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I was walking down the street the other day eating a banana.

I know that sounds like the beginning of some kind of bad and possibly pornographic joke, but it’s actually just what was happening. And I was uncomfortable with it. And that got me thinking about why I was uncomfortable with it.

And the answer?  My Southern roots are showing again. Seems like they do that more often than not.

My sister-in-law (or more accurately, my two-year old niece) gave me a book last Christmas entitled, “Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On!: What Southern Mamas Tell Their Daughters that the Rest of Y’all Should Know Too” by Shellie Rushing Tomlinson. The book is kind of a retrospective of what we Southern women heard and learned as we were growing up. While it didn’t resonate with me as much as my own memories, it was entertaining, and brought some other thoughts to mind, which I’ll jot down here.

If you’ve read much popular Southern chick-fic (otherwise known as fiction books written for women), you’ll see terms such as DGs (Daddy’s Girls), Sweet Potato Queens, Ya Yas, and GRITS (Girls Raised In The South). Those terms didn’t exist back in my day.

If I was anything, I was a Southern Belle, although that label carried a connotation of wealth that I never hoped to achieve. Those were the girls who lived in Hope Valley, who were invited to participate in Cotillion, and who then became debutantes, complete with virginal white dresses at the Debutante Ball. It still happens every year, and I’m sure those not invited are still slightly, if silently, devastated.  I recall presenting a “who cares” attitude to the world when my classmates all went off to dancing lessons – I was volunteering at the hospital, and working in a restaurant – but I still had a touch of longing in my heart.  I spent my life on the fringes of the wealthy society of  Durham, because I went to a great private school; I always felt like I was on the outside looking in. In reality, I think I had a much better time being on the outside.

But I digress. I guess you’re used to that. I will make an excellent old lady storyteller someday.

Back to the street and the banana.

I remember that, as a very (and I mean very) small girl, certain rules of propriety were hammered into me in that gentle way that only southern matriarchs can hammer.  I believe these rules came from my Father’s Mother (known to all as Coochie), though it’s possible that both my Mother’s Mother and my Mother herself had an iron hand/velvet glove touch in reinforcing them. My Mother’s Mother was much more of a rough-and-tumble farm/mountain woman, but she stil made sure I had a hat, gloves, and a purse when she took me to church when she came to visit.

And as an aside, all the women in my family have that rough-and-tumble mountain woman touch to them. Myself included.

My Mother’s Mother

I can’t remember all the rules all at once. I seem to remember them piecemeal; that is to say, when I am breaking them, something stirs within me and I hear a gentle drawl in my ear, reminding me that I am violating some code of ladylike behavior.

Eating on the street is one of those rules.  I don’t think I have ever, in my entire life, purchased a piece of food from a street food cart.  Because then I would have to eat it on the street. And that just isn’t done.  Whenever I find myself having to eat anything on the street, I find myself uncomfortable. Because the bottom line?

Ladies don’t eat on the street.

What else don’t ladies do?

Ladies don’t brush their hair in public.  I do this, once in a while, but just as with eating, I feel uncomfortable, like several generations of southern ancestral women are looking over my shoulder, pursing their lips (which is a thing they did so very well to express their displeasure with something, while not actually uttering anything critical).

Ladies certainly don’t apply make-up in public. And this is assuming that one can still be considered a lady (as opposed to a harlot) if one even wears make-up. Coochie wore powder (she had several lovely compacts), a touch of lipstick, and a dab of rouge from the rouge pot. But not too much. And that was it.

I still have a vague feeling that I should be wearing gloves when I am out.  I actually love wearing gloves – not big, Sasquatch, winter gloves, but dainty cotton, voile, or nylon gloves that fit your hands like, well, a glove.  They are cool, and soothing, and your hands feel like they are being charmed and charming at the same time. Like you’re hiding something lovely beneath the fabric. (I have pretty hands, so I can say that I am.)

As I said, all the notions of what ladies do and don’t do aren’t at the surface. There are a few that rest beneath the surface, such as “Never use a toothpick in public” (though I don’t like it when anyone, male or female, does that) and  “Ladies don’t chew gum in public” (a habit which I still find off-putting, though my Mother used to chew it in the car, but I think the car wasn’t quite considered public.)

My Mother also was relatively cautious about the length of my clothes.  The rule was that it had to cover my “zatch”. The definition of the “zatch” area was slightly fuzzy (no pun intended) because we didn’t discuss the beginnings and endings of such physical limits in great detail.  I believe when I asked, her answer was, “If you have to ask, you know what the answer is.” Suffice it to say, I knew. And now, though I am as far from a prude as I am from living in Antarctica, I find myself looking at 20-somethings teetering down Larimer Street on a Friday night in 5-inch heels and skirts that perhaps come up just shy of the “zatch zone”, and pursing my lips.

Perhaps I’m a Southern matriarch in the making after all.

My Mother

Girls today.  Soooo much more mature at 13 than I was.  Between make-up and physical development, some of the girls in 7th grade look like high school seniors.  This got me thinking today…why?  Is it the hormones in the food we’ve been feeding our kids for the last (at least in my experience) 13 years?  I was never overly concerned with staying organic in terms of Kelsea’s diet – it seemed that you have to go all the way with that attitude or it’s pointless – though I always tried to emphasize healthy eating.  Pat was more the junk-food supplier.

Think about it.  Back in the 12th century, girls were of a marriageable age at 12, which is a year younger than Kelsea.  They were often having kids at 13.  But the average life expectancy was age 30.  And about 50% of children under the age of 5 died.  So it made some evolutionary sense to start procreating early, because you had to work twice as hard to keep your child alive, and you weren’t going to live that long yourself.  Okay, logical.

As we moved into the prim and proper 1800s, life expectancy increased and the acceptable age for marriage and childbearing became more like 15 or 16.  Makes sense – we were living longer, and conditions were somewhat less harsh, so children had a slightly better mortality rate.  People even started naming their children at birth – they didn’t used to do so, since the child had such a low likelihood of surviving.

We then enter the prim and proper Victorian era.  Young women were chaperoned until the day of their marriage – they were expected to be wed and breeding around the age of 21.  With infant mortality rates down to 33%, and average life expectancy up to age 48 by 1901, women could afford to get started having kids later.  But why did their maturation rate slow down – why did sexual maturity start occurring later?  What evolutionary signal was there that said, “Hold up!  We don’t have to do this at age 12.”?

Moving into the kaleidoscope that was the 20th century, we went through different attitudes towards sex, childbirth and the definition of maturity, but we still kept the biological rhythm the same – women developed at about 14 or 15 and up.  

And that’s where we catch up to today.  Life expectancy is as long as it’s ever been – 78.4 years.  The average age for childbirth is 25.  And infant mortality rates are 6.7% in the US.  So why are girls developing so early?  Why are 7-year-old girls dancing suggestively to songs that should be way beyond their understanding?  Why is boy-girl drama starting in 3rd grade?  By 7th grade, it has escalated to who is making out with who in the stairwell (yes, there are 7th grade “players”) and who may be having sex.  I mean, what the heck?

This physical maturity is unfortunately not accompanied by emotional maturity.  You can bet your bippy that at 12-year old bride in the Middle Ages knew how to run a household, even a meager mud-hut household.  A 12-year old girl today can barely run a dustcloth.

What is the point of this evolutionary change?  Particularly since the whole concept of survival of the fittest, which in primitive or animal societies is the natural form of population control, has basically been eradicated due to “civilization”, improvements in medical care, and our system of “justice”?  (And why are all these things that are supposed to be “good” in “quotes”?  Maybe because I don’t think they’re very “good” – or “working very well”).

Perhaps there is something to this whole 2012 apocalypse thing, and we are reproducing and maturing at a rapid rate because survival of the fittest is about to make a comeback.  Or not.  As I said before, I don’t have the answers, I just ask the questions.

In the 1987 film Wall Street, Gordon Gekko (no relation to the Geico Gekko), portrayed by Michael Douglas, intones the following line:

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

The line has been summarized as “Greed is good” and has been used by Australian prime ministers, Italian cardinals, and characters in Fallout 2.  While it meshed well with the strong economic times of the 1990s, it now represents the high price that our society has paid for the actions of a covert few over the last ten years.  The irony behind it seems to strike more and more people every day, like a dead fish in the face. 

In the 1990s, I made more than I was making when my job left me at the end of March.  I worked with ad agencies and pharmaceutical companies that had money to burn.  This was back in the days when Tyco executive Dennis Kozlowski was spending $6000 of the company’s money on a shower curtain.  Everyone seemed to be flying high on the proverbial hog.  And then it all fell down – literally.  September 11 changed things.  Our soft underbelly was exposed, our humanity, our faith, all shaken.  For an all-too-brief time, we put aside our differences, our desires, our classist distinctions, and acted like a bunch of good people.  People who put others before our selves and our own needs.  Do you remember? 

Our economy took a dive.  Executives like those at Tyco and Enron were exposed for who and what they were and shamed for the damage they did.  Their victims were never compensated, but at least there was national, if not worldwide shame.  Then came the War on Terror – GWB always made it sound like “the War on Tara”, as if we were attacking the plantation from Gone With the Wind – and like confused children, we were hoping that things would get back to normal, that our world would make sense again.  But alas, that world was also gone with the wind.

(Please note that the opinions expressed here are just that – opinions – and my own.)  Instead, we’ve been sucked into eight years of bloodsucking, fiscally exhausting conflict that has apparently done nothing but fill with impunity the pockets of a few very special cronies of the past administration.  We all know it.  We just can’t do a damn thing about it.  Those of us who aren’t in a position to benefit from someone else’s power plays are resentful.  In fact, we’re sitting here watching what little savings we have left rise and fall according to the temperament of the stock market.  I swear, if I didn’t need my “assets” to be liquid, I’d be invested in real estate.  Maybe that’s not a bad idea.  As liquid as they are now, they’re getting pissed away.

And so, the point of this post….greed.  It magnificently and unjustly benefits a few.  I had lunch today with a  friend who is going through a divorce (join the club.)  Her “wasband” is trying to take her for everything he can, because he’s angry that she wants a divorce.  Her lawyer says he’s never seen anything like it.  And because she made more money than he did, he’ll probably get it.  Is he deserving?  No.  It’s nothing but greed.  Greed.  One of the seven deadly sins.  The question is, deadly to whom?  To the one whose soul is consumed by it?  Who has deluded oneself into thinking that things, money, revenge will soothe any pain that exists in the depths of the heart?  To the one who is now rich is assets but poor in spirit?

I have committed some of the 7 Deadlies myself.  I’ve been able to rationalize my actions – to delude myself, just like people who are guided by nothing but greed, into thinking that what I was doing was okay.  I’ve suffered the consequences, justifiably, and come out the other side.

I now comfort myself with the knowledge that those who are consumed by materialism, covetousness, and selfishness, deserve my pity.  And I know that they’ll get their comeuppance.  Greed may be the new black, but it will go out of style again.  It always does.  The richest people are the ones with their love of life and others intact. 

He who dies with the most stuff doesn’t win – he still dies.  Maybe one day, the people who live their lives driven by greed, will see that.  But I’m not holding my breath.  Then again, thank heavens, I don’t have to.

As a society, we seem to be schizophrenic – or at least inconsistent – about our attitudes around touching each other these days.  

Teachers are not permitted to hug students – even a comforting hug for a crying kindergartener can be misconstrued, turned into something suspect.  Elementary school kids are not allowed to touch each other at all.  No poking, tickling, shoving, hitting, patting – nothing.  That’s actually a good thing, I think, on the whole. 

In the workplace, any physical contact is either unprofessional or risks a sexual harassment charge.  You make friends with the people with whom you work (if you’re lucky), so I don’t agree with that hardline stance.

But then, there’s the other side.  Take pregnant women, for example.  The fact that you have a baby in your belly seems to say to everyone that your stomach is now public property.  I was always amazed at how total strangers would pat my belly when I was pregnant.  It’s the same amount of me, the same belly (well, less of it), that I have now.  Can you imagine coming up and patting my belly NOW?  Now that it’s just a normal, run-of-the-mill, doing-nothing-but-digesting belly?  Hell, no!  If you tried it, you’d find yourself short a hand.

The same public property principle seems to apply with Kelsea’s hair.  It’s at least two feet long when it’s in its daily braid, and that braid seems to have an irresistable appeal to her fellow students.  Everyone touches it, plays with it, pulls it, flaps it.  It makes her INSANE.  She absolutely hates it.  She’s told them in no uncertain terms to STOP.  And she’s entirely within her rights.  It’s part of her body.  Again, if it were another part of her body that was different from everyone else’s – say a deformed arm – it would be completely unacceptable for everyone to be touching and poking it.  But because it’s pretty and because it’s hair, it’s fair game.  That’s wrong.  The day after school ends, she’s donating 10-inches to Locks of Love – that way, her hair will be easier to care for over the summer, she’ll be doing something to help others, and it will grow back enough by the time that school starts that everyone won’t make a fuss about her cutting her hair.  If the hair-harassment (hairassment?) continues next year though, I may say something to the school-folk about it.  (After she punches someone in the face.)  It’s the principle of the thing.

And what’s more, the school seems to turn a blind eye to middle-school bullying, which includes punching, throwing things, and shoving.  I can only imagine the challenge of trying to administer appropriate protocols in a large middle-school, but the offenses which are noted and punished seem to be minor – and seem to be identified haphazardly.  Again, where’s the consistency?

Is there a solution to this quandary?  I’m not sure.  Maybe we all just need to relax?  Or maybe we’re all too far down some self-destructive pattern of evolution for us not to be paranoid about appropriate touching being misconstrued?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers.  I’m just here to ask the questions.

No, I’m not talking about smelly babies.  I’m talking about us, our society, how we interact with each other and the world around us. 

Sitting in the coffee shop (Paul’s Coffee Shop this time – I like working in coffee shops), I’m listening to the general buzz of conversation.  Several people are talking about how with the stroke of a key, they access this factoid or that piece of gossip.  Look back 60 years.  60 years isn’t really that long – although at the age of 13, I would have said it was forever.  I guess that perception is another thing that changes with time.  (How many of you remember, at one point in your youth, calculating how old you would be at the unthinkable turn of the millennium and barely being able to imagine it?) 

60 years ago, the world got its’ news from radio and from the newspaper.  TV, while in existence, wasn’t common.  The internet wasn’t even dreamed of.  If you wanted to communicate with someone who lived across the state, you sent a letter.  If it was urgent – and usually bad news – you sent a telegram.  But the point is, you waited.  You kept living your life, and when the news came, you reacted to it.  You didn’t constantly check the news, because there was nothing new to check.  Durham had morning and afternoon newspapers (the Durham Morning Herald and the Durham Afternoon Sun) when I was growing up, so you could at least get that level of timely update.

But now?  We have access to facts that were only previously found in books at the library, theses, or encyclopedias.  In fact, I have to wonder a few things about the unbelievable amount of content on the internet:

  • Where did these facts live BEFORE the Internet?
  • Who found them to put them on the Internet?
  • How could anybody have the time to do the research it took to create the content on the Internet?

I’ve written content as part of my job.  I know how long it takes.  I know how long it takes to write one of my “Slightly Bizarre History” blogs, and those are somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  How did the Internet happen?  Are there bijillions of people out there taking obscure facts from documents and books and translating them to some page somewhere in cyberspace – and getting paid for it?  Really?

I wonder if we were not more content before we knew everything real-time.  While coffee shops per se did not exist 60 years ago (I think Captain Starbuck was still whaling back then), diners did, with white formica counters and dime cups of java served in thick porcelain mugs.  Men (and sometimes women) wearing hats, came in for a blue-plate special.  Sometimes they talked.  When they did, did they talk about themselves?  About the little known news of the world?  About where they came from, where they were going?  I am sure they didn’t discuss the various functionality of their Royal typewriters or the advantage of using a Remington versus an Underwood.

Were people more personal back then, because “personal” was the primary focus of society – not business, not money, not getting ahead?  Or am I just living in a dream world of old movies?  Are we afraid of being personal now?  Or are we just so out of touch with what’s important that we’ve forgotten what being personal means?

This is the first in a short series of posts about our society, its high times, its low standards, and the general romp of life.  Such topics have been at the forefront of my frontal lobe – must be a sign of my own changing times.

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