April 1, 2007

The Times on Life in Newton

Filed under: Newton, Politics — marcstober @ 4:15 pm

As I write this, Hannah is watching a Barbie movie, relaxing after a classmate’s birthday party at My First Yoga this morning. Not content to just sit on the couch, however, she saw Cheryl cleaning for Pesach and started putting away a stack of her DVDs.

Little did I know that growing up as a girl in Newton was going to be the subject of a New York Times article today that followed a house-of-worship-attending girl, including a mention that her church is right across the street from the aforementioned children’s yoga studio!

It’s a loaded issue. The politics of growing up are not new; when I was a kid, Barbie was bad because she symbolized the objectification of women, teaching girls that their worth would be rated on their friends and, especially, their figure. But something happened in the process of debunking that message. Barbie still looks great but now she’s a smart, confident, athletic leader who heroically saves the kingdom—girls have to be everything.

And, I would add, that I think we have made a lot of progress in gender equality since these issues were raised in my childhood in the ’70’s and ’80’s: today it’s just as important for boys and fathers to be thin and popular as it is for their moms and daughter to be smart and rich.

The article doesn’t mention it explicitly, but I think the religious angle is part of it, too, especially here. I tend to think of Newton a “capital of the religious left,” being home to, in addition to a seemingly disproportionate number of churches and synagogues, both Jewish and Protestant seminaries, a Catholic college, and an actual Chasidic Rebbe. We can debate whether buying organic or kosher is more politically correct. But in some sense this choice seems to be a luxury reserved for people who, even if we worry about paying a big mortgage, don’t actually worry about keeping chicken in our pots.

This raises two questions in my mind: first of all, who says we have to be all these things, and what is it about human psychology that we infer this intense competition? Certainly most of the other parents I’ve met seem like nice people who are, like us, simply trying to make the right choices do well for their families. It might be wise to keep in mind that destructive tendency to see others’ situation as competition goes back as far as the tenth commandment, not to covet. Secondly, what perverse incentives do we read into this article in which doing well in school, getting exercise, being involved in a church and having a good cup of coffee are now symptoms of a problem? I feel lucky that we live in walking distance of Newton Centre—we worked hard to find a house here (and are still working hard to pay for it!) because it’s a nice place to live.

As I write, the cynical answer that comes to mind is that this discussion helps sell papers. The New York Times is the parent company of the Boston Globe and, while the Times is often criticized for being elitist, it’s exactly that perception of elitism that propels it from being a metropolitan New York City publication to being a de rigueur national paper. To keep up with your neighbors in the Newton of the article, you need to take the Globe and the Sunday Times. From what I have seen in the media, it sure seems that way. But from personal experience, I’m not quite sure that’s the city I live in.