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Forget Blue or Brown Eyes, My Baby Will Have Five-Hundred Eyes

August 17, 2018

Thanks to Sam Risak, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Ramona Ausubel’s short story “Atria” illustrates the ineffectiveness of logic against constructed but powerful societal pressure. She imagines the struggle of teenage pregnancy through the eyes of Hazel. Regardless of the outside evidence Ausubel provides that the child is a healthy girl, after a non-consensual pregnancy, Hazel cannot be convinced that what she is carrying is in fact human. Still an adolescent, she cannot align herself with her ingrained models of what a mother should be. Overwhelmed by her inadequacies, her loneliness manifests in a child whom she perceives to be as alien as she feels.

Culturally-speaking, sexual experience is often regarded as a divide between adolescence and adulthood, and Hazel falls victim to this ideology. Unplanned by her mother and far younger than her sisters, “Atria” begins with Hazel ready to skip her teenage years. Her vision of adulthood is perfect in its ambiguity—a “small apartment kitchen far from anyone to whom she was related, furnished with upturned milk crates and exactly one full place setting” (53). This fantasy is built from glimpses of her family’s life, an incomplete collage Hazel believes she is joining when she lies in the bushes with the gas-station boy Johnny. She agrees to have sex “because, having decided an hour before to say Yes to growing, she could hardly now say No” (54). After the experience, she expects to feel matured, to have undergone her right of passage into adulthood. She feels nothing but regret. A few days later, a much older man approaches Hazel and demands that she follow him. As he leads her away, Hazel asks herself: “Why am I walking? Why am I not drinking a Shirley Temple and adjusting my bikini top over at the country-club pool like all the other girls? Why did I agree to grow up?” (58). She asks herself these things as if her rape correlates with her desire for adulthood, as if her having sex with Johnny bears her culpability in this man’s decision.

Since society expects young women to remain virgins, Hazel keeps her assault a secret until her body refuses to hide it any longer. When she does tell her mother, she describes only the rape. Her omission of Johnny causes Hazel a guilt that solidifies to her with a karmic certainty that the boy must be the father. Because no one understands what led up to Hazel’s pregnancy, she believes no one can understand her child, and her secret transforms the fetus into a mysterious glowing knot of fur with claws and long, yellow teeth. And as the lie progresses, so does the ball of fur, evolving into a bird of prey and later a three-headed giraffe.

Outraged over her daughter’s rape, Hazel’s mother begins a crusade, the town starting up self-defense classes and emergency phone lines in her daughter’s name. The townspeople drop off condolence casseroles and cakes, gifts for the baby. They tell Hazel being raped doesn’t make her a slut, insinuating that a pregnancy by consensual means would. Every gift and comment reminds Hazel that she is being watched, that her rape and pregnancy have made her an anomaly, one vulnerable to judgment. She already knows that if she confessed Johnny as a potential father, the town would shame and reject her. She internalizes the cultural standards and projects them onto her fetus whose strangeness ensures her a place as distant in society as she already feels.

Hazel cannot conceptualize herself as a typical mother, and when she delivers a typical baby girl, she cannot recognize her as her own. She falls asleep without touching the child; however, when she wakes, Hazel finds not a human baby in her crib, but a seal. Her predictions validated, Hazel grows more confident. She sees the mop bucket in the corner and rubs it up and down the baby, believing she needs water. “‘Now that I am mother,’ Hazel said to the baby, ‘I get to set the rules, and the rules are: swimming, sunning, playing. Everything else we ignore’” (72). Stuck between her disparate roles as child and parent, Hazel creates a new position for herself, that of animal-mother, one unmarred by external expectations. With her seal-child, Hazel finally has someone to live on the outside with her, a comrade in her isolation. Conservative society—such as the one Hazel lives in—promotes motherhood as a woman’s ultimate purpose and creates firm ideals as to how a woman should carry out that purpose. Therefore, any slight deviance from expectation—such as Hazel’s youth—can stir feelings of catastrophic failure. Hazel defends against such condemnation by mentally exiling her and her child. Only once she is alone in the room and nursing does Hazel feels secure enough in her own maternal instincts to see her baby’s human arms and legs.

As the atria passes on blood to the heart’s ventricles, society and family pass on expectations to Hazel who passes them on to her child. When the expectations cannot be met, Hazel separates, internally moves to where she cannot be judged and, therefore, cannot fail. While everyone may have ideas on how to raise a human baby, no one has birthed an animal like the one Hazel believes she is carrying and that deviance allots her some protection from scrutiny. Hazel’s point of view allows readers to see how supposedly thoughtful acts—like the townspeople’s delivering of gifts—raise the stakes for Hazel’s secrecy as she knows she does not meet the conditional premises on which they were given. Her perception of her child thereby becomes a defense mechanism, turning outside opinions obsolete and reducing Hazel’s potential deficiencies. Fortunately, the story ends in a moment of escape for Hazel. Alone with her girl at last, Hazel feels less foreign as a mother and sees the little girl begin to shed her animal form.

Ausubel, Ramona. “Atria.” The Guide to Being Born. New York, Penguin, 2013.

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Betty Crocker Culture

July 27, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Food is often thought of in terms of comfort, enjoyment, family gatherings, and parties. We have barbecues in summer and stews in winter. Messy finger foods accompany sporting events and polite finger foods accompany baby showers. These things are linked by their participation in custom. Custom (or convention), as discussed in the Syntopicon, stems from public opinion. Adler claims, “Opinion normally suggests relativity to the individual, custom or convention relativity to the social group” (210B). Therefore, a focus on Betty Crocker’s popularity may enlighten commonalities or trends among American lifestyles.

Custom is often founded upon opinion. However, people often assume that custom stems from natural rules. Since customs become so deeply ingrained, it may be difficult to tell whether the belief is driven by nature or by opinion. Either way, once established, beliefs are incredibly difficult to change. They often lead to areas of taste, preference and judgement. A widely accepted social custom allows the majority to pass judgement on those who do not follow the accepted ritual. Montaigne goes so far as to assert that all moral judgements are matters of opinion. He says that “the taste of good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we have of them” (211B). Adler adds, “As may be seen in the chapter on Beauty, Montaigne assembles an abundance of evidence to show that standards of beauty vary with different peoples. The tastes or preferences of one group are as unaccountable as they are frequently revolting to another” (211B). This statement is never so true than when applied to food. Certainly individuals have individual likes and dislikes, but so too does society. And as noted before, once societal norms are established, they become very difficult to break. They may bend, each region may interpret the norm slightly differently, but custom, once in place, tends to hold.

Laura Shapiro’s 2004 book Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America directly addresses changes in food culture from 1930s to 1970s in America. Packaged foods began to arrive in America during the 1940s and 1950s. Every imaginable food product quickly flooded this market. But it turns out that changing people’s association with cooking was not nearly so easy as companies thought. At the time, most popular recipes touted themselves as “quick and easy” or labor-saving, so companies assumed the American woman would rejoice at the introduction of pre-packaged meals and meats and mixes. That turned out not to be the case. In her book, Shapiro investigates what packaged foods succeeded and why. She wanders through the many twists and turns of the packaged food industry which directly intersects with popular culture.

For example, one large stumbling block against packaged food was a cultural sense of duty. Women, by and large, felt that they must show effort in the kitchen. To question this effort was to question a woman’s duty, love, respect and morals. In fact, cake mixes were market-tested many times with marginal success. Pillsbury and General Mills (owner of the Betty Crocker brand) led the research and sales for cake mixes. When the companies made the recipes a bit more involved and asked women to add eggs, cake mix sales improved. The small effort of mixing, combined with a lot of advertising, helped the cook feel both involved and successful.

Shapiro writes: “Dichter rightly perceived the overwhelming weight of the moral and emotional imperative to bake cakes from scratch. His research spurred countless ads and magazine articles aimed at persuading women to differentiate between the plain cake layers - ‘merely step number one,’ according to Living – the finished masterpiece. ‘Now, success in cakemaking is packaged right along with the precision ingredients,’ Myrna Johnston assured readers of Better Homes & Gardens in 1953. ‘You can put your effort into glorifying your cake with frosting, dreaming up an exciting trim that puts your own label on it.’ For modern women, these authorities proclaimed, the real art of baking began after the cake emerged from the oven” (77). Shapiro also acknowledges, though, that in addition to demanding more effort, real eggs improved the cake’s flavor and texture. As these packaged foods became more accessible and widely tested, the marketing also ramped up. Company-sponsored baking contests, radio programs, and advertisements kept packaged food in the public eye.

This passage interests me not simply because of the eggs. I am also fascinated by the extreme changes in cake-making itself. About 50 years earlier, cakes would have taken a day to make, unfrosted. Now, the introduction of a cake-mix affords the baker enough time to decorate with flair. Instead of making a delicious cake, the company emphasizes a beautiful cake, one in which the baker adds their own signature on top – in the artistry of the frosting. The cake is notable more for how it looks than how it tastes. This change arrives in tandem with beautifully designed and illustrated cookbooks, such as Betty Crocker’s.

Betty Crocker’s ageless appeal is partially due to the fact that she is not real. Instead, Washburn-Crosby (maker of Gold Medal Flour, now a part of General Mills) invented her in 1921. Betty Crocker was voiced by a number of people on radio programs throughout the 20s and 30s. She had her first official portrait painted in 1936. The brand’s success capitalized upon common American trends. They polled the everyday chef, listened to the advice of housewives and complimented their work. They advertised and wrote trend-setting cookbooks. In short, Betty Crocker cookbooks address popular frustrations and desires. In the section on “Kitchen Know-How”, the Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook from 1961 advises: “Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup and a dash of cologne. Does wonders for your morale and the family’s, too! Think pleasant thoughts while working and a chore will become a ‘labor of love.’” This cookbook touts itself as a book that is “charming, practical and fun to use.” Though Betty Crocker was not a real person, people reacted strongly to her sense of style, clarity, ease, ambition, ability to incorporate flavor, and lively spirit.

In the Epilogue of Something from the Oven, Shapiro claims, “In the end, it took both a cook and a feminist to liberate the American kitchen. By liberation I don’t mean freedom from cooking, though the women’s movement is often construed in those terms. I mean that the cooking itself has been freed, or at least notably loosened, from the grip of the food industry and the constraints of gender” (249). While I am not sure about her claim that women have been freed from kitchen labor, I do see how cooking has been liberated. In accepting cake mixes, shortcuts and time-saving equipment, it is possible to spend much less time in the kitchen.

In the Syntopicon, Adler writes, “Art involves voluntary making. Custom involves voluntary doing” (208A). This interests me as I think about changes in our association with food, not simply family meals, but elegant events and children’s parties. American food has definitely evolved since the introduction of processed foods. Yet, since cooking interacts so closely with culture, I am still left with many questions that a text like Shapiro’s begins to address. For example: How does food interact with progress? How does it restrict progress? What is considered “progress” in the kitchen? Can we consider a type of food liberating? For example, are microwaveable meals or Lunchables liberating? On the other hand, are foods made from homegrown gardens liberating? In short, what does our food say about culture today?

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Eight Bites Do Not Satisfy Me

March 9, 2018

Thanks to Sam Risak, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

An unnamed narrator sheds weight but not her past in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Eight Bites.” After a gastric bypass surgery, old flesh is personified into a “body with nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth” that lingers in the protagonist’s house (165). Machado’s surrealist blurring of realities rejects the possibility for any universal ideals, including a woman’s thin frame as the standard beauty model.

In the story, the protagonist’s mother only consumed eight bites of any meal, regardless of her hunger or the food’s content. The extremity of the eating practice stresses that the characters’ conflicts with their size was one concerning their appearance and not their well-being, significant when popular culture disguises many of its beauty standards as health claims. With eight bites, the mother could maintain her slender frame and never risk social deviance, still able to “compliment the hostess” (152). The difference in body size between the narrator and her mother constructed a wall of dissonance and uncertainty between the two. Why didn’t the narrator inherit her mother’s restraint? Why could she not subsist off minuscule portions? Eight bites became a conquest, a mallet to shatter the wall isolating her from her mother.

The narrator blames the birth of her now-grown daughter, Cal, as the instigator to her weight gain. Unlike the protagonist’s nieces who support their mothers, Cal—a difficult, incomprehensible feminist—is the antagonist to mainstream ideologies and is hurt by her mother’s surgery. She shares her mother’s shape, and when her mother renounces her own body, she renounces her daughter’s. The narrator cannot see how she is passing down to Cal the same maternal dissidence she experienced and dismisses Cal’s anger as one more thing she cannot understand about her daughter. Of course, Cal’s body is imperfect, the narrator thinks to herself, but can’t she see how her youth grants her ample time to change? The protagonist, like many subjected to the repetitive frames dominating popular media, regards the thin body not only as preferable, but as the only legitimate body to have.

When the protagonist’s sisters decide on surgery, she joins them, not because she needs a superior body, but because she fears risking marginalization otherwise. When the initial sister underwent the surgery, rather than responding with envy, the protagonist feared her sister may be dying. But when sister two and three each followed and the bypass was explained, the narrator could not overcome her feelings of being left behind. To mark the death of her old shape, the narrator orders a last meal at Salt. While the location of her favorite restaurant remains the same, the restaurant itself is always changing, always improving, in parallel with society’s continuously elevated standards. At the newest spot, the narrator eats a platter of oysters, and one of them sticks to the shell. The narrator realizes the mollusks are alive: “they have no brains or insides…but they are alive nonetheless” (156). She believes if there were justice, she would be choked by the oyster, a symbol of the discarded parts of her body that too cling to their shell. Plate in front of her, the narrator “almost gagged, but then [she] swallowed” (156).

Post-surgery, all appears to go well; the neighbors notice her weight loss—an implied compliment—and when she makes a chicken dinner, she stops at bite eight. She has joined her mother and sisters, tossing aside the body that made her an outcast before. But she is not quite free. That body haunts her, appearing initially as an unseen presence, and then as a tangible form one night at the end of her stairs. At first, the narrator believes the shape, almost prepubescent, to be her daughter. Soon, however, she recognizes her [the shape] to be the body she had tried to abandon—her post-Cal body. She tells her body she is unwanted, violently kicking her, yet wishing she, like the oyster, “would fight back” (165). After that, the body stays out of the narrator’s sight, leaving behind trails of laundry and offerings of hard candy which let the protagonist know she “is around, even when she is not around” (167). No one else ever witnesses her, but the protagonist never wonders whether she is literal or imagined, ghost or dream. Because she does not spend time worrying about or even questioning the physicality of the form, the significance of the debate itself is subverted. In any encounter, the details we notice, the meanings we attribute to interactions, everything is shaped by the lens constructed by our backgrounds. Outsiders do not perceive the body because they have not lived the life required to see her.

In popular media, women’s sizes are hierarchized, bigger bodies assuming the pyramid’s bottom row, and the slim and often underweight forming the tiny triangle on top. Society justifies this hierarchy by framing the thin body as the image of health, a more objective sounding ideal than one based in beauty. In the story “Eight Bites,” it is neither the narrator’s physical discomfort nor her high regard of a thin body that motivates her to undergo the gastric bypass surgery, but her fear for marginalization had she not. Only in death, when her old body comforts her, reaching out to “touch her cheek like [she] once did Cal’s” (167), does the narrator recognize how she cut herself down for a society she was never going to fit. The problem had never been her body, but the culture that trained her to believe it was.

Machado’s ambiguity between reality and hallucination illustrates the fallacy in universal standards. The narrator may share her sisters’ blood and size, but her different experiences alter how she lives inside her body. Her post-Cal shape was a culmination of all her identities and adventures, including childbirth, and to dismiss the body is to dismiss the life that led to it. In her smaller frame, the narrator may have been able to stop at bite eight, but she was never full.

Machado, Carmen Maria. “Eight Bites.” Her Body and Other Parties. Graywolf Press, 2017.

 

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Numa Creates the Calendar

July 21, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Last week we introduced a couple of less than mainstream calendars . This week, we want to move back into a look at the contemporary calendar, as based upon the Roman calendar. Julius Caesar, of course, attended to the discrepancies in the calendar. Astronomers of each age are challenged to find clever fixes for slight discrepancies, which, over a period of one thousand years, begins to add up. Caesar understood that growing seasons were being negatively affected by these seemingly minor errors and he corrected some of them. But his calendar was not the first Roman calendar. Other Roman emperors tampered with their own versions of a calendar, and often for less respectable reasons than Caesar. Some emperors wanted to place their names into the calendar as a sort of legacy. Others decided to celebrate festivals whenever they wanted, thus changing the custom and the calendar simultaneously.

Numa Pompilius (8th-7th century B.C.) was one of the first Roman emperors to set a fixed calendar. The following text comes entirely from Plutarch's chapter on Numa in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. It describes how the calendar came about from Plutarch's point of view. This discussion continues to develop our understanding of the cultural understanding of time, but also of the contemporary cultures who base their calendar on similar features. As societies fanned out, and the Roman civilization fell, threads of their society transferred to many other places. The transformation was not uniform, however, and so this investigation into time is meant simply to know more about the origin of our modern day customs.

“He attempted, also, the formation of a calendar, not with absolute exactness, yet not without some scientific knowledge. During the reign of Romulus, they had let their months run on without any certain or equal term; some of them contained twenty days, others thirty-five, others more; they had no sort of knowledge of the inequality in the motions of the sun and moon; they only kept to the one rule that the whole course of the year contained three hundred and sixty days. Numa, calculating the difference between the lunar and the solar year at eleven days, for that the moon completed her anniversary course in three hundred and fifty-four days, and the sun in three hundred and sixty-five, to remedy this incongruity doubled the eleven days, and every other year added an intercalary month, to follow February, consisting of twenty-two days, and called by the Romans the month Mercedinus. This amendment, ,however, itself, in course of time, came to need other amendments.

“He also altered the order of the months for March, which was reckoned the first, he put into the third place; and January, which was the eleventh, he made the first; and February, which was the twelfth and last, the second. Many will have it, that it was Numa, also, who added the two months of January and February; for in the beginning they had a year of ten months; as there are barbarians who count only three; the Arcadians, in Greece, had but four; the Acarnanians, six. The Egyptian year at first, they say, was of one month; afterwards, of four; and so, though they live in the newest of all countries, they have the credit of being a more ancient nation than any, and reckon in their genealogies, a prodigious number of years, counting months, that is, as years.

“That the Romans, at first, comprehended the whole year within ten, and not twelve months, plainly appears by the name of the last, December, meaning the tenth month; and that March was the first is likewise evident, for the fifth month after it was called Quintilis, and the sixth Sextilis, and so the rest; whereas, if January and February, in this account, preceded March, Quintilis would have been fifth in name and seventh in reckoning. It was also natural that March, dedicated to Mars, should be Romulus's first, and April, named from Venus, or Aphrodite, his second month; in it they sacrifice to Venus, and the women bathe on the calends, or first day of it, with myrtle garlands on their heads. But others, because of its being p and not ph, will not allow of the derivation of this word from Aphrodite, but say it is called April from aperio, Latin for to open, because that this month is high spring, and opens and discloses the buds and flowers. The next is called May, from Maia, the mother of Mercury, to whom it is sacred; then June follows, so called from Juno; some, however, derive them from the two ages, old and young, majores, being the name for older, and juniores for younger men. To the other months they gave denominations according to their order; so the fifth was called Quintilis, Sextilis the sixth, and the rest, September, October, November and December.

“Afterwards Quintilis received the name of Julius, from Caesar, who defeated Pompey; as also Sextilis that of Augustus, from the second Caesar, who had that title. Domitian, also, in imitation, gave the two other following months his own names, of Germanicus and Domitianus; but, on being slain, they recovered their ancient denominations of September and October. The two last are the only ones that have kept their names throughout without any alteration.

“Of the months which were added or transposed in their order by Numa, February comes from februa; and is as much a Purification month; in it they make offerings to the dead, and celebrate the Lupercalia, which, in most points, resembles a purification. January was so called from Janus, and precedence given to it by Numa before March, which was dedicated to the god Mars; because, as I conceive, he wished to take every opportunity of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are to be preferred before those of war.”

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