Sunday, December 30, 2007

Unplanned pregancy week

This week, I watched three movies about unplanned pregnancy - Juno, Saved! and Knocked Up.
While each was enjoyable in its own way, I did find myself wondering a number of times how people let this happen. In Saved!, the pregnant teen in question hasn't been taught about sex ed - the implication being that she didn't realize that sex = potential human.

I don't get that. I went to a sheltered religious school, too. I just read YM and Seventeen. When I was twelve I knew about teen pregnancy.

In Juno, it's not clear. The directors doesn't explain how an intelligent and literate 16-year-old gets pregnant. The best explanation the characters come up with is that she was bored, had sex, and whoops! (Side point: Juno is probably the funniest movie I've seen this year. Go see it.)

In Knocked Up, the pregnant woman in question isn't a teenager, and intends to use a condom, but there is a drunken mishap, and whoops again.

I just find it fascinating that just as teen pregnancy rates are at their lowest in 30 years*, there are two hit movies this year about unexpected pregnancy. Memo to teens: Sometimes, people get pregnant through two forms of birth control. So wear a condom. But the only surefire way not to get pregnant is to not have sex!

Anybody got a banana?

*Source: The Guttmacher Institute.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

On complicity and why we don't care

Yesterday in NYC, I bought a stunning party dress (retail price $120) and a pretty patterned skirt (retail price $90) from Ann Taylor Loft. If you know me, you know that I did NOT pay full retail. price. If you know the retail industry, you know that both were made in China.

I've been thinking for some time about why everything I own was made in China - except, of course, for my china. Some blame big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, but I know that the truth lies somewhere in that great messy thing we call capitalism and the white elephant of the American dream.

China (the dishes, I mean) are luxury items. You will spend $100 - $160 for a five piece place setting made in England (or Germany or Luxembourg, if you're buying certain brands). If you're like me, you might get china as a wedding gift. You might also inherit it from a dead relative. If you're an ordinary working class American, you can't afford china.

I understand why working-class Americans buy products from Target and Wal-Mart made in China. Wal-Mart's claim that they make potential luxury items affordable for less affluent is quite compelling. Equally compelling is the theory posited by economists who argue that Wal-Mart likely helps keep inflation down. For minimum- and low-wage workers, it's easy to understand why Wal-Mart may seem like a modern day Messiah.

The behaviour I question is that of the professional class. Why don't we put our money where our mouths are? Most hip urban 20-somethings I know care, or pretend to care, about slave labor and China's human rights record. They probably care to some extent about the minimum wage in America and about the person who sold me the dress. Even those of us who are adamant about the subject still buy Made In China. The irony is that these people - doctors and lawyers and nurses and teachers - could probably afford to spend a few more dollars per item to have their products made under ethical conditions in democratic countries.

It's not just Wal-Mart. Mainstream retail stores outsource their textiles to compete. Victoria's Secret lingerie is made in Sri Lanka and China. The pants from the Gap I'm wearing right now were made in the Philippines.

So why do we put up with this?

I can posit a few reasons:

Information - I really don't know what working conditions are like in Sri Lanka. If the person who made my $5 panties was paid $0.50, what really matters is purchasing power. What a fair wage is in random Third World countries is not information that most yuppies have.

Apathy - Let's face it, we all just want cheap stuff. This allows us to trade up an extra step. The working-class go to Wal-Mart to afford middle-class stuff. Similarly, the middle-class use discounts at stores like the Gap and Victoria's Secret to save money and potentially afford products that would otherwise be the provenance of the wealthy.

Lack of identification - Not everyone really agrees that Made-In-China is a bad thing. Globalization is certainly a complex and controversial topic. Why should America be insular when we can send our dollars abroad to buy things that will stimulate foreign economies and simultaneously raise the standard of living in ours?

Lack of options - I honestly don't know where I'd buy Made in the USA clothes. I certainly wouldn't buy clothes that were less stylish or attractive to make a political point. Which brings me to my closing thought - capitalism is based on the principle that people look out for their own self-interest.

Any thoughts? I'd love to hear from other 20-somethings with thoughts on why they buy Made In China.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On schooling....

“We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control. Hey! Teacher, leave those kids alone!” – Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall”

Every student going through Maimonides at some point learns about the Socratic method; every student at some point thereafter complains about it. At its core, though, almost all Maimo students grasp the idea that debate and argumentation are critical skills to be developed, and develop them by arguing with their teachers about grades.

Ask a group of students to discuss, debate and argue about ideas, events and concepts in class, though, and many will immediately protest – especially if their in-class discussions and participation will be graded.

Students who don’t wish to exert themselves by participating in class tend to advocate for grades composed entirely of test and quiz scores. Students who are naturally chatty generally don’t complain much, but even some of them don’t understand why participation needs to be graded.

To answer that question, one must also ask – what is the goal of education? After all, the ends must dictate the means. Many students labor under the misapprehension that the end is the only thing that matters. Why do they go to class, write papers and take tests? To get a 90. Why do they want a 90? To get into a good college. Why get into a good college? To get into a good grad school. Why get into a good grad school? To get a good job. Why get a good job? So you can pay your future children’s Maimo tuition and have a vacation house at the Cape. (This, of course, will be a vacation house you never use since you’re too busy working long hours to pay it off.)

No wonder many Maimo students feel like hamsters on a wheel, running endless loops and never getting anywhere.

News flash: You’re not another brick in the wall, and neither is your education.

Education is about expanding who you are as a person. You have thoughts and ideas and opinions that are based on your experiences and upbringing. When you share your ideas with others, you contribute to the collective by raising new ideas and viewpoints. When you disagree with someone else in a class discussion, you force them to rethink their ideas. Maybe they’ll give in to your way of thinking or maybe they’ll think about it and come to realize that their opinions are reinforced by having withstood your scrutiny. Ask any one of your teachers what the purpose of an education is. Most will answer that education serves to test-drive skills and expand your ability to be articulate both in writing and in speech.

The course material you cover just gives you something to talk about and write about. Fat lot of good it will do you if you can’t speak or write coherently.

Do yourself a favor. Stop taking notes obsessively – in a year they’ll only be kindling. Close the laptop, stop playing Tetris on your cellphone and start actually thinking about what your teacher is saying. Jump off the grade-grubbing hamster wheel. Who knows – you may actually find that you are glad you live in a world where you’re encouraged to think for yourself.

First published in the Maimonides School Spectrum, Monday, December 17, 2007

Thursday, December 06, 2007

On Hannukah and gift-giving

They say everyone remembers their first kiss. And their first love. Since getting married three months ago, I’ve discovered a series of new firsts – the first time my husband and I experience a calendar cycle together. When we first got married, I thought that since Ari and I were both Orthodox Jews of Eastern European descent, our traditional practices would be remarkably similar. However, as the Jewish high holidays passed, what was remarkable was how each religious celebration brought a clash of family traditions that we had to navigate, from choosing a Rosh Hashana prayer service to determining the appropriate foods to eat before and after the Yom Kippur fast.

With the Jewish holiday of Hannukkah quickly approaching, my husband and I prepared for the next in our series of firsts – the first battle over Hannukah presents. Ari’s close knit but frugal Americanized family has always been one for small Hannukah gifts – candies, books, CDs and knitted scarves. Last year, he and his siblings did the Jewish equivalent of a secret Santa – each sibling bought a gift for one other.

Gift policy in my family has always been hairy, especially since most of us are hard to shop for and we rarely exchange gifts face-to-face. In contrast to Ari’s family, my three siblings and I spent last winter in four different countries.

A few weeks before Hannukah, one of Ari’s siblings suggested a change to gift policy. Perhaps the married-and-working siblings should buy each person a gift at Hannukah (and be done with it) while the single-and-in-college siblings should buy birthday presents only, spreading out their cash outlay over many months, and dispense with Hannukah presents entirely?

For reasons known only to God and Adam Sandler, the ensuing battle lasted eight crazy nights. Why, I asked, were we buying Hannukah presents at all? Didn’t my husband know that they were a Christian tradition and to be truly Jewish we’d have to give gelt (Yiddish for cold hard cash), and then only to children? Why would we spend hundreds of dollars on useless clutter we were not certain our family members would like, when we could spend it on such useful things as food and shelter?

My husband was quick to note that four or five ten-dollar gifts weren’t going to bankrupt us, and that I always gave actual presents to my small cousins. Wasn’t I being hypocritical by playing the “it’s not really Jewish” card?

My best argument led to eventual slammed doors and both of us going to work fuming. Since Ari’s brother and my sister, by ridiculous coincidence, were next-door dormmates in a rez hall of a local university, if we gave Ari’s siblings and sister-in-law presents, we’d have to extend the same courtesy to my siblings and brother-in-law. Add shipping charges to Canada, and you’ve got a tidy sum. No wonder many North Americans get second jobs this time of year.

Fortunately, Ari and I put our marriage first, and consensus second. Sighs and begrudging apologies led to a ceasefire of sorts. In the grand spirit of Hannukah gelt, childless siblings would get gift cards, and married-with-children ones would get gifts showered upon their children. Siblings in foreign countries would get gifts eventually, and Ari and I would keep our credit cards paid off as our Hannukah candles burnt.

Eventually, I know, there won’t need to be debates about whether we should stand or sit for certain blessings and whether the Shabbat candles should be on the table or on the sideboard. We have battled over some of these clashing traditions, and some were just not worth fighting over. But as the dust settles after our latest match, it’s clear that Ari and I are not oil and water, and somehow, with time, our traditions will mix.

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