Eight-year-old boy moment

Pretty blond teenaged Girl gets onto the bus. Lanky baseball-capped teenaged Boy sticks out his foot, causing Girl to stumble. Girl very nearly does a face plant on the floor of the bus.

Girl’s head spins in the direction of Boy. Boy grins. Girl grins back. They know each other, of course.

Girl sits down next to Boy. They begin chattering happily to one another.

There’s a stereotype about eight-year-old boys:  that they don’t know how to relate to girls except by doing stupid stuff to them.

The thing is, it persists into the teenaged years.

You could attract a girl’s attention just by saying “Hi” to her, but where’s the panache in that? Better to trip her, or punch her on the shoulder, or crush her against the lockers in the hallway of the school. I’m willing to bet that some of Scott Stevens’s best checks were thrown at girls.

Isn’t sex strange?

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:

the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a Boy with a Girl.

(Prov. 30:18-19. I may have paraphrased the text a little, there at the end)

Unwanted attention

Photos of 18-year-old Allison Stokke are all over the internet, and she doesn’t like it. Did she pose naked for a boyfriend who made the images public? No, Stokke’s conduct was entirely innocent.

The Washington Post is sympathetic to Stokke’s point of view:

In her high school track and field career, Stokke had won a 2004 California state pole vaulting title, broken five national records and earned a scholarship to the University of California, yet only track devotees had noticed. Then, in early May, she received e-mails from friends who warned that a year-old picture of Stokke idly adjusting her hair at a track meet in New York had been plastered across the Internet. …

The wave of attention has steamrolled Stokke and her family in Newport Beach, Calif. She is recognized — and stared at — in coffee shops. She locks her doors and tries not to leave the house alone. Her father, Allan Stokke, comes home from his job as a lawyer and searches the Internet. He reads message boards and tries to pick out potential stalkers.

Here is a montage of images that I found on the internet:

Allison Stokke photos

The photo that created the initial stir is second from the left. It was taken by a journalist and posted on a track and field Web site. Some time later, it was picked up by a sports blog which receives about a million hits per month. The Post writes, “Within days, hundreds of thousands of Internet users had searched for Stokke’s picture and leered.”

But surely that characterization of the public response is excessively negative. Admittedly, some people leered:  the sports blog commented, “Meet pole vaulter Allison Stokke. … Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds.” But some of us — even the males among us — can appreciate the photograph without leering.

Have Stokke and her father overreacted? I’m curious what other people think.

I can see why Allison worries that some disturbed “fan” will track her down and approach her. It’s also important to emphasize that Allison didn’t voluntarily give up her privacy. She isn’t a movie star or a professional athlete making millions of dollars per year from her celebrity. She’s just a high school athlete who participated in public track and field events, without soliciting this kind of attention.

On the other hand, Stokke’s reaction says something about her own temperament:

Stokke read on message boards that dozens of anonymous strangers had turned her picture into the background image on their computers. She felt violated. It was like becoming the victim of a crime, Stokke said. Her body had been stolen and turned into a public commodity.

This is such a negative interpretation. Stokke is receiving the sort of attention that other people actively court, eschewing the risks:

More young people are putting more personal information out in public than any older person ever would — and yet they seem mysteriously healthy and normal, save for an entirely different definition of privacy. From their perspective, it’s the extreme caution of the earlier generation that’s the narcissistic thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, “Why not? What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone’s gonna find your picture? Just make sure it’s a great picture.”

And after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact—quaint and naïve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure.

(ht, Shifted Librarian, for the link to the New York Magazine article)

Bottom line, I am sympathetic to Stokke. She didn’t ask for the attention (unlike the youth profiled in NYmag) and no one likes to feel that events are spinning out of their control.

But the attention is positive, except in the minority of cases where it is crudely sexual. Stokke isn’t in the same position as (for example) the chubby teenager doing a Star Wars light saber routine, who became the object of worldwide ridicule.

In Allison’s position, the healthiest response would be to make your peace with all this attention (since you can’t stop it anyway) and look for the upside. Opportunity is knocking at Allison’s door — or so it seems to me. But I’m open to other opinions.

Heavy traffic, attracted for all the wrong reasons

I’m developing a bad reputation in the blogosphere. In terms of traffic, my stat tracker shows a steady increase. But lately one post is drawing between a third and a half of all my traffic:

1. March 10
    83 of 278 hits (29.9%);

2. March 23
    74 of 209 hits (35.4%);

3. March 31
    156 of 389 hits (40.1%).
Which post is responsible for
all the heavy breathing?
Tarted-up teens, natch!
Wouldn’t it be nice if people were coming to read about photography, US politics, the historical Jesus, or philosophy?

I know, sex sells. But teen sex? What kind of disreputable blog am I keeping here?

In fact, the post is part movie review and part social critique:

Western society rushes children headlong toward sexual maturity. Animé is normative; every schoolgirl aspires to look like her name is written on a bathroom wall somewhere. Harmful consequences will surely follow, for some of them.

But readers wouldn’t know that until after they get here, would they?

search terms


Tarted-up teens

Babel (the movie, reviewed in my previous post) illustrates a social issue that interests me: the sexualization of teenaged girls who have not yet mastered their sexual persona.

One of Babel’s four plot lines follows a Japanese teenager dealing with a double crisis. Chieko (played by Rinko Kikuchi) is trying to come to terms with the death of her mother. The circumstances in which her mother died are not made clear until the climax of the movie. And Chieko’s emotional struggles are intensified by the fact that she is deaf. She feels like a freak at a time in her life when she is acutely interested in boys.

Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

Chieko’s age is never revealed. She might be eighteen; presumably the actor is, since she is shown in full frontal nudity. The character seems younger than that, but perhaps her social development has been delayed because of her deafness.

Physically, Chieko is an adult, I suppose. (To me, eighteen-year-olds look only half-formed.) Emotionally, she is a needy child. She desperately wants to lose her virginity. She has something to prove, some need to fulfill — not really a need for sex.

suzukaasahina suzukaSome of the scenes reminded me of the tarted-up schoolgirls depicted in animé. Chieko goes out in public wearing a mini skirt — without panties, as she makes clear to a friend.

She tries to seduce various men; some are her own age, others are as old as her father. But “seduce” is the wrong word. Her technique is too clumsy to be seductive; as unsubtle as the plot of a porno movie. She has the necessary body parts, but she has not yet mastered her sexual persona.

Chieko represents some of the adolescent girls I see in my part of the world: all cleavage and half-exposed behinds, with no real comprehension of what they’re playing at.

At this point I must interject a couple of clarifications.

First, I’m aware that there are exceptions to the sort of adolescents I’m describing. I have met precocious girls, not yet twelve years old, who exude sexuality, and who appear to be in complete control of their sexual persona. Perhaps they are sexually active; perhaps it’s just a persona. Those aren’t the girls I’m discussing here.

Second, this isn’t a rant against premarital sex. I’m not arguing that boys drive the sexual agenda and girls require our protection. In the movie, Chieko is on the prowl. I would be OK with that, if Chieko weren’t so messed up in other respects — that’s the pivotal consideration.

Br*tneyMy critique, fwiw, is directed at society and the way we socialize our children. As Chieko mimicks animé, so North American girls ape Br*tney Sp**rs — or the current pre-fab adolescent pop tart, whoever that is.

A couple of summers ago, I noticed a young teenager wearing a very short skirt. She was crossing a street, downtown. It was a windy day. She was trying to hold the skirt down as she walked, and the expression on her face showed that she was very uncomfortable with her situation.

Who dressed her that way? She dressed herself, of course, but with a head full of MTV images. I remembered her as I watched Babel. Like Chieko, she wasn’t ready to wield such a potent sexuality.

Western society rushes children headlong toward sexual maturity. Animé is normative; every schoolgirl aspires to look like her name is written on a bathroom wall somewhere. Harmful consequences will surely follow, for some of them.

They get their good looks from me

My teenaged daughter threw a Halloween party last weekend.

group photo
What can I say? She attends a school for artistic kids, and her friends are all from the drama department.

This beauty is mine. Until some guy snatches her away, of course.

beauty #1
I hesitate to admit it, but this one is mine, too.

beauty #2
Here’s the group again, from a more flattering perspective.

group photo #2

Roadside memorials

From time to time, I pass a handmade cross on the side of the road. I am vaguely aware that such crosses mark the site of a tragedy. These are very personal memorials to loved ones who died prematurely and violently. But I hadn’t really attended to the practice until this weekend.

Evidently they have become a social phenomenon.

roadside memorial 1

(Note the work gloves.)

An article in the Ottawa Citizen made me stop and think. And today, when I googled “roadside memorials”, Google returned 38,000 hits, including this one:

On the Pacific Highway in [New South Wales, Australia], north of Clybucca, is a white cross by the roadside.

It tells any passerby that Timothy was born on November 5, 1987 and on April 8, 2001 he was “born to eternal life”. Motorists speeding by see Timothy’s memorial out of the corner of an eye, friends and family come to mourn there and bring floral tributes, and road maintenance workers know to leave it alone.

In the process of claiming public road space for themselves, those who construct these memorials clearly desire to go beyond the management of mourning practices and spaces provided by the traditional authorities of the church and the state. Timothy was “born to eternal life” by the roadside; that place is now sacred space.

[source: Pointers, journal of the Christian Research Association, Australia]

Road memorials mark the site of a traffic fatality. They have proliferated because so many people die prematurely in automobile accidents. The Citizen reports:

Once found mostly in Catholic countries, roadside shrines are now common in Canada, the United States, Europe, Britain and Australia, where about 20 per cent of road deaths attract memorials. With an estimated 1.2 million traffic deaths worldwide annually — including nearly 2,800 in Canada, 850 in Ontario and about 30 in Ottawa — there’s no shortage of victims to memorialize.

Undoubtedly this is part of the message of these roadside memorials, sprouting up like so many mushrooms after a week of rain. They are probably not intended as a gesture of protest, but they do have that effect.

Don Baccus puts it succinctly:  What’s the message behind these photos? How does “drive safely” sound?

It’s a good reminder. When you’re behind the wheel of a car, it only takes a moment of inattention at the wrong time to cut short someone’s life. I do not want to live with that on my conscience.

Despite the obvious connection with automobile accidents, roadside memorials originated in an era before cars. This account takes us back to a simpler time:

THE CUSTOM of marking the site of a death on the highway has deep roots in the Hispanic culture of the Southwest, where these memorials are often referred to as Descansos (“resting places”). …

“THE FIRST DESCANSOS were resting places where those who carried the coffin from the church to the camposanto paused to rest. In the old villages of New Mexico, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or along the river valleys, the coffin was shouldered by four or six men.

“Led by the priest or preacher and followed by mourning women dressed in black, the procession made its way from the church to the cemetery. The rough hewn pine of the coffin cut into the shoulders of the men. If the camposanto was far from the church, the men grew tired and they paused to rest, lowering the coffin and placing it on the ground. The place where they rested was the descanso.

“The priest prayed; the wailing of the women filled the air; there was time to contemplate death. Perhaps someone would break a sprig of juniper and bury it in the ground to mark the spot, or place wild flowers in the ground. Perhaps someone would take two small branches of piñon and tie them together with a leather thong, then plant the cross in the ground.

“Rested , the men would shoulder the coffin again, lift the heavy load, and the procession would continue. With time, the descansos from the church to the cemetery would become resting spots. …

“Yes, there have always been accidents, a wagon would turn over, a man would die. But the journeys of our grandfathers were slow, there was time to contemplate the relationship of life and death. Now time moves fast, cars and trucks race like demons on the highways, there is little time to contemplate. Death comes quickly, and often it comes to our young.”

[source: Descansos; the text in quotation marks is from Descansos: An Interrupted Journey, by Rudolfo Anaya, Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez (Del Norte , 1995)]

Contemporary memorials mark an evolution in our religious practices; a kind of democratization of religion, given that this is a grassroots phenomenon. The Citizen reports:

“These practices mark an historic change,” says John Belshaw, acting dean of arts at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. “The grieving process has gone into the public domain.” …

One of the striking things about roadside memorials is their similarity in every country in which they appear. While some are simple wreaths or bouquets of flowers, the more permanent shrines usually feature crosses, often with the name and date of death of the victim. Some also include personal mementoes such as stuffed teddy bears, pictures, cards and letters, sports equipment and other meaningful items.

A few shrines are virtual celebrations of hard-living, risk-taking machismo. While such memorials are most common in Australia, they can be found in Canada as well. One that Mr. Belshaw and Ms. Purvey found in B.C. featured beer bottles and packs of cigarettes, with images of well-endowed women plastered on the cross.

“In that case, the cross is clearly being used ironically,” he says. “He clearly didn’t lead a good Christian life.” …

Mr. Belshaw admits that when he and his wife began their research, the whole notion of roadside memorials left him feeling a bit queasy.

“I thought it was a bit grisly and grim,” he says, “but I’m increasingly of the mind that it’s one of the healthiest things the public’s ever done.”

That’s a view shared by another academic who has studied the roadside memorial phenomenon, Jennifer Clark, of Australia’s University of New England. …

This represents “a dramatic shift towards the democratization of memorialization,” Ms. Clark contends.

“Roadside memorials are not earned as a reward for selfless or admirable deeds, nor do they commemorate service in public office. Rather, those they remember are ordinary men, women and children with no claim to fame. They may even have died because their actions were foolish, such as speeding, driving while drunk, or driving while tired.”

I found this comment particularly poignant:

Researchers have noticed the tendency to infantilize victims in their teens and twenties by surrounding their memorials with soft toys and other talismans of childhood.

To Mr. Belshaw, this is a reference to the victim’s lost potential for redemption. “When a 19-year-old comes out of a bar three sheets to the wind and wraps his car around a lamp post and the next morning you find teddy bears at the accident site,” he says, “that’s a statement that essentially this was a good person who could have been redeemed.”

The article from Pointers (cited earlier) also reflects on the spiritual significance of road memorials. The authors call attention to the concept of sacred space:

Although memorials that use apparent religious symbols signal a significant link with Christian faith, this is not necessarily the case. The use of such symbols may in fact be little more than an attempt to find culturally appropriate symbols to express death, where there has previously been a paucity of such symbols apart from those offered by institutional religion. …

The memorials witness primarily to the spiritual significance of place. Their role is to mark the very spot where life was lost. Some memorials are explicit about that and refer, for example, to Sharon who was “tragically killed at this spot” or Sandra, Stacey and Joanne, all “tragically taken at this spot” or Jody who “died here”. …

When a roadside memorial is erected it suggests that the cemetery or crematorium is unsatisfying as a focal point for mourning. Anecdotally the place of death holds a stronger spiritual connection with the individual than any place of final rest of the body. There remains something intrinsically more important about the place where life ceased or, more accurately, where a life-changing event occurred.

At this point, I think we are approaching an explanation for the phenomenon. The majority of people no longer feel any sense of personal attachment to a religious institution or a church community. When it’s time for a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral, the clergy who performs the rite of passage is often a complete stranger. Even the cemetery has become a place of little spiritual consequence:

When the state-controlled secularised cemeteries replaced the more communally-based churchyards in the 19th Century, a sense of community was lost, as well as a spiritually meaningful place to mourn the dead.

“The cemetery,” wrote Thomas W. Laquer, “would not speak of a place but of people from all places … unknown to each other in life and thrown together in a place with which they might have had only the most transitory acquaintance”.

By contrast, the site of the death is instantly infused with a profound personal significance.

Not everyone is thrilled with the proliferation of roadside memorials. It certainly puts municipalities in an awkward position: the space has been privatized and hallowed, but it remains public property. West Virginia has posted a primer for roadside memorials on the Web to try to retain some control.

Private citizens may have mixed feelings, too. Returning to the Citizen‘s account:

Family members are not always pleased when friends erect roadside memorials to their loved ones.

Mr. Belshaw tells of a woman in Victoria [British Columbia] whose son was killed in a traffic accident. Friends put up a memorial and she went along with the idea. But she had to drive past it every day to get out of the cul-de-sac where she lived. “It was like a knife through her heart,” he says. “She really suffered with it.”

Sometimes property owners near the accident scene object because they find the constant reminder of tragic death depressing.

“People tend to react fairly viscerally to them one way or another,” says Mr. Belshaw. “Some will say, ‘I don’t need to be reminded of my own mortality on a daily basis.’ Others will say, ‘Yes, you do’.”

Put me in the latter camp. We’re too insulated from death in our society. If road memorials remind people that we all have to take death into account, I think that’s a social good.

roadside memorial 2