Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Wife Keeps her Name at Marriage--and Other Ways to Get Respect

An article last week in in the New York Times argued every-which-way about changing or retaining names at marriage. It provoked a huge response, because the central issue isn't really about keeping a name, but retaining respect as an individual.

The piece mainly described women's dilemmas and choices, noting that men haven't rushed to claim their wives' names. A Lesbian couple made their own mashup: Ms. Rothman and Ms. Gerkin became the Gerkmans. (Seems odd; classmates of any future children could taunt "Jerk-Man!" and their choice includes "man" when neither partner is one.)

"Third wave" feminists, the now-marrying generation, often take their husbands' names, even though their own mothers kept their original names out of conviction. The older moms seem disappointed when daughters don't follow their examples, but one youth suggested, “Your generation did all the work, now we can go back to having our husbands’ names.”

One hundred twenty comments, almost all by women, reveal the passion this issue still evokes. The majority of writers insisted that keeping their names preserved their identities, and posed no difficulties. But awkward stories threaded through the rest, bemoaning confused contexts, hyphenated horrors and attacks for choosing the traditional path.

One couple avoided the entire his/hers issue by making up a euphonious Tolkein-esque name and both changing to it in court.

Now that marriage is optional, divorce ubiquitous and unmarried parenthood acceptable, what's the big deal? The crux of the passion is a need for respect as an individual. For many nowadays, taking another person's name feels like a surrender of one's persona, a loss of the unique individuality established and nurtured throughout life.

I think people should be called by whatever they prefer. More crucial for engendering respect than a name, however, is title. "Dr.," "Ms.," "Mr.," and even "Miss" or "Mrs.," if desired, should precede whatever name someone uses, because titles confer respect.

Graffiti, foul language in public (and in media), and pushy drivers all reflect the same decrease in respect for others that dropping titles demonstrates. It's a societal malaise--haven't you noticed it?

Lack of respect begins when a youngster's allowed to address adults casually, by their first names, teaching him there's no difference between children and elders. When a well-meaning teacher tries to "get close" to his charges by going by his first name, students learn that they and the teacher share similar status; children become elevated and the teacher loses ground. The snot-nosed kid gets snotty because nobody's ever superior to him; no one else's position or needs trump his own. Self-esteem's great until it destroys deference to anyone else.

When a store salesperson calls me by my first name, I'm unpleasantly surprised, because the context dictates that he cater to me. A doctor should address her patient as Mr. or Ms., and a child should use those titles for neighbors, because of something becoming startlingly rare: common courtesy. Courtesy is at root respect for others.

Respect is the entire point, the nexus of name-passion.

Feminists want acclaim for their own accomplishments, not as extensions of someone else. They'll get it no matter the last name if we insist upon courtesy and respect for every individual in every circumstance. Titles are one small and perhaps superficial means to remind all present to recognize and honor others. The secondary results might be less inclination to vandalize others' property, cut in when in traffic, and dull sensitivity to politeness with public swearing.

As one of those earlier-wave feminists, I thought it dumb that tradition saw wives as
husband-extensions--and then I fell in love with someone I was proud to extend. More precisely, I was honored that this particular man wanted me to share his future, and delighted we could create our own family united under a single moniker. Suddenly it didn't bother me anymore that I would "lose" my name, because in marrying, I was entering a new phase, as a partner in a new enterprise, the adventure combining my husband and me.

This is the key to what I believe is the value of marriage, and a couple sharing a single last name simply symbolizes it: the whole of the two individuals creates something that is different from, and better than, what each person can be alone.

Each individual deserves respect. But so does the entity of a family, the commitment of two people to each other. If that universal respect was restored, perhaps more people would guard and protect their marriages. And if problems arose, they might work to overcome them, rather than divorce, hurting so many others, and destroying the history and combination they've built.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Animals Too Weird for Evolution

Copulating hermaphrodite sea slugs soon to get violent
Sometimes the headline grabs you: "Sea Slug Sex and Violence," for example. Or, "Clever crocs, gators balance sticks on snouts to lure prey." Both are real, and both made me ask, "how in the world would these evolve?"

First, the violent sex of sea slugs. An item in the Science section of the New York Times reports, "Researchers have identified a new kind of hermaphroditic sea slug living on the Great Barrier Reef that uses its phallus to stab its partner in the forehead after copulating..." This certainly caught my attention, and I found a Scientific American article with the lead: "Everyone remember not to have sex with hermaphrodite sea slugs, because they’ll want to inject prostate gland fluid into your forehead."

Turns out biologists led by Rolanda Lange of Monash University in Australia captured 32 of the 2-4 millimeter-long Siphopteron sp. 1 sea slugs off Queensland, and videotaped sixteen couplings of their several-times-daily antics. The slugs enjoy quite a mating ritual: 2.5 minutes of twirling embrace, with a few romantic neck-bites, and some organ "everting," (the phallus turns outward or inside out). Then the sex act, and since both have male and female openings, well, one of them behaves as the male and the other, female. After that, the "penile stylus" gropes the "female", until whap! It's injecting glandular fluid deep into "her" forehead!

The experts witnessing this were flummoxed. No other animal has been observed stabbing its paramour in the forehead after coitus. They had no idea why one hermaphrodite would inject prostate fluid into the head of another one. Their speculation is that this neurologically manipulates the partner to absorb more of the sperm just received, but they honestly have no evidence for that.

Given that this weird behavior appears unique among all animals, I just wonder how and why this would confer evolutionary advantage. Apparently, the "penile stylus" is flexible enough to reach any part of the recipient; lots of other creatures poke and prod, but not the forehead. How could this fit the workings of Darwinian theory? It's possible that with enough research, we'll eventually discover why this one species of sea slug developed a behavior so different from any other creature--but for now, its habit seems illogical and amazing.

Equally astounding are the crocodiles and alligators who, only during the spring mating season of nearby-nesting birds, balance twigs on their snouts and lie motionless in the water for hours until a mama-bird, seeking nest-building material, plucks the twig and...SNAP! She's lunch!
Alligator (that's no log!) with twigs awaits lunch

Researchers observed crocodiles in Tamil Nadu, India, and alligators in four sites in Louisiana laying twigs on their barely-submerged snouts, as "tools" to snare prey. "Use of objects as hunting lures is very rare among animals," writes a team of authors led by Vladimir Dinets of the University of Tennessee. The only animals ever found with that ability are "captive capuchin monkeys, a few bird species and one insect." The big question is how the reptiles know to try their trick only in the weeks birds compete for twigs. Are they looking up and saying, "gee, I see birds swooping around, so I'm gonna camouflage myself like a log and balance some twigs on my snout"?

OK, I can't resist one more strange animal story, this one from a splashy piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Rasberry Crazy Ants, named after Tom Rasberry, the exterminator who brought them to the attention of authorities in 2002, are swarming over Texas and several more Southern states. The weird part is that they congregate in electrical appliances by the thousands, and blacken dirt and pavement by their sheer density and number. When they cozy up inside a radio or TV, their little bodies complete electrical circuits, shorting out the appliance, zapping the critters, who send out a pheromone smell calling for reinforcements. By the time the owner opens the appliance, thousands of bodies, dead and alive, jam its inside.

Crazy Ants: Just 1/8 inch long, but overpowering
A June NBC News report noted, "In one case, the ants quickly spread to 90 out of 150 air-conditioning units in an apartment building in Waco, Texas," and their swarms in industrial sheds are a "problem for industries in Texas and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast." They often overtake local fire ants who bite, but at least perish with regular ant bait, which crazy ants ignore. Also called tawny ants, the crazy Nylanderia fulva drive off the much-larger fire ants; see them in a two-minute YouTube video that's had more than 91,000 views.

How did all these bizarre and mind-boggling species manage to exist and survive today? My personal reaction is found in Psalm 104, expressing the awesomeness of nature, "...How abundant are Your works, God, all of them you made with wisdom; full is the earth with Your possessions."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Disney's "Frozen": Scary with Bad Messages for Children

Princesses Elsa and Anna, in Disney's "Frozen"
The new Disney seasonal animated movie, Frozen, kicked off big. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the film broke the all-time record in its Thanksgiving debut, and earned $93 million over the long weekend (second only to Hunger Games' sequel, Catching Fire, $110 million). The reviews are glowing as brightly as the ice castle Queen Elsa waves into existence with her mysteriously-endowed power to freeze whatever she touches.

Though generating profit is great for the economy, Frozen is too scary for kids, proffers bad messages, and follows a nonsensical, convoluted plot. I went to a preview screening of the film, and afterward, saw kids more dazed than excited.

Adults fuel the success of Frozen--Mom and Dad hear there's a new Disney movie with princesses and a loveable, joking snowman, and, looking for something to share, grab the kids and go.

But parents, beware. In fact, anyone who doesn't care for fright, beware.
That would include me, a mother whose youngest is 21, who covered my eyes and hummed as an amorphous abominable snowman-monster attempted to kill the sweet, if unwise younger princess, Anna.

That's the hook for boys: scary monster and dumb-joking snowman. Upside for girls are the two personality-infused princesses. Then, there are significant downsides. Girls will recoil in fear as their heroic Princess Anna faces destruction (by an agent of her own sister, no less!), and boys will disdain the sisterly lovey-dovey/distancing-rejection theme, not to mention the musical number portraying Anna falling in love. I'm surprised no reviewer has mentioned the royal deaths that make the young princesses sudden orphans--after which the girls' grief is oh-so-brief, the closing of a curtain on a portrait of their drowned parents. Wouldn't watching this event distress any child who understands what transpired?

For parents, Frozen presents the challenge of resisting smart phones for 108 minutes; no adult would pay to see this movie if it weren't for his kids. Sure, the Disney Animation visuals, especially in 3-D, are excellent, but while grown-ups may appreciate the artistry, that's not enough to lure anyone over middle school to the theater.

Most importantly, parents should note the deleterious messages for kids embedded in the story. After the parents' demise, Elsa, noticing her freezing effect increasing, locks herself in an empty room so she won't harm anyone. The younger Anna is perplexed that her once-loving sister has, well, frozen her out, and won't even answer her musical pleas for contact from behind her closed door. The lack of any other individuals in the girls' world--to educate, play with, amuse or even feed them--receives its own musical number, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman," in which a spurned Anna begs her sister for a response: "...I think some company is overdue, I've started talking to the pictures on the walls. It gets a little lonely, all these empty rooms, just watching the hours tick by..." And indeed, we see Anna doing absolutely nothing beside watching the clock, and the visuals accompanying the song imply her vacuous existence lasts about a decade.

Even Beauty and the Beast's Belle, who had her aging father to tend, found time to read. We tell our kids not to waste time. We tell our kids to express themselves, sharing their feelings and discussing issues that separate them from others. These princesses model exactly the behavior we work to discourage in youngsters: withdrawing and sitting around, bored.

Aside from that, Frozen doesn't hold together logically, but a cogent plot may be an unreasonable expectation for a princess movie. Certainly fantastical characters get a pass, even if the main one is a snowman Elsa unknowingly created and abandoned, but who remains unrelentingly upbeat and loquacious, even when his body is disassembled.

Elsa's quick decision to renounce the crown she'd just accepted in a public coronation doesn't make sense given her slavish devotion to duty expressed in the song "Let it Go:" "Don't let them in, don't let them see, be the good girl you always had to be." When her freezing power becomes revealed, she dumps her kingdom--which incidentally she'd just turned from summer to perpetual winter--and runs off, finding fulfillment as the self-centered scion of her private ice palace.

With her empire facing hypothermia, the remaining sister Anna, now in control by default, makes a nonsensical executive decision to head into the snowy wilderness alone, sans supplies or escort, on the unfounded belief her sister can reset the season. She leaves the kingdom in the hands of a foreign prince she's known for 24 hours, a poor choice.

In fact, she'd be toast, er, popsicle, if she didn't coincidentally come across a trading post among the snow-drifts, and there bump into Kristof, a goofy reindeer-whisperer who sells ice and was raised by a family of rock-trolls. And, happy news: the trolls' "Grand Pabbie" happens to know the antidote to Elsa's freeze-inducing condition. While in search of Elsa, wolves attack Anna and Kristof in another too-scary-for-small-kids scene, but they luckily run into the snowman, out just chillin', who directs them to the palace.

Am I a curmudgeon for noticing the difficulties in such plot points?

Also irritating are the final scenes with a reversal I won't spoil, and an interminably trite running-breathlessly-to-make-it finale.  Oh, and the music is pleasant but forgettable, even with the rash of charming articles about their husband-wife songwriting team, the Lopezes. You're not going to leave the theater remembering, much less humming, a tune, because these sound too much like most other musicals. A case in point is Elsa's anthem, "Let it Go," which celebrates casting off restriction and unfettering her harmful proclivity: "no right or wrong, no rules for me...I'm never going back; the past is in the past."
Princess Elsa, happily ensconced in her ice castle

My objections about the film don't blunt the lavish effort promoting Frozen. "...Disney fired up its vaunted cross-marketing engines," notes the NY Times, calling on its Disney TV Channel, its several theme parks and resorts, and even a tie-in give-away of hash-browns, despite absence of potatoes in the story.

Resist the hype. If you're the parent of little kids--any kids!--looking for some holiday entertainment, I suggest you ice skate, view lights displays, make cookies and play in the snow; don't spend your precious time together in the Frozen dark, implanting scary images and dubious messages.