Saturday, November 21, 2009

Back When I Worked in an Office...

A long, long time ago, I had a job in a governmental agency.  There was a single men's room and a single ladies' room on that floor, and roughly 50 employees.  Now, I have no idea if gender politics have improved in the past 20 years, but back then it was possible for a man in the workplace to treat other men differently than how he treated his female co-workers.

[I'll post another day about how women can treat women in the workplace -- gender politics are different but not necessarily better when only women are involved.]

Now I share the fascination with urinals.  Keep in mind that indoor plumbing is a relatively modern innovation and wasn't widely available until the late 19th century or early 20th century.  The urinal was invented (or at least patented) in 1866.  That's smack in the middle of the Victorian era -- weren't they supposed to be all uptight, sexually?  So why don't urinals have more modesty?  Whether men look at each other's equipment is a completely separate question from why they even have the option.

Back to my agency office.  I finally arrived at a theory of gender politics.  In a stable office place, meaning one with a low turnover of personnel, it stands to reason that all the men have at some time peed next to each other.  I figure the subconscious is a fascinating force of nature, so combined with the powers of peripheral vision, it stands to reason that while men may think they're not checking out whether the guy at the next urinal is bigger or smaller, after a while, they probably have some subconscious notions of where they rank in the (cough) pecking order.

And then it hit me:  the man who has a good idea that his is the smallest? -- that's the guy most likely to treat his female colleagues with contempt and condescension.  Because even if it's the smallest, at least he's got one!  By extension, the guy who is particularly fair and treats women with appropriate equality and respect?  He's got the biggest.  Stands to reason -- he's got no reason to make some fallacious argument (even subconsciously) about the value in the workplace of having an external male member.

I've posited this theory on a few occasions.  I worked one summer at the local energy company in an office where the women were mostly support staff.  When I explained my theory, they knew immediately who had the largest equipment and who had the smallest!  They were quite happy with that insight into the office politics, as it explained a lot of otherwise mysterious behavior.

Elsewhere, I've been met with disbelief and resistance.  And I'll admit, my theory is entirely theoretical.  But now I have the advantage of some investigation, albeit highly anecdotal.  Check out Christine Kelly's piece in Vice:  Men & Urinals: An Investigation.  In addition to being delightfully funny, it answers some questions.  I did not know, for example, that men instinctively leave an empty urinal between them and the next guy down.  (Akin to the empty movie theater seat maneuver, thus avoiding the awkward competition with a stranger for the shared armrest.)  On the other hand, nothing in this article disproves my theory that men subconsciously check size and relativity.

Now I just need Ms. Kelly to investigate another pet theory of mine.  Supposedly 5% of all adult men have some non-standard sexual predilection.  So, in an office with 100 men, can you figure out which one likes to wear women's underwear, which one likes to be dominated, etc. on the basis of how they behave in the workplace?  (It's a statistical fallacy to assume any group of 100 men will include precisely one practitioner of each predilection, but then it would be an equal fallacy to assume it includes none.  They can't all work someplace else!)

And yes, there is a reason why I don't work in an office anymore.  But no, it didn't involve any allegations that I promoted a hostile workplace.  I just like to make sense of my environment.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Erstwhile BFF, the Beauty Queen

Katiebabs wrote a lovely post about why she writes, and her reminiscences about adolescence reminded me of a great story from my junior & senior high school life.  [I should note that Katiebabs has blogged about how intensely abusive and difficult a specific adolescent relationship was for her.  I don't want to dishonor her honesty by not acknowledging that it's an act of bravery to write about it.  Nothing in my story is meant to diminish what she has survived.]

Anyway, I wrote a comment to her writing post that was probably way too much information, which may be why Blogger ate it.  At least I think Blogger ate it, because it hasn't shown up.  (She might have her comments set as reserved for administrative review, which is fine.)

But then I thought -- Hey, that's actually a great story, and so precisely right for a blog about being Narrow End!  Because, I'm telling you, everything and everyone in this story is Narrow End.

When I went from elementary school to junior high school (it's a middle school now, but in 1967 it was a junior high school), I was a tall, fat, smart, lonely girl.  Oh, and young; I must have been 11 in 7th grade.  I have almost no memory of who my teachers were, or what I studied.  But I remember Susan.  She was in my homeroom, and she was very pretty.  And had lots of clothes.  No, I mean LOTS of clothes.

From the first day of school, Susan wore a different outfit -- a completely different outfit, not mix-and-match -- every single day for eight weeks.  I believe I counted 42 different outfits before she had to repeat one.  I remember only one of them: a skirt & vest in pinwale corduroy trimmed with embroidered ribbons, vaguely Tyrolean or maybe Scandinavian.  (Susan was big on her Swedish heritage.)  Perhaps because I was brimming over with admiration for this unique creature, we became friends.  Best friends.  Sleep-over friends.  I can remember her bedroom, with its two twin beds decked out in pale pink nylon ruffles, her brothers Wayne and Fippy (Philip, but as the "baby" in the family he had special baby-talk nickname, including, poor kid, "Fipper-doo"), and her mother.  (Tellingly, Susan's father has left no impression on me.  I suspect he wasn't home much; his wife made it a very kid-centric household.)

Susan took lessons at the local modeling school.  She was pretty in her way; she looked a lot like Susan Dey in her Partridge Family days.  At some point, Susan told me that the woman who ran the modeling school had an in with some guy (she mentioned his name, which was of those three-first-names names, like John Robert Benjamin, or something) who was going to be able to help Susan to win the Miss USA beauty pageant.

Now, I might have been the worshipful acolyte, but even I took that bit of "I know a guy who knows a guy . . . " with a grain of salt.  After all, Susan was 13 or 14 at the time -- way too young to be that connected.  Right?

As I recall, we were best friends until mid-way through 8th grade when she dumped me and took up with some other acolyte, and then the two of them were mean to me.  I actually don't remember the meanness, and I suspect it made very little impression on me.  (An ironic benefit of having a very very unpleasant family of origin: no one else can really measure up.)  After that, I didn't see much of Susan.  We were in different classes in high school.

Well, I should be clear:  I didn't see much of her in person.  But, as fate should have it (and sometimes fate is a very odd duck), I just happened to be watching television late on a Saturday night in 1973 when the local NBC affiliate ran the Miss New York State pageant.  (In case anyone doesn't know or has forgotten: Miss America is the older beauty pageant and has a talent portion; Vanessa Williams won Miss America but had to forfeit her crown when it was discovered that she'd posed for nude photos.  Interestingly, she was the first black woman to be Miss America, and the first runner up who replaced her was also black.  Miss USA -- the pageant my erstwhile friend was trying for -- didn't have a talent portion.  The reigning Miss USA was our entrant in the Miss Universe pageant.  I believe Donald Trump now owns the rights to Miss USA and Miss Universe.)

So I'm watching this rather low-tech videotape of the state pageant, and there's Susan, in the ubiquitous bathing suit & sash.  How surreal, and yet -- when the credit crawl ran after she'd won -- how easily explained.  Because John David Henry (or whatever) was listed as the Executive Producer of the pageant.

(As a lawyer, and just to be fair here, I need to say that I don't know that a) the fix was in for Susan, or b) that she wasn't winning fair and square, or c) that John William Bennett was pulling any strings.  I just know that she mentioned the name in 1968 and he was the state pageant's executive producer in 1973.  Any conclusion you wish to infer is entirely voluntary.)

Okay, so she's Miss New York State, and that means she's going to be a real live contestant in the Miss USA pageant.  This was a big deal in my household because, although no one else watched beauty pageants (we were all good women's libbers in my home), even my parents and brother watched this one because they actually knew Susan.  And, let me tell you, explaining to my parents what was going on was totally other-worldly.  (I have no idea why I watched beauty pageants, but I did.  Probably stemmed from my interest in paper-dolls...)

I must now apologize, because I'm about to be a little bit catty.  All the young women who participated in that pageant, and in every one I ever watched, were very pretty.  But I happened to know -- because I'd seen her in the halls of our high school -- that Susan was wearing a fall.  (Anyone else remember them?  The predecessors to hair extensions: fake hair attached to a comb that went at the crown of the head and then your hair would be teased and smoothed over the top of the fall and blended in to look like it was all natural.)  I did think that was a bit cheesy -- and I didn't even know about the spray adhesive and other gizmos pageant girls used back then.

Okay, cattiness over.

So first all 50 girls come out in state-themed costumes.  I suspect Susan's was the Statue of Liberty (because what else?), but I do recall that Miss Illinois was dressed like a Chicago gangster from the Prohibition era.  Think pin-striped suit jacket with wide lapels and show-girl stockings in place of trousers.  (In my memory of the parade of states, she was carrying a fake tommy-gun, but I suspect that's just my personal embellishment.)  We were charmed by that bit of whimsy.

If you've ever watched a beauty pageant, you know that all 50 girls come out once or twice, but for most of them, their fate is sealed by the time the show starts.  Bob Barker was the MC for that pageant, and he announced the 12 semi-finalists, who then wore relatively decorous one-piece bathing suits and then, later, pouffy gowns.  (In the 70s, it was all chiffon; sequins came later.)  Lo and behold, Susan was one of the 12 semi-finalists!  That meant my dad had to keep watching.  (Seriously, if she'd been knocked out early, he was so outta there.)

More beauty pageantry, and then we had five finalists, and lo! Susan was among their number.  So was Amanda Jones, Miss Illinois, the gangster we liked.  They got stuffed into a soundproof booth and pulled out one at a time for the Big Question that would elicit the answers upon which the judges would decide who should win.  The stage had an apron of sorts: a semi-circular walkway with the judges and audience in front and the orchestra in a pit between the walkway and the main stage.  It was on this walkway that Bob Barker had each finalist stand to answer the question.  After her answer, she then went back to those individual round disks they had to stand on.

The question was:  If you had to go forward or backward in time, which era would you pick and why?

Contestant 1 came out and said she would pick the Civil War because there was such a great sense of brotherhood then.

Contestant 2 said she would go into the future because America was getting better and better.

Contestant 3 (Amanda Jones) said she would pick the Renaissance because there was such an explosion of artistic and intellectual accomplishment.  (We all cheered that answer!)

Contestant 4 was Susan.  She joined Bob on the walkway, and he asked her the question, "If you had to go forward or backward in time, which era would you pick and why?"  She paused, and then replied that she'd stay in the present because America was so wonderful.  Bob laughed, reminded her that the question required her to go forward or backward, but not to go too far backward or she'd fall into the orchestra pit!  So she regrouped and answered that she would go forward because America was just getting better and better.

Contestant 5 said she would go back to the 1940s because the clothes were so interesting.

Here's the video of who won.  (Sorry for the crappy quality, but it's worth watching it for the wonderful reaction of Amanda Jones.)  Susan was interviewed on local radio the next day and when asked about losing, she said she knew Amanda was going to win because Amanda was on the middle disk, and the girl in the middle always wins.

Guys, I couldn't make this stuff up, but you can see why it is I remember all this even 36 years later.

I was fascinated by Amanda Jones (my heroine!) for a while.  Supposedly, she'd entered the pageant on a dare from her boyfriend, and because there might be scholarship money.

As for Susan, I saw her on the day of our high school graduation.  She was snippy, and I may have been snippy back.  (Sorry, Susan.)  She did enter the Miss New York State pageant for Miss America, but her lack of a talent may have hurt her.  She also entered something connected to Miss World, I believe, and also didn't win.  I think I learned later that one of her prizes from one of these pageants was a cruise on a Greek liner, and that she married the captain in a cave somewhere in the Greek islands.

Here's the thing, though -- she was just as narrow-end as I am.  I mean, really:  42 completely distinct outfits for a 12-year-old?  That's some weird parenting going on.  I suspect if I could talk to her now, she might well have some stories of how difficult she found it to fit in.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What I Was Thinking About While I Was Mowing . . .

We live on 24 acres; half is wooded, half isn't.  Of the 12 acres that's not woods, the house, barn, garden & lawn occupy two acres.  The other ten are meadows, mostly, and mowing them is my responsibility.  I have a Ford New Holland 1620 tractor and two mowers: a flail mower that does a slightly finer job (for the south meadow, which is between the house and the main road), and a brush hog for the rough cut that the middle and north meadows get.

The south meadow (pictured at left -- the tiny strip of gold between our lawn and the trees & cow barn in the distance) gets mowed every year, although we're trying the approach of mowing it only once in the autumn, after a killing frost, to encourage wildflowers.  The middle and north meadows are bigger, aren't seen by passers-by, and don't always get mown.  I know I last mowed the whole property in 2005, but some bits might have gotten done since then.

When not mown, of course, things grow -- predominantly goldenrod and milk weed.  We also have a lot of wild roses, which are a poor excuse for the genus Rosa: gangly foliage with more stems than leaves, very prickly, and negligible flowers for about a day & a half in the spring.  Blink and you've missed them blooming for the year.  Admittedly they can have pretty colored stalks -- reds and even purple! -- but that's far too little value for the pain, literally, they can inflict.  (On the plus side, they make a lovely crunchy noise when the brush hog goes over them -- very visceral and satisfying!)  If left long enough, the meadows would give way to brush, and then to small bushes and trees (hawthorn and buckthorn, for example) and then to larger trees.  Just like we learned in 8th grade science.

Okay, all of that description is to provide the context for what I was thinking about on the tractor this morning, as I did the last bit of the north meadow.  Because I hadn't mowed that bit for a while, various small mammals had made burrows and warrens amid the plant life.  I know because I can see the holes and even watch as the animals scurry away from the tractor.  During a previous mowing of the north meadow, I watched a wild turkey think that if it flew into the stuff I hadn't mowed yet, I wouldn't see it.  Silly turkey.  On that same occasion, I was working in a particularly lush bit where the plants were almost as tall as I was on the tractor when a buck -- with points and everything! -- leaped out of the brush and with two bounds was over the fence and gone.  Incredibly dramatic and just a little bit unnerving.

I don't want to kill any of these animals, although I recognize that by destroying the foliage, I'm effectively destroying their habitat.  But I get to do this because -- well, because I can.  In human terms, I own the land and that ownership gives me the right to do with the land pretty much what I want.  But until I do mow it, that meadow belongs to the animals, and they can do what they want with it.  So the real reason I can mow down their habitat is because there's nothing living there that is big enough or scary enough to stop me.  Not the deer, and certainly not the bunnies.  There is a bear that wanders through our neck of the woods, so to speak; our neighbors have seen it and even taken its picture.  I thought about that bear while I was mowing.  It might be big enough to scare me if I was just standing around, but on the tractor, I'm sure to be even bigger and scarier to it.  Particularly if I raise up the front-end loader!

In effect, the tractor makes me big & scary enough to face down any animal I might encounter.  Which is what guns do, isn't it?  And suddenly I understood a bit better the reason why the rationale for gun control is difficult to argue to gun owners.  Their guns make them feel bigger & scarier, even if they are never likely to face anything particularly threatening.  That feeling of safety and security is part of our reptile brains, and thus less susceptible to reason and logic.  If I thought my tractor was the only thing that kept me safe from bears, I wouldn't want to give it up either -- and no amount of logic would convince me to.

Here's the thing: all this tells us is that we're animals.  And we are.  This instinct to be big & scary, and to own the equipment to accomplish that, is not a rationally defensible position.  It's not rationally defensible when we humans buy SUVs, which have poor safety ratings but make the driver feel bigger & scarier.  It's not rationally defensible when the issue is owning guns.  Most of us don't need a gun to defend us against predators, but gun owners really think they do.  Our day-to-day lives don't include encounters with scary animals -- including scary humans -- to justify rationally owning a gun.  And if you think actually need to kill a deer to survive, then I would suggest you take the money you spent on that rifle and plant a subsistence garden in your backyard.

I actually feel more sympathy with gun owners.  Not that does me much good.  I doubt there's a card-carrying member of the NRA (and I'm sure I know a few) who would admit that the only reason he or she owns a gun is because it makes them feel like a bigger & scarier animal in a world with big & scary animals. So the argument continues.  Maybe they're right and I'm wrong.  But my tractor tells me otherwise.