Monthly Archives: January 2012

re: a recent Slate article: polygamy

This article said that a study showed polygamy to be detrimental to society.  What in hell?

My first thought:  how could they possibly know?  Is there a statistical universe of solid data?  Or is this some woolly conjecture on the part of people who heard about something sometime?  The study itself is not available to me, but I am trying to think of multiple known societies that crumbled because polygamy took hold and could not be eradicated.  Name five.  (Even three would not be sufficient.)

Second:  while the article clarified that it meant polygyny (and I didn’t notice that it addressed polyandry), it didn’t separate religious polygamy from civil, which is inappropriate.  The two main religions the populace reads about are fundamentalist Mormons (FLDS; a fringe group at best, designed to function as an extremely male-dominated cult of personality) and Muslims (who are enjoined to take only as many wives as can be dealt with justly, and never more than four.)  Of course, polyandry is prohibited by both religions and was not addressed in this article.  Again, if the study reported on a vast wealth of reliable data regarding modern polyandry, the article didn’t mention it — and if it did, I wouldn’t trust it.  Source?

But back to religious polygamy.  Polygamous Muslims have existed all over the world, outside of North America and mostly along the equator, for generations.  Regardless of my qualms about the status of women in some areas of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, polygamy hasn’t seemed to cause a breakdown of society there.  Women may be taken on for breeding purposes, as status symbols, and as servants, but that is no different from marriages of single individuals.  Not ideal in either case, but present wherever anyone gets married, even in traditional pairings.

Fundamentalist Mormons (FLDS) are another story altogether.  I’m inclined to regard them as an unhealthy aberration all around, and bar them from consideration.  If it’s what you are brought up thinking is normal, you will generally follow right along; if you are taught that women are mentally and physically inferior to men and must accept them as gods, you will.  There are some rebels in all walks of life, but it’s standard operating procedure for humans to believe what our parents taught us, not because it was tested and true and the smartest way to do things, but because Mama Said.  Also, brainwashing girls to be doormats is a common habit in many cultures, and girls who are brainwashed grow into women who brainwash their kids.  Self-perpetuating cycle.

But I digress.  The problems of FLDS marriages (women as property to be hoarded and bartered; boys to be exiled or reared to think they are gods; scams involving manipulation of welfare benefits for legally single mothers; etc.,) are really part of a much larger pathology.  It’s ridiculous and unscientific to assume that all polygamy follows the pattern of a fringe group of backwards religious extremists.

Both of the described polygynies are unsuitable for modern, civilized folk.  Very few adults I know, neighbors or coworkers, find themselves yearning for horrid oppression and religious extremism, even during back-to-basics fantasies involving self-sustaining farms and homemade soap.  But many of them realize that their needs might be better met by more than one person.

On the upside, plural marriage puts less pressure on one person to be the be-all-end-all/sole source of all emotional and physical needs.  It provides more companionship and the potential of a more stable emotional environment.  There is greater financial stability with multiple incomes.  If there are children, there is more grown-up attention available for their upbringing, which is important, as well as less chance of needing to send a kid to daycare during working hours.  If one parent dies, there is more than one grown-up left for moral support and childrearing.  There is a greater pool of common resources.  And consider that many men seem to want more sex than they can get from one woman, and women want more nurturing.  Polygyny offers more sexual variety for the man, and more emotional support and companionship from the other woman or women.

My personal hypothesis is that many women would also enjoy multiple partners. I think the female biological imperative that includes childbearing also makes us crave multiple partners to ensure that the strongest survive, and with the most genetic variety  But women are conditioned more strongly to monogamy than men are.

And yet, not all men are hypercompetitive bulls who can’t escape the pecking order and live without sexual jealousy.  Some guys enjoy male company more, even if they are only sexually attracted to women.  Why not marry your best buddy AND your best girl?

This is obviously not for everyone, but for those who might benefit, why should they live in secrecy?  There are more than a few three-cornered marriages out there, but they get no attention.  They are not people who are part of a fringe religion who occasionally escape; they are consenting adults who get together, last as long as the relationship is healthy, and break up from time to time — just like regular couples, but without the legal protection of spousehood.  At most, it would be a teensy fraction of the population, just like gay marriage is and interracial marriage used to be.  It used to be that married couples who were childless by choice were a wee minority, and even they took flack for it.  But no one said they shouldn’t be able to marry.  At least not to my knowledge.

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Great-Grandma’s Garage of Wonders

My great-grandmother was a force of nature.  Moved to this country against her will when she was young, from Norway to Canada to Minnesota.  The family hotel burned down, and they struck west for a new start.  After settling in the middle of nowhere and having a passel of children, her husband died…which brings us to the Depression (not a crash for the money-less, but no jobs for the young men) and then the War.

No surprise that her attic, decades later, still had stocks of small salvaged items.  There were balls of cord, copper wire, rubber bands, and all the usual things we discard or even recycle, but stored neatly and carefully for re-use.  Old clothes for new families (or rag rugs, or quilts) were hung on rods lining the recesses of the eaves.  An old cast iron bed, on which many local women had given birth to their first children, was still used for company and kept made.  The attic floor was bare and light came through windows at both ends.  A neat packet of gas ration coupons and an old tear-away calendar with a pretty scene were held down by a large stone, but that was all there was of clutter.

The garage was different.

The doors had been removed long ago, when the family stopped using any sort of carriage, cart, buggy, buckboard, or wagon drawn by horse.  The whole thing was strictly for storage.

Church pews were stacked in an off-balance jumble, like Scrabble tile-holders, taking up most of the floor.  A distaff cousin and I would sneak into the between spaces and hide from everyone…or so we said.  Mostly it was an excuse to be crammed on top of each other in the dark.  That hot breath on my neck (“shhhhh”) and wondering whose pulse I was feeling still plucks my lizard spine.  Any piousness imparted by generations of early country keisters planted in those pews must have boiled away under our raging hormones.

The walls were lined with shelves too high to reach, and that was a good thing.  Great-grandma had strings of double-string traps and a bear trap up there, among other dangerous goodies, and anyone who is appalled at the prospect of trapping should think about being widowed young with a passel of kids to feed and a garden that looks good to all kinds of rodents and deer, who look good to mountain lions and wolves.  Living next to Huckleberry Mountain drew bears, too, and our soft fruits looked just as good.  As did our pigs.

The piggies were gone before my recall, but a bear had torn through the sheep pen and was going to town in the sty.  My great-gran, who never topped five feet, ran out with her rifle and climbed up the fence post.  She kept nailing him, and it took five shots to bring him down.  Somewhere there is a picture of one of my giant great-uncles showing that his foot, heel to toe, fit between the bear’s eyes.  He was good eating, too; a bear that lives on berries is much tastier than one that lives on salmon.  The pelt was gorgeous.  And there was so much fat on this autumn bear that great-grandma stirred it up with lye to make soap.  There were huge blocks of it in the garage, molded in her enamel washpan and cut with cheese wire.

There was a lot of wire in the garage, too.   Barbed wire for fencing.  Chicken wire to keep our idiotic poultry contained in some areas, and out of others.  Baling wire (haywire) was used for everything.  And nothing that could be re-used was thrown away. There were old license plates nailed to the walls, old coffee cans of bolts, and the requisite dusty glass jars.  But great-grandma really did use this stuff.  Old smooth-sided cans (tin cans still, at this point) were cut into scoops, to which were screwed pegs to use as handles; these were for her Flour-Sugar-Salt canisters, and for the old country spice rack that she had, a white metal cupboard with wooden drawers for small and valuable items:  coffee, tea, black pepper, cardamom, mustard seed.  More magic for me.

Eventually the layer of post-hole diggers and unused horse collars was pushed to the back by metal fenceposts and unused car parts, but the organic monster garage itself never modernized.  The youngest layer was the inevitable tableau of a push lawnmower married to two old Schwinn bicycles by a cracking green garden hose.  But the outermost layer, just inside the shelter of the lintel, was the washing machine.

Two vats, connected by a wringer, with a corrugated board for scrubbing and a hole in the bottom to drain into a bucket — perfect.  The washer could be repaired by a layman, and it was always clean as a whistle — never any weird musty smells or mildew of any kind.  And this was a great convenience to a farming woman who had done a life of laundry with two zinc tubs and a washboard.  Wash water was dumped in the flower garden, which was tiered higher than the berry patches, who also received some benefit.

Whenever I dream of getting back to the land (or going off the grid, depending on how paranoid I feel), I think of this great device that didn’t need electricity or plumbing, and could be moved anywhere for convenience.  Great-grandma didn’t stop using it until she stopped washing her own clothes, which is when she died, in her late nineties.  We offered to get her an electric washer and dryer, and she thought that was ridiculous.  She might have been right.

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Post-Vacation Laundry

My vacation gave me lots to report, but while I pre-digest it all for literary regurgitation, allow me to say:  doing laundry rocks.  I actually enjoy it.  It’s supposedly a major chore, but the machine does the hard part.

When I was a wee bit lassie, my great-grandma was still doing her laundry in the two-vat hand-crank machine that was in her garage, hanging it all up to dry, and then pressing any garment with special bits, such as ruching, pintucks, cuffs, and collars.  My era had spandex and sneered at polyester…but think of what a godsend polyester must have been to women who had to iron every got-dang thing in their white cotton world.

Here’s to you, ladies.  I raise my cup of coffee to your endurance, and your raw red hands.

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My (Un)Pretty Pony

While I don’t crave anonymity per se, I work in a conservative field, and I run with The Perky Police.  It seems wrong to blurt out my heartfelt yammer and not sign my name at the bottom.  But there are reasons.

People who get to sport visible tattoos and piercings at work, or wear clothes that show their tastes and fancies…I envy them.  My career in insurance will hopefully be shed soon, but until then (and possibly forever) I’ll not scuttle my chances of employment by dressing like a rockabilly rebel and sporting jewelry like a gypsy junk sale.   Likewise, blogging about sex, politics, and religion are not only socially perilous, but Job Killers.  I don’t love a society that requires an honest opinion to be kept anonymous, but if I were an employer, I would learn all I could about my prospective minions, so…fair’s fair.

And yet it’s deceptive.  At work, when a new project team is formed, the leader demands that we relate personal details to get to know each other.  Around the table we go, talking about our college honors, golf games, Little League coaching, and leadership associations.  While there may be a little puffery, some slight exaggeration, all that you hear falls along the plumb line of truth.  And yet it’s foolish to assume you know Mr. Brown just because he says he is an Eagle Scout who enjoys singing in the church choir and shooting skeet.  Mr. Brown will never add that he has nine DUIs, comes from a family of Klansmen, and can’t be trusted with little girls.   Or whatever.

No one wants to air his dirty laundry at work.  But socially?  I grew up in the deep country, from a line of salt-of-the-earth farming folk.  There, it was normal to keep quiet, and if you speak up, you express yourself carefully, so as not to misrepresent yourself (you will have to stand up for what you say) and not be misunderstood.  But not to be afraid when expressing opinions, because each man gets to have his say.  There is a strong emphasis on respect, meaning “careful observation of boundaries” rather than admiration.  To each his own.  Anyone is free to reject my ideas, or disagree with them.  Polite rebuttal may result in reconsideration of an idea, and if no reconciliation can be made, the parties will learn to live with their differences or politely part ways.  Good day, sir or madam, and no hard feelings.

These ponderous rural manners didn’t wear so well when I moved to Oregon, which has its own version of “Minnesota Nice.”  It was considered poor form to disagree with anyone, except in the most circular fashion, and it was likewise rude to express strong opinions, lest you put someone in the horrifying position of having to disagree with you. Speaking forthrightly was also rude, since stating opinions without qualifications was considered arrogant.  God forbid anyone use a simple declarative sentence!  And how discomfiting to expect people to stand by what they had said!  While I was honestly charmed by all the effort made not to offend others, I did notice rotten side effects:  passive-aggressiveness; lying (instead of speaking an unpleasant truth, lying rather than having to say “no,” etc.); wretched guilt from perceived failure to meet the expectations of others (“how could I say no?”); resentment of others (again, from the burden of perceived expectations); mealy-mouthing (saying whatever will please the audience); and spinelessness (not backing up one’s stated position.  But who walks it like he talks it when he can’t be honest?)

Moving to the Southwest changed that for me.  People could disagree bluntly and openly, and not only would it not signal the end to the friendship, it would not even be construed as argumentative.  Disagreements great and small could be handled casually and with no hard feelings.  Picture me going back to Oregon and saying, “Nope, that’s bullshit, Donnie Yen could beat the socks off Jackie Chan,” or “Fuck that, Venezia’s pizza is superior by far,” or “No way.  Giselle Bundchen’s legs are far longer than Wilt Chamberlain’s.”  At best, it would be rude; at worst, inexcusable.  Not because of the facts (Wilt tops Giselle by a mile,) but because the upholstery matters more than the chair it covers.  This seems like lying, to my simple country mind, but I could sense the good heart beneath the intent, and I enjoyed the Oregonian civility as much as I appreciated the Southwestern bluffness.

But in the part of California where I now live, we have the Perky Police, and they are dangerous.  Contrary to what the Cali-haters may think, it’s not because of their delicate sensibilities.  It’s because so many of them are gossips.  These are lovable people, with extended circles of friends, who still cannot trust each other, and who will not eject from their circles those who are plague vectors of dirty dish.  I admit that not all folks are like this, but chances are good they have among their friends those who are — but rather than shunning them, they act accordingly.  Being relentlessly positive is both a sincere way of life and a sort of risk management through giving your enemy no grip.  Share your joys, but not your pains.  So their corner of the web is crammed with their promotions at work, prizes won, international travel, wildly successful business ventures, lavish parties,  and other joys — but no controversial opinions, no heartfelt essays, no honest doubts or fears or depth of feeling (nor any chance for real communication, meeting of the minds, gracious accommodation of difference, or mannerly dissent.)

Smiling faces and Billboard Love.  Not lies, but an entirely bowdlerized version of reality — especially online.  Since one’s enemies will read whatever you post, and even one’s trusted associates will share it with those enemies, it’s a survival trait to make every post bulletproof and fireproof, seamless and sweet.

It is smart to be aware that anything online will be shared with the world and never completely erased.  But what is the point of blogging if we are back to the project team confessional?  Golf handicaps and Diamond Club and Phi Beta Kappa and who gives a damn?  The faintest of ink outlasts the strongest of memories, it’s true, but my the riskiness of venting will hopefully be mitigated by the attempt to remain anonymous.  No name, no pack drill.  But all the other stuff will be out for the world to see.  The good, the bad, the delightfully strange and the Subject To Change.

Anyone with a problem can go bitch about it in his own damned blog.