Between Theory and Reality

I am writing a book that I hope will be read by a wide audience of all sorts of people. Sometimes part of the process of writing a book is stumbling upon a book by another author on an online bookseller website, reading the book’s summary, worrying that this author has already written your book, then ordering the book, reading it (okay, honestly, skimming it frantically), and finally feeling relieved that, in fact, this author has not written your book.

This happens about three times a week.

The most recent version of this stumble-worry-relief storm for me was when I read British anthropologist Daniel Miller’s book Stuff. As in, how and why objects in our everyday lives tell us something about our social world.

Uh oh.

My book is about this. About home stuff. And spaces. And families. And everyday life. I do love Daniel Miller’s work, but I think I still have stuff to offer the world in my book. Plus, I am neither British nor an anthropologist (which, trust me, actually matters in some of my circles). So we’re good. Until I look on Amazon again later today.

Anyway, it was during my frantic skim of this book where I stumbled upon (you must think most of my work is all about stumbling, which, for a klutz like me, is an entirely reasonable hypothesis) a quote where Miller encapsulated exactly and precisely and wonderfully my belief in why I do what I do:

[insert drumroll]

“Theory, philosophy, modern art, economics and other movements that utilize obscure abstractions can easily degenerate into pretentious obfuscation and become oppressive playgrounds of academic divas and elites used to intimidate as much as to impress. Academics, tempted by the promise of an easy and assured claim to cleverness, create vast circulations of obscure and impressive citations… It is only through the subsequent processes of maturing and re-grounding theory in its application to everyday lives and languages that such cleverness becomes transformed into understanding and re-directed to a compassionate embrace, rather than an aloof distaste… So the task now is to take our artistic-looking idealized theory, once white marble, nowadays more angular perspex, and drag it back into the mud and murk of everyday life until it looks a lot less intimidating and more like something we feel at ease with bringing home to the folks” (pp. 79-80).

Now, you might be saying, “Michelle, I do sometimes think you’re a diva, but that’s more related to your short stint as a rock star. Also, I didn’t understand most of that quote and, in fact, if I brought it home to my ‘folks,’ they’d look at me weird and ask me to translate it or, better yet, ask me to just go grab them a beer already. Also, what the hell is ‘perspex?’”

Or, you might be saying, “Hey Michelle, I remember that time when you took a class called Political Theory, and then dropped the class after you got a D on your first paper. But then you took Social Theory later and ended up tutoring the student who you thought at first was super smart but was really just a talker. But I’m not sure why that may matter here.”

Or, you might be saying, “Get on with whatever your point is.”

Here’s the gist of what Miller is saying, and that I believe: theory is both abstract and wonderful, but many smart people believe wholeheartedly that they’ll seem smarter if they talk a lot only about theory and abstract things. A better version of understanding (a compassionate understanding) is to find out what people’s everyday lives are like, and be legitimately interested in that, and be able to talk about that with anybody. Smart shouldn’t be intimidating and all about looking down one’s nose at others. It should be accessible. And compassionate. Not abstract. Real.

In many ways, the quote from Miller above really helps me feel great about why I’m trying to write my book the way I am. In part because he captures my philosophy so well. And in part because he does it in a way that I still find a bit inaccessible, which calls for a different voice. My voice.

And don’t get me wrong. I love theory. My book has a theoretical foundation (and I even call it a foundation, since it’s about homes. Get it?). I write about it. I teach it. It matters. I know amazing theorists, who are quite real. But it’s more exciting to me to see an idea play out at someone’s dining room table rather than talking about the idea over dinner.

Back to the quote. I made my eleven-year-old son read the passage from Miller’s book. I watched him read it and then stare off to the side, and realized that he had no idea what it meant.  I suppose this says something about whether the above quote that totally rails on fancy words and complex phrases for the sake of seeming smart is, in fact, a victim of its own critique. Or it says that eleven-year-olds are not the audience for the book.

I translated the passage to my son. This was no easy task, given the big words (obfuscate was not in his vocab list this week). He found it interesting. I could tell by the ever-so-slight rise in his left eyebrow, a trait he has inherited from his subtle-facial-expression-father.

After some discussion dissecting this paragraph, and after a few seconds of him looking up to the ceiling to think, he said (again with a slightly raised left eyebrow), “It seems that the problem is that theory is not focused enough on the real world. But don’t theorists actually live in the real world?”

Maybe my book needs an eleven-year-old co-author to bring the lofty questions down to the mud and murk of earth.

Between Sound and Fury

Despite my adherence to communication norms, desire to have more friends than foes, and dedication to following rules of etiquette surrounding noise in improper places, I have a tendency to fight with the strength of a thousand oxen the ability to politely handle being shushed. Where did this come from? I believe there is a distinct moment in my life that I look back on as the primary catalyst for my inability to tolerate being told unjustifiably that what I say should not be said.

This moment involved a former Vice President, a parade, and my tiny voice.

I was three when then-U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey came to my little Minnesota town to ride in the back of a 1970s convertible in the local Independence Day parade, as senators from states with small town parades were likely to do. His car was driving slowly thirty feet behind the high school marching band (yes, in wool suits, in July, on a humid Minnesota summer day), and just in front of the town’s recently purchased pre-global-warming enormous and magnificent yellow snow plow. This parade, by the way, was back before there was a big ol’ stadium and airport terminal named after Humphrey. But after and during some important political stuff he did, much of which I liked and some of which I didn’t once I had studied him in my Minnesota history classes.

I recall very little from my life before kindergarten, but I do remember that everyone in our family spoke vaguely about the possibility that my grandfather may have known Humphrey as a boy in South Dakota and may have also had a conversation with him about medicine in Minneapolis on an unnamed street on an unspecified date.

But more interesting than the topic of his work or whereabouts in relation to my grandpa, I vividly remember that everyone in my family affectionately referred to Hubert Humphrey as “Hubie” when his name came up in conversation. This was not strange, since that nickname appeared on many campaign posters of his, right next to his cartoon face and a cartoon donkey and a cartoon capitol building in the distance.

And so, when Senator Humphrey rode by atop the white vinyl back seat of the rust-colored convertible on that humid summer parade day, I waved my tiny arms in the air and yelled out at the top of my lungs, “HI HUBIE!!!” One of my brothers (really, I don’t know who it was, but they were likely a parent or sibling or other tall person whose legs I was constantly surrounded by as a toddler) looked down, furrowed their brow, and said quite loudly, “Shhh, Michelle. Don’t call him that.”

Evidently Senator Humphrey heard me being shushed, and immediately turned his head, waved, smiled, and yelled out, “HI MICHELLE!”

Right there! Did you catch that? A grown up in my private life telling me to be quiet, and a grownup with some fame and power that I did not quite understand essentially squashing their command by affirming my informal salutation.

And I have not done well with anyone telling me to shush ever since.

This isn’t about being talkative, which I know I am. Or being an extrovert, which I know I am. This is about how hard it is to tolerate being told to be quiet for unjustified reasons. Or, more likely in our grown-up non-parade realms, how hard (nay, how irresponsible) it is to listen but not say anything as others talk about nothing and get nowhere.

Recently I attended an out-of-town meeting where, because I was the new person among experienced and highly respected folks, I challenged myself to avoid speaking during the first entire day of the three-day meeting. I said to myself, “Self, you get plenty of words into most conversations and important deliberations. But sometimes you talk more than you listen, and that can come at a cost to the thoughtful deliberations at hand that should include many voices, and it can damage others’ perception of you. You don’t need to be in control of the conversation. You don’t need to express all of your opinions. Be patient. Try to come across as invested by nodding and looking interested a lot, but wait until you know more to vocalize that investment. Give it time. Also, you probably don’t know what you’re talking about yet since you’re new.”

I lasted two cups of coffee, one mini muffin, and twenty minutes.

I lasted only this short time because the conversation turned to a potential decision that I perceived as less productive and helpful than was comfortable for me, though this was nobody’s fault (and it was not a case of talking about nothing and getting nowhere). It just didn’t feel right to me because we had lost our way in a confusing set of voices that were raising tangential issues. This is totally easy to have happen in meetings where some people are reading ahead, some are talking to their neighbor, and some have a passion about a small piece of the big picture. But I had to chime in. And because I did, the result was a removal of a decision that would have led to an undesirable outcome. Or so I was told by the big head honcho-types later that day. I was also told that the reason I was chosen for this position was precisely because I am willing to speak up, ask good questions, and raise concerns if I see them.  I warned them about this, they accepted me anyway, and then they thanked me for it.

And I thanked Hubie. In a quick greeting to a tiny rural girl on the side of a parade who just could not be quiet, he said that what I said should indeed have been said.


Between Quality and Time

I’ve been thinking a lot about clocks lately, in part because my son had to make a model of Tock the Dog from The Phantom Tollbooth for school, and in part because I have had many days lately where I feel like I’m running out of time. Or just running. Until I have no choice but to be horizontal.

This week I told my son a bedtime story about clocks. Here is how it went:

Once upon a time, there was a boy who had two clocks in his room. One had numbers on it and it helped him see what time it was. The other had no numbers on it and it helped him see the moments and experiences he’d had without a concern for time. He spent a moment each day thinking about what these two clocks meant to him, including which one made him feel happier. He realized at the end of the day that it was the moments clock that mattered and made him happier, because when his mommy’s tired eyes looked lovingly at him while she rubbed his back, it didn’t matter whether the moment lasted three seconds or three minutes. It happened, and that’s all that mattered. At the end of the day, a moment of love was infinitely better than hours of anything else. Plus, having his mommy stare at him for three minutes would just seem creepy.  

Now, lest you think I crafted this story in order to assuage any guilt at my increased absence from home life because of a busy work schedule, remember that this is a boy who understands metacognition and metacommunication as they are happening better than most eleven-year-olds. If he knew I was trying to explain away something he saw as a problem, he’d call me on it. And he didn’t call me on it. He knows I don’t feel guilty. He knows that he benefits from me finding my work rewarding, and yes, sometimes he wishes I was around more. But this wasn’t about guilt.

He knows me. That’s the beauty of eleven-year-olds. They still like bedtime stories, but they start to have grown-up eyes and hearts and brains.

If I were to create a word cloud of all of my college and grad school family sociology research notes from the 1990s, I suspect the biggest words in the cloud would be “quality time.” So many research articles and public debates about the benefits of quality time for parents whose paid work lives decreased their quantity of time with kids crossed my desk. A lot of it was about helping households with parents in the paid workforce manage work and family responsibilities in a way that didn’t make the problem any worse. Or add guilt to a situation that they couldn’t control. At the time I was reading these articles, I was heading into a profession that would allow me the privilege of affording child care and some control over the content and hours of my paid work. But the impetus for the research was to point out that structural forces were at play that, for parents at all income levels but maybe especially low income parents, time was limited. This needed to be shown in order to combat arguments that parents were doing a bad job. And when I was reading them, I figured that the other impetus for the research was to redefine the ways we measured “doing a good job” for parents.

The reports said, in a nutshell: It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a bunch of hours each day to spend with your children. What matters is that the time you spend is high quality. Stop feeling guilty about having to go to work.

Well, guess what? Recent research shows us that parents are actually spending more time with their kids than when I took all those feverish notes twenty years ago, across all income groups. But here’s the most interesting part: the story told in this new research is that more time means parents are doing a better job. “Doing a good job” is still measured in numbers. Not in moments. So, in light of past research suggesting that moments may matter more than time, parents ended up adding time. And researchers who’ve uncovered this are assuring parents not to feel guilty because the amount of time is increasing.

Might this be a troubling outcome? What if we didn’t use the clock with numbers on it to evaluate our parenting? What if we used the moments clock? The one without numbers.

Of course I recognize the need for clocks. I love being on time. I also want to acknowledge that eleven-year-olds can struggle with the moment v. time thing, evidenced this morning by my son’s failure to catch his school bus because he got wrapped up in the moment of playing with his new phone rather than looking at the clock. 7:43 a.m. is not a moment. It’s when he has to be at the corner to catch the bus. The driver will not wait for a boy having a moment with his distractable phone.

At the end of the day, here’s what matters: I don’t remember how long memorable moments take. I remember them as moments. When I look back on this troubled time in our world, I will remember looking into my son’s eyes with sadness about some local tragedies, extended family struggles, horrific deaths in the world, seemingly insurmountable conflicts between groups, culture wars. I won’t remember how long we will have looked at each other. But I will remember the moment of shared sadness and shared compassion that can never be measured with time. It doesn’t matter that we have talked about what to make of our own and the world’s sadness for two hours. It matters that we talked about sadness.

And, at the end of the day, I still do not feel guilty. Not for a moment.

Between Kidding and Adulting

This week, due in part to some challenges in the lives of those I love, I have gained a deeper understanding of the contemporary use of the word adult as a verb. As in, adulting is hard. Or, I have to adult now. Or, I don’t want to adult today. Or, I really should have adulted in that conversation with that person who has the mentality of a six-year-old but was really patronizing like an old chauvinist hardware store worker at a store that I no longer want to patronize (Look here, missy, you need a flange nut, not a hex nut, unless you want to fumble with a bunch of slippery washers).

In some people’s minds and on various social media locations, the concept of adulting has replaced the phrase, “I have to be a grown up.” It seems to me that adulting means that one must take on the perceived roles and responsibilities that someone who would be classified as an adult in our society would take on. Like paying for stuff, looking after small people, and wearing clothes. This is one of those things that looks easy to grasp on the surface, but is really pretty complex when you unpack it. And I’m speaking as someone whose daily interactions are with college students — a life stage that complicates the boundary between kid and adult in fascinating ways.

I want to play with the word kid in the same way that I’m seeing the word adult being played with. As both noun and verb. Of course, kid-as-a-verb already has a meaning (besides the “goat giving birth=kidding” meaning). Case in point: “You look old. Just kidding!” This originated, or so etymologists guess, with the idea of “making a child or goat out of someone.” To kid is to joke, tease, humorously say something that you hope makes people laugh. To kid is to hopefully lighten the mood, especially after you’ve said something that you want to make sure people know wasn’t serious. This all makes a lot of sense to me. But I think we ought to add a new definition to the verb form of kid, just like we are doing with adult.  I offer that kidding is acting like a child, making oneself into a child. “I am kidding” means “I am acting like a kid,” just like “I am adulting” means “I am acting like an adult.”

If we accept these multiple definitions for kid-as-a-verb, we can put them together and say things like “When adulting is hard, kidding helps. When kidding is hard, adulting helps.” This offers a new definition of kid-as-a-verb, and makes for fun word play. And perhaps could even serve as a therapeutic mantra when we have some challenges in our daily lives. Sometimes when adulting is hard, kidding-as-joking helps, and sometimes kidding-as-acting-like-a-child helps. You either lighten the mood with a joke or you go play on some monkey bars. Both of these seem like a good idea for stressed-out grown-ups to do from time to time. And now that I’m the parent of a middle-schooler, I can see ways that encouraging kids to adult a little bit more than they’re used to may not be a bad idea.

Of course, both kid and adult as nouns are constructed identities. I know this not only because I know plenty of adults who act like kids, and some kids who act like adults, but also because the categories of kid and adult keep changing across time and space. It used to be that being an adult in the geographic regions to which I am accustomed started at a certain age. Let’s say in the late teenage years for lots of people. And this included marriage and financial independence. Add a few decades, a recession, some pop culture influence, changing connections between sexuality and marriage and childbearing, and heightened focus on childhood as a protected category, and boom! Adulthood starts around age 35 now. Or at least the financial independence part does (says the grown-up who finished paying her student loans at age 35).

We also know that the definitions of the noun-versions of kid and adult are subject to revision because of some other fun terms that have emerged in our term-addicted mediascape vernacular that serve to blend the two: Rejuvenile. Kidult. Babyman. Adultescent. Justin Bieber. The question is, do these terms make the boundary between kid and adult more or less solid? Calling someone a kidult not only suggests they blend characteristics of both, it also perpetuates the distinctions between them. To blend characteristics requires believing the characteristics of both are real and attached to one or the other identity. Like when I use my work computer at home — I’m blending the worlds, but calling it my work computer reinforces the idea that work is somehow not home. Fun with boundary theory!

I would argue that the verb forms of both adult and kid have malleable definitions, too, thus adding to the constructed nature of both. One person’s adulting is another person’s kidding.  But using kidding and adulting as verbs to point out that one must enter into another set of age-related expectations also perpetuates the differences between the categories, just like the noun versions do.

Are you confused yet?

The transformation of these terms into verbs does something interesting sociologically. It attaches a role to a status. A dynamic set of actions to an identity. Kinetic energy to potential energy. It also calls attention to the fact that even the noun forms of the words have movable definitions. Nothing is solid about the categories of adult and kid. But at the same time, using the terms as verbs reinforces that these categories are somehow real and able to be referenced with others who share a common understanding.

But I wonder if we actually have a common understanding of these words anymore.

As I continue to ponder, I may try a new turn of phrase in my everyday interactions. Like “Hey hardware store guy, don’t talk to me like I’m six. Just adulting.”


Between the Pink Aisle and the Blue Aisle

No more pink and blue toy aisles based on customer demand, says Target.

But is this a good idea or a bad idea?  My inclination is to say it’s a good idea, not just because I like Target since it’s a good Minnesota-based company, but because anytime there is one less degree of prescribed roles put forth by a for-profit entity, I get along better with my left-leaning colleagues, I get great fodder for discussion of how our values and roles are socially constructed, and I sleep better at night. That’s just me. Even though I believe that biology matters, a point made most clear to me when I was pregnant and lactated and figured out that I am a mammal, I’ve been writing to toy companies for years asking them to please show more girls playing with engineering toys and please show more boys playing with nurturing toys in their advertisements. I do this because the availability of roles offered in kids’ marketing materials has an effect on kids’ future aspirations. What kids (and parents) see has an effect on what they (and their parents) think they may do. As most clickbait articles say, “Science says so.” If kids don’t see it, or see themselves in it, figuring out future adult life outside of “it” can be pretty tough. And since we know there is more variation in aspirations, bodies, and many other characteristics within genders than between them, messing with the dichotomy of boy and girl is not only interesting, it reflects the reality of children’s lives.

And now, evidently, it’s good business practice.

The imagined chaos that might ensue from Target’s decision has folks offering input all across the land of social media. Images of boys in princess costumes, girls with swords rescuing the boy-princesses, tearful parents, and baby dolls next to robots fill the minds of parents and gender-watchers. Some people find these images to be horrifying. Others are giddy with happiness. In both cases, people’s conceptions of whether girlland and boyland have militarized borders or blurry boundaries are being messed with.

And you know that anytime people’s conceptions of borders and roles are being messed with, a sociologist gets her wings.

Perhaps we are wondering about something that is really not a big change, though, even though people from both ends of our political binary could find this change to be positive. After all, toy packaging itself has yet to become gender neutral. Nonetheless, I suspect an important continued step for those parents who keep wishing they could attend a Bernie Sanders rally is to affirm Target’s move and work hard to try to remove the dichotomized imagery on toy packaging in addition to the aisles (in one store) where the toys are displayed. I suppose an important consideration for those parents who found parts of last weeks’ Republican debates smart and useful is that one could be happy that gendered signage was removed from the store, because: a) that means the values associated with gender role assignment are left up to families more than before, which right-leaning folks have used for other arguments like sex education; and b) it’s still all about capitalism, since the toy companies are quite savvy about marketing to kids for profit and removing the gendered display allows for the products to speak for themselves, perhaps even more strongly than before. These considerations may or may not work in your mind, but it’s fun to play with a positive spin from the socially-constructed binary of U.S. based liberal and conservative politics in order to show where even those lines are blurred.  (Note to self: write letter to Target to suggest replacing gendered aisle signage with “Republican Underwear” and “Democrat Underwear” signs in the now gender-mixed undergarment section).

This summer I went to a great exhibit in Copenhagen on children’s toy, furniture, and clothing design in Nordic countries. Among the displays of Lego and high chairs and Finnish maternity packages were kids’ pajamas with horizontal stripes and bright colors from the Swedish company named Polarn O. Pyret. The marketing and manufacturing of these intentionally unisex pajamas (still around today, with a handful of stores in the U.S.) began in the 1970s, and the primary aim was to use natural fabrics in garments that allowed free movement in colors that any boy or girl would want to wear. Fast forward to affluent Americans’ love of Swedish-American kids’ clothes, and you can see that the idea has stuck, even though the store I have in mind is very clearly divided into sections of boy stripes (Blue! Orange! Green!) and girl stripes (Pink! Purple! Light pink! Light purple!). Sometimes I like to tell shoppers in that store about the history of the Swedish pajama company that was likely the inspiration for the kids’ striped PJ craze, which was started by a traveling salesman named Nils whose first stint as company head pre-pajamas included illegally selling German condoms in Sweden in the early 1900s, brief imprisonment, and then adding baby items to the list of the reimagined company’s manufactured items. But then I usually get kicked out of the store.

So all of you striped kiddo PJ fans out there can rest assured that the idea could have begun with the illegal sales of birth control by a traveling Swedish salesman who needed a new product to make money after he went to prison (maybe from the families whose condoms didn’t work and now they needed pajamas for all their unplanned kids).

Why this story matters is that the idea of gender neutral anything for kids has, for a long time, been about allowing freedom, exploration, and movement regardless of gender. Gender is useful, to be sure (less work to navigate in polite conversation), but it is limiting (more work for people not experiencing the gender binary in polite conversation), and it seems to limit from an earlier and earlier age.

This is why my son’s path through toy aisles began looking more like the letter L than the letter S starting around age 4. Just before kindergarten, he walked straight for the blue aisle, turned right, and that was that. Swords, trains, Lego spaceships. Before that he’d go in every aisle, snaking back and forth and looking at toys and games without assigning them (at least out loud) as suitable or unsuitable for his own play plans. He had his preferences, which were gendered from earlier than age 4, but the shopping and looking for the wider array of toys was not stifled when he was a toddler. Dolls, toy guns, pirate ships, kid-sized kitchens. And it didn’t matter to him if there were girls or boys in the aisles. He didn’t see that he was “polluting” the girl aisle with his little boy body, and he didn’t see girls looking at swords as “cootie-inducing.” But that didn’t last, and it rarely does for kids. Now that he’s starting sixth grade, we will see the creative forms of pollution that he’ll be exposed to beyond the toy aisle. I say this with confidence, since his comment after visiting the boys bathroom during middle school orientation was, “Hey Mommy, were there boogers on the girls’ bathroom mirror, too?”

One of the most vivid memories of my sixth grade year was when my mom took me to the local JCPenney department store to buy a training bra. The path we navigated amidst the fluorescent lighting in the store started with the entry doors, then shifted towards the right where the Wranglers and plaid shirts for the farmer boys were, down the dimly lit stairs, around a corner past the dance tights, and then to a wall where the postcard-sized plastic packages of folded white training bras hung like little flower petals ready to be plucked.

I didn’t grow up in a unisex horizontal children’s pajamas culture, so for me the separation of the training bra section from the Wranglers was not only more comfortable, it was crucial. This was a private matter for girls, and doggone-it, it’s okay if we had to go to the dark basement to get there. I didn’t want to see my boy classmates when I shopped for the device that would socialize my breasts into submission.

But wouldn’t it be nice if the discussion and perusing of training bras by growing bodies was something that didn’t carry with it the feelings of shame and secrecy that are more likely to be found in a basement? What if they were next to the Wranglers, front and center, hung with pride like little folded flags ready to be displayed proudly?  What if it was the case that boys learned about girls and girls learned about boys, and they didn’t feel that that entering these dichotomized spaces constituted gender polluting?  What if boys and girls and all the in betweens could go anywhere in the store and ask questions, try things on, and get what they need without the baggage of wondering whether they’re supposed to buy this thing or that thing? If that happened, I see the only harm being that kids would feel better about themselves. The grownups wouldn’t, but that doesn’t matter as much to me.

Now, I’m not proposing that boys should go out and buy training bras. Nor am I proposing that bras are absolutely necessary, given that they are really torture devices whose only worthy quality is the amazing feeling of relief in the evening when they are taken off (see? even a sociologist can admit physiological effects). But I am proposing that removing one more degree of signage and direction from the spaces where children explore and shop and wonder about themselves and their futures may actually offer our kiddos some of the most important relief they’ll ever get to feel.

Between Sko and Skole (Shoe and School)

The Danish word for shoe is sko & the Danish word for school is skole. These words are related insofar as they contain similar letters, but what matters for this post is that I am utterly fascinated with both as locations of cross-cultural analysis of people’s use of objects and spaces. Indulge me as I take a stab, after returning from a stint of consulting work on kids and education in Denmark (along with some shoe shopping), at cultural understanding using foot fashion and education as my sites for some casual sociological investigation.

I spend what may be an inappropriate amount of time looking at people’s shoes (sko), especially in less familiar places. Inappropriate because the looking can make me a bit judgy or jealous or fixated on consumption or miss my stop on the Copenhagen Metro because I’ve been looking down for seven stops in a row. But this looking is nonetheless useful, partly because I find shoes to be interesting markers of gender, culture, class, age, and ability to predict weather patterns. And partly because of my own feet. When I was a kid, doctors told me that my feet were in so much trouble that I may grow up not being able to walk. I had to wear special built-up ugly shoes that were never quite normal looking enough for my desire to fit in on the school playground, even despite my addition of shoelaces with cartoon balloons on them in the third grade. And so, my adult overconsumption of nice shoes, and fascination with others’ footwear, may just be me compensating for a childhood of self-consciousness in school and shoe ugliness.

When I work overseas, I find myself not only looking at people’s shoes (“Those New Balance shoes on the hip European teenagers are a slightly different style than the ones found on American endurance athletes and 50-year-old men with wide feet”), but also wondering if it is at all possible to make comparisons across cultures about anything, given that I have not actually walked a mile in a Danish person’s shoes. And I only know the language well enough to read “The Little Red Hen” to kids in Danish, not to translate Kierkegaard (“Ikke mig?” gryntede den eksistentialisitiske gris. “Not I?” grunted the existentialist pig). But the comparisons kept popping into my head as I looked down at the array of footwear on the streets of Copenhagen.

Here is what I tentatively noticed about Danish shoes:

  1. What I saw in Denmark a few years ago is what I see in the U.S. today, with regard for popularity of certain styles. Having worked in Denmark a few times over the last few years, I come back to the U.S. and keep an eye out for how long it takes the fashion there to reach the shores of Eastern Washington. Turns out, about two years. This means the boots I bought will look great in Walla Walla in 2017.
  2. Every other pair of shoes is black. Black tennis shoes. Black heels. Black loafers. Black boots. All appropriate for bike riding, by the way. This may be an urban thing, but when you live in a country dedicated practically and politically to the good of the collective, and where standing out as an individual is frowned upon (just look up “Jante Law”), it makes sense that a relatively uniform color palette is present in footwear.
  3. No sandals until it’s at least 75 degrees. This may also be an urban thing, but it’s probably more about the weather. Bare feet among the grown-up urbanites seem to be taboo until the sun comes out for that one day that locals affectionately refer to as “Danish Summer — The Best Day of the Year.”  I had to buy black boots in June because it was 55 degrees and raining. But hey, new black boots. To be unveiled in Walla Walla in 2017, when they’ll be in style here.

In addition to the shoe thing, I spend what I believe to be a perfectly appropriate amount of time thinking about schools. Appropriate because schools are important. Also appropriate because I have a kid in a school. I went to school. I teach in a school. My parents and my husband’s parents worked in schools. I’ve done consulting work for schools. I teach a class about how schools are sociologically interesting. In a celebrity academic death match, I could totally “school” someone if the category was “schools.” But, as anyone reading this who is a K-12 classroom teacher would tell me, I should learn more. Walk a mile in a teacher’s shoes…

In an effort to learn more, my fascination led me to some consulting work that allowed me to visit Danish schools (skoler), talk to Danish teachers and pedagogues (this term refers to education professionals who work more with the social and emotional well-being of kids, often in preschools and afterschool programs, both of which a majority of Danish children attend), and interact with Danish schoolchildren.

But given my tentativeness about the aforementioned shoe claims, how can I make claims about something as important as schools (not that shoes aren’t important — they’re very important — I wear shoes every day!)?  About how Danish schools, for example, are better or worse than American schools?  For that matter, how can I make claims about *all* schools in each respective country given the vast variety even within national borders? Sociology is about comparisons, but sometimes we create problems when we make the categories we’re comparing a bit more real than they actually are. For vocab nerds, this is called reification. And it’s a more subjective process than pointing out differences between cross-national New Balance shoes. But you can’t take the sociologist out of the girl, so…

Here is what I noticed about Danish schools:

  1. What I see in Denmark today is what I saw in the U.S. a few years ago, with regard for national revisions to how schools and their corresponding professions operate.  Recent nationwide Danish education reform (The National Reform Programme), now a year old, was the subject of much conversation and controversy among education professionals with whom I spoke. The reform means changed mandates from the state regarding teachers’ roles, more time at school for kids, and more collaboration between teachers and pedagogues to promote holistic and child-centered learning, all in an effort to improve children’s academic success and enhance collaboration across different education professions. Opinions on this depended on people’s position in the system, but everyone’s reaction was intimately related to the fact that change is difficult, and autonomy in work is important for job satisfaction. Much of this sounds familiar: Politicians saying reform is better to compete internationally. Teachers saying they are disrespected. Pedagogues saying they’ve got to take on new tasks that they’re not trained for. Administrators saying that the overall picture is better for kids even with the bumps of the last year. And kids saying it’s hard to be in school until 3 p.m.
  2. Every other child has blond hair, and the continued preservation and promotion of Danish culture in governmental policy (the new government saw a huge increase in parliamentary seats among the Danish People’s Party, which is decidedly anti-immigration), means that schools in Denmark are still, and will likely still be, quite homogeneous. This is despite the fact that there is more variation in quality of school and affluence of surrounding neighborhood than many are aware of.  As someone who lives in a community where bilingual education is present given the racial-ethnic make-up of our community, it was fascinating to hear Danish education professionals discuss how the lowering of the age at which kids learn English (now 1st grade) was touted as necessary by some researchers and politicians for effective brain development and language acquisition, but the same argument was never made when Turkish children started entering Danish schools. This is a country with the challenge of a small increasingly multicultural society that is trying to preserve its long heritage while upping its status on a global educational scale.
  3.  No shoes required on the playground, even if it’s 55 degrees. Smart scholars who’ve written lots about Scandinavian childhoods portray images of freedom, independence, and play as necessary ingredients for a good childhood. This is how democracy works — the kids create their own democracies first, without hovering adults.  Add to that a society with universal health care and a pretty large safety net, and people are also less concerned with safety rules, fear of unlikely dangers, and kidnapping.  All of this helps explain the fact that I saw a third grade child on a school playground, during school, swing from the monkey bars and run around with no shoes on, with no teacher watching, and with no fear or concern that he’d get in trouble.

If only I could have been that Danish kid wearing no shoes on the playground when I was in third grade.  He didn’t have to worry about feeling self-conscious. He doesn’t have to worry about getting in trouble. Or what other kids think.  But then again, because I had to wear weird shoes, I grew enamored with the lifelong quest for keen observation of objects and spaces, and a thirst for understanding the complexities of oversimplified renditions of difference.

Between Now and Then

Below is the Baccalaureate Address I gave at Whitman College. With advice for students, and perhaps for us all.

It’s time for celebration! It’s time for family and friends! It’s time to fit in as many fun activities as we can before we leave!  It’s time to give a speech that I’ve been told cannot last more than ten minutes!

It’s time…to graduate!

When we think of time, it is easy to think of special events such as graduations because they occur infrequently, they signify change in a life stage, they bring people together from different time zones, and they contain numerous schedules and timetables for the accompanying festivities. Sociologists think of time in terms of how it has been constructed as meaningful in varying cultural and historical settings, and in terms of how it is used to signify boundaries in our social lives. For example, as Phyllis Moen suggests in her book It’s About Time: Couples and Careers, in order to figure out ways to accommodate our changing work and family roles in contemporary U.S. society, we must first look at how taken-for-granted rules about work time and non-work time are enacted – how time is part of the infrastructure and culture of our work and family lives. What is a work day? What is a holiday? Can I spend time checking personal email at work if I do so surreptitiously on my smartphone? How does our understanding of work matter if we have discretion over our time or need to punch a clock? And, as many people may wonder, is there really such a thing as a weekend when I am accessible by email 24/7?

One of my favorite sociologists, Eviatar Zerubavel, has said that we live our lives in “social territories” along a continuum that consists of different kinds of time – namely, we live in public time and private time. I will add that we define certain times of day as more about close friendships or intimate relationships, others more about formal tasks. Some of us may use time set aside for spiritual growth, community involvement, or taking care of our bodies. Some of us take on a little too much and end up sacrificing activities or trying to do too many things in the same time period. We multitask within our social territories.

How we understand the use of time depends on what activities, people, and spaces we think are attached to certain times.  For students, if you want to participate in a sociology exercise, think back to your few years here at Whitman and count the number of instances where you have been speaking, dressing, and socializing differently depending on whether you were in my class at 11 a.m. on a Monday in Maxey Hall or in an off-campus apartment at 11 p.m. on a Friday. This example signifies that how we organize time parallels how we organize what we do, the people we are with, and the locations of both.  We use time to signify territories of our selves. Territories that are sometimes separate, and that sometimes overlap.

Life transitions do not move in a linear way. Anyone who is a parent here knows this, especially if they can think of stories when their children grew and then regressed and then grew and then regressed, sometimes in the timespan of a couple weeks. For the students here, this weekend may feel like a big transition with a huge directional arrow pointing from the past toward the future. But the way life actually works is that we always circle back and the directional arrow is not necessarily one that points from the past to the future in a straight line. We use the memories of who we were to construct who we are.  Our present selves are always made up of what we perceive has already shaped us.  Norwegian family scholar Marianne Gullestad has said that certainly what actually happens to us as children affects our adult lives, but our subjective understandings of our childhoods as adults have tremendous power in shaping how we act and think in our adult lives. How we think about what happened may affect how we grow just as much as what actually happened does. We go and grow through life transitions always building on our past selves, never completely starting over, and rarely in a straight line.

For students, you have spent these last four years using images of your future selves to have crafted what you opted to do here at Whitman.  Your present experience as students has been impacted and inspired by your vision of your future selves.

So what does this all mean? If we think about the word “then,” it is really not just about the past. It is also about the future. “When you were little, what were you like then?” reads just as easily as “Think about the future…what will you be like then?”  During a weekend like this, it is easy to think about how time flies – the “now” quickly becomes the “then.”  But it is also easy to see how this life stage transition signifies a jumping off point for present “now” becoming future “then.”  If now and then were on a continuum, I do not see a straight line. I see multiple axes, three dimensions, circles, satellites, and the location of “now” and “then” in multiple simultaneous places.

Anaïs Nin said, “We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

I am so grateful to have been part of your lives, dear students, for these last few years. I hope you agree with me when I say that it is a gift to be part of the layers, cells, and constellations that make up Whitman College. Looking at you now, during this celebratory time, makes me very happy. I wish the world for you. As time goes by, I will think of you and how you’ve been these last few years. I’ll imagine where you’ll go in the future.

And while I thank you now, I’ll see you then.