank coffee every morning).

Students grow up, get laid, drink beer, smoke pot.  Grown-ups were hypocritically hiding the truth.  Sex is fun.  Drugs are fun.

What else were they hiding?

(Have you seen all those children’s books with pictures of happy animals on the farm?)

A lot of the guys in jail believe in conspiracy theories.  Despite a plenitude of dudes with Aryan tattoos, I’ve never heard anybody on a full-tilt ZOG rant, but I’ve been told about Nostradamus, Biblical prophecy, the CIA (to be fair, I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about MK Ultra, too).

To an extent, I understand why.  The people in jail are being conspired against by judges, informants, and the police.  With lives in thrall to the overt conspiracy of our criminal justice system, covert conspiracy seems probable, too.

And so, in preparation for this essay, I took a few minutes at the beginning of class to say, “There’s an administrator at the local school who thinks the Earth is flat.  Says so to kids.  You guys hear anybody talking about that?”

flatearth“Oh, yeah, there was this dude in A block!  He was talking about it like all the time!”

“Now he’s in seg.”

“It’s like, has he never seen a globe?”

And the guys wondered what that administrator was doing inside a school.

“Cause kids go there to learn, right?”

Kids do need to learn critical thinking.  They should question whether the things they’re taught make sense.  I’ve heard plenty of teachers make erroneous claims, and not just in Indiana’s public schools – some professors at Northwestern and Stanford didn’t know what they were talking about either.  Even so, I think it’s unhelpful to train children by having them uncover the Santa story.  That experience is a step along the way to thinking your sensory experience has primacy over abstract data.

After all, the planet feels flat enough.  It looks flat from most human vantages.  And it would be cheaper to deceive people than to send spacecraft to the moon (a former colleague recently went to the International Space Station for some incredibly expensive molecular biology experiments.  This was a huge undertaking – and she was only 0.1% of the way to the moon).

If you take a kid for his MMR vaccine, and shortly after vaccination he seems to regress into autism, that narrative – which you watched with your own eyes! – is more compelling than a bunch of medical statistics proving there’s no connection.  If you comb the Bible and find lines mirroring current events, that narrative also must seem more compelling than the thought that history is chaotic.  Physicists from Einstein till the present day have been dismayed that quantum mechanics feels so unintuitive.

It’s tricky to find a balance between our own senses and expert opinion.  It’s even harder in a world where numerous authority figures and media outlets have been caught spreading lies.

And so, while I try not to judge others’ parenting decisions, please, take a few minutes to think about the holiday stories you tell.  If you’d like to live in a country where the citizenry can agree on basic facts, lying to your kids might be not be the way to get there.

On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

Heartbreak smells the same in any language.

During my second year of graduate school, my advisor wanted me to do an organic synthesis using cyanide.  I’ve long since forgotten what we were trying to make.  All I remember is that I promptly said:

“Almonds.  The official scent of unrequited love.”

“Oh, you can smell it?” my advisor asked.  “That’s good.  Some people can’t.  You’ll be much less likely to die.”

41Bn22qtn6LI actually, I had no idea whether I could smell it.  Still don’t, since my advisor fired me before I got around to that synthesis.  I was just riffing on the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman):

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

It doesn’t matter whether you call it heartbreak or desengano amoroso or any other name – it’s going to hurt.

*

Kids needs to learn about heartbreak.  They will feel sorrow.  Especially while they’re in high school, tugged by turbulent emotions but inept in so many ways … like conversation, like forbearance, like patience.

I know I was miserable during high school.  And, yes, the wellspring of my misery was my own incompetence.

Reading more would have helped.  Engaging fiction bolsters emotional maturity.  When we empathize with characters in books, we might skip some of their suffering – we can’t learn without making mistakes, but fictional characters can make mistakes for us.

And so we expect high schoolers to read stories of heartbreak, things like Ethan Frome, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby … novels in which intense emotions are described in school-appropriate language.

This is heartbreak.  Learn it well, young person.  You too will hurt.

*

proust_yuc7utMarcel Proust wrote a scene for In Search of Lost Time (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff) in which his narrator tumbles in the park with his first love, grasping after a letter she is holding.

and we wrestled, locked together.  I tried to pull her toward me; she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I was tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree that I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath from the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form I could not even pause for a moment to analyze; immediately I snatched the letter from her.  Whereupon Gilberte said, good-naturedly:

You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling for a little longer.”

At that moment, Marcel, the character, was no longer interested in wrestling.  He’d rubbed his pelvis against her body enough to climax in his pants.  Now he “wished only to sit quietly by her side.”  It would be a few hours, perhaps, before he desired her again.

He felt joy that afternoon.

But then, months later, that same joy stabs him.  Their relationship has ended.  Marcel fancies himself indifferent.  Then, one day, he sees her walking alongside someone else – suddenly he is in pain.  The memories of his own happy times with her swell unbidden:

The accident comes from the side to which one was not paying attention, from inside, the heart.  Giberte’s words: “If you like, we might go on wrestling,” horrified me.  I imagined her behaving like that, at home perhaps, in the linen closet, with the young man whom I had seen escorting her along the avenue des Champs-Elysees.

He loved that she loved him.  He hates that she might now love another the same way.

And that, kids, is what life is like.

*

But … how many high schoolers will sit down and read In Search of Lost Time?  I certainly didn’t.  Proust’s words would help, but they don’t reach young people.

I did, however, read certain paragraphs from John Fowles’s The Magus again and again at night.

all-the-dirty-partsAnd so Daniel Handler has written All the Dirty Parts.  When he was growing up and making his first forays into the “grown up” section of the library, Handler gravitated toward books with racy scenes.  Which is why his heartbreak novel is full of them.

Heartbreak hurts in the chaste language of Ethan Frome … but it hurts just as much in the ribald language of All the Dirty Parts.

You found it right away.

They always say guys can never find it, that it’s hard to find.  The clitoris is not hard to find.  I mean, it’s not like sometimes it’s behind her heel or in your desk drawer.  Go to where you think it is and root around and you will for sure know when you’re right.  And porn helps.  Find a shaved girl saying “lick my clit” and where he licks, that’s the clit.  It’s educational.

Or, on the same page:

I’m seventeen now, and no real girl has really told me to ejaculate on her face.  Maybe it’ll never happen, I told [my friend] Alec.  We’ve watched a couple blowjobs together, or not together but at the same time, me in my room and he in his, always slightly weird.

Pornography lied to us.

I’m writing my congressman.

OK but let’s watch another one first.

The protagonist of Holder’s All the Dirty Parts is a pornography-obsessed high schooler who proffers graphic descriptions of his conquests.  But he too has a heart.  And when he meets someone more callous than he is, he is doomed.

Officially together?

She repeats this in the tone of what’s-the-problem-officer.  I already thought it might not work, to ask her.

OK.

Do we need a permit?  Do I have to pay for the whole year up front?

I was just asking.

Can we just, play it as it goes along, by ear?

And, like a sock to the stomach, I get how every previous girl felt looking and asking that question, officially, at me.

They’re in high school.  Their relationship won’t last forever.  Which she knows.

So should he, since she is treating him the same way that he has treated everyone else.

And then, like Marcel, the protagonist of All the Dirty Parts will feel crushed remembering their embraces … knowing that now she is now sharing them with someone else.  Worse, by the time he loses her, he has behaved so badly that he has no one to talk to.  He sits alone in his room and ruminates:

I wasn’t just a fuck to them, any of them probably, is what I’m seeing.  For every girl I thought I was uncomplicated sex, it wasn’t.  Put it this way: if you can’t see the complication, you’re probably it.

And the book ends beautifully, with a pearl of wisdom, some words to live by delivered deus-ex-machina-style by an adult.

When you are older –

That’s the only part of the advice I hear.  But, Dad, I’m not.

*

I’m sorry, dude.  It does hurt.

And, yes, I’m sorry for all the high-schoolers out there, and the kids who aren’t in high school yet but are gonna be: it will hurt.  There might not be anyone you feel like you can talk to.

At least Daniel Handler wrote a book for you.

On Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex.

peggyPeggy Orenstein claims in the acknowledgements of her new book that she is “difficult to be around.”  I don’t believe her.  Her tone throughout Girls & Sex is charming.  She covers topics that could make a reader squirm, but she so consistently sounds like your witty & understanding best friend that the whole book flows easily.

Maybe she was denigrating herself in the acknowledgements because she puts her best self into her writing (she did qualify that “difficult to be around” with “while I am engrossed in book writing”), but I suspect she’s just being humble.  She couldn’t have drawn such honest & trusting material from her interviewees if it was true.

cinderella ate my daughterAnd I’ll have to read Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter next.  Just the other day my own daughter picked out a dress to wear and announced she was a princess — it took a five-minute conversation to convince her that it might be more fun to roar around as a DINOSAUR PRINCESS! than to waif it up as the regular humanoid kind.

Throughout Girls & Sex, Orenstein discusses problems with the way young people, especially females, learn about & engage in sexuality.  She had many conversations with young women about what they were doing, and why.  What she was most surprised by is how badly these women wanted to talk with an adult.

Instead of adult conversation, these young women usually relied upon the internet.

Orenstein is not against the idea of pornography.  Explicit depictions of human sexuality could be a positive influence on people’s lives.  But the young people she spoke with have found adult conversations about sexuality to be very inaccessible, and pop pornography, with its narrow focus on female performance over pleasure, to be all too readily available.

unnamedPornographic actors don’t behave the way they do because it’s most fun.  Their goal is to create a product that holds visual appeal for consumers.  Pornographic actor and animal activist Zara Whites described this in an interview: “With women — who I really love to make love with — in the movies I don’t enjoy it as much because when you’re giving head you have to keep your head at an angle so the camera can see what you’re doing”  (quotation from the bio at zarawhites dot com, unlinked because of unpleasant & decidedly NSFW images at the top of the page — somewhat exemplary of the problems with pop pornography). The actors purposefully put themselves into uncomfortable positions for the benefit of the camera.

This leads to physical contortion.  Sex that proceeds wordlessly.  Acts that matter more than people.  Mechanical pistoning of parts between semi-anonymous bodies shaven & stylized to evoke children (super-upsetting, this last aspect.  In a world rife with child abuse, entertainment designed to normalize the sexualization of children is not okay).

If the only venue for young people to “educate” themselves about sex is pop pornography, they’ll wind up with a very distorted outlook.

Meat_Loaf
Meat Loaf.  Not that I hold him to blame.

Unfortunately, most teens in the United States don’t have other opportunities to learn.  My school taught “sex ed” yearly, starting when I was in fifth grade.  I was taught that “the underwear zone” is dangerous unless you’re married.  In eighth grade sex ed, our gym teacher (later fired for making lewd remarks to & leering at his female students) had us watch & write an essay about Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” music video.  I think my essay said sex was dangerous because you might have to marry someone you don’t like.

Not until my junior year of college was I given advice that wasn’t garbage.  A friend lent me Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, and, oddly enough, this book taught me most of what I’d need to know.

The protagonist describes an incident from his college days when a woman he met on the train invited him to share her hotel room:

haruki murakamiI was nervous the first time we made love, which made things awkward.  I apologized to her.

“Aren’t we polite!” she said.  “No need to apologize for every little thing.”

After her shower she throw on a bathrobe, grabbed two cold beers from the fridge, and handed one to me.

“Are you a good driver?” she asked.

“I just got my license, so I wouldn’t say so.  Just average.”

She smiled.  “Same with me.  I think I’m pretty good, but my friends don’t agree.  Which makes me average, too, I suppose.  You must know a few people who think they’re great drivers, right?”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“And there must be some who aren’t very good.”

I nodded.  She took a quiet sip of beer and gave it some thought.

. . .

“OK, consider this.  Say you’re going to go on a long trip with someone by car.  And the two of you will take turns driving.  Which type of person would you choose?  One who’s a good driver but inattentive, or an attentive person who’s not such a good driver?”

“Probably the second one,” I said.

“Me too,” she replied.  “What we have here is very similar.  Good or bad, nimble or clumsy — those aren’t important.  What’s important is being attentive.  Staying calm, being alert to things around you.”

“Alert?” I asked.

She just smiled and didn’t say anything.

A while later we made love a second time, and this time it was a smooth, congenial ride.  Being alert — I think I was starting to get it.  For the first time I saw how a woman reacts in the throes of passion.

. . .

I was still young, certain that this kind of thrilling event happened all the time.  Later in life I realized how wrong I was.

As it happens, Orenstein sat in on a sexual education class in northern California where the students were given this same advice.  The instructor, Charis Denison, told them,

“There’s this useful thing around consent: Any good lover is a good listener.  And a bad listener is at best a bad lover and at worst a rapist.”

Blunt.  But true.  In Orenstein’s words,

There was no denying it: [Denison] was explaining how to have sex.  It was the worst nightmare of conservative policy makers realized.  Yet this is exactly the kind of discussion that, if Holland is any indication, is needed to combat pop porn culture, reduce regret, and improve teens’ satisfaction when they do choose to have sex (whenever that may be).

Giving young people access to real sexual education is an important step towards a better world.  But institutional policies won’t change everything.  As a parent, I thought that Orenstein’s analysis of the statistical differences between first sexual experience in the United States and Holland was the most valuable section of the book (seriously — if you’re a parent, pick up a copy and read her seventh chapter right away, “What If We Told Them the Truth”).

The most important thing I learned from Girls & Sex is: talk to your kids.  About everything.  Discuss what you want, explain why your household has the rules it does, and be willing to change your mind.  In Orenstein’s words:

It’s not just about sex, though — according to [sociologist Amy] Schalet, there’s a fundamental difference in [the U.S. versus Holland’s] conceptions of how teenagers become adults.  American parents consider adolescents to be innately rebellious, in thrall to their “raging hormones”.  We respond by cracking down on them, setting stringent limits, forbidding or restricting any behavior that might lead to sex or substance use.  We end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy: teens assert independence by breaking rules, rupturing their relationships with parents, separating from the family.  Sex, which typically involves sneaking around or straight-up lying, becomes a vehicle through which to do that.

Dutch teens, on the other hand, remain closely connected to parents, growing up in an atmosphere of gezelligheid, a word most Americans can’t even pronounce, but which Schalet translates loosely as “cozy togetherness.”  Parents and teens are expected to discuss the children’s psychological and emotional development, including their burgeoning sexual drives.

As individuals, we can’t fix everything.  Assault on campus?  It won’t vanish.  There are calculating serial offenders.  But even their actions are enabled by the inebriated hookup culture we’ve fueled with sex ed classes that teach people to be ashamed of desire.

We can make things better, though.  Especially as parents.  The way forward is clear.

We have to talk.  More importantly, we have to listen.